Authors: Peter Dickinson
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The Yellow Room Conspiracy
A Crime Novel
he late Lady Seddon's instructions were that I should leave the material by Paul Ackerley as it stood, but that I should “tidy up” her transcribed tapes. To this end the present Lady Seddon lent me a number of letters from her mother-in-law, with which I found the voice on the tapes to be remarkably consistent in style, making allowances for hesitations, repetitions etc. I have to the best of my ability based my version of the transcription on the letters, including such details of orthography as the spelling of “alright” as a single word. Otherwise I have made no material alterations at all.
ormally I'd have switched the radio off the moment I heard the name, but I was trapped in the middle of the Yellow Border, poisoning bindweed, a tense and delicate process demanding far greater physical control than most other activities that come my way. I've tried various methods, including the one with the rubber glove and the old sock, but nowadays I do it with a plastic bag and a cheap little hand-sprayer. So I was poised in the midst of all the late July uprush (I keep my borders pretty crammed) with my feet twisted into two small clear patches and my hands, having disentwined the growing-tips of the bindweed and eased them into the bag and sprayed them there, now trying to withdraw them and at the same time shake any excess poison from them back into the bag so that it didn't drip elsewhere. Disentangled bindweed is intransigently floppy. My left calf was on the verge of cramp. I had left the radio on the gravel path twelve feet away.
It was that jokey political quiz, with Critchley and Mitchell, and a couple of columnists as their guests, attempting to give politics a good name by answering questions about politicians as bitchily as the facts allow. If they are on form they can make it work. Part of the format of that particular show is that there comes a point when the contestants are given two minutes to answer, competitively, using buzzers to get in first, as many questions as they can about some past event. Only a week or two before I had heard them doing the Profumo Affair, and it had then crossed my mind that they'd probably get round to Seddon. Still, I wasn't ready for it when it came. I suppose I am still emotionally unable to believe that anyone could regard it as a fit subject for mirth (though most people now do), because for me the central fact about it has always been the appalling and tragic weekend at Blatchards, whereas in the public view that was marginal to the revelations that made it newsworthy: hypocrisy and corruption and sexual shenanigans linked with hitherto respectable household names.
Anyway, there I was, teetering in the middle of my sunlit border, when the voice said, “â¦ two minutes to answer as many questions as possible about the Seddon Affair. Which year?”
. (The rival teams use slightly different notes.) “Julian?”
“Too easy. Suez. 1956.”
“One point. Which sport â¦?”
“That was the outdoor sport.”
“One point to Julian, and one to Austin for a relevant intervention. What was the name of the East End pub â¦?”
I had started to lurch towards the radio, trodden into an eryngium which I had already spent several minutes teasing into natural-looking elegance and propping in place with twigs, and stopped. The momentary and trivial discomfort was not worth the damage I'd cause by trampling around. I had the garden open next day. I could bear two minutes, surely.
“â¦ Dirty Dick?”
(Wild studio laughter.)
“Come on. This isn't Blackpool Pier. No one know? It was the Wooden Leg.”
(I had forgotten that.)
“How many Vereker sisters â¦”
“One point. Nancy, Harriet, Lucy, Janet and Belinda. How many husbands?”
“Nine. Or was it ten?”
“I'll plump for a round dozen.”
“The Dirty Dozen?”
(Animal cackles and brays from human throats.)
“May I remind you you have only two minutes. And you're all wrong. It was eight. I'll give half a point for each name. Forget your buzzers.”
“Lord Seddon, Edward Voss-Thompson, that crook who killed himself â¦”
“That Italian playboy. Gino Arrezzio?”
“Arrizzio, but it will do.”
“No. Not married. Three to go.”
“Wasn't there a Smith?”
“Bobo Smith. Married to Harriet. Any more? David Fish, Richard H. Felder III andâI don't know how you managed to leave him outâMichael Allwegg.”
“Aren't you going to ask us how many of them Lucy had slept with?”
The studio brayed. I'd been trying to prop the eryngium back on to its twigs with the hand which wasn't holding the plastic bag and sprayer. I straightened, snatched the secateurs out of my hip pocket and slung them at the radio. I was never any use at ball-games, but I have often been amused to notice how accurately I can toss weeds into a bucket several feet away, missiles whose differing weights and air-resistances my hand and eye seem to estimate without the intervention of a calculating mindâthat is, until the moment of noticing, when I can do it no longer. Had I been told that I must fling the secateurs at the radio in order to save my life, or the human race or something, I should certainly have missed, but I flung them without thought in the pang of shame and anger and they hit, point first, bang in the centre of the loudspeaker grille, and speared in. The cackles snapped off as the radio crashed over, and in the sunlit stillness I heard a collared dove calling. Shuddering with swallowed fury, both at the insensitivity of my species and at my own lack of control in ruining a perfectly adequate little radio, I crouched to finish dealing with the eryngium.
It refused to lean as I'd had it, with its blue heads and stems casually haloing the mahogany and orange daisies of a rudbeckia, so I stayed crouched for a couple of minutes getting it right, with the result that when I rose the blood drained from my brain and I had to stand helpless in the drumming dark, swaying, until my head cleared. As light came back I heard footsteps on gravel and opened my eyes to see Lucy coming slowly up the path with a full glass of sherry in each hand. It was only Saturday, so without thinking about it I registered that she had been listening to the same programme while she was getting lunch ready and had brought me a drink because she'd known I'd need it. A decent-sized glass of sherry was typically thoughtful. Left to myself I'd probably have made a violent Martini, and then felt stupid all afternoon.
She stepped round the radio which lay in the path with the secateurs speared dramatically into the grille. “Are you all right?” she said.
“I stood up too fast. I'm OK now.”
Her hands had begun to tremble. Sherry dribbled down her wrists. I picked my way out and took the glasses from her.
“Bother,” she said. “I thought I was going to make it all the way.”
I grunted. Shock, emergency, a quick little surprise sometimes, can do that. The shakes go for a few minutes. It's a commonplace of the disease. If she needs to Lucy can make use of it, deliberately as it were shocking herself into momentary full control, but of course there is a law of diminishing returns. She put a quivering hand on my elbow and let me lead her up to the bench at the top of the border. It's only there for looks, and the occasional visitorâas far as I'm concerned there are always more interesting things to do in a garden than sit down. But now the sun-sodden stone was delectable against my spine, as necessary to me as the drink. Two doves answered each other, from the orchard and from beyond the stables. The patch of common hemp agrimony at the top of the Maroon Border murmured with insects, which is one of the things it is there for. Something honey-scented drifted on the imperceptible breeze. Lucy leant against my side, her shakes dwindling from their after-shock extravagance to their usual steady tremor. Only the radio was wrong. It was like the focal point in a Magritte, deliberately placed in the perspective between the borders in order to deconstruct the idyll. The black casing contradicted the sunlight. The shape, mean-proportioned, square-edged, embodied the unnaturalness of artifact among all the growth and green. The object itself snapped at me about what I'd done.
I put the glasses on the bench, strode down the path, slid the secateurs into my pocket, took the radio into the scullery yard and dropped it in the bin. When I came back Lucy appeared to have fallen asleep, bolt upright, a knack she'd always had. She was wearing a sleeveless linen shift with nothing, I guessed, underneath. (She could still dress herself, but simplified the process as much as she could.) Though I'd done her hair well that morning, by now it had half-loosened itself from its bun, but that had always been her style. I remember a diplomatic reception, presumably while she was still married to Tommy Seddon, as she was hostess. Royalty of some kind had just arrived and she was greeting them. I was admiring the way she made her formal curtsey look like a friendly and natural gesture when her sister Harriet, standing beside me, whispered “Trust Lucy to look as if she'd already started going to bed when she suddenly remembered she was supposed to be here.”
Now straggles of fine grey hair hung down by the pale slant of her cheek. The “masked” look, symptomatic of the disease, was only slightly present, subsumed for the moment into the mask of beauty she had always worn. Her thin white arms seemed frail as paper. Her whole attitude cried to me of her vulnerability (though both frailty and vulnerability had, until her illness, been almost pure illusions). Once again, for the thousandth time, the pang of love stabbed through me. I stood letting it fade away, much as I had done with the blood-loss a few minutes before, and then walked on. My footsteps woke her, or she had not been asleep, but she didn't open her eyes till I settled beside her.
“I switched it off as soon as they said the name,” she said.
“I was stuck.”
“Yes, I saw. That was a terrific shot, Paul. I'll buy you a new one for your birthday.”
“See if you can find a water-proof one. They have them for camping.”
“May I have my sherry?”
I held it to her lips so that she could empty it enough for her to hold without spilling, then picked up my own and sipped.
“What a perfect day,” I said.
“It's all looking too beautiful,” she said.
“I only see what's still wrong with it. Oh well, I suppose it's not bad. Let's hope the weather holds.”
“You always say you prefer to look at gardens in the rain.”
I must have sighed. Despite the banalities of contentment, the aftertaste of the radio programme kept regurgitating itself in my mind. Lucy read my feelings.
“I'm sorry,” she said.
“Don't let's talk about it.”
“I think we've got to. As a matter of fact I've been thinking about it a lot. I'm going to start getting worse soon.”
“Nonsense. There's no reason why you shouldn't stay pretty well as you are for years still. You're on a plateau. I had a long talk with Liz Sterling, when was it â¦?”
“She doesn't know. I'm the only one who knows. It's been quite a nice plateau, and I'm glad it's lasted as long as it has, but I can feel the edge coming. It doesn't matter what Liz Sterling says.”
I opened my mouth to snap at her, and closed it again. What was the point? I'd lied to her about what Dr Sterling had told me.
“What's for lunch?” I said.
“It's cold. Let's stay here. It's lovely here. Please, Paul. I want to talk to you. I'll make it as easy as I can for you.”
“You don't have to make it easy for me.”
“It's really just two things â¦”
I was aware of some inner effort taking place. This itself was a rare eventânot the effort, but my awareness. I suppose I know her better than anyone else in the world, but I am nowhere near understanding her, why she is what she is, says what she says, does what she does.
“I'll have the good news first. If any,” I said.
“I don't know if it counts,” she said. “Will you marry me, Paul?”
I was startled into laughter and spilt some sherry. Years and years ago, lying sleepless in a dirty little hotel in Samos, I'd heard faint rhythmic murmurs from her and realised she was counting.
“Greek sheep?” I'd murmured.
“Men who've proposed,” she'd said. “It's your faultâyou set me off, teasing me about Waldemar.”
(He was some kind of international financial brigand who had a plush cruiser moored in the harbour. Lucy had spotted him and let on she'd met him. I'd suggested making ourselves known in the hope of an invitation on board. Lucy had refused, saying that he was one of her rejectees and hadn't taken it well. I rather crasslyâI was in a bitchy moodâhad asked how long the list was and where he came.)
“I've got to thirty-seven,” she said. “Not counting the ones where I didn't speak the language so I didn't know whether actual marriage was part of the proposal.”
I'd already known, even then, what she'd been telling me, that part of our unspoken contract was that I should not figure in that list.
“I want it soon,” she said now. “While â¦ while I can still understand what's happening. It's all right, Paul. I'm not trying to tie you up. I've got everything worked out. While you were in Scotland I got Timmy to come and we went round and looked at some homes and found one which will do. He's going to sell enough of my shares to buy an annuity which will cover the fees. And we'll have a marriage contract which will say you've got to let me go there as soon as it's no fun living with me.”
Timmy is her son, now Lord Seddon. I like him. He and his wife Janice come and stay two or three times a year. Lucy's daughter, Rowena, is beautiful in her mother's style, but has opted for a life of near-fanatical uprightness, and so is uneasy with Lucy and me.
“As your husband,” I said, “I shall surely â¦”
“No you won't. I'm going to tie it up like a miser in a novel. Timmy says â¦ does that mean âYes'?”
“A provisional yes, subject to contract, as the estate agents say. Do I get a kiss, or must I listen to the bad news first?”