Authors: Stuart Pawson
‘Are you still with the tall lady? Annabelle, was it?’
‘Yeah. Maybe if I put as much effort into this relationship as I’ve put into the job we might make something of it.’
‘There’s a lot of sense in that. You’ve over twenty-six and a half in, haven’t you?’
‘By a couple of years,’ I replied.
‘OK, so you’ll go on the full two-thirds, and your pension will start right away. How much leave have you left?’
‘All of it.’
‘And your white card?’
That’s our record of days owed for unpaid overtime and holidays worked, except that inspectors do not recognise overtime. ‘I’ve stopped filling it in,’ I replied.
‘OK. So just send me your minute sheet, saying: “I hereby inform you that I wish to retire on such a date …” Give us a month, as required. Meanwhile,
try to negotiate yourself some of the leave that’s owed you. With two weeks leave you could be gone in a fortnight.’
‘As simple as that?’
‘As simple as that.’
‘It’s a bit frightening, all of a sudden.’
‘I know, but it’ll overtake you, one day soon, if you don’t take the plunge, Charlie.’
‘I’ll think about it. Thanks, Bob. Keep your eye on the post.’
‘Invite me to the bash. See you.’
A fortnight! I could be gone in a fortnight! On full terms! I had to tell someone. I rang Annabelle, but there was no answer. I stood up, walked round the office, sat down again. Gilbert wasn’t in, either. I thought about treating myself to a meal at the Bamboo Curtain, but I wasn’t hungry. I strolled round the main office, reading the papers on the desks, the notices on the walls. Jeff Caton’s sweater was still over his chair back. One of the others had a framed picture of his motorbike on his desk. Two cartoons torn from newspapers, brown with age, were pinned on the board, both featuring someone called Charlie. What was it Herbert Mathews said? ‘Once you leave, you’re history.’ It’d be a wrench, but I could do it.
It was drizzling outside, but it felt right. I unlocked the car and started the engine. Ideally, I’d have liked to have walked home, feeling the rain on my face. I’d have plenty of time for walking, unless I took the offer of a
partnership from Eric Dobson. There were decisions to be made, discussions to be held, and fast. Two more weeks! I put the car in gear and eased out of the station yard. There was a strange feeling in my stomach, churning at my innards. I think it was fear.
I called in M and S for a few ready meals and some fruit. There’d be more time for shopping. The girl at the till gave me an extra special smile, as if she shared my secret. I called in the travel agent’s again for some more brochures to go with the ones I still hadn’t shown Annabelle. California, this time, and the Seychelles.
The ansaphone was beeping. I put the stuff in the freezer, hung up my jacket and changed my shoes. Annabelle didn’t answer when I pressed her button, so I listened to the tape. It was her, message timed at 10.12 a.m.
‘Oh, er, hello, Charles,’ she said, rather hesitantly. ‘It’s Annabelle. I, er, I found your note, after you left. I don’t know what to say. I’m driving down to the West Midlands Airport this afternoon. There’s a meeting with the architect tomorrow, at the Post Chase. I’ll be staying there overnight and will probably come home after the meeting. I’ll talk to you then. ’Bye.’
So now she knew. We’d been cruising along quite nicely for all this time, in an eternal courtship. It’s usually regarded as the happiest time of your life – it was mine – so why spoil it? But the human condition is not to be content with what we have. We need to consolidate, to constantly renew, to mark our territory,
build a nest. Maybe Xav had done me a favour, galvanised me out of my state of happy lethargy. Perhaps that’s what Annabelle had in mind all along? I smiled at her unexpected guile. ‘I bet he’s a four-foot Saddam Hussein with bad breath,’ I said to my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I could make the West Midlands Airport in an hour and a half. That would make it about eight o’clock. I asked directory enquiries for the number of the Post Chase and dialled it.
‘I believe you have a Mrs Wilberforce staying with you,’ I said. ‘She checked in sometime today.’
‘Mrs Wilberforce? Yes, that’s right.’
I asked to be put through to her room, but she didn’t answer the phone. Probably using the pool, I thought, wishing I were already there, with her.
‘Would you like me to page her, sir?’ the desk clerk asked.
‘No, but I’d be grateful if you could take a message for her, leave it under her door, or whatever. Could you tell her that Mr Priest is coming down, and will be there about eight o’clock?’
I dressed nonchalantly smart, with a tie from the flamboyant end of my range, and hit the streets. The M1 was busy, as usual, but there were no hold-ups. I stuffed Dylan’s Before the Flood live concert tape into the cassette and sang the words of every song, tapping time on the steering wheel with my fingers. We were just starting the opening number, Most Likely
You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, for the second time as I tried to decipher the jumble of signs on the approach to the airport, peering between the sweeps of the windscreen wipers. A Mercedes glided across my bows and turned in the direction I needed. Nice car, I thought, pressing the eject control and swinging after it.
It had all changed since my last visit, when I picked up Sparky and family after a fortnight at one of the Costas. Somebody was investing a lot of money around here. I eased over the speed bumps, past the raised barrier, into the Post Chase car park. The Merc stopped under the canopy at the entrance; I kept going, round to where the hoi polloi left their motors. It was nearly full. These places cater for businessmen on expenses. They are chock-a-block through the week and empty at weekends. Annabelle had been lucky to get a room.
I found a space and dashed towards the entrance, slowing to a walk as I reached the shelter of the canopy. The passenger from the Merc was having a last word with his chauffeur, probably telling him to beeswax his polo pony or rake the gravel in the wine cellar, as a flunky hovered nearby with a huge umbrella, shivering patiently in his bum-freezer jacket. I strolled to the desk and waited for some service.
An attractive girl in a burgundy cap smiled at me and asked if she could help.
‘You have a Mrs Wilberforce staying here,’ I said.
‘Could you please ring her room and tell her that Mr Priest is at the desk?’
She consulted her VDU screen and dialled a number. I turned to scrutinise the place. Market research, Annabelle had called it. They hadn’t skimped on the size – it was immense. Three piece suites were dotted about like atolls in the Pacific, with copses of shrubs, real or otherwise, contributing to the feeling of space. First impressions were good, and most visitors wouldn’t have a chance to form any others. I nodded approvingly. It was an ideal place for pursuing two of my passions: sipping tea from a china service and people-watching.
‘Mrs Wilberforce doesn’t appear to be in her room sir. Would you like me to page her?’
A silver-haired man in a silver suit came through the revolving door, adjusting his cuffs and taking a cursory glance around the foyer. Judging by the lack of raindrops on his jacket he was from the Mercedes. He was about sixty and obviously knew where he was going, in more ways than one. He struck off across the hinterland of the foyer and I noticed a discreet sign pointing towards the restaurant.
‘Shall I page her for you, sir?’ the girl was repeating. ‘Pardon,’ I replied.
A woman stood up. They faced each other for a moment, his arms held open. She moved into their embrace and he kissed her on both cheeks. She returned the kiss, but on his lips. They exchanged a word or
two and he gestured towards the restaurant. The last I saw of them they were walking towards it, his hand on the small of her back, she turning to speak to him, animated and lively.
‘Shall I page Mrs Wilberforce for you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter. Thank you.’
I sat in the car for a long time. I don’t remember how I got there, but I could feel the wetness striking through my clothes. Feel it as an observation, oblivious of the discomfort.
‘It’s Charlie,’ I said, when the duty sergeant answered the phone, when I felt coherent enough to speak. ‘Could you do me a PNC check, please?’ I gave him the number.
‘Are you all right, Boss?’ he replied. ‘You don’t sound your usual chirpy self.’
‘Tired, Arthur, just tired.’
‘Don’t go away.’
He was back on the line in a minute or so. ‘You don’t mess about with nonentities, do you, Chas?’ he said. ‘It’s come back as a smoke silver Mercedes 420, keeper details: Audish Trading, at a London address. Do you need chassis and engine numbers?’
‘No, that’s fine thanks.’
‘No. I’ll try not to bother you again. Goodnight.’
‘No bother. G’night, Boss.’
So that was Xavier Audish. I didn’t need telling who the woman was. We were old friends, or I thought we were.
Apart from the Gary Glitter CD, on which they had deliberately left the price tag showing that Woolworth’s had sold it at a loss, Sophie and Daniel, Sparky’s kids, had also given me Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons. It was totally inappropriate, so I put it on. I’d arrived home safely, after cruising up the motorway in the slow lane and having a long stop for supper at the Woodall services. I sat in front of the fire, my coat and shoes still on, nodding my head in time to the music and occasionally conducting with a raised finger. Love him or hate him, he plays like an angel. Each time it ended I pressed the replay button and heard it again, until the heat from the fire was burning my legs and stinging my eyes.
I crawled into bed with Vivaldi’s frantic rhythms pulsating through my head, leaving no room for other thoughts. At two o’clock a cat started yowling in next door’s garden; at three I heard a train pulling a heavy load up the gradient towards Manchester – the wind must have been from the West; and at four thirty my central heating switched itself on with a clunk that reverberated through the house. I had a shower and found some clean clothes.
Unpredictability is a quality I’ve tried to cultivate over the years. If I realise I’ve fallen into a habit, I
change my behaviour. It wasn’t habit that took me to work that morning, it was a determination not to do what anybody might have expected of me. I could have driven to Cape Wrath and studied the sequence of the waves. I could have put my boots on and hiked over Black Hill and Bleaklow until hunger drove me off the tops. More sensibly, I thought about ringing Sparky’s wife and offering to take Sophie and Daniel off her hands for the day. Two films at the multi-screen, followed by a beefburger and chips, with all the fixings, would have been a handy diversion. But I went to work.
I cruised through the morning briefings, deployed the troops, feigned interest when answering the phone. I read reports and information sheets, made notes and generally created an impression of busy-ness. At ten to twelve I received a message from Scarborough saying that Rodney Allen had been granted bail on condition that he stayed at North Bay House. He was off my list of suspects. He couldn’t possibly have shot Dr Jordan. It was just the excuse I needed to dash over there to see him.
The home wasn’t in the same league as the White Rose Clinic. It dated from early in the century and every attempt at modernisation had gone to the lowest tender. The walls were dirty above the easy reach of an underpaid cleaner and ribbons of electric cables for phones, power and monitoring were stapled on top of oak panelling that would have had the green lobby crying into their tofu. I saw Rodney but hardly spoke to him.
He didn’t remember our phone call, the siege or hitting a policeman. There are stories about Yorkshiremen knowing when to be slow, but his condition had been encouraged by the application of certain class B substances. They’d doped him to make him docile. The doctor hadn’t found time to make a statement, so I persuaded her to write me a brief assurance that Rodney had been at the home on the night of the crime, and I left. I had fish and chips in Scarborough and sat in the car for nearly an hour listening to the news and watching waves crash over the Marine Drive. A scientist in California was claiming to have identified a gene for homosexuality and an MP had been found dead in his Westminster flat with a plastic bag over his head and his trousers around his knees. Foul play was not suspected. As my mother used to say, there’s always someone worse off than yourself.
Sometimes, before an interview, I run through all the likely answers. I choose my questions carefully and consider as many responses as I’m capable of imagining. More often, these days, I just make it up as I go along. I ask a few sighting questions, to test the range and the direction of the wind, then let go with the big guns. This time I didn’t know what to do, because I knew the outcome was already settled.
Annabelle’s little car was on her drive as I reversed in behind it. I’d been home and shaved. I was going to change my clothes but decided not to. What you see
is what you get. I switched off the engine, pulled the brake on and left the gear in neutral. It was ready for a smooth, unhurried getaway.
I pushed the doorbell, but didn’t go in.
‘Hello, Charles,’ she said, softly, when she saw me standing there. ‘I thought I heard a car. I wasn’t expecting you.’
‘I won’t keep you long,’ I said, following her in. She sat at one end of the settee, but I stayed on my feet. ‘About the note I left,’ I said.
She was wearing grey trousers in a silky material, with an emerald green blouse outside them. Her face looked pale against the bright green. ‘I … I was going to ring you,’ she began. ‘I don’t know what to say …’
‘I’ll make it easy for you,’ I told her. ‘The note is withdrawn. I rang your hotel last night and left a message. Did you receive it?’
‘A message? No. I received no message. What did you say?’
‘I said I was coming down to the Post Chase, to take you to dinner.’ She swallowed and looked shaken. ‘I was asking for you at the desk when Audish walked in. I saw you with him, Annabelle. I saw you kiss each other. I saw the way you tilted your head as you spoke to him, and watched the swing of your skirt as you walked away from me.’