I look at the blank page. It is a true copy of my mind at this moment. You often hear, see or whatever, how writers get it. Or rather suffer from it, I suppose. If it’s their living. I am just trying to type a memory and have no idea where start.
That’s where, I suppose, at the start. The beginning. There it is, more supposing!
Was it back when I actually wanted to be a journalist? All those years ago, pretending to be a stringer but already washing myself out by being totally mystified by shorthand. Admitting it, that was the silly thing to do.
I could pretend well enough. So I thought. Got an hour in a police station with a young detective talking about river crimes. My idea for a crime story was about thieving from the boats that moored along the river bank in the summer. I reckoned that when they were moored and empty they were ripe for picking. Not the biggest of crimes but an excuse for me to want to talk to river-police. He was the nearest I got.
There I was, asking about thieving with this detective. I had forgotten his name until I was reminded recently. He did help in his enthusiastic way but only after he had given me an ‘off the record tip’. That a body had been found in a disused church near the river.
“He was flat-out on the floor just in front of the altar. Had a woollen overcoat. Looked too small for him really, probably stole it. It was covered in mud. Dried so hard it was all crusty and bits fell off when they moved him. They reckon he was drunk, fell on the muddy footpath outside and crawled into the church. Then just died. Cold enough if he was drunk enough. Old bloke anyway so he shouldn’t have been surprised.”
I remember being unimpressed at being side-tracked. Unlike the detective who went on to say he had hoped it was murder. His first case to work on as a detective. Murder would have been a good start to his arrival at the station! I had to drag him back to my ‘river-crime investigation’. Not too successfully. He led me to a large wooden cabinet that held about two dozen drawers of index cards. He pulled one drawer out and said I could go through the cards as they were the what I wanted! I was pleased he left me alone afterwards but disappointed at the cards. BORING was my take on them but I scraped out ideas for an article on thefts of outboard motors.
I had to sign out. I had been there just over an hour. So much for journalism!
Back to what comes to mind.
“Detective says it was murder!” Or roughly that. A headline a couple of weeks later in the local paper. The coroner said different, case closed. I didn’t read any details. Don’t know if they knew the dead man’s name, I didn’t.
Soon after that I decided to investigate spiritualism. Well, clairvoyance to be more exact. Though now everyone uses the term ‘Psychic’. Remember, I was only sixteen or seventeen at that time and was flitting from one thing to another. No idea what to do for a living, aware I had to do something but more akin to dreaming than doing!
I cant recall how long but I was set up with a visit to a man whose wife was a ‘medium’. They still use that term but don’t put them together as who would want to be a ‘medium psychic’? Only the best will do nowadays!
Well, it was a visit of little use even then. I would like to believe in something of that sort but when he showed me a small box with a pristine violet sitting in it and told me it had ‘appeared in the middle of a seance, just recently’, I lost respect. I had a few questions, I expect, but water under the bridge has wiped them away. Funny how memory blurts itself into the present. I now seem to think he asked me if I was ‘looking at murder’ because I shouldn’t. If this is relevant I can’t say. Did it link back to the man in the church, I ask myself now. It was lost on me back then.
That little church I spoke of is still there. A few years ago it was ‘rescued’ and all its surroundings tidied up, grassed and fenced off. Its outer walls of flint and mortar were consolidated and put into pristine condition. Inside must have been similarly treated with almost industrial cleaning and fresh white paint on the plaster walls to give the effect of a small, very small, country church. Which I suppose it is, with a church service every few months to keep it sanctified.
It must have been a month or two before that headline in the paper. I remember the weather was miserable and no flowers around so it must have been before the spring bulbs were actually in flower. So it must be forty years ago this happened and I used to cycle everywhere. I was rubbish at cycling up hills so usually opted for the lanes and footpaths over the flood plain and therefore met with the river at some point. I enjoyed cycling along the river footpaths but some places were muddier than others and the path more liable to collapse over the edge of a miniature cliff. The winter water being something you really shouldn’t get too close to as it was a hefty current when at high-water level. And it was very cold and full of loose dirt and assorted detritus. Totally unsafe. Still, at seventeen I was not overly cautious!
But then you can learn quite quickly. The lock gates were shut but the sluices were open to allow water to gush through. The lock-keepers hut was closed. If one of the small barges that still survived to transport timber locally wanted to get through someone would have to clamber onto the lockside and cross a delicately arched wooden bridge over the runnel to the lock-keepers’ house sitting on the small island. The other side of which was an impressive weir with its now ferocious water boiling over the drop. Where I cycled, a few yards further was an old metal bridge over a narrow stream that ran into the river. Or usually did. On this day I stood and watched the reversal of water flow as the river, in spasm, pushed its way a few yards up this stream in a series of small bores. Each succeeding one taking small bites from the bank. I watched, leaning on the handrail. The surging water finally cut away a support and the handrail gave way. I was astride the bike, leaning on the hand rail as it fell away and down. Me, landing face down in the water, body scrunched on top but legs still hoiked round the bike which was dangling half off the bridge. It was supported, I reckon, by the hand rail bent by my weight as I fell. I instantly knew I was trapped. Head underwater, upended and stuck by the frame of the bike. I managed to straighten my arms out of pure shock and survival instinct raised my head out and gasped for a breath.
The clarity of that position remains. Like the seconds before an inevitable car-crash.
So this is where luck comes into it. Some say fate or coincidence. My thinking today is that coincidences happen too often to me!
I never was very strong, arms more than legs but I wasn’t doing well. A minute, possibly seconds longer but I can still feel the cold and the water rushing down my throat as I sank followed by the effort of forcing myself up enough to sick out the mud and water before another gasp of air.
I felt my legs shaking and the metal banging round my shins and pulling at my feet. Briefly it seemed to take the weight off my arms and the gravel under my hands lost its feel. My hands were numb, my body was freezing. I heard my brain shriek, “Hang on mate! Hang on!”
And a comfortable warmth flooded me and I knew I need panic no more. I could rest now.
The water accepted me gently, darkly.
That was the first time I was in that church. Back then you could, as I did, look up at the ceiling and see the waving cobwebs lacing across the cruck beams. Looking around, the beams could almost be touched, they came down from the low roof to the even lower walls of the building. Two small slit windows cobwebbed by wire each side let in small shafts of soft light and the grimy window where the block-wood table stood as an altar with its heavy square legs allowed a little more light. Yet there I was, stiff and very damp lying in that grey light with my cheek stuck to the flagstone on which I should be standing. At least I could see. I pushed myself up and twisted into a sitting position. My coat slid heavily to the floor. I sat like that, knees screwed up, while I rested, arms on knees. I wiped hands over my face and hair. Face dry, hair damp and my clothes still cardboard-wet.
Then I realised. My last memory was dangling in the water. I must have got untangled, somehow, fallen free and found my way to the little church; I assumed the obvious. Then of course, I had the idea of rescuing my bike.
Wearily, stiffly, I stood and walked to the old door. Just a few yards away. The small square of light cut into its upper half leading me on. The door opened heavily, drop-hinged and scratching on the flag scooped out by who-knows feet. I dragged the heavy overcoat as I walked, dazed and too weak to raise it off the floor as it was still sodden.
It was like I had stepped into, or rather out of Rumplestiltskin’s life. The small porch led into a narrow mud track, worthy of a rabbit-run. The short walk to the picket gate was overhung and pricked with brambles covering spindly bushes and trees fighting for space. Oddly I stood and identified clumps of lilac, budleia, and over bearing them, laurel and rhododendrons. Looming over these was the ubiquitous darkly yew. After this pause I walked to the gate. Outside, on the grass was my bike. I shook my head, thinking how thoughtful I had been!
As I heaved the khaki overcoat over my shoulder, arms pushing into the still-cardboard sleeves I looked back at the church and saw it wasn’t only here that the undergrowth, and top-growth was rampant. It seemed the whole building was being hugged, succoured, by a surrounding plantation.
I got round the gate, picked up and checked the bike. It seemed alright, a bit scratched and muddy but serviceable once I had re-wound the chain onto the main sprocket. As I stood up from this I saw the name-board for the church. Or, as I discovered by reading, the Chapel of Rest. Here it seemed was where they placed bodies of those lost in the river from the barges that once carried logs from the forests up-river to the city. It must have been quite a notorious stretch of water. Busy and treacherous with the lock, the steep drop and crashing weir hiding any cries for help. If nobody saw you slip you would have no chance, even if you could swim. Which I doubted many could. Maybe a good place for a killing.
The day had been warm enough for spring but cooling rapidly as the sun dropped away. I got on the bike and cycled unsteadily away. I looked at the path and ruts as I rode carefully. The path stopped at the tarmac to lead me towards home. Here I realised I was not looking at the dark blue woollen overcoat I had expected but some sort of khaki greatcoat. It wasn’t mine.
Soon after that was when I started my short-lived trail as a journalist, investigating the river and the paranormal. After I heard about the body and my coat I never did go back and visit that young detective. Nor investigate the world of psychics. In fact I steered away from writing altogether.
This is a sort of new beginning. Memory plays tricks, I think I have played the timings right. I donated that old army coat years ago. I wonder who he was? I still have some blanks there. Maybe writing will help after all.
from ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’ copyright Wordparc J Johnson Smith