Palace Hotel, Wellingborough
Wednesday, 21st July, 1993
There was a great deal Dr. Gordon Bennett could have worried about as he sat in the Palace dining room. For a slow, methodical deliberator like himself, asking a police inspector, albeit a former student, to lunch like this was a rash decision. The one he may still get to regret. But, he didn’t feel he had too many choices. So, instead, he worried about the food. He’d learned virtually everything there was to know about wine and most of it he actually enjoyed, but food seemed destined to remain an eternal mystery to him. Sara had said that the only right thing to do was to order what one felt like eating, but that seemed like too much of a risk. He’d heard it said that a gentleman never eats soup for lunch, but the present Dean had been seen on more than one occasion pull a sachet of instant chicken and noodle out of his gown and happily pour boiled water out of a kettle over it. He would even use his thick, stubby finger to reach the last of the noodles from the bottom of the mug.
Dr. Bennett smiled into the red leather bound menu, with only a trace of envy of such freedoms. A mushroom omelette, he decided. With wilted lettuce salad and followed by ice cream. As non-descript as possible. He hadn’t booked, and the restaurant was very busy, so he had to accept the table for two hastily set up along the length of the wall between the doors to the kitchen and to the men’s toilet. Even that was a concession on the part of the headwaiter made under the pressure of Dr. Bennett’s steady gaze. People tended to do as they were bid under that gaze when its owner was so minded. For a few minutes he wondered whether it would be better to let DCI Hamilton-Grant sit next to the kitchen or the lavatory, then allowed himself to be guided by the light. It would be to his, Dr. Bennett’s, advantage to sit with his back to the light. Which left Hamilton Grant next to the toilet. Much the best arrangement all around. Less traffic on that side and it wasn’t as if there were any unpleasant odours wafting out.
Ostensibly, he was here today on Angel’s behalf to approach the management about renting the exhibition space from them. Which he fully intended to do. After lunch.
He looked at the clock above the entrance door. Five minutes to one. The one thing he still hadn’t made up his mind about was whether to tackle the link Superintendent Spriggs had implied between the Finsbury girl and the La Chasse murder. Spriggs hadn’t actually said what the link was, only that there was one. Better leave it alone and leave the initiative to the policeman. Whenever Dr. Bennett played chess with Lupus, the senior partner at Lupus, Magnum & Magnum, his chief client firm, the only worthy opponent he’d ever met, he’d choose the black. There was no need to mention the poor Finsbury girl anyhow, he decided. It was all such a long time ago. No one could be expected to remember anything of importance about it. Nor had there ever been anything of any importance about Nicola. She’d spent a week’s holiday with them once while both girls were still at Rothwell. ‘Nicola is on scholarship,’ Angel had said. ‘Don’t worry, she’s perfectly housetrained nevertheless. You won’t even know she’s here.’ Which proved pleasingly true. The two girls spent most of their time in their rooms, listening to music which they never played too loudly, watching TV in Angel’s room until early hours, but it was holidays so they could sleep in late, or shopping for beachwear. On the eighth day Dr. Bennett transported them to Stanstead for a cheap flight to Zaragoza. They were to spend some time at the Lostao Crespo family vineyard first, then a couple of glorious weeks at the beach near Tarragona with Rosita’s in-laws. At the Standstead check-in Nicola said her good-byes and thank you for having me shyly but very pleasantly, and that was that, more or less, for over a year.
The first he heard about the plan to move Nicola in with them when she started her first term at Trinity in October ’76 was at the Rothwell Speech Day. Dr. Bennett turned up resplendent in his white linen suit and panama hat, its rim reduced in size to suit gentlemen “of compact build” as his exorbitantly expensive outfitter in Jermyn Street tended to say. He would have taken Sara with him as usual on such occasions, Max wouldn’t have minded, he never had. Only, by that time Max had already had his heart attack scare, nothing major but enough to make him pack up his varied activities and move himself and Sara to Tarifa. ‘That’s the closest to Africa you can get in Spain, isn’t it,’ Rosie had said. Reportedly, Max and Sara were busy installing proper plumbing into the B&B they’d bought, and lifting the old skirting boards to get rid of the vermin. So, after the speeches and prizes, of which Nicola Finsbury received two, one in English and the other in History, and Angel one, for overall progress, he was walking around the garden mostly by himself, a tea cup in one hand and a chocolate biscuit on a matching saucer in another, which made it rather difficult to lift his hat off to various vague acquaintances.
The odd couple were sat on the stone wall that separated the upper, terraced level of the garden from the lawn and flower beds. He wore some kind of rather crumpled grey canvas trousers with the shirt in striking geometrical pattern of black and white hanging over them. The brown open-top sandals exposed an array of long nailed, dusty toes. Her toes were painted bright red, matching her fingernails and the belt around an extraordinarily slim waist. The black dress started just under a long, sinewy neck and was reaching all the way down to her feet. Dr. Bennett smiled at them and nodded as he deposited his load on the top of the wall and finished off the last of the tea. Then he bit into the biscuit. It tasted stale, so he returned it to the saucer. ‘That’s our cue to express our gratitude, I expect,’ said the man. Dr. Bennett didn’t think it was addressed to him, but the man was looking in his direction and there was no one else around. He smiled again, and raised his eyebrows to show complete lack of comprehension.
The man produced a business card and pushed it in Bennett’s direction. It was laminated into a shiny black surface, with gold lettering.
Bad debt recovered
The very latest electronic equipment
There was a post box number and a mobile telephone number at the bottom.
The man pointed his finger to his chest. ‘Patrick Ray.’
The woman repeated the action, her red fingernails looking like blood stains against the black fabric. ‘Olivia Osborne.’
‘Finsbury,’ they ended the show in unison.
‘If you tilt the card to the light you can see the hologram of an eye opening and closing. Just to the left of the letters. For Private Eye, of course,’ said Patrick Ray Finsbury. ‘Clever, isn’t it?’
‘Very clever,’ agreed Dr. Bennett.
The couple’s identity was somewhat clearer, but the need for gratitude was still a mystery.
‘You must be very proud of your daughter. Two prizes, that’s quite something. Congratulations.’ He tried to return the card to its owner.
‘Keep it,’ Olivia Osborne Finsbury declined magnanimously. ‘You never know…’
Dr. Bennett slid the card into his top pocket, making a mental note to dispose of it at the earliest opportunity. He really couldn’t risk to have it found by his dry-cleaners, a very superior family business only two streets away from the college.
‘Nicola won’t be any bother, you can be sure of it,’ Olivia Osborne continued comfortably. ‘She keeps her head in her books half the time anyroads.’
‘And it’s not as if boys will be after her or anything. Not her. Now, if it was our oldest, you’d have your hands full, I could tell you that for nothing,’ added Patrick Ray.
‘But, thanks, anyway,’ said his wife. ‘Very civil of you, I’m sure.’ She stood up and brushed the back of her dress. ‘We’re off for a brew. You’d think they’d give you at least some cheese and wine at the prices they charge here.’
Angel later insisted that she had told him, she was sure she did, only he wasn’t listening, as usual. And where did he think Nicola could get half decent lodgings on her student grant? In Oxford of all places. Which world was he living in, she wanted to know, but gave him no opportunity to answer.
‘But, you won’t even be at the same college,’ Dr. Bennett protested feebly. ‘That Nicola person will be doing Law at Trinity and you’ll be… What is it that you’ll be doing at Brookes again?’
‘Media studies, Father.’ She only ever used the word “Father” as a weapon. On this occasion, however, she relented. ‘Photography, mostly.’
Deep down, Dr. Bennett wasn’t opposed to the idea anyhow. Company of someone of her own age, and a good, conscientious student at that, was what Angel needed. And then there were those parents from hell, to use his students’ latest in-phrase. Reason enough to give the girl a lift. Yes, things were shaping very nicely, he thought.
The Finsbuys had been right about one thing. Nicola was no trouble. Not really. He had to ask Angel to have a word with her friend about the state of the bathroom on the first floor landing a couple of times, and was glad that he had his own en suite. He also took to leaving house earlier in the morning so that he could get his breakfast at Rosie’s bakery. The prospect of entering the kitchen with its sinkfull of dishes left over from the previous night’s midnight feast each morning made him doubt the wisdom of his paternal indulgence more than once. When the disorder mysteriously spread into the living room, mysteriously because each girl had her own TV set and music centre in her own room and they were sharing the fourth bedroom as a study, Dr. Bennett brought in the cavalry.
Mr. Tom, last name unknown, used to work as a cook at Radcliffe Infirmary until he was made redundant just five years before retirement. He lived in one of the council flats across the park, not five, maybe ten minutes walk away and was offering gardening work and any odd jobs on photocopied hand written sheets that he pushed through letterboxes every Wednesday night.
‘How about housework?’ Dr. Bennett had opened the door before the crumpled piece of paper had a chance to make its way through the tight slot. ‘Two teenage girls. Might be easier to keep a monkey cage in order,’ he exaggerated, just to be on the safe side.
Mr. Tom was unfazed. ‘Had three of those myself. One of them joined the army. Said the regime was more relaxed there than at home.’
The girls declared their own rooms out of bounds and Mr. Tom said that he’d never fancied entering a snake pit anyhow. It wasn’t immediately obvious just how Mr. Tom did what he did, but order and hygiene were restored to the house on Headington Hill within a week. One night Dr. Bennett even caught Angel mopping the kitchen floor tiles after a blob of baked beans dropped off her toast.
When Angel intimated that Nicola was having problems of financial nature because her parents’ cheques either failed to materialise or bounced when they did, Dr. Bennett offered a small loan on very attractive terms, like no need to repay unless entirely convenient. Angel wrinkled her nose and said that was fine as a one-off, but what happens after that? They needed someone at the Bodleian to help with cataloguing, she said. Couldn’t Amazing Grace do anything? Bennett had a word with Grace Warmisham who was quite well connected on account of her husband being something in the Admiralty and Nicola got herself the cataloguing job to do at the times that suited her.
No, it certainly wasn’t Nicola Finsbury who was causing concern in the early days.
It was Bella.
There was hardly any contact between the two cousins during Angel’s years at Rothwell’s. The Christmas table at Tito’s was inevitably two rooms long and the sheer numbers of those present, the level of noise, and the closely observed rituals that dragged on and on late into the evening made conversation difficult if not impossible. Before Sara moved abroad with her husband Dr. Bennett had usually managed to exchange a few words with her about nothing in particular, and tell Jorge that Bella was becoming more worthy of her name each year. Jorge invariably felt it his duty to inform his brother-in-law about the progress of his business. It was thanks to Gordon that Jorge had been doing so well after facing near-ruin. It was Gordon who advised him to approach the big DIY chain that had some years ago threatened him with closure, offer them his timber yard at a mutually acceptable price, and suggest he ran it for them, on salary like, as a specialty shop offering all the fancy items that were becoming increasingly popular due to DIY magazines and TV makeover programmes. What clinched it was Gordon’s other idea to offer on the spot demonstrations and training to anyone who wanted it but really aimed at women who were rapidly becoming a significant market segment. ‘And we cut wood for them to size, and have recently added a small tool and plant rental section so people don’t have to actually buy everything themselves.
Thank you, Gordon. Thank you, thank you a million times.’ Jorge would have kissed Gordon’s hand if Gordon hadn’t stopped him.
‘My pleasure. I only contributed a teensy weensy of an idea, it was you who turned it into reality, Jorge. How’s Isabella doing?’
Isabella was fine, thanks for asking. Working hard at school and getting good grades, considering. Never a day’s worry about our Bella, and the main thing was that she was alive, considering. And wasn’t Angel turning into a proper young lady. It was breaking Jorge’s heart to look at her from the back, at that beautiful black hair of hers, all rich and curly, just like Margot’s, God bless her soul.
And that was that for eight years. But the girls met at Oxford Brookes and the old friendship was revived again. Not quite on the same terms, he’d noted, but after a hesitant start it was gaining pace. Bella was staying over more and more often, talking little and laughing a lot, making herself useful. She was doing Business Administration. ‘
That’s clerical work to you, Father,’ Angel said. ‘She needs practical experience. You could give her some work, couldn’t you.’
When he hesitated, she added, not looking at him. ‘It would be better if we could keep an eye on her. She’s such an innocent. Could be a danger to herself.’
So Bella started coming in on a regular basis, her timetable permitting. She was looking after Dr. Bennett’s private papers and correspondence, his lucrative consultancy business that had been growing and growing quite separately from his academic work. She was responsible for introducing the first electric typewriter into the household and was for quite some time to come the only one able or willing to operate it.
When Alex Carroll first appeared on the scene Dr. Bennett turned to Mr. Tom, of all people. There was no one else. Sara was in Spain, Rosita too busy, Jorge and Asuncion too old fashioned, and the Finsburys out of the question.
‘What’s to do, Mr. Tom? The boy’s got a terrible reputation. A brilliant brain, first class student, I grant you, but can’t be trusted with girls. One broken heart would be bad enough, but three… What’s to do?’
‘You can’t spare a broken heart to nobody,’ was Mr. Tom’s opinion. ‘The sooner, the better, if you ask me. He’ll clear out soon enough, mark my words and all will be well in your chicken coop again.’
But Alex wasn’t clearing out. If anything, he was settling in. Most of the time he was taking out all the three girls in his ghastly little Triumph that was polluting the air and annoying the neighbours, but Angel soon started emerging as a clear winner. It was time for the bees and birds talk. Dr. Bennett had been clearing his throat for a full week before he actually approached the subject, to Angel’s immense amusement.
‘I’m nineteen and this is the year of our Lord 1977, Father.’ The word was once again used as an offensive weapon. ‘How do you think I’ve been coping so far?’
‘I didn’t know there was anything to cope with,’ he said, blinking behind his glasses.
‘You wouldn’t do, would you? Really, you’re such a waste of space.’
He could hear her laughing all the way up the stairs. She came back during the evening news. Alex and his Triumph were on their way, she informed him. The makeup turned her nineteen years into thirty-six and he considered himself lucky that she was wearing an ankle length Mac over her “clubbing” outfit.
‘Your heel is worn out,’ Bella shouted in passing. ‘You left heel needs heeling.’
‘You should be wearing something warmer anyhow,’ said Dr. Bennett. ‘These are not even shoes, they’re sandals. It’s freezing out there.’
‘You’re treating me like a child again, Papa.’ Angel had never called him Papa. There was a message in it, only he couldn’t work out what it was.
‘We did it all at school,’ she continued airily. ‘The facts of life. And the bits the curriculum leaves out are usually supplied well before they’re needed by older girls and older sisters.’ She winked. ‘How did you learn yours?’
Fortunately, the sound of machinegun fire followed by a mini nuclear explosion from the outside announced that the Triumph had arrived and was that was her cue to rush out of the house.
There was still the “the men of the world” option.
Dr. Bennett organised his next tutorial group meeting for Thursday afternoon, the time when both Angel and Nicola attended lectures at their respective colleges until late, and Bella was paying her regular weekly visit at Tito’s to read the elders their post, explain the news, and listen to the complaints. He picked up his order for sandwiches and cakes from Rosie’s and bought a few bottles of decent but minor red and white in the supermarket. While he was at it, he added a couple of sixpacks of Morrells into the shopping trolley. Also a multipack of crisps. Not being quite sure of the content of the kitchen sink cabinet at home, he snatched a can of air freshener from a shelf as well. For later. Once he had it all carefully arranged on the dining room table and the sideboards, along with a plentiful supply of paper napkins and paper plates that were rarely used, he made his way to the utility room, the closest he had to a cellar. His gaze roamed along five tightly packed rows of bottles, all neatly labelled and lamentably dust and cobweb free. It dawned on him that it wasn’t Angel’s virginity that had been causing him particular concern. It was the WHY. Why would a popular young man like Alex Carroll choose someone like Angel? Why not Isabella who was beautiful, had a head-turning figure and a certain sweetness about her, so rare in today’s young women? Or even Nicola? Possibly a little ungainly and not presented to advantage, angular and sharp-edged, but could argue any man under the table and passionate to the last drop. A young man like Carroll would enjoy a challenge. So, WHY Angel? His most expensive bottles were in the Bordeaux range. There were a few labels he wouldn’t dream of opening for at least another ten years and their purchase price was still filling him with a mixture of awe and self-importance. But the situation was desperate enough for him to deliberate between Cantemerle and Grand Corbin-Despagne. The Carrolls seniors kept a cellar of some renown, Lupus had happened to mention over the last game of chess that went very badly for Dr. Bennett.
As usual, the tutorial had little to do with the subject of trusts, except for a few specific questions regarding a specific trust of his father’s from young Smithers. The death of Steve Biko was still the main topic of conversation as was the future of Rodesia and the entire southern Africa. Young Carroll sniffed at a couple of bottles, settled on the Merlott and after three glasses and a packet of salt and vinegar announced to the room at large ‘Ich bin ein Shona.’
Cantemerle never came into play that night, as it turned out. Lagging behind the others and with one of the better glasses still in his hand, Carroll hiccupped, bowed, hiccupped several times again and thought better of yet another bow. ‘I think you should know, Sir…’
Dr. Bennett liked the “Sir”. The boy may have been drunk as a skunk, but “Sir” was good. The way it was said, from the heart.
‘I think you should know, Sir, that I have a great regard for your daughter. Regard and respect. If I were a marrying sort and able to take care of a wife and family, I’d ask you for her hand right here and now. I thought you may like to know, that, Sir.’ Carroll stumbled on in the vague direction of the front door.
‘Why, Sir?’ The question evidently required careful consideration. Carroll reached for the little bit of inspiration that was still left in the glass, then deposited the fragile item carefully on the red-carpeted first step of the staircase and sat himself next to it. ‘Because she’s high maintenance. Sir. That’s why.’
‘And that’s good?’ Dr. Bennett had only a vague idea of what “high maintenance” might mean.
‘Yes, Sir, that’s very good. Angel is clean and pure and needy. A man,’ Carroll pointed a finger at his damp forehead, ‘a man needs something clean and pure in his life. I’m a fast food junkie, can’t do without it, but,’ for no apparent reason, he tried to get up on his feet again and Dr. Bennett hurriedly removed the glass from under his wandering feet, ‘but, Sir, mark my words, I know I’ve had a few, and I’m some years your junior like, but mark my words, Sir, a man needs a clean spring to drink from. And he needs to be needed. That’s the trouble with the world these days, Sir.’ The attempt of finding his feet aborted, he sprawled himself across the first four stairs, and acquired a look of comfortable contentment. ‘Men are not needed. We have no real purpose left in the world any longer.’ In the middle of the ramble, the best part of it punctuated by hiccups, Carroll lifted his eyes, sharp and focused, to Dr. Bennett’s. ‘Don’t you think so, Sir?’
Bennett laughed. ‘If you mean that we’re not the undisputed kings of the global castle any longer, Carroll, I’d tend to agree. Many would say it wasn’t before time, either.’ He had a mission to accomplish, though. The condition of the world and the position of the male species within it would have to wait. ‘So, why not Bella?’ he asked, as the boy’s lids were lowering dangerously.
‘Bella lives in a world of her own. I can’t dive that deep for anyone’s soul.’ Carroll looked as if he was sinking irretrievably into his own.
‘And Nicola?’ The curly head, hair ever so slightly thinning at the top, was down on the carpet. ‘Fast food,’ muttered Carroll. He pushed his palm under his cheek and smiled. ‘So much fast food.’
‘Why not Nicola?’ Dr. Bennett insisted. ‘I’d have thought she’d be more your type. Feisty and bright.’
‘St. Finsbury of the agendas.’ The lids came up and Carroll looked straight back with the same startling astuteness. ‘Too many agendas, too much luggage. Too many scores to settle. I’m too shallow for all that.’ The head dropped back into the waiting curled palm. ‘Too much fast food,’ he wandered off, this time for good.
When the girls came home, one by one, Bella first, then Angel, then Nicola, they had to tiptoe past his prostrate figure gently snoring on the stairs. Dr. Bennett could hear them giggle and whisper on the landing for a while. Before climbing up himself, he threw a blanket over the boy, then on second thought went back into the sitting room again and fetched a small cushion for him as well. Carroll hugged it with both his arms to his chest as Angel used to hug her teddy at the age of three. By six o’clock the next morning he was gone. The blanket and the cushion were neatly returned to the nearest sofa.