THE BOOK FOLKS
© James Andrew
Polite note to the reader
This book is written in British English except where fidelity to other languages or accents is appropriate.
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You stop. The tang of sea is strong in the nostrils, the summer afternoon’s breeze light on the skin. You’re alive to everything: the give of sand as you shift your feet, and the sound of a gull cawing. You’re particularly aware of her.
She’s a young woman in her late teens, with dark hair worn short, and a curve of leg that draws. Her skirt is cut just below the knee in the latest way. Before the war, they didn’t dress like that, but that conflict changed everything, didn’t it? She paces along her stretch of beach by the dunes, four strides forward, three strides back. You don’t know if she’s counting or not, but you are. Why should the number of strides matter? Why does she? But you are drawn to her, to this fever in her pacing, and the whiteness of anger in her face.
It was her voice that seduced you; it was light, like something fluttering in the breeze, and melodious – like birdsong at dawn. When you fought your war, that was something you missed: the sound of a woman’s voice. You heard male ones, moaning about the taste of the bully beef, the night patrols, or the sound of guns. This had none of that muddle. This was a voice simple in its call to you.
She’s by herself on the beach, defenceless, and she doesn’t know it. You do. You know the briefness of the moment between life and death; you remember the space beside you that a comrade had occupied.
When came across her, the lightness in her walk, and the curve of her breasts under her top held such appeal to you. You could almost feel the softness in her skin under your fingers. You like her youth and you like her innocence. She isn’t happy now but you want to fix that.
Watching her fascinates you, and you know when she’s calmed down she’ll go. You want her to stay. You can help her through things.
She doesn’t hear as you creep up behind her, doesn’t know of the marlin spike raised till she turns around, and fear takes over her face. You swing so she steps back, but you swing again and hit her. Blood spurts and she spins, then falls to the ground with a scream, her arm out to break the fall. As she tries to scrabble off, you take in the terror in that face. You want to make things better for her. That rock will do it. You lift it with an effort. Her face is upturned and she raises her arm to stop it but this is futile. When you drop it onto her head, more blood spurts as the rock rolls off and something leaves her face as she falls back. Her eyes are still, and you feel relief. You watch the body twitch; then it also becomes still.
You become conscious of your breathing, short and heavy, and even more aware that she no longer breathes. You stand and study her. She’s gone to wherever it is they go, and you are glad of her quietness.
You listen to the sound of the breeze in
the marram grass. Another gull screeches. Waves rush and fall. Your breathing
is still hard and you stand till it has settled. You look around but there is
Sunlight shone into the courtroom, a reminder that somewhere it was bright and optimistic. The dark wood of the court reinforced the scowl on the coroner’s face.
It was noon on the 24th September 1920.
Bob Nuttall fidgeted on the mahogany-stained bench with its uncompromisingly upright back. He glanced at the man seated beside him, noticed the affected nonchalance with which Harry was leaning back, and wondered how he managed it. With that half-smile on his lips and the boldness in his eyes, his friend made Bob even more aware of how sick inside he felt. Bob eased the knot of his tie in the hope it would help him breathe more freely.
He and Harry Barker were attending an inquest into the death of a young woman on Birtleby Beach, whose name was Anne Talbot; they were attending at the request of the police.
From his seat, Bob looked up through tall windows to a turret. Across from him, in the courtroom, the coroner was seated under a plaster canopy of medieval symbols beneath a ceiling with sweeping stone arches, awesome in height and effect.
The courthouse was one of the grandest buildings Bob and Harry had been in: it was a castle. The original one in Linfrith had been burned down in the nineteenth century and, though there was no longer a need for defensive fortifications, a benefactor had provided funds to have another built – for use as a courthouse, and a coroner’s court. Bob thought it looked as if it ought to have graced more auspicious occasions. With its gothic, arched windows with their tessellated stained-glass, it added a touch of melodrama to this one.
Bob looked at the thin face of the coroner with the gold-rimmed spectacles perched on a long nose. Bob thought the man’s white, curlicued wig ridiculous but there was nothing clownish about the firm manner in which he banged the gavel, or the precision and authority in his enunciation. His black gown added to the severity. He had introduced himself at the beginning of the inquest as Mr Edmund Archibald, the court-appointed coroner in this case, and he was now proceeding to begin his summing up.
There was a jury seated opposite Bob and Harry. The coroner had stated one was necessary in this case, as it might lead to trial. Bob noted they were all male. The coroner must have assumed this case didn’t suit the delicacies of the female. They were even now little more than rows of faces to Bob, who’d steadfastly tried to avoid looking at them properly, but he’d taken in an assortment of ages and shapes, some looking criminal themselves with low brows and crafty eyes, others of that respectable class with dapper suits and gold watch chains that always seemed to look askance at him; which everyone on that jury was doing now.
‘This case is one that should be considered as a whole.’ As his voice rang out, Archibald’s eyes peered through his round spectacles. ‘It is one built on circumstantial evidence. The nature of such evidence suggests to some people less reliability. But circumstantial evidence is often more sound than direct evidence. Circumstances cannot lie, though people often do.’
He paused to allow the significance of his statement to be grasped by the jury, whose gaze in return was intense.
‘Circumstances don’t lie?’ thought Bob. They did in this case. He and Harry had been on the beach with Anne Talbot, but they’d left her alive.
Archibald stopped to sweep another look across the jury, one that this time held challenge and authority, then continued. ‘When we consider the evidence of Pulteney, the sailor who came forward as a witness, the jury may rely on it. The two prisoners were seen walking with a girl along the East Sands. And there were other witnesses, the workmen on the railway amongst them. Evidence of identification could be stronger but you have to look at a number of small circumstances before considering whether there is any doubt the girl they were with was Anne Talbot.’
And who was this Pulteney? He and Harry hadn’t noticed him.
‘The character given of the girl is quiet and particular. But she was young and holidaying alone.’ Archibald’s voice stumbled as if the vulnerability he was describing upset him. ‘She was the daughter of a humble housekeeper, the type of person who might be easily impressed by young men like the prisoners, who are known to meet on the beach, chat with girls – particularly girls on holiday – visit hotels and entertainments.’ The reproachful look he aimed at Harry and Bob held the cynicism of years on the bench. ‘You know how these things go on, particularly at the seaside. And we know from the way he presented his evidence, how plausibly Harry Barker can conduct himself.’
Bob was annoyed at that as he’d thought he could rely on Harry to talk them out of this.
‘Dealing with the evidence from Linfrith prison, we know the prisoners tried to get a fellow inmate to help them concoct another false alibi. There is no need to cast doubt on this evidence just because it is the word of someone who has committed a crime. He has no motive for coming up with a false statement.’
That was said with certainty but, oh yes, convicts did, Bob thought. What did the coroner know? He’d never been in prison. The only power left to prisoners was the possibility of tormenting fellow inmates, though no lie was being told here. Harry had been stupid enough to try and get someone to say they’d seen the girl struggling with a sailor.
‘No motive has been presented for the crime but, obviously, the persons who committed it did have one. It’s true no one saw it.’ Bob thought that a pity, because then they would be sure he hadn’t done it.
‘Most of the evidence consists of witness statements. And sometimes they contradict each other. One witness is sure of the identification of the men but not the girl. Another witness is sure of the identification of the girl but not the men. There is only one photograph that can be used to identify the girl and that was of her after she was dead. But there is such a weight of witness statements there are no doubts these two men were with her when she was murdered.’
When she was murdered? No, Bob thought. Just before it, which was unfortunate.
‘On top of which they were spending more than usual afterwards, and Miss Talbot’s purse, which was said to contain several pounds, is missing. Note that Nuttall had to change clothes when going on to the theatre in the evening, which suggests that, in the scuffle during the murder, his suit had become dirty or bloody.’
And Bob could kill Harry for larking around in the way he had. If he hadn’t, that suit would never have become so dirty that he had to change it.
‘There is evidence here, though the jury does not need to consider whether it is conclusive, as this an inquest. A verdict of guilty would only lead to a trial at which this would be examined more fully.’
Bob envied the smugness in the summing up.
He didn’t remember ever feeling so self-satisfied about anything, and he had no
doubt the jury would find him and Harry guilty; which they duly did. After which
he allowed himself to look at them again. They seemed glad to have got rid of
their big decision, so that they could go back to their homes, and families,
three square meals a day, and beer on a Saturday night. When the constable
stepped forward to lead him back to his cell, Bob found it difficult to stand
up. Then he managed to recover composure before stumbling off. He looked across
at Harry, who was strutting, but whose eyes held fear.
Bob thought back to the aimless day they’d led when they were supposed to be murdering Anne Talbot. As was often the case, they’d been drifting from one thing to another – to fill in time with things that would help them forget what they needed to. They still hadn’t managed to put their war behind them.
At least they lived in a good place to loaf about. Birtleby was a northern sea town popular with tourists. The sea-front was famous for its long beach; the grassy Links overlooked by the Victorian bandstand with its brass cupola; the cricket club; and the, indoor, seawater swimming pool in its brick and glass, known for its health-giving qualities. People had travelled to Birtleby for years to enjoy the waters but, since the arrival of the railway at the end of the last century, the population of the town had quadrupled every summer.
It was early afternoon on Thursday, 19th August 1920, and Bob was with Harry, strolling along by the Links. They were chasing women. Though the war had been over for a year and a half, they hadn’t been demobbed till almost a year after it ended, but now they often paraded about in the throng of the visiting crowds, looking out the company of young women.
Bob was slightly taller than Harry and had a broader build, but walked with a limp which was why he carried an ash stick with a brass top. Harry’s walk held a cockiness mirrored by his perennial grin. The two men were tall and spare. Both were broad in the shoulder and narrow in the hip but they also had the pale skin of the undernourished. They wore dark-grey suits in the current fashion; Bob wore a cloth cap, and Harry sported a felt hat.
There was a young woman with them on this occasion, less brassy than their usual sort, though she was dressed to attract. This was Anne Talbot. Her skirt, typical of those of the day, was the opposite of the Edwardian prim if elegant long sweep, and hung just below the knee. Her black hair was in a bob. She had a slight but deliberate sway to her hips, more the equivalent of a male swagger than anything.
Bob considered she looked classy, and he wouldn’t have dared try to pick her up on his own, but Harry was bold enough for anyone. They’d first met Anne the day before.
This was her third day in Birtleby. She worked as a secretary in Leeds, which allowed her the luxury of a holiday by herself, which would have been unheard of for a young lady before the war even if she could have afforded it. She was staying in one of the better boarding houses along the sea-front. Bob could only imagine what that was like, as the cottage he lived in was basic, damp, and full of the sprawl of his family: his parents, brother, and sister.
They were walking on the cobbled pathway along the sea-front. To their left was a sweep of grass and wild flower leading to the beach and its straggle of pools, sand, and rock, with the expanse of sea behind. To the right was the area called the Links, with its broad, grassy area, and a cricket pitch and cricket pavilion. There was a match in progress with its panoply of whites against the green. A bat thudded a ball, which sped towards the roped boundary. The crack of bat against ball was compelling, and Bob’s eyes turned for a moment towards the batsman and the aggressive angle of his bat, before being drawn back to Anne. They strolled to make the most of the day but also because of Bob’s limp.
‘Did it happen in the war?’ Anne asked him.
She gave him a sympathetic smile. ‘I’ve no brothers, and my father was too old to go,’ she said. ‘But I knew plenty who did.’
Bob hated it when girls asked questions about his leg; and the next thing they asked about was the work he did. He’d had none since he came back and neither had Harry. And look at her with her office job and her fashionable clothes.
‘Shrapnel,’ he said, his head turned away as if from shame. ‘It’s still in there.’
She glanced at the leg. ‘Does it hurt?’
He grimaced, and they walked on in silence further onto the track along the beach. He thought back to the pain after the shrapnel hit, and to the relief of morphine injections, then of his attempts to walk again after the operation. He hadn’t liked the world’s habit of going awry with every step forward of his right foot, but he had in time regained steadiness on his pins
‘You ought to talk about the war,’ she said. ‘I’m always on about that.’
He frowned, said nothing for a while, then asked, ‘And do people open up?’
‘We’d like to forget,’ Harry said.
‘If we could,’ Bob added.
‘There’s a film on at the theatre tonight,’ Harry said with a light tone in his voice and a grin on his face. ‘Fatty Arbuckle.’
‘Fatty Arbuckle.’ Anne giggled.
‘All the soldiers in our regiment liked his movies,’ Harry said.
Anne’s eyes shone with pleasure at the thought of him. ‘He’s a card but that Buster Keaton’s better looking. Though my mum prefers Charlie Chaplin. He might be a tramp but he always gets the girl. They feel sorry for him.’
‘What does your mum do?’ Harry asked her.
‘She’s a domestic in a big house in Leeds, but if she was my age she’d go in for being a secretary too. You get a life of your own. No way would she have let me go into service.’
‘Tell me about it. My mum was a maid before she married and she’s never stopped groaning about what all that washing of floors did to her back,’ Harry said, then put his arm around Anne’s shoulder.
Anne looked questioningly at the arm, but didn’t push it away. ‘Fresh, aren’t you?’ she said.
Anne giggled. ‘Nice enough.’
Harry stared in Bob’s direction, then nodded slowly. Bob nodded back, then slowed down, and Anne and Harry walked on ahead. Harry was always the one who attracted the girl; he’d a smile on him and laughed easily. Bob rued he seemed to have forgotten how to.
Bob trudged on, his head down as he kicked at a bit of sand, began to whistle, then stopped. He’d been one of the lads before going out to the trenches but now he was a hanger-on with a hang-dog look – and he was aware he was too quick in taking offence. He remembered the first Christmas after the war, which he’d expected to be a cheerful occasion, but he’d managed to spoil it. They’d been trying to ‘take it easy’, but when an arrogant cockney had sneered about northerners, Bob had forgotten himself. The problem was he’d been trained to kill, and had to do it often enough, so he’d only just been able to stop himself. Killing had been his allotted goal, that and avoiding shrapnel, and he was supposed to switch that off and relax?
Bob hoped his touch with people would come back but he found girls, particularly girls like Anne, difficult; he’d no concept of what they might be thinking and feeling. His thoughts could fill with the sound of a shrapnel burst, and the sight of Eric, a soldier beside him, being hit in the face. Not only were all his lower teeth knocked out but his whole bottom lip was torn off. Bob couldn’t imagine what it would be like going through the rest of his life with half a mouth. That was all Bob could think of when he was kissing one girl: what she’d look like minus a lip. When he’d pulled away from her, she’d kicked him on the shin.
Bob manoeuvred himself onto a rock, took out a cigarette, lit it, and stared out to sea. He thought back to life in the trenches. It hadn’t been all dodging bullets. There were days when nothing seemed to happen, and that was when he’d gorged on his smokes. As he relaxed into the sound of a wave rushing against the shore, he did so again, savouring the cigarette. A gull cawed. He reached down and ran fingers through sand as he luxuriated in the lack of puffing shells, and the absence of zinging bullets. Then he heard the swish of limb against grass as someone strode towards him, and he looked up, half expecting a German helmet, but saw the scowling face of Harry.
‘Bitch,’ Harry said. ‘C’mon. Let’s go.’ He strode past.
Bob leaned on his stick as he pulled himself up and winced at a spasm in his knee. ‘Why the hurry?’ Bob asked.
‘No hurry. I’m fed up. Some of these grand ones put on such airs when they turn you down. If they’ve shown interest, they ought to put up.’
‘It’s not like rest camp,’ Bob said. ‘Not every second girl you meet is a prostitute.’
As they walked on in silence, Bob fell
further behind. When Harry looked back and saw this, he slowed down. When Bob
caught up, Harry gave him a cigarette as a peace offering. Bob didn’t know why
Harry always felt so entitled to succeed with women. He had the chat and the
look, but women suited themselves. Didn’t he know that?
The best time for Bob in the war had been his worst – when he was wounded, when at least he’d escaped the fear he’d known in the trenches. Lying in his bed in that field hospital, he could still hear the sounds of war but the guns were distant. There was no thought at the back of his mind this could be his last breath of air, or mug of tea, or cigarette. Reading was brought to him, the trench newspaper, The Wipers Times; magazines from Britain, and books. Sometimes you could play cards with other patients, and the nurses brought tea, or chocolate from a Red Cross parcel.
Adjusting to the wound had been traumatic. When he’d woken that first time, and explored his body, he’d been terrified at what he might discover. But he was pleased to find all his limbs, although his right leg was raised on a wire contraption, and bandaged.
A voice spoke to the right of him and told him he was in field hospital. He looked across and saw a nurse in a white dress, wearing a white cap. He thought of angels but the look on her face was pained.
‘I’m glad you’ve woken,’ she said. Her voice did hold balm, and her face a smile. ‘You were hit by shrapnel – in the right knee. They’ve got most of it out, and you should be all right unless infection sets in, but it shouldn’t.’
Bob had attempted to shift his leg, which responded, and when he tried to move his toes, he was pleased to see they wriggled.
In a bed next to him, a man lay prone with a bandage round his head. A moan came from him, and a smell of flesh rotting. On the other side lay a twitching mess of bandages from which sprouted a bald head, with a pair of eyes above a mouth that moaned too.
Bob’s brain struggled with the effort of trying to remember what had happened. There had been a huge noise and a blow, and he’d been thrown forward. There was the smell of cordite, the wetness of mud as his fingers scrabbled through it, and a scream. That hadn’t been his own, had it? He could remember nothing after that before waking in the field hospital.
There was pain. When he asked for morphine, the nurse disappeared and returned with a syringe. When it entered his veins it reduced the agony within minutes, and an exultation pulsed through him.
‘Thank God,’ he said. ‘And thank you, nurse.’
But he would find the pain wouldn’t go entirely, and it was difficult to watch what his wounded comrades on either side endured.
He’d worried at first about losing the leg as he didn’t know how easy it was to operate on shrapnel in the knee, and he was told they hadn’t managed to take all the metal out, for fear of damaging the knee itself, but the shrapnel must have been clean because no infection set in.
Bob realised he was lucky as, two bunks down, a soldier with a shrapnel wound had lost his leg, though he didn’t seem to think it unfortunate. This was the longed-for Blighty wound, one which would send him home, and end his war for him. He was even cheerful about it, chatting about the girl he was going back to, and all the things he was going to see again: the traffic in Piccadilly Square, and the music hall.
Now the war was over, and Bob was back in Blighty, with only a limp that wasn’t bad now; and he and Harry took their chance to pursue the moment. Later that same afternoon, they were drawn by another piece of skirt. Nancy Harland was a servant in a big house with one afternoon off a week, and Harry knew she often went over to Blackforth Bay for a walk, so he led Bob there on spec, and they met up with her near Blackforth Castle.
There wasn’t much left of the castle, only crumbling walls, one of which could have held battlements. It was on a headland with a view over the bay. They met Nancy walking on the shingle below. She had an easy smile, which she flashed at them, though Bob noticed the primness around the eyes.
‘You haven’t asked her if she has a friend?’ Bob asked Harry but he only smiled, his properly charming smile. ‘She’ll have one. Take it easy. We can have fun with her.’
Nancy’s grin struck a chord with Bob, so he didn’t mind her opening jibe. ‘You two not found anything useful to do, like work?’
‘There isn’t any,’ Harry replied. ‘Women are doing it all.’
Bob gave a half-laugh then stopped himself.
‘You can have my job as a maid in a big house if you like,’ Nancy jeered.
‘You know what I mean,’ Harry replied.
‘Women did their bit in the war,’ Nancy said. ‘All that munitions work. Some of them ended up with yellow skins. And it was dangerous. Shells blow up if you didn’t know it.’
‘We do,’ said Bob.
‘And we were glad our lot had shells to use,’ Harry said. ‘But we’d still rather have been making them ourselves.’
Nancy grimaced. ‘And they’ve paid off those girls. They don’t need munitions now.’
Bob respected women’s point of view. The ones he talked to made sure he did, but he still found himself envying them. When he and Harry boarded a bus, they were ordered around by an aggressive bus conductress, while the man who used to be the conductor in that bus sat with his wooden leg in the seat laid aside for the disabled.
In doing their bit, women had taken on the jobs men had left, and now so many soldiers had come back from the war all at once, a lot couldn’t find any. Not that he could blame women for improving their lot, even though he was jealous. And he thought Nancy could do better for herself than life as a lady’s maid. He was surprised a girl like her hadn’t gone for a job in a mill as the girls earned so much more there. But now they’d started to lay off women to make jobs for returning soldiers, so perhaps there was less for Bob to be jealous of; not that he and Harry had managed to find work.
‘You’ve no idea what life’s like as a servant, have you?’ Nancy said.
‘Of course not,’ Harry replied. ‘We’re the shiftless unemployed.’
‘In a morning, I’ve to whiten the doorstep, black the stove, make fires, do beds, fetch water, dust, polish, and do anything else it occurs to anyone to ask me to do.’
Bob thought back to digging trenches while German soldiers aimed machine guns at them.
‘You just walk about, talk to girls, drink in pubs, and go to the theatre. I don’t know how you manage it.’
For one day every so often, yes, they did, Bob supposed. The rest of the time they spent tramping after jobs advertised in the morning paper, or lying around with no money to spend even on that because everything had to go on food and basics for the house. Just as well he was able to stay at home, like Harry. It had brought him down to earth, back from being one of the men in the trenches to the room he shared with his brother at home, and to avoiding his mam’s wrath, but it made it possible to have spending money. Not that he felt like explaining any of that.
Harry made a joke about Charlie Chaplin. Nancy laughed. Bob liked her laughter. It jingled like the lightness of coins in his pocket, though it felt just as temporary. Despite his resentments, he adored the laughter of innocent girls who knew nothing about men holding their guts in their hands while whizzbangs zipped around them.
They took the bus back and Harry bought
her an ice-cream from a shop in Birtleby. He and Harry had one too, and enjoyed
the coolness and smoothness.
Others were later to wonder how Bob and Harry could spend so much time in one day chatting up so many women, but it had made sense to them. Dancing. It felt as if they were dancing through the days, Bob thought, the man leading and the woman following him into the flirtations. There was something soothing in the ritual of the same moves, something rhythmic, and hypnotic.
Of course, as it was the day of the murder, they would have to scramble through the jumble of it in their minds, and make enough sense of it to come up with alibis, and that was a frantic job. And they would attempt to predict who would appear as witnesses against them – but that was for later on.
When they walked into the Victoria, another young lady, Elspeth, flashed a smile at them. They’d just entered the bar she worked in, and she was behind the counter. When you were with Harry, you never did walk into a pub where there was a barman.
The Victoria was a hotel with a tap-bar and a parlour bar, and Harry and Bob stood in the parlour bar. This was small with comfortable chairs, a fireplace, and a large mirror. The dark green of the fern-leafed wallpaper pattern complemented the dark of the polished wood and the leather on the chairs. With the low gas lighting, the coal fire, and limited natural daylight, there was an intimate effect, if a gloomy one.
‘You’re back,’ Elspeth said.
‘Obviously,’ Harry replied.
‘We couldn’t stay away,’ Bob said.
Harry ordered a Guinness each for them, then asked Elspeth, ‘What would you like to drink?’
Elspeth considered this for a moment then said, ‘I’ll have a port wine for later.’
‘And your friend?’ Harry gestured to the other girl near Elspeth.
‘Oh, put by a whisky and splash for me. Thank you kindly,’ Hilda said with a simper.
When their drinks had been served, Bob and Harry sat in chairs by the bar, ready to chat. Bob contemplated Elspeth, who was a young woman in her twenties with short, shingled, auburn hair, and a blouse cut to give a fashionable, straight look to the chest. The top was brown with large diamond patterns. Elspeth was attractive but, when she was not blasting her impression of a dazzling smile, a natural downturn to the lips was clear. The two men sipped at the white froth on the black Guinness.
‘Lovely,’ Harry pronounced, ‘as yourself.’
Bob admired his friend’s gall but Elspeth raised her eyebrows.
‘You’re in a good mood. Spending money too. Did you do well on the horses today?’
‘I never back a horse, only myself,’ Harry said.
‘A difference from this morning,’ Elspeth said. ‘You could only afford a half of shandygaff.’
‘Would you hold that against a friend? And there’s nothing wrong with shandygaff.’
He took a cigarette packet from his pocket and offered a cigarette.
Elspeth looked at the pack with wonder. ‘Turkish, huh?’
‘A rich, dark aroma,’ he said. ‘You breathe it in deep.’
‘Sounds lovely,’ Elspeth said, helping herself to one, ‘and not much like the gaspers you usually smoke.’
‘Now, now,’ Harry replied. ‘Woodbines are all right.’
Bob supposed Harry would be broke again tomorrow morning and so might as well enjoy the unemployment money Bob assumed he’d drawn. Elspeth laughed and Hilda giggled. Of course, young men didn’t tell young ladies that was what they were spending because that wouldn’t impress them.
Bob was studying Hilda. With her exuberant curls, she’d have been no good at the fashionable, straight cut of hair, and it would have been a waste of time for her to attempt the flat-chested look, but Bob liked her ample femininity. He attempted a smile and she smiled hesitantly back.
‘Would you like to go to the Hippodrome?’ Bob asked.
‘I like a bold one,’ Hilda replied, ‘but I’ll tell you later.’ Though she did simper. Then she frowned as she noticed his suit. ‘Messy clothes for chasing the ladies.’
Bob looked down at himself. ‘Oh, that. A bit mucky right enough. Harry pushed me when we were larking about on the beach. I haven’t had time to change. But I will,’ he added, ‘before going on.’
Hilda sipped and looked at him. Elspeth drew in smoke from her Abdullah, and said, ‘I suppose you did get this money honestly?’
‘I have thought of robbing a bank when I’ve been desperate,’ Harry said. ‘But that’s as far as it’s ever got.’
Elspeth said nothing, but from the glazed look that appeared in her eyes Bob could see her thoughts were starting to wander.
‘Has anyone told you that you look like Greta Garbo in The Silver Siren?’ Harry asked her.
Elspeth looked at him for a moment, then replied, ‘No.’
‘They should’ve done.’
Elspeth snorted. ‘Maybe they can’t afford to go to so many picture shows as you.’
Hilda giggled. ‘A man once told me I look like a film star.’
‘You do,’ Bob said, seizing his chance.
‘I asked him if he was pretending to be a producer.’ She leaned back and roared with laughter.
Bob noticed her laugh was a bit of a bray, but this didn’t put him off Hilda.
‘One of this pair would be happy to do that,’ Elspeth said.
‘How do you know we’re not?’ Harry said.
Elspeth frowned at him. ‘Common sense,’ she said.
‘You’re definitely not common,’ Harry said. ‘With those high cheekbones and that silky hair, you’d be a cameraman’s dream.’
Bob gazed with admiration at him. Hilda giggled but Elspeth frowned. ‘You two aren’t half a laugh,’ Hilda said.
‘Have you had your eyes tested lately?’ Elspeth asked Harry.
‘Twenty-twenty vision,’ he said, his expression modest. ‘That’s why they picked me out to be a sniper.’
‘Trained killer, huh?’ Elspeth said.
‘You’re killing me,’ she quipped. Elspeth enjoyed her own bullets. Hilda guffawed.
‘Seriously,’ Harry said. ‘We could give you a camera test.’
‘I’d need my head tested if I agreed to that,’ Elspeth said.
‘It’s the head we’d concentrate on, how it would show from different angles.’
Elspeth restrained a laugh, and her look remained one of disinterest.
Harry’s flirtations were full-on. He often went on from there to act so fresh he put girls off. When he did make a conquest, he swaggered with superiority, as if it was all a game. But there were other occasions when women glimpsed an undercurrent in him, and acted as if there was danger in it.
‘We’ll see you at the Hippodrome tonight then?’ Harry asked her.
Elspeth drew on her cigarette, then flicked ash into the brass ashtray beside her before looking back at Harry with a look almost of contempt.
‘We’re going. You might.’
‘I’ll see you there,’ Bob said to Hilda. The words came out in a rush and she blushed, hearing them, but smiled at him.
‘A quiet but a bold one, eh?’ Hilda said.
‘Still waters run deep,’ he replied.
‘That’s what worries me.’ Hilda giggled. She flicked hair from over her eyes and paused before replying. ‘But I’ll take a chance. See you at the Hippodrome then?’
Bob’s fingers clenched on his stick as he replied, ‘It’s a date.’
Harry and Bob drank up, Harry with obvious relish. He tipped back the glass to make sure he had every drop. ‘We’ll have to go home to smarten up,’ he said.
‘Good,’ Hilda said as she glanced at Bob.
Bob and Harry walked off.
Perhaps if he’d a poetic streak, Bob could have explained his feelings for women. Something he often did was watch dolphins in the bay just off Birtleby – there was something he envied in them. He supposed it was the cheerfulness in the way they turned their fins into air. If you were out in a boat, you could watch them rushing along in the light just beneath the waves, and Bob thought this was maybe what he and Harry were attempting to do with girls – race along in their light and sparkle. Dolphins don’t understand what they’re doing just as he and Harry didn’t, but Bob thought it must be thrilling, skimming along just under, and over the waves.
And so, as the day of Anne’s murder continued, Harry and Bob continued in their predictable ways. The Hippodrome was the entertainment theatre of Birtleby. It showed its music hall origins with its tiered seats and gaudy columns and draperies but also doubled as the film theatre now the silver screen had become so popular. The two-shilling seats Bob and Harry bought tickets for were in one of the posher tiers and had the best view. Harry and Bob went over to Hilda and Elspeth, who were seated there also.
‘Two such pretty girls,’ Harry said. ‘And two handsome men. Why don’t we sit beside you?’
Hilda giggled. ‘Go on then.’
‘I came to watch the film,’ Elspeth said.
But they sat by them anyway. Hilda put Bob’s arm round her shoulder, while Elspeth pushed Harry’s arm away when he started to put it round her. They watched the pianist setting the mood with thunderous flourishes of music and a dramatic use of the arms and hands. The theatre darkened and a black-and-white image flickered onto the screen as the film started. ‘Buster Keaton in Convict,’ the screen read. Harry put his arm round Elspeth’s shoulder again and she pushed it away again.
‘C’mon,’ Harry said, to which again Elspeth replied no.
‘Try to behave like a gentleman,’ she said.
But Harry persisted. ‘C’mon,’ he said again, and replaced his arm on her shoulder, manoeuvred her head back and tried to push his lips down on hers. She squirmed.
When she managed to pull her mouth away, she said, ‘Fucking cut it.’
‘You don’t mean it,’ Harry said.
‘I bloody do.’ Elspeth gave him a slap on the cheek.
Remarks were made by others. ‘What are you up to?’, ‘Quieten down,’ and ‘We want to watch the film.’ Bob pulled at Harry’s arm and Harry pulled his fist back to punch him then changed his mind.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Bob hissed. ‘Let’s go for a smoke.’
They trudged down the aisle and pushed through the curtains then strode out of the door, walked down to the shore and sat on a seat to light up.
‘What did you do that for?’ Bob said. ‘I was in with Hilda.’
‘We paid two shillings,’ Harry said. ‘When we’ve finished these fags, we’re going back in.’
‘That film’s supposed to be good and it hadn’t started.’ Bob waved his cigarette towards Harry who stared at it.
‘We’ll see it.’
‘It’ll have started.’
Harry frowned. He snorted, then said with an attempt at patience, ‘The second one’s supposed to be better.’
‘We’d better not sit near them,’ Bob said. ‘They’ll be on at us.’
When they’d finished smoking their
cigarettes, Harry and Bob returned to the Hippodrome and sat in the
two-shilling seats again but well away from Elspeth and Hilda. Bob noticed
Elspeth turning around to give Harry a warning look. When the show had
finished, they went in their different directions.
The police-inspector noticed everything: the half-light of evening; the rhythmic sound of waves; the give of the sand underfoot; and the rustle of the marram grass in the slight breeze. It was seven o’clock on August 20th, and Inspector Blades and Constable Hodgkins had just arrived at the scene of the murder they’d been called out to.
Blades was thirty-seven, tall, and broad, with the clear complexion of the physically fit, and a frown. He’d rather not have been there. He’d been painting a fence, and he’d been getting around to do that for a while.
Constable Hodgkins was only eighteen, though tall, and with a self-important manner beyond his years. He’d been the one on duty when the call had come in. He’d taken the report and sent for his Inspector.
Blades admitted his nervousness to himself. Though he’d been fifteen years on the force, this was the first murder he’d been involved in. Despite the stream of visitors to the town, major crimes had happened elsewhere.
There was a man on the dunes who appeared to be poking around with a stick in the sand. Blades took him in: grey-haired, angular, and grunting with the effort of what looked like a search.
Blades supposed the man read crime novels and was being the amateur detective. Blades had often cursed those books and the ideas they gave people. He expected this was the Mr Allen that Hodgkins had told him of, the owner of the boarding house where the mother and child who’d discovered the body were staying. Blades frowned. He’d rather have been dealing with them. What was this Mr Allen doing here? He noticed the man’s face lighten up when he saw them.
‘The body’s over there,’ the man said, waving his arm in a general direction further off, normal greetings forgotten.
Blades forced himself to be polite. He wanted to get as much as he could out of Mr Allen. ‘Would you show us, please?’ he said.
Mr Allen led them away from the path and into a dip between dunes where they saw a mound of sand out of which protruded a young woman’s foot. Fortunately, Mr Allen hadn’t been poking about here. Or had he?
‘Once I’d uncovered the body enough to ascertain that’s what it was I didn’t touch it,’ Mr Allen said, as if reading Blades’ mind.
Blades glanced around the beach looking at marks. The sand was quite firm between these dunes and there might have been helpful indications, but Mr Allen had been doing a lot of tramping around even if he had left the body itself alone. Blades tried to work out what the scene might have looked like before Mr Allen turned up. He tried to catch a look at the soles of Mr Allen’s boots to ascertain the print. He could have him hand those in, but he wasn’t sure there would be helpful footprints here anyway.
‘And look,’ Mr Allen said urgently. ‘Look at that rock.’
Blades had noticed it, as it would have been difficult not to. It was solid sandstone, and must have weighed at least ten pounds. He wondered if darker patches he was looking at were traces of blood.
‘I suppose the rest of the body’s there?’ Blades said to Hodgkins.
The constable looked at him, then back at the body. After a pause, he began to clear sand away, then stopped. ‘No doubt about that,’ he said, looking at the extended leg he’d uncovered. Blades saw Hodgkins’ lips were tight, his face white.
‘Keep clearing it,’ Blades said.
The arms, upper torso and a head emerged. Blades managed a smile. Hodgkins had been adept, and uncovered the body without moving it. Blades studied the corpse, which lay on its left side. The left arm was fully extended from the shoulder, and the right arm lay under the left armpit. The head was on the left arm. The body appeared to be fully clothed. Blades nodded to Hodgkins to continue clearing away at the sand. Blades was able to see the right foot had no shoe on it, and wondered where that had gone. The coat and skirt were turned back, disclosing her leg from the thigh downwards. As the hat was turned down over her face, Blades bent down and pulled it up, but the mouth was still covered by the fur on the collar of the coat. He lifted the collar, and looked down at the bloodstained features. He studied the damage to the mouth. Two of the teeth were broken and the jaw looked slack.
‘A young woman,’ Blades said. ‘She could have been pretty.’
‘Didn’t help her much, did it?’ the constable said.
‘We could consider the stone as the murder weapon–’ Blades said, then paused for thought. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It couldn’t have been used quickly unless the assailant was enormously strong but, barring Hercules, it’s not likely, and if anyone saw anything that size being lifted, you wouldn’t think they’d hang about.’
‘Perhaps she was hit and her head fell against the rock.’
‘We’ll have to wait and see what Dr Parker says when he gets here.’ Inspector Blades looked around. The path they’d come along stretched further. ‘They must have walked along this track. Which is about fifty yards from the railway line.’
‘There’s a hut over there by the line.’
‘I wonder whether anyone was in it then.’ Blades looked down at the woman’s head. He bent down and scrabbled at the sand. ‘There’s a lot of blood underneath that head, it’s spread to quite a depth, and there’s none anywhere else. The body hasn’t been dragged here.’ Blades continued to stare at the corpse as he thought things through. ‘We’ll need to get lights set up for the police surgeon.’
‘And we’ll need a constable on constant guard so no one else disturbs evidence.’
Keeping others off would help, though things already looked bad. Blades thought back to the fence he’d left with its clean lines and pristine green paint. Some of that clarity would be helpful. He looked at the girl. Another wasted life. You’d think enough people had been killed in the war without more of it happening in peace time.
‘I’ll need to interview the mother and son,’ Blades told Hodgkins.
‘They’re at the boarding house,’ Mr Allen offered.
The inspector stared around him at the
beach. Hadn’t he visited here as a child? He had memories of digging in the
sand, and building forts over there. Or had he? He felt his innocent memories
had been bludgeoned away.
Dr Parker didn’t arrive till nine o’clock. He was a thin man in his early thirties, his mouth set with annoyance.
‘The body’s in East Birtleby,’ he said. ‘I’m the West Birtleby police surgeon.’
There was a precision and authority in the way that was said, and Inspector Blades glowered at him. Like suspects who’d met Blades’ wrath, Dr Parker looked elsewhere.
‘Does a difference of a few yards make much difference?’ Blades said.
‘Some would say so,’ Dr Parker replied but not with much conviction.
‘We need a surgeon’s report on this body. When the next corpse turns up in twenty years’ time or whenever, we’ll endeavour to make sure it’s a bit further east.’
‘If you did it would be convenient,’ Dr Parker replied, then sighed. ‘But all right. You need a report. Has the body been moved?’
‘The sand’s been shifted.’
‘But not the body.’
Dr Parker’s eyes swept over the footprints, before settling on the girl and studying her. ‘You don’t get a natural light from acetylene lamps,’ he said, ‘but they’ll do.’ He continued to look at the body. ‘Not the common type you’d expect,’ he said.
‘Why d’you say that?’ Blades asked.
‘The style of her hat, and the fashion of her blouse.’
Blades looked back at the corpse. He wondered how good Parker’s understanding of working-class women was. Parker’s background was middle-class, his schooling expensive, and his further education would have taken place in what Blades thought of as a cloistered university. Though he did work with all sorts of women daily in surgeries, Blades supposed. Blades didn’t presume to know whether this young woman was common or not going by clothes as he knew it could depend on how they were worn. He doubted if this girl had led a sheltered life though or she wouldn’t have ended up lying dead on this beach.
Parker reached down and turned the head to reveal more of the damage to the skull. He winced at the sight, but his voice became brisk. ‘There are two possible suspects for cause of death: the blow to the lower part of the head, or the blow to the upper. It’s not a natural death. We will need the post-mortem.’
Blades had worked out already the death was suspicious, but he just agreed.
Parker touched at the girl’s arm. ‘Rigor mortis has set in.’ Then he felt her skin. ‘Absolutely cold.’ He paused, then continued. ‘If you’re looking for an estimate of time of death, which I suppose you are, the girl’s been dead about twelve to thirty-six hours. Not that you can tell really. It depends on weather conditions, the depth of sand covering her and so on.’
‘But if you’ve any idea, it might be helpful,’ Blades said.
Parker looked at the girl’s face, then reached in his bag for one of the bright, steel instruments there, and used it to investigate blood that stretched from a nostril. ‘Maybe twenty-four hours,’ Parker said, his voice hesitant.
‘Thanks,’ Blades said.
Parker studied the girl’s face. He took out a glass and peered through that. ‘The damage to the mouth looks as if it’s been done by a narrow object.’
‘Thanks,’ Blades said.
‘Possibly with a blunt edge though there are lacerations that confuse the issue.’
‘Any idea what kind of object?’
The inspector stared at the face as well, wishing it would speak, and tell them something. The doctor speculated. ‘Could have been a stick, I suppose, one with a knob on it even.’
‘Any idea what type?’
‘No. There are nobody’s initials helpfully imprinted on the skin, though I did read that happened once.’
He studied the body. ‘Or it could even have been a pointed stick,’ he said.
The inspector gazed at the body.
Then Dr Parker pronounced, ‘But the cause of death was probably the blow to the temple with a stone, possibly that one.’ He indicated one nearby. ‘It does have blood on it.’
‘It’s convenient to find that there,’ the inspector said.
‘Hard to believe she waited around for a stone that size to be dropped on her,’ Parker said. ‘We’ll analyse stomach contents to see if she was drugged.’ He continued his study of the corpse. He turned the head with his hand. The analytical tone left his voice as the same thought Blades had occurred to him. ‘She could have been attractive.’
‘Just give as many details about the death as you can,’ Blades said.
‘I doubt if the post-mortem will tell us any more than we can observe here, though we’ll find out. The blow to the lower head area probably caused unconsciousness, followed by the blow with the stone.’
‘It’s difficult to see how this could have been done accidentally.’
Blades grunted. It was his opinion too, and he was glad it had been established. ‘Any chance she was hit on the jaw, fell back, and then her head just hit the rock?’
‘She’d have had to spin right round, and, in any case, it wouldn’t cause this scale of damage to the skull.’
‘How many deaths caused by violence have you been asked to give opinion on?’
It was a pointed comment and received the natural look of irritation from Parker. ‘Two or three,’ he said.
‘We’ll need the second opinion, then.’
‘This shouldn’t be my case anyway.’
Parker scowled at Blades who couldn’t stop himself frowning back. Each was expressive with this look, and Inspector Blades found himself glancing away this time.
‘I’ll write up my report,’ Parker said.
‘I’d be grateful to you.’
The inspector found himself talking to Dr Parker’s back. ‘Do you think–’ he stopped in mid-sentence. He looked back at the girl.
‘How did this happen?’ he said to her silently. ‘Who could have been this malevolent to a girl like you?’