An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (2 page)

BOOK: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
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She put her head round the office door and said quietly: “Mr. Pryde is dead; don’t come in. I’ll ring the police from here.”

The telephone message was taken calmly; someone would come round. Sitting beside the body to wait and feeling that she needed to make some gesture of pity and comfort Cordelia laid her hand gently on Bernie’s hair. Death had as yet no power to diminish these cold and nerveless cells and the hair felt roughly and unpleasantly alive like that of an animal. Quickly she took her hand away and tentatively touched the side of his forehead. The skin was clammy and very cold. This was death; this was how Daddy had felt. As with him, the gesture of pity was meaningless and irrelevant. There was no more communication in death than there had been in life.

She wondered when exactly Bernie had died. No one now would ever know. Perhaps Bernie himself had not known. There must, she supposed, have been one measurable second in time in which he had ceased to be Bernie and had become this unimportant but embarrassingly unwieldy weight of flesh and bone. How odd that a moment of time so important to him should pass without his knowledge. Her second foster mother, Mrs. Wilkes, would have said that Bernie did know, that there was a moment of indescribable glory, shining towers, limitless singing, skies of triumph. Poor Mrs. Wilkes! Widowed, her only son dead in the war, her small house perpetually noisy with the foster children who were her livelihood, she had needed her dreams. She had lived her life by comfortable maxims stored like nuggets of coal against the
winter. Cordelia thought of her now for the first time in years and heard again the tired, determinedly cheerful voice: “If the Lord doesn’t call on his way out, He’ll call on his way back.” Well, going or coming, He hadn’t called on Bernie.

It was odd but somehow typical of Bernie that he should have retained a dogged and invincible optimism about the business even when they had nothing in the cash box but a few coins for the gas meter and yet had given up hope of life without even a struggle. Was it perhaps that he had subconsciously recognized that neither he nor the Agency had any real future and had decided that this way he could yield up both life and livelihood with some honour? He had done it effectively but messily, surprisingly so for an ex-policeman versed in the ways of death. And then she realized why he had chosen the razor and the drugs. The gun. He hadn’t really taken the easy way out. He could have used the gun, but he had wanted her to have it; he had bequeathed it to her together with the rickety filing cabinets, the antique typewriter, the scene-of-crime kit, the Mini, his shock-proof and waterproof wristwatch, the blood-soaked rug, the embarrassingly large stock of writing paper with the ornate heading
Pryde’s Detective Agency—We take a Pride in our Work. All
the equipment; he had underlined all. He must have meant to remind her about the gun.

She unlocked the small drawer at the base of Bernie’s desk to which only she and he had a key and drew it out. It was still in the suede drawstring bag which she had made for it, with three rounds of ammunition packed separately. It was a pistol, a .38 semi-automatic; she had never known how Bernie had come by it but she was certain that he had no licence. She had never seen it as a lethal weapon, perhaps because Bernie’s boyishly naïve obsession with it had reduced it to the impotence of
a child’s toy. He had taught her to become—at any rate in theory—a creditable shot. They had driven for practice into the depths of Epping Forest and her memories of the gun were linked with dappled shade and the rich smell of decaying leaves. He had fixed a target to a convenient tree; the gun was loaded with blanks. She could still hear the excited staccato orders. “Bend your knees slightly. Feet apart. Arm full length. Now place the left hand against the barrel, cradling it. Keep your eyes on the target. Arm straight, partner, arm straight! Good! Not bad; not bad; not bad at all.” “But, Bernie,” she had said, “we can never fire it! We haven’t a licence.” He had smiled, the sly self-satisfied smile of superior knowledge. “If we ever fire in anger it will be to save our lives. In such an eventuality the question of a licence is irrelevant.” He had been pleased with this rotund sentence and had repeated it, lifting his heavy face to the sun like a dog. What, she wondered, had he seen in imagination? The two of them crouching behind a boulder on some desolate moor, bullets pinging against the granite, the gun passed smoking from hand to hand?

He had said: “We’ll have to go carefully with the ammunition. Not that I can’t get it of course …” The smile had become grim, as if at the memory of those mysterious contacts, those ubiquitous and obliging acquaintances whom he had only to summon from their shadow world.

So he had left her the gun. It had been his most prized possession. She slipped it, still shrouded, into the depths of her shoulder bag. It was surely unlikely that the police would examine the drawers of the desk in a case of obvious suicide but it was as well to take no risk. Bernie had meant her to have the gun and she wasn’t going to give it up easily. With her bag at her feet she sat down again by the body. She said a brief convent-taught prayer to the God she wasn’t sure existed
for the soul which Bernie had never believed he possessed and waited quietly for the police.

The first policeman to arrive was efficient but young, not yet experienced enough to hide his shock and distaste at the sight of violent death nor his disapproval that Cordelia should be so calm. He didn’t spend long in the inner office. When he came out he meditated upon Bernie’s note as if a careful scrutiny could extract some inner meaning from the bald sentence of death. Then he folded it away.

“I’ll have to keep this note for the present, Miss. What did he get up to here?”

“He didn’t get up to anything. This was his office. He was a private detective.”

“And you worked for this Mr. Pryde? You were his secretary?”

“I was his partner. It says so in the note. I’m twenty-two. Bernie was the senior partner; he started the business. He used to work for the Metropolitan Police in the CID with Superintendent Dalgliesh.”

As soon as the words were spoken, she regretted them. They were too propitiatory, too naïve a defence of poor Bernie. And the name Dalgliesh, she saw, meant nothing to him. Why should it? He was just one of the local uniformed branch. He couldn’t be expected to know how often she had listened with politely concealed impatience to Bernie’s nostalgic reminiscences of his time in the CID before he was invalided out, or to his eulogies on the virtues and wisdom of Adam Dalgliesh. “The Super—well, he was just an Inspector then—always taught us … The Super once described a case … If there was one thing the Super couldn’t stand …”

Sometimes she had wondered whether this paragon had actually existed or whether he had sprung impeccable and
omnipotent from Bernie’s brain, a necessary hero and mentor. It was with a shock of surprise that she had later seen a newspaper picture of Chief Superintendent Dalgliesh, a dark, sardonic face which, on her closer scrutiny, disintegrated into an ambiguity of patterned microdots, giving nothing away. Not all the wisdom Bernie so glibly recalled was the received gospel. Much, she suspected, was his own philosophy. She in turn had devised a private litany of disdain: supercilious, superior, sarcastic Super; what wisdom, she wondered, would he have to comfort Bernie now.

The policeman had made discreet telephone calls. He now prowled around the outer office, hardly bothering to hide his puzzled contempt at the shabby second-hand furniture, the battered filing cabinet with one drawer half-open to reveal teapot and mugs, the worn linoleum. Miss Sparshott, rigid at an ancient typewriter, gazed at him with fascinated distaste. At last he said: “Well, suppose you make yourselves a nice cup of tea while I wait for the police surgeon. There is somewhere to make tea?”

“There’s a small pantry down the corridor which we share with the other tenants on this floor. But surely you don’t need a surgeon? Bernie’s dead!”

“He’s not officially dead until a qualified medical practitioner says so.” He paused: “It’s just a precaution.”

Against what, Cordelia wondered—judgement, damnation, decay? The policeman went back into the inner office. She followed him and asked softly: “Couldn’t you let Miss Sparshott go? She’s from a secretarial agency and we have to pay for her by the hour. She hasn’t done any work since I arrived and I doubt whether she will now.”

He was, she saw, a little shocked by the apparent callousness of concerning herself with so mercenary a detail while
standing within touching-distance of Bernie’s body, but he said willingly enough: “I’ll just have a word with her, then she can go. It isn’t a nice place for a woman.”

His tone implied that it never had been.

Afterwards, waiting in the outer office, Cordelia answered the inevitable questions.

“No, I don’t know whether he was married. I’ve a feeling that he was divorced; he never talked about a wife. He lived at 15 Cremona Road, SE1. He let me have a bed-sitting room there but we didn’t see much of each other.”

“I know Cremona Road; my aunt used to live there when I was a kid—one of those streets near the Imperial War Museum.”

The fact that he knew the road seemed to reassure and humanize him. He ruminated happily for a moment.

“When did you last see Mr. Pryde alive?”

“Yesterday at about five o’clock when I left work early to do some shopping.”

“Didn’t he come home last night?”

“I heard him moving around but I didn’t see him. I have a gas ring in my room and I usually cook there unless I know he’s out. I didn’t hear him this morning which is unusual, but I thought he might be lying in. He does that occasionally when it’s his hospital morning.”

“Was it his hospital morning today?”

“No, he had an appointment last Wednesday but I thought that they might have asked him to come back. He must have left the house very late last night or before I woke early this morning. I didn’t hear him.”

It was impossible to describe the almost obsessional delicacy with which they avoided each other, trying not to intrude, preserving the other’s privacy, listening for the sound of
flushing cisterns, tiptoeing to ascertain whether the kitchen or bathroom was empty. They had taken infinite trouble not to be a nuisance to each other. Living in the same small terraced house they had hardly seen each other outside the office. She wondered whether Bernie had decided to kill himself in his office so that the little house would be uncontaminated and undisturbed.

At last the office was empty and she was alone. The police surgeon had closed his bag and departed; Bernie’s body had been manoeuvred down the narrow staircase, watched by eyes from the half-opened doors of other offices; the last policeman had left. Miss Sparshott had gone for good, violent death being a worse insult than a typewriter which a trained typist ought not to be expected to use or lavatory accommodation which was not at all what she had been accustomed to. Alone in the emptiness and silence Cordelia felt the need of physical action. She began vigorously to clean the inner office, scrubbing the bloodstains from desk and chair, mopping the soaked rug.

At one o’clock she walked briskly to their usual pub. It occurred to her that there was no longer any reason to patronize the Golden Pheasant but she walked on unable to bring herself to so early a disloyalty. She had never liked the pub or the landlady and had often wished that Bernie would find a nearer house, preferably one with a large bosomy barmaid with a heart of gold. It was, she suspected, a type commoner in fiction than in real life. The familiar lunchtime crowd was clustered around the bar and, as usual, Mavis presided behind it wearing her slightly minatory smile, her air of extreme respectability. Mavis changed her dress three times a day, her hairstyle once every year, her smile never. The two
women had never liked each other although Bernie had galumphed between them like an affectionate old dog, finding it convenient to believe that they were great mates and unaware of or ignoring the almost physical crackle of antagonism. Mavis reminded Cordelia of a librarian known to her in childhood who had secreted the new books under the counter in case they should be taken out and soiled. Perhaps Mavis’s barely suppressed chagrin was because she was forced to display her wares so prominently, compelled to measure out her bounty before watchful eyes. Pushing a half-pint of shandy and a Scotch egg across the counter in response to Cordelia’s order, she said: “I hear you’ve had the police round.”

Watching their avid faces, Cordelia thought, they know about it, of course; they want to hear the details; they may as well hear them. She said: “Bernie cut his wrists twice. The first time he didn’t get to the vein; the second time he did. He put his arm in water to help the bleeding. He had been told that he had cancer and couldn’t face the treatment.”

That, she saw, was different. The little group around Mavis glanced at each other, then quickly averted their eyes. Glasses were momentarily checked upon their upward way. Cutting one’s wrist was something which other people did but the sinister little crab had his claws of fear into all their minds. Even Mavis looked as if she saw his bright claws lurking among her bottles. She said: “You’ll be looking for a new job, I suppose? After all, you can hardly keep the Agency going on your own. It isn’t a suitable job for a woman.”

“No different from working behind a bar; you meet all kinds of people.”

The two women looked at each other and a snatch of unspoken dialogue passed between them clearly heard and understood by both.

“And don’t think, now he’s dead, that people can go on leaving messages for the Agency here.”

“I wasn’t going to ask.”

Mavis began vigorously polishing a glass, her eyes still on Cordelia’s face.

“I shouldn’t think your mother would approve of you staying on alone.”

“I only had a mother for the first hour of my life, so I don’t have to worry about that.”

Cordelia saw at once that the remark had deeply shocked them and wondered again at the capacity of older people to be outraged by simple facts when they seemed capable of accepting any amount of perverse or shocking opinion. But their silence, heavy with censure, at least left her in peace. She carried her shandy and Scotch egg to a seat against the wall and thought without sentimentality about her mother. Gradually out of a childhood of deprivation she had evolved a philosophy of compensation. In her imagination she had enjoyed a lifetime of love in one hour with no disappointments and no regrets. Her father had never talked about her mother’s death and Cordelia had avoided questioning him, fearful of learning that her mother had never held her in her arms, never regained consciousness, never perhaps even known that she had a daughter. This belief in her mother’s love was the one fantasy which she could still not entirely risk losing although its indulgence had become less necessary and less real with each passing year. Now, in imagination, she consulted her mother. It was just as she expected: her mother thought it an entirely suitable job for a woman.

BOOK: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
6.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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