A CROOKED MAN’S KNEE
A crooked man used to visit our house from time to time. Mother would see him through the coloured glass and call up the stairs to Father.
“Your friend is here,” she’d say and Father would fly down the stairs to let him in.
Father’s friend was big and strange and so much like the man from the nursery rhyme that we were certain it was him: a crooked man that walked a crooked mile. He wore a crooked hat and held a crooked stick that he’d swing before him, jabbing at the ground like a boatman with an oar.
John, our eldest, says that he wasn’t really all that tall. He reckons the crooked man liked to seem taller than he was and this was the reason that he wore such a tall hat, and why that coat that made of his body a great rectangle, and why that pair of trousers whose ends dangled not much lower than the knee. And why else bother the door of a family with small children than to loom tall above them? Well, that’s John. In our memory, the crooked man was the tallest of all creatures. He would stand on the mat for a moment when Father opened the door, dip his head and cross over, into the hall.
We weren’t really frightened of the crooked man – Father let him into our home, after all – but we knew it was best to be out of the way when he came. Mother would busy the younger ones in the kitchen, or gather them in the back room. We older ones tended to hide upstairs, sometimes creeping to the edge of the landing to see if he was still with us. Father would take the crooked man into the front room or else into the back garden, where they’d prod sticks at the overgrowth or cobble together the beginnings of a bonfire.
When the crooked man did speak to us, we found him hard to understand. He used peculiar olden-time words and made jokes that weren’t really for children, but he was really very kind. He grinned and winked and ruffled our hair if ever we came near. He made pennies appear from our ears and offered us wrapped chocolates from deep in his pockets. The chocolates were always powdery and hard and misshapen and not to be eaten, and the pennies were only ever coppers, but the younger ones collected them gleefully, like treasures.
Little Ruth loved them especially. She would sometimes sneak into the front room when the crooked man was round and throw herself about his calves. Father and Mother called her magpie and spy and the crooked man would call her scallywag and run his big hand through her hair and Ruth every time would dash, grinning, from the room with something small and shiny in her hand.
There was once a time when the crooked man came to stay with us. Mother said that he needed some time to get back on his feet and that Father had offered him the front room. When he arrived, he carried a huge army bag, like a great big sausage, on his shoulder. Mother and Father welcomed him at the door, and those of us that were about made coy greetings before scattering in our usual way. Later we were more relaxed. I came down with John and Sarah when Mother was preparing dinner and the crooked man was sat in the corner of the room, arms crossed, on a low stool. His mouth was spread wide, and it curved up at the ends like a cat’s or a crocodile’s. A pipe jabbed out from its middle. The stool was an old thing he’d got from the garden. It stood on three legs, about a foot from the ground, and it wobbled. It was no good to anyone really, but the crooked man claimed the stool as his own for the duration of his stay. He used to carry it about the house with him, park it in a corner and lower himself onto it, groaning with the effort.
Most of the time the crooked man stayed in his room. You’d forget he was there at all and then the front door would slam and you’d know he was on one of his errands. On dry days he wandered into the garden to smoke his pipe and potter about. He used to pick up the broken toys from the lawn and try to fix them, but he wasn’t terribly good at it. He’d mess about with screws and a hammer for a couple of days before tossing the pieces back into the grass.
We grew to like the crooked man, I think. There was something comforting about the way he said so little, smiling away at us through his beard. He kept a pack of cards in his pocket that he liked to shuffle in his grubby hands. He’d show us tricks, and we’d try to work out how they were done by watching his fingers move.
Then one day Father came home and asked where he was, and Mother said she didn’t know, and they both went to the front room. John and I and the older ones watched from the stairway. The crooked man was there with Little Ruth upon his knee. Father stood before him, shouting and thrusting a finger. He looked so small in his fury against the man’s huge body. The crooked man said not a word but gathered his things and left the house and he wasn’t staying with us after that. Mother said that it was about time and let the windows open to air the room, and the stool went back in the garden.
Soon after, the younger ones began telling tales about the crooked man. They’d seen his hat over the garden fence, or they’d spotted his long coat and his arms go by the window. Mother said not to be silly, and we older ones laughed and rolled our eyes. One day John told the little ones that he’d seen the crooked man too, and Mother got angry. She told us to drop it and we did, and the younger ones soon stopped telling their tales.
Much later, when Father died, we let the crooked man back in. John had found him sleeping behind the garden fence, underneath a bush. Time has not been kind. The crooked miles had taken their toll upon the man, and he was now so tatty that we feared he’d fall to pieces if we lifted him too roughly from the leaves. He was not nearly as huge as I’d remembered, but how much this was the fault of my childish impressions and how much we each had aged, I can’t tell.
When we invited him back in, the crooked man accepted as though the offer was long overdue, and he settled in quickly. He claimed, this time, not a lowly stool but the high-backed Chesterton in the lounge. His pipe was no longer restricted to the back garden, and the smell of its smoke permeated the air and the furniture of every room. Little Ruth was grown by now and she sat upon his knee as she pleased while father’s body rotted in the ground beneath the buddleia bush.