Saturday, 3 July 2010

Hawkers: a story

Hawkers built his own bungalow. Or rather he got his ‘lads’ to do it. It was about the only thing he didn’t buy out of a catalogue. Instead, at the end of every working day, he loaded half-a-dozen Poles from his casual payroll into a van and drove them out to the village where they put in four hours of what he described as ‘bonus time’. They didn’t seem to mind; they worked weekends, too. He paid them in cash and they set about putting up walls, laying down floors, tiling roofs and installing pipes and wiring. When they’d finished, Hawkers brought in a crate of beer and the Polish guys paraded around their boss’s new six-bedroom home, wondering at its magnificence. Outside, the garden seemed a veritable paradise which stretched gently down towards a river. Opening fresh cans of own-brand lager, they stood on the pile of rubble which would one day become a patio and admired the muddy quagmire which would one day become a lawn. “Good enough for croquet,” said Hawkers, although he didn’t really know much about croquet, except that it was a game you played on lawns.
The village was less impressed with Hawkers’ mansion. In the saloon bar of the Pheasant, it was referred to as “the monstrosity” and its lion’s head gate posts and array of faux marble Venuses were described as “impossibly vulgar”. Hawkers was surprised, not so much by the fact that they didn’t appreciate his good taste as by their willingness to repeat these calumnies while he was in earshot. Hawkers had always understood that people in villages were too polite to voice an opinion. And yet here he was, the self-made man, the mansion builder, the recipient of grotesque slurs.
He should have expected it, of course. He knew that his kind of money was slightly different from the kind of money which had bought his neighbours’ tastefully converted barns and renovated cottages. They weren’t gentry, by any stretch of the imagination, but his ‘new’ money was even newer than theirs and so could be frowned on from the relative safety of a £150,000-a-year salary from an ‘old’ city firm or law company. The ‘old’ money lived on but only in the half-ruined manor house which, as Hawkers was never to know, would be snapped up by a developer and turned into six luxury apartments for rent to corporate high-flyers.
Clearly, Hawkers was not ‘one of them’. He’d grown up on an estate at the fraying margins of the city, in a block of flats ringed with bypasses where the only signs of economic activity were the teenage boys lurking on the staircases hissing ‘wananysmack?’. His only assets hadn’t been a degree from Cambridge and a portfolio of low-risk equities but stubbornness, stamina and a naivety which bordered on stupidity. Early in his career, this combination meant that, of all the labourers on the city’s building sites, he was the one who readily volunteered for the jobs that nobody else wanted and applied himself with a vigour that couldn’t escape the foreman’s notice. He was both as dumb and as strong as the proverbial ox and was always the last to be kicked off a site when the work was coming to an end. Being stupid also meant that he didn’t know how to spend money and he soon built up a tidy sum.
It was his father who told him what to do: “Get off your arse and set yourself up in business.” It was the only time Hawkers did anything remotely intelligent. As a self-employed builder, he was even more successful than before and he could soon afford to take on his own labourers and rent an office where, instead of lugging hods and hurling scaff poles around, he sat on the end of a phone securing ever more lucrative contracts. In short, he turned himself into Hawkers, the self-made man and mansion builder, and his firm was regularly hired for prestige jobs in the city centre.
He deserved, he felt, his own place in the country. The bungalow was his reward and to hell with the neighbours. Let them criticise his lion’s head gate posts! Let them pour scorn on his faux marble Venuses! He had more than a dozen men who called him ‘boss’, ‘chief’ and – his own personal favourite – ‘captain’, and a car which outperformed all the others in the village (except in terms of fuel consumption).
And so, whether it was because he genuinely didn’t care any more or because he cared more than he knew, Hawkers began to buy things. He wasn’t very good at it. The only things he’d ever really bought before were either to do with the building trade – bricks, sand, joists, tiles – or his hardly extensive leisure activities – the occasional Queen CD or a copy of Busty Babes. Going into shops made him feel dizzy and sick. But what did that matter? He could order just about anything from a catalogue or the internet. Within weeks, he was running up the biggest bills the manager of Argos had ever seen. Every morning Hawkers was woken by the high-pitched bleat of a truck reversing into his drive. And it wasn’t just from Argos. As his confidence grew, he branched out, calling in massive orders to Ikea, Comet and even Habitat and John Lewis. He took delivery of widescreen, high-definition televisions, state-of-the-art washing machines, gas cookers, microwaves, beds, carpets, dining tables, armchairs, sofas…. All chosen on the strength of the tiny photographs printed in catalogues or posted on a website. Sometimes his choices clashed a little but, on the whole, Hawkers was very pleased with his purchases. Naturally, waiting in every day for deliveries and then having to find places to put them once they’d arrived meant that he had less time to spend at the office but that didn’t seem to matter. The money still rolled in from the big city-centre developers. In the evenings, Hawkers checked his online bank account and then wandered through his mansion, noting down each new purchase on his domestic inventory.
Then – and Hawkers was never sure why this happened – he stopped. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any more space: the bungalow had so many rooms his spree could have gone for months. It wasn’t that he was satisfied, glutted with new possessions like a man who’s just finished a seven-course banquet. On the contrary, in fact, and to his immense surprise, Hawkers found himself feeling less satisfied, less happy. What was missing? Not being someone for lengthy reflection, he rapidly came to the conclusion that what he needed now was a wife. What’s more, this need, too, could be met by catalogues, admittedly not the sort you picked up in Argos or Ikea, but the ones you could find on the internet at helpfully blatant addresses like Russian Brides or Macedonian Virgins.
Unlike his other purchases – some of which had been injudicious; the giant pasta making machine which now filled half his walk-in kitchen cupboard, for example – Hawkers decided this was one he wouldn’t rush. He dedicated an entire weekend, in fact, to examining numerous thumbprint photographs. For a while, he toyed with the idea of a Thai bride. They, after all, were renowned for their obedience and athleticism. But Hawkers went off the idea when he imagined what the villagers would think if he turned up with a diminutive Thai woman on his arm. They would know he had bought her off the internet, and even though he professed not to give a damn about what they thought, he did draw the line at giving them the opportunity for sexual mockery. Instead, he turned to eastern Europe and, more specifically, Poland. He’d always got on with the Poles and, he reasoned, if he got on with the ones who worked for him, he was sure to get on with their female equivalent. Poland was also part of the EU and that would cut out a lot of irritating paperwork. By Sunday night, he’d sent a tentative email to a woman called Suzanna who lived in Krakow. According to her ‘notes’, she was seven years younger than Hawkers, liked birdwatching (an unlikely hobby, Hawkers thought, but never mind) and was a devoted follower of “your English ‘Big Brother’”. Judging from the slightly blurred photo on the website, she also had enormous breasts. Hawkers was amazed when she replied within the hour to say that she had always dreamt of marrying a successful English businessman and that, yes, she would come for “a visit”. As it happened, her brother was driving to England soon and would bring her to the “very beautiful English village where you reside”. She had, she added, no concerns about marrying someone she had never met because she knew that all English gentlemen were generous, considerate and “not particularly demanding in the bedroom department”. If this last comment gave Hawkers any concern whatsoever, it was rapidly dispelled by the thought that he was possibly going to marry a handsomely endowed twenty-six-year-old whose only vice appeared to be ornithology.
It took Suzanna somewhat longer than expected to arrive. Several months passed, in fact, before the long-awaited announcement came: “My brother and I leave tomorrow.” In the meantime, Hawkers had been able to get to know Suzanna a little better. She was, her emails informed him, a former student of economics, had had a bad experience with one of her lecturers, was an enthusiastic, though not necessarily always successful cook, wanted to learn more about English manners and could play “one simple piece by our Chopin” on the piano. Hawkers also received a new photograph which he found engaging, albeit unnerving. The shaved head of a middle-aged man was reflected in the mirror behind Suzanna’s half-naked body. Perhaps her father had been keen to help her cement her new relationship.
Again unexpectedly, it took Suzanna and her brother another three weeks to reach England from Krakow. They arrived without any warning in the middle of the night. The village’s canine population set up a fearful howling as a knackered Fiat coughed and spluttered into Hawkers’ drive. Lights went on in the neighbouring cottages and accountants tutted at the sight of the half-dressed Suzanna and her thuggish-looking brother advancing on Hawkers’ front door. Word that Hawkers’ money had come from dealings with Russian gangsters started spreading as soon as it was light.
Hawkers greeted Suzanna with an enthusiastic hug which, he noticed, didn’t seem to go down particularly well with her brother, who, he was surprised to learn, would be staying while his sister “settled in”. Not wishing to upset his putative bride the instant she came through the door, Hawkers agreed to this arrangement and set about showing Suzanna the house. She seemed favourably impressed but, pleading fatigue, wondered if he wouldn’t mind if she slept on her own this first night. Hawkers showed Suzanna to one of the spare rooms and her brother to another.
“We go ‘good night’ now,” said Suzanna, dryly, and she disappeared into her room. The brother stayed out in the corridor with Hawkers. He seemed unusually concerned with his sister’s wellbeing.
“You fuck her up,” he menaced, “and I fuck you up, OK?”
Given that the brother looked as if he could readily deliver a very nasty fucking up, Hawkers nodded and retreated to his room. He decided that this wasn’t the raving of a demented psychopath but merely an example of the Polish way of doing things. This allowed him to sleep deeply enough not to be disturbed by the faint knocking sound coming from the far end of the corridor.
Refreshed and reinvigorated, Suzanna was a different person in the morning. The brother seemed exhausted. The rigours of the journey must have finally caught up with him. Suzanna, meanwhile, insisted on a proper tour of the house and dished out a steady stream of ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ at the many pieces of limited edition furniture and expensive hi-tech gadgetry. Naturally, Hawkers also took the opportunity to appraise his bride-to-be and decided that she was, indeed, precisely the kind of woman he was looking for. She was practical, enthusiastic and, above all, curvaceous. In short, when the brother asked whether what he rather disconcertingly referred to as “the deal” was on, Hawkers said that it most certainly was and agreed to hand over five hundred pounds as a contribution towards the expenses incurred during the journey to England. The brother pocketed the money and, contrary to his earlier suggestion that he stay, immediately got into the Fiat and noisily departed.
These were to be the happiest weeks of Hawkers’ life. Suzanna brought numerous improvements to his existence – breakfast in bed, ushering him off to work on time, greeting him with a cheery grin when he came home and solicitously helping with his paperwork in the evenings. Sexually, perhaps, Hawkers was a little disappointed but Suzanna explained her reluctance to go beyond some perfunctory mutual masturbation as being the result of her innate shyness, the bad experience with her university lecturer and her disorientation at having moved so rapidly from Krakow to the beauty and tranquillity of the English countryside.
Eventually, the time came for Hawkers to formalise the wedding arrangements. Suzanna seemed uninterested in the details and allowed him to carry on without voicing any kind of opinion, apart from on the subject of the honeymoon. Hawkers opted for a quick registry office job followed by a fortnight in Spain. He had been thinking about an on-the-beach wedding in the Caribbean but Suzanna said that that was too far and it would be better if they stayed in Europe, specifically the European Union.
When the big day came, Suzanna climbed into the taxi with Hawkers. She was wearing an off-the-peg dress from Primark and clutching an unexpectedly small ‘going away’ bag. Hawkers had bought a new suit which, he thought, made him look rakish. Suzanna stared out of the car window all the way to the registry office.
Witnessed by a couple of Poles Hawkers had dragged off the building site (with whom Suzanna refused to converse on the grounds that they were “mere workmen”), the ceremony didn’t take long and they emerged into the drizzle a few minutes later, a married couple. Suzanna and Hawkers marked the occasion with vodkas in the nearest pub before heading for the airport and their flight to Alicante.
The honeymoon passed conventionally enough. Hawkers was pleased to discover that the effects of the bad experience with the university lecturer seemed to have worn off. He spent large amounts of time sleeping on the beach while Suzanna, dressed in the new, skimpy bikini she got him to buy her in the hotel boutique, sat at the beach bar, talking to the clean-cut lads who, she claimed, were war heroes from Iraq. On their final night in Spain, Hawkers was vaguely shocked when she didn’t reappear in their room until four in the morning.
When they arrived back home and were turning into his drive, Hawkers noticed two things: the absence of one of his lion’s head gate posts and the presence of the knackered-looking Fiat. Suzanna’s brother had returned.
“He looks after house while we’re away,” said Suzanna. “Kind, yes?”
Hawkers agreed that it was, indeed, kind but something about the missing gate post worried him. He opened the front door and found the brother heaving a large – and very expensive – Welsh dresser along the hall towards the back garden. Plates tumbled from it and smashed on the floor. The dresser appeared to be one of the few remaining items of furniture in the bungalow.
“What the hell….?”
It was the one but last phrase that Hawkers was to utter. The very final one came a few seconds later, after he had been walloped on the head by a large piece of masonry and heard the brother shout “Give it to him again, Sue” in a decidedly English accent: “So you’re not even fucking Polish!”
Hawkers died with the lion’s head gate post embedded in his skull.
“Bollocks, I must have hit him too hard,” said Sue, formerly Suzanna, now also resorting to her native accent.
“He’s dead?”
“As a fucking doornail.”
Pat, formerly the brother, took decisive action. Abandoning the dresser, he dragged Hawkers out into the back garden, propped him against a large pile of catalogue furniture he’d spent several days constructing, poured petrol over the lot and set fire to it. Hawkers slowly blistered, charred and blackened.
“What the fuck are you doing, Pat?” shouted Sue through the kitchen window when she noticed the twenty-foot flames.
“Burning the bastard. Got to get rid of him somehow. You can say he just disappeared in Spain. Left you in the lurch.”
“But I thought we were going to sell that lot?” said Sue, pointing at the blazing furniture.
“That? That’s the stuff I couldn’t get rid of. That’s just crap from catalogues.”
By the following morning, Hawkers, the self-made man, the mansion builder, was a small cloud of ash blowing gently across his garden and speckling the surface of the river below.

Tom Phillips 2008-10