‘Here she comes!’ Hissed Mary over her shoulder. Gordy must have dropped the red scarf, which is the signal. He’s our lookout, on account of being the only one with a pair of binoculars, but also because he’s in the Scouts. His mission today was to keep an eye on the front door and warn the rest of us, crouching behind the church wall, if it opened, even a crack.
Mary is the brains of the outfit, mainly because she’s six months older than the rest of us, and also because she always comes first in arithmetic. Finlay, is our clue-keeper, he keeps his well-thumbed notebook in his jacket pocket and his glasses, permanently perched on the end of his nose. And then there’s me, Joanie. My dad runs the post office and shop. We get a lot of clues there, and it’s how we first found out about the strange goings-on at Oystercatcher Cottage.
It’s August, perfect weather for detecting, and we are well into the second week of our long school holidays, but just at the start of another clue-gathering day.
I’m not sure how we first became suspicious of Miss Parker. It was a collection of things, that when put together, added up to one big thing. Of course it had all made perfect sense at the time. And as our suspicions grew, we became more convinced that something very fishy was going on at Oystercatcher Cottage.
We didn’t know much about Miss Parker. We just got up one morning and there she was, already moved in. But everyone could tell she was a Sassenach, a southerner, because she had an accent you could cut glass on. Mrs McDonald, who kept the wet-fish shop and who had an opinion on everything, and everybody, thought she must be ‘something in the military,’ as she had that ‘air’ about her. This was believable, because Miss Parker was, what we call on our small Scottish island, ‘a tidy person,’ and everybody agreed on that point. From her shiny, ‘see your face in them’, black lace-up shoes, that clip-clopped over the rain-washed cobbles, to her knee-length skirt, buttoned-up blouse and navy-blue cardigan. And every day she managed to arrange her light-brown hair in a wind-defying hairdo, something that many of the island women had long given up ever on.
But she must have heard on the Shipping Forecast that we were expecting blustery weather again today. As she had her dark-green raincoat firmly belted around her waist, her hair scraped back under a see-through rain hood. We knew she listened to the Shipping Forecast every day because Gordy lives next door, and hears it through the wall. It’s switched on every morning at 05.33 precisely, and Gordy says his dad uses it now instead of an alarm clock.
But why does Miss Parker listen to the Shipping Forecast every morning? We were determined to find out. Mary thought she was waiting for a secret code, which Miss Parker would then pass to an enemy submarine waiting off Fisherman’s Point. We had often seen her walking that way along the harbour wall, carrying a torch. But, as Gordy pointed out, most people carried a torch at night, on account of the island not having any street lights. But still, it was a possibility.
She’s got us listening to the Shipping Forecast now, as we try to decipher the secret code. We can recite the stations word-perfect too…Hebrides, Fair Isle, Viking, German Bight, North Utsire, Cromarty…And we had all paid close attention this morning, so each of us had our raincoats on…
The gate clicked shut and Miss Parker started out in the direction of the shops. Moments later, Gordy joins the rest of us on the grass behind the wall. He’d spotted a white envelope in her shopping basket and that could only mean one thing. We shared a meaningful glance. I’d have to run the most direct route. It would mean cutting across the graveyard, but this was no time for a detective to be skittish.
I was already installed behind the shop counter, nonchalantly turning the pages of the latest edition of Girls Weekly, when the shop bell tinkled, signalling the arrival of Miss Parker. I was sure she could see my heart pounding in my throat after that quick sprint, and a little bit because of cutting through the graveyard. This week’s mag was a good one. They were giving away a free pink whistle, might come in handy for Gordy I thought. But dad’s cheery welcome brought me back to the real reason I was there, so I listened intently.
‘Morning Miss Parker. Looks like rain again today. What can I do for you?’
‘Good morning Mr Fraser. Yes, I heard it on the Shipping Forecast. This is going to the Soviet Union.’ She said in her perfect BBC accent, placing the letter on the weighing scales. ‘Moscow to be precise. How long will it take? It’s very important…must be delivered before next Friday.’
The Soviet Union! Last week it had been Germany and the week before that, some country we had never heard of, let alone pronounce. We’d had to look it up in Finlay’s granddad’s Encylopaedia Britannica.
‘That will be 2 shillings. It will easily arrive before next Friday.’
‘Thank you Mr Fraser. Has the newspaper I ordered arrived yet?
‘It certainly has!’ My dad replied, retrieving a newspaper rolled up in brown wrapping paper. ‘That will be one shilling and sixpence please. Took a bit of finding I can tell you. Shall I add it to your regular delivery?’
‘Not at the moment, thank you Mr Fraser, but have you any more of that delicious Battenburg Cake?’ I could feel Miss Parker’s eyes burning into the back of my Girls Weekly, as she tapped her shiny shoe on the flagstone floor, and dad gathered her shopping. She dropped some loose change into the Salvation Army collection box on the counter, ‘and sixpence worth of sweets for Joanie and her friends too Mr Fraser.’ She placed a shiny sixpence on the counter in front of me, winked, then left the shop.
My cheeks blazed. She must be on to us! I’d better tell the others to play it cool.
‘What is it Joanie. I thought you’d gone out to play?’
‘That newspaper, was it foreign?’
‘Chinese. Not many calls for a Chinese newspaper in a Scottish fishing village I can tell you!’
When I got back to H.Q., (Gordy’s garden shed), they were sitting around our milk-crate table, munching through a packet of digestives.
‘She’s onto us!’ I dropped a paper bag of mixed sweets next to the remains of the biscuits. ‘Miss Parker bought us sixpence worth!’ I said with meaning.
‘Well she’s not buying us off that easily.’ Mary said tersely, sharing them out equally.
‘We’d better keep a low profile for a few days.’ Gordy said, choosing some liquorice. ‘Where was the letter going?’
‘Soviet Union! I would have liked to get a closer look, but it’s an offence to tamper with Her Majesty’s Royal Mail. But Miss Parker said it had to be delivered in Moscow before next Friday!’
‘Moscow.’ Repeated Finlay, rubbing his nose deep in thought, before adding Moscow to a list.
‘Anything else?’ Asked Mary, chewing a caramel toffee.
‘She had ordered a Chinese newspaper!’
‘A Chinese newspaper?’ Finlay wrote furiously, his glasses wobbling dangerously on the end of his nose.
‘And…she bought another Battenburg Cake!’ Finlay ticked a list, then passed his notebook over to Mary, along with his well-chewed pencil.
‘I declare this meeting open.’ Mary began, putting the proceedings into an official capacity. Now let’s see. We have, in alphabetical order, Australia, Brazil, Czechoslovakia (the one we had needed the Encylopaedia Britannica for), China, England, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Scotland, South Africa, the USA, Wales, Yugoslavia and now the Soviet Union. And these are just the ones we know about! So what does this tell us?’
‘She’s got to be the head of an international spy ring,’ said Gordy, ‘she has contacts everywhere, even behind the Iron Curtain.’
‘Iron Curtain?’ Repeated Mary, ‘Don’t be silly Gordy. Whoever heard of a curtain made of iron?’
‘It was on the wireless,’ he replied looking puzzled and hurt at the same time.
‘But why the Soviet Union?’ I asked no-one in particular.
‘Precisely!’ Said Gordy, ‘and Germany, don’t forget Germany. Remember, she sent something there last week, and it’s only been five years since we stopped fighting them!’
Silenced descended at H.Q. We had all agreed not to talk about the war. At least not in front of Finlay, because his house had taken a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomber, clearing its bomb bay on a return trip. Total fluke the police had said at the time.
‘And don’t forget the Battenburg Cake. That’s from Germany!’ I added, completely forgetting the, lets not talk about Germany in front of Finlay, for Finlay’s sake, rule.
There was a long pause as Germany hung in the air, above the milk crate, like a bad smell.
‘Mrs Stuart the post lady,’ began Finlay, breaking into the heavy silence, ‘told old Mr Kirk the milkman, who told my grandma, that Miss Parker at Oystercatcher Cottage, gets letters from all over the world. So grandpa wants grandma, to ask old Mr Kirk the milkman, to ask Mrs Stuart the post lady, if she could ask Miss Parker at Oystercatcher Cottage, for stamps for his stamp collection.’ He polished his glasses carefully, on the corner of his jacket.
We exchanged dumbfounded looks. I don’t know who was more surprised, Finlay or us.
‘Anything else to add?’ Mary asked, scanning our blank faces and black-rimmed lips. We were still enjoying the liquorice.
‘Then I think it’s about time, we took it to the next level.’ Mary said.
‘But we’ve got to play it cool.’ Reminded Gordy.
‘O.K. We’ll agree to wait until Miss Parker goes on one of her ferry trips to the mainland. It’s a long round trip. We’ll have a couple of hours at the least. Now, everyone stand up against that wall.’
We all obeyed wondering what Mary was getting at.
‘Let’s see, who’s the tallest...? Finlay don’t fidget, Gordy straighten up! Mmm…Joanie you’re taller by an inch. That should be enough to see in her back windows!’
‘I’m not doing that!’ I was still spooked from the churchyard, the thought of snooping around Miss Parker’s back garden was not worth thinking about.
‘Let’s do a show of hands then.’ I suggested. ‘Mmm…1,2,3 Phew! Three to one. Maybe something else will turn up? ‘I said, relief washing over me, like high tide over a hunted crab.
‘We need to find out something soon.’ Mary continued, visibly annoyed that her window-peeking plan had been out-voted three to one. ‘It could be a matter of National Security!’
But as it turned out we didn’t have to wait much longer. A few days later we were sitting at H.Q., playing it cool. Finlay had brought hot oatcakes made by his grandma. It had been all quiet on the Miss Parker front. In fact she hadn’t stirred in two days. Each day was the same. We would meet up after breakfast, Gordy would go out with his binoculars and wait, like a deer-stalker in the heather. But she never emerged. We decided she must be really busy indoors with spying, learning Chinese, or maybe already at the Fisherman’s Point in the submarine.
It was Gordy who decided. ‘I think Mary had the right idea.’ Mary beamed and looked vindicated. ‘I’ll go round the back and take a quick look through the window.’ He sounded decisive. But I think he was just fed up with lying on the damp grass.
‘What? You’re not serious Gordy? What happened to playing it cool?’ I said swallowing the last of my oatcake.
‘I don’t think she’s in there!’ He replied pointing to the cottage. ‘When was the last time anyone saw her? It’s been very quiet next door too. Haven’t even heard the Shipping Forecast. Dad missed the fishing boat this morning, as he didn’t wake up in time!’
‘What! Miss Parker hasn’t been listening to the Shipping Forecast? Why didn’t you tell us? Write it in the book Finlay.’ Mary said, using her best teacher voice. Finlay sat down and started writing.
So a few minutes later, in single file and officially breaking the ‘playing it cool’ agreement, we stepped noiselessly from H.Q. to the back garden of Oystercatcher Cottage, and dropped to our knees behind the back hedge. From this vantage, the cottage looked occupied. The curtains were drawn back and the dining-room lights were on. But as Gordy pointed out, it was almost 10 o’clock in the morning and they should have been switched off by now.
‘I’ve come out here first thing every morning,’ Gordy began, ‘and those lights haven’t been turned off once. She can’t be inside. She’s probably already at the submarine and forgot she left the lights on! Wish me luck, I’m going in.’
Mary, Finlay and I held our collective breath as Gordy ran the length of the hedge, hunched and silent as a soldier out on reconnaissance. He sidled up to the back of the house, taking cover behind a large flowering shrub that grew beside the window.
Gordy looked in.
‘Yikes!’ We all said in unison.
In seconds he had picked up a plant pot, smashed the window, lifted the latch and jumped in.
‘I didn’t mean to break-in!’ Mary said her voice squeaking with shock.
‘Shh…Listen!’ said Finlay. A high-pitched sound pierced the air. The whistle! We followed Gordy’s commando route along the back hedge, but when we looked through the window, we could see there had been no need for such stealthy precautions.
Miss Parker was lying in a crumpled heap on the dining-room floor, a nasty bump on the back of her head. Chairs were scattered around the room, crockery smashed on the floor and the remains of a meal scattered about her. It looked like she had been there for some time.
Gordy let us in and Mary, whose mum was the district nurse, so knew about these things, knelt on the floor beside Miss Parker and confirmed she was still breathing. Gordy rang the emergency number on the hall telephone, while I covered Miss Parker with my coat, and Finlay gently patted the back of her hand. We sat, waiting for the ambulance in the dining-room with Miss Parker, opposite a wall covered in photographs of children, of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Each child’s picture connected with string and drawing pins, to villages, towns, cities and countries, on the largest map of the world we had ever seen.
A few days later the island was buzzing with the news that the police had arrested a burglar, wanted in connection with a series of robberies on the mainland. He had Miss Parker’s handbag amongst other stolen items too. And dad explained to us that Miss Parker helped children all over the world orphaned by the war. And every year they got a card on their birthday too.
But the most remarkable thing we saw that day, hung above the fireplace. A photograph of Miss Parker, standing proudly in her Royal Navy uniform, medals and ribbons pinned to her breast pocket. Above her a framed citation and medal.
WRNS V. PARKER
THE VICTORIA CROSS
And for Service to Her Country
in the Face of Enemy Action
So not a spy then after all. The long summer holidays stretched out before us…but luckily Finlay had an idea.
* * * * *