Read Death of a Stranger Online
Authors: Eileen Dewhurst
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An only child, Eileen Dewhurst was self-sufficient and bookish from an early age, preferring solitude or one-to-one contacts to groups, and hating sport. Her first attempts at writing were not auspicious. At 14, a would-be family saga was aborted by an uncle discovering it and quoting from it choked with laughter. A second setback came a few years later at school, when a purple passage was returned with the words âCut this cackle!' written across it in red ink: a chastening lesson in how embellishments can weaken rather than strengthen one's message.
Eileen read English at Oxford, and afterwards spent some unmemorable years in âAdmin' before breaking free and dividing her life in two: winters in London doing temporary jobs to earn money and experience, summers at home as a freelance journalist, spinning âthink pieces' for the
Liverpool Daily Post
and any other publications that would take them, and reporting on food and fashion for the long defunct
Illustrated Liverpool News
, as well as writing a few plays.
Her first sustained piece of writing was a fantasy for children which was never published but secured an agent. Her Great Autobiographical Novel was never published either, although damned with faint praise and leading to an attempt at crime writing that worked: over the next thirty years she produced almost a book a year and also published some short stories in anthologies and
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Eileen has always written from an ironic stance, never allowing her favourite characters to take themselves too seriously: a banana skin is ever lurking.
For Alf and Iola Sealey
im! My darling boy!''
She was wearing the same scent and he was no longer a detective inspector in the Guernsey police force, he was a child lying in bed and looking up in wonderment at the beautiful face bent over him, the sparkling drops to each side of it brushing his hair as the lips reached his cheek.
But he was the one, now, who must bend for their faces to make contact, and as he straightened up he smiled his long-suffering love for her.
“You really are pleased to see me, aren't you, darling?'' His mother's tone to him was still the contented purr which turned what might be no more than a minute of her concentration into a sense of forever. “ But I've always tended to get more than I deserve.''
“Of course I am. And that scent â¦ It's the same, isn't it?''
“Of course it is. I may not be faithful to my men, but I'm faithful to my perfume. Now, stand back and let me look at you â¦'' For the few seconds that her wide eyes studied him, he was the whole of her life. “ Yes, you're well and you're happy.''
“That's it, Mother.''
Studying her in his turn, Tim saw to his loyal relief that she continued to be beautiful. Perhaps even more beautiful to his adult eye than she had been those intermittent times over the past decades when she had flown briefly in â always, it seemed to him, slightly breathless â to give him a few exciting, scent-filled hours of her company. The fine bones were if anything more pronounced and he found himself accepting, with another surge of relief, that she was moving towards a lean old age which would enable her to look like herself until her end. As always, she was dressed with quiet perfection, a scarlet wisp of scarf at the neck of her immaculate white blouse, her bare brown legs, visible from the knee down, as long and slender as when he had first been aware of them.
But the usual hint of shared fun had left her face, and she was looking at him now with uncharacteristic hesitancy. As he noted the change Tim also noted, with a stab of disappointment that was dismally familiar, that she was without a trolley, and that the tall, fair young man in charge of one who had come to a halt behind her was up to his chest in piled luggage.
“Darling â¦ This is Simon. Simon â Shaw. A friend from London. He's got business on the island and so we decided to travel together. I rang the Duke when I knew he was coming and managed to get him a room. Simon, this is my son Tim.''
“Hello.'' The young men spoke in unison as they looked at one another.
“Be nice to Simon, Tim,'' his mother said. She spoke lightly, but this hardly dispelled Tim's uneasy surprise that she should bother to ask such a favour of him, it was so unlike her usual airy presentation of her current male attachment. “ He's my good friend.''
“I see.'' There had been a slight emphasis on the last word, and Tim found himself yearning for it to be the truth. Despite his mother's long-term abdication of her roles as wife and mother he had retained his respect for her as well as his affection, and Simon Shaw was so very much junior to the youngish men she usually had in tow he hated the thought that he could be her lover. He didn't know whether or not to be reassured by the anxiety which was struggling through Shaw's formal smile: it could equally well indicate discomfort in so ludicrous a role as a wish for Tim to accept that he really was no more than a travelling companion.
“May I ask what your business here is?'' he heard himself saying, trying not to be distracted by his strange realisation that in other circumstances he would have liked the look of Simon Shaw. “ I'm not asking as a policeman.'' He managed a smile, and saw with a pang of pity his mother's gratitude.
“I appreciate that. But my business is confidential so I'm afraid I can't talk about it.''
Only too well
, Tim continued cynically in his head. The odds had to be very short that the job Simon Shaw couldn't talk about didn't exist, and he had come to Guernsey because Lorna Le Page had taken a lover so young she was unable to acknowledge him.
“I'm sorry,'' the boy was saying again. He had an attractive voice, low and soft. He had turned to Lorna as he spoke, and although Tim read affection in his face he couldn't see desire. But his mother's behaviour had always been in good taste even while it had been outrageous, and she would have schooled him.
“There's no need to be sorry for having confidential business.'' It was an effort to carry on the chat. “Look,'' he said, turning to his mother, “ let's get you to the hotel. The usual mountain of luggage, I see.''
“Of course, darling. But so easy in Guernsey! Instant recovery, no crowds, loads of trolleys. Sarnian civilisation starts the moment one lands and makes me wonder why I ever go away.''
“You go away because you discovered years ago that the island was too small to contain you. Now, the car's in the park. Wait there and I'll bring it to the door.'' Tim turned to the boy. “You haven't hired yourself a car?'' he heard himself ask, pointedly.
“I have. But Lorna suggested â¦'' Tim was surprised to see fear in Simon Shaw's eyes as he looked to Tim's mother for support.
“Lorna suggested it should be delivered to the hotel, seeing that you were coming to collect me at the airport, darling,'' she took up swiftly. “No point in our leaving here in two cars when we can fit into one.''
“Fine.'' There was nothing else to say. When he drove up Shaw was ready to load and went at it so briskly Tim merely tucked his mother into the front passenger seat, wondering if the man was being himself or trying to make a good impression. On the way to the hotel Shaw sat silent in the back while Lorna lauded the lush summer landscape.
“So you're well?'' Tim asked, when she paused for breath.
“I think so. I don't really bother. Darling, I'm so dying to meet your Anna.''
“And she you.'' Tim thought this was true. “ She wanted to make a meal for us tonight'' â
the three of us
â “but I persuaded her you would both enjoy your meeting better if it took place over a dinner table where someone else was doing the cooking. So I booked a table at the Duke.'' In view of the presence of Simon Shaw, Tim was sorry he had prevailed over Anna's expressed wish to prepare her first meal with her future mother-in-law herself, at home in Rouge Rue. Dining at the hotel they would feel obliged to invite the boy to join them, and a stranger ambiguously connected with his mother would not help the beginnings of the relationship between the two women in Tim's life who were important to him. But he should have been ready for that stranger, Tim thought on a flare of anger, he shouldn't have expected a woman still as nubile and magnetic as his mother to travel alone, even to her son's marriage.
“And a table for three can become a table for four with a mere extra place setting.'' Tim was amused at the same time as he was troubled, by the mixture of statement and entreaty in his mother's voice. “ Simon will be dining at the hotel, of course, and I'm sure Annaâ''
“He must join us.'' Tim hoped he hadn't sounded as reluctant as he felt. And his mother
said she had booked another room. Knowing he would be unlikely to find an excuse for checking up â¦
For the time being at least, he must snap out of it.
“I'll leave you now,'' he said as he drew up outside the Duke of Richmond Hotel. “And Anna and I will present ourselves in the Saumarez Cabin bar at seven.'' He looked at his watch. “Only an hour and a half away and I haven't finished yet at the office, so I must dash.''
“Thank you for inviting me to join you tonight.'' The boy had appeared beside him as he opened the boot. “I wasn't expecting to.''
“No, well â¦''
“I just â look after her, Tim.''
“Sure.'' He wanted to believe it. For the boy's sake as well, he realised with surprise. “So try to see she's in the Saumarez Cabin by seven.''
“Will do. Thanks.'' Simon Shaw took the two largest cases in either hand and set off up the steps to the hotel door. Lorna, as always, was making no attempt to get out of the car on her own, and by the time Tim had opened her door and helped her on to the pavement Shaw had returned for the rest of the cases and there was nothing left for Tim to carry. And nothing overtly disturbing for him in the way his mother tucked her arm through the boy's as they made their way up the steps, or the way she smiled at him as he held the door for her â¦