Mr Smelly (1)
No one knew the old man's name or very much about him, aside from the obvious observable things. That he lived alone in that large house at the end of the road. That he never had visitors or was ever seen with anyone else. And that he only ever went out twice a day. They were precise times, too. You could set a clock by them.
His first trip was at seven each morning, as confirmed by the early dog-walkers and runners who'd seen him, and the drivers who were then setting out from the neighbourhood for the daily commute into the city. As with the time of day, his route never varied: up to the lights, then across and along past the bus stop to the corner of the heath, then onto the path that lead over the heath to the mere. He'd do one circuit of the mere (just under a mile) before returning home the same way. He kept a steady and sure-footed pace as he went, arms swinging and eyes set, almost as if he was timing himself. As he walked, he never seemed to show interest in the things around him, or the pleasant heathland scenery. He didn't look at or speak to anyone he might pass. He just kept his eyes fixed to the path a few yards ahead. It was almost as if the walk was something he had to do rather than something he enjoyed - like he was off to catch a train, and had no time to waste in getting to the station. He made this walk every day, including Christmas. In summer, he wore the same suit jacket - shiny at the elbows and frayed at the cuffs - over a rumpled white shirt and tie. The same dark trousers, too, reaching down to the tops of his brogues. On cold days, he complemented with a stiff greatcoat, and if it was wet or snowing he'd wear rubber boots and carry an umbrella. Other than that, his attire never changed.
His other outing of the day was to the local supermarket, at nine each evening (or three on Sundays) - the hour before closing. Several of the people on the estate had noticed him in there, rooting through the end-of-day knock-downs. 5p pasties or bread rolls. Lettuces with leaves like damp tissue paper. Fruit that was so soft you could put your finger through the skins. Anyone that passed close might notice a certain smell about him: a mustiness, though nothing physical or off-putting. Something redolent of charity shops, perhaps. Clothing that had been stored away too long. Old leather - or old leather-bound books, it might be. An undertone of something scented, like hair cream. Perhaps even a hint of alcohol - whisky, or gin. Again, he never spoke to or acknowledged anyone and always used the self-service checkouts, paying in cash from a black wallet.
In most other senses, he was an unremarkable man. Not elderly, but certainly past retirement age. His hair, which was white, had receded to little more than a tonsure, which was always neatly trimmed. Otherwise, he was clean-shaven. He was heavily-set with deep jowls and bushy eyebrows. The eyes beneath them were alert-looking, with dark irises, giving the impression that they might be the store-fronts of some deep knowledge. In spite of his general down-at-heel appearance, and a slight stoop which might have been as much to do with his height as his age - he stood a good few inches above six feet, most people estimated - he seemed to comport himself with dignity, as if he'd been used to commanding respect in his time, and was still trying to cling to that. Other than those things, there was really nothing to notice about him.
Yet he was noticed. In the way, perhaps, that one notices an old classic car parked in a row of modern SUVs. Or a tortoiseshell cat in a clowder of tabbies. He was noticed precisely because of his 'peculiarities', as many people saw them: his being alone, his unchanging appearance, his unvarying routines. The fact that he never spoke to anyone, and that he never seemed to engage himself in anything other than the activities already mentioned. And the fact that when he wasn't on one of his daily outings, he was always at home, and never received any visitors except (very occasionally) the postman.
Then there was the house itself. It was far older than any of the other houses in the area, and was the only detached one - standing alone at the far end of the estate, like a battered old box on a shelf of modern ornamental kitsch. It was formal and imposing in its way: a double-fronted, two-storey Victorian building with a grey facade, capped with a gable roof of slate as dark as the striking strip on a box of matches. The chimney stacks which book-ended the roof were crumbling, and the clay pots were cracked and soot-blackened. The bottle-green paint of the window frames and door was flaking, revealing bare grey wood underneath. The windows themselves were hung with heavy, light-shunning curtains, and the ones in the downstairs bays were always drawn together. There was a central dormer window in the roof, from which a light as deep as a winter sunset could be seen glowing at night. Beneath this, centrally-placed between the eaves and the lintel of the front door, a grey rectangular stone showed the date '1877' in rain-worn serif numerals. The lintel itself, a lighter grey than the rest of the frontage, bore the name 'DRYDEN' in engraved capitals - like they would appear on a headstone. Indeed, the whole house - sombre and brooding as it was and seeming to swallow rather than attract light - had the aspect of a large mausoleum dedicated to some ancient family whose line had long since ended. It didn't escape the notice of many people in the locality that the house seemed much in keeping with its single occupant: grey, detached, ageing, carrying an air of incipient decay.
There would have been a time, before the estate was built around it, when the house would have stood proud and grand, commanding a broad aspect across the heath and the lower town, and with the distant coast visible from its upper windows. The townhouse of a local merchant, maybe. Or the owner of the glassworks, or one of the factories - all long since vanished under the march of advancing decades. A time when the town was a hub of industry and commerce, and its working population was still growing. A time when people settled and remained in one place for generations, and knew each other throughout their lives - working alongside one another, intermarrying, passing things on. There would have been a sense of permanence and familiarity. And perhaps the old man, like his house, was a relic of those times, too. The end of a generational line. The last remnant of a time when people would have known for certain who he was, and of his provenance.
But times had changed. The town, which had flourished naturally around its early industries, had long since been absorbed into the greater city sprawl, and those senses of local character and spirit had diminished to the point where they hardly existed at all any more. Families had died out, or moved away, or simply been displaced. The long rows of terraces, formerly housing labourers from the factories and miners from the pit, were now smart avenues for the families of city professionals, and the estate had sprung up to accommodate those drawn to the area for employment. Those changes had led to a disconnection: a detachment wherein people had no proper common bond of livelihood or kinship. And within that, Dryden and its single occupant came more and more to be seen as an anachronism. Those close by might even have begun to regard it as an eyesore: a blot on the landscape of modernity and advancement. A dead tree in a blossoming orchard.
Various people in the neighbourhood - the more curious ones, at least - had their own ideas about the old man. Generally - judging from his appearance, habits and the state of the house - it was assumed he was retired and probably living on a small pension. Some thought the opposite, though: that he was an eccentric millionaire, with a fortune stashed under his mattress. It was thought that he must have either inherited the house, or had bought it when younger and never wanted to move.
Speculations were rife as to his possible education and vocation. Some thought that he was most likely a retired academic, or perhaps a lawyer. There was a suggestion, too, of a military background. Officer class, most certainly. The greatcoat looked like it was ex-navy - though, of course, it could just as easily have been purchased in a surplus store. A few people entertained the notion that he might be a writer - perhaps once successful given the size of the house, but now fallen onto leaner times. There were all sorts of possibilities, of course - and limited only by the imagination of the onlooker. One or two of his closest neighbours - the Willises, for instance, who lived directly opposite - had thought of approaching him one day and asking some kind of question which might elicit a few clues about him: tone of voice, accent and intonation, vocabulary. No one ever had, though. To do so might have destroyed some of the mystery. Besides, he always seemed to mind his own business and be content with that, and he gave no indication of ever wanting to engage in discourse with other people. All of which was fair enough.
Whatever the variety of adult speculations, many of the neighbourhood children had their own ideas. Some suggested that he was a wizard. Others, with more lurid imaginations, thought he might be a foreign spy, or even a bank robber. Many names were bandied about, but one in particular always seemed popular, and came to be generally used by the children - and even by some of the adults, to be fair - when referring to him.
Ultimately (though curiosity, being what it is with humans, was always there), most people came to accept him as being simply a harmless old eccentric.
(to be continued)