Extracts

A few readers have found it difficult to get through the first thirty pages of the book – in which the three main narrators are introduced – whereas others dive into the story right from the start. So for what it’s worth, we’ll kick off the ‘Extracts’ page with these same thirty pages. They divide into three repeated sections, one for the main narrator (‘I Was Twelve’), another for the racist doctor who is looking after him (‘Im Not A’); and a third for the African infiltrator within the village (Log of Progress’). (Indentations and spacing differ slightly from the published version). Please (please!) feel free to post any comments on the home page blog. (The photo below, by the way, is of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, one of several models for the novel’s fictional – and much smaller – village of Coldwater Bay).

 

 ven4jan2001withboats còpia

 

I WAS TWELVE

(Friday, April 12th)

This was back in the nineteen-seventies, when they didn’t have global communications systems of any kind—we civilians didn’t at any rate—no mobiles, no sat-navs, no internet, no bloody, bloody glib e-mail abbreviations like ASAP, no bloody, bloody snappy e-mail sign-offs such as ‘Best’. All we had then were telephones, some of them in our homes and some of them outdoors, in red steel-and-glass cabins that frequently whiffed of piss.

I was twelve, and torn between grubbing down in the dirt and playing with Action Men (getting their stiff plastic fingers round their Armalites, twisting their torsos so they fit snugly into their snipers’ lairs); and higher things, like Lucy, who was fourteen, and whose pale face with its thin eyebrows and its swishing frame of long black hair was like a door leading to a great outdoors whose unknown scenery, enticing and alarming, was hinted at on those rare occasions when she smiled.

When Lucy was around I felt silly as silly could be when handling my dolls and simulating machine-gun fire with Roger, who was also twelve but who didn’t seem to understand that when Lucy appeared, our job was to leave our childish things behind and jump up like two sharp little soldiers and be charming and gallant, and offer to show her and her friend Eileen a bit of judo. That they found quite interesting, though they drew the line at the ground holds, which I dearly wanted to do with Lucy as it involved us boys getting down on the grass and slipping our arms under the armpits and thighs of the girls, but no, they were having none of it.

Eileen was a red-haired freckled girl of thirteen who was Lucy’s best friend, despite them being as different as chalk and cheese. I suspect Roger had a crush on her though I couldn’t see what he saw in her; I mean, she was such a child. Roger, by the way, wasn’t my best friend, nor me his, but we got on well together even though I found him a bit of a bore sometimes because he used to get fixed ideas into his head such as the one that a penny was a very important thing, just as important as a pound in its way, something which seemed to fascinate him, to go by the amount of times he would repeat himself on this question as if struck by a revelation. ‘Struck’ here is only an approximation to what really happened to Roger, who was a pondering type (with cheeks that wobbled a touch when he spoke), the type who liked to mull things over in his spare time, the type who never really got struck by anything, in fact, in whom ideas emerged slowly, like vegetables from the soil, and then wedged themselves in his brainpan, apparently for good, which meant that I had to have a certain amount of patience with Roger. Though I dare say he also had to have a certain amount of patience with me; about what I have no idea: I was as blissfully unaware of my faults as he of his.

Roger and I knew each other from school: a preparatory school in London, one of those miniature snob factories that plagued and still plague the English educational system and that was already well on the way to turning the two of us into insufferable little prigs. Not that we were conscious of that at the time, no, we were snug as bugs in a rug in the world such as we had been given to understand it, and never snugger than during that Easter holiday in 1974 when Lucy’s mum and dad, together with her brother, who was in the paratroopers—something which thrilled Roger and me—made a deal with my, Eileen’s and Roger’s parents (who they knew) to look after all us children for a fortnight on the Isle of Wight.

Lucy’s dad, Dr Whitebone, had chosen a small seaside resort on the Isle’s south-west coast, Coldwater Bay, which he described to us, chuckling, upon our arrival: No silly theme parks in good old Coldwater Bay, no glass-blowing festivals, no half-baked miniature funfairs, no old biddies stirring natural dairy fudge in unhygienic vats; none of the usual touristy nonsense one normally finds laid on in every nook and cranny of the Isle of Wight for those Below Our Class; here in Coldwater Bay there’s just the essentials: one tea shop, one fish and chip restaurant, one sweet shop for you children and one pub for us grown-ups—a quick wink startled us from the top right-hand corner of his face: It’s almost virgin territory; wonderful place. He paused, then leaned forward over the table where we were all munching away, and stage-whispered: What’s more, it’s British to a fault. He rubbed his hands together and barked out a laugh dry as a dog biscuit. Mrs Whitebone was busying herself with unpacking Roger’s shirts: Now, John, don’t start.

The Whitebones had rented one entire house not far off the high street of Coldwater Bay; the place was pastel-coloured inside and out; I can’t remember what the colours were. The wallpaper in our bedrooms—of which Roger and I shared one, Eileen and Lucy another, Dr and Mrs Whitebone another, whereas Simon the paratrooper had the smallest bedroom all to himself (he didn’t mind, he assured his mother, that it was barely a cupboard: This is luxury compared to what you get in the army)—the wallpaper in our bedrooms, I say, was of a bland colour, the Formica on the large kitchen table where we ate our meals was bland, indeed the floors, the walls and ceiling of every room in that building couldn’t possibly have been blander.

Once we’d wolfed down our cheese and biscuits, Mrs Whitebone said she was going to go shopping for essentials and would anyone like to come. Lucy and Eileen both shot up their hands. I turned to Roger, my voice betraying eagerness: What d’you reckon, Rodge? Give them a hand with the carrier bags?

Well I’m not going to have much fun here on my own, am I?

The five of us walked into Coldwater Bay’s Easter air. The blood in our cheeks heightened by the breeze, we walked along our street, which contained houses similar in size, shape and style to the one we had rented, all with equally similar seaside names: —Sandy Cove, Ocean Vista, Beachhead House (ours was called Seaview Heights).

Mrs Whitebone stopped a passer-by: Excuse me, is there a grocer’s near here?

It was in the next street up, on a corner.

Roger and I had been talking about the relative merits of the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and the girls had also been chatting about something or other amongst themselves, but as soon as Mrs Whitebone pushed the door, tinkling its bell, and we trooped into the shop—crammed grotto-full with a huge array of foods, household goods and beverages—we shut up, impressed by the silence and the lack of elbow room. A full minute went by before the shopkeeper appeared.

He had a powder-puff pale face, and would have been coot-bald but for a few wisps of hair that dangled off his occiput. He wore a beige surcoat with several biros lined up in its chest pocket. On seeing us, he broke into a smile that sent creases running off to the edges of his face as if under orders: Good morning. Mrs Whitebone nodded, her voice cheery as wedding bells: Good morning! She proceeded to order, and the shopkeeper sought out the items. She glanced at the space reserved for newspapers, to the left of the till: Is that the only one you’ve got? The man nodded: Have to go to Brook or Freshwater for the London dailies; we only stock the local paper. He held one up high. It was called the Coldwater Bay Parish Press.

No, thank you.

Once we kids were out of there, with a carrier bag each, Lucy whispered loudly to Eileen: What a creepola! Eileen giggled. Lucy went on: Did you see his eyes? I think he’s on something.

         Eileen shrugged: Maybe he’s a homeopath.

         Roger turned to her: What’s a homeopath?

Eileen glared at his interrupting mouth: Pa says they’re mad people who take little white pills that all look the same.

Mrs Whitebone turned to Eileen with a frown: Now, now, Eileen, there is something to be said for homeopathy. Her tongue slid briefly over her lower lip. That is one of the things my husband and I are in agreement upon.

Noting our silence, she blurted: Come on, I’ll treat you to an ice cream! She led the way into the high street, which swooped all the way down to the esplanade. At the bottom, a coloured man in yellow PVC overalls was sweeping the pavement.

No sooner had we stepped onto the esplanade and looked over its balustrade at the thin stretch of sandy beach that lay between us and the water (its shifting bulk redoubtable, the air coursing off its surface into our faces) than I, for one, felt suddenly happy, happy as could be that there were places like this, places where there was nothing else to do but be beside the seaside at the edge of a seaside town, where we could but sip pop and suck rock and sup on battered fish when we weren’t looking at the ocean, when we weren’t breathing in this breeze. Mrs Whitebone spotted an ice cream machine: Come on, everyone!

It stood by the entrance to a sweet and souvenir shop, out of which an old lady emerged to serve us. The ice creams were of the Mr Whippy type that wasted no time in melting, so I gobbled mine down quick, the ice cream forming a satisfying lump of cold in my stomach. I stared at the shop window, which was framed by two iron arches painted blue, with its display of marzipan bacon and eggs, pink sticks of rock, of postcards showing four different views squeezed together and all but hidden by the words ‘Coldwater Bay’. There were also novelty items: black kiss-me-quick hats, and severed fingers and false fangs that hung together in plastic sachets sealed by cardboard labels showing cartoon drawings of alarmed prank victims who even I knew—from their clothes and haircuts—were stuck back in the 1950s.

What with the ice cream in my belly and the esplanade and with the beach below it and the white cliffs stretching away off to its right, westward, I found it an enticing place, Coldwater Bay, and I felt it was going to be a great time we would all have there. With the added perk, for me, of Lucy’s presence.

We knew nothing, nothing at all. We took for granted that our lives were ours and ours alone and would run their natural course.

Cheers.

I was twelve. And as I have already said, I was happy, thrilled, sound as a bell and rock steady on my feet. My mind back then was as bone-clean as the breeze. The world reveals itself gradually to most, the sweet things apparent first and its bitterest ingredients making their taste known later on. I had the misfortune to have the lot shoved down my gullet in one go. I was twelve.

+++++++++

LOG OF PROGRESS

(Friday 12th)

My bedsit, rented from the owner of the shop below, is cosy, with two electric hobs and a baby fridge and few chances of arousing suspicion given that in this land shopkeepers are discerning pillars of the community who surely wouldn’t play host to anyone unsavoury.

I just laughed to myself. I’ve got to watch that laugh: it’s the only part of me that doesn’t pass. Got to slap my hand over that mouth of mine, before someone catches on.

No sooner had I darkened his doorstep than my tripe-complexioned landlord offered to help me with my case, but I insisted my way out of it. I’d already lugged it to the top of the stairs, when, for politeness’ sake, he added:

Are you quite sure, sir?

Oh these people, mungu, these people.

The room’s small and smells of dust. A sash window gives onto a view of a sash window opposite. Once in, I dumped the case on the bed and popped down to pay a month in advance, cash. He asked, voice quiet as ants, where I was from, and I spun my yarn: my father was Welsh—in the military—and my mother Italian, and as for me, I was born in Kenya, where my father happened to be stationed at the time.

He counted the wad.

Ah, I thought I couldn’t place your accent.

No, it’s a bit of a mishmash.

All in order.

He stuffed the notes into his sepia jacket.

Well, going to have a bit of a lie-down now.

Good idea, sir.

‘Mishmash’. ‘Lie-down’. I hope I’m getting my language right.

 

*

 

The day before I left for England, Mzee patted my tense and nervous shoulder:

Listen Jonas, if that fat mkundu Jay Edgar Hoover managed to pass for half a century, then you’re certainly going to make it for a fortnight: you’re credible as hell.

So far I have indeed passed, as it were, with flying colours: the pert complicity of the pink-faced passport officers at the airport; the way people sat down next to me on the Tube without a moment’s hesitation; my not feeling a draft from a white soul, in fact, since arrival.

 

*

 

After my lie-down I went out, double-locking the door.

I glanced at my picture of respectability in the hall mirror.

Memories blew in. The usual.

Being made to have dawn intercourse with a hole dug out of dry earth, stark naked; being told to thump children with tree branches; walking into hospital wards, machete in hand.

I purchased sweaters, shirts and a duffle coat from the menswear shop on the high street. People treat me exactly—exactly!—as if I were one of them. Feeling peckish—’peckish’—I went into the tea shop two doors down, ordered scones and tea, took a table by the window and watched the passers-by.

Flattish-faced young women; a few families, the fathers taciturn, the mothers berating their children for behaving like children; sullen youths in bomber jackets. A stout, slow-walking policeman.

I felt what aliens must feel when they fall to Earth and see these beings who also have arms and hands and legs and feet and heads and necks, but are in fact quite, quite unalike.

Freckled people who have spent centuries spinning a cocoon in which there is only room for them.

I watched them swim past, exhaling bubbles abrupt as hiccups, hair flowing in the liquid air.

For now, I am alone.

I paid and left. Maybe I should’ve added ‘goodbye’ or ‘take care’ or ‘cheers’. (What is done?)

I popped into the sweet shop and then into the fish and chip shop, further up the esplanade.

They had received plentiful goods deliveries just before the Easter break, to cope with the extra trickle of holidaymakers: hardly any, in fact, Coldwater Bay not having the amenities of the main Wight resorts. This year, according to the chip shop woman, there are barely any due to the poor weather; what’s more, the long-threatened postal and transport workers’ strike—which we had been counting on—has finally been declared, so: for a month there’ll be no more mail or goods delivery vans.

Back in the bedsit, I open my case and assemble the coil, buzzer, key and batteries. It’s unhandy, this device, a right royal pain in the bottom, in fact. Our very own design. Slowly, as I do not wish to and indeed must not make any mistakes, I Morse in the first daily report—the layout of the village and my impressions, as culled from these selfsame notes—signing off with a tag plucked out of several fluttering in my head.

Anger, source of all things.

 

+++++++++

 

I’M NOT A

(Friday 12th)

 

Some people might think I’m obsessed with the issue. But once one has latched onto a truth, knowing it to be whole and nothing but, and when hardly anyone else seems to give a tinker’s cuss about it, then it is surely only natural that it becomes the biggest bee in one’s bonnet.

The problem is that the right-thinking Left have made it impossible to open up a healthy debate on the issue. As soon as they detect so much as a smidgen of anything that goes against their bloody dogmas, they start their jeering and sneering. Such ostracism, coming from the great unwashed, is quite intolerable.

 

*

 

I spotted a Negroid gentleman when driving in: the first and only one, indeed, that I have set eyes upon since our arrival in Coldwater Bay; he was working his broom hither and thither, brushing a pile of leaves off the street into the gutter.

How can people remain oblivious to the obvious? Is the fecklessness of him and his type not glaringly plain? Is it not clear from a glance at their eyes, opaque as baubles? From those sudden smiles that break out from their sullen faces for no apparent reason? Is it not clear to all but the blind from birth, I ask myself, that the womenfolk are of service to them only as peripatetic incubators and that the menfolk carry their medulla oblongata between their legs rather than their ears?

I confess I have never addressed more than a few brief words with one. Attempting a full-blown conversation must be a trial I have no intention of putting myself through: I imagine one would have to painstakingly measure one’s syllables; rather as I had to do with the mentally incapacitated unfortunates I treated in my student days, during the obligatory psychiatric stint.

+++++++++

I WAS TWELVE

(Friday 12th)

 Our ice creams finished, we trooped back to the rented house, to Seaview Heights, where Dr Whitebone and Simon the paratrooper were sitting at ease at the kitchen table, the former puffing at his pipe, the latter dragging on a fag.

Mrs Whitebone spearheaded our entrance, plonking down the shopping bags and hand-fanning her face: You might open the window from time to time—there’s the most tremendous fug in here! Dr Whitebone leered at her, head cocked to one side: A tremendous WHAT, dear? Mrs Whitebone frowned: You heard me, a tremendous then grimaced at her husband: Oh, John, REALLY! Simon let off an in-the-know laugh that sounded like me and Roger’s machine-gun imitations: Hur-hur-hur-hur.

Puzzled, I looked at Roger, but he was dead to the world, probably thinking—as was then our wont—about war. I turned to the girls. Lucy was staring into space, cheeks flushing.

Mrs Whitebone looked at her watch: Goodness gracious, almost time for supper. Simon stubbed out his ciggy in an ashtray that was already chock-full of butts: Dad and I were thinking of going for a pint. Mrs Whitebone put her hands on her hips: Oh, very nice, and leave me here to prepare the supper for the children and then a separate one for you two when you eventually come home! Dr Whitebone did a palms-down calming gesture: I noticed the local pub serves food and has an outside terrace for the kiddies; we could all have supper there and give our resident chef a bit of a break; it’s our first day here, after all.

Mrs Whitebone turned to us: Would you like that? Lucy? Lucy smiled and nodded, and we followed her cue.

As for herself, Mrs Whitebone declined: I’m not much of a pub person. The rest of us—that is, me, Roger, Lucy, Eileen, Lucy’s father and her brother Simon—set off, wrapped up in our padded anoraks; Lucy’s, a fetching electric blue.

The houses had taken on a grey hue in the retiring light. We headed for the high street, then turned left.

The pub was a phony castle of a type I knew—from having read ‘101 Dalmatians’—was called a folly. Dr Whitebone waved at the half dozen empty wooden tables on its front lawn: Sorry, kiddikins, but we can’t go indoors; the law’s the law.

Roger ordered a Coke, and Eileen, an orange juice. I waited to hear what Lucy wanted: Ginger beer, please, Dad. Dr Whitebone turned to me. As nonchalantly as I could, I said: Make that two.

Simon and Dr Whitebone, going in, unleashed a flurry of chuckles and orangey light.

They reappeared within minutes, clutching drinks. I reached out for my ginger beer, meaning to help Simon because he was carrying four glasses at once, but, not seeing my proffered help, he went ahead with landing the lot on his own, which meant my hand went clunk into my drink, tipping it over and spilling its contents onto the table. Mortified, I had to make an effort not to glance Lucy’s way. Dr Whitebone said: Not to worry, and Simon stood up: I’ll get a cloth.

When Simon put down a fresh ginger beer on the table, Eileen was whispering: Wow, look at those people. Past the garden walked a most exotic-looking family, the father wearing a long white garment, with what I later learnt was called a gutra held down firmly on his crown. Next to him was his wife, presumably, her face surrounded by a sort of wimple. Walking behind them were two children, a girl and a boy who were five or six, both dressed pretty much the way we had been at their age.

A woman came out of the pub and set to cleaning the table surface with a grey cloth: Well, that lot won’t be coming in here, that’s for sure.

Why’s that, Dad?

Dr Whitebone laughed: Arabs don’t drink alcohol, Lucy; it’s against the Muslim code. The woman finished her wiping: Making money certainly bleeding isn’t: they’re rich as Croesus, that lot, got the big house on the Rise.

Do you mean that squarish building one passes on the way into Coldwater Bay?

She nodded: Proper manse it is; used to belong to the Stocksides before the last lord and heir made some dodgy investments; so now it’s the sheik’s got it. She gave a last token rub of the table: There you go.

Dr Whitebone and Simon set to their pints. Each time they went into get another round—which struck me as being pretty often—they asked us if we wanted anything else ourselves, but we declined, trained as we had all been to make our drinks last as long as possible. After a few attempts at our own conversations (me with Roger, Lucy with Eileen) we kids fell silent, inhibited by the ever louder chit-chat of the men.

Then Lucy stood up: I think I’ll go for a walk. The chatting stopped. Dr Whitebone pointed at her: I’d feel happier if you all kept each other company, just for safety’s sake. Lucy looked at the rest of us: Well then, are you coming or not?

Roger got slowly to his feet: Where are we off to? Lucy shrugged: To the beach, I suppose.

As long as it’s somewhere we can keep an eye on you.

Lucy narrowed hers: At the rate you’re going, pretty soon you won’t be able to keep an eye on anything, Dad. Dr Whitebone raised a mock-threatening fist: Get along with you!

We headed out of the pub garden. The streetlamps flickered on as we waited for a couple of cars to pass; we crossed over to the esplanade. The sky was a light shade of purple.

We leaned on the railing, and stared at the thread dividing sea and sky. Some stars had cropped up, along with half the moon. Back then, my moods would shift wholesale, like speeded-up tides: at that moment, for example, I was beset by a feeling of full-blown self-confidence, sure that I could do anything, anything at all—be a decision-maker in a dark suit in a light-filled, plush-carpeted, phone-filled office on the Continent; or a Caribbean scuba-diver, thoughts drifting amongst the highlighted fish; or just be me, myself and I, the immediate but discreet centre of attention on the part of curious girls and envious boys; or reaching out in the here and now and kissing Lucy on the lobe of her ear that now was less than a foot’s distance from my lips. And then came another shift, as it hit me that nothing I could do would make an iota of difference to the quiet, patient, indifferent ink-and-blotter of sea and sky, and that I should move not one muscle so as to concentrate on that stretch of water overviewed by that expanse of air.

What are we doing here? I thought the idea was to go down to the beach.

We followed a mildly irritated Roger down the nearest steps, and padded towards the sea. A streetlamp shone yellow light over the sand.

We skirted an empty skiff, reached the edge, and contemplated this particular section of the English Channel as it dozed beast-like in the dark, our hair tinted fair from the electric light behind, our faces pale from the moonlight ahead. Here and there I could make out a sloping wave.

Roger visored his eyes: I think there’s something in the water.

Eileen peered, face squeezed up: And I think you’re seeing things, Rodge. I was about to second her when Lucy said, her voice pitched rather high: He’s right, there IS something.

Where?

Wait, it’s gone; no, there! I ran my line of sight off the tip of her finger: there was indeed some kind of object (not reflected light, not surfaced seaweed) in the water.

Lucy peered hard: I’ve no idea what that is; maybe I should tell Dad and Simon.

She made a beeline for the steps, skipped up to the esplanade, and waved at the pub terrace from there.

 

 

*

 

Dr Whitebone stared at the sea, his jury still out: There’s always plenty of debris floating about in the Channel, you know, nothing that— Lucy pointed again: Over there, there! Dr Whitebone and Simon put their hands on their hips and looked in the indicated direction. The object had got closer.

Dr Whitebone opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.

What do you reckon, Simon?

Reminds me of something I once saw in Ulster, Dad, if you get my meaning.

Really?

I’m pretty certain, but let’s just wait a bit: the tide’s bringing it in.

I’m not sure how much silent time passed before I heard barked, male shouts, loud as loud could be, me not realising at first that they were directed at us.

GET BACK TO THE HOUSE NOW! RIGHT NOW!

Lucy wanted to negotiate: Daaad… but Dr Whitebone wouldn’t stop roaring: DO AS I SAY! RIGHT THIS INSTANT!

OK, Dad, OK…

We strode pretty calmly back to the esplanade (the grown-ups’ fluster notwithstanding). Just before setting foot on the steps that led up from the sand, I peeked behind me. The object was a few yards from the beach—a poorly lit lump I simply could not identify—drifting in.

 

*

 

When we went down for breakfast the next morning, Lucy’s Dad and Simon and Mrs Whitebone had formed a compact group at the far side of the table; Lucy’s mum was reading the spread-out newspaper over the two men’s pressed shoulders. Her husband pointed at the print: What do you think this armband business is about? Simon shrugged: Search me.

The previous night, we had told Mrs Whitebone about the odd thing we’d seen in the water, but she’d made light of it: I hope those bad little boys of mine (an odd way, I thought, of referring to her husband, who was ancient by my standards of the time, and her son, who bore arms) haven’t been plying you with spirits. Then she’d whipped us up some Horlicks before shooing us off to bed, it being late for us.

Sealed off in our shared bedroom, me and Roger had speculated in whispers for an hour or so. Roger’s theory was that the object was an Atlantic jellyfish of the umbrella type, the biggest of its species known to man. My own, tamer, theory was that it was a capsized boat returning finally to shore. We mulled over other, increasingly improbable, possibilities, until our ideas petered out.

The morning after, no sooner had he and I bumbled into the kitchen and overheard Dr Whitebone and Simon saying something about armbands, than Mrs Whitebone cried out: Time for brekkie! The concentrated frown on her face transformed on the instant into a beam as Dr Whitebone folded up the paper quickly: Hello, boys! We were sitting down before our bowls of Weetabix when the girls came in. Mrs Whitebone plonked two more bowls and a pyramid of Long Life milk on the table, its tip snipped off.

Lucy looked over at her father and brother: Anything in the paper about that thing we spotted in the sea? Dr Whitebone stared at her: What thing? Now that was a bit thick, even for us. Dad! Last night! That object that was in the water and you told us all to run back to the house. Remember?

Her father nodded: Oh, that.

Well, what was it?

Simon and I couldn’t identify it before it floated off; probably just a piece of driftwood.

I marvelled at his ease of fibbing. Simon stood up: Right, I’m off for a shit. Mrs Whitebone ticked him off: Really Simon, we’re not in the barracks now, you know, but he was already out of sight, off to his ‘shit’.

Dr Whitebone stood up in his turn, took the folded paper from the table, left the kitchen, and clonked upstairs. Mrs Whitebone said, in that bright way that was starting to grate on my nerves: I need a volunteer to go out and get some bread, please! I put my hand up.

Good for you!

She took out her purse and counted out some coins and said: The exact amount for a loaf; we Whitebones are firm believers in thriftiness, you know, upon which Roger dug into his back pocket and whipped out a booklet with a picture of a green box stuffed with glittering electrical appliances on its cover: Do they give Green Shield stamps? He held up the last page: I’ve almost got a full book. Mrs Whitebone was taken aback for a second: We’re only buying a loaf, Roger; anyway, I don’t think they have Green Shield down here.

A penny is just as important as a pound, if you think about it.

He stuffed his saver book away. Then, to my surprise, Lucy stuck her own hand up: Is it OK if I go along? I feel like a bit of a walk.

If you wish.

We stepped out into the brisk air, Lucy and I, this being the first time the two of us had found ourselves on our tod. I, of course, was all a-quiver. A block from the shop, Lucy tapped my arm: You’re not going to spend that money on bread, I hope? I stopped and looked at her look of complicity, with not a clue as to what she was being complicit about. I kept my eyes wide and bright to give the impression I had hopped up onto her wavelength: You mean…? She nodded: The local paper! So she too had smelt a parental rat. We resumed our walking pace. Of course, I said, but what about the loaf? Your mum gave me the exact amount, and if I don’t come back with it she’ll start asking questions.

Don’t worry, everything’s under control.

She dug a hand into her pocket and jingled some change. I tried to keep the surprise out of my voice: Where did you get all that from?

She stage-whispered: Don’t tell anybody.

OK.

She weighed me up for a second, wondering, perhaps, if I could handle the next bit of news: I borrowed it from Mum’s purse. Confiding, she was CONFIDING in me! I did my best charming eyebrow raise: Oh. In fact, if one had to call a spade a spade, this was stealing she was talking about. Her confiding, her wonderful confiding, continued: I mean, what can I do? Even though I’m fourteen now, Mum’s still tighter than a gnat’s bottom, moneywise; after all, I have expenses, just like anyone else.

The shop door opened with its tinkle and out came a customer in a duffle coat that looked way too big for him.

The shopkeeper had a book open on the counter, his eyes locked onto the text, his lips twitching as he read. Lucy nudged me and nodded at the counter space where the local paper lay. I picked a copy from the top. The man glanced up from his book: Paper? Lucy said: Yes, and where can I find the bread? The man pointed: Right behind you, my dear.

I noticed from its layout that the man’s book was a Bible. The man noticed me noticing: A Christian, are we?

His voice was the spoken equivalent of Vaseline.

I suppose so.

Lucy placed a loaf of sliced on the counter. The shopkeeper went on, as if repeating something learnt by rote: You could as easily be a Muslim, as far as I’m concerned; or a Hindu; or a Jew; the Bible ain’t the only holy book, you know. Seeing that he expected me to respond, I said: Ah. A smile thin as wire drew itself across his face: Sometimes I read the Koran; sometimes I try and struggle through a bit of the Talmud or the Ramayana; they all say the same thing, deep down, you know. Lucy broke in: How much is that altogether, please?

Forty-seven pee.

She turned to me: How much have you got? I opened my palm. Lucy scooped the coins from my hand, added one of her own and handed them over: All right? The man nodded: That’s fine, thank you. Lucy took the newspaper and the loaf and gave me a let’s-go look.

A few yards up the road, we found a low stone wall belonging to a front yard and sat down, a mere six inches between our bums.

         What an odd man, didn’t you think?

She placed the Coldwater Bay Parish Press on joined knees and pointed at an item: ‘What a wash-up! Boy found. Centre pages’. She flicked through the paper: Here it is. I reduced the six inches between us to one, close enough to catch the soap-bar smell of her skin.

 

MYSTERY BOY WASHED UP ON MATCOMBE

         By John Craddock

 

         Shortly after 10pm last night, in our normally sedentary village of Coldwater Bay, two London-based holidaymakers…

 

Lucy jabbed at the line: That must be Dad and Simon.

 

…spotted a human body drifting towards Matcombe Beach. They made an emergency call to the local constabulary from the nearby King and Country public house.

WPC Lorraine Woodstock was the first officer to arrive on the scene. She immediately called for an ambulance.

Then WPC Woodstock, now joined by fellow Coldwater Bay PC Andrew Walker, their officer in charge, Sergeant Jeffrey Hyman, and several volunteers, waded into the shallows and hauled the body in.

The deceased was coloured and in his late teens. He was wearing an unlabelled navy blue T-shirt, a pair of jeans, also unlabelled, a navy blue jersey which appeared to have been hand-knitted, and a pair of sneakers of the Czechoslovak make Bata. A white armband was tied around his left forearm.

         The cadaver was transferred to St Mary’s Hospital, Newport, where it was examined on arrival by pathologist Gavin Little, BM (Hons.). The Coldwater Bay Parish Press called the hospital for details and was informed by the duty nurse that the death had occurred within the last twenty-four hours and had been caused by drowning.

Although some two to four bodies per year are washed up on Wight’s southern coastline, most of them victims of accidents at sea, Sergeant Hyman privately admitted to the CBPP that this was an unusual case: “There are just a handful of coloureds on the Isle, and the police have the names of each and every one of them, offspring included. This boy is not amongst them. We have absolutely no idea who he is.”

“He just came in out of the blue,” quipped WPC Woodstock.

 

The article was accompanied—the clipping is still in my possession—by a black-and-white photo captioned ‘Local police examine mystery beach lad’. The camera’s flash highlights three imposing figures dressed in black, who are, no doubt, PCs Walker and Woodstock and sergeant Hyman. They are staring downward, at a shapeless bundle.

Lucy and I leaned into the paper at the same time to get a better look. What at first looked like a mess of ink at the front turned out to be the boy’s head, skewed to one side. Another, smaller, ink spot was a beshoed foot. On either side of the picture were hints of the local onlookers: a bit of anonymous arm or equally anonymous leg. Then, slowly, Lucy and I, as if by mutual accord, turned to face each other, me thrilled by the fact that we now knew something our respective friends, Roger and Eileen, didn’t. Our little secret.

I think this is something important, I think that from now on we should keep our eyes peeled and our ears pricked up.

I hastened to agree, though at the time I saw this washed-up boy as being odder than he was important, convinced that he would turn out to have a reasonable explanation. Sooner or later the papers always came up with one, no matter how apparently untoward the event. I saw no reason to doubt that things would be different this time.

I was wrong of course. Time for a top-up.