It was the news of that dramatic hot-air ballooning accident near the old market-town of Suttington recently that recalled to me – and with what I must confess was an odd little chill at the mention of that name – an incident there many years ago, when some friends and I were enjoying a walking holiday in that pleasant, slightly out-of-the-way part of England. I have never had occasion to find myself in Suttington again, or even anywhere close to it, and indeed I have not lived in England or even visited there at all in recent times; and having since then also fallen out of touch with those friends, the matter had faded in my memory, displaced – as I suppose is usually the way, and certainly with me – by more recent events and larger preoccupations. Yet its memory never quite went away, perhaps in part because it seemed to me to express something of life’s fragility; of the human condition more generally, with all its poignancy and frailties and dark puzzles. A discovery a few days ago has only reinforced those feelings.
Suttington was (and I assume still is) a pleasant small town, quiet, picturesque without being really touristy, and with plenty of unspectacular but satisfying countryside around it. I imagine that many hundreds, if not thousands, of people must pass through it during the course of each year, much as my companions and I did, hiking the moderately-known Way or trail of which it is one of the several stopping-points. We had arranged to spend the night at a cheap bed-and-breakfast establishment on the fringe of town: an ordinary, fairly modern house, modest, uncharming, characterless, offering guests a few rather plain bedrooms plus the use of the blandly utilitarian living-room (with its shabby, much-vacuumed carpeting, a lounge-suite that had seen better days, and a large television), together with a cheerful dining room where the cooked breakfast was to be partaken-of.
We got to the town in the late afternoon, approximately on schedule, and went directly to the house to check in and to leave our backpacks in our rooms before heading out to have a look around the town and then enjoy a visit to a pub for beers, an early dinner, and back to the B&B by that establishment’s required nine o’clock curfew.
The lady of the house (I’ll call her Mrs. Smith) was a large, no-nonsense sort of middle-aged person, a businesslike owner-operator of her little guest-establishment. I suppose she was pleasant enough in her gruff way, but was by no means chatty or engaging in the way that many such landladies are. I had the impression that although she had long since reconciled herself to enduring the comings and goings of strangers in her house, she had never liked it; and that she always felt a little put-upon, as well as habitually wary, even as she provided what she knew to be expected of her (and, it must be said, not a whit more than what was expected). Possibly, had we been staying longer than a single night, she might have invested more friendliness and warmth in her interactions with us; or perhaps she just happened not to be at her most socially-sparkling on that occasion, for whatever reason; but probably my impression of her was accurate enough. In retrospect, she had more reason than most to be a little wary of idle chit-chat, but that is jumping ahead a bit.
We outlined for Mrs. Smith our plans for the evening, assured her that we would be back not later than the appointed hour so as not to inconvenience or disturb her, and walked into the main part of town for a little sightseeing and some well-earned refreshment. It proved to be one of those nice, old-fashioned towns that have had no particular reason to grow significantly larger in modern times and so are mostly low-rise and antique in their architecture, and in which it is therefore easy enough to discern where the center is: usually with a prominent church-steeple and a cluster of other venerable-looking buildings around a central marketplace square, and with but one or two modestly mid-sized modern buildings (rightly excluded from that charmed circle, or rather square) located in nearby streets. Certainly we ourselves spent considerably more time sampling the pubs than seeing the sights (which in truth seemed to be modest and unassuming, and not much different from a few hundred other country towns), and I remember it being an enjoyable, fairly mellow evening.
Walking holidays are apt to be physically taxing, even when one is young. We’d been covering a lot of ground already, and it also seemed a long, long thirsty while since we’d had our (rather less leisurely) pub lunch along the way to Suttington. Anyway, a few pleasant pints, some salty snacks and a hearty bit of pub dinner later, and it was time to start making our way back to the B&B, where we would relax, probably watch some of the 9 o’clock news, perhaps enjoy a hot bath, and hit the sack, for although we were on holiday we had our own schedule to keep, not to mention Mrs. Smith’s, the next morning.
We were (I think) on our third pub of the evening by that stage. I’ll call it ‘Ye Olde Gyppy Tummy’: it wasn’t exactly a gastro-pub, unless possibly gastro stood for gastroenteritis or something along those lines. We emerged to find ourselves a little uncertain of our bearings. None of us had ever been in that town before. We’d left the maps back with the rest of our gear at Mrs. Smith’s, and most of the streets were of the narrow and higgledy-piggledy variety. Opinion among us differing as to the right way back to the house, and in view of the fact that we were getting perilously close to Mrs. Smith’s stipulated curfew time and didn’t wish to have a pleasant evening spoiled by browbeating or worse, we swallowed our pride and asked a local-looking passer-by how to get to what I’ll call Garden Road, since I’ve retained no recollection of its actual name.
“Which end of it do you want?” he replied obligingly, and we told him the number of the house and that it was Mrs. Smith’s bed-and-breakfast establishment, in case that helped. It did, in a way: at any rate he evidently knew it, or of it. Not in a good way, however, as his subsequent remarks made clear. I reproduce them here along the lines that I seem to recall, but no doubt I do so with some small inaccuracy or unintentional literary license on my part. Certainly I don’t vouch for their exactness, word for word, but they were approximately as follows, and were delivered (I should add) in an earnest and pragmatic fashion, seemingly intended quite as much to inform – perhaps even to warn – as to talk scandal wholly for the undoubted pleasure of talking scandal:
“Oh? There was a young man stayed there a few years ago and never been seen since, alive or dead. There’s some as say he’s buried in the back garden, but the Police never got a warrant to look, for whatever reason. Not enough evidence, I suppose. Her husband (a retired Local Council official, he was, a fair bit older than her) died a month or two later, and tongues wagged even more.
His death was taken as natural causes, but some claim he knew too much. I’m not saying any of it’s true, mind. There’s some around here as could talk your ears off on the subject, for lack of anything better. Anyway, if you still want to go there (and I reckon you probably do).…” and he duly gave us the necessary directions, his manner firmly conveying that he’d said all that he intended to say on the more salacious aspects. We didn’t, therefore, seek to draw him out any further on these allegations, but blithely assured him that there was safety in numbers, and thanked him for his help. Joking lightheartedly of the prospect of the door being opened by a serial-killer psycho landlady, we headed off in the way indicated by him, reaching the house without incident and just barely on the right side of the stipulated curfew time.
We of course said nothing of that chance encounter to Mrs. Smith, whose laconic manner in no way invited prolonged – let alone intrusive – conversation. We settled down docilely to watch the main BBC television news with her, and even when, after a while, she got up and disappeared off to the kitchen we naturally refrained from conversing about our hostess in her own sitting-room. Later, upstairs, rather quietly among ourselves, we joked about it briefly before settling down for the night: some sardonic humor with reference to the back garden and our prospects of surviving the night, but of course with no actual misgivings being involved, bearing in mind, not least, that there were three of us (all able-bodied) to her one; and if, on the other hand, she were to choose to poison us with the Full English Breakfast the next morning, there probably wasn’t much to be done about it anyway, so best to put it all down to ill-natured tittle-tattle, and not be bothered by it. And so to bed.
My sleep, however, wasn’t good, despite being very tired. Whether it was too much beer after a long day’s tramping, or more likely something disagreeable in the pub food, or possibly the stranger’s dark remarks combined with the unfamiliar environment, I’m not sure. In a strange setting I never sleep as well as I would like to, although this was worse than usual. Anyway, I was up and feeling a bit uncomfortable about the general region of stomach and bowels during the night. Or was I? Frankly I’ve never been altogether sure about this, and just conceivably I only dreamt it. As I recall, it did somehow seem imbued at the time with an odd feel, although this may simply have been, as I say, the beer, or the belly, or the time of night; or perhaps, without my fully realizing it, my mind had been as unsettled by what we’d been told by the stranger as my stomach had seemingly been unsettled by my dinner. In any event, my recollection is that I got up in the middle of the night to use the shared guest-bathroom, which was located down the hall.
A little night-light had been left switched on near the bathroom door for such occasions as this, but the house seemed otherwise to be in total darkness, and the rather cheerless hallway itself was dim and unfriendly to the point of being spooky. Other than from my own room (whose door I’d left ajar), no light emanated from the bedrooms as I quietly made my way to the lavatory, nor were any sounds to be heard until I made them myself in that little room – afraid while doing so that they might practically wake the entire household. Afterwards, the sounds of the flushing toilet seemed disturbingly loud too, and I delayed opening the door to the hallway for a longish while, until the toilet cistern had eventually settled down to a mere slight peaceful gurgling.
It was as I was returning to my room, passing by what I supposed at the time (or perhaps thereupon supposed would be more accurate) must be Mrs. Smith’s bedroom door – it wasn’t one of our bedrooms, anyway – that I heard what seemed like her voice, inside that unlit room. Whether she was talking (quite slowly and calmly) in her sleep, or aloud to herself for some reason, or possibly it was my tired mind or overactive nerves playing tricks on me in that dark and silent, entirely ordinary yet strangely forbidding hallway, I don’t know. We had rather been under the impression that we were the only lodgers staying in the house that night, but bearing in mind that Mrs. S wasn’t of a chatty or open disposition, it’s possible that there was some other occupant unbeknownst to me and my friends, and that that other occupant was a woman whose voice I wrongly took to be that of our hostess; although if so, that woman kept entirely to herself the following morning.
“Garden”, I seemed to hear her say, although with the closed door between us her words came quite softly. “Not a soul in the garden. Fertilizer. Good for the soil. Soul. All Souls. Forgiveness.” The words were a little slurred, most likely spoken in sleep; in any event, slightly indistinct – and also, as you can imagine, decidedly creepy, in the circumstances.
I had, I must confess, stood stock-still when I’d heard her voice, gripped as I was by a mixture of emotions: to begin with, a certain lingering embarrassment at my recent nocturnal wind-concert; then my sheer surprise at hearing Mrs. Smith’s voice; and my strong, if perhaps also a little sleepy-woozy, curiosity to hear quite what it was that she was saying. (I believe on that occasion I was probably closer, certainly in spirit if not in stooped sordid actuality, to listening at a keyhole than I have ever been, before or since.) Hearing her words though – calm-sounding, ruminative, but decidedly eerie in the utter quiet of that dark midnight hallway – my mental discomfort had only increased. I certainly had no desire to be detected listening-in, or to wake her if she were asleep, or even to be there at all. I therefore resumed walking (as quietly and as swiftly as I could) the short distance back to my room, where, closing the door behind me, I was glad to be alone and to be able to lie back down on my small but comforting bed, to resume my slumbers if I could.
Perhaps oddly, in the circumstances, though very much to my relief, I thereafter sank quickly into the sound and restorative sleep that I needed. Either that or possibly it had all been a dream, but I’m bound to say that my recollection of dreams is seldom quite so strong – and certainly never quite as detailed – as that, and therefore I am rather disinclined to believe that it was not real.
The following morning was agreeable enough (we awoke unslaughtered in our beds) and passed off without untoward incident of any kind. We refrained from any talk of the alleged past events while we remained under Mrs. Smith’s roof – not, of course, from any fear of being bumped off or violently accosted by our hostess, but merely from continuing prudence and common courtesy, not wishing to cause hurt or offense or to provoke any testiness or lecturing (one sensed that she might be quite a virago if she felt herself disrespected in her own home). Over breakfast we probably glanced more often – and certainly more meaningfully – into the back garden (a nice, quite secluded, ordinary affair of lawn and flower-beds and such, surrounded by hedges, trees and high stone-and-wood fencing) than we might otherwise have done. But while there may have been a few covert humorous gestures and secret grins exchanged amongst ourselves, we said nothing to indicate having heard the ugly rumors of the previous night, lest Mrs. Smith overhear us from the adjoining kitchen (there was only a flimsy swinging-door between the two rooms) where she variously bustled about or lurked silently, doing whatever it was that she was doing, her ears no doubt being well-practiced at the art of monitoring a nearby roomful of young male strangers who have not yet paid their bills.
It was only after we had settled up with Mrs. Smith and departed her house that the conversation turned again to the allegations, although of course we had little of substance to go on and we were mostly just speaking facetiously of it anyway, albeit with some genuine curiosity too. Had we for some reason had occasion to stay longer in the town, I suppose we might well have sought to elicit some gossipy details in a local café, or something along those lines, but of course we had another fairly brisk day’s walking ahead of us, and a schedule to keep. I confess that I said nothing to my companions about my nocturnal visit to the bathroom and what I myself had heard or possibly had only dreamt hearing. And so the rest of our little walking holiday proceeded enjoyably, each new stretch yielding its own fresh fodder for conversation or banter; and life afterwards went on entirely heedless of the Suttington rumors, to which I can’t imagine that my friends gave any further thought at all, and I myself only a little, now and then.
Thinking back on it recently – thinking back on those quiet nocturnal words of hers, I mean – it has seemed to me that they must indeed have been uttered in sleep, or at least in a reverie of some kind; also that they are capable of being interpreted in more ways than just one. Were they (as they could be taken to be) the words of a guilty person, a person who has murdered at least one fellow human being? Or were they rather the brooding, fretful words of an innocent person whose mind has been understandably oppressed by acute awareness of unfounded allegations of a most serious nature against her, of reckless or malicious speculation, of slanderous local gossip, perhaps even by her very neighbors and regular associates?
I know which of those two possibilities I would like to believe was the case, but there is another, more recent, wrinkle to this story. The other day I was going through some old clothes with a view to giving them to charity and creating more room in my closets. One of those garments was an elderly but still serviceable waterproof jacket of Suttington vintage that I have not really worn for a number of years, in part because I have since bought better ones and in part because at one stage a ballpoint pen (one of those inexpensive disposables with a pointy cap over the business end) had managed to find its way through the lining of one of the jacket’s many pockets and had become trapped inside the lining in quite an annoying way, such that in certain ranges of motion I was forever jabbing myself slightly on its top or its bottom.
It’s one of those odd little quirks of life that I had never quite had the patience to extricate my pen before now (when to have done so would obviously have benefited me in a number of ways) but that I felt it incumbent upon me to do so before giving the jacket away to charity; but the human mind is nothing if not quirky, and sometimes a lot worse. Anyway, I thrust the jacket into the light of day on a table, spread it out a bit, and made the effort to feel around for the pen (which didn’t take much locating) and for the gap in the lining (which did).
It was while persuading the pen to allow itself to be extracted without doing further mischief to the pocket-lining that I found (also inside the lining) an almost-empty book of matches, of whose presence in there I’d been entirely unaware.
I’m not a smoker, nor one of those people who collect match-books as souvenirs, or who pocket them against the possibility of needing to strike a light in some adventurous predicament or other, so it was both a surprise and a puzzle to find it there at all. I’d bought the jacket new, and couldn’t remember having ever loaned it to anyone. It was a typical match-book, the kind that are printed with the name and brief details of a business and left for people to take, as advertising or as a handy reminder. This one was for a place called The Sunshine Café, a place that certainly rang no bells with me; an odd little discovery, in fact, made odder still by the address, which (in smaller letters) proved to be Suttington. This latter, I have to say, made my heart race a bit.
I have examined this unexpected, frankly undesired, little object a number of times since then, half expecting – though rather dreading – to discern some years-old scribbled message, or even some other sign or thing that might suggest some particular purpose for it seemingly having been thrust rather ungently into that inner pocket of mine all those years ago – I can only presume, by Mrs. Smith, though why on earth she should have done so is far from clear. The jacket was certainly hanging on the clothes-hook on the inside of my bedroom door that night in her house: its bright red color against the yellowed white of that door is another of my memories of that night, when returning to my room from the darkness of the corridor.
The World Wide Web was as yet in its early days back then, and at that time one simply did not have anything like the sort of convenient, high-speed access to the on-line cornucopia of digitalized information – old newspaper reports, discussion-boards, or whatever else – that is available today. I have since, from time to time (and especially now that I am writing this), wondered about what was said all those years ago, both by the gruff-but-helpful stranger on the street and later that night by the even gruffer lady whom I’ve called Mrs. Smith (if indeed it was her whom I heard). I imagine that a bit of internet searching might quite easily shed light on a situation whose bare bones alone (if that is not possibly all-too-apt a metaphor?) were imparted to us; but to-date I have not performed any such search, and I find, even now, that I have no definite plans to do so. I’ve been racking my brains to see if I can recall, from so many years ago, having heard anything in the British news-media of a young hiker’s disappearance in a country town that might possibly (though the name would’ve meant nothing to me at that time) have been Suttington. It seems to me that I can. Moreover, I have a horrible feeling that his surname may have been Matcham.