Early June 1956
The girl runs along the promenade and around the lighthouse keeper’s derelict cottage, her ponytail whipping the air and new tears flying down her face. She stops at the topmost step that leads down to the crescent of shingle, cups her hands around her mouth, fixes her eyes on the pair of figures below—the size of thumbs from here—and she bellows.
They don’t turn around. The shorter of the two figures raises his arms and flips over on his hands. His body cartwheels a perfect circle. The second figure, a head taller and wearing a black-and-white-striped dress belted at the waist, turns away as if trying not to notice the cartwheel or its impressiveness. The girl on the promenade tries again. She calls louder this time, but her words are carried off by the wind. The girl below raises her own arms. For a moment she is a cloud of whirling stripes and cotton and ivory stick legs, then she is back on her feet, dusting sand from her hands.
The girl on the promenade inches down the steps, changes her mind, and leaps back up again as though the steps are scorching hot. She opens her lips, and she shouts a third time.
“Betty, come up here quick. They’ve found another girl. Dead!”
Seconds pass. Betty is pleased she executed the cartwheel well; her hips had stayed straight as they rolled in a neat circle. She glances sideways at George, who is cramming broken gingerbread from his trouser pocket into his thick lips. Something about him makes her stomach curdle. She turns away from him and notices the girl on the promenade.
“I think Jennifer’s calling me—”
“There was me thinking you were too frightened to go upside down,” George cuts in, still munching. “But now just look at you, cartwheeling about like a clown.”
“I wasn’t scared. You only dared me because you wanted a look at my knickers.”
“Your knickers, indeed,” he says, and his eyes swim over her body. “One day you won’t speak to me like that.”
“Not when I have a Bentley S1 and drive us to the South of France, then back through London for tea with the queen herself. You’ll wear a dinging silk scarf. And my child’ll be growing in your stomach.”
He jabs his eyes into her middle. Betty turns away and kicks up a toeful of sand. A seagull shrieks. Jennifer waves her arms madly.
“I’d better go back up. Jennifer wants something.”
“Fine. You go,” says George. “As long as you come with me to the dance. Pa’ll drive.”
“No buts. You’re coming with me.”
Betty sighs; if she protests, he will spend the next three weeks trying to persuade her. She gives a small nod and skips off across the sand.
“Your ma sent me,” cries Jennifer as Betty reaches her. Her voice is raspy, as if the words have been pulled out of her throat and over a grater. “A busload of up-country men have arrived at the hotel.”
Always so urgent; Betty would like to stitch pebbles into her hem to slow her down.
“But that man what stabbed Maureen,” pants Jennifer. “He’s struck again on the New Road. They’ve come to write about him for the papers. Didn’t you hear me calling?”
Betty shakes her head. She tries to look calm, but she feels sick.
“They don’t know yet. She’s not local.”
“Why didn’t you come down onto the sand to tell me?”
“No.” Jennifer’s voice drops to a whisper. “Maureen’s blood is probably still wet on it, God bless her soul.”
“Don’t be silly,” snaps Betty, but she walks faster.
“My da said he stabbed her in the neck with a bait hook. And my ma said—”
“Right,” she interrupts, not wanting to know more. “Get yourself home safely. I’ll help Mother.”
PARKED MOTORCARS LINE THE street and a man wearing a spotted bow tie lolls outside the hotel sipping a glass of something amber. His left arm blocks out half of the hotel sign. Eden, it reads now.
“Fully booked, love,” he mutters without looking up.
“I live here,” says Betty curtly, and she squeezes past him.
Inside, the big room is misty with tobacco warmth. Men stand shoulder to shoulder, still wearing their overcoats, and Mother wriggles between them doling out cups of tea and cinnamon slices of loaf cake and toothy smiles.
“Want your grushans topped up with a drop of stout?” she calls to
a man in an armchair with an empty teacup balanced on his knee. He ignores her.
“The killer has to be a local,” another of the reporters is saying to no one in particular.
“Apparently her blood was still warm when they found her,” chips in a younger one with a cigarette wedged in the gap between his front teeth. “And the inspector just told me that the first poor lass was stabbed in the stomach forty times . . . or was it fourteen?”
“Mind your lip, Tony,” says the eldest with an Irish accent. “There’s ladies about.”
“I’m just saying it like it is.”
“Well, don’t,” snaps the bow-tie man, stepping into the room. They all quieten. His face is stern, but he slips Mother a wink. Betty pretends not to notice.
“All warm enough in your rooms?” chirps Mother, giving the bow-tie man one of her special smiles. “Enough blankets on your beds?”
“My darling, the only way we could possibly be more comfortable is if you hopped into our beds with us.”
Mother pretends to look coy and sashays into the kitchen as the men fall about laughing, all except the silent man on the armchair, the teacup still balanced on his knee.
“What’s wrong with you?” snaps the bow-tie man, glaring at him. “Silver spoon still stuck up that backside of yours?”
They all laugh harder and stare at the armchair man. As Betty squeezes between them, making for the kitchen, she glances at him, too. His eyes are low and he doesn’t speak. He seems to want to keep himself in a separate bubble. He skims through a stack of papers, each covered with black words inked in tight orderly shapes. She can’t quite make out his eyes, just the steep curve of his forehead and the black curls jostling
for space on his crown. He has narrow shoulders, she notices. A long face, too. He looks strangely streamlined.
She stares at him, fascinated at how the teacup still balances while his right hand holds a pen and the other supports the wad of papers. He cocks up his left eye and locks onto her.
“Yes?” he grunts, but not altogether unkindly.
His voice is deeper than she expected, startling her to silence. His eyes are glassy blue puddles of cold water, and pink capillaries thread across his face. Beautiful, somehow.
She fumbles for something to say. She is usually so composed around hotel guests.
“Ever so sorry,” she manages.
She wants to know why he doesn’t talk to the others, why he wears a jet-black trench coat like a Soviet spy and what seems to be a wedding ring but on the wrong finger. His face looks younger the more she stares. It is unlined and hasn’t the creases of the other men, but it is pockmarked, too, and threaded with those veins, as if he has worn it harder than he should have.
“I’m Betty. Betty Broadbent. Pleasure to see you. Or perhaps meet you. Though we haven’t quite met yet.”
She stops, embarrassed, and waits for him to say something. He looks down at his papers, pausing before he glances up again.
“Gallagher.” He clears his throat. “I have to . . . These things don’t read themselves, you know.”
She wonders whether to laugh, but he is still frowning. He picks up his pen and writes something in those blockish letters. His curls bob as his hand moves.
“Right you are, then,” she says, and feels silly; like Mother, or a parody of her.
The room is very hot suddenly. She squeezes between the other reporters to the cool galley kitchen at the back of Hotel Eden, where Mother is standing in a pile of carrot skins and thwacking a cleaver through a heap of potatoes so that there are enough to go round for the men’s suppers.
“What’s the matter with you? You look all pink and funny,” says Mother with a frown. Suddenly she brightens. “But you’ve been out with George again today, I hear?”
AT SIX O’CLOCK IN the morning Betty pads into the kitchen, still groggy with sleep. The air is yeasty, and Mother is up to her elbows in greasy dishwater. She sings along to Fats Domino on the wireless, not quite keeping up with the words.
“I couldn’t stop thinking last night about that poor, poor dead girl,” says Betty.
“Nonsense, too busy for idle gossip,” snaps Mother, then she grins and her voice changes. “But you slept like a little angel. I watched you and watched you but you didn’t wake once. And look, what a day! Sun shining, birds singing just for us.” She lets out a little whoop.
Betty kisses Mother’s forehead, but her insides prickle. The only days Mother talks this fast and wakes this early are the days before a crash, before her mood springs high and crumbles, leaving her in bed for days, weeks sometimes, until she can pull herself upright.
Betty clears an empty gin bottle and a lipsticked tumbler from the floor. She is wondering whether to ask Mother about them, when a cough cuts in. She whips around. Gallagher is standing in the kitchen doorway staring at her.
“Mr. Gallagher,” gushes Mother, cutting between them. “Early riser,
aren’t you? Sit yourself down in the big room and I’ll bring in breakfast. Kippers all right for you?”
She crosses the kitchen to stroke his arm, the way she does with all of her favorite male guests before they fall in love with her for a week. Betty looks away. Suddenly there is a loud pop, as boiling water spits out of the kipper pan.
“Whoops-a-daisy,” squeals Mother, flapping a tea towel and giggling.
Betty looks back to see Gallagher’s reaction, but he has slipped into the big room. He sits at a breakfast table, his long back facing her and his head pointed at the window covered with yellowing net curtains.
“Do something, take him tea,” whispers Mother, pushing a cold teapot into her hand, and Betty can see how desperate she is to get it right.
They aren’t used to making a dozen breakfasts at once; there might be two couples or sometimes a family, but Betty has never seen Hotel Eden so crammed full that men are sandwiched in, two to a room. Only Gallagher has his own bedroom. He paid triple rate for it, so Mother said.
“Betty, today, please. We’re brewing a pot of tea, not a bloody thunderstorm.”
Mother pinches the bridge of her nose as Betty fills the pot and hurries into the big room.
“Lovely morning, isn’t it?” she says in a high-pitched voice that doesn’t sound like her own. “Some tea?”
Gallagher doesn’t seem to hear. Betty watches his face as she pours. She doesn’t notice that there isn’t a teacup on his saucer, or that hot black tea fills it and dribbles onto the place mat.
“Whoops. Crikey. Sorry.”
“Christ,” cries Gallagher, pushing back his chair. He jumps to his feet before the tea runs into his lap.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Let me do that. You’re making a real pig’s ear.”
“I can do it.”
“Suit yourself.” And he sits down again with his chair pushed far out from the table and his jaw grinding.
Betty mops the tea with her handkerchief and pulls across a teacup from another setting.
“I really am sorry about that,” she says again, rummaging in the dresser drawer for a place mat.
Her finger has a red dent from the heavy teapot, and her hand pulsates with pain.
“Tell me what you know about Nigel Forbes the butcher,” says Gallagher sharply.
She sets down the teapot, stunned by the question.
“Mr. Forbes? I hardly know him,” she says, trying to sound unruffled.
“Never mind that,” he snaps. “Just tell me what you do know.”
She frowns, irritated. Did your mother never teach you manners? she thinks. Then she realizes with horror that she has spoken aloud.
Her tongue seems to swell and fill up her mouth. Gallagher raises an eyebrow. She would like to run back upstairs, to remake the bed, wash her face again, pull on a different skirt, and start the morning over. It is as if some strange spirit possesses her and causes her to behave quite out of character around this man. If Mr. Eden found out, Mother would lose her manageress post and their home at Hotel Eden.
She pours tea carefully into a fresh cup and is about to apologize again when the bow-tie man strides in. He rubs his chin, curved like that character from The Dandy, and takes the chair opposite. Gallagher’s face darkens. Betty looks from one to the other.
“Marvelous, a lovely cuppa to start my morning,” says Reggie loudly. He turns to Gallagher. “My, my. Isn’t she a corker? Just the ticket to perk up a dull day.”
“Never change, do you Reggie?” snarls Gallagher. Reggie turns back to Betty.
“Say, what’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Betty,” she mutters.
“Leave her alone,” hisses Gallagher.
“First dibs, eh?” Reggie stretches his fingers behind his head. His knuckles crack. “Didn’t know you had it in you, boy.”
“You make me sick. She’s a child.”
Betty turns to face the dresser so they won’t see the tears pool in her eyes. She blinks them back. She shouldn’t care if Gallagher thinks her a child; he is just a rude man who asks too many questions.
“Your problem, Gallagher, is that you’re so damned forgetful,” sneers Reggie.
“Is that so?”
“Because you seem to think you’re a cut above the rest of us, but what you’re forgetting is, no matter who your daddy is or how many prime ministers he gads about with, we’re all chasing the same story. And we’re doing it from the same gutter.”
The room is silent but for Reggie’s wheezy breathing. Gallagher stares into his cup like the gypsy woman who reads Mother’s tea leaves every birthday; the gypsy woman who stopped coming to St. Steele last year after she saw something so black in the leaves, she almost choked on her gumdrop.
Betty pours Reggie’s tea. She wishes she had a clever phrase that would defuse the awkwardness, the way Mother would. Tea tinkles into Reggie’s cup, but she has forgotten to strain it. Black leaves float to the surface.
“Sorry,” she says, flustered. “I’ll fetch you a fresh cup.”
She lifts the teacup, but Reggie pushes her wrist back down. “Don’t you worry, my precious. I’ll drink it as it is.”
His sausage fingers linger on her wrist. She wants to pull away, but she can’t make a fuss. She freezes, but then Gallagher swats away Reggie’s hand.
“Anyway, tea leaves aren’t poison, are they?” continues Reggie, as though no one has touched or swatted anyone else. “Or have you poisoned mine, Gallagher boy?”
He slurps and pulls back his lips. Clumps of tea leaf have lodged in the gaps between his teeth. Betty looks away. Gallagher stands abruptly and pushes back his chair, just as Mother totters into the room with two plates of steaming kippers and doorsteps of bread.
“Breakfast’s served,” she squeals.
“You beauty,” winks Reggie.
“None for me,” says Gallagher.
Mother’s smile wavers.
“But you’ll enjoy these lovely kippers. They’ll set you up for the day.”
Gallagher storms out of the room. Betty tenses as the front door opens and slams shut.
“Well, now. There’s a gentleman,” sneers Reggie.
Mother does her trilling laugh, but it sounds thinner than usual. Betty wants to hug her until she is bright again, but Reggie is patting her bottom and gesturing for the extra kippers to be scraped onto his plate.
“There’s a good girl,” he says to Mother, tucking a napkin into his collar and shining his fork on the hem of her apron.
Betty hurries into the kitchen. She picks up two apples and runs out the back door, through the yard, and onto the lane. At the end, where it picks up the promenade and curves down to the cove, she can make out the back of Gallagher, his hands pushed deep in his pockets.
“Mr. Gallagher,” she calls.
He strides on without looking back, his coat hem swinging.
She trots to catch up. “Mr. Gallagher!”
He stops and turns, his face still hard. She reaches him and extends a hand with an apple in it.
“Breakfast,” she says softly. “And thank you . . . for earlier. That man, Reggie . . .”
He glares at the apple as if there is a hidden message in it, then accepts it. She bites into her own apple and tries to chew quietly. They walk in step the rest of the way to the shore, and Betty allows herself little darting glances at his jaw. The shingle is damp against her feet. She realizes that she is still wearing her indoor slippers and hopes he won’t notice.
“You asked earlier after Mr. Forbes the butcher,” she says, emboldened. “Mother sometimes buys shin and ham from him, but his cuts are dear so we buy it from Spoole most of the time. But if you’re asking because you think he’s the killer . . . It wasn’t him.”
Gallagher’s face still looks uninterested, but his head half turns toward her.
“That’s not all. There’s something else you want to say about him, or perhaps don’t want to say,” he says, and a lump clogs up her throat. “I could tell back at the breakfast room.”
“There’s not . . . Just . . . The policemen don’t think it’s him, do they?”
“Between us, they do.”
“It can’t be.”
“You said you hardly knew him.”
“I don’t,” she continues more carefully. “But why would he hurt anyone? He might look frightening—and I know that the children joke he turns into a monster at midnight—but that’s only his way. He’s . . . He likes to keep himself to himself.”
She tries to invent a stronger reason. Their eyes meet again. Gallagher’s glare is piercing.
“He’s stopped going to church, so I’ve heard,” he says. “Something must have changed for him to have lost his faith.”
“He hasn’t gone out much at all since Mrs. Forbes died; it isn’t just church.”
“And I’m told he returned from the war a changed man. A loner,” presses Gallagher. “Didn’t he attack his wife once?”
“I don’t know who’d say such nasty things,” she says, frowning. “But he spends his time working and doesn’t bother anyone. He has his own farm and an abattoir and—”
“Wait, an abattoir?”
“Only a small one.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“He invited you there?”
“Of course not. Why would he invite me to look at dead bits of cow?”
She blushes. He can probably see straight through her lies.
All she knows is that no one must suspect Mr. Forbes.
“It can’t be him, I just know,” she repeats firmly. “And I only really came here to say that I didn’t mean to upset you earlier. The things I said about your manners.”
Gallagher doesn’t look at her; he is still staring at the sea. She shouldn’t have followed him. He probably thinks her dull or difficult, and now she must stand here in this excruciating silence or else slink away, embarrassed either way. A flock of angry seagulls circles overhead. She wishes they would dip down and carry her off.
“Upset me?” he says after a long silence. “Pah ha.”
It is such a strange barking noise that Betty stops twisting the apple core in her palm. She wants to laugh, too, but she keeps her eyes on the horizon.
“But still,” she says. “I’m sorry. I’m sure your mother and father instilled
very good manners in you. . . . I suppose you just forgot them for a moment this morning.”
His lips twitch. She thinks he might smile, then he is serious again.
“Mother’d have liked you,” he says, and Betty curls up her toes inside her slippers. “Yes, she’d have called you spirited.”
“I’m not usually,” she mumbles.
“But it’s a fine quality to have.”
Her hands are clammy. She wishes she had something fascinating to reply with, or that she was beautiful like Mother and Mary and her Sunday school teacher Miss Hollinghurst so she wouldn’t be expected to say anything fascinating at all. She clears her throat.
“One summer we had no fish here at all,” she begins, trying to sound like Mother who has told this story many times before. It’s a good talking point if you’re stuck for chat with the guests, she once said. “Whole armies of seagulls came and ate them all. Lots of the fishermen had to move to the cities for work . . .”
Betty trails off. She can’t remember how the story ends or even if it is true.
“Yes, seagulls are the biggest predator here in St. Steele, never mind the Cornish Cleaver.”
Gallagher spins around to face her. “What did you just say?”
“That hundreds of seagulls came, so we had no fish left.”
“No, no. The last bit?”
“Um, I don’t know,” she says, nervous again.
“The Cornish Cleaver. You said the Cornish Cleaver,” he says, leaning so close, she can smell his aftershave and hair oil and the damp wool of his suit.
“Yes, I meant the man who killed Maureen and the second girl, Elsa.”
Gallagher squeezes the tops of her arms in a sort of hug. Her stomach leaps into her mouth.
“Thank you, Betty. That’s your name, isn’t it?”
She nods, certain that her cheeks are the color of Mother’s boiled beetroots.
“The Cornish Cleaver. Utterly perfect.”
He pulls out a tiny notepad from his inside pocket and writes something, then stops and looks cautious.
“Wait, you didn’t hear that expression somewhere else, did you?”
She shakes her head, and his face relaxes again. Her skin still tingles from the hug—it was dry and tight, as though they had slotted together for a moment. But when Betty collects herself, Gallagher is striding away; he is striding away so fast, she is certain he can’t wait to be rid of her.