Thomas cantered into Wadesmill. He was tired after the long ride from Cambridge and longing for a good drink of ale. But most of all he needed to think. Ever since he had written his prize winning essay, ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’ on abolishing the slave trade, his mind had been buzzing with questions. What can I do about it? Shall I visit the slaves in the Caribbean? What about finding out more about the conditions on the slave ships? Can I find an MP to put the case for abolition in Parliament? So many questions.
He dismounted at the Feathers, tied his horse to the post and went in to the inn. “Landlord, a pint of your very good ale and some bread and cheese please.”
“Where have you ridden from today sir?” asked the landlord.
“That’s a fine town. I’ve got a niece who lives there. She is servant in one of the Professor’s houses. Reckon she likes it fine. They have grand dinners in the house for the Professor’s friends. Nelly serves it all from the roast beef to the syllabub and coffee where they often fall to talking about politics and such like. She hears some meaty comments sometimes.”
“Have you ever thought about where the sugar we put in our coffee comes from, landlord?” Thomas asked.
“Out west somewhere in the tropics where the weather is hot. Not Yorkshire, sir” he chuckled.
“Yes on the Caribbean islands where the natives work. But do you realise they are slaves to their masters and have no freedom like we enjoy? Is that right for us to hold them as our slaves so we can have cheap sugar?”
“Well, I’ve never thought about it,” answered the landlord as he mopped his brow “but I wouldn’t mind having a slave in my kitchen even if he was black. I guess it’s just the way things are. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“But that’s just it, landlord, I do worry about it and I am going to do something about it!”
As he left the coaching inn, Thomas felt his cheeks burning with indignation and resolution. Maybe nobody cared about the slaves - but he did and he would take on the world to fight for the end of slavery. It would be a hard path persuading all the vested interests who were making a fortune out of this evil trade. He walked up the hill and came to a spot where he sat down on the turf. Holding his horse, Thomas reflected on the evils of slavery and the thought came to him that this had gone on long enough and that someone had to stop these calamities. Then he had the revelation, sent by God, that the someone was him!
Right, I resolve on this spot to dedicate my life to the abolition of the slave trade, he thought. A voice said to him “This is your destiny Thomas, open the gates.”
Excited and inspired, Thomas mounted his horse and patting it on the neck whispered, “Let’s go to Ware and call on Joseph Aldridge – he will help.”
A few miles further on, Thomas stopped outside his friend’s house on Ware High Street. Thomas knew it was the old home of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Thomas’s thoughts raced back three hundred years. If it hadn’t been for her, he mused, we would never have had Henry VIII or Elizabeth to rule us. How history depends on small events! Well if all the wrongs against slaves I have described in my essay are facts, then it’s high time something was done about it. I don’t want to depend on a small event to happen to free the slaves. No - I need to take action.
In this frame of mind Thomas greeted Joseph and poured out his passionate belief in the need to change the fate of the slaves. Joseph didn’t need persuading as he had long thought on the same lines. “Calm down my friend,” said Joseph as he put a comforting arm around Thomas’s shoulder.
Joseph poured out a good red wine and sat down with his friend. Grasping his hand urgently he said, “I have met and talked to some slaves on a slave ship. They are not savages but men, good craftsman who miss their families.” Joseph went to a cupboard and produced a beautiful carved object. “Wonderful work,” marvelled Thomas. “You give me an idea to demonstrate to others their humanity and call them to our cause.”
Two years later in London, Thomas delivered his essay to the MP for Hull, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce wrote to him:
“I congratulate you on your ideas and passion. We must join forces to campaign on this, the biggest issue of our time. If you could gather more evidence about how the slaves are treated I will make an impassioned plea in Parliament. Can you meet me tomorrow at the Cheshire Cheese?”
The two men formed an alliance with a toast of good claret. Thomas was to do the research and William to use his oratorical gifts to convince people of influence and get a bill passed in Parliament.
The result of their pact was a brilliant speech in Parliament in 1789. Clarkson supplied the information on the terrible conditions on the ship Brookes, which he had visited in his incredible journeys of hundreds of miles in search of the truth.
“When surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close, that there is not room to tread among them; and when you have it in evidence from Sir George Yonge, that even in a ship which wanted 200 of her complement, the stench was intolerable,” he wrote.
But Parliament resisted and the Bill failed by 163 votes to 88.
Clarkson became more of a threat to the slave merchants and on a visit to Liverpool, that city of iniquity as a headquarters of the slave trade, he was set upon by a group of sailors who tried to throw him in the water at the docks. Clarkson was no physical fighter but he outwitted his attackers and managed to escape. Mopping his brow afterwards over a reviving glass of ale he thought, “do I give up? Is this too dangerous?”
He resolved to continue and not be scared out of his mission. Instead he became energised and gathered more evidence of the cruelties and monstrousness of the slave trade. He started a boycott of West Indian sugar, created a box of African artefacts to demonstrate the humanity of the slaves, travelled to Paris to persuade the Revolutionary government and to Tsar Alexander of Russia. He had some success with the Tsar but met more abuse in France and returned to England disappointed.
Then came another blow when the sons of Wilberforce held a public event praising their father and not even mentioning Thomas Clarkson’s amazing contribution. So disappointment was followed by sadness that his thousands of miles of travelling and gathering the essential information that Wilberforce needed was not acknowledged.
It took several more attempts and was not until July 1833 that Parliament finally banned the slave trade in all British Colonies. Slave merchants were paid huge compensation and the now free men were forced to work as apprentices for six years. Only then was real freedom theirs.
Thomas died in 1846, exhausted by his thousands of miles of travelling and staying up until 3am writing his research for Wilberforce to use. Shortly before the abolition, Thomas was prevailed upon by other abolitionists to return to Hertfordshire and point out the exact spot at Wadesmill where he had had his revelation and dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause.
You can visit this spot today and see the monument erected to Thomas Clarkson - and have a drink afterwards in the Feathers pub where Clarkson may have encountered a dubious landlord in 1785.
I pulled back the curtains expecting to see a new world, but it all looked reassuringly the same. Would it for much longer? In dawn’s dim light I could see the Bennetts’ ageing ginger cat sitting on their front step, now too old to bother to hunt or roam. The milk bottles, newly delivered, stood with pure white innocence and optimism. Today, there was nothing different in the way this long London street opened its sleepy eyes.
Bill was still snoring, oblivious to my wakefulness. I walked down the wooden stairs, careful to avoid the steps I knew would let out a painful cry, filled the kettle and set it on the range. I opened the back door and Fred, our mongrel dog, ran in. Always seeming to smile and dance, we named him Fred Astaire. He yawned and looked as if to say: “why so early?” I stoked the fire and cleaned out the ash. While it grew hotter I collected the milk and noticed that, yet again, the milkman’s horse had left a mess just outside our gate. I closed the door and saw Bill creeping downstairs, he too avoiding the creaky boards so as not to wake baby Lizzie who could be disturbed by the drop of a feather.
“Bit sodding early for a Sunday,” he said.
“Well I’m frightened and we all know it’s going to happen today.”
“Yeah,” he said, “probably will.”
“Aren’t you scared about what it’ll mean for us?” I asked angrily.
“Not much I can do to stop it is there?” was his sanguine reply.
I made a pot of tea and sat at the kitchen table. I thought of how the cloth needed a wash, how the kennel could do with a brush, I thought of chores, things to do, anything that would distract me. Through the window I could see Mary in her kitchen, now so solitary since Hazel died. We never knew whether or not they had lived as a married couple but they had worked together as teachers and lived side-by-side for over thirty years. Rarely venturing out beyond our street and seemingly without friends or family, she delighted in being asked to babysit. Mary wasn’t usually up so early either - surely she too felt this dread.
“Might go and see if Tom’s up yet,” Bill said as he drained his cup and placed it in the sink.
His younger brother and wife lived five minutes’ walk away. Maggie, so timid and frail, was expecting their first child. I had been worried about how she would cope with an uncertain future but as time went on she surprised me with her tenacious spirit, courage and unfailing loyalty to the family.
“If Maggie’s up tell her to come over,” I said.
I could hear Lizzie chattering away to herself in her cot. Not quite a year old, she started each day sitting up and talking to the rag-doll my mother had made. I put some milk into her bottle and placed it in a jug of hot water. Bringing her downstairs, I sat Lizzie in her high chair and mashed some of the milk into a rusk. Over her shoulder I could see the street beginning to stir. No longer half-light, the day was now bright and sunny, the air sultry after last night’s storm. As Bill left the house I went upstairs, washed and dressed and put on my lipstick while Lizzie watched. I heard the front door opening and Mum calling up. She visited most mornings at about 11 o’clock but over the past few days it had been earlier. As I carried Lizzie downstairs I could see Mum’s face etched with worry.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she said. “You had anything to eat?”
“Not yet, Mum,” I answered. “It’s still only eight o’clock!”
“Sorry, didn’t realise it was so early. I haven’t slept much.”
We sat at the table sipping tea, nibbling half-heartedly on toast while we watched Lizzie pulling herself up to standing and trying to take a step.
“Won’t be long before she’s up those stairs,” Mum said, as if it hadn’t occurred to me.
Through the window I could see Bill walking back home with Tom and Maggie.
“I’ll put the kettle back on,” said Mum, grateful to be doing something useful.
We chatted and drank tea, ate toast and cake and felt each others' nerves. Maggie and I put Lizzie in her pram and took her for a walk. The day was as bright and beautiful as any I could remember. We stopped to chat to neighbours, to return balls to children playing in the street and to stroke dogs let out to wander for the day. When we returned the kitchen was silent and the family had been joined by Mary and two other women I recognised but did not know well. The radio was on and we knew what we were about to hear. Mr Chamberlain began his broadcast and soon we were weeping, each of us alone with our fear. Some of us in the room were too young to remember the Great War but for those who could, the pain and terror of another outbreak was unbearable.
Nobody remembers how they were born, and I do not either, but I certainly remember how I died. I was murdered. And I don’t think that many people can boast, like me, that it was done without any damage to their body – at all.
I recall standing beside him one night; he was sitting at his writing desk, fast asleep with his head resting on his arms. A mass of paper sheets covered in hand-writing littered the rest of the space and a good deal of the floor, with one or two pens and several empty ink-bottles thrown in to complete the picture. I carefully extended one hand and touched him on the shoulder – he jerked awake, saw me and nearly keeled over with his chair in utter amazement and shock.
He did not ask many questions. As much as he could write, he was not a great talker. So, our short relationship was exceedingly non-verbal and seemed to come to life only in the darkest hours of the night, when the fine line between dreams and reality is somewhat blurred. Then he would be in awe of me (I could see it in his eyes) and even whisper a few tender words in my ear, but he would become terrified of me as soon as the grey light of dawn filtered through the curtains of his study. By day, he wouldn’t acknowledge I was there at all, let alone talk to me.
Very soon, I began to suffer. Not only because he didn’t provide me with any food and I had to make do with whatever I found in the kitchen, but also because of his spiritual negligence. I grew tired of feeling his affection only when his desires got the better of him, and of trying to talk to him and never getting an answer back. My frustration grew every day, but while I would have liked to shout and scream, to throw things at him and break glass, I was never able to do anything of the sort. Something held me back, and it held me back firmly. I could only watch as he sat at his desk, putting order into the manuscript I had seen the first night and typing it out.
One day, however, while he was away, it occurred to me to have a look at that manuscript. I had never paid much attention to it before, which was probably a mistake, but I didn’t guess then how important it was. I sat down with it and started to read. It was a strange kind of story, essentially revolving around the details of the human body – or rather, of a specific human body, a woman’s. Her every feature and movement was delineated in delicate, almost loving words, her whole person granted an incredible gracefulness by the narrator. Maybe this fondness that the words expressed was the reason it took me so long to realise what so utterly frightened me about the text.
I still have in mind how I feverishly flicked through the pages, faster and faster, until I reached the bit that described the woman’s character. It was contained on one page and had plainly not been given as much attention as the rest. I scanned the text, words like “kind” and “intelligent” jumping out at me, and finally reached the line that made my hair stand on end: “It is not in her nature to rebel; therefore, she remains utterly defenceless and will never turn against her master, let alone leave him.” Her master…
I stood up, walked over to the desk with the sheet in my hand, picked up a pen and drew a line across this last sentence. It felt good. Then, more briskly, I drew another, and another until I found myself slashing away vigorously at the paper, punching several holes in it and sending blots of ink flying everywhere. That done, I found the printed version of this ridiculous “story” and did the same with the last line there, just for good measure. I felt elated – never in my life had I been so free, nor held such power in my hand.
But of course, all good things must eventually come to an end, and they did pretty quickly when my “master” – I couldn’t very well call him “father” after our nightly episodes – finally returned home. I had sat down, wanting to write my very own version of “her character” and when he found me like this he panicked. I remember feeling a kind of savage pleasure knowing that he couldn’t just ignore me now. I had not bargained on the violence of his reaction, however. He lunged towards me, hit me in the face and tore the manuscript from me, cursing all the while. It was when I tasted my own blood that my lungs filled up with air and I opened my mouth wide – and screamed.
I screamed like I had never thought I could. I yelled on and on, shouting insults at him, venting my whole bottled-up anger I had held back for so long. He tried to silence me of course, but I was in such a rage by then that it was all he could do to defend himself from my angry fists. I kept on shouting all the while.
I don’t know how long this went on. Very soon there was knocking at the door and voices calling “What’s going on in there? Open up!” At this, he looked more panicked than ever. Finally, he gave up trying to place a hand over my wailing mouth, pushed me against the wall and picked up the manuscript again. He gave me one look, one that spoke of love at last, but also of terrible regret, and he threw the sheets into the fireplace.
My body dissolved then and there. I recall the pain of being separated from it and the wonder of still being conscious nonetheless. I have never quite solved that puzzle. My nearest guess, however, is that my soul rests between the pages of the printed copy, the one he had no time to burn before the policemen came for him.
Loosely based on the story of Ovid’s PYGMALION.
This was the spot. Brian was sure of it. The bulldozers had already taken most of the old familiar reference points: the Palace Cinema, first victim of the wrecking ball; the Railway Tavern, on the corner of Station Road and Manchester Road; the UCP Tripe shop next door. All gone. It would have been impossible for Brian to find the spot but for the partly demolished Co-Op Laundry building, still standing at the centre of the demolition site.
For the next few days, at least.
The ground was soaked and muddy, grey sky puddles reflecting the twisted lattice girders of the shattered old laundry. Brian loosened his collar. That morning’s flash thunderstorm had left the air hot, still and oppressive. The storm had moved south, probably halfway through Cheshire by now, soaking the stuck-up residents of Wilmslow and Alderley Edge.
“The rain it raineth every day,” hummed Brian, “‘Upon the Just and Unjust fellow. But more upon the Just because, the Unjust hath the Just’s umbrella.” He’d always liked that poem; the vindication of crime with a little humour. He turned and paced out fifty yards from the front entrance of the shattered laundry to where he thought the small cobbled yard at the back of his first home would have been.
Wilmslow was where Joyce’s mum and dad had lived. Naturally, when Brian and Joyce were courting, he’d never dreamt of taking her to the Railway Tavern, or the Bricklayer’s Arms down the road, or even the Midland Hotel on Burnage Lane. Beer might have been one shilling and eleven pence a pint in those pubs back then, but those pubs weren’t for the likes of Joyce.
No; for Joyce, it was chicken in the basket at the Berni Inn, Didsbury. Or scampi and chips in the Dog and Partridge next door. Beer was three times the price in those places, “establishments,” as Joyce’s dad used to call them. But needs must, his own dad used to say.
When The Devil Drives, thought Brian.
It hadn’t taken long after their marriage for Brian to realise his mistake. “You can’t marry outside your class,” his dad said. If only he’d dispensed his sage, nodding, pipe smoking, after the fact, stable-door-locked-too-late-the-horse-has-bloody-well-bolted advice a bit sooner!
The arguments. The neediness of material possession. The cramped little terraced house behind the laundry that they’d rented for twenty years, waiting, scrimping, saving for the deposit on a semi-detached house fit for Joyce, from Wilmslow, Cheshire.
Brian still recalled their arguments, sometimes violent, the hatred always simmering just below the surface; a cruel retort, a door slammed, the silent replay of how he could have won the day with a smart response always delivered too late, always delivered to an empty kitchen or parlour.
And then she was gone.
Brian put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the puddle. Just another old fool reminiscing over lost times and happy days. The pool of water obscured most of the ground, but he thought he could make out the foundations of the walls surrounding the yard.
He should have done this months ago, when he’d first heard the area was being redeveloped.
Never mind, he thought, this particular stable door’s still open at least. He’d come back after dark with a pick and shovel and get Joyce. He placed a brick, upright in the centre of the puddle to mark the spot, and walked away.
“Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need” so proclaimed the small, grubby whiteboard hung from the wall. Tim knew little about Voltaire bar that he was responsible for the quote scrawled on the staffroom whiteboard in a rather lacklustre attempt to motivate the workforce. That and he very much doubted that he’d ever worked in retail.
The shop, as usual, was dead and there was only half an hour until he could go home but since he’d spent the last fifteen minutes killing time in the staffroom, Tim slowly made his way back towards the shop floor. He took extra care in pacing his steps in order to maximise the time it took him to get back to the till without looking like he was purposely dilly-dallying. Jean had just clocked off and was talking to Trudy when he got back to his position.
“Are you in on Wednesday Tim?”
“Unfortunately so, why?”
“Apparently we have a training day.”
“Oh joy. Again, why?”
“Management think that our sales might benefit from a bit of a brush up on our ‘customer interaction’.”
“And what does ‘customer interaction’ training involve?” Tim was always dubious when management became involved with anything. They couldn’t organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery.
“How to approach shoppers in a ‘warm and welcoming manner’ and what not.”
“How long have you been working this job Jean?”
“Oh, I dunno? Fourteen or so years I reckon.”
“And they think you need to learn how to approach customers?”
“That’s what the notice says. Anyway, it’s for your benefit too. Maybe they think it’s you who need to be more welcoming to customers.”
“I’m a graduate for God’s sake; I think I can just about manage smiling at the old ladies that come in to buy their winter jumpers.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“Yup, see ya then.”
“I’ll be in at half eleven, unless I win the EuroMillions tonight then I’ll call from Barbados to say I’m not coming in.”
“That would be nice, well good luck.”
She smiled and headed for the door.
Trudy was already daydreaming about her hypothetical lottery win by the time Jean was out of sight.
“I think I’d buy a Spanish Villa if I won the jackpot or maybe go to the Caribbean. I’d definitely go somewhere nice and hot.”
“Yeah? I think I’d go the other way. Fly somewhere really cold and walk about in the snow.”
Tim liked the idea of the snow, being swallowed up by the unending expanse of white and never being seen again.
The train ride home was an unpleasant affair. People climbing over each other in a sticky haze of elbows and underarms. Tim remembered seeing footage of a train in Tokyo where the guards physically pushed people into the carriage so as to ensure as many people could get on without causing any delay. He wondered what it was like to be in Japan, to be anywhere that wasn’t here. Somewhere where he didn’t have to spend the first hour of his earnings everyday going to and from work.
When the train slid into his station he had to clamber over bodies in a most undignified and animalistic manner, climbing over the hooting commuters and grunting apologetically to those he may have trod on. He had to get home, he was happy at home.
The only reason Tim felt happy at home was because of his ants. The shuffling little creatures always seemed to have a place and a sense of purpose which pleased him no end. He didn’t know how long he had owned the ant farm but it seemed to him like they had lived an inordinately long amount of time. Old they may be, but they also seemed happy enough. If you can judge an ant’s happiness.
It was this simplicity which had always drawn Tim to the insects, they worked and they were happy, he fed them and they were happy and if they ever did seem a little morose he’d just move them to a sunnier spot of the house and they were happy. He gave them light: they were happy, he gave them food: they were happy, he gave them nothing and paid them no attention at all and they were happy. For those few hours that he spent at home each evening, he could play God and yet do nothing wrong. They were easy beasts to maintain and the social cohesion they had was just another aspect of their nature that enthralled Timothy. How could they be so happy with their lot in life? All they did was work, eat and sleep.
Dropping in the last few scraps of his dinner, Tim watched the insects scurry about with great alacrity over the libations rained down upon them. But there was no tussle for it, no struggle. They all worked together for it taking it down into the bowels of their nest. They sought shelter in their underground tunnels, together. By the time he was going to bed Tim felt very small and insignificant indeed.
It was too hot to think properly and with each person that got on, the train carriage became that marginally bit sweatier and that tiny bit smaller. Yet, despite being surrounded by so many people, Tim had never felt so lonely. He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling from the night before and now he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
He hoped he would be able to forget it once he was at work but it clung with him throughout the day escalating into a sort of high pitched dread that bore down upon him. He could feel a God he didn’t believe in constantly judging him from above and with no one to turn to the pressure was becoming a little too much. He looked at the people he worked with and realised he knew very little about them. They were all much older than he was and he had no intention of ever spending time, outside of the shop, with them. He then looked at the shop itself, he did not want to be here, he had bigger ambitions than this but after he had graduated he just sunk into the position so easily. It was just supposed to earn him some money before he found what he was looking for but that never came along and now he was adrift in the void of his own unwillingness to pursue something greater.
He was unhappy and he needed to do something to combat it so when the time came for him to clock off he left without saying a word to anyone desperate to get home to his ants. They would make him happy, they always did.
The train was packed full with the usual dour faced crowd and Tim looked at each and every one of them wondering if they too felt so small, so lonely. If they too hated their jobs, their lives, their individual predicaments. Soon though, all would be well again and he’d be in control.
Tim had thundered home only to find an empty ant farm which had fallen over -possibly knocked, he did not know and could not think- and each and every single ant had disappeared. Not one in sight. They had not stuck around; perhaps they weren’t happy where they were after all.
A Liz Philips Mystery
A lot of things led to the robbery and murder of Christopher Johnson, but even I was surprised when I discovered a connection to my ex husband.
After five years of awful marriage and five of blissful divorce, I didn’t think he had the ability to surprise me anymore. It’s amazing how one little thing, just a throwaway remark, could have created such destruction.
Chris had stopped off at the cash machine in the town centre at 10.25 last Thursday night, when he was attacked by a hooded youth, who stabbed him with a short bladed knife and took his wallet. He died in hospital the following day.
Even as I read the newspaper reports, I realised that there was something amiss. Most of the attack had been captured on CCTV, but the images were poor. Yes, the attacker had been dressed in a hoodie and jeans, but the face was obscured. It would be a mistake to assume that was a teenager. And 10.25 on a Thursday? Most random attacks were typically fuelled by alcohol and although the pubs would have been open on Thursday night, the more hardened drinkers wouldn’t have left before closing time at eleven. Those who did would be searching for a kebab on a Friday, not lying in wait by a cash machine on a Thursday.
My phone had rung in the middle of “The professionals”.
“Someone had better be dying,” I grumbled. “I’m missing my program.”
“Hey, Looby-Lou. Remember me?”
“Whoa!” I shouted, nearly dropping the phone. “There’s a bit of bad news I never expected to hear again.”
Once upon a time, hearing that expression on the phone turned my spine to jelly. Now it sent me cold and I was suddenly filled with dread.
“What do you want, Graham? Did your pretty young associate finally get tired of you?”
“Kerry’s fine, thank you for asking. I need your help.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Graham! No, I am not going to give you any money. Don’t even think about it.”
“I don’t need your money,” he said indignantly. “I only borrowed from you when I was desperate.”
“You stole from my purse when the Kings Cross ladies insisted on cash up front.”
“They always insist on cash up front, but that’s not the point. I’ve been arrested. My business is going under. I need you to find the proof that I didn’t steal from the company.”
“Goodbye Graham,” I said ready to hang up.
“Wait! Look,” he said, trying to be reasonable. “I’ve got a bit in personal savings. I’ll pay you your going rate, but this is serious, Liz. I’ve got to find a buyer by the end of next month or the lawyers move in.” He sounded genuinely upset.
“Bloody hell, Graham. How much do you owe?”
“Trust me; you really don’t want to know.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “I should have been a vet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a ridiculous sympathy for wounded dumb animals.”
“Thanks, Looby-Lou. I owe you big time.”
“Yeah, along with everybody else, apparently. Graham,” I said thoughtfully, “the murdered young man in the newspapers, Chris Johnson, didn’t you know him?”
“Yeah, a few years ago now, dated Becky Cartwright for a while. Terrible shock, nice kid.”
I didn’t ask him anymore about it. I was sure Graham wouldn’t have been involved in a stabbing and he did sound as if he genuinely liked Chris.
The following afternoon I was sitting at a meeting table in Graham’s office building with a laptop and a dozen empty coffee cups. Kerry kept popping her head round the door with fake smiles and false compliments to ask if I wanted anything.
Her blue eyes now shone at me from the doorway and her smile made the lighting look dark.
“How’s it going?” she asked cheerily.
I picked up one of the empty cups and shook it upside down over the pale carpet, and a couple of dark drops splashed onto the fawn coloured weave.
“I’m out of coffee again,” I smiled apologetically. Kerry’s smile immediately faded. She gave me a disgusted look and withdrew, closing the door behind her.
Graham and his best friend, Pete Martin, used to make a bit of money buying and selling used car parts. Ten years later Philips & Martin moved from the back of Pete’s dad’s garage to a proper office and Graham and I were married. After five years of lies and a dose of Chlamydia, I filed for divorce.
I called Boyle and asked him what he knew.
“It’s really not my area,” he said, “but as far as I understand, your husband has been arrested and will be charged with fraud. It’s very serious; about two million pounds worth from company accounts.”
Boyle was trying to be kind, but I could tell he really didn’t have much sympathy for people he knew were liars and thieves.
“Ex husband,” I corrected him. I knew Graham was a liar, but I didn’t want to believe he was a thief as well; at least not on this scale.
“How can two million pounds just disappear? Graham had professional financial staff.”
“I can refer you to a colleague of mine who can explain it better; my only interest is in Mr Philips’ connection to Mr Johnson.”
“Well, your best guess, then,” I persisted impatiently.
“Apparently, a Mr Malcolm Wilson was in charge of the company’s finances and we can prove that the money did get paid into the company accounts. Now, both Mr Wilson and Mr Philips claim that funds have been fraudulently withdrawn and don’t know by whom.”
“Is Wilson also helping you with your enquiries?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to reveal that information,” Boyle responded coldly.
I hung up thoughtfully. It seemed logical to assume that the only people who could have made the withdrawals and cooked the books to make the money disappear were Graham and Wilson. If Graham didn’t do it, then I’d have to follow Wilson’s activity through the books.
I scanned Wilson’s outgoings spreadsheet again. All costs, payments and profit were logged in their respective columns and all balanced as they should. I clicked back to Graham's copy. Again, there were separate columns for costs, payments and profit and they balanced correctly. It was only when I had both spreadsheets up on the screen together that I realised what the true nature of the problem was.
Graham’s spreadsheet recorded figures that were just a little less than what Wilson had recorded. This explained why Graham had been arrested, but if he hadn’t changed the values himself, he wouldn’t have known there was a misreporting of the figures.
Kerry came back into the room and plonked a plastic cup in front of me and giving me a withering look, knelt down with a spray bottle and a cloth to clean the coffee splashes I’d dropped.
“Kerry,” I said, trying to sound pleasant. “How well do you know Malcolm Wilson?”
“Very well,” she said, scrubbing hard and not looking up.
“How long has he been with the company?”
“About three years.” She was answering my questions, but not offering anything.
“That guy in the newspapers, Chris Johnson, he dated Becky for a while didn’t he?”
“Becky worked in accounts with Malcolm.”
Kerry finally gave in and sat on her haunches to look at me.
“Look,” she said, annoyed. “Becky is a friend of mine and got that job because she was the best qualified. I recommended her but it was Graham who checked out her references and offered her the position. Same with Malcolm; both are honest as the day is long.”
“Graham checked out Malcolm’s references himself?” I asked.
“Actually, I checked them,” she said, giving me a self satisfied smile.
“And how were they?”
“Impeccable.” She rose to her feet, ready to leave.
She turned her head as she reached the door.
“Do you think Graham did this?”
I saw a tiny flicker of doubt cross her eyes.
“No, of course not,” she said.
I continued checking the differences in the spreadsheets and still hadn’t finished when the evening cleaning crew came in. I apologised and packed up to leave.
The cleaner, Betty, smiled at me as she started to polish the table, but her smile faded when she noticed the newspaper on the table with the picture of Chris Johnson on the front page. She simply picked the paper up, briskly wiped beneath it and replaced it as it was.
“Did you know that young man?” I asked conversationally.
“No, love. Never met him.”
“But you don’t have a high opinion of him?”
“Pilfering, weren’t he. Mr Martin said so.”
“We got the blame. Wallets and things. Mr Martin found out it was ‘im. Sacked ‘im,” she said, as if he’d got his just desserts.
“Would this have been about three years ago?” I asked.
Betty stopped to think for a moment.
“Yes, love. About that.”
The next day, Boyle, Kerry and I were back in the meeting room with the employee folders stacked on the table, waiting for Pete Martin to arrive.
“I really think that I should go and find him,” said Boyle.
“Don’t worry,” I replied. “He’ll be here. He needs to know what we know.”
“I don’t know why I’m here,” interrupted Kerry. “None of this has anything to do with me.”
Pete walked in and strode purposefully to Kerry’s side of the table.
“Liz!” he exclaimed. “So nice to see you again. You’re looking gorgeous as ever.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I responded, dismissing the unmeant compliment. Pete and I had never liked each other. I didn’t see the point in pretending otherwise.
“Liz, why don’t you explain your theory here,” said Boyle, quickly.
I reached for the personnel files on the table and laid them out in order with the people’s photographs on top, facing Kerry and Pete.
“The easiest way to trace a person or person’s activities,” I explained, “is to trace the money they use.”
I pointed to Graham’s photo. “Graham is the boss and in overall charge of everything to do with the company.”
Pete’s shoulders flexed slightly. I wondered if Boyle noticed it too.
“Pete,” I said pointing to his photo next, “You’re Graham’s partner and would have access to almost everything Graham does, including reviewing the accounts. You were also responsible for firing Chris Johnson three years ago.”
“He was stealing from other employees,” responded Pete, indignantly. “He had a flashy mobile phone, an expensive watch. It had to be him.”
I handed Boyle a CD. “If you ask your colleague to examine the files, I think you’ll find that the theft from the accounts started just before he left.”
Kerry’s eyes widened. “So Chris was stealing from us?”
I shook my head. “There was no way he’d still have access to the accounts after leaving the company and besides, his only connection was Becky. Did she say why they split up?”
“She said that he wasn’t the guy he pretended to be.”
I pointed to Kerry’s picture next. “Kerry, you and Graham share the responsibility for vetting employees before they join. What did you find out about Chris?”
Kerry shrugged. “Hard working, loyal, but perhaps a bit of a player.”
“He had a reputation of dating the female employees he worked with?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“But Becky said he wasn’t the guy he pretended to be. Did you ever date him?”
Kerry looked at her hands. If she admitted what I suspected, she’d be confessing to two-timing Graham.
“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “But nothing happened. He said he wasn’t that kind of guy.”
I glanced at Boyle. “Are you putting two and two together yet?”
“What?! You mean he was gay?”
I pointed to Malcolm Wilson’s file. “Malcolm was an experienced accounts clerk and all his references checked out. I believe that his accounts are honest.”
I continued to Becky Cartwright’s file. “Becky didn’t have the same level of responsibility that Malcolm did. However, if she did notice a discrepancy in the reporting of the figures she’d have a duty to report it to her manager. Malcolm was her senior colleague, but not her boss. If she suspected Malcolm of dishonesty, she’d report it to you, Pete.”
Pete folded his arms confidently. “Well, she didn’t. I didn’t know there was any discrepancy until Graham was arrested.”
“I’m not sure I believe you,” said Boyle calmly. “If you had the same or at least similar access to the company files as Graham, how could you not know about the missing money?”
Pete looked pale but didn’t answer.
“Which brings us to Chris,” I said, pointing. “Poor, dear Chris, busy cultivating an image because he wasn’t ready to come out yet. But suppose for one moment that one of his office liaisons was for real, and that person also turned out to be someone who wasn’t what they were pretending to be.”
“It’s that idea that made my colleague so suspicious of the office pilfering.” Boyle pocketed the CD and started flickering through Chris Johnson’s file. “A degree of that goes on in many businesses and we assumed that it was unconnected. But why would a minor pilfering problem from three years ago matter now?” I answered the question for them. “Because something happened then that matters now.”
Boyle read from Chris’ file. “Mr Johnson reported a theft from his desk on 3rd May shortly before he left the company. A wallet was taken from his desk drawer containing about twenty pounds in cash, two credit cards, and a book of stamps, a condom and a small size photograph. A mobile phone and car keys were also in the drawer, left untouched.”
Pete smirked. “He obviously reported his own wallet stolen to divert attention. So what?”
“That’s how we knew it wasn’t Chris,” Boyle explained. “The mobile was high spec and would have been worth more than the cash in his wallet and what self respecting thief would leave the car keys behind? This was personal, so we considered the photograph.”
“A photo booth usually gives you four or five copies of the same picture, like this,” I said, holding up a small size snap. “When Graham told me that Chris dated Becky, I assumed that had happened three years ago, but we now know that they started seeing each other only last month. There were no pictures of him and Becky together, just this.”
The photo showed Pete and Chris together, happy and smiling.
Pete swallowed but his voice was still strong and confident. “Apart from that one, silly little picture, you have absolutely nothing to link me to Chris.”
“You’re right,” Boyle nodded, “until we do this.” He lent across the table and lifted Pete’s file and photograph and repositioned it between Becky and Chris. “Now, it all makes perfect sense.”
I again pointed to each picture. “Graham never was too particular about dotting the I’s or crossing the T’s. As long as his figures added up, he wouldn’t know any better; the perfect fall guy.” I moved to Kerry’s picture. “You vetted Chris Johnson, but the only negative you found was his reputation and that he ‘wasn’t that kind of guy’.” I pointed to Malcolm. “It was on your recommendation that Malcolm was appointed as Senior Account Clerk. He reported his figures to you, Pete. Becky,” I pointed to her picture, “noticed an error. It wouldn’t be long before someone joined the dots.” I moved onto Pete’s picture. “You probably told her not to worry, you’d look into it, but Chris had already figured it out.” I pointed to the last file. “You went out on the town together, bought him gifts; the watch and the phone were just two. Where was all this money coming from? If the staff were already getting suspicious of Chris, they’d soon look at you. You had to get that picture back and then you fired him.”
“But then,” said Boyle, finishing for me, “when you heard that Chris had started dating Becky, you had to take action before they worked it out together.”
“I only wanted the picture,” blurted Pete. “It wasn’t in the first wallet.”
“Chris had probably forgotten that he’d removed it,” suggested Boyle pushing the one we had towards him. “We found that one in his flat.”
“That’s the thing about photo booth pictures,” I reminded him. “There’s always more than one.”
“Well,” said Kerry, satisfied. “That’s sorted.” She moved as if to leave, but I held up a hand.
“Not so fast, sweetie. You dated Chris first, remember?”
Kerry shrugged. “So? Nothing happened and I’ve supported Graham ever since.”
“But you’re Graham’s PA and you’re supposed to be his girlfriend. Chris must have told you something; if you had passed that on to Graham, he could have cleared Chris’s reputation and put a stop to all this. He may never have been arrested. Anyone would think you wanted Chris to get fired, just because he ‘wasn’t that kind of guy’.”
“Don’t you dare accuse me of anything!” screamed Kerry, her face pink with rage. “I did nothing!”
“Yes,” said Boyle coldly. “You did nothing.”
After Pete had been arrested and Kerry had left, Boyle lingered to speak to me.
“Again, it looks like we owe you thanks for foiling another villain.”
I laughed. “You’re welcome. By the way, I’m afraid I’m going to need that CD back.”
Boyle reached into his jacket and took a look. “The Very Best of Cat Stevens?”
“What can I say? I’m a hippy at heart. You could,” I tried to suggest casually, “thank me by buying me that drink? Later, I might even let you walk me home.”
Boyle bit his top lip; that thing he did to suppress a smile.
“Sure, after all, it is a wild world.”
A Liz Philips Mystery
“They’re charging me with Manslaughter,” he said.
Harry blew into a plastic cup of machine coffee, and then changed his mind about drinking it.
“I honestly don’t know how it all happened, Liz, honestly I don’t.”
“All men lie,” my mother had once said. “It’s all about how much you’re willing to forgive.”
“You do have a criminal past, Harry. Look at it from their point of view.”
“I was still young then,” he snapped back. “Your mother changed me; I owe her my life. You know I’d never do anything to hurt her.”
“Have you called for a solicitor?”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t want them thinking I need one.” He laughed nervously and his hands shook as he picked up the cup and put it down again.
This was a change in dynamics I wasn’t expecting, but I owed Harry a lot; he deserved to have his story heard.
“Dave died seven month ago,” I reminded him. “The police never mentioned anything suspicious then. What’s changed?”
Harry shrugged sadly.
“One of his sisters says that she found a syringe when she came back to get some of his furniture. Greg said that she could have a few of his things back; he’s thinking of moving into a small flat.”
“That would be Bev. I’m surprised she let Greg stay,” I said. “She must need the rent. She never really took to Greg.”
“She never really took to me,” said Harry. “I felt sorry for Dave, but I just couldn’t bring myself to forgive him for what he did to Greg.”
I felt the same. Dave gambled with his life and left my little brother with HIV. You can only gamble responsibly when all sides play fair. You can’t gamble with life; life never plays fair.
“I’ll go and talk to Bev in the morning,” I promised. “They’ll keep you here overnight. In the meantime listen and trust what Boyle tells you, he’s one of the good guys. This should all be over in 24 hours.”
“But your Mum!” he cried, his eyes wide with fear. Mum had been diagnosed with a stage one dementia a couple of years ago.
“Don’t worry. Greg’s with her. They’ll look after each other.”
He grabbed my hand as I rose to leave and kissed it.
“Thank you Liz. I’m…” he struggled to find the right words. “I am very proud of you, you know.”
Harry had never said anything like this before, but I wasn’t surprised. I smiled as I squeezed his shoulder.
“Yes. I know.”
“So, what’s this all about?” demanded Bev when she opened the door to me the next day. She shoved her hands deep into the oversized pockets of her oversized dressing gown and pushed her ample bosom forward defensively.
“You know bloody well what it’s about,” I answered. “I’m here on a strictly professional basis.”
Bev sniffed as she looked me up and down. “Well, you better come in, then.”
The cat took one terrified look at me and bolted for the cat flap as we entered the kitchen. Bev flipped the kettle on and yelled at the kids to shut up as one hit the other over the head with a metal tea tray. She looked a mess. Her hair hung down in untidy spaghetti strands and the worn out slippers on her feet were threatening to leave by themselves. But Bev had always kept a clean house and the kitchen was spotless. She coped with her grief by cleaning. I wasn’t without sympathy for Bev, but I hadn’t come here to listen to her, I’d come to talk.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” I said.
Dave had lived with his family in the house at the corner of our road. It was a lovely old place with a decent plot of land and a garden that his Mum loved.
Greg and I lived a conventional life in our cramped semi. Our Mum had a hard life bringing me up on her own, until she married Harry. And then Greg came along and we were the family Mum had always dreamed of. Harry could best be described as strict but fair. I often envied the relaxed and free spirited atmosphere that Dave enjoyed at home.
When Dave’s Mum died and ill health forced his Dad into a care home, Dave inherited the lovely old house. I was already established in my own business by that time and Greg due to go to university, when suddenly he had a change of heart. Harry was furious and I found out later they’d had the most awful rows. Dave came up with a reasonable solution. He was rattling around in a house that was too big but didn’t have the heart to sell. Why didn’t he rent rooms out to students? Greg could be his first tenant and while living there, perhaps could consider furthering his education locally.
Greg jumped at the chance and settled into a course at the local technical college. Harry made it clear that this was very second best, but no one was going to change Greg’s mind, so he had to agree to compromise. I was secretly quite pleased. Greg was still close to Mum and Harry and frankly, they weren’t spring chickens anymore. He could get on with his life and still be close enough to notice if they needed anything. I was only a phone call away and would drive back if anything happened.
“Take care of him for me,” I joked to Dave during one phone conversation.
“Don’t worry,” said Dave. “It’s me who needs looking after. Have you tasted his cooking?”
Last Christmas I stayed with Mum and Harry and visited Greg and Dave the day after I arrived back. Greg looked fine; relaxed and happy. Dave seemed a little more on edge, uncomfortable, even. I couldn’t help noticing that he was fidgeting, as if he couldn’t wait for me to leave.
“What’s the matter, Dave?” I asked. “Would you two prefer to be alone?”
Only Greg laughed. Greg and I carried on chatting as if we hadn’t been apart for more than a day, but Dave and I only spoke to answer each other’s questions. The easy camaraderie we’d enjoyed as children was slipping away and it made me sad, but there was something else about Dave, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Are you coming over for some tea on Boxing Day?” I asked him.
“I’d love to,” he said, “but I promised Bev I’d spend the day with her and the kids.”
Dave hadn’t refused an invitation to our house before, but Christmas was always meant to be a time for families, so I should have expected that he’d want to spend time with his sister.
Greg spent Christmas Day with Dave “and friends” and Boxing Day with Mum, Harry and me.
I did the cooking and everyone ate far too much. We sat around watching the afternoon film with our trouser buttons undone.
“I’ve got to go for a walk,” I announced. “I can’t stay here all afternoon; I’ll get a headache if I fall asleep in the chair.”
“You go ahead,” said Greg. “Headache be damned! I intend to fall asleep in the chair.”
A narrow path of the local river ran across the bottom of Mum and Harry’s garden. I crossed the little bridge that joined the footpath and followed it for about five minutes, when the pathway opened onto the entrance to the local recreation ground.
The disused running track was slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding fields while large steel barriers had been erected to prevent the public from using the spectator platforms. I walked past the barriers, heading towards the dog walking path when I heard the hushed whispers of lovers coming from beneath the benches.
“What about your boyfriend? Doesn’t he use this stuff?”
“Greg? No, he’s way too straight-laced.”
I nearly stumbled, but carried on walking a few more paces, until I was just beyond the edge of the barrier. I strained my ears to listen.
“So if you want to behave badly, you have to come here and visit me.”
“You know all my dirty habits, Mark. That’s why I like you.”
“Here, let me do that for you. There’s a knack to it if you don’t want to leave a visible puncture. Now remember, this is the good stuff, so only use the doses I’ve shown you.”
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
“Don’t forget to tidy the gear away before the fix kicks in, you won’t be in a fit state to do it later. You’ll have to make sure you’ve cleaned up properly if you don’t want your boyfriend to know what you’re up to. Dave?”
“How are you feeling now?”
They giggled softly and I walked slowly back home.
I watched Greg very closely over the next few days, but he seemed calm and happy. He was trying to organise a New Years Eve party at their house. I offered to go shopping with him.
“So, are you and Dave still happy and in love?” I asked, teasingly.
“Mind your own business,” he laughed, suggesting that he was happy.
“I’m glad for you, Greg. Really I am. But if anything bad happened to you...” I didn’t really know how to put this. “I mean if you became unhappy, I’d make sure that Dave was unhappy too.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked suspiciously. “Dave isn’t going to make me unhappy, he really cares about me.”
I hesitated a moment.
“I think he might be using smack.” There. I’d said it.
“That’s in the past,” he snapped back. “The bad influence of an ex. Anyway, who told you? I promised Dave I wouldn’t tell anyone. Especially not Mum and Dad.”
The party felt very strange. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Mum and Harry didn’t go. Dave and Greg had their arms around each others shoulders, laughing and relaxed.
I watched them carefully and thought about how blissful ignorance really is. If I hadn’t gone for a walk in the park that day, I would never have guessed at the problems that lay beneath.
After New Year, when I had returned to work, I noticed that the phone calls Greg and I shared were becoming less and less frequent and by Easter, I realised it had been more than a month when we’d last spoke.
I called him to say that as soon as I had a free weekend I’d visit mum and Harry.
“Actually, sis, maybe it’s best if you didn’t come over. Dave’s not been very well.”
I knew a classic understatement when I heard it.
“Greg,” I said, thinking I already knew the answer to my next question “is Dave still using?”
Greg didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time and when he did speak, his voice was hoarse.
“No, but he’s in so much pain.”
All of a sudden I felt very cold, as if an icy wind had just engulfed me.
Greg took a deep breath.
“I’m fine,” he said. He’d never been able to lie to me. I’d learned to spot his lies when we were still children. Even as a child, he would always take a deep breath before a lie, almost as if he could prevent his voice from wavering.
“What about Mum and Harry?”
“They think Dave’s got a serious flu and I….” he couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I’m coming over as soon as I can,” I said and hung up. I didn’t want to hear his protestations. What I had feared most had happened and now it was time for action.
It took me a couple of days to arrange the necessary cover and to get the things I wanted, but before the end of April, I was surprising Greg on his doorstep. I could see immediately that he’d lost weight. We hugged and he smiled his usual smile.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said, still smiling; I knew he was pleased to see me.
I’m nearly seven years older than Greg, and I’ve always believed that being the eldest sibling ingrains into you a sense of responsibility that never really goes away, however old you get.
We sat in the living room talking things over.
“Dad came over last night,” he said, conversationally. “I think he knows. Neither of us actually said anything, but when he said goodnight, he looked like he wanted to hug me, although couldn’t quite get there.”
We both knew how much Harry loved us, but he’d never been a huggy kissy kind of guy.
A rough and painful sounding cough rattled from the mantelpiece and the lights on top of a baby monitor flashed.
“It’s just in case he needs anything. Another chest infection is the latest complication.”
“How much longer?” I asked gently. I didn’t mean to be blunt, but I’ve never been able to ignore a situation.
“We don’t know and the doctors don’t know either, but maybe…” Greg trailed off as tears formed in his eyes. “No, not long.”
“What about you?” I asked, a little more brightly. “How have you been?”
“I’m ok. I’m on a monitored program and the doctors say they’re seeing positive things with this new cocktail they’ve given me. With the number of pills I’m taking, I’m surprised I don’t rattle when I walk.”
He laughed a little and I saw some of the old Greg there.
“You look tired,” I commented.
“I am. I’m sleeping in the larger spare room at the moment, so I don’t disturb Dave too much.” He looked at his watch. “Another hour and he’ll need his next dose.”
I turned my head away, disapproving.
“It’s not so bad. He’s taking clinically prescribed methadone and the nurses come every day. They’ll be back in the morning and it gives me a break.”
“Look, why don’t I sleep here tonight.” I suggested. “I can keep an eye on Dave while you get some sleep. I’ll sleep in the other spare room.”
I made Greg a milky drink and he turned in early, checking on Dave first, while I stayed up to watch the late film. I waited an hour before finally turning off the TV and the baby monitor.
I tiptoed upstairs barefoot with my toiletries bag and listened outside Greg’s door. I could hear nothing, so crept into the main bedroom.
Dave was half sitting, half lying, propped up with pillows, his eyes closed, and his face serene.
I put my toiletries bag on the bed an unzipped it. As I did so, I glanced up at Dave and suddenly noticed that whatever I had intended to do was unnecessary. The rough, rasping breaths I had heard on the monitor were now silent and his chest was still.
I re-zipped my toiletries bag and hid it in one of the drawers of the bedside cabinet. On top were all the usual necessities of a patient’s bedside table; a water glass, a methadone bottle and several disposable medical spoons. Everything looked very neat and tidy; too neat and tidy.
I made sure that I opened the door to the nurse the following morning.
She held my hands as I explained how I had made the awful discovery in the wee hours while my brother was asleep and how I’d had to break the news to him. Greg’s hands shook as he made the tea and I had to take over. I made him some breakfast but he simply stared into his teacup and left the toast on the plate to go cold.
“It’s easily done.” said the doctor later.
I looked at him, frowning at the strange choice of words, at the same time thinking of what I had considered doing.
“We found an obvious puncture. It’s clear he injected himself. But,” he continued, giving me a hard stare, “There’s no way he could have prepared the dose or cleared the things away afterwards. There was no needle in the bed. He hadn’t taken any more methadone and the supplies he had in his toiletries bag didn’t look like they’d been touched.”
I went back to Dave’s room later and found the syringe behind the chest of drawers. It was the only place he could have thrown it from the bed.
The day of the funeral was actually very nice. A fresh wind blew jagged clouds briskly across a bright blue sky. There weren’t very many people in the chapel; I recognised Bev, but had to be re-introduced to the younger one. Her baby couldn’t stop screaming and had to be taken outside. His father was too ill to attend. As the coffin finally pushed its way through the grey curtains, Greg started to cry again and I held his hand.
We emerged from the gloom, blinking in the bright sunshine, to view the flowers and read the cards.
Greg put his arm around my shoulder and planted a kiss at my temple.
“Thanks sis. For everything,” he said, before walking over to talk to Dave’s family.
I wasn’t sure what he meant until I saw the flowers that Harry had sent. In his unmistakable handwriting I read “I’ll always be looking out for you.” It was exactly the same message I’d put on my flowers.
Bev pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. I didn’t tell her about my night time visit to Dave’s room or the toiletries bag.
“I thought it was all Greg’s doing and Dave was just unlucky,” she admitted. “I never expected Harry to be arrested.”
“Where did you get the syringe?”
“I nicked it from Dave’s toiletries bag before it was taken away. I was convinced it was Greg’s. When he told me I could have the furniture, it felt like an opportunity.”
I couldn’t be angry with Bev. What I had planned was worse, after all.
I drove Harry back home and mum asked him if he’d enjoyed his little trip. Harry and I looked at Greg who shrugged.
I stayed late into the evening, just watching TV with my family and although we’re an odd bunch, it felt nice, normal.
My mobile rang at about 9pm. It was Boyle.
“I’m off duty now,” he said. “I thought you’d just like to know that we’ve closed the file and no further enquiries will be made.”
“Oh yes?” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Yes, apparently the syringe that Mrs Parker found in the toiletries bag contained a dose that was of insufficient strength or quality to take Mr Jones’ life. As it was unused and there was nothing else in the bag to compare it to, there’s nothing we can do.”
I put my hand over my mouth to ensure I didn’t laugh. “Weren’t you suspicious when it went missing?”
Boyle gave a discreet little cough, embarrassed. “We thought the hospital had taken it. They thought we had.” He coughed again. “Um, Liz, I know this is unconventional, but I’d really like to buy you a drink. I could pick you up?” he suggested, hopefully.
“No, sorry,” I said abruptly. “But I’m just not free.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “Who was that then?” he asked.
I smiled at the only father I’d ever really known and wondered what kind of a life he’d had to owe it all to Mum.
“Oh, no one,” I said looking back at the TV. “No one important.”
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.