Mankind doesn't need Art, what he needs is stories.
G. K. Chesterton
It was four days before the bodies were discovered, by which time Mr Cowper had begun to mottle. He was lying underneath the kitchen window, where the sunlight caught him every afternoon. Sunlight and corpses do not mix.
Mrs Cowper fared somewhat better, having fallen in the hallway, which was shaded and much cooler.
Springtime came as a surprise. It had been the gloomiest of winters. We had even been denied the consolatory dramas of heavy rain or a snowstorm. Our village can usually look forward to being cut off at least once a year; the roads round here are terrible. Instead, the winter was grey an endless, anaesthetising grey. For almost all of January and February, the days hardly seemed to break; it was simply that the nights thawed a little during the course of each morning, before hardening again mid-afternoon. I drove down the country lanes to work each morning, radio on, past fields where the soil was sullen. I glanced upwards through the grimy windscreen of my car and thought how heavy the outlook seemed to be, how oppressive the density of the cloud cover.
It was March before a little weak sun bled through, as if the cumuli were a huge swathe of bandaging folded haphazardly across the great wound of the sky.
Warmer weather finally arrived in April, with a suddenness which implied it should be mistrusted. I was worried that we might get a late frost and couldn't decide whether or not to put in some earlypotatoes there was nothing in the patch except for a couple of brussel plants which had over-wintered there in ugly splendour. In the end, I decided not to bother. I find it hard to get excited about vegetables.
Instead, while two of my neighbours were swelling, gently, I took advantage of the lighter evenings to enjoy my flowers.
I think back to that time now and wonder what I was doing, what I was trying to grow, as their bodies became less and less human and more and more corpse-like. Logically, I know that death occurs in an instant. One minute you are a subject, the hero or heroine of your own particular story: the next, you are a thing, an object which can be acted upon by anyone who has access to you. You can be lifted, carried, dissected. You can be ignored.
I know it's stupid call it a guilty conscience, perhaps but I can't help feeling that while I weeded my borders during the course of that week, the Cowpers were becoming more and more dead, and that if someone had discovered them earlier, they would have been less so. As it was, they were found on the Friday morning because a council workman noticed that they hadn't put their wheely bin out.
We are religious about wheely bins round here. Every Friday, you can see them standing sentinel outside each cottage. People in this village may not speak to their neighbours for years, but we all walk past each other's wheely bins on a weekly basis and are intimate with how worn they are looking, whether any wheels are missing or what might protrude from underneath the lids. Miss Crabbe next door, for instance; fills hers with newspaper.
I fill mine with garden refuse. I was filling it that week, trying to clear the profusion of weeds which was threatening to spoil the previous year's efforts. The narcissi were out already, which was nice. I like them much more than daffodils; their pale faces in the twilight, the scent. I had some tulips as well, apple-dawn red, but my favourites were the wallflowers. They smelt so wonderful after rain the texture of their petals was of such soft depth. I wonder if I was weeding around my wallflowers as Mr and Mrs Cowper cooled in their cottage that Monday evening.
I wonder if I was considering my arabis, what good ground cover it made, as their bodies stiffened on the Tuesday.
Perhaps on the Wednesday I was regarding the heavy heads of the peonies, as Mr Cowper's flesh discoloured in the sun. I often think that peonies make my garden look as if it belongs to an old person. I am only twenty-seven.
Forget-me-nots sow themselves. I might have thought this as Mrs Cowper's bodily fluids drained to her back she was found lying on her back or perhaps I was cutting my rose bushes down and praying that I wasn't going to be plagued with mildew. Mildew of one sort or another is my biggest problem.
What is the worst thing I have ever done? I don't know. To be a murderer, you have to have malicious intent, don't you? I have never done a deliberately malicious thing in my life.
My working week had begun as always, at the Magistrates' Court held each Monday morning at Oakham Castle.
The last time I had been there was for the inaugural meeting of the new Rutland County Council, like a wedding with its pomp and ceremony the councillors in their finery, accompanying wives in suits and hats, the press and other hoi polloi at the back on wooden benches. Things had quietened down since then, although the green and yellow bunting still trembled in the market square.
That morning, it was business as usual. I was there just before ten. The solicitors were already in place and a small gathering of defendants dotted along the benches. The Great Hall is the only place in the county guaranteed to be cool in the hottest of weather the stone walls exude a medieval chill. I was wearing my thin black denim jacket and shivered as I stepped out of the inefficient morning.
I glanced over at the defendants as I passed. There was Tim Gordon, again, up on another charge of driving a motor vehicle without insurance or proper licensing. I went to school with Tim and could still remember him at ten years old, plump and friendly, running around the playground clutching a plastic trumpet. We were quite chummy then. By thirteen, our ways had parted, peeling asunder to encircle opposite ends of the educational spectrum. I was studying for O-levels in six different subjects and CSEs in four. Tim was taking Metalwork and General Science. I would still see him occasionally, lurking at the end of the school drive with a bunch of other no-hopers we called the Drongos. He waved sometimes, but adolescence had intervened and my social standing meant I couldn't possibly return his greeting.
Fifty years ago, Tim might have become a farming hand or a gamekeeper's helper, but there's no work for the men around here these days. As far as I know he's always been unemployed. His dad has a junk yard behind their house in Market Overton. I think he helps out there occasionally. It was his eighth or ninth appearance in court. After each one, he would shuffle over and grin in the way that somebody who has known you since you were five can grin. Then he would ask me not to put his name in the paper, so that his parents wouldn't find out. I always told him I'd have to run it past my editor, but he never made it in. His offences were so commonplace they weren't even any use as fillers. Not even the Rutland Record needs lineage that badly.
As I walked past he gave me the grimace, anticipating our familiar exchange, sticking his tongue between his teeth and wobbling a large hand from side to side in a jokey wave.
My boss was there, sat solidly on the press bench with the court list spread out before him. He had already removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. His arms were folded across his broad chest and his hands tucked into his armpits. He was leaning back and chatting up Gail, the usher.
Doug looked up as I approached. 'All right, m'duck?' his usual Monday morning greeting.
'All right,' I replied. I mouthed hello to Gail and slid onto the bench next to Doug. 'Anything doing?'
Doug pushed a copy of the list across to me, the papers rasping on the bench's wooden surface. 'Nah, Alison, we'll be out by twelve. A couple of assaults and an affray that mad lot out at Whissendine. Why they don't just shoot each other and have done with it, I don't know.'
It used to irritate me that Doug sat in on the court sessions, until I realised that he did it for his benefit, not mine. Doug had been editor of the Record for eighteen years. He had worked on local newspapers in some capacity or other since he left grammar school. He was not in good health and due to retire soon. In the meantime, he liked to feel that there was a bit of pure news reporter in him still, that there was more to his job than overseeing the advertising and making sure the Village Correspondents filed their copy by Wednesday afternoon. He was aching for something big to happen, just once.
I glanced through the court list. Most of the names were familiar. I flipped open my notepad and arched my back, looking up at the dark wooden beams above me, charred bones against the white plaster ceiling. They always made me think of gibbets. I never reconciled the weight of that twelfth century building with the scrupulousness of its modern usage. The morning's business was a matter of plodding through the list, case by case, with all the usual, reductive formality. Any event, however vital, became procedure. The moment of passion the drunken decision, the flailing fist drained of all intensity by detail. Most of the cases would be adjourned. The traffic offences would have fines set. It would be more appropriate to our setting, I sometimes thought, if a sobbing villager was dragged before us in chains and sentenced to be hanged for stealing a rabbit.
The door banged open. I looked up and saw the Thomson family shouldering their way into court; livid-faced Mr Thomson, his nervous, clingy wife and Jeremy, their thick-set son. The Thomsons were in continuous feud with the Smarts, another Whissendine family. I'd never quite worked out the precise nature of their differences except that it all went way back and erupted into affray approximately twice a year. For their court appearances, each man donned an ill-fitting suit and was accompanied by an identical, stringy wife. In the dock, they addressed the leading magistrate as 'sir' or 'ma'am', heads bowed respectfully, trying to outdo each other in their courtesy. They never so much as acknowledged each other. They saved the arguments for their home turf.
'All rise!' called Gail, and there was a shuffling and scraping as we scrambled to our feet for the magistrates, two women and one man, who processed forth from an ante-room behind the bench. They seated themselves in a row beneath the expansive wall covered in huge, decorative horseshoes the collection is one of the town's chief tourist attractions and the session began.
The Rutland Record claims to be England's oldest newspaper, although I think the name has changed over the centuries. It used to be a broadsheet coveting corn prices and the activities of the local highwaymen. It went tabloid in the eighties, like everything else, then duly came close to going out of business. At the last minute, it became the subject of that glorious oxymoron of the business world, a friendly takeover. The Shires Periodical Group already owned half the local newspapers in the region and a stock of trade magazines. We became the smallest, the cutest, item on their books. Nobody expected us to make any money. We had been bought as a sort of mascot, or pet. Actually, we turn in a small profit.
Doug opposed the takeover on principle, but even he was forced to concede that it proved beneficial. Pensions and healthcare packages appeared in the staff contracts. There was a sudden influx of office furniture.
That was all before my time, but when I arrived Doug was still fond of remarking that the wooden chairs they had used before obliged you to grow fat, so that whichever desk you sat at, you had your own padding.
Gone are the days of clickety-clack, even in Rutland. Production staff send our camera-ready copy by modem to a printer in Grantham, who has the papers delivered back to Oakham in the small hours of the morning. Cheryl once told me that the day the Record's brand new picture scanner arrived, Doug stood in the subs' room while they unpacked it, and wept.
At the time of the Cowper case, there were two and a half reporting staff, counting Doug. I was Chief Reporter, and Cheryl was part-time everything else; Deputy Editor, legal expert, obituarist and Sports Correspondent. Officially, she worked a half-week, but in practice she was far senior to me. On the rare occasions that Doug took a holiday, Cheryl swept in. She fancied herself as something of a matriarch, always telling me I ought to grow my hair and put on some weight while letting Doug know that he ought to lose some of his and get a decent trim. Rumour had it that she and Doug had once been lovers but I found it hard to believe. They were both in their late fifties. She was married to a man in Stamford who was into racehorses. They had three teenage sons. Doug lived alone, a widower.
Our office was perched on the corner of the market place, a minute's walk from the Castle. The production and advertising staff were on the ground floor. Cheryl and I had a first-floor office and Doug sat in isolationist splendour in an attic office opposite the junk room we call the Library. On market day in summer, it was possible to throw open the sash windows and pick up local gossip and potential stories as they drifted up from the stallholders and customers, floating skywards amongst the hoarse, disinterested cries of 'Peaches ten for a pound' and 'Twenty half o'mush'.
After an hour and a half, I left the court session. The rest of it was going to be a series of non-appearances and adjournments. Doug would stay in case anything unexpected came up and he was thinking of buying a caravan from Gail's brother and wanted to have a chat with her about it.
There wasn't much for that week's paper. We were all sick of Independence stories and so were the readers. We wanted something fresh to cover but were all too knackered to go out and find it. I needed to get on the phone.
Each Monday, I put a call through to my friend Bill at the fire station and he tells me if anything has happened over the weekend. It was Bill who fed me the bananas, my first story for the Record, one small paragraph which is now framed and hanging on my kitchen wall.
A Belmesthorpe farmer made a surprise discovery on Tuesday morning when he happened upon sixty-three boxes of bananas which had been dumped in one of his fields. An appeal has been made for the owner to come forward. 'We're baffled,' a police spokesperson has admitted.
When my brother Andrew saw the story he said, 'Oh, for God's sake ...'
'What's wrong?' I asked.
'The title,' he said. 'It wasn't the bananas which were missing, it was the owner. Everybody knew exactly where the bananas were.'
Andrew has always been a pedant.
During the week, all I need to do is keep my ears open. The fire station is a hundred yards down the High Street. I can hear the siren as it starts up. I go to the window and watch to see which way the engine is going, then get on the phone to the Village Correspondents in that direction and get them to look out of their windows too. If I guess right, the engine can be tracked halfway across the county.
As I crossed the Castle grounds I thought that I should ring the Whissendine Correspondent and find out if there were any rumours about the latest fracas between the Thomsons and the Smarts. I wouldn't be able to use any background until after the trial but it would be good to get a few notes done in advance.
The only flurry of excitement in court that morning had been over one of the assault cases, an Oakham man in a suede jacket, up for punching his girlfriend. Just before his case was called, the door opened and a thin young man about my age sidled into the court. Everybody paused as he was approached by Gail. (Sometimes we get tourists coming to have a look around who don't realise that the Castle is closed on Mondays and Gail has to usher them out. We had three Japanese once. It took quite a while to explain.) After a short exchange, Gail gestured the newcomer towards the press bench. He walked swiftly across the court, head down, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible which made him riveting to watch. He crossed the bench behind us, then slid in next to me. The bench crackled.
Doug is not the sort to waste time on social niceties. He leant forward across me.
'Who are you?' he hissed to the young man.
'David Poe,' he whispered back. 'Press Agency.'
The nationals had descended en masse for Independence, chortling into their notepads and churning out stories that made us sound like characters from an Ealing comedy. The following day, they all disappeared, vultures who had got wind of a fresher carcase.
'What are you doing here?' Doug hissed, ignoring the swift glances from the magistrates' bench. I pressed myself back to facilitate the exchange.
'This Browning,' David Poe replied, indicating the man in suede, who was talking to his solicitor. 'Rumour has it he's a friend of a cousin of Jeremy Beadle. The Star are interested.'
Doug let out a short but resonant laugh, his head snapping back and his mouth opening in an exhalation of derision which echoed round the hall. Heads in the courtroom turned. Gail stepped towards us, frowning, and Doug lifted the flat of his hand, nodding an apology.
The friend of the cousin of Jeremy Beadle had finished talking to his brief, a black-suited woman who, while she talked, had been tidying up a scattering of pens and pencils on the table in front of her and pushing them into a plastic pencil case in the shape and design of a packet of Walkers Crisps. She rose to address the Bench, asking for an adjournment for probation reports to be obtained. The adjournment was granted and a date set. Bail remained unconditional.
As Browning turned to leave the court, David Poe eased himself from the bench and sidled out, following.
Doug leant sideways towards me, arms still folded. 'He'll have a fine time if he tries to doorstep that Browning,' he muttered from the side of his mouth. 'He's liable to get a punch up the bracket.'
As I crossed the empty market square half an hour later, I saw David Poe standing in the doorway of the Nearly New shop, looking as though a punch up the bracket might have been exactly what he'd got. He was frowning and muttering and slapping a mobile phone. I stopped and watched him for a moment, unable to resist the temptation to be helpful.
'Excuse me,' I called across the square. He looked up, still frowning. He was sitting next to me a minute ago, I thought. Now he can't even remember who I am, the pillock. His fringe was too long and his hair fell forward over his face, obliging him to make small, sideways tossing motions with his head which added to his air of irritation.
'There's a pay phone right there.' I pointed back towards the butter cross, where the red telephone box stood out like a beacon among the stone buildings. He nodded, still frowning, then broke into an unexpected smile, as if he had just caught sight of himself in my eyes. He lifted the mobile phone in one hand and shrugged. 'Thank you,' he called.
As I opened the door to the office, I wondered whether I should have invited him in to use our phone but I knew Doug would be back soon, and if David Poe thought Mr Browning was truculent he had yet to witness a full demonstration of Doug's contempt for the national press.
Our biggest fear at the Record was that something newsworthy would happen on a Thursday afternoon when the paper was going to press. When a Tornado jet from the RAF base at South Luffenham crashed into Quakers Spinney last autumn, it timed its immolation to coincide with the end of the working day and the last copy of the Record rolling off the printer's press in Grantham. Worst-case scenario.
Doug had to make an on-the-spot decision. If we were going to re-write the front page he would have to ring the printer, tell him to pulp every paper and stop his staff going home. All he had was a report of an explosion from the Correspondent in Ayston. Doug was cautious by nature but I think something must have got to him with that one, some tingling in the fingertips perhaps. Cheryl and I were making ready to get our coats on when he appeared in the doorway and announced, 'Something's broke at Ayston. I can smell it.'
He rang the printer from my phone. 'Pulp the lot of them,' he said. 'We'll have the new pages by midnight.'
It paid off. The two-man crew of the Tornado had been killed and a crater twenty foot deep left in the charred forestry. A Ridlington family out on a picnic was missing. It made the Nine O'Clock News that night, albeit in the summary.
The family turned up safe and sound the next day but it didn't spoil Doug's professional satisfaction. We had scooped every local paper for miles.
If something big happens on a Friday, there's nothing we can do. By then, the Record has been delivered to hundreds of homes across the county and is stacked neatly in every newsagent. We sit glumly at our desks with the weary feeling that the weekend ought to have started. Everybody feels like a day off after press day but there's next week's paper to fill. We can't afford to leave it all until Monday.
A big story breaking on a Friday is something of a relief. It wakes everybody up for a start, and gives us plenty of time to do the background before we have to go to press.
This story, my story, the murder of the Cowper family, began that Friday.
I was still at home but about to leave for the office. I hate rushing around in the mornings, so I always get up early.
I have a bath and play with the water. My Friday morning treat is to do it without the radio on, so I don't have to listen to the news. It is the only concession I make to having put the paper to bed the day before.
My first intimation that something was about to start happening came as I was standing at my kitchen window, finishing my third mug of tea. I often stand there in the mornings, leaning forward against the sink, looking out at the rose bushes in the narrow border between my front aspect and the lane. I like planning things that way. I like planning more roses.
I was clutching my mug in both hands and wondering if I had cut the bushes back a bit too far. My favourite moment of the gardening year is when the first tiny red shoots appear.
It was then that I heard the vehicle speeding down Brooke Road, some way distant but approaching, rapidly. It didn't sound like a car it was something heavier, the engine shifting gear. I knew immediately that this meant something. Nothing ever speeds through Nether Bowston. It isn't on the way to anywhere.
It was an ambulance, swaying smoothly, down the narrow road, with no flashing light or siren. It was followed closely by a police car, also silent. I put down my cup and picked up my bag from the kitchen table. I slammed the front door behind me and was rooting in the bag as I went down the stone path to my gate. The notepad was in my hand as I rounded the corner by Ostlewaite's Barn.
At the end of the road, there was a large detached cottage built of clean red brick. It was one of the few red-brick buildings in the village and always looked very new, perhaps because it was so immaculate. The front lawn was a neat, borderless rectangle, the driveway a short sweep of sandy-coloured shingle. The five-barred gate was creosoted, and, as far as I remember, always closed. I could recall nodding to the middle-aged couple who lived there. They had a daughter, I thought; I wasn't sure. The house was on the edge of the village, the last house on a road that led out to open fields. They were not a family that mixed.
There was no sign of them. The ambulance and police car had parked on the verge. Three other patrol cars were parked in a line further down the road. The ambulance's back doors were open but the paramedics seemed inactive, standing with their arms folded, talking to one of the officers surrounding the cottage.
The front door of the cottage was also open. I could see several bulky, dark figures in the hallway. One of them was bending down.
I was looking at the house as I approached and nearly walked into the line of tape that two officers were stretch. ing across the road, reaching from a sapling on the right-hand side to a fence post on the left. I stopped, momentarily confused that my way should be barred. One of the policemen looked up from affixing his end of the tape. He was a thick-set, middle-aged man with a solid, hard expression. I knew most of the local force but I didn't know him. He gazed at me briefly, then shook his head.
I peered past him to try and see an officer I recognised. Somebody would tell me what was going on.
It was a muggy day, that day. All week, the mornings had been gloomy, the afternoons sunny and the nights dense and close. The pattern had shown no signs of breaking and despite a slight breeze, the clouds seemed bunched up in the birdless sky, as if pressure from elsewhere was squeezing them together. The air felt thick, warm without being comfortable. It was a morning that held no trace of brightness.
An officer emerged from the house and paused on the doorstep, then rested a hand on the door-frame for balance while he lifted a foot and examined the sole of his shoe.
I glanced behind me. Nobody else from the village had come down. I was the first on the scene. I remember thinking, it's not like me to hesitate.