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Authors: Andrew Taylor

Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller

The Office of the Dead

BOOK: The Office of the Dead
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The Office of the Dead
Number III of
Roth
Taylor, Andrew
Hyperion (1999)
Rating:
****
Tags:
Mystery, Thriller

It's 1958, and the party's over for Wendy Appleyard: she finds herself penniless, jobless and on the brink of divorce. Who better to come to her rescue than her oldest friend, Janet Byfield? So Wendy goes to stay with Janet, who seems to have everything Wendy lacks: a handsome husband, a lovely little daughter, Rosie, and a beautiful home in the Cathedral Close of Rosington. David Byfield is on the verge of promotion, and Janet is the perfect wife for an ambitious young clergyman. But perfection has always been dangerous, and gradually the idyll sours. Old sins come to haunt the present and breed new sins in their place. The shadow of death seeps through the Close, and with it comes the double mystery stretching back to turn-of-the-century Rosington, to a doomed poet-priest called Francis Youlgreave. Only Wendy, the outsider looking in, glimpses the truth. But can she grasp its dark and twisted logic in time to prevent the coming tragedy. The Office of the Dead is a chilling novel of crime and retribution, and is the third volume of Andrew Taylor's stunning and acclaimed Roth Trilogy.

ANDREW TAYLOR
THE OFFICE OF THE DEAD
 

Dedication
 

For Vivien, with love and thanks

1
 

‘I’m nobody,’ Rosie said.

It was the first thing she said to me. I’d just pushed open the door in the wall and there she was. She wore red sandals and a cotton dress, cream-coloured with tiny blue flowers embroidered on the bodice, and there were blue ribbons in her blonde hair. The ribbons and flowers matched her eyes. She was very tidy, like the garden, like everything that was Janet’s.

I knew she was Rosie because of the snapshots Janet had sent. But I asked her name because that’s what you do when you meet a child, to break the ice. Names matter. Names are hard to forget.

‘Nobody? I’m sure that’s not right.’ I put down the suitcase on the path and crouched to bring my head down to her level. ‘I bet you’re really somebody. Somebody in disguise.’

‘I’m nobody.’ Her face wasn’t impatient, just firm. ‘That’s my name.’

‘Nobody’s called nobody.’

She folded her arms across her chest, making a cross of flesh and bone. ‘I am.’

‘Why?’

‘Because nobody’s perfect.’

She turned and hopped up the path. I straightened up and watched her. Rosie was playing hopscotch but without a stone and with an invisible pattern of her own making. Hop, both legs, hop, both legs. Instead of turning to face me, though, she carried on to the half-glazed door set in the wall of the house. The soles of her sandals slapped on the flagstones like slow applause. Each time she landed, on one foot or two, the jolt ran through her body and sent ripples through her hair.

I felt the stab of envy, almost anger, sharp as John Treevor’s knife. Nobody was beautiful. Oh yes, I thought, nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s the child I always wanted, the child Henry never gave me.

I’d been trying not to think about Henry for days, for weeks. For a moment his face was more vivid than Rosie and the house. I wished I could kill him. I wished I could roll up Henry and everything else that had ever happened to me into a small, dark, hard ball and throw it into the deepest, darkest corner of the Pacific Ocean.

Later, in one of those fragmentary but intense conversations we had when Janet was ill, I tried to explain this to David.

‘Wendy, you can’t hide away from the past,’ he said. ‘You can’t pretend it isn’t there, that it doesn’t matter.’

‘Why not?’ I was a little drunk at the time and I spoke more loudly than I’d planned. ‘If you ask me, there’s something pathetic about people who live in the past. It’s over and done with.’

‘It’s never that. Not until you are. It
is
you.’

‘Don’t lecture me, David.’ I smiled sweetly at him and blew cigarette smoke into his face. ‘I’m not one of your bloody students.’

But of course he was right. That was one thing that really irritated me about David, that so often he was right. He was such an arrogant bastard that you wanted him to be wrong. And in the end, when he was so terribly wrong, I couldn’t even gloat. I just felt sorry for him. I suppose he wasn’t very good at being right about himself.

Nobody’s perfect.

2
 

When I was young, the people around me were proud of their pasts, and proud of the places where they lived.

My parents were born and bred in Bradford. Bradford was superior to all other towns in almost every possible way, from its town hall to its department stores, from its philanthropists to its rain. Similarly, my parents were quietly confident that Yorkshire, God’s Own County, outshone all other counties. We lived in a tree-lined suburb at 93, Harewood Drive, in a semi-detached house with four bedrooms, a Tudor garage and a grandfather clock in the hall.

My father owned a jeweller’s shop in York Street. The business had been established by his father, and he carried it on without enthusiasm. He had two interests in life and both of them were at home – his vegetable garden and my brothers.

Howard and Peter were twins, ten years older than me. They were always huge, semi-divine beings who took very little notice of me, and they always will be. I find it very hard to recall what they looked like.

‘You must remember something about them,’ Janet said in one of our heart-to-hearts at school.

‘They played cricket. When I think about them, I always smell linseed oil.’

‘Didn’t they ever talk to you? Do things with you?’

‘I remember Peter laughing at me because I thought Hitler was the name of the greengrocer’s near the station. And one of them told me to shut up when I fell over on the path by the back door and started crying.’

Janet said wistfully, ‘You make it sound as if you’re better off without them.’

That’s something I’ll never know. When I was ten, they were both killed, Peter when his ship went down in the Atlantic, and Howard in North Africa. The news reached my parents in the same week. After that, in memory, the house was always dark as though the blinds were down, the curtains drawn. The big sitting room at the back of the house became a shrine to the dear departed. Everywhere you looked there were photographs of Peter and Howard. There were one or two of me as well but they were in the darkest corner of the room, standing on a bookcase containing books that nobody read and china that nobody used.

Even as a child, I noticed my father changed after their deaths. He shrank inside his skin. His stoop became more pronounced. He spent more and more time in the garden, digging furiously. I realized later that at this time he lost interest in the business. Before it had been his duty to nurse it along for Peter and Howard. Without them the shop’s importance was reduced. He still went into town every day, still earned enough to pay the bills. But the shop no longer mattered to him. He no longer had any pride in it. I don’t think he even had much pride in Bradford any more.

In my father’s world girls weren’t important. We were needed to bear sons and look after the house. We were also needed as other men’s objects of desire so the men in question would buy us jewellery at the shop in York Street. We even had our uses as sales assistants and cleaners in the shop because my father could pay us less than he paid our male equivalents. But he hadn’t any use for a daughter.

My mother was different. My birth was an accident, I think, perhaps the result of an uncharacteristically unguarded moment after a Christmas party. She was forty when I was born so she might have thought she was past it. But she wanted a daughter. The problem was, she didn’t want the sort of daughter I was. She wanted a daughter like Janet.

My mother’s daughter should have looked at knitting patterns with her and liked pretty clothes. Instead she had one who acquired rude words like cats acquire fleas and who wanted to build streams at the bottom of the garden.

It was a pity we had so little in common. She needed me, and I needed her, but the needs weren’t compatible. The older I got, the more obvious this became to us both. And that’s how I came to meet Janet.

I suspect my father wanted me out of the house because I was an unwelcome distraction. My mother wanted me to learn how to be a lady so we could talk together about dressmaking and menus, so that I would attract and marry a nice young man, so that I would present her with a second family of perfect grandchildren.

My mother cried when she said goodbye to me at the station. I can still see the tears glittering like snail trails through the powder on her cheeks and clogging the dry ravines of her wrinkles. She loved me, you see, and I loved her. But we never found out how to be comfortable with one another.

So off I went to boarding school. It was wartime, remember, and I’d never been away from my parents before, except for three months at the beginning of the war when everyone thought the Germans would bomb our cities to smithereens.

This was different. The train hissed and clanked through a darkened world for what seemed like weeks. I was nominally in the charge of an older girl, one of the monitors at Hillgard House, whose grandmother lived a few miles north of Bradford. She spent the entire journey flirting with a succession of soldiers. The first time she accepted one of their cigarettes, she bent down to me and said, ‘If you tell a soul about this, I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.’

It was January, and the cold and the darkness made everything worse. We changed trains four times. Each train seemed smaller and more crowded than its predecessor. At last the monitor went to the lavatory, and when she came back she’d washed the make-up off her face. She was a pink, shiny-faced schoolgirl now. We left the train at the next stop, a country station shrouded in the blackout and full of harsh sounds I did not understand. It was as if I’d stepped out of the steamy, smoky carriage into the darkness of a world that hadn’t been born.

Someone, a man, said, ‘There’s three more of you in the waiting room. Enough for a taxi now.’

The monitor seized her suitcase in one hand and me with the other and dragged me into the waiting room. That was where I first saw Janet Treevor. Sandwiched between two larger girls, she was crying quietly into a lace-edged handkerchief. As we came in, she looked up and for an instant our eyes met. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.

‘Is that a new bug too?’ the monitor demanded.

One of the other girls nodded. ‘Hasn’t turned off the waterworks since we left London,’ she said. ‘But apart from the blubbing, she seems quite harmless.’

The monitor pushed me towards the bench. ‘Go on, Wendy,’ she said. ‘You might as well sit by her.’ She watched me as I walked across the room, dragging my suitcase after me. ‘At least this one’s not a bloody blubber.’

I have always loathed my name. ‘Wendy’ sums up everything my mother wanted and everything I’m not. My mother loved
Peter Pan.
When I was eight, it was that year’s Christmas pantomime. I sat hugely embarrassed through the performance while my mother wept happy tears beside me, the salty water falling into the box of chocolates open on her lap. They say that James Barrie invented the name for the daughter of a friend. First he called her ‘Friendy’. Then with gruesome inevitability this became ‘Friendy-Wendy’. Finally it mutated into ‘Wendy’, and the dreadful old man left it as part of his legacy to posterity in general and me in particular. The only character I liked in his beastly story was Captain Hook.

‘Wendy,’ Janet whispered as we huddled together in the back of the taxi on the way to school, squashed into a corner by a girl mountain smelling of sweat and peppermints. ‘Such a pretty name.’

‘What’s yours?’

‘Janet. Janet Treevor.’

‘I like Janet,’ I said, not wanting to be outdone in politeness.

‘I hate it. It’s so plain.’

‘Shame we can’t swap.’

I felt her breath on my cheek, felt her body shaking. I couldn’t hear anything, because of the noise the other girls were making and the sound of the engine. But I knew what Janet was doing. She was giggling.

So that’s how it started, Janet and me. It was January, the Lent Term, and we were the only new children in our year. All the other new children had come in September and had already made friends. It was natural that Janet and I should have been thrown together. But I don’t know why we became friends. Janet was no more like me than my mother was. But in her case – our case – the differences brought us together rather than drove us apart.

Hillgard House was a late-eighteenth-century house in the depths of the Herefordshire countryside. The nearest village was two miles away. The teaching was appalling, the food was often barely edible. When it rained heavily they put half a dozen buckets to catch the drips in the dormitories on the top floor where the servants’ bedrooms had been, and you would go to sleep hearing the gentle
plop-plip-plop
as the water fell.

The headmistress was called Miss Esk, and she and her brother, the Captain, lived in the south wing of the house. There were carpets there, and fires, and sometimes when the windows were open you could hear the sound of music. The Esks had their own housekeeper who kept herself apart from and superior to the school’s domestic staff. The Captain was rarely seen. We understood that he had suffered from a mysterious wound in the Great War and had never fully recovered. The senior girls used to speculate about the nature of this wound. When I was older, I gained considerable respect by suggesting he had been castrated.

We were always hungry at Hillgard House. It was wartime, as Miss Esk reminded us so often. This meant that we could not expect the luxuries of peace, though we could not help but notice that Miss Esk seemed to have most of them. I think now that the Esks made a fortune during the war: The school was considered to be in a relatively safe area, remote from the risks of both bombing raids and a possible invasion. Many of the girls’ fathers were in the services. Few parents had the time and inclination to check the pastoral and educational standards of the school. They wanted their daughters to be safe, and so in a sense we were.

Janet and I never liked the place but we grew used to it. As far as I was concerned, it had three points in its favour. No one could have a more loyal friend than Janet. Because of the war, and because of the Esks’ incompetence, we were left alone a great deal of the time. And finally there was the library.

It was a tall, thin room which overlooked a lank shrubbery at the northern end of the house. Shelves ran round all the walls. There was a marble fireplace, its grate concealed beneath a deep mound of soot. The shelves were only half full, but you never quite knew what you would find there. In that respect it was like the Cathedral Library in Rosington.

During the five years that we were there, Janet must have read, or at least looked at, every volume there. She read
Ivanhoe
and
The Origin of Species.
She picked her way through the collected works of Pope and bound copies of
Punch.
I had my education at second hand, through Janet.

In our final year, she found a copy of
Justine
by the Marquis de Sade – in French, bound in calf leather, the pages spotted with damp like an old man’s hand – concealed in a large brown envelope behind the collected sermons of Bishop Berkeley. Janet read French easily – it was the sort of accomplishment you seemed to acquire almost by osmosis in her family – and we spent a week in the summer term picking our way through the book, which was boring but sometimes made us laugh.

In our first few terms, people used to laugh at us. Janet was small and delicate like one of those china figures in the glass-fronted cabinet in Miss Esk’s sitting room. I was always clumsy. In those days I wore glasses, and my feet and hands seemed too large for me. Janet could wear the same blouse for days and it would seem white and crisp from beginning to end, from the moment she took it from her drawer to the moment she put it in the laundry basket. As for me, every time I picked up a cup of tea I seemed to spill half of it over me.

My mother thought Hillgard House would make me a lady. My father thought it would get me out of the way for most of the year. He was right and she was wrong. We didn’t learn to be young ladies at Hillgard House – we learnt to be little savages in a jungle presided over by the Esks, remote predators.

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