Monday, 5 March 2007

Chapter 36

If Laurel McFry was a few minutes late for her meeting with Harry and Danny, she was able to use the time-honoured excuse of ‘finding a parking space’. There weren’t a whole lot of parking spaces close to Harry’s office, so to find one at all was a minor victory. As she walked into Harry’s office, she unbuttoned her overcoat, revealing an immaculate, black dress that was every inch as smart as the blue one she’d been wearing when she met Harry just a couple of days earlier. She hung her coat on a peg next to Harry’s, and took a seat next to Danny, nodding an acknowledgement to him. Harry noticed she had a black, A4 file on her lap as she curled into the seat.

“Well, then, Miss McFry,” Harry said, once she was seated, “seems like you’ve landed us with a puzzle alright.” He offered her a coffee, which she took, without milk. “Danny and I have spent quite a time wrestling with this one, I can tell you.” She noticed the implication, that the two of them were working together, but she was composed enough to reply “And what have you found?”

“Not a whole lot. But on the face of it, it does seem your McFry’s aren’t there.”

Harry was watching Laurel as he spoke. He noticed the start of a smile, quickly checked.

“But you accept they should be?” she asked.

“There’s a suggestion – and that’s all it can be at this stage – that the original census images have been doctored. And we’ve got Danny here to thank for working that one out.”

Danny smiled. It was good to see Harry acknowledging his theory.

“It’s a relief, of some sorts, to know that I wasn’t going mad,” Laurel said. Harry caught the truth in her eyes, and jumped back:

“No one’s suggesting anyone’s mad, Laurel. But you have to admit, this isn’t one of your run-of-the-mill ‘I can’t find my ancestors in the census’ queries. I’ve had plenty of those in my time.”

Laurel seemed to relax. “Then what’s going on? Why would someone doctor census images? How could they do it?”

Harry looked at Danny, who caught the cue. “Basically, Laurel, it’s like this. Every census page held by the major genealogical sites is stored as an image. All someone had to do was alter that image and upload it back to the server. Not easy, I admit – but possible.”

Harry chipped in: “And it’s not something someone would do on a whim. If we’re going to find out why, we’re going to need a lot more information from you – a whole lot more.”

Laurel considered for a moment. “What kind of information do you need?”

Harry seemed to be consulting a mental checklist. “Motive. Our guess is there’s money behind all of this. Think. Who do you know who might want to go to such lengths, and why?”

Laurel seemed to be thinking, her eyes focused on the wall:

“I really couldn’t say, Harry. Why would anyone do this?”

Harry was already getting a little impatient with his ‘cousin’. “You need to be just a little more frank with us, Laurel. We know next to nothing about Laurel McFry. But somebody else does.”

Laurel was taken aback by Harry’s tone. “I really don’t know what you mean. I’ve already told Danny everything I know about my family,” she said.

“That’s as maybe. But we still don’t know the ‘real’ Laurel McFry,” Harry said, taking a drink from his mug of coffee as he did so. “If you don’t mind, let’s start all over with your family tree.”

As he said this, Harry reached behind him for a sheet of A3 paper, and laid it on his desk.

‘Brilliant!’ thought Danny. Who would know that Harry was about to repeat an exercise he’d completed only a matter of ten minutes earlier?

“Father,” Harry said. Laurel wondered if criminals felt like this when being interviewed by the police, but nonetheless replied:

“Philip McFry. Born 1924. Died 2002.”

“And your mother?” Harry asked.

“Colleen Blyth. Born – I think – in 1938. All I know is she died aged 44, in 1982. I was seven.” Harry realized he had underestimated Laurel’s age when he first met her. So, born in 1975, that made her 32. She looked good on it, he thought.

Harry added Colleen to the new tree he was drawing. “It seems then, that your father must have been quite a bit older than your mother. How did they meet?”

“I really don’t know. They didn’t marry until 1970. I’m an only child,” Laurel said. Harry sensed Laurel was about to say more, so waited.

“Dad never really talked much about mum. I think he loved her very much, and it was just … too painful for him. I never felt … comfortable … asking him.” Laurel paused. “Of course, now I wish I had done. You always think there’s going to be more time.” Harry noticed she was still staring into a middle distance, and waited. But Laurel seemed to have finished her train of thought.

“I realize none of this is easy, Laurel. Believe me, I don’t get any kicks out of raking up people’s past,” Harry said. It was untrue, of course. Digging over other people’s past was the meat and drink of Harry McFry’s very being. “But if we’re to get to the bottom of this, we really do need to know everything about your family.”

Harry saw her eyes – bluer and deeper than he’d seen when he first met her - refocus on him.

“You see, Harry, I’ve never found a birth certificate for my mother. Here’s the marriage certificate.” She opened up the black, leather file she had on her lap, and drew out the copy of her mother and father’s marriage record, handing it to Harry.

Just as Danny had said, it gave Philip McFry’s father as James McFry, deceased clothing manufacturer, and Colleen Blyth’s father as ‘unknown’. Harry pretended this was new information (Danny noticed, and thought, not for the first time, that Harry should have been an actor), and made a note of it on his sheet.

“I know you were young at the time, Laurel. But do you remember your mother working?”

Laurel thought for a second, then said: “No. I think – and I don’t know why, except that when my father died, I found a whole lot of textbooks when I was going through his library – I think she was a teacher. A French teacher. I don’t think Dad spoke any French, so I’m assuming…”

“We try not to make assumptions where family history is concerned, Laurel. Isn’t that true, Danny?” Harry said, turning to his ‘partner’.

“Yes. We have to start with what we know,” Danny said. Harry was pleased that Danny was on the same page.

“What about aunts and uncles, Laurel?” Harry asked. “Do you know whether your mother had any siblings?”

“If she did, she never spoke about them. I did have a look for other Blyths born around the same time as her. But I didn’t find any. In fact, I don’t think I have any aunts or uncles still alive, on either side of the family.” Laurel took a drink of her coffee: it was stronger than she was used to. Harry McFry must have a strong constitution to drink this all day, she thought.

“What about you father’s two brothers?” Harry asked.

It was the first time that Laurel realized that Danny had shared her personal information with Harry. She decided to overlook the fact, even as Harry regretted asking the question in quite such stark a term: it was giving too much away, he realized.

“Both dead before I was born. Stuart died in the war. Thomas, I found out from the death register, died in 1964.”

Harry added the information to the rudimentary tree he had been sketching out. A thought occurred to him. “Did you get the certificate, by any chance?”

“No,” Laurel said – realizing as she did so that she might just have made a fundamental error in not sending off for Thomas McFry’s death certificate. “McFry isn’t exactly a common name, Harry – I don’t have to tell you that, I am sure. When I found a death registered for a Thomas McFry, of the right age, I knew it must be him,” she said.

“Let’s not worry about that now. We can organize that pretty quickly,” Harry said, seeking to reassure her. No sense in making her feel more stupid than she already felt, he thought.

“OK. Let’s see where we are up to,” he said, checking his sketch. “Did you find any marriages for Stuart or Thomas?”

Laurel was still feeling just a little embarrassed about the death certificate for Thomas McFry. Why hadn’t she bothered to send off for it? She realized now that it might contain important information – even if her uncle Thomas hadn’t married, maybe whoever reported the death would have been a significant person in his life.

“I think Stuart married in 1938. I found probable marriage of a Stuart McFry to a Lorraine Beecham in that year. But he died in the war, and they had no children. Lorraine seems to have died in 1969,” Laurel said.

Harry considered this for a second or two. “And you’ve got the marriage certificate for Stuart and Lorraine, and the death certificates for the two of them?” he asked.

Laurel was starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Did tracing your family tree really involve having to send for every last certificate? These were ‘recent’ family – ‘recent’ marriages, ‘recent’ deaths. How important could they be?

“No.” To Harry, her answer seemed hesitant, reluctant even. “But I did find a Commonwealth War Graves Commission record which listed his wife as Lorraine. That’s how I knew they were married,” she continued. Harry let the silence linger for a moment, sensing Laurel’s evident discomfort. This was his job. The subtle, but ever-so-slightly clinical, humiliation of amateurs. He didn’t like it. He didn’t enjoy it. But someone had to do it.

No comments: