It has been nearly two weeks since my ill-fated attempt to trace Emma Fielding to the place where her story, written in her own hand, came to an end. I have tried to put aside the brooding sense of disquiet that still lingers every time I think about my visit to that lonely village on the edge of the marsh (whoever it was who was following me there has, thankfully, not pursued me home – at least so far as I am aware). Instead I focus my thoughts on the evidence I gathered, scant though it seemed to be at the time; and by evidence I mean that relating to Emma Fielding herself, given that it was my sole intention to find someone in the village, or thereabouts, who might have seen her, or at the very least have remembered the bus that was forced to an unscheduled stop by the police that fateful November night.
There were precious few people around during the few days I spent in the village and I knew my best bet would be to find some local trades people – a shopkeeper, a pub landlord perhaps – who might have known or seen Emma Fielding there. For much of the time, however, I drew a blank, not to mention the suspicious and unwelcoming stares of the few locals I stopped to ask (those out walking their dogs, the one or two who came out of their houses to go as far as the fruit and veg store or to the smokehouse on the corner). As it turned out it was the latter that proved most useful, after calling at the smokehouse shop just before I set off on my ill-fated walk up to the church. So it was among the cloying, yet curiously comforting vapours of smoked fish that, it transpires, I secured my most promising lead.
‘You want to talk to old Mrs Cropston’ the man behind the counter advised me (knowing nothing himself, he assured me, either of Emma Fielding or of the incident with the bus), ‘knows everything and everyone round here’, he added giving a nod to the card I had handed him (on it was typed my name and telephone number, something I had planned in advance should the locals prove slow to remember when put on the spot). ‘I’ll be sure to pass this on to her when she’s next in,’ he said with a brusque finality as he stomped off to the back of the shop, disappearing through a door to the smokehouse proper.
I had little hope that anything would come of this (I just assumed the man would throw my card away, but it seems in this I did him a disservice). So you can imagine my surprise when I returned home from work a couple of days ago to find a message on my answerphone from Mrs Cropston herself. She left a number where I could reach her ‘most evenings’ and last night I spoke to her in person (all the time trying to conceal the excitement I felt at the prospect of making some real progress in the case). At first the conversation did not seem promising – Enid Cropston had neither heard of, nor seen Emma Fielding (I described her, and Lucas, in detail over the phone). But when I mentioned the bus, despite it being months since the incident occurred (according to Emma’s story at least) and much to my amazement, she launched immediately into a full account of everything that happened that night – and she was very clear about exactly which night it was.
‘I won’t forget it in a hurry,’ she explained, ‘23 November 2015, no question. I wouldn’t forget anyway even if it hadn’t been such a funny thing that went on that night’ (she digressed for some minutes at this point, entering into a lengthy retelling of the day she and husband Frank first met, and the fact that the day the bus was stopped by the police was their wedding anniversary – I did not ask how many years).
‘I suppose to other folk who don’t live round these parts it might not seem so out of the ordinary way of things, but round here we hardly ever see one policeman, never mind a car full of them and never pulling over a bunch of tourists on a bus.’ She went on, ‘And when I say there was a car full, I mean it – five of them there were squashed into the seats (two of ‘em was big – very big, if you get my drift) and one of ‘em looked like a heavyweight boxer, never mind policeman, hair shaved right up his neck, uniform didn’t look like it had ever fit him.’
But despite seeming to know what happened that night – ‘the police searched that bus top to bottom, inside out, took ‘em a couple of hours at least’ – Enid had no idea (then or now) why the police had pulled the bus over, nor what it was they were looking for. ‘That’s the strangest thing about it all,’ she told me, ‘I watched what went off, could see it all from my front room window, clear as day with all them lights, but no one seemed to know what was going on. I had my window open pretty much all the time and none of the passengers seemed to have a clue either – none of ‘em was searched or anything either. Lots of questions asked but no one arrested, or anything like.
‘It was odd, no doubt about it. I thought it might be drugs or something, or maybe a runaway and thought that I’d find out later, that it would be in the local paper (something like that – five policemen in the village, flashing lights and everything, there was bound to be some news I thought) but there was nothing, not a word either in the paper or on TV, or anywhere else for that matter. And none of the passengers stopped in the village – I imagine it was tourists so none of them’s likely to come back either and tell us what it was all about,’ she ended, sounding almost affronted at the thought.
I dug a little further, pressed her with more questions, but I got nothing else from her and it was clear that she had never seen anyone (or anything) run from the back of that bus (I asked her several times about this, but each time drew a blank). For now though that is less important than what this means (for myself and, more importantly, for Emma’s story): it means that this part of her account at least is true. And if that is the case, then it must mean that Emma Fielding was on that bus – at least until the point at which the police pulled it over, forced it to a stop on that dark November night way out in the middle of nowhere.