SALISBURY,. When Salisbury became the unwitting protagonist of a poisoning drama in March, it was a surprise to many that a former Russian spy lived quietly in its historic environs.
Much better known, in the cathedral city’s homeless community at least, was Dawn Sturgess, and her death has plunged them into mourning.
The 44-year-old mother of three has become the first fatality of an international intrigue that Britain alleges is centred on Moscow and the turncoat spy, Sergei Skripal.
Sturgess had been living in a homeless hostel in the southwest English city, a normally peaceable centre of tourism where retailers are only just getting back to business as usual after disruption caused by the attack on Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.
Sturgess died after she came into contact with Novichok, police say, and her 45-year-old partner Charlie Rowley is fighting for his life in Salisbury District Hospital, the same place that successfully treated the Skripals after their own exposure to the military-grade nerve agent.
Corky, 47, was a friend of the couple who lives in a caravan near Stonehenge, the World Heritage site north of Salisbury which lies near Rowley’s home village of Amesbury.
Braving a summer heatwave as he sat drawing a chalk picture of the famous stone circle on the pavement of a Salisbury street, the dreadlocked Scotsman described them both as generous friends to all despite their own battles with addiction.
“Everyone knew Dawn. Everyone knows them. Really good people. They would share their last can (of alcohol). They were doing really well until this. Nobody deserves this, nobody,” he told AFP.
Corky said he and his friends believe the couple were searching for cigarette butts in the Queen Elizabeth gardens, adjacent to Salisbury Cathedral, when they somehow came into contact with the Novichok.
The large park has now been cordoned off by police, depriving locals of a beautiful haven criss-crossed with waterways that was once painted by John Constable with the cathedral looming behind.
A homeless friend who stayed at the same shelter as Sturgess, stopping to inspect Corky’s pavement art, wiped away tears and struggled for words to describe the community’s sense of loss.
Ben Jordan, another friend of the couple, said: “It could easily have happened to anyone, to me or my partner.
“We are really, really sad. I am praying for Charlie.”
Cleansing the toxin
But while police cannot rule out that traces of the nerve agent may linger on elsewhere in the city, the Reverend Kelvin Inglis said: “I’ve not detected any fear. There’s sadness, but determination to go on with normal lives.”
Inglis, 56, is vicar of the city centre church of St Thomas’s. Before the altar, he has put up a sign urging parishioners to pray for Sturgess and Rowley.
In mid-April, the vicar held a “service of cleansing” after the Skripals’ poisoning, and spread baptismal water around the Maltings shopping area where the father and daughter were found slumped on a bench.
Now, he is grappling again with a community on edge and at a loss to understand how two locals could have become ensnared in the same web of conspiracy that nearly cost the Skripals their lives.
“Our primary concern is that these are local people who are innocent of any wrongdoing,” Inglis said, describing how the church is active in fundraising for local homeless charities of the kind that had sheltered Sturgess and Rowley in his time.
“The one good thing, if I can put it that way, is that after March, Salisbury pulled together and there was a sense of community, of resilience in the face of adversity,” the clergyman added.
Russia has again angrily denied any involvement in the Novichok exposure, after darkly suggesting that the presence near Salisbury of the British government’s main chemical weapons research facility may be a better explanation.
A shop assistant in a Maltings gift card shop, which only reopened a month ago, said the latest incident was “bad for Salisbury”.
But, declining to be named, she added that “this is actually the safest place to be” as she gestured around the Maltings.
Security guards still patrol the area after the Skripal incident, and the Mill pub remains shut “until further notice”, its once-popular riverside beer garden devoid of patrons as a chill returns to the sun-kissed city.