by James Morley
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
There are few things more heartrending than watching a friend and neighbour slowly succumb to the corrosion of clinical depression. I know because I’ve been there and lived through the lot: post-natal, for a start: not improved by the antics of a drunken abusive husband. That man has long since been driven out of my life –“in thought word and deed,” as our vicar would say. I count myself lucky to have settled in Lower Woodfield in the Sussex Downlands: population four hundred and six and can juggle a life of single-mum and broadsheet journalist. So that’s me, Alison Strettle, stupid surname I know, but it’s the best my family could do for me. I’m forty-two years young with no ties, apart from one teenage son away at uni; probably laying girls and making a nuisance of himself in a dozen ways I’d rather not know about.
You have to be patient if you buy a house in a place like Woodfield. I’ve heard it takes five years of impeccable behaviour before the locals will start to like you and at least twenty before they will accept you as their own. I had one good friend, our local celebrity, Nadine Williams, the television weather presenter. She lived in Mole Cottage, a quaint little place; all oak beams, uneven floors and thatch. If I speak of Nadine in the past tense then perhaps I’d better explain. The standard village joke, proclaimed her to be a witch. It was tongue in cheek of course, “just a bit of a laugh down the pub”, they said. But the joke died when Nadine was found on Woodfield Common her head beaten to pulp with an iron bar.
With Nadine’s murder making it to the front page of The Sun, there was little surprise when we became submerged in London paparazzi. This pleased no one, apart from the couple running the pub, who exploited the tragedy for all it was worth, ably supported by a clique of village locals.
‘Was Nadine a witch – what’s your take on all this?’ Jeff Dellington a London colleague was sipping tea in my kitchen. I was fond of Jeff, once we had been so close; perhaps we could be again.
‘Of course not – it’s balls. Anyway she was my friend.’ I replied.
‘It’s true though; it always rained when she was doing the telly forecast.’ He glanced out of the window. ‘Look out there, it’s fine – sun’s shining, first day for a fortnight.’
I was angry now and it showed. ‘Jeff, you’re not telling me you believe all that crap they talk in the pub?’
‘No, I don’t, but some people will, and one of the tabloids has done a survey. You know last summer, out of the thirty days Nadine did the forecast, it rained on twenty eight. “The Dorset warlock” they’re calling her. There’s deluded people out there who might kill her for that.’
‘Just to change the weather – that’s mad!’
‘We’re in a world that’s gone mad in case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘Sorry, Jeff, but I’ve noticed all too well. The police are chasing their tails…’ I wondered how I could put my suspicions. ‘You see, I’ve no proof, but I think I know who might have done this.’
‘Could you mean that guy next door?’ Jeff was far too perceptive.
‘Sorry,’ I replied. ‘I can’t tell you, not yet, and anyway I hope I’m wrong.’
Jeff left me and went off to phone his paper. I had a decision to make, which brings me back to the subject of depression. George and Maggie Beaton had taken early retirement to follow their dream: the little cottage in the picture postcard village, where the flowers smell sweet and the sun always shines. But wherever that village may be it is not Lower Woodfield. Maggie and George, ageing but childless, were the saddest middle-age couple I’ve known.
They had burned their boats when George threw in his London job and moved to Sussex. He had expected to find paid work locally but no offers came. Over- qualified was the mealy-mouthed response from businesses in the nearby towns. Too old was what they really meant.
Maggie and I had become close. She fell on me as a friend and confidante with a familiarity I might have found embarrassing had I not known a little of what she was suffering. George, she insisted, was becoming moody: he worried about the mortgage on their converted farmhouse, although Maggie insisted they had adequate funds. She told me of George’s drinking and his obsession with the smells of livestock, the dung from cows and horses, but above all it was the mud that spoiled his walks and the remorseless rain that fell continuously that long wet summer. Maggie said George’s paranoia had centred on the villagers, seeing their wariness of strangers as open hostility. Maggie had found increasing comfort in the company of Nadine. The three of us would be together whenever Nadine was off duty and home in her cottage. I had noticed that George was never invited to these tea and sympathy sessions, though on one occasion I had seen him in my headlights lurking near Mole Cottage. I had no wish to become Woodfield’s Miss Marple, but had George become unhinged? In my imagination I saw him staggering home from the pub, mind addled by this ridiculous witchcraft talk. Suddenly I felt cold; it was if someone had crossed my grave. Nadine, when she was home, loved to walk on Woodfield common. George could be found there most days.
The police were scouring the nation, tracking down Nadine’s ex-lovers,
jealous work colleagues, and anyone who might conceivably have had a grievance.
A week had passed – nothing had emerged. The decision was never easy but really I had no choice. The police were in our village hall, temporarily turning it into their incident room. The woman constable took my statement, hardly bothering to suppress a yawn. I signed the paper and was told that my information was “interesting”.
Feeling utterly deflated I staggered into the street. I felt ashamed and disloyal as I walked the few yards to my front door. There stood Jeff and with him was George.
‘How did your interview with the law go?’ George asked.
‘What do you know about that?’ If Jeff had not been there I would have been tempted to run. Instead I felt a mix of fear and embarrassment.
‘Mrs Blenner-Hasset was hiding behind the stage curtain – she heard your opinion of me and she’s told everyone in the shop.’ George looked confident and wholly sober. Something was wrong here.
‘Perhaps we should all go indoors,’ said Jeff.
I fumbled with my door key and dropped it on the step. Jeff smiled, retrieved it, and opened the door. I clung to him as he led the way into my living room.
‘First of all,’ said George. ‘During all the twenty-four hours that Nadine was missing, I was in Winchester chasing a job advert. The police know that, they’ve already asked.’
‘George, I’m sorry.’ I must have looked as miserable as I felt.
‘Secondly, I’d never touch Nadine…’he hesitated. ‘She was beautiful, unobtainable and I think I loved her a little.’
The journalist in me was reasserting herself . ‘Did she reject you – did you kill her for that?’
‘I never touched Nadine. I know she would never have fancied me even if I were the world’s most handsome man.’
‘That’s something I’ve found out in my own research,’ said Jeff. ‘Her colleagues say she wasn’t one for the boys.’
George stared at me. ‘What’s Maggie told you about me?’
‘That you’ve not been well.’
‘Oh, don’t give me that!’ He was angry now. ‘She said I was mad - didn’t she?’
I tried to form a reply but I was shaking and the words wouldn’t come.
‘Didn’t she!’ He rasped.
‘You know we’ve never had children,’ George continued.
I nodded again.
‘Well it takes two to tango and I can admit now that we’ve never had sex for twenty years. You see, Maggie’s never been one for the boys either.’
‘Poor George, I believe you, but I’d never have guessed.’
‘Well you bloody well should have.’ He was angry again. ‘Because the only person those two wanted to get into bed with was you!’
I couldn’t reply – I couldn’t think straight. Why had I been so blind when a hundred little things should have blown the truth up in my face. I looked to Jeff for comfort but he stood motionless, face inscrutable.
‘There’s only one jealous psychopath in this village, and maybe only one witch,’ George sighed and suddenly my heart went out to him. No wonder he had always looked so sad and bereft.
‘It was Maggie…what will you do?’ I could barely hear my own voice.
‘Some decisions in life are easy – some less so. The police arrested her two hours ago.’
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