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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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“So sherry’s not an old person’s drink,” said Alan. “I bet you if you went into the King’s Head”—they were just approaching this hostelry—“and asked for sherry, the young woman behind the bar wouldn’t know what you were talking about.”

George, the eldest of the Batchelor siblings still living, was still in the town where he had been born and grown up, a not uncommon phenomenon in outer London suburbs. This was true also of
Alan and Rosemary and almost of George’s brother Stanley but not of George’s brother Norman. So it was a surprise to walk into George and Maureen’s living-room in the sprawling bungalow called Carisbrooke and find Norman sitting beside his brother on a sofa, George’s leg stretched out in front of him and supported on what Maureen called a pouffe.

“How are you, Norman?” said Rosemary. “Long time no see.” Alan particularly disliked that phrase, which she believed the people she called “Chinamen” used.

“I live in France now. I’m not often here.” Norman went off into a gushing eulogy of French culture, food, drink, the countryside, the health service, his house, and transport. A glazed look came over Maureen’s face, the expression of someone who has heard it all before. She got up and returned with a trolley laden with glasses and bottles of various sherries, oloroso, amontillado, and Manzanilla among others.

Having accepted a glass of amontillado, Alan handed George the
Daily Telegraph
. “Have you seen this?”

George barely glanced at it. “Sure. We take the same paper.” He nodded in a sage sort of way. “I built it.”

“What, Warlock?”

“Me and my brother did. Batchelor Brothers. Like we built a good many of the houses on the Hill.”

Alan knew he meant not that George and Stanley had built these houses with their own hands, but that their firm had, and on those fields across which they and all the other children had run when the sirens sounded and then the all clears.

“When was it, George?” Rosemary asked.

“Sometime in the early fifties. ’Fifty-two, ’fifty-three.”

“Okay. Now maybe you can tell me if you think our tunnels were underneath Warlock.”

“Oh, no,” said George. “They’d been there, though. That’s what they were, the foundations of a house.”

Rosemary echoed his last words. “The foundations of a house. I never thought of that.”

“They were all gone by the time I acquired the land. We dug new foundations for Warlock. A Mr. Roseleaf had it built. Funny name, I thought, that’s why I remembered.”

Norman, having found fault with the sherry as being Spanish and not French, had fallen asleep but now awoke with a snort and said, “So that’s what they were. The foundations of a house. That was a funny name too, Warlock.”

“It means a man who’s a sort of witch,” said Maureen. “Very funny, in my opinion.”

“Nothing to do with witches,” said George. “It was because he’d lived in a street called Warlock Road in Maida Vale.”

“Well, I never,” said Norman. “You were there, Alan, weren’t you? And Rosemary. And Lewis Newman—remember him? And do you remember Stanley’s dog, Nipper? He was a nice dog. My mum hardly ever got cross with us, not with anyone, but was she mad when she found Stanley’d been taking the dog out in the evening without asking.”

Rosemary smiled, remembering. “Nipper was lovely. We longed for a dog, didn’t we, Alan?”

“You didn’t find those hands when you were building that house, did you, George?”

“I think I’d have said, don’t you?”

George softened his scathing tone by struggling to his feet and refilling sherry glasses. Several guests noticed that he was pouring amontillado into Manzanilla glasses, but no one said anything. Rosemary got oloroso instead of amontillado, but she really preferred the sweet sherry, though she hadn’t asked for it as it was known to make you fat.

“That was where we met,” she said. “In those tunnels.”

“What, when you were ten?” George asked

Rosemary nodded, suddenly embarrassed. Met there, lost each
other when someone’s father turned them out, shouted at them to go home and not come back, met again years later, at a dance this time, dated (though that was a term never used then), and got married. It seemed to her that the others were staring at them as if she had described some tribal ritual, ancient and now unknown. Except for her and Alan, they had all been married at least once before, divorced, moved, even lived abroad such as Norman.

She said brightly, trying to cover a kind of shame, “Who was it that turned us out of the tunnels? Someone’s father? Michael Woodman? Woodley?”

“It was Michael Winwood’s dad,” said Norman. “They lived on the Hill next door to the Joneses, the Winwoods did. And Bill Johnson’s people lived further up the Hill. Winwood found out we were all going into the tunnels in the evenings. I suppose Michael told him. He just walked across the road, found the entrance, and shouted down to us to come out and not come back.”

While Norman was speaking, his brother Stanley had quietly come into the house by the back door. Norman jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder, got to his feet, and the brothers embraced. Rosemary said afterwards to her husband that she hadn’t known where to look, brothers hugging each other. Whatever next! Alan thought it was rather nice but said nothing. Throughout his marriage he had often taken refuge in saying nothing. They were always weird, those Batchelors, said Rosemary on the way home. For instance, the way Norman, the youngest, used to go about telling people he’d been born on the kitchen table.

George, more conventionally, shook hands with his brother and pointed to his hip with a doleful look. “We were talking about those Winwoods. Remember them?”

“They lived next door to Daphne Jones on the Hill. I remember her all right.”

That name again, Alan thought. He’d forgotten her, and now her name had come up three times in—what? The past couple of
hours? At least he hadn’t blushed. What did Stanley mean by that “all right”? Alan’s voice sounded squeaky and he wondered if anyone noticed. Rosemary might. “Is she still alive? She was older than any of us.”

“She wasn’t. She just looked sixteen when she was twelve. She wasn’t really older.” Stanley nodded knowledgeably. “I’ve sort of kept in touch with her.” He seemed proud of it. “She’s been married three times and now she’s called Daphne Furness. Lives in Hampstead or St. John’s Wood or somewhere. We don’t all cling to our roots.”

Aware of feeling envy, Alan wondered what had come over him. How must it feel now to have known and possibly often seen Daphne Jones over the years? He suppressed the thoughts. He was an old man, a great-grandfather, and George was hoisting himself to his feet once more and stood as if about to make a statement, swaying. “It’s just come to me. I’ve got a photo—a snap we used to call them—of us in the tunnels. Well, me and my brother and my sister Moira in the entrance. Robert’s not there, he took the snap. Where’s that photo got to, Maureen? Can you lay your hands on it?”

“Of course I can. How can you ask?”

Alan expected a little black-and-white or even sepia photograph. Instead Maureen brought an album that looked too heavy for a small woman to lift. It was brown with pages of thick brown card to which what seemed like hundreds of photographs had been pasted. Familiar with the contents, though she hadn’t been one of the children in the tunnels, she opened the album at a page with the date 1944 printed on it and laid it on the coffee table. George shifted along the sofa and gingerly set his foot to the ground, lifting his left leg with both hands. Stanley sat beside him, squeezing between him and Norman.

“Now let Alan and Rosemary have a shufti,” said Maureen. “You lot can see the pics whenever you want.”

Eventually the album was rearranged so that everyone could
see but no one could see well. George placed one finger on a dim-looking snap of five children crowded together in what was apparently the entrance to a small cave. Out of focus, it thus looked as if Robert Batchelor had taken it through a thick fog. “Me and Stanley and Norman and poor Moira,” said George. He called her “poor” because she, the youngest but one of them, like Robert, the eldest, was dead.

“Who’s that?” said Rosemary, pointing to a boy with a mop of curly hair.

“Don’t know.” George produced a magnifying glass, enlarging the boy’s face to a blur. “Could be Bill Johnson.”

The other photographs on the page were of little interest to Alan and Rosemary, being of interiors of the Batchelor house in Tycehurst Hill, of Stanley holding a cricket bat, and, mysteriously to anyone not familiar with Norman’s life history, a small shot of a table covered in a checked cloth.

“Look at that,” said Norman. “I took that. Fancy you keeping that, George. I was born on that table. My mum was walking about the house, waiting for the nurse to come, in labour, of course, though we were never told that part. It was never put into words, though that’s what it was. George and Moira carried it out into the garden for Robert to get that shot on account of it was too dark in the kitchen. Fancy you keeping that. Can you unstick it, George, and let me have it?”

“No, I can’t. It’d spoil the album.” George looked around him. “You want to see any more? I ask because my leg’s giving me hell.”

“Give it here,” said Maureen. “Let Alan and Rosemary have a closer look.”

She lifted the album and laid it across Alan’s knees. “Robert took some more of the tunnels on the next page,” said George.

Alan turned it over, and there she was, sitting on a pile of bricks with Stanley on one side of her and Michael Winwood on the other. She was wearing a summer frock, and her hair, a nearly black dark
brown, hung in ripples over her shoulders and halfway down her back. Alan started at the sight, something like a shiver, sudden enough to make Rosemary turn on him a look of concern. That hair—she sometimes wore it in pigtails, and the waves appeared when the plaits were undone.

“There she is,” said Stanley, craning his neck to see. “She doesn’t look like that now, but you can still see the young Daphne in her.”

Hurriedly, Alan turned the page to a set of some ten or eleven photos of Stanley’s dog.

“Nipper. There he is, my first dog. I reckon I’ve had ten since then, they all lived to a good age.” Stanley sighed. “Alfie died last year aged eighteen. I won’t have another, not now. It’d be sad for him if I went first, and I easily might at my age.”

A thin blight settled on the meeting after that. They were old and hadn’t long to last and they shirked facing it. Alan asked where Stanley was living now and was told Theydon Bois, a not-far-distant village in the forest. Alan wanted to ask for more about Daphne but hesitated and asked after Michael Winwood instead. North West London, he was told, and then he got up to go.

“Should we get in touch with the police?”

“Let sleeping dogs lie,” said Stanley. “Or bones, should I say?”

“Better let them know.” George shifted his bad leg and winced. “I’ll tell them, if you like. I mean, I built Warlock and I’ve got those pictures. I’m the one to do it. They’re not taking my album out of the house, though.”

“We could try to find some of the others too,” said Norman. “Maureen could do that. Genius with the technology, aren’t you, Maureen?”

“More like the phone book,” said his sister-in-law.


walked back up Traps Hill. In the days when they both belonged to the tennis club, they used to run up that hill. Now Rosemary was proud of walking up without getting more than slightly out of breath. They knew every inch of Loughton, which, when they were children, had been called “the village.” “I’m just going down the village,” you said when you went shopping.

After the meeting at a dance, the remembering knowing each other as children, the going about together and getting engaged, they had married and bought a house in Harwater Drive, and later, when the children came along and Alan was doing well, a bigger and better one in Church Lane. The pretty fields and the woods that had begun where the best road of all met the top of the Hill and Borders Lane had all been built on, acres and acres, miles and miles, and called the Debden Estate. The wealthy people of Alderton Hill shuddered at the coming of this spillover from the East End of London. Living in less prestigious but still admired and sought-after streets, the parents of Alan and Rosemary and their neighbours also shuddered. Some moved away. Out, of course, out into Essex as far as Epping and Theydon Bois, only to be deterred by the coming of Harlow New Town. “Not in my back yard,” or NIMBY, was an unknown word then, but Nimbys were what they were.

Alan and Rosemary got married at St. Mary’s Church in Loughton High Road, and Alan’s friend Richard Parr, who had also been in the tunnels, was his best man. A week later when Alan and Rosemary were away on their honeymoon in the Isle of Wight, Richard immigrated to Canada. He and Alan kept in touch for a while, exchanging airmails handwritten on flimsy blue paper. Making phone calls was far too expensive.

Now great-grandparents—their second great-grandchild had been born three years before—Rosemary and Alan had sold the house in Church Lane, a house they had lived in for nearly half a century. They had bought it for eight thousand pounds and sold it for three million. They moved into a flat, a luxurious first-floor flat in Traps Hill, for they were fit for their age and with a shiver rejected the idea of sheltered housing.

to tell you,” said Freya, their younger granddaughter. A social worker, she was in Loughton for a conference in the Lopping Hall. “I’m getting married.”

Alan said, “Congratulations. Or should I say ‘best wishes’ when it’s the bride?”

Rosemary said, “Is it David?”

In a sharper tone than usual, Freya said, “Well, considering we’ve been together for five years, of course it is, Gran.”

Having no champagne, Alan poured three glasses of sherry. It seemed to be turning into a sherry day. Freya looked at her glass suspiciously before she sipped the contents. It occurred to Alan that she might never have tasted sherry before.

“Mind you come to our wedding. It’ll be sometime in July,” Freya said as she was leaving.

“It used to bother me a lot,” said Rosemary, “her living in—well, in sin.”

“That’s a very outdated expression. Her parents lived together
before they married and so did her sister and Giles. Things have changed. Norman Batchelor lives with a woman he’s not married to.” Alan searched for a word. “It’s perfectly respectable these days.”

“Not to me,” said Rosemary. “I don’t want the rest of this sherry. We’re drinking too much.”

Alan said nothing. He had thought of taking Rosemary out for supper, maybe to the King’s Head, but her moralistic attitude, very much in evidence recently, changed his mind. “Do you think we’ve led a dull life?” he asked. “I mean, marrying early, two children, staying married, me working nine till five, you a housewife, gradually moving up the property ladder but never moving out of Loughton. We’ve been abroad, but only to France and Spain. We’ve never even been to America.”

“What are you getting at, Alan?”

She rarely called him by his given name. It was always “darling” or “dear.” “I just asked if you thought we’d led a dull life.”

“Well, I don’t think so. I’d have said we’ve had a happy life, not very adventurous, but those sort of lives are full of trouble. We haven’t committed adultery or gone in for domestic violence or anything like that. We’ve brought up our children decently. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” he said, but he thought, Everything.

He took a pack of smoked salmon out of the fridge and made scrambled eggs to go with it while Rosemary pinned and then tacked up the sleeves of the dress she had been making for Freya that morning.

manage an invoice or a receipt, but when it came to a letter, he got Maureen to do it for him. She took the photograph of George and Stanley and Norman and Moira and the possible Bill Johnson to the instant-print place in the High Road and had it photocopied. She addressed her letter with enclo
sure to “The Chief Investigating Officer, the Metropolitan Police,” and took it to the police station in Forest Road herself. Once she was there, she might as well pay the monthly or sometimes weekly visit to Clara Moss, who lived higher up the road. It was a call of duty, not pleasure, and George usually did it. He didn’t mind it, enjoyed it, Maureen thought. But he wouldn’t be able to do it until his leg was better, so she had taken over. He said it was the least he could do for poor Clara, but Maureen knew it made him feel quite young or at least middle-aged. Though he was old, Clara was even older, must be getting on for ninety.

Maureen pounded on the knocker because Clara was deaf. She came to the door without her stick because she could hold on to the furniture. She said, “Hallo, Mrs. Batchelor,” and Maureen said, “How are you, Clara,” and stepped over the threshold into the small, dark living-room.

staying with his brother and sister-in-law at Carisbrooke, York Hill, and running his bulbs-and-seedlings mail-order company on his smartphone while in constant communication with Eliane, whom he spoke of as his “lady partner.” George continued to sit on the sofa with his bad leg up, except when the physiotherapist came and put him through his paces. In the privacy of their bedroom he told Maureen that he was sure Norman stayed and stayed in order to have someone to complain to about the state of this country.

“He hasn’t got a woman here, has he?” Maureen asked.

“I wouldn’t be surprised. He always liked two strings to his bow. Better ask Stan. Stan always knows things like that.”

“I forgot to tell you. Stan’s got a new dog. And after him saying he wouldn’t have another in case he passed away and it pined. It’s a puppy, this one, coal black. Not a bit of white on it but it’s called
Spot. All the rest have been Nipper. I reckon Spot was the only other doggy name Stan could think of.”

on the job of finding out the provenance of the Warlock hands, as they were starting to be called, Detective Inspector Colin Quell lost interest when forensics discovered their age. If they had been two or three years in the ground, some challenging investigation would have had to be done, but they turned out to be sixty or seventy years old. This man and this woman had, fairly obviously, been killed. No one, not even a crazy person—a crazy undertaker?—removes the hands from the bodies of those who have died naturally. No one buries those hands away from their mutilated bodies. Still, he had been assigned the case and he had to do it, no matter that the perpetrator—the killer and dissector—must have been long dead himself.

Quell had received a number of phone calls from people he defined as nuts, psychopaths, and lunatics, describing the find under Warlock as the result of witchcraft, a butcher practising his craft, and the remains of two visitants from outer space. He had received only one letter because few people wrote letters anymore. It was nearly as crazy as the phone call about the witchcraft, but not quite.

“A bunch of kids playing games in the foundations of a house,” he said aloud to himself in his office. “What sort of games? And bombs falling all around? Do I believe this stuff?” Nevertheless, he studied this rather fuzzy photocopy of the children poking their heads out of a muddy hole and decided he had better talk to some of these people, all of them as old as the hills now, of course.

He would shortly have to pay a second visit to Loughton, take a look at the workmen and the supervising archaeologist, who were digging away in search of more remains under Warlock. A waste of time, he thought. Who cared after all these years? Pity this Maureen
Batchelor didn’t give an email address, though she did offer a phone number. A landline, he noted, not a mobile. But what could you expect of someone of her age?

He spoke to George Batchelor. Quell was always willing to admit he had been wrong, and he had certainly been wrong about this onetime builder and his wife. They sounded a lot younger than they must be. They gave him names of some of the other people who had been children in the “tunnels.” Having an idea that you should never, if you could help it, speak of death or even “passing away” in the presence of anyone over sixty, Quell didn’t ask how many of them were still alive. He didn’t have to. George Batchelor equally serenely told him of his dead brother, Robert (the photographer), his dead sister, Moira, and of the still-living Alan Norris, Rosemary Norris, Michael Winwood, Daphne Furness, his brothers Norman and Stanley, and Bill Johnson.

“I think I should see all of them.”

George was beginning to enjoy this. “If you’re coming to see me, shall I ask all the others round at the same time?”

“If it’s not putting you out,” said Quell.

“The ones that are still in the land of the living,” said George.

He had been bored out of his mind lazing about with his leg up. Now it looked as if he might have a real part to play in this investigation, all these old friends round, the police taking a real interest. He would show them his photographs. It would be a tonic for him. Maybe he could find Michael Winwood or Stanley would. Stanley always kept up with people over the years.

had gathered round his car. Spot was sitting in the driving seat with his forepaws on the steering wheel. Sighs of “Aah” and “Sweet” came from the shoppers who had stopped to stare. Unwisely, Stanley had parked outside the police station on a yellow line, thinking he would only be a minute, but as he approached the
car, a uniformed PC preceded him, observed Spot without a hint of a smile, and told Stanley to “get that dog down from there” and move off. He was lucky, he added, that the PC would take no further steps. Stanley put Spot in the back, laid the flowers he had bought for Maureen on the passenger seat, and drove off up to York Hill and Carisbrooke.

Stanley always brought women flowers. Like his brother Norman, he was known as a ladies’ man, though, according to his friends and neighbours, there was nothing
He bought more flowers for his wife than for any other woman. Stanley always talked to his dogs and he talked to this one, telling him as they got out of the car that he had better behave as a policeman was coming, and a more powerful one than the PC. Spot wagged his tail. Maureen might have had something to say about Spot’s presence but was mollified by the huge bunch of daffodils and narcissi with which Stanley presented her.

“Daphne here yet?”

“No one’s here but you and of course Norman,” said Maureen. “George can put his foot to the ground now, so mind you tell him how well he’s doing.”

“Will do. This is Spot.”

“So I gathered. He won’t pee on the floor, will he?”

“Certainly not. He’s already house-trained.”

They were still in the hallway when the doorbell rang. It was the Norrises and Detective Inspector Colin Quell, who had met on the front path. Alan and Rosemary had walked to York Hill. All the way Alan hadn’t said much because he was anticipating meeting Daphne again after so long and resolving at the same time not to think about it. It would be a long way for her to come at her age. She was two or three years older than he. And how would she come? By tube perhaps. The District Line and then the Central Line. Perhaps Stanley would drive down to Loughton station to meet her. He wouldn’t ask. They went into the living-room, the French windows open to
the garden, it was such a fine sunny day. Maureen brought in a large blue bowl full of spring flowers and set them on the table. Spot ran out into the garden, chasing a squirrel.

Because it was nearly lunchtime, George offered Pinot Grigio, which Quell refused. He was driving, he said. Most people think all police officers are traffic cops, and one by one (except for Norman) the others also declined, feeling perhaps that Quell would see the drinking of alcohol as somehow offensive and in some way punishable. Food, however, was acceptable, and even Quell took a smoked-salmon sandwich.

“Well, shall we make a start?” he said. “Don’t need to wait for the others, do we?”

George began talking about the tunnels, how he thought he and his brothers “poor” Robert and Stanley had been the first to discover them. Not then but later, when he was in his late teens and went into the building trade, he realised the tunnels had been the foundations of a house, the building of which was stopped by the war.

“So these were the foundations of Warlock?” Quell asked.

“No, no. Michael Winwood’s father told us not to play there anymore. He stood at the opening to the tunnels and shouted at us to come out. Kids were obedient in those days. We did as we were told. We all came out and went home. After that we never went there again, and at some point the foundations were filled in. I don’t know who took it upon himself to do that and you’ll never find out now. It was all farmland up there, and as soon as I could, our firm—that is my brother Stanley and me—we bought as much as we could, and one of the houses we built was Warlock. I reckon that was just sort of next door to where our tunnels had been. That would have been 1952 or ’53.”

“When you say you were playing there, what did you play? I mean, there can’t have been much to do in underground passages. Why did you?”

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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