Indecision (competition 2)

Dyce parked the car on rough ground next to the railway. As they walked back to the canal he imagined how a travel brochure might attract visitors to the area:-

“These two great ways of going places, built on slightly higher ground than Marsden village, traverse the same route through the valley. At the village station, passengers alighting on platform one will enjoy the sight of barges and their owners negotiating lock ‘Number 2’. Looking beyond the canal they will see the main street descending past ‘The Railway Arms’ on the right to meet the river in the valley bottom. To the left is St. Mark’s, a small Victorian chapel at the end of a row of busy shops, and all about, the clutter of terraced houses and disused mills. The picture is completed by a backdrop of dark moorland, the foothills of The Pennines. And all within five miles of Huddersfield Town Centre.”

Today, cars were parked on both sides of the main street and the pavement was full of couples and families. The wooden tables outside ‘The Railway Arms’ were crowded, girls in white shirts and black skirts were in and out of the pub with trays of drinks and food. Everyone was in short sleeves, savouring the unusual spring sunshine. The background buzz of conversation was occasionally broken by a shrieking child, quickly quietened by an embarrassed mum or dad. From time to time, a rowdy hubbub escaped the tap room, recaptured as one of the waitresses returned to the kitchen. Through trains regularly rattled past. Those that stopped at the station, screeched to a halt, soon to screech off again.

‘Can we have a burger, Dad?’ Andy was always ready to eat.

‘Its not quite lunchtime yet.’

‘You mean dinnertime.’

‘I mean eating in the middle of the day. Look there at the station clock. The small hand is pointing straight up and the long hand is pointing to the three. Have a go at the time.’

Dyce’s question was met with silence. ‘Well, its quarter past twelve and I’m not hungry. I thought we’d eat at that pub up by the tunnel.’

‘Oh, right . . .  Fern, stop that, naughty dog.’ Fern, a golden labrador, was pulling on her lead, and strong as Andy was, she was dragging him along with her.

‘You go with that, Chris?’

‘Whatever,’ was Chris’s stock phrase of the moment. Chris was fifteen years old, well coordinated and laid back. Andy was neither of these things and three years older.

Dyce, Chris and Andy and Fern, ducked under a road bridge and took the tow path. The canal here occupied a cut, separated from the railway by an uncultivated bank, covered with grass, fern and thorn. The towpath itself was worn, flanked by another elevated track, remnant of a mineral line, that disappeared into the canal side shrubbery. They were alone and, between trains, heard the birds singing and distant traffic climbing over the pennine trunk road. The smell was mud and wild garlic.

‘Let Laurel off the lead, Andy,’ suggested Dyce, and she shot into the shrubbery. Saves having to clean up after her, thought Dyce, though he rarely remembered the plastic bag that Sheila left out for them. Not that many dog-owners did either, but Sheila had a thing about it. The boys followed the dog into the woods and Dyce strolled along on his own.

The shrubs and trees were fairly dense, but occasionally a window opened to show the hillside beyond. Movement caught Dyce’s eye. Fifty yards or so away, the top half of a red-haired man was suddenly framed by leaves and branches. He wore a white collarless shirt and held a pick handle over his head. A second later and he swung it down. Even from fifty yards, Dyce could see the viciousness in the act, but it was strangely silent. Another second and the man had gone, and however Dick moved his head he could not recapture that terrible view. Dyce’s legs didn’t work, as if he were walking in treacle, and his mouth had the dryness he associated with dental injections.  What had he just seen?

Then Andyy was shouting nearby in the undergrowth. Dyce stirred himself and ran toward the noise. Dogs were barking and two low voices were speaking angrily.

‘Don’t speak to me like that.’

‘You don’t speak to me like that,’ Andy was looking aggressive. Chris looked on.

A ruddy and portly middle-aged man in a suit held a small poodle to his bosom, ‘Is this your son?  You need to teach him some manners.’

‘Oh, right, thanks for that, I’ll bear it in mind,’ Dyce got Fern on the lead, and the stranger huffed, not entirely satisfied, but mollified enough to be on his way.

‘What happened there then?’

‘His dog bit . . .  his dog bit Fern,’

‘Are you sure? They weren’t just playing?’ Dyce half believed Andy, as Fern was usually soft and good at getting out of the way of other dogs. ‘So what did you say to the man?’

‘I told him to mind his dog.’ Dick got the flavour. Andy’d only been out of his sight for a minute or two.

‘It might have been better if you’d said nothing. You can’t go around telling people what to do.’

‘But that man was rude as well.’ Dyce recognised they were back to justice and fairness again.  Andy’s eighteen years flashed by in a moment.

‘Oh, Andy, when will it sink in? Just bite your tongue and say nothing.’ Dyce was irritated by Andy and worried by his inattention to what he had seen.

‘Bite my tongue. You must be joking.’

‘Well, yes I am a bit. I mean for you not to get involved. Walk away.’

‘Yes, Dad.’

‘Come on Andy, let’s get on to the tunnel?’ Chris played his part in bringing the latest event to an end. Dyce let Fern off the lead, and she ran ahead with the two boys.

Dyce then tried to switch back to just five minutes ago. He retraced his steps along the towpath and estimated where he was standing when he saw the red-haired man. He plunged into the undergrowth. Another five minutes and he’d covered, with difficulty, the distance to the deed. He checked the time; quarter to one. The police would want to know the time . . .  when he called them. Surely some assault or even murder had been committed. Does someone need help? He hadn’t heard any screams, but then it was a fair way away and the victim could have been unconscious or gagged or something. Then he felt cold and stood absolutely motionless. What if the murderer were still around?

During what felt like hours, Dyce heard or saw nothing other than the birds and the occasional walker. He looked at his watch again, and only ten minutes had gone. What should he do? Had he really seen something? Just call the incident in over the phone maybe. But was someone injured?  He couldn’t leave Andy for long. He would allow himself ten minutes of further searching, and if there was a tricky encounter, he would say he’d lost his dog . . .

There was nothing to find, particularly, no injured party. He felt deflated. Was he making a fuss over nothing? He couldn’t report an event without evidence – he’d be another of those thousands of crank phone-callers the police have to deal with every year. What was he to do?

It was after one o’clock now. He needed to catch up with the boys and it would give him time to think it through. They were still messing about under one of the bridges.

‘Let’s get on lads. Get Fern on the lead.’

The towpath curved away to the left and they saw the tunnel entrance, and masses of people:  queuing, watching, eating at the pub or simply milling around. Dyce knew the road from Marsden ended here with a large parking area, but so many people? They got a table outside the pub easy enough, too easily Dyce thought.

‘Do you want the usual?’ The boys rarely varied their food orders.

Dyce went to order and was soon back, understanding why they’d got seats straight away. ‘The kitchen’s closed for half an hour, too many orders. Andy, nip up to that spot just there, can you see it? See how they’re fixed for food’. Giving Andy something to do might avoid an outburst.

‘Do it yourself, we should have had burgers at that last place.’

‘OK, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. If you want to eat, you could help by asking that other pub.’

‘Yes, Andy. I’ts you that’s always on about eating.’ Chris raised his eyebrows at Dyce.

‘No need to look like that, I’ll go.’

Chris winked at his dad.

‘I’ll get some drinks while we wait. Tie Fern to this iron ring will you, and make sure she’s within reach of the water bowl, thanks.’

By the time Dyce had been served, Andy had returned, grumpy. ‘No, they don’t do food.’

‘Thanks for going.’

‘When are we going to eat dad?’

‘Soon. Here, I got you a drink.’

‘Oh, right, thanks.’ Instantly, grumpy became amiable and Dyce began to relax a bit. A pint of strong lager helped.

Another queue was forming for a trip into the tunnel. A long barge, mostly windows and seats was being pulled out of the tunnel by an electric tug.  wo men in black suits were in charge, one sitting at the tiller whilst the other held a microphone. Several light bulbs had been rigged up along the barge’s ceiling.

‘Bit hot for suits,’ Dyce said.

‘Where does it go?’asked Andy.

‘Into the tunnel and back.’


‘To see what its like in a tunnel.’

‘It’ll be dark in there,’ Andy did his excellent impression of Tommy Cooper.

Dyce fancied another beer. ‘I’ll check on the kitchen.’

Dyce returned and sat down. ‘Food in ten minutes.’

‘Not another drink dad. How many have you had now?’

‘This is only my second, Andy. I am allowed two.’

An alsatian appeared, Fern barked, and Dyce gently, instinctively, held her collar and cupped her neck. A privately owned barge was moored in the basin. Dyce had noticed its arrival, supervised by a young man who spent most of his time sitting on a seat in front of the office next to the pub. Now the owners were talking to him and nodding. An agreement had been reached, and the couple walked back down the towpath, the barge locked and secured.

Dyce pondered. You haven’t to be in a hurry at that game. It must be great to have all that time on your hands, no worries except not being late for your slot in the tunnel. Bet they’re going to do some shopping and get a bite of lunch in Marsden. And then the red-haired man was there again, reflected in one of the barge’s windows. Dyce froze, mouth open, and the image was gone. He looked to his left, but people and tables and umbrellas obscured the view. He stood and quickly walked to where the man might have been – nothing. Everyone was doing perfectly normal things, wandering and chatting. The trains were still running. There was no panic, no sounds of sirens.

Despite two lagers, Dick hadn‘t forgotten the incident in the woods, but he’d misplaced it somehow, until now.

‘What’s up, Dad?’ Chris had joined him. He was used to the glazed eyes and the, sorry, say again replies to unheard questions, but suddenly jumping up was unusual.

‘Nothing,’ Dyce saw the frown and disappointment on Chris’s face, ’I thought I’d seen someone I knew, you know, an old acquaintance.’

‘An old girlfriend, you mean,’

Dyce took the easy route ‘,Yes, no, well, sort of.’

Loud barking cut short any further exploration of Dyce’s previous love life. The alsatian had walked by again and lunch had arrived. Was he going to do something? They had to pick Sheila up at half past three, and now, it was just after two. It had been an hour since Dyce’s first sight of the red-haired man.

‘Can we go into the tunnel, Dad?’ Andy had finished his fish and chips.

‘We have to get mum from work, I’m afraid.’ Dyce quite fancied the trip, but the money was running out and they were tight for time and what was he going to do?

‘I want to go in the tunnel.’

‘We can’t always have what we want.’

Andy banged his plate on the table, bared his teeth, and growled, ‘I want to go in the tunnel. I’m going and you can’t stop me.’ People turned their heads toward the noise.

‘I don’t have enough money with me today. We’ll come another day.’ Dyce could see that this wasn’t going to work.

‘Right, time to go, Andy,’ and Dyce got up, untied the dog and set off back to Marsden, Chris close behind. They followed the woodland path, which would take them right by the murder site. Dyce could have another look. Andy shadowed them for a while before finally catching them up.

There’s more people here now, thought Dyce, I wonder what’s going on. They were just hanging about, waiting. Has something been discovered and this is the ghoulish need to see a disaster? They certainly can’t all be witnesses, there was only me here. A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told him he hadn’t done well. Nearer the crowds, there was a notice on an oak tree – a flyleaf poster, a convenient place for Dyce to pause and gather his thoughts. He stood and stood, apparently reading it again and again. And then he laughed and turned away. Chris then read it.

“The Open Air Theatre Company have pleasure in presenting, for your entertainment, a musical history of the lives and the extraordinary achievements of the men who built the canal.  Performances – 3.00pm and 5.00pm.  Mon, Tues, Wed. Admission – £2 adult, £1 children under 14 years.”  Sponsored by Marsden Parish Council and The Waterways Commission.”

Dyce recognised the trees and shrubs where a queue was waiting. The red-haired man in a white collarless shirt was taking their money.

‘Can we go, dad?’ said Andy.

‘We have to fetch mum in half an hour or so, Andy.’ Dyce didn’t really know how he felt. The sinking feeling had gone, replaced by a happy smiley sense of foolishness. He’d been a clot.

There was a lull in the queue, ‘Were you rehearsing earlier?’

‘When was that,’

‘About an hour ago,’

‘No, just some final preparations to the stage. Why?’

‘No reason, I thought I’d seen you.’

‘We’re about to start, you coming in?’

‘No, we can’t today.’ The red-haired man walked away, leaving a small sign on a table;

‘Performance in progress’.

‘Dad, let’s go down to that lake and do some skimming?’ Chris dropped off the main path, down a bare track to a wooded bank overlooking a cricket pitch sized expanse of water. He scrambled around, searching for pebbles, stones or slate that would do for skimming. Dyce and Andy followed at a shamble and Fern snuffled around their feet before following some new scent.

‘Come on Dad,’ Dyce rummaged around for the likeliest winner. Andy stood watching for a couple of minutes, before announcing his entry into the contest,

‘Hang on, wait. I said wait, don’t ignore me.’ Dyce and Chris continued their pursuit for the perfect skimmer.

‘Ready,’ Chris got in position at the lake side. Dyce joined him, left and right handers facing each other, about to do battle. Andy was to one side, clutching a pair of non-too promising boulders.

Chris went first, producing a flop within two bounces. Dyce was little better with his first go. Then they fired off at random. Both realised they needed several practice rounds before the old skills returned. Each was aware of how well the other was dotting.   Chris smiled and Dyce sensed it was not to be his day.

A loud single ‘plup’ and a series of large wavelets resulted from Andy’s first effort. ‘Orr, these stones are rubbish,’ and he went off to search for more.

Chris and Dyce replenished their armouries and it was time. Crouched, index fingers and thumbs cocked, they took turns at throwing a sequence of six or so. ‘You can’t get a rhythm going with one,’ was dad’s skimming rule number one. Their throwing arms curved only slightly down.  ‘Throw sidearm and keep parallel to the surface,’ was rule number two, ‘Its not about power, its technique. It’s a whipping action.’

‘What about that, Dad?’ Chris’s stones were getting closer to the far bank, the winning post. Dyce was struggling to get half way and the mallards bobbing nearby were in more danger than the far bank. He was also aware of a slight strain in his shoulder. Today, for the first time at skimming, it looked as though he would come second.

Another boulder exploded in the water behind them. ‘You’ve got the best position, let me go from there.’

‘It’s not the position, its how you throw them, Andy’ said Chris, not about to relinquish his advantage. Dyce stopped throwing and so did Chris, and they watched Andy as he pushed overarm, in shot putting style.

‘This is shit, you’ve got all the best stones, let me have some, and don’t ignore me.’

‘This is how you do it, Andy,’ and Chris threw a perfect skimmer, fifty yards of feathery bounce.

Andy, all frowns and pursed lips, aimed at Chris with a stone the size of a half-brick – a direct hit would cause serious damage.

‘Oh, come on Andy, keep trying. Use a smaller stone. You’ve done it before.’ Andy dropped the missile. Dyce’s intervention had worked.

Dyce and Chris got ready for the final round. They took their time choosing by weight and shape.  Not too heavy and not too light, no sharp edges, but not too flat either – a work of art. And then back to the bank, loosening up, a few practice throws.

‘I’ll go first,’ decided Chris.

‘Rightoh, then,’ and Dyce watched his son cock, aim and throw with the coordination and style of a champion, if perhaps without the humility.

‘That’s that then,’ suggested Chris, and waited, wiping his hands with a small clap. The far bank had been breeched.

Dyce was beaten, but played his part in his son’s triumph, scoring well but not well enough. There was a time when they made three different  measurements: total distance, number of bounces and the distance covered in a single bounce. But today was not about refinement, it was about raw superiority, who was top dog. And today there was a new name on the roll of honour.

Dyce recognised, with a smile, the passing of another milestone. The balance between the generations had shifted once more. There were times when he begrudged the space the two boys occupied in his life, but not today.

Andy joined them as they walked back to the car.