The Last Winter

By Sarah Hapgood


“Reasons to visit Shinglesea Beach are ….”

Oh c’mon there must be SOMETHING!

“Well our wonderful beach of course [it’s all shingle, hence our name], which we are all very proud of. Opportunities for bird-watching [feathered kind] are plentiful, and from the footpath at the top you can see for miles and miles. Our beach commands majestic views of … [Darklight Nuclear Reactor]”.

I think I’ll come back to the beach a bit later on. Well what else is there?

“Our village has all the local amenities you require. A mini-supermarket, a fish-and-chip shop [a dying breed, so visitors might actually appreciate that one, it definitely stays in], a pub which serves good nourishing meals [when it feels like it, should I warn them it doesn’t take credit cards?] …”

Hopeless! Absolutely bloody hopeless! How the hell am I going to sell Shinglesea Beach as THE place for people to come for their holidays, when I can’t find anything very positive to say about it, and I live here! OK fresh tack. Think of all the reasons WHY you have chosen to live here. I came here for peace and quiet, to get away from the outside world, which seems to be the reason why so many have settled here. But how can I turn that round as a selling-point for holiday-makers? Well holiday-makers are often looking for a bit of peace and quiet. Yes but not this bloody quiet!

“Shinglesea Beach has a unique atmosphere all of its own [you can say that again!]. Families have been coming here for good old-fashioned holidays since the 1930s [and bugger all has changed since]”.

You’re not trying hard enough. I am trying! See this is what Shinglesea Beach does to you, you end up having entire conversations with yourself!

“Shinglesea Beach has been a haven for poets, artists, writers …[just about every sad, embittered loser you can think of really!]”.

Let’s go back to the local facilities. Can’t mention the bowling-alley, it’s now a derelict building, and a bloody eyesore out on the main road.

“We have a quaint little fishermen’s chapel, and our public toilets are rather good”.

Oh now you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, mentioning the public loos! Just because our public loos get cleaned fairly regularly is not a massive incentive for people to come flocking here in droves next summer, now is it!

“How’s it going?” asked Misty, my house-mate.

“It’s not”, I replied “It’s hopeless. Everytime I think of something positive to say, a little voice nags in my ear, mentioning something awful. Why did I agree to take this on, Misty?”

“Because you seem to be the only one in the village who knows how to design a website”, he said, which was true “Why don’t we just take some photographs of the beach and post them on the home page, and then people can make their own minds up”.

“I don’t think that’ll be enough”, I said “We need to get people really WANTING to come here. I mean, there’s no reason why we can’t manage that. Shinglesea Beach IS really unique. It’s unspoilt, it hasn’t been developed to within an inch of its life. We’re always hearing that people want this kind of thing nowadays”.

“Trouble is, they also want all the luxury amenities they’re used to at the same time”, said Misty.

Dear little Misty. He’s not overly blessed with brains, (I think that’s where he got his nickname from, many years ago, because his mind seems to be permanently in a fog), but occasionally he’ll astonish you by hitting the nail squarely on the head.

“Well the shop isn’t bad, for a small village like this”, I said “I mean some small villages have no shop at all, and ours has even got a cash point!”

“Better not mention Mrs Jackson’s dog getting nicked from outside it the other night”, said Misty.

“As if I’m going to put that on the bloody website!” I said.

“Dog-napping’s on the increase, so they say”, said Misty.

“So who says?”

“I heard it on the local news”, said Misty “Mrs Jackson’s really worried about Tufty”.

“Is there anything nice we can say about the pub?” I said, feeling I’d better steer him away from the subject of Tufty, as he’d only start getting emotional “Come on, you spend enough time in it. What is really good about ‘The Ship’?”

“The landlord’s dog is really friendly, and lets you play with him”.

“Misty!” I said, in exasperation “I meant food, atmosphere, good selection of drinks, friendly locals, all that sort of thing”.

(Having said all that, I began to wonder if we were better off sticking with the landlord’s dog!).

“It’s open all day”, said Misty.

“That could be a selling-point”, I said, desperately grasping at anything “People might not be expecting that in a small place like this”.

“There you are then”, said Misty, brightening up “You can put that in”.

Gloom descended on me again.

“Yeah”, I sighed “If all else fails you can at least spend all day getting pissed out of your brains in Shinglesea Beach! I’ll be recommending a shotgun in the mouth next!”

“I think you need to be more positive”, said Misty “Why don’t we go to the pub now and have a brainstorming session?”

Most times the idea of having a “brainstorming session” with Misty would have reduced me to fits of laughter, but it’s quite hard to be horrible to Misty when he’s being sweet, (although I do try), so I shut down my laptop.

Misty and I live in a 1930s-style wooden chalet down Beach Lane. Most of the houses along our lane (you can’t really call it a street or a road, as it’s not covered in tarmac, and can get absolutely bogged down with mud) are holiday-lets, so at this time of year - January - we virtually have the place to ourselves, although occasionally we do get people coming up to escape the rat-race for a weekend. Even in high summer the houses can stay empty for quite some time, which is why my website idea had been seized upon so eagerly. Shinglesea Beach needed to get more visitors.

I had inherited “Barnacles” from my grandmother a couple of years ago, and I think everybody was expecting me to either sell it, or turn it into another holiday-let. But after talking to some of the locals, I soon realised that the holiday-let market wasn’t that lucrative in Shinglesea Beach, and I didn’t have to be a financial genius to know that it would take me a heck of a long time to recoup the money I would have to spend on doing it up to holiday-let standards. I didn’t want to sell it either. On a coldly practical level, there was the fact that I wouldn’t get very much for it. Granny had lived there for decades, and hadn’t done much to it in recent years, there was probably the land value and that was about it. On a more emotional level, I found I was quite attached to it. I had had a lot of family holidays there when I was a kid, and had very fond memories of it. I also had very fond memories of Shinglesea, and I still had a huge affection for the place, even though I was now seeing it with more cynical adult eyes.

Inheriting “Barnacles” gave me the chance to do what I had always wanted to do. Escape the rat-race and fulfil my dream of becoming an artist. I think I had got this dream from my childhood holidays, when we had often seen artists with their easels set up on the beach. Shinglesea Beach may not be the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated place on earth, but it did seem to inspire people with plenty of artistic inspiration. Shops and galleries in the nearest town, Fobbington, are often full of works by Local Artists, and endless pictures of shingled beach, blackened groynes sticking out into the sea, and upturned boats, sell well to visitors and holiday-makers. I had no great ambitions as an artist. I simply wanted to live the lifestyle. I could turn out watercolour pictures for the Fobbington shops with the best of them, and that was all I wanted. I knew I was no Van Gogh, but that didn’t bother me. To find a means to escape the rat-race was all that I had required.

I had loved living in Shinglesea Beach, even if my attempts at trying to do the website may have given the other idea entirely. It was because it was such a ramshackle, down-at-heel place that I loved it. Shinglesea Beach could never possibly get delusions of grandeur, it left all that to Fobbington with its tea-rooms and antiques shops. Fortunately my cost of living in Shinglesea wasn’t high, because neither were my earnings. But I took a sort of perverse pleasure out of having to live to a strict budget. Wearing clothes with holes in, and living off strong tea and slabs of bread and butter were, to me, what artists did. It suited me. It felt romantic, and God knows, precious little about the rat-race had ever felt romantic!

These days I never saw any friends from my old life. This was because I knew I would only get endless carping about how I had ruined my life. How I had given up a good income, with bonuses and perks, to live the life of a virtual squatter in a shack in a forgotten seaside resort. I didn’t want people blowing my romantic delusions out of the window. I was under no illusions about myself or my life, but they couldn’t accept that . They were convinced I was being a fantasist. My only friend these days was Misty.

“I suppose if we’re going to have a proper brainstorming session”, said Misty, once we were settled in ‘The Ship’ “We should have brought paper and pencils with us”.

“I think I can try and hold it all in my head”, I said.

The only other people in the bar were a bunch of locals standing up at the bar, who were having an argument about whether Old So-And-So still lived out at Darklight Cove. (By the way, Darklight Cove is the village situated next to the nuclear reactor. The village was there first). This argument seemed as though it had been going on since God were a lad, and showed no sign of abating. It was suddenly brought to a close by a man, who had been sitting at the end of a bar with a newspaper, and up until now taking no part in the conversation, getting up and announcing “he’s dead”.

“Nah”, said one of the others, after a stunned pause “He lives out at Darklight”.

“He’s dead”, said the prophet of doom, and he then pulled on his woolly hat and left the building.

“I swear he lives out at Darklight”, said the other, like a little kid stubbornly insisting that Father Christmas does exist.

“We’ll drive out to Darklight tomorrow”, I said to Misty “Perhaps that can give me some inspiration”.

“You think people will want to see the nuclear reactor?” said Misty “Well it does have a Visitor Centre I suppose. I went round it once when I was first here, it’s quite interesting”.

“I’m getting desperate enough to even put that in!” I said.

The only food that was on offer that night at ’The Ship’ was a broccoli and Stilton bake, which I knew from past experience was absolutely revolting (virtually all broccoli, and hardly any Stilton). Misty wanted to have it, but I insisted we get some fish-and-chips instead. I know that people think I bully Misty, but I don’t think I do. It’s just that Misty needs constantly looking after. The very thought of Misty being left to his own devices in this big, harsh world is unnerving to say the least. He’s long since accepted that I know what’s best for him, and I can’t help the way that sounds. It wouldn’t do any good for Misty to break out and have his own way, it would just confuse him. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and the proof is that Misty is a contented little soul, rarely (if ever) prone to anger or frustration or bitterness. By turn, I hardly ever get angry with him, although his slowness can still be maddening at times. I would also rush to his defence if I thought anybody else was bullying him, and when we first lived together in Shinglesea, people would try that. They know better than to do so now.

We went up the road to the chippy, which had a small amusement arcade attached to it.

“You haven’t put that on the website”, said Misty, trying to be helpful as always.

By now even I had lost the appetite for making sarcastic retorts, so I said nothing. Misty took that as a sign that I was annoyed with him, and went into a sort of hurt little fug. I knew I would have to make it up to him later. We trudged home, and ate the fish-and-chips. I switched on the television. The first thing I saw was some bossy woman in spectacles examining somebody’s turds in a glass bowl, so I promptly switched it off again, and took Misty to bed.

The following morning I did a couple of hours work before we set off for Darklight, and Misty amused himself by playing golf. Misty owns one golf-club and one ball, and he takes these out to a patch of scrubland which lies between our lane and the sea-wall, and he knocks the ball about. This can absorb him so much, that I frequently have to call him in when it’s going dark, and he can barely see the ball anymore.

He almost scampered with delight when I called him to say that I was Getting The Car Out. The car spends most of its time sleeping under a sort of shelter made out of corrugated iron, at the front of “Barnacles”. It normally only comes out of its lair when I have to deliver some pictures to Fobbington. Misty always treats these little excursions as if I was taking him on a deluxe trip to The Maldives. Something I would do if I had the money, although I suspect he’d only spend the entire holiday knocking his golf-ball about on the beach, so he might as well stay in Shinglesea!

On the way to Darklight I called in at Fobbington, to have a look at what one of my rivals … er sorry … fellow artists was doing. One of the galleries had a window full of his latest idea, and I have to admit it wasn’t half bad. He had done a series of paintings of the marshes under moonlight. This would be eerie enough anyway, but he had added in some extra touches of gibbets, and black-clad figures on the distant horizon. This all gave it a distinctly M R James-ish feel, and I knew they would sell very well. I was mildly peeved that I hadn’t thought of it first, but I also decided I’d like to buy one of them, when I could scrape sufficient money together.

Fobbington done with, we went out on the long marsh road towards Darklight Cove. Halfway along is one of our largest caravan parks, and inevitably I knew that Misty would suggest I put that on the website as well. Although it’s open all year round, in January there are only a handful of hardy souls braving it. I could only assume this vast campsite, containing only a few guests, would be quite eerie at the moment, and it made me wonder what sort of people would want to do it. Only to come to the conclusion that they were probably like me, and wanted somewhere quirky and quiet.

There are no trees in Darklight Cove, a bit like the Orkney Islands really, from what I dimly remember. The wind whips this place so strongly and so frequently that nothing would stand a chance. The only plant-life is gorse bushes, and bits of scrub. There are no proper houses either, only wooden chalets, caravans, and converted railway carriages, scattered around at random. Nobody could say Darklight Cove was a beautiful place, but it inspires a lot of love and devotion amongst its inhabitants, who seem to get a real perverse kick out of living in the shadow of the reactor. As we drove into the village there was a sign saying that The Darklight Players were putting on a production of “Jack And The Beanstalk” at the Community Hall. I had a feeling that if Misty suggested I put that on the website I would brain him, but fortunately I don’t think he noticed it.

I’ve often roamed over the shingly dunes at Darklight, getting inspiration to paint the old lighthouse, or even the fishermen who huddle on the shore. Standing at the sea-edge at Darklight can really give you a feeling of staring into infinity, as though you were at the edge of the world. But however poetic I get about Darklight Cove, (and I love it almost as much as the people who live there), nothing can alter the stark fact that the sea is more often than not an un-alluring shade of gunmetal grey, (usually to match the sky!), and that many people will find the shingle, the lack of vegetation, not to mention the looming presence of the constantly thrumming reactor, a real turn-off.

Giving a heartfelt sigh I suggested we go for a drive round the neighbourhood. Misty sat placidly in the passenger seat as I drove around the roads and lanes, trying to think of a way to make potential visitors see this area in the same enchanted way that Misty and I saw it. On our way home we called in at a pub on the harbour at Fobbington for an early evening meal. Even though it was barely 6 o’clock a sizeable crowd of rowdy youngsters were already in, and were already well on their way to making a night of it. This was becoming increasingly a concern for some of the older inhabitants of Fobbington, worried that their town was losing its quaint, chintzy image, washed away by the binge-drinking epidemic which seemed to be afflicting the entire country, threatening to swill us all into the sea on a tidal wave of vomit, (and I speak as someone who regularly drinks far more than is the recommended daily dose). After coming from the surreal, quirky peace of Darklight Cove, this was like being thumped over the head with a brick.

At the end of the meal I insisted on accompanying Misty to the lavatory, as otherwise I had a feeling he might get picked on by some of the lads in the bar. This has happened sometimes, and it’s a constant worry to me. Misty is usually too dreamy and good-natured to remotely see trouble approaching. It was a good job I did, as one young lout, already steaming, lost his rag with the paper towel dispenser whilst we were in there, and wrenched it off the wall.

It was a relief to get back to ‘Barnacles’, a relief compounded by a thick fog that was rapidly developing over the area. I switched on the television, where a bunch of unsightly C-list actors were making facile jokes about the British not being able to cope with sex. Speak for yourselves! I said, and decided to switch if off again and give Misty a bath. When it came to washing his hair, I took all my clothes off and got in behind him. The bathroom at ‘Barnacles’ would no doubt be described by estate agents as “needing updating”. Granny didn’t exactly go in for power-showers, wet rooms and bidets. And I haven’t had the money to change matters. Our shower is a rubber hose attachment which fits on the bath-taps.

The telephone in the living-room rang whilst we were thus engaged, but I ignored it. It rang again whilst I was drying us both off, and I ignored it again.

“What if it rings a third time?” said Misty “Whoever it is seems pretty persistent”.

“I’ll try 1471 in a minute”, I said “See if it’s anyone important”.

“What if they with-held their number?” said Misty.

“Then I say arseholes to them!” I said, which made Misty laugh.

It did ring again, and this time whoever it was seemed determined they weren’t going to give up. Putting on a towelling dressing-gown and thick socks, I went into the living-room.

“I saw you in Fobbington today”, came the kind of posh male voice that you could imagine as a villain in a James Bond film “I was in Mr Beresford’s shop, and I saw you looking at the display of my pictures”.

“Oh right”, I said (another artist ringing up, that’s all I need!) “I’m afraid I can’t afford to buy one at the moment”.

“Not to worry”, said the voice, with irritating nonchalance “What did you think of them?”

“Well they’re rather good”, I said, not feeling remotely in the mood to go into an in-depth art critique at that moment “Rather atmospheric”.

(’Atmospheric’ is a word I know I use rather a lot, but most of the time I honestly can’t think of a better one).

“Good”, said the measured, posh voice “I would like to come and see you right now, if that’s alright”.

(No it damn well wasn’t!).

“I don’t think this is a very convenient time”, I said, rattled by his calm acceptance that I could just drop everything and be totally awed by the prospect of him dropping in “And there’s quite a fog out there, it’s not really a good night for driving”.

“Oh that’s quite alright”, said the voice “I’m sitting at the end of your lane as a matter of fact, on my mobile”.

(This was distinctly unnerving, like finding out you’ve got a stalker).

“How did you know I lived here?” I said.

“Mr Beresford told me”, said the voice.

(Right, he gets a rocket up his arse next time I call in there, giving out my private address to all-and-sundry!).

“He seemed to think you wouldn’t mind”, the voice went on “Fellow artist and all that”.

“Well what is it you want to discuss?” I said, wishing I had my Father’s knack of simply slamming down the phone or the door on somebody he didn’t wish to speak to.

“Please can I come in?” said the voice “Even in my car, it’s rather cold out here”.

Wearily, I gave in, although a little niggling thought at the back of my mind said “isn’t it usually vampires who have to wait to be asked in?” But, (and I gave a heavy sigh), I suppose it’s not unreasonable for one artist to want to call on another one when they find they live in the same neighbourhood. I told Misty rather forcefully that he would have to go to bed. Misty protested. If I was having a visitor, he wanted to see him as well.

“Don’t give me trouble, I’m not in the mood!” I said.

“I don’t think it’s right that I get packed off to bed when you have someone calling”, he said.

“It’s for your own good!” I said “He could be anybody!”

I practically shovelled him into bed, and tucked the duvet around him, as though I was restraining a difficult patient in a lunatic asylum. Within a few minutes I knew that Misty would be fast asleep. He had a childlike ability (which I had often envied) of being able to suddenly drop into a deep slumber without any effort at all.

My caller was younger than I had expected. From the impeccable Charles Gray-style voice I had expected a rather suave old gent of pension able age, in fact he was only in his thirties. He was tall and fairly well-built, and handsome in an unconventional sort of way. Although I couldn’t help but cattily notice that his hair was greasy, and that the long black raincoat he wore looked like a throwback to the 1980s, with its broad shoulders.

“Can I get you some tea or a coffee?” I said.

“Do you have anything stronger?” he asked.

(Bloody cheek!).

“Well are you sure you want something stronger when you’ve got to drive on a night like this?” I said. (I don’t have many great moral values, God knows, but I do disapprove rather strongly of drink-driving. In fact, as I have been reliably informed in the past, I can be a bit of an old woman on the subject).

“Having one is within the drink-drive limits isn‘t it?” he said, throwing off his coat and abandoning it on the floor “What do you have?”

“Jack Daniels mainly”, I said, and I reluctantly gave him a shot from my precious supply of the Tennessee firewater.

“Yes I saw you today”, he said, having taken a healthy slug of it “I was talking to Mr Beresford, and I noticed you through the window looking at my display. You had that funny little lad with you. I’ve sometimes seen him around here. He talks to himself when he’s walking on his own”.

As you can probably imagine, I’m rather sensitive about Misty. He’s too much of an easy target for arrogant twits to sneer and laugh at.

“Where did you meet him?” asked my caller.

“Back in London”, I said, and that was the most information he was going to get out of me on that subject. Living a rather reclusive lifestyle, as I do, I am quite paranoid about other people being too inquisitive. If I wanted people to poke and pry into my affairs I would have stayed in my old life. I did not come out to live here at ’Barnacles’ so that people could snoop on me.

“What did you want to talk about?” I said, trying to steer him back to the subject of work “I admire what you’ve done, but as I said on the telephone, I can’t afford to buy one of your pictures just yet”.

“You liked the way I captured the moonlight on the marshes?” he said.

“Yes”, I said, honestly “Lay-people often think that sort of thing is so easy to do, but it’s not, it’s technically very hard”.

“I got the idea from an old picture I unearthed in the flea-market building by the harbour”, he said “I wanted a series of pictures that captured the unique feel of this whole area”.

“Well I think you’ve done that”, I said.

“I would like to take you out there”, he said “When there’s a full moon say, and show you what inspired me”.

I thought that I could quite easily show myself the full moon on the marshes just by walking up along the sea-wall sometime, and I certainly didn’t show much enthusiasm for his suggestion. I thought the man was shifty, in some hard-to-define sort of way.

“I’m going to make some tea”, I said, (whether you like it or not, Sunny Jim!), and I went into the little galley kitchen and set to work. Whilst I did so I kept glancing through the open door where I had a direct view of our bedroom door, just to make sure that my unwelcome guest didn’t get any ideas about going for a little prowl around whilst Misty was sleeping. I don’t normally see every unknown man I meet as a potential molester, but as I said, there was something decidedly shifty about this guy.

When I got back into the living-room though, I found that my visitor had helped himself to another JD, a very extravagant one, (almost a tumbler-full), and was working his way through it with gusto. I was intensely irritated by this. JD is one of my few little indulgences in life, and I can’t afford to buy more than one or, at the very most, two bottles a week of it.

“I hope you don’t mind”, he said, although from the look on my face he must surely have seen that I did. The man’s chutzpah was breathtaking! It wasn’t just his guzzling my precious supply that was annoying, but the fact that he was now over-the-limit, and I would have a much harder job of showing him the door.

“Do you live far from here then?” I said, hoping that it was reasonably within walking distance.

“Darklight Cove”, he said (oh shit, that’s nearly 5 miles away!).

“I saw you there today as well”, he said “Are you going to paint our funny little estate?”

I explained about the website, and how I was trying to find ideas for it.

“Yes, not easy”, he said, leaning back leisurely in my chair “Why don’t you just take some photographs of the beach?”

“That’s what Misty suggested”, I said, I hadn’t wanted to mention Misty again, but it’s hard not to when you love somebody. They have a way of popping up into conversations.

“What exactly is the matter with him?” he said.

“Nothing is the matter with him”, I snapped “In fact, this bloody mad world could do with a few more pure-hearted souls like Misty in it!”

“I only asked because he is rather a one-off isn’t he?” he said “Does he have any family?”

“He hasn’t seen them for a long time”, I said “And I haven’t seen mine”.

“Oh like that is it?” he said, and he seemed to brighten considerably at this news, which only unnerved me even more “It’s not easy to sacrifice everything for love is it?”

“That’s a rather old-fashioned way of looking at it”, I said.

“Nevertheless it still goes on”, he said “The world isn’t always quite the cosmopolitan place everybody thinks it is. I haven’t given you my name yet. I’m Rufus Franklin”.

“You already know mine I take it”, I said “Mr Beresford must have told you”.

“He did indeed”, said Franklin (I couldn’t for the life of me think of him as anything so chummy as Rufus, a name which summed up images of hearty, good-humoured cuddly men with red beards, about a million miles away from this reptilian creature sat in front of me) “Oh dear, I think I’m feeling rather tiddly”.

This silly, undignified, somewhat school-girlish way of putting it irritated me.

“Hardly surprising is it!” I snapped.

“I will have to buy you another bottle tomorrow to replace this one”, he said, and I knew what that meant instantly. By offering to do that it gave him ’carte blanche’ to guzzle his way through the rest of it. I wasn’t having that, so I stood up to take it from him. He laughed and pulled it away from me.

“Fuck you!” I said “I’m tired, and I want to go to bed. I’m not in the mood for this!”

“Then go to bed”, he said “I can sleep here on your sofa”.

This was rapidly becoming like one of those nightmare scenarios you see in films. Complete stranger (who of course is a total fruitcake) turns up, and before you know it, they’ve moved in and taken over your life. I went over to the window and pulled up the blind. The fog had got worse if anything. I couldn’t see the end of our front path. I would have to be some sort of monster, or at least, irresponsible fool, to turn a pissed man out into it to drive home.

“You drank all that on purpose didn’t you?” I said.

He shrugged, and didn’t seem bothered about answering.

“You leave first thing in the morning”, I said, and went to find him a duvet.

When I returned I made a point of unplugging the electric fire. It costs a great deal of money to keep running, and I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t going to leave it on just for his sake. The slimey idiot seemed to find all this very funny. I notice he didn’t find it so bloody amusing when I confiscated the remains of my precious JD, and hid it under my bed!

I slept surprisingly well, considering how annoyed I was by our unwelcome visitor. It was barely daylight when I woke up, and Misty had left the bed. I could hear him moving about in the kitchen, but I still felt a panic at first. I didn’t want him roaming the house on his own, not with Rufus Franklin at large in it. I yelled Misty’s name.

“That man has gone”, said Misty, standing in the bedroom doorway. He was wearing a luridly-coloured pair of boxer shorts, and a torn woolly vest which had seen better days. I decided that I would need to take him back into Fobbington, and get him some new clothes.

“When did he go?” I said.

“I don’t know”, Misty shrugged “He was gone when I got up just now. Must have gone in the night”.

I could tell that Misty was annoyed with me. When Misty gets a little riled his eyes and his mouth seem to go into overdrive, constantly opening and closing, like a little cartoon character. He also then has a tendency to crack his knuckles.

“I didn’t want him to stay”, I said, irritably, fumbling into my dressing-gown “I don’t know what you’re getting so narked about. We’re going shopping later, to get you some new clothes”.

Normally, the prospect of Getting The Car Out two days on the trot, would have filled Misty with untold excitement, but his annoyance with me clearly wasn’t going to go away in a hurry. He sat strapped into the passenger seat like a morose bundle of washing, all the while that I was trying to defrost the car.

“We’ll pop into The Shop whilst we’re there as well”, I said, getting into the driver’s seat. The Shop being Mr Beresford’s emporium, where I sold my pictures.

“Are you gonna have a go at Mr Beresford as well then?” he snapped.

“I am not having a go at anybody, although it could be arranged!” I said, slapping the steering-wheel “I just want to know more about that Franklin creature. And if Beresford can give out my personal details to all and sundry, he can give me Franklin‘s!”

“What do you want to know more about Franklin for?” said Misty, swivelling his head to face me, and fixing me with his little cartoon stare.

“Not what you’re obviously thinking!” I said, and I was really cross this time. Something about Franklin revolted me quite honestly, and no, I am not one of these peculiar people for whom the lines between attraction and repulsion get blurred. If someone repels me, they repel me, and that’s it.

“Something about Franklin is decidedly dodgy”, I explained “And that’s another thing, I meant to say to you first thing, I don’t want you wandering about the village on your own at the moment. You can still go and play golf, because I can see you from the house, but that’s it”.

“You think Franklin is a murderer?” he said, breathless with excitement.

“I don’t know what he is!” I said, in exasperation “Apart from a prize creep! Either way, we have to be careful, on our guard. And you know what you’re like, you’re too trusting, you’ll speak to anybody”.

“I won’t speak to him!” said Misty, determinedly.

“Let’s just close this subject for a few minutes shall we?” I said “I’m sick of it!”

Mr Beresford looks like a character from a 1970s sitcom, sort of musty old lawyer, or dusty draper’s assistant. He has long grey hair which he wears slicked back, huge dark-rimmed spectacles, and he always wears a black suit and tie, as though he’s just come back from a funeral. I think some visitors have found him a bit off-putting, as well you might walking into what you thought was a charming little picture shop, only to find him, The Keeper Of The Crypt, greeting you! Matters aren’t helped by the fact that he insists on having classical music blasting at full volume all day long. You can hardly hear yourself think, let alone have a decent conversation. Fobbington abounds in such characters as Mr Beresford. I once heard a tale that a few years ago some actress, who had been filming a 1930s period drama in the town, had gone into a shop in full costume to pick something up, and nobody had batted an eyelid at her outfit. Her comment was that she felt she fitted in rather well! You simply expect to see eccentric, out-dated people in Fobbington. Misty insists on standing just inside the doorway when I visit Beresford’s emporium. He won’t come any closer!

“Yes Mr Franklin was showing rather a lot of interest in you as well”, said Beresford, practically leering.

How I didn’t brain him with one of his own pictures is way beyond me! I restrained myself, but it was hard.

“He said he lived out at Darklight Cove”, I said.

“Yes, a little cottage called Lobster Pots”, said Mr Beresford “I’m sure you’ll find it if you look for it”.

“I have no intention of looking for it!” I said, which was a big fat lie as I wanted to know where the bastard lived “How long has he been living in this area?”

“Only since October”, said Mr Beresford “Very much a newcomer. But I hope he stays, his pictures are generating a lot of interest”.

“Yes I’m sure they are”, I said.

“I think he lived abroad before he came here, although English by birth of course”, said Mr Beresford (oh of course!) “He often talks as though he’s been out of the country a while, still finding his feet settling back in. You can see he finds the old country has changed somewhat, even here in Fobbington”.

Back outside again, Misty said he wanted a cup of tea, so I took him to a pub up beyond the Church, which overlooks the marshes. Although Fobbington abounds in tea-rooms, I try to avoid them, as even at this time of year, they are a refuge for tourists, and I often find these people, well-meaning though they are, exhausting in their enthusiasm for all that Fobbington has to offer.

’The Fiddler’s Rest’, by contrast, was a peaceful haven on a cold winter’s day. There was a spitting log fire just inside the door, and the soft murmur of voices up at the bar. I parked Misty by the fire, and I ordered our tea. I recognised one of the men standing at the bar as someone who, like Franklin, had recently returned here after many years. He was a local boy though, and had been away for about 20 years. He constantly said how glad he was to be back in Fobbington. It seemed to be somewhere that people couldn’t help returning to. After a few minutes I caught disturbing snippets of conversation from them at the bar, phrases like “absolutely dreadful”, “you’re not safe anywhere these days‘, and “how can anyone do a thing like that?”

Misty was busily engaged in examining a hole in the toe of one of his socks, so I could concentrate unhindered. What I heard sent my skin prickling. A man’s body had been found lying beside the cycle-track which ran alongside the road, which cut through the marshes from Fobbington to Darklight Cove, just beyond the big campsite. Misty and I had driven that way only yesterday. It is a bleak bit of landscape there, even in high summer, at this time of year it is positively forbidding. The only houses around there are a couple of old coastguards’ houses, which are set way back from the road. The army used to use that area for firing practice, but even they’ve abandoned it in recent years. The man (identity so far unspecified) had been found by a local woman out walking her dogs along the track early this morning. He had been disembowelled.

Of course I immediately thought of Franklin, and I don’t mean as the victim! The thought that he had been staying at my place last night only brought me a momentary relief, as no one had yet deduced when this poor chap had been killed. Franklin could have done it before coming to see me, (the darkness and the thick freezing fog would have kept the body undetected from the roadway) or at any time after I had gone to bed. I must have fallen asleep around 11:30, and Franklin was gone from the house by the time Misty got up soon after 7. So he could have left ‘Barnacles’ at any time between 11:30 and 7, and the chances seemed high that the murder could have taken place then.

When we got back to ‘Barnacles’ I put on the local news Teletext service. Looking at the headlines for this you’d have thought our tranquil little seaside county was slap bang in the middle of a war zone! “MAN STABBED IN PUB BRAWL”, “YOUNG GIRL SEXUALLY ASSAULTED ON HER WAY HOME FROM SCHOOL”, “MYSTERIOUS ARSON ATTACKS AT FARM BUILDINGS”, “PENSIONER ROBBED BY BOGUS CHARITY-COLLECTOR”, “AMNESIA VICTIM FOUND WANDERING ALONG COUNTRY ROAD” and then finally (big fanfare please) “POLICE TO TACKLE GRAFITTI PROBLEM”. “Well that should give them something to do!” I snarled, disgusted by this. No mention of the murdered man on the cycle-track. But I think our local news stuff is only updated once a day, so perhaps it was too soon .

As I sat over another cup of tea, this time in front of my own electric fire, I brooded on what the implications of this horrid latest development could mean for us. If Franklin was the culprit (and however much I tried to tell myself this was just a wild flight of fancy, I never entirely managed to convince myself), then this could mean bad news for Misty and I. We had sheltered Franklin on the fateful night. He had been publicly showing an interest in me, and I had been showing an interest in him (I had no doubt whatsoever that Mr Beresford would enjoy telling everyone all they wanted to hear). At the very least we would be guilty by association. It honestly wasn’t myself I was concerned about, but protecting Misty had become second-nature for me, as natural a reflex action as breathing. It broke my heart to think of what the glare of mass publicity could do to him.

Perhaps because of this I became even more reclusive than normal over the next few days. I made the excuse that I had a lot of work to catch up on, which also gave me an excuse to keep the phone unplugged. Misty still went out to play golf, but I watched him obsessively from the house. The murdered man did crop up on the local news, but if the police knew his identity they weren’t releasing it yet. The general consensus seemed to be that the poor guy was a down-and-out, who had been sleeping rough near the cycle track on that fateful night. Presumably the police were having trouble tracing any next-of-kin he might have had, or perhaps they simply hadn’t established his identity. I can’t imagine tramps carry much in the way of personal ID around with them, not being prone to driving licences, passports, credit cards, donor cards, library cards, and all the other junk that the rest of us have to carry. All we had been told was that he was aged somewhere between 35 and 45.

Towards the end of the week, as January turned into February, I realised we were getting a bit low on supplies. Normally I would bung a little wad of cash into Misty’s hot little hand and despatch him out to the mini-mart. But, like an over-anxious parent with a small child, I wasn’t letting him out of my sight these days, so we went together. I badly needed the exercise anyway, having been banged up in the house for most of the week. Outside the mini-mart was a billboard, and on it some words which made my blood run cold: “SECOND BRUTAL MURDER”.

I remember a couple of years there had been a spate of burglaries down one street near here, all in the space of a few days. Whilst it had been going on, the atmosphere around here had been electric. It was the one topic of conversation, and the air was thick with speculation. (Nobody ever was brought to book for it). Murder of course being a much more serious event, it was natural that the electric atmosphere was even more significant.

This second victim was a man of 57, a married man, and father of 3 grown-up children, who had lived at Fobbington. He had been a keen fisherman, and frequently liked to go night-fishing at Darklight Cove, the same as so many others did. It was here that his body was found, lying in the dunes, under the shadow of the reactor. His throat had been torn out. The fact that both victims so far had been adult males naturally led to the speculation that the murderer was gay. Normally I personally would have had my doubts about this. Gay serial-killers tend to target easy pickings, like rent-boys, or lonely men they pick up in bars and clubs, or on the Internet. I had thought it was rare for them to just target anyone at random like this (although certainly not unknown). There were two other factors. The victims (to the best of our knowledge, which so far was admittedly very limited) didn’t appear to have been gay themselves, they just had the sheer misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, (again our knowledge was limited), the victims didn’t appear to have been sexually assaulted in any way. The savagery of the killings was bad enough, God knows, but the killer clearly got his kicks from that in itself.

So yes normally, I would have been dubious about assuming the killer was gay. Whoever was responsible for all this was simply a mad-man - a berserker is the correct psychological term for it - someone prone to fits of violent insanity perhaps, where killing becomes a compulsion, and just about anyone would do. It was sheer coincidence that so far his victims had both been men. Around hereabouts you’re far more likely to come across a man out on his own late at night than a woman. Fobbington, Shinglesea and Darklight Cove aren’t exactly red light zones, with lone female prostitutes soliciting passing traffic! But, but, BUT, I couldn’t get Rufus Franklin out of my head. That man was clearly not the full picnic. He was shifty, creepy, intimidating. Misty thought my idea of alerting the police to him was downright bonkers. And he was right. It was fraught with danger.

“Suspicion will fall on us as well”, he said “People always suspect everybody at times like this, and particularly people who are different like us. We must look really weird to some people!”

“That’s their problem!“ I snapped.

“I know that!” he said “But what if they was to arrest you? What would happen to me?”

“Isn’t that being a tad selfish?” I said. Although I knew Misty didn’t mean it that way, he hasn’t got a selfish bone in his body. If I was mistakenly taken into police custody he would worry himself sick about me. He’d probably insist on bringing me my meals! But he was also right to be concerned about himself. It wasn’t just the practical things, that he needed me to keep an eye on him, but that people being what they are, he would be targeted by them in their thirst for some form of revenge, and there was no way he would be able to cope with that.

“We would have no alibi’s”, Misty continued “We would only have each other as witnesses to our movements when the murders were done, and people would say we were just covering up for each other”.

“I know”, I said, miserably “But what if there is another murder, what if there are several murders? And then it turns out it WAS Rufus Franklin doing them all along? We would have to live forevermore with the knowledge that we could have saved those people!”

“We need more evidence that it’s him”, said Misty “We can’t just go on a gut feeling, you know that. The police would want to know why we had it in for him, and we don’t have any solid grounds, other than that he gives us the creeps!”

To say we were fraught with worry over all this would be a considerable understatement. I pondered the idea of calling the police anonymously, and leaving a tip-off. You’re always hearing the words “the police are following up an anonymous tip-off” so why shouldn’t that be me? I could call from one of the public phones down by the railway station at Fobbington, as I thought the police might be able to trace my home number, even if I with-held it. For once, I wished I took more notice of true crime and all that it concerned. I wasn’t a reader of detective novels, I didn’t watch crime drama’s on the television, I knew virtually next to nothing about police procedurals. All I did know was that I simply couldn’t sit at home, and wait for the next poor sod to get butchered late one night. But I still couldn’t figure out what to do.

At Misty’s suggestion we went out for a walk along the top of the sea-wall. This path-way is so narrow that you have to walk in single-file, and Misty trudged along behind me. Apart from a couple of dog-walkers on the beach, and a girl who was jogging some distance ahead of us, a personal stereo clamped over her ears, we seemed to have the area to ourselves. I was trying to plan in my head how I would go about the anonymous phone call. Park the car in Budgen’s car-park as we normally did, I thought, and … what then? In old films, somebody making an anonymous call would put a hankie over the mouthpiece to disguise their voice, would I need to do that?

“Why don’t we go and see him?” Misty suddenly said “Franklin I mean”.

“Go and see him?” I exclaimed “And say what?”

“Ask him outright if he did the murders”, said Misty.

(At times like this you have to love Misty very much not to want to clout him!).

“And as if he’s going to tell us!” I said, sarcastically “’Yes it was me, fair cop, guvnor’!”

“He might”, said Misty “He’s such a strange one. And if he doesn’t, well we might get some valuable clues”.

“What, like a couple of bloodstained hacksaws lying around his living-room perhaps?!” I said.

“If you’re just gonna be sarcastic all the time, I shall go home!” said Misty, crossly. And even though I had my back to him, I could just imagine his little cartoon eyes flashing in annoyance.

We were coming near ‘The Waterwitch’, a pub which looks as though it’s tucked into the bottom of the sea-wall, when you approach it from the road. I decided to appease Misty by taking him for a drink. We went down a steep flight of concrete steps, and into the old tavern. Normally, on a weekday lunch-time at this time of year, you can easily find you’re the only customer, but today a party of cyclists had come over from Fobbington, the sort that motorists disparagingly refer to as The Lycra Brigade. I was quite glad about this, as it meant Misty and I could carry on talking without worrying that every word we said was echoing noisily around in the emptiness. Another advantage to ‘The Waterwitch’ is that the landlady always keeps the fire in the bar lit at this time of year. You would be amazed how many don’t bother, and think it’s alright for their customers to pay to sit in a freezing cold bar, with one poxy radiator turned to lukewarm!

“You not drinking then?” said Misty, looking astonished at the glass of orange juice I had put down in front of me “Are we really broke again?”

“I’m just hedging my bets”, I said “In case we decide to Get The Car Out this afternoon”.

“Where to?” said Misty.

“Darklight Cove”, I said, mumbling as low as I could, although the gang of cyclists were making so much noise you’d have had a hard job hearing machine-gun fire in the nearby locality!

“To see HIM?” Misty whispered.

“Take your coat off, or you won’t feel the benefit of it when we go back outside”, I said, having an unnerving feeling I sounded just like my Mother.

“Will we confront him openly?” he said.

This was a dangerous conversation to have, even in a noisy bar, so I simply murmured that we would have more chance to discuss this properly back home.

“If you wear your glasses”, he said “You’ll look quite intelligent, and then he might feel intimidated”.

“Misty, I think it’ll take more than me turning up with my specs on to intimidate HIM!” I said.

A middle-aged woman caught the last bit of what we had said, and smiled at Misty indulgently. He frequently gets that effect from older women, who most likely all feel motherly towards him. Misty might be an odd little thing, but he’s also very cute, and he brings out their maternal instincts. I think they probably all want to bounce him up and down on their knee!

“We’ll go and call on him this afternoon”, I said.

We walked home, and my heart went into palpitations when I saw a slip of paper sticking out of our letter-box. A note from Franklin perhaps? It turned out to be a flyer from the Blossom Tree Tea-Rooms (Fobbington, you’d never have guessed would you?) informing us that they were now open again after their Christmas and New Year break. How on earth did we manage without them?!

It was a cold but breezy, bright day, and as we drove up through the marshes towards Darklight Cove, I couldn’t help thinking that in happier times (I.e before these damn murders started happening) the endless sky would have inspired my artist’s soul no end. People had been leaving bunches of flowers at the roadside near where the first victim had been found. I know some cynics complain about this modern custom, but I rather like it. As someone whose main contact with the outside world is with constantly-swearing, oafish, world-weary pillocks on the Internet, I am always touched when I see that human warmth and compassion are still around.

‘Lobster Pots’ wasn’t hard to find, it was actually very near the entrance to the Darklight Cove estate. It also stood out because it was one of the few houses in the area that laid some pretence to having a proper garden. Most of the houses around here seem to be just plonked down on the scrubland, and gardens are very minimal to say the least. But a previous owner (I found it hard to believe that it was Franklin) had taken some trouble to lay out plants and flowers, although it‘s impossible to have any kind of a lawn round here. Another clue that this probably wasn’t Franklin’s handiwork was that the garden was looking neglected. The building was an old fisherman’s cottage, which still had the outside wooden steps going up to the loft where he would have stored his nets.

Franklin’s car was parked to the side of the house, so naturally enough I assumed he was in. But when I got out (telling Misty to stay in the car for a moment), two lads working on their own car at a nearby house shouted that he had gone down to the pub in the village. I thanked them, got back in the car, and drove us down one of those long, very straight roads peculiar to Darklight Cove, which are reminiscent of an airport runway. As we approached ’The Glider’ (Darklight Cove’s pub, needless to say), we saw Franklin approaching us along the side of the road. He spotted us immediately, and his face became contorted with anxiety. He looked ill, as though he hadn’t eaten properly for some time, and his hair looked greasier than ever. The ancient long black coat flapped around him as though he was an abandoned scarecrow.

“What are you doing here?” he said, when I pulled up beside him.

“Looking for you”, I said “We need to talk to you”.

Franklin looked behind him at the pub, and then over the road at The Old Lighthouse, as though these would be good places for a conversation.

“It’s very serious what I have to say”, I said “We need to talk in complete private. Can we go back to your place?”

“You shouldn’t have brought The Boy”, said Franklin, which annoyed me, as however cute and sweet Misty is, he is well over the age of consent!

“There is nothing we cannot say in front of Misty”, I said, abruptly.

Franklin got into the back seat of my car, with surprisingly meek obedience. But then again, he appeared to be washed out and lacking in energy, that he didn’t seem to be capable of aggressive rebellion. Not for the first time I wondered if Franklin had a serious drink problem. His erratic behaviour, and his neglect of himself, all seemed to point to that. When we reached ‘Lobster Pots’ my fears almost seemed to be confirmed. Franklin’s kitchen was in an old lean-to tacked onto the side of the cottage. It looked dusty and unused. Franklin had the means to make us a cup of coffee, but that was about it. I somehow had the feeling he didn’t keep much in the way of food in the house. I found myself beginning to feel sorry for him. My fears that he was the killer were receding fast. Franklin didn’t have it in him to harm anyone, other than himself.

I have often been called bossy in my life, it’s not something I can avoid, particularly as I spend most of my time keeping an eye on Misty, and I found myself going into bossy-overdrive when I saw the conditions in which Franklin was living.

“I don’t spend much time here if I can help it”, said Franklin, still wearing his black coat, which was understandable as the place was freezing “I have a studio down near the harbour in Fobbington, and I work there. I keep all my equipment there. Sometimes I sleep there too, although it doesn‘t have a proper kitchen or bathroom, so it‘s not the most practical arrangement really. I only make fleeting visits here if I can help it”.

“What made you buy this place then?” I asked.

“I wanted to come back to this area”, he said “I had fond memories of holidays here when I was a child”.

“Like you”, said Misty to me.

“Quite”, I said, uneasily, wondering if many of us in this area were all desperately searching to regain that time of lost fun and innocence.

“I saw this place advertised on a property website”, said Franklin “I was staggered how cheap it was going for. I looked at prices of other properties in the area, and I knew I didn’t have a hope of affording them! And it’s almost impossible to get a mortgage when you’re not on a regular income”.

“Don’t I know it!” I said, grateful more than ever for Granny’s legacy of ‘Barnacles’.

“So this place was a godsend”, Franklin continued “It had been rented out for several years before I bought it, and the only people who had had it in the past couple of years was a gang of students who had rented it for a few weeks last summer, during the long holidays I presume, and there’s the rub, as the saying goes”.

“The students?” I said “Did they trash the place or something?”

“Oh no, not at all”, said Franklin “By all accounts, they were reasonably well-behaved, for students anyway. I only found out after I had been here for a couple of weeks, from one of my neighbours, that the students had foolishly tried a ouija board session here late one night, and I think that is the root of my trouble”.

“You mean somebody came through?” I said.

“Not somebody, some THING”, he said “I can see you’re sceptical”.

“Well I have to say it’s the sort of thing people are normally sceptical about!” I said “It’s not as if we’re still living in the Middle Ages is it? Believing in Incubi and Succubi and all that jazz”.

“Believe it or not”, he said, shortly “That appears to have been what’s happened”.

“Have you seen it?” I said.

“Heard it”, he said “A sort of heavy scraping noise along the walls late at night in the living-room, that’s why I don’t sleep here if I can help it”.

“And why you were so desperate to stay at our place the other night”, I said.

“As for seeing”, he went on “I have seen something. I can show it to you now, it’s in the other room”.

It was at this point that I believed emphatically that he was mad. Misty got up, as though to follow us, but I signalled for him to stay in his seat, for which I was rewarded with a very disgruntled look.

“This thing”, said Franklin, taking me through a doorway into a very dark little hallway “Is not human. I’m not quite sure what the correct way of describing it is, but it’s some sort of elemental. I know very little about these things”.

“I know even less!” I said.

He opened the door into the living-room, but cautioned me to stay on the threshold. Let me stress first and foremost that the curtains at the window were well pulled back, and that the day outside was bright and sunny (as I’ve said before), and the room was south-facing, so daylight should have been streaming in. Sunset was another 3 hours or more away so there was no chance it was going dark, neither was there a storm coming. And yet that room was DARK, really dark, as though dusk was well-advanced, and as if the house was surrounded by a thick circle of tall trees. (And I’ve already said that there are no trees in Darklight Cove). Even more disturbing, some of this darkness seemed solid, as though it was tangible. I wish I was better at describing this bizarre phenomenon, but this was something way out of my experience. All I knew was that I had never felt more disturbed before in my life, and I wanted to get out of that cottage. ‘Lobster Pots’. Doesn’t it sound a harmless little place? So very English. Like the dream seaside haven of a retired couple!

“I need to use the loo”, said Misty, when we got back to the kitchen.

“Well you’re not using it here”, I said, brusquely “I’ll drive you down to the public loos by The Old Lighthouse”.

I went on to suggest that Franklin came with us. I wouldn’t leave anybody alone in that house. As we left I noticed that he didn’t bother to lock the back door.

“I have left nothing worth stealing in there”, he said “And if anyone breaks in, well I wish them the best of luck!”

“I think you should lock it to protect people”, I said, well aware that I was sounding stuffy.

Franklin sighed and did so. He drove his own car, which was a strong signal he had no intention of returning to the cottage. He followed us down to the main part of the village, and came over to my car to talk to me whilst Misty used the facilities.

“Those murders”, he said “Did you suspect me?”

“Your behaviour was very odd the other night”, I said “The night of the first murder”.

“I was desperate to get sanctuary for the night I suppose”, he said, leaning against my car window “I’ve been spending these past few weeks either sleeping at my studio, or roaming the marshes. That’s where I got the ideas for my Moonlight On The Marshes series. The murders have rather robbed me of my appetite for wandering around alone at night though! I’ve heard some people comparing them to the Jack The Ripper murders. Particularly the way the first one was disembowelled”.

“Like the way The Ripper did the women of Whitechapel”, I said.

“The Ripper used surgical methods”, said Franklin “No surgical knife was used on those men. Whoever, WHATEVER, did them ripped out their parts with its bare hands. Whatever did that was not human”.

“Humans are capable of animal savagery though”, I said “Plenty of murderers have been savage beasts in their methods”.

“I know”, he said “But not like this”.

“You think a wild animal did this?” I said.

He sighed again, and gave me a look that made me fully aware that he thought I was being spectacularly obtuse. Perhaps I was, but then again this kind of conversation is not one that you have every day!

“The … The Thing in my house did them”, he said “Don’t look at me like that, I’m certain of it”.

“It’s going to be rather difficult to put that one to the police!” I exclaimed “If what you say is true, then we must call in a priest, or a professional exorcist. Somebody who can banish it”.

“You think I haven’t tried?” he said “The Church isn’t exactly willing to get involved in this sort of thing. They have no time for Bell, Book and Candle these days”.

Misty emerged from the loos, and ambled over to us.

“We’ll talk about this again at home”, I said.

“I suppose he’s staying here is he?” said Misty, looking boot-faced.

We were putting together what my Mother would have called “a scratch-meal” back in the galley kitchen at ’Barnacles’. I had offered Franklin the use of our bathroom, so that he could try and make himself look more presentable. Recently, the limits of his ablutions had been having a shave in his car.

“Only for a couple of nights”, I said “Then I expect he’ll make his own way”.

“You like him don’t you?” he said, fiercely.

“Not particularly”, I replied, making it a point of honour, as I always did, to be scrupulously honest with Misty “But I do feel sorry for him”.

“Like you felt sorry for me when you first met me?” he said, eyes flashing.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” I stormed back “I don’t want any more of this nonsense, Misty. There are terrible things happening in this neighbourhood, and I need your support, not petty little jealous rages!”

“I’m sorry”, said Misty, and he began to cry, which made me feel like a complete arsehole.

I tried to comfort him the best I could.

“I’m just so scared of you dumping me”, he wept “I couldn’t cope without you”.

“I cannot imagine anything less likely than me dumping you!” I said, gripping his shoulders “Why do you think I get so angry when you come out with this nonsense!”

“I’m sorry”, he blubbed again, but at least we were on the last-furlong.

I spent a stressful night. I seemed to keep waking up every hour, expecting to hear that something else terrible had happened. My stomach was permanently knotted. It didn’t help that ’Barnacles’ really didn’t seem cut out for having 3 adults sharing it. Misty went outside to play golf in the morning, and I felt I really should get down to some work. This wasn’t easy with Franklin in the place. Now I have no problem admitting that Franklin is by far and away the better artist out of the two of us. I am competent, I can make a horse, or a tree, or a seagull look like a horse, or a tree or a seagull. But Franklin has that Something Extra, that something magical that all creative people strive for. So it beggared belief to me that he should get jealous of me working. He didn’t seem to like it that I could just settle myself down to doing a stretch of work, without any more fanfare than that. I may not be a genius, but I am a professional, and, unlike an amateur, a professional works even when they don’t remotely feel like it.

Things got highly stressful mid-morning, when I found him poking around in our bedroom. He had opened up one of my portfolios, the one in which I kept all the work that I did purely for my own amusement, and not to be sold on. A large amount of this work is devoted to paintings and sketches of Misty. Some are of him on the veranda of the house, and some on the beach. There were also a selection of nude sketches of him, (which I secretly think is the best stuff I have ever done), and I wasn’t at ease with Franklin having a good paw over them. I had the nauseating feeling that if I hadn’t come into the room at that point his hand would have been down the front of his trousers.

Many years ago I had been looking round a bookstall in an open-air market in Southwold, and an old man nearby had been collecting some soft-porn paperbacks from the 1970s. He was the archetypal dirty-old-man-in-a-raincoat sort, even down to sucking his teeth, and making little slurping noises of satisfaction. That was who Franklin reminded me of now. The male species at its worst, in all its baseness when it comes to sex, with all its raw rotten cynicism about it.

“This is private to me”, I said, trying to snatch as many of the sketches as I could out of his grubby hands.

“Your trouble is you’re a bloody prude”, said Franklin, with that sort of schoolboy turn of phrase he sometimes uses.

“No I’m not”, I said “And even if I was, I’d rather be that than a revolting old letch!”

(Now I was sounding like a school-kid too!).

Normally I’m the sort of person who hates confrontations, and will go out of their way to avoid them. But I had had just about enough of Franklin, the fact that I had to carry on seeing him because we needed to sort out that mess at his cottage, and so avoid more people being killed, only made it worse. But I didn’t have to put up with him any longer in my house, and I asked him to leave.

“I’ll call you when I’ve booked some accommodation”, he said, as he was preparing to go “I know what you think of me, but that’s irrelevant. Bigger circumstances dictate that we have to work together”.

Misty looked up from his golf and saw him leaving. He got wildly excited about this, and ran towards me, waving his golf-club about. For one horrible moment I thought Franklin was going to reverse over him in his car, and my heart went into my mouth, but he drove off. And never was I more glad to see the back of anyone!

“He’s gone?” said Misty, breathlessly “What did you say to him?”

“I asked him to leave”, I said “It’s very simply really when you have to do it”.

Out of sight unfortunately wasn’t out of mind. Franklin preyed upon my thoughts all afternoon. I was starting to believe that he had been in prison all those years before he came to Darklight Cove. The “he’s been abroad” explanation sounded hollow now. Wasn’t that what people used to say in the old days, when they were being discreet about somebody who had been inside: “he’s been abroad”? And Franklin certainly acted like he’d been recently released. He had a vague, bewildered air about him when he was out and about, exactly like somebody who had spent several years in jail and had come out to find their old country had changed and left them behind. But then it wasn’t so long ago that I had thought he was an alcoholic, so now I was totally confused! It occurred to me that I was trying to put all sorts of rational explanations onto why Franklin was such an odd character.

At 5:30 that afternoon I had a phone call from him. He had got a room at ‘The Black Anchor’ in Fobbington, he said, and would we come and join him there for drink? I had never in my life felt less inclined to join anybody for a drink, but as he had said earlier, circumstances dictated otherwise. I decided not to drive there, as ’The Black Anchor’ has a woefully small car-park, and residents get priority with it. Parking was equally restricted in the narrow side streets around the hotel, so Misty and I got the bus into town. This had the saving grace that at least I would be able to have a drink.

I was surprised that Franklin was staying at ’The Black Anchor’. It’s not exactly posh, but it is one of Fobbington’s more pricier places to stay. I didn’t think Franklin had that kind of money. The small public bar in the hotel was packed with people watching a snooker match on the television there. There was no way we would be able to talk privately there, like trying to have a private conversation in your Aunty Lucy’s sitting-room with all the family present!

“We’ll go into the lounge”, he said, as though he owned the place.

I liked the lounge at ’The Black Anchor’, on the few occasions I’ve drunk there in the past. Everything about it is pleasingly olde-worlde, without being fossilised. The only other people in there this evening were two women playing cribbage, both looking as though they wouldn’t be out of place in an E F Benson novel. Misty was making a big fuss out of a golden Labrador who was sprawled just inside the doorway. Franklin and I sat down on the other side of the room from the women, in front of a window which offered a panoramic view of the marshes below us, lights twinkling in the darkness. Fred Astaire was warbling from a speaker overhead, which gave us some discreet cover, as did the occasional cheers and cries that went up from the bar.

“How can you afford to stay here?” I asked, feeling that I didn’t have to bother with civilities now.

“It’s not too pricey in low season”, said Franklin “Particularly as I have one of the back rooms. No view of the marshes you see. And they’re desperate to get anybody in at this time of year. If you don’t mind me saying so I think you over-reacted earlier. I didn’t think you would mind me looking at your work, and you hadn’t told me that was private stuff”.

“It was the way you were looking at it”, I said.

“Why don’t you wrap the boy in cotton-wool and have done with it?” he sneered.

“For the last time, he is not a boy!“ I said, through gritted teeth “He’s 26!”

“Not exactly a normal 26-year-old though is he?” said Franklin.

“Whatever one of those is!” I replied.

“How long have you two been together now?” said Franklin.

“I don’t think that’s relevant to the case in hand”, I said “Where have you been travelling all these years?”

“I don’t think that’s relevant to the case in hand”, said Franklin “You see, we all have our little skeletons rattling away in our closets don’t we?”

“Some skeletons are more sinister than others”, I said, determined to get my knife-thrust in if I could.

“You have nothing to fear”, Franklin sighed “You’ve virtually wrapped the b … Misty in a hijab. Keep off Franklin, keep away, that’s the message loud and clear”.

“And don’t you forget it!” I said.

“Oh don’t try and talk tough”, he said “It doesn’t suit you!”

Misty came over to join us, which at least forced us to try and be more civilised with one another.

“Right first thing’s first”, I said, adopting the businesslike tone that I wished I had used right from the start “This Thing, whatever it is, that’s in your cottage, has to be destroyed”.

“Quite so”, said Franklin “But how do you destroy something that seems to have no known shape or substance?”

“ANYTHING can be destroyed”, I said “NOTHING is invincible”.

“How very comforting it must be if you can think that”, said Franklin, with that vile sarcasm of his.

“As you’ve said yourself”, I said, with as much patience as I could muster “We need to concentrate on our priorities, and our loathing for each other is not a priority”.

Misty looked very sharply at me. As well he might, as such strong words weren’t normally my way.

“Well I very much doubt that a priest will come near the place”, said Franklin, shaking off that vile black coat at last (why the hell was he wearing it indoors at ’The Black Anchor’ anyway?!) .

“I’ll look up exorcists on the Web”, I said.

“Freelance exorcists?” he smirked.

“You can find anything these days”, I said “And even if there aren’t any, we might get some tips on how to deal with it ourselves”.

Franklin gave a harrumph of great scepticism.

“I really don’t think you appreciate the magnitude of what we’re up against”, he said “You’re treating this whole thing as though it’s simply a case of blocked drains!” he lowered his voice to a deathly whisper “Two men have been killed”.

“I know”, I said, sombrely “And God knows what else is going to happen!”

This at least seemed to do the trick of pulling us to our senses. Franklin and I were never exactly going to be the best of chums, but at least we might be able to bury our differences for long enough to try and sort this out.

“I’ll get us some more drinks”, he said, collecting up the glasses.

“It’s my shout”, I said (oh how very mate-y all of a sudden!).

“You’re MY guests this evening”, he said, fumbling in his trouser pockets for loose change “I can’t believe how pricey everything has got these days”.

(That must be the ex-con speaking surely? I thought).

“If you haven’t got enough cash on you”, I said “Why don’t you just ask them to add it to your bill?”

“I’m trying to minimise what goes on my bill!” he snapped, and carted the empty glasses off to be filled.

“He doesn’t exactly improve with knowing does he!” I said to Misty, when we were alone.

“What happened between you two earlier?” said Misty. I hadn’t told him about Franklin poring over the nude studies, and now I saw my mistake. Misty would think our bust-up had been because Franklin had been coming onto me!

Before I had a chance to answer though, there was a terrible scream coming from directly outside the hotel. We all seemed to spring to our feet as though we had been activated by a mechanism. In the small lobby an elderly man was trying to gently steer his wife through the double glass doors. The old lady was crying and screaming in the most distressing way, and holding her hand to her face. Blood seeped out between her fingers, and trickled down her face.

“My wife’s been attacked”, the old man said to the manageress “Please, an ambulance, quickly”.

The barman went to get the telephone, and the old lady was helped into the bar. A glass of brandy was fetched. When her hand was gently pulled away from her face, we all gave a collective groan of horror, because half her flesh seemed to come away with it. Something had attempted (with some considerable success) to take a massive bite out of her.

“W-what?” said one of the other customers, with understandable bewilderment “Was she attacked by a dog?”

“We didn’t see it, whatever it was”, said the old man, as his wife continued to cry “It just seemed to lunge out at us from nowhere”.

Out in the lobby Misty was sobbing and trembling almost as much as the old lady. I had to get him home, and I cursed myself for not having brought the car. Waiting for a bus and then bundling him on it in the state he was in seemed an impossible task.

“I’ll drive you”, said Franklin, as though reading my thoughts “You can’t wait around out there with all this going on. My car is parked at the end of Curfew Street”.

Curfew Street runs from ’The Black Anchor’ up to churchyard. Normally it’s a quiet side street, but this evening the silence was shattered by a burglar alarm that was letting out its continuous high-pitched whistle. The building it was attached to was a solicitor’s office, so nobody was there in the evenings. A young policeman was standing outside it, looking up at the alarm.

“I’ve contacted the key-holder, I’m waiting for him to come out”, he said, as though he was expecting us to complain about the noise.

“Get down to ‘The Black Anchor’”, said Franklin, with the kind of high-handedness I wouldn’t have expected an ex-jail-bird to use to a copper “An old woman has been viciously attacked”.

The copper didn’t react the way I was expecting him to. He seemed to dither, as though waiting for the key-holder to the solicitor’s offices was far more important than an old lady being attacked.

“Go on man!” said Franklin, in exasperation.

I was grateful for Franklin’s presence of mind in getting us home, as I was too consumed with trying to console Misty. Even so, I was annoyed when, back at ‘Barnacles’, Franklin abruptly asked me if Misty was on any medication.

“No he’s not!” I snapped “He doesn’t need medication!”

Franklin didn’t take this to heart, instead he made his farewells, and said he would ring me in the morning. After he had gone I dosed Misty with tea, laced with copious amounts of brandy and sugar. I then sat with him on my lap, stroking his hair and patting his bottom, until finally I managed to calm him enough to get him to sleep.

Very early the next morning, before it was light, I got up, put on my dressing-gown and went into the living-room. I switched on the electric fire, and then re-tuned the radio to one of our local stations. Normally I avoid this station like the plague, as it’s a never-ending diet of inane competitions that would embarrass a halfwit, and adverts that Pearl & Dean would have rejected for being too naff! But today I desperately wanted to hear about the old lady, and I knew her plight wouldn’t feature on the local Teletext yet.

At this hour of the day the news was updated every 20 minutes, and I didn’t have long to wait before the local news arrived. The old lady wasn’t the top story, that dubious honour went to a small freighter which had run aground near the camp-site a couple of miles outside of Darklight Cove. My first thought on hearing this was that I could hope to distract Misty with this one, as we would probably be able to see it from our beach here at Shinglesea. Then our old lady came on. Mrs Dinah Barrow. It was reported that she had suffered a “completely unprovoked attack” by “an unknown assailant” in the street outside ’The Black Anchor’ (that’ll be good publicity for them, I thought) in Fobbington early yesterday evening . There was a short interview with our gormless copper, PC Carl Meadows, who said he had “never seen anything like it” (in all his half-an-hour’s experience in the force presumably!) and that “whoever did this was a very sick individual”. No other details were given out, but I could understand that. If it was put about that somebody had tried to rip off Mrs Barrow’s face, then comparisons with the tramp who had had his stomach removed, and the fisherman who had had the same done to his throat, would be only too obvious.

I waited until about 9 o’clock and then I rang ’The Black Anchor’ to ask how Mrs Barrow was, explaining that I had been in there when it had happened last night. The Manageress had always struck me as a nice woman, and she was very informative, saying that Mrs Barrow (who was a resident of theirs) was still in hospital, suffering from terrible shock and she would be more than likely badly disfigured by this “vile attack”, but there was a lot of hope that she would pull through. She told me to ring anytime I wanted to know anymore. It’s this sort of compassion in a crisis which makes me so glad that I live in an area like this, bizarre happenings or not. She even gave me the ward name and the hospital where Mrs Barrow was staying, so that I could send flowers, and I resolved to do that later on that day. She concluded by saying that she had never expected to see anything like this happen in Fobbington, a sentiment to which I could only heartily concur. “Probably some idiot drugged-up”, she concluded, just before we signed off.

When Misty surfaced he had cried so much that his eyes looked as though they were gummed down. I gave him a wash and a brush up, forced some breakfast down him, and then said we would go out to the beach and look for the beached freighter. Everybody else it seemed had the same idea, as the beach was swarming with people sporting binoculars. Although Darklight Cove is a few miles from us, we had a good view of the freighter round the big sweep of the bay.

I was getting very worried about Misty. He was such an innocent little soul that I feared that everything that was happening around us would drive him into himself. It didn’t help that today he looked even more innocent than ever, with his fine fair hair, and his little snub nose. Suddenly he put his hand into mine.

“Why don’t we go back and do some work on the website?” he suggested “We haven’t done anything on it for ages. It’s only a few weeks until the season starts, and it won’t be ready at this rate”.

I said that this was an excellent idea, and we wandered back to Beach Lane. I was unspeakably annoyed to see Franklin’s car sitting outside ’Barnacles’, and Franklin sitting smoking a cigarette in the driver’s seat.

“I didn’t know he was coming”, I said to Misty, before he started on me “I thought he was just going to telephone me”.

“You’d better find out what he wants”, said Misty, tersely “Meanwhile I’ll go and put the kettle on”.

“I don’t think he likes me very much”, Franklin drawled, as Misty headed up the garden path.

“He doesn’t like you at all”, I said “But then again, you’re not an easy person to have around. All this fucking Man Of Mystery And Enigma stuff is really doing our heads in!”

“If it’s bothering you that much”, said Franklin, with a world-weary sigh, knocking the ash off his fag out of the car window “I’ll tell you anything you want to know. You fire the questions, Jeremy Paxman-style, and I’ll do my best to answer them”.

I suddenly found I didn’t want to know about Franklin at all. I didn’t want to know what kind of a man he was. For the time being I was stuck with him, and there is a certain comfort in ignorance. Even though I despised those women who refused to believe their children when they said they were being abused by their fathers, I could see why some of them adopted the ignorance cloak. But much as that attitude was tempting, I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I took the same route.

“Have you been in prison?” I asked.

“Yes”, he replied “For 9 years”.

(Nine years? Shit! This was going to be every bit as bad as I’d feared!).

“What for?” I said, trembling in my stomach.

“I think the word you’re looking for is pederasty”, he said “Not a very nice word is it? Even without knowing it’s true meaning, it would still sound perfectly foul”.

“Who?” I said.

“A 13-year-old boy”, he said “And how old was Misty when you first met him?”

“He was 15”, I said, feeling like I was taking part in some Confessional in Hell, I didn’t want to do this, but in some perverse way I thought it might be a good thing in the long run “But it wasn’t sexual then, not for quite some time actually. I simply took care of him. He had nobody else to do so. All the rest of it came later. I had to be so careful with Misty, he …”

“Has such a child-like mind”, said Franklin.

“Please don’t do this!” I cried “You’re such a foul creature yourself you’re trying to make it sordid!”

Franklin seemed to freeze his body, as though he was bracing himself for some sort of physical attack. It occurred to me that he would have been attacked in prison. The other inmates would have targeted him.

“What was it like in jail?” I asked.

“Not too bad really”, said Franklin “In some ways I wish I was back there! Oh it was extremely boring most of the time, and there were moments when it was very difficult indeed. But on the whole it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I’m at a loss outside. I know I will never be accepted, that even without knowing about me, there is something about me that repels people. It’s repelled you, long before we had this conversation. The only person who seems to have accepted me is old Beresford, and I’m not sure that would be much of a character recommendation!”

“Please”, I said “Please don’t harm Misty. He’s such a sweet soul, he’s so trusting … well of most people. I need him. I’m tired of all the hardness and cynicism in this world. It would kill me if any harm came to him”.

Franklin flicked his cigarette away and then stared at me with an intensity that was very intimidating.

“There is something you should know about that 13-year-old boy”, he said “It was consensual”.

“Isn’t that what all paedophiles say about their victims?!” I said, bitterly.

“Listen to me”, he said “It was. I was an art-teacher, he was one of my pupils. People found out about us, I was suspended. At first I was only going to be tried for abusing my authority, of abusing the teacher-pupil relationship. But his parents pressed for me to be tried for paedophilia”.

“You were given 9 years”, I said “They don’t just dish out a harsh sentence like that for no reason”.

“There had been a spate of notorious cases in the courts”, said Franklin “Of hardened paedophiles being given light sentences, and then coming out only to do it all over again. An example had to be made of me. All the time they were making an example of me, there was probably some beast somewhere fucking a 2-year-old!”

“STOP IT!” I said.

“I’m just trying to show you the gross absurdity of it all”, said Franklin “Contrary to what you may think of me, I am not a monster. I am not a danger to the public. I do not drive around looking for young boys to target. I have very little sex-drive these days anyway. Whatever sexual appetite I ever had seems to have largely gone. Most of the time I simply feel dead inside. There is a numbness around me that I can’t shake off. I think that’s a good thing. Otherwise I might feel too bitter. And God knows every time I open a newspaper to read about a female teacher having an affair with a boy pupil, I think ’she won’t have to go through what I have been through’. I can’t afford to feel bitter. Whatever mistakes I have made, I have paid for, over and over again. But I accept that people aren’t going to see it that way”.

“I only ask that you don’t harm Misty”, I said, again.

“The reason I told you about what happened”, he said “Is to stress to you that the relationship I had was consensual. It is important that you believe that. I am not a rapist. I am many things - a bloody fool largely - but I am not a rapist. Get that idea out of your head”.

“It’s inevitable I would think that way!” I protested “You act so damn shifty most of the time, what was I supposed to think, Franklin?”

“Prison teaches you to be furtive, that’s all”, he said “And part of my being shifty, as you call it, is that since I came out I have felt utterly at sea, bewildered, so much has changed since I’ve been away, and I have been frightened of what may happen to me if anybody finds out who I really am. I am not confident in anything anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time!”

Misty appeared at the front door, frowned at me, and went back inside again.

“I’d better be getting along”, I said “I’ve got a lot of things to catch up on”.

I knew I was supposed to invite Franklin in after this chummy little heart-to-heart, but I didn’t remotely feel like it. I appreciated him being honest with me, but a little of Franklin’s presence goes a very long way, and I was all spent out for one day.

I kept as low a profile as possible for the next couple of days. Misty and I did quite a bit of work on the website, and, irony of ironies, we made a lot of progress with it. It seemed that whilst all this terrible stuff was happening in the neighbourhood, we could suddenly find a lot of good things to say about it! We promoted the village as a wonderfully unspoilt place, where the visitor could expect to enjoy simple pleasures (!) and good food (if you avoid the Stilton and broccoli pie at ’The Ship’ anyway). Quite a few of our fellow villagers had put in that they wanted to advertise their services, and we were able to say that if any one wanted anything doing around the house and garden, then there was no shortage of people in the locality able to help. When you consider the endless grizzles up and down the country about the difficulty of getting plumbers/gardeners/cleaners etc, I thought this was quite a scoop for Shinglesea Beach! We also threw in a hefty dose of nostalgia, emphasising that very little had changed since Shinglesea’s holiday heyday in the 1930s, and so at last we were finally making progress.

Aside from that I threw myself into my work. I don’t often envy people who are still wage-slaves, but I do sometimes envy them their dependable regular income at the end of every month. Sometimes I am haunted by the fact (particularly in the middle of the night) that I might never sell another painting, and certainly there was room for very little slack in my game. As my dear bank manager had recently told me, my income was the absolute pits (well he didn’t put it in quite those words, but the utterly charmless arsehole might as well have done. Apparently on a scale of 1-10, taking 10 as the highest earners, I was at position No.2, which only made me wonder what kind of poor unfortunate sod was festering at No.1!) , and I was very well aware of that fact. The car’s annual MOT was also looming on the horizon, and I wondered if now was perhaps a good time to get rid of it. If needs be, we could manage quite well with public transport. (Another thing to put on the website, the busses in this area are rather good, and Fobbington railway station can connect you to most of the big towns along this part of the British coastline ). But I knew I would have to break this very gently to Misty, who was very fond of our little run-around.

We had just celebrated Valentine’s Day (a bottle of fizzy wine for us both, and a bumper bag of Revels for Misty), when Franklin rang me up again. His introduction was short and to the point.

“There’s been another one”.

“Another what?” I said.

“Murder, my dear”, he drawled (which I could have done without. He sounded like a camped-up character from a bad Agatha Christie production!) “Don’t you listen to the local news?”

“It’s not exactly a pleasure these days!” I said, waspishly “Who? Where?”

“Here in Fobbington”, said Franklin “An old gentleman, a Mr Lawrence Freeman …”

“Oh no!” I said.

“Did you know him?” said Franklin.

Yes I did. Oh not as a great personal friend, but certainly as a very civilised acquaintance. Lawrence Freeman was one of those gentle, olde-worldly sort that Fobbington specialises in. He was once a concert pianist I understand, and for a while had worked for an orchestra at one of the top West End theatres in London. He had retired here to Fobbington, and worked part-time as a piano teacher. He was very active in the area’s cultural side, and I had sometimes come across him as he would sell tickets at the door whenever there was an art exhibition at the Town Hall. He was well-spoken, and had a sort of courtly Peter Cushing-ish air about him. He had lived at the end of the row of cottages opposite the Church, and if you walked past his house in the evenings, you would often see him playing the old Joanna in his living-room. Oh please God no, not Lawrence Freeman!

“What happened?” I said, emotionally.

“Nobody’s quite sure”, said Franklin “But the rumours are flying around like wild-fire I can assure you. One of his neighbours has claimed that she looked out last thing at night, and could see into his living-room …”

“Yes, he never drew the curtains”, I said.

“She said that he seemed to be being pursued round the room by something large, black and shapeless”, said Franklin “It almost appeared to have large wings, like a giant crow. It was she who called the police”.

“God knows what they made of her description of the culprit!” I said.

“Unfortunately that hasn’t been put out for public delectation”, said Franklin “I’ve found a new place to live by the way. Down Fishgut Alley. It’s a holiday let, but I’m allowed to have it until Easter. It’s No3, come and see me there when you get a moment”.

And with that, he hung up on me.

There was something as equally disturbing about this latest development, as the fact that the victim had been such a harmless old soul. And that is, that for the first time, this Creature, Thing, Whatever it is, had attacked somebody in their own home. Up until now, the murders, and the attack on Mrs Barrow, had all taken place outside. And in the case of the two previous murder victims, in fairly wild remote areas. But poor old Lawrence Freeman had been killed in his own living-room. This was a very disturbing development. After all, you could protect yourself to some extent by not roaming about in remote areas late at night, but in your own home?

I knew that Misty wouldn’t exactly be thrilled about the prospect of going to see Franklin, so I sugared the pill by suggesting that we take a trip up the Church tower whilst we were in Fobbington. Misty loves this, as you can see all over the marshes for miles and miles. I don’t, as I suffer from vertigo, but as long as I don’t go near the parapet I’m fairly alright. Franklin’s new abode was very nearby. Fishgut Alley is a row of very old 13th century cottages, which, centuries ago, had once housed the workers in Fobbington’s fish trade (hence it’s name). It is now largely holiday-lets, and the absence of any kind of garden, not even so much as a back yard, in these three-storied very narrow houses doesn’t seem to put people off.

Everybody else seemed to have the same idea that day. It was very much a case of let’s-slow-down-and-look-at-the-accident, as Mr Freeman’s house became the subject of mass scrutiny. The police had sealed it off with copious amounts of tape, but the churchyard was still packed with people who could get a comfortable vantage point of it from there. The south side of the tower overlooks Fishgut Alley, and I noticed that Franklin was looking out of the third-floor window. I have no idea how long he had been up there, but it was horribly convenient for him that he caught sight of me and Misty. He impatiently signalled for us to come along to his new abode. At the bottom of the tower steps was the elderly gent who took the entrance fees. He was a sweet, harmless old cove, who wore the sort of belted raincoats which had once been the trademark of Frank Spencer. As we were going up he had remarked on how busy it was today, for the time of year. I had said something caustic about tragedy bringing people out. As we came back down again he picked up our conversation as though it had never been broken out (a not uncommon thing).

“Something a bit odd is happening around here if you ask me”, he said, which to me seemed like the understatement of the century!

“I know”, I said “Poor Mr Freeman”.

“He was clawed to death you know”, said the tower-keeper “That’s what’s being said”.

It was a cold day, but I felt an even greater chill pass through me. I murmured more platitudes, unable to think what else to say that could be of any remotely useful contribution to the situation. Suddenly the tower-keeper shot out a hand and grabbed me by my wrist.

“Stay away from Rufus Franklin”, he said “He’s bad”.

At that moment a young woman came into the tower, accompanied by two very young children. She had obviously taken them here to try and find something for them to do during the half-term holiday. I took advantage of the tower-keeper fussing about with their tickets to take Misty outside into the churchyard.

“You’re still insisting we go and see Franklin?” said Misty, indignantly “In spite of what that man just said?”

“It’ll be for the last time”, I said “I promise you”.

“So you keep saying!” Misty retorted.

“There was no need for that!” I said.

Fishgut Alley was built at a time when humans were considerably shorter and skinnier than they are now, and we had to walk down it single-file. Franklin was waiting impatiently at his front door when we got to his house.

“You’ve been a long time”, he complained, still wearing that vile black coat. When we got into the house I could see why. It was absolutely perishing in there. There was no heating on at all.

“We’ve been talking to the tower-keeper”, said Misty, in an aggressive sort of just-you-watch-it tone of voice.

“There are too many old men in this town if you ask me”, said Franklin, sourly.

“Well there’s one less today!” I pointed out.

“Yes”, said Franklin “Come up to the top floor, I can show you a view out over the marshes”.

Having just climbed up and down the church tower to have a look out over the marshes, I was less than enthusiastic about this suggestion, but Franklin went charging ahead anyway. The stairs in this house were very steep, wooden affairs that you had sidle up and down sideways like a crab.

“Franklin”, I said, breathlessly, when we had finally got up to the third floor “Why don’t you light the damn fire downstairs, get some heating into this place?”

“Don’t know how”, he said, abruptly “Now, take a look out there”.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” I said, looking at the view I had only seen a few minutes before.

“The reactor”, he said, pointing to the familiar massive dark shape on the horizon “It worries me”.

“It’s perfectly safe”, I said “There’s never been any hint of trouble there. I can’t imagine another Chernobyl happening here somehow”.

“What typically brazen English complacency!” he said “Can you seriously say that after everything that has been happening around here lately?”

“What are you saying?” I said.

“You know damn well what I’m saying!” he replied.

I was at a loss for words as to how to reply. All I knew was that I wanted to be out of that house, and out of Franklin’s presence, a sensation I was becoming all too familiar with! It then occurred to me that the room had been getting gradually darker, as though a storm was coming. This was crazy. It had been a bitterly cold, but bright and sharp February day. What clouds there were had been small and inconsequential. Now it felt as though a thunderstorm of oppressive high summer velocity was hanging over us. We had experienced something similar the previous July, when at 6 o’clock one evening it had gone pitch-black because of a storm, as though night had fallen 4 hours earlier than was usual at that time of year. We were experiencing the same thing now.

“What the hell is happening?” I said.

I didn’t bother waiting for a reply. I told Misty we were leaving. I didn’t want to be in that house a moment longer. It’s not easy to go down those stairs quickly, not without causing yourself an injury anyway, but that day I was as agile as a trapeze artist. Back out of Fishgut Alley, and in the square surrounding the Church, it was as black as midnight. The street-lights had come on, and the birds had stopped twittering. It was as if a solar eclipse had fallen on us without any warning.

“What’s going on?” I heard a woman nearby asking.

“Storm, my arse!” I heard one man saying “There wasn’t a fucking cloud in the sky!”

I told Misty we would take refuge in ‘The Black Anchor’, at least for a few minutes, to see how it developed. If it was an unscheduled eclipse it would last only a couple of minutes.

“What’s going on out there?” said the barman, when we walked in.

I had to control the urge to snap back “how the bloody hell should I know!” But instead I merely said I was as much in the dark (no pun intended) as everybody else.

“It’s not lifting”, said Misty, when I returned to the table with our drinks “What if it doesn’t?”

“Ssh!” I said “That sort of comment can spark a bloody riot in a situation like this!”

At the moment people seemed more (understandably) bewildered than anything else. As the minutes went past though, and the darkness didn’t lift, I heard a woman in the back room sobbing. It was highly disturbing to hear that noise in this situation. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the power went off. We had been in ’The Black Anchor’ during a power-cut before, and had found it pleasantly cosy, but this was all too unnerving for that. I said to Misty that we would go home. I didn’t add that if this was some kind of apocalyptic situation I wanted us to back in ‘Barnacles’ whilst it unfolded, but that was how I felt.

Back home we found that the power had gone off there as well, which was a bit of a bummer as it meant we had no heating. The only heating we have at the cottage is the electric fire in the living-room, and the night-storage heaters. I dug out an old camping gas-stove and we boiled up a couple of pans of water, to make tea and soup, and fill some hot-water bottles. After we had eaten we went to bed, simply because it was the warmest place in the house.

By late afternoon we were still without power, and there had been no sign of it coming back, not even one of those momentary surges you sometimes get during a power-cut, which fills everyone with elation, only to have it go on you again. We had lit a candle by the bed, and were playing a cut-throat game of chess on an old travel chess-set of mine, when we heard a car draw up outside in the lane.

“I bet you that’s Franklin”, said Misty, hoarsely.

“Well he’s not coming in”, I said, sounding like a bouncer at a nightclub door “We’ve got enough to put up with, without him here as well!”

For good measure I blew out the candle, and crept across to the window, pulling shut the thick curtains. Our bedroom window is at the side of the house, not easily seen from the lane, but I had a notion that Franklin might come prowling round, and I was right. He rapped on the front door, and after getting no reply from us, could be heard creeping round the side of the bungalow. I kept my hand clamped over Misty’s mouth for good measure. Franklin rapped on the window, calling out my name. When he got no response there either, I could hear his heavy footsteps pacing round the corner of the building. He did a full circuit of the house, and I heard him calling me at the bathroom window and the kitchen one as well. It seemed like an age before we heard his car door slam, and the engine start up again. I only lit the candle again when we heard him go past the end of the lane.

“Right”, I said, about half-an-hour later standing looking out of the front window. Normally at this time of year, it would just be going dark at this hour, but we had had the thick blackness all afternoon, and it showed no sign at all of alleviating “This isn’t a storm, or an eclipse, and this is no normal power-cut, we have to find out what’s going on”.

“How?” said Misty “We can’t even put the radio on. You always said the batteries were too expensive for it!”

“Yes, alright, so I fucked up there as well!” I said, impatiently “Tell you what, why don’t I just leave all decision-making to you in the future! Then you can take the blame, and I’ll be all fucking smug and superior!”

“I wasn’t getting at you”, said Misty “I was just saying that’s all”.

“You and I will still be bickering at the end of the world!” I said.

“This feels like the end of the world”, Misty pouted.

“Well it’s not, don’t be silly”, I said “Something very strange has happened, I grant you that, but I can’t believe it’s the end. Look, get dressed properly, we’ll go along to ’The Ship’, at least we might be able to get warm there!”

“Will it be open?” said Misty.

“Well put it this way”, I said “We’ll really know it’s the end of everything if that place is shut!”

I started to feel a bit panicky when we got to the end of our lane. I think it was the realisation of just what it would feel like if we woke up tomorrow morning and the darkness was still there. It was like a giant boxing glove coming down from Heaven and socking you in the gut. What if this really was the end? What if that Thing in Franklin’s cottage had managed to plunge us into the abyss? I reasoned that melodramatic thinking like that wasn’t going to help anybody, but the thought was still there, lurking in the background, all the same.

The mini-mart on the main road was closed, and a piece of paper Sellotaped to the doors said that this was due to a power-failure, as they couldn’t get the electric doors to open and shut. This added some normality to the proceedings. After all, it hadn’t said “CLOSED DUE TO THE END OF THE WORLD” had it? ’The Ship’ was open when we got to it. Candles were stuck in saucers along the bar-counter, and the landlord was dispensing change out of old margarine tubs, as the till was out of action, but otherwise business was very much as normal, even down to the usual resident human Toby Jugs arranged along the bar-stools. Another of their fevered discussions was in progress, and our entrance meant the opportunity for somebody else to throw a rock into the pool, as I was immediately asked what I thought was happening.

“I don’t know”, I said “I wish I did”.

“I tell you”, said one of them “It was something come out of that fucking reactor. You’re always hearing about strange clouds and poisonous clouds and all that. Look at all those thousands of people that got killed in India years ago”.

“Bopal”, I said.

“That was the one”, he said “That was due to poisonous chemicals being released into the atmosphere. I tell you, they don’t know what they’re up to half the time!”

“This was no fucking cloud!” one of them retorted “It’s been fucking dark since fucking lunch-time! What kind of a cloud plunges us all into pitch darkness for several hours?! It would have moved away eventually, but we seem stuck with this one!”

“For the time being”, I said, feeling I should try and add a note of caution, whilst I warmed myself on the landlord’s gas fire. Misty was busy making a fuss of the landlord’s dog.

“I once heard”, another of them drawled, in a leisurely fashion “Of a village in Oxfordshire, where everybody went down with nose-bleeds, and that was due to something coming out of a science lab nearby”.

We were all well off from then on. We had had Bopal and Culham, next we got the Essex Oil Refinery explosion, the killer peasouper fogs in London in the 1950s, and that mysterious humming noise which had driven people to distraction up and down the country in the 1970s. The conclusion was that we were never told what They were up to. I found myself being swept along on this wave of “evidence“. Perhaps it all was due to Darklight? And perhaps those poor people who had been murdered or attacked were simply the victims of a homicidal maniac? But what about that strange tangible darkness I had seen in Franklin’s cottage at Darklight Cove? A trick of the light? Some elaborate trick he had played on me himself? (Why though?). I dug deep into my pockets, and bought Misty and I another drink.

“It’s not necessarily true that it would have moved away by now”, said one of the others “When the Essex one went up, it lasted for days”.

“But we never heard an explosion!” another protested “When that one went up people heard it 50 miles away, we haven’t heard anything here, and we’re only 5 miles away!”

“There are procedures for if there’s an accident at the reactor anyway”, said the landlord “They would have been evacuated nearby for a start, in fact we’d have probably been evacuated here too. If not, they’d have told us to take precautions”.

“Such as?”

“Well staying indoors for one thing”, said the landlord “Keeping all the doors and windows shut”.

“Tying a wet towel round your head”, said the landlord’s wife.

“Tying a wet towel round your head?” one of the others queried.

“S’right”, said the landlord’s wife “I had a friend used to live near Darklight. She said they were told that in the event of a leak, they had to tie a wet towel round their heads and stay as far away from the windows as possible”.

“And what was that supposed to do?” said one of the others.

“I don’t know”, she shrugged “Make you feel like a proper berk I expect!”

Everybody let out a much-needed release of laughter. I might have known it wouldn’t be allowed. A skinny little jerk, sitting at a nearby table, who so far had been silent, suddenly spake forth.

“I think there are better things to laugh about”, he said, piously.

One thing I have increasingly got tired of these days is that there are always people like this around. Pathetic high-minded little souls, ready to leap in like The Thought Police and tear a strip off anybody enjoying themselves. After the strain of the past few weeks I wasn’t in the mood for this one.

“Shut the fuck up!” I yelled “Just shut the bloody fuck up!”

There was a momentary silence, and then one of the Toby Jugs said to me “Steady, mate”.

Misty was glaring at me as if to say “now you’ve gone and embarrassed me in public AGAIN!”

“We haven’t had much to eat today”, he said, as if in explanation of my brainstorm.

“Do you want some steak-and-kidney pie, love?” asked the landlord’s wife.

“You can do hot food tonight?” I said, in surprise.

“We’ve got a gas stove”, she replied “We’re more worried about the freezer being off for so long. So if you want to eat up any of the stuff in it, you can”.

I could have thrown myself on her, sobbing. A solid, hot meal would make me feel a heap better. I don’t care if it would be regarded as Comfort Eating, I was tired and overwrought.

One of the Toby Jugs also took her up on the offer, and when the food was brought out, he picked up the little earthenware dish the portions were served in, and slopped it out onto his plate lustily. The skinny little jerk was still with us, and occasionally he cast injured looks in my direction, but it gave me some sadistic pleasure to completely ignore him.

“Here”, said the landlord, emerging from the back room “Just heard something on the local news. They’re speculating that it’s some kind of mystery toxic cloud”.

“Told you didn‘t I”, said one of the Toby Jugs.

“Well so much for telling us about precautions!” said the landlord’s wife “We could all get leukaemia or something out of this!”

“Was there much else about it?” I asked.

“Just that the power’s still out in much of the area”, said the landlord.

“Tell us something we don’t know!” said one of the Toby Jugs.

“No explosion heard though”, said the landlord “And a spokeswoman for the reactor said they had had no leaks, and that everything was operating as normal”.

“Well they would say that wouldn’t they!” said one of the Toby Jugs “I reckons they’ll have to have a Government Inquiry about this”.

I found all this talk strangely soothing. Talk of Government Inquiries, items on the local news, even the official denial from the Darklight Nuclear Reactor (obviously the damage limitation exercise was already well under way) all helped to convince me that the world hadn’t come to an end after all. That something had happened that shouldn’t have was only too bleedin’ obvious, but it looked like we were going to survive it.

Or at least some of us were anyway.

’Barnacles’ was as icy as a meat freezer when we got back to it, and not the most comfortable place to spend the night, but I slept for several hours, and was astounded when I woke up the next morning to find that it was nearly 10 o’clock. Misty wasn’t beside me, and I yelled for him in panic.

“It’s alright, I’m here”, he said, appearing in the doorway, with a dressing-gown on over his underwear.

“Is it still dark?” I asked, tentatively.

“No”, his little mouth broadened into a wide grin “It’s going. It looks more like an early sort of twilight out there now, it seems to be receding”.

My heart leaped up through my mouth and seemed to hit the ceiling.

“The power’s still off though”, he said.

“That doesn’t matter”, I said “They’ll fix it again soon. Remember that storm we had a couple of winters back, when we were without power for 3 days? It’s not unknown”.

After a dismal breakfast, we walked up to the beach. There was a thick layer of what looked like volcanic ash covering everything. Everybody we met was looking at it with understandable consternation. Out on the horizon the reactor was still there (well why shouldn’t it be?), a squat, fortress-like looking building. The beached freighter was also there.

“We’ll drive out to Darklight Cove”, I said.

“What for?” said Misty.

“I don’t know”, I said “But I like to know what’s going on. See if we can learn anything about what’s happened here”.

We ambled back towards ’Barnacles’, and met an old lady coming towards us, carrying a shopping-bag.

“Isn’t it nice to have the light back?” she said.

“Yes it’s great”, I said, thinking she meant our peculiar ’eclipse’ “It was all a bit too weird really”.

“No no”, she laughed “I meant the power. It’s come back on”.

We hot-footed it back towards ’Barnacles’, and put on every electrical item we could find. Although we would be going out again soon, I wanted to take the chill off the place.

The drive up to Darklight felt most peculiar. There were several cars which seemed to have been abandoned on the roadside, which gave it the sort of appearance you see on post-apocalyptic films. Driving round the outskirts of Fobbington only added to the strangeness. People were congregating in little huddles on street corners, all no doubt discussing everything weird that had happened here lately. Out onto the long marsh roads that led from Fobbington to Darklight Cove. At the campsite somebody had stuck a large piece of cardboard in one of the caravan windows saying “WE’RE ALL SICK OF WINTER”. Too bloody true! I thought.

’Lobster Pots’ had been sealed off with tape, just like Mr Freeman’s house had been yesterday, and the police were swarming around outside it. I pulled up as close as I could, and a copper instantly gravitated towards us to shoo us on.

“Is it Rufus Franklin?” I asked.

“Did you know him?” he said (’did’?) “Are you friends of his?”

“Well not exactly friends”, I said “More acquaintances. We’re both artists you see, local artists”.

“I see”, the copper sighed, clearly resigning himself to having to perform an unpleasant duty.

“But he lives out at Fishgut Alley now”, I protested “In Fobbington”.

“So we understand”, said the copper “But he was here last night”.

“Is he dead?” said Misty, bluntly.

“I’m afraid so”, said the copper.

“Murdered?” I asked, quietly “Like the others?”

“If there’s anything you can tell us about his private life”, the Copper sighed “Or his last movements?”

“The last I saw of him was yesterday lunchtime at his house in Fishgut Alley”, I said (I don’t know why I never told them about Franklin coming prowling round our house later that day, it just seemed to add unnecessary confusion to the whole affair) “Just before the strange darkness came. As for his private life, I can’t say as how he had one much. Not that I know of anyway. He was a very lonely man”.

“He tried to latch onto us”, said Misty, waspishly.

I glared at him and went on “As I was saying, I knew very little about him really. I knew he’d been in prison before he came here, because he told me, but really I’ve known him for a few weeks”.

“How did he die?” Misty piped up again “How was he murdered? What happened to him?”

“The details aren’t being released yet”, said the Copper.

There was a bit of spiel about “could you give us a statement later about what you know” and all that jazz. I agreed, and I drove down to the village car-park. We sat facing the reactor for a while. Somebody was saying something completely incomprehensible over the PA system there, but this wasn’t unusual. Misty and I had often joked about it when he heard it before, such as that the man with the screwdriver had been sent for to fix something. A van belonging to a t.v film crew was parked on the other side of the car-park to us, but its occupants had clearly buggered off to find a cup of tea.

“Do you know”, I said, eventually “I think we’ll trade this car in for a motor-home”.

“Are we going travelling then?” said Misty, looking anxious.

“Not for a few months”, I said, which made him look relieved “We can’t leave here in the summer”.

“No we can’t”, he said, firmly “And you’ve got to be on-hand to keep the website up to date”.

“But next winter I think we’ll go and travel a bit”, I said “Perhaps around the country, or even abroad”.

“Winters can seem very long here”, said Misty “I think it’s the cold winds. They cut right through you”.

“They certainly do”, I said.

A couple of weeks passed. I had given my statement to the police, and I hadn’t heard a thing since. I got the distinct impression nobody was keen to solve his murder. As far as everyone was concerned, Franklin was a bad ’un, and nobody was going to weep any tears for him. There was already gossip in the neighbourhood that he was responsible for the murders, and I had got some caustic remarks thrown at me to that effect. The fact that there were no more killings or attacks had added fuel to the fire. I had pointed out that Franklin had been inside ’The Black Anchor’ when Dinah Barrow had been attacked in the street, and there had been plenty of witnesses to his presence there, which meant that the speculation had degenerated into a sort of mumbled confusion.

Not much gossip was wasted on Franklin though, as the Eerie Darkness still consumed people’s thoughts, and what the possible knock-on effects of it had been. Even that speculation died down eventually though, as nobody seemed to be suffering any ill-effects. There was no sudden upturn in nausea, headaches, and nose-bleeds in the neighbourhood. And it was way too soon to tell what the more serious health implications of it could be. Only time would tell on that one.

As the days grew longer, and the sunshine gathered in strength, we were starting to put it all behind us. Even the Eerie Darkness was now old news. The Season would soon be upon us, and there were more pressing things to think about. There was a general acceptance that if you choose to live in a unique area like this, then you have to take the Strange with the Normal. When I thought about Franklin, I have to say that it was with a mild distaste, but even so, I had made up my mind to put some flowers on his grave, if he should perchance wind up in one round here. The kind of loneliness he had endured is always disturbing when you witness it.

I changed my mind completely on that one, when I received a parcel from the police quite out of the blue one day. They were releasing Franklin’s things now, and in his cottage he had left instructions that I was to receive this one. In the phone call I had from them, warning me that it was coming, they confessed they had no idea what it was, or why on earth he thought I should want it. They said it looked like a jar of used water, as though Franklin had washed his brushes in it, and saved it up for me. A frisson of apprehension went through me, but I said I had no idea what it could be either.

It was a simple glass jar, with a screw-top, and it contained a thick, mucous-like black liquid. I knew what it was instantly that I saw it. Somehow Franklin had got that Thing, whatever it was, that I had seen in the living-room at ’Lobster Pots’ and had collected it in this jar. “That was how he died”, I thought “He went back to the cottage to try and contain it”.

“Why did he think we should be able to dispose of it?” said Misty, indignantly.

“I don’t know”, I said “Human beings are so very complex sometimes”.

But I knew. It was the duality of Franklin’s nature. His good side had thought I should finish the job that he had started, his bad side had been motivated by spite. He had never made any secret of his jealousy of my life, even though, as I’ve said before, he was by far and away more talented than me. It was my close relationship with Misty that he envied, to a poisonous degree. He must have known he was never now going to know that kind of close, intimate love and affection with somebody else. I think he would have had sex with me, in order solely to destroy Misty. So, as far as he was concerned, I could have the hassle of what to do with this … Thing. Franklin certainly had the potential to be selfless and heroic, (his final actions had proved that), but at the same time he would also always be the spiteful, immature, bitter and vengeful man that he was.

The problem of what to do with the bloody jar plagued us for quite some time. I even considered leaving it outside a doorway of the reactor, and giving them the hassle of despising of it. “Here is the essence of pure Evil, go for it!” But this would have been bloody irresponsible, considering nobody but us knew what it was, or how dangerous it was. Chuck it in the sea? Oh yeah right, and poison all the poor fish! In the end, we buried it in the back garden. Not perhaps the best solution, but at least we could keep an eye on it there. We prayed and said a blessing over it, and occasionally, offered a libation of red wine over it.

On the first day of Spring, the Spring Equinox, we planted a rowan tree over it. To our great surprise, it thrived. Amazing thing … Love.

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