Thursday, 29 March 2007

Chapter 62

Lillian McFry opened the door to Danny and Harry.

“Good morning, Mrs McFry,” Danny said. “This is my father.” He gestured to Harry, perhaps a little too obviously. Lillian looked Harry up and down, but he could see from the clouds across her eyes that her sight wasn’t good.

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs McFry,” Harry said, reaching out his hand. But, if she noticed, Lillian didn’t reciprocate.

“You’ve got yourself a very nice son there, Mr Longhurst. Not like most of those his age. You had better come in,” she said, turning to walk up the passageway. Harry closed the door behind him, and followed Danny into the living room.

Lillian had found an extra chair from somewhere, and it sat next to the sideboard, ready for the additional guest. The room seemed crowded with just the three of them but, once Lillian had invited them to sit down, they soon fitted in quite reasonably: Danny in an armchair by the window, Harry on the dining chair by the sideboard.

“You will have a cup of tea, after your journey, I hope?” Lillian asked, hovering by the doorway.

Danny answered first: “That would be lovely. But I’m afraid my father only drinks coffee, if it’s no trouble?” ‘Nicely put, son!’ Harry thought.

While Lillian was away preparing their drinks, Harry surveyed the room. Behind Danny, he noticed the dull aspidistra that seemed to be anchored to a small table in the window. Harry couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen one of those – it must have been forty years ago, and it must have been on a visit to some family member or other, with his parents. At the time, it had seemed huge and, in a strange way, quite forbidding. Ever since reading Orwell’s Keep the Aspidista Flying, Harry had thought it a symbol of ‘Middle England,’ but it was a rare plant to come across these days.

He turned and looked at the photographs displayed on the sideboard, every one of them black and white or sepia toned. None of them looked like they’d been taken after the 1950’s, and most looked quite a deal older. It was as though Lillian McFry’s life had been on hold for half a century.

Two of them showed the picture of a young woman – it could only have been Lillian – in combat fatigues, a beret perched jauntily on her head, surrounded by a group of similarly-dressed men. She was very much the centre of each photograph, he noticed. He saw, too, the portrait that she’d had taken all those years ago in Ripon, and he thought how beautiful she looked – vivacious and fiery, even. It reminded him of Laurel McFry.

“What are you thinking, Harry?” Danny asked, in quiet aside. Harry replied in the same, hushed tone: “She was very like Laurel, when she was younger, don’t you think? Look at her eyes.”

Danny stood up to inspect the photograph, and was leaning over it as Lillian came back into the room with the tray of drinks. And the plate of bourbon creams.

“Oh, those are all from a long time ago, Danny,” she said, placing the tray on a side table. “They used to say I broke a man’s heart every week in those days!” Lillian smiled as she said this, and Harry again saw how much Laurel had inherited from her grandmother. ‘Probably an understatement, if ever I heard one!’ he thought.

Lillian passed him his coffee, and offered him the plate of biscuits. Harry was hungry – realized he’d skipped breakfast, and took two. Lillian seemed delighted: ‘Someone who knows how to enjoy himself,’ she was thinking – ‘not like that Dacre Lawrence!’

Lillian settled herself into the other armchair, and sipped her tea.

“Well then, Danny. You were going to tell me about my granddaughter…” she said, then turned to Harry: “I don’t know whether your son has told you, but I engaged him to find my granddaughter. For reasons that I won’t bore you with, I haven’t seen her for many years.”

‘Hmm…’ thought Harry, ‘there’s nothing like massaging history, is there, Lillian?’ But he merely nodded, politely, and said: “I believe so, Mrs McFry.”

Danny explained that her daughter lived near the park in Birkenhead, in a house which her father had left her when he died. She didn’t work, as she had a private income. She was, he said (and here, Harry noticed, he blushed a little) “a very beautiful lady - very much like the photo you’ve got there.” And he pointed to the small, framed portrait he’d been looking at when she had returned to the room.

“That was taken a long time ago, young man. I’m afraid my looks have long gone.” ‘You’re fishing, Lillian!’ Harry thought. But it wouldn’t harm to let her catch something. “You’re still a very beautiful woman, Mrs McFry,” Harry said, adding, for a reason he never quite worked out “for someone your age.” Even as he said it, he was kicking himself – he saw Lillian bristle a little.

“And how old might that be, Mr Longhurst?”

Harry looked embarrassed. “Well, I mean to say, there aren’t many women who have reached the age of 102 looking as young as you do, Mrs McFry.” Danny saw that it was Harry’s turn to blush. As well he might. Stupid Harry McFry just gave the game away!


Henry was oiling a hinge on the door to Mrs Shipman’s office when Elsie came across from her shop into Meldew Buildings.

She nodded towards the door – “She in, Henry?” Elsie asked, her voice a half-whisper.

“You’re OK, Elsie. She’s out shopping. What can I do for you?” Henry asked, standing up now and wiping the nozzle of the oil can.

“Have you seen Harry today?”

Henry knew Elsie well. Ever since her husband died a couple of years back, he’d thought he might get to know her better, and there were few days when he didn’t call into her shop for a chat.

“Sure, He was in earlier. He’s gone off to Telford, though. Not expecting him back until this afternoon,” he said. “Why?”

Elsie looked flustered. “Not sure, Henry. Just, there was someone in the shop asking about him. Said he’d been over here looking for Harry, but you said you hadn’t seen him.”

Henry smiled. “It doesn’t pay to let people know what Harry’s up to, Elsie. You know that by now. Yeah – Harry had a visitor. But it’s not my job to open my mouth where it’s not called for. What did you say to him?”

Elsie got the picture. Henry was almost as protective of Harry McFry as she was. “I didn’t say anything. But he left this,” she said, reaching under her cardigan for Cyril Galloway’s card.

“Hmm… “ said Henry, studying the card carefully. “Telford Auction Rooms. Maybe we better let Harry know.”

“That’s just what I was thinking, Henry. Seems to me like he needs to know about this Cyril Galloway fellow.”

Henry told her he’d ring Harry straight away, and to let him know if Galloway showed up again. And he took the opportunity of a rare visit by Elsie to his own ‘territory’ to ask whether she’d be interested in maybe going out for a meal with him that night. If she wasn’t doing anything else, that was.

When she returned to Meldew Buildings later that morning, Mrs Shipman might well have wondered how come her janitor seemed so happy all of a sudden. But Mrs Shipman wasn’t one for small talk with her staff, even if she noticed that her door didn’t seem to squeak anymore.

No comments: