Sea-mist broods helplessly over Portsmouth, and Grace Lamerton is shrouded in doubt and gloom. True,so far, summer bookings have been steadily flowing in, despite notice of the move of address to Hayling Island: a complication that is surely outweighed by the prospect of the Coronation celebrations, the Spithead Fleet Review, air displays, fireworks and illuminations - the determined hopes of good things to come. There was no choice but to accept the future and confirm the bookings.
Even so, Grace is conscious that she hardly has the right to take them, and these good people, for granted, for as yet she has received no confirmation of the lease of Sinah Light. The owner, whose name is not disclosed, is abroad. Besides, her prospective partner, Betty Kimball, has not shown up for weeks. Yes, there have been Christmas and New Year, with all that they mean in a life like Betty’s, but doesn’t it just show what a fool she has been to trust in such a partnership? Where will Betty be on Coronation Night? And what of the uncertainty hovering over 30 Thistledown Avenue? Since that admonishment last September, even her permanent paying guests may not legally remain as lodgers. Yet Mr. Titheradge and poor Mrs.Trimpington hardly constitute P.G.’s, since the one pays no rent and the other, in exchange for his invaluable services, is charged none. Then, what about Mary Campion, whose summer holiday in Germany seems endless? She surely can’t be expected back at all. As for Mr.Quist, well! The postcards from Geneva, Milan, Austria and so on are all very interesting, but now she is beginning to regret not accepting a retaining fee for his room. And who was it after all who urged her to be more business-like? The whole question is, if the Hayling venture falls through, how many rooms – if any – will she be able to offer?
To make mastters worse, everyone, even the prudent 16-year old Arthur, is already treating Sinah Light as a foregone conclusion and the house as a new toy to play with, a new friend to inspect and hang around. In vain Grace has reminded them of more immediate concerns: Andy’s return to boarding-school and Nil’s scholarship exam. And what happens? Titheradge offers to take a day off from the Dockyard and run the boys over to the Island on his motorbike , to “do some sortin’ ait” – and in fact, even though it is Andy’s last day, and with no Betty, this may be the only chance of that. The next morning, though, after a restless night, she wakes with a feeling that it is all sheer fantasy. They are throwing good money after bad luck. Oh, better give up. If nothing comes through the post , (this endless waiting on a man!), she will send Titheradge off to his work and take Andy shopping.
The first post brings letters but no news. Grace tells Titheradge to go to work if he wishes . But instead he decides to mend the kettle and start stripping the walls of Mr.Quist’s room.At last the weather begins to clear, and just as she is putting on her coat and hat, the second post brings a letter from Munich. Mr.Quist will arrive “home” next Wednesday, and encloses a cheque for his rent. Grace smiles – not at the cheque only – but has no time to query that feeling before the phone rings. It is the estate agent. He has heard from the freeholder. The lease is confirmed. If she cares to call in at the office? . .
Half an hour later – two jubilant boys having chugged away with Titheradge on the motorbike, Nil in the sidecar, Andy on the pillion, while Arthur cycles on ahead – Grace, still in coat and hat, sinks into a kitchen chair. Only then does she recollect something else in the letter - something strange, about “your island venture.” How on earth does Mr. Quist know about that?
“Well,” Grace says that evening at supper, “rhe rain kept off for you, didn’t it? Did you work in the house or in the garden?”
“I did the garden,” Arthur replies. “Mr. Titheradge bought some tools in the village. We cut the grass first. You ought to see it. Like Lord’s.”
“The motorboke conked out on the way.,” adds Andy. “On the pontoon bridge! And there was a submarine lying underneath it. And we found a secret room, didn’t we, Nil? With a murder in it!”
“Andrew, now stop it.”
“We did, I tell you!”
“Which room? Who was murdered? What are you talking about?”
“He means the attic,” explains Nil.
“But you mustn’t! The estate agent told me that that room is to be kept locked! It’s a private part”
Andy explodes in giggles. “That’s what we saw. A private part! Through the keyhole.”
“Fool,” comments Arthur.
“A face. It was a face.”
“You didn’t see it properly.”
“Oh, yes I did!”
“Oh, no, you didn’t , I pushed you out of the way” –
“Never mind, what was it you saw, really?”
“No, you won’t believe me.”
“Godfathers, what on earth was it?”
Andy, beyond restraint, discharges a burst of cake crumbs. Itwzza – bhu-u-umhmh!”
“Andrew – now, be serious. Take a breath and” –
But Andy’s voice is just a whisper. “Someone’s . . .bum.”
Everyone, Grace too, is caught up and swept over the brink of joyous, meaningless laughter. Arthur is the first to recover, partially at least. “All right, now, you’re telling us that you saw – a bu-hu-um?”
Andy manages an emphatic nod.
“A real one? A bottom?”
Amid more squeals, he nods again.
“Well, and whose was it?”
“How should I know? It didn’t have a name on it.”
“What – sort of, on its own? Just – a bum.”
“It was all I could see.”
“I say, you chaps,” screams Nil, “isn’t that a jolly old botty over there?”
“Did it move?”
“Perhaps it was asleep.”
“Coo! A dead bum! Was it shot or poisoned, do you think, Watson?”
“Might have been suicide.”
Another gale of laughter.
“Now, Andy, be sensible, darling. Was it a lady’s or a gentleman’s? I mean, was it wearing trousers or a skirt?”
“No, it was all white and bare.”
“I tell you,” interposes Nil, “it was too small for a bum. It was more the size of someone’s cheek.”
“No, it was just far off.”
“How far off could it be in a room?”
“You don’t know how big the room is.”
“Was it on anything – like legs, or a back? Or just floating about?”
“There was a bit of a window, and the bum was sort of on it. Leaning, or falling.”
“A dead bum falling out of a window.”
“Did it jump or was it pushed?”
“Are you sure the window wasn’t, say, a picture frame, and it was part of a painting? Things aren’t always what they seem. People can be deceived. They believe what they want to.”
“I don’t want to believe in a bum,” declares Andy with conviction.
“Don’t believe in one then.It’s a free country after all.”
* * * * *