By Les Hooper
Salisbury 1958. In Wiltshire, famous for it cathedral painted by Constable, or is it famous for Constable who painted the cathedral? It’s described in travel guides and city propaganda as a beautiful city. Mmm! Today, the sky is battleship gray, a light drizzle that looks set forever is shining the pavements and trickling down the tiles. Any beauty’s hiding in the rain and the place is sad and dreary. Or perhaps it’s me who’s sad and dreary.
I’m a member of the Southern Detachment of the Special Investigation Branch, United Kingdom. A simple job. We investigate crime. I’m just a run-of-the-mill investigator of no particular importance. Married with three children and two cats. The cats spoke English. Margaret, my dear wife, would say, ‘Ginger. Eat your dinner like a good cat.’ Or, ‘Cecilia, don’t pee on the floor. Use your tray.’ Only Margaret could hear their answers. I’ve never heard of another cat called Cecilia. I don’t what mysterious corner of Margaret’s mind unearthed it.
We lived in an army-supplied house in Harper Road. A short cul-de-sac. There was no fear the road would ever become a place of architectural significance. My small house was the end one and made me sympathetic towards rabbits. I’m not having a gripe about the houses, for they had one important fact in their favour – they were rent free.
The left-hand low wall divided the garden from the ancient graveyard of St. Gregory’s Church. I think Salisbury residents still died but they were no longer buried in the graveyard patch over the wall. The only time I heard those old residents was when a wind howled through the ancient yew trees that guarded the worn headstones.
An anonymous sergeant of some obscure unit occupied a hutch a few doors away. I mention this because he was saddled with a blonde wife who was always willing to give me, and probably a good few others, a smile full of hidden delights. Unfortunately that was all I received at her hand. She was plus thirty, trying to look twenty. Sometimes it’s hard being faithful.
Once Margaret asked me suspiciously, ‘Why are you smiling at that woman?’
I tried to look surprised. ‘What woman?’
The ambiguous reply was, ‘Men!’ and I diplomatically declined to pursue the subject, or I would find myself unjustly accused of popping my neighbour. I don’t believe there’s a spate of marital infidelities on our road. If there were I certainly wasn’t invited.
I gained some notoriety because of my job. Everyone has something to hide and I think my neighbours feared I might discover some of their little dark secrets. If my close proximity caused them some discomfort, they’d have to grin and bear it. So far they hadn’t yet got around to bowing whenever I passed by.
Once a week Sid the greengrocer called with his horse and cart laden with healthy eating. The shaggy horse always munched our rose bushes. Mind you, the nag bore no ill will towards anyone nor did it discriminate. Plants that poked above a fence at any address made a tasty snack. Sid was a small man with an untidy mustache and wore a battered caps with holes in it. I told him that most horses I’d met preferred hay. He thought that was funny. The wives in the street always gave the horse a pat. Sid encouraged the animal to smile. The wives bought more potatoes and carrots and Sid saved a small fortune on horse feed.
On this particular day I was driving happily towards the garrison town of Tidworth. There was no urgency in my mission. Some army wives there had complained that underwear was disappearing from washing lines. Margaret asked me where I was going. I put a finger to my lips and told her, ‘Can’t tell you. It’s a secret. All I can say is it involves internal security.’ It was sort of edging on the truth. I never told her of my investigations. No point. She never believed there was evil in the world. No, I don’t understand why she married me either. Opposites are supposed to attract. In any case, as far as Margaret was concerned my purpose in life was to provide food and shelter for her and the kids. Whatever I did to achieve this admirable goal had no relevances.
The boss, Captain Bob Metcalfe, gave me the job of finding the thief. He always had more faith in me than I had in myself, despite my being a brilliant detective. He was an old friend. Back in Singapore a couple of years before, he’d evaded the gallows after making a complete dog’s dinner of a court-martial (See Too Many Cooks in Reminiscences). Sometimes, not often, I felt sorry for him. He’d been around a long time, since India days even. He never asked himself why he hadn’t made colonel. He was frightened of the answer. I made that up but you know what I mean.
I was halfway towards my destination when a raging Riley Pathfinder, a car built like a tank, bluntly interrupted my trip. There’s a T-junction just before the town of Amesbury where I intended to turn right onto the A303 main road. As I made the turn the tank came roaring over the blind brow of the hill to the right. I had no choice and braked and waited for the inevitable collision. The wet road didn’t help. The unmarked army Vauxhall Wyvern I was driving suffered a nasty dent in the front wing, the Riley’s bumper fell off and a lady passenger smashed her skull against the windscreen. Seat belts were still objects of mystery. The chauvinist driver was more upset about the blood staining his precious leather upholstery than his wife’s cut head.
John, the Amesbury police sergeant, arrived on the scene and told me not to worry, he’d sort it out. It pays to have friends in times of turmoil. Anyway, the Riley driver admitted he was speeding to a meeting in Kent so I was off the hook. The knickers thief would remain undetected for a while. Army Claims stated that my passenger should have got out and guided me on to the main road. It was no excuse that I didn’t have a passenger. The army ran a business that transcended common sense.
Captain Metcalfe offered his unmitigated support. ‘It was your bloody fault. I know it, the police know it, and so do you.’ He was upset he didn’t have the car for a while. ‘How do you get away with it?’ he growled.
‘Must be my good looks,’ I responded, which angered him further. My repartee usually irritated my captain. Every time I came up with a smart answer, which was frequent, he wished he’d thought of it first.
‘I assume you haven’t identified the underwear thief yet,’ he mumbled. As I hadn’t even reached the scene of the dastardly crime it shows how he was on the ball. What did I say about the army’s cognisance?
I answered, ‘All in the fullness of time, you clown.’ No, I didn’t.
He told me, ‘I like you and me getting off on the right foot.’
I asked, ‘Where are we going?’
I don’t think he heard me.
He dribbled on about the importance of swiftly arresting the thief to prove to the victims that we cared and to recover their property. I responded that it was pretty certain that the women were not unduly alarmed and no doubt owned spare drawers so were not walking around knickerless. The brightness of his eyes told me I’d sparked his imagination.
I went home that evening wondering what the next calamity to strike would be. The front rose bush looked a bit forlorn. I guessed Sid’s horse had visited that day. I was amazed to discover that no one had left the hutch open and mummy rabbit and my three baby bunnies were all safely ensconced and accounted for. Ginger and Cecilia occupied the sofa so I spent the evening on a kitchen chair watching black and white telly. The most interesting programme was an idiot with sleek hair talking about weather and sticking small cutouts of clouds and suns on a map of Great Britain that kept falling off. The cats never saw the funny side.
Before returning to the case of the missing panties I was directed to go to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, on Southampton Water, where I was to report to the senior psychiatric consultant. Now why would a balanced, utterly sane person like me be told to report to the army’s nuthouse?
A few weeks before this, I’d investigated a suspicious fire in a wooden spider block at Poperinge Barracks, Arborfield, Berkshire, training centre of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). Doubts were raised because the fire service couldn’t find any good reason for the fire to be accidental. The fire service is clever at establishing a positive from a negative. It happened early evening and no one was hurt.
I asked all the routine questions and general suspicion preferred a Sergeant Digby, really because he was morose and nobody liked his sullen attitude. An old medieval custom. If you don’t like him he must be guilty. The ducking stool had been removed for maintenance. Hardly evidence but I had to start somewhere, although I suspected that some I spoke to knew more than was being revealed, which is often the case. I interviewed Digby and he was obviously nervous. I jumped straight in, no point beating about the bush. ‘Why did you set fire to the spider?’
His lips twitched. ‘I don’t know,’ he blurted. ‘Who says I did?’
Looks like I cast my seed on fertile earth. I investigated a fire in Germany where the culprit spent a time in the place while it was burning around him. Arsonists enjoy watching the fruits of their activities, so I took Digby to his room, searched through his belongings and discovered what I’d hoped for. Amongst all my other attributes I’m also an expert on firebugs. Some of Digby’s clothes, especially a wooly battledress, smelt of smoke. I knew he was the culprit. He did have a box of matches with a number of burnt out matches in it, which didn’t mean a lot except he kept burnt matches. A lot of smokers returned half burnt matches to the box. Strange. He partly confessed, saying that he couldn’t remember everything he did that night.
All my fine work was wasted effort. Digby was diagnosed mentally unfit to stand court-martial and he was detained at Netley. The particular of the diagnosis was that an army sergeant must be off his rocker to set a barrack room alight. If this sort of rule applied to all crimes our prisons would be empty and mental institutions overcrowded.
The head trick cyclist was a large man with hypnotic eyes and a heavy jowl. I showed him some respect because he wore a colonel’s uniform of the Royal Army Medical Corps. I wore my brown Italian suit of some eight or nine year’s vintage. I bought it off a market stall it when I was in Trieste. A label inside the jacket said in Italian, ‘Do not wash in spaghetti’, or something like that.
Anyway the shrink shook hands with me and thanked me for coming. That’s nice, I thought, seeing as I would’ve received twenty lashes had I refused. I saw no point in telling him this. We both sat. He then proceeded to explain that Sergeant Digby of fire-raising fame refused to talk about his experiment with matches and remained stubbornly tight-lipped about the incident.
“What I should like to know,’ said the colonel, lowering his voice and leaning towards me as if I was a fellow conspirator, is what kind of approach did you employ to persuade him to speak to you.’ He wore a deep, thoughtful look. ‘I’m an expert on the contortions of the human mind.’
I nodded. Impressed.
He now took a deep breath as if he was reluctant to say what he was about to say. ‘I’m asking because I need to get into Digby’s head before I can help him.’
I nodded again. Less impressed. I thought that maybe Sergeant Digby wasn’t happy about a mad colonel probing his mind and moreover was suspicious of the colonel’s motives. I would be. The medical profession likes to treat patients, as I knew full well, as guinea pigs. And head-shrinkers are crazier than those they try to cure.
It was my turn to sigh. I’d travelled all the way from Salisbury to listen to a load of drivel. I lived in the real world and reckoned I knew more about the working of men’s mind than the colonel did. That doesn’t include women. What was I supposed to say? I twisted Digby’s arm, kicked him in the goolies or promised him a new cigarette lighter? Even if true I couldn’t tell the colonel. He’d have a heart attack. Instead, I thought of suggesting he try injecting a truth serum or having a cosy chat with Digby over a fire but he might accuse me being flippant.
I said, ‘I simply asked him why he started the fire and he more or less admitted it after a few more questions. He didn’t actually fall on his knees and beg forgiveness.’
The colonel gave a weak smile. I don’t think he believed me. I began to worry that he was beginning to view me as needing his help too. I knew some of his wards had bars on the windows and the thought made me nervous. In a sudden switch of subject, he groaned, ‘My luck is on a downhill spiral.’ God, was he trying the sympathy line on me? ‘My car went up in flames yesterday.’
I said, ‘Is it a Riley Pathfinder?’
He almost fell off his chair. ‘How did you know that?’
‘A good guess. Riley Pathfinders are always having accidents.’
Netley Hospital Chapel
His thick lips tried to curl. ‘In that case I’ll try a different model.’ We discoursed rubbish for a while and we both knew it was a waste of time, which bothered him more than it bothered me. Unfortunately those in his trade become detached from the normal idiosyncrasies of the human race and finish in one of their own institutions or an early wooden box. I tried to avoid his eyes in case he sent me to sleep. I eventually escaped before he put on a white coat and caught a train back to Salisbury. I crossed Netley off my short list of places to visit.
Back in the office Captain Metcalfe told me he’d received a telephone call from Colonel Chambers at Netley Hospital.
‘Oh, yes!’ Perhaps he’d had me committed.
‘He passes on his thanks for the contribution you made to finding a solution to his problem – whatever that means.’ He beamed proudly as if any credit due was his.
I knew that colonel was bonkers. I never found out what happened to Sergeant Digby. I wonder if they discharged him from Netley before it was demolished.
As I walked home I slowed down as I approached my house, hoping the blonde would be standing in her doorway. My luck was out although I saw the front curtains twitching. I wrestled with a plan to knock and ask if I could borrow a cup of sugar. The flaw was I didn’t have a cup with me. Indoors the cats sprawled on the sofa so everything was normal there. After dinner I watched the TV. It was so interesting I can’t remember what was on. Margaret washed the dishes and came in and watched with me. After a while she said, ‘Joyce came round this afternoon.’
‘Good.’ Joyce is the friendly neighbour and I had no intention of getting involved in a discussion about her.
‘She’s that blonde in number eight.’ There was a pause. ‘But of course you know that.’
Did I imagine an extra emphasis on know? What she was really saying was, ‘I bet you wish you had been here so you could invite her to test your bed springs.’ I understood females until I was two years old. Since then I’ve gradually lost touch.
I did try an innocent smile and said, ‘Good.’ My vocabulary had run dry.
‘She wanted to borrow a cup of sugar.’
I glanced at Margaret while my stomach did a somersault. Not another coincidence? First there was the shrink’s Riley following my accident with a Riley, now a cup of sugar after I’d stupidly considered asking Joyce for one. Perhaps I’ve suddenly developed psychic powers. I’d better be careful. I didn’t know what to say. I said, ‘Good.’
Margaret sucked her lips. ‘I think the gramophone needle’s stuck.’
I’d run out of words I know so said nothing. We slipped into a companionable silence. Margaret’s vague definition of evil did not include jealousy, every woman’s prerogative. She was born in Yorkshire where there are no grays, only black and white. Nothing rankled with her for long. I’m not so pious but good at play-acting. With a Yorkshire wife you always know what’s for Sunday lunch.
I was once more I my way to Tidworth. I paid extra attention at the T-junction. I wouldn’t escape scot-free if I had another prang. Tidworth is a small town of a few thousand inhabitants and famous for nothing, although my youngest son was born in Tidworth Military Hospital. Back then it was divided into South Tidworth in Hampshire and North Tidworth in Wiltshire. Since the 1992 boundary changes the whole caboodle’s in Wiltshire, which displeased the Hampshire lot as much as it upset the Wiltshire lot, who objected being grouped with foreigners. They still fight over it in the pubs on Friday nights.
Tidworth police station was located in a two-storey house with offices and a cell on the ground floor and living accommodation upstairs. The force consisted of a sergeant and a few constables. The town was crime free because the constables were related to everybody. They caught kids riding bikes without lights now and then so they had crime to record and keep their jobs. I called at the station on arrival out of courtesy and because they always made me a cup of tea. Bill, the sergeant, greeted me warmly. ‘What brings you here?”
‘My car and tea.’
He laughed and asked the constable on reception to put the kettle on and we went into his small office.
I said, ‘I’m here to investigate the thefts of knickers and if I don’t pull them off I’ll be sent to the Outer Hebrides.’
He grinned. ‘Have you got a unit there?’
He said, ‘I know about the missing underwear.’
I looked at him. ’Excellent. Just write down your confession and I can clear this case up in no time.’
‘Very funny. I passed the information on to your people. Didn’t they tell you?’
I explained, ‘We don’t talk to each other. My captain is a very clever man who knows everything and expects me to read his mind. Not only that, he also solves crime by sitting behind his desk. I take it you think a soldier’s the thief.’
We’d enjoyed a spirited rivalry since I first met him a year or so back. I really don’t know why. I was an experienced detective and he an experienced plod who had never investigated anything bigger than kids scrumping apples. But he was a nice enough fellow. I think he was envious of my exciting life style. The tea arrived and we sipped in silence. Bill put his cup down. ‘I know everyone in this town and what they get up to. And as the thefts took place within the garrison, I’m certain that a soldier’s responsible. If it were a civilian, I’d know.’ He shrugged. ‘What d’you think?’
I think I’m distressed that a detective of my superior ability should be doing greater things than sit here nursing a cup and saucer while discussing silly missing knickers with a police sergeant whom I suspect was enjoying a private laugh at my expense, having wriggled out of any responsibility. But I didn’t tell him that. I couldn’t fault him for confidence although the same couldn’t be said for his conclusion. It had more holes that a moth-eaten jersey. I didn’t try to spike his reasoning. He might be right. At the same time my instinct told me he wasn’t being completely honest with me.
I smiled, sipped more tea, and said, ‘Thanks, Bill. That makes a nice clear picture. Just one bloody big fly in the jolly old ointment. Which soldier?’
‘You’ll have no problem there.’ I was certain he was winding me up.
I gazed at him and after a pause, said, ‘You’re right, of course.’ He preened. ‘It’ll be a squaddie from the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps).’
His eyes widened. ‘How do you know that? You haven’t started yet.’
Without thinking, I said, ‘I’m psychic.’
I knew then that I would find the damned thief if it took me a year. Fortunately it took a little less time than that. After a while we ran out of conversation pieces, he stopped baiting me so we shook hands and I got on with exploring all the avenues of the case, as we like to say. What this meant was taking statements from five ladies who’d had underwear stolen from washing lines. Jane Finestre, the pretty young wife of a Hampshire Regiment corporal, insisted on feeding me tea and biscuits, which I found hard to refuse, so I didn’t. Even more interesting was her story that not long before the theft she’d seen a soldier hovering in the lane at the back of her house. He was too far away for her to identify him or notice his unit. She’d told all this to the nice police sergeant. There you go. The crafty devil had forgotten to tell me this. Or had he?
Jane also insisted on telling me that she could show me Marks And Spencer’s underwear similar to that stolen. ‘If it will help,’ she added. The picture that sprung to mind stirred a hidden nerve in my body. I also found this offer hard to refuse, but this time I did. ‘That’s okay, Mrs. Finestre, I’d rather not look. . . . .I don’t need you to do that.’ Even to this day, I don’t exactly know what I turned down. Whew! I sometimes wonder why I always encounter such temptations or are they merely manifestations of my eternal optimism (and hope)? But, as I’ve already hinted, I’m a little vague on the motives of women.
Surprise, surprise! The nearest building to the washing lines was the Medical Centre, which also included RAMC staff accommodation. Remembering what I said to Sergeant Bill I was beginning to think there’s more to this paranormal nonsense than meets the eye. A worrying thought. One thing I knew for certain. The thief would still have the stolen underwear. It was never thrown away. I met the captain that ran the medical centre, explained my presence and told him I wished to search the belongings of all his men. I explained the whys and wherefores and he realised he had no option but agree.
Some things come easy. None easier than this case. The half a dozen men shared one room. Lo and behold, Private Jonathan Wiener, RAMC, had four pairs of skimpy panties screwed up in a ball in his bedside locker. I took him and the loot to an empty treatment room. He confessed to the thefts without any haggling and tried to look suitably ashamed, saying he didn’t really know why he did it. I tried to look suitably skeptical, saying, ‘I have complaints of five pairs of knickers stolen, yet there were only four pairs in your locker.’ I gave a cynical smile and, as if I hadn’t guessed, demanded, ‘Where’s the fifth pair?’
A deep flush coloured his face and he hung his head in silence. I couldn’t resist widening my smile and ordered, “Okay, Jonathan, don’t mess me around. Just get ‘em orf. . .now!’ He slowly complied and I soon had all five pairs of the missing knickers in my possession, four in freshly washed condition and one soiled.
I’m sure you will sympathise with me when I explain that here again was another case where I employed all my considerable skills to no avail. The medical captain explained that Wiener shouldn’t be punished because he was obviously suffering from a psychological disorder and therefore was unaware that he was committing a crime and should be pitied rather than condemned and a string a similar claptrap that I failed to understand. I said that to steal to satisfy a unnatural urge was no different to stealing to feed a hungry mouth. Of course, my diagnosis had as much effect as a raindrop in the ocean. Wiener was forgiven.
Panic stations. Arsonists, accidents and knickers forgotten. 1am, Sunday, 16th February, which also happened to be my birthday, and IRA gunmen raided the armoury at Blanford Camp, Dorset, home of the School of Royal Signals. Later, as I wandered around Blanford Garrison pretending to be busy investigating I realised I would miss my roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but not birthday cake. A couple of soldiers were injured thwarting the attack. I had no forewarning.
Perhaps I’m not psychic after all. Now that eerie feeling might disappear.
By the way, Ginger beat me to the sofa again. I knew he would.