Bradley Noakes glanced approvingly round the small Italian restaurant where Jessica had booked a window table for lunch. He liked the red and white gingham curtains and matching table cloths, the light timber furniture and wall panelling. Jessica herself had also dressed carefully in a light beige business suit which blended in with the decor.
They smiled at each other across the table and made small talk until the meal was before them. Then the fencing began again.
Thrust from Jessica; “so did you manage to solve your little mystery, or are you still working on it?”
Parry from Bradley; “funny you should mention that. When I saw you last week, I was just following up another lead on that case.” He twirled a forkful of spaghetti in the air and added, “this sure tastes good! We don’t eat like this at home. Tou see my family owns a chain of butcher shops, and Mum is a very plain cook, so she just cooks whatever Dad brings home — chops, sausages, steak, more chops! You name it,”
Jessica laughed with him, but made a mental note; Bradley obviously enjoyed his food! The old adage, ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,’ certainly could be true for Bradley. She merely remarked, “glad you like it; it’s one of my favourites too.”
She paused, then thrust again; “what are you investigating, or is that confidential? Avril didn’t mention it after, so I presumed it was your little secret. But I must admit I’m curious.” She gave Bradley a dazzling smile.
He parried again; “no secret. It’s public knowledge actually, to do with the fire at the Cummings property a few years ago. My grandmother knew the family well, so inevitably I took an interest in them as I’d always heard so much about them, first the fire and then Harold’s remarriage.”
Jessica was an attentive listener, and now, feeling he was on safer ground, Bradley became more expansive. “I’ve been trying to find out something about Sarah before the fire,” he confided. “But there seems to be a dearth of information there.”
Jessica’s face lit up. “I may be able to help you. My older sister went to school with Sarah Cummings, although she wasn’t ‘Cummings’ then of course. I could probably find out a few facts about her for you if you like.” What luck, she thought as her mind raced ahead; forget Avril for the moment, it’s my chance to open up a deeper relationship with him.
She chose her words carefully. “I’ve got an idea,” she said, as Bradley laid down his fork on his now empty plate, and beamed at her. “Why don’t I arrange a little dinner party with my sister and brother-in-law. They live in Melbourne too — and then Coral can tell you what she remembers about Sarah Cummings. She may even have some photos from school days.”
No journalist could resist such an opportunity, as Jessica well knew. Congratulating himself that he was able to parry any questions about Avril. It was with a light heart and a bottle of wine, that Bradley arrived at Jessica’s unit on the appointed evening. He was a little disconcerted however when he noticed that the small round table in the dinette leading off the kitchen was laid only for two, not four as he had expected.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Jessica, following his gaze. “Coral and John were unable to make it after all.” She omitted the fact that they’d never been invited, as she added brightly, “but I think I can get you some school photos of Sarah.” She led him into the lounge, where she plied him with a cold beer and pre-dinner nibbles.
Jessica used a subtley seductive approach! She was casually dressed in a pale lilac sweater, and light grey pants, a frilly blue apron around her waist, her long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, her make up minimal. The “homely” approach! She was a good cook and had made a special effort for Bradley, introducing him to the delights of French cuisine. He repeatedly expressed his enjoyment of her version of Cog all Vin. No fly ever felt more comfortable entering the spider’s web than did Bradley Noakes that evening!
After dinner, feeling very much at home, Bradley helped himself to another beer from Jessica’s well-stocked fridge before assisting her to make coffee. (“Be a dear, Brad, I’m not much good with these gadgets.”) They sipped their coffee sitting opposite each other in the small, but tastefully furnished lounge chatting on a variety of subjects. Finally, after a visit to the bathroom, and a tantalising glimpse of something pink and frilly, as he passed her half-open bedroom door, Bradley reluctantly got up to go. It was 11pm.
Jessica farewelled him in a casual but friendly manner as he gave her a light kiss on the cheek. She assured him that she would give him a ring as soon as she had procured some photos of Sarah Cummings, and Bradley went happily on his way, little realising that while they had discussed such innocuous topics as travel and journalism, his subconscious mind had been absorbing the comforts of the cosy unit, the delicious smell of cooking and the faint aroma of Jessica’s perfume — just as she had intended.
As he returned to the home where he lived with his parents and two sisters, Bradley’s thoughts turned to Avril, twelve thousand miles away. Could she cook like that, what sort of a homemaker would she be? He put such disloyal thoughts from his mind. However, he began to realise how little they really knew each other. There had been that spark between them; the moment he first saw her, he knew she was the girl for him. But their brief time together had been against a background of restaurants, their conversations centred on the topic of the Cummings family and the fire.
Bradley was practical rather than romantic, and to him, the fact that he had fallen for Avril and she had responded to him, was enough. He had no idea of how to conduct a courtship from such a great distance. So in his next letter, having previously told her about the investigation he began to ask about her daily life, not mentioning his visit to the Inspector or his meeting with Jessica.
A few days later he had a phone call from Jessica, “Brad, I’ve now got some photos of Sarah Cummings, school group, that type of thing, and I thought you might be interested to see them.”
Bradley was interested, and he was happy also to accept the accompanying invitation to dinner at Jessica’s unit. Together they enjoyed another tasty meal, and afterwards, Jessica produced a magnifying glass and spread the photo out on the table. “I’m afraid they’re not very clear,” she admitted as they studied them together. Bradley’s mind was still intent on studying Sarah Cummings, and that evening he had to leave early as he had a 6am assignment the next day. He felt however that he owed her a dinner; she was warm, intelligent and good company, She had stopped her probing questions about Avril, and Bradley still regarded her in the same way he regarded other females that he dated from time to time. A week later he accepted another invitation to dinner at her unit. “Oh Brad, I’ve just found a super new Italian recipe, and I want to try it out. It’s not much fun just cooking it for myself. Would you come and give me your opinion.”
Before he fully realised what was happening, they were meeting on a more regular basis, movies, theatres, dinners, either in a restaurant or more frequently in Jessica’s unit. She was very attractive, and although he knew he was not in love with her, Bradley soon wanted something more. The warm atmosphere, the subtle aroma of Jesica’s perfume, her ‘casual’ touches, and her now more seductive mode of dress were as inviting as her cooking.
Jessica was fully aware of his aroused desire; she was ready that night when he could hide his feelings no longer and took her urgently in his arms. She responded warmly, and although nothing was said, both knew that a line had been crossed in their relationship that night.
But the next morning, Bradley was overcome with guilt and embarrassment — guilt at he thought that he had betrayed Avril, and embarrassment as he wondered what Jessica was thinking about his uncontrolled behaviour. He would have been very surprised to know that her only thought had been, ‘why had it taken him so long’!
Now was the time to stop the relationship, but Bradley didn’t know how — or if he really wanted to. He dithered all day, and finally in the late afternoon, remembering they had planned to go to a movie that evening, he rang Jessica at the travel agency. “Are you still expecting me tonight?” he asked a little hesitantly.
‘Of course, why not,” replied Jessica. “I’ll expect you at seven.” (The future looked very promising!)
Bradley rightly recognised this as an unspoken acceptance of their new relationship. His desire grew in intensity each time they met, and Jessica made herself indispensable to him. But Bradley Noakes was not a happy man. His biological urges were well satisfied, but thoughts of Avril left him in turmoil. His letters to her became shorter and more infrequent. What could he say? How could he continue to express his love for her while he was sharing the bed of another woman? Optimistically he tried to convince himself that somehow it would all work out, even though he had no idea how.
As for Jessica — she had wedding bells in mind. But she was careful, determined that when she walked down the aisle to become Mrs Bradley Noakes, it would not be a ‘shotgun wedding’. She presumed his relationship with Avril was over, but she was well aware of her vulnerability. He was not in love with her as she was with him, and she still had no claim on him. Any day he might meet another woman.
So — while outwardly the relationship appeared one of mutual satisfaction, inwardly and privately, each wondered about the future, and its uncertainty for both of them. Bradley was unable to break away from Jessica, and she seemed unable to bring the affair to the satisfactory conclusion she wanted.
Matters were unexpectedly brought to a climax by a letter from Avril.
Ex-Detective Inspector Russell Digby was bored! He had now been retired for about a year and had found that retirement was not all he had been led to expect. His lumbago was hampering his activities in the garden, and arthritis in his right knee also plagued him; life was no longer the horticultural bliss he had anticipated
“This retirement business is not what it is made out to be,” he grumbled to his long-suffering wife as he sat morosely drinking tea at the breakfast table. “You have all the time in the world, but not the energy to do what you want with it, even if you have the money. I’m now just a ‘has-been’. Even when I wander down to the station, they all seem pleased to see me, but they’re too busy to stop and talk, and I’m just in the way.” He sighed deeply as he reached for another piece of toast. “What am I suppose to do for the next twenty or so years?” he demanded.
“I know, dear,” said Joan Digby sympathetically, even as she wondered what she was going to do with this disconsolate husband under her feet in the kitchen all day! “My father felt the same,” she said as she poured herself a second cup of tea. “He took up bowls. You might like that,” she suggested brightly.
“Stuff and nonsense,” snorted her husband. “If I can’t work in the garden, how do you think I can play bowls? My outings now seem to be all doctor’s visits,” he went on. “A waste of time too, while they tell me to go on a diet, cut down on alcohol and give up smoking. What sort of life is that, if a man can’t do what he wants. Now when I was working, I never had time to see a doctor, and I was perfectly fit.”
Joan refrained from commenting — she had heard all this before, and she had been warned that after a busy fulfilling life, her husband would find it hard to adjust to a new, slower pace. She began to clear the table as he picked up the morning paper and lit a cigarette.
Two hours later he was wandering aimlessly around the garden when the phone rang, and Joan called him in.
The voice at the other end of the phone was unfamiliar, but Bradley Noakes quickly introduced himself as the journalist who was responsible for the article and photos about Harold Cummings’ engagement to Sandra Purcell, which had so interested the Inspector. Since talking to Mona Thompson. Bradley’s interest in the case had been rekindled, and he was now going ahead with bulldog tenacity to uncover more in what he thought had the makings of an intriguing story. He felt that the retired Inspector could be a source of small details about the night of the fire which might be revealing. After his brief explanation, Bradley was delighted to obtain an appointment with the Inspector for 11:00am the following day.
Two more parallel lines of investigation were about to converge!
Bradley would have been amazed could he have witnessed the Inspector’s reaction to his phone call. Forgetting his lumbago and arthritic knee, ex Detective Chief Inspector Russell Digby headed straight upstairs to the small bedroom he had converted into a study, and Joan could hear him opening and closing drawers and cupboards, as he muttered to himself. Presently he emerged with a pile of papers and files which he dumped on to the dining room table with a grunt of satisfaction. Russell Digby was now in his element!
“What’s happening?” asked Joan, who had just started to make some morning tea. It was obvious that her husband had at last found something to relieve his boredom.
Russell Digby sat down at the kitchen table and took the tea she offered him. As he added milk and sugar, he enlightened her. “That young man on the phone is coming over in the morning to discuss the Cummings fire investigation. It seems he has some new details of interest. Good thing I kept a lot of my personal notes on the case. Now I must refresh my memory before he comes.”
He gulped down his tea, grabbed a slice of cake and repaired to the dining room, where he proceeded to cover the table with files and documents. Joan was only too happy to accommodate his new interest, even though he worked late into the night and would barely stop for meals. “I might even write my memoirs,” he informed her over a hasty dinner. Joan merely smiled, and tactfully refrained from reminding him that this was something she had suggested many months ago, but he had flatly pooh-poohed the idea.
He was up early the next morning, freshly shaved and smartly dressed, all relevant documents placed in order on a small table in the sunroom which led off the kitchen, where he impatiently awaited Bradley’s arrival. “What is your special interest in this case,” was his expected first question. The two men had taken an instant liking to each other, and after initial greetings had sat down to enjoy the fresh homemade scones and tea which Joan provided.
“Well, sir, I guess it started with my grandmother, “ Bradley began, and as the Inspector raised a quizzical eyebrow, he went on to explain his grandmother’s assessment of the character of Harold Cummings, which had triggered his interest in the fire, and then the engagement of Harold Cummings to Sandra Purcell.
The Inspector listened carefully, made a few notes and then asked, “what else have you since found out, and what is the book you mentioned on the phone?”
Bradley explained his meeting with Avril and his activities since. He produced the book of poems, and the Inspector stopped in the act of lighting a cigarette and began to peruse it closely. He was back in his old familiar role and began to question Bradley more closely.
After they had shared and chuckled over, their respective visits to Martha Coutts at the modelling agency, and Bradley had demolished his second scone, the Inspector sat back, lit another cigarette and regarded him with a smile. Presently he spoke. “Cherchez la femme! I always knew there had to be an accomplice in that fire situation — most likely a woman. It all fitted together too neatly. But the problem has always been that every extensive investigation failed to turn up any connection between Harold Cummings and any other woman.”
“But ……,” began Bradley.
The Inspector held up his hand. “What you have told me is merely hearsay — what this girl Avril told you, that she had learnt from someone else. It would never stand up in a court of law —a clever barrister would tear the case to shreds in a moment.” He consulted his notes again, and Bradley waited impatiently for him to speak. “This is what we have.” he stated after a while. “Two sets of facts. One, a fire with loss of life at the Cummings property — to Harold Cummings’ advantage, as all was heavily insured and he was deeply in debt. Harold Cummings himself had a cast-iron alibi by being in New Zealand at the time. And two, which you have now brought to light. A Sydney model, with a strong likeness to Sarah Cummings, boards a pre-booked flight to London two days later, stays there for two years, then returns, not to Sydney but to Melbourne. Less than a year later she marries Harold Cummings. Coincidence? I don’t think so!”
“And the book?” prompted Bradley.
“Aha. Well, that was a mistake, of course. For some reason, it was picked up, and then carelessly lost. But though it provides a connection, it is not proof of anything. To sum up; there is no doubt that a heinous crime, planned by Harold Cummings, was committed that night. The big question is by whom!”
Bradley stared at him. “You mean Skippy?”
“The woman you know as ‘Skippy’. Yes,” said the Inspector. “But who is she?”
“You can’t mean ….,” began Bradley; he stopped with mouth wide open in horror.
“Why not,” said the Inspector matter of factly. “That has been done before. There were two women in that house that night. One was burned beyond recognition; the other flew to London, where we do know Harold Cummings made frequent visits over the next two years.”
Bradley sat stunned. In all his years of journalism, such a case had never come into his orbit before.
“There’s another alternative,” added the Inspector as Bradley prepared to leave. “The plan has all the marks of Harold Cummings unscrupulous character, but even so, maybe it went horribly wrong. Maybe the wrong woman died that night.” He smiled at Bradley who now looked even more appalled. “All this is strictly off the record of course, but keep me posted, and we will meet again.”
Bradley departed with his mind in a whirl, while the Inspector went happily back to the task of sorting out material for his memoirs.
Mona Thompson would have been very surprised to learn of the reactions to her now forgotten conversations, from both Bradley Noakes and Sandra Cummings nee Purcell.
Having initially disregarded Mona’s account of Bradley’s visit as unimportant, after a couple of days Skippy began to replay it over and over in her mind until she had convinced herself that the ‘nice young journalist’ Mona had mentioned, was most likely a detective. What had Mona actually told him? She began to toy with the idea of visiting Mona to find out what had actually been said.
“You’d better not,” said Harold firmly, when she began to discuss the matter with him.” She’s served her purpose, now drop her. She’s a terrible gossip and has probably gone on to something else now. If you show up again, you’ll only make her curious. You’ve messed up enough all ready.” He turned back to watch his favourite evening TV programme.
Skippy was near to tears; it’s all right for him, she thought. He made sure that he had a safe alibi; he has no idea what I went through. I know I goofed up a bit on the ship, but that worked out all right. He doesn’t understand.
But Harold did understand, and as Skippy fumbled for her handkerchief, he pulled her to him. The plan should have been perfect; they had rehearsed it over and over; she knew exactly what she had to do. But Skippy was the one weak link. If she broke, Harold understood only too well what the consequences could be. He switched off the TV and gave her his irresistible smile, as he began to caress her. “It will be all right, honey.” he whispered. “We’ve got each other, and I need you.” That was true! They were now bound together by the shared deep dark secret of what really happened that night, as much as by the mutual passion that now engulfed them.
But the dreams were recurring, and with greater intensity — the flames were now reaching higher, grabbing her, so that she couldn’t get away. In the distance she could hear Harold calling, then she saw his face in the flames laughing at her. Skippy woke in a cold sweat, sat up in bed, screaming and shaking with fear.
As Harold took her in his arms, calming and reassuring her until she again fell asleep, he began to make plans; the time had come to move out of Melbourne, as he had known it would. Money was no problem. He smiled wryly in the darkness as he thought of the Swiss bank account, and the highly insured valuables removed from the property before the fire. Beneath that charming playboy exterior, Harold Cummings had a mind so brilliant, so devious, so cunning, so unscrupulous that even the experienced cynical Inspector Russell Digby would have had difficulty in comprehending.
Harold looked at his wife, now sleeping peacefully beside him. They had struck a deal at that first meeting in London after the fire, and she had been a willing accomplice as he had outlined his further plans. She thrived or challenge and deception as much as he did, and the future still looked good for them both. He turned over and quickly fell into a deep sleep!
The woman whom Justin and Ben had known as “Skippy” tossed restlessly in her sleep. The dreams were returning, the nightmares. She thought she could hear Harold calling in the distance, telling her what to do.
She woke suddenly and sat up in a panic — no, he was still there, snoring peacefully beside her. Dammit, she thought, the sleeping tablets aren’t working any more. She slid out of bed, pulled on her dressing-gown, and went downstairs to make a cup of tea. It was only 2am, and she was wide awake. This is becoming a habit, she thought, as she carried the steaming tea into the lounge where she sat in the darkness staring absently at the lamp illuminating the street outside.
We must move, she thought desperately. Perhaps I’ll feel better if we get out of Melbourne. It’s all right for Harold; it doesn’t affect him, so he just laughs when I tell him my fears, and says I imagine things. Maybe I am, but I feel people are looking at me and wondering, but —.
Her musings were interrupted by a loud male voice calling, “where are you, honey. I want you.”
He always calls me ‘honey’, she thought with a wry smile, but there’s certainly nothing sweet about me! Her thoughts were bitter as, leaving her tea untouched, she made her way back to bed and Harold’s arms; She wanted him too!
“Hush, honey,” he said, “You’ve been having nightmares again. Don’t try to talk. We’re together,” and he began to caress her.
As usual, she responded ardently, in a manner that would have astonished Justin — certainly no ‘ice maiden’ here!
Soon they both fell into a deep sleep, and it was late when they were woken by the sun streaming through the curtains. Again at breakfast, Skippy brought up the subject of leaving Melbourne, but in the light of day, her fears seemed petty, and as usual, Harold merely laughed and returned to reading the newspaper. “You worry too much,” he told her with his engaging smile. “Why don’t you go shopping and buy yourself some new clothes. That always cheers you up, then we can go out to dinner tonight, and you can wear something new.”
Skippy decided to shop in the city where she felt a sense of security at being unknown in the crowd. But as she wandered through the department store, selecting a few garments to try on, she was hailed by a loud voice. “Why, Sandra, fancy seeing you here. How are you?”
She turned and found herself facing Mona Thompson, her neighbour during those early days in Melbourne before she had married Harold. This was the “ice maiden” that Justin would have recognised, as she turned to great Mona with a cool smile, betraying none of the inner turmoil that the unexpected encounter had raised.
“How strange that I should see you today, “went on Mona. “Why, it was only yesterday that a nice young man called at the house. Said he was a journalist and was writing an article on former models and their lives now. Asked me all sorts of questions about you.”
“Really,” said Skippy, panic beginning to rise again even as she maintained her cool, detached manner. “I don’t suppose you could tell him anything very interesting about me. These people are always on the lookout for sensation.”
In spite of her apparent calm, Mona sensed that Skippy was a little disturbed at what she had said, and decided not to tell her what she had actually told Bradley Noakes. So after a few more moments of chit chat they parted, and Skippy fled to the fitting room, where she sat down and tried to think what Mona might have said and if it would have mattered anyway. What did Mona know? So she made her purchases and returned home looking forward to the dinner out that Harold had promised.
However, had she known what actually did become apparent in the conversation between Mona Thompson and Bradley Noakes, she certainly would have been very disturbed indeed!
Six months had passed since Bradley and Avril had first met, and two months since she had returned to England. They had met only twice more before she left Australia, but Bradley had phoned her frequently. Back in England, she had written as she had promised, but although her letters were warm and friendly, they lacked any expression of her longing for him as he longed for her. She was still undecided.
A promotion was in the offing, and Bradley had been kept very busy. But, he now had a few days leave, so after spending a day relaxing and unwinding, he decided to continue his investigation into the life of Mrs Sandra Cummings, nee Purcell. Maybe if I unearth a few more facts to pass on to Avril, it will rekindle her interest to investigate with me, he thought illogically, as he drove to the address where he had learnt Sandra was living prior to her marriage to Harold Cummings.
Although most of the houses were small, the street was pleasantly tree-lined and exuded an air of comfortable affluence. Bradley wondered briefly, how Skippy had afforded to live there, although he had been unable to obtain any details of her financial situation. Hoping to find a neighbour who had lived there three years ago, he knocked at the door of the house to the left of the one where he knew Skippy had lived.
“Why certainly I knew her,” said Mona Thompson, when Bradley had explained his concocted story — an article he was writing about the lives of former models. “But I didn’t know her well,” she added, “and I certainly never knew she had been a model. But actually, I think I played cupid there, as she and Harold met in this house.”
“Really,” said Bradley, trying to conceal his rising excitement. “How did that happen?”
“Well……,” began Mona. She paused, and looked him over, and liked what she saw. “Look here,” she said, opening the door wider, “why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea while I tell you all about it.”
Bradley accepted with alacrity. He was used to such invitations, but this one promised to be extremely productive. He could hardly believe his luck, as he followed her into the small but cosy kitchen, and settled himself comfortably into a chair at the table, as she proceeded to fuss about making the tea.
He got out his notebook as Mona began to talk. She obviously loved gossip and was in her element. She was, he judged, in her late fifties with dyed blonde hair and beady brown eyes which looked myopically at him through thick gold-rimmed glasses. She eased her plump figure into the chair opposite him, as she placed two mugs of steaming tea on the table.
She gave him a friendly smile. “Sugar, young man? No, well you’re sensible,” she said, shovelling two full spoonfuls into her mug. “We knew Harold’s parents quite well,” she began. “We used to attend the races, you know, and Bruce, that’s my husband, got friendly with wth Harold Snr. But we never met his son or Sarah, Young Harold was never interested in the horses, only in spending his father’s money.” She shook her head reprovingly and sipped her tea.
“So tragic, his father’s death, so soon after the loss of his mother,” she continued. “We sent young Harold a condolence card. But we heard nothing from him until about three years ago, when he suddenly phoned and asked if he could come over. We were a bit surprised, but we asked him to dinner, and after that — it was after Sarah’s death too, of course — he used to come here regularly. Funny though, he never talked about himself, but he asked a lot of questions about the district. We wondered if he was planning to move here, but never did.”
“And,” prompted Bradley, absentmindedly helping himself to a shortbread biscuit from the plate in front of him. “When did Sandra come to live next door and meet Harold?”
“Oh, that was just a coincidence,” said Mona, “The house was to be leased for a year, as the family was going overseas. They were lucky. She told me that they got a tenant straight away, which was Sandra. She moved in two months after she took the lease. But we hardly saw her. She never went out during the day, but always at night. I thought she must be a waitress or have a job in a bar, something like that.”
“How did she meet Harold?” asked Bradley again, filling his notebook and trying to keep her on track.
“Well,” said Mona, “I was having this small dinner party, quite casual, you know, and I asked Harold. Then a day or two earlier, as I was unloading all the groceries from the car, Sandra came out and offered to help me. I told her I was having a dinner party, and she said something about it being nice to have so many friends, and she looked so forlorn that I just asked her to join us.”
“I see,” said Bradley thoughtfully. Actually, he saw a lot more than Mona realised! He asked a few more pertinent questions, but he sensed that she was becoming curious, so he thanked her profusely and left before she began to suspect the real reason for his call. He now had plenty of food for thought, but it was lunchtime, so he went in search or more solid food to fill his stomach.
He found the local shopping centre and located a small cafe on a corner which looked quite congenial. As he entered, he noticed a girl sitting at a window table, who looked vaguely familiar. She looked up as he approached and smiled. “Hello, Brad,” she greeted him.
Bradley stopped. He met many people in the course of his work and prided himself on his good memory for faces. He smiled back and held up his hand. “Don’t tell me,” he said as he studied her — long blonde hair and wide grey eyes. “I know,” he said after a moment. “Jessica, the wedding in Sydney. We sat at the same table. That’s where I met you before,”
That will do for starters, thought Jessica, as she indicated the vacant chair opposite her. “Please join me.” As Bradley sat down, she thought back to that evening, when he had attached himself to the group outside the marquee. She remembered how piqued she had been when he showed such obvious interest in Avril and had danced so closely with her all night. What was the situation now, she wondered. Was this her opportunity?
Bradley broke into her thoughts. He had been studying the menu, and he now looked up at her. “What are you doing here? I thought you lived in Sydney.”
“No, I live here,” she said, “and work as a travel consultant. I was born and brought up in Melbourne. But yes, I did live in Sydney for a while when Dad had a transfer there with the bank. My parents are still there.” She put down her empty coffee cup. “Do you live nearby?” she asked.
“No, I don’t know this area at all,” said Bradley, “I was just here doing a bit of investigation, — the nosy journalist!”
“Of course,” said Jessica and laughed.” I remember you and Avril were busy discussing a little investigation that evening too.”
The fencing had begun!
Bradley was adept at parrying questions which he didn’t want to answer, while Jessica, as a salesperson, knew how to thrust to get the information she needed. He wanted to conceal details of his relationship with Avril, the girl he intended to marry, while Jessica was equally determined to explore Avril’s relationship with Bradley — the man she intended to marry!
She chose her next words carefully. “I hear from Avril that they are well settled back in England. I know she was looking forward to going back. I don’t think she ever really settled in Australia.”
Bradley parried the unspoken question. “How did you come to know Avril?” But at that moment a waitress appeared to take their order, and he turned his attention back to the menu. “I’m starving,” he announced with a grin. “It seems ages since breakfast. Will you join me for lunch, Jessica?”
“Thanks, I’d love to,” she replied, concealing the fact that she had just finished a very belated breakfast. “Something light — just a salad perhaps.”
Bradley placed their orders, with a substantial meal for himself, then returned to his question.
“We met at Business College,” explained Jessica. “My family had just moved to Sydney, and hers had just arrived in Australia. So we kind of palled up — a new city for both of us.”
“Do you work near here?” asked Bradley.
“No, my office is in the city, but I was visiting a client in the area,” Jessica explained and began to discuss her work, preparatory to her next thrust. But glancing at her watch, she realised she needed to get back to the office. She thought quickly. “Look,” she said, “I have to get back to the office. But I’m sure we still have lots to talk about. If you have another spare day, why don’t we meet for lunch next week and chat some more? My shout.” She gave Bradley a dazzling smile.
“Why not,” said Bradley. So they arranged to meet for lunch the following week at a restaurant near the travel agency.
A chance encounter! But what was set in motion that day was to have far-reaching effects in many lives.
Three parallel lines of investigation into the life of Harold Cummings
By definition, parallel lines do not meet.
Were two of these lines about to converge?
Bradley Noakes was forging ahead in his career, but his dedication and irregular hours left him with little time for an active social life. He knew several girls whom he could call on to partner him to functions in connection with his job, but he was not seriously involved with any of them. Work and pleasure seemed to overlap, and Bradley was a content, happy man. However, when he and two other friends received invitations to the wedding of another friend, who was marrying a Sydney girl, they all decided to fly to Sydney for a long weekend.
It was a pleasant evening in September 1962; the well decorated Pymble church was crowded and very warm so Bradley and his friends were glad to get out in the fresh air when the ceremony was over. The reception was held at the home of the bride’s uncle, where a large marquee had been erected in the grounds, and people were milling around, enjoying the balmy evening air before the chill of night set in. Bradley and his friends knew none of the other guests, but that didn’t stop Bradley from wandering around, chatting to complete strangers, as he often did in his job. One group, in particular, got his attention, and one particular girl in that group. He sauntered over to join them.
After a few opening remarks and pleasantries to the group in general, Bradley turned to the girl who had attracted him. “Can I get you a drink,” he offered.
“Thank you, but I already have one,” she replied, indicating the glass in her hand.
“I know,” said Bradley. “But that’s just my opening gambit.” They both laughed, and he held out his hand. “Bradley Noakes at your service.”
“Avril Clements,” she replied as they shook hands.
Two parallel lines of the investigation had just met!
Wearing a saxe blue outfit which matched her eyes, and with shoulder-length wavy chestnut hair, Avril Clements was a very attractive young lady. Bradley Noakes resolved to stay with her throughout the evening.
He had met the girl he intended to marry!
“Of course you’re English,” he said as they sauntered across the lawn together. “Did you emigrate?”
“Oh no,” said Avril. “Daddy has been out here on contract for his company, but we’re due to return home in a few months.”
“I can’t let you do that,” said Bradley quickly. “I’ve only just met you.”
“But you can’t stop me,” replied Avril spiritedly.
“Oh yes I can,” said Bradley, with equal fervour. “I’ll marry you”.
Avril looked taken aback. “As you said, we’ve only just met, and I don’t know you.”
“Well, we’ll start to rectify that right now,” said Bradley, taking her hand as they walked towards the marquee.
“Is this the Australian way?” asked Avril, now looking amused.
“Maybe, maybe not,” said Bradley. “But it’s the Bradley Noakes way.”
Avril matched his light mood. “So this is always what you’re like?” she asked with a smile..
“You’ll get used to it,” said Bradley. “And by the time we’ve had six children, you won’t even notice it.”
Avril now looked appalled. “That’s going a bit far. Aren’t you rather taking things for granted?”
Bradley merely smiled and steered her into the marquee which was rapidly filling up. They found the table where his two friends were already seated, and Avril invited two of her friends to join them. Conversation flowed with the drinks.
“What do you do for a living?” Jessica, one of Avril’s friends, asked Bradley, noting his athletic build. “Are you in the sports world?”
“Nothing like that,” he answered. “I’m a journalist — one of those nosey people who ask awkward questions, and brings the news to your breakfast table.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call that nosey,” said Jessica quickly, not troubling to hide the fact that she found him attractive. “You can ask me anything you like.”
Bradley laughed and concentrated on his meal, but Avril had listened with interest. Later, when the speeches were over, and the conversation began again, she turned to Bradley, sitting beside her. “You were saying you’re a journalist. Do you by any chance know much about that tragic fire at the Cumming’s property about four years ago?”
She was surprised at his sharp reply. “Why do you ask? “he demanded, putting down his glass.
“I hope I haven’t said the wrong thing,” she answered, a little hesitantly. “I wouldn’t have known about it, but Daddy was in Melbourne on business at the time, and he told us about it.”
“But why are you so interested?” pursued Bradley. “It was, as you say, a few years ago, so what does it have to do with you now?”
“Well, it’s sort of complicated, but I’ll try to explain,” said Avril. “The subject came up at home because we had my cousin and his friend visiting us from England two years ago. My cousin’s friend, Justin, met this girl on the ship coming over. She was rather odd, and she left behind a book of Banjo Paterson poems, with Sarah Cummings name and phone number in it. Justin had only known her as ‘Skippy’, so he phoned that number to make arrangements to return it, and he was told that she was dead. That’s when Daddy remembered about the fire and told us. Then a year ago there was this article in the paper, with photos telling about this girl, Skippy’s engagement to Harold Cummings. And we noticed a likeness to Sarah. I was very intrigued, and I always wanted to learn more, as it all seemed a bit odd to me.”
Bradley had been listening intently. He sat quietly after she had stopped talking. Then he told her, “I was responsible for that article in the paper. But can you tell me more about this girl, Skippy, what did he say was odd about her?”
Avril was quiet after her long explanation, but just when Bradley thought there was nothing more she could tell him, she started to talk again and told him about the apparent fear of journalists, the drugging and the aunt who didn’t exist.
“Hm,” said Bradley, making notes in the little book he always carried with him. They were both silent again for a while, each mulling over what Avril had said. The other couples had now got up to dance. He put an arm around Avril and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Let’s dance,” he said. “I want an excuse to feel you in my arms.”
In her job as a doctor’s receptionist, Avril had met many men, and been propositioned by a few, but she had never met anyone quite like Bradley. He was very attractive, she admitted to herself — tall, broad-shouldered, with curly brown hair and twinkling brown eyes. She enjoyed the feeling of his closeness on the dance floor, and as his arms tightened around her, and his lips met hers while they continued to dance. Avril found herself strangely drawn to this man she hardly knew. Must be the champaign, she told herself. I knew I shouldn’t have had that last glass. Reluctantly she had to decline his invitation to lunch the next day before he returned to Melbourne.
“Jessica’s parents are hosting a luncheon for the bridal party and close friends, “she explained. “They are here tonight and will be driving us girls home, in case we’ve had too much to drink!”
Bradley Noakes now had a double incentive to return to Sydney as soon as he could. But it was another three weeks before he was able to get away, during which time he had phoned Avril frequently. He arrived in Sydney late one evening and stayed in the cramped flat of his journalist colleague. Like the Inspector before him, Bradley had no difficulty in locating the model agency where Sandra Purcell had been employed, and he easily obtained an appointment with Matha Coults, who had been vastly intrigued since the Inspector’s visit. All good publicity for the agency, she thought.
Bradley accepted the offered cup of weak and cheap instant coffee, which he drank stoically — all part of the job, he reminded himself. He knew he was attractive to women and was soon aware of the interest and meaningful look in Martha’s eyes as she talked — he had seen it many times in females of a certain age! But she was unable to give him any further information than she had given the Inspector. Bradley took copious notes and made his escape as soon as he realised she had no more to tell him, and headed, not to the pharmacy like the Inspector, but to a nearby coffee shop where he hoped to get a decent cup of coffee while he mulled over all his notes.
When he took her to dinner that evening, he and Avril discussed what he had learnt about Sandra Purcell, and she handed him the book of poems. “Justin left it behind, and you may as well have it, as it’s no use to us,” she said. Bradley studied it, while Avril perused the notes he had taken from his conversation at the agency. “I can just about read your writing,” she muttered, screwing up her eyes. Then her sudden exclamation made him lookup. “Wow,” she exclaimed excitedly.” Look at this, Brad. Her names — Sandra Kathleen Iris Purcell. Those initials — S.K.I.P. Do you see; that’s why she was called ‘Skippy’. No mystery there after all. She spoke the truth then.”
Bradley stared at the notes Avril had handed back to him. “You’re right,” he agreed. “There, I knew you’d make a good journalist’s wife with that quick mind.”
“It’s probably all the Agatha Christie books I read, “confessed Avril, feeling a little foolish as she spoke.
“Great stuff,” said Bradley. “My two sisters devour them too. See, you’ll fit well into our family.”
He had two more days in Sydney but was unable to gather much further information, apart from the fact that Sandra Purcell had been brought up in an orphanage and had no known living relatives. However, he felt the trip was well spent, as he devoted as much time as possible to courting Avril. If she had any doubts about his sincerity and had started to wonder if the visit had been more for business than to see here, such concerns were soon dispelled.
It was their last evening together, and Bradley took her hand across the table as they sat sipping their after-dinner coffee. “I know this has been a business trip,” he began, “but it was also an excuse to see you again. I meant what I said on the first night I met you, Avril. I’m very much in love with you, and I want to marry you. I believe you feel the same about me, but you just don’t know it!”
Avril blushed as he went on, looking earnestly into her eyes. “I’m just not sure,” she admitted, “and Australia is so far from home.”
“I’ll give you time,” said Bradley. “But promise me you’ll write when you return to England. And remember, I can’t wait forever. I’m eager to put that ring on your finger.”
Avril kissed him warmly as they separated, and with that encouragement, Bradley Noakes had to be content, as he returned to Melbourne to attempt further investigations into the life of Mrs Sandra Cummings, nee Purcell.
Bradley Noakes was young, but he was bright, hard-working and ambitious. He had been only a short time with the Melbourne newspaper when news broke of the tragic fire at Harold Cummings’ country property, but he had taken a special interest in the news coverage because his grandmother had been a close personal friend of Harold Cummings’ late parents. As a teenager, he had often heard her discussing the family.
She had always insisted that Harold Jnr was, “a bad lot – thoroughly spoilt.” And when Harold Snr had been killed in a car accident only a few months after his wife’s premature death from cancer, her suspicions had been strong and vocal! “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that no good son of his had something to do with it,” she stated vehemently over a cup of tea at her daughter’s house.
“Hush, Mother,” her daughter had admonished her. “Or you’ll be had up for slander. You know the police did a thorough investigation and said the brakes were faulty, and there was no evidence of tampering.”
“There you are; it just shows how cunning that young rascal is,” the old lady had insisted. “His father knew he was no good too, though he wouldn’t admit it. Otherwise, why did he set up a trust fund for that poor daughter of theirs with Cerebral Palsy? He knew when he went, the money would go too!”
Old people surely got very suspicious, Bradley had thought at the time. But when the fire had occurred a few years later, he began to think; two tragedies, both of which were of great financial benefit to Harold Jnr, well known for his gambling, wild living and reckless spending!
Perhaps Grandma was right after all!
Bradley determined to maintain an interest in Harold Cummings. He and Sarah had been married about two years when the fire took place. Neither had any close relatives. Sarah’s parents, he knew, were both dead, and her only relative was an uncle who lived in New York. Harold’s handicapped sister lived permanently in a nursing home.
So it was Bradley Noakes who had written the article about the engagement of the widowed Harold Cummings to former Sydney model, Sandra Purcell, which had so interested the Inspector. But there was more to it than just the article. In his desire to increase reader interest in the story, Bradley had searched the archives and found a photograph of Sara Cummings, taken shortly before her tragic death. As he placed that photo side by side with the photo of the newly engaged couple, what he saw startled him.
He knew that people in a second marriage often chose a partner similar to the first, but the strong likeness between these two women, was, in his eyes, extremely remarkable. Who was Sandra Purcell? The article and accompanying photos went to press, where it was seen by Chief Detective Inspector Russell Digby. Bradley, like the Inspector after him, had reached for the phone and rang a journalist he knew slightly on the Sydney Morning Herald.
It was now almost a year since Justin and Ben had arrived in Sydney, and Justin had long ago returned to London to start his new job. Ben was also preparing to leave after travelling extensively throughout Australia and was now spending a few days with his relatives before he left. It was shortly before dinner one evening when Avril, who was curled up in a chair reading the newspaper, gave a loud exclamation.
“Harold Cummings!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t that the guy we were talking about, who lost his wife in the fire. Remember, Justin had her book. Well, now he’s getting married again. Isn’t that just too romantic? There’s a photo of her in the paper too, as well as one of his new fiancee. Do look, Been. I think they look so much alike too.”
Ben took the paper from her. “Why that’s Skippy,” he said in astonishment.
“Skippy? You mean the girl Justin met on the ship?” said Avril excitedly. “But they look so alike – which is Skippy?”
Ben was studying the paper closely. “The hair is different, of course. Sarah had a short bob, and their noses are different. But the likeness – yes it’s quite extraordinary.”
Avril sensed a mystery. This was better than Agatha Christie. “Where can we find out more about her?” she asked. “I mean, why did she not come back to Sydney? Why stay in Melbourne, and why did she drug Justin? And why did she have a book belonging to Sarah Cummings? Sandra Purcell — do you think she knew Harold Cumming before?”
Did she know Harold Cummings before? That was the question in Russell Digby’s mind as he read and reread the article and studied the photos closely under a magnifying glass.
“Cherchez la femme!” Had he found her? Other current work claimed his immediate attention, but when he went home that evening, he put a proposition to his wife. “How would you like a few days in Sydney?” he asked her, as he sat drinking his evening beer. “I’m sure your sister could put us up, and the shopping is good there.”
“Nonsense,” she retorted, eyeing him suspiciously. “Both David Jones and Myers are the same everywhere, and you know it. What are you up to now?”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll come clean. It’s that Cummings case and the fire about three years ago. Nothing I can do officially, but I’d like to check a few records, and make some enquiries.” And he filled her in on the case, as he often did. “Sooner or later these guys trip themselves up,” he concluded. “Though often it’s too late to make charges. But I’m mighty curious.”
He easily located the Modelling Agency where Sandra Purcell had been employed and obtained an interview with the manager, a tall thin woman with dyed blond hair and heavy makeup, who looked as if she had once been a model herself.
“Let me see,” she said peering at the records through large black framed tinted glasses. “Oh yes. Here we are. Sandra Kathleen Iris Purcell. She left about three years ago, but I remember her well. One of our best models, with a good future ahead. Very lively, and popular with the other girls and clients. Then suddenly disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” repeated the Inspector. “Was she abducted, was there foul play? What happened?”
“Oh nothing like that,” said Martha Coutts with a smile, obviously relishing her role as an informant. “She just didn’t turn up for work one day, She wasn’t answering her phone, and we began to be concerned, so we contacted the police, who went round to her Bondi flat, but found nothing suspicious. Her rent had been paid up, all her things were gone; it seemed like a normal departure. Then later we learnt she had taken a plane to London, which she’d booked a week previously. It was all very mysterious.”
“Mysterious indeed,” agreed the Inspector, shifting his bulk in the hard wooden chair, as he felt a twinge of lumbago. “Are you sure it was three years ago?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” said Martha Coutts brightly.” We had to cope with a very angry client where she was supposed to be that day. “It was definitely about this time of year, three years ago. I can even give you the date.”
As the Inspector got up to leave, she added,” oh, by the way, the police learnt from a neighbour that her flat had been broken into a short while before. But she never reported it, said nothing was missing. I see she’s now back in Australia and getting married. But I don’t think the photo in the paper is very much like her — still newspaper photos, you know…..” She flapped her arms significantly. The Inspector declined a cup of coffee, thanked her for her time, and went in search of a pharmacy to buy some pain killers. The lumbago was becoming very painful.
Further enquiries elicited the facts that Sandra Purcell had no known living relatives, had been brought up in an orphanage and had paid her own way through modelling school by working long hours at casual jobs. But he drew a blank at the Bondi flat, as he had expected — such tenancies change hands frequently, and three years was a fair while. But Russell Digby was well satisfied with what he had managed to find out. It had been a good few days; he thought — until he was faced with the bills his wife had incurred at Myers and David Jones!
The excitement of arriving in a new country after over a month at sea kept Ben and Justin fully occupied for their first week in Sydney. They had been warmly welcomed by Ben’s relatives who lived on the North Shore and initiated into the Australian way of life. Ben’s uncle, who had been working for the Sydney branch of his company, was due to return to England in two years time, so the family had many questions about changes in the country while they had been away.
With so much to talk about, and so much to see, during that first week, it was not until the following Saturday, when they were picnicking in the Blue Mountains, that Justin suddenly remembered Skippy and her book. He was still angry, and embarrassed, to think he had been so fooled, that he didn’t relate the whole story, but simply asked his hosts if he could make a phone call with reference to a book he wanted to return.
The phone number was a Melbourne one, and the receiver was quickly picked up at the other end. “Yes,” barked a loud, Australian male voice.
Justin was a little taken aback. “Oh, eh, eh, could I speak to Miss Sarah Cummings, ” he said hesitantly.
“No Sarah Cummings here, ” said the voice, and down went the phone.
Justin was uncertain about what to do next. Maybe I got the number wrong, he thought and decided to try again after carefully checking in Skippy’s book.
“Yes,” the same voice barked again.
Justin tried another approach. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he began, “but I’m trying to locate Miss Sarah Cummings.”
The voice, obviously angry, waxed eloquent. “My wife’s dead. Now I don’t know how you got this number, or what your game is young man, but if you bother me any more I’ll have the police onto you.” Again the phone was slammed down.
Justin returned to the family in the living room, extremely perplexed. What now, he thought?
“Is everything all right, dear?” enquired Alice Clements, a cheerful Yorkshire woman in her early fifties, as she noticed his puzzled expression.
Justin hesitated, then decided to pour out the whole story. “It was supposed to be just a shipboard romance,” he ended. “Now it’s become a real mystery, and somehow I’ve got involved. “What do I do now?”
The family was fascinated, especially twenty-year-old Avril, who was an avid Agatha Christie reader. “Ooh, perhaps she’s a thief and stole the book, or maybe she’s wanted by the police. She might even be a murderer, ” she suggested brightly.
“For goodness sake, Avril,” said her father. ” Just stop letting your imagination run wild. There’s probably a very simple explanation of the whole thing. “
“Such as……?” said eighteen-year-old Tom. “What’s your theory, Dad?”
But Trevor Clements sat lost in thought, studying the book. It was not until the next evening as the family sat around the dinner table, enjoying the roast which Alice had cooked to perfection, that he raised the subject again. “Cummings, ” he said. “The name has been bugging me all day. I’ve been trying to think where I’ve heard it before. ‘Sarah Cummings. Melbourne.’ It must be the same person.” He turned to his wife. “Remember, dear, when I was in Melbourne two years ago on business. It was a big insurance investigation, and the company tried to prove fraud. But in the end, they had to pay up.”
He had everyone’s attention now, as he went on. “As far as I can remember, it was to do with this playboy Harold Cummings. His father was a well-known racehorse owner — even had a Melbourne Cup winner, I believe, and he was a wealthy man. He died in a car accident, and son Harold inherited the lot, but gambled it all away.”
“Go on, Dad, ” urged Avril, as her father paused to take a mouthful.
“Well it was only local news at that time, but it seems that playboy Harold got into serious financial difficulties. Then there was the fire at the country property. Everything was lost, and his wife, Sarah, was there at the time — burned beyond recognition. But Sarah and house and contents were heavily insured, so naturally, arson was suspected. It was all too convenient, but they could prove nothing. Harold had a cast iron alibi. He was in New Zealand at the time.”
“Go on, Dad, what happened next?” asked Avril, as he paused again.
“I have no idea,” replied Trevor. “I only recall the case because it was a hot topic of conversation in the office while I was there. It was not great news in Sydney.”
The family ate in silence for a few moments. Then Avril spoke again. “Gee Justin, you certainly got yourself involved in something! Who was that girl anyway? Why you don’t even know her real name, and what was she doing with a dead woman’s book? How can we find out more?”
“I don’t suppose you can,” said her father. “It was a while ago, and I imagine the insurance company just had to pay up as they could find no sign of any accomplice or deliberate arson. They would have had a lot of cases since, and it just attracted attention locally as Harold Cummings was so well known.”
“I do remember one thing,” said Ben, as he passed his plate to Alice for a second helping of apple pie. “Didn’t you tell me, Justin, that she asked you if you were a journalist. Wasn’t it a rather odd question really?”
“Yes”, said Justin slowly. ” I remember now that she did. But I thought it was just her way of getting to know me, though I do remember that she seemed more relaxed when I told her that I wasn’t. But she was still cool and distant, a sort of ice-maiden! “
“There you are,” insisted Avril. “She must have had something to hide, and she was afraid you would find out.”
“In retrospect, all her behaviour was a bit weird, ” agreed Justin. “But I didn’t query it at the time.”
“Anyway its past history now, and we’ll probably never know the whole story,” Alice summoned up, as the conversation turned in other directions.
* * * * * * *
Past history it may have become to the general public, but to Detective Chief Inspector Russell Digby, who had been in charge of the case, it was far from that. Nearing retirement age, he had hoped to go out in a blaze of glory, and although the case had been officially closed, he still gnawed at it like a terrier with a bone. He was not satisfied! In his many years of experience, coincidences just didn’t exist! And this one had been far too convenient. The guy had been in desperate financial straits. Could even have ended up in prison — and yet he had a strong alibi. Too strong! The thorough investigation had revealed no accomplice and no domestic strife which may have caused him to get rid of his wife. “Cherchez la femme” was always a possible factor in such cases. But again, no one had been able to find details of any extra marital liaison.
As he pottered about in his beloved garden in his off duty time, Detective Russell Digby still found himself chewing over the case. A grief stricken Harold Cummings had kept on his East Malvern town house, where he apparently lived very quietly on the income from money invested from the sale of the surviving race horses. He never returned to New Zealand, but it was noted that he made several trips to London over the next two years. Although he wondered about these trips, the Inspector, to his intense frustration, had never been able to discover what he did there. So Chief Detective Inspector Russell Digby went on enjoying his garden, pottering in his orchid house, and delighting his wife with all the home grown vegetables he produced; retirement was getting very close and it promised a tranquil, bucolic existence ahead.
As he glanced through the local paper one sunny morning, less than a year after Skippy had disembarked in Melbourne, a short article on page two caught his attention, and changed him from a terrier toying with a bone, to a bloodhound hot on the trail! He rang the newspaper office.
When after a sleepless night, Ben woke the next morning complaining of earache, he got scant sympathy from Justin, who was still nursing his anger and bruised ego after Skippy’s departure. “Aw, shut up,” he growled. “Go and see the doc, and don’t moan to me. “
There were no other patients in the surgery and Ben was attended to at once. “Just a slight infection,” stated the doctor, peering into his ear. “We’ll soon fix you up with an antibiotic.” He was a jovial, friendly man in his forties, and seemed glad to have someone to talk to. He confided that he had recently been divorced, and a job on a ship provided him with an opportunity to get away from it all and have some breathing space.
Ben sympathised. “Have you been very busy during the voyage?” He inquired as he took the antibiotics.
“No,” said the doctor. “All pretty boring actually; mainly cases of heatstroke and tummy upsets due to overindulgence.” He chuckled. “Oh, and there was one old lady who insisted she had appendicitis. But it was only a case of eating too much fruit! My, she was difficult to convince though!”
“What about the old lady who fell and bruised her ribs. Didn’t she keep you busy? She sounded pretty demanding to me,” commented Ben, also happy to stay and chat.
The doctor looked puzzled. “What old lady?”
“She walked with a cane and couldn’t manage the stairs because of the fall,” Ben explained.
“You must be mistaken,” replied the doctor. “If there had been such a case, I certainly would have treated her. Where did you get that from?”
Ben felt a little foolish. “A girl my friend got to know, said she was sharing a cabin with an elderly aunt who’d had a fall and was demanding all her attention. Said it stopped her from socialising.”
The doctor began to laugh. “That’s a good one,” he said. “Sounds like it was her way of giving him the brush off, and keeping him out of her cabin. You young men get up to all sorts of things on board ship I know.” He grinned and gave Ben a broad wink. “A good looker was she?”
Ben wished he hadn’t raised the subject, but it was obvious the doctor was enjoying a good gossip, so he attempted to describe Skippy. “She was very antisocial, and never mixed with any of the other passengers,” he concluded.
“Hm,” said the doctor. “I think I know the girl you mean. One of those slim cool blondes. Never mentioned an aunt, but came in here about a week ago and asked for some strong sleeping tablets. Said she couldn’t sleep but didn’t look too tired to me.” He chuckled again.
Thoughtfully, Ben made his way back to his cabin. Justin was not there, so he lay on his bunk and fell asleep. After about an hour he awoke refreshed and went to find Justin. The ship was still docked in Melbourne; it was now the southern winter, with a grey sky overhead that looked cold and uninviting, the sea choppy. The decks appeared deserted and there was an atmosphere of desolation everywhere. After all the sun and activities of the past few weeks, Ben found it very depressing. Rather like the end of term at school, he reflected, everything packed up and corridors deserted. Most of the group he had been with had also disembarked in Melbourne, including his ‘shipboard romance’, an Australian girl named Jan (not Sheila!). He had not been seriously involved with her, but she had been good company.
He found Justin in a corner of the writing room playing cards with three of the other remaining passengers. It was now close to lunchtime, and after lunch, they joined Justin’s card-playing acquaintances in an excursion into the city. So it was not until that evening after dinner that they were alone and had a chance to talk together.
As they sat morosely drinking beer in the lounge, Ben related what he had learned from the doctor. “I don’t buy that idea that she just wanted to keep you out of her cabin, “he concluded.” And it’s obvious that those sleeping tablets were for you! I thought you had just been indulging too much at the bar when I came in and found you snoring your head off. But I can see now, it’s obvious, she drugged you! But why?”
Justin shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe she didn’t want me to see her disembark without an aunt. But why go to all that trouble, and give me all those lies?” After his initial shock, he was becoming very angry. “And to think that I wasted all that time on her, and really felt sorry for her with all her tales about the aunt. She took me for a fool, and how she must have laughed at me,” he stormed.
“Calm down,” urged Ben, “and let’s think this through. There’s something very strange about it all.” His legal mind was already at work. “Did she actually say that she was disembarking in Sydney?”
Justin thought for a moment, trying to recall the conversation. “Well, not exactly.” he said finally. “But when I said I was going all the way to Sydney, I asked her if she was, and she said something about ‘going all the way’, so I took that to mean Sydney.”
“Well she’d no intention of going “all the way” with you in any sense,” said Ben with a wry grin. “But think, man.” He took a long drink of his beer and then went on. “Was there anything else she said that seemed a bit odd when you look back?”
Justin thought again. “There was just one I can remember. She asked me if I was a journalist, and when I said no, I remember she did seem a little more relaxed. But that was all. Perhaps she just didn’t like journalists.”
“Seems like she was trying to travel incognito,” Ben suggested. “She avoided mixing with other passengers very deliberately. Look how she always stood on her own on deck, and she never went ashore or joined in any activities. Maybe she is someone famous, an actress perhaps, and she didn’t want people to recognise her.”
“I thought people like that wanted recognition and publicity,” said Justin, “I wonder …”
But what he wondered, Ben never knew, for at that moment a male English voice broke into their conversation. “Mind if we join you. It’s so quiet and deserted everywhere.”
The friends looked round to see the middle-aged man who had loaned Justin his binoculars as they approached Port Said. He was accompanied by a middle-aged woman, obviously his wife. “Please do,” said Ben with a smile. “I agree, it’s quite depressingly quiet now. I’ll be glad when we arrive in Sydney. Are you staying in Sydney or travelling further?”
“We’re visiting our married daughter in Sydney, but I hope we can travel around a bit too before we return,” said the woman with a north country accent.
“Mavis wants to go up to Queensland and see the Barrier Reef,” explained her husband.
“What about you two,” asked Mavis. “Are you travelling around for a holiday, or are you emigrating?”
“I’m visiting relatives, and Justin just tagged along with me,” explained Ben. “I’m looking forward to getting around too. It all seems so different from home.”
Justin felt it was time he joined in. “Yes we went into Melbourne today on the train and I was really surprised as it is not nearly as English as I thought it would be. It seemed very noisy too with the trams. Reminded me of Cologne actually.”
” Ah yes, ” said the man whose name they learnt was Alfred, and then he embarked on a long discourse of his impressions. The conversation became more general as they all talked of their experiences, and it was quite late before Justin and Ben returned to their cabin.The subject of Skippy was quite forgotten.
Until the next day.
They were frantically packing in the afternoon before the ship was due in Sydney. Justin grabbed one bundle of clothes from the mountain he had piled up on the dressing table, and out fell a small book. “What on earth!” he exclaimed as he picked it up. Then he remembered, that night, the book Skippy had dropped. He had picked it up intending to give it to her the next day, but he had been so drugged he had forgotten all about it. “How did it get in with all my clothes, ” he wondered. “And who’s Banjo Patterson anyway?”
” He’s an Australian poet, ” Ben informed him. “Jan told me a lot about Australian poets. But how did you get that book? Did you pinch it from the library?”
“Of course not, ” Justin snapped. “It fell out of Skippy’s bag and I was going to return it to her the next day.” He was thumbing through the pages. “Hey! Wait a minute. Here’s a name and a phone number. Must be her real name — Sarah Cummings. She never did tell me her name and I never asked. She was just ‘Skippy’.”
Ben was foraging among another pile of discarded papers, paper bags and wrappers. He produced a stained, crumpled passenger list. “Here, ” he said. “We can check her out.” He looked up in bewilderment a few minutes later. “There’s no Sarah Cummings on the passenger list at all. In fact, there is not a single Cummings.”
“Here, let me look.” Justin grabbed the book and looked through it. Ben was right. He looked up perplexed. “She must have been travelling under another name. This gets more and more strange! But at least there’s a phone number here. When we get to Sydney I’m going to ring Miss Sarah Cummings and ask what her game is.”
Justin first noticed the girl as he and Ben joined other first-class passengers at the ship’s rail as the Sydney bound liner sailed closer to Port Said and the Suez Canal. She was standing at a little distance from the other passengers, a slim figure leaning over the rail, her long blonde hair blowing in the slight breeze. It was 1960, just four years after the Egyptian government had nationalised the Suez Canal.
“Change of colour isn’t it,” remarked a tall grey-haired man standing next to Justin, as he perused the landscape through a pair of binoculars.
Justin agreed; gone was that deep Mediterranean blue, which they had enjoyed for the past few days, and in its place, the sea now appeared pale green as they approached the Nile Delta. “Can you see land yet?” he asked.
“Here, have a look through these,” responded the man, handing over his binoculars, which gave a clear view of buildings and the land ahead. It was a welcome sight after over a week at sea. Justin returned the binoculars and looked around again to see the girl. But she had gone.
“Come on,” urged Ben at his side. “Let’s go for a swim before lunch. We can’t go ashore until this afternoon anyway.”
“Did you see that blonde to the left of us, leaning over the side?” Justin asked him as they made their way towards the pool. “I don’t remember seeing her before, and she must have been aboard since Tilbury.”
Ben shrugged, knowing his friend’s weakness for good looking blondes. “The ship is full of blondes – and, funny thing, so many of them seem to be called “Sheila”, too. I’m sure there are still a lot of passengers we haven’t met yet. I met up with a whole new crowd last night when you were well occupied with that little blonde on the dance floor.”
Justin continued. “She seemed so aloof, she just intrigued me somehow. Maybe we’ll see her when we go ashore after lunch.”
But the colourful spectacle that met their eyes when they went on the deck that afternoon totally occupied their interest. The ship was berthed at the quayside, and the decks were filled with native vendors displaying their wares. Alongside were other natives in small craft, passing up goods by ropes which passengers had tied to the ship’s rails. Up and down the ropes went baskets of goods and the noisy business of bartering was well underway. To Justin and Ben, who had not previously travelled outside Europe, it was a novel experience. As they made their way ashore they encountered even more vendors with their wares either side of the metal landing stage.
“Great fun,” commented Ben, who had bought a leather bag for 10/-. “I’ve probably been ripped off,” he added, “but so what! It’s quite an experience.” They entered Simon Artz, a shop practically opposite where the ship was berthed. At first, it appeared deserted, and goods were only on view under glass-topped counters, which stretched the length of the oblong shop. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, they were surrounded and the sales pitches began. They extricated themselves and joined up with a group of other passengers to explore the town. It was a full afternoon. Then back on deck later they watched as the ship slowly entered the Suez Canal. So it was the next morning before Justin saw the girl again. They had gone up on deck before breakfast, and found the ship at anchor in the Great Bitter Lake, awaiting the passage of the northbound vessels. She was again on her own, a little apart from other passengers, and appeared totally absorbed with the view before her. Justin sauntered over, while Ben remained to study the landscape through a borrowed pair of binoculars.
The girl appeared startled as Justin greeted her, but she turned and smiled. She was wearing a big straw hat and her eyes were hidden behind a pair of large sunglasses, but there was something in her manner that Justin found fascinating; he had already noticed her long shapely legs beneath a pair of white shorts. “Rather a monotonous landscape isn’t it,” he continued, indicating the long stretches of the desert before them. He introduced himself. “I’m Justin, by the way – and don’t tell me your name is ‘Sheila’. There seem to be an awful lot of girls called ‘Sheila’ onboard among the Australians.”
She gave a light tinkling laugh, which somehow seemed at odds with the rather flat tone of her voice. “Oh, you’re English of course,” she said. “A ‘sheila’ is Australian slang for a girl, so that is why you keep hearing it.” She paused, then added, “my friends call me ‘Skippy’.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you on deck before, while we were in the Med,” went on Justin.
“Maybe that’s because I wasn’t on deck,” said Skippy, but volunteered no further explanation, and she went back to studying the desert before them.
This is really hard going, thought Justin, while at the same time he realised he was extremely hungry, and it was breakfast time. He decided to make one last effort. “Look here,” he said, “I’m starving and I must go to breakfast, But perhaps we could meet at the pool bar for a drink before lunch, say around eleven?”
She paused for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. “Why not,” she said. “Thank you, I’ll be there.”
It was scarcely encouraging, but Justin loved a challenge, and he did find her intriguing; there seemed to be a sort of reserve about her which he aimed to breakthrough. However later, by the pool, as they sat sipping large glasses of cool lemonade, Skippy appeared much more friendly. She took off her sunglasses and he saw that her eyes were a large pale blue, fringed with dark lashes. She wore light blue slacks and a sleeveless white top. “Have you been away from Australia long?” he inquired.
“Too long,” she said and gave that light tinkling laugh. “It’s time I got back. And you? Are you emigrating, or just on a visit?”
Justin explained. “My friend, Ben is on a visit to his Australian relatives, and I have a little free time between jobs. So I thought I’d come with him and see more of the world. He’ll probably stay a while, but I have to be home by Christmas as I start a new job in January.”
“Are you a journalist?” Skippy asked.
“Heavens no,” said Justin, a little surprised, “I’m an engineer.”
She seemed to suddenly relax, and asked, “are you going all the way to Sydney?”
“I certainly am,” said Justin. “Ben’s relatives live on the North Shore, and I’m going all the way there, hoping they’ll put me up for a short stay. And you?”
“All the way,” she responded, and they sipped their drinks in silence for a moment, before Justin asked, “are you going ashore at Aden? I didn’t see you ashore at Port Said.”
“No. I’m not keen on going ashore,” she said. “All the noise, dirt, and the natives trying to sell things all the time.”
Justin thought this a little odd, but he said nothing. He pulled out a packet of Benson and Hedges and offered her a cigarette.
“No thank you, I don’t smoke,” she said, as he lit his cigarette and sat back relaxing while he inhaled. Skippy got up to leave as lunchtime approached. But she agreed to meet him again before lunch the next day.
However, as the ship made good progress through the Red Sea towards Aden, Justin felt the same could not be said about his relationship with Skippy. She accepted his invitation to have a drink with him, but she volunteered little information about herself, and the conversation remained very general. “She’s playing hard to get,” said Ben, with all the experience of his twenty-four years. “Why don’t you just drop her and join in more with a group. There are plenty of other attractive girls onboard.”
But at their third pre-lunch drinks meeting, Skippy suddenly opened up. “I’m sorry, Justin, but I haven’t been quite honest with you. The truth is that I find it rather embarrassing.” She looked at him earnestly, anxiety mirrored in those large blue eyes. “You see,” she went on hesitantly, “actually I’m acting as a sort of paid companion to an aunt who’s paying my fare, and she’s rather demanding. She had a fall when we were in the Bay of Biscay, and bruised her ribs quite badly. So she has been confined to her cabin and she rather expects me to be with her. So I’m not free to do as I would like.”
“I see,” said Justin slowly, but in actual fact, he didn’t see at all. Skippy, he thought, was perhaps a couple of years older than he was, and it seemed awful to him that she couldn’t participate in all the ship’s activities or visit the ports en route. She was missing all the fun.
Now she had opened up to him, Skippy became quite loquacious. “You see,” she went on as she put down her empty glass, ”she has a real temper and can get very upset. But usually, she’s very kind. So I don’t want to upset her. She has to walk with a stick which she finds awkward on the stairs.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Justin, taking her hand across the table. ”But things will be better when we reach Australia surely, and then you will be free. I’d like to take you out when we reach the shore.”
“That would be nice,” said Skippy, looking a little brighter, as they gazed into each other’s eyes.
I am making progress, at last, thought Justin. He was becoming infatuated, and infatuation combined with sympathy made quite a heady cocktail!
Skippy refused to let him walk her to the cabin which she shared with the aunt, nor would she go for the traditional “stroll on deck” that he wanted. But as they neared the Australian coast, she reported that her aunt was much better and happier. She sat in the lounge with him in the evenings drinking coffee after dinner, and sometimes accepted his offer of a liqueur.
At Fremantle, they went ashore together, and hand in hand wandered around the dark deserted streets. They joined a crowd at a radio shop window, watching T.V. which had come to Australia only two years previously, then before they returned to the ship, Justin took her in his arms and kissed her. She responded warmly and Justin felt things were promising for the future when they get to Sydney. He suggested that she joined him on one of the shore excursions while the ship was in Melbourne. “But how about your aunt?” he queried hastily.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Skippy assured him.
It was the night before they were due in Melbourne, and they were once more, after dinner enjoying each others company and drinks in the lounge. Suddenly Skippy said, ”I’d love another gin and tonic. Would you mind?”
“Not at all,” said Justin. “And I’ll have another beer.” He signalled the waiter; it was still early and Skippy seemed exhilarated in a way he hadn’t seen her before, but he made no comment and went on discussing activities for the next day. Skippy then indicated an elderly lady sitting not far away. “She reminds me of my aunt,” she said. “I’m so glad she’s better, but I really must go and see her now. No, don’t get up,” as Justin made a move to rise. She gave him a light kiss, and picking up her large bag from the floor, was gone.
Justin sat for a few minutes slowly drinking his beer. He began to feel very drowsy. Must be all these late nights catching up with me, he thought as he yawned. He decided to go to his cabin, but as he got up he felt something against his foot under the table. He bent down and picked up a small leather-bound book. Must have come out of that large bag of Skippy’s when she put it on the floor, he thought. I’ll take it and give it to her tomorrow. His head began to swim, and it was a relief to reach the cabin; he was only half undressed before he fell asleep on his bunk.
Suddenly someone was shaking him vigorously and he could hear Ben’s voice, as from a distance. He groaned, opened one eye, and then quickly closed it.
Ben shook him again. “Wake up, man” he shouted, “It’s lunchtime. Are you all right?”
Justin sat up groggily and clutched his head as he swung his legs over the side of the bunk.
“You’ve had a helluva hangover,” said Ben. “Here, I’ve brought you a black coffee. I reckon you need it. You were snoring your head off and behaving as if you were drugged. I’ve been quite worried about you.”
Surely not, … How could that be, Justin thought hazily as he sipped the coffee Ben gave him. He suddenly realised what day it was. Lunchtime, Ben had said. He looked at his watch. “Oh,” he mumbled. ”Skippy! I was to go on a shore excursion with her this afternoon. How I …”
“You can forget Skippy,” said Ben matter of factly. “ I saw her disembark two hours ago. She’s well-named — she’s certainly skipped out on you!”
Justin stared. “She can’t have!”
“Look here,” said Ben, “I don’t know what you drank last night, but you were flat out when I came in. Skippy’s gone, and you’re in no shape to be going anywhere.”
As his head cleared, Justin thought back to last night — that second drink — the slight diversion as he looked at the woman Skippy had indicated.
Yes, he’d been drugged!
It was the first of many puzzling disclosures to come.
The King was justifiably angry as he perused the latest report from the Colony. “My patience with these people is coming to an end,” he raged as he paced up and down the Throne Room. “People are starving, crime is increasing, and in their blindness, they start yet another project with no firm foundation, doomed from the start. With their defective sight, they can’t even get the walls straight either.”
He sighed as he handed the missive back to the Littlest Courtier, who was standing nervously to attention, regarding his silver-buckled shoes, and clutching a silver salver. It was his first visit to the Throne Room, and he was awed by its magnificence and the sight of so many courtiers standing stiffly to attention, resplendent in their blue and silver uniforms. With relief, the Littlest Courtier departed and returned to the Lord Chamberlain’s office to make his report.
An older courtier who was sorting out files, smiled at him as he entered the office. “Your first visit to the Throne Room, lad?” he said. “What did you think of it?”
“Oh,” said the Littlest Courtier. “It is so beautiful, all those beautiful tapestries, the purple drapes and the lovely stained glass windows. There is so much light there; it is awesome. But the King was so angry when he read the report.”
The older man had turned back to his work and gave no reply. The Littlest Courtier wanted to ask some questions, but he knew better than to try and continue the conversation. However, he was a bright boy, and as he went about his work that day, he was puzzled as he thought more and more about the King’s anger.
Late that afternoon, as he was having a hearty meal in the refectory, another older courtier comes to sit opposite him. He had a kind, friendly face, so the Littlest Courtier plucked up the courage to speak to him. “Excuse me, Sir,” he said, “but may I asked you a question! It’s about something that has been bothering me all day.”
The older courtier was wise, and as he looked at the Littlest Courtier, he could see before him a smart boy with an inquiring mind; this was not just idle curiosity. “What’s troubling you, boy?” he asked as he laid down his fork.
“I don’t understand why the King is so angry with the people of the Colony,” began the Littlest Courtier. “I know he is kind, just, rich and all-powerful. Why doesn’t he help the people of the Colony, instead of being angry with them because they do faulty work? They can’t help their eyesight being poor, and surely they are doing the best they can. Why doesn’t he help them?”
“Aha!” said the older courtier. “I can answer that question for you. Finish your meal, boy, and I will show you something. I see you are just new here!”
He led the Littlest Coutier down a long passage into a beautifully furnished room, a small replica of the Throne Room, with magnificent chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and cedar panelled walls. At the far end, framed by scarlet velvet drapes, was a large picture of a stately looking, white building, standing perpendicular against a deep blue sky. Even in the picture, it seemed to be glowing, it’s windows sparkling in the sunlight.
As the Littlest Coutier gasped in awe at such beauty, the older Courtier began to explain. “You asked why the King doesn’t do something to help the people of the Colony. Well, he has! Here you see a picture of a hospital, which the King built at great cost to himself, to provide a free remedy for the people’s defective eyesight which is hereditary. He knows they can’t help being born with that problem, but he is angry because they won’t take the remedy he has provided, and they continue to erect faulty buildings with no real foundations and so they fight and squabble over what they do. The beautiful land he gave them is littered with their failures and has become fetid with neglect. That is why the King is angry.”
“But,” asked the Littlest Courtier as he still stood gazing at the picture, “why won’t they take the remedy? I would have thought they all would be glad to.”
“They have a film over their eyes, which means that to them everything appears grey,” explained the other. “And their eye defect means too that they don’t see things properly at the same angle. You and I see a beautiful upright building here. To them, all of it looks grey and bent over – really ugly, and they don’t trust it. By contrast, they see all their structures as upright, and don’t realise they have no firm foundation.”
The Littlest Coutier found such folly hard to comprehend. “Perhaps they don’t know that the King has provided a remedy,” he ventured as they left the room.
“Oh but they do,” replied the older courtier. “The King sent out many proclamations. He even sent out a proclamation before the hospital was built, to tell the people what he planned. But very few have taken any notice of him, and he has left them free to choose. But they are dominated by Will Power, who acts as leader. So now you understand the King’s anger,” he ended, as they returned to the refectory.
It was several days before the Littlest Courtier was once again sent to the Throne Room with a report, and he sensed a heightened tension in the atmosphere. Daily reports from the Colony were full of worsening situations and fights among the people. Unexpected storms had devastated a large number of buildings, and corruption was rife as the people attempted to rebuild over their previous failures.
“They behave as if I don’t exist.” said the King sadly. “Who do they think gave them the Colony in the first place! Confidence in Will Power has led many astray.”
The tension in the Throne Room permeated the rest of the palace, and the Littlest Courtier was kept extremely busy with repeated calls for his services. “Here, boy, lend me a hand with this,” or “here, boy, take a message and be quick.” As he scurried about in the heightened activity, he wondered if it was all something involving the Colony. Was the King going to act? Had he finally lost patience?
In the Colony itself was also a sense of growing urgency, but from a very different angle. “I vote we get rid of this ugly misshapen hospital building altogether. It’s just an anachronism and stands in the way of progress,” declared Will Power, the self-important, swaggering leader of the Colony.
His supporters agreed, but when Will went home and told his wife, Hope, what he was going to do, she objected strongly. “You can’t do that,” she said. “I’ve heard of several people who have been there and come out much happier, saying how different life is now they can see properly, with the film removed from their eyes. You can’t take away people’s right to go there if they want to.”
“Nonsense,” stormed Will. “It’s all in their imagination. They’re brainwashed, and those are the people who want to interfere with our lifestyle, saying we don’t see properly and we have everything crooked; what audacity! What’s wrong with our lifestyle? My father lived this way and his family before him. And I intend to do the same.”
“But there is so much arguing and fighting, and people are getting killed,” objected Hope. “No one is very happy. How can this be a good way to live?”
“Bosh!” snorted Will. “Once we get rid of this monstrosity of a hospital, we can put something better on the site, and our problems will be solved with no one to interfere. Don’t you dare go anywhere near it,” he ordered.
Years of domination by Will had left Hope reluctant to argue with him, afraid of his violent temper. So she said no more as he stormed out of the house.
His supporters all agreed, “Will Power can do anything he wants.” But Will had come across a very big problem. Two days later he came home in an extremely bad temper. “That hospital structure is proving harder to shift than I expected,” he fumed. “I don’t understand it. I thought it would be an easy pushover, but it isn’t.”
“Perhaps you should just leave it and build around it,” suggested Hope timidly.
This provoked a further storm of abuse from Will, so she said nothing more. But three days later, making sure that no one saw her, Hope went to look at the hospital building. It looked as grey and uninteresting as all the other buildings, and to her defective sight, it certainly was leaning over badly. But as she looked at it she began to wonder; if it was so crooked and misshapen as it seemed, why was it so hard to get rid of, when the other buildings had just tumbled down of their own accord?
She went to visit her friend Joy, who had been to the hospital. “Yes,” said Joy, “it’s the eye defect we were all born with, which makes the hospital look crooked and everything else straight. Actually, it’s the other way round. Once I availed myself of the remedy, everything has become different to me, and it is all so much brighter.” Hope said nothing, and Joy continued, “there are rumours too that the King is soon going to take action in the Colony, because of all the pollution and destruction over the years. He considers it is not a safe place to live anymore.”
Hope decided she would visit the hospital herself. She had nothing to lose, she reasoned, and there certainly was a sense of impending doom in the air. Whatever Will said to the contrary, something momentous was about to happen. She sensed it!
She was right!
The King summoned Michael, the Commander of his armies, to a meeting in the State Room. “The time has come,” he said as Michael stood at attention before him, an awe-inspiring tall figure in his deep blue uniform, his sword in a scabbard at his side.
“This Colony is no longer a fit place to live. The people are destroying themselves and everything in it,” the King stated. “As you know, I have been preparing another Colony. It is now ready. You have the names of those people whose sight has been restored and I am transporting them to a Colony even better than this one once was. You will organise an airlift for them and I will personally greet them on arrival.”
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” said Michael. “But what about the others? Are you just going to leave them there to destroy themselves and everything else?”
The King shook his head sadly. “They had a choice, but they refused to take the remedy I provided for their eye defect. If I took them to a new Colony, they would ruin it in the same way in their blindness. What would be the point? They wanted to be left alone to live as they are now. I respect their wishes. Go ahead.”
The Aircraft of the King’s Flight was ready, a call had gone forth to everyone named on the list, and Michael stood waiting to receive them on board. The sun shone in a clear blue sky, and the magnificent silver aircraft emitted an iridescent glow as it streaked across the sky.
But to Will Power and the other benighted people of the Colony, it looked like just a very dark cloud preceded by a prolonged loud clap of thunder. “Another storm on the way,” they observed indifferently although rumours had been going around of transport to a better Colony which the King was preparing. Will scorned such fanciful talk. “Nothing wrong with what we have here,” he reiterated, and his supporters agreed as they continued working with him under his authority.
However, soon there was an awareness of people missing – people who had visited the hospital claimed a new, better sight and then wanted to improve the Colony. “We’re much better off without them, “declared Will, glad that he had forbidden Hope to visit the hospital.
But when he went home, incredibly, she had also gone, leaving only a half-finished meal on the kitchen table. Will Power, blustering, self-important, who could do anything and was always in control, was now left free to do as he pleased, but he was also a man left alone, a man without Hope!
“Excuse me. Didn’t I see you at Pippy’s party last night?” The distinctive transatlantic voice broke into Anne’s thoughts, as she stood motionless on the crowded escalator. Such remarks were a common gambit which she and her friends had often encountered and usually ignored, during their student days in London.
Today however she turned in surprise and found herself looking into the smiling face of a tall good looking man behind her. She said nothing, but as the escalator reached street level, he fell into step beside her. “Stephen’s the name,” he said with a mischievous grin. “And all right, we didn’t meet at Pippy’s party, but we did meet at John’s party near here six years ago. Remember?” Anne nodded, shivering in the cold November air, and pulled up her coat collar. He placed a firm hand on her arm and steered her through the scurrying crowd into a nearby cafe. “You look frozen,” he said. “A hot cup of coffee will do us both good.” They found a vacant table in the already crowded cafe, and he looked round impatiently for a waitress.
Anne studied him; he really hasn’t changed at all in six years, she thought. He’s still the same — self-assured, mischievous, impulsive and totally irrepressible. There had been an instant mutual attraction at that first meeting — the attraction of opposites. He was a backpacker American student from a comfortably off Boston family, easy-going, fun-loving, intent upon enjoying life to the full. She had been brought up in a frugal, middle-class English family, taught that life was a serious business and money was for saving, not spending. She was reserved, cautious, and economical. His carefree attitude to life had both appalled and fascinated her.
“Two cappuccinos please.” Stephen’s voice broke into her thoughts as he placed the order.
Anne at once became practical. “I can’t stop for long. I’ve got a lot of Christmas shopping to do, and I must be home by three.”
“Of course,” he said agreeably, smiling at her. His next remark was not what she had expected. “By the way, you really shouldn’t wear those high heels when you go shopping. You caught a heel in something back there, and nearly tripped.”
Anne stared at him suspiciously as the coffee arrived. “You’ve been following me,” she accused. “How did you know where to find me?”
Stephen began to look mysterious. “Aha! I’ve learnt a lot about you over the last six years, and let’s just say I have my sources.“ Obviously enjoying himself, he continued, ”and what’s the point of spotting a pretty girl in London if you don’t follow her?”
Anne was not amused. “You always were quite impossible! And I’m not a girl anymore. I’m a married woman with two children.”
“Is that so,” said Stephen with irritating casualness. “But still pretty. And I note you don’t mention the husband. I hope he measures up to expectations.” He raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Anne drank her coffee and said nothing. I will not be goaded, she determined. She went on the attack. “What are you doing here anyway? Why aren’t you at work?”
“Aha,” said Stephen with a broad grin. “Work! That’s exactly why I am here. I’ve just heard I got the big promotion I applied for, plus a bonus. So I took an hour off to go out and celebrate. You made a big mistake, my dear, when you turned me down six years ago, because you thought I’d never amount to much, and you couldn’t face marriage on a shoestring.” He waggled an admonitory finger at Anne and continued. “You’re now looking at a very successful man, my dear.” He gave an exaggerated smirk.
In spite of her mounting irritation, Anne couldn’t help laughing at his theatrics. But she quickly returned to practicalities. “I really must go. Mother can only baby sit till three, and I have a lot to do. It’s nearly eleven already.”
“Of course,” he agreed equably. “But I have a bigger celebration in mind. How about taking you out to dinner tonight?”
Anne glared at him. I always knew he was totally unreasonable, she thought, but what on earth does he expect me to say to that. Aloud she said firmly, “that’s quite impossible. You should know I couldn’t do that. You can’t be serious.”
“Nonsense,” said Stephen. “Of course you can. One dinner after all these years.” He finished his coffee. “Time you got away from domestic chores, my girl, and learnt to enjoy yourself again.”
“Impossible,” reiterated Anne, “and why this sudden idea for tonight anyway?”
“Why not tonight?” asked Stephen. “Before you have time to think up a lot of excuses. It’s not much fun for me to celebrate on my own, and I’m sure Mother could extend her baby sitting for the night.”
Anne was now really horrified. “Surely you’re not suggesting a hotel! I certainly couldn’t go as far as that!”
Stephen held up his hands in mock horror. “What a suggestion! And you a respectable married woman with two children. Tut! Tut!” He began to roar with laughter, while Anne continued to glare at him. “No, just dinner tonight, “ he said when he had stopped laughing. “But a hotel — what a delicious idea! Think of the fun we could have. We could keep going all night! Oh boy! Forget all the domestic chores. What an idea.” He rolled his eyes at Anne, who by now, in spite of her exasperation, was laughing helplessly.
She was beginning to weaken under his forceful persuasion, as she had known she would. She tried to check his exuberance. “All right,” she said. “Just dinner tonight, and only this once.”
But Stephen was now quite unstoppable. “A bottle of champaign, a ‘do not disturb’ notice on the door, what a romp we could have! Just like the old days — me chasing you round the room, and you with that cute little mole on your . . .”
He stopped abruptly, and looked to his right. Following his gaze Anne stopped laughing, horrified to see that a well dressed, middle aged woman at the next table, was unashamedly listening to their conversation. Blushing furiously, she got up. “All right,” she said hastily to Stephen again. “Just this once. You always did get your way. But dinner and nothing else.”
Stephen looked amused. “Whatever you say, my dear. You remember the kiosk at Victoria Station where we used to meet. I’ll meet you there at 6:30, and don’t be late.” As they left the table he gave an exaggerated leer and broad wink at the eavesdropping lady.
As Anne wandered along Regent St, enjoying the Christmas decorations and festive window displays, the excitement of an evening out began to grow on her. With uncharacteristic extravagance, she added a bottle of expensive perfume to her Christmas purchases. He’s sure to choose an outrageously expensive restaurant, and a good perfume will help to make up for my lack of designer clothes, she rationalised as she produced her credit card.
A cursory glance around as they entered the restaurant showed she had guessed correctly — expensive it certainly was. Once they were seated Stephen immediately ordered champagne. For the second time that day Anne studied him across the table. Yes, he hadn’t changed; he was still the same fun-loving, quite irresponsible Stephen she had met six years ago, completely exasperating at times — and she loved him dearly.
He smiled fondly at her. “Yes, I really did get that promotion, but we also have something else to celebrate don’t we.” He raised his glass and looked serious for a moment.
“To us, darling, and our five wonderful years of marriage.” The mischievous grin returned as he added, “and aren’t you glad that I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when you turned me down six years ago!”
As they drank, Anne’s mobile phone rang. After a brief conversation, she turned to Stephen. “That was Mother. The children are both asleep, but she couldn’t find Pippy’s dog biscuits.”
A waiter approaching the table wondered why they both suddenly broke into peals of laughter.
Arnold Braithwaite had had a very good day! As he drove slowly home through the peak hour traffic, the usual delays and hold-ups did nothing to dispel his good humour. He had been commended by Head Office for the excellent sales performance of his showroom staff over the past month, and on top of that, his recommendation for Stephen Wallace to fill the vacant position of Assistant Manager had been approved.
A jovial, rotund, middle-aged man who enjoyed a good joke and a glass of whisky, Arnold had taken an immediate liking to Stephen when he had joined the company two years previously. He was young, but what he lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm; that American accent, and light-hearted manner, made him popular with both clients and staff, Arnold mused, as he pulled up at yet another set of lights. Good stable family man too, he thought, as he recalled the pride with which Stephen had shown him the photo of his wife and two children. Pretty young wife too.
His train of thought was abruptly broken by a loud honking from the car behind. He moved on slowly, only to be held up again at another set of lights a short while later. As he continued to review the events of the day, he began to chuckle as he recalled an amusing incident he had witnessed through his open office door — a conversation between Stephen and young Barker, a new employee. It had been quiet at that end of the showroom floor; two of the salesmen were out with clients, and another had gone to lunch. Barker, a thin, bespectacled, serious young man was meticulously inspecting a new car which had just been delivered, when Stephen had walked in.
“Such fun,” Arnold heard him say as he approached Brian Barker. “I saw this good looking blonde, so I followed her on to the escalator and took her for a cup of coffee. Persuaded her to have dinner with me tonight — maybe a hotel later. Oh, I had to do quite a bit of persuading, and there was this prune faced, miserable-looking old dame at the next table, listening to every word. She looked so shocked, and I gave her my best leer as we got up to go. Such fun!”
Arnold had a clear view of Barker’s face through his open door, and he too had been obviously shocked. “You mean,” he said in his precise slow voice,” that you picked up a woman in the street, took her to have coffee, and propositioned her for dinner and a hotel.” He sounded outraged. “What about your wife?”
“That’s OK,” said Stephen loudly. “She is my wife, and today is our fifth wedding anniversary.” He had walked away, roaring with laughter, while Barker stared after him open-mouthed.
Arnold laughed again as he recalled Barker’s startled expression. Yes, Stephen was an asset, he thought, as he drove slowly on. But maybe he had better get him to tone down his leg-pulling, or Barker would have a heart attack! But then what a wonderful change Stephen was after poor old Jenkins. The traffic was thinning out, and Arnold was able to increase speed as his thoughts turned to Jenkins, the previous assistant manager, who had taken early retirement. The last few years with him had become very difficult, with his continual time off for doctor’s visits, and his constant talk about his ulcers. His sales figures had slipped, and Arnold had begun to suspect that his frequent visits to the men’s room had more to do with the slim flask he carried in his pocket, than with getting water to take his tablets. Poor old dyspeptic Jenkins, a sharp contrast to his buxom wife who always appeared to be bursting out of clothes at least two sizes too small!
Well, thought Arnold, as he turned into his street, at least we gave him a good send-off. This reminded him of the larger flask and two glasses which he kept in his desk drawer — strictly for clients and emergencies of course! He turned the Mercedes into his own driveway, thinking contentedly of his comfortable armchair and a glass of whisky while he watched the six o’clock news.
. . . . . .
The “prune faced, miserable-looking” eavesdropper had not had a good day!
It had started badly with the daily help arriving late, and then finding she had forgotten to pick up the groceries from Sainsburys. It was all very annoying, and when she was finally ready to leave for her Christmas shopping expedition, Jocelyn couldn’t find her comfortable walking shoes. Not wanting to delay any further, she had been forced to wear another pair which tended to hurt her bunions. The underground had been crowded, and so too were the department stores she visited. The bunions were beginning to hurt, so, relieved that she had at least got the grandchildren’s presents, she wandered into a nearby cafe for a welcome rest and a cup of tea.
The cafe was also crowded and noisy, but she found a seat and was checking her shopping list when she suddenly became aware of a loud man’s voice at the next table. Definitely American, she thought; they always talk so loudly. She looked across. He was facing a girl with shoulder-length blonde hair, and they appeared to be arguing. Not that she intended to listen, Jocelyn told herself, but, well, one couldn’t help hearing! The man was waving his arms and obviously trying to persuade the girl to do something. People were walking past between the tables, but in the breaks between them Jocelyn caught the words ‘dinner’ then ‘yes you can’. He was laughing and smirking, and as Jocelyn listened further, she caught such words as ‘hotel’ and ‘all night’, before they got up to leave with his hand firmly on her back.
Jocelyn had been so intrigued at the conversation that she hadn’t realised her eavesdropping had been noticed, until, as they left, the man had looked directly at her, winked and given her the most frightening leer. He looked sinister, she thought, and decided to stay where she was for a while in case he was waiting outside for her. She finished her tea, retrieved her shoes which she had surreptitiously kicked off under the table, collected her parcels, and cautiously left the cafe. The bunions were still painful, so she decided to leave the rest of the shopping for another day and took a taxi home.
Still a little shaken, she was relieved to reach the security of her Hampstead home where again she kicked off the offending shoes, made herself a large gin and tonic, and prepared to relax in the lounge, as she listened to the daily help vacuuming upstairs. She had just picked up her current library book when her mobile phone rang. It was lying on the coffee table where she had left it earlier in her haste to get out.
“Jocelyn dear,” cooed a familiar voice, “I’ve been trying to get you all morning. You hadn’t forgotten had you, that this afternoon is the sewing guild meeting where we make our final decisions for our table at the Christmas bazaar.”
Jocelyn had forgotten, but she wasn’t about to admit it to Paula Eade, president of the guild, as Paula continued, “so important that we are all there today. We must stop Beatrice Davey from submitting so many of those hideous toy animals she makes. They quite ruined the display last year. I’ll pick you up at 2:30. Bye,” and down went the phone.
The daily help appeared waving the missing shoes. “Found then under the bed,” she said cheerfully. Jocelyn put them on and reluctantly got up to make herself a sandwich, which she ate while sorting out her contributions for the Christmas bazaar stall.
By the time she and Paula reached the Community Hall where the meeting was held, the bickering had already begun. As the cold, damp hall gradually heated up, so did the arguments. Hilda Ramsay, a large angular woman with a loud rasping voice, was disagreeing with an equally determined Beatrice Davey over the number of soft toys she could display.
Paula stepped in diplomatically, trying not to shudder at the garish looking creatures. “Why don’t you display just three for a start,” she suggested. “Too many are bewildering, and people end up buying none. You can always add more as those sell.”
Beatrice reluctantly agreed, and selected three badly made purple and orange animals and put them aside. Paula turned her attention to Miss Pretty, a gnarled bent old lady who seemed to be part of the building. (‘Pretty old’ someone had quipped.) She regularly came year after year, always clutching the same unsaleable lace mats which she stated her grandmother had made. Each year like Miss Pretty, they were markedly more yellow, while their price was markedly higher! “Got to keep up with inflation,” insisted their owner.
At last the business part of the meeting was finished, all the contributions packed into boxes and everyone thankfully gathered round the long trestle table for tea, cakes and gossip.
“Don’t buy all your Christmas presents before the bazaar,” Paula admonished. “There are sure to be some really good gift ideas there.”
“I haven’t even started my shopping list yet,” confessed Nan Gorman, a genial, plump, middle-aged woman sitting next to Jocelyn.
It was Jocelyn’s opening, and she took it! “I went into the city this morning, and I had the most alarming experience,” she began. Satisfied that she now had full attention, she went on, careful not to mention her bunions, (Nan’s husband was an orthopaedic surgeon.) “My feet were aching so I slipped into this cafe — not the sort of place I would usually frequent of course.”
“Of course not, dear,” interjected Nan,
“And there was this awful looking American at the next table, talking loudly and waving his arms about,”
“Drunk, obviously,” interrupted Beatrice, “Beer, I suppose.”
“Disgraceful,” said Miss Pretty loudly, as she helped herself to a second piece of walnut cake.
“Drunk at that hour of the morning,” said Paula. “Are you sure he was American. Maybe he was Australian. Don’t they drink beer? Or he was maybe German — they drink beer.”
Jocelyn felt the conversation was getting away from her. “No,” she asserted firmly, “Maybe it was whiskey. He was definitely American. He talked like they do in the movies. Not like Humphrey Bogart, but one of those others. You know the sort I mean. I can’t think of the names at the moment. But it wasn’t that I was trying to listen of course.”
“Of course not, dear,” reiterated Nan.
“Who was he talking to?” asked Elaine Deveraux, a small birdlike woman with beady eyes and brightly dyed henna hair.
“Oh, there was a woman opposite him. Some sort of tart, I suppose, and he was making all sorts of improper suggestions about hotels for the night, and trying to persuade her.”
“Disgraceful,” said Miss Pretty again, as she endeavoured to scoop up the crumbs on her plate. Her teeth clanked.
“Sort of brassy blonde, I suppose,” said Paula, trying hard not to look at Elaine Deveraux’s hair. She viewed her empty teacup instead. “He must have been trying to procure her, and she was putting up the price.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Jocelyn suddenly.” I’ve just remembered. Before they left, he was talking about a mole.”
“A mole,” rasped Hilda. “That puts a different light on it. He was recruiting her as a spy. You know like Kim Philby.”
“But perhaps she wasn’t at the foreign office. He might have been a CIA agent,” objected Beatrice, still smarting from her disagreement with Hilda over her stuffed toys.
“Well she could have seduced someone who was,” argued Hilda. “What about the Profumo case. My husband has a cousin at Scotland Yard. He could check and see if the man has a record. What did he look like?”
“Oh, he had the most awful twisted face. And then when they got up to leave, he had his hand on her back, and he gave me the most frightful wink and leered at me. I was quite shaken up,” said Jocelyn.
“Disgraceful,” said Miss Pretty again loudly, as she took a second piece of chocolate cake.
“There are such awful types going about London now. All these foreigners walking round the city. Russians stabbing people with umbrellas,” said Beatrice. “They do all meet in cafes too.”
They each began to recount various experiences, and conversations became more general. But by the time she got home, fact and fiction had become so intertwined in Jocelyn’s mind that all logic and reason were lost. She was convinced she had overheard a matter of great national importance, and she must tell her husband at once so that he could take action.
As they settled comfortably that evening nursing their pre-dinner drinks, she began to talk while he was still fiddling with the remote control. “I had the most alarming experience today,” she stated. “I stopped to get a cup of tea while shopping and went into this most ghastly cafe where I wouldn’t normally go. It was full of foreigners, and there was this sinister-looking drunk man at the next table talking to a brassy looking tart and waving his arms about. He was trying to recruit her as a spy, and she kept saying no she couldn’t, till he put a lot of pressure on her. Then he had a firm hold on her and pulled her out. He had the most awful expression. Then when they went out, he leered at me and gave me the most hideous wink. I was really afraid and didn’t know what to do.”
She saw she now had her husband’s full attention and went on. “He was taking her to dinner and a hotel I heard him say. Isn’t that what spies do, Hilda Ramsay’s husband has a cousin who works at Scotland Yard, and she thought he could check if the man has a police record. But Beatrice Davey thought he might be CIA as he had an American accent. You must do something . . .”
She broke off as her husband emitted a strange choking sound and got to his feet. “Been slurping your drink again,” she reprimanded as he headed for the door.
Once in the kitchen with the door firmly closed and a tap running to drown the sound, Arnold Braithwaite gave way to the laughter he could no longer suppress. He recalled the conversation between Stephen and young Barker that morning. Such phrases as “prune faced miserable-looking old dame,” ran through his mind and as he coupled Stephen’s description of Jocelyn together with her description of Stephen, “sinister-looking drunk”, he burst into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter. Stephen, he knew had a habit of making flamboyant gestures to illustrate a point, and would often deliberately contort his face for fun. He must have had quite a time that morning!
As Arnold replayed the whole scene in the cafe as he now imagined it, he burst into fresh paroxysms of laughter. He laughed till his sides ached, tears streamed down his face, and he could laugh no more. Exhausted, he sank into a chair and wiped his eyes as he began to think. He suddenly realised with regret that he would now have to take Stephen and Anne Wallace’s names off the guest list for pre-Christmas drinks next week. Pity, he thought, Anne Wallace was a looker judging by her photo, and he had looked forward to meeting her!
More soberly, he made his way slowly back to the lounge.