THE RIDDLE OF THE DUNES
THE BOOK FOLKS
© James Andrew
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When I returned from the war, things looked simple with no barbed wire to crawl under, no Germans to fight, no shells to avoid, and no bullets to duck. I strolled along civvy street, dressed in my demob suit and feeling like a king – if a badly dressed one. The suit was made of shoddy material and was so poorly sewn it felt ready to unravel at any moment, and it did after a few days. Then I had to use some of my small store of money to clothe myself properly. But the war was over, I told myself. That was what mattered. At least I thought it was – except, when I went to bed, it started all over again in my head and I woke screaming every night.
I don’t know why I killed that young woman on the beach. I do remember her body lying on the sand with that gash in her head and the rock I’d used just beside her. They say anger is all consuming and they are right. The person I once was no longer exists.
I remember the flame of her hair as it caught the setting sun and the redness of the blood seeping out of her, and, as her life left her body, something left mine. Unfortunately, not the anger. Was it recognition of myself?
So, I went away. When I think back, it was the rage I was trying to escape. I travelled in random directions, trying to stamp down the fury with each step away. I tramped mile after mile each day hoping that my weariness would tire out that scream for violence in me, but it didn’t work. I realised I was no longer myself. The anger had become me.
And that was when I found my feet had taken me back.
* * *
Daphne picked up the lead from the sideboard, the dog jumped at her with enthusiasm, and she found herself fobbing him off. As she clipped the lead onto the collar, she ruffled the hair on his head with her hand.
‘Don’t go anywhere near the Ridges,’ Marion said to her. ‘There are plenty of other places to take that dog.’
‘The man who did those murders is gone,’ Daphne replied to her mother. ‘Everybody says so.’
‘Always assume the worst,’ Marion replied. ‘It’s safer that way.’
An impatient frown was on Daphne’s face. ‘You don’t need to fret. I won’t go there,’ she said. ‘But if that worries you, why don’t you get Robert to do his own dog duty?’
‘He does his best,’ Marion replied.
‘Have you any idea where Robert is?’ Daphne asked.
‘At Helen’s, I expect. You should be more patient with him. He’s had his problems,’ Marion said.
‘Don’t we all know it?’
Pooky pulled at the lead. He had no time for arguments like these. Pooky was a mixture between a spaniel and something else. As he was not pure bred, no one had docked his tail, which now wagged its splendid plume hopefully. He was a young dog, only two years old, healthy and robust, of attractive colouring being brown-and-white, but neither Marion nor Daphne were paying attention to him. They stared accusingly at each other.
Marion was a broad-faced, robust-looking woman and, as this was her kitchen and her home, she was used to acting like the mistress of it. Though Daphne was, like her mother, a curly-headed brunette, her physical type was different. There was a slenderness about her figure that had probably never been there in Marion Tanner. When she argued with her mother, there was a querulousness in her voice, but her face looked just as defiant.
‘It’s supposed to be Robert’s job to take Pooky for his walk today,’ she replied.
Another voice entered the fray. This came from a middle-aged man who had been sheltering behind a newspaper. He put it down as he said, ‘You were the one who nagged to get the dog in the first place.’
Slightly built like Daphne, but with thinning fair hair, and a tiredness in his face, this was her father, Pete Tanner. Daphne turned her eyes to meet his. ‘Don’t I know it?’ she said. ‘You remind me all the time.’ Then she turned back to her mother. ‘I’m just back from working in the shop. Don’t I get five minutes to myself?’
‘You’ve had something to eat and a natter with your mother.’ Pete’s voice spoke with weight, which further annoyed Daphne.
‘I don’t know why I’m agreeing to take the dog. Frank said he might call.’
‘We’ll send him after you,’ Pete said.
‘I don’t understand why you bother with Frank,’ added Daphne’s mother.
‘You used to think well enough of him,’ Daphne told her.
‘Used to is right,’ Marion replied. ‘Half the neighbours don’t speak to me because of him.’
Aware of the familiar territory that an argument about taking the dog for a walk was heading towards, Daphne considered her reply. ‘The half that are worth talking to still do,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with Frank.’
Pete’s voice now took on an appeasing tone. ‘I like Frank myself,’ he said. ‘A well set-up and fine, principled man. Educated too. But it’s an awful pity he became a conchie. I used to enjoy a banter with Albert next door. Now he cuts me dead. I know what your mother means.’
An image came into Daphne’s mind of Albert’s leering looks. She was glad relations with him had become distant. ‘At least Frank’s got manners,’ Daphne muttered.
‘What do you mean by that?’ her father said.
‘Nothing,’ Daphne replied.
‘Frank’s lucky we make him welcome here,’ Marion said.
‘It’s good of you,’ Daphne said, but her voice suggested otherwise.
‘Our Robert was willing to fight out there. Why was Frank too good to do that?’ Daphne noticed the way her mother’s right hand had tensed.
‘It wasn’t that,’ Daphne replied. ‘It was his conscience.’
Marion’s dander was up now. ‘The number of people around here who lost their sons in that war – or had them wounded – and Frank ducked out of it. What do you expect people to feel about him?’
‘They could respect his point of view. He respects theirs.’
‘Most folk think he was scared.’
‘I’ve known him since school. Nothing’s ever scared Frank.’
‘Then, he should have fought.’
Daphne hated conversations like these. Couldn’t her mother see how she felt about Frank?
She took a step back inside the room and closed the door again, the dog whining as Daphne pulled his lead. When Daphne pushed down at Pooky with her hand, he sat with a defeated look.
‘You know I love Frank, don’t you?’ Daphne said to her mother.
‘I wish you’d chuck him,’ Marion said. ‘You don’t know how a mother feels, do you? What Robert lost, and all those others; and you’re going to marry a shirker like Frank. Why does Robert have to put up with him coming around here? Have you any idea how much he hates him for ducking out of things?’
‘He’s told me,’ Daphne said, ‘but it’s not Frank’s fault Robert lost his arm, and I can’t change what I do in my life because of it.’
Marion looked as if there was a lot more she wanted to say. ‘What that war did to Robert–’ she began, but Daphne did not give her the chance to finish. She turned to the dog. Pooky was no longer a duty Daphne was trying to avoid, but an opportunity. She decided to take it, gave the dog a commanding look and a pat on the head, opened the door, and allowed the dog to pull her out. A smile came to her face. Pooky still liked her. If only people were as easy to be with as dogs.
* * *
I hadn’t meant to return. Leaving was such a release. Why was I back? It was a long wandering. I don’t know whose boat I set off in when I left then, but it was untended, and I was glad to be able to make use of it. I rowed along the shore. I was able to follow the thrust of wind at my back as it flicked spume round me, and I leaned into the oars. The pull of arm and leg muscles, the arching of shoulder and back were soothing somehow, almost anaesthetic. All that tension in me. I had to do something with it. When I found myself at Fossmouth, I pulled the boat in among rocks. That was when I started tramping.
Casual work on farms was available and I made use of it, but it was only to get what I needed. A desperation to move onwards always pulled at me. Once I had enough money for a pack on my back, for food, cooking and eating utensils, and a sleeping roll, I had no wish to stay. I slept rough except for when I was in a shared cottage on a farm. I washed in streams. I shaved every third day to save on razors. My clothes became more and more ragged and my hair longer. I enjoyed the freedom, even revelled in the solitariness, but at no time did I ever out-tramp that anger.
At times, the image of the dead woman, her red hair catching the dying sun, would return to me; that attractive face of hers, ruined by the gash on her forehead. Underneath her body, the blood-soaked sand; beside it, the rock; and in my ears, the sound of the sea. I could barely remember striking her. And hers was not the only face that haunted me.
I found something approaching peace in the constant moving, but I never felt I escaped the thing inside me that had carried out these killings.
In time, I found company on the road. There were other tramps and I fell in with them and learned their ways. I learned to trudge from one spike to another, which was what they called the casual wards in the workhouses we moved between. When I took off my clothes, washed myself all over, and put on the workhouse garb, I felt as if I might be stepping out of one skin into another before joining the other casuals in the common dormitory, which was something I had the need to do. At least they fed you in the spikes: there was bread, dripping, water, and cheese. I didn’t feel I deserved more, though I soon learned from others the art of begging and supplemented this during the day’s tramp. I gave up on the casual work. I tried to become this new self – the tramp.
I remembered what it had been like when I had been with Pulteney, following on behind a young woman. He had such a fascination with a woman’s voice, and I could see why. There was such lightness in it, an innocence that had never seen the things in battle that I had. I envied it, and admired it, while I hated it. It had something that I wanted for myself, and that I could never know again.
Now, I was back in Birtleby and on the path to the Ridges, and there was another young woman in front of me. This one had dark curly hair, and there was a self-righteousness in her strut that I hated. She had a dog with her, a brown-and-white spaniel cross. He was leading her a dance and did not give her any choice but to follow where he led. He took us all the way back there – where it had all happened.
As I walked behind that young woman, the rage built up inside just as it had done then. It was powerful, much stronger than I was, so irresistible I thought it must destroy me, and I wondered how I could get rid of it. We were now out in the middle of the dunes and I looked around me. There was no one else to be seen.