Copyright © DH Smith
Published by Earlham Books
Distributed by Shakespir
Part One: The Cast & Setting
Part Two: The Murder
Part Three: The Arrest
Part Four: Confronting The Killer
Book design & cover art by Lia at Free Your Words
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
All Rights Reserved
Planing made him feel like a real carpenter. All the curls of shiny wood, the whoosh and certainty of it. Sharp steel, a long run down the edge, the resin smell intermingled with his sweat. An eighth of an inch to take off. Too little to saw, a lot to plane. There was probably a better way, but at least planing was safer. He could have used a power plane, but there was no muscle in it. It made him feel part of a machine, whereas this had the freedom of a gymnast.
It’s all in the marking up, his dad used to say. That and sharp tools. Nothing about a sharp workman, though he wasn’t bad at carpentry. The problem with calling yourself a builder was that clients expected you to be good at everything. Mostly he could pull it off, though there had been one or two close shaves he’d rather not think about. We’ve all been there, said Bob, talking about their near misses. Thank you, Bob, he thought. But it shouldn’t be a question of what you can get away with.
Better than he was, though. Some of those earlier jobs he’d had to come back and redo, and still left a grudging customer. But wasn’t that the way with every builder? No one had all the skills. You come in as a carpenter and they want more and more of you. Plastering, plumbing, roofing. So you say yes to get the work. Learn on the job.
And hope you can get away with it.
Plane a bit, try it, plane some more. Getting even along the length, that was tricky. But the window mustn’t be wobbly in the frame. He looked again at the pencil mark, too up and down along the length. He glanced up, her indoors was looking at him. Trying to ignore her, he did a couple of long runs to get the bumps out. Then concentrated on one of the ups. He’d never liked teak, at least he thought it was teak. He should look at the label. Sound more of a carpenter. Teak this, teak that, shake his head and suck in a long breath with a pencil behind his ear.
Six of the bastards to get in.
A bigger job than he was used to. In Chigwell of all places. Less than ten miles from Forest Gate where he lived, but a universe away in lifestyle. Poshland for East End gangsters going legit, footballers with their wives and girlfriends, division two entertainers. This summerhouse. It was bigger than his flat. And talk about demanding. Jack could change a lock, fit a new door, put a fence up, concrete a path fairly confidently. Handyman stuff. You can do this one, insisted Bob, his old mucker, who’d come back off holiday from Egypt with an attack of enteric fever. Nearly died. And passed this job on to him. Up your street, mate. Just a small repair job. Oh sure. How it grew! They kept adding bits. New windows, then new roof, new floor. They kept piling stuff on. The small repair job ballooned. All it needed was new walls to make it a 100% renewal.
And he’d said, yes I can do it. Sure, no trouble. Getting way beyond his comfort zone into plumbing and electrics. And he was nodding like a dog in a car window. Sure, no trouble.
The sort of garden shelter he was used to was more like a shed without windows, a gazebo. Somewhere to sit out in fine weather, a sort of Wendy house for grown ups; a single space with benches, you could just about get a table and a couple of chairs in. This one made him think of rich Russians, their dachas, the whole family migrating in summer time. A Russian builder he’d worked with once had told him about them. This had a kitchen, toilet and shower, with two large rooms and a small one – it was out of his world. A summerhouse! He’d move in tomorrow.
He’d heard of writers writing in a shed, but you’d scarcely call this a shed. And why would you want a shower? For a steamy sex scene. And then a second room? A kitchen? She’s a writer not a cook, so he’d heard.
There was a sofa bed in one room. What was that used for? Guests, was the innocent thought, but the way she moved when she was here an hour ago, talking about the job, a hand on her hip, tight skirt and cavernous cleavage, and that sly grin gave him other thoughts. You don’t dress like that unless… you’re ready for it. He shook his head. Plane, saw, hammer. Head down, do the job. Drive back to Forest Gate without a stain on his character.
But you just never know. You think she’s got to be up for it, but then again… That teacher who’d slapped his face and yelled at him for a drunken fumble. But how do you know if you don’t try? Not that drink gives you the sharpest eye.
Tell me, tell me.
He rested for a breather, looking across the manicured lawn to the house. He couldn’t get over working in Chigwell. The size of the rooms in the house itself, like halls, a semicircle of cream leather sofas that could seat ten. What would this house be worth? Two, three million… How would he know? But it made you realise the difference, the space, the way these people lived. And of course, how they see the rest of us. Those who didn’t live on Manor Road, Chigwell. Their army of workers, to be employed when needed, and complained about.
She was still looking out of the window. Maybe she was thinking about the sofa bed. Or maybe that he should get a move on, as she wanted her summerhouse back.
He’d hoped Bob was recovered enough for the electrics. He didn’t want to use Joe again. More of a cowboy than he was himself. At least he knew his weaknesses, admitted them, whereas Joe was all bullshit. In my country we do it like this. Sure, sure. But in my country, Joe, it has to work.
For at least as long as it takes the cheque to clear.
Not bad. Manly in his yellow vest. Powerful biceps glistening in the sun. His torn jeans were almost fashionable. A trim bum, when he turned away from her to pick up a tool. She almost whistled, and laughed at herself. Wasn’t it builders who whistled down from their scaffolding to women scurrying along the street? Come on up, darling! But then she had a touch of that vulgarity. She knew what she liked. And dared from time to time.
Wait and you could be dead.
She wished she could paint on the move. She’d be out and about, with her palette and easel, painting manual workers. Catch in oils the flow of that body, the plane in his hands, the ooze and sear as it whooshed along the side of the new window. She should get one of those things, what did they call them? That glass whatjacallit in Edinburgh. She snapped her fingers. Camera obscura. Then she could watch in secret, a circular view from above. Except she quite liked him knowing she was watching. Not like a schoolboy up in his bedroom furtively viewing porn. But blatantly at the window. It made him wonder what she was thinking. She wasn’t quite sure herself. Yes, she’d like to see more of him. But there were complications. She’d have to plan it. Make sure Leon was out for the day.
Out there in the sunshine, lying in the wood shavings… She was tired of paper pushers.
She might try a drawing; she wasn’t bad at that. Except he was too far off for detail. And she could hardly sit out on the lawn drawing him. Or could she?
The bell rang.
Joanna sighed. And sat down heavily in an armchair. Work always intrudes. She picked up the phone.
‘Do answer the door, Donna. And bring in the coffee and cakes.’
‘Yes, Mrs Ward.’
She put down the phone and wiped her hands on a tea towel. Why couldn’t the lazy cow do it herself? Having sacked her secretary, she, the cook, was answering the door, bringing her coffee, like a jumped up maid. She’d known this would happen. It’d be weeks before she got round to getting another. What’s the hurry when you have a dogsbody in the kitchen? But if she talked back, dared suggest even… And she, the lady of the house, just a jumped up stripper, acting as if she were born in a palace. Poplar High Street. Donna knew where Lady Nose-In-The-Air came from.
She took off her apron, and threw it on the table. She’d been told off only the other day for going to the door wearing it. On, off, on, off. Cook, housemaid, doorstop.
She strolled out of the kitchen, into the passage that opened into the main vestibule before the front door. It was well lit through stained glass windows, one wall depicting George killing the Dragon. On the other wall were two large and colourful abstract paintings on either side of the door to the lounge. Above the marbled floor was the grand chandelier, hell to dust, twinkling in the sunlight. When the door opened, you got a jingle of glass.
The front door had matching stained glass, the rescued virgin gazing in adoration at the knight saint in the side window. The vestibule ended in the sweeping staircase, with its mock Georgian banisters. A modern house with a cacophony of borrowed ideas.
Donna opened the front door.
Three young women were standing there in bright summer dresses, each carrying a shoulder laptop bag. Behind them, the taxi driver gave her a nod. He’d picked them up from Grange Hill Underground station. Though why they couldn’t walk… Ten minutes, if you dawdle. And it wasn’t as if Manor Road was a motorway.
‘One moment, ladies. Let me pay for the cab.’
She gave him £20. He had the receipt ready, knowing the drill. This was a regular run. The three young women had to be picked up together at the station. Two had come together, he’d had to wait for the next train for the arrival of the third, all flustered and apologising. Better for him if they’d all come on the same train. Then he’d make twenty for a five minute run. Today, he’d had to wait another five or six minutes. It had to be done that way, Mrs Ward insisted. No wasting time waiting for the last one to get here, all to arrive in unison. She would not wait for anyone, he reckoned.
‘Do come in, ladies,’ said Donna. ‘Mrs Ward is expecting you.’
She led them into the lounge and left them there to be greeted by Mrs Ward, while she went back to her kitchen. She put on her apron again and went back to the second salmon she was wrapping in foil. She must get these ready today, and prepare the chicken legs. Put them in the fridge overnight. Tomorrow she’d do the baking, the salads. Strawberries and cream was simple enough. Then Janie was coming over with the canapés and a few young girls to waitress. Mr Ward had taken charge of the drinks, thank heavens. He’d make the punch and bring up assorted wines and spirits from the cellar. A barrel of beer and various bottles were due in the morning. Not her worry.
Just thirty-five people, he’d said. Don’t make a big fuss. She snorted as she recalled. And then get it in the neck from both of them if she didn’t make ‘a big fuss’ of it? She did wonder sometimes. Thirty-five had, of course, become fifty ‘or so’. How can you cater for fifty plus swells without making a fuss? You can’t give them peanuts and crisps with a couple of dips from Marks and Sparks.
She’d be here tomorrow until midnight, or even later. They did at least half a dozen of these soirées a year, all the hassle. He was OK, praising her afterwards for the delicious ham or whatever. But she’d pick up on something. Could the rolls be warm, Donna dear, and less pepper in the aubergine dip. And all she’d get for it was a paltry 50 quid on top. That was the rich for you. Button your lip and take home the leftovers. At least they didn’t mind that. Mrs Ward wouldn’t touch them anyway, though he was OK for next day’s lunch – but no more than that. Once she’d suggested sending it all to the Salvation Army but Mrs Ward dismissed the suggestion. It would only encourage them, she said. So dump what you can’t take home.
Bugger the starving millions.
Donna lived in the granny flat next door. Convenient and inconvenient. Especially with tomorrow night’s party.
But moaning gets nothing done. She’d better sort out that little lot in with Mrs Ward, then back to the salmon.
She’d allowed them to call her Joanna. She wasn’t sure it was proper, but it couldn’t be called back. Make a note.
The three young women were seated on the long sofa with laptops on their knees. There was plenty of space between them; the seat could have accommodated six or more. They sat forward, its sinking leather plushness really too luxurious for work. The glass table before them had their coffee and biscuits. If this meeting was typical there would be little time to drink and nibble. Joanna liked to rush them forward and they were kept busy tapping out her ‘suggestions’.
Joanna was seated in an armchair to one side without a laptop. One of them would take minutes and send her a copy. She had a paper notebook and a silver fountain pen in her lap. She had written: Penny, Julie. What the hell was the name of the plump one? Never mind. It’d come. Or maybe it wouldn’t.
‘Where’s Helen?’ said Julie carefully.
She was in the centre of the three, tall and slim, her very black hair cut in a cropped 20s style. All three had a nervousness as if they were there to be interviewed.
‘Helen is no longer with us,’ said Joanna sharply.
There was an uncomfortable pause before Julie said quietly, ‘Why’s that, Joanna?’
Joanna held her gaze until Julie self consciously turned away. She wondered about the uppity miss. Creative writing degree at some college in the sticks. Was she more trouble than she was worth?
She said, ‘Helen was two weeks behind in her deadline. And wanted more money.’
She sensed the tension as the three glanced at each other. There was something going on between them, she was sure. But she didn’t give a damn. She held all the cards. The full pack including the jokers. These girls were two a penny. But something was up. Those furtive looks. It was pathetic really. What on earth could they do?
‘Is there something that any of you want to add?’ she said looking at all three in turn.
Julie glanced to either side and both her companions nodded. She bit her lower lip.
‘We’ve been talking it over amongst ourselves,’ she began, barely audibly, ‘and we think…’ she halted as she steeled herself to the Olive Twist moment, ‘we should get fifty per cent royalty.’
‘Yes, fifty percent,’ agreed Penny.
‘Yes,’ managed the plump one in the tiniest mumble.
Joanna smiled, taking a sip of her coffee. ‘That’s what Helen wanted too. And as I said, she’s no longer here.’
‘But we do all the work,’ exclaimed Julie. Her face was reddening. She was obviously a volcano inside.
Joanna gazed from one to the other, judging their firmness in their trembling pallor. Three little girls coming to the Head with a petition about school lunch. She had been here before. Every six months or so, it happened. Would these schoolgirls never understand it was a hard world out there? That she was doing them a favour. Giving them a leg up. And they too stupid to realise it. Who would stay in this group, who would leave?
She sighed, a most put upon sigh. ‘I am Bluebell Woods. As you know, I have authored 102 books of the Forest Fairies series. For the last fifty books I have used various ghost writers, like yourselves, to continue the brand. Without my brand, there would be no work for you.’
‘That’s true,’ said Julie, ‘and we are grateful but…’ another effort to say the unsayable. ‘But you don’t do that much.’
‘I edit your dreadful stuff.’
That was a bombshell and she shouldn’t have said it. Alright, it was dreadful stuff. But so was her own contribution. That’s why she’d stopped writing at 102. She couldn’t stand it anymore. But unaccountably the little books made money. Seven year old girls loved them.
No, she shouldn’t have said it. That was the game you played. The thing you kept to yourself. You had to pretend they were good, lovable tales. Or it was simply hack work. Which it was. But you had to pretend it was art. For your readers. And for yourself.
‘I take that back,’ she said. ‘You are three promising writers. But you have an apprenticeship to complete. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Anytime you wish, you may go your own way. There are plenty of others eager to take your place.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I have an hour. And we do have to finalise these plots… So if you want to, go. Go now. 35% is my last word on the matter.’
Go, stay. She didn’t care that much. It was a little tedious contacting agents, putting an ad out to creative writing degree courses and so forth. But she liked new faces. At the beginning, they were compliant, overjoyed to be here. As unrealistic in their excitement as in any love affair. How could it last?
Julie stood up, her seat sank and expired. ‘It isn’t right, Joanna.’
Joanna shrugged. ‘That’s your opinion, Julie.’ She looked to the others. ‘What do you two think?’
Both were looking down at their laptops as if there were a secret message on the screen.
‘Who’s going? Who’s staying? Let’s get this settled.’
Julie had gone too far. Stood up too quickly. There was no backing out now. She walked to the door and then turned back into the room.
‘Anyone else coming my way?’
The two sat like stone bookends, hunched and motionless; the gap of sofa had widened between them. Julie held the doorjamb.
‘I’m staying,’ said Penny quietly, her back to Julie.
‘Me too,’ whispered the plump one.
Joanna looked to Julie, her eyes welling in the doorway. She could have said something placatory and probably brought her back. But then there’d only be problems in a week or two. Best get rid of troublemakers as soon as they make trouble.
‘Goodbye, Julie,’ she said. ‘Thank you for your work with the Forest Fairies.’
‘What about my book at the printers?’
‘You’ll get paid for that,’ said Joanna. ‘As usual.’
‘And the one I’m halfway through?’
Joanna shrugged. ‘Write that off to experience.’
‘You bitch!’ exploded Julie. ‘You use us, you tight-fisted cow!’
And she turned on her heels and was away.
No one spoke as Julie’s heels clipped the marble floor in the hallway, halting for a few seconds as she reached the mat and fiddled with the latch. The front door slammed in finality.
‘How to get a bad reference,’ sighed Joanna.
One out of three wasn’t bad or even unexpected. Probably the best writer of this group – but who could tell really? Writing skill wasn’t high on the list. You had to keep the tone. Be a good team player. No room for stars.
‘It’s Julie’s choice,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m holding no one prisoner.’
The two young women at either end of the sofa nodded. Both felt a burn of shame. They’d come here to be writers. What were they now?
They are so weedy, thought Joanna. The only one that talks back has gone. There were a few promising girls on the books from the last round of interviews. She scribbled herself a note to send them the test scenario for them to continue. But in the meantime there was work to be done here.
She looked up from her jotting and smiled at the two young women who were waiting on her.
‘Penny, you had the idea that Raindrop gets kidnapped by Hunky the gnome. Can you elaborate?’
He gave the window a push. It was firm. He pressed with both hands across the frame. No movement. He opened and shut the casement. A little stiff on the hinge but that was just oil. Bob had ordered the windows before his illness. He wondered how much they’d cost. Half a dozen, teak, double-glazed casements, made to measure. Not quite to measure. Bob had got them a little oversize so they could be fitted.
With the second he had a problem. The frame wasn’t square. Bastard. He’d spotted it when he’d taken the old window out. There was a slither of wood to make up for the deficit in one corner. He held on to it. The slither was still serviceable. He’d maybe use it again.
While he was marking up, his phone rang. He stuck his pencil behind his ear and took out the phone from his hip pocket. His ex. What did she want now? He thought of leaving it, but knew she’d keep trying – and her temper would grow the more he fobbed her off.
Money again? In the instant before answering he couldn’t think why the monthly payment hadn’t gone through. No big bills. But maybe it had…
‘Hello, Alison,’ he said carefully.
‘First time, that’s a wonder,’ she said.
He didn’t respond to the dig, just said, ‘I’m at work.’
‘Bodger and Floggit,’ she said. ‘Or what silly name is it?’
‘Jack of all Trades,’ he said wearily. And knew it was a silly name, but by then he’d had the business cards printed, the headed notepaper and the ad in Yellow Pages.
‘And master of none,’ she said without disguising the bitterness in her voice.
Jack had heard the rejoinder too many times.
‘I assume you haven’t phoned to help me with my marketing,’ he said, trying to avoid an argument.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve a staff meeting this afternoon. I want you to pick up Mia.’
‘You want me to,’ he said, bridling at her tone.
‘I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.’
‘There are nicer ways of saying it,’ he said, pacing about, the phone pressed to his ear.
‘Don’t lecture me on good manners,’ she said. ‘After your drunken bumblings. Are you with anyone these days?’
‘That’s the way it goes,’ she said. ‘One out, one in.’
‘No one’s in,’ he said.
‘Just as well,’ she said. ‘They’d all learn about your smelly socks and happy hour pretty sharply.’
‘I’m on the wagon,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you enough times.’
‘Good for you,’ she said. ‘I mean that. You can be quite nice sober.’
‘Let’s quit while I’m getting a compliment. Yes, I’ll pick up Mia. OK?’
‘Drop her off at Moira’s. Don’t forget.’
‘Fine. I will and I won’t. Now I’d best get on. The missus is watching me.’
‘Any chance there, Jack?’
‘Out of my league, sweetheart. See you when I see you. Bye.’
And he shut off the phone. Oh, these calls, how they wound him up. Her quick flick insults. Not undeserved, but she knew his weak underbelly. And all one way, mostly. He rarely had a go at her. Just as well, because when he did he went in for the kill. Never a dig, but a Jack the Ripper slashing.
Which always got him in worse trouble.
He’d have to leave early to get over to Hackney by 3.30. Bugger. He’d be losing a couple of hours’ work, though he could combine it with a visit to the builder’s merchant in Stratford, depending on the traffic. She was always phoning, do this, do that. Expecting him to drop everything, and run across from wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, to pick up Mia. And ferry her to her next port of call.
He was still marking up, but paying it too little attention, rehashing the conversation with Alison. He’d marked a whole side without any memory of doing it. Not the way. And he went to his notebook to check. Just as well he had, as he found he’d been doing it from the wrong edge. Jack took a deep breath and stretched his arms wide in the sunshine, two more deep breaths to get rid of the bad air. He stretched back and forth, and then, aware he might be being watched, he looked up at the window of the house. She wasn’t there, the blind was down. Maybe he wasn’t her only one.
He looked up at the sky, clear, not a cloud. It’d be a good night to get out with his telescope. He’d have another go at the Andromeda Galaxy with his new eyepiece. Pictures of it looked so good in the mags. But all he’d seen so far was a smudgy cloud with a glow in the middle. He felt cheated, hundreds of billions of stars, a £600 scope – and that was all he could get.
With the marking up re-done, he began planing. And in a few minutes, was completely in the work. The shaving of the wood, the fitting into a space, out here in the sunshine, that was all of it. He knew what he was doing, and there was a completion. The roof might give him grief. That was roofs for you. But this was his element. Smooth away the phone call, a relationship ground into the dust. Smooth away. Here, all he had to do was a good job. All the easier in wood. The forgiving material.
The shavings were piling in heaps all around him when Donna arrived.
‘Bacon sandwich and tea,’ she said, proffering her tray.
He took it from her and put it on the work bench.
‘You’re a queen, Donna.’
‘I do my best,’ she said with a smirk. ‘Would you like some smoked salmon for lunch?’
‘Bloody hell, Donna. Don’t spoil me.’
She shrugged. ‘There’s a mountain of it. I’ll make you up a plate.’
‘I’ve brought a cheese sandwich,’ he said. ‘But I’ll feed that to the birds.’ He took a bite of the bacon sandwich. The heat, juice and saltiness hit him. ‘Oh, that’s prime bacon.’
‘I know what builders like. My dad was a scaffolder.’
‘How long you been here?’ he managed to say, his mouth half full.
‘Five years nearly. I’ve got the granny flat next door.’
‘No problems, working and living here?’ he enquired, eager for a bit of gossip.
She shrugged. ‘He’s alright. Hardly ever here. She’s a bit of a lady muck.’
‘She’s been watching me,’ he said.
‘She likes a bit of rough,’ said Donna with a laugh.
‘Who you calling a bit of rough?’
‘Look at you,’ she said. ‘Shirt off, ripped jeans. Not exactly a gent.’
‘Oh, you got me to a T, Donna. I am not exactly a gent. Dead right.’
‘And if I was twenty years younger…’
‘You’d be in a pram,’ he joshed.
She blew a raspberry at him. ‘I wish.’ She had a plump hand on her hip, bunions pushing out of her well worn flats. ‘You remind me of my son Eric. Curly brown hair, both bite your nails.’
He looked at them half ashamed.
‘What’s he up to?’ he said.
She stiffened, a hand went to her forehead.
‘I don’t know why I brought him up. I haven’t heard from him in five years. Schizophrenia. He blames me for everything, and his social worker won’t give me his address, simply says he’s fine.’ She turned back to him, shaking her head. ‘Fine? With schizophrenia. And I’m his devil.’
‘I’m sorry, Donna.’
‘I didn’t mean to bring it up. I don’t normally.’
He put a hand gently on her shoulder. ‘It’s OK, love. We’ve all got problems.’
‘You just wonder,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I think, how can I be to blame. Doing what? And sometimes I think maybe, how I treated him as a boy, what I wanted, how, you know, as a parent you nag.’
He was out of his depth here. Fine at joshing middle-aged women. And then something serious comes out. What the hell do you say then? When all you’ve had is a bacon sandwich and one side of a story.
‘Social workers are bastards,’ he said, and knew it was two-faced as soon as it came out. Some were, some weren’t. It was an easy-life phrase.
‘I hate them.’
She shook herself and gave a harsh laugh with little mirth in it. ‘I shouldn’t burden you. It’s just, you know, you reminded me of him.’ She wiped an eye with the back of her hand. ‘Sometimes I’m fine for days, and then some little thing sets me off.’
‘It’s OK, Donna. We don’t have to pretend that everything is rosy all the time. What’s the good of that? Cry sometimes. Admit you’re not perfect.’
Alcoholic Halt had taught him that. Support, don’t judge. We’re all bloody sinners.
‘Thank you, Jack,’ she said and gave his hand a squeeze. ‘You’ve got a wise head on your shoulders.’ She picked up the tray with its crockery. ‘Now we’ve both got work to do. I’ll bring you some lunch. Would you like a beer with it?’ She winked at him. ‘I’ll put it in a cup, so they don’t know.’
‘Er, no thanks, Donna. I don’t drink. Had a problem with it – and had to knock it on the head.’
‘You’re not the only one,’ she said. ‘And it’s sensible not to drink at lunchtime. I shouldn’t be encouraging you. Plenty else to drink.’
‘You’re so right there, Donna.’
‘I must be back to work, love.’
And she turned and walked across the lawn. A short, middle aged woman, a little stout (who’d trust a slim cook?), short greying hair. And he thought ‘wise head’ – no way, more like smarmy git.
He took up the plane and put his anguish into the to and fro, until he was part of the swing again.
It was near the end of his lunch when it happened. True to her word, Donna had brought him out a plate. Not quite his usual midday meal. A Chigwell lunch. Half a grapefruit with a cherry in the middle, smoked salmon, a large slice of cured ham, hummus, pitta bread – and most unlikely for Jack, salad. With a jug of home made ginger beer ringing with ice cubes.
He settled himself down on the summerhouse patio in the sunshine, back against the wall. He was half reading his Daily Mirror as he ate, thinking what Bob would say if he saw this spread. Mind you, it was filling and tasty. And good for you, as his mum might say. He was aware he ate too much stodge. All those snacks in greasy spoons and ready meals at home. He must start buying fruit again.
He’d been thinking too about picking Mia up. He’d get there in half an hour from here, though he must leave early, before the traffic buildup. He could drive down to the North Circular, leave it after a mile or so, and go south onto the Woodford New Road, through the straggles of Epping Forest and onto Lea Bridge Road. He’d tell Donna to pass it on that he needed to go up the builders’ merchant for something or other. And then maybe he could get back here for another hour or so when he’d dropped Mia off if he didn’t crash into the rush hour, when all destinations were off. Though he’d like to spend longer with Mia, but you can’t just leave a job when you feel like it. Every other weekend was the agreement, and the odd night when Alison needed the night off.
Into the quiescence of noon, a half naked man flew out of the sliding door of the lounge. He had simply a towel round his waist, his feet and top bare, as he yelled incoherently, rushing onto the lawn. Close behind raced Mr Ward, fully suited, brandishing a briar walking stick.
‘I’ll teach you, you bastard!’
Ward was close enough to smack the man on the back with his stick like a retreating donkey. Welts were showing up across the shoulders. All of a sudden, caught in the towel, the man tripped and fell. Ward was at once on him, smashing with the stick, kicking his ribs and head.
The man was now naked, the towel had become unwrapped; he was curled up foetal fashion as Ward smashed at him.
‘Please, Mr Ward,’ he yelled. ‘You won’t see me again. Enough, you’re killing me!’
Ward was a frenzy, the man’s plea fanning his aggression. Over six feet tall and broad, he thrashed the prone figure with all his strength, circling round him, his tie flapping out of his jacket, walloping him with his stick, following through with vicious kicks.
Jack was unsure what to do. The assault was a shock, the scenario not hard to guess. Chasing him out of the bedroom no doubt, or with the towel, maybe the bathroom. And yes, the man’s hair was wet. He’d bet he and the missus had been having a shower together. The man had set himself up for a beating.
Though he thought the man somewhat meek, he himself would have fought back. Not easy when you’re naked, but at least try to grab the stick and fend off the blows.
With no sign of Ward easing up, it was the blood running down the man’s face that got Jack into action. He rushed in and grabbed Ward’s stick arm.
‘You’ll kill him, Mr Ward,’ he said as he clung on tight. The peacemaker.
Ward tried to shake free but Jack now had both hands on the stick.
‘Let go of me, you interfering bastard!’
Ward swung a blow with his free hand, smacking into Jack’s cheek and eye. Jack stumbled back, almost thrown off his feet, hardly knowing where he was for a second. Then he realised he had the stick and Ward was squaring up to him with both fists.
‘You meddling git!’
They were separated by a few paces, circling round each other. Jack held the stick firmly, watching for his opponent’s next move. How had he got into this? He’d just been eating his lunch…
‘You were killing him, Mr Ward.’
‘And I’ll finish the job!’
He whipped round to the man on the ground and kicked him, concentrating on the head which the man covered in his hands and arms.
‘I’ll teach you to poke my wife! You half-arsed ponce!’
Jack threw down the stick and strode in. He pushed Ward away. Ward swung at him. Jack parried his blow and the next, then swung Ward one on the jaw. Ward rocked back and Jack butted him in the chest, forcing him to the ground.
Ward thumped onto the turf, winded. And slowly pulled himself to the seated position, his face a torment of anger, blood seeping from the chin.
‘Enough, Mr Ward.’ Jack’s hands spread before him, placatory fashion. He was aching across the shoulders, one eye misty. ‘I had to intervene. You’d have killed him.’
Ward pointed at Jack, then swung his arm to the garden gate. ‘I want you out of here. Ten minutes. Clear off.’
‘You gave me no choice, Mr Ward.’
‘You are fired. You builder’s lowlife.’ A quiet, seething anger as he rose to his feet, brushing himself down. ‘Collect your tools and get off the premises.’
And with that, back hunched, he strode off the lawn and through the glass sliding door into the house.
Jack watched him go. It had happened so quickly. Ice cubes were still melting in the jug of ginger beer. His adrenaline seeping away, his head was throbbing. He’d been sacked. He’d think that out later but knew he’d be badly out of pocket. Tools to pack. Ten minutes. Out on his ear again. Can you believe it?
Then he recalled the man on the ground. He’d quite forgotten him in the melee.
Jack went down to the prone man. He was unconscious, bleeding from the head and back. Was he alive? Jack felt the man’s back. It was warm and he could feel the soft vibration of breathing through the flesh. And then Donna was standing over them.
‘Is he alive?’ she said warily.
‘I’ll get something to cover him,’ she said and scurried back to the house.
He took his phone out and dialled 999.
Donna returned a little later with a throw and a cushion. They covered the man to his chin and put the cushion under his head. A top window opened, and there was Ward throwing clothing and shoes out. He caught Jack’s eye, even this far away Jack could feel the unburnt ferocity.
‘Get your tools, you tosser. Off my premises.’
Jack said nothing. What was there to say?
‘Do you want a coffee?’ said Donna.
Jack half smiled. ‘He might sack you too.’
She shook her head. ‘He won’t. I’ve been here five years, and I know him. He’s fussy about his food. I know what he likes and doesn’t like. It’d take more than a cup of coffee to get rid of me.’
‘Coffee’d be great,’ he said.
She went back to the kitchen. And he went to the summerhouse and began pulling his tools together. He’d brought quite a few with him, as this was to be a job over a few weeks. The plan had been to keep them in the summerhouse overnight. Some plan! It had seemed so rosy, clearing his overdraft, giving him cash in the bank.
He put his shirt on, weary as if he’d just done a cross country run. He picked up the jug of ginger beer and drank it straight from the jug. Then put his hand in for the remnant of ice cubes, and wiped them over his forehead, eye and cheek.
Donna came with his coffee.
They crossed to the man lying on the lawn. He was moaning and semi conscious. Donna adjusted the throw and the pillow under his head.
‘I must get back in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘I’ve things in the oven.’ She held his arm. ‘I’m sorry he’s sacked you.’
‘What else could I have done?’
‘You did the right thing,’ she said. ‘Insist he pays you off.’
A bell rang from the house.
‘The door!’ Donna rushed into the house.
It was the paramedics.
Jack left them to it. And began packing his tools. One of the crew went off to get a stretcher but it wasn’t needed. The man was groggy but conscious, and able to walk with them through the house to the waiting ambulance.
Jack had two boxes of tools. One lot he loaded in his van, going out the side gate, as the paramedics on the lawn were doing their first aid. He’d just come back to the summerhouse for the other when Donna approached.
‘Mr Ward wants to see you,’ she said. ‘Oh, your poor eye!’ She touched it gingerly with her fingers. ‘It’s half shut. All swollen and going yellow.’
‘It hurts like hell,’ he said. ‘What’s he want me for?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘He just said for you to come up.’
‘Pay me off maybe,’ said Jack. ‘And I can certainly do with the money.’
‘I thought I had a month’s work here. Sod it. Anyway, I’ll get what I can out of him.’
She led him into the house through the large kitchen, out into the hall and up the wide main staircase. A tradesman going up the front way. He felt intimidated, seeing the large painting on the stairs as they curved up and round to the landing. She led him along the wide passage, and left him outside a door. He knocked.
He entered a large room. Across a long area of carpet, under a high window, Mr Ward was seated at a desk. Around the room were shelves. There was a sofa and an armchair. More of a sitting room than an office. Ward had tidied himself up and had a plaster on his chin.
Jack approached the desk.
‘Sit down,’ said Ward indicating a chair.
Jack did so.
‘How’s the prick?’
For a second Jack was unsure what he meant, then realised.
‘He was able to walk to the ambulance,’ he said.
Ward sniffed. ‘I see I gave you quite a shiner.’ He fingered his own plaster as if comparing war wounds.
‘You did,’ said Jack, but he wasn’t here to talk about his black eye. ‘I had to give up a job in East Ham to do this one,’ he lied. ‘So I am entitled to a pay off.’
‘I would have killed him, you know,’ mused Ward, ‘if you hadn’t intervened.’
‘You were at him like a pack of hounds on a fox.’
‘I caught him in the shower with my wife.’
‘I understand your temper,’ said Jack, ‘but there are limits.’
‘Under my own roof, can you believe that? Under my own roof!’
Jack said nothing to this. Who was doing what to whom was not his affair. His money was.
‘Five hundred pounds,’ he tried on, ‘for loss of work and in lieu of notice. Or I see my solicitor.’
He hadn’t got a solicitor. And the paperwork for this job was somewhat rough. Bob had it, and how much could he rely on Bob when it came to it? But worth a try.
Ward shook his head. ‘I want you back on the job.’
This threw Jack.
‘I’d have killed him,’ said Ward. ‘In front of witnesses. And got ten years. As it is, he’ll recover. Won’t he?’
‘I think so. Badly bruised. Maybe the odd bone broken. But he’s alive.’
‘And he won’t press charges,’ said Ward.
‘Can’t see that,’ said Jack.
‘So I want to thank you for stopping me.’ He opened a drawer and brought out two packs of banknotes, each bound with an elastic band. ‘Here’s two hundred to show my appreciation.’
Jack took them, surprised at the turn of events. And pocketed them quickly.
‘And you’ll go back to work?’ said Ward.
‘I want the rest of the day off.’ He was feeling confident. ‘My head’s throbbing like a washing machine.’
‘Of course,’ said Ward. ‘I’m sorry about that. But I was so incensed. In my own house. I might very well have killed him but for you. So go home, rest up. I’m grateful. Killing that bastard would have sent me down for a long stretch. Quite stupid, the berk’s not worth it. And if there’s anything I can do for you…’ He stopped and snapped his fingers, ‘There is something. I’ve got a party tomorrow night. You’re invited.’
‘I might be a bit out of my depth,’ said Jack, ‘among your friends.’
Ward tapped the side of his nose. ‘Business,’ he said, ‘is all about contacts. There’ll be over a billion pounds in that room. And if we show them over the summerhouse, with you, the builder, present… Got a decent suit?’
‘One,’ he said.
‘That’s all you need. Pity about the eye…’
‘I’ll say a bit of four by four came off a lorry.’
Ward laughed. ‘Good for you, young man. No hard feelings?’
Ward put his hand out over the desk. Jack took it. They shook.
‘Then there’s something you can do for me,’ said Ward. ‘My wife. She has what one might call a roving eye. She likes to play away from time to time.’
‘And at home,’ added Jack.
He could see Ward didn’t appreciate the joke. Understandable, all considered.
‘I want you to keep an eye on her,’ said Ward, his tongue lolling in his cheek. ‘Not follow her, you understand. No, no. You’re not a private eye. Just here all day. See who she has in. That sort of thing.’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ said Jack. He was thinking of the battering the poor man had taken, and didn’t want to be a party to that.
‘I’ll pay you for it.’ He took another couple of bundles out of the drawer and passed them over. ‘Two hundred a week. In cash. On top of the work, of course. Strictly between ourselves. You’re here for a month. Nothing may happen. If so, all well and good, but on the other hand…’
Jack thought for a few seconds. Then pocketed the cash.
He drove straight home, down the Chigwell Road and through Wanstead. It was early afternoon, fairly busy. The only trouble he had was at the South Woodford roundabout, where the North Circular meets the M11 and the Chigwell Road, a tangled sprawl, with traffic flying in from all sides. A mess of concrete and selfish driving, yet so close to the millionaire residences of Chigwell. He was cut up by an articulated lorry, the driver giving him two fingers, or maybe it was Jack chancing it, scuttling back to his squalor in Forest Gate.
He went straight into his bathroom and bathed his eye. It was a sight. Yellow and black, tender to his touch. And he knew there was not much you could do. It would fade away over a week or so.
In his kitchen, he made himself a mug of tea and took a couple of paracetamol for his throbbing head. He probably could have worked the afternoon, but Ward owed him this at least. In fact he’d done quite well. Four hundred pounds in his pocket. That’d clear the overdraft and leave him with a few hundred odd. He needed to make an invoice out to Ward for the first payment. Do that this evening, after Alcohol Halt.
He could pay his rent. Even get ahead. It was so important keeping a roof over his head. Just the other day as he’d been leaving in the morning, he’d seen a gang of bailiffs carting furniture out of a house, a Sikh man and his wife forlornly watching them park it on the pavement. This street, Earlham Grove, was such a mixture. Well-off owner occupiers, just a couple with a child, and beside them flats, some of them so overcrowded to cover the inflated price of rent these days. There were even large sheds in back gardens he could see from his bedroom, that he suspected were occupied.
So hard to get by, so much competition everywhere. But today he was alright. Money in his pocket. He was ahead of the game. It would be good to go out with his telescope tonight. But the instrument was such a humping weight, and he had to drive twenty miles out to Epping Forest to get away from light pollution. And with this head and eye, he reflected.
At least he’d made some money. Damages.
Tomorrow’s party. ‘Risk assess,’ said Alcohol Halt. If he’d judged Ward right the place would be sloshing in booze. It was only when you’d tried giving it up, you realised how much there is about. Everyone has got the stuff, every little corner shop. Any social occasion has to be floated on alcohol. Weddings, funerals, christenings – all danger zones. The state sanctified drug pressed into trembling hands.
He didn’t have to go. Ward had only invited him as an afterthought. He didn’t even know the occasion of the party. He’d ask Donna tomorrow.
He came out of the bathroom. He’d have quite liked a lay down. But he had to pick up Mia in an hour. Oh, why not? He set his phone alarm for an hour, took his shoes off and laid out on the sofa.
Jack didn’t sleep, but kept thinking of the fight out of nowhere. Hardly a fight, attempted murder more like. A couple of minutes, no more, and a man was unconscious and he’d been sacked. Fifteen minutes later, he’s reinstated, got four hundred pounds in his pocket, and is invited to a millionaire’s soiree.
And that woman had been watching him. She’s trouble alright. He hadn’t seen her while her boyfriend was getting smashed to bits. Keep well away. Two hundred pounds to watch her, but that was it. Watch only. Mr Ward had too much of a temper for him to mess with his missus.
The alarm went off but he was wide awake. And he drove off to Mia’s school in Homerton.
There was a crowd of mostly mothers outside the school gates. A few dads, grandparents, carers. A mixture of languages. A woman in a burqa, deep black down to her feet. He avoided catching her eye, the signal too clear. A grubby child in a double pushchair started wailing, starting the other one off. The mother was ignoring them, chatting to her mates. Waiting here embarrassed Jack, though he knew it shouldn’t. Women’s work. Men killed bears.
Already he was having to joke about his eye. Getting in first, before they did. It was going to get very boring. Another reason for not going to the party tomorrow evening. Builders touting for work amongst millionaires shouldn’t have black eyes.
And then came the first trickle of children, a few more. And then Mia. Like all the others she had a red jumper. The colour almost hurt, like a blaze of the redcoats running into American muskets. She’d gone for black trousers rather than a skirt. More sensible, her mother said. Her long brown hair was tousled and rested on her shoulders as if tired after a day at school. She carried a pink lunchbox and had a blue backpack.
‘What d’you do to your eye, Dad?’
She was looking at it quizzically, as if it were a specimen in a lab.
He didn’t want to lie to her, so said, ‘I got into a fight. A man was getting beaten up and I went in to try to stop it.’
‘And did you?’
‘I did. But I got this.’
She sucked her cheek thoughtfully. ‘Why was the man getting beaten up?’
Oh dear, he thought. A lie might have been easier.
‘He stole something belonging to the other man.’
That seemed to satisfy her. They were making their way to the van.
Then she said, ‘He deserved to get beaten up. You shouldn’t have interfered.’
That made him laugh.
‘I shouldn’t have done,’ he said, ‘but I thought the other guy was overdoing it, so I went in to try to stop the fight – and…’ He pointed out his shiner.
‘Serves you right.’
‘Serves me right.’
Agreeing with her seemed to have stopped the questioning. Somewhat like her mother. They were now in the van.
‘I’m supposed to take you to Moira’s. But we can have a little time, if I give her a buzz. Anything you’d like to do?’
‘I’d like to feed the ducks.’
‘Aren’t you a bit old for feeding ducks?’
‘I suppose there isn’t an age limit. But we haven’t got any bread.’
And she shook her lunch box. He knew this was the cue to tell her off for not eating all her lunch. But she looked fine – and he’d get her something now.
They drove to Victoria Park and he bought her an ice cream from the van outside St Mark’s gate. And then they went to the pond.
Donna was chopping vegetables. Some were for tonight, most for tomorrow’s party. She was in full operation, hacking tops and chopping with a long sharp knife on one of her wooden vegetable boards. And thinking mid onion tears of Eric, even onion tears could bring on the feeling of loss, except he wasn’t lost. He hated her and didn’t want to have any contact. If only she could see him and explain, if she could be sure where he was, if his social worker… Tears, real or otherwise, flowed as the acrid juice reddened her hands.
Is it better to be the hated or the hater? she thought. Either way it takes you over, controls your thoughts, comes without notice. And what on earth can you do about it? Never mind the truth or falsity, it was belief that was the demon. He believed she had abused him in his childhood. And how could she prove she hadn’t? All she had were words.
Joanna entered. Her hair was tied back in a tidy ponytail. She wore a simple blue dress with a pattern of flying birds, and no make up, as if she were doing penance. When Donna had first been interviewed, she’d thought her beautiful. Her blonde hair (dyed), her symmetrical face and skin like a child’s. It hadn’t taken her long to lose thoughts of beauty. In a photo, like a film star publicity shot, yes she was beautiful. Face to face, telling you off for a runny egg – no competition for a cow’s backside.
At the kitchen door was a young woman she hadn’t seen before. From her appearance, lightly made up in a dress suit, professional, sharp, attractive – Joanna wouldn’t have anyone who wasn’t, Donna thought: I bet she’s done it. The next, for however long she can take Joanna’s whims.
‘Ooh, those onions.’ Joanna flapped her hands to dispel the odour.
‘For tonight and tomorrow,’ said Donna. ‘I’ve got to do as much as I can today.’
‘Yes, I appreciate that,’ said Joanna. She turned to the woman at the door. ‘Donna, this is Carol, my new assistant. Temporary – we’ll see how it goes.’
Donna gave Carol a half smile, as much as she could manage. ‘Hello, Carol.’
‘Hello, Donna,’ said Carol. And came over with her hand outstretched.
Donna held her hands up to fend her off. ‘Oh, you don’t want to shake my hand. Not reeking of onion.’
Carol backed off with a light smile. ‘I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other.’
Donna wondered about her. She was not good at first impressions, often got them wrong. Here was another assistant to join the list. She might be meek as a spring lamb; if so Joanna would crush her. Or she may have some guts – and so wouldn’t last long.
Which made her wonder why she herself stayed on. Why they hadn’t sacked her. Habit on her side. She didn’t want to work in a restaurant again. But she had to work. Without it she’d fall to pieces. And the granny flat next door. Tied housing they called it. And it certainly was. What a trauma it would be, getting a new job and finding somewhere to live at the same time.
‘Would you make us a coffee when you’ve time?’ said Joanna. ‘And do you know where the builder is? I want to talk to him about tiles. It’s awfully quiet out there.’
‘He’s gone home,’ said Donna.
‘Gone home!’ said Joanna aghast. ‘At this time?’
She looked out of the window just in case Donna was mistaken.
‘Mr Ward gave him a nasty black eye,’ she said.
Joanna gripped the kitchen table. ‘Gave whom a black eye?’
‘Whatever for? And will you please stop chopping those onions. The acid is hurting my eyes.’
Donna put down her knife and wiped her eyes with her apron. She was unsure whether to say any more, and indicated Carol with her eyes.
Joanna gave a short nod to indicate she understood, and turned to Carol. ‘If you’ll go back to my office, Carol. Read the brief for Forest Fairies authors which is on my desk. I’ll be up shortly.’
‘Certainly, Mrs Ward.’ She gave a half wave to Donna and left the room.
‘Seems very nice,’ said Donna for something to say.
‘Very nice,’ said Joanna curtly before getting back to the main business. ‘Why did my husband give the builder a black eye? That’s what you said, isn’t it?’
Donna was unsure how to put this. There were things she wasn’t supposed to know, though how could she not, except there was a game she had to play.
She made an attempt. ‘Your husband was beating…’ she couldn’t think what to call the man. Not lover, friend?
Joanna helped out. ‘My visitor.’
‘Yes, your visitor. Your husband was close to killing him. And Jack…’
‘You shouldn’t get friendly with tradesmen, Donna.’
Donna said with an intense effort of self control, ‘Mrs Ward, please, I try to get on with everyone. I don’t use your first name or Mr Ward’s. But a builder who is going to be here for a month…’
‘Are you making tea for him?’
‘Why can’t he make his own? He has the summerhouse kitchen.’
‘I’ve always made tea for builders,’ she said weakly.
‘You don’t here. You have plenty to do in the house without making tea for workmen.’
‘It pays to keep on good terms with builders, Mrs Ward.’
‘He is getting paid. Well paid, Donna. That will keep us on the best of terms.’ She stopped, losing her own thread. ‘Where were we? My husband nearly killed my visitor and the builder… what did he do?’
‘Stopped him,’ said Donna. ‘And got a black eye for his pains. And then the sack. Temporarily, as then Mr Ward reinstated him and thanked him for stopping him murdering your visitor.’
‘How do you know all this?’
A little anxiously, she said, ‘The builder told me.’ Expecting an attack for her familiarity, but she could see at once that Mrs Ward was struggling with her own contradiction. For she’d come to the kitchen to find out what was going on. And if Donna had not talked to Jack, made him tea and so forth, then she would have nothing to tell Mrs Ward.
Joanna was playing with her hands uncomfortably, avoiding looking at her housekeeper, aimlessly walking about the kitchen. A few times in the last couple of years Donna had wondered when she was going to be dismissed. When it hadn’t happened, she’d come to the conclusion that Mrs Ward thought better one person knowing too much about her private life than six.
Besides, sacked people mouthed off. While you employ them they have a good reason not to gossip.
Joanna stopped her ambling and turned to Donna as if she knew the track her housekeeper was on.
‘I’ve always appreciated your discretion, Donna.’
‘I mind my own business,’ said Donna.
‘As one should.’ She held her hands to her lips as if in prayer. ‘There was an awful hullabaloo with my husband and my visitor, and I thought it best if I kept out of the way. As my presence would only have complicated matters. My visitor… How is he?’
‘We thought he was dead at first. Me and Jack…’ she waited for a reaction on using the forbidden name, then continued when none came, ‘called an ambulance. By the time it arrived, he was able to walk, with a little help. He’s awfully bruised. He might have a broken arm. They’ve taken him to Whipps Cross Hospital.’
‘Thank you, Donna,’ said Joanna thoughtfully.
Donna doubted Joanna would go to visit him. Most likely write him off. One wounded ex lover. Gone, trashed. She had a husband to deal with. There would be words. She had heard them before. Shouting and screaming, things being thrown, before the truce was declared. How many truces are you allowed?
Joanna turned away from the window. ‘You may make the builder tea,’ she said.
That surprised her. A softening, but a calculation, surely?
‘Yes,’ she went on, ‘if my husband is grateful to him, then so am I.’
‘Tea is just a little thing,’ said Donna, she didn’t dare mention the smoked salmon, ‘but it keeps one on speaking terms.’
‘You’re quite the diplomat, Donna,’ said Mrs Ward as she left the kitchen.
The pond was half the size it had been in spring. Cracked mud surrounded it like an ancient dog’s collar, with reeds growing through in places and at one end irises, the flowers drooping and fading, a few yellow heads remaining. The water was murky and greenish brown, reflecting the cloudy blue sky.
Mia opened her lunch box. Inside were two uneaten sandwich halves. She handed Jack the box and began breaking the bread. They had walked in close to the retreating water’s edge.
Jack had to say something. He couldn’t help himself, being a parent.
‘Why didn’t you eat them?’
She threw a few bits out, and coots and mallards began homing in. And then a couple of stately swans, seeing the eagerness of the ducks, turned and headed for Jack and Mia.
‘Why didn’t you eat them?’ he repeated as the first comers snapped up the bread pieces, and she teased the followers by pretending to throw bits.
She said, ‘Because he made them.’
The swans had arrived and she tried to throw them a piece of bread each but the coots were too swift.
‘Jim,’ she said.
‘Ah, Jim,’ he said. Alison had mentioned him but he’d never met the man. ‘Why won’t you eat sandwiches if he makes them?’
The swans and ducks had come ashore and were all round Mia, watching her hands with the pieces of bread she was breaking.
‘I don’t like him,’ she said, twisting and turning in a sea of birds.
‘Is he nasty to you?’
A swan pulled a large bit of sandwich from her hand. She jumped back.
‘You greedy thing!’ she cried.
Seagulls and pigeons had joined the feast. And Mia rapidly threw out bit after bit, trying to select certain birds, but rarely succeeding. She had stopped throwing bits on the dried mud where they stood, but into the water to get the birds away from her. The birds headed for where the bread was landing in the water, except the pigeons who watched her hands forlornly. And then she held up her empty palms.
‘No more,’ she called to the birds.
For a little while they wouldn’t believe her. But seeing no bread and no motion of her arms and hands, they gave up. The ducks and swans swam away, while the pigeons and gulls flew off, leaving Jack and Mia by themselves.
He said, ‘Is Jim nasty to you?’
‘He doesn’t abuse me if that’s what you think.’
A little shaken by the response, he said, ‘I’m glad of that.’
‘But he kisses Mummy all the time.’
‘All the time?’ he queried.
‘All the time,’ she confirmed.
‘So you won’t eat sandwiches that he makes.’
Her eyes glared. ‘Why does he keep kissing Mummy? Can you stop him?’
He shrugged helplessly. ‘I can’t.’
‘She says, “Not now, Jim,” and he says, “You know you want it.”
Jack said uncomfortably, ‘We’ll have to see about these sandwiches.’
‘I hate him,’ she said.
And he sighed, knowing he’d have to tell Alison. And there’d be a row, because she’d see him as interfering, and because, he surmised, she didn’t want to tell Jim her daughter didn’t like him and his sandwiches. But maybe, just maybe, Alison would make Mia’s sandwiches from now on.
‘Best get you to Moira’s,’ he said.
‘How did you get my number, Mrs Jones?’ said a female voice.
‘I kept phoning and asking,’ said Donna. ‘And in the end the switchboard gave me your extension.’
‘They should not have given you it.’
‘Well they have,’ said Donna firmly.
‘And I shouldn’t be talking to you.’
‘Why not?’ said Donna.
‘You are not my client. He’ll see it as a betrayal. Or I’ll have to lie to him. Either way it isn’t good.’
‘But you are talking to me now, so the betrayal has been done.’
‘And the longer I go on, the more so.’
‘I want to see him,’ she said.
‘He doesn’t want to see you,’ said the social worker. ‘He’s said so many times.’
‘But he’s ill. It’s his condition.’
‘Not all the time. There are times, days, even weeks, when you would never know. And not once has he ever intimated that he wants to see you.’
‘Might it not be good for him?’ said Donna.
‘Might it not be bad for him?’ said the social worker.
‘But you don’t know which,’ insisted Donna.
‘I can’t take the risk, Mrs Jones,’ she said. ‘My client has rights. If I betray them, I break the trust between us. And that’s paramount between social worker and client.’
‘Then just be honest with him,’ said Donna. ‘You didn’t contact me. I contacted you.’
‘He says you abused him as a child.’
‘Do you believe that?’ said Donna angrily.
‘He believes it,’ said the social worker.
‘Yes,’ said Donna, thumped by the weariness of going over old ground. ‘But is it not possible that I might be able to persuade him that it’s an illusion? His illness making it up?’
‘I very much doubt it, Mrs Jones. I’m sorry to be so negative,’ said the social worker, ‘but my client is attempting to live an independent life in a shared house, and has specifically requested that his mother be not allowed to contact him.’
‘Don’t I have any rights?’ she said.
‘I’m not your social worker.’
‘Try to imagine what it’s like,’ said Donna, ‘living on, year after year, with a son whom you love, accusing you of abuse and refusing to see you. Every day I think about him, think about the days he was growing up, the outings we had, the birthday parties. I’m on antidepressants. And some days, I wonder if I can go on.’
‘I have been saving up my pills, and one day, it wouldn’t be so difficult…’
‘You put me in a difficult position, Mrs Jones.’
‘Just say I phoned you,’ said Donna. ‘Out of the blue. Can you do that? And say I said I’d like to see him. Can you do that?’
‘I’ll pass on your message,’ said the social worker, ‘but please realise, the decision isn’t mine. I can’t force him to see you.’
‘I understand,’ said Donna.
‘But I will do it,’ said the social worker. ‘I promise you. I am seeing him tomorrow. I’ll phone you after.’
‘Thank you,’ said Donna weakly, ‘thank you. Just say I want to see him. No strings.’
‘I’ll pass on the message,’ said the social worker, ‘and I’ll be in touch. And in future, if you must communicate with me, do it by letter. Goodbye for now, Mrs Jones.’
Donna sank onto a stool, exhausted. She was in the laundry room, the machine droning away mid cycle, on two sides slatted shelves of bedding and general household cloth. She felt utterly alone, cut off, with only these sheets and pillowcases, pots and pans and onion peelings. A life without love, where no one touched her.
For the past few hours she’d been phoning, and at last, at long last…
She smiled to herself. Not much, most likely, but an attempt.
The door swung open and she was caught guiltily on the stool. Carol was there, flustered, a notebook in her hand.
‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you,’ she said. Then leaned forward adding, ‘Are you alright, Donna? You’re very pale.’
‘Overwork,’ she said. ‘What can I do for you, dear?’
‘Mrs Ward wants to talk with you about tomorrow night.’ She threw out her hands in imitation. ‘Oh, she does fuss.’
‘Didn’t take you long to learn that,’ said Donna with a short laugh. ‘Let’s go and find out what today’s panic is.’
‘There has to be rules,’ said Mr Ward.
They were in Joanna’s office. A largish room with two desks. Hers was by the bay window where she sat, her assistant’s desk a little way along the wall, at right angles to hers, and opposite the marble fireplace with William Morris tiles down the inside. Between the two desks was a set of shelves full of her fairy books. Posters of the various characters in sylvan glades were here and there up on the walls. A few months back, she had posed for publicity pictures with this background, the photographer using natural light to catch the reflection of her hair in the sun, giving her a playful, fairy look herself.
Ward was sitting on her desk. He had loosened his tie and unbuttoned his jacket in spite of the air-conditioning making the room on the cool side. He was wearing a pale brown summer suit, always a suit. She’d never known him to wear anything else. His idea of casual was to take his tie off.
‘You must not make a fool of me, Joanna.’
‘There was quite a kerfuffle,’ she said with a wry smile, ‘but it wasn’t me that made it.’
‘I don’t mind you having the odd fling,’ said Ward.
‘We agreed at the beginning, an open relationship,’ said Joanna. ‘I know you have one or two on the go.’
‘How do you know?’
‘You have a penchant for certain wine bars,’ she said. ‘Where you take certain women, for purposes that may, or may not, be business related. But if you are holding hands, it suggests…’ She stopped and smiled, to invite conjecture.
‘Never mind what I might have done. You made a fool of me here,’ he said.
‘Oh, Leon,’ she protested. ‘Who knows but a housekeeper and a builder. Why are you so worried what they think?’
‘Worlds collide,’ insisted Ward. ‘People talk.’
She shrugged. ‘Let them talk.’
‘There has to be limits,’ he insisted. ‘Rules.’
‘Not here. Not in my own bed.’
She glared at him with half closed eyes. ‘I know for a fact you had that little tart Gloria, in that very bed.’
‘Alright, alright. That was months ago.’
‘Never mind how long ago,’ he said. ‘The rule now is, not here.’
‘That’s not fair,’ she threw. ‘You’re out and about, and I work mostly from home. Surely I’m allowed a little recreation.’
‘How much is a little?’
‘Is this an interrogation, darling?’
‘Go to hell, Joanna!’
‘After you, dear.’
He got up from her desk and strode across the carpet. Then stopped. ‘Is that someone at the door?’
Joanna got up and went to it, opened it a few inches, said curtly to Donna and Carol, ‘We’re busy,’ and slammed it shut, her back pressed to it.
‘Who was Big Cock?’ he threw at her.
She sighed heavily. ‘I swear it’s only twice the size of yours, Leon.’
‘With bags of room, I dare say, in that well-used passage.’
‘Oh shut up.’
‘How long have you and he been messing up the sheets?’
‘I’m not going to be pumped like one of your secretaries, Leon.’
‘I bet you’ve got your eye on the builder.’
He strode across and slapped her round the face. She jumped away and grabbed a candlestick from the mantelpiece. Ward was immediately after her and clasped her round the wrist. She spat in his face. He grimaced and grasped her hair.
‘You syphilitic cow!’
She cried out as he pulled her hair. And stamped on his toe with her stiletto.
He screeched, letting go. And she stumbled back on a broken heel.
Her head was shuddering, she was rocking like a drunk. The space between was electric with venom. If she could, she would have smashed in his head, cracked through the skull and split his brain, killing her hatred and his accusation. In those instants, every atom of feeling was transformed. Distilled and crystallised in the stab of pain in her skull and her stinging cheek.
‘I want a divorce,’ she said, struggling to quell her breathing.
‘The sooner you are out of my life the better,’ he said, wincing as he rubbed his foot through his shoe. His hands clenched and unclenched as if he would mince her with his fingers, and throw her clean out of his ken.
‘I want this house,’ she said.
‘Like hell you’ll get it.’
‘I’ll get it alright,’ she said coldly, putting the candlestick back on the mantelpiece. ‘You’re a violent man, Leon. The court won’t look favourably on that.’
‘And with you with your lovers in my shower,’ he said. ‘What will the court make of that?’
‘It will be entertaining,’ she said. ‘Plenty of tabloid fodder.’
He sank onto the arm of a chair, and took off his shoe. Blood was seeping into his sock. He eased the wool from his heel and toes. Easily worth a three hundred pound pair of high heels, she thought. She’d nail them on the wall like a stag’s head, his torn photo on the tines.
‘We have tomorrow night to get through,’ she said.
‘What a dog’s dinner,’ he muttered without looking up from his ministering.
‘My sentiments entirely,’ she said.
‘I’ve business colleagues coming,’ he said resentfully, like a schoolboy having his games console removed. ‘I was hoping to make…’ and stopped, wishing to reveal no more.
‘So have I.’
They were silent. What was there to say? She kicked off her shoes, and leaned against the mantelpiece, her throbbing head against the wall. He’d rolled off the arm into the cushion of the chair, eyes closed, his bleeding foot crossed over his knee, his butcher’s fingers massaging.
‘It’s too late to cancel,’ she said wearily to the wall.
‘Too late,’ he uttered to his sock.
‘We will be a loving couple for one more night,’ she said.
‘The numbers are sufficient for us to mingle without encountering.’
‘I promise faithfully,’ she added, ‘not to shag anyone in the shower.’
Jack was seated in the wide circle of chairs, occupied mostly by men, a few women scattered amongst them. The majority middle-aged and old, though perhaps the old were middle-aged and ravaged, and a scattering of some surprisingly young.[* *]A man next to him, with a lived-in face and startled grey hair, was telling those present about his many years of alcohol abuse, his drink fuelled battering of his wife, his jailings, his addiction to crack, sleeping rough and almost dying in the snow, when God came to him. He was enjoying telling of his alcohol days, tales of bingeing, terrorising his family, days in the gutter until he saw the light and lay till morning before the altar in a church. He told it like a film, a classical narrative of redemption. He had been at rock bottom when God came to him, and through Jesus he had stayed clean.
Good for him, but it was not good for Jack. It was why he’d only gone twice to AA. All that ‘higher power’ stuff in the Twelve Steps, submit yourself. Pretend it’s a doorknob, said one of the participants gleefully. Jack had thought that utterly stupid. Yes, he could accept that he was helpless before alcohol. The ruin of his life was evident. But to submit to a higher power in the guise of a doorknob?
The implication was find God – or stay drunk. Not directly said, but clear enough in the God and Higher Power stuff of the 12 Steps. Or the doorknob that you must prostrate yourself before. A crazy idolatry.
Not that drinking was sanity. A madness. A daily annihilation of sense, of the rational self. But he wouldn’t replace one madness by another.
So he looked for another organisation. A secular group, not God-shrouded. And so he came to Alcohol Halt which met on the Romford Road, near Stratford. But it seemed the religious followed you. They were here. And they had the answer in the fall of man. Their fall. Your fall. Sin was expected of you.
Only God could save you.
Alcoholism was a punishment for not believing. Come forward and be saved. And you will be dry.
But if you can’t come forward?
Try a doorknob.
And if you find that ridiculous?
Go to Hell. Or to Alcohol Halt. A secular group nominally, but many of those in the circle knew the 12 Step mantras too well. They had been in and out that door and many others, between outings to the pub and off-licence.
And when challenged that they were still drinking even though they had God; they said they didn’t have Him totally. Which was always a good excuse – as how can you have anything totally? A bit of you forgot from time to time. And that bit of you got you drunk.
So get closer to the absolute.
He was suddenly aware everyone was looking at him. The man beside him had finished his spiel.
‘Have you anything to say, brother?’ said the convenor across the circle.
‘I’m Jack,’ he said, knowing the routine. ‘I’m in recovery, and I have a problem which I’d like to share with you all.’
‘You are welcome, Jack,’ said the convenor.
Jack looked around at the circle, people were nodding, the odd smile. He knew them quite well now. This was his new circle, as opposed to the Goldengrove regulars.
‘I’ve been dry for nine months,’ he said.
‘Well done, Jack,’ said a man. A couple of people clapped.
‘Prior to that, my marriage had broken up, I lost my job and smashed my car up. Luckily, the car crashed into a tree and not into anyone. A friend of mine took me home or I’d have been done for drunken driving and lost my licence. I couldn’t even remember driving, let alone crashing into the tree. The next morning when I was sober and saw the car, I couldn’t believe how I’d got out of it alive; it was so mangled. Since that day I haven’t drunk.’
There was a little applause round the circle. A few cries of ‘well done’, ‘keep it up, mate’.
‘So what do you have to ask us, Jack?’ said the convenor.
‘I’m coming to that. Since then I’ve been sober, I’ve set up my own business. As a builder. Jack of All Trades it’s called. It’s been a struggle, but at the moment I’m doing OK. Making a living, up and down, but getting my self respect back. You know how it is.’
There were nods, a few calls of assent.
‘But this is the problem. I’m working on a big house for the next few weeks, out in Chigwell, repairing their summerhouse. And they’ve invited me to a party at the house tomorrow night. There’ll be a lot of rich people there. The guy who I’m doing the work for has said he’ll introduce me to people – and he’s pretty sure I could get some work out of it. Maybe a couple of big jobs that would take me up a league.’ He stopped, licked his lips a little nervously, but could see everyone was listening, waiting on him. He began again. ‘There’s going to be a shipload of alcohol at the party, beer, spirits, wine, champagne, a special punch – you name it. And the thing is… I haven’t been to a party since I’ve been sober. Simply made a decision not to go to any. Too risky. So, this one – what do I do?’
He paused, and looked to the convenor who nodded.
‘Thank you for sharing your problem with us, Jack,’ said the convenor. ‘I know it isn’t easy. But you have presented us with a good topic for discussion. So everyone, how can we help Jack with this very real challenge? Pertinent to all of us.’ He stopped for an instant, and held up his hands. ‘Hang on, before you all come in. I want you to think about Jack. What would be useful to him. Please put your hand up if you wish to contribute.’
A few hands went up.
‘You first, you next and then you.’
Jack waited uncomfortably. He was pretty sure what he was going to get.
‘I think you shouldn’t go, Jack,’ said the first, a youngish woman with poor teeth. She was wearing a bright green coat, completely done up in spite of the fact that they were inside. ‘It’s too soon,’ she went on. ‘Build slowly or you’ll lose everything.’
There was nodding and murmuring to this.
The second began with questions. He was an elderly man or perhaps not so elderly, for Jack had seen that alcohol could add ten or even twenty years to your perceived age.
‘Are you going with anyone, Jack? And before you answer, another one for you. Will there be anyone there who can support you?’
‘No to both,’ said Jack. ‘I’m on my own, no girlfriend. And no friends at the party. The only ones I’d know are my employer and his wife who are throwing the party. And I wouldn’t call them friends.’
‘That’s simple then,’ said the old man. ‘You know the rule: never go into a pub on your own. I don’t think this is any different. A group of strangers, all with glasses of booze in their hands. Don’t go, Jack. You’ll end up legless.’
Jack was trembling. They were saying what he knew. All that booze and on his own. He didn’t stand a chance.
The convenor pointed out the third man, a middle aged skinhead, face and scalp almost submerged in tattoos.
‘Pray,’ said the skinhead. ‘Get down on your knees and ask for guidance.’
‘I’m not religious,’ said Jack.
‘Time you were then,’ retorted the skinhead.
‘None of that, John,’ intervened the convenor. ‘We don’t talk that way here. Religion is a personal thing. We don’t push our beliefs on others in this hall.’
‘Without God you are powerless,’ said the skinhead sweeping an arm round the circle. ‘All of you. You’ll keep coming back. You’ll get pissed out of your heads and vomit your guts out until you take Jesus into your life.’
‘Thank you, John,’ said the convenor. ‘That’s quite enough of that. You know the rules. Anyone else who wishes to contribute?’
A few others had their say. None thought he should go. The consensus was he had a job and he should keep it. Not push things too quickly, or he’d fall. As surely he knew himself, said a woman, or why was he asking the question?
Jack nodded as each one spoke, apart from the religious intervention which offered him nothing. He knew what they were saying. It was true. And yet, and yet…
‘Was that helpful, Jack?’
He said it was. And the meeting moved round the circle.
At the end of the meeting, when everyone was taking a parting coffee in the space by the urn, the convenor came over to him.
‘Have you made a decision, Jack?’
‘I’m not going,’ said Jack.
The convenor patted him on the shoulder. ‘Good decision. It doesn’t pay to rush things.’
Except there was no decision. Jack knew what the convenor wanted from him, and so gave it to him. Any other answer would just open up the lecture.
He’d decide tomorrow, nearer the time.
Donna was in her flat, a small attachment to the main house with no direct connection. To go to the Wards’ house, she had to go out of her front door and into theirs. Less than ten yards but still separate.
Living and working so close had advantages. She had no travel costs or journey time. No rent. Except that wasn’t really true as it was subsumed into her salary. It meant she could make the most of her breaks. Her day started early with making breakfast for the household, changing sheets – always tricky, depending who was in bed with whom. A Filipina maid did the hoovering and mopping. An hour or so off for Donna, then lunch to be made. Time off in the afternoon, back by five to make dinner, clearing up after dinner, then finished for the day.
That was the way it was supposed to work. But Joanna would phone her at home, and if she got no answer would send her secretary round. Joanna’s fussing could annihilate her breaks. Then there were dinner parties, small was easy enough, but Mr Ward could easily rustle up a dozen. And then the very big dos, like tomorrow…
She was watching television in her dressing gown, having showered after work, her hands cuddling a cup of marmite. She had made dinner for Mr and Mrs Ward, but neither had eaten in the dining room, both in their separate offices. Not surprising, considering the row there had been earlier. She and Carol had kept out of the way as the yelling and bashing rang through the house.
The TV was on. It was company for her, a background, though she couldn’t have said what was happening. A cop show. A couple of murders already, but she’d lost it. Who was dead? What relation were they to anyone? It didn’t matter. Simply background, while she thought about Eric. Had a talk with Eric, as she often did. Explaining herself. How his father had left them, and the long hours of childminding were the fault of the sector she worked in. And maybe that was wrong, but what could she do all these years later?
Eric didn’t reply. He never replied. To letters, birthday cards. She had to send them to the social worker, Heather Kennedy. Did she send them on? Donna always thought if she stayed in contact, one day he’d reply. The social workers might simply rip them up. Or file them.
Tomorrow, the social worker had said… except who knew with social workers. They were two-faced. They’d say anything to get you off their backs. Tomorrow she might tell Eric that his mother wanted to see him. For that matter, how did she know how the social worker would phrase it? Your busybody mother has been in touch again. Or such like.
The bitch had made it plain enough; she didn’t have to do anything for Donna. Donna wasn’t her client. Donna had no rights at all. Eric, though, had his rights protected by the United Nations Declaration and assorted legislation. He didn’t have to see his mother if he didn’t want to. She might bang on his door until Hell froze over. That is, if she could even get to the door with his guardian angel barring the path with the fiery sword of human rights.
She switched the channel to a quiz programme, couldn’t take the comedian’s shenanigans and switched to a vampire film, to the News, to a family comedy full of laughter and inanity which she let run.
Tomorrow was another day.
And so was the day after.
It was raining when Jack got to the Wards’ place in the morning. He hadn’t slept well, ruminating about whether to go to the party or not. Always deciding he wouldn’t go, then finding reasons why he should, mostly about money. Beset too by the phone call he’d made in the evening to Alison about Mia’s lunchbox. He’d told her that their daughter wasn’t eating the sandwiches because Jim made them. Which got him a metaphorical sock in the eye, as if he was short of one, accusations of jealousy and a lecture about how she looked after Mia, and did what was best for her in spite of the fact that she was working full time, and it was easy for him to talk as he just had her alternate weekends. It became a shouting match, utterly stupid and totally pointless. Simply emotion bubbling out, attempting to make sense of itself mid flow. Not recommended for a good nightcap.
He’d given up on any astronomy last night. It had clouded over anyway, but there was still enough free sky. He’d just had enough of the day. Maybe tonight, he’d have a go.
This morning he’d have to work inside. England being England, weather is changeable. So he wasn’t unprepared, though he preferred working in the fresh air. Less risk too of damage to property, carpets and furniture, under the sky. But weather ruled. The window frames were too big to work on in the hall of the summerhouse, so he sorted out her workroom, pushing the furniture against the wall and covering it in sheets, ditto the carpet. He opened the Venetian blind for natural light, and noted there was a view of the shrubbery and part of the lawn, but not the house, which was good if you wanted to work undistracted. Not so good if you wanted to see someone coming.
Jack set up his workbench. The plan was an hour’s work, then see if he could charm a bacon sandwich out of Donna, though he knew she’d be extra busy today, so he’d made a couple of cheese sandwiches in case.
The front door of the summerhouse as well as the door to the room were wide open to let in the air. He liked to work to the radio, but planing was too noisy to hear much, and he was sure he’d get complaints from Madam, if not from Sir.
He’d been working for about half an hour when Leon came in. Jack put down his plane. His visitor wore a slightly heavier, tweedish suit today, and a tie which might have been regimental.
‘I’d like a word, Jack,’ he said pointedly.
Oh, what’s this about, thought Jack as he kicked through the wood shavings and sat down on the arm of a sofa in readiness.
‘Go ahead, Mr Ward.’
Leon took the other arm, and picked at fluff on his knee, obviously considering how to begin.
He said at last, ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard about yesterday afternoon’s fuss.’
Jack shook his head. ‘I haven’t talked to anyone this morning. Came straight here. And I was out, as you know, for the afternoon.’
He didn’t mention the cause, nor need to, as his eye was just as black this morning. At Alcohol Halt he’d told people he’d tried to break up a fight and got a blow for his pains – which was true enough, but got sceptical looks as if everyone wanted to believe that it was his comeuppance for a drunken rampage.
‘I dare say you’ll hear,’ said Ward. ‘This is somewhat of a gossip factory. In short, let’s say, Joanna and I had words concerning the chap who was taken to hospital. And let’s say we both got rather heated.’ He stopped to see the effect it was having on Jack, who was considering the words and the heat, knowing something of the Wards and how couples quarrel.
‘The upshot is,’ went on Ward, ‘we are divorcing.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Mr Ward,’ Jack said automatically, though he didn’t care at all. When it came down to it, he didn’t like either of them much. They were employing him. Then it hit him what this was going to be about. They were employing him, both of them, and if they were splitting up – he might be collateral damage.
‘It’s been coming for some time,’ said Ward, ‘it was simply a question of when. But that’s neither here nor there. The fact is this job…’
Here it comes, thought Jack.
‘Frankly,’ said Ward, ‘I don’t see why I should waste my money on her summerhouse. So…’
Jack sank back, hands behind his head. ‘So I am to be sacked again, Mr Ward.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘I’ve a contract,’ said Jack, remembering instantly he hadn’t. Bob had.
Ward gave a mirthless laugh. ‘Are you going to sue me?’
Half a second’s thought made Jack dismiss this option. With a contract he’d consider it, without…
‘No,’ he said. ‘But we can’t leave the windows out, and they must be varnished.’
He was thinking quickly, in order to get what he could out of the wreckage.
‘How long will that take you?’
‘Two or three days.’
‘That’s it then,’ said Ward, ‘end of the week, and I’ll give you a severance payment on top. But just the windows. No floorboards, no roofing and guttering, and no electrics.’
‘Right,’ said Jack, like someone staggering out of his burning car with a radio.
‘I’m sorry for the way it hits you, Jack, but I am not paying for her shag shed. Not in a million years. The best I can offer you is this evening’s opportunity. The party. I’m on the board of the golf club and the secretary is coming. And I know for a fact there’s work to be done on the club house.’
‘Right,’ said Jack, voice on automatic.
‘And there’s something I’d like you to do some time today. A house of mine, one of the tenants, old chap, needs a door and lock fixed. Buy whatever materials you need.’ He took a bit of paper from his pocket. ‘In Leyton. Here’s the address. Sorry it’s a bit scruffy. And here’s the key.’
Jack took them. ‘I’ll go over this afternoon,’ he said.
‘Fine,’ said Ward. ‘And I do apologise for all this. It’s a mess all round. But the party this evening – I’ll point a few chaps your way. Make the most of it. I’m sure we can get you something. Starting next week even.’
‘Let’s hope so,’ said Jack.
‘I’ll see you later then,’ said Ward. He gave a cheery smile and a wave. And was gone.
Jack barely moved for a minute or so, seated on the arm as if he’d trebled in weight.
‘So that’s finally that,’ he said to the wrinkled sheets and wood shavings.
He’d lost the job yesterday, got it back a while later, only to lose it for good and always just now. These rich so and so’s, change their minds like babies’ nappies. Order people about like pawns. Moral – make sure you have a proper contract before you start the job. And get half the money upfront.
He’d been able to stretch the work for the rest of the week, and that was pushing it. And there was nothing to follow on. He hadn’t looked for anything. A good month’s work down the chute. All he had was a vacuous promise about what might happen at tonight’s party.
A builder’s life is not a happy one.
Jack had just begun work again, lackadaisically planing, when Carol came in. She was carrying a tray with two coffees and a bacon sandwich.
‘May I come in?’ she said tentatively at the door to the room.
A pleasant, attractive woman, much better than his last visitor, though he’d no idea who she was. And she was bearing gifts. She stepped into the room and looked for somewhere to put the tray. Jack took it from her and put it on the arm of the sofa.
‘A coffee for you,’ she said, ‘and a bacon sandwich – both courtesy of Donna.’
‘She’s wonderful,’ he said. ‘And I am in need.’
He picked up the sandwich, beautifully warm in his fingers, the meat pink and bulging, and took a hot, greasy bite.
Carol was in her light blue skirt-suit, jacket open and blouse dazzling white. She smiled at his eagerness and took up the other coffee.
‘We haven’t met before,’ he said. ‘You are?’
‘I’m Mrs Ward’s new secretary. Carol. Come to bring sustenance. And a message from Mrs Ward. She wants to see you.’
‘Now?’ he said through a mouthful of sandwich.
Carol shook both hands. ‘No, no. She’s interviewing a couple of people for her fairy books. In half an hour, say.’
‘I am popular today,’ he said. ‘First Mr and then Mrs.’
‘I think it might be connected,’ she said conspiratorially. She settled herself on an arm of the sofa, and then went on, ‘Joanna saw Mr Ward through her window come in here.’
‘She’s quite a watcher, the lady of the house,’ said Jack.
‘She is indeed,’ agreed Carol. ‘She wants to know everything. She said, I quote, ‘I wonder what carrot face is up to.’’
‘One of her politer names for him.’
‘He sacked me,’ said Jack.
‘Oh no,’ exclaimed Carol. ‘I am so sorry.’
‘Not quite a sacking,’ went on Jack. ‘He’s not displeased with my work. Let’s say he made me redundant. I quote, ‘I’m not paying for her shag shed.’’
Carol laughed, then slapped a hand to her mouth. ‘Sorry, Jack. I know it’s not funny.’
Jack sighed and sat on the other sofa arm. ‘This job was going to clear my debts, and give me some breathing room. Instead…’ He stopped in exasperated weariness.
‘Can’t you sue?’
Jack laughed at the repetition. ‘This job was passed on to me by a mate. He’s got the contract. I suppose he could sue, but he won’t. It’s on my to-do list for my next job. Get a proper contract and money upfront.’
‘When are you going? I don’t mean I want you to go, but it’s just… Have you got anything to follow?’
‘No.’ Then he added,‘I’m here till the end of the week. I’m to put the windows in and varnish them. And that is that. I’m out on my ear. Unless…’ He took a bite of sandwich. Senseless to let two slices of prime backgammon go to waste.
He was munching and couldn’t speak.
‘Don’t choke for me,’ she said. ‘Eat slow.’
He nodded. Cleared his mouth, licked his lips and washed it down with a slurp of coffee.
‘I’ll miss Donna’s bacon sandwiches,’ he said.
‘Unless what?’ she reminded him.
‘Tonight’s do,’ he said. ‘Ward said he’d introduce me to a few of his mates. Some of them might need a builder…’
‘It’s a chance,’ she said. ‘You never know.’
‘Except I was set on not going.’
She clapped her hands. ‘Oh, you must! If I know one thing about business – it’s contacts. People who know people. A face, a handshake.’
‘I know,’ he said uncomfortably. ‘I know how it works. But you see…’ He’d started, and he’d learnt that it was always better to tell people. ‘I haven’t been to a party in a year. They’re no-go areas for me. I’m on the wagon. And I want to stay on it. Been dry for nine months. And from what I know of Ward, there’ll be enough booze to fill a swimming pool.’
‘Olympic size,’ she said. ‘But there’ll be other things to drink. Fruit juice, fizzy water, non alcoholic non boozy things…’
‘Besides,’ he added, ‘I won’t know anyone. I’ll be standing about with an empty glass, while multi-millionaires swap fox hunting tales with their freemason mates.’
‘I’ll be there,’ she said.
He looked at her as if he’d just seen her. She gazed back.
‘That’s the best reason anyone has given me for going,’ he said.
‘Do come,’ she said. ‘I won’t know anyone either. Just the Wards and Donna who’ll be too busy anyway. I’ll make sure you only drink non alcoholic stuff. Please. I’ll prime the waitresses…’
‘Don’t you dare.’
She laughed, her eyes were reflecting the light from the window. And he knew he was going to go, simply to catch that laugh again.
‘I’ll go around to all the millionaires, one by one,’ she said, ‘and say there’s this marvellous builder. I’ll hand them your card, and say he’s so good, you really must employ him to do up your palace.’ She clapped her hands, thrilled at her own image.
‘I’d rather you spoke to me,’ he said.
‘I will a bit,’ she teased. ‘Each time round the hall, I’ll stop for an instant, sniff your glass to make sure it’s booze free, and snatch it away if it isn’t, as I head off into the looty throng.’
‘I bet you could charm the gold out of a miser’s teeth,’ he said, half jealous already.
‘You could have a go at their wives,’ she said teasingly. ‘Though I’d rather you didn’t. But I suppose it would be a bit off to just talk to ourselves.’
He stretched a hand across the back of the sofa, and she stretched hers to meet it. The tips of their fingers touched in warm welcome.
‘Why would it?’ he said.
And she leaned inwards, her hand inching further along his palm, until the tips touched his wrist. He grasped her hand tightly.
And then let go as if from electric shock as heels clicked on the hall floorboards:
‘Hello in there!’
‘What you two up to?’ said Joanna.
‘Drinking coffee,’ said Carol, reddening.
Jack was close enough to job’s end that he might have told her that they’d left school many years ago. Except Carol needed her job. And maybe he needed a reference.
‘Carol was kind enough to bring me over a bacon sandwich and coffee from Donna,’ he said.
‘I thought you’d be a while with those two,’ attempted Carol, hoping to excuse herself from things that make your face redden.
‘I have them writing away,’ said Joanna. ‘Though I can’t say either of them impress. Just out of college.’ Her mouth was pursed as she looked over the room, making Jack realise that the cover sheets were well past washing time.
‘Quite a shiner,’ she said, standing back and gazing at Jack’s eye. ‘A lovely yellow and blue, hardly black. Almost as good as a tattoo.’
‘I’d prefer a tattoo,’ said Jack stiffly. ‘And one less visible.’
‘Earned in the cause of duty, I hear. Thank you for that. I’m sorry for my part in it.’
Jack said nothing, doubting her sincerity. She was here and had to say something, his black eye being a feature you could not ignore.
Joanna turned to Carol. ‘I think you’d best be mummy to the girls upstairs or they’ll just be chatting about pop songs.’
‘Right,’ said Carol. And gathered up Jack’s plate and cup, put them on the tray. ‘I’ll carry on with the emails.’ Without glancing at him, the professional again, she left the room, her soles clacking in the hall and dying away across the patio.
Joanna turned to him.
‘I’d rather you didn’t chat up my assistant,’ she said.
He might’ve laughed at her haughtiness, but protectively said, ‘She simply brought me a coffee and sandwich.’
‘I know you builders.’
She was smiling, a hand on her hip. He began to wonder what was in the water round here. She had a heck of a figure, her dress cut tight to her curves, her scent confusing the sawdust in the air.
‘Don’t believe everything you read in the Sun,’ he said.
‘It’s not a question of reading,’ she said, eyeing him up and down. ‘More practical experience.’
‘Who do you prefer,’ he said, ‘plasterers or carpenters?’
She laughed, tossing her hair across her shoulders.
Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine her rolling on these grubby sheets. She came up close to where he was sitting on the settee arm, above him, her knees touching his.
‘My husband’s in,’ she said. ‘Otherwise I might add to my knowledge.’ She took his hand, a finger circling the palm for a second or two. Then dropped it to Jack’s relief.
She took a couple of steps back.
‘Some other time, perhaps.’
He could hardly be sure what was happening. It hadn’t been a good year, sex wise. But this morning, first the assistant, then the mistress. Carol was pretty enough, in a girl next door sort of way, but Joanna was something else. Enhanced by her designer clothes, breast modification he supposed, and her blonde hair, tied back yesterday, untied today, perhaps just for him. If he hadn’t seen her lover getting knocked about by her husband the day before, he’d have snatched at her offer with both hands. Though was it an offer? She knew how to play with men. In spite of what her body was saying, her language was full of maybes.
She said casually, ‘What did he want?’
She was looking out of the window through the blinds. He was grateful for the breather, her scent not quite so heavy, her figure silhouetted against the light. A rich bitch, the emphasis on bitch, who shagged around and wrote fairy books. When she wasn’t complaining about the staff. But a figure to climb mountains for.
‘He sacked me,’ he said.
She turned, goggle-eyed. ‘What?’
‘He said finish the windows – and go by the end of the week.’
‘The prick!’ she said.
‘He said he’s not paying for your…’ he struggled to come up with a euphemism, ‘writing den.’
‘So he just sacked you?’
‘He was quite nice about it,’ said Jack with a half laugh. ‘Not so nice about you, but keen to tell me there were no hard feelings. Just that the job was defunct. Over. Kaput.’
‘Oh no it isn’t,’ she said.
‘What?’ As if he’d misheard.
She sauntered round the work bench, her fingers playing with the wood shavings.
‘I’ve my own money,’ she said, twisting a curl of wood in her fingers. ‘And you’re rehired.’
She spun the curl of wood at him, smiling brightly.
Jack put his hands up shoulder high as if she held a gun. ‘I’m a bit lost. Sacked, hired, fired, hired or what? Who is responsible?’
‘Simple enough,’ she said, a finger flicking under his chin. ‘Even for a builder. This job was on a joint account. One of our companies…. I dare say I could sue him to get the rest of the contract paid, but that might take years. In that time, I shall be divorced with as much as I can possibly squeeze out of the old marrow.’
She dropped down on the sofa by him, a hand on his knee, making him reflect again about her and those grubby sheets.
‘How would this work then?’ he quizzed, in spite of her kneading hand. She might be hellishly sexy, but work was work, even with Ward’s cash which wouldn’t last long.
‘He’s agreed to pay you to finish the windows?’ she said.
‘Yes. He said rest of the week for that. And then finish.’
‘Then the remaining work I’ll put on a new contract from my own account,’ she said, standing up. ‘I’ll get Carol to draw it up this afternoon.’ She smiled teasingly. ‘You were holding her hand, weren’t you?’
‘You know how it is with builders,’ he said.
‘Hammering here, hammering there,’ she mused. She was leaning against his bench, one high heel tucked underneath, back arched like a man o’ war’s prow. ‘Are you married?’ she said.
‘Good.’ A finger went to her lips. ‘Children?’
‘A daughter, aged ten.’
‘I’ll get Carol to bring down some fairy books for her.’ She raised her eyebrows, ‘Or would you prefer me to come down personally?’
And before he could reply, she gave a mock laugh. ‘Carpenters!’
And turned away, and left him.
‘I did speak to him, Mrs Jones.’
Donna pressed the phone tight to her ear to counter the rumble of the freezer, at the same time as stirring a saucepan on a low light with a large wooden spoon.
‘What did he say?’ she asked tentatively.
There was a pause at the other end. Donna held back and waited, imagining what the social worker was doing, her appearance, the others in the office. And couldn’t get beyond a jailer in a black and white prison drama. A hatchet faced woman, dressed in a grey uniform, with a bunch of keys hanging on a shelf behind her. She should have been speaking in an American accent.
‘I’m afraid the news isn’t good,’ she said.
‘What did he say?’
‘I told him of your feelings for him. How whatever had happened in the past you still wanted to support him…’
Donna didn’t remember saying that. It seemed like she was admitting something, though she could hardly say what, some ancient cruelty. She felt weak and hollowed, knowing how this phone call would end.
‘I tried my best,’ went on the social worker, ‘saying you were his mother no matter what…’
‘And that I loved him?’ said Donna.
‘In a manner of speaking I said that. I said you wanted to begin afresh, move forward…’
What was this woman selling? Her innocence, her clean hands. Of course.
‘But he said no. No matter how I tried, Mrs Jones. I put your side as best I could…’
‘I’m sure you did.’
‘But Eric was adamant. I don’t know how to put this, but it has to be said. He doesn’t want to see you. Full stop.’
‘I see.’ Her voice constricted, as if a gangster’s hand was gripping her throat. ‘Thank you for trying, I appreciate your efforts…’ She was evaporating in platitudes.
‘I’m sorry I was not successful, Mrs Jones.’
‘I understand.’ She didn’t at all. She couldn’t see the woman on the phone, nor Eric when he said what he said. How he looked, what he felt. His frown, his smile, his furious analysis when they went to the movies together, all those years ago.
‘I think it’s best,’ said the social worker, ‘that you wait until he wants to communicate with you.’
‘But he’s ill,’ she tried ineffectually. ‘He makes things up. He’s manufactured a false past.’
‘Whether he has or hasn’t – and I can’t be sure one way or the other – he says he doesn’t want to see you. And all I can do as his social worker is respect that.’
Donna could see no way through. The woman was so reasonable. Everything she was doing was for Eric. She had tried. And yet, Donna felt something was missing. Herself. No one spoke for her. All communication went through a woman who hadn’t wanted Donna to communicate at all. Regarded her as a nuisance. Who reminded her over and over that Eric was her client. Not Donna.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered, ‘for making an attempt.’
She was as empty as a churn. She had tried to prepare herself for this, even so, there is only so much preparing, and the facts themselves, the bleeding words, the denial of her as a mother, flayed her.
When Carol came into the kitchen a little while later, Donna was in tears on a stool at the long table. The saucepan had boiled over and was burning.
Jack was marking up a new window frame when Carol came into the summerhouse. He stuck the pencil behind his ear.
‘Back so soon.’
Carol avoided his eyes, her face drawn. She was carrying a bundle of books.
‘Joanna asked me to bring these down. They’re all signed.’
Her coldness told him something was very up.
‘Where’s the woman who wanted me to go to the party?’ He looked about in a mock search.
She shrugged morosely.
‘That was before Joanna came to see you.’
He felt a twinge of guilt. Nothing had happened, or rather not very much, which is not to say it might not have.
He sighed. ‘Joanna is Joanna.’
Carol gave a thin lipped smile. ‘And men find her very attractive, even though she’s a cow.’
‘A sexy cow,’ he said.
‘A fake one,’ said Carol. ‘Plastic tits and hip enhancement. Much more and it’d be less trouble to buy your own on the internet.’
‘I don’t like her,’ said Jack. ‘If that’s any consolation.’
‘But you wouldn’t throw her out of bed.’
He chuckled. ‘I doubt I’ll get the chance.’
‘Do you know what she said to me?’
Jack imagined the two women together, the superior to her inferior.
‘She said – don’t screw my builder.’
Jack laughed. The cheek of it, the possessiveness, the possibilities even.
‘Are you going to take any notice?’ he said.
She stared hard at him, a compound of anger and disappointment.
‘I haven’t made up my mind.’ And turned on her heels. ‘I mustn’t stay long. Not that I was going to, but she’s watching. And waiting.’
‘We haven’t had time to do anything,’ he said.
She blew a raspberry at him.
‘There’s more than one prick in a sewing box,’ she said as she headed across the lawn.
That hurt. One chance damning the other. But at least it was in the open about Joanna. Though it could hardly be closeted. Joanna dressed to attract men. Did she really have plastic buttocks? He grimaced at the image of a surgeon slicing her with a knife, a wobbly jelly on a dish within reach.
The butcher’s shop of desire.
He picked up the fairy books. There were six in a cardboard presentation pack. He pulled one out. Ellie and the Squirrels, showing a fairy and a squirrel staring at each other high in a tree. The squirrel was holding an acorn, the fairy flying holding a very large key. A ladybird was flying nearby, a black bird with a yellow bill watched from a higher branch.
He opened the book. She had signed it: To the Fairy within you – Bluebell Woods. And thought, plastic tits, plastic buttocks. The fairy within.
He looked at his watch. It’d be lunchtime. And he phoned Mia. The phone purred a while before she picked it up.
‘What you up to?’ he said.
‘Chatting as we eat lunch,’ she said. Then added severely, ‘Did you tell Mum about Jim making the sandwiches?’
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘So you should be.’
‘What have you got today?’
‘Cheese and cucumber. She made them, but didn’t she go on. On and on, about all she has to do in the morning. Making him breakfast and kissing him, more like. Frankly, I think he’s a creep, but I can’t say that. Can I?’
‘Anyway, is there a reason for this call?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Apart from the fact I like talking to my daughter.’
‘Apart from that, what?’
‘This woman I work for. She writes the Forest Fairy books.’
‘Bluebell Woods?’ said Mia.
‘Yes, that’s her. Or her pen name. And she’s given me six books for you. All signed.’
‘How old do you think I am, Dad?’
A put on sigh. ‘I read a couple of those books when I was eight. Years ago. And they were crap. So they are even crappier now.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t know.’
‘The plots are stupid, the characters are stupid, and the cutesy pictures make me want to vomit.’
‘I fully comprehend,’ he said. ‘Shall I chuck them in the bin?’
‘No, give them to me. There’s this girl in my class, she’s mad about the Forest Fairies. All signed, you said?’
‘She’s got a phone I’d like.’
‘You can’t do that.’
‘Yes, I can, Dad. She’s got two phones, maybe more. Give me ‘em next time you see me.’
‘When will that be?’
‘I’ll talk to Mum. Gotta go. Love.’
And she rang off before he could say anything further.
Joanna was reading typed pages at her desk, every so often rapidly scrawling with her silver ballpoint, theatrically sighing. Two young women were seated on the sofa, each apparently reading one of the fairy books, but too aware of Joanna’s blatant corrections to make much sense of the text in front of them.
Carol was at one side on a small desk with her laptop. She was on the Forest Fairies website, answering emails in the name of Bluebell Woods. A couple of times yesterday she’d raised queries with Joanna, who’d brushed them away. Read my bio online, she’d exclaimed, read the books. You should be able to answer questions from seven and eight year olds without asking me every minute.
Twice, in fact.
Carol had taken home ten of the books last night, and bored herself soppy reading them. But at least she knew who was who in the pantheon. Though some of the queries from children were very specific and she kept going to the shelves to check a fact. And there were contradictions. In the process she learned how to give a generalised answer, like a teacher doing a report on someone she couldn’t recall, and to find ways round anomalies. She signed them all ‘Bluebell Woods in fairy love,’ as she’d been told.
The pages on her knee, Joanna swivelled round to the two young women. One wore black and white, as if she’d come for an interview at a solicitor’s office, the other was in pink and pale red as if she’d just come out of a sweet wrapper.
‘What on earth do they teach in creative writing degrees?’ said Joanna wearily.
The women said nothing to this rhetorical question. There was no right answer of course. They were simply being told off.
‘All this description,’ sighed Joanna, indicating the much scrawled page. ‘Why do you think there are pictures? The reader wants plot and dialogue. And why all these long words and clunky paragraphs? They’re stuffed with adjectives. And then the story… Don’t they teach you how to write a story? A bit of introduction around the woods, some sort of problem, and off they go to try to solve it, making a mess of it at first, before coming up with a surprise answer.’ She stopped, wondering why she was wasting her time with these silly young women. She had a hair appointment and manicure in half an hour.
‘You are ghost writers,’ she said, thrusting her head at one then at the other. ‘And to be a ghost writer for Bluebell Woods, you have to hit the style. It’s not difficult. I don’t want your own cleverness. Stuff your belles-lettres. I want Bluebell Woods’ prose, short sentences, fluffiness. Have either of you read the bloody stuff?’
She pulled herself back, suddenly aware she was giving too much away. For Joanna was weary of Bluebell Woods. She had given them five years of her life; she’d made a million, but enough was more than enough. She could no longer take the pink, treacly simplicity. The shallow jollity, the abominable prettiness. In a few days, she’d hand it all over to Carol. The lot: the conferences, working with the publisher and illustrator, publicity, every damn picture and word. Every drop of tweeness and the unbearable need to be responsible for soppy tales to ditsy fairy lovers. Carol could do it. Carol would have to do it. It was why she’d taken her on. Joanna would sign the odd bit of paper, and let the ghosts flit around offstage, wailing unheard and unseen.
And she could play golf, holiday in the Bahamas. Then come back to concentrate on her fashion ideas. Good riddance to Bluebell Woods. As she might say to Carol, but not to these girls. Money dictated. If it wasn’t for royalties, she’d drop every single fairy, elf, gnome and whatnot into a boiling saucepan, jam on the lid and continue with the heat until the last squeal ceased.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she said with a pleasant smile. ‘Carol will deal with your travel expenses.’
Jack stopped at the house in Leyton, and grimaced as he turned off the engine. A dilapidated Victorian terraced house with the bins overflowing, a broken sofa in the yard, springs coming through the seating. Buddleia and fireweed grew between various discards.
Jack listed building jobs as he walked up the path to the front door: the gate dangling on one hinge, half the red and black tiles on the path missing, steps up to the front door chipped away on one side, paint peeling on the door. There were five bell-pushers by the side of the door. This was no more than a three bedroom house. How do you get five in? Every room would have to be a household. How many people lived here?
He let himself in with the key Ward had given him, instantly struck by the stench of toilet and stale food in the gloomy hallway. Mail and leaflets littered the floor and a shelf halfway along. The banister on the stairs was loose, an electrical wire trailed down the steps, spelling fire risk in capitals.
The repair he’d come for was obvious. The door to number 4 was smashed in, with the doorjamb broken at the lock, the door itself fractured. A forced entry clearly enough.
He rapped on the door with his knuckles.
‘Hello? Anyone in?’
‘Who is it?’ came a timid voice.
‘I’m the builder from Ward’s,’ he said.
‘I haven’t got any more money.’
‘I’m not here for money,’ said Jack, stepping into the room. ‘I’m here to repair your door.’
The room stank of sweat and urine. There was a single bed, roughly made up. A couple of wooden chairs, a low table with a broken TV, clothes scattered around the floor. And on the mantelpiece, empty bottles. It was as if he’d walked into a time warp, taking him back fifteen months, that room on his last bender after Alison kicked him out. In such squalor and hopelessness that tidying up was meaningless.
The man was elderly, stout, almost bald, his face stubbly. He was sitting on the edge of the bed watching Jack warily.
Jack indicated the door. ‘How’d it happen?’
‘Your blokes smashed it in.’
‘I haven’t got any blokes,’ said Jack.
‘You’re with Ward.’
‘Freelance, just this job,’ he said. ‘Why’d they smash in the door?’
The man was breathing uncomfortably, licking his lips.
‘Cus… I wasn’t opening up,’ he said at last. ‘No cash, and that’s all they wanted. So I made out I wasn’t here.’
‘Rent arrears?’ said Jack.
The man nodded. ‘450 odd. You know his two geezers?’
‘I don’t,’ said Jack.
‘Well anyway, the regulars. They shouldered it, demanded whatever I had on account. And when I didn’t have any – they dropped the TV.’
Jack looked at the wreckage. An old model, not flat screen but watchable, before the screen and tube were smashed.
‘Then they made me sign a loan agreement,’ said the man.
Jack was out of his depth. Smashed-in door, dropped TVs, forced loan agreements. What subterranean world had he crashed into?
‘I’ll take this up with Mr Ward,’ he said weakly.
‘I’m not complaining,’ exclaimed the man, waving a hand frantically. ‘Don’t say anything to him.’
‘Has he ever been round?’
The man shook his head. ‘Never seen him, just his collectors.’
‘How many live in this house?’
The man leaned forward, ‘You couldn’t lend me a fiver, could you?’
Jack shook his head. Any fiver given to the man had but one goal.
‘You ever heard of Alcohol Halt?’ he said.
The man sat back at the refusal and examined his dirty fingernails.
‘Yeh. Load of bollocks. And AA. Done the Twelve Steps to the off licence, the pub, the supermarket… And back again.’ Mocking, he intoned, ‘My name is Dan. I am an alcoholic. I will always be an alcoholic. It’s my birthright, my career, my star sign.’ He stopped the take-off. ‘You bin there too, ain’t you?’
‘I’ve been there,’ agreed Jack. ‘And I’m not going back.’
‘Have you got a fiver then? Just a loan.’
Jack said, ‘I’m not giving you a fiver. But I’ll buy you some lunch.’
The man sighed. ‘If that’s the way it’s got to be.’
Over lunch in a cheap cafe, Jack got the man’s life story. Name of Dan Baldwin. He’d been an electrician, earning good money, had a family. Then got into gambling and drinking. And ten years later here he was, in a pit on his own, existing from drink to drink.
‘How old are you, Dan?’ said Jack.
‘Fifty-two,’ he said through blackened teeth, as he mopped egg yolk with a piece of bread. Then added, ‘You some sort of Christian?’
Jack shook his head. ‘No, don’t believe that stuff.’
‘Me neither,’ said the man, ‘though I would hope there’s a better life somewhere.’ He took a sip of tea. ‘Not that I’ve earned it. Just more hell somewhere.’ He threw back a slug of tea. ‘Though what’s the point of that? Hell here, hell there. How’s that make sense?’
‘You deserve heaven,’ said Jack, ‘for what you’ve gone through. But it doesn’t work that way.’
‘I just want done with,’ sighed Dan. ‘Dead, gone, over. Nothing. Slam the lid.’
When they left, Jack took Dan into a mini-market and bought him groceries: bread, crackers, margarine, cheese, easy eating stuff and no cooking. Adding some tomatoes, though the man said he didn’t want them.
Their next stop was a locksmith on the Leytonstone High Road. It was one Jack had been to before and he knew the proprietor. When he’d bought the lock and fittings, he said covertly:
‘Stick another twenty quid on the receipt.’
Ward could at least pay for his tenant’s meal and groceries.
Donna came onto the landing with a tray of coffee, biscuits and a slice of walnut cake. She knocked at Ward’s office door and when there was no reply, she went in. She could hear the shower running in the en-suite bathroom. He often used that one, and now with relations at rock bottom with Joanna, he was staying well away from the bathroom they shared in the bedroom.
A clean shirt and tie lay over the back of the sofa with a suit on a hanger. Ward was getting ready for the party. A little early, she thought, but it was not her place to query such matters.
She was, anyway, in a somewhat mechanical mode after the exchange with the social worker. Simply doing what one had to, until the rejection slipped into place and became part of her existence, and not all of it. Carol had made her a cup of tea, wiped her face as if she were a child. And said simply, ‘We have to go on, Donna. We have to go on.’ And she’d wondered what Carol had suffered.
It was strange that her muscles could respond, she felt so bleak, her life so pointless. That arms, legs and hands went to where they were supposed to go, so she could still chop, push buttons, cook even, with her head a vacant hangar. Even respond to her name and give coherent answers, in a simulacrum of human behaviour.
She put the tray down on his desk. Ward was singing tunelessly in the shower. An open laptop was on the desk. And she was caught by a name she knew on the computer screen. She looked closely. The screen was showing incoming emails, and five or six were from Heather Kennedy, Eric’s social worker. She checked the shower; it was running full, the song mercilessly battered.
And she clicked into an email.
It was difficult to understand as it was obviously one of a string, though evidently the same Heather Kennedy, Eric’s social worker, as there were several references to him. Donna clicked into the next and the next, and the fog began to clear. And the next, until she’d read them all. There was only one scheme that could make sense of them all.
Ward was paying Heather Kennedy. Both parties were a little veiled on that, but it was evident between the lines. And for that payment, Heather had not told Eric anything about Donna’s desire to see him. In fact, the very reverse. She had told Eric that Donna did not want to see him.
As she was leaving the room, she saw a dirty bathrobe and towel near the door. Automatically she picked them up. Under them were a hammer and chisel. Presumably Jack’s, what were they doing here? She thought of taking them to him, then thought so what, too much effort to be concerned with. Lying social workers, bastard employers. She dropped the washing back on them.
And left the room.
Jack turned the shower hotter, washing the sawdust from his hair. He’d put a new lock in the man’s door, but it was a bodged repair. A new door and jamb were needed. He’d simply strengthened them where he could, with some bracing and screws, but really it was a temporary job.
Dan, though, was grateful. Still tried to get a fiver out of Jack, in spite of persistent refusal. For Jack he was a warning, a siren call that drink was the devil. Except you got used to sirens, learned to ignore their howl.
The damned party. It might bring him work. Might bring him sex. If he didn’t get hopelessly drunk.
He soaped himself. No rush. Enjoy the heat and spray.
He had, of course, no need to go. Joanna had given him the job back. Except that put him slam bang between quarrelling husband and wife. The easiest thing to do would be finish the week out, then leave. But he couldn’t afford to. He needed the work. There was nothing else in the offing. The four hundred quid from Ward meant no immediate emergency, and there’d be payment for the week’s work. They were both agreed on that minimum. And the job might yet hold, depending who was stronger – Mr or Mrs.
But for insurance purposes, the party – he might get some work there. More than likely nothing. Millionaires left it to their minions to take on builders. But you never knew.
And then there was Carol. She could be just what he needed. Kindly, not unattractive. Someone to come home to. He couldn’t help jumping ahead in time, making a life already. Someone to support him, to listen, as the years rolled by.
As one does.
And there was Joanna. If she wasn’t around, there was simply Carol who would be so much better for him. But he had this destructive side. Joanna was pure sex. Or impure, let it be said. Carol won on every square: companionship, equality, softness. Every square, that is – except square one.
He turned off the shower and began to dry himself.
Theoretically, there was the option – don’t go. A night in front of the TV or with a book. He could phone Bob. Or take out the telescope, a few hours under the stars, searching for M31. Whatever. But not a night in a drink-filled room, cadging for jobs, with Joanna dressed to kill, and Carol striking him off her list.
It was pathetic. The choice was obvious. And there was no choice at all.
Joanna was at her dressing table, peering at her face and hair. The same eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, that were there yesterday and the day before. She would like a box of changes, a stubbier nose, green eyes, thin lips – anything but the boredom of the same old. There she was every day. Accusing. The odd wrinkle she could fill out with make up, hair she could dye, curl, have up, down, but the face, the same bits confronting her. She understood the king who banned mirrors in his kingdom. The death penalty for any reflective surface. So why did she allow them in her sanctuary?
She wanted to see what her lovers saw. Beautiful, they extolled, that much bandied word, that should be restricted to descriptions of children, flowers and birds of paradise. But this meaty stuff? She pinched her cheek, blood running through muscle and fat, teeth stuck in bone and glossed up like furniture. Thank heavens her ears were hidden by the drape of her hair.
Rising, she looked at herself in the long mirror. At her figure, the curves of her hips and bosom. She could add flavour by dress – the colour, the cut, the length. This one was tight, almost like a wet suit. There’d be no seductive undressing. She’d need to take it off in the bathroom.
Deal with that if and when.
The regency ringlets were passable. A change, but disappointing. She saw the same face under the Shirley Temple hair. She looked down at her shoes, the marine blue Rigolettos that had become ordinary once out of the Regent Street shop. It really was time for a big shoe buy. She must change what she could of herself so she could live with the bits she couldn’t.
And why sit like this on her own? It was maudlin. She needed a lover to be mad about her, to garnish her, to be amazed by her. She adjusted the double string of pearls. Were they too old fashioned? Of course they were. Stupid. But she resisted the pull of her jewel box. Not again, the same tawdry stuff. This will do.
Was it long enough yet? Were there sufficient people? Enough to dilute her and Leon. She pulled at her cleavage. Enough to be sexy, but not the burst of the tart. All the fuss over those droopy lumps. Up, out, show a little, flaunt, as if they were her and the rest of her body simply their support.
How insufferably stupid. All this bathing, changing, hair-dos, all so boring. She was always the same, no matter what.
But, here was the point, she could fool others she wasn’t. A little sad they were so easily fooled, but she must take what she could. And get out of this room. To be told, what a wonderful dress. Oh I love those shoes! How do you keep your figure! She must go down and find an audience. Too much of herself made her want to weep.
Dabbing a little perfume on both cheeks (she should not smell of skin), she turned away from the truthtellers, stood up tall, a little adjustment of line, and as if on a cue, stepped out of the bedroom.
At exactly the instant that Leon left his room.
She stood at her door, contemplating going back in, as if she had forgotten something. He was coming her way. She must face him. He would be round and about all evening. She mustn’t be seen to be a coward.
She stood her ground as he approached. He was wearing a well-cut, dark blue suit, the jacket done up by a single button. She had watched him in the past, doing it up, undoing it, trying other buttons, in an insecurity she recognised, but laughed at in him. Another quasi-regimental tie. How Leon yearned to have gone to the right school, been in the right unit.
How alike they were.
‘A truce in no man’s land,’ she said with a smile.
He stopped by her, looked her up and down, as if she were in a shop, but took care to show no approval.
Leon nodded. ‘A truce.’
Downstairs could be heard laughter and the clink of china and glass. There were sufficient people to keep them safely separate for the evening. They simply had to make it down the stairs together. Once in the throng, the busyness of the room, the calls on them, their different rings of colleagues and friends, would, they both hoped, be sufficient buffer against encounter.
Quietly, he said, ‘This can’t go on, Joanna. One of us will have to move out.’
‘I’m not,’ she said.
He stiffened. She could see him battling, fists clenching and unclenching; he wanted to smack her, to cow her into a corner, punch and kick. Until she accepted.
‘Truce,’ he seethed. ‘Just don’t shag anyone in public, dear.’
‘Ditto,’ she replied.
She took his arm, the very image of the well-to-do loving couple, and together they came down the stairs, nodding and welcoming those in the hallway who had just come, their coats being taken into the cloakroom. Once on the level, they separated. He to shake hands with various colleagues, exaggerating the welcome, she to embrace wives. The perfect hosts.
‘So good to see you, Jack,’ said Leon, clasping his hand with both of his. ‘There’s so many people I’d like you to meet.’
A string quartet were playing on the lawn in front of the summerhouse, the musicians in a glowing apex in the twilight, created by two towers of lights on the lawn halfway between the musicians and the big house. Earlier, Jack had had to move all his workings inside the summerhouse, out of view. The front windows were complete, and had had a coat of varnish. He knew they looked good. Most of that down to the design, nothing to do with him, but the slight lean of the summerhouse meant each window had to be fitted individually. Laborious but necessary.
Jack wandered out into the garden, curious at the music, but also at a loss. He knew no one. Carol wasn’t around. Was it going to be one of those evenings? He considered sitting down, pretending to be a classical music lover.
He waved away a waitress with a tray of glasses of wine, but took a canapé off another. The four musicians, two violinists, a violist and cellist, were in black. The two men in dress suits, the two women in long dresses. They were thirty-ish and utterly intent on their playing. It was perhaps their concentration that held Jack as much as the music. He’d stay a while, try to listen, though it wasn’t his music, then perhaps get some food and look for Carol.
And then he saw Joanna, coming out the French windows, scanning the plane of the lawn, spotting him, putting up a hand, and making her way over.
‘Hello, Jack,’ she said, looking him up and down. ‘Apart from your shiner, you scrub up nicely.’
‘You don’t look bad yourself.’
His eyes wandered over her curves, unhindered. There was no ‘what are you looking at?’ about Joanna. But rather a banner, saying, Look! Feast! Take a knife and fork.
‘Let’s not beat about the bush,’ she said, noting his attentions. ‘I’ve been around too long for that. I don’t want to sleep on my own tonight. And you are first in line.’
The animal in him stretched its chain. ‘Meaning I get the first five minutes?’
She threw up her hands in denial. ‘I go for all-nighters. I’m not totally a whore.’
Carol crossed Jack’s mind. It would be the end with her. But he must go one way or the other. And had no choice really.
‘Your place or mine?’ he said.
‘Yours,’ she said. ‘Too complicated here.’ She tweaked his nose. ‘Don’t look so scared. I’m worth it.’
Her sexuality sang. He could hear no other notes.
‘Do you know my address?’
‘It’s on your contract, on my desk, dearest.’ She caught sight of a couple who had just come out into the garden. ‘I must do hostessy things. Midnight, your place.’
Their eyes caught for an instant. He nodded, and she left him, hailing the other guests in delight. He wondered what was genuine, so much of Joanna being an act. Though strangely she’d always been honest with him. Not that their relationship had any age, but she didn’t pretend, beyond the usual pretences of clothes and make up. But then, he was no threat. A one-nighter without complications.
It had been a year of abstinence. Not by choice. Getting off drink, his share of childcare, tired out after work. Depression and the hassle of the divorce. Anyway, the best women were always spoken for. There had been those that fancied him, but he’d been fussy, too fussy perhaps. Though with the continuing drought, he was inclined to jettison his standards.
And then Carol, knowing she’d be so much better for him, but in his heat she’d flashed away.
Now abandoned, he was aware of standing on his own under one of the house lights, a drink in his hand, a picture of isolation. He should get some food, look busy nibbling whatevers, sit down near a group, maybe they’d invite him in.
He made his way through the French windows into the lounge.
Leon pounced on him. ‘I’ve been wondering where you were.’
‘Listening to the quartet,’ he said.
‘Fine players, fine players.’
Jack doubted he’d heard a note.
‘Did you fix that door earlier?’ went on Leon.
‘A temporary repair,’ said Jack. ‘I’d like to talk to you about it and that house in general.’
‘Not now,’ dismissed Leon. ‘Not the place for it. In the morning. Now, I’d like you to meet Sir Joseph Atwood.’
Sir Joseph was a portly, short man in his 60s, with a few wiry grey hairs on a mostly bald dome. His face was florid, the sort of face Jack recognised from Alcohol Halt. Boozers were everywhere. Sir Joseph, he learned, had come in a chauffeur driven Rolls, and from the height of whiskey in his glass it was likely the chauffeur would be carrying him out. A safe journey at least, unlike some of Jack’s from various dives.
‘How do you do, Sir Joseph.’
‘Quite a shiner you have there, Jack.’
Jack attempted a smile and put out his hand. They shook. Sir Joseph had a clammy, shivery hand.
‘Jack is a builder,’ said Leon. ‘And a fine one. He’s done lots of work for me. I recommend him highly. He tells me he’s very interested in your Docklands work.’
From the overblown introduction, Jack wondered whether Leon had started on a market stall selling dodgy china.
Leon hailed someone across the room and rapidly left them, giving Jack a pat on the shoulder like a favoured pet. And Sir Joseph commenced telling Jack about his Docklands project.
Almost at once Jack realised this was out of his league. A forty storey tower block was the knight’s latest baby. Jack wouldn’t even get in on it as a sub-sub-contractor. And he knew within a very few minutes why Leon had left them. For Sir Joseph was a total bore. He spoke at you, as if you were a meeting, come especially to listen to him lecture about anything he fancied. And had no interest in your replies. Beginning with Docklands, incomprehensible without plans or drawings, names of people Jack’d never heard of, and then on to his favourite topic – tax evasion.
From which Jack learnt that only idiots pay tax. Being an idiot himself, Jack didn’t believe two thirds of what he was being told. Sir Joseph was boasting in his cups, like a young man exaggerating his sexual encounters. Loopholes, tax havens, section this, that and the other, charities, front companies, all of which Jack could not give a flying toss about, but how to get away from this torrent of self love?
It was, of course, easy. Sir Joseph had nothing to offer him but tedium, not a snifter of work. Any excuse would do. Besides which, if Sir Joseph felt insulted, the drunken fart would have no recollection of it in the morning.
Jack looked at his watch.
‘Must phone my daughter,’ he said. And took out his phone. ‘A promise is a promise. You know how it is.’ With a smile, he strolled out through the French windows to the cool evening air.
He looked at his watch. It was only quarter to ten. How much more could he take of this? He’d never expected any work out of the party anyway, not with these property dealers and shysters. And they had no interest in him at all. Joanna had the contract for the rest of his job on her desk, which presumably she’d sign tomorrow. Depending on what happened later tonight.
Carol came out into the garden looking flustered.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Jack. She’s had me running fetching fairy books, photos and whatnots. Have you been alright?’
She wore a full length, sleeveless, dark green dress. The skirt was plain up to a wide black belt at her waist, the top around her neck, across her cleavage and shoulders, was a lacy filigree. Jack couldn’t see her shoes but knew they were high as she was a couple of inches above him, whereas their last meeting it had been the reverse. Her dark brown hair was pulled off her face to a bunch at the back that was tied with a black ribbon. She was made up, eyebrows plucked and her lips purple.
‘I’ve totally neglected you,’ she said. ‘But she hasn’t given me a minute.’
‘I’m going to go home,’ he said. ‘I’m bored soppy.’
‘Oh, you’re mad at me,’ she exclaimed.
‘I wanted to find you,’ she pleaded. ‘More than anything. But I’m still working. She’ll want me any minute I’m sure.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’ve stayed off the booze.’
‘Maybe later,’ she said, ‘I could come over.’
An alarm bell rang.
‘You’ll be too tired after all her demands,’ he said. ‘And I’m exhausted.’
‘No…’ she began, and her phone rang. She sighed in exasperation, taking it out of the pouch on her belt. ‘It’s her. Can’t I have five minutes to myself?’ she said plaintively.
He kissed her on the cheek.
‘See you in the morning.’
And strode away, along the side of the house, to the garden gate.
Donna was sunk on a stool in the kitchen, her hands flopped in her apron. On the long table beside her was a full, cold coffee. The catering staff bounced in and out, bringing in empty platters and the debris of plates and cutlery for the dishwasher. She was nominally in charge but left them to it. She’d used them often enough and they knew to be sharp; Mrs Ward had once held back a bonus because of what she called ‘slack work’.
Work had kept Donna together: the salmons and salads, the various viands and dips, hot rolls, fancy breads, and then the trifles, cakes, and water ice. But now the last teas and coffees were going round – and that was it, beyond the perpetual bar which wasn’t her concern. Besides which there were enough cakes, biscuits and nuts to last until the final partygoer left, or dropped.
Like an actor with a streaming cold who on stage plays a blinder, Donna had done all that could be demanded of her. But, curtain down, her body surrendered.
Too weary to cry, too unhappy to move.
She knew she would be angry. Later. And then what? She, the possessor of a tied flat, if she raged at her boss – she’d be out of a job and a home.
But she would not suffer this, no matter what.
Carol came into the kitchen, snacks were required for Leon and his pals in the snooker room, but seeing Donna’s exhaustion, she transferred her request to the head waitress, who looked at Donna and said she’d see to it.
‘Donna, love,’ said Carol, a hand on her shoulder. ‘You look awful.’
‘I’m just tired,’ she said with a weak smile. ‘Been here from 7 am. I’ll lie in tomorrow.’
‘Of course you will,’ said Carol. ‘No one will be up till noon. They’re drinking as if prohibition starts at midnight. Let me help you home.’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘You’re not fine. Come on.’
And she lifted Donna under the arms, and led her at long last out of the kitchen. There was no resistance. Out, into the hallway.
‘I’ve still got my hat and apron on,’ said Donna.
‘So what?’ said Carol, as she took her through the hallway loungers and out of the main door.
The night was balmy, the sky clear. The lights of the house, and the externals, flooded the semicircular drive with its necklace of cars, the party still swinging.
Donna opened the door of her granny flat. There was no hallway, it opened directly into her sitting room. She dropped onto her sofa, her head sank forward and she began to weep. Silently at first then breaking into deep sobs.
Carol sat by her. Her phone vibrated on her belt.
‘Eleven o’clock for heaven’s sake, Joanna,’ she sighed, turning off her phone. And then put an arm round Donna who leaned into her. ‘This is not just tiredness, is it? Something’s eating you up.’
Donna shook her head, tears dripping down her cheek. ‘He’s stopping me seeing my son.’
‘Mr Ward,’ she said wearily. ‘He’s been paying the social worker to lie to me.’
‘I’m sorry, Donna,’ said Carol. ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me.’
‘You know I have a son, Eric?’ said Donna. ‘Oh dear.’ She began weeping again. ‘I could kill him, I could murder the both of them. All these years.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ tried Carol, a little helplessly, wondering whether she should get back.
‘No thank you, dear. I’ll be alright.’ She closed her eyes, tears welling in the lids. ‘But they won’t get away with it. Not this time.’
‘Get away with what, Donna?’
‘The social worker has been replying to my letters, saying Eric wants no contact with his mother. And it’s a lie, a dirty lie.’
‘Why would the social worker lie to you?’
‘Mr Ward has been paying her.’
Carol scratched her head. ‘I may be thick, Donna. Please excuse me. But why should Mr Ward be bribing a social worker?’
Donna opened her eyes, laid a hand on Carol’s and squeezed it gently.
‘Eric is his son,’ she said.
Jack closed his eyes and turned his face into the hot spray pouring down his forehead, bubbling over his face, over his chin and onto his chest. At times such as this, he congratulated himself on taking out the useless shower that had been here before, taking advantage of a quiet week to do something useful.
Two showers in an evening. Who would believe it? He was washing out the staleness of the Chigwell party. And preparing for Joanna. So good to be away from that horde of millionaires. There are times to leave. When hanging around is the worst thing to do. Who would miss him anyway, in that throng of property developers, the dullest people on earth. Their sole topic, money: how much they are making, how much they are spending, and the crafty schemes they have for robbing the government.
Joanna would be here in an hour. At the party, he’d watched her; she had a little ring of fairy writers at one point, and then a businessman or two, making Jack itch with jealousy when he heard her laughter across the room.
She’d told him he was first in line, that she had to get out of the house. Midnight, here. But when it came to sex – could you trust Joanna? For that matter, could you trust anyone when it came to sex?
He soaped himself, arms, armpits, stomach, groin. Washing out filthy millionaires and their molls, down the drain with the suds, with his sense of inadequacy in their company. He was their servant; come here, do this, no, that. Suck up to my money.
The customer is always right. Even when they are slam bollock wrong.
He felt his chin and cheek. Another shave.
She’d better come.
Out of the shower, he wiped and dusted himself with talcum powder, shaved, aftershaved. Suitably beautified, he slipped on clean jeans and a T-shirt. Looked over the flat and saw what he should have seen before he showered. It was a tip.
He ran around collecting newspapers, the binful of takeaway trays. Then gathering them all up, he took them out to the outside bins. The night was still warm, a little sticky. The Summer Triangle was overhead, barely visible, nearly everything else burnt out by house and street lights. So much life on this street, the large Victorian houses of Earlham Grove mostly split into flats, some let as separate rooms. So many squeezed in. Warrens. And he thought of where he’d come from, his flat would fit into that party room with lots of space to run around it. To him who has, more shall be given. Wasn’t that the parable of the talents?
Was that Cassiopeia up there? Probably, the right direction, but some of the stars of the W washed out in the ambient light. He must get out of the city, away from this flood of light, see the night sky as it should be seen. He would, he would.
He looked up and down the road. Packed with cars both sides, his van a little way up. The plane trees both sides, their fierce pruning at last disappearing into a lollipop of leaves. Still 45 minutes, but she might come early, though he guessed it was Joanna’s style to make you wait.
He went back in and washed up, transferring a full sink to dripping crockery in the rack. That would do. The oven top was disgusting, but surely she wouldn’t come in the kitchen. She might, and filth was one of the things that turned you off sex. Smell and stains.
He couldn’t give it a full scale clean. No time. So he scraped the enamel with a kitchen knife and scoured off the worst until it was only half disgusting. The sitting room needed a hoover. Where the hell was the bloody thing? He looked in the bedroom. The sheets, they’d been on the bed a month or more. He really ought to have more than one sheet. Though he did have spare pillowcases. Rapidly he changed those, then ripped the sheet off and turned it over. Slightly better. He sniffed it. Sweat, a faint uriny smell. He went in the bathroom and brought back the talc, and dusted the sheet like an 18th century courtesan.
He must buy more sheets. Have two, or even three. The thing was he’d never bought a sheet in his life. The first ones his mother bought, then Alison bought them – and when she threw him out she chucked this one at him. And what it had been through in his drinking days… He could almost feel sympathy for the neglected bedclothes.
Jack resumed the search for the hoover, and found it at last in the cupboard, piled under overalls and old clothes. The vacuum bag was full of course, with hardly any suction. He gave up, he wasn’t about to start emptying bags, and went around the sitting room picking up with his fingers the visible dirt.
Joanna was used to luxury; what would she think of this tip of a place? Likely she’d be half pissed and wouldn’t notice till the morning. Then he remembered, he had no breakfast in. A little bread in the fridge, OK for toasting, enough marge, a little jam. That would do. Coffee, tea, but no milk. Too late now.
Could he run up the Turkish shop on Woodgrange Road and get some? It was only five minutes away. Why not? He sprinted out into the night, down the road. A black couple arm in arm stopped and watched him rush by, thinking perhaps he was a mugger. Breathless, he stopped at the corner, where the high street met his road, and walked. The little shop was open, it was always open, filled to the brim with goodies. Did Ahmed ever shut? He’d told Jack this was the only way he could compete with the supermarkets. He bought biscuits and milk; that would do. He didn’t want to miss Joanna. Ahmed was half asleep at the till, but he hailed him. Jack paid and sprinted back.
He couldn’t have missed her. He’d only been out, what – less than ten minutes, and he’d see her car or her taxi or her standing at the door. Breathing heavily, he entered the house and went upstairs to his flat. He put the milk in the fridge, the biscuits in the tin.
No more tidying. That was it. Whatever was forgotten was forgotten. He was a builder, living on his own. She couldn’t expect him to live in a house with hot and cold running servants. Or could she? Jack went into the bedroom. It stank of talc. He opened the window, stripped the sheet off and shook the dust into the night. He put back the sheet, left the window half open and returned to the sitting room.
And sat down.
Any minute she could show. What the hell would they talk about? He felt stuffed, wordless. But she hadn’t come to talk. Should he jump on her or wait? Have a cup of tea first. And Maryland cookies.
Assume she’ll be late. She already was. Later then. He turned on the TV and chased channels, stopping at a football match. Except he couldn’t watch, had no idea what was happening, as his thoughts drifted away and when they returned something else was happening somewhere on the pitch. What team was what? Did it matter?
Twenty-two guys chasing a ball and a whole crowd screaming their heads off. It was an absurd ritual, especially when you were waiting for Joanna to come.
Jack picked up an astronomy magazine, read half a page and couldn’t recall a word of it. He began looking at pictures, of telescopes, of galaxies and nebulae. But couldn’t concentrate on a thing. He was the world’s worst waiter. Hated it, waiting for anyone anywhere. It was such a waste of your life; you couldn’t do anything until that bit of time was done with. Until the person turned up, and you were together.
He took down a grubby pack of cards and laid them out for patience. And then began turning over the rest of the pack, moving cards here and there. And stopped. He couldn’t care less about these random cards. So what if it came out, so what if it didn’t?
What did that have to do with Joanna?
She might not come. Maybe no bad thing. All talced and aftershaved, he’d go alone to his greasy sheets. He really must buy some more; that one was pretty disgusting. He could imagine Joanna refusing to get in the bed. Just as well if she didn’t come. Tomorrow, he’d buy new sheets.
The doorbell rang.
He jumped up, flustered. Stood his ground for a few seconds. Be cool. Behave as if beautiful women regularly show up for you after midnight. One foot in front of the other. He began the journey. Don’t rush. Breathing steadily, he left the flat, the door ajar, and began taking the stairs with their faded lino, the single light bulb which could badly do with a shade. Seeing with Joanna’s critical eye.
Step down by step. Don’t be overeager. She was over forty minutes late herself and could hear him coming, don’t run pell-mell. Be civilised, cool, let her come to him. In the hallway, he was ashiver. Someone should chuck out all this old post and junk mail.
Jack was at the door. He could see her form through the glass. He paused and took a deep breath. This was what he’d been waiting for. He licked his lips, stood up straight and opened the door.
‘Surprise!’ she said with a broad smile.
She was wearing an open coat over jeans and a light green T-shirt, her hair a little damp, and holding a bottle. She saw his eyes fixed on it.
‘It’s non-alcoholic. I thought I should bring something; it was just lying there. Can I come in?’
‘I wasn’t expecting you,’ he managed to say, almost blown over in the tornado of the switch. It should have been Joanna. Aware too Joanna could still come. But she might not, and to turn Carol away – madness.
‘I’m sorry it’s so late,’ she said, ‘but you know what Joanna is like. She kept finding things for me to do and Donna was in a state. I had to take her home.’ She shook her head. ‘What a story she has to tell!’
‘Come in,’ he said, hardly knowing why he said it, but knowing he had already kept her at the door too long. He held the door wide and took a step back to allow her room to enter.
He had crossed the Rubicon. Or some stranger river, not knowing what was on the far bank.
Jack led Carol up the stairs, past the old mail, over the old lino, up the rickety staircase and into the flat. What could he say, this was where he lived. Not quite. It was a little tidier than normal.
She removed her coat, looking about her.
‘Bit of a dump,’ he said, taking her coat and hanging it on the door.
‘I wasn’t expecting the Rome Hilton,’ she said.
She had renewed her make up. And the simplicity of jeans and T-shirt suited her so well. She didn’t need designer dresses. How could he ever reject her freshness, her energy and beauty? How?
Because he had a choice. Or thought he had one. In fact Carol had chosen. He was an awful coward. They were standing awkwardly as if the music had just stopped at a dance, trying to find a reason to stay on the floor.
She said, ‘This bit is always difficult.’
He came forward and took her in his arms. Both moved into a hungry kiss. They dropped on to the sofa and lay out lengthwise, legs intertwining. He kissed her neck and shoulders. The drought was coming to an end in the first drips of welcome rain.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ he said.
‘Don’t you want some non-alcoholic beer?’ she teased.
‘After,’ he said, pulling her off the sofa.
As the bell rang.
‘Who can that be?’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ he lied.
‘I’m not very well parked,’ she said, a little panicky. ‘The cops?’
‘Stay here,’ he said.
‘I’ll warm the bed,’ she said.
He was about to say something, what? Were there any words for this situation?
The bell rang again.
‘I’ll see who it is,’ he said. ‘I’m sure it’s no one important.’
Knowing who it was at the door as he left the flat, knowing as he went downstairs, knowing as he passed the neglected mail. Hoping, just hoping, it was a policeman saying Carol’s car was too far from the kerb. Knowing it wouldn’t be.
Another ring, just as he got to the door.
He opened the door, in the last instant hoping for a pizza delivery man at the wrong house. Hoping for anyone but…
‘Sorry I’m a bit late,’ she said, ‘but you know how it is when you’re the host. You have to say goodbye to everyone. And Leon’s out of sight, getting plastered with his pals.’
What on earth was he to do? Over a year without anything – and two turn up. It was clear enough. He had to get rid of one of them.
She was looking at him quizzically.
‘What’s going on?’ she said.
‘I’m sorry, Joanna,’ he said, standing across the door. ‘I really am.’
She looked up the stairs.
‘Have you got someone else up there?’
He nodded wanly. His body hating having to do this.
She sighed. Her coat was open, her cleavage inviting fantasy. At some other time. This was a disaster in every way he could think. Which wasn’t that much.
‘I’m game for a threesome,’ she said. And pushed past him.
‘Joanna,’ he called, feeling like grass flattened after a storm. She was already going up the stairs.
She swivelled, and stopped for a moment.
‘I’m not going home,’ she said.
‘You are,’ he said.
And she turned, climbed the rest of the stairs and entered the flat.
Carol was down to her black underwear when Joanna entered. She flopped onto the sofa. Both women stared at each other.
‘You,’ said Joanna.
‘I don’t know who you expected,’ said Carol, protecting herself with a cushion.
‘Well actually, no one.’
Jack came in. In the short climb up the stairs, he’d accepted the worst had happened. He had little control of its outcome. Let it blow.
‘Coffee?’ he said.
‘I’ll have one,’ said Joanna.
‘Me too,’ said Carol.
Jack went into his small kitchen, leaving the door open. No knives in his back yet. He put the electric kettle on. At least he had some clean cups on the rack. And milk and coffee. Half organised. He set things out deliberately slowly, listening in to the conversation going on in the living room.
‘I told you not to screw my builder, Carol.’
‘What I do after work is my affair.’
He’d quite like to go for a walk for quarter of an hour. It was rather too hot in here. And come back, and see what they settled on. As it was he slowly made coffee. Milk out of the fridge, the coffee in the cups, a jug for the milk would be posh. He had one somewhere, and searched the china cupboard.
‘I don’t do threesomes with staff,’ said Joanna.
‘I don’t do threesomes full stop.’
He caught the last words through the whooshing kettle. The rest was lost. A little mystery, as the boiling built up and he couldn’t hear. He poured the milk in the jug and remembered the Maryland cookies. Found the packet and placed them out on a plate. The kettle rose to its final crescendo.
How might it go, he considered. Carol might leave, first in first out, or Joanna might. Or both. The situation had quite sucked the libido out of him. If they both went, that might be best. He couldn’t handle two. Either one of them, yes, but two floored him.
A failing, perhaps.
The kettle turned off. Jack continued leisurely making the coffee. There was an ominous silence in the sitting room. Plainly they were waiting for him. Did they want him to choose between them like Paris with the golden apple? Or were they going to beat him up?
He put the three cups of black coffee, the plate of biscuits and jug of milk on a tray, then reflected for an instant whether he should give them a plate each. And then decided this was not a formal tea.
Jack took the tray in the living room. Carol was still seated on the sofa but had put on her coat over her underwear. Joanna was seated at the table, still wearing her coat.
He offered Carol a coffee.
‘Thank you,’ she said without looking at him.
She took a little from the jug.
‘No, thank you.’
He put the tray on the table. Joanna took a cup. She sipped and grimaced. She poured in milk from the jug and tried again.
Jack sat down and took the last coffee from the tray. He poured in milk. And sipped. It tasted like coffee, pleb that he was.
‘Where have you got to?’ he said.
‘We were waiting for you,’ said Joanna with a smile.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ he said. He caught Carol’s eye. She looked away. It would have been so simple if Joanna had not come, he wanted to tell her. But she had, and didn’t look she was leaving.
‘I’ve not been in this situation before,’ he added.
‘Nor me,’ said Carol. ‘This one is truly unique.’
Joanna looked them over like a school mistress at two errant pupils. ‘It happens,’ she said. ‘And these are the options.’ She looked at Carol. ‘We scratch each other’s eyes out.’
‘Not my scene,’ said Carol.
‘Or we toss for it.’
Carol laughed. Jack half smiled at the image.
‘What do you want to do, Jack?’
He stared at Joanna across the table, chewing his lip. Her expensive coat and dress. Formica and instant coffee weren’t quite for her.
‘I was going to bed with Carol,’ he said turning to Carol, ‘but I don’t suppose that’s on anymore.’
‘No,’ said Carol.
‘You shouldn’t have invited me,’ said Joanna, shaking her head in mock sadness.
‘You invited yourself,’ he said.
‘And you said yes.’
He couldn’t remember actually saying yes. But it had amounted to a yes. And he had been waiting for her, hoping she’d come. And lo and behold she had. But rather too late.
‘Maybe you should both go,’ he said to break the silence, ‘and we talk about it in the morning.’
He barely knew how he’d come out with such sense, against all hope. Wanting someone to disagree. And talk about what in the morning?
‘I’m not going home,’ said Joanna stiffly.
‘Neither am I,’ said Carol.
Joanna waved a finger at her. ‘If you don’t go home, you are sacked.’
Carol shrugged. ‘I thought we’d got to that point the instant you came in.’
‘Go. And you keep your job,’ said her boss.
‘Who says I want it?’
No one spoke for a little while. Jack dipped a cookie in his coffee and sucked it for the soft sweetness. All he was going to get. Joanna had given up on her coffee. It curdled in the cup. Carol swaddled hers with both hands, looking, in her coat, as if she’d just been rescued from the deep.
He said at last, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on here. You don’t want to sleep with me, Carol?’ She shook her head. ‘And neither do you, Joanna?’
‘I’ve gone off it,’ she said.
‘Then why are we all three here?’ he said.
‘I am not going home,’ said Joanna, ‘if that’s what you mean.’
‘Neither am I,’ said Carol.
Jack threw his hands up in exasperation. ‘No sex, we have nothing much to say. Yet you both want to stay.’
Joanna shrugged. Carol looked into her coffee.
‘You two could sleep together,’ he said.
Carol said, ‘That cow just sacked me.’
‘That was a fit of pique, dear. We’ll talk it over in the morning.’ She turned to Jack. ‘I cannot stand after-parties. I’m not going back.’
‘And you?’ said Jack to Carol.
‘I’m over the limit,’ she said. ‘I chanced it coming here, I’m not doing it again.’
There was something here he couldn’t grasp. Was it simply to queer each other’s pitch? And his too.
‘There’s the bed,’ he pointed out the bedroom, ‘there’s the sofa, there’s the floor.’
‘I’ll take the bed,’ said Joanna.
She strode across the room and opened the door of the bedroom. And instantly recoiled.
‘It stinks like a whorehouse!’
‘I’ll take it,’ said Carol. ‘It stinks less than some other places.’
She picked up her clothes and went in.
‘Sofa for me then,’ said Joanna.
‘It’ll have to be coats,’ he said with half an apology.
She shrugged. ‘Pile ‘em on.’
He chucked her a couple from the hooks on the door.
‘What about you?’ she said.
He gave her the wryest smile.
‘I’ll sleep in the van.’
Jack made space in the back of his van and crawled into his greasy sleeping bag, fully clothed apart from shoes. The van floor was hard and corrugated, and after five minutes rolling around on aching hips, he attempted to soften the surface. By torchlight, he found a furniture sheet. Not much dirtier than those on his bed, he reflected. He doubled and tripled the sheet, and put it under the sleeping bag. A little better. A small canvas toolbag did for a pillow. He got back in the sleeping bag, zipped it up high, closed his eyes. But his head was too active for sleep.
He reflected on the sex he hadn’t had. On the relationship with Carol, strangled at birth. Did he still have a job? The contract was on Joanna’s desk unsigned. Any normal person wouldn’t sign it if rejected sexually. Though he hadn’t actually rejected Joanna. Hadn’t rejected either of them, he could swear in court. It could be said they had rejected him. Or the situation.
He imagined all three awake. Potty really. All thwarted. If only Joanna hadn’t come.
If only Carol hadn’t come.
In the morning, he would phone around his mates, see if any of them needed a hand. Pick up any crumbs he could. Or it was back to the Job Centre. Signing on, and touting for work. The summerhouse job would have seen him safely in the black.
And Carol. Not Joanna, never. He couldn’t see her having another go. But any fantasy he tried fractured in its own disbelief. He had imaginary conversations with Carol. She didn’t believe him, didn’t trust him. He simply followed his cock, she said.
And perhaps he did. If so, stupid him. Here he was sleeping, or rather sleepless, in his van with two attractive women, doubtless sleepless too, upstairs in his flat. Not a tale he’d tell round the pub, if and when he went to the pub.
After an hour or so of rolling uncomfortably, he got up, put his jacket on and went for a walk. It was chilly in the early hours. Most lights were out in the houses. No traffic. No one else on the street. The plane trees stood sentinel, in semi-leaf like ballerinas in tutus, shimmering in the breeze. A rose glimmer in the east, birds already singing.
What was there to sing about at 4.30 in the morning?
That yesterday was horrible and tomorrow would be worse. Sing Hallelujah!
That was Orion up there over the rooftops. He had moved as far as he could from the street lights to bring out the stars. Yes. Fancy seeing Orion this time of year. Not that he’d ever looked this early in the morning. That would be Aldebaran in Taurus. And that bundle was the Pleiades, such a beautiful bundle of stars through his binoculars. He should leave them in the van for nights like this. And there was Cassiopeia again, though it had moved across the sky from where he’d last seen it and was almost upside down.
He turned to the south. Nearing the westerly horizon – that had to be Jupiter. It had to be, because he could see Venus rising in the east, just above Sirius. Wow – what a sight! The brightest planet and the brightest star that close together… He wouldn’t have seen it if he weren’t up so early.
He must make a date with his telescope. A more likely success than with women.
He wondered what time he could go back to his flat. Seven maybe. He returned to his van and to his unwashed sleeping bag. And somehow, sheer weariness doped him. When he awoke it was quarter past seven, and light.
He got into the driving seat, and half dozy, drove down to Ahmed’s for some bacon. Then he went back home.
He crept into the flat, closing the front door carefully. Joanna was asleep on the sofa. He tiptoed across her to the bedroom which he opened. Talc hit him. But the bed was empty, stripped back. Carol had gone.
Jack went into the kitchen, closed the door, put on the kettle and fried bacon in his pan. He wondered what time Carol had left. Not that it mattered. When you are not talking, you are not talking, whether present or not.
Should he wake Joanna?
He went back out into the sitting room. Bedraggled on the couch, she opened one eye.
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘Is it better than your coffee?’
‘Yes,’ he said breezily. ‘Bacon sandwich?’
She shook her head. ‘Just tea.’
In a minute or two he brought out two cups of tea and two bacon sandwiches for himself.
Joanna threw off the coats and sat on the sofa cuddling the tea.
‘Quite a night of passion,’ she said, and sipped the tea. ‘It is better. Just about drinkable. Hot though.’
Her make-up was streaked, eyes waxy, her face slumped below a Medusa straggle.
‘When did Carol leave?’ he said.
Neither had anything to add to that. It was a fact, like a cloud passing.
‘Have I still got a job?’
She looked at him quizzically. ‘Of course.’
‘I thought it might be dependent on sex.’
She laughed. ‘Bad sex might have lost you it. Count yourself lucky you didn’t have the opportunity. Although I should sack you for seeing me like this. Who was it? Diana?’
He looked at her blankly, not knowing what she was talking about.
‘Some Greek hunter saw her bathing, so she turned him into a stag and he was torn to bits by his own hounds.’
‘Is that in one of your fairy books?’
She chuckled. ‘Not quite suitable for eight year olds. And I will have a bacon sandwich.’
Jack had two on his plate. He handed her one.
‘I’ll risk the salmonella,’ she said, looking inside.
In the next fifteen minutes, they washed, Joanna complained about his towels and they left the house. The two of them went in Jack’s van. Driving out of his side road, they joined the rush hour as they crossed Wanstead Flats and entered Wanstead. And Joanna applied her make up.
Traffic was building up on the Chigwell Road. All those cars with one person in. He could be smug for once, with two in his. And the school run, don’t talk to him about the school run. All those kids who can’t walk to school because their parents are afraid of the traffic. Ha! There was a woman and a kid of about five in a big people carrier that could take eight or more. The sins of other drivers. He’d done the school run himself when Mia stayed over.
Joanna put her make up away. He glanced at her in the mirror. Quite presentable. But he knew once back she’d shower and wash it all off. Oh, the chore of keeping ourselves presentable! Washing, shaving, clothes. Sheets.
Yes, sheet. Clean sheets.
He turned on his music. The woman from No Doubt, what was her name? was singing Simple Kind of Life. Next to him he could hear Joanna laughing, he was smirking himself at the complications of last night as the guitars twanged, and the belting drums hammered out the number. He remembered her on video. Gwen someone or other, sexy, bleached blonde, her lips vampire red and her cowboy boots. Simple Kind of Life.
‘Is that what you want, Joanna?’ he said.
‘Nope,’ she said with a wry smile. ‘If it means three kids in a semi, utterly faithful and waiting for daddy to come home… Dear God save me.’
‘I can’t quite see you hanging out the washing.’
‘I’m too horny,’ she said.
Jack was somewhat surprised by her honesty. So early. Like Gwen… Stefani. No Doubt. That was it, Stefani.
‘I’m sorry about last night,’ she went on. ‘I would have liked to have slept with you, but not in that awful, talcum powdered bed.’
‘Just as well it wasn’t used then.’
‘I would think Carol’d be pretty smelly, but she’s probably showered by now.’
‘Have you sacked her?’
‘Of course not.’
‘You threatened to.’ He reflected. ‘No, you actually sacked her. I think.’
‘Well I undid it.’ Adding a little later, ‘I like her. She’s very competent.’
‘She had quite a go at you.’
Joanna laughed. ‘Quite right too. I don’t want a mouse for a secretary.’
‘All in all, things are not as bad as they could have been,’ he said ruefully. ‘Just lost a bit of sleep.’
‘And a dollop of male pride?’
‘It happens,’ he said. ‘Too often. But I’ll survive.’
‘That’s not much of a goal, Jack.’
‘That’s the thing about being a grown up,’ he said, ‘you can hide your disappointments.’
‘I’ll see if I can make it up to you.’ She patted him on the knee.
‘What’s going on here?’
They were on the wide street where Joanna lived, Manor Road. There was a troop of police cars parked along the side, a couple with lights still flashing.
‘They’re outside the house,’ exclaimed Joanna peering through the windscreen and side window. ‘What on earth is happening?’
‘Something major for this lot.’
He parked the van as close as he could get. And the two of them walked to the house. At the gate a policeman stopped them.
‘I’m afraid you can’t go in,’ he said. ‘This is a crime scene.’
‘I live here,’ insisted Joanna. ‘What’s going on?’
‘And you are?’ said the policeman.
‘Mrs Joanna Ward,’ she said. ‘And this is my house.’
‘And who is this with you?’
‘My builder, Jack.’
The policeman gave them a thoughtful look, suppressing a grin. Then said, ‘Stay here. I’m sure you’ll be wanted.’
And he went down to the drive to the house. The double metal gates had been swung back on the brick pillars. The door to the house was wide open. The policeman went in and they waited on the pavement, just outside.
‘Burglars, you think?’ queried Joanna.
‘A lot of cops for a burglary. But could be, I suppose.’
On the street nearby a uniformed policeman was putting on white plastic overclothing from his car boot, finishing with plastic overshoes. He closed the boot and came past them, going through the gates along the drive and into the house. Two others down the road were doing the same.
The policeman came out with a man togged in plastic overclothes.
‘Mrs Ward?’ he queried.
‘Yes,’ said Joanna.
‘I regret to inform you that your husband has been murdered.’
Carol, Donna and Jack were in Donna’s small living room. Jack and Carol seated at the table, Carol playing with crumbs on the cloth. Donna was on the two-seater sofa. It was the first time Jack had seen her without an apron.
‘Who found him?’ he asked.
‘Maria, the cleaner,’ said Donna. ‘Must have been about two hours ago. I was still in bed when the police came. I tried to go in the house; they wouldn’t let me in. Crime scene. Maria was taken away in a police car.’ She gazed out of the window. ‘There’s been lots of coming and going. Everyone geared up in that plastic stuff.’
‘Where did they find him?’ said Carol.
Donna shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’
‘Was he shot, strangled, bashed on the head?’ said Jack, even while voicing it out loud, thinking himself somewhat bloodthirsty.
Donna shook her head. ‘They’re not saying.’
‘They won’t let me in the summerhouse,’ said Jack. ‘The garden, and everything in it, is part of the crime scene. Till when, I asked the man.’ Jack smiled wryly. ‘Till we say so, he seemed very pleased to tell me.’
Donna rose. ‘I’ll pour the tea.’
She went into the kitchen. Jack looked at Carol. She was refusing to look at him. Besuited again this morning. All set for work.
He said carefully, ‘You left early.’
‘I needed a shower,’ she said. ‘And to get my head straight.’
He didn’t know how to untangle that.
‘We need a chat,’ he said.
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Is nothing salvageable?’
She at last looked at him, dark rings of sleeplessness round her eyes. He wanted to take her hand and plead for a chance, but the tightness in her lips deterred him. And with the detritus of a murder all around – not the best place to make his case.
Donna brought the tea in to their silence. She put out some biscuits which they munched for something to do.
‘They’re taking a lot of stuff out in plastic bags,’ said Donna, peering out of the window. ‘See there, his laptop and files as well.’
Jack said, ‘I wonder where it happened. What time?’
Donna shrugged. Carol dipped a biscuit in her tea.
‘And how long have we got to stay here?’ he said with a sigh. ‘I could at least finish fixing that door.’ Carol looked at him puzzled. ‘Not here, in one of his properties.’
‘Hers now,’ said Donna.
Jack whistled, suddenly realising how everything had changed.
‘I shall have to OK it with Joanna then.’
‘You’ll have no trouble there,’ said Carol.
Jack winced at the low blow, as the doorbell rang. Donna went to the door and opened it. Joanna breezed in. Still in her party clothes, her glamour out of place, high heels ridiculous at this time of day, in this little flat.
‘They wouldn’t let me see the body,’ she exclaimed, waving her arms at their idiocy. ‘Wouldn’t let me put any clean clothes on. I was shuffled into the cloakroom off the hall, and not allowed any further into my own house. And then this Detective Inspector showed me pictures. I ask you, pictures! On his tablet. A preliminary identification, he said. It was Leon alright. His head smashed in. Skull cracked near in half. Someone had had a real go.’ She mimicked. ‘You can’t see him, Mrs Ward. Not till he has been taken from the scene.’
‘Do you know where it was done?’ said Jack.
‘His room,’ she said. ‘They didn’t say, but I recognised the bedding.’ She waved a school-teacherly finger at the three of them. ‘And none of us are to go anywhere until we’ve been questioned. The DI says so. So there.’
‘Any idea when it happened?’ said Jack.
Joanna chuckled. ‘Maybe when all three of us were round your place, Jack lad. Oh, what will they make of that!’
Jack shifted uncomfortably thinking what he’d say when questioned. Or Joanna and Carol’s angle on their ménage a trois. Who would ever believe nothing had happened?
Joanna was giggling almost secretly. What on earth would the cops make of her behaviour? Not quite the grieving widow. In fact, little grief all round. Not a handkerchief in sight.
She said, ‘I asked the man – am I a suspect?’ She took on a serious, deep voice. ‘You are all suspects, Mrs Ward.’
‘Bugger me,’ said Jack. ‘I just came to repair the summerhouse.’
‘And now you’re a suspect,’ said Carol.
‘And so are you,’ said Jack, catching her eye.
The doorbell rang.
Donna went to it. A man dolled up in white plastic was standing there.
‘DI Henderson would like to talk to Jack Bell.’
He was led into the house, taken a few steps into the hallway. There he saw blue and white crime scene tape across the stairs, across the door of the sitting room and the kitchen. All the police, apart from those outside, were plastic suited and had what looked like shower caps over their shoes.
A small table had been set up in the hallway with a policewoman sitting at it. Just beyond her, the hallway and the stairs were cordoned off with tape.
‘If you don’t mind, we’d like to take your fingerprints, sir.’
The policewoman explained that it was routine for everyone working or living in the house. His fingers were inked one at a time in the pad on her table and pressed onto a paper. When completed Jack was given a tissue to wipe his hands.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said the policewoman.
The officer who’d brought him over indicated to Jack the cloakroom at the side of the hallway, just this side of the cordon. The room was small with a table and three chairs where two officers were seated. At the back was a rack of outdoor coats on hangers. On pegs were various hats, mostly hers but a number of his too. There were two umbrella stands, both quite full.
As Jack entered the two officers stood up, both attired for a crime scene, reminding Jack of cleaners. One was a trim man in his 50s, balding, very clean shaven, which made Jack rub his chin. The man had discarded his plastic cap, possibly on the grounds that he’d less hair to leave around, or, more likely, vanity. The other was a woman, of young middle age, hair tucked well into the plastic cap.
The man put his hand out. Jack took it.
‘I’m Detective Inspector Henderson, and this is my colleague Detective Sergeant Boyd.’
‘How do you do,’ said Jack nodding at Boyd.
‘How do you do,’ she said.
‘Please sit down,’ said Henderson.
All three sat.
‘This is a preliminary interview,’ said Henderson. ‘DS Boyd will take notes.’
‘Ask away,’ said Jack.
‘What’s your position here, Mr Bell?’
‘I’ve only been here two days…’
The two officers looked at each other.
‘We thought you were staff…’ said Henderson.
Jack shook his head. ‘I’m a self-employed builder working on their summerhouse. My mate Bob took sick and passed the job on to me.’ He took out his wallet and searched it. ‘Here’s my card.’
The detective read, ‘Jack of All Trades.’
Jack grimaced. ‘It was a joke at the time, and now with five thousand cards printed and my van painted up, I’m stuck with it.’
‘Might I ask about your black eye?’
Jack gave an uncomfortable laugh. ‘I knew that was coming.’
‘It’s an impressive specimen.’
‘Regrettably. Mr Ward was giving this bloke a real kicking, out there in the garden. I was having lunch outside the summerhouse and saw it going on. I tried to pull Ward away and he socked me one.’
‘Who was the man?’
‘Don’t know. He was stark naked and I’m told Mr Ward chased him out of their bedroom. He was already unconscious when I got to him. And barely recovering when the ambulance came. I just stopped him getting killed.’
‘For which you got that black eye.’
‘And sacked,’ went on Jack. ‘Then Ward changed his mind and thanked me. Then the next day, in the house there was this almighty quarrel between Mr and Mrs Ward – so I’m told, I was outside working. And I got sacked again. He said he was not paying for her summerhouse. I was just packing up my tools when she took me on again. Her money, she said, she’d pay for it.’ He shook his head. ‘To tell you the truth, I had no idea where I was. Job, no job. They were tossing me back and forth like a tennis ball.’
‘You were at the party last night?’
Jack nodded. ‘I came. Rather out of my depth among all those millionaires. I left before ten.’
‘And came back this morning with Mrs Ward?’
‘Oh yes,’ he said reddening. ‘I knew that was coming.’ He took a deep breath. ‘She invited herself back to my place.’ He held up a hand, ‘Not that I said no.’
Henderson stifled a grin.
‘She was supposed to come at midnight. Didn’t come, and then, total surprise, must have been 12.30 or maybe later, Carol turned up…’
‘Carol Cole? Mrs Ward’s secretary?’
‘Yes. Anyway, Carol came along. And I hoped that was that. But half an hour later, Mrs Ward showed up.’
‘Totally. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t have a threesome. In fact, I slept in the van. Carol slept in my bed and Mrs Ward on the sofa.’
‘An utterly chaste time?’
‘A little snogging, until Mrs Ward showed up, and that put paid to anything further. Or anything at all, really.’
‘What time did you go to your van?’
‘Must’ve been about one thirty-ish.’
‘No. I was in the back in a sleeping bag. Went for a walk about four-thirty. Didn’t see anyone.’
‘What time did you go back to your flat?’
‘About 7 am, having bought some bacon from the shop on the high road. Forest Gate.’
‘So from one-thirty until seven you were on your own. No witnesses.’
‘I think that’ll do for the time being, unless you’ve any questions, DS Boyd?’
The policewoman looked up, she’d been busily scribbling throughout. ‘No, sir.’
Henderson stood up. ‘Well, that gives us the feel of things, Mr Bell. I’d like you to come into the station tomorrow and give a full statement. Make it 2 pm; there’ll be additional questions as we get a fuller picture.’ He handed over a card. ‘And could you bring your bank statements for the last year.’
‘In my experience, Mr Bell, most murders are about sex or money. And sometimes both.’
Jack considered this pearl for a second or two, and had a thought.
‘Talking about money, Mr Ward sent me on an outside job yesterday. And to cut it short, he’s a slum landlord, into some very nasty practices. I only saw one tip of a house. And I don’t know how many others he’s got, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s typical.’
The two police officers looked at each other knowingly.
‘Thank you for that,’ said Henderson. ‘We’ll certainly examine that area.’
‘Am I a suspect?’
Henderson’s tongue lolled in his cheek. ‘Coming back with Mrs Ward this morning puts you well in the frame.’
‘So you say. And the black eye?’
‘I’m not going to kill anyone for that,’ exclaimed Jack. ‘Be reasonable.’
Boyd tapped her superior on the arm, ‘Might I have a brief word, sir?’
They went into the hall. Jack could hear them mumbling, but could make out no words. He wondered when Ward was killed. Could it have been when he was sleeping in his van? And so what if it was? What would be his motive? But you never knew with cops, what they might stick on you.
The two officers returned. Henderson was holding a plastic bag with a length of silvery metal inside.
‘Do you recognise this implement?’ he said. He put the bag on the table. ‘Please don’t touch.’
Jack looked closely.
‘It looks like one of my cold chisels. Yes, it is. I recognise that dent at the edge. That’s blood on it.’ He turned to Henderson. ‘It’s the weapon, isn’t it?’
‘When did you last see it?’
‘It was in the summerhouse with the rest of my tools.’
‘Was it locked?’
Jack shook his head. ‘No. I figured my tools were safe from millionaires.’
‘Not from someone,’ said Henderson.
Jack returned to the granny flat.
‘They want you, Donna.’
Donna rose from the sofa, straightening her hair.
‘What was it like?’ her voice aquiver.
‘Heavy,’ he said, wriggling his neck. ‘I’m wondering whether I need a lawyer.’
She grimaced. He patted her on the shoulder.
‘Just tell the truth.’
‘What’s the truth?’ she said shaking her head.
And left them.
‘Did you confess, Jack?’ said Joanna blithely, seated at the table.
‘I felt like I should have. Cops always make me feel guilty.’
‘And did you tell them about our non-event?’
‘I’m sure they’ll ask you your side of it.’
‘I’m just glad I never slept in your bed. What was it like, Carol?’
Carol screwed up her nose. ‘Talcy.’
Jack cringed. And changed the subject.
‘There’s something I’ve got to ask you, Joanna. Your husband sent me on a job yesterday which I only half finished. In one of his houses.’
‘The door is unsafe,’ Jack went on. ‘And as you’re the owner now… should I finish it?’
Joanna flapped a hand helplessly. ‘Don’t ask me.’
Carol said, ‘As it’s already a half done job, go finish it and bill the estate.’
‘See why I took her on?’ said Joanna proudly.
‘I need money for a new door and timber,’ said Jack.
‘How much?’ said Joanna.
‘150, no, make it 200 to be on the safe side. No point buying a crap door.’
‘I bet he’s got petty cash in his room,’ said Joanna. ‘If the cops didn’t pocket it.’
‘How does that help?’ said Jack.
‘It doesn’t while it’s a crime scene,’ said Joanna sharply. ‘I was thinking aloud.’
‘So can I get a door?’
‘Not unless you spend your own money.’
Jack turned away from her in irritation, did a half step then turned back on her.
‘What do you know about your husband’s property?’
‘Not a lot,’ she said. ‘I know he bought and sold, but what – I wasn’t interested. And he wasn’t talkative. He had as much interest in my fairy books as I had in his property dealings.’
‘Then you’ve got some catching up to do,’ said Jack. ‘You’re a slum landlord.’
Joanna slapped her forehead. ‘What a mess the bastard’s left me!’ She turned to Carol, ‘What do we do, smarty?’
Carol chewed her lip for a few seconds. ‘We need to look at this house. And then find out how many others there are in the same condition.’
‘And what about the poor guy’s door?’ interjected Jack.
‘You’re really concerned about him and his flaming door,’ exclaimed Joanna.
‘I did a botched repair yesterday. Strictly temporary.’
Joanna rubbed her chin. ‘Do the damned door. It’s a half job, finish it,’ she said. ‘Give me your laptop, Carol. I’ll do a bank transfer. Let’s have your account details, Jack.’
Jack wrote down the account numbers and shut up while Joanna worked on the laptop. Carol gave him a sly thumbs up. Was it for him or the man with the botched door? Either way, it was an improvement.
‘There,’ said Joanna after a minute or so. ‘It’s in your account. 200 quid.’
‘Thank you, Joanna,’ he said meekly. Then flicked his fingers. ‘Tell you what, I could go buy the door and timber, drop it off at the house. Then you two could meet me there. You need to know what you’re lumbered with, Joanna.’
‘I can’t go,’ said Joanna flatly. ‘I’ve got an interview coming up with that detective what’s his name,’ she flicked her fingers, ‘Henderson, and I have to formally identify the body.’ She turned to Carol. ‘You go with him.’
‘I haven’t been interviewed yet.’
‘Look,’ said Jack, ‘I’ll go buy the gear, that’ll take a bit of time. Then I’ll phone you to meet me at the house. And if you’re a bit late, I’ll get started.’
Carol looked to Joanna. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘You two, make me a report on the house,’ she said. ‘I do need to know what I’ve got.’
‘You’ve been living here five years, Mrs Jones? Is that correct?’
Donna was in the cloakroom with DI Henderson and DS Boyd, all three round the small table. She’d been fingerprinted as she came into the house, making her more nervous; her answers short, Henderson having to prompt her to give fuller replies.
‘Five, yes,’ she said, nodding too eagerly, at the easy question.
‘Living in the granny flat?’
‘So you’ve known Mr Ward five years?’
Donna didn’t reply. Her eyes welled – and she burst into tears.
‘I’m sorry, so sorry,’ she managed to say between bleats.
‘There, there,’ said Henderson awkwardly. ‘I know this is distressing. Can I get you a glass of water?’
‘No thank you, sir.’ She wiped her face with the back of her hand. ‘I’ll be alright in a moment, thank you.’
DS Boyd took out a pack of tissues and handed her one. Donna mumbled ‘thank you, dear’ and dabbed her eyes.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m not normally this way. I didn’t sleep well. And yesterday was quite a strain. And now all this.’
She sat back in the chair wiping her cheeks. DS Boyd patted her hand.
‘Thank you, dear,’ said Donna.
‘In your own time, Mrs Jones,’ said Henderson solicitously. ‘I know this is a shock to you.’
Donna blew her nose. ‘Excuse me.’
‘Were you close to Mr Ward?’ he said carefully.
For a second or two she didn’t reply as if holding her breath. This was either to be her big lie, and that followed by another and another… But why, she thought. So obviously, why should she continue the fiction? When the bugger was dead.
‘I hated him,’ she said, eyes closed.
Henderson looked to Boyd who nodded before returning to her notebook. Hatred was always important.
‘Why did you hate him?’
She took a few seconds to file her thoughts. It had to be told.
‘No one liked Mr Ward,’ she said. ‘He used people, trod on them on his way up.’
‘How did he tread on you, Mrs Jones?’
She closed her eyes again, thinking back to a younger self, to days of possibility. Tell them. It would all come out anyway.
‘I first met him, oh, must be 28 years ago. He had a market stall on the Whitechapel Road, opposite the London Hospital. Wasn’t rich then.’ She gave a wry smile. ‘I worked in a café nearby, just up from the Underground, a greasy spoon, all day fry ups, you know the sort of stuff. He used to drop in and tease me. He had all the patter. To chat up women and sell junk. He used to buy china seconds and claim they were prime ware. His knives looked pukka, but the handles turned green in a few days. A real wide boy. After a few months he had to do a runner, too many customers after him.’
She smiled weakly, noting DS Boyd was having trouble keeping up in the spiral notebook on her knees. Henderson sat back, waiting, knowing he needn’t push. The flow had begun. She had said so much, it was impossible for her not to say more. In his younger days, he’d shouted and fumed, threatened even. But over the years, mellowing, and with recording more prevalent, he’d become better at listening, at picking up signs. Knowing what was important in the dross of an interview.
‘He disappeared off the map,’ she went on, ‘leaving me with a bun in the oven. The old, old story. Changed his name, I don’t know how many times, as he made his way up. He was Toby Green then. And I wasn’t to see him for another twenty years or more.’ She chuckled as she reminisced. ‘He had such a good line in patter. You just knew he was going to get very rich.’
‘When did you meet him again?’ said Henderson.
‘It was when I came here for an interview, five years ago. Mrs Ward was in New York, something to do with her writing for kids. They’d just lost a housekeeper. I found out later she’d walked out on them. Mr Ward’s got…’ she halted and corrected herself, ‘he had quite a temper and he insulted her for her cooking. She just threw down her apron and walked out.’
‘You recognised each other at the interview, Mrs Jones?’
‘Straight away. He tried to deny it at first but then realised I wasn’t out for blackmail or anything, and came clean. I showed him a picture of Eric, his son, twenty then. And he liked the idea of a son. He said he didn’t have any other kids. And maybe that’s true – or he might have scattered them all over the shop with all his different names. Anyway, I became housekeeper with the granny flat. The condition was I wasn’t to say anything about our past. Not about Eric. Especially about Eric when he found out he was schizophrenic.’
She stopped and sank back in her chair like a deflated cushion.
‘This is very hard for me,’ she said, dabbing her eyes. ‘I’ve kept it bottled in for years.’
‘I appreciate your honesty with us, Mrs Jones.’ He reflected. ‘By the way, you are not married, are you?’
She shook her head. ‘No. Mrs sounds more respectable for a housekeeper.’
He rose. ‘Let’s take a break.’ And went to the door. He called to someone. ‘Joe – you wouldn’t like to get us three cups of tea, would you? Thanks, pal.’ He returned to his seat.
‘I think we all need a breather.’
‘I feel so sticky,’ complained Joanna, twisting her neck. ‘Like it’s two in the morning, we’ve run out of booze and you can taste the scum on your teeth.’
She was at the table, having barely moved, the surface covered with mugs and a plate with a few sad looking biscuits.
‘I’m glad I got home and changed,’ said Carol smugly. ‘Though I’m tired. It wouldn’t be so bad if I was working, but it’s this sitting about wearies you.’
‘I wonder who did it?’
Both knew what the ‘it’ referred to.
‘You’re asking the wrong person. I don’t think I said ten words to him.’
‘What did you think of him?’
Joanna laughed. ‘Nothing you say about him will offend me.’
‘Bit of a letch.’
‘Full of himself.’
‘Rather stuffy clotheswise. I never saw him in anything but a suit… And a tie.’
‘You’re wearing a suit yourself.’
‘But I’m not at home.’
Joanna rubbed at her scalp as if it itched. ‘He was all front. Didn’t have the confidence to dress casual. So he went to Savile Row and had the best, most expensive suits made. The ready made uniform for a gent.’
‘If you can afford it.’
‘I could have a shower here,’ said Joanna thoughtfully, ‘except I’ve nothing to change into. I could buy some clothes, except I can’t leave, nor can you. Donna’ll be back soon, but heaven knows what she’d get me. I feel so shabby. And dressed too sexy for eleven in the morning. Being eyed up by coppers.’
‘What’s so funny?’
‘For an employee you’re quite impertinent.’
Carol shrugged. ‘If you want a doormat, hire one.’
Joanna wrinkled her nose. ‘Actually, I don’t mind a bit of impertinence. Probably quite good for me. I can be inclined to bully.’
‘I saw you with the fairy writers.’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t do it, but I’m so bored with those stories. I shall pass them lock, stock and barrel on to you, and you can be as nice as you like. So long as you deliver.’
‘So who killed the old sod?’
Carol said nothing. She was looking out of the window. On the crescent, a smart woman was getting out of a vehicle with an attaché case. A man was coming out of the house taking off plastic over-clothes as he went.
‘I’d bet on a business colleague,’ went on Joanna. ‘Someone he shafted. A dirty deal. Someone who was there last night. Heavens – he won’t come for me – will he?’
‘As you inherit,’ said Carol, enjoying her boss’s discomfort. ‘Maybe.’
‘But I didn’t do anything,’ she exclaimed. ‘Don’t even know what’s what in his filthy empire.’
‘All the more reason for finding out.’
Doors had gone up in price since Jack had last bought one. There’s a surprise. He knew solid timber was out anyway. Nothing fancy, no glazing. A strong, wooden door. It wouldn’t keep Ward’s loan collectors out if they were determined. Only a steel door with a steel frame, and locks and bolts suitable for Fort Knox, would do that. It’d be like locking yourself in a bank vault, and take ten minutes to leave the house – and God help you if you lost a key.
The best he could come up with for his budget was a four panel oak veneer with a chipboard interior for £150. He’d had to hunt around, finding quickly that Woodford was the wrong area for a cheap door, and driven to Walthamstow to get what he wanted. Buying time was not something the client allowed for, but a builder had to, and it often took longer than you allowed.
Hinges and a stout door post completed his purchase. He’d measured up yesterday and knew the door was touch and go for size. He hoped it didn’t need planing as all his planes were in the summerhouse. He had saws, drills and enough other tools in his van – but no plane. The door would need a couple of coats of paint but he figured he had enough bits and pieces in his lock-up for that.
The door was weighty. Two of the merchant’s men hoisted it on top of his van. It’d be a bastard taking it up the stairs, dragging if need be. He couldn’t imagine the tenant being much help.
Everything except a damned plane.
Pleased, though, with the purchase. An OK door, and he’d pulled a fast one on Joanna. Ward had said no new door, not with the tenant owing money. But Ward’s men had smashed it in, so it was clear enough to Jack who should replace it.
Once inside the van, he phoned Carol.
‘I’ve been quizzed,’ she said after their intros.
‘How was it?’
‘What could I tell ‘em?’
‘About our tryst.’
‘He did ask. More detail than was warranted I thought. But I assume this is not a social call.’
‘I’ve got the door and I’m going to the house.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’ll be in Leyton in twenty minutes.’
‘I’ll see you there.’
‘One other thing.’
‘What’s that?’ Her voice was wary.
‘Ask if you can bring my planes from the summerhouse.’
‘I’ll try. See you.’
Strictly business, thought Jack. Though you could never be sure with the phone. He wished Joanna was out of the picture. Surely a murdered husband would be enough to occupy her? She’d have a lot to choose from, between undertakers, pathologists and cops. One of them surely could keep her busy.
He’d have to push her away if he was ever to get anywhere with Carol. If she hadn’t completely written him off.
Strictly business then.
‘Yes, it’s him.’
Two stretcher-bearers, encased in plastic, though dark green from a medical outlet, had brought down Leon Ward and laid him out, still on the stretcher in the hallway, for Joanna to make the official identification.
She walked round the corpse. Then got down on her knees by his head.
‘Please don’t touch, Mrs Ward,’ said Henderson with a hand on her shoulder.
‘I won’t,’ she said.
His head was completely smashed in, like an egg struck with a spoon. Bits of bone were embedded in the jellied, bloody liquid of the brain. Blood was caked in his thinning hair, and lay in hardened drips down one cheek, the other completely clean, though chicken pale. He seemed asleep, all fury leached away with the blood.
He was wearing his dark blue dinner suit, had on his shoes too. Still dressed for the party.
‘If you are absolutely sure,’ said Henderson, ‘would you be kind enough to fill in a form, Mrs Ward.’
He led her into the cloakroom and sat her at the table. The form on a clipboard was short and easy. Henderson handed her a pen. There were a couple of tick box questions: that she had been given sufficient time for the identification and there was light enough for her to see properly.
‘And if you’ll just write in that box, I confirm the deceased is my husband, Leon Ward. Then date and time. And myself and DS Boyd will witness it.’
Joanna did as she was bid and handed it to Henderson. He signed it, and then handed it to Boyd who did the same.
‘I’m sorry about this, Mrs Ward, but it saves a trip to the mortuary. There will of course be an inquest.’
‘I’m grateful to have done it here,’ she said. ‘Why go to the mortuary?’
Outside the room, they could hear the stretcher-bearers giving directions to each other. Henderson closed the door. Joanna shivered, feeling claustrophobic in the small room.
‘When will I be able to get clean clothes?’ she asked. ‘From my bedroom.’
‘In a few hours, Mrs Ward.’
‘He wasn’t killed there,’ she sighed, throwing her hands up, exasperated.
‘How do you know that, Mrs Ward?’
‘By the bedding in the photo you showed me. That was his room.’
‘Ah,’ said Henderson. ‘That’s the main crime scene. We’ll need that room for a few days yet. Your bedroom, I dare say we’ll be finished with late this afternoon.’
‘What do you expect to find there?’
He shrugged. ‘Most likely nothing, but maybe a blood covered rag, a letter that could lead us somewhere. Who knows?’ He chewed his lower lip. ‘I know it’s inconvenient commandeering so much of your house, but the first few hours are the most important if we are to catch the culprit.’
‘I don’t have any choice,’ said Joanna. ‘Do I?’
She was wearing a loose purple cardigan which Donna had loaned her. Hardly high fashion, rather the opposite, making her look rather like a waif and stray – which was much the way she felt. But at least she was no longer on display to the police force and their hangers on.
DS Boyd was jotting in her notebook.
‘Do you mind a few preliminary questions now, Mrs Ward?’
‘Ask,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Mrs Ward.’ After a suitable pause, he said, ‘What was your relationship like with your husband?’
‘Bad. We’d had an argument yesterday afternoon. I’m sure you have heard about it.’
‘Yes,’ said Henderson. ‘From several sources.’
‘He slapped my face,’ she said. ‘I trod on his foot. And we yelled at each other.’
‘We noted the injured toes. Now we know how.’
‘I ruined a good pair of shoes.’
‘We found them,’ said Henderson with a suppressed smile. ‘Tell me, when was the last time you saw Mr Ward?’
She scratched her chin for a second. ‘Maybe eleven o’clock last night. Just a glance across the lounge. He was chatting with some pals, a drink in his hand. I was keeping well out of his sphere. And he, ditto.’
‘Tell us about the evening, Mrs Ward.’
She took a deep breath before commencing the chore.
‘Well, I had friends there, and writers of my fairy books – you know about those?’
‘We’ve noted them.’
‘My secretary, Carol, was there. I spoke to lots of guests, Jack the builder, wives of various people who knew me and Leon. Being the host, I circulated, hello’d people, introduced guests to guests as one does.’
‘We’ve found a guest list I’d like to go over with you later.’
‘What time did you leave the party?’
‘Rather early for me,’ she said. ‘I’d drunk too much, eaten too much. All those waitresses flying about filling you up. And then about eleven thirty I was suddenly exhausted. It just hit me. The strain of the party, the row, all the dressing up… I really don’t know why I have parties. And this one, with us both pretending to be the ever-loving couple. It was all too much. So I went up to my bedroom and lay down for a while. I must have fallen asleep because when I woke it was twelve thirty…’
‘No idea. I was asleep,’ she said, as if addressing an idiot.
‘And then you went to Jack Bell’s?’
‘By taxi, yes. Too pissed to drive. I’d lost my licence a couple of years ago. Only got it back nine months ago. I wasn’t going there again.’
‘And you didn’t see your husband after 11 pm?’
She shook her head. ‘Not until I saw him laid out on a stretcher in the hall out there. And for once, not a word to say for himself.’
Jack waited in the van outside the house. A mixed area, like his own road. Easy to pick out what was what at a glance. The owner occupied houses, you could tell them at once. Smarter, the owners painting and repairing them to keep the value up. There were some roofers up there, two Asian guys, on scaffolding, converting a loft. Adding value to value, like all London housing. And between them, the tenanted properties. A grading of them, some with aspiring tenants, saving for house purchase, others condemned to rent for their lifetime, hoping for a decent landlord, and too often getting the Leon Wards. It was lucrative, too unregulated, the scales weighted heavily in the landlord’s favour. No wonder shady dealers homed in.
He looked at his watch. There was work to do, the door and lock to be put in, but she and he would be together a while, so he might be able to say something in his favour. So maybe wait, talk to her. Make a case for another go. Less than twelve hours ago, they’d been about to go to bed…
And this morning she’d hissed at him as if he were a child molester.
His stomach was buzzing as if full of crawling beetles. How would he begin? Carol had it in her head Joanna only had to beckon and he’d come running. So how could he show her otherwise? If there was an otherwise.
He could lie of course. Alcohol Halt’s mantra was that lies must end in disaster, but then he wasn’t concerned with the end. It was now he wanted. A beginning.
Strong women were his lure. He could not resist them. And now like London buses; one doesn’t come for ages, then two turn up.
Except they weren’t buses. Two, he’d found, didn’t give you a choice of a ride. They said walk, and don’t bother looking back.
Should he take the door upstairs while he was waiting? Get started at least. Look like a workman when she came. Except he’d probably need a plane to get the door to size. He had two perfectly good ones in the summerhouse, now a crime scene. Quite why the cops needed to examine there, he couldn’t fathom, but it meant more than half his tools were off limits. When and if the planes arrived, he could work in the passage upstairs. Harder to plane in, but working outside would mean he’d have to keep carting the door up and down to see if he’d shaved enough off. And it was hefty.
Suppose he promised Carol he’d have nothing further to do with Joanna? She wouldn’t believe him. Which in a way was a relief. One lie he needn’t make. Though he might anyway. He was a rat really, he conceded, when it came to sex. Hormones coursed, gave their orders. His agitation was electricity in a zombie body, going where ordered.
All this waiting. Last night for Joanna. Who’d come too late. If she’d come first, he was sure Joanna would have told Carol to piss off. And they’d have had a wild night of love. Maybe. Such nights often didn’t go to script. But just suppose it had.
That would be that with Carol.
But there had been no love making, wild or otherwise, just a cold night in his van. Which gave him the ghost of a chance.
She arrived, her car homing in on the kerb space behind him. He got out to greet her, still sparking with a little hope. She climbed out of her car, carrying two planes which she handed to him.
‘The summerhouse is no longer a crime scene,’ she said.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I can get on with that job then, when I get back.’
He locked the planes in his van. When he next turned to her, she was standing with a clipboard, eyeing up the house and garden.
‘Yard full of rubbish,’ she said as she jotted. ‘Too few bins, rampant buddleia and fireweed…’
‘Guttering loose,’ added Jack in practical mode, ‘tiles displaced on the roof, cracked window on first floor, brickwork badly needs pointing…’
This was business, as if there had never been intimacy. Two answering machines talking to each other.
‘The gate is missing a hinge, the other broken,’ he went on as they made their way in. ‘Path tiles missing or cracked, boundary wall leaning, cement badly chipped on the front steps, front door needs painting, one glass pane cracked… And that’s just the damned outside.’
‘It’s so depressing,’ she said.
He indicated the doorbells. ‘I don’t know how they’ve got five households in.’
Jack put the key in the lock. She put a hand on his arm.
‘I’m not sure I’ve the stomach for this.’
He touched her hand, she didn’t immediately pull it away, but held it there a second, then gently eased it free.
He said, ‘Whoever murdered Ward could be connected to his houses.’
‘How many more has he got?’
Jack shrugged. ‘One is too many.’
‘Joanna phoned Ward’s office,’ she said. ‘They’re expecting us over. We’ll find out how many and where they are.’
He said, ‘I’m sorry about last night.’
She turned away. ‘Don’t talk about it, please.’
He nodded. And opened the door.
She said, ‘If we are going anywhere, Jack… You can’t ride two horses.’
He wanted to throw his arms round her at the chink of light she’d offered. Instead he said, ‘I know.’ And dared say no more; lies hustling in the wings.
Jack opened the door.
‘Flex frayed in that light,’ he indicated as they moved along, ‘dado rail missing, throw out this lino, paint the hallway, replace the plasterboard in that section of ceiling…’
Cagily, they stumbled into the smell, over the carpet of junk mail, as if into a cavern where wild animals lurked, and onto the stairs.
‘Bannister loose, three posts missing, replace stair carpet…’ He stopped and said, ‘I want to go upstairs first, see Dan.’
‘The tenant with the broken door. He’s got things to say.’
She nodded. ‘I’ll come up. It’ll be good to talk to a tenant.’
He continued listing as they climbed the stairs, pointing out loose risers and boards, the electric wire running down the staircase.
‘A fire risk,’ he said, ‘to add to the other fire risks.’
‘How has Ward got away with this place?’ she said.
He shrugged as he continued up the stairs. ‘Too few inspectors, bribery I’d guess, intimidation… It’s a dirty world, this whole scene.’ He turned to her, she was a couple of stairs behind. ‘Ward must have made enemies, and one of them might have…’
‘Killed him,’ she continued for him.
They were on the landing. His botched repair immediately obvious, but it was all he could do for a holding job. A new door was necessary, and he had that now.
He rapped on the makeshift one.
‘Who is it?’ came from inside.
‘It’s me, Jack. The builder.’
‘Wait a sec.’
In a few moments, the door was opened. Dan put his head cautiously round.
‘She’s OK, Dan. With me.’
‘What’s she doing here?’
‘She just wants to ask you a few questions.’
‘I don’t do questions,’ and he went to close the door, but Jack held it open.
‘Ward’s dead,’ said Jack.
Dan stopped pushing.
‘What? Dead? How do I know he’s dead?’
And he began pushing again.
‘This is all going to stop, Dan,’ said Carol coming to the door, her face close to his in the crack.
‘What’s going to stop?’ The pushing relaxed a little.
‘The intimidation,’ she said, ‘these conditions.’
‘What about his collectors?’
‘It’s all going to stop,’ she said. ‘This is illegal. Ward is dead, and so are his practices. Whatever has been going on stops now.’
‘And who are you?’
‘I work for Mrs Ward. This is all hers now and she wants it cleaned up.’
Does she? thought Jack.
‘But I do need to know what Ward’s been doing, Dan,’ she continued. ‘To put things right. I am one hundred per cent on your side.’
Be on mine, thought Jack.
The door opened.
‘You’d best come in, Miss. And don’t be tricking me, cus I’ll be slipping off a rooftop if you are.’
‘No tricks, Dan. I promise you.’
Carol went in first, Jack followed.
The room had been slightly cleaned up from the day before. There were a few less bottles on the mantelpiece, but a strong smell of cheese and sweat. On the half made bed, on a newspaper, was the food he’d bought for Dan. Half the loaf gone, more of the cheese, the tomatoes though were untouched.
‘Suppose I leave you two here to chat,’ said Jack, ‘and I bring up your new door.’
‘Good idea,’ said Carol. ‘If that’s alright by you, Dan.’
Dan was plainly charmed.
‘You bring the door up, lad. I’ll talk to the young lady.’
Jack left them.
Not unrelieved to be out of the room. It was going relatively well, so why spoil it, he thought as he went down the stairs. Yes, it was business, but the personal was poking through from time to time. And maybe, just maybe, there would be a coming together.
There was hope.
They’d left the front door open. Probably shouldn’t have done, but it gave the hall some natural light and added fresh air to that of the barnyard. He thought of closing it, but no – he needed it open to bring the door in.
He halted by the front door for a few seconds. There’d need to be three trips. Bring the door to the hallway first, then the timber, and lastly his tools. The sun had come out and warmed his face, as if coming up from a year underground. Carol would be catching up on what was going on. She was good with people. He’d known that the instant he first saw her. Her warmth, her strength too.
Don’t push it. Step by step. In the sunshine it seemed so much more likely.
Once out of the gate and on the pavement, he saw his stupidity. The door was gone. The thief, or thieves, had simply unattached his bungees and taken the door off his van. They’d kindly left the timber.
Five short minutes, he thought. That’s all he’d been in there. You can’t leave anything. He knew, though, that if he’d been alone, he wouldn’t have left the door on top of the van when he went in the house. Carol had distracted him.
Sex on the brain.
He ran up the road in the hope of seeing them somewhere. Couldn’t have been long. They were not in sight. He glanced down a side turning.
One hundred and fifty quid’s worth of door snatched. He leaned against his vehicle deflated.
‘What a screw up.’
He shrugged. There was nothing he could do. It had happened. And he began taking the timbers off the van roof. He leaned them against the side, and went in the back and sorted out his toolbox. He could at least repair the doorpost. And think about getting another door later. Though it had been hard enough getting the cash out of Joanna in the first place.
What would he say to her this time?
He took the timber into the hallway, then went back for his toolbox and planes. And in two journeys took them upstairs to the landing. He could hear mumbling inside, the door was slightly ajar for him.
‘The door’s been nicked,’ he said as he entered.
Carol and Dan were on the bed. She with the clipboard, he munching crackers.
‘That’s a real downer,’ exclaimed Carol.
‘Sorry, Dan,’ he said, ‘I thought it’d be alright on the van roof for a few minutes.’
Dan shook his head. ‘Not round here, mate.’
‘What you going to do?’ said Carol.
‘Fix the doorpost,’ said Jack wearily. ‘At least I can do that. Look – it’ll take me maybe three quarters of an hour. Why don’t you two go off to the café down the road? And I’ll join you when I’m done.’
‘Fancy some hot food, Dan?’ asked Carol.
‘When can I get my bloody house back?’ exclaimed Joanna.
She had moved from a chair to the sofa where she was laid out with half a dozen women’s magazines.
‘Clean clothes, a shower. Is it much to ask?’ she went on.
‘You can have a shower here,’ said Donna.
‘Thank you for the offer, but the thought of having to put these sweaty knickers back on afterwards…’ She sighed heavily. ‘It’s enough to get you watching daytime TV.’ She stopped and reflected. ‘My husband has been murdered. And I’m a callous bitch. Which I presume makes me a prime suspect. Are you a suspect, Donna?’
Donna, who’d been looking out of the window at the police movements, turned to her.
‘Why should I be, Mrs Ward?’
‘You do seem rather nervous.’
‘I’ve an important phone call to make.’
‘Don’t mind me,’ said Joanna. ‘Go ahead.’
Donna had rather hoped Joanna would offer to go outside and leave her to her call.
‘It’s rather private,’ said Donna.
‘I won’t listen,’ said Joanna.
And of course she would listen, thought Donna. How could she not in this small room? And might she not be intrigued and want to know more?
‘I’ll do it outside,’ said Donna.
‘And I’ll have a look through your bookshelf if you don’t mind…’
She crossed to the sideboard, where a dozen or so books were held in place by wooden elephant bookends.
‘Help yourself,’ said Donna as she went to the door.
Outside she clutched the phone. She had to do it. Everyone pushed her around. She was too easy. She must do it. Take control for once in her life.
A policewoman was standing sentry at the front door of the house. Four cars were in the curved drive, one of them Joanna’s, the others presumably police. The sun was out, bringing up the colours in the yellow and red roses in the half moon bed.
Donna walked down to the gate, as far as she could get from listening ears. She had slept badly last night, if sleep you could call it. Over and over she had conversations with Ward and with the social worker until she could bear it no more. And now Ward was gone, she must talk to the social worker.
She’d been cheated, lied to, her rights as a mother denied, as if she were one of those poor Irish girls whose babies were taken from them by nuns and who were then forced to work in a laundry overseen and bullied by the very same nuns. How cruel women could be to women. Men surprised her less. She had entered willingly into her servitude. Taken a tied flat next to her master’s house.
The social worker though was alive. And so was her son, and if she were to see him, she must phone the she-devil.
Donna squeezed against the brick gatepost as a car came through. And then ambled back up the drive ruminating, keeping her distance from the policewoman.
She could do nothing until she made this call. It had taken her over. She might have asked Carol to help, or Jack. Not Joanna. Never Joanna. But she was on her own this morning – and she must do it herself.
Must. It had to be done.
She went into the contacts on her phone. And selected Heather Kennedy. All she had to do was press the green button.
And say what?
She knew what to say. A hundred times she had said it through the night. The words needed no writing down. They were scratched into her brain.
She pressed the button. Put the phone to her ear as it buzzed away, breathing heavily, hoping it would not be answered. Then she could at least say she tried. Would not have to say the waiting words.
‘Hello, Social Services. Heather Kennedy.’
A voice. Her. Horror.
‘Hello?’ said the voice again.
‘It’s me, Donna Jones,’ she said meekly.
‘I’m sorry, Donna. I’ve nothing to add to our last conversation. These phone calls are pointless.’
‘This one is not,’ said Donna energised by the attempt to fob her off, ‘I know what you’ve been up to.’
‘I beg your pardon. Be careful what you say, these calls are monitored.’
‘I’m glad of that,’ said Donna. ‘Mr Ward died last night. And I’ve got his emails to you and from you. And I know he’s been paying you to stop me seeing Eric. What do you say to that?’
At last. Out. The accusation.
‘I don’t know what you mean, Donna.’ A humbler voice now.
‘I’m sure your boss will understand well enough,’ said Donna, on her roll. ‘I’ve been in touch with my solicitor,’ she lied. ‘You will be sacked, you will be struck off and you will go to prison for what you have done to me and my son.’
There was a long pause. Donna knew this was it. She had made it plain enough. Though she didn’t have the emails or a solicitor. Either Heather would call her bluff and ring off, or come to heel.
‘What do you want, Donna?’
‘I want to see my son. Today.’
‘I’ll see to it.’
‘You most certainly will, Heather Kennedy. I shall be at your office at three o’clock. If you don’t take me to my son, Eric, I shall send the emails to your boss and the police.’
‘I’ll take you to Eric,’ said Heather. ‘And let’s discuss the other matters, Donna.’
‘I’ll see you at three. At your office.’
Donna rang off. And at once she was staggering, the energy sucked out like a punctured tyre. A car on the drive pulled up sharp and she fell to the ground. The policewoman ran in from the door.
‘Are you alright, love?’
She helped Donna to her feet.
‘Sorry,’ said Donna with a weak wave to the man in the vehicle. ‘I feel a bit faint.’
The policewoman led her to the side of the driveway and the car drove out.
‘These things suddenly hit us,’ said the policewoman, her arm round Donna. ‘Did you know Mr Ward well?’
‘For a long time,’ she said. ‘I live just over there. I’m the housekeeper.’
‘I know, love,’ said the policewoman. ‘You make yourself a cup of tea. I’d do it for you, but I have to stay here. It’s a crime scene.’
‘Thank you for your concern,’ said Donna. ‘But I’m perfectly alright now.’
‘How many properties do you own?’ said Carol.
Jack and Carol were in the main office of Ward Properties in Stratford. The suite was part of a block of offices with central reception. The room they were in was new with large windows, the Olympic stadium was just in sight along with Anish Kapoor’s metal structure, nicknamed the coat-hanger by Bob. The furniture was new too, with a bank of filing cabinets against one wall. There were a couple of rooms off, one Ward’s office. There were two occupants present, Mr Timms and his assistant, a rotund woman, aptly named Mrs Ball, who couldn’t make up her mind whether to scowl or disappear. Timms on the other hand was small and thin, his suit loose on his frame. His black shoes were very shiny, as was the top of his head with a greyish fringe like a reef of rocks surrounding the island dome.
‘I don’t own any,’ replied Timms with a thin lipped smile. ‘Except the one I live in.’
Giving away as little as possible, Jack registered, while wanting to know more about his inquisitors, as if Ward were still alive. Catch up, catch up, this new morning world.
Timms was seated at a large desk, no doubt to give him presence – and possibly protect him.
‘How many does Mrs Ward own?’ said Carol a little wearily.
Jack was a bystander, happy to watch Carol operate. But he wondered whether she had overstepped the mark. As far as he knew Joanna was most likely the owner, but it was too early to say for sure. Might there be a will somewhere?
‘Is it certain Mrs Ward is the beneficiary of Mr Ward’s property?’ said Timms as if reading Jack’s mind.
‘Yes,’ said Carol, so definitely, Jack almost believed it.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Do you want to talk to Mrs Ward?’ said Carol holding out her phone.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Then why so secretive?’ said Carol.
‘No reason,’ said Timms.
‘Then give me, as Mrs Ward’s representative, a list of her properties.’
Timms chewed his knuckle, watched by Mrs Ball, her desk at right angles to her boss’s. Their average weight would be about the national standard, Jack mused, watching the assistant, frowning this time, her lips pressed closely together. What didn’t she like, thought Jack: Carol having a go at her boss or what Carol might find out? For that matter, Mrs Ball must know plenty. The office was too small for Chinese walls. There were only these two and the collectors employed. And currently in dispute about who was their new number one.
‘Are you, or are you not, going to give me a list of the properties?’
At last, with great effort, he said, ‘I shall need written authorisation.’
‘And I,’ said Carol, ‘shall recommend you for the sack.’
‘I am simply preserving confidentiality,’ he protested.
‘From the owner?’ She thumped the desk with her fist. ‘Let’s get this straight. You work here, Mr Timms. You have a new boss, and it would pay you to start your relationship positively. What on earth am I to say to her about your obstruction?’ She turned away for a second, and then snapped back. ‘Would you like to begin again, Mr Timms? And rethink your position.’
Jack felt sorry for him, though he was certain Timms deserved no sympathy as a lynchpin of this murky empire. But the regime had changed overnight and Timms needed to realise the stupidity of defending a dead dictator. Carol though was a surprise, quite a bruiser. He wondered how he would match up in a fight with her.
Carol crossed to Mrs Ball who fearfully watched her approach. Carol, above her, leaned in close, almost speaking in her ear.
‘Mrs Ball,’ she said with controlled politeness, ‘I’d be obliged if you would fetch me a list of Ward’s properties.’
The woman threw up her hands in alarm and appealed to her boss.
‘Mr Timms, Mr Timms! What shall I do?’
Timms seemed to be holding his breath. There was no doubt to Jack there were guilty secrets in abundance here. But the King was dead. His courtiers had better look to themselves.
‘Get the list for her, Mrs Ball,’ he said at last, having calculated that he couldn’t hold out.
‘And while you are at it,’ said Carol to Mrs Ball who had risen, ‘I should like to see the accounts for tenants’ loans.’
‘They’re computerised,’ said Timms. ‘We don’t print them out.’
‘Then give me them on disk,’ said Carol.
Mr Timms waved his hands fervently. ‘We never do that. Never.’ And shook his head in case he was misunderstood. ‘Security.’
‘Get up to date!’ shouted Carol, two arms on his desk, leaning forward into his face. ‘Your boss wants them. It is not in your remit to refuse.’ She backed off. ‘That’s if you want a boss, Mr Timms. For this is the last time of asking. If I have to come back here with Mrs Ward, make no mistake, you are fired.’ She looked to Mrs Ball. ‘Both of you.’
Jack watched the little man wilt under the onslaught. No doubt Mr Ward must’ve given him a battering in his time, or why this last ditch defence? As if Ward’s ghost would walk in the door to give him hell. But then ghosts can be exorcised. And Carol wasn’t leaving here empty handed.
‘Give her whatever she wants,’ said Timms.
Jack saw his chance.
‘One more thing,’ he said. They all looked at him in surprise; he hadn’t said a word up to now. ‘A new internal door is needed for 72 Francis. Your collectors smashed it in.’ Seeing Timms hesitate, he added, ‘I’m a builder. I’ll do it. I need one fifty.’
‘Take it out of petty cash, Mrs Ball,’ said Timms, with a weak wave of his hand.
Carol shone Jack a bright smile.
Joanna had given in and showered at Donna’s. Dressing, she’d thrown her knickers in the bin, and tied her hair back with an elastic band. When she came out of the shower, Donna was set to go out. For a few hours, she said, without telling Joanna where. And Joanna was not curious enough to enquire where.
At least, thought Joanna, she had some space to herself. But not her own space. How she hated the disruption: the enforced inactivity, the problems dumped in her lap, the cops who had taken ownership of her house. She had watched them leaving with bits and pieces, and protested when she’d seen her laptop being carried out, but it had done her no good. She was politely stonewalled and the laptop went.
A nuisance, but it was all backed up on the Cloud. She should go out and buy another laptop, but couldn’t remember what model it was. She wanted Carol here, she would know, or at least know what to buy. Her desktop diary was upstairs, her smartphone wasn’t so smart; most of her working life was up in her den.
She phoned Carol, who told her she was looking at houses – and would be back in an hour or so. And so Joanna played patience, laying the cards out on the coffee table. A game for old ladies on rainy Sundays. She would not turn on the television. Daytime TV was death to brain cells.
Having won a game (beating whom?) she took a breather and made a cup of tea. And while she was at it, explored Donna’s kitchen, wondering how much of the food and china she, Joanna, had paid for.
And shrugged it off. So what if a little tea went? Then rethought, so long as it was just a little tea. But didn’t pilfering grow? First a little tea, and if you had no hassle, the sugar – and then who knows what else?
It was not a good idea to keep household servants too long. They developed tricks. They outsmarted you. Leon had always been protective of Donna, but why should she be?
Her phone rang. She didn’t recognise the number.
‘I’m Joe Litt from the Daily Post,’ said the caller. ‘I’m sorry about your husband’s death.’
‘Thank you,’ she said curtly.
‘I am investigating his property portfolio. I’m just outside your gate, I wonder if you’d like to do an interview.’
‘No, thank you.’
She closed the call.
The phone rang back. Same number. Joanna cut it off and put the number on her blocked list. In a few minutes, the phone rang again.
‘Mrs Ward,’ said Joe Litt, ‘this is your opportunity to put your side of the story.’
She said nothing and cut him off. And blocked his second number.
Joanna phoned Carol.
‘I’ve just been phoned by a journalist. He’s investigating Leon’s property…’
‘I’m not surprised,’ said Carol. ‘Or rather surprised it took this long.’
‘Get back as soon as you can, we need to talk this through.’
‘We thought it best for Eric,’ said Heather.
‘Shut up,’ said Donna.
She was seated next to the social worker in the car as they drove to Eric’s in Chadwell Heath, her handbag in her lap. Donna had taken a taxi to Redbridge social services and Heather was waiting for her. Donna brushed off her apologies and explanations.
‘Let’s go,’ said Donna, knowing the less she said the better. For she hadn’t any emails and it was not too likely she could get them now.
Let the bloody woman think she had them. And would use them. Let the cow stay scared.
As she drove, Heather tried several times to mitigate what she’d done; each time Donna cut her short, and then blew up.
‘I want no more of your lies, Heather Kennedy. You have no excuses. You were paid off by Mr Ward for years. You are a despicable member of the human race. I’m only in your car on sufferance. Please don’t speak to me. I hate you. For what you’ve done to the relationship between me and Eric. However did you get to be a social worker? Don’t tell me. You are an expert in lies. All I want is for you to take me to Eric. Then go away, get out of my life forever. You are not his social worker anymore. Do you hear me, Heather Kennedy? Get that sorted.’
‘Mrs Jones, please…’
‘Shut up and sort it out.’
Donna knew her script. She had said it all through the night in imaginary conversations. The lines were pat and vicious. Now she was on stage, the rehearsed lines flooded out. She was a squeezed ball of anger. So infuriated, so distressed. She gripped her hands together, sticking her nails into her palms as if she would explode if she let go. Get there, drive. Let me be out of this car, out of the sphere of this awful woman, forever.
Deliberately she looked straight ahead, at the car eating up the damp roadway, past miles of secondhand car dealers and repair shops. Time passing. She knew hatred could kill you. And tried to think of Eric. Of what she would say to him after all these years. Of what he might say to her. There was the blockage. Venting her wrath against the social worker – that was easy. She didn’t care one jot about her feelings, her career. Zero on the sympathy scale. But Eric, who had been told for years Donna didn’t want to see him, that his mother had banished him from her life – how was she to get over that? She would have liked to ask Heather how she’d put it to Eric, but couldn’t. Didn’t want to give the cow any licence to speak.
At least she was moving. Past Barley Lane. Goodmayes Mental Hospital was down there; she’d visited Eric when he’d got really bad, must’ve been ten years ago. They were overtaking buses on the way to Romford. Time passing with distance travelled, gorging the ground before them. She could sense Heather’s fear, see it in her stiff body and her clutch of the wheel. The journey was at last coming to an end. Donna had made the phone call. Had given Heather Kennedy hell. And now she had to rescue the mother in herself, by somehow convincing Eric the blank years weren’t her fault – no matter what lies the awful woman had come up with. She bit her tongue again, preventing herself word bashing Heather further, knowing silence was the hardest hammer. For Heather knew that Donna knew, but didn’t know what she might do.
But Eric. Oh Eric. I am so sorry. I grieve for years lost. Please believe me.
She could make no reply to herself. There was a silent wall in her fantasy. She shivered in fear of what might happen. The slammed door, her son’s parting insults.
The car pulled up. Heather took her key out of the ignition.
‘He lives over there, Mrs Jones. At number 21. I’ll just take you over.’
‘You will not,’ said Donna as she undid her seatbelt. ‘I will go on my own as I should have done years ago.’
She opened the car door and stepped onto the pavement.
‘I never want to see you again, Heather Kennedy.’
And slammed the car door.
Jack drove into the semicircular drive, just behind Carol. He had followed her through the late afternoon traffic, up from Stratford, through Leytonstone, round the Whipps Cross roundabout and on to Snaresbrook and the Chigwell Road. There had been no occasion for the personal in their house viewing. And for the last half hour, he had watched the rear of her car and the back of her head.
A policewoman was at the door of the house. She first spoke to Carol in her car. Then came to Jack’s van.
‘Have you business here, sir?’
‘I am a builder working on the premises.’
‘Your name, please.’
Jack gave it. The policewoman phoned.
‘Mrs Ward – I have a Carol Cole and a Jack Bell here.’
The answer was obviously an assent.
‘You may go in,’ said the policewoman, ‘but please, you are not allowed upstairs. That remains a crime scene.’
She stepped aside and they went through the open door into the hallway. Chequered tape was across the stairs. Joanna was standing at the door of the lounge.
‘Let’s go in the kitchen,’ she said, ‘have a coffee.’
They walked past the stairs and into Donna’s domain.
The kitchen was totally clean. No evidence of the party. Was it only last night? thought Jack.
He and Joanna sat on a stool each by the long table. Carol filled the electric kettle.
‘A journalist phoned me,’ said Joanna. ‘He wants to interview me about my husband’s property. Mine now. I phoned Leon’s solicitor. There’s no will, so everything becomes mine. All Leon’s lousy empire drops in my lap. Dirty dealing and all. I didn’t know what to say to the journalist, so I cut him off. I haven’t much to say anyway as I don’t know anything. I dare say you two have had a quick crammer.’
‘We have,’ said Carol. ‘You own 110 properties. They are all overcrowded and in poor condition. Jack and I saw four of them. You have also inherited a loan racket, tying up tenants who get in arrears.’
‘I knew Leon was into dirty deals,’ mused Joanna, ‘but I have no desire to mire myself. I wonder how much the journalist knows.’
‘Whatever he knows, it’s a bigger story now,’ said Carol, ‘with Mr Ward murdered.’
‘What should we do?’
Carol busied herself with the cafetiere, spooning in the coffee. Jack took three cups out of the cupboard and milk from the fridge. Joanna did not move from her stool.
‘At present you are innocent,’ said Carol. ‘You didn’t know what your husband was doing. Now that you do – you are going to make changes.’ She stopped for an instant and stared at her boss. ‘Aren’t you?’
Joanna was tapping the tabletop with her fingernails. ‘Doesn’t one bury rubbish like this,’ she said. ‘Embed the houses in a company in a company in a company, like a set of Russian dolls, with the last one way off shore, in the Cayman Islands or somewhere like that.’
Carol said, ‘Not so simple. The journalist has found you; you can’t bury yourself in companies. I suggest you get advice from your accountant. Then we’ll have a meeting to discuss your options.’
‘Who is we?’
‘Me, you and Jack.’
‘Why Jack?’ She glanced at Jack with a condescending smile. ‘No insult intended, but he’s here to fix my summerhouse.’
‘He’s a builder,’ said Carol. ‘And you have a lot of buildings in a bad state.’
Joanna nodded. ‘I take your point. Some expertise would be useful.’ She sucked her lower lip and looked at Jack. ‘And I think you’re honest.’
‘Thank you,’ said Jack.
‘It’s not necessarily a compliment.’ Joanna glanced at her watch and screwed up her face in contemplation. ‘Let’s have our threesome at ten tomorrow morning. In the meantime I’ll talk to my accountant and get to my housing office, as it now is. And if you don’t mind, Jack – Carol and I need to talk privately.’
‘Fine,’ said Jack, acknowledging his dismissal. He had hoped to have some personal time with Carol but it wasn’t going to be. ‘I’m flaked after last night. And today’s been hectic. I’ll get a good night’s sleep. And be here first thing and get on with the summerhouse. And add what I can to the meeting.’
He already felt in the way. Best get out and keep moving.
Donna sat on the too-soft sofa. It smelt of stale food and cat. Eric had made her a cup of tea in a not very clean mug, which she’d just found room for on the overfilled coffee table, piled with magazines, CDs, playing cards and knick-knacks.
There were two others in the house, she could faintly hear, but they were keeping to the kitchen.
‘Have you got a cat?’ said Donna.
Eric nodded. ‘Yocky.’
‘That’s a weird name,’ she said.
‘I thought of it,’ he said. ‘Don’t know where I got it from. She just looks like a Yocky.’
Eric was plumper than when she had last seen him. His hair was receding a little.
‘How do you get on in this house?’ she said.
Eric pursed his lips and rocked his head. ‘Pretty good, mostly. We argue over chores, though there’s a sort of rota. But we have a day worker who comes in for an hour or two every day. She makes sure we take our medication and sorts out any arguments.’
‘I’ve missed you,’ said Donna.
‘So why didn’t you come to see me?’ he challenged.
‘I didn’t know where you lived. Your social worker said you didn’t want to see me.’
He shook his head vehemently. ‘That’s a dirty lie. She told me you didn’t want to see me.’
‘She was lying to both of us,’ said Donna.
‘That doesn’t make sense,’ said Eric. ‘It’s the sort of paranoia I believe when I haven’t taken my medication. Why would she lie to both of us?’
‘Your father was ashamed of you,’ she said. ‘He wanted you out of sight. Out of his life. And out of mine too, as I worked for him. His housekeeper. He paid the social worker to lie to both of us.’
‘All these years,’ said Eric doubtfully. ‘You are telling me the truth?’
‘Oh, I am, Eric. I’ve always wanted to see you.’
Eric nodded. ‘I couldn’t understand why you didn’t want to see me. She never explained why. I know I’m ill, but it’s mostly under control. I take my medication. It makes me put on weight but I don’t hear the voices so often. And they’re quieter. I can put on my headphones and drown them out.’
‘I’m glad you’re managing,’ she said. ‘I’ve worried a lot about you.’
‘I thought of coming to see you,’ said Eric. ‘But it was a long way, and she said I wouldn’t be welcome.’
‘You’re always welcome,’ she said.
He came and sat by her and put his arms round her. Donna’s eyes welled. Eric too was sniffing. She kissed him on the cheek.
He said, ‘Can I introduce you to John and Alec?’
‘Of course,’ said his mother. ‘I want to meet your friends. And get to know your cat.’
Back home, Jack explored his cupboard and fridge. Not a lot. A couple of eggs, a bit of bacon from yesterday, some stale bread, a tin of beans. He could make something of that.
He was assembling the bits with the oil and frying pan, when his phone rang. It was Mia.
‘Hello, Dad. I need those fairy books.’
‘I’ve got them here somewhere. I’ll give them to you at the weekend. It is my weekend, isn’t it?’
‘No, Dad. I need them tomorrow.’
‘What’s the rush? You said you were too old for them.’
‘Yeh, they’re crap. But I’ve done a deal. Jill wants them. She’ll give me a phone and a bracelet.’
‘Are you sure you can do this deal, Mia?’ He was a worried father for once, imagining repercussions from Alison and from Jill’s parents.
‘I told you,’ said Mia, exasperated. ‘She’s got two phones, and lots of jewellery. Her mum and dad will never notice. And even if they do – it’s a good deal.’
‘Maybe I should talk to your mum.’
‘Oh don’t do that. I’ve got it all set up. Jill’s bringing the stuff tomorrow. So can you bring the books to school?’
‘I’ve got an awful lot on tomorrow.’
He sighed at the thought. ‘This summerhouse I’m working on. A door I’ve really got to fix. A meeting. And I’ve got to go to the police station to make a statement.’
‘You in trouble again, Dad?’
‘No, not me. Someone got murdered in the house I’m working in. And I just have to say where I was and all that.’
‘Murder! That’s exciting. Tell me all about it. Do they know who did it? Was it a jealous lover?’
He was aware how hungry he was, the bacon staring him in the face. ‘I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow when I bring the fairy books in.’ There, he’d lumbered himself with another chore.
‘Oh that’ll be amazing! Wait till I tell everyone. And don’t forget the books.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t tell everyone.’
‘Got to go now. See you tomorrow, Dad. A murder. Wow!’
And she rang off.
Jack cursed. Now he’d have to get there, straight after school. It was an inconvenient time. Depending how long the interview at the police station took, he had to be away in time to catch Mia at school at 3.30 in Homerton. Then half an hour back to Chigwell to at least do a bit of work, paid work, when he normally finished at five-ish. All depending on traffic. Perhaps he could get to the school at lunchtime. How was he going to fit the damned door in?
Plus Carol. Dare he buy her some flowers? And risk getting them thrown back at him…
He was pouring oil in the pan when the doorbell rang.
It wouldn’t be Carol. Dreams do not come true. Impatient and hungry, he stomped down the stairs to the front door. Certainly not Carol, but DI Henderson in a long black coat, fully buttoned. He lifted his homburg hat in greeting.
‘I’m glad you’re in, Mr Bell,’ he said. ‘I was just passing and I have a few questions… If this is not inconvenient.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ said Jack. What else can you say to a detective inspector?
He led him into the house and upstairs into the flat. He offered Henderson a seat on the sofa and closed the kitchen door, not wanting it to be seen he was mid cooking.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ he said.
‘No thank you, Jack. This is just a quick visit.’
Henderson took a tablet computer from his pocket.
‘While I’m sorting out some images,’ he said, ‘you wouldn’t like to give me a copy of your last bank statement.’
‘Sure,’ said Jack.
He turned on his desktop, thinking of the bacon, egg and beans. Of Mia tomorrow and the door he still had to buy, let alone fit. Forget tomorrow. One thing at a time.
‘This takes ages to warm up,’ said Jack indicating the computer screen, and switching on his printer.
‘Here’s the picture,’ said Henderson, holding out the tablet. ‘Do you recognise that?’
Jack took the tablet and sat down at the table. It was a hammer in a plastic bag with reddish brown stains on the steel head.
‘Is this the murder weapon?’ he said. ‘I thought it was a cold chisel.’
‘Do you recognise it?’ said Henderson.
‘It’s mine alright,’ said Jack. ‘I recognise that knot in the handle.’
‘Just wanted to make sure,’ said Henderson. ‘And yes, it’s the weapon. Two were used.’
‘The summerhouse was open,’ said Jack. ‘Anyone could have taken them. I just figured with all those well-heeled nobs at the party, they were perfectly safe.’
Henderson nodded. He undid his coat, his homburg was on the seat beside him.
‘This is a flying visit,’ he said, ‘the wife’s outside in the car. We’re going to eat with some friends.’
Jack’s stomach rumbled at thoughts of dinner, but he smiled at the informality.
‘If you could just get me your bank statement…’
Jack sprung up and went to the computer. He went online and into his bank account. He put in the passwords and went straight to statements. In a few clicks, the last one was printing.
‘You left the party at 9.45-ish,’ said Henderson. ‘With no corroboration until Carol Cole came here at about quarter to one.’
‘Yes,’ said Jack. There was nothing he could add. No witnesses to the three hours alone. He lived on his own. What did the man expect? He took the printout from the machine and handed it to Henderson. ‘That’s the last one.’
‘Thank you,’ said Henderson as he began to peruse it. ‘A tip I got from an old hand when I was a young detective constable: always look at the money.’
Jack wondered whether it would be rude to say he needed to eat. Probably would be.
‘Not much in your account,’ mused Henderson, ‘till we get to this fifty thousand…’
‘What fifty thousand?’
Jack was instantly over to the sofa, sitting down beside Henderson, and looking at the bank statement. Henderson fingered the amount.
‘There. Came in today. From Goldfinch.’
‘I’ve never heard of Goldfinch.’ He stared hard at the figures. Five figures in the in-column. Fifty thousand quid. A five, a zero, a comma, then three more zeroes.
‘Must be a bank error,’ he said, agog.
‘Nice bank error,’ said Henderson. ‘I wouldn’t say no to one like that.’
Jack lay back on the sofa, suddenly exhausted, knowing he wasn’t believed. ‘I don’t know anything about that money. I’ve never done a job for fifty thousand. I’m a small builder. Twenty thou is a lot for me.’
Henderson held up the statement, his expression stretched in disbelief.
‘You are telling me, Mr Bell, in all honesty, that you don’t know where that money has come from?’
‘I’ve never heard of Goldfinch,’ said Jack pathetically. ‘I don’t know anything about that money. I was close to zero before that came in.’ He didn’t bring up the £400 he’d had in cash from Ward. That would only complicate matters, Ward being dead. Besides, it hardly matched up to fifty thou.
‘Think hard, Mr Bell.’
‘There’s nothing I can add. I don’t know how it got there. Must be a bank error.’
There was a ring of the bell.
‘Well I’ll be on my way,’ said Henderson. He rose. ‘I’ll hang onto this bank statement if you don’t mind.’
‘Keep it,’ said Jack. What else could he say?
He accompanied him to the door and down the stairs.
‘When you come to the station tomorrow, bring statements for the last 12 months. I’d like to see whether there are any other big payments.’
‘Believe me,’ said Jack, ‘that money is a total surprise.’
‘Must be a birthday present,’ said Henderson.
The Inspector was at the front door first and opened it. There stood Joanna with a small suitcase.
‘Fancy meeting you, Mrs Ward,’ he said with a mocking smile. ‘It’s a small world.’
‘Good evening, Inspector,’ she said. ‘I’m just dropping a few things over.’ She indicated the suitcase.
‘Of course. Of course.’
He gave the two of them a wave as he went down the few steps to the path. At the gate he waved to them, and continued a short way up the pavement to a waiting car. The door opened from the inside and he sank into it.
‘Well timed,’ said Jack.
Joanna strode past him, up the stairs and into the flat. He followed her and closed the front door.
‘If only one could read minds,’ said Joanna as she unbuttoned her coat. It was light green, coming to her knees. Under it she wore jeans and a tight, sky blue T-shirt.
‘You’ve changed your clothes,’ he said.
‘At long damn last. I made a big fuss. Crime scene, crime scene they went on, until sick of me they gave in, and togged me up in plastic gear and let me go in the bedroom and sort out a few things. Closely watched every second. Don’t touch this, don’t touch that.’
‘And you brought a few bits and pieces in the suitcase?’ added Jack.
She clicked the latches and flipped it open. Inside were sheets and towels.
‘I’m not sleeping in talc,’ she said.
Jack noted her assumption. Carol briefly crossed his mind. But Carol was over the other side of the galaxy. He took the bedding and towels out of the suitcase and placed them on the table.
‘Two sheets,’ he counted, ‘four pillowcases and two towels. You should have been a chambermaid.’ She screwed up her face as he added, ‘I hope that doesn’t leave you with a bare mattress at home.’
She smiled wryly. ‘We have a few more, sweetie.’ She flicked her fingers. ‘Sod it. I forgot a duvet cover. We’ll have to use both sheets.’
She strode across and embraced him. He fell into her warm flesh. They kissed standing for a little while and then fell onto the sofa. After a minute or so, she said:
‘We should make up the bed.’
They went into the bedroom and began stripping the bed.
‘He’s now certain I killed your husband,’ Jack said, taking the old pillow cases off and throwing them on the floor.
‘Because I’m sleeping with you,’ she mused, dragging off the sheet. ‘He might think we are in it together.’
He had a sudden thought. ‘There’s fifty thousand quid in my bank account that I have no explanation for. It’s nothing to do with you, is it?’
‘I don’t pay for sex,’ she said.
She threw the duvet on the floor and they spread out a clean sheet.
‘So where the hell has it come from? All it says on the statement is Goldfinch. Totally meaningless to me.’
They went round the mattress tucking in. There was plenty of sheet to tuck under, Jack realising Joanna and Leon’s bed must be king size plus. They took a pillow each and a case.
‘It’s from Leon,’ she said thoughtfully.
‘Why would he give me all that money? Anonymously.’
‘That’s what I’m trying to work out,’ she said.
He sat on the bed, a pillow half covered in his lap. And it hit him.
‘He was trying to fit me up,’ he exclaimed.
He tugged at her arm.
She sank onto the bed. ‘The evil bugger.’
‘My tools for a weapon, all that money in my bank account…’
‘He pushes us in bed together,’ she added.
He held her hand. ‘Not a lot of pushing necessary.’
She sucked her bottom lip. ‘You are so right,’ she said. ‘He was going to kill me. I wonder how. Frame you. The money’s from him alright. I’d already phoned my lawyer to begin divorce proceedings. And he knew I’d have gone for every penny I could get in settlement.’
I bet you would, thought Jack.
‘He was a tight bastard,’ she said.
‘And you’re Miss Generous.’
‘Not with money,’ she said. ‘Other things.’ She waved a stern finger at him. ‘And that fifty thousand – I want it back.’
She spread her arms in banner headlines. ‘Socialist Counts On Capitalist Court!’
‘Your husband gave me the cash,’ he said reasonably, ‘in exchange for twenty years in the nick.’
‘Except the bet was called off.’ She held out her hands. ‘Look, I’m alive.’
‘So you are.’
She glanced at her watch. ‘We’ll sort out the finances tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s not waste these clean sheets.’
Joanna had rushed off in the morning, heading for breakfast with her accountant. Then over to her recently acquired Housing Office in Stratford. She’d refused his coffee, said her accountant made decent stuff.
Alone, he scribbled a list to do in the day ahead: back to the summerhouse, buy Dan’s door, hold on to it this time, fix said door, police station at 2 pm with bank statements, fairy books to Mia, and get some time with Carol. Joanna last night had to be a one-off, though he doubted Carol would see it that way. He should have said no to Joanna, but he had been feeling low.
The excuse for everything.
Driving through the rush hour mêlée on the way to Walthamstow, he contemplated Joanna. How would she have reacted if he had said no to her visit? She might’ve sacked him. But then he had £50,000 of her money. Which she wanted back.
Well he had it. But had better not spend it.
Bloody traffic, crawling along, each occupant breathing in the fumes of the car in front. How many years did this pollution take off your life? Increasing your risk of cancer and God knows what else. But he had to drive, part of the job. Small building work involved so much fetching and carrying. But that was one of the things he liked about it. The variability and uncertainty. Each job tested his skill.
But not these bloody cars. All with one person in. Just like him. No wonder the planet is going down the chute.
Number one, buy the door for Dan’s place. Go to the same place in Walthamstow he’d bought the first. Then dump it at Dan’s – and over to Joanna’s. Coming and going like a yo-yo. A bit of summerhouse work, then the meeting. He was tempted to nip up the bus lane – but they sometimes had cameras. He couldn’t risk a fine, especially when he hardly knew how much money he had. That cash Ward had given him, of course. He should bank some of it, not just leave it in a drawer. He must do his books, and stick a bill into Joanna.
She was the one. Joanna had property and plans he could never be part of, nor would want ever to be. She was a foxy schemer, and would dump him in five minutes, that’s if she hadn’t already. Carol was more his size, hated Ward’s slums as much as he did. Just not quite as pushy and sexy, though he’d like to be persuaded.
She’d looked inviting enough at the party. And afterwards – until Joanna showed up. Always back to her. The wife that Leon was planning to murder, and load it onto him. My God – if that had gone through! He imagined the trial: with the unaccounted for money in his account, sleeping with Joanna too, and who knows what other fabricated evidence and witnesses Leon would have set up.
Except someone had chopped down Leon Ward first. Bashed his head in with Jack’s hammer and chisel. Could Joanna have done it? She was a cool operator; he wouldn’t put it past her. She had a steely ruthlessness, hated Ward like poison, was greedy enough to want all his money and not just a divorce settlement, no matter how many millions that might have poured on her.
But then again, Leon was in a cesspool of hatred. His slum empire, all the dirty deeds he had done over the years to get there. How many people at his party wanted him dead, while eating his canapés and toasting him in champagne. All it would have taken was one to stay behind. Hide. Heads break easy enough; brains are as soft as putty.
This wasn’t going to work; the traffic was barely moving on Lea Bridge Road. He’d never get to the wholesalers at this rate. Jack turned down a side street, leaving hooting and swearing motorists behind him. Sorry, Dan, he thought. He’d have another try for the door in the afternoon after his visit to the cop shop. He did a loop round the back roads, cutting through to Whipps Cross Road, pushing his way into the traffic, and set off up the Woodford New Road to Chigwell.
Donna was singing ‘All I want is a room somewhere’ from My Fair Lady. Her flat was her own again and she’d seen Eric. She couldn’t stop smiling, she was bubbling over.
The downstairs was mostly free from the crime scene: the lounge, her kitchen, but not the laundry yet. She wasn’t allowed in there, just in case there was something in the washing. She’d seen two policewomen draped in plastic, sorting through sheets and shirts, examining them closely.
The police had said the main bedroom upstairs would be free in an hour or two, the guest bedroom and snooker room were already signed off. And that would leave just Joanna’s and Leon’s rooms in the crime scene.
What a beautiful morning!
Joanna and Carol were in the lounge going through figures. Donna was making them poached egg on toast with coffee. The sun was shining, and she’d phoned Eric earlier, amazed she could do that. So easy. Hear his voice, talk about his day. The wonder of inconsequential chat. The two of them were going to see a film later in the week. Eric would decide which.
Change was in the air here too. Well, a murder does alter the environment. There was less work for her to do in the house. Leon had been demanding about his food. But he was gone, and she’d never got on that well with Joanna. Anytime she could get a month’s notice. Leon had protected her, gave her the granny flat and a permanent job – but did the dirty on her when it came to Eric.
Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to move. She had her savings; they would keep her a while. She could find a flat near Eric, look for a job, maybe in a school or something. Perhaps she should start looking herself and not wait for Joanna’s guillotine.
The toast popped up. She took the four slices out and buttered them. Best French butter, always insisted on by Leon. Two slices of wholegrain toast on each plate, both slices topped with poached egg. She poured the coffee out of the cafetiere into the cups, and took the tray into the lounge.
Joanna barely looked up from her laptop.
‘Good morning, Donna,’ said Carol and gave her a beaming smile. ‘Oh, that looks delicious.’
‘I’ll be glad when the police are gone,’ said Donna, ‘so I can do the laundry.’
‘Won’t we all,’ mumbled Joanna.
She left them to it and went back to her kitchen. There, she looked out of the back window into the garden. Jack had just arrived. She popped a couple of slices of bread in the toaster, and went to the fridge for some bacon. There was enough coffee.
She’d tell him her good news. It was good to have someone to chat to. Carol she liked, but Joanna kept her so busy. Carol and Jack should get together. She’d put in a good word for him.
What a beautiful morning!
Joanna looked at her watch impatiently.
‘Go and get Jack. It’s five past. And while you are at it, ask Donna for another coffee.’
Carol rose from the sofa, straightened the skirt of her suit, and went into the hall. Joanna was ready for them this morning, pleased to have her house back. Most of it. All the downstairs but the laundry, the bedroom soon, they said. It had better be. They could keep Leon’s room but she would like her office back. Still, Carol had bought her a new laptop this morning. Good to have a spare anyway. She’d downloaded all her data from the Cloud. So remarkably easy these days. You could work anywhere.
Except perhaps at Donna’s.
This afternoon the fairy girls were coming. The intention was to offload them onto Carol, who would be editor. And she’d be Editor in Chief – but hoped that was simply a title. She wanted no more of the bloody books. Well, she’d go to the odd conference. She enjoyed being fussed over on the US circuit. But Carol would do the day to day.
Where were they? Carol bantering with Jack no doubt. She’d have a word with her. Raise her standards. A tradesman is good for a night or two. But not a relationship. Carol should be thinking about the way up. Leon had certainly worked for her. His go-getting energy; it was what had first attracted her to him. He’d been on the rise. Whereas Jack was decent, but he’d be a small builder all his life.
Look upwards. Climb.
It was why she had all this. And sex – well, she was attractive, rich and strong. She’d dally about with whoever until someone choice came her way. She could afford to be choosy. She was a catch. This house, her looks and fashion sense, and fifty million in various assets… She failed to understand the Jacks of this world. So little ambition, when there was a universe to grab.
Carol and Jack entered. They looked a little sheepish. She wondered what they’d been talking about. She rather wished Carol would keep her paws off Jack. For the next week or two anyway. Then she was welcome to him.
And Joanna would come to the wedding bearing gifts.
Carol and Jack sat on the sofa. Love, shmuv.
‘My property,’ she began, tapping her pad with her pen.
‘Your slums,’ corrected Carol.
She ignored her. ‘I’ve seen my accountant this morning and seen Timms. So I’m up to speed. I have 110 houses. Book value £30 million or more.’
‘You couldn’t sell them,’ said Jack. ‘Not as they are.’
She went on. ‘They realise roughly £5 million a year in rent and £3 million on the loan agreements.’ She stopped and looked at them both. ‘I don’t want to throw that away.’
‘It represents a lot of human misery,’ said Carol.
‘I am not a charity.’
Jack said, ‘You’ve got this reporter nosing about. I’d bet he knows a fair bit of the dirt already, and then the murder got him very interested.’
Joanna rubbed her chin. ‘I could just get Tweedledee and Tweedledum on him. Give him a scare.’
‘What?’ exclaimed Carol.
‘Leon’s henchmen. They could pay him a visit. Smash his flat, break a leg.’ She flapped a hand. ‘Whatever they do.’
‘I’m in the wrong space,’ said Jack looking to Carol. ‘Maybe I should just go back to working on the summerhouse.’
‘It’s one of my options,’ said Joanna firmly. ‘That’s what we are here to talk about. Aren’t we?’
Carol said, ‘I don’t know how Mr Ward kept this under wraps so long.’
Joanna shrugged. ‘He paid people off, Carol. That’s the way it’s done. Council, cops. I talked to Timms. They budgeted for it. And they sent the boys round from time to time.’
‘Do you really want to do that?’ asked Jack.
‘Not personally.’ She sighed. ‘I spoke to my accountant about setting up shell companies. And he’s pessimistic. He said Leon should have done it ages ago.’ She flapped an airy hand. ‘Before we had the nosy journalist, before Leon got done in.’
‘Let’s get this straight,’ said Carol. ‘You don’t mind being a slum landlord.’
‘It’s very lucrative.’
‘But you don’t want to be seen as a slum landlord.’
Donna entered with coffee and pastries on a tray. She put the tray down on the low table in front of the sofa. Jack gave her a wink and Carol gave a wave.
‘That’ll be all, Donna,’ said Joanna.
Donna left. Carol passed round the coffees.
‘I’ll have the Danish slice,’ said Joanna.
‘Either’ll do me,’ said Jack.
Carol passed round the pastries. For half a minute they drank and ate. Joanna sat back and waited. She thought, I’ve made my position clear. Let’s see what the socialists have to offer.
Carol said, ‘As I see it, Joanna, you have three options. Option one – carry on as now. With a journalist out for the big exposé and the cops bound to be in there soon, if they are not already. Option two – clear the properties of tenants. They are all on one year licences. So over a year, they could all be out. Then do whatever tarting up is necessary – and sell the lot. Option three – be a good landlord.’
Jack laughed, and spluttered over his cake. ‘Sorry, sorry. I just cannot imagine Joanna as a good landlord.’
Carol looked at him fiercely. ‘It’s an option.’
‘It is an option,’ agreed Joanna. ‘Whatever else one might say, it is an option.’
‘The reporter is coming here at three,’ said Carol. ‘And we have to know what we are going to say to him.’
‘Let’s give him a holding statement,’ said Joanna. ‘Say I didn’t know what Leon was up to and I’m investigating.’
Carol shook her head. ‘That won’t wash. The story could go viral in the next few days.’ She indicated banner headlines with her arms. ‘Bluebell Woods Is A Slum Landlord!’
‘That’d be uncomfortable,’ mused Joanna. ‘Might kill the children’s book sales.’
‘You must be seen to be improving things,’ insisted Jack.
‘OK, Mr Workers’ Party. What do I do?’
‘Do a clean up of the fronts,’ he said. ‘Then a health and safety check – and make good. And dump your loan shark company.’
‘Thanks for nothing!’ exclaimed Joanna, throwing up her arms. ‘My loan company makes three million a year.’
‘By using violence and intimidation,’ joined in Carol. ‘Chop it out and show you’re serious.’
‘Three million quid!’ exclaimed Joanna. ‘I cannot believe you’re saying this.’
‘Keep it and you’ll get crucified,’ said Carol. ‘The media will be all over you. Dump it. And all the tenants will speak up for you.’
‘And I’ll be in the poor house. What do they call it? On benefits.’
‘Not quite,’ exclaimed Jack.
‘I can’t do it,’ Joanna burst out. ‘It’s nonsensical economics. Get rid of the loan scheme? I am nobody’s fairy godmother.’
‘Good headline,’ said Carol.
‘Think of the misery it causes,’ said Jack, having a go. ‘Families who can’t afford food because of your extortionate loans, living in the dark because they can’t pay for electricity…’
‘Don’t give me sob tales. Profit and loss – that’s the way I work.’
‘Profit,’ said Carol, ‘maybe three million – but for how long? Loss – reputation, maybe a jail sentence.’
Joanna stared at them both, aghast.
‘You are saying I have got to give up three million a year?’
‘If you want to stay out of the headlines,’ said Carol. ‘You have a journalist eager for a story. There’s a court case going to be filling the front pages whenever the police catch whoever. Business as usual could land you in jail.’
Joanna slapped her hands to her head. ‘I’ve got to think about this.’
‘You’re loaded,’ threw in Jack. ‘What’s the problem?’
She turned on him. ‘What would you know? You’re just a small time builder. I don’t know why you’re here in the first place.’
‘Piss off,’ retorted Jack.
‘I’ll consult you when it comes to windows and doors.’
He stood up seething. Carol pulled at his arm.
‘You two lovebirds are ganging up on me…!’ Joanna rose and began striding around the room, sighing as if in pain.
‘Here we go,’ said Jack bitterly, ‘author of kiddies’ fairy books with fifty million in assets, weeping because she can’t screw more out of the poor.’
Joanna turned and screamed at him.
‘Get out! How dare you! Get out of my house!’
‘I’ve seen your slums,’ said Jack, his arms resting on the back of the long sofa. Carol had a hand on his wrist, whether to support him or hold him back wasn’t clear. ‘I know the misery they cause.’
‘Get out! You self righteous bastard. You tuppenny ha’penny builder. Off my property!’
She was glaring at the two of them, both standing, Carol’s hand gripping Jack’s arm like orphans before the wolf.
‘If Jack goes, I go,’ said Carol.
The volcano exploded for the final time.
‘Clear out, the pair of you!’
Jack and Carol left the room.
Jack was collecting tools. Some were inside the summerhouse, others outside, around his two workbenches. He was never the tidiest worker. And this was set to be a long job. Or that had been the plan anyway when Joanna had retaken him on.
‘Can I help?’ said Carol.
‘Bring any tools inside out here,’ he said. ‘Thanks.’
For a little while they worked silently, she bringing all his tools out to the terrace of the summerhouse, he putting them in his two toolboxes.
‘I’ve had the sack three times on this job,’ he declared. ‘First time Ward lost his rag, then he reinstated me. Then he changed his mind, and she takes me on until just now – and I am finally fired.’ He folded up a workbench and stacked it against the summerhouse wall and turned to her. ‘She has one hell of a temper.’
‘The other day,’ said Carol, ‘when Leon and she were going at it hammer and tongs, I swear the walls were shaking.’ She put down a couple of screwdrivers and a tenon saw. ‘You alright for money, Jack?’
‘I’m not sure. Depends.’
He stacked his second workbench against the first.
‘I’ve got fifty thousand quid of hers. I’ll keep it at least until I get paid. May not do so badly in the end.’ He shrugged. ‘I’ll survive.’
‘She’s a devil about money,’ said Carol. ‘She was brought up by her mother, you know, a drug addict.’
‘She told you this?’
‘I am – I mean was – more than her assistant. Dogsbody and confidant. She was telling me about her childhood. How there was never any money, often no food in the house…’
‘Then you’d think she’d have sympathy for others.’
‘The reverse,’ went on Carol. ‘It’s made her determined never to be poor again.’
‘Spare the violins,’ said Jack. ‘I can’t shed a tear for her Orphan Annie past.’ He was putting tools tidily in a toolbox to maximise space. And stopped for a second, biting his lip. ‘I think we should go to the papers. Blow the whole slum thing sky high.’
‘We should.’ She stood up and looked over to the house where Joanna could be seen pacing the sitting room. ‘Do we tell her what we are going to do? Give her a last chance?’
‘Does she deserve it?’
‘She’s only just inherited the mess.’
‘And is quite happy to continue Ward’s dirty work.’
‘You’re right,’ said Carol. ‘If we weren’t here, she wouldn’t think twice about it. To hell with her.’
A toolbox full, Jack closed it up and brought the other over.
‘I’ll miss Donna,’ he said. ‘I pity her stuck with Joanna. But I’ll be pleased enough to get away. What are you going to do?’
‘Don’t worry about me.’
‘You’ve lost your job. You won’t get a reference.’
‘You can give me one,’ she said with a light laugh. ‘What are you doing this evening?’
‘I was thinking of looking at Jupiter,’ he said.
‘You thinking of moving there? Bit drastic.’
‘It’s a trifle cold,’ he said. ‘And the atmospheric pressure would squash you flatter than a poppadom.’
They were sparking, the arc joining them. Unemployed and free. Until penury bit.
‘Want to come? See the Big Red Spot and the Galilean moons.’
‘That sounds wonderful. How can I not come?’
‘Be chilly,’ said Jack. ‘Bring a coat. I’ll bring a telescope.’
‘I’m looking forward to it. And we won’t mention Joanna.’
He couldn’t help what he next said. He simply didn’t want to lie, even if it gave her a get out.
‘I slept with her, you know.’
She shrugged. ‘Half the world has.’
‘You don’t care?’
‘Some. She’s sexy, but I don’t think it’s done her much good.’ She was looking over his shoulder, shaking her head. ‘And to cap it, here comes the whole HR department with our leaving papers.’
Jack turned about, and saw Joanna crossing the lawn towards them. He rose, and with Carol watched her come in on them. Half an hour before she’d been a screaming banshee, but over the green of the lawn she was smaller, in her designer jeans and cowboy boots.
She stopped a few feet away.
‘Come to say goodbye?’ enquired Jack.
‘No,’ she said. There was a weariness about her. ‘But to say I’m sorry. All that,’ she gestured with a flap of her hand, ‘was uncalled for.’
‘You insulted me,’ he said.
‘I’m a cow. Everybody knows that.’ She closed her eyes for a few seconds. ‘I’ve been thinking while the two of you have been out here. You’re right. There’s a reluctant confession. Those houses’ll be the ruin of me.’
Jack looked at Carol who was biting her lip.
‘I phoned Timms,’ she went on. ‘I told him to shut down the loan scheme.’
‘What did he say to that?’ asked Carol wide-eyed.
‘He was appalled. He kept asking me if I was sure. Yes, I said, I am totally sure. Close it and write to everyone on the books and tell them that’s the end.’
‘It’s the right thing,’ said Carol.
‘Done for the wrong motive,’ said Joanna with a weary sigh. ‘I am simply preserving my reputation.’
‘It’s still the right thing,’ said Carol.
‘When you two left…’
‘You threw us out,’ said Jack.
‘I had a think,’ went on Joanna, ignoring the correction. ‘At long last, you might say. About the journalist and what he knows, I doubt he’s the only one, plus you two, who know far too much and could blabber to TV and the papers. Then there’s the cops scrabbling about in Leon’s affairs. I thought what on earth am I hanging on to? It’s all going to go bang – and I’ll blow up with it.’
‘Your husband was a rat,’ said Carol.
‘And so am I,’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen the light of the great socialist dawn. Simply realised where my interests lie.’ She half smiled. ‘Stupidly, quite stupidly, I realised I enjoy being Bluebell Woods.’
‘At the party, I kept running up to your office to get your fairy books,’ said Carol. ‘You were surrounded by eager parents.’
‘It’s my claim to fame,’ she said. ‘I gave them life. Maybe they are junk, or maybe not so junk… I don’t know. All I know is I wrote them. Came up with the characters and the stories. Between lovers whose faces I can’t remember, between bouts of drink and drugs, Bluebell Woods made a fairy land, where good always beats bad. And Rainbow, Snowdrop and Anemone, in their battles with the gnomes of the Dell and Squirrel Grinder, made Bluebell Woods. And I don’t want her to die. It’s the only way I can be loved.’
‘In fairy love,’ mused Carol.
‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’ said Joanna. ‘So accept my apology and work for me again. Both of you.’
Jack laughed. ‘I’ve put most of my tools away.’
‘I’ll help you get them out again,’ said Joanna with a slight smile.
‘I’m not simply a tradesman you wave money at, Joanna.’
‘Got the message,’ she said, nodding. ‘Are you back on board?’
He sighed. ‘It’s easier than carting all this out to the van.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘And Carol – are you back on side?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Now we have something decent to tell that reporter.’
Joanna smiled fully, with evident relief.
‘I wondered if the two of you would like to come out to dinner with me this evening. I know a lovely little Italian restaurant…’
‘Can’t,’ said Carol. ‘We’re going to see Jupiter.’
‘Is that a film?’
‘No, it’s a planet,’ said Jack. ‘700 million kilometres away.’
Jack put the last window in. And over lunch, which he had in the kitchen with Donna, he ordered the floorboards for the back room of the summerhouse. The best they could do was deliver tomorrow morning. He’d screwed that one. He should have ordered them yesterday. That’s what happens when you’re thinking about sex; you forget the floorboards.
‘Carol says you’re going out this evening,’ said Donna with a knowing smile.
‘Must’ve been the good word you put in for me,’ he said.
‘I just said Jack fancies you.’
He wasn’t sure he liked that. True as it was.
‘What did she say?’
‘She said – I know.’
He shrugged. ‘Well, she knows now.’
‘Going anywhere nice?’
‘Up a hill, to look at the stars.’
‘That’s romantic,’ said Donna. ‘I hope it goes well for you.’
‘Thank you, Donna. And thank you for an excellent lunch.’
‘I enjoy your company,’ she said.
He gave her a peck on the cheek. And left her.
So windows done, but no floorboards. Nothing more he could do at the summerhouse. He’d buy the door, put it in, then off to the cop shop. And then to Mia’s school with her fairy books. Busy afternoon.
The timetable began to rock almost at once. He got to the building suppliers in Walthamstow, but they didn’t have the door in stock. They could get it in a couple of days. Forget it, he said. And he didn’t like the others they had. He should have phoned first. The amount of time he wasted chasing and waiting for materials. That’s the way the day goes. In queues, waiting for some vital piece. Doors or floorboards. Any little sodding thing.
Jack drove around various suppliers and at the third got his door.
He drove over to Dan’s with it. There wouldn’t be time to fix it, not with being due at the police station, but he’d be one step closer – all the gear there, ready to go.
Except Dan wasn’t in. Jack waited outside the house for quarter of an hour. He didn’t want to leave the door in the hallway. There were too many people coming in and out of the house, and he’d lost the first one there. He looked at his watch, Dan might be ages. And so he drove back to Joanna’s, leaving the door by the summerhouse.
Carol waved to him from the lounge window. He blew her a kiss.
Not so bad a day after all.
He set off for the police station.
Henderson took him into a small interview room. Boyd joined them. And the questions began. That bloody money, what he’d been up to with Joanna, his tools – the weapon. The same questions, the same answers. In the end he told them his theory, that Ward was setting him up. They didn’t dismiss it totally, but with Henderson bumping into Joanna last night – there was an air of disbelief. At one point he wondered whether he was about to be arrested.
‘Someone gave you fifty thousand quid,’ said Henderson.
Jack shrugged, he couldn’t deny it. ‘To do what?’ he said.
‘To kill Ward,’ said Boyd.
‘And leave my tools there? Is that what you think?’
‘So account for the money,’ said Henderson.
The two cops looked at each other. Plainly they didn’t believe him about the money. They made more of his ‘affair’ with Joanna than it was worth, as if the two of them might be in cahoots. But in the end, they didn’t have enough on him. It was close, but they let him go.
He was shaking as he walked out of the police station, free. In that little room, going over and over the same ground, he’d been waiting for them to throw in a curve ball. But it never came. And here he was, in the sunshine. He looked behind him, half afraid they were going to pull him back in. But he got back to his van unmolested.
He lay back in the seat, breathing free air. Who else was in the frame? Joanna, beyond that he couldn’t think, but he just had an inkling that Ward’s nemesis had crawled out of the slums. His dirty deals, his enforcers… Jack looked at his watch. Too late to go to Mia’s school. And he was damned if he was going to drive over to Alison’s and drop the fairy books off.
His interview at the cop shop was bad enough, without adding her bile. The working day for good or ill was done. Home.
He’d barely got in the door when his home phone rang. His first thought was Carol cancelling their date, but he saw it was Alison’s number.
‘Hello,’ he said, waiting for the hit.
‘What a state you’ve got Mia in over these fairy books!’ yelled Alison. ‘We waited outside school for half an hour. She’s in bits. Bring them over right now!’
‘Drop everything and do it this instant?’
‘Yes, Mr Bell. You make promises, you deliver.’
He might have done it, if it had been anyone but Alison on the phone. As soon as she shrieked at him, it set up instant resistance.
‘I’ll bring them tomorrow,’ he said.
‘I’ve got a child throwing a tantrum,’ she yelled. ‘Your child.’
‘Never give in to a tantrum,’ he said, like the best parenting manual.
‘That’s so easy for you to say, Jack, when I’m the one suffering it. That was always the way with you. Cop out of your responsibility.’
‘I’m seeing her this Saturday, Alison,’ he said wearily. ‘This weekend is mine. I’ll make it up to her.’
‘She says she doesn’t want to stay with you this weekend.’
‘Then there’s not a lot I can do, is there?’ He sighed, imagining Alison’s smug face. He was sure she enjoyed telling him off. It was the only mode in their relationship now. ‘I wish I had never seen those stupid fairy books.’
‘And whose fault is that?’
‘Mine, of course it’s mine,’ he yelled. ‘It’s always my fault.’
‘Don’t bully me with self pity, Jack.’
With an effort, he quelled his tone.
‘Tell Mia I shall get them to her tomorrow.’
Mia came on the line. ‘I don’t want your fairy books, Dad. They’re crap. I never wanted the fairy books. I hate you!’
‘I am very sorry, Mia. I meant to get there. Really. I got so tied up, and traffic and everything… I am so sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ yelled Mia. ‘Bring them now!’
‘You said they were crap.’
‘Bring them now!’
‘I’ll bring them tomorrow. I promise you.’
‘I’ll bring them tomorrow, Mia. I promise.’
He closed the call and took the phone off the hook so he’d get no ring back. He switched his mobile off. And fell back on the sofa exhausted. He stretched out staring at the ceiling for the next ten minutes. He didn’t care about his relationship with Alison. That was ruined anyway. But Mia yelling, I hate you – that was bruising. She was just a child, but that didn’t stop the skewer twisting in the wound. He’d better get her those books tomorrow.
Today had been a bitty, screwed up day. He’d done hardly anything at the summerhouse. No floorboards. Couldn’t do Dan’s door. Mia hated him forever. He was prime suspect for Ward’s murder. Heaven knew what they were digging out even now. Everyone was cutting slices off him. The only good thing was Carol.
When he’d showered and dressed, he put his phones back on. No one had rung. Cops and Mia had given up on him – which was some relief. For now at least. He made beans on toast, put some cheese on top – and began thinking about Jupiter.
‘It’s a few hundred yards’ walk up the hill,’ said Jack.
He had picked up Carol outside her block of flats on the Isle of Dogs at about 9 o’clock when it was just getting dark. And driven out to Chingford. It was a fair way, up the A12, actually going very close to Homerton, but he wasn’t going to stop to face the wrath of Mia and Alison, then north up the A11, shaving Chigwell and Joanna, but sweeping past before turning off to Chingford. It was a long way from home, but it needed to be, to find even lesser light-polluted skies.
Carol was wearing a woolly hat and matching scarf, a long black and white check coat and walking boots. He was pleased she was taking it seriously; clear summer nights can get surprisingly cold, especially standing around.
They’d parked in a small clearing surrounded by trees, the only car there. Jack had the telescope, the legs of its mount hoisted over his shoulder, and the hefty battery in a shoulder bag. She carried the thermos and blanket.
They went through a kissing gate and up the path that led to the top of the hill.
‘I should’ve got a smaller telescope,’ he said. ‘This one isn’t exactly portable.’
‘It’s impressive,’ she said.
‘It cost me more than I could afford,’ he said. ‘I bought it a few months before my divorce. And didn’t she give me hell for it. Wasting money on boys’ toys.’ He stopped and adjusted it over his shoulder and back. ‘I had a cheaper one first, and smashed it when I got drunk. I thought if I get a really expensive one, then I have every incentive to stay sober.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Nope. Not in that sense. But it was just too heavy to carry when I was pissed. So maybe it worked.’
They were progressing up a wide avenue between patches of woodland, ahead of them was the crest of the hill. He was breathing hard, thinking the next scope had to be lighter than this. It might not be as good, but it wouldn’t be quite such an expedition setting up.
The last section was too steep for him to speak under the weight. She walked by his side, the thermos in her gloved hands, the blanket thrown over her shoulder. He wondered whether it was a mistake bringing her. She’d expressed enthusiasm for looking at the stars, but that might have been politeness. They could so easily have gone to a movie.
At the top he set down the telescope. And stretched his arms, and wriggled his neck to get the ache of the climb out of them.
‘That’s the worst bit over.’
She was looking around the top of the hill while he began setting up. The deep purple above had darkened, bringing out the glow of stars. Overhead in a ragged ribbon was the faint silver of the Milky Way.
‘There’s always some light pollution near a city,’ he said. ‘You have to get right away from people, out on the moors or up in the mountains to get free of it. Though the forest here is a good shield, but you can still see a ring of light round the horizon.’
‘There’s still a lot of stars,’ she said, turning in a circle to look into the dome over them.
‘Those three bright ones, there, there and there,’ he pointed out, ‘are the Summer Triangle. Deneb in Cygnus the swan. Sort of a swan. More a cross really. That’s Vega in Lyra. Nothing like a lyre. And the third is Altair in Aquila, which means the eagle – and I don’t know how you get that from those stars.’
He wanted her to see his delight in the stars. Amaze her in the way he’d been amazed when he first began to look up.
‘That bright one there. That’s Jupiter – our target. It’s well placed tonight. Halfway up the southern sky, so less affected by light pollution.’
‘It’s bright,’ she said. ‘I’d have thought it was Venus.’
‘Jupiter is number two for brightness,’ he said, ‘after Venus. It’s a lot bigger than Venus, but a lot further away from the sun.’
‘I’m glad we’ve come up here,’ she said, pulling her scarf round.
‘Not too cold?’
‘If I keep stomping my feet, I’m OK.’ She stomped and swung her arms wide. ‘It does so clear your head.’
‘Stargazing can be frustrating,’ he said. ‘There might be weeks and weeks of cloudy nights. And then suddenly a clear one. And that night you are either too tired or you’ve got something else on.’
He was angling the telescope, revolving the dials.
‘I picked an easy one,’ he confessed. ‘You can’t miss Jupiter. Don’t need any computerised find-me gizmos. Just point the scope and get it plumb bang in the middle. Just like that.’ He was twiddling a dial as he looked through the eyepiece. ‘Oh yes, that is it. Coming in beautifully. Oh wow!’
The planet was centred, a bright and streaky sphere, with a few moons dotted about. This was the magic, when the genie showed you a secret jewel.
‘Take a look.’
Almost holding his breath, he watched her close an eye and bend to the eyepiece.
‘That is brilliant,’ she exclaimed.
His heart leapt in relief.
‘Jupiter is real. What a stupid thing to say. I mean, I’m seeing it,’ she went on. ‘Stripy like Dennis the Menace’s shirt. There’s a sort of bubble in the middle…’
‘That’s the Big Red Spot,’ he said, leaning close to her. ‘An area of storm bigger than the Earth.’
‘I can see some moons,’ she said. ‘Tiny pinpricks. Three of them.’
‘They’re the Galilean moons. There’s four in all, but you don’t often see all four. There’s usually one or two hidden behind the planet.’
‘Did Galileo discover them?’ she said, her eye still at the scope.
‘He did,’ said Jack. ‘He had one of the first telescopes, and watched them over a number of nights. And realised they were going round Jupiter…’
He cut himself short. He mustn’t lecture.
She came off the eyepiece and blinked her eyes for a couple of seconds.
‘I feel like an astronaut, just back from outer space. I bring a gift from the Jovians.’
And she took a bar of chocolate out of her pocket.
‘Let’s have a cuppa to celebrate your return,’ he said.
‘Swiss Jovians,’ she said, breaking the bar in half.
They nibbled the dark cubes and drank tea, cuddling their hands round their cups.
‘All those stars, all that distance,’ she said looking into the heavens. ‘We’re on a pinprick in all that infinity.’
‘I could never get Alison to look through the eyepiece,’ he reflected. ‘Though she was sick of me by then.’
‘How about Mia?’
‘Oh, she loves it. Especially the moon – the craters. She knows the names of some of the big ones. Plato, Archimedes and Copernicus. Let’s try M31. It’s what they call a globular cluster. It’s in the constellation Hercules. There. That chap up there with the boxy barrel chest…’
He spent some time searching, and after five minutes wished he’d set up his goto mechanism. And then got it. They gazed at the tight ball of stars that comprised M31. Drank coffee, ate chocolate. And then he handed over to her and let her scour the skies. She wasn’t looking for anything in particular but whatever took her fancy. Finding clusters, double stars and a reddish, wispy nebula he couldn’t name and would have to look up when he got home.
At the end of her tour, on request, he returned them to Jupiter and its moons.
After a little more viewing, he said, ‘Let’s pack up.’
‘Oh,’ she said a little deflated, ‘nothing more?’
‘You have to stop when you’re winning. I can get so boring if I don’t stop myself.’
She laughed, taking his hand. ‘I won’t be greedy. Jupiter is more than enough for one night. I didn’t know what to expect. Was I going to have to pretend? I’m so glad I didn’t have to. It’s been a beautiful surprise.’
Joanna was watching television when the doorbell rang. She looked up to the small CCTV screen that showed who was at the porch, and recognised DI Henderson. She thought, what can be so urgent this time of night?
She went to the door.
‘Good evening, Inspector. What can I do for you?’
‘I know it’s late, Mrs Ward, but I was passing, saw your light on… and wondered whether you might answer a few questions that have been worrying me.’
‘Come in,’ she said, and led him into the lounge.
She turned off the TV.
‘I hope I wasn’t disturbing you,’ he said looking about the room.
She shook her head. ‘I was only half watching a very dull programme. What do you want to know?’
She settled on the sofa, Henderson an armchair. He took a notebook from his jacket pocket and flipped over a page.
‘I’ll jump straight in,’ he said.
‘Are you and Mr Bell having an affair, Mrs Ward?’
She sighed, having half an idea where this might be going. ‘Depends what you mean by affair.’
He smiled. ‘That’s exactly what Mr Bell said.’
‘Then you already know.’
‘I’d like it confirmed,’ he said.
‘We slept together last night for the first time. And whether we’ll ever again – I really can’t say. Does that count as an affair?’
‘I’m not sorry my husband is dead,’ she said. ‘I make no pretence. My husband and I had got to the point when divorce was the only solution.’
‘Might murder have been another one?’
She laughed. ‘More likely he would have murdered me.’
‘Do you think he was contemplating it?’
‘What do you know of the fifty thousand pounds Mr Bell was given?’
‘By my husband,’ she said. ‘I believe he was trying to frame Mr Bell for my murder… But he got interrupted by someone. I have no idea who.’ She smiled wryly.
‘Are you sure the money came from your husband’s account?’
‘I haven’t traced it yet, but then I haven’t really looked. My husband had any number of offshore accounts. I just hope I can find them all.’
‘Who do you think killed him?’
‘I don’t know.’ She shrugged. ‘In business, he took no prisoners. He’s been scattering hatreds for years.’ She stopped and added carefully, ‘Are you looking into his property portfolio?’
‘We have begun,’ he said. ‘Did you know quite how downmarket he went?’
‘Slums,’ she said.
‘A lot of them,’ conceded Henderson. ‘Somewhat cavalierly run.’
‘I didn’t know anything until this morning,’ she said. ‘And what a can of worms that’s proving to be. It will take some sorting out.’
‘The press are buzzing about,’ he said.
‘What should I say to them?’
‘All I can say is – don’t lie. They’ll find you out and jump on you. Beyond that I can’t advise.’ He closed his notebook. ‘That will do for the time being, Mrs Ward.’
She was surprised at the shortness of the interview and looked at him quizzically. What was he like with his clothes off? Could she be bothered to find out? A cop might be an interesting notch. Or might not.
‘You didn’t come all this way to ask those few questions,’ she said. ‘They could easily have waited till morning.’
‘I was passing,’ he said.
‘I think you came for another reason,’ she challenged.
For a few seconds neither spoke, sizing each other up. It was the make or break moment. She knew what she could do. She enjoyed the risk.
‘Like what?’ he said at last.
She smiled at him and stroked her thigh slowly.
‘You knew when you rang my bell, that my husband is dead, that I might be alone. And that I might be up for it.’
‘I knew that.’
She stretched out, hands behind her head.
‘Take your jacket off, Inspector. And then you might like to remove my boots.’
Why did she do it? It wasn’t a lot of fun. Mechanistic and wet.
Because she could say, I had a Detective Inspector. Because she could. Because there was a long night ahead.
There lay the flesh. A cop. His naked back to her, half his bum showing. She’d known really as soon as she saw him at the door, what he’d really come for. Those questions, he’d asked them all before, more or less. And she had nothing new to tell him. Simply, he saw an opportunity, as she had in a way.
Use and abuse.
The why of it emptied her. She was a performer. It had got her a long way. But she was no good at making friends. Her weakness. Women didn’t trust her because she screwed their men. And how could a man befriend her when their relationship was only sex?
Keep them coming. Change, change. Don’t stop moving.
She’d started writing the fairy books because there was no sex in them. The attraction. Whatever the fairies, elves and gnomes did to each other, sex was forbidden. It was a relief for a year or two, once she’d taken on board the rule. They could be friends, pals of the woodlands, but no rolling in the hay. No pregnancies, STDs, or rape. No worries about contraception in fairyland.
Until she got sick of them, the silly games and plots, as she was getting sick of sex. And that was the terror. That she would be totally alone with nothing to do. This man next to her, who really was an unreadable footnote, had in his heat said words, almost of love, that she could almost believe. Until he was spent. And then he lay like a doll, a battered manikin, while she was wide awake thinking: how do I go on?
The same way.
She had become. She was set. This was her. True, she would age. And men wouldn’t simply come when she beckoned, unless they wanted her money. And what a gaunt, useless figure of fun she would be then. Paying for gigolos.
How do you make friends? How do you love?
Such baby questions. Who could she ask them of? In this dead time, with a lover asleep and she awake. With Leon battered to death, and her feelings only of relief.
The detective beside her stirred, looked at his watch and groaned.
‘I’ve got to get going, sweetheart.’ He threw himself out of bed. ‘I could be in big trouble for this.’
She thought, wife or boss. Or both.
He piled into underpants and trousers, like the adulterer in a play terrified the husband is imminent. But all that was coming was day. The muffled horses of morning.
She rose, put her dressing gown on. She’d watch the end of that movie. The detective was standing by the door dressed, apart from his tie.
‘You won’t say anything about this – will you?’
She could smell his fear across the room, stronger than sex.
‘Thou shalt not sleep with suspects,’ she said with a thin smile.
‘You’re not a suspect,’ said the cop. ‘Not anymore. We’re about to make an arrest.’
And with that he turned away and padded down the hallway. She wondered what he’d say to his wife. The wife who had gone off sex, or so he’d said. Who did it occasionally out of sufferance. Probably she’d be relieved at not being badgered.
Joanna had done something useful.
The front door slammed. And she went down the stairs to the lounge.
When Jack arrived at the Wards’, the floorboards were in bundles outside the garden door. The traffic hadn’t been bad up the Chigwell Road and there were his floorboards. The day was starting well. He’d barrow them in when he was settled. Jack let himself in the garden door and crossed to the summerhouse. The sun was glinting off the side windows. Good job that. Interrupted by too much, but they were all in and done with.
Though he might give them another coat of varnish later. He looked up at the sky. Might rain. Best bring the boards in. He went out with the wheelbarrow and loaded a bundle on the barrow. He could have shouldered them, but why kill yourself? Back trouble was the curse of the builder and he was in no rush to curtail his working life.
On the fourth trip, Donna was waiting at the summerhouse with a coffee and a couple of croissants.
‘Donna, my love, why didn’t someone marry you?’ he said between mouthfuls of hot pastry and best Colombian.
‘I was too fussy.’ She smiled at him.
‘How’s your boy?’
‘We are getting on so well,’ she said. ‘Making up for lost time.’
‘I can’t understand how it happened,’ he said as he munched. ‘How you lost touch.’
‘Bloody lying social worker. But don’t get me on that. It’s too lovely a day.’
‘You seem ten years younger,’ he said.
‘I feel it,’ she said. ‘And you? How was your date with Carol?’
He kissed his fingers. ‘A dream. I took her up a hill to look at the stars.’
She blew a mock raspberry. ‘That’s an old trick. I expected better of you, Jack. Something classy.’
‘She’s the classy one,’ he laughed. ‘Likes classical music and opera, would you believe? I don’t know one opera from the next.’
‘Well, I note she’s looking quite perky herself this morning.’ She winked at him. ‘Don’t rush things.’
‘Promise not to.’
‘Must get the laundry going.’ She gave him a wave and was off.
Jack completed the wheelbarrowing of timber. And went into the back room of the summerhouse. His plan was to renew the floorboards room by room. Empty a room, re-board it, then bring its furniture back and work on the next.
He began with the bed. It had been stripped of bedding. He carted the mattress next door. Then with spanners disassembled the bed and carried it out in pieces. In quarter of an hour he had an empty room.
Now the existing boards. They did look weak in places. He wondered what was going on underneath. Well, he’d soon find out. The first board was always the tricky one, after that you could get under and lever them up easily.
The first came out without any trouble. Too easy. And the smell hit him. Dry rot. The second plank broke as he was levering it up. And there it lay clear: a white web of fungus between the rafters, with gobbets stuck on the sides. The more boards he pulled up, the worse it got. Like clusters of white candy floss, entangled and wispy. The whole underfloor of this room was infested.
And it wouldn’t be just this room. Somewhere there was a leak, either from the plumbing or the downpipes, going under the house. That had to be found and dealt with. In a few minutes, the whole job had changed. Previously, all he’d had to do was change old floorboards for new. Now all the flooring of the summerhouse would have to come out. Then he’d burn out the fungi with his blowtorch. And bring in the rot people to spray.
More money. Well, she was loaded. He’d get this room’s boards up and then have a word with Joanna.
There were just a couple of planks to do when Carol appeared at the door of the room. He smiled at her. But she didn’t smile back.
‘They’re arresting Donna.’
The two of them ran across the lawn and out of the garden door. Just in time to see Donna being ushered into a police car. Joanna was at the porch of the house watching. The car door was closed on Donna by a police officer who then got into the car behind.
Both cars drove off.
‘I heard it all,’ said Carol. ‘A ring on the bell, Donna went to the door…’
She, Jack and Joanna had congregated in the kitchen in their excitement at the police action.
‘I was in the lounge,’ she went on, ‘waiting for you to come down, Joanna, and I distinctly heard Inspector Henderson say ‘I am arresting you for the murder of Leon Ward. You do not have to say anything…’ I rushed out into the hallway where Henderson had two other cops with him. And they took her away.’
‘Did she say anything?’ said Jack.
‘She said, ‘I’m innocent. I never did it. It’s all a mistake.’ I ran after them, tried to get more out of Henderson, but he just brushed me aside. ‘We have the evidence,’ he said, ‘it’ll all come out in court.’ So I ran back in to get you, Joanna, then rushed out to the summerhouse. It was all so quick. Two minutes and she was gone.’
‘Donna arrested,’ he said, floored. ‘Of all people. I can’t believe it.’
‘It’s a bombshell,’ said Joanna. ‘Meek and mild Donna, smashing Leon’s head in with a hammer. Who could believe it?’
‘Why would she do it?’ said Jack. ‘She’s been here, what, five years – why?’
‘She had a motive,’ said Carol. ‘Leon was bribing her son’s social worker to tell Donna that he didn’t want to see her.’
‘Why?’ said Joanna. ‘I know Leon was an ace bastard. But what was in it for him?’
‘Eric is his son,’ said Carol. ‘And schizophrenic.’
Joanna threw her hands up. ‘No one tells me a thing round here. His son. Since when?’
‘Twenty-five years,’ said Jack.
‘She told me in privacy who the father was,’ said Carol. ‘And I had to respect that, Joanna. But it’s not private any longer.’
‘How did she find out Leon was bribing the social worker?’ said Joanna.
‘She read his emails when he was in the shower.’
‘Never trust servants. I knew it,’ exclaimed Joanna.
Jack ignored her. ‘She’s been so happy the last couple of days. Got to see Eric, they were phoning each other, going to the pictures this week… That’s not how a murderer behaves.’
‘They must have evidence,’ said Joanna thoughtfully. ‘Fingerprints and so on.’
‘I just don’t believe it,’ said Jack. ‘Not Donna.’
‘I’ll sort out a solicitor for her,’ said Carol.
‘I want to see her,’ exclaimed Jack. ‘I don’t believe she did it. Not in a million years. And I need to hear what she has to say. How do I get a prison visit?’
‘She won’t be in prison yet,’ said Carol. ‘Not proper prison. They’ll take her to the police station for questioning. Keep her in a cell overnight. Tomorrow too probably, maybe longer, while they question her. After that they’ll take her to a women’s prison.’
‘Can I get to see her at the police station?’ he said.
Carol pursed her lips. ‘They won’t like that. Interrupting their interrogation.’
‘We’ve got to hear her side.’ He gritted his teeth. ‘I could go to the station and try to argue my way in. We can’t just leave her there.’
‘I can get you a visit,’ mused Joanna. They both looked to her, surprised at her confidence. ‘Henderson will fix it for me.’ She smirked. ‘I’m sure he will.’
They glanced at each other, wondering what she’d been up to. She caught them and added, ‘I am an adult, you know.’
‘Thank you, Joanna,’ said Jack, half guessing the how of it, and not caring. ‘I’d be grateful if you can arrange it.’
‘I’ll do it now.’ She rose.
‘One more thing before you go,’ he said. ‘You’ve got dry rot in the summerhouse. A bad infestation, under all the floors I reckon. The boards will have to be burned, and we’ll have to get wood treatment in.’
‘I’m having a rethink on the summerhouse,’ said Joanna. ‘It was my home from home when Leon was around. I could sleep there, work there, do whatever there. But now he’s gone. Well…’ She paused for them to catch up. ‘I’ve been wondering if I need it any longer.’
Jack threw his hands wide. ‘Do what you want. It’s yours. But please, Joanna, make up your mind.’
‘It’s not my fault things have changed,’ she said sharply.
‘Sorry,’ he conceded. ‘I’m rather spaced out at the moment. But I can’t do anything until you decide what you want. Carry on or knock the place down.’
‘Give me a few hours to think it over,’ she said.
‘While you’re considering I’ve a door to fix in one of your houses. If he’s in. Phone me as soon as you’ve fixed up the jail visit.’
‘Stick around for five minutes, I’ll do that now.’
Joanna strode out of the kitchen.
‘Never Donna. I do not believe it,’ said Carol shaking her head. ‘She’s just not the sort.’
‘She brought me a coffee and croissants an hour ago,’ said Jack. ‘She was over the moon at being in touch with Eric again.’
‘I know,’ said Carol. ‘She was glowing.’
‘Do you know a good solicitor?’
‘I do,’ she said. ‘But he’s not cheap.’
‘I’ll pay,’ said Jack.
‘How will you do that?’
In a half whisper, he said, ‘I’ve got the fifty thousand.’
Carol smiled. ‘Might as well put it to a good cause.’ Then added, ‘Thank you for last night.’
‘Thank you for being there.’
They gazed at each other across the table. Joanna could just be heard from the lounge.
‘Would you like to come over for dinner?’ said Carol.
‘I’d love to.’
Joanna strode in, pleased with herself.
‘That’s all settled. 3 pm at the cop shop. He’ll give you half an hour.’
‘Life and death of a slum landlord,’ read Carol.
‘A gripping headline,’ said Joanna. ‘With lots of unpleasant photos.’
The paper was spread out on the lounge table and both were reading the double spread article, which went on for a further two pages.
‘A tenant who asked not to be named,’ read Carol, ‘and Josef – not his real name. Everyone he interviewed refused to give their name.’
‘It’s awful,’ said Joanna, ‘splashed out like this. And now all mine.’ She looked up to the heavens. ‘Thank you, Leon.’
‘You don’t come out badly,’ said Carol still reading the article. She read: ‘Mrs Ward, the writer of the Forest Fairies books for children, said, ‘My husband never talked about his properties. But now I know, I’ve taken action straight away, shutting down the loan scheme and sacking the collectors. No one should have to live in fear.’
‘I’m not sure I quite said that to him. But I suppose it’s a fair gist,’ said Joanna. ‘Now we must plan what to do next. How to make it a proper company. There’s plenty of money in renting without…’ She waved her hand over the newspaper, ‘all these shenanigans.’
‘I’ve not been involved in housing,’ said Carol. ‘I need to do some research. Find out how bona fide companies work. Who they employ.’
‘I think we leave Mr Timms and Mrs Ball there for the time being. They know everything.’
‘Just till we get a new team in place.’
Joanna nodded. ‘Yes. I don’t want to be known as a slum landlord.’
‘Operation Clean Up then.’
The bell rang. They looked up to the CCTV screen. Four young women were at the door.
‘The Forest Fairies,’ said Joanna. ‘Pay their taxi, will you?’ Then a thought. ‘Donna is not here. What are we going to do about coffee and cakes?’
‘Let’s meet in the kitchen, then I can see to it.’
Carol went to the door. Joanna crossed to the kitchen and took the stool at the head of the long table, just as the young women came to the kitchen door and stood there, unsure where to go.
‘Take a stool,’ said Joanna. ‘We’ve had an emergency, so we are meeting here for a change.’
They took their places round the table. Joanna wished she could remember their names. There was Penny, and the plump one, who hardly ever said a word, whose name she could never recall – and the two new girls, what’s their faces. Well, she didn’t have to remember any names anymore. She was getting out.
‘I’d like to introduce you all to Carol.’
‘Hello, everyone,’ said Carol.
There were mumbled hellos.
‘Carol is taking over as editor and will be your contact from now on. I shall be Editor-in-Chief but you won’t see much of me. And I suspect you may not mind that one bit. I expect the same high standard of writing, the same respect for deadlines and full attendance at these planning meetings.’
‘I’m sure we’ll make a great team,’ said Carol, smiling round the group.
Joanna rose. ‘Well, I shall leave you, Forest Fairy writers, in the capable hands of your new editor. I’ll remain in the background, keeping in touch with your progress. Over to you, Carol.’
‘Thank you, Joanna.’
And Joanna left them.
‘I don’t know you,’ began Carol. ‘You don’t know me. So we need to introduce ourselves. I’m Carol Cole. I’ve lots of administrative and business experience with various large companies. I edited an in-house magazine for a couple of years. But I’m new to this area of writing, so I’ll be grateful for your input. We can grow together. Now, let’s go round the table one at a time. I want to know your name, your background, and what you’ve done so far with Forest Fairies. I’ll put a kettle on and find some cake somewhere. Then we’ll start with you, Penny.’
‘Where’ve you been the last couple of days?’ said Jack.
Dan was sitting on his bed. He was clean shaven, his face very red as if the action had been too rough on his skin.
‘I stayed over at the Sally Army.’
Jack had brought the door in and was unscrewing the broken one with its botched repair. He’d be pleased to dump that example of his work.
‘Why the Sally Army?’
‘The collectors were round asking for me,’ said Dan. ‘I thought better make myself scarce. And I had a bit of a skinful. You know, the pressure. Blew my cash, and ended up at the Sally Ann.’ He coughed, a painful, thick throaty cough.
‘You know the collectors have been sacked,’ said Jack.
‘I heard something about that,’ he said, still emptying his throat. ‘Is that straight up?’
‘Yes. Mrs Ward sacked them yesterday. They’re gone.’
‘To the moon I hope.’ He shook his head. ‘Them bastards have had it all to themselves. The terror they’ve caused. I’d have ‘em shot. Couple of years back, man on the ground floor killed himself.’
Jack pricked his ears up and stopped working.
‘Why was that?’
‘He was a sitting tenant, wasn’t he? Had a controlled rent. So they wanted him out. The bastards. They had music playing day and night, drilling, bad enough up here. He got visits, threats, his electricity got turned off, radiator flooded. They were going to get him out, one way or another. And in the end it was another. Couldn’t take no more.’
‘How come they got away with it?’
‘There was an inquest,’ said Dan. ‘What a sham! We were witnesses, everyone in the house. We were schooled what to say. What a peaceful, pleasant house it was. How George, that was his name, was depressed.’
‘You all told lies?’
‘It was that or get your head kicked in. He was a nice fella. I used to talk to him. He had vegetables growing out back, till they covered them in cement.’
‘What was his full name?’
‘George. Funny second name.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Can’t remember. She’ll know, your colleague. She’ll tell you.’
‘How will Carol know?’
‘She’s his daughter. I saw her at the inquest. She said she wasn’t when she came here the other day but I knew she was.’
‘Carol his daughter? The man who killed himself? You sure about that?’
‘Course I’m sure. I may get pissed, but I still got a few brain cells undamaged.’
‘Any of your neighbours might know his second name?’
Dan shook his head. ‘No. Been a changeover since then.’ He clicked his fingers. ‘I know how.’ He rose. ‘Downstairs. He still gets mail.’
The two of them went down the stairs into the gloomy hallway. Dan started picking up mail off the broken, scuffed lino.
‘Here’s one,’ he said in triumph. ‘George Osaki.’
‘Let’s see what else we can find,’ said Jack.
They went through everything that was on the floor and on the shelf. Some of the mail had plainly been there years, covered in the seasons like leaf mould on a forest floor.
They ended up with seven letters addressed to George Osaki.
‘I’ll keep these,’ said Jack.
‘What you going to do with ‘em?’
‘There could be a connection with Ward’s murder.’
‘Whoever did that deserves a medal.’
‘Except someone’s been arrested who didn’t do it,’ said Jack. ‘Enough of this. Let’s get your door in smartish. I’ve got a lot on this afternoon.’
He sent Dan off to get a couple of coffees and cheese rolls. And set to work on the door. The old one was soon off. Now he had to finish. The plan was to get to Mia’s school over lunchtime, between 12 and 1 pm.
He fitted the new door. Too tight. That was always the pain, getting a good fit. And so he had to take it off again and plane the bottom. Second time round it fitted nicely.
His coffee was cold, he’d only had half the roll, but he got the lock and door handles in by 12.30.
‘Can you do me a favour, Dan – and clear the rubbish. Or I’m going to be late.’
There were the shavings, sawdust and offcuts.
‘Sure, pal. You run – and I’ll clear up. You gave me the best news I’ve heard in years. Them collectors gone. Sure, pal.’
‘Ta Dan. Thanks for everything.’
Dan stood at the top of the stairs to see Jack rushing off with his tool box.
He arrived at the school gate just as the bell was being rung. He attracted a playground assistant who knew him and she let him in. In the mêlée of children running for their lines, Jack searched for Mia.
Then Mia was running across the playground.
He ran to meet her and she grasped him round the waist. Then stood back, staring at his face.
‘You’ve still got your black eye, Dad. Going though.’
‘Every time I look in the mirror, I think, how did I get that shiner.’
He held up a little bundle.
‘You got them,’ she cried.
‘All signed. And all yours.’ He handed over the fairy books.
She checked they were signed. ‘Great!’ Then turned to him. ‘I don’t know whether to keep them or go for the phone.’
‘Do whatever you want, love.’
‘Can you get some more?’
‘Flaming hell, these were hard enough to get.’
‘Have a go.’
‘You don’t hate me anymore then?’
‘Course not. When did I say that?’
He decided not to remind her.
‘Your mum hates me.’
Mia screwed up her nose. ‘She hates Jim even more than you. He’s moving out.’
‘Is he really?’
He was surprised how much the news pleased him.
‘They had this terrible row. Swearing and everything. Stuff getting thrown. I was sent to my room. But I could still hear all they said.’ She beamed. ‘And he’s off today.’
‘You won’t miss him.’
‘Never liked him.’ She reflected. ‘Think I’ll go for the phone and the bracelet. Or maybe the necklace. Get us some more books, Dad. Alright? Must get to class or I’ll be in trouble. Bye, Dad.’
And she was off running.
‘See you Saturday!’ he shouted.
‘Let’s go up the hill with the telescope,’ she yelled back.
And she was in the school door.
‘Half an hour, strict.’
Henderson opened the door of the interview room for Jack. It was the room where he’d been interviewed himself just the day before. Donna was sitting at the table, pale, clearly agitated.
‘Jack!’ she exclaimed when he came in. ‘They think I killed Mr Ward.’
He sat down opposite her.
‘I know you didn’t,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ she sighed, wiping her brow, ‘I’m glad someone believes me.’
‘Has the solicitor come?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I don’t know whether he believes me either. But he’s good. He doesn’t let them shout at me.’
‘Have you spoken to Eric?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m scared to. What can I say to him? We’re just getting to know each other again.’ She started weeping. ‘I don’t want him to think I’m a murderer.’
‘I’ll go and see him. I know you didn’t do it. I’ll impress on him that you’re innocent.’
‘Oh, would you, Jack. My phone’s in my flat, in the drawer in the table. His number’s on it. I can’t remember it. I’m all befuddled.’
‘I’ll phone him. Joanna’s got a key to your place. We haven’t got long, so let’s get to the nitty gritty. What evidence have they got on you?’
She closed her eyes. ‘Oh Jack, it looks bad. You see, I went into Mr Ward’s room after the party. I couldn’t sleep, I was so upset and angry. I was going to have it out with him. I didn’t care if I lost my job. He was paying off that social worker…’
‘Were you thinking of killing him?’
‘No, no – but I was going to shout and scream. Tell him how awful he was. That it had to stop, that I had to see my son. I might have hit him. But when I got in his room, I turned on the light, and he was already dead. I didn’t realise at first. He was lying on his bed still dressed. His sofa becomes a bed. I’d made it up earlier for him. There he was on top of the duvet, I thought he was drunk. Then when I got up close, and was standing over him, I could see his head had been smashed in. And then the hammer fell to the floor. I got such a shock, I was in an awful state. And then I did something stupid. I don’t know what came over me. I picked up the hammer. Not to hit him. It was just like second nature, the mess. Clearing up. Isn’t that silly? At once I realised that was such an idiotic thing to do. I put it back on the bed and I ran out of the room, and back home.’ She put a hand on his and half whispered. ‘Are they listening to us?’
‘I should think so,’ said Jack, looking about him for microphones. ‘Does it matter?’
She shook her head. ‘It’s only what I’ve already told them. And they don’t believe me anyway.’
‘So let’s forget about them and concentrate on you.’
‘Your fingerprints are on the weapon,’ said Jack thinking aloud. ‘And probably splatterings of blood on your clothing… What were you wearing?’
‘A nightdress and dressing gown, slippers.’
‘Have they got them?’
‘Yes. I would have washed them, but I use the Wards’ machines for my laundry. And I couldn’t because the police had it as a crime scene. And you were all in my flat, so I couldn’t even do a handwash.’
‘Blood is hard to get out anyway,’ said Jack. ‘None of that matters. You didn’t do it. He was dead when you got into his room. What time was it?’
‘About three in the morning.’ She was biting her thumb. ‘It doesn’t look good, does it?’
‘Except someone was there before you. Someone who killed Mr Ward.’
‘But who can that be?’
‘I have a good idea.’
‘I need to make sure before I say. So don’t push me, please, Donna.’
‘I’m sure you’ll do your best. You will see Eric?’
‘He might already be worried. I said I’d phone him today.’
‘I don’t think one day will bother him. He’ll just think your phone battery is low, something like that.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’ve got to make the most of today. Just remember we’re working on it. And I’ll be in touch.’
He rose, went round to the other side of the table and kissed her on the cheek. She gripped his arms.
‘Please do what you can, Jack.’
Joanna was sketching. Fashion stuff, possibilities for a line. She wasn’t good at heads, so left them off. She’d have to learn how to do them. Copy some over and over. Hers looked like cartoon characters, when she wanted a feel of confidence, glamour.
She was outside on the lawn, on a folding chair, with a small table at her side which had on it a glass and jug of spa water with sliced lemon in, made up by Carol. Her pad was on her knee, as she drew quickly, young women in trousers mostly, though a few dresses, scarves in the breeze. She drew hats and wished she could put them on heads, but heads were beyond her. How irritating. Hands she could manage, sort of pointy, long fingers, mannequin style.
She had a chat with Carol and then a rethink on her own. Times had changed. Whatever was wrong with Leon, he had filled a chunk of her life. Mostly argument and conflict lately, but it had kept her busy, resentful maybe, self righteous sure – but not these lonely gaps. There were things she was good at, things she was bad at. Crap at making friends, too bossy, too sexually grasping. She was good though at organising, at running things. So she had to run enough things to fill her hours.
The house was big, so make a hive of it. Get the fairy girls in, have them writing here. And the fashion side. She had this idea for a range. She’d get in a co-designer, maybe a couple of interns once the project was underway. This would be an ideas factory, all abuzz, and she could queen it.
And then too, her housing office. A smart office, modern furniture, with proper housing people. And why not go upmarket with some of the houses? Then with the rented stuff running smoothly, she’d move in to further acquisitions. She would be here and there, rushing – how she enjoyed that, constantly in demand. Meeting to meeting, making decisions. Being needed.
That just left evenings. But busyness created opportunity, new people, lunches, dinners. Her time would fill. And she could get very rich. Well, she was already that. Very very rich then.
She considered the summerhouse. It was extra space, project space, bedding space to stay out of Leon’s ken. But he was gone. And she had all his rooms now: his office, his snooker room, the music and film room, the two guest bedrooms. On top of that, there was Donna’s flat. And Donna could easily be six to nine months in jail before her trial began. There was no question of her coming back, even if she was found innocent. So her flat could have a connecting door into the hallway, so it wouldn’t be separate from the house. Then knock all the internals of her flat into one room, maybe leave the kitchen and bathroom. Maybe not.
With all that space, why have a summerhouse? She wanted this house busy, people interacting. Creativity. The kitchen could be a canteen. After all, she had an office upstairs, her bedroom with its en suite and adjoining dressing room. The sitting room downstairs was huge. She’d have to think how to use it best. She would still need home rooms. But she was awash with space. And if she needed more, say five years down the line, bring in one of those Scandinavian prefabricated packages, set up in two days on the back of the lawn.
‘It’s too much hassle, that summerhouse,’ she said to Jack when he arrived. ‘I don’t need dry rot. And it’s so old fashioned. Demolish it.’
He didn’t argue. Though it didn’t seem too much hassle to him. There was no one living there. All he had to do was get the floorboards out and bring in a wood treatment firm. He couldn’t though argue with old fashioned, that was a matter of opinion. He’d be more than happy to live there. But she had rooms popping out of her ears. One woman in this whole house.
He switched her off and came to Donna. Much more important than summerhouse business. And he told her about the conversation at the police station.
‘Are you convinced she’s innocent?’
‘I am, absolutely,’ he said.
She thought a little while. ‘She might get found guilty anyway.’
‘There’s nothing more we can do for her.’ She’d lost interest in Donna. ‘What do you think of my sketches?’
He looked them over, with not much confidence in his own opinion.
‘You draw quite well,’ he said. ‘Stylish stuff.’
‘It’s my next venture. Now that I’m free of the fairies. Well, Editor-in-Chief, with Carol calling the shots. This,’ she indicated the sketches, ‘I am going to call Nouveau Vagabonde. Chic and trampy. Like me,’ she chuckled.
‘I’m not sure which I prefer, the chic or the tramp.’
‘You liked the tramp the other night.’
‘I wouldn’t know what to do with the chic,’ he said.
‘Try taking her clothes off,’ she said with a laugh.
‘There are times I quite like you,’ he said. ‘But now I need to speak to Carol.’
Joanna was exhausting. He felt if he stayed with her much longer he’d be yelling at her. Or making love, and that really wasn’t the way to go.
‘She’s not here,’ she said. ‘She’s visiting a couple of housing trusts. Researching how we might makeover my housing office.’ She bit her index finger. ‘Might I consider you two an item?’
‘I don’t know what we are,’ he said.
‘Halfway between a fling and an item?’ she offered. ‘Or a one night stand?’
‘I really don’t know, Joanna,’ he said. ‘That’s why I want to see her. But as she’s not here, I’ll order a skip for tomorrow and get on with the demolition.’
‘You wouldn’t like to make a coffee first?’
‘Yeh, I’ll do that. How about some toast with it, maybe some marmalade? And I need Donna’s key. Her phone’s in her flat. I said I’d phone her son, Eric.’
‘I’ll get the key,’ she said. ‘Instead of marmalade, what about the French cherry preserve?’
Carol let Jack in.
‘I’m in the middle of cooking. Come into the kitchen and talk to me.’
She was wearing a dark green paisley dress. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and she was barefoot.
The kitchen was modern. Big enough for a table and a couple of chairs as well as the units and regular kitchen items. On one side were various chopped vegetables: carrots, onions and broccoli. She was halfway through chopping a red pepper on a board.
‘Tell me about your day,’ she said, taking up her large knife.
‘What are you cooking, Jane Osaki?’
Her startled look told him he had hit home. He could see in her eyes she was considering whether to lie or not.
‘This is from you,’ he said, deciding to leave her no room for lies. And he handed her an envelope with a footprint over the address and stamp.
Carol put the knife down and examined the front, before extracting the letter and reading it. As she did so her eyes welled.
‘Where did you get this?’
‘From the floor of number 72.’
‘It was the last one I wrote to him,’ she said. ‘I always thought he’d received it.’ She folded the letter and carefully put it back in the envelope. ‘What else do you know?’
‘I found pictures of you on the internet,’ he said. ‘You worked in Hong Kong, as the special assistant to the CEO of American Chinese Oil. I’ve seen pictures of you in Thailand, in Indonesia, in Japan. And in Australia too. So why should a globetrotter, her pay up in the stratosphere, come to work for Joanna?’
She wiped a tear off her cheek with the back of her hand. ‘Why do you think, Jack?’
‘In order to kill Leon Ward,’ he said.
‘This rather spoils the party. Let’s go and sit down.’
He followed her into the sitting room. She sat on the sofa, and indicated the place beside her. He sat down, keeping his distance.
‘It was Dan set you off, wasn’t it,’ she said.
‘It was,’ he said. ‘He recognised you. Even though you denied it, he knew.’
‘Of all the bloody houses,’ she said. ‘It had to be that one. Not that it matters. Things were coming to a head anyway.’
‘I wouldn’t have known otherwise,’ he said.
‘No one would,’ she said. ‘It was going so well. But for the problem of Donna. How is she?’
‘Very upset. Who wouldn’t be? They’ve got quite a case on her. She told me that she went into Ward’s room about 3 am, after you’d done your dirty work. Made the mistake of picking up the hammer, and to top it all – got blood splatters on her dressing gown and slippers. All that and a first class motive to kill Ward.’
‘What a mess,’ sighed Carol.
‘How did you do it?’
‘Too easy,’ she said. ‘I took advantage of the opportunity and stayed until last at the party. I wanted Leon to make a play for me. And true to form he did. Inviting me up to his room. He was pretty drunk. Come up, have a nightcap, he said. I knew more than a nightcap was on offer, but to be alone with him in his room, half cut, I wouldn’t get a better chance. We went up to his room, I went to his bathroom, to wash, to think. And when I came out – he was asleep on the bed, and had shifted the pillows. Under them was a hammer and chisel. I’ve never understood that.’
‘He had plans of his own,’ said Jack.
‘I had a pair of gloves in my handbag which I put on. Went back for a bathrobe which I’d seen on the bathroom door. Did it up securely. And the rest is history.’
‘You then went home,’ he said.
‘Taking with me the bathrobe and a towel I’d wiped my hands on.’ She gave him a half smile. ‘I think clearly in a crisis. At home I threw the bathrobe and towel in the washing machine, had a speedy shower, changed and drove too fast to your place.’
‘I was your alibi.’
‘I figured they couldn’t be that accurate as to the time of his death. So I had to be somewhere else as quickly as possible.’
‘And that was why you had to stay when Joanna showed up.’
She shook her head wryly. ‘I’d have been happy to sleep with you. But there she was – and I was staying put, with two witnesses to say so.’
They were silent for a while. He was looking at her hands, slim with long fingers, that had smashed Leon Ward’s head in. He knew she was lost to him.
‘You’ll have to kill me now,’ he said.
She shook her head vehemently. ‘No, no. Don’t damn me for a serial killer. Leon was a monster. He as good as murdered my father. I went to the inquest. Flew in from Hong Kong. I knew all his tenants were lying in that witness box. I spoke to some of them afterwards. They found it harder to lie to me. I found out about the intimidation, the sheer terror my father had had to live with. And I thought then and there – I am going to get you, Leon Ward.’
‘How did you get the job with Joanna?’
‘I put in for a transfer back home. And when that came, I found out which agency Joanna used. And got myself on the list for her next assistant. All under my new name, Carol Cole. I gave Jane Osaki as a reference. She gave me a glowing one. Then it was only a few months when Joanna’s assistant walked out – and I walked in.’
‘I’d let you get away with it if it weren’t for Donna,’ he said. ‘Leon was scum, no one will miss him. But Donna… She’s in big trouble.’
‘It’s been on my mind all day.’
‘Even if she gets off,’ said Jack, ‘big if, she’ll be in jail till the trial’s finished.’
‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘There’s no way round it. It’s down to me. However I’ve argued it, that’s what it’s come back to.’
She rose from the settee and went to a drawer and took out some papers and a package.
‘I’ve written a confession,’ she said indicating the papers. ‘And in this bag are my gloves. The ones I wore when I dashed his brains out.’ She handed them both to Jack. ‘Take them to the police tomorrow – will you?’
‘I am so sorry, Carol.’
‘Not half as sorry as I am.’ She smiled at him. ‘Now will you stay for dinner and the night?’
‘I’d be glad to,’ he said. ‘One point before you go back to cooking. That fifty thousand in my account. It’s not from Joanna – is it?’
She shook her head. ‘I thought to muddy the waters. Not frame you. Just add complications to the mix.’
‘You did that alright.’
‘Keep it. Compensation. I’m going to lose plenty in all this. At least this flat is rented, but the furniture, paintings – a write off. My car will go. A lot of money in my bank account is going to be lost. Though Goldfinch is pretty well hidden. That at least will sustain me a while.’ She paused a second, looking at her possessions as if they would evaporate there and then. She turned to Jack. ‘Give me four hours’ start in the morning before you go to the police.’
‘I will. And I’m sure it’ll take them time enough to gear up. And accept they’ve made a mistake.’
‘I’ll be well and truly gone. Now let me get back to the kitchen and dinner. And while I’m cooking you can read my confession. Check the spelling and grammar,’ she said with a grin. ‘I’ll put a CD on for you. A bit of mood music. Let me think… Gluck’s Orfeo might be apt for this evening. All considered.’ She was searching her tower of CDs, her fingers climbing. ‘It’s about Orpheus, who charms the guardians of Hades with his music, so he can reclaim his Eurydice. They agree she can leave on the condition that he mustn’t look behind to see if she’s following him back to the world of the living.’ Carol withdrew the CD and was searching the tracks on the album cover. ‘But of course, he does look back. And Eurydice is forced back to Hades. Oh, what an exquisitely sad aria, Che faro, expressing Orpheus’ heartbreak as he watches her pulled down to the Underworld.’
‘I wish there was another way…’ began Jack, and halted, netted in his own confusion. Tonight he would stay, tomorrow he would go to the police.
A tear was dripping down her cheek. She wiped it on the back of her hand. ‘I am going to be so alone. Making a new identity, somewhere in the world.’ She sniffed, and wiped her eye with her fingers. ‘But I don’t regret anything. I set it up. I killed Leon Ward.’ She pushed the CD back in the tower and pulled out another. ‘Something a little lighter then. Less hell, more bounce. Let’s have the Modern Jazz Quartet.’
‘She’s given me three months’ notice,’ said Donna.
‘It was going to be a month,’ said Jack. ‘Then she realised, she’d have to get someone else in to clean and cook, someone she didn’t know. And she wasn’t ready to start building works on your flat… She does go backwards and forwards.’
‘Whatever the reason, it works for me,’ she said. ‘Eric is going to help me look for a place near him. We’ll start tomorrow.’
‘I’m glad it’s come right. I wasn’t sure it all would when I saw you at the police station, no matter what I said.’
‘What a terrible time! All that questioning, on and on. Then a couple of days in a women’s prison. Some of those poor women, they’ve got children outside, brutal husbands, drugs and mental health problems… I thought, is this going to be me for the next fifteen years? And then without notice, along they came, I was in a knitting class at the time. And I’m free.’ She shook her head. ‘Whoever would have thought it was Carol? She was a love. I wish she’d got away with it.’
He wished it too. Since the morning at 6 am when he’d seen her off with a single suitcase. A long kiss in the drizzle.
‘Take what you want,’ Carol had said. ‘Any of my household stuff. Here’s a note saying it’s yours. Especially the sheets and towels. Take my music collection too. Jazz, classical and world music. And think of me when you play a track.’
And off she drove, out of his life.
Her flat was rented a month in advance, giving him time to take bits and pieces. Though he hated going there. Quickly in and out.
They found her car at an airport car park a few days later. Had questioned him several times, but what could he say? ‘I don’t know where she is. And she is not going to contact me. Ever.’
He spotted Joanna in the garden. And put down his coffee.
‘There’s Joanna. I’ve got to catch her.’
‘Come back for some lunch,’ said Donna.
And he was out the back door. Joanna was gazing at where the summerhouse had been. Now a rectangular hollow, about two feet below garden level.
‘Changed your mind?’ he said.
‘Could be a pond,’ she contemplated. ‘That would be restful, go out and work and watch the dragonflies and fish. Could have a little gazebo.’
‘I’m done here,’ said Jack. ‘Last skip has gone. I’ve left my invoice with Nora.’
‘Oh, she’s useless, Jack. I’m going to have to sack her. Carol was the best I ever had. Any idea where she is?’
‘All we know is she flew away.’
‘She speaks three languages, according to her CV,’ said Joanna. ‘French, Spanish and Japanese. That gives her a lot of continents.’
He’d spent two weeks grieving. It was like a death in the family. Thinking too much of her. At the top of the hill, her glee at seeing Jupiter though his telescope… If she were to evade capture, she’d need to create a new identity and make no contact with anyone she’d ever known. As if she had died. He’d spent several nights wishing Donna had never gone into that room. And then Carol might… Or he might have been arrested himself.
It was useless playing with maybe-worlds.
‘I’m back with the bloody fairies,’ declared Joanna. ‘Nora is a waste of space. And I’m setting up my new housing office…’ She stopped. ‘You wouldn’t like to be on the interview panel with me? I need someone who knows something about building work. And you know the problems. So how about it?’
‘I’ll do it. Give me a bell when it’s set up.’
‘I’ll fix up an appointment one evening when all the applications are in. We can go through them together. And…’
You never knew with Joanna’s ‘Ands’. And his own. Like the worlds of mights and maybes. Where would he be if Carol were still here? Lovers, partners, contemplating marriage…
Reality. Get back. She was a high flyer, way out of his league. Gone. He hoped she’d find somewhere. Someone.
What jobs were coming up? Who might he yet meet? Carol was dead. He wasn’t.
He looked at the hole in the ground. And thought of all those windows that had gone in, and come out again. Useless for anyone. Made to measure. Though he’d sold the sink, shower and toiletware. Up it went, down it came. And all skipped out. Leaving a hole.
‘I look forward to watching the dragonflies on your pond,’ he said.
‘A pond it is then.’ She turned away. ‘Where the hell is Nora?’
I am grateful to every reader who finishes one of my novels. I have taken you on a journey which I hope you have enjoyed. There are plenty of things you could have been doing, other than reading this book. So, thank you for your time. If you liked Jack of All Trades, I’d appreciate a review. In that way, you can help me tell other readers about my books. Without reviews authors get few sales. So I’d be grateful for your review to help this series get on the move.
I live in Forest Gate in the East End of London. In my working life, I have been a plastics chemist, a gardener and a stage manager before becoming a professional writer. I began with plays, working with several theatre companies, and had a few plays on radio and TV, as well as on the stage. In the early 80s I became involved in running a co-operative bookshop and vegetarian café in Stratford, learning to cook, and having my first go at writing a novel. The first was a mess, and, after too many rewrites, binned. The transition from drama to novels took me a couple of years to get to grips with. My first success was a young adult novel, Hard Cash, published by Faber. Buoyed up by this, I stuck with children’s work, did school visits, and made a hand to mouth living as a full time author, topped up with some evening class work in creative writing at City University and the Mary Ward Centre in Holborn. A few adult fiction titles appeared from time to time, between the children’s list, and I have since been working more in that direction with my Jack of All Trades series.
My full name is Derek Howard Smith. I write as DH Smith for my Jack of All Trades series; all other books appear under Derek Smith. Earlham Books is my own imprint.
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A dream job becomes a tale of money, love and murder for Jack, a builder, who gets a job repairing the summerhouse of a millionaire couple. The two monthsâ€™ work will pay his debts, and give him space to sort out his personal demons. Except the couple are at war, both having affairs, their marriage beyond salvage. The husband fires Jack, but she takes him back on, complicated further when he falls for her secretary. And when thereâ€™s a murder, using his tools as the weapon, Jack is prime suspect.