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Enjoy a sneak preview of
Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice



20 AUGUST 1972


The police swarmed into the hotel on Sunday lunchtime, alighting at breakneck speed from three panda cars with blaring sirens, tyres screeching to a halt outside the front entrance. This followed a call from the ambulance services after the Sunday-morning churchgoers had discovered Tom collapsed in the lane near Zennor. The senior paramedic at the scene had been alarmed by the state Tom was in and by the comments made by the group in the car who found him. The police promptly took statements from all four: the GP Margaret Silver, Anne Jessops, Yvie Hughes-Webb and Robert’s father Mark Vernon. The words uttered by Tom electrified the investigation: ‘It was him. Him from the hotel. He said he would … if I spoke.’

The police had real fears that a murderer was at large, but the scene that greeted them at the hotel was highly incongruous. The residents were tucking into roast beef with huge Yorkshire puddings as the hotel manager, James Simpkins, was alerted to the police’s arrival by his receptionist. Simpkins had been reading the Sunday papers in his flat adjoining the hotel but, as the duty manager for the day, was on call if required. He was attired in a morning suit with striped black-and-grey trousers. He donned his black jacket over his grey waistcoat, straightened his cream tie and wasted no time in marching to the hotel lobby, looking every bit the archetypal hotel manager.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked, determined to take a firm grip on whatever was occurring. The police officers, who by this stage numbered eight or nine, got straight to the point.

‘We need to interview your staff and guests immediately. This is an inquiry into an attempted murder.’

Simpkins was aghast at the chaotic scene unfurling in front of him and started to feel faint. The last words he heard were along the lines of, ‘Your night porter has been poisoned and has alleged that someone at the hotel is responsible.’

As the words sank into his consciousness, he collapsed, chipping his two front teeth on the reception desk as he fell heavily to the ground. His wife Jean emerged from their flat and screamed as she saw him unconscious with a pool of blood seeping from his mouth. She soon regained control, and an ambulance was summoned. It wasn’t long before Simpkins was being transported to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro.

Guests came running out of the dining-room. One clumsily bumped into a large silver trolley used for guéridon service, lost his footing and tripped over the waiter who was pushing the trolley towards a table. An atmosphere of chaos ensued. There was a dearth of senior staff on hand. Simpkins had rostered himself as the duty manager for the whole weekend, giving his two assistants – a deputy who was principally in charge of hotel bedrooms and a food and beverage manager – the weekend off. The barman, Sidney, tried to take control, but it was soon clear he was out of his depth. The head waiter, Luigi, came running out of the restaurant shouting and complaining that his customers were upset; he considered this a very bad state of affairs, as upset customers were, in his experience, bad tippers. At this point Richard Hughes-Webb took control, suggesting that everyone should calm down.

‘Who are you?’ inquired Inspector Roy Higham, a lanky, earnest-looking man with a pencil-thin moustache and wiry black hair parted in the middle. His stooping gait gave an appearance of awkwardness, but he was the senior police officer at the scene, and he wanted people to know it.

‘My name’s Richard Hughes-Webb. I’m a surgeon, and I’m trying to enjoy a fortnight’s holiday here with my family, as are a great number of other people. Now I suggest you do what you need to do, Inspector, in an orderly fashion and come into this room through here.’ His manner was authoritative and his presence almost overbearing, and the police, momentarily nonplussed, allowed themselves to be ushered into the empty flat of the now-absent Simpkins and his wife. Once ensconced there Arnie, by now aware of the commotion, started liberally dispensing sherry in an attempt to lighten the mood. Richard persuaded Inspector Higham to reduce his numbers, as he felt it was highly unlikely there was a murderer on the loose. Six of the police left the scene, initially to check around the premises for suspicious persons and were soon seen departing down the drive.

The scene in the flat’s living-room became somewhat farcical, as Hector Wallace, returned from his late-morning foray to the Office, joined the throng, eagerly accepting Arnie’s offer of a sherry. ‘A free tipple is never to be declined. That would be most rude.’

At that moment Ted Jessops entered, looking whiter than a newly starched hotel bedsheet, asking what all the fuss was about.

‘Fuss from the fuzz,’ announced Hector, chortling loudly as he downed the sherry with alacrity.

Paul Galvin was haranguing the young unfortunate receptionist at the desk, threatening to seek compensation for the disturbance his family was suffering. Spotting the door open to the flat on the opposite side of the main corridor from the reception desk, he joined the assembled throng inside.

‘What in the name of Adam and Eve …?’ he said, seeing Hughes-Webb, Charnley and Wallace drinking sherry while chatting to the three remaining policemen.

‘Pretty random stuff, Paul,’ responded Hughes-Webb, still attempting to control events. ‘Poor old Tom, the porter, has suffered a stroke in the lane near his home in Zennor. He was discovered by our morning churchgoers. The inspector here and his good team are trying to put two and two together and, I rather fear, have made five.’

Inspector Higham looked stunned at this, but before he could attempt to wrestle the initiative back the group was confronted by the arrival of the head receptionist.

‘I came as soon as I could,’ she announced. She was a strident, rather matronly woman of advancing years. Her face looked as if it had been created from fine bone china and her voice was a little on the shrill side. She introduced herself. ‘I’m the head receptionist, Thora Fabian, and I’ve been called on my day off by Sally on the front desk. She’s new, you know, so I thought I’d better get here fast. Obviously I wouldn’t be dressed like this if I were on duty. Heavens, no.’

As she joined the group in the flat’s living-room she seemed more concerned with her attire than with the scene she encountered. She plainly felt self-conscious standing in front of four of the hotel guests while wearing mufti. The presence of the police didn’t seem to faze her at all; what concerned her was not having the time to get herself appropriately dressed for her position with her customary layers of thick make-up. ‘So, please tell me, what’s the problem?’ she inquired, trying desperately to establish authority.

On being told about Tom she asked if she could speak to the police in private. She related the episode on the beach in 1968. Tom had shared the story with senior staff at a Heads of Department meeting and had mentioned the angry encounter between Ted and Ivan just a few days earlier. She also suggested that the police contact Bill Treverney, the other night porter, before jumping to any conclusions. PC Gary Stobart thanked her for her information and asked for her contact details.

The porter Bill was unavailable that afternoon. He and Tom worked out the week’s rota between them; both liked working six days, or rather nights, with just the one day off. They overlapped on five days, with Bill taking Sundays off and Tom absenting himself on Mondays. Bill, a creature of habit, would hit his local pub on Sunday lunchtimes and could often be seen singing his way home at about five in the afternoon. He would get back, collapse in a chair in his front room, put on the television and wake up freezing cold some hours later with his bladder close to bursting and the test card on the television. After relieving himself he would stagger up the stairs to his bed and awake around eleven the next morning. However, on this particular day Bill had managed to climb the stairs and go to bed in a more conventional way. Some years earlier his wife, Sarah, had despaired of his unusual life style and had left him for a coalman from Redruth. Popular legend had it that she had departed on a Sunday afternoon knowing that Bill wouldn’t notice that she was missing until at least Monday lunchtime.

On this Sunday the police hammered on the door but, getting no reply, resolved to interview Bill the next day. They switched their attention to the hospital in Truro where they found Tom Youlen in a stable condition. However, they made no progress, as he was now completely mute. James Simpkins, meanwhile, was in casualty awaiting treatment for his facial injuries, and the police were forbidden access to him.

Gossip in the hotel had turned to the disappearance of Bob Silver, who had last been seen three days earlier. His wife told all and sundry that she didn’t have a clue where he was. However, she was being economical with the truth. She had dis covered him on the Saturday afternoon in one of the art galleries in St Ives enjoying the company of a young male friend. She had decided to keep this information to herself while she thought things through, although unbeknown to her she was not the only person to know about her errant husband’s connection to the gallery.



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