His name was Robert, but most people called him Black Peter. I met him, if met is the right word, one dark February evening on leaving work. I had recently begun a new job in a Tudor mansion, bricked round in the Georgian era and reputed to be haunted.
‘Will you be all right here on your own?’ the girls in the office worried when I announced I was not going to leave with them. ‘There is a ghost, you know.’ I assured them I would be fine and shut them all out with a wave.
I had worked in older and much scarier places than this.
About half an hour later, I fumbled with the key, unfamiliar with the lock. Then, rattling the door hard, I turned, practically fell off the step and nearly had a heart attack as I bumped into Robert. No ghostly apparition, but fully flesh and blood, enough to give anyone the heeby-jeebies, he cut a Hammer Horror picture in the middle of the High Street.
Black balaclava, horn rimmed spectacles and grubby face, his black overcoat stretched to his knees and was tied up with string. No trousers, but wearing black boots and dragging a large black bin liner. Looking back, I’m sure I frightened him as much as he scared me. Possibly more.
In the days and months to come, I often saw him, usually with the bin bag in tow. As the self appointed street cleaner, he cropped up all over the place, his large dirty hands, partly encased in fingerless gloves, busying themselves picking up litter, dog ends and other detritus left by the untidy masses, doubtless saving the local authority thousands. Winter and summer, his outfit varied little, occasionally adorned by trousers, but usually not.
Sometimes you would smell him before you saw him. He would stand in the baker’s shop, turning the air to poison, until with patient smiles they gave him bread and cakes, presumably just to get rid of him.
I learned he had been a botany professor of some description and retired from that life due to illness. I stood behind him one day in the Post Office when he gave a lecture to the woman behind the counter. From his muttered account, I recalled a biology lesson annotating the parts of a Shepherds Purse plant.
‘The carpel consists of stigma, style, ovary and ovule whilst the filament and anthers are collectively known as the stamen.’ He broke down each part still further while we of the queue listened politely, then when he had finished, he beamed at us all and bought a first class stamp.
A fire at his home took Robert away. He lived in an old black house down on the marshes, miles from anywhere, difficult for a fire engine to reach. Everything destroyed, he was taken to hospital and I never saw him again.