Authors: Robert Goddard
|Take No Farewell - Retail|
|Robert Goddard |
|Random House UK (1990)|
About the Book
Geoffrey Staddon turned his back on the best things in his life. He turned his back on the beautiful house Clouds Frome, his finest achievement as an architect. He turned his back on the woman he loved, Consuela Caswell, and who loved him in return. Twelve years later, amidst the tatters of his career and marriage, he is forced to contemplate the remorse and shame of his betrayal.
But when he reads that Consuela has been charged with murder, he knows instinctively that she cannot be guilty. And when she sends her own daughter to him, pleading for help, Geoffrey cannot ignore the dangerous lure of the past any longer. He must return to Clouds Frome, and face the dark secret it holds.
I am grateful to Christopher Bennett for advice and information about the architectural profession past and present.
Since the period in which this book is set, the laws of England and Wales relating to capital punishment, criminal appeals, intestacy, inheritance and the revocation of wills have all been revised. In particular, significant reforms have arisen from the Administration of Estates Act 1925, the Law of Property Act 1925, the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act 1938 and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965.
It snowed in the night. I sat where now I stand, watching the wind scatter the flakes in the haloes of the street-lamps, listening as its high, moaning voice strained among the chimneypots. All night, and all last evening from the earliest tinge of dusk, I sat where now I stand – and waited.
And now the waiting is nearly over. The sun is up, low in a clear, cold sky and, thrown up from the snow-covered pavement, a strange, reflected half-light creeps across the ceiling of the room. An hour, it signals, to the moment I have long known this day would hold. An hour – or less – to the sombre end of my flight from self.
What is she thinking, across the city in her crowded, brick-bound solitude? What farewell is she bidding, what leave is she taking, of that meagre portion of this world? When the hour is up, when the time is come, what will I seem to her? What will I seem to myself?
A taxi-cab has turned in at the end of the mews. It has come to collect me, come to bear me away in answer to a summons I once believed I could evade for ever. Once, but no longer. Not since that day last autumn when I heard her name again after twelve years’ silence and knew – for all my efforts to stifle the knowledge – that an old deceit was about to claim its due. Not since that day, which now, as the cab glides to a halt, black and burnished against the bare white carpet of snow, I relive in my memory. That day, and all the days since.
‘THE CASWELLS OF
Hereford. Weren’t they clients of yours, Geoffrey?’
I may have flushed at Angela’s words, or started. More likely my practised features betrayed no reaction whatsoever, eagerly though she would have scanned them for sign of one. Between my wife and me there existed then, as there had for some years past, a curiously unjustified hostility, a mutual disappointment forever in search of trivial slights that could elevate it to the status of a major grievance. Assuming therefore that she was, as usual, trying to catch me out, I merely raised my eyebrows, as if I had not heard her distinctly.
‘The Caswells of Hereford, Geoffrey. More precisely, Victor Caswell and his wife, Consuela. Didn’t you design a house for them?’
I frowned and set down my cup carefully in its saucer, with only the faintest of clinks. I made to brush a toast-crumb from my sleeve and gazed past Angela towards the window. Tuesday 25 September 1923, according to the very newspaper she had folded open before her. A quarter past eight, by the unreliable clock on the mantelpiece – a gift from one of her aunts. Weather forecast: rainy with bright intervals, one such interval being currently responsible for a flood of sunlight that sparkled on the surface of the marmalade and cast a dazzling aura round my wife’s barely inclined head. It restored the gold to her hair – but could not drain the acid from her voice.
‘Clouds Frome, near Hereford. Surely I’ve heard you speak of it. Wasn’t it your first big commission?’
Clouds Frome. Yes, she was right. First and therefore dearest, first and also bleakest, through no fault of its design or construction, for the fault lay elsewhere. I had not seen its walls – whose every stone and crevice had once been as familiar as the lines of my own palm – for twelve years. I had not even looked at its photograph in that back copy of
whose place in my study I knew so well. I had not wanted so much as to glimpse it. I had not dared to. Because of the name my wife had just dredged from a drowned but unforgotten past. The Caswells of Hereford. Victor and Consuela. Especially Consuela.
I cleared my throat and looked at Angela and found, as expected, her blue-green eyes trained upon me, her plucked eyebrows raised, one more than the other in a gesture of doubt, her mouth compressed, sharp lines forming – as surely they once did not – about the junction of chin and cheek.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I built Clouds Frome for the Caswells. A long time ago. Before we met. What of it?’
‘You didn’t read this article, then?’ She tapped the folded newspaper with the glazed nail of her forefinger as the sunlight vanished from the room and a sudden chill succeeded it.
‘No. I hardly glanced at the paper this morning.’
I could almost have suspected Angela was about to smile. There was a tremor at the edges of her lips, a glint of something in her eyes. Then that false, blank, unrevealing openness which had become the face she most often turned upon me. ‘It’s as well I spotted this, then. Otherwise you might not have known.’
‘Known what, my dear?’
‘Which could have been embarrassing,’ she disingenuously proceeded, ‘if somebody had asked you whether you thought she was capable of such a thing.’
‘Capable of what?’
Angela looked down at the newspaper, intent, it seemed, on infuriating me, and devoted several seconds to a brow-furrowed pretence of re-reading. Then she retrieved her cigarette from the china ashtray beside her plate, drew deeply on it, and blandly announced: ‘Murder.’ A plume of exhaled smoke climbed towards the ceiling-rose. ‘There doesn’t seem much room for doubt.’
It is hard now to recall the emotions with which I read that terse, unyielding paragraph, harder still to recall with what few words I dismissed the subject before claiming that I had quite forgotten the time, had an early appointment at the office and must, yes really must, be on my way at once. I do not for a moment suppose that Angela was deceived by my performance. She would have seen – as she had hoped to see – that I was not merely surprised by what I read, but troubled in the depth of my soul. She would have known that leaving the newspaper discarded on the table meant nothing, that five minutes away, out of sight of the house, I could and would buy another copy from a street-vendor and lean for support against some railings whilst I read again those brief, charged, tolling sentences.
HEREFORD POISONING CASE
There was a sensational development yesterday in police investigations of the murder of Rosemary Caswell, niece of wealthy Herefordshire businessman Victor Caswell. Consuela Caswell, Mr Caswell’s Brazilian-born wife, appeared before Hereford magistrates charged with the murder of Miss Caswell, and the attempted murder of Mr Caswell, by the administration of poison at the family home, Clouds Frome, near Hereford, on Sunday the ninth of September. She was arrested on Friday, following a police search of Clouds Frome, during which a quantity of arsenic and several incriminating letters were found and removed. Mrs Caswell pleaded not guilty to the charges and was remanded in custody for a week.
The Underground that morning was even more crowded than usual, but I was grateful for the press of strap-hangers round my seat, grateful for the privacy they unintentionally gave me in which to re-read incessantly and tease for meaning one small, obscure block of print. HEREFORD POISONING CASE, wedged without ceremony amidst the sweepings of a dozen courts. Drunken brawls. Domestic incidents. Break-ins. Burglaries. And murder. In Hereford. In a family I knew and a house I built. By a woman I … How could this be?
‘I beg your pardon?’ The man in the seat to my left was peering at me through pebble-lensed glasses. His face wore an irritated frown. Evidently I had spoken my thoughts aloud and, equally evidently, he was fearful lest his completion of the
crossword was to be interrupted by a fellow-traveller of dubious sanity. Already I could seem to hear his petulant voice complaining to a long-suffering wife in Ruislip that such incidents were becoming distressingly common.
‘Nothing.’ I tried to smile. ‘Nothing at all. I’m sorry.’
‘Quite all right.’ He slapped the newspaper against his knee and began to ink in a clue.
Quite all right? No, it was not that. All was wrong, if the truth be told. All was very wrong.
I had once loved Consuela Caswell. I had once loved her and she had once loved me. There had seemed for a brief space nothing that could mean more to me than what we felt for each other. But that was twelve years in the past, that was all forgotten, if not forgiven, and so there was no reason – no reason founded on logic or good sense – why this turn of events should have moved me as it did. And yet, and yet … Life grows sadder as we grow older, peppered with wrong-turnings and regrets, weighed down by a creeping awareness of our own worthlessness. When ambition is thwarted and hope blunted, what is there left but to mourn our mistakes? And in Consuela’s case, worse than a mistake: a betrayal.
My precipitate departure from Suffolk Terrace had left me with time to spare, which was time I badly needed. Accordingly, I broke my journey at Charing Cross and went the rest of the way on foot, along the Embankment as far as Blackfriars Bridge, then through a maze of narrow streets to St Paul’s, there to pause and gaze in wonderment, as I so often have, at Wren’s majestic dome. Thirty-four years in the building and Wren already older than I am now when he began. Where did he find the energy, where the inspiration, where the courage to embark upon such a project? Twelve years ago it was a comfort to me to know that such things were possible, for still then, in my imagination, I could aspire to such achievements myself. But no longer. Daring had failed where originality had faltered. A country house I no longer visited. The ashes of a burnt-out hotel. A rag-bag of mock Tudor villas and utilitarian office-blocks. A failed marriage and a debased profession: all there was to show for a decade of trimming before the wind.
The crowds swept along Cheapside, jostling and shouting to be heard above the traffic. Car horns and squealing brakes, the news-vendors’ cries and rain beginning to fall. I moved as in a dream, a dream of what might have been if my nerve had been stronger, my resolution greater, my love for Consuela proof against the snares of self-interest. Why did I betray her? It is swiftly explained. For my career. For the sake of prosperity and respectability. Which amounted, it seemed to me that morning, to little more than the grey weeping blankness above my head.