Authors: Nicholas Blake
‘Of course, dear. But—’
‘Well then, somebody’s got to tell him to buck up. I will not have him mooning about all the time at school and wasting my money. He’s thoroughly spoilt, if you—’
‘There’s a wasp on the back of your shirt,’ Lena interrupted, gazing at him with quite fictitious concern.
‘You keep out of this, Lena,’ he said dangerously. I thought I really couldn’t do with any more of the squalid scene, also, I was a bit sorry for Phil if his
went to lug him out in this mood, so I said I’d go and say we wanted him to play. George looked distinctly taken aback, but he couldn’t very well forbid me to go.
I found Phil lurking in his bedroom – in a very obstinate frame of mind indeed at first. However, we had a talk – he’s really not a bad kid at all – and after a bit it all came out. He hadn’t been slacking last term, but there was a boy at the school who’d made a dead set at him and this got on his mind (don’t I know how!) so that he couldn’t concentrate on his work. Phil was in tears by this time. For some absurd reason, it reminded me of the day I’d ticked Martie off for ruining my roses, and I suggested, quite impulsively, that perhaps he’d like me to give him a few lessons in the holidays – a couple of hours a day, say, so that he could make up the lost ground.
It was only when Phil was in the middle of a stammering and most embarrassing display of gratitude that it occurred to me that here was an excellent pretext for staying on at Severnbridge. A nice example of doing good that evil may come of it – if one can call the removal of George an evil. I waited till George was in good humour, flushed by victory in a set of tennis, and then broached the idea – said I’d taken a fancy to the town, thought of stopping on a few weeks and making a start with my new book in the peace of the country, and suggested he might like me to give Phil a bit of coaching. George was a trifle sticky at first, but soon agreed to the idea and even
so far as to invite me to put up at his house. I refused politely and I think, to his relief. Not at any price would I stay in the Rattery household for a month. It’s not that I feel any taboo against killing the man whose salt I’ve eaten; I just couldn’t stick the sensation of being perpetually on the edge of some domestic squabble. Besides, I don’t want to risk George’s snooping about and finding this diary. My daily reading with Phil will give me all the foothold I need here.
After that had been fixed up, I watchd the tennis for a bit. George’s partner in the garage, Harrison Carfax, was playing with Violet against George and Mrs Carfax. The latter is a big, dark-haired, gipsyish, come-hither sort of woman. I got the impression that she might be one of the reasons for George’s return of good humour, I distinctly saw his fingers delaying on hers once when he handed her the tennis balls to serve, and she gave him one or two sultry looks all right. One can scarcely wonder; her husband’s a dreary, dried-up little nondescript if ever I saw one.
Lena came and sat down beside me – we were rather apart from the rest. She looks amazingly attractive in tennis dress; it suits her supple movements, and she manages to put on a sort of synthetic but appealing schoolgirlishness to match it.
‘You’re looking very sweet,’ I said.
‘Go and tell that to the Carfax woman,’ she said, but I could see she was pleased.
‘Oh, I’ll leave George to do that.’
‘George? Don’t be so absurd.’ She was almost snappish about it. Then she recovered herself and said, ‘I’ve hardly seen you since we’ve been here. You’ve been going about with a faraway look in your eyes, as though you’d lost your memory or got indigestion or something.’
‘That’s my artistic temperament coming out.’
‘Well, you might snap out of it and give a girl a kiss now and then. At least.’ She leant over and whispered in my ear. ‘There’s no need to wait till we get back to London, Pussy, you know.’
Nobody can say I’m not a single-minded murderer. I’d so concentrated on fixing things up with George that I’d forgotten about my attachment to Lena. I tried to explain to her why I was staying on here. I was afraid she would start to get temperamental – the fact that we were in full view of a dozen people would have stimulated rather than suppressed her. But, oddly enough, Lena took it quite quietly. Too quietly, in fact – I might have suspected something – there was a humorous, challenging lift at the corners of her mouth when I moved away to play a set of tennis, and halfway through it I noticed her deep in conversation with Violet. As we came off the court, I heard her saying to George (and obviously I was meant to hear it), ‘George darling, how would you like your glamorous sister-in-law to stay on for a bit? We’ve finished making that film, so I thought I’d dig myself in here for a few weeks more of the simple country life. OK by you, chief?’
‘This is all very sudden,’ he said, giving her one of his calculating, slave market looks. ‘I suppose, if Vi doesn’t mind, we can put up with you. Why the change of heart?’
‘Well, you see, I think I should pine away without my Pussy. But don’t tell anyone.’
‘Mr Felix Lane. Felix the Cat. Pussy.
George gave a very loud, embarrassed, stupid laugh. ‘Well I’m damned. Pussy! It does hit him off rather well. The way he pats the ball over the net. But really, Lena –’ He’d no idea I was listening. Perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t see my face then. I’ll not forget that crack of his. But Lena – what does she think she’s up to? Can it be possible that she thinks she’s going to play me off against George? Or have I been making a damnable, inexcusable mistake about the girl all along?
LESSONS WITH PHIL
in the morning, as usual. He’s quite a bright youngster – heaven knows where he gets his brains from – but he wasn’t in his best form this morning. From certain indications – his own wandering attention and a rather red-eyed look about Violet who passed me quickly as I came in – I guessed there must have been a dust-up in the Rattery household. In the
of a Latin unseen Phil suddenly asked me if I was married. ‘No. Why?’ I said. I felt oddly ashamed, lying to Phil, though I lie like a trooper to the rest of the family without turning a hair.
‘D’you think it’s a good thing?’ he asked, in a tight, severely controlled, precise little voice. His conversation is old for his years, like most only children’s.
‘Yes. I think so. It can be, anyway,’ I said.
‘Yes, I suppose so; for the right people. I shan’t get married, ever. It makes people so miserable. I’d be afraid –’
‘Love does make people miserable sometimes. It sounds all wrong, but it’s quite true.’
‘Oh, love –’ he said. He paused for a moment, then took a deep breath, and the words came out in a shocked rush, ‘Dad hits Mummy sometimes.’
I didn’t know what to say. I could see that he was desperately in need of some reassurance. Like any sensitive child, he’s horribly torn by this squabbling between his parents – it’s like living on the side of a volcano for him; no security. I was on the point of trying to comfort him; then, a revulsion from the whole business seized me; I didn’t want to become involved, distracted. I said, a bit coldly, I’m afraid, that we’d better get on with the unseen. It was a wretched piece of cowardice really. I saw my betrayal of him reflected in Phil’s face.
HAD A LOOK
round the Rattery-Carfax garage this afternoon. Told George it might come in useful as material in a book –
nihil subhumanum a me alienum puto
is the detective novelist’s motto though I didn’t put it quite like that. Asked a number of idiotic questions which enabled George to patronise and me to discover that the garage keeps all spare parts of cars they’re agents for. I didn’t dare ask specifically about wings and bumpers – it might have made him suspicious that I was a policeman in disguise. I’ve found out already that he sometimes keeps his car there at night, though he’s got a garage attached to his house.
Then we went out at the back. There’s a patch of waste ground, with a godless rubbish dump on it, and the Severn at the far end. I wanted to have a look at this heap of old iron – not that I thought it likely that George would have been such a fool as to deposit his damaged wing there; so I delayed him with a little conversation.
‘Pretty unsightly all this stuff is.’
‘Well, what do you suggest we should do with it? Dig a neat hole and bury it, like the Anti-Litter League?’
George was quite up in the air. For such a self-satisfied creature, he’s curiously touchy at times. Suddenly I decided to take a risk.
‘Why don’t you dump the stuff in the river? Don’t you ever do that? Get it out of sight, anyway.’
There was a perceptible pause before he answered. I found myself trembling uncontrollably, so that I had to walk away from him towards the water’s edge to prevent him seeing it.
‘Good God, man, what an idea! I’d have the whole town council down on my head. In the river! That’s a good one! I’ll have to tell Carfax.’ He was beside me now. ‘Anyway, it’d be too shallow at the edge. Look.’
I was looking. I could see the bed of the river. But also I saw, twenty yards to my left, a derelict punt moored. Yes, George, it’s too shallow at the edge to conceal anything, but you might easily have taken the punt into midstream and got rid of the tell-tale evidence there.
‘I’d no idea the river was so broad here,’ I said. ‘I’d like to do a bit of sailing. I suppose I could hire a dinghy here?’
‘I daresay,’ he said indifferently. ‘A bit slow for my taste, that game – sitting on one’s fanny holding a piece of rope.’
‘I’ll have to take you out some day in a stiff breeze. You wouldn’t call that “slow”.’
I’d seen all I wanted to see. The old iron on the scrap heap was very old iron indeed. A dreadful eyesore. And I was pretty sure I’d seen a rat scuttling out of it when we were walking down; with a dump and the river, it must be heaven for them. Back in the
, we came across Harrison Carfax. I happened to mention I’d like a bit of sailing, and he said his son kept a twelve-footer here which he was sure he’d lend me as he only used it at the weekends. It’ll be a nice change for George, to get out on the river now and then. Might teach Phil to sail.
I NEARLY KILLED
George Rattery this afternoon. Very, very nearly. I feel absolutely exhausted. No emotion. Just an aching emptiness where emotion ought to be – as if it was me, not him, who had been reprieved. No, not reprieve. A temporary stay of execution, that’s all. It was so childishly simple, too – both my opportunity and his escape. Shall I ever get such an opportunity again? It’s long after midnight already, and I’ve been going over and over and over what happened. Perhaps if I write it down, I’ll be able to put it out of my head and get some sleep.
Five of us – Lena, Violet, Phil, George and myself – went for a drive this afternoon into the Cotswolds. We were to do a bit of sightseeing Bibury way, and then have a picnic tea. George showed me round Bibury as though he owned the village, while I tried to behave as if I hadn’t been there a dozen times before. We leant over the bridge, staring at the trout, which are as fleshy and supercilious-looking as George himself.
we drove off high up on the hills. Lena was sitting at the back with Phil and me. She’d been acting very affectionate, and when we got out of the car she took my arm and walked very close to me. I don’t know whether it was this that got George’s goat. Something did, anyway, because, when we’d spread out the rugs just by the corner of a wood and Violet suggested we light a fire to keep the midges off, a really bloody scene began to boil up.
First, George sulked about having to fetch twigs. Lena started chaffing him, telling him that a little manual labour might reduce his figure. That didn’t go down at all well. George, obviously simmering inside, picked on Phil, saying that as he was in the Boy Scout troop at his prep school, he’d better show them how to light a fire. The twigs were a bit damp, and poor Phil is no good at all with his hands. In any case, he’d no idea how to build a fire. George just stood over him, hectoring and scoffing at him, while the wretched lad fumbled with the sticks, wasted dozens of matches and blew his guts out trying to get the fire going. His face went redder and redder, and his hands began to tremble pitiably. George’s display was sickening. After a good deal of this, Violet intervened – which was pouring oil, as they say, on the flames. George rounded on her, shouting that it was she who’d asked for a fire so what the hell did she mean by interfering, and anyway only futile little half-wits like Phil couldn’t light a fire. This was too much for Phil – the senseless attack on his mother – he jumped
and said straight at George, ‘Why don’t you light it yourself then, if you’re so good at it?’
The defiant little speech died away in a mutter – Phil hadn’t quite the nerve to carry it right through. But George heard it all right. He gave Phil a box on the ears that sent him sprawling. The whole thing was horrible beyond words – the way George goaded the child into rebellion and then crushed him. I know I was furious with myself for not having the courage to interfere before this. I jumped to my feet; I believe I might have told George exactly what I thought of him (which would certainly have wrecked everything, including my future plans for George). However, Lena got in before me and said quite coolly, as if nothing had happened:
‘You two go and have a look at the view. Tea’ll be ready in five minutes. Go along, George, my sweet.’ She gave him one of her most luscious and lingering glances, and he walked off with me like a lamb, or something like.
Yes, we went to look at the view. It was a splendid view. Almost the first thing I saw as we turned the corner of the wood, out of sight of the others, was a sheer drop of nearly a hundred feet, an old quarry. It takes a long time to describe, but it must have been all over in thirty seconds. I had moved away from George a little – there was an orchis I wanted to look at. When I got to it, I found myself on the edge of this quarry. There was the orchis, the sheer drop at my feet, the hills rolling round us, delicious with their rough grasses and
and mustard, and there was George, his thick lips pouting beneath his moustache, poisoning the summer afternoon for Violet and poor little Phil. The man who had killed Martie. I seemed to see all this, and the rabbit hole on the cliff’s edge, simultaneously. I knew exactly how I should destroy George.