An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (7 page)

BOOK: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
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Miss Markland turned her knitting and broke into her sister-in-law’s little cry of “What can he have meant by that?” with the dry comment: “A little more boredom of that kind would be welcome from the city of the plains.”

“Did Mr. Horsfall tell you why Mark had left college?” asked Cordelia.

“I didn’t enquire. That wasn’t my business. I asked a plain question and I got a more or less plain answer, as plain as you can expect from those academic types. We certainly had no complaint about the lad while he was here. I speak as I find.”

“When did he move into the cottage?” asked Cordelia.

“Immediately. That wasn’t our idea, of course. We never advertised the job as residential. However, he’d obviously seen the cottage and taken a fancy to the place and he asked if we’d mind if he camped out there. It wasn’t practicable for him to cycle in from Cambridge each day, we could quite see that,
and as far as we knew there was no one in the village who could put him up. I can’t say I was keen on the idea; the cottage needs a lot doing to it. Actually we have it in mind to apply for a conversion grant and then get rid of the place. It wouldn’t do for a family in its present state but the lad seemed keen on roughing it there, so we agreed.”

Cordelia said: “So he must have inspected the cottage before he came for the job?”

“Inspected? Oh, I don’t know. He probably snooped around to see what the property was like before he actually came to the door. I don’t know that I blame him, I’d have done the same myself.”

Mrs. Markland broke in: “He was very keen on the cottage, very keen. I pointed out that there was no gas or electricity but he said that that wouldn’t worry him; he’d buy a Primus stove and manage with lamps. There’s water laid on, of course, and the main part of the roof is really quite sound. At least I think it is. We don’t go there, you know. He seemed to settle in very happily. We never actually visited him, there was no need, but as far as I could see he was looking after himself perfectly well. Of course as my husband said, he was very inexperienced; there were one or two things we had to teach him, like coming up to the kitchen early every morning for the orders. But I liked the boy; he was always working hard when I was in the garden.”

Cordelia said: “I wonder if I might have a look at the cottage?”

The request disconcerted them. Major Markland looked at his wife. There was an embarrassed silence and for a moment Cordelia feared that the answer would be no. Then Miss Markland stabbed her needles into the ball of wool and got to her feet: “I’ll come with you now,” she said.

The grounds of Summertrees were spacious. First there was the formal rose garden, the bushes closely planted and grouped according to variety and colour like a market garden, the name tags fixed at precisely the same height from the earth. Next was the kitchen garden cut in two by a gravel path with evidence of Mark Callender’s work in the weeded rows of lettuce and cabbages, the patches of dug earth. Finally they passed through a gate into a small orchard of old and unpruned apple trees. The scythed grass, smelling richly of hay, lay in thick swathes round the gnarled trunks.

At the furthest end of the orchard was a thick hedge, so overgrown that the wicket gate into the rear garden of the cottage was at first difficult to see. But the grass around it had been trimmed and the gate opened easily to Miss Markland’s hand. On the other side was a thick bramble hedge, dark and impenetrable and obviously allowed to grow wild for a generation. Someone had hacked a way through, but Miss Markland and Cordelia had to bend low to avoid catching their hair on its tangled tentacles of thorn.

Once free of this barrier, Cordelia lifted her head and blinked in the bright sunshine. She gave a little exclamation of pleasure. In the short time in which he had lived here Mark Callender had created a little oasis of order and beauty out of chaos and neglect. Old flower beds had been discovered and the surviving plants tended; the stone path had been scraped free of grass and moss; a minute square of lawn to the right of the cottage door had been cut and weeded. On the other side of the path a patch about twelve feet square had been partly dug. The fork was still in the earth, driven deep about two feet from the end of the row.

The cottage was a low brick building under a slate roof. Bathed in the afternoon sunshine, and despite its bare,
rain-scoured door, its rotted window frames and the glimpse of exposed beams in the roof, it had the gentle melancholy charm of age which hadn’t yet degenerated into decay. Just outside the cottage door, dropped casually side by side, was a pair of heavy gardening shoes encrusted with earth.

“His?” asked Cordelia.

“Who else’s?”

They stood together for a moment contemplating the dug earth. Neither spoke. Then they moved to the back door. Miss Markland fitted the key into the lock. It turned easily as if the lock had been recently oiled. Cordelia followed her into the sitting room of the cottage.

The air was cool after the heat of the garden but unfresh, with a taint of contagion. Cordelia saw that the plan of the cottage was simple. There were three doors. One straight ahead obviously led to the front garden but was locked and barred, the joints hung with cobwebs as if it hadn’t been opened for generations. One to the right led, as Cordelia guessed, to the kitchen. The third door was ajar and she could glimpse through it an uncarpeted wooden stairway leading to the first floor. In the middle of the room was a wooden-topped table, the surface scarred with much scrubbing, and with two kitchen chairs, one at each end. In the middle of the table a blue ribbed mug held a posy of dead flowers, black brittle stems bearing sad tatters of unidentifiable plants, their pollen staining the surface of the table like golden dust. Shafts of sunlight cut across the still air; in their beams a myriad of motes, specks of dust and infinitesimal life danced grotesquely.

To the right was a fireplace, an old-fashioned iron range with ovens each side of the open fire. Mark had been burning wood and papers; there was a mound of white ash in the grate and a pile of kindling wood and small logs placed ready for the
next evening. On one side of the fire was a low wooden-slatted chair with a faded cushion and on the other a wheel-backed chair with the legs sawn off, perhaps to make it low enough for nursing a child. Cordelia thought that it must have been a beautiful chair before its mutilation.

Two immense beams, blackened with age, ran across the ceiling. In the middle of one was fixed a steel hook, probably once used for hanging bacon. Cordelia and Miss Markland looked at it without speaking; there was no need for question and answer. After a moment they moved, as if by common consent, to the two fireside chairs and sat down.

Miss Markland said: “I was the one who found him. He didn’t come up to the kitchen for the day’s orders, so after breakfast I walked down here to see if he had overslept. It was nine twenty-three exactly. The door was unlocked. I knocked, but there was no reply so I pushed it open. He was hanging from that hook with a leather belt round his neck. He was wearing his blue cotton trousers, the ones he usually worked in, and his feet were bare. That chair was lying on its side on the floor. I touched his chest. He was quite cold.”

“Did you cut him down?”

“No. He was obviously dead and I thought it better to leave the body until the police arrived. But I did pick up the chair and place it so that it supported his feet. That was an irrational action, I know, but I couldn’t bear to see him hanging there without releasing the pressure on his throat. It was, as I’ve said, irrational.”

“I think it was very natural. Did you notice anything else about him, about the room?”

“There was a half-empty mug of what looked like coffee on the table and a great deal of ash in the grate. It looked as if he had been burning papers. His portable typewriter was where
you see it now, on that side table; the suicide note was still in the machine. I read it, then I went back to the house, told my brother and sister-in-law what had happened and rang the police. After the police arrived I brought them to this cottage, and confirmed what I had seen. I never came in here again until this moment.”

“Did you, or Major and Mrs. Markland, see Mark on the night he died?”

“None of us saw him after he stopped work at about six-thirty. He was a little later that evening because he wanted to finish mowing the front lawn. We all saw him putting the mower away, then walking across the garden towards the orchard. We never saw him alive again. No one was at home at Summertrees that night. We had a dinner party at Trumpington—an old army colleague of my brother. We didn’t get home until after midnight. By then, according to the medical evidence, Mark must have been dead about four hours.”

Cordelia said: “Please tell me about him.”

“What is there to tell? His official hours were eight-thirty to six o’clock, with an hour for lunch and half an hour for tea. In the evenings he would work in the garden here or round the cottage. Sometimes in his lunch hour he would cycle to the village store. I used to meet him there from time to time. He didn’t buy much—a loaf of wholemeal bread, butter, the cheapest cut of bacon, tea, coffee—the usual things. I heard him ask about free-range eggs and Mrs. Morgan told him that Wilcox at Grange Farm would always sell him half a dozen. We didn’t speak when we met, but he would smile. In the evenings once the light had faded, he used to read or type at that table. I could see his head against the lamplight.”

“I thought Major Markland said that you didn’t visit the cottage?”

“They don’t; it holds certain embarrassing memories for them. I do.” She paused and looked into the dead fire. “My fiancé and I used to spend a great deal of time here before the war when he was at Cambridge. He was killed in 1937, fighting in Spain for the Republican cause.”

“I’m sorry,” said Cordelia. She felt the inadequacy, the insincerity of her response and yet, what else was there to say? It had all happened nearly forty years ago. She hadn’t heard of him before. The spasm of grief, so brief that it was hardly felt, was no more than a transitory inconvenience, a sentimental regret for all lovers who died young, for the inevitability of human loss.

Miss Markland spoke with sudden passion as if the words were being forced out of her: “I don’t like your generation, Miss Gray. I don’t like your arrogance, your selfishness, your violence, the curious selectivity of your compassion. You pay for nothing with your own coin, not even for your ideals. You denigrate and destroy and never build. You invite punishment like rebellious children, then scream when you are punished. The men I knew, the men I was brought up with, were not like that.”

Cordelia said gently: “I don’t think Mark Callender was like that either.”

“Perhaps not. At least the violence he practised was on himself.” She looked up at Cordelia searchingly. “No doubt you’ll say I’m jealous of youth. It’s a common-enough syndrome of my generation.”

“It ought not to be. I can never see why people should be jealous. After all, youth isn’t a matter of privilege, we all get the same share of it. Some people may be born at an easier time or be richer or more privileged than others, but that hasn’t anything to do with being young. And being young is terrible sometimes. Don’t you remember how terrible it could be?”

“Yes, I remember. But I remember other things, too.”

Cordelia sat in silence, thinking that the conversation was strange but somehow inevitable and that, for some reason, she didn’t resent it.

Miss Markland looked up. “His girlfriend visited him once. At least, I suppose she was his girlfriend or why should she have come? It was about three days after he started work.”

“What was she like?”

“Beautiful. Very fair, with a face like a Botticelli angel—smooth, oval, unintelligent. She was foreign, French, I think. She was also rich.”

“How could you tell that, Miss Markland?” Cordelia was intrigued.

“Because she spoke with a foreign accent; because she arrived driving a white Renault which I took to be her own car; because her clothes, although odd and unsuitable for the country, weren’t cheap; because she walked up to the front door and announced that she wanted to see him with the confident arrogance that one associates with the rich.”

“And did he see her?”

“He was working in the orchard at the time, scything the grass. I took her down to him. He greeted her calmly and without embarrassment and took her to sit in the cottage until it was time for him to stop work. He seemed pleased enough to see her but not, I thought, either delighted or surprised. He didn’t introduce her. I left them together and returned to the house before he had the chance to. I didn’t see her again.”

Before Cordelia could speak she said suddenly: “You’re thinking of living here for a time, aren’t you?”

“Will they mind? I didn’t like to ask in case they said no.”

“They won’t know, and if they did, they wouldn’t care.”

“But do you mind?”

“No. I shan’t worry you and I don’t mind.” They were talking in whispers as if in church. Then Miss Markland got up and moved to the door. She turned.

“You’ve taken on this job for the money, of course. Why not? But if I were you I’d keep it that way. It’s unwise to become too personally involved with another human being. When that human being is dead, it can be dangerous as well as unwise.”

Miss Markland stumped off down the garden path and disappeared through the wicker gate. Cordelia was glad to see her go. She was fidgeting with impatience to examine the cottage. This was where it had happened; this was where her job really began.

What was it that the Super had said? “When you’re examining a building look at it as you would a country church. Walk round it first. Look at the whole scene inside and out; then make your deductions. Ask yourself what you saw, not what you expected to see or what you hoped to see, but what you saw.”

He must be a man then who liked country churches and that at least was a point in his favour; for this, surely, was genuine Dalgliesh dogma. Bernie’s reaction to churches, whether country or town, had been one of half-superstitious wariness. Cordelia decided to follow the advice.

BOOK: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
12.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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