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Authors: Rebecca Tope

Malice in the Cotswolds (13 page)

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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In North Staverton, earlier that same day, Den Cooper went directly to see his friend Drew Slocombe after he and Maggs got back from Broad Campden. He had been doing the same thing for the past month, two or three times a week, aware that his employer in Bradbourne was on the brink of losing patience with him as a result. Today he had not gone in at all, setting out with Maggs for Drew’s new burial ground before nine that morning. But an irritated employer was a price he had no hesitation in paying, given the circumstances. Drew was struggling, his health threatened, his children silent with worry. The fear about Karen was like a deep trough into which they were all inexorably sinking.

Karen herself seemed to Den to have given up. In the years since her original injury, she had very slowly
faded away, becoming physically smaller and weaker, and mentally detached. Personality seeped out of her: reactions slowing, emotions evaporating. Doctors scanned and tested her damaged brain and professed themselves at a loss. It could only be shock, they insisted – something intangible and unreachable had happened, which ought to rectify itself merely through the therapeutic influence of daily life. Her physical brain was fine – as far as they could see.

Except it wasn’t. Something deep inside had failed, or burst or blocked in a vital spot and Karen had lapsed into deep unconsciousness. She could breathe without mechanical assistance, and her skin reacted to pain by flinching, but she seemed deaf and blind and infinitely remote from the people who needed her.

Maggs refused to regard any of this as hopeless. She avidly collected stories of people who had emerged from far deeper comas than this, to live many normal years. She pointed to Karen’s response to pain as proof that she was still functioning, and would wake up in her own time. Where the men and the children adopted quiet stoicism as their coping strategy, Maggs went wild. She shouted and argued, spent hours at Karen’s bedside talking to her in an endless urgent monologue and fiercely defended Drew from any needless bother.

Which was obviously why she had been so awful to that poor woman in the Broad Campden field. They had not discussed it during the drive back. Instead, Maggs had aired her thoughts about the floundering
plans for the second burial ground. ‘He won’t be able to keep it going,’ she said. ‘I told him all along it was too much. I never understood what he thought he was doing.’

‘Expansion would have been good business sense,’ Den observed. ‘Especially as it fell in his lap, more or less. He’d have been daft to refuse it. Besides, you were all for it, a few months ago.’

‘Well, things have changed since then. He’ll have to give it up. He can barely keep North Staverton afloat as it is.’

Den knew better than to argue. Maggs based all her assumptions on the expectation that Karen would survive, and be in need of long-term care. If – when – she died, things would look quite different and Drew might well be glad of the distraction involved in setting up a second strand to his business.

Drew’s home and office were all part of the same building in the quiet little backwater that was North Staverton. He had been there for seven years or so, filling his land with graves, until the Peaceful Repose cemetery had begun to look as settled and permanent as any churchyard. The graves were not arranged in straight lines. The plot itself was an odd shape, with sections devoted to animal graves and ashes plots, the paths between them running in curves, adding to a sense of freedom to use the space as imagination dictated. There were few rules at Peaceful Repose. No sooner had Drew decided to put a limit on memorial
trees or stones than Maggs or a persistent customer persuaded him to change or abandon it. There were quick-growing silver birches, one or two patches of graceful bamboo, a lot of spring bulbs and a riot of flowering shrubs. In total there were two hundred and ten graves, which over the seven-year period had yielded Drew, Maggs and Karen a very meagre income indeed. Karen had worked as a teacher, originally, but stopped when Timmy was born. She had saved money by growing vegetables and scarcely ever buying clothes. She had been part of a collective that ran market stalls and celebrated a lifestyle that depended as little as possible on money.

Drew had been in demand as a secular officiant at funerals in crematoria, creating personal and meaningful ceremonies as people shook themselves free of the church-based rituals that had less and less significance for them. He gave talks, and signed people up for prepaid burials. He also buried them on their own land, now and then – which had happened with Greta Simmonds in Broad Campden, and led to a situation which Maggs at least regarded as unsustainable and troublesome, given the appearance of Thea Osborne on the scene. All these activities raised additional income, but it still amounted to all too little.

Den found his friend in the office, idly sorting through a small stack of papers. ‘Hi,’ he said, from the open doorway. ‘Nice day again.’

‘Oh, hello. What time is it?’

‘Two-fifteen. Have you eaten?’

Drew shook his head. ‘Somebody phoned. Maggs has gone to see them. We’ve got a burial tomorrow.’

‘Yes, I know. Mr Anderson. Half past two.’

‘Right.’

‘Kids okay?’

‘Not really. Timmy wet the bed again. Steph got into a fight yesterday with a girl in the park, who said Karen was going to die. I can’t believe how vile children can be, how they seem to actually
want
to hurt each other.’

‘They’re just testing the boundaries, to see what happens. They have to work out what the consequences are of various behaviours.’ Den had taken a course on child development not long ago, thinking he might turn to teaching as a career move. ‘They don’t mean it maliciously.’

‘I think they do,’ Drew disagreed.

‘Oh, well.’ Den had no wish to argue. ‘It’s good that Steph reacted.’

‘It would have got her into trouble, though, if it had happened at school. They won’t tolerate any violence these days.’

‘Where did Maggs go? Who was it that phoned?’

‘The hospice. Somebody wants to make arrangements. She won’t be very long.’

‘She lost it this morning – did she tell you? In your Broad Campden field.’

‘What? Did you go with her? Did anybody tell
me that? Why weren’t you at work?’

‘Come on, mate, keep up. I don’t work Mondays any more. It’s gone down to a four-day week. The writing’s on the wall, we can all see it. I’ll be lucky to hang on till Christmas.’

‘Oh, God! What’ll you do then?’

‘Something’ll turn up. I can get some experience in a school somewhere and sign up for teacher training. Except I’ve missed the boat, according to Maggs. Too many out-of-work bankers deciding they want to teach, all of a sudden. We’ll get by,’ he finished easily. ‘It’s the same for everybody, and with Maggs alongside, we’re never going to starve.’

‘What did you mean about her losing it?’

‘That house-sitter woman was there when we arrived. With her spaniel. I know Maggs should have minded her own business, but you probably know how she feels about her.’

Drew stared at him. ‘No. I’ve no idea. Why does she feel
anything
? What’s Thea to do with her?’

Den trod carefully. The emotional links between all those involved were complex and delicate. ‘She thinks you’re vulnerable to people like that. She feels she has to defend you from them.’

‘Oh!’ The undertaker forced a laugh. ‘Silly girl.’

‘I know. It was pretty much out of order. I felt sorry for what’s-her-name. She was pretty shaken.’


Thea
. She’s called Thea. I haven’t seen her for ages now.’

‘She said you asked her to go and check the grave.’

‘I sent her a text. She’s staying somewhere close by. Snowshill, or something like that.’

‘Snowshill? Where that kid was killed at the weekend?’

Drew stared harder. ‘Kid?’

‘A boy was strangled. It was on the news just now. Sounds to me as if the mother did it. Very nasty.’

‘Is Thea involved, do you think?’ Drew’s eagerness would have done nothing to allay Maggs’s worries, if she’d been there to witness it.

‘I have absolutely no idea. Why would she be?’

‘She tends to turn up when that sort of thing happens. Like at Broad Campden. She got me off the hook there, Den. I don’t know where I’d have been without her.’

‘And you went to see her, with the kids, in Cranham. That seems to be the bit that Maggs can’t stomach.’

‘Maggs is overstepping the mark.’ Drew’s energy was reviving by the moment. ‘Thea’s a good friend, a clever woman who … well, who can be very good company,’ he finished lamely.

‘And she’s pretty,’ Den observed mildly. ‘I can see there’s definitely something about her.’

‘Am I banned from seeing her, then?’

‘If Maggs has her way, yes you are,’ said Den candidly. ‘And Maggs generally does get her way.’

‘She needn’t worry. I’m not going anywhere, am I? How can I, when the hospital could call at any
moment? I’m nailed to this room, like Christ on the cross. I’m even starting to think I know how he must have felt.’

‘I can see it’s crucifying you, anyway,’ summarised Den. ‘You’ve lost half a stone at least since June, and you look as if you haven’t slept for a month, either.’

Drew shrugged. ‘Anyone would be the same. It’s the not knowing that’s such a killer. It’s a cliché, I realise that, but when the future’s just a massive grey void, you don’t feel like putting much effort into the present.’

‘Your kids have a future. You need to focus on that.’

‘Without a mother? What sort of future is that?’

‘Come on – listen to yourself. You’ve been the most hands-on dad I’ve ever seen, especially with Stephanie. They’re not babies any more. You’d cope. You’ve got me and Maggs to help.’

Both men were fully aware that the prospect of Karen’s absence was assumed as hard fact in this exchange. In the past few days a shift had taken place, leaving only Maggs resisting the irreversible process by which Karen was being lost to them.

Drew focused his gaze on a mat on the floor. ‘She was such an amazing girl when I met her. All that hair, and bright beautiful eyes. She was so quick and funny and
good
. She was my
mate
, for life. When it looked as if we might never manage to have kids, I thought – well, that’s okay. Nobody in their right mind could ask for more than Karen anyway. She always knew the
right line to take, always had such a
zest
. That stuff with the farmers’ market, just before she was injured – she was
fabulous
with all that. Everybody loved her.’

‘I know. I remember.’

‘I was never worthy of her, never really understood what she saw in me. She knew there were times when Maggs had to steer me back on track, when I went astray. But now Maggs has got it wrong. Even she can’t put everything right this time. And she doesn’t have to be fierce with poor Thea. Things are different now. We’ve all got other things to learn, other ways of surviving. Maggs is living in the past.’ He shook his head in defeat. ‘Which is a great shame.’

‘Sorry, mate, but I think it’s you that’s wrong, not Maggs. She’s making sure we all remember what we’ve got to hang on to. If we’re ever going to face the future, we need to keep the past in mind, to show us what matters. She’s the consistent figure through all this. Even if it doesn’t work with you, it’ll be a lifeline for the kids. Somebody has to keep the old Karen alive for them, give them that foundation and security.’

Drew rallied again. ‘
I
can do that. And Karen’s mother, up to a point. We both can and will do it. But it won’t help them if I crucify myself, will it? I have to be normal and functional, and try to remain my usual self.’

‘I think that’s what Maggs and I are both trying to say,’ said Den with a smile. ‘And we’ll get there, if we all pull together.’

Drew did his best to answer the smile, before asking, ‘But what did Maggs say to her, exactly?’

‘I don’t remember exactly, but it was pretty strong. It seems she’s been working herself up for quite a while and it all came spilling out. She hadn’t expected your lady to be quite so attractive, I suppose. She really is a looker, isn’t she?’

‘She’s seven years older than me. Her daughter’s twenty-two. Nearly as old as Maggs, in fact. She’s a widow and she’s daft about dogs.’

Den was unmoved. ‘So?’

‘So there’s nothing for Maggs to get angry about, and no reason in the world to abuse poor Thea. What am I going to say to her now?’

Den tilted his head. ‘You have to say something?’

‘Of course I do. If there’s been a murder near where she’s staying, and if she went to look at the grave like I asked, and if she wants somebody to talk to—’

‘Oh dear,’ said Den. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’

‘Shut up,’ said Drew.

 

When Maggs got back from the hospice, Drew forced himself to confront her without delay. ‘Den was here a little while ago. He said you’d been rude to my friend Thea. What was all that about?’

Maggs lifted her chin and met his eye in a very direct gaze. ‘What do you think?’

‘I think you need to back off a bit, and let me live my own life. You’re not my mother. It was out of order.’

‘Den said the same thing, but I just flipped when I saw her. I know you, Drew, don’t pretend I don’t. What about that time with Genevieve Slater? You’d have done something terrible then if I hadn’t stopped you.’

‘That was seven years ago and anyway I wouldn’t have. You exaggerate your influence. You’re worrying about nothing. Can’t you see how damaging it is, you thinking that sort of thing about me? You’re crossing a line.’

‘I was thinking of Karen,’ she said, no longer meeting his eye.

‘I know, and I absolutely understand that you want the best for all of us. But you can’t control everything, however much you want to. We’ve all got to take it a day at a time, and keep things as normal as possible for the children.’

‘Yes!’ she said loudly. ‘That’s exactly it. If you go off with that woman, it won’t be normal, will it?’

He sighed. ‘Maggs, you’re all wrong. I can see how scary that idea must be – but it isn’t going to happen. It never was going to happen. There’s no question of it.’

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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