I can’t swim. I have almost drowned three times. Well. I suppose I should tell the truth. I have almost drowned once. On a beach, in Cornwall. I got stuck under a body board. In the story I tell to people when I first meet them, it was a surf board. It wasn’t a surf board. I can’t surf. It was a body board and it dragged me all the way up the beach and I was deposited by the surf near to the line of black seaweed the ocean drops when it is high tide.
I have always told new friends it was a surf board. Then I mention hot air balloon rides. The discovery of a tin box under the stairs full of rare pound notes (extra details in this story include the initials DZ etched into the tin and a hand-written suicide note tucked in between two 50s). The time I won the lottery, but lost the ticket. I talk of the steamy details of the suicide note if I am with a group of people I want to make laugh.
I tell everyone I can’t swim, even though I can. Once, on holiday, I floated for a moment where I couldn’t touch the sea floor. I tell everyone I can’t swim because the lie is easier than the truth. I’m terrified of water. I’m terrified of drowning. I’m scared of death.
So. I lie.
No, I say to the police officer at the door, I absolutely did not know about poor Mrs. Crew, and no, I absolutely was not the one to hurt her. The portly officer smiles and says, that’s fine, Mr. Johns, you understand we have to check these things.
He walks off.
There’s a number of suspects, you have to realise – I mean, there always is. This town is small, and those that frequent the Tuesday morning market make up an even smaller number. It could be any of them. My suspicions first jumped to the old, tanned gypsy men that you see wearing gold chains and rings. This, as my daughter might say, is an outdated prejudice, like blaming the Poles.
Makes no difference to me who they are or what they look like. A man wearing golden knuckledusters is still a man wearing golden knuckledusters. Of course, as soon as you try and speak to these people they vanish like worms in woodwork, leaving just a faint trace they were ever there at all. To get them you’d have to burn up the wood. Literally.
So, they were out of the question. The next step was to set out to question everyone who’d been there on Tuesday morning. It’d been a busy morning, I was told by Terry the fishmonger, because it was one of the last warms mornings of summer, Tuesday the 19th of September. He’d sold Mrs. Crew a halibut and she had put it in her granny cart (those four-wheeled rollers old people put their extra pair of underwear and teeth into.) It was the same cart that Mrs. Crew had been found stuffed into. Down by the river, next to the market. I didn’t tell Terry, but the fish had stunk. Covered up her stench, though. Terry couldn’t give me much more, except that he was awful sad, Mrs. Crew had always been a big fish lover and he was sorry to lose such a loyal customer in such a gruesome way, he said as he crushed a lobster’s brain with a hammer.
Angelo the olive man, in both appearance and produce, said Mrs. Crew had bought some feta cheese and that’d been the last he’d seen of her. I asked him if there’d been anyone or anything suspicious, but he had little to give, mentioning only that his rival Frangel had disappeared for a longer than usual lunch break that Tuesday morning. It was hard to focus on what Angelo was saying: he was eating olives with the measured consistency of a robot on a factory floor.
I spoke to Frangel. He told me, in a hushed voice, that he’d had the shits and had spent fifteen minutes longer on his lunch break because he had spent so long trying to crap quietly in the market toilet. I looked at Frangel’s bare hands as he fondled his cheese and olives. I decided to go and find someone else to ask.
Mirrel, the market cafe’s owner, fainted when I told her that Mrs. Crew had been stuffed into her shopping cart. Mirrel had insisted I tell her what all the fuss was about down by the river. I told her. It knocked her right out. I waited whilst her staff revived her with cups of water. I thought I’d killed her. Just what I needed. When she woke she refused to talk to me and the whole procedure had been a waste of time.
I’d had enough of old people and weirdos. I called up office and they sent out some lackey, a community support officer, and I told him to get to it. After the market, he could try the houses nearby, and I’d stay here, getting the lie of the land. I sat down in Mirrel’s cafe, had a cup of coffee and thought of the blue hands stuck out the top of the cart and the horrible stench of fish.