Merry Christmas 2017 - This story was written in celebration of The Forum's 1500th member.
The boat came in slowly under cover of darkness. They were rowing. The boy, sitting on the bank half hidden in the grey reeds and as still as one of the wild geese, heard rather than watched them pass. He heard the splash of them nearing the bank and a hoarse, guttural cough. And then a deeper, heavier splash of something tipped over board. The smell of tobacco and spirits came across the water with them, along with the stink of sweat and the pervasive smell of old fish that hung around any fishing boat. Then the rhythmic splash of the oars and the creak of wood began again and he heard it die slowly away into the distance.
Only when it was completely gone did he leave his place on the bank and make his way like a sodden fox cub through the wet grass to the water. It was pitch black tonight, he could only see the water’s edge by the shine. But he heard the whatever it was rocking against the bank, and when he put his hand down, already numbed with cold, to feel it, he felt fishing net and a woollen hat. That was enough. Most boys his age would have bolted, panic stricken. But if you lived around the fishermen and the boats you saw things that the nice, respectable members of the town wouldn’t dream of seeing, and you got fairly well inured to it. Instead, the boy made his way along the rough, reeded banks until he reached green grass, and ran up the steep, long flight of steps by the castle tower.
There was a light in the tower. He’d expected it and went straight in at the heavy and battered wooden door, going down the steps to the basement.
Constable Jones was at the bottom of them, his sleeve over his face, his other hand holding up a lantern. A police surgeon was investigating something on one of the mortuary tables. It stank of fish. It took him a minute to spot the bedraggled figure peering beside him, to take him by the collar of his very battered and cut down jacket that had been a man’s for some years before it became every day wear for a boy, and hauled him up to the street.
“David get out of it, you don’t want to look at that!”
“There’s another one.” David twisted expertly away from the hand on his collar, and Constable Jones let him go, lifting the lantern to look more closely at his face.
“Where you said. The boat came in ten minutes ago, they dumped someone in the water. Smells like a fisherman, he’s wrapped in a net.”
Constable Jones swore quietly. At the end of the lane, St Mary’s church struck three am.
“Well I won’t be getting any sleep tonight.” Constable Jones said grimly after a moment’s thought. “You’d better show me.”
Constable Jones wasn’t the youngest of the three constables of Rye town, but he was fit and kept up with David down the steps below the castle, across the wasteland and out on to the marshes. David, who had spent his life around these marshes and knew them in the dark or light, led him straight to the spot. Constable Jones’ lantern displayed a body, well wrapped in fishing net, bobbing gently against the bank. Hauled ashore, it stank even more.
“It’s the Mary Jane’s crew, isn’t it?” David demanded, looking without disgust at the face. Constable Jones grunted, wiping his hand on his trousers.
“I don’t know that and neither do you.”
“That’s Mallard Smythe.” David pointed out. “I know the face.”
“Yes, you would do you sharp little beggar.” Constable Jones pushed his helmet back a little and looked back at the few lights still on in the town. “I’ll stay with the body. Run down to the quay and tell whoever you can find I need a couple of men and a cart, and they’ll be paid.”
It wasn’t far along the marshes to the quay where the larger fishing boats bobbed, where the big fish market sheds stood, and where no few of the fishermen had lodgings in the narrow rooms overhead. At this hour of the morning and tide, crews were preparing the boats to go out and all of them knew David. No boat would spare crew members to mess around for the police: an hour wasted was a catch lost, and none of them could spare the money, but there were several old men, mostly older relatives of the boat crews, too elderly now to handle a boat or nets but used to helping prepare the boats. Two of them took a handcart from the market and followed David out across the narrow track to the marshes, manhandling the cart over the muddy ground. An hour later, they helped Constable Jones manhandle the body down the steep stone stairs and onto the second slab table at the mortuary.
Mallard Smythe and Robert Arrard. The two bodies were the crew of the Mary Jane, which had gone out with the other fishing boats three days ago and failed to return. No fishing boat had seen any sign of the Mary Jane since. Constable Jones paid the two men, who went down towards Traders’ Passage and the quay, and when they were out of sight, handed David a shilling.
“There. Get home and keep your mouth shut. If anyone asks, you just saw a body in the reeds and came to tell me; that was all. Not a word about the boat you heard to anyone.”
“I’m not stupid.” David pocketed the shilling. It was pointless to point out he couldn’t go home. Constable Jones understood anyway and sighed.
There was no point in ohing about it. David’s attitude towards it was one of deep disinterest and had been for years. He increasingly went home as little as possible anyway.
Constable Jones put a hand out to ruffle his hair and David dodged him, heading up the hill towards the church. The town was quiet at night. It was what his mother called a ‘nice’ town. Nice people living in nice houses with tidy, nice lives, and it showed in the nice church. A large one, reflecting the money in the town, neatly mowed and with a neatly decorated Christmas tree in the church yard. The church would be open. Sometimes when it was really bitter, it was somewhere David curled up at night to get out of the wind, but tonight he walked past it without a second look. Instead he went down the steep and narrow cobbled alley of traders’ passage, heading back down to the quay. The front doors of the houses held Christmas wreaths and the interiors were full of Christmas cards, reflecting the habits of the well-to-do in town who were continually visiting each other for afternoon tea and suppers and dinner and garden parties in their non-stop crusade to keep themselves entertained. David had little patience with it and rarely hung around those parts of the town.
Instead he went down to the fish sheds. The several inns by the quay had long since closed and most of the boats were out now. He was too late to hope for one of the crews to call to him as they often did, since he was tall for his age and strong, with a reputation for doing the best part of a man’s work with a crew, and he’d been going out with them for years. Instead he found a wooden pillar by the side of one of the loading docks and sat with his back to it in the dark. His thin trousers were no protection against the icy cobbles, but he was long since hardened to the cold and the weather. It was still an hour or two until first light, when the baker would start work and the shilling in his pocket would buy a loaf of hot bread. He was dozing when he heard a boat coming in. That wouldn’t have attracted his attention, save for hearing a guttural, rattling cough.
It was the same cough he’d heard out on the marshes.
David’s eyes snapped open although he didn’t move. The boat was coming up to the quay; he heard a rope land on the quayside and then the scuff of heavy fishing boots as they moored her. Then the came the rattle and scuff of several men walking up the hill. David slid far enough around the post to watch them. Heavy hats and jackets, the same as every labouring man wore around here. They all looked the same from the back and in the dark. Once they were out of sight, he scrambled his way across the quay and found the boat in the dark. They’d pulled canvas across her to wrap the sails, but he tugged it free and crawled underneath, using his hands to search the bottom of the boat. He encountered several fish hooks, one of which left him with a sliced finger, but his hand closed on the lid of something heavy. Too heavy to shift, but it rattled when he shook it. Sliding out from under the canvas and pulling it back to look the same as he’d found it, David took off, swiftly and silently, up the hill to the Landgate where the tiny police station occupied a cottage in the terraced row.
None of the shops were opening their gates or shutters yet, it was still too early. David ducked through the dark shadows of the old stone gate in the town walls and ran up the steps to thump on the door of the police station with a cold-numbed fist. It was opened a moment later by Constable Jones, jacketless and with a mug of tea in his hand.
“David? What are you hammering like that for, it’s-“
“The boat I heard came in at the quay ten minutes ago,” David interrupted him without patience. “There’s a crate in there, feels like brandy.”
Smuggling. The oldest tradition of the town. Constable Jones grabbed his jacket.
“What made you think it was them?”
“I heard the same cough. The boat’s the Grey Maggot.”
“Show me.” Constable Jones pulled his helmet on and followed David down the hill.
There was no one on the quay when they reached it. Constable Jones stooped over the boat to check the name, then pulled the canvas cover back. The crate was a large one.
“French.” Constable Jones muttered to David. “There’s a small fortune’s worth of brandy there. Maybe fifty pounds.”
The smuggling boats met the French boats out on the water to do their exchanges. Fifty pounds was riches beyond measure to a fishing crew here where most men and their families lived hand to mouth.
“The Mary Jane was smuggling this, wasn’t it?” David watched Constable Jones heave the crate onto the dock. “They were bringing this in. The Grey Maggot crew sank the Mary Jane to get the crate.”
“We have no evidence of that.”
“Someone put Mallard over the side to make him look like he’d washed up. I recognised the cough.”
“David, a court would say half the fishermen in the town cough like that.”
“I know the voices around here, it was the same voice.”
Constable Jones made a rapid search of the boat and stood back, dropping a hand on David’s shoulder. “All right, so you and I know that, but there’s no evidence. We’ll arrest them on the carrying of smuggled goods and we can ask them about the Mary Jane. There’s just nothing to prove it. But I’ll be watching them from now on like a bloody hawk. Run down to the station for me and get Constable Noakes down here.”
The town was slowly coming to life as the light came up. On his way back to the Landgate David dodged several piled boxes of groceries on the pavement, and several shopkeepers sweeping the pavement and pulling down their awnings ready to start the day. Huge turkeys were hanging in the glass window of the butchers, Christmas trees were piled against the walls of the greengrocers and the smell of pine and apples came out of the open door. Constable Noakes, yawning, put his jacket on and went down to the quay. David let him go, paused at the door of the bakers to buy a loaf of hot bread straight from the oven, and carried it, wrapped in paper, warming his hands on it. There was no sense in going home. His mother slept late after a client, she wouldn’t stir for hours yet. Instead David went up the hill, up the steepest street and past the church again in its green square, going back to the castle at the top.
Beyond the castle was what was left of the fort. A stone platform with several battered old cannons that looked down over the cliff and the sharp drop to the marshes and rivers below. David perched on top of one of the cannons, tearing off a piece of bread to chew as he watched the sun come up on the marsh.
The law was all very well, but it let so many stupid things get in the way. One day he would be large enough to get away from a cramped, messy room in a cottage he hated. Large enough to leave this town, large enough to sign on with a boat’s crew and go somewhere far away by himself for good. Large enough to be free. To be alone. He often thought of that day. He planned for it. Looked forward to it. Dreamed of it.
Behind him, he heard St Mary’s church strike seven am for Christmas Eve morning.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2017