Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Chapter 135

After almost four decades of widowhood, Lillian McFry was a woman of confirmed habits. She usually woke early – too early to justify getting up – so she’d lie in her bed, with her eyes still closed for the next hour or so, listening to the news on the radio. Sometimes, she would let her mind perform gentle mathematical exercises, to the accompaniment of the soothing tones of the newsreaders. How many times had she opened her front door since she’d lived in that bungalow? How many eggs had she eaten in her life? How many hours since this, or that, had happened? It passed the time, and kept her mind alerter than it perhaps deserved to be.

Over the years, too, she’d become quite the unacknowledged expert on world affairs, having heard about conflict and war in every corner of the planet. A psychologist testing her mental acuity would be surprised that she could name not only the current prime minister, but every one of his predecessors back to the first world war. Lillian listened to the daily parade of politicians as they were wheeled out to justify this or that turn in policy and, whatever their hue, enjoyed imagining their writhing and squirming under the expert probing of the interviewer. She could visualise their discomfort even as she willed them to trip themselves up. They were only a pale imitation of the orators she remembered from her youth, of course: people who could work an audience like a baker kneaded dough, but who had never allowed their ego to get between them and their audience. They had been men and women of substance, not the sugar-spun confections you heard these days: ‘proper politicians’, she liked to think of them as. Now, it all seemed to be about money, and career, and pensions (for themselves, of course).

Tuesday morning was no different for Lillian. Except, as she listened to the news while snugly cosseted by her duvet, her mind was only half attending. She was playing the day forward in her mind, wondering what, by the end of it, she might have learned about Jonathan from her anticipated visitors. She hoped, in her desire to discover the answers, she hadn’t overdone it by scheduling them all to see her today. At her age, though, you sometimes had to take a gamble. If it was true that Jonathan had lived until the 1980’s, then she needed to know why he hadn’t tried to find her. If the songwriters spoke were right, if love conquered all, was a many splendoured thing, and would always prevail, then she felt she deserved to understand why it hadn’t managed to, in her case. She knew, perhaps instinctively, that she’d have to reveal one or two unpleasant facts about Thomas and Stuart McFry – and even herself – in the process. But the truth had long ago lost it’s power to hurt her: she’d learned that much, at least, as she’d grown older.

Time to get up, Lillian! She could tell, by the thin light filtered through her bedroom curtains, that it was a grey day. But then, it was February, and it was all that could be expected. She roused herself, and made her way slowly to the kitchen, where she prepared her simple, yet substantial breakfast. If someone tells you it’s possible to become a centenarian without thinking how you’ve beaten all the actuarial odds stacked against you, then they’re wrong. Anyone who caught a glimpse of Lillian as she slowly buttered her toast might wonder at her thoughts on the matter. Was it her diet that had prolonged her life? Or was it her genes? Some would even argue that the whole matter of longevity could be ascribed to chance. Lillian had her own view: it took a certain cussedness, a practiced determination, to make it past 100. And Lillian had cussedness in spades.

So – bring Tuesday on! She would take whatever it threw at her – including Cyril Galloway! Even he might have something to add to the story that was Jonathan Harcourt’s. She remembered his thin, weasel-like features as he pawed her medals. He was, when all was said and done, one of life’s leeches: a man who prized money above people, and – so far as Lillian was concerned - he deserved everything that was coming to him today. She would expose him for what he was, and it would give her the greatest of pleasure to do so!
Colin McAllistair’s morning wasn’t quite following the pattern it normally did. As he slowly roused himself into consciousness, the steady thrum of traffic outside the Travelodge reminded him he wasn’t in his North London home. A stabbing headache, a mouth drier than day-old toast and eyelids that seemed soldered to their sockets with lead – it was altogether something of an alien experience for an academic who didn’t drink a great deal. Someone was trying to project 35mm slides in his head, but the focus wasn’t quite adjusted properly, so the images were, at first, indistinct and blurred. There was a table, in a bar, littered with empty whisky glasses. Was that a taxi? Who was that man sitting next to him in – was it a Chinese restaurant? Was that a bottle of saki on the table? How did it get empty? He forced his eyes open, realizing, for the first time, that he’d fallen asleep on top of the bedclothes, still fully clothed. His suit jacket was rumpled and mussed up.

Before he could re-assemble the events of the previous night into some semblance of order, there was a loud knock at the door to his room. “Yes?” he croaked, and the door was being pushed open by … by the man in the pub, the same man who’d helped him polish off the saki.

“Good morning!” Bill Blunt said, brightly, hovering in the doorway. He looked a little askance at the figure on the bed. “I see you’re already dressed! Good – we’ve got a busy day ahead of us! How about some breakfast, Colin?”

Bill’s voice had the same effect on McAllistair as a jet of water in the face might have. He jumped up and sat on the edge of the bed, his head still throbbing madly. He remembered, suddenly, the discussions in the bar with the journalist from Birkenhead the previous night, how they’d somehow exhausted the pub’s supply of the particular brand of whiskey the two of them preferred. Hadn’t he agreed to something or other – something to do with Lillian McFry?

“Busy day?” he asked, tentatively, his voice still dry and cracked.

Bill had made his way into the room now, and was opening the stiff curtains to the thin, grey skies of Telford, filtered through a gauze of net. He turned to his new ‘colleague’: “Why, of course we’ll be busy! What time are we interviewing Mrs McFry?”

It all came back to Colin, like a bolt. Somehow, he’d agreed with this bellowing buffoon of a newshound that they would work together on interviewing Lillian. It had sounded such a plausible idea at the time, and held out the promise of advance publicity for his planned documentary. Now, as he half-stared at the silhouette of Bill Blunt, he wondered at how easily his normally reserved judgement had been clouded by the drink. The man seemed presentable enough, he supposed – dressed, as he was, in a smart grey suit with a crisp white shirt and maroon tie, and his greying hair swept slickly across his head. He looked, he supposed, quite distinguished. But he was loud – loud! Too loud, McAllistair felt, for an early morning alarm call, and certainly too loud for a woman of the sensibilities he guessed Lillian McFry might have. Then, he caught sight of his own reflection in the mirror on the wall opposite the dressing table, and saw a half-drunk, stubble-faced academic in a crumpled jacket and trousers.

“Err – we’re seeing her at … eleven o’clock,” he said, the words seemingly forced up his throat.

“Then I suggest you get yourself a shave, Mr McAllistair. In my experience, these old ladies can be quite particular who they let into their house.” There was a thinly-disguised contempt in Bill Blunt’s voice, the disdain reserved by the hardened drinker for someone who clearly couldn’t down a few glasses of whiskey without suffering a hangover. “How about I meet you at reception in a quarter of an hour? Then, there’s the simple matter of a breakfast to be located. I’m afraid I can’t face the day properly without a couple of rashers and a fried egg down me,” Bill said, pausing for the briefest of moment as he looked McAllistair straight in the eye, “while you, unless I’m much mistaken, are more of a muesli man.” With that, the journalist left the room, leaving Colin to contemplate the awful prospect of a bowl of dried fruit, oats and raisins swimming in milk. At least the room was en-suite.


Enumerator said...

I feel that Hercule Poirot moment approaching fast! Good of Lillian to line them all up on the same day.

Theresa111 said...

The tension is mounting and I am so very ready to read the next chapter. Thank you Thomas!

70steen said...

What an fabulous description of Lillian and her zest for life..... she is going to have a busy day and will need all her strength of mind and determination to see her through it I suspect!

Theresa111 said...

Mr. Enumerator, I hope it will not be too much for Lillian, she is quick and has her wits about her, but she is still frail. I look for a happy outcome.

Monica said...

Thank you! It makes my day when I see "FeedBlitz" in my inbox.

So looking forward to Lillian's day. What a woman she is! It's so sad she didn't get to spend her life with her Jonathan. What was the man up to, letting her go?

70steen said...

Oh and BTW I hate muesli (rabbit food).. I would be having the full English with Bill!!

Lillie Ammann said...

I'm recommending Harry and crew for Blog Day 2007.

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Ah... enumerator ... what would we have done without Lillian's foresight? I suspect her lounge could get a tad crowded!

Thank you, 70s teen - Lillian's donw well to make it to 102. Will she see 103, I wonder? I'll tell Bill about your invitation to breakfast (!).

theresa111 - the author is looking after Lillian's interests, I can assure you!

Lillie - that is so typically kind of you: thank you!

monica - I hope your patience is rewarded

the domestic minx said...

Oh God!!
It's getting horribly closer!!!

A muesli man...oh...