Authors: Josephine Cox
She then returned the items to her handbag, started the engine, checked for oncoming traffic, and drew away from the kerb.
At the top of Roff Avenue, she slowed and checked in the driver’s mirror. Her eyes were instantly drawn to a tall, dark-haired figure heading away towards the far end of Roff Avenue. He was walking slowly, almost strolling. He seemed nervous, his head turning this way and that, as though searching for something or someone.
Anne’s heart skipped a beat. She could hardly breathe. ‘Stop that!’ she chided herself. The past is long behind you.
The man was out of sight now and, with an irate driver honking his car horn behind her, Anne shifted into gear and drew away.
Some short distance down the road, she pulled over and switched the engine off. Wrapping her trembling fingers around the steering wheel, she gripped it so tight her knuckles turned white.
‘Pull yourself together, girl!’
She reminded herself that this was not the first time she’d imagined he was actually in her street searching for her. And each time she’d been wrong.
After a few minutes, feeling calmer, she restarted the engine and set off again. By now, there was no sight of the man who had truly unnerved her.
Edward Carter was in a foul mood. Having been up and down the back alley, peeking into yards and hanging about, he had still not been able to catch sight of her. He knew the house was in this street. He’d seen the address in the past enough damned times to know he’d got the right place. Roff Avenue, Bedford.
Unkempt and agitated, he had been on the run far too long. He needed a place to hide to keep his head down for a while. He had a plan, and it involved Anne Wyman, the girl he had married all those years ago. The naïve, trusting little girl who eventually ran off and left him. She owed him, and she was still his wife … whether she liked it or not.
He chuckled to himself. If she really thought he might never come looking for her, she was in for a real surprise.
He continued to wander up and down the back alley, growing increasingly agitated, his sharp eyes constantly scanning the houses.
When a couple of people turned into the alley and wandered past him, he flattened himself against the wall, pretending to light a cigarette. As they went past, he nodded amiably to them. ‘Morning.’
After a fleeting acknowledgement, the couple walked on, though they turned once to take another look at him. When he stared back, they made a hasty exit.
The policeman had not long turned the corner into Roff Avenue when he saw the man head into the alley, and now, as he noticed the couple hurrying out, he grew curious and crossed the street to investigate.
Edward Carter saw the policeman approaching, and, speaking in his finest voice, he cunningly made his way towards him.
‘Good morning, officer. I wonder if you might be able to help me?’
Surprised by this untidy man’s refined voice and manner, the policeman replied in a friendly but authoritative tone, ‘If I can help you, I will, but it’s not wise to be loitering about these back alleys. It tends to make people nervous, and that makes me nervous.’
‘Of course. I do understand, but I’m looking for an old friend … a woman by the name of Anne Carter. When she moved away from her previous address, she gave me the street and town, but forgot to write down the number of her aunt’s house … that’s where she’s staying.’
He began to rummage in his pocket. ‘I can show you what she wrote … Roff Avenue, Bedford. I promised to visit when I was able. The thing is, her old aunt Ada doesn’t have a telephone, doesn’t like them, so I’m told.’ He gave a warm smile.
The policeman nodded. ‘I know a lot of people who seem a bit timid of the idea. I expect they’re used to going down to the red box outside. My mother’s exactly the same … won’t even hear of a telephone in the house.’
Still putting on a show, Carter pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket, feigning a groan when he read it. ‘Oh, wrong one. Sorry, officer. It must be in my inside pocket …’ He made a big fuss of digging about in his pockets.
The policeman accepted his story hook, line and sinker. ‘Look, I understand. I’m afraid I can’t help you, but I tell you what –’ he pointed back down the alley – ‘go back the same way you came in, and turn left. You’ll see a pub on the corner. The landlord’s always up and working, and there’s an old fella keeps the place spick and span. Like as not he might know where your friend is living, especially if there’s an old aunt, because the old ’uns do have a communal spirit round these parts.’
‘Well, thank you very much, officer. I was about to go and knock on a couple of doors, but I’ll have a word at the pub instead.’
‘I’m sure that’s the thing to do, because you won’t find her wandering about in the back alleys, will you?’
‘No, you’re right. I don’t suppose I will.’
‘The pub isn’t open yet but if you knock on the door, the landlord or his wife will be sure to hear you. Ted and Mary have lived round these parts for some time, so they know the locals better than anybody.’ The policeman gave a knowing little smile. ‘Oh, and you might even find a few old codgers playing darts in the corner, enjoying a crafty pint out of hours. They think we’re not on to them yet, but sometimes we find it wiser to look the other way … but don’t tell anyone I said that.’
Satisfied that there was nothing to worry about here, he continued on his beat, thinking what an odd sort the stranger was. He found it hard to reconcile the fact that the man was dressed little better than a tramp, while possessing the confident, refined voice of a gentleman. It looked like he’d come on hard times. No doubt he was hoping for a few days’ lodgings and a cash handout from his old friend. The policeman did not approve of scrounging, and he thought the stranger should be ashamed, especially when it seemed there appeared to be no reason for him not to hold down a job of sorts.
Pausing outside the public house, Edward Carter took a moment to run his fingers through his thick dark hair and briefly brush a hand over his clothes. Best make a good impression, he thought, or they might not be so ready to reveal what they know.
The constable was right. The first thing he saw as he gingerly entered the public house was a group of aged men seated round a table in the corner. They were engrossed in a game of dominoes, and each man had a pint of brown ale before him.
As the door closed behind him, everyone looked up to see who it was. Nobody spoke. Instead, once they had taken stock of him, they resumed their game.
Carter slowly walked past their table. ‘Morning. Nice day.’ He nodded to each and every one, and they nodded back, curious to know who this weary-looking stranger might be.
‘If it’s beer you’re after, you’ll not get it here, at least not till opening time.’ The bulbous, whiskered landlord cast a wary glance to the table where the men were now paying attention. ‘Oh, and before you go making assumptions, these are friends of mine,’ he added warily, ‘a private party.’
Carter smiled. ‘You’ve no need to worry about me. I haven’t seen a thing,’ he assured the landlord. ‘To tell the truth I’m not here for a pint, though I wouldn’t say no, especially as I’ve travelled a long journey to get here.’
‘I see. And what is it you want from me?’
‘I’m looking for someone. I just thought you might be able to help. I expect you know most people round here?’
The landlord seemed reluctant to answer. ‘Maybe I do know a few people, yes, but I’m not the sort to get caught up in gossip. From my experience, poking your nose in other folks’ business can get you in a heap o’ trouble.’
‘That’s all right by me, because I’m not the sort to gossip either.’ Carter was careful to choose his words. ‘The thing is, I’m searching for an old relative.’
‘Oh?’ The landlord remained cautious.
Carter gave a sad little smile. ‘The thing is, when I was sixteen, things got really uncomfortable at home between my parents. Then, when they went their separate ways, Ada took me in.’
The landlord made no response.
Carter continued, ‘Ada had a nice, roomy house in Hampshire. I lived with her until I was twenty-one, and then I needed to get out and see the big wide world.’
‘Wanted to spread your wings, eh?’ The landlord was growing curious.
‘I suppose that was it, yes. But my relative didn’t want me to leave, so we had a bit of an argument before I left. After I’d gone, I wrote often, but she never answered. Then I was told she’d moved here to Bedford. The sad thing is, she was like a mother to me, so when I heard she was ill, I was determined to find her. I’ve always regretted us falling out.’
He lowered his voice to a sorry murmur. ‘She’s quite old now, and I just need to put things right between us … before it’s too late. If you know what I mean?’
Being a family man himself, the landlord approved of his motive. ‘So, if you know where she is, what’s stopping you from “putting things right” between you?’
‘Because after she moved, I never got her full address. All I was told, was that she’d moved to Bedford … Roff Avenue, they thought. I just arrived here this morning and a policeman suggested that I should ask you. He said you might know.’
‘What did you say her name was again?’ the landlord asked.
‘Ada … Ada Wyman.’
‘Mmm.’ He gave it some thought. ‘And she’s of an age, you say?’
‘That’s right. I never knew her actual age – you know what women are like about telling – but she must be in her late seventies by now.’
The landlord scratched his head and called for his wife, who was busy washing pots. ‘Mary!’ his voice rang out. ‘Have you a minute?’
He raised his voice, ‘There’s a fella here who’s looking for his relative, a woman by the name of Ada Wyman, in her seventies!’
‘I don’t know any Ada!’
Blowing out his cheeks in exasperation, he apologized, ‘I’m sorry. We mostly only know the folk who frequent my pub. Does she have a husband?’
‘As far as I know, she never married.’ Carter cunningly played his most precious card. ‘She might have a niece staying with her, though. Her name is Anne Carter … she’s in her early thirties. She and Aunt Ada were very close. I was told that Ada was really ill, so her niece might well be taking care of her.’
‘I see. And what does she look like, this niece?’
Before he could reply, a voice from across the room called out, ‘I know that young lady. Quiet little thing, she is; wild, fair hair and really pretty. Keeps herself to herself, she does. But if you happen to pass her in the street, she always lights up your day with her bright smile.’
Carter could not believe his luck. ‘That sounds like her all right!’
The old fellow who’d spoken beckoned him to the table, where they sat together while the other men listened in, waiting to add their own small pieces of information.
‘I’m sorry to tell you, but your relative Ada passed away some years back,’ one old, slightly deaf fellow butted in. ‘Like you say, the girl did look after her aunt. Did everything for her, she did. She even took her out in the wheelchair most days. You’re right, they were very close.’
‘That’s right!’ the little man in the corner who’d first spoken said. ‘The old dear was so thankful to have the girl with her, she left her the house, lock stock and barrel.’
‘Really?’ Carter was so flushed with this discovery, he could hardly sit still. ‘Would she be at home now, d’you think?’ Carter suppressed his excitement, while feigning the sad expression of a bereaved relation.
‘Oh, but you may well have the wrong name for the niece, because this one goes by the same name as her aunt – Wyman. Not Carter … Anne Wyman. At least that’s how she introduced herself to the post mistress,’ said the little man.
Though burning with rage at that unfortunate snippet of information, Carter managed to keep his cool. ‘Ah, yes, well, as I recall now, she was indeed a Wyman.’
‘Oh, and it’s no use you going along there just now because she’ll not be back from work just yet.’ This further disappointing comment came from a new source. ‘Best to leave it till later, I reckon.’
Carter grudgingly thanked the men. Though quietly satisfied with the information he had gathered, he was in a murderous mood. The knowledge that Anne had callously discarded his name while still being married to him was hard to take.