STRANGER by Chris Green
Each time I go to Carwydden Cove, the ragamuffin stranger is there, lurking in the shadows. Major Tom, my salt and pepper schnauzer sometimes barks excitedly as we approach. He has a habit of running up to strangers to introduce himself, so I throw a stick to distract him. Something about the spectral figure suggests that he wants to be alone and I am intruding on his space. At first, I found his baleful presence intimidating but I have come round to the thinking that there must be an innocent explanation for his being on this remote stretch of beach every evening.
If he were a fugitive from justice or a paedophile, he would surely have been caught by now. Besides, if he were the latter, this would hardly be the place to come. Few children venture down to this rough shingle. Carwydden is primarily a dog beach. Perhaps he is an erstwhile mariner or a solitary poet. Whichever, he is so well camouflaged that if you were here for the first time, you would not notice him. He seems to be able to find shadow where there is none.
If I found the stranger particularly disturbing, I could easily take Major Tom for a walk up the other side of the cove. But, since my retirement, I have become a creature of habit. In fact, if I’m honest, I like to walk this way because Amy and I used to come here when we were courting. The Spring of 1961, it would have been when we met. We were sixteen. Spurs were top of the league. If I put my mind to it, I can still name the entire first team. Wooden Heart was at number one on the pop charts. Amy was a member of the Elvis Presley fan club. I took her to see Flaming Star at the Gaumont, or was it Blue Hawaii? I was more of a Cliff fan myself. The Young Ones and Summer Holiday. They were great tunes. Anyway, one time when I had my short back and sides at Reg Cropper’s, I had gotten something for the weekend and we fumbled about behind a clump of rocks. Yuri Gagarin was in space at the time I remember. Ever since then, I’ve felt an attachment to this beach. Amy, bless her heart, died three years ago from complications after a routine procedure. I was inconsolable. That’s when I got Major Tom to keep me company, what with the children grown up and long gone. But I always think of Amy when I walk this way.
I drop news of my sightings casually into my daily conversations around the village. Mrs Nancarrow in the Post Office says she sometimes goes to the beach with her pastels but has never seen him. Nor has Spike at the garage where I have the Kia serviced. Barbara from the Age UK shop, who knows everything that goes on around the area, hasn’t heard anything. My neighbours Breok and Merryn have not seen him, and my other neighbours Jack and Vera suffer from an intermittent deafness and often do not understand what I am saying. Mushtaq in the general store where I buy Major Tom’s James Wellbeloved says he hasn’t got time to go to the beach since Nasim started working at The Eden Project. No-one seems to have caught sight of my man of mystery but me. I wonder if P. C. Trescothick might know something, but after the incident with Major Tom and the sheep, I do not like to draw attention to myself.
I keep an eye on the local newspaper. I start going to the library in the nearby town to look at back copies. I remember the days when I used to take Adam and Alice there after work on a Monday when the library was open late to give Amy a break. I recall we did this for several years in our kermit-green Deux Cheveaux. I would take the opportunity look at the local paper while they were choosing their Roald Dahl or Stig of the Dump. There never seemed much to report in those days. It was a quiet backwater.
The South West Examiner today describes a different world. A serial killer who has preyed on female cab drivers has been apprehended. There is controversy over a Dial a Drink scheme being introduced where alcohol can be delivered to your door 24 hours a day. There is a story about a dancing goat that you can hire for parties and another about a woman who crashed her car while teaching her dog to drive. There are reports of chilling attacks on pensioners and a piece about nightclubs and bars being issued with cocaine-torches, that door staff can shine into clubbers faces. Microscopic particles of the drug glow green. Clubbers? The only club there used to be around here was the United Services Club. Perhaps, to boost its readership, the paper now concentrates too heavily on sensationalist stories. My friend, Mark Friday tells me some of the news might even be fake, probably most of it. He says that they lift their stories from internet sites. Whether or not this is the case, there are no reports of a furtive interloper living on a shingle beach in my neck of the woods.
Outside the library, I bump into Chas.
‘Well, fuck me on a Friday, Frank! Good to see you, mate. It’s got to be a year or two,’ he says. Chas is tilting a little. I imagine he is no longer on the wagon.
I agree it has been a long time. In fact, I haven’t seen Chas since Amy’s funeral.
He quickly confirms my suspicions about the drinking.
‘I’ll tell you what old mate,’ he says. ‘Come and have a beer with Lenny and me later. We’ve started going to The Francis Drake.’
‘The Francis Drake?’ I say. ‘You can’t be serious.’
The Francis Drake as I remember it is a bit select. Amy and I had had our silver wedding celebration there. Silver Service. Thirty pounds a head back then. Adam was going through his punk phase at the time and came in his bondage gear with his orange hair and full regalia of safety pins, embarrassing us all. It would have been hard at the time to predict that he would become a science teacher in Cumbria. Pillar of the community, married with two children and a Ford Focus. Alice’s career path has been a tad unusual. After passing her City and Guilds in the unlikely subject of Dog Grooming, she opened a Dog Spa in the Cotswolds with her friend Terry. Terry, I should add, is female. Probably no grandchildren there. I suppose my main regret is with the family so far-flung, the only time I see them is at Christmas. It can get lonely with just your own company all day long. Alice suggests I join a dating agency but I tell her I’m too long in the tooth for all of that.
Chas’s voice brings me out of my reverie.
‘All the other pubs around here have been turned in bistros, Frankie,’ he says. ‘You know, posh nosh for the grockles.’
‘But The Francis Drake is the most exclusive of all the places around here,’ I protest, looking him up and down. ‘Surely they wouldn’t let you in your tatters.’
‘You don’t get out a lot, Frank, do you?’ he says. The Francis Drake went into a downward spiral in the nineties. Fortune Inns, you might remember, went bust. It was empty for yonks. No one wanted it. Till The Flynns took it. Doesn’t do food any more. Well, you can get scotch eggs and crisps. Cheapest beer around here though. ….. All the holiday people go to The Buccaneer or The Jolly Slaver for their t-bone steaks or salmon in white wine sauce.’
‘Whole new world, isn’t it, Chas?’ I say. ‘Seems determined to leave us behind. Remember Rose Trevillick? I’ve just read in the paper that she has been fined for feeding the ducks in the park. What is going on?’
Chas does not remember Rose. Or the park.
‘Lenny’s doing well,’ he says. ‘He’ll be really pleased to see you. Keeps talking about the time the two of you took the boat out around the headland that really bad winter.’
Although they are both a little younger than me, I have known Lenny and Chas for over twenty years. The three of us worked shifts together at the china clay factory. Worked might be seen as a euphemism in Chas’s case. He spent most of the time at the factory avoiding it. There is no getting away from it, Chas has always been a rogue. A fabulist too. When you first meet him, you might listen to his stories with rapt attention. Junior billiards champion of the South West. A trial for Plymouth Argyle FC. Original guitarist with the Manic Street Preachers and he had a fling with Kate Bush. To look at Chas, all eighteen stone of him and not an inch over five foot five, you would have to say that this seemed unlikely. After a while, you would take anything Chas said with a pinch of salt.
Lenny, on the other hand, has always been someone on whose word you could rely. He is perhaps impressionable but, unlike Chas, he is as honest as the day is long. If, for instance, Lenny were to tell me the stranger on the beach was Lord Lampton, the peer who in the mid-eighties murdered his wife and then disappeared then I would be looking out for the droves of newspaper hacks who would be on their way. The thing is, Lenny is quite likely to come up with a story like this. Lenny’s hobby is investigating unsolved local mysteries.
Seated outside The Francis Drake, I settle Major Tom down with a pork pie and a bowl of Guinness, and Chas, Lenny and I begin to catch up. Chas tells me that he is back in the music business managing a Kinks tribute band called The Kunts – with a K. He says they are fantastic musicians and the singer looks just like Ray Davies.
‘Only a question of time before they make it,’ he says.
‘You don’t think maybe the name might be a problem,’ I say. ‘I mean, the punk era was 30 years ago.’
‘Not at all mate,’ Chas says. ‘The name’s awesome.’
‘But they will be on the tribute band circuit, won’t they?’ I say. ‘There’s a kind of respectability involved when you book a band at the local community hall.’
‘You know what, Frank?’ he says. ‘You worry too much.’
Chas tells me he has not had a proper job since he was laid off at the china clay factory. He signs on at two different addresses, does cash in hand felt-roofing, and sells knock-off goods and pirated DVDs at car boots. I recollect Ted at the butchers telling me he bought a box of DVDs at a car boot and that he wasn’t able to play them. Chas is so indiscreet. He spends the next ten minutes reeling of a catalogue of scams that he has been engaged in. He has no scruples. No wonder Irene divorced him.
His mobile rings. Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. This gives Lenny the opportunity to tell me about a missing person mystery he has been working on. Ricky Geist, the Cornish actor who he says was on the verge of a career in Hollywood disappeared without trace nearly twenty years ago.
‘You probably don’t even remember him, do you?’ Lenny says.
I tell Lenny I have a vague recollection of someone with a name like Ricky Geist in a series called Shooting Script or something similar.
‘That’s the one,’ Lenny says, apparently thrilled that I can remember. ‘Ricky played Matt Black in Shooting Script. And he was in You Never Can Tell on the BBC. Not the main character admittedly but the feeling was that his star was in the ascendant. Then, just when Hollywood was considering sending its scouts over to sign him up, he disappeared. To this day, Ricky has never been found.’
‘I see,’ I say. I begin to wonder….. What if? Surely it couldn’t be him. Could it? I decide to hear Lenny out before interrupting.
‘But, over the last few months, I’ve heard there have been one or two sightings of him here in the south-west,’ he continues. ‘It’s all a little vague but who knows, perhaps it is just a question of triangulating the locations of the sightings and anticipating his next move.’
‘Does Chas know?’ I ask.
‘No. I haven’t told Chas,’ Lenny says. ‘You know what he’s like. He would ridicule the idea.’
Chas returns from his phone call, grinning all over his face.
‘Sorry guys,’ he says. ‘I’ve got to love you and leave you. I’ve got a date tomorrow. Better have an early night. ……… Oh, go on then! I suppose there’s time for another pint.’
For the rest of the evening, Chas regales us with a treasury of apocryphal tales. There is no chance now to tell Lenny about the mystery man on the beach so I arrange to see him the next day.
Not being used to drinking so much, I have just about recovered and taken Major Tom for a quick walk along the river bank when Lenny calls round late the following afternoon. We both blame the excess on Chas.
‘He’s always been that way,’ Lenny says. ‘Difficult to have just a pint or two when Chas’s around.’
‘Hardly likely to change now, is he?’ I say. ‘What’s this band he was talking about?’
‘There is no band,’ Lenny says. ‘He was just winding you up.’
‘What about his date then?’ I say.
‘Well, he seems to be seeing her today,’ Lenny says. ‘At least that’s what he says. But you can never be sure with Chas.’
‘Another Kate Bush perhaps?’
‘Lives in a fantasy world, doesn’t he?’
‘Always has, always will.’
‘Why not? Hair of the dog.’
We stop off at The Francis Drake. The bar is empty. Errol, the landlord explains how he bought the place for a song, put on tap a good selection of strong ales and farmers’ cider and within a few weeks business was booming, but lately, the pub has been going down the pan. Errol blames it variously on the unnecessary restrictions on the strength of beers and ciders, the recent road closures and Brexit.
‘Chas Filcher is probably my best customer,’ he says. ‘And he’s seeing this new woman today, he tells me.’
‘Not going to bring her in here, is he?’ Lenny says.
‘No. I don’t believe he will,’ Errol says. ‘He said he was taking her to the races.’
Lenny and I take our beers outside and I begin to explain about the stranger on the shore. I can sense his excitement growing.
‘And you reckon this down-and-out might be Ricky?’ Lenny says.
‘I couldn’t say for sure,’ I tell him. ‘But judging by what you’ve been telling me, I think there’s a good chance it could be him.’
‘Well. What are we waiting for?’ he says. ‘Let’s go before someone else discovers him.’
We get into the Lenny’s Hyundai and head towards Carwydden. It is a good mile and a half from the car park down to the beach and as we make our way over the rugged terrain, Lenny chatters excitedly about his successes. His investigations have helped to locate half a dozen missing persons now and is proud of his achievements. He says it has given him a new lease of life. For once, he feels valued.
We arrive at the spot where I would normally find the stranger lurking in the shadows. I am about to point him out when I discover to my dismay, he is not there. He is nowhere to be seen. This sends me into a spin. I do my best to reassure Lenny that he will be around somewhere. We spend the next half hour scouring the shingle beach and surveying the nearby cliff paths but there is no trace of him. Not a single thing to suggest he has ever been there. I feel a burning sense of embarrassment having brought Lenny all the way out here. My apologies along with my insistence that he was here forty eight hours ago land like a lead balloon. Lenny tells me it doesn’t matter but his disappointment is palpable. As we stroll back to the car, he says with what I feel is an air of forced cheeriness, a chuckle even, that he will carry on looking for Ricky Geist. But, I get the impression he no longer requires my help to do so.
Tabloid tendencies have apparently taken over at the South West Examiner. The paper has taken to populating its pages with mindless trivia at the expense of major news. Readers are often left in the dark about important issues. The editorial staff, if indeed there are any, seem slow to pick up on big stories even when they occur close to home.
So, it’s not until a couple of days later that I discover that Lord Lampton’s battered body has been found on a nearby beach. Police are working with witness statements, the article says and are expected to make an arrest soon. I barely have chance to digest the news before the police come knocking at the door. It isn’t P. C. Trescothick and his new lad either. This pair are not from around here. They look as if they might mean business. I find to my horror they are here to arrest me for Lord Lampton’s murder.
Detective Sergeant Blunt, the tall one with the tattoos, reads me my rights.
I protest my innocence. They are quick to counter this. They tell me they have irrefutable evidence.
‘Witnesses from all over the village say you’ve been asking them questions about the stranger down on Carwydden beach’ Blunt says. ‘Mrs Nancarrow says you’ve asked her many times if she knew who the stranger was.’
‘Except he wasn’t a stranger, was he?’ Blunt’s colleague with the facial scar says. I did not catch this one’s name but he certainly looks like a bruiser.
‘I was looking for Ricky Geist,’ I say. ‘We thought the stranger on the beach might have been him.’
‘Would that be the same Ricky Geist who has just won a BAFTA for the acclaimed Channel 4 drama, Disappeared Without Trace?’ Facial Scar says.
‘What?’ I say.
‘Don’t you read the papers?’ he says. ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role for Disappeared Without Trace.’
Lenny, who I have always trusted implicitly wouldn’t play a prank like that on me, would he? How would even have known that I knew nothing about Ricky Geist and why did I pretend that I did? What could he gain from the deception? Unless ….
‘Let’s get back to the murder investigation,’ Blunt says. ‘Spike Mulligan from Trewethin’s Garage tells us you offered him money to do the deed. He says he should have come and told us at the time what you were planning but he was worried he might get detained because he had a record.’
I am flabbergasted. I’ve known these people for years. Why are they incriminating me?
‘And your neighbours, the Duckworths tell us you kept going to Carwydden Cove looking for him,’ Blunt continues. ‘With someone called Tom.’
‘Major Tom,’ I say. ‘Major Tom is my dog.’
‘Yes, that would explain it, ‘ Blunt says. ‘Jack and Vera weren’t very clear about exactly who Tom was.’
‘Errol and Wendy Flynn from The Francis Drake say that they heard you in their bar talking to Lenny Nice about your murder plans,’ Facial Scar says. ‘Lenny tells us that you’ve been talking about it for weeks. And we have CCTV of you doing a reccy on the area with Lenny. Lenny says you made him drive you out there at gunpoint.’
Lenny, probably the most honest man in Cornwall. Lenny, my long-term partner representing The King Billy in darts tournaments. Lenny, who I saved from drowning on that trip around the headland years ago. Something is not right here. Lenny is the last person you would expect to be a backstabber. What in Heaven’s name is going on?
‘But, Lenny has an alibi,’ Blunt says. ‘He was with Chas Filcher at the time it happened. He says he was with him all weekend. They were fishing.’
‘That can’t be right,’ I say. ‘Have you spoken to Chas? What does Chas say?’
‘Chas confirms they were fishing,’ Facial Scar says. ‘He also says that he doesn’t know you.’
Chas and Lenny both doing the dirty on me is not something I could imagine possible. I’ve known the pair of them for twenty years. Then, there are all the other people from the village, who have pointed the finger. People whose houses I have visited, people who have called around for drinks at Christmas, people I have chatted to in the pub. But mostly, Chas and Lenny. With friends like these, as the saying goes. ……….
‘Now that we’ve got all that cleared up, it’s a ride down-town in the back of the car for you,’ Blunt says. ‘As you won’t be getting bail, we’d better drop the dog off at the RSPCA.’
One of the worst things about getting old is that you need lots of naps. I must have dropped off reading the Examiner. It’s here on my lap open at the story about dangerous sinkholes. Thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be anything in the paper about a body found on the beach. It might be an idea though to pop down to Carwydden later with Major Tom to make sure. Perhaps Lenny might like to come. I’d better call him to make sure he hasn’t got the hump with me. To my great relief, the Examiner has nothing about Lord Lampton or the police, just the usual rubbish about celebrity indiscretions and a story on transgender bus drivers. Fake news most of it, my friend, Mark Friday says. I don’t know where that horrible dream came from. Perhaps it was those new tablets Dr Chegwyn put me on for my arthritis.
© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved