ONE AFTERNOON IN MID MARCH, WHEN THE green-white snowdrops had blown ragged under the tangled hawthorn hedges, the pale constellations of primroses had ceased to be a novelty, and the more robust, sun-reflecting daffodils were in their heyday, an old half-timbered Traveller van drove into the village of Great Calne. There was, in fact, no other Calne, great or small, in the county of Devon; or if there ever had been, it had long since vanished into the indifferent encroachments of the moor. Great Calne stands at the edge of Dartmoor, one of the ancient tracts of land which still, in the twenty-first century, lends out its grazing free to the common people of England -- though it must be said that the 'common people' are something of a scarcity these days.
Sam Noble, out walking his bitch, Daphne, named for his mother's still-born twin sister, and having nothing better to do, watched with naked curiosity as the driver of the car negotiated the corner by the Stag and Badger -- where, thanks to the pub's garden wall, the passage was tight and drivers often came a cropper. He was mildly disappointed when nothing untoward occurred. Sam's was not an especially malicious nature, but Great Calne did not provide the thrills he had once been used to. Before his retirement, Sam had been a film director, and had had hopes of winning thePalme d'Or at Cannes with a film about women jockeys which had subsequently made waves. However, for the past five years he had lived in Great Calne, where the principal excitement was provided by Morning Claxon's plans to transform the tearooms into an alternative health centre.
There was another witness to the arrival of the car, a less obvious one. Johnny Spence had, as usual, skipped school and it wasn't safe for him to show his face till after four o'clock. During the stranger's arrival, Johnny was hiding, as was his habit, in the upper branches of a yew tree which spread its antique shade over the churchyard wall and on to the garden of the Reverend Meredith Fisher, the latest occupant of the rectory. Johnny, whose researches were thorough, knew that the lady vicar was off doing her counselling training down in Plymouth, and would not be back before six. So he was free to watch the old Morris -- which from his calculations must be worth a bit -- being brought skilfully round the corner and into the front garden of Spring Cottage, which since the death of Emily Pope had been let out by her daughter, Nicky, to holidaymakers.
Emily Pope had been dead long enough for Nicky to discover that Spring Cottage did not let easily. So far, it had been rented by a couple of families who complained about the out-of-date facilities, and the damp. One woman, from Clapham, claimed to have found toadstools. It had been something of a relief to receive a request via Nicky's new website -- www.moorvacs.co.uk --from the gentleman who had described himself as 'a writer in need of a peacefulsituation within easy walking distance of shops and pub'. Spring Cottage filled the bill nicely. Writers were notoriously careless people -- very likely this one would smoke in the bedroom, but then again he was a man, and mightn't notice that the back plates on the kitchen hob were dodgy, or that the avocado suite in the bathroom (once the pride of Emily Pope) was now badly out of fashion. Nicky, in the first flush of holiday letting, had splashed out on a Norwegian wood-burning stove, sold to her by a travelling salesman who had hinted at further attractions. These had never materialised, and the stove, prominent in the website details, filled the downstairs rooms with smoke when the wind was in the wrong direction. The Clapham woman had complained about this too; but Nadia Fawns, who ran an antiques store over in Backen, had sold Nicky a couple of convector heaters which she hoped would put paid to the heating problems.
Sam Noble, with several backward glances, had made his way with Daphne through the main street of Great Calne and up towards the moor by the time the driver came to unload the Traveller van. Only Johnny Spence was there to observe him more closely. Johnny's powers of reconnaissance were keen; had he been asked he would have described the stranger as 'a fattish old guy who looked as if he hadn't had a proper shave'. But Johnny's position on the yew bough would not have afforded a view of the newcomer's most striking feature -- a pair of eyes whose true colour was hard to discern, since they had a quality of shifting from thebrooding shades of a storm-crushed sea to the limpid freshness of a dawn sky.
It appeared that the visitor was at any rate physically strong since he emptied the Traveller in double-quick time. The contents were comparatively few: a knocked-about suitcase, a baggy holdall, a laptop computer, a rather loud-looking portable stereo and some cardboard boxes, one of which bore the name of a well-known wine store. A drinking man, at least, Colin Drover, who managed the local inn, might have remarked. The visitor had brought his own alcohol -- which might have been a disappointment to a publican. But with drink, as with so much else, inclination in one quarter usually leads to exploration of others.
And the publican's optimism would have been confirmed. When the stranger had unpacked the van, and distributed some of his belongings in the cramped interior of Spring Cottage, he strolled up the main street to the inn, paused a moment to inspect the menu displayed outside, which promised Tasty Snacks & Bar Lunches, and then pushed open the solid double doors to enter the fire-lit warmth within.
MR GOLIGHTLY'S HOLIDAY. Copyright © 2003 by Salley Vickers. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.