Monday, April 20, 2009

Chapter 1.2

The narrow road out to the lighthouse was as deserted as the landscape that marooned it, with only Bill’s once white van breaking the monotony of the grey tarmac.

Scanning the horizon for Sandra’s dark blue Ka, Ronny wondered yet again what had been so important that she should have missed their date, without even letting him know that she wouldn’t be meeting him as arranged.

As they pulled into the car park for the lighthouse even old Bill was looking puzzled when he realised that her Ka was not there. ‘It looks like the Visitor’s Centre is open’ said Bill peering through the rain soaked windscreen ‘Do you want to pop in and see if your missus is inside? Go on mate, I’ll wait here and look after Buster’

Thanking Bill, Ronny pulled the hood up on his jacket and ran towards the open door.

‘Hi Ron’ called the harassed looking middle-aged woman from behind the reception desk.

‘I thought you didn’t work on a Tuesday Mo?’

‘Don’t usually, but when Sally phoned in sick this morning I offered to cover her shift. Is everything OK love, how’s Sandra?’ asked the woman finally looking up from the paper work she had been busy filing away.

Ronny tried to explain his unexpected appearance at the Lighthouse to his wife’s friend as best he could, without sounding a complete fool, but even to his own ears, it sounded ridiculous.  Sandra had left for work this morning, she’d eaten her breakfast, picked up her bag and coat, kissed him on the cheek, reminded him about their lunch date and had driven off in the direction of the Lighthouse.  Never once had she complained about feeling ill and she certainly hadn’t phoned anyone.

‘What time did she ring you Mo?’ asked Ronny

‘Not sure, probably about ten to nine. Yeah, that’s about right, it couldn’t have been before that because I remember saying to my Clive that I would have to get a shake on if I wanted to be in work by half past nine. You don’t think that anything has happened to her do you?’  

‘No, I’m sure she’s fine’ reassuring her when he felt the beginnings of a fear that he wouldn’t allow himself to acknowledge. ‘Maybe she’s gone to our daughter-in-law, probably didn’t want to worry me if she wasn’t feeling too good.’

‘Yeah, that’ll be it.’ Said Mo looking over Ronny’s shoulder seeing a coach party of schoolchildren racing across the rain soaked car park. ‘Sorry Ron but I’ll have to keep me eyes on this lot, the last school party we had in robbed us of all our novelty pencils while my back was turned, little buggers.’ She muttered in that way, that only middle aged woman who has brought up two perfect children can.

Leaving Mo to keep guard over thirty potential kleptomaniacs, Ron ran back to the waiting van.

As they drove back alone the coast road to Littlestone, Ron tried yet again to phone his wife only to be greeted by the same voicemail service as before.  Resisting the urge to shout down the phone demanding an explanation, Ron meekly asked that Sandra should phone him back as soon as she picked up this message. Keep calm, he kept reminding himself, there must be an explanation.  Maybe she left he phone at home, it wouldn’t be the first time, or maybe she had forgotten to charge it up and it was sitting, blank faced, in the bottom of her handbag.  Yes, he thought, that must be it. She must have used it to phone work this morning, there were precious few phone boxes around these days for her to have used one of them.

‘It doesn’t look like your missus is here either.’ Said Bill, pulling-up outside the house on Marine Drive that had been in Ron’s family for two generations.

‘Thanks for the lift Bill, I owe you’ said Ronny pulling a sleepy Buster out of his warm hiding place.

‘No problem mate, you can buy me a pint next time you’re in The Pilot.’

Walking around to the back of the house, leading the still damp dog into the conservatory, Ronny cautiously let himself into the house.

Methodically checking all the rooms downstairs, Ronny could see that everything was as he had left it earlier that morning.  The washed dishes were still on the draining board waiting to be put away, the cushions on the sofa were still plumped up from his early morning housework routine, and Sandra’s heavy coat was still hanging in the cloakroom next to the empty peg where she had taken her raincoat from before leaving for work.  This is madness thought Ronny as he climbed the stairs up to the bedrooms, there must be a rational explanation.  She might just have gone through to see their grandchildren but why didn’t she tell him that what she was planning to do, why had she told him that she was going to work.  This didn’t make sense, after all wives don’t just disappear, other men’s wives’ maybe, but not his Sandra.

Forcing himself to check her wardrobe, afraid that all he might find would be a row of empty coat hangers, Ronny didn’t know whether he was relieved or more anxious to discover that her clothes were still there as usual, nothing was out of place, nothing seemed missing.

Many years ago, as a lowly DC, Ronny had been involved with a number of ‘mispers’ Missing Person cases.  They had for the most part been just like this, no reason why the wife, or husband, shouldn’t be exactly where they always where, no reason anyone could think of for them to go missing. There hadn’t been a row, they didn’t seem unhappy, just one day, out of the blue, they had gone.  Sometimes, for the lucky ones, there was a rational explanation, a missed phone call or a confused message but, sometimes, it was the worst thing that anyone could imagine, the stuff of nightmares.  

No matter how long Ronny sat there on the end of the double bed staring at the phone in his hand, he dreaded making the first call.  He didn’t want to know that his situation was the one that was the unimaginable.  Is this what everybody feels like, he wondered, is this why so many people delay reporting a misper for hours, even days. Were they hoping against hope that their case will be one of the lucky ones’? He new that any minute, Sandra could walk through the door with her hands full of orange Sainsbury’s carrier bags, moaning about how she couldn’t be bothered going to work this morning and how she had spent the morning having coffee with her girlfriends and shopping. So why hadn’t she?  Why was he sitting there alone, hoping for the best but secretly fearing the worst.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chapter 1.1

Ronny Cousins picked up the empty tea cup from his wife’s bedside table and balancing it carefully on top of the full laundry basket carried it all down to the kitchen.  As usual by this time in the morning, Ronny had finished his breakfast and after washing up the dishes and loading the washing machine he was ready to take Buster for his early morning run along the beach.

For ex- Detective Inspector Cousins life had become very predictable since his retirement for the Kent Police, housework, cooking, walking the dog, weekly visits to the library and 18 holes of golf three times a week with some of his old pals from the force.  So far he had resisted the temptation to find himself a nice little job in one of the many security firms that some of his old colleagues have been busy setting up.  He had even managed to convince Sandra that he was happy to take over the lion’s share of running the house while she carried on with her part time job as a receptionist at the lighthouse in Dungeness.

The only person left to convince was himself.   It was easier during the summer months. Then it felt like he was on extended leave with picnics at High Weald and day trips across to France with Sandra.  Ronny was content to let the strain of 35 years of policing seep out of his body as his pale skin had tanned to a gentle honey brown.  Looking in the mirror each morning was enough to reassure himself that he had made the right decision in taking early retirement, his shoulders that were once hunched through tension and tiredness were now thrown back and muscular with days spent playing golf and his eyes once hooded and shadowed now were bright as if they had seen for the first time the beauty that had been hidden to him for so long.  But now, in the depths of the coldest winter in living memory, Ronny was beginning to wonder if he self imposed exile from the world of work was such a good idea.

Buster’s nose was twitching as he scoured the beach at Littlestone for what ever it is old Labradors are looking for beneath the cobblestones.  Ronny pulled his scarf higher around his mouth as the biting wind blew in from the channel and he set off a pace along the shore line forcing Buster to leave his trail and run after his master.  It was foolish to linger too long on such a cold day and Ronny was looking forward to a pint at the Pilot Inn before his lunch date with Sandra.

Ronny was surprised when Sandra had suggested this lunch together, after all these years together he couldn’t remember the last time they had had lunch together  He still wondered whether Sandra had resented the hours he had spent at work when the boys were little, bringing up a family when you’re married to a copper can’t have been easy, he thought, but Sandra had never complained and the boys didn’t seem to resent the fact that the job had to come first, although neither of them had followed him into the Police. Martin had a good job up in London with a foreign bank while George was happy teaching in a private school just outside Hythe.  Ronny was proud of his boys and doted on his three little grandchildren, Sandra would have liked to see more of them but as he was always telling her, you have to let them live their own lives.  

Sandra had been a good Mum, always there when the boys came home from school, always ready to drive them to their football practice or sit in the sailing club with a flask of hot chocolate and dry clothes for them to change into when they came back from sailing the small two man rigger that Ronny had managed to get them from an old pal of his.  He supposed that it wasn’t surprising that when they had gone off to University that Sandra had felt so bereft.  The boys had been her life’s work and now they didn’t need her any more, well not until they came home with rucksacks groaning with dirty washing begging for her home cooking. It was after the boys had left home that Sandra had started looking for a job. 

Ronny wondered if it was selfish of him to think that after the boys had gone that Sandra would have been happy just to have more time for him.  He had hoped that she would have planned her shopping trips to Ashford to coincide with his meal breaks so that they could have spent time together in one of the few pubs not frequented by the Kent constabulary but Sandra had worried that any plans they made would be ruined if he was called back to the station.  She hadn’t been married to a DI in the Murder Squad for so many years to think that he would be able to take an extended lunch break whenever it suited him.  

Walking around the bay towards Dungeness the wind seemed to be getting colder and even Buster was being buffeted along the beach. As the sand whipped up into his face, Ronny could feel his eyes stinging with the sea spray and not for the first time this week, secretly longed to be back in his warm office surrounded by his old team, busy working away in front of their computer screens.  That’s the trouble with bloody television, he mumbled to Buster through his scarf, everyone thinks that a Bobby is only busy when he is chasing after the bad guys in a high speed car chase or standing in a muddy field shouting to a pathologist for a precise time of death, blood fools, he shouted to the wind, all the pathologists he’d ever worked with would have been more likely to say ‘how the fuck do I know’.  What the general public didn’t realise was that most of police work is dull.  It’s time spent sitting in front of a computer screen, accessing databases, looking for patterns, reading reports and compiling lists.  The days of a DI standing in front of his team screaming for results was, if they ever existed at all,  long gone.  Twenty first century policing is methodical, planned and costed down to the last penny and god forbid if a case should ever go over budget, Sherlock Holmes would be spinning in his grave, he laughed to himself.

With the welcome sight of the pub coming into view Ronny checked his watch, he had made good time and with any luck would arrive at The Pilot just as Michelle was opening up the bar.  The thought of that first pint of Theakstones Old Peculiar drove Ronny along across the beach onto the scrub land boarding the pub with Buster racing along after him, he knew that he had about 10 minutes to down his pint and get the food ordered before Sandra arrived.  As he walked into the bar Ronny saw that only one other windswept bugger had beaten him  to the first pint of the day, Bill Drapper, still dressed in his yellow waterproof fishing trousers, was perched on the bar stool next to the door with a freshly pulled pint of special  grasped in his gnarled hands.

The Pilot was still a favourite haunt of the local fishermen as it had been since 1633 when the first bar on the site was built from the wreck of the Spanish vessel Alfresia which had been lured aground and looted of it’s cargo of spirits by local smugglers.  Most of the new incomers to Dungeness thought that the days of smugglers were long gone, but Ronny’s time on the force had shown him that smuggling was still alive and flourishing despite the endeavours of the Kent police and the ever vigilant coast guards.  With the coast of France only 30 miles away the smuggling these days tended to be of the human rather than spirit variety.  It seems that England is still a country where the poor of Eastern Europe think that they can start a better life.

With the skate and chips on order and Buster fast asleep at his feet, Ronny settled down to wait for Sandra to arrive.  Even on a bitterly cold Monday in January The Pilot could expect a decent smattering of lunch time clientele attracted by the promise of well kept real ale and lovingly prepared freshly cooked fish.   As the door opened the icy blast from the channel raced into the bar and Ronny recognised the men as workers from the now decommissioned Nuclear Power Station at Dungeness.  Glancing again at his watch Ronny was surprised to see that at nearly 12.30 Sandra was running late, at this rate she would barely have time to finish her lunch before she had to rush off back to work. 

Pulling his mobile phone from the pocket of the new walking jacket that had been a Christmas present from Sandra he checked to see if he had missed a call from her.  

‘What do you want to do about your fish Ron?’ asked young Hannah who had arrived at the table struggling to carry the massive portions of freshly friend skate wings ‘do you want me to pop them in the oven until Sandra get here?’

‘Thanks Love, that’ll be great.  I don’t know what’s keeping her.’

‘Probably stuck with some daft tourists who don’t want to go back outside in this bloody weather.  My Mum recons it’s cold enough for snow.’

‘You’re probably right.  I’ll give her ring though, just to see if she’s OK’

As the young waitress carried the steaming plates back into the kitchen, Ron pressed the speed dial for Sandra’s mobile.  After only five rings the irritatingly cheerful voice of the voicemail service instructed him to leave a message after the beep. 

‘Where the bloody hell are you? Your dinner’s getting cold here. I hope you didn’t forget that we had a lunch date for twelve o’clock today?’ snapped Ronny, despite his intention of leaving a more loving message.   He didn’t mean to be short with his wife but lately he had found himself getting more and more irritated by her vagueness, it was as if she wasn’t all together with it sometimes. 

He had caught her last night staring out of the window at the coal black sky, and when after at least five minutes he had asked her what she was looking at she had turned to him as if she didn’t recognise him and shaking her head had answered ‘nothing’. No explanation, no conversation even, just the one word ‘nothing’ before she shrugged off her dressing gown and climbed into bed.

Ronny had moved across the bed to cuddle into her curled body, but her cold arms had pulled away from him and turning her back to him she switched off her bedside lamp and fell silent.  In the morning Ronny had slipped out of bed to go downstairs to make the tea. 

As he carried the steaming cups back into the bedroom Sandra had been sitting up propped against the snowy white pillowcase smiling as if the night before had never happened.  Ronny wondered, not for the first time, if it was him that was going mad or was it just a bad dream that his wife could turn from him as if he meant no more to her than an irritating smell?

With no sign of Sandra’s car pulling into the large car park and her lunch hour ticking away, Ronny pulled on his coat and fastened Buster’s lead back onto his collar.

‘Sorry about this Michelle’ he said to the bar maid as he made his way through the bar ‘I don’t know what’s happened to Sandra. I’m going to try and make my way out to the lighthouse and see if I can catch her.’

‘Do you want a lift Ronny? I’ve got the motor outside’ asked Bill struggling down from the high bar stool with his van keys jangling from his finger

Deciding that even a lift in Bill’s old van was preferable to braving the icy winds, Ronny thanked him as he bundled Buster into the well under the front passenger seat and settled himself the best he could onto the old potato sack that served as a seat cover in Bill’s smelly van.

‘Sorry about the pong’ said Bill as he fired the engine and pulled left out of the pub car park ‘didn’t get a chance to scrub it out after I delivered this morning’s catch to the fish market’

Even on a day as cold and windy as this, the enormous sky over Britain’s only dessert at Dungeness was as ethereal as if it had been painted by Monet himself.