Amos stirred his cocoa and sighed. “Well, to be honest with you, Mr Wilks, I’m not that ’appy about Seth Armstrong representin’ Woolpack at the Rubik’s Cube Contest. It’s been nigglin’ away at me all evenin’. I don’t trust ’im. But what other choice ‘ave I got?”
“Don’t trust him?” Henry never usually had a pipe before bed, they laid heavy on the chest, but now he was contemplating one. This Cube business was really getting to him. Amos’ happy mood of earlier that day had been evaporating since the start of the evening session. And now the reason: he didn’t trust Seth. So, what was new?
“I can’t say why…” said Amos. “I mean, I saw ’im do the Cube more n’ once this afternoon, Walter did an’ all… but I can’t help thinkin’ he’s somethin’ up his sleeve to make Woolpack a laughin’ stock. Either that or he’ll use it against me and be forever tryin’ to cadge free ale…”
There was a sudden tapping at the front door.
“Who can that be, this time of night?” Henry raised his eyebrows and looked at the clock, which showed 11.45pm.
Frowning, Amos went to answer. “Who is it?” he called, on reaching the door.
“It’s Mrs Armstrong - Meg!” came the reply.
Amos unbolted and unchained the door and opened it to admit Meg. “I’ve been to bed and got up again,” she said. “Mr Brearly, Seth’s not still here, is he?”
Amos was outraged. “Of course he isn’t! We close at closing time on the dot, you should know that, Mrs Armstrong!”
“Nay, I wasn’t implying owt,” Meg looked distracted with anxiety. “It’s just that Seth hasn’t come home… he’s not usually this late… I thought he might be practisin’ that Cube thingy ’ere or summat…”
Henry had appeared behind Amos: “John Tuplin was in earlier, wettin’ the baby’s head,. You know Maureen’s just had a little girl,” he said. “Seth were drinkin’ with him. Mary’s still in hospital, so perhaps Seth’s gone back to John’s for a couple?”
Meg seized on that. “Aye, that’ll be it! I’ll nip over to John’s.”
“Hold on a minute, I’ll come with you,” said Henry. “I’ll just fetch my jacket.”
For his part, Amos was silent, staring into space. He had this terrible feeling, a feeling he couldn’t possibly justify or give voice to, that Seth had disappeared on purpose and that he wouldn’t turn up until after the day of the Cube Contest, with some daft excuse. Nay, it didn’t make sense… but any concern Amos felt for Seth’s safety was far outweighed by the feeling that Seth was doing whatever he was doing to get at him!
Henry emerged from the living quarters, shrugging on his jacket. Meg was gripped by a momentary fear: “What if he’s not there?!”
“Now, Meg, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it - and I don’t believe we will,” said Henry, reassuringly.
But he didn’t feel as sure as he sounded. He’d seen John Tuplin with a couple of the NY lads, and they’d bought a few cans to take to John's with them to continue wetting the baby’s head before they left. But he was sure Seth had still been in the bar after they’d gone.
Where on earth was he?
“Shaddupa your face!” and then blackness. A blackness that smelt of soil and damp, and was rough against Seth’s face. It felt as though somebody had just jammed an old potato sack over his head… but surely that wasn’t possible?
Why would anybody do that?
“Struggle an’ I’ll clock yer one!” hissed a voice very close at hand. Seth decided it was probably wise to take heed. He felt himself being lifted off his feet and then put down on something hard. And then something that felt slightly chill against his hands being placed over him.
Seth felt a moment of panic - with the sack on his head and this all enveloping second covering was he going to suffocate? He moved to struggle free, but suddenly the whole world seemed to lurch, tilt and vibrate and a loud trundling sound began…
“Keep still!” hissed the voice. “Or it’ll be the worst for you. You’ll not be under there long!”
The trundling sensation, linked to several prominent bumps and the alcohol swirling around in Seth’s stomach, made him pray that his tormentor spoke the truth.
Bump! Trundle, trundle. Bump! Trundle… would the nightmare never end? Seth gripped his stomach, swallowed hard and groaned.
The world tilted, and then Seth’s all-enveloping covering was being removed and strong hands and arms were hauling him upright.
Glad to have his feet on solid ground again, Seth felt the waves of nausea that had threatened to engulf him subside.
The strong hands were gripping his shoulders, propelling him along. “This way!”
Suddenly Seth heard a second voice, a whispered voice, a voice that sounded vaguely familiar: “What the ’ell do you think you’re doin’?”
“Well, you didn’t think he’d ’ave come of his own accord, did yer? I kidnapped ’im, stuck a sack on ’is ’ead, stuck ’im in me ’and cart and covered him wi’t tarpaulin. Best way to get ’im ’ere! ’E’s come to no ’arm!”
“I should ’ope not - kidnappin’s a criminal offence!”
Something clicked and Seth recognised the voice. “Aye, it is, Ernie Shuttleworth! An Englishman’s entitled to walk round his own neighbourhood wi’out ’avin’ sacks stuck on ’is ’ead! There’ll be trouble over this - I shall see Sergeant MacArthur!”
There was an uneasy silence. Then Seth felt hands pulling at the sacking which covered his head. He blinked and lurched slightly as Ernie Shuttleworth suddenly appeared before him. Bernie Slater lurked in the background. They were in a whitewashed brick room, lit by a single, naked electric light bulb, with some old beer crates in the corner and a picnic table and a couple of chairs in the middle. It was one of the outbuildings at the back of the Malt Shovel, Seth guessed.
Ernie held his head high. “You’ll ’ave to prove it first, Seth Armstrong! I’m a respected local figure. If you think Sergeant MacArthur’ll take your word over mine… I’m admittin’ nowt.”
“Respected local figure, you?” Seth sneered. “We’ll see about this first thing in’t morning’, Ernie Shuttleworth. Now, I’m off ’ome!”
“Not so fast!” said Ernie and Bernie loomed threateningly. “Don’t you want to know why we brought you ’ere?“
“I couldn’t care less. It’s time all respectable folk were in bed, asleep. Meg’ll be wonderin’… Seth started for the door, but Bernie got in front of him.
“There’s just a little something we want you to do before you leave us, Seth. Just a little something!” said Ernie.
“Oh aye, wass that?” Seth was suspicious.
“This!” Ernie drew a scrambled Rubik’s Cube from his pocket. “Just solve this Cube for us, Seth - like you’re goin’ to do at the Contest day after tomorrow. Just do that for us and you can be on your way. We’ll sit by nice and close and observe…”
Seth gulped. “But I’m too tired, Ernie, far too tired. It’s been a long day.”
“But we’ve got all night,” said Ernie.
Meg and Henry made their way back up Main Street from John Tuplin’s cottage. The flush-faced, happy young father had had nothing to tell them He’d last seen Seth in the Woolpack earlier that evening.
“He’s not likely to have slipped off somewhere else, is he?” asked Henry.
Meg frowned. “It’s most unlike him, Mr Wilks. If he is late back it’s usually because somebody’s taken some cans of ale ’ome and invited ’im along.”
“Well, we’ll see if there’s any news when we get back to the Woolpack,” said Henry.
Meg looked more anxious than ever. “Don’t worry, Meg,” said Henry kindly. “I’m sure he’ll turn up. You know Seth!”
And sure enough he did turn up. As Meg and Henry neared the Woolpack, Seth appeared, rounding the corner from Station Road.
“Seth Armstrong! Where on earth have you been?!” Meg didn’t know whether to embrace him or hit him.
Seth was looking a little pale and uneasy. “Up Bickle Spinney, woman, checkin’ me traps! It’s a busy time of year tha knows!”
“Well, as long as I don’t find any more crows hanging in my kitchen!” said Meg. “It’s not like you to be off up there this late!”
“We’ve got a fox ’angin’ about!” said Seth. “Now, let’s be gettin’ ’ome!”
“You’re lookin’ a bit pale, poppet,” said Meg. “Come on then, I’ll make you some Horlicks.” She turned to Henry. “All’s well that end’s well, Mr Wilks. Thank you for your assistance!”
“Any time, Meg!” Henry smiled to himself as the pair crossed the road and made off in the direction of Demdyke Row, Meg chattering away ten-to-the-dozen, suddenly as happy as could be. What was that she’d said - crows hanging in the kitchen?!
Henry shook his head and let himself into the Woolpack, to find Amos anxiously awaiting him. “Well, Mr Wilks?”
“Panic over, Amos,” soothed Henry. “He’s turned up safe and sound, just been doin’ his rounds up Bickle Spinney. Now, I suggest we turn in for the night - it’s well after midnight!”
“Aye, right, Mr Wilks,” Amos heaved a sigh of relief. But he still felt more than a twinge of unease. This was what came of having dealings with Seth Armstrong. The sooner the Contest was over, the better!
Seth made his way slowly to the Woolpack at lunchtime. He was not a happy man. His Cube plan had been simple: a simple sleight of hand to convince Amos and other watchers that he could “do” the Cube. He’d practised and practised.
His method worked something like this: a solved Cube was concealed up his left jacket sleeve, securely wedged under the sleeve of the cardigan he wore beneath it. On display in his hands was a scrambled Cube.
Seth, always known for his deftness and turn of speed, had perfected the method of twisting a Cube so fast it appeared to blur. His plan for the Woolpack/Maltshovel Contest involved twisting the Cube like a man possessed for a minute or so, then turning slightly to one side momentarily, as though the Cube was a little stiff and he was having to strain at it. During that brief moment, he would stick his right hand up his left sleeve and pluck out the solved Cube, whilst jamming the scrambled Cube up his right sleeve.
Then, he would half twist the solved Cube one way, twist it back, and present it to his audience - voila!
Seth looked forward to lots of free ale as the congratulations poured in, and to having Amos beholden to him for the foreseeable future.
Seth didn’t envisage failure, but if by any chance some eagle eyed watcher at the Contest spotted his trickery, it wouldn’t really matter. Amos would be ridiculed for being taken in by Seth, and Seth could always transfer his custom to the Malt Shovel for a while. Ernie Shuttleworth would be right chuffed with him for making Amos look a fool.
Whatever way things turned out, Seth hoped to get some free ale.
Sadly, in giving a test demonstration to Jock McDonald a few days before up at Stony Wood, Seth had got into a bit of a tangle, and the completed Cube had fallen out of his sleeve and onto the ground.
“I’m doin’ it for Amos, yer see and for’t honour o’t Woolpack,” Seth had said, thinking quickly. “You know ’ow ’ard ’e’s tekkin’ not ’avin’ a Cubist for’t contest wi’t Malt Shovel…”
Jock was not convinced that Seth was acting solely out of concern for Amos. But he didn’t care. So long as Seth sent a few free pints his way when the Contest was over, he wouldn't say anything.
Amos, of course, had been quite taken in by Seth’s Cube solving demonstrations the day before.
And now the plan was ruined.
Jock McDonald was well known for having a mouth like a window’s cleaner bucket. He’d loudly and drunkenly told the tale of Seth’s duplicity to John Tuplin and a few of the other NY lads as they’d walked round to John’s house to continue their boozy revels off licenced premises last night.
And, at the same time, Bernie Slater had been out walking Branston, his mongrel bitch.
He’d heard everything and taken the tali straight to Ernie Shuttleworth, who had urged him to fetch Seth and bring him to the Malt Shovel immediately.
Still, it could have been worse. Ernie Shuttleworth had been quite generous: if Seth didn’t go around spreading stories about the “kidnapping”, Ernie wouldn’t reveal Seth’s sleight of hand antics with the Cube. All Seth had to do was to tell Amos that he’d hurt his hand and couldn’t take part in the Contest.
Seth walked into the bar to find Amos polishing a glass and chatting to Joe Sugden. Dolly Skilbeck and Pat Merrick were also at the bar, deep in conversation. Pat looked more careworn than ever. Her hands restlessly fiddled with one of Amos’ many Rubik’s Cubes which were cluttering up the bar top.
Seth wondered how things were going between her and Jack Sugden. There was much talk in the village.
“What can I get you?” said Amos, spying Seth and attempting a warm smile which, try as it might, looked more like a grimace.
Seth cleared his throat and held his hand up to reveal that his wrist was swathed in an old, grey bandage: “Amos, I’m sorry to let you down but I can’t be in’t Cube Contest. I ’ad a bit of a fall up at Bickle Spinney last night and I’ve sprained me wrist.”
“That’s it then, Mr Wilks,” Amos sighed a little later. “There’s nowt for it but for me to tell Ernie Shuttleworth Contest’s off.”
“Perhaps you can just postpone it?” Henry suggested.
“I did suggest that to Seth Armstrong, but he reckoned his wrist’ll be a long time mendin’,” said Amos.
“It’s funny he didn’t say anything about it last night when Meg and I met him,” Henry puzzled. “Still, he did look a little pale…”
“I’ll have to phone Ernie Shuttleworth…” Amos’ eyes bulged with horror. “And call it all off…”
“Do it now, Amos - get it out o’t way,” Henry suggested.
“I’ll do it at end o’t session,” said Amos.
“Well, I’m off up to Emmerdale,” Henry headed for the living quarters. “Phone me there when you’ve done it! The sooner you put this business to bed the better. And Amos - clear all those Cubes from’t bar - there’s no point remindin’ yourself of what’s ’appened.”
And Henry left, heading for a nice spot of dinner and a welcome dollop of sanity up at Emmerdale.
After the lunchtime session, Amos walked sadly into the deserted bar and gazed around him. Mr Wilks was right: his latest obsession had left its mark. The bar was littered with Rubik’s Cubes and Cube solving books and magazines. He’d scattered them around to encourage customers to experiment with the Cube. He’d hoped they’d read the accompanying material and that an unsuspected champion Cubist, fit to see off the Malt Shovel competition, would emerge.
But, of course, that hadn’t happened.
He sighed and began to gather together the Cubes, each one hopelessly scrambled, each one a colourful testament to the Woolpack’s impending shame.
If only Amos himself had been able to master the Cube, if only…
Suddenly, Amos stopped. He’d been moving methodically round the bar collecting the puzzles, and had now come to the corner near the dartboard. And sitting there, large as life, were three solved Cubes, Three beautifully completed Cubes.
Amos was startled. He put the other Cubes he’d collected down on the bar and cautiously picked one of the completed Cubes up. Had somebody been peeling off the stickers? he wondered. But no, the stickers were not loose or wonky and showed no signs of having been tampered with. Were the solved Cubes his Cubes, or had Mr Wilks or somebody else brought in some new, unscrambled Cubes, he wondered? But no, the Cubes were his all right: each one bore traces of, and smelt strongly of, Zam-Buk. Amos had smeared a number of the Cubes he’d bought with this wonder cure in his search for the perfect lubricant.
Yes, it certainly looked as though somebody had solved three of the Cubes, all fair and square. And recently too. Amos was sure they’d been as scrambled as all the others before the morning session.
He’d been in and out a bit so hadn’t been his usual vigilant self that session: the draymen had been late and he’d had a long telephone call from his Aunt Emily, who was holidaying in Norfolk and was having difficulty understanding the language.
Perhaps Bernie Slater had been in, practising on Amos’ Cubes for the Contest tomorrow?
Nay, that was daft.
Perhaps it was just passing trade?
But Amos was sure that he’d served no strangers in the bar that session.
Perplexed, Amos began to tick off on his fingers a list of all those he’d seen in the bar that day…
But then something else struck him and he gaped at the Cubes.
Surely it couldn’t be….?!
More 1981 Beckindale Cubist Conumdrums soon...