Will and John walked down the road that took them, after two hundred yards, to the small enclave on the shore. Three sides of small, crudely built cottages opened onto the sand where boats were pulled up amid the seaweed, ropes, nets and tackle. Men were tending, loading and mending, preparing for the tide and the mackerel shoals in the late afternoon.
In the square that was formed by the three sides of the cottages was the midden. It was a noxious pit of discarded rubbish and worse. Even the strong tang of salt and seaweed from the shore could not disguise it. John held his breath as he approached it, and Will muttered his views to himself. They kept as much distance as they could, but the air was heavy with it.
Figures of men, roughly clad, were bent to work of some sort, or they sat around idly smoking. Urchin children in long skirts, short, loose trousers and grubby faces scampered about, bickered with each other and cried at some anxiety or small injustice. Women, shawled and booted, sat on doorsteps and from time to time uttered coarse shrills at their menfolk or the children. One or two of the men acknowledged John with a “Morning, Mr Hinkley.” Most didn’t.
Will followed John to one of the cottages where the door stood slightly ajar. John pushed it open gently and ducked below the low lintel to peer inside. A woman in her fifties, but looking well more advanced in years than that, turned to face him.
“Oh, Mr Hinkley,” she exclaimed, patting down the front of her skirt. “Whatever can I do for you?” Her speech was thick with the accent of the north.
John took in the ramshackle, meagre interior of the cottage. The light struggled to penetrate the single, grimy window in the front wall. The room was cluttered with things, wooden planks, bits of net and balls of yarn. Bundles of rags lay around, although whether for wearing, sleeping on or for some other purpose John could not tell. It smelled of fish and the mustiness of unwashed things.
“I wanted a word with your lad George, Mrs Miller” said John. “Is he about?”
The woman looked perplexed. “He’s down on the shore with his father getting the boat ready for this afternoon. I hope he’s not in trouble, Mr Hinkley.”
“No, no, Mrs Miller, it’s nothing to worry about. I’ll walk down to the boats then.” He touched his cap to her. “Thank you.” And he turned, raising his head again as he emerged from the doorway where Will was leaning on a pile of wooden crates. John blinked in the sunlight. “Down at the boats,” he said to Will, and they walked off out of the enclave of cottages onto the sands.
There were half a dozen small, open boats lying on the foreshore. The water was pushing up in small wavelets with the incoming tide, and men were busy with their gear. John and Will walked across the soft sand, over the line of brown, straggly seaweed at the tide line and onto the hard sand and shingle. As they passed the first of the boats a couple of men looked up and said “Morning, Mr Hinkley,” before bending back to their knots and lines of hooks.
John stood before the last of the boats where two men were busy. They both stopped what they were doing and looked up.
“Morning, Horace,” John addressed the older man.
“Morning, Mr Hinkley,” he replied, his eyes raising an unspoken question. He removed a thin pipe from his mouth.
“I’d like a word with George here,” said John, “if you can spare him a moment.”
“What’s he been up to now?” the older man asked, as if this wasn’t the first time.
“Nothing to worry about, Horace. We’ll just take a walk down the sand.”
The man shrugged and replaced the pipe. “Mind you don’t be long with him,” he said between his teeth and pipe, “we’ve fishing to do and the tide will be up shortly.”
“Not long, Horace,” and John beckoned to the younger man. George had long, straggly hair and a wispy beard. He came forward with a nervous uncertainty, and the three walked off slowly down the sand. The sun sparkled on the sea, and the old fingers of the ruined castle caught the light on the distant headland.
They walked in silence for a short while, John abreast of George Miller and Will two paces behind. When they were far enough for John to judge that they were out of earshot he stopped, and turned to face the sea. George Miller stopped beside him and fidgeted while John simply gazed out at the horizon. George shuffled his feet and waited. John wondered what was going through his mind, and he let him wait.
Eventually, and without lifting his eyes from his feet, George said “Is this about the note, Mr Hinkley?”
John turned his head to the boy. He had not expected so ready an admission. “What note is that, George?”
Immediately George looked as if he had been struck. He looked up and immense anxiety crossed his face with the panic that comes with an inadvertent self-incrimination. For a moment John thought that he might run, but he didn’t. As the boy stood there John felt his anguish, and it caused him a discomfort with which he did not wish to linger. He took the note out of his pocket and held it forward. “Yes, George, it’s about the note. Did you write it and leave it in the guardroom last night?”
“Yes, Mr Hinkley, I did.” George’s face was pale.
“George,” said John, slowly. “Just tell me, and tell me truthfully. Did you have any hand in that man’s demise or do anything that might have caused him harm?”
“No! Honestly, Mr Hinkley, I did nothing except find him. You’re not going to fetch the Constable, are you?”
George was shaking now, and John put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, George, you’re not in any trouble. All I want to know is what you found and what you saw. Will you tell me?”
George nodded, the look of fear drained from his face and his colour returned. They stood together on the sand at the shoreline, Will a pace or two away, close enough to hear but keeping silent. Fifty yards away the men working the boats occasionally glanced in their direction but otherwise paid them no attention. The waves lapped and gurgled and the sun sparkled on the calm sea. The raucous cries of seagulls wheeling around the coastline came and went. A pair of cormorants invigilated from a slab of rock poking through the water just offshore, and George gave John his story. He was glad to do so.
George told how he had been walking home in the twilight of the evening when he saw the lights. He told of the shadowy figures of three men, at least he assumed they were men. Three? Yes he was sure of it. He told how he had hidden himself, and he had not been seen, of that he was also sure. The light was poor and he could not see what they were doing, but he saw them mount the horses, and he saw how two men mounted one horse. No, he could not recognise them or offer anything distinguishing about them, except that the single rider might have been taller, but it was difficult to tell.
He told how he had waited after the riders had gone, and that they had ridden off over the common. He told how he had found the body, face down in the ditch. No, he had not touched it, and as he did not see the face he could not know who it was. He told of the smell of brandy, and he told of how alone and afraid he had felt.
He had gone to the guardroom after he left the common path, but there had been no one there. He had taken a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil he had in his pocket. He had left the message but that was all. He had then gone home. He had hardly slept.
John believed him. “You did the right thing,” he said to George. “Have you told anyone else about it?”
“No, Mr Hinkley, not a soul.”
“Then there’s only the three of us know what you saw. You, me and Mr Unwin here.”
Will, who had stepped up a pace and joined them closely, drew up his chest. He was rarely called by his surname apart from on occasions of formality, or in the case of some digression. “Apart from the horsemen,” he said by way of making his contribution.
“Yes, and the horsemen. Let’s keep it that way for now,” John said. “George, don’t say anything to anyone else about this. Not your father or your friends. Nobody.”
“Do you think they killed him?” asked George. “Am I right to be afraid for myself? Might they come for me?” His anxiety returned and George was trembling slightly.
“No one saw you, so you tell us. But who are they, I wonder. I don’t know who they are, and nor do you, so it’s best you keep it to yourself for now.”
The three of them walked slowly back down the sand towards the boats. “What am I going to tell my father, Mr Hinkley?” asked George. “I mean what we’ve been talking about. He’s bound to want to know.”
It was true, he would. “Tell him,” John said, “that I wanted to talk to you about joining the Service. As a coastguard I mean. You’re an educated lad, George, tell him I was asking you for your thoughts on that.”
“The coastguard? Really?” George looked at John and an excitement came over him. “Could I join the coastguard, Mr Hinkley?”
John smiled to himself. He would have shaken his head if George would not have seen. “Probably not, George. I don’t really think so. But it should satisfy your father.”
“He’d be so pleased, Mr Hinkley. He always wanted me to get on.”
“Yes, well. You’re a fisherman, George. And a good one, so I hear. Perhaps you should stick to that, eh? But you can tell your father that we spoke of it.”