If the dinner had gone well that evening, that was all that could be said. Jeremy was witty, polite, attentive and his guests clearly enjoyed themselves.
But beneath the host’s perfect demeanour burned a bright, brittle anger and Meredith was all too aware of it whenever her brother should look at her. She was confident, however, that no one else detected anything amiss, even though some of his jokes were barbed. At least she could be sure he would wait until after their guests had returned to their hotel before he turned on her. She was not looking forward to that.
Miss Fenniston, passing around the cigarettes, bent near to Meredith and said softly for her ears alone, “What on earth have you said to Jeremy? He’s in a filthy mood.” Her eyes, bright with malicious enjoyment, rested on Meredith’s and then she moved on.
Meredith excused herself for a moment, though no one even noticed her leave, and praying that her brother would not seize the opportunity and come after her, she made her way to the bathroom. She bolted the door behind her and leaned against it for a moment, relieved. It was cool in there. She went to the basin and splashed some cold water on her wrists. Then she damped the corner of the towel and applied this to her temples and the back of her neck. Immediately she felt the delicious chill freshen her. Her faculties felt sharper. Her tension lessened. Her head still ached abominably though.
She looked into the mirror and saw how pale she was looking. She patted her cheeks vigorously several times to induce a little more colour into her face. Her aunt did not approve of rouge.
She took a few deep breaths. She felt a little better. She was as composed as she would ever be, and besides, she couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. A glance at her watch told her it was just a few minutes before ten o’clock. If she was very lucky, their guests might leave soon. But she doubted it—they were all getting on far too well for the evening to end so early. Jeremy was in fine form, and Miss Fenniston—whom the guests so readily addressed as Miss Sheila—was bubbling with friendliness, conversation, plying her limited knowledge of foreign languages to charm the German and Italian couples. It was too much to hope that they would all leave any time soon.
She left the bathroom, and crossing the hall, she met her aunt coming from the drawing room. Mrs Smithyes looked highly annoyed.
“What is it, Aunt?” Meredith’s heart sank at the thought of some new offence.
“That woman!” her aunt snapped. “Anyone would think she was the hostess, and not myself. Surely they know she is only a secretary? To hear them calling her Miss Sheila, like that! It’s too much! I thought I made it perfectly clear that you were to speak to him about it.”
“Yes, Aunt Lucinda, and so I did. Why, you saw me leave the room with him.”
“Then a very poor showing you must have made of it. He’s worse than ever with her! And now they’re talking of going off to a casino, of all places! At this time of night!”
Meredith looked at her watch. Dead on ten o’clock. She looked at her aunt in dismay.
“But Jeremy will…”
“Yes, I know. I am quite aware, thank you very much. You hardly need to tell me about Jeremy! We must stop this.”
But at that moment the drawing room door opened, disgorging their guests in search of coats and belongings, ready to take their leave. Jeremy, all triumphant smiles, came over to kiss his aunt and sister.
“Don’t know what time we’ll get back, so no need to wait up!”
Davies was suddenly there handing out coats and the American gentleman, cigar clamped firmly between his teeth, was helping his beautiful daughter into her fur wrap.
“Oh Miss Niedermeyer, I do hope…” Meredith began, but Miss Niedermeyer wasn’t listening. Nobody was listening to Meredith, they were all concentrating on Jeremy and Miss Fenniston. Under her aunt’s furious gaze, Meredith tried again. “But surely it’s a bit cold and damp to be going out at this time of night? Perhaps we should have some more coffee? How about a few games of Bridge?”
She heard the squeaking of the country mouse in her voice and was embarrassed. Her aunt glared at her. Meredith knew it had not been enough, but what else could she have said?
“Gnädige Fraulein, we are warmed by the delicious dinner you have made for us. But this is a most interesting chance for the pleasure to have with the business. I say you great thanks for the nice hospitality, and to you all ladies, good night.”
The German gentleman bowed low as he kissed first Meredith’s hand and then her aunt’s.
Jeremy, with a malicious grin, sketched a triumphant wave in their direction. The rest of the company took their leave, Miss Fenniston and Jeremy ushering everyone out the door so they could bring up the rear, and just as the door closed behind them, Meredith saw Miss Fenniston tuck her hand into the crook of Jeremy’s arm.
Davies tsked. “Well I never did,” she said.
“Yes, all right, Davies! Thank you!” snapped Mrs Smithyes. “You won’t be needed again tonight.”
The maid left. Meredith and her aunt stood alone in the hall, like children waiting for a party that never arrived.
Mrs Smithyes rounded on her niece.
“This is all your fault. I don’t know why I put up with your incompetence. I ask you to do one simple little thing, and you make a complete mess of it. Really, Meredith!” Her aunt whirled round to the foot of the stairs, resting her hand on the post in preparation or her ascension, her other hand gripping her stick. “I’m going to bed. Thanks to you I now have a migraine. We will talk about this disaster in the morning.”
Halfway up the stairs, Mrs Smithyes yelled in a most unladylike manner, “Davies!” Davies, used to being dismissed then summoned again, came scurrying from the bowels of the house to follow her mistress up the stairs.
Meredith took in a deep, quavering breath and went to sit in the morning room. She left the lights off so she could be still and quiet in the darkened room. She brushed a couple of tears from her cheeks, cross with herself for giving way.
Clearly it was her aunt’s intention to lay all this at her door, as usual. But Meredith did not see that she could have done anything different. After all Jeremy was an adult.
What an idiot her brother was! She knew the casino idea had been his, and was intended purely to spite her. She only hoped he wouldn’t lose too much. Or get too drunk and offend his business associates. But Jeremy was not known for his good sense; he was completely lacking in restraint, and his main mission in life seemed to be to have fun and to deal with the consequences later. Much later. She hoped he wouldn’t be too late coming home.
He came home at a quarter past four in the morning. She was still waiting for him in her chair in the morning room. She had dozed, off and on, and was cold and stiff.
But on hearing his key in the lock, she had roused herself, stretching her neck and shoulders, and by the time he was actually stepping into the hall, she was there in the doorway of the morning room, watching him.
He saw her.
“Here she is, my perfect big sister,” he said, not troubling to keep his voice down. He slurred his speech. Drunk again. His sarcastic tone cut her. “Waiting up for me? Waiting to tattle to Auntie? More like, waiting to have another go at me! Tell me all my faults and where I’m going wrong in life? Eh? Tell me how disappointed you are with me?”
She didn’t speak. He was roaring drunk. She could smell the alcohol seeping through his pores. His face was red and slick with sweat, his tie unknotted and hanging down on either side of his crinkled collar. He swayed as he stood there. She would get no sense out of him now. In this state, all he wanted was to fight. He raised a wavering finger at her.
“Well I’m going to bed, so there. You can just forget about having a go at me.”
And he turned and tottered up the stairs, his grip slipping on the polished rail.
A few moments later she locked the front door and went up to her room. At least he was home safely. Now she could sleep.
At eight o’clock her alarm woke her from a deep sleep. Her first thought was, “I forgot to ask him. How much did he lose?”
The next morning, in another part of the country, a young woman stood beside a flower-covered grave and dried her tears.
The day was mild, but drizzling, the umbrella she held was huge and black and shielded the ground a good foot and a half on either side of her slim frame.
The other mourners had dispersed, a little knot of them shuffled impatiently on the cinder path beside the church, and their mere presence forced itself in on her grief. They were waiting for her. No time to mourn, it was time to get back into the shiny black car and head to the house for light refreshments and sherry, and muted but cheerful conversation.
But still Josephine Beckett was inclined to linger. The rain pattered softly on the emerging greenery around her and on the dome of the umbrella. Somewhere in the depths of the churchyard shrubbery, a mournful bird called once, twice and was silent. There might have been no one else on earth besides Josephine. She might have been the only surviving soul and everyone around her dead. That was how she felt as she looked at the grave, unmarked as yet, littered with garlands.
Next to this grave lay another, marked with a large stone, inscribed only a few months earlier.
Beloved Husband and Father
Fell asleep 5 September 1966
Immediately beneath this were more words, words that still seemed unreal to Josephine, words that still failed to express fully all that she had lost and how much it had touched her life.
Also Ethel Beckett
A wonderful wife and devoted and dearly beloved mother
Of John, Derek, Roger and Josephine
Taken too soon from our loving gaze
Reunited in Heaven
17 November 1966
In our thoughts and prayers always
And now this third, terrible blow. Josephine struggled to hold back the hot fresh flow of tears spilling from her eyes. She searched for a new handkerchief, as the first one was now wet through.
A hand, a man’s hand, reached out in front of her offering a large and neatly laundered handkerchief. She took it with gratitude and having repaired her face once again, turned to see standing beside her Detective Chief Inspector Frank Andrews, his face a pale grim mask.
Before she could thank him for the handkerchief, he said, “I’m so sorry to have missed the service itself. Believe me when I say nothing but the most urgent police business would have prevented me from attending the service for such a dear friend.”
His words brought a fresh influx of emotion and again she dabbed away tears and took a moment to compose herself before replying with a grave new maturity.
Looking down at her, he saw how unnaturally pale she was, and how thin she had grown. Hardly surprising after the terrible losses the last six months had brought her. And at such a young age. She ought to have been able to have her mother and father there to support her for many years to come, but then to lose her beloved great aunt, who was, although a spinster, the effective matriarch of the family, it came as no surprise to Frank to find Josephine suffering so deeply.
He glanced back towards the church and the waiting group. Surely they could have left her a little longer to mourn such a grievous loss? She was only just out of her teens, hardly more than a child, and with so much to bear…
She spoke softly from beneath the enormous umbrella. “Thank you for coming, Mr Andrews. Please don’t worry about missing the funeral. I know Auntie would have felt duty should come first. But I know what you mean—she was so very dear to us all.”
Her voice broke again on those last words but her inner strength asserted itself, making her draw herself upright, pushing back her shoulders. He could only admire her resolution as she turned, putting a gloved hand out to touch his own, and saying, “I do hope you’ll come back to my brother John’s house for some lunch. It’s not a very nice day, and I expect you had an early start.”
He thanked her. He saw she was attempting to master her emotions, so said nothing else but offered her his arm. Her small hand clasped him and they walked up the little hill to the group fidgeting beside the cars. One of the sisters-in-law, Frank wasn’t sure which, muttered an ‘at last’ as they approached, and Frank shot her a look. He already knew he was not going to like her.
At the house, it was not long before the sherry and canapés lifted people’s spirits and the volume of conversation rose to match. After an hour or so of hushed talk and sorrowful looks, people were openly laughing and chatting loudly as if at a cocktail party.
Josephine remained in a quiet corner, her plate untouched, her glass set aside. She did not exactly resent the levity around her, it was more that she didn’t understand how they could feel so cheerful. She had lost the most important person in her life—and she had always thought Great Aunt Maud was of equal importance in all their lives, her three brothers and all her cousins, but it was now clear that none of them truly felt as she did. Did that mean their feelings had never run as deeply as hers? She didn’t know.
Barbara, the wife of her eldest brother John, was poised in the door with an elderly gentleman on walking sticks. It was clear from her frown and rolling eyes that she had no idea—and no interest in finding out—who the gentleman was, and that she was keen to push him off on someone. She spotted Josephine and made a frantic little wave at her. Josephine approached and her sister-in-law melted away immediately, much relieved to be free of her burden.
“Mr Lilley!” Josephine said, recognising the old gentleman instantly. “How good to see you.”
“You remember me, do you, Miss Beckett?”
She smiled at him. “Of course I do. It’s wonderful to see you again, even under such sad circumstances. Why don’t we go over there in the corner by the window? It’s a bit quieter and we can have a nice chat.”
As soon as they got themselves settled, a black-clad waitress bustled over to offer canapés. Mr Lilley declined curtly and Josephine was not in the least surprised. She suspected he was not the type of person to support the notion of canapés and sherry after a funeral on a cold day. She remembered he was a Chapel man.
“How about a nice ham sandwich and a good strong cup of tea?” she suggested. He declined at first, but not very convincingly and it only took a little persuasion on her part to make him change his mind. As she headed for the kitchen he watched her go with approval. A decent young woman that, no airs about her, knows what’s suitable and what’s just tomfoolery. He reflected that her great aunt would have been proud—would have been, and emphatically was, from what he remembered of their conversations in the past.
The waitresses hired for the occasion were busy ferrying drinks and canapés backwards and forwards from the kitchen. Her sister-in-law’s daily maid had left for the day, so no one bothered to ask Josephine why she was preparing tea and sandwiches when refreshments were already available. As she put everything together on a tray, a voice came from behind her, making her jump.
“Avoiding the party?”
She killed the exasperation she felt at the sound of his affected draw, and when she turned, also had to quell a sense of annoyance at his lounging attitude and the way he was dressed. She forced a smile.
“Not at all, Martin, just getting something a bit more substantial for an elderly friend.”
“Plenty of decent food here,” he said and popped a caviar-laden cracker whole into his mouth. “No expense spared, only the poshest grub. Very classy,” he added through the cracker. Josephine winced at the crunch-crunch that issued from his open mouth, and felt an inward shudder as two or three particles dropped from his lip onto the floor.
“But not the kind of thing to please a retired policeman.” She added a teaspoon and a napkin and was ready to leave.
Martin, blocking the doorway, gave a negligent shrug. “Tell him he can like it or lump it.” He held out his arms to her, but not to take the tray. He said, “Come here, Josie, give me a kiss, seems like ages since I had you to myself.”
He had a blob of caviar in the corner of his wet mouth, and the thought of kissing him now made her feel quite ill. So she simply said with a smile, “Sorry, Dear, I’m in a bit of a rush. But I’ll see you later…”
He had been about to sulkily protest, but someone joined them. Martin, aware of the presence of another man, was on the point of telling him to ‘hop it’, but then his eyes took in Frank Andrews’s height, the air of authority, his carefully groomed fair hair, just touched with grey at the temples, the impeccable cut of his suit, his shiny shoes, his elegant tie. Martin decided to be gracious. He stuck out his right hand.
“Martin Compter, Sir. Were you a friend of Josie’s old auntie?”
“A very dear friend of Miss Silver, as it happens. Detective Chief Inspector Andrews.”
Martin’s smile froze on his lips but he maintained it, confident no one noticed any change in his demeanour. But Frank Andrews had already released his hand and was looking at Josephine inquiringly. She blushed and glanced at her shoes before saying, “Mr Compter is my fiancé.”
Andrews was unaccountably angry. But he simply smiled and said with icy politeness that he was pleased to meet Compter. Compter, still keen to ensure any ill impression was forgotten, pointed to the tray.
“She’s done your sandwich and tea. She was just bringing it to you.”
Andrews glanced back at Josephine who was blushing furiously now. She hastened to explain.
“Mr Lilley is here. I thought he might like a sandwich rather than the canapés.”
“Lilley is here? Wonderful, I’d love to see him. Let me take that tray for you. And could you—would it be possible to squeeze on an extra cup? I think I’d also prefer tea to that sherry they’re passing round.”
Josephine sent him a sympathetic smile. “I don’t know if sherries have good years, but somehow I don’t think our was from one of them.”
She led the way, Andrews following on with the tray. Martin Compter looked after them with an obscure feeling he had just been outclassed but couldn’t quite work out how or when it had happened. He called after her, “I’ve got to be going now, but I’ll be round for you at eight o’clock tonight as usual.”
She barely turned her head, but waved her hand in an assent. Martin Compter’s temper began to simmer.