Authors: Alan Hunter
VEN AT THIS
hour in the morning, when the dew still clung heavily to the rough, wiry blades of the marram, one could tell that by early afternoon the temperature would be nearing ninety. The sky stretched arching from the sea horizon like pale porcelain. The fawn sand, moist on the surface, kicked up underfoot as though it were parched brown sugar. Inland, beyond the red-brick cluster of the village, a field of beet looked bluish between straw-coloured acres; the field oaks were stringy and slanted by the wind; they made dark, heavy patches of unrelieved colour. In Hiverton itself there were no trees. One saw them only on rising ground to the south. There the Bel-Air guest house peered blandly at the North Sea, its numerous windows a-sparkle in the sunlight.
Another burning day was in prospect, turning the beach into a gridiron, the village into an oven! Already the sun was becoming spiteful and shortening its track on the steel-blue sea. Grasshoppers had begun to buzz too early, the larks were tired of their morning song.
Soon one would see the visitors come straggling across the marrams, their brightly coloured towels slung over their shoulders. The tide which had brought in the longshore boats was ebbing away to make sport for the bathers.
Just now there was only a single figure on the marram hills, a solitary man followed by a solitary dog. The man wore a shapeless brown jacket, sagged at the corners; the dog, a supple, yellowish beast, slunk along close to his heel. They both of them had a cautious air as though a sudden movement would send them scurrying. The man nursed something straight under the left side of his jacket, and the dog, occasionally, passed a pink tongue round its muzzle.
‘Come you on, blast you!’
The dog had turned aside for a moment: it wanted to investigate one of the lizards which frequented the marrams.
‘Do you want to get me hung?’
It jumped away, its mouth twitching. After a couple of reluctant frisks it was back again at heel.
A short distance from the fishermen’s net store the man halted abruptly. In a small hilltop depression before him was pitched a khaki-coloured tent. A bicycle lay beside it, and, near the flaps, some aluminium utensils. A sea-scrubbed bough had been lugged up from the beach and pressed into service as draining board and general furniture.
The man ran his eye over it, stock-still, listening. There was no movement in the tent, but that didn’t mean to say …
‘Cubbo, boy, cubbo!’
With a muttered word, he slid down the hillside. His descent put up some sandpipers, but the dog made no attempt to spring at them.
‘Good little old boy – cubbo!’
Together they plodded through the yielding sand. Ahead of them now lay the fishermen’s boats, seven or eight strung out in a line. Round about them was strewn wet seaweed from the nets and one could see the fresh tracks where the boats had been winched up the beach. Already, no doubt, at the fish market in Starmouth.
‘What’s the matter, boy? What d’you see?’
The dog had stopped, its hackles rising. Crouching back in the sand it was trembling and snarling, its teeth revealed under a curling lip. Alerted, the man clutched his gun closer to his body, but he could hear no sound and detect no movement.
‘What’s the matter, you stupid so-and-so—?’
The dog increased its snarls, its muzzle pointing towards the boats.
‘There’s nothing there, you fule!’
He could swear they were alone on the beach. The fishermen were in bed and Mears, the constable, on his beat. That beat, he well knew, took the policeman to West Somerby crossroads. Not once in ten years at this time in the morning …
He edged closer to the boats. The dog whined like a thing possessed. Snuffling and scolding, it dug in its feet and refused point blank to follow him. There was something uncanny about its behaviour: all the hair
down its back had lifted. Its beady eyes were
him in an ecstasy of dumb terror.
With an oath he strode over to the boats,
to know one way or the other. Lying at all angles just as they had been left, they presented almost at a glance their innocency of occupants. And yet that confounded dog … in a minute somebody would hear him!
And then the man, too, started back in the sugary sand. A look of bemused incredulity crept over his coarse features. Between two of the boats … only part of it showing … He swallowed once or twice without even closing his mouth.
He began to run heavily up the beach. The dog, flying ahead, was barking as though to wake the houses. Over the gap and down the track he pounded, cursing as he felt the bouncing gun. It had to be him who stumbled into it, his pockets filled from a successful morning!
Fortunately, the village was to all appearances deserted. Only Mrs Neal was about, taking in the Beach Stores’ bundle of papers.
‘What’s up with that dog, Fred … can’t you keep it from barking?’
Breathlessly he plunged into the shop with its mingled smell of apples and bacon.
‘First take these blessed things off me!’
Out came the gun and half a dozen fat rabbits. Before the astonished woman could protest, they were loaded into her arms.
‘Now get on the telephone – ring up Ferrety Mears! There’s a dead woman down on the beach – it’s that fancy piece from the guest house. Dead as a nit, I tell you, and not wearing nothing to talk about!’
He clawed for a moment at the sweat which was trickling down his face. Then, probably feeling that ceremony was pointless, he drew himself a glass of orange squash.
The sun was a little higher when Constable Mears strode over the gap. Above the hills the air had started to tremble and the sea looked darker below them. Small blue butterflies played over the grass tufts, their colours bleached by the brilliant light; along the tideline terns were dipping, and further out a school of gulls.
It was still quite early, but not early enough. The Hiverton grapevine had already been in action. About the handful of boats had gathered a mixed crowd of people – half dressed, some of them, the fishermen tousled and unwashed. They stood in silent groups in the presence of the dead. A shuffled foot or an uneasy mutter was all one heard above the wash of the sea.
‘Get back there, some of you!’
Mears’s angry order sounded out of place.
they turned to stare at him and his delegated authority. Wasn’t he just one of themselves, though masquerading in a uniform?
‘These kids about here … haven’t you got any sense?’
Two of the men, visitors, were shamed into calling away their offspring.
The sand was dry now and almost the colour of platinum. The shadows of the boats fell across it sharp and hard. Like sections of exotic fruit the boats lay shoulder to shoulder, their gay colours explosive under the white fire of the sun.
‘You was it who found it?’
Nockolds, with Neal from the store, was on guard. To help preserve the decencies they had brought down some potato sacks. Nockolds was in his shirtsleeves: he had thought it prudent to shed his poacher’s jacket.
‘About half-an-hour ago.’
‘On your own were you?’
‘I ran all the way.’
‘Hold these sacks up, will you? We don’t want everyone …’
Between them they made some sort of a screen, and Mears was enabled to view the body. It was of a woman in her late twenties, and she had been outstandingly beautiful. She had long, jet-black hair and a bold, heart-shaped face, but the former was now soiled with sand and the latter convulsed and bluish. She lay stiffly on her back and was wearing only crimson beach pyjamas. The jacket was undone revealing pale, shapely breasts. It also revealed two livid bruises, one on each side of her throat. The body was rigid and the pyjamas damp with dew.
‘Touch her, did you?’
‘Not blessed likely!’
Mears stooped to feel her wrist but was repelled by its chilly stiffness. In between the boats it was still cold and shadowed. The seaweed lying there remained limp and fresh-smelling.
‘What time did the boats come in?’
‘’Bout four … thereabouts.’
‘She wasn’t there then?’
‘Blast no, do we’d have said something!’
‘Anyone recognize her?’
That was an easy one. All the men in the village had kept an eye on this beauty.
‘She come from the guest house.’
‘Rachel – that’s what her name is!’
‘Been here above a week …’
‘She never wore more than …’
Mears took out his notebook and began to scribble it down. A few of the bolder ones were trying to peep between the boats, but Nockolds and Neal held their sacks together jealously. All the time newcomers came hastening down from the gap.
‘What time did you finish here?’
‘Getting on for half past five.’
‘See anyone about then?’
‘Not a soul bar us lot.’
‘How many of you went out last night?’
All of them, it appeared, who had a boat or a share in one. The moon was coming to its full and the longshore fishing was profitable. With a good catch they had returned in the brooding light of the dawn; the boats had been hauled up, the fish unloaded into baskets, and the nets carried up to dry at the store. Then they had tumbled into bed leaving the boats to throw long shadows …
‘Had Mason gone off with the fish?’
‘Blast yes, before we’d got the nets away.’
‘Who was the last to leave?’
They were three of the elder men and they had left all together.
Now the bystanders were more talkative, some of their tongues having been loosened. The visitors in particular were excitedly canvassing each other’s
. For them it wasn’t so serious, if anything rather an event. A couple of teenagers were staying at the Bel-Air, and they were assiduous in their efforts to peer round the sacks.
‘The doctor is on his way … can I trust you two?’
Mears was putting away his notebook and
at the curious assembly. He would liked to have cleared the beach but was aware of his limited authority.
‘Nobody’s to touch anything … they’re to keep out of the boats.’
He stumped away looking fierce and flustered. They would blame him, but what could one man do? Behind him, before he had got a dozen yards, he could hear the shuffle of encroaching feet. If by chance there had happened to be some clues about …
He resisted temptation and didn’t turn his head.
In effect his departure had a dampening influence on the sightseers. Their huddling forward was a
and not the pursuit of curiosity. Mears had acted as a catalyst. His presence had made them vocal. Now, the most bold among them had become the most silent.
‘He’s gone to ring up the C.I.D.’
It was only by degrees that the affair crept into
perspective. In a little while what was almost private would become the property of the public.
‘The press’ll be here soon, you see.’
‘The Sunday papers …’
‘Do you reckon they’ll call in?’
For the tenth time Nockolds dashed the sweat from his face. Dimly he could begin to see that there was trouble building up for him. He’d kept telling himself a story about a walk to exercise his dog, but the more he turned it over the less likely did it seem. Mears might have accepted it, but after Mears were coming other people …
‘You’re sure it’s that black-haired mawther?’
Bob Hawks, the mean-faced owner of the
, had arrived too late to get a glimpse of the exhibit.
‘Let’s have a look, Fred – just a quick ’un!’
But Fred, with a guilty conscience, was permitting quick looks to no man.
Now they could hear the doctor’s car puffing up with a skirmish of brakes. Doctor Banning was a young man who had only just begun to practise. His passing likeness to Jeff Chandler had spread epidemics among his female clients.
‘Good lord, have you no respect for the dead!’
One had to admire his cool manner and the authority of his boyish voice. Without exerting himself he got the crowd to move off – further, indeed, than Mears had done.
‘Now, let’s see.’
He was down on his knees without turning a hair.
Hawks, still hovering close, peered shamelessly over
the doctor’s shoulder. His dark-brown eyes glittered and an odd expression showed on his long thin face.
‘Get you back, Bob!’
Nockolds nudged him, but Hawks didn’t seem to notice. He watched fascinated while the doctor’s hands ran tentatively over the stiffened body. For no reason at all a child had begun to bawl its head off, while up on the marrams, not far from the net store, appeared the young man whose tent had diverted the poacher.
‘Bring plenty of screens,’ Mears was advising the County H.Q.
Near his phone box a wall thermometer was already registering seventy-six.
By ten that evening the temperature was still in the seventies. All along the road to Wendham, where the County Constabulary had its headquarters, Inspector Dyson had been passing pubs outside which
men were standing with glasses. At Strawsett there had been some dancing. A youth in a singlet was bouncing a scarlet accordion. From the wide-open windows of stuffy bedrooms children, unable to sleep, had waved listlessly at the passing police car.
At Wendham it was just the same, the narrow streets alive with people. In sleeveless shirts and dresses they sauntered aimlessly in the twilight. Around the
some kids were screaming, their limbs and faces tanned as brown as nuts. High above, in the pale sky, swifts were circling on thin crescent wings.
‘Will you want the car again, sir?’
Dyson made a face as he slammed the door. He had
caught the sun badly on his face and arms and tomorrow, he knew from experience, his nose would peel like a burst tomato. But most of all he was wanting a pint of beer. The idea had tantalized him all the way from Hiverton. During the whole wearisome day, beginning at eight o’clock that morning, nothing had gratified his thirst except ice cream and cups of tea.