Authors: Daphne Coleridge
Tags: #Traditional British, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“I think I had the inkling of the beginning of a niggle in my brain from the moment I saw the man in my chair, but I was too confused by events – the excitement of the wedding and then everything else – to really think straight.”
“Not the great detective today,” commented Laura, kissing his shoulder affectionately as she rested her head against his chest.
“Not my top priority today,” admitted Rupert, stroking his wife’s silky hair. “Anyway it was that twit, Martin, who suddenly said something that made the penny drop: he told me that he had spoken to the corpse we found in the chair and that he had been alive that morning in the churchyard. Of course he was wrong; he actually spoke to another man who looked just like the corpse – and who later died anyway.”
Laura lifted her head to look at Rupert, her interest now aroused. “Were they twins?”
Rupert nodded. “Yes, and as soon as I realised that I knew who the men were and could guess something of what had happened. Martin, if he had the wits to think about it, had been told the truth. When I went back and asked him what had happened when he spoke to the man in the graveyard, he was quite dismissive. He said the man was slurred and possibly drunk and didn’t make sense. In fact what he said was that he had promised his brother that he would see that he got to his son’s wedding, whatever it took!”
“His son’s wedding! That man was your father? You never met your father!”
“No,” continued Rupert gently and pensively. “As you know, my mother married after I was born and George brought me up as his own son and my two half-sisters were really sisters to me. My mother spoke a little about my real father, and quite fondly. He used to send her sporadic and generous amounts of money to help with my upbringing, and apparently he turned up to one or two of my sports days and school plays, although I was never aware of his presence at the time. Anyway, I don’t think I ever mentioned the fact to you, but I did know that he was one of identical twins: Peter and Michael Gordon. The man in the graveyard did have a wallet on him and was Michael Gordon. Of course I knew the name, and in fact I could see from his face that he was related to me – same ugly visage! It wasn’t really possible to tell from the man in the chair.” He paused for a moment.
“How awful for you, Rupert! What must you be feeling...?”
“Honestly; at the moment nothing but happiness that I am in your arms. The rest is just too much for me to process straight away. If anything, I’m touched that my father wanted to be here – although perhaps not in the way things turned out! I suspect that both my father and uncle were ill – I know there was a history of heart problems in their family – my mother told me useful stuff like that for my sake. I think my father may have been unwell and Michael was determined to fulfil his last wish. He must have lost his senses a bit to have continued after his brother died – but there you have it! Perhaps the exertion killed him too; we’ll have to wait for the coroner’s report.”
“Was a crime committed?”
“Possibly, by Michael, if he didn’t report the death or dispose of a body appropriately, but perhaps he was in a state of diminished responsibility. Anyway, he’s dead too, so it becomes irrelevant.”
“Perhaps if your mother had been alive she would have recognised your father, but I don’t suppose anyone else would. Well, Rupert, I hope the rest of our married life is more conventional than our wedding day.” Laura wriggled into a comfortable position preparatory to going to sleep.
“Who knows,” commented Rupert in the voice of one who expected anything but the conventional from life with Laura, as he snuggled against her and closed his eyes at last.
The Claresby Mystery
It was a matter of record, as witnessed by the Domesday Book in 1086, that the Lord of the Manor of Claresby enjoyed exclusive rights to hold both a market and a fair on his lands. It was a matter of fact that, although there were various faded sepia photographs to bear witness to the reality of Claresby Fair as a happy tradition, no such fair had been held in living memory. It was Laura Latimer (née Mortimer) who was now the rightful custodian of these tattered photographs, which had been long retained by her family on the basis that they were of negligible value on the open market, everything that was of value having been sold at prestigious London auction houses or, more recently, on eBay. Laura had, however, perused these pictures as a child and nurtured a dream of one day reviving the custom. The recent restoration of her fortunes, which had resulted from the discovery of treasure concealed by her family in the time of Oliver Cromwell, meant that she now had the wherewithal to host such an event without any anxiety about whether or not it would be profitable. As a student of Fine Art – albeit one who had dropped out after her first term at Cambridge – it was inevitable that she should choose to have an Arts Fair, despite the invasion of artists that this invited.
Thus it was that Laura awoke in bed on a sunny June morning, the tousled hair and benign, ugly face of her husband, Rupert, on the pillow beside her and the prospect of a chaotic day of stalls being erected, ice-cream vans claiming their pitches and the smell of hog roast from dawn until dusk ahead. The inevitable consequences of a beer tent being available in her grounds had not escaped Laura’s practical mind, but there was a row of portable toilets on site and she planned to keep the door to the manor itself locked and out of bounds, the fair being set at the far end of the grounds. Nonetheless, despite a tendency to reclusiveness and inhospitality, she did have an assortment of artistic minded friends who were taking part at the fair sleeping in her house; a side-effect she rather resented.
“Remind me, Rupert,” she asked, rubbing her sleepy eyes and smoothing her glossy, auburn hair, “who is in the house?”
Rupert hauled his long, angular frame upright in their four-poster bed – which creaked protestingly – and put his arm around his pretty wife, screwing up his eyes in thought.
“Floyd is in the green room and Sebastian across the corridor – malice aforethought; I love watching those two bicker! Delilah and Conran are in the King’s Room, because we spent so much money restoring it and Delilah loves something a bit flashy. Samantha is in your old bedroom, because all the best paintings are in there and she will appreciate them.”
Laura nodded approvingly at the logic of her husband’s dispersal of their guests. She was glad to hear that the King’s Room was in use. It was the grandest bedroom in Claresby Manor, with the best view across the gardens, an ornate bed with newly restored rich purple hangings and seventeenth century Flemish tapestries on the walls. Its name derived from the fact that Henry VIII was reputed to have spent a couple of nights sleeping there, arriving with his retinue on a royal progress and almost bankrupting William Mortimer, the incumbent at that time. Still, it was never prudent to fail to please the great monarch, although rumour had it that William had taken care that his young and famously beautiful niece was not about the place when the King had arrived.
With a view to the fact that the day was to be a very hectic one, Laura placed a perfunctory kiss on her husband’s large nose and rolled out of bed and headed for their bathroom. Rupert watched her slim, graceful silk-clad body with the enthusiasm of a man still in the honeymoon years of early marriage.
“You had better rout out Sebastian and Floyd; Floyd was putting away my vintage Armagnac with gusto last night, and Sebastian is notoriously idle.” Laura emerged from the bathroom rubbing her face dry with a towel. “Floyd won’t have much to do as Jinny is arriving with his paintings today and will no doubt set up stall for him – he does take shameless advantage of his wives – and Sebastian is much too much the “great artist” to do anything other than set up an easel and impress people. At least Floyd will muck in and take part; I appreciate the favour, even at the price of having him as a houseguest again.”
Rupert nodded obligingly. It was the nature of their relationship that Laura took the lead and he made things work. The fact that the house and money were hers and that the nearest Rupert came to a paid occupation was writing crosswords could have made for an awkward dynamic between them, but for the fact that it suited their personalities. Even without the house and the money, Laura was one of those people who went their own way whilst others followed, or not, at their own inclination. Rupert, in turn, was the type to be utterly devoted, as he was to his lovely wife. The reason the financial reality and balance of power was not emasculating to him was the underlying reality that Laura could not possibly manage, let alone be happy, without Rupert by her side. She would never have dreamed of acknowledging the fact, even to herself, but the tall, awkward, ugly man in her bed was the light of her life.
Whilst Laura proceeded to wash her hair, Rupert pulled on jeans and a tee shirt without feeling the need to wash or do more than smooth his light hair into abeyance. As he opened the heavy door to their bedroom onto the slightly musty, cool corridor with shafts of sunlight playing on the dusty air, he could hear no sound of movement within the house itself, although the muffled noise of cars arriving and other “setting-up” sounds came from the grounds as others prepared for the resurrected Claresby Fair. The volley of creaks that the oak floor boards reported as he made his way towards the corner of the house where Sebastian and Floyd were separately ensconced, was enough to waken any but the most robust sleeper, even without the gentle taps he made on the doors belonging to the Hawkes’ and Samantha Pearson. When he reached the room allocated to the well known installation artist and occasional inventor, Sebastian Fullmarks, Rupert turned the knob and stuck his head around the door.
“Nice, sunny morning; are you thinking of getting up? There are bacon and eggs and everything else in the kitchen in a help-yourself kind of way.”
Sebastian, a white haired ruddy cheeked man with a perpetually disgruntled expression was already sitting up in bed.
“You needn’t have bothered waking me,” he grumbled. “There was no prospect of my sleeping with Floyd’s stentorian and vulgar snores bellowing across the corridor all night! I believe you put me next door to him deliberately. I had the misfortune to share a room with him for a couple of nights forty years ago, when we were students together, and have made a study of avoiding such proximity ever since!”
Rupert gave his lopsided grin. “Sorry, Sebastian; we can always give you a different room tonight.”
“Very well,” came the slightly mollified reply.” I will get into the bathroom before Floyd and make sure I have had my breakfast before he emerges. Did you say there were sausages? Will you be cooking?”
“Yes, I’m just going down to get things going. I’ll just stick my head around Floyd’s door.”
Rupert crossed the corridor and peered into the room inhabited by Floyd Bailey. The green bedroom was on the west side of the house, so it was necessary for Rupert to readjust his eyes to the gloom after the sunlight of Sebastian’s bedroom.
“Good morning, Floyd,” began Rupert brightly. There was no reply. This was not too surprising; Floyd did not so much “go to sleep” at night as “fall unconscious into his bed”: rousing him the following morning was a challenging and sometime unsuccessful operation. As it was Rupert knew that Laura’s vision of the day included the presence of this unreliable but likeable and talented artist. He entered the room and repeated his greeting in a louder voice. Still no reply. As Rupert’s eyes became slowly accustomed to the dim morning light that filtered through the curtains a few anomalies began to register on his brain. The room was a pleasant sage green and plainly rather than grandly furnished. The bed was a fine brass bedstead with a cream coloured bedspread and Floyd was reposed on his back, the covers up to his chin. On the wall were a number of scrawlings which caught Rupert’s eye. For a moment he thought that Floyd, with drunken artistic enthusiasm, had been undertaking some sort of impromptu mural. Rupert examined the walls with greater attention and finally turned to the recumbent figure in the bed.
Breakfast had been initiated by Samantha Pearson. Already immaculately dressed in her uniform of a smart grey trouser suit softened by a lush purple scarf and modern, silver jewellery she was turning the bacon rather stiffly at arm’s length with the air of a headmistress who had been forced to substitute for the school dinner-lady. Sebastian, pale knees protruding from beneath a dark blue dressing gown, was seated at the long, oak table and watching her, his bright blue eyes focused on the progress of the sausages. The kitchen was a lofty, medieval affair with lots of brass cookware hanging along the walls.
“Thought I’d get in before Floyd arrives,” Sebastian was saying. “Since he is usually drunk from midday onwards, breakfast is the only meal he makes a proper job of. I don’t want to see the sausages go to feed the production of his tedious, out-moded paintings.”
Samantha turned and delivered him a plate and forked several sausages onto it, sliding a fried egg out of a second frying pan. She didn’t say anything but, at her disapproving look, Sebastian put his legs together, pulled his dressing gown straight, and turned to the table to more properly address his food. In fact Samantha was perfectly indifferent to the man’s state of dress or undress, and her disapproving look was a professional one that related to Sebastian Fullmarks’ modern style of art which she regarded as nothing short of an abomination and an insult to the beholder. Leaving the food to keep warm at the back of the stove, Samantha helped herself to a good English breakfast and sat at the table a reasonable distance away from Sebastian.
“Why are you here, anyway?” asked Sebastian through a mouthful of egg. “This is an arts and crafts fair; your speciality is eviscerating decent artists in that blog of yours, “Supine Arts” – that is destructive, not creative.” His tone was not as aggressive as his words suggested, and he and Samantha were old friends and adversaries. Certainly she was unruffled by his address. Sitting straight backed and prim, she finished the food she was eating before she spoke,