Ada Butterworth would tell anyone who was willing to listen – and quite often even if they weren’t – that she had a mind like a steel trap, the memory of an elephant. Some people would say, behind her back and perhaps a little unkindly, that it was more like she couldn’t shut her trap and she had the backside of an elephant. Either way, she loved to reminisce about her life and the lives of others. The problem was that Ada’s version of events was usually somewhat different to everyone else’s. It’s not that she set out to lie about anything, or was deliberately malicious – more that she had a tendency to misremember. Any story she told came fully equipped with rose-tinted spectacles, belief-suspension underpants and a near-incurable case of ‘Wish-it-was-itis’. Anyone in hearing distance would be regaled with fantastic stories of her schooldays and early life. As long as they didn’t mind that it may not have been an entirely accurate recollection. Ada’s reminiscences should have begun with a Hollywood style screen-shot saying ‘Inspired by a true story’.
For instance, she could often be found holding court in the snug of The Dead Duck, half a stout in front of her, beguiling fellow customers with lurid tales of her impoverished childhood. How she and her siblings (the twins and youngest brother Edwin) would spend winter nights shivering together in a single bed with sagging, worn mattress, springs poking into their young, tender flesh. How they huddled together for warmth beneath a pile of coats and old overalls, singing themselves to sleep by the light of a single, guttering candle. The candle itself was a mongrel affair moulded together from the ghosts of candles past, flickering and smoking sullenly on a saucer on the bedside table. She wove yarns of playing in the cobbled streets in hand-me-down clothes with patches, of grubbing for coal by the railway lines and skipping to school in her clogs, slate wrapped in an old pillow case. Her voice trembled as she recalled empty, rumbling tummies, going to bed hungry or of having dripping on toast or sugar butties as their only sustenance all day. New listeners, unaccustomed to Ada, would sit agog – pints untouched – as she painted a picture of poverty that would have had Oliver Twist organising a whip-round. And she would gratefully accept ‘just another half’ from the young hipsters who hung on to her every word.
The thing is, this isn’t how her siblings remembered things at all. They recalled a childhood more Disney than Dickens. A three-bedroomed house in the nicer part of the town with an immaculately donkey-stoned step (courtesy of Mrs Jenkins who came in to ‘do’ twice a week) and fires in the hearth in winter. They had electricity in every room, a proper bath and an indoor loo, although each bedroom still had a chamber-pot - or ‘guzunder’ - to save trips in the dark. There was always food on the table or in the pantry. They got tinned pink salmon with brown bread and butter for tea every Saturday even if the vicar wasn’t coming round and a succulent roast on a Sunday with crispy Yorkshire puddings as big as their faces. The nearest they had come to cobbled streets was in the ‘Olde Tyme’ museum, any slates they encountered were on the roof and as for patches – well, that had had a capital P and was their dog.
It had always been the same. Ever since she was a young girl adults had indulged Ada in her childish ‘romanticisms’. She told her stories with such enthusiasm and conviction that they allowed this little peccadillo. At least she was entertaining – more so than Arthur who always had his head in a book, Martha who was forever complaining about something or Edwin, who spent most of his childhood sporting a moustache of snot and seemed to be comprised mainly of freckles and scabs. The grown-ups would exchange a glance over Ada’s young head as she prattled on, roll their eyes and convince themselves she’d grow out of it. Except, of course, she never did. The family gradually drifted apart once their parents died. Encounters were reduced to significant birthdays, inevitable family funerals and the obligatory dutiful Christmas card. Ada was excluded from the ‘round robin’ letters, though, as she couldn’t be trusted not to turn them into another saga more embroidered than the Bayeux Tapestry.
But ask anyone which misremembering they, well, remember the most almost everyone will say the same thing - When Ada Witnessed A Murder.
To say that Ada Butterworth liked crime dramas was like saying that the sea was a bit wet, or the sun was more than a bus-ride away. She planned her television viewing around them. Every week she would avidly buy a TV guide and spend a happy hour circling her favourite shows in marker pen so she wouldn’t forget they were on. From historic period dramas involving monks to glossy American shows where everyone was beautiful, had shiny teeth and glossy hair. Each night she would sit with the curtains drawn, lights off and a quarter of peppermint creams on her lap as she soaked up the murder and mayhem, following the clues and trying to guess ‘Whodunit’ before the detectives. Sometimes she was even right.
One night, after a marathon session of back-to-back episodes of Widechapel, Ada wandered into her kitchen to make herself a cocoa before bed. She popped her ancient kettle onto the stove to boil (none of your fandangled electric nonsense for our Ada) and spooned the powder carefully into her mug. As she waited for the water to heat up she gazed out of the back kitchen window. The night outside was dismal. Squally wind spattered rain against the windows and harried litter along the gutters like a mother chiding an errant child. She shivered despite the warmth of her kitchen, glad she was home and on her way to bed.
Then, a movement in the corner of her eye. A dark shape, blacker than the shadows around it, broke from behind next door’s shed. It paused, looking furtively around it, crouched and tense. Ada let out a small squeal as the shape seemed to look straight at her. She ducked suddenly beneath the work-top, heart hammering in her ample breast. She crept towards the wall and slapped the kitchen light off with trembling fingers, her back pressed tightly against the skirting board, panting in fright.
Seconds ticked by on the kitchen clock. Ada’s heart and breathing slowly returned to normal and she wiped her sweating palms on her Winceyette nightie. Curiosity might have killed the cat but it was Ada’s bread and butter. It wasn’t long before she crept back to the window and hauled herself up until she could peek over the sill. The shadow was still there, but it was now obviously a man. A man dressed head to toe in black clothes, hood pulled up, hands in gloves. She watched in growing horror as the man began to move down the alleyway between the houses, dragging a long, bulky package wrapped tightly in black bin bags behind him, struggling with the weight. What on earth could he be doing? At this time of night, in this weather? There was no doubt at all in Ada’s crime-filled mind. The man was carrying a body!
The figure paused, breathless, at the end of the alley. As the light from the street-lamp caught his face she recognised with a start that it was her neighbour, Ted. Ada’s mouth opened in a perfect ‘o’ of horror as she realised what – or who – must be swathed in the plastic. Ted’s wife, Dot. Come to think of, she hadn’t seen Dot for a couple of days, not since New Year’s Day in fact. She remembered bumping into Ted last week at the corner shop and him telling her that Dot had gone to visit her sister in the next town over. Her eyes widened as the penny dropped. It must have been a weak attempt at a cover story. Dot was dead, Ted had killed her and was trying to give himself an alibi. And here he was, in the dead of night, disposing of her body!
For a moment, Ada was frozen in shock. While she’d never really liked Dot all that much, thinking the woman was a busybody gossip, there was the principle of the matter. Yes, Dot had mercilessly bullied and belittled Ted, humiliating him in the pub with tales of his inadequacy in the garden, at work and...elsewhere but murder? That was a step too far, even for Ada. She peered through the window, crouching so she couldn’t be seen as Ted turned the corner and headed towards the back of the houses opposite and the small wood beyond.
A sudden scream shattered Ada’s reverie. She shrieked herself, hand flying to her mouth, heart battering wildly. Was Dot still awake in those bags? Was Ted burying her alive? The screaming continued, louder and more clamorous, closer than it should be. Ada looked around, bewildered, then shook her head in rueful self-reproach as she realised that the injured party was her kettle, announcing it had come to the boil. She switched off the gas flame underneath and the shrill cry diminished to a low moan. She was still getting herself under control when she spied Ted making his way nonchalantly back down the alleyway. He walked as though he didn’t have a care in the world, a spring in his step even. Ada heard his back gate swing shut. Minutes later the sound of the television could he heard through the thin walls, obviously tuned to a comedy show as she could hear canned laughter. To her horror she heard Ted guffawing along as though nothing untoward had happened.
Moral outrage, civil duty and self-preservation fought for supremacy in her mind. At last, civil duty took charge and she found herself reaching for the telephone. Her hands shook as she dialled 9-9-9 and asked for the police. She breathlessly recounted what she’d seen and what she knew, her mouth dry, her palms making up for the loss of moisture in her mouth. Panic made her voice tremulous and in her own head she sounded like a little old lady. To her relief the call handler took her information very seriously, double-checking the details. His reassuring voice and demeanour calmed the maelstrom in her mind and by the time he had told her that the police were on their way she began to feel better about herself, that she’d done The Right Thing. All thoughts of cocoa abandoned she sat at the kitchen table and waited for the drama to unfold, a warm glow of self-satisfaction growing within her as she imagined the news headlines: ‘Local Heroine Thwarts Evil Murderer: Wife Killer Ted Jarvis Jailed’.
Within the hour Ada heard the unmistakable sound of the police helicopter overhead, heading for the woods. Headlights swept the sky like a giant waving a torch in the darkness and, over the din, she thought she could hear dogs barking. She caught sight of figures creeping along the alleyway – police in dark clothing and protective gear heading towards Ted’s back door. A resounding crash brought her to her feet as the officers battered down both front and back doors, pouring into the house shouting ‘Police – nobody move! Get down, get down!’ at the tops of their voices. Ada grinned to herself – this was just like it was on telly! The sounds of scuffles and Ted’s plaintive, confused voice could be heard in the back yard and she watched as he was dragged from his house. Arms handcuffed behind his back he was hefted between two burly officers and shoved unceremoniously into the back of a waiting police van which took off, not with a squeal of brakes and yammering sirens as she had expected, but with little ado, its sirens dark.
Squads of police remained and she heard noises through the night as the house was meticulously searched from top to bottom. A long-faced detective who introduced himself as DC McGuire came in to take her statement. He carefully took down everything Ada told him, occasionally interrupting to ask a question or clarify a detail which she found a bit annoying as he spoiled her flow. More than one he told her to ‘just stick to the facts please, madam’ as she had offered her thoughts and ideas on what Ted had done and the state of the union in the Jarvis household. He had even turned down the offer of a cup of cocoa and plate of biscuits. Nothing like any of the telly detectives at all. It was becoming mildly disappointing.
Finally, as the first fingers of light crept through the windows, the detective decided he had enough information and with a surly promise to get in touch if he needed anything else he left her to her own devices. Despite the long night and lack of sleep Ada was far too excited to even think about going up to bed. Too many questions remained unanswered in her mind. How had Ted done it? Why had he done it? Was he even now handcuffed to a table at the police station as a pair of policemen played ‘Good cop, bad cop’ trying to break him and get him to confess to his terrible deeds? Her brain spun as she played out the scene in her mind, imagining every question and Ted, steely eyed, snarling that he wouldn’t tell them anything – the threat of violence bubbling near the surface.
She turned on the radio to see if there was anything on the local news. There was nothing on the eight o’clock news, nothing on the half-eight bulletin. She wondered if there had been a news blackout – an embargo to protect the investigation. Finally, at nine o’clock, there was a brief mention of the police conducting a search for a ‘missing local woman’ and ‘a man helping police with their enquiries’. Nothing about a murder at all. Deciding to go and see if the search party needed any help (she had seen the body and the direction Ted was dragging it in after all) she pulled on her coat and wrapped her scarf around her head to ward off the winter chill. She shut her door carefully behind her, studiously avoiding the gaze of the bored looking policeman outside next door, feeling a little thrill of excitement as she saw the splintered wood of the front door.
To her dismay, the entire exit from the alleyway was cordoned off by police tape and another four officers, stamping their feet in the cold, breath pluming in the morning air. No amount of explaining that she was an important witness would make them let her through. No exhorting to their better nature changed their minds. Not even dropping DC McGuire’s name would sway them. Bloody jobsworths, Ada thought darkly as she retraced her steps. She knew there’d be no point trying a different route – all were being guarded. Well, she sniffed to herself, it was their loss. Their look-out if they missed vital clues because they snubbed her offer of assistance. She’d make sure it all came out when she was inevitably called as a material witness in Ted’s trial. She would make sure the judge knew just who was at fault for the delays in closing the case.
She called at the corner shop on the way home. It was buzzing with people chattering, speculating about what was going on – why the place was crawling with the police, why their sleep had been disturbed by the helicopter clattering overhead like an oversized, malevolent wasp. Ada beamed as she announced that she knew exactly what was going on. In fact, it was due to her heroics that the police were here at all. The customers gathered round rapt as she described the events of the nights before in hushed tones, pausing now and again to allow for their gasps of disbelief and cries of astonishment. Mr Abraham the shopkeeper wouldn’t take a penny for her bread, newspaper and tin of salmon, congratulating her for bringing such an evil maniac to justice. Who’d have thought old Ted had it in him? Good job Ada had stepped up or who knew who else he’d have slain in their beds. She left the shop in a glow of gratitude and self-importance, already planning what she’d wear when the local TV reporters came round to interview her, rehearsing what she’d say.
As she neared her house she heard raised voices. A woman, her back to Ada, was shrieking at the red-faced young constable outside the Jarvis house who had his hands spread wide trying to placate her, stammering to get a word in edgeways. Ada sidled closer, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible while still ear-wigging the conversation. Maybe this was Dot’s sister, bereft at her loss, hysterical with grief. As she neared the woman turned. Ada’s world slowed, seconds stretching into hours, sounds diminishing until they seemed to be coming from underwater. The woman haranguing the policeman wasn’t Dot’s sister. It was Dot Jarvis herself.
Mind reeling, hands quivering, Ada nodded a nervous greeting to Dot and slammed her door shut. She sank to the floor in the hallway, shopping bag dropped, purchases spilling across the lino. If Ted hadn’t murdered Dot who had he killed? What poor woman had met her demise at the hands of this madman? Did the neighbourhood have another Jack The Ripper in their midst?
A hammering on the door brought her to her feet like a Jack in the Box, her heart beating in sympathy with the rapping of the knocker. A peek through the spy-hole revealed an impatient and extremely angry-looking DC McGuire. She timidly opened the door and peered around the jamb but he was already pushing his way in even as he asked if he could enter. Before she could open her mouth he was raving at her. Did she know what the penalty was for wasting police time? Did she understand what she had done? Did she get some kind of kick out of besmirching the character of a poor man who had done her no harm? Tears ran down Ada’s bewildered face as he led the way into the kitchen and motioned her to sit down.
The search officers had found the body, he explained. Forensics had been on standby to swing into action. They had carefully made the first cuts into the black plastic of the bin bags, bracing themselves for what lay beneath. First there was confusion, then a burst of hysterical laughter as the layers were unwrapped to reveal the old artificial Christmas tree Ted Jarvis had been dumping before his wife got home from visiting her sister. The one she had been nagging him to take to the tip since they took it down. Ted, of course, had forgotten and it was only after receiving a telephone call from Dot that he decided to take any action. It had been too late to take it to the tip by then, so he had encased it bin bags from under the sink, wrapped it in parcel tape and waited until it was dark before dumping it in the woods. Everyone did it, Ted had cried - the Council did a big clear up every month. He didn’t think one straggly old Christmas tree would make much difference. They’d never know who it was.
Burning with humiliation, Ada mumbled apology and explanation as DC McGuire continued to rant. Eventually, his anger spent, he growled that they were letting her off with a warning this time, but she had better make sure of her facts in future before she thought about pulling this kind of stunt again. He slammed the door behind him as he departed, leaving her in a pall of shame. Shame grew to indignation, indignation to outrage. At least she had done something, tried to be a good citizen. So what if she had been wrong this time? What if she hadn’t have been? It was ostrich-like behaviour from neighbours that let serial killers get away with it for so long. All the crime shows said so. The police should be thanking her for her efforts, not castigating her and treating her like a loony. But, still. Everyone was going to think the same as the police. They’d all be laughing at her. Mr Abraham would probably want the £5.49 for her shopping this morning. Would she ever be able to face going out again? How could she look the Jarvises in they eye? She put her head in her hands and wept alone in her kitchen.
And as for Ada? Well, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. A few weeks after the Jarvises had left Ada received an official looking letter. Her heart was in her mouth as she tore open the brown envelope, fearing the worst. A piece of paper fluttered to the floor as she opened the letter and she bent to pick it up. Her face creased in puzzlement then broke into a wide smile as she realised what it was. A cheque for £175. The Council had sent her a reward for reporting Ted Jarvis for fly-tipping! Ada chuckled, then began to giggle and finally hoot with laughter as the irony hit her. Ted hadn’t got away with his perfect crime after all.
Smiling to herself she pulled on her coat - this called for a celebration. She hummed happily as she locked her door and headed down to The Dead Duck. She’d just remembered something really important she had to tell the regulars in the snug.