Authors: Caroline Graham
“I made them myself.”
“Did you really?” Martin took one. The pastry was like flakes of snow and melted on the tongue; the cheese lingered longer. “They're absolutely gorgeous.” He felt himself relax a little and was surprised because this glamorous girl, cool as ice water, was the last sort of person he usually felt comfortable with. Then he noticed her hands, very brown with short, not quite clean nails. They didn't seem to go with the rest of her at all. She was asking if he was sure he didn't want something stronger in his tomato juice.
“Quite sure,” replied Martin. “I don't want to go to sleep, you see.”
“Oh.” Laurie presented the tray again. “It's a bit early, isn't it? To worry about dozing off.”
“I mean”âMartin took a twistâ“I don't want to go to sleep at all.”
“Golly. What are you going to do all night, then? Wander round the bedrooms?”
Martin's hand opened and his glass shattered on the stone flags. Tomato juice ran everywhere. “Whatâ¦what do you mean?”
“Oh, I'm so sorryâ¦Nothingâ¦I was just trying to make a joke. I'm absolutely hopeless at this sort of thing. You knowâ¦ social chitchat.”
Laurie bent to pick up the pieces, and by the time Martin's glass had been tidied away and a new one refilled, some of the roses had returned to his cheeks and Laurie had become enmeshed in a frozen silence. Rigid with embarrassment she added a dash of Worcestershire sauce to his juice and held out the glass.
And then the most extraordinary thing happened. As Martin took the drink, his fingers closed around her own and Laurie felt a warm tingling sensation, as if hundreds of tiny needles were playing over her skin. The warmth continued to spread, flowing along her forearm, then upward until the whole arm felt hot, soft and malleable. Martin apologized, disentangled himself and smiled. On receipt of the smile Laurie's stomach looped the loop and flopped vigorously down again. Dazed, she was still trying to assimilate this extraordinary behavior on the part of an organ that had always been yawningly predictable, when a voice cooed sweetly in her ear: “If you're not
busy perhaps I might have a refill?”
While Laurie made Rosemary a second sidecar and, Gaunt having cracked the terrace/kitchen/terrace circuit, Mother's Campari and orange, Simon continued to mingle. He had been civil to the Savilles, gracious to the Gregorys and now braced himself for a grapple with Violet, Fred and his scrofulous old boot of a mother. Keenly aware, especially after his gaffe with the nut brown, that his knowledge of working-class life could be balanced easily on the left leg of a house mite, Simon racked his brain for a conversational opening gambit. One thing he did know from the occasional careless exposure to sordid documentaries on the fourth channel was that the majority of Fred's sort seemed to spend the larger part of their lives slumped in front of television sets, cans of lager stapled to their lower lips, a bag of chips in one hand and an elegant sufficiency of pork scratchings in the other. He bared his teeth at Mother, who squinted malevolently back.
“I expect,” said Simon, “while you're here you'll miss theâ¦umâ¦goggle box?”
“She never watches,” said Violet.
“Too much King Kongery,” added Mother.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nature programs,” obliged Fred. “She can't abide the nature programs.”
“Perhaps you have another hobby then, Mrs. Gibbs?”
Mother nodded decisively. “Gambling.”
“Gambling?” Probably bingo, reflected Simon. Or a whist drive at the senior center. “What sort of gambling?”
“Really?” Grudgingly he admitted to being surprised. “I enjoy poker myself. We must have a game later.”
“I shouldn't, Simon,” cut in Fred. “She'll murder you.”
Gaunt arrived with the Campari. Mother knocked it back, replaced the glass on the tray, winked and said, “Encore, Antonio.” The butler, an expression very much like respect flitting across his features, bore the tray away.
“And you yourself, Fredâ¦?” Simon plowed on, determined that even if his whiskey wasn't up to snuff no one was going to fault him on
. “Do you have a favoriteâ”
“Me? You must be joking. What time do I have for television?”
“He's glued to his computer and telex,” explained Violet. “Because of the markets, you see.”
“Ah. Then perhaps youâ¦?”
“Not really, dear. It's all I can do to keep an eye on the business. We employ over two hundred and they work all hours.” Violet smiled sympathetically at her host. Poor boy. Doing his best to be sociable but really quite out of his depth. That was the trouble with young people. Spent their lives glued to the telly. No wonder they had no conversation. “Any scrap of spare time I do haveâand it is a scrap, believe me, SimonâI like to do a bit of embroidery. Ecclesiastical mainly. I'm halfway through a lovely chasuble.”
“Chasuble,” said Simon, treading water. “Yes.”
“And when I can I go to Mother's seances.”
Oh, God, thought Simon. I wish I were in Timbuctu. You knew where you were in Timbuctu. All the people down on the ground, all the monkeys up in the trees. “Seances?” he murmured. “How interesting.”
“She's the seventh son of a seventh son,” Violet explained further. “Or would've been if she was a boy.”
“Her grandfather on her mam's side,” chimed in Fred, “was Trafalgar âScamp' Gwatkin. And
mother was the great Gypsy Ouspenskaia. One hundred percent pure Romany. Born in the Carpathians. Came over here horse trading. Never looked back.”
Mrs. Saville, who had been listening to all this while apparently gazing at the horizon, was delighted to have her worst hopes confirmed and gave her daughter a costive but satisfied smile.
“Very exotic,” said Simon faintly.
“People'd cover the length and breadth to have her grand-dad tell their stars. Very well thought of he was.”
“A better man,” said Mother, “never wore out a balalaika. Course he was a posh rat.”
“Married out. Weakened the gift in his babbies.”
“Don't you believe her,” said Fred. “She's a wowser with the grounds.”
“I can see we won't be short of after-dinner entertainment. Now if you'll excuseâ”
“'Ang on.” Mother grabbed at the cream barathea and Simon jerked to a halt. She beckoned and, reluctantly, he lowered his head. She whispered and her breath blew a compelling mixture of Campari, bull's-eyes and masticated nuts into his ear.
“You got a presence, Simon. In the house. Savvy?”
“A present? What sort of present?”
“A spirit presence. Very powerful. Black currants mainly.”
“Thought you said raspberry jam,” said Violet.
“It varies. Fruit thoughâno doubt about that. You got an ancestor was in greengrocery, Simon?”
“Certainly not. And now I really mustâ¦” Simon pulled himself away, and almost collided with the butler winging his way back with the second Campari. “There's something on your sleeve, Gaunt. Noâunderneath.” Gaunt lifted his arm and Simon made a wild grab at the glass and dish of nuts. “Looks like flour.”
“Most mysterious, sir.” Gaunt produced a handkerchief and flicked disdainfully at the broad white streak before sashaying off. Simon returned to Laurie.
“I wonder what's happened toâ” He broke off, staring. “What on earth's the matter?”
“I feel funny.”
“Funny peculiar? Or funny ha-ha?”
“You haven't been on the gin, have you?”
“Of course not.”
“Because I could swear when I set out this lot there were two bottles.”
“Simon, if I had consumed an entire bottle of gin I would not be standing here chatting to you. I'd be flat on my back under the trolley.”
Laurie moved irritatedly away and leaned on the parapet. She gazed down at the water freckled by a million pinpricks of dazzling light, then across the park. The brightness continued. Shrubs appeared, hard and brilliant, their outlines so cleanly drawn they could have been cut from paper. Leaves sparkled like green glass. Flower beds were gorged with unnaturally intense color and the sky hummed with light. None of this seemed alarming. Indeed, it appeared to Laurie entirely natural. As if this was the way things truly were and that she had previously been viewing the world through a gray curtain. It occurred to her that she might be slightly drunk. Simon mixed a mean martini and she had had no time for lunch. That must be it. A mixture of alcohol and inanition. Then she recalled Mrs. Tiplady, who was inclined to be otherworldly and have what she called beyond-the-veil experiences, and what Aunt Maude called one of Ivy's turns. Perhaps, thought Laurie, I am having a turn.
Disturbed by a susurration of “ahh's” she realized the swans had drifted into view. They bobbed indifferently beneath admiring eyes, paddling vivid orange feet. Laurie hoped their appearance would go some way toward consoling Violet for the stubborn behavior of the peacocks and was pleased when Mrs. Gibbs exclaimed with pleasure, asking if that wasn't an absolute picture and it must be nice to know you'd got a mate for life.
Derek, who, magnifying glass in hand, had already disappeared and reappeared several times, now turned up again, his pilgrim's gaze directed at his host. “What a superb setting for a murder, Hannaford. When are we going to get moving?”
“Hear, hear,” cried Mother. “Let the dog see the rabbit.”
“Everything will be explained at dinner,” said Simon. “It will all start to happen then.”
Derek approached the parapet, whickering in excited recognition. “This is so like the moat where the body of the Comte de Heliot was found.” He leaned over, dislodging a small pot of myrtle which fell into the water. One of the swans hissed at him. “He had been killed with a single thrust from an exquisitely wrought Malayan kris.”
“Good gracious.” Mrs. Saville approached the parapet in her turn and peered with some trepidation over the edge.
“A strange sign was branded on his forehead and his pockets were weighted with stones.”
“Very sensible,” said Simon. “Otherwise he'd be springing up again in no time.”
“The face was hideous to behold. One of his eyesâ”
“Derek.” Sheila laid a restraining hand on her husband's arm. “The nuts are coming round again.”
“As I was about to remark”âSimon turned once more to his sisterâ“before you went into a trance, we seem to be missing Mr. Gillette. Could you go and look for him?”
“Can't Bennet go?”
“She's in the kitchen. Dinner's in a sec. Gaunt's collecting the glasses. I'm keeping an eye on the trolley.” He held up the martini jug. “Want another stinger?”
“No, thanks,” said Laurie. “I don't think they agree with me.”
Afterward, looking back, Laurie was to see those minutes (parting from Simon, making her way across the hall, ascending the great staircase) as the last truly untroubled time until the whole awful affair was over. Before then, although worried about the wellbeing of the visitors, the sobriety of the servants and the safety of her aunt's possessions, Laurie had not believed, not really in her heart of hearts, that anything truly dreadful would happen before Sunday teatime. When she returned from her errand to summon Mr. Gillette she had changed her mind.
It seemed only fitting that, during her brief absence, the landscape had become once more transformed. Dusk had arrived not with its usual gentle grace but with what she now saw as an appropriately sinister lunge. The heavens, though still luminous, had darkened, and the vivid emerald strips of grass were a heavy electric blue. The flowers in the terrace urns, so recently fleshy and exuberant, seemed now papery and bloodless. Trees massed in somber clumps. As the gong sounded, an echo rumbled over the immense arc of the sky and a splash of rain struck Laurie's arm. People gathered their wraps about them and hurried into the house. Simon pushed the drinks trolley under cover and prepared to follow. Laurie caught his arm.
“Not now, love. We're going in to dinner.”
“It'll have to wait. Rosemary?”
Simon offered his arm. Rosemary smiled prettily. She was having some trouble with her scarf and Simon helped her adjust the foldsâtaking, it seemed to Laurie, far longer over the matter than seemed strictly necessary. As the couple walked past her into the house, the rain, fine and gray like smoke, started to fall faster.
rthur Gillette had dropped off. It was a long way from Fishwick and he was worn out. He had had a very pleasant bath, put on his maroon Marshall & Snelgrove satin dressing gown with the quilted lapels, lain down on his chaise longue and gone to sleep.
He dreamed he was in an air raid shelter and making a cake. Bombs thudded and went “crump” in a muffled manner while he grated turnips and weighed out rough brown flour, reconstituted dried egg, and crushed saccharine tablets between metal teaspoons. A haybox the size of a tea chest stood by. All Mr. Gillette's dreams, whether waking or sleeping, took place during or just after the thirties.
To his never-ending sorrow he had missed the actual decade, being born to middle-aged parents in 1944, but he recreated it as well as he was able, surrounding himself so thoroughly with items of furniture and artifacts from that time that not a single object in his tiny flat (apart from the electric plugs), came from any other period. Naturally he had no television and went to his friend Phillip's house to watch the occasional series with a thirties setting.
Clothes were something else. All his underwear was spot on. At the moment he wore a Ponting's Celanese vest and some boxer shorts made from parachute silk with real linen buttons. But outer garments, culled mainly from rummage sales and thrift shops could be worn only when the evenings were drawing in. Or during the rare but sadly short occasions when baggy trousers and collarless granddad shirts were the order of the day. If he had been very young it would have been easy. The young could wear anything. However, a middle-aged man with a slightly unusual walk was wise not to draw extra attention to himself. People could be very cruel. For this reason he had a small selection of dull outfits in current styles bought from a mail-order catalog for work at the Electricity Board, where they did not encourage cross-dressing. These felt so alien to his skin they might have been doublets and slashed pantaloons or suits of chain mail.