Years ago, I was walking by the river near the iron bridge in Shropshire with my youngest brother and his family when we came across a can of half-eaten tuna abandoned on the river bank, and it got me thinking . . .
What was a half-eaten can of tuna doing on the bank of the River Thames? With a fork balanced against it? I mean, who would eat tuna straight from the tin? But then, there were some very odd people about. I should know; I’d spent my life dealing with all manner of folk.
I circled the tuna, scanning the area for further clues. No, there was nothing else out of the ordinary in the immediate vicinity. A wider search was called for. Step by step I moved around the tuna, my back hunched as I examined every inch of ground.
‘Aha!’ Reaching down, I picked up a button. And this was no ordinary button. This was a button from the uniform of a police officer. I’d recognise it anywhere. There was definitely something fishy going on here. I chuckled out loud at my unintentional pun.
Incredible! I could not go through a day without happening upon some mystery that needed solving. You see, it was in my blood: police, crime, detective work. Even at the age of seven I had been determined to track down the culprit who had raided my box of sweets.
By unravelling a series of clues, which included suspicious wrappers in dad’s office bin and a smudge of chocolate on top of his desk, I was able to pass sentence: ‘Dad, you are charged with stealing. You are fined two bars of chocolate and a bag of sweets.’
Dad looked stern.
‘Please,’ I grinned at dad, and was rewarded with a £5 note. You see, to get anywhere, even policemen fighting hardened criminals had to be polite.
Slowly I stood up, holding a hand to the small of my back. Gusts of wind cut their way through the inadequate shield of fibres layered over my body. I shivered, pulling my coat closer. Chloe had said it was getting ‘raggedy’, that I should wear the new one she’d bought me for Christmas. But it was my Chief Inspector’s coat. I always wore it when I was on duty.
I wondered whether the owner of the tuna would return. Or would a dog or cat or some other predator get to it first? I couldn’t bear the thought of crucial evidence being devoured.
There was nothing else for it. I would have to stand guard.
It wasn’t even 4pm, but dusk was already encroaching on what remained of the daylight. I positioned myself a couple of feet away from the tuna. Close enough to wave away undesirable animals, but not too close to scare off potential suspects.
Such a shame the tuna hadn’t been left a bit further along the tow path. Several wooden benches lined the bank no more than a hundred meters away. They were like a second home to me the number of times I’d warmed their planks.
As a nipper, mum would walk me back from school along the river. We’d always stop for a ‘breather’ and these benches were a convenient halfway point. If I was lucky, mum would bring some stale crusts for the ducks.
Now, what I needed was a lookout post. I spotted a large, flat stone embedded in the soil. That would do nicely. It offered a practical alternative to the long, damp grass around it. Once settled, I blew on my hands. My fingers were tinged pink: with the gaping holes, neither mitten offered much protection. I scratched at my overly long stubble. I’d meant to shave this morning, but somehow it had slipped my mind. So much did these days.
I watched the blackness of the river as the wind blew ripples into it. No swans floating their elegant way downstream today.
Half a can of tuna and a fork? Hmmm.
Maybe there’d been an emergency. A heart attack or stroke just as an elderly man had been tucking into his tuna. An ambulance would’ve been called and he would’ve been whisked away as they’d fought to keep him alive.
Although that didn’t explain the police presence; it could have been more sinister. A gang member who owed someone money for drugs shot through the head with a bullet whilst snacking on tuna. I stared at the grass. Unlikely. No blood. Not a drop. And in any case, the area would still be cordoned off for forensics.
On the other hand, there was nothing to link the button and the missing person who had abandoned the tuna, apart from location. Their joint presence, well, it could be coincidental.
Perhaps it was two lovers; one with a penchant for tuna. Rising passion had obliterated every rational thought as they’d raced back to his flat or hers.
Courting, that’s what Meg and I did by this very river. I’ll never forget how her glossy black hair cascaded down her back. The instinct to pull her to me and run my hands through the silky strands had been overwhelming. We laughed a lot back then. Held hands. Kissed. Loved.
I wiped away a tear and told myself not to be such a silly bastard.
Hearing shouting, I looked up to see a harassed mum dragging two kids, who in turn were visibly dragging their feet.
‘Why’s that man wearing his pyjamas?’ the boy asked.
‘Chief Inspector to you,’ I muttered.
‘Do come along!’ The woman tugged harder as she tried to move her children past me as quickly as possible.
‘He’s eating his tea,’ the boy said, pointing to the tuna.
‘Don’t point. It’s rude!’ The girl frowned at her younger brother, who in turn poked out his tongue.
As I watched the three figures disappearing round the corner, I drifted back to our lounge. Sam and Chloe were discussing how they were going to get the fairy on top of the tree.
I’d just got in from a long day at the station and was feeling weary. Seeing the lights twinkling on the tree, the cluster of baubles swinging on the lower branches and their excited faces, was the only tonic I needed.
‘I’ll help you,’ I said, as I swept them both up in my arms.
‘Daddyyyy!’ they yelled in unison.
‘Sshh,’ Chloe put her finger up to her mouth, ‘we have to be quiet; it’s a surprise for mum.’
Reaching up, I balanced the fairy on top of the tree. ‘There!’
‘Hurrah!’ Sam cheered, before dashing out of the lounge to find Meg.
‘Wait for me!’ Chloe raced after Sam towards the kitchen.
A dog barked behind me. I checked the tuna. Still in one piece; well, half of it. I eyed the dog, every muscle in his body tensed.
‘Just keep off the tuna,’ I warned.
‘Here boy! Come on!’ A tall man with a white beard whistled.
I did a double take: red jacket, red face, white bushy beard. No, it couldn’t be, could it? He was far too early. ‘You’ve forgotten your sleigh mate. Won’t get round many children without it.’
The pity which dripped from the man’s eyes burst the chuckle which was about to bubble its way from my lips and out into the world.
I saw the man hesitating. He strode over to me, holding out a few coins in his hand.
‘I’ll have you know that I do not take bribes! Never have. Never will. I’m a clean copper.’ I brushed away his hand, scowling at him. He must be an imposter. No right-minded Santa Claus would stoop that low. Although, thinking about it, maybe it was worse than that. Maybe he had something to do with the tuna? I looked at him suspiciously.
The man returned the coins to the pocket of his trousers. He fixed his eyes on me, making me squirm. ‘Get yourself sorted out mate!’
Didn’t he know how hard I was trying? If only the force would take me back. That’s where I belonged. Always had.
Another whistle, one last bark and the black Labrador raced towards its owner before they made their way further along the towpath, without a backward glance.
I wrenched my eyes away from the bearded gentleman, and rude one at that, and turned my attention back to the tuna. Maybe it was an eccentric old lady who walked her cat on a lead. Very important that precious Fifi didn’t go hungry. I could just picture the Burmese lapping the tuna daintily off the fork.
Or a fisherman idling away the hours on the bank with his rod and his expectations. When he was halfway through his lunch, he hooked the fish he’d been dreaming of all those years. In his excitement, he threw his belongings into his bag; that is, all of them except the tuna and the fork, and headed back home to show off his catch.
So how long had the tuna been there? The rain last night would’ve filled the can with water. The tuna would’ve been soggy and floating. Must’ve been left sometime today, around lunchtime. I couldn’t imagine anyone eating tuna for breakfast, except perhaps, the cat.
Feeling in my coat pocket I pulled out a can: only this one wasn’t full of fish. I closed my eyes as the bubbles ran through my veins. I’d always drunk ginger beer, and it was thirsty work this surveillance.
By the second can, the warmth of the ginger had tingled its way to the tips of my fingers and the ends of my toes. I wriggled them, grinning as the leather of my boot slapped open and closed. It looked like the giant mouth of a fish gasping for air. Chloe had been on at me to wear my brown ones, but these were my original Chief Inspector regulation boots, and it wouldn’t do to be out of correct uniform.
The tow path was busier now, but still no-one stopped to reclaim their tuna.
6pm. I heard chimes ring out from the church tower. Reminded me of our wedding day. Best day of my life. She was a stunner, my Meg. It was like a fairy tale. I wiped away another tear.
The kids had grown up. Sam moved to New York with an American girl he’d met. Now what was her name? Be damned if I can remember. Such a muddle trying to piece everything together sometimes, which is another good reason why I have to stay on the ball. Keeps my mind active all this undercover work.
I brought the last of the ginger beer up to my lips. It really wouldn’t do to be out too long. I was expecting a call from the station to tell me it was all a big mistake, this retirement lark; that they couldn’t do without me. But then, I couldn’t leave the scene of a crime, not without at least some more evidence to show for it.
Shadows moved and stretched all around. Branches swayed, creaking and groaning as if old age had crept up on them too. All I could see across the river was a scattering of lights shining out of houses lined up along the bank. Thoughts of husbands and wives sharing their homes and their lives, growing old together, that chilled me more than the bitter cold attacking my bones. Meg had been away for so long. If only Chloe would tell me when she was coming back.
Fairy lights reflected on the river became distorted with every brush of wind. I could feel tiredness threatening to engulf me. Must stay awake, I told myself. Important job. I squinted into the darkness. I could just make out the tuna by the shine of the fork. If I solved this, it could be my ticket right back into my uniform. I could picture the ‘Welcome Back’ banners at the station even now.
That was the last thought I had until I became aware of footsteps stamping towards me.
‘You can’t stay here, Harry.’
‘”Sir” to you,’ I corrected. ‘Important mission, Bert. Watching over the tuna.’
‘And what tuna would that be?’ Bert’s breath puffed out in clouds of white.
‘The tuna,’ I repeated, checking his jacket. Full complement of buttons. He was in the clear.
Pushing myself upright, I groaned. Stiffness was my constant companion, especially during the winter months when damp wormed its way under my skin. I shuffled slowly over to where the tuna had been.
Bert shone his torch as my hands scrabbled around in the grass.
‘It was here!’ I insisted.
‘Come along, er, Sir.’ Bert offered me his hand.
Defeated, I slumped on the ground. It was no good. The tuna had gone. All that time. All that effort. Wasted. My last chance.
As Bert helped me to my feet, I stubbed my toe on something sharp.
‘Ouch!’ Blasted flap on my blasted boots. About blasted time they issued me with some new ones.
I bent down, groping around for the culprit. My fingers curled round something metal.
‘See!’ I exclaimed, waving the fork in the air. ‘I told you!’
‘Where did you find him this time?’ Chloe asked.
‘River surveillance.’ Bert patted me on the shoulder.
‘Not again, Dad!’
‘It’s my job.’ I lowered myself gingerly onto a chair.
‘How are you bearing up?’ I heard Bert asking Chloe.
Chloe hesitated. ‘It’s not easy. He keeps asking when mum’s coming back.’
‘Even after her funeral?’ Bert whispered.
‘Don’t worry love, all of us down the station, we keep an eye on him, it’s no bother.’
‘I appreciate it, really.’
‘I’m off now, Har… Sir,’ Bert called out.
‘You know where I am if you get any tricky crimes,’ I replied, winking at him.
As the door closed behind Bert, I stared at the plate that Chloe put in front of me. Almost hidden amongst heaps of crisp salad and rosy tomatoes was a small pile of tuna.
‘It was you all along!’ I wagged my finger at her. ‘I might have known.’
Chloe turned away from me, dabbing at her eyes with a scrunched-up tissue.
You’d think she’d have learned by now. It was pointless trying to hide anything from me.
Taking the fork out of my pocket, I reunited it with the tuna. Today had been an excellent day: another mystery solved.
© Nicky Clifford, 2015