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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: Portobello
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Eugene was paying for his tissues and his toothpaste when Mr
Prasad said in what sounded like sarcastic tones, 'Your favourites
will be in by the end of the week.'

The unexpectedness of this assault as well as its content brought
the blood rushing into Eugene's cheeks. He muttered, 'Er, yes,
thanks.'

'Would you like me to put in a double order next time?'

'Oh, no, thank you. Really, that won't be necessary.'

He wanted to flee but he made himself saunter out of the shop.
He would never go in there again. That went without saying. This
subtraction reduced the possible Chocorange outlets to ten. And
yet, why couldn't he have looked the man in the eye, laughed
lightly and said, yes, he'd like some ordered specially for him? He
was more or less hooked on the things, as Mr Prasad doubtless
knew, ha-ha. They were so tasty. Why couldn't he say all that? He
doubted if he could actually utter the word 'tasty', just as he couldn't
say 'toilet' or 'kinky'.

He began to recognise he would have to go further afield, perhaps
to the outer suburbs. Of course, as always happened in these
circumstances, he began to experience a craving for a Chocorange,
the smooth oval shape of it, the rich creamy flavour of milk chocolate
and the sharp sweetness of citrus. There was nothing for it
now but Elixir. They always had Chocorange in stock; indeed, in
stock in reassuringly large quantities. His most recent visit to one
of their branches had been to the store in Marylebone High Street
and before that to New Oxford Street. It must be at least a fortnight
since he had used the branch in Paddington Station. Enough
walking had been done for one day and Eugene hailed a taxi.

He didn't ask the taxi driver to take him to Paddington Station;
not, that is, through the glazed-in approach area in front of the
entrance where Isambard Kingdom Brunel, architect of the Great
Western Railway, sits on his plinth. That would have led to the
driver asking him what time his train was, whether he wanted him
to take this route or that and what was his destination. Better ask
the man to set him down in one of the streets that run from Sussex
Gardens to Praed Street and leave him to make his own way to
the station. He had tried to remember street names but only came
up with Spring Street. That would do.

The first thing he noticed – the first thing he always noticed –
was the illuminated sign with the green cross on it that hangs
above pharmacies. There it was, halfway up little Spring Street, a
small shop like Mr Prasad's between a bank and an estate agent.
Eugene felt that catch of breath and lifting of the heart most people
would associate with the sight of the person one is in love with.
He used to feel it at first sight of Ella; now it was for a purveyor
of sugar-free sweets. Don't think of it like that, he told himself,
don't be silly. The pharmacist this time was a woman, also Asian,
wearing a sari, beautiful, calm, with downcast eyes. But he didn't
look at her. The moment he entered her shop a plethora of
Chocorange, radiant in their orange-and-brown wrappings, seemed
to leap up and meet his eyes, to jostle for his attention. This was
a treasure to add to his list, a number eleven to oust Prasad's Bolus
for ever. Without bothering to stock up on more tissues and toothpaste,
he went up to the counter, picked out three packets of
Chocorange and laid them in front of the deferential shopkeeper.
She smiled at him, but courteously, without a hint of cunning or
amusement, and rang up the sum of two pounds twenty-five.

Now free to make his other purchases, Eugene took a bus back
to Notting Hill, where he bought the ingredients for the
dinner he intended to cook for Ella that evening and dropped into
one of the bags the envelope he had picked up earlier. Walking
home with his two fairly heavy bags and sucking his second
Chocorange of the morning, he wondered if tonight would be a
good time to ask Ella to marry him, whether it might not be better
to put it off for a further week or two. After all, their present
arrangement worked very pleasantly. There were none of the problems
of living under the same roof but plenty of lovely sex two or
three times a week. He checked these thoughts, while telling
himself that all men thought along these lines. He loved Ella. If
she wasn't quite the only woman he had ever loved, he loved her
best. He could hardly imagine being parted from her.

But he was a secretive person. Should someone who treasured
his privacy so much marry at all? Still, he had been more or less
living with Ella, at least at the weekends and on holidays, for three
years now. She hadn't probed into his secret life. But another
problem was this habit of his. Even as things were, there were
difficulties. Once or twice she had caught him out and he had had
to say he had a sore throat and was 'just giving these things a go'.
Worst of all, he had been obliged to offer her one, which she had
taken and liked. When he got married he would have to give up.
He knew he must give up anyway and to some extent longed to
give up but, like St Augustine and sex, he asked to be released
from his habit but not yet. After all, as he told himself every day,
several times a day, it was harmless. He enjoyed it so much. And
it stopped him eating calorific food. Once, when he was cooking
as he intended to cook this evening, he would have picked at and
tasted the ingredients. Tasted again during the process and before
he served the food. Now two Chocoranges would see him through.

At home he unpacked the groceries first. The Chocorange were
in his shoulder bag and there also was the envelope containing the
ten- and twenty-pound notes and the five-pound note he had found
on the corner of the street. Sucking his third Chocorange of the
day, he counted the notes. Some drug dealer's haul, he thought
vaguely, but perhaps not. Eugene wasn't indifferent to other people's
feelings, especially in the matter of money, and it might be, though
he couldn't as yet see how, that these were someone's legitimate
earnings that he had dropped – while being attacked? Such things
happened and more often than ever these days. The obvious thing
was to take the money to the police station in Ladbroke Grove.
But he had another idea.

He sat down at his desk and wrote, 'Found in Chepstow Villas
a sum of money between eighty and a hundred and sixty pounds.
Anyone who has lost such a sum should apply to the phone number
below.' He transferred this to his computer in various sizes and
styles of type and printed it out. He would attach it to one of the
lamp posts as his neighbours attached appeals for lost cats. Armed
with Sellotape and blu-tak, he went outside into the street with
his sheet of paper and looked for a suitable lamp post. For the
past week such an appeal had been fastened to the post outside
number 62 and it was still there, though the missing animal, a
spiteful Persian kitten called Bathsheba, had returned home two
days before. Eugene peeled off the notice and put up his own in
its stead.

He thought about it while he was cooking Ella's dinner. The
applicant had only a telephone number. But he had no intention
of handing over the money on a phone call alone. Whoever applied
must be invited here and then asked to name the sum he had lost
precisely. Not eighty pounds or a hundred and sixty pounds but
somewhere in between. There was no way anyone could get it right
except by the most enormous coincidence or by being the true
loser of the money.

The phone call was really something to look forward to. He
would tell Ella all about it later. Absently, he helped himself to
another Chocorange.

CHAPTER FOUR

You couldn't walk down any of these posh streets without
coming on a notice appealing for a lost cat. Always on the
lookout for money-making scams, Lance thought it might
be a good idea to find one of them and take it as a what-you-callit,
a hostage. You could ask a big ransom. Those crazy cat owners
would pay anything you cared to name. The difficulty, of course,
was to catch a cat. One of them, a stripy chestnut and dark-brown
job, had just come out from a bank of greenery and flowers and
sat down on the wall opposite the lamp standard on which a member
of its tribe was posted as missing. It began to wash its face.

Grab it, thought Lance. No, maybe go and get a sack or bag
from somewhere first. He put up one hand, then the other, to see
how easy grabbing it might be. The cat was a lot faster than he.
Quick as a flash, its paw shot out and scratched him right across
his four fingers and the back of his wrist. With a curse, Lance put
his bleeding hand up to his mouth and stepped back. The cat had
gone.

Kidnapping a cat was obviously a tougher task than he had
supposed. He turned to read the notice on the lamp standard. It
would be just his luck if the missing animal turned out to be that
stripy thing, which looked valuable but had now disappeared. But
the print on the sheet of paper wasn't about a cat at all.
Found
,
Lance read,
found in Pembridge Crescent, a sum of money between
eighty and a hundred and sixty pounds. Anyone who has lost such a
sum should apply to the phone number below
. That was a funny
way of putting it. Was it eighty or a hundred and sixty and what
was the point of putting the two amounts? It took Lance a few
moments to understand and when he did it made him angry. Trying
to catch people out, that's what it was. The person who stuck that
up there wanted to have a good laugh when the caller said a
hundred pounds and it was really a hundred and twenty or ninety
or whatever. Lance felt like tearing it down and stamping on it.
He didn't. It would have been a woman who had written that, he
was sure of it. He'd remember that number all right, it was the
same code as his ex-girlfriend's and the four digits were those of
his birthday 2787. Phoning would do no harm. But think about it
first. Think carefully.

He might even ask Uncle Gib. He hated Uncle Gib and his
religion and his horrible house but still he had to admit that the
old man was clever. Not cleverer than him, of course, but clever
in a different way.

Gilbert Gibson had put down a deposit on the house in the
days when he was a burglar. Prison was an occupational hazard
in his job and, all in all, he must have spent about twenty years
inside. While he was away, his wife Ivy went to work in the
Chevelure hair products factory to pay the mortgage and had just
handed over the final instalment when she dropped dead of a brain
haemorrhage. Her death coincided with Gilbert's exit from his
fourth term of imprisonment. It would be his last. While inside
this time his cellmate had been the Assistant Shepherd at the
Church of the Children of Zebulun and the result of their frequent
talks and Reuben Perkins's proselytising was that Gilbert got religion.
This meant no more breaking of the eighth commandment.
It also meant clothing the naked and giving shelter to those without
a roof over their heads.

Uncle Gib, as he was known to everyone in the family, knew
no one who was naked. However, his own nephew – in fact, his
late wife's great-nephew – was without a home. When Lance Platts's
parents threw him out and the girlfriend he moved in with got her
brother to deal with him after he blacked her eye and knocked out
one of her teeth, Uncle Gib took him in. Lance didn't want to live
with Uncle Gib. It wasn't that he was fastidious or ambitious – he
was in no position to be either – but even his parents' flat was
moderately clean, had central heating and quite a nice bathroom.
The girlfriend's place had been newly decorated by the council
before she moved in with her baby. She had a microwave and an
espresso coffee maker, and a huge flat-screen TV on which you
could get about five hundred channels. Her flat in Talbot Road
was always clean and gleaming, and had a balcony that caught the
afternoon sun. Uncle Gib's house, on the other hand, standing in
Blagrove Road right up against the Westway and the train line, was
in much the same state of decoration now as it was when he put
down that deposit on it in 1965. What had changed was the immediate
neighbourhood, now packed with social housing, blocks and
blocks of flats, rows and rows of little houses. Lance knew this
because Uncle Gib often boasted about the unchanged condition
of his home and the virtues of his wife.

'My poor dear wife, your Auntie Ivy, she couldn't afford the paint,
let alone what you might call
structural alterations.
Everything she
earned went into paying off the mortgage. A saint she was. They
don't make them like that no more.'

The saint had nailed up the bathroom door when only a rusty
trickle was coming out of the cold tap and the old geyser broke.
The prevailing view held by Uncle Gib and Auntie Ivy was that
when you had a kitchen sink and an outside toilet you didn't
need a bathroom. One icy morning in early spring when Lance
opened the toilet door he saw a rat scuttle away behind a ragwrapped
pipe. He reported this to Uncle Gib who merely looked
up from his scrambled egg and slice of black pudding and said,
'Don't let the folks next door hear you or they'll all want one.'
When he had got over laughing at his own joke, he added, 'Beggars
can't be choosers.'

Lance was a beggar and he couldn't be a chooser. He lived on
the benefit and Westminster City Council paid his rent to Uncle
Gib. The council had been told he had the whole first floor but
this was a joke, considering Uncle Gib had the main bedroom, the
box room was unusable on account of a leak in the roof over the
window where water came in every time it rained, and the bathroom
was boarded up. There was a second floor but this was never
used or even visited. A rope had been tied across the bottom stair
with a card hanging on it which said
No Entry
like on a one-way
street. Lance and Uncle Gib lived in the quite large kitchen and a
kind of cavern with a stone floor and a sink the old man called the
'scullery'. The front room and 'dining' room were never used, though
they were furnished with hand-downs inherited by Auntie Ivy when
her own parents died in the seventies. These rooms, according to
Uncle Gib, were to be kept 'looking nice' for when he put the house
on the market and prospective vendors came to view it.

When he wasn't writing tracts for the Church of the Children
of Zebulun or being an Agony Uncle, answering
The Zebulun
magazine's readers' queries, Uncle Gib spent his time leafing
through the glossy brochures estate agents put through his letter
box almost every day. The neighbourhood was 'coming up' and
houses soaring in price into the four and five hundred thousand
bracket and beyond. Only after considerable refurbishment, of
course, a requirement that Uncle Gib ignored while reiterating
the enormous advantage of the house being made detached by the
construction of the flyover. His laptop in front of him, he sat at
the kitchen table drinking cup after cup of dark-brown tea and
chain-smoking. Another thing Lance hated about the house was
the all-pervading stink of cigarettes.

'There's a poky little place here,' said Uncle Gib, 'only two
bedrooms, no garden, what they call a patio, which means a backyard,
no scullery, couple of streets away in Elkstone Road, what
d'you think they're asking?'

'I don't know,' said Lance. 'Might be five fucking million for all
I know.'

'Don't you use that language here. This is a godly house. Of
course it's not five million. Have a bit of sense. Be your age. Four
hundred and fifty thousand, that's what.'

Lance tried to get his own back by making a fan out of one of
the brochures and waving it briskly to clear the air.

'You don't like my fags the remedy's in your own hands. You don't
have to stay here. I don't want you. You'll have to go when I sell
the house.' Uncle Gib pointed a nicotine-stained finger at him. 'I'll
tell you something. Our Lord would have smoked if there'd been
any tobacco about in the land of Galilee. He drank, didn't he? It
wouldn't just have been water into wine at the marriage at Cana,
it'd have been Marlboro Lites for all the guests.'

But in need of fresh air, Lance had gone out into the garden, a
very small trapezium-shaped plot where nature prevailed untouched
and where grass, nettles and thistles, dock and the occasional large
speckled fungus grew unchecked. A shed in the far corner, its roof
long caved in, served as a winter store place for Uncle Gib's garden
furniture, an iron table he had stolen from a pub and two kitchen
chairs, one of them with a leg missing. Lance sat down on the
intact chair – the other one had to be propped up with bricks –
and began thinking carefully. She'd want to see him, whoever she
was, she wouldn't just be content with him talking on the phone.
Maybe she wouldn't even ask him for the right number between
eighty and a hundred and sixty. He'd have to go to her place and
have her question him. He went back into the house to consult
Uncle Gib.

The old man had opened his laptop and was answering his
letters. Immensely proud of his role as amateur psychologist and
adviser, Uncle Gib never minded other people reading what he
had written, though criticism wasn't allowed. Over his shoulder,
Lance read:
What you are doing, co-habiting with a man outside
wedlock, is morally wrong and against God's law and you know it.
Now, after nine years of sin, you say you have met another man and
think of leaving your paramour. Leave him you must if he refuses to
marry you. As for the other man you can never enjoy the glory of
God's love if you persist in seeing him . . .
Lance couldn't help
admiring Uncle Gib's command of language, not to mention being
able to spell all those words. He waited until Uncle Gib had finished
the letter.

'I want to ask you something.'

'Can't you see I'm working? You don't know what that is, though,
do you? Not just ordinary work either,
God's
work. Showing this
bunch of sinners the error of their ways.' Uncle Gib's tone changed
from droning piety to an aggressive bark. 'What is it, then? Come
on, don't beat about the bush.'

Lance told him.

'She's got your measure all right, hasn't she? You and them as
are like you. Want me to break the commandment, do you, teach
you how to thieve, teach you the tricks of the trade?'

'I'm only asking what you think I ought to do.'

Uncle Gib was a very tall, very thin man whom prosecuting
counsel had once described as looking like the famous statue of
Voltaire. 'The resemblance is purely physical, my Lord,' he said
to the judge and was reprimanded for irrelevance, misguided wit
and trying to be clever. It was true that his piercing eyes, cadaverous
face and emaciated body gave Uncle Gib an intellectual
look. He had very good white teeth, which had miraculously
survived years of prison food and only sporadic cleaning. These
he bared now in what might have been a smile but was probably
a snarl.

'You've lost a sum of money in Pembridge Crescent, have you?
You was strolling down there with a hundred plus in your pocket
when the wind blew, all them notes flew out and settled in a
little pile on the pavement and you never noticed. Give me a
break.'

'You reckon it's all notes, do you? That means it's got to be a
round figure, not like eighty pounds forty-two or something. And
it's more than a hundred or else she wouldn't have put the whatyou-
call-it, the high number right up there – I mean like a hundred
and sixty. Maybe it's halfway, like –' Lance had to work it out '–
like a hundred and forty.' That wasn't right. He tried again. 'A
hundred and twenty. Or it could be a hundred and twenty-five.'
He looked helplessly at Uncle Gib.

The Voltaire lookalike said, 'You're doing fine. Keep at it. Only
don't you forget all the time you're diving deeper and deeper into
sin.'

'Why d'you reckon she's doing this? Why not just keep the
money?' Lance found it hard to imagine anyone who wasn't in need
of a hundred pounds. 'I mean, she's playing some game, isn't she?'

'Suppose she's just an honest woman? Didn't think of that, did
you? No, you wouldn't.'

'Why don't you fuck off?' Lance said, making a quick exit, though
not so quick as to avoid hearing Uncle Gib's bitter reprimands for
his language and threats of unquenchable fire coming down from
heaven.

His latest mobile had ceased to work after its owner had had
a bar put on it. This hadn't happened until five days had
passed after Lance stole it from the back seat of a car. No doubt
its owner hadn't noticed its absence. People had too much money
for their own good. Anyone who left a mobile inside an unlocked
car deserved all he got. Lance threw the mobile away before
someone told him all it needed was a new Sim card and now he
was obliged to use Uncle Gib's phone. It was a wonder the old
man had one at all. No doubt it had been Auntie Ivy's decision
and she had the phone installed during one of his long periods as
a guest of Her Majesty's government.

Lance dialled the code, which was shared by his ex-girlfriend,
though, as is the way with exchange codes, in a considerably less
upmarket neighbourhood. The first time he tried he got the engaged
signal, the second time, much later, a woman answered. Just as
he thought.

'It's about the paper you put up in the street.'

'I'm sorry?'

'Up on the pole. The one about the money you found.'

'I'm afraid you've lost me. Gene! It must be for you, Gene.'

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