Murder in My Backyard
The second book in the Inspector Ramsay series, 1991
Stephen Ramsay moved into the cottage in Heppleburn on March 1. When the estate agent first sent him the property details, he dismissed the place out of hand. He did not want to live in Heppleburn. The village had been the scene of a disastrous period in his career and he thought he would always be reminded of failure. Then, on a cold Sunday afternoon in January, he went to look at the place just out of interest. It was at the end of a quiet road on the edge of the village. He drove past a small row of miners’ houses with long front gardens dug over, ready for the spring, and then there was open countryside-except for the low, white cottage with the estate agent’s sign outside. It was beginning to drizzle. Beyond the cottage the road dwindled into a farm track and then a public footpath, which led down Hepple Dene to the sea. Ramsay stood by his car in the rain and looked at the cottage. It was old, built before the miners’ houses, before the Industrial Revolution. It was single-storeyed, whitewashed with a grey slate roof, and it was small. The front door was below the level of the road, and it seemed that the house had been built into the hill. From the back there would be views over the dene to the woods and the fields beyond. Now, when the trees were bare, it might be possible to glimpse the sea, slate-grey as the roof, between the hills. Ramsay had never been impulsive. In his relationship with Diana she had been the irresponsible one, laughing at his desire for a conventional security. But now, standing, listening to the dripping trees, the decision was immediate and irreversible. It was late afternoon and very quiet. A red van loaded with turnips drove up the farm track towards the village. The driver stared at Ramsay as if he recognised him. He probably did. Everyone in Heppleburn knew Ramsay. But even that thought failed to deter him from his decision.
He crossed the road to the cottage and knocked at the door. Eventually it was opened slightly by a small, frail man who peered out nervously. The garden must have seemed almost dark to him. Ramsay could see nothing of the room inside.
“I want to buy your house,” he said.
The old man looked around him, as if searching for help. He clearly thought Ramsay was dangerous or deranged.
“I don’t know,” he said. He had not understood. “My daughter told me I wasn’t to show anyone around when I’m here by myself. We told the agent-appointment only.”
He would have liked to shut the door in Ramsay’s face but did not quite have the courage.
“That’s all right,” Ramsay shouted. He had decided the man was deaf. “ I’ll not disturb you now. I’ve seen enough. But I want to buy it. I’ll tell the agent tomorrow.”
He turned and left the old man gaping, still peering out from the crack of the door.
Ramsay hired a van and on March 1 he moved his belongings himself. It was not that he needed to save money. He had enough, and since his wife had left there was no-one to spend it on. He had offered, in his old-fashioned, gentlemanly way, to support her, but she had laughed at him. She wanted freedom, she had said extravagantly. Not cash. So he was motivated not by meanness but by a peculiar form of pride. It seemed wrong to him to pay someone to do a task that he could perform perfectly adequately for himself. He also felt distaste at the prospect of a stranger touching his personal belongings, especially those given to him by Diana. So he had tackled the job himself, with the help of a colleague, Gordon Hunter.
Ramsay realised that his request for help from Gordon Hunter marked a change of attitude. He had never before met Hunter away from work. Even before his marriage he had found the male, beer-drinking evenings in the pub distasteful. Diana, he realised later, would have rather enjoyed them, and perhaps because of that he kept her away. He knew that at work he was thought of as distant, aloof. He married above him, they said, and now he thinks he’s better than us. When he was still living with Diana, he caught whispered suggestions in the canteen that with all her money he ought to retire. When they separated, no-one offered sympathy or understanding. Perhaps they were rather pleased. It took him down a peg or two and showed he was mortal like the rest of them. So when he asked Hunter if he was free on Saturday morning to give him a hand to move some of the bigger items of furniture into the cottage, his colleague was shocked.
“Why, aye,” he said. “ Of course I’ll help.” Ramsay sensed that things between them would never be quite the same again.
They worked all morning, carrying the heavy furniture, most of it donated carelessly from the big house in Otterbridge by Diana, into the cottage. At midday Ramsay took Hunter to the Northumberland Arms and bought him several pints of beer and his lunch. The landlady recognised him and smiled but did not ask what he was doing there, so he thought the news of his move must already have reached the village. In the afternoon Gordon Hunter left-he would want to be in Newcastle on Saturday night and it took him time to prepare-so Ramsay was left to inspect the house alone.
Apart from a cursory glance when he was shown round by the estate agent, he saw the inside of the house for the first time when he moved in, and they were too busy at first for him to look properly. There had been surveys, of course. He was not such a fool that he did not care whether or not the place was falling down. But he had not wanted to inspect it in detail until the cottage was his. He wanted to see it stripped of the sad memorabilia of the old man’s life: the photographs in heavy frames, the hand-embroidered chair backs, the plastic mug for holding false teeth in the bathroom.
From the front door there were two steps down into the living room. It was the biggest room in the house, the width of the cottage, with windows onto the road and at the back overlooking the dene. It had been a mild February and in the small back garden there were daffodils in the borders and a forsythia tree in bloom. The crocus were past their best. Inside the room there was a narrow brick fireplace. The windows were low and the sills two feet deep. At opposite ends of the room facing each other were two doors. One led along a narrow passage to two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom, the other to the kitchen, which had been built as an extension. Ramsay carried the last packing case down the steps into the house just as it was getting dark, and almost immediately after, as if he had been watched, the doorbell rang.
Outside stood a spry, white-haired old man. He was small and immaculately dressed with black shoes that gleamed in the light of the hall. He thrust out a hand towards Ramsay.
“Hello,” he said, and his accent was as thick as any Ramsay had heard. “I’m your new neighbour. I’m a bit of a friend of Jack Robson, like, and he said you were moving in. Wor lass sent us round to see if there was anything you need.”
“No,” Ramsay said. “I’m all right. I think. But it was kind of you to call.”
“I’ll be away then. She’ll have the scran on the table.”
“No,” Ramsay said, and that, too, was an indication that things were changing, that he had decided it was impossible after all to live in complete isolation. “ Come in. I’ve a drink somewhere. You’ll have one with me to welcome me in.”
As the old man moved into the house, even Ramsay recognised that things were different. In the three years since Diana had left, no-one had crossed the threshold into the Otterbridge flat he had rented. Here, in a day, he had received two visitors. He went into the kitchen and unwrapped glasses from newspaper and rinsed them under the tap. He poured out whisky and took it to the living room, where the old man was staring out of the window into the dark.
“What made you buy this place then?” he asked.
Ramsay considered and followed his gaze to the window. “ That probably,” he said. “ The view.”
“We’ll have to hope it’ll still be there in five years’ time,” the man said. “I’d not bet on it myself.”
“Why?” Ramsay asked. “What do you mean?”
“Do you not know who owns that land?”
“No,” Ramsay said. “ I’d presumed it belonged to the farm in the lane.”
“Him!” The old man almost spat his disapproval. “He’s nothing but an asset stripper.”
“Who did he sell it to?”
“A man called Henshaw,” the man said. “A builder from up the coast. He specialises in executive developments in rural situations. That’s what his adverts say. I’ve heard them on the local radio.”
“The council wouldn’t allow building there,” Ramsay said. “It’s green belt. I checked before I bought the house.”
“It’ll not be up to the council, lad. Not anymore. And I don’t think that bunch in Westminster know what green belt means.”
They finished their drinks in silence and then the old man left.
At the time Ramsay considered the conversation as doom-laden scaremongering. The dene was a local beauty spot and it was inconceivable that development would be allowed there. Later he saw it as almost prophetic. It set the tone for his work over the next few weeks, and when he met Henshaw, he felt that his judgement had been corrupted.
Ramsay woke the next morning to a fresh southeasterly breeze that rattled the bedroom window and swept through the trees beyond the burn on the other ...