The sixth book in the Vera Stanhope series, 2014
Joe pushed through the crowd. It was just before Christmas and the Metro trains were full of shoppers clutching carrier bags stuffed with useless presents. Babies were left to scream in expensive buggies. People who’d been drinking early spilled out from office parties, stumbling down the escalators and onto the trains. Youths used language Joe wouldn’t want his children to hear. Today, though, he’d had no option about using the Metro. Sal had been adamant that she needed the car.
It was just him and his daughter. She was in the school choir and there’d been a performance in Newcastle Cathedral. Carols by candlelight, because even at four o’clock it was dark in the building. Beautiful singing that made him feel like crying. His boss, Vera Stanhope, always said that he was a romantic fool. Then out into the rush-hour evening, and it was just starting to snow, so Jessie was excited all over again. She was a soloist and had hit all the right notes, so the choirmaster had given her a special mention at the end. Christmas was only ten days away, though she was too old now to believe in Santa. But there was snow. Tiny little flakes twisting in the gusty wind like mini-tornadoes.
In the Metro he held her hand. They were standing, because all the seats were taken. In the space by the door stood two young girls, hardly older than Jessie, but their faces orange with make-up and their eyes black with liner and mascara. Squashed beside them, two lads. He watched what was going on there and hated what he saw, the pawing and the groping. Vera also called him a prude. He wouldn’t have minded so much if the encounter had been affectionate, but there was something unpleasant about the way the boys spoke to the lasses. Putting them down for their lack of street cred, mocking. Joe thought he’d like to bring the girls into the police station. Let Vera give them a pep talk about feminism – a woman’s right to respect. The thought made him smile. He looked at the badge on the girls’ blazers. One of the private schools in town. He and Sal had wondered about sending Jessie private. She was as bright as a button and they had high hopes for her. Certainly university. Maybe one of the grand ones. Watching the simpering and defensive girls, he wasn’t so sure about the posh school now.
The train pulled into a station. In the lights on the platform he saw that it was snowing even more heavily, the flakes bigger, settling on the terraced roofs. A woman with a long coat got on and took a recently vacated seat further down the carriage. Joe had been eyeing it up for Jessie and felt an irrational antipathy towards the woman. She had silver hair and discreet make-up, the fitted coat reaching almost to the ground. Despite her age – she must be seventy – there was something elegant about her. He thought she had money and wondered why she hadn’t called a taxi, instead of squashing into the Metro with the rest of them. At the next station a group of men filled the carriage. Suits and ties, briefcases. Loud voices talking about some sales conference. The mood he was in, Joe hated them too, for their brashness. The showing-off. Every station, a shifting tide of people, but he and Jessie were squashed into a corner by the door now, and he could see nothing but the back of a fat man wearing a Newcastle United sweatshirt. No jacket. A Geordie hard man.
The lights in the carriage flickered, and there was a moment of complete darkness. Somewhere a young woman gave a small scream. The lights came back on and the train pulled into a station. Partington, nearly the end of the line. The snow was an inch deep on the platform. Joe hoped Sal was home, the central heating on and tea nearly ready. She’d talked about getting a tree. He’d have been happy with an artificial one – his mam had never bothered with the real thing – but Sal was like a kid at Christmas, buzzing with preparations and excitement. He imagined walking into the house and the smell of pine and something cooking. Wondered again why he’d thought this marriage – this family – might not be enough for him.
He decided that they’d get a taxi home from Mardle Metro. Sal had said she’d come to pick them up, but he didn’t want her driving in this weather. A taxi would cost a fortune all the way home, but it’d be worth it. The Metro doors were still open and he caught a brief glimpse of the passengers sitting opposite, saw that the cold air had blown in a flurry of snowflakes that clung to their hair. He’d dressed smartly for the cathedral, and Jessie was only wearing her school coat over her uniform. He put his arm around her, hoping to keep her warm.
The tannoy buzzed and the driver spoke.
‘Sorry, folk. There’s a problem on the line. Wrong sort of snow.’ Muffled laughter from the passengers, too full of seasonal cheer and strong lager to be irritated by the disruption. ‘This is where we stop. A bus will be along shortly to continue the journey, if you follow one of my colleagues to the main road.’ A good-natured groan. The passengers stumbled out, complaining about the cold, but rather enjoying the drama. It would be a good story to tell in the pub that night. Ashworth held on to Jessie. Let the drunks and the weirdos get off first. He was feeling in his pocket for his mobile, to call a taxi, as he stepped onto the platform. They were only one stop from Mardle. Really this was no big deal, and again he thought there was no need to drag Sal out. He tucked Jessie under his overcoat, held her close to his body, as he searched for the number. The other passengers were following a Metro guy in a green jacket; they were drifting away, invisible already in the falling snow.
In the train the lights were still on, but they were faint. There was no sign of the driver. Jessie nudged Joe in the ribs.
‘Look. That lady hasn’t moved.’
‘Don’t worry.’ Joe had the phone to his ear. The number was ringing. ‘She’ll be asleep. Had too much to drink at lunchtime maybe.’ Then he saw that Jessie was pointing to the elderly woman in the long coat.
He was about to say that the driver wouldn’t drive off without checking that all the carriages were clear when Jessie slipped out from under his arm and ran through the open Metro door. She shook the woman gently by the shoulder. She’d always been a kind lass and Joe was proud of her, but sometimes he wished she wouldn’t interfere.
The taxi firm answered his phone call at the same time as Jessie screamed.
There was only one house on Harbour Street; the other buildings were businesses. It was tall and grey, almost black with the coal dust that also coloured the little beach on the other side of the harbour wall. Three storeys, a basement and an attic. Imposing. Carved above the door, a date: 1885. There was a light in the basement window and inside a woman was taking sheets from a drying rack that had been suspended over the stove. She folded them expertly, held them corner-to-corner and stretched them, before putting them on the table. Upstairs other windows were lit too, but from the pavement there was no way of seeing who was inside.
Next to the house was Malcolm Kerr’s yard, separated from the road by a rusting metal fence topped with ferocious spikes, the gates fastened with a huge chain and giant padlock. A couple of elderly boats, bits of engine, odd bulbous shapes covered by tarpaulin – it had the feel of a scrapyard. Malcolm ran the seabird trips out to Coquet Island and in the winter, when the
Next door to the yard was the lifeboat station, housing the inshore lifeboat, and outside it, to the seaward side, sat the tractor and trailer that would carry the vessel to the water in emergencies or on exercise. Then came the Mardle Fisheries: alive, buzzing with sound, background music from the telly on the wall, laughter from the people in the queue. During the day the fisheries sold wet fish, much of it locally caught, retail and wholesale from a long, low building at the back. In the evening it was a fish-and-chip shop, with a sit-in restaurant by the side. Behind the fryers two women dressed in white were flushed with heat, despite the snowflakes blowing in through the open door. There was a line of people spilling onto the street. All local. Mardle wasn’t a place for tourists, even in the summer. There was nothing beyond the fisheries except the harbour, enclosed by the wall. The boats there were dark shadows, half-hidden by the drifting flakes.
On the other side of the road stood the Coble pub, and already the snow was flattened and hard where people had crossed between it and the chip shop. Outside, a couple of hardy smokers leaned against the wall for shelter from the worst of the weather. Next to the pub was the low, squat building of the harbourmaster’s ...