Friday, 18 May 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Thirteen


“I may be marrying your father, Pip, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever try to take him away from you. You do believe me, don’t you?”
“You couldn’t anyway,” said young Pip with that infuriating smile that always made Nina Fox want to scream; it wasn’t quite a smirk, but might as well have been.
What do I have to do to make you like me? Nina wanted to scream at the girl, but restrained herself. After a year, she still couldn’t work out what made Nathan’s daughter tick. It was not as if the fourteen-year-old was openly hostile towards her. On the face of it, she was all smiles and anxious to please. No one would suspect, even to look at her now, that she harboured any ill feeling towards her father’s new fiancée. So why, Nina asked herself for the umpteenth time, did she always feel so uncomfortable whenever she found herself alone with Pip? In her father’s presence she was a different person altogether. In Nina’s company she was…but the actress had no words to describe how the girl gave her goose pimples and invariably made her wish she was some place else. “I have to collect a few things from the flat later. Perhaps you’d like to come with me?”
She expected Pip to politely refuse, as she usually did, and was somewhat put out when the girl asked, “Will Sammy be there?”
Nina felt her cheeks burning as she nodded, “I expect so.”
“You haven’t had him put down yet then.” It was not a question.
Nina bristled. “Sammy is my cat and my responsibility, no one else’s.” The girl merely shrugged. “I can’t help it if your father is allergic to animal fur can I?  Okay, I promised to have Sammy put down because he’s old and I couldn’t bear to give him away and I will. But in my own good time, alright?”
“Today…? Will you take him to the vet today?”
“I might.” Nina conceded, inwardly seething.
“In that case, I’ll come with you for moral support. I know Daddy would want me to. So when do we leave?”
“In about ten minutes,” said Nina lightly, calling upon all her reserves of patience not to storm out of the room as she left at a steady pace, quietly closed the door behind her and resisted an impulse to scream. Once inside the bedroom she now shared with Nathan, she leaned against the door and muttered a string of oaths. How had Pip found out about the cat, she wondered?  Nathan had been adamant about her getting rid of it while she, Nina, had been equally determined to keep her beloved Sammy. A friend, Ray Bannister, who lived in the upstairs flat, had promised to feed and generally keep an eye on the cat. She took every opportunity to visit whenever she had a spare moment, especially if Nathan happened to be out of town on business. Pip, a very self-contained child, had always chosen to do her own thing on such occasions, preferring to watch TV or a video, play computer games or get on with some homework, a task at which she was particularly diligent.
“She has her father’s brains,” Nathan would joke, “Nothing less than Oxford for my girl.”
Nina, for one, couldn’t wait. Oh, she felt sorry for the child, of course she did. but…“Oh well, what’s the use?” she muttered aloud and crossed to a dressing table where she  told the troubled looking face in a handsome oval mirror, “I’ll just have to make the best of a bad job, as usual.”  She let her gaze wander critically around the room. The décor was not to her taste although there was no denying its antique furnishings were impressive if a trifle incongruous in a small semi-detached house on a nondescript street. But Pip had helped her father choose everything in the house and neither was receptive to any changes she, Nina, felt inclined to propose.
Glad that she had moved in with Nathan, she nevertheless had no intention of staying in this house longer than proved necessary. Once they were married, she had long since decided, they would move. She hated this house, not least because she was prevented from making it hers. It belonged to Nathan and Pip. Their presence was everywhere. Sometimes she felt almost suffocated by their closeness. It bothered her a lot because she loved Nathan Sparrow very much, and this overwhelming antipathy towards the house seemed like a betrayal.  She blamed Pip, without quite knowing why. It was, after all, only natural that father and daughter should be so close, especially given all that had happened. Even so, Pip must learn to take second place in her father’s affections. Nina sighed. While in no doubt that she could win Nathan round to her point of view, she was equally sure that Pip’s co-operation would require some very careful stage managing.
They arrived at the Brixton flat about lunchtime. It was Pip’s first visit. She knew her father was keen for Nina to sell the flat and was hurt that she hadn’t already done so. He saw it as a lack of commitment on her part and she, Pip, had to agree. Nina wants a bolthole, a safeguard in case her relationship with Daddy doesn’t work out as planned.  Pip frowned and kept reassuring herself that it wouldn’t. No way, not if I can help it.
Nina drove them in her own car, not least because Pip was always commenting on the unnecessary expense of her taking taxis everywhere. Pip looked out of the window, saying nothing and observing little of the shabby, cluttered, urban landscape through which they passed. For the first time in ages, the girl’s thoughts returned to the fire. They waited at traffic lights for a woman to cross the road. She was holding a young boy by the hand. Pip watched them reach the pavement. The boy pushed a battered front gate. A few minutes later, the pair entered a semi-detached house whose cracked windowsills and red brick walls exuded poverty. As a dull, badly scratched front door closed behind them, it seemed to smoulder in front of her eyes and burst into flames. Nor did the illusion vanish once Nina drove off.  She was back at the old house; now in the street, watching the fire take hold, now back inside… striking a match and staring, vaguely surprised, at the subsequent flame.
She’d had to do it of course. Her mother and brother were destroying her father with their incessant demands for attention, Johnny especially. Sometimes she adored her brother. Mostly, she hated him. Why? She often asked herself that. The answer, in the end, was always the same. No matter what excuses she found or allowances she tried to make, she could not forgive him for being her mother’s natural child while she…She had to live with the fact that she was adopted. Her father and Johnny were flesh and blood. Her mother…But she didn’t care to think too much about her mother.
She had been on a school trip to the Natural History Museum that fateful day and arrived home bursting to tell her mother and Johnny all about it. Her father was away on business so she would save her extra special memories of the museum for his return. Even so, there had been lots she couldn’t wait to tell, especially about seeing the dinosaurs. She was already chattering away as she entered the living room with her mother and brother only to stop in mid-sentence as something struck her as strange. Something was wrong. For an instant, she couldn’t put her finger on it. Then she saw it, a huge cream coloured leather armchair where her father’s old rocking chair should have been. She turned on her mother, eyes blazing. “Where’s Daddy’s rocking chair?”
“It was practically falling to bits, darling,” her mother had responded with a nervous laugh. “So Johnny and I went out and bought him a new chair. Do you like it?”
“I hate it! Daddy will too. He loved that rocking chair.”
“He’ll love this one even better,” her mother had insisted with a certainty that inflamed young Pip’s anger all the more.
“No he won’t, he’ll hate it. It’s ugly and…horrible!” She went to the chair and lashed out at it with her foot.
“Stop that, Pip. Now you’re being silly!” Jane Sparrow had snapped, and then tried another tack. “Try it darling. It’s so comfortable. Daddy will love it, you’ll see.”
“He won’t,” the child yelled, “He won’t!” and started to cry.
“You’re only jealous because I bought it for him and you didn’t,” said Johnny.
“It’s a present from all of us,” his mother hastily corrected him.
“Where’s the old chair?” Pip wanted to know.
“The delivery men took it away. It was only any good for firewood. I’m just thankful they didn’t charge for getting rid of the wretched thing. It was an eyesore, Pip. Even you can see that, surely?”
“It was a lovely chair. Besides, it belonged to Grandpa and Daddy would never, ever, have wanted to get rid of it. I hate you, I hate you!” she screamed at her mother.
“Now your being silly…” Jane Sparrow protested.
“My Daddy will love the chair,” said Johnny, “He will, he will, he will!”
“What would you know about it?” Pip sneered, “You’re just a silly little boy no one really wants. Mummy and Daddy chose me. You just happened along and no one had any say in it at all, worse luck,” she added malevolently.
“Pip!” her mother exclaimed in horror.
“At least they’re my real parents, not yours,” shouted the boy, “...and my daddy will be glad to see that back of that old rocking chair, he’s always saying so.”
“Children, stop it. Pip, tell Johnny you’re sorry for what you said. You say sorry, too, Johnny.”
“I won’t!” both children cried simultaneously.
“Then you can go to your rooms, the pair of you, and don’t come downstairs until you’re ready to apologize to me and to each other for you appalling behaviour.”
“I’m sorry mummy,” Johnny whined, throwing both arms around his mother’s waist in floods of tears.
Jane Sparrow automatically hugged her blond, blue-eyed son. This was the last straw for Pip who stomped out of the room in high dudgeon, successful fighting off tears of anger, hurt and frustration only until she reached the sanctuary of her bedroom. Nor did she go downstairs for the rest of that evening but nursed a growing rage until she could bear it no longer.
It was late. Her mother would be in bed by now, Johnny too. She had refused to reply to her mother’s tap on the door nor rushed to unlock it as she saw the handle move slowly forward. A piled carpet had drowned the sound of her mother’s footsteps but she imagined them stopping outside Johnny’s room, entering, her mother planting a goodnight kiss on the sleeping child’s cheek. She would never know that Jane Sparrow, still upset after the incident earlier, had been desperate to make her peace with both children, any more than Jane herself would ever know that Johnny had feigned sleep or that Billy Pike, the boy next door, was hiding under his best friend’s bed.
A thirst had come upon young Pip and she tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen with no other intention than getting a drink of water. She turned on the tap, took a cup from a cupboard over the sink and drank.  It was then that she spotted a packet of ten cigarettes and matches on a shelf. “That didn’t last long,” she retorted with reference to her mother’s recently avowed intention to give up smoking. She drained the glass, dropped it in a bowl of soapy water and would have returned to her room. It was then a weird compulsion she neither quite understood nor could resist came over her. She had to stretch to reach the two items on the shelf but finally succeeded.
Matches in one hand, cigarettes in the other, she had stared at them until she could no longer see them, only a monstrous green dragon exhaling billows of smoke and tongues of flame. In terror, she tried to flee the dragon but it followed her into the living room. Suddenly the new armchair that had resulted in such painful exchanges earlier burst into flame. As if hypnotized, she watched the flames rise and spread. At first, she could not hear or feel a thing. It was much like watching a video. Only, there was no pause or stop button available. The fire began noisily fast-forwarding of its own volition. Heat, smoke and a terrible roaring sound brought her back to reality with a sickening lurch of the stomach. She ran to the kitchen door, slammed it shut behind her and laid her whole weight against it. But it was a powerful dragon. Hadn’t she seen it with her own eyes?  She had run into the garden, along the side of the house and into the street. It struck her that she should…what?  Who, in Spencer Street, could tackle a dragon that size and win? Not Mummy or Johnny, that’s for sure.
A huge sense of relief had come over her and she’d felt quite light-headed. Thank goodness Daddy was not in the house. As for her mother and brother, what did she care about them?
She had stood and watched the house burn, scarcely aware of a new cacophony of raised voices, sirens all around her and well-meaning hands gently leading her away from the scene. All she could properly grasp was that the dragon continued to wreak its destruction, a roaring in her ears offset only by a rising exultation that her father was safe and that she was now all he had to look after him.
A sudden jerk on her seat belt returned Pip to the present. Dismissing the dragon as sheer fairy tale, she hid a smile behind the back of her hand and pretended to stifle a sneeze.
“Don’t you dare go down with a cold,” Nina wailed, “The last thing I need at the moment is a bloody cold!”
Both climbed out of the car. Pip was still on the passenger side when a door opened and a tall young man with a mop of auburn curls ran down the steps of a tall building and embraced Nina warmly. They hugged each other, laughing, like old friends. Pip watched in wide-eyed disbelief. There was an unmistakeable air of intimacy about the couple that made her hackles soar. How dare Nina betray her father like this? Worse, these two were carrying on like a pair of reunited lovers, in full view of twitching curtains, with neither a trace of self-consciousness or shame?
Pop had barely recovered from the shock of this revelation when she suffered another of an altogether different kind.  She had emerged from the car now, and could see more clearly. “Ray!” she shouted excitedly, “Ray Bannister!”
“Why, now, if it isn’t little Pip!”  The young man became aware of her presence for the first time, and it was Nina’s turn to watch in astonishment as Pip Sparrow ran to the pavement and flung herself at him.
“I never dreamed Nina’s upstairs neighbour was you!” the girl cried, both arms around Ray Bannister’s neck. She turned accusingly at Nina. “You never told me you knew Ray.”
“You never asked,” Nina retorted with a surge of irrational anger and struggling to regain her composure. She had seen the look in Pip’s eyes before she recognized Ray. Heaven only knew what the girl would report back to Nathan. Report back, though, she certainly would as Pip always did whenever  she and Nathan spent any time together.
Once inside, Nina learned that Ray and Pip had been next-door neighbours at the time of the fire. “You should have told me,” the child kept saying with petulant, almost vicious looks.
“I didn’t know,” was all Nina could say. It was true. On reflection, she realized that she had only ever mentioned Ray’s first name to either Nathan or Pip. There had been no reason for her to do otherwise. Now she fervently wished she had left the spoilt little brat at home.
“My parents still live there,” Ray was telling Pip, “but I bought this place after I left university. An aunt died and left me a packet,” he explained with a grin. “It was a massive stroke of luck, I can tell you, especially as I was broke at the time…” he went on.
Nina left them to it and went in search of Sammy. The cat must have heard or sensed her presence because it appeared on a windowsill as soon as she entered the kitchen, leapt a little unsteadily on to the table and waited to be scooped up in her arms where it lay, purring incessantly. For his age, Nina reminded herself, Sammy was a remarkably active cat still. No way would she entertain the idea of having him put down. Besides, she was convinced that Nathan’s allergy was only an excuse. The way he saw it, she only kept the flat on for Sammy’s sake. It followed therefore, he reasoned, that if she got rid of the damn cat, she would also get rid of the flat. “Well, you can think again Nathan Sparrow,” she murmured, and laid a fond cheek against the moggie’s sleek, well-groomed flank. Later, she must thank Ray again for taking such good care of Sammy.  She looked on the cat as, among other things, a lucky mascot. On the same day a friend had given her the tiny kitten, she had won the part of April Divine in April Showers, her first major TV break. She sighed. The current series had been getting mixed reviews lately. Having slipped disastrously in the ratings, its future was not, to say the least, looking as rosy as everyone had first predicted.
Putting the cat down on its favourite chair, Nina proceeded to look out three mugs, pour some milk Ray had thoughtfully left in the fridge into a small jug and grab a somewhat battered biscuit tin from a wall cupboard before making a pot of tea and carrying it through to the other room on a tray. She loved freshly made tea while Nathan actually preferred tea bags.
“I don’t want tea,” declared Pip scornfully, “You know I prefer juice.”
“There isn’t any so it’s tea or go without,” Nina returned coolly, choosing to ignore Ray’s amused glance.
“Then I’ll have a glass of water instead,” said Pip.
“By all means, help yourself. The kitchen is through there,” Nina pointed the way she had come.
“I will,” returned the girl with a stubborn thrust of the jaw, and left the room.
“I had no idea!” Nina exclaimed, almost apologetically, to her old friend.
“You never talk about Nathan or Pip to me,” he said quietly and she wondered if it was an accusation.
“I come here to get away from all that,” she said without thinking.
“But you’re marrying the guy…” Ray Bannister reminded her.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Nina added, blushing, “I simply meant I have such happy memories of this place and Nathan doesn’t feature in any of them. It’s always been a bolthole for me, away from press, fans, everything and everyone who sees me as fair game.”
“And Nathan Sparrow doesn’t?”
“We love each other.”
“So why do you hang on to the flat if not for insurance?”
“You know why. I can’t throw poor Sammy out on the street. Besides…” She grinned. “…it’s an excuse to see you too.”
“You don’t need an excuse for that and well you know it.” He got up from his chair, crossed to hers, gave her a hug and was planting a kiss on her forehead just as Pip re-entered the room.
“Don’t mind me,” the child said peevishly before resuming her seat then proceeded to deal Sammy, who had leapt on to the chair arm, a hefty push that sent him flying. The cat landed on the floor adroitly enough, albeit mewing furiously.
“How could you?” demanded Nina as she scooped up the distressed animal in her arms.
“I might ask you the same question,” the girl replied cheerfully, treating Nina and Ray Bannister alike to a look that, in spite of a surface child-like blandness, still managed to convey a knowing, almost sinister air. Not for the first time, Nina had to remind herself that Pip was still only a child or she would have taken great pleasure in slapping her. Instead, she chose yet again to grit her teeth and say nothing.
Seeking beyond the girl’s dimpled cheek that would have made most girls look pretty, but didn’t quite manage it in Pip’s case, Nina found what she feared most. In eyes so resembling Nathan Sparrow’s that it seemed barely credible to her that Pip was adopted, she glimpsed and thought she understood the same threat that had hung between them since their very first meeting. True, it was a threat so far left unspoken, but one that both woman and child alike had increasingly if surreptitiously acknowledged to themselves and to each other.
Nina felt her blood run cold.  She had long since given up hoping that she and Pip could ever be bosom friends, but neither had she thought of the child as her enemy. Now it struck her forcibly that she had gravely misjudged young Pip. The girl was dangerous.
Almost at once, Nina pushed the thought aside. What could she possibly have to fear from the girl?  Pip could and probably would continue her efforts to drive a wedge between herself and Nathan.  It’s only to be expected, she and Nathan being so close? But she’s only a child, after all. As for being dangerous...Jealous, yes, but dangerous...? Oh, but I dare say I’m being more than a teeny bit melodramatic.
As if to confirm that last suspicion, Pip flung her a disarming smile. Nina gave an audible sigh of relief. It even crossed her mind that she might yet establish a bond of sorts with Nathan’s strange daughter.

To be continued on Monday