TROUBLE ON THE HEATH
A COMEDY OF RUSSIAN GANGSTERS, TOWN PLANNERS AND A DOG CALLED NIGEL
It was Nigel’s favourite tree. He liked to pee on it.
Malcolm would have to wait until Nigel had finished, but he didn’t mind because when you stood by this tree you got a great view of Hampstead Heath. Malcolm could imagine he was deep in the countryside, rather than in the middle of London.
There were two houses set back from the lane and, in between them, you could see one of the Highgate Ponds. Then, rising above the trees was a green hill. At the top of the hill was a circle of trees around a hump that was known locally as an old burial mound.
Malcolm knew it wasn’t actually an old burial mound because he knew about burial mounds. Malcolm, you see, was Professor of History at the University of London.
But today, there was something different about Nigel’s favourite tree. Malcolm frowned. There was a notice pinned to it, and notices pinned to trees are mostly bad news. They often mean that someone has lost their cat or that a loved one has died on that spot.
Malcolm peered at it more closely. It was one of those Council notices headed: “How does this affect you?” The size of the print was very small, on purpose in the hope that no one would bother to read it. Sadly for the Council, today Nigel was doing a lot of sniffing, and Malcolm had plenty of time to read it.
“Proposed demolition of two three-storey dwellings (Class C3)…”
Malcolm looked up at the two houses. Why on earth would anyone want to knock them down? They were nice houses. OK, one of them was empty, but the other was lived in, and they were good-sized houses, too. They were probably worth a small fortune.
Still, Malcolm thought, if they were to go, there would be an even better view of Hampstead Heath from Nigel’s favourite peeing tree. He – for one – would not object to that.
Malcolm couldn’t tell you why he had named his dog “Nigel”. But he had.
It was at that moment that Nigel vanished through the fence. This bit of road was a quiet dead-end, so it was usual for Malcolm to take Nigel off lead as soon as they got to it. It was always a relief not to have Nigel tugging at the lead, but there was always the chance that he might disappear through the fence. As he just had.
“Nigel! Nigel! Here, boy!” Malcolm called without any real hope of Nigel coming back. His lack of hope was fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. Nigel was gone for a good twenty minutes.
After all, Nigel was chasing squirrels and such a serious task couldn’t be halted simply because your master wanted it to. As any responsible Jack Russell owner knows, normal rules don’t apply during a squirrel chase.
Nigel had trained Malcolm well in such matters, so Malcolm now looked around for something to do until the squirrel chase was over. He began by reading the Council Planning Notice again. Next he admired the view again. Then he started looking through the fence in the hope of seeing Nigel – the hero of the squirrel chase.
It was then that Malcolm spotted it. It was almost hidden behind a clump of weeds, down near the bottom of the fence.
It was a second, even more discreet, Council notice.
“The ‘Department of Hiding Notices’ probably won an award for this one,” thought Malcolm. “I wonder if they planted the weeds
He moved the weeds to one side, and read: “Erection of four-storey single-family dwelling house plus two basement levels, to follow the demolition of both existing three-storey dwelling houses (Class C3).”
Malcolm took a deep breath as he took in what it said. He tried to imagine a house with four floors and a double basement standing where the two houses now stood. Cold fury welled up in Malcolm’s heart. It would block the view of the pond and the Heath. He would lose his favourite view from Nigel’s favourite tree!
Malcolm was trembling as he tried to find a piece of paper and a pen. Of course, that was all part of the Council’s strategy. They knew that most people would not be carrying pen and paper with them when out walking their dogs. With any luck, by the time the dog walkers got home, they would have forgotten the planning application number, or even forgotten about the whole business.
And what was that at the bottom of the page in very small writing? “Comments must be received within twenty-one days of the date of this letter.”
The date on the notice was 1st May! It was now the 18th May. That gave only three days to object.
At that moment Nigel squeezed back under the fence.
“Listen, Nigel. I want you to remember the Planning Application number: 2010/5369/CP,” said Malcolm.
Malcolm was still searching through his pockets for anything that he could write on, or with. It was his habit to jot things on his shirt cuff, to the despair of his wife and the local laundry.
“Why do you do it?” his wife Angela kept saying. “You know it ruins your shirts!”
Malcolm agreed with her, but he couldn’t stop himself. Especially when he needed to remember something important, like now.
However, this time his shirt was spared. His hand closed around his mobile phone. He pulled it out of his pocket and punched the planning application number into the phone’s address book.
“Ha, ha! Fooled you!” he snarled at the Council with grim satisfaction.
However, Malcolm would live to regret being so resourceful, for he was about to be sucked into a web of suspense and violence that would spiral out of his control.
Trevor Williams woke up in a panic.
It was a work-day, and he always woke in a panic when he had to go to work. For fifteen years he had been toiling in the Planning Department of Camden Council, and for fifteen years he had dreaded work-days.
Trevor wondered if anyone in the outside world could even guess at the horror of working in the Planning Department.
Suddenly he made his mind up. He would refuse to go in to work today. He would phone in sick. He got these migraines. Everybody knew about them. He had one today. He couldn’t possibly work.
Trevor got to the bathroom and stared at his face in the bathroom mirror. He had been a young man when he’d started working in the Planning Department. Now he was old before his time. His face was lined. His eyes were dull and lifeless. Even his hair looked depressed.
He owed it to himself not to go into work today. He would go fishing instead.
Feeling much better, he shaved and made himself some breakfast: a little toast, a pot of coffee, even a boiled egg.
Then he washed up, put on his coat, grabbed his briefcase and ran for the bus. He jumped onto it just as the doors were closing, and slumped into an empty seat. He sighed a weary sigh.
More and more often he found that the only way to get himself out of bed was to pretend that he was going to phone in sick and go fishing instead.
Ah! He could feel the rod in his hand, and hear the quiet wash of the river against its banks. There was the splash now and again as fish jumped into the world above for an instant, before falling back into their watery fish-world. Just as Trevor had, for a moment, leapt from the drab world of reality into the world of his day-dreams and gone fishing.
Fish were wonderful, peaceable creatures. They minded their own business, and didn’t glare at you, or write angry letters.
Fish didn’t ring you up and scream abuse at you. Fish didn’t threaten to take you to court or tell you that you were a Nazi working for a Nazi organisation. Nor had Trevor ever heard of fish ganging up on someone going about his normal duties, catching him outside the supermarket and pouring cold custard over his jacket. It had happened to him.
Fish didn’t write angry letters about the block of flats being built outside their sitting-room window. Fish didn’t accuse you of being racist because there was no letter-box outside their front door and they had to walk two hundred yards down the road to post a letter. Fish didn’t harass you by ringing you every hour – on the hour – to demand to know why you hadn’t replaced the trees that had been cut down by accident two years before.
And sometimes you caught fish.
That never happened with members of the public.
If you granted a planning application to build a really nice house with lots of rooms and a swimming pool, objectors would line up chanting in the road. They’d have their photos taken by the local newspaper, and spread rumours about the damage to the environment the house would cause. They’d claim it would upset the water table and destroy the local wild life. They’d storm the Council offices and spray green paint all over the computers. It had happened once.
On the other hand, if you refused an application to build a really nice house with lots of rooms and a swimming pool, the applicants would threaten to take you to court. They’d bring in high-powered lawyers. They would say that you weren’t up to your job and that you were acting illegally. They’d phone you up and say they were going to take this matter “higher” and suggest that your job might be at risk.
There was no pleasing the General Public.
Look at that case with that supermarket a few years ago! The Council refused permission to build y ...