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Authors: Christine Poulson

Murder Is Academic

BOOK: Murder Is Academic
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Title Page

Copyright Notice



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One




My thanks to Elspeth Barker, Peter Blundell Jones, Frank Falco, Sue Hepworth, Carola Hicks, Avis Poulson, Amanda Rainger, Jonathan Waller and Kit Wright for comments and encouragement. I am also grateful to East Midlands Arts who sponsored a report from an anonymous critic to whom I am much indebted.

St Etheldreda's College – if it existed – would be located near Cambridge University's School of Veterinary Medicine on Madingley Road. Its organization is idiosyncratic: unlike other Cambridge colleges, it is split into departments. However, idiosyncrasy and even downright eccentricity aren't uncommon in Cambridge, so this seems a permissible liberty.


Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn

Indicative that suns go down;

The notice to the startled grass

That darkness is about to pass.

Emily Dickinson

It's hard now to remember what first struck me as not being quite right, but I think it was the garden sprinkler.

I certainly wasn't concerned when no one answered the doorbell. After all, it was a lovely day, so Margaret might have taken her work out into the garden. It's only with hindsight that everything seems to have been leading up to the moment that split the day like a seismic shock, opening up a gulf between past and present. If I'm to tell this story, if I'm to get it all clear in my own mind – and after all that's why I'm writing it: to make sense of the crazy events of the past year – then I must try to get it right.

So: the garden sprinkler. As I walked down the path, I heard the gentle swishing without being able quite to identify what the sound was. Then I turned the corner of the house and saw the water falling in slow, rhythmic veils. The ground underneath the sprinkler was sodden, the grass almost submerged. It must have been on for hours, all night probably. You'd have to know Margaret as well as I did to understand why that was odd. She ran a tight ship in college and it was the same at home. I'd often thought it was just as well that Malcolm was fanatically tidy, too. They would have driven each other mad otherwise.

A little gust of wind threw a handful of droplets onto my bare arm, and raised goose-bumps. I shivered and looked around the garden. At the far side of the garden by the pool was an overturned chair with papers scattered around it. A few more papers were lying on the lawn. I made my way towards the nearest one. When I read the bold print on the top sheet, I positively yelped in surprise and protest.

University of Cambridge Tripos Paper,
it said, and, underneath. ‘The Nineteenth Century Novel'. Attached to it by a tag were about a dozen pages of big, loopy writing.

It was one of the exam papers I had come to collect.

I snatched it up and ran towards the pool. And then I saw what hadn't been visible from the other side of the garden. At the near end a layer of papers floated like water-lilies on the surface. There must have been thirty or forty of them. Thick as the autumnal leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa, I thought. Incongruous quotations tend to dart into my mind at moments of crisis, but perhaps Milton's description of the rebel angels destined for Hell wasn't as incongruous as all that. If those papers didn't represent souls exactly, they did represent student lives: three years of work, a degree, a future career. Paradise lost indeed. Not to mention the hell that was going to break loose when the examining board found out about this. I just couldn't believe Margaret had been careless enough to let this happen. Careless? That didn't come near it. This was a crime, right up there with seducing the students or cooking the college books. Worse perhaps. You could probably get sacked out of hand for it.

All this flashed through my mind in the time it took me to run in through the conservatory door and bellow for Margaret. Then I rushed back to begin gathering up swathes of papers from the pavement before another gust of wind could sweep them into the water. I dumped them on the white cast-iron table by the pool and anchored them with a wine bottle that was standing on it. Then I lay on my stomach, the chill of the stone striking up though my thin summer dress, and plunged my hands into the water. I winced at the sudden cold. Most of the papers had drifted towards the middle of the pool out of reach. The few I did manage to scoop up were sodden, the pages stuck together and the writing blurred into illegibility. I could have wept.

I'd need some kind of implement to get the rest out. I scrambled to my feet and gazed around the garden, cursing Margaret's tidiness. There wasn't a rake or a hoe in sight. Then I saw the wooden clothes prop standing against the wall of the house. I grabbed it and rushed round to the other side of the pool, hoping I could push the papers to the side using the forked end. I misjudged the weight. The end of the prop landed with a splash among the papers and disappeared below the surface. I groaned and tried to pull the prop back. It seemed to catch on something. Without thinking, I gave a great tug.

As the prop came free, I staggered back. There was a strange heaving in the water. The papers rocked in the swell.

A hand, white and bloated, thrust itself up through the litter of papers.

Chapter One

‘Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?' Stephen asked.

‘Quite sure, thanks. After all, you hardly knew her.'

‘All the same … for moral support…?' He pulled out cautiously to overtake a flock of students on bicycles. ‘It's not too late for me to ring the office.'

‘No, truly. I'll be OK. Why don't you pull over here? Look, there's Merfyn. I'll walk the rest of the way with him. You know what it's like trying to park in the centre of Cambridge.'

He indicated and pulled in by the Bridge Street entrance to St John's College. I leant over to kiss him goodbye. The smoothness of his shaved skin and the familiar smell of soap were comforting. He didn't take his eyes off the road. Instead of turning to kiss me, he leaned his head against mine, pressing his cheek hard against my lips.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea?' he said, ‘I'm sure everyone would understand … under the circumstances … and you know what the doctor said…'

‘Stephen! We've been through all this!'

Behind us an impatient taxi driver was sounding his horn.

‘OK, OK,' Stephen said. ‘Give me a ring when you want me to collect you.'

I struggled out of the car. As I straightened up, a wave of dizziness swept over me. The ground swayed beneath my feet. As Stephen's glossy black Audi was carried away by the flow of traffic, I felt a surge of panic. Why hadn't I let him come with me? I felt an absurd impulse to run after him, bang on the side of the car, but already the car was disappearing round the corner. For a moment I seemed to see myself from the outside, a pale woman with red-rimmed eyes, dressed in a dark suit and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a black band, stranded on the kerb in the midst of a chattering stream of students, shoppers and tourists.

I felt a hand on my arm and looked round to see Merfyn standing next to me.

‘Are you all right, Cassandra?'

As he spoke I felt something knock against me from behind. Involuntarily I took a step towards him and Merfyn put his hands on my arms to steady me. I caught a whiff of an old-fashioned cologne smelling of lime.

' someone murmured.

‘Bloody language students,' Merfyn said.

I turned and glared at the gaggle of students who were giggling and shrugging as they made off down the street. The next instant my eyes were prickling with tears. I put a hand up to my mouth.

Merfyn looked at me with concern. ‘Here, take my arm. The service doesn't start for another twenty minutes. We can sit for a while on one of those benches in All Saints Garden.'

He steered me through the crowd.

‘It used to be town and gown,' he said. ‘Now it's town and gown and the whole bloody world. D'you know, the other day I counted seven different languages just from walking between the market and Jesus Lane? French, Italian, German, something Scandinavian, Spanish, Japanese – and do you count American as a foreign language? I think I do.'

We reached the sanctuary of the little park. It's just a triangle of land opposite the chapel of St John's College, mostly gravel with a few ornamental trees, a couple of silver birches, a cherry tree or two, and something exotic that Stephen had once told me was a maidenhair tree. Round the sides were stalls selling handmade jewellery and pottery and prints of old Cambridge. A couple were just leaving one of the benches set around the central flower-bed. I sank down in their place and Merfyn joined me. He leaned back, stretched out a pair of long legs and crossed them at the ankle. He was wearing a suit of ivory linen, rather crumpled and old-fashioned in cut. He would only have needed a cane and panama hat to look as though he'd stepped out of a short story by Somerset Maugham. You'd never guess that he'd been a working-class boy from the Welsh valleys: thirty years in Cambridge, twenty of them at the college where we both worked, had virtually worn away his accent. I always felt that he was one of the older generation although he was only fiftyish to my late-thirties. It was partly that he had three grown-up daughters, partly that he had been something of a mentor.

We sat and watched people walking past with their shopping or their guidebooks. Students on bicycles wobbled over the uneven cobbled road. A couple of giggling Japanese girls were taking photographs of each other against the Gothic window of the chapel.

‘All right now, Cassandra? Merfyn asked.

‘Better, yes. I think the sedatives are making me feel woozy.'

‘You're probably still in shock and no wonder…'

His voice trailed tactfully away. I realized that he probably had only a rough idea what had happened. I hadn't been able to bring myself to describe it in detail to anyone in college.

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket, shook out the sharply ironed folds and mopped his forehead.

‘God, it's hot. Feels all wrong for a funeral, this kind of weather.'

‘Everything about it feels wrong.'

‘You haven't heard any more…?'

I told him what Malcolm had told me the day before, that the police thought Margaret had probably hit her head diving in and the inquest wouldn't be for at least another five or six weeks. ‘The end of July at the earliest.'

Merfyn sighed and shook his head. ‘It's very hard on him. They'd been together since they were students, hadn't they?'

‘He's torturing himself for not being there when it happened.'

The police had eventually tracked Malcolm down to a hotel in Cardiff where he had been on business connected with his computer software company.

‘How are the paper conservators getting on?' Merfyn asked.

BOOK: Murder Is Academic
5.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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