Read A Sight for Sore Eyes Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

Tags: #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Crime, #Mystery, #Fiction, #General & Literary Fiction, #Crime & mystery

A Sight for Sore Eyes

BOOK: A Sight for Sore Eyes
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[Note to proofreaders: This text still contains a considerable number OCR artifacts. Please edit them out as you go, and submit your corrected copy to TheBurgomeister AT gmail DOT com. As always, thanks.]

Ruth Rendell A Sight for Sore Eyes

Chapter 1

They were to hold hands and look at one another. Deeply, into each other's eyes. 'It's not a sitting,' she said, 'it's a standing. Why can't I sit on his knee?' He laughed. Everything she said amused or delighted him, everything about her captivated him from her dark-red curly hair to her small white feet. The painter's instructions were that he should look at her as if in love and she at him as if enthralled. This was easy, this was to act naturally. 'Don't be silly, Harriet,' said Simon Alpheton. 'The very idea! Have you ever seen a painting by Rembrandt called The Jewish Bride?' They hadn't. Simon described it to them as he began his preliminary sketch. 'It's a very tender painting, it expresses the protective love of the man for his young submissive bride. They're obviously wealthy, they're very richly dressed, but you can see that they're sensitive, thoughtful people and they're in love.' 'Like us. Rich and in love. Do we look like them?' 'Not in the least, and I don't think you'd want to. Ideas of beauty have changed.' 'You could call it "The Red-haired Bride".' 'She's not your bride. I am going to call it "Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place" - what else? Now would you just stop talking for a bit, Marc?' The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of the year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind. Simon Aipheton was fond of walls, brick walls, flint walls, walls of wood and walls of stone. When he painted Come Hither outside the studio in Hanging Sword Alley he placed them against a concrete wall stuck all over with posters. As soon as he saw that Marc's house had a wall of living leaves he wanted also to paint that, with Marc and Harriet too, of course. The wall was a shining cascade in many shades of green, Marc was in a dark-blue suit, thin black tie and white shirt, and Harriet was all in red. When the autumn came those leaves would turn the same colour as her hair and her dress. Then they would gradually bleach to gold, to pale-yellow, fall and make a nuisance of themselves, filling the whole of that hedge-enclosed paved square and the entire backyard to a depth of several inches. The brickwork of the house would once more be revealed and the occasional, probably fake, bit of half-timbering. And in the spring of 1966 pale-green shoots would appear and the leafy cycle begin all over again. Simon thought about that as he drew leaves and hair, and pleated silk. 'Don't do that,' he said, as Marc reached forward to kiss Harriet, at the same time keeping hold of her hand and drawing her towards him. 'Leave her alone for five minutes, can't you?' 'It's hard, man, it's hard.' 'Tenderness is what I want to catch, not lust. Right?' 'My foot's gone to sleep,' said Harriet. 'Can we take a break, Simon?' 'Another five minutes. Don't think about your foot. Look at him and think about how much you love him.' She looked up at him and he looked down at her. He held her left hand in his right hand and their eyes met in a long gaze, and Simon Alpheton painted them, preserving them in the front garden of Orcadia Cottage, if not for ever, for a very long time. 'Maybe I'll buy it,' Harriet said later, looking with approval at the outline of her face and figure. 'What with?' Marc kissed her. His voice was gende but his words were not. 'You haven't any money.' When Simon Alpheton looked back to that day he thought that this was the beginning of the end, the worm in the bud showing its ugly face and writhing body among the flowers.

Chapter 2

One cold Saturday, Jimmy Brex and Eileen Tawton went on a coach trip to Broadstairs. The year was 1966 and it was summer. It was the first time they had ever been on such an outing together. Their usual activities - Eileen called it 'courting' and Jimmy had no name for it - consisted of visits to the White Rose and Lion, and Jimmy occasionally coming round to Eileen's mother's for tea. But the pub came under new management, events were organised for regulars at the weekends and one of these was the Broadstairs trip. It rained. A sharp north wind roared all the way down the coasts of Suffolk, Essex and Kent before blowing itself out somewhere in the Channel Islands. Jimmy and Eileen sat under a shelter on the front and ate the sandwich lunch they had brought with them. They bought seaside rock and looked through a telescope in a vain effort to see the coast of France. At teatime they resolved on a proper meal and went into Popplewell's restaurant on the seafront. It was unlicensed, like most restaurants and cafes at that time, and Jimmy was dying for a drink. He had to be content with tea because the pubs didn't open till five-thirty. Even when they had finished their eggs, chips, peas and mushrooms, their apple pie and custard and slices of Dundee cake, they still had half an hour to kill. Jimmy ordered another pot of tea and Eileen went to the Ladies. This was a tiny, windowless and - as was usual at the time, filthy - concrete-floored cupboard from which a single cubicle opened. A washbasin hung perilously from one wall, but there was no soap, towel, paper towel or, naturally, hand drier. One of the taps dripped. A woman came out of the cubicle and Eileen went in. From in there she heard the tap running and then she heard the outer door close. Eileen had no intention of washing her hands. She had washed them before she left home that morning and, besides, there were no towels. But she glanced at her face in the bit of chipped mirror, pushed at her hair a little, pursed her lips, and in doing these things could hardly fail to take the shelf below the mirror into her vision. In the middle of it was a diamond ring. The woman who had been here before her must have taken it off to wash her hands and forgotten it. It just went to show what too much washing led to. Eileen hadn't noticed anything about the woman except that she was middle-aged and in a raincoat. She looked at the ring. She picked it up. Even to the totally ignorant, to those with no knowledge or appreciation of good jewellery, a fine diamond ring is apparent for what it is. This one was a solitaire with a sapphire in each shoulder. Eileen slipped it on to her right hand, where it fitted as if made for her. Walking out of there with the ring on her finger wouldn't be a good idea. She put it in her bag. Jimmy was waiting for her, smoking his thirtieth cigarette of the day. He gave her one and they walked along to the Anchor, where he had a pint of bitter and she a half of cider. After a while she opened her bag and showed him the diamond ring. It occurred to neither of them to take the ring back to the restaurant and hand it to the management or to go to the police. Finding's keeping's. But other ideas were in both their minds. Or, rather, the same idea. Eileen put the ring on again, but this time on to the third finger of her left hand and she held her hand up, showing it to Jimmy. Why should she ever take it off again? This she didn't say aloud, though her thought somehow communicated itself to him. He bought a second pint of bitter and a packet of crisps and, returning to the table, said, 'May as well keep it on.' 'Shall I?' Her voice was unsteady. She felt the seriousness of the occasion. It was an awesome moment. 'May as well get engaged,' said Jimmy. Eileen nodded. She didn't smile. Her heart was thudding. 'If that's all right.' 'I've been thinking about it for a bit,' said Jimmy. 'Been thinking of getting you a ring. I didn't reckon on this one turning up. I'm going to have another drink. You want another cider?' 'Why not?' said Eileen. 'Celebrate - why not? And give me another ciggie, will you?' In fact, Jimmy hadn't thought of an engagement until this moment. He had no intention of getting married. Why should he marry? His mother was there to look after him and his brother, and she was only fifty-eight, there were years of life in her yet. But the discovery of the ring was too good an opportunity to miss. Suppose he'd done nothing and just let Eileen hang on to the ring, and then one day he did decide to get engaged, he'd have to buy her a ring, a new one. Besides, being engaged was just being engaged, it could go on for years, it didn't mean you had to get married tomorrow. Eileen wasn't in love with Jimmy. If she had thought about it she would probably have said she liked him all right. She liked him better than any other man she knew, but she didn't really know any others. No men ever came into the w9olshop where she was assistant to Miss Harvey, the owner, and where she sold double-knit and baby-soft two-ply to an elderly female clientele. She met Jimmy when he and his boss came to paint Miss Harvey's flat upstairs and put in a new sink unit. That had been five years before. Though she was right-handed, Eileen served customers with her left hand for the next few weeks and held that hand up to her chin a lot and flashed the diamond about to catch the light. It was greatly admired. She and Jimmy went on going to the pub and he continued to come to tea with Mrs Tawton. Eileen had her thirtyfifth birthday. They went on several more outings under the auspices of the White Rose and Lion, either alone or with Mrs Tawton and her friend Gladys. Sometimes Eileen mentioned marriage, but Jimmy always said 'We only just got engaged' or 'Time enough to think of that in a year or two'. And they'd never be able to afford a place to live. She wasn't moving in with her mother or his. Their relationship was not a sexual one. Although he sometimes kissed her, Jimmy had never suggested anything more and Eileen told herself she wouldn't have agreed if he had, she respected him for not asking. Time enough to think of that in a year or two. Then Jimmy's mother died. She fell down dead in the street, a laden shopping bag in each hand. Loaves of bread, half-pound packs of butter, packets of biscuits, hunks of Cheddar, oranges, bananas, bacon, two chickens, tins of beans and tins of spaghetti in tomato sauce rolled across the pavement or dropped into the gutter. Betty Brex had suffered a massive stroke. Her two sons had lived in the house since they were born and neither considered moving out. Now there was no one to look after them, Jimmy decided he had better get married. After all, he had been engaged for five years. The ring, which Eileen wore day in and day out, was there to remind him. She wouldn't be lucky enough to find a wedding ring on a shelf in a Ladies but, fortunately, he had the one that came off his dead mother's finger. They married at the Registrar's Office in Burnt Oak. The Brex home was a small semi-detached house, two up and two down with small bathroom and kitchen, its outside stucco-coated and painted yellow ochre, among rows of such houses near the North Circular Road at Neasden. Because it was on a corner, access to the garden was possible from the street and here, filling most of the small area, Keith Brex kept his car. Or, rather, his series of cars, the current one at the time of his brother's marriage being a Studebaker, red and silver with fins. Keith was older than Jimmy and unmarried. Uninterested in women or sex of any kind, a non-reader, no sportsman, he was largely indifferent to everything except drink and cars. Not so much in driving them as in tinkering. Taking them apart and putting them together again. Cleaning and polishing them, admiring them. Before the Studebaker he had had a Pontiac and before that a Dodge. For use, for going to work, he had a motor bike. When his car was in perfect condition and looking at its best, he would take it out and drive it up the North Circular Road to Brent Cross, up the Hendon Way, down Station Road and back along the Broadway. And when the Studebaker Owners' Club held a rally he and the car always attended. An outing for the car meant taking the engine apart and reassembling it. In the building trade like his brother, he had long ago laid a concrete pad all over the back garden for the car and the motor bike to stand on, leaving only a very small green rectangle, a 'lawn' of grass, dandelions and thisdes. In their mother's lifetime, and earlier in their father's, the brothers Brex had shared a bedroom. There, in the evenings, while Keith worked on his car, Jimmy had attended to his own sexual needs with the assistance of Penthouse magazine. Now he was moving out and into what had been Betty Brex's room, another transition must be made. Jimmy, who didn't think much, supposed it could be done with ease. As it happened, it took about a year and was never as satisfactory for Jimmy as his fantasy liaisons with those centre-folds had been. As for Eileen, she accepted. It was all right. It didn't hurt. You didn't get cold or made to feel sick. It was what you did when you were married. Like vacuum cleaning and shopping and cooking and locking the back door at night. And, of course, having a baby. Eileen was forty-two. Because of her age she had no idea she could be pregnant. Like many a woman before her, she thought it was the Change. Besides, she didn't know much about sex and still less about reproduction, and she had curious notions picked up from her mother and her aunts. Qne of these was that in order to be productive ejaculation had to be frequent, lavish and cumulative. In other words, a lot of that stuff had to get inside you before anything resulted. It was rather like the Grecian 2000 lotion Keith put on his greying hair, which only took effect after repeated applications. In her marriage, applications had been infrequent and were growing rarer. So she didn't believe she was pregnant even when she put on a lot of weight and grew a big stomach. Jimmy, of course, noticed nothing. It was Mrs Chance next door who asked her when she was expecting. Eileen's mother knew at once - she hadn't seen her for two months - and expressed the opinion that the baby would have 'something wrong with it' on account of her daughter's age. Nobody talked about Down's Syndrome then and Agnes Tawton said the child would be a Mongol. Eileen never went near a doctor, none of them did, and she wasn't going to start now. A common feeling with her was that if you ignored something it would go away, so she ignored her expanding shape while giving in to her food cravings. She developed a passion for doughnuts and for croissants which were just beginning to appear in the shops, and she smoked ferociously, forty or fifty a day. This was the early seventies when the phrase 'getting in touch with one's body' was current. Eileen wasn't in touch with her body at all, she never looked at it or in the mirror at it and most of its sensations, with the exception of actual pain, she disregarded. But these pains were another thing altogether, Eileen had never known anything like them, they went on and on and got worse and worse, and she couldn't be out of touch with her body any more. Of course, the Brex family had no phone, it wouldn't have occurred to them to have one, so, in the extremity of Eileen's travail, Keith was despatched to the doctor's to get help. He went in the Studebaker which happened to be due for its fortnightly outing. There was no question of Jimmy going. He said it was all a storm in a teacup. Besides, he had just bought a television set, their first colour one, and he was watching Wimbledon. A doctor came, very angry, almost disbelieving, and found Eileen lying among her broken waters, chain-smoking. A midwife came. The Brex family, all of them, were furiously castigated and the midwife turned off the television herself. The baby, a nine-pound-nine-ounce boy, was born at ten p. m. Contrary to Mrs Tawton's predictions there was nothing wrong with him. Or nothing in the sense she meant. The kind of things that were wrong with him were unresponsive to any tests then and, largely, still are. In any case, it depends on whether you belong in the nature camp or to the nurture school. In the seventies everyone who knew anything at all believed a person's character and temperament derived so~e1y from his early environment and conditioning. Freud ruled OK. He was a beautiful baby. During his gestation his mother had lived on croissants with butter, whipped-cream doughnuts, salami, streaky bacon, fried eggs, chocolate bars, sausages and chips with everything. She had smoked about ten thousand eight hundred cigarettes and drunk many gallons of Guinness, cider, Babycham and sweet sherry. But he was a beautiful child with smooth, peachy skin, dark-brown silky hair, the features of a baby angel in an Old Master, and perfect fingers and toes. 'What are you going to call him?' said Mrs Tawton after several days. 'He'll have to be called something, won't he?' said Eileen, as if naming the child was expedient, but by no means obligatory. Neither she nor Jimmy knew any names. Well, they knew their own and Keith's and Mr Chance's next door, he was called Alfred, and their dead fathers' names, but they didn't like any of those. Keith suggested Roger because that was the name of his pal he went drinking with, but Eileen didn't like this Roger, so that was out. Then another neighbour came round with a present for the baby. It was a small white teddy bear with bells on its feet attached to a ribbon you hung inside the roof of the pram. Both Agnes Tawton and Eileen were quite moved by this gift, said 'Aaah!' and pronounced it sweet. 'Teddy,' said Eileen fondly. 'There you are, there's your name,' said Keith. 'Teddy. Edward for short.' And he laughed at his own joke because no one else did.

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