I was delighted to be short listed for the first Hot Air – Stoke Literary Festival – short story prize. I attended the event (please see earlier posts) and received my runner-up prize from bestselling writer Andy McNab.
Congratulations to winner Jane Terry and fellow runner-up Martyn Barlow. My story is published in full below and all three stories are published in the Sentinel here.
I was gulping back cornflakes, late as ever for my nine o’ clock, when the letterbox clanged. I didn’t pay it much attention – it was only ever pizza leaflets or dry cleaning offers these days – but instead of the usual bumf I was surprised to see a fat brown envelope lying on the mat. Brown meant unpaid bills or missed doctors’ appointments, but not this one which was handwritten. I snatched it from the mat, tracing the familiar spidery scrawl with a fingertip. It had to be Pete Wilkes. His hand hadn’t changed since we’d sat together copying poetry from the blackboard. His tall, stooping letters had always seemed to be walking into a gale-force wind. How many years had it been since we’d spoken? It couldn’t be good news. I poured some more coffee, decided Whitaker could take the breakfast briefing and gave my old mucker my full attention.
Five minutes later, and with trembling fingers, I phoned in sick. I didn’t have to pretend. I drank more coffee and sat staring into space wondering, what now? I phoned Pete but he didn’t answer. Perhaps he was screening my calls. I packed up an overnight bag, tossing in socks and a toothbrush while I fired up the internet. When I got online I hammered in the postcode and street name and grinned and punched the air. OK, we’re in business, I thought. Sheridan House was missing roof tiles and its gutters were bust. Give it another few years of neglect and it was in danger of being condemned, but that didn’t matter. I took a note of the agent’s number, relieved that it was still on the market.
Euston was heaving. Trains were cancelled and folk had taken to sitting on bags and offering up silent prayers. I checked my emails as we edged out of the platform, told Whitaker I was stuck in bed with a fever running so high you could fry eggs on my forehead. I got an empty table for four and stretched and glanced up and down the aisle. When I was sure no one was coming I took out the envelope. The news story was a big one and the local paper had given it several pages but I hadn’t read a word of it in the Smoke, of course. Cities up north had to riot or float off into the Irish Sea to make the news down here. Pete had folded it like a bandage in the envelope, taking care not to write anything and incriminate himself. I took it out and smoothed it on the table, weighting down the corners with my phone and coffee cup.
VITAL CLUE IN BODY IN BEAUTY SPOT MYSTERY
Of course, the local plod weren’t saying what the vital clue was. They were smart enough to hold these things back, but Pete and I knew different. A man had been found in a shallow grave, snagged in the roots of a fallen spruce with a single gunshot wound to his head. Reporters had been knocking doors but most of the locals had refused to speak or muttered that ‘this type of thing doesn’t happen round here.’ Sure, there were cars parking up at all hours and the odd bit of ‘funny business’ late at night they said, but you got that everywhere didn’t you? We’re in the Staffordshire countryside, not the East End. This is the Hanchurch hills, not Epping Forest. What the police were saying was that freak winds had brought down a number of trees and in the roots of one of them was a boot. That boot, of course, was still attached to a body. I dialled up and listened to the usual two minute pre-recorded spiel you got from agencies. I said I wanted to view Sheridan House and as soon as, please.
‘Viewings are difficult today, sir…’
I cut her off there and then. ‘That’s a shame what with me up from London. Oh well….’
She said she’d see what she could do and the line clicked as she put me on hold. I was beginning to enjoy Vaughan Williams when she cut in and said they could do it. ‘Three’s good,’ I said, glancing at my watch. She agreed, took my name and details. ‘Yes, it’s Wilkes with an E-S at the end. Peter,’ I said, making sure she wrote it down. She cleared her throat. ‘And I should point out that it’s in need….’
‘Of extensive modernisation,’ I said. It was estate agents’ speak for a money pit. The train slowed and banked a little as the marshes came into view reflecting a golden winter sun and the meandering line of the River Sow. I rubbed a smear on the window with my elbow until it squeaked and watched a heron take flight. A bearded man sat on a bench at a curve in the river. Sunlight glinted from his binoculars. It was one of our favourite spots. We’d run and bomb into the water here, splashing and scrapping where it was shallow and warm and sipping lager bought from the only off-licence that’d sell to us. But all that was before Bakewell had pitched up and taken a shine to Pete. Bakewell’s big idea was a camping trip. Being ten years older he never had any trouble getting hold of the booze. We crawled to a halt at the edge of the marsh. A few miles further along this valley was the hillside where Bakewell had been wrenched from the peat like a Bronze Age sacrifice.
Stafford station was concrete and draughty, just as I remembered it. I didn’t linger, cutting through the terraces by the river, passing the old factory that still smelt of mothballs. A stiff wind blew off the marshes and a carrier bag sailed overhead like a Chinese lantern. The road climbed toward Victorian and Edwardian villas with names instead of numbers, the type with Minton tiles in the hall and ivy clinging to the decorative brickwork. Sheridan House was just beyond the next speed humps, beside the stop for the Number 12. I’d ‘walked’ this road on Google Earth and seen little had changed since we’d lived here. It was coming up to three, as we’d agreed, so I sat on the wall and waited. The bricks were furred with moss and crumbling where the frost had got at them. I picked at the fragments in my palm as a silver MG crunched onto the gravel. It had the agency’s chimneypots logo stuck to the driver’s door. I waved a hand but the woman at the wheel didn’t respond. She wore a pair of black bug-eyed glasses and her hair was tied up in a scarf. It was all a bit Monte Carlo for Stafford in February, but I couldn’t fault her for trying. She snapped on the handbrake and checked her lipstick and hair – tucking a loose strand behind her ear. I said, ‘Miss Scott?’ She smoothed her skirt over her knees and took a folder from the passenger seat. ‘Mr Wilkes,’ she said. I nodded. She didn’t offer a hand, but ushered me to the door instead, wobbling in her heels on the gravel. She wiggled the key and turned it. The lock was hesitant, stiff with damp. It finally gave way with a clunk and we were in. ‘Feel free to have a wander,’ she said. She stepped back out of the porch saying did I mind she had calls to make?
I’d decided to play along. Folk didn’t buy houses before they’d even been inside. I closed my eyes and my heart fluttered as I stepped inside, breathing in deep. I smelt pipe tobacco, cloying damp, the lingering trace of furniture polish. I held the banister rail and made my way up the stairs. The house became gloomier, the furry patterned wallpaper my father had chosen seeming to close in on me as I climbed. I checked my phone having left messages for Pete to call and half-a-dozen texts but there was no reply. Creaks and groans in the timber marked my progress through the front bedroom. The fireplace had been painted black and was framed by empty pine bookcases. Draughts had marked the walls, leaving a faint trace of grime in squares where picture frames had once hung. The glass in the windows was still the original panes, just as I remembered, swirly so it distorted the privet and ‘For Sale’ sign making me feel dizzy. A heel clopped on the tiles and Miss Scott coughed. I leant over the banister. ‘What do you think?’ she said.
I tried to look impressed. ‘Could be just what we’re after.’ She forced a smile. She had bleached white teeth in contrast to her coppery tan. ‘Just give me a couple of ticks,’ I said and went back into the bedroom. ‘Cracking views,’ I said. Standing on tiptoe you could just about see what the Victorians had done to the medieval castle. ‘Yes, aren’t they?’ she replied. I think she was glad to leave me to it, not wanting to wander around an empty house with a solitary male. I crouched in the fireplace and glanced up at the line of the chimney breast. It had been boxed in with plasterboard and woodchip and thick white emulsion had been slapped on top. I was glad to see there had been no alterations. I went downstairs dusting the soot from my palms onto my jeans. ‘Can I shock you?’ I said. She looked a little worried at that. ‘I want the place. Seriously, I’ll take it. There, I’ve decided.’
She managed not to look shocked or appalled. She rubbed her hands together. ‘So, do you want to make an offer?’
‘When I spoke to the office they said there was a possibility of renting?’ She nodded, slowly, unable to hide her disappointment at seeing I wasn’t quite as mad as she’d thought.
Three days later and a month’s deposit secured the keys. The story was I needed somewhere to live while I’d suss out what needed doing and get costs and materials and plan the renovation. Like hell, I would, but the vendor was living in Italy, mortgaged up to his eyeballs and in no position to bargain. I’d already ripped out the plasterboard when Pete turned up. ‘All yours,’ I said. Pete didn’t speak to me, barely acknowledged I was here, but he took out the lump hammer and got to work while I made us a brew. I returned with two steaming mugs, so strong you could stand a spoon up in them. ‘Two mugs of builders’ tea,’ I said.
Pete didn’t smile. ‘Here,’ he said, tossing a metal box into the rumpled dustsheets at my feet. ‘It’s all yours.’
‘Have you opened…?’ He shook his head. He wasn’t here by choice but I’d been there for him. I knelt down in the dustsheets and held the japanned steel box. It had once contained my granddad’s medals, but that wasn’t all. He’d brought something else back from the war. I swallowed and prised the lid open with my thumb, my heart thumping in my chest. I took off the oily cloth and there was my granddad’s service revolver. I didn’t touch it, unsure if I’d had the presence of mind to wipe it clean all those years before.
‘I’m off,’ Pete said. I decided to let him pack up his tools and sulk if that was what he wanted.
‘I’ll give you a bell tomorrow,’ I said. He trudged off, raised a hand but didn’t bother to turn. I was alone again at the old house. While we’d toiled away at the chimney it had grown dark and I gazed up beyond the chimneypots and aerials at the stars and shivered. I went inside, packed up and was making more tea when my phone vibrated on the worktop. It was a text message, a photo of me and Pete sitting up a tree grinning like village idiots. It was a good shot but I couldn’t remember who’d taken it. Beyond us the tree-lined ridge gave way to red-brown fields and the blur of the terraced streets and factories of the Potteries. It would’ve been about the time Bakewell showed up, trying to take charge. Perhaps he’d even taken the photo. I hovered over the keypad but didn’t respond. Pete was just trying to make me feel guilty.
I gathered up my stuff and was locking up when I sensed someone’s presence behind me. I turned and saw a couple of uniforms flanking a silver-haired detective in a raincoat and drab grey suit. ‘Yes, what is it?’ I said. He said my name and asked me for my bag. ‘What’s this all about?’
A white car pulled up mounting the kerb and I saw what this was all about. Pete got out of the car with a uniform, folding his arms on his chest. He didn’t make eye contact, but at least he had the stones to show up.
‘I’m arresting you on suspicion of murder,’ the detective said. One of the uniforms took the bag and handed it to him.
‘I was protecting you,’ I said to Pete. ‘You told them what he did?’
Pete picked at a scab on his knuckles. ‘I told them.’
I held out my hands and one of the uniforms cuffed them.
‘It always comes out in the end,’ the detective said. ‘You can’t bury secrets.’
‘Twenty three years wasn’t bad,’ I said. They wrote that down as evidence. It was true. If it hadn’t been for the wind and the rain Bakewell might still be tangled in the roots.