MY PARENTS were delighted with their new handyman. `He's really very good,' my mother phoned to tell me. `He's put up some lovely shelves in the study and is painting the garden chairs. He's called Mr Cook.'
Cambridge in 1975 was in a state of controlled panic. A rapist was at large, and single women were warned to keep their doors and windows locked at night. He was known to be short and stocky, and apparently wore black leather and a mask with the word RAPIST written across it. He was both sexually and verbally violent, and left his victims in a state of physical and psychological terror.
The police seemed incapable of tracing him, although they made a practice of re-arresting and then releasing several likely suspects, among them Mr Cook. My mother, kind-hearted and unworldly, was outraged on his behalf, and listened with sympathy to his grievances. `It's just because I'm a little feller,' he would complain with wounded innocence. `They've got it in for me.' She would make another cup of tea, and nod encouragingly.
`I feel so sorry for him,' she told me. `He's never had much of a chance in life, and just because he has a criminal record - only burglary, when he was much younger! - they keep on questioning him. He's made a new start, and they keep raking it up.' His being taken in for questioning happened so frequently that my brother, still living at home, used to greet him jocularly with, `Hello, not caught you yet, I see'. This was met with a mirthless laugh.
Unprepossessing though he was, he had acquired a wife who, I was told, was devoted to him. Their sadness was that they were childless, so when my sister came over from Montreal for the summer with her two young children, it seemed a delightful idea for him and his wife to take them punting - after all, he worked in the boatyard; what could be more suitable? A picnic was prepared, and off they went. My six-year-old nephew fell into the Cam and was heroically rescued by Mr Cook, and his popularity in my parents' household was never higher.
Some weeks later, I went home for the weekend. The rapes had increased in number and brutality, but I was blithely confident that these at least had happened on dark evenings in Halls of Residence, and this was a Saturday in broad daylight.
Nonetheless, my parents warned me, as they went out for the afternoon, not to open the door to just anyone, so when the doorbell rang I opened it very cautiously.
There stood a short, stocky, shifty-looking man - it must be Mr Cook! And indeed it was. `Thank goodness it's you,' I said hospitably, ushering him in. `I was afraid it might be the rapist!'
Our eyes met briefly; his expression was impassive. `Well, you can never be too careful. Are your parents in?' On learning that I was on my own, he hesitated for a while. Then he pushed past me quite roughly, saying that he wanted to check the shelves he had put up last week. Halfway down the hall, he abruptly turned round and said he had changed his mind. `I just want to know how satisfied they were with the drawer I repaired on that military chest,' he said. `I've done a lovely job on it - let me show you, it's in the top bedroom.'
`What about the shelves you wanted to check on?'
`No, it's the drawer,' he insisted.
I was beginning to feel uneasy, but after all, this was someone who had saved my nephew's life! Just then the phone rang, and when I returned he had gone.
Three days later my mother rang me at six in the morning. `Flora!' she almost squeaked. `It's on the news - they've caught the rapist! And it's Mr Cook!' She was so shaken that, although almost teetotal, she agreed to have a small brandy. My brother was frankly disbelieving. `A mask with RAPIST on it?' he scoffed. `He surely doesn't have the imagination.' But it seemed that he did. Once he was in custody, hindsight illuminated all corners and opprobrium was cast from all directions, but my mother, fair-minded as always, wrote to the highest authorities and - on the grounds that a man is innocent until proven guilty - wanted it on file that Mr Cook had been a good worker and furthermore had saved her grandson from a watery grave. But by this time, Peter Cook was in a hospital for the criminally insane, calling himself Carole and breast-feeding a rag doll.
I still keep my clothes in a drawer repaired by the Cambridge Rapist, signed in chalk on the side-panel. Well, he did a lovely job on it.