He had chanced upon this place completely by accident. For the last three hours, Parker had been part of the lumbering stream of traffic relentlessly moving north, his conscious mind lulled into a kind of stupor by a combination of the dead straight lanes stretching tediously ahead, the warm air from the heater, and the hypnotic drone of the car engine. Indeed there were occasions when his concentration drifted into daydreams, and he 'lost' ten minutes, unable to recollect anything of the previous few miles. It was all the more strange then that he noticed the sign at all. It seemed half-hidden, hardly noticeable, indicating a slip road half a mile ahead. It said 'Dedley Cove' and underneath an arrow pointed away from the motorway.
His intention had been to drive further north to the small town where he had planned to stay overnight at the roadside motel, but almost without thinking, as if an internal voice commanded him, he turned onto the slip road. And that's how he found himself leaving the jostling, crowded lanes of moving traffic and into what seemed to him a new world.
The slip road arced away inconspicuously from the thronging lines of heavy goods wagons, caravans, and speeding cars as if ushering him politely, knowingly, from the clamour of humanity, into a more peaceful yet unfamiliar realm as if by way of a courtesy. Within a few hundred meters, the road transformed imperceptibly into a narrower lane that dipped lazily beneath dark branches of overhanging trees and meandered pleasantly between the shadows of hedges, leaving him with a distinct feeling of bewildered delight. He felt as if he had crossed into another dimension. The ceaseless din and unrelenting roar of the motorway seemed in seconds supernaturally replaced with an other world of tranquillity and peace.
And yet, the relief of breaking free from the stifling motorway slowly gave way to a growing realisation that he could get lost among these narrowing forgotten lanes that lay hidden deep in the shadows of the high, encroaching hedges. In the final hour of the autumn afternoon, he wondered if he hadn't been too impulsive (his unplanned departure from the motorway was completely out of character), and suddenly he had a strong compulsion to turn back, feeling like a trespasser who had overstepped a mark beyond which he would not be safe.
But he found himself pressing on despite the peculiar sensation in the pit of his stomach of apprehension and excitement. He felt nervous and exhilarated, a desire to bring this excursion to an end opposed by an urge to keep going as if this was somehow his destiny. It was hard to define, but something more compelling than this vague ambivalence impelled him to continue and meet whatever awaited beyond each bend in the winding lane. Many times he made up his mind to turn back and return to the motorway, but the lane was narrow and afforded no opportunity of safely completing a three-point turn. And then, feeling a great surge of relief, he saw a sign, 'Dedley,' half hidden by the sprawling claws of a low hanging tree as he reached the summit of a hill. As he swung around the final turn on the ridge, the land fell away before him, and he saw, as if a theatre curtain had suddenly drawn back, the vast expanse of a wide, open sky, and below, the huddled village, a clear strip of beach and beyond, the dark sea. So that was Dedley.
The village street lay empty, and he parked the car outside the inn and went inside to see if he could book a room.
"Got business around here, then?" asked the innkeeper as he turned the pages of the register.
"No." Parker didn't really know how to respond as he couldn't recall the exact reason why he had left the motorway, other than a strange impulse when he had seen the sign, as if unseen forces were shepherding him in another direction. He took off his hat and laid it on the counter.
"I just saw the sign," he said and then immediately realised how stupid and ridiculous it sounded. But before he had a chance to explain himself further, the innkeeper smiled with an understanding nod of the head,
"That's how it usually happens," he said, offering a pen, "you'd be surprised how many people just happen to drop by like that. Just there, sir, please," he indicated the open register, "name and address, sir."
Parker began to scribble self-consciously, his mind flustered, suddenly feeling the need to explain his seemingly irrational decision.
"The motorway was…" but his words seemed to hold no conviction, and his mind froze when he came to the column in the register for the date.
"Third today, sir." Parker nodded, feeling more and more uncomfortable.
"I was going to stay at the motel in Chapletown, and then I saw the sign and." He realised that was the second time he had mentioned the sign and stopped himself. The innkeeper seemed to sense Parker's unease.
"Well, it's nice to have you staying, sir. I'm sure you'll have a restful time. You're in room 6. Top of the stairs, and it's right in front of you."
Parker thanked the innkeeper, but as he turned, he was stopped in his tracks. The bar was empty when he came in, but now he saw, with a jolt to his system, a man sitting quietly in the far corner where the dim afternoon light could no longer fully reach. The corner was engulfed in shadow, and the figure was half lost in the gloom around him. Whoever it was seemed preoccupied with something he held in his hand; it looked like a purple silk handkerchief.
"Number 6. Top of the stairs. Straight in front of you." The landlord seemed to think Parker needed reminding. 'And don't forget your hat, sir.' Parker had left it on the bar.
The room was simple but beautifully positioned. There was a single bed, table and lamp, small desk, and upright chair, but best of all, a large window overlooking the shoreline that stretched on either side of the inn. The beach was wide, flat, and desolate, a vast empty space resounding with the incessant roar of waves as the foaming suds rolled in, crashed, and dissolved onto the sand at the water's edge. Parker stood by the window mesmerised, watching the retreating surf slowly sucked back as if by an invisible force leaving behind the wet sand exposed, reflecting the grey sky like dull metal. At each end of the beach, cliffs rose steeply and protectively like enormous buttresses holding back the mainland. He checked his watch. It was still only 3 o'clock, and Parker decided the light would hold long enough for a stroll along the sand before he changed for dinner.
Outside it was colder than it had looked from the safety of his room. But he felt invigorated and walked briskly along the deserted beach. In the autumnal gloom, he reflected on how pleasant he found the peaceful loneliness and solitude that came with an out-of-season coastal village. But there it was again, a nagging uncertainty that seemed to haunt him. On the one hand, a feeling of liberation that he was somehow out of reach and beyond the clutches of the everyday world. This was a sanctuary, a place beyond traffic, people, and responsibilities, inhabited only by the ghostly gusts of wind that buffeted him. But alone on the empty stretch of sand also gave him a sense of vulnerability, an unsettling feeling of being too close and too exposed to the relentless power of nature and the elements. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the force of the wind pushing into his face, almost removing his hat, and despite the cold, the fresh sea salt smell made him feel glad to be alive.
His daydream was shattered by the sudden calamitous shriek of a bird overhead as it was buffeted then held still mid-air by the violent wind. He looked up. The clouds, dark and threatening on the horizon, grew lighter towards the shoreline, and directly above him they were blue-grey, but behind him, where the sun was already setting, the sky was stained, a blush of pink, like a wound showing through a bandage.
And then he saw him.
Two hundred yards to his left, a figure, motionless, was staring out to sea. He was clearly visible, his long dark coat against the lighter background of the sand. But Parker, somehow, had completely missed him, and he gave a start as he realised he no longer had the beach to himself. He suddenly felt like an intruder, an outsider. He made a great play of looking at his watch and then up at the darkening sky as if concluding the omens were against him, and he turned and set off back to the inn.
The inn at night was homely, and Parker made himself comfortable at a table near a roaring log fire. A chalkboard boasted homemade food served straight from the kitchen, and Parker ordered the roast beef dinner brought to him by a young girl no older than seventeen. It all seemed perfect; the satisfying food, the soothing sleep-inducing warmth of the fire, and the relaxing murmur of gentle conversation around the room. Yet there it was again. He couldn't put his finger on the thing troubling him. Ever since he had left the motorway and embarked upon this uncharacteristic, unplanned diversion, he had experienced an uneasy yet inexplicable feeling of dread. Inexplicable because as far as he could see, on the surface, he felt an overwhelming sense of enchantment and delight, and any reservations about this place were unfounded. And yet, however much he tried, he was unable to shake off completely a disquieting sensation of anxiety.
He was roused from his reverie by the harsh clang and clink of glasses swept from his table by the young girl. Her presence seemed to be popular, and she was distracted at regular intervals during the evening by some of the young locals who sat at the bar. She was clearly flattered by the way their eyes followed her, and occasionally one of them said something that made the others laugh. Although she took Parker's order and brought him drinks three times, she was preoccupied by her admirers and gave him minimal attention, which suited him fine as he was able to watch the entire thing as one might covertly watch an argument between lovers while pretending to read a newspaper. It was only after he had finished the meal that he realised what had been nagging him. It was the purple silk scarf she wore around her neck. He was certain it was the same one the old man had been holding earlier when he had checked in.
Later, Parker overheard one of the lads at the bar chancing his arm.
"What about a midnight stroll along the beach?"
"A girl might catch her death on a cold night like this," she replied, carrying a handful of plates into the kitchen.
The rest of the evening was pleasant but uneventful, and after he finished his drink, he retired for the night, hoping to read for a while before sleep. He sat by the window by the light of his lamp, drowsed by the effect of the wine and the sound of the waves outside crashing relentlessly onto the shore. The lights from the inn lit up the sand down to the seashore and illuminated the beach for a good fifty yards on either side. Beyond that, the impenetrable veil of darkness concealed everything else from view. Parker tried to read but felt his eyelids growing heavy until he rested his open book onto his chest and allowed himself the luxury of drifting in and out of this pleasantly drowsy state. In fact, the hypnotic sound of the waves, ceaselessly rising and falling in the silence of the black night, soon put him into a comfortable slumber.
When he awoke, he realised he had been dozing in the chair for some time. The room was silent except for the sombre chorus of the sea outside still crashing and fizzing into the sand as each white line of surf rolled and collapsed onto the shore. He felt listless having fallen asleep in the chair, but he was roused from his torpor in an instant by a movement outside, quite unexpected, at the far end of the illuminated sand.
It was the girl.
She was forty yards from the inn and seemed to be in conversation with someone obscured from view who stood hidden in the shadows beyond the reach of light from the inn. Parker assumed it was one of the boys from the bar until a figure stepped out from the darkness like a ghostly apparition. To his horror, he realised it was the old man he had seen in the bar on his arrival. He was holding out his hand as if beckoning to her. The entire scene took on a nightmarish aspect when suddenly, his arm still outstretched, he began to retreat from the comforting light until the dreadful gloom completely consumed him, leaving the girl alone on the sand. For a moment, she seemed uncertain. She half-turned looking towards the inn, and then she did something that made Parker involuntarily gasp. "No!"
She stepped forward until her entire outline disintegrated into the darkness, absorbed in an instant as if a terrible black cloak had been thrown around her. And she was gone.
For a full five minutes, Parker stood transfixed at the window staring out across the lighted sand to where the wall of darkness, like a terrible abyss, concealed the figures of the old man and the young girl. He was hoping to see them both emerge laughing and talking animatedly, but he was troubled by a sensation of dread once again. He tried to be rational and reasoned that what he had just witnessed need not be sinister at all but could indeed be an innocent midnight stroll along the beach. Reluctantly he closed the curtains, and once in bed, he lay awake hoping he would soon hear voices outside that would confirm the girl was indeed safe, and he had overreacted. But now, even the crashing sound of the waves was drowned out by the howling wind buffeting and pounding the windows and buildings around the inn. And with the bedside lamp still on, Parker slipped into an uneasy sleep in which dark spectral shapes tormented him, always at the edge of vision, elusive and intangible and menacing, and forever circling him.
It was out of this disturbing dream that Parker awoke. He was aware of voices and footsteps. He sat up and realised that, despite the hour, there was a commotion going on downstairs in the bar. People were talking loudly, often at once, and occasionally he was able to make sense of snippets of what was said, '…she said she was meeting someone…', then someone else asked, '…could she swim?', then he heard someone talking about '…the powerful currents…' and someone else asked, 'are you sure it's her scarf?'
It was this last comment that brought Parker fully awake. He put on his dressing-gown quickly and went downstairs. The bar was indeed crowded with people: the landlord, other guests, one of the boys he had seen earlier at the bar, and strikingly, as if holding court in their midst, a policeman. But it was what he saw next that made him shudder. The policeman was holding something that looked like seaweed, for it was long and dark and dripping wet. It was the scarlet scarf. It was a jolt to his system, and almost involuntarily, he spoke.
'I think I saw her on the beach.' He didn't speak loudly, but suddenly the room fell silent, and everyone turned to face him.
'I saw her from my window overlooking the beach. She was talking to someone. Is she alright?'
The policeman eyed him suspiciously,
'Who, exactly, did you see?'
'I don't know her name. The girl who serves in the bar.' He indicated the scarf in the policemen's hand.
'I recognise her scarf.'
Parker spent the next hour giving a statement to the police officer. As he had suspected, the young boy had indeed arranged to meet her for a walk but swore she did not appear at the time they had arranged. According to him, he had waited ten minutes on the desolate beach and then sloped off home when he realised she was not coming. The policeman cleared his throat and pointed to the young boy.
'Is this the individual she was talking to?'
'How can you be sure?'
'It was an old man,' Parker said, and turning to the landlord, 'I think it was the man I saw sitting in the corner when I arrived yesterday.'
The policeman turned to the landlord.
'Who would that be, Jonah?'
The landlord was puzzled. He looked straight at Parker.
'I don't recall anyone in the bar when you arrived. It was just you and me.'
'But he was right there, in the corner. He was sat in the shadows.'
The landlord looked dubiously at the table in the corner, rubbed the hard bristles around his chin thoughtfully, and then turned to the policeman.
'The bar was empty. I don't recall seeing anyone in here yesterday afternoon except Mr. Parker.'
'But he had the girl's scarf in his hand. I saw it.'
Parker realised he was pointing to the scarf, now limp and sodden on the table. And he realised too that everyone was looking at him with some doubt and misgiving.
'And then I saw him on the beach. I'm sure it was him.'
The policeman decided it was late and asked Parker to make a statement the following morning, and he quickly went over the facts to reassure everyone that this might all be something and nothing. Yes, the young boy had arranged to meet the girl on the beach at midnight, but she had failed to show according to the boy. And yes, the girl had been reported missing when she failed to return to her lodgings last night, and yes, a scarf similar to the one she had worn was found discarded or washed up on the beach, and yes, he concluded, there was cause for concern as her whereabouts were not yet known. But there was as yet no body, and so he agreed to reconvene at nine in the morning and a search to begin.
The next day in the bar, the talk was all about the missing girl. And as Parker listened, he became more and more disturbed, although why he felt this way, he could not tell. After all, he didn't know the girl, hardly spoke to her except to order food. Yet, he felt somehow incriminated in the drama. Seeing her on the beach meant he was the last person to see her alive, making him feel as if he was now part of this tragedy, an unwilling witness to something terrible. And then there was the old man. Why had the landlord denied he had been in the bar when he arrived? He had seen someone in the corner of that room, and he had been holding a scarf as if in deep contemplation. It was the same scarf the policeman had held, dripping and sodden the night before. There were other disturbing details about the girl which made Parker feel uneasy and troubled, though again, he could not put his finger on anything definite. The girl was called Mary Brown, recently arrived in Dedley having hitch-hiked from London. She was originally on her way to the North West, but the car in which she was travelling had broken down, and she had made her way from the motorway to the village, intending to stay overnight but after finding work at the inn, had decided to stay.
Later that day, her body was indeed recovered, washed up on the beach two miles down the coast. The policeman who had taken his statement the previous night took further details that afternoon from Parker, and although he was the last person known to see her alive, he was not a suspect. There were no injuries or unexplained marks on her body, and it was almost certain the coroner would return a verdict of misadventure. While no one could understand why anyone might be persuaded to take a swim at midnight at that time of year, it was thought that this was indeed what she had done. And the mysterious old man Parker claimed to have seen did not fit a description of anyone locally although his account had been noted.
It was late afternoon under darkening skies that, with a sense of relief, Parker settled into his car seat and set off from the village. The street was empty as he pulled away, and once on the narrow lane that wound its way upwards from the coast, he noticed with some alarm and foreboding the branches of the trees on either side swaying wildly, agitated by the bitter wind that was coming in fast from across the sea behind him. Sheep stood motionless in desolate fields as if spellbound by the oncoming storm, seemingly oblivious to the fierce squalls dishevelling their coats. The cold evening was drawing in fast, and he did not envy anyone alone and exposed to the elements on a night that was threatening to turn violent.
And then he realised he wasn't wearing his hat.
Damn! He had left it on the bar in the pub as he had settled his bill. He had been in such a rush to get moving that he hadn't noticed. Until now. He checked his watch and then scanned the blackening skies and contemplated turning back to rescue it. And it was at that moment he noticed a movement at the side of the road somewhere ahead. It was someone walking close to the shadows of the high hedges, appearing and then disappearing in the gloom like a spectre, all definition and clarity blurred and indistinct as dusk fell like a silken net. Whoever it was, obviously hearing the car engine but without turning around, slowly outstretched their arm, thumb raised to indicate they were seeking a lift. As he drew close, slowing down to avoid the figure (he had no intention of stopping), he was overcome by a strange sensation of guilt, and then a compulsion to stop, and as he negotiated the hitch-hiker taking care to drive clear of him, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and their eyes momentarily met.
It was the face of the old man!
Gripping the steering wheel and pressing hard on the accelerator, Parker nearly lost control and narrowly avoided the hedge. Was it really him? And where the hell did he need a lift to? This road only went between the village and the motorway. Presumably, he wanted a lift to the motorway and then on to another town many miles away, and Parker had no intention of sharing his car with a stranger from Dedley. Or was he a murderer? Parker was sure it was the same man he had seen in the shadows of the bar on his arrival, holding the silk handkerchief and later on the beach, beckoning the unfortunate girl out of the light and into the shadows. And now, thought Parker, he was trying to make his escape. It seemed fantastical, and the whole thing made him shiver.
Then his mind returned to his hat and his earlier thoughts about retrieving it from the inn. But that would mean turning around, and he would have to pass the old man again, only this time he would be facing him! No. He would press on and buy himself a new hat when he returned to civilisation. And as he negotiated the next bend on the ever-darkening narrow lane, he saw ahead, a mile or so below, the movement of traffic on the motorway, many of them now with their headlights on as dusk fell.
Once back on the motorway, he felt a certain relief to be once again part of the huge and noisy procession of traffic, thankful to be heading away from Dedley. He adjusted his posture, leaning back a little in a relaxed pose, arms outstretched before him, hands resting gently on the steering wheel, and for the first time in a while, Parker seemed to feel he was regaining some of the control he had felt he had lost over the last two days. The engine's drone now seemed like music, a comforting sound that was confirmation he was escaping the dark village that lay by the dark sea and escaping too the unnerving, terrible events he had experienced. His mind wandered back to what he had seen on the beach, the wall of impenetrable darkness that lay beyond the reaches of the light thrown from the back of the inn. And the old man appearing out of the black cloak of night, momentarily stepping into the light before withdrawing, taking the girl with him.
His daydream was interrupted by an ominous dark shape, like a dreadful phantom trespassing into his peripheral vision giving him quite a start. It was the side of a large haulage truck overtaking him slowly but determinedly like a vast apparition, and it brought to mind the dark spectral shapes that had disturbed his sleep.
A horn sounded a warning somewhere behind him, and Parker, fully awake now and alert, indicated and moved across into the nearside lane where the traffic moved at a more leisurely pace. He yawned, resettled himself but all too soon was again seemingly unable to control his restless mind or to martial his thoughts safely away from Dedley Cove. The roar of the traffic all around became the roar of the sea, and imperceptibly, with no conscious awareness on his part, he was transported again to the inn, and the window overlooking the partially lighted beach and the impassable wall of night beyond which nothing could be seen, where no light could penetrate. He found it impossible to rid his mind of the girl, at first standing safely in the light before turning away, swallowed up by the hideous unforgiving abyss that devoured her in a second.
He was aware of how tightly he was now grasping the steering wheel.
But his disobedient mind would not relent as if other forces were now at work conjuring up images of the beach as it had appeared on that terrible night. That terrible night when, as an unwilling witness, saw the old man, half in the light and half-hidden by shadow, beckoning the girl with long pale skeletal fingers across the brightly lit sand and into the dangerous darkness beyond the light. Parker shuddered. He switched on the radio, looked at the petrol gauge, then rested his gaze on the speedometer to distract his attention.
The last thing he saw in this present life was a dark figure at the side of the motorway, oblivious it seemed to the noise and close proximity of the speeding traffic – it was the old man, thumbing for a lift, smiling benevolently right at Parker, and wearing his hat!!!!