Now, here he was, sitting in an anonymous government office, waiting to be grilled by what he had always described as “faceless farts” of civil servants who wouldn’t do his job for all the tea in China. The door to the interview room opened and a figure ringed at the neck with a parson’s collar stepped from the room and momentarily hesitated at the sight of Manley. The Reverend Ripley had been the officiating clergy at the execution and had, as Reg described it to Jim Lees afterwards, “all the appearance of a wet weekend.” The chief warder, Mr Cummings, had let on to Reg that Henry Eastman had taken a swing at the reverend very early on in the three weeks before the execution. “Called him a useless bastard, Mr Manley. The only time I ever heard Eastman swear in all the time he was in here. To be honest, the reverend needed taking down a peg or two. Always reckoned himself important.” Cummings had emphasised the word “reckoned ” in his Armagh accent and with a wink that told Reg everything he needed to know. Now, he walked across the ante-room, purposely ignoring Reg, nodded to the secretary and left through the large door without looking back.
A buzzer sounded on the secretary’s phone and she picked up the receiver. A short pause and she replied to an unheard question.
“Yes, he’s here.” She glanced up at Reg. “I’ll send him in.”
Reg stood up and made his way to the committee room. And then hesitated a few steps from the door.
“Tell you what luv.” He turned to face the secretary who was just replacing the receiver on its hook. “You missed a trick here.” He pointed to the base of the door jamb. “You need one of those foot scrapers just here. You know the things don’t you? You can wipe the shit off your boots so you don’t tread it indoors.” He noted with some satisfaction that the secretary flushed scarlet and lowered her eyes to some unread document on her desk. Smiling to himself he swiftly turned the brass door knob and stepped through to the interview room.
It was a room a little larger than the one he had just exited and had similar wooden panelling around the walls although unnamed and unrecognised portraits of civil dignitaries dotted three sides of the rom. The fourth wall was taken up mostly by a set of windows that Reg noted had probably not seen a window cleaner since before the war. The grey grime of the London streets had deposited layers of dust on the panes which had only partially been washed away by winter rains leaving streaks and a shadowy pallor that barely allowed the weak sun to penetrate inside. Beneath the window sat a long table behind which four out of the five men sat in a row peering studiously down at papers on which three small shaded lights threw a spotlight. The fifth, the High Sheriff, watched the newcomer to the room and beckoned him to the seat directly in front of the table.
“Good morning, Mr.Manley. Please take a seat.” The tone was affable, almost welcoming. Reg thought that perhaps this wasn’t going to be the crucifixion he had imagined. He sat down and passed his eye along the row of officials behind the table. The prison governor he recognised immediately and the chairman was the same one who had interviewed him some years before when he applied for the position of public hangman but the other three were unknown to him. Opening a folder in front of him the High Sheriff moved his glasses slightly down his nose and referred to some notes that had been typed, double-spaced Reg noticed, and at intervals had been underlined in red.
“Mr Manley” the sheriff’s finger tapped the notes in front of him, “we have all read the governor’s account of the execution of Henry Eastman and the difficulties you experienced on that occasion. Other witnesses have also been interviewed but we are particularly interested in hearing from you what exactly went wrong.” Reg was aware that the others on the panel were now scrutinising him closely and even though he had rehearsed his responses to the inevitable questions he was momentarily caught off his guard by the phalanx of faces opposite him.
“You will be aware, gentlemen, that Henry Eastman was, shall we say, somewhat larger than the average man.” Reg tested a wry smile but failed to get a response from any of the panel. “Although this, in itself, wouldn’t as a matter of course present a problem in the matter of weight versus drop, but for some inexplicable reason the slide ring of the noose became caught in Eastman’s collar and as a consequence failed to make the requisite tight fit around the neck. In all my years as an assistant to Albert Pierrepoint both here and after the Nuremberg trials and as head executioner I have never seen this happen before. Never. All had been despatched with no problems whatsoever.” Reg hesitated and went to fold his arms but stopped and rubbed his arms before putting his hands on his knees. He looked at the Sheriff who now sat back in his chair. The tone of his next question changed from the affable to something much more hostile and it caught Reg unawares.
“Mr Manley. The report I have here from the governor” he tapped the notes in front of him and nodded towards the man directly to his right who was now staring directly at Reg, “indicates a somewhat cavalier attitude on your part throughout the whole process and that you were overbearing in your attitude to those others in attendance. Would you say that was the case?”
Reg bristled at the criticism but took a moment to respond.
“With due respect, sir, it is very important to maintain a control over the proceedings especially if there are persons who may be inexperienced in the despatch of a prisoner.” He took a quick glance at the governor once more, suddenly a little unsure how he should voice the answer. “If those present don’t know exactly how the execution is carried out then it can cause a delay and unnecessary distress to the condemned man.”
“Yeees”. The Sherriff’s drawled response was accompanied by a tapping of his pen on the report in front of him. “Would it be possible that your eagerness to despatch Eastman in as short as time as possible, in effect chase him to the gallows was part and parcel of a competition that you fellows run on the side and in so doing you omitted to do the necessary and vital checks before pulling the lever?”
Reg was to say later that it was the use of the phrase “you fellows” that pushed the wrong button. Taking a few seconds to run his eye noticeably over the five men sitting in front of him Reg pursed his lips and shook his head.
“You fellows eh? You fellows? Who do you think I am? Some fucking amateur?” The epithet exploded out of him and he was gratified to see the prison governor and the Sherriff jerk backwards from the desk. “Where were you when Mr.Pierrepoint and I were dispatching the criminals at Belsen? Two at a time, sometimes four, just so we could keep up to the timetable that was set us. We did our job because no other fucker knew how to do it properly. You want to see how an amateur goes about it just nip over to the Russian sector and watch the poor bastards jigging about on a makeshift gallows as they were hauled up by some toothless Ivan.” Reg hesitated for a second before continuing, the bit now firmly between his teeth. “Mr.Pierrepoint was meticulous in his workmanship and I was proud to follow his lead. Most of the brass hats didn’t want to be present at the executions but at least they had the decency to keep their gobs shut while we got on with the job and some of them even congratulated us on our professionalism.” Reg paused and noticed with some gratification that a flush had come to the prison governor’s cheeks. He knew that he had probably dished his chances of remaining on the list but the frustration and anger he had felt over the last few weeks had finally found a legitimate outlet. “If you don’t like what we do then you have an answer don’t you? Abolish it or do it your bloody selves. Fifteen quid is what I got paid, overnight stay in a cold cell and a lousy travel warrant. Not one of you lot” Reg waved his finger down the row in front of him “would get out of bed for fifteen quid. You make me sick.”
The Sheriff rustled the papers in front of him and began to speak. “That’s as maybe, Manley but…”
Reg stood up from his chair. “No buts, sir. I bid you good day. Find someone else to do your dirty work.” He turned on his heel and left the room without once looking back.
© Roger Ackroyd 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file