16 March 2017

1 - Joe

Overture and beginners

Joe Butler was going to take his landlady’s dog for a walk every morning. It was part of his living arrangements in the village of Upper Grumpsfield. Mrs Jane Barker had only one lodger. She had recently lost her husband and was trying to make ends meet. But her next door neighbour, a retired pianist by the name of Miss Dorothy Price, said that Jane Barker was lonely rather than poor and missing the heated arguments and scrapping. Jim Barker was always right, he thought. Jane suffered, but not in silence. Dorothy thought that Jane missed the invigorating air of disagreement.  
The dog that Mr Barker had left behind did not fill the gap left by Mr Barker since taking it for walks was far too strenuous for someone who had led a couch-potato life as long as she could remember. Jane Barker had never willingly gone for a walk with anyone, so why start now?
 Jane Barker believed that having someone human around would make all the difference to her life. So she struck a bargain with her first and only lodger. He would walk the dog and she would knock something off the price of the room.
Joe had been referred to Mrs Barker by his B & B landlady in the nearby market town of Middlethumpton. Mrs Brent did not let rooms on a permanent basis, but knew Jane Barker from cookery night-classes many years ago when Jane had described Mr Barker as a lodger. Mrs Brent had attended the funeral of Mr Barker, after which there had been a respectable selection of food to send him off to pastures new and a renewal of the ladies’ acquaintance.
Jane was grateful to have been recommended as an ideal permanent landlady, though she was not sure about her being one becoming a permanent state since it wasn’t her idea at all and she had only ever catered for Jim Barker.
Joe appreciated his comfortable bed in an otherwise totally strange environment inhabited mainly by the ghost of Mr Barker captured in framed photos decorated with decently draped black ribbons.
On the few visits that Dorothy paid to Jane these days, she wondered greatly at the apparent devotion of her next door neighbour to the dead spouse when she had never shown anything but the most spurious affection for him while he was alive.
The late Mr Barker’s dog was large, docile and white. Someone with Old Testament leanings had named it Emanuel and even scorched the name into its leather collar. Joe Butler was not religious. He did not relish the idea of calling out ‘Emanuel’ when the dog wandered off on their first outing, but how could you possibly shorten that name and keep it fitting for an aggressively masculine dog like Emanuel? Joe thought he would try a totally different name more keeping for a canine with an eye for female dogs. On his second morning jaunt he settled for ‘Dog’ and Emanuel was obedient, as if he had also rebelled against the previous biblical name and was glad to hear something that sounded rather like a ‘woof’ instead.
When Mr Barker had brought the dog now named Dog home, it had been a small puppy and completely adorable. No one had told him at the animal sanctuary  that the setter part of Dog’s Heinz 57 breed would probably dominate later, but being a mongrel, the dog would also be intelligent and wasn’t it a pretty shade of white?
Mrs Barker liked cleaning things, so Mr Barker thought she would be sure to keep the animal clean and white, he argued. She would overlook the fact that her budgies were alarmed by the dog, since the cat threatened by Mr Barker as an alternative would have been even more alarming. But even in the presence of a dog like Dog the birds became neurotic, twittered endlessly in an ornate hanging cage standing in the lounge, dislodged their bird bath so that it soaked a corner of the bearskin rug and propelled seeds all over the wall-to-wall Axminster. They had always done that, Mr Barker had said. Mrs Barker took a dislike to Emanuel now alias Dog, though giving it back to the sanctuary now Mr Barker was no more would have been like giving Mr Barker back to wherever he had come from, and even Jane had scruples about that.
However, Jane had been known to curse the mess the budgerigars had never really made before the dog entered the house. The argument went on and on. Mr Barker refused to let the dog sleep in a kennel outside. Three weeks of rice instead of his beloved mashed potatoes had not persuaded Mr Barker that a kennel was inevitable, and Jane finally gave in to a compromise. Mr Barker and Emanuel slept in the main bedroom and Jane moved into the guestroom, the door of which she kept shut day and night. When Mr Barker finally departed this life, Jane’s first action, long before Jim had been consigned to the local cemetery, was to buy a kennel online with Dorothy’s help. Forthwith, Dog slept outside in the kennel that was furnished with the bearskin rug for comfort, that being a sort of apology for banning Emanuel.
***
Joe Butler was a very recent addition to the UK population. Until he was in his mid-twenties tennis had absorbed his whole life, even throughout his study course in journalism, a profession he had never subsequently had any desire to take up. He had been a major asset to tennis in South Africa, where he was born in Cape Town to a British mother and an anonymous conference delegate and subsequently taken on by nice people, though at the time of writing he did not know that his surrogate parents were not his real ones.
When Joe retired from competitive sport, he coached youngsters aiming for grand slam heights. He married a nice girl and they had a nice daughter named Charlotte, but his nice wife proved to be anything but nice enough for Joe, who had enjoyed a strict upbringing despite his casual genesis.
Joe had filed for divorce as soon as he got wind of his wife’s promiscuous antics while he was still travelling in the name of tennis if not as a player then as an overseer of fair play. He won custody of his daughter and was a loving father when the girl was not at boarding school.
The Butlers, Joe’s ersatz parents, had come into parentage at an age when many youngsters were leaving home to explore the world outside the nest. The family home was in Pretoria, to where they had removed immediately after the arrival of Joe.
One day Joe’s surrogate parents were among the victims of an amok driver who had decided to wipe out the people walking harmlessly along the pavement before wiping himself out by wrapping his car round a convenient tree. The verdict was homicide by the driver of the car though he had not lived to be punished for it. Joe’s parents had finished rearing Joe to be a decent, morally upright human being. They had not deserved to be mown down.
Joe’s surrogate father had had a tidy mind. Over the years he had written a daily account of his life. His diaries were kept under lock and key. Joe only read them when it came to winding up the Butler estate. What he read in one of the early diaries took his breath away. His birth mother had apparently been expecting twins and had been given the impression that one of the two boys had died at birth. He was that boy.  At least, that is what Joe read between the lines. He rightly guessed that his surrogate mother did not know how they got him. For Mr Butler it was price worth paying.
The doctor and his accomplice, a midwife with skills that went far beyond delivering babies were evidently involved in a lucrative trade selling babies that they had declared to the mothers as still births. They had cultivated their own set of ethics. One child was always left to the new mother if it was decided that she wanted one. Any further children of multiple births were removed and sold. The mothers believed that their babies had died.
Neither the doctor nor his willing helper saw anything wrong in what they were doing. After all, they were helping childless couples to have a child of their own. Joe had subsequently been declared the birth child of Mrs Butler. There was no evidence to suggest that he wasn’t except in that diary, and the strategic move had taken care of any neighbour who might have remarked that Mrs Butler had not even been expecting.
Joe had known nothing of his early destiny until he saw the confessional in his father’s handwriting. The name of the birth mother was given with an address in Cape Town. Disoriented from the discovery of facts surrounding his birth, Joe moved back to Cape Town to look for his natural mother.
Eventually, Joe found out that his mother, an unmarried young lady of Boer descent on her father’s side going by the name Geiger, believed that her second child had been born dead. She had later married and taken on her husband’s name of Porter. That much information was available on application from the Births, Marriages and Deaths register. No marriage before that had been registered so she really had been a single mother when she gave birth to Joe and was still single until she married John Porter. Her divorce from him was also registered. After that there was no information other than a hand-written note that the divorced Mrs Porter had retained the name and moved to the UK. There was no follow-up. Mrs Porter had to all intents and purposes disappeared from the face of the earth.
Hope of actually locating her was fading, Joe realized, but he would nevertheless try to find his mother in the UK. Everyone he knew told him he would be wasting his time, but Joe had made up his mind.
“You don’t even know her name. Where will you go first?” they asked him.
“Easy,” Joe said. “Her married name is Porter.”
“The UK does not have ID cards. She might have married again.”
“I’ll get a map of the UK and stab it with a pin like in the game of putting a tail on the donkey.”
Joe’s girlfriend, a frosty teacher named Sofia, tried to make him decide between her and the UK. The UK won.
The result of Joe’s haphazard orientation was Middlethumpton, a market town not very far from Oxford. He would find lodgings there and study his options, he told everyone. He could not be deterred from his crazy plan. In the back of his mind he knew that somewhere in the UK a twin was lurking. He did not tell anyone about this detail. He did not know if he looked like his twin, or even if his brother was still alive.
Joe left his daughter at her boarding-school in South Africa where Sofia taught and arrived in the UK as a tennis coach. He immediately found a club in Middlethumpton that was willing to employ him, but within days was disillusioned with the many talent-free youngsters. Joe was sure that many parents had settled for tennis only because they did not like horses or had no field to put one in, horse-riding being the sport all British kids really wanted to do.
Used to the spaciousness in South Africa and the generosity of his sponsors, Joe was dismayed by the mediocre tennis sport facilities and would have quit tennis altogether after that first week if he had known what to do instead.
***
Starting with Joe’s first outing after moving into a B & B in Middlethumpton, he was spoken to by dozens of people, some disreputable and dirty and some dressed in Saville Row suits, who all thought they knew him. Joe had read somewhere that there are only twelve types of looks, so the chances of having one or more doubles somewhere was very high and people often thought they knew someone and didn’t. That applied to Joe, who was of course new to the area.
Joe was a man of action. He decided that he must have a look-alike in the district. If he did, he had to find him. He owed that to himself and coincidences had been known to happen. He looked through the freebie Middlethumpton Thursday Gazette as suggested by his landlady and decided to advertise.
***
Next day he called in at the Gazette office and requested an interview with the editor. The receptionist, a pretty young thing with the name ‘Maureen’ pinned on her breast, refused as she always did and was explaining why the editor was not available when he appeared and was about to address Joe by a name belonging to someone else when Joe  introduced himself.
“Explain,” commanded the editor, who did not need an explanation.
“I have a double here. I want to find him. You just thought I was him. Will you tell me who he is?”
Bertie Browne with an ‘e’ was the editor in chief of the Gazette, a post he had awarded himself since the staff consisted of him and two receptionists, Maureen and Doreen, who worked in rotation. Bertie Browne immediately smelt a story. Stories were hard to come by if you were not on the press network. He knew exactly who looked like this man, but he would keep that knowledge to himself and quickly silenced Maureen before she could spill the beans.
“Of course we’ll help you, Mr …” said Bertie Browne, looking daggers at the receptionist.
“Joe Butler. Call me Joe.”
“Bertrand Browne. How do you do? Call me Mr Browne. Come into my office and we’ll discuss your request.”
Maureen wondered why her boss was not being straight with Joe Butler, but she knew better than to argue.
Joe was not used to formality and was quite embarrassed that he had offered his first name to someone who was clear hoping to gain respect by being awarded the modest title of Mister.
“Tell me your story, Mr Butler,” said Mr Browne, emphasizing the title.
Joe decided not to tell Mr Browne about his father’s diaries. In fact, he would only tell him anything that was absolutely necessary.
“People have been talking to me on the street. They think I’m someone I’m not, Mr Browne. If you would be so kind as to publish a photo of me asking the person who looks like me to get in touch, I would be very grateful.”
“How much is it worth to you, Mr Butler?”
“How much is it worth to YOU, Mr Browne?” said Joe, who had already appraised Mr Browne’s dubious character traits. “Would it be better if I go to the national dailies? I don’t think they would charge me for publishing such a potentially interesting photo.”
Bertie Browne realized that he had met his match in Joe Butler.
Half an hour later, a digital likeness to Joe’s liking had been taken and Maureen was called on to type the text that would be published the following Monday.
“It will be in Monday’s edition,” Mr Browne promised, “along with the football results and second-hand car market. If you don’t get results I’ll publish it again on Thursday. Will that be to your liking?”
A sardonic smile accompanied Bertie’s words. He wondered if Joe Butler was like his brother. He would take care not to allow Joe to think there was any friendship in the deal.
“Thanks a lot,” said Joe. “I’m moving to Upper Grumpsfield tomorrow, but you can reach me on my cell phone.”
“You can reach me on yours, Mr Butler. Give him the number, Maureen!”
Maureen wrote the number down along with her own and “in case you are lonely” in brackets.
“Let me know what happens, Mr Butler, so that we can publish a photo of you and your double.”
“What should I charge, Mr Browne?” Maureen asked.
“This one’s on the house,” said Bertie. He was not going to risk losing the story to one of the national daily papers over the weekend, and it would be a good way of getting his own back for a recent incident in which HQ was called on to mediate and which he preferred to forget.
“That’s not the whole story, Mr Browne,” said Joe, who did not care much for the way in which he was being ushered out of the building. “I’m also looking for my mother.”
“Have you lost her?”
“I’ve never met her.”
“Well, dictate the story to Maureen and she can get my approval. I have no more time now.”
With those words, Bertie Browne swept back into his office leaving Joe at the reception desk.
“He’s quite a card, isn’t he?” said Maureen. “I do all the work here, but he pays my wages so he has the last word.”
Maureen was loyal. She kept quiet about the identity issue though she had immediately recognized the likeness.
“He wasn’t at all interested in my mother,” said Joe, as Maureen handed him the scrap of paper with her and the Gazette’s phone numbers.
“He’s only really interested in attracting adverts, Mr Butler, and writing articles that make people also look at the ad pages and even place ads themselves. Your story is enough for a start. But don’t worry, I’ll get it all sorted and the Gazette displaying your photo will be in everyone’s letter box round here and available at supermarkets and newsagents first thing on Monday.”
“That sounds fine, Maureen.”
“He might go for a bit of romance too, Mr Butler.”
“Really?” said Joe, realizing that Maureen was now making a diplomatic pass at him. “We could go for a drink this evening, Joe said.”
“I’ve got a date for this evening. How about next week?”
“Why not?” said Joe, wondering if Maureen always offered herself and then drew back before a date could materialise. “Is Bertie gay, Maureen?”
“He is, but I’m not,” said Maureen coyly.
Joe decided to ignore Maureen’s renewed attempt to get off with him. He wondered if Bertie Browne’s secretaries were schooled in the gentle art of flirting in order to attract custom.
Maureen would make a note of what was to appear in the Gazette the following Monday and, depending on the Monday appeal, on the Thursday. Joe told Maureen that his mother had moved to the UK. He thought that if he could trace his double, he might also be able to find his mother since they had probably moved to the UK while his twin was a schoolboy, so would Maureen please not mention his mother in the Monday issue.
Maureen thought it was all very exciting and quite unlike any of the items she was otherwise obliged to write. This was on a different plane from lost dogs, and superior to the loss of old people who had wandered off in a demented state. Apart from that, thinking like Bertie would have done, she calculated that at least two formidable articles were going to appear in the Gazette, maybe three.
***

Since Joe had very few possessions, the move fitted into his backpack and was completed in one bus ride. He had spent the weekend getting used to his new surroundings and walking Dog all over the village and through Monkton Woods. He even went to church, but stopped outside as St Peter’s was not animal-friendly according to a notice in large print. It wasn’t until many weeks later that he heard that the sign was not meant for normal people with domestic pets, but for rural dwellers who might be tempted to bring a pig or a goat for blessing.