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Authors: Martha Grimes

The Old Contemptibles (8 page)

BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
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But his mother had won the day. Severn School it had been, then, especially when he’d realized she was desperate to keep the loathed Holdsworth family quiet about how she was raising him. The only one he liked was his great-grandfather. The rest of them made him want to puke.

 • • • 

“I’m sorry, she’s gone.”

A thin attendant in white was standing over him, refusing to use the word
Alex didn’t look up.

“You her son? You the one called?”

He nodded.

“Christ,” the fellow breathed. Behind the rimless glasses, Alex saw the pity. That a kid would come home, find his own mother like this. The man, perhaps unable to take Alex’s steady stare, turned back to the others and gestured.

A young woman came over.

He was having a difficult time with the other self desperately wanting to get out of the glass bell, throwing himself round in it, trying to break out, to swim the dark waters. Alex looked at this one, who was (oh, hell)
and willed her away. Should have been able to stare her straight to perdition but she just

“Now, we’ve got to do something about you, dear.”

Was she insane? He said nothing.

“. . . who should we call? Where’s your father, then?”


With a vague gesture of impatience. “Grandparents? Someone? Where’s your family live?”

He thought for a moment. “We don’t have one. There isn’t anyone.”

To her, clearly absurd. There was always
“Oh, surely . . .” And now, she thought, thought over the family she could drag in like new furniture. If there wasn’t one, she’d set one up, chop, chop. “. . . cousins, then? Aunt? Uncle? Outside London?”

Police would find out soon enough. Why help this one?

“A neighbor,” she ran on. “Yes, a neighbor. To stay the night. Or you could go to their place.” She reached out, put one hand on each of his arms. “Social services could come round—”

His other self clamored, screamed. But he kept the diver down there, intact. “No one’s coming round. And get your fucking hands off me. You’re not my mother.”


What first occurred to him was to get out immediately to avoid police altogether. Then he thought that if he did that, they would only start a search.

So he stayed. He didn’t want to answer their pointless questions and he didn’t want their sympathy. The particular policeman asking the questions introduced himself in a diffident and soft-spoken voice as Detective Inspector Kamir: he was an East Indian with brown eyes that seemed to melt into his face and might spill over at any moment with the tears that Alex didn’t shed.

It was a surprise, then, that you came down from school. Would have been, I mean, he’d added apologetically.

Depending on the question, Alex either nodded or shook his head. The policeman assumed he was in shock. Alex could not afford that luxury: the mind had to keep working. Given the way the questions were going, it was obvious police knew sod-all about his mother or would believe him, Alex, if he told them straight out they were wrong.

He knew where it was all going when the questions started bunching around his mother’s “mental state.” Had she seemed, well, depressed lately? . . . Could you tell?

That made him wrench his face upward to stare into the inspector’s weepy brown eyes. Mr. Kamir lifted his shoulders in an apologetic little shrug and asked him again: Did Alex know, could Alex tell, if his mother had been depressed?

Could he tell?
Of course he could tell, he was her son. But then Alex thought of his friends at Severn School and realized most of them hadn’t a clue as to what was going on inside their parents’ heads, and didn’t care. Not that some of the parents weren’t bloody mindless themselves.

He looked down again. He did not tell Detective Inspector Kamir that his mother was depressed; you’d be depressed too if you had the Holdsworth family on your back.

Kamir did not persist for long with his questions because the boy was only sixteen and he was her son and had just been through the harrowing experience of finding his mother dead.

The policeman turned instead to the problem of Alex’s care. To whom should the boy go? Your father? Alex shook his head. He’s dead. What relations were there? Which of his mother’s relations might he go to? No Galloways, Alex told him, his eye trained on the round bedside table with its flowery floor-length cover and its surface crowded with gilt- and silver-framed pictures of the dead. The grandparents on his mother’s side; aunts and uncles; cousins, only two of whom were still alive and in Australia. Alex had never met them, except for his Aunt Madeline, but
lived with the Holdsworths. There was a distant cousin to whom, in a pinch, he might have gone if he had any intention of going anywhere. Which he didn’t.

The Holdsworths, then. Inspector Kamir would not rest until he’d got the lad sorted out and safely in the hands of someone prepared to give him sympathy and a roof.

Alex shook his head. From the table he took a porcelain-covered box of tissues and rested it on his lap, as if he were going to need them.

The grandparents, you said they lived in Cumbria. Kamir seemed to find that satisfactory. Without any help from Alex, Kamir debated the problem of the boy’s disposal. . . .

At least this was what Alex imagined was running through the mind of Detective Inspector Kamir. He simply let it run, since it appeared to be doing the policeman some good; it certainly wasn’t doing Alex any.

A police car would deliver Alex to the Lake District, or the Holdsworths might choose to collect him. Alex was agreeable to this plan, yes?

“Yes. Now can I go to the loo?”

 • • • 

The skylight in the bathroom was gummy with resin and soot. Alex pushed it open and looked at the splinter of moon above.

He removed the porcelain cover from the tissue box, pulled out nearly half of the tissues and plucked up the small automatic and the cartridge clip, which he then covered in a few of the tissues, shoved the rest back in the box and replaced the cover.

The gun he dropped in his jacket pocket.

Then he hoisted himself onto the roof, highly practiced in this maneuver. It was not that he’d ever needed an escape before; he had
merely wanted to defy gravitational pull. This roof, like all the others, was steeply pitched and roughly slated. And tonight, also wet.

It had never occurred to him that the skylight escapades would be put to use for anything but clinging to the old chimney pot and staring at the stars. Alex did not commune with the stars or any other part of nature. He got his fill of that just from listening to his grandfather talking relentlessly about the Lake poets. Nature was something to be dealt with in practical terms, as in how his favorite would move on a muddy track at Aintree races. Nature was something to be overcome. Wordsworth had missed a lot of golden opportunities if all he could do was talk it to death.

 • • • 

Fifteen minutes later, having jumped two of the roofs in order to shimmy down the sturdiest of the downspouts (it was copper and strong), Alex was sitting in the private park directly across from the house, watching the policeman up on the roof and two more running out of the front door. Three cars were angled up against the curb, the front was now cordoned off, and at least a dozen people were standing behind the strip of tape, enthralled. There had probably been even more before the ambulance had done its run through the rain.

The rain had stopped now. Alex had taken off the slicker and put on a cap to change his appearance slightly in case the eyes of the coppers grazed the park. The last place they’d look; the kid would have run down the street one direction or the other, and this was where two of the cars were heading now, turning cones rainbowing the slick pavements.

He lay down on the end of one of a pair of green park benches, the other already occupied by a slumbering drunk under a raincoat he must have nicked; it looked pricey.

Alex lay under his coat, the brim of his school cap pulled down on his forehead, but not too far down that he couldn’t get a view across the street.

Just two old bums sleeping it off is what police would think, if they bothered looking into the park at all. Hardly worth investigating.


It wouldn’t do his grandparents any good. Not unless they locked him up in that house they claimed was “ancestral.” Did they really think he’d live with them?

Still, he could remember a summer’s day in the Lakes and the lure of the spotted mare, the trout stream, the cascading waters, the incredibly blue and glassy lakes and the whole wide northern sky when he had been—what? seven? eight? It was amazing how he could take off and run straight across the land with his arms stretched out, his eyes closed, a terrier at his heels, and no fear of running into anything, of smacking into fences or colliding into trees. It was the great emptiness of the place he loved, for it seemed to match something within himself, as if (he thought now, staring across the street) he had finally found a landscape out there to escape the one within. Out there was cool, dry, full of distant light, uncluttered. He could have run forever.

And there was his great-grandfather, whom he loved. And Millie . . .

Standing on the steps, Inspector Kamir was talking to one of the other policemen. He was looking up and down the street as if he expected Alex to come walking along. Another of the cars pulled away, so the one left must be the inspector’s. The street had quieted; the thrill-seekers gone back to the telly or whatever. Alex looked
down at his hands; he seemed unable to unlock them, as if he were handcuffed and needed a key.

The bundle of clothes on the next bench moved and moaned and cursed.

Why didn’t they leave, the police? Get out and leave him to the empty house so that he could continue his own investigation. Take their stupid photos, markings, measurements, dustings, notebooks and conclusions away? He could see, in his mind’s eye, the report of the doctor. Something that would have to do with ingestion of a high dosage of barbiturates. Suicide.

He looked from the doorstep as the drunk sat up and wailed, “Oh, GAWD.”

Alex saw the two heads across the street turn in their direction and whispered to his neighbor to shut the hell up!

He wasn’t, the man whose head snapped round, the typical park-bench drunk, Alex saw, as newspapers rustled and the coat fell away. He was wearing evening clothes—a wreck of a dinner jacket, the black bow tie partly wrapped round his ear, the collar open.

“Been stood up, too, have you? I keep telling myself never to go to that fool’s parties. What sort of getup is that?” He was looking at Alex’s blazer and cap. “Pretty young to be hanging about the boozer, aren’t you? Got a fag? Or do you only snort the stuff?”

Alex didn’t bother answering. He watched as the two policemen came down the steps. They lacked the purposefulness they’d have had if they’d been about to investigate the park.

 • • • 

“But of course the boy must stay, Jane. He’s looking so peaked.”

They had been sitting round the dinner table—his mother, his grandfather and stepgrandmother (whom he called “Grandmum” to irritate her), his Uncle George and Madeline Galloway, his mother’s sister.

“Don’t you think so?” Genevieve Holdsworth’s question had been put to the table in general. “Alex really
get out of the city.”

He had sat there, five years ago, alternately looking down at his plate and shifting his eyes to the black terrier beneath the table.

“He doesn’t look peaked to me, and heaven knows not thin. Not with all that blood pudding he’s been putting away,” his mother had said with absolute assurance.

She’d seen him reaching the horrible stuff down to the terrier. “No,” he’d said to Genevieve. “I have things to do.”

They occupied a special plane, his mother and he. It wasn’t that there was no one else on that plane; he just didn’t know them. Alex wasn’t a Romantic: he’d trample a whole field of daffodils to get to a turf accountant. And he could certainly keep himself together for as long as it took to find out what had happened to his mum—

 • • • 

“Damn it.” Rooting through his topcoat pockets, the man on the bench cursed until he managed to drag out a mashed-looking cigarette and an expensive-looking lighter. In the glow of the flame Alex saw he was middle-aged. Or at least twenty years older than Alex himself. . . . Police were still there, leaning against their car.

“What’s going on? What the hell are the police over there for?”

Alex wanted only to shut him up, to stop invading his privacy and keeping him from thinking his problem through.

“What the devil are you doing sitting on a park bench at—” He wrenched his wrist and squinted down at what looked like a Rolex. “—one
? My name’s Maurice, incidentally.” His yawn was so drawn-out Alex thought he’d suck in all of the available oxygen. Maurice upended a leather-covered flask, shook it a bit, and sighed. “Not a glimmer.” He turned. “You’ve got a name, I expect?”

“William. Smythe.” Alex pronounced it with a long
it was the name of one of his particularly revolting schoolmates. “Well, good-bye.” Thank God the car was pulling away. But one uniformed copper was standing there still. Had they left anyone inside?

 • • • 

He crossed the little rear garden, let himself in with the same key that opened the front door, and sat down at the kitchen table. Alex stared into the dark, which his eyes soon penetrated so that he could see the outlines of fridge and cooker. He could find his way round in here like a blind man, anyway. He heard nothing.

Quietly, he pulled off his jacket, his cap and his shoes and slumped in the chair. Then he lay his head down on his folded hands. Afraid he’d doze off, he pulled his head up again, folded his arms hard against his chest.

His throat was killing him; it was as bad as the strep throat he’d had that one time. . . .

Don’t cry. Think.

A coffee would help. Soundlessly, he padded to the cooker, pulled down one of the boxes of Rombouts and the white Rombouts cup his mum kept beside it, and lit the gas under the kettle. He caught it up before it whistled and carefully poured it into the prepacked coffee filter, then took the works back to the table and waited for it to drip through.

BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
7.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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