Read Palmer-Jones 01 - A Bird in the Hand Online

Authors: Ann Cleeves

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #British Detectives, #Teen & Young Adult, #Crime Fiction, #Cozy, #Private Investigators

Palmer-Jones 01 - A Bird in the Hand (2 page)

There were no birdwatchers in the Blue Anchors lunch-time. They were too busy counting the blue throats and wrynecks, the red-backs shrikes, too busy peering through the fog, checking every willow warbler trying to turn it into a bonelli’s, every whitethroat in the hope that it would become a spectacled warbler. Only the landlord missed Tom. It was unusual for him not to come in for a pint before going out on the marsh.

It was the sort of day which confused the village. At the peak of migration the birds had been kept on the ground by the fog in huge numbers. Yet the birdwatchers seemed dissatisfied. There was an air of frustration, of frenzy. It seemed impossible that among so many birds there was nothing unusual, but no rarity had been found. Villagers who noted the large numbers of birds and expected the twitchers to be pleased were hurt by the frantic bad tempers. It was as if Rushy had let the birdwatchers down.

The village expected the birdwatchers now every spring and autumn and though it complained of their presence every year in a gentle, pleasant way which had become a habit, it was happy to exploit them commercially. Few of the locals understood them, or made any effort to know them well. They sold books and food and pictures to the birdwatchers—birdwatchers staying in their homes extended the bed and breakfast season—but the intense enthusiasm, the fanaticism puzzled them. The village was red-stone, flint-faced, like many others along the coast, and its inhabitants wondered in a bewildered, accepting way why it should have been chosen for special attention by the birdwatchers. And yet, in spite of the detachment, the occasional hostility, there had been some impact on the local population. The excitement of twitching was infectious. That morning Ella, owner of the Windmill Café, glorious in black night clothes, had looked out of the bedroom window, and exclaimed to her husband:

“Look at that wind and that fog, Jack. We’ll be busy today. They’ll be motoring in from all over the country.”

Her dark eyes had flashed at the drama of it all, and she thought of the profit which would be shown at the end of the day.

So, there was a strange feeling in the village, sensed by locals and birders alike. The thick fog which had rolled in from the sea at dawn would not clear. The cars moved slowly and people stopped and remarked on the weather, and remembered other times when the fog had lasted a week, and throughout the day odd young people in disreputable clothing, carrying telescopes like offensive weapons, rushed through the village to the marsh, or back from the marsh to the copse. Later, older and more respectable people arrived in cars, and politely asked their way. All day, shut in by the fog as the strangers arrived, there was a feeling that the village was under siege and under invasion.

It was late afternoon when Adam Anderson found the “big one,” the rarity for which they had all been waiting. Adam was still at school, one of the younger generation of twitchers, most of whom were still regarded with suspicion because of their wild claims and lack of respect for tradition and the order of things. But Adam was nervous, quiet. He was dedicated and spent more days in the field than he did at school. Because of his long hair, his jeans and Indian cotton shirt, the older twitchers, who had been his age in the sixties, felt at ease with him. Adam knew, as all birdwatchers of any experience in Rushy knew, that he must get his information to the Windmill.

The Windmill was a wooden hut on a piece of flat derelict grassland below the shingle bank, next to the coastguard station. It had been built by Ella and Jack when there had been talk of developing the area for the tourists, plans for a fun-fair and amusement arcade. Perhaps the developers had been dissuaded by the bleakness of the place, the talk of flooding, the pressure of the conservationists, because there was no more building. If tourists went to Rushy they seldom wandered out on to the marsh. So Jack had gone back to work, driving the school bus.

Before the arrival of the birdwatchers Ella had sat alone in the hut, making an occasional cup of tea for fishermen and bait diggers. Now, as on most weekends in the migration season, the Windmill was packed. Most of the birders, hungry, dampened by the fog, had given up the dream of finding the big one, and were drinking tea, sharing information, waiting for the phone to ring with news from other parts of the country. Ella, who had been growing middle-aged, grey, with the failure of the business, had been rejuvenated by the twitchers, and expressed her gratitude by promoting their image in the village. She was a big, handsome woman, whose grandfather was said to have come to Rushy as a tinker. She had adopted the twitchers’ code as her own, once banning for a season a birdwatcher who had kept news of a rarity to himself. She mothered them and spoilt them and made a lot of money out of them.

On a day like this she felt the birdwatchers’ depression personally. They seemed to have brought the fog with them into the building. The windows were misted with it, and there was a smell of damp. Every class of birdwatcher was represented, and although the hierarchy within ornithological society would not be noticed by an outsider, it was recognized by Ella. Until Ella knew his name, where he lived and what work he did, a twitcher did not properly belong.

The person who most obviously belonged in the place was a young man, scruffily but carefully dressed in a sailing smock and worn cord trousers. He stood behind the counter, in the kitchen, and lazily helped himself to a cup of tea. He had a stubble of beard and began to roll a cigarette, in a calculating, self-conscious way. He was always showing off. He seemed to be cultivating the image of a South American revolutionary. From a corner, loud but nervous teenagers watched him with envy. One of the teenagers, who wore an earring and dyed orange hair, made a teasing comment which was obviously uncomplimentary to the man pouring the tea, but he made it as a gesture of defiance, and there was little laughter from his friends.

An elderly couple, the man dressed immaculately like a country gentleman, the woman, in a tweed skirt and wellingtons, pushed open the door of the café and stood just inside. Ella was busy and had her back to them. The young revolutionary smiled broadly, but the gentleman put his finger to his lips and winked at Ella’s back. When she turned round he was standing behind the counter beside her, eating a piece of her fruit cake. There was a real pleasure in her surprise, and when he took her hand she blushed before she sent them both to the customers’ side of the counter, saying that they were in her way.

“Now, now, my dear,” said the country gentleman. “That’s surely no way to talk to the oldest twitcher in Rushy.”

“Mr. Palmer-Jones,” replied Ella with great spirit. “ I shall talk to you how I please and how you deserve.”

Then, affectionate and angry, she turned on the young man:

“If I catch you behind here again, Robert, with that filthy tobacco, I’ll ban you for a month.”

Unrepentant, the young man refilled his cup and led his friends to a table to sit down. As he stood to let them past him, he noticed that the sun was shining.

The fog had remained dense throughout the afternoon, when suddenly, at five, like a vast blind rolled back to the sea, it cleared. So the line of observers lying against the shingle bank, their telescopes unused on their knees, could see Adam running along the straight flat track from the main road. His running was thrown out of balance by the optical equipment he was carrying, and he ran like an excited schoolgirl, legs flying. They sensed his urgency and slid down the shingle and ran too, towards the Windmill. The few people still walking slowly and hopefully through the marsh saw the line of black figures on the bank disappear and they also began to run. When Adam pushed into the hut with so much energy and excitement that it seemed that the room could hardly contain him, there was a crowd behind him jostling him further in. Adam tried to speak, but he was out of breath and the background music was so loud that no one could make out what he said. Ella knew what was expected and turned off the radio. Then there was silence. They all heard when, still fighting for breath and with a slight stutter, he said:

“Bimaculated lark. On the lawn behind the hotel. I’m sure it is.”

With tolerance and affection Ella watched the snack bar empty and on her knees to sweep up a cup and plate broken in the confusion, said to her assistant:

“You’d best get some more bread out of the freezer, Sandra. We’ll be busy tomorrow.”

Then: “ He’s such a gentleman, Mr. Palmer-Jones. He was a civil servant before he retired. Do you know, he used to work for a minister? He told me once. Fancy young Adam finding a bird like that.”

All the birdwatchers went inland, to trespass on the parkland surrounding the hotel, and there was no one to disturb the peace of the marsh, where a little boy was playing with his boat in the sun.

Mr. and Mrs. Palmer-Jones lived in a pretty and tidy village in Surrey. Their house was neither pretty nor tidy. It was a red-brick Victorian vicarage with flaking paint and a garden of tangled undergrowth, with a pond full of newts and toads. A battered old swing had been left to rust on the lawn for the benefit of grandchildren, and the latch on the front gate was always sticking. Mrs. Palmer-Jones shocked the village by standing unsuccessfully each year as a candidate for the Labour Party in local authority elections and going on CND marches. Over the years these idiosyncracies were forgiven, but she refused to join the WI, and that never was. Until she had retired at the age of sixty she had worked as a senior social worker in Guildford. This had been viewed as a respectable occupation for an elderly lady, like working for the WRVS, until Molly Palmer-Jones had made the mistake of describing some of the details of her work. Then it became common knowledge in the village that she worked “ not with the needy or old ladies or orphans, but, my dear, with youths, criminals and drug addicts.”

Mr. Palmer-Jones was a naturalist of the old-fashioned type, who knew about plants and butterflies as well as birds. His weekly article on natural history in the local paper made him something of a celebrity in the village. He was a founder member of the Surrey Conservation Trust. But even he began to behave a little oddly as he grew older. He went to India in a Land Rover. When he retired he sold his Volvo and bought a Morris Minor van, in which he and Molly travelled all over the country looking for and watching rare birds. Strange people were seen to visit the house, people who were dropped in the village by lorry drivers after hitch-hiking from the motorway, young people, carrying nothing but a sleeping bag and a battered telescope. Yet unlike his wife he maintained decent standards of dress and speech. There was sustained criticism by a member of the Conservation Trust with journalistic ambitions of his newspaper articles, which now reflected his trips to see rare birds, but he continued to be respected. He had an air of authority, of sadness, which encouraged people to keep their distance. They were, perhaps, a little frightened of him, despite his polite friendliness.

Clive Anderson was also something of a local personality, in a conventional, squire-like way. He was a magistrate. He could be seen in church and at county functions. He had travelled into London on the same train as George Palmer-Jones before George retired, so the men were acquaintances. Molly Palmer-Jones had fought with him and pleaded with him in the juvenile court where he had often sat as chairman. The families had been neighbours for many years but there had been no contact between them; they had nothing in common.

It was with some embarrassment that Molly opened the door to him, just as it was growing dark on the Thursday after their return from Rushy. Anderson was a small, slight man, whom Molly had sarcastically described after a particularly hard-fought battle in court as “a typical psychopath, totally devoid of affection or emotion.” His diffidence, his obvious discomfort now were so unusual that Molly forgot her hostility and automatically, professionally, tried to make him feel more at ease. He moved into the house with the contained energy of an athlete, and she realized that although he was in his mid-sixties he was very fit. She remembered that he had been a member of one of the Everest expeditions. He did not look at her, but moved impatiently, restlessly, as she spoke to him. Not recognizing that they had had any previous contact, he interrupted her and asked abruptly to speak to her husband. With uncharacteristic tact she left them alone in the big, cluttered kitchen where George was reading the final proof of the
Surrey Bird Report.
With distaste, Anderson refused a glass of home-made beer, but he accepted a scotch.

“My son tells me that you’re one of these twitchers.”

There was accusation in his voice, as if Palmer-Jones had betrayed their generation.

“But not, I’m afraid, in Adam’s class,” Palmer-Jones replied immediately and smoothly.

“He never talks to me about it. He’s good at it then, is he?” Anderson spoke blandly, but could not quite disguise his interest.

“He’s the best birdwatcher of his age that I know. He found a bimaculated lark at the weekend.”

The praise pleased Anderson, and seemed to give him the confidence to admit to an interest in his son’s activities, though he hid his curiosity in aggression.

“Perhaps you could explain to me what a twitcher is. Adam seems to think me incapable of understanding.”

George Palmer-Jones ignored the sarcasm and replied as carefully as if he were presenting a paper at an academic seminar.

“Twitching is derived from the Wessex phrase ‘twitching like a long dog,’ which Hardy used and which is still common today in rural counties. A long dog is a greyhound. It could be interpreted as ‘straining at the leash,’ perhaps. So a twitcher is a person who is in that state when he hears the news of a bird which he has never seen before, and remains in it until he has ‘ticked it off’—another bird watching term—derived, I suppose, from the habit of placing a mark by the new species in the field guide.”

“It never seemed much of a hobby to me,” Anderson Said. “Perhaps I never encouraged him enough. He took no interest in the things I cared about. I thought he did it to spite me. Like the long hair and running away from school. He’s in the local comprehensive now, and doesn’t spend much time there. They tell me he’ll pass his A-levels, but he won’t apply for university. He’s only just eighteen.”

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