Read by Greg Page
The address was ‘Cobbes, Fetters Lane’, but no one on Fetters Lane had heard of ‘Cobbes’, until at last I stopped a grey-haired old dear who was being pulled along by two eager Norfolk terriers.
‘The Cobbes? The loggers?’ she said.
‘They sell firewood,’ she said.
Do they now? I thought.
She sucked her lips as if thinking something over. ‘Two hundred yards that way, there’s a cattle grid. Park there, cross the field and find the track going up the hill at the end. The Cobbes’ place is on the left, but they don’t take to visitors.’
I’m sure I looked ridiculous in my suit, stepping in wheel ruts across an overgrown meadow, but there was no one to see me. I climbed the track between banks of nettles until I came to an electric fence and then a plywood gate, which scraped across the black earth as I opened it.
The Cobbes place was three ramshackle Portakabins raised on bricks and extended with crude plank walls. There was a rusty logging saw with a huge circular blade and piles of split wood and plastic chairs arranged in a circle and beer cans and a Dobermann, snarling and snapping at me, forcing me against a crumbling wall. A stout, bustling woman in a sleeveless chiffon blouse rescued me. Her face was flat and lined – difficult to age. She held the dog by the collar and demanded to know who I was.
I said I had an appointment with Sam Cobbes and showed my identification.
‘With Sam?’ She looked at me with contempt.
I confirmed it. She led me brusquely inside to a grubby and chaotic kitchen with a wooden table taking up too much space and a counter with two camping stoves side by side and an aluminium sink full of dirty pans.
She shouted into the back, ‘Sam! Come here now!’
He was nineteen or twenty but looked like a boy, with close-cropped fair hair and rounded features that were oddly aligned. It was apparent immediately that he was what we used to call simple.
‘I’ve got your note, Sam,’ I said. ‘Undated, from about two weeks ago, saying that you can’t pay the sum of five hundred and ninety pounds, due because of the work you did at Prior’s Farm in summer 2015.’ He nodded dumbly. ‘What I’m here to do, Sam, is arrange a repayment schedule so you can pay an amount each month, an affordable amount that will allow you to settle the tax bill.’
‘Prior’s Farm was cash work,’ the woman said.
‘Are you Mrs Cobbes?’ I asked. She didn’t reply. ‘Cash earnings are still taxable, Mrs Cobbes, but in this instance the money was paid into Sam’s bank account.’
‘What bank account?’ she said.
Sam spoke up now, and his voice was soft but forceful with a curdling country accent. ‘They made me open one or they wouldn’t pay me.’
Someone barged in. Bald and broad, he took up half the kitchen and had the same flat features as the woman. There were other, younger men huddled behind him. ‘Who’s this? What’s he doing?’ he said.
‘Sam opened a bank account and got his wages paid in, and here’s the tax man.’ She rolled her eyes bitterly.
‘Get out of here,’ the man said to me. ‘Sam’s not paying any tax. He don’t need to pay tax. He’s exempt. He don’t use any services.’
‘Everyone needs to pay tax, Mr Cobbes. It’s the law.’
‘He don’t use services.’
‘He went to school, didn’t he? He’d go to hospital if he was injured.’ No one replied to this. ‘He did go to school?’ I saw that I’d miscalculated on this point. ‘Does anyone pay taxes here?’
‘We don’t need to pay taxes,’ said Mr Cobbes. ‘We don’t use services.’
‘You buy food, don’t you? Who do you think maintains—’
‘We don’t. We got pigs. We eat pigs for food, and we rear them ourselves.’
‘You sell logs,’ I said. ‘That’s taxable income.’
‘Who said that?’ he demanded. ‘Listen, our family’ve lived on this land for two hundred years. There’s always been Cobbes here. All this hill is Cobbes’ land. We don’t need anyone outside.’
I’d stumbled on a bigger case of tax evasion than I’d realised, and I conceived of a plan to investigate further. ‘Mr Cobbes, I’d like to see evidence that you’re as self-sufficient as you claim, that you’re able to support yourselves without the use of public funds. If shown such evidence, I’ll be happy to leave you in peace.’
Mr Cobbes nodded at me to follow him. We walked along a forest path to an old quarry that provided an area of flat ground. Behind a mesh fence, dozens of small-breed pigs grunted happily.
‘There must be sixty pigs here,’ I said. He didn’t answer. ‘Are these for your family’s consumption alone?’ He glared at me. ‘Where do you slaughter these animals?’ I asked.
With gritted teeth, he led me back along the path. We passed a pick-up truck that I observed was full of split logs. ‘This firewood appears to be prepared for sale,’ I said.
His dark eyes flicked towards the large Portakabin. ‘Storage. The truck’s got no wheel,’ he said.
‘A wheel can easily be replaced,’ I countered.
We’d reached an old concrete shed completely covered in thick ivy. ‘Here’s the slaughterhouse,’ he said. As I stepped inside, he reached into my pocket and removed my mobile phone and pushed me firmly forward. The door slammed. I was in darkness. A padlock clicked shut.
I hammered at the door and insisted they release me and return my property. Outside an argument raged. Many angry voices joined it, but Mrs Cobbes’ predominated, and it was clear that a plan was being laid out.
There had once been a window in the shed. It was imperfectly bricked up, leaving a gap covered in ivy, through which a thin strand of light wormed. I put my eye to it and saw Mr Cobbes marching Sam, one arm pinioned behind his back and struggling in vain, into the building where I’d interviewed him some twenty minutes before.
I resumed my bludgeoning of the door. Rationally it could achieve nothing since I was a long way from anyone who would care to help me. It was instinct and dread. Indeed it proved a tactical error because it forced a change that was to my detriment: the door was thrown open, and two burly youngsters held me against the far wall. I had a view of my surroundings. The building was a workshop, with a bench along one side and numerous ancient tools scattered there. One youth produced a chain and secured my left hand to a pipe that ran up the back wall. My right hand was tied to my left behind my back with thick greasy rope. When I protested, my mouth was sealed with duct tape. They left me bound and cowering in the darkness.
My next hours were spent in terrified solitude. I was able to release my right hand from the knotted rope and use it to untape my mouth. But the chain, which dug into the flesh of my left wrist and held it tight against the pipe, would not give.
Outside there was ceaseless activity. I heard arguments, shouting, a pounding and lifting of materials, sudden crashes of metal. The truck started and stopped and was driven around the site. I tried for an hour to reach the tools on the far side of the bench, though at my fullest stretch I was more than a foot short of the closest. I sat and tried to consider my situation. I was confused and sweating in fear of what might happen. I conceived of plans for escape but none could be realised. I imagined my revenge: the Cobbes all lined up in the dock while the judge sentenced them. I despaired. I sobbed to myself, utterly helpless.
Evening fell – I could tell from the dimming of the bead of light through the gap in the bricks. For half an hour there had been silence, but now a motor started and was accompanied by a whirring sound and a metallic scraping. It was the logging saw, and I was able to picture clearly those rusted teeth spinning in a blur.
A desperate, fearful screaming began and edged closer, and I recognised the voice as belonging to Sam Cobbes. I pictured his round misshapen face as he formed the words, begging, ‘No, no. Don’t. Please!’ Infected by his hysteria, the pigs began squealing too, a shrieking chorus of panic.
I heard Mrs Cobbes say imperiously, ‘It’s your fault, Sam, and you’ll pay, and it’ll see you right.’
Sam’s screaming intensified, then abruptly stopped. The spinning metal blade tore into something soft and dense, and an object thudded to the ground. I retched and vomited on the cold concrete floor. The blade continued to spin, and its whine pitched up each time it was forced to cut through flesh – and there was no doubt that it was flesh. The sound was yielding, muffled, until it found a bone, when it briefly climbed to a piercing screech. I became dazed at the horror of it.
The door opened, and Mrs Cobbes stood before me in the twilight. She wore an apron covered entirely in dark blood and held a butcher’s knife. She’d lost her former composure and seemed oblivious to me. She put the knife on the workbench and sorted through the tools until she found what she wanted. She left the shed and locked the door behind her, but through some carelessness or grief, she’d forgotten the knife. It was an easy matter to get it, and I tested the blade against my skin and found it keen.
Outside, the machinery had stopped. I sensed that time was short. I commenced on a plan I’d previously considered, and though aspects of it were unattractive to me, I found I had no option. With the greasy rope, I made a tourniquet around the forearm that was chained to the pipe. This required some dexterity but I achieved it and made it good and tight. Now I found that I was unable to execute the remainder of my ploy. My right hand grasped the knife, but I couldn’t force it to attack my left, no matter how much will I exerted.
There are footsteps. A key is placed in the padlock. A desperate, all-encompassing fear overwhelms me. Fear makes me do what reason cannot, and I hack at my wrist with the butcher’s knife and sever it partly and hack again before the pain can thwart me. My hand falls away, still chained to the pipe. I rush at the open door.
Sam Cobbes stood alone before me. The clearing was all changed. The buildings had disappeared as if they’d been magicked away, leaving only the blackened earth where they once stood. The chairs, the rubbish, the machinery, the truck: all gone. There was only myself and Sam Cobbes and the concrete shed and, beside it, a bloody pile of flesh as high as my waist: pigs’ heads, minus snouts and ears. I dropped the knife.
Sam Cobbes handed me a dirty envelope. Inside was a bunch of damp twenties and my mobile phone. ‘There’s the money I owe,’ he said. ‘I wish you hadn’t come because now we have to move up the hill, and they killed all my darlings.’ He looked sorrowfully at the pile of heads. He saw my bloody stump. ‘Why’ve you done that?’ he said, then he turned and ran. A door slammed. A truck drove off through the undergrowth.
I was found in Fetters Lane by the grey-haired old dear, who was kind enough to call for an ambulance.
The police searched the entire hill, but there was no sign of the Cobbes. It was as if they’d vanished back into the soil they claimed to own.
(c) Tom Heaton, 2017
Tom Heaton (left) is a writer and videogame designer. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ambit, the Mechanics Institute Review, Confingo and Dream Catcher. This is his fourth story for the Liars' League.
Aged six, Greg Page was cast as Joseph in his infant school nativity. Somebody put a tea towel on his head & he became someone else. He hasn't been himself since. A critic recently compared Greg to the late Sir Alec Guinness, saying: “Sir Alec Guinness was a much better actor.”