A collaboration with Gordon Lewis.
Tommy wandered the land he owned, wondering who owned the river. The river flowed through his land, but was that enough? He stopped and sat beneath a big tree he considered his big tree. He took off his shoes and socks and dabbled his feet in the river. They were his toes he wiggled, that’s for sure. As he laughed, a thousand birds took off from the tree. Of course, they were not his birds to count. A mix of twigs fell on his head, dislodged by the sudden departure. In pain from the heaviest, he watched the birds swarm smaller than bees with stings. He dropped some of the smaller twigs into the river to watch them race each other until out of sight and out of mind. No human being, he thought, could truly own any Air, Earth or Water. Nobody would have the right. He even doubted God would.
The slow moving river, undisturbed by wind, mirrored the trees and shrubs along its banks, and, as Tommy withdrew his feet, he too was mirrored on the glassy surface of the water. But was it his own face he saw there reflected? He thought it was his father’s face he saw! The father who, it was said, took his own life, drowned in the very river that meandered through his estate. Tommy never accepted that his father committed suicide, but there was nothing to prove that he met his death at the hands of a murderer or that it was an accident.
He dismissed what he thought he saw in the water; of course he was not the same age as his father when he died, but he supposed, as he was his father’s son, it was natural that the reflection reminded him of his father and the painful occasion of his death.
When his mother died, Tommy inherited the estate lock, stock and barrel just a year before he lay there on the bank of the river with the sun drying his feet. His thoughts dwelt on the tragic death of his father. Was it too late to look again into the circumstances of his death? Nearly two years had passed since that fateful day, and now that he had all the time imaginable, he resolved to try and get the case re-opened so to end the speculation in his mind.
Hearing his name being called he turned to see it was his wife Sarah that called him and that she was waving frantically, beckoning him to come to where she stood on the raised patio at the side of the great house. Waving in reply he hurriedly picked up his shoes and socks and ran towards his wife.
“Hurry up Tommy,” she called as her husband neared the patio. “There is someone called Simon Ratner on the phone. You really ought to carry your mobile when you go wandering off.”
“Simon Ratner?” queried Tommy, “don’t know anyone by that name.” He hurried into the house to pick up the phone.
“Hello, this is Thomas Bowen speaking. How may I help you?”
“It is I that can help you Mr Bowen,” came the reply. “I have something that concerns the death of your father, something I can’t divulge over the phone, perhaps we could meet somewhere, The White Hart hotel near Jaywick is conveniently placed for me, perhaps you could meet me there this evening at say six o’clock?”
Tommy’s interest was aroused but he paused before he answered.
“Look... I don’t know you from Adam and I am not likely to meet a perfect stranger on my own. Naturally I am more than interested in what you may have to say, nevertheless I shall want to bring a friend with me.”
“I hadn’t thought of divulging what I have to anyone else, but I understand your caution, I guess it would be okay for you to bring a friend. So it is at six o’clock this evening I will expect to see you.”
“Okay,” said Thomas “we’ll meet in the bar of The White Hart hotel, if it is the one I know just beyond Jaywick.”
It all seemed too neat — that phone call arriving immediately after Tommy’s renewed speculations concerning his father’s death. Who owned the river? Who owned a death? A natural death was one that nobody owned. Or God did, perhaps. Yet, otherwise, it was the perpetrator of the death who owned it. Such a crazy panoply of thoughts beset Tommy’s brain as he drove his Fiesta at break-neck speed along the A120 towards Clacton. He had only vaguely heard of a White Hart hotel in that area — but he had been given directions away from the pier which should allow him to find it. Alongside Tommy was the so-called friend of whom he had spoken to Ratner — an upright silhouette etched against the passing moon as it rose. Indeed the moon rose, bigger than Tom had ever witnessed it before, above the flat landscape near Weeley. The friend was an old one, it seemed, but not close enough to be called anything but Mr Jones. A strange friendship, that.
Friends come in various shapes, sizes and relative intimacies. Tommy shrugged.
In the back seat was Sarah. She had insisted on coming on this jaunt, having maintained that a wife was a worthier companion on such escapades, rather than the likes of the inscrutable Mr Jones. She promised — as a bottom line — to stay in the car whilst the meeting was being held.
“I’ll bring you out a bag of crisps and an orangeade,” Tommy joked as he drove beside the black shimmers of a moonlit monster called the sea. He recalled a brand of potato crisps which he was regularly given as a child (to keep him quiet) — the one with a tiny blue bag of salt hidden at the bottom.
Sarah grunted: “I’d rather have a gin and tonic and a ham sandwich, Tommy.”
Mr Jones was heard to snigger; then they all remained silent as Tommy followed conscientiously with practised twirls of the steering-wheel — as the car almost autonomously journeyed beyond Jaywick towards the White Hart hotel and a stranger called Simon Ratner.
Thomas pulled on to the forecourt of the pub, his mind in a whirl, wondering what this Simon Ratner was going to disclose. Was the true facts surrounding the death of his father to come out of the meeting? Sarah was expectant too, knowing how much it meant to her husband. But surely, if there had been doubts about the verdict, the jury would not have returned a verdict of suicide.
Entering the lounge bar of the White Hart at that early hour of the evening the two men found the place empty and a push bell had to be depressed to call for service. In response to the bell’s summons, a man, who looked the part of a publican, materialised behind the bar.
Ordering drinks for himself and Mr Jones, Thomas questioned the barman.
“Do you know a man called Simon Ratner? We are supposed to meet him here around six o’clock.”
“He’ll be along soon,” said mine host, “of course he finds it difficult to get around in that wheel chair of his…”
“Wheel Chair?” questioned Thomas. “No wonder he couldn’t travel to meet me in Colchester.”
With that there was a kerfuffle at the lounge bar door and a man seated in an invalid carriage wheeled himself into the room.
Introducing himself, Simon Ratner was the first to speak, and, after handshakes all round, he addressed himself to Tommy, saying:
“Thank you for coming to meet me here. I hope to convince you there was more to your father’s death than meets the eye.”
“I knew my father well,” said Tommy, “I have firmly believed he would never take his own life.”
“Before my unfortunate accident,” began Simon, “I was employed as a messenger for a large firm of Solicitors. One day I was in a store-room when I overheard two men talking outside the door which stood ajar. Your father’s name was mentioned. I pricked up my ears for I knew your father was a client of the firm I worked for. It was just one of the voices I recognised as he lowered his voice to say... ‘Well that ends the matter, Sir George Bowen is no longer a threat, a good job done gets both of us of the hook.’”
“Did you say you recognised one of the voices?” cried Tommy.
“Yes,” came Simon’s reply, “but before I give his name, I want to know what’s in it for me?”
There was a silence, unremarked and unmeasured. Each participant in the meeting kept their thoughts to themselves. MORE TO YOUR FATHER’S DEATH THAN MEETS THE EYE. Who said that? Tommy was so used to calling his father ‘Dad’ that the name Sir George Bowen meant little… especially in the environs of coastal North Essex, where all was more down to earth than anything connected with breeding or nobility.
Mr Jones, the so-called friend sat stonily still, as if it were him controlling such silence. The puppet-master. He was, however, not allied with the Ratner creature who was, by the sound of it (before this very silence ensued) angling for a blackmail sting concerned with Tommy’s sadly departed Dad. Sarah was, no doubt, still in the car outside crunching studiously through the crisps. Ham sandwiches were, apparently, off.
“In it for you?” repeated Tommy, breaking the silence, as if it had never existed.
The non-descript pub in the dull lamp-lit atmosphere and its flat-capped locals turned their heads away, as if they’d been spotted ear-wigging.
“Yes,” snapped Ratner, “where money is in the offing, there are many fingers grabbing for the pie... and, not to put a finer point to it, I’m not too proud to sell the information I’ve got. I know your pockets are well-lined.”
Tommy thought back. He remembered the poverty with which his family had been beset, long before George Bowen was knighted. Knighted for what? Tommy had never been sure.
Gradually, he recalled his Mum and Dad — in the old days, fetching out their red tin, with compartments for paying the bills — loose change, painstakingly, lovingly, shared out for those who wanted their dues.
His memories were rudely interrupted by some knowing looks from Mr Jones. Tommy wondered how long he had known Mr Jones and how Mr Jones had been one of those acquaintances who turned into a friend for no obvious reason. Perhaps, Mr Jones was more (or less) than he seemed.
When his parents’ red tin disappeared, Tommy couldn’t recall. He’d never questioned it. A child had too many difficult preoccupations for there to be any spare time to dwell on the antics of one’s otherwise trusted parents. But there was a time, when Tommy had suddenly rea1ised that his Dad had abandoned the red tin and taken to poring over fussier containers, ones with embossed decorations depicting the signs of the Zodiac.
Mr Jones suddenly said: “Mr Ratner, let’s get to the bottom of it … you want my friend here” — he nodded towards Tommy — “to give you some, what shall we call it... reward, for information relating to his father’s death.”
Simon Ratner simply nodded, But then Sarah burst into the bar, face red, clutching her side in evident pain!
“Whatever’s the matter Sarah,” Tommy cried as he hurried to his wife’s side. All that had gone before forgotten in his concern. “Come, sit down whilst I get you a drink. A whisky and soda will be good for whatever ails you.”
“I’ve had this pain in my side all day,” she said. “I’ve not bothered you with it, because it hadn’t been too bad... till now.., it’s sharp and stabbing.”
She looked distressed. Tommy felt sorry he’d left her out in the car like abandoned luggage. He didn’t know what had come over her. Meanwhile Mr Jones was hovering around Sarah like a detached shadow… ministering to her needs. She quickly recovered.
‘Probably the beginnings of appendicitis or something...’ thought Tommy. Meanwhile, Simon Ratner in a seemingly flustered state, had abrubtly left for the bar. It was almost as if he had recognised Sarah. Or Sarah him. If so, neither gave an overt sign of this mutual recognition.
Mr Jones said something in even tones, with a sense that the most unlikely scenario was also the most logical:-“Sarah has been attacked by an invisible enemy. We shall have to be on our guard.”
The words made no real sense to Tommy. The Ratner individual at the bar had a few of his cronies gathered round him in a secret huddle. Tommy went over to button-hole him. He was not going to let the matter rest there. If he could prove his father had not committed suicide, then that would mean risking anything.
“You’ve not forgotten it was you that contacted me, Mr Ratner — if you have any information regarding my father I would be willing to pay you. If you can leave your friends for a while we could find a quiet spot to discuss what it is and the amount of cash you are asking for it.”
“You are not going to like what I have to tell you,” replied Simon Ratner, as they found a quiet corner in the saloon bar.
“I’ll be the best judge of that,” said Tommy. “Let’s get down to the facts.”
“I don’t know how deep your father was involved with the two men I overheard speaking about Sir George Bowen. All I do know is that they were involved in something illegal… to do with drugs or something. The voice I recognised was that of a partner in the Solicitor’s business I worked in. Still before I reveal his name I want to know how much you are prepared to pay me?”
“Would a thousand pounds loosen your tongue?” asked Tommy.
“That is a nice round figure. I think the information is worth more, but I will accept your offer … I would like to see the colour of your money before I tell you what I know.”
“We will have to meet again… tomorrow perhaps. You will appreciate I don’t carry that amount of ready money... I could pay you by cheque... but I suppose you will accept only cash?”
“You supposed right,” replied Simon. “We”ll meet here, same time, same place”
How the three of them (Tommy, Mr Jones and Sarah) got home amid a freak lightning storm — peculiarly without thunder but with plentifuls of lashing hailstone — it was hard to remember. Mr Jones, apparently, had much to say for himself, some of which Tommy did remember as half whispers into his ear from the general direction of the front passenger berth. Sarah was uncharacteristically non-forthcoming from her backseat position; Mr Jones kept saying something like “Your father was only knighted, you know, Tommy - because of the money he had got from the dark world of drug-runners and midnighters.”
Tommy took ‘midnighters’ to mean a breed of latter-day smugglers (liberally tattooed and pierced) that abounded on this North East Essex coast… with some of whom his father must have become entrammelled. But the journey home was now a bit of a dream, as he drove, during the following daylight, towards his bank in Clacton to fetch the money. More money than anything the red tin had seen in all its long life. Tommy laughed. But the dream was soon to become a nightmare,
* * *
Tommy went alone that night to the White Hart pub. Mr Jones and Sarah had been more trouble than they were worth. A pain in the neck, both of them, not to put too fine a point on it.
The place seemed further than he remembered — and at a different angle of attack, taking him on non-descript roads, this time beyond Jaywick that were further than it was healthy to go in these forbidding shanty lands.
The pub, though, was familiar, if not exactly a replica of the one in his memory. It was still full of the bar-leaners, as if they had never left in the meantime. As he patted the wad in his back pocket, Tommy’s eyes began their search for the Ratner man amid the suddenly uplifted faces that looked startled, or, in some lights, angry, by his entry.
Simon Ratner was conspicuous by his absence. It had to be supposed he liked to make an entrance, arriving just that bit later than the time arranged for their meeting.
The door to the bar opened and Tommy was surprised to see Ratner, not in a wheel chair, but on a pair of crutches. Their eyes met and Ratner skilfully crossed the room as a path opened up through the rest of the occupants of the bar-room.
After acknowledging each other they retired to a quiet corner in the adjoining saloon bar which was practically empty. Tommy, without preamble, went straight into the business of the information he had come to pay for.
“I have the thousand pounds you asked for he said, as he reached to his back pocket to flash the wad of notes in Ratner’s face. Showing him the first note’s number he flicked through the fifty £20 notes that were all in the mint condition of unused crisp notes, until he revealed the number of the last note.
Placing the wad of notes on the table Tommy kept his hand on them as he said: “That’s the thousand pounds, now is the time for you to name the man who seemed pleased at the news of my father’s reported suicide, but who may have had something to do with the death.”
Ratner touched the wad of notes before answering.
“The man was Robert Benson, and it is not what he said, it was the way that he said it, particularly when I heard him say ‘it was a good job done’. He is a partner of the firm of solictors I worked for before I had my accident that forces me to use a wheel chair or crutches. I always thought that Benson was a bit bent, I wouldn’t be surprised if you discover that he was connected in some way with your father’s death.”
Robert Benson? The name meant nothing to Tommy. He looked around at the others in the bar; then heard, from behind him, the crutches clip-clop like a lame horse towards the Gents. There were figures — amongst the motley throng of topers — reminiscent of Mr Jones and, incredibly, Sarah his wife. Their faces turned away as soon as he looked at them. If it were them, how had they got here… and why? Perhaps the name Robert Benson would strike a chord with them. The thought did not seem absurd.
He went over to ask them — his legs moving without volition — but the dissembling crowd shuffled to cover the retreat of those with whom Tommy so desperately needed to confer. It was like a nightmare teetering on the brink of waking, but never quite doing so.
Tommy still found himself still clasping the wad of notes. Like the red tin, they were more a symbol of temptation, a token, in the end, of honesty and truth. He could have left them at the car and nobody would take them. He simply knew this.
Suicide was like falsely claiming the ownership of death itself. Tommy’s father was indeed an honorary knight, if nothing else. All good men were thus.
Tommy clasped his side. The pain, if it were not for the numbing of the nightmare, would have been intolerable. But, at least, he could die in peace — knowing that everything was in the right compartment of life’s red tin. He had only read his Zodiac today that life was on the brink of something big.
Like waking from superstition into the full-blown fruition of faith. Robert Benson — whoever he was — could go hang. And probably would — hung by his own noose for the ill he’d done Tommy’s father. Life was too cheap, these days. Not like in the past, when every moment was cherished and honoured with significance.
Eventually, Sarah emerged from the crowd and kissed his cheek. She helped him to the car, He was either dead or in Heaven, it didn’t matter which
* * *
Mr Jones (if that was his name) wandered through the hurly burly holiday crowd of Clacton town centre. He wondered why so many people were so scantily clad. He himself was shivering. He was due to meet a Mr Benson(another cipher of the drug trade). Smuggling still went on in the best of communities. Even the smuggling of souls.
And strangers who pass in the night.