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Three Sisters

An Emily Castles Mystery





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For Brenda, Hans and Emily





The south London sky exploded with a thousand deaths that night. Emily looked up. Tiny coloured lights hung in the blackness, like Midget Gems suspended mid-rinse in a toddler’s open mouth. She was on her way to the bonfire party, at the big house at the end of the street in Brixton where she lived, at the invitation of the new owner whom she had never met. Emily should have been used to the fireworks at her age because there had always been fireworks on bonfire night, for as long as she could remember - the fireworks now as much a celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and Halloween, the American festival of gore and dressing up, as Guy Fawkes night, when people in England remembered the day back in 1605 when a plot had been foiled which, had it been successful, would have blown up the Houses of Parliament, with King James I inside it.

But tonight each explosion startled Emily slightly, as if it was the sound of a gunshot, danger. And the sizzling sausage smell of blackening flesh that hung in the autumn air made her think of her dog Jessie who had died the week before. The dog had not been barbecued: she died peacefully, after a long and happy life. But she had very much enjoyed eating sausages.

Emily was carrying a tray of homemade cheesy potato bake – a wholesome, portable dish that usually went down well at parties – and a bottle of rosé wine. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have gone. Ordinarily, she would have been at home with Jessie, just in case the dog was disturbed by the noise of the fireworks. But those days were gone. And when the handwritten invitation had been slipped through her letterbox, well, she had interpreted it as a sign that she should start a new life, and find some new friends. How was she to know she was making an appointment, not just with a new life, but with death?

Halloween had fallen this year on the weekend before bonfire night, and as usual many people were out celebrating both events. Local children wandered the streets in ugly masks. At least, she hoped they were masks. For a moment or two Emily felt uneasy – what if this invitation was some sort of trick? What if she got to the big house at the end of the street and the place was dark and deserted? But then she seemed to feel the presence of her dog Jessie walking beside her for a few paces, and she felt reassured.

As she got closer to the house, she saw it was not deserted. First she heard music, and then she saw the coloured lights strung up in the trees, and finally she heard the happy buzz of conversation from people gathered in the garden. The guests were easily distinguishable from their hosts because they wore anoraks, scarves and gloves. The hosts were walking on stilts or juggling fire – the first sight Emily had was of a giant, glowing, pink papier-mâché or fibreglass painted head floating about five feet above the top of the privet hedge that surrounded the property.

Like most people who live in London, Emily didn’t know her neighbours very well, though she knew most by sight and some by name – usually because she’d had to take in parcels or bouquets of flowers when they were out. She recognised Dr. Muriel walking through the gates just ahead of her, pulling a small two-wheeled shopping trolley with one hand, and tapping at the pavement for support every three or four paces or so with an elegant silver-topped cane in the other. Dr. Muriel was a hearty, squarish woman the colour of concrete. She lived in one of the red brick Edwardian houses opposite Emily’s flat. Emily had taken in mail order deliveries of large parcels of nutritious bird seed from the RSPB for Dr. Muriel. Now, as she followed her, she imagined Dr. Muriel standing very still in her garden with her cupped hands outstretched, wild birds perched along her sleeves as if she were a washing line, waiting their turn to peck at the sunflower seeds and other delicious avian titbits while their benefactor cheeped and chirruped to them in a language they seemed to understand. Though it would have been a sight to behold, Emily had never seen anything like this happen, she only imagined it.

To her left, as Emily walked into the garden where the bonfire party was being held, she saw a monkey puzzle tree strung with coloured light bulbs, as dangerous – with its sharp prickles and damp electric wires – as a cheaply-made, faulty, imported, artificial Christmas tree. Next to the tree stood a tall, thin woman with curly hair who was another neighbour of Emily. Emily knew her name was Victoria and she had three male children who were fond of skateboarding. Victoria was preoccupied with chasing a cube of potato salad across a cream-coloured cardboard plate with a fragile-looking white plastic fork. She didn’t look up when Emily passed. One of her duffle-coated children stared out at Emily through a wolf mask while bending his knees and sliding his back up and down against his mother’s trouser leg, like a donkey relieving an itch on a fence post. Without taking her eye off her meal, his mother bent and murmured something to him, and he stood still and looked up at her, and away from Emily.

It was a very cold, dark night and the air was damp, but there was no rain. The conditions were perfect for the party, and the garden was filled with people determined to enjoy themselves, clumped near the fire bowls and coloured lanterns for warmth and light, and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the stiltwalkers and jugglers. They swapped spurious, conflicting pieces of information: the stiltwalkers were Polish, the jugglers were Scottish, the artist who had made the giant head was Spanish; it was a squat party, it was illegal, it was sanctioned by the local council, it was bankrolled by Sir Paul McCartney. Most of it was nonsense but some of it was true.

A man and a woman Emily didn’t know stood at the bottom of the three or four stone steps that led up to the door to the house, sipping at cinnamon-scented mulled wine from white plastic cups, and smoking cigarettes. They smiled at Emily as she passed and she saw that the woman’s lips were painted red, and her teeth had been stained the colour of blackberries by the wine. Her brown fuzzy hair had been teased into an unflattering triangular shape and she seemed to have pencilled her eyebrows in without looking in a mirror.

‘If you want the baby,’ said the man to the woman, ‘have the baby. Or sell it. I don’t care.’

The woman shrieked. She seemed deranged. The man dropped his cigarette and grabbed at her. Emily stopped on the top step and turned, ready to intervene. But the woman let him put his arms around her. She smooched with him, rubbing the fox fur collar of her long black coat against his shoulder, and the two of them turned slowly in each other’s arms, like lovers dancing on a music box, as she began to sing the chorus of
La Vie en Rose
. People standing nearby recognised the tune and came a little closer to listen. Some of them clapped. Emily moved on.

Inside the house was a grand hall so large that it was served by two staircases. The plaster on the walls was cracked, and there was a slight smell of mildew, but the flagstones on the floor had been scrubbed, and the place had been fixed up with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and original artwork on the walls. A man in a cape and a top hat swooshed past – he was young, no more than twenty-one or twenty-two, and he was wearing a false moustache, and he had rouged his cheeks. He tipped his hat at Emily: ‘Madame,’ he said. Emily smiled weakly. A heavy wooden door opened on the opposite side of the hall and, as two laughing teenage girls emerged, Emily saw that they had come from the kitchen, and she headed there to leave her offerings.

The kitchen was bare, pretty much, except for a large porcelain sink and a cream-coloured fridge that was taller than Emily, and twice as wide. And there were two trestle tables, one stacked with bottles of booze, a large pot of mulled wine that was being heated over a small portable gas burner, and a bowl of punch. The other was laden with dishes prepared by the hosts or brought by the guests: macaroni cheese, mince pies, quiches, pasta salads, rice salads, tuna salads, potato salads, baked potatoes, garlic bread - and an assortment of minced pork, beef and lamb products in the form of sausages, scotch eggs, a cottage pie, and chilli con carne. Everything was on the spectrum from brown to cream, and the overall effect was of a sepia-toned display that had been put together by someone nostalgic for a time before Britons had learned to cook, but after they had learned to shop at supermarkets.

‘What a spread!’ said Dr. Muriel, with the jovial sincerity of a popular visitor to an old people’s home or a primary school. ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to try and guess who has brought what?’

Emily edged her cheesy potato bake onto the table next to the scotch eggs, thinking it wouldn’t be fun at all; her dish had already congealed slightly, and the top was glazing over, as if she had persisted in telling it a very dull story on the way here. From her trolley, Dr. Muriel brought a bottle of port, two dozen homemade mince pies and a large round Stilton cheese. ‘Low self-esteem is often caused by low blood sugar,’ she said, filling a plate with a selection from the buffet. ‘It’s a good idea to eat well at parties.’

A young woman in a belted mac approached Emily. She was very, very thin with dark, short hair held back with a clip with tiny glass beads on it that nobody could possibly have mistaken for real jewels, and she came so close that Emily could smell the wardrobe smell on her coat. The flesh under her cheekbones was scooped out, like a jack o’lantern, but prettier.

‘My name is Elise. Can you help me? I need to get a message to our friend but I’m being watched. I have information that is vital,
, to the success of our joint endeavour.’

Emily looked around uncertainly, and then she looked back at Elise, who was staring at her intently.

‘What’s the message, m’dear?’ asked Dr. Muriel.

‘The message is in the suitcase.’

‘And who’s it for? Who’s our friend?’

Elise looked surprised at the question. ‘Why, the gentleman who is waiting for the suitcase, of course.’ She turned to leave. Then she stopped and held up one finger. She looked at Emily. ‘Could you help me get the suitcase to the gentleman?’ she asked.

Emily said, ‘Well, I...’ She shrugged. Then Elise shrugged – she might have been mimicking or mocking Emily. ‘Maybe later,’ Emily said.

Elise gave her a look of such desperate longing that Emily felt embarrassed. Elise turned and walked away, moving slowly, with dignity, like someone who is used to being watched.

Dr. Muriel looked for somewhere to put her plate down so that she could applaud as Elise walked away. There was no space on the trestle table so she held on to the plate and thumped the top of her left hand with her right, as if she were trying to knock clods of mud from her wellington boots. Marvellous!’ she said. ‘Marvellous! Bravo!’

At the door that led to the grand hall, Elise turned and inclined her head. Then she was gone. Even though it had only been make-believe, Emily still felt involved, guilty.

More guests came into the kitchen. Some were wearing fancy dress – but even when their costumes were hired, the guests were easily distinguishable from their hosts. Their hosts moved purposefully through the rooms like characters pouring into the party from an alternate world, obeying rules and impulses and reacting to events and objects that only they could interpret, whereas their guests were just ordinary people who were standing about, enjoying the various ‘entertainments’, but contributing nothing.

It was somehow a metaphor for life but Emily couldn’t see what she was supposed to learn from it. She was too old to run away and join a theatre troupe. Anyway, for now, something else was bothering her: ‘I never know what to say, or even if we’re supposed to join in.’

‘Nerve-wracking isn’t it!’ said Dr. Muriel. She didn’t look nervous at all; she looked as if she could stand and face a charging rhino.

Emily left her and went to explore.

The dilapidated house had been done up quickly and efficiently at very low cost, furnished with furniture from skips and material salvaged from jumble sales, and decorated with original artworks created by members of the collective who had occupied the place. Emily’s favourite so far was an oxidised metal sculpture of the skeleton of a horse. It seemed to be galloping along one of the balconies, where Emily had looked up and seen it from the ground floor.

Nails and staples were visible in the furnishings if you looked close up, but from a distance the effects were grand, theatrical, striking. Emily was impressed with the transformation – she had often walked past on her way to work, head down, not looking forward to her day, or head down, hurrying to get home again to Jessie. If she had thought about the house at all, she had only thought that it was a shame that the place was slowly rotting away. Now she could see that something wonderful had been achieved with determination and an entrepreneurial spirit. Was it because they were risk-takers? Was it because they had gathered here from all over the world, a group of culturally diverse people pooling their resources harmoniously to achieve success? Emily climbed the stairs to have a look around on the first floor. From what she had observed at the party so far, most of her hosts were engaged in dangerous activities – walking on stilts, juggling with fire – of the kind that she had been warned against as a child. Had they never been warned? Was she seeing the product of neglectful childhoods? Or was she witnessing a collective rebellion? Whichever it was, she was astounded by the results.

Even as Emily was pondering this, a young woman came running up behind her in a corridor with
not just one
but a dozen knives in her hand. Emily stood very still, a deer in a forest. But the woman ran past. She was a slim woman – young enough to be called a girl, still – with dyed blonde hair. She was wearing a blue-grey spangled circus-style costume that was rather tatty close up – stained under the armpits, slightly frayed at the groin, and with loose threads where sequins were missing.

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