An Emily Castles Mystery
For Lauren and Natasha
‘Hello!’ Emily called as she went into her flat on Friday evening, before the front door was fully closed behind her. She lived alone. Calling out was a deterrent strategy in case she had been followed home by an opportunistic thief. The thief was to assume, from hearing her cheery hello, that she lived with a tough, dangerous man or men who wouldn’t stand for Emily being attacked on her doorstep or pushed inside and attacked there. It was a strategy that she no longer thought about or questioned, she just did it. It was one of many little survival tactics she had adopted since coming to live in London – but still, when she called out hello and got no answer, it always seemed, somehow, as if the silence was mocking her for living alone.
She picked up her mail from the doormat: a phone bill, a begging letter from a charity, a voucher for free delivery from a supermarket, and a letter addressed to her neighbour, Victoria. It wasn’t unusual for Emily to get letters delivered to her that were meant for other residents of the street, as though the postmen at the local sorting office were conspiring to bring the community into closer contact with each other. She took the letter across the street to where Victoria lived in a three-storey red brick Edwardian terraced house with her husband and three sons. Emily Castles was a bright, clever young woman with a natural curiosity. When she walked anywhere she walked quickly, usually, and she looked up at her surroundings as if she expected to see something interesting at any minute. But today hadn’t been a good day, and she looked down at the chewing gum-grey pavements without really seeing them, scuttling towards Victoria’s house to avoid being seen as much as to avoid seeing anything. But Victoria opened the door to greet her before Emily could get away. Victoria was very slim, and she had naturally curly brown hair that fell to her shoulders in fat spirals. She was in her early-to-mid forties, Emily thought. Victoria rarely wore make-up unless it was a special occasion because she had lovely skin and even features, and she looked perfectly fine without it. She was bare-faced now, as usual, though Emily couldn’t help noticing she looked paler than usual, even a little drawn.
‘Letter for you,’ said Emily.
‘Oh God, no!’ said Victoria. ‘Oh my God!’ She put one hand to the base of her throat and reached for the door behind her with the other, as if planning on whipping it off its hinges and using it as a shield. Her reaction was unexpected to say the least. ‘Come in, Ems,’ she said. ‘Please.’
Emily longed to get back home so she could spend the evening on the sofa with a packet of ginger biscuits and a nice cup of tea, watching rubbish on TV.
Emily followed Victoria into the lovely kitchen, where the family ate most of their meals. Everything was just so, in a country-living kind of a way: there was a range oven
a conventional oven; cupboards and units painted in forget-me-not blue; French windows opening onto the garden at the back; big wooden storage boxes for the boys’ Wellington boots and trainers; and something deliciously Italian-smelling (herbs and tomatoes and cheese in it or on it for sure, Emily thought) cooking in the oven.
Emily put the letter on the big scrubbed pine table. Victoria eyed it as though Emily had put a pet snake there. ‘Will you open it for me?’ Victoria said. ‘Only I think it might be bad news.’
Victoria and Emily weren’t close. Victoria was Emily’s neighbour. Sometimes Emily looked in and fed the cat and watered the plants when the family was away. Sometimes she delivered letters to their house that had been delivered to her by mistake. If this letter contained bad news – a death in the family? An estrangement? Foreclosure? Bankruptcy? The expulsion of one of the boys from school? – then Emily was hardly the right person to open and read it and convey the news to Victoria. She took a seat and leaned her elbows on the table. She didn’t pick up the letter.
‘What about Piers? Can’t he?’
‘But if it’s bad news?’
‘Not bad news so much as… danger.’
Victoria stood three feet away from the letter with her arms folded, staring at it nervously. She had a beautifully enunciated, ever-so-slightly-weary voice that suggested she had been bred to have servants and marry the kind of man who, in previous generations, might have joined the army and ordered his social inferiors to charge in vain against a better-armed enemy. Actually she had learned to speak that way in elocution lessons. Even so, even if she
belonged to some ruling class, surely she was anchored securely enough in modern times to understand that if she thought the letter contained anthrax, she shouldn’t be so selfish as to propose that Emily open the letter on her behalf and take the hit?
Emily looked at the letter, but she didn’t move. Danger? She couldn’t think what Victoria could possibly mean. She hadn’t had a good day, and in her tiredness and bewilderment she felt as though she were the stupid one.
‘Not that kind of danger,’ said Victoria, reading Emily’s expression. She came and sat down at the table without unfolding her arms, hooking a chair and drawing it back with one foot, all of which was quite a difficult manoeuvre, a bit like Russian Cossack dancing. Only when she was sitting opposite Emily did Victoria unfold her arms, putting her elbows on the table and clasping her hands together in prayer before Emily. Then she confessed.
‘I’ve been getting nasty notes. Poison pen. I can’t bear to look at it. Can you?’
‘Piers mustn’t know. Quick, Ems, he’ll be home from work soon. Please! Please. Open it for me. You’re a clever girl. You’ll know what to do.’
It wasn’t a question, Emily thought, of whether or not she’d know what to do, but whether or not she wanted to get involved. Victoria didn’t seem to think that was up for consideration. She seemed to think that Emily would want to spend her Friday night opening and screening Victoria’s mail, spending her free time doing unwaged what she’d normally do during working hours to make a living.
She opened the letter.
The following message was printed in capital letters in blue biro on pale blue notepaper, the kind of stationery that you might use to write a thank you note if you were seventy years old:
WHAT A DISGRACE
TO THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE
VICTORIA’S BEEN NAUGHTY
WHAT SHALL WE DO?
There was no address or signature.
‘It’s another one, isn’t it?’ said Victoria, watching Emily’s expression.
‘I don’t know. What were the other ones like?’ She handed Victoria the letter so she could see for herself.
‘I’ll rip it up and put it on the compost heap – the slugs and snails can choke on it.’
‘You can’t do that. It’s evidence. If you’re being threatened, or blackmailed… Are you being blackmailed?’
‘“Evidence?” I can’t go to the police. What about Piers’s job?’
Piers was something important, Emily wasn’t quite sure what, in the civil service. ‘Victoria, what does it mean?’
Victoria said, ‘It seems to imply, doesn’t it, with the “red, white and blue” that they’ll cause a scandal and Piers’s job with the government will be at stake.’
‘Where are the other notes? If someone’s threatening you, you can’t let them get away with it.’
Victoria brought her large, grey handbag over from where it had been squatting on the Welsh dresser, in front of the slightly dusty display of never-used blue-and-white crockery. She said, ‘You know I used to be an actress?’
Yes. Everyone knew it. Victoria still had the cheekbones. She had done a bit of telly when she was younger, and popped up now and then in daytime repeats, in
Rumpole of the Bailey
or other dependable, once-popular British TV series. For whatever reason – love, Emily had always assumed – she had given it up, but now she ran a stage school locally, so the subject quite often came up, and even if people didn’t watch much daytime TV, every one of her neighbours knew what she had once been.
‘I made a video,’ said Victoria. ‘When I was a student…’ She curled her fingers and put her hand up to her mouth and looked out of the window, her knuckles pressed against her lips as if to silence herself. Then she put her arms around herself and hugged tightly. Emily was impressed and slightly thrilled to be treated to this private performance of Victoria playing ‘woman for whom the memory of a youthful transgression is still painful’. She tried to think of a tactful way to say that no one would much care these days if a video of Victoria’s bare bottom should show up on the Internet, unless she was really famous. The world was awash with pornography – Victoria’s indiscretions would matter to no one but her.
‘If it got onto the Internet,’ said Victoria, ‘I would be ruined.’
‘It may not be as bad as you think,’ said Emily. ‘People these days are very broad-minded.’
‘I’d say they’re less broad-minded than they were twenty years ago. But that’s hardly the point. Emily, a man died because of that video.’ She stood, turned and did a press-lipped anguished face, and wrung her hands together. By now, all Emily’s earlier cares had seeped away because she was so thoroughly absorbed by Victoria’s elegant response to her troubles. Solo performances by actors of Victoria’s calibre would do brilliantly well as part of executive redundancy packages, Emily reflected. If she were more entrepreneurial, she’d be off and making some phone calls about it now, setting up a new business. Instead, she said, ‘A man died? Is that why you gave up acting?’
‘God, no! The cost of child care in this country…’
‘Besides, you’ve got Showstoppers now.’
‘Not for much longer if these notes continue.’ Victoria brought out two more notes from an inner pocket in her handbag and showed them to Emily. Like the one she had just opened, these contained sneering rhymes written on blue stationery.
I know Victoria’s secret
I hope I can keep it
If I should leak it
She will be sorry
When they know what I know
It will stop the show
‘Not exactly W H Auden, is it?’ said Victoria. ‘I can’t show them to Piers. He did English at Oxford. He’d be mortified.’
‘Has the sender made any demands for money?’
‘It could be a bluff. Who else knows about the video?’
‘I haven’t told a living soul about it, Emily. The only people who knew about it were my boyfriend and me because we were in it. We filmed it ourselves. We didn’t even hire a lighting guy.’
Emily was quiet for a while, thinking about what sort of person even considers hiring a lighting technician when filming
sort of video. Victoria watched her respectfully in her turn, as if Emily were mentally sifting through the evidence and would soon have a solution.
‘Why would anyone send you something like that, Victoria?’
‘I don’t know
, but I know
. It’s my old boyfriend, David. It has to be. I haven’t seen him in twenty years or more, suddenly he turns up at the school. Next thing, I’m getting nasty notes through the mail.’
‘He turned up at the school? What did he say?’
‘I didn’t talk to him. I just saw his name on the enrolment forms – he wants to get his daughter into Showstoppers. Or so he claims. I don’t know if he even has a daughter.’
‘You think he’s stalking you? What does he want?’
‘That’s what we’ve got to find out.’
We? Emily had only popped across the road to deliver a letter. Suddenly she was being roped into investigating Victoria’s possibly sordid relations with a possibly dangerous ex-boyfriend. And come to think of it, Victoria herself was possibly dangerous, too.
‘You said someone had died?’ said Emily.
But they were interrupted by the sound of the key in the lock, the front door opening, and then a hearty ‘Hello!’ in Piers’s voice. Victoria half-rose from her chair and tucked the letters and envelopes into the back pocket of her jeans. As she sank back down again, she gave Emily a warning look.
‘I think you should tell him,’ whispered Emily. ‘A secret’s only really useful currency to a blackmailer when it remains a secret. Could there have been a mistake about the man who died? Maybe you’re not responsible.’
‘Oh yes! I hope so. That would be a weight off my mind after twenty years. But who do I ask? I can hardly go to the police.’
‘Was it an accident? A car crash, something like that?’
Victoria listened for sounds of her husband outside, her head to one side, her finger on her lips. They heard Piers’s footsteps in the corridor as he went about his normal just-back-home routine: hanging up his coat, finding a place for his laptop computer, washing his hands in the sink in the downstairs bathroom. In the long pause before she spoke, Emily thought again of Victoria’s training as an actress – it was a very suspenseful pause. ‘No,’ said Victoria. ‘He died laughing.’
Victoria was such a humourless person that Emily was impressed. She longed to know more, but there was no chance of it now.
‘Hello, Emily,’ said Piers, coming into the kitchen. ‘Had a good week?’
‘My contract came to an end today.’