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FlagstickAn Alan Saxton Mystery
By Keith Miles
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1991 Keith Miles
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOnly a family funeral could have made me undergo the ordeal of returning home. It was the death of my mother which had driven me decisively away from Leicester for so many long and unforgiving years, and it was the death of her sister that was now drawing me back. Revisiting the scene of so much misery and anguish was a daunting prospect but I felt that I owed it to Aunt Enid. She was one of the few shafts of light in the groping darkness of my childhood, the only adult who ever tried to understand me and to reach me on my own terms. Aunt Enid was the hub of the family, a whirring dynamo of life and laughter, a bubbling extrovert. She was everyone's Happy Person, a true friend at all times, five foot of unassailable optimism. There was something else that made Aunt Enid very special to me. She showed me what my mother might have been if she had not married my father.
Carnoustie hates long journeys as much as I do. She is getting old and cantankerous. What she wants is the leisurely pace of retirement, not a four-hour mad dash in the pouring rain. Within minutes of departure from Kent, she was grumbling noisily and threatening me with all kinds of dire reprisals. Carnoustie is much more than a motor caravan. For most of the year, she is also my base, my command centre and my home. She is a protective travelling companion. Named after the venue of my greatest golfing triumph, she has been a welcome shelter during the all too frequent disasters that have littered my career. Adversity forges bonds. A senile Bedford Aventura knows me better than anyone. The moment I touch her steering wheel, she can sense my mood.
To placate my mutinous partner, I made immediate concessions. We avoided that purpose-built traffic jam known as the M25 and stuck to the major trunk roads. I also spared her the agonies of the M1 on a blustery day when every large vehicle that surged past would have intimidated her with its bulk and buffeted her with its wind displacement. The A6 was slower but far more amenable. Carnoustie still muttered under her bonnet but she nevertheless settled into a steady rhythm. Passing vehicles were the only hazard to her peace of mind. She presented far too big a target for the spray and scum sent up by hissing tyres so she became dirtier by the mile. It put a new note of complaint into her engine whine. Motor caravans have their self-respect.
As we hit open country, the road ahead cleared enough for me to increase speed. Tiring of the radio, I reached into my cassette rack and took out my favourite tape. Chicago were soon reaching into my heart with 'If You Leave Me Now'. The music set off painful memories and I played another tape inside my head.
'It's your father.'
'Enid has died.'
'Funeral on Friday.'
Like most of my dealings with my father, the telephone call had been nasty, brutish and short. It had filled me with anger as well as sadness. How had he got my number? I hadn't spoken to him for years and felt myself mercifully free from that barking voice, yet it had penetrated my private domain. The shock had lasted for hours. I got out of Carnoustie and left her doors and windows wide open to get rid of any lingering echo of Thomas John Saxon. He had tracked me down to my lair and deprived me of all sense of security.
'Enid has died.'
'Funeral on Friday.'
The news was not eased by any preparatory remarks or softened by euphemism. He stuck it straight into me like a knife. For a man who had spent his whole life in the police force and who must therefore have often been the bearer of bad tidings, my father was viciously direct. I wondered if he had perfected this technique on the doorsteps of Leicester when he told distraught husbands that their wives had been killed in road accidents, or when he turned agitated women into grieving widows with some equally grim intelligence. Did he inflict maximum pain when he reported the death of children to white-faced parents? No, he must be absolved of that. In all those circumstances, he would be discreet and considerate. He would show due respect. It was only with his son that he could afford to be so abrupt. A life I had once shared with such pleasure was dismissed with a non-committal grunt.
'Enid has died.'
'Funeral on Friday.'
My father never answered my questions. If I had asked when the funeral was, he would have told me how she died. It was his way of keeping the initiative. Civil conversation was never his strong point. His forte was the browbeating monologue or the gruff interrogation. A forlorn image of my mother came into my mind.
Chicago were singing 'Where Did The Loving Go?'
I replayed another telephone call.
'Alan. Your nephew.'
'Alan!' I could hear the gratitude in his voice bring tears to his eyes. 'God bless you, son! The most dreadful thing has happened, Alan. Your aunt ...'
'I heard, Uncle Ted. That's why I rang.'
'Thank you. Thank you.'
'The funeral is on Friday, I'm told.'
'That's right. Eleven-thirty.'
'I'll be there.'
'Alan!' My announcement threw him into fresh paroxysms of gratitude. 'I can't tell you how much this means to me. I know how busy you are. We thought you might be abroad or something. But if you could come ... if you could actually get back to Leicester for the ... It would be wonderful. Enid was very fond of you.'
'I'll be there, Uncle Ted. I promise.'
There was a sigh at the other end of the line, then he lapsed into a tale that he had obviously told many times already. It was at once defensive and full of self reproach. 'I was up the Club when it happened, Alan. I mean, I had to be there. I'm the Treasurer this year and we were having a committee meeting. Enid said it was okay for me to go. She was fine when I left the house.' I could hear him wheezing. The effort was rekindling his asthma. 'There was nothing at all wrong with her. Apart from the angina, that is, but we had that under control. She took tablets all the time. Dr Reed said she'd outlive the lot of us. Then ...' The wheezing intensified. 'I blame myself, really. I should have been there. By the time I got home ...'
Details which would haunt him forever were put on display for yet another member of the family. Uncle Ted was a broken man. He had fed off his wife's vitality for thirty years and gloried in her bustling attentions. All that was now gone. With the death of his wife, his own life-support machine had been switched off. Uncle Ted was posthumous.
'How is the golf?' he asked meekly.
'Not too bad.'
'We don't see your name in the papers so much now.'
'No. Probably not.'
'But you're still Alan Saxon!' he said loyally.
'Yes, Uncle Ted.'
A pause. 'Will you really come on Friday, son?'
'Thank you. That's wonderful. Thank you ...'
The contrast with my father could not have been more striking. Uncle Ted was a red-faced, mild-mannered man who inherited the family butcher's shop and spent a lifetime hacking meat into pieces for demanding housewives. He was a hardworking soul with the casual brutality that went with his calling but there was a gentle, easy-going side to him that I liked. His wife gave him a status and confidence that he would not otherwise have had. Her energy fuelled their marriage. As I came off the telephone to him, I could picture his bewilderment and his grief. In its own way, reunion with him at the funeral would be almost as harrowing as meeting my father across another grave. I went over my chat with Uncle Ted once more and searched for comfort in it.
Chicago had moved on to 'You're The Inspiration'.
I coaxed more speed out of Carnoustie and concentrated on the lyrics. They were dedicated to a tiny woman who was now lying in her coffin in a Leicester funeral home.
A stop for petrol broke the tedium of the journey then it was on again towards Kettering. When Market Harborough loomed up ahead, I knew that we were within striking distance of home and my reluctance set in with a vengeance. My foot slackened on the accelerator and a respectable fifty miles an hour became a halting thirty-five. Carnoustie seized the opportunity to throw a tantrum and stall at a traffic island. It took me two minutes to get mobile again.
Leicester is an unlovely city. Ring roads envelop it like concrete winding sheets and sign painters have had a field day. Directions greet you on every side. It is the perfect habitat for my father—an array of imperatives designed to control and subdue. After two early mistakes, I finally took the correct exit from the inner ring road and picked my way through the suburbs. Long, thin streets of terraced houses were narrowed even further by rows of parked cars. Video shops, laundrettes and wine stores abounded. A Chinese restaurant and a snooker hall lent a gaudy colour to the drab scene. Minimarkets bore Asian names above them. The betting shop had its dribble of customers. I was pleased to see that fish and chips had survived into the 1990s.
In the years that I had been away, the city had changed completely and yet remained horribly the same. These mean streets were still redolent with memories of a blighted youth. A father in the police force is a handicap that will plague any child. My schoolmates at the local comprehensive either ignored me or baited me. The few friends I did make suffered along with me. There seemed to be no escape from my father. Having cowed me at home, he pursued me into the classroom to poison my relationships there.
I turned into a wider road and saw lights in the corner shop ahead. Uncle Ted's shop was still open for business. As we cruised past at low speed, I caught a glimpse of a young man wielding a meat cleaver with the murderous precision that my uncle had always shown. It was not difficult to guess what the customers were talking about. My aunt lived and died in the room directly above the shop. Her energy and affability would be sorely missed.
Two more turns brought me within sight of the church and gave me the first jolting hint of my father's presence. St Mark's is one of those neo-Gothic buildings that must have looked suitably impressive in Victorian times when it loomed over the small village whose needs it served. Time had been unkind. Hemmed in by houses and sullied by a century of pollution, it had an air of neglect that was quite devastating. My father had at least cleared away the cars that would otherwise have obscured its blackened frontage even more. A row of No Parking signs created an area of respectability where the hearse could park and the mourners could alight. A uniformed constable was on patrol to enforce the decree of Inspector Tom Saxon.
I parked Carnoustie in a cul-de-sac a hundred yards away and made myself a restorative cup of coffee. There was no point in getting there any earlier than was necessary. It would only expose me even more to gabbling questions and goggle-eyed wonder. Fame has no place at a funeral. I timed my arrival carefully, slipping into the church as the hearse was pulling up outside the gate. Wedged into a pew at the rear, I was spared most of the unwanted attention I feared. My immediate neighbours were customers from the butcher's shop, too weighed down by their own sorrow to take any notice of me, but there were still a few heads that turned to stare balefully at my celebrity.
When the cortége entered, I was shaken and distressed. The smallness of the coffin seemed like an insult to a woman of such large bounty. It was as if a child were being buried, not a sixty-year-old woman with four sons of her own and five grandchildren. The whole family had warmed its hands and its hearts before the roaring fire that was Aunt Enid but all that now remained of her were a few embers in a little pine box. Cremation had preceded burial. Death was at its most reductive.
The service was well under way before I felt able to take stock of my father. He was at the front of the church with the rest of the close family, adding his sonorous bass to the lack-lustre singing of the hymn. The similarities between us were at once apparent. Tall, angular and with close-cropped iron-grey hair, he towered above those around him. We were both easy men to see in a crowd. There the resemblance ended. While he sought the limelight, I preferred the shadows. While he loved authority, I ran away from it. As I looked at the diminutive coffin propped up on trestles, I was reminded of something else about Aunt Enid. It was she who had bought me my first golf set in a children's toy shop and who had taught my infant hands to putt a plastic ball into a metal hole. Those clubs gave me weeks of harmless pleasure until my father destroyed them as a punishment.
'Hello, Alan ...'
'Lovely to see you.'
'Where've you been hiding?'
'Great shame, isn't it?'
'Ted will never survive this.'
'She was full of beans last week.'
'Enid would overdo things.'
'How are you, anyway?'
'Saw you on the telly once.'
'Still playing golf, then, are you?'
'Hello, stranger ...'
Faces and voices came at me from every direction and I replied with an all-purpose nod. We had moved on to the church hall, a cold and cheerless echo chamber with a few tables set out at one end. Willing ladies served tea, coffee or sherry from trays. Sandwiches and cakes stood waiting. The general gloom was underscored by a sense of relief that the service was over. The vicar mingled with professional ease. I had to work my way through the family.
Uncle Ted was first, pumping my hand by way of thanks and delivering his monologue once again. His sons—my four cousins—greeted me with varying degrees of interest and their wives presented children for inspection. But the real confrontation was with my father. As I saw him bearing down on me, I grabbed a glass of sherry from a tray and downed it in a gulp. A small bonfire started in my stomach.
He began with his usual crashing obviousness.
'You came, then?'
'I drove up.'
'In that clapped-out motor caravan?'
'Carnoustie is my home.'
'That the best you can do?'
He had not mellowed with the years. The same watchful eyes gleamed out of the same hard and embittered face. He exuded the same angry power as he had always done. In deference to his sister-in-law, he had at least worn a suit but it still looked like a policeman's uniform. Even in a private gathering like this, he was patently on duty.
'What about George?' he challenged.
'What about him?'
'Why didn't you come to his funeral?'
'I was in Ireland.'
'We found out where. Got a message to the clubhouse.'
'I was playing in a tournament.'
'You could have dropped out.'
'It wasn't possible.'
'Didn't you care about your Uncle George?'
'In some ways.'
'What have you got against my brother?'
'So why did you come today?'
'I wanted to.'
'But you couldn't make it from Ireland.'
He was giving me the familiar amalgam of reproach and cross-examination. My father was his own interview room. I glanced around to see if there was a constable at hand to take down every word I said in a ring-topped pad. Both of us knew why I had made no effort to attend the funeral of my Uncle George. He was hewn from the same rock as my father. Each was a born policeman. While Tom Saxon had stayed in the uniform branch all his life, his younger brother had moved into the C.I.D and fought his way into the elite Serious Crimes Squad in the West Midlands Constabulary. At the time of his death, George Saxon had been suspended from duty with many of his colleagues while allegations of police corruption were being investigated.
My father read the disapproval in my face.
'George was an honest copper.'
'I'm sure he was.'
'As clean as a whistle.'
'You're probably right.'
'So don't you dare sneer at him.'
'I'm not sneering.'
'Police work is never easy. It needs a special type.'
He saw my veiled contempt and was about to strike back when a short, bosomy, grey-haired woman in a black coat and black feathered hat waddled up to him. She peered amiably at me through large spectacles then nudged my father with her elbow. Miraculously, he contrived a smile.
'I want you to meet Dorothy.'
'Hello, Alan,' she said, extending a gloved hand. 'I've heard so much about you from your Dad. It was very kind of you to join us today. I know you liked your Aunt Enid.'
'Yes.' I shook her hand. She had a limp grip.
'Your Dad and I have been friends for some time. I've always wanted to meet his famous son. He talks about you a lot when we're together.'
Excerpted from Flagstick by Keith Miles Copyright © 1991 by Keith Miles. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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