On a frosty autumnal morning, the sun rose in a pale blue sky over the small village of Kirby Leverdale. Arthur Pogdale, a stolid, middle aged villager, all tweed coats and sturdy boots, thought he’d go mushrooming. He might catch a rabbit, and make a stew. He set off through the hazy sunshine, equipped with a mushrooming basket, and a canvas shoulder bag to conceal his shotgun, and a flask to drink and a sandwich to eat.
He strode on through the fields for a few hours, far from the village, towards the remoter hilly woodlands where roads were few. Here, people were rare, and one might find pristine woodland untouched by mushroomers, and where nobody would hear a gunshot.
Approaching the eaves of the forest, he stopped briefly to take out his gun. Entering the leafless woodland, the sun behind him, he slowed his pace. Avoiding the drifts of leaves, he advanced quietly and stopped short, hidden by a hazel copse, slowly shouldered his shotgun, aimed, and fired. The rabbit fled. Birds and beasts for a mile around hid. Arthur philosophically shouldered his shotgun, and patiently resumed his steady progress.
The forest grew thicker here, and the light faded, and fell down towards damper ground, where mushrooms grew between the thick trunks of ancient oaks. He saw a big pale puffball mushroom sticking out behind a hollow trunk. Arthur grunted, and bent down, and gave a muffled oath.
“A boot!”, he muttered, and pulled.
It resisted. He braced himself, gripped the heel, and tugged with both hands. It came away with a soft, sucking sound, spattering Arthur with droplets of a foul smelling liquid as he went flying, landing on his backside in a drift of leaves. Slightly winded, holding the boot in his left hand, he gazed at the foot, wrapped in a sodden, greyish sock, protruding from the rotten tree trunk. It looked like a lone tooth in an aged wooden mouth, and it dripped slightly.
He got to his feet, and peered about the gloomy underwood, and around the tree, and in the branches. There was nothing to be seen. There were no traces of violence, or any other explanation for this foetid foot sticking out between the tree roots.
The shock subsided, and a matter of fact practicality took over. “Right, let’s report this” Arthur thought, peering over the foot, into the dark. He could make out a form there, someone huddled in some sort of torn oilskin coat, bent in a most uncomfortable position. One couldn’t accidentally fall into a hollow tree trunk like that.
He leaned against the tree. And thought of Susan Wheatleigh. Susan, a lovely, kindly neighbour, and her husband John. They had a difficult neighbour, a Mr. Spence, a man permanently offended. Arguments came and went, on topics ranging from the noise the children made, to washing lines, hedges, and parking. Mr Spence would bang his cane on the Wheatleigh’s front door and shout, and report the Wheatleighs to the council. Susan dealt with this alone, since John often away. The marriage had left her largely on her own, looking after the household.
This Mr Spence was a widower. he lived alone on a small pension, and rarely left the village, and mostly staying locked up in his house. His thin, gaunt figure would be seen most evenings in the Ramblers’ Arms with a single pint, propping up the bar in the dark corner away from the tables.
Then there came a time when Mr. Spence was not seen for a while. There was some comment on this in the Ramblers’ Arms, but since he had no friends, the comments were short.
Susan, a woman with common sense, decided, reluctantly, to make sure the old man had not passed out or dropped dead. So over she went, when the kids were at school, and John away again, and knocked on the old man’s door. It was open, so she stepped in, and called. There as no answer. She found Mr. Spence dead in the kitchen, and in her shock, picked up the heavy bloodstained mallet lying by his side. When the shock subsided, she called the police.
The rest of the story was one of those wonderful, tragic tales of gore and mystery. It was told again and again in the village pub, with many a gloomy sigh, and a call for another round, as people mulled over the foolishness of getting involved in murders.
Susan was immediately suspected, and swiftly convicted. Character witnesses from most of the village were no help. A crime of passion, a neighbourhood dispute, old grudges festering and erupting in homicidal rage and brutal murder, the prosecutor thundered. The defense was baffled. Unable to counter Susan’s bloodstained fingerprints on the mallet, it weakly tried to bring the case back, again and again, to a character issue. She was so nice, really, and this Spence now, had hardly been a nice man, as the stream of character witnesses confirmed.
But there was no other suspect on the horizon, given the lonely life of this bitter old man. The jury conferred, and concurred with the prosecution, and convicted the pleasant, unassuming Susan. Under this pressure, the Wheatleigh marriage fractured. Her husband John, hardly a steadfast man, abandoned his family and emigrated to Norway to work as a labourer on oil rigs, and the children were put into care. And Susan, her family incomprehensibly broken, partly lost her hold on reality, and became one of the many absent jailbirds, with undiagnosed mental health conditions. In time, her harmless, absent nature saw her moved to a low security open prison. Parole was raised, but the board decided she was too feeble to fend for herself. So she remained, haunting the open prison, another innocent broken by circumstance.
In the local pub, the Ramblers’ Arms, people said “She can’t possible have done it. Wouldn’t harm a fly. Mind you, it’s always the good ones, that you’d never suspect, isn’t it ?” But the overwhelming opinion was a miscarriage of justice. Nobody who knew Susan could see her battering her neighbour to death.
“That could happen to anyone”, thought Arthur, leaning on the oak over the decomposing corpse, the beige boot still clutched in his left hand. “Best leave this quick, let some other mug find it, I’m off.”
Impelled to leave things undisturbed, he tried to put the boot back on the decaying, bloated foot, but the stench was unbearable. He threw the boot into the hollow trunk onto the corpse. Wiping his hands on his coat, and wrapping up his gun, he set off through the woods in the fading sunlight, intent on putting this out of his mind with a pint of stout or two with all possible speed. He stayed under cover, taking a circuitous route through rocky terrain where surely nobody ever went. An hour and some miles later, he felt safer. “Not far now”, he thought, “wonder who’s down the Ramblers’ Arms tonight?”
He heard a yapping off to the right, and a terrier came into sight, barking ferociously, followed by a shadowy figure holding a rifle.
“Down, Brython, down ! Arthur, is that you ?”
“Dave ! Alright ? I’ve been mushrooming. Brython, down! What’s wrong with him?
The dog subsided, wagging his tail.
Dave sniffed. “You smell something else, Arthur. Did you fall in a landfill site or something?”
“Aha, very funny, no, I’ve just, I fell in that boggy patch in the woods, on the hill. No, not there, I mean, I mean, I fell by the river there, you know, it’s boggy. I fell. Not the hill. I was mushrooming.”
“Mushrooms, down there Arthur? That patch by the willows? Mushrooms ? Go on, you’re having me on. What’s that you’re carrying? You can tell me if you want a rabbit, you know. Anyway, I heard shots this afternoon. That was you, go on” he laughed.
Arthur forced a chuckle, “Alright, no mushrooms, nor rabbits either. Not the best day.”
“Look, I’m not a gamekeeper. Anyway, you stink. Phew. It’s getting dark, let’s go and warm up down the Ramblers’ Arms.”
Down in the pub, there was a good fire going, and good company. The firearms passed with no more comment than “evenin’, Arthur, Dave, get anything today ?” answered by a shake of the head. Arthur’s smelly coat caused some discussion, rapidly left aside, however, as conversations turned to more interesting things than hygiene. And after a few hours in the pub, and a few pints, Arthur forgot the day’s events, and forgot about his coat. The next day, the smell subsided. Anyway it was never washed, except by rain, now and then, in an incidental way.
And so the next day, life in the village carried on.
And a year went by, and another cool, pastel coloured, sunny autumn came by again, and Dave woke up one morning, and thought he’d go mushrooming in the hills, up there, where few people go. Where good morelles were to be found in the oak forests a little above the stream there, in those deserted rocky dales.
So off he went, with a gun, suitably concealed, in case of rabbits or birds, and something to eat and drink for sustenance, and a basket for the mushrooms.
And he walked for a few hours until he reached the eaves of the woods. Then he progressed more slowly, rifle at the ready, keeping a sharp eye out for tasty wildlife for the family pot. And despite a pot-shot or two at rabbits and birds on the way, he had no luck this day. He progressed into the darker, thicker woodland, and started to think of mushrooms. Looking carefully in the cool shade around the massive boles of the ancient oaks, he had some luck, and his basket started to fill. This would not be a wasted walk after all, he thought contentedly.
A bright white stick poking out of a hollow tree trunk caught his eye. Intrigued, he approached, and saw skeletal bleached toes, a foot, a tibia, and more bones. It was a bent skeleton, bare but for scraps of clothing left by scavengers. It looked like a doctor’s prop, like a model in a pharmacy shopfront.
He leaned against the tree and touched nothing. He remembered Jane, that poor woman, the one who’d checked up on her awful, argumentative old neighbour. Convicted for murder, she’d gone a bit funny in the head, and was in that open prison now. And he also remembered, curiously, the day he’d met good old Arthur, confused about where he’d been – wasn’t it here? – who’d made Brython go crazy, he smelt so funny.
These thoughts in his mind, he set off, basket of morelles in hand, back to the village, to see the police constable, and tell him of the bones found in the bole of the old oak. First, he passed by the house, gave the mushrooms to his wife, and put away the rifle. And then on to the police station.
The case caused quite a stir. The village of Kirby Leverdale was a hotbed of murder and intrigue. “Who could forget poor old Mr. Spence, battered to death by that nice Mrs. Susan?”, asked one at the bar in the Ramblers’, one with a taste for prosecution.
“Not at all”, said others, defending “She was set up, and now look, she’s gone ’round the bend. That proves she’s innocent!”
“Aha! So she’s a mad killer, that’s all that means” rejoined the prosecution, “she probably did this skeleton man too. You’ll see. A close call for the rest of us.”
At first, nothing came of this. Arthur, slightly uncomfortable at first, was somewhat when relieved when nothing further happened. The corpse in the hollow tree had been a weight on his mind. He’d wondered who it was, and who would be the poor sap who’d find it. Just as well steady, dependable Dave had been the one, and nobody suspected him of anything, it seemed.
But the steady, young policeman, Detective Constable Smithers, in charge at the police station, took his time. At irregular intervals every few weeks or so, he would spend hours quizzing Dave at the station. This went on for a while, and led to talk in the village.
“They’ve been questioning Dave an awful lot, don’t you think?” some said, adding “there’s no smoke without fire. I mean, nobody ever goes up the hills there, mushrooming, as he says he did, it’s too far. Suspicious. It’s suspicious, I’m telling you.”
In fact, Smithers had questioned Dave again and again on the same points. The death was at least a year old, so he asked him when he’d been there over the year, and why went to that out of the way hilly woodland. The corpse had died of gunshot wounds from a shotgun, which was bad luck. Rifles leave a rifling mark on bullets, but shotguns scatter gunshot anonymously.
He asked him repeatedly about all the people he had met in the area, and who else might go up there. And there were many, this stretching over an entire year, and Smithers asked about every single one Dave could remember.
Yet Smithers discretely paid most attention to that meeting with Arthur, while careful not to emphasise this, and risk Dave broadcasting accidental warnings. The barking dog, and the confusion over Arthur’s story of mushrooming by the willows, these elements gave grounds, in time, for a search warrant.
And on a warm August morning, the sun rose in an azure blue sky over the village. The day was likely to be hot, even very hot, and Arthur was awoken by a gentle but insistent knocking on the front door. Curious who this might be, he opened the door, in a dressing gown, and saw Smithers, and two officers on his doorstep. Taken aback, he immediately felt a non-specific guilt, as does anyone unexpectedly visited by the the law.
He opened the door wide and asked “Hello officer Smithers, fine day, isn’t it, now, what can I do to help? Is this for the widows and orphans fund? Isn’t it a bit early? I remember my old dad said …” he rambled as his mind raced, trying to make sense of this.
“Good morning Arthur, I mean Mr. Pogdale, we’d like you to help us with some enquiries we are conducting. Could we come in ?”
“Of course”, said Arthur, “I’ll put the kettle on, sit down, here, there’s chairs for all, always happy to do my bit for the officers of the peace, now, breakfast? Or something else?”
“Shut up Arthur” he told himself.
They sat down. Arthur poured the tea, and spilled some. Officer Smithers explained the thing that was troubling him. That Arthur was seen behaving suspiciously around the time of the suspected murder in the hilly oak forest, some way from the village.
And the constables armed with the warrant searched the house. And took away evidence in the form of boots, an old coat, long unwashed, and a shotgun found in the outhouse.
Arthur was advised not to leave Kirby Leverdale without informing the constabulary.
And a short while later, examination of the unwashed coat showed traces which matched the skeleton in the tree trunk. And the shotgun was found to be not inconsistent with the gunshot wounds still visible on the bleached bones.
And testimony in court from Arthur’s old friend Dave, extracted by the prosecution, could not deny the story he’d told of that day. And the drinkers in the Ramblers’ Arms couldn’t deny the strange smell that had accompanied Arthur into the pub. And so Arthur was convicted, and sent down, for the murder of an unknown man, who’s decaying body he’d hidden in a tree trunk, some weeks after shooting him with a shotgun, the prosecution said. Arthur protested his innocence to the last, but was jailed, like the amiable Jane, for a crime he was unlucky enough to wander past. The conviction left him confused and slightly broken. A quiet, absent figure, he was moved, in time, to the same low risk open prison as Jane. Sometimes, they’d be seen playing scrabble, but they did not seem to recognise each other.
And now, in the pub, everyone remembers that day Arthur came to the pub, smelling of corpses. Or if they don’t, they say they do. “I knew there was something fishy. That smell! And he looked funny. Hunted. And he’d got no mushrooms at all. Mushrooming? Don’t make me laugh. A serial killer in our midst!” they gasp dramatically. They always conclude that if you see something suspicious, walk the other way. And your curiosity is unbearable, then make sure you’re with in good company before you look more closely.