Joseph finds a lead
In Scotland a week went by, but Joseph made little progress. So much for the precious book being updated, so far it had led only to dead ends. Literally dead in a couple of cases and he’d crossed out the names, carefully writing ‘deceased’ beside them. He was sick of the rain, sick of the tiny hire car that gave him cramp after half an hour, but most of all he was sick with worry that he might fail.
He’d tried to plan a sensible route but it still seemed to involve hours of driving through the spectacular but desolate scenery. He knew he was rapidly running out of options as he headed east to a small fishing village on the coast north of Aberdeen. At least there appeared to be two possible names in this area, written side by side in the same spidery handwriting as if they were linked. As he drove up the narrow high street he saw a white wooden board saying ‘rooms’ hanging below the sign at the pub and he decided to stay the night here.
Joseph found a place to park on the empty forecourt of a long closed petrol station. He grabbed his bag and hurried down the deserted street through the rain, wondering as he approached if this was such a good idea after all. The pub was the width of a single shop front with a narrow door opening straight off the pavement. The windows were above head height and streaked with rain on the outside and a greasy film of grime on the inside. As he walked into the gloom he half expected a roomful of sinister locals to turn and stare, but in fact the bar was empty. Despite the dirty windows the pub was clean and tidy and Joseph leaned on the polished wooden counter and waited for a minute. When he heard rattling noises coming from what he presumed was the kitchen he called out
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Immediately the door behind the bar swung open and a woman hurried through, rubbing her hands on a tea towel. She smiled apologetically.
“I’m sorry to keep you. We don’t get many in at this time so I was tidying the kitchen. What will it be?”
“I was actually after a room please,” Joseph smiled back. The woman reminded him of Jeannie, which he took to be a good omen.
“Of course, I’ll get the keys and show you what we have. I’m Claire Ross.”
“Joseph Singer. Is this your pub?”
Claire came out from behind the bar and led Joseph to a door set into the wall beside the dart board.
“I’m the landlady, yes. Now, you get one key for this door – be careful if they’re playing – and another for the room.”
Behind the door was a narrow flight of stairs, and at the top a small landing with 3 numbered doors.
“They’re all empty just now, so maybe take the one at the back – it will be the quieter.”
She opened the door and showed Joseph into a small room with a double bed pushed up against the wall. There was a dark wooden wardrobe with carved legs in the shape of animal feet, and a heavy chest of drawers sat beside the bed. A second door led into a tiny bathroom with just enough room for a toilet and shower.
“This is perfect, thank you. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, a couple of nights probably. Can I let you know?”
“Of course. Will you be wanting breakfast?”
Joseph declined, and handed over enough cash to cover the first night. The landlady went back downstairs and he sat for a moment on the rather saggy bed. He hoped that this stop might be the last, if he could get anywhere with either of the names, and then he could go back to London.
He set off on foot to the first address in the book which turned out to be the very last house in a terrace of fishermen’s cottages at northern end of the village. The houses stood in an isolated position on the road out of town, and as he approached Joseph could see that their back gardens ran down to the cliff edge, windows looking straight out to sea. The rain had finally stopped and bursts of sunlight were breaking through the clouds. Most of the houses had washing lines running the full length of the gardens, and sheets billowed like sails in the strong breeze.
Checking his book one last time Joseph rang the doorbell. He wasn’t sure if it had worked so he raised his hand to knock when the door suddenly opened. A woman stood in front of him holding a bag of clothes pegs in one hand and a small child in the other while a fat black Labrador tried to push past to see who was there.
“Hello,” she said pleasantly, “can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Gordon James, does he live here?”
In an instant her face changed and she put down the little boy, shooing him and the dog back into the house, “go on in, go to Grandpa and I’ll be there in a minute.” She took half a step outside and pulled the door to behind her before turning back to Joseph, “what do you want him for?”
“I need to speak with him. It’s very important.”
“I bet it is. Well you’re too late, my husband is dead.”
“I’m sorry.” Joseph didn’t like to ask but he had to find out more, “what happened?”
“Last winter there was a big storm, he drowned, along with two others. Occupational hazard when you’re out on the boats.”
“I’m sorry,” Joseph said again and glanced down at the book. “I don’t want to trouble you, but I don’t suppose he ever mentioned Cameron Irving did he?”
The woman’s face hardened and she immediately stepped back into her hallway and tried to shut the door, but sensing that she was hiding something Joseph blocked it with his foot.
“Please,” he said, and then he heard another voice from inside the house.
“Who is it at the door?”
“No one Grandpa, he’s just going,” the woman called behind her, then she opened the door just a fraction wider. She glared at Joseph and hissed angrily under her breath.
“You listen to me, we want nothing more to do with all that. Gordon is dead and that’s the end of it.”
“Please,” Joseph repeated, “it’s very important.”
Over her shoulder he could see an old man shuffling down the hallway towards them so he raised his voice, “if you change your mind I’m staying at the Swan tonight.” He removed his foot from the door and she shut it in his face.
That evening he sat up at the bar in the pub, ignoring the half dozen other customers and staring glumly into the remains of a pint of beer. He picked at the steak pie Claire had put in front of him but he didn’t feel like eating, so he downed the last of his drink ready to head up to bed. He felt a draught from the street door opening but didn’t bother to turn around and look, so he was surprised to feel a tap on the shoulder. Beside him stood an old man, out of breath and leaning heavily on a walking stick. Fingers twisted by arthritis reached out to grip his arm and Joseph leaned in to hear as the man spoke to him in a low voice.
“You came looking for Gordon?” It was the grandfather from the cottage.
“So I understand.”
“He was the last of his line, but Cameron Irving still lives.” The old man pressed a piece of paper into his hand before turning away and walking slowly towards the door of the pub.
“Thank you,” Joseph called after him, and then he added “can I drive you home?”
But the old man shook his head, and without a backwards glance he opened the door and stepped out into the night.
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