Authors: Frances Fyfield
|Perfectly Pure and Good|
TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS LTD
61-63 Uxbridge Road, London Ws SSA
TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS (AUSTRALIA) PTY LTD
15-25 Helles Avenue, Moorebank, N/W 217o
TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS (NZ) LTD
3 William Pickering Drive, Albany, Auckland
Published 1994 by Bantam Press
a division of Transworld Publishers Ltd
Copyright © by Frances Fyfield 1994
The right of Frances Fyfield to be identified
as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All of the characters in this book are fictitious,
and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
is purely coincidental.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 0593 035313
This book is sold subject to the Standard Conditions of Sale of Net Books and may not be re-sold in the UK below the net price fixed by the publishers for the book.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may
be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording,
or otherwise, without the prior permission of
Typeset in 12pt Monotype Bembo by
Phoenix Typesetting, Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Printed in Great Britain by
Mackays of Chatham, Plc, Chatham, Kent.
To the esteemed
Charles William Fyfield
— otherwise known as the
who enriches life.
From a niece, with love.
It was ordinary place. People lived and died in it. On Sunday mornings in summer, some of the men who lived nearest gathered on the quay to gossip. News of death was underplayed; views of life, casual. For most of them, like Stonewall's new father, who did not frequent the pubs unless driven by a louder-than-usual row indoors, the occasion was a mixed relief All of them made it look as if they had met by accident. When they dispersed, they did not arrange to meet again, same place, same time. That would have been some kind of admission, as if they needed one another. Which they did, but could not say.
The overgrown village of Merton on Sea boasted a population of eight thousand, doubling in summer. The high street formed the undulating backbone of the village, flanked by alleys and uneven cottages spreading out like crooked limbs. The main thoroughfare, too narrow for the dustbin van, wound uphill away from the quay into an almost elegant square surrounding a green. Here, where the merchants in wool and grain had lived a century before, the houses were large and ponderous, governed by the Crown, Merton's only hotel. The town-cum-village, large enough to form a metropolis on this under-populated length of the flat, East Coast, fizzled out further inland beyond the council estate and the church, the last cottages giving way to rich farmland with never a hill in sight.
Merton was a conurbation which had grown on trade and fishing, been eclipsed and grown again without the benefit of planners or preservers, so that the visitor's abiding memory was one of obstinacy rather than beauty, haphazard charm rather than style. If Merton had aspirations, they were humble, a desire for consistency rather than change, an understated pride which could never see the point in the newfangled, a sense of order which would always defy chaos and a self-sufficiency made necessary by isolation.
The inhabitants were ruled by good sense, kept promises to one another, did not mind their own business and only fleeced the holiday-makers enough to make a modest living.
They neither noticed nor cared how the blatant vulgarity of the quay's front marred the Victorian splendour of the rear enough to deter any serious follower of taste. The people who lived in Merton liked it the way it was.
So did the holiday-makers and holiday-home owners. Those of lesser luck or affluence, unable to face the forest of bed-and-breakfast signs, where the landladies made no concession to foreign habits, rented a caravan on the camp site a mile from town, reached on foot by the raised causeway along the sea defences. This path, hiding the road on the landward side, ran alongside the wide inlet which led to the busy public beach, the lifeboat station, the pine woods and the miles of unadulterated sand which stretched west. Sometimes, where sea joined inlet, seals would play. There were beach huts, mostly old and crooked, flanking the woods.
At high tide, Merton became part of the sea. The inlet filled with water deep enough for the passage of small steamers which occasionally anchored, along with fishing vessels and an increasing number of pleasure craft of the less expensive variety, hobby boats rather than yachts, in keeping with Merton's obdurate lack of style. At low tide, the view altered dramatically.
Gazing seaward from outside the amusement arcade, there was nothing beyond the car park but boats listing sideways and sand banks topped with reluctant vegetation in a vista of browny-green land, full of hidden detail invisible to the eye. People parked on the quayside car park, peered down at the moored boats, saw the same flat view to the east, and ate hamburgers with onions from the arcade or fish and chips from one of three sources. In July it was something to do. Merton's entertainments were not otherwise sophisticated.
The men on the quay on Sunday mornings gathered thus only in summer: in winter you could scarcely stand out there. Male gossip was more restrained than the female kind, and only the youngest men ever dared venture a remark on the girls passing by, reserving any unkindness for strangers only. Stonewall's stepfather never felt quite comfortable standing there on the edge of the water, particularly if the tide was down and all that stretched into view was the peculiarly inviting, earth-and-sand-smelling channels leading out to the sea. He never stood there without thinking of himself as a kind of pretender, a man who kept secrets.
When one of the lads gave a low wolf-whistle, he could only quiver with embarrassment, think of the woman he had watched, two years before, drunk and scarred, staggering along on her unsteady way out for a morning walk down the creeks. Or rather, he had not watched; the boy with him, little Stonewall, had watched, pointed, sniggered and been cuffed gently round the ear for his rudeness.
They had watched her go down the high street, bypassing the medical centre although she looked as though she could use a doctor, then seen her grinning at her own hideous reflection, first in the shop windows, then in the water. The man still shuffled when he thought of that, shuddered when he thought of what happened next after they'd gone out in the boat. Poor Stonewall had hated the water; he had to be forced to learn because no-one who lived as close to it as they did could afford to shy away.
`Nice day for it,' one of the men would always remark, never specifying further and never being asked, while Stonewall's stepfather wished that the sea would come back and obscure the vision of his mind's eye. First that woman with her cloud of red hair, Mrs Tysall he had later learned, looking so drunk and so tired, teetering out over the muddy sand in her unsuitable shoes, a real townie; and then the same woman, without shoes and without life, lying with her hands twisted in the sea heather up at the far end of the creeks, her mouth full of sand, her red hair damp and matted, a smell beginning to rise from her, still mainly the smell of the sea, which reminded him of sex. Saw her living one day, found her dead the next when out on another outing with that miserable kid, Stonewall, that parcel of skinny, asthmatic baggage which came alongside his beautiful widowed mum, and had to be taught to understand the tide.
Stonewall would scream whenever he was put in a boat and rowed up the creeks to find a place where the water formed safe and shallow pools, but once there, the child changed tack completely and became calm, ready to play and sing to himself for hours, leaving the man he would not yet call Dad free to dig for the lugworms he needed for bait. The relief when Stonewall stopped crying was always tremendous. The crying, a breathless keening, always made his stepfather sick. If he did not get this boy right, the whole edifice of his marriage would crumble, he knew it like he knew the time of day and he knew these creeks. Silence down here, a sense of contentment and the brink of a breakthrough with the boy; peace.
Until he had turned to one side, seen that red-haired lump with her long brown legs spread and her heavy skirt plastered with mud. Two years of Sundays had passed and he could still feel the panic now, like a mouthful of salt water. Remembered himself thinking, The silly bitch, how could she do this to a boy? Lying there, obscene in death, her head half embedded in the bank, her hands raised above, twisted into the heather as if to anchor herself there. Waiting for a child to find her and begin the screaming nightmares all over again.
No Merton-born man travelled ill-equipped and, besides, he had come prepared to dig for bait. Inside fifteen furious minutes, using his spade and closing his ears to the sound of sloppy sand on dead flesh, he had buried her, right there in the depths of the bank, just before the boy came back from the pool. He had meant no harm, he had meant for the best. Let someone else find her; someone unburdened by an hysterical child and a heavily pregnant wife. Let the tide hide this red-haired bitch here until tomorrow when he was at work and the boy was safe. Let it hide her, preferably for ever.
From that day on, though, Stonewall had stopped his screaming, took to the creeks like a duck. It seemed that some god somewhere approved.
`Found another body, they did, so I heard, off Stookey,' one of the men said, covering a gap in conversation, while a thin thread of smoke from his cigarette drifted upwards. Stonewall's dad jangled the coins in his pockets to hide his own discomfiture. The friendly coast yielded three or four bodies a year, swept from God knows where. Mostly men, overboard from a tramp steamer, big men, rarely identified, the homeless of the sea. A corpse was always a matter of remark, but hardly news any more and never in front of the children.
Sometimes it was difficult to tell how long a man had been in the water or rotting in the sand where they were found. Mrs Charles Tysall had taken a whole year to surface, as far as anyone knew. Unlike the indigent sailors, she had been identified, her death the subject of speculation, her strange reappearance the stuff of long, public-house and hairdressing-shop debate. Stonewall's stepfather had never said a thing: he had been either too wise or too shocked. A body was only a body. He had his own kin to look after.
The guilt only lingered on the Sabbath, when he thought of that woman's husband coming back to look at her after she was found. Stricken by grief, walking out over the sands to see where she had lain, never coming back. She would have been a beautiful woman once, before she had acquired that dreadful, lacerated face. Someone must have loved her, ached for her, yearned for her in the year she had lain buried before the freak storm broke the bank and sicked her up.
That Charles Tysall had indeed loved her in his vile obsessive way, was something his wife Elisabeth had never doubted, but the nature of the love had been as cruel as the tide, requiring the same complete possession of everything it touched, punishing insubordination with violence. She had played for attention, misunderstood the nature of the madness, flaunted her red hair and her own perfection.
Therefore, in complete accordance with his own logic, it had been entirely justifiable to beat her into submission, beginning with the face.
The men on the quay knew nothing of this, then or now. Nor what Elisabeth had thought while lying there with her hands self-imprisoned among the heather, waiting for the pills and the gin to work and hoping this would be revenge on him, and then, thinking too late, of what she might have left.
Thinking of how she should not be doing this, dying without a whimper or a warning. It was so unfair to whoever followed. She, who had never been a friend to women, felt suddenly and sharply for her own kind, knew with terrible certainty what she had begun. Without her, Charles would simply find another obsession, some other red-haired pet to torment. Elisabeth murmured a prayer for her successor, let the thought of her slide away, closed her eyes, waited for the sea, slipped at last into the oblivion she had craved for days. Waited for the tide and never felt it.