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Ngaio Marsh

Dead Water

For Alister and Doris McIntosh with love


Wally Trehern Of Fisherman’s Bay, Portcarrow Island

Jenny Williams Schoolmistress of the village of Portcarrow

Mrs. Trehern Wally’s mother

James Trehern Her husband

Dr. Mayne Of the Portcarrow Convalescent Home

The Reverend Mr. Adrian Carstairs Rector of Portcarrow

Mrs. Carstairs His wife

Major Keith Barrimore Landlord of the Boy-and-Lobster on Portcarrow Island

Mrs. Barrimore His wife

Patrick Ferrier Her son

Miss Elspeth Cost A shopkeeper

Kenneth Joyce A journalist

Mrs. Thorpe A patient

Miss Emily Pride Suzeraine of the Island

Mr. Ives Nanktvell Mayor of Portcarrow

Superintendent Alfred Coombe Portcarrow Constabulary

Sergeant George Pender Portcarrow Constabulary

P. C. Carey Portcarrow Constabulary

P. C. Pomeroy Portcarrow Constabulary

Superintendent Roderick Alleyn C.I.D. Scotland Yard

Troy Alleyn His wife

Detective Inspector Fox Scotland Yard

Detective Sergeant Bailey Scotland Yard

Detective Sergeant Thompson Scotland Yard

Sir James Curtis Home Office pathologist

Cissy Pollock Telephonist

Mr. and Mrs. Tretheway A father and mother



A boy stumbled up the hillside, half blinded by tears. He fell and, for a time, choked and sobbed as he lay in the sun, but presently blundered on. A lark sang overhead. Farther up the hill, he could hear the multiple chatter of running water. The children down by the jetty still chanted after him:

Warty-hog, warty-hog,

Put your puddles in the bog.

Warty Walter, Warty Walter,

Wash your warties in the water.

The spring was near the top. It began as a bubbling pool, cascaded into a miniature waterfall, dived under pebbles, earth and bracken and at last, loquacious and preoccupied, swirled mysteriously underground and was lost. Above the pool stood a boulder, flanked by briars and fern, and above that was the brow of the hill and the sun in a clear sky.

He squatted near the waterfall. His legs arched and a spasm jolted his chest. He gasped for breath, beat his hands on the ground and looked at them. Warty-hog. Warts clustered all over his fingers, like those black things that covered the legs of the jetty. Two of them bled where he’d cut them. The other kids were told not to touch him.

He thrust his hand under the cold pressure of the cascade. It beat and stung and numbed them, but he screwed up his blubbered eyes and forced them to stay there. Water spurted icily up his arms and into his face.

“Don’t cry.”

He opened his eyes directly into the sun, or would have done so if she hadn’t stood between: tall and greenish, above the big stone and rimmed about with light like something on the telly so that he couldn’t see her properly.

“Why are you crying?”

He ducked his head, and stared like an animal that couldn’t make up its mind to bolt. He gave a loud, detached sob and left his hands under the water.

“What’s the matter? Are you hurt? Tell me.”

“Me ’ands.”

“Show me.”

He shook his head and stared.

“Show me your hands.”

“They’m mucky.”

“The water will clean them.”

“No ’twon’t, then.”

“Show me.”

He withdrew them. Between clusters of warts, his skin had puckered and turned the colour of dead fish. He broke into a loud wail. His nose and eyes ran salt into his open mouth.

From down below a voice, small and distant, halfheartedly chanted: “Warty Walter. Warty Walter. Stick your warties in the water.” Somebody shouted: “Aw come on.” They were going away.

He held out his desecrated hands toward her as if in explanation. Her voice floated down on the sound of the waterfall.

“Put them under again. If you believe, they will be clean.”


“They will be clean. Say it. Say: ‘Please take away my warts.’ Shut your eyes and do as I tell you. Say it again when you go to bed. Remember. Do it.”

He did as she told him. The sound of the cascade grew very loud in his ears. Blobs of light swam across his eyeballs. He heard his own voice very far away, and then nothing. Ice-cold water was bumping his face on drowned pebbles.

When he lifted his head there was no one between him and the sun.

He sat there letting himself dry and thinking of nothing in particular until the sun went down behind the hill. Then, feeling cold, he returned to the waterfront and his home on the bay.

For about twenty-four hours after the event, the affair of Wally Trehern’s warts made very little impression on the Island. His parents were slugabeds: the father under the excuse that he was engaged in night fishing and the mother without any excuse at all unless it could be found in the gin bottle. They were not a credit to the Island. Wally, who slept in his clothes, got up at his usual time, and went out to the pump for a wash. He did this because somehow or other his new teacher had fixed the idea in his head, and he followed it out with the sort of behaviourism that can be established in a domestic animal. He was still little better than half-awake when he saw what had happened.

Nobody knows what goes on in the mind of a child: least of all in a mind like Wally Trehern’s, where the process of thought is so sluggish as to be no more than a reflex of simple emotions — pleasure, fear or pride.

He seemed to be feeling proud when he shambled up to his teacher and, before all the school, held out his hands.

“Why…” she said. “Why…why, Wally!” She took both his hand in hers and looked and pressed and looked again. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s not true.”

“Bean’t mucky,” he said—“all gone.” And burst out laughing.

The school was on the mainland, but the news about Wally Trehern’s warts returned with him and his teacher to the Island. The Island was incorrectly named: it was merely a rocky blob of land at the end of an extremely brief, narrow and low-lying causeway which disappeared at full tide and whenever the seas along that coast ran high. The Island was thus no more than an extension of the tiny fishing village of Portcarrow, and yet the handful of people who lived on it were accorded a separate identity as if centuries of tidal gestures had given them a definable status. In those parts they talked of “Islanders” and “villagers,” making a distinction where none really existed.

The Portcarrow schoolmistress was Miss Jenny Williams, a young New Zealander who was doing postgraduate research in England, and had taken this temporary job to enrich her experience and augment her scholarship grant. She lodged on the Island at the Boy-and-Lobster, a small Jacobean pub, and wrote home enthusiastically about its inconveniences.



2011 - 2018