But when a stranger warns her to keep quiet or else, Carole does the unthinkable and confides in Jude—who suggests that if the police cannot be bothered to catch a killer, then they should do it themselves.
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Fethering is on the South Coast, not far from Tarring. Though calling itself a village, Fethering isn't what that word immediately brings to the minds of people nostalgic for an idealized, simpler England. Despite the presence of many components of a villageone church, one shop, one pub, one petrol station and a whole bunch of people who reckon they're the squireFethering is in fact quite a large residential conurbation.
The core is its High Street, some of whose flint-faced cottages date back to the early eighteenth century. The peasant simplicities of these buildings, sufficient for their original fishermen owners, have been enhanced by mains drainage, gas central heating, sealed-unit leaded windows, and very high price tags.
Out from the High Street, during the last century and a half, have spread, in a semicircle whose diameter is the sea, wave after wave of new developments. The late Victorians and Edwardians added a ring of solid, respectable family homes. Beyond these, in the 1930s, an arc of large, unimaginative slabs sprang up, soon to be surrounded by an infestation of bungalows. In the postwar period some regimented blocks of council housing were built in an area to the north of the village and named, by planners devoid of irony, Downside. Then in the late 1950s there burgeoned an expensive, private estate of vast houses backing on to the sea. This compound, called Shorelands, was circumscribed by stern walls and sterner regulations. From that time on, stricter planning laws and a growing sense of its own exclusivity had virtually stopped any furtherdevelopment in Fethering.
The roads into the village are all regularly interrupted by speed humps. Though tourism plays a significant part in the local economy, strangers to the area are never quite allowed to feel welcome.
Because of its seaside location, the village boasts a Yacht Club, a cluster of seafront cafés and a small but tasteful amusements arcade. During the winter, of these the Yacht Club alone remains open, and to members only. But open all the year round along the front are the rectangles of glass-sided shelters, havens by day to swaddled pensioners killing a little time, and by night to amorous local teenagers. In spite of the overpowering gentility of the area, and ferociously deterrent notices about vandalism, the glass of the shelters gets broken on a regular basis.
Fethering is set at the mouth of the Fether. Though called a "river," it would be little more than a stream but for the effects of the tides, which twice a day turn a lethargic trickle into a torrent of surprising malevolence. A sea wall, stretching out beyond the low-water mark, protects the beach from the Fether's turbulence. This wall abuts the Fethering Yacht Club, which controls access to the promenade on top. Only Yacht Club members, and some local fishermen who keep their blue-painted equipment boxes there, are allowed the precious keys which give access to this area. Against the wall, on the beachward side, is the cement ramp down which the boats of the Fethering Yacht Club flotilla reach the water.
The sea goes out a long way at Fethering, revealing a vast, flat expanse of sludge-coloured sand. When the tide is high, only pebbles show, piled high against the footpath and the wooden breakwaters that stretch out from it like the teeth of a comb. Between the path and the start of the houses, lower than the highest part of the beach, is a strip of tough, short grass. At spring tides, or after heavy rain, pools of water break up the green. The road which separates this grass from the start of the houses is rather imaginatively called Seaview Road.
At regular intervals along the beach are signs reading:
NO CYCLING AT ANY TIME
POOP SCOOP AREA
CLEAN IT UP.
Though hardly separated from the coastline sprawl of Worthing, Fethering believes very strongly in its own identity. People from adjacent areas even as close as Tarring, Ferring or Goring-on-Sea are reckoned to be, in some imprecise but unarguable way, different.
Fethering is its own little world of double-glazed windows and double-glazed minds.
Carole Seddon had always planned to retire there. The cottage had been bought as a weekend retreat when she had both a job and a husband and, though now she had neither, she never regretted the investment.
Carole had enjoyed working for the Home Office. The feeling of having done something useful with her life fitted the values with which she had grown up, values which at times verged on the puritanical. Her parents had lived a life without frills; perhaps the only indulgence they had shown her was the slightly frivolous "e" at the end of her first name. So Carole felt she had earned a virtuous retirementeven though, she could never quite forget, it had come a little earlier than anticipated.
Ahead of her, she imagined, until time finally distressed her body beyond repair, lay perhaps thirty years of low-profile life. Her Civil Service pension was at the generous end of adequate; the mortgage was paid off; there would be no money worries. She would look after herself sensibly, eat sensibly, take plenty of long sensible walks on the beach, perform a few unheralded acts of local charity for such organizations as the Canine Trust and be, if not happy, then at least content with her lot.
Carole Seddon did not expect any changes in the rest of her life. She had had her steel grey hair cut sensibly short and protected her pale-blue eyes with rimless glasses which she hoped were insufficiently fashionable ever to look dated.
She bought a sensible new Renault, which was kept immaculately clean and regularly serviced, and in which she did a very low mileage. She had also acquired a dog called Gulliver, who was as sensible as a Labrador is capable of being, and she had kitted herself out with a sensible wardrobe, mostly from Marks & Spencer. Her only indulgence was a Burberry raincoat, which was well enough cut not to look ostentatious.
If her clothes were older than those usually worn by a woman in her early fifties, they represented sensible planning for the future. Carole was happy to look older than her age; that accorded with the image of benign anonymity she sought.
And someone who wished to slip imperceptibly into old age could not have chosen a better environment than Fethering in which to complete the process.
As she took her regular walk on the beach before it was properly light that Tuesday morning in early November, these were not, however, the thoughts going through Carole Seddon's brain. They were old thoughts, conclusions she had long ago reached and fixed in her mind; they never required reassessment.
But new, disturbing thoughts cut through the early-morning sounds, through the hiss of the gunmetal sea, the wheeze of the wind, the resigned complaint of the gulls, the crunch of sand and shingle on which Carole's sensible gumboots trod. The new thoughts centred round the woman who, the previous day, had arrived to take possession of the house next door. It was called Woodside Cottage, though there wasn't a wood in sight. But then Carole's own house was called High Tor and it was a good two hundred miles to the nearest one of those. That, however, was the way houses were named in Fethering.
Despite its High Street location, Woodside Cottage had been empty for some time. Buyers were put off by the amount of modernization the property required. Its former owner, an old lady of universal misanthropy, had been dead for eighteen months. Carole's initial neighbourly overtures, when she first started weekending in the area, had been snubbed with such ferocity that no further approaches had been made. This lack of contact, and the old lady's natural reclusiveness, had meant it was like living next door to an empty house. Death, turning that illusion into reality, had therefore made no difference to Carole.
But the prospect of having a real, living neighbour did make a difference. A potential variable was introduced into a life from which Carole Seddon had worked hard to exclude the unexpected.
She hadn't spoken to the newcomer yet. She could have done quite easily. The woman had been very much up and down her front path the previous day, the Monday, volubly ushering in and directing furniture-laden removal men. She had even engaged hitherto-unmet passers-by in conversation, exchanging cheery words with Fethering residents who, Carole knew, were deliberately taking the long route back from the beach to check out the new arrival.
Her name, the woman readily volunteered to everyone she spoke to, was "Jude." Carole's lips shaped the monosyllable with slight distaste. "Jude" had about it an over-casual air, a studied informality. Carole Seddon had never before had a friend called Jude and she wasn't about to start now.
The woman's relentless casualness was the reason why her neighbour hadn't engaged her in conversation. Though, as she sat by her open kitchen window, Carole had heard Jude's exchanges with other residents, she'd had no wish to be identified with the communal local nosiness. Her early-morning walk with Gulliver completed before the new resident and the removal vans arrived, she had had no further need to leave the house that day except for a quick midafternoon dog-relieving visit to the waste ground behind. Carole would find a more appropriate, more formal occasion on which to introduce herself to her new neighbour.
But she didn't see theirs ever becoming a close relationship. The newcomer's casualness extended to her dress, an assemblage of long skirts and wafty scarves, and also to her hair, blondeblonded, surelyand coiled into a loose bird's-nest, precariously pinned in place. That could, of course, have been a temporary measure, the hair pushed untidily out of the way of the inevitable dust generated by moving house, but Carole had a feeling it was the regular style. Jude, she knew instinctively, wasn't her sort of person.
She felt the prickle of small resistances building up within her. Carole Seddon had spent considerable time and energy defining her own space and would defend it against all encroachments.
She was shaken out of these sour thoughts by Gulliver's bark. The dog was down near the water's scummy edge, running round a bulky figure who was walking across the flat grey sand towards his mistress. This was surprising, given the early hour. There weren't many local walkers as driven and disciplined as Carole.
The figure was so hunched against the wind into a green shiny anorak that it could have been of either gender. But even if Carole had been able to see enough face to recognize someone of her acquaintance, she still wouldn't have stopped to talk.
There were social protocols to be observed on an early-morning walk along the beach at Fethering. When one met another human beingalmost definitely proceeding in the opposite direction: everyone walked at the same pace; there was very little overtakingit was bad form to give them no acknowledgement at all. Equally, to have stopped and engaged in lengthy conversation at that time in the morning would have been considered excessive.
The correct response therefore was "the Fethering Nod." This single, abrupt inclination of the head was the approved reaction to encounters with mild acquaintances, bosom friends, former lovers, current lovers and complete strangers. And its appropriateness did not vary with the seasons. The nod was logical in the winter, when the scouring winds and tightened anorak hoods gave everyone the face of a Capuchin monkey, and when any attempts at conversation were whisked away and strewn far across the shingle. But it was still the correct protocol on balmy summer mornings, when the horizon of the even sea was lost in a mist that promised a baking afternoon. Even then, to respond to anyone with more than "the Fethering Nod" would have been bad form.
For other times of day, of course, and other venues, different protocols obtained. Not to stop and chat with a friend met on an after-lunch stroll along the beach would have been the height of bad manners. And Fethering High Street at mid-morning was quite properly littered with gossiping acquaintances.
Such nuances of social behaviour distinguished the longtime residents of Fethering from the newly arrived. And it was the view of Carole Seddon that anyone privileged to join the local community should be humble enough to keep a low profile until they had mastered these intricacies.
From what she'd seen of the woman, she rather doubted whether "Jude" would, though.
Nor did the figure who passed her that morning seem aware of what was required. With an averted face and not even a hint of "the Fethering Nod," he or she deliberately changed course and broke into a lumberingalmost panickyrun up the steep shingle towards the Yacht Club.
Gulliver's barking once again distracted Carole. Quickly bored with the unresponsive figure in the anorak, the dog had rushed off on another of his pivotal missions to rid the world of seaweed or lumps of tar-stained polystyrene, and disappeared round the corner of a breakwater. Invisible behind the weed-draped wooden screen, he was barking furiously. Beyond him, the sea, having reached its twice-daily nadir, was easing back up the sand.
Carole wondered what it would be this time. Gulliver's "sensibleness" went only so far. A crushed plastic bottle or a scrap of punctured beach ball could suddenly, to his eyes, be transformed into a major threat to world peace. And, until forcibly dragged away, he would continue trying to bark the enemy into submission.
But that morning it wasn't a bottle or a scrap of beach ball that had set Gulliver off. As Carole Seddon saw when she rounded the end of the breakwater, it was a dead body.