Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Chapter 37

If you’ve never been an in-patient in a hospital, you might not know precisely how it feels to wake up in a strange bed, in a strange room, surrounded by strange people and strange equipment. For an author, struggling to find the words to describe the sensation, it’s quite a blessing that few of his readers will have experienced it.

Small compensation that would be to Dr Dacre Lawrence who, for most of his forty years working as a general practitioner, had been blessed with reasonable health. Nevertheless good living, and fine wines, will take their toll (even if Harry McFry, with his thirty cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon a day, might protest otherwise). Add to that potent mixture a shock, and you might easily imagine you have the perfect recipe for a stroke.

Dacre Lawrence, so often a visitor of his patients in this same hospital, now found himself waking in one of its wards. His eye caught sight of a trolley beside his bed, and a nurse, rushing by. His mouth was dry – felt dusty, somehow. He tried to move from lying on his side, pushed vainly against the bed, but found he couldn’t move. Was he strapped in, he wondered? He tried to call out to the nurse, but was faintly surprised to find that he could make no sense of what he said. Did he just say ‘North!’? The young girl turned and came back to his bedside. “Try to rest some more, Mr Lawrence,” she said, slowly. He struggled against the sheets that seemed to pin him to the bed. “North!” he exclaimed again – but it didn’t make sense to him: his brain said ‘Nurse!” but his mouth couldn’t say it. Ye gods, but he was trapped in this bed. His mind was a funicular railway, heading towards words he could no longer pronounce. ‘You must know what I mean!’ he said. But all his cracked voice could say was “….no…mean!” The nurse was smiling at him. “You need to rest. Can you rest a while?” she said.

“Someone’s coming to visit you later. Try to rest just now.” It was as if he was watching a movie, sat at the back of the cinema; an onlooker, at a distance, unable to influence in any way the events around him. So this was what it felt like to have a stroke, he thought. He wondered what Herculean efforts would be needed for him to regain his speech, and movement … if he were ever to regain them at all.

*

Stan Redfearn was tidying his counter when he heard the bell above his shop doorway ring, and looked up to see a smartly dressed stranger. The Town Hall clock had just struck 10.30am, so Stan knew pretty much that he was looking at Colin McAllistair. He saw a dapper man, mid-to-late forties perhaps, with chiseled features and a fine head of brown hair. Stan greeted him: “Mr McAllistair, I presume?” Colin smiled, and held out his hand, which Stan shook, firmly.

“Excuse me just a second,” Stan said, as he walked across to the shop door and flipped the ‘Open’ sign to ‘Closed’, clicking the snub of the lock as he did so. Turning back to his visitor, he said: “I don’t think we want to be disturbed here, do we?” and smiled.

Colin had been looking around the shop, at the motley array of artifacts and war memorabilia. The shop dummies, in particular, seemed to command his attention. “Have you ever been to Toledo, Mr Redfearn?” he asked. “To the alcazar?”

“Please – call me Stan. Everyone else does. Yes! I was there about ten years ago, in fact. The museum is stunning.”

McAllistair looked at him: “And I’m Colin. I thought you must have been, when I saw your mannequins.” The alcazar was the castle in Toledo, a good half a day’s drive from Madrid, where republicans had besieged nationalists for many months during the Spanish Civil War. It had, co-incidentally, been around a decade since Colin had visited the museum, too. The museum told the story of the siege in great detail. Even at the distance of a decade, he remembered the faintly dissociative feeling he’d had while wandering round. For some reason, whether for economy or otherwise, the museum’s keepers had used old shop dummies, the kind you would find in department store windows at that time, to display military uniforms through the ages. As if their strange poses weren’t bizarre enough, the gallery was suffused in glaring fluorescent light, and the most unlikely muzak accompanied visitors as they walked around: Moon River” was one track that particularly stuck in Colin’s mind. Now, he could never hear the song without thinking of the museum.

“Can I offer you a tea or a coffee, Colin?” Stan said, easily. “No, thank you. I had a coffee over in Liverpool.” He hadn’t, but he’d seen the untidy array of half-washed out mugs on a cupboard in the corner of the shop.

“You must have set off rather early this morning. Did you have a good trip?” Stan asked. Colin wondered how long this small-talk would go on. “Yes, perfectly good, thank you,” he said. “Now … I wonder if you might show me the medals?”

“Of course,” Stan replied, and disappeared into his room out back. Colin heard the deep clang of a safe door shutting, then Stan re-appeared, the medals laid out on a small, velvet cushion which he placed on the counter in front of them.

McAllistair looked closely at the three, shiny medals, a smile starting on his lips. He made to reach for one of them, saying: “You don’t mind…?”

“Be my guest – that’s why you’re here, after all,” Stan replied.

McAllistair then realized he hadn’t even taken off his raincoat, such had been his haste. He unbuttoned it and tossed it onto a chair, but placed a zipped, A4 case he was carrying on the counter, beside the medals. He picked up the largest medal and examined it closely: there could be no doubt about it, this set was identical to the one he had sold to Galloway over 25 years ago. He would recognize them anywhere. Identical, but for one respect. He turned the medal over, to be certain, and there it was, plain as day: ‘LB, 1937’. He was holding Lillian Blyth’s Medallion of Supreme Honour.

*

Back over at Harry’s office, the interrogation of Laurel McFry was continuing. Harry still felt there was something Laurel should be telling him, but wasn’t.

“Do you mind me asking, Laurel, what you do for a living?”

As he looked at the smartly-dressed woman in front of him, the phrase sounded out of context; but it might be an important piece of the jigsaw.

Laurel looked just a little embarrassed as she said: “I don’t do anything Harry. I’ve been very lucky. I have income from my inheritance, and that’s more than enough for my needs.”

Harry looked at her afresh. “I suppose we’d have to put you down in the census as ‘Independent Means’ then?” He smiled, just a little, as he said it. Whenever he read those words, his mind conjured up images of dowager ladies living in large houses in the smarter parts of London in the 1890’s. Looking, now, at Laurel, he thought nothing could be further from that image.

“Do you know if anyone could threaten that money?” he asked.

“I’m not sure what you mean. The only ‘threat’ is when the stocks and shares don’t perform. And, if you must know, they aren’t doing especially well at the moment. I’ve been told to sell my shares in McFry & Sons.”

Harry looked surprised. He didn’t follow the stock market, but he knew enough about his company namesake to know they had always been a solid enough investment. “Who advised you to sell?” he asked.

“My bank manager. The bank looks after all my investments, you see. I saw him yesterday, and he told me I’d have to get my money out of the firm.”

Harry was wondering how significant this was. He was trained to be suspicious of co-incidences, though. Find a family in the census – any family – and if you saw another with the same name somewhere else in the pages around, it wasn’t usually a co-incidence. There was a high probability they would be related. His mind was whirring through the possibilities. What would cause the price of shares to plummet? Poor company performance: it was possible that McFry & Sons had misjudged the market for their fashion items this year. He wondered, idly, whether Laurel McFry dressed herself in McFry clothes. If she did, it looked to him like they should be doing well enough. Or maybe there’d been a lot of shares put on the market at once, causing a drop in the price. He didn’t know who the principal shareholders were, but he scrawled another mental post-it note to remind himself to find out.

Danny watched as Harry continued the 'discussion' with Laurel. He was doodling, idly, on his notepad, his mind sometimes drifting to the latest book he was researching. Harry seemed to be doing well enough in getting Laurel to open up a little more, he thought.

Harry was still wondering about Laurel’s inheritance.

“The shares in the company,” he said, “when did you inherit them?”

“Why, when my father died, of course,” Laurel replied.

“Do you mind me asking how many shares you received?”

“No. I don’t know exactly, but I think it was something like 5% of the company,” Laurel said.

Harry mightn’t have liked co-incidences, but even as he was discussing the matter of Laurel’s shares in McFry and Sons, somewhere in a tall building in the business quarter of Madrid, a manager was clicking a mouse button that might spell ruin for Laurel McFry, if she didn’t act quickly.

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