Authors: P. D. James
The little group at the bar had turned back to their drinks. Between their shoulders she could see her own reflection in the mirror above the bar. Today’s face looked no different from
yesterday’s face: thick, light brown hair framing features which looked as if a giant had placed a hand on her head and the other under her chin and gently squeezed the face together; large eyes, browny-green under a deep fringe of hair; wide cheekbones; a gentle, childish mouth. A cat’s face, she thought, but calmly decorative among the reflection of coloured bottles and all the bright glitter of Mavis’s bar. Despite its look of deceptive youth it could be a secret, uncommunicative face. Cordelia had early learnt stoicism. All her foster parents, kindly and well-meaning in their different ways, had demanded one thing of her—that she should be happy. She had quickly learned that to show unhappiness was to risk the loss of love. Compared with this early discipline of concealment, all subsequent deceits had been easy.
The Snout was edging his way towards her. He settled himself down on the bench, his thick rump in its appalling tweed pressed close to hers. She disliked the Snout although he had been Bernie’s only friend. Bernie had explained that the Snout was a police informer and did rather well. And there were other sources of income. Sometimes his friends stole famous pictures or valuable jewellery. Then the Snout, suitably instructed, would hint to the police where the loot could be found. There was a reward for the Snout to be subsequently shared, of course, among the thieves, and a pay-off, too, for the detective, who after all had done most of the work. As Bernie had pointed out, the insurance company got off lightly, the owners got their property back intact, the thieves were in no danger from the police, and the Snout and the detective got their pay-off. It was the system. Cordelia, shocked, had not liked to protest too much. She suspected that Bernie too had done some snouting in his time, although never with such expertise or with such lucrative results.
The Snout’s eyes were rheumy; his hand around the glass of whisky was shaking.
“Poor old Bernie, I could see he had it coming to him. He’d been losing weight for the last year and he had that grey look to him, the cancer complexion, my dad used to call it.”
At least the Snout had noticed; she hadn’t. Bernie had always seemed to her grey and sick-looking. A thick, hot thigh edged closer.
“Never had any luck, poor sod. They chucked him out of the CID. Did he tell you? That was Superintendent Dalgliesh, Inspector at the time. Christ, he could be a proper bastard; no second chance from him, I can tell you.”
“Yes, Bernie told me,” Cordelia lied. She added: “He didn’t seem particularly bitter about it.”
“No use, is there, in being bitter? Take what comes, that’s my motto. I suppose you’ll be looking for another job?”
He said it wistfully as if her defection would leave the Agency open for his exploitation.
“Not just yet,” said Cordelia. “I shan’t look for a new job just yet.”
She had made two resolutions: she would keep on Bernie’s business until there was nothing left with which to pay the rent, and she would never come into the Golden Pheasant again as long as she lived.
This resolution to keep the business going survived the next four days—survived discovery of the rent book and agreement which revealed that Bernie hadn’t, after all, owned the little house in Cremona Road and that her tenancy of the bed-sitting room was illegal and certainly limited; survived learning from the Bank Manager that Bernie’s credit balance would barely pay for his funeral and from the garage that the Mini was
shortly due for an overhaul; survived the clearing-up of the Cremona Road house. Everywhere was the sad detritus of a solitary and mismanaged life.
The tins of Irish stew and baked beans—had he never eaten anything else?—stacked in a carefully arranged pyramid as if in a grocer’s window; large tins of metal and floor polish, half-used, with their contents dried or congealed; a drawer of old rags used as dusters but stiff with an amalgam of polish and dirt; a laundry basket unemptied; thick woollen combinations felted with machine washing and stained brown about the crotch—how could he have borne to leave those for discovery?
She went daily to the office, cleaning, tidying, rearranging the filing. There were no calls and no clients and yet she seemed always busy. There was the inquest to attend, depressing in its detached, almost boring formality, in its inevitable verdict. There was a visit to Bernie’s solicitor. He was a dispirited, elderly man with an office inconveniently situated near Mile End Station who took the news of his client’s death with lugubrious resignation as if it were a personal affront, and after a brief search found Bernie’s will and pored over it with puzzled suspicion, as if it were not the document he himself had recently drawn up. He succeeded in giving Cordelia the impression that he realized that she had been Bernie’s mistress—why else should he have left her the business?—but that he was a man of the world and didn’t hold the knowledge against her. He took no part in arranging the funeral except to supply Cordelia with the name of a firm of undertakers; she suspected that they probably gave him a commission. She was relieved after a week of depressing solemnity to find that the funeral director was both cheerful and competent. Once he discovered that Cordelia wasn’t going to break down in tears
or indulge in the more histrionic antics of the bereaved, he was happy to discuss the relative price and the merits of burial and cremation with conspiratorial candour.
“Cremation every time. There’s no private insurance, you tell me? Then get it all over as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible. Take my word, that’s what the deceased would want nine times out of ten. A grave’s an expensive luxury these days—no use to him—no use to you. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes; but what about the process in between? Not nice to think about, is it? So why not get it over as quickly as possible by the most reliable modern methods? Mind you, Miss, I’m advising you against my own best interests.”
Cordelia said: “It’s very kind of you. Do you think we ought to have a wreath?”
“Why not, it’ll give it a bit of tone. Leave it to me.”
So there had been a cremation and one wreath. The wreath had been a vulgarly inappropriate cushion of lilies and carnations, the flowers already dying and smelling of decay. The cremation service had been spoken by the priest with carefully controlled speed and with a suggestion of apology in his tone as if to assure his hearers that, although he enjoyed a special dispensation, he didn’t expect them to believe the unbelievable. Bernie had passed to his burning to the sound of synthetic music and only just on time, to judge by the impatient rustlings of the cortège already waiting to enter the chapel.
Afterwards Cordelia was left standing in the bright sunlight, feeling the heat of the gravel through the soles of her shoes. The air was rich and heavy with the scent of flowers. Swept suddenly with desolation and a defensive anger on Bernie’s behalf, she sought a scapegoat and found it in a certain Superintendent of the Yard. He had kicked Bernie out
of the only job he had ever wanted to do; hadn’t troubled to find out what happened to him later; and, most irrational indictment of all, he hadn’t even bothered to come to the funeral. Bernie had needed to be a detective as other men needed to paint, write, drink or fornicate. Surely the CID was large enough to accommodate one man’s enthusiasm and inefficiency? For the first time Cordelia wept for Bernie; hot tears blurred and multiplied the long line of waiting hearses with their bright coronets so that they seemed to stretch in an infinity of gleaming chrome and trembling flowers. Untying the black chiffon scarf from her head, her only concession to mourning, Cordelia set off to walk to the tube station.
She was thirsty when she got to Oxford Circus and decided to have tea in the restaurant at Dickins and Jones. This was unusual and an extravagance but it had been an unusual and extravagant day. She lingered long enough to get full value for her bill and it was after a quarter past four when she returned to the office.
She had a visitor. There was a woman waiting, shoulders against the door—a woman who looked cool and incongruous against the dirty paintwork and the greasy walls. Cordelia caught her breath in surprise, her upward rush checked. Her light shoes had made no sound on the stairway and for a few seconds she saw her visitor unobserved. She gained an impression, immediate and vivid, of competence and authority and an intimidating rightness of dress. The woman was wearing a grey suit with a small stand-away collar which showed a narrow band of white cotton at the throat. Her black patent shoes were obviously expensive, a large black bag with patch pockets was slung from her left shoulder. She was tall and her hair, prematurely white, was cut short and moulded to her head like a cap. Her face was pale and long. She was
, the paper folded so that she could hold it in her right hand. After a couple of seconds, she became aware of Cordelia and their eyes met. The woman looked at her wristwatch.
“If you are Cordelia Gray, then you’re eighteen minutes late. This notice says that you would return at four o’clock.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Cordelia hurried up the last few steps and fitted the Yale key into the lock. She opened the door.
“Won’t you come in?”
The woman preceded her into the outer office and turned to face her without giving the room even a glance.
“I was hoping to see Mr. Pryde. Will he be long?”
“I’m sorry; I’ve just come back from his cremation. I mean … Bernie’s dead.”
“Obviously. Our information was that he was alive ten days ago. He must have died with remarkable speed and discretion.”
“Not with discretion. Bernie killed himself.”
“How extraordinary!” The visitor seemed to be struck by its extraordinariness. She pressed her hands together and for a few seconds walked restlessly about the room in a curious pantomime of distress.
“How extraordinary!” she said again. She gave a little snort of laughter. Cordelia didn’t speak, but the two women regarded each other gravely. Then the visitor said: “Well, I seem to have had a wasted journey.”
Cordelia breathed an almost inaudible “Oh no!” and resisted an absurd impulse to fling her body against the door.
“Please don’t go before talking to me. I was Mr. Pryde’s partner and I own the business now. I’m sure I could help. Won’t you please sit down?”
The visitor took no notice of the offered chair.
“No one can help, no one in the world. However that is
beside the point. There is something which my employer particularly wants to know—some information he requires—and he had decided that Mr. Pryde was the person to get it for him. I don’t know if he would consider you an effective substitute. Is there a private telephone here?”
“In here, please.”
The woman walked into the inner office, again with no sign that its shabbiness had made any impression on her. She turned to Cordelia.
“I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. My name is Elizabeth Leaming and my employer is Sir Ronald Callender.”
“I shouldn’t let him hear you call him that. He prefers to be called a microbiologist, which is what he is. Please excuse me.”
She shut the door firmly. Cordelia, feeling suddenly weak, sat down at the typewriter. The keys, oddly familiar symbols encircled in black medallions, shifted their pattern before her tired eyes, then at a blink clicked back to normality. She grasped the sides of the machine, cold and clammy to the touch, and talked herself back to calmness. Her heart was thudding.
“I must be calm, must show her that I am tough. This silliness is only the strain of Bernie’s funeral and too much standing in the hot sun.”
But hope was traumatic; she was angry with herself for caring so much.
The telephone call took only a couple of minutes. The door of the inner office opened; Miss Leaming was drawing on her gloves.
“Sir Ronald has asked to see you. Can you come now?”
Come where, thought Cordelia, but she didn’t ask.
“Yes, shall I need my gear?”
The gear was Bernie’s carefully designed and fitted-out scene-of-crime case with its tweezers, scissors, fingerprinting equipment, jars to collect specimens; Cordelia had never yet had occasion to use it.
“It depends upon what you mean by your gear, but I shouldn’t think so. Sir Ronald wants to see you before deciding whether to offer you the job. It means a train journey to Cambridge but you should get back tonight. Is there anyone you ought to tell?”
“No, there’s only me.”
“Perhaps I ought to identify myself.” She opened her handbag. “Here is an addressed envelope. I’m not a white slaver in case they exist and in case you’re frightened.”
“I’m frightened of quite a number of things but not of white slavers and if I were, an addressed envelope would hardly reassure me. I’d insist on telephoning Sir Ronald Callender to check.”
“Perhaps you would like to do so?” suggested Miss Leaming without rancour.
“Then shall we go?” Miss Leaming led the way to the door. As they went out to the landing and Cordelia turned to lock the office behind her, her visitor indicated the notepad and pencil hanging together from a nail on the wall.
“Hadn’t you better change the notice?”
Cordelia tore off her previous message and after a moment’s thought wrote:
I am called away to an urgent case. Any messages pushed through the door will receive my immediate and personal attention on return
“That,” pronounced Miss Leaming, “should reassure your clients.”
Cordelia wondered if the remark was sarcastic; it was impossible to tell from the detached tone. But she didn’t feel
that Miss Leaming was laughing at her and was surprised at her own lack of resentment at the way in which her visitor had taken charge of events. Meekly, she followed Miss Leaming down the stairs and into Kingly Street.
They travelled by the Central Line to Liverpool Street and caught the 17.36 train to Cambridge with plenty of time. Miss Leaming bought Cordelia’s ticket, collected a portable typewriter and a briefcase of papers from the left-luggage department and led the way to a first-class carriage. She said: “I shall have to work on the train; have you anything to read?”