The Mudflats Of The Dead

Gladys Mitchell

Bradley 56

To Gwen Robyns

with love and admiration

‘And to be read herself she need not fear;

Each test and every light her Muse will bear,

Though Epictetus with his lamp were there.’

John Dryden


Colin Palgrave



‘The irresponsive silence of the land,

The irresponsive sounding of the sea.’

Christina Georgina Rossetti

Palgrave was in search of inspiration; that is how he put it to himself, although not to those of his circle who had asked him how he intended to spend his holidays. What he meant was that he needed a plot for his second novel. He had been overjoyed when his first book had been accepted, the more so when he signed a contract which called for another two novels. The signing, however, was six months old and, strive as he might, not a single idea which could form the basis of a second novel had come into his head.

‘And if not a second, how on earth can I manage a third?’ he had asked himself miserably on the eve of the school’s seven-week summer vacation, as he stared at the rows of empty desks in a form-room he had grown to hate. He had been reminded of himself at the age of nine, seated in a similar room, but in a pupil’s desk, not at the teacher’s table. The end of term examinations had been over, sports day had come and gone, the little boys were restless and fidgety, the form-master was bored and had run out of subjects for the weekly essay. Falling back on a well-tried but never very successful formula, he had told his class to choose their own subjects for composition. Having stifled the groans and the reproachful cries of ‘Oh, sir! which this shifting of his responsibilities had evoked, Palgrave’s form-master had spent the next twenty minutes on the boys’ reports and in trying to find alternatives to Works well on the whole or Could do better or the even less helpful, from the child’s or the parents’ point of view, Finds this subject difficult. Failing in this object, he had laid the blotter over the reports and resorted to his usual practice of strolling up and down between the rows of desks to see how his embryo and mostly unwilling authors were getting on.

When he had reached Palgrave’s desk he had found an unhappy small boy staring at an almost blank page. Palgrave had written the date in a fair, round hand and had added: My Own Choice of Subject. Otherwise the page was empty.

‘Well, Colin, old lad,’ the master had said, ‘what is your own choice of subject?’

‘Please, sir, I can’t think of one.’

Here he was again, once more in the same boat.

That time, however, rescue had been at hand.

‘What about Myself on Sports Day?’

‘Please, sir, I wasn’t there. It was my father’s holiday and I was taking my fortnight.’

‘And had the good sense to miss the maths paper, I remember. Well, imagine you were there. You can do that, can’t you? Pretend you won the four hundred metres.’

‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’

‘All part of the service, so get a move on. The lesson’s half over.’

But now there was no kindly assistance forthcoming and Palgrave’s dilemma had reached the stage of giving him sleepless nights and a daily sensation of near panic.

‘I can’t have dried up already!’ he told himself despairingly. ‘If I have, bang goes my dream of giving up this miserable job and becoming a professional writer.’

He jettisoned his gloomy thoughts after giving a last glance of loathing at the ink-stained empty desks, smiled at the cleaner as she came in with her tea-leaves, broom and pail, and went whistling down the stone stairs to the masters’ lobby. Cheerful masculine voices were exchanging jests and holiday farewells and from the adjoining lobby came the inexorable clacking of female voices from the distaff portion of the staff.

Palgrave took his mackintosh from its peg, responded to one or two friendly quips and then went into the staffroom to collect his briefcase and a couple of books he did not want the cleaners to handle, and found the room in the occupation of his particular buddy, a young man named Winblow, who was clearing out a locker. He desisted when Palgrave came in.

‘Oh, hullo, Colin,’ he said. ‘Thought you’d gone. You’re off on the sacred quest tomorrow, then, are you?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Meet me at the Dog and Duck at six and I’ll buy you a drink and wish you luck.

Meet me at gloaming at the Dog and Duck,

And in their witches’ brew I’ll wish you luck!

How’s that for a rhyming couplet?’

‘Lousy. All right, I’ll meet you when I’ve done my packing. Thank God for the invention of the internal combustion engine! One doesn’t any longer need to travel light.’

‘No. Even room for a dead body in a four-seater’s boot. Why don’t you write a thriller if you’re stuck for a plot?’

‘Because a thriller has to have a plot. That’s the one thing it can’t do without. See you at seven, not six. I’ll have all my gear marshalled by then, I trust. Six is too early to get all my packing done.’

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