The Real Mrs Smith by Lydia Penn

He certainly would never have described himself as a middle-aged roué, and he would undoubtedly have been grossly offended if anyone had so much as hinted that he was. Yet he so aptly fitted the dictionary definition – a middle-aged roué.

After all, it was just his little weakness, he reasoned. Women were delightful creatures, and he didn’t indulge in a lot of hedonistic activities – he didn’t gamble, he didn’t smoke, and he was a strict teetotaller. But women – well – they were pleasure indeed; he enjoyed the chase, the conquest, and finally the thrill of seduction. Just the contemplation of the next occasion was stimulating.


Although now almost sixty, he still retained his youthful good looks; his hair, although now silver, was still plenteous and hung in a natural wave over his forehead; his blue eyes were still clear, his voice deep and resonant, and his sturdy figure still good in spite of the slight paunch which he carefully concealed.

Hubert Prescott was the manager of a local bank, where, each morning he would arrive impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, carrying his briefcase and a black Homburg hat. With measured steps, reminiscent of royalty on a state occasion, he would make his way to his private office, bestowing greetings and smiles to his staff as he passed – royally acknowledging his subjects!

Women inevitably found him attractive and were flattered by his attention, (and intentions). For he was a well known, well-respected member of the community, not only in banking circles, but among fellow members of the local Conservative branch and those on the various committees on which he served, a popular figure at the local golf course.

Social functions, he had long ago found, were a very profitable source for making new conquests. He preferred young married women – experienced but not yet encumbered with a family. Like a Skilful juggler, he had learnt how to manage more than one lady at a time, and he was quick to sum up, marital relationships and their possibilities for his overtures.

Only once had his technique nearly proved disastrous. He had met the lady a few times, ascertained her interest in him, and now sitting next to her at a table in a civic function, and having not been rebuffed after a little pat on the knee, he followed her as she made her way along the dark corridors of the Town Hall to the restrooms. While she groped for the light switch, he indulged in a different type of groping, only to discover, as the light went on, that he was in touch with a rather large middle-aged lady – the wife of the Mayor who had come from the opposite direction. However his quick thinking, natural charm, and the old world courtesy of his apologetic, “my dear lady …,” had hastily dispelled any suspicion or anger.

Lavinia Prescott too enjoyed these social occasions though not of course for the same reasons! She was proud to be seen in public with such a handsome, well-respected husband, although having given birth to, and reared four healthy children (all but one of which were now married and engaged in their own breeding activities) she considered she had done her duty to husband and country and had retired into a less demanding life – afternoon teas, knitting bees and shopping sprees with her daughter.

Once Hubert had suggested a holiday in France. (He understood that the women there were, well, very accommodating) but she had been quite aghast at the idea.

“Its only been a few years since the war ended, and the country must still be in an awful mess,” she said. “Nor do I like to eat snails and frog’s legs.” He didn’t enlighten her to the fact that his appetites were not the culinary sort.

After all, there was still plenty of scope at home, with the help of his little black engagement book, filled with phone numbers, which he kept carefully locked away in a drawer of his desk at the bank. His frequent evening absences were easily explained by work at the bank or yet another committee meeting. (“Don’t wait up for me, dear.”)

A family holiday cottage at the nearby coastal resort provided an excellent venue during the week. Then there were the weekends when Lavinia was away visiting her ailing sister, when checking through his engagement book, he would find someone available to spend the weekend with him in the anonymity of a large hotel in a distant town.

His ego was great, but his imagination was not! As he invariably registered as “Mr and Mrs Smith,” he failed to perceive the snide remarks and sniggers of the hotel staff, who found that weekend bookings were inundated with registrations for “Mr and Mrs Smith”; especially those with a large age disparity!

So life went on very pleasantly for “Mr Smith”, alias Hubert Prescott, Bank Manager!

Until-

It had been a particularly delectable evening at the cottage. He knew she was besotted with him, and they had enjoyed time together for several months. She had just returned from a month away with her rather staid husband on a business trip. Their reunion was all he could have wished, and, conveniently forgetting how he had happily filled those evenings in her absence, and ignoring the slight chest pains, he was experiencing,(indigestion of course,) he had shown her the full force of his ardour and continually affirmed his devotion to her alone.

It was later than her usual allotted “time out with the girls”, and hurriedly getting ready to leave, she had searched under the bed for a lost shoe – and come up with a flashy jade and silver earing!

“Whose is this?” She demanded as she waved the offending article in front of him.” Your wife doesn’t wear earrings,”

Hubert was not used to confrontations. What appalling bad luck, he thought. He was tired and beginning to feel drowsy. (Inevitably one’s output of energy is not as great at sixty as it was at forty.) He was silent as he fumbled for his car keys, while she exhibited quite a different form of passion.

He tried to pacify her, but his excuses were lame, and as she warmed to the subject, her language became quite unprintable, as she reminded him of all those hotel weekends, and hinted darkly at telling his wife. Finally, they got into the car in stony silence. He dropped her off at the end of her road, where she slammed the car door, stalked off down the road into her house and marched straight up to bed, completely ignoring her husband’s solicitous enquiry, “did you have a nice evening, dear?”

As for Hubert, he was in a dilemma. What should he do, he wondered, as the next morning he slipped that earing into his office desk drawer, (already getting filled with various female objects.) He had no idea who owned the earing, and he could hardly ask. She had refused to return his phone calls – but, well there were plenty of others to replace her of course; however, her threat of exposure hung over him like a dark cloud.

But after a tense weekend in which he suffered more chest pains and knots in his stomach, Hubert’s natural optimism took over, and he arrived at the bank the following Monday morning displaying his usual avuncular manner as he greeted his staff before settling comfortably in his office, where he began to study his engagement book.

 It was a hot day and the bank was very busy. Emily, the youngest and newest member of the staff, had just taken in his morning coffee when she was accosted by a tall slim woman with large blue eyes, tortoise-rimmed glasses, and long blonde hair which hung below her wide-brimmed straw hat. She wore a light blue cotton dress and white gloves which matched her white capacious handbag.

Emily hardly heard her request to see Mr Prescott, as she stood gawking at the woman, who appeared to be the image of one of the models or film stars whose pictures adorned her bedroom wall – but she couldn’t decide which one. As the woman repeated her request, Emily pulled herself together and, in some confusion, asked the lady’s name. “Mrs Smith,” came the reply, and in her total embarrassment, Emily forgot all bank protocol, led the woman to the door marked “Mr Hubert Prescott, Manager,” knocked and without thinking ushered the lady in.

It was sometime later, and the bank was still full of customers, when Emily, after scurrying hither and thither like a scared rabbit, as demands were made upon her, remembered that she hadn’t seen Mrs Smith leave, or collected Mr Prescotts empty coffee cup.

Now Emily was a nicely brought up girl, who had lived a sheltered life, and been encouraged by her father to take up a banking career. (“It’s a very respectable career and Mr Prescott is a man of the highest integrity.”) It was only her second week at the bank, and as she timidly opened the manager’s door, not waiting for a reply to her knock, she was totally unprepared for what she found.

At the sight of Hubert Prescott hanging over one side of his chair, his right arm dangling loosely by his side, she turned and fled screaming.

Pandemonium broke out!

Someone shouted, “fire,” someone else shouted, “robbery”, several nervous customers made for the door, others lay prostrate on the floor, while a few raised their hands in surrender.

Eventually, the assistant manager, a tall weedy looking man in his late forties, managed to restore order, called an ambulance, and attempted to calm a totally hysterical Emily in his office.

It appeared the no one else had seen “Mrs Smith”, but as Emily calmed down, she was able to give a highly embellished description of the lady. It was uncertain at this stage if Mr Prescott were still alive, or what had happened. Police were soon called in after the hospital reported some strange irregularities.

Emily began to enjoy her role in the limelight. She confessed she had forgotten to ask if the lady had an appointment; a quick check revealed that she had not. However, it was thought she could certainly throw some light on the situation as she had been the last person to see Mr Prescott alive and well.

“Do we have a customer by that name?” asked the assistant manager. Further searching resulted in finding there were three. Mr and Mrs Wilfred Smith, Mr and Mrs Cyril Smith, and Mr and Mrs Ivan Smith. “Check them out,” barked the assistant manager.

However, after several attempts at reaching the ladies concerned, they were finally contacted and all affirmed strongly that they had certainly not been in the bank that morning. “Plenty of ‘Mrs Smiths’ about,” commented one employee who had worked in the hotel business. He sniggered loudly.

Meanwhile, Hubert Prescott, barely alive, lay on intensive life support in the local hospital, while doctors sought to ascertain the cause of his condition. His coffee cup seemed to have disappeared, but the contents of his locked desk drawer became objects of intense police interest. “Certainly not what you’d expect to find in a bank manager’s drawer,” said one policeman pulling out three items of female underwear, two odd earrings and four heart-shaped valentines.”

            *   *   *   *   *    *    *    *    *    *

Two days passed – and so did Hubert Prescott. There would have to be an autopsy; cause of death was heart failure, but whether natural or induced had yet to be determined. Lavinia Prescott was under heavy sedation, while the family made plans for a lavish funeral, as befitted such a well known and highly respected member of the community.

Then more details began to be released as police widened their search for the identity and whereabouts of “Mrs Smith”. All ladies whose phone numbers were recorded in Hubert’s engagement book had been contacted – all responded with highly indignant denials of any association with him.

It was no longer flattering to be the object of Hubert Prescott’s attentions!

Details of those intriguing contents of the locked desk drawer were leaked to the public by a journalist on the local paper – and sales soared. The story became of national interest as the search intensified for the missing coffee cup, and “Mrs Smith”.  The fact that she had not come forward in response to police appeals, was of itself, highly suspicious.

Hotel reservations had been checked against the receipts found also in that desk drawer. But while the booking dates were verified, no one was able to give a description of ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’. “There are so many of them,” said one sour looking middle aged receptionist with a knowing look. “If they have to behave like that, why can’t they pick a more original name,” she snorted in disgust.

In the shock of all these disclosures, people who had hitherto respected their former bank manager began to recall little incidents, seemingly innocuous at the time, but put together ——. The Mayor’s wife recalled a certain incident in the Town Hall on her way from the restrooms, and regaled her friends over coffee with highly detailed versions. “That poor little woman,” people said to each other about Lavinia, as they gossiped while they shopped.

“The poor little woman”, had now taken up daily residence at her kitchen table where she sat imbibing large quantities of tea and sympathy from friends and neighbours who called in to offer comfort – and learn more seamy details. No longer under sedation, Lavinia cried noisily and continuously between gulps of tea.

“And you had no idea,” said one friend, which produced such a loud violent outburst that Lavinia missed the rest of the remark. “— and didn’t smell a rat.”

At the word “rat”, she jumped up, screamed loudly and leapt up on her chair, “Rats! Where?” she cried, “Oh, I can’t stand that on top of everything else.” She began to shriek again.

“Hush, dear, there aren’t any rats. Vera was only asking if you had no suspicions,” said another friend. “I mean, no one can have that many committee meetings week after week,” More sobs, more tea,

Lavinia sobbed on, and when an open verdict was returned after the autopsy, the family opted for a private funeral, after which Lavinia went to stay with one of her daughters for a while.

The search for “Mrs Smith” continued and remained a matter of nationwide interest. It was now concluded that she must have taken the missing coffee cup out in her capacious handbag – what was in the cup? People began to recall all those Agatha Christie stories.

Mr Ivan Smith agreed with his wife that it would be a good idea to change their bank, and perhaps even their name. “With a name like Smith,” he grumbled, “people use it for all their unsavoury activities and I’m tired of all these police enquiries.” He had noticed that his wife did not go out so often in the evenings now – and wondered.

Emily’s father sympathised as they chatted at the golf club. “I’ve changed my mind about the respectability of banks.” He smiled, “Emily hasn’t got over the shock yet and she’s going to train as a nurse.”
Mr Cyril Smith was delighted when his wife told him she was pregnant. But as they waited to be picked up for yet another social function, he looked at her and remarked,” you haven’t worn those earrings I gave you last Christmas, for quite a while. They would go so well with that outfit you have on.”

“You’re right,” she said smiling. “But I can’t change now. There’s the car.” She opened the door quickly.

Mr Wilfred Smith observed that his wife seemed to have suddenly lost interest in the amateur theatricals she had been so regularly attending for months. “It took up too much time. I’d rather be at home with you,” she stated, brushing her curly brown hair as they prepared for bed, “I’m taking all those props and clothes back,” she added, indicating a large box filled with period costumes and one blonde and one silver wig, which stood in a corner of the bedroom.

The hunt for “Mrs Smith” continued, but police admitted they had very little to go on. They were baffled.

About four months later when the chill winds of winter were beginning to be, felt two pregnant ladies sat chatting in a busy gynaecologist’s waiting room.

“You Know”, said one as they talked, “your face looks very familiar to me, though I don’t think we’ve met socially. Didn’t I see you in the bank that morning last Summer when Mr Prescott was taken ill? I think you had glasses on then, but I was waiting to speak to that girl Emily, So I had a good look at you.”

“You must be mistaken,” said the second woman quickly. “I’ve never been in that bank, “She got up to go in the surgery as her name was called.

Strange thought the first lady. I never forget a face – that mouth and that chin — she did seem in a hurry to get away too. I wonder! She returned to her magazine and soon forgot the incident.

The search for “Mrs Smith” continued.


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