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OUT GOES THE BONNY ONE

Jack Debney
 

From the heat and the clarity of the morning, Jannicott and his grandson passed into the sea-mist as into another world. At first they were pleased with the cool, refreshing clamminess but, when they walked on, it began to seem as though the chief effect of the mist would be to isolate them, bleaching out colour and soaking up the sound from outside. They couldn't have been more than half a mile from the promenade yet for all the connection they felt now, it might as well have been on the moon. They'd started their little expedition by going along the samphire beds and then moving towards the sea in search of interesting driftwood.
Jannicott could almost have sworn that the haar was following them, had decided on this one human couple as the nucleus for fresh expansion. He looked down at the ground before his feet, how changed it was. It was like walking over the ashes of a ruined landscape. He tried to conceal his deepening unease from Martin but it was hard to maintain the calm, amused tone in which he'd been talking to the boy. Luckily the tide wasn't coming in and, at this point, there were no creeks to confuse their progress.
"Look, Grandpa !"
Martin pointed to a clump of jetsam nearby - the remains of a box and attached debris stuck in the sand
" It's like a horse's head."
"Yes, I suppose it is."
" Could it be dangerous if you ride out here ?"
" It depends. People ought to take care anyway. And if you're on foot, too."
Yes, of course there'd been accidents, tragedies. The tides ran low over the sand, practised flanking movements, feigned movements feigned pauses to soften advance, and duly claimed their share of the innocent or foolhardy - and, just occasionally, a haar like today's covered the trap. Most of the victims were children. For Jannicott it was no surprise that he tended to see Moloch as a sea-deity.
Lost in thought, he suddenly realised that Martin was no longer with him. He could have sworn that he'd gone on chatting to the boy and still felt the shape of the slim shoulder moulded into his hand, although his fingers were now cluthching on air.
" Martin ! Martin !"  
 
Jannicott looked fearfully around him. Shapes emerged, grey hallucinations. For a moment he saw a horse and rider, scribbled out of the mist, and then he was walking towards what resembled a bare winter tree and beneath it a stiff row of people, like a jury. At the very pulse of the haar he called out Martin's name repeatedly, yet what was intended to be a shout came out muffled, as feeble as a whisper. Turning sharply, he barked his shin against a metal container lying half-buried in the sand. Jannicott faltered, shock translated into sharp gasps of breath. He became acutely aware of old age then, the fear of dissolution into helplessness, the way one's will had constantly to force on the stumbling, inept physical deed
But he was not, after all, imprisoned in the mist - it began to lighten, the sun to push through. And neither was he deprived of his grandson. There was Martin right at the edge of the haar, playing some game of his own and waiting for him. He'd simply slipped away, nothing more than that. Jannicott's dread resolved itself into absurdity and shame.

Thus his relief at finding Martin was mixed with anger, as though the boy had deliberately provoked his loss of nerve. He felt tempted to upbraid him savagely and for this reason he stayed where he was, an invisible observer, until he'd calmed down.
He watched Martin, on this strange temporary border, crossing into the mist and then out of it, making a weave of cold and heat, dullness and sun, unaware of any peril whatsoever, a bright needle stitching everything together.

Jannicott's anger left him completely, to be replaced by a profound tenderness. He strode towards his grandson, calling out to him - how different his voice sounded now! - and Martin turned in his direction and grinned. "So there you are," Jannicott said , the commonplace words sounding wonderful as though freshly minted for the two of them.

On their way back, they took the train on the miniature railway that ran from the holiday bungalows behind the sandhills to the open-air bathing pool. The chuff-chuff of the engine was interrupted periodically by a mournful, rather asthmatic whistle. It gave the large seaside toy something of a human spirit, Jannicott thought, and he realised then that he was beginning to relax.
From the terminus, he and Martin walked along the promenade to one of the better fish and chip shops Ketilsby had to offer. Crowded, naturally, so they had to queue for a while before a table became vacant. Martin tucked into his meal with gusto - the large, thickly battered haddock lapping over the edges of the plate, the mounds of chips and mushy peas, all washed down with a soft drink of alarming hue which he pronounced excellent.
Despite his exertions, Jannicott’s appetite was indifferent and he did little more than pick at his meal. Nevertheless, he enjoyed showing the child off to the friendly waitress and to a couple of the customers, sitting right across the narrow aisle from them - large broad-featured people from whose relentless cheeriness Jannicott would have normally recoiled.

This was his youngest grandson, ten years of age, fair-skinned and brown-eyed, with quick slender limbs. Jannicott was not ashamed to admit , at least to himself, that he doted on him. He smiled across the table as Martin answered their neighbours' questions with charming expansiveness. From his accent they spotted he wasn't from the North, of course, and Martin was soon telling them how he lived in Cornwall where his father was a doctor and his mother a teacher. Siblings, schools, hobbies — a born narrator, Jannicott thought proudly. The boy also described staying with his grandfather and talked about their walk that morning, the adventure in the sea-mist - his was a blithe interpretation.
After the meal, Jannicott, feeling tired, would have preferred to catch a bus and go straight back home but earlier on they'd passed a likely-looking toyshop and he couldn't deny he'd promised Martin they'd pop in there later. Martin had spotted an intriguing model of a stegosaurus in the window and wanted to see what else the shop had.

They were in luck. The place proved to be a treasure-house of dinosaurs; shelf after shelf of plastic monsters, compactly and excellently made. Martin quickly found the stegosaurus he was hankering after, taking it up in a firm but careful grasp which reminded Jannicott a lot of his son, Richard, at Martin's age.
Now the boy was eyeing the other dinosaurs on display, particularly the long-tail diplodocus.

"Do you like that one too ?" Jannicott asked, “You can have him if you want."

Martin's expression of sheer joy precipitated the old man into a madness which amused him for some time afterwards, even amidst the qualms of conscience urging him to make it up to his other grandchildren. He was Santa Claus on a summer's day in Ketilsby as a triceratops, a brachiosaurus and a tyrannosaurus were added to the beasts already chosen.
Unfortunately, the grip of the carrier bag into which the shop assistant had packed the purchases snapped before they got to the bus-stop. Martin took out the larger dinosaurs and passed them over to his grandfather. The he doubled over the bag and carried the package against his chest, one hand at its base. It was a mission of high importance. For his part, Jannicott found himself going down a busy street lugging the brachiosaurus and diplodocus by their long necks, as though he'd bagged and plucked some weird form of game.
Coming into Martin's room the next morning to check whether he was awake and wanted his breakfast, Jannicott discovered him sitting on the bedclothes in a deep study of the dinosaurs. They were arranged in a rough semi-circle before him, standing rather precariously in soft footholds.
For no reason he could think of, a nonsense verse came into Jannicott's head, something his mother had taught him long ago when he was small. With index finger extended and moving from one dinosaur to another, round and round, he recited it:-

" Eeny meeny errareeker,
Airo domino
Alapaca tudiaca,
Ong pong posh -
Out goes the bonny one,
Out goes he !"

Martin laughed so hard he kicked his legs up and the dinosaurs fell around him as though slain in battle, he demanded that his grandfather repeat the verse. In fact, Jannicott did so several times, speeding it up but making sure the index finger finally pointed in Martin's direction. This was where his choice fell, on his bonny one.
Martin's fortnight with Jannicott soon passed. To counteract the depression and sense of loss which followed the boy's departure, he made some attempt to crowd the surfaces of his life. For instance, he did far more shopping than he needed, sometimes working from absurdly rarified lists that required him to range the town in search of items he didn't want anyway. Otherwise, he caught up on his correspondence, watched too much TV and, pondering on his life, invented a game in which he mentally wrote fragments of autobiography, trying to be as evasive as possible under the semblance of frankness. For a while, this pleased him greatly.
One afternoon, at the urging of some friends he'd been to visit, Jannicott attended the meeting of a lecture club for elderly citizens in which a tough old pensioner gave a lengthy, illustrated talk on her recent travels in the Himalayas. Jannicott began to nod off. Jolting himself back into dutiful attendance, aching for the wretched woman to
finish, he decided enough was enough. He would withdraw a little from public life.


II

Jannicott read the front-page story in the evening paper with growing horror. The first thing he'd seen was the photograph; a little girl's face, the wide smiling mouth and frizzy hair. Tracey Stetton, aged five.
The previous afternoon Tracey had gone with her elder brother and his friends to the King George VI Playing Fields, a large area bounded on one side by a busy road and on the other by a frozen food factory. It was all open ground, except for a pavilion about fifty yards from the road with a thick clump of bushes near it.

After the football started, Tracey hung about nearby, scratching out a hole in the earth with a stick she'd acquired on the way. A man, apparently just out for a casual stroll, stopped to watch the game, very soon, he and Tracey were chatting. Derek Stetton, aged twelve, had seen them there, side by side, but then the ball was rocketing towards him and he was taking it down the middle of the makeshift pitch towards the opposing goal, marked out by pullovers and jackets.

When, a few minutes later, Derek had looked to the side again, they were gone. He hadn't honestly thought much about it, just assuming the man had continued his walk and that Tracey had wandered away a little, down to the pavilion, as she often did. They'd been to the King George VI Playing Fields many times, talked to all sorts of people, and there'd never been anything wrong.
It must have been about twenty minutes later. The boys had stopped to settle a dispute about a foul, and it was then Derek began to get worried about Tracey. He couldn't see her anywhere, or draw her out with his repeated calls. He found her stick, as though placed to mark an invisible touch-line; nearby a chocolate bar wrapper and a cigarette stub.

One of the others suggested she might be hiding from them, having a lark. But it was hard to conceal yourself around there, so when they went searching they made for the obvious spot - the pavilion and the bushes, which obscured a slight dip in the ground.
Pushing through the bushes, they came across Tracey straight away. Suddenly, the playing fields became dreadful in their stretching emptiness, a place of lethally perfect ambush. The boys ran, as it seemed to them, for their lives.
A police statement said that Tracey Stetton, of 135 Beverley Crescent had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Although none of the boys had taken much notice of the bystander, there was enough detail to form some sort of composite picture. The police were anxious to interview a man between thirty and forty, about six feet tall, gangling, dressed in faded blue jeans and a green parka. A distinguishing feature was his abnormally pale face, possibly lantern-jawed. Clean-shaven.

Jannicott suddenly realised that he'd been reading the paper in the hall, contrary to his usual habit of glancing at the headlines and then carrying it through to the comfort of his favourite chair in the sitting-room.
A little later, he did take his place there and, for the first time that day, turned on the television. After some idiotic quiz show came the news, national and then regional. The latter included an item about Tracey but added little to what he already knew. Jannicott observed how the newsreader tried to temper her usual brisk, slightly sardonic delivery with the requisite sense of outrage. But who was to say she didn't feel the tragedy whatever her public manner ? Jannicott wondered why he needed to attribute hypocrisy to this woman simply because she spoke to millions through the box.
During the period following Tracey Stetton's death, Jannicott fell into a very disturbed state of mind which he could only describe, with impotent self-contempt, as a kind of morbid exaltation. It was as though he'd been called on to monitor frontiers like decoys. The whole town when he wandered round it — the pleasant or dull streets, the shops, the seaside pubs where he popped in for a lunchtime pint - all these were loci where the truth might be signalled and then withdrawn swiftly into an absence as solid as a box he couldn't open.

One evening, Jannicott set off for the George VI Playing Fields, going hastily along the pavements as though on urgent business. Then he came to the path by the frozen food factory. Beyond the wire fence he could see a few pallets and an unmanned fork-lift truck and there seemed to be a sickly sweet reek in the air, compounded of decaying fish and vegetables. Turning his head away, he looked over the field nervously. This should be as far as he'd go, but he knew it wouldn't be.

Almost twilight, yet the outline of the pavilion and the bushes was still quite clear. Something white was fluttering from the foliage. He thought it might be part of the tape they'd used to seal off the area throughout the initial investigation. He felt the awful temptation to go over and pluck it from the bush it'd got snagged on, a macabre souvenir.
As he was heading across the grass, still with the same quick, nervous, totally uncharacteristic movements, Jannicott realised someone was coming towards him, someone who - if his eyes didn't deceive him - had just emerged from round the back of the pavilion, pausing for a few telling seconds at the bushes, Jannicott almost panicked, convinced this was a plainclothes policeman now approaching, a trained student of tragedy and the parasites it attracted.

But when the stranger, well-dressed, middle-aged, came up level and nodded a greeting, Jannicott realised how far he'd been mistaken. The man's gait might well suggest a breezy confidence -his eyes, though, told a different story. They begged to be exonerated through tacit collusion and Jannicott knew these eyes would follow him as he walked on, to see whether he too would stop at the murder site, acknowledge the goal of his queasy pilgrimage.
However, shocked back into respectability as he was, Jannicott did not oblige. Instead, he veered sharply to the right, quite aware that the sudden change of direction was as absurd as something out of pantomime, and made a beeline for the road at the point where there were traffic lights and a zebra crossing . He concentrated his mind on escape but afterwards felt doubly tainted - both from the original impulse that took him out on his walk and the lying denial of it.

From his front bedroom, Jannicott gazed down onto Chantry Avenue. It was mid-afternoon and hot. A cabbage white skimmed and dipped over the tops of the hedges as though it were riding green waves. Few people were about: a young mother pushing a pram along with weary effort, the surgeon across the road enjoying one of his rare afternoons off duty. Jannicott observed him as he stalked round the garden, head down and wine glass in his hand, frowningly seeking out anything which might spoil the appearance of his beautiful lawn.
And then, looking left, in the direction of the park, Jannicott saw a figure that with its loose, almost spastic movements, at first it seemed like a being made of rubber. Closer to, it was the extreme pallor of the face which chiefly caught his attention. The fellow was tall all right and the jeans were the correct colour, although that didn't signify much. His shirt was open deep below the neck, showing the top part of a scrawny chest over which ribs stretched like bars. As regards age, Jannicott reckoned he'd be nearer thirty than forty.

Jannicott remained at the bedroom window, dumbfounded at what the afternoon had brought him so unexpectedly. He was convinced this was Tracey's murderer but found it hard to believe such a monster would walk so blatantly in broad daylight, not only as though he were getting away with it but had a right to.
Yet nobody seemed to be aware of anything unusual happening. Some children went by on their bikes, calling shrilly to one another, the young mother appeared again - this time on the near side of the pavement - and the surgeon, raising his head, sipped judiciously at his wine but gave the bizarre passer-by no more than a cursory glance. Jannicott cursed his neighbour. He needed corroboration.
He rushed downstairs, tugged open the front door and went to the gate, clutching it tightly like a deck railing in a rough sea. He was very conscious of the peculiar figure he was making and imagined the surgeon staring across at him, puzzled at this breach of normality. Jannicott twisted his head to catch the receding shape he wanted. He thought he should follow it but hesitated until the moment was lost, telling himself with hectoring insistence that he was almost certainly mistaken. The whole awful business had preyed on his imagination.

Yet, as he went back indoors, he remained unconvinced. In his mind's eye he kept seeing the caption below the identikit picture in the local paper: "Who is shielding this man ?" Jannicott finally decided that trying to scoff aside what might just remotely be the truth was also a form of shielding. There were no innocent witnesses, even to a chimera.
He tried to stop his hand from trembling as he picked up the telephone.
Half an hour later the doorbell rang. The detective constable was in his late twenties, a young man whose plump face suggested a tendency the rest of his body was just beginning to show. His hair was ash-blond, in the summer glare almost an albino white. As he introduced himself and made sure that it was Mr Jannicott he was talking
to, he settled his head more firmly into the short, thick stem of his neck with an unfortunate bulging effect. If Jannicott had been less on edge, he'd have been amused that the policeman had chosen to wear a shirt at least one size too small.
Inviting Detective Constable Sedley into the sitting-room, Jannicott began to make apologetic noises about ringing up the police at all, wasting their time.

"I shouldn't worry about that, sir. Actually, we've had quite a deluge of sightings. He's everywhere and nowhere, this bloke. Perfect camouflage."
He turned on Jannicott a sly-cat grin which, whatever its intention, only succeeded in making him feel even more foolish and ill-at-ease.
"But you could have struck lucky, as it were."
Jannicott marked the cockney accent, somehow all the more irritating for the care taken to restrain it, and the crassly proprietorial way Sedley lowered himself into the big, sagging armchair, Jannicott's favourite.

"Do you really think it likely that he'd come wandering around here ?"
"Why not, sir ? That is, if he's still in Ketislby. Just think he could be a neighbour ! Murderers and perverts do occasionally come from the solid middle classes too, you know."
Again the grin, as though both to savour and charm away his facetiousness. But at the same time Jannicott felt himself under the disturbing scrutiny from those small pale eyes.
"Besides, he might have walked or bussed in from anywhere in the town - it's not all that big. And don't forget there's a park nearby, with plenty of places for children to play. Nutters of this sort sometimes strike again very quickly, whilst they're still at liberty. Time's running out and they're on a high."
Sedley eased himself down into the armchair as though he'd lovingly moulded its cosy decay over years.
"Anyway, until we're sure that Tracey Stetton's killer is no longer in the area, we investigate every call like yours, Mr. Jannicott. And now, sir, if we might have your account."

Public demands for the restoration of the death penalty increased. Jannicott disliked this crude baying for blood, the acerbic joy of vengeance, yet had to admit that in this case, if put to the test, he would have found it much more difficult to argue the matter.
He sought to restore the balance of things by writing a long, sentimental answer to Martin's thank-you message to him. Because he was embarrassed by his effusiveness he sealed the envelope quickly and, as he sent it off by the next post, told himself, no new rebuke, that old men get silly and maudlin.

Over and over again, he tried to visualise the person he'd seen from the bedroom window, eternally nagged by the realisation that there was something vital he'd missed. The details of the clothes and gait were nearly always correct but the face would be something like the identikit picture, a shape which might hint at truth whilst belonging to no-one.
Just rarely, however, he was granted an awful privilege and the mental image coming at him seemed to be hideously right. It was mostly impossible to hold but on one occasion Jannicott carried it into sleep with him. When he woke up he was scared to think that this was the last thing he'd been aware of before drifting off. Imagine if he'd died during the night and taken those malign features with him across the Styx, his last sight of the world!
One morning, whilst out shopping in the town centre, Jannicott ran across Detective Sedley who, after a brief exchange of courtesies, invited him for a drink. Jannicott, aware that all too often he wore his snobbery if not his heart on his sleeve, was at pains to accept. He tried to conceal his inner reservations by being arch.

"But aren't you on duty now, Mr. Sedley?"
"Not so as anyone would notice, sir. Here's a likely-looking place. What do you think?"
"Oh yes, it'll be alright."
Sedley insisted on buying the first pint and downed his as though he were practising for a speed-drinking contest. Putting down the glass he laughed at Jannicott's startled expression.
"Just a brute thirst.  I'm not trying to act as pacemaker."
Nevertheless, Jannicott couldn't help feeling that he was being hurried towards the end of his drink. It was strange, though. After initial resentment he found he didn't mind. He was losing his awkwardness with Sedley quicker than he could have imagined.
"The same again?"
"You've got it in one, Mr. Jannicott."

The patch's smirk followed him like a compliment - still game at this age! - as he went towards the bar. Jannicott began to enter into his role with zest and, as an extra flourish, bought some packets of crisps and nuts to help the beer down, a gesture much appreciated by the policeman.
On this second pint, Jannicott discovered that Sedley, despite liking Ketilsby and the area around it, was finding life rather frustrating. He'd drifted into the police after school in Bermondsey but whatever glamour it'd had then had long since palled. God alone knew why he'd come north - it hadn't changed anything. But he thought that he might do a degree with the Open University and he was also trying his hand at writing. Meanwhile, he was still in the real world and had to earn his shekels somehow and the police meant that for him, nothing more.
Sedley got the pints and they split the last round. Jannicott added on a whisky each.
As they drank, Sedley outlined the plot of a thriller he'd started work on. It was a lurid synopsis, littered with blood-stained, often mutilated corpses and naked women being eased back into yielding positions on grubby bed-linen. In his tipsy state Jannicott found it difficult to separate the corpses from the sexual partners who, however unwilling they might be at the beginning, always underwent, as Sedley put it triumphantly, 'conversion in the field of battle.' His face was suffused with a pale, sweaty radiance, an ash-blond lock of hair fallen over a porridgey forehead.
When they were gathering their things to leave, Jannicott remarked waggishly: "Like any author you've shown yourself most openly in the sinister aspects of your creation."
Sedley clapped him on the shoulder as though successfully concluding a deal.
"Like any listener who responds, sir, like any listener who surrenders his attention so completely."

The Tracey Stetton case was cleared up about a month later in a simple yet unusual way.
As a rather desperate long-shot, the police decided to put Derek Stetton himself on watch - Generally, his post was the busy zebra crossing in Irby Square, linking the shopping area of Wellow Street on one side with the approaches to the docks on the other. The boy's shift was a couple of hours in the morning and then about ninety minutes in the afternoon. Much of the time Derek hovered about on the island in the middle of the crossing.
Plain-clothes men were deployed at various points around the square. Remarkably, nobody noticed anything amiss except for one keen-eyed shopkeeper who suspected truancy and suspicious loitering and rang the police. He was informed of as much as was necessary to keep his mouth shut.
On the first day, in all the people milling about Derek didn't see anyone who looked remotely like the man who'd stood beside his sister and talked to her.' On the second day there was a false alarm. On the third, it rained continually and the boy found himself keeping vigil from the shelter of a nearby coffee bar. To the policeman sitting with him, Derek seemed tense and depressed, increasingly convinced that what he was doing was futile, a sick game. He was tempted to fill the square with suspects just to bring the whole thing to an end. But on the fourth day, about 10.50 in the morning, Derek saw a man about whom there could be no doubts whatsoever. It wasn't so much the face he recognised as the gangling stance of this figure waiting at the kerb for the lights to change. Derek gave the agreed signal and the police converged. Laurence George Picton lived in one of the dismal streets off East Dock Road with his mother and elder sister. He was twenty-five, although he looked quite a lot older, and from time to time worked as a seiner fisherman. He was pale for someone who spent much of his life in the open air, although not extraordinarily so. Picton tended to let his jaw go slack in a gape, principally because he'd acquired the bad habit of breathing through his mouth. When questioned, Picton, who had no police record, denied any involvement in the crime, but it was like a guilty child's response to accusation - a hasty warding-off of blame - and his interrogators knew they wouldn't have to wait too long. 'Yet when he did confess, speaking in a flat, almost toneless voice, it was as if he were reluctantly taking responsibility for somebody else's misdeed. Gradually, though, the horror of what he was charged with appeared to come closer to him and he indicated relief that he'd been caught. Beyond this, he expressed no remorse. Later, at his trial, he became more adept at the formulas of sorrow.

His mother and sister claimed it had all been a terrible shock to them -they'd had no suspicions at all. If they'd believed for a moment that Laurence had done such a terrible thing, then, despite family ties, they would have got the police round, straight away. They believed in an eye for an eye. Nothing could bring the poor kiddie back, but at least you could punish the guilty. They were distraught, absolutely distraught. Even now they found it hard to take it in. Laurence had always been a loner, a dreamer, no girlfriends to speak of, but essentially a good boy. They were going to stay with-relatives in another town, at an undisclosed address, as they were being subjected to abuse and threats, and not only from neighbours. It just wasn't true that they'd been shielding Laurence.The day before he encountered Tracey Stetton, Picton had stepped off the seiner he'd been working on. They'd had two poor catches in succession and he'd been told he wasn't needed any more. So he'd spent a lot of time mooching around the town, passing through parks and recreation grounds in the normal course of things. He admitted that he always liked watching children at play but claimed he'd never been tempted to approach them before Tracey, let alone touch them-and never since either. It was as though a madness had possessed him that day and forced him to do those things to her.

Jannicott threw the paper away in angry scepticism. Forced him! There was no Moloch; morally wrong even to entertain the idea. It was human beings and human beings alone who breathed their evil out of them, a sinister clouding-over of a windowpane on which they drew, in a parody of play, the images they lived by.

Or?
Wearily, Jannicott climbed the stairs, thinking to take a proper nap on his bed rather than simply slump in his old armchair. He wondered whether the man he'd seen in Chantry Avenue really had been Picton, whether it mattered at all. He stood behind the lace curtain, gazing out whilst he loosened his clothes.
Another butterfly set to ride the hedge-waves, a greater number of pedestrians on this particular warm afternoon, and the surgeon, formally attired, getting into his car to go up to the hospital. Jannicott stared in the direction of the park. No tall, pale, gangling figure emerged out of the distance. But Jannicott felt the absence more as threat than freedom: a holding-back, a gathering of perverse strength. Haar or windowpane, windowpane or haar, he couldn't cancel out the idea of succession the plotting of a crooked lineage.

The following year, just over a week before Christmas, Jannicott was in one of the stores in the precinct finishing off his present-buying. Martin's gift he'd long since purchased Mentally flicking through a list to see who was still left unaccounted for, Jannicott fell to idly observing a group of youngsters in front of a nearby counter. They were scooping up sweets from the different displays into large paper bags which were then weighed and priced. He thought he could recognise at least one offspring of a former pupil of his amongst the excited children. And then a voice he'd not heard for some time cut its way through the clamour.
'Feel like trying your hand at the scoop, Mr. Jannicott? Festive season and all that.'
It took a moment for Jannicott to recognise him. He was still wearing a shirt at least one size too small.
'Detective Constable Sedley !'
'No longer,sir. But, as you can see by the gaudy schmutter I'm wearing, I’m out of plain clothes.'
'Do you work here now?'
'Indeed I do. Chief Security Officer for this magnificent emporium, no less. All the delights you could envisage - well some of them - spread out before you on this cold but not inhospitable coast.'
'And the police? Did you get completely fed up?'
'You could say that, sir. But, well, as you know I'm not exactly devoid of imagination. Let's just say it got the better of me professionally. Time to go while I was being nudged towards the door.'
The grin gashed into his heavy cheeks.
'So here I am, all set for a glorious career. Who nicked the missing bag of Mintoes? Who absconded with Thomas the Tank Engine, secreting the nasty little pervert in a pair of ladies' undies, also not paid for. And who is the Fat Controller?'
'An eternal question for street and store sleuths alike. Incidentally, did you start your degree? And what about your book?'
'Both still largely intentions, I'm afraid, Mr. Jannicott But in lieu of those great achievements, I'm getting married to a local girl soon.'
'Congratulations!'
'It's about time, I suppose. Don't want to leave it till her apron's up to her chin, do we?'
Jannicott agreed vigorously, laughing as they shook hands and wished each other a happy Christmas and all the best for the coming year. Outside, in the general concourse of the shopping precinct, beneath the lofty arches and the plants in hanging baskets, Jannicott paused to watch a man rigged out as Elvis Presley miming to an amplified recording. The impersonator was short and plump and apparently it was all being done for charity. Against his better judgement, Jannicott found himself being mesmerized by the grotesquely pouting face, the portly hip-swivels, the utterly absurd seriousness of all this mime.

At the end of a set, he took advantage of the pause to give his donation and slip away. Behind him 'Heartbreak Hotel' started up but gradually merged with the Christmas carols blaring out from loudspeakers fixed at intervals above. And from beyond all th? space he could see or ever imagine, a child shrieked to be let back in again, telling of mists and tides, bushes in a green expanse of play, and then the dimming light.