A man’s voice. Gruff. Sharp as a dog’s.
Foxy leaves the galley of the Free Spirit, where he’s been brewing tea and spreading toast with something resembling, but is not, butter. He moves along to the part of the cabin by the woodburner where he can peer out of the porthole on the starboard side. The glass is misty with condensation, but he refrains from wiping it. As usual, he prefers not to be noticed, not to draw attention to the fact that his boat is occupied.
There’s a second voice. A woman’s. High toned, acidic. But he doesn’t make out the words.
He can just about see them. The man; tall, bulky, wearing a navy waterproof, and the woman; shorter, slender, dressed in a pale grey tracksuit. They stand on the foredeck, perhaps three or four feet apart, square on to each other. Foxy’s mind flashes back to images of his parents standing thus, like it was a performance for the three kids who gazed up at them from the threadbare sofa. His Mum quivering. His father’s jaw grim-set, hand ready to strike at any moment. Foxy shudders. Best forgotten, all that.
The boat upon which the couple are standing doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s an island in the middle of the canal, with only the slightest drift downstream, skewed towards the opposite bank. A smart affair, the cabin a glossy green, hull smooth-black, except for two tell-tale scrapes on the side where a novice navigator has no doubt had a brush with a lock chamber. Foxy eyes the number on the plate on the cabin exterior. Registration for a holiday company.
“Probably hired for a romantic weekend, Gyp,” he remarks drily to the old deaf dog who lies unperturbed on the rag rug by the stove. The dog raises its head, gazes with faithful eyes for a few moments at its owner, before lowering its jaw once more on to its paws.
Foxy returns to the galley, takes a bite of toast, squeezes the teabag from the cup with a teaspoon, dumps it in the small stainless steel sink, the tea by now a dark tan.
“Mmm, that looks a good cuppa,” he murmurs. Doesn’t want to be heard outside.
Then, even Gyp hears the scream, the high-pitched, panicky tremolo, and gives a low growl.
“Shush, Gyp,” Foxy hisses, hurrying back to the far end and bending to pass his rough fingers across the fur of the dog’s head. “Can’t have no-one knowin’ where Foxy and Gyp are, can we now?”
He moves back to the porthole.
“Sounds like a right humdinger.” Then, “Bloody hell, Gyp!”
Foxy can’t believe what he’s seeing. More shouts, and the two are now up on the flat cabin roof, the man with his back to Foxy’s boat, the woman facing the man, her features contorted in fear. It could be my mother, shivers Foxy. The man moves closer, edging the woman backward, continuing to shout obscenities.
“I’ve been chucked out of the Black Horse for language less than that, Gyp.”
He tries a chuckle, but there’s nothing funny about the two dancing about on the top there. One, if not both, are bound to end up in the canal.
“Hope they can swim.”
Suddenly the man lunges forwards, pushes the woman hard with the flat palms of his hands, the weight of his body behind them. She topples backwards, and although Foxy can’t see, he hears the scream and splash as she hits the water.
“That’ll sober them up.”
Foxy darts back to fetch his toast before peering out again, expecting to see the man take the rescue pole from the deck and proffer it to the woman in the water. But no. The man springs like a cat on to the aft deck towards the tiller. There’s a lurch in Foxy’s stomach as he realises the man is powering up the engine and driving the boat towards the side where the woman is in the water, rudder dangerously close. Stop, Foxy wants to shout. Stop! You’ll kill her! But he doesn’t shout. He doesn’t shout, because he can’t give the game away.
He watches silently, frozen, inwardly reliving the violence of a time past, as the boat judders against the side of the wharf. He turns away from the window to kneel down beside Gyp, tears streaming from his eyes.
He remains there for a long while. Hears the police sirens, the thrum of an air ambulance, keeps his head low as he returns to the porthole and watches the bloodied body being lifted from the water. It’s like a huge dead fish, the long hair hanging down like a curious fin. He peers at the fruitless attempts at revival, and the woman police officer with her arm around the man’s shoulders, convulsing with unmanageable sobs. The officer’s face is gentle with empathy as she places a blanket around him, leads him to an ambulance. Foxy continues to watch as the tow path and canal area are cordoned off with incident tape and a water authority boat is anchored in the centre of the canal for demarcation.
Suddenly, he feels the sway of someone stepping aboard his boat and hears a loud knock at the cabin door. Gyp emits a low bark. Foxy swoops to the floor. Hopefully he won’t be seen through the window. He’s almost certain that the angle and the table will hide him. There’s a second knock, and a second gruff response from Gyp. A man’s voice.
Foxy’s heart beats hard, his breath is so short he can scarcely contain a cough. He remains still as a heron for what seems a very long time, until at last he feels the give of the boat as the intruder steps back on to the towpath. Cautiously he peers through the glass in the cabin door, sighs in relief as the policeman walks away towards the rough strip of land where the police car is parked. Suddenly he feels cold. The stove’s burned down and he doesn’t want to attract any attention with fresh smoke. He turns to Gyp.
“You’ll have to wait a while for your walk.”
The dog gazes up, thumps its tail two or three times from where it’s lying, as if it knows there’s something up.
“You know, don’t you, Gyp?”
Foxy locates the cold cup of tea, downs it in one. It sits bitter on his tongue. He remains there on the bench with his overcoat wrapped around him for two, or is it three hours? He’s lost track, just trawling over what he’s witnessed, wondering if, after all, it has been some horrendous dream. At last, stiffly, he rises, listens. No sounds from outside. He takes Gyp’s lead down from the hook beside the draining board and cautiously pulls open the cabin door, steps out on to the bank. Seemingly, no one around. Gyp jumps obediently after him. Even with arthritis, the old dog knows its way around the Free Spirit. Stands beside Foxy, wagging its tail. Foxy bends and fastens the lead to its collar. No point in taking chances by letting the dog go. Don’t want to invite any trouble, even though he knows the dog would far rather run free.
“Another day, Gyp,” he mutters.
His breath rasps as he looks around. Apart from the cordoned off boat on the other side, the usual tranquillity of the canal has returned. Events, Foxy thinks, are like a pebble being thrown in. Now the water has closed over them, swallowed them up, the surface is smooth once more. It’s a fine day. One of the first few days of better weather, after a harsh winter when Foxy has found it so hard to keep warm. Now, daffodils are beginning to bloom upon the banks, and tight buds of lilac trees along the hedges by the old Stop House are appearing like small green secrets. There’s forsythia in all its yellow regalia, and, in the field opposite, it looks as if someone’s painted vibrant yellow-green brushstrokes down the sweeping branches of the weeping willows. Upstream, he can just about make out the comforting sound of water sluicing through the lock. And some of his old calm begins to return.
“Ah, Mr Philips.”
A voice behind him, sudden, though not unfriendly. Still makes Foxy nearly jump out of his skin. He turns quickly to see Mr Powell, from the Water Authority, standing before him. It’s a good job Foxy’s kept up to date with his mooring fees.
“Afternoon,” Foxy says, making a poor attempt at a smile.
Mr Powell nods solemnly.
“Bit of a poor do this morning.”
“What d’you mean, Mr Powell?”
“Didn’t you hear or see anything?”
“Been out,” Foxy mumbles. “What sort of ‘do’?”
“Accident,” Mr Powell says gravely. “Woman drowned. Couple holidaying.” Adding, “Husband’s distraught.”
“How d’it happen?”
It’s hard for Foxy to keep his tone even.
“Trying to moor up, it seems. Wife slipped and lost her footing, crushed between the bank and the boat. Nasty.”
“Didn’t see anything at all?”
“ ‘Fraid not, did we, Gyp?” Foxy gazes hard at his dog.
With a further nod, Mr Powell turns back in the direction of the office by the lock.
“Come on, Gyp,” Foxy says loudly. Adding in a murmur, “Don’t we have a liar on our hands?”
He’s not referring to himself, but to the heavy jacketed man on the boat. Though he has to admit he himself is scarcely a stranger to deception. He’s had plenty of practice over the years, so many involvements with the police on his “little escapades” as he calls them. Economical with the truth, you might say. To the extent that he’d managed, with the help of a mate of his, to adopt an entire alternative identity after escaping from that hell hole of an open prison. People around here know him as David Philips, or Foxy. No one’s heard of Ray Sergeant, as his mother christened him, God rest her soul. Ironical that he’d had that for a surname when he’d spent a good few of his years the other side of the law.
He’s done with all that now though. The only person round here who knows anything about him is his old mate Tom from the Black Horse, and Foxy knows he won’t utter a stitch. No, Foxy muses, he finished with those shenanigans twelve years ago. Ever since he escaped. Ever since he became Foxy and acquired this old houseboat, his good old Free Spirit. He lives here with Gyp and keeps his head down, gets by on whatever odd jobs he can pick up, makes an honest living. Or almost honest, if you don’t count avoiding the tax man. He pays his mooring fee right up front to Mr Powell, and the council tax with the aid of his counterfeit passport.
So, there you have it. And even in those early years of porkies and helping himself to goods that he wasn’t strictly speaking entitled to, he never once was violent. Not to anyone. And he’s proud of that. It would have been so easy to follow in the ways of that bastard father of his. But he’d stayed peaceable, and somehow now he manages to rub along with the world. Just like old Gyp. Does no more than emit an occasional growl.
That evening, Foxy heads up to the Black Horse. The public end. No hoity-toity lounge for him. He settles Gyp down in his usual corner, crosses back to order a pint of best. It’s not somewhere he would be particularly welcome, with his grey stubble, scruffy greatcoat and scuffed work boots, but he has one skill that draws the customers in; he plays honky-tonk piano, something his mother encouraged him to do all those years ago when he was a boy. If he plays well, he’ll drink for free the whole night.
Tom, the landlord greets him with a broad smile, takes a glass from the shelf and begins to draw a pint.
“Hear about the accident on the canal?”
Foxy’s heart jumps a beat.
“Mr Powell said something kicked off.”
“I’ll say it did,” says Tom. “Woman overboard, crushed to death. Husband’s beside himself, poor man. Didn’t see nothin’? Someone said it was quite close to your boat.”
Foxy shakes his head. “Not a thing.”
He carries his pint over to his table. Takes a sip. By God, he needs that tonight of all nights. He can’t shake what he’s seen from his mind. And the husband is claiming it was an accident! But Foxy had seen the push.
“There’ll be an inquest?” Foxy is already ordering a second pint. The pub’s beginning to fill up, and he’s never been one for fighting his way through a crowd to the bar.
“Usually is,” says Tom. “Poor geezer, losing a loved one like that, and then he’ll have to relive the whole thing. If living it once weren’t enough.”
“If she was his loved one…”
Immediately the words are out, Foxy regrets it. Tom eyes him.
“What makes you say that, Foxy boy?”
“Nothin’,” Foxy says hastily. “But you don’t know what goes on in a marriage, do you?”
“You’re right there,” says Tom, laughing. And there ensues a conversation amongst the men at the bar with regard to the trials of the long-term relationship, with much hilarity. As if the men have already forgotten the morning’s tragedy.
But Foxy hasn’t forgotten. The woman’s screams still ring in his ears.
“Play us a tune, Foxy,” someone asks.
Reluctantly Foxy carries his beer to the piano, sets it down on top and settles upon the stool. His fingers, mechanical, pick out the Honky-tonk Serenade. He doesn’t need the sheet music, plays by instinct. He should go to the police, tell them what he saw. But he can’t. He would need to give his details. They would scrutinise his identity. What if they took his fingerprints to eliminate him from enquiries, and they matched up with their records for one Ray Sergeant? He’d be clapped straight back in prison to finish his sentence with another one on top for the pleasure of escaping. He mustn’t be involved. He must keep his head down, like he has for the last twelve years.
An image of his mother flashes through his mind. If someone had reported his Dad, allowed his own mother to live the peaceful life she wanted and deserved…Did the woman on the boat have children? Are they now without a mother? At least his mother had survived…that is, until the cancer got her. Which his Aunt Maggie had put down to the stress of it all.
“Are you all right?”
Alf, one of the locals bends towards him, peers into Foxy’s face. Foxy’s hands have pulled back from the tune, and he’s just sitting there, absent…
He smiles weakly. “Fine.”
“Play us another, Foxy,” calls a man standing by the bar.
Foxy leans towards the keys, tries another tune. But he can’t concentrate. Hits a wrong note. The couple on the boat fixes before his eyes. He stands up abruptly. People are staring.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, so that only those closest hear. “I ain’t well.”
And strides out of the pub, Gyp hurrying after him.
“You haven’t even finished your pint, Foxy!” Alf calls after him.
“That’s a first!” someone laughs.
Tom watches silently. Makes a mental note to go to check on Foxy in the morning.
Foxy ensures that both cabin doors are properly latched and locked when he gets in. Checks that all curtains are drawn, then stokes up the stove, turns on his TV and settles down in his armchair. He stares at the screen but he sees nothing, only the ghastly image of those flat palms pushing against the woman’s torso. He must let it go, he tells himself. After all, he’s seen worse. He remembers a stabbing outside a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham. He had been on his way home from a small robbing job, carrying a Tesco bag with some goodies inside. Momentarily he forgets the accident, his thoughts winding along a thread into his past. Chuckles to himself. Had as good as been invited into a ground floor flat that night. Some fool had left the window on the latch. Too good an opportunity to pass up. He’d hopped in and found one or two nice little electricals that would bring him in a bit of cash, enough to keep him in baccy and beer for a couple of months at any rate. Then hopped back out, easy as walking out of Tesco. And there outside the Chinese, some white lads tucking into an Asian boy like he was a number twenty-six with fried rice. Usual sort of stuff. Blood all over the place. Foxy hadn’t interfered. Plenty of people about, and he could hear the sirens. Easy to pass it by.
But this. Against a woman just like his mother. That bugger shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. He’s hoping that Forensics will pick it up, spot the bruising before she hit the water. Bound to, aren’t they, same as they matched hairs from his head on that Burton Road job. Got four years that time, said he was a threat to the community, and he only came out with a Rolex.
“They’ll pick it up during the inquest,” he tells Gyp. “No question about it. Meantime, it’s time you and me made ourselves scarce.”
First light, and Foxy’s inserting the key to start up Free Spirit, climbing out on the bank to release the mooring ropes from the rings, and chugs off down the canal, kingfishers like fanfares streaking shivers of blue light with their wings before him. Already he feels lighter, easier.
And by the time Tom the landlord arrives at the place where the Free Spirit is usually moored, there’s nothing there but a duck or two sitting on the grass beside the water.
It’s full summer before Mr Powell spots Foxy’s scruffy blue boat with the red stripe once again moored in its usual place, and Foxy emerging from the cabin, Gyp hobbling up behind him.
“You’re lucky the mooring’s still available,” Mr Powell tells him. “It’s getting busy round here and we’d begun to think you weren’t coming back.”
“Sent you my fee, didn’t I?” Foxy says, prickling.
“Only till the end of last month. Three weeks’ overdue now. You could have died, for all I know.”
“You should be so lucky,” Foxy grins. Adding. “Well, I’m here now, ain’t I?”
Mr Powell smiles good-naturedly.
“Good to see you, Foxy. They’ve missed you tinkling the ivories up at the pub as well.”
“No doubt I’ll be up there tonight,” Foxy replies, pulling his fingers through the thinning strands of his hair.
Mr Powell turns to go.
“Mr Powell!” Foxy tries to sound casual. “Ever hear what happened in that inquest?”
For a moment, the official looks puzzled, tries to recall. “That accident? Poor man. What a way to lose your wife.”
“No suspicious circumstances then?”
“Oh no. Accidental death. Dreadful affair.”
And Mr. Powell turns away once more, whistling along the towpath.
For the rest of the day Foxy can’t get the idea out of his mind that a man has got off scot-free with murder. And the worst thing is, the only person who can change that, the only witness, is himself. Why did it have to happen there, right there, just across the canal from him? Even twenty yards further up and he wouldn’t have seen, probably wouldn’t even have heard anything. All Foxy wants is a quiet life. He’s not bothered about what other folk get up to. He looks after himself, that’s all. So why not just let the whole thing lie, forget it ever happened? Trouble is, he can’t. He knows what he knows and he can’t forget it. He should have shouted something at the time. Maybe he could have saved the poor woman. But he’d been busy watching his own back, hadn’t he? And the deed was done.
Now the fact remains that somewhere that man is still at large. Not a petty criminal like Foxy, who has never harmed so much as a flea in his life, but a violent brute who could well do the same thing again… just like his father, who after his mother had died, married Dawn from four doors along and ended up busting her arm throwing her down the stairs. Of course it was said that was an accident, but the children knew. Everyone in the whole street knew.
He’s no option but to go to the police. Yet, if he does…
“I don’t owe no-one nothing, do I, Gyp?”
The dog gazes up at him. No, Foxy thinks, why should he try to put something right? It would mean losing the boat, his nights at the pub…and there’s no way Gyp would survive while he served another prison sentence…
“Foxy!” Tom, the landlord’s grinning wide as a plate. “Where you been, boy? What can I get you? Pint of the usual, is it?” And turning to other locals standing at the bar, “Missed our ol’ Beethoven, ain’t we, mates?”
“Where d’you go, Foxy?” says Alf. “You disappeared after that accident, din’t ya?”
“Upset me, it did,” Foxy replies, adding hastily, “even though I din’t see nothin’. Don’t like to think of that kind of thing going on in our neck of the woods.”
“Cor, blimey, well we had you down as being party to the crime,” Alf says, peering round mischievously and winking at the others. “Thought you’d bumped the ol’ woman into the canal and her ol’ man was covering up for you.”
“Very funny,” Foxy says, turning an angry red. Takes his pint over to the old familiar corner.
Did they think it was me? Did they think because I scarpered I was in some way involved? And now Alf’s comment has pulled up all the dross, like a hapless fishing hook amongst the weed, tangling his thoughts even further.
After a while Foxy moves over to the piano and begins to play. His fingers are stiff from lack of practice, but the tunes still come back. No, there’s nothing wrong with his memory. Sometimes I wish there was, he thinks. And as he plays, images of his mother, his father, the woman toppling from the canal boat, and even the tabloid headline, Fears Grow for Woman’s Safety, that he’d seen today on the board outside the newsagent’s, with the picture of some woman from Derby… they all scramble together like jumping beans inside his head.
After two or three tunes, Tom arrives with another pint.
“Good to have you back, Foxy,” he says, placing the glass in front of him. “No one plays that ol’ piano like you do. Hope you’ll stick around for a while this time.”
But Foxy’s already rising from the stool, buttoning his overcoat. And now he’s made the decision, he knows it’s the right one.
“Come on, Gyp.”
And he and the slow old dog set off along the street towards the police station, knowing that it’s going to be a long night.
Adrienne Silcock asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work