Half a pound of tuppenny.., p.1

Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice, page 1


Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice

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Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice

  Half A Pound Of Tuppenny Rice

  Every summer a group of families holiday at a hotel near St Ives, Cornwall, but in 1972 their lives are shattered and they never meet up again. A hotel porter is found poisoned in a country lane, while later that week the body of a guest is washed ashore. Five holiday-makers are questioned, but no one is charged.

  Grant, a teenager at the time, had long been troubled by the deaths and, forty years on, determines to uncover the truth. He heads to the West Country to resolve the mystery and has a terrifying overnight stay at an inn. Why does he feel he is being followed, and why does he keep hearing eerie voices singing ‘Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice’? Is someone trying to put him off the scent? He discovers a number of individuals who may be able to provide answers to some of the more bizarre aspects of the mysterious deaths, such as the cryptic message in a bottle and the significance of the fabled Mermaid of Zennor. After Grant rekindles connections with childhood friends, he tracks down a home movie of their Cornish vacation that sheds considerable light on the murky past.

  A showdown at Mevagissey results in a third death. When the surviving St Ives holiday-makers meet up at the inquest, the truth is uncovered and the ‘weasel’ revealed. But at the memorial service something occurs in the graveyard that leaves the mourners more troubled than ever… David Coubrough’s début novel is an absorbing mystery that grips from start to finish.

  DAVID COUBROUGH founded the specialist hospitality firm Portfolio Recruitment in the 1980s and twice sold it to public companies, on the second occasion becoming chief executive of the PLC. He is on the board of governors of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and is a past chairman of Bespoke Hotels and the Castle Hotel at Taunton. He is a director of Maldon Sea Salt and is on the board of Bloomsbury Properties. He co-owns the Beehive pub and restaurant in Berkshire and is currently working on his second novel.

  To Victoria, for all the love and support

  In memory of my late father Charles Ronald Lacy Coubrough, 1921–2011, and my mother June Patricia Barbara Coubrough, 1924–2014

  With love and gratitude


  The author wishes to acknowledge the support and assistance of the following people: David Godwin, my literary agent, whose support and advice has played such a crucial part throughout; Richard Whitehouse; Natalie Guerin; Geoff Helliwell; Eleanor Randall; Kit Chapman; Chris Sheppardson; Richard Mitchell; Jonathan Barnes; Michael Parslew; Jackie Kane; David Wiltshire; Mike Seymour; Sarah Phillips; Philip Sisson, Barbara Gurlach and David Gabriel; my four children Olivia, Alice, Emily and Jonathan, my sister Pauline and the de Galleani family. Finally all at Peter Owen Publishers, especially Nick Kent and Antonia Owen.


  The Morrison Family

  Grant Morrison, solicitor

  Brigit Morrison, wife of Grant and mother of their two grown-up daughters; head of an IT recruitment consultancy firm

  Rose Morrison, mother of Grant

  Dennis Morrison, father of Grant

  Glen Morrison, brother of Grant; married to Mandy

  Gina Morrison, aunt of Grant and twin sister of Rose

  The Hughes-Webb Family

  Richard Hughes-Webb, cardiologist

  Estelle Hughes-Webb, first wife of Richard

  Yvie Hughes-Webb, second wife of Richard

  Suzie Hughes-Webb (married name Barber), daughter of Richard and Yvie

  Tony Hughes-Webb, son of Richard and Yvie

  Frank Barber, husband of Suzie

  The Galvin Family

  Paul Galvin, accountant and property speculator

  Alison Galvin, wife of Paul

  Danny Galvin, son of Paul and Alison

  Sharon Galvin, daughter of Paul and Alison

  The Jessops Family

  Ted Jessops, factory owner

  Anne Jessops, wife of Ted

  Caroline Jessops, daughter of Ted and Anne (married name Howe-Jessops)

  Steve Jessops, son of Ted and Anne

  Joanna, illegitimate daughter of Ted

  The Charnley Family

  Arnie Charnley, entrepreneur

  Lucy ‘the Duchess’ Charnley, wife of Arnie

  Nick Charnley, son of Arnie and Lucy

  Jenny Charnley, daughter of Arnie and Lucy

  The Silver Family

  Bob Silver, merchant banker

  Margaret Silver, wife of Bob; GP

  Fiona Silver, daughter of Bob and Margaret

  Henry Silver, older son of Bob and Margaret

  Justyn Silver, younger son of Bob and Margaret

  The Wallace Family

  Agatha Wallace, benefactor of Hector

  Hector Wallace, nephew of Agatha

  The Vernon Family

  Mark Vernon, owner of a bank

  Robert Vernon, son of Mark

  The Simpkins Family

  James Simpkins, hotel manager

  Jean Simpkins, wife of James

  The Youlen Family

  Tom Youlen, hotel night porter

  Ivan Youlen, nephew of Tom

  Tom Youlen Junior, son of Ivan

  Dickie Youlen, brother of Tom, plasterer at Sandersons

  The Holford Family

  Ken Holford, itinerant

  Mary Holford, said to be wife of Ken

  Clive Holford, son of Ken and Mary

  Other Characters

  Trevor Mullings, fisherman

  Robin Sanderson, founder of Sandersons, Penzance

  Inspector Roy Higham, senior investigating police officer

  PC Gary Stobart, junior investigating police officer



  ‘I nearly died last night.’ Grant spoke with his head bowed. Brigit, his wife, sitting at the breakfast table a few feet away, looked across at him. Had he made a statement requiring a response, had he simply made a statement, or had he made an announcement? She held her look, observing him closely.

  ‘What?’ she eventually felt compelled to ask. And so he revealed his dream. He told her he thought he was back in Zennor. He didn’t know what time of night it started. It began, he said, with the same tapping on the door he had heard that night staying at the bed-and-breakfast by the Cornish coast. Next it changed to loud knocking, and the noise from the corridor outside increased substantially. Before long his door was being thumped and splintered open, wood crashing in a heap on the floor. He was petrified, unable to utter a word, even though he was trying to shout. His room was suddenly filled with shadowy figures, one of whom said, ‘We’re police officers, and we’re arresting you, Grant Morrison, for the poisoning of Tom Youlen in 1972, leading to his death in 1977, and for the murder by drowning of Hector Wallace in 1972.’

  Brigit arched an eyebrow; a look he knew betrayed anxiety on her part.

  He continued. ‘When I woke up I couldn’t breathe. I could see, I could move, but I thought I was in limbo between life and death. I genuinely thought for a few moments I had actually died, that I was on the other side and that this was the beginning of the afterlife; this was my fate.’

  ‘Then what?’ Brigit tried to play it cool.

  ‘It took a few seconds before my respiratory system started working again – before I could breathe normally. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. After several minutes I’d calmed myself enough to realize it had been a horrific dream, but it was the waking from it that scared the living daylights out of me – quite literally.’

  She restrained a giggle. Grant could take himself very seriously and wouldn’t see the oddness of his last remark. Only he could be more scared waking from a nightmare than having one.

  ‘You see,’ he continued, ‘for several mi
nutes I just lay there taking short intakes of breath and exhaling from the pit of my stomach. Gradually my breathing returned to normal and I could feel the blood flow in my head.’ He stopped and stared ahead once more.

  She was unsure of whether to cuddle and reassure him or just to let him be for a while. She was unsettled by his story, and she didn’t really want to touch him right then; he seemed different, distant. She wondered about the recent trip to Cornwall he had undertaken alone. He had said, ‘I’ve got to find out the truth, Brig. I’ve got to know what happened.’ And now he had returned home apparently scared out of his wits by the two nights of extraordinary, sinister events he had experienced during his stay in the village of Zennor.

  At length Grant went on. ‘When I was in Zennor, one night at some unearthly hour, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard it.’


  ‘A soft voice that I thought at first was a woman’s. Singing “Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle …” I heard the first line in a dreamy haze, the second wide awake. “That’s the way the money goes …” I jumped out of bed, reaching for the door. Then I stopped myself, fearing I might be walking into a trap.’

  ‘Who was it?’

  ‘I don’t know. I have no idea, Brig. But there was something else that freaked me out. It seemed to be a child’s voice. And there was an echo – as if the words were being sung by a child in a cathedral choir.’

  His wife observed him. She had heard bits and pieces of his experiences as a teenager in Cornwall over the past few months, but during the previous twenty-five years she had known him he had never mentioned it at all. ‘D’you mean this is connected to what you have been banging on about for months now? And that this relates to the stuff that occurred forty years back?’

  Grant didn’t appear to hear her, but he told her more about his disturbed nights in Zennor. How music from the bar below his bedroom had woken him at four in the morning, with ‘Good Morning, Starshine’ from the 1960s’ musical Hair playing at high volume. At that time of night it had given him quite a start.

  ‘There were other things, Brig. There was the message.’

  ‘What message?’

  ‘I was in Porthcurno and came across Trevor Mullings, the fisherman who got drunk with Hector Wallace the night Hector drowned.’

  ‘So there was a real Hector Wallace – not just in your dream.’

  ‘Yes, there was. He used to stay with us at the hotel, and he left a message for his aunt, who was his companion and benefactor. “Dear Aunt Agatha, I will love you always …” They said it was written in blood and that he had added in ink, “Tonight I am not alone.” When he returned from the sea, cold and dead to the world, no one knew he had left a message. I recently discovered it in a bottle.’

  Brigit was becoming disoriented. ‘Are you sure you want to pursue this? I mean, why does it matter forty years on, for goodness’ sake?’

  ‘Oh, it does matter. It matters very much indeed.’


  20 AUGUST 1972

  ‘It was him.’

  ‘Who?’ the doctor whispered urgently, kneeling beside the stricken man who was lying on the grassy verge of the narrow lane. His face was shadowed by the hedge above, as she raised his right arm, feeling for his pulse.

  ‘Him from the hotel,’ he gasped, barely audibly. ‘He said he would … if I spoke.’ The words died on the man’s lips as his head fell back on to the ground; he was exhausted by the effort of forming the last words he would ever speak. The doctor lifted the man’s head, supporting the back of his neck. She examined his dull, lifeless eyes and without a backward glance said, ‘Call an ambulance. He’s suffered a stroke or heart attack.’ Margaret Silver’s voice held steadier than her thoughts.

  Aware that the man was close to death, the doctor was extremely concerned. She had recognized him as the night porter from the hotel near by where her family and a group of others returned every year in August for a fortnight’s holiday. His name was Tom Youlen. A short, squat local from Zennor, his face looked as if it had been chiselled from the craggy rocks that edged the nearby Cornish shoreline; his voice was so deep it could have challenged the foghorns of merchant ships plying their trade on the inhospitable waves below.

  That Sunday morning she had been on her way back from church with three fellow hotel guests. They had been driving down a tiny lane the width of a single car; their windows were open partly so they could listen out for oncoming vehicles. The passengers were silent, anxious that the driver should maintain full concentration, particularly as the road was growing increasingly narrow. However, their attention was arrested not by a vehicle but by a cry of ‘Puffin, shag, herring gull, gannet and chough’ from beyond the next sharp bend. Despite the driver, Mark Vernon, braking, their car only just avoided knocking down the unanticipated pedestrian. Had they not heard him first they probably would have hit him. The four watched in horror as the man staggered within a few inches of the bonnet before collapsing backwards into a hedgerow of thick thorn. Margaret was the first to reach him, and she helped him lie down on the grass, with Mark close behind her.

  At her command to summon an ambulance, Mark set off to make an emergency call from the nearest house. He wheezed with asthma as he rushed back to the car as fast as his spindly frame would permit. He drove off erratically, nearly sending the vehicle off the road when he hit a large pothole on his way. He thumped on the door of the first building he came across. Seagulls squalled, and a cool gust of fresh air swept in from the coast, causing him to shiver as he waited impatiently. Slowly the oak-panelled door opened and an elderly man peered out suspiciously.

  ‘So sorry. Someone … Someone’s collapsed in the lane. I urgently need to use your phone to call an ambulance. Please, this is an emergency.’ He struggled to articulate, but the old man led him straight to the telephone in the hallway, and his 999 call was answered speedily.

  The ambulance raced from Penzance, shuddering to a halt and blocking the entire lane, its siren still blaring. The collapsed night porter stared vacantly at the senior paramedic, his eyes resembling green marbles. He tried desperately to lift his head to speak, but his lips would not part, and no sound could be heard.

  Margaret addressed the paramedic. ‘I’m a doctor, and we found the man in the lane in a terribly confused state. He collapsed into the hedge after we braked to avoid hitting him. His name is Tom, I think. He works at our hotel. He said a few words just before you arrived.’ She told him the words the man had uttered.

  ‘What?’ The ambulance man, a rotund individual with over grown white sideburns, had hitherto appeared rather indifferent to the drama unfolding but now looked somewhat intrigued despite himself.

  One of the other passengers chipped in. ‘We know him. Tom’s the night porter at our hotel.’ The man’s jaunty Home Counties accent jarred with the Cornish paramedic.

  ‘I’m calling the police. Thanks for all your help,’ he said to the assembled group in the manner of a head teacher dismissing his pupils. ‘They may wish to take statements from you, so stick around, if you will, until they arrive.’

  As for Tom, he never said anything again. Margaret was right. He had suffered a stroke, and he died five years later with out regaining his ability to speak.

  These events, some ten days into the families’ two-week holiday, were to have repercussions for the next forty years and disturbed seventeen-year-old Grant Morrison in particular. Grant had also discovered around this time that his mother, Rose, had been having an affair with the father of one of the other families. He was Richard Hughes-Webb, a heart surgeon who returned each year to the hotel and who owned a cottage in Zennor. He used his holiday cottage for storing toxic materials that he used in experiments on animals and also, Grant was to discover to his dismay, for extramarital assignations.

  As the years had gone by, Grant’s preoccupation with these events, far from diminishing, had become more prominent, to the point where the business of Tom’s acci
dent came to haunt him profoundly. He couldn’t disconnect it from his mother’s involvement with Hughes-Webb, who had used the porter Tom as his caretaker and made him a complicit pawn. Tom, who minded the cottage for Hughes-Webb, never betrayed his boss and had been known to remark, ‘No one needs to know what goes on behind closed doors.’ Tom was paid handsomely for both his caretaking and his discretion, but he was to die prematurely some five years later.

  ‘It was him. Him from the hotel. He said he would … if I spoke.’

  For over forty years Tom’s words had been hard-wired into Grant’s brain. How had Hughes-Webb got away with it? Forensic reports had confirmed the cause of Tom’s death as ascariasis, a life-threatening infection caused by contaminated parasitic roundworm eggs, presumably ingested at Hughes-Webb’s cottage, but how the hotel porter came to ingest the eggs was never explained. Grant feared there had been either a botched, inadequate investigation or a cover-up. Either way, he could never banish the unsettling and unpleasant thoughts from his mind, particularly as his parents’ marriage had deteriorated so significantly after that holiday in 1972. Despite knowing that his father, Dennis, was dying of cancer, his mother had heartlessly continued her relationship with Hughes-Webb. Although his father died in 1974 and his mother twenty years later, it wasn’t until his mother’s twin sister, Gina, died in 2012 that Grant felt free to investigate.



  ‘That’s the place. That’s the hotel where it happened.’ Brigit followed Grant’s gaze across the bay to an imposing white building on the horizon, slowly emerging from the cold January morning fog. Sitting upstairs at a window table in a warm harbourside brasserie on the west coast of Cornwall, he fell silent, lost in troubled reflection. So much had happened since that time he thought he would never be able to recollect those distressing events; but his mind had taken a trip in a time machine. He was back in 1972, recalling it all with absolute clarity.

  Every year the families had travelled to the hotel from across the length and breadth of Britain. Some arrived early in the morning, fresh and raring to go, having put their cars on the overnight sleeper to Penzance; others turned up hot and exhausted after having driven up to ten hours in their vehicles from Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere in the days before air-conditioning. Even the London contingent would emerge from their cars aching and complaining about the narrow winding lanes in Devon and Cornwall in this era before dual carriage-ways. Thrown together for a two-week reunion in August every year, the families had come to resemble a club, a group of friends bonded together by successive summer holidays.

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