Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Carnival Steps” by Ken Dunn

I don’t like ladders. The last time I used one was on Carnival night. Mind you I was lucky…but let me explain. Once a year, usually the Friday of the second week in November, the Carnival arrives in the City of Wells, Somerset. Wells is only one of several towns in the area which have the joy of seeing this, one by one, over a few weeks. I’d only been living here for a couple of months and smugly assumed that this would be just another cosy, small town affair. How wrong can you be? It really is something to be experienced. An amazing extravaganza of sound, light, colour and spectacle which traverses through the streets for almost three hours! Sadly, it seems to mostly unknown nationally unlike London’s Notting Hill event. Give me the South West Carnival anytime!

Anyway, I decided to give it a look on my way to Harry’s place. He’d invited me and a few others round. Nothing special, just a few nibbles and a good bottle or two of red wine. Around 8.30pm would be fine. We would probably end up in the pub to round the evening off. So, at about 7.30pm, on a cold and damp November evening, I wandered up to the High Street to have a look at this little bit of fun. It wasn’t little, far from it, but it was fun, well, for a time it was.

To start with the whole place had been virtually cut off since 4.30pm. A complete cordon had been dropped around the town by the Police. Yellow cones had been sprinkled with gay abandon. The damned things were everywhere. Traffic was backed up for miles around and thousands of people were gathering to view the Carnival parade. By the time I strolled up through the streets the place was absolutely stuffed with humanity from the whole of the South West.

Pushing my way up through the crowds I was first assaulted by the Carnival heavies on crowd control and then almost trampled flat by a line of Police horses clearing the way. Then all hell broke loose as huge floats, tugged by vast tractors, and pumping out ear-splitting pop music swung into the High Street, blinding everyone in a series of throbbing bursts of light, colour and dancing figures. This went on and on without a break. So much for small town fun.

An hour later and still they came. All different, all absolutely spectacular. Tableau’s, Rock-and-roll, the Twenties, all based on a single theme but what that was I had no idea. Amongst this were a few open trucks collecting coins thrown from the crowd. All of it went to charity so there was plenty of metal flying through the air that night. Various characters weaved their way through the crowd selling the standard rubbish of balloons, assorted elasticated toys and all kinds of silly hats. I bought a policeman’s helmet. It was far too small but what the hell. It was for charity and a lot of other folk were wearing equally daft headgear.

At 8.45 I reluctantly started to head to Harry’s place at the other end of town. It took quite a while to squeeze my way through the mass of people who were ogling open mouthed, laughing and applauding at the non-stop passage of light, movement and sound waves which you could almost feel pulsing out from all the floats.

Harry lived in a first floor flat amongst one of the mediaeval jumbles which are dotted around Wells. I arrived at the same time as Jack Holden, another friend. Seeing each other we burst out laughing. We both had silly police helmets on. I rang Harry’s bell. Several attempts later and we began to wonder whether we had the right night. On the other hand Harry had been known to forget about things more than once. Nevertheless, we could see that all the lights were on. We banged on the door a more few times, offering up a few ripe remarks non too quietly, but without any response. Then a female voice from behind caught us both by surprise.

‘Problems?’

It was Milly Canford who had the huge manor house opposite. She had looked out and in simple curiosity wandered over to find out what all the fuss was about.

‘Oh, no,’ I said. ‘Just a case of timing. It looks as if Harry might have forgotten about us again’.

‘Would you like some ladders?’ Milly asked.

It was such an odd remark that I burst out laughing but replied, ‘Well, yes. That seems like a good idea!’

We crossed over to her place and followed her through to the kitchen where she produced a bottle of wine and glasses.

‘Might as well have a drink while you’re waiting,’ she offered. ‘Harry might not be along for a while.’

Knowing Harry she was probably right. We sat there in front of a log fire, still with our silly policemen’s hats on, making small talk. The conversation turned to the house itself, a huge rambling old place. Milly took us round, delighted to show it off. Built in the mists of the 11th century, with bits added on since then, it was a complete mixture of styles, inside as well as out. The huge, open oak roof structure on the first floor was incredible. While we were up there Joe, her husband, had arrived. As we casually followed Milly down the wide staircase he appeared at the bottom with a puzzled expression on his face.

Jack saw the possible scenario in a flash and said, grinning, ‘It’s not what you think!’

Fortunately, Joe had a good sense of humour and he simply grinned as he said, ‘Cheeky sod!’ Milly opened another bottle. It was all very civilised. An hour later we heard the Cathedral bell tolling 10.00pm and one of us, I can’t remember who, remembered good old Harry. Milly insisted about the ladder so we followed her to the garage, found it and teetered out of the drive and up onto the road. Milly followed giggling at our ham-fisted attempt to carry the damned thing. After all it was a good twenty feet long and one of those extension jobs.

Joe stood at the door of his house, raising his glass to the two loonies staggering and weaving along the road. The lights were still on in Harry’s place but again we couldn’t get a reply. I was now just a little concerned that Harry might be ill or maybe even worse. After all, he didn’t usually leave all the lights on and simply walk away. Getting the ladder in position wasn’t that easy as we thought. Have you ever grappled with a twenty foot long lump of metal in the dark? It’s no fun. The damned thing kept swinging about all over the place and we nearly had the window out twice. Eventually we had it in place and I climbed up. Peering in I could see the sideboard sprinkled with various bowls filled with different kinds of nibbly bits, a couple of bottles of opened red wine on the coffee table with a cluster of glasses but no Harry.

Rapping on the window brought no response. Where the hell was he?

The sounds from the carnival were now beginning to recede and quite a few folk were making their way back home. The flow of bodies increased and within a few minutes there was a steady stream walking past us, most of them with puzzled looks as they side-stepped the ladder which Jack was leaning up against with me still at the top rattling away at the glass.

One little urchin stopped, looked up and asked, ‘Whatcha doin’ mista?’

Jack grinned at him and said, ‘It’s a fire drill!’

As I looked down I saw the grin drain from Jack’s face and he stood up straight. The ladder wobbled as he suddenly released his weight.

‘Jack, you silly sod!’ I yelled. ‘You’ll have me off the bloody thing if you don’t hold on!’

A car door slammed and a voice floated up saying, ‘That might not be a bad idea, sir.’

Looking down I saw a Police patrol car and a constable staring up at me, beckoning me down with a slow moving fore finger.

‘Oh, shit!’ I thought to myself. ‘What the hell do I say now?’

The constable waited patiently while I clambered down. Jack held the ladder feebly, looking like a naughty schoolboy. Milly was nowhere to be seen. She’d done a runner as soon as the Police car had arrived. A few of the locals stood to watch as the constable closed in.

‘Now then, gentlemen,’ the constable began. ‘Can you tell me just what it is you are up to?’

Jack and I felt ourselves shrinking with embarrassment. The crowd around us began to thicken as more and people streamed up from the High Street.

‘We were just trying to get Harry’s attention,’ I said, ‘Harry Charlton. He lives here,’ and I thumbed up backwards at the lit windows

‘Most people would use the bell or the knocker on the front door, sir,’ the constable said slowly, ‘Why didn’t you?’

‘Ah, yes,’ Jack said. ‘We tried that you see, constable, but we couldn’t get a reply.’

The constable was not seeing anything.

‘So you just happened to have an extension ladder with you, is that right?’ he said with a stone face.

‘Well, no,’ I said. ‘We borrowed that.’

‘Oh, I see,’ he said. ‘You ‘borrowed’ it? That’s interesting. And where did you borrow it from, sir?’

The conversation wasn’t going too well but the crowd around us were enjoying it immensely. A few titters of laughter ran through them as we tried again. We’d both forgotten about the hats we were wearing.

‘It’s not what your thinking, officer,’ I began. ‘We were invited here this evening, by a friend of ours, Harry Charlton, and after trying for some time to raise him, the Canford’s, just across the road there, let us have the ladder to see if he was all right. After all, the lights are on but there’s no one replying.’

‘We were a bit worried that he might be ill,’ Jack added.

The constable was writing all of this down in his little book. Looking up at Jack and me. Then looking down again to his book and the notes he had made he just said, ‘Worried that he might be ill. Thank you, sir.’

Closing the book he looked steadily at both of us. Body language must have been telling him all kinds of things by this time. He gave a long sigh and then brought the book up again.

‘I think we had better get some facts, sir. Name?’

We went through the whole procedure and then he finished off with the standard caution. You know the one. ‘Anything you say will be written down….’

‘But what about Harry?’ Jack said.

‘Harry?’ he asked.

‘Yes, Harry,’ I said. ‘Don’t you think we should find out if he’s all right?’

He looked at both of us, put his book away and brought out a pair of hand-cuffs.

‘Oh, no. You can’t be serious!’ I said. Jack just stood there open mouthed.

‘Just a precaution, sir,’ the constable muttered and snapped them on to both of us, first passing them through the rungs of the ladder. Then he stepped over to Harry’s door and rang the bell. The crowd were loving this and were now four of five deep, spreading back around the police car. It bumped and rocked with the stifled hilarity of some of them as they all watched.

The door to Harry’s place swung open, light flooding over the constable, us, the police car and the crowd. Harry stepped back in surprise as a cheer went up from the crowd. Jack and I were thunderstruck. How the hell did he get back in, or had he really been there all this time? The constable turned from Harry to the crowd and went through another standard procedure.

‘Move along, move along, it’s all over now,’ he droned. They slowly dispersed, grinning and throwing back a few clever dick remarks like, ‘Police brutality!’ ‘Oppression of the people!’ ‘Police state!’

Ignoring this he turned back to Harry who was half hiding behind his door, quite confused by the whole thing.

‘Sorry about that, sir,’ he said. ‘I wonder if you can help me. You are Mr Harry Charlton?’

Harry nodded silently, still crouching behind the door. The constable continued, ‘Do you know these gentlemen?’

Harry peeked round the door and looked at the pair of us, handcuffed to the ladders and still wearing those silly hats. Now, Harry is not one of the worlds heros and he tends to shy away from difficult situations and this was, for him, one of those situations. I saw the look in his eyes. He really didn’t recognise us at all. Mild panic had set in and all he wanted to do was shut the door as quickly as possible.

Harry blinked, gulped and then blurted out, ‘I…I’m s…sorry! I d…don’t know w…who they are, w…what they w…want or w…why they’re h…here!’

‘Harry!’ Jack and I yelled. ‘It’s us you fool!’

We stepped forward forgetting about being entwined with the ladder. Scraping along the ground it began sliding sideways off the wall but we just managed to grab it before it fell.

‘Thank you, sir,’ the constable said to Harry, ‘No need to trouble you any longer.’

Harry shut the door quickly and bolted back upstairs into his little flat.

‘Harry!’ we both yelled, ‘Come back you idiot, it’s us! Harry!’

This time we lost the ladder completely. It fell. The noise of the crash will stay with me for a long time as will the expression on the constable’s face. After a long night we got it all sorted out. It’s a miracle that we both came out of it rather well even if the patrol car did need a new roof, windscreen, bonnet and a major paint job down one side.

I saw Harry the following day. Yes, he’d been looking at the Carnival. Mesmerised by the whole thing he’d completely lost track of time. By the time he scooted back there were hundreds of people around so he went in the back way. He said it was safer that way. This must have been when we were being handcuffed. Milly is still a bit sheepish about legging it but Joe thought it was hilarious. The local paper was full of it. ‘Carnival Citizens Capture Crooks!’ read the main headline. I’ve still got the cutting pinned on my wall in the office. It reads,

‘Last night a daring series of thefts took place in Cathedral Row. While the Carnival was in full swing two thieves, Michael Simpson, 34, and Richard Linton, 32, both of no fixed abode, had stripped twenty nine vehicles of radios, batteries and even wheels!

Using the cover of the Carnival they had parked a light van at the far end of Cathedral Row and began working their way down a line of parked cars, smashing windows and using a wrecking bar to gain entry. The loot was stored in the van but unfortunately for them, two local men, who wish to remain anonymous, were in Cathedral Row at the time and saw the two men actually stealing the wheels from a parked police car.

Thinking quickly, they foiled the thieves bold attempt by trapping both of them with a twenty foot extension ladder which workmen had left earlier that day.

Unfortunately some damage occurred to the police vehicle in the struggle which then ensued but the police constable, who had been checking doors in the Row, was able, with the help of our two heroes, to overpower and arrest the thieves. They tried to escape but were hampered by the ladder which had been dropped over them by our stalwart citizens.

Police Constable Albert Short said, ‘Without this kind of help the Police would have an even more difficult task.’

Next year I think I’ll stay at home with a good book.

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