Authors: Nicola Slade
Sam Hathaway answered Matron’s mute look of distress and joined the policeman as he toured the hall. ‘I suppose they should have left everything alone,’ he apologized. ‘But some of the residents are extremely frail and I think Matron Winslow was afraid there might be a few strokes or heart attacks!’
At the foot of the imposing staircase Neil Slater joined them and introduced the still distraught euphonium player who was now being comforted by the band’s drummer. The latter lifted his head and beckoned to the three men.
‘Here, Neil, come and have a word with Mike. He still thinks it must have been his fault but I’ve been telling him – I reckon if anyone’s to blame it must be me.’
‘Really?’ Sam and Neil clustered round, with the policeman, eager to hear the reasoning behind this new theory.
‘This is Tony Harris, the drummer,’ Neil said, by way of introduction.
‘It’s this way,’ said Tony. ‘Mike thinks it was because he stacked his horn on that ledge, yeah? But the thing is, he’d left it like that all through the interval and nothing happened to it then. Well, you check it out for yourselves, it’s really wide. More like a shelf than a railing.’
He indicated the gallery and they all craned their necks. Even from downstairs they could see the width of the coping rail. Tony Harris nodded as they noted it. ‘Not only that, but if you look there’s that big speaker just there, comes right up level with the shelf and makes a kind of table. What I reckon happened is that my drum roll set up a load of vibrations and what with this being an old house, it upset the balance and over she went.’
‘That’s plausible,’ Neil turned eagerly to the policeman and Sam. ‘It’s a hell of a noise that he makes and the whole gallery was vibrating. I suppose the speaker could have been shifted off-balance in any case, by all the earlier vibrations we set up, and the drum roll put the kibosh on it.’
The horn player was beginning to look less devastated as the commonsense of the drummer’s claims sank in. Sam was glad to see a faint colour in his cheeks and a more hopeful look in his eyes.
After further investigation the constable contacted his sergeant to report his findings so far. ‘Nothing anyone can do at this time of night,’ he told them. ‘You’d better shunt everyone off to bed and the guests can go home. Somebody will be here tomorrow, maybe, to take another look but it all looks pretty straightforward. Miss Winslow called her own doctor and he’s agreed with the paramedic and is willing to sign the death certificate. It was an incredible stroke of good fortune that Mrs Marchant was sitting there all by herself so nobody else was injured. We could have been dealing with a bloodbath!’
He missed the old-fashioned look that Sam Hathaway shot in his direction at this melodramatic statement, and stowed his notebook into his pocket. ‘It looks like you said, a load of vibrations, an old house and a bloody unlucky coincidence that had that poor woman just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ He looked at his watch and sighed. ‘I’ll stay here till the
undertaker is finished then I’ll be off. There’s been a big pile-up on the motorway so it’s all hands to the pump.’
Sam looked round for Harriet as he was leaving and spotted her, wearing a preoccupied frown, as she watched Gemma and another member of staff replacing chairs and tables in their usual arrangements. He wondered what had caught his cousin’s attention; Gemma looked shocked and upset, but so did everyone else, and no wonder. As he stared at Harriet she sighed and turned away, looking round the hall with a dissatisfied furrow between her brows.
‘What’s wrong, Harriet?’ he asked quietly, buttoning his coat and winding his scarf round his throat.
‘I wish I could put my finger on it.’ She sighed again as she walked him to the door. ‘I just don’t like this coincidence idea. I heard what that policeman said and if it had been any of the other residents at Firstone Grange I’d be inclined to agree. But Christiane Marchant was
She turned anxious blue eyes on him as he bent to give her a cousinly peck on the cheek. ‘I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the fact that a woman who had so many people in her power, cringing with fear, should suddenly be – what did he say? “
In the wrong place at the wrong time
Sam heaved a sigh of his own. He knew Harriet wasn’t going to let up on this. ‘I don’t know either, Hat,’ he placated her. ‘What I
know is that we’re absolutely exhausted, and don’t forget you’re still not a hundred per cent fit. Go on up to bed now, there’s a good girl, we’ll get together and have a brainstorming session in the morning.’
The audience had straggled out, leaving Pauline Winslow and her helpers to round up their weary guests and coax them to bed. The band had packed up and left, once they had given their details to the police constable. Now Neil was the only one left.
‘Come on, Alice,’ he urged, wrapping her in her coat and towing her towards the door. ‘You’re coming home with me tonight, or I’ll stay with you, whatever. I don’t care which but you’re not going to be on your own, after all that’s happened.’
Grateful for his care and for the strong, loving arm round her shoulders, Alice managed a faint smile. ‘I think we’d better go back to my place,’ she said. ‘There’ll be an awful lot to do tomorrow, starting early I expect. I’d better be on the spot.’
As Harriet trudged wearily towards the stairs she passed Mrs Turner putting the finishing touches to her tidying up. The housekeeper nodded to her with a wry smile.
‘I can’t help thinking what a marvellous evening it was – up till
happened. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Such a successful concert.’
Harriet’s answering grin was equally rueful. ‘Yes, rather on the lines of “But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” wasn’t it?’
‘Oh don’t, Miss Quigley!’ The other woman hastily stifled a sudden snort of laughter. ‘Oh well, that’s about it for tonight, I think. Funny thing, you know – that reel of cotton I was searching for, turned up on the mantelpiece, of all places. Somebody must have picked it up off the floor and not known what to do with it. Still, I’m glad to get it back; as I said, I’m rather mean about cotton reels and button thread being stronger and thicker, is more expensive.’
Harriet carried on upstairs rather abstractedly. All thought of disappearing haberdashery vanished from her head, however, as she overheard a voice repeating the same thing, over and over.
Ach mein Gott, mein Gott.
Fred Buchan was staring out of the front landing window into the starlit, frosty sky, desperate eyes raised to the pale gold sliver of a moon, his hands clenched and resting on the windowsill. As Harriet hesitated at the top of the stairs he
turned and saw her, shooting her such a look of despair that she recoiled. He said nothing, however, swung abruptly round and stumped off towards his room.
Sunday morning dawned – if it could be called dawning, so comprehensively had the glitter and sparkle of the previous night vanished into a grey and frowsty murkiness – on the various participants in Friday’s tragic happenings.
Alice Marchant woke early and discovered that she was wrapped in a strange man’s arms. Not a stranger, she corrected herself, Neil had never been a stranger, though what
strange was this blossoming relationship, so unexpected, so swift, so wonderful.
With the thought of Neil came the memory of her mother and the horrors of the night before. Sick with revulsion she closed her eyes, trying to blot out the sight she feared would haunt her; the shattered skull, the blood, the grotesque puppet dangling over the arm of the wheelchair.
I won’t think about that now. She bit her lip. I’ve got other things to worry about. Underneath it all though, under the shock and the grief that was unexpectedly sharp, beside the happiness and surprise of Neil, ran a bubbling stream of excitement and relief.
I’m free! I’m free at last and she can never, ever, hurt me again.
Pauline Winslow was up and about very early. She dressed quietly, checked on the silent house and then, with a word to
the member of staff on night duty, slipped out of the back door and walked briskly over the road to the church. Kneeling alone and chilly in the gaunt Victorian building she nevertheless felt a warmth stealing into her bones as she laid her troubles before her God. Certainty filled her, an assurance that her dream would come through this trauma unscathed and that she and Firstone Grange would ride the storm and survive. Christiane Marchant, with her malicious, dangerous charisma and her messy, disturbing death, would not be allowed to destroy them. I’m not alone, she thought, looking up at the stained glass of her favourite window, showing the risen Christ.
‘I’m not alone,’ she repeated aloud, comforted.
Ellen Ransom lay in bed racked with anxiety. So much anguish for such an old, old mistake. Was it worth it? Would Carol, or Jack, or the children, really care if they knew? They’d be shocked of course and Carol might be upset, she’d been particularly close to her father, but old sins were just that –
Her sister, Mavis, would have a field day, that went without saying, if she were to find out, but again, so what? Mavis was an old woman too and maybe she had one or two things on her own conscience that might not bear too close a scrutiny.
No, Ellen decided that it would all be considered such small beer nowadays, hardly a sin at all, by modern reckoning. It had caused her so much torment, both in the past and particularly lately, since Christiane Marchant had made such an unwelcome reappearance, but at least, she thought, it could be explained away by apologists, considering the circumstances. The paradox had been that what Ellen had considered a justifiable solution at the time, and had taken action to resolve with such a cool and steady nerve, had gradually come, over the years, over the decades, to seem less justifiable. Less allowable. Less bearable. Less forgivable.
It all boiled down now to how Ellen perceived herself; it had been
guilt, and however skilfully she had managed at the time (for the most part) to suppress any qualms of conscience, now, as an old woman, she viewed her own actions very darkly indeed. For that reason Christiane Marchant had been Ellen’s nemesis, always there with her demands and a knowing smile in that long ago time of terror and lately propelling her inexorably towards some drastic action.
Now the woman was gone but still Ellen writhed in torment. Something more was needed, before this could be laid to rest.
Along the landing Tim Armstrong lay awake too, quite still, only his eyes moving. He stared at the ceiling most of the time but now and then his gaze flickered towards the window where he could see a lighter shade of grey struggling to break through the gloom. He remembered the previous evening, first Christiane Marchant’s taunts and then her terrible death.
Oh Jane, he faltered. Oh Janey, where are you? I need you here with me now, I need you to be strong for me, as I was strong for you that time.
It was all too much to bear and he slipped gratefully back into a sunlit past, walking in a long ago summer on a northern river bank with dark-haired Jane, pretty and happy in a flowered cotton dress, laughing up at him with love and promises in her eyes.
In the snug little village of Locksley, nestling in the chalk hills over on the other side of the valley, Doreen Buchan slid noiselessly out of bed, careful not to disturb Vic. She shrugged on her towelling dressing gown and went downstairs, feeling drained and not at all rested after a night of broken, restless sleep. Putting the kettle on, she looked out of the window, seeking solace from the garden that normally gave her so much
satisfaction. Handed round from relative to grudging relative she had always craved roots, a proper house, a proper garden, so the White Lodge garden with its acre and a half of perfectly groomed lawns and borders and ornamental shrubs fulfilled her dream. The house too was a constant source of delight. Substantial, elegant, furnished and decorated in impeccably neutral tones by the interior designer who had soon taken her measure and played safe, it said everything about the lady of the house that she wished could have been the truth.
The village was another cause for celebration, with its mellow mix of cottages, some thatched, some slate-roofed, in the local brick and flint, together with houses of later periods. Some were small and elegant with Georgian sash windows and pedimented doorways, and one or two, like her own beloved White Lodge, were Victorian villas. In her own inarticulate fashion Doreen Buchan appreciated history, and the knowledge that just on the outskirts of the village ran the track of an old Roman road, trodden by countless thousands throughout the centuries, added to her feeling of having come home, having put down roots at last.
This morning she tried to summon up the warmth and comfort of those feelings but the memories and emotions that had been stirred up by the appearance of Christiane Marchant had deeply unsettled her. What if Vic finds out, she agonized, drinking her tea and staring blindly out at the cold grey garden. What would the children say?
She shuddered as she remembered her last sight of the tormentor, even as she felt again the flash of triumph that had elated her last night.
She deserved to die, Doreen thought. Whatever happens to me now, I’ll never be sorry that she died.
Doreen’s father-in-law was in his room at Firstone Grange, huddled into a high-seated, upright wing chair, trying to force heat from the radiator into bones that felt chilled right through with an ancient frost. So many memories, so many regrets. So much of the past buried, submerged, forcibly banished into limbo, all subordinate to the overriding need to survive.
Fred Buchan had made a success of his post-war life, working like a slave to establish himself, first as a good worker, then as a small businessman; still later as a major employer until he had built a modest empire which he had passed on to the willing and worthy hands of his only child. Yes, Vic was a son to be proud of, and Margaret had been a good and loyal wife. Not exciting, but who wanted excitement in a woman, when all he needed from her was a comforting security. Any excitement he craved came from his business life.
That woman though, she had torn it all apart, destroying, with her hints and threats and whispers, the whole edifice he had put together, brick by painstaking brick, making a place of safety for himself, for his family. Making him remember.
On this Saturday morning Fred Buchan sat alone in his room, bowed down by the intolerable burden of his guilt.
Up in the attics of Firstone Grange Gemma Sankey was asleep but she was dreaming. Nightmare creatures pursued her, dripping in blood and crawling with greyish-pink wriggly things that even in her troubled sleep she recognized as brains, spilled and writhing with a life of their own. As she had seen them spilling from Christiane Marchant’s head last night.
Ryan. Her thoughts, sleeping and waking, spiralled around. Ryan, he had been there. He had been upstairs at the time of the ‘accident’. It had been hours before troubled sleep overtook her last night as she fretted and tried to remember. She had told Ryan that Mrs Marchant had seen them and that she was issuing veiled threats. Had Ryan seen the woman as an obstacle
to his plan to milk Firstone Grange and its residents of a small but steady income? After all, if Gemma were sacked, bang went Ryan’s chance of ingratiating himself into Matron’s good graces; he had boasted to her about his plans the other night, and shrugged off her horror.
Surely it wasn’t enough reason for murder? Was it?
An hour or so later Canon Sam Hathaway was woken by the ringing of the telephone beside his bed. For a moment he waited, as he always did, hoping that Avril would answer it and let him sleep on, then, as he always did, he remembered that she was gone. The icy shock of memory never failed to distress him, even after four years, and of all his friends perhaps only his cousin Harriet was aware of his desolation. He had moved into a flat near the Cathedral Close when she died, resigning his living near Bishop’s Waltham for an administration job, trying to get away from the anguish of being in her house, her familiar surroundings – all hollow, all pointless.
Not a loss of faith exactly, more a suspension of belief. If Avril could die, with her joyous grasp of life, how could he reconcile that with his previous certainties? What kind of God could do that? Until he could answer his own bitter cry, how could he counsel others? Time for me to retire he thought now,
, as he picked up the phone. It was Neil.
‘Sam? Can you do me a favour, do you think?’
‘Of course, my dear chap, name it.’
Sam pulled himself together. He was still alive, he was still needed, he could still be useful, even if life had lost its colour, its joy, its meaning.
‘I wondered if you could spring Harriet for a few hours? I’m at Alice’s house but I don’t want to leave her here on her own.’ He gave Sam the address and went on: ‘I’ve got one meeting I simply can’t get out of and another I really ought to make
somehow, there’s a really massive sale hanging on it. Alice insists she’ll be perfectly all right but I’d rather she had somebody with her whom I can trust. Do you think Harriet’s up to it? I don’t want her to bust a gasket or something.’
Sam let out a snort of laughter. ‘Better not let Harriet hear you, Neil. No, I’m sure she’s quite up to it and in any case I can stick around and keep an eye on them both as well as provide extra back-up, transport, protection, whatever.’
He reached for his glasses and looked at the time. ‘Shall I go and pick Harriet up fairly early and then come on to you? You might ring Miss Winslow, perhaps, and give them a bit of warning. Say I’ll be there for ten o’clock, that should give Harriet time to get her war paint on.’
Sam was relieved to see that Alice, although pale and rather drawn, was quite composed and happy to see them. As she took them into the kitchen, saying that the rest of the house was too gloomy, she spoke frankly.
‘It was a shock, of course it was,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone, it was … it was dreadful.’ Her voice faltered and she brushed away a tear. ‘But you probably know that Mother was – difficult and I can’t pretend it’s not a relief, in spite of everything.’
Sam nodded kindly and was secretly amused to note that Harriet was firmly partisan, ranging herself on Alice’s side against the late, unlamented Christiane, as she bustled round and making coffee. Still, he reflected, Harriet was aware that Neil had suffered from a dominant mother too, though that had been the tyranny of love as his mother’s long-drawn-out suffering had taken its toll on him and his marriage. They both deserve a bit of happiness, he concluded, as Harriet must also have done.
‘We’re just about to go through some of Alice’s parents’ legal
papers,’ explained Neil as they surveyed the litter of yellowing documents at the end of the big pine table. ‘I’ve got to go in half an hour but I can help get things started.’
‘I didn’t even know Daddy had a safe in his surgery,’ Alice admitted with slight smile. ‘But Neil says safes are sometimes disguised as paintings and when he spotted it, we tracked down the combination in an old notebook of Daddy’s. I wonder if Mother knew about it? We’d only just brought this box in here when you arrived. Here, Sam, you must be used to this kind of thing, would you take a quick look, please?’
The others laughed away Sam’s unconvincing noises about leaving them in private, so he picked up a document at random. ‘This is your mother’s will, Alice. It’s quite straightforward, everything goes to you.’ He handed it to her while Neil opened another brown envelope.
‘This older one is your father’s will, Alice,’ Neil was rapidly scanning the contents, and surprised them all by emitting a loud snort of astonishment. ‘Good God! He left everything in trust to you, Alice, apart from an allowance to your mother. That means the house is yours, it’s been yours all along.’
!’ The bitter anguish of her cry shocked them all as she started up, her eyes grown huge and appalled. ‘That means it was all for nothing,’ she wailed. ‘I needn’t have.…’
She pulled herself up and pressed her hand to her mouth, pushing Neil away as he made a move towards her. ‘No, it’s all right, don’t worry. It’s just … I can’t believe she.…’
She slumped down. Harriet quietly pulled the cafetière towards her and refilled Alice’s mug. The younger woman, the earlier muted radiance drained from her face leaving her olive skin sallow and uncannily like her mother, took the cup from Harriet and managed a tremulous but grateful smile. ‘Thanks, Harriet, I’m so sorry. I just – it was such a shock.’
It might well be a shock, mused Sam gravely, watching her
as she made an effort to recover. To discover that your mother had so little regard for you as to appropriate your inheritance for herself, to treat you as a slave, to keep you tied by your own timidity and strong sense of filial duty. All this might very well tip one over the edge for a moment. But beside this very reasonable explanation for her distress he was aware of an urgent query. What had she meant by saying: ‘it was all for nothing?’ It might, understandably, refer to the years of drudgery, but might there be another, more sinister, inference?