Monday, 29 January 2007

Chapter 7

“Haven’t seen you in the Cavendish for a while, Harry. What’s the matter – got someone new in tow?”

Charlie might have been right, except that Harry hadn’t been in a relationship – at least, that was, not with anything other than a bottle – for months now. Truth was, Harry preferred to drink alone. It was easier that way. He could spread himself thin across any number of bars, and no-one needed to know much about him. He knew it would be a while before he could go to the Cavendish again. People talk, and they have an awkward habit of talking the truth. All in all, it was better he wasn’t known as a regular anywhere or anyplace in town. Nobody wanted to hire a drunk private investigator. For the same reason, he was careful where he shopped -even the most hardened shopkeeper or till operator might raise an eyebrow if someone was calling in for a bottle of bourbon every day.

Harry was circumspect in his reply to Charlie: “You know how it is," he said. He thought he’d covered himself with the throwaway remark. But his voice had been flat, and Charlie knew his old pal well enough to know that something wasn’t well in the state of Harry McFry.

As he handed Harry the package, together with a whole other bunch of other mail, Charlie said: “You wanna talk about it?” Harry signed the proof of delivery with a flourish. “Not just now, Charlie. We’ll catch up soon – promise you,” as he touched his friend on the shoulder. Harry would have enjoyed nothing more than a couple of hours over lunchtime unburdening himself to Charlie. But that was the way to lose a friend. Anyway, he knew he had work to do – a census index to interrogate, and a jigsaw of events to piece together that was starting to make him wonder if he might, this time, have bitten off more than he could chew.

He turned away, clutching the mail tight to his side as he made to open the door.

“Harry…” Charlie called out. He’d seen the ‘final demand’ stamped on one of the envelopes he’d handed him. “Don’t be a stranger.” McFry smiled at him, turned back to the foyer and made towards the stairs.

En route to his office, Harry checked his mail. Charlie had been right - he still owed his history book club £25.99 for the ‘Selection of the Month’ he’d forgotten to cancel. Not a bad book, he remembered – but Waterstone’s had been advertising the book for half the price just last week. Mental note: keep on top of these things, Harry, or they’ll come back and bite you. Nothing much else apart from a bank statement. Except, of course, that package he’d signed for.

*

Even as Harry was wondering what the package might contain, Lillian McFry was standing in the kitchen pouring out a cup of tea for her guest. She was a mere 70 miles away (or thereabouts, depending on whether you want to rely on the RAC or the AA website to calculate the distance) - but for all Harry was aware, it might as well have been a lifetime ago. Sat now in a bulky armchair in the corner of Lillian McFry’s lounge, Dr Dacre Lawrence took the opportunity of his host’s absence to look around him. It was a small room, but even so the single bar of the electric fire, glowing bright orange beside its pale neighbour, fought hard to take the chill away. It was the kind of room he’d been in a hundred times or more during his professional career as a doctor. Dr Lawrence glanced at the sideboard, where an old clock ticked away the minutes in a charmless fashion. It was almost hidden by a forest of framed photographs, most of them faded now and suggesting (as if he didn’t already know) that the owner was older than the average resident of Vale View.

Presently, Lillian appeared at the door to the lounge, carrying a tray that held a single cup of tea, a bowl of sugar and a small plate of chocolate bourbon biscuits. Dacre Lawrence wondered immediately how he could appear polite, yet not have to eat a biscuit he’d managed to avoid in life for over half a century.

Lillian set the tray on a small table beside the chair where Lawrence sat. She had been immediately impressed by the doctor when she opened the door. He wore a smart, triple-breasted suit and had the bearing of someone who ‘knew the world’. She wasn’t sure she liked him – something about his smile made her shudder, inwardly – but he was all politeness when he asked her if she was Mrs Lillian McFry, and introduced himself. For his part, Lawrence made a measured assessment of his prey. There was no doubting that she looked much younger than someone who had lived out the century, and much less frail than he had expected. He couldn't help but wonder that there was more to Lillian McFry than met the eye. He cursed himself, inwardly, for not thinking to bring her a small token such as a bunch of flowers.

As soon as she’d ushered him into her lounge, her priority had been to make sure he had a cup of tea, at least, and – if possible – could be persuaded to eat at least one or two of the biscuits she’d kept in a tin in the cupboard for precisely that day when an unexpected visitor arrived.

“Won’t you have a biscuit with your tea, Dr Lawrence?” she asked. The old man felt himself shrink, inwardly, then – after gathering his strength – replied “Well, maybe just one.” His hand reached out gingerly towards one of the bourbon creams. With a palpable displeasure he managed to mask behind a smile, he bit into the sugary confection, and in a Proustian instant he was transported back to his late teenage years.

Dacre Lawrence had done well for himself. Always bright at school, a scholarship had sent him up to Oxford to study medicine. His training alone would have equipped him to make money, but he had in addition the sort of charm that could wheedle blood from the proverbial stone. His time at Oxford had been spent yes, in the ruthless pursuit of medical knowledge, but also – quite deliberately – in chasing the kind of worldly pleasures of which his own father might only ever have dreamed. He remembered how his father would return from work, take residence in his favourite armchair, and savour with relish a mug of fresh, steaming tea and a handful of those same bourbon creams that Dacre hated so much. "You don't need much money for life's simple pleasures - you remember that, son," he had once said to him. Instantly, Dacre had determined to ensure he would accumulate such wealth in his life that this was one piece of fatherly advice he would never have to worry about.

He came, in fact, to think that the Welfare State - the lodestone of his subsequent wealth - had been invented solely to ensure that he would never again have to eat such popular delights as a bourbon cream. Yet Dacre Lawrence also knew when to temper his disdain for the common people, even as he set himself above them. That, he always prided himself, was what made him different from many of his contemporaries. He took a particular pleasure when he saw his former college friends popping up on the television he’d had installed in his flat when he first set up practice. He knew that, while they were famous, he was already (as a doctor) earning more than they were ever likely to. Lawrence never courted fame more than he did money. It was only years later, when the world started to lavish ever-larger sums of money on the famous, that he started to feel the pangs of jealousy rise in his breast.

He took a sip from his tea, looked Lillian McFry straight in the eye, and said; “Madam, I expect you may know why I am here. If you do not, then please let me tell you the little I know about your late husband.” Lillian was startled by his mentioning Thomas so soon. Her husband had died over thirty years ago. Those who had known him - or even of him – were these days few on the ground. Which perhaps explains why she was so easily seduced by Dr Dacre Lawrence, his mellow tones, and his claim of a link to her family.

2 comments:

Sarah said...

I've just started reading this tale and I love it.

If you need any professional investigatory advice just let me know.

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Thank you, Sarah - I'll let Harry know! It will be a comfort for him to know that he's got the law on his side.
And he'll enjoy reading your blog, I'm sure!

Kind Regards and thanks for reading!

THJnr