Monday, 25 November 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 16


“You bitch!” Ruth Temple shouted at the computer after reading the latest e-mail from Sarah Manners expressing “deep regret” for her past actions, especially regarding poor James. How was I to know he’d still be carrying a torch for me after all these years? Ruth read with dismay.
So it was the same woman.
Never in her life had Ruth exhibited the slightest tendency to violence until now. I could kill her. I could kill her, she fumed. Uncharacteristically, she poured herself a generous gin and tonic. “Poor James,”.she murmured tearfully, “Poor, poor James. Who knows what his state of mind must have been as he drove along the cliff road that night? Yet, she doubted very much whether he’d have been suicidal. He would gave been distressed, yes. Enough even, perhaps, to get careless? But, no, she could not and would not believe it.
She had tried calling the number Daz Horton gave her at Liam Brady’s memorial service (how could you call it a funeral when there was no body?) but Sarah was never available. It had been she, Ruth, who suggested Sarah might e-mail her. Now they came regularly, a few lines taking up next to no space on the screen, that said little and gave away even less...until now. This was the first time Sarah had referred directly to James Morrissey in spite of Ruth’s raising the subject every time she replied. Even now, though, Sarah went into no detail and barely referred to the past. It was almost as if, Ruth increasingly had the feeling, Sarah had no past.  Certainly, she had no wish to be reminded of it. “Not that anyone could be surprised by that,” she told a disgruntled looking Pekinese that promptly jumped into her lap and nearly spilled the few drops left in her glass over the armchair. 
     Absently stroking the dog for a while, Ruth’s nerves became marginally less frayed and she decided to invite Carol Brady over for tea that very week. She had asked her several times already but the woman always declined with one unlikely excuse or another. It was infuriating. She was only trying to be friendly, after all, and make some amends for being responsible for Liam’s initial trip to Monk’s Tallow. Of course, the woman could be shy. But, no, that could not be it surely?  Brassy types like Carol Brady were anything but wallflowers if she, Ruth Temple, were any judge of character.
     She dismissed the Pekinese in no uncertain terms whereupon it jumped from her lap with a loud yelp, digging its claws into her knee to show its displeasure. Ruth went into the hallway and dialled Carol Brady’s number.
     “Hello,” said a sluggish voice at the other end of the line.
     “Carol? It’s Ruth, Ruth Temple. I was wondering if you would like to come over for a meal one evening or just a cup of tea and a chat if you’d rather. It’s up to you so just say when. I know how hard it is being on your own, especially after a sudden bereavement. I was like a lost soul after poor James died. We were very close, you see, even though he’d been in Canada all those years...”
     Carol sipped at a large whiskey and let the other woman rabbit on. She disliked Ruth Temple. It had nothing to do with Liam. She couldn’t stand the type and knew for a fact that different circumstances would not have changed a thing.
     “I’d also appreciate having your impression of Sarah Manners. You met her once, my niece tells me. Sarah and I knew each other many years ago...”
     Carol took another, longer sip. She knew the tale. Julie Simpson had filled her in more than once. Both had hoped Liam would fill in the gaps, and there were plenty. But he had always been tight-lipped, even surly, at the mere mention of Sarah’s name, an attitude that only served to reinforce his mother’s suspicions that he and the older woman were having an affair.
     It crossed Carol’s mind that perhaps it mightn’t be such a bad idea to go and see Ruth, after all.  Where was the harm? It might even get Julie’s Auntie off her back once and for all. Reluctantly, she found herself won over to the idea, especially if it meant getting more dirt on Sarah. She drained her glass, painfully aware that the Manners woman badly needed exorcising from her mind. “Tomorrow evening about seven but don’t go to any trouble. Will that suit you?”
     “That will suit me very well,” said Ruth and sounded genuinely pleased.
     “Sorry, must dash. See you at seven. Bye.” Carol replaced the receiver, had a change of heart and almost picked it up again. “No, damn it, I’ll go. Forewarned is forearmed,” she told the cat that had been brushing against her leg and now leapt on the directory next to the telephone. The cat looked as surprised as she did. Until that moment she hadn’t consciously thought about going down to Monk’s Tallow and having it out with Sarah Manners although quite what “it” might involve she hadn’t a clue.
     Ruth Temple, Carol had to say, laid on a good spread. It was all very simple, comprising salad, cold chicken and new boiled potatoes. But there was plenty of it and the table looked as cheerful as it did colourful. Ruth herself was on good form and Carol was so relieved that she talked like a normal person for once instead of constantly whining all the time, chiefly about “poor Liam” or “poor James.” They cropped up in conversation of course, all the time, but the heavy sense of self-blame and unimaginable loss was more subdued than usual, grating marginally less on Carol’s nerves than during their previous conversations.
    “Sarah can’t face me, and can you wonder why?  She won’t even come to the phone. Suddenly she’s sending me e-mails although heaven knows why she bothers.  Not once has she ever said sorry, not once. She always was a little madam, of course. I must say I’m surprised she settled in the country though.  Oh, I knew she was getting fed-up with London but doesn’t everyone?  It passes. Once London has its claws into you, you’re hooked whether you like it or not, don’t you find?”
     Carol nodded, slightly bored but enjoying the light, tasty meal. “I couldn’t wait to get out of London and couldn’t wait to get back,” she had to admit.
     “If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be a wealthy woman,” Ruth laughed. 
     “She must think she’s cracked a joke or something,” Carol mused and was slightly flummoxed but kept smiling politely while her hostess emitted a series of peculiar giggles for several minutes. “I bet she’s had a few drinks,” was her wry summing up of the woman across the table although her expression gave nothing away. Far from disapproving, Carol almost warmed to her companion. “Good for you, you daft cow!” was her final verdict.
     Later, disregarding Carol’s offer to help clear everything away and wash up, Ruth showed her guest into the lounge and revealed a predilection for gin and tonic.
     “A large scotch will do me nicely thanks,” said Carol and wished the woman would hurry up and get on with whatever it was she had been leading up to all evening. She did not have to wait long.
     “How did you find Sarah? I mean, how did she seem? Did she strike you as happy, sad, bitter...?”
     “Why bitter?” Carol was curious.
     “The picture I have of Monk’s Tallow is that it’s no place for a girl like Sarah. Oh, for a while, perhaps, but for twenty years?  I think not. She was never a country girl, even at heart. No, whatever - or whoever - has kept her there all these years must be quite something…or someone, as the case may be.”
     “I didn’t like her one bit.” Carol was frank.
     “Few women did,” said her companion, “Men though, well, she could have had any man she wanted. But, oh no, she had to have mine. Poor James never stood a chance. It should have been a blessed relief when she walked out of our lives the way she did. But James never got over her, ever. He adored her, you see. Men did. They adored her, worshipped her. As for love, well, it never got a look in.”
     “She certainly doesn’t sound like your average librarian,” commented Carol dryly.
     “She was a witch, I tell you, a witch.”
    “She certainly had my Liam under some kind of spell, damn it.” Carol reached for a bottle of whiskey on the table, remembered she wasn’t at home and glanced at Ruth.
     “By all means, help yourself…” Ruth assured her guest.
     Carol refilled her glass and pretended not to notice the empty bottle of tonic water as the other woman proceeded to add more gin to her own. She’s knocking it back as if it were lemonade. Observing her hostess with a mixture of concern and amusement, she continued to smile politely.
     It crossed Ruth Temple’s mind that she was making a fool of herself. So what if I am. she asked herself, Who cares, anyway? It hurt to think she might be emulating the likes of the Brady woman but at least she could be certain that her guest would not judge her harshly. Lately, she had come to realize what a comfort alcohol could be and it felt good to be drinking in company. There was, she had always thought, something very sad about a person drinking alone.
     “I’ve only met Sarah once,” Carol was saying, “I’d gone down to Monk’s Tallow for the day and she joined Liam and me for lunch. Well, not lunch exactly as it turned out. Something had gone wrong in the kitchen so we had to make do with crisps and peanuts.   I can’t say as I took to the woman at all. She practically ignored me the whole time. It was as if she wanted to show me that she had Liam eating out of her hand and I could take it or leave it. She could have choked on her bloody peanuts for all I cared.  And Liam didn’t even seem to notice. Or if he did, he didn’t care. I could have killed the woman, I really could.”
     “Sarah always did have that effect on people, especially women,” said Ruth but with a vague, distracted air as if her thoughts were elsewhere. Suddenly she shook her head, smiled and put Carol in mind of Alice waking up after her adventures in Wonderland. “Sorry, you were saying...oh, but...” becoming agitated. Before Carol could ask what was wrong, the telephone rang and Ruth went to answer it, shaking her head again and muttering crossly to herself. She was not gone long but by the time she returned, Carol was already on her feet. “You’re not going already?”
     “I'm afraid I must. It has been a very pleasant evening, thank you.”
     “We must do it again soon.”
     Carol shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound rude. But you never knew my Liam and, frankly, it pisses me off to hear you going on about him as if you did. So he and your niece were mates, so what? How would you like it if I went on about Julie as if she was my daughter?”
“I didn’t mean...”
“I know,” said Carol not unkindly, “But I can’t help the way I feel so let’s just leave it at that, shall we? I’ll see myself out,” gasping the last few words so breathlessly and in such a rush that she all but stumbled over them and practically ran out of the house.        
Carol knew that she being irrational and behaving badly. But she couldn’t help herself. Suddenly she just had to get away…from Ruth, Sarah, James, Julie...even Liam. It was as if Ruth Temple had summoned them and they were all there, in that awful, barely lived-in little room, crowding her.  She had some difficulty opening the gate at the end of the path and began to feel unreasonably angry.
“Mrs Brady, wait!” 
Carol swung round to see Ruth Temple running towards her. All she wanted to do was escape. But damn gate wouldn’t budge. “Shit!” she yelled and tried to break free when Ruth grabbed her arm. “What was that about peanuts? You said something about peanuts. Lunch, said something about Sarah eating peanuts. I didn’t quite catch it at the time but now I remember. Sarah doesn’t eat peanuts,” she jabbered on...
“Maybe she didn’t when you knew her but she certainly does now,” retorted Carol and finally succeeded in wrenching open the gate with one hand while tugging the other free of the other woman’s grip. “Now, LEAVE ME ALONE.” She ran towards the car but had to fumble with the keys for several minutes, hands shaking, before opening the door and tumbling, thankfully, inside. Panting, both hands gripping the wheel, she looked in the mirror and was relieved to see the Temple woman walk slowly back up the path and into the house. This is stupid, she told herself crossly. But it was some time before she felt confident enough to drive away.
Ruth Temple shut the door and rushed to pour herself another gin before her legs gave way completely. “It can’t be Sarah, it just can’t be,” she kept telling herself and the sound of her own voice, albeit agitated, had a calming effect.  The doorbell rang. At first she thought it might be Carol Brady and her heart leapt. The wretched woman must have been listening after all and had returned to discuss things.  But, no, that was unlikely. Carol couldn’t wait to get away. You must make allowances Ruth, she told herself, The poor woman has lost her son, for heaven’s sake. Hardly surprising then that she should get into such a state... She got up and hurried to the front door, drink in hand. 
Recognizing the outline behind the frosted glass panels, it came as no surprise to find her next-door neighbour on the doorstep wearing an anxiously inquisitive expression. “Audrey, do come in!”  She was feeling far too distressed to talk and would have liked to tell Audrey Ellis to come back later.  But an immediate need for company outweighed any reservations Ruth might have about trying to put her confused thoughts and fears into words. “Come in,” she repeated and showed her old friend into the lounge.  This act alone warned Audrey something was wrong since the pair always liked to chat in the kitchen over endless cups of tea. “Would you like a dirnk? I know you don’t drink, and nor do I usually, but....” she poured herself another gin.
“I’ll join you in a small one,” said her friend, “Only a very small one, mind, with a little tonic water. Whatever is the matter Ruth? Has that Brady woman upset you? You really mustn’t keep blaming yourself for young Liam’s death.  It could have happened anywhere at any time. It’s not even as if you asked him go down to Monk’s Tallow to fetch poor Mr Morrissey’s things. He offered. Of course she’s upset, she’s his mother, but it’s not fair to blame you. Accidents happen, for heaven’s sake...”
But Ruth was not listening. “She doesn’t eat nuts, Audrey. She doesn’t eat nuts. It doesn’t make any sense...” she broke in and tried to explain.
“I’m not surprised. It would drive anyone nuts to be blamed for someone’s death like that. It’s too bad of Carol Brady, it really is...”
Ruth heaved s sigh of impatience. She might as well talk to a brick wall as attempt any conversation with Audrey without her hearing aid switched on. Normally, she would gesture for her friend to do just that. But she couldn’t be bothered. Suddenly, she felt quite exhausted. She sat down on the edge of an armchair and burst into tears. Audrey got up and came to comfort her. It was a good feeling to have someone put both arms around her and talk sympathetically, even if she could not make out a word.
 Ruth began to relax. “I’m sorry,” she said at last, reaching for a tissue. “I’m being silly, I know I am. It’s just that...” she began, lost her thread and had to start again, “But I suppose they might have found a cure by now. It was over twenty years ago, after all…” she droned on.
Audrey strained to hear, suddenly realised she hadn’t turned her hearing aid on and reached for the little switch behind her right ear. Nothing happened, no burst of clarity.  It must need a new battery, “Oh dear!” But that did not matter now. She must do her best to comfort poor Ruth. It crossed her mind that she would give Carol Brady a piece of her mind and no mistake should the opportunity ever present itself.
“I’m all right now, Audrey, really I am. I think I’ll have an early night.”
Audrey took the hint and left, promising to drop by as soon as she returned from staying with her daughter for a few days. “I can always cancel if you like?” she offered, “I don’t like leaving you like this.”
I’ll be fine,” Ruth reassured her and even managed a smile. “Go and enjoy yourself and we’ll have a long chat about things when you get back.”
The next day, Ruth had an unexpected visitor.
“Hello again Miss Temple,” Daz Horton beamed as she opened the door to him with a look of frank mistrust. “May I have a word?” She hesitated then showed him in to a small lounge at the front of the house. “I would have telephoned but I forgot your number,” he said apologetically and sat down in one of the twin armchairs without being asked.
“I’m in the telephone directory.” Her response was cool.
“I was in the area so...” His smile had not let up a fraction and did nothing to put Ruth at her ease. “I couldn’t cadge a tipple, I suppose?” He glanced meaningfully at several bottles left on a coffee table.
“Help yourself.” He did not need to be told twice. “I think I’ll join you. Mine’s a gin and tonic.”  She watched as he poured, expertly, so completely at home in her house that she found herself fighting off waves of resentment. “And how is dear Sarah?” she asked.
Something in Ruth Temple’s tone warned Horton to proceed with caution. “She’s fine and sends her regards.”
“It’s high time we put aside our differences,” Ruth told him, “What happened between us for so long ago. I’m sure Sarah had good reason for her disappearing act. In fact, I thought it would be nice if I came down to Monk’s Tallow for the day soon. We’ve put things off far too long already. Sarah can meet me for lunch and we can chat about old times.”
     “She’d love that,” Horton agreed, his mind racing. Something had to be done...but what?
     “What’s wrong with right now? I have the car. Get yourself ready and I’ll gladly drive you. I’ll ring Sarah and she can get the spare room ready for you. I know she’ll be thrilled.” 
    “Oh, but I didn’t have in mind to come quite this very minute.” Ruth gave a nervous laugh and took several sips in quick succession from her glass.
     “Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?” Horton put to her.
      Her mind in something of a gin induced fog (she really should not touch alcohol so why did she persist?) his words leapt out at her like a challenge. It became clear what she must do. “Alright, I will. But I was about to have bath. Do you mind waiting a short while?”
     “Take all the time you need. There’s no rush,” Horton assured her.
     It was while listening to the muffled sound of a bath running that the idea came to him. Hadn’t he said so himself? Why put off until tomorrow what could just as easily be done today?
     Ruth Temple lay in the bath facing the window nursing a splitting headache for which she admonished herself severely. She had only herself to blame, after all. At the same time, there could be no disputing that her over-indulgence of alcohol during the past twenty-four hours had achieved the desired effect. While she may be a bag of nerves, at least she felt up to facing Sarah Manners whatever the consequences.
     Ruth shook her head, trying to empty it of Sarah Manners but might as well have cut it off.  It has to be her, of course…Well, doesn't it?  But suppose...just isn't?  Yet, that was absurd and did not bear thinking about. So why can I think of little else? All night, she had tossed and turned in her bed...thinking, remembering, wondering...dismissing everything and trying to sleep...only for it to start up all over endless chain of macabre speculation that owed more to one of the crime novels of which Audrey Ellis was so fond than any basis in reality.
     She closed her eyes, let the warm water and lavender scented soap bubbles comfort and reassure. She did not hear the door open. No sixth sense came to her rescue. The first hint of something wrong came when something pressed down on her head and she sank into the water.  Two hands, she realised with only mild shock at first, were holding her down without even exerting much force. By the time she began to panic it was already too late. Her limbs adamantly refused to obey any of the frantic instructions issuing from her brain. Someone is drowning me. It was her last conscious thought.
Terror drained away. In it place, nothing...not even the peace of mind she had so desperately been seeking.

To be continued