WITH ONLY THE WAVES AS WITNESS
My latest novel for lovers of intrigue and suspense.
Here's a taster from the opening chapters.
There they are. Sitting on the kitchen windowsill. And I was sure I left them on the living room mantlepiece. Next to the two candles in their square based, turned brass, candlesticks. “England’s Glory” – a little box of matches: pale, straw-coloured sticks with pink phosphor heads. Made in Sweden. Like so many things of old, now made in foreign parts.
There was a power cut, last night, and I’d lit the candles for about an hour, before going up to bed. The light from them was too dim to read for long, it was pitch black and moonless outside and it had gone nine o’clock.
Just as I climbed in, I heard a click, as power was restored and the lights came on downstairs. I’d forgotten to switch them off. So, I traipsed back down and made myself a mug of hot chocolate, in the microwave, picked up the book I’d been reading and came back upstairs. I’d barely raised my mug to my lips, and not even read a page of my book, when the light flickered out again. At least I had that drink to warm me, before I settled down under the duvet, to sleep through the arctic cold night. I still miss the warmth of Marion next to me; her soft arm across my chest, as I wake. Where is she? Can she really be dead: sucked down to join the sailors on Fiddler’s Green?
I awoke before the dawn light had made much impression. I was half out of the duvet and shivering. Reaching out to the bedside light, I flicked the switch. Still no power. Which meant no heating, no means of cooking, no hot morning coffee and no light to speak of, until the sun raised its wintry paleness above the hedgerows and cast its slanting light across the windows. What a way to start my birthday. Not that I really cared about that. I’d had plenty of those in the foregoing years.
I got dressed, putting on plenty of layers and went down to find the old paraffin stove I kept in the backyard coal house – now deplete of coal, logs or anything warming – or was it in the shed? I hadn’t seen it for years but didn’t remember throwing it out for the scrapman.
Marion would have known, straightaway. She always did. Why has she never come back?
The rusting relic turned out to be in the shed, which is right at the bottom of a long, narrow garden, down an ice-slippery paved path. After struggling with the frozen padlock, fingers numb, toes screaming for warmth, I rooted through the junk behind the electric mower to unearth it and, joy, there was a slosh of liquid still in the paraffin can alongside it. So, I carried both back to the kitchen.
After a little cajoling to get the wick back through its slot and waiting for it to soak up some paraffin, I had a promising glow that very slowly sent out a vague warmth. And a pungent stink. I’d forgotten that the smell of burning paraffin penetrated so insidiously around the house, even where warmth could not reach. But hopefully the chill of the kitchen would be assuaged before the meagre amount of fuel ran out.
I was ruing the day I’d gone all electric, apart from gas central heating, which still needed electric power to actually work, and I was making myself a jam butty, when there was a knock at the door. Yes, even my doorbell ran off the mains. It was Mrs Jeffries from next door. Nearly ninety, I thought she must be feeling really helpless and needing my assistance. I opened the door, (why hadn’t I thought to go around to check on her?) only to find she was about to prove just how helpless and hopeless I am. She stood there, smiling, with a flask of coffee and a covered bowl of porridge. She has a gas stove and gas fires in her house.
‘I thought you might need something to warm you up,’ she said. ‘I won’t come in, you’ll have to just make do with these. We don’t want the neighbours thinking I’m offering you my body,’ she chuckled, in a high, slightly croaky, worn out voice. Mind you I don’t think the neighbours would think any liaison likely, seeing that I was only forty-nine, even though three years a widower at an unfortunately early age. Then she continued, ‘If the power’s not back on by lunchtime, you can come around for a proper warm in front of the fire and a bowl of soup and home-baked bread. I’ve invited Charlie and Daisy, too, so we can get the cards out, if you’ve time to stay. They’ll want Bridge, but I fancy Poker.’
I thanked her as warmly as I welcomed the porridge and coffee, but even though I seemed the more vulnerable one, I was determined to make do with what I had, for the rest of the day. And no way was I going to get trapped into a game of Poker with her well worn cards. She knew every mark and wrinkle on them, on both sides, and played for money, not matchsticks.
Which brings me back to the “England’s Glory”. Of course, I must have brought them into the kitchen when I lit that evil smelling stove. Now I can’t remember why I originally needed them. I’ve had the porridge and washed up the bowl, in lukewarm water, trying to reserve the residue of hot (but cooling) left in the cistern. I’ve had half the flask of coffee, which trickled warmly down my throat, joyously, but failed to reach my extremities.
Ah! I know what it was. It was to melt the bottom of the big wax candle someone gave me a few Christmases ago, so I can stick it to a saucer, ready for tonight if I’m still without power. I’ve never used it: it’s one of those smelly ones – wild rose and columbine, or something – that literally get up my nose. Bad enough having hay fever in the spring, without sending my eyes watering in winter: but it will last a long time once it’s lit. And, hopefully, it won’t be needed, by the end of the day.
It’s mid-morning, now, and I look out of the front window. It’s what you do on the outskirts of a small town. You keep tabs on all the comings and goings down the lane. Especially when you work from home, like me. And when your computer is down, the phone is not ringing and your fingers are too freezing to hold brushes, markers or pencils, comfortably, there’s not a lot else you can do. Anyway, it’s Sunday and I’m not so sad that I work every day of the week. Well, not every week.
Now, you’re probably thinking I must have a mobile phone I can use. Everybody has one. Well not everyone around here does. Reception is pretty shoddy, anyway, and Mrs Jeffries doesn’t have one nor my two other near neighbours. But yes, I do. I was using it yesterday, trying to find out what was happening about the power and when it should be fixed. The utility company were very vague and made no promises. Then the battery ran out. And I’ve no means of recharging it.
The lane is quiet. All the houses shut up tight against the cold. Many with curtains still drawn, where rooms are not in use. I am debating whether to make up a plate of cold ham and salad, hardly cold weather food, when the hearse draws up. Right outside my door. Even before the driver got out, I knew it was for me.
No, I’m not dead yet. The hearse is old, a classic of its time, square backed, polished black body with chrome roof rails and long side windows, showing gleaming brass rails and glass shiny walnut woodwork inside: and lovingly restored by my son, David.
Opening the front door, I hear David shout a cheery greeting, as he comes up the path. ‘Hi dad, I thought you might be needing this. We haven’t heard a word from you for two days and Sis thought you might be in trouble. She’s tried phoning a few times, landline and mobile. Oh! And happy birthday.’
‘Thanks. I’m not that far gone, yet, I hope,’ I reply, nodding towards the hearse. ‘It’s just that everything is on the blink’.
‘We know. It’s all on the national news. “Town isolated by freak storm over mountains, whipping down powerlines and taking off roofs; residents trapped in their homes, phone lines down and all that guff.” At least you’ve still got your roof, I see. Though it looks like you’ve a few slates missing, near the ridge.’
I step outside and look up. He’s right. I’ll have to get the ladder up before evening comes. There are a few spare slates in the back yard, from when the builders took down the old, leaning chimney and re-slated the gable end of the roof. Oh, how I wish I had that chimney, now.
We’d suffered worse, around here, but not for a good few years, I’ve been told. These extreme storms seem to come on an extended weather cycle, though we do appear to be getting more gales and heavy rain, of late. And the temperature now feels far from global warming. Body chilling seems a more appropriate term. Anyway, I hustle David in.
‘What’s that God-awful smell, Dad? Are you cooking a dead rat for lunch?’
‘Nothing’s cooking. That’s the paraffin stove. It’s all I’ve got for heat so you’d better get used to the sweet aroma and huddle up to it, if you want some meagre warmth.’ I’m trying to sound cheery, but I don’t feel it. ‘And if you want food, that’s coming straight out the fridge. Not that it’s working. There’s not much in there that shouldn’t be heated up, so without the power back, you’ll have to drive a few miles for anything hot. Sorry to sound unwelcoming, I am pleased to see you, but I can’t exactly rustle up a roast, on this old stove and three candles.’
‘That’s OK, Dad. That’s why Sis sent me around. I’ve got a camping stove in the car, so you can at least do yourself a brew and beans, or something, and about a gallon of soup. But first, I’m taking you over the hill to a pub that’s still got power. It’s that few miles away, you just mentioned, and only a steak and chicken place, but it will put some heat back in your belly. Then we’ll come back and slip those slates back on, before it gets too dark.’
As I drop into the passenger seat of the hearse, I recall the many birthdays Marion used to drive me to a surprise venue; a new place to try; an old favourite; it didn’t matter which, but she never told me where beforehand. The last time was far away, in Ireland, where we’d gone for the weekend. A place we’d never been, a hotel in Carrigaline, and although she laughed it off, I’m sure someone recognised her, with a warm and friendly smile, when we made a trip down to the Owenabue estuary and the Royal Cork Yacht Club. It was only a few months later that I lost her.
Good old David and good old Chrissy. Not that either of them is old. David and Christine are twenty-three and twenty-five and only Chrissy is married: one daughter, Jilly, eighteen months and a couple of months or so towards another child. They’d both invited me over for my birthday, but I’d declined. David has a pokey studio flat, in Truro, and can’t cook, so would have to take me out. Chrissy can’t eat without throwing up ten minutes later, at the moment, unless it’s sardine sandwiches, and her husband is nursing a broken arm from a rugby match, just last week. I’d said we’d have a family day in April or May when the weather will have improved. Or perhaps a bit later when the new arrival will have arrived.
Down at the Churchill Arms, where David has brought me, we find a table near the door. All the others, away from the see-saw of the draught from folk coming in and out, have been taken. Mind you, I’m tempted to swap over the ‘Reserved’ placard on the only other vacant table, right by the open fire. But I can’t be sure if some locals will turn up, perhaps farmers with shotguns, who would not take too kindly to that.
The table menu seems sparse, but there is a blackboard of specials, half of which have already been scrubbed off, including the Sunday roast. It seems the misfortune off my small town has brought a bonus down here.
I choose a simple rump steak and chips, David preferring the sea bream en papillote. He goes to the bar to order and get a couple of drinks. Guinness for me, a small dry white wine for himself.
Looking around while I wait, I recognise several faces from my neck of the woods; all, no doubt, have come over the hill for a warm-up and some good hot food.
David is back with the drinks and I ask him how work is going and he says, ‘Fine. But how about you Dad. Are you still getting enough commissions, out here in the sticks?’
I tell him I am. More than I expected, but with most of it sent backwards and forwards electronically for approval, it doesn’t matter too much where I live. Though some briefings have to be at meetings that take me on long drives and cut down on my productive hours.
David has noticed I’m not giving him my full attention. ‘Do you know those two over there? You keep staring that way.’
‘Oh, I’ve seen them in town, that’s all. The girl runs the Post Office, while we’ve still got one, and that’s her son with her, I think.’
‘Girl? She looks more your age, Dad. Nice smile, though. You interested?’
‘Don’t be silly, David. I’ve plenty to do, without things like that.’ I’m lying, of course.
‘You are allowed to look, Dad. Sis and I don’t mind. Whether you can touch is another matter.’ David’s laughing. ‘That’s more up to the other person. It’s three years now and I’m sure Mum would have wanted you to find some company, at least. Life has to go on and you’re still on the right side of fifty.’
‘Only just. Concentrate on your own fish. We’ve got to get back to fix those slates.’
I think I’ve wriggled out of that, quite nicely. David’s finished his fish and jumped up to get me another Guinness and a mineral water for himself: he’s driving. He’s bending across and saying something to the Post Office girl, and I strain to hear, watching their lips to help make out what they’re saying.
‘Excuse me being somewhat impertinent, but I think you’re from the same town as my Dad, over there.’ David points towards me. ‘Have you got the same power problems?’
She’s looking up, half frown, half smile and now across at me. She’s answering him. ‘Yes … and yes. The whole town’s in the dark. And your dad is the artist, Mr Addam, isn’t he? Two ‘d’s please, no ‘s’. He’s a Post Office regular, with his artwork parcels. He’s well liked around town. Seems a gentle sort of man and not as brash as many of the locals. Lives on his own, doesn’t he? Is he coping OK? He must need power for his design business, so I hope it’s back on tomorrow. For all of us.’
David again. ‘Yeah, I think so. But it’s his birthday today and with just a couple of long-toothed senior citizens as neighbours, I think he was feeling a bit lonely, until I turned up.’
‘Well, tell him to come over and say hello and we can compare power notes, so to speak. This is my son Ritchie, by the way. I’m Kathy – with a K.’ She’s smiling. ‘You two must be about the same age, Ritchie’s just turned twenty-two.’
‘Hi, Ritchie, I beat you by a year. I’m David and my Dad’s Paul. Can I buy you both a drink and I’ll wave Dad over, though I know I’ll be embarrassing him? But, hey, I want to cheer him up a bit.’
To my mortification she’s accepting a drink off David and he’s waving me over to join them. I don’t want to go. Or do I? If I’m honest, I do. So, I try to walk over casually, but stumble against a chair as someone leans back from another table, nearly knock a bottle of wine off the next one, leaving it rocking, before someone else’s hand shoots out to save it, pirouette ungracefully and end up almost landing on the lap of the Post Office woman’s son, before steadying myself. What a fine impression I’m making!
‘Dad, I’ve just discovered Kathy and Ritchie are having the same problems as you.’ You’d think they’d been lifelong friends the way he talked.
I addressed Kathy. ‘It’s a bit of a pain. Have you heard anything about how long this power cut will last? I’m Paul, by the way, Kathy. I’m afraid I don’t know your other name.’ A blatant lie as I’d read it off her Post Office name badge, more than once. ‘You probably don’t remember, but you’ve helped me with a few large packages when I’ve dithered over how to send them.’
‘That’s true,’ she says. Her voice sounds softer and warmer than when she’s on the other side of a counter, efficiently sorting out all the postal queries customers bring. ‘It’s a small town, Mr Addam and you may be an incomer, but I think you’re pretty well accepted, now, especially after the help you have given to the local art club, the Easter Festival and that project you did with the school.’ Nothing of that was spectacular to my mind, just me helping out the community in a small way, partly to get to know my way around the town and what went on within its boundaries. Most of the time I lead quite an isolated life, head buried in my work and transforming my garden from an overgrown, muddy patch into something that resembles a leisure space. Productive too, from home grown veggies.
For twenty minutes we’ve made pleasantries about the town, our own work, without too much detail, the town’s fortunes and back to the insufferable power outage. David and Ritchie seem to be hitting it off, with obvious envy that David has his own pad, while Ritchie still lives with his mother. Once they were onto gaming, though, their conversation was exclusive, leaving the more mundane chatter between Kathy and me. Neither of us revealed much about ourselves, except a joint love of the local countryside and an aversion to thankfully banned hunting. I told her I chose my house on the edge of Trewillor, just because I’d holidayed in a cottage near there, two or three times, in my formative years. She, on the other hand, had been born and bred in the town, which was really no more than a large village, with a small ribbon of shops along the main road, and valued her days abroad the woods, meadows and streams, right from her toddler years.
It’s time to go and fix the slates. I look across at David and make a roof sign with my hands. He nods back, then mouths the words ‘ask her out’. I shook my head. Fancy being told what to do next, by your son. I’m not quite ready. I just take a polite leave and explain about the wind damaged roof. Then the words just come out. ‘It would be nice to see you again in town, when the lights come back on.’
‘Yes,’ just the slightest hesitation from Kathy as she replies. ‘Yes. It would be good to talk about a little more than the usual fifty first class stamps, please, and do you want the package to go Special Delivery or just Second Class?’ She swings her head from one side to the other, as she says it, dark, mid-length hair swirling softly, and, as she gives me a gentle smile, her eyes, which I always thought held a hint of sadness, widen and sparkle from the reflection of surrounding spotlights. ‘If you’re in town around half-two any day, I usually pop down to the Butterscotch Café, for a short break after the lunchtime hustle and before the school comes out.’
‘Maybe I’ll see you there. That’s a good time for me to take a break, too.’ I can see that both David and Ritchie are suppressing laughter.
Getting back into David’s hearse, he turns to me, big grin across his face. ‘You’ll have to do better than that Dad. Weren’t you ever a teenager? Ritchie and I could smell the chemistry within the first ten seconds. He’s a good kid, too. Rarely sees his father, but didn’t say much about that, except he was an abusive sod and an alcoholic. He would love his mum to find someone decent. Mind you, that rules you out, I suppose, only being half-decent as Granny May calls you. “A half-decent lad, I suppose,” is her usual phrase.’ Granny May is David’s maternal grandmother, very supportive and loved dearly by her grandchildren.
Back at the house, it only takes thirty minutes to fix the slates, David nipping up the ladder like a squirrel up a tree. I’m glad he’s here to help. It’s gone quite gloomy and back inside I relight the paraffin stove and just an ordinary, unscented candle, for now. I live in hope.
David says he’ll be back tomorrow, if there’s no news on the power being restored and to phone him if I need anything. By chance, we both have the same model of smartphone, and I was able to get some charge on mine from his car charger, when we went over to the Churchill Arms. Plenty for emergencies, anyway. I must get a lead to charge it up from my car, which is too old to have a built in USB port, as a future precaution. I think they sell things like that in the shop next to the Post Office.
I don’t think the paraffin will last the evening, so I’m in for a cold night. Not that the kitchen has got that warm, anyway, and the rest of the house just smells of the stuff. So, I’ll have to light that big candle, to add its mix of floral fragrances. A combination that might well knock me out.
But wait. I’ve just heard a click and the fridge has started running. A flick of the wall switch and I have light. And heat soon, too, if everything stays on.