'Wotcher cock,' said Titchy, sitting there as if he owned the place. Which once he had, I remembered, and it did not improve my mood. His father, Tiny, had come to our back door one night in his old army coat, trying to sell us two dead rabbits. There were also two men who had been climbing up the telegraph pole when I went out.
'Where've you been?' Percy grumbled. 'Give us a hand with this fried bread.' Bacon was squirming and spitting in the other frying pan.
Dittany kept an eye on her doves when Tiny was around, for fear that they would end up as someone's pigeon pie, and worried more about Tiny than the fox getting into her ducks' house at night.
At eleven o'clock Mr Greenidge came in for his morning coffee.
'No Liesel today?' Percy asked.
'No, I'm all on my own-io. Deserted by both my good ladies. I am a bachelor.'
He winked at Percy. When we were alone, except for Peter who was perched heavily on my hip, as I had been amusing him while Betty was baking, Mr Greenidge sang softly,
'And when he thinks he's past love,
'Tis then he finds his last love,
And he loves her like no other love before.'
'Coochy-coo,' he said to Peter. 'Where's that peck of pickled pepper Peter Piper picked?'
Miss Fay was in an evil mood on the first day of term. 'Did you have a nice holiday, Miss Fay?' a goody two-shoes asked her.
'That's enough impertinence for one morning,' Miss Fay replied.
Doreen, who had not had to have her ears off, had been sent to school with a bottle of surgical spirit, to dab on her swollen lobes, which Miss Fay confiscated.
'You can have it back at the end of term,' she said.
With two of the girls in tears, Miss Fay turned on Ruby and me, and separated us. I had to sit next to a girl named Veronica Taplady, which seemed a fancy name for someone who smelled of Marmite and had warts on her hands, which bled when she scratched them. Ruby was put next to Angela Thorn who lived on a remote farm and hardly ever spoke. Her clothes were always full of burrs.
In the afternoon, Mr Reeves summoned the whole school into the dining-room. Constable Cox was with him. We quaked in fear wondering who was going to be arrested.
'Good afternoon, boys and girls.'
'Good afternoon, Mr Cox.'
'Be seated,' said Mr Reeves.
'Now children,' said Mr Cox. 'I've got something very important to say to you, so pay attention. Now, I haven't come here this afternoon to frighten you, or to take any of you off to prison. Not long ago, a little girl who lives in this village – I won't tell you her name because she doesn't go to this school – had a very nasty experience while she was playing in Tippetts wood. Fortunately, she's all right, but if any of you have seen a strange man hanging around the village or in the rec or down the meadows or anywhere at all, I want you to tell me, or tell your teacher. This is very important, so think hard. Thinking caps on. Has any stranger approached you, or have you noticed anybody behaving oddly or offering sweets to anyone? Somebody with a bicycle perhaps. Don't be afraid to speak up.'
Mr Cox waited. It was grey and solemn with sleet falling past the windows and a few whispers rustling like sweet papers.
'Take your time,' said Constable Cox.
Then Doreen's hand went up, uncurling slowly in the silence it created.
'Please sir, a man offered me a sweet.'
'When was this, Doreen?'
'Yesterday,' she whispered.
'And did you recognise him, was it somebody you know?' Constable Cox leaned forward taking off his helmet to hear better.
'Yes sir. It was Mr Boddy.'
'Mr Boddy? And where were you when this took place, Doreen?'
'At the butcher's sir. It was a fruit gum.'
Some of the class burst out laughing and then everybody was laughing and even Miss Fay's face twitched. Doreen was like a beetroot.
'All right. That's enough!'
Mr Reeves clapped his hands.
'It was very brave and sensible of Doreen to come forward like that. Now, I want you to remember what Mr Cox said and if any of you can think of anything at all unusual or suspicious or if you see any strangers with bicycles hanging around, tell your parents, tell me or Miss Fay or Miss Elsey or Mr Cox. Don't play in any lonely places by yourselves, don't speak to any strangers. If anybody offers you sweets, except Mr Boddy, of course, you must tell the nearest grown-up at once, and never ever get in a car or go anywhere with somebody you don't know.'
As we filed out I heard Constable Cox saying, 'Mind you, there must be something odd about a butcher who reports finding a turkey on his doorstep at Christmas. They don't come much stranger than that.'
By home time it was all round the school that the girl was Sorrel Marlowe. Quite a few of the mums had come to meet their children. Mr Greenidge had come to meet me. We were nearly at the Copper Kettle when we saw Betty hurrying along the road.
'Thank goodness it's you,' said to Mr Greenidge. 'I couldn't be sure at a distance. Just thought I'd pop out to see if April was on her way. There are all sorts of rumours going around.'
'I know. Mr Cox came up the school to talk to us,' I said. 'About a stranger on a bicycle.'
Then I went hot and cold and felt icy water draining from me. Rodney Pegg's angry, spotted face, framed in a balaclava, loomed in my mind, leering.
'April? What's the matter?'
They were both looking at me.
'Nothing. I just thought of something, that's all. Nothing to do with what Mr Cox said.'
My voice seemed to come from far away. I imagined Sorrel Marlowe, in her Fair Isle beret, and matching mittens, her camel coat, in a dark wood and Rodney Pegg with a nylon stocking on his head.
Mr Greenidge was scrabbling in his coat pocket and pulled out a toffee.
'Here you are, have a sweetie. "Sharp's the word", eh?'
The toffee melted in my mouth and I realised Mr Greenidge thought I was going to tell of him. He looked old and frightened, with his nose pocked by the cold and turning purple and his eyes watering as if with tears.
'What's for tea, Mum?' I said.
'Wait-and-see,' said Betty. 'Care to join us, Mr Greenidge? You're very welcome.'
'Ah, no thank you kindly, Mrs Harlency. Although wait-and-see is my favourite – my own dear mother used to make it for me when I was a boy. I've, ah, I must make a telephone call to my lady wife, I'm on the way to the telephone box in Lovers Lane. Own line out of order I'm afraid. Must report it, eh?'
The blustering old liar raised his hat.
'I've only ever seen cows down there. Lovers Lane, I mean,' said Betty.
'A trysting place of yesteryear,' said Mr Greenidge, 'A twitton of dalliance for our local swains and maidens fair, our village Romeos and Juliets. Well, I'll bid you both a very good day.'
'What a romantic soul,' said Betty. 'You can tell he's missing his wife, bless him. Why did you suddenly stop back there, as if you'd remembered something? There isn't anything you're not telling me, is there?'
'It was Rodney Pegg.'
'Rodney Pegg?' Her voice rose in disbelief. 'What do you mean, it was Rodney Pegg?'
We were indoors now, taking off our coats.
'I know it was Rodney Pegg who attacked Sorrel Marlowe. It must've been him.'
'How do you know it was Sorrel Marlowe? Nobody's supposed to know that. And what do you mean, "attacked"?'
'It's all round the school. Everybody knows.'
'Oh dear, it's all so nasty,' said Betty.
Percy was in the armchair with Peter asleep in his arms.
'What's all so nasty? That bastard, pardon my French, interfering with that little girl?'
Interfering. It sounded so rude, so knickery, so fleshy.
'April's got it into her head that it was Rodney Pegg, but how could it have been? He lives miles away, in Tooting.'
'We saw him, didn't we, Dad? He came to the tea-room and ran away when he saw Dad. And I saw him getting off a train with his bike, the day we met Professor Scoley off the train.'
They were both staring at me.
'I could have sworn it was him, but he was gone so quickly. Took one look at me and scarpered. Why would he do that? I mean to say, I know we weren't the best of friends but we never actually came to blows or anything.'
'All the Peggs hated us,' Betty said. 'People like that shouldn't have lodgers, and the state of the place! That cooker. That toilet.'
'Even so, supposing you did see Rodney, what makes you think it was him that – that – you know?'
'Because he kissed me.'
'He what? You mean you let him?'
Percy leaped up, waking Peter, who cried. I was crying too. 'Did he do anything else?'
'Shush, Percy. Here, give him to me. Why didn't you tell us, love?'
'Because he said he'd strangle me if I did, with one of your stockings,' I wept.
Percy put his arm around me.
'There, there. Hush now, it wasn't your fault.' Over my head he said, 'I'll tear him limb from limb.'
Then he said, 'Come on, sit on Daddy's lap and tell me all about it.'
'I can't. I'm too big.'
'You'll never be too big.'
I sat down, feeling dirty, wishing I'd never opened my mouth.
When I told my brief story, about Rodney fencing me against the wall of the hall with his front wheel, Percy said, 'I think I'd better go and have a word with Constable Cox, don't you? Will you be all right on your own?'
'Oh, I'll close up. Nobody's going to come in now. You can do it, April.'
Ruby was scooting down the path on her bike when I turned the sign on the door round.
'Did you cycle through the village on your own?' Betty accused her.
'Yes. Why? I've got lights on my bike.'
'You two keep an eye on Peter while I get the tea. Put the wireless on. Let's have a bit of entertainment,' Betty said.
Later that evening Constable Cox called round.
'Did he say anything to you, this Rodney Pegg?' he asked,
'No. He just sort of – glared.'
'And he threatened you, did he, back in Tooting? Said he'd strangle you, were those his very words?'
I was squirming with shame. I felt like a criminal, with Constable Cox in our room, his uniform, asking embarrassing questions in front of Betty and Percy.
'You've got the address then, sir?' he asked Percy, who wrote down the Peggs' name and address on a leaf torn from his ledger.
'This will all be kept strictly confidential, madam,' he told Betty, 'With regard to the information. I'll keep you posted. Thank you very much April, you've been most helpful. Don't worry… if young Pegg is our man, we'll soon have him behind bars.'
Then he became informal for a few minutes while he drank a cup of tea. 'Be seeing you, Jim,' said Percy when he showed him out.
'I'm going up to my room' I said.
'All right love. Do you want a bath a bit later?'
So they thought I was dirty too. Now I would rather die than tell them about Mr Greenidge.
'But I had one last night.'
'I know, I just thought it might be – soothing, relaxing. You can use one of my bath cubes.'
I lingered on the stairs long enough to hear Percy say, 'If I get my hands on Pegg he'll wish he was behind bars. I've a good mind to go up to London right now.'
'I'd come with you, if I could. That filthy little swine, I'd tear him limb from limb myself. Best leave it to the police though, for now. I expect they'll contact Scotland Yard.'
I was frightened by their voices, full of hate. They didn't sound like my parents any more. I imagined Rodney pulled apart like a pink doll, his arms and legs wrenched off like tearing cloth. Or behind bars, in a suit of broad arrows, shaking them, whimpering and gibbering like a monkey at the zoo.
I lay on my bed reading Black Beauty. I knew I would never get over the death of poor Ginger either.
Three uneasy days passed before Jim Cox came back. 'Well, have they arrested him?' Betty demanded.
'I'm afraid not, Betty. The local boys made a thorough investigation and it seems that young Pegg's got a cast-iron alibi for the day in question. I'm sorry.'
'I don't effing believe it,' said Percy.
'They ought to call in the Yard,' said Betty.
'I can assure you that won't be necessary,' Constable Cox said stiffly.
'So they're just going to let the bugger cycle round the countryside assaulting little girls, are they? I've a good mind to sort him out myself.'
'It's never a good idea to take the law into your own hands, sir.'
'Don't sir me, Jim. How would you feel if it was one of your kids? What about my little girl, what he did to her?'
'It would be difficult to make a charge stick on that one, Percy. Given the passage of time and the nature of the alleged assault, and it would be April's word against his.'
'Oh, alleged is it now?' Betty said. 'She was terrified of him. She was sleeping with a kitchen knife under her pillow.'
If I could have crawled under the table, I would have.
'If he so much as shows his spotty face round here again, I'll have him. I'll knock his effing block off! What's his flaming alibi then? It'd better be good.'
'Rodney Pegg was in bed all day with the flu. Both his parents can vouch for him, and we have the unbiased corroboration of two lodgers.'
'I bet,' said Percy bitterly.
'Unbiased, my eye,' Betty put in. 'What about that attack on Charmaine Vinnegar last year then? Did they ever catch the bloke who did that?'
'Between you, me and the gatepost the Police are taking the Vinnegar incident with a pinch of salt. I do understand how you feel. As you say, I'm a parent myself, but barking up the wrong tree with this one isn't going to catch the real culprit, is it? And as long as he's at large, well…'
'Did they check his tyres, for mud and leaf mould and suchlike? Has he got one of those things, a wotsitsname, that counts the miles?' Percy made a last attempt to get Rodney Pegg behind bars.
'I shouldn't go playing detective if I were you, Percy. Leave it to the professionals.'
To be continued...