Both Amy and the detective turned towards the sound of the angry voice. Walking towards them was a fifty-year-old, thickset man, wearing a light-grey trilby and a heavy, double breasted, overcoat. He stamped his booted feet on the cold concrete of the loading bay floor and scowled at Bodkin.
‘This had better be bloody good, Bodkin. I’m supposed to be driving my wife to her mother’s in Tunbridge Wells this morning and, if Mrs Laws isn’t happy, then you can guarantee, Inspector Laws won’t be happy, either.’ A look of pain came over his face. ‘It’s a long drive to Tunbridge.’
Bodkin straightened and pushed his feet together. Amy thought he was going to salute, but instead he snapped out a quick report.
‘There’s a body inside, Sir. The deceased is the factory owner’s son, one Edward Handley. He appears to have been attacked in the repair shop, which is to the left of the loading bay doors. The body is in the spare-parts section, which is connected to the main repair room. We don’t know yet how long the It has been there as the night shift maintenance team had no reason to go into that area during their stint, so Mr Handley could have been lying there since the shifts changed over, yesterday evening.’
Bodkin stopped his report, waiting for a response from his superior, but when nothing came, he continued.
‘The deceased is lying on his front; he has suffered a traumatic head wound on the right hand side of his head. There is a large, adjustable pipe wrench, lying at the floor at his feet.’
Bodkin stopped again.
‘That’s about it so far, Sir.’
Laws looked past Bodkin to the interior of the loading bay.
‘Who reported it?’ he asked without looking at the sergeant.
‘One of the maintenance crew, Sir. He discovered it at six thirty this morning when he turned up for work. The two teams meet in the repair shop for a shift report before they begin their daily checks. The night crew let the new team know of any incidents they encountered with the machinery during—’
‘I think I can guess what sort of things they report, Sergeant,’ snapped Laws. He turned his attention to Amy. ‘Who is this? Don’t tell me the bloody press have got hold of it already.’
‘No, Sir. This is Miss Rowlings. She works here.’
‘Here! Outside in the freezing cold?’
Bodkin did his best not to bite. He allowed Inspector Laws to get under his skin, far too easily.
‘Miss Rowlings is a machinist, Sir.’
Laws pushed his head towards Amy. ‘Then, why aren’t you at your machine, doing what they pay you to do?’ he barked.
‘I’m just going,’ replied Amy, quietly. ‘I was…’ her voice tailed off, not wanting to add to Bodkin’s problems.
Bodkin, spotting Amy’s nervousness under the inspector’s scrutiny, came to her assistance. ‘I was just asking Miss Rowlings when she last saw Mr Handley alive, Sir.’
Laws shrugged. ‘And…’
Amy responded quickly. ‘Five-thirty yesterday evening, Mr Laws. He was standing by those doors as the staff were clocking out.’
‘Inspector Laws,’ the detective corrected her.
‘Inspector,’ repeated Amy.
‘Right, get to your machine. There will be a team of officers deployed to take statements from all members of staff later this morning so, if you remember anything else, that’s the time to bring it up.’ The inspector narrowed his eyes and issued a dire warning. ‘If you breathe a word of what you have just heard out here, to anyone, and I mean, anyone, I will have you up for accessory to murder. Do I make myself clear?’
Laws dismissed Amy with a flick of his head and turned back to Bodkin.
‘Let’s have a look at the scene of the crime, Sergeant.’ Laws pushed his way past the stragglers, still being directed to their places of work by the foreman, and stepped into the loading bay looking at his wristwatch. ‘Today, of all days,’ he muttered.
Bodkin beckoned PC Davies towards him.
‘I want you outside the door of the maintenance room, Davies. No one goes in or out without my express permission, do you understand?’
Davies nodded and took a quick look at the figure of Laws as he entered the factory.
‘Someone got out of bed the wrong side this morning.’
‘Constable, if you had met Mrs Laws, you’d know that whichever side of the bed you got out of, it would be the wrong one.’
Bodkin turned to follow his superior officer into the building. At the entrance to the repair shop he stopped and looked back at Davies. ‘Once those few are in, shut those doors. Parkins and Wallis can keep watch over the yard, and cheer up, man, you’re inside in the warm this time.’
When Amy reached the changing room, she found it to be a hotbed of conspiracy theories. Everyone seemed to have a different idea of who had killed Edward, and by what means he had been dispatched.
Margaret Beech, a seamstress of some forty years’ experience, claimed to have, ‘cast-iron, proof’ that that Edward’s sister, Beatrice, had done the deed, whilst the twin sisters, Sarah and Louise Keddleston, both thought that he had taken his own life after being outed as a homosexual. Neither of the rather portly, forty-five-year olds had been the subject of Edward’s amorous attentions and that fact formed the basis of their theory.
Jennifer and a few other trainees, were under the impression that Mr Handley had been shot. Rachel, another trainee, even claimed to have heard the bullet being fired when she took a toilet break at three-thirty the previous afternoon. No one contradicted her, even though he was seen alive on the loading bay at five-thirty.
Katie Hubsworth, who worked on the machine behind Amy, insisted that he had been repeatedly stabbed, while her next-door neighbour, Wilhelmina, told everyone within earshot that she had been informed by the policeman on the door, who was a Saturday drinking partner of her husband, Bernard, that he had been strangled with his own cravat.
Carole twisted the handle of her locker, pulled it shut, and ambled over to Amy.
‘Well, this is a strange state of affairs isn’t it? Hark at this lot. He’s already been stabbed, garrotted, shot, battered, choked, decapitated and disembowelled, not to mention committing suicide. You’d think they’d have more sense than speculating like this. A man has lost his life for pity’s sake.’
‘You can’t blame them,’ said Amy, looking around the room. Twenty conversations were taking place at once. She had to raise her own voice to be heard amongst the babble of noise. ‘It’s the most excitement they’ve had in years. The last time they got so animated was when old George Blenkinsop fell under a bus, and that was five years ago. Some of them are still adamant that he was pushed.’
Carole rolled her eyes to the ceiling. ‘He was drunk, wasn’t he?’ She leaned closer to Amy. ‘Look, I don’t want to add to the mountain of conspiracies, but what have you heard?’
‘I can’t tell you. I’ll be in trouble if I do.’
Carole’s eyes opened wide.
‘You do know something then? Come on, out with it, you know you can trust me.’
‘I’ll tell you later on, when all the witness statements have been taken,’ replied Amy. ‘I do know how he was killed… and I do trust you, honestly, but that grumpy inspector out there told me that if I breathe a word of it to anyone, I’ll be in court myself. I can’t risk being overheard, Carole.’
Carole was appeased. ‘Fair enough, but if you tell anyone before you tell me, you’ll be up in the court of Carole and I’ll be the judge, jury and executioner.’
Before Amy could reply, the door burst open and an angry, red-faced, Mr Pilling stood in the opening.
‘What the hell are you lot doing in here. Get to your machines this instant or the whole shift will be docked an hour’s pay.’
Locker doors slammed and the foreman was unceremoniously brushed aside as thirty women, still chattering among themselves, rushed past him to get to their work stations. Amy and Carole were last out. As she walked by him, Mr Pilling grabbed her elbow.
‘I don’t know how you managed to hang around out there for so long, Rowlings, and it’s a good job that police sergeant vouched for you, because I was about to issue you with a verbal warning. That’s the second time in twenty-four hours he’s done that. He seems to care more for your employment status than you do.’ The foreman pointed to the shop floor. ‘Now, get on that machine, I expect ten percent more from you by way of finished garments today, and there had better be no shoddy work, either.’ He shook his head. ‘You’re a common or garden machinist, Amy, not an amateur sleuth. Stay away from those policemen.’
At nine o’clock, the first of the machinists was called into the canteen to give a statement about their whereabouts and actions the previous day. Mr Pilling began with the workers in line five, the closest to the canteen. That week, Amy was working on line two. She kept a watchful eye on proceedings as she stitched together the parts of her allocated garments. By ten o’clock, she was well up on her usual rate, she was determined to get the extra ten percent done, it was a matter of honour. The bonus pay she would receive for producing the additional dresses, would be welcome too. Her uncle, who imported the latest records from America, had managed to get hold of a copy of the new Al Donahue release, Jeepers Creepers, and he had put it aside for her.
Amy hummed an old Bing Crosby song as she worked. She was brought out of her reverie when she felt a tug at her sleeve. It as Emily Frost, who was working on the second machine on line two.
‘They want you next, Amy,’ she said.
‘Me? but there are a couple of dozen to go yet.’
‘I know, but they told me to get you. I couldn’t say no.’
Amy stood up, brushed the loose pieces of cotton from her pinafore and walked smartly along her line of machines. At the end she turned left and crossed the room to the wide, blue painted, double doors at the far corner of the workshop. She felt forty pairs of eyes burning a hole into the back of her head as she went. The buzz of sudden conversations seemed to rise about the noise of the machines.
Amy walked slowly down the three steps to the floor of the canteen. On the front row of tables were a line of uniformed policemen scratching details into notebooks as they questioned the factory workers. In the centre of the second row, sat Inspector Laws. Next to him was a police constable with an open notebook and a pen in his left hand. He seemed eager to be writing. Standing behind the constable was Bodkin. He raised his hand and gave her a quick wave and a nervous looking smile.
‘Ah, Miss Rowlings.’ Laws beckoned her towards him. As she approached, he stood and addressed the policemen on the front row. ‘When you have finished this batch of statements, get yourselves a cup of tea, go to the back of the room and wait until I give the order to resume.’ He turned back to Amy, who was standing patiently at the side of the Formica-topped, table. He reached across and pulled a low-backed chair towards him. ‘Sit,’ he commanded.
Amy sat. The inspector tapped his foot impatiently until the last of the interviewees had left the canteen and the policemen had lined up for their drinks.
Laws studied a hand-written sheet from the notebook on the table, flipped a page, then turned it back again.
‘Miss Rowlings,’ he said, sternly. ‘We have been given evidence that you had a confrontation with Edward Handley as recently as yesterday.’ A cold look came across his face. ‘Is this true?’
Amy silently cursed Carole, who had been the only person she had told about the incident. She was puzzled as to how the inspector had got hold of the information, as her best friend hadn’t yet been called in for questioning. Something was amiss.
‘Yes, that is true,’ she said. ‘He came into the changing room at lunchtime, while I was there.’
‘I see,’ Laws read the statement again. He flipped over two more pages as he saw Amy twist her neck in an attempt to see who had given the evidence. ‘So, this altercation. What brought it about?’
‘I don’t really want to speak ill of the dead, Inspector.’
‘You’ll tell me what occurred, and you’ll tell me in detail, or I’ll have you carted off to the nick right now.’ Laws made a fist and slammed it down, hard.
Amy sighed and took him through the details of the attack.
‘And was this something out of the ordinary?’ he asked.
‘He wasn’t called Wandering Handley for nothing,’ Amy replied.
The policeman at the inspector’s side, snorted. Laws gave him a withering look.
‘Wandering Handley? I’ll be honest with you, Miss Rowling, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that nickname this morning. Didn’t anyone think to report him?’
‘HA!’ Amy retorted. ‘And just what would have you lot have done about it. We’d have been risking our jobs and you wouldn’t have done a thing to help.’
‘You seem to have a very low opinion of the police, Miss Rowlings.’
‘Not at all. I think the police have an extremely difficult job and they do it very well in the main. But, when it comes to the abuse of women, you always seem to turn a blind eye. My best friend, Alice reported—’ Amy stopped, not wanting to bring Alice’s former relationship with her abusive partner into the conversation.
Laws made a note on a clean page of the notebook.
‘So, he allegedly attacked you. What then?’
‘There was no allegedly about it,’ snapped Amy. ‘He did it, I’ve probably still got the bruises.’
‘All right, let’s assume this attack actually took place. How did you get yourself out of the situation?’
‘I elbowed him in the throat and he went down like a sack of… coal,’ she replied.
Laws put down his pen, laid his forearms on the table and looked hard at Amy.
‘Is that when you threatened to kill him?’ he asked.
Amy rushed into the factory and found the foreman in the stock room, tallying the different bales of cotton materials that the machinists would be working on that week.
‘Sorry I’m late, Mr Pilling, but there’s been a burglary over the road. There’s a detective at the staff entrance who would like a word with you.’
The foreman checked his pocket watch.
‘Ten minutes late, you know the rules, you’ll be docked fifteen and if it happens again this month, you’ll lose a full hour.’
‘No buts, no excuses. Get to your machine now or you’ll be docked thirty minutes and receive a verbal warning. You can make up for this morning’s tardiness in your lunch break.’
Amy walked quickly to the staff changing area, took off her big coat and hung it on a peg along with her hat. Then she took a pinafore from her locker and wrapped it around her body, tying it off at the back. She hurried through to the factory floor and slumped down on her seat, before letting out a deep sigh and reaching down to her side to pick out her first garment of the day.
‘It’s not like you to be so slack,’ said Dora, who worked the machine next to Amy.
‘I was assisting the police with their inquiries,’ replied Amy, knowing that it would be the talk of the workshop before morning break. She smiled to herself and slid the part-finished cotton dress onto the plate of the overlocking machine and pressed her foot onto the pedal.
Amy was a diligent, hard working machinist and soon made up the time lost. When the bin on her left was almost empty, she called for the runner to bring her a new supply of dresses from the cutting room. By lunchtime her finished bin had been emptied twice and she was in front of her daily target.
To keep on the right side of Mr Pilling, Amy stayed at her machine for an extra fifteen minutes before heading off for lunch. By the time she reached the canteen, the other workers had eaten their sandwiches and were mostly sipping hot tea while they gossiped and lit cigarettes.
Amy bought a cup of tea and a buttered scone at the counter and not liking the smoky atmosphere of the canteen, she took her tray into the changing room, pulled a twice-read magazine from her locker and sat down to peruse the stills from the latest Hollywood movies.
After eating her scone, she stood up to shake the crumbs from her pinafore. There were a couple of stubborn ones stuck to her bosom, so she rubbed at them to shake them loose.
‘Let me give you a hand with that,’ said a voice she recognised instantly.
‘I’ll manage, thanks, Mr Handley.’ Amy forced a laugh and brushed down her clothes again. Before she could turn to face him, his hands came around her sides and he squeezed hard on her breasts.
‘You can call me Edward when there’s no one around. Ooh, you do have a nice pair, Amy.’ His breath felt hot on the back of her neck.
Amy struggled to move away but his grip was too strong. The next thing she knew, one of his hands had found its way up her dress.
‘GET OFF ME!’ Amy shouted and twisted in his loosened grip.
‘Come on, Amy, you know you like it.’ He pulled one leg back and kicked the door shut. His hand reached the bare area at the top of her stockings. She shoved her hips forwards before his groping fingers found their intended target.
‘Don’t struggle. You tried to defend your honour, so you can relax now. I won’t hurt you.’ His fingers pushed inside the elastic at the leg of her knickers.
Amy bent over and pushed her backside into him as hard as she could. Her movement caused him to lurch forwards, and as he straightened, her sharp elbow caught him in the throat. He fell back clutching at it, struggling to breath.
Amy left the cup and plate on the bench and hurried past the gasping factory owner’s son.
‘Never try anything like that again, or I’ll kill you,’ she spat.
Amy tore open the door, marched back to the canteen and dragged out a seat next to Carole, one of her closest friends at work.
Carole took one look at the furious Amy. It took her seconds to work out what had happened.
Amy stuck out her chin, bit her bottom lip and nodded quickly. ‘He caught me in the locker room.’
‘The filthy bastard needs teaching a lesson,’ said Carole with a frown. ‘It’s not right, he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it just because he’s the boss’s son.’
‘He grabbed my chest, then shoved his hand up my skirt. I was lucky to get away this time,’ Amy wiped away an angry tear. ‘He’s picked on me once too often.’ She thought for a moment. ‘I met a police detective this morning. He seemed a nice man, I wonder what he’d make of Edward sodding Handley? Surely there’s something the law can do to stop him.’
Carole patted her hand.
‘They won’t do anything, love. Don’t get your hopes up. Men, especially rich men, can do what they want with the likes of us.’
Amy sniffed and turned her hand over to squeeze Carole’s.
‘I know. But it’s wrong. Why do they allow them to get away with it?’
‘Men looking after other men,’ said Carole, sadly. ‘It’s always been the same.’
‘I’d report him but it would probably end up with me being sacked,’ said Amy. ‘I don’t really fancy working at Goodman’s, they’re slave drivers.’
‘Do your best to forget about it and don’t get caught alone again,’ advised Carole. ‘He tends to pick on a different girl every week. He’s left me alone since I kicked his shins.’
‘I elbowed him in the throat,’ said Amy. ‘I left him in a heap, choking.’
‘Good!’ replied Carole. ‘It’s the least he deserves.’
Ten minutes later, Amy nudged Carole and flicked her head in the direction of the canteen door.
‘Here he is, Wandering Handley himself,’ said Carole, loud enough for half the employees in the room to hear.
If he heard the remark himself, Edward Handley didn’t seem to be bothered by it. He shot a look of anger at Amy, then made a beeline to the table where the trainee machinists, most of them fifteen or sixteen years old, were sitting. He pulled out a chair, put a foot on it, smoothed back his creamed, black hair, and leaned over the table to make a comment to a girl called Ronnie, who laughed aloud and looked around to see if her friends had got the joke. The other girls, already wary of Edward, got to their feet and made their way out of the canteen.
‘Come on, Ronnie,’ called a tall girl named, Jennifer. ‘We’re on cutting duties this afternoon. Frigid Freda will be after you.’
Freda Brownlow was the factory’s skills instructor and was the owner of a sharp tongue and a fiery temper. She was nicknamed Frigid Freda because she was still single, at forty.
Ronnie stood up as Edward whispered something into her ear. She giggled, then pushed a soft hand into his chest. ‘Oh, you,’ she chuckled.
Edward turned around to see if the older girls on Amy’s table had noticed, to a woman they ignored his look and chatting between themselves, made their way out of the canteen.
Amy checked the clock and realising she had time to visit the lavatory before resuming her shift, hurried to the toilet block and let herself into a cubicle. When she came out, Edward was standing with his back to her, an arm around Ronnie’s shoulder and he was again whispering something in her ear. Amy was tempted to cough, or make some sort of noise to distract him, but after her run-in with him in the locker room, she decided not to play with fire and walked quietly back to her machine.
When Ronnie hurried across the shop floor a few minutes later, she was blushing, but had a huge grin on her face. Ignoring the caustic remarks aimed in her direction, she weaved a path through the machines to the cutting room where she knew Frigid Freda would be waiting.
The next morning, Amy stomped, slipped, slithered and skated her way along the mostly frozen pavement and walked through the factory gates. The maintenance team, who usually spent their time repairing broken machines, or setting up new ones, had spread half a ton of salt over the frozen yard in an attempt to avoid the three broken arms that had occurred during the previous winter. At the staff entrance, Amy noticed a huddle of male figures, who were speaking to each employee as they entered the building. Among them were three uniformed policemen and Detective Sergeant Bodkin.
Mr Pilling, the foreman, stood, like Lord Muck, snapping out instructions and directing the workers with a long arm.
‘Go straight to the locker room, then onto your machine. Do not linger, and keep away from the maintenance room.
‘Go straight to the secretary’s office. Keep away from the maintenance room.
‘Go directly to the cutting room, stay away from maintenance.’
As Amy reached the big, double door, Bodkin took her arm and pulled her to one side.
‘So, Miss Marple, we meet again.’
‘What’s going on?’ asked Amy.
‘We’re keeping an open mind at the moment, but a serious incident has occurred inside the factory.’
‘A serious incident…Oh, my goodness… Something’s happened in the maintenance room, hasn’t it? Is that why we aren’t allowed in there?’ Amy put her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.
‘I’m not at liberty to—’
‘Divulge that information,’ Amy interrupted the detective. ‘Come on, Bodkin, I’ll find out the moment I get into the changing room anyway. You may as well tell me now.’
Bodkin took her arm again and led her away from the group of people at the door.
‘Fair enough, Miss… Amy. It’s the owner’s son. Edward Handley, he’s lying on the floor of the repair shop, and he’s stone dead.’
The shard of winter sun burst through the mass of black cloud like an archangel’s lance. The heavy snow that had fallen overnight, enveloped the thick layer that already covered the town, making the roads and verges indistinguishable from the pavements. January, 1939 had announced itself in spectacular style.
Amy Rowlings shielded her eyes as she trudged through the thick, white blanket, stepping into footprints made by earlier travellers in an attempt to keep the snow out of her ankle-high winter boots. Another day spent at her machine at Grayson’s Garments factory wearing cold, soggy, woollen socks, was something she could well do without. Locals called the factory, The Mill, because it produced cotton fabric back in the 1800s, nowadays the workforce spent their days manufacturing women’s clothing; anything from underwear to winter coats. Ahead, Mildred, a fellow machinist, tripped on a hidden kerbstone and fell headlong into a drift that had covered the short privet hedge that lined the pavement. Before Amy could reach her, she picked herself up, and cursing, turned through the huge, wrought-iron, gates into the factory yard, where the snow had already turned into a slushy mess by the hundred pairs of feet that had tramped over it when the night and day shifts changed over.
As Amy approached the gates, a car pulled up on the opposite side of the road, and a late-twenties, man, wearing a grey mackintosh, and a black fedora, opened the rear door and slid out in one movement.
He swore as he realised, too late, that the snow would cover his patent leather, brogue shoes, and looking up to the heavens, trudged around the front of the car before nodding to a uniformed policeman standing at the ornate, snow-tipped, iron gates that guarded the forecourt of Wainwright and Sons Builders Merchant. The policeman wiped his runny nose on his sleeve, shuffled his booted feet, and blew into his hands.
‘Cold one today, Sir.’
The man in the mac nodded and examined the police constable as he would an object left behind at the scene of a crime. The uniformed colleague stamped incessantly in the snow, his bright red cheeks and chapped lips told him he’d been there for some time.
‘Report, Davies, and make it snappy.’ He pulled his unbuttoned mackintosh tightly around himself and tied off the belt.
‘Reported robbery, Sir. Estimated at three o’clock this morning. No suspects. We don’t even know how they got in. Two men attacked the watchman, tied him up and took away the cash tin. We don’t know exactly how much was in it, but apparently, the company takes about a hundred pounds every day. Because they don’t close until after the banks, the money is kept on the premises. They bank it every morning.’
The officer stamped his feet again and blew into his hands.
‘What do you mean, we don’t know how they got in?’
‘Well, Sir, there were no footprints.’ He turned to the gates and pointed. ‘The two pairs of prints, you can see, belong to myself and PC Watkins.’
The detective rolled his eyes to the dark sky. ‘What about round the back?’
‘They can’t have got in that way, Sir. The building is tied to a twenty-foot wall that separates it from the railway. There are only two ways in and out of the premises, and they are both accessed from here.’ He pointed across the yard to a red-painted door at the front of the building. ‘That one, and the side door where the goods are delivered and collected. But, as you can see, they would have to get through the gates to reach either one, and, as I said, there are no footprints. Apart from ours, that is. Two sets going in and one set, mine, coming back out.’
‘Where is the night watchman now?’
‘He’s inside with PC Watkins, the lucky so and… Sorry, Sir. Watkins is St John’s Ambulance trained, so he’s provided a little bit of first aid. The watchman wasn’t badly injured. He’s got a black eye and split lip. He managed to free himself and ring the police at about six o’clock. Do you think he might be in on it, Sir?’
The detective sighed.
‘I have no idea, Constable. I haven’t spoken to him yet.’
‘No, Sir, of course you haven’t. Sorry, Sir.’
He stamped his feet again and shivered under his heavy navy overcoat.
‘Oh, for God’s sake man. Go and sit in the car. Tell the driver to come out to take your place for half an hour. His name is Hodges.’
The policeman nodded gratefully and scurried around to the black Ford as Amy carefully crossed the road.
‘Has there been a burglary?’ she asked.
‘The detective swivelled on his heels to face her.
‘I’m not at liberty divulge that, Mrs…Miss.’
‘Oh, I wasn’t trying to get any information that might help a criminal.’ She smiled again, showing off a perfect set of teeth. A whisp of blonde hair loosened itself from beneath her hat and wafted in front of her eyes. She brushed it away with the back of her gloved hand. ‘My name is Amy Rowlings and I work at Grayson’s over the road.’ She pulled up her sleeve and looked at her men’s style, leather-strapped wristwatch. ‘And, if I don’t hurry, they’ll dock me a quarter of an hour’s wages.’
Amy turned away from the detective and began to make her way back, treading carefully in the footprints that she had made originally.
‘I didn’t think you were attempting to assist a criminal, Amy Rowlings,’ the policeman called after her. ‘I’m Detective Sergeant, Bodkin. I’m sorry I was a little abrupt just then.’
Amy stopped and looked back over her shoulder. The man was in his late twenties and handsome in a rugged sort of way. He took off his hat and gave her a curt nod. His hair was thick, dark and was in need of a good cut. He had two days’ worth of stubble on his chin and the bags under his brown eyes, told her that he hadn’t been sleeping well, or for long enough. His coat had fallen open revealing a creased, white shirt with a badly starched collar, a pair of wide, striped braces, held up his baggy, black trousers that bunched around his ankles.
Unmistakeably a single man, said Amy to herself.
He smiled and his tired face lit up.
‘Don’t worry about being a few minute’s late… Miss, erm… Rowlings, was it? I’ll tell your boss you were helping me with my inquiries.’
‘I’d get more than fifteen minutes docked if they thought you’d been questioning me, Detective. I’d be given my cards. They’re a suspicious lot over there. They think everyone is stealing from them.’ She thought for a moment. ‘A lot of them are, as it happens.’
‘No need for the formalities,’ he said, smiling again. ‘Everyone calls me Bodkin.’
She raised a gloved hand and waggled her fingers at him.
‘Well, Mr… sorry… Bodkin, it’s been nice chatting but I really should be going in.’
‘Please don’t rush away. I’ll tell them you’re helping me with this case. I’ll say you’re a vital witness.’
‘Ooh, that will get them all talking in the canteen,’ replied Amy. She brushed the errant hairs away again. ‘As it happens, I can help you with the case.’
‘You can?’ Bodkin took a step towards her. He smiled again. ‘And what would you know about my crime scene, Miss Rowlings?’
‘They got in via a skylight.’ Amy pointed to the snow-covered roof where footprints were clearly visible across the gently sloping, snow-covered roof.
Bodkin swivelled around in the snow, stared at the roof with his mouth wide open and shouted to the policeman sitting in the back of the car.
‘Davies!’ he yelled.
‘It’s not his fault,’ Amy said to the back of Bodkin’s head. ‘You can’t see the roof from that side of the road and it would still have been dark when he arrived.’
Bodkin turned back towards her.
‘There are no street lights,’ she pointed out, quietly.
Bodkin appraised the roof again. The trail of footprints led across the roof from the still-open skylight, to the adjacent building.
‘Looks like they got to the roof via the fire escape,’ said Amy, pointing out the obvious.
Together, they walked the thirty yards to the entrance of Harrington’s timber yard. Any footprints made on the forecourt had been wiped out by the twenty or so staff that worked there.
‘Stay back, please, Miss. This is a crime scene; I have to protect the evidence.’
Amy ignored him. ‘I’m not going to steal your precious footprints, am I?’
She marched onto the forecourt and crouched down at the bottom step of the fire escape. Bodkin leaned over her to examine the steps himself. Two separate sets of prints were clearly visible, one much larger than the other.
‘Blimey, those are big feet,’ she said.
Bodkin laughed. ‘That’s a hell of a clue. There can’t be too many men in this town with feet that size. They must be a size twelve.’
‘True,’ replied Amy. ‘But that is assuming the criminals live locally.’
‘All right, Miss Marple. It’s time you were at work. I’ll get Davies to guard the evidence.’
The detective gave orders to Davies and the policeman muttered to himself as he trapsed through the snow to take up his position guarding the fire escape.
Bodkin walked Amy over to the factory, they came to a halt at the staff entrance.
‘Could you tell your foreman I’d like a word please, Miss Rowlings? I’ll explain the situation to him.’
‘Call me Amy,’ she replied with a quick smile. ‘And, it won’t make any difference, they’ll still stop me the quarter hour.’
Adam, once one of the beaten, church poor, had no serious religious beliefs, and had only attended church (for a friend’s wedding), once since he had left school, so he spent the rest of the morning reading a copy of Thomas Hardy’s, The Mayor of Casterbridge, that he had found, damp, but still readable, on a seat in Hyde Park, earlier in the summer.
At around 1.00 PM he heard the loud chatter of children as the Parsons family returned from church. He got to his feet and hurried across the room as he heard someone rap on his door. He opened it to find Mr Parsons standing in the hall.
‘Mr Sears, I feel I have to apologise for the behaviour of my children earlier today. They have been instructed not to disturb you by running up and down the hallway in future.’
‘They were playing,’ Adam said with a smile. ‘I wasn’t disturbed in the slightest, quite the opposite in fact. I always find something joyous in the sound of children’s laughter.’
Mr Parsons nodded, and smiled back.
‘I’m so glad you see it that way, Mr Sears. They are confined upstairs rather too much and they do tend to expend all that built up energy every chance they are given. They visit the park twice a week but I fear that is not enough to let off the steam that builds up.’
‘They are welcome to play in the corridor at any time, Mr Parsons,’ replied Adam. ‘Rest assured, I will never be annoyed by their presence.’
Mr Parsons nodded again. ‘Oh, by the way, if you spot a cat around the area, could you let us know. Our pet, Mr Dickens, appears to have disappeared again. It’s a regular occurrence, so I’m not particularly concerned, but the children do worry about him. He’s not supposed to go into the street but he manages to slip out sometimes, usually when the children aren’t as observant as they promised they would be when we allowed them to take the creature in. He’s a big furry ball of a thing. Mostly ginger with a white flash on his chest.’
‘I’ll keep my eye out for him,’ Adam said, looking to the staircase where Veronica and Catherine waited with hopeful faces.
Mr Parsons turned away.
‘Come along, girls. Mr Sears will let us know if he spots the escapee.’ He patted both girls on the back. ‘He’ll turn up, he always does.’
Adam closed the door and returned to his book.
While visiting the bathroom during the afternoon, Adam thought he heard a baby crying. He turned off the tap, waited for the drain to empty, then cocked his head to listen. The sound came again, faint, but clearer. Adam paced the bathroom pushing his ear against the marble tiles, here and there. He wondered what was on the other side of his bathroom wall. He paced out the distance from the back wall of the bathroom, past a short open space to the kitchen, then through the sitting room until he got to the doorway of the apartment. He opened the door, stepped into the passage and paced out the same number of steps, towards the back wall.
‘Ten paces short,’ he said, as he reached the painted brickwork at the end of the hall. Adam looked to the right and noticed a door, set into the panelling below the staircase. The glossy door was not locked and he opened it and stepped into the dark recess beneath the stairs. Adam squinted into the gloom and saw another door, this one much more substantial. He stepped forward and turned the handle but the door was locked. Adam retraced his steps and returned to his sitting room where he picked up the bunch of keys from the mantel, that his landlady had given him. He had taken the front door keys from the bunch so that he wouldn’t have to carry the unwieldy ring of keys in his pocket.
Adam carried the keys back to the door in the stairwell, selected one of the larger keys and inserted it into the lock. Luck was with him; he turned the key and heard the lock click open. Adam twisted the handle and pushed open the door. Daylight filled the stairwell and Adam blinked a few times as his eyes became accustomed to the light. After a few seconds acclimatisation, he stepped out through the doorway.
Outside, he found himself in a short, high walled garden area. To his left was what he assumed was the extended wall of his bathroom. In front was a paved area with an ash-pit dug into the left side. Facing him, cut into the high wall, was a roughly-painted, wooden gate that showed at least three layers of faded, flaking, paint that has been applied over the years. Along the wall, at the left-hand side of the gate were three, dented, metal dustbins. To his right was an iron built, timber-treaded stairway that led up to the back door of the apartment above. On the third step sat a large ginger cat. It stared at him through narrow, green eyes, flattened back its ears, and hissed.
‘Mr Dickens, I presume,’ said Adam with a laugh. He held out his hand in what he hoped was a cat-friendly gesture. Mr Dickens ignored the offer of a petting, leapt down from the step and ran into the house. Adam looked around his surroundings again, then followed the cat, locking the heavy door behind him.
Temporarily blinded by the darkness, Adam felt his way along the right-hand wall until he found his way back to the stairwell door. He stepped into the bright hallway, decided to leave the door ajar in case the cat was hiding in the dark, and walked back to his sitting room. As he entered the room, he saw the ginger cat watching him carefully from the dining table.
‘There you are,’ said Adam, aloud. He walked slowly around the table so as not to alarm the animal, stepped into the kitchen and returned with a small piece of sliced ham, which he pulled apart and laid on the tablecloth. Mr Dickens looked at the ham, then at Adam, and remained where he was. Adam backed away and sank into an armchair. He pointed towards the tiny pieces of ham. ‘Eat,’ he said.
The cat sniffed the air, then padded across the tablecloth and began to tuck into the unexpected treat. Encouraged, Adam got to his feet, walked slowly to the table, and made what he hoped was soothing noises. Mr Dickens turned his head towards him, then returned to the food.
Adam decided not to risk a clawing by attempting to pet the cat and instead took a step back. The cat ate another sliver of ham, then became stiff, its ears flattened against its head, the hair on its back stood on end. It stared at the open bathroom door, hissed twice then began to growl.
Puzzled, Adam looked to where the cat was staring.
‘It’s alright, puss, there’s nothing there.’
The cat obviously thought otherwise, and still growling, began to back away, never taking its eyes off the bathroom. When it reached the edge of the table, it turned and leapt in one movement. With a swish of its tail it hurtled out of the still open door.
Adam took one last look at the bathroom, shook his head, then turned and walked to the hallway. On the stairs was Catherine, she cradled a still-wary Mr Dickens in her arms.
‘Did you have him all the time?’ she asked accusingly.
‘Of course not,’ replied Adam, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. ‘I found him out on the back stair, near the ash pit. He must have got into the yard when the dustmen came and couldn’t get out again.
Veronica seemed appeased.
‘Well, in that case, thank you for finding him. We were getting worried.’ She ran her fingers through the thick fur on the side of the cat’s head. ‘You’re a very silly cat, going into the yard. There’s nothing there for you, not even a mouse.’ She grunted as she got to her feet lifting the heavy cat. ‘Let’s get you some dinner, you must be starving.’
‘I gave him a little bit of ham,’ said Adam. ‘Not much though, so he should still want his dinner.’
Veronica began to climb the stair. ‘Thank you for rescuing him,’ she said, without looking back.
Adam returned to his flat, picked up the two, tiny pieces of ham that Mr Dickens hadn’t eaten and took them into the bathroom where he dropped the meat into the lavatory and pulled the chain, flushing it into the drains.
Adam put the kettle on the kitchen stove and made tea, adding milk from the pan he had boiled earlier that day. He carried the tea tray to the big table, placed it in the centre and sat down facing the bathroom, wondering what the cat had seen to make it act in such a strange manner.
After two cups of tea and a wasted half hour, Adam decided that it was impossible to understand cat behaviour, and laughing to himself, pulled on his jacket, went out into the quiet street, and made his way to the Dog and Duck for dinner.
The three-course meal cost nine pence, twice as much as he used to pay at the Furling public house in Paddington. The meal consisted of a thin, beef soup, mutton, potatoes, cabbage and gravy, followed by a sweet, lemon pudding. At the Boar restaurant, just up the road, the cost for a similar meal would be a shilling. Adam decided that a shilling was too much to pay for his evening meal on a regular basis, and that he would eat at the Dog and Duck four nights a week, have restaurant food on Saturdays, before visiting the music hall, and dine at home on the other two nights.
Adam remained in the bar of the pub, drinking a decent ale, until eight o’clock, then made his way back home, breathing in the still clean, summer evening air. At midnight, the destructor, a huge furnace built to burn household waste, would start up at the refuse disposal yard and heavy industry boilers and ovens would be relit, ready for the new working week.
It was a relatively short walk home. When he arrived, Adam decided to sit on the top step of the stairs outside his apartment building to watch the world go by. With a full stomach and two pints of heavy beer in his stomach, he was as happy as he had ever been.
Adam slept well on the first night in his new home. He woke early on Sunday morning and took a brisk walk through the almost empty streets. In his former lodgings, the streets would have been almost as busy as a weekday, with many children of the less well-heeled spending the early morning of the Sabbath scouring the gutters and pavements for tiny pieces of coal that has been missed by the Saturday evening search patrols. Some scoured the back yards of food shops for half-rotten potatoes, a few, bad smelling leaves of cabbage or a crust of stale bread.
Later, the streets he now walked would be littered with children heading off to Sunday School before meeting up with parents at the church for their regular Sunday morning service. All of the children in Adam’s new, more affluent area, walked to church in their Sunday best clothes to be given bible tuition and made to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the ten commandments before listening to a guest speaker. Sometimes it would be a vicar from a neighbouring parish, sometimes a fiery, American preacher, and sometimes, more interestingly, a missionary, fresh back from Africa with tales of man-eating lions and crocodiles the length of an omnibus.
In Paddington, Adam’s previous district, only the children of the religious poor attended Sunday School. The church official in charge of the poorest of the poor handled things in a very different manner. Unruly children were dragged unceremoniously to the front of the room and beaten with either a thick leather strap or, if the offence was considered blasphemous, a three-foot cane. Threats of hell and damnation would follow the children out of the hall and into the streets where the cursing and fighting would begin anew.
Adam counted three public houses and two, small but well looked-after, restaurants as he surveyed his new neighbourhood for the first time. The chalked-up blackboards outside each establishment showed prices for two or three course evening meals. Even the pubs seemed to have a reasonable menu. They were all twice the price of a meal in the eateries less then half a mile along the road, but he knew he would be enjoying a far superior meal and would have less chance of a seriously upset stomach during the night. Following the recent licencing restrictions, the pubs in this district at least were not allowed to open until 12.00 PM while all of the shops were closed and shuttered, as people adhered to the strict, Lord’s Day rules.
Adam switched from the cobbled streets to the pavement as the private hire and privately owned carriages came onto the roads and walked back to his new apartment at a brisk pace, lifting his hat or nodding to the few fellow citizens who were taking the chance to exercise in the almost deserted streets and the smoke-free air.
Adam had precured a small loaf, some butter, a lump of cheese and an onion on the previous afternoon and when he returned home, he made a pot of tea and sat down to enjoy the first meal in his new abode. Outside, in the hall, he could hear the sound of children’s laughter. He opened the door and looked out to see two girls aged between nine and eleven, wearing smock dresses and lace-up boots, along with a red-faced, wheezy boy, some years younger, sporting a checked knickerbocker suit, acting out a game of tag up and down the long corridor. They stopped dead as he appeared in the doorframe. The older of the girls looked particularly shocked.
‘Shut the door, mister,’ she begged, and began to back her way along the polished wood panelling that lined the bottom of the staircase. She held out her hand to the other girl. ‘Veronica, quickly now, come here.’
Never taking her eyes from Adam, the younger girl edged towards, who he assumed was her sister. She grabbed at her wrist and together they ran up the first three steps to the turn of the stair.
‘Don’t be afraid, children.’ Adam held out both hands. ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’ He turned to the boy who stood, mouth agape, only three feet away from him. ‘You’re not afraid of me, are you?’ He smiled and crouched down so he was at more or less the same height as the boy.
‘Stanley! Get yourself up here… NOW!’ the older girl commanded.
Stanley looked from Adam to the girl then back again, but remained glued to the spot.
‘Stanley?’ Adam spoke softly. He held out his hand towards the child. The movement seemed to wake Stanley from his stupor, and he spun around on one foot and hurled himself up the steps.
Adam straightened, and held out his palms again. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. Please, don’t be afraid.’
‘It’s not you we’re scared of,’ said the younger of the girls. ‘It’s what’s insi—’
‘Shh, Veronica,’ the older girl put her finger to her lips, ‘you’ll entice her out, then we’ll all be for it.’
Adam looked puzzled. He half turned and pushed the heavy door, open wide.
‘There’s no one here but me. See for yourselves.’
The girls looked at each other, the older of the two stretched her neck in an attempt to see past him. Adam stepped into the hallway and stood to the side so the girls had a clear view into his sitting room.
‘See? No one. I live here alone.’
‘Catherine, Veronica. Come along now, let me brush your hair, it’s almost time for Sunday School. Is Stanley with you?’
A tall, slim woman in a grey pleated skirt and a light pink, frilled-collared blouse, descended the stairs. Spotting Adam, she paused, then held out a slender hand towards the children. ‘Come now, we don’t want to be late.’
She began to turn away but stopped as Adam spoke.
‘I’m Adam Sears,’ he said quickly. ‘I appear to have frightened your children. I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.’
The woman smiled thinly.
‘I’m Felicity Parsons,’ she replied. Her face became softer. She ushered the children upstairs then walked elegantly down the stairs to the hallway. She held out a gloved hand. Adam took it as gently as he could.
‘I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance,’ Adam said. ‘I’m new to the district, I don’t know anyone around here. I’m sorry we seem to have got off on the wrong foot.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Mrs Parsons replied, stretching to look over Adam’s shoulder and into the sitting room. ‘I hope you last a little bit longer than the previous tenant… previous three tenants, that is. No one seems to stay here long. It seems that just as we get to be on speaking terms, they disappear on us.’
‘I met Mr Parsons last night, he told me the same thing,’ said Adam. He looked back into the apartment, a puzzled look on his face. ‘It’s a lovely place, I really can’t understand what’s wrong with it for the life of me.’
Mrs Parsons patted his arm and walked quickly back to the staircase.
Sad Lisa. A ghost story based on the Cat Stevens song. Unedited and seen as written. Part two will be along soon.
T. A. Belshaw
Adam Sears sat at the heavy-oak dining table and for the umpteenth time that week, wondered how he, a young man of just twenty-one years, with limited prospects, had managed to acquire such a comfortable apartment in such an elegant house, in this much sought-after district of London.
The room was tastefully decorated with a cornflower patterned wallpaper. The furniture, including the dining table and a drop-leaf side table, was made from sturdy oak. An almost new, oriental style, blue/grey rug, sat on the floor and the bay window was framed by heavy, dark-grey, velvet, curtains.
Adam got to his feet and walked across to the open, sashed-window. Outside, the well-heeled Saturday afternoon crowds strolled the pavements. Ladies, resplendent in summer hats, walked arm in arm with their heavily moustached, stiff-collared, male companions. Hanson and Landau carriages, pulled by a single or pair of horses, clattered across the cobbled street. Come autumn, the view would be restricted by the heavy smog that would hang in the air like a thick coverlet, but for now, with the sun high in the smoke-hazed sky, he couldn’t imagine a place he’d rather be. Adam stood for five minutes, wallowing in the spectacle, thinking again how very fortunate he had been to find such a pleasant place to call his home.
Adam was an accounts clerk, working for Lorimar’s Bank. His shiny coat and frayed shirt collars were an embarrassment to him, especially out on the streets of such a genteel district. He felt the eyes of the privileged on him as he climbed the three steps from the pavement to the front door of his residence. Most took him for an Insurance salesman, visiting a client, or a butler to a rich tradesman, returning from running an errand. He was determined to improve his station, Mr Robbins, the branch manager had told him that if he worked hard, he could earn a substantial promotion in the next five years. Old Mr Armitage, the senior clerk, was seventy and had begun to struggle with his sight. Adam had designs on his job, and with it, the extra fifty pounds a year.
He had found the apartment after noticing a poster in a ground-floor window as he passed by on the omnibus. The first evening he just noticed the ‘for rent,’ headline and he had travelled home, daydreaming about what it must be like to live in such a pleasant neighbourhood. The following night, a Hanson cab had lost a wheel and the omnibus came to a halt right outside the building, so Adam had plenty of time to read the entire advertisement.
‘Apartment to let. Furnished, with private bathroom and kitchen. 10 shillings per week. Professional gentlemen only need apply. Deposit and references, required.’
Adam read the poster three times, then got up from his seat, left the omnibus and walked quickly up the steps to the front door of the residence. He brought down the brass, lion’s-head knocker three times and stepped back as the door opened. In front of him was a woman of about forty years. She was smartly dressed in a blue skirt and white frilled blouse. Her greying hair was tied in a tight bun, but wisps of it had escaped and lay across her frowning, forehead,
‘May I help you?’ she asked.
‘It’s about the, umm, the… advertisment… in the window. I’m not sure I read it correctly.’
The woman looked him up and down, took in his much-repaired shirt and coat, his scraped brown boots, then half closed the door. ‘The stipulation is, professional gentleman,’ she said.
‘My name is Adam Sears, I work for Lorimar’s Bank, I look after the accounts of our more affluent clients,’ he said hurriedly. ‘If the apartment really is for rent at ten shillings a week, I can easily afford it. I’ve just had my salary increased.’
The woman looked at him suspiciously. ‘Where are you living at the moment?’
Adam thought quickly. He didn’t want her to know he was renting a tiny attic room in a run-down part of Paddington, so he answered, ‘I live with my aunt in Marylebone, but she is increasingly, frail and is moving to the coast for the sea air.’
She looked him up and down again, quite taken by his piercing blue eyes and the handsome face that was almost pleading with her to accept his word.
‘Lorimar’s Bank you say? Well, I’ll need a reference.’ She stepped back and opened the heavy, black-glossed door. ‘Come inside and take a look. I will require a month’s deposit in advance, plus the current month’s rent.’
Adam’s jaw almost hit his chest when she opened the door to the apartment and showed him around. This was pure opulence, considering the conditions he was living in at present.
‘And, and, it’s definitely, ten shillings a week, the rent won’t increase after the first month, or so?’
‘Ten shillings it is and ten shillings it will remain until the day you leave, or can no longer afford to pay. She looked him over again and sniffed. ‘Defaulter’s deposits are non-refundable,’ she warned.
‘I have to ask, why is it so cheap? I mean, my friend is paying the same amount to share a couple of dingy, rooms in Balham.’ Adam turned a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. ‘This is beautiful.’
‘I just want it let, instead of sitting idle,’ she said. A look of annoyance crossed her face. ‘No one seems to stay very long. The last two tenants left without notice, leaving all their belongings behind them. It seems to have a history of short term, tenancy. I only bought the house a couple of years ago and it has been rented out six times during that period. The rest of the apartments in the house have settled tenants, some have been living here for years.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyone would think the place was haunted.’
Adam laughed nervously. ‘Well, if it is, I don’t care.’ He looked around the beautifully decorated sitting room. ‘As long as I don’t have to pay its share of the rent.’
The woman smiled at the joke. ‘I’m Mrs Prendergast. I live just up the street at number forty-five, you’ll find me there most of the time if you need me for anything… like paying the rental deposit, or settling the monthly account.’ She narrowed her eyes, her mouth so tightly closed that her lips almost vanished. ‘Due on the first day of the month, every month,’ she added.
Adam offered his hand. Mrs Prendergast looked at it, then turned away.
‘We’ll leave the formalities and niceties until the contract is signed, shall we?’ She showed Adam to the front door and watched him onto the top step.
‘I’ll bring the deposit and the first month’s rent around tomorrow after I leave work. It will be about this time of day,’ he said.
He turned away and walked to the pavement before turning back to face her.
‘You won’t let it to anyone else before I come back?’
‘A chance would be a fine thing,’ she muttered under her breath before looking directly into his eyes. ‘The apartment is yours, Mr Sears,’ she said, firmly.
The following night, Adam, carrying a large, battered case containing everything he owned, arrived at Mrs Prendergast’s house. She showed him into a neat study where she studiously counted out the money he placed on the table. Adam handed her an envelope containing a reference from his employers, which stated that to the best of their knowledge he was of good character, was a diligent, trustworthy employee with some promotional prospects, and earned a salary of one hundred and seventy pounds per annum.
His new landlady read the document through a pair of narrow-lensed, reading glasses that she picked up from her desk. Satisfied, she turned to a tier of small, gold-embossed drawers, opened the top one and produced a bunch of keys. She handed them to him with a warning.
‘If you lose them, replacements will have to be paid for. I only keep one spare set and that is for my use. I may let myself into the apartment from time to time just to see if you are looking after it. I will inform you when I mean to do that.’
Adam almost ran back to his new abode. He rushed up the steps, keys in hand but as he reached out to insert the largest of them into the lock, the heavy, black door opened.
In the doorway, stood a tall, bearded man wearing a dark suit and a black top hat. He smiled at Adam and stood aside to allow him entry.
Adam put down his case and blushed as he noticed the man take in its battered condition. He held out his hand and smiled.
The man took it and smiled back.
‘Henry Parsons, at your service,’ he said.
‘Adam Sears. I’m your new neighbour.’
Henry’s smile was little more than a grimace. ‘Well, Adam Sears, I hope you last longer then the last tenant. He was here for less than a month. The one before him was only here for two.’
‘I don’t understand it,’ replied Adam with a puzzled frown. ‘The apartment is beautiful, and it’s so cheap, why would anyone want to leave so quickly?’
Henry shrugged and walked back to the door. ‘Perhaps the ghost of Sad Lisa has something to do with it,’ he said quietly.
Adam looked puzzled again. ‘Ghost… Sad Lisa? Who is Sad Lisa? he asked.
‘You’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure.’ Henry stepped outside closing the door firmly behind him.
Unedited. This preview is for readers to become familiar with one of the main characters of Unspoken Part Two
The name Martha means, The Lady, or Mistress of the House. Her sister is called, Marjorie, which means, The Pearl.
Martha lay on her side, her turban-covered head nestled into the deep pile of down pillows. Her bedside clock read four-minutes-past-seven.
‘Late again,’ she said under her breath.
She rolled onto her back and studied the thick crack in the ceiling that she was sure had spread further over the last few days. She would have liked to get it fixed but the young man she had booked to give her a quote had looked like a bit of a rogue builder, although he claimed to be a member of the Master Builder’s Federation. Martha didn’t believe a word of it, there were a lot of rogues about these days. At one time you could get a local builder who would take pride in his work, knowing that if he messed up, the word would quickly get about, but now, all the trades seem to come from a minimum of twenty miles away and they wouldn’t give a damn about receiving a complaint. Just look at that Rogue Traders program on TV. The country was full of cowboy builders.
Only last week, old Mrs Hardy a few houses down the lane had been told by a ‘passing builder’ that the roof of her old bungalow looked in danger of collapse. After an inspection he blew out his cheeks, shook his head and told her it couldn’t be repaired for a penny under ten thousand pounds. The silly old woman had agreed to have the work done, but luckily her son came over to visit at the weekend and he had brought in his best friend, a builder himself, to have a look. Finding no fault, he suggested they ring the police. Mrs Hardy’s son, who was no saint himself, was reluctant to get them involved, so he just rang the number on the card she had been given, and cancelled the job, warning the builder that he was onto him and he shouldn’t show his face around the area any time soon.
Martha scratched an itch just below her right eye and looked towards the door.
‘Marjorie, where in God’s name have you got to?’ she muttered.
She shook her head and thought about the meeting with the solicitor later that day. With just the tiniest, and long awaited, bit of luck she so thoroughly deserved, she wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of repairing a crack in the ceiling ever again. She could afford to get the modern equivalent of Sir Christopher Wren to do the job if she felt like it. An unexpected mention in her late mother’s will could mean she would never want for money again. The old girl had been loaded when she died. The big, old farmhouse she had lived in and the couple of acres of land around it, must be worth at least three quarters of a million pounds these days. Then there were the proceeds of her land sales over the years. The farm had once boasted a hundred acres but Alice’s astute selling of parcels of land had netted her a fortune over the years. She had invested a lot of the money in London property and stocks and shares. God knows how much those assets were worth now.
‘About time,’ she said loudly as her sister, Marjorie, entered the room carrying a rattling breakfast tray.
‘I’m sorry, I, well, I dropped the pan with the eggs in and had to cook some more, by the time I had cleaned up, the tea was getting cold so I had to make another pot.’
‘I hope the eggs are properly cooked today.’ Martha scowled at her sister. ‘Yesterday, they were so undercooked they resembled mucus. How many times do I have to say, boil them for three minutes and twenty seconds, precisely.’
‘Yes, Martha, I’m sorry, but the handle of the pan was hot and—’
‘Just give me the tray and stop wittering,’ Martha scolded.
Marjorie pulled open the thickly-lined curtains to allow the early morning sun to light up the room.
‘It’s a nice day for an inheritance,’ she quipped.
‘Don’t count your chickens just yet, Marjorie,’ replied Martha. ‘You know what the tight old so and so was like. Remember the time I went cap in hand to her when Roger claimed a quarter of this house in the divorce court? She wouldn’t give me a penny to help me out of the mess.’
‘It was good job I had some savings, wasn’t it, Martha?’ Marjorie walked stiffly across to the bed and sat on the corner.
Martha coughed on the piece of toast she had just put into her mouth.
‘Don’t go digging up all that again. You’ll never let me forget that for once in your life, you helped me with something, will you? Put another record on, Marjorie, I’m fed up of hearing that one.’
‘I’m sorry, Martha,’ said Marjorie, quietly. I won’t mention it again. I might not need to after we’ve been to the solicitor today though. I didn’t think we’d get a penny from Mother, but we’re both mentioned in the will. I fully expected her to leave everything to our Jessica.’
Martha put the crust of the toast back onto her plate and sliced the top off one of the eggs with a knife. Inspecting the consistency of the yolk, she nodded, and dug a teaspoon into it.
‘Well, if we are the main beneficiaries, don’t you go throwing your share about. I’ll find some nice, safe investments for you. And, watch out for fortune seeking men. You would be taken advantage of far too easily.’
‘I’m seventy-six now, Martha, I don’t think any men will be interested in me.’
‘You’d be surprised, Marjorie,’ said Martha bitterly. ‘If I can get caught out, there’s little hope for you.’
Martha finished her egg and decided the quality wasn’t quite good enough to warrant eating the second one. Instead, she poured tea into a delicate china cup, poured in a small amount of milk, stirred it gently, and took a large sip.
‘At least the tea is made properly,’ she said.
Marjorie got to her feet. ‘I’d better get on with running your bath.’
‘Leave it for twenty minutes, I don’t want to bathe on a full stomach.’
‘Yes, Martha,’ replied Marjorie.
‘You can get in after me.’ Martha ordered. ‘We’ll share the water. Our gas bill was enormous over the last quarter.’
Marjorie walked to the door. ‘I’ll come back for the tray when you’re in the bath, shall I?’
Martha nodded, picked up another piece of toast and bit into it.
‘Off you go then. Make sure the kitchen is properly cleaned, I don’t want to be stepping on bits of egg shell when I come down.’
When Marjorie had taken away the breakfast tray, Martha got out of bed, removed her nightgown and slipped into a striped bath robe. Removing her turban, she studied herself in the dressing table mirror, running her fingers through her sparse, white hair before holding a hand mirror behind her head. Cursing the latest, seriously expensive, but useless, scalp cream, she walked quickly to the bathroom where she dampened her hair in the sink before rubbing a generous handful of the supposed miracle, steroid cream, onto her head.
Martha had always been envious of her mother’s shoulder length, chestnut curls. When Alice was young, people used to compare her to the Hollywood actress, Rita Hayworth, and indeed, there had been a remarkable likeness. Martha wasn’t as fortunate, she hadn’t been exactly unattractive when she was young, but she could hardly be classed as a beauty. Her hair had always been straight and thin, almost lank. Even in old age, Alice, her mother, had managed to keep a full head of hair, she had even retained some of her natural colour until she was well into her sixties.
Martha assumed she got her looks, and her hair, from Frank, her father, who had died somewhere in the Atlantic the year after her birth. Maybe she got the hair problems from Frank’s mother, Edna, was it? How was the hair gene passed down? She doubted it was a matriarchal thing, after all, her daughter and granddaughter both had dark, healthy, heads of hair. She decided to blame it on Alice anyway. They had always hated each other. There was talk of her mother practicing witchcraft in the attic of the farmhouse. Perhaps she had placed a curse on her first born, or simply used toxic chemicals when she washed her hair in the bath when she was a baby. Alice was capable of anything.
After bathing, she returned to the sink and rinsed out the sticky cream with fresh warm water, then she returned to the bathroom, calling to Marjorie on the way.
‘The bath’s all yours, be quick, the water isn’t too hot.’
In the bedroom, Martha pulled on a black and grey checked skirt and a white, silk blouse before opening a hat box that sat on the dressing table. She took out a steel-grey wig and pulled it over her patchy clumps of hair. She sat for a few minutes, tugging it first to the right, then the left, then the back. Finally satisfied, she applied a dab of rouge to her cheeks and went downstairs to the lounge where she turned on the radio and listened to the latest international news program. Radio 4 and the BBC TV news were her only source of information. She had cancelled the newspapers to save money some years before.
A few minutes later she heard Marjorie come down the stairs and five minutes after that, her younger sister walked into the lounge carrying a tray laden with Martha’s favourite china tea service. She was wearing a maroon skirt, a cream blouse and a navy cardigan.
‘I thought I’d use the best china as it’s a special day,’ she said.
Martha pursed her lips, looked Marjorie up and down, then shook her head.
‘You aren’t going to a solicitor’s office dressed like that, surely?’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ Marjorie looked down at her chest.
‘It’s not really fitting for the occasion is it? We’re attending the formal reading of a will; we’re not going to a coffee morning at the Women’s Institute.’
‘I… I thought.’
‘Don’t think, Marjorie. It seldom works out well for either of us.’
Marjorie looked confused. ‘What should I wear then?’
Martha sighed. ‘I’m not your dresser,’ she said, testily. ‘Wear the black knitted suit you wore to Mother’s funeral. That will look much more business-like.’
‘The hat had a veil on it,’ Marjorie protested.
Martha slammed her hand down onto the dining table making Marjorie jump.
‘Then don’t wear the bloody hat.’
Sniffling, Marjorie left the room.
‘And don’t take all day about it,’ called Martha. ‘Nicola is picking us up at eleven.’
Marjorie’s tear-stained face appeared around the dining room door.
‘Why are we leaving so early, Martha?’ She sniffed, pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her cardigan and wiped her nose. ‘The appointment isn’t until one-thirty.’
‘We’re going to have a look at our old home, Marjorie. I want to see what state the outbuildings are in. I’ve got big plans for that place.’
It began with a trivial moment of carelessness, but the shockwaves that reverberate from this seemingly insignificant incident, spread far and wide.
Ed and his heavily pregnant wife Mary are on an errand for Ed’s ailing father before the pair depart for warmer climes. But the winter of 1962 comes early and one innocuous event and a hastily taken decision will have devastating consequences for the family of young Rose Gorton. Mary’s already fragile mental state is put under further stress while Ed tries to make sense of events that are spiralling massively, Out of Control.
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