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Driftwood Dolly and the Trouble Guy
by Bruce Harris




My second editor, Ed Tranter, nicknamed me Trouble. He’d just looked at a story I’d been working on, which showed pretty conclusively that a local councillor on the Housing Committee was bent in a big way and had been funnelling contracts to his pals for years.

Nicknaming was a kind of initiation with Ed. He had a mind like a data base when it came to remembering what was going on politically, socially and economically, but when it came to names, he was lost. My name is Chris Mason, but the only time he ever remembered either name was when he interviewed me. He called everyone by writing areas like ‘Theatre’, ‘Films’, ‘Football’, or by some usually unflattering characteristic; DD, as in ‘Dodgy Deadlines’, ‘FP’ as in ‘Fancy Pants’, ‘Sunshine’ for a guy known for his gloomy looks. When someone joined up, people took bets on what name Ed would give them.

His big head, with its improbable profusion of red waves – the guy was in his forties – raised and his eyes raked me.

‘You’re trouble, son, that’s what you are’.

It didn’t sound like a compliment.

‘Sorry, boss’, I muttered.

‘Don’t be sorry’, he said, without looking up again. ‘This is good stuff; you’ve got him bang to rights, son. I want you to be trouble, Trouble’.

Now he looked at me again, and he was even smiling faintly, a rare expression for him.

‘When there’s stuff like this going down – this guy is a crook - it’s your job to be trouble.  I’m going to splash this, and if the bastard decides to sue, we’ll take him and his bent mates down. Well done, Trouble’.

I stayed being Trouble for five years under the guiding hand of Ed Tranter, and when I moved on to the big city, the nickname stuck; a leading politician was even heard calling me it, off camera of course, on a current affairs programme.

But my apprenticeship goes back beyond Ed, all the way to my A level years, and a lady my cheeky little so and so self first knew as Driftwood Dolly.

I grew up on the south Devon coast, and I took up running partly to get fresh sea air as a break from revision; working for hours in my room could drive me to distraction, and it isn’t too natural a thing for a seventeen year old to be doing, necessary as it might be for careers and qualifications. My home village was right on the coast, and sometimes we knew all about it when the weather turned nasty. But there were long stretches of beach, mostly empty outside the tourist seasons, and pounding along the sand in running kit – it didn’t take long to warm up, even in chilly weather – blew the cobwebs away and gave me the spirit and determination to carry on.

Driftwood Dolly’s place was about a mile and a half out of my village, in a cove on its own. It was on the lower banks of the gradual hill leading out of the cove.  A charitable name for it would be bungalow; less kindly, it was a large shack in a sparse garden. A pre-fab type of thing, I doubt it was ever intended to be a permanent residence, and folklore had it that a prominent local family built it for one of their number returning from the war with both physical and mental damage.  For much of my childhood, it stood empty, and we kids used to like just mucking about around it – you couldn’t get in, it was pretty efficiently boarded up. We also used the cove to skinny dip occasionally. Fancying a swim and remembering to take costumes didn’t always go together, and in deserted coves, who cared?

Then, during the summer when I moved from junior to secondary school, a woman started living there. My pal Stu Pargetter and I dipped on a warm day in late July; we were walking towards our clothes when this woman suddenly emerged from the shack which now had an improvised wooden sign outside saying ‘Ocean Rest’.

Our nudity and the sudden appearance of this unknown lady did throw us a little. She wasn’t a stooping old crone or some story-like witch figure, but she did have long sweeping hair on either side of a thin, rather pinched face and she was dressed in a paint-bespattered smock  over a pair of jeans, which wasn’t the way we expected old ladies to dress themselves. She wasn’t old, of course; she would then have been in her early fifties, though to our ten year old minds, old was just about anything over thirty.

Our embarrassment was unnecessary - she didn’t take a blind bit of notice of us apart from a brief glance and a wave before getting on with what she came to be identified with – gathering wood.  Assiduously and carefully, she combed up and down the beach and the grassland around her shack, picking up wood on mysterious selective principles of her own.

For a while, she took some stick from the local kids and occasional tourists visiting the cove, who took her to be some kind of tramp, and the nickname ‘Driftwood Dolly’ stuck to her so convincingly that it never entirely went away. But by my mid-teens, her place amongst us had become more established. Her name wasn’t Dolly, it was Judith, and she was directly related to the returning soldier casualty, Tom Akerman. Rumour had it that he was so disillusioned with humanity that he just wanted to live as remotely and entirely alone as possible without actually being a hermit, and his wider family, who owned that land and much more besides, respected his wishes, giving him that patch and helping him arrange it as he wanted it. He had been a carpenter before the war and he continued to make a living selling functional furniture and more artistic objects. He lived there for just over twenty years before his injuries and weakened heart killed him. For a while, the family used the place as a holiday home, but then everyone started wanting to go abroad, and the Akerman family boarded the place up, seemingly unable to make a final decision on what to do with it. Until, that is, Judith Bridges, Tom’s great nephew, decided it suited her purposes very well and took it over, with the family’s blessing.

No-one knew all this at the time, it came out of my poking about later, but Judith had established enough of a link with the locals to admit herself, even if loosely, into the community. And it turned out she didn’t go out collecting driftwood for firewood, she collected it because she was an artist.

When I was sixteen, one of the local papers reported that Judith was putting on an exhibition in a larger town nearby, and it wasn’t her first one. Judith, it seemed, had a reputation, and those amongst us who still called her Driftwood Dolly began to feel a little silly, that this accomplished artist had moved into our orbit to be treated as a kind of eccentric tramp. A group of us were curious enough to go and see the exhibition, and we were, in the main, intrigued and astonished at what we found.

Judith Bridges used driftwood to construct disturbing visual images, which she’d developed partly from the kind of grotesque sights of broken and blasted bodies her great uncle had described and even occasionally photographed. She’d also made some figures representing aliens connected with the science fiction writing she enjoyed, and a whole section was devoted to seascape material, representations of the waves themselves, ingoing and outgoing tides, and rough hewn wooden boats and ships sitting on driftwood waves. The whole exhibition was extraordinarily varied and inventive and we were all as gobsmacked as young people discovering new stuff can be. Judith herself, at closer quarters, proved to be courteous, well spoken and pleased to talk freely to people who took an interest in her work.

Not long after that, I became well enmeshed in A levels and started training runs as escapes from revision and help with the competitive running I did at school.  On a three mile run, Judith’s home was almost exactly the half way point. I didn’t want to disturb her and kept to the beach some distance down from her place as I turned at a marking rock, but on one occasion, she was collecting near to me. She recognised me from the gallery visit and even, it seemed, from my skinny dip – she clearly had a visual memory like a reference library. I was treated to an inside look at what she was working on, in her Aladdin’s cave of a place with benches and tools spread around, particularly in the large ex-garage behind the house. I had no pretensions to being an artist, but I had a growing curiosity about the world around me as I pulled away from the upheavals of adolescence. We talked easily, and she flattered me with a comment which set me thinking along career lines.

‘You might not be an artist yourself, Chris, but you ask the right questions in the right sequence to improve your understanding. This is my world, and marvellous for me, but I suspect your mind is capable of opening up all sorts of worlds’.

Journalism had already been discussed as a possibility, and her remarks made me think more seriously about it.

By the time I was in the last stages of A level revision and anxious about whether I’d make decent enough grades to get into the university my parents seemed determined about, Judith and I were friends. We didn’t knock around together – she was about three times my age – but we did usually have a cup of tea or a bottle of water on my running half way mark and the occasional chat when I saw her in the village.

I was in the middle of the exams when I ran out one Wednesday afternoon – the English one was on the following day. I was disappointed to see Judith didn’t seem to be around. She had encouraged me to knock and come in if she was inside, but she became involved in her work and I was wary about interrupting something important. I was about to just go round the rock and head back, when I heard angry voices emerging from Judith’s place. I got closer, and from a few yards away, it was clear that a major row was going on between Judith and a couple of men.

Into a sudden angry silence, a lazy, cynical male voice spoke.

‘Miss Bridges, I can only repeat again; you know as well as I do that the Akerman family has sold this land for a leisure development –‘

‘Leisure development’, Judith said scornfully. ‘A lot of so called holiday apartments flogged off at ridiculous prices to Londoners, no doubt. But they have no intention of building this close to the water; you could quite easily leave this place alone, and you know it’.

‘We don’t want this kind of dwelling cluttering up the scenery, to be frank –‘

‘How dare you!’

The other man, younger and blunter than his companion, chipped in angrily.

‘It isn’t your land any more! Don’t you understand that?’

Judith took several deep breaths, and then launched herself.

‘Listen, you besuited idiots. I know the Akerman family have sold land nearby, but this part of it is no longer in their gift to sell; this part was given to my great uncle on a separate deed, and that deed was made over to me. This house and the patch of land around it belong to me,  which means it is up to me who enters it. I haven’t asked you in and I don’t want you here, so will you please go?’

‘When we’ve made our position abundantly clear, Miss Bridges, we will go. We have a duty to our employers, whether you like it or not –‘

It was this point that I decided to shove my oar in. She had asked them to leave her property and they had refused. Law was one of my A level subjects and this seemed to me straightforward trespassing, apart from being extremely bad manners. I walked into Judith’s sparse living room where the three of them were standing in front of her solitary sofa. The older man was leaning on the mantelpiece, his face wearing an exasperated look as if he was trying to talk to a deaf pensioner. The other man was young, dark and ferocious, if somewhat undersized, like an aggressive midget.

Judith gave me a brief, startled look and then smiled.

‘Hello, Chris. Don’t go, darling; these chaps are just leaving’.

The two men looked me up and down. It was a warm day and I’d tied my top round my waist. I was somewhat under-dressed for Judith’s living room, and normally, I would have put my top straight back on, but displaying the physique at that moment didn’t seem too bad an idea. I wasn’t then and I’m still not a muscle man, but the boy had just about gone, and the running and other sports had given me an athletic build. They were clearly trying to work out who I was, but it was clear that my physical presence was giving them food for thought.

‘Miss Bridges is my friend and near-neighbour, and this is her house’, I said. ‘She has asked you to leave it. If you don’t, I’m going to call the police’.

I unzipped a shorts pocket and took out the simple mobile I used to run with at the time. The coast can be precarious, especially if you pull a hamstring or turn your ankle over with the tide coming in, and my parents had made their views clear.

The two men looked from me to Judith and back again for a few more seconds. Then the older man nodded to the younger for him to go, and when Junior made a gesture of impatience, the older man’s eyes bored into him until he left.  Senior made to follow him, but turned to us on the way.

‘I will leave you two together’, he said, with an insulting inference which turned Judith red with anger. ‘You will be hearing from our lawyers, Miss Bridges’.

‘And you, you ill-mannered oaf, will be hearing from mine’, Judith said, and the hardness of her eyes returned his stare.

Judith and I talked for a while. I had some knowledge of the organisation behind these ‘leisure apartments’, as did many local people by then, and we knew that they wouldn’t just give up and go. I told her I was studying law and writing for the school newspaper, and she agreed to further conversations about it when my A levels were over.

Three weeks later, they were, and I turned 18. I didn’t intend to do anything over the summer but bar and café work during the tourist season. As I’d anticipated, the development company didn’t give up.  Judith was threatened with eviction proceedings if she didn’t leave the house within weeks. The friends who had been to see Judith’s exhibition, apart from one who was going abroad, agreed to help, and we began a two pronged action, one a media campaign publicising why Judith was a great asset to the community and the other, left largely to me, looking into the development company and finding out what information might be useful.

Judith, of course, did a great deal herself, by getting in touch with several members of the Akerman family and tracking down their legal documents.

And I, for the very first time, started seriously sniffing around and poking my nose in. The skills which some journalists abuse can also be used constructively, and the burgeoning internet was more my generation’s province than that of development companies.  I was able to relate situations and people to each other and dig into records and information archives. The development company had a dubious history and a number of unfortunate associations. I took it all to one of the local papers and they checked it all out; the editor, Beatrice Lomax, alias Busy Bea, had the nerve to go with it, and to this day, that company don’t know where their information came from. Local planning permissions were withdrawn and the company went off to find easier pastures. Busy Bea was so impressed that she gave me a job, initially as not much more than a tea boy, but the assignments started only months after I joined the paper. I was rescued from the university that I’d never been too keen on, and my parents admitted that earning money at eighteen rather than running up debts had its positive side.

Judith kept her house and land, even after a reputable building company built a housing estate half a mile behind it. She fenced her place off and carried on with her work. I moved to one of the larger locals after a few years and the tender mercies of Ed Tranter, who eventually gave me a column simply called ‘Trouble’. The big city took notice not long after, and off to the Smoke I went, and I’m still there.

Last month, I heard that Judith Bridges had died, still in her house by the sea but, unfortunately, not taking care of herself as well as she should. The body of work she left behind is awesome, and there is already a campaign for her house to become a permanent exhibition. I’m helping it and our aims should be achieved before much longer.

Or there’ll be Trouble.




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