The Crime Readers' Association

Meeting Mary

by Andy Griffee

The cold mist that hugged the Severn had reduced my visibility to a few metres and several large whiskies had blurred what was left. I shivered and thrust my hands deeper into the pockets of my coat where an unopened bottle of Highland Park promised a night of oblivion. It had been a soulless evening; a curry at a ‘table-for-one’ and a tour of three largely empty city centre pubs. The bells chimed eleven o’clock as I made my way back to Diglis Basin, the temporary home of my 64ft-long floating home. I could see little of Worcester Cathedral’s ancient mass of stones as I passed it on my left, but knew it was there from the tunnel of steps leading up to its neighbouring school. It was too cold to linger and inspect the markings on the wall which signified the height of various historic floods. And besides, I wanted to be tucked up in my berth on Jumping Jack Flash before Christmas Day officially started.

The Diglis Hotel’s large windows temporarily lightened my path, but it fell dark again as I walked past a row of terraced riverside cottages and turned left where a lock joined the basin and canal to the wide river. I had read that, sometimes, when the river was in flood, craft could ignore the locks and cruise straight over them into the basin. But that night, I was more anxious to avoid falling into the deep lock and just about sober enough to keep my unsteadiness to the right-hand side of the path.

My narrowboat was moored on the far side of the large pool of water, but I knew that hardly any of the other boats were occupied. Telltale smoke had been trickling from just a handful of them when I arrived earlier that afternoon and now there was no light or sound from the little floating village to penetrate the mist and the darkness. I would have to follow the path to my right and circle around the basin to reach my boat and I muttered to myself that I was an idiot for failing to bring a torch. I could just make out a line of narrowboats tied up end to end on my left, but I knew there was also water on my right, so I slowed my pace. It was far too late and cold to go for an impromptu swim after drink had been taken.

It was then that the woman’s voice broke the silence. It was a young woman’s voice with something of a West Country burr.

‘Good evening, sir,’ it said, followed by cough. I stopped in sudden surprise and looked down to my left. ‘It is a cold and damp one, is it not?’

I peered through the swirling strands of mist and stepped closer to the edge of the path. Two glittering black eyes were looking back up at me from the forewell of a boat. A woollen scarf was wrapped around the lower part of the face and an old-fashioned bonnet crowned the top of the woman’s head. I could see little of what else she might be wearing.

‘Oh hi. Good evening.’

‘Would you have something to warm my innards on a night like this?’ she asked, her eyes flickering to my coat’s bulging pocket. She raised a hand at the same moment. A small cloudy glass was pinched between her finger and thumb.

I had barely spoken to another soul during my long, lonely cruise from Warwick and the prospect of unexpected female company on Christmas Eve was tempting. I laughed and pulled the bottle from my coat. ‘I have as it happens.’

‘Well, you must come aboard then,’ she said, followed by a light attractive chuckle. She disappeared into the boat as I clambered down onto its deck and followed her. If anything, the boat’s interior was darker than the towpath and all I could make out was a faded rug in front of a faintly glowing coal stove. A hand appeared under my nose. Now it was clutching two glasses. I twisted off the metal foil, prised open the cork, poured two generous measures and took one of the glasses for myself. My eyes were now adjusting to the gloom and I could make out two small wooden chairs on either side of the fire. I slumped onto one without asking permission and heard her do the same opposite me.

‘Happy Christmas,’ I said.

‘Your good health, sir.’

‘Jack. My name is Jack. Jack Johnson.’

‘And I am Mary, sir.’

I swilled the smooth, fiery liquid all around my mouth. ‘Please call me Jack. And is this your boat, Mary?’ I asked. But instead of answering she reached forward again and grasped my free hand with hers. It was still icy cold. She must have been sat outside for a while. ‘What…?’

‘Hush a moment, sir,’ she urged. I sipped my drink while she seemed to massage my hand with her own. As she did so, I realised that hers felt hard and calloused and she had a strength in her fingers that was almost painful as she kneaded my palm.

‘You are in love, but your love is not returned. Not yet at any rate,’ she whispered.

‘You’re a fortune teller?’ I spluttered disbelievingly.

‘Do not worry. Your love will be returned. One day. Now hush, sir.’ I closed my eyes in frustration. No doubt she was some charlatan who had come to make some money at the city’s annual Victorian Fayre and stayed on. And no doubt she would want some cash, as well as my precious whisky. ‘But you are good hearted. You help people. Will you help me?’

Here it comes, I thought to myself. I sighed heavily. Why hadn’t I just walked past? I could be tucked up in bed with my border terrier Eddie and my Highland Park by now. ‘Well, will you?’ she pressed more urgently.

‘If I can,’ I said, testily ramming the cork back into the neck of the bottle.

Her grip tightened even further on my hand. ‘Tomorrow you must look for me again. But not here. On the far bank, where the workmen are. Will you promise to do so?’ There was a desperation in her voice and I instantly regretted my earlier cynicism. ‘Will you promise?’ she repeated.

‘Yes. Yes, okay.’ I had no plans for Christmas morning and if this young woman wanted to meet me in daylight, it was fine by me. ‘What time?’

‘Mid-morning. And now you must go. Your dog is waiting for you.’

‘What? How do you―?’ But she cut me off abruptly and manhandled me back outside and into the boat’s bow.

‘Goodnight, sir. You must go. But don’t forget your promise. Tomorrow. Where I said. At mid-morning.’

The boat’s door closed firmly behind me as I pocketed my bottle and clambered clumsily back up onto the towpath. The boat was still shrouded in mist and darkness, but I took a few steps back along its length and leaned forward to see if I could see its name. I could just about make out an old-fashioned painting of roses and a castle, with copper script beneath that said ‘Dragonfly’.

The bellringers of Worcester Cathedral took their Christmas morning duties seriously and I was woken by a loud and very lengthy demonstration of their skills. Eddie had no patience for my fuzzy head and bone-dry mouth. He was whining at the stern steps of the boat, eager for his morning walk. I looked at my watch and groaned. It was 11am and the whisky bottle on my bookshelf was half empty. I must have had two or three generous nightcaps before falling unconscious and now I had to pay the price. It was only after clambering into some warm clothes, clipping Eddie’s lead to his collar and emerging into the weak winter sunlight that I remembered my strange encounter with Mary of the Dragonfly and my promise to meet her on the opposite bank at mid-morning. I knew there was a narrowboat called Café Afloat somewhere near Mary’s mooring and wondered what chance there might be of picking up a life-saving coffee and a bacon bap on my way to our rendezvous. But after circling the basin with Eddie and wishing Merry Christmas to a jogger in a Santa Claus hat, I could see that Café Afloat was empty and closed. Curiously, I could see no sign of the boat called Dragonfly either as I made my way past the lock and onto the elegant new footbridge that spanned the Severn.

Once on the other side, I doubled back and walked behind a row of riverside trees towards a large construction site alongside the weir. A hoarding advised me that twenty million pounds was being spent to construct a series of ascending pools in order to allow fish to spawn upstream. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of any work going on at the site, and there was no sign of Mary either. I let Eddie off his lead to explore the riverbank while l walked around the site’s wire security fencing. I was curious to examine the fish ladder and worked my way down to river level above the weir for a closer look. The top pool looked to be complete and another information panel was nearby. It described how a new underground observation chamber would allow people to see the fish using the pools.

I was marvelling at the ambition of the project and staring into the water of the pool when a bitter bile rose abruptly, burnt the back of my throat and made me retch drily. I bent over and stared harder. The deep hollow eye sockets of a human skull stared back at me from just below the surface.

The next couple of hours passed in a blur of activity. Uniformed police officers arrived in answer to my 999 call, followed by two detectives, four Scene of Crime officers, a pathologist and ultimately an unmarked van to take the skeleton away. They all gave me rueful looks that suggested I should have waited until after Christmas morning to make my grisly discovery. I gave a statement at the site and learned that the bones were those of a young woman. They were thought to have been in the water for many years and had been circled with a heavy iron chain.

It was well past lunchtime before I was allowed to return to the basin and although I had little appetite for my oven-ready Christmas lunch-for-one, my slight hangover and shock did require something to settle my stomach. I was delighted to see that Café Afloat now had a small number of customers sitting on the towpath and that the smell of frying bacon was in the air. I sat down at an empty table and picked up the menu, glanced at the list of drinks and snacks and turned it over.

‘A Brief History of Café Afloat,’ it read. ‘Café Afloat has been offering nourishing food and drink since 1990 when its owners bought and converted an historic old barge which regularly transported cargoes along the Severn between Gloucester and Worcester. Previously known as the Dragonfly….’

What? I sat bolt upright and clutched the menu tighter. ‘Previously known as the Dragonfly, she achieved some notoriety after the sudden disappearance of her owner’s 20-year-old daughter Mary McKinlay on Christmas Day in 1886. Her sweetheart, another bargee called John Bevan, 25, was charged with her murder but acquitted at Worcester Assizes after no body was ever found.’

A middle-aged man in an apron had materialised by my table with a notebook and pen. I stared up at him.

‘Happy Christmas,’ he said cheerily. Then he checked himself. ‘Are you all right, sir? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’


Jack Johnson is the main character in Andy Griffee’s river and canal-based crime mystery books, the Johnson and Wilde series. Jack is an unemployed and newly divorced journalist who lives on a 64ft-long narrowboat called Jumping Jack Flash. In this seasonal ghost/crime short story called Meeting Mary, Jack returns to Andy’s home county of Worcestershire which was the setting for his debut novel Canal Pushers from Orphans Publishing. The sequel, River Rats, was published during lockdown in spring 2020 and the third book in the series, Oxford Blues, is due to be published in the summer of 2021.

You can find out more about Andy Griffee and his book here.

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