Wednesday, July 4, 2012

M. Hopkins

M. Hopkins

The neighbours considered M. Hopkins a moody, morbid man who stood silent for long periods studying the roots of trees on the river bank and sat in his garden all afternoon reading and smoking a long stemmed pipe. Granted, if met on the street he was unfailingly polite and cordial but that, most likely the neighbours thought, was a bit of play acting learned by morbid men to ingratiate themselves with their fellows. He lived in a cottage at the end of Gardon street.

In truth it was not play acting for M. Hopkins was a deeply cordial man but he was also old and sick and had little energy for gossip and street corner conversations. He had, as he told the woman who did his cleaning once a week, six good hours a day and he needed them for his ‘project’ as he called it, the bringing to the press of a book of poems. Mrs. Williams, the cleaning lady, was sympathetic. Although she liked a good jaw herself she was imaginative enough to comprehend why this very nice old man kept to himself. She even defended him to the face of one of the more vicious hags who held court in the mornings outside the corner store.  “What do you know about poetry, Meg Spicer,” she said to her, “when you can’t even read and write?” This shut down Meg’s jawing at least until Mrs. Williams left. Then she started in again on how some persons thought themselves above others, lording it over them with their princely ways, when everyone knew it was the good and simple folk who were the chosen of the Lord and if they had good hearts he didn’t care if they could read and write.

The cottage had a small study overlooking the garden. The garden was a simple affair – a hedge along the back for privacy, a willow tree for shade, a patch of bright green grass bordered by flowerbeds. Mrs. Williams’ nephew, a twelve year old, cut the grass and tended the beds. Or at least he pretended to tend the beds for no matter how often M. Hopkins showed him which were desirable plants and which were weeds, Anthony grew confused in the midst of his weed plucking and, taking the tack of not pulling what he wasn’t sure of insisted upon by M. Hopkins, he in truth weeded perhaps ten percent. Mr. Hopkins did the rest in the cool of the evenings, fifteen minutes at a time. He didn’t mind. If he had not been not sick he would have done it all and the grass as well.

On the fourth Sunday of every month, at three in the afternoon, Bill Evans came walking up the street and knocked at M. Hopkins’ door. Bill was a rumpled man wearing a suit which had seen better days, shiny at the knee and elbows and too big. In the wind the excess fabric drifted this way and that giving the impression that Bill was a sailing ship rather than a walker, an impression which with a strong steady wind at his rear was partially true. In contrast to the voluminous nature of his clothes he sported a shaved head with no hat. This was unfortunate for Bill was not one of those men who have slightly dark skin which browns evenly in the sun but was a Celt with blotchy skin which the sun made even blotchier. His head had seven or eight shades of colour like a piebald horse.

“Come in,” shouted M. Hopkins for he and Bill were on intimate terms and there was no need for formalities at the door. When he came into the study Bill sat on the chair opposite M. Hopkins, between them a small tea table filled with everything necessary for an afternoon snack. Bill walked ten miles to arrive at the cottage and M. Hopkins thought the least he could do was to have refreshments ready so the man could restore himself before they went to work.

Bill was a big eater. He had three sandwiches, six cookies and two cups of tea before he opened the briefcase sitting beside him on the floor. From it he took out laptop computer and, after clearing a spot, placed it on the table.

“So what’s the plan, Bill?” M. Hopkins asked.

“The plan, dear man,” said Bill, “has finally settled into a coherent pattern. We are about to sign a deal with XY corporation for digital publishing, and with AB corporation for paper and ink. Digital release first and then when pressure builds, paper and ink. I have made arrangements with certain key persons for reviews. Eminent persons with large followings in the poetic community.”

“And what about timing, Bill?”

“Ah now,” said Bill, “that’s quite another thing isn’t it? The timing, as you can imagine, has to be just right. A mistake in timing and the whole thing could blow up in our faces, so to speak. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

"Not really,” said M. Hopkins. “I know little about the publishing world but then again I have every confidence in you, Bill, and I am sure you are right.”

M. Hopkins brought his chair around the table to sit beside Bill and together, Bill doing the typing, they began editing the twenty-ninth poem in his collection.

When Mrs. Williams came to clean on Wednesdays M. Hopkins went into the garden to get out of her way. M. Hopkins thought it would be unpleasant for Mrs. Williams to do her work with someone looking over her shoulder. He went out to the garden even when it was raining for there was a gazebo with a steel roof to keep off the rain. There he sat reading and smoking his long stemmed pipe for three hours, usually from one until four. When she was finished Mrs. Williams came out with tea for both of them and they had it in the gazebo using an old bench for a table.

When she was seated and had poured the tea, Mrs, Williams said, “So, is the time approaching?”

“Definitely, Mrs. Williams. Bill assures me the necessary elements are gathering. It’s a delicate business apparently. Things have to be just right.”

“What things?”

“The markets. They must be allowed to reach a point where they are just so. It takes an experienced man like Bill to know. He has studied the markets for many years. His track record, he tells me, is splendid and impeccable. Soon he says but we mustn’t be impatient and jump the gun. Bill has seen many disasters arising from people jumping the gun. He seems a hardy man, healthy and robust but when he mentions these poor unfortunates his face screws up in anguish. Although he likes to pretend otherwise, Bill is a man of empathy and feeling.”

“I’m sure he is,” said Mrs. Williams but there was something in her tone to voice saying the exact opposite. “You are sure he is the man for you?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” said M. Hopkins. “Bill is the salt of the earth. He’ll get the job done, no doubt about that.”

No doubt he would, thought Mrs. Williams, but exactly what job was another matter. She knew Bill for he grew up three streets down in her old neighbourhood. She, like M. Hopkins, knew nothing about the publishing business but she did know something about human nature. She had a sneaking suspicion that Bill knew as little about the publishing business as she did and wondered why M. Hopkins had such faith in the man. One day she got out of M. Hopkins that Bill had been about to publish the book for more than ten years now. Ten years! “And have you given him money all the way along?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” said M. Hopkins. “There are expenses and they must be paid.”

On that day Mrs. Williams did not press further. M. Hopkins seemed tired and she didn’t want to distress him.

Later that week, however, she phoned a few old friends and asked a few questions. The information she received wasn’t good. Bill was a shyster who ran a dozen confidence games, publishing being only one of them. It was the usual grim tale. He chose the weak and unworldly and stuck to them like a leech until he bled them dry. He was careful to stay just inside the line which would land him in trouble with the law but there had been a few times he had stepped over and had been charged. But Bill got off because he could hire expensive legal talent.

Mrs. Williams was at a loss for what to do. She had no confidence she could explain all this to M. Hopkins who was an otherworldly man if ever there was one. Yet she could think of no way she could bring pressure on Bill to make him back off and even if she did she wondered if this would be good for M. Hopkins. That Bill would ever find a publisher for the book was an illusion, yes, but if that illusion were taken away, what would he be left with? Despair probably. Despair and hopelessness.

One day at the supermarket, Mrs. Williams ran into an old acquaintance, a woman she once sat on committees with when their sons attended the same school. The woman was a bureaucrat of some kind, perhaps a social work administrator.

Mrs. Williams explained M. Hopkins’ situation, leaving out all names, of course.

“But nobody does that any more,” the woman said. “This is the computer age. He should have someone set up a web site or a Blog and publish the poetry there. If he wants he could hire a consultant to promote it for a set fee. Other than if you are some kind of poetry bigwig, an eminent professor connected to the committees and grant people, you will never get a printed book of poetry published. And even if he did, who would buy it? Nobody knows his name; he’s not plugged in.  No, he should self publish on the web.”

Mrs. Williams wrote down three names of computer consultants dictated by her acquaintance. She phoned them all that very afternoon. From what she was told two thousand dollars would set up and maintain a site and plug it into the places where the poetry readers were. M. Hopkins had told her, in an unguarded moment in the kitchen at the cottage, that he had paid Bill more than twenty thousand dollars, so far.

But when she brought it up the next week with M. Hopkins he would have none of it. Bill had a computer so why would he hire anyone else? No, Bill was his man. After the long trail they had walked over the past ten years things were looking up and this was not the time to be giving up on the important leads Bill had told him he was following just that week. He thanked Mrs. Williams for her concern and interest but he thought it best to stay the course with good ole Bill.

That Saturday night Mrs. Williams was at the pub with one of her girlfriends when a woman walked in the door and sat at the next table. She looked familiar and Mrs. Williams asked her girlfriend to turn surreptitiously and see if she recognized her. She did. She was in their grade seven and eight class years ago. She was a cop now, a detective. Cassie knew this because she was married to her first cousin and saw her now and then at family gatherings. When Cassie went off to sit a while at another friend’s table, Mrs. Williams got up and walked to the table where the woman was sitting alone. The woman recognized her and asked her to sit down.

The detective knew Bill, oh yes everybody downtown knew Bill. He was a slippery one the detective said, very slippery. One of her pals worked the fraud squad and every year they took a poke or two at Bill but they could never nail him. The detective didn’t like Bill. A crook who steals cars or cigarettes and insurance pays for it - well it’s not nice but she couldn’t work up a moral fervor over it. But Bill pretended to be people’s friends and then took their money. He befriended the weak minded and then betrayed them. The detective didn’t like that. She wouldn’t mind giving Bill a swift kick in the balls. He was scum as far as she was concerned.

Mrs. Williams described the situation with M. Hopkins, again leaving out the names. The detective sighed and shook her head. “If he has given over that much this guy must be on the simple side, is he?”

“No,” said Mrs. Williams. “On the contrary, he is a very intelligent but gullible. I think he has been protected from the world somehow over the years and doesn’t see the obvious things right in front of his face. I’ve seen some of his poetry. Now I’m no expert but it seemed good to me. Very serious and skillful.”

“And he won’t take the advice of your friend to publish on the web?”

 “No. He says he will stick with Bill.”

The detective sipped her beer and thought about this for a while. Then she said, “We could try leaning on him. Bill, that is. We could squeeze him a bit and see if we can get him to bugger off.”

Bill, of course, did not walk ten miles to get to M. Hopkins’ cottage on Sunday afternoons. This was a ploy to appear impoverished and self-sacrificing in the service of M. Hopkins. He had a cab drop him off a block away. As well his suit was a costume. He usually wore expensive designer suits but M. Hopkins was a spiritual man who would not have been impressed with expensive and flashy. A suit bought from a thrift store was just the thing for M. Hopkins. The bald head was his own but on other occasions he wore a natural human hair wig. He had several with different hairdos and varied them to suit the occasion. He thought the concentration camp look of his bald head would appeal to M. Hopkins and he was right. M. Hopkins felt for him. This was a man who has suffered he said to himself. That a person had suffered was important to M. Hopkins for he saw himself as a great sufferer and a fellow sufferer like Bill was his brother. He felt a communion with him right away.

But the detective wasn’t fooled by the suit and the bald head. She recognized him as soon as he stepped out of the cab. She climbed out of her own car and came across the street. When she came up to him she said, “Hi, Bill.”

Bill looked at her suspiciously and asked, “Who are you?”

“You don’t recognize me, Bill?”

“Never saw you before in my life,” Bill said.

“That’s wonderful,” said the detective. With that she kicked him in the back of the knees. When he went down she kicked him twice in the stomach, then bent down and picked up his briefcase and walked to her car. When she was driving away Bill turned to see the rear plate but there was a blank spot where the plate should be. He had the wind knocked out of him and with struggling to get his breath he found it impossible to identify the car’s make. It was little and blue or pink or something like that. Later when he contacted his lawyer he told him not to bother contacting the police. He would just make a fool of himself with a description like that.

The briefcase was a worn old thing also bought at a thrift store but the Mac laptop was new and top of the line. The detective stopped at a bridge across the river three miles away and tossed them over the rail. Of course Bill had lots of money to replace it but still it was a two thousand dollar hit. An expensive afternoon.

That day Bill phoned and told M. Hopkins his mother had been taken to the hospital unexpectedly and he would be unable to come.

“Is there anything I can do?” M. Hopkins asked.

“No,” said Bill and punched the end call button.

That’s the last M. Hopkins heard from Bill. Bill didn’t want to risk running into the ‘Nazi woman’ as he called her to his friends (if you could call barflies you buy drinks for your friends). “A real bitch,” he said, “a ball buster.” His friends nodded sympathetically but their real sympathies lay with the ‘ball buster’.

M. Hopkins was very disappointed when Bill disappeared but after a time of mourning, so to speak, he went with Mrs. Williams one Monday morning to see a computer consultant, a bright, chipper young man who knew his business. Within a month he was set up and taking computer lessons so he could service the site himself.

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