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Authors: Gillian Galbraith

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BOOK: The Road to Hell
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‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ she began, any remaining confidence draining away, ‘but I wondered whether Duncan McPhee was here by any chance?’


‘Duncan McPhee.’

‘I’m sorry, dear, you’ll have to bellow,’ the old lady said, bending even further towards her. ‘I’m as deaf as a post nowadays.’

‘Is Duncan McPhee here? I understand that he lives nearby on Learmonth Terrace.’

‘He’s not here, dear. If I were you I’d try Learmonth Terrace. That’s where he lives, you see?’

The old lady smiled kindly at the constable, thinking to herself that the girl’s youth probably explained her cluelessness. On the other hand, perhaps she had been born terminally dim.

‘You’re on the committee for the Dean Gardens?’ DC Cairns blustered on, aware of the complete non sequitur but determined to establish if there was so much as a smidgen of
truth in any of the information given to her by the mischievous spinster.

‘Yes, I am. But, really, it’s in name alone now. I do little more than adorn the notepaper. Is that what you’re after? A key to the gardens? Why didn’t you say so?
That’s all handled by the Reverend McPhee, as I expect you know.’

The Reverend McPhee’s wife enjoyed driving. Her car was inexpensive, a second-hand Fiat Panda, but it was speedy and, more importantly, it had an excellent sound

Accelerating past a lorry which was straining slowly up a steep gradient, thick grey smoke coming from its rusted exhaust, Juliet McPhee held her breath. Gasping for air after half a minute, she
closed the window before more of the poisonous fumes seeped in.

All the time, in her mind she was accompanying the soprano in ‘Soave sia il vento’, and the sound she was making in her brain was every bit as pure, as crystalline, as that made by
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was blissful, she thought, to be on one’s own, surrounded by incomparable music, with the blue Lomond Hills on the left, the shadow of clouds scudding across them
and sunlight falling on the Kinross plain.

And, best of all, there was no Duncan beside her barking orders: ‘Overtake now!’, ‘Indicate now!’, ‘Park there!’ or trying to ‘rationalise’ her
route. He would never learn. It was easier to obey his commands than resist them, but obedience, too, took its toll.

If she timed it right, she thought, squinting at the clock on the dashboard over her glasses, she could ensure that she arrived home in his absence, and luxuriate in a few more hours of
solitude, with Ailsa alone as company. Thinking about her husband, she reminded herself that she must be fair to him. After all, once upon a time, long, long ago, his dominant traits, his natural
authority and his orderliness had attracted her. That had to be admitted. In their early days, she had found them almost reassuring, believing that his strong character kept the forces of chaos at
bay, protected her.

But those charms, his charms, had dimmed once she had realised what lay at the true core of his being. Fear. An unspoken, unending dread that he would lose control and be discovered, be found
out. That people would see through him and he would be found wanting, shrink, and become wee Dunkie McPhee again, the miner’s boy. Nowadays, the pliant and those he had overtaken socially
were ordered about, lorded over. Those he considered above him had their egos massaged until they, too, were overtaken. Then he showed his teeth.

And at all times, offerings were made to his real deity, the great God of Respectability. Doubtless it was not his fault, this weakness, but, surely to goodness, by the age of fifty-five he
should have got over it, have exorcised those ghosts from his past? Had I known then, she said to herself, growing angrier by the second, that I had been chosen to function as some sort of pass or
membership card to help him to join the middle classes I would have declined his moonlight proposal. Refused his kisses.

But remembering that night, she softened towards him He had trusted her, allowed himself to relax with her as with no one else, regaled her with funny stories of unexpected, idiosyncratic
snobberies within the pit community. He had chosen to expose his vulnerability completely to her, confident that she would never betray him, privately or in public. No greater compliment could be
paid by anyone to anyone.

Of course, his judgement had been sound because she had never parted with his secret, knowing that to do so would destroy him. Even the children remained ignorant about large parts of his
childhood: the sugar or ketchup sandwiches, fifth-hand shoes and the endless darning. And, in his way, he had been a good father, even if he had lied to them about their own grandparents, their
antecedents, air-brushing them beyond recognition.

However, she could, she decided, have done a lot worse. Well, worse, anyway, and so could he! Once, she had been a catch with her abundant blonde hair and trim figure. Time would likely weld
them more tightly together, and, perhaps in old age, he would finally relax, grow to accept himself and stop pretending to be what he was not. Finally, he would grow up.

‘Thou shalt not worship false gods,’ she muttered to herself, removing the
Cosi fan tutte
disc and inserting Mozart’s
in its place.

Seeing the towers of the Forth Road Bridge ahead of her and with ‘Qui Tollis’ belting out, she began searching in the ashtray for spare coins, deliberately slowing down to give
herself time to collect a pound’s worth. While she was picking up speed, amusing herself by racing a goods train rattling over the Rail Bridge, it suddenly came to her that there were no toll
booths any more and she laughed out loud at her own inability to register change. It showed how often she crossed the water.

As she drew into Learmonth Terrace, the bright winter sunshine that she had been enjoying was immediately blotted out by the screen of large sycamore trees parallel to the road. Halfway up the
street she saw an empty space almost opposite her own front door, and blessing her good luck, she manoeuvred into it. Her suitcase was heavy and now she would have no distance to carry it. As she
walked up the front steps of her house, Yale key at the ready, a uniformed constable approached her, inquiring if she was Mrs McPhee.


Once the mortuary assistant had removed the cloth, Juliet McPhee allowed her eyes to rest on her husband’s face and body. An overwhelming urge to keen to the heavens like
an Arab woman rose in her breast, but she controlled herself and remained silent. She was shocked by her own impulse. But he looked so slight, so childlike and vulnerable. She longed to kiss his
cheek, cradle his head in her arms, comfort him. Unthinkingly, she reached out to touch him, drawing back her hand just before she was asked not to.

Suddenly, there seemed too little air in the place, and she became conscious of each breath as she drew it, none being deep enough to give her the oxygen for which her lungs were crying out.
Realising belatedly that the strange panting sound she could hear came from herself, she deliberately slowed her breathing as she had been taught at school. She had not fainted in chapel all those
years ago and she would not do so here either. He would not like it, would have thought it unseemly, showy, quite possibly Latin and hysterical. She must concentrate. Primed by the policewoman, she
reminded herself that she had a job to do.

‘Are you OK, Mrs McPhee?’ Alice said. Unable for the moment to talk, she nodded her head. Then, in a nearly expressionless voice, she identified her husband’s body and calmly
remarked on the absence of his signet ring.

‘Have you taken it?’ she asked the sergeant.

‘No. He is as we found him. Can you describe it?’

It had been, she told them, a gift from her in the early days of their marriage, and he always wore it on his little finger. Looking at him again, she noticed the slightly pale band on his bare
wrist, and remarked that his watch, too, was missing. It had been an expensive one, she said, a present from the children on his last birthday. Hugh had done well at KPMG and it was a Rolex. He had
contributed the lion’s share and Flora had simply chipped in to the extent that she was able. Duncan had always had a weakness for good watches.

After a few more minutes, spent in silence, Alice suggested that they should be on their way, but Mrs McPhee shook her head.

‘I can’t leave him here all alone,’ she said. ‘He never liked confined spaces, you know. He’s claustrophobic.’

‘It’s not him, though. He’s not . . .’ Alice said.

‘No? Not him? Who is
then?’ Juliet McPhee cut in, frowning. ‘I’ve just identified him for you. Please don’t give me any platitudes about the hereafter. He
believed in all of that, the fairy tales, he had to, but I never have. This –’ she said bitterly, pointing at the corpse, ‘is my husband. There is, and was, nothing else of

Catching Alice’s eye, the mortuary assistant nodded his head in the direction of the clock on the wall.

‘Where are his clothes? Perhaps I should take them home with me and wash them?’ Juliet McPhee then said, in a slightly dazed tone.

‘They didn’t tell you?’ Alice said, holding the heavy mortuary door open. To her relief, the woman moved towards it, apparently now ready to go.

‘Tell me what?’

‘That when he was found, he was naked. None of his clothes were found with him in the garden.’

‘How do you mean? I assumed that you, the police, the mortuary people or whoever, removed his clothes – for this’ the woman said, unable to take in the meaning of the
policewoman’s words.

‘No. He was found naked in Dean Gardens. No clothes were found on him or with him.’

‘What . . .’ she said, in a slow, hoarse voice. ‘Naked in the gardens? No one told me. Do you know, officer, I think he’d rather have been found dead in there than naked.
If he had been offered a choice. I really do.’

‘I’m sorry, Mrs McPhee. I thought you’d been informed.’

‘There’ll be a scandal, bound to be in those circumstances,’ the widow mused. ‘Anyone who knew him, really knew him, would tell you that he would rather have died than
play any part in a scandal. I hope it can be kept out of the papers – do you think you could do that?’

They drove back to Learmonth Terrace in silence, Alice’s attempts at conversation having fizzled out. Both women were deep in thought. Juliet McPhee was still puzzling
over the news of her husband’s nudity. What on earth had he been doing? Why would he undress outside in a public place on a cold night in January? To have sex, perhaps? No, surely not! But
that would be the natural conclusion, wouldn’t it? But, if so, why outside in subzero temperatures, for heaven’s sake, and with whom? She had been away, and the house empty. There were
three bedrooms he could have used, excluding their own. Maybe he had been robbed or mugged, but then why would anyone bother taking his clothes? They were nothing to write home about. What
he been playing at?

‘What was he doing in the gardens?’ she asked quietly, afraid of the answer.

Alice, lost in her own thoughts, mulling over the widow’s bleak conclusion about the finality of death, did not hear her.

‘I said, what was he doing in the gardens?’ Juliet McPhee repeated, fleetingly annoyed at being ignored, at having to steel herself to ask again.

‘We don’t know. We were hoping you might have some idea.’

‘I’ve drawn a blank. I can’t understand it at all. It makes no sense.’

‘Have you any idea what your husband was wearing yesterday?’ Alice inquired.

‘No, I wouldn’t know, officer,’ said the woman, letting out a deep sigh and looking out of the car window as they travelled over the Dean Bridge. ‘You see, I was away. As
I told the uniformed constable, I spent the last two nights with my friends in Bridge of Earn. So I haven’t a clue what he was wearing yesterday or the day before.’

‘I understand that, Mrs McPhee,’ Alice replied, ‘but maybe we’ll be able to get an idea from what’s missing in his wardrobe and not in the wash?’

‘I see,’ the woman said, gathering up her bag and getting ready to step out of the car.

After about half an hour sitting alone in the McPhees’ drawing room, Alice heard the sound of the widow’s heavy footsteps on the stairs as she returned to attend to her visitor.
Leaning against the doorway and sweeping back a strand of hair from her forehead, she said, ‘Well, I’ve done what you told me. As far as I can see, he must have been wearing pants.
I’ve no idea how many pairs he had but it would be unheard of for him not to wear them. And a vest, he always wore one, summer or winter. I’m pretty sure he was wearing his black
undershirt with his black waistcoat on top, his favourite black jacket too. There are only three pairs of black trousers in his drawer and there should be four. None have been put out for the
cleaner. So I imagine he’ll have been wearing them too. On his feet he’ll have had his black brogues, he always wore them and they’re missing as well. A symphony in black as
usual, it seems.’

BOOK: The Road to Hell
9.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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