A six-part story written for TCW Defending Freedom
2 – A stone of peculiar shape
THE next morning Barkwright met the Appleshaws on the way down to breakfast. ‘Thank heavens the storm has blown over,’ said Mrs Appleshaw, who had slept badly and beguiled her insomnia with a crossword. Barkwright agreed and, still enjoying the fact that they had not recognised him, invited them to join his table, never expecting they would acquiesce.
‘I always have kippers on the first morning in any English hotel,’ he said cheerfully as they perused the menu. Borys, in his other role as a waiter, informed him that kippers were ‘off’.
‘So many traditional items are falling off menus,’ said Mrs Appleshaw gloomily. ‘We wanted Brown Windsor soup at the Cosmopolitan in Brighton but they didn’t know what it was.’ Barkwright facetiously asked what year the Appleshaws had asked for Brown Windsor soup, adding: ‘Nineteen fifty-five, perhaps?’ Most people would not have got away with that, but Barkwright managed it with ease: the Appleshaws smiled. Barkwright prided himself on getting away with things.
After breakfast he went for a walk in the weak sunshine. When he reached the end of the Leas he turned down a path and soon emerged on to the beach. The day was clear and he could see the coast of France as a faint grey line. He turned over the previous evening’s conversation and still felt a little ashamed of himself for lecturing two good old types like the Appleshaws. Yet he still felt he was right to point out these things to people locked into traditional forms of thinking. He noticed that the storm had thrown a lot of shingle up the beach. He kicked a stone along and then another. He reached the pier. The tide was out, so he decided to walk under it. It might, he thought, prove to be a good place to shoot some to-camera stuff.
Doghampton Pier is rather wide and so despite the sunshine it was dingy underneath. Barkwright stopped for a moment to look at the lines of iron pillars running down to the sea. Yes, he thought again, this would be a great little spot for filming. He picked his way over reeking seaweed, and thought of suitably gloomy things to say in his programme: ‘Imagine the disgraced wife or maid, driven from the comfort of her home for breaking some rigid patriarchal code of conduct, shivering under here like the unfortunate woman in Augustus Egg’s triptych Past and Present . . .’ It was as Barkwright smiled at this and made a mental note to add it to his script that he half-stumbled into a crater. ‘The storm must have scoured out the shingle,’ he thought. He was about to walk on when something caught his eye at the bottom of the crater. It looked like a greenish stone of peculiar shape. Barkwright crouched down and pushed away the pebbles that surrounded it. Now he could see that the odd-shaped stone was a ring of thick metal with a diameter of about eight inches. Grasping the ring, he made to pick it up but it would not yield. His curiosity was piqued. He knelt and cleared more stones away from the ring and discovered it was attached to a square of rock. He brushed away fine shingle and noted it had some indecipherable markings on it. It could not really be a hatch, he thought, but what else could it be? Some detritus from a shipwreck, perhaps, which had moved slowly up the beach during storms across many centuries?
He had cleared a groove around the square stone and now tried pulling on the ring again as hard as he could. He felt his ageing muscles straining harder than when he was at the gym. The rock moved slightly, almost imperceptibly. ‘It is a hatch,’ Barkwright said aloud excitedly. But to what? He felt almost like a child again as his mind ranged around the possibilities. The most likely explanation was that it was to do with the pier’s engineering, or some long-forgotten entrance to storage areas beneath the esplanade. Perhaps it was concerned with the smuggling that went on in the district in the 18th century. Barkwright felt he was on to something.
There was no moving the stone. He hurried back to the hotel and found Borys polishing the counter in the bar. After some searching, Borys returned from the cellars with a crowbar and Barkwright walked swiftly back to the beach. He inserted the crowbar in the groove round the square, pushing it further down until he found an edge to gain purchase. He levered until he felt the stone, which must have been a foot thick, give a little more. He repeated this on all sides. With a sense of excitement and achievement he noted the hatch was now a little looser. He was sweating and panting and so rested a while. The beach was empty but for a few figures in the distance. He was impatient to find out more about this hatch and decided he would go to the library the next day and find out what they could tell him of the pier’s history. He resumed levering with the crowbar and then, with the same feeling the gardener gets when an ancient root is finally disinterred after a long struggle, there was easier movement. Barkwright grabbed the greenish handle and pulled as hard as he could. The hatch lifted. Unhinged, it fell sideways awkwardly.
Barkwright stared down.
It was a black hole. Stones round the edge fell in and he heard them landing below.
The passage was more than wide enough to allow ingress for Barkwright. He found the torch on his mobile phone and shone it down the hole. It seemed to widen into some sort of chamber. He leaned in further and peered into the gloom beyond the torchlight but could see little more than a darkish mound in the middle.
He set off back to the hotel.
To be continued.