The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey

4

IF Grant had imagined that his chief would be gratified either by the possibility of his earlier recovery or by his punctiliousness in the matter of the newspaper, he was wrong. Bryce was still antagonist rather than colleague. And his reply contained a right-and-left that was typically Bryce. Reading it, Grant thought that only Bryce could manage to have his cake and eat it so successfully. In the first paragraph he rebuked Grant for his unprofessional conduct in abstracting any article from the vicinity of sudden and unexplained death. In the second paragraph he was surprised that Grant should have thought of bothering a busy Department with any matter as trivial as that of the purloined paper, but supposed that no doubt his divorce from workaday surroundings had contributed to a lack of judgement and proportion. There was no third paragraph.

What came off the familiar thin office paper was a strong impression that he had been put, not in his place, but outside. What the letter really said was: ‘I can’t imagine why you, Alan Grant, should be bothering us, either to report on your health or to take an interest in our business. We are not interested in the one and you have no concern with the other.’ He was an outsider. A renegade.

And it was only now, reading the snubbing letter and having the door banged in his face, that he became aware that beyond his conscientious need to put himself straight with the Department over the purloined paper had been the desire to hang on to B Seven. His letter, as well as an apology, had been a way to information. There was no longer hope of obtaining information from the Press. B Seven was not news. Every day people died in trains. There was nothing to interest the lieges in that. As far as the Press was concerned B Seven was dead twice over, once in fact and once as news. But he had wanted to know more about B Seven, and he had hoped without knowing it that his colleagues might be chatty on the subject.

He might have known Bryce better, he thought, tearing up the sheet of paper and dropping it into the wastepaper basket. However, there was always Sergeant Williams, thank Heaven; the faithful Williams. Williams would wonder why someone of his rank and experience should be interested in an unknown dead body seen once for a moment or two, but he would probably put it down to boredom. In any case there would be no lack of chat about Williams. So to Williams he wrote. Would Williams find out what the result of the inquest had been on a young man, Charles Martin, who had died on Thursday night a week ago on the night train to the Highlands; and anything else about the young man that might have transpired in the course of the inquiry. And kind regards to Mrs Williams and Angela and Leonard.

And for two days he settled back in a sort of happy impatience to wait for Williams’s reply. He inspected the unfishable Turlie, pool by pool; he caulked the boat at Lochan Dhu; he walked the hill in the company of Graham the shepherd with Tong and Zang more or less at heel; and he listened to Tommy’s plan for a nine-hole private golf course between the house and the hillside. And on the third day he went homing at post time with an eagerness he had not known since he was nineteen and used to send his poems to magazines.

Nor was his blank unbelief when there was nothing for him any less poignant than it had been in those callow years.

He reminded himself that he was being unreasonable. (The unforgivable sin, always, in Grant’s estimation.) The inquest had nothing to do with the Department. He did not even know which Division might have been landed with the job. Williams would have to find out. Williams had work of his own; twenty-four-hours-a-day work. It was unreasonable to expect him to drop everything to satisfy some holiday-making colleague’s frivolous questions.

For two more days he waited, and then it came.

Williams hoped that Grant wasn’t hankering after work. He was supposed to be having a rest, and everyone in the Department hoped that he was getting it (not everyone! thought Grant, remembering Bryce) and feeling the better for it. They missed him very badly. As to Charles Martin, there was no mystery about him. Or about his death, if that is what Grant had been thinking. He had hit the back of his head against the edge of the porcelain wash-hand basin, and although able to crawl around for a little on his hands and knees and eventually reach the bed, he had died from internal haemorrhage very shortly after falling over. The fact that he had fallen backwards at all was due to the amount of neat whisky he had consumed. Not enough to make him drunk but quite enough to make him muzzy, and the tilt of the coach as it changed direction had done the rest. There was no mystery either about the man himself. He had had the usual bundle of French identity papers in his possession, and his people were still living at his home address near Marseilles. They had not seen him for some years — he had left home after being in trouble for stabbing his girl in a fit of jealousy — but they had sent money to bury him so that he should not be buried in a pauper’s grave.

This left Grant with an appetite whetted rather than assuaged.

He waited until, according to his reckoning, Williams would be happily settled down with his pipe and his paper, while Mrs Williams mended and Angela and Leonard did their homework, and put in a personal call to him. There was always the chance that Williams was out pursuing the ill-doer through the devious ways of his inhabiting, but there was, too, the chance that he was at home.

He was at home.

When he had been duly thanked for his letter, Grant said: ‘You said his people sent money to bury him. Didn’t anyone come to identify him?’

‘No; they identified a photograph.’

‘A live photograph?’

‘No, no. A photograph of the body.’

‘Didn’t anyone turn up to identify him in London?’

‘Not a soul, it seems.’

‘That’s odd.’

‘Not so odd if he was a wide boy. Wide boys don’t want trouble.’

‘Was there any suggestion that he was wide?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘What was his profession?’

‘Mechanic.’

‘Did he have a passport?’

‘No. Just the usual papers. And letters.’

‘Oh, he had letters?’

‘Yes; the usual odd two or three that people carry. One was from a girl saying she would wait for him. She’s going to wait some time.’

‘Were the letters in French?’

‘Yes.’

‘What money had he?’

‘Wait a minute till I find my notes. Um — m — m. Twenty-two, ten, in mixed notes; eighteen and tuppence ha’penny in silver and copper.’

‘All English?’

‘Yes.’

‘Between the lack of passport and the English currency it looks as if he had been in England a good long time. I wonder why no one came to claim him.’

‘They may not know yet that he is dead. It didn’t get much publicity.’

‘Didn’t he have any address in Britain?’

‘He had no address on him. The letters were not in envelopes: just in his wallet. His friends will probably turn up yet.’

‘Does anyone know where he was going? Or why?’

‘No; seemingly not.’

‘What luggage had he?’

‘An overnight case. Shirt, socks, pyjamas and bedroom slippers. No laundry marks.’

What? Why? Were the things new?’

‘No, oh, no.’ Williams sounded amused at Grant’s overt suspicion. ‘Very well worn.’

‘Maker’s name in the slippers?’

‘No; those hand-made thick leather things you find in North African bazaars and in the Mediterranean ports.’

‘What else?’

‘In the case? A New Testament in French, and a yellow paper-backed novel, also in French. Both well worn.’

‘Your three minutes are up,’ said the Post Office.

Grant had another three minutes, but he got no nearer an explanation of B Seven. Apart from the fact that he had no record, either in France (the stabbing had been merely a domestic incident, it seemed) or in Britain, nothing was known of him. It was indeed typical that the one positive thing about him should be a negation.

‘By the way,’ Williams said, ‘when I was writing I quite forgot to answer your postscript.’

‘What postscript?’ Grant asked, and then remembered that he had written as an afterthought:

‘If you ever have nothing better to do you might ask the Special Branch if they are interested at all in a man called Archibald Brown. Scottish patriot. Ask for Ted Hanna and tell him I was asking.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. About the patriot. Did you have time to do anything about it? It wasn’t important.’

‘Well, as it happened, I met your reference on a Whitehall bus, day before yesterday. He says he has nothing against your bird but they would very much like to know who the ravens are. Do you know what he was talking about?’

‘I think I do,’ Grant said, amused. ‘I’ll do my best to find out for them. Just as a piece of holiday homework, tell him.’

‘You keep your mind off your work, if you please, and get well enough to be back here before the place falls to pieces without you.’

‘The shoes he was wearing: where were they made?’

‘Who was wearing? Oh. Yes. Karachi.’

Where?

‘Karachi.’

‘Yes, that’s what I thought you said. He seems to have got around. No name on the fly-leaf of the Testament?’

‘Don’t think so. I don’t think I made any note of that when I read the evidence. Just a minute. Oh, yes, I did. No name.’

‘And no one in “missing persons” that fits him?’

‘No. No one. No one even approximately like him, it seems. He isn’t “missing” from anywhere.’

‘Well, it was wonderful of you to go to all that trouble for me instead of telling me to go fish in my burn. I’ll do as much for you some day.’

‘Are the fish in your burn biting?’

‘There’s hardly any burn, and the fish are cowering in the deepest recesses of the remaining pools. That is why I am reduced to taking an interest in cases that aren’t worth a flicker of real interest in busy places like South West One.’

But he knew that that was not so. It was not boredom that had driven him to this interest in B Seven. This — he had almost said — alliance. He had a curious feeling of identification with B Seven. Not in the sense of being one, but in the sense of having an identity of interests. This, in view of the fact that he had seen him only once and knew nothing whatever about him, was highly unreasonable. Was it perhaps that he had thought of B Seven as also wrestling with demons? Had the feeling of personal interest, the championship, begun in that?

He had supposed that B Seven’s Paradise had been oblivion. He had supposed that because of the whisky-sodden fug in the compartment. But the young man had not after all been sodden. He had not indeed been very drunk. Just tipsy. His flying backwards fall against the solid round bulk of the basin had been the kind of thing that might happen to anyone. His so-strangely guarded Paradise had not after all been oblivion.

He caught his attention back to what Williams was saying.

What’s that?’

‘I forgot to say that the sleeping-car attendant is of the opinion that Martin was seen off by someone at Euston.’

‘Why is this an afterthought?’

‘Well, I gather that he wasn’t much of a help anyway, the sleeping-car chap. He seemed to treat the whole thing as a personal insult, the sergeant who was there said.’

Old Yughourt seemed to have run very true to form.

‘What did he say?’

‘He said that when he walked through the corridor, at Euston, Martin had someone with him in the compartment. Another man. He didn’t see the man because Martin was facing him and the door was half-open, so that all he noticed was that Martin was talking to another man. They seemed very happy and friendly. They were talking about robbing a hotel.’

What!

‘You see what I mean? The coroner said “What!” too. The railway chap said that they were talking about “robbing the Caley” and since no one could rob a football team it must have been a hotel. It seems that all the hotels in Scotland that are not called Waverley are called Caledonian. Popularly known as “Caley”. They weren’t serious about it, he said.’

‘And that was all he saw of the see-er-off?’

‘Yes, that was all.’

‘He mightn’t have been a see-er-off at all. He might have been just a friend who came across him on the train. Saw his name on the sleeper list, or noticed him in passing.’

‘Yes; except that you’d expect a friend to turn up again in the morning.’

‘Not necessarily. Especially if he was far down the train. And the removal of the body would have been so discreet that I doubt if any passengers knew that someone had died. The station was clear of passengers long before the ambulance arrived. I know, because the ambulance fuss was taking place when I had nearly finished breakfast.’

‘Yes. The sleeping-car chap said he took it for granted that the other man was a see-er-off because he was standing in hat and coat. Mostly, he says, when people go coffee-housing along the train they take their hats off. It’s the first thing they do, he says: throw their hat on a rack. When they get to their compartment, I mean.’

‘Talking of names on the sleeper list, how was the berth booked?’

‘By phone; but he picked up the ticket himself. At least, it was picked up by a thin dark man. Booked a week in advance.’

‘All right. Go on about Yughourt.’

‘About who?’

‘About the sleeping-car attendant.’

‘Oh. Well. He said that when he came down the train collecting tickets, about twenty minutes out from Euston, Martin had gone to the lavatory, but his sleeper ticket and the outward half of his ticket to Scoone were lying ready on the little shelf below the mirror. He took them and marked them off in his book, and as he was passing the lavatory he knocked at the door and said: “Are you in B Seven, sir?” Martin said yes. The attendant said: “I’ve taken your tickets, thank you, sir. Will you be wanting tea in the morning?” And Martin said: “No, thank you; good-night.”’

‘So he had a return ticket.’

‘Yes. The return half was in his wallet.’

‘Well, it’s all straightforward enough, it seems. Even the lack of anyone to make inquiries about him, or to claim his body, may be due to the fact that he was off on a trip and people didn’t expect to hear from him.’

‘That and the lack of publicity. I don’t suppose his people even bothered to put an announcement in an English paper; they would just announce it in their own local affair, where people knew him.’

‘What did the P.M. say?’

‘Oh, the usual. Light meal about an hour before death, large quantity of whisky in stomach and a fair amount in the blood. Quite enough to make him tight.’

‘No suggestion that he was a soak?’

‘Oh, no. No degeneration of any kind. Head and shoulder injuries at some earlier period, but otherwise good healthy specimen. Not to say tough.’

‘So he had some earlier injury?’

‘Yes, but a long time ago. I mean, nothing to do with this. He had at some time had a fractured skull and a broken collar-bone. Would it be very bad-mannered or very indiscreet of me to ask why all this interest in a simple case?’

‘So help me, sergeant, if I knew I would tell you. I think I must be getting childish.’

‘It’s more likely that you’re just bored,’ Williams said sympathetically. ‘Me, I was brought up in the country and I was never a one for watching the grass grow. An over-rated place, the country. Everything’s too far away. Once that burn of yours starts flowing you’ll forget about Mr Martin. It’s pouring stair-rods here so you probably won’t have long to wait for rain now.’

It did not, in fact, rain that night in the Turlie valley, but something else happened. The cold bright stillness gave place to a light wind. The wind was soft and warm, the air hung damp and heavy between gusts, the earth was moist and slippery, and down from the high tops came the snow water, filling the river bed from bank to bank. And up the brown racing water came the fish, flashing silver in the light as they leaped over the broken ledges of rock and up the narrow sluicing current between the boulders. Pat took his precious invention from his fly case (where it had a special compartment of its own) and presented it to Grant with the formal benevolence of a headmaster handing over a certificate. ‘You’ll take care of it, won’t you?’ he said. ‘It took me a long time to make.’ The thing was, as his mother had said, a fearsome object. Grant thought that it was rather like something for a woman’s hat; but he was aware that he was being singled out among men as the sole recipient worthy of such an honour and he accepted it with due gratification. He put it safely away in his own case and hoped that Pat would not supervise his efforts to the extent of making him use it. But each time he chose a new fly in the days that followed, he caught sight of the fearsome object and was warmed by his small cousin’s approval of him.

He spent his days by the Turlie; happy and relaxed above the brown swirling water. The water was clear as beer and its foam froth-white; it filled his ears with music and his days with delight. The damp soft air smurred his tweed with fine dew and the hazel twigs dripped down the back of his neck.

For nearly a week he thought fish, talked fish, and ate fish.

And then, one evening, on his pet pool below the swing bridge, he was startled out of his complacence.

He saw a man’s face in the water.

There was time for his heart to come up into his mouth before he realised that the face was not under the surface of the water but at the back of his eyes. It was the dead white face with the reckless eyebrows.

He swore, and sent his Jock Scott singing viciously to the far side of the pool. He was finished with B Seven. He had grown interested in B Seven under a complete misunderstanding of the situation. He had thought that B Seven too had been hounded by demons. He had built up for himself an entirely fallacious picture of B Seven. That toper’s Paradise in B Seven’s compartment boiled down to an overturned whisky bottle. He was no longer interested in B Seven: a very ordinary young man, bursting with rude health to the point of toughness, who had had one over the eight on a night journey and ended his life in the highly undignified manner of falling backwards and then crawling about on his hands and knees until he stopped breathing.

‘But he wrote those line about Paradise,’ a voice in him said.

‘He didn’t,’ he said to the voice. ‘There’s not the slightest evidence that he did any such thing.’

‘There’s his face. No ordinary face. It was the face that you first succumbed to. Long before you began to think of his Paradise at all.’

‘I have not succumbed,’ he said. ‘In my job you take an automatic interest in people.’

‘Yes? You mean, if the occupant of that whisky-sodden compartment had been a fat commercial traveller with a moustache like a badly kept hedge and a face like a boiled pudding, you would still have been interested?’

‘I might.’

‘You lying dishonest bastard. You were B Seven’s champion the minute you saw his face and noticed the way that Yughourt was mauling him about. You snatched him from Yughourt’s grip and straightened his jacket like a mother pulling a shawl over her baby.’

‘Shut up.’

‘You wanted to know about him not because you thought there was anything odd about his death but because, quite simply, you wanted to know about him. He was young and dead, and he had been reckless and alive. You wanted to know what he had been like when he was reckless and alive.’

‘All right, I wanted to know. I also want to know who is going to ride the Lincolnshire favourite, and what my shares are quoted at in today’s market, and what June Kaye’s next picture is going to be; but I’m not losing any sleep about any of them.’

‘No; and you don’t see June Kaye’s face between you and the water, either.’

‘I have no intention of seeing anyone’s face between me and the river. Nothing is going to come between me and the river. I came here to fish and nothing is going to muck up that for me.’

‘B Seven came North to do something too. I wonder what it was?’

‘How should I know?’

‘It couldn’t be fishing, anyhow.’

‘Why couldn’t it?’

‘No one who was going five or six hundred miles to fish would be without tackle of some kind. If he was as keen as that he would at least have his own pet lures with him, even if he was going to be lent a rod.’

‘Yes.’

‘Perhaps his Paradise was Tir nan Og. You know: the Gaelic one. That would fit.’

‘How would it fit?’

‘Tir nan Og is supposed to be away out to the west, beyond the outermost islands. The Land of the Young. The land of eternal youth, that’s the Gaelic Paradise. And what “guards the way” to it? Islands with singing sands, it seems. Islands with stones that stand up like men walking.’

‘And beasts that talk? Do you find them too in the Outer Isles?’

‘You do.’

‘You do? What are they?’

‘Seals.’

‘Oh, go away and leave me alone. I’m busy. I’m fishing.’

‘You may be fishing, but you’re not catching a damned thing. Your Jock Scott might as well be stuck in your hat. Now you listen to me.’

‘I will not listen to you. All right, there are singing sands in the Islands! All right, there are walking stones! All right, there are gabby seals! It has nothing to do with me. And I don’t suppose it had anything to do with B Seven.’

‘No? What was he going North for?’

‘To bury a relation, to sleep with a woman, to climb a rock! How should I know? And why should I care?’

‘He was going to stay at a Caledonian Hotel somewhere.’

‘He was not.’

‘How do you know where he was going to stay?’

‘I don’t. Nobody does.’

‘Why should one of them be all facetious about “robbing the Caley” if he was going to stay at a Waverley?’

‘If he was going to Cladda — and I’ll bet there’s no inn on Cladda called anything as reeking of the mainland as the Caledonian — if he was going to Cladda he would have gone via Glasgow and Oban.’

‘Not necessarily. It’s just as short and just as comfortable via Scoone. He probably loathed Glasgow. A lot of people do. Why not ring up the Caledonian in Scoone when you go back to the house tonight and find out if a Charles Martin was expected there?’

‘I shall do no such thing.’

‘If you slap the water like that you’ll frighten every fish in the river.’

He went back to the house at supper time in a very bad mood. He had caught nothing and had lost his peace.

And in the somnolent hush that filled the sitting-room when work was over for the day and the children in bed, he caught his eye wandering from his book to the telephone at the other end of the room. It stood on Tommy’s desk, provocative in its suggestion of latent power, in the infinite promise of its silent presence. He had only to lift that receiver and he could speak to a man on the Pacific coast of America, he could speak to a man in the wastes of the Atlantic Ocean, he could speak to a man two miles above the earth.

He could speak to a man in the Caledonian Hotel in Scoone.

He resisted this thought, with growing annoyance, for an hour. Then Laura went to get bed-time drinks, and Tommy went to let the dogs out, and Grant reached the telephone in a dive that was nearer a rugby tackle than any civilised method of crossing a room.

He had lifted the receiver before he realised that he did not know the number. He put the receiver back in its cradle and felt that he had been saved. He turned to go back to his book but picked up the telephone book instead. He would have no peace until he had talked to the Caledonian in Scoone; it was cheap enough to have peace at the cost of being a little silly.

‘Scoone 1460. . . . Caledonian Hotel? Can you tell me: did a Mr Charles Martin book accommodation with you any time in the last fortnight? . . . Yes, thank you, I’ll wait. . . . No? No one of that name . . . Oh . . . Thank you very much. So sorry to have bothered you.’

And that was that, he thought, slamming the receiver down. That, as far as he was concerned, was definitely the end of B Seven.

He drank his nice soothing bed-time drink, and went to bed, and lay wide awake staring at the ceiling. He put the light out, and resorted to his own cure for insomnia: pretending to himself that he had to stay awake. He had evolved this long ago from the simple premise that human nature wants to do the thing it is forbidden to do. And so far it had never failed him. He had only to begin pretending that he was not allowed to go to sleep for his eyelids to droop. The pretence eliminated in one move the greatest barrier to sleep: the fear that one is not going to; and so left the beach clear for the invading tide.

Tonight his eyelids dropped as usual, but a jingle ran round and round in his head like a rat in a cage:

The beasts that talk,

The streams that stand,

The stones that walk,

The singing sand . . .

What were the streams that stand? Was there something in the Islands that corresponded to that?

Not frozen streams. There was little snow or frost in the Islands. Then, what? Streams that ran into the sand and stood still? No. Fanciful. Streams that stand. Streams that stand?

Perhaps a librarian might know. There must be a goodish Public Library in Scoone.

‘I thought you weren’t interested any more?’ said the voice.

‘You go to hell.’

A mechanic, he was. What did that mean? Mechanicien. It involved an endless range of possibilities.

Whatever he did, he was successful enough to be able to travel First Class on a British railway. Which in these days made one practically a millionaire. And he had spent all that money on what, to judge by his overnight case, was a flying visit.

A girl, perhaps? The girl who had promised to wait?

But she had been French.

A woman? No Englishman would go five hundred miles for a woman, but a Frenchman might. Especially a Frenchman who had knifed his girl for letting her glance stray.

The beasts that talk

The streams that stand

Oh, God! not again. Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. Hickory dickory dock. Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair, said Simple Simon to the pieman Let me taste your ware. Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross — Your imagination had to be caught before you were fired by the need to write down a thing. You could, if your imagination was vivid, get to a stage when you were in bondage to an idea. When it became an idée fixe. You could become so enraptured by the pictured grace of a temple’s flight of steps that you would work for years to earn the money and gain the leisure to take you there. In extreme cases it became a compulsion, and you dropped everything and went to the thing that had seduced you: a mountain, a green stone head in a museum, an uncharted river, a bit of sail-cloth.

How far had B Seven’s vision ridden him? Enough to send him searching? Or just enough to make him write it down?

Because he had written those pencilled words.

Of course he had written them.

They belonged to B Seven as much as his eyebrows did. As much as those schoolboy capital letters did.

‘Those English capital letters?’ said the voice, provocative.

Yes, those English letters.’

‘But he was a native of Marseilles.’

‘He could have been educated in England, couldn’t he?’

‘In two shakes you’ll be telling me that he wasn’t a Frenchman at all.’

‘In two shakes I will.’

But that, of course, was to enter the realm of fantasy. There was no mystery about B Seven. He had an identity, a home and people, a girl who was waiting for him. He was demonstrably a Frenchman, and the fact that he wrote English verse in English handwriting was entirely by the way.

‘He probably went to school in Clapham,’ he said nastily to the voice; and fell instantly asleep.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04