The children went very quiet. Their mother, who had been sitting on the grass happily reading her new Virginia Andrews in the sunshine, looked over her glasses at the ground in front of her and listened intently for a moment. No longer reassured by the background noise of laughter and argument, she called out.
‘Jemma? Graham? Where are you? What are you up to?’
There was no reply so she turned round to face the trees and called out again. This time there was a response.
‘Mummy,’ said Jemma’s voice, sounding very small. ‘There’s … a man.’
The woman dropped her book and scrambled to her feet in ungainly fashion to dash into the trees, still in stockinged feet, fearing some hideous assault on her children. She stopped as she came to the clearing where Jemma’s voice had come from and saw the pair of them standing side by side, looking up into a tree.
Relief was quickly replaced by horror as she raised her line of sight and saw a pair of light tan-coloured shoes revolving slowly at eye level. She had the ridiculous thought that a man had levitated up into the branches before reality insisted she face facts.
‘Oh my God,’ she exclaimed. ‘Come here you two!’
The children rushed towards her and she gathered them in her arms, letting them bury their faces in her skirt as they sought reassurance and safety. She was left looking up into the tree.
At first she thought she couldn’t see much from where she was because of the leaves but a movement of the corpse in response to the wind alerted her to the fact that she could see more than she’d imagined. Brown cord trousers and a greenish brown jacket were providing unwitting camouflage. She looked up to where the face must be and waited until the corpse had revolved to face her. She drew in breath sharply as she saw the lop-sided purple face with bulging eyes and lolling tongue peer at her through the leaves.
‘Is he dead, Mummy?’ asked Jemma.
‘I’m afraid so, Jemma. We’d better tell the police.’
The police arrived within five minutes of the call, a Panda car followed some ten minutes later by three other vehicles, all using sirens and flashing lights to speed their passage. Chequered tape boundaries were set up and almost before she knew it, the woman had told the police everything that she could, not that it amounted to much. She was obliged to give her name and address just in case they needed to get in touch again but they doubted that would be necessary.
She walked away from the scene with her children on either side of her, feeling a distinct sense of anticlimax and maybe even resentment. She was responsible for raising the alarm; she had started the whole thing off and now, quite suddenly, she was being treated as irrelevant. She wanted to know more, who the man was, why he’d done it but they weren’t going to tell her. She was an outsider again after a brief starring role in a nightmare. The door had been closed. She and the children were surplus to requirements.
The children sneaked fearful backward glances at the trees as they walked away, holding their mother’s hand. They would remember this picnic for the rest of their lives. The man in the tree would return periodically to decorate the trees of their dreams for all time.
‘Well?’ asked the Inspector in charge of his subordinate after the corpse had been lowered to the ground and a preliminary examination carried out. ‘What d’you make of it?’
‘Straightforward suicide, I should think sir. He’s foreign. A post graduate student at the university. He’s carrying a matriculation card, name of Hammadi, Ali Hammadi.’
‘Photograph on the card?’
‘Yes, it’s him all right.’
The sergeant handed over the card and sifted through the contents of the dead man’s wallet. ‘Thirty five quid in cash, two credit cards, a few names and telephone numbers, a phone card, an invitation to a party and an electronic key to a university building, the Institute of Molecular Science.’
The forensic pathologist arrived, a short bald man, overweight and out of puff by the time he’d reached the clearing with his bag.
‘Well, this is a nice change,’ he said.
‘It’s usually pissing down and the middle of the bloody night when Lothian’s finest call me out.’
‘Oh, very droll.’
The pathologist knelt down beside the body and started to carry out his scene of crime examination. As he worked, he asked, ‘Do we know anything about him?’
‘A student. Molecular science we think.’
‘Obviously not physics,’ said the pathologist, examining the dead man’s neck. ‘He got the jump wrong. Neck’s not broken. He strangled himself.’
The inspector adopted an expression of distaste. ‘Students,’ he snorted. ‘Why do they have to make failing their bloody exams everybody else’s’ problem.’
‘We don’t know that he failed any exams, sir,’ said the sergeant through gritted but still respectful teeth. He was a lot closer to the dead man in terms of age than his superior.
The inspector gave him a black look. ‘It’s the usual bloody reason, isn’t it? Papers will probably describe him as brilliant. Always do.’
The wheels of the long-base Land-Rover ceased their constant struggle for grip on the sand as the engine died and the vehicle came to a halt in a deep hollow between two flanking dunes. The four men aboard unwound the