The Body on the Shore
Walking-boots on, we set off down to Birling Gap. Here the undulating run of cliffs known as the Seven Sisters made their deepest dip and access to the beach could be gained by means of a set of rickety steps.
The tide was out, exposing a rugged sweep of rock pools shaggy with kelp and bladderwrack and riven with tidal runnels. Ever since his encounter with a lion’s mane jellyfish some years earlier, Holmes had become something of a keen amateur naturalist, especially where littoral fauna were concerned, and he took delight in showing me the dark red, cherry-like globes of sea anemones and in rousting a large greenish crab out of hiding.
As we toiled on along the beach, sometimes losing our footing on the treacherous pebbles, we reminisced, as old men will. We discussed Inspector Lestrade, now settled in comfortable pensioned retirement in Weston-super-Mare.
“You know he still writes to me,” I said. “Almost every time a new story of mine is published I’ll get a letter from him, either drawing me up on a point of police procedure or objecting to my characterisation of him, or both.”
“Ha!” Holmes exclaimed. “If you ask me, you are unusually generous towards Lestrade. He was always infinitely more dull-witted than you portray.”
“He keeps threatening to pen his own memoirs – ‘to set the record straight’.”
“That would be a work of fiction I would be most fascinated to read.”
Wiggins, the former leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, had turned his prospects around entirely and was now a police officer himself.
“It is the most wonderful volte face I have known,” Holmes said. “From street urchin to uniformed upholder of the law. Perhaps consorting with us had a beneficial influence on him. He is prospering within the force, too. I have it on good authority that he has applied to become detective constable, and I am in no doubt he will make an excellent one.”
“You wrote him a letter of recommendation, did you not?”
“Only to help him get a foot in the door at Scotland Yard. Wiggins’s subsequent advancement is entirely his own doing. He was born with a lively, incisive mind, and it is no small pleasure to me that he has overcome the disadvantages of his background and upbringing and put that mind to good use. An Inspector Wiggins, as he will certainly one day become, will be worth a dozen plodding Lestrades.”
Another old acquaintance of ours had recently been in communication with Holmes.
“Fred Tilling?” I said. “The engineer fellow?”
“None other. I contacted him to pick his brains about a few small practical matters, tapping his wealth of expertise. He was only too happy to help.”
“Does he still sally forth in his other guise? I can’t say I’ve read any reports of his alter ego’s activities in the newspapers lately.”
“I believe anno domini is creeping up on him as well as us.”
“He can’t be more than forty-five.”
“Too old for a double life, especially one as demanding as his. Time gets to us all, Watson, some sooner than others.”
“Well, what was it you consulted him about?”
“Perhaps you’ve noticed…”
Holmes’s voice trailed off, and I would not have the answer to my enquiry for another five days.
We had just passed the lighthouse, which stood atop a concrete plinth a hundred yards offshore, resplendent in striped red-and-white livery. It was a relatively new structure, built to replace the older clifftop lighthouse called Belle Tout, whose beacon could not always be seen from out to sea. Rounding a promontory, we spied a small knot of people ahead. They were gathered beside an object on the beach which I could not make out but which looked for all the world like a heap of damp laundry. Seagulls strutted and squawked nearby in indignation, as though thwarted of some prize.
“What’s this?” Holmes mused, and quickened his pace.
As we drew closer it became apparent that a gruesome discovery had been made. Just above the tide-line lay a sodden, mud-stained body, sprawled on its front. From its stillness and the skin pallor there was no disputing that the individual was quite dead.
The crowd around it were a meanly dressed lot with gnarled, weatherbeaten complexions and the lean, rangy frames of those who earned a crust through hard physical labour. Holmes quietly informed me that they were fisher folk.
“There’s a community of them that lives along there.” He pointed out a cluster of dark, spindly shacks which sat hard against the base of the cliffs some quarter of a mile further on. Skiffs and ketches were drawn up next to them just above the foreshore. Between, nets were strung out on poles to dry, resembling giant ragged spider webs. “Winnicks, they’re known as, and they are proud people and wary of outsiders. However, I have had some dealings with them. I shall make the overtures. You follow my lead. Hello!”
At his cry of salutation, the fisher folk turned. Gimlet eyes studied us. Mouths were tightly set.
“My name is Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps you remember me. There was that business two years ago when a holidaying family’s baby went missing and one of your number was falsely accused of the abduction. I had some hand in bringing the true culprit to justice.”
“Aye, uz remembers you well, Mr Holmes,” said the eldest among them, a grizzled old salt with a clay pipe and a moth-eaten peaked cap. “You be no cupboard lover but a true bread-and-cheese friend. Uz be pleased to see you, sure-lye.”
They shook hands, and the old man, in his broad Sussex accent, continued: “Young Jenny Fitch, what never stole that babby, still speaks gurt highly of the upstanding gentleman what got her out of moil, for if you hadn’t catched the brabagious wretch what truly scaddled the child, Jenny’d be turning crummy in jail even now. Not as uz sees the maid much these days, on account of she’s gone and wed some Chop-back over in Hastings.”
Chop-backs, I gathered, were a rival fishing community just along the coast. From the way the old man spat the name, there was no love lost between them and Winnicks.
“May I introduce my long-time colleague and comrade Dr John Watson,” said Holmes. “Watson, this is Tom Enwright.”
The calloused hand that gripped mine was as dry and tough as boot leather.
“Any friend of Mr Holmes be a friend of mine,” Enwright said.
“So what have we here?” said Holmes, glancing at the body.
“Some poor sock-lamb what has drownded, and it be an ernful dissight and all. Dunnamany get washed up on the shore roundabouts every year in total, but it ain’t a few. That there’s Beachy Head.” He pointed to the steep, towering cliff that rose at our backs. “There be mort what does for themselves off there.”
I frowned. “Mort?”
“It means a large quantity,” said Holmes. “Come on, Watson, it’s not that difficult a dialect to fathom.”
“Yes,” Enwright went on, “lovers what has got into pettigues with the object of their affections, them what feels pick upon or pithered by life, some runagates as want to escape justice and chooses a long leap over the hangman’s noose. Thissun, she be the ninth this year uz has happened upon along our stretch of beach. Common a sight as midges, they be to uz.”
“She?” I said. “But this is plainly the body of a man.”
“The third-person singular pronoun is always feminine,” Holmes explained.
“That be right,” said Enwright. “Like the saying goes, she be always a she, except a tomcat, and she be a he.”
“How long is it since you found the body?” Holmes asked.
“Not gone a half-an-hour. Uz sails in with the tide, all beasted but chipper after a hard morning’s dezzick at sea, boco white-herring and dab in our baskets, and no sooner has uz hung up the seines to dry than one of these here ken of mine sets up the hue-and-cry. Was it you, cousin Davey? Sharpest eyes of any of uz, Davey has. So along uz hurries, end-on, for to see if there’s still soul in the body, but she be like this, just as you see, sirs, dead as a hollard.”
I refrained from asking what a hollard was, but presumed that it was something from which the life had wholly departed. Holmes filled me in later: it was the Sussex word for a fallen, rotten tree branch.
Holmes knelt to give the body his full attention, scanning it from head to toe. The Winnicks stood back at a discreet distance. Every now and then one of them shooed away a gull that strayed too close. The birds wished to be free to scavenge from the cadaver and retreated only with much wing-flapping and haughty head-tossing.
Holmes beckoned to me. “Watson, perhaps you could lend me the benefit of your medical opinion.”
I squatted beside him. “I shall try.”
“Does this person look as though he drowned?”
“From appearances alone, it’s hard to tell. His skin is roughened and pimpled, suggestive of immersion in water for some significant period. I think we can take it as read that he has been in the sea at least since the last high tide.”
“It would be for a coroner to determine whether the lungs contain water. That is the surest indicator of death by drowning. However, another less common indicator is a fine white froth in the airways which sometimes emerges around the mouth and nostrils.” I bent lower, trying to get a clear view of the dead man’s face, which was half buried in the shingles. “It is often present, but its absence does not automatically rule out drowning. The same goes for haemorrhaging from the ears, of which I can also see no sign.”
“On balance, you would declare that he died through inhalation of water?”
“It is the likeliest cause, surely. Asphyxiation due to suffocation by a liquid. The alternatives are hypothermia or vagal inhibition – the sudden stopping of the heart due to shock from being plunged into exceedingly cold water – but the temperature of the Channel is mild at this time of year. I doubt very much our victim here froze to death.”
“He is not dressed for bathing, which rules out a swimming accident. Those are day clothes.”
“Perhaps he fell overboard – from a ferry, for instance.”
“Possible, possible.” Holmes peered up at the beetling white brow of Beachy Head. To my mind the crag had taken on a forbidding aspect, as a locus of despair and death. “Or perhaps he threw himself off the cliffs as Mr Enwright surmises. Had he done so during high tide, the sea could have claimed his body immediately, washing him out away from shore and depositing him back when the tide turned. What else about him do you observe, Watson? Apply my methods of forensic analysis, if you will.”
“He is young, in his late teens or early twenties, and well dressed. His suit appears tailored, bespoke, rather than off the peg. The one cufflink I can see appears to be solid gold. His shoes are of good quality. He is moneyed.”
“Very good. I concur.”
“If we could get a better look at his face…”
“I am loath to disturb the body just yet,” Holmes said. “One should attempt to preserve the integrity of a crime scene for as long as possible.”
“This is a crime scene?” I said. “But so far everything points to either suicide or mishap. If his death was an accident, that is a tragedy but nothing more. Do you suspect foul play, Holmes?”
My friend did not answer but instead resumed his scrutiny of the body. I could not help but wonder if he was actively trying to find some evidence that this was anything other than death by misadventure. The bucolic life had its attractions for him, but was he missing the excitement of being on a case? Had yesterday’s incident at Barraclough’s whetted his appetite for detection? If that jewellery theft had been the hors d’oeuvres, could this drowned man be the entrée?
He leaned forward over the back of the body’s neck, so close his nose almost touched it. The salt water had preserved the corpse to some extent, so that it had not begun to rot as swiftly as it would have if exposed to the open air, but still, I myself would have been unwilling to place that particular sensory organ in quite such proximity to it.
“Interesting,” my friend said softly to himself.
“What is it, Holmes?”
Then a loud, gruff shout resounded along the beach.
“Hey! You there! Get away from that corpse!”