After Jimbo died, after his funeral, we felt it right to miss a couple of meetings of our Whittlestreet Crime Writers’ Circle but life must go on, well, mostly. Though if you write about crime these days it usually involves an excessive number of deaths.
Anyway: We had a simple ceremony. The five of us. We did leave his chair, the sixth, in the circle, it seemed appropriate so soon after Jimbo had left us.
I suppose I should be formal and call him Jim, or rather James if you want to be really formal. But no, he was Jimbo to us all. At least those that actually used his name. Amy never used it as far as I remember. Mostly because she doesn’t use anybody’s name directly, just looks at them and speaks into their faces. Somewhat disconcerting if you are not aware of her system. She just sits and taps away at the tablet on her lap, eyes glued to it. Goodness knows what she does on it. I assume she takes notes but it could be anything. Oddly I just don’t have the nerve to ask. She sits opposite me, leaning over, fiddling with it. She glares if she deigns to raise her head and talk at you. I can’t get Medusa out of my mind whenever she does that.
Amy sat next to the empty chair, Tom the other side of that. Next to him was Harry then me. Marie closed the circle, as it were, therefore sitting between Amy and me.
It was quite brief. We had agreed at his funeral for each of us to give a short eulogy at the next meeting of the Burnthorpe, Whittlestreet Crime Writers Circle. So there it was.
Tom and Harry dipped into a couple of drunken episodes with Jimbo. I read the last two pages of his published crime novel, “the end” being the final words.
Marie said a few words about being a journalist then quoted the first sentence from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Finally, Amy read a poem by Emily Dickinson about death. “Fair enough,” I thought.
Of course we opened a bottle of his favourite whiskey and raised our glasses at the end in a chorus of “Jimbo!” and sipped or glugged to his memory. Some of us accepted seconds and then we sat in silence as we had planned no further.
A Crime Writer’s life can be fraught with difficulties and this vacuum was no stranger to us. We are always eager to learn and offer advice, even criticism, as long as we don’t have to reveal any potential plot lines or vital clues. This is why we like to have an agenda, so we can plan our secrets, as it were. To cover our group embarrassment we began to talk about the pub we were holding the meeting in. The publican was a friend of ours so he lent us the room for meetings. A good excuse for a drink too, we also use the library and bookshop but no drinking allowed there. Writer’s block can sometimes be oiled by drink, or hide it for a while.
There we were, breaking into a sweat of gossip when the door opened enough for a head and shoulder to appear. “Is this the book club?”
“No!” Several voices, not quite in time, responded. “Crime Writing!” A lone voice continued.
“Oh, good.” The door opened fully and the young woman came in, carefully shut it, saw the empty chair and dived into it. “Hello everyone, I am Nyree, sorry I am late. Have you started”
We vaguely looked round at each other then the young woman. She was literally like a breath of fresh air, maybe a gust, possibly a gale. Energy seemed to flail out of her as she fumbled through her large flowery shoulder-bag. Amy sat erect. (Was this the first time,ever?) Half turning to look at the newcomer. Amy’s white Goth facade a contrast to the ebony of the stranger.
Tom sat immobile as the bag landed on his lap as well as the owner’s and wriggled as her hands riffled through it. We others just watched.
“I’ve got the book.” She said and dragged it out. Dropped the bag with a clatter to the floor and waved the book in the air. She settled, held the book on her lap, looked round at the little group holding a smile as she looked at each of us.
“You were expecting me, weren’t you?”
A cross between silence and murmurs of “no,” filtered out as she continued.
“Uncle Jim sent me a list of dates and venues. He wanted me to come but I never did.” She looked around again. “But I have now.” She looked down, collected herself. “I brought the book.”
With that she lifted it, face forward so we could see the cover.
Still surprised, we looked at what she held. The cover-photo was of a small lake surrounded by overhanging trees. The water, steely grey and in the foreground, viewed as a high-shot, a small building on the edge that may have been a wooden boathouse with a short jetty part-collapsed in the water.
“Can you see the title?” she said proudly, “The Haunting of Blue Lagoon.”
“It’s not very blue.” Said Amy.
I have to admit to being stuck on the “uncle Jim” words but I did look at the book and had to agree with Amy.
“Well, I think it’s atmospheric!” Was her non-apologetic, enthusiastic, response.
I could feel the gently sinking of all spirits round me. An odd thing to say as no one had been particularly ‘up’ in the first place. It was the first meeting we had managed since “Our Jimbo” had been duly buried and mourned. Two months that had been. Two meetings missed. We had all arrived, settled and looked at the empty chair respectfully.
Nyree broke all that. An interloper! A mystery from her uncle Jim, our Jimbo! And goodness me she was so young and exuberant the air was suddenly sucked out of all of us. The pause to study the book’s cover extended until Marie broke the silence.
“I can’t actually see it. Can you turn it my way?”
Immdiately apologetic, Nyree turned the book to Marie and placed it face-up on her lap.
“We didn’t know Jim had a niece. You’re his niece?” Tom popped the question we all worried about.
“Sure. I’ve two brothers; nephews, as well. We’re all from Kingston.”
Oh-oh, someone stepped in something when they asked, “Jamaica?”
“on-Thames.” She kindly managed a little laugh as she spoke. Feet safely extricated all round!
“We never knew.”
“No worries, you lot never existed until he died. Then I got this book sent to me, with his letter and instructions.” She waited for any responses. I have to admit she was a good listener. She had to wait a fair old time while we digested.
Tom took up the reins again, “Well, your very welcome, Nyree. Hello from all of us.” He assumed we all nodded in agreement, “Why the book? I haven’t seen it before. Has anyone else?” More assumption. “What does you mean, instructions?”
“Well!” The pause and intake of breath signified one of two things; nervousness or a lot to say. It turned out to be the latter. It also turned out to bear only part relation to the title of the book and its cover. In fact the book was a collection of mysteries that had been dolled-up to read like ghost stories, or what goes nowadays. Apparently the title and the cover, so obviously mis-matched was at the insistence of the author. And, low and behold, the author was not the mystery.
“The author is my dad! He was from Jamaica, not Kingston though! One of the first students at Surrey University. Got his degree and all that, married mum and they had us kids while they both worked at the uni.. He worked around and about, post grad, doctorate and then we all up-staked and moved to Kingston.” She just had to pause and rub it in with, “-on-Thames!”
This is the short version I give here, won’t bother with Nyree’s extended version, interesting as it was, at times. Jim had never mentioned a daughter let alone any other family. We knew a wife had been and gone. ‘Excess work and drink’ he had said, meaning his, not hers.
“Soon after our move he got this published. We all pointed out the odd jacket and he just said ‘it had to be’. And that was that. Then he went to work one day to research at the library.” She stopped, tone flattened. We waited, expectantly.
“When he came back in the afternoon.” Pause again
Okay that was something of an anticlimax, you could feel the little circle settle back into relax-mode.
“He packed a ruck-sack with whatever, and said he had to visit uncle Jim about the lagoon story” This time she really had lost her exuberance. “And got run over near a Zebra Crossing on the way to the railway station! Uncle Jim never saw him. He went to meet him off the train and waited for the next but, of course, he never turned up.”
The atmosphere changedyet again but Nyree continued before anyone could find any words.
“Anyway,” she pulled some smile back into her voice. That was years ago! Five years now. The police agreed it was a stupid accident.” She emphasised the last sentence, you could see her energy coming back. “Uncle Jim was at his funeral and we did all the reminiscing, and crying, and read some of this damned book.” She passed it to Marie as if it were hot.
You could see her clench her jaw to regain control and she held Jims letter to her “Uncle Jim’s instructions were to come here and find out why the jacket and title were so important to my dad. And to sit in your circle and ask for your help.” She stopped, all out of steam.
You can imagine the hush that came after that. We had all those internal questions I won’t bother with writing here.
Here is where Amy proved herself. She simply moved over to the young woman and gave her a hug. That gave Marie the example to react, “Of course we’ll help.” She looked over to the one consoling the other then at us men opposite to encourage our responses.
Trouble was, what could one retired detective and two as good as gone policemen do with that story? Worse, none of us could recall any crime or detail of a local mystery or lagoon, blue or grey! And why did Jim not nag us when it happened? We looked across at each other. Three policemen without a clue!
Only one thing we could say, “Of course! Whatever we can! Absolutely!”
We adjourned to the bar to sit round a table of drinks and introduce ourselves properly. Hear more about Nyree and her family and exchange bits of memory and stories about her uncle Jim. Plus a little digging into her parent’s, especially father’s lives. All for the sake of investigation, be sure.
So that’s how our memorial meeting to Jim went. Threw us all into a mixture of excitement and concern that we had somehow agreed to do a ‘proper job’!
So why would a man want to rush like that for no real reason? Well, one that we could fathom? He had got published and was rushing off to research something………. That was where we came back to; his library visit the day before he left and his mis-matched jacket and book. “Maybe he just managed to grab a couple of days holiday and decided to go!” was suggested. And why visit Jim in Burnthorpe? We even prodded carefully about his death and had to accept it was a cruel accident and not suicide. You have to admit it might have been!
Nyree was staying at Jim’s old place. In fact he left it to her as the eldest child, it seems, so we had no worries about where she lived while we all went to our separate homes that evening.
It was late. Too late to just go to bed so I sat in my chair with a gin and tonic and looked at the book borrowed from Nyree. She had read it and found nothing in there to suggest a mystery. Jim’s letter was headed ‘instructions’ how to find his friends at the Whittlestreet Crime Writer’s Circle’, i.e. at the pub or the Library! So back to the book again.
The cover photograph was nowhere I , or the others recognised. The photo was copyrighted by an Eric Johnson. The contents list had fourteen titles and thirteenth was ‘The Haunting of Blue Lagoon’. “Unlucky thirteen,” I found myself muttering. Then, “What would Jim have done?”
“Read the bloody story!” I heard him say….. in my head, of course. So I did.
A typical story of the late 80s. Bright lights appearing and disappearing over the water, voices in a strange language chanting and shadows flitting through the trees. And then, of course, everything just stopped and no sign of anything having happened. Written in the third person by someone, it seemed, who tried to make something out of nothing, and failed. It could have been any number of activities or pure imagination.
Unsatisfied by it I finished the drink, abandoned the book and went to bed. There, in the dark with only the odd car swishing along I had another thought. “If the story wasnt interesting, what was? What was researched? The place or the photographer? Both?” Sleep took those thoughts from me.
I telephoned Jim’s number. It was odd when she answered with her name. Jim’s response was usually a disappointed “What!” We arranged to meet at the library.
It was small, like the town, but had local newspaper archives and directories. Marie was there, as usual, as librarian. We each had a subject; the photograph or report in a newspaper, the address of the photographer. Largescale Ordnance Survey maps to find a ‘blue lagoon’. Something must be on file or Nyree’s dad wouldn’t have been fired up. We started looking in the mid-seventies and worked backwards. Based on the fact that none of us Burnthorpe residents had recalled anything we were looking for over the previous eighteen years! I suspect Marie and I just hoped our memories were still sound. Jim would have been proud of us!
We had books and opened maps flooding over the tables while Marie strode in and out with heavy binders containing the huge A3 and A2 newspapers of the area. Despite their size they were useful in that they covered quite a few square miles of assorted villages, hamlets and solitary farms. If there was anything to find it ought to be covered. After that it would have to be the microfiche and none of us fancied shuffling and peering on that wretched machine.
I suppose we should just have looked in the telephone directory first. Nyree copied out half a dozen E Johnson names plus their address and numbers. Thank goodness for directories. A couple were ‘Eric’ but those with just the ‘E’ might have been too and the system also had a couple of Mrs. E Johnson’s so they had to be included as it was still common for the wife to be called ‘Mrs Eric Whatever’ in an unnecessary, historical way. Officially an addendum to the man rather than an individual in those days!
Poor Marie, she had opted for the hardest job and only ended up with smudged fingers from old inky papers from one of the binders. I scanned the maps systematically for all the ponds and lakes for names. It wasn’t until Nyree moved across to me with the list of names and addresses that we made real progress. We matched addresses to the map in the vague hope that it would prove something. It did. One Mrs E. Johnson lived a stones throw from a series of gravel pits, right on the edge of a map. In the real world it was about seven miles away, Royton Farm House. Others lived in the town or generally around but only that one lived near lots of water. This 1946 map only called them pits but we were hoping they had glammed them up since then.
Nyree rang the number for Royton farm. In my old job we rarely got it right first time. But you have to win the lottery some time and this, it would seem, was it. Her conversation was a bit ragged, emotional for her part and the other party who turned out to be the widow of the photographer. Yes, she would be happy to see a visitor. Nice to have a little chat. We arranged a time to visit. I agreed to contact the others and decide who went with Nyree. We couldn’t all go, it would be too much like a trip to visit a curio. In the end I drove and Amy would keep Nyree company. The others had to stay gainfully employed. Especially Tom and Harry as they were on standby for a shift of picket line duty at some factory lock-outs near Sheffield.
We drove in the old Mondeo. It wasn’t that old, I kept saying, just needed attention. Something it never really got from me! Bronze was a trendy colour but my bronze was blurred by the dust and mud that accumulated between services, the garage gave it a birthday-treat wash. I think they were disappointed at my laziness and sorry for the car so cleaned it. Still cost me a few extra quid each time.
You might have expected a solid old farmhouse but we arrived at a 50s bungalow. It was next to a couple of small barns that were built of the solid chunks of age-blackened stone more akin to the area. They had corrugated iron roofs painted in red-oxide for rust-proofing. Sitting beside them was a little black Renault, which I parked beside.
She was so old! Born in the early Twenieth Century! Her husband, the photographer had died ten years before. They had lived in the bungalow since it was first built in 1954. (Good guess eh?). Apparently the photograph was one of a reel he took when they first arrived. There had been trees all over the area where the gravel pits had been excavated and as the site expanded trees were felled. The back of their garden once had a paddock behind it. From the edge of that had been the woods leading on to the excavations, with that gap, which was originally a fire-break, not an avenue to the water side.
She told us what she and her husband had witnessed in the sixties; the story that he had written for the local newspaper and the photograph. “Yes, that’s the one.” She responded to the image.
“It was black and white, they have made it much greyer, perhaps the negative was damaged.”
The story had appeared in the local newspaper (We hadn’t gone back far enough) and had been written up as a mystery. The nice old lady said they had written what they had seen and the editor had turned into a little piece about aliens.
“Aliens indeed!” She brushed the idea away. “I think it was anarchists, or IRA, or them Russians. We’re having a Cold War, you know?”
We could only agree.
“We told the police but they decided it was aliens. Agreed we were potty more like. After they wrote it that way in the papers.”
Always nosey I looked out of the window while she made us all another pot of tea with Nyree’s help. I could see the trees and the gap but not much else, just more trees further back, the other side of the lake.
Mrs Johnson came back, Nyree carrying the refreshed teapot on a tray. Amy was going through the old photos. The old lady poured more tea and came for my empty cup.
“It’s changed a lot. Much tidier now they have….. what do you call it….. conserved it? For the birds and animals. The shed thing has gone and lots of trees and bushes planted. Grown quite big now some of ‘em.” She took my cup to refill.
“Landscape! That’s it. They had to landscape it. All the old gravel pits when they finished digging out.” I collected the filled cup. I went back to just standing, looking out. Feeling it had all been a waste of time. However, it was sunny and not too cold for the end of October.
“It’s still there though. Not the boat-house. And the jetty seems to have rotted away.”
I assumed she meant the lake. “Yeah, I can see” I suppose I didn’t seem bothered.
“Not from here! You have to go round to the side a bit. Not much like the photo now. But then you cant see it in the photo either. Another biscuit?”
That got my attention. “What?” Not the biscuit!
“The pile of stones.” She went and sat. I followed.
“Go on.” We all listened.
“Eric called me to see the lights flashing over the water. We saw it from here. Reckoned it was kids with storm lanterns having a drink. It was late. We were a lot younger then, kids ourselves, really. Eric, bless ‘im, was worried they would swim and drown or some such. It was a rough old hole in them days and wasn’t pretty. All the other pits still working were further on. Look alright now.”
She stopped, casually went off the subject. “ He was lovely you know, always taking pictures in his spare time. We often went for a bus ride just to take his photos. He took one of that pit before he died. Lake, lagoon or whatever you call it. It’s in the box somewhere, it’ll be written on the back. Prints off slides as well. He took a lot of slides.” She shook her head gently while remembering. “I remember him saying that it looked more like a blue lagoon now than it did then.”
That was the first time she called it Blue Lagoon. “Go on,” prodded Nyree.
“Well, we wandered across the field, it was ploughed in those days. Following the flickering lights. Off and on, they were. We crept quite close but stopped when we heard low grumbly voices. Not children at all. They were speaking a foreign language but we only heard snatches.
“We sort of hid. It was almost exciting. Then we saw this light float up from the middle of the lake and float to the side. It was like a fuzzy moon with its reflection in the water. Or a bright ballon, I suppose, close to the surface. It sort of fizzled out on the bank opposite. We watched and it was only when it got dark again we realized all the noises and lights had stopped.”
“What happened next?”
“Nothing. It was all silent except for the rustling trees. No voices. Not a single person came out of that place. They had to pass us, or at least come out the way we went in. We would have seen anyone moving, had sharp eyes in those days. No other way to get to the lake. Not like now. Dog walkers, cyclists and all sorts use the paths they’ve built round the lakes. Five of ‘em now, you know.” She said proudly.
“The photo. The one on the cover on the book?”
“Oh yes. He took that the next morning. I was with him. It was a rainy, miserable day that’s why the picture is poor. And, of course, it’s all been cleared up and made pretty now.”
Nyree spoke again,”I can understand you called it a lagoon but why blue?”
“Ah, yes.” She smiled sweetly. “ I think there was a film or a book. A book, all the rage, called Blue Lagoon or whatever. Eric called his picture that, thought it would catch the editor’s eye. Topical and ironic, he said. Anyway the water was blue, petrolly when we saw it, so it was sort of true. Just invisible in the black and white photo. So he added ‘Haunting’ to make it like a ghost story. Just for fun.”
“So it wasn’t a mystery or haunting really?” Amy spoke disappointedly.
“I must say I like your make-up dear. I used to have it like that when I was a girl. All that white powder puffing everywhere. Like chalk-dust!” She recomposed her hands in her lap. “Well, the odd thing was that pile of big stones we found. Someone must have put them there. Piled like one of those little monuments. By a tree a yard or so from the edge of the water. We truly thought it was Russians up to no good. The police just ignored it. Well, it’s all different now, very pretty. A few ducks but no swans, as far as I know.”
“Are the stones still there?” I just had to ask.
“As far as I know, dear. Go and have a look. It’s a lovely day. Walk that way to the lake,” she pointed out of the window, “ when you get to the edge move to your right. You will see them. By a pretty white tree. Birch, silver birch, it is.”
And so we went. All three of us at the behest of Mrs Johnson. A little lake, curving round like a banana, or should I say “an oxbow” as the designers called it. We didn’t expect to find anything. Nyree’s dad never got there, he never said what to look for and we had just heard it wasn’t really a mystery except for someone dumping some old stones. Fly-tipping obviously not as new as all that.
We reached the edge, moved back a bit as it was soggy then walked to our right as instructed. Saw the stones, or rather small boulders in a little mound covered in leaf mould, lichen and almost hidden by ferns. I trampled it down a bit to study the stones and nearly lost my foot down a hole. It hit another rock or something and I grabbed a sapling to stop falling over. Twisted my foot to escape and it brought out some strips of decaying material.
I didn’t know what dug that hole. Some biggish or enthusiastic rat, rabbit, badger? But I had to peer into it. Assumed it was empty and got out my trusty torch to let a little light in. It’s odd how surprised you can be looking into a gun barrel in the darkness, even if it is a buried one!
It was such a shame to ruin that almost idyllic scene, even though nature would have its way eventually. After we had all squinted down the barrel of the gun, rifle? We returned to the house. Called the police. Two cars and two layers up and they called the army and they called their bomb squad, who eventually arrived at dusk. They drove their truck over the paddock and up to the waterside. Headlights on and tentative investigations made. At that stage we were confined to the bungalow.
A couple of hours later and the lights of the truck bounced and the rear lights bobbed and gently waved their way backwards along the track at the side of the field to the edge of the road, where it stopped. By this time we were all waiting at the front door for the soldier who was wandering our way.
He was a sargent and was immediately offered tea but refused saying he had to take everything back to camp.
“Everything? What was found? Russian guns, bombs?” The Cold War seemed closer than ever.
“Nothing like. More boring but odder. I shouldn’t be telling you this but as you found them!” He tapped his nose, signifying we should keep a secret, at least for his sake. “They were guns. You probably saw that. A couple of rifles, a light machine gun and rounds of ammunition. And half a dozen stick grenades. All carefully wrapped in a tarpaulin. Oiled most like to keep the weapons safe. mind you, the tarp had well-rotted.”
The soldier had said they weren’t Russian, it led to a more local, ominous thought.
He continued “It’s odd, very odd. They were German. Old weapons. Must have been from the war. There was a label on the tarpaulin, just readable.”
We had to wait while he took out a notebook he had written in, “Fallschirmgruppe Drei”,
He tucked it away, “ That’s Parachute Group Three. Someone must have buried them during the early part of the war, maybe ‘39 or ‘40. At least before we were able to round every one up. I can guarantee they have been there seventy-odd years.” With that he offered thanks and goodbyes and strolled back to the truck where a couple of his men waited. He climbed in and they reversed onto the tarmac and skidded away quickly.
That then was the end of our search, story and acquaintance with Mrs Eric Johnson. We had the shortish drive back to Burnthorpe and it was when we had stopped to drop Amy at her family’s house, in the silence before you work out how to goodbye. Amy spoke into the dark of the Mondeo.
“If those things were buried in 1939, what did the Johnsons see in that very same spot in 1965?”
She got out before we had a thought. Nyree and I just looked at each other then Amy hurrying up the path and knocking on the front door. The warm light appeared and disappeared, as did Amy.
Nyree and I both shivered as the chill of late October infiltrated the car.
I turned the key, the engine turned and we headed off into November still oblivious as to what Nyree’s father had got so excited about!
from: ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’ copyright Wordparc, J Johnson Smith