1 February 2018

from THE GREY AREA: The marsh trip

The bus stop at the Barbican Gate, five minutes’ walk from the Dead Level Business Park, and just past the fork in the road by the abandoned Barbican inn, was deserted. The glass of the panel on the stop sign where the timetable should have been affixed was missing – indecipherable, faded graffiti occupying that space – but undoubtedly the bus departing the Sanctuary Café, Deadmans Beach, at 16:35 – that is to say, two hours later than the service that might have been caught by Edith Watkins on that fateful March day a year and six weeks previously – was due any minute.
      The time difference was intended to allow for the change in sunset time, including the introduction of daylight saving, since then. Sunset would have taken place around six o’clock then, and soon after eight now.
      But the weather was overcast.
      A small velvet bag containing two dice was extracted from a left-hand pocket. The dice were rolled on the low brick wall that bounded the narrow pavement.
      The dice showed five (two and three).
      The double-decker bus could now be observed, approaching from the direction of Deadmans Beach, its destination board indicating: 201 Moorshurst. It came to a halt, the door folded silently open, the driver waited. Few passengers were on board.
      The top deck was selected. Clearly, it was not where Edith Watkins would have ventured – she would probably have chosen one of the seats near the driver designated for those with mobility difficulties – but it afforded a better view of the surrounding environment.

So stop number five was the destination, selected by the dice. The bus slowed, and stopped. It waited for the solitary passenger to descend, then went on its way, and eventually disappeared from view. The sign above the bus service emblem showed that this was the stop for Thieves Bridge. Another sign pointed the way: to Thieves Bridge Village, and to the Industrial Ponds.
      The weather was not only overcast, but breezy, as it would have been, insofar as we can tell, that inauspicious day. A nearby row of trees waved, and it was cold for the time of year. Yet beyond it seemed peaceful. There was no sound of birdsong or bird calling. An engine of some sort could be heard coughing in the far distance.
      And there were fields visible to the west, grey fields where daisies and buttercups were present abundantly, and where one or two horses grazed among them. Patchworked among these, the brilliant lemon-yellow shapes of fields of oilseed rape, now come to flower, stood out, hard-edged against the steel-grey sky. Closer at hand was a meadow of a uniform but stippled white, resembling nothing so much as a shingle beach; but its constituents, on closer examination, proved to be not stones but an excess of daisies, so tightly and densely packed that no greenery was visible between the individual plants, this growth only petering out at the far right edge, where a small yellow patch of buttercups was cornered. This yellow was a of a softer hue than the acid tone of the oilseed rape flower. The fields formed non-symmetrical patterns of quadrilateral forms, their boundaries sometimes marked by ditches radiating from the Old Canal, but the watercourses themselves were rarely visible. All those edges seemed to be going into the ground. The location of the Old Canal itself, to the north (beyond the road), was marked by a line of birches, and beyond that could be seen the distant hills where the presently invisible village of Deadhurst would be concealed behind thickets of tall trees with their freight of rookeries and heronries.
      And then to the east, the direction of travel, all was flat and open, as the Dead Level gave way to marshland beyond. On the horizon could be seen the row of wind turbines, their vanes slowly turning. It seemed as though, whatever the vantage point, these structures would always appear to be at the same distance, like the rainbow.
      The community of Thieves Bridge appeared to consist of a row of perhaps a dozen custom-built houses and bungalows of all forms and sizes, presenting as an isolated outpost of the Deadmans Beach sprawl. The most modest was a converted railway carriage, painted Brunswick green, to which a timber verandah had been attached; the most ambitious, a two-storey construction of modernist flavour, its plate-glass windows impervious to inspection, a car-port embedded at ground level. Next door to this, a bungalow offered a window display of tightly packed cacti and succulents in pots. One or two of the dwellings were in a poor state of repair and were adjacent to ramshackle outhouses. All homes had front gardens of various sizes and scope, planted with hardy vegetation adapted to withstand the salt breezes coming in along the flats from the coast, and incorporating areas of tightly-packed pebbles and gravel. No inhabitants were visible.
      The houses lined one side only of the unmade road, facing the west, a broken hedge marking the other perimeter, and here occasional vehicles were parked on the verge, where there were small masses of white narcissi. At the far end, a footpath intersected this road, and along it a young woman could be observed sedately leading two roan ponies, chestnut intermingled with white and grey, away into the distance.
      Then, from the far end of the row, approached a group of people and dogs.
      On closer approach, this group resolved into eight or nine individuals, with a dozen or more dogs circling them, all of the same breed: grey, black or peppery in colour, with white socks, shaggy moustaches and sharp pricked ears. The individuals talked and laughed among themselves while their animals darted from side to side, investigated the verges or trotted back to look quizzically at their owners, who were mostly of late middle age or older, evenly balanced as to sex, and of generally jovial disposition. They were dressed principally in fawn, with some exceptions and eccentricities.
      Greetings were exchanged. One or two of the dogs approached and greeted in their own fashion.
      In response to enquiry, one man, in his seventies perhaps, sporting a heavy salt-and-pepper moustache that lent him an uncanny resemblance to his dog, explained: We’re the Schnauzer Walking Club.
      Had they been out on the marshes?
      Oh yes, interrupted a corpulent woman with a smiling face, her head covered in a baseball cap, the dogs love it out there.
      But you have to be careful, the moustached man warned, it’s treacherous in places.
      Yes, treacherous.
      The dogs know their way.
      Just follow the designated paths, advised the moustached man (who, despite the chill, was wearing shorts, bare below the knee, with hairy shins disappearing into yellow Crocs), and you’ll be all right.
      The designated paths, echoed another, a cerise-faced woman, before wandering off to attend to an errant dog.
      The Schnauzers, they’re very intelligent.
      They know the ways.
      It was helpful to be reassured on these points. Further questioning elicited the information that this outing took place every month, regardless of the weather. Had they, then, recently observed anything of a disturbing nature: lost individuals, persons in distress, evidence of trauma?
      Oh, said the woman in the baseball cap, fending off a Schnauzer puppy that had suddenly decided to distract her attention by leaping up at her repeatedly, oh, there’s always weird things going on out there. People do get into trouble.
      But no dead bodies, we haven’t seen any dead bodies recently, if that’s what you mean, interrupted another man, in a sleeveless puffer jacket. At least, nothing human. And he roared with laughter, as though he had just cracked a joke. And his partner, who walked with the help of a single crutch, a dog lead in her other hand, joined in the merriment, their dog meanwhile reaching eagerly on its leash to sniff another. And all the dogs leapt and trotted.
      The party started to move off. Two couples were beginning to load their pets onto parked vehicles. Others moved in the direction of the bus stop.
      The Schnauzer Walking Club were left behind, and so, eventually, was the settlement of Thieves Bridge. A look at our position on the GPS-generated map on the phone screen revealed a blue dot on the threshold of a great nothingness. Ahead, in the real world, could be observed sodden fields dotted with sheep each accompanied by lambs, and then empty fields criss-crossed by ditches, and then, far beyond, the grey shimmer of the Industrial Ponds.

A solitary woman approached down the designated path.
      She was perhaps in her sixties, of medium height, had short, dark, greying hair fringing a woollen hat, and wore a navy anorak over a green jumper, jeans and walking boots.
      Hello there.
      But she did not respond to the greeting. Close up, it was observable that her eyes were large and lustrous; they looked in this direction but they saw no-one. In her hands she held a dog lead, and kept twisting it round repetitively.
      Hello, are you with the Schnauzer Walking Club?
      She had stopped in her tracks. It was as though she had heard the greeting, but either did not understand it or did not know where it was coming from. She still did not appear to see anyone in her path. She looked from side to side, then her gaze returned. She continued to twist the strap.
      Have you lost your dog?
      She looked around her, as if this idea might just have been put into her head, and the dog might reappear at any instant, from any direction.
      They went that way. The Schnauzer Walking Club. If you’re with them.
      She continued to stand there, apparently uncomprehending. The fingers of her hand went on turning the dog lead over and over, and then a curious fact became evident. She had six fingers on each hand. It was necessary to count them and count again, just to make sure, but when the hands remained still for a moment or two, the number became incontrovertible and the fact was established.
      A smile of encouragement was offered to her, and a pointing hand.
      That way.
      Without warning, she smiled back, as though with thanks, her face transformed for an instant.
      And then all of a sudden, her brief smile faded again and, still silent, she resumed her silent walk, past our position, in the direction of Thieves Bridge. And was lost to view.
      A little further on, in a hollow just off the path, was encountered what appeared to be a research station, a small compound nestled within the adjacent banks studded with patches of marram grass, encircled by chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire. The compound contained several ranks of wooden frames, each holding rows of samples of metal tiles in a variety of different colours and finishes, deliberately exposed to the sun and wind in what was clearly a scientific experiment. Some of these tiles had already experienced considerable weathering, others had evidently been more recently installed, or were less susceptible to adverse local conditions. There was no information provided about it other than three KEEP OUT notices, spaced regularly.
      Beyond that was the shimmer, suggesting the presence of the Industrial Ponds. So it turned out. They were tranquil, with not an angler or any other human in sight. The path went right round the grey trembling water. Once it would have been toxic, but no longer. We had been assured – by Gordon Prescott, among others – that it had been restored to full health, that fish stocks had recovered. The occasional discontinuous ripple, running counter to the prevailing wind, would be evidence of this.
      Near the right bank, a pair of mute swans could be seen sailing slowly. There was some observable bird life beyond them; binoculars revealed possibly greenshank, possibly plover. Beyond the far bank, a rook suddenly dived with a rough croak and was lost in undergrowth between some trees. To the south, a double V suggested a pair of herring gulls catching the breeze.
      Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. The familiar five-fold peal.
      So there were marsh frogs in these waters.
      Silence descended, and weighed heavily. But not completely, as was soon evident. A muted hum could now be detected rising and falling, and also, far off, the intermittent call of a ewe.
      Then again: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
      And an echo across the lake.
      There was no visible sign of the amphibians. Possibly they were dwelling in the reeds close to the near bank. This region had been described as uninhabited. Clearly, of habitation there was an abundance – but not of the human kind.
      The water closest to our position was almost black. There was an object stuck in it – in the shallows. With the naked eye, it was hard to discern detail, but binoculars revealed it to be the wrecked remains of a baby buggy, half-submerged. Of the child, there was no sign.
      Without warning, a sudden turbulence broke the surface near the shore. For the briefest of instants, a shiny, mottled dorsal fin was visible before plunging back into the depth. It was undoubtedly a monstrous catfish. It did not return.
      And now the perspective started to become unstable. There were density changes in the air, between those distant objects on the opposite bank and the observer; these changes possibly being caused by heat from sources far from this present location: chimneys, vehicle exhaust, roofs or roads. The path encircled the ponds, then led away into poorly mapped areas. A thicket was encountered – the cold wind blowing softly through dwarfed willows – and then terrain that might be described as willow carr, that is to say in transition between marsh and meadow. Marsh frogs were no longer audible. In the open country now visible, tall wooden poles, eight in number, the height of telegraph poles but bare of any encumbrance or detail, were observed to be grouped together; to be more specific, five in one group, three in another. Their purpose was unknown. The spacing between objects increased. From time to time, a plank bridge had to be negotiated over a ditch running between fields.
      A sudden movement interrupted the stillness: a hare. The animal leapt from cover and bounded away from our position, being eventually lost from sight in the adjacent field.
      And then inaccessible across another ditch, some fifty metres distant, a hoarding came into view, weather-battered, its wooden frame corrupted by rot. In block capitals, it proclaimed:

                              DÉJÀ VU

      The lettering was sans-serif, a very much faded tan in colour, shadowed to the bottom and left in a slightly deeper colour, the background creamy but rough. If this was an advertisement of some kind, there was no clue as to what it might be promoting. Its enigma as an object of religious contemplation was satisfyingly complete.
      The global positioning system had failed. There was no electronic signal discernible. The path forked; then forked again. There was no basis for any decision as to which fork to take. Therefore this had to be taken randomly. A field was skirted. The oceanic marshland continued ahead for mile upon mile.
      A sheep called nearby. After a few moments the call was repeated, sounding closer. On mounting the shallow crest of a small dyke, the animal became visible, a lost ewe sheltering by the ditch in the lee of the slope with its single half-grown lamb. The rumps of both animals, the older and the younger, were caked with dirt. The ewe’s eyes were briefly turned in our direction; she called again. She seemed bewildered. The lamb staggered; it was possibly lame. The flock would be some distance away. A catastrophe had separated these two from it, and it was only to be hoped that the shepherd would eventually locate them. There was, in any event, nothing to be done.
      It was no longer clear what manner of path this was. A step to either left or right resulted in the foot sinking into soft mud; and on retreating, the former path was difficult to regain. Hillocks protruded. Animals would be burrowing here.
      It could, however, be estimated that we were close to the point where the rook had been observed from the other side of the ponds to dive. At any rate, there were two of them now, to the right of the path, if path it was, loudly squabbling on an isolated tussock. One had a scrap of something in its beak which the other, its eye glinting – it could clearly be seen – coveted. And there was something bulky hidden in that undergrowth, something precious to them, something from which that disputed scrap may have been torn. As one moved sharply in the direction of their battleground, the sweet smell of decay became evident. The birds stopped their fight, froze in their positions, alert to the approach. A step nearer – and they instantly fled, flapping their wings rapidly until each settled on a bush, separated from each other and from the location that had been their battleground. The object in the undergrowth remained still. The scent increased in intensity. Further approach was difficult. It was constrained by vegetation.
      The object could, however, now be glimpsed. It was pale, swollen. It appeared to be a torso, or part of a torso. It was difficult to make out its shape. It lay partly covered by the shrubbery. It had the stillness of death.
      There were white feathers scattered around. That was a clue. Now it could be ascertained it was the carcass of a large bird, almost certainly a swan, badly decomposed and half sunk in mud. Part of its neck could be seen. We withdrew. No sooner had distance been re-established than one of the rooks walked back towards the location of the carcass, the other having flown off meanwhile. Then with jerky motions it recommenced pecking, extracting what looked like a jelly-like substance. A few feathers flickered in the breeze.
      The paths re-forked. Decisions were now once again being taken using chance procedures. But at a further intersection a broken down sign pointed, its weathered lettering showing as “Marsh Farm”. However, there was no sign of any farm. A second look at the sign produced uncertainty as to what its text established. Here, clearly or unclearly, words were beginning to lose their shape. The more one examined them, the less certainly did they signify. There were also no electronic signals apparent any longer. The mobile phone was dead. It was almost as though – absurd thought! – the electro-magnetic spectrum was no longer present.
      No buildings, no human-made structures of any size, were apparent. But those cathedrals of cloud, bearing down on this marshland! They made their own structures, changing by the minute, and their depth created the illusion of a mirror of the land below, which itself was an ancient sea, of course, the ghost of a shallow ocean that had retreated millennia ago, hiding beneath it, in the manner of a palimpsest, evidence of even older times, of unimagined undersea forests, now turned to coal and other sediments. Coal, no longer worth extracting, but nevertheless buried there still.
      And then, a minute later, there was a man-made structure up ahead, or the semblance of one. It seemed to be a barn, set on a slight rise, sheeted with rusting corrugated iron. Its distance from our position was uncertain, perhaps indeterminate. But if this was Marsh Farm – and how could it have been missed from view such a short time ago? – then there was the possibility of a farmer, who could give advice on our co-ordinates. If it could be reached.
      There was now thunder in that sky; it was the colour of bruising. Isolated raindrops manifested.

The barn was reached, but at some cost. Although at times it appeared very close at hand, such that one could reach out and touch its side, the approach journey seemed to take the best part of an hour. On arrival, finally, it appeared vast in dimensions. But its wide interior space had been abandoned. There was an uneven dirt floor underfoot, littered here and there with the remains of straw bales, and on this floor our damp footprints appeared. It was reminiscent of a crime scene. But what crime might have been committed here? At least it offered shelter from the rain, which could be heard drumming softly on the roof far above. Wrecked wooden benches tilted. A faint scent of the animals that might have been housed here once – or that of their ghosts – still remained. An opening in the far wall offered a concrete path that led beyond. At the other end of this there appeared to be a farmhouse, but its windows gaped, revealing no content. It seemed as though centuries had gone by, and here with the passage of that time came unknown memories, arising out of their sediments. But the notion of the death of the electro-magnetic spectrum now appeared doubly absurd, for one could feel electricity and awe in abundance. The spectrum, of course, permeated everywhere, but was here simply beyond human vision. Volumes formed, and dispersed with inexorable movement. There were squares, quadrilaterals, multilateral shapes of various shades. Through this disorder, this cascade of consciousness, was it possible to regain some semblance of control? One shape, standing perhaps for human awareness, had to be moved to the “danger” area as though on a computer screen. One had to do this very slowly so that it entered the danger area only very gradually, for if it were to touch the edge too suddenly there would be a loud bang and everything would vanish, not just the computer screen, or even the computer itself, or whatever device it was that all this was mediated by, but the very world, so that nothing would exist except one’s bare consciousness. The field would become a tabula rasa.
      The presence of the observer interferes, as it always has done, and always will.
      The farmhouse was a mere shell, as could be seen when it was approached, for daylight was observable through the broken glass and empty spaces of its upper floor windows – but its doors and ground floor windows were barricaded against entry. There was no shelter to be obtained here, and so it was necessary to retreat to the barn. And now the storm was fully raging. The lightning and its concomitant thunderclap must have been directly overhead, for there was barely a gap between them. There was a bang. Then there was nothing. And then something again.
      It appeared there was a world – out there – that was not the real world. The storm flew overhead. And night was beginning to fall.

Hello! Is anybody there?
      (There is no reply.)

The rain had stopped. The wind, too, had died. The thunderstorm had passed just as quickly as it arrived, leaving a great stillness behind. There was a hint of luminescence in the lighter cloud to the left, which would make that the west, for it was undoubtedly the faint and masked evidence of a sunset. And to the right, the outlines of the distant, easterly wind turbines could just be discerned on the darkening horizon. That meant the way ahead, northward, would surely lead back to the main road. It was only necessary to continue taking the fork in the path that kept the fading light to the left and the turbine silhouettes, insofar as they could be made out in the gathering dusk, on the right. With luck, it would surely be possible to arrive in time to pick up the last bus of the evening from Moorshurst to Deadmans Beach via the Barbican Gate, due at the Thieves Bridge stop at 21:15.
      Domestic animals could now be heard again: the distant cries of sheep, the yelp of a dog. A human voice? Perhaps. Location was beginning to reassert itself, with greater strength every minute. The electronic device clicked into life; the time showed glowing in the dim light as 20:48. It was necessary to deploy a torch to guide the way now, to avoid a possibly catastrophic deviation from the path, whichever path was chosen. The world was made of flesh again. Currents flowed through it, and constituted it. Fields were skirted. Something scurried in a low hedge. There was a lingering scent of sewage. We were in open country, and car headlights and tail lights could be seen proceeding slowly in the distance.
      With great difficulty, the road was reached, and the recognisable hamlet of Thieves Bridge, unfamiliarly approached from a different direction. There was nobody waiting at the bus stop. It was 21:11.
      A single street lamp pooled the stop in light. Darkness was settling all about. In the rightward direction, the road to Moorshurst stretched to the bend; to the left, that to Deadmans Beach disappeared into the night. All was quiet. Presently, a low rumble could be heard. A faint light outlined the small grove of trees at the bend, and from here now approached the welcome sight of the illuminated double-decker bus, its destination board indicating in bright amber digits piercing the gloom: 201 Deadmans Beach.

The last bus of the evening was not uninhabited.
      For on the top deck as the night greyed, as fields and ditches beyond the glass disappeared, briefly encountered human agencies flourished in their own individual ways, within their own consciousnesses.
      The numbers on the bus varied slightly, perhaps two dozen on balance for the duration of the trip (at least as far as the Barbican Gate), plus or minus a few, evenly split between top and bottom decks.
      There was muted chatter. Some were silent, even perhaps contemplative. At this hour the majority would have been workers at the end of a late shift. One appeared to be eating shrimps from a small cardboard container.
      Car headlights approached from time to time, and in a rush were gone.
      From one of the seats behind, there was a humming, or maybe a whining. It came and went, rising and falling in volume, but never loud, never above p – eventually revealing itself to be a woman’s voice continually essaying with varying success a hymn-like tune or dirge. And on occasion (but indistinctly) the tune may have been identifiable as that old favourite “Abide With Me”; but then receding in presence and definition, re-entering the category of indeterminate wail. The memory, the faint echo of the banshee.
      At the third stop, a drunken man boarded the bus, ascended the stairs and lurched into a near-side seat. He laughed to himself from time to time. Where he had been, only he knew. He wore a gold lamé, or gold-lamé-effect suit, crumpled, and a trilby hat of the same material. The outfit had probably been purchased at a novelty fancy dress store rather than a tailor’s. His plastic spectacles looked fake too. He uttered vague imprecations to nobody in particular, and at one point attempted, but failed, to harmonise with the woman’s hymn or dirge singing. Following this, he slumped back in his seat, but moments later revived to start a musical performance of his own. With spectacular lapses in intonation, he burst into folksong:
      How many gentle flow-ow-owers grow
      In an English country … ga-arden?

      The hymn-singing woman was momentarily silenced.
      The drunk tipped his hat, and made his trick plastic spectacles light up, a bright lime-green, presumably at the discreet push of a button in his pocket: a feature that, despite his looking around for approval, went largely unappreciated by the other passengers. He continued:

      How many songbirds ma-a-ake their nests
      In an English cunt …

      He paused here, and made the spectacles illuminate another four or five times. There was a brief moment of silence, then the woman resumed her murmured and dreamy rendition of “Abide With Me”.
      No more passengers got on.
      Fast falls the eventide.
      Darkness – and the road ahead. The Barbican Gate.
      The voice of a child from the back: Mummy! mummy!

Hello, is anybody there?
      (There is no reply.)
      Hello! Is anybody there?
      (There is no reply.)
      Who is it?
      (There is no reply.)
      I’ve got to go now. I’ll be off in a minute. I have things to do, I have to move on. Now’s the time, if you want anything. Is there anything you need?
      (There is no reply.)
      Who is that?
      (There is no reply.)

29 January 2018


Before I continue posting extracts, here's a bit about my book:

The Grey Area is a novel of approximately 93,000 words, divided into thirteen chapters. Although in part it uses the tropes of detective fiction, and is subtitled “A Mystery”, it is not a conventional crime or mystery novel.

The narrative is set in a fictional landscape, but one which will be familiar to those acquainted with coastal locations in Sussex and Kent. Most of the action takes place between the village of Deadhurst and the nearby settlement and fishing community of Deadmans Beach, with excursions into the marshlands beyond.

The central characters are:
•    Phidias Peralta, a private detective, who is living illegally in a unit within the Dead Level Business Park, and appears to be fleeing some private demons from his past.
•    Lucy White, his assistant, a single mother living in Deadmans Beach with her seven-year-old son George.

The story proceeds by way of three “modes”, which alternate:
1.    The ongoing narrative of Phidias Peralta, which, despite describing events and situations from his point of view, never uses the first person singular.
2.    Diary entries by Lucy White – mainly about her concern for her son, who is not doing well at school, and her relationship with his father.
3.    Passages of dialogue in which the speakers are not directly identified, although they nearly always involve Phidias and/or Lucy.

The plot involves an investigation into the unexplained disappearance of a lady in her late eighties, Edith Watkins, who was suspected to be suffering from dementia. It takes the detective into explorations of the hinterland where anything might happen.

Without too much spoiling, it is fair to say that the mystery deepens and is never definitively "solved", although some insight is gained by the end.

20 January 2018

from THE GREY AREA: The Old Dick

I've abandoned this blog for over a year, but ...

My latest novel, The Grey Area, has been completed for a few months now. I'd hoped Unthank Books, the publishers of Country Life, would take it on, but it appears they are no longer commissioning new single-author books, although they have not said so publicly. Looks like the same story elsewhere in independent publishing. Very gloomy. Anyway, while I investigate other ways of publishing this book, which I'm very happy with, I'm going to post extracts here.

This first one you can also find in the latest, terrific issue of Golden Handcuffs Review, which is my novel's first appearance of any sort in actual print on actual paper. But check out that issue also for the David Antin feature, for poems by Maurice Scully and Alice Notley, the latest instalment of Peter Quartermain's memoir, and, may I modestly add, my own appreciation of the late, great David Bromige. I am also honoured to be sharing page space with the legendary Joseph McElroy. And there's a lot else.

from The Grey Area

The tide was in at Deadmans Beach, and the wind was up. The fishing fleet was ranged on the banks of shingle being encroached by rushing and receding waves: an impressive if heterogeneous collection of chiefly traditionally clinker-built vessels (but some of fibreglass), both larger trawlers and also punts, that’s to say, undecked boats, all with diesel engines, sitting on their greased hardwood blocks or planks, awaiting favourable conditions. Linseed oil dully gleamed and colours faded against the whitening sky. Winch engines and their cables, some apparently half consumed by corrosion, also lay dormant, and among them the detritus of a fishing beach: walls and labyrinths of creels, plastic and wooden boxes or their fragments, piles of greasy nets. Two or three men wandered between the huts; one called briefly to another – but this was all the human life that could be observed. A crushed, stained white latex glove and a dirty, crumpled T-shirt with the Superman logo that had evidently been employed as a rag lay discarded on the intervening gravel. Used plastic bottles were scattered here and there. On the casing of a winch, a hand-painted notice in white lettering on a black ground: KEEP OFF. On the shingle banks, eviscerated fish corpses and emptied skulls stank and were disdained by the ragged flocks of gulls, terns and plovers that edged the moving foam. From the sterns of various boats fluttered black flags on tall poles. Some vessels had names painted on their bows or sterns, for example: Moonshine, Candice Marie, Zelda, The Brothers Grim, David Bowie, Blackbeard, Our Dot & Danny, Little Mayflower, King Hell, Safe Return. Their registration numbers were prominently displayed in most cases, and the following were noted: DB11, DB16 (etc, all the way up to…) DB590 – DB signifying that the boats were registered in the port of Deadmans Beach. All in all, including small row boats and others whose registration numbers were obscured or not present, a total of twenty-eight vessels were counted.
      A huge volume of water appeared to be driven repeatedly and relentlessly by the strong breeze – verging on gale – onto the beach. The line of undulations could be tracked like a moving graph against the concrete groyne that marked the south-western boundary of the fishing beach, in the lee of which was suddenly observed a shining black creature – at first glance a seal, but quickly revealed to be a solitary surfer in black wetsuit, crouching, waiting for the right wave to arrive. And so this mysterious being watched the approach of a tall one with rippling white foam at its rim; the foam starting to glitter, for the sun only then began to make its presence felt through the white banks of cloud, the shoreward wall of the wave now being in shadow, and darkening further as it rose.
But the wave seemed to pause. And at the last possible moment the surfer took advantage, and, embracing his electric blue board tightly as one would a newly refound lover, launched himself into the van of the approaching current that swept him inexorably shoreward, showing only a flash of his orange flippers, before it broke over him in a white explosion. Then just as the figure seemed lost, he reappeared in the midst of the retreating water, struck out and began to swim back where he’d come from, following the flowback to the lee of the groyne, where he would turn, shelter and repeat the experience.

The fishing community’s favourite hostelry, enquiries quickly established, was the Richard the Lionheart Inn.
      Set back from the front and faced by the fishermen’s tar-black wooden sheds that flank the shingle beach, it presented as an ancient inn that had seen better days and had somehow survived misjudged attempts at modernisation on the cheap: a tiled roof, tall chimneys, with weatherboarding at the front and hanging tiles on the sides filling the spaces between modern UPVC windows. Vertical rust-streaks down the wall bearded the cast iron brackets for hanging baskets that bore no blooms at this time of year. Pasted inside the front windows were posters for local bands: Monday nights were blues nights, Saturday nights featured a wider variety of genres, including a psychedelic option. Entry to the bar was via a short flight of stone steps flanked by railings.
      Fluttering on high: the red-on-white cross, emblem of the Crusaders.
      The south-westerly was beginning to pump up seriously now, and with it came flecks of rain, so entering the pub was a welcome relief, the more so as ale from a respected regional brewery was advertised. The interior was badly lit. The only other customers, seated on high stools at opposite ends of the long bar, were an elderly man with hair in long white ringlets descending to his shoulders, wearing a black jacket, khaki cargo pants and impeccably white trainers, slowly supping a pint; and an overweight woman, who was engaged in shouting at the barman. She too wore white trainers, but quite scuffed, and black trousers, and her anorak was open to reveal a pink poodle on her sweater. She cradled a glass of something with lemon in it.
      The low ceiling, crisscrossed by beams, featured giant crabs and other marine creatures trapped there by netting; paddles, flags and lifebelts decorated the walls, also a dartboard, and a noticeboard pinned with photographs and advertisements for forthcoming events. At the far end, next to the toilets, a much scrubbed blackboard advertised the dishes du jour. These included soup, the idea of which appealed.
      So what, then, was the soup of the day?
      A deal was struck with the young, monosyllabic barman: soup and a pint, a table in the corner claimed.
      Giles, cried the lady in the poodle sweater, addressing the ringleted elder from her end of the bar.
      Closer observation now revealed that this snowy-haired gentleman was wearing makeup and eyeliner, and his fingernails were polished in a fetching shade of teal. What’s that, my dear? he said.
      Have you finished planning your funeral?
      As a matter of fact, yes, Dodie, if you really want to know.
      You going for burial at sea?
      (Giles turned to our corner to acknowledge the presence of the outside world in this enclave.)
Highly irregular, of course. (Palm vertical on the side of his mouth, he continued in a stage whisper with a wink for our benefit:) Mum’s the word.
      So you going to be dumped over the side, then?
      Dodie, there will be more to it than that. You make me sound like an illegal catch.
      I always thought you were! And Dodie, spectacles glinting, laughed uproariously at her own witticism.
      The padre has agreed to be involved, just between us, you understand. There’ll be a ceremony, of sorts. Prayers will be said. I am a man of faith, you know.
      I knew you were, Giles, said Dodie, you believe in God, don’t ya.
      I prefer to speak about the Author of everything in this world, both seen and unseen.
      But you believe in Him.
      I don’t know so much about that, but I trust that He believes in us. You understand what I’m saying?
      You’re a one, Giles.
      If the Author doesn’t believe in us, who else is going to?
      I dunno.
      The Author of all things knows where we’re going.
      And He believes in us?
      It could be a She, conceded Giles.
      Maybe He or She hasn’t got a clue, was the poodle lady’s suggestion.
      Well, you’ve got to trust they do. It’s trust more than belief, you know what I mean? That’s what you call faith.
      And you think you’re going to Heaven?
      We are, said Giles solemnly, already living in Paradise.
      Could’ve fooled me, said the poodle lady.
      Deadmans Beach. Every morning when the light comes up here in Deadmans Beach I give thanks for another day that’s been given me. It is fucking Paradise, is it not, excuse my language, mister.
      (He received an assurance from our quarter that no offence was taken at bad language.)
      Yeah, it is nice here, admitted Dodie. I wouldn’t live nowhere else now.
      We all drank.
      Are you down from London, then? inquired Giles of us.
      In a manner of speaking. And you?
      Born and bred in Deadmans Beach, myself. Proud of it. She’s from London, she’s a bloody DFL, he added, pointing with his pint mug at Dodie, who burst into another loud cackle of laughter.
      I’ve only been here thirty years, Giles!
      You’ve served your apprenticeship then.
      I’ll say. And don’t call me she. You’re a very rude man, Giles, I don’t care if God believes in you or not, it’s a fact. Me old man it was (Dodie went on for our benefit), who brought me here when we got married. He was in the fishing trade all his life. But he passed on, what is it, two year ago.
      We expressed our sorrow at her loss, and there was a brief silence to mark it.
      You down on business then, or holiday-making or what? continued Giles politely.
      Our assurance that there was no holiday-making involved met with general approval.
      A private investigator? Blimey, that’s something new, ain’t it, Dodie? We haven’t had one of them down here before. But you’re not with the police then?
      By no means. And your secret is safe.
      The burial at sea.
      It was Giles’ turn to laugh, which he did quite lustily.
      Of course, scattering ashes at sea is perfectly legal, we pointed out. But an intact, unburnt body, that’s quite a different matter.
      You are correct, sir, it is against the law, but it happens all the time in the fishing community, explained Giles. Quite regularly you get a church funeral, somebody local, and the bearers may notice the casket is unusually light. You follow my drift? Everybody knows what that means.
      The body is not there?
      Exactly. The real funeral occurs under cover of darkness. Boat pulls out to sea as per usual a day or so later, when the tide and weather conditions are right – maybe more than one boat, depends on how many mourners, you see. Out a couple of miles, then … well, I don’t need to spell it out.
      It’s important to us. Well, I was in the fishing for many years. Can’t say I chose it, but I was brought up to it, like. It’s a hard life, but it’s still in my blood, even though I’ve been retired for longer than I care to remember. And so I want to go back to the bosom of the sea when my time comes.
      It seemed an apt moment to bring up, discreetly, the subject of our investigation.
Edith Watkins? Giles frowned into his drink.
      I remember her, volunteered Dodie. Lady what disappeared.
      She wasn’t the one who – ?
      She used to go for her walks along here, Giles, you remember, she talked to everybody? Edie, that’s what we called her. Little Edie.
      Did she come into the pub?
      Not often. I seen her in here with a cup of coffee sometimes. Maybe once or twice. I don’t think she drank.
      She wasn’t the one who wangled herself a trip on a fishing boat, was that the one, Dodie?
      That is the one, Giles, that was, what, ten or twenty year ago, she was a brave lady. Getting on even then, a bit mad, you know, but anyway she disappeared last year, it was on the news. Come on, you must remember?
      Yes, I recall Little Edie now. Haven’t seen her for … ooh, donkey’s years. So is she dead?
      The police, we explained, had not been able to determine this, and looked unlikely to, but it seemed that her last journey might have involved a visit to the waterfront.
      So what do you think, she might have stowed away on a boat and fallen off the side? exclaimed Dodie with great excitement.
      It was necessary to reassure the pair that this was not a leading theory, and that the task at hand was simply to establish her movements on the last day she had been seen alive. Neither, however, could recall when precisely they had last seen her. Nor could they remember any police inquiries last year, and the name of DCI Green meant nothing to them.
      Who was it, Giles demanded of Dodie, who took her out on that fishing trip a few years ago, was it old Gallop, you know, Doc Gallop? I have a feeling now it was.
      Yes, that’s right, old Doc, bless him.
      Would it be possible to speak to Mr Gallop? was our inquiry.
      You’d have a job, said Giles.
      Why so?
      He died.
      Buried at sea?
      Who knows? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
      But his son still runs the same boat, said Dodie, he’ll have known her better than us. Darren Gallop, he’s the president of the Fishermen’s Association now.
      So he should be easy to contact?
      Comes in here a lot, said Giles. Partial to a pint in the old Dick, is the younger Gallop. Very eminent man these days, though. The Jumpy Mary, that’s his boat. You’ll find him in the book, or just call in here again. He’ll be around anyway, nobody’s going out fishing in this weather.
      And as he drained his pint mug the fingernails flashed briefly like blue jewels.
      How was your soup, sir? was everything all right? asked the quiet young barman, who had suddenly appeared on this side of the counter with a wiping cloth.
      He was reassured as to the quality of both the fare and the service.
      Dodie stood down from the bar, zipped up her anorak, concealing the pink poodle from view.
      Where you going now, my love? asked Giles.
      Never you mind. Nice meeting you, mister.
      And you.
      I am going out for A Fag – should anyone inquire.
      Ooh, lovely, my dear, I’m sure.
      I didn’t mean you, Giles. See ya.
      Filthy habit, commented Giles when she’d gone. As filthy as the weather.
      He motioned to the barman for another pint. We attempted to pay for this, but he would not hear of it.