The Man Who Told Lies

The Man Who Told Lies
By Gladys Hobson

‘Back from holiday? You won’t have heard then. That tramp who lived over there (he pointed to the cottages across the road) is dead. It was in the local paper — front page!’
Puzzled, I followed his gaze. ‘Tramp?’
‘You know, that old guy. Didn’t look after himself — drunkard. Wore shabby clothes, looked rough, needed a shave. Took his little dog for walks.’
The little dog — cute rat on long legs with a whippet tail — immediately identified the dead man. Tears rose in my eyes. ‘You mean Mark? Mark Ashley?’
‘That’s the guy. Told proper porkies. Police have been knocking on doors trying to find out if he had any relatives.’
‘He has a son — he’s a surgeon — and a grandson. They live in New York.’
‘Really? Nobody’s mentioned that. Better tell the police then. They’ve been asking all over the area. Someone said he has a cousin.’
‘He does. I think he lives nearby.’
With difficulty, I tried to hide the deep grief tugging at my heart. ‘What happened to Mark?’
‘Walked out to get his usual supper and fell down the cellar steps of one of those houses in Soutergate. Half drunk probably. A woman from the house rang for an ambulance. They took him to Furness General. He was sent on to Preston. He was in a coma for days, then he died.’
I was too upset to take in what else my neighbour said. Thankfully, he had to get to town and we parted company. No longer enjoying the beauty of trees and flowers that lined my path, or the warmth of midsummer sun, I walked the short distance to my home dazed and shivering. Mark dead? No more would I greet him and listen to his outrageous lies. No more would I see that silly grin and hear him chuckle at his own deceits. No more would I fuss that silly dog which had stolen his heart. Mark was dead. My friend Mark was dead and gone forever.
In my kitchen I made myself a pot of tea. I took a cup from the cupboard and put in a spoonful of coffee granules. I picked up the teapot and began to pour. What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t put in the milk. Wait a minute; there was coffee in the cup! I pulled myself together and decided on tea.
I drifted to the living room with its big picture windows giving views over fields and gardens. All so beautiful, life was going on as before, and yet…
Enjoying the familiar comfort of my reclining chair, I drank my tea and questioned why I felt so bereft. After all, Mark was not a relative nor had he been a close friend. True he was once a colleague sharing in the challenges imposed by the Ministry of Education when the local schools were reorganised into unwilling comprehensives, but he was a man very much on the periphery of my life.
Mark dead. I sighed deeply at the image in my mind of when I last saw him: uncombed hair topped with black woolly hat, grim face in need of a shave, head down, collar of black coat up, his limping frame bearing him up the road with his only true friend in tow — Peter the silent dog.
‘Hi, Mark,’ I said, as he was hurrying past.
He stopped, both he and Peter looking up. ‘Hello, Gladys, I didn’t see you.’
I patted the dog and it gave a nervous quiver.
‘What sort of breed is it?’
Mark proceeded to give me details of the dog’s unusual breed and pedigree, its very high cost and its naughty habits. I looked at the miserable dog, trembling at Mark’s ankles. Could that pathetic creature really take food from his plate, hide socks behind chairs, open his mail?
Mark’s face — pale skin, high cheek bones, square jaw, thin lips, fine nose slightly crooked, blue eyes under pale brows overhung with wispy greying hair — took on an aggrieved air. ‘That woman at the end of the terrace has accused me of letting Peter shit on her lawn. Huh, I told her, I take my dog out for a walk every day. It’s her own dog doing it, not mine.’
His countenance took on a conspiratorial look. ‘You know that ice-cream van that comes down the road?’
Who indeed could not recognise its monotonous chimes?
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m surprised they get much custom. Most folk keep ice-cream in the freezer.’
‘They sell drugs to kids.’
He was watching for my reaction. Well, I could see the possibilities. ‘Really?’
‘Oh, yes. The police know about it. There’s a copper lives opposite me. He’s keeping an eye on it. That’s not all’ He nodded across the road. ‘That house that was for sale. Criminals have moved in. Police know. They’re doing surveillance.’
I nodded; after all I was aware of dealers pushing drugs in the town. I had recently been involved in a drop-in centre for the town’s youth. One evening, a police officer called in at the centre to warn us of the drug problem, and what to look out for. From then on, my nose was on the alert for wacky baccy. But criminals living in our close-knit area?
Whenever and wherever I met Mark he had a tale to tell me. I guess, spending many hours alone in his cottage with only his little dog and a bottle for company, he was short of intelligent conversation to brighten his day. He loved to be outrageous and so it was really quite difficult to sort truth from lies.
I knew he was a keen horseman and for years had entered races with his big white horse and, at one time, was keen on trotting with a small horse and light trap. That he fractured a leg several times and had received poor settings was obvious by his limp. Maybe part of his reason for drinking was to dull the pain he constantly suffered. Several tales came from his horsy connections.
‘You know Joan Smith, the geography teacher?’
‘Not personally, but I used to see her in the staff room.’ I could have added that I heard her too: she had a loud voice and a raucous laugh. ‘Jolly lady, sat with her smoking colleagues.’
He nodded with an urgency to get on with his tale. ‘She asked me to arrange the transfer of her daughter’s new horse. I turned up at the address given and was told the girl was not there.’ He gave a sort of whinny. ‘She said she had gone to paradise. So I said, “Oh, I am sorry. I’ll call another day”.‘
‘Really, that must have been rather embarrassing for you,’ but I was wondering if he was having me on.
‘Well, Joan was in the staff room the following day, so I asked her what she wanted doing with the horse. She told me her daughter wanted it taking to the field as instructed.’ He snorted with laughter. ‘Paradise is a place just up the road from where they live!’
I guess that tale could be genuine, or did he dream it up? At least he made me smile and perhaps that was all he wanted. Another tale he told me concerned a member of the royal family and a horse-and-trap race across Morecambe Bay. Evidently he accidentally messed up the start of the race, which earned him an unmentionable comment from the royal personage taking part. Mark looked deeply aggrieved.
‘I don’t care who he is, I told him even my father never spoke to me like that. And I wasn’t going to take it from him either.’
‘Good for you, Mark.’ Knowing that his temper had once led him to punching the parent of a boy he once taught, I found it easy to believe what he was telling me, but was I gullible old fool? I have heard of the Duke of Edinburgh driving a coach and horses across the sands but I have not found any evidence of horse and trap races, never mind His Royal Highness taking part.
Relaxing in my chair my mind took me back to the year, 1979. Three schools — girls’ grammar, boys’ grammar and a down-at-heel secondary — had come together to form a comprehensive establishment of fifteen hundred souls. Few people seemed happy about it. A few teachers gained but most lost out; the youngsters from the secondary school were convinced the ‘posh lot’ hated them; and the grammar kids were not keen to mix with that ‘lot from down the road’. Only the boys gained some satisfaction — girls galore! The parents of the grammar pupils had been promised separate streaming for their children where their education would continue until leaving at sixteen. Although the form classes were mixed, the pupils kept to their own social groups and then went off to be taught as before. Unfortunately, some teachers considered those from the secondary school as being unworthy of their time. Mark was not one of them.
His aloofness stood him out from the rest of the staff. He had little to say at meetings. Mark had made it clear to me that, although he was on a scale two, he had no intention of doing more than a scale one because he had not been given a position of responsibility. Evidently the extra scale applied to when he served in a different department — teaching biology. But since he had a degree from a top College of Art and had designed furniture on a commercial basis, I was surprised he was not a departmental head within the Comprehensive system. That is, until I got to know him better.
Whatever skills Mark had, and they were many, he was a very poor communicator where adults were concerned. It was some years later that I discovered his adeptness at telling lies. Even then I tended to take him at his face value.
Of course, he often annoyed me when, on taking an art class after him, I found the room untidy, the sink full of filthy brushes, no stock in the cupboard and, quite often, no drawing paper because he has used it all for his pupils to make sketch pads in bookbinding lessons. Not only that, but he copied some of my carefully thought up ideas for art classes. Even so, for whatever reason, I liked the man. Maybe it was because, when he did speak, he was not afraid to say what he thought. He was stubborn and could be incredibly witty: his guffaw creasing his face into a quirky smile. Also, the fact that he did find my ideas good enough to use with his own pupils boosted my ego; after all, I did not have his training or qualifications.
The day I retired from teaching, I was formally handed cards, flowers and a gift from the staff, but the thing I treasured more than anything was the simple present left on my desk. A single white rose stuck on a homemade card — a flying dove cut out of white cartridge paper — with Mark’s name and best wishes inside. I was deeply touched.
It was some years before I saw Mark again. I was surprised to see him on several occasions shopping in Ulverston. I recognised his lumbering gait before I saw his rugged unshaven face. But on each occasion, he was across the road and walking too quickly for me to catch him up. A few weeks later, I actually met him face to face. He told me that his mother had died and that he was moving out of Barrow to live in Ulverston, but he did not have time to go into details. So when I saw him enter a house just around the corner from us, I was pleasantly surprised. He saw me and invited me into his cottage to show me the improvements taking place. I invited him to my home for a chat when he had a free evening.
It wasn’t long before he was ringing our doorbell. I was pleased to see him.
‘Come in, Mark. We’ll go in the small sitting room; it’s quiet in there. Do you want a coffee?’ He declined: he’d only come for a brief chat.
So he sat on one of our vintage armchairs and made himself comfy. He had a way of wriggling into a chair as though shaping it to fit his body. Having settled into the seat, he sat back, shuffled his shoulders, crossed his legs and placed both hands on the top knee. He looked around the room, twitching his loose foot and occasionally jerking a shoulder. I could imagine him thinking, ‘Nothing Andy Warhol in here.’ He made no comment on my pleasant collection of Heaton Cooper prints — not his style.
I sat close by with my armchair at an angle — distant enough to be non-threatening but easy enough to converse eye to eye should he wish to do so. I gave him a few moments to take in the relaxing decor of the room: neutral pastel colours of walls, carpet and curtains with little splashes of colour introduced in cushions and pictures.
‘So, what made you move to Ulverston?’
He began by telling me about the trouble he’d had with his neighbours. ‘I like a garden that grows naturally — wild like.’ I nodded in acceptance, but thinking I was glad he wasn’t living next to us. ‘They complained about the tree growing in my garden. None of their business. I wasn’t getting it pruned back, it would have ruined it.’
And so he continued chatting, telling me about his search for a house and the need to have somewhere for his horse. The tiny cottage he had just acquired had cost him £19,000 and he was busy with alterations to give a more spacious feel to the place. He now had a gas fire set in the wall above floor level. ‘I’m giving it a black surround to match the furniture. Call in and see what you think.’
After a while he started shuffling in his chair and fidgeting with his hands. He looked at me and opened his mouth to say something then changed his mind. ‘I was going to tell you about…but no, better not…’ He shuffled some more. ‘Yes, I will tell you. I can trust you not to tell anyone else.’
Then began an extraordinary tale about receiving a letter from a woman he had known in his student days, who, at the time of writing, was dying of cancer. According to Mark, she wanted him to know that he had a son, and that he was also a grandfather. He then told me about the money his mother had taken from him every month, and of his wondering what she had done with it all, especially since she had died almost penniless. ‘Unknown to me,’ he said, ‘I had been keeping my son at Winchester. He’s a consultant surgeon now.’
He told me how his parents had decided he was too young to marry his student girlfriend and so kept their knowledge about the baby to themselves. Evidently the girl’s parents had been in touch with them and it had been a joint decision: presumably the girl had acquiesced to her parents taking over the baby’s welfare. Well, knowing things were different years ago, it was not difficult to believe the story, especially as Mark was going to show me a photograph of his grandson when I called at his house.
The photograph was of a handsome young boy, dressed in a riding outfit and astride a fine-looking horse. The fact that it was a black and white photograph was explained as having been snapped for a newspaper, his son being the winner of a prize. That was the first of many tales about his family. I saw no other photos but I refused to be suspicious.
Mark’s son had moved to New York but came over occasionally as he was following up a few of his important cases. I was told about a boy’s big toe being amputated to form a missing thumb and the complications resulting from the procedure, and of other tricky operations that his son specialised in. Do consultants really travel across oceans to follow up their cases?
Evidently the family visited him occasionally but did not stay long. They wanted him to go and live with them in New York. Mark said that he had visited the place and was not sure that he would be happy there. He told me quite a few stories of a private nature, but the one that sticks out in my mind because I can see it starkly in black and white, concerns the parentage of father, son and grandson. The three males were taking a walk together; each was dressed in black coat and black woolly hat. Mark said he had to laugh. ‘Look at us,’ I told them, ‘three bastards all dressed alike!’
Mark giggled at the telling of the tale. ‘All of us were born out of wedlock. Not many people know that.’
I felt honoured that he should confide in me. From that time on he often came up with a story about his surgeon son, of which he was very proud, and his grandson that took after his granddad for horsemanship.
Mark was still active: judging at horse trials and still riding. He also had a part-time job lecturing at Lancaster University. He told me that he only had three or four students to tutor: the young men were below standard and needed personal tuition. Mark said he had received a letter from one of the youth’s parents, thanking him for the help her son was receiving. Later he said he had a few hours a week at Edinburgh University. Those were the only times I saw him going out dressed up, walking into to town with brief case and umbrella to catch his train. Most of the time, when he was going down Soutergate to do his bit of shopping, he was unshaven and scruffy-looking. He was just the same when he was walking his nervous little dog.
One Sunday, I met him on my way to church. He stopped for a chat and, much to my surprise, came with me. Then some time later, when I was working in a church some distance away, he came to hear me take Evening Prayer and preach. It so happened that he knew the organist who was studying for a doctorate with the Open University. It was after that event that Mark told me he’d studied to become a doctor, but could not stand the sight of blood and so had to drop out. But he had done well at his London art college, so I decided he was a man of high IQ and many talents. I was not completely aware then of his wonderful talent for lying!
His son’s wife came into the stories occasionally, the two seemed to get on well together, certainly enough for him to be invited to live with them in New York. He told me he was going to stay there for three months to see if he liked it enough to move. He would not give up his home because he would use it for holidays. That seemed a very sensible thing to do, even though he had no idea then that the value of his little cottage would have increased almost fivefold twelve years later.
Other people came into his tales. He told me that a friend of his son was staying at his house while doing work at Glaxo. But I never saw anyone going in, or coming out of Mark’s house — including his family. No cars parked outside either, but maybe his visitors used the train. In fact, there could be an explanation for any oddity in Mark’s stories. Even so, when I asked him when he was going for that three months trip to New York he looked puzzled and needed reminding of what he’d told me. Also, why didn’t his close neighbours know anything about his family? And, why did they all think of him as a teller of porkies? As to Mark’s drinking and tramp-like appearance, had the man been a spinner of yarns to hide a sad and lonely existence? Well, the funeral would surely come up with answers about his family — or lack of it.
Life went on in the town without Mark but I sometimes saw a figure and thought, ‘Oh, there’s Mark,’ until realising I was mistaken — a common happening with people who have made a deep impression before their death.
We were away when the funeral had finally taken place. I did not make enquiries as to who was present: I decided to leave my memories of Mark intact. Mark is dead, but for me he will live on as the warm colourful character I knew him to be.
Or would I rather not know that I am a gullible fool?
Years later, and I still miss him. I ‘see’ him down the road and walking the footpath. He was part of my landscape and I guess he always will be.

Gill Banks

The stream at Gill Banks where Mark walked.

The Man Who Told Lies is published in Northern Lights, an anthology published by Magpies Nest Publishing — visit the publishing site for more extracts from the book

Gill path seat

Is Mark still here?

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One Response to “The Man Who Told Lies”

  1. Sheila Deeth Says:

    A lovely read. Thank you.

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