It was the early afternoon on a hot August day when he first heard the noise. He could not be sure, but it sounded like a four-wheeled “something” being slowly pushed across a parquet floor. The noise was so irritating that it send a shiver down his back and set his teeth on edge.
He knew exactly where the noise came from. The apartment above belonged to a charming old couple named Mr. and Mrs. Swift-Finch. Nicer neighbors one could not wish for: quiet, respectful, considerate and discreet, all the necessary qualities one looks for in your neighbors when one is seeking peace and tranquility. Unhappily they had gone away for August and lent their apartment to their son and his wife. The couple had one small child of about five years old. He had learnt all these facts from Mrs. Swift- Finch as one day she had knocked on his door informing him of their absence in August. He remembered her parting words. Her son’s small child was proving to be quite a handful and she hoped he would not be disturbed.
It was only two days since they had left, and here he was confronted with an unacceptable noise. He looked at his watch. The noise had been unrelenting for at least an hour. It was slowly driving him crazy. Backwards and forwards the wheels slowly turned sending penetrating jarring vides down to the very tips of his toes. It just had to stop.
He rang the doorbell of the apartment above. The door opened, there stood an elegant young woman whom he estimated to be in her early thirties.
“Mrs. Swift-Finch, no doubt? You don’t know me, my name is Justin Hawthorn I live in the apartment below, I am good friends with your in-laws.”
“Oh! Yes, my mother-in-law told me about you, in fact once we have settled in we intend on inviting you for dinner.”
She extended her hand as if confirming the future dinner engagement. Justin politely took her hand while expressing the usual form of greetings.
“I am pleased to meet you Mrs. Swift-Finch.”
“Call me Patricia,” came the reply.
Justin cleared his throat. “Patricia, as you so wish. I apologize for knocking on your door like this unannounced, but I need to speak with you.”
Justin noticed the eyes of this elegant woman acquire a stare as if she was about to hear something for which she was totally unprepared. She tilted her head back slightly.
“I,” he stuttered, “I have come to complain about an excruciating noise, I believe it comes from four wheels being relentlessly pushed across a parquet floor.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed with a certain relief. “That must be Richard playing with his fire engine. He so loves that toy.”
Justin on hearing, “he so loves that toy”, felt he should elaborate on his predicament so that Patricia fully understood the importance of the complaint.
“Patricia, I am trying to write a thesis for an entrance examination required for a position as professor at the local university. You will surely understand that to complete this I need peace and quiet. The noise of these four wheels vibrating throughout my study is not only disturbing but has the unpleasant result of setting my teeth on edge.”
“Oh dear, how dreadful! Please come in, we cannot stand here on the door mat and continue discussing this.”
Justin reluctantly stepped into the apartment. He felt uneasy in the presence of his neighbor, she seemed concerned about his problem, but at the same time distant, as though she had no possible way of dealing with it. He also detected a certain immature attitude in her comportment, she reminded him of one of his cousin’s collectable dolls.
“Let’s go and talk to Richard.”
That was the last thing Justin wanted to do. He thought the matter could easily be settled by Patricia telling Richard to stop wheeling his fire engine over the parquet floor. But no, she insisted, they had to go and talk to Richard. Like an obedient dog he followed her to Richard’s playroom. As she opened the door he immediately noticed a vast expanse of parquet floor with no sign of any carpet, or rugs. There in the middle was a small boy crawling on his hands and knees pushing a large, very red fire engine. The room was spotlessly clean with toys and books of various shapes and sizes neatly arranged, at Richard’s height, on well-designed shelves placed at strategic points around the walls.
“Richard, darling, please stop pushing that fire engine, I have something to say to you.”
Justin was flabbergasted by the tone of her voice; it was as if she was talking to an adult friend instead of a little boy about to be told off. The next scene gave Justin a moment of panic. The boy took no notice of his mother; either he did not hear, or he considered her demand insignificant.
“Please, darling, stop.” A second whimpering request came from his mother’s lips.
By this time Justin was becoming demented by the continual sounds of the wheels, now considerably louder than in his study. He heard another “please”. The noise stopped. Justin nearly fainted from the silence, his whole body heaved a sigh of relief, his muscles started to relax.
Without thinking he said. “Thank heavens the noise has stopped”
Richard turned and looked at them both. It was the face of a small boy that had been rudely disturbed in what he obviously considered a pastime of infinite joy. His visage was contorted with a scowl. This, thought Justin, was a nasty little boy and clearly his mother had no control over him whatsoever. Richard’s attitude was, to say the least, hostile towards his mother. Justin was horrified.
“Richard, I want to introduce you to our neighbor who lives in the apartment below. He has come to ask us (Patricia use of the plural said it all) if we could stop wheeling our fire engine across the parquet floor.”
“Why?” came a disgruntled replied.
“Because, darling, it makes too much noise and disturbs him from working.”
“Fire engines are supposed to make a noise.”
At that instance Justin saw his chance to jump into this absurd conversation.
“Richard, fire engines make noises so that people will get out of the way. This means the firemen can get to the fire quicker. My study is just below your playroom and the noise of the wheels over the parquet is very distracting, or should I say extremely unpleasant.”
It was clear from his facial expression the boy did not like a total stranger addressing him as Richard. Justin saw a thin smile spread across his lips as if his little brain was telling him a secret that only he could enjoy. He turned back to the fire engine and pushed it forward. Justin’s body stood to attention. He looked across at Patricia. His eyes said it all. Take the fire engine away from him, now. But instead she beckoned him to leave the room. Once outside, the door closed, she whispered.
“I am afraid I have no influence over him, I will speak to his father tonight and we will see if he has more luck. But don’t worry I think he will soon tire of the game and go back to looking at his picture books.”
She looked at her watch. “In fifteen minutes it will be teatime. After tea he is allowed to watch the television until supper time and bed.”
Justin just could not think clearly as his brain was engulfed in the noise. He looked at Patricia and wondered why she was not in the playroom pushing the fire engine while Richard barked the orders. She was looking a little embarrassed but at the same time was laying on a smear of charm to paste over the obvious anguish her child was causing their neighbor. Suddenly Justin said.
“Ah! Maybe I have the solution. Why don’t you put a carpet down?”
“No, I can’t do that. Maybe you noticed that Richard’s room is particularly clean. You see he has a very bad case of asthma. This means dust from carpets and rugs are his worst enemy. We have specially cleared out his playroom so that it could be kept spotlessly clean. You know, the noise is not that bad. I agree it is disturbing, but over time you get used to these children’s noises.”
Justin had no intention of trying to become acclimatized to children’s noises. As far as he was concerned it must stop.
“Patricia, I insist, this particular noise cannot continue. If I had my way I would just take the fire engine from him.”
With this remark Justin saw a lioness leave the den to defend her cub. Nobody was going to take anything from her darling little Richard. Justin realized his error and quickly said.
“Tonight, please talk to your husband, and impress upon him the seriousness of my complaint.” With that Justin left.
Once he was in his study he still heard the wheels going relentlessly backwards and forwards. He left his apartment in disgust to take a walk. When he returned all was quiet, he looked at his watch 4.30 p.m. No doubt the little monster was having his tea. Justin worked in peace through the evening.
At nine-thirty the next morning there was ring on his doorbell. Standing there was the little monster clutching the hand of a tall man.
“Sorry to bother you at this early hour, but I understand you had a little disagreement with Richard yesterday. Oh! I forgot to introduce myself I am Brian Swift-Finch.”
Justin thought the choice of words odd, “disagreement”. He was about to say something when Brian continued.
Richard and I had a long talk this morning and we agreed that he would only play with his fire engine from ten in the morning until lunchtime, which he has at about twelve thirty. “Isn’t that right Richard?” Justin heard a disgruntled little “yes”.
At this point Brian Swift-Finch lowered his voice and moved his head closer to Justin’s.
“Given the circumstances I think it is very reasonable don’t you?”
“Why reasonable?” Justin replied in an angry tone.
“Due to his asthmatic problem the poor boy cannot go and play outside at this time of the year. It seems only fair to allow him a certain amount of time in the day to play with his favorite toy. I am sure you agree.”
Justin was completely at a loss as how to reply. Years ago he had vowed he would never get married, as for thinking of having children this mornings performance was the living proof of that folly.
Distracted he said. “You said just in the mornings until 12.30 p.m. Does that mean every morning?”
“Of course.” Came Richard’s affirmative little voice.
Justin looked down at the child. He saw a thin, weak boy that seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face. The small eyes showed no joy in his soul or that freshness and innocence that is so charming in children. Richard was a spoilt little brat who needed a good hiding. In some strange way Justin’s thoughts seemed to convey themselves to the boy as he looked up with a devilish grin on his scowling face. Justin could have beaten him then and there.
“Alright, but only the mornings, I will arrange my days accordingly. “But.” Justin paused so that he captured the boy’s father full attention. “I want you to know I am doing this out of respect for your parents and under the flag of being a co-operative neighbor. You must realize your suggestion is most inconvenient.”
With that the conversation ended, each party returning to their respective apartments. Within ten minutes Justin heard the wheels being push with considerable vigor across the parquet floor.
Justin immediately left his apartment slamming his front door. Any passerby could have heard him muttering, “spiteful child.”
On returning in the early afternoon he was relieved to find peace and quiet.
That evening he worked late on his thesis.
The next day he left in the morning to return in the early afternoon. Once the front door had been closed he soon realized yesterday’s agreement had been broken, back and forth went the wheels. This time the sound was intermittent; it lasted five minutes, stopped, three minutes later started up again. The effect was worse than having a continual noise. It reminded him of a game he played as a child called: Catch me if you can. Justin waited patiently, thinking it might stop, on the fourth session he bounded from his chair and rushed upstairs. The maid half opened the door. Justin was so infuriated he said.
“Tell Richard to stop playing with his fire engine”
The ardor of his command frightened the maid, “Sorry, do not understand, Madame not here.”
At that moment Justin saw a door open and there was Richard with the large, very red fire engine dangling from his hand. “I didn’t play with it this morning.” He smirked as he closed the door.
Justin retraced his steps, sank into his office chair, turned up his gramophone to dull the sounds of the wheels. Patiently he waited until teatime.
So began the saga, in that hot month of August, between Patricia, Richard, his father Brian, and Justin. Sometimes their excuses were, “ You must realize, the poor child could not play with it in the morning,” Other times when Madame was out to afternoon tea Richard would play with his hideous toy and then lie to his mother on her return. Many times he had to listen to Patricia telling him that her son does not lie. There were continual knocks on his door as either Patricia or her husband requested they change the timetable from morning to afternoon. In the end Justin just gave up. He spent most of his days in cafes or walking the streets until teatime. Occasionally Justin would lie in bed and think up complicated strategies on how to persuade Richard to give up the fire engine for something bigger and better. He even started working on trying to steal the horrible thing. He once saw Richard playing on the stairs and thought it was his chance to give the boy a good talking to. No such luck, Richard skipped up the stairs and disappeared behind his front door, only to reappear as few seconds later grinning like the Cheshire cat. That unforgettable month of August everybody danced to Richard’s tune. The noise of the wheels of a large, very red toy fire engine was forever ingrained in Justin’s memory.
One bright spring morning fourteen years later Justin pressed the button on his desk calling for his secretary. A minute later an energetic young women entered carrying a stack of files.
“Morning Professor Hawthorn, here are the Selection Committee’s final choice for the five available places for next year’s scholarship. They are proposing eight candidates for your final selection.”
“Thank you Mary, just put them on my desk I will try and get to them this evening. Now, what’s the business of the day?
t was early that evening when Justin finally got round to examining the candidates’ files. This was one of his many responsibilities as the senior university professor that he particularly enjoyed. The destiny of someone’s life in his hands had a certain charm. He opened the covering file and looked down the list of candidates.
No, surely it was not possible! The third name on the list was Richard Swift-Finch. He immediately went to the candidates’ individual file. There was no mistake. Before him was the horrible, spoilt brat that had caused him so much anguish in that hot month of August all those years ago. He felt his toes curl up with the delightful pleasure of the moment. As he examined the file in more detail he noticed the boy was decidedly a strong contender for a scholarship place. A Straight “A” student accompanied with letters of high recommendations for two senior teachers. Later that evening, as he closed his office lights, the Professor muttered to himself, “Richard and his large, very red fire engine.”
The next morning he asked Mary to contact all eight candidates for an interview. He suggested dividing the candidates into two groups and devoting a morning to each group. Three days later he saw Mary had marked in his diary group one, Thursday 4th June (in ten days time), group two the next day’s morning. She had allowed three quarters of an hour between each student. He notice Richard Swift-Finch was penciled in for 10:30 on the Thursday, the second interview of the day. He marked a small asterisk against the name.
That night he dreamt of a small boy holding a large, very red fire engine. He woke to the sound of wheels being pushed across a parquet floor.
Sitting drinking coffee in his office early the following morning he started contemplating a plan of revenge. He quickly came to the conclusion that to enjoy his moment of triumph he would have to subject Richard to a little harassment during the interview. A childish thought, but a fitting retaliation.
His eyes scanned his bookshelves filled with various objects and artifacts he had collected over the years. Many were presents from former students and faculty members. Each object reminded him of some special occasion and brought back pleasant memories. There on the middle shelf in the left hand bookcase was the horrible mechanical dog, a present from Professor Hardy. At the time he thought it was a touching gift from a dear old friend. But when he wound up the wretched dog and saw its tail wagging, its front legs move like a pair of scissors, its back legs kicking like a mule, its eyes lighting up, he suspected Hardy was trying to send a juvenile message about his management of the university. Amongst his colleagues he had the nickname, bulldog. No doubt it came from his obsession with order and discipline. It was true if these virtues were not respected he tended to bark, metaphorically speaking. The mechanical dog was truly a detestable object, many times he thought of throwing it out, but Hardy in his puerility had given it a name and was always asking how James was. It suddenly occurred to him that finally James might be of service.
At precisely 10:30 on Thursday 4th there was a knock on his door.
Gone was the horrible little boy he remembered. Before him stood a good-looking young man dressed appropriately for an important interview. He detected a little nervousness, which was understandable, but delightful under the present circumstances.
“Please sit down,” said Justin.
Richard took a chair in front of his desk and no doubt to combat his uneasiness opened the conversation.
“Professor, I believe you know my grandparents.”
“True,” replied Justin in a tone that made it quite clear that this little intimacy was in no way going to help him. “Tell me about yourself, starting with your junior school.”
Richard, clasping his hands in front of him, started to relate his school history. Justin’s off handed acknowledgement concerning his grandparents had definitely disturbed the boy. Much to the professor’s delight he was starting to show a lack of confidence, punctuated by ums and ahs.
Listening intently to Richard’s story Justin leaned forward over his desk. With a stealthy movement his left hand touched the start button on the detestable James. Any thought of continuing the interview was completely out of the question. Two things happened in short order. First James immediately got into his stride, tailing wagging, eyes blinking, and legs going in all directions. What made matters worst, Justin had a glass desk top that did not take kindly to James metal feet. The noise was excruciating. Second, Richard had become speechless. He was just looking at the mechanical dog as if he had seen a ghost.
“How silly of me, I must have accidentally knocked up against the start button. Now let me see how do you switch this dreadful thing off.”
He looked across at Richard thinking he might know. The candidate was in no state to give any advice; the dog’s crude movements completely mesmerized him. In the meantime James was winding himself up for his finale. Justin waited a few more seconds before he put his hand on the back of James and pushed the stop button. Silence reigned.
“You were saying, Richard.”
There was a long pause before Justin heard a stuttering answer.
“Sir, would you excuse me, I don’t feel very well.”
Justin looked intently at Richard trying to assess what had caused this sudden illness. Was it just possible the boy in his subconscious mind had associated his big, very red fire engine with the mechanical dog? Something about his eyes told him that the boy was transfixed by some strange recollection.
“Of course, I will get my secretary to arrange another interview.”
As Richard closed Justin’s office door behind him, the distinguished professor could be seen picking up James, giving it a little kiss, and then proceeding to do a dance around his desk.
Two days after Richard’s ordeal he receive a letter of acceptance for a scholarship place starting the autumn semester, signed Professor Justin Hawthorne, Chairman of the Selection Committee.