Alex Dale Christmas Riddle


The cold was all anyone could talk about. It bit their hands, made mincemeat of their ears and stole the breath from their mouths. But the girls had been going nuts all day and Judy was determined to let them walk it off around the village. Bob and Alex would rather have stayed at the cottage with the Quality Streets but rules were rules. And at least Barney was getting a run out.

The drive down from Kent to Devon was Alex’s first with her little dog in the car. She’d bought a special seatbelt harness, even got the guy at the pet shop to show her how to install it properly. “It’s not a baby seat, miss,” he’d protested but the look in her eyes sent him slinking out the shop’s door with his tools anyway.

Of course, Barney spent the slow, rainy journey curled in Alex’s lap in the driver’s seat.

“I really should strap you in,” she said guiltily, every few miles.

She hadn’t intended to call him Barney. She hadn’t intended to get him at all. When she drove down the farm track three months ago, a stash of fifty pound notes neatly folded in her purse, she was still expecting to come away with a non-moulting, curly-haired labradoodle puppy. A thoroughbred, with certificates of health and parentage. She planned to call her labradoodle ‘Byron’.

Alex turned in to the farm’s grounds and parked between two shiny black Range Rovers with almost identical personal plates. One of those extraordinarily rich families who own a farm but are nothing like the welly-booted workers that the job title normally represents. The puppies were a side project in one of the yet-to-be-converted barns, the thousand pounds charged per pup was simply pocket money.

“They’re in that corner,” said Anne, the farmer’s wife who smelt like Chanel and looked like a daytime newscaster. On a sea of fresh saw dust, the labradoodles were tumbling over each other, skittering like playful yellow clouds. And in the middle of them, like a little brown hen’s egg in a shiny white dozen, sat Barney. The woman lunged suddenly and grabbed him by the scruff.

“You again!”

Alex watched with horror as the woman carried him to the door as if he was a dirty bundle of firewood.

“Who was that dog?” Alex asked, when Anne came back in waft of apology and perfume.

“Oh, just some stray that hangs around, I think the last lot of gypsies left him behind. Anyway, which of the doodles do you want?”

Alex found the little dog waiting on the farm track, peering through a hole in the hedge at the barn he’d just been booted from.

He now has an enormous bed that was intended for a labradoodle. He’s called Barney because his barrel body, short legs and blockhead make him look like Barney Rubble. God knows what any parenting or health certificate would say about him.

Bob and Judy’s daughters had screamed with delight as he waddled into their garden yesterday.

“He’s a good boy, isn’t he?” Bob said, as Barney waddled next to them just now, resplendent in his little jacket. He doesn’t do leads. His stout head and neck are the same width anyway so it would just slide off, but he has no interest in running away.

“He’s the best,” Alex said.

“What you been working on, then?” Bob asked, cautiously. It was always a tricky line, his support for Alex’s work and the memories it stirred up for him.

“Well, I do have something.”

“Go on then,” Bob sniffed, his nose as red and round as a bauble.

Alex stopped walking. Up ahead Judy stomped along, blowing on her gloved hands and refereeing Rosie and Lily as they splashed in puddles and climbed on other people’s walls.

Bob bent down and rubbed Barney’s scruff and Alex leaned on an old phone box that now holds a defibrillator.

“It was a bit of riddle, really. I got an email six weeks ago from a woman called Sandy. To be honest, I didn’t think it would make a great story but something about it did intrigue me. I reckoned I could do most of the research online and that way I wouldn’t have to leave Barney.”

“Oh, you are really smitten, aren’t you?” Bob said.

Alex smiled, she felt foolish telling down to earth straight-shooters like Judy and Bob that she thought Barney suffered from separation anxiety. Besides, the anxiety was probably all hers.

“So what did this email say then?”


Dear Ms Dale,

I have been reading your Unsolved series in The Times with interest and I am writing in the hope that you’ll consider an old mystery from my own family.

On Christmas Eve 1960, my mother’s eldest sister Patricia left the family house in Southampton to go to Midnight Mass with her friend but she never turned up. She was twenty. My mum was only eleven but she’s in her late sixties now and not in great health. I’d love to find out what happened to give her some closure before it’s too late.

I hope to hear back from you,

Sandy Dickinson.


Alex patted her leg as she started walking again. Barney trotted along. They passed under strings of Christmas lights, drooping and sad in the thin daylight. Barney ran to the large, brightly decorated Christmas tree in the square and cocked his leg up before Alex could stop him.


“Let’s get this little thug home, shall we?” Bob laughed. “Then you can tell me more about this story”.


“Can I have a clue then?” Bob asked.

The girls sat on beanbags watching Elf in front of the fire with Barney lying across them like a pig in muck. Alex, Bob and Judy had mugs of tea and home-made mince pies in the girls’ wild interpretations of a circle shape. Alex’s looked like a porcupine. Bob had two and they both looked like fists.

“What’s this?” Judy asked. “A clue for what?”

“Alex has been telling me about her latest case,” Bob said. He lowered his voice but the kids were rapt by Will Ferrell anyway. “But she’s not told me what actually happened yet.”

The fire spat a little, outside the rain tapped at the windows but it was a lazy effort. Alex put her mug down and tucked her legs up under her on the sofa. She gave Judy the same outline she’d told Bob earlier on the walk. That Patricia was a good church girl, an aspiring actress and loving daughter. At least that was the story according to the early newspaper clippings Alex found, Sandy told her that those descriptions may have been wishful thinking.

“She was feisty, my mum says,” Sandy told Alex over Skype. “Apparently she’d tell anyone who’d listen that she was going to be a big star one day. I guess you’d say she was precocious. It was true that she went to church but, y’know, everyone did back then. She wasn’t die-hard like her parents, my grandparents.”

Sandy remembered her grandfather as very loving, “but even in old age he had a temper”. Apparently he’d softened a little after Patricia went missing, grateful to still have Heather, Sandy’s mum. “I think Patricia got the brunt of it when she was young. Mum says she clashed with him a lot.”

“The police ruled her dad out,” Alex said quickly as Judy flashed her a look: don’t go there.

“What about the friend she was supposed to meet?” Bob asked.

Alex shook her head. “The friend just went to Midnight Mass anyway, she figured Patricia had decided to go with her family instead. Apart from that, the police didn’t have much to go on so they concentrated on finding witnesses,” Alex said. “I mean, someone must have seen her, right?”


The Southampton Gazette, Boxing Day 1960


SOUTHAMPTON Police last night issued a description of a twenty-year-old Titchfield woman who has been missing since Christmas Eve.

Patricia Duckworth was reported missing by her family after failing to meet a friend for Midnight Mass. She is 5ft, 2in, of slim build with dark brown hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion. She was last seen wearing a navy blue dress with a pleated skirt, a grey winter coat, white scarf and white gloves.

Police are anxious to hear from anyone who may have seen her.


“Did anyone come forward?” Bob asked, over the laughter of the girls.

“I expect lots of crackpots and gossips did,” Alex said. “But nothing more seems to have happened until a few days later when they found her clothes in a pile at the docks.”

Bob and Judy frowned.

“There was no sign of injury, no blood or anything, but, y’know, it didn’t look good.” Alex thought for a moment, trying to get the timeline clear in her head. Although she’d not long turned in the copy about the case, for the last few days she’d thought of nothing except driving to Devon, catching up on Rosie and Lily’s frantic news and watching them open their presents. And Barney of course, she was always thinking of Barney.

“I think it was nearly a week after she went missing that they made an arrest. I presumed they were tipped off by a curtain twitcher, but Sandy told me that her family had actually urged the police to go after this boy.”


The Southampton Gazette, December 31 1960


A MAN was arrested yesterday morning in connection with the disappearance of aspiring local actress Patricia Duckworth, 20.

The Chief Constable of Southampton Police (Mr B. A. Johnson), announced the arrest, saying the 21-year-old unnamed man is currently being held and questioned.


“Who was he, the bloke they nicked?”

“He was called David Rummage and he’d apparently met Patricia briefly when she was acting in a pantomime. He was a set builder and stage hand but he had a solid alibi and from what Sandy said, the police only arrested him because they didn’t have anything else to go on, it wasn’t anything more than wicked whispers.”

“So they let him go?” Bob asked.

“Yeah. And it sounds like he was their only lead, really. The case technically remained open and Patricia’s family refused to declare her legally dead, but nothing more happened.”

Alex picked her words carefully. Bob knew all too well how much mud can stick.

“He moved away a few years later. Sandy said he never shook off the rumours and her family still believed he knew more than he admitted, even though they never had any concrete idea about what he might know.”

“Well,” Bob said, but he didn’t finish the thought.

“So all they had left to go on was her clothes, but without blood and I mean, this was years before they could do anything with DNA, those weren’t much help.”

“Perhaps she jumped in?” Bob suggested, sadly.

“Perhaps, but nothing about her life suggested that. I mean, you can never tell but it didn’t ring true for me.”

“And if she went into the water, wouldn’t her body have washed up at some point?” Judy asked.

Alex paused. “Please don’t ever Google this,” she said, “but, it’s unlikely. She’d have been washed out to sea and-” Alex cringed “-they did an experiment with dead pigs to find out how long a body will last in the ocean. Not long, is the answer. And it’s not pretty what happens either.”

Bob pulled a face. “I’m glad we’ve already had our pigs in blankets,” he said. “I don’t think I could stomach them now.”

“So what happened to the clothes?” Judy asked, sitting up straighter and paying a little more attention to the conversation now.

“Patricia’s clothes? They were probably just returned to her family. I had no hope of seeing the original police report or the clothes anyway so the only thing I could think to do was ask David Rummage what he remembered.

“Maybe he did see her that night and he was too scared to admit it? He was only twenty-one, and probably scared witless, who knows what he’s thought of since? Or maybe during the interview, the police let slip to him about what they thought had happened? So I started trying to find him in all the usual places-”

“They might be usual to you, Alex,” Judy said. “But I wouldn’t know where to begin!”

Alex’s cheeks coloured remembering how she’d first tracked Bob down years ago. “Oh, the phone book, Facebook, 192.com, Friends Reunited even, anywhere that people may have voluntarily added their details in recent years.”

“And?” said Bob, taking a big bite of his second mince pie and brushing the crumbs from his moustache.

“Nothing,” Alex said. “Sweet fu-” Judy nodded towards the girls. “Sweet Fanny Adams,” Alex corrected, to Bob’s amusement.

“Obviously I didn’t want to actually leave the house to go shifting through records,” Alex laughed. “What would Barney have done? So I signed up to a load of archive services, ancestry sites, British newspaper archives, the national records archive, all of that stuff.”

“And?” Bob asked.

“Nothing. Sweet nothing.”

“So I widened the search. Sandy thought he’d moved quite far away, that was the local gossip at the time. Maybe even Canada, Australia or New Zealand, somewhere in the Commonwealth. I found as many equivalent archives as possible and started searching.”

“And?” Judy said?

Alex smiled, she couldn’t help it. “I got a result.”


Alice Springs Enquirer, Australia

June 1986


AMATEUR dramatics group, The Laparinta Players, were celebrating a full house for the opening of their latest number, Guys and Dolls.


“What did that have to do with David Rummage?”

“There was a picture accompanying it. The scan on the archive website was quite blurry but it showed some of the Players in costume. The caption said something like ‘from left to right, blah blah, some guy, some woman, David Rummage, Eleanor Heaton-Rummage and a couple more blahs’. And there he was.”

“David Rummage was in Australia?”

“Yep, still is. I was able to search more records then because I knew that he was in the Alice Springs area, or he had been in the eighties anyway. I eventually found someone the right age with the same name still living in the Larapinta suburb with his wife, their children and grandchildren.”

“So what could he tell you?”

“Nothing. He wouldn’t speak to me.”

“Still too raw?”

“That’s what I thought. But the last time I called-”

“How many times did you call?” Bob asked.

“A few.” A memory crackled between them, Bob took a sip of his drink instead of acknowledging it.

“Well, anyway, the last time I called he told me to back off. Told me ‘we’ve done nothing wrong.'”


Alex nodded.

We. It had gnawed at her as she walked Barney through the woods near her Kent cottage. It had wormed its way behind her eyes as she tried to fall asleep, and pulsed urgently as she called Sandy with a reluctant empty update.

A few days after that conversation, Alex woke before dawn. It was November, and the cold was biting at any sliver of uncovered skin. Her cottage has thick stone walls that hold the heat in beautifully when the Rayburn has been on all day, but every morning it’s reset to an ice block.

It was still black outside on that day in November, the clock showed five am but it could have been any time during the fourteen hours of jet black that squats over the countryside at wintertime. Alex thought of Patricia on that cold Christmas Eve night decades before, taking her clothes off – or having them removed – teeth chattering violently. Alex thought of the cold water. Freezing temperatures, no chance of survival. She thought of the Australian sun, how different it must have felt the first time David Rummage woke up there, in his new country.

We. David Rummage and wife, Eleanor Heaton-Rummage.

Alex got out of bed and rushed to her laptop. Not before running back to stuff her feet into slipper-boots and wrap a dressing gown over her pyjamas, hood down to her eyes. Barney stayed under the warm covers, where Alex had once said he would never be allowed to sleep.


Alice Springs Enquirer, Australia

June 1961


TWO months after she was found, the mysterious woman known as ‘Amnesia Alice’, was able to choose a new name for herself.

Despite concerted efforts by Laparinta Police, the young lady has never been identified. Doctors who treated her after she was found collapsed in April, believe that she may never remember her real identity.

From now on, ‘Amnesia Alice’ – who has made our town her home – will be known as Eleanor Heaton.


“Amnesia Alice?” Judy asked.

Alex nodded. Outside, the rain was picking up again. It threw itself at the walls of the cottage and rattled the thin glass.

“Close the curtains, please, Lily and Rosie,” Judy said but the girls were still glued to the screen. Alex put her plate and mug down on the carpet and went over to the window. As she pulled the curtains closed, she thought how different Christmas must be somewhere as piping hot as Central Australia.

“So I searched the local Alice Spring newspaper archives for more on ‘Amnesia Alice’,” Alex said, “and it was quite enlightening.”


Alice Springs Enquirer, Australia

April 1961

POLICE are appealing for help to identify the woman dubbed ‘Amnesia Alice’.

The woman, aged in her late teens or early twenties, was found outside Laparita Police Station last week. She was severely dehydrated and suffering from fatigue and sunstroke. While doctors cared for the woman in Alice Springs Hospital, police officers tried in vain to identify her.

She is described as 5ft, 2in and of thin build. She has cropped brown hair, brown eyes and tanned skin. Although the woman claims she cannot remember who she is or where she comes from, police say she has a Sydney accent with some verbal tics suggesting a possible brain injury affecting communication.


“So, David Rummage married a woman from Sydney who once had a brain injury?” Bob said, dusting the mince pie crumbs from his moustache with his thick hand. “Do you think he hurt her and gave her the injury, and that proves he and someone else did the same thing to-”

“No, Bob,” said Judy. Then she turned to Alex, eyes wide. “So how did Patricia get to Australia?”

“Oh,” said Bob, rubbing Barney’s ears as the dog jumped up from the beanbag and folded himself on to Bob’s lap with a grunt.

“She hitched a ride,” Alex shrugged. “And the boat crew were from Sydney so I guess she practised the accent all the way over.”

“How long does it take to get to Australia from Southampton?”

Now it takes fifty five days,” Alex said. “I’m sure it took longer nearly sixty years ago.”

“Is Alice Springs near Sydney then?” Judy asked. Alex shook her head. “It’s miles and miles away in the centre of Australia. The least inhabited bit of the country.”

“She must have really wanted to hide,” Judy said.

Alex nodded. “But at least she didn’t hide from her niece Sandy when she phoned her,” Alex said.


Sandy was nervous about calling. She knew David Rummage had given Alex short shift.

“I’m a nosy journalist,” Alex reassured her. “You’re family.”

“Should I call you Aunty Patricia or Aunty Eleanor?” Sandy blurted out, when she was sure the thick Aussie accent on the long distance line really belonged to her missing family member.

“Oh darling, call me whatever you like but please tell me something,” Patricia/Eleanor asked urgently. “Does your mother hate me?”

“Of course not,” Sandy said, “but I know she’s missed you her whole life.”


“Is Patricia going to come to visit her family now?” Judy asked.

Alex nodded. “She wanted to make sure her parents weren’t around anymore. Once Sandy told her they weren’t, the Rummages made an appointment at the British Embassy to sort out a passport and they flew out for Christmas.”


After a supper of bubble and squeak with thick slices of ham and pickles, they all turned in early. Bob snored while Judy read. The girls ‘whispered’ loudly in Lily’s bedroom. Alex lay in Rosie’s single bed with Barney under the covers by her feet. Tomorrow she would take him into the village for his morning walk and to pick up the paper. For now though, Alex plugged her phone in to charge, hugged the single duvet up to her ears and fell asleep.



By Alex Dale

The Times, December 27

An aspiring actress. An overbearing family. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks. One very long journey for love.

CHRISTMAS EVE 1960. Patricia Duckworth, 20, left her family home in Titchfield, Southampton to meet a friend for Midnight Mass. She never arrived. Her clothes were found days later, abandoned near the docks. There was no sign of a struggle, no note to say goodbye. Despite frantic searches by her family and police, Patricia had – as the cliché goes – disappeared without a trace.

December the previous year, Patricia had been cast as the lead in a local pantomime production of Cinderella. Although it was only an amateur production, for Patricia it was the start of her dreams coming true. And what’s more, acting in the pantomime had introduced Patricia to her very own Prince Charming.

David Rummage lived in a very different part of Southampton to middle-class Patricia. A spell in Borstal as a teenager had been followed by occasional jobs until he found an apprenticeship as a carpenter. It was through his boss that he got a job making the sets and working as a stagehand behind the Cinderella scenes. Despite Patricia’s excitement, the Duckworths saw David as Very Bad News. Then twenty-years-old, he came to call for her just once and was chased away.

Although he was seen ‘lurking’ from time to time, Patricia assured her parents that she was no longer interested. “Why would I be interested in David Rummage?” she told her mother, “I’ll have my pick of leading men to marry when I get to the West End.”

Patricia never made it to the West End. She would never even star in another pantomime, not as Patricia Duckworth, anyway.

Of course, David Rummage was an early suspect in her disappearance. A boy like that, with a history of trouble, it was inevitable. His own mother apparently shrugged when the police arrived. “I don’t know if he did something to her,” she said. “He’s always been a handful”.

But David had a cast iron alibi. Of course he did, he and Patricia made sure of that. After all, what was the point of all this if he ended up in prison?

In his spare time, David often hung out with friends on the docks. Some of them were life long, while others – like the crew of an Australian cargo ship – were fast and fleeting, formed over nights of hard drinking in the pubs that dotted the dark, wet alleyways. The kind of pubs a nice girl like Patricia would never have frequented. Surely, if she had, someone would have remembered her.

They wouldn’t have remembered Eleanor though, the scruffy girl flirting with sailors and singing for cigarettes. Eleanor was just one of Patricia’s creations, practising her craft before she hit the big time. But it was Eleanor who Patricia would later revive and wear as a second skin.

The night Patricia left with the sailors from Sydney, she’d switched into scruffy clothes David had kept for her in his house. She left Patricia’s clothes in a pile near the water, just before setting sail. The only person that she knew she would miss, she told me last week, was her little sister Heather.

It was Heather’s daughter Sandy who first contacted me in Autumn this year. Heather did not have long to live, and despite nearly sixty years passing, she’d never stopped hoping that her big sister “Pat” would come back. Even when her parents gave up hope, she never believed that Patricia was dead. How could someone so alive, so vivacious, just cease to exist?

But Patricia did cease to exist. On the journey to Sydney and now calling herself Eleanor, she learned to mimic the rough Sydney accents around her. As she cooked, cleaned and dodged the horny hands of maritime men, she worried that back home, David might have had second thoughts.

“Never,” he told me, speaking reluctantly over Skype recently. “Not once.”

Through the police interrogations, the hatchet jobs in the local press and the whispers for months after, David never lost faith. Two years after the disappearance, citing frustration with the relentless gossip, he told anyone who’d listen that he was leaving for good. Heather remembers bumping into him in town when she was thirteen. “Where are you going?” she asked him. “Anywhere that’ll have me,” he answered, avoiding her eye.

Meanwhile in Australia, Eleanor had made quite a name for herself, although not in the way young Patricia had dreamed about. Arriving in just the clothes she had on her back, Eleanor made her way to the heart of her new country. First, of course, she used a few pennies from her ship’s wages to buy an Australian newspaper. Then another. Then another. Nothing about a missing girl from Southampton in any of them. Nothing about a missing girl from anywhere in England. Next, she bought a new bag, a set of respectable clothes and some good shoes. She had a lot of walking to do.

By the time she made it to Alice Springs via a combination of walking the red earth, hitchhiking narrow roads and hiding on boiling freight trains, the exhaustion on her face was not part of any act. She flopped down in front of a police station as planned, and when she was shaken awake, she claimed – as she continued to claim right up until her niece Sandy called her from England a fortnight ago – that she didn’t know who she was or where she had come from.

After weeks of coverage in the local Alice Springs newspapers, police were no further to uncovering the identity of the girl dubbed ‘Amnesia Alice’. It was eventually decided that the young traveller with the strange Sydney accent should choose a new name. “Eleanor,” she said. She was given the surname Heaton after the police officer who found her slumped on the ground that bright, dry day.

Eleanor Heaton became a popular member of the community. She got a job as a waitress while she trained to become an English teacher. Around this time, she apparently met a young Englishman called David. Like an average 58,000 other Brits moving to Australia each year in the post-war period, David told people in Alice Springs that he was attracted to the sunshine and the work opportunities.

Without a birth certificate, Eleanor and David could not officially marry, but she added his surname to hers and they lived as man and wife. Despite the conservative tone of the town at the time, nobody minded. The Rummages were much-loved members of the community and they could do no wrong.

A gifted carpenter, David soon got enough trade to start his own carpentry firm and employ other men. He was respected locally for his willingness to give apprenticeships to troubled lads. And while he sometimes had tools stolen and occasionally had to break up fights among his employees, more often than not he found hard workers who were delighted to be trusted, often for the first time in their lives.

“I knew what it was like to be misjudged,” he told me.

“So did I,” said Eleanor, who had spent twenty years as Patricia being told precisely what her parents would – and wouldn’t – accept from her.

David and Eleanor had a daughter, named Heather in honour of Patricia’s sister. Another daughter, Margaret, followed quickly. As a family, the Rummages were keen members of the local amateur dramatics company, The Larapinta Players, and attended the local church. By the time Eleanor retired from the high school, she was deputy head teacher. Their daughters are now grown up and living with their own families in the same suburb. They’re a happy family but, “something was always missing”, Eleanor admits. “I couldn’t risk getting in touch with my sister. I thought my parents would find out and take me back there, even when I had children of my own.”

When I spoke with Eleanor last week, I asked if that was really her biggest concern. She sighed. “Partly.” Her voice cracked as she said: “But I thought they’d come for David.”

It’s now Boxing Day and you may be reading this at home with your own family. Perhaps, like me, you are reading this surrounded by people who are not blood, but who mean just as much. Eleanor will spend her first Boxing Day in England since 1959. She will wake up on the sofa bed at her younger sister’s house, David by her side. She will drink plenty of English tea – “it’s not the same in Australia, no matter what they say” – and sit by Heather’s bed.

And just as they’ve been doing every day since the Rummages landed, the two sisters will spend the day talking. After all, they have fifty-seven years to catch up on.

Alex Dale first featured in Try Not to Breathe, available now.