For any new readers – if you need to find out what’s gone on in the first 32 chapters, you can read them here rather than going through every blog post I’ve ever written.
But for the first five parts of Chapter 33, I’m afraid you’ll have to find those on my blog – look for posts #33a through #33e (which are very easy to spot, as they’re the last five posts I’ve written).
And now for two more sections. Hope you enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and editing them.
Wednesday 13th November 1985: 12.00 – 13.00
Clarissa dropped the telephone receiver back onto its cradle, and began to breathe for what seemed like the first time since that liquid voice had said, ‘How can I help you?’
God! So like Miss —
Oh! She turned towards the sitting-room door, which, she realised, had just swung open.
There was a pause, while she registered that her husband was looking at her with the kind of startled expression some men (young ones, mainly — take Joseph as an example) assumed when they met her for the first time; sort of, bunny crossed with hedgehog crossed with powerful lights heading towards them at a rate of knots.
‘I’m sorry, my dear?’ His voice matched his expression.
She hurried to him, and wrapped him in a huge embrace. ‘I’m so sorry, darling. I was totally somewhere else.’
He returned the hug, though more lightly, and they stood for a moment wrapped in each other. The feeling was like — like —
Like it should be between husband and wife. She felt tears begin to form.
‘I love you,’ she said.
He released her from his side of the hold, but held onto her arms lightly as she also drew back. ‘I love you too, my dear,’ he said, smiling the few inches down that constituted their difference in height. ‘And —’ he leaned forward and kissed her forehead ‘— I have been neglecting you far too much of late. That I should never do.’
Without saying anything, she drew him over to the settee. Pulling him down, she wrapped his arm around her shoulder and leaned against him. ‘That’s okay,’ she whispered then, the tears now not only formed, but trickling down her cheeks like salty, tickly raindrops. ‘I know you’re busy. I try not to mind too much.’
‘Far too busy, really,’ he replied, kissing her forehead again.
They sat in companionable silence, and then she said, ‘Frank — do you think it is all real?’
‘Hmm?’ He sounded surprised, but not as rabbity-hedgehogy as before.
‘What we were talking about earlier. Mabel Cartwright. And Hettie Foster. It’s been worrying me so much. Do you think that what those policemen said yesterday could be true?’
He leaned away from her slightly and stared into her eyes. Smiling again, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, then tenderly wiped the tears away. The gesture was so intimate, and so like the Frank she’d married, it nearly brought on a fresh fall.
‘You know, my dear,’ he said, and a thoughtful expression crossed his face, ‘I’ve been thinking over what you said earlier, and I think it possibly might be. Not so long ago, I would have dismissed the possibility outright. Quoted chapter and verse to show how God’s word belied the very idea. But I’m beginning, I think, to realise that there are more things in Heaven and on Earth than scripture can even begin to account for.’
She drew herself upright to stare at him. ‘What’s made you change your mind?’
He smiled yet again, and she realised that she hadn’t seen him smile so much for what seemed like years. ‘Oh — I’ve spent lots of time in contemplation these last couple of hours. Thinking over what you said about my “2,000-year-old book”.’
She gulped. ‘I — I didn’t want to break your faith, darling. Maybe I shouldn’t have said…’
‘No, no,’ he interrupted with a wave of his hand. ‘You were quite right, my dear. To be honest, it’s a conversation I’ve been having with myself for a while now, on the quiet, as it were. And —’ his eyes took on a faraway look ‘— I’ve also been wondering about other things, you know?’
She waited, wondering what on earth could be coming next from this new, frank Frank.
‘Such as,’ he continued, ‘how come a beautiful young woman such as yourself could possibly stay faithful to an old fossil like me, when there is so much temptation around her in the form of comely young men. Young men whom, I have no doubt, would be more than willing to give her what I, alas —’ the smile faded, and the thoughtfulness came back, tinged with an unmistakable sadness ‘— cannot.’
She felt her heart give a lurch. ‘Frank…’
‘Yes, my dear?’
‘You do know that I am faithful, don’t you? That I never would — you know?’
The smile came back, but the sadness remained. ‘Of course I do, my dear. Oh — I’ve seen the way men look at you; and, if we’re both being honest, the way that you flirt with them.’
Her breath caught in her throat. ‘I — I —’
Whatever was supposed to come after the ‘I’ became logjammed behind the breath. That’s because it would have been a lie, her familiar accuser said.
And she had no defence against the truth of that. Fortunately, Frank, still smiling, gave another dismissive hand-wave. ‘Don’t worry, my dear; I quite understand that you have needs, it’s only natural.
‘But I do know,’ he added, and there was a quiet seriousness in his voice, ‘— know with all my heart — that you are faithful. So please, don’t think about it any longer.’
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath — which, fortunately, cleared the one that was stuck — and leaned back into him. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
There was another long silence, and then he said, ‘I’ve also been wondering whether it’s time for me to retire.’
This brought her bolt upright to stare at him in shock. ‘Retire!’
His smile this time was a wry one. ‘Yes, my dear. I’ve become aware that my attitude during our present troubles has not been of the best. How blasé I am concerning the violent deaths of members of my congregation, in contrast to my anguish over the theft of a few meaningless items of church finery.’
She continued to stare at him.
‘And I think,’ he continued, ‘that although I shan’t make any hasty decisions, it’s about time I had a good, long talk with the bishop.’
She found she could only shake her head in wonder, her voice having unaccountably gone on holiday somewhere. This really was her Frank. The one she’d married. Not the one he’d become since.
‘So, my dear,’ he went on, ‘going back to the problem of Miss Cartwright. Let us, as you suggested earlier, try to find the poor woman; if she is walking abroad as suspected, that is.’
Her head-shake changed to a nod. Her voice also returned from its trip, refreshed and ready for action. ‘Yes! Definitely!’ Then a thought grabbed her, and she added uncertainly, ‘The only trouble is — where do you go to find a dead woman?’
Her husband gave a small chuckle; something, again, she hadn’t heard in a long while. ‘Until recently, I would have said either Heaven or Hell, my dear, depending on their faith or lack of it. But as I’m not so sure of that now, there is one place where we could start.’
‘Where’s that, Frank?’
‘Where the dead go in their corporeal, if not spiritual, form. The churchyard. That would be the most obvious place, wouldn’t you think?’
Lily Marple opened her front door, then flattened herself against the hallway wall as a whirlwind, in the shape of her friend Lavinia, crashed through the door and blew into her sitting-room.
She stared at the door, then along the hallway, then back at the door. She hadn’t seen Lavinia move so fast since the incident with the Canadian airman and the haystack in 1944. (For some reason, a recollection flashed into her head — Lavinia telling her over a cigarette later that night that the airman was so poorly equipped, one of the sticks of hay would probably have given her a better time. She’d decided not to tell her friend that she’d already had the same encounter the previous night, and had found him perfectly adequate in that respect, thank you very much.)
‘Do come in, dear,’ she said with mild irony, closing the door.
‘Is Daphne here?’ Lavinia called.
A timid-sounding knock came at the door. ‘I think she’s just arrived,’ Lily called back.
With her two friends ensconced in the living-room, Lily went through the ancient and honourable ceremony of brewing tea. (Real leaf, of course, not those horrid bag things, which were so much trouble to cut open before you could use them.) Carrying the tray through, she set it down onto her small dining table, then poured three cups and carried them one-by-one to the sofa.
‘Now,’ Lavinia said, once she’d received hers and taken a critical — but, it appeared after a second or two, satisfied — sip, ‘we need a plan of action. If what I heard Father Rawlings and his wife discussing is correct, we need to find Mabel before the police do; after all, the poor woman deserves a hearing, and I doubt they’d give her a fair one. Look at that sergeant we saw at the station. He could hardly be bothered to leave his kettle to serve us. Not to mention that mug on his counter. Did you see the stains?’
Each of them shuddered, recalling the sight. After a suitable interval, not unlike a minute’s silence for a fatally wounded comrade (which, Lily supposed, her china teacups might view the sergeant’s drinking vessel as), Lavinia continued, ‘So, ladies — ideas!’
It had already struck Lily that, since Hettie had been killed, Lavinia seemed to have stepped into the role of commander of their diminished group as if to the pips-on-the-shoulder born. She wondered if they really needed another leader. After all, their forces days (and Canadian airmen!) were far behind them. And although certain quarters of The Church Universal were wont to refer to it as the Army of God, she preferred to regard her own small branch as not so much a fighting unit, but more a part of the catering corps; one that did a handy line in cucumber sandwiches when fete-time came around each summer.
‘I’m troubled by what you told me this morning, Lavinia, dear,’ Daphne said. ‘Are we meant to believe in ghosts? I always thought that Father Rawlings said that they couldn’t exist because of salvation and damnation, and all that sort of thing.’
‘I don’t think Father Rawlings has ever said anything about that, Daphne,’ Lavinia said. ‘I think it was more Hettie.’ Her eyes took on a glazed expression. ‘Accompanied by three hours of quotations from the Good Book, as I remember.
‘Besides,’ she added, seeming to shake off the recollection with an effort, ‘Mabel, if Father and Mrs Rawlings are right, isn’t so much a ghost, more a corpse that hasn’t realised it’s supposed to stop moving.’
‘But isn’t that a little — erm, non-scriptural anyway?’
Lavinia gave a shrug. Most unlady-like, Lily considered; but then, remembering how your friends had been (and yourself, for that matter) forty-odd years before did tend to cast them in a different light from how one usually viewed them, didn’t it? ‘It probably is. But Father and Mrs Rawlings seemed convinced, so perhaps we should be too.’
‘Poor Mabel must be very restless,’ Daphne said sadly. ‘To be wandering about like that, murdering people.’
‘Only one, dear,’ Lily reminded her. ‘Hettie. And Hettie killed her in the first place, don’t forget.’
‘But the fact remains,’ Lavinia said, ‘that if Mabel is restless, anything might happen next. So, somebody needs to find her and put her to rest, before something does. And I do think, really, that that should be us.’
‘But if we need to find her, dear,’ Daphne said, ‘how do we go about it? After all — we don’t know where she’s likely to have gone, do we? We don’t have God’s knowledge about these things.’
‘We need to think very hard,’ Lily said.
Lavinia had begun to frown. ‘No! Daphne, you’ve given me an idea. Indeed, we don’t have God’s knowledge, but we can ask him to share his knowledge with us.’
‘I’m sorry, dear?’ Lily stared at her friend, and was aware of Daphne doing so too.
Lavinia stood, placing her teacup and saucer into Lily’s hand absently, as if Lily were merely some soft, pink tea trolley. ‘Yes, that’s it. Lily — Daphne — To the church with us. What we need to do right now is pray!’