Chapter 1 - Riptides by A.J. Hall
The moment Nicola saw the door-knocker, she knew the whole thing was no go. It gleamed under the porch-light: an over-large fouled anchor, the dark rim on the door around it tribute to many hours meticulous application of Brasso. She hesitated, on the point of fleeing into the gathering dusk, but the lace curtain in the full bay window stirred.
Like the Traveller, she lifted her head, took the knocker by its preposterous flukes and smote on the door with a confidence that, except in externals, had deserted her entirely.
A prolonged pause ensued. Just as she had begun to hope that the person inside had also thought better of the entire thing, the door opened a scant nine inches and an over-precise voice said, “Yes?”
“Mr Matheson? I’m Nick Marlow. You put an ad, in Daily Information, for yachting crew, and I answered it. Your note said to come round any time after four —”
“Oh. Oh. Oh, I say. That is, I mean, come in. Please. Come in. I’m sorry, what you must think of my manners?”
She was in the hallway before she knew it, squeezing past an antique and hideous hall-stand stained a greenish-brown that did the wood grain no favours and an overloaded line of coat hooks on which she noticed with relief an unquestionably female-styled raincoat besides an elderly Burberry and, below, pairs of green and pink wellingtons in two different sizes.
Not that it was fair of her to have suspected anything kinky, no matter what Jean or Alice had implied about people who advertised in Daily Information for yacht crew (‘enthusiam for long offshore passages far from home comforts essential’).
He opened the door to the front room, and ushered her in. That was when she realised the door-knocker might have been a warning, but she was still by no means prepared.
(“Honestly,” she said to Miranda six weeks later, over what was by Nicola’s standards an extravagant dinner (Miranda’s treat) at a tiny Lebanese restaurant in Fulham, “it was completely demented. Like walking into one of those mini catalogues that fall out of the Sunday papers. But it wasn’t even the ordinary sort of Sunday paper things, like Royal Doulton thimbles or what-have-you, it was all sea stuff. Purple porcelain decanters with ‘England Expects’ in gold letters round the base. Hurricane lanterns, plugged into the mains. Crocheted doileys with ‘Captain Bligh’ embroidered across them. Tons of that sort of stuff. Everywhere.”)
“Nick — short for Nicola, then, I presume? But I thought, from your letter, you were at Balliol —?”
Abruptly, impossibly, the penny dropped. Torn between horror and hilarity,
“But I am at Balliol,” she said. “It’s been mixed since 1979.”
His face crumpled; there was no other word for it.
“Oh. I do apologise. I suppose I’m rather old-fashioned. It never occurred —”
All sorts of biting comments sprang to Nicola’s lips. The contrast between this fussy, overheated room and the cool austerity of the college chapel earlier that day made the whole thing sting even more. What use was it to know your college trusted you not to let them down, if idiot townees assumed you were lying about being a scholar in the first place?
She could have said them all. But she looked again at little Mr Matheson in his grey cardigan, shuffling and embarassed and so plainly the sort of person who would be still touching up the varnish on the toe-rails when the Flood roared over him and his vessel alike. A retreat in good order, from an untenable position. Jack Aubrey wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment, and nor would Septimus Quinn.
“Well, no, I don’t suppose it would work out, then, in the circs.,” she said. “I’m terribly sorry I’ve wasted your time. I suppose I ought to be going —”
If she had expected to escape so easily, she was sorely mistaken. Relief made Mr Matheson garrulous, and he summoned his wife out from some hidey-hole. She, too, was plainly relieved Nicola had no intention of insisting on her equal rights to be Mr Matheson’s crew, and needed to produce cherry-scones and tea — weak Earl Grey with milk — to demonstrate how sorry she was that it clearly would not do. All things considered, it was almost an hour later that Nicola made her escape. By then it was completely dark. As she walked down the quiet North Oxford streets she recalled how badly she hated these silent, suburban, tree-lined places in the over-alert autumn dark.
The wind was getting up: the moon shrouded. Uncertain gusts stirred dried pine-needles in the gutters. Few of the houses had lights on yet, presumably their inhabitants were still out at work, but the big blank windows stared down at her; it was all too easy to imagine the host of phantom listeners behind them. And then, just as she was pausing at a corner, trying to decide which of the two branches of this unpromising backstreet would take her to St Giles, someone must have arrived home at the house diagonally opposite. Lights came on, illuminating the garden almost as if flood-lit, showing wrought-iron work and casting sharp-edged shadows on grey, autumnal grass.
Memory flooded her — 14 Salisbury Road Rose Uncle Gerry. By the time she realised she was running, she had lost all sense of where she was. Worse, with impeccable Thames Valley timing, the rain started to descend.
Glowing lights loomed, highlighting a sign showing a rather goofy spaniel dragging a mallard nearly two thirds its size through an improbable marsh. Yellow light spilled out from the windows and reflected on the rain-washed pavement.
She pushed the pub door open and stumbled through.
“Sorry, love, we aren’t —” a warm Northern voice began, and then abruptly changed. “What’s up? You running away from someone, or what?”
She swept wet hair back from her eyes. The pub was deserted apart from two men: Northern accent, behind the bar, and another man sitting up against it. Northern accent must be in his sixties, with a doughy, pessimistic face which could have served as Tenniel’s model for Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The other man — older by far — had thin, ascetic features, unknown and yet somehow familiar. In a flash of inspiration, she recalled Patrick’s engraving of Blessed Edmund Campion. Had he been permitted to live to grow old, Nicola thought, the saint might have looked like that.
Both wore dark suits with black ties. A line of medals shone on the old man’s chest. As Nicola took in their appearance, her instincts sharpened by that morning’s ceremony, the gaffe of stumbling into a shut pub became something infinitely worse: an intrusion upon private mourning.
“I really am most terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to —”
The older man rose creakily to his feet.
“Good lord. I recognise you, don’t I? You’re the soloist.”
Northern accent looked her up and down.
“Bugger me sideways, so it is. Well, that’s a turn up for the book. When you opened your mouth and ‘Pie Jesu’ came out of it, I thought, ‘Sweetheart, either you’re seeing things, or they’re putting a sight more than fluoride in the water these days.’ They didn’t make choirboys that shape when I was a lad. Or else there’d have been one very disappointed vicar in Failsworth, I can tell you.”
Nicola baulked. Improbable as it seemed, her wild rush of escape had only circled back to the day’s beginning: the memorial service for the Duke of Denver, distinguished alumnus of Balliol College, and, judging by the speeches of remembrance, someone who must have been fairly fab to know. Which, by definition, both of the ill-assorted pair in the pub must have done.
Her legs had no more virtue in them. She sat down, abruptly.
Northern accent emerged from behind the bar, holding a bottle.
“Suppose you get your laughing gear round a good slug of this, and then tell your Auntie Sophie and your Uncle Charlie all your troubles, eh?”
He poured a generous amount of golden liquid into a tumbler and pushed it into her hand.
“On the house, love.” He cast a sidelong glance at the other man. “Got no choice, have I, with a rozzer sitting right here, and half an hour still to go to opening time?”
The old man laughed. “Never my department, licensing. And I’m long retired. But Peter would approve. ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels, unawares.’ “
Nicola stared in a concentrated sort of way into the gilded Victorian mirror behind the bar, and raised the glass to her lips. Brandy would have summoned its own ghosts; the whisky hit the back of her throat with a welcome bite. She repressed a splutter and turned to the others.
“I’m awfully sorry I barged in —”
“No need to apologise. You were running away from something, weren’t you?” The old man extended a hand, blue veins standing proud, shrouded in parchment. “I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. Charles Parker. Formerly of Scotland Yard. And you can retire from the Force, but the detective instinct never leaves you. Since I know as a positive fact you can hold your nerve and note in the face of Balliol chapel, stuffed to the gunwales with the great and the good —”
“And the neither, and proud of it,” Northern accent interjected. Charles Parker ignored him.
“So, after all that, if you’re in a state now — and you are — I infer it’s not about nothing.”
Northern Accent snorted. “And I’m Sophie Dixon. I’ve been landlord here for well over twenty years. We get all sorts through here, in all sorts of states, and I’m with him on what kind you are. So, if someone’s after you, tell us and we’ll sort the bugger.”
Nicola looked hazily from one to the other, feeling like the most tremendous fraud.
“I’m Nick Marlow. And I wasn’t running away from anything —” She stopped herself, and, in the interests of honesty, corrected, “At least, I wasn’t running away from anything that’s happening now.”
The two men exchanged a Look. Ceremoniously, Mr Dixon topped up her glass, though she had made barely any inroads into its contents.
“No, love, we both know that one. If it’s happening now, there’s an even chance you can outrun it or outsmart it or simply outface it. But never if it’s then. Then’s got all the time in the world to catch up with you. Take the railway junction in Kanpur Dehat, to draw a bow completely at a venture. That bastard’s been creeping up on me for the best part of forty years, and just as I think I’ve shaken it off at last, out it pops again.”
The Scotland Yard man offered up his own glass for refreshment. “No shame in that. I’ve been running from Kanpur Dehat junction ever since ‘47, myself. And I was in Flanders. Talking of which, part of Peter never left Caudry. He’d have been the first to admit it.”
Nicola felt doubly, trebly a fraud. Whatever the railway junction in Kanpur Dehat might signify (and you’d have to be the most rhinoceros-hided insensitive loon that ever looned to ask: most prob. Lawrie would have, if she hadn’t been too absorbed storing away impressions against being cast in a stage version of Nightrunners of Bengal or something equally implausible) it obviously had massive historical significance, not like her own and Rose’s brief, glancing encounter with a pervert, where nothing at all had happened, in the end.
“It wasn’t so bad —”
Sophie Dixon’s eyes sharpened.
“As the Adjutant said, the day before his pecker dropped off. Suppose you start from the beginning.”
Gradually, between Sophie Dixon’s honed bedside manner (RAMC since he’d been younger than she was now: Hong Kong, Cyprus and Palestine, as well as all through the Burma campaign; she was going to have to come back and hear some of those stories) and Charles Parker’s quiet, expert questioning, she told them the lot. Rose running away from Trennels. Nicola meeting Mrs Barnes, inferring that Rose had bolted to Oxford in Sammy’s taxi. Mr Lanyon at the station lending her the money for her ticket, ‘dead against regulations’, plus enough — just — to keep her afloat for the day in Oxford. (“Knew a Lanyon in Rangoon,” Sophie interjected. “But she swung between being tighter than a fish’s arse and all that and a fur coat, too. Always depending.” He mimed filling and raising a glass. Mr Parker raised a mordant eyebrow, and murmured, “Pas devant les anciennes, n’est ce pas?”) Nicola wandering round Oxford trying to find where the Dodds had lived.
And then, the moment in the cafeteria, when she had spotted ‘Uncle Gerry’.
“I should have realised,” she said. “Looking back, there were all sorts of clues. And I thought, after, I should have done something in the cafeteria like Father Brown throwing soup at the wall, while there were still people to see us —”
Identical expressions of bewilderment appeared on both their faces. She recapped the salient points of The Blue Cross, and found herself (to use a Mrs Bertie-ism) quite put-out when both of them dissolved into laughter. But then, wiping tears from his cheek, Charles Parker leant forward, his face suddenly serious.
“I’ll enjoy reading it, later. Not sure how I missed it. But that wasn’t a policeman who wrote it. Police training tells you that nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, the one who needs arresting is the one throwing plates in a crowded restaurant. That’s what would have happened to you. So instead of stunts, what did you do?”
She began with the knife with sixteen blades. Then, the empty house at 14 Salisbury Road, where the lights had come on just as ‘Uncle Gerry’ had been trying to force them into the summerhouse (“Just around the corner,” Sophie Dixon said. “No wonder you went all unnerved.”) Her stopping a taxi; the relief of finding in it Edwin, and rescue. And then, finally, ‘Uncle Gerry’ being picked up by the two policemen by the Martyrs Memorial.
Charles Parker let out a low whistle. “Six years ago, you said? So that was how they finally collared Reginald Driver.”
“Reginald?” It occurred to Nicola she had never heard Uncle Gerry’s real name. Presumably she had been back at school when the trial for whatever had happened up North had happened, and Mum had probably thought it would be a touch gruesome to keep cuttings, especially if Kay or — heaven forfend — even Rose might have stumbled across them.
“Reginald Fucking Driver. Reginald Gerard Driver.” Sophie Dixon spat out the name. “My sister’s grandkids lived two streets over from him, in Accrington. They used to play out with that little girl, the first one he took. The one that wasn’t lucky enough to have her big sister find her in time —”
“Step-aunt, technically,” Nicola said, less because her precise relationship to Rose needed qualification than because if she didn’t say something now, then she rather thought she might do something ridiculous like cry, or maybe even scream.
“Not the first one. Pretty definitely not the first one.” Charles Parker, unnervingly, looked even more like the Edmund Campion picture now. “Nick Marlow, I take my hat off to you.”
He wasn’t wearing one; the thin strands of his silver hair were plastered against a liver-spotted scalp. She forbore to point this out.
“The best young DC I ever worked with, he contacted me a couple of years after I’d retired. There’d been a little girl go missing on his patch. They never found her. But he’d pulled in a brash young National Service kid, whose story about where he’d been that afternoon didn’t stack up. My former DC was sure he knew more than he was saying; he thought with all my experience, I might be able to get the man to crack. It was a bit irregular, but I agreed to sit in. All through that hot August afternoon, we sat in an airless room and hit him with question after question, and that snotty nineteen-year old, with his arm still raw from an ugly red-and-blue serpent tattoo that must have been less than two days old —”
“What?” Nicola gasped, and then made shooing gestures. “No. Go on.”
Charles Parker paused, then nodded.
“As I said, this crew-cropped kid with his raw and stinging arm faced us down and answered everything. Everything. Slick and smooth and faultless. We could pin nothing on him, and he knew it. I’ve never watched a back swagger away from the door of a police station with more confidence. He knew himself invincible. I’ve never felt sicker.”
He slid his eyes sideways toward Sophie Dixon. “I mean that, you know. Kanpur Dehat not excluded.”
“I can see you might. So the slippery bastard started young, did he?”
“They do, often, and talk their way out of it, too, more times that you can count. Nick: don’t sell yourself short. You spotted him, stuck with his intended victim, detached her, escaped and shared the intelligence which brought him in. So yes. I take my hat off. I don’t suppose we can tempt you to try Hendon, once you’ve finished with Balliol?”
Hendon? She floundered for a second, before she understood. Police College. Flattered and discombobulated beyond measure, she muttered, “Now they’re talking about letting women serve at sea, I was thinking of the Wrens —”
Sophie Dixon winked. “All the nice girls love a sailor. And I should know.”
Charles Parker rolled his eyes, but Nicola suspected their back-and-forth formed a long-practised routine. However dissimilar they seemed on the surface, there was something old and time-smoothed between them. Fire-hardened, she thought, and then, There should be something in the Bod about Kanpur Dehat. I might wander over, tomorrow, and take a look.
And while she was there, she could always call up the newspapers from five or six years ago, and read the reports from the trial of one Reginald Gerald Driver. That, just possibly, might be what the listeners had been waiting for, all along.