Thursday, 20 September 2007

Chapter 145

There’s little doubt that Harry McFry would have preferred a cigarette before they called on Lillian. After the journey down, in fact, a double whisky might have served him well, had there been a pub to hand. Together, they might have just loosened him up a little. But any thoughts towards smoking were banished by the looks he got from Laurel and Danny as he’d started to flick open his pack.

“What?” he’d asked, defensively.

“No time for that, Harry,” Danny had replied, authoritatively. “We’ve got to get in there.” Laurel had nodded her agreement.

Ruefully, Harry found himself stuffing the cigarettes back in his pocket. There were times when having an assistant was a great boon – but this wasn’t one of them.

“OK, OK. Point taken,” he’d said. Laurel – or rather, Ana – are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Laurel had looked at him, and nodded again. “I think so, Harry. I won’t have to say much, I expect. I’ll take my lead from you.”

Harry turned to her as they walked up the path. “Just try not to give the game away – I know it’s going to be hard. But you haven’t met Lillian before, so that’s all to the good.”

Shortly after they’d assembled in front of No 28 and rung the bell, the door was opened. Facing them was the familiar figure – to Harry, at least – of Bill Blunt. Both of them tried to feign surprise.

“Well, here’s a turn-up for the books!” Harry exclaimed. “I see the Beagle has strayed beyond it’s normal haunts. How’s the story coming along, Bill?”

Bill stepped out over the threshold and pulled the door to behind him. He looked flustered. He’d prepared himself for opening the door to Harry - or even to Galloway - but he knew he’d have some explaining to do, either way. He glanced at Harry’s companions, guessed the young boy was Danny Longhurst. Quite who the woman was, he couldn’t think.

“I’m not Bill, Harry! For the purposes of my investigation you had better call me Elliot.” His voice was an urgent whisper.

Harry looked surprised. “I don’t understand…”

“I can’t go into detail now, but McAllistair’s here, and Lillian thinks I’m from his production company. He’s planning a documentary about Lillian’s life.”

Harry considered this for a moment. “I see! So, we’re playing a little game of deception on a defenceless old lady, are we? Is that the kind of standards we expect from our reporters these days?”

Bill was embarrassed. “Please – we can discuss the ethics of modern journalism later. Just don’t blow my cover – pretend you don’t know me. There’s something else you need to know, Harry. There are a couple of people here from the NHS Fraud Office. Looking into someone called Dacre Lawrence.”

Harry was enjoying his friend’s discomfort – the more so because he knew Bill had missed his deadline for that week’s edition of the Birkenhead Beagle, and he knew Laurel would know that, too. The visitors interested in Lawrence were another matter entirely. He wondered how they’d come to be involved.

“Hmmm – fascinating: Lillian’s got herself quite a houseful, then!” he said, at last. “Well, let me introduce you to Danny and Ana. They’re working on this case with me.” Bill shook Danny’s hand, appraising him as he did so, before turning to Laurel, where the appraisal took a second or two longer. He saw she was nervously clutching a small handbag.

“I see you’ve not lost your eye when it comes to staff recruitment, Harry!” he said, smiling at Laurel. “Enchanted!”

Laurel gave only the slightest of nods in return. She recognised Bill’s voice from his telephone call at the weekend, and was worried he’d recognise hers if she spoke.

Bill beckoned them in. “Don’t mind me - I’m on tea duty,” he said, as he followed them up the corridor, leaving them to make their own way into the lounge. “I’ll see you in two ticks.”

Harry was first to enter the room. As he did so, Lillian rose to her feet. “Hello, Mr McFry. We’ve been expecting you,” she announced, like a hostess at a grand party. “Everybody – this is Harry!” Harry glanced around, taking in McAllistair, then Dave and Jane. So – a possible criminal investigation into Dacre Lawrence, and these were his prosecutors.

“Harry’s no relation, of course,” Lillian continued, “or at least that is what he claims. Although, those McFry’s were such a mixed up bunch it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it turned out he was one of ‘them’!”

“Harry, we’re all on first-name terms here – I believe you’ve met Colin?” She gestured to McAllistair, who nodded and stood up from his chair. Harry nodded, briefly.

“In fact, Harry,” Colin said, “I worked out that I met you in Paris – at a conference…”

“Yes. I wondered how long it would take you to remember that,” Harry replied, his smile curt, his tone neutral.

“And these lovely people are investigating Dr Lawrence,” Lillian continued, introducing Dave and Jane.

“Dave, this is Harry and Danny” – here, she waved her hand regally towards the doorway where the young man was hovering, Ana just behind him – “they’ve been helping me about the medals I was just starting to tell you about.”

Lillian was scrutinising Laurel, now, but it was clear that her eyes weren’t up to the task. “And this must be..?”

“Ana – she’s my assistant. Danny mentioned her when he called, I believe. She’s up to speed with the case.”

“Pleased to meet you, Lillian!” Ana said, as quietly as she could, conscious that Bill Blunt might be listening from the kitchen even as she stepped forward to take her grandmother’s hand. As she touched it, she struggled to remain calm, Harry alarmed to notice how she held it fractionally longer than convention might have permitted. For Ana, it was an emotional moment, which she masked as well she could. There was something about Lillian that was familiar, as if she’d met her before. Something even about her manner, that reminded her of her mother, and she knew at once that she had just touched a connection with her past that had been hidden from her for so many years. She shrank back to the doorway, her thoughts in a tangle. Why had Lillian so pointedly not wanted anything to do with her? .

“And I’m pleased to meet you, my dear,” Lillian said, politely, as she watched Laurel withdraw. There wasn’t the slightest flicker of recognition in Lillian’s eyes, Harry was pleased to see. “And of course, you have all of you met Elliot – he’s the nice gentleman who let you in. Now … can we all please find a seat, and make ourselves comfortable? Elliot will doubtless be organising some refreshments for us.” She raised her voice: “And perhaps those chairs that are in my bedroom, if you will, Elliot?”

In a few moments, Bill had struggled in with the two dining chairs from Lillian’s bedroom. Danny, like a slow player in musical chairs who already guessed when the music would stop, opted for a space on the floor by the aspidistra, in the shade of it’s leaves. Here, he sat cross-legged, while Harry and Ana squeezed themselves onto the seats Bill had brought and positioned next to the sideboard. Like Harry, Danny was trying to work out how Dave and Jane might have got involved with this case.

It was a tight squeeze in there, but everyone tried to look as relaxed as possible in the circumstances. Harry felt like a passenger in a jam-packed tube carriage. Bill shuffled back into the room with the tea tray, pausing to distribute the cups which he’d had the good sense to pour out in the kitchen, before finally seeking refuge on the chair he’d vacated whilst assuming general factotum duties.

Lillian saw that everyone was finally settled, and drew herself up in her chair. She addressed them collectively, still the perfect party hostess, her voice calm and assured.

“Now then, if you please, I would like to begin by thanking you all for coming here today.” From the glances exchanged, it was clear to Lillian’s ‘guests’ that, though none of them had arrived under the impression they had been ‘invited’, no-one felt inclined to challenge the spin. Harry, though, was trying to get the measure of Lillian’s game. Could it really be she’d orchestrated everyone’s attendance? If that was so, he’d clearly underestimated the woman. Maybe she was making the most of a bad hand, trying to assert some authority in the face of the parallel investigations she’d unwittingly set in train by her initial decision to pass her medals on to Laurel? He would have to see… for now, all he could do was listen to her directions.

“If no-one has any objection, I propose that we ask our friends from Cardiff to begin,” Lillian said, as she turned to Dave Morris. “And please don’t worry about everyone else, David. Whatever you have to say about Dr Lawrence, you can say in front of them.”

Dave wasn’t so sure. He’d expected to be interviewing Lillian McFry in the privacy of her own home, not in front of a general assembly of people he’d never met before. Still, he clearly didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. And anyway, he’d noted Lillian’s earlier mention of Mr Galloway, and remembered the discussion he’d had with Mabel, at the health centre. It was quite possible, he considered, that everyone in this room might have a piece of the jigsaw that would explain Dacre Lawrence’s actions. He saw that all eyes were on him, waiting for what he had to say – even Jane’s. She was probably wondering how he was going to handle this one…

“Yes, well, as I was saying: we know that Dr Dacre Lawrence had an appointment to see you last week, as we found a record of it in his diary. I should say, we are investigating Dr Lawrence’s activities after it came to light that he accessed medical records all over the country for anyone called McFry.” Harry glanced at Danny, who he saw was looking at Ana: her eyes had widened, almost in disbelief. Without intending to, Harry found himself interrupting Dave.

“Every McFry in the country?” he asked, with just a hint of incredulity.

“Yes, so far as we can tell – even yours, Harry.” Dave replied. “It’s not really a common name. We’re only talking a few hundred people.”

Jane Tobias nodded. “That’s right,” she said, adding detail to Dave’s account. “It was a simple matter, given the national database of patient records. But there’s a certain element of trust built into the system…”

Dave Morris checked her. “What Jane means is, family doctors have the ability to interrogate the database. For legitimate purposes.”

“Such as?” Harry asked, warming to the task. He already thought he knew the answer, and how Lawrence might have strayed beyond the line. But he wanted confirmation.

“Oh, well – such as a patient transferring from one practice to another. That would be quite usual. The whole idea is to speed up the transfer of records. But we set up some checks in the system, just in case…” Dave didn’t feel he needed to reveal that the government had invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in ‘Project Gilbert’, or that his job might be on the line if the project was a failure: ‘some checks in the system’ would have to do.

“Suffice to say, these checks showed up Lawrence’s activities.”

Bill Blunt had picked up his notepad, and was taking notes as discretely as he could. Jane Tobias, who was trained to see beyond discretion, wondered why he was bothering. A perfectly serviceable video recording was being taken of the entire proceedings, wasn’t it?

“We went across to Thirsk to interview Dr Lawrence last week,” Dave continued. “We wanted to know why he had been so interested in the McFry’s. But he’d suffered a stroke, and we weren’t able to see him.” He was outlining just the facts, as succinctly as he could.

“A stroke?” Harry asked. “When was that?” He knew when Laurel had received her letter from Lawrence. Had he found something out that precipitated his stroke?

“Sometime after he returned from his visit to see Lillian, last Wednesday,” Dave replied. “He was found by the practice manager, as she was locking up.”

“How is he now?” Harry asked. He was still wondering whether they might visit Lawrence later in the week.

“Still in hospital, apparently,” Jane chipped in. “Not really capable of being interviewed, at least for the moment,” she added, perhaps anticipating a further question.

“We did, however, discover that Dr Lawrence had a business relationship with the Cyril Galloway you mentioned earlier, Lillian,” Dave said, turning to her. “A relationship that dated back many years, when Galloway ran an antiques shop in the town.”

Harry glanced at McAllistair, who was shifting uneasily in his chair – worried that the investigators from the NHS might have uncovered his role in the disposal of Harcourt’s medals, he didn’t wonder. In fact, he looked like he might be about to say something, until he saw Harry shaking his head, slowly. It was a warning, if ever Colin saw one, to stay silent. He wondered why Harry was so keen to protect him all of a sudden, until it dawned on him that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to hear his confession (again): he just didn’t want to hear it now. He watched Dave and Jane for any signs that they knew about his link to Galloway.

Lillian looked triumphant. “I knew there was something wrong about the two of them! I knew it when I first met them! Galloway came here first, you know. He tried to pretend the medals weren’t worth anything and then, when I wouldn’t sell them, he sent Lawrence along to do his dirty work. They were crooks, through and through. The North of England Museum of Labour History, indeed!”

Dave was still perplexed about the medals. “You’ll need to tell me more about those medals, if you don’t mind, Lillian. Whose were they?”

Harry was enjoying this. It would save a lot of explanation, if Lillian told the story herself.

Lillian paused for a second. “I hope everyone’s listening – because you all need to know what I’m about to tell you.” She turned to McAllistair, and stared directly at him. “And I do hope that camera’s rolling, Colin. I may not get the chance to tell this story again.”

And so, Lillian began her account of her travels to Spain, in the company of the McFry brothers. Harry and Danny, even though they’d heard much of it before, listened as intently as the others, alert for every new nuance. She told of her separation from the Stuart and Thomas, and how, while working as a nurse in Madrid, she’d met an English journalist called Jonathan Harcourt. The mention of Harcourt’s name caused McAllistair to look to the floor, avoiding any glance from Harry, or anyone else who might know of his role in the affair. Bill Blunt spotted Colin’s unwitting evasion, but couldn’t quite figure its significance, even as he saw Harry watching for Colin’s reaction. He wondered if he should intervene. He checked his watch. It was after one o’clock, and he knew he only had a few hours until his revised deadline. Still, he was practiced in this game. Just now, he had more to gain by listening than talking, he knew.

“Jonathan was the kind of person you might only meet once in your life,” Lillian said. “And pardon me if I appear emphatic on that matter, but when you have lived as long as I have, I can assure you that it is a truth that is painful to acknowledge.” She spoke calmly, delicately covering the emotion that Harry knew she must be feeling.

“We fought together at the battle of Jamara. It was the kind of experience that isn’t easy to talk about, I’m afraid. I lost many friends there.” The room was silent, as she looked for the words she needed. “But you realise, through it, that there was nothing someone who loved you wouldn’t do to save you – and that there was nothing you wouldn’t do if they were threatened, too.”

Lillian was looking into the near distance, conjuring images she might have hoped were buried and might have hoped to forget. “I was never proud of the people I killed – that day or any other day.” Her hands were clasped together on her lap. Was it to stop her wringing them, Harry wondered? She looked miserable, just now.

“That’s why the medals – well, they weren’t that important to me. They were just pieces of metal. I didn’t mind that Dacre Lawrence thought they might have belonged to Thomas. I didn’t mind at all...” Lillian’s voice trailed off in the sadness of decades.

“Jonathan had the same medals awarded, I heard. That was the only thing I was proud about – that we were the only ones to get them.”

Harry looked at Colin, whose face was wreathed in shame. He could imagine the pain he might be feeling for his youthful mistake, a quarter of a century ago. Was the pain deserved, he wondered? But Harry’s train of thought was interrupted.

“Why was Dr Lawrence so interested in your medals, Lillian?”

It was Jane Tobias. Her question, unwittingly, went to the nub of the matter. Apart from Dave and herself, she wondered whether everyone in the room, for their own reasons, thought they knew the answer to her question.

Bill Blunt, for one, gave the perfect impersonation of someone who might know, even though, as he scribbled his shorthand notes, he secretly hoped someone – anyone – would answer Jane’s question. So did Lillian.

*

“I think I can answer that one,” Harry said, to break the silence that had descended after Jane Tobias had caught everyone’s attention with her question.

“Dacre Lawrence was, as you surmised, Lillian, only acting as Galloway’s accomplice – at first. And he wasn’t particularly interested in the medals, was he, Lillian? At least not as much as he was in the bond...”

While all eyes were on Harry, Bill Blunt’s were the keenest. His pencil, sharper still, was poised against his pad. Money! He’d known this must be at the bottom of this, all along.

Lillian appeared surprised. “Perhaps you can tell me how you know about the bond?”

“Indeed. You gave Danny the medals to pass on to somebody.” Harry saw that Lillian seemed to appreciate his discretion. “In the box they came in, there was a piece of paper which I discovered was a bond, issued by the Spanish Government in Exile. It has considerable value, Lillian.”

Lillian nodded. “Yes, I know. And Galloway knew, too. He tried to pretend it was some sort of certificate to authenticate the medals. But I could tell he knew. And Lawrence, too – you’re right, Harry: he was more interested in that than the medals.”

Suddenly for McAllistair, Cyril Galloway’s obsession with the ‘piece of paper’ in the box, when they’d had lunch in Birkenhead, became clear.

Harry was poised to continue. “But the bond was issued to Stuart McFry, wasn’t it, Lillian?”

Lillian considered the question. “Yes. I suppose it was.” She looked uncomfortable, could feel her assembled ‘guests’ looking at her. Harry wondered if he’d put her on the spot too soon. Suddenly, though, she brightened, as if a thought had occurred to her.

“But, aren’t we forgetting something?” she asked, her tone imperious.

“What’s that?” Harry asked.

Lillian looked at Bill, who looked back at her, non-plussed. As if he was expected to know! Lillian smiled.

“The bourbon creams, Elliot – the bourbon creams! Why don’t you fetch them for us?”

Harry wiped his hand across his face to bury a grin, as he caught Danny smiling, too.. If anyone could take the heat out of a situation, they were both thinking, it was obviously Lillian McFry.

4 comments:

70steen said...

I think the only person that has enjoyed this chapter more than me was Lillian...... superb Thomas :-)

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Thank you, 70steen. Lillian's enjoying being in control - I suppose we should be grateful someone is!

Kind Regards

THJnr

Monica said...

What on earth did you do on holiday? The good writing from before has got better and better since you came back! This is the best yet.

I want to get to the end of the story - but I don't want it to end. You'd better have a second book in mind for when this one finishs.

Theresa111 said...

Darling Thomas,

I am quite literally on the edge of my seat!