'How about another cup of tea?' asked Alfred, with a faint smile. I looked at my half-drunk cup and shook my head.
'I don't blame you,' he said, 'It's not like your mum's is it, my old stick-in-the-mud?'
'Stick-in-the-mud' - one of the many nicknames he had called me by when I was a kid, back in the village. It brought
back all the flavour of that time, just after the war, when his family and mine had lived next door to each other.
In fact, his only family by then had been his wife Sarah. They had had two sons. One of them had died of polio
aged nine. His picture, tinted and misty, had hung, like an angel's, above the piano. The elder son had married
early - too early for comfort; they'd had a baby six months later - and Sarah never spoke to her s0n again.
They had called him in from the prison garden as soon as I arrived. Now he sat facing me across the stained
wooden table in that drab visitors' room with its faded cushion covers and its out-of-date magazines. He
looked almost as I remembered him, which surprised me, after everything that had happened. He wore a
long navy-blue gardener's apron, just like the one he had worn as gardener at the Grange.
His hands, resting lightly clasped on the table, were as powerful as ever. They made me shiver as I remembered
what I had seen them do. Once they had picked up five small kittens. I had watched hirn put them in a sack, then
calmly drop the sack into a tank of water. Those hands had held the sack under water until the bubbles stopped.
He had smiled his strange smile and said, 'Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.' But he looked as if he
had enjoyed it.
I remembered thinking that I had never seen Alfred laugh. I had never seen him angry either. And never heard
him raise his voice. In fact he never really showed his feelings. He smiled. But it was a pitiless smile. His
smile was a mask. I had not realized what lay behind it.
It was true that he had little to smile about. His life was a monotonous routine, interrupted by repeated
bad luck. Apart from losing both his sons, each in different ways, he was married to Sarah. She was a large
woman, in her fifties at that time. She had a large flabby body, protruding eyes and thinning grey hair through
which her scalp was plainly visible. Her skin was waxy, the colour of putty. She had a very loud, penetrating
voice. She used it in her many arguments with her neighbours, but mostly she used it on Alfred. She was a
diabetic. Alfred had to give her her daily injections of insulin. 'You're hurting me, you ape,' she would
shout. We could hear her from next door. Be careful, damn you! Look at the bruises.' We all thought she was
terrible to him. But he always smiled that smile. The same smile as when he had drowned the kittens. Later I
wondered if he had hurt her on purpose after all.
Alfred worked as the gardener at the Grange, the biggest, grandest house in the village. I'ts owner, Cedric
Grimes, made his money from the business of undertaking. After all, there's nothing more certain than death.
Everyone has to die. And someone gets paid to bury
them. Apart from tending the large gardens, Alfred had
to help carry the coffins when needed. On those occasions
he would be transformed - wearing his pin-striped
trousers, black tail-coat and carrying his black silk top-
hat in his hand. 'Alfred's gone on a job,' Sarah would
explain. She never used the word 'funeral' itself.
Otherwise, Alfred's days were as predictable as the
B B C. At ten to eight every moming from Monday to
Saturday he would leave the house and walk the two
hundred yards to the Grange. There he would work in
the gardens until twenty-five past twelve. Then he would
carefully take off his blue apron, hang it behind the shed
door and make his way home for lunch. At twenty past
one he trudged back to work, except on Saturdays which
were a half-day, coming back at five sharp, to prepare
Sarah's tea. We would often speak to each other as he
passed our gate.
'Hello, Mr Philps. How are you?'
'Mustn't grumble,' was the inevitable reply. 'What
have you been up to at school then, you ragamuffin?'
'Oh, trigonometry, and French and ....'
'Jack of all trades, master of none, eh?' And he would
I remembered how he had often spoken in proverbs.
Perhaps these ready-made phrases were a part of the
mask he hid behind, like the smile itself.
The tea was now cold. I tried to draw him into
'How are things here now?'
'Oh, I mustn't grumble you know. I'm used to it now.
Better the devil you know ... I was sorry to hear about
'Yes. Anyway, Mum seems to be getting over it.'
'So you do some gardening then?'
'Oh, yes. They put me in charge of the garden. I spend
most of the time out there. I'll show you my chrysanthemums later, if you're not in a hurry.'
'So you still grow chrysanthemums then?'
'Oh, yes. You cant teach an old dog new tricks you
know, 'he said, and he smiled his cold smile again.
Alfred had in fact been a wonderful gardener, a man
with 'green fingers'. His hobby was growing chrysanthe-
mums, and the whole of his garden was filled with them.
He would spend hours nipping out the top leaves with
those cruel fingers. In autumn they would unfold their
hard buds into plate-sized blooms of bronze and white
and pink and yellow, each one a mass of petals as tightly
curled as watch springs. Then he would sell them to the
local florist for a good price. He would never bargain.
'You get what you pay for; take it or leave it,' he would
At the time I recall most clearly, Sarah had become a total invalid. She had gone into a coma once, after
eating too much sugar. A few weeks later, she had a mild stroke, which left her speech slurred and the side
of her face paralysed. Not long after that, she had some of her toes amputated; she had developed gangrene.
She spent her time in bed, gossiping with neighbours who called to see her. My own mother spent a lot of time
with her, especially while Alfred was at work.
Her illnesses had not improved her temper. She would frequently burst into fits of rage for the least thing.
Alfred continued to weather these storms. When she shouted at hirn, he smiled - I once heard her say to him,
'What good are you to anyone? You let Norman die. You let Jack marry that bitch. You can't even stop what's
happening to me.' I had overheard their conversation as I came up the steps to their back door. 'Hello, my old
fellow-my-lad,' Alfred had said, 'Don't worry about Sarah. Every cloud has a silver lining, you know.'
'I don't know how he puts up with it. If it was me, I'd strangle her!' my father used to say. 'Don't you say
that,' my mother would reply, 'You should be ashamed of yourself.' But I couldn't help wondering if Alfred
ever shared my father's thoughts. What went on behind Alfred's enigmatic smile? What feelings did it hide?
It was about this time that my mother arranged for me to go to their house every afternoon to practise on the
Philps's piano. We did not have one of our own. Perhaps she wanted to have someone in the Philps's house in case
anything happened to Sarah. So every afternoon from four to five I would bang away at my scales and the silly
pieces set for me by my teacher Miss Croop. I still remember the cheerless living-room with its bare linoleum
and the photograph of Norman. The piano echoed in the empty room. I wotild usually leave just before Alfred
returned and would put my head round the bedroom door to say goodbye to Sarah. Usually she was in a semi-coma.
When she wasn't, she would bellow, 'Make sure you shut the door properly behind you.' I always felt relieved
when I had left that house.
On that last occasion, I was about to go in when I saw that the door was ajar. Through the opening I could see
Sarah sitting on the side of the bed. She was half-naked and her great flabby body shook with her sobs. I can't
stand it any more,' she moaned. 'You're useless, Alfred. Why can't you do anything? I can't bear the pain ... Do
something to help me, damn you.' Alfred had his back to me. 'You want me to do something, do you, you fat bitch?'
he said quietly. 'All right then, I'll do something.'
I watched his strong hands pick up the hypodermic syringe and draw some liquid into it. Then he grabbed her arm
roughly and sank the needle deep into it. She screamed once, then fell back on to the bed. I tip-toed away and
let myself out quietly through the back door.
The funeral took place a week later. It was autumn, and Alfred's chrysanthemurns were in full bloom. On the
night before the funeral he took out his powerful secateurs. Very deliberately he cut every one of them to
fill the funeral hearse the next day. It was like a massacre. I watched him from behind the curtains: he was
Alfred returned to work the following Monday. 'The devil makes work for idle hands,' he remarked with a cheerless
smile. To begin with no one suspected anything. After all, Sarah had sunk into a coma before. Only this tirne
she had not come out of it. What could be more normal? But then there was the coroner's report. He had ordered
an autopsy. Only I knew why. That was the end of Alfred.
It was Friday when the police arrived to take him away. 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good,' he
said, as they pushed him into the police-car. What happened at the trial is still a blur for me, but the
words 'while the balance of his mind was disturbed' still ring in my ears.
As we walked down into the garden, I asked, 'Why did you do it?' We were now among the chrysanthemums. Some of
them were beginning to open. Alfred took a pair of sharp gardener's secateurs from his apron pocket. I heard the
stalks crunch as he severed six blooms. He handed them to me and said, 'The survival of the fittest. Now let me
ask you a question. Who tipped off the coroner?'
Then he smiled his enigmatic smile.
From: Campbell's Crossing and other Very Short Stories (with exercises) by Alan Maley - pp.44-49
1. Find all the proverbs or sayings that Alfred uses. Can you guess their meanings?
2. Why do you think the coroner became suspicious of Alfred?
3. What would you have done if you had seen and heard what the boy witnessed?