Sunday, 9 September 2007

Chapter 140

Everything was ready in Vale View when Bill Blunt’s car drew up outside Lillian’s bungalow. In her kitchen, she’d filled the kettle and arranged the teapot, the cups, the saucers and the sugar bowl on a little table against the wall, next to a tray where she had created a mound of biscuits on a dinner plate. She was sitting in her favourite armchair, when she heard the car door slam. This must be Mr McAllistair, she thought – the first of her many anticipated visitors that day. But, it seemed he was not alone: she heard another door being closed just moments afterwards. Unless it was the mysterious Mr Morris and his colleague, from Cardiff? She squinted at the clock on the wall – no, it was far too early for them.

A minute later, and the doorbell rang. She rose to make her way down hallway to welcome her guest.

On their journey to Lillian’s, Colin McAllistair had told Bill he’d have to pretend he was from the production company who were planning to make the documentary.

“Hmm – I expect that means I’ll have to be called something suitably metropolitan,” Bill had said, and then he’d pondered for a few seconds. “How about Elliot?”

Colin had smiled. “Where’d that come from?”

“Oh, I don’t know… it has a certain media ring about it, don’t you think? Elliot Blunt?”

Lillian opened the door to find the two of them side by side. Colin was smiling, and carried with him a bunch of flowers they’d collected from a petrol station en route.

“Mrs McFry!” he exclaimed. “I hope you don’t mind, and I’m sorry I didn’t have time to tell you, but I’ve brought a colleague with me. Mr Blunt works for the TV company who are interested in the programme I want to make.”

Bill held out his hand. “Elliot Blunt, madam. Colin has told me all about you.”

Lillian shook his hand, lightly. “Not everything, I shouldn’t imagine. I rather thought that was the purpose of your visit here today.” Her response was, if not icy, then distinctly not warm. But she saw that the stranger seemed polite enough, and smartly-dressed, to boot. She realized she could hardly protest, although she suspected the flowers McAllistair was holding were by way of some kind of apology for the discourtesy of turning up at her door with ‘plus one’.

“These are for you,” Colin said, handing her the flowers.

“Thank you. That’s very kind of you. You had better come in,” she said, turning away from the door, “both of you.”

Colin followed her along the passageway, and Bill closed the door behind them. As he did so, he checked his watch. The deadline for his paper would normally be just an hour away, but a series of phone calls to his editor that started last night and finished while he’d been waiting for McAllistair to spruce himself up that morning had earned him a five hour delay. Still he wasn’t sure this would be enough.

As they made their way into the small lounge, Lillian turned to them. “We don’t have a great deal of time, I’m afraid. You see, I’m expecting one or two other visitors later. But you will have a cup of tea, I suppose?”

Bill could hardly believe this woman had lived out a century. She looked, to him, much younger. She was dressed in a smart, blue dress, with a matching cardigan. Colin had started to unpack his small tripod and camera.

“That would be very nice, Mrs McFry,” he said. “I can set this up while you are arranging that. Perhaps Elliot could give you a hand?”

“That won’t be necessary. But perhaps you can arrange these for me, Mr Blunt?” She handed him the flowers. “I’ll find a vase.” She turned towards the kitchen, Bill ready to follow her, but then seemed to have a second thought and turned back to face Colin. “Tell me, what exactly are you ‘setting up’, Mr McAllistair?” She sounded frosty.

He realized he hadn’t pre-warned her that he would be recording their interview, and blushed, slightly.

“Oh, err.. I meant to say that we need to video our discussion. Its standard practice – it will give us something to work on at pre-production stage, that’s all.”

Lillian composed herself. “Very well – so be it. I’m not a Red Indian, you know. I don’t happen to believe that my soul will be captured by that thing.” McAllistair looked suitably chastised.

“But, perhaps Mr Blunt can make the tea. I’ll sort out the flowers.” And she reached across to collect them again.

Bill nodded. “I’d be delighted to do so. Show me to your kitchen, madam, and consider it done.”

Lillian led Bill through to the tiny kitchen.

“Everything you need is here, Mr Blunt. Now, I think I have a vase in my bedroom that will suit these, so please excuse me, won’t you?”

Bill smiled, flicking the switch on the kettle and picking up the tea caddy on the draining board. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll have this ready in two ticks.” He looked at the pile of biscuits. “Bourbon creams!” he exclaimed. “How delightful. I’m rather partial to these, myself.” Lillian allowed a thin smile to escape, as she disappeared from the kitchen.

Bill congratulated himself. Well, if a man’s going to turn on the charm, he might as well turn it to full blast.


Even at high speed – and Laurel, Harry noticed, wasn’t exactly afraid of the accelerator – they couldn’t expect to reach Telford until early after noon. Still, if Bill Blunt had even managed to see Lillian McFry, he doubted whether he’d have been able to file his story for the Beagle’s deadline. He could relax on that count, at least.

Harry knew he needed to tell Laurel enough background to let her make sense of the meeting she was about to have with her grandmother, and he’d begun with the key details of his trip to Madrid – the meeting with Snr Guttierez and the provenance of the bond. She’d laughed out loud when she’d learned about the Bank of Bilboa’s role. “And to think I thought I was facing ruin!” she’d exclaimed. The more Laurel heard about the bond, the more real it began to seem. She wasn’t a person who courted money. For someone who had been, throughout her life, ‘comfortable’, she hadn’t been one to fritter her inheritance away on wild extravagance. At the same time, the prospect of losing a substantial part of what she had become used to, a life she had settled into, had filled her with an anxiety she’d never previously known. Now, it seemed, she could really relax – the bond had become to seem tangible.

“I still don’t understand Stuart McFry’s role in all this,” she’d said, when she’d heard Harry out.

“You may be surprised to hear that I don’t, either. But my suspicion is that he’s a key player in the story of Lillian. If we handle it right, we can hope to find that out in just a short while.” Harry was leafing through his notes as he spoke. Danny, in the back seat, was only half listening to the discussion. His mind had started to wander, unbidden, back to the book he’d been working on before all this McFry business had intruded. Looking back over the previous week, he wasn’t sure he would want to work with Harry McFry again. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect the guy’s methods – far from it: he’d been impressed at the way he’d pieced the story together. He’d begun to think that he himself didn’t have the heart for genealogy. For Harry, it was clearly a passion, whereas Danny sometimes felt his own interest in teasing out the patterns, pulling together the families, was more of an academic exercise. Sure, he enjoyed digging into the census records, finding new and more precise ways to interrogate the huge databases that held millions of pieces of information about the long-dead. But he knew he didn’t have the same drive to find answers that so obviously propelled someone like Harry.

“Tell me about Dacre Lawrence,” Laurel was saying.

“We don’t know as much about him as we should. We think he’s behind the erasure of your ancestors’ details from the census, and we know he’s implicated in trying to obtain Lillian’s medals – and possibly the bond. He seems to have been in league with Galloway. But, you know, I think he stumbled on the link to you by accident.”

“How do you mean?”

“Again, it should become clearer later. Let’s just say he was right to realize he was related to you, for now. Maybe we’ll need to go across to see him.”

They were cruising along in the fast lane. Laurel turned to Harry.

“You’re not giving a lot away, are you?” She was smiling.

“I’d be happier if we had received those certificates I was waiting for.”

“Why don’t you speculate? Let me know what you’re thinking?”

Harry considered her questions. It wasn’t as if he didn’t pull apart and tease out all the permutations in his head. But it wasn’t his ‘way’ to share that too widely, and he thought he could explain why.

“Family history is fraught with the possibility of error, Laurel. You know, even when we get the paper trail right, we still can’t be 100% sure we’re following the right family, the right ancestors. The only ones who truly know – and, even then, they might not always know – are you lot.”

“Us lot?” she asked, frowning.

“Women,” he said.

“Spoken like a true misogynist!” Laurel said, smiling.

“Not at all. I speak as a realist. I’ve seen enough cases – had enough friends, even – to know that not every father gets his name listed on a birth certificate.”

“Hmm. I see what you mean. Do you think that’s relevant in this case?”

Harry looked at her. “Well, it’s rather academic in your mother’s case, isn’t it, since she doesn’t seem to have had her birth registered at all.” A little indelicately put, perhaps, but the truth, nonetheless.

“And Lillian’s the key to all this, isn’t she?” Laurel asked.

“That’s right. Although you’ll have to prepare yourself for the possibility that even she doesn’t know as much as we think she should. Like I said: sometimes even a woman won’t know for certain, Laurel.”

“Point taken, Harry. But you’d better start calling me Ana, if we’re to deceive my grandmother properly. We wouldn’t want a little slip like that to give the game away, would we?” And she turned her eyes away from the road and trained them on him. Was that a wink, he wondered?


Anonymous said...

Brilliant! And Bourbon Creams!
You know how to leave your readers wanting the next chapter, don't you, TH?

Monica said...

Keep 'em coming. I'm going to echo 'stumped' - brilliant!

Let's hope Lillian gives them the answers they hope for.

Theresa111 said...

I can hear the snip of the scissors, as Lillian trims the stems of the flowers. Bill's making tea, and the next round of guests is on their way. The plot is thick and I want some more...please.

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Thank you stumped, monica and theresa - a day or two before I can cook up another chapter or two, I fear!

Lord Likely said...

You are spoling us with all these biscuits, sir!

the domestic minx said...

As delicious as the bourbon creams, Thomas...
I'm greedy. I want more!!
Keep it coming, man!!

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Thank you, as ever, Domestic Minx and Lord L.

Perhaps I should add the usual legal discalimer at this point...
other biscuits may be available.

Kind Regards


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