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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: Portobello
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Another woman, thought Lance. Probably a couple of lesbians.
But it was a man's voice. 'Eugene Wren. What can I do for you?'

Lance repeated what he'd said.

'Ah. You lost some money, did you?'

'Yeah. That's right.'

'I'm not going to ask you how much it was. Not now. Perhaps
you'll do me the courtesy of coming here and we'll have a chat
about it. When would suit you? Tomorrow evening about 6.30?'

Lance agreed. The rest of the empty day stretched before him.
He would have liked to go out somewhere for the evening, pub
first, then maybe a club up West. He'd never been to a club, he
couldn't afford it, he couldn't afford anything. His benefit was
basic. He was a 'Jobseeker' but he didn't know what to say at interviews,
he just sat there in hopeless silence. No one wanted to
employ him and now he had given up trying, though poverty was
a perpetual trial to him. Everything he received went on food to
supplement the very small amounts Uncle Gib made available to
him. If you were rationed to an egg a day, two slices of black
pudding or luncheon meat, four slices of bread, a bun and a small
wedge of processed cheese, you needed a good deal extra. When
he complained, Uncle Gib said that was all
he
had and people ate
too much. God would have vengeance on them for not thinking
of the starving millions in Africa. Lance bought tins of baked beans
and tins of sliced peaches, pork pies and sausages, king-size bags
of crisps and chocolate bars, and the biggest loaves of sliced white
bread he could find. He also bought quite a lot of booze, Bacardi
breezers, bottles of cider and the cheapest gin as well as wine from
Kurdistan and Bulgaria. All his benefit was gone and he remained
stick-thin.

He had no faith in securing this 'found' sum of money for
himself but he'd get a look at the place where this Eugene Wren
lived, he'd have an idea of the house and its contents.
Remembering some of the things Uncle Gib had said years ago
in his unregenerate days when Lance was a child, he thought of
the term 'casing the joint', and he thought of observing entrances
and exits, ways of getting in and out. And of course there was
always a chance he'd get the money as well.

CHAPTER FIVE

In the hospital, when he regained consciousness, they told him
he had had a heart attack and requested his consent to the
operation he should have had a year or two before. Joel asked
to have it done privately, knowing Pa would pay. Pa would pay
anything to keep him out of his way; out, preferably, of Hampstead
Garden Suburb and its environs, out of the whole of north London.
The operation was performed with the frightening (if he had known
about it beforehand) splitting of his breastbone and lifting out of
his heart – and something else.

His surgeon told him afterwards, 'We nearly lost you. Don't know
why. You seemed OK, thriving no less, and then you arrested. Of
course we brought you back. Don't suppose you remember anything
about it, do you?'

Joel said he didn't. What had happened to him he intended to
tell no one – not yet, at any rate. If he really tried it might go away.
Concentrate instead on trying to remember exactly what had
happened before he passed out and fell over in the street. His
mother came to see him, unknown to Pa, and he told her where
it was he had had his heart attack.

'I think I'd drawn some money out of the hole in the wall,' he
said to her. 'I think it was a hundred and forty quid but there was
only twenty-five in my pocket. It's in the drawer in that cabinet now.'

'You were never any good with money, Joel,' said his mother
mournfully.

'Someone might have handed it in to the police. It's worth asking.'

His mother looked doubtful. She said she would enquire and then
she said she wondered if it was 'all those drugs' he had taken in
time gone by that caused his 'little heart problem'. Joel said he'd
gone into rehab, hadn't he, he'd got cured, and then he lay down
and pulled the sheet over his head. It was too light in his room. He
had asked them for dark blinds and preferably dark curtains too, but
they said the ones at his window, pale-blue and translucent, were
the best they could do. He had read in a travel supplement about
a place in the north of Sweden called Kiruna. It was inside the Arctic
Circle and at midsummer when daylight endured all night, the
Ferrum Hotel put up pitch-black blinds at their windows to give
guests a dark night. At midwinter it stayed dark night and day. Joel
liked the thought of Kiruna. It was just the place for him.

An only child for a long time, he had had an imaginary friend
from the time he was seven until he was ten. The friend was
a boy of his own age he didn't just pretend-talk to or imagine he
was talked back to, he actually saw him. Not as clearly as he saw
his schoolfellows but enough to describe him if someone asked.
No one ever did ask because he told no one, but if he had he
would have said that the friend he called Jasper, because Jasper
called himself that, was fair-haired with blue eyes and had an
expression of great sympathy and understanding.

No one at school was as nice as Jasper or as good a companion.
Most of them ignored Joel or else mildly bullied him. Until, that
is, he grew too tall for them to dare do too much to him. By that
time Jasper had slowly faded away, the golden hair and blue eyes
losing their colour, the features blurring, until he became a shadow
falling sometimes across a patch of sunlight, then disappearing
altogether. Joel had been saddened by his loss, which was not to
say he was made happy by his return. Lying in his hospital bed,
he closed his eyes and put his hands over them so as not to see
the figure in the chair.

The real figure in the chair later that day when the bright sunlight
had faded was Ma. She hadn't been to the police. She had gone
to Pembridge Crescent to see where his heart attack had happened,
notably to find the bell in the gatepost her son had fallen against.
When she found what she thought was the right one, she rang the
bell. The people who lived there were 'absolutely charming', couldn't
have been nicer. Of course she had thanked them for saving Joel's
life and they were 'most anxious' to know how he got on.

Joel asked, emerging, 'How about the money, Ma?'

'Well, such a funny thing, dear. There was this notice on a lamp
post saying someone had found it. You were quite right about the
amount. That really was clever of you after all you've been through.
I wrote down the number you're to phone. Would you like me to
do that for you?'

'I'll do it,' said Joel.

'All right, if you're sure.'

'I nearly died, you know. They said they nearly lost me.'

'I know, dear. You told me.' It was plain she didn't believe him.
'I want to talk to you about coming out. You're going to need
someone to look after you for a while. Your father won't have you
in the house. He's very hard but that's the way he is. Well, you
know how he is, he doesn't change. He says he'll pay for a live-in
nurse. Would you like that? I can come over every day of course.'

'You'll be in deep shit with the old bugger,' said Joel and he
pulled the sheet over his head.

Once more under the blanket, in the stuffy semi-dark, he was aware
of his mother sighing and at last stealing quietly away. Would his
father have been sorry if he'd died? Joel doubted it. Pa would remember
to his dying day what had happened to Amy. He would never forget
and never forgive. Amy had been as much Ma's child as his and if
Ma hadn't forgotten she had got used to it,
she
had forgiven him
.
She
knew he hadn't meant to do what he did, or, rather, left undone. Pa
would never understand that and so he would pay out any amount
of money to keep his son out of his sight for ever.

* * *

'I hope you know what you're doing, Gene,' said Ella Cotswold.
'Inviting this person into your home, I mean. Why couldn't you
simply ask him to – well, name the sum, and if he got it wrong
that would be the end of it, wouldn't it?'

'And if he got it right he'd have to come here anyway. You don't
suppose I'm going to send it to him by telegraphic transfer, do
you?'

'But, darling, if he gets it wrong, and he probably will, he may
get angry and – well, do something nasty.'

'Nonsense, Ella,' said Eugene robustly. 'I'm curious. I want to
see this chap. He sounded a bit of a wimp.'

'I sincerely hope he is.'

They were going out to dinner at a newly opened restaurant in
Kensington Park Road. While Ella applied lipstick and contemplated
her reflection in one of his beautiful gilt-framed mirrors (he
called them looking-glasses) Eugene nipped into the kitchen and
took from a secret drawer two Chocorange sweets, which he slipped
into his jacket pocket. The secret drawer had no handle and looked
like part of the decorative frieze that ran along under the worktops.
He noted that he still had three packets left, so perhaps he
should take a third sweet with him to be on the safe side. No, two
in his pocket and one to suck now should be enough.

Ella had an acute sense of smell and she detected it on his
breath but supposed he had helped himself to a chocolate while
in the kitchen. He knew she never ate chocolates but he might
have offered her one just the same. She was a small woman and
slightly plump, with a very pretty face and dark-brown curly hair,
proud of her full bosom and showing it off whenever she could
while remaining decent. Her fortieth birthday would come before
the end of the year and she looked forward to it with dread. As a
busy GP with a full life, a devoted lover, a passion for opera and
a great reader, she realised how foolish this was. Forty was nothing
these days, forty was young. Yet those months stretched before her
like a sunny plain at the end of which a sheer cliff face dropped
down into an abyss.

The abyss could be avoided and the sunshine made permanent
if Eugene would ask her to marry him. She imagined walking
into the medical centre and showing her engagement ring to her
three partners, the medical secretary and the practice nurse.
Maybe she could have a baby. That was something she wouldn't
attempt without being married but if only he would ask her –
the whole world would change. She had even thought of asking
him
. But you couldn't do that if you were an ordinary sort of
doctor in a busy practice and he was a very rich man. He smiled
at her and when he had helped her into her coat, gave her a
chocolatey kiss on the lips. It was quite hurtful, she thought, not
being offered a chocolate even though he knew she wouldn't have
taken one.

'By the way, Gene,' she said when they were in the restaurant,
'how much did you find?'

'How much did I . . . ? Oh, the money I found in the street? A
hundred and fifteen pounds.'

'And you've only had one response in how long?'

'About two weeks, my darling.'

'What will you do if this chap doesn't get it right?'

'Take it to the police, I suppose.'

That would be a bit awkward after so long. But there was no
point in thinking about it yet. Eugene looked fondly at Ella. How
pretty she was and how nice. He would miss her terribly if she
weren't around, though there was no prospect of that. This evening,
in this charming restaurant with its delicious food, its candle on
the table and its gazanias in a silver vase, would be a good time
and a good place to ask her to marry him. Maybe when they were
having their dessert wine and their double espressos . . .

But the time passed and he didn't ask her. Candlelight there
might be and gazanias but a restaurant wasn't quite the place. It
must be at home when they were quite alone. It might also be a
good thing to give up this habit of his. It shouldn't be too difficult,
for there was no question of its being an addiction like drink
or drugs. But give it up he must, simply by the expedient of buying
no more. Possibly it would take him a week or two, so there would
be no proposal of marriage that evening.

Perhaps she had expected it. He couldn't tell whether that was the
case or she was just tired. Whatever it was, she said she'd like to go
home to her own flat and he put her into a taxi for that rather less
salubrious north-western edge of Notting Hill beyond the Portobello
Road. An early night for him also, then. He would propose soon; there
was no doubt he loved her. Next time they met, perhaps, or in a
week's time. By then the habit he had mysteriously got into would
be behind him. She would certainly say yes, they would fix a wedding
date and she would move in. That was what he wanted, wasn't it?

It was not yet quite 10.30 but he fell asleep quickly and
therefore was awake at six, scarcely able to believe his ears
when the phone rang at ten past. No one should phone anyone
after nine in the evening was a principle of Eugene's and certainly
not before nine in the morning. His 'hello' was icy.

A man's voice, educated, not unlike his own but younger, said,
'I've only just seen your notice. Well, I didn't see it. Someone told
me about it. My mother, actually.'

'Do you know what time it is?'

Instead of taking this question as rhetorical, his caller said, 'No,
I don't. Quite early, I should think.'

'What is it you want?'

'I think you've got my hundred and fifteen pounds.'

'Ah, yes.' Eugene tried to consider. 'You did say a hundred and
fifteen?'

'Yes. It's mine.'

He wasn't yet fully awake. Still, it was apparent this was the
rightful owner of the money. What was he going to do about the
other chap, he thought fuzzily, the one who was coming today?
'Perhaps you'd like to come here and collect it,' he said.

'I can't do that.' The voice might be educated but it was odd for
all that, vague somehow, in no hurry. 'I'm in hospital, had a heart
operation,' it said. This perhaps accounted for the oddity. 'I'm going
to be in here quite a bit longer. Could you send it?'

'I suppose so,' Eugene said ungraciously and with a sigh. 'Who
are you and where do you live – when you're not in hospital, so
to speak.'

'But I
am
in hospital. Look, I'm called Joel Roseman and I live
in Ludlow Mansions, Moscow Road. That's West Eleven. But I
don't see why you can't send it to the hospital. It's the Welbeck
Nightingale Heart Hospital, only it's not in Welbeck Street, it's in
Shepherd's Bush. The McCluskie Wing. Have you got that? A
cheque would be safer than sending cash.'

What a time to phone! And from a hospital bed! Surely a private
clinic by the sound of it, so this Joel Roseman could hardly be in
need of the money. Eugene began to feel very uncomfortable and
the hot verbena-scented bath he took didn't much improve matters.
He should have got the name and phone number of the man who
was coming at 6.30 today so that he could put him off. How could
he have failed to do that? In his blue silk dressing gown he sat up
in a pink velvet armchair, thinking about it. Looking at the very
nice Cotman on the opposite wall usually calmed him down but
not this morning. He went downstairs, which he seldom did before
he was dressed, and in the drawing room, from the fifth drawer
down in a tallboy of tiny drawers, opened a fresh pack of
Chocorange, put one in his mouth and another in his dressinggown
pocket. 'Tooth-friendly', it said on the packet so that was all
right. Still, it was the first time he had sucked one of the things
before 10 a.m. Another thin end of the wedge. He would just have
to go through with it, see this chap and tell him he was too late.
Awkward but inevitable. And those things had better be rationed
from now on, one more after lunch, two in the afternoon and
maybe one before Ella arrived.

But no, not rationed. Given up. He would buy no more.

Suppose the nameless man, his first caller, happened by chance
to fix on the right sum? It would be a remarkable coincidence,
Eugene thought, but not impossible. He might, for instance,
calculate that in naming eighty pounds and a hundred and sixty
pounds as the lower and upper limits he, Eugene, would have
avoided the sum arrived at by adding forty to the lower and
subtracting forty from the upper. So why not take this figure, which
was of course a hundred and twenty, and take away five from it?
Put like that it seemed not impossible at all to reach this conclusion,
hardly a coincidence. Anyone of moderate intelligence could
reach it, choosing only between five pounds added to a hundred
and twenty and five pounds subtracted from a hundred and twenty.

BOOK: Portobello
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