Read Untimely Graves Online

Authors: Marjorie Eccles

Untimely Graves

BOOK: Untimely Graves
2.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The water swirled beneath the bridge, thick as pea soup after the recent floods.
She stood leaning against the parapet, hands and feet frozen, gazing downwards at the little waterway that dared to call itself a river, and moreover, had a name, the Kyne. The level was at last beginning to go down: you could see the footpath alongside now, muddy and strewn with debris after being under water for so long. Dog walkers were wisely avoiding it, and keeping to the tarmac paths instead of cutting across the playing fields where the grass was still deeply squelchy underfoot. The March morning was bitter, with a raw wind, and the sparrow-bitten crocuses under the bare trees had a defeated, drowned look, as if it had hardly been worth their trouble to emerge at all.
Cleo watched a little boy and girl playing Pooh sticks alongside the bridge. The undercurrent beneath the swollen surface of the water was still strong, and they were beginning to get fed up with trying to run fast enough to see the sticks they threw in at one side emerging from under the bridge at the other. Their mother, waiting impatiently for them with a toddler in a push-chair, shouted again for them to come
, and Cleo gave them the nearly full packet of Maltesers in her pocket to make up for their disappointment. The little family disappeared towards the swings, and she went back to staring at the water, gazing at what looked like part of a cot mattress being borne along before being caught in the eddy as the surge of water hit the bridge, closely followed by several lumps of indestructible polystyrene packaging pushed along by the limb of a tree, with the remains of a chicken coop perched rakishly among its branches.
Spring had been terrible this year – rain, more rain and floods, pictures on television showing the havoc wrought all over the Midlands. It was nearly impossible to imagine that this rush of water, yellow with churned-up mud, could be the same gentle stream that normally flowed harmlessly through this municipal recreation ground. She leaned further forward and stared down,
mesmerised by its relentless sweep. Would they ever be the same again, those farms and villages, those new housing developments scattered in the low-lying fields upriver, all of which had suffered the brunt of the floods? No more than she could ever again go back to being her old self, she thought gloomily. But not quite as gloomily as yesterday, and the day before. Perhaps things were getting a little better, after all. Yet still she shivered, despite her fleece jacket, a big scarf and the woolly hat pulled down over her ears.
‘Don’t do it, it’s not worth it. Life’s still sweet.’ A hand descended on her shoulder.
She didn’t need to turn around to know who the voice belonged to and she forced what she hoped was a cheerful smile. ‘Hi, Dad. What are you doing here?’
Daft question. George always walked through the rec on the way to his office in the morning. ‘Want a coffee?’ he asked.
‘Why not?’ He invariably called at Stan’s caff for a coffee before opening up the agency. Did that indicate a certain reluctance to do this last, or was she being paranoic? A year ago, he’d reached compulsory retirement age in the police force. No longer Detective Inspector George Atkins, he’d set himself up as a private enquiry agent, and she still wasn’t sure whether it had been a good idea or not. Nor, she suspected, was he.
When they got to Stan’s, she found a table while he went to the counter. He came back with the coffee and three currant buns, one of which he slid across to her. ‘I don’t suppose you had any breakfast.’ He didn’t ask why she’d got out of bed at six on a freezing morning and let herself quietly out of the house, nor where she’d been since then. He’d know she’d been walking, something she did a lot, lately. A compulsion had come over her to keep on the move; she’d thought it might help her to sort herself out, but it didn’t seem to be having that effect.
The bun was good, with a sugary crust, stuffed with currants, and the coffee was strong in its thick pint mug. Stan’s place wasn’t the Ritz but he knew his customers – mostly lorry drivers, building site workers and the like – and how to feed them. Her father was an expert at sussing out these sort of things. Like where to get a hot drink and a hearty snack most hours of the day or night, and where all the public loos were. You learnt self-preservation,
he said, when you’d worked in the CID for as long as he had.
He offered her half of the third bun but she declined, so he took it himself. ‘Don’t tell your mother.’ Daphne periodically inflicted upon him one of her diets, though never with much success, it had to be said. He stayed solidly comfortable, his girth not appreciably less than it had ever been.
She felt a bit more cheerful now that she was full of comfort food, and she sat back, sipping her coffee. They both spoke together.
‘You first,’ she said, and braced herself for what was coming.
‘What’s wrong, m’duck?’ he asked. The way he deliberately clung to his local accent embarrassed Daphne. She thought by now he should have risen above it, but Cleo found it familiar and comforting.
‘I’m all right.’
He shook his head. ‘You haven’t been all right since you left college.’
And that had been in the summer. After which, she’d bummed around a bit, knocked sideways by what had happened, and then, not knowing what else to do with herself, come home. Home, the place you go back to when all else fails.
She knew that her parents were really worried about her. But she wasn’t ready to talk about it, not yet, if she ever would be ready. They thought it was her abysmal exam results that were causing her misery, and that did have more than a bit to do with it, but not everything. That she’d done so badly had shaken her to her roots, but the bald truth was that she just hadn’t worked hard enough during her last year at university, though there had been reasons for that, too. Love. Oh yes, love, among other things, beyond which nothing else had seemed to matter, the feeling of being lost in a dream that could go on for ever. She couldn’t blame anyone but herself.
‘Come on, love, you can tell me,’ George coaxed.
‘Sorry, Dad, I can’t. Really.’
He sighed, and she avoided his eye and stared at the suicide breakfast menu chalked up on a slate hanging over the counter: bacon, sausage, fried egg, tomatoes, black pudding and a fried
slice, £2.95, it said. Tea and toast included, chips and baked beans 50p extra. Several hunky-looking types were availing themselves of the full works.
They’d know sooner or later what was wrong, anyway, she’d told herself, though she was becoming less and less inclined to believe it, because it involved Jenna. Her twin. Born two minutes before her, and scooping all the advantages ever since.
People always assumed that if you were a twin, you were two halves of the same apple, she thought, sipping coffee from the huge mug, both hands wrapped around it. Maybe that was so if you were identical twins, but they were not. They didn’t think or act alike, or have the same ambitions. They didn’t even look alike, except in the way that sisters often do. They were both roughly the same build, small and slim, and once they’d both had long, silky dark hair and blue-green eyes, but there it stopped. Cleo had chopped her own hair off, as nearly short as it could get without being a crew cut, which had made her mother freak out the first time she saw it. It was growing out though, having reached the shaggy dog stage. Looking even worse – awful – but that was the price you paid for attempting to look different. And whereas, if they were being truthful, Cleo knew herself to be skinny rather than slim, Jenna’s figure was just drop-dead gorgeous. She worked at it, of course, with her daily exercises and her Wonder Bras and those figure-flattering clothes that Cleo really, really despised, but she had the basic advantages to start with.
All of which made Jenna sound like some sort of bimbo, which couldn’t be more misleading. As if it wasn’t bad enough, Cleo coming such a cropper in her exams, Jenna had to go and get a First in Law at Cambridge, and she was now all set for a brilliant career. They’d actually been queuing up to offer her jobs as soon as she graduated, and she was still considering which City of London law firm she would grace with her presence.
And what was Toby feeling about that? Oh yes, Toby, right. In the end, he’d done worse in his exams than she herself had. Which ought to be giving her some sort of satisfaction, but made her feel rather worse about her own contribution to that.
‘Come on, Glory, we’ve always been able to talk, you and me, eh?’ George said.
She managed a wobbly smile. She’d thought there’d been
some mistake, it couldn’t really be true, when she’d found out, aged about ten, that Cleo was in actual fact a diminutive for
Oh horrors! Truly? ‘I’m not
called Cleopatra, Dad, am I?’
‘No, it’s Cleo on your birth certificate – after Cleo Laine. I was mad about her at that time. Like your mum got Jenna from
Anyway, what if it was? Cleopatra means “glory of her father”,’ George had said, smiling. ‘A useless piece of information I once came across.’ They’d made it their private joke. No one else had ever twigged why he sometimes called her Glory, not even Jenna.
‘OK,’ George said now, with the helpless sort of shrug he used sometimes to convey he’d never understand women, especially the three who made up his family. Cleo wasn’t taken in by that, she knew it was a ploy. George understood a lot more than he ever let on. ‘OK, I’ve had my go, now it’s your turn. You were going to say something as well.’
Cleo had changed her mind by now, but she couldn’t say ‘Oh, nothing’ again, so she said, ‘I just wondered if you’d managed to get anybody in to help, yet, that’s all.’
And that too was the wrong thing to say, she knew it as soon as she heard it come out of her mouth. ‘You’ve been reconsidering?’ he asked, his face brightening.
, she told herself, she absolutely
want to go and work in his office. Not even until Muriel came back – if she ever did. Once there, there’d be no telling when she’d be able to leave. I shall be like the woman Jenna and I used to call Miss Frowze at the library, stamping books till I die, she thought in a panic. Only she wouldn’t be stamping books, of course. Answering the telephone, typing up George’s reports for his customers, addressing envelopes. Riveting stuff like that.
But to her consternation, she heard herself saying, ‘Well, I know you’re in a hole – so maybe, just until Muriel comes back.’
He smiled. Cleo thought, with a rush of affection, he’s not so bad, even at fifty-six. Going bald on top, and the rest of it needing a trim. A big man, tall and a bit overweight, but still nice-looking, and kind. Untidy. If her mother had been there, she’d have straightened his tie, or more likely told him to chuck it away. Already the shirt collar she’d ironed so beautifully was
turning up at the points. He looked no different from when he’d been working all those unsocial hours and taking irregular meals. But at least he’d astonished everyone who knew him by giving up smoking – or very nearly. His old pipe, though it still dangled from his mouth most of the time, rarely had tobacco in it now. Maybe he didn’t need it, now that he was free of the stress of police work. It was probably more to do with the fact that her mother had suddenly decided she’d had enough of it now that he was at home more, and made him go outside every time he wanted to light up.
‘You’re a good girl, Cleo. Come on, let’s go.’
She trailed after him. Me and my big mouth, she thought. It was frightening, sometimes, the way she had no control over what she said.
He was in a cheerful mood and she had to quicken up and trot beside him, trying to keep up with his long strides. Despite his weight he was no slouch. Though the sun had forced its way through the clouds it had no strength to it, and the wind won out, blowing grit and takeaway cartons, chocolate wrappers, old crisp bags along the pavements, rattling empty Coke cans in the gutters as they neared the sleazy end of Victoria Road where his private investigation agency was situated. Neighbouring with a branch of the Bank of Ireland, a halal butcher’s, a Joe Coral betting shop, a pungent Indian tandoori restaurant and several charity shops on short leases, it stood out with its shiny new paintwork and nameplate. The traffic ground past unceasingly, and the general public still mostly passed it by, too.
The agency’s premises were small, having once been a wool shop. But it was tastefully decorated inside, too, because Cleo’s mother had had a hand in it and Daphne was good with that sort of thing. Greens and blues predominated, lots of pot plants stood about and there were comfortable chairs for clients to sit on while they put their problems to George. But small, all the same. Mainly because what had been the original shop had been divided into two, one part now being the reception area where Muriel’s desk was, the other George’s office. Behind was as it had always been, a cloakroom with a sink and a tiny storeroom with an electric point for making coffee. Its size hadn’t posed any problems in accommodating customers yet. Like most places
around this quarter, it was doing less business than the Millennium Dome.
The wool shop had actually belonged to Muriel until she’d decided to sell, on account of not many people having time or inclination to knit nowadays, she said, plus her own increasing rheumatism and Hermione’s advancing years. She came in part time and had her desk at right angles to one of the windows, which had been artistically painted over half-way in dark blue, lettered in gold, so that the interior was private and passers-by couldn’t see Muriel knitting when her day’s work was done. Which was still quite a lot of every day.
BOOK: Untimely Graves
2.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Siren in Store by Megan Hussey
A Lonely and Curious Country by Matthew Carpenter, Steven Prizeman, Damir Salkovic
Get In Her Mind, Get In Her Bed by Nick Andrews, Taylor Ryan
Looking for Yesterday by Marcia Muller
Bloodlust Denied by Phillips, Christina
Last Heartbeat by T.R. Lykins
A Cry at Midnight by Chancellor, Victoria