Write Stuff: Andrew Nicoll’s The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne

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Picture: Contributed
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Based on a real murder in pre-First World War Broughty Ferry, Andrew Nicoll’s The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne reopens the case

It was November, at the end of a short, bright day that came as a kind of gift before the winter fell on us. I was walking with Constable Brown in Duntrune Terrace, one of those fine broad streets that began to grace the burgh at the end of the last century with cobbled roadways and walks of finely hammered earth to separate foot passengers from the traffic and villas on either side that must cost, God knows, many hundreds of pounds. We walk slowly. That is the expected way of things. We must be seen to pass. We must be recognised, for it is our duty first to deter crime and we must be available so that any, from the highest to the lowest, may request assistance.

As we came down the hill, towards the Claypotts Pond, we met the postman Slidders, with his bag on his back and a grieved expression on his face. He came up and took me by the arm and called me by my name. As a sergeant of Broughty Ferry Constabulary I would not encourage such a thing in the usual course of affairs, but Postie Slidders and I started at the parish school on the same day and we are brethren of the Lodge, so I cannot stand too much on my dignity.

“John Fraser,” he said. “I fear there is something sorely amiss with Miss Milne up at Elmgrove.”

I took his hand off my sleeve and said to him: “Why would you say that?”

“Because every day I go three or four times through her gate and down the stairs to her back court and there she has an iron box fixed to the wall where I’m to put the letters. It’s not been emptied these three weeks. That box is brimful. I doubt I could get another sheet of paper into it.

“And I can say this as God’s my judge, that door has never once opened for days. There’s a pamphlet from the Kirk that’s been left hanging off the handle and it’s never moved since last week. She’s a queer-like body and I never ring at her bell unless I’ve a registered parcel, the kind she has to sign for and, even at that she’s loathe to answer her door, but there’s something far wrong up at that house. I’m not the man to tell the police their business but, if it was me, I’d have that door in.”

Constable Brown and I knew Elmgrove well – and Miss Milne, the owner. Her father had made his money as a tobacconist and, like so many others, he came away from Dundee to settle with his family in the Ferry.

But he died and the rest of the family died or moved away and, after a while, Miss Milne was alone in the big house.

I suppose you would say she declined and the house declined with her. Elmgrove was a mansion of twenty-three rooms with all the additional offices that are to be expected in a house of that size and character. It stands at the head of Grove Road, not many yards from the car stop on Strathern Road, and that whole corner is given over to its two acres of gardens, trees and shrubs in beautiful pleasure grounds, vegetable plots, orchards. Or it was. For, as Miss Milne withdrew from the upkeep of her house and retreated to a few small apartments on the ground floor, she abandoned the garden also until there was not much more than a mossy lawn shaded out by trees and some straggly rose bushes. The rest was a shameful wildness. There was a sermon in it.

I sent Postie Slidders on his way and walked back up the hill to Strathern Road and from there to Elmgrove. The house is hard to see from the road and it was November, mind you, and early dark, but we knew our way, Brown and I. Miss Milne had the money to indulge her whims and fancies and she was forever going away on little trips, but if the house was to be empty for any length of time she would come to the station and let us know so we might keep a special eye out.

There’s a high wall around the property – it must be over seven foot tall – a double gate for carriages and, at the side of that, another, narrow door set between pillars for visitors who arrive on foot. They were both shut, but there was nothing unusual in that and Postie Slidders said he had been using the small gate for weeks.

It opened at a touch and Constable Brown and I, we lit our lamps and uncovered them, for it was a November evening and gloomy under Miss Milne’s neglected trees. The house was dark. I went boldly to the front door and pulled on the bell. I could hear it jangling in the hall but in a kind of empty, lonely way. The house sounded hollow. I looked at Brown and he looked at me.

“C’mon we’ll away round the back,” I said, so we shone our lamps at our feet and found our way to the steps that lead down to the back door. All was exactly as John Slidders described: an iron box on the back wall, rammed to bursting with letters and papers, and that pamphlet opened at the middle and folded open over the door handle. A breath of wind might have knocked it off.

We tried to see through the glass, but it was black as Hell inside and we could see nothing but the light of our own lamps shining back at us.

Brown hammered on the door with his fist and he cried out: “Miss Milne, are you in there at all? It’s Constable Broon, Miss Milne. Are y’in?”

I left him at it. A man who had passed his sergeant’s exams might very well see what Constable Brown could not: that if she had not opened the door to collect her post these last three weeks, the poor woman was not likely to rise and answer at his knock.

But I’ll say this for the man, he was dogged, for he was still there, hammering at the door when I came back from walking round the whole of the outside of the house. “Come away, Broon,” I said. “There’s nothing to be seen here.”

“What if she’s fallen? Or she’s in her bed and no weel?” “Has she cried out?”

“How could I tell that? I’ve been hammerin’ on this door for ten minutes.”

“Wheesht then an’ listen.”

We stood together in the dark and all the dark and silence of the place seemed to come and make a rushing at our ears and we looked at one another until Broon called out again: “Miss Milne, is that you?” but there was nothing there. Only the sighing of the wind in the trees and the sound of a few dry leaves scuttering along like rats about our feet.

Broon made to take out his truncheon. “I’ll knock this glass in,” he said.

But I forbade it. “We’ve had no report of a crime. The house is in good order. We’ve no business.”

He stood looking at me, like a bull looking through a gate, with that half daft expression on his face, as empty as the moon, waiting for me to tell him what to do, which was appropriate and respectful but still, in spite of that, disappointing. Broon will never make sergeant.

I said to him: “Mr Swan across at Westlea has had the telephone put in. We’ll away and ask him for the use of it.”

And that was what we did.

Now, Westlea is a handsome house. In many ways not so grand as Elmgrove, but it has not suffered those years of neglect. It has a gable end looking out towards Miss Milne’s gates and a high window, with coloured glasses, where I could see a light burning. There’s no fancy drive and carriage entrance at Westlea, just a pleasant, homely gate between two good, solid pillars of stone, with carved balls on the top, all smartly plastered and painted white.

By that time I suppose it was getting on for nine o’clock in the evening, not the time for calling, but I was a sergeant of Broughty Ferry Constabulary and about my lawful occasion so I had no hesitation. I went through the gate and up the gravel path and rang at the bell – an electric bell I might add. Mr Swan was not one to stint on conveniences for himself or his family. But this time, when it rang, it rang with the warm sound of a house that was full of folk and life and light and warmth and joy.

Mr Swan’s lassie came to the door in her peenie and her wee lace cap, and when she saw me and Constable Broon her face fell and she turned pale as the wall, whether from a guilty conscience or from fear of hearing bad news I couldn’t say. I can never say, but it’s a look I have seen often in my line. A police sergeant is rarely a welcome visitor.

I was about to state my business, but before I could open my mouth I heard a door opening and a voice calling out: “Who is it, Maggie? At this hour!”

Poor Maggie stood gawping and clapping her lips together and it seemed clear to me that she had no more brains in her head than Constable Broon. I very much doubted that the two of them together could have passed the sergeant’s exam, and while she stood there, saying nothing, I called out: “It’s Sergeant Fraser of the police, sir, come to beg the favour of the use of your telephone.”

At once Mr Swan came bustling out, in his shirtsleeves and his waistcoat with his collar off, as well he was entitled to be in his own house at that hour of the evening: “The police? Well come away in, Sergeant, come away. Maggie, get out of the door and let the man in,” and then, because he was no more than ordinarily curious, he naturally enquired, “Is there some trouble?”

Constable Broon had enough sense to stay quiet, a respectful couple of paces in the rear as we entered the house, and I said: “There’s no reason for alarm, sir, but I would be grateful if you could permit me the use of your telephone until I consult with the Chief Constable.”

After a brief stint as a lumberjack, Andrew Nicoll has spent his working life as a newspaper journalist. His debut novel, The Good Mayor, won the Saltire Prize for the First Book of the Year in 2009 and has been sold to 17 nations and translated into 13 languages. Andrew lives in Broughty Ferry with his wife and three children. The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne is available now from Black & White Publishing.