The Peacock Tavern
by Mark Lynch
The mysterious disappearance of Colin Carmichael leads investigator Mr Surety to an old tavern, the last known whereabouts of the missing man. But something is not right. Not right at all…
The area of All Saints, Poplar, was a quiet place. I felt uneasy there from the minute I’d arrived. Lodgings were fine, I guess: a small room at the top of the Peacock Tavern just off Montague Avenue gave me all I needed for what I hoped would be a short stay. Nearby was All Saints Churchyard. Home to All Saints Church and one or two homeless people I would come to notice on my travels.
The landlords of the tavern didn’t say much, but they were nice enough. ‘Welcome back, Mr Surety,’ the landlady, Mrs Watkins, would say. George Watkins, the landlord would simply half smile at me and say, ‘Evening,’ as he pulled his latest pint. I’d smile back awkwardly, first at Mr Watkins and then at Mrs Watkins before heading up to my room.
I would be staying in the tavern for the next two weeks or so, carrying out some detective work. I wasn’t a police detective — oh no — I investigated mysterious disappearances on behalf of relatives or friends wanting to find out the truth about the location of their loved ones. In short: cases the Police had given up on.
On this occasion I was investigating a gentleman by the name of Colin Carmichael. A local man who’d gone missing some two months prior to my arrival, and the circumstances were considered suspicious. I was informed by Mr and Mrs Watkins that Colin was a man of consistency. He had the same routine every day: went to Humphrey’s cafe in Chrisp Street market at 10am, collected his shopping from the market at around 12pm, then went on to the churchyard for a stroll before heading back to the tavern. Only, on one particular Tuesday in March — 23rd to be exact — he didn’t make it back to the Peacock Tavern at all.
Things began to make some sense, the first night I stayed in the room above the tavern. The exact room Colin stayed in before he disappeared. I stirred for most of the night; kept awake by the dull noise of cheers and bellowing from below. How could anyone sleep in circumstances such as these? I asked myself. I certainly couldn’t, even with the pillows covering my head. I tossed and turned and consoled myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be in this situation forever. Once I had cracked this case and Mr Carmichael was found, I would be on my way back to where I belonged: the leafy suburb of Redbridge, just a few miles east of this lively and somewhat turmoiled place.
THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD.
These were the sounds I heard over the muffled, intoxicated voices of customers in the tavern below.
THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD.
Again, the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. It sounded like heavy boots. Boots of man who was tired, hungry and had reached the end of a long week. More disconcerting was that the footsteps suddenly stopped. And no one knocked at the door. The first night it happened I ignored it. I simply put it down to a drunk who’d found his way through the back of the tavern and up the stairs thinking it was home. The second night I decided to investigate.
THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD.
This time, the sound of thick heavy water dripped down the stairway like it was raining inside. I jumped out of bed in a fluster, still in my bed clothes, preparing to berate whoever it was outside the bedroom door. Once I reached it, the footsteps and dripping stopped. I swung the door open. ‘What the devil are—’ I shouted, near out of control. But no one was there. Nothing. Nothing except for the cold feeling rising up through my feet and ankles like ice over a lake in winter. When I looked down, I was standing in a small puddle.
‘Everything alright, Mr Surety?’ Mrs Watkins said, striding up the stairs, out of breath. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘Yes, yes I’m fine.’ I started. ‘Although, I seem to have stepped in a puddle,’ I continued, lifting my soggy right foot in the air.
‘Oh, that’ll be them sodding pipes up in the attic again. They’re always leaking,’ she said. I looked up at the ceiling expecting to see evidence of the leak. What I saw was previous wet patches which had long since dried up. Still, I accepted Mrs Watkins’ reasoning as to the truth, as she was the landlady and should be considered the most knowledgeable. And besides, before I could come to any other conclusion, she quite quickly interrupted my train of thought.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I thought I’d come up and ask if everything was alright, and if you’d like to come down and have a drink with me and George—Mr Watkins.’
‘Not tonight I’m afraid, Mrs Watkins, I must be up early in the morning. But thank you for asking.’
‘Please yourself,’ she said, unmoved. ‘I bid you goodnight then.’ ‘Goodnight Mrs Watkins.’ I turned, then had a thought, ‘Oh, before you go, might I enquire, did Mr Carmichael ever happen to mention what he liked doing in his spare time? While staying here, I mean.’
Mrs Watkins’ head slanted as she thought. ‘Actually, come to think of it, yes, there was something he liked to do quite regularly. Fishing. Down by the lake near All Saints Church. At night mainly. He’d go early evening and not come back till midnight most times. Yeah. We found it quite odd to be honest with you. But then who are we to judge, eh Mr Surety?’ she added, laughing insincerely.
‘Yes. Quite.’ The cogs turned in my head. ‘Okay, well, goodnight, Mrs Watkins.’ Mrs Watkins simply nodded attentively and headed back down the stairs, and I back into my room, closing the door behind me.
A recurring dream came to me each night. Each night it was more vivid. Water swirling and splashing in a mad panic, hands flying around in the air, slapping the surface of the water. It was as if someone was drowning and gasping for air. This went on for some time, before calm ensued and the bubbles on the surface of the water slowly dissipated.
On one particular night, I saw past the calm surface of the water, directly after the panic. And what came after would shock me until this very day. It was a body lying face down in the water, still, unmoving. I reached out in the dream and shouted, but to no avail. Shouting in these kinds of dreams always did seem to end up in a muffled attempt, muted and subdued. Still, I shouted and reached out my arm in an attempt to recover whoever it was lying face down in the water. I couldn’t reach. I kept trying. My fingertips seemingly getting closer with every attempt, as if I was somehow wading through the water without actually being in it.
As I came closer to finding out the identity of this person, I woke up. I was being shaken by Mrs Watkins. I must have been making all kinds of noise in my disturbed sleep because I awoke still making them. ‘Mr Surety! Mr Surety, please!’ she shouted. I gasped for air and wrapped my hand around my throat.
‘What? What is it?’ I asked in a panic. ‘Was I—I—dreaming, Mrs Watkins?’
‘Why yes, Mr Surety. And a wild one at that. What had you so wound up? Do you usually have nightmares?’
‘A man. A man’s body—in the lake—although what lake I do not know. Or why in heavens name I was dreaming about it,’ I said, still catching my breath. Footsteps came steadfast up the stairs. Mr Watkins rushed into the room. ‘Everything alright?’ he said. ‘A lot of commotion…’
‘It’s alright,’ his wife assured him. ‘Just a nightmare. Mr Surety was having a nightmare about a man in a lake.’ She looked at Mr Watkins, then at Mr Surety. ‘Dead I suspect?’
‘I believe so,’ I said. Then, looking at both parties, ‘Tell me… is there a lake around here? Perhaps like the one Mr Carmichael would fish in?’
‘Why, yes,’ Mr Watkins said. ‘There’s one in the churchyard across the way. Not very big mind. I’d be surprised if there were any fish in it.’
I leapt up from the bed, still in my bedclothes. ‘Forgive me, I said,’ looking at both of them, and at my current attire before continuing to get dressed.
‘No bother, Mr Surety,’ Mrs Watkins said. ‘Nothing we haven’t seen before.’ She added. Mr Watkins looked at his wife in shock. ‘But can I ask, where are you going in such a hurry? And at this time of night?’ ‘I must go to this lake. To see for myself. To discount what I have seen in my recurring dream—or nightmares—whatever you might call them.’
‘Well, if you must go, I’ll accompany you,’ Mr Watkins interjected. ‘It’ll be safer.’
‘No,’ I snapped. ‘Stay here. I’m sure it’s nothing to be concerned about. I shall be back in a jiffy.’ I said this with a fake chirpiness in my voice as I buttoned my trousers and left them.
‘Be careful, Mr Surety,’ Mrs Watkins called out, sharing a concerned look with her husband.
I reached the churchyard in record time, gripped the rusty gate and wrenched it open. It was unusually stiff on this night and gave off a loud creak during the struggle.
It had been raining earlier and the heels of my black shoes dug deep into the gravel beneath me with every step I took. I was intent on reaching the lake fast to confirm my new-found assumption. As I reached the small, round lake which was described to me back at the tavern, I stopped to think for a moment. Would I just jump in? Wade around and look for a body? No. I would try an easier way first.
The largest branch I could find was long enough to feel the bottom of the lake but not long enough to reach the centre. I cried out in frustration, threw the branch away and took a brief moment to think. The conclusion was, I had to get in.
The buttons of my jacket popped open. The same could be said for my shirt. Both items of clothing ended up in a heap beside me. Now down to my vest and trousers, I prepared to get in. I was fully aware that this could indeed be suicide, but nothing would overcome my need to find out if Mr Carmichael did indeed find his fate here, in this freezing cold and murky water.
Figuring I had approximately three minutes to conduct my search before I’d lose my breath, I waded in hard and fast. I felt my way through weeds and overgrowth, desperately trying to find something—anything—that could remotely identify Mr Carmichael. My head dunked under a few times as I reached further down to the bottom of the lake. This is where I felt something more solid. Solid and thin. I pulled on the object but it seemed to be attached to something else holding it down. Something weighty.
I yanked hard as my head reached the surface. I took a deep breath and pulled harder, now with both hands. I remember the cold vividly. I remember thinking how ridiculously cold it was— concentrating on how cold it was when suddenly, the object I was holding grabbed me tight and pulled me under. A pale blue, tortured face greeted me underneath the surface. It stared at me, eyes wide, fixated. I struggled desperately to get away. Pockets of air clouded the scene between me and the dead face of a man I could only imagine was Colin Carmichael. It felt like I was underwater for days, as I kicked my feet as hard as I could in an upwards direction.
Finally, I reached the surface, grabbed the side of the bank and clawed my way back ferociously to solid ground. When I turned in sheer terror and looked back at the lake, gasping for air and soaked to the bone, I saw a distorted face staring back at me through the rippled water. For a split second, it looked like my own. Then it disappeared.
The walk back to the Peacock Tavern was a wet and cold one. I feared and contemplated what I had just witnessed. Upon entering the tavern through the side entrance, I headed straight for the stairs. Water dripped from my soaked trousers onto each step as I climbed, slowly but surely, to my room on the top floor.
THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD…