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Low life

Murder capital

Jeremy Clarke reports on his Low Life

6 January 2010

12:00 AM

6 January 2010

12:00 AM

‘Chair,’ said the free ad in the local paper. ‘Wing backed. Fireproof. As new. Never been sat in. £25.’ I rang the number and the owner suggested I went round and had a look at it right away. He sounded elderly and a bit desperate.

The address he gave was a modest bungalow in the village. Five minutes later I was pressing on his doorbell. I didn’t know him. The interior of his bungalow was in a terrible mess. The furniture was piled in heaps rather than arranged for use. A nest of blankets on a leather sofa indicated his sleeping place. The carpet was strewn with old letters, photographs, bills. It was difficult not to tread on them.

He was in the process of moving out, he explained, as he steered me through the piles to where the chair was. His wife had suddenly died, he said, and he was selling up and going to live in the Midlands to be near their only daughter.

Here we go, I thought. Another desperate pensioner dragging in his dead wife as part of his sales pitch. ‘You didn’t kill her, did you?’ I said.

He showed his appreciation of my little joke with a thin smile. For we’ve had another murder in the village. Another elderly woman has been done to death and another octagenarian male has been taken quietly into police custody. It’s like living in an episode of Midsomer Murders. Police cars parked everywhere. Local television news cameramen swaddled from head to foot in the latest outdoor clothing technology loitering self-consciously outside the victim’s home. And everyone rather thrilled to see our familiar houses and telegraph poles appearing on the local television news once more.

It’s the second murder in three years. A lot, you might say, for a small cliff-top village comprised mainly of the retired and the retiring. But village life being what it is, doubtless there have been others which have gone unnoticed and unpunished.

Twenty years ago I lived in another small village where, in the course of a few years, our next-door neighbour killed her husband, made two determined attempts on her lover’s life, and burnt down a friend’s chocolate-box thatched cottage, with the friend in it, before making off with her fur coats and her West Highland White terriers. She was a tiny woman: plausible, charming, intelligent. Nobody in authority — least of all the police — seemed remotely interested in getting to the bottom of any of it and she carried on as if nothing had happened. Finally she committed suicide and her lover, an ex-Wren, who was painfully shy and retiring before the attacks, and even more so afterwards, but who had slowly taken us into her confidence, confirmed our every suspicion.

But, still, two murders in three years in a village as small as ours is not bad going, earning us the coveted label of murder capital of the South Hams. Whether it was this that prompted the Clerk of South Hams District Council to write unexpectedly to our parish council, or not, I daren’t say. At any rate, he or she was concerned enough about our descent into atavism to caution us that we might be heading for a fate worse than death itself.

In his letter to the parish council, the Clerk, on behalf of South Hams District Council, urged councillors to ‘actively dissuade’ parishioners from voting for the British National Party. Anyone voting for the BNP must be obviously suffering from ‘a lack of understanding’, he said. That is because the British National Party ‘espouses values that include or imply bigotry, prejudice or bias’.

The parish council immediately wrote back saying that such a letter was ‘totally out of the remit of local authority’ and ‘a waste of taxpayers’ money’. But I for one was heartened to know that my local authority is so determined to take a stand for impartiality.

The chair, when he removed the cover, was a modern version of a traditional design. Floral pattern. Green. I tipped it back to look at the underside. It was unexpectedly light, almost ethereal. Then I rested my nose on it and inhaled deeply. It smelt new. ‘My wife bought it for her visitors to sit in, but she never had any. No one came. Then she draped a cover over it and here it is, never been sat in. Not even once.’ Feeling cheeky, I sat down in the chair and grasped the arms in a self-satisfied, proprietary manner. He gave me that thin smile again, then he took a step backwards, the better to see his wife’s visitors’ chair being occupied for the first time. ‘Comfortable?’ he said. ‘Very,’ I said. ‘I’ll take it.’

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