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Authors: Suzette Hill

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Bones in the Belfry

BOOK: Bones in the Belfry
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To Roger Hartley Lloyd: the joker in the pack,
in loving memory
.

 
Table of Contents
 

Title Page
Dedication
1: The Vicar’s Version
2: The Dog’s Diary
3: The Cat’s Memoir
4: The Vicar’s Version
5: The Vicar’s Version
6: The Vicar’s Version
7: The Vicar’s Version
8: The Cat’s Memoir
9: The Vicar’s Version
10: The Dog’s Diary
11: The Cat’s Memoir
12: The Vicar’s Version
13: The Vicar’s Version
14: The Vicar’s Version
15: The Vicar’s Version
16: The Vicar’s Version
17: The Dog’s Diary
18: The Cat’s Memoir
19: The Vicar’s Version
20: The Vicar’s Version
21: The Vicar’s Version
22: The Cat’s Memoir
23: The Vicar’s Version
24: The Vicar’s Version
25: The Dog’s Diary
26: The Vicar’s Version
27: The Vicar’s Version
28: The Cat’s Memoir
29: The Vicar’s Version
30: The Cat’s Memoir
31: The Vicar’s Version
32: The Dog’s Diary
33: The Cat’s Memoir
34: The Vicar’s Version
35: The Cat’s Memoir
36: The Vicar’s Version
37: The Dog’s Diary
38: The Vicar’s Version
39: The Vicar’s Version
40: The Cat’s Memoir
41: The Vicar’s Version
42: The Cat’s Memoir
43: The Vicar’s Version
44: The Dog’s Diary
45: The Vicar’s Version
46: The Vicar’s Version
47: The Cat’s Memoir
48: The Vicar’s Version
49: The Vicar’s Version
Also by Suzette A. Hill
Copyright

The Vicar’s Version
 
 

When Nicholas Ingaza persuaded me to store his ill-gotten paintings circumstances had ensured that I was in no position to refuse. The year was 1958 and my situation as vicar of St Botolph’s, Molehill, Surrey, was what you might call precarious. Six months previously I had had the misfortune to eliminate one of my parishioners by process of strangulation, and the whole business had been exceedingly trying for me. Not that I
was
tried, for through a blend of sheer good luck and the ineptitude of the investigating police officers I had somehow managed to escape detection and continue my parochial duties unencumbered by criticism or scandal. Then just when things were getting back to normal and I was starting to feel moderately safe, Nicholas cheerfully intervened and my long-sought peace was once more disrupted.

Among other things, and for want of a better term, Nicholas was an art dealer living a life of somewhat misty ambiguity in Brighton. He had not always been an art dealer. Once upon a time he had been a fellow student at St Bede’s, the theological college where I had trained after the war; but events and his own predilections (notably the patronizing of a certain London Turkish bath) had directed him elsewhere – jail, to be exact – and we had long lost touch until his unexpected emergence in the bar of the Old Schooner, Brighton, in the summer of 1957. As things turned out, it was an encounter which would prove both useful and dangerous.

To explain Nicholas Ingaza is difficult: he is one of those people whom one never really knows but whose capacity to both rile and charm can have an unsettling, even disastrous, effect upon those around him. Beneath the lazy banter and brilliantined suavity there lurks an anarchic spirit, a maverick obstinacy which had certainly created havoc with the authorities at St Bede’s all those years ago – and which even now was jeopardizing the plans I had so carefully laid for my own future security.

At the height of the ‘troubles’ (i.e. the time when I was in maximum danger from police curiosity) Nicholas had provided me with an alibi, or rather he had corroborated a fiction I had been forced to concoct. He had done this without my having to confide the essential reason for the subterfuge; but his brief part in it had left him tiresomely inquisitive about an event in my life it would have been foolish to reveal. Consequently Nicholas had what you might call a hold over me; and, as he had lightly pointed out, I was in his debt – ‘You owe me one, old cock!’ being, I think, his exact words.

After a decent interval the owed favour was inevitably requested and I had reluctantly complied. Under the pretext of needing additional storage space for an absent client, he had delivered two large pictures to the vicarage. No mention was made of their provenance and the items were to remain in my ‘safekeeping’ until such time as his client required them. I asked no questions, undid no cords, and tried to pretend that they were not there.

The vicarage is small, the pictures large; and after a few days the absurd inconvenience was impossible to sustain. They would have to go elsewhere: either down in the church crypt, filthy and damp, and for some reason beloved of my dog Bouncer; or up in the belfry. The former was by far the more accessible but the conditions seemed less than ideal. The belfry was dry, airy and sufficiently remote to deter prying eyes or passing tramps. Thus it was up to the belfry that I somehow managed to lug the wretched things, watched enthusiastically by Bouncer who seemed to think that my oaths and panting exertions were some form of new game. Anyway, there I left them, returned to the vicarage, and putting them out of my mind tried to resume a quiet and untroubled life.

That, I think, might have been achieved had it not been for Mrs Tubbly Pole. As it was, her arrival in the parish caused considerable upset to the carefully placed apple cart, and its contents were sent cascading in a number of directions – principally mine. Later I developed a wary liking for Mrs Tubbly Pole and we became moderate friends, but at the time she was dynamite.

 

A couple of weeks after I had received the goods from Nicholas, a house became vacant a few doors down from the vicarage. Its owners were moving to Kenya on a two-year diplomatic term, and rather than sell they had decided to rent it out. The ‘To Let’ sign disappeared after only a week and I learnt on the grapevine that ‘a very nice lady from London’ had taken it for an unspecified period.

The nice lady’s arrival was heralded by the usual spate of errand boys and delivery vans, but for a while I saw nothing of the new tenant – although her presence at the house was firmly marked by the appearance of an obese and brindled bulldog which spent much of its time lolling idly over the bars of the front gate. Of bulging orb and sabre tooth, this creature would wheeze and snuffle in a way that clearly unnerved passers-by, making them scuttle past with lowered eyes. Its name, I subsequently learnt, was Gunga Din – presumably something to do with the owner’s colonial days in India (on which, as I came to know her, she would expatiate with nostalgic relish).

Inevitably, however, our paths soon crossed: at the local pillar box to be exact. There I waited my turn as a large female enveloped in musquash was busy ramming bulky packets into its narrow slit. Finally, muttering something about the inadequacies of the postal provisions, she turned and nearly bumped into me.

I raised my hat politely; whereupon, appraising my dog collar and clerical grey, she exclaimed, ‘Ah, I’m new to this area. My name is Tubbly Pole, and
you
must be the Reverend Francis Oughterard – quite a public benefactor, I hear. I like a man of generosity, pretty rare these days!’ And she pumped my hand vigorously. I was slightly nonplussed by both comments – confused by the first, embarrassed by the second. Was Tubbly her first name? And if so was that how she wished to be addressed? Surely not! But one never quite knows about these things …

The reference to my generosity was discomfiting; not so much on account of natural modesty as because, although I had indeed contributed to some of Molehill’s worthier causes, the monies for such gifts were a large part of the legacy left me by the lady of whom I had disposed.

That legacy, far from being welcome, had been an embarrassing bombshell. In the circumstances the last thing I had wanted was for my name to be linked to the deceased in quite so public and intimate a way. At the time, Mrs Elizabeth Fotherington’s dispatch had been a psychological necessity; and monetary considerations were far from my mind when I had been forced to put an end to her ceaseless chatter and coy innuendoes on that dreadful June morning in Foxford Wood.

For months she had been tiresome beyond endurance, driving me insane with her importunate attentions. This garrulous widow of uncertain years had become the bane of my life; and it was typical of the woman that even from beyond the grave she had still been able to exert a simpering control over my privacy and peace of mind. Leaving me that large sum was her
coup de grâce
, her final act of meddlesome intrusion. And, crucially, it was the one thing that might have connected me with the crime!

Thus I had done the only possible thing: abrogated all claim to the legacy by distributing the funds to various local charities. The public approval which this inevitably produced, while in itself unsought, had certainly helped my purpose of stifling suspicion. Nevertheless, it was a means to an end which I have always found faintly embarrassing – and which is why I now felt awkward at Mrs Tubbly Pole’s fulsome praise.

So muttering something self-deprecating, I quickly turned the subject by asking how she was settling in, and made a great show of patting the ‘handsome’ bulldog. This was obviously the right thing, for she launched into a bubbling eulogy of the creature’s finer points and complimented me on my shrewd judgement of canine quality. Our encounter was concluded by an exhortation to be sure to visit them; and wagging her finger imperiously, she told me not to leave it too long or else ‘the mountain will be forced to come to Mahomet!’

As I walked home I pondered her words with not a little apprehension. Supposing she was going to be another Elizabeth! But on reflection I considered this improbable. Unlike that lady, Mrs Tubbly Pole seemed of a cheerful and robust nature and did not strike me as one to go ga-ga over an obscure parson twenty years her junior. Having little personal vanity in that particular sphere, I also thought that the chance of ever again eliciting such avid interest remote in the extreme! Thus reassured I returned to the vicarage to feed the dog and cat and give myself a light restorative.

 

A week passed, and what with one thing and another – squaring up to the Mothers’ Union, parleying with the church heating engineers, and calming the organist’s tantrums – it had been quite a strenuous day. However, it was over now and I could enjoy an evening of uninterrupted quiet. There was a concert starting on the Third Programme which I had been rather looking forward to. So switching on the wireless, I settled back in the armchair, closed my eyes and prepared to relax to Heifetz and the opening bars of the Elgar Violin Concerto.

As the first notes were struck, the front gate clicked loudly. I cursed, and from the window saw waddling up the path the portly form of Gunga Din followed by his owner Mrs Tubbly Pole. Evidently I had been too tardy in paying the requested visit and, as warned, the Mountain had taken things into her own hands. The dog wore a tartan coat clamped to its ample back. His mistress was sporting some drapery of shaggy fur reaching down to her ankles, and a wide velour hat with upturned brim. The effect was a cross between the Queen Mother and Bud Flanagan. Reluctantly I went into the hall to welcome my guests. Her shape loomed through the glass panels of the front door, and even with it still closed between us I could hear her throaty tones echoing around the porch as she embarked on introductions.

‘My dear Vicar, I hope you don’t mind my intruding. Gunga and I were just passing and thought we might drop in and –’ by this time I had opened the door – ‘DISTURB YOUR PEACE,’ she boomed in my face. I smiled weakly as dog and mistress shoved their way into the narrow hall and were shed of their respective coats.

I steered them into the sitting room, switched off the wireless and mumbled something about making a cup of tea. She sunk herself into the larger of the two armchairs while the bulldog flopped heavily in front of the fire.

‘Well, it’s half past five, you know – almost six o’clock. Not too early for a glass of gin, I’d say. Gunga and I like a little nip of an evening.’ I brightened at this and went to fetch the bottle, assuming the reference to the dog to be a joke. ‘A dash of ice and tonic if you don’t mind,’ she called, ‘but he’ll have his neat. A saucer will do.’ The tone was genial but confident and I realized she wasn’t joking.

Thus directed, I poured a few drops of my precious Plymouth into a saucer and gingerly pushed it under the dog’s snuffling nose. He lapped it thoughtfully. Mrs Tubbly Pole lapped hers and started to appraise the room. Her eye fell on Bouncer sitting meekly in the far corner near the piano. There was an unusual stillness about the dog and it occurred to me that he was probably mesmerized by the spectacle on the hearthrug. Met his match there, all right!

‘Oh, you’ve got a dog as well as a cat,’ she enthused. ‘Must be a fellow animal lover!’ I explained that I hadn’t exactly chosen them, that they had in effect installed themselves and somehow just stayed on.

‘Ah, but they must find you deeply congenial. You obviously generate a great sense of security. I know all about animals – they won’t stay with just anyone, they’re very selective!’

I was flattered by her assessment but felt doubtful whether Bouncer and Maurice shared her confidence. At that moment there was a slight movement by the door and I glimpsed the latter poised on the threshold staring querulously at our guests. As he did so I heard her say, ‘I fear my Mimi fell by the wayside two months ago. Gunga Din is only just recovering. He
so
loves pussy cats! … Don’t you, little man?’ She beamed down at him. Interrupted in drowning his sorrows, the little man stared up lugubriously and then with a sigh returned to his saucer. Maurice had disappeared.

‘I expect you’ve been wondering why I’ve come to Molehill,’ she observed. I hadn’t particularly but composed my features into the appropriate look of enquiry. ‘Of course, it’s only a temporary arrangement, shan’t need more than six months. You see, I’m one of those hack writers – and a pretty successful one too. My métier is the detective novel.’ She grinned broadly, spread her plump fingers on the arms of the chair and leant back awaiting my response as if all was revealed. It wasn’t.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘How very interesting. But I can’t quite see –’

Before I could continue she had launched into a list of titles –
Mortuary Capers
,
The Case of the Vanishing Corkscrew
,
A Stiff in the Grass
,
Daggers over Dagenham
,
Blood in the Wind

‘All good stuff,’ she exclaimed, ‘and jolly lucrative – they’re never out of print, you know! I expect you’re bound to have read some of them.’

‘Well …’ I began doubtfully.

‘Now don’t tell me that you of all people haven’t read
The Mystery of the Curate’s Curse
– should think that would be right up your street!’ She gave a friendly snort and threw down some more gin. ‘That was a real launching pad! All about skulduggery in Lambeth Palace. One of my most ingenious, though I suppose by today’s standards a bit old-fashioned but it put me on the map all right!’ She chuckled happily.

As a matter of fact it did rather ring a bell, and I thought that it could have been the book to which as a young soldier I had gratefully clung during the heavier bombardments. The events it had depicted were so bizarre as to make the nightmare of air raids and shell fire almost normal, and even at the time I had been struck by the author’s seemingly off-beam ideas about the Church of England and its clergy – the clerical protagonists being not so much unhinged as completely barking! However, despite such patent unreality, the book had provided a welcome distraction from the war’s own lunacy and I was grateful to the author for his inventiveness. I say ‘his’ because I was fairly sure that the jacket had carried a masculine name. Did Mrs Tubbly Pole write under a nom de plume perhaps?

BOOK: Bones in the Belfry
12.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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