Mankind doesn't need Art, what he needs is stories.
--G. K. Chesterton
It was four days before the bodies were discovered, by which time Mr Cowper had begun to mottle. He was lying underneath the kitchen window, where the sunlight caught him every afternoon. Sunlight and corpses do not mix.
Mrs Cowper fared somewhat better, having fallen in the hallway, which was shaded and much cooler.
Springtime came as a surprise. It had been the gloomiest of winters. We had even been denied the consolatory dramas of heavy rain or a snowstorm. Our village can usually look forward to being cut off at least once a year; the roads round here are terrible. Instead, the winter was grey -- an endless, anaesthetising grey. For almost all of January and February, the days hardly seemed to break; it was simply that the nights thawed a little during the course of each morning, before hardening again mid-afternoon. I drove down the country lanes to work each morning, radio on, past fields where the soil was sullen. I glanced upwards through the grimy windscreen of my car and thought how heavy the outlook seemed to be, how oppressive the density of the cloud cover.
It was March before a little weak sun bled through, as if the cumuli were a huge swathe of bandaging folded haphazardly across the great wound of the sky.
Warmer weather finally arrived in April, with a suddenness which implied it should be mistrusted. I was worried that we might get a late frost and couldn't decide whether or not to put in some early potatoes -- there was nothing in the patch except for a couple of brussel plants which had over-wintered there in ugly splendour. In the end, I decided not to bother. I find it hard to get excited about vegetables.
Instead, while two of my neighbours were swelling, gently, I took advantage of the lighter evenings to enjoy my flowers.
I think back to that time now and wonder what I was doing, what I was trying to grow, as their bodies became less and less human and more and more corpse-like. Logically, I know that death occurs in an instant. One minute you are a subject, the hero or heroine of your own particular story: the next, you are a thing, an object which can be acted upon by anyone who has access to you. You can be lifted, carried, dissected. You can be ignored.
I know it's stupid -- call it a guilty conscience, perhaps -- but I can't help feeling that while I weeded my borders during the course of that week, the Cowpers were becoming more and more dead, and that if someone had discovered them earlier, they would have been less so. As it was, they were found on the Friday morning because a council workman noticed that they hadn't put their wheely bin out.
We are religious about wheely bins round here. Every Friday, you can see them standing sentinel outside each cottage. People in this village may not speak to their neighbours for years, but we all walk past each other's wheely bins on a weekly basis and are intimate with how worn they are looking, whether any wheels are missing or what might protrude from underneath the lids. Miss Crabbe next door, for instance, fills hers with newspaper.
I fill mine with garden refuse. I was filling it that week, trying to clear the profusion of weeds which was threatening to spoil the previous year's efforts. The narcissi were out already, which was nice. I like them much more than daffodils; their pale faces in the twilight, the scent. I had some tulips as well, apple-dawn red, but my favourites were the wallflowers. They smelt so wonderful after rain -- the texture of their petals was of such soft depth. I wonder if I was weeding around my wallflowers as Mr and Mrs Cowper cooled in their cottage that Monday evening.
I wonder if I was considering my arabis, what good ground cover it made, as their bodies stiffened on the Tuesday.
Perhaps on the Wednesday I was regarding the heavy heads of the peonies, as Mr Cowper's flesh discoloured in the sun. I often think that peonies make my garden look as if it belongs to an old person. I am only twenty-seven.
Forget-me-nots sow themselves. I might have thought this as Mrs Cowper's bodily fluids drained to her back -- she was found lying on her back -- or perhaps I was cutting my rose bushes down and praying that I wasn't going to be plagued with mildew. Mildew of one sort or another is my biggest problem.
What is the worst thing I have ever done? I don't know. To be a murderer, you have to have malicious intent, don't you? I have never done a deliberately malicious thing in my life.
My working week had begun as always, at the Magistrates' Court held each Monday morning at Oakham Castle.
The last time I had been there was for the inaugural meeting of the new Rutland County Council, like a wedding with its pomp and ceremony -- the councillors in their finery, accompanying wives in suits and hats, the press and other hoi polloi
at the back on wooden benches. Things had quietened down since then, although the green and yellow bunting still trembled in the market square.
That morning, it was business as usual. I was there just before ten. The solicitors were already in place and a small gathering of defendants dotted along the benches. The Great Hall is the only place in the county guaranteed to be cool in the hottest of weather -- the stone walls exude a medieval chill. I was wearing my thin black denim jacket and shivered as I stepped out of the inefficient morning.
I glanced over at the defendants as I passed. There was Tim Gordon, again, up on another charge of driving a motor vehicle without insurance or proper licensing. I went to school with Tim and could still remember him at ten years old, plump and friendly, running around the playground clutching a plastic trumpet. We were quite chummy then. By thirteen, our ways had parted, peeling asunder to encircle opposite ends of the educational spectrum. I was studying for O-levels in six different subjects and GCSEs in four. Tim was taking Metalwork and General Science. I would still see him occasionally, lurking at the end of the school drive with a bunch of other no-hopers we called the Drongos. He waved sometimes, but adolescence had intervened and my social standing meant I couldn't possibly return his greeting.
Fifty years ago, Tim might have become a farming hand or a gamekeeper's helper, but there's no work for the men around here these days. As far as I know he's always been unemployed. His dad has a junk yard behind their house in Market Overton. I think he helps out there occasionally. It was his eighth or ninth appearance in court. After each one, he would shuffle over and grin in the way that somebody who has known you since you were five can grin. Then he would ask me not to put his name in the paper, so that his parents wouldn't find out. I always told him I'd have to run it past my editor, but he never made it in. His offences were so commonplace they weren't even any use as fillers. Not even the Rutland Record
needs lineage that badly.
As I walked past he gave me the grimace, anticipating our familiar exchange, sticking his tongue between his teeth and wobbling a large hand from side to side in a jokey wave.
My boss was there, sat solidly on the press bench with the court list spread out before him. He had already removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. His arms were folded across his broad chest and his hands tucked into his armpits. He was leaning back and chatting up Gail, the usher.
Doug looked up as I approached. 'All right, m'duck?' his usual Monday morning greeting.
'All right,' I replied. I mouthed hello to Gail and slid onto the bench next to Doug. 'Anything doing?'
Doug pushed a copy of the list across to me, the papers rasping on the bench's wooden surface. 'Nah, Alison, we'll be out by twelve. A couple of assaults and an affray -- that mad lot out at Whissendine. Why they don't just shoot each other and have done with it, I don't know.'
It used to irritate me that Doug sat in on the court sessions, until I realised that he did it for his benefit, not mine. Doug had been editor of the Record
for eighteen years. He had worked on local newspapers in some capacity or other since he left grammar school. He was not in good health and due to retire soon. In the meantime, he liked to feel that there was a bit of pure news reporter in him still, that there was more to his job than overseeing the advertising and making sure the Village Correspondents filed their copy by Wednesday afternoon. He was aching for something big to happen, just once.
I glanced through the court list. Most of the names were familiar. I flipped open my notepad and arched my back, looking up at the dark wooden beams above me, charred bones against the white plaster ceiling. They always made me think of gibbets. I never reconciled the weight of that twelfth century building with the scrupulousness of its modern usage. The morning's business was a matter of plodding through the list, case by case, with all the usual, reductive formality. Any event, however vital, became procedure. The moment of passion -- the drunken decision, the flailing fist -- drained of all intensity by detail. Most of the cases would be adjourned. The traffic offences would have fines set. It would be more appropriate to our setting, I sometimes thought, if a sobbing villager was dragged before us in chains and sentenced to be hanged for stealing a rabbit.
The door banged open. I looked up and saw the Thomson family shouldering their way into court; livid-faced Mr Thomson, his nervous, clingy wife and Jeremy, their thick-set son. The Thomsons were in continuous feud with the Smarts, another Whissendine family. I'd never quite worked out the precise nature of their differences except that it all went way back and erupted into affray approximately twice a year. For their court appearances, each man donned an ill-fitting suit and was accompanied by an identical, stringy wife. In the dock, they addressed the leading magistrate as 'sir' or 'ma'am', heads bowed respectfully, trying to outdo each other in their courtesy. They never so much as acknowledged each other. They saved the arguments for their home turf.
'All rise!' called Gail, and there was a shuffling and scraping as we scrambled to our feet for the magistrates, two women and one man, who processed forth from an ante-room behind the bench. They seated themselves in a row beneath the expansive wall covered in huge, decorative horseshoes -- the collection is one of the town's chief tourist attractions -- and the session began.
The Rutland Record
claims to be England's oldest newspaper, although I think the name has changed over the centuries. It used to be a broadsheet covering corn prices and the activities of the local highwaymen. It went tabloid in the eighties, like everything else, then duly came close to going out of business. At the last minute, it became the subject of that glorious oxymoron of the business world, a friendly takeover. The Shires Periodical Group already owned half the local newspapers in the region and a stock of trade magazines. We became the smallest, the cutest, item on their books. Nobody expected us to make any money. We had been bought as a sort of mascot, or pet. Actually, we turn in a small profit.
Doug opposed the takeover on principle, but even he was forced to concede that it proved beneficial. Pensions and healthcare packages appeared in the staff contracts. There was a sudden influx of office furniture.
That was all before my time, but when I arrived Doug was still fond of remarking that the wooden chairs they had used before obliged you to grow fat, so that whichever desk you sat at, you had your own padding.
Gone are the days of clickety-clack, even in Rutland. Production staff send our camera-ready copy by modem to a printer in Grantham, who has the papers delivered back to Oakham in the small hours of the morning. Cheryl once told me that the day the Record
's brand new picture scanner arrived, Doug stood in the subs' room while they unpacked it, and wept.
At the time of the Cowper case, there were two and a half reporting staff, counting Doug. I was Chief Reporter, and Cheryl was part-time everything else; Deputy Editor, legal expert, obituarist and Sports Correspondent. Officially, she worked a half-week, but in practice she was far senior to me. On the rare occasions that Doug took a holiday, Cheryl swept in. She fancied herself as something of a matriarch, always telling me I ought to grow my hair and put on some weight while letting Doug know that he ought to lose some of his and get a decent trim. Rumour had it that she and Doug had once been lovers but I found it hard to believe. They were both in their late fifties. She was married to a man in Stamford who was into racehorses. They had three teenage sons. Doug lived alone, a widower.
Our office was perched on the corner of the market place, a minute's walk from the Castle. The production and advertising staff were on the ground floor. Cheryl and I had a first-floor office and Doug sat in isolationist splendour in an attic office opposite the junk room we call the Library. On market day in summer, it was possible to throw open the sash windows and pick up local gossip and potential stories as they drifted up from the stallholders and customers, floating skywards amongst the hoarse, disinterested cries of 'Peaches ten for a pound' and 'Twenty half o'mush'.
After an hour and a half, I left the court session. The rest of it was going to be a series of non-appearances and adjournments. Doug would stay in case anything unexpected came up -- and he was thinking of buying a caravan from Gail's brother and wanted to have a chat with her about it.
There wasn't much for that week's paper. We were all sick of Independence stories and so were the readers. We wanted something fresh to cover but were all too knackered to go out and find it. I needed to get on the phone.
Each Monday, I put a call through to my friend Bill at the fire station and he tells me if anything has happened over the weekend. It was Bill who fed me the bananas, my first story for the Record,
one small paragraph which is now framed and hanging on my kitchen wall.MISSING BANANAS
A Belmesthorpe farmer made a surprise discovery on Tuesday morning when he happened upon sixty-three boxes of bananas which had been dumped in one of his fields. An appeal has been made for the owner to come forward. 'We're baffled,' a police spokesperson has admitted.
Excerpted from An English Murder by Louise Doughty. Copyright © 2001 by Louise Doughty. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.