A Head for a Head

Works Manager of an aircraft factory in northeast London at a spot where Jerry dumped most of his scrap iron, GERARD NEWTON made a determined bid for quiet at the end of World War II. He bought a cottage in the New Forest, and there settled down to keep a garden and write books about it. Thus far he has published four books on gardening — two of them about dahlias — and with this encouragement he has begun to branch out into fiction.



WHERE, when, and how Wontoo came aboard the Eleanor no one knew. There he was, peeling potatoes with speed and accuracy, smiling in a friendly way on all and sundry as though he had been there all his life. Torpy, the cook, was not sure and, questioned by the mate, had said that he had always been there.

When the great winds blew, when green water thumped on the deck and freezing spindrift lashed the deck with hisses of hate, Wontoo would strip to his brown, pimply hide and the officer on the bridge would find a grinning face and a can of hot cocoa or coffee materializing over the canvas dodger. Wontoo would return to the galley dripping and shivering but would quickly evaporate dry, warm up, and be ready for another dash through the elements. Where and when he slept was a mystery; he received no orders, but anticipated them, while his grin displayed continuously his filed teeth.

The Eleanor duly reached the London docks. There were too many faces about now — surly faces, ugly faces, and ferocious faces; so Wontoo proceeded ashore by running down a momentarily taut hawser. Outside the dock he came to a mighty road containing uncountable humans, most of them smelly, and rushing vehicles of enormous size making more noise than fifty ships unloading at once. A big red bus rolled to a stop right in front of him, two seamen got aboard, and a friendly-looking man, who was surely the captain, beckoned to him. Wontoo scrambled inside as directed, only to roll on his back with his feet in the air as the monster jerked into action. Everyone was laughing, so Wontoo joined in; assisted by the captain, he took a plush seat and sat all but dislocating his neck trying to see all the wonders that flashed by the large, shining windows.

“Where d’you want, mate?” asked the conductor.

“Wontoo, sir,” he said, standing up and touching his cap.

“Not on the me-an-you today, chum. Got any money — these things?” the conductor asked, spreading a palmful of coppers.

Wontoo displayed a brown fistful of all his worldly wealth, which was considerable.

“Blimey, I can see that saying ta-ta to you, chum. Look’ere.” He rolled all the sterling, dollars, pesos, and what not, fastened them with a rubber band, and indicated their future location somewhere inside; he took a small while coin and gave two large ones and a paper ticket in exchange. “’Ave a fourpenny one and see London town.”Wontoo was hustled off the bus in Commercial Road, along which he strolled in the September sun until a shop full of the most lovely clothes caught his eye.

His mind wandered over the materials — brown, green with a white stripe, pale mauve with a pink stripe, and pure, bright blue. He peered into the shop and saw a little man with a very long nose prancing round a large Negro who was admiring himself in a light brown and yellow check with spiv shoulders. The Negro laughed at the little man, grabbed Wontoo by the neck, and added him to the admiring audience; then the Negro proceeded to rig Wontoo out in a reddish brown sackcloth, light yellow shoes, and a brown bowler — which ensemble was really becoming. Delighted with his efforts, the Negro then started the financial battle, in which the little man with the long nose seemed to be in his element: words, impolite and otherwise, filled the air; warfare was threatened, accepted, and postponed. Notes were slammed on the counter and rejected with scorn, and Wontoo, joining in, added his bus ticket to the little pile and drew his eighteeninch shark knife. The war finished as quickly as it had begun.

Came a white shop with appetizing eats in the window and a smell of “cawfey” every time the door swung; Wontoo stood trying to get the drill. A friendly goddess gave him a silver tray, propelled him past many holes and cupboards, some hot and some cold, and otherwise assisted him to present to the bewildered cashier the most wonderful collection of food that it had been her lot to estimate. On leaving, full and happy, he was relieved of the silver tray and the other equipment by the goddess, who had evidently anticipated just such a lapse.

He strolled on, sometimes entering buildings on the heels of others, often heaved out; at other times, unlike Omar Khayyam, he found himself coming out of some other door than that wherein he went. The biggest buildings fascinated him most but he tried all kinds; the Stock Exchange, Bank of England, and the Mansion House were definitely hostile, but banks and insurance offices took no notice — at least ostensibly. In St. Paul’s he sat and digested comfortably, belching the while, but even here his natty brown bowler was snatched from his head by a vulturelike man entirely devoid of friendliness.

Presently another temple complete with sacred pigeons loomed behind the highest railings he had ever seen. Two small gates were the only ingress to the mighty courtyard and the wide steps. Here must be the home of the most mighty god of all. He stood wistful and wondering if immediate death would follow entrance, until a little old lady pushed him past the guardian in the high hat, who took no notice whatever.

Within were glass cases containing all kinds of oddments — mostly uninteresting; but here and there was a bloodthirsty-looking weapon which delighted his imagination. They became more familiar: a canoe with paddles such as he had owned, pictures of men and women just like himself but not so beautifully arrayed. There were tools for pleasant murdering, at which he was an accepted expert; and there, on an upper shelf, a row of little preserved heads, one of which was undoubtedly his own workmanship! It had been stolen from him by a white man just after completion, the best he had ever done.

Wontoo swore filthy oaths in many tongues and dialects; he danced and waved his arms and generally behaved as no man had hitherto done in the British Museum. Drowsy custodians arose at the call of duty; people gathered and got in the way as usual, but he was not cast forth. Instead he was conducted further within, doubtless to torture and to death, but he went with head up and unafraid.

A Great One, wise and ancient, regarded him in a not unfriendly manner and questioned him in many languages, some of which were vaguely familiar; others came and spoke in other tongues, but all were at a loss to discover the cause of his excitement. Of course no one tried English. Came a large man in blue who listened and spoke his piece. “Says he done it. It’s his second wife, whom he chopped by mistake in the dark, and he wants it back, whatever it is. I’ve met his lingo in one of those South Pacific islands.”

Long and hot was the discussion that lasted well past closing time, but a final agreement was hammered out for an exchange, a head for a head, the crafty British realizing that time, tide, accidents, pestilence, earthquake, and sharks were all on their side.

Wontoo departed to find the Eleanor by taking the first bus going east, offering a fistful of change, and taking the next that came along after he had been evicted. At Chingford it seemed that he had come to a dead end. He was hungry and night was coming on. The smell of food was universal to one whose nose, though flat and shapeless as putty, was highly efficient. Nothing was easier than to trace down an errant whiff of cooking to a kitchen with an open window. A steak pie large enough for four and two bottles of beer looked good; there was no evidence that they were not displayed for him alone.

Wontoo acted upon the obvious assumption and melted away to the north with his spoil, thus finding Epping Forest. He could see that, as a forest, it was nothing to write home about, but it held a certain security of which he was well able to take advantage. The pie and beer being surrounded by little brown man, he chose a comfortable fork in a large oak and slept until annoyed by an angry female voice.

A woman with yellow hair was giving a commentary on her male companion’s disgraceful acts. They stood immediately below the tree, with the listener above — who, had he but known it, was informed that if the swine did not do the right thing by her after all he had done to her, it would not be her fault if he never did it to anyone else. The man saw one of the beer bottles, retrieved it, and deliberately, unemotionally, blopped her on the head with it, much to the admiration of the expert above. Then, after wiping the bottle on her skirt, he moved from the picture.


THE Eleanor went into dry dock for a long-overdue refit. The citizens of Chingford organized night patrols to catch the food thief who left the dirty dishes scattered all over the forest, and the police spent hours hunting the invisible man who lit small smoky fires all day and night, to which they were particularly allergic during a hot September.

It was two-thirty, overpoweringly hot, and the Great One of the British Museum was trying, be it recorded to his credit, to keep his eyes open. The after-midday-meal snooze for the over-sixties must be rooted far back in man’s evolution; it was probably Nature’s way of removing the aged when she had finished with them; they fell out of the tree or gave the more efficient his chance.

The Great One jerked to full attention to find a grinning brown face floating above a brown paper parcel, having passed right through the hitherto impregnable defenses. He registered alertness, amazement, annoyance, and how-did-you-get-hereness — and in that order.

“Me bring head, swapanudderone.”

The G.O. stretched forth hands to receive the parcel, only to find it snatched from his reach. His finger found a bell push, and so entered a lady of many summers spent, as was evident, in some dehydrating climate. She smiled at Wontoo as all must who have a heart in the right place.

“Find the deputy-sub-under-assistant of Polynesian ethnology and ask him to bring the preserved head we were discussing recently.”

There followed a fidgety, mutually suspicious wait in dead silence during which Wontoo produced a rush bag which needed no introduction as a present from Billingsgate.

Enter the d-s-u-a-P-e accompanied by exhibit P.U.14169, at the sight of which Wontoo’s brown eyes shone with recognition and glad welcome. The exhibit was placed on the desk, parcel advanced to meet it, little brown man was gone. Time elapsed: 1.63 seconds.

The G.O. depressed a switch, bells rang and kept on ringing, red lights shone, doors slammed and remained at the slam, the outer gate shut right in the face of T. O. Longpeg, Col. Ret., who returned to his club with something to grouse about at last.

The little brown man was through the glass door as it shut with a clearance of .003 inches, and he fled down the steps touching one in ten, avoided the clumsy approach of the gatekeeper, and was up and over the mighty railings like a cat with two dogs on its tail.

Calculations based on telephonic communications convinced the G.O. that he was by now entering Brighton.

“Seems he had something on his conscience, sir, but has kept his bargain. Why not look?”

“You open it, Jones.”

“Oh, how beautiful, sir. The fair hair marcelwaved and going dark at the parting; those lip stitches, blue cotton and brown wool. And look, sir, the skin is quite fair, blonde in fact.”

“And its origin, Jones? Can we exhibit it?”

“I see what you mean, sir. Recent manufacture, source of material local and possibly lamented; but it’s too good to lose.”

“Scotland Yard, Jones, and quickly, before he gets out of the country. We may also get the other one back.”

The Eleanor was creeping and booing her way down the Channel through a drifting, patchy fog in company with too many others all showing their anxiety and absence of radar by emitting a variety of noises.

“Seen anything of Wontoo?" asked the captain.

“No, and I shall miss the cheerful little blighter — could do with some hot coffee right now,” answered the first officer.

“Me got cocoa,” said the richest and most contented little man in the world. He had his wife, somewhat abbreviated, nice clothes, and an amazing assortment of memories.