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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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BOOK: Petrella at 'Q'
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“We’ve come too far,” said Petrella. “If they did go in here, the current would have carried them a lot farther down. We’ll go back.”

At the point where East Bank Street turned through a right angle and ran along the river there was a gate in the wall which they had overlooked, with a board on the wall beside it. The lettering was weather-worn and was difficult to read.

“The Church of St. Barnabas, Lower Dock. Holy Communion on Sundays at 8 a.m. Evensong at 6.30 p.m.” And underneath, “Arthur Sabine M.A., Rector.”

“Good Lord. Yes,” said Petrella. “That’s old Sabine’s church. Let’s have a look at it.”

They pushed open the gate, which had neither lock nor bolt, and saw in front of them, on the rising ground, at the point where the Creek ran into the river, a space of well-mown grass and in the middle of it a small, neat building topped by a disproportionately high spire. The construction was red brick, weathered to the colour of old burgundy, with ashlar-work corners.

“One of Wren’s pupils, wouldn’t you say?” said Milo.

“My knowledge of church architecture is as slight as I guess yours is,” said Petrella coldly. “Anyone who put up a church in these parts three hundred years ago would be certain to copy Wren.”

“Some of it isn’t three hundred years old,” said Milo, unabashed. “That ashlar work’s been renewed lately. Must have been an expensive job. Good endowments, do you think?”

“Or a generous congregation,” said Petrella.

The west door swung easily on its hinges. There was nothing dim and religious about the interior. The word which came into Petrella’s head was “ship-shape”. The windows, which had evidently suffered in the Blitz, were plain glass with a few coloured lozenges let into them. Through them, the afternoon sun glinted on the brasswork and was reflected from the well-polished woodwork of the pews. Some of the memorial tablets on the walls were old, but the armorial devices and the lettering had been freshly picked out in black and scarlet and gold.

“I hope that the brightness of the colouring does not offend you.”

The Reverend Sabine had come in very quietly. His appearance matched his church. His white hair was neatly brushed, his face glowing with a serenity which was firm and secure but not soft.

“I had an expert here from Winchester recently. He persuaded me that the tablets and effigies in our churches were originally all brightly and cheerfully coloured. By the time the colours wore off, people had forgotten what they once looked like. Or perhaps they associated bright colours with Roman Catholicism. At all events, they let them fade. An epitome of our lives, wouldn’t you say? When we are young, everything is bright. As we grow older, things turn to grey.”

Petrella said, “I like the colours very much, sir. I like the whole church. Is it very old?”

“It was built in 1670.”

“By a pupil of Wren’s,” said Milo hopefully.

“Certainly not. By the master himself. Do you remember that poem – the one which suggested that Wren sited his churches so that ships coming up river could see—how does the line go? ‘A coronal cluster of steeples tall’. I’m certain that’s why he chose this precise spot. Our spire may not be tall, but it must have been one of the first which the sailors saw.”

“This has always been a seafaring parish?”

“Indeed yes. Many quite well-known sailors are laid to rest here. You are interested in local history?”

Petrella said, “I think I ought to introduce myself.” He did so.

“Do I gather that you are here on business?”

Petrella explained what had brought them there. The Reverend Sabine said, “What you suggest is perfectly possible. I never lock the gate, or the church for that matter. It sounds risky, but in fact I have never lost anything.” He was leading the way out as he spoke. “The boys could have run straight down the lawn here, past my boat-house – that, incidentally, I
do
lock up – and dived straight into the river. If they are local boys, I don’t doubt they can swim like fishes. They spend half the summer in and out of the water.”

The bank of the river had been built up here against the winter floods and was capped with a flat wall of stone.

“At half past four this morning the tide would have been just on the ebb. There’d have been another two foot of water. It would have been a safe dive for a boy.”

“I expect that’s what happened,” said Petrella. “It would fit in well with the point they were picked up at. Thank you very much. I’ll come back some time and have a proper look at your church, sir.”

“You’ll be very welcome,” said the Reverend Sabine.

As they were walking back up East Bank Street, Milo said, in a voice which he tried to keep carefully noncommittal, “I suppose you noticed, sir—?”

“If you mean,” said Petrella, “that the Reverend Sabine seemed to know the time the boys dived into the river, a point which I had
not
mentioned—”

“That’s it, sir. Didn’t you think it was odd—?”

“I didn’t think it odd at all. I imagine that everyone in this neck of the woods knows exactly what happened last night. Every detail of it. You have to remember that Lower Dock is not simply a neighbourhood or a parish. It’s a family.”

The red-haired young lady suspended her bossing of the hopscotch players long enough to catch his eye and wink at him.

 

Barry and Rex were drinking in the private bar at the back of the East Indiaman. They were as pleased with themselves as any two young men who had done a good night’s work for which, in due course, they would receive a fair reward. They had both had a number of drinks, but neither of them was drunk.

“Christ,” said Rex. “Here comes Soapy. What does
he
want?”

A small thin man, with the look of a bookmaker’s runner, was pushing through the crowd towards them.

“Pretend we’re not here,” said Barry. He swung his chair round and presented a broad back. Soapy was not upset. He annexed a third chair, dragged it to their table and sat down.

“I want to talk to you, boys,” he said.

“We’re not boys,” said Barry. “We’re girls in drag.”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said Rex, “accosting two young ladies in a public house.”

“I’ve been brought up respectable,” said Barry, “and I intend to stay that way. Now you are here, could you lend me a touch of powder for my nose, dearie?”

Soapy said, “Very funny.” He didn’t sound amused. “That was a nice job someone pulled at Plowmans last night. I see in the papers he claims he lost twenty thousand quid’s worth of stuff. Mind you, I expect he’s laying it on a bit, for the insurers.”

“I expect he is,” said Barry. “Why are we supposed to be interested?”

“I thought you might be, seeing I happened to be down East Bank Street early this morning and saw you two run past.”

“That’s right,” said Rex. “We often take an early morning run. We’re in training for the Olympics.”

“And I suppose you always run carrying a couple of bloody great satchels each.”

“It’s part of the training schedule,” said Barry, but his eyes were wary.

“The same as your early morning swim – like you told the fuzz when they picked you up.”

“That’s right,” said Rex. “It’s a special pentathlon event. The other three events are putting the weight, tossing the caber and kicking people who butt in where they aren’t wanted.”

As he said this, he shifted his chair slightly away from the table.

Soapy said, “There’s no point in getting tough. I know what you done with that stuff. I want it. I’ll give you a fair price for it. But I’m going to have it.”

“Just suppose,” said Rex, “for the sake of argument I mean, just suppose we had any idea what you were talking about, and just suppose we told you to get stuffed.”

“I don’t think you mean that.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you took that attitude, I’d feel obliged to go and see the gent concerned myself. Of course, I’d have to say I got the tip from you. I don’t think he’d be best pleased.”

The two boys looked at each other, and then rose simultaneously to their feet. Soapy shifted his chair back. He didn’t think they were going to attack him, but his right hand was on the taped hilt of a knife which lived in a leather sheath strapped to the outside of his right leg and which could be drawn quickly through his trouser pocket.

The boys seemed more amused than angry. Rex said, “Why don’t you do that?” Barry said, “I’m sure you’ll forgive us if we push off now. Athletes like us have to get to bed in good time.”

Soapy sat staring after them. His suggestion ought to have scared them. He was worried that they should simply have been amused.

 

The Reverend Sabine answered the bell himself and stood gazing down enquiringly at his visitor.

“My name’s Lidgett,” said Soapy. “You don’t know me.”

“Are you the one the boys call Soapy?”

“Some of them do. It’s a sort of nickname.”

“I didn’t imagine that it was your baptismal name,” said the Rector. “What can I do for you, Mr. Lidgett?”

“I wanted to have a word with you.”

“I have fifteen minutes to spare before the monthly committee meeting of the Women’s Institute.”

“That should be enough,” said Soapy.

He followed the Rector into his study. The open spaces between the bookcases were crammed with photographs. One of them showed a much younger Sabine pulling an oar in a racing eight.

“Oxford, many years ago,” said the Rector. “Won’t you sit down.”

Soapy perched himself on the edge of one of the upright chairs and cleared his throat. He found some difficulty in beginning. However sure you may be of your facts, it is difficult to accuse an ordained clergyman of being the head and organiser of a ring which exports stolen goods.

The Reverend Sabine gave him no help. He listened impassively to what Soapy had to say. When he had finished, he said, “You seem to have been telling yourself some extraordinary story, Mr. Lidgett. What do you propose to do next?”

“I can tell you what I’m
not
going to do – unless I have to. I’m not running off to the police.”

“I asked you what you
were
going to do,” said the Reverend Sabine gently. “Not what you weren’t.”

“I’ve got a proposition. You cut me in for twenty per cent and I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“I call that very generous,” said the Reverend Sabine. As he spoke, he was unlocking the drawer of his desk. Soapy wondered what he was looking for. It tinned out to be an indexed notebook.

As he turned over the pages he said, “I’ve been a very long time in and around South London parishes. My first living was at the Elephant. Then I had a spell farther east at Catford. Then I ended up here. All rough areas. I enjoyed every one of them. And I made a lot of good friends.” His fingers seemed to have settled on the letter ‘P’. “Peddie. That was the one I was looking for.”

“You know Jim Peddie?” said Soapy. There was a very slight catch in his voice.

“Jim’s the younger brother. The one I was thinking of was Peter Peddie. The one they called Peter the Painter.”

The Reverend Sabine had found the number he wanted and reached for the telephone.

“Look,” said Soapy. “I think maybe you didn’t quite understand what I was getting at.”

“I understood you perfectly,” said the Reverend Sabine. “You wanted to cut yourself in for a fifth share of some illegal profits you imagine I am making, and were threatening to report me to the police unless I co-operated. Am I right?”

“I didn’t offer no threats,” said Soapy. His voice was agitated.

“It sounded very like one. Oh—is that you Lisa. Father Sabine here. Is Peter with you? I see. And I could contact him there this evening? How is everything with you? I was sorry to hear about Ronnie. Yes, I saw it in the papers. Come over and have a cup of tea and we’ll talk about it.”

He listened for a few moments to what the woman at the other end was saying and then replaced the receiver. Soapy was staring at him with a look of fascinated disbelief.

“Was that Mother Peddie you were talking to?”

“That’s right. I shall be having a word with Peter this evening.”

Soapy passed a tongue over lips which seemed suddenly to have gone dry.

“What are you going to tell him?”

“I shall tell him,” said the Reverend Sabine, without any trace of humour in his voice, “that you have been annoying me. That sounds like Mrs. Partridge and the committee of the Women’s Institute. I’m afraid you’ll have to go now, Mr. Lidgett.”

 

“I’ve had an idea,” said Detective Sergeant Roughead. “Suppose Captain Crabtree was a real person.”

“The idea had occurred to me,” said Petrella. “And we got the checkers at Central on to it. It was complicated by the fact that ‘Captain’ could be a military or a naval title. To say nothing of the fact that lots of people call themselves ‘Captain’ without any real right to do so. They made a pretty fair job of it. There wasn’t anyone round here who fitted in remotely with the sort of person we’re looking for.”

“Suppose he’s dead.”

“If he’s dead, he can’t be running a smuggling racket.”

“It was just an idea I had.”

“If you have ideas like that,” said Petrella, “you work at them in your own time. Try the Free Library. It’s got a useful section on local history.

 

When he left his house in the Cut that morning Soapy Lidgett had an uncomfortable experience. He spotted a business acquaintance on the other side of the street and hailed him. He was certain that the man heard him, but instead of coming across to talk, he dived down a side street and disappeared. Another man whom Soapy had met brushed straight past, apparently without seeing him.

Matters came to a head in the East Indiaman, when he went in for his midday drink. There was a party of four men, with half-filled glasses, seated at a table at the far end of the room. Soapy walked across to join them. One of the men saw him coming and said something. All four gulped down their drinks, rose to their feet and departed without a word.

Soapy was so upset that he left without ordering a drink for himself. He had an uncomfortable feeling that if he had done so the landlord might have refused to serve him.

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