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He watched through the window as raindrops hammered thick and fast, pinprick flashes in the swaying glare of the hurricane lamp. He would go in a minute, once the cold edge of dawn had slipped its way through the low clouds. Next to the wooden trunk the hessian sack lay waiting and empty. Days like this were easier, when the winds blew the sky into a turmoil of steel and the streets stayed deserted. Days like this even the teenagers stayed away. No stones, no paint. He would go now. Before the day grew too light he would return, smearing away the raindrops from the one lens that remained in his spectacles.
Edging down the caravan’s steps and out into the bite of the wind, he followed the path down to where hulking sea defences littered the grainy beach. He stood on the darkened sand as the waves thundered towards him, as he did every day, as he had done for the last 23 years.
He was trudging unevenly across the dark, cold sand, oblivious to the wide arcs of sea that swept underneath his feet and reached through the tired soles of his slippers, when he saw it. He stooped and touched it. So different from the harsh lines and tones of his usual treasure, this was soft in the places where its folds had kept it dry and, in the murky dawn light with rain still drifting through the cold sky, it was bright pink.
In the overhead lights of the police station Sarah gazed out of the window. A worn, unkempt day was emerging as daylight strengthened and the storm waned. She turned back into the room, back to the bare desk and the usual forms. Back to the worried father who sat at the desk, clutching a photograph of his daughter, not yet 16, who had failed to come home. She’d have to follow it up, traipsing out to the desolate beach and the cluster of faded houses, questioning the villagers. And she’d have to take DC Hunter, there was no way to avoid it.
It was much later that day, when the rain had lessened and the wind abated, when he had laid out the storm’s findings on the dusty floor, when he had shaken the silky, pink scarf free of damp sand, folded it gently and placed it in the wooden trunk, that the knock came on his door.
He held his breath, as though it might be heard through the gaps around the door. A knock again, and a voice. It was vaguely familiar. Authoritative. It wasn’t the teenagers again; he was sure of that.
He pushed himself up from his chair and shuffled to the door. He opened it a fraction. There were two of them standing there, a woman and a tall man, raindrops dampening their shoulders. Although he held onto the door, they opened it as though he’d welcomed them into the room. He shrank backwards and saw them sweep their gaze over his home and take in the sleeping bag tucked against the wall, and the shelf with two books and a photo frame. The small stove in the corner, the single enamel mug stained with rings of tannin. The spray of graffiti on the windows. And all around the room, on upturned boxes and squeezed onto small shelves, the detritus. Tin cans squashed and rusted. Bottles with no tops. Old bags with no shape left in them. Fragments of slate. Angles of driftwood and strings of hag stones. He felt them turn their eyes on him and take in his baggy trousers and the hole in his oversized jumper, still damp. He looked at them through his one lens. The tall man did little to hide his distaste.
He heard their introductions. They knew his name. Everyone knew his name.
“Were you on the beach this morning, Mr Baines?” said DC Hunter, his smile broad but unfriendly, “You like this sort of weather, no?”
He stayed silent. Sarah took something from a folder and held it out for him to look at. A photograph. A tall girl, smiling, dark hair ruffled by an unseen wind. A pink scarf.
“Do you know this girl, Mr Baines? Her name’s Katy Wilkins.” She spoke gently, her voice tempered with years of sensitivity.
He looked at it. Shook his head. A sigh from DC Hunter.
“Quite a collection you’ve got here,” he said, his eyes roving around the caravan, not leaving his spot by the front door.
Sarah glared at him briefly and he silenced. She turned back. “Mr Baines,” she said, “Katy is missing. She was seen yesterday on the footpath leading to the beach. Have you been there recently? You might have seen something useful, something that might help us find her.” Her voice was coaxing but relentless.
He paused for a long time, hearing the distant crash of the waves, before shaking his head.
“I see,” she said. “Well, thank you. If you see anything unusual, you be sure to let us know.” Sarah started to follow her colleague out of the door but glanced back. She looked for a moment as though she were going to say something else but then turned and slipped through the door after her colleague.
They slammed the car doors simultaneously. The car was warm, the engine still ticking softly under the patter of rain.
“Gives me the creeps,” DC Hunter said.
Sarah said nothing. They were used to Baines and his strange, lumbering presence in the village. His creeping steps in the dawn and the dusk. His sack slung over one shoulder, a crumpled and forlorn St Nicholas.
“All that lurking around. Should be locked up,” DC Hunter continued.
“He’s harmless. Just sad,” she said.
“Nah. If you ask me there’s something not right about him,” he persisted, fiddling idly with the radio until Radio 2 drivetime came out of the speakers. “Who’d spend their life like that?”
“He lost his daughter, Pete. Have some sympathy,” and an iota of decency, she added to herself.
“Lost her. Yeah, I bet,” he said, tapping along with the music.
Sarah leant forward and silenced the radio. She started the engine.
“He was questioned, of course he was. But it wasn’t him,” Sarah said, turning to look out of the window, “I’m sure of it.” She watched the raindrops fall, joining together and running down the glass in jagged, silvery lines.
For the rest of the day, he sat by the window and watched the rise and surge of the distant waves. Somehow, he had always known it would come to this. He went once to the trunk and took out the pink scarf. He held it gently on his lap. When he felt hungry, he took a tin of baked beans and peeled back the lid, scooped them out with an old tin spoon and ate them cold.
The last house in the village was the largest and home to several dogs and the righteousness of Mrs Hartley.
“Well, of course,” she said, as they perched on the edge of her chaise longue. “I’m always there first thing in the morning. They have to be out first thing, you see,” she nodded to the pile of sleeping dogs in the bay window, “and, yes, I saw him right there, at the end of the beach.”
Sarah silenced Pete with a swift glance. “Saw who, Mrs Hartley?”
“That man, with his slippers. I don’t know,” she tutted. “If you ask me, it’s him that’s responsible for the house prices in the village.”
“You saw Mr Baines?”
“Yes. Poor, dear girl. One must expect the worst, of course. You must be old enough to remember?” she peered over her spectacles at Sarah.
“Well done, boss. Be all done by last orders,” DC Hunter said as they made their way past the manicured borders of Mrs Hartley’s front garden.
“On its own it’s not conclusive,” she said.
“Oh, come on, he was seen right there.” He stopped and turned to her.
“He’s always – how did you put it – lurking around. It doesn’t make him guilty.” she said.
It was late when the knock came again, as the grubby daylight relinquished its grip on the day and dusk hovered. There was a new urgency to their questions. DC Hunter came into the caravan and towered over him.
“Where were you yesterday morning, Mr Baines? I’m not sure you’ve been honest with us, have you?”
“Mr Baines, we’ve a witness claiming to have seen you early yesterday morning, near where Katy was last seen. Can you talk us through where you were yesterday?” Sarah asked.
His eyes flickered between her and the grey skies beyond the window.
She took a chance. “You know better than most what this is like.”
He looked at her properly then, unable to blind himself to that distant August day. The moonless night and the unseasonal wind that had whipped up waves and leaves and fear. The search, the frenzy, the crowds combing the village. When the sky had grown light and she was found with her skirt torn and eyes wide and sightless, he had walked into the waves until they crashed over his head, hating himself for the cowardice that he knew would drive him back to the beach, back to a half-life of suspicion and sorrow.
“What’s in here, Mr Baines?” DC Hunter interrupted the silence that had fallen. He was standing by the wooden trunk.
The air hung with inevitability. The sea still rose and fell in muted waves.
“Okay if we take a look?”
Sarah lifted the lid of the trunk. He watched, and felt the seconds slow down to thick, heavy drips of time. Her eyes flamed with interest, and she turned to DC Hunter. He came to peer into the trunk. Slowly, he took gloves from his pocket and pulled them on. Slowly, he lifted out the thin, pink scarf. Slowly, and with barely concealed triumph, he turned.
“Mr Baines? I think you’d better come with us,” he said.
He sat still and looked at the swells crashing into foamy surf. They were opening the door now, and he’d have to go with them. He knew how it would end. He knew what they all thought of him. He’d be taken from here, with no glimpse of the sea or the sky, no way in which to remember her laughing face as she watched the waves tumble, or the wind in her long, dark hair. He looked around him as DC Hunter took him by the elbow to steer him out of the door and he hated himself once again for his cowardice.
The room was too hot and smelt of stale coffee. They had brought him a cup of tea he didn’t want and it was growing tepid in a thin plastic cup. He was too big for the chair. He was alone. He thought of Katy Wilkins. He thought of the beach, of the soft crunch of the sand as his slippers padded over it. He thought of his daughter. He thought about peace, and what it might feel like.
When Katy Wilkins returned late the next day, scarfless but unharmed, hugging her father and promising tearfully never again to disappear like that, Sarah went straight to the cells. She looked through the bars and saw him sitting quite still, staring at the wall in front of him. She unlocked the door, noticing his shoulders tense at the sound. He stood and looked at her, and she held up her car keys and gave him a small smile.
“Time to go home, Mr Baines,” she said.
He sat by the window as the night deepened. He sat there as the sea grew amorphous and the stars grew bright. He sat and watched until the faint pink of early dawn began to streak across the sky. He would go in a minute.