… “And did Cousin Freddy leap from the turret?” Hyacinth inquired.
“Of course not,” I scoffed. “He was on his way downstairs as Constable Beaker hurtled up them. Claimed the police car parked outside the house had killed the mood. He was let off with a warning against breaking the peace. What peace! All those gawkers in the hall! And Freddy ranting on about his broken heart, relishing every minute until Jill sent down a message, via Dorcas, that if she allowed herself to be blackmailed by a temper tantrum she would be at Freddy’s beck and call all of their unmarried life.”
“My dear, I couldn’t agree more,” chirped Primrose. “But what of Mrs. Elijah Haskell?”
“According to Constable Beaker’s notes, Mr. Elijah Haskell stated that his wife told him she was going on a spiritual pilgrimage.”
“Dear me,” sighed Primrose. “Ever since reading
The honeymoon, officially speaking, was off. Ben and I, now in pedestrian dress, were seated on the six-thirty-three train, due to depart for London in eight minutes. There were only a few other passengers in the long compartment, all at the far end from us, which was just as well because Ben had lowered our window. His claustrophobia was acting up.
Chitterton Station looked seedy in the white flare of its lights. A poster of a glamourous blonde with a black handlebar moustache drinking the right whiskey peeled off the concrete wall. I suppose it was my mood, but the thin man in the grubby raincoat lounging against the station-house door, dragging on a fag, looked positively menacing.
One question kept going around in my head. Had the prospect of gaining me as a daughter-in-law driven Mrs. Haskell to suicide? Ben claimed to be convinced that Constable Beaker had simply dredged up any excuse to see inside a house of local interest. And Constable Beaker had admitted that no inquiry of an official nature was underway.
By chance, so the constable said, he had that afternoon been chatting with a friend assigned to the Crown Street beat, and one thing leading to another, they had discovered that one Magdalene Haskell, aged seventy, had absented herself from home to the concern of the neighbors. And said woman had a son, name of Bentley T. Haskell, living in a mansion on the cliffs above Chitterton Fells. Put that way, it sounded plausible enough.
We had decided against driving to London because Ben’s Heinz 57 (it was part Austin, part Rover, part Vauxhall, part bicycle) convertible was growing increasingly unreliable in its old age. Sid Fowler had driven us to the station. Our troubles seemed to restore Sid mightily. He had carried the luggage, and while Ben was buying the tickets, Sid had chatted cheerfully.
“Magdalene was-no, do think positive-
Accepted as a daughter-in-law or not, I was going to have to enter the flat above the greengrocery shop. We were bound for London to see Ben’s father. My husband stared out the window, brows furrowed. “Ellie, see that chap with the cigarette dangling out of his mouth? I feel I know him from somewhere, but the where eludes me.”
“I hate that feeling,” I said, and warmed to the stranger in his grubby raincoat with the upturned collar. He was a bridge back to ordinary conversation. With the advent of Constable Beaker, Ben’s past life on Crown Street had closed around him, separating us in a way that nothing had since we first met.
“Look,” I said, moving closer, “he’s leaving. Seems a bit unsure whether he’s doing the right thing, keeps turning back.”
“Probably decided this train is never going to move.” Ben smiled in my general direction, but his eyes didn’t focus.
A good wife knows when her husband needs to be left alone with his thoughts. I polished my wedding ring. Whatever else changed, our love would endure. I also faced facts. If Mrs. Haskell’s whereabouts were not satisfactorily verified this evening, our honeymoon would be off in every sense of the word. I couldn’t expect Ben to respond to the pearl-pink nightie with his mother’s fate in limbo. I couldn’t respect him if he did. My hope was that the disappearance would prove to be a stunt. What better way to put the nix on a son’s budding marriage to an undesirable party than this? Anger warmed me a little. It held back the fear that something ghastly had happened to my mother-in-law. How many bridges are there in the vicinity of London with dark, oily waters thrashing below? I abandoned my sensitive resolve not to intrude on Ben’s need for solitude and grasped for his hand.
“I wish we could have reached your father on the phone to tell him we were coming.”
Ben put an arm around me, and the gap between us closed a little. “He must have had the receiver off the hook all day.”
“You do think he will stop this silly feud and talk to you in this crisis?”
“Ellie, you don’t know my father.”
The train was making deeper rumblings. Doors at the far end of the compartment opened, channelling more cold, smoggy air our way. A white-haired woman dressed in black like an old-world nanny entered. She was followed by a man carrying a child-no, a woman. The woman’s head lolled away from his shoulder and someone coming in behind them reached out and moved it back, so that the auburn hair spilled down the man’s arm. The nanny was taking pillows out of a carrier bag and arranging them on the seat.
Ben tapped his watch, bringing my eyes back to his. One minute to go. We both looked out the window. A guard was passing at a trot, pushing a wheelchair down the platform-to the guard van, I supposed. My eyes slid back to the newcomers. The nanny and the invalid had taken the seats with their backs to us. The man was standing in the aisle. His was the face of a poet, the kind who writes about the pleasures of the grave. But he became of only incidental interest. The fourth member of the group now stood up. She was a small girl with sandy-coloured plaits-the girl to whom I had given my bouquet. Jenny Spender. She said something to the man and then caught my eye. I flushed, gave a small wave, and sank back into my seat.
“You know, Ellie”-Ben reached his arms above his head and stretched-“I am becoming increasingly confident that Mum is fine. What do you bet she’s on a retreat at some convent, having a thumping good holiday?”
“I’m sure you’re right, darling.” Who were they-the invalid, the poet, the nanny? Where were they going? What was their relationship to Jenny?
The train began to vibrate. The guard was moving backward down the platform, a whistle pursed to his lips, when two women erupted through the barrier, coats flapping, arms stretched to Neanderthal length under the weight of their luggage.
One of them, an enormous person, cried: “Guard, hold that train!”
A door behind us banged open; the two women came blundering down the aisle and made ready to park opposite us. Both were talking full steam ahead and looked so hot and bothered I was hopeful they wouldn’t notice our open window. The woman wearing the tartan coat and tam-o’-shanter looked vaguely familiar, but she glanced at Ben and me without saying anything. Presumably she was not one of our wedding guests. She was middle-aged with a pussycat sort of face, emphasised by up-tilted glasses. Even her hair was tabby-coloured, and seen close up, she was a little whiskery. The guard slammed the door, the whistle shrilled, and we were off, rocking away into the misty night.
Ben inched the window up a notch and stretched again. “Yes, I am growing convinced that this is all a storm in a teacup. Beatty Long always had it in for Mum.”
I eyed the two women and lowered my voice. “Why?”
Ben blew on his fingernails and rubbed them against the lapel of his jacket. “I was always a lot brighter than her kid, and-”
“Better looking too, no doubt.”
“That goes without saying.”
“But, Ben, it seems to me that the one being injured by this woman’s wagging tongue is your father. Your mother isn’t around to hear what is being said about her curtains.”
“Mum’s seventy years old. Why shouldn’t she take a nap-a dozen naps, if she wishes?”
“Yes, of course she may, but a change in routine, Ben…” A wife senses when it is best to change the subject. “Was your mother friendly with Sid’s mother when the Fowlers lived on Crown Street?”
“They were fairly matey until George Fowler ran off with another woman and Mum went to church twice a day for a week to pray for his return. Seems Mrs. F. didn’t want him back.”
An overnight bag rolled off the rack above the heads of the two women sitting opposite us. It might have hit one or both of them, but Ben lurched up and caught it.
“One of you ladies missing this?”
A warm glow flared inside me. He was so athletic, so suave, so mine. The large woman was rustling about in her bag; it was the tartan pussycat who spoke. “Thank you so much. I must not have put it up there properly. Rushing for a train always distresses me. As a rule, I try to allow plenty of time. But I had a funeral to attend this afternoon and one can’t hurry away, can one?”
“Allow me.” Ben replaced the overnight bag.
So that was why the woman looked familiar-she had been a mourner at the churchyard that morning. Her blackbird brooch looked familiar, too. Her friend was also wearing one on her coat. Either these brooches were the insignia of a bird-watching society or a hot item at the church bazaar. The woman in tartan took off her glasses and polished them. Her friend snapped her bag shut and leaned forward.
“The bride and groom, I presume. Giselle and Bentley Haskell, am I right? Splendid.” She gave a great billowing laugh. She was altogether a billowing sort of woman. Her bloated face shook with chins and her bosom was an entire feather bed more than a bolster. I pressed a hand to my waist. Never again must I let the words clotted cream pass my lips.
“I am Amelia Bottomly and this is my friend Millie Parsnip.”
“How do you do,” Ben and I chorused politely.
Who did she put me in mind of, other than a hand mirror of what I might have become? Queen Anne, after she was stricken with dropsy! That was it! That towering pompadour of greying brown hair, the heavy garnet and amber rings biting into the puffy fingers, the suggestion of pomp and circumstance in her manner. Her face was presently lathered with smiles, but the set of her mouth gave her away. Let anyone displease Amelia Bottomly and she would cry, “Off with his head!”
I smiled at Millie Parsnip, crushed into folds against the window by her friend’s bulk. “We crossed paths this afternoon in the churchyard.”
“So we did! And I have been wanting to meet you. You see, I have this sofa I wish reupholstered, and I wonder, Mrs. Haskell, whether you think a gold brocade would go well with my oriental rugs?”
Amelia Bottomly boomed a laugh. “Don’t be tiresome, Millie.” She hefted round in her seat to face Ben and me. “I missed the funeral. I’m a widow myself, as is Millie here, both lost our husbands about three years ago, so naturally I’m sympathetic, but I had to visit a friend who’s a patient at The Peerless Nursing Home. She’s been having a bit of nerve trouble-the change, you know.” She mouthed the last few words. “And it’s not as though I am acquainted with Mrs. Thrush, the bereaved. So hard, isn’t it, at times, to draw the line between concern and vulgar curiosity? Especially in a case, like this, of a fatal accident.”
“Indeed,” said Ben. He was doodling on his railway ticket.
“A motor accident?” Mine was vulgar curiosity; it helped take my mind off my missing mother-in-law.
“Why, Mrs. Haskell!” The chins shook with astonishment. “Didn’t you read about poor Alvin Thrush in
I had overheard one of the mourners say, “His death was a terrible shock.” Edging closer to Ben, I silently vowed we would always hire professionals to replace light bulbs.
The train hurtled through Snaresby Station. Opening her large handbag, Amelia Bottomly pulled out a gold compact and began flouring her purplish nose. “How I
A muffled, “Yes, indeed.”
“Marvellous stories are told about the place and some of the characters who have lived there. Quite the equal of anything in Mr. Digby’s books.”
A familiar refrain. Ben was pretending to be asleep.
“I feel uncivic-minded admitting I’ve never read an Edwin Digby book,” I said.
“You do know he writes under the name Mary Birdsong?” Amelia Bottomly dropped the compact back into her bag. “
Ben pretended to be deeply asleep.
Millicent Parsnip leaned forward as far as she was able, her soft, whiskery face eager. “Perhaps Mr. Haskell would enjoy doing a little cookery demonstration for the Hearthside Guild.”
“Splendid idea! I am on that committee as well as a few others.” Mrs. Bottomly straightened the blackbird brooch, then began ticking off on her fingers: “Secretary of Lighthouse Preservation, board member of Active Women Over Forty, chairperson of the Historical Society. Have I missed anything, Millie?”
“I thought you joined Bunty Wiseman’s aerobics class.”
“I did, but dropped out before I passed out.” The chins compressed into a great ruff.
“Would you nice young people”-Mrs. Bottomly’s eyes again shifted to Ben-“agree to the Historical Society doing a tour of your home? A
Ben opened his eyes as the train pummeled through another station to a blaze of white light. “Merlin’s Court doesn’t boast dungeons,” he said.
“What do you mean?” No longer beaming, Mrs. Bottomly enunciated each word with surgical precision. “Surely Mad Merlin did not seal them up!”
“Amelia,” bleated Mrs. Parsnip, “Mrs. Haskell was related to the late, lamented-”
We entered a tunnel, diving through its blackness with an anguished howl. I grabbed for Ben’s hand and found it clammy with sweat. This was torture for him.
“I’m afraid of slugs,” I confessed in a whisper.
All clear. The light was murky grey again, pinpricked by houselights and street lamps. Mrs. Bottomly heaved up from her seat.
“I fancy a couple of meat pies from the buffet. Coming, Millie? What about you, Mr. and Mrs. Haskell?”
“No, thank you,” said Ben, which would make a yes from me sound piggish. And I was hoping to lose another half-pound before donning the pink nightie.
Millie Parsnip smiled her nice smile, reminding me so much of Tobias. “Are you sure?”
Mrs. Bottomly interrupted, chins jostling each other in excitement. “Why, Millie, if that isn’t Dr. Bordeaux! I would recognise that classic profile anywhere. At the far end of the carriage, yes, in the black cashmere coat. He’s with the sandy-haired girl. She must be the daughter of the paralysed woman who lives in the Dower House on the nursing home grounds. Yes, I can see now-she’s with them.”
I kept my shoulders pressed against the back of my seat. I would not gawk… Dr. Bordeaux!
“People say such wicked things.” Mrs. Bottomly swelled with intensity of feeling. “But the B.M.A. thought the charges ridiculous. Why shouldn’t he specialise in rich people if that is his forte? What is so sinister about sick old women dying? And what, I ask you”-her baleful gaze forced me back into my seat-“is so suggestive about a mere half-dozen such women altering their wills in his favour, hours before their deaths? Devotion should be rewarded.”
“And greedy friends and relations should get what is coming to them-nothing,” supplied Millicent Parsnip.
She would be told about interrupting later. Mrs. Bottomly swept on.
“Oh, I have heard all the snide remarks-that he has saved more lives than he has taken. But The Peerless is thriving. The patients all get such
We had been hurtling toward Pebblewell Station, lights zooming toward us like Olympic torch bearers, when came this shuddering jolt. The walls gyrated; the carriage threatened to tear apart. Shrieks, moans from other passengers. My mind became a screen blazing with the words The End.
When I opened my eyes, everything had gone quiet. Ben’s arms encircled me like a safety belt. Millicent Parsnip, tam-o’-shanter askew, lay across her seat tugging at her skirt to cover her splayed legs. Scared voices queried, “What happened?” Two middle-aged men in bowler hats clung to each other. Mrs. Bottomly was wedged in the aisle. Never was obesity more stalwart, more magnificent, more inspiring.
Ben said, “Ellie, are you all right?”
I nodded. There was a turmoil of people on the platform. The train wasn’t moving. The passengers pressed toward the exits. A guard threw a door open, leaned in and yelled in a voice guaranteed to escalate alarm, “No need to panic! Everything under control!”
“Is it the I.R.A.?”
The guard leaped back onto the platform. “A man fell on the line but it’s-”
His voice was cut off by one even more authoritative than Mrs. Bottomly’s. “Let me out! I am a doctor!”
And as I watched, the man with the poet’s face stepped down and swiftly followed the guard down the platform. I was glad the British Medical Association had been merciful. I hoped Dr. Bordeaux could do something for the poor man, whoever he was.