A Liz Philips Mystery
I had never heard of the murdered man before and I couldn’t explain how one of my business cards had come to be in his jacket pocket.
The deceased had been found by the catering staff who came to open the café in the grounds of the local zoo that morning. He had been bludgeoned with a blunt instrument and the chimps had been let loose from their enclosure.
DI Boyle rolled his eyes skywards.
“Bad stuff just seems to happen to you, doesn’t it, Liz,”
I had no answer to that. I supposed it was true, but it’s not as if I went looking for it; well, not intentionally.
I met Boyle on the night of the mayor’s charity function. I had discovered that my friend and colleague was a scumbag who preyed on young girls and was about to happily behead him, when an innocent girlfriend, who owed him nothing, saved his life by tearfully begging me not to.
It was all over by the time the police arrived, and I guess I could have just disappeared into the night, but I decided to stay and brazen it out.
Boyle had gazed directly at me as I relayed my story and I guessed that this was a tactic he used to unnerve liars and sympathise with victims. He maintained a calm and dispassionate stare throughout and although he told me that I was reckless and foolhardy, I couldn’t help thinking that I saw something else there, almost like envy. Foolish private detectives were more likely to go where the sensible police feared to tread.
And now he was giving me that stern stare again over the top of one of my coffee cups. His calm blue eyes observed me carefully, taking everything in and giving nothing away.
“Did he have marital problems?” I asked. “Many of the people who hire me suspect an affair.”
“Mr Williams had been divorced for several years,” he replied.
“Hmm, Not someone I would have shaken hands with, then,” I said, thinking aloud.
“And where were you between seven and ten pm yesterday evening,” he asked routinely.
“I was here. I watched reruns of The Professionals on TV, then had a hot bath and went to bed about eleven thirty.”
“Can anyone else verify that?”
“No. I’ve always believed that guilty pleasures are best enjoyed alone.”
Detective Boyle raised only his eyes to look at me.
“I was divorced several years ago, too.”
“I see. And where is your ex-husband now?”
“Well, I’d like to think that he was burning in hell, piece by piece and very slowly. But, truthfully, I don’t know or care where he is.”
“Is there anyone else?”
“You mean apart from Lewis Collins?”
Boyle discreetly bit his top lip to suppress a smile.
“No, there’s no one else.”
“Well,” he said, draining his cup, “that’s all I need for now. I may need to speak to you again.”
“Well, you know where to find me.” I reached up to the top shelf of my bookcase. “Here,” I said handing him a red edged business card. “Have one of your own. I really must get round to changing that design.”
He didn’t laugh but again fixed me with a cool stare.
“Thanks,” he said with the merest hint of sarcasm, slipping it into his shirt pocket. “I’ll keep it close to my heart.”
The following morning, I donned a pair of strong walking boots and paid a visit to the zoo.
I paid a couple of extra quid for a visitors hand book and flipped through the pages. I scanned the names and faces of staff “happy to help”, but didn’t recognise anybody.
I strolled over to the ape enclosure, taking a good look at the surrounding areas along the way. The pedestrian walkways were clean and looked well kept. Beyond the pathways, artificial hills had been built, some grassed, and some planted, no doubt so that the noise of the visitors wouldn’t upset the residents.
The ape enclosure was roughly halfway between the petting zoo and the café. One part of the enclosure was sealed off and the locks on the remaining part looked conspicuously new.
I stood on the pathway and looked directly at the enclosure. Just in front of me was a yard of grass and then a waist high wooden fence, which served no particular purpose other than to mark a boundary. Beyond the wooden fence was another yard of grass and then the concrete and glass ape house.
A chimp cocked his head to one side and looked back at me.
“Have you got something you wish to say to me?” I asked sternly.
The retired gentleman on my left gave me an interested look, but his wife, who stood the other side of him holding his arm, looked across her husband to give me a horrified and disgusted stare.
“We are allowed out in the daytime, every now and then,” I said, smiling sweetly at her.
Mrs Retired lifted her head, drew back her shoulders and with her nose in the air, pulled Mr Retired away in the direction of the petting zoo. Mr Retired gave me a boyish smile over his shoulder as he let himself be led like an innocent child away from the dangerous harlot.
I turned back to the chimp, which this time puckered up for a kiss.
“Not a chance, sunshine,” I said and continued towards the café.
A sign on the door told visitors that “due to unforeseen circumstances, no food would be served today, however the coffee bar would be open.” The café appeared to be a long rectangle with the furthest half cordoned off. A harassed pair of workers were doing their best to supply cappuccinos and blueberry muffins to equally harassed parents as the children raced against each other from the door to the blue and white police tape.
“It’s disgusting,” I heard one mother complain. “You pay all that money to get in and they can’t even provide any lunch today.”
I looked over the top of the tape into the area beyond. Chairs were still on top of the tables and the lights had been left off. Just the other side of the tape was a rubbish bin for public use. I leaned over slightly to take a look inside and noticed a couple of empty cans of extra strong lager.
I patiently waited my turn at the counter and smiled at the student-aged youth as he thanked me for waiting. I glanced at his colleague, but she kept her head down and busied herself stacking dirty cups.
“Do you sell extra strength lager, here,” I asked politely and the youth raised his eyebrows and grinned with a good-for-you expression.
The mother next to me wrinkled her nose as if she could already smell it on me and ushered her children away.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he replied, still grinning, “but the off licence in the next parade of shops is the nearest place for that.”
“In that case I’ll just have a snack bar to go.”
As I left the café, I walked back through the picnic area and passed a pair of smooching teenagers on one of the benches.
Seeing them reminded me of something else. In my day, if a bus shelter was unavailable, we looked for other suitable quiet corners.
I made my way back to the ape enclosure and took another look at the area of ground that surrounded it.
The earth by the right hand side of the house was flat and well trodden down, showing an obvious pathway through the neglected shrubs.
I glanced over my shoulder and not seeing anybody looking, I hoisted myself onto the wooden fence and swung my legs over the top. I followed the well trod pathway and passed a door on the side of the ape house, with what looked like a brand new padlock securely fitted. The pathway did continue beyond the door, but here looked slightly less well defined, as if fewer feet took this path. It led to the back of the ape house where there were fewer shrubs, slowly dying in a two yard patch against the zoos boundary wall. Cigarette butts littered the ground around a large stone that looked like it had been pulled from a rockery somewhere.
I stood on the top of the stone and tried to look over the wall, but it was too high; about seven feet. I tried to position my feet a little more securely on the stone and stretched up my arms towards the top of the wall. Taking a deep breath I jumped and caught hold of the top edge of the wall. I kicked with my feet searching for any kind of purchase against the brick, until I could bend my elbows to gain me sufficient height to look over the top.
I saw the main road sweeping away to the left. On the other side of the road, quite close by was a small parade of shops, in the middle of which was an off licence. I smiled, thinking I had learnt at least half of what I needed to know.
I dropped down and made my way back to the public area.
Before heading back home, I stopped at the parade of shops along the road. Walking into the off licence, I searched the fridges for extra strong lager and found the brand I was looking for. I bought a large single can and gossiped with the guy behind the counter about how awful it was; what had happened at the zoo.
“Bin ‘ere twenty years,” he boasted, “and never seen the like.”
“Did you know him, then?”
“Nah, only them kids what work there. They’re always hangin’ around, going large.”
I pulled the visitors hand book from my bag and showed him the page with the staff photographs. I pointed to the youth from the coffee bar; Ryan Smith.
“Yeah, ‘im and ‘is girlfriend; same lager as you. That’s her,” he said, pointing.
I took another look and saw a picture of the blond girl who was working with him, Sally Jackson.
Boyle phoned me the next day.
“We’ve had some serious reports of a woman acting strangely on the zoo premises,” he declared. “I don’t suppose you’d care to comment, would you?”
I closed my eyes but didn’t bother with an excuse.
“What are you doing, Liz?” he demanded, his patience running thin. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I think we need to talk to the young couple who work in the coffee bar again.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’? I’ll talk to the couple in the coffee bar again. About what?”
I tried not to smile.
“About what they were doing in the grounds of the zoo after closing on the night of the murder. At the back of the ape house is a patch of ground where the employees go to have a smoke. I think that those two are dating and climb over the boundary wall after dark for some alone time. The CCTV cameras face the front of the ape house, right?”
“Right,” confirmed Boyle. “But we’ve already reviewed the tapes and no one went towards the back of the ape house after six thirty. We still don’t know how the chimps got out.”
“I have theory,” I said, taking a long shot. “Williams was already dead at closing time. The zoo is closed to visitors at five o’clock. Romeo and Juliet smuggled out the weapon, came back later and jumped the wall where the CCTV wouldn’t capture them. They released the chimps by breaking the lock and left the zoo the same way they got in.”
“But why? That seems a lot of extra trouble to go to.”
“They must have known that the chimps would be attracted to the café. They sell plenty of sweet stuff there. Maybe they hoped that the chimps would cause sufficient damage to be blamed for everything.”
“Some chimps have been trained to use primitive tools,” said Boyle, “But most don’t wield blunt instruments.”
“And they don’t put their larger cans in the rubbish bin or turn the lights off when they leave,” I added. Those things must have occurred to Boyle, too.
“So, who killed Williams?”
“I think that’s a question for them,” I replied, thinking some more. “It just seems really convenient that he was found so easily the following morning. Did Williams have family?”
“Yes, his ex-wife is a local woman. He came from Newcastle.”
“Newcastle! Of course, now I remember.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Boyle was starting to get irritated again.
“We need to talk to that girl and I do mean ‘we’. I’m coming with you.”
We went back to the zoo that afternoon and found both the staff together. Their smiles faded when they realised that the stern police officer and the friendly nosy parker were working together. Noisy static interrupted the calm as police officers talked outside the door.
“According to the visitor handbook,” I said to the girl, “your name is Sally Jackson. Ten years ago I helped a woman and her nine year old daughter, disappear from an abusive husband. Did you know I suggested that name?”
“I had to change my name too,” she shrugged. “It’s as good a name as any.”
“Ah,” said Boyle, understanding. “That’s how your father found you. He followed the name, looking for your mother.”
“I couldn’t risk him finding mum or following me home.”
“So you struck him, several times, with a hammer that just happened to be at hand?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” responded the girl cheekily. “I never leave home without one.”
Now I knew Sally didn’t do it.
“There must be a site maintenance locker around here somewhere,” I said. “I don’t suppose you’d know where it is, would you.”
The pair glanced at each other. They both knew where it was located.
“Your mother had travelled all night to get to London and found me in the morning. She had the business card originally.”
“She gave it to me. She said it was lucky, would keep me safe. I kept it in my purse.”
“So, when all your nightmares came true and your father walked in through those doors, close to closing time, you gave him the card to placate him?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t enough. He said he’d find her with or without you.”
“There was a little tussle, and he struck you didn’t he?”
Sally didn’t answer, but I walked around the counter not waiting for permission. She resisted a little when I tugged at her sweater, but the red marks of a fist against her ribs were unmistakable. I nodded to Boyle.
“Where did you get the hammer from, Sally?” asked Boyle sternly.
Sally said nothing. I glanced over my shoulder into the staff room behind the counter.
“It’s not in there,” said Ryan calmly, reading my thoughts.
“But the maintenance locker is, isn’t it? I know where it is,” I said to Boyle. “C’mon.”
I took Boyle back to the ape house and led the way to the back where the large stone sat. It took both of us to lift it up onto its side, but underneath was everything we needed to find.
The hammer was there with a clear bloody thumb print, along with the smashed padlocks from the enclosure.
“Ryan must have been in the back room when Williams found Sally,” said Boyle.
“You won’t be too hard on him, will you?” I asked Boyle, nervously. “He was defending his girlfriend.”
Boyle was non-committal.
“We’ll get him an experienced brief.”
A constable called to me from the pathway.
“Excuse me, miss. We’ve just arrested a man who says he knows you; Harry Baker.”
“Oh my god!” I said, turning back to Boyle. “That’s my stepdad!”
A Liz Philips Mystery
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. In fact, it’s really an admission of guilt. They’re saying, “Yes, I did it, but I didn’t want to get caught. How do I get out of this?”
The answer is up to you. I personally found this shift in power hugely satisfying. You now have the option to choose. Do you let them go, or do you give them what you know they deserve?
I’d never held a ceremonial sword before. It was a lot heavier than I expected, but I managed to balance it by letting it rest against the hollow at the base of his throat. As he lay there on his back with anxious eyes pleading, I couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a desperate starfish; caught out of water with his arms and legs askew. I chuckled at the image in my mind and he started to beg again.
When my colleague, Danny came into my office that morning and dropped that buff coloured file onto my desk, like he had hundreds of others, I only glanced at it and pretended not to be excited. “It’s another missing girl, Liz,” he said with all the pent up adrenaline of a small boy looking forward to a promised treat.
“Uh hu.” I carried on typing.
“That makes four.”
Danny sat on the edge of my desk and creased the edges of my unfiled reports. I gave him a stern but typical‐of‐you look and he obligingly lifted a buttock to let me retrieve them.
“Aww, c’mon Liz,” he cajoled. “Don’t tell me this isn’t getting you going. I know you too well. You always get steamed over a new mystery. I know I do.”
I squinted at the computer screen and deleted a line of text.
“Well, go shake hands with yourself in the loos, then. I’m busy.”
Danny sighed and slid of the desk. I couldn’t help but watch him go as he made his way to the outer office. God, he was hot. Too bad he had a philanderer’s reputation. He’d flirt with the office pot plant if he thought he’d get a reaction. I knew that within ten minutes he’d be on the internet, looking up the other cases and trying to make a connection. That was what I liked about Danny, apart from the dark hair and grey green eyes, of course. Under that flirtatious, ego protective shell was a determined and intelligent personality, capable of making quick connections. If he ever met with any resistance, he just flirted you into submission, and I’d noticed, his charm worked just as well with men.
I was always very particular about writing my reports correctly. If the police did want to cut us any slack, they might discover that we could be useful and proper reports would go a long way in presenting a professional image. I rubbed my hands over my face and tried to remember when I last took a break. The file winked at me just at the peripheral edge of my vision and beckoned me like a forbidden chocolate bar.
It had always been my golden rule to finish one job before moving on to another, but that was now more of a bronze hue; I’d broken that rule more times than I could remember. A brief flick through couldn’t hurt.
The police looked at private detectives like us as if we were a joke. I don’t mean that they looked at us with contempt, although some of them did. I mean they thought we were funny; silly kids playing at being grownups. But when they had exhausted all the leads they had and frantic relatives were one phone call away from a psychic hotline that was usually when our phone would ring.
It looked like the older sister had made the call this time. Danny had printed out the photograph that she had kindly emailed over and I identified the missing girl, Jenny, almost immediately. She stood in the middle, between two friends, with her arms around their shoulders, at what looked like a nightclub bar. She had been missing for three weeks. She was a pretty, dark haired girl, quite young looking, who, just like the other three, had failed to return home after a night out. We hadn’t had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the files of the other girls, so similarities could only be guessed at, but Danny had helpfully included relevant newspaper clippings.
I skimmed through Danny’s procedural form and as it turned out, all previous boyfriends had been contacted and excluded from enquires. All her friends had been questioned too, but this was where we usually dug a little deeper. We didn’t just question friends; we talked to anyone, enemies and toxic friends; those who were too scared to say too much for fear of suspicion.
There was a toxic friend in the photograph, I noticed; older, sexier and worldlier than Jenny and too cool to smile for the camera. Toxic friends usually hung out with their mates because the good friend had something that the bad friend wanted; a lover, intelligence, sometimes money.
I studied the photograph again. This toxic friendship was about love. Jenny was loved. She and her good friend smiled openly to the camera, excited to be there. Her toxic friend had obviously been to that venue too many times before to be excited. She leaned in towards Jenny slightly but didn’t show any particular emotion.
A quick call to the sister confirmed that she had taken the photograph herself at a local nightclub where Jenny had celebrated her nineteenth birthday. I was surprised to find out she wasn’t younger. Tickets had been made available by her friend, Emma, who worked there.
I rang Emma’s doorbell at a quarter to twelve. I half expected to be waking her. If she worked at the local nightclub, then I assumed she’d be sleeping.
An unshaven young man in his twenties opened the door in a tee shirt and boxers.
“Hi, I’m Liz Phillips; I’ve come to see Emma.”
He looked confused for a moment, and then opened the door. He said nothing as I followed him in to a cramped and untidy front room.
“’ad fren’s over,” he said, by way of explanation. He beckoned to a settee and walked out into the hallway to yell up the stairs. I pushed yesterday’s clothes out of the way and sat as close to the edge as I could without falling off.
“Bird down ‘ere for ya.”
It had been a few years since I’d been referred to as a bird. I tried not to smile as I heard him blow off as he padded into the kitchen.
Emma walked into the living room the way most beautiful women walked into an office. She was wearing a neat blouse and tailored trousers, and all her makeup was immaculately applied. She dropped herself elegantly into a nearby chair.
“This’ll have to be quick,” she said, removing an invisible hair. “Got stock taking to do this lunchtime. Cuppa tea?” she offered.
“Thanks, but no,” I smiled politely. If this was her living room, I didn’t want to know what her kitchen looked like. Clearly her looks were her first priority.
“You want to talk about Jenny,” she stated getting straight to the point.
“Um, yes,” I said unable to hide my surprise.
“Your shoes,” she said pointing to my sensible flats. “Dead giveaway.”
“So, how long…”
“Since senior school,” she cut in, pre‐empting again. “Best mates forever. No, I don’t know where she might be, or what other mates she has. We didn’t have a row the last time I saw her and no, I don’t know of anyone who hated her enough to bump her off.”
Her boyfriend came in just then and sat on top of the abandoned clothes next to me and released the ring pull on a can of beer. Emma gave him a look that could have frozen molten lava.
“Hair of the dog, innit?” he said indignantly.
“You could at least have put some clothes on,” scolded Emma.
I raised an eyebrow at the boyfriend and he obligingly filled in the details. I’ve found that if you give people enough space, the need to explain will overpower the need to conceal.
“My dad owns the nightclub and I help out. Met her there.” He nodded toward Emma. “Dad owns this place and we get cheap rent.”
“Did Jenny ever come here?” I asked.
Suddenly the boyfriend was lost for words, he was surprised, perhaps not so much by the question, but that it was directed at him.
“Don’t ‘fink so,” he replied, a little too quickly. He stared back at me with wide eyes, but didn’t look at Emma. I returned his gaze. “You slept with her, didn’t you?” I said in my head.
“No,” said Emma, answering the initial question. “I only moved in with Ben just a week before Jen disappeared. We hadn’t had time to send out house warming invites.”
“Daft idea,” sniffed Ben taking a gulp of beer. “Been ‘ere ages.”
I looked at Emma as she spoke. Her voice remained calm, but her eyes were cold. She knew he’d been unfaithful, but perhaps not with whom.
“Is there a security camera covering the outside gate of the nightclub?” I asked, getting an idea.
“You mean where the car park joins the road?” asked Ben. “No need. Cameras are all over the inside and over every door, plus a few in the car park. Once they’re on the road, they’re polices’ problem. Why?”
“Well, if we can review the security images we might be able to find out who Jenny partied with, but now might not get to see who she left with.”
“Police took ‘em all away a couple of weeks ago.”
I pulled Danny’s photograph from my bag.
“Who is the other girl here with you?” I asked Emma.
“That’s Maria, a friend of Jens sister.” Emma sniffed disapprovingly. She must have suspected her of being the girl Ben slept with.
I showed the picture to Ben. He looked a little sad when he saw it, but shrugged and shook his head when I pointed to Maria. He didn’t know her.
“Her dad is the local mayor, isn’t he?” pondered Emma, trying to remember. “She dated a bloke a little while back, but they split up soon after Jen went missing.
I could hear an alarm bell ring quietly in the back of my head. “Do you know where I can find her?” I asked as casually as I could.
“There’s a do on at the town hall tonight. She’ll be there.” The tone of Emma’s voice suggested that she wouldn’t go.
Danny wasn’t in the office when I returned but had left me a message saying he was going to talk to the sister again. He suspected that she had been having an affair with an ex boyfriend of Jenny’s.
That was an avenue to explore, but my senses were leading me in another direction and so I left him a message on his mobile to dress to impress this evening. We had an event to attend.
I arrived late as usual and a glance at my watch told me that it was far too late to be fashionable.
I wasn’t used to wearing high heeled shoes and a proper dress, and judging by the looks I got from the well‐to‐do ladies already present, it showed.
The local great and good were gathered together in elegant surroundings to be congratulated for giving away what they wouldn’t miss to the more popular charities.
The mayor was centre stage thanking everyone for being as wonderful as him and I immediately tuned out to scan the crowd.
Maria was standing towards the front of the crowd and gazing at her father as if he was a hero. She was wearing a pretty pale blue dress and looked as if she’d had her hair done for the occasion. I took a closer look at the people around her and it appeared that she was unescorted.
I made my way over to her and waited for her father to finish his speech and absorb the applause before I introduced myself to her.
Her polite smile faded a little as she shook my hand and I noticed her lips tremble slightly when I mentioned Jenny’s name. She led me to a side room and closed the door quietly.
We were surrounded by the ornaments of official office. The table pushed against the far wall was stacked with all the regalia removed to make room in the main hall.
A couple of plaques of coats of arms fought for space with banners and what looked like spears adorned with red ropes.
“Look,” she began, “It’s only going to be a few minutes before people notice I’m not there.”
“This will be really brief,” I promised. “I only have few questions and I know that they’re going to sound strange, but I’d really appreciate it if you could be honest with me, ok?”
“First of all, can you tell me how old you are?”
Maria looked a little surprised, but I’d rumbled her. There was no need to pretend.
“I’m fifteen,” she admitted.
I nodded, now understanding. An excellent education and an intelligent mind made peers her own age seem immature, but partying at the places her friends went to made a little subversion necessary. The right clothes and makeup, and a mature attitude would make her appear older than her years. At a nightclub she’d be more likely to meet an older, more appealing man, one she’d be reluctant to invite to an evening like this where her father would meet him.
“What was it that Jenny didn’t like about your ex boyfriend?”
Again Maria raised her eyebrows, but answered the question.
“She said he was a user. He only wanted to get me into bed and wouldn’t be able to stay faithful.”
“Did she say why she thought so?”
“It’s not Ben, is it?” I asked, needing confirmation.
Maria wrinkled her nose.
“God, no; I don’t know what Emma sees in him.”
With his own place and a rich daddy, it wasn’t too hard for me to see what Emma saw in him.
“Do you know what’s happened to Jenny?” she asked tentatively.
I nodded slowly.
“Yes, I think I do. I think that the guy you dated, dated her first and she thought that she should warn you. Did you ever stop to think about how alike the two of you looked; both pretty, petit and dark haired?”
Maria shook her head sadly.
“No, I never thought about it.”
“I think that her boyfriend was attracted to you when he found out who your father was. The other girls in the newspapers were pretty and dark haired, too. And, I think that Jenny got in the way when she told him to back off and leave you alone.”
Maria looked like she was going to cry and put a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob.
“Did your ex ever know your real age?”
She shook her head again.
“I never told him.”
This told me all I needed to know and I thanked her as I opened the door for her. I waited in the room a little longer. If my suspicions were correct, the ex boyfriend would have come here tonight not wanting to miss the opportunity to talk to her father. If he had seen her enter this room with me he would want to know what we had talked about. I leant against the table with my arms folded and waited for my visitor. Soon, the door opened slightly and a handsome, cheerful face peeked round to look at me.
“Hi,” he said. “Have you had a glass of champagne yet? You’d better be quick; the vultures are eating and drinking everything.”
“I can wait,” I said casually. “Come on in. We need to talk.”
He strolled into the middle of the room and let the door close behind him. He stood with his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
“So, what were you two girls gossiping about?” he asked jovially. “Which one of the men out there is the best looking?”
“We were talking about Jenny Pierce,” I said calmly, “and who dated her before Maria.”
His face paled slightly.
“I’ve heard that Maria has a jealous streak and a mean temper. You should talk to her friends if you think she dated the same man as Jenny.”
I couldn’t believe he was trying to slander an innocent girl. I raised a waggling finger as I pointed out the telling detail.
“Well, now it’s interesting that you just said ‘man’. You see, we’ve always referred to Jenny and her friends as girls, but Jenny wasn’t the youngest.”
“No. Maria is fifteen. So if he dated both girls,” I separated my hands and turned them towards the ceiling in an open shrug, “with Maria, he’d have been a bit of a bad boy now, wouldn’t he?”
I saw him swallow.
“And that would explain why Jenny intervened.”
“Well, if she was so concerned about her friend,” he responded, digging franticly, “why would she bring her to a nightclub where everyone is supposed to be over eighteen?”
I waggled my finger again.
“There you are with another interesting word,” I said. “Supposed; not everyone who goes to a nightclub is over the age eighteen. Just check out the young faces on the dance floor who look too nervous to approach the bar.”
I looked up into his face and met his eyes. He had the gall to stare straight back.
“Is that where you met the other girls, Danny; in the nightclubs? Because that seems to be the kind you go for; pretty, petit, dark haired and young. You’d have a dance with them, invite them out for a nightcap and meet later in the car park, where the security cameras can’t see.”
Danny simply smiled.
“All you have is a suspicion, a hunch.”
“Not if Maria tells us you slept with her.”
“A misdemeanour,” he said dismissively. “She never told me her real age and I believed she was over the age of consent.”
“Not if you slept with Jenny, too. That’s a direct connection. You see, if a man is smart enough to use a condom, he tends to stick with the brand he likes. Once we find Jenny,”
I immediately corrected myself, “when we find Jenny, we’ll be able to test for traces of spermicide to tell what that was, and compare with what Maria knows.”
I didn’t even know if such a test was possible. I was bluffing, but would it be enough?
Danny suddenly lunged forward and gripped both his hands around my throat. I squealed with shock, but couldn’t scream as he squeezed even tighter.
I fumbled behind me and lashed out, smashing a plaque over the top of his head.
The plaque flew across the room and Danny staggered backwards onto the floor. Without stopping to think, I reached behind for another weapon and didn’t realise I had hold of a ceremonial sword until I heard the blade chink on the floor as it bounced.
I staggered myself and had to use both hands to hold it up as I pointed the tip of the blade at Danny’s throat. He gave a nervous little laugh as he tried to shuffle backwards.
“Where is she, Danny?” I took a step forward and balanced the tip at the hollow of his throat.
“Where is Jenny?”
I was standing almost right over him now.
“Please, for God’s sake, Liz. Please don’t do this.”
“Tell me where she is.”
“Liz, please don’t. Please Liz.”
I tilted my right hand so that my wrist was pointing towards the ceiling and gently pressed the heel of my left hand against the butt of the decorative handle. I couldn’t help admiring how beautiful it was.
“You have until I count to five to tell me what you did with Jenny Pierce. One…”
“Oh dear God,”
“Liz, I swear to God, I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Please put down the sword, please Liz.”
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It was Maria.
“Liz, are you alright in there?” she called.
I sit with my book and my diet coke watching my washing in the dryer. I am unable to read. Not because the book is boring but because the laundrette is so depressing. Normally I can block this feeling out but today was different. At first I thought it was because of the drab, muted colours or the faded paint on which faded signs say how much a full cycle wash is and that the dry cleaning machine is no longer in use due to the owner unable (or can’t be bothered) to get new parts. I also thought it was the big oversized tables with their sick yellow Formica tops with their mismatching plastic chairs. Or was it the mass of out-of-date papers that crowd the valuable folding space. But the laundrette never changes, so it can’t just be this.
It is, of course, all of these things plus the underlying reason: the lack of love and attention this specific laundrette needs. Was I also feeling unloved?
I look at the lady at the end of the second large table. She is reading. Her hair is straight, long and touching her magazine because her head is tilting downwards. She has a gaunt face, all thin and bones. She looks depressed too. Her clothes look depressed, faded and flat. Has loneliness of the laundrette seeped out of the walls and into her? Or is it the other way around?
I look at the well-dressed man in his light grey suit and polished black shoes, with his manicured black moustache. He is folding what appears to be seven months of laundry. His short black hair is groomed and he has an air of authority. Maybe this naturally comes to people who are in their early fifties? I’m unsure. Somehow he looks depressed as well. There’s a sombreness that hangs about him and in his movements. Back and forth, from dyer to table carefully folding a new piece of clothing.
We said hellos as I walked in. I felt shy as my small hello was said. I like to be friendly in public even though there is a strong urge to be left alone. Somehow there is no need to be rude or unhappy towards strangers just because they are strangers. I recall that cheesy but true saying ‘strangers are just friends you haven’t met’. Sometimes it’s the corny expressions that have profound wisdom. It’s just their packaging that’s shiny. The moustached man’s hello, in contrast, was strong and he went beyond the initial greetings. I wasn’t expecting the extra “how are you?” and I wasn’t in the mood to talk. I responded with a short “fine thanks, and you?” hoping he wouldn’t continue this polite chitchat. He replied and that was the end of our conversation. But the bond of the laundrette is stronger than hellos.
The laundrette bond between users is a disturbing one. It’s an unwanted link that reflects back what each of us doesn’t want to see. When I look at another laundrette user I see the depression in their eyes. I see the look of failure. I don’t want to see that look but it’s there reminding me that I, too, haven’t got a big enough flat for a tumble dryer. It reminds me that somehow my life missed the bit where I live in a big house. But that is just my materialistic side and is fleeting. It’s the programmed side of me the advertising companies have installed, that our lives are incomplete if we don’t wear the right clothes or have the latest gadgets. I do have a beautiful girlfriend and a wonderful child. I have a lot to be genuinely happy for. I also know there’s a deeper feeling of depression, one that has been with me since childhood.
What has always been a part of me, the biggest part, is a deep desire to create stories. Ever since I read ‘Where the wild things are’ my world was never the same. To be lost with Max in his world, transported with him to his island where he becomes king of the wild things. This magic spell took hold and has never relented. I yearn to be the magician who casts his beautiful spell, enchanting all those who read his words. To be published, to write non-stop, that is the source of my depression as I am not a published author spinning tales of gold every day. Instead I create adverts for a plastic storage company as their graphic designer, spinning tales of a different sort. I oscillate between really loving it to really loathing it. Months can go by where a slow build-up of using my creativity without meaning will surface. Or what I would call meaning. The deep, touching meaning of human emotion that stories create.
This feeling bursts out of me and the urge to write becomes like a drug. I need to do it. I remember one day about two years ago, I was taking off my coat by my desk at work and hearing a voice inside my head saying, “I’m over graphic design”. I stood for a second to digest what had happened. The voice wasn’t my voice. It was an image of the words as well as a complete thought. It felt foreign and not of me but I recognised what it was. I had this experience a few times before.
What struck me was the phrase. I could understand if I was over this particular job but didn’t think I would be over graphic design. As I sat, a second ‘thought’ came into my mind. “I want to help people”. This was my inner-self calling I could feel. My soul reminding me there is more to life that plastic storage and graphic design. I often would think about the big questions of life, “Why are we here on earth?” “what is a person’s soul?”, “is there a god?”, “who am I?”. All those ‘life’ ones and more that children always ask their parents but never get a satisfactory answer. I never stopped asking. And now I was getting answers. Or was it more questions? What is the true purpose of my life?
This may sound crazy but I can sometimes know things about people without being told them. This first happened about fifteen years ago but I’m sure other things happened in my childhood that have got lost with time. I was in my early 20s, in a nightclub with friends and I was sitting at the bar. They were off dancing or chatting people up. I had just ordered my beer when my head wanted to turn to the right as if someone had taken my chin in their hand and physically moved it. I was looking directly at a girl with long brown hair, lip-gloss and big eyes.
Without thinking I said, “He wants you to know that it isn’t your fault”. Quite rightly she just stared at me. I repeated what I had said. Again she stared, this time with a look of disbelief. I said the sentence again but added, “your boyfriend was killed in a car crash two weeks ago and he wants you to know he’s alright now and it wasn’t your fault”. The abuse I got flowed without effort as she told me to “fuck off” and “are you having a fucking laugh or what?” For some reason I ignored this and continued, again as though I had no choice. “You blame yourself for the car crash. He says it wasn’t your fault and you blame yourself.” More abuse as she looked around her, “Are my friends winding me up? Who told you?” I shook my head, “I’m not trying to wind you up, or pull you. I just have to tell you that he wants you to not blame yourself and that he loves you”. There was a sudden calmness that crossed her face as if someone has placed their hands on her shoulders to reassure her. I repeated the message again, this time my voice was softer. Her eyes were full of understanding and I could see a small tear as she whispered, “Thank you” before she left the bar and me wondering how and why I had said those things. Was this helping other people?
A full minute must have passed before I realise that the tumble dryer had stopped spinning. I quickly gather my clothes, my book and my diet coke, said my goodbyes with an acknowledged nod and response from my fellow laundretteers, and left glad to be free from the greyness for one more week. One thing that always cheers me up is seeing my car. It’s a silver sports one with beautiful lines and all the mod cons. This is my first expensive modern car. My past ones have always been old bangers, so I’m immensely proud to drive it. I’m also eternally grateful to my mum for leaning me half the money, without which I wouldn’t have been able to buy it. I press the button on the remote that flicks the boot open and put my laundry in. The solid ‘clunk’ it makes as it opens is always satisfying.
As I slide into the front seat, start the car and pull away, my mind is still with mum. She is such an intelligent and talented lady. I start to reminisce how we would talk about art, astrology and literature when I was a child. I recall how I had gone to bed but was unable to sleep one night. I was worried and ran to my mum who was playing her piano, “Mum, mum,” I began to cry, “what happens if you die?” I remember how she stopped playing, turned and looked at me with a warm smile, bundled me up in her arms and said, “What makes you think I’m going to die?” I mumbled through my tears that all things die. She soothed my brow, “Yes, they do but when their time is right. And my time is far away.” I questioned how she knew that and she replied, “If you are still, very still, and all around is calm, you can feel deep down what the truth is”. Somehow, even as an eight year old, I understood and I never worried about her dying again. That was until mum’s stroke.
* * * * *
My phone rang one evening and a concerned pupil was on the line sounding bewildered, “Your mum needs help. She’s asking for you. Her speech is slurred and now she can’t move her arm”. I was at mum’s house in five minutes. Normally it takes ten. She was still sitting, lop sided, on her chair in front of the piano, calm. She tried to smile at me. I could see her face contort. Where was mum’s smile? What had happened?
We moved her onto the couch with some difficulty as her left leg as well as her left arm was not moving. “I’m going to call an ambulance,” I said thinking it was a mild heart attack. She began to protest that she was okay and didn’t want to go to hospital. She had a long-standing hatred for the medical profession since she was a young girl. A doctor told her when she was small that the needle won’t hurt and to mum’s surprise it hurt a lot. She was stunned the doctor would lie to her. From then on, mum’s view of the medical profession has always been filled with suspicion.
Now was not the time to hold a grudge. After I’d spoken to the emergency services I spent the next five minutes convincing mum that hospital is the best place for her. “They suspect it’s a stroke mum,” I said as I held her damaged hand. It was already discolouring and was getting colder.
I thanked mum’s pupil for his help and said it would be okay if he wanted to go. We both agreed that it was fortunate that mum was teaching as she could have been on her own. Ten minutes later I could see the lights of the ambulance through the living room window. I left mum to answer the door. Two ambulance medics walked in as I explained what happened. They checked mum and agreed it looked like a stroke. “It’s too big for me to cope with mum,” I pleaded. After more convincing, mum agreed.
The drive to the hospital was a blur. The last time I visited this hospital was for the birth of my son. Floods of memories filled my mind as I drove through the streets. The music on the radio in the delivery room as my baby was delivered, the joy in our hearts, the feeling of holding him for the first time and thinking, “this is what the meaning of life is”. All these life-changing memories were to be joined now by new and uncertain ones.
As I was parking I could see mum’s ambulance pass by. It seemed surreal to have a connection to an ambulance, something I normally would only see as I pulled out of its way wishing it good luck. I stepped out of my car and into the cold. Nothing else mattered. I followed mum, who was on the metal stretcher, as they wheeled her straight into A&E. This seemed unreal. Everything was too calm. The speed the ambulance medics walked, the lack of noise and activity. I realised that my only real knowledge of hospitals was from TV and films. Surely, there should be loads of people rushing about making noise and looking very serious.
We were shown a waiting bay as the ambulance medic booked us in. Mum was so serene, never complained. We waited and waited. Occasionally, a nurse would pop in and run some tests. It was clear the hospital were busy. Eventually, we were moved to a ward. Again we waited. I held mum’s good hand. I didn’t know what else to do. After several hours, the X-ray department was ready to scan mum’s brain.
Early results indicated it wasn’t a full stroke but a minor one, although we were warned that the early scans don’t always show full strokes. It’s the scan a couple of days later that will defiantly confirm how serious mum’s stroke was.
I visited mum every day, and my brother and his girlfriend travelled from Oxford to be by her side. He was shocked when a doctor told him, quite casually, as she leaned over my mum who was semi-conscious, “She’s very ill. We’re concerned that her kidneys will fail. She may only have a few days to live”. When he asked her what she meant by this, double-checking that he had heard her correctly, the doctor said that she had to go and that her junior doctor would explain and promptly left. My brother looked at the junior doctor who stared straight back at him and said he had to go too and he would be back soon to explain. He promptly left my brother with our semi-unconscious mother hooked up to several drips with the knowledge that she could die in the next few days.
The junior doctor never did return to explain. Instead it was left to my brother and I to ask another doctor what it was meant by “your mum could die in the next few days”. This doctor was young and had a kind face. She seemed sympathetic to our situation and sat with us while she explained all of mum’s medical problems. It was indeed serious and mum could die within the next few days if the medication for her kidneys failed. This was another medical problem that was unrelated to the stroke. I remember how kind this doctor was and how numb I was to her words. The thought of death was abstract and somehow I couldn’t comprehend it.
After answering all of our questions, the doctor left us to contemplate what she had told us. I could feel tears fill my eyes and could see my brother was in distress. We sat in the silence for a while knowing that if we talked it was then real and not just a bad dream. Eventually I softly said, “It’s going to be alright”. This seemed the only thing to say.
That was eleven months ago. Six months mum spent in hospital. Five in the nursing home in the country where she is now. She never did regain the use of her left arm or leg despite physiotherapy. They wrote her off. In my heart I felt it too but refused to believe. I wanted to believe mum when she repeatedly said, “I’m going to walk again and we’ll all go for a holiday in Scotland”.
Her speech came back very slowly. Mum’s smile had returned to normal and she had hundreds of Get Well cards from her friends, family and her piano pupils. I stuck them into an album. After two months she was out of her semi-conscious dream state and able to sit up for short periods of time. She loved to look at the cards, tears would fall down her cheeks and she would say, “I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky”.
* * * * *
My thoughts are still in the past as my car winds along country roads to visit mum. It’s a bright winters’ day, crisp and cold. I never thought of my mum getting old and definitely didn’t think of her living in a home. Who does think of their parents like that? We have to take what life throws at us. Great timing I think as ‘The Trick to Life’ blares out from my car speakers. The chorus is “The tick to life is not to get too attached to it.” I’ve read something similar in spiritual books. Yes, the theory is more in depth in books but the Hoosiers lyrics of wisdom come in the form of a beautifully crafted pop song that I can sing along to. Don’t dismiss it.
The nursing home is a glorious Edwardian building with tall trees lining either side. I’m not sure if this has been converted into a nursing home or purpose built. I’d love to say it was my house. I’ve got so many books now, mainly from charity shops, that my mind has made mental changes. I have converted the long dining room into my private library, two downstairs bedrooms into my writing room, and refurbed the spacious living room that opens out into the landscaped garden with a huge flat screen TV with surround sound. I’m still planning the huge upstairs rooms.
As I ring the bell, I think of the journey my mum has made in such a short amount of time. From being a private piano teacher who sang in a local choir, enjoyed the jazz club and was very independent, to end up in a nursing home in a wheelchair relying on people to help her get dressed, help her to the loo, cut her food and be far from her friends and family must be unimaginably depressing.
A big, jolly African carer opens the door. I thank her while I sign my name in the visitors’ book. I check who has visited. I see the names of a couple of pupils and some friends. The pressure for me to visit every day has gone. I squirt some hand-wash on my hands and rub saying hello to another carer who is pushing a resident in a wheelchair down the hallway.
As I navigate my way around tables, wheelchairs and drip machines to mum, I wave hello to everyone. Mum is delighted to see me. Her face lights up and her good arm extends to cuddle me. I kiss her on the top of her head smelling her hair dye. She decided blonde and thankfully not purple.
I sit next to her and look around at the other residents staring at me. I laugh to myself as one of them, Colin, has managed to pull his jumper part way over his head with his good arm and is now stuck. I wonder if he will ever achieve his new goal in life and be free of his evil jumper? It’s not long before Isabella starts up with her constant “please” calling. It’s a high-pitched shrill noise that pierces the ear, no matter how deaf you are. Over and over “please” or “help” or “nurse” is the mantra. I talked to her once. I asked her what help she needed. She just stared at me as if I was mad. When I asked her if she liked her dinner she replied, “Yes, it was lovely, thanks,” and then continued “help”. I also notice Dot in the corner grumbling to herself, “I feel ill. I feel ill.” Whilst at least three residents sit staring into space unable to move, speak or remember who they are.
“It’s so good to see you,” she says to me a couple of times. “I’ve written another poem,” and hands me her notebook. I flick through the pages to find the poem, flicking past various notes she has made over the last five months. It’s her way of making sense of all that has happened to her. Eventually I find the poem and begin to read.
A Sense of Alphabetical Order
in the Lounge.
Dot sits next to Doris
Sits next to Dorothy who is next to Ethel
Who is last in that row.
Elizabeth rests on a large green lounger chair
Next to the window
Where the sun is shining through
And brightens the lounge,
While Nancy sits next to the other window
And is facing Elizabeth.
Evelyn is in front of Elizabeth
Lying upon a lounger chair
From where her rather loud calls to the carers
Can be heard.
She enjoys chatting with passers-by.
She is almost 100 years old
And seems to be as bright as a button.
The charming lady who sits next to me
Is also nearly 100 years old.
Her name is Ethel W.
We look after each other.
Can you see my glasses, pencil etc.?
I admire and enjoy her gentleness of spirit.
She speaks in a Norfolk accent
Which has a charm of its own.
It can be quite noisy
Here in the lounge
As some residents call out
To absent friends and family
In a drowsy dreaminess.
The carers work well in teams
To do their ever-present tasks.
Then there is a quietness
Disturbed only by one lady
Who repeatedly squeals for attention.
Connie sits facing me at the dinner table
And has the same gentleness of spirit
as Ethel W.
I smile, “This is good mum, really good”. She smiles back at me, “but that’s not all. I’ve been practicing”. I look at mum not sure what she means. Very slowly I see the blanket across her knees begin to move. First her right leg, then her left leg. I’m still confused. Mum is smiling, her eyes sparkle, “I did seventy of these in bed last night and when I’m walking again we’ll all go for a holiday in Scotland.”
* * * * *
I sit with my book and my diet coke watching my washing in the dryer. I am unable to read. Not because the book is boring but because the laundrette is a place full of stories. The one I see in the tumble dryer reflection is of a mum and her two sons on a beach in Scotland feeling the cold water around their ankles and wet sand squelching between their toes.