One More Unfortunate – “Essex noir” from Kaitlin Queen

One More Unfortunate by Kaitlin QueenHere’s an extract from Kaitlin Queen’s murder mystery One More Unfortunate, currently on offer at 99 cents at Amazon (for March only).

But first, the blurb:

It’s the mid-1990s and Nick Redpath has some issues to resolve. Like why he is relentlessly drawn back to a circle of old friends and enemies – and an old love – in his seaside birthplace, the Essex town of Bathside. And why he won’t let himself fall in love again. But first he must prove that he didn’t murder his old flame, Geraldine Wyse…

Kaitlin Queen is the adult fiction pen-name of a best-selling children’s author. Kaitlin also writes for national newspapers and websites. Born in Essex, she moved to Northumberland when she was ten and has lived there ever since. This is her first crime novel for an adult audience.

And a five-star Amazon review:

Essex noir — who knew?

Twelve years ago Nick Redpath’s mom died, and as an orphan he was shuffled around various homes. Now he’s back to visit his hometown of Bathside, Essex. Soon he begins running into the kids he used to know at school, only now of course they’re grown up with their own lives and liaisons; most traumatic for Nick of these re-encounters is with Jerry, the girl he adored from afar when they were both adolescents, now a doped-up, adulterous femme fatale. Only this time it’s the femme fatale who winds up being the murder victim, with Nick — in true noir style — the prime suspect.

There are twists and turns galore before finally the murder is solved, and in the interim we’re offered plenty of neat insights into the hypocrisies and vulnerabilities that oil the wheels of social life in small towns that have somehow been left a few years behind by the world, and aware that the gap could be widening. The characterizations are vivid, and in a couple of cases really quite affecting; the taut tale-telling rattles along at good speed; and the solution to the mystery is both startling and satisfying. Recommended.

And now, the extract:


One More Unfortunate

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death.

—Thomas Hood, The Bridge of Sighs, 1844

Chapter 1

He had to get going. He had to move.

Sitting at the wheel of his old VW Golf, Nick Redpath tried to pull himself together.

He had to go for help.

To guide him he only had Betsy’s vague instructions and his own sepia-tinted memories. It might be a long drive, he thought.

“There’s a public house,” Betsy had said. His wife insisted he should be called Marcus now, but he’d always been Betsy at school. “Just across the level crossing. Head towards the Ipswich Road. What’s it called? Caroline? The name?”

Betsy had drunk a lot this evening and it was clearly a great effort for him to think straight. Even the shock hadn’t sobered him up.

“Does it matter, Marcus?” Caroline snapped. “There’s a pub. It’ll have a telephone.”

Nick left them arguing on the uneven wooden deck of the chalet. They’d be divorced in a year, he was certain of that: they’d been at each other’s throats all evening.

A soft murmur of voices came from the next chalet. Trevor Carr was in there, comforting his girlfriend. Mandy’s response had been erratic: one minute calm and rational, the next verging towards hysteria.

As Nick reached the parking area at the back Ronnie Deller appeared out of the night, still belligerent with drink. “I’m going,” Ronnie said. “It’s my place. I’m … responsible.”

“Come on, Ronnie,” said Nick. He felt tired. He just wanted it all to be out of his hands, but not if that meant passing it on to Ronnie. “We decided,” he said. “Will you let me through?” They’d all been drinking and at least Ronnie had been smoking dope. As Nick was the most sober it had been agreed that he should go and make the call while the others stayed together at the Strand.

For once Ronnie backed down, slouching away into the darkness. Before Nick had managed to start the engine, he heard him arguing loudly with Caroline Betts.

Alone with the night at last, Nick felt strangely secure in his old car. He felt that he might just slide down into the seat, wrap his arms around himself and try to forget. The temptation was strong.

He had to get going. He shook his head, slapped his face sharply. Once, twice.

Things seemed a little clearer now. Carefully, he set off, up Strand Lane with the Stour estuary spreading out behind him, all mud and water and drifts of sea-purslane.

It was mid-September, but the air was still peppered with bats and moths, sudden flashes of white in the full beam of the headlights. A long time ago he might have had names for them. Were those little bats called something like Pepperoni? Pipistrani? Pipistrelle?

He slapped his face again and then snatched at the wheel before the hedge could intervene. His mind was wandering. He had to pull himself together.

The lane could only be half a mile long, but it seemed to be taking forever, first surrounded by trees, now with open fields to either side.

Eventually, he came to the level crossing. There would be no trains at this time of night. Not even a late boat-train heading for an overnight sailing to the Hook.

He drove on and soon afterwards he came to a T-junction. Remembering Betsy’s instructions, he turned right, and as he rounded the first corner he spotted the pub. It was called the Plough. A single bulb illuminated the sign. Other than that the place was in complete darkness.

He checked his watch. One-thirty.

He pulled up in the car park, convinced that he would be out of luck: the telephone would be inside, locked up. Maybe he could rouse someone to help, but there was something about the place, with its shabby white stucco walls and peeling paint, that told him he’d be wasting his time.

Betsy had been right, though. There was a call box—old-fashioned, red—tucked away by the road. To beat back the darkness Nick parked with his headlamps directed full into the box.

For a moment before he entered he froze in the twin beam, like a rabbit on a road. Inside, his body cut out most of the light and his eyes had trouble adjusting, but he could have made the call blindfold in any case.

Trying, without much hope, to gather himself, he swallowed and then pressed the three nines.

~

Driving back to the Strand seemed so much quicker—the way back never takes as long. He knew where he was going now, it was simply a matter of retracing his route.

He had waited a long time in that deserted pub car park. He had wanted to cry, but tears are never easy when you need them the most.

Back left out of the car park, on a short distance to the unmarked junction, then left again over the level crossing, still clear. He took the lane steadily, trying to convince himself that he was being sensible and not merely delaying his return.

The lane was single track, unsurfaced, with grass growing along its spine. Ahead, through the breaks in the trees, he could see the estuary again: lights on the water, and a dark grey smudge he knew to be the exposed mud-flats of Copperas Bay.

His rearview mirror suddenly flashed urgent blue at him and harsh headlights winked on and off impatiently. He pulled over into a gateway and waited as two blue-lighting police cars scrambled past, followed by a third unmarked Astra. They were in more of a hurry than he was. It was all in their hands now. He should be relieved, but all he could feel was the tiredness dragging at his every movement.

When he reached the Strand, he had to drive on past the police cars by Ronnie’s chalet in order to park. There was a row of maybe twenty A-frames here, on the western lip of Copperas Bay. All the same triangular profile—timber roofs right down to the ground on either side—they backed onto a raised earth bank and the muddy track which the Strand Lane had become. At the front, the bank dropped away and the chalets were supported on stilts which plunged into the grassed-over ooze of the estuary. About halfway along, there was a gap between the cabins, and here a ramshackle jetty of roped-together pontoons snaked out across the mud. Years ago this development had been the start of something bigger but, in the Bathside way, it had never been completed.

Nick Redpath left the car and headed back to the chalet. There were already four or five uniformed men at the scene, and two officers in shabby, plain suits. Another car pulled up as Nick approached. He heard raised voices, lowered voices, Mandy Kemp whimpering again from the neighbouring chalet. Engines grumbled, tinny robot monotones came from two-way radios in the open cars and attached to heavy belts. Torches leapt along the path that led into the wood, then they clustered partway along. Lights around a moth, he kept thinking, irrationally. Lights around a beautiful, fragile moth.

But the moth was dead.

He leaned back against a tree, straightening the weary curve of his spine. He liked the solidity, the coolness against the spreading stiffness of his body. He shouldn’t have tried to drink tonight, it always made him feel like this: instantly hungover and miserable. He had never been able to gain pleasure from alcohol or drugs, no matter how hard he tried to educate himself. Pints with the lads were always, for him, orange juice or Coke, and driving duties afterwards.

Slowly, his body slid down the trunk, snagging on the bark. He crouched, elbows on knees, face pressed into his hands.

Time passed, during which he was dimly aware of the buzz of activity around him, the occasional rush of air as someone passed nearby. He started to lose track of what was happening.

He rubbed his eyes, looked up.

Caroline Betts was pointing at him, talking to a stout man who looked like he dressed by mail order. “That’s him,” she said, her tone unusually low. “Over there. Against the tree.” Beyond her, Betsy—Marcus—was dividing his attention between Caroline and a policeman who was trying to question him. He was trying to catch Caroline’s eye, but she wouldn’t respond.

“Nicholas Redpath?” A controlled, neutral tone.

Nick looked up at the officer, who had left Caroline and come to stand looming over him, cutting out the light. He was a tall man as well as broad, his shaggy black hair haloed by a car’s headlights somewhere behind him.

Nick nodded and tried to work some spit into his dried up mouth so that he could speak.

“Nicholas Redpath,” the officer repeated. “My name’s Detective Sergeant Cooper. I’m arresting you on suspicion of the unlawful killing of Mrs Geraldine Louise Wyse. You’re not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so, but anything you do say may be put in writing and used in evidence. Do you understand?” The forced neutrality of Cooper’s tone never faltered.

Nick looked across to where Betsy and his wife were being questioned. Ronnie and Trev and Mandy were with officers in the chalets, he was sure. Why him?

Slowly, he shook his head. “What’s going on?” he said, his mind in freefall. What was going on?

~

Nick Redpath stared at the tape machine, not really seeing it. He was in an interview room at the Bathside police station, only a couple of streets from the damp prefab where he had spent his first fourteen years. He’d already been passed fit for questioning by the police doctor, but he was still struggling, desperately, to understand.

The interview room had grey, scabbed walls, no windows, a glaring striplight stuck to the ceiling. Nick sat in a stiff plastic chair, a table in front of him bearing the tape machine and the elbows of a thin-haired man who had introduced himself as Detective Inspector Langley. The officer’s jutting ears made Nick think of Prince Charles, except they were smaller. Ian Rush, maybe. Their scooped forward interior shone greasily, reflecting the single light of the room.

“Describe your feelings towards Mrs Wyse,” said Langley. “When you were at school. When you met her again last week. Tell me again: what sort of relationship did you have with her?”

Nick stared at the blank face of the tape machine, struggling to shape a response.

“Answer me, Nick. Come on. You’ve already told me you were friends. Is there something more?”

He thought he’d always been discreet. He’d been in Jerry’s registration class for three years, before they’d taken him away from Bathside. He’d sat behind and across from her. Even now he could picture her short, streaked, blonde bob, from behind and across—the way it moved with her head as she talked and laughed. Adolescent days spent watching her, studying her in secret, as an entomologist studies some rare and exquisite butterfly or moth, mentally logging every detail, every nuance of movement or mannerism. Nights spent in recollection.

“Were you attracted to her, Nick? Was that it?”

How did this DI Langley know? He’d always been subtle, he thought. Had everyone seen through him from his first lustful thought?

“What about tonight? What was it that you said to her? What were you hoping to achieve when you came back to Bathside?” Langley was suddenly animated. “Why did you go to the Strand? Did you want to give her one, like you should have done twelve years ago? Is that it?”

There was a cough from behind, which reminded Nick of the presence of a solicitor they had told him to hire. Langley caught himself, nodded, said more calmly, “What happened, Nick? When the two of you were alone in the woods.”

He remembered her lips, moist against his own for that briefest of moments. Her hands against him. “Please, Nicky.” Her voice had hardly changed after all this time. “Take me away from all this. I’d be grateful.” Her meaning had been clear enough.

His own hands, rising quickly, forcing her away. Breaking contact. He remembered the suddenness of that movement, and then again, he remembered her lips against his own.

He shuddered violently, put his hands to his face.

“Tell me about it, Nick. Tell me all about it.” Langley’s voice was closer now. He was leaning forward, pressing his attack home. “You’ve told me already: you confronted her, you argued—a lovers’ tiff? What did you do next? There’s a gap: one moment you’re arguing, then you skip ahead to being with the others and nobody knowing where Mrs Wyse has got to. There’s a gap there, Nick. What happened?”

Nick shook his head. “I told you. I went for a walk. Try and clear my skull.”

“Somebody tried to clear Mrs Wyse’s skull. Did you strike her?”

“I went for a walk.”

“In the woods? At one in the morning? Come on. You can do better than that. Did you strike Mrs Wyse?”

At last, he was crying, and he hated himself for it.

“Did you hit her?”

“I don’t know,” said Nick. “I don’t know what happened. I just … don’t … know.”

Chapter 2

The way back nearly always seems quicker: retracing the outward journey, following the trail back to source. Yet here he was: taken away from Bathside when he was barely fourteen, and now a man of twenty-six.

It had taken him twelve years to find his way back.

Nick Redpath took his old VW Golf gently around the twists and turns of the Ipswich Road. He passed the first turning to the Strand Lane and Copperas Bay. As a boy he’d trekked out there to watch the birds that gathered on the mud-flats: black-tailed godwits, brent geese, flickering carpets of widgeon and teal.

He found that the familiar sights were triggering old memories. Copperas Wood, a nature reserve now, but back then it had been unmanaged, criss-crossed with muddy paths used by gatherers of sweet chestnuts every autumn.

There was a new bypass, branching off from a roundabout just before the first build-up of houses. Where to? Bathside occupied the end of the north-east Essex peninsula, beyond the town was only the mouth of the estuary and the North Sea: the road had nowhere to go. To the first of the docks at Westquay, he supposed, or even across the mud-flats to Eastquay.

He drove on into the fringe of the town. There were new houses here, filling in what had been open spaces: the old School for Troubled Adolescents, as they had been told to call it, had closed, replaced by a retirement complex; a fistful of neat little bungalows had been scattered across its playing field.

He drove past All Saints’ Church and a cluster of shops, then took a right turn at the war memorial. Down Upper Bay Road, then right again into Hill Lane to cruise slowly past his old school. The regimented grey blocks were no different, except maybe a little more shabby. A chip van was pulled up onto the grass, quiet after the lunchtime rush.

The Prom had been transformed, a vista of crisp concrete sea defences yet to be browned and dulled with age. He tried to picture how it had been before, but he couldn’t, he only knew that all this was new. He drove slowly along the front, bleak in its mid-September greyness, almost deserted now that the summer season was over and the kids back in school. A few dogs—To Be Kept Strictly Under Control, the signs said—and their owners. Some gulls, lifting into the air and then settling again, each time someone passed too close.

He parked in Third Avenue and set out on foot to find himself somewhere to stay. There had always been plenty of guesthouses and bed and breakfast places in this part of town.

~

The man who answered Nick’s knock introduced himself as Jim McClennan. He was a dried-up shell of a man. His face was pink and stubbly, creased like an elephant’s legs; his thin white hair was stained nicotine-yellow.

“Tenner a night, off-season rate,” he said. “Full cooked breakfast with the trimmings, if the wife’s well enough. Key’s on a string in the letterbox if you’re coming in late.” McClennan tongued his moustache. “If you have anybody stopping over, you pay me another tenner, you hear?”

Left alone, Nick surveyed his room. It was clean and tidy, but it looked as if it had been furnished from a jumble sale. Nothing matched, and everything was worn or marked in some way or another. He pulled the velveteen curtains as wide as they would go, and parted the lace curtains. He could see the white roof of his car in the street below and if he craned his neck a little he could see a tiny corner of the bay, dull and lifeless under a flat Essex sky. This would be the best room, he supposed, with its sea view.

He left the house. Sometimes he just had to be outside. He hated the walls gathered all around him, the ceiling so low. He straightened, breathed deeply, collected himself.

He slipped into his scuffed, brown, leather jacket and pulled it tight. All he had was what he was wearing and what was in his car and the room he had just taken. He had never needed much in the way of possessions. You learn that, shunted from one institution to another: value anything and it’s a weakness. Someone always exploits your weaknesses.

He crossed over Coastguards’ Parade, glancing along at the Minesweepers’ Memorial, a monument to the men who had kept the estuary and bay navigable during the wars. He had a great uncle on there somewhere but now he chose not to go and look for his name, as he had done so often as a boy.

Instead, he stood at the railings at the top of Cliff Gardens. Below him, grass and a few trees slid away towards the Promenade. Farther along, near to Queen Victoria’s statue, there would be a tunnel under the road. Once, he’d been part of a gang that had ginger-knocked an entire street, then sprinted away through that tunnel, losing themselves in the Gardens before even the first door had been opened.

He didn’t know why he had come back to Bathside. It should have been behind him, the twelve years a welcome buffer. The place was a bad memory for him, ashes he had no reason to rake over again.

He walked.

He was kidding himself. He couldn’t simply forget Bathside. He had needed to make this trip. He had roots which could not be denied. The place was in his blood, much as he hated to acknowledge that: it was a weakness, a hold.

He headed into town to find himself a meal and see what else had changed.

~

He kept thinking that he should bump into people, spot a face in the crowd, be recognised by an apparent stranger: “Hey, Nick! My man! Remember me?” The struggle to fit a name to those half-remembered features, that familiar voice. But nearly half his life had passed in other towns, with other people. What would his fourteen year-old friends look like now? They’d have jobs, if they were lucky. They might be in suits or work clothes. They’d probably have kids of their own, for God’s sake!

He could look them up, he thought. But he had little idea of how to set about it. The telephone directory, perhaps—he could work his way methodically through all the surnames he could remember, all the Smiths and Joneses, he had a year or two to spare. Would the school have records? And would they let him see them if they did?

He wondered how many of the people he had known had moved away by now. Better jobs, better prospects, elsewhere. But he knew that Bathside was the kind of place where people found themselves stuck without realising. Maybe it was because it was at the end of a peninsula: it was a place with—literally—only one way out. You couldn’t simply drift away from Bathside, it was a place you had to make a conscious decision to leave.

Wandering through the town centre, he recognised no-one. Drinking his Coke at the Station Inn, he saw no-one. He played bar billiards with a group of likely looking lads of about his age, but none of the faces or talk triggered anything. “You local then?” asked one of them, bringing him another Coke.

“Once,” said Nick. “A long time ago.” But the conversation led nowhere.

Later, he ate alone, sitting in the window-seat of a burger bar on the High Street, watching faces passing by outside.

He got back to his digs at a little after nine, but already the place was in darkness.

He fished in the letter box for the string, extracted the key and let himself into the quiet, musty house.

~

Up early on Monday morning, still no sign of life in the house, a milk float humming by outside. In his track suit and a decent pair of Adidas running shoes, Nick Redpath set out at a steady jog, past the Minesweepers’ Memorial and up Bay Road, away from the sea. There were large Victorian houses along here, many divided up into flats. Lights shone from some of the windows, even though the sky was rapidly brightening.

He turned down towards his old secondary school, then took a right along a rough track known as Squat Lane, which ran along the top of the school grounds. Kids would come here to smoke and bunk off. Older teenagers would come here on their motorbikes, scrambling through the trees and mud to impress their girlfriends, still young enough for school.

Long Meadows Estate had sprawled in the last decade or so. The fields where every winter Nick had watched short-eared owls and hen harriers were gone. In their place were detached family homes, bungalows with symmetrical gardens, a maze of new Closes and Ways and Roads, each named after a different type of bird: Peewit Road, Sandpiper Close, Woodcock Way, even—they must have been struggling by then—a Blue Jay Way.

He ran hard, adrenalin coursing through his body, burning up the Roads, Ways and Closes behind him. Leaving the new estate, he ran back along Low Road, past the bottom end of the school playing fields on one side and the caravan park on the other.

When he reached the Prom he was almost sprinting, taken up in a burst of manic energy. His feet slammed into the ground like a boxer’s fists working over a punch bag.

He made himself slow down, a little worried about what was happening to his head. He knew the signs to look for: the sudden fits of hyperactivity, the need to do, followed inevitably by the gloom and depression. He managed his mind like the Naturalists’ Trust now managed Copperas Wood: always watching, always ready, keeping the extremes of his own wild nature in check. It had been a difficult skill to acquire.

When he reached Cliff Gardens he ran up the first steeply sloping path, then back down the next, zigzagging his way along to the statue of Queen Victoria, and then finally back to his digs and the smell of hot, greasy cooking from the kitchen.

~

Later, he walked down to Eastquay. Here, four or five roughly parallel streets were squeezed into the narrow head of the peninsula, criss-crossed with countless alleyways and cobbled lanes. This was one of the oldest parts of Bathside, protected for a long time by stockades and marshes from the marauding Essex hordes.

His head was buzzing, memories bobbing up to grab his attention. Again, he wondered what he was doing here, what had driven him to return. He walked past St Nicholas’ church, and the old Electric Palace—open again, he saw, showing last year’s Hollywood pap.

He went into the Two Cups for a sandwich and some juice. He’d come here once before, not long before he left the town. He’d always looked mature for his age and it was a busy night. He’d bought cider for himself and his other under-age friends and together they had watched Another Citizen’s first real gig. He remembered their first song—a cover of ‘Purple Haze’—but after that he had been lost in an alcohol daze and the evening had devolved into a blur of booming music, pressing bodies, mindless dancing and jostling and finally being sick against a wall. The band had gone on to have a minor hit in the mid-eighties with ‘Montevideo’, and they had provided Nick with his first inept chat-up line: “I used to sort of vaguely know their bass player, you know.”

The back room where Rod and the boys had played had been converted into a seafood restaurant called Trawler’s. Nick sat in one of the remaining two bars and set to work on his club sandwich.

“Nicky Redpath, is that you? Go on, tell me it ain’t!”

A heavy hand slapped onto his shoulder and a smell of after-shave and sweat settled around him. He turned and squinted at a grinning face, well-fleshed but not yet fat. The man was of average height, with curly, dark hair, and moistness glinting on lips, eyes and brow. It was the suit that threw Nick at first. Even as the man settled onto the next stool, Nick couldn’t picture Ronnie Deller in a suit and tie.

“It is,” said Nick. “I am.”

“So you’re back then.”

“I’m back.”

The barman brought Ronnie a pint of Adnams without needing to ask, then waited as Ronnie fished out a wallet and paid.

“What’s with the suit and tie?” asked Nick, sipping at his orange juice. For a moment there was a flash of hostility in Ronnie’s eyes, but it was checked, forgotten in an instant.

Nick chastised himself. He had forgotten how carefully Ronnie had to be handled.

Ronnie Deller had been in Nick’s year at school, always the wild one, always on the brink of expulsion. Ronnie would fight with anyone he took offence to, no matter how big or old. Pain had been no barrier for him, he’d keep on fighting regardless. Cut off his legs, people used to say, and he’d kick you with the stumps. Ronnie Deller in a suit…

“Lunch break,” he said, now. “On the blower to the fucking Dutch all morning—” he reached for his beer “—I need something down my throat.”

“So what do you do?” Nick had been at the wrong end of a kicking from Ronnie on one occasion, but other than that they had never had much contact, as far as he could recall.

“Shipping agent. Goods from A to B. Or right now, stuck in some fucking Customs yard waiting for clearance because we didn’t get the right papers through from the Hook.” He drank again. “Started when I was sixteen, worked my way up. I’m a self-made man, me.” He flicked his tie. “I’m doing okay. How’s about yourself, then Nick? What were you—fifteen? sixteen?—when you went away? What line are you in then?”

“I was fourteen.” Bad memories. He choked them down. He wasn’t going to show any sign of weakness. “Went to Chelmsford, Colchester, then two places in Norwich.”

“Couldn’t handle you, right?”

“That’s just the system,” said Nick. “It’s no big deal. I’m in security now, bits of this and that. Enough to get by.”

“You mean you’re a bouncer?”

“Sometimes. Nightwatchman, on-site security, bouncing, some bodyguard work. Save some money and then drift, I suppose.”

Ronnie shook his head. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

That wasn’t a word Nick would ever have expected Ronnie to use. “What’s ironic?” he asked.

“You, me. The way things are.” Ronnie swirled his nearly drained glass. “You were always the brains, right? Going on to good things, that kind of thing. Me, I had to be chained to the desk to keep me in school, but I got my exams and my job doing the copying and making teas. Now I’m sat at a desk, on the blower all bloody morning to old Claus, while you have to earn a crust with your fists.”

Twelve years was a long time. Everything was different.

“You looking for work now?”

“Depends,” said Nick. He had enough money to last him for a few more weeks yet. He wasn’t looking too hard.

“We won’t have anything, of course,” said Ronnie. “We have the office alarm for security.” He laughed, and Nick smiled thinly. “But I’ve got my contacts, you know? If I hear of anything, I’ll put it your way?” Ronnie had a way of turning a statement into a question.

“Thanks,” said Nick, finishing his drink. “Another?” He pointed at Ronnie’s empty glass. Buy the drinks and regain some standing—he was getting by.

“My shout, my shout.” In a single movement Ronnie had swept up the two glasses and caught the barman’s attention. He produced his wallet again, and Nick told himself he was reading too much into the gesture: they weren’t two schoolboys vying for status any more. “What did you have in the juice, then?”

“Just orange juice,” Nick told the barman. “Thanks.”

They drank in silence for a few minutes, watching the other customers, the lunchtime trade. The Two Cups had moved upmarket since Nick’s one previous visit. Now it was all highly polished brass and exposed wood, bullseye glass in the windows distorting Quay Street outside. The men wore suits and fashionably loud ties, the smaller number of women wore split skirts and big hair; the air smelt not of beer and smoke, but of after-shave and perfume. A lot of them seemed to be having a quick drink either before or after lunch in Trawler’s.

“So why are you back in Bathside, then?” asked Ronnie, halfway down his second pint of Adnams.

Nick shrugged. He’d been asking himself the same question since yesterday, but he had still failed to come up with a satisfactory answer. “See the old place,” he said. “I haven’t been back in twelve years, what with one thing and another.” He looked down into his drink for a moment.

“Need to get it out of your system, right? You looked anyone up yet?”

“I lost contact with everyone when I went away,” said Nick. “I had a lot on my mind. I don’t know what anyone’s doing these days.”

“Listen,” said Ronnie. “You want to meet up with a few old faces? I’ve got a place up the river at Copperas Bay, you know it? At the Strand. A little cabin I use some weekends. I’ve got a little boat, do a bit of fishing, get some beers in, right? Sometimes we have a bit of a bash, like this coming Friday. Some people you’ll know. I’ve got keys to another cabin, too, so there’s space to stop over. Fancy it?”

“That’s good of you,” said Nick. “I’ll think about it. Thanks. D’you need a yes or no straightaway?” He was trying to stall, he didn’t want to commit himself to anything he might regret for the rest of the week.

“Just turn up, Nick. Just turn up. It’s number 12. My car’ll be outside—a red BMW 325i. You can’t miss it.” He rose, put his hand on Nick’s shoulder again. “Been good,” he said. “But I gotta go. You know how it is. Keep Claus on his toes, you know?”

“I know,” said Nick, nodding. After a decent interval, he finished his drink and left, setting out along the front, past the Low Lighthouse, heading for the Dubbs and Stone Point.

Chapter 3

On Tuesday morning Nick Redpath chose a different route for his run. He set off along Coastguards’ Parade and then Bagshaw Terrace to the Main Road, then right towards Eastquay. But before he reached the High Lighthouse he took a left over the railway and into the Riverside Estate.

He hadn’t intended to come this way. The impulse had taken him by surprise, although he suspected some dark corner of his mind had planned it all along. Riverside was a low-lying area, sandwiched between the final curve of the railway and the kink in the estuary between Eastquay and Westquay. Once it had all been salt-marsh but it had been drained in the nineteenth century. Since then it had been in and out of use, mainly for storage and short-term housing, but after the war the council had taken it over and thrown up a swathe of housing, almost overnight. The great flood of 1953 had devastated the estate but it had soon been reconstructed. Nick had moved there when he was a boy, it was the part of town he remembered most clearly.

He turned right, then second left into Rebow Street, but everything had changed. Numbers sixteen to twenty-four had been a cluster of old prefabs, at least ten years past their expected life even when Nick and his mother had first lived there. He remembered the black patches of damp that had spread over the walls every winter and receded in the summer. He remembered the draughts, and the cockroaches and the rats that lived somewhere underneath.

Now it was a building site, the old temporary housing finally giving way to the modern age. The shells of six houses rose from the mud and debris, glassless frames in the windows, piles of bricks and heaps of sand scattered about. Nick was surprised at his reactions: the fondness of the memories, the sense of trespass at this violation of his old territory.

He had stopped when he reached Rebow Street, but now he started to run again, resisting the urge to sprint, to burn up the energy that fizzed in his veins. From Basin Road he could see the looming silhouette of the gas cylinder. As a boy, Nick had climbed it, until he was so high up that Bathside was spread out like Toytown below. There was the sea-wall, too, where he had spent long hours roaming, with friends or alone.

Perhaps this was what he had come back for: some kind of exorcism of his past. He had read somewhere that dreams were the way the brain organised and filed away the experiences and emotions of the preceding day. Maybe this visit was serving a similar function: allowing him to sort out his old memories, finishing off a process which had been cut short twelve years earlier. Maybe now he would be able to return to his digs, pack his bag and get away from here forever.

He had to wait for the boat train to clear the level crossing, then he cut across the old part of town and headed for Stone Point.

The Point was a long breakwater, jutting out into the mouth of the estuary. It had been built by the Victorians to alter the flow of the river and prevent the harbour from silting up. They had intended it to be over half a mile long but they had miscalculated and abandoned it a little over halfway. He ran out to the very end, past a couple of early morning fishermen. Children were always warned not to go out on Stone Point, but he had never heard of anyone being swept away by a freak wave. He stopped for a time, to watch the surging of the muddy waters. A cargo ship was heading out into the North Sea and for a moment he thought its bow wave might top the breakwater but it didn’t and he turned away, perversely disappointed.

Ahead of him, as he ran back along Stone Point, was the sudden bulge of Beacon Hill, its silhouette hardened and broken up by the shells of long abandoned blockhouses and gun emplacements. The hill had been turned into a fortress during the war and, ever since, local children had known it not as Beacon Hill, but as the Dubbs, short for WD, the War Department.

The Dubbs had still been fenced off—however inadequately, where determined children were concerned—before, but now a public footpath had been opened up across the heart of Beacon Hill. Nick jogged slowly through, past signs that warned against exploring the ruins. Notices proclaimed plans to renovate the land, razing the old buildings to make way for a new marina and residential complex. It seemed that everywhere Nick went in Bathside the developers wanted to erase yet another of his childhood memories. Now, he wished he had skirted the Dubbs, as he had on the previous afternoon, sticking to the Prom.

By Cliff Gardens he had less energy to burn than on the previous morning and so he avoided the steep, zigzagging paths.

He let himself into the house, and as soon as he had showered and dressed, Jim McClennan was serving him with another greasy breakfast. “How’s your wife?” Nick asked, hearing sounds from the kitchen. He still hadn’t seen her.

His landlord just looked at him, and then left him to his meal.

~

Jerry caught up with him later, as he turned onto Coastguards’ Parade for the second time that morning, undecided about his plan for the day. It was only later that he began to suspect that she had been watching the house, that she had engineered this ‘chance’ meeting.

He had paused at the corner to look out across the bay. It was clearer today, with a freshness that made him grateful for his old jacket. One or two yachts dotted the sea, and down towards the Naze Nick saw the black hulk of a Thames barge. On the horizon, a cargo ship merged with the haze. He wondered how much the town would be changed by the Channel Tunnel, luring away the passenger trade and the freight.

“Nicky, is that you?”

He turned and Jerry Gayle was approaching him, a quizzical look on her face. She’d let her hair grow, so that now it brushed her shoulders, but it was still the same streaked blonde. The way it hung around her face, combined with her distracted air, made her look vaguely like some starlet from the sixties. Her wide, cobalt eyes were edged with crows’ feet, he saw, although she was only a month or two older than Nick.

She stopped, suddenly nervous, unsure.

“It is you, isn’t it?”

He saw that her clothes were expensive: printed silk with a crumpled linen jacket and skirt. Her body, as slim as he remembered, if not more so. He had a sudden mental image of Jerry’s naked torso, its angular form, the bones jutting, the small breasts rising and falling rapidly with her breathing.

“Jerry,” he said, trying to blot out the image, cursing his mind for the tricks it played. “Hello.” He half-turned, paused, and she joined him, walking slowly along the wide pavement of Coastguards’ Parade.

“You’re looking good,” she said, with a sideways glance.

Good, not merely well. He swallowed. He never knew how to handle these situations. A bar fight, yes: he could pick out the key figure—not the one who started it, but the one who looked most likely to keep it going—and eject him from the premises. He could deter a group of drunken students who had been barred from a nightclub. He could sort out any of these situations with hardly a thought. But this…

He swallowed, licked his lips. “I look after myself,” he finally said. “You learn to.” He risked a glance, knowing that he would store up every image, every gesture. The light, shining back off her lips, those eyes which were never still until suddenly they locked on your own.

He realised he had broken the rules. He should have returned her compliment with one of his own—You look even more beautiful than I remember—instead of defensively trying to explain himself.

“Have you come back to stay?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. At least he could try to answer a straight question. “I’m in a B and B for now. I just wanted to see the old place again. And some of the old faces.”

She smiled at this. “You’ve never been back in the entire twelve years?”

She remembered exactly how long he’d been away. He shook his head. “Things get in the way,” he said.

“Don’t they always? Do you have time for a drink?” They had reached the junction with Station Road now, and there was a terrace with tables and brightly coloured parasols, part of the Bay Hotel.

He nodded. Of course he had time for a drink. The hotel formed the end of a four-storey Regency terrace. The rest of the row was the natural hue of the local brick, but the Bay Hotel had been stuccoed white, with ornate cast iron and baskets full of tumbling geraniums and lobelia dotted at regular intervals across its facade. They went inside to order—Earl Grey, slices of lemon—then returned to the terrace.

“What’s happened to you in the last twelve years?” Nick asked. He remembered her inconsistent moods, how sometimes she would talk and talk, when at others the best she could offer was a semi-detached gaze and half a smile. “Have you been here all the time?”

Her eyes were wide, suddenly fixed on the Bay. Nick thought she was going to drift, but then she smiled, her eyes flicked towards him, then away again, and she said, “I’ve been away. I’ve come back. It’s my home—it always pulls you back in the end, don’t you think?”

He couldn’t argue with that. A woman brought their tray of tea out, making little secret of the fact that she thought them insane to be sitting outside on a day like this.

Jerry picked up a slice of lemon and squeezed it into her tea, then took another slice and let it float on the surface. She licked the juice from her fingers with delicate dabs of her tongue, then glanced, again, at Nick. “My little treat,” she said, and for a dizzy moment he wondered what she meant.

He put milk in his tea, then three sugars. “You’re only the second familiar face I’ve seen since Sunday,” he said.

“Oh?” A questioning tone, but she clearly wasn’t interested.

He changed tack. “I went out to Riverside, this morning. Looked for our old house in Rebow Road. It’s a building site now. I don’t know what I expected.”

They exchanged brief smiles. “Well you’re the early bird,” she said. “Catch any worms?”

They smiled again.

“I run,” said Nick. “Or work out. Every morning, before the rest of the world starts up. It’s the best time of the day. Everything’s new, the air’s better. The day hasn’t had a chance to be spoilt by then.”

“You make me want to join you.” She giggled. “But look at me: I’m so out of shape. I couldn’t run to catch a cold.”

He looked and she sucked in a deep breath, patted her abdomen, giggled again. He looked away. “You look fine to me,” he mumbled.

When finally he returned his gaze from the yachts, now multiplied across the Bay, her gaze locked on his own. “Where have you been Nick?” she asked. “All these years? Why did they take you away from me?”

~

He had left Bathside when he was fourteen, after the worst six months of his life. Jerry knew about his mother. She knew that she had been ill, that she had died, that Nick had been taken away.

It had been so sudden, even though it took half a year in the end. One minute, it seemed, his mother was organizing the AGM of the local history society and then he had come home from school to find her waiting for him, when she should still have been out at work.

The look on her face would be imprinted on his brain forever. It was a blend of the stubbornness, which he knew he had inherited, and some strange serenity he had never seen before and had never seen in anyone since.

Somehow—from that look, he supposed—he had known before she told him. “I’m going to die, Nick,” she said, simply.

She always talked straight with him.

He had known about her stomach pains, and her frequent visits to the doctor, but he had never suspected that it was cancer, a cancer that had insinuated itself so rapidly that it was already inoperable.

She fought it, because that was the way she was, but it seemed that every day she was a little worse, a little weaker. He did what he could, but he was only fourteen. For a long time, before and after, all he had wanted to do was wreck the world that had done this awful thing.

“She made arrangements for me,” he told Jerry, aware of her eyes on his face. “But it was confused. They didn’t work out.”

“What about your family?”

He nodded back along Coastguards’ Parade to the Minesweepers’ Memorial. “Uncle Jack’s on there,” he said. “The rest are under stones at St Nick’s, or All Saints, or buried at sea.” His family was a Bathside family of long standing—his mother had traced them back to the days they had worked in Sir Anthony Deane’s yard, building ships for Charles II—but Nick was the last of the line.

“You had nobody?”

He’d never known his father, and his mother had never spoken of him. That was up to her, Nick had always thought. If the truth hurt her then he didn’t want to know.

He shrugged. “The Council took me in. I went to a temporary place in Colchester, then down to Chelmsford for a couple of months. Then two places in Norwich until I was old enough to get out.”

“You moved a lot, Nicky. That can’t have been good for you.”

He met her look now, and smiled. “I wasn’t exactly cooperative,” he said. “I kept getting into fights. Trouble has a way of finding me.”

Jerry smiled at that. “Like I found you this morning, perhaps? What happened when you were old enough to get out of the system?”

“Like I say: trouble has a way of finding me.” Suddenly he didn’t want to talk about it any more.

His tea had gone cold in the cup. Her eyes were flitting about again. He marvelled at the way she could change from vacant gaze, to sudden focus, to this skittishness.

It would be easy to become infatuated again, with a creature such as this.

He waited until she was looking at him, then said, “Will I get a chance to see you again, while I’m in town? Or is this it?”

She smiled, then dabbed her mouth with a serviette. “Of course you’ll see me again, Nicky. Didn’t Ronnie invite you out to the Strand for the weekend?”

~

Who, exactly, was he trying to fool? It was never a question of whether he would become infatuated all over again. Seeing her had been enough: the infatuation had never died. For the rest of the day he had been unable to get her out of his head. Ghost images of her face, fragments of their conversation. You’re looking good.

Over the course of the day, he came to believe that he had discovered the real reason for his return to Bathside. He had come back for a second chance.

She had always been his.

Next morning, he was up with the sky still dark. He hadn’t been able to sleep. At first his head had been full of Jerry; later, it had been congested with doubts. Alone, in the dark, he could no longer believe what his senses had told him during the previous morning, as he had sat on the terrace outside the Bay Hotel, sharing a pot of Earl Grey with Jerry Gayle.

He ran along an alleyway, separating the back yards of two rows of terraced houses, to the Main Road, then out, past the hospital and the golf club and the end of the new bypass until he reached Westquay Station. There was a police box in the middle of the road here, only allowing through traffic for the station or the docks.

He turned back, passing through a huddle of terraced streets built for the first influx of dockers and railwaymen into Westquay, about a hundred years ago. He came to the end of a road, swung himself over a gate with one flowing movement and then he was running over a tract of wasteland which stretched all the way back to the old cement works at St Augustine’s. This whole area was known locally as the Hangings, although Nick knew that the name strictly only applied to a short, abandoned stretch of railway cutting by Ray Island Cemetery.

He followed a track that ran by the railway, with the estuary just beyond. At one point he heard a wader crying—seven brief whistles—and he remembered that it was a whimbrel, the smaller cousin of the curlew. For the first time since yesterday, his head was clear. All he was aware of was the wild land all around him and the power of his own body. Early morning was always the best time.

Later, he went to call on Jerry’s parents.

~

When he had known her the first time around, Jerry had lived in Caulders Road. The houses here were detached, modern, with gardens laid out like military kit for inspection. The road dropped away down one of the steeper hills in Bathside, from Bay Road at the top, to Coastguards’ Parade at the foot. Because of the hill, the view across the bay was unimpeded, and to young Nick Redpath, living in his damp, prefabricated council house on Riverside, this house had been a sure sign of Jerry’s class.

Now, he saw that the street was no more than comfortably middle class. Pilots and teachers would live here, he supposed, and moderately successful local businessmen.

He recognised the house, with its front garden all paving slabs and gravel and those awful miniature conifers. He crunched up the path and rang at the doorbell.

“Mr Gayle?” he said, to the man who answered the door. He wasn’t sure, after such a long time. He had only ever seen Jerry’s father once or twice. The door opened wider, to reveal a tall man with steely grey hair, slicked back behind fleshy, furred ears. His nose had been broken and then reset askew and then Nick noted those eyes: the deep cobalt blue, flitting from Nick’s face to his clothes, to his shoes, to the street beyond, then back to his face.

“Mr Gayle, I’m sorry to bother you. My name’s Nicholas Redpath. I used to know your daughter. I wondered if I might have a few minutes of your time?” He was conscious of the change in his own manner: the straightening of the spine, the formality of his tone.

Mr Gayle’s expression remained politely blank for a few seconds, then he gave a single nod and stepped back from the door. “Just brewing up,” he said, in exactly the clipped, educated voice Nick had expected. “Assam?”

“Very kind,” said Nick, crossing the threshold with a sudden thrill. Entering the house where Jerry had been raised. They went through to the kitchen, where a large china teapot sat in the middle of a polished table, a pair of delicate cups inverted in their saucers by its side. Out through a glass door and the conservatory window, Nick saw Mrs Gayle settled on a plastic kneeler, plucking the dying summer bedding from a sloping border with a steady rhythm. She looked a good ten years younger than her husband, although still well into her fifties.

“Redpath, you say,” said Mr Gayle, producing another cup and saucer, then turning all the cups up the right way. “Local History Society. Am I right? Fran—my wife—knew your mother. Lost touch, I’m afraid. You moved away, you said?”

“I left the area when I was a teenager,” said Nick. “My mother passed away.”

A look of horror crossed Mr Gayle’s face. “God, I’m sorry,” he said. “My mind was elsewhere. Of course. It all comes back. You must think me terribly…”

Nick shook his head, then spooned the sugar into his tea.

“The old brain’s a little slow these days. Of course. I should have made the connection. Fran and Geraldine were terribly upset at the time, of course. I should have realised.” He paused to pick up the third cup of tea. “You must come out into the garden—Fran will want to see you, of course.”

Nick followed him out.

“Nick Redpath,” said Mr Gayle, as his wife rose to her feet, peeling yellow rubber gloves from her hands. “Mrs Redpath’s lad. Local History.” His demeanour had changed in his wife’s presence: less stiff, more boyish.

“It must be years,” said Fran Gayle, clinging limply to Nick’s hand. “Does Geraldine know you’re back? She still talks of you, you know?”

Nick felt awkward under the scrutiny of Jerry’s parents. “I did bump into her,” he said. Yesterday morning. But she forgot to give me her number or address. That’s why I called, really. I wondered if you might…?”

“Of course, of course.” Mr Gayle went back into the kitchen, produced a jotter and began to write. Then he paused and glanced out at Nick, the penetrating, mischievous look his daughter used so well. “You know she’s married, of course?”

“Of course,” said Nick, smiling, nodding. “She told me yesterday. What’s his name again?” He didn’t, and she hadn’t—he’d have noticed a ring on her finger, he felt sure—and it was all he could do to keep the shock from writing itself in bold capitals right across his face.

“Matthew Wyse,” said Mr Gayle, resuming his writing, apparently satisfied. “Antiques and art dealer. Premises in Colchester and Manningtree. Here. They live on the Stoham Road—no street numbers. Just past the Yew Tree, you know it?”

Nick accepted the slip of paper and nodded. “I’m most grateful,” he said. “Thank you for your time.”

“Welcome, boy. I have plenty to spare since I left the Service.” Nick recalled that Gayle had been something in the Civil Service. “You’ll come again, will you? You don’t need an excuse, you know.”

~

He couldn’t sort it all out in his head. He had probably misinterpreted the whole encounter with Jerry—she had recognised him and shared a pot of tea, no more—he had misread all the signals. But why should that be the case? The simple fact that she was married didn’t mean she was uninterested, that an old spark hadn’t been stirred.

But he knew that everything was different for him now. The fact that she was married might not prove anything, but it did increase the likelihood that he had got it all wrong. And even if he had not, and she had been doing more than idly flirting, any further developments would have to be secret, they would always be plagued by the fear of discovery. Was it more exciting that way? Or simply more shabby?

Some time during the next two days he realised that he was being foolish. He’d been thirteen, fourteen, and smitten by a girl he had never really got to know. Now he was twice that age, but still with the same foolish thoughts.

He was being stupid.

On Friday morning, as he ran as hard as he ever did—across the sands, hurdling the groynes, up the steps to the Prom and down the next flight to the beach again … as he ran he knew that he would not get into his old VW that evening, to drive out to Ronnie Deller’s get-together at the Strand. He couldn’t go through with it.

Mrs Geraldine Wyse was a stranger to him and young Jerry Gayle was a part of his childhood dreams, a fragment he should keep untainted in his own mind, rather than risk spoiling it with unpleasant factors like truth and reality.

Back at his digs, showered and changed back into jeans and a T-shirt, he went down for breakfast. His landlord was waiting in the corridor. “Had a ‘phone call,” he said. “Lady. Said she’d call back at half-nine.”

“Thanks,” said Nick, his resolve dissipating in a matter of seconds.

McClennan turned and headed for the kitchen. “Not a bleedin’ answering service, is it?” he muttered, before the door slammed shut behind him.

~

It was Jerry, as Nick had known it would be. He had waited by the telephone since just before the appointed time.

“Daddy said you called round,” she said, after the exchange of greetings.

Now was the time to tell her, Nick thought, but instead he just said, “That’s right. He made me tea.”

“That’s good,” said Jerry. He recognised her mood. She would be staring off into some private distance as she spoke, slightly detached from the real world.

“You never told me you were married.”

“Should I have?”

He had no answer to that and so there was silence for a time, which Nick felt reluctant to break. Finally, he said, “I was thinking of leaving. I’m not cut out for all this.” There. He had said it with a single phrase: all this. All this subterfuge. I don’t sleep with married women. I like things out in the open.

Straight talking had always been the family way, but it was a skill Nick had never really mastered.

“But you’ll be there tonight, won’t you Nicky?”

She had missed what he was saying and he couldn’t say it again. “I don’t know,” he said, although he did. “Will Matthew be there?” There was no way to ask that question without it sounding tacky.

“He’s going to London,” she said. “I’ll be on my own. Will you be my chaperone?”

“I don’t know,” he said, again. To risk spoiling the dream, or not?

“Please, Nicky. Just for tonight.”

…continues

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

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