“Normality” and “comfort” were two terms Mr. Selwyn Harcourt liked. Very much, in fact.
Anything out of the ordinary… No, not for Mr. Harcourt, a man who preferred ordering a “normal,” everyday salad at a restaurant rather than trying out the more exotic ones, with elements that could potentially put his precious intestines at risk. “Oh, no, thank you very much,” he’d humph.
Mr. Harcourt was a quiet soul; he enjoyed watching a finch on a bough, or a dragonfly perching on a reed near a stream. He did not wish for much. All Mr. Selwyn Harcourt desired was to adjust his eyepiece, peer through a lens, set up a tripod, and… Click! Flash! Snap!
Photography. That was, as he stated repeatedly, “the only decent thing any normal bloke would do.”
Mr. Harcourt wanted his work (he was well aware that he was quite good at what he did) to be displayed on the pristine walls of art galleries, with people gaping in awe. His confidence wasn’t hot air; Mr. Harcourt was never vain. Critics and reviewers had praised his “eye,” “intuition,” “knack,” and “choice of frames,” and had compared his work to a “bout of refreshing spring rain.”
Which is precisely why he was currently speeding in his car towards Summer’s Lavender, a village tucked away so deep within the forgotten folds of the countryside that even the folk from the nearest town, an hour away by cab, had to think twice about its existence. Only the day before, Mr. Harcourt had come across a tiny footnote in a travelogue that contained a grainy image of this rural retreat. In the eyes of this finch-loving photographer, the village had screamed “comfort” and “peace.”
Hands on the steering wheel, camera beside him, Mr. Harcourt began to daydream. A comfortable porch, a comfortable walk under the purple shadows of the trees, the comfortable trills of the summer cicadas… A normal frame, capturing a perfectly normal countryside scenery.
Were someone to tell Mr. Harcourt, “Keep your eyes on the road, you fool!” he’d frown and defend himself by saying, “It’s a completely normal daydream, I’ll have you know.”
And thus Mr. Selwyn Harcourt arrived at Summer’s Lavender, content with life.
Chapter 1: House on Fire
Summer’s Lavender was exactly the sort of place Harcourt had imagined it to be. The village overlooked a small valley, nestled amidst hillocks and forests upon knolls. A stream snaked through the rice fields and farmyards and hay mills. Harcourt had come across phrases such as “tranquil, sleepy hamlets found off the beaten track” in novels, and Summer’s Lavender wore that description like a mantle.
He decided to stay there for the entirety of June and perhaps July as well, depending on his whims, and therefore rented a small lodge—rather cramped, but for a single man with hardly anything personal, it was adequate.
Soon Harcourt became a subject of gossip. As a newcomer, he was put under the microscope for inspection by all the village folk. To his intense relief, however, he quickly passed their scrutiny, and the verdict was positive. In fact he became something of a celebrity: a handsome man from the metropolis, a professional photographer, mild-mannered and pleasant when spoken to, declining no one’s invitation to tea and scones. The villagers—the ladies, to be precise—gushed over him. His landlady told anyone who would listen, “Did you know, he photographed me?” As a result, he was bombarded with requests.
But Harcourt enjoyed taking photographs of them all; they were such nice people, and he was allowed to capture a wide spectrum of characteristics amongst what he considered a well-rounded miniature community. Indeed, Summer’s Lavender was a snapshot, a microcosm of society.
It was June 11th, late in the afternoon, when Harcourt’s feet took him towards the little brook, a perfect spot to catch the shimmering light of the dying sun upon the rippling waters.
“Mr. Harcourt!” Two boys were waving at him, returning home from school. He knew them. They were both sixteen; the highly excitable one was Ken, and the slightly darker-skinned teenager was Aaron.
“Hello, kids!” He smiled at them.
They ran up to him. “Are you going photographing? Can we come? We want to see you doing fieldwork.”
The word “fieldwork” was uttered with great importance, as if they were in the presence of an archaeologist, or as if they were the ones with the camera, not him.
He clapped them on the shoulders. “Why not? I’d enjoy your company very much.”
They fell into step beside him, and eventually the three reached the edge of the rill. A particularly steep hill towered opposite them, and oak trees lined the crest.
“Before I capture the river, why don’t I take a picture of you two with the stream flowing behind you?” Harcourt adjusted their positions with one hand. “Aaron, shift a bit to the right. Yes, correct. And Ken, you’re fine there. I want that oak to be visible behind you. Yes, yes, good. And now—”
He raised the camera to his eye, but he did not use the flash feature; there was enough natural light for both of their faces to be clearly pictured.
Then, through the lens, he noticed something terrifying. A fire!
He lowered the camera. Inadvertently, though, he had already snapped an image.
“Mr. Harcourt, what’s wrong? You look pale.”
With a trembling index finger, he pointed towards the licking tongues of flame. The boys spun around.
“Ken, Aaron, stay here. I’ll go try to save anyone I can in that burning building!”
“Wait, sir, there’s no—”
But the photographer had already run off. Confused, Aaron and Ken followed him.
Stumbling, lurching, Harcourt made a mad dash in the direction of the fire—uphill, panting. It took him a while to reach the shrubbery near the oak tree. Immediately his eyes were drawn to the ground. Two wee children, twins, were scribbling with twigs on the pathway, their golden heads even more radiant before the flames.
“James! Lucas!” he exclaimed. “What on earth are you doing here? You’ll be caught in the fire!”
The boys looked up at him and smiled sweetly. They were the youngest children in the village, and everyone doted on them. Fraternal twins: James chirped like a tiny little bird with new feathers; his hair was a bit longer. Lucas stared wide-eyed at everything, his hair close-cropped and combed back.
“Fire? Uncle Selwyn, there was no fire. We were here all along, playing.”
“We haven’t seen any fire, Uncle.”
“But…but…there, there…” Harcourt pointed at the lodgings that were now being burnt to a crisp. “That house!”
Aaron and Ken had finally caught up with Harcourt. “We tried to tell you before,” Ken huffed, “we didn’t see any fire…”
“You wouldn’t listen to us!” Aaron was just as exhausted. “Look again. See? There’s absolutely nothing. No house, nothing. Just a forest.”
“Are you not feeling well, sir?” Ken inquired, biting his lip, eyes narrowed.
“You—you’re probably right… I don’t walk around a lot in the city… Feel a bit dizzy, you see, haha! James, Lucas, come, I’ll take you home. It’s getting dark.”
The journey back was subdued. Lu had fallen asleep on Harcourt’s shoulder.
“Bye-bye, Mr. Harcourt,” said Ken. He was still frowning. “If you need anything, you can call our house. My dad works as an assistant at the clinic.”
“We won’t tell anyone about this, you know.” Aaron looked equally concerned. “Honestly, I’m scared. Especially after that incident two years ago.”
“Aaron!” Ken admonished him. “Jamie is awake!”
Jamie perked up at the mention of his name. “What happened two years ago? I want to know. Please!”
“Nothing, nothing… And besides, you were too little then.”
Harcourt spoke to the child gently. “Listen, Jamie: you like my pictures, right?”
Jamie’s face lit up. “We love them lots and lots!”
“Then, after dinner, come to my house and I’ll show you more. Yes?”
“Oh, thank you so much, Uncle Selwyn!”
Harcourt nodded to Aaron, and the boy recognized the gesture. Bidding Ken good night at his doorstep, Aaron followed the photographer and the two children.
The twins and their aunt and uncle were Harcourt’s neighbours, and Mr. and Mrs. Morisot were relieved at their return. “Jamie, it was naughty of you and Lu to go off on your own to play!” The couple turned to Harcourt. “How good of you to bring them home. Oh, hello there, Aaron, how was school?”
“Smashing, thank you.”
“Smashing!” Jamie repeated happily, having learned a new word. The child trotted inside, saying, “Uncle Selwyn, you’ll come to fetch us after dinner? Promise?”
The little boy kissed Harcourt on both cheeks before his guardians took him upstairs with his sleeping brother.
Left alone with Aaron, Harcourt faced the teenager squarely. “Now then—tell me about two years ago.”
“There was a series of murders.” Aaron did not beat about the bush. “To this day, we still don’t know who did it. And now today you saw a house that never existed, and a fire that no one else witnessed. How can I not be afraid?”
Harcourt shivered. All of a sudden, his comfortable life of normality seemed to have been snatched away from him.
He wasn’t hungry anymore. To calm his restless heart, he went home and prepared his dark room, hoping to develop some of the photographs he had taken of the village and its people.
He worked for hours, until it was time to pick up the little twins. Leaving the newly developed images on his dining table, he exited the lodge. “Mrs. Morisot,” he called out, “the boys haven’t gone to bed, have they?”
She came out of the house next door, wiping her hands on her apron. “Ah, Mr. Harcourt! They’re waiting for their Uncle Selwyn excitedly. Lu’s wide awake now. Jamie, Lu, Uncle Selwyn is here! Now, Mr. Harcourt, I bet you haven’t had a proper dinner. I made an apple pie. I hope you’ll like it!”
“Madam, you shouldn’t have!” He was embarrassed and yet appreciated the warm gesture. The other villagers were also like this. On the day he arrived, they had cooked lunch and dinner for him, and the following day’s breakfast as well.
“Of course I should have! Men have no sense of time. I worry about my Berty, you know. My son, the Chief Inspector of Landerford,” she explained proudly. “My little ones here love you so much because they see him in you.”
By then Mr. Morisot had brought the twins out. “Be good. And don’t run around too much. Mr. Harcourt has important instruments in his lodge.”
Jamie and Lucas grasped Harcourt’s arms from either side and tried to pull him.
“Coming, coming!” he laughed. The two children had brought back some semblance of normality to his soul.
They entered his lodge, and immediately Lu and Jamie climbed onto the chairs by his dining table, inspecting the pictures with delight, while Harcourt retired to the kitchen to divide the apple pie into three portions.
“Uncle Selwyn!” A sweet, melodious tone reached him. It was Jamie. “The shadows are all wrong. It was late afternoon.”
“Hmm, what’s that?” Harcourt peered out from behind the kitchen door.
Lu held up a photograph in his little hands, and Jamie pointed at it, eyes round.
“What? I had no idea I had snapped a photograph during that…uh…incident.”
Aaron and Ken were standing by the stream; the oak could be clearly seen far behind them. There was, predictably, no fire, no burning house. However, as Jamie had noticed, the silhouettes of the boys were bizarre. At that hour their faces ought to have been visible, as the sun was directly before them. Instead, on this glossy piece of paper, their countenances were dark, their outlines too bright, as though something extremely radiant lay beyond them. Something like a fire.
So, though the fire hadn’t been captured on the lens, it had definitely taken place. What could this mean? Harcourt shivered involuntarily.
Chapter 2: Others Appear
Once Harcourt had escorted the twins back home, he returned to his lodge and slumped down on his bed heavily, head reeling.
The house burning… Had he actually witnessed a scene from the past? But why him? He was an outsider, a stranger, a temporary resident.
What should he do with the photograph? Show it to Ken and Aaron? No, they would be afraid. Show it to the police? They’d laugh in his face. But surely they would notice the odd outlines? However, that wasn’t evidence.
There must have been a house behind the oak a long time ago, he was certain of that, and it must have been razed to the ground. An accident? Or a deliberate act? Who had lived there? Should he ask around? Yes, that would be a more preferable course of action than going to the police.
And what was that old story about a bunch of murders? No, that had nothing to do with the fire.
He checked his wrist-watch. 8:02 p.m. He’d retire to bed early.
But he couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, he got up for a glass of water. As he put on his slippers, a thought struck him like the reverberating gong of a bell in a village square.
What else had his camera captured?
Thirst forgotten, he sprang towards the dinner table and grabbed the photos with both hands, spreading them wide for closer scrutiny. When he’d developed them, the fire had occupied his mind, and he hadn’t paid much attention to the snapshots.
Now, when he squinted at the images, his heart leaped into his throat and he crumpled onto one of the wooden chairs. Who was that with his elbow on Mr. Kipper’s shoulder? Harcourt knew he had captured Mr. Kipper alone. And that middle-aged woman smiling next to Mr. Moran? Harcourt had formed a close camaraderie with Moran and knew he had snapped an image of him, alone, beside his dog, Ginger. And that old man with his arm around Miss Easterton? What on earth was all this?
On a hunch, he dialled Ken’s phone number.
“Hello, Rayburn residence. Who’s calling?” It was Ken’s father.
“Um… Harcourt here.”
“Ah, Mr. Harcourt! What’s up?”
“Is Kenneth at home?”
“Yes. He’s upstairs, doing homework.”
“May I have a word with him, sir?”
“Sure, but… Is anything wrong?”
“Hmm? Oh, nothing, nothing… I, uh, met him on his way back from school, and, um, we were discussing photography. I said I’d lend him…a book, yes, a book…on the subject. Wanted to talk to him about that. Nothing serious at all, Mr. Rayburn.”
“I see! Well, that boy’s rather fond of you. I’ll get him right away. Hold on, please.”
When Ken came on the line, Harcourt began immediately. “Listen, Ken. Just answer with a yes or no. Is there anyone around you?”
“Good. You and Aaron mentioned an incident from two years ago earlier, and Aaron then told me there was a series of murders. Could you give me the names of all those who passed away?”
“Let’s see… Six deaths occurred. There was Mr. Moran’s elder sister, who lived with him in their cottage. Then…uh, right…Miss Easterton’s father and Mr. Kipper’s friend, Mr. Upcott. That’s three. After that you’ve got Mr. Isaacs, Rupert, who was above me at school, and Mr. Burton.”
“What’s going on, Mr. Harcourt? Why are you so interested in the murders?”
“I promise I’ll fill you and Aaron in on everything eventually, but first I need to inform the police. I’m afraid there are undercurrents of something not normal beneath the innocent quiet of Summer’s Lavender.”
Chapter 3: Chief Inspector Morisot
Harcourt hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep. When morning arrived, he decided to take his car and drive to the Landerford police station with the photographs.
But he couldn’t just drop by the station at seven in the morning, an ungodly hour. What would be the proper time? Nine? Ten?
He began pacing impatiently around his room, frustrated that he could do nothing while his camera was showing him everything.
Then he stopped, surprised at himself. When had he become so proactive? Wasn’t his motto in life “Stay away from anything even remotely out of the ordinary”? Clearly, his brief stay at Summer’s Lavender had thrown everything normal out the window.
And what about the photograph with the fire? If he was going to show the police the other abnormal images, he might as well add in that one as well. If only he could speak to an “insider” in the police force, someone who knew the village personally…
It was time to visit Mrs. Morisot.
As Harcourt approached the Morisot residence, two little chubby faces peered cheerfully at him from either side of the open door, and the boys waved their small palms. The twins always did this while greeting someone. Then they pranced out and ran about Harcourt in a circle. It was as if they had practiced the ritual.
Harcourt hugged them both. “Morning, Jamie! Morning, Lu!”
“Good morning, Uncle!” they cried in unison.
“Say, is Mrs. Morisot very busy at this hour?”
“She’s in the kitchen,” Lu supplied.
“You didn’t come to play with us?” Jamie’s face fell.
Harcourt didn’t want to disappoint the children. “I actually wanted to talk to her about your cousin, the Chief Inspector. I was hoping to drive to town this morning to see him.”
“Berty?” Lu perked up. “Take us, take us!”
A voice came from within the house. “Lu? Who are you talking to?”
“It’s Uncle Selwyn! He’ll take us to see Berty!” Wildly excited, Jamie held onto Harcourt’s leg and sprang up and down.
Mrs. Morisot hurried out of the house. “You two, don’t squirm about so much! You’re planning to see Berty, Mr. Harcourt?” She lowered her voice. “Is it something alarming?”
“Well…” His voice dropped too, while the twins happily chanted “Berty, Berty!” “I’m not really sure. In fact, I’m quite certain no one will take me seriously other than Aaron and Ken. I’d like to know your son’s opinion on a few…let’s say disturbing matters.”
Mrs. Morisot bit her lip. “Well, Mr. Harcourt, Berty is very open-minded. But since you seem to think people won’t believe you, I’ll put through a call myself, letting him know that you shall be presenting him with issues of great importance.”
“You would do that?” Harcourt was relieved that Mrs. Morisot had asked no questions and amazed that she had sensed his secret hope with such ease.
Soon he and the twins were on their way to Landerford.
“Uncle, Uncle!” Jamie and Lu cried, bouncing on their seats behind Harcourt as he drove past sweeping stretches of soft green glimmering under the sun.
“Yes? What is it?” He smiled as he glanced back at them; the little twins were holding each other’s hands and beaming in delight.
“You’ll love Berty!”
“I will? And why is that?”
“Because he’s kind, like you.”
“I didn’t know I was kind.”
“But you are!” Jamie tried to climb over the seat onto Harcourt’s lap, and Lu quickly attempted to do the same.
“Boys, boys, that’s dangerous!”
The twins were crestfallen, but swiftly cheered up again. Every one of their actions seemed to resonate with each other’s. They even wore matching clothes, only the colours were reversed: Jamie’s shirt was baby-pink over teal trousers, while Lu wore a teal shirt and a pair of baby-pink trousers.
“You’re very gentle, Uncle Selwyn,” said Lu. “We understand.”
“Maybe you’ve forgotten, Uncle, but the way you smile…we know…”
The twins, especially Jamie, suddenly sounded so mature that it startled Harcourt. Their words made him recall why he had taken up photography in the first place. People, he had bitterly concluded long ago, did not deserve to be seen. They were best viewed through a mask, a lens.
He parked the car beside a telephone booth near the Landerford police station. Before entering, he dropped a kiss on each twin’s head and then took their hands.
In the station the constables at the front desk looked at the photographer dubiously. He and the two little boys were waving at everyone with bright smiles. The constables wondered if the man was right in the head.
“Uh…have you come to return missing children, sir?”
“No, these boys are my neigh—my nephews. I’ve come to see Chief Inspector Morisot.”
“I hope it’s for a good enough reason.” One of the officers frowned at the twins. “The Chief does not have time for trivial matters.”
“Gentlemen,” said a rich, warm voice behind them, “is there a problem?”
Harcourt spun around.
“Berty! Berty!” The children began to squeal.
“Chief, this fellow was asking for you.”
The man walking towards them had an attractive, winning smile, dark brown hair, and vibrant green eyes that gleamed like a pair of fireflies. Harcourt had never seen such a stately-looking and refined person in his life. Had it been the Victorian era, Chief Inspector Morisot might have been mistaken for an aristocrat, given his bearing, gait, and charm.
Upon realizing that he was gaping at the policeman, possibly resembling a halibut, Harcourt coughed and addressed the twins. “Go to your cousin.”
They barrelled into the Chief Inspector, who laughed and scooped them up. “You must be the famous Selwyn Harcourt I’ve heard so much about,” he said. He smiled at the photographer, who appeared sheepish all of a sudden. “My mother told me plenty about you, and how these two regularly raid your lodge.” The Chief Inspector glanced at his tiny cousins affectionately. “From what I gathered over the phone, you need to see me about something rather important?”
“Then how about we go and have tea? There’s a place I frequent.” The Chief Inspector’s eyes seemed to imply something. He turned to his subordinates. “Gentlemen, my cousins are here, and naturally—”
“Of course. We understand, sir.”
Outside, the Chief Inspector, still carrying Jamie and Lu, looked at Harcourt. “The matter you wish to talk to me about is of a…delicate nature, I take it? Not something you’d like to discuss in front of several officers, I think. My mother said you thought that no one would believe you. I’m sure I will, but it’s better to be discreet.”
“Thank you so much, Chief Inspector. I’m relieved, to be honest!”
Soon they were sitting in a nearby tea shop, the photographs spread out before the adults. The Chief Inspector brought out a handkerchief to wipe off a bit of cream at the corner of Lu’s mouth. His face was extremely grim.
“Why aren’t you laughing at me, Chief Inspector?” Harcourt asked, confused.
“Why on earth would I do that?”
“You’re actually taking me seriously…”
Chief Inspector Morisot pocketed the handkerchief and looked Harcourt straight in the eye. “I was never satisfied with the way the case of those six murders played out. Our investigation amounted to absolutely nothing, due to a complete lack of evidence. In the end we had to drop our search. But I’ll grab at any detail, whatever it may be, concrete or other-worldly, to re-open the case.”
As someone once said, “If there’s something you wish to read, then write it yourself.” That is essentially my motive for writing this novel, LENS ON FIRE. I have long been interested in “cosy” mysteries, especially in rural settings. A small village being the background adds to the “comfort” of the crime, though I know that sounds morbid. In a tiny hamlet, everyone knows everyone else, and there can be a varied cast of suspects. For an author things are more fun that way and allow for more creativity.
The cosy setting relates to me on a meta level as well, since my desire has always been to sit down comfortably with a pen, all electronic gadgets out of sight, and indulge myself by “travelling” to a nice place with rivers and mills and lots of cheery people (who are certainly not so “nice” on the inside). Once there I spin a set of mysteries, throwing the entire village into an uproar.
When I began this novel, I thought, “Why not include a dash of the supernatural on top of everything else?” I also wanted my protagonist, a photographer, to be a passive character who is forced to turn active and develop admirable traits along the way. I don’t want him to be terribly clever, since he isn’t the “detective” here but rather the one who gathers the facts. Cleverness is reserved for someone else, the Chief Inspector.
Overall, I want this to be a book that contains everything I love. I hope and pray that other people will enjoy it too.
Dibyasree Nandy began writing three years ago, after completing an M.Sc. and an M.Tech. She has authored a few books, and her poetry and prose pieces have appeared in more than thirty-five anthologies and journals. She was born and brought up in Kolkata, West Bengal, in India.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023