For years it had been a T.V. shop – the only one in the village. You know the sort of thing. It opened in the sixties and hired out sets to all and sundry for a couple of pounds a month. It was owned by Eric Parton, electronic wizard of his time, who came out to repair them whenever they went wrong and to install new models to replace those that went out of date.


In time things moved on and people began to buy their own sets, so Mr. Parton went with the flow and began selling them instead of hiring them out – but still giving service and advice when necessary to keep the punters happy. This was in the days before Comet and Curry’s – in fact, as large electrical stores began to open, Mr. Parton’s shop went into a steady decline. He kept one or two faithful customers who had been his patrons for many years, but trade gradually decreased to the point of being almost non-existent. The premises deteriorated and became little more than a junk shop, and Mr. Parton – by now ‘Old Mr. Parton’ – became simply a T.V. repair man.


He eventually retired, but did not put the shop up for sale.
He had difficulty in changing his ways. He could be seen through the window on many an afternoon, wandering about amongst the old cabinets and outdated models, fiddling with wires, removing cathode ray tubes and generally keeping himself busy on some project or other. And this continued for many years.


When Mr. Parton died and the shop was finally offered for sale, no-one seemed to want to buy it and it remained on the market for almost a decade. The front window became gradually more opaque and its contents began to disappear under an ever-increasing layer of dust. It was an eye-sore. A blot on the landscape. But nothing further was done. Don’t ask me why – I don’t know the answer.


And then, three years ago, there were signs of feverish activity. The ‘For Sale’ board was taken down, the premises were emptied and a van removed several loads of out-of-date stock to the tip. Soon afterwards, the shop-fitters moved in and that’s when the transformation began.


A more attractive window frame was set in place, the walls were re-plastered, a new laminated floor in a beech finish went down, a small counter was built at the back of the shop and behind it a table and tiers of shelving were put in place. Finally, the premises were scrubbed clean, the window frame and door painted pale green, and the walls refreshed with two coats of cream emulsion. The whole place began to sparkle.
Days later, square beech tables with matching chairs were set up and in front of the gleaming window, a high counter was installed along with half a dozen bar stools. Only then did I realise that Mr. Parton’s T.V. shop was about to become a café.


Soon, various items associated with food production began to appear – a coffee machine, a glass-fronted display case for cakes, smart metal boxes to hold cutlery, items of cooking equipment and so on. And the final piéce de résistance was a large sign over the window with the single word ‘Rebecca’s’ printed boldly in bright pink letters.

This was just what our village had been waiting for. It was a haven where shoppers could put down their heavy bags, pensioners could take a rest, young mums could meet and compare the progress of their little ones, business men could pop in for a quick cappuccino, and I could spend an hour every day watching the world go by.


Well, I say ‘watching’, but in reality what I mean is ‘listening’, because soon after I began to patronise ‘Rebecca’s’ I noticed something unusual.


Let me explain. Soon after it opened, I began to pop in to ‘Rebecca’s’ almost every day. Life can be very lonely when you’re a widower, especially when you and your wife have always done everything together as a couple. So a few weeks after Margaret died, I got into the habit of doing my chores in the morning and then getting out of the house in the afternoon for a breath of fresh air. During the summer months that was fine. I often ended up in the park or on the bowling green, but when winter came along and the weather was not so good, there were fewer things to do. So I would often make for Rebecca’s and have a latté and an Eccles cake.


Because I was alone, I usually chose a spot suitable for a single person. As you might expect, most of the beech tables were designed to accommodate two or four people, and the row of stools at the high counter in the window were often occupied by youngsters who wanted to look out over the main street in the village. So rather than settle myself in a place that might be needed by a larger group, I found a chair tucked into a corner where only one person could be accommodated.


It was in an alcove with a narrow shelf for a table and a single chair – a cranny just big enough to hold one. I suppose Rebecca was making use of every square inch of floor space, fitting in as many customers as possible in order to make a success of her business. So that’s where I sat every day and after a while it actually became known as ‘Arthur’s Seat’!

But before I go any further, I need to put you into the picture. Almost a year ago now I began to realise that I was missing bits of conversation. Well, I wasn’t too aware of it at the time, but when Mavis and the grandchildren came round, I sometimes had difficulty in catching what the little ones were saying. At other times, Mavis herself would tap me on the arm and say, ‘You didn’t hear what I said then, did you, Dad?’ And it was true. She had been talking to me for a moment or two, or had asked me a question, and I’d not realised it.


I’m not sure that I would have done anything about it myself, but one day after she’d taken the children to school, Mavis called in and put a card in my hand.


"What’s this?" I asked.


"It’s an appointment card for the hearing clinic. I’ve booked you in at 2 o’clock this afternoon to see a hearing specialist."


Well, my heart sank, but there’s no arguing with Mavis when she’s got a bee in her bonnet, so that afternoon instead of visiting Rebecca’s I went to the clinic and was put through the whole procedure. You know the sort of thing – listening to high and low sounds through earphones. At the end of the test I was told that I did have a significant hearing loss, and there might be a great improvement if I wore a hearing aid.


That’s when I put my foot down. I wasn’t going to wear one of those things that look like a miniature banana looped round my ear! Eventually I settled on a neat little job that nestled in my ear, almost out of sight. And I must say, that after a short running-in period, I began to feel the benefit.

Soon afterwards, with my hearing aid firmly in place, I went along to Rebecca’s and settled in ‘Arthur’s seat’ in the alcove. There was a gentle buzz of conversation all around me, because the café was fairly busy. Several of the beech tables were occupied by customers enjoying a welcome break.


As I leaned towards the wall, however, I began to hear very clearly – in the greatest detail – a conversation between a man and a woman. I sat transfixed. The words were as distinct as if they were being broadcast on the radio. I glanced around the room and could tell immediately that the discussion I could hear was not being overheard by anyone else. I knew instinctively that I was the only one able to hear it.


I was confused. No-one was sitting close to me – the table nearest to me was empty. And the tone of the sound had a ‘processed quality’ about it as though it were coming through a receiver. Then, in a flash, I understood. My hearing aid was picking up a signal from somewhere and channelling it into my eardrum. To confirm my theory I removed my hearing aid as discreetly as possible and the conversation ceased. I returned it to my ear and the conversation carried on.


I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I go to the counter and report the phenomenon to Rebecca? Should I stay put and remove the hearing aid from my ear? Should I pay my bill and leave the premises immediately? Should I… But enough of this! Let me tell you what I actually did.


I looked around the room carefully, noting the position of all the customers. Three young people were sitting at the high counter by the window, sipping fizzy drinks and laughing and joking together. Two young women were enjoying coffee and cakes in a central position. An old couple occupied a spot close to the counter, and a single woman – sitting alone – was reading a ‘Woman’s Weekly’ at an adjoining table. The voices did not belong to any of them.


On the far side of the room, however, a man and woman were engaged in a deep conversation and, by watching their lips, I could match their gestures to the sounds coming through my earpiece. Every time the man’s lips moved I could hear a male voice in my ear, and a female voice sounded when the woman spoke.
I was fascinated. How was it possible for me to hear them? It occurred to me that when old Mr. Parton had owned the shop, many of the walls were covered in wires of every type: coaxial cables from various T.V sets snaking up to a bank of aerials on the roof; electrical extensions linking rows of T.V sets to the mains supply; earthing wires clamped to metal water pipes, and ordinary lighting cables feeding spotlights in the window.


After the old man died, many of these wires must have been cut out or disconnected before the shop was put up for sale. But some were obviously not. Examining the alcove in which I was sitting I could see a number of thin wires going from floor to ceiling which had been painted over to blend in with the new décor. The workmen who had transformed the premises had obviously not thought it worthwhile to remove them so, having made sure they were no longer ‘live’, they had left them in situ and merely painted over them. The ones in my alcove were acting as an aerial in some mysterious way, transferring the sound from across the café into my earpiece.


Now this is when I should have taken a more moral approach to the situation and reported my findings to Rebecca. But I didn’t. Don’t ask me why. You can put it down to curiosity, irresponsibility, nosiness, wickedness, whatever you wish, but the fact remains that later in the day, when I had returned home, I found myself somewhat excited about my power to eavesdrop on anyone sitting at the table on the far side of the café when I was tucked away in ‘Arthur’s Seat’.


The following afternoon was dull and grey. I spent the morning doing a bit of hoovering, and gathered up a few clothes to put in the washing machine.  An hour after lunch, I set off in high excitement towards my favourite café. It was almost empty when I arrived and Rebecca was wiping down the surfaces and rearranging the glass cases at one end of the counter.


“Sorry to disappoint you, Arthur,” she said as soon as I walked in. “There’s been a run on Eccles cakes this morning – there’s none left!”


I gave her a look of shock-horror before ordering a large latté and a slice of millionaires’ shortbread, which is my second-favourite. Rebecca said she would bring it over to me, so I settled myself in my alcove and glanced around the room.  Apart from one old woman sitting in the middle of the café, it was empty.
I was disappointed. Yes, I was actually disappointed that no-one was occupying the table against the opposite wall. Rebecca brought my order, unloaded it on to my little shelf, and disappeared again behind the counter to carry on cleaning her equipment. I cut up my millionaires’ shortbread into one-inch squares, went over to the paper rack fixed to the wall beside the door, and took out an old copy of ‘Lancashire Life’.


I was engrossed in reading about the Pendle Witches and the punishments inflicted on them, when suddenly the door opened and two middle-aged men walked in. They paused and gazed around the room before settling down at my ‘target table’ on the other side of the café. Having placed their order with Rebecca, they faced each other across the beech wood table, leaning so far forward that their faces were almost touching.


My heart began to beat faster. I felt excited, yet scared, like a naughty school boy caught in the act of climbing the wall into an orchard. If Mavis were to discover what I was up to now, I would never hear the last of it!


“So is everything set up?” asked the taller of the two men. “Have you had a word with Gerry? Is the car sorted?”


“Yep.”


“And the house?”


It’ll be empty. There is an alarm, but Mike says it’s way out of date and he can disable it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. He was on about blowing the safe, but I said we should stick to our original plan.”


“Definitely.”


I was in a state of shock. I picked up a piece of milionaires’ shortbread and pretended to spoon the froth from the top of my latté. Could this be true? Were the two men, sitting not six yards from me, planning a robbery?


They took a sip of coffee before the shorter man continued, “I can park the car in Cavendish Drive and bring it round to the front when I get the signal. I’ll park it by the gates under those large trees.”


I knew Cavendish Drive. It was made up of newly-built houses on the outskirts of the village. There had been a lot of fuss when local people heard about the plans to build – many people thought it would spoil the rural nature of our community. Sir Charles Radcliffe, whose large detached house was close to the new development on what originally had been a country lane, made himself the chairman of the protesters’ group. His property was surrounded by mature trees, with a pair of wrought iron gates at the entrance to his drive. I realised that it must be his house that the men were planning to rob.


“I have sussed out how to get in,” replied the taller man, “and we know the house will be empty on the fourteenth because that’s when there’s a meeting of the Parish Council.”


The men spoke for a little longer, making final arrangements and discussing the timing of the exercise, before drinking up their coffee and leaving the cafe.


I sat for several minutes wondering if I had been dreaming or if I had imagined the whole episode. Then I realised that I must take some action. But what should I do? I carried my cup and plate over to where Rebecca was polishing the glass-fronted display case.


“Did you enjoy that, Arthur?” she asked as I placed them on the counter.


I nodded. “Not quite as good as my usual Eccles cake,” I joked, adding, “Are the two men who just left regular customers?”


“I’ve never seen them before in my life,” she replied. “They were probably just passing through – I get lots of travellers during the week.”


By the time I arrived home, I had made my decision. I opened my telephone directory and dialled a number on the front inside cover.

It was about two weeks later that Mavis came round, excited by a piece of news she had heard in the village shop.


“The police have just foiled a robbery!” she announced. “Four men were caught trying to break into Sir Charles’ place in Cavendish Drive. Apparently someone rang the Crime Stoppers number and they caught them in the act.”


“Good gracious!” I exclaimed. “Who on earth could have done that?”


Mavis shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she replied, “but it’s a pity it was an anonymous call, because apparently Sir Charles is so grateful he was willing to give a £1000 reward!”


I stared at her for a full minute, before I pulled myself together and asked faintly, “Shall we have a cup of tea, love?”


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Rod Broome  2014


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