A Day in the Death of Dorothea Cassidy
The third book in the Inspector Ramsay series, 1992
Two boys found Dorothea Cassidy in Prior’s Park. It was June, Midsummer’s Day. Although it was only seven in the morning it had been light for hours. The boys were on their way to begin a newspaper round and took a short cut, as they always did, along a footpath through the park. Cycling was forbidden but at that time in the morning there was no one to complain. The boys were in high spirits. It was the week of the midsummer carnival and they had spent the evening before at the fun fair on Abbey Meadow. They were over-tired, but excited at the prospect of another night at the fair. They shouted to each other, riding over the short grass, their tyres making tracks in the dew. The day was clear but there was still a trace of mist over the River Otter, winding through the ruins of the abbey and the spokes of the Big Wheel on the opposite bank. Later it would be hot.
The park was extensive and well laid out – in the summer months coach parties came from all over Northumberland to see the rose gardens. The boys rode past the children’s swings and the tennis courts then followed the path along the river which led towards the centre of town.
Dorothea was lying in a border of flowers close to the path. The border was still in the shadow thrown by the tall trees and shrubs beyond it, but even in the shade it would have been impossible to miss her. She wore sky-blue dungarees and a knitted jacket in blues and golds. On her feet were sandals made of red, plaited leather. Her hands were folded across her breast so they could see her wedding and engagement rings against the brown skin of her long fingers. She was lying on her back, crushing the small plants beneath her, and despite the rich soil and the leaf mould her face was quite clean.
The first boy braked sharply and almost caused a collision. They dismounted and stared, not believing what they saw. She looked like part of the design of the flower bed, surrounded by the brightly coloured and symmetrically patterned plants.
Both boys were fourteen and thought they were tough but even a regular diet of horror movies had not prepared them for the reality of what now confronted them. They looked around for adult help.
The younger boy came to his senses more quickly. He began to see the potential of the discovery. They might get their names in the papers, he said. It might even provide an excuse for a morning off school.
‘One of us should stop here,’ he said, ‘and the other should fetch the police. Do you mind staying?’
The other shook his head. He could not take his eyes off the woman. He thought she was like a statue from a museum. Her skin was blue and looked very cold. He was tempted to touch her, almost expecting the hard, smooth surface of plaster or marble but he knew better than to do that. He had heard about fingerprints. He watched Jamie pedal furiously away towards the town centre, then turned back to her. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. There must be something wrong with him, he thought. He must be really weird. How could anyone fancy a dead woman? He crouched protectively by the flower bed, watching her. A breeze from the river scattered the petals of a dying flower and one rested on her cheek like a tear.
When Detective Inspector Stephen Ramsay was woken by the telephone he expected the call to concern work. Who else would phone at six thirty in the morning? Yet when he heard his aunt, speaking in such a loud, shrill voice that he held the receiver at arm’s length, he was not surprised. She had been widowed for twenty years but kept the same hours as when her husband had worked down the pit and had needed a good breakfast inside him before he went out. She considered it a wickedness for anyone able-bodied to be in bed after seven in the morning. A wickedness and a waste.
‘Well,’ she demanded. ‘Have you found her?’
Ramsay leaned across the bed and pulled open the curtains. The early sunlight made the trees on the other side of the dene seem very close and he could hear wood pigeons through the open window.
‘I’m at home,’ he said mildly, ‘not at work. They hadn’t done when I left last night.’
‘This is serious,’ she said. ‘She wouldn’t just wander off. Not Mrs Cassidy.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘We’re taking it seriously.’ He had learned that it did no good to lose his temper with her. Her persistence was unaffected by anger. If he answered her questions she would eventually leave him alone.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘ I hope you are. Everyone here’s very upset.’
She had her own flat in a sheltered accommodation scheme run by a local housing association. The move from the old coal-board cottage had given her a new lease of life. She was into everything there, knew everyone’s business. The other elderly residents held her in regard because she claimed a direct line to the police. They felt it gave the building special protection. She encouraged them in that belief and he had often been phoned at unwelcome times about missing pension books and the horror of dogs fouling the communal garden. He visited her once a week to have tea in the little over-heated living room and quite often there would be a queue of residents waiting in the corridor to consult him as if he were the chiropodist. She would show them in one at a time and he would do his best to answer their questions and satisfy their demands.
Hunter, his sergeant, would mock the weekly visit to the old people’s flats but Annie had always been Ramsay’s favourite aunt and, despite the demands she made on him, he still felt a responsibility and an exasperated affection for her. When Stephen was a child Annie had seemed less worn out, less worn down than the other women he knew, perhaps because she had no children of her own. There had also been something theatrical about her. His mother had disapproved of her and said she showed off. But Annie had been the provider of treats – the best seats at the panto at Christmas, picnics in the dunes at Druridge Bay – and while other adults’ attempts to please often left him with a sense of anti-climax, her treats were as magnificent in reality as they had been in expectation.
It was Annie Ramsay who had phoned him the evening before about the disappearance of Dorothea Cassidy.
‘She was supposed to be speaking at our social club half an hour ago,’ she had said, as if it were his fault. ‘But she’s not turned up.’
‘Give her a chance,’ he had said. ‘Perhaps she’s ill or her car’s broken down. Or got held up in the carnival traffic. You know what the roads are like this week. Perhaps she’s just forgotten.’
‘Aye,’ Annie said. ‘Maybe. She’s a bit of a reputation as a scatterbrain.’
And Ramsay thought that with that observation he would be left in peace. But three quarters of an hour later Annie was on the phone again.
‘She’s still not here,’ she said. ‘ I’ve just been in touch with her husband. He’s not seen her since this morning. And if her car had broken down she would have rung. She had this talk in her diary. I watched her write it down myself. You’ll have to do something.’
Sergeant Gordon Hunter had never found any reason to move out of his mother’s house. It was comfortable there and even when he was younger he had felt no need to establish his independence. She had never attempted to cramp his style. If he brought one of his girlfriends back to stay the night his mother would make breakfast for them both the next day with her usual good humour. Gordon considered such attention his due. He was a single child and had always been spoilt. Besides, since his father had left home to move in with the landlady of one of the roughest pubs in the town centre, his mother had no one else to look after. What else would she do?
His father’s desertion had bewildered him. The pub was a dirty, run-down place and when Gordon visited him there the man seemed exhausted. He helped in the pub after work, carrying crates from the cellar, changing barrels, then sat staring with besotted admiration at the ageing beauty behind the bar.
‘She’s wearing me lad,’ he would say. ‘And I love it.’
Now, in the carnival week, the young men who travelled with the fair hung around the pub and there were reports of fights there every day.
‘Serve him right,’ Gordon’s mother said when she heard. But she did not care enough about her husband to wish him any real harm. She was happy as she was and all the excitement she needed was provided vicariously by Gordon. Best of all she liked to sit with her son in the evenings, drinking tea or sweet sherry while he talked about his work. She had few friends of her own and was immensely proud of him.
Early on Midsummer’s Day Gordon Hunter went out for a run before work. He was very competitive and when a colleague had bet him that he couldn’t complete the Great North Run he had begun traini ...