I’d just settled myself down with the two things that always are guaranteed to make the evening pass agreeably – namely, a large gin and tonic and a nicely marked up Radio Times – when all of a sudden, what should happen, with no warning or pre-arrangement, but that the telephone should ring.
I am proud to say I have never got used to being on the ’phone. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that the late Mr Nelson-Parkes, god rest his soul, had insisted upon it as a means of keeping in touch when he was working late or detained doing whatever it is policemen do that detains them late into the night – arresting criminals, one supposes – I daresay I would not have gotten one at all. He was however insistent. “What if something happens?” I remember him asking. “Such as?” I’d replied. He’d snuggled up closer to me, with his head on my breast. “I don’t know, Mags,” he’d added. “Just something” – a thought he did not complete, but which with hindsight one does of course complete by remarking that when something did happen, who it happened to wasn’t me, but him. The love of my life dead of a heart attack at 58. I have never recovered.
I don’t know my ’phone number. The only people who do in fact know it were given it yonks ago by Mr Nelson-Parkes, either people who were more his friends than mine, the colleagues to whom he gave it in case of an emergency requiring his detective expertise coming up when he was not at home with Mrs Nelson-Parkes, or alternately, the few friends I still see from the old days who hap-pened to be knocking around when I was still knocking around with him. In practice, this of course means one of three people: Michael, Prince Hans or Dennis Walters-Brown.
I knew straightaway it couldn’t of course be Dennis Walters-Brown. This is because although he does indeed the number, he never uses it, preferring always on the rare occasions when he deigns to summon me to luncheon or dinner at his cooly architectural flat in one of the new towers at the Bar-bican, to have an envelope hand-delivered by his driver-cum-private secretary, a thoroughly disrepu-table out of work actor named Bunny Beaumont. Bunny generally tries to be my friend on these occasions, telling me how lovely it is to see me again and that he has been asked to wait for a re-sponse – won’t I invite him in for a Gin and It? I generally tell him I will do nothing of the sort and send him on his way, sans response, back to the Barbican. Although invariably, after a couple of days of keeping them (and perhaps myself also) in suspense, I find myself to my slight disappoint-ment sending a reply on a sheet of the headed notepaper I stole when I retired from Newnham to say that although the time, the date, the location – something anyhow – is inconvenient, I will, de-spite misgivings, graciously deign to attend.
Dennis Walters-Brown has in fact only telephoned me once since the untimely death of Mr Nelson-Parkes, and then only by accident, because, as it turned out, what he had actually intended to do was to call Michael in order to ask his advice as to how to condole poor old mad Magda. Poor old mad Magda answering the ‘phone instead gave him the fright of his manicured life – and thinking about it, the terrible abuse I gave him for no other reason, it has to be said, than that he had dialled the wrong number at the wrong time, could be why he never called again. So who it was that was calling on this particular evening couldn’t possibly have been him.
I then thought that maybe it was Michael. Michael liked to call me every other day or so, for no rea-son in particular other than to share a piece of tittle-tattle or else to make yet another complaint about the cramped almshouse to which he and Prince Hans had retired at the conclusion of his long if undistinguished career in the Church. I’ve known Michael forever, ever since we were first grad-uate students up at Cambridge, me beginning to get to grips with the analytical philosophy that would lead me to my professorial chair, he beginning to come to terms, I suspect, with the fact that whatever else it gave him, one thing he was not going to find in the Church was a home. Enter here Prince Hans. I was never quite sure how they met (although I think it was during the Blitz) – or frankly if he really was as he claimed a displaced prince of Bavaria. Michael always referred to him as his patron, and, for a while, naive slip of a girl that I was, I thought this must be true – a misun-derstanding that later became something of a standing joke between me and Michael, although it never did seem to provoke a smile from Prince Hans. They were utterly inseparable, sharing their lives with each other and with their friends for thirty years now. Michael however knew never to call me after 7 o’clock – because I would be watching TV. So it couldn’t be him either.
I remember saying, “for fuck’s sake.”
I had it half in mind to just ignore the bloody thing – Top of the Pops was starting after all.
There was something though that made me slowly get up, a feeling I realised I’d had on a previous occasion, which meant that even before I had positioned myself in the seat beside the telephone ta-ble, even before I had removed my left earring, even before I had picked up the handset and said into it, “Prince Hans” – I knew not only that it was he who was calling me – but why.
“Oh Magda,” he spluttered. “Oh god. He won’t wake up! He won’t wake up!”
I felt a prickling sensation on my skin.
“I think he’s dead!”
I think what I said was simply, “yes.”
The old almshouses on Brandram Road to which Michael and Prince Hans had moved, after he re-tired from the cure of souls at St John the Evangelist in Blackheath, were just down the road from both the church and my own flat in Duke Humphrey Road – if memory serves me, they were part of a benefaction of some sort administered by the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors.
I think I’m right in saying that Michael had wangled one of these little houses in exchange for his offering to say the occasional prayer for the peaceful repose of merchant taylors past in the on-site chapel, and although when he first retired, the plan had been for this to be no more than a pied-à-terre for the two of them to have when they were up in town – they’d planned to move to a larger house down on the south coast somewhere – although in the years since them, the pair of them had in fact come no nearer the sea than a nearby dive they liked to frequent called appropriately enough the Jolly Sailor.
During our ‘phone call, I had of course told Prince Hans to dial 999.
I’d asked him what he thought he was playing at.
“I am playing my part, Magda,” he had replied, theatrically but meaninglessly.
I’d told him if he didn’t dial 999, I would. He needed the police, an ambulance – a remark which unfortunately only served to fan the flames, because he then started screaming more or less incoher-ently (even for Prince Hans), that the police would think he’d murdered him.
I’d asked, “why on earth would they think that?”
He’d replied, “because there is so much blood,” a comment he would not explain and one which to be perfectly frank made me feel sick and chilly. I realised I was going to have to go down there my-self, which is just what I did, in what, I have to say, was the longest cab journey of my life.
Prince Hans was waiting for me at the open door.
He was of course completely pissed.
He threw his arms around me and howled.
I said, “Prince Hans, what’s happened?” – but all he could or would say was that none of it was his fault, and that he had kept on telling them, and that if only he’d been listened to, it wouldn’t have happened.
I said, “where is he now?”
He said he was upstairs in their bedroom, lying on the bed, covered with a sheet.
I said I thought I had better see for myself.
Prince Hans stood and shook.
“We’re meat,” I remember Mr Nelson-Parkes once observing to me – this after he had he told me been dealing with a particularly unpleasant case involving a gentleman who had apparently come a cropper of the Richardsons in Catford. “Just meat.”
I found myself thinking of this and indeed of him, lying dead in that hospital bed in Lewisham, as slowly and carefully – I have to say, as much out of necessity because the stairs were steep and crooked and I am old – I climbed up the stairs to the bedroom. Just meat.
The room was dark.
My heart was sick, I can tell you.
I knew from the one or two occasions I’d previously been upstairs, mostly in order to retrieve an-other bottle of wine or gin or whatever from the bedside table if we were having a little party in the downstairs room, that the bedroom was home not only to a bed, but also to a number of other larger pieces of furniture Michael had moved from the vicarage in Blackheath and kept on the understand-ing that they would one day be moved again down to the house they would surely never buy at Whitstable.
I’m afraid I didn’t have the nerve to turn on the light.
I just stood in the doorway, trying to make out the shape of the bed from among the other shapes in that room of a wardrobe and a chest of drawers, and then also the thunderbox of which Michael was so proud, having inherited it from his father, the late Sir Roger, a baronet of noble and ancient lineage from whom he had inherited the title he never used because he was a Reverend.
I was of course stalling horribly. I knew that what I needed to do was to turn on the light and to look boldly on the body of my friend – but something of course kept me back, something powerful, which was both fear of the blood I expected to see, and fear of death, which was lying in this room.
Completely ridiculously, from downstairs – Prince Hans having switched on the TV – came the theme to The Good Life.
I flipped the light-switch.
The bare bulb in the socket slowly came to life.
I saw a body lying in the middle of the bed.
It was pretty badly beaten up, and yes, there was a lot of blood. There was blood on the sheet, there was blood on the blanket, there was blood on the mattress – it put me in mind of the things I’d seen in the FANYs during the last War.
I took a couple of steps.
I heard a creak behind me.
I turned suddenly to see Prince Hans.
I said, “Prince Hans.”
He said, “he said he’d sleep it off.”
I looked for the first time now at the face of the man who was lying on the bed.
Prince Hans said, “I can’t explain.”
Prince Hans repeated, “I can’t explain.”
I gasped because it wasn’t Michael.
And then a cheerful voice at the top of the stairs saying, “Magda? What are you doing here?”
It was – the voice – of all people Bunny fucking Beaumont.
I have never liked Bunny Beaumont.
He has always been so oily, so superficial.
I always felt when we were around him that we were somehow all in a play, and that whereas he had learned his lines, he was judging me a failure for floundering and forgetting mine – for trying and failing to ad lib. “You’re doing marvellously, darling,” I remember him once telling me, a phrase that was of course ambiguous enough to mean whatever he wanted it to mean – his meaning, I think we can properly suppose, being not only that I wasn’t, but also that he had the right to judge me. The root of my dislike of him came I think from a sense I could not entirely dispel that that this right was indeed actually his. “Simply marvellously.”
Bunny was someone who had always been on the periphery of my social circle, thanks to his having longstanding friendships with Michael and Dennis Walters-Brown. The three of them had all met years and years ago, because amazingly, before becoming grown-up people, they had been actors, working in the same repertory company. They had what sometimes seemed like endless stories about dreary theatres, dingy digs, added to which naturally endless gossip about the people they’d worked with, I am quite sure most of which was made up, some of which was frankly libellous (I won’t name names, but suffice it to say that I can no longer watch the Carry On films without feel-ing sick and giddy – I mean, can it have been true about Sid James?). They also had long remem-bered nicknames for one another, Michael being ‘Mandy,’ Dennis being ‘Doris’ and Bunny being either ‘Bunny’ or ‘Marge’ – the latter for quite obvious reasons. Sometimes when they were together and reminiscing, they would slip in to the usage of the old nicknames, telling me there was no need for me to have one because I was already what they called a bona fide polone – so I remained ‘Mag-da.’ I can genuinely say I didn’t give a flying fuck. I did however feel slightly sad in all this camp-ery for Prince Hans, who was quite obviously desperate to have a nickname of his own, and who, in response to their admonition that he should just go ahead and give himself one, rightly in my view declined to do so, because that was not the point. The point being that he did not want to have to include himself. He wanted them to include him. But they did not. The effect of their indifference to this all too human need was predictable: one heart was wounded, three hardened.
Bunny was the only one of the three not to see the writing on the wall and to get out of the profes-sion while the going was good. There followed what there sometimes also is in academia: early suc-cess is followed by an afternoon of illness, an evening of disappointment and then a twilight of in-creasingly poor gigs until one finds that life has somehow slipped by and one is doing what one does before a half-bored, half-asleep group of teenagers.
“My parts dried up,” Bunny liked to boast with a nasty smile. “If it weren’t for dear Doris, poor Marge would have ended up walking the streets. Instead” – a leer – “of driving them.”
“He’s your knight in shining armour.”
Another smile showing the teeth of which he was so proud, he joked that they had once their own page in Spotlight. “Marge certainly knows which side her bread is buttered on.”
I have to say, it was comments such as these that made us me wonder if there’d been more than al-truism at work in the decision Dennis had made to employ Bunny – more than the boy-done-good-does-good-by-old-pal I’d assumed. To put it frankly, did Bunny have something on Dennis, which he was using to blackmail him into providing the job, the car and such status as could be pretended by being a batman to the chatelaine of Cromwell Tower? If so, it was a secret I could not penetrate.
It was of course the old question of judging character.
Mr Nelson-Parkes never had any time for it. His opinion was that as you only ever see people from a certain perspective, you can never properly weigh up the good and bad in them. “Sometimes they’re nice, sometimes they’re nasty. You just don’t know. That’s the one thing about people.” He’d make an uncertain gesture. “Like that, Doll.”
It was hardly an original thought, I admit.
It was however one to which I found myself returning when considering the ways in which my friends dealt with his death – or rather since none of them knew him, the ways they dealt with me.
Dennis of course ‘phoned by accident, then nothing.
Prince Hans, bless him, is so demented and alcoholic, I doubt he still understands the difference between life and death, so not too much from those quarters either – although that was understand-able.
What wasn’t understandable was that Michael, particularly in view of his long experience with such painful matters, particularly in view of his long experience with me, did and said nothing. I really mean nothing. No calls, no visits, no letters or words of sympathy. Just nothing – which was so hurt-ful, it was like being bereaved again. I think I still haven’t forgiven him for it actually.
Bunny Beaumont on the other hand was in theory fabulous. He came to visit. He brought me gin. He let me talk and cry. He listened. It is in addition thanks to him that despite the strictures of Mrs Nelson-Parkes, I found the courage to slip in unnoticed into the back row for the funeral at St Ste-phen’s in Lewisham.
And yet ‘sometimes they’re nice, sometimes they’re nasty.’
It was about a week after the funeral, at a party at the vicarage, I overheard Bunny asking a fat little queen if he’d heard the gossip about an acquaintance of his who’d scandalised everyone by having a simply outrageous affair with a married policeman who’d recently died of a heart attack – no doubt brought on by the effort he’d had to put into keeping it up while having sex with someone as ugly as this friend they all just called the Oven Dodger.
I remember hearing laughter.
One heart broken, hardened.
I remember making my excuses and leaving.
Like I say, I’ve always fucking hated him.
And there he was: Bunny Beaumont.
“Ah yes,” he was saying prissily. “I’m afraid we have gotten ourselves into a bit of a pickle, haven’t we?”
I went over to the bed at once, threw off the sheet and immediately felt sober. It all came back to me – my days as a nurse in the FANYs, back to those days of the bloody Blitz.
“For Christ’s sake, Bunny,” I hissed, rapidly loosening the rather tight collar and tie the young man was wearing – noticing with incredible relief that his chest was moving up and down, noticing then with alarm that every time it fell he emitted a gargling sound. “What the hell has happened here?”
Bunny plonked himself down at the end of the bed, hands in his pockets and then – I still feel amazed as I write this – he tried swivel his feet up onto the mattress saying, “Mags, old girl – mind out there, will you?”
“For fuck’s sake Bunny!” I pushed his feet back down. I remember being struck in the way one of-ten is in times of crisis by details: I had never noticed this before but never had I ever seen a man with such small feet. His feet were only slightly larger than mine. And mine are tiny. I could only think how handy that must have been during his life as an actor on occasions when he played or un-derstudied women – of which I am quite sure they must have been many.
“Oh charmant!” he said grumpily, protesting.
“This young man needs an ambulance.”
“Impossible darling,” said Bunny.
Prince Hans, hovering nervously by the bedroom door, seemed somehow calmer now, presumably because a grown-up was now in charge. He said, quite ridiculously, “I will serve drinks.”
I said very loudly and angrily, “nobody is going anywhere.”
Prince Hans said, “I will not serve drinks.”
“So you don’t want an ambulance?” said Bunny.
The young man gargled.
“Don’t be clever, Bunny,” I hissed.
He stuck a yellow and furry tongue out at me, then folded his arms and swivelled round again, meaning that he was now sitting on the side of the bed with his legs all twisted and tied up like a knot. I could have bloody throttled him.
“Call me,” I began – then of course quickly changing tack, it being only too obvious what the re-sponse would have been had I continued – “call an ambulance for this poor young man.”
“What do you mean you can’t?” I said.
“And neither can you.”
“Don’t you tell me what I can and can’t do, Bunny Beaumont.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
Prince Hans whimpered slightly.
I said, “oh do shut up.”
He looked hurt but did as he was told.
“I want some answers,” I said. “I want to know who this man is. I want to know what he is doing here. I want to know what happened to him. And additionally,” I said – surprised at myself I must say for not thinking of it before now – “I want to know where in the fuck is Michael?”
Bunny looked at me. It was as though he were waiting for the simultaneous translation to conclude before replying – and then when he did reply he said infuriatingly, accompanying himself with a lit-tle clap, “bravo!”
I hissed, “for fuck’s sake, Bunny.”
Prince Hans said, “but everything is going to be all right, Magda.”
I said, “Bunny Beaumont – what is going on?”
And then he started:
“The young man said his name was Adolf, although personally, I suspect that may be what we called at my finishing school in Paris un nom de plume de ma tante. He is here because he was invit-ed to come, quite literally, while being observed and marked out of ten for artistry and technical excellence by a committee of myself, Michael and Prince Hans. He sustained his injuries earlier this evening after being hit by a car while running across the Lee High Road on his way back from an off licence – a mission of mercy to get fresh supplies of gin and tonic water. On his return here and subsequent collapse into the bed here in the chamber of horrors, he menacingly demanded money as the price of his silence – and Michael, perhaps unsurprisingly, panicked and ran to get help. He has not been seen since. To my great surprise – you have.”
I said, quite crossly, “Jesus Christ.”
Prince Hans was standing fussing with the edge of the counter pane, smoothing it down, making it lie flat. He said once again in the tone such as that of a child who speaks at a time of a calamity, “but everything is going to be all right.”
“And you can’t call an ambulance because earlier on this evening, in a fit of queenly pique after Prince Hans called you Magda, I ripped the ’phone from the wall and threw it into the dustbin.”
I said, “you cunt. You stupid bloody cunt.”
“You see, Hans?” he said to Prince Hans. “I said she would make it all worse.”
The man lying on the bed – I suppose we may now call him Adolf – made a sleepy sound and then thank his opened his eyes. I had no idea what I would say to him in response to the question I knew he was five seconds or less away from asking me but guessed I would probably reply, “in a fairy tale.”
It started going from bad to worse the moment we were able to revive poor Adolf, although as it very rapidly transpired, the word was not actually ‘poor’ – it was – they were – ‘with menaces.’
He began by coughing a lot, a hell of a lot, to the point where it seemed for a moment as though he’d either die or wake the neighbours.
I went and sat by him on the corner of the bed.
“Oh dear,” said Bunny.
“Get him a glass of water,” I said – at which Prince Hans, seemingly glad to have been given some-thing to do, bobbed like a housemaid before going back downstairs. “Cold water!”
“Fuck me,” spluttered Adolf.
“Don’t you dare say anything, Bunny.”
“Where’s my fucking £100?”
I said, “try not to talk.”
Bunny said, “me or young Adolf?”
Prince Hans then re-appeared with a tray, upon which was not only a jug of water and a glass, but also, completely ridiculously, a plate of Kaiserschmarrn.
I said, “Prince Hans!”
Adolf then tried to sit up. “Fuck me!” he said, pressing a hand to his ribs. “It hurts!”
“Mags, dearest,” said Bunny. “You wouldn’t happen to have £100 on you, would you?”
Adolf said, “no! I want £200!”
“Alas and indeed alack,” drawled Bunny. “That’s the thing with these boys. It’s always take, take, take.” He helped himself to a Kaiserschmarrn, before tuning rather pointedly to Adolf and saying, “when they’re not giving one one.”
“Who’s she?” said Adolf.
“A very good question,” said Bunny, who then turned to me, saying, “I’ve always wondered, Mags – who exactly are you?”
Prince Hans said to no-one particularly, “I have homemade plum jam to go with the Kaisersch-marnn.”
I was about to tell him to keep his plums to himself, only then what happened – so quickly, I found myself shouting about it before realising exactly what it was – was that with the nimbleness of a Lazarus, Adolf jumped up from the bed, knocked to the floor the tray with the jug of water, the glass and the Kaiserschmarnn, and then there he was with Prince Hans in a tight headlock, saying, “I want my fucking £300!”
“£300, Adolf?” said Bunny, without batting an eyelid. “Bigger and bigger all the time.”
Prince Hans said simply, “if you don’t like plum jam, I have lingonberry also.”
Adolf squeezed his throat.
I said, “Prince Hans!”
Adolf said, “I want my money!”
Bunny opened his mouth, as though about to say something, although then, it seemed thinking bet-ter of it, what he did instead was to pop into his mouth a jam dipped Kaiserschmarrn.
I said, “Adolf – let him go this instant!”
“I want my money!” said Adolf.
“We haven’t got any,” I said. “Be reasonable!”
Adolf unfortunately however responded not by being reasonable but by tightening the headlock with which he was holding Prince Hans – who then started making very distressing gurgling noises.
“I told you this would happen,” said Bunny in a sort of sing-song voice.
“You said nothing of the kind!” I countered.
He stuck out his ridiculous tongue at me.
I stuck up two fingers back at him.
Prince Hans said something that may or may not have sounded like ‘help me, help me!’
Bunny sang ironically, “‘the rabbit said’,” before adding, “or didn’t.”
I said to him, “do something!”
Adolf was now starting to move towards the top of the stairs.
I said, “well thank you very much, Margery.”
Adolf was now at the top of the stairs.
I then had a bit of a brainwave. I unclipped my earrings.
“You’re mental!” said Adolf. “The lot of you! Fuck me!”
I said to him, in a voice that was low and slow – trying to calm him – “it’s Adolf, isn’t it?”
He was I realised struggling to hold up his trousers with the hand of the arm that wasn’t busy stran-gulating Prince Hans. It was a sad and pathetic sight.
I said to him, “come on.”
“Back off!” said Adolf.
Prince Hans was gasping.
They were slowly walking backwards downstairs.
“Come on,” I said. I proffered an earring. “If you let him go nicely, you can have one of these.”
“What are they?”
“They’re diamonds, Adolf.”
“Funny how attracted they are to shiny things,” said Bunny.
Adolf himself now looked like he was in two minds. You could actually see him thinking. He bit his lip, and then, having weighed things up and decided, he put out a grubby hand. This unfortunately happened to be the hand he’d been using to hold up his trousers, meaning that once again – so quickly, I found myself shouting about it before realising exactly what it was – they fell down pan-tomimically, and then he tripped and fell backwards down the stairs, dragging down with him of course Prince Hans, the two of them landing with an almighty bloody kerfuffle, Prince Hans merci-fully finishing on top of Adolf (for the first time ever, possibly, I was pleased I still had the pres-ence of mind to reflect).
I glanced at Bunny.
He shrugged his shoulders, as if, it seemed, to say that maybe perhaps now I’d realise.
I have to say, if it weren’t for the fact I so hated him, I may perhaps have signalled agreement.
I mean, what a fucking show. Me stood there with these diamond earrings in my hands, proffering them to a beast with two backs that frankly seemed to be broken – in what was supposed to be an almshouse for a man of fucking God.
I stuffed the earrings into my coat pocket and did my best to get myself down the stairs, only of course there was no getting past the nuisance, which was now shouting and swearing in both Eng-lish and a Bavarian form of German that recalled, once again, the servants of my very early child-hood in Vienna.
Was it then that I noticed the policemen – and Michael?
Well what is there to say about Catford Police Station?
Its brick façade has that air of municipality proud of its modernity with which so many buildings were constructed in the 1930s, when although we had already had our faces slapped once, it would as it turned out take them being cut from our heads and burned in front of our lidless eyes before we understood that the counterpart of all such hubris is the nemesis of buildings such as the brutal Barbican of St Dennis Walters-Brown.
On one side of the nick, there stands squarely, chest out, chin up, the headquarters of what must be a local branch of the Territorial Army. On the other sit two pairs of shabby looking semi-detached houses, neither pair it has to be said built with the eye in mind – or indeed the ear, there being a hell of a lot of passing traffic on what is after all the Bromley Road.
Although of course less traffic passes by at two in the morning, sensible people having better places to be at that hour than a police station, silly people in the tiny office at the front of the nick on this particular morning being in number three:
A bored young police constable was sitting on a high stool behind the counter, leaning over a news-paper he had folded in half and half again, a stubby little pencil in hand – trying and mostly suc-ceeding in keeping himself awake by doing a crossword – every now and again trying to make the time pass more interestingly by asking the other two persons in the front office to help him answer a clue. They did so unenthusiastically.
A man dressed in an expensive vicuna overcoat, beneath which he was wearing evening dress, a red bow tie, a white shirt, a red cummerbund, black shoes and red silk socks – he looked rather like a conjurer. He was smoking a cigar, tipping its ash into a cone he had fashioned from a couple of sheets of newspaper begged from the young PC.
An old woman in a midnight blue dress, wearing dark stockings and black shoes, topped off with a fur that had seen better days – most likely when it was still on the poor mink whose skin it was – and a pair of diamond earrings. She was trying not to inhale cigar smoke while at the same time trying to make it look like it had been a struggle for her – as it evidently had been for the policeman – to de-termine that the answer to six across, seven letters, ‘holy day,’ was ‘sabbath.’
She was in addition crossly reflecting on the fact that due to the disturbances of the evening that had passed, not only had she missed Mastermind but also the grand final of Come Dancing.
Dennis Walters-Brown – for the smoking conjuror was he – said to me once the constable had gone to answer a ‘phone or radio or something, “we must make this go away, Magda.”
I said, “we, Dennis?”
He choked a little on that wretched cigar.
I said, “it’s nothing to do with me.”
“But Magda,” said Dennis, recovering himself, “don’t you see the situation is quite impossible?”
He said, “dear Magda.”
I said, “dear Dennis.”
“You realise, if the truth does come out, they’ll both be ruined.”
“Both? There are three of them.”
“Michael and Prince Hans. Bunny is already ruined.”
I snorted. “Upon that much, we can agree.”
“To say nothing, Magda,” he added, leaning closer – “saying nothing of me.”
I said, lowering my voice sarcastically, “and why should we say anything of you?”
He swallowed. He backed off suddenly, then had a chomp at his cigar.
The penny was dropping.
I don’t know why it’d taken so long.
He was in this up to his eyeballs – and possibly other types of ball as well.
I said, “Dennis Walters-Brown. Were you responsible for procuring Adolf?”
He said, “you know I was.”
“And so did you or did you not know that he is only 19?”
Dennis blushed very slightly at this.
I said, “too young for you?” I then added with more nastiness it has to be said than intended. “Or perhaps too old?”
“Adolf will do as he’s told,” said Dennis.
“Yes – for a price.”
“I am willing to pay his price.”
“Are you willing to pay mine?”
He said, “I haven’t asked you to do anything, Magda.”
I said, “I’m waiting for it. What do you want?”
“Tell the police,” began Dennis Walters-Brown.
“Tell them what, Dennis?”
He turned, now looking at me – looking at me eye-to-eye. What nerve.
He said, “tell them that Adolf was yours.”
I said, “do what?”
He said, “say Adolf was yours.”
I gasped. I have to say, of all the things I thought he might be about to say – such as, ‘will you help me to offer that constable a bribe?’ or ‘are you still fucking any influential policemen?’ – this was not one of them. Say Adolf was mine?
“Think about it, Magda,” he continued.
I said, “I am!”
“It’s the only way.”
“How can it possibly be the only way?”
“They’ve arrested them all for gross indecency with a minor. Being Adolf.”
I said, “I was there, Dennis. I know that much.”
“But it’s only a crime if it’s them. Because he’s under 21.”
I shut my eyes.
Dennis said, almost shamefacedly, as though confessing something he thought I didn’t already know. “And also. Because he’s a boy. But if it’s you … ”
I could see the young constable was making his way back to his post. It was clearly now or never.
“If it’s you, Magda, there is no crime, no disgrace.”
I said, with dignity, “that is a matter of opinion.”
I have to say, in the brief moment before responding, I found myself thinking, ‘well, woman. You’ve been a Jew. You’ve been an émigré. You’ve been an atheist, a philosopher, a professor, a drunkard and a wicked adulteress – and now you are being asked to be a perjurer.’
“Please, please, please, please, please please!”
The constable stopped for a moment – he appeared to be talking to somebody slightly off stage.
“What do you say?”
The constable was now coming back.
The constable said brightly, “still here? How about another clue?”
Dennis looked at me.
I said, looking back at him, as neutrally as possible, “yes, officer – still here.”
He said, oblivious of course to the meaning his words now had for us, “one down?”
“There’d been a robbery,” I began.
“Just down at that branch of Barclays Bank by the Clock Tower in Lewisham. He’d been driving past on unrelated inquiries apparently – but naturally, as soon as he saw what was what – one pre-sumes the shouts, the cries and then of course the man who’d actually been doing the robbing run-ning out with the bag of cash he’d stolen – as soon as he saw what was what, he stopped, jumped out his car, and what they told me later was that he ran toward the robber and then chased him round the corner into Lewis Grove.”
I made my way over to the tantalus and irony of ironies found that although it wasn’t locked, my hands were too stiff and numb to open the bottle of whiskey it guarded – after a couple of huffs and puffs completely failed to blow the house down, I thought to myself, ‘blow this for a game of fucking soldiers,’ and resorted to gin and tonic, both of which were warm, having unfortunately been left out of the fridge, the tonic also being slightly flat – but needs must, eh?
I continued, “which is where the getaway car was waiting”
“This robber chap then appears to have run headlong towards the car, got in and then for reasons no-one will ever understand, Mr Nelson-Parkes decided that what he was going to do was to jump onto the bonnet. I find myself replaying this scene almost constantly. What on earth was he think-ing? I can imagine it. In fact, I can’t do otherwise. There he is, panting, trying to hold on to the windscreen wipers or whatever – did he look through the windscreen to see the men who were about to kill him? What did they see? Did they know he was a police officer? I have to assume they didn’t, as being a detective, Mr Nelson-Parkes generally wore plain clothes – although the fact was, he wasn’t exactly unknown – most of the faces knew his face, and so unless they were from out of town or the other side of the river – which is a possibility – they would have known.”
I downed my drink.
“They would have known.”
“The driver put his foot down. The car lurched forward. Mr Nelson-Parkes managed to cling on, I was later told, for a surprisingly long way with the car stopping and starting suddenly in an ulti-mately successful attempt to throw him off – then they were gone, gone, vanished – leaving Mr Nel-son-Parkes lying at the side of the road clutching his chest and blinking, just on the corner of the Lee High Road and Belmont Hill.”
“By now of course there was a crowd, there were policemen and women, there was apparently an off-duty nurse as well, who all did their best to help. He remained awake and conscious until he was placed in the back of the ambulance that took him to Lewisham Hospital.”
It was nearly bedtime.
I tottered out into the kitchenette, put my now empty glass in the sink.
I went and dropped the latch on the front door, switched off the lights.
I went to the bathroom, to spend a penny, to splash my face with water – and if it could be borne, to look at my reflection in the mirror, to wonder who or what had so aged the old woman who was staring back at me.
I am now more than twice the age my parents were when they died.
The final act, now.
The curtain will fall.
“It was one of his colleagues who then ‘phoned me, a chap we’d sometimes gone out on double dates with with his bit on the side as well, a girl whose name, if she had one, I no longer remember – nor his. He told me the worst straightaway. I remember him saying, ‘I’d get down here if I were you’.”
I undressed. It was pretty chilly.
“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it.”
I put on a nighty, a bed jacket and a pair of bed socks. I got into bed.
“I mean, he was strong as an ox. What could possibly be the matter? What could possibly be the matter that a few days in hospital couldn’t fix? A few days and he’d be right as rain – back to nor-mal – the phrase I found coming almost unbidden was ‘nothing to see here’.”
“So I didn’t go.”
“I’m told that his wife and grown-up daughters were by his bedside when he died.”
I shut my eyes.
I reflected that for the first time since records began, I had gone to bed cold sober.
I picked up my trusty copy of the Radio Times from earlier and looked to see if there was going to be anything worth watching on that evening. I have to say, it was the usual. The news. A cartoon. A comedy. More news. I frankly didn’t like the look of any of it, although one thing I did know was that after a few gin and tonics, I’d find myself watching the lot.
What’s done is done.
You cannot change the past nor perhaps even the future.
I tried counting sheep but found that all I saw were lumps of meat, turning into plump pieces of Kaiserschmarrn.
I must however eventually have fallen asleep because later on, I found myself waking to a shrill ach-tung I realised after a moment or two of disorientation was my ‘phone. You won’t I think be at all surprised to hear that without giving the matter so much a momentary thought I decided to let it ring. I’d learned my lesson.
Goldilocks was staying in.
The bears could do whatever they fucking liked.
JP Sanders lives and works in London. He holds a PhD in English from Cambridge University. His short story ‘Neighbours’ is published by Clover and White in January 2020.