chapter seven

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At first Grimshaw had refused to believe it, babbling on about industrial towns and street lighting and the spirit of the nineteenth century. But when the town‟s chief policeman came lumbering in, his shock turned to anger. “How can it happen Mr Hackett sir? How can you sit back and let it happen? For God‟s sake man, the police station is only round the corner.”

The Chief Constable gave no reply. Grimshaw sat at the long table, head in hands. “It was one thing,” he said at last, “when a few idlers were being spirited away from the back alleys. But when just about the most important gathering of men in Millcote today can vanish without trace from a committee room in the Town Hall, that‟s quite another. Quite another. We‟re none of us safe now. None of us.”

The three men considered this. Then Chief Constable Hackett had an idea, and a beam spread across his face to mark the event. “That‟s not quite true, Mr Grimshaw. You said „without trace‟ I believe. But there is a trace this time.”

The policeman plucked the set of false teeth from the table. All three of them instantly recognised the slimy pink object as belonging to Mr Harold Bradman, chairman of the committee that had tried for so long to perfect the steel product. In

some strange way a little of Bradman‟s oily manner seemed to linger about the teeth, as if part of a man‟s personality could live on in his eating gear. “This, Mr Grimshaw sir, is a clue.” Grimshaw exploded. “Of course it‟s a clue man. Any short-sighted, halfwitted, orange-arsed baboon could stand there and tell me that. What I want to know is in which direction is it leading you, this „clue‟? When are you going to start arresting people?” “Enquiries are under way sir. And that‟s all I can say.” And that, despite all manner of abuse and threats, was all that he would say, the Chief of the Millcote Constabulary, that frost-bound night.

Next morning the Millcote Chronicle screamed the news to a stunned town:

SAVAGE SLAUGHTER OF SENIOR STEELMEN read the main headline. Such big black letters (they were a good two inches high) were normally reserved for the death of a King or an outbreak of war. At breakfast Grimshaw leafed through page after page of it:

SEVERED FINGER POINTS UP MYSTERY and TEETH CLUE SETS DENTAL POSER and BOBBIES BAFFLED AS DEMAND FOR ACTION GROWS With a sigh he threw the paper aside. “What‟s to be done Mr Mastin, what‟s to be done?”


The overseer‟s grey face and sunken eyes showed that he had had little sleep that night. “There‟s only one thing you can do Mr Grimshaw, though you‟ll not thank me for saying it.” “Come on man, out with it. We‟ve known one another long enough.” “All right then.” Mastin seemed to be preparing to climb the Mill‟s tallest chimney. “Call a meeting of the Council of 27. They‟re the only ones can help you now.” “Never!” Grimshaw spat the words across the table. “Never! Never! Never! Not till the town stands in ruins and the Mill comes crashing down round my ears. And not even then.” “But…” But Grimshaw was in full flight. “When that bunch of old fools last met fifteen years ago I swore they‟d never meet again. Not in Millcote. Not in my town. You remember what they wanted to do Mastin don‟t you?” “Aye, but…” “But nothing man. They wanted to inspect the mill. My mill. And then make „recommendations‟ on safety. As if it were any business of theirs what went on in it. And when I turned them down flat they started lecturing me about their being the „people‟s mouthpiece‟ and „democracy in action‟ and how they were elected and I wasn‟t.” “But…” “No, Mr Mastin, no! I pay the wages of 5,000 men in Millcote, while that bunch of puffed up old windbags pay nothing. They won‟t meet. And that‟s final.”


A week later, amidst a blaze of publicity, the Millcote Council of 27 began their first meeting in fifteen years. In the meantime three more homes had been emptied, one of them a fine house in the „respectable‟ part of town where Grimshaw and other important people lived. After that the pressure for the Council to sit had become irresistible.

It was a long session. At eight in the evening the 27 councilmen took their seats in the council chamber. At twelve they sent out for 15 prime cheeses, two barrels of pickles and as much strong ale as 27 stout men could drink at one sitting. Later, much later, as a chilly dawn poured down from the encircling hills, two slips of paper were passed out. One read: It’s the Thyrg. The other: Make Thistlethwaite’s Hammer.



The Thistlethwaites - they were the boys. Wulfric had been the first, at least that was how the story went, way back in 1079 when „Mylcoate‟ had been little more than a collection of huts on a muddy hillside. Arnold had found lots of stuff about the others and their part in it all, but it was Wulfric that he kept coming back to. 1079. Eight hundred years ago. He tried to picture 800 chisels or bottles or loaves of bread laid out in a line, but they stretched away into the distance and he couldn‟t get his mind round them at all. Instead he concentrated on Wulfric, brave Wulfric, though he knew nothing about him except that he had killed the Thyrg in a „deadly battle‟ and he had done it with a special weapon fashioned from „Mylcoate‟ steel.

Wulfric. Brave Wulfric. Arnold had dug out a drawing of a Norman warrior and fancied he, the warrior, was Wulfric, a wiry man in a cone-shaped helmet and a flat nose, though when he looked more closely he could see that it wasn‟t really his nose at all but part of the helmet that came down across his face. The man had a moustache and a steely glint in his eye that certainly made him look like a dragonslayer, a fearless, fearsome sort of a man who‟d rather die where he stood than give an inch of ground to an enemy. Wulfric, brave Wulfric. And he too, Arnold, young Arnold, a Thistlethwaite.

When no-one else was around Arnold took to peering hard into the scrap of mirror they kept in the kitchen drawer, trying to look stern, running his finger hopefully along the smoothness of his top lip. And he too a Thistlethwaite.

Arnold heard all about what the Council of 27 had to say from his father‟s reading of the paper the morning after their historic meeting. “To tell you the truth,” he told his son, “I wouldn‟t be reading this at all if your mother wasn‟t out of the house, the way she‟s been acting lately. But us men, we‟ve got more sense haven‟t we?” Arnold hadn‟t told him anything about his trips to the library and now didn‟t seem like a good time to start. “Listen to this. They want us to believe that this monster thing has miraculously come back to life and is behind all these disappearances. Silly old sods. Council of 27! That‟s 27 too many I say. I‟m with Mr Grimshaw on this one. He‟s had to call them together again, but that doesn‟t mean he believes in all their twaddle. He‟s just going along with it.” “But all them folk are still disappearing aren‟t they?” said Arnold. “Aye lad, I know.” “So if it‟s not the Thyrg, that‟s doing it, what is?” “Shush now Arnold, you‟re only a lad.” His father turned back to the paper. “Now listen to this. Just listen.” Mr Stannidge read, so slowly it was painful to hear, an account of the Thyrg very similar to that given to Grimshaw by the Old Woman the night she‟d appeared in his office. Even the playground verse was there:

Hot summer Warm summer Wet summer Dry Storm blast And earth shake Then Thyrg-beast is nigh


The hammer, Thistlethwaite‟s Hammer, was part of it too. Only the hammer, made to the exact design, by the most skilled of craftsmen, could kill the Thyrg and rid the town of its curse. It had been so in 1487; and in 1213; and in 1079 when Wulfric, brave Wulfric, had been the first wielder. Arnold‟s dad sat back and sighed. “Have you ever heard anything so daft in your life?” Arnold had. But for the moment at least he wasn‟t saying. After they‟d eaten their breakfast Mr Stannidge picked up the paper again, reading quietly to himself for a while, following the lines of print with a grubby forefinger. But silent reading wasn‟t really in his nature. “Listen to this,” he broke out. “Even those ninnies on the paper are at it now. They reckon they‟ve found the man to take on the beast.” Arnold‟s ears pricked up at this. His father continued:

The only real contender for the position of hammer-wielder is one Mervyn Higginbottom, known throughout the city by his fighting name of The Great Mervo. More of a barn door than a man, Mervo is the only wrestler in living memory to three times carry off the Silver Ram Trophy at the annual Millcote Wrestling and Gouging Gala. Now engaged in intensive training at the Slurp and Blabber alehouse, Mervo is said to be quietly confident that, if chosen, he will prove a worthy opponent to the Thyrg. So that was it then. Mervo was the man. The new Wulfric.

Was he?



But before it could be used as a weapon the hammer had to be made. And that was what brought Abel Grimshaw, not 24 hours later, to a part of town he normally didn‟t even think about, let alone visit. Mastin prodded him on, past rows of sooty terraces, tiny cobbled back yards and knots of ragamuffin children. “But why here?” Grimshaw complained. “If we‟ve got to go along with those old fools and have this „hammer‟ of theirs, why does it have to be made here of all places?” He waved his hand in a dismissive circle. The narrow street was dotted with evil-smelling pools of water. A street sweeper, wrapped up in a bundle of rags, was rearranging piles of mud and horse dung into new piles. A dead dog lay unnoticed in the gutter. They turned up a ginnel between two crumbling stone houses. In the gloom half a dozen scrawny chickens fluttered around their ankles. “We‟ve got the finest craftsmen in England, in the world, down there at the Mill. So why does it have to be some back street Johnny who makes the thing?”

Mastin pulled up in front of a tiny single-storey workshop, the entrance half hidden by piles of rubble. Through a small window, the only window, a lighted candle could just be made out. Orange-yellow light from another, unseen source, flickered in the background. “We‟ve got to come here Mr Grimshaw sir, because the Councilmen said so. It‟s as simple as that.” The overseer pushed past his employer, stooping to clear the low doorway. Grimshaw, plagued by doubts, followed.


At first the mill owner thought the place deserted. The gloom confused him and the glare thrown out by a small furnace in the corner hurt his eyes. When he could see better he tutted his disapproval at the bare earth floor, the scraps of furniture and primitive tools scattered across work benches. At the other end of the room was a wooden partition set up on two trestles. By screwing up his eyes as tight as he could, Grimshaw could just make out the lower half of a man below the screen. He was holding something, a small bowl-like object that was fixed to the end of a long steel handle. Grimshaw could see the torn hem of a cape and two legs encased in sackcloth.

Mastin cleared his throat. The figure came out from behind the screen to face the two visitors. The „man‟ became a woman, old, grey-haired, red-eyed. “A woman! You!” “Hello Abel lad. I‟ve been expecting you.” She wasted no time on small talk. “Here are all the technical details. And here, because I know you‟ll be wanting it, is an estimate of the cost. It‟s only an estimate mind. Materials have gone up in price since 1487.”

He took the papers without looking at them and sat down heavily on an old straw-bottomed chair that immediately sagged and threatened to give way beneath his weight. Again he peered around the workshop. How ancient everything looked. The hammers and tongs; the charcoal; the bellows; the collection of long handled crucibles ranged in a rack near the fire; the open furnace, more like a cooking range than a unit of industrial production. “Her,” he muttered. “And here. The hopes of Millcote pinned on a weapon that‟s to be made here.” “Abel.” The old woman pulled another battered chair up. Her voice was little more than a whisper; yet there was that authority about it that Grimshaw had noted once before. “Last time we met you told me about the nineteenth century. And two and two making four. And a lot more besides. And I told you then and I tell you now that that‟s not all of it. Not by a long chalk. I‟m not pretending those things don‟t

exist. I‟m a craftswoman, and I respect the science behind my craft just as much as those „engineers‟ you pay such fancy wages to down at the mill. But you‟re only seeing the half of it with all your facts and figures. There are some things in this world that can‟t be measured in inches or weighed by the pound. Things that have come down to us from the lost dark days of the past, when men worked the steel over charcoal and plague and famine stalked the land. Such things, for all your reluctance, you must see.” Whether he saw them now, however, Grimshaw wasn‟t saying. Rather he seemed to have found a sudden interest in the toecaps of his shiny black boots. When he did raise his eyes it wasn‟t to look at the woman but at the papers he still clutched in his right hand. One of them in particular he looked at for a long time. “Five hundred! Five hundred pounds! Impossible, woman. You can‟t seriously expect me…” His words trailed off as he passed the estimate on to his overseer. “Do you realise how many prime steel ingots I could make for £500? And you want it for one little hammer. What‟s it made out of, diamonds?” “Nay Abel, not diamonds. But it‟s got to be done right or you might as well not do it at all. Listen. You‟ve got to decide how much you want this thing. If you‟re prepared to allow the Thyrg to carry on taking one Millcoter a week - and perhaps soon it‟ll be one a day, or two or three a day - then you can walk out of that door now. It‟ll not cost you a penny. But if you want it to stop, or at least for there to be a chance it‟ll stop, then you‟ve got to dig into your pocket. And dig deep. I won‟t put it in human terms because I know that‟s not likely to butter any parsnips with you. But look what it‟s done to the mill. You‟re losing production all the time. Your workers are frightened men. When did you last have a full week? “Now, there‟s none of your machines down there can make this hammer. I‟m not even sure that I can. But I know that I‟ve got to try. Because if I don‟t, pretty soon there‟ll be no Millcote left to try for. And no mill. And no Abel Grimshaw like as not.”


All the while she was talking Grimshaw was aware of another presence in the room. Once or twice he caught a glimpse of her, a slight, dark-haired girl in a long shabby dress. Like a bird scuttling through heather, she was never still, fetching, carrying and pouring out materials, ignoring completely the urgent discussions taking place at the other end of the workshop.

Grimshaw and Mastin talked together for a while. When they had finished a weary Grimshaw turned back to the old woman. Without a word he took out his cheque book. “It‟ll be a week,” she said. “Minimum. Maybe two.” The mill owner raised his eyebrows. “I‟m making a deadly weapon Abel, not a set of fire irons. And I‟m working from plans that have gathered dust across four centuries.”

Before the ink had dried, the two men were out the door and off up the dismal street.


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