Sunday, 9 February 2014

Robbery, Murder and Cups of Tea - Chapters 1 and 2

The Detective

In a small English village, one inhabitant was planning an unlikely career change.
‘I think I might become a private detective,’ said Ray.
He sipped his tea and waited for a response.
None came.
Laura appeared to be ignoring him, which was not unusual. She was watching a foreign film, possibly French, with English subtitles. A man was standing on a bridge at night. At least it seemed to be at night; in black and white it was hard to tell. One thing was certain - it was raining. Or the television was broken. He assumed the man was in a suicidal mood and was contemplating jumping into the water below. It looked a long way down, and he wondered how far you could fall into water and still survive. It probably depended on the position of your body on impact. Face-first could be disastrous, even off a very small bridge, especially if the water was shallower than expected. He would check on the Internet later.
Despite his wife’s indifference, he decided to continue talking, mostly because he wanted to share his ideas with someone, even if they were not listening.
‘I thought it could be a way to make some extra money,’ he said. ‘Not a fortune, but just a few pounds. Although, thinking about it, private detectives must get paid a fair amount of money, depending on their success rates. Sherlock Holmes always seemed rich. Although, he might have been rich before he began detecting. I suppose that does seem likely. Anyway, money isn’t everything. I could do small cases at first. Finding lost wallets. Or children. That sort of thing.’
Laura bit into an apple and Ray realised for the first time that she was crying. She wiped her eyes with a tissue from the box she kept beside her. It was a box which had to be replaced frequently, as she often cried during films. Ray had tried to encourage her to watch less emotional ones. ‘No one cries during Alien,’ he had said, but she had ignored him as always. She seemed to like crying at the television, but not at real life - she never cried at real life. Even at funerals. Or when chopping onions. Ray cried uncontrollably at both.
On screen the man decided against a watery grave and walked into the darkness accompanied by orchestral music. Ray wondered how different his life would be if he was accompanied by music throughout his daily routine. Walking to the pub would be more dramatic with Wagner. Stacking shelves would be quicker with Metallica.
‘I was just thinking it could be a bit of a hobby. Make the evenings more interesting. Probably just be out for a couple of hours after dinner. You would barely miss me. You might even prefer it.’
She would definitely prefer it, he was sure of that. Being married involved even less communication than he had imagined. He wondered how long it would be before they spent their evenings in separate rooms. Or houses.
Laura sat with her legs hanging over the arm of the sofa. She wore a cream, silk dressing gown and her skin was still pink from the bathwater she had been soaking in for at least an hour. She filled the room with soft scents of lavender and vanilla. She took another bite of her apple and chewed. The film paused for an advert break. A woman with digestive issues seemed considerably happier after eating strawberry yoghurt. A Hollywood star looked enigmatic and serious advertising a new perfume.
Ray waited for Laura to speak. The film resumed and the man sat alone in a café staring mournfully out of the window.
‘Ray,’ said Laura, before pausing to bite into her third apple and wipe a stray tear from her left cheek. ‘You find it challenging enough running the local supermarket. Maybe you should concentrate on your day job? People would hate to see you lose focus and for the cereals to end up in just any order. It would cause chaos.’
‘Well,’ he said, and then ran out of words.
During the year since their wedding many of their evenings had passed in a similar fashion. Laura spent long periods of time relaxing in the bath, phoned friends, watched romantic films with happy endings and ate a variety of healthy foods, usually involving fruit. Ray wandered around the house, drank tea, visited the pub alone and drew up plans for making himself wealthier. So far his plans had all failed, mostly in the conceptual stage.
‘You have all these ideas, Ray,’ said Laura.
He was expecting, or hoping, for her to say something else, but she began eating seedless grapes and returned what little of her attention she had given him to the television.  
When they were first engaged many people, including his father, had expressed their surprise at how beautiful she was. He was reminded of those comments as she ran her fingers through Titian hair and stretched her slender legs. ‘Why would a woman like that marry you?’ said his father. It was a fair question, if a bit uncalled for, and one that Ray tried not to ponder too deeply in case he found some uncomfortable answers.
He left her alone in the lounge and headed to the kitchen to make tea. Ray liked tea and he was capable of drinking up to fifteen cups a day, which had the added advantage of creating numerous work breaks. Not that he was lazy at work. He ran the supermarket with surprising efficiency. Still, there were plenty of occasions when a tea was necessary to recover from a particularly troublesome customer.
‘I can be a detective,’ he said to himself, as he sat at the kitchen table and sipped his tea.
It was late October and raining. No one had been particularly surprised to learn that it was already one of the wettest months since records began, which had initiated many conversations about climate change in The White Dragon. None of them had been very conclusive. The landlord had argued that climate change meant that Britain was rising and floating towards France. Tony was sure that changes in the Gulf Stream were going to send the Earth spinning off its axis straight into the sun. Ray’s theory that it might make the weather harder to predict had been universally dismissed.
He briefly considered visiting The White Dragon for a pint, but it was raining with increasing vigour, and he was not overly keen to get wet, even on the four minute walk it would take him to reach the local. He was content to sit and ruminate on his new career path. He was confident that even in quiet English villages there were occasional robberies and murders. Once he had built up some experience he liked the idea of investigating some of them himself. He had no formal training, unless his GCSEs in chemistry and biology were relevant, but qualifications were not going to stop him. There would be plenty of opportunities to start small and local: lost pets, stolen garden furniture, investigating the odd extra marital affair. The inhabitants of Diddlebury would be more than happy to pay for resolutions to such cases, especially if they concluded in the exposure and humiliation of one of their neighbours.
‘Case solved,’ said Ray, as he imagined rugby tackling a particularly violent burglar outside the bakery.
‘Talking to yourself is a sign of idiocy,’ said Laura, as she breezed in and out of the kitchen to collect a kiwi fruit and a spoon.
‘Or genius,’ he said. ‘Einstein probably talked to himself constantly about gravity - though maybe that was Newton.’
‘And no trying to be a detective,’ called Laura from the lounge. ‘Remember to just concentrate on running the supermarket. Make sure there are enough bread rolls and other important things.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Ray.
He watched the rain and thought about some of the possible reasons why Sherlock Holmes never married.

Prunes and Ale

The next day, Ray was finding it exceptionally hard to concentrate at work.
‘Have there been any robberies or murders in the village lately, Julia?’
Julia was a woman in her early fifties who had worked meticulously and earnestly for local shops for most of her life. She was divorced, played bridge, was below average height, wanted to cruise the Mediterranean when she retired and seemed to have an endless collection of floral dresses. On that particular day she wore a blue and yellow tulip print that muddled Ray’s vision if he looked at it for too long.
‘Why would you say a thing like that?’ she said. ‘Diddlebury is not a murdering or robbing sort of place. Shall I put the food colourings in alphabetical order or ranging from light to dark?’
‘Of course it is,’ said Ray. ‘All English villages have terrible secrets. Some villages probably have five to ten murders a year.’
‘I think light to dark is quite pleasing to the eye. I must make a note to order more blue colouring. I do like to have a balance of colours.’
‘I imagine some murders go completely unnoticed. A few lonely old people getting bumped off on their way home. Like Mrs Winterbottom. I’m sure she was murdered. I haven’t seen her for weeks. Someone should investigate. I’ll get on the case.’
‘Mrs Winterbottom is staying with her daughter after a bunion operation. Anyway, this is England not America, Mr Wilson.’
She began to check the packets of sponge fingers, running her hand along the edge to ensure they were aligned.
Ray lost interest in shelving and his work colleague. He took an unscheduled tea break.
He had been the manager of the supermarket for two years. Previously he had worked for a small film production company in London for three months, hoping it would be a permanent career, until their financial difficulties had resulted in his dismissal. He had served in a music store that had closed and been turned into a coffee shop that made overly hot cappuccinos which burnt the roof of his mouth. He had been employed as a film extra for one day. He had been edited out of his only scene as a man buying an orange from a market stall.
There had been few other highlights.
He sat alone in the small office that served as a staffroom and accounts room. He read a chapter of The Getaway while he drank his tea. Briefly he was transported to a world of crime and dangerous living.
‘Mrs Mackerty would like to know why there is no fruit bread in stock,’ said Julia, poking her head around the door.
‘Right. Tell her we are sold out. There will be more next week.’
She coughed politely.
‘I think we both know that will not work.’
‘Unfortunately not.’
Ray put his book down and drank a last mouthful of tea before walking back into the shop.
Mrs Mackerty was waiting for him by the till. She was so aged that her back bent at ninety degrees making it difficult for her to look up. She leant heavily on a walking stick and every movement seemed unbearably arduous.
‘Now, Mr Wilson - that is you is it not?
‘It is. Good morning.’
‘I think we spoke before about how important fruit bread is for my bowels.’
‘Yes, Mrs Mackerty. I believe we did.’
‘I need a good supply of dried fruits to keep things moving.’
‘At my age things are not quite as efficient as they once were.’
Ray had an unpleasant image.
‘I understand completely, Mrs Mackerty. I will ring the supplier and make a new order immediately.’
‘I should hope so,’ she said, and with enormous effort turned herself around to continue her shopping.
‘Well handled as always, Mr Wilson,’ said Julia, as she made a pyramid of biscuit boxes nearby.
‘Thank you, Julia. If there’s one particular skill I have developed over the last two years it’s dealing with unhappy elderly customers.’
‘You most definitely have, Mr Wilson.’
‘I should get some of those stars they earn in fast food restaurants. Five stars for keeping pensioners well stocked with fibre.’
‘You certainly should.’
‘Perhaps I can be sponsored by a cereal company?’
Mrs Mackerty was reappearing from one of the aisles. Ray watched her shuffle towards him, each foot moving no more than a few inches at a time. She paused in front of a pillar and looked as though she might attempt to speak to it before shaking her head and moving on. She eventually stopped in front of Ray and studied his shoes to make sure she had a person and the right person.
‘Is that you, Mr Wilson?’
‘Yes, Mrs Mackerty. How can I be of assistance?’
‘Well I must say this is disappointing. I am afraid I hate to do this but I feel it is my duty to contact the regional manager once more.’
‘What seems to be the problem?’ said Ray.
Mrs Mackerty claimed that she had contacted the regional manager several times in the past, although as Ray had never heard anything from the man himself, who might have been called David, he assumed that she had been contacting the wrong person. He wondered how confusing it would be to be telephoned by a constipated, elderly woman to complain about her dietary requirements.
‘There is a distinct lack of tinned prunes in the fruit aisle. I looked carefully with my magnifying glass. I expect to be spending a prolonged period of time in the toilet this evening, and I hold you personally responsible.’
‘Sorry,’ said Ray, before adding: ‘Have you tried yoga? My wife loves it. As far as I know she’s very regular.’
At lunchtime Ray decided, as he often did, that it had been a difficult enough day to warrant a visit to The White Dragon. He left Julia in charge of the shop, with the added responsibility of ensuring that the cheese section was categorised in a sensible and efficient way.
‘Geographically, Mr Wilson?’
‘Very wise.’
‘Thank you. Enjoy your lunch.’
Outside it was relatively warm and the rain was unexpectedly light. Fallen leaves eddied around his feet as he made the short walk to the pub – thatched, white, with a front door that required anyone under six feet to duck and a sign with a faded White Dragon that swayed and squeaked rhythmically in the wind.
Inside it was typically busy. Diddlebury was a village where many people had very little to do. Consequently, a visit to the pub was a significant activity. Couples had lunch together, people drank in small groups and as is often the way men sat on stools at the bar and consumed far more units of alcohol than government campaigns recommended.
Ray sat on a barstool beside Tony, a man in his late forties with a beer belly of considerable size, thick glasses and a smart appearance. He had been a successful businessman in his younger years, or so he said, but he was prematurely retired and made the most of his free time by leaving his wife at home and drinking heavily. He wore a pink shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal huge forearms, and brogues that had been carefully polished. His face was lined and flushed with traces of broken veins beginning to appear at the sides of his nose. Sometimes, on special occasions, he broke unannounced into song.
‘Good to see you, Ray. A drink to keep out the cold?’
‘Very kind, Tony,’ said Ray. ‘Just the one though. This is only a lunch break.’
‘Landlord, two of your finest ales, if you please,’ said Tony.
The landlord, Michael, was quick to serve his most loyal customer.
‘There we are, gents, enjoy,’ said Michael. ‘I see it’s raining again,’ he added, noting Ray’s wet hair and shoulders.
‘Just a light shower,’ said Ray.
‘Climate change,’ said Michael and shook his head. He sported the soft physique that it took years of neglect and great quantities of saturated fat to create. He was in the process of growing a subtly lopsided goatee. ‘I was reading just this morning that England could be completely underwater in the next ten years. And there was me thinking we were going to float towards France. Seems that sinking is much more likely. At least I think it was England. Would that be right, Tony?’
‘Perhaps just a part of the country, Michael? Like Essex or one of the bits on the side. Can’t imagine the whole lot will go.’
‘Exactly,’ said Michael. ‘Essex will sink for sure.’
He stared thoughtfully at the fire then made his way towards the kitchen.
To fill the silence Ray decided to tell Tony about his new business venture.
‘So, Tony, I was thinking I might try and start my own detective agency.’
‘Genius,’ said Tony. He ate a handful of peanuts. ‘Tell me more.’
‘I was thinking about investigating some of the mysteries that happen locally.’
‘Wonderful,’ said Tony. ‘I had better find a gun from somewhere. Do you know anyone who could get me a gun?’
‘I think they’re illegal.’
‘In England?’
‘Perhaps I could carry a machete? They’re always useful in a fight.’
He performed a series of swift, chopping motions with his right arm holding an imaginary weapon.
Ray should have realised that Tony was in no particular state to be discussing new business ideas. The empty glasses were a strong indication that he was not drinking his first pint of the day. His eyes had begun to lose some of their focus and Ray could not decide if he was looking at him or at a point just above his left shoulder.
‘Well, I was planning on just finding a few basic local stories to start with,’ said Ray. ‘Nothing too dramatic. Maybe a simple robbery to look into. Missing garden furniture. Stolen fruit.’
‘That should be easy enough to arrange. Let’s start with Herbie. He knows plenty about criminal activities.’
A brooding figure with well-muscled arms and a face that seemed as though at some point a tree had fallen on it looked up from where he sat at the bar reading the local gazette.
‘You mention me?’ he said.
Herbie was a more recent addition to the village. He had lived in London most of his life but had moved into the countryside after a bitter divorce, or so he told people. His physical size and stern manner had been a source of constant gossip and it was assumed, with no actual evidence, that he was hiding from a criminal past. Sometimes, to add to the rumours, he wore sunglasses on cloudy days.
‘Know of any robberies or murders lately?’ said Tony. ‘My friend here was looking for some.’
‘He wasn’t saying you had actually done any yourself, just if you had heard of them.’
‘Not that you look like a robber or even a murderer,’ said Tony. ‘He was just saying that if anyone knew about that kind of thing it would definitely be you, especially as you lived in London.’
‘Afraid not.’
Tony raised his beer glass in Herbie’s general direction.
‘Thanks anyway. Let us know if you do hear anything.’
‘Bit of a dead end there,’ said Tony, signalling that more beer was required.
‘Great work though,’ said Ray, who was feeling a warm flush of embarrassment on his face. ‘Thanks.’
‘No problem. I feel this business venture is going to be a huge success.’
‘Do you think we need an office?’
‘Sounds sensible. I will look into it. We could have one of those golden plaques on the door. Make it fully professional. And business cards. They are pretty useful. And definitely brandy in a decanter.’
‘I should be heading back to work,’ said Ray.
‘Right. I will keep thinking.’
Ray finished his drink and made the short walk to the shop where he spent the afternoon helping Julia organise jams.
‘I’m not sure the private detective idea was such a good one,’ said Ray, as he sat on the sofa in the evening. Laura was eating blueberries. He was drinking tea and trying to make some sense of the film they were watching.
‘None of your ideas are very good, Ray.’
On screen two characters were sharing a meal. The restaurant was candlelit and improbably romantic. They were drinking wine and eating fish.
‘Is that sea bass?’ said Ray.
‘I’m not sure the fish is central to the plot.’
‘It could be symbolic.’
‘Symbolic sea bass?’
‘Is this Love Actually?’
‘Then why is Colin Firth in it?’
‘He’s not.’
Ray squinted at the screen.
‘Oh. That must be the other one.’
It seemed they were now sharing a chocolate fondant which was his favourite dessert. At least it looked like a chocolate fondant. He wanted to ask but decided not to.
‘I just think it would be simpler if we lived in a more normal village,’ said Ray. ‘I only told Tony and things got out of hand within a few seconds.’
‘What things?’
‘The whole detective thing.’
‘You were talking about Colin Firth.’
‘Before that I was telling you about Tony. And the detective agency.’
‘Are you going to talk the whole way through this film?’
‘Why have you been hanging around in the pub talking to deluded alcoholics? I thought you were supposed to be in the supermarket making sure there were enough bread rolls and other important tasks.’
‘I’m going upstairs,’ said Ray.
He left her alone in the lounge and went to his study. It was a small room, cluttered by books and strange drawings on scraps of paper. On the desk was a laptop and beside it several empty teacups and biscuit wrappers. Ray had been working on an advert for his detective agency and he picked a piece of paper up, covered in scribbles and annotations, turned it over several times in his hands, then screwed it into a ball and threw it to join the other discarded ideas on the floor.
Through the window he had an excellent viewpoint of the village. He could see the dim shape of Mrs Wilkins as she watered plants in the kitchen. She was one of his least favourite neighbours. She complained bitterly and constantly about the state of his garden and how his apple trees apparently shed fruit and leaves over the fence into her property. Mr Dawson was doing some kind of exercise routine with a metal bar that involved swinging his upper body from side to side. He had been in the military some years before and enjoyed keeping fit in a variety of unusual ways, including jogging around the village dragging a sledge loaded with bricks.
Ray pressed his face to the glass to see the upper window of the Hamilton’s residence where their teenage son was playing games of some kind, flashing lights erupting at seemingly irregular intervals. To the far right he could see the house belonging to Miss Stokes, a spinster and an excellent baker who repeatedly won the annual pie making contest at the village fete. That summer she had taken the title with a superb steak and stilton number that he had been lucky enough to taste. Her curtains were open and he could see where she sat in a rocking chair in the bedroom.
A careful examination of the scene revealed something unexpected.
She was headless. 

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