Cat Among the Herrings

Cat Among the Herrings

L. C. TYLER

For ‘Cat’

‘Murder, like talent, seems occasionally to run in families’

 

G. H. Lewes

It was not the happiest of funerals.

 

A spiteful gale, gusting fitfully from the Channel, flung needles of sleet at our faces. I heard the rector utter that most final of instructions: ‘Commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes’. Then, for a page or so of the burial service, nothing reached me but the howling of the wind in the trees. Half blinded and more than half deafened, I stood, feeling the rain soak slowly through to my skin. No adjustment that I might make – turning up my collar, pulling my coat more closely about me – could do anything but bring an even colder, wetter layer of clothing into an even closer contact with myself. Black, billowing clouds were fleeing inland, but we had nowhere to run.

‘… forgive us our trespasses …’ blew in my direction. We were almost there, then. I counted to ten slowly and
said an ‘Amen’ that nobody else could have heard.

A little to my left I caught the glance of young Tom Gittings. He gave me a quick smile – I think he would have winked if he had been sure nobody else was watching. The irony of the living being made to suffer for the questionable benefit to the dead had certainly occurred to him too. But we were both aware that the slightest suggestion of levity would be out of place. This was a dreadful and momentous occasion. We were burying the last of the Paghams.

The service that had preceded the interment had been another matter. Quite different in every respect. We were warm and dry then, inside the church, listening to a storm that rattled the windows but that seemed as yet to have little to do with us. The rector had spoken at length of the Pagham family. He reminded us that they had been significant landowners in the Middle Ages. One had been a bishop who had advised Richard II slightly too well and become collateral damage during the Peasants’ Revolt. Another had fought with Drake, sinking a Spanish galleon (it was said) within sight of his own tenants, who were assembled on the pebbly coastline, curious to discover whether their landlord would return to collect the next instalment of their rent. Another had been knighted by Charles II on the very day of his glorious Restoration, possibly in mistake for somebody else with a similar name. Their later decline, the gradual sale of their lands to pay gambling debts or bribe electors or invest in the South Sea Bubble … these things the rector passed over quite quickly. Members of the congregation who were unfamiliar with local history would have been bemused at how the Paghams of the nineteenth century had found themselves
living in a small thatched cottage close to the village green, catching herring and mackerel for a living and never quite free from the smell of rotting fish. But this too had to be mentioned in passing, or how else could the rector praise the meteoric rise that had followed? It was, if you were prepared to overlook their previous ignominious fall, a genuine tale of rags to riches. Robin might have been the last of the Paghams but he had been able to go out in style.

The rector spoke warmly of Robin’s father, Roger Pagham. A good man and a regular churchgoer. He did not draw any comparison with Robin Pagham in this respect. There was no need. We all knew Robin.

It was tragic, the rector said, that only a year or so after burying the father, we were now assembled to bury the son. But we should be thankful that he had died doing what he most enjoyed. The congregation turned, almost as one, to look at the woman in a tight black dress and lace veil in the front row. Some of us had already noted that deep and sincere mourning did not preclude a skirt well above knee level.

‘Sailing,’ added the rector quickly, but perhaps not quite quickly enough. Robin, he went on, had not been the first son of West Wittering to meet a tragic end at sea, nor would he be the last. Experienced yachtsman though he had been, and unthreatening though the winds had seemed, he had perished. Though some had said it was inexplicable, those who knew the sea and its ways well understood how conditions could change in an instant, how a moment’s inattention could prove the undoing of the wisest mariner. He did not add that everyone’s first assumption, on hearing the tragic news, had been that Robin must have been drunk.
Robin had undeniably gained solace from alcohol in a way that he had not from religion. It had, you might say, been a contest between his many hobbies to see which would eventually kill him.

The rector had hoped, he said, that the next event here at the church relating to the family would have been a joyous one. Robin had finally, after many years, found somebody that he wished to spend the rest of his life with. As many of them were aware, he and Catarina had been about to announce their engagement. The rector did not have the pleasure of knowing Catarina well, but she was clearly (he consulted his notes) a very special person. He looked up and gave a slightly wary smile to the lady in black.

The smile was not returned. Robin’s fiancée, as we now knew her to be, continued to stare straight ahead. Her small hand clutched a black-edged linen handkerchief, which she occasionally applied to her eyes, uncovering her face as little as possible.

It was gratifying, added the rector, to see such profound and genuine love, in spite of the difference in their ages. At this point somebody at the back of the church had a coughing fit, but the rector pressed on regardless. He was a good man and this was not the first funeral at which the deceased had been allowed considerable benefit of the doubt. I noticed that the rector felt no need to mention any of Robin’s convictions for the possession of drugs, nor his caution for breaking his then-girlfriend’s nose. (But this was five or six girlfriends before he met Catarina – more than two years ago, in fact.) Robin had, the rector continued, not been a
regular
member of the congregation but … he paused as if wondering what it was fair to try to make
us believe … Robin had possessed Christian Charity in abundance. He would, in the rector’s opinion, have made a wonderful father.

This last drew a brief but very audible sob from Catarina, which brought the proceedings to a sudden if temporary halt. The rector opened his mouth as if to expand on the theme of Robin and fatherhood then, apparently thinking better of it, quickly turned the page. ‘Thus,’ he announced, ‘the ancient line of the Paghams comes to an end. The family was well respected and well loved within our community and will be missed by us all.’

At this point, Catarina was heard to mutter something from behind her black veil. None of us spoke the language in question, but it did not sound as if she was agreeing that the village had been universally well disposed towards Robin. The rector took another deep breath and announced that we would now sing Robin’s favourite hymn. It proved to be ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’.

Afterwards there were prayers, which Catarina was prepared to take as read. Then we sang ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’, though the rector wisely did not attempt to claim that Robin liked, or even knew, more than one hymn. And that was that.

Apart from one thing.

 

Just as we were all preparing to troop out into the rain, Catarina turned to the congregation and lifted her veil so that she could observe us the better. Her dark eyes glowered. She raised her hand and pointed a gloved finger in our direction, sweeping it from left to right and taking in every one of us.

‘One of you bastards murdered Robin,’ she said in heavily accented tones, ‘and, whoever it was, I’m going to have your arse. You losers have messed with the wrong lady.’

The rector consulted his prayer book for a moment, as if he had temporarily lost his place in the order of service. Then, in total silence, he led us out of the church and into the rain.

It was not the liveliest of wakes.

 

The rector had announced that we were all invited to refreshments at Greylands House after the funeral. There was some uncertainty in our minds as to who would host the event, Robin, as I have said, having no immediate family. We drove along the rutted lane to the Paghams’ residence, a mile or two outside the village, with a mild curiosity to see who would take charge in the absence of any living Pagham. We had speculated that it might be the Paghams’ solicitor as executor, or perhaps some distant relative. In the event, Catarina took pride of place, though she condescended rather than hosted. She stood by the door as we trooped in and she shook hands with each of us. There was a surprising firmness to her grip that was completely at variance with the fragile, black lace gloves.

‘Thank you much for coming,’ she said to me. Or
perhaps she said it to somebody else entirely. It was undoubtedly my hand that she pressed, but she was looking beyond me, over my shoulder. It was rather as if I had been hoping to meet the president and had found myself shaking hands with one of his bodyguards. Polite, professional but honestly not too interested in me as a person.

‘I didn’t know Robin well,’ I said. ‘I moved into the village only a couple of years ago – hardly any time in a place like this. But I’d met him a few times at the sailing club. He was a very warm-hearted and generous man. We’ll miss him.’

Though she had not let go of my hand the whole time, only now did she turn her head and look at me properly.

‘You are the writer?’ she asked.

‘I suppose so. I write crime novels,’ I said.

She nodded. ‘That is right. Crime. I have heard of you.’

‘You’ve read my books?’

‘No. I think not many of your books in the shops. Not any more. But are still some old reviews on Internet. I have read reviews – they are very amusing. I laugh. But maybe not so funny for you.’

I said, I hope convincingly, that you got used to bad reviews.

She shrugged. ‘
You
will miss Robin?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Robin was what you might have described as a character. He was pretty wild when he was younger, by all accounts, but he had mellowed.’

‘Robin was not old man,’ she said.

‘Not young, of course …’

‘Not old to die,’ she said. ‘Not old not to know how
sail boat. Not old not to make much love. Two, three times every night. How about you?’

‘I’m not much of a sailor,’ I said.

She looked me up and down. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Not so much, I think.’

I left her to interrogate the rector, who had just arrived with his wife. I overheard him answering: ‘about five times a week, except at Christmas’. But I think that referred to the services he took in the village.

 

A number of the local youths had been employed as waiters. Since most of us sipped our sherry slowly, and since none of them had any experience in this field, they frequently lapsed into chatting to each other in the kitchen or texting, having little else to do.

Once or twice Catarina, noticing that she was paying them for doing nothing, snapped an order at the staff and they quickly circled the room again with trays of sweet and dry sherry. Like the rector, they were not quite sure what to make of Catarina and were taking no unnecessary risks.

Drinks were served in whatever glasses they had been able to locate. Measures were variable, arbitrary and sometimes surprisingly generous. One of the children had been able to negotiate for herself a tumblerful of sweet sherry and now sat on the floor, slightly befuddled but not yet actually vomiting. Catarina nodded approvingly in her direction. ‘Cute,’ she said. ‘When Robin and I had our children …’

In the long pause that followed I said: ‘The rector was right: Robin would have made a fine father.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Catarina. ‘He would have beaten the
children, of course. But perhaps he would be too drunk for other things that a father must do. He must teach hunt. Robin would not have been safe teach hunt. Small child with loaded gun and drunken father – not good I think. But I would have been a fine mother. You see these titties? I will have strong, healthy babies. What you say?’

I examined Catarina’s cleavage for as long as politeness demanded. ‘Ah … yes,’ I said. ‘They would have been very healthy.’

‘You are like me,’ she said. I must have looked puzzled because she added: ‘You not live here long.’

‘About two years,’ I said.

‘But these people – they all live here
for ever
.’ She waved her hand at her guests. ‘Look at them. They are proud that their parents and their grandparents never leave this place. Like peasants in my country. You know what they think of me?’

I had a pretty good idea, but I shook my head.

‘They think I am common woman with short skirts and big titties. They think I not love Robin. They think I want his money, not his dick.’

Well, that seemed a fairly accurate summary of what the village thought.

‘I’m not sure that’s entirely true,’ I said, nevertheless.

‘Which bit not true?’

‘I don’t think any of it is true, really. I’m sure you did want his … I mean that you wanted him for himself. Not his money. The rector said that Robin had finally found true love.’

‘Huh!’ she replied. ‘He does not mean it. As you say in your country … it grinds my goat to hear it. But I am not
deceived. Robin’s family is oldest in the village. He is rich. I am not worthy of him. So they kill him.’

‘They killed him to stop him marrying you?’

Catarina looked into the distance as if seeing something that I could not. ‘Yes, I think so.’

‘You mean the whole village?’

‘Of course not. You really think a whole village plots to kill somebody? Is that what is in your crime books?’

Actually I
had
used that plot, sort of, but it didn’t seem terribly relevant now. I couldn’t see why anyone would actually want to prevent the marriage – let alone kill Robin to do so. Who could possibly gain by it?

‘Sorry – it makes no sense,’ I said. ‘How does killing him help anyone?’

‘Honour,’ she said obscurely. ‘In my country they kill for honour. Even the priests.’

I followed her gaze to where the rector, clutching half a pint of dry sherry, was in conversation with one of the local councillors. The councillor made a whirling motion with his hands and then placed them over both ears. They were probably discussing the proposed wind farm, then. Even so, neither looked likely to commit murder.

‘Not here,’ I said. ‘Not in Sussex.’

‘Everywhere,’ she said. ‘The church protects them. But perhaps here they would not make the priest an archbishop afterwards. That was bad. To make him a bishop, yes, of course. But an archbishop …’

Perhaps she had been reading too much Dan Brown. That seemed likely. Nobody was quite sure which country Catarina came from. Most countries in Eastern Europe had been canvassed since the village became aware of her, but
one of the former Soviet republics seemed likely.

‘The coroner said it was an accident,’ I said. ‘What makes you think it wasn’t?’

‘I say too much in the church?’

‘Gosh, no. Well, maybe a bit. It’s just that it isn’t normal in England …’

Catarina looked round the room as if suddenly worried that, by speaking to me in a loud voice about somebody present – possibly about everybody present – having murdered her fiancé, she might have attracted undue attention. ‘Meet me in garden in ten minutes,’ she said. ‘I will explain you. I go. You follow. Not good we are seen going into bushes together. Not at funeral.’

Then she was gone. I stood for a moment, wondering which of the little groups of sherry drinkers to join for the required period of time. Before I could decide between the rector’s wind farm discussion and some people I knew from the film club, Tom Gittings wandered up, clutching an orange juice.

‘That was a very earnest conversation you were having with Catarina.’

‘She thinks Robin was murdered,’ I said.

‘Yes, she mentioned it in passing during the funeral service. Did she say much more than that to you?’

‘Are you asking me in your capacity as a journalist or as a friend?’

‘Strictly as a friend. I’ve done all the reporting I’m planning to do on Robin’s death. I can’t say I enjoyed having to cover the inquest for the
Observer
.’

I nodded sympathetically. Tom had known Robin well. Too well to be comfortable producing dispassionate copy
for the local paper. ‘She’s going to explain it to me in the garden,’ I said. ‘But she thinks the family wanted him dead rather than married to her.’

‘What family? Robin was the last of the line.’

‘No great uncles? No third cousins?’

‘Nobody that I know of. Robin was the only child. His father was the only survivor of a number of children – he had brothers but they were killed in the last war. Same with the previous generation – you can check out the village war memorial for the exact names. There was also a daughter – can’t remember what she was called – died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. The succession of Paghams has been hanging by a thread for some years. Maybe if you did some genealogical research back into the nineteenth century you’d come up with something, but the chances of their even knowing about the engagement would be slim. I doubt they’d have any legal claim to the estate. Not good enough for it to be worth committing murder on the off chance a court would find in their favour.’

‘I knew you were a friend of Robin’s,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know you were so well up on his family history.’

‘Difficult not to be. We’re both local. His family and mine have lived side by side for hundreds of years, ploughing furrows on adjacent strips of land, mending hedges, stealing each other’s cattle.’

‘Actually stealing cattle?’

‘Well, sheep at least.’

‘All very neighbourly.’

‘Yes, most of the time,’ said Tom. ‘Dad and Robin certainly got on well. They both sailed. They shared a love of the sea … and other things. But our two families haven’t
always seen eye to eye, as you probably know – and I doubt if we know all the Pagham family secrets. Still, I can assure you absolutely that there are no known relatives. And that the coroner said it was accidental death.’

‘There were rumours that he had been drinking,’ I said.

Tom shook his head. ‘I was there for the whole inquest. Nothing said about alcohol.’

‘I read your report,’ I said. ‘But editors cut things.’

‘It’s one of the hazards of the trade,’ said Tom. ‘And you’re right, of course. What I wrote was much longer and the editor cut it to a couple of paragraphs. But he cut nothing of any real interest. Anyway, even without an autopsy report, I knew Robin. So did my father. Dad would have told me if Robin had ever set sail under the influence. According to the coroner, he’d eaten a good meal and drank some coffee. No booze at all. His death is odd because nobody knew the coast round here like he did. But there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t an accident. It must have been a freak wave or something – overturned the boat.’

‘He would have had a life jacket on?’

‘Yes, of course. He was still wearing it when his body was washed up two days later.’

I paused and wondered what the body would have looked like. Perhaps it was as well that Tom had been restricted to a couple of paragraphs, leaving out much of the detail he’d had to sit through. Not that he wouldn’t have made it interesting. He was, in fact, a talented writer with ambitions that went beyond his current rather junior role in Chichester.

‘How’s the book coming on?’ I asked.

‘Almost finished. I suppose you couldn’t put in a good word for me with your agent?’

‘I don’t have an agent,’ I said.

‘I thought you dedicated one of your books to your wonderful agent, Elsie Thirkettle?’

‘I switched to somebody else. But it didn’t work out – the new agent, I mean. I always felt I was a bit too much under Elsie’s thumb but the new one was … even more difficult. It’s a long story.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. So, no agent at the moment. Could you go back to Thirkettle?’

‘I doubt it, but I don’t need an agent. I’ll let you have Elsie’s contact details, if you like. I can’t pretend I have any influence with her these days – if I ever did have any. She’ll probably just say, send in a covering letter, three chapters and a synopsis.’

‘Is that standard practice?’

‘It used to be. I’m out of touch. It’s a while since I had to do that sort of thing. You have to remember you are at the beginning of a glorious career in literature. I’m at the end of one and it wasn’t especially glorious.’

‘But you’re still writing books?’

‘Yes, you never stop writing books.’

‘Catarina’s out in the garden,’ said Tom. ‘She seems to be waving at you.’

‘It’s time to go and meet her inconspicuously,’ I said.

‘Good luck with that,’ said Tom.

 

The garden was more than a little overgrown. Robin had discontinued the services of his father’s gardener as soon as he decently could. The grass must have been cut
by somebody sometime in the autumn, but wet bushes overhung the lawns and weeds snaked thick stems across the unswept gravel. In the distance, beyond the perimeter hedge, I thought I could make out the dark water of Chichester Harbour and, far beyond that, the misty line of the Downs. Once, with its winding paths, its summer house and its hedged seating areas, it must have been a place where two elegantly dressed people could have an assignation under the stars. Not so now. Fortunately the light was good enough to avoid the obvious snares and only one of us was elegantly dressed. I was still in a damp Barbour, but Catarina’s black dress was uncreased and spotless. I wondered if she had had a second one to change into on her return to the house. I was sure that she had worn no coat for the interment. Though she had sheltered under a large black umbrella, the rain at the church had been almost horizontal at times. She must have been as wet as the rest of us.

Here in the garden a low sun had broken through and for a few moments we had that heady spectacle of dazzling light on dark-grey clouds.

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