Alan Hunter: Gently by the Shore

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Alan Hunter Gently by the Shore
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    Gently by the Shore
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Alan Hunter

Gently by the Shore


Even the sea which lapped the August beaches of Starmouth looked grey at that hour of the morning. There was something mournful about it — it seemed to be grieving for the thronged crowds of noonday. Northwards it was embraced by the sprawl of the Albion Pier, much destroyed, much reconstructed, south-wards by the elegant iron-work of the Wellesley with its Winter Gardens, while facing it, across the wide promenade, lay the hectic holiday face of the town, a Victorian foundation in evil, dark-red brick with overlays of modern Marine Baroque. And the prevailing note was sadness. The dawn refused to ratify what man called gay. At this solemn hour, when PC Lubbock was observing his regulation speed between pier and pier, the Seaside Of The Midlands looked like a sleeping drunk stretched by the disapproving main.

He stopped, did PC Lubbock: he checked his well-regulated 2mph and conducted a survey of the morning scene. All was quiet, and most was still. On the pale-looking beach below him two or three figures were moving, slow, intent, each with a stick with which he occasionally stirred the marble-cold sand. Beyond them some sandpipers worked along the tide-line, further out some terns, and further still the gulls. Scavengers all were they, men and birds. PC Lubbock marked them with a permitting eye. He had seen them upon their lawful occasions for many a long year now and he gave them a favouring nod as he turned to pursue his jaunt.

But before he could get under way a change took place in the peaceful scene. A movement occurred, quite other than those he had come to expect from the deliberate trade of beach-combing. Towards him came leaping and capering, more animal than human, a strange, chattering figure, a figure that flailed its arms, a figure from whose splaying heels the sand shot up in clouds. PC Lubbock hesitated in his stride. There was something mindless and rather horrible about this bounding creature. Although he recognized it as Nits, a local halfwit, he couldn’t help falling back a pace as it vaulted over the balustrade and dropped crouching at his feet.

‘Well… and what d’you want, m’lad?’ he demanded sternly, fixing his gaze on the halfwit’s protruding green eyes.

They stared at him silently, seeming to strain towards him: the rest of the face sank backwards towards a toothy gape.

‘What is it?’ reiterated the Police Constable, raising his voice a degree.

Nits sucked in his lips as though preparing them for articulation. ‘He… don’t wake up,’ he blurted in his slurring pipe.

‘Eh? Who doesn’t wake up?’ asked the constable.

‘The man… he don’t wake up.’

Nits made an orang-outang-like gesture towards the direction from which he had come. ‘All wet!’ he whimpered, ‘no clothes on… don’t wake up.’

There was a pause while the trained mind arranged this information.

‘You say it’s a man?’ PC Lubbock demanded suspiciously.

‘A man — a man — a man!’ Nits nodded his head with astonishing rapidity.

‘You mean one like me?’

The head bobbed on as though worked by a piston.

With a stately cock of his leg, PC Lubbock stormed the balustrade and descended to the beach below. Through sand and through shingle went his boots, through shells and through seaweed, till he stood at last where the low slack water played old Harry with his spit and polish. And there he saw him, the man who didn’t wake up, the man without clothes, the man who was all wet.

He had stood about five feet ten. He had weighed about 185. His hair had been pale brown, his eyes blue, his eyebrows slanting, his heavy features decidedly un-English. And he had acquired, probably rather late in life, a feature of the keenest police interest: a collection of four stab-wounds in the thorax.

PC Lubbock remarked a high percentage of these details. He glanced sharply at Nits, and sharply at the sea. Then, drawing his whistle with a flourish of professional adroitness, he blew a wailful blast to wake the morning air.

‘There seems,’ said Chief Inspector Gently, Central Office, CID, sagely, ‘to be some as-yet-undiscovered connection between coastal resorts and homicide, Dutt. Have you noticed it?’

Detective Sergeant Dutt nodded dutifully, but without really listening to his senior. It had been hot in the train coming up. It was still hot in the train. Their third-class compartment was a little oven, and its atmosphere wasn’t improved by the haze contributed by Gently’s pipe.

‘You’ve only to go back to the ’twenties,’ continued Gently, with a damaging puff. ‘There were the Crumbles murders — Field and Gray in ’20, and Mahon in ’24. Both classics, Dutt. Especially Mahon.’

‘I was bashing me first beat in ’24,’ said Dutt reminiscently.

‘Then there was Smith and the Brides in the Baths — Blackpool and Herne Bay were two of his spots — and coming the other way there’s the Brighton Trunk Murders and Sidney Fox at Margate, and that other Starmouth business — slaughter in all shapes and sizes, and all of it going on by the sea. There’s a link there somewhere, Dutt, you mark my words. The sea has a bad influence on potential homicides, whether it’s recognized or not.’

‘Dare say you’re right, sir,’ replied Dutt, staring out of the window.

‘When I retire I shall write a monograph on it,’ added Gently. ‘There may be some implications which would help a good defence.’

He sank back into his seat and puffed away in silence. The train clattered on, wearying, somnolent. They were nearing the end of the run, four sun-beating hours of it, and both of them felt jaded and grimy. Outside stretched the marshes of East Northshire, very wide, very flat, their distance broken by nothing except the brick towers of windmills and the white handkerchief sails of yachts. Inside there was Gently’s pipe and the sooty smell of third-class cushions…

‘Well, it won’t be so bad, sir,’ said Dutt, trying to cheer himself up, ‘it can’t be worse than Southend or Margate.’

Gently smiled at a distant cow. ‘It isn’t,’ he said, ‘there’s parts of it one grows to like.’

‘You know the place, sir — you’ve been there before?’

‘When I was ten,’ admitted Gently, ‘and that’s further back than I like to remember.’

He thought about it, nevertheless. He could see himself now as he was then, a thoughtful child with sunburn and freckles, and those damned knickerbockers. A solitary child he had been, a bad mixer. It may have been the knickerbockers that made him antisocial.

‘There isn’t much difference between criminals and policemen,’ he said, surprising Detective Sergeant Dutt.

They pulled in at Starmouth Ranelagh, a gloomy terminus where the smell of fish blended into a neat olfactory cocktail with the smell of soot, steam and engine oil.

‘It hasn’t changed,’ mused Gently, ‘that’s just the smell it used to have.’

He reached down a battered leather suitcase and deposited himself and it upon the platform. Sergeant Dutt followed, carrying a similar case, while in his other hand he clasped the ‘murder bag’ with which a careful Central Office had equipped the expedition. Outside in the station yard the afternoon sun burned down stunningly. There was a taxi rank, and co-passengers clad in summer dresses and open-necked shirts were streaming towards it. Sergeant Dutt looked longingly, but Gently shook his head.

‘It isn’t far,’ he said, ‘they’ve got their headquarters just off the quay.’

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