Thu
Sep 7 2017 9:00am

Frances Brody Excerpt: Death at the Seaside

Frances Brody

Death at the Seaside by Frances Brody is the eighth book in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series—an intricate, absorbing plot that captures the atmosphere and language of 1920s England (available September 12, 2017).

Nothing ever happens in August, and tenacious sleuth Kate Shackleton deserves a break.

Heading off for a long-overdue holiday to Whitby, she visits her school friend Alma who works as a fortune teller there. Kate had been looking forward to a relaxing seaside sojourn, but upon arrival discovers that Alma's daughter Felicity has disappeared, leaving her mother a note and the pawn ticket for their only asset: a watch-guard.

What makes this more intriguing is the jeweler who advanced Felicity the thirty shillings is Jack Phillips, Alma's current gentleman friend.

Kate can't help but become involved, and goes to the jeweler's shop to get some answers. When she makes a horrifying discovery in the back room, it becomes clear that her services are needed. Met by a wall of silence by town officials, keen to maintain Whitby's idyllic façade, it's up to Kate - ably assisted by Jim Sykes and Mrs. Sugden—to discover the truth behind Felicity's disappearance.

And they say nothing happens in August...

One

On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Felicity Turner made a plan. From then on, everything fed into The Plan, Felicity’s Plan. On her birthday, a guinea postal order arrived from her godmother and a Scottish five pound note from her father. She put the money in her savings bank book. Added to the existing balance of two shillings and ninepence, this gave her six pounds, three shillings and ninepence towards The Plan.

When the weather turned fine, something else happened. Brendan Webb – they had been courting since Christmas – began to work on that boat in his spare time: the Doram, owned by the jeweller. Felicity walked up to Sandsend to watch and to help a bit when it came to painting. It was a fine boat, bigger than most of the fishermen’s cobles, and it had an engine as well as sails.

The jeweller, Mr Philips, said that Brendan could take the boat out when she was seaworthy.

The two things came together: Felicity’s Plan and the boat. She would go find her dad. Brendan said he would help her.

Her dad’s first picture postcard had arrived before Felicity learned to read joined-up writing. The looping large lines on the stamp side of the card looked like scribbles. When she asked her mother to read the card again, and again, and again, her mother turned snappy. ‘I’m here. He isn’t.’

Felicity knew the truth. ‘You sent him away.’

Eventually, she learned to read her father’s untidy scrawl. She saw now, looking back, that Walter Turner had never taken account of her age. In a way, that pleased her. On two cards he forgot to write Dad. He signed himself Walter. Three times he signed W Turner.

The cards, which she kept in a chocolate box, came from the Flowery Island of Madeira; the Jewel of Portugal’s Coast; Glorious Cape Town; Boston (no adjectives) and Dublin’s Fair City. When the more recent postcards came, starting two years ago, she saw that Walter Turner’s travels had finally brought him within reach. He might come home.

He did not come home, but remained within reach.

Felicity had never forgotten how the sun changed the colour of her dad’s hair as she rode on his shoulders. She remembered his looming shape when he kissed her goodnight, the smell of shaving soap and the silky touch of his blue cravat. Her favourite thing was the leather case that held brushes and comb along with a silver-plated box for a tablet of Imperial Leather soap, a shaving stick and a strop to sharpen the razor – the razor not to be touched. Her dad often laughed. Once he told her that life could be so amusing you just had to laugh.

She kept two photographs in the chocolate box along with the postcards. One photograph showed the three of them, taken in the photographer’s studio, Dad sitting on the chair with Felicity, age three, on his lap, Mam standing beside them, her hand on his shoulder. Felicity saw now that he was old, even then he was old, and her mother young. The other photo was just Felicity and her dad. She was about six, and scowling. They were by the harbour, with a ship in the background. She used to believe he had gone away because she scowled.

He had come back three times since then, in the night. Each time, her mother told her that she had been asleep and dreamed his visit. That wasn’t so. He kissed her forehead. He kissed her cheek. He slipped away like a shadow, like a ghost.

It was time to find him and bring him home, especially since her mother had become too friendly with the jeweller. She acted as if Felicity’s dad would never come back.

Two

There’s a moment when one realises that the horizon is no longer a joining of sky and land. It’s the sea. The first glimpse of the sea always lifts my spirits as if suddenly I’ve returned to more carefree times. I had no distinct notion of which road I should take to find my way to the Royal Hotel, but by following my nose and some sliver of memory, I found myself on Whitby’s West Cliff – just where I needed to be.

I stopped the car outside the hotel, taking off my motoring goggles and blinking into the light of a glorious day. Sun glinted on the North Sea that shone almost blue as it reflected the summer sky. Leaving the car, I crossed the road and walked a few yards south, for a good view of the River Esk as it flowed into the sea between the two piers. Red-roofed houses climbed the cliffside. The ruined abbey stood proudly defiant. Beside it, the old parish church of St Mary gave off an air of dignified sympathy. Whitby. Some irresistible attraction had drawn so many people to this end-of-the-world town hemmed in by the sea at its front and the wild moors behind. This was a lucky place for me, where I met my husband Gerald. We were young and had no notion that a war would come, and part us forever. We had walked together along the cliffs and on the shore, fell in love, chose my engagement and wedding rings. Captain Cook still surveyed his domain, his statue placed so that he looks out not to sea but towards the estuary.

Black’s Guide to Yorkshire will tell you that Whitby is a town of much antiquity but little historical importance and that it owes its origin to the abbey founded in the seventh century by Oswy, King of Northumbria. For me Whitby is a place of happy memories. That’s what I might recapture: the carelessness of being young, of having a future so vague and amorphous that it seemed like a dream, or a tale from some long-ago story. I had toppled into love. More miraculous still, the toppling was mutual.

Feeling fragile after recent events which need not concern us here, it seemed to me just the spot for recuperation. In Whitby, one can be alone and yet feel connected to the whole world. Once, whaling ships docked here. Now, fishing boats bobbed on the horizon, as they had for centuries. On the beach below, children played in the sand and took splashing steps into the waves. Bathing tents formed a line across the shore, some white, others gaily striped. I took out binoculars for a closer look. A woman, baby in her arms, sat on a chair made of solidly packed sand, her parasol wedged into the arm of the sand-chair.

I felt suddenly lighter, and ready for anything, as I turned and walked across to the imposing, white-painted clifftop Royal Hotel that would be my haven for the next two weeks. The elderly doorman greeted me, took my car keys and said he would fetch in hand luggage and hatbox. My trunk had come ahead of me, by rail.

The place really did have an atmosphere of quiet refinement, just as advertised. The spacious entrance, high, ornate ceiling supported by grand pillars and a sense of hushed efficiency was just as I remembered. An immediate difference between now and back then was apparent at the reception desk. The man on duty was instantly recognisable as a former soldier, his face lined and pinched. The empty left sleeve of his jacket was neatly tucked into the pocket – one more living reminder of what we had experienced. It was brave and perhaps wise of the hotel management to put him on show. It’s over. We’ve come through.

‘Hello. I’m Mrs Shackleton and I’m booked here for a fortnight.’ Just saying the words lifted my spirits.

A month ago, Mr Sykes, Mrs Sugden and I held a confab. We agreed that nothing ever happens in August and we might as well shut up shop and go away. Like the Wakes Week, when mills and factories and whole towns have a complete shut-down. It so happened that we all decided on the east coast for our well-earned rest. Mrs Sugden would pay a visit to her cousin in Scarborough. Mr Sykes and his family are in the habit of staying in Robin Hood’s Bay, a fishing village a few miles south of Whitby.

The receptionist gave his best attempt at a smile. ‘Welcome to the Royal, Mrs Shackleton. Have you stayed with us before?’

‘Yes, but a long time ago.’

He looked for my name on his list. As he did so, I read the discreet notices boasting of the grand concert to be given by Frank Gomez and the Municipal Orchestra, and the Saturday dance with Howard Jones’s Dance Band in ‘the only ballroom in Whitby with a spring floor’. A spring floor. I imagined green linoleum strewn with buttercups and daisies.

He followed my gaze. ‘We have dancing partners for both ladies and gentlemen. The dances are very popular. Everyone enjoys them.’

I wondered if the ‘everyone’ included himself. Probably not. He seemed a kind man and I guessed he might make an effort to make widows, spinsters and old soldiers especially welcome. I would no longer let myself think that thought: Did you ever meet Gerald Shackleton? Did you serve with him?

As he reached for my key, I asked, ‘Have you a telegram form?’

‘Yes and we can send it for you.’ He took out a form from the drawer. ‘Would you like to write it in the library?’

‘It’s very short. I’ll do it here if I may.’

‘Of course.’ He handed me a pen.

‘Thank you.’

My promised message to Mother was brief:

Arrived safely Kate

She had worried, advising me to travel by train and not drive through the wild moors. I reminded her that people further north than Wakefield long ago stopped painting themselves with woad, and that I would drive by way of York and Malton, all very civilised. Besides, driving is part of the enjoyment.

I handed the telegram to the receptionist.

‘It’ll go within the half hour.’ He turned to the cubby holes that lined the wall. ‘And this letter was left for you earlier.’

I recognised the handwriting. It was from my school friend, Alma, who lives in Whitby. I am godmother to her daughter, Felicity.

The receptionist tapped the bell for a porter. When the porter did not straight away appear, he said, ‘Let me take you up, Mrs Shackleton. You have a lovely room on the first floor, with a sea view.’

He stepped from behind the counter and with his one good hand picked up both my valise and hat box. ‘This way!’

We climbed to the first floor. I unlocked the door on a large airy room. I was clumsy in getting to my purse and he waved away my attempt to tip him. ‘I hope you enjoy your stay.’ He smiled and was gone.

What is it about the seaside that one must look out to sea? I immediately went to the bay window. Watching the waves felt so soothing. I had come to the right place and looked forward to exploring. Even the weather looked set fair.

A young chambermaid tapped on the door, asking might she help me unpack. Normally I like to do for myself, but she had a nice smile and a willing air. Perhaps she needed the tip. I said yes, and asked her name.

She unfastened the trunk. ‘Hilda, madam.’

‘Are you named for St Hilda of the abbey?’

She laughed. ‘If I am, it was a big mistake according to my mam, and I wished I wasn’t, because who wants to be named for a saint?’

‘Hilda’s a nice name.’

She lifted out my pleated silk Delphos robe and gave it a shake. ‘Aye well, could be worse. At least I’m not named after one who succeeded Lady Hilda, Edelfled Saxon Princess.’

Hilda’s turn of phrase reminded me of Whitby people’s tendency to disdain the definite article. ‘Edelfled became a ghost, you know.’ She placed the robe on a hanger, changed her mind because of its length and folded it carefully.

I love the rich colours of the Delphos tunic, turquoise, purple and orange, and have the habit of bringing it on holiday, even when there may be no opportunity to wear it. It was bought in Paris in 1908 by my mother’s sister, Aunt Bertha, and carries its colourful history in every fibre.

Being here alone I would dine in the hotel each evening, starting with a cocktail so as to appear devil-may-care, not minding that I am solitary and looking forward only to a stroll on the pier and a good read after supper, though I had not brought a good book – only a couple of detective novels. But perhaps Gilbert K Chesterton was right to say that next to authentic goodness in a book – and that alas! we never find – we desire a rich badness.

As Hilda hung up coats and dresses and I unpacked toiletries, we chatted. She is from a seafaring family and lives in a cottage in one of the yards across the river.

‘You should take a look about there, madam. To me real Whitby is east side.’

‘I’m looking forward to exploring, so I’ll take your tip.’

‘Do you want a cup of tea fetching?’

‘No, thank you. I’m going to stretch my legs and find a café.’

I changed into my voile dress and coat, the colour of sky and sand. Hilda retrieved my hat with its matching band. I left her to continue unpacking, giving her a shilling tip, which pleased her mightily.

I made my way back downstairs and went into the library to read the note from Alma. As I remembered, this room had an entirely different feel to any other room in the hotel. It held a deep sense of calm that would quiet the most agitated spirit. There was no one in there. Books and jigsaw puzzles remained undisturbed. I sat in a comfortable chair, looking out onto the narrow balcony and across to the sea.

Even though I have the incomparable Mrs Sugden as housekeeper, as long as one is at home there is always some domestic niggle; a bill to pay, a letter to answer, a neighbour or friend to speak to, a favour to return. Being on holiday is a great release from obligations.

The rather breathless note was a postscript to the letter from Alma that had arrived a couple of days ago.

Dear Kate, I forgot to say – when you are settled, come to the pier that is where you’ll find me. Steel yourself for a surprise. Here is a clue: halfway along – pepper pot!!

Your affectionate friend,

Alma

The silly note made me smile. Did Alma think we were still schoolgirls? It would be good to meet up with her again. Most of all I looked forward to seeing my lovely goddaughter. Over the past ten years, she had spent regular holidays with me in ‘the big city’, with lots of outings. Alma had put her on the train in Scarborough and I had met her in Leeds. Now that she was working for her living, I would not see so much of her. Felicity is very special to me and has been since I held her in my arms on the day of her christening.

 

Copyright © 2017 Frances Brody.

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Frances Brody is the author of the Kate Shackleton mysteries. She lives in the North of England, where she was born and grew up. Frances started her writing life in radio, with many plays and short stories broadcast by the BBC. She has also written for television and theater. Before turning to crime, she wrote sagas, winning the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin award for most regionally evocative debut saga of the millennium.

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