The Vault

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However, if you think the situations I describe could never happen, then you may be right – or maybe . .

title Vault

There are lots of horror stories based on the entombment of some poor sod in a vault or crypt. And if you are a wee bit on the claustrophobic side, it’s one of those scenarios that can really give you the frights. Contemplating that enclosed space, walls closing in, perhaps just a hint of Gothic decoration looming out of the dark. Silence, probably broken only by the steady tick of some infernal device measuring out the breaths you have left before death overtakes you. The stuff of nightmares; something you would never want to happen to you!

Well old darlings, it happened to me, and it happened like this.

There used to be a big Edwardian pile of a police station in the small town of Halstead in Essex. A large, ugly building of dull red brick interspersed with courses of scruffy buff masonry which girded windows and doors and decorated every corner. This was a building erected as a citadel of law and order, designed to impose a dread presence on the inhabitants of the town, a stern warning in brick and mortar against any disobedience of statute or by-law. Open day and night the whole year long, it was a constant reminder that authority never sleeps. Covered in sooty encrustations, it was as warm and inviting as Colditz, but smaller and with dustbins and a bicycle shed at the rear.

You entered through a huge, dark door over which hung a large blue ‘Police’ The old blue lamplantern that had a wrought iron frame that looked as if it could have served as a gallows should the need arise. The door, with its massive hinges, a large black iron knocker, and a letterbox that looked like a gun emplacement, was as inviting as a lepers handshake. Inside it was cold, draughty, and smelled of drains, cigarette smoke and despair.

The only comfortable places in the building were the cells and the back kitchen. The former had to be kept warm due to Home Office Regulations and the latter was always full of coppers frying huge meals on the gas stove. The small room reeked of ancient fat, tobacco smoke and damp uniforms. Nicotine stained the painted walls a mute pustular cream colour that glistened with greasy condensation. There were various notices tacked up bearing information on pig movement orders, foot and mouth disease and other reportable hazards, their once gruesomely colourful illustrations turned sepia by the atmosphere.

Various attempts had been made to brighten the place up: postcards from coppers on leave were hung on the walls along with the obligatory girly calendar. This did not help. The only real colours in the room were from the sauce bottles. Brown and red, with crusted tops, these stood on the chipped Formica-topped table amongst the ashtrays. In the middle of it all was a large, bright red plastic tomato. This was a sauce dispenser stolen from a Wimpy Bar and used in evidence ever since.

In this dread bastion of law ruled our inspector, one Sydney Arthur Leavey, known to us, his underlings, as ‘Hissing Sid’. A first-degree bastard and a full-time shit, if he smiled in your direction you just knew something very nasty was about to enter your life.

The police station also held within its dire embrace myriad other rooms. One contained a couple of typists, another hundreds of file index cards. There was a charge room, a main office, Sid’s lair, the rural CID department and, of course, the six iron-doored cells. These last had cracked and dirty ceramic tiles from floor to ceiling and looked and smelled like gents’ urinals.

So there you have a complete description of our regional headquarters; a place we rural beat coppers visited only when absolutely necessary.

One might have thought that the CID, that hub of plain clothes detection in this bucolic sector, would be home to the sort of chap who combined the style of a ‘country gentleman’ with that of the sleuth. The sort of fellow who wore good tweeds, enjoyed field sports and was fully acquainted with the local squirearchy. A detective who would, in a soft country burr, interrogate the staff as to the whereabouts of the family silver, the butler and the young parlour maid. Someone, in fact, on whom the old families could rely for discretion when the occasional trespasser or poacher was shot or maimed in one of the vicious and highly illegal man traps they still secreted near any public footpath that crossed their land.
What they actually got was one sergeant and one detective constable, both of whom came from the urban wasteland which that class of people despised.

The sergeant was from Birmingham and had an accent so thick even he couldn’t understand it. Rejoicing in the name of Harry Munch, he was always on sick leave due to a peptic ulcer, or else away on Police Federation business for which he was our area representative. This left all the work to one detective constable from Stratford in East London who, having served time in the Metropolitan Police, had transferred into our force. His name was Dave Penny and his experience in the Met gave him an exotic reputation amongst us simple country folk. One based on television coppers who went around firing guns and shouting ‘you’re nicked’ to the villains they caught after long, exciting car chases.

DC Penny always cut an interesting figure to us yokels when he appeared on the scene of a crime wearing a natty suit with flared trousers, complete with waistcoat, jacket, and a matching shirt and tie. He smoked long, slim, filter-tipped cigarettes, which, if he wasn’t careful, dropped yards of ash over his jacket. And, in fact, he was a bloody good copper. Unlike so many of his breed, he did not look down his nose at the ‘wooden tops’, as we uniform coppers were known to the elite beings in CID.

One day in late September Dave Penny ask me if I wanted some overtime: an extra night duty, ten till six. Being on a rest day, this meant double time, so I jumped at the chance.
Dave had got information that the big jewellery shop in town was going to be paid an unwelcome visit that very night. He therefore wanted a few uniforms at his disposal to back him up and do the donkey work. Crimes like this seldom happened in our sleepy market town so there was a buzz in the duty room as Dave outlined the operation. Along with Alf, my mate and mentor who was another rural beat copper, and me there were four other lads from the late shift in Halstead, which was quite a force for our rural powers of law and order.

The target was a firm of family jewellers who had occupied their High Street shop for over a hundred years. Their building was ancient and had not been updated since electric light was installed in the town. The shop was very old fashioned, with mahogany cabinets and counters around the walls inside and ornate Victorian shop windows crammed with display cards full of rings and watches and dead insects. They did a good line in inexpensive wedding rings which, it was rumoured, you could rent for the weekend.

Next door to the jewellers was ‘Canny Carpets’, a shop devoted to any form of cheap floor covering. Rolls of carpets and stacks of rugs were sold by one Maurice Stanley and his brother Percy. They shared the business, their wives, and, on alternate weeks, their toupees, which were of different lengths. This, they reasoned, would make it look as though the hair on their heads was real and subject to the normal tonsorial tides of growth and trim.

Business was good and the carpet shop had been undergoing extensive alterations. The building itself was as old as the jewellers and the two shops shared a wall. We were told that it was likely the miscreants would make their move that night because the building work on the carpet shop was due to finish and this was their last opportunity to get into the building easily. Dave’s information was that they would break through the carpet shop’s cellar into the jewellers’ cellar, which contained their vault.

When you look at it, this was actually a clever plan. The small car park was full of builders’ bits and pieces, cement mixers and the like, and the back door to the carpet shop would not be alarmed. The villains could wait until dark, break into the shop, go down some stairs into the cellar and then attack the shared wall with sledgehammers and crowbars. Noise would not be a problem because no one lived over the premises of either shop, and the adjoining cellars at the back of the buildings were not overlooked by any other property. Once through the wall they would be able to turn their attention to jewellery shop’s vault.

Dave’s problem was that there was nowhere to hide a brace of coppers in the carpet shop in case the villains did a rekky before starting, and the jewellery shop had a glass font door in the middle of two windows, which meant you could see inside from the street. He could put a couple of men upstairs because that was only offices and the toilets, but they might not be able to hear the break-in from there. He could park an unmarked police car in the High Street, but that was risky if it was too close to the shop.

So Dave decided that what was required was a copper on the inside. Right inside: a copper entombed in the vault itself, in fact. After all, it was big enough (about fifteen feet by twenty) and had lights and was allegedly not airtight. He reasoned that the demolition of the wall would be heard by the hidden guardian of the law well before the actual break into the vault itself, and said guardian could alert, by radio, his valiant colleagues, who would then leap into action.

All this cunning plan needed was someone fool enough to agree to be locked up for the night in this bloody vault. Dave outlined his strategy and looked around a room full of blue serge uniforms and anxiety. No one said a word. Blokes looked at their feet or the ceiling, rolled a fag or just quietly pretended to be somewhere else. Being the youngest in service, however, and still very keen, I put my hand up and volunteered. Alf tried to pull my arm down but Dave saw it and, beaming, told me I had the job.

It was only then that I was told the thieves had to be caught actually breaking into the vault itself in order to get the right sort of conviction. Just a little way would do it; say a leg or bit of an arm. Just enough so they couldn’t claim they were only ‘doing a bit of building work’ for a mate.

I was scheduled to ‘go in’ at eleven-thirty that night when the streets would be quiet and the pubs closed, so we had a few hours to kill. Being the fall-guy (or, as I thought, the hero of the moment), I was taken through all the radio procedures and emergency call signs that I might need. The radio was checked and I went into the canteen where the lads were waiting to be deployed.

I was welcomed warmly and, I imagine, in much the same way that other penguins regard the one they know is going to skip off the ice flow to see if there’s a sodding great Orca lurking in the water. But their welcome was welcome because I really was getting worried about being some sort of Count of Monte Cristo while a bunch of hoods smashed their way into the room I was locked in. However, after being plied with huge mugs of hot, strong tea and a nice bit of cake I felt my courage return. I even became a bit excited.

Finally it was time to go, so we loaded into cars and set off. This was ‘real’ policing, the stuff of TV drama. Dark streets, crime afoot and no serious thought about quite what I was in for. I had a bundle of sandwiches in a plastic bag, a Thermos flask of tea, a bar of chocolate liberated from the evidence locker, and my pipe and tobacco. I also had the comfortable weight of my stave (truncheon) in its special trouser pocket. Locked and bloody loaded, ready to ‘kick arse’ (or at least to seriously disaccomodate someone’s rear end), I was ready for action. Entrusted with a radio and a large battery lamp I was let in the front door of the jewellery shop by the owner. The place was in darkness and he looked terrified.

Ushered down into the cellar by Dave, I was surprised to see Alf waiting for doorme. He had a large blanket, a huge black rubber flashlight, and from behind his back he produced a bloody great baseball bat. He nodded to Dave, and Dave nodded to him. Not a word was spoken between them, just a nod. Without preamble Alf told me that if I heard the sound of hammering and the wall shook, I should radio in straight away, never mind if they got through. If they did get through, then as soon as a head appeared, get ready with the bat. Aim for the shoulder, not the head, you don’t want to kill anyone, just put them off coming through.

‘Right,’ I said, thinking this was all becoming a bit too serious, a bit too real.

‘Lights out if you hear anything suspicious.’

‘If someone starts to come through the wall, point your torch at their eyes. They will be like bloody moles so a bright light will stop them in their tracks and you can take your time getting a good bash in’.

‘Right. Right,’ I said and entered the vault.

In the middle of the room was an old dining chair and a small table. A strip light was on. Around the walls were shelves from floor to ceiling. The owner, hovering at the door, thanked me and then slammed the door shut. It sounded like the crack of doom. The strip light went out and I was on my own.

I don’t think I have ever felt more isolated, more cut off from the world, and I certainly had not expected the main light to be switched off. I looked at my watch: nearly midnight, six hours to go (or not, if the bad men came a knocking!).

I switched on the lantern and tested the flashlight. Both were working, thankfully. The big square lantern was old and battered, however, and its pale, jaundiced glow served only to make the shadows darker. Switching on the torch was like having a searchlight in my hand. Looking around, I saw that every shelf was stacked with stuff.

There were cardboard boxes on the lower shelves with neat labels telling what was stored inside. Above them were wooden display cases packed on top of each other. Some boxes looked as old as the building itself, their dusty brown shapes blending in with the dirty brown ceiling and the walls of old white painted brick that were now the colour of a corpse. It seemed to me an Aladdin’s cave full of precious and curious things.

clocksAnd there were clocks. Side by side, row upon row of clocks, and when the strong light of my torch hit them, glowing discs of white or gold stared back at me. There were antique carriage clocks, larger ornate clocks with pillars of marble up each side, clocks of all sorts, thankfully mute.

There was another shelf that bore something even more special: a collection of beautiful cut glass decanter s which played the light back in jewelled reflections and seemed to be the friendliest objects there. They were wonderful things, if slightly dusty. Square, round, fat-bottomed, and fluted, their glass stoppers casting rays of light onto the old plaster of the ceiling above them. If I coveted anything in that vault, it was not the jewellery, the clocks or any of the other myriad items worth more than my weekly pay packet, it was those lovely glass vessels.

The silence was absolute: no rumbling traffic noise, no sound of humanity. Any noise I made was deadened by the boxes stacked on the shelves all around me. The dim light of my lamp created shadows that somehow seemed to extend into dark shapes that morphed together menacingly. With the torch switched off to save the battery, I sat and tried to read an old copy of The Police Gazette, which was the only thing I could find in the nick apart from the sort of picture books you wouldn’t want your mother to discover. The latter were always to be found littering the canteen. They acted as aides-memoire for the older officers and instructional manuals for the younger ones. No one ever admitted to buying them; they just appeared. Often, if the periodical featured a ‘reader’s wives’ spot, helpful comments were written on them along with the possible identities of other constables’ or sergeants’ companions of the marital couch. Thankfully, graffiti, coffee and grease stains soon rendered the dear ladies, if not decent, then at least gynaecologically obscure.

It had been decided there was to be no verbal radio traffic in case it could be overheard. I would signal one click every hour so they knew I was not asleep or asphyxiated, and they would make one click back in return. And so the night wore on. Except that it didn’t ‘wear’ at all, it just seemed endless. Time stood as still, with all those sodding clocks staring down at me. My chocolate bar soon went. Regular sips of tea from my flask provided some comfort. My pipe filled the room with smoke, but I had to ration its pleasures as tobacco was expensive and the night was long. I got up periodically to walk around and keep the circulation moving as it was getting chill.

The wall mostly likely to be broken into by the thieves had shelves full of boxes across it. I moved them all off and stacked them elsewhere so I could put my hands on the wall to feel for vibrations that might signal any demolition work going on next door. That done, I sat down in the gloom again, wrapped in my blanket. If time passed, it did it slowly and with dragging feet. The joys of the Police Gazette were minimal at the best of times. Faces of old coppers who had gone to that great ‘beat’ in the sky where it never rained and a pint was left out for you in every pub smiled out of obituaries. Letters from widows thanking the federation for the hamper at Christmas or some other fraternal service made sorry reading.

old cuffsThe adverts were a bit more entertaining. You could buy your own hand-cuffs. Not the huge metal shackles I was issued that were new in 1920, but flash stainless steel jobs that were ‘easy to put on’, ‘ratchet-closed’, lightweight, and cost a week’s bloody wage. You could get your uniform tailored by the same firm that advertised Masonic regalia. “Save time,” I thought. “Have your masonic pinny attached to the inside of your tunic and just pull it out over your trousers if you feel the need for a quick lodge meeting in the back of the police van with others of your ilk.”

Then there were the adverts for ‘personal items’. Pile cream, guaranteed toPile Cream banish those ‘grapes of wrath’ from any sufferer, be he inspector or humble constable. One advert showed the happy face of a copper as he contemplated a life without a hernia thanks to the ‘Eddy and Baker ball and socket truss’. This one stumped me. I just could not imagine what a ‘ball and socket truss’ was. It sounded like something horribly industrial to have in close contact with your groin. Did it move? Would it squeak if not oiled regularly?

Time crawled by. I had exchanged three signals with the outside world, managed to stay awake, and had consumed all of my sandwiches and most of my flask. My imagination, if not running riot, was certainly causing an affray. Shadows danced as I did an occasional sweep with the big torch. All alone, Mrs Pearson’s little boy locked up with hours to go before release. Release. Not just as in ‘open the bloody door’, but my bladder was now sending out messages that it was really quite full. I needed a pee. All those mugs of tea back at the station plus most of the contents of my flask had all gone in and now wanted out.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 3:30. Two and a half hours to go at least unless the bad guys broke in. And, of course, the more I thought about the state of my bladder, the more immediate the problem became. Crossed-legged, I sat and tried to think of something else, anything to distract me from the half gallon of tea sloshing around inside me.

Now, on a plane or a train there is always a place of relief, even if it is not as savoury as you might wish. On a bus, perhaps not, but you can always get off at the next stop. In a car there is usually a hedge or a lay-by if things get really ‘immediate’. But in a locked vault full of boxes of jewellery and stuff . . . no chance.

However, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, as they say, so I bent my mind to the problem. By now I was up on my feet and slowly, without realising it at first, doing what we call in our family ‘the wee wee dance’. With legs clenched together like braided string, my sons endeavoured to postpone the inevitable by jigging around, putting off for as long as possible that dash to the toilet or wall that ended in relief and, all to often, soaking underpants.

My fevered brain ran through the possibilities. My flask? No, it still had some tea in it and that was all I had to drink till being let out. My lunch bag? Yes, yes, yes, brilliant, my polythene lunch bag, that would do it! I shook out the crumbs, looked closely and saw . . . holes. Many small bloody holes. This was a ‘child friendly’ bag. CHILD BLOODY FRIENDLY! How about ‘man-needing-a-pee friendly’! Devastated, and now sweating with the strain of holding it in, I looked around. There above me in glittering ranks were those beautiful EMPTY cut glass decanters.

Sacrilege, yes, but by now any scruples I might normally have had were far outweighed by the fear of my bladder going critical and giving me a soggy crotch for the remainder of my shift. A fate too dreadful to contemplate, not just for the chaffing of the parts and the horrid moist embrace of serge trousers, but the smell. The smell as it all warmed up on the drive home and filled the police car. My shame would linger for as long as the cloth seats held the stain on my character. Not only that, every one would know. All the nick would know, and I could only imagine the amount of ridicule I’d be in for. It would last forever.

No, it had to be the decanters, and there like a fat man amidst a bunch of anorexics stood a suitable candidate. Its vast girth was engraved with a ship in full sail under which was a scroll bearing the title ‘HMS Victory’. With a large, accommodating neck and a nicely smooth lip, it would do the job. I lifted this magnificent example of the glass blowers’ and engravers’ art down from the shelf and commenced the proceedings. Not a drop was spilled (I was proud of that) and, as the amber ocean rose well above the topsail and over the admirals flag, I knew that this day at least one man had done his duty. Placing the warm and sloshing container on the table, I adjusted my dress, saluted and said, ‘for this relief, Horatio, we thank you.’

The relief, the blessed relief! Even this dark, nasty tomb was transformed into somewhere almost like home. I placed the sacred vessel back on the shelf and sat down, lit a pipe and looked again at the smiling faces of the obituaries page of the Police Gazette. ‘Our little secret, lads’, I thought. ‘I bet you’ve never flapped yer haddock in such a strange place or in such a splendid receptacle, unless of course you were on Royal Palace duty.’

The hours dragged on, marked by the clicks of the radio. Them, then me; me, then them. Even the slow filling of the bladder did not excite or worry. It was merely the choice of a suitable decanter; a choice now made on aesthetic terms rather than capacity. Whiskey or brandy, sir? Perhaps this delightful ship’s decanter with its large, flat bottom and fluted neck? So elegant, but no, sadly too small an opening. The next libation was made in a square engraved job and to amuse myself I created a sort of son et lumiere by placing the big torch on the table and revolving the decanter in the bright light as I filled it. Reflections of amber and silver light danced around the room. I whistled a merry tune.

I gave no real thought as to how these things were going to be emptied and cleaned. I assumed there would be time when my incarceration was over and I could somehow empty the contents and no one would ever be the wiser. If not, quite what I would say to the owner I hadn’t worked out. But with luck those burglars would break in and I could empty the contents over them.

Of course they didn’t, though. At half past five the door was opened by the owner, with Alf standing at his side. I gathered my belongings and made my exit. The decanters, well, they stayed on the shelf where I had put them. The owner was too preoccupied to notice and I was too tired to care. I just wanted to get out into the fresh air and then wash the dust from hands and face, light a pipe and go home.

Dave reckoned the crooks must have got wind of our trap. Either that or they just decided not to bother. The jeweller was grateful enough, but had a moan to Dave about the vault smelling of tobacco smoke. I never mentioned the decanters. My secret. Now yours as well.Decanter

FLOWERS ON A GRAVE

The ancient churchWhen I was first a village copper there were few street lights. The big house in the square had a rather grand lantern mounted in wrought iron above the gate and the dim light somehow darkened rather than illuminated the doorway. Lights from house windows cast a welcome glow onto the pavement until midnight or thereabouts but were slowly extinguished as the residents took to their beds or other nocturnal pursuits.

Then the night was mine, my time to walk my village. I walked my beat, clad in dark regulation uniform, smoking my pipe and moving silently in rubber-soled boots, a bloody great torch in my pocket. I shook hands with the doorknobs to make sure people were safe and property was secure. I protected my villagers from thieves and villains and I would have defended them from attack with my life if it had come to it. I did my duty, this was my job. Far more important to me than nicking some poor sod without road fund license or feeling the collar of a bloke after he’d put a rabbit or even a pheasant in his cooking pot, keeping the peace, keeping them safe.
Constable is an old title, it used to be watchman and before that there was the lookout, the man designated to guard the settlement and keep the sovereign’s peace.

Strange things go on in English villages at night. Many strange things and some of them involve the dead as well as the living. I don’t mean murder or mayhem or the planting of bodies under a rose bed, though that does happen. Rather, I mean the aura of a place that has known the footfall of mankind for centuries. When the paths that you walk lead to the ancient homes of countless generations, then the night sometimes belongs more to them than you. On my beat I walk slowly and quietly. I know where to stand protected from the wind and the rain and I know where the shadows cloak me so I can see all around without being seen. And sometimes, all of a sudden, the past will move a mite closer, the centuries will roll back and the echo of forgotten sounds and voices will whisper in the silence.

It wasn’t a big village, we had a castle mind, a proper one with battlements and its Norman keep still standing. The church was in the centre and the streets had been laid out around the old market square when the castle was still stones on the hod-carrier’s shoulders. There was a mixture of large houses and small; some dilapidated through neglect and some well-cared for with fresh paint and polished brass. There were a few shops and a couple of pubs and that was it really.
But there was a place that always caught my attention. It was a small space by the entrance to the church yard and it was somehow in shadow on even the sunniest day. I have watched the great and the good spill from the church on Sunday mornings and congratulate themselves on having survived another of the Reverend Hammond’s ‘borathons’, and even when the crowd extended into the street and along the wall by press of bodies and cars, that small place was somehow missed, almost shunned.

I never thought too much of it normally but one day, lurking in ‘Benny the Palms’ burning mansecond hand bookshop and clairvoyant clinic, I came across a history of local martyrs. An unusual thing to write about and a bloody history lesson in every sense of the word. The bit that caught my eye was a brief mention of a local scholar who had been burned as a heretic. This young man had refused to bow to the wishes of his elders and betters and had paid for it with his life. The dreadful deed had taken place some way hence in our county town but it did say he was a man of the village and that his father having the living here as parish priest lived on for some time afterwards in ‘great sorrow and distress’.
Ben ran his dilapidated second-hand bookshop as a library for his friends and, in addition to his clairvoyant and palm-reading activities which drew a wide clientèle; he was also a respected local historian. He suggested I make a visit to the county library and maybe look at church records.

There is something in the psyche of some of us coppers that is a mixture of pure nosiness, the desire to turn over the stones of life and examine what is beneath them, and a belief in natural justice and old-fashioned fair play.
A sixth sense develops from experiencing the human condition at its best and worst and sometimes the little aberrations and foibles of human nature suggest something is not right, not what it seems. This little tale, barely a footnote, resonated in my head. A young man, burned as a warning, a father whose grief was still palpable after several centuries and a growing awareness that there was more to discover and the story was unfinished.

I was therefore off to the county library the next day, delving about in the archive and chatting up the clever sods that lurked in amongst the shelves. I had precious little to go on – a name, a date and the times they lived in. It seemed that the young clerk in holy orders, as he turned out to be, was a scholar of Jesus College Cambridge and a very bright lad too. I imagined him full of confidence, just graduated, his first job, a bit of preferment perhaps from his father’s patron. Then falling foul of the establishment, making waves, being a bloody nuisance until someone decided that the threat of torching might bring him to heel. What was his old dad doing, wringing his hands and moving heaven and earth to bring the lad out of the firing-line.
Who knows?

But eventually someone like me was told to hold, guard and keep him and deliver him safe to the place of his execution. Some poor bloody copper had a crap job and a young man was burned to death.

The church records shed little more light except that the father was not recorded as parish priest for long after his son’s death. But then Benny found me an old 19th century plan of the village and on it was marked the place where some dissenters had been interred. Things began to fall into place. My bit of ‘spooky’ church wall was just outside the boundary of the original grave-yard. It was near this space that the suicides and the un-baptised were buried.

And perhaps also buried here were the remains of a young man whose ideas and visions led to his untimely death. Benny had said that the policy of the day was that the small residue of death by burning was crushed beyond recognition and scattered to the four winds ‘that their infamy may ever again be visited upon the world’ so it was writ. But I had a hunch that this was not always so. Some copper had to guard that smouldering pyre, some copper might well have seen an old man, in such pain as made the soul wither, and who had come to see his son die. To wait the long night, thinking of the child that grew, that questioned and quested and died because of it. Some copper might well have been a father also, and turned away, for a moment.

So perhaps, just perhaps, an old priest lay to rest some remnant of his child beneath a wall, close to the church, but never part of it. Perhaps that shade spoke across the years to another upholder of the law. I will never know. But I did place a small bunch of forget-me-nots on that spot. On the curtailment of the old churchyard, and I never did feel the quiet unease again. Nor do I think that it’s there even now.

Flowers on a grave

The felonious pie

pork-pie

I spied with my little eye
a wonderful, toothsome small porcine pie.

It sat on the table alone and forlorn
the shopping it came with was mostly now gone.

All put away neatly in cupboards or fridges
this little pork pie was a gift beyond riches.

For I in my hand had a pint of good cider
and a pork pie accompaniment just could not be nicer.

So without telling or asking or just letting on
one moment it was there and the next it was gone!

With larcenous intent and appetite keen
I ate the small pie without being seen.

But stupid I am because the small pie was missed
and the lady that brought it was understandably pissed.

Not just cos I stole this scrumptious delight
not just cos I ate it tucked out of sight,

but because she had missed it and searched high and low
in cupboards and pantry and fridges galore.

No sign of the pie, not even a crumb
until she asked that fat greedy bum

who sitting alone in a garden nook
with a empty pint glass and a guilty look.

A look made more guilty by the bits in his beard
of a pork pie consumed and now disappeared.

With a look so disdainful and foot stamping rage,
a sight he’d not seen in very a long age.

His dear wife let into him and gave him what for
and told him, quite rightly, no pies any more.

And now because of this gluttonous sin
every pie counted out will be a pie counted in.

So I hang my head guiltily and vow I’ll never again
nick any pie no matter where it has lain.

For all pies are now are sacred that I must not take
Gods help me if she ever looks for the cake!

On Sunday Isobel and I went shopping.
Such an ordinary pleasure, each with our own trolley, loading it with the essentials of life.
Hers with tins of tomatoes, fruit, other staples of the larder and of course a vast quantity of industrial strength lavatory paper and a small pork pie.
Me, well my essentials tend to hover around the booze isle, plus tonics of course and a few toothsome delectation’s such as French sausage, cheese and other exotic if somewhat smelly edibles.
We arrived home at about two o’clock, unloaded our trophies and relaxed.
Me with a pint of cider and Isobel scurrying around putting all this provender away.
I wandered into the garden to take in a bit of Autumnal sun and as I passed through the kitchen I espied a small pork pie, looking lonely and uncared for.

The rest is history and I hang my head in shame…….the accused

The Floating Dutchman

bike 2

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However if you think that the situations I describe could never happen. then you could be right – or maybe……….

What is truth? Memory isn’t truth. Memory is edited almost as soon as the moment passes, then filtered through time and self-importance. A layer of ‘now’ is always imposed onto ‘then,’ and these stories are from so far back in my ‘then’ that all that’s left are the bits that stick up from the rest like an old stump in a bog, or perhaps an old bicycle frame in a river.

A bicycle frame in a river . . .

This is the story of The Floating Dutchman. Some people go missing because they want to, others go missing in their own heads, poor sods, and then there are those who go missing simply because they got lost. The Floating Dutchman was probably one of this last sort.

Some time ago, when the world was young and beer and tobacco cheap, a man was found in a river still holding on to, and a little bit entwined with, his bicycle. The river was the Colne, which meanders from somewhere soggy in Cambridgeshire, carving itself a gentle valley along the way, and eventually ending up as a wide estuary on which lurks the port of Harwich. During the course of its journey to the sea this river acts as a boundary between the counties of Essex and Suffolk.

That last bit is significant: On one side of the river, the noble Essex Police; on the other, the Suffolk Constabulary. There has always been a ‘friendly’ rivalry between these two forces, not unlike that which existed between the English and the Welsh during the middle ages. An attitude of deep suspicion, always on the lookout for underhanded dealings. I’m just telling you this so you’ll understand the dynamics of what follows. Now read on.

At about seven in the morning on a cold Sunday in the early Autumn, a ‘999’ call was made from a phone box on the old A604 road close by the village of Sturmer in Essex. It was passed by the gods of headquarters to the local police who were on patrol in the area. One of these was me. A lad of some thirty-plus summers, still keen and skittish from my months in the police training Stalag, fit, bearded and ripe for adventure. A virgin constable with shiny buttons and a soul untarnished by the wicked ways of the world.

Sitting by my side as I drove, and in nominal charge, was one Alf Peabody, a senior constable and sometime acting sergeant who, despite his considerable girth, scruffy uniform and foul tobacco pipe, was a damn good copper. Alf stood over six feet tall in his massive, black ammunition boots that could, and sometimes did, break down doors. He wore the medal ribbons of the Atlantic Star for service in the Second World War (as a naval rating on the Atlantic convoys) along with the nineteen thirty-nine to nineteen forty-five star which told those who knew that he was a man of that generation of steel who had lived in some of the most ‘interesting’ times of this century.

His round face was gently lined around the eyes, like a parchment on which rather too much sorrow had been written. He had a quite wicked sense of humour and was completely unabashed by any authority except that of his wife, Maude, who ruled him and their huge family with a rod of iron.

Alf knew the rule book backwards and sideways and could always find some Queen’s Regulation to hide behind when necessary, and his knowledge of by-laws, statutes and criminal law was unparalleled. He was not only a man of considerable experience in police procedure, but also a shrewd observer of the human condition. He was a font of local knowledge and had been a rural beat copper for close to twenty years. What he didn’t know about the area and its scamps, scoundrels and rotters was really not worth knowing, and his talent for finding a quiet place to hide up while he had a smoke was legendary.

So it was Alf and I in our somewhat battered Police minivan who made our way to the Colne that gentle morn. All we had been told was that a man had been seen in the water, possibly cycling but probably dead.

Sudden death in all its interesting guises is not unfamiliar to a copper in rural parts. It’s amazing just how inventive people can be in terminating their own existence, let alone someone else’s. And the countryside abounds with all manner of sharp. blunt and/or lethal objects apart from the ubiquitous shot gun. Farms themselves are inherently dangerous. And I don’t just mean the machinery which, if not treat with respect, will grab, mash or run over the unwary, but such things as silage pits, hay ricks and pig pens, which have their own winning little ways when it comes to maiming or (if you’re really unlucky) killing you outright (eventually).

But the ‘sudden’ we coppers really loathed was death by drowning, especially if it had taken place some time before the deceased was discovered. That, old darlings, is inclined to be, shall we say, ‘oozy’. Bits have a nasty way of coming off in your hands, which can put a chap right off his breakfast. A sausage was never the same for a while afterwards, I can tell you!

We found our way to the telephone box, which sat under a huge old oak tree at the entrance to a small lane where an elderly cove waived at us in a somewhat frantic fashion. He was your typical country walker of the hound, aged about sixty, with a battered flat cap on top of a somewhat florid face that was dusted with that grey stubble which denotes the occasional shaver. Small bright eyes like those of an interested shrew lurked under his bushy eyebrows. His nose indicated a man not unaccustomed to strong drink. He wore a large and somewhat stained ex-army bush jacket (the sort with several large pockets), baggy trousers tucked into Wellington boots, and carried a stout walking stick. In brief, he looked like a bit of a poacher. Alf missed none of this.

The man’s dog was a somewhat ancient Labrador who seemed immensely attracted to Alf’s crotch for some reason. Most dogs were drawn to the pocket Alf sometimes carried his ferrets in, but not this old beast.

Our poacher showed us to the scene of the crime, which was not too far away. It was approached by a narrow lane, just wide enough to take a vehicle, with trees all along one side, but only a small bank and scrubby hedge on the other where telegraph poles stuck up like javelins. This abutted a small field which was next to the wide riverbank. The lane then carried on with a bit of a lay-by just before it got to a small bridge which spanned the river. We parked our police van in this lay-by.

Walking through tall, dew-soaked grass and nettles, Alf and I came to the riverbank, which had the look of being recently scoured by flood water. The river was at it’s widest here and must have been some twenty-five to thirty feet across. It narrowed as it passed under the bridge, but the water was slow moving, dark green, and with snotty skid marks on the surface. It stank. Twigs, leaves and other flotsam slowly swirled around like spectators to the bobbing of what was unquestionably a human head.

We watched as this apparition, by the workings of the current or its own internal buoyancy, rose above the surface and revealed that it was indeed a man, and that man was, if not riding a bicycle, certainly attached to one. He seemed to be embracing the curved racing handlebars, and a weed-festooned saddle was definitely in contact with the lower half of his torso. As we watched, he went down again as if he was riding the riverbed like some ghastly two-wheeled submariner.

We asked our local guide if he knew how deep the water was and he told us there had been a lot of rain over the past week or so and the river was as full as it could be. This part, he told us, was fed by the main river as well as the Stour Brook, so there was a lot of water running into it. He used to fish here and it was renown for huge pike. Oh joy.
There was a wide sward leading to the river’s edge on the Essex side. On the Suffolk side, trees grew almost to the river bank itself, with only a narrow footpath following the line of the river. The lane continued on the Suffolk side, with trees overhanging either side in bosky profusion.

The embuggerance of it was that the poor soul on the bicycle was over ‘our’ side of the river. It would be us who had to land him, and call out the coroner’s officer and perform all the other dread rituals that have to be observed in cases like this. And it wasn’t just the thought of the time and paperwork which appalled us, but the sheer mechanics of getting him close enough to handle.

Just a little ‘aside’ at this point: One had a uniform-cleaning allowance once a year, when you took your full kit and had it dry-cleaned at the county’s expense. If in the course of your duty throughout the rest of the year your uniform became polluted by substances or smells, you needed a signed authorisation from a senior officer before you could get the garments cleaned. In our case, said senior officer was a miserable git who insisted on a full written report. It could take weeks for the paperwork to meander through the system, and in the meantime you were down to one tunic, a pair of trousers and no overcoat. So getting the clothes you stood up and saluted in more than usually mucky was not advisable.

Right, back to the riverbank.

Our trusty poacher, having shown us the place, was obviously uncomfortable with the idea of spending more time in the company of the ‘old Bill,’ and besides, we needed privacy in which to work out our strategy. So Alf asked him to go back up the lane to the junction with the main road and wait there while we called up reinforcements, who he could then show the way. Alf told him this was an important job and, after writing down his name and address, sent the bugger on his way.

Alf then lit his pipe and pondered for a while. As he pondered, the cyclist occasionally rose up and down as if on a very gentle aquatic carousel.

‘If we can just sort of nudge him over, we can report back that it’s not our problem and HQ can call up the Suffolk boys to deal with it,’ said Alf.

This worried me. Just how the bloody hell were we going to ‘nudge him over’? Also, I knew that if anyone did any ‘nudging’ it would be me, with my trousers rolled up, struggling to stay upright, standing on god knows what in the middle of a bloody wide river that could be any depth in any place.

‘I’m not going in and that’s that,’ I said.

Alf looked at me with the compassion of a wise man for an idiot, but a wise man who knew that if push literally came to shove the junior partner would be the one with soggy Y-fronts under soaking serge trousers.

‘There has to be another way!’ I pleaded.

Now in those far off days, in every police van there was a whole lot of jolly useful ‘stuff’. There was, of course, all the official paraphernalia loved by the Police Authority, plus items that were essential to rural policing, such as rabbit snares and similar. There were those ‘police slow’ signs that cause a merry chuckle as they inflict delays and hold-ups, and there were triangle signs for hazards that, by their bad design and rubbish construction, were more of a danger to the copper in erecting the sodding things than the ‘hazards’ they warned of. Then, of course, there were crow bars, leavers and other bits of serious metal used to prize open doors and vehicles. And, probably the most useful of the lot and the one most nicked from other coppers, the fire brigade and anyone else who left one lying about for redistribution, a broom.

‘Get the broom,’ said Alf.

I went to the van and got the broom, bearing the sacred object back to Alf as if it were Excalibur, and handed it to him.

Now here I admit I made a fundamental mistake, and one I would soon regret. The thing is, I do like a bit of poetry (in the long dark reaches of the night one can tuck oneself away out of reach of the sergeant and other organs of power and have a quiet read) and of course bits do tend to adhere to the brain like fluff on a boiled sweet that’s been sucked for a while and then set aside for later. Well, there was Alf holding the broom, peering into the water, and there was me just standing there like the spare one at a wedding, and it just had to be said. The words seemed to bubble up from some mysterious depth, much like our cyclist. Thus I declaimed, with just a little adjustment to make it entirely topical, the following verse:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alf and his sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

‘Oh bloody clever,’ said Alf. ‘Now get hold of this fucking broom and make yourself useful. Lean over the bank. I’ll hold onto you and you try to nudge him over.’

So, off with the tunic and, Alf holding on to my trousers at the back by my belt, his stout boots digging into the turf like the seasoned pub tug-of-war participant he was, I leaned out over the water. Its murky brown depths were full of noxious mystery. A condom floated by, indicating that romance was not dead in these parts, unlike the poor bugger on his bike. I stretched out as far as I could, trusting in Alf’s solid grasp on my belt, but the broom was still a good foot too short. So near yet so bloody far.

Alf made a merry quip about ‘what you said about me and this river,’ but eventually pulled me back on to the bank. I stood upright, grateful not just for being vertical again, but also for the relief from having the crotch of my trousers pulled into my wedding tackle in such a way as to seriously restrict the old ‘Victor Silvester’ (from Victor Silvester and His Ballroom Orchestra – old joke).

‘We need a bit of extra length,’ said Alf, peering at me with absolutely no sympathy as I tried to shake some life back into the floppy parts by putting my hands in my pockets and shaking it all about.

‘When you have finished playing pocket billiards let’s see if there’s something around here we can use.”

We scratched around on the bank and amongst the tall grass next to the field we came upon an old fence paling stuck in the hedge with a few strands of wire attached. This piece of timber was about four inches in diameter and approximately four feet long. This would do if we tied it to our trusty broom.

One of the great benefits of civilisation, dear reader, is bailing twine. It has a thousand and one uses and no police van was complete without a bloody great ball of it. Thus Alf was able to bind our broom to the wood fence post.

Now all this must have taken about half an hour and the morning was getting on and we were both worried about the arrival of onlookers and witnesses to our dastardly deeds. It would have been obvious to anyone that we were not trying to get the poor bugger to our side of the river, so things had to be done and done quickly.
Once again I was held over the murky depths of the river and this time the head of the broom was able to make contact with the bicycle. As if jousting, I aimed for the bottom of this funerary vessel and gently pushed.

Nothing happened. I pushed a bit more while Alf held on to my belt, which I was terrified was going to give way. It was only a narrow leather belt with a very indifferent buckle, after all, and the water was bloody close now, slurping underneath me, little bubbles coming to the surface disturbed by my action with the broom, which was surprisingly heavy, probably with weed (I hoped).

At last the broom head seemed to make contact with the rear wheel of the bike, which must have been the heaviest bit, and things started to move. Freed from the weeds and mud, the rear wheel rose enough for the current to take the bicycle in its grasp and slowly move it to the centre of the river. As it did so, huge bubbles erupted all around the bike and probably from within its soggy passenger as well. The smell was overpowering, which made us even more desperate to get the bloody thing over to the Suffolk side of the river; if it stank like this now, almost submerged, what would it smell like after being dragged up the river bank!

My hands were full of stick and Alf’s hands were full of me, so neither of us could do anything except try not to breath. I pushed again, this time nudging the back of the rear wheel, which thankfully propelled the bicycle forward and, in an almost swan-like glide, it bobbed and rocked flatulently across the midway point of the river. There with a noisome sigh it came to rest, well over on the Suffolk side. In fact it had settled now and the front wheel pointed towards the bank, while the rider’s head occasionally rose from the water as if peering up now and then to look for someone on the nearby footpath.

Joy unbounded was in our hearts, but danger still lurked for this intrepid duo, for through a gap in the trees on the Suffolk side we saw the flashing of a blue light. We threw the broom and paling into the undergrowth and, with the speed of men in the wrong place at the wrong time, ran back to the van, closed its doors and put on our tunics. It was too late to drive away, so we stood solemnly looking at the place in the river where a little head occasionally broke the surface like a large, weed-flecked egg.

Down the small lane opposite drove a big, shiny, white Suffolk Police car in the front seat of which sat a big, shiny, white Suffolk Police inspector. In the back seat were what we took to be two Suffolk Police constables or something similar.

The car stopped and the inspector unfolded from his crouched position behind the wheel and stood up. ’Strewth he was big! With his smart uniform, pressed trousers and the inspector’s tabs on his epaulettes gleaming like two huge dollops of bird poo, he had all the charm of a blocked drain. He also had a face like a clenched buttock. He was not a happy man. Two Neanderthals fell out of the back seat, moved to a respectful distance behind him and rested their knuckles on the ground. They said nothing.

The inspector saw us and put on his peaked cap, the white crown of which indicated to all and sundry that this was an ‘officer’ and thus to be treated with the maximum arse licking possible. We stood to attention and saluted. If there’s one thing these officer buggers like, it’s a salutation with the old right arm going up as quick as may be. Not to do so could well have earned us a ‘fizzer’ from our own dear inspector because, regardless of county, these bastards clung together like haemorrhoids, and this one looked the sort who would have reported us like a shot.

‘Oh fuck,’ murmured Alf through tight lips, ‘its Stringent Stanley. He’s a right bastard!’

Inspector Stanley acknowledged our salutes with the casual grace of a superior being and peered across the river, looking long and hard in our direction. I arranged my face to appear as innocent as a nun at an orgy, and I knew from experience that Alf could do ‘dumb insolence to a tee, especially if he was in the frame for a good bollocking.

The superior being then looked down into the river and caught sight of the dear departed, whose head bobbed slowly up and down as if in some watery way he also was paying homage to the inspector of police.

It was not lost on the inspector that this aquatic disaster was nearer to him than it was to us. It was also not lost on him that there had been some considerable disturbance in the river from the way the mud had come to the surface along with other jolly flotsam. There was definitely something ‘fishy’ about the whole scene.

At last, recognising my trusty partner, his unpleasant features took on a constipated grimace and he snarled, ‘Peabody, you vile excuse for a policeman, when did you get here?’

Alf replied that we had only just arrived. At which point our helpful poacher came onto the scene, returned from his vigil at the telephone box. He said nothing, the presence of so many blue uniforms suddenly making him worry that he was going to be blamed for something. Even his dog, sensing the tension, refrained from revisiting the ripe pleasures of Alf’s crotch.

Bristling and menacing, all silver braid and bossiness, Inspector Stanley said, “A call came into our control room nearly two hours ago about a body in the river. It’s taken us an age to find the bloody thing and what do I see but you, hanging around like a bad smell.’

Not nice, I thought, but knowing the ways of my partner I guessed their paths had crossed before and this inspector had come off worse.

Alf adopted a pained expression and replied, ‘We were just driving by and this good gentleman flagged us down. We made our observations, governor, and were about to radio in to request that your force be notified. After all, it is on Suffolk’s side and I knows just how serious you takes territorial issues.’

The inspector then turned his basilisk stare at our ‘good gentleman’, who looked as if he was going to pee himself. ‘I know you,’ he said. ‘What are you doing, poaching again?’

Alf quickly interjected, ‘No, governor, this man has been helping us. He came across the deceased whilst walking his dog and phoned nine-nine-nine, then waited at the phone box till someone turned up. Must have been waiting an age. Could have buggered off but he didn’t, which was good of him. Otherwise we’d never have found the place at all.’

That was received by our shiny inspector with sneer of disbelief and the two poor sods with him looked seriously unchuffed at the prospect of a bit of corpse fishing. Looks that wished they could kill, or at least permanently maim, were directed at Alf and me that morning.

Alf then announced that, as we were no longer needed at the scene, we would check our side of the A604 for any sign as to why or where the deceased might have entered the river. There were at least three road bridges across the Colne on the Essex side and, after checking them, we would submit a report to our HQ for them to pass on to Suffolk.

There was nothing the inspector could say. He knew it, and the coppers with him knew it. My only remaining concerns were our witness and, of course, our broom, which, although thrown into the undergrowth, might yet be found.

Alf, oozing co-operative zeal then asked if it would help if we ‘copped a statement’ off the witness and forwarded that along with the report of our bridge investigations.

A brief nod accompanied a ‘fuck off’ gesture from old bum-face and we hurried our ‘witness’ up the lane. Sitting him down until we all got our timing right, we took a very brief statement from him. Finally, with his old dog giving one last loving sniff at Alf’s trousers, he gratefully departed. For him it had been a long morning and not without incident.

For us it was the start of a drive up and down the highway looking for ‘clues’.
There were none. From down river, the village of Baythorne End had a bridge over the Colne but it was intact, with brick walls either side. Going up river as far as Haverhill in Suffolk, although the road roughly followed the Colne, there were no bridges directly over it. There was, however, a bridge over the Colne Brook near the village of Sturmer, not far ‘as the body floats’ from where our cyclist eventually ended up.

The bridge itself was intact, but a low fence that went right up to the parapet was broken. This bridge was narrow, just two car widths wide, and had no footpath. The fence was close by a passing area on the right-hand side going towards a junction on the main A604. This passing area was called ‘Water Lane’, which says it all.

Our conclusion—and not being present at the inquest we never knew the ‘official’ line—was that the bicyclist somehow got lost and found himself riding down this lane towards the main road. The weather had been lousy over the previous few days, with torrential rain. So maybe the poor sod was wet and tired, and a wee bit lost. Perhaps he was startled by an on-coming vehicle, headlights blazing no doubt, and veered to his right and straight into the brook.

We’ll never know.

What we do know is that he was Dutch, aged 23, a student studying at Cambridge who had planed to cycle home on the previous Friday night. Which, evidently, he had done twice before. He had on him his passport and ferry ticket, and two panniers on the rear of the bike filled with clothes. No wonder that was the heaviest bit!

I’m just so glad I didn’t have the horror of being there when his parents identified the body. Trust me, that really is a shit job.
For the Floating Dutchman, his journey was ended. For me, I had a few more years in that bloody uniform and some more adventures along the way. If you’re all good, and like the idea, I’ll write some more—perhaps.

Mind how you go.