Authors: Robert Barnard
Thank you for purchasing this Charles Scribner's Sons eBook.
Join our mailing list and get updates on new releases, deals, bonus content and other great books from Charles Scribner's Sons and Simon & Schuster.
or visit us online to sign up at
The lines from âLily the Pink' in
are quoted by permission of
the Noel Gay Music Company Ltd
Clip-clop down Carnation Road on her way to the shops went Lillian Hodsden, in the last week of her mortal life.
âHello, Mr Davies. How's the lumbago? Better? Bet you're glad Spring is here, eh? That'll buck you up.'
Mr Davies, tottering home in the opposite direction, let out an ambiguous grunt intended to signify that, thank you for asking, it was no better, and in his opinion Spring was not here, nor even on its way. But he needn't have bothered even with that minimal response. Lillian Hodsden had clomped past him, oblivious, her eye fixed on the next recipient of her early morning cheeriness.
âHello, Mrs Wharton. Lovely day. Saw you'd got your daughter down. That's nice. And the kiddies? Oh, lovely. Give them a kiss from me, won't you?'
At the mention of the grandchildren Mrs Wharton had shown signs of wanting to stop, but Lillian Hodsden would have nothing of it: having no grandchildren herself, thank God, she was unable to bore back in kind, so she shrilled: âCan't stop. Got all the weekend shopping to do. Can't think where the weekdays go to, can you?' and she cantered ahead, leaving Mrs Wharton with vague feelings of rebellious irritation, for she was a widow lady who found her time, minute by minute of it, all too easy to account for. She looked round, eyes narrowed, at the diminishing form of Lillian Hodsden.
It wasn't a form you'd mistake easily. Lill was forty-eight but it needed no more than a dash of generosity to suggest forty-two. Buttoned tight round her chunky, bullet-breasted body was a leopard-skin coat, skimpy in
proportions but flagrant in falsity. On her feet were a pair of cheap sandals, shiny black edged with gold braid, with heavy wooden heels that made rhythmic patterns on the stony tarmac, announcing her coming as surely as if she were Carmen practising with her castanets in the wings. Crowning the whole effectâand no one could deny that she did make an effectâwas a mop of copper-red hair, blatantly untrue to nature, and looking as if she had just dipped her head in a sink full of bull's blood.
You noticed Lill Hodsden, people said in Todmarsh.
Lill was not a native of the undistinguished little southwestern seaside town where she had made her home. She had come here from Leicester in the early 'fifties, the years when Tory freedom was giving people vague yearnings: sniffing the air they smelt money, undreamed-of comforts, the chance of a quick financial kill. It was a time for mobility, geographical and social. Lill Hodsden had her eyes on both. We weren't good enough for her, her neighbours in the Midlands said when she left, and once she'd gone back to tell them they were right.
So sheâand incidentally a husband, and incidentally a baby boyâhad migrated to the South in search of richer pastures: a classier-sounding address; a nicer type of neighbour; schools with better names and more impressive uniforms. She never asked whether she would be accepted, any more than she listened to the replies to her casually flung cheerinesses. She was Lill, and good as the next woman. Over the years she had acquired two more children, and brought her mother down to live next door, but otherwise than that she did not change. Her neighbours it was who finally had to swallow the outrageously sugared pill. She had settled in this dull little town like a bird of exotic (albeit artificial) colouring alighting on a hen-coop. Finally the hens had had to treat her as one of themselves, though they never ceased to look bewilderedly at the plumage.
Her early morning shopping, today and every day, was a royal progress from butcher's to grocer's, from grocer's to greengrocer's. Everywhere she was known. Everywhere she had her standard little jokes and greetings. Everywhere, she was sure, she was loved. For Lill Hodsden was quite unconscious of the possibility that she made any impression other than the one she intended. âQuite a character, our Lill,' she'd once heard the greengrocer say. She had taken it as a seventy per cent-proof compliment. She
quite a character. She had a cheery wave for everyone, knew everybody's history, opinions and little ways, and had the appropriate words of greeting for each one of them.
âThey all say I'm a marvel,' she would tell her family. âThey don't know how I do it.'
So today she clattered from establishment to establishment, exchanging ear-singeing salutations with the other customers, chatting along in her high-speed-drill voice as she waited her turn, chaffing the butcher's boy or the grocer's wife with her age-old jokes and meaningless saws when at last she got to the counter.
âMind you give us a good bit, Bert,' she shrilled to the butcher, gazing with ignorant vagueness down at the offered choice (for she could no more tell a good piece of meat from a bad one than she could tell a sparrow from a chaffinch). âIt's my Gordon's birthday Sunday, and he does like a good joint. None of your fatty bits, now.'
âNot on your life, Lill,' said Bert, with the forced grin that many faces assumed when confronted by Lillian Hodsden. âMore than my life's worth. I wouldn't dare.'
âNor I don't believe you would,' said Lill, with a cackle of self-approbation. âI've got
where I want him, eh?' and she turned to her audience to exact homage.
The newsagent was the recipient of her lengthiest confidences. She dropped in at the end of her tour, her shopping baskets laden with meat and groceries, vegetables
and out-of-season fruit, plonked them down on the floor, picked up
and proceeded to take over the shop.
âIsn't it a lovely day? They laid it on just for me, you know. They like me up there. It's my Gordon's birthday tomorrow. I'm going to do him proud. Here, have you got a big box of chocks? Something real swank? Let's have a look, then.'
She grabbed the proffered boxesâlarge and plush, large and garishâin her pudgy hands and carefully picked the most expensive. (Where does she get the money from? thought the newsagentâa rhetorical thought if ever there was one, for he had a very good idea.)
âNothing but the best, eh?' resumed Lill, slapping down the money. âYou're not twenty-six every day of the week!'
âWhat's your Gordon doing now?' asked the newsagent, without any great curiosity.
âAt this moment I'd guess he's lying in bed,' said Lill, with her parrotty laugh. âThat's where they were when I come out, both the boys. I shouted up to them, I said: “You be out of there before I come back, or you'll feel my hand on your b.t.m's!” Oh, we do have a laugh, me and the boys. They're lovely lads, both of them.' She opened the door into the watery sunshine, a South of England apology for a fine day. âWe think the world of each other,' she said. âThey'd do anything for me.'
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
âShe'll have to be got rid of,' said Gordon Hodsden, lying on his frowsty bed, puffing at a cigarillo and looking up at the ceiling. âSome way or other, she's got to be put down.'
His brother Brian, lying on the bed by the opposite wall, turned his book on to its face on the bedside table and said: âWhat do you think she's saying at this moment?' His voice took on the authentic parakeet shrillness: â “Have you got a nice plump chicken for Sunday
dinner, Bert? Mind it's a good one, becauseâ” '
Here Gordon joined in the chorus: â “â my Gordon he does like a nice bit o' breast!” '
The bedroom rocked as they both shrilled a motherly squawk of laughter.
â “You've gotta laugh, haven't you?” ' resumed Brian, unable to give up the routine. â “Makes the world go round, a bit of laughter, I always say. We have some good laughs, me and the boys.” ' He lowered his voice to a confidential pitch that was somehow just as false and unpleasant: â “But they're lovely boys, both of them. They think the world of me. Worship the ground I walk on. They'd do anything for me, they would, my Gordon and Brian.” '
âThe question is,
shall we do for her, or rather to her?' said Gordon, lying back on the bed, his brown cigarillo pointing upwards to the ceiling, wreathing himself in smoke. âOr, to put it bluntly, how are we going to do her in?'
Brian too lay back on his bed in rapt, companionable contemplation, though the close observer might have noticed the tiny furrow on his young forehead, the trouble in his blue eyes. Physically there was no great likeness between Lill's two boys. Gordon was tall and chunky, with a mop of dark hair, and working-man's shoulders and hands. His face was good-looking enough, but restless and instinct with a half-understood aggression. He had had five years in the army, had bought himself out with Lill's help, and was now working at the local shipyardâand the fact that she felt this was not âgood' enough for him was one reason why his mother had not answered the newsagent's enquiry as to what he was doing now.
His brother Brian was nineteen, so his half-formed look was more understandable. He was slight, fair, and in his pyjamas looked no more than a boy. He too was restless,
with the restlessness of feared failure, of chafing against something he knew he was not strong enough to fight. He was aiming, uncertainly, at university. What Gordon and Brian had in common was their manacle and chain. Physically they were as different as chalk and cheese, and Lill would certainly have made jokes about their paternity if she could have done so without impugning their legitimacy. Nothing like that was to be said about either of her boys! On the subject of her daughter she had no such inhibitions.
âThe great thing about Mum,' said Brian eventually, âabout Lill, sweet songbird of the Midlands, our beloved giver of lifeâthe great thing about her is her regularity.'
âOh Christ, don't mention her bowels,' said Gordon, turning over in his bed in disgust and cursing as his cigarillo stubbed itself out in the pillow.
âNot her bowels, you clot, her habits. Her beastly habits. She generally does everything she does at the same time. Especially of an evening.'
Gordon, engaged in brushing the ash off his bed, and turning over the pillow, on which a tiny burn-hole had appeared, paused. âYou're right,' he said. âRegular as clockwork. Everything according to plan. Down the pub at seven fifteen, back from the pub at nine-thirty. It's all part of her shattering predictability. It's one of the things that make herâ'
âSo utterly loathsome to live with. Agreed. The fact that even when she's out and you've got a bit of rest from her, you keep looking at the clock, knowing that on the dot she'll breeze in and say: “Yoohoo, I'm home! How's my boys? Had a lovely evening, have you?” Right you are. Still, it has its uses.'