Thursday, 16 August 2007

Chapter 132

Once Colin McAllistair had got over the surprise of meeting a journalist who was working on a piece on the Spanish Civil War, he had a little time to think about the co-incidence while Bill Blunt was at the bar. A middle-aged couple had entered the pub while Colin and Bill had introduced themselves to each other, and the male partner was ordering their drinks ahead of Bill. When he’d been served, Colin watched him carry them across the room, the woman at his side, and they took a seat beside each other behind a small table, as far away from where Bill and he were sitting as it was possible to go.

The thought occurred to McAllistair that this Bill Blunt character could only be planning to interview Lillian McFry – unless, that was, he had another source right there in Telford, which might just add additional colour to his own planned documentary. He couldn’t be worried about the fact that a newspaper was planning a story around Lillian: in fact, he knew it could only help his chances of getting his programme off the ground. A producer would like the fact that interest, however local, had already been stimulated in a subject, and it could easily help sway their decision about whether to commission a documentary.

He looked at Bill as he was ordering the drinks, heard him ask the barmaid whether they had enough supplies of the particular whisky ‘to keep a couple of afficionados going for the evening’. He wondered what newspaper he worked for: it might be one of the nationals, but he doubted it. The man looked like he was close to retirement, and Colin felt sure he’d have come across the name Blunt if he worked for any of the London papers: he was an assiduous reader of most of them, and he varied his daily diet to the extent that no-one could have pinned him down as a Guardian reader, or a Mail man. Much later – when he learned the story of Lillian’s bond - he might have wondered whether he should have paid more attention than he invariably did to the financial pages. But, for now, he assured himself that Mr Blunt was most likely a provincial hack, even if a knowledgeable and affable one.

For his part, Bill Blunt was wondering just how many people were involved in Harry McFry’s little case. Fortuitously, he’d bumped into Cyril Galloway. Equal fortune had brought Colin McAllistair to his table tonight. He felt, instinctively, he’d have to be careful about revealing his knowledge of the Telford auctioneer. As he walked back towards Colin with the fresh drinks, he saw the couple who had taken up position on the other side of the pub. They were each of them staring fixedly ahead, and it reminded him of the (increasingly rare) evenings out he spent with his wife. He dismissed the thought as quickly as it came.

“Now, Colin. This is quite a co-incidence, wouldn’t you say?” he said, as he placed the glasses on the table and took up his seat opposite his new friend.

McAllistair picked up his own glass. “Cheers, Bill. Here’s to a successful story – for both of us! By the way, you never told me which paper you were with…”

“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s probably because I thought you wouldn’t have heard of it before. I don’t imagine the Birkenhead Beagle has many readers in London. But then, it’s only a guess that you’re from London…”

As soon as he heard the word ‘Birkenhead’, Colin’s mind was working quickly, trying to think who Bill Blunt’s source for the story might have been. Stan, who had called him up about the medals in the first place, or maybe even Harry McFry? He suspected it was more likely to be Harry.

“Well, it’s a good guess, Bill.” Maybe he could afford to show another card? “But, if you’re from Birkenhead, I imagine you’ve bumped into someone called Harry McFry in your time?”

Bill was temporarily taken aback. If McAllistair knew Harry McFry, what did this mean? Had Harry been working with him? What if he’d been maneuvering, all along, to have a TV documentary made all about his Spanish story? He needed to bottom this one out, that much was clear. And he thought he knew how to do it.

“Harry? Nobody knows him better!”

McAllistair wondered, now, just how close the journalist was to the man who’d, somehow, come into the possession of Lillian McFry’s medals, but he saw it as a chance to find out more about the man he’d met in Birkenhead, and who he had faintly recognized from somewhere, but couldn’t remember exactly where.

“Tell me about him. I met him last week, but I’m sure I came across him before,” he said.

“Harry? What’s there to tell?” Bill said. “Former university lecturer turns detective genealogist. Probably a mid-life crisis thing.”

Just the word ‘university’ was enough of a trigger…

“Of course!” Colin said, It was like a lightbulb had exploded in his head. “I knew that name was familiar! I met Harry McFry for what I thought was the first time last week, but I knew there was something familiar about him. I felt I’d met him before somewhere - I just couldn’t remember where from. It was Paris. He was at a conference I was at. Must have been five years or so ago.” Colin was relaxing. The knowledge that Harry McFry was known to him, plus the effect of the second whisky, of course, were having their effect. So – McFry was a fellow social historian. Now there was a turn up for the books: but he kicked himself for not realizing earlier how he’d known him.

“Well,” Bill said, “he’s been around the block a few times, has our Harry. I’ve covered a couple of cases he’s worked on. Always good for a story.” Bill, too, was starting to feel they might be on common ground, that he could make an ally of McAllistair, and that it might well be to their mutual benefit.

Within the space of the next hour, he learned everything Colin McAllistair knew about Jonathan Harcourt, Lillian Blyth and the medals. Confession is good for the soul, or so they say, and by the time the barmaid had opened the third bottle of whisky, Colin had also revealed the shameful role he had played in the distasteful disposal of Jonathan Harcourt’s medals all those years ago.

“We’ve all done things in our yout that we aren’t proud of,” Bill said, when he’d heard Colin’s story. “Why, there are things about my past I’d be reluctant to see on the front page of a tabloid. I have to say, though, that I suspect your Mr Galloway might have done rather well out of the affair.” He paused a moment, considering how much he should reveal to his companion. In the end, he resolved he could reveal more than he had initially intended. “I had the dubious pleasure of meeting your Mr Galloway just last week,” he said. “I suspect he’d go to any lengths to get his hands on Lillian’s medals.”

Colin shook his head. “There’s something with the medals that he seems far more interested in. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a piece of paper that he seems to think was in the box the medals were in. But, when I saw the medals there was no box. Harry just stuffed them in his pocket. Tell me – is Harry really not related at all to Lillian?”

The question was unexpected, but it had been something that had been sitting at the back of McAllistair’s mind ever since Harry had denied the fact when they’d met at Stan’shop.

Bill thought it was an interesting question, even though he knew full well that there was no link. “I doubt very much he is,” he replied. “Those McFry’s are a mixed up family, but I think I would have known if he was related to this particular branch.” He was considering the new information he’d gleaned since meeting McAllistair, who was clearly less used to the effects of whisky than a seasoned journalist like himself. It had been cheap at the price. Butit was time to up the ante a little – see what else, exactly, McAllistair knew.

“What did Harry tell you about Laurel McFry?” he asked, as innocently as he could.

Laurel? I’m afraid I don’t know anything about a Laurel McFry. Why?”

“Oh – probably my mistake,” Bill said. He began to suspect, from that moment, that Harry McFry might be working on two, parallel cases, and it irked him that he had only just worked this out. That piece of paper McAllistair had mentioned was obviously the key to unraveling yet more of the story. For now, however, he had to engineer a meeting with Lilian…

“This Lillian Blyth – or McFry – sounds like an intriguing woman, Colin. When did you say you’re meeting her?”

“Tomorrow morning. It’s just an initial interview. I still have to persuade the producers that there’s a programme worth making.”

Bill saw his opportunity, and pounced. “Well, perhaps a well-timed article in the Beagle might just add some grist to the mill?”

“Mr Blunt – you are speaking my language!” Colin exclaimed. He’d been wondering how he might suggest the same thing to his new-found friend, without seeming to be pushy.

“Then perhaps I could accompany you when you visit Lillian?”

“That would be very helpful. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.” So far as Colin McAllistair was concerned, Lillian McFry wouldn’t have much choice in the matter. The whisky had made up his mind for him.

Bill had one final tack to explore. “Superb! But I actually came down here tonight to see if I could meet up with Galloway tomorrow,” Bill said. “He’s not returning my calls. Any idea where he is?”

“Not the faintest. And I don’t care if I never see him again,” Colin said. Sometimes, we never realize quite how prophetic the words we say might be.

1 comment:

the domestic minx said...

Oh Bill - he's smart as a whip!!!

Cracking!