Opening Lines: The Whitstable Pearl Mystery
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Many growing up on a diet of Famous Five and Nancy Drew dreamt of being a detective. Chasing leads, solving mysteries and catching criminals has an eternal appeal for us all.
In The Whitstable Pearl Mystery, Pearl Nolan is no different. She always wanted to be a detective but
Pearl Nolan set an iced platter of Pacific rock oysters before a trio of bemused faces and wiped her wet hands on her apron. Her customers were a family, the parents in their late thirties, like Pearl
After only a few words Pearl had correctly placed their Gateshead accents, but had her customers remained silent she would still have known they were home-grown – the British had none of the brash confidence of the American tourists nor the cool sophistication of the French. The Germans and Scandinavians seemed to be always in a hurry. Either hiking or cycling, they usually ate on the hoof. But the Brits generally formed an altogether more insecure group, huddling together to investigate menus from the safety of the pavement before following the braver holidaymaker into ‘The Whitstable Pearl’ to sample Whitstable’s most famous delicacy – the oyster. The Gateshead family, however, remained firmly unimpressed, staring down at their bivalves with a stunned distaste until the daughter offered a view with which even her own parents might agree. ‘They look like snot.’
As the parents recoiled with embarrassment, Pearl
Heads turned to see Dolly approaching from the kitchen. Wearing a waxed apron emblazoned with a colourful Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pearl’s mother glided across before pausing, oyster shell in hand, as though for dramatic effect. ‘But then looks can be deceiving.’ With a deft flick of the wrist, she tipped the shell’s contents into her mouth, gave a
The family looked on, jaws dropping open, enthralled, or perhaps vaguely horrified by what they’d just
Looking back from the doorway, both women watched as ‘Dad’ summoned
A ring tone sounded a soulless ‘Für Elise’ and summoned Pearl to the kitchen. There, she searched for her mobile beneath cloth bags containing fresh shrimp and mussels while Dolly entered behind her, glancing down at the stack of prawn sandwiches she had just prepared, feeling confident she was able to resist them. Thanks to a liquid-only diet, Dolly now weighed the same as her daughter – nine stone and thirteen pounds precisely – though it had taken a month of sickening milkshakes to get her there. Turning sixty years of age might have proved a terrifying event if she hadn’t used the opportunity to take herself in hand, celebrating her triumph over mortality with a bold set of magenta highlights and some newfangled corsetry in the form of high-waist Spandex knickers, which kept stray flesh miraculously in check.
Watching Pearl giving full attention to her mobile phone Dolly considered, not for the first time, how little she herself resembled her only child. Pearl was standing near the window, a shaft of summer sun falling upon her like a spotlight, emphasising the contrast between the lilac vintage dress she wore and her suntanned face and limbs. On most days she tied up her long dark hair and seldom wore jewellery, certainly no rings on her fingers that could become lost in restaurant dishes during their preparation; only a small silver locket lay flat against her bare throat. The restaurant was often used as an excuse for Pearl’s simple style but Dolly sensed that her daughter’s modest wardrobe of clothes – bought, for the most part, for comfort and practicality – represented a personal rejection of Dolly’s own flamboyance.
The truth lay somewhere in
‘No, the agency’s open,’ Pearl was explaining on her mobile.
‘I just had to step out for a moment.’ She checked her watch and slipped off her apron. ‘Give me two minutes and I’ll be right there.’ Ending the call, she saw Dolly’s raised eyebrows and said, ‘Looks like I finally have a customer.’
‘Don’t you mean client?’ queried Dolly. ‘Your “customers” get seafood . . .’
‘Yes – served by my favourite waitress.’ Pearl gave a smile as she picked up a canvas shoulder bag but Dolly’s face instantly set.
‘Oh no, you don’t,’ she objected.
‘I’ll be as quick as I can.’ Pearl moved swiftly to the door, where she dropped her mobile into her bag.
‘But it’s my day off,’ hissed Dolly. ‘I only agreed to make some sandwiches.’
‘And no one makes them quite like you.’
Pearl’s charming smile remained in place as she selected a triangle from the plate and took a bite. Dolly’s face softened with anticipation. Unlike her daughter, she had always been a sloppy cook with the sort of disregard for ingredients that had once allowed her to substitute peanuts on a truite aux amandes. Now as she watched Pearl savouring the slightly tart lemon mayonnaise surrounding a layer of fresh prawn, she waited for more approval – but it failed to come.
Pearl took advantage of the moment to escape from the kitchen back into the restaurant and Dolly pursued her, protesting, ‘But I’ve got the window to dress for the festival and a changeover at the B & B.’
‘I know – but I’ll be back, I promise. Until then, just remember . . .’ she plucked an oyster from the counter and pressed it into her mother’s hand . . . ‘dee-licious.’
Three strides later and Pearl was gone. Dolly, mouth agape, watched the restaurant doors swing shut. After a moment they opened again, but this time she saw only tourists wearing hiking shorts, backpacks and red faces. She glanced down at the pale mucus nestled in the shell in her hand and, as if on cue, switched on her famous smile.
The heat hit Pearl as soon as she set foot in the street, reminding her of the last time she’d stepped off a holiday flight, although she hadn’t done that for some time. Living in Whitstable with its pebbled beach, harbour and varied demographic of locals and newcomers always made Pearl question the point of paying for a summer break elsewhere. A few years ago, she’d splashed out on a package to Sorrento, where it had stormed virtually every day for a fortnight. Having found herself irresistible bait to mosquitoes she’d returned, pockmarked, and with a stinking cold, to hear that the weather on the North Kent coast had been perfect.
Since then, she’d stayed put, not least because she didn’t like leaving the business in summer, especially to Dolly whose attitude to work had always been decidedly hippy. Taking off when the season was nearly over usually meant tipping up somewhere in Europe just as other restaurateurs wanted nothing more than to get away on their own annual breaks
– in Whitstable. The quirky little fishing town had become not only increasingly popular, but more cosmopolitan than it had ever been, and ‘The Whitstable Pearl’ was taking full advantage of it – together with the recessionary ‘staycation’.
After years of struggling to survive, Whitstable now benefited from an almost year-long season, with visitors arriving in February, braving even the coldest winter in thirty years to spend Valentine’s breaks in one of the town’s numerous B & Bs. Dolly’s Attic was a favourite, a Bohemian little flatlet situated above the shop, Dolly’s Pots, from which Pearl’s mother sold her ‘shabby chic’ ceramics. For years Pearl had served oysters from Dolly’s distinctive plates, but now they too were being snapped up by tourists as fast as the oysters themselves.
Whitstable, along with most of its business people, was thriving, but its newfound popularity had come at a price, because the nature of the town was changing. On most summer days, Pearl found herself pushing against a tide of tourists heading towards the gift and coffee shops in Harbour Street, and today was no exception. The sightseers always had time on their hands; they gawped and dawdled, ambling in and out of the many new boutiques and art galleries while the locals moved at an altogether brisker tempo, negotiating kids and shopping while weaving an efficient slalom route around the tourists who, today, seemed to be mostly DFLs – the town’s acronym for ‘Down From Londoners’. Pearl gave up fighting against the flow and peeled off instead towards Squeeze Gut Alley.
Tourists rarely used the network of ancient alleyways, most of which had been constructed to create access to the town’s main business place – the sea. A few centuries ago, these alleys had also formed escape routes for smugglers, but now locals simply relied on them to cut short their journeys around town. Squeeze Gut, as the name suggested, sliced a quick and narrow route through to a row of dwellings on a stretch of road known as Island Wall. With quaint, unpretentious clapboard facades, the charm of each seaside cottage could be found at the rear where gardens lay separated from the beach by just a low sea wall and a concrete promenade. Here, on the ‘prom’, all of Whitstable came to saunter and swagger, drawn to a sea view of such clear Northern light that its skies and sunsets had been described by the painter Turner as ‘some of the loveliest in Europe.’
As Pearl hurried along, a bunch of noisy French teenagers scattered on the prom, offering her a view of the man standing outside her own cottage. Short, stout and suited, he was also clearly hot and bothered, fanning a panama hat before his face with one hand, while patting a sweating brow with the other. As Pearl grew nearer, she could hear him panting like an old dog.
At the sound of her voice, the man instantly turned. From a distance he had seemed to be well into middle age but his heavy frame was ageing, and as Pearl drew closer she decided that his fortieth birthday wasn’t too far behind him. He said nothing but merely offered a clammy hand which made Pearl instantly think of starfish. She opened a wooden gate to the garden of Seaspray Cottage and led the way to the small shed she now called an office. Once upon a time it had been a beach hut, but with a new extension and a few more windows added, she was sure it would now serve its new purpose.
As she fiddled with a stiff lock, Pearl could tell that Stroud, behind her, was becoming impatient, his damp little fingers tapping nervously against the doorframe. Finally, the door opened.
Pearl pointed to a wooden chair and instantly wished she owned something larger. ‘Make yourself comfortable,’ she said politely, knowing already that this would be impossible. The timber office was oppressively hot and her prospective client appeared to be melting.
Stroud tried to seat himself, shuffling his considerable weight like a circus elephant perched on a tiny stool, while Pearl moved to a window and opened it. A warm breeze stole into the room as she asked, ‘How can I help?’
Still fanning himself with his panama hat, Stroud now stopped as though summoning reserves of energy he’d been saving for this very moment. ‘You could start by telling me when he’s back,’ he said in a brisk Yorkshire accent.
‘Mr Pearl, of course.’ He threw an irritated look around the room. ‘Where is he? Still at lunch?’
Pearl looked down at a stack of newly printed business cards on her desk. She had delegated the task of designing them to her son, Charlie, and he had done a good job, apart from choosing the palest of fonts for the line beginning Proprietor.
She looked up and explained. ‘There is no Mr Pearl – only Ms Nolan.’
At this, Stroud’s mouth fell ajar as if waiting for a suitable response to fill it.
‘This is my agency,’ she continued. ‘Call me Pearl.’
Stroud sat, visibly struggling to absorb this. It was clear he was having a bad day, and this meeting was doing nothing to improve it. His mouth snapped shut as he came to a decision.
‘This isn’t going to work.’
‘The job I want doing.’ He glanced for a moment towards the door as though contemplating escape.
‘Look, why don’t you tell me what the job is?’ Pearl asked calmly.
Stroud took a crumpled handkerchief from his breast pocket and began dabbing at his sweating brow again. ‘I’m owed money,’ he sighed. ‘An outstanding loan. And I need it sorted.’
‘You mean you need a debt collector and—’
‘No, no,’ broke in Stroud testily. ‘What I need is information.’ As he fixed his gaze on Pearl, his tiny brown eyes looked like two currants pressed into a potato head. Pearl’s silence provided the cue for him to offload more concerns. ‘It’s been five years and I should’ve had a return by now, but there’s been nothing. Not a penny.’ He jabbed a stubby finger on the surface of the desk. ‘Not even a gesture of goodwill.’
An understanding nod from Pearl seemed to calm him for a moment. She offered him a box of tissues from her desk and Stroud helped himself to one, shaking it open before blowing his nose like a small bugle.
‘I’d be quite within my rights to bring pressure to bear, but I don’t want the bloke scared off – not until I know he can pay,’ he told her.
‘And that’s what you want me to find out?’ As she met his gaze, Stroud’s eyes squashed tighter.
‘I want some checks run, a bit of digging around,’ he continued. ‘I need to know if this fellow is holding out on me.’
As though relieved of a heavy burden, Stroud then took a deep breath and turned his face towards the source of the breeze, but a ringing phone shattered his brief sense of peace. Checking the caller ID, Pearl offered an apologetic smile before picking up the receiver.
Dolly’s voice barked down the line. ‘No lemon!’
‘In the fridge.’
‘Then try the pantry.’
Stroud was shuffling uncomfortably in his inadequate seat as Pearl whispered urgently into the receiver, ‘Can’t this wait?
I’m busy right now.’
Dolly failed to take the hint. ‘So am I,’ she replied. ‘I’ve taken four more bookings for tomorrow.’
‘Not if we run out.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty more on order.’
Stroud checked his watch, looking increasingly impatient.
‘Pacifics and Irish too.’
At this, Stroud looked up and before Dolly had a chance to reply, Pearl set down the receiver, her hand remaining clamped on it as if to silence her mother. ‘Sorry about that.’
She summoned a tight smile. ‘The Oyster Festival starts tomorrow.’
Stroud stared with some suspicion at the telephone. ‘And what’s that got to do with you?’
Pearl decided that if she couldn’t have Stroud as a client, she might just tempt him as a customer. ‘I own a seafood bar,’ she admitted, ‘just around the corner on the High Street.’ Stroud said nothing but his frown put her on the defensive. ‘It doesn’t interfere with my work here. Usually.’
Still Stroud continued to eye her and Pearl decided to come clean. ‘Look, the agency’s new but I’m local and a good investigator. I used to be in the police force, and if you need a reference, my last clients will vouch for me.’
Pearl decided against explaining that Mr and Mrs Phillip Caffery were, in fact, her only clients so far and that the £1,000 reward she’d received from them for tracing a cherished Wheaten terrier had actually provided the capital for her to set up trading in a more professional way. The money had been used to redesign her office, invest in some advertising and specialist software, convincing her that the skills she had always possessed as a ‘people person’ could finally be put to use beyond the confines of her restaurant. The Caffery case had come along at just the right time and though Pearl wasn’t overly superstitious, neither was she beyond ignoring life’s small synchronicities, especially when they were nudging her in a direction she’d always wanted to take.
In some parallel universe, Pearl was convinced her doppelgänger was climbing the ranks to Detective Chief Superintendent. It should have been Pearl herself, except for the fact that she had made one tiny error in becoming pregnant at just nineteen. That had put paid to her police training, though Pearl knew, more than anything, that having Charlie had been no mistake.
‘So you know about oysters?’ the fat man enquired.
Pearl smiled. ‘Oh yes. I know a good one from a bad one – and the best way to serve them.’
Stroud considered this for a moment, coming up with a revised view. ‘Then maybe you can help, after all.’ He pocketed his handkerchief and lowered his voice. ‘Did you know that someone’s been working the beds independently?’
Stroud looked back at her, unimpressed. ‘A fisherman by the name of Vincent Rowe. He came to me a while back. Had a plan to work some of the free waters east of that Tankerton sandbank . . .’ He broke off, floundering for a moment.
‘The Street,’ said Pearl, rescuing him.
Stroud gave a quick nod before resuming his story. ‘Said if I supplied the capital, he could re-lay some of the native oysters and be making a nice fat profit for us quicker than any other investment. I’d have expected a return by now but I’ve not seen a single penny – and if he can’t cough up, I want to know why.’
‘Why don’t you ask him?’ Pearl was well aware of the complicated division of foreshore fishing rights, not least because her own father had spent a lifetime dredging for oysters – a life misspent, some would say, since Tommy Nolan had been, at heart, a true poet. As a young man he had charmed the seafront bars with his verses set to music, wistful lines employing metaphors about life, love and the fishing of oysters, before marrying Dolly who hated them.
‘He’s been giving me the runaround,’ Stroud complained. And I don’t like being taken for a ride.’ He plucked a smart leather wallet from his jacket. ‘I’ll pay a good cash retainer for you to nose around, check out his finances and
tell me what he’s worth. If he’s holding out on me, I want to know.’
Pearl looked out of the window. A crimson kite sailed effortlessly past on the breeze and she wished she was on the end of it. Stroud’s voice cut sharply into her thoughts.
Pearl looked back to see the thick wallet lying open in Stroud’s sweaty palm. The offer was tempting, not just for the money but because the possibility of satisfying a bona fide client for her newly created business would go some way to justifying a long-held dream. She considered very carefully before giving her reply. ‘I think you’re right, Mr Stroud. I’m not the man for the job.’
Stroud didn’t look entirely surprised, merely quietly satisfied that his initial instincts had been correct. He put away his wallet and rose clumsily to his feet. As he did so, he lost hold of his panama hat, which tumbled to the floor and rolled beneath Pearl’s desk. This single event seemed to be the last straw for Stroud and his face turned puce as he reached down to retrieve it, causing Pearl to quickly intervene. She picked up the hat and while doing so noticed it was a fine specimen, with a pretty silk label stitched inside showing the image of a cathedral and the maker’s name, Portells. She handed the hat back to him, but Stroud failed to thank her as he set it firmly on his head. Once at the door, he paused only for a second, before grunting, ‘Thanks – for nowt.’
The door swung shut and Pearl watched through her open window as her lost client beetled off in the direction of town, past a few elderly tourists who had gathered on the prom to admire Pearl’s seafront garden.
Taking a deep breath of fresh sea air to replace the stale smell he had left behind, she dialled a stored number in her mobile phone and, after only a few rings, heard a voicemail message sound. At the beep, her tone was casual and careful not to cause alarm.
‘Vinnie, it’s me. Ring me as soon as you get this, will you?