Authors: J F Straker
Copyright © J. F. Straker 1984
The right of J. F. Straker to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published in the United Kingdom in 1984 by Robert Hale Limited.
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
Holding the large breakfast cup two-handed, with his elbows planted firmly on the table, Andrew Doyle sipped coffee and watched his stepmother open her mail. She did it methodically, slitting the envelopes with an elegant paper-knife in the form of a dagger, perusing the contents and then placing them in a neat pile beside her plate. Considering that she seemed to have few close friends and that her only living relative was a married sister in New Zealand, her mail was often surprisingly large. True, her acquaintances were numerous, but they were mostly local and more accustomed to using the telephone than the pen. Bills or business letters, Andrew supposed, or correspondence connected with her many committees. It never occurred to him to ask. Elizabeth did not welcome personal questions; not from him, anyway. In the five years he had lived in her house since her marriage to his father she had never invited his confidence. Nor, after the first few months, had he invited hers.
The last letter read, Elizabeth Doyle removed her spectacles, slid them into their case, placed the case on top of the mail, and looked up. Frowning, she said briskly, ‘Elbows off the table, please, Andrew.’
Still gripping the cup, Andrew lifted his elbows a couple of inches. It was a juvenile gesture for an 18-year-old to make, but he was in a mood to annoy her.
‘Most amusing,’ Elizabeth said. ‘And very childish.’
Andrew sat with his back to the open french windows, and her gaze went past him to where dark clouds were massing over the distant Downs. ‘Did either of you hear the weather forecast?’
‘Not me,’ Andrew said. He put down his cup and reached for toast.
‘Did you, David?’
Her husband lifted his head to peer at her over the
. ‘Did I what?’
‘Did you hear the weather forecast this morning?’
‘Rain,’ David said. ‘Could be heavy. Possibly thunder.’
Elizabeth swore. ‘Just my luck!’
David lowered the paper on to the table. ‘We’ve had a long spell of hot, dry weather, Elizabeth, and for the past week you’ve been saying how badly the garden needs rain. Well, now we look like getting it. So why the beef?’
‘It’s my day for Meals on Wheels. That’s why. I’ll probably get soaked.’
Andrew smiled to himself as he pictured her walking through the woods to old Mr Philipson’s cottage. She would certainly get soaked. And that would really bother Elizabeth, who was fussy about her appearance. She would hate having to continue the round looking dishevelled.
‘Oh!’ David picked up the
. ‘Well, let’s hope you’ll be through before it starts.’
‘I doubt it. I think I’d better—Oh, David, please be more careful! You’ve got butter all over the paper.’
‘Sorry!’ He folded the paper, creasing it clumsily, scraped the butter off with a finger, sucked the finger and dropped the paper on the floor. ‘What were you thinking?’
‘I was thinking I’d better take the Volvo. It’s more roomy. You don’t need it, do you?’
‘I most certainly do.’ David took a pipe from his pocket and began to fill it. ‘I’m off to Winchester this morning to spend the weekend with the Fishers. I told you last week. Remember?’
‘No, I don’t.’ Her tone suggested disbelief. Probably rightly, Andrew thought. He did not remember either. ‘Anyway, you can’t go this weekend. The bishop’s preaching on Sunday; people will expect us to be there. You’ll have to ring the Fishers and explain. I’m sure they’ll understand.’
‘I daresay they would.’ He lit his pipe and sucked vigorously. ‘But it’s immaterial. Bishop or no bishop, I’m going. And I’m taking the Volvo. Sorry, Elizabeth.’
The firmness of his tone did not surprise Andrew as much as it might have surprised him some months back. Though he had affection for his father, at an early age he had begun to recognize his imperfections. Born into wealth, at the age of 17 David Doyle had had to leave Eton when his father’s business empire had collapsed and his father had committed suicide, leaving David to make his own way in the world. Eton had given him a polish that had impressed prospective employers, and he had had little difficulty in finding employment. But he was a man with a chip on his shoulder, and the work he found never satisfied him. It did not provide the lifestyle to which his early years had accustomed him and which he had come to regard as his due, and he was too impatient to strive for the future promotion that might eventually bring it. He had drifted from job to job, seeking and never finding and growing more and more discontented and frustrated. Women had found his tall, robust figure and dark good looks attractive, but the attraction had seldom lasted, dissipated by his restlessness and moods of bitter depression. Andrew had been the offspring of one such liaison, which had resulted in marriage only after his birth and had lasted until his mother had died of a brain tumour when the boy was 11. Two years later David had met and married Elizabeth, a wealthy widow of 34 and ten years younger than himself. They had bought—or Elizabeth had bought—the sixteenth-century manor house in the Sussex village of West Deering, spending a considerable sum on its restoration and improvement and arranging for Andrew to finish his education at the grammar school in nearby Limpsted. Elizabeth had then set herself to the task of becoming recognized and accepted as the Lady of the Manor, a position to which she considered her upbringing and wealth entitled her. And David had blossomed anew. At last he could enjoy the life of luxury into which he had been born. No need now to work for a living. True, Elizabeth kept the purse-strings and was tight with her money; there was no joint account into which he could dip at will. But the personal allowance she made him had not seemed ungenerous. Or not at first. In comparison with his former impecuniosity it had seemed like near affluence.
Over the years Andrew had gained knowledge of most of these facts. It was not clear to him why Elizabeth had chosen to marry his father—he judged her incapable of genuine affection, and what else was there?—but he had no illusions about why his father had married Elizabeth. Her grooming was impeccable and she had nice legs and fine blonde hair, but she was no beauty. She was flat-chested and stubby-fingered, and her long bony face with its steely blue eyes symbolized for Andrew the hardness of her nature. Her voice too was hard; hard and loud, as if through loudness she might impose authority. But she had wealth. And to his father, Andrew suspected, that had been a credit to outweigh all debits.
Or that was how it had seemed. Latterly, however, his father’s apparent contentment had shown signs of cracking. Although Elizabeth seemed reluctant to leave the village for more than a day or two at a time, perhaps concerned that her absence might weaken her hold on it, David’s absences from home had grown longer and more frequent. He was more short-tempered, more prone to argue or to quarrel with her. He had even started to defy her. Was the leisured life of a country gentleman beginning to pall? Andrew wondered. Or were the debits looming larger?
‘You know, it’s typical of you, David,’ Elizabeth complained. ‘No consideration for others. And no sense of responsibility. You knew weeks ago that the bishop would be preaching this Sunday.’ From the hall came the whine of an electric sweeper. Elizabeth clucked in annoyance. ‘Stupid woman! I told her not to do the carpets this morning. Not with all those meals to prepare.’
‘Mrs Trotter’s deaf,’ Andrew said. ‘Remember? She probably didn’t hear you.’
‘Not that deaf,’ Elizabeth said. ‘She just prefers housework to cooking.’
She gathered up her mail and left the room. The whining stopped. After a long silence Andrew said diffidently, ‘About that Spitfire, Dad. I suppose you couldn’t—’
‘You’re damned right I couldn’t,’ David said. ‘Too bloody deep in the red.’
‘I didn’t mean that. But I have to let Derek know before the weekend—he can’t wait any longer—and I was wondering if you could persuade Elizabeth to change her mind.’
David shook his head. ‘Not a hope. Elizabeth never changes her mind. Not where money’s concerned.’ His pipe gurgled as he drew on it. He was a wet smoker. ‘You can forget that one, my lad. It’s a non-starter.’
‘Not for the first time,’ Andrew said bitterly.
‘Well, that’s life.’ David took a bundle of notes from his hip pocket, selected a fiver and pushed it across the table. ‘If that will help to drown your disappointment, you’re welcome.’
‘I’ll probably get drunk,’ Andrew said.
‘Not on a fiver, you won’t,’ David said. ‘It’s impossible.’
Three-quarters of a mile to the south of West Deering as the crow flies, in a semi-detached villa in the village of Compton Rye, Kate Marston was preparing lunch. Her husband Bob sat at the kitchen table, his round, weather-beaten face creased in a scowl as he studied the bills spread before him. Under the window the latest addition to the family, a two-month-old baby girl, was asleep in her cot. Kate’s dark eyes kept straying in that direction. Despite the extra strain the baby imposed on their finances, in private she was proud of her daughter. In public, however, she felt some embarrassment. It seemed almost indecent to have conceived a fifth child at the age of 42, fourteen years after the birth of her fourth.
She finished peeling the last of the potatoes and emptied them into a saucepan. As she put the pan on the stove she said, ‘Haven’t you finished with them bills yet? I need the table.’
He sat up and stretched. ‘Bloody waste of time,’ he said. ‘We can’t pay them.’
‘What, none of them?’
‘The electric, perhaps. Keep them quiet.’ He scrabbled the bills together. ‘Most of the others can bloody wait.’
‘What if they won’t? They’ll take the telly, for a start.’
‘I’ve allowed for the telly.’ On his feet, he pushed back his chair so violently that it overturned. He let it lie. ‘That bloody woman! How long is it now? Nine months? Ten? Did I tell you I saw her yesterday? I felt like kicking her teeth in.’
‘A lot of good that would have done!’ She put the pastry board on the table and started to sprinkle flour. ‘I don’t like Mrs Doyle any more than what you do, Bob, but I can’t blame her for giving you the sack. You were drunk, you know you were. Nor it weren’t the first time, neither.’ She took dough from a bowl and smacked it on to the board. ‘Like now.’
‘How do you mean, like now?’
‘I mean if it weren’t for your drinking we could manage on the benefit. Other people do. You’re not the only one in the village what’s out of work.’
He ignored that. ‘I should have had that job at the Scotts. It was her put them against me.’
‘So you say. But you don’t know.’
‘I bloody do.’
Roller in hand, she looked at him. He was a stocky, ungainly man, with long arms and short bandy legs and a bulging stomach. But he was a good gardener, as the flowers in the small back garden and the vegetables in his allotment bore witness, and despite his occasional bouts of heavy drinking he had done a good job at the Manor. But gradually the bouts had become more frequent, and there had come an afternoon the previous October when, after a heavy lunchtime session at the Deering Arms, he had returned to the Manor in an inebriated condition and had bumped into Elizabeth Doyle, who had promptly fired him. According to Bob, he had been apologetic and had pleaded for another chance. According to Mrs Doyle, he had made a rude two-fingered gesture and had told her to get stuffed. Knowing her husband’s temper, Kate suspected that the latter version was nearest to the truth.
She started to roll out the dough. ‘You could sell the car,’ she said.
‘Well, I’m not asking Monica.’ At 22, Monica was the oldest of their children. Married to a salesman in the grocery trade, she lived in a modern bungalow at the far end of the village. ‘I still owe her for last month.’
‘Any use trying the old goat?’
‘Uncle Claud?’ She laughed shortly. ‘You must be joking! You know how he feels about you and your drinking.’
‘Sodding old bugger! Well, he can’t last much longer. Could go any day, Doc Holden said. We’ll be all right then.’
‘Will we?’ She looked at him. ‘I’m not so sure.’
‘Why? You’re his nearest and dearest, aren’t you? His nearest, anyway. Who else could get it?’
‘Cheryl Mason? Good God! Why her?’
‘She’s been visiting him.’
‘I know that, dammit! She takes him Meals on Wheels. Well, so do other people. Our Monica, for one.’
‘It’s more than that, Bob. I gather she’s round there several times a week now. Tilly Webster says he’s crazy about her.’
‘At his age?’ Bob’s head shot forward in disbelief. ‘Oh, I know he was always a randy old goat. But he’s 78, dammit! And he’s sick. On his last legs. He may still want it, but he can’t bloody do it.’
‘Maybe he can’t,’ Kate said quietly. ‘But it’s more than kissing and cuddling they get up to.’
‘How do you know that? Did he tell you?’
‘He hinted at it.’
‘Did he, by God! And you reckon she’s after his money?’
‘Why else would she do it? She can’t enjoy it. Not with a sick old man like him.’
‘You think he might alter his will?’
‘Well, it’s possible, isn’t it? You know what he thinks of you.’