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Authors: S. T. Haymon

The Quivering Tree

hidden talent rediscovered

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S. T. Haymon
The Quivering Tree
S T Haymon

Sylvia Theresa Haymon was born in Norwich, and is best known for her eight crime fiction novels featuring the character Inspector Ben Jurnet. Haymon also wrote two non-fiction books for children, as well as two memoirs of her childhood in East Anglia.

The Ben Jurnet series enjoyed success in both the UK and the US during Haymon's lifetime:
Ritual Murder
(1982) won the prestigious CWA Silver Dagger Award from the Crime Writers' Association.
Stately Homicide
(1984), a skilful variation on the country house mystery, was praised by the New York Times as a ‘brilliantly crafted novel of detection … stylish serious fiction', and favourably compared to the work of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Chapter One

‘Don't ring,' my brother Alfred admonished me. ‘Wait till I've brought in the rest of the stuff.'

He went back down the narrow path to the gate and out to the car. The house was built a long way back from the road, and the sound of the traffic, already distant and dreamlike, was further masked by a rustling noise which came from a large untidy tree at the side of the porch. There was no wind, and it was hard to decide what the leaves were making such a fuss about.

Alfred need not have worried about my ringing the doorbell betimes. Now that I had actually arrived at Chandos House I was in no hurry to gain entrance. On the contrary. The longer it was put off the better. I propped my school attaché case, my shoe-bag, my music case and my bundled-up tennis racquet, hockey stick and lacrosse stick against the suitcase Alfred had already deposited on the front step and moved back on to the path, to get a better look at the exterior. I didn't take a very good look in case somebody looking out of a window saw me and came to the door whilst I was unsupported by Alfred's presence.

The house was Edwardian, of less importance than, unseen, its name might have suggested, but not without a certain consequence: solid, the nearest dwellings on either side an affluent distance away. Unfortunately, my dead father had taught me, young as I was, to be an architectural snob and before darting back into the protective shadow of the porch, itself a foolish irrelevance of pseudo-Tudor held up by outsize skittles painted a turgid green, I curled up my lip at the narrow bays, the bricks no number of centuries would ever mellow, the general mean-spiritedness of the place that, incredibly, for the next two years, was to be my home. Though tears came into my eyes at the prospect, another part of me was not displeased.

How unreal my possessions looked, parked on that alien doorstep! My music case had the St Giles address tooled into the leather. My mother and I had watched it being done with red-hot dies, an advertisement of my place in the world, never to be removed. ‘Last you a lifetime,' the man who did it had promised, and my mother and I had nodded approvingly, for who could ever imagine living anywhere else? But now – St Giles? Where was that? It might as well have been on the moon. The tennis racquet, the hockey stick and the lacrosse stick had the air of ritual objects belonging to an alien cult into which I had yet to prove myself worthy of initiation. The suitcase wasn't mine, not mine particularly, that is. It was a family object, like most of the things that, up to that moment, had surrounded me, cushioning and confirming my existence. But where was the family now, apart from my father, trapped in the cemetery and deprived for ever of his armchair, his newspapers, Caruso records and all the other things that made life worth living?

Alfred came crunching up the path with my box of books, and plunked it down next to the suitcase. He wasn't looking too happy himself, but whether it was sadness at our imminent parting or because the coarse pebbles of which the path was made were scratching his beautiful brogues I couldn't tell, and he went back to unstrap my bike from the running-board of the Morris Oxford before I had time to ask. The thought of the Morris Oxford made the tears well up in earnest. After all, it wasn't as if I were parting from my brother for good. I would be seeing him from time to time, even though our relationship would be completely changed (but then, everything was changed, wasn't it – not only that), but the car, never again. Alfred had announced that he was going to turn it in for a sports model, an Alvis or a Riley or an MG, something that went better with his plus-fours and his ukelele and the girls with red lips, long cigarette-holders and bobbed hair streaming in the wind he often took along as passengers. The fact that his fiancée, Phyllis, didn't smoke and that whenever she came out in the Morris Oxford with us Alfred had to pull up every few miles so that she could get out to be sick, made me privately wonder whether I would ever be called upon to be bridesmaid at that particular wedding.

I waited on the porch, tremulously reflecting that by rights there ought to be a place where motor-cars which had served their masters well could be turned out to grass like old horses, instead of being sold down the river like so many Uncle Toms. How could the new owners, whoever they might be, be expected to learn our Morris Oxford's little ways and tolerate them, as we had, as endearing expressions of personality? How, for example, appreciate that, though the set of celluloid windscreens looked identical, in fact only a particular one fitted a particular door, and you could go blue in the face to no purpose trying to fit the ratchets of one into holes where it did not choose to go? We had always been meaning to mark the windscreens in some unmistakable way, but somehow had never got round to it, and now, as with everything else, it was too late. Anyway, with time it hadn't proved necessary, because we had come, little by little, to recognize certain intimate marks of identity, such as the stain on the one that belonged on the front passenger side where Phyllis had been sick on the black belting that surrounded the celluloid before Alfred had come to a place where it was safe to stop.

If only I were older, I thought, I could have kept the Morris Oxford myself and gone driving all over Norfolk in it, the way we had before my father died. Only, children couldn't get driving licences and though, to my way of thinking, at twelve I wasn't a child any longer (particularly as the experience of losing a parent was a very ageing thing) I wasn't a grown-up either. I wasn't anything. This doleful reflection cheered me up wonderfully, and when Alfred came back with the bicycle I was able to greet him with an encouraging smile.

‘You can always use that Cherry Blossom polish with the dye in it. I bet it'll cover up the scratches so you'd never even know they were there.'

‘What?' Alfred stared. He propped the bicycle against the privet hedge that, on one side, edged the path from the house to the road. ‘We'll have to ask where this goes.' He came back to the porch and put an arm round my shoulder. ‘Know what?' he said. ‘I'm going to miss my little sister.'

The bell was still clanging somewhere deep in the house when Miss Gosse opened her front door, which was rather unnerving, both because I wasn't used to doorbells which kept on ringing when the need for their services was patently past, and because Miss Gosse herself was such a surprise.

I knew her, of course. I'd have been pretty thick not to, considering that she had been teaching me mathematics, or trying to, for more than a year. I even prized her funny, olive-skinned face with its shiny, boot-button eyes and its snub nose as one of the alleviations of the school day; the black hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly back from her forehead into an intricately plaited knot which was more like one of those fancy bread rolls than a bun, except there weren't any poppy seeds, naturally.

My new landlady's head, then, presented no problem: it was the rest of her. In school, like all the other mistresses, Miss Gosse wore her black college gown, such a soaring symbol of authority as it billowed along the corridors that one scarcely noticed the body beneath, unless it was as big as a barge like the body of Mrs Crail, the headmistress. I knew Miss Gosse was short – not much taller than myself, I now discovered, so greatly had I sprung up in the half-term I had been away from school – but until the moment I entered Chandos House for the first time and saw her in a blouse and skirt, no gown, no dignity, I had never noticed that her sturdy little legs were much too short for her sturdy little body, almost dwarfish.

As one who, not out of vanity and without giving a lot of thought to it, had always taken it for granted that I would grow up beautiful, because beautiful was the best thing to be and only the best was going to happen to me, I felt a stab of fear to see Miss Gosse the way she was. Not that I was afraid short legs were catching, nothing silly like that; only that they proved you could never be sure. For all I knew, Miss Gosse had never wanted to be a maths mistress at all, but a chorus girl with lovely long legs that went far up her thighs, and look what she had been landed with instead.

At school we – that is, the other girls in my form and I – often filled in dull moments with arguing as to whether Miss Gosse looked more like a Pekinese than she did a King Charles spaniel, or vice versa. Sometimes, just to stir things up, I would maintain that it was a pug of whom she was the spitting image. In my heart, however, I was a King Charles man through and through. At St Giles we had briefly had a King Charles spaniel puppy whom I had loved passionately in the short time before it had dashed out into the street and been run over by a tram. There were times, during maths, as I sat trying to take in parallelograms or quadratic equations or whatever was the flavour of the day, when Miss Gosse, standing in front of the blackboard with a stump of chalk in her hand, would turn her head in a certain way, and instantly grief for the lost puppy would overwhelm me, so close was the resemblance between her and my darling Tirri.

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