Read The Old Contemptibles Online

Authors: Martha Grimes

The Old Contemptibles (7 page)

“What? A thousand

Mr. Cuttle nodded and inserted the ring back in the velvet tray. With the bare glimmer of a smile, come and gone as quickly as a wink of light on the ruby, he then put the tray back into its rightful place in the case.

Lady Kennington rested her arms on the glass display case and stared at him until Mr. Cuttle had to look at her. He cleared his throat; he sighed.

“Mr. Cuttle, Superintendent Jury could take away your license, don’t you know? You’re . . . displaying goods under false pretenses,” she said decisively. “I’ve seen you do it again and again. How much were you thinking of spending, Richard?”

She had never called him before by his first name. The mood of buoyance was returning. “Ah, somewhere between three and four hundred, I expect.”

“Now, Mr. Cuttle, what price do you put on that ring?” She was staring him into submission.

He pursed his lips and looked up at the stained ceiling. He
scratched his chin. “Three hundred fifty?” He looked blackly at both of them.

“Wonderful! Could you put it in a box for me?”

Without answering, Mr. Cuttle shoveled through the dark drapery again, presumably in search of a box.

Lady Kennington said to him, “I wonder why we’re always meeting over jewelry?”

“Fate.” He felt he should explain about the ring. “It’s for a young woman who lives above me. She’s done so many things for me. Taken care of my apartment, cleaning, tidying it up; you know how it is with bachelor digs.”

“Lonely, I expect.” Her voice was quite serious.

Jury inhaled a lot of breath in order to set down more reasons for this ring. “Her birthday’s coming up and she loves jewelry but doesn’t have much of it. So, for a surprise—” He smiled winningly, and got busy writing a check for Mr. Cuttle.

The man returned with a jeweler’s box and removed the velvet tray. But he didn’t hand over the ring immediately.

“Mr. Cuttle?” said Jenny softly. He gave the box to Jury.

“Thanks. You’ve got some beautiful things here. I’ll tell the men on the force.”

“Don’t,” said Mr. Cuttle. He went back through the draped doorway.

 • • • 

“He treats everything in that shop as if it were an old family heirloom,” said Jenny Kennington as they stood outside in one of the spidery little streets off Piccadilly. “You’ve a good bargain there; five hundred would be more like it.”

“Thanks for getting it for me. Look, are you busy right now?”

“No. Would you like to go somewhere?”

“The Salisbury’s nearby.”


 • • • 

He got their drinks and settled in the plush, red booth. “Where are you living now?”

“Where we last met. Stratford-upon-Avon.”

“Sitting on packing boxes?” He lit her cigarette for her. “You were always moving.”

She laughed. “I’m sorry about that. The trip with my aunt didn’t
last long. She died in Paris, and I stayed. A place on the rue de la Paix. Rather sumptuous it is. I wasn’t aware she had more than enough money for that last little fling. But if you come to Stratford again, I can offer you a chair, at least. That house I had in the old district came back on the market, and my cash flow—don’t you love the way estate agents talk?—improved somewhat. Thus I acquired ‘a modern bath en suite companioning a luxurious dressing area which boasts a hundred and fifty closets,’ et cetera. Why do those agents think closets are so important? And the ‘luxurious dressing area’ is about the size of a warming closet. It’s a small place, really. But you remember. . . .” She paused. “Is something wrong?”

He had been listening but not looking at her. Her face was tilted slightly to the side, inquisitively, with an expression somewhere between concern and amusement. “No. Nothing’s wrong. How long are you in London?”

“Until tomorrow. I’m at the Dorchester.”

Jury heard her, but he was looking again at her arm in the black sweater shot through with silver that reflected slightly only if hit by light at a certain angle. The arm was outstretched across the table, and in her upturned palm was the tiny statue, broken like the original.

He felt ill. His mental camera whirred backwards to the arm of his mother on the floor of their flat years ago, jutting from ceiling plaster after the bomb; and then moved in an instant to Lady Kennington’s old manor house, Stonington, and the ambiguous marble statue in the middle of the courtyard, the statue that one couldn’t help but see, no matter which window served as vantage point.

If Jane had not had an “appointment,” he would have been going to Lewisham later . . . no, he wouldn’t; he had too much neglected work to catch up on. But he had felt a wash of fury when she’d said, No, she couldn’t see him; she had an appointment.

And when she hadn’t embellished, he’d asked her with whom, Godot? Why the secrecy?

“But I’m not
secretive. It’s only someone you don’t know.”

“I would if you told me.”
it was wrong to push her.

“Good Lord, what difference does it make? Do you think I’m unfaithful? Do you think that? . . . You looked turned to stone.”

Jury’s mind, which seemed to have ranged across forty years in the
last four seconds, focused. It was Jenny who’d said that last part—
you looked turned to stone.

She wasn’t smiling. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I have to leave.” He pulled out money, put it on the table. He couldn’t believe he was actually getting up, being so rude as to leave her sitting there.

“Do you always wear that sweater?” His mouth was as stiff as if he’d walked a mile through zero weather. “Black doesn’t suit you.”

 • • • 

He did not go back to Victoria Street to catch up on his neglected paperwork. Jury had no recollection of how long he walked; he simply walked from bench to bench, sat down, said either nothing or nodded or grunted if the bench was a shared bench; he walked deeply into the night, feeling ashamed he’d left someone just sitting there, especially her.

Finally, he ended up on a bench in Green Park with a mumbling drunk whom Jury was pretty sure he’d be able to compete with, given a few more years of feeling sorry for himself.

He was angry both about the self-pity and the awful rudeness to Jenny, who he knew was easily put off, and who had been very kind. And that idiotic story about his reason for buying the ring . . . why had he lied?


She couldn’t be dead.

Alex Holdsworth stood perfectly still in the doorway of her bedroom, the rucksack full of his schoolbooks dragging at his arm, and tracks of rain still running from his raincoat.

He could not force his foot across the doorsill.

He had taken the stairs three at a time, whistling between his teeth, swung round the post at the top, sure she would love the surprise of his appearing so unexpectedly. She would not be able to hide that before she was forced to go through the ritual sighs and head-shakes.
“Not again, Alex? You’ve not been sent down again?”

Well, they both knew he’d been sent down again, but the game required this sort of thumping big surprise reaction that the headmaster had found yet another reason to send Alex home. A letter would follow, naturally, about the Rose and Crown.

Alex would, of course, appear properly humbled, abashed, pained that he was wasting her money and his time. And since (he had thought, whistling down the hall) she could never bring herself to send him to his room without stuffing him with a huge meal, he would take it upon himself to stick to a crust of bread and a glass of milk. There were times when he actually wished his mother were a little more hell-bent on discipline because he got tired of meting out his own. But there it was, then; as far as his mum was concerned, he could (no matter how many send-downs) really do no wrong.

 • • • 

The fatal step across the sill was taken by another Alex. In order to keep from screaming the house down or throwing himself at that fainting couch where she lay, he had to split himself in two. He drew himself inward, inside a glass bell, and allowed himself, the one Alex, to descend into diver’s waters.

The other Alex walked slowly, still dragging his book bag toward the worn green damask sofa. How had he known in that first instant that she wasn’t merely asleep? For he couldn’t have seen, twelve feet beyond him through the doorway, the pallor of the skin, the failure of the breast to rise and fall.

He knew because her breathing was in a sense his breathing, too. He knew because he had been beating back panic for the last eighteen or so hours, ever since he had woken very early this morning from a nightmare that left the sheets as wringing wet as his hair and his slicker were right now. The dream was uncomplicated and came and went as swiftly as the birds that moved in it: it was a vision of the painting downstairs, the copy of a Van Gogh whose name he couldn’t remember, a picture of blackbirds flying across a darkening field. When he woke he lay there sweating. Before breakfast he had tried to call her. No one answered. Nothing unusual about that, he kept telling himself all through breakfast. He sat in the noisy refectory, stirring and staring at the bowl of porridge. The dream seemed to follow in his wake like a black ship, like the blackbirds. He had always been highly rational; he had never understood why he was given to complex and baroque dreams. Therefore, dreams (he had told himself) weren’t portents.

 • • • 

While part of him stayed safely locked away in the dark silence of the glass bell, the other part stood in the middle of the room, unblinking and unweeping. He did not understand how he could cut himself in half this way; perhaps this was “shock.”

Alex was almost ashamed that part of him was functioning, that half of his mind should be able to look at his mother without flinching where she lay on that armless chaise lounge, take in the swirling old pattern of its material and his mother’s dress, every fold and pleat in the black velvet and chiffon.

It was her best, her favorite dress. No jewelry. Black leather and patent shoes sitting side-by-side on the floor, as if she were about to
put them on, or had taken them off for a lie-down before going out. She must have been going out, or else why would she be wearing her black dress? Going out, or perhaps she’d had some people in. Rarely did his mother have people in.

His eye went to the little rosewood table beside the sofa that held a porcelain bowl and pitcher etched with a narrow wave of ivy, an ormolu clock and a bottle of pills.

He was used to the pills—the tranks, the Seconal, the stuff for a minor heart thing, and he saw that the level in this vial was a fourth of what it was before. But she was supposed to take two of these a day, and he hadn’t been home since Christmas. Something kept him from picking up the small bottle; instead he bent down and saw the date was the same. Same bottle, not refilled. Seconal.

He went into the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet, checked those bottles. One had been changed; the others were the same dates holding lesser amounts. His mum didn’t know it, but he kept track. There was nothing seriously wrong with her. She tended, though, to get extremely depressed.

He went back to stand where he’d been before. His other self was clamoring to get out of the bell, to rise from the safe depths of the water. Alex clamped his mouth and his eyes shut.

But not before every detail of the room was etched in his memory.

Then he picked up the phone and called an ambulance.

Name. Address. My. Mother.

 • • • 

Alex was still standing there by the telephone when the double-note of the ambulance filtered through images that flickered in his mind: his mum punching down dough for a tart crust, his mum bringing in a flat basket of wilting peonies, his mum in an old flannel dressing gown . . . a montage of little pictures, each sticking to the other, overlapping, crowding the album page in his mind, expanding infinitely until the rising-falling notes got closer, cut more clearly and must have stopped outside.

Pounding feet. Clattering doorknob. Alex didn’t move. The feet came muffled up the stairs and people—so many of them it looked as if they’d brought people to view—burst into the room, white-jacketed, sweating, bearing a stretcher, unfolding a bed. Prepared for anything.

Not meaning to rough him up, they more or less knocked him out of the way and went to work.

He went to her bed and sat down heavily, half to watch, half to think. It was an old four-poster covered with a duvet. The bed, the fainting couch, the walnut bureau had followed them in all of their moves since his father’s death, moving each time yet a little farther down the economic ladder. From the Hampstead house to the semidetached flat in Knightsbridge to the huge flat in South Kensington and here to the terraced house not far from the Lewisham Road and Blackheath Common. Beautiful pieces—an Edwardian dressing table, a mahogany breakfront, a silver service, the heavy-plated silver cutlery as well—all had been sloughed off with the former lodgings.

They had never been absolutely poor, but they had never been absolutely well-off, either.

She’d insisted, though, on always keeping the snooker table, the sort of decision that had been his mum’s own original way of judging priorities. It was during one of their games that the public school idea had been settled.

“Too expensive,” Alex had said about the one she fancied.

She’d been chalking her cue; she hadn’t even got to the table since he’d started his run. “Well, then, what about Severn School? That’s not ‘too’.”

Alex was behind the balk line, lining up the green ball. “Anything’s
Mum. We haven’t got the money.” He’d been fourteen, just.

“We could take out an equity loan. Against the house.”

That had been the Hampstead house. A fairly decent one.

“We’ve already done. I don’t mind the comprehensive.” He hadn’t, really, as long as he’d let his attention wander from the pasty-faced maths teacher, the goggle-eyed languages lady, the awful square building with its dull masonry and puce-colored paint.

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