Authors: Nicholas Rhea
“O villainy! Ho! Let the door be lock’d;
Treachery! Seek it out.”
William Shakespeare 1564–1616:
In crime fiction, there can be an element of drama and suspense when secret missions are undertaken by sterling heroes. For this reason, if for no other, I suppose it is the wish of every budding constable to become operationally involved with secrecy, spies, M.I.5, invisible ink and all the other
of undercover missions.
My first involvement was nothing like that. It began with the intolerable and incessant jangling of the telephone somewhere in the depths of an icy cold, dark and miserable office. That office lay at the foot of my staircase, and the start of my staircase lay pretty close to my bedroom door. My bedroom door, however, lay some five or six feet from my snug bed, across a large expanse of very cold linoleum. On top of all that, it was pitch dark and the hour was about five o’clock on a chilly winter morning.
These factors, plus the warmth of a loving wife beneath the cosy blankets, amalgamated to declare the telephone more than a nuisance. But shrilling police telephones cannot go unheeded, and as I lay in the darkness contemplating my next action, it became very evident that the person at the other end was another policeman. Other people, reasonable creatures that they are, would have stopped ringing ages ago; other people would have had infinite compassion for someone who’d been working late, whose family were infants and likely to be fully aroused at any minute, whose wife was cosy and warm and who
personally wasn’t too fond of climbing out of bed at five o’clock to answer silly questions.
But policemen aren’t noted for compassion towards fellow officers, especially those of subordinate rank. When they ring other policemen, at whatever hour of the day or night, they keep the instrument active until somebody is compelled to do something about it. As I slowly realised my caller was a policeman, Mary also realised it was ringing.
“Telephone,” she burbled from a deep sleep. “Telephone.”
“It’s ringing,” I said, my voice talking to an empty black room.
“It might be urgent,” she managed to convey to me.
“It probably is,” I agreed, turning over. It was about this time that I realised it must be Sergeant Blaketon. No other person at Ashfordly Police Station would be so persistent. No other policeman in my section would ring like this; if someone’s presence was required, they’d ring Control Room or get the night duty man to attend. No member of the public would ring like this, not for anything!
“Oh, for heaven’s sake …” Mary turned over. “It’s not the alarm clock, is it?”
“No, the telephone,” the house was full of strident ringing noises and I had horrid visions of Sergeant Blaketon hanging on to the other end, and equally horrid visions of him driving out to Aidensfield to knock on the door. That really would rouse the four children.
“All right, all right,” I snarled. “I’m coming.”
Protesting, grumbling and angry, I slid my feet out of bed and my warm soles met the bitterly cold floor. The chill raced up my spine and did something to arouse me; I shivered violently. I couldn’t find my slippers, and therefore elected to descend in my bare feet. I daren’t switch on the bedroom light because Mary would hate me even more, so I made my erratic, bleary way from the room and down the stairs, unerringly guided to ground level by the nerve-shattering din.
I fumbled my way across the hall and found the light switch. My frosted feet made their way across the bitterly cold
floor of the office and I stretched a hand towards the noisy contraption.
It stopped ringing. A weird silence sat among the darkness of my house as I blinked in the light of my office.
I had heard many legends about telephones ceasing to ring just as the recipient reached it, but in circumstances like this?
I stood and stared at it. I dared it to recommence. My feet had started to turn into blocks of ice, and the awful cold was producing goose-pimples in very strange places. Nothing
. And so, as I waited for the next sequence in this domestic drama, I could look out of my office window. The light showed a vast area of white and I groaned. Snow had fallen. Beyond my four walls, several inches of moorland snow had arrived unannounced and graced my weed-ridden garden. If this was a call-out, I could justifiably say I was snowed in. I realised today was Candlemas Day, February 2, and my mind quoted the local weather prognostication – “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter shall have another flight. If Candlemas be dull with rain, winter will not come again”. I wondered what sort of summer we could expect when Candlemas was thick with snow.
I must have waited for five long minutes because my feet appeared to be growing detached from me, and the telephone sat very still. So, it hadn’t been a policeman after all. It must have been somebody else, somebody who’d given up,
who’d dialled 999, or who’d changed their mind.
Smiling, I turned towards the beckoning stairs. I thought of my welcoming Mary in her cocoon of bedclothes; she was just lying there with an overwhelming desire to warm my feet with her lovely back. This made me hurry up stairs. Out went the office light as I galloped back to bed, thankful for the
shown by this unknown caller.
As I reached the bedroom door, it began again. The incessant ringing resumed with evident determination and this time I raced down stairs, angry and upset that the world was so full of inconsiderate, demanding people who should know better.
“Police!” I snarled into the mouthpiece.
“Rhea?” It was Sergeant Blaketon. He sounded very wide awake, and I wondered for an awful moment if I should have been on early patrol route, but a glance at my diary revealed the truth. I was shown as late turn, starting at two this afternoon.
“Did I get you out of bed, Rhea?” he asked blandly.
“No,” I growled. “I was taking the budgie for a walk.”
“There’s no need for insubordination, Rhea, this is urgent.”
“Very urgent and very important. Get yourself down to this station for six o’clock, bike and all. Bring a packed lunch and some hot soup. It’s an all-day job, and it might take us until night. Be equipped for snow.”
“Snow, Rhea. There’s five or six inches out here.”
“What sort of job is it, sarge?” I dared to ask.
“I can’t discuss it on the telephone,” he informed me. “Just be here at six.”
He put down his phone and I looked at my office clock. It was ten past five. For a few moments, I stood on the cold floor and stared outside. I could see snowflakes descending in the patch of light cast from the office window, and their beautiful smooth movements mesmerised me. Then Mary was shouting at me from the top of the stairs.
“What is it, Nick? Is it my mother?”
“It’s worse,” I called back. “It was Sergeant Blaketon.”
“What’s happened?” There was genuine concern in her voice.
“I’ve got to go out. It’s something important and he won’t tell me over the telephone. I’ve got to be at Ashfordly office at six, equipped for an expedition of some kind. I need soup and a packed meal, and snow shoes by the sound of it, or skis.”
“I’ll pack something, you get ready.” She was a picture of composure as she switched on the stairs light and descended. How she managed to look so calm, I’ll never know, although it might be linked with the fact that she’d had to discipline herself to wake at all hours to night-feed four children over several years.
I trudged upstairs and entered the bathroom. The mirror was frosted over, so I breathed on it and my breath frosted over too. I shivered violently and decided against shaving. A miniature beard would keep me warm – I’d seen “Scott of the Antarctic” and the frosted beards of his courageous crew. I might be like that.
By quarter to six, I was dressed for an Arctic expedition. I wore my pyjamas beneath my uniform, a device employed by generations of policemen who’d patrolled in sub-zero
for twenty-five winters or more. On top of it all, I had dressed in my official motor-cycling suit. This was a large black rubbery outfit which smelled of oil and made me look like a paunchy grizzly bear. It was a two-piece suit with seamless trousers and a long tunic which concealed almost everything. Gauntlets protected my hands, and I sported a large round crash helmet with POLICE across the front. This was to protect what few brain cells I had. On my feet, I selected leather boots with rubber over-shoes. Thus clad, I had great difficulty in walking normally, but felt no one would notice me at this early hour. I was ready for my mission of mystery.
“Where are you going?” Mary asked, hugging her
around her slender body.
“I wish I knew.” I meant every word. In my arms, I carried my packed lunch and three vacuum flasks, two with soup and one with coffee. Apples and chocolate bars were stuffed into sundry pockets and I had managed to find a packet of dates in the pantry.
“I’ll try to find a telephone.” I wondered if they had
where I was going.
“Bye,” and she tried to kiss me across the paraphernalia which cluttered my frame. I stooped awkwardly and plonked a chilly kiss on her forehead.
“Bye,” and I opened the front door.
A huge drift had gathered against the door and nearly fell in as the stiff breeze whipped small whirls of floating flakes into the house. Outside, the garden was a white desert, endless and fascinating, but definitely not the sort of conditions to
the riding of motor cycles. But orders were orders and one’s constabulary duty had to be done. I slammed the door before Mary was overcome with drifting snow and had to kick the drifts away from the garage doors.
After twenty minutes of hard labour, I succeeded in scraping away sufficient snow to permit the doors to open and I slid my meagre rations into one of the panniers of my bike. A line of drifting snow followed me into the garage, so I hurriedly
straddled the machine and kicked it into life. It fired first time, a tribute to our police mechanics, and I guided the Francis Barnett from its cosy home. Together we braved the fierce black morning with its blanket of pure white, and it was a daunting experience.
The doors blew shut behind me and the resultant clatter must have told Mary I was on my way. The tiny machine
into the deepening snow and I hoped I knew how to cope. There’s an art in riding motor cycles in snow, and it is an art acquired painfully by many years of falling off or skidding into ditches. By use of gears, feet, body weight and accelerator, it is a marvellous experience to safely negotiate a well-tuned motor cycle through heavy drifts, up and down slippery slopes, past other vehicles and across wide expanses of virgin snow. But there was no guarantee I would achieve any of those aims.
Sometimes I stood on the footrests to allow the bucking, slithering machine to perform its gyrations beneath me, and at other times I lifted my feet off the rests and carried them slightly above the surface of the road, to keep me upright if the wheels decided to travel away from me. Surprisingly, my bike and I remained upright.
I moved steadily and enjoyably through the falling snow. The headlight picked out weird and grotesque shapes among the drifts, the heavily clad conifers, the smothered hedgerows and the undulations of the highway. But I was alone, so utterly alone among virgin snow, and knew care was vital. My exertions in maintaining both movement and balance made me perspire heavily beneath the heavy clothing, and by the time I reached Ashfordly Police Station, I was lovely and warm from my five-mile struggle against the best of winter snow. The fact that I was warm made the journey less onerous.
I parked my precious machine against the office wall and entered the welcoming brightness. A flickering fire glowed in the grate and the place reeked of warmth and cosiness. I stood in the entrance and Sergeant Blaketon bawled,
“Get out, Rhea! Look at you …”
I looked. I was caked in white. In spite of the windscreen, my motor cycle suit was frozen solid with a thick layer of crusty snow and my unshaven face bore icicles in abundance. But
already, the heat was making them melt, and they began to drip on his clean, polished floor.
I went outside and jumped up and down to try and shake off my winter coat and managed to dislodge some of it. Then I re-entered and in the porch, removed my suit, managing to drop lumps of snow all over the door mat.
“You’re late,” said Sergeant Blaketon as I entered anew.
“I had to dig my way out of the garage, sergeant, and the road down here is full of drifts and is treacherous in places.”
“Then you should have set off earlier. I do not like shoddy timekeeping, Rhea. You should plan ahead.”
“Sorry, sergeant,” I said, knowing better than to argue with him.
There was no one else in the office and I wondered if I was the only participant in this curious enterprise. I went behind the counter to look in my docket and there was no correspondence, but Sergeant Blaketon had vanished into his own sanctum.
“Come in here,” he bellowed, and I obeyed.
I stood smartly by the side of his desk and he handed me an envelope. It was a small buff one with my name neatly typed on the front and it had the word SECRET in red ink across the top. If this was a red-ink job, it must be important.
“Open it, Rhea.” He smiled fleetingly.
I did. Inside was a piece of paper with SECRET splashed in red across the top. It was addressed to me in person.
I read it most carefully, for I’d never read a secret document before. It told me to report to Sergeant Blaketon at Ashfordly Police Station at 6 am today.
I looked at him, and he looked at me.
“It says I’ve got to report to you, sergeant,” I said foolishly.
“Yes, well, here you are and you have reported.” He saw nothing odd about this initial encounter, for his rule-bound mind never looked for the odd or the strange. He obeyed orders and never questioned them.