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The first of these pieces is the opening of a novel, the second a short story.
1 I would like you to read and review at least one. If you are brave enough to tackle both I would be particularly grateful.
2 Don’t agonise too much about the 8-point marking system. I’m after feedback, rather than publication.
4 [ ] indicates italics.
Thanks in advance for your patience.
THE OLD FOLKS AT HOME
“This has got to stop, Mr Lucas. And right now.”
“What has got to stop, Mrs Matthews?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“I have no idea at all.”
“This is a flagrant abuse of your position here.”
“Before we discuss whether it is or it isn’t, hadn’t we better agree on what it is we’re talking about?”
Mrs Matthews glared at the man sitting on the other side of her desk in the office of The Cedars Retirement Home. She had expected trouble from the day he moved in.
“I run a respectable home here and I will not have this.”
The man waited. Norman Lucas was a man of medium height with thinning brown hair and glasses. He was dressed neatly in casual clothes. He did not look like a man capable of whatever outrageous behaviour it was that seemed to be infuriating Mrs Matthews.
Now she breathed carefully. She was renowned for her patience and the caring qualities which were mentioned more than once in the home’s brochure. Difficult, demanding, confused guests (never patients, never inmates) were her staple fare. She did not think, however, that Norman Lucas came clearly into any of those categories.
“Very well, Mr Lucas, since this is your attitude, I see that I shall have to spell it out, distasteful though it may be.” She moved some papers and adjusted her glasses.
“You arrived here nine months ago and at first you seemed to settle in nicely. You were courteous to staff and friendly with fellow-residents. You were one of the more able-bodied and you volunteered to help the less fortunate - doing bits of shopping for them, finding books they’d mislaid, listening to their reminiscences and so on. Then things started to go wrong.”
“Wrong, Mrs Matthews?”
“We encourage friendliness and co-operation for obvious reasons, but we expect residents to respect each other’s privacy.”
“Have there been complaints then?”
“Don’t distract me, Mr Lucas. Let me continue. Many people here are very vulnerable, easy to take advantage of. Now you should know what I am talking about.”
“Tell me more, Mrs Matthews. I haven’t stolen their property, betrayed their confidences or indeed upset them in any way. I have happy relationships with all of them. All, that is, who are still capable of rational communication.”
“That’s another thing. You have a way with words. That’s where it all started.”
She paused, seeming to have difficulty dealing with distasteful matters.
“You suggested that some of the older residents should write down their reminiscences and even helped some of the less articulate get them down on paper. Some of them clubbed together to provide you with a computer and access to the Internet.”
“It didn’t stop there, did it? You encouraged some of them to - well, fantasise.”
“Or use their imagination.”
“Whatever gloss you choose to put on it, it resulted in filth. Pornography. That is why it has to stop. Do you understand? Stop.”
Norman looked at her. She was not an evil woman, a bit tight-arsed, of course, but that was to be expected in a place like this. He wondered about her past. A widow with a care-type career behind her - nurse, he had heard, or sheltered accommodation worker. He doubted if he could persuade her to his point of view, but it was worth a try.
“Mrs Matthews, although everybody takes care never to mention it, we have all come here to die. Let’s not make any mistake about this. Those of us who have any idea at all where we are know that this is God’s waiting room. Some of us are waiting fearfully, others hopefully. Yet others belligerently. Not all of us like each other. We’re suspicious, jealous, mean-minded, selfish. That is to say we are people. But, the important thing is that we are not dead yet. I did, as you say, help people with their reminiscences. For some of us there’s precious little else to do, unless we’re prepared to watch telly all day and shove food and drink into our bodies from time to time. Am I boring you with all this, Mrs Matthew? You may not agree with everything I say, but I am sure you will have the courtesy to hear me out.”
Mrs Matthews sniffed, but gestured to him to continue. If, as she intended, he would shortly be leaving she could afford to be generous.
“Sex, Mrs Matthews. Many of the people here have not enjoyed sex of any kind for many years. Some of them have not enjoyed it at all. Some, I would say, have not even experienced let alone enjoyed it. And most seem to think that it’s nasty, that in any case they’re past it and that it is certainly not a subject for discussion. But in some of the reminiscences I listened to it became clear to me that sex is still interesting for some people, once inhibitions have been removed. And, after all, a lot of inhibitions have been removed here by force of circumstances, haven’t they? When you need your arse wiping or someone to give you a bath inhibitions go out of the window.”
“Mr Lucas … ”
“I am using words both you and I understand. That is what I am good at, as you have said: words. For most of us here words are all we’ve got left. So why not use them?”
He paused and leant back in his chair.
“Have you ever read what you have referred to as pornography, filth, Mrs Matthews?”
“I am happy to say I have not.”
“Do you think it might corrupt you, Mrs Matthews? Or is it that you are just too busy? I can let you have samples of what some of your residents have produced, if you like. You might find yourself surprised, even impressed, by the delicacy, sensitivity, perceptiveness of what they write. It‘s not all wham. bam, thank you ma‘am I can tell you.”
“I didn’t think I’d find you cooperative, Mr Lucas, but I was not prepared for a vulgar argument.”
“I apologise for my belligerence, Mrs Matthews. I am merely defending my corner. Come to think of it, not just my corner. Do you realise that some of the things your ‘guests’ have written have been accepted for publication? Needless to say, they’re thrilled. Dare I say it: it has given them a new lease of life. That can be no bad thing, can it, given their circumstances? They’re not corrupting anyone. Not even frightening the horses.”
The reference was lost on Mrs Matthews.
“I tell you what. Let’s see what the board of management think of all this. Let them judge the current morale of the residents, let them have up-to-date medical reports on some of the writers. I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised. Was there anything else?”
Norman was preparing to leave.
“So you are not going to desist?”
“No, I am not. And, if I may say so, you’d be ill-advised to take this further. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“You have not heard the last of this, Mr Lucas.”
“I’m sure I haven’t, Mrs Matthews.”
He left the room.
As he expected, Derek was hanging about in the corridor. Derek, a wiry man, still able to move quickly should the occasion demand it, did a lot of hanging about.
“Get a good dressing down, did you?”
“We had a brief exchange of views.”
“And nothing, Derek. Look, I’ve got quite a bit of typing up to do and other things, so if you don’t mind …”
“Of course, of course, old boy. Doris, is it? Or Edna, perhaps?”
“You know the rules, Derek. Anonymity is guaranteed unless it is expressly waived. How’s your own checking coming on?”
“I’ve finished. Can we go over it some time?”
“Of course. You were going to start on your time in Kenya, weren’t you?”
“I’ve started. I don’t write so quickly nowadays, you know. This arthritis thing doesn’t help.” He paused as they reached the room labelled Residents’ Lounge. “ She didn’t say anything about searching our rooms, did she? I wouldn’t like it to get out that … ”
“There‘ll be no searching, Derek. In fact she specifically mentioned respect for residents‘ privacy.”
“Did she? That’s a good sign, isn’t it? You don’t think she’s interested in joining us, do you? I bet she could tell a story or two.”
“No, she’s not. And I doubt it. But you might like to fantasise for her, if you like. Get it down on paper and I’ll tell you if it’s any good.”
Coffee was bring served in the lounge. Good mornings were being exchanged amongst those who had not met at breakfast. A number of crouched figures were asleep in wing-backed chairs. Or pretending to be asleep. Norman had been in the home long enough to know that things were not always what they seemed.
As he made his way to his own room his mind went back to the day he arrived.
“Colonel Forbes,” said the large man next to him at dinner. "Reginald Forbes. Late Dragoon Guards. You’re Norman Lucas, aren’t you?”
“News seems to travel fast.”
“The admin office here leaks like a sieve. If it weren’t for the gossip that comes out of it we’d all have been dead a long time ago. If fact, I’m not sure that some of us aren’t. Still, you look lively enough. Got all your marbles?”
Norman judged him to be in his eighties and certainly in possession of all his marbles. That evening Reginald Forbes gave him what he called a sitrep. Twenty residents, more or less. One could never be sure from one day to the next. More women than men - ‘that’s the nature of things, old boy’. Two or three definitely on the way out. Others completely off their head. Lots of things to do. Telly, of course. Dawn to way after dusk. Scrabble, cards. A bit of chess. Light exercise three times a week on the lawn if the weather was fine. Visiting chiropodist and physiotherapist for those who could afford the extra. Seaside coach trips in the summer. Songs round the piano a couple of afternoons a week. Bingo with a volunteer caller complete with jokes.
Norman listened in depressed silence.
“Ghastly, isn’t it?” said Colonel Forbes. “Pathetic. Infinitely sad. That’s why I get out as often as I can. At least I can. Some of these poor devils … ”
“Does it have to be like this?”
“What do you have in mind to liven things up, Norman? Whatever it is, there’ll be resistance I can tell you. They - and when I say they I mean Irma Grese and her team - like it like this. You’re old enough to get the reference, aren’t you. Fortunately no-one in the office is.”
“Senior SS Supervisor at Belsen. Hanged in 1945.”
Colonel Forbes raised his eyebrows, impressed.
“I was a journalist,” said Norman. “And, touch wood, my memory is reasonably sound.”
“That’s a double-edged sword I would say. Particularly in here.”
At breakfast the following morning Norman was approached by a grey-haired lady wearing a deaf-aid.
Norman, started to get up.
“No, no,” she said. “That’s not necessary here. We don’t stand on ceremony. I only wanted to give this to you.”
Norman recognised an African violet in a plant pot.
“We try to make an effort to welcome newcomers. Just a little something to brighten up your room. I hope you don’t think it too forward of me?”
“Not at all. I didn’t know there was a reception committee, Mrs …?”
“Just Doris. Doris Sloan. There isn’t a reception committee, but a few of us think it’s nice to be friendly from the start. I hope you agree, Mr L… ”
“Norman. Thank you very much indeed. I certainly do agree.”
Doris smiled and returned to her table. The simple ceremony had not gone unnoticed and several smiling, if uncomprehending, faces were turned in his direction. Colonel Forbes raised his hands in what could have been interpreted as a [See what I mean?] gesture.
After Reginald and Doris, Norman got to know Edna, Derek and Mrs Liebermann, who, unlike the others, never volunteered her forename.
“Jewish,” said Colonel Forbes. “The oldest inhabitant. Been here yonks. A rabbi visits her once a week. Doesn’t go out at all. Reads a lot. Not a great socialiser. Bit of a mystery. Still, takes all sorts.”
It was Mrs Liebermann that Norman now went to see after parting from Derek.
“Come in, Mr Lucas.”
“I wish you’d call me Norman, Mrs Liebermann. I will still call you Mrs Liebermann, if you wish, but addressing me so formally is giving rise to rumours that I have somehow offended you, which I don’t think is true.”
Mrs Liebermann waved him to a chair. Her room was quite different from any of the others he had been in. It had been decorated and furnished to her own requirements. It was very much a Central European sitting room with dark, heavy furniture and dark red walls and curtains. It was a world in itself and Norman guessed that her unchallenged seniority in the home, coupled with her rumoured generosity in supporting the trustees’ appeals for donations, ensured that her wishes always carried weight.
She considered his request.
“I will call you Norman and you may call me Helga,” she said, “when we are alone, but you must understand that that is the limit of our intimacy.”
“Of course. I would not have it otherwise.”
“You are not Jewish … Norman?”
“No matter. What I would like to talk about is a delicate matter. I hear you have helped people here with their memoirs, their - what do you call them? - their reminiscences.”
“That is correct. And some of them have shown a talent to go beyond that.”
“Rumour has it that you have helped people to express their thoughts on … very intimate matters.”
“Again, that is correct.”
She seemed to be having some internal struggle.
“Do you intend to make money out of their confidences?”
“Personally, no. It may be, however, that, given certain safeguards, they themselves could make modest sums by affording their thoughts and ideas a wider audience.”
She leant forward.
“I’m a very old woman, Norman. All the people in my life have been dead a long time. So nothing can harm them, can it?”
“Their privacy is absolute.”
“I don’t really care what people think about me.”
“One of the few benefits of living a long time, Helga.”
She started at hearing her name.
“In my life I have had a number of relationships, some of them wonderful, some of them sad, all of them, I think, interesting. Do you understand what I am saying, Norman?”
“All my relationships have been with women.”
She was watching him carefully. He remained impassive.
“Do you think you would be shocked to hear the intimate details of these relationships?”
“No. If I may say so, Helga, there is nothing shocking about such relationships. You are hardly unique.”
“Do you mean …?”
She stopped and looked at him closely. He remained silent, steadily returning her gaze.
“What shall we do then to get things started?"
For the next ten minutes they discussed very practical matters.
Norman settled himself in front of his computer and reflected on the way things had developed. The beginnings were simple enough. [I was born in Huddersfield on the 28 April 1926] or [My father used to make handcarts for market traders in Hammersmith and my first recollection … ] or [Her Majesty’s Dragoon Guards have a long and glorious history. They were raised in Greenwich in 1792 … ] or [The Cairo of 1919 was very different from the Cairo of today.] Then came [My first encounter with a boy was at my sister’s eighteenth birthday party and, I must say, I found it all rather disgusting] and [Julia was my first love and to this day I can remember the smell of her long blond hair and the thrill of touching her smooth shoulders.] Inevitably the first genteel encounters gave way to more sophisticated, detailed and colourful accounts naturally leading to exaggerations and fantasies.
The small but expanding group concealed their identities from each other, though not, of course, from Norman and agreed certain self-imposed limits on subject matter. Norman suspected that AB, BC, DE and the another initials they used fooled no-one at all.
Doris Sloan was seventy-three years old and was not universally liked in the home. She was thought by some to give herself airs, to assume an authority she did not have. She was also considered to be a bit too close to the office and suspected of carrying tales and putting in a bad word for anyone who got on the wrong side of her. Others accepted her rather superior ways and shrugged off suggestions that she was two-faced. Giving newcomers pot plants, for instance, could be her way of ingratiating herself with them. She would always speak of ‘some of us’ when doing her Lady Bountiful act, but in fact she acted and spoke on behalf of no-one but herself. No-one had evidence of her being overtly spiteful, but the general view was that you should not trust her further than you could throw her. And the throwing days of most residents were long past. Colonel Forbes warned Norman to be wary of her.
“Just go carefully, old boy, until you know her really well - if it ever gets that far, of course.”
She had started writing on her retirement from her post as headmistress of a private school for girls on the south coast. Several short stories had been printed in [The Lady] and [The People’s Friend], but her ambitions went much further and when, after a serious illness, she moved into the home she settled down to write a full-length novel. Through her contacts in the office she learnt that Norman had been a journalist. He had been there less than a week when she approached him.
“Norman, I believe you used to be a journalist?”
“Doris, that’s not a real question, is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I have been here long enough to learn that you know everything about everybody in this place. Often before they arrive. Can you remind me when I had my prostatectomy?”
She looked at him uncertainly and then laughed.
“You’re a bit of a card, Norman, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Not a word you hear a great deal these days, Doris. But - why are you interested in my having been a journalist?”
“I was wondering if you have kept any contacts from those days.”
Looking back, Norman suspected that it was her enthusiasm for writing that had spurred him to tap into her and others’ literary talent or lack of talent. They were all in need of therapy of some kind (like most people on this planet, he often thought cynically) and writing seemed the most obvious: it could be practised at any time, picked up and then dropped, carried out in private, be as salacious, libellous, experimental or pedestrian as the writer wished. Everyone in the home was literate to some extent. They had all lived a long time. Memories were a bit dodgy at times, but that didn’t matter. There was the local library for reference and for those who were not so mobile there was always group discussion. The trouble was largely organisational, even physical. He had brought his typewriter with him and there were several others in the building, but they were noisy. And not everyone typed. Writing by hand was not easy for some.
He agreed to look over Doris’s published stories.
“What can I say, Doris?”
“You can say that they’re rubbish.”
“They must have appealed to the editors of [The Lady] and [The People’s Friend].”
“Very tactful. Point is, Norman, I’ve moved on from this sort of stuff. Write about what you know, they say. Well, I know about running a boarding school for girls. Could you cast your beady eye over this, please?”
Two days later she cornered him in the residents’ lounge.
“You have a lively imagination, Doris, but you’ll have to change a few names. Some of these people might take offence at your fantasising.”
“I have very little imagination, Norman, but I do have a good memory. And my diaries help.”
“You mean …?”
Norman weighed her up before he spoke again.
“There are tales of incest, child abuse and criminality of various kinds involving people who have since made their mark on society. Members of both Houses of Parliament, theatrical and TV celebrities, giants on the scientific and industrial scene, one head of state and at least one bishop.”
“Yes. Interesting, don’t you think?”
“What do you hope to achieve by setting all this scurril down? Are you into blackmail, Doris? And don’t give me that [in the public interest] argument. In any case, you would be discredited before the ink was dry if you managed to publish. A deranged, demented old lady in a retirement home giving vent to pent-up spite and malice accumulated over years of frustration, disappointment and inadequacy in her own career.”
“Good stuff, Norman. We could put that in the blurb, don’t you think. On the back cover. Could we attribute it - forgive me - to someone perhaps a bit more famous than you. Jeremy Paxton? Erica Wagner? Mary Wesly?
“Mary Wesly is dead.”
“Does that matter?”
To be continued ......
THE JOB HUNTER
A short story
“Do you have any vacancies?”
Gareth looked at the man on the other side of the counter. He was about fifty years old and had spoken with an educated accent. He looked as if he had not shaved for a couple of days. His blazer, which had some kind of badge sewn on to the breast pocket, was short of several buttons, and the tightly knotted, greasy tie round his neck carried a pattern which suggested a public school or a branch of the armed forces. The shirt underneath had a checked pattern. The cuffs visible on the wrists resting on the counter were frayed. Gareth thought that the man’s eyes had what he would describe as a funny look, although he could not have said what exactly he meant by funny.
“What sort of vacancies?”
“The sort of vacancies there might be in a museum. You know - cataloguer, brochure writer, administrative assistant, handyman, conservationist, public relations officer, fundraiser.”
“We have a very small staff here, you know. We’re heavily dependent on The Friends of Crichton Museum for a lot of the things you mentioned. We call in specialists from time to time for special jobs. Would you like to see the deputy curator?”
“No, no. You would know, wouldn’t you, if you were short-staffed? I don’t want to trouble anyone unnecessarily.”
“To the best of my knowledge we’re not recruiting anybody at all. If anything, we’re contracting rather than expanding.”
The man stared at him with his funny eyes. He seemed to be weighing Gareth’s words very carefully.
“Pity,” he said. “I would like to work here. Small, compact. Family atmosphere, would you say?”
“I was saying you must feel like a family here. You know, a small staff working under the same roof - no more than a couple of rooms for all of you, I would guess. You must feel very close to each other. Not like these huge multi-national corporations. Impersonal. Cold. Compartmentalised. Lots of back-biting. No sense of pulling together. The only motivation: money. Who’s got it, who hasn’t. How to get more of it ... ”
The man’s eyes had become brighter. His fists were clenched. There were flecks of saliva at the corners of his mouth. Gareth stepped back. The man noticed the movement, took out a grubby handkerchief and blew his nose. He closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate on controlling his breathing. He opened his eyes and smiled at Gareth.
“Thank you. You have been most helpful. I won’t take up any more of your time.”
He turned round and strode quickly out of the building.
Three days later Elaine came downstairs to talk to Gareth.
“Gareth, I’ve had a strange letter from a man who says you led him to believe that there might be a vacancy for him here. Do you know anything about this? A chap called Eliot Grace.”
Gareth told her about the man with the funny eyes.
“You said nothing which might have encouraged him to think that we might take him on?”
”On the contrary, I discouraged him from trying to take things further. I thought he was off his head.”
“He writes a polite, well-constructed letter. It looks as though I shall have to disabuse him.”
The man came in ten days later. He introduced himself to Gareth as Eliot Grace and proffered a hand.
“It was good of you to put in a good word for me after such a short acquaintance. I am most grateful.”
“I don’t think ... “
“There’s no need to be modest. The curator clearly recognises in you a man able to recognise worth when he sees it. I look forward to working with you. There’s no mention of a start date in the letter, but I ... “
“You’ve had a letter?”
“May I see it?”
Eliot Grace looked surprised, but fished in an inside pocket and produced an envelope which he held out. For the first time Gareth noticed that he no longer had funny eyes. He had recently shaved, too, and his general appearance was closer to what Gareth would describe as normal. There were no frayed cuffs and the hands had been neatly manicured. Gareth read the letter and handed it back.
“Mr Grace ... “
“Mr Grace, there is nothing in this letter about a job. It explicitly states that there are no vacancies.”
Eliot Grace smiled conspiratorially, leant forward and lowered his voice. Gareth half expected him to wink.
“I know. I wouldn’t have expected anything so overt. Please thank the curator for her letter and let her know that I’ll be in touch.”
He turned on his heel and made a jaunty exit. Gareth thought he heard the whistling of a popular song of many years earlier.
“Gareth, have you been talking to that Eliot Grace again?”
“Yes, Elaine. He came in and talked about a job again. He showed me your letter. He seems to have misunderstood it.”
“Are you sure you don’t know this man? He’s written yet another letter, mentioning you. Honestly, Gareth, I haven’t got a job for him. Believe me, I’d like to oblige you, but I can’t.”
“Elaine, I do not know this man at all. For some reason he seems to think I have some clout when it comes to getting a job here.”
“I would help if I could, but we simply don’t have ... “
“What has he said about me?”
“He values your friendship and knows you have recommended him ... “
“This is monstrous. He’s trying it on. He is not a friend of mine. He is a lonely crackpot with a museum obsession. The best thing to do is ignore him.”
“The Crichton Museum. Gareth speaking. How may I help you?”
“Hello, Gareth. Eliot here. I was wondering if we could meet over a drink and talk about this job at the museum. I’m coming in for my interview next week and it would help me enormously if ... ”
“Let me stop you right there, Mr Grace ... ”
“There is no need to be so formal. After all, if we’re going to be working together ...”
“We are not going to be working together. Look, I don’t know what your trouble is and I don't want to know. I have spoken to the curator and I know that there is no job on offer. You need help, Mr Grace, not from me, but from a professional ... ”
“I certainly need help to get through this interview. But I agree with what you seem to be saying. Talking over the telephone is not the best way to deal with this. Look, I don't want to get you into trouble by taking up too much of your time now. I’ll be waiting for you when you come off duty and we’ll pop into The Ailsa Tavern or Starbuck’s if you like. We can decide when we meet. Thanks a lot. Cheers.”
The phone went dead.
“Hello there, Gareth. I wasn’t sure whether you finished at five or five-thirty, so I thought I’d better be here at the earlier ... “
“Look, this is getting out of hand. I do not know you ...”
“Which is why I suggested we meet for a drink. Could you slow down a bit please? I’m having difficulty keeping up.”
Gareth stopped and forced himself to be calm. He turned and faced Eliot Grace, who had also stopped and, slightly out of breath, was smiling amiably, apparently waiting for Gareth to start a conversation.
“Listen to me carefully,” said Gareth. “We are not going for a drink. Not now, not ever. We are going to go our separate ways. We are not going to communicate with each other ever again. Is that clear?”
The other man looked genuinely puzzled and peered earnestly into Gareth’s face, seeking an explanation in the furrowed brow, the reddening cheeks, the hunted eyes. He then nodded thoughtfully.
“I’m sorry if I’ve done or said anything to upset you, Gareth. Whatever it was, I can assure you, it was unintentional. If you'd like to clear the air by telling me, that would be fine. I don’t want our working relationship to get off on the wrong foo ... “
“There is not going to be a working relationship because we are not going to work together. There is no job. The curator made that clear in her letter. Now will you please go away and leave me alone.”
The two men were facing each other on the pavement. Passers-by took in the situation and quickened their pace, hoping to avoid witnessing acts of violence. A group of young men in jeans sitting on benches outside The Ailsa Tavern leant forward, hoping to witness acts of violence.
Eliot Grace’s face softened into a smile again. Her made as if to put a hand on Gareth’s arm. Gareth snatched his arm away and moved off quickly.
“Go away ! Do you hear me?” he shouted without turning round. “I do not want anything to do with you. Leave me alone !”
Eliot was left standing on the pavement looking hurt and bewildered. One of the men outside the pub shouted “Let him go ! There’s plenty more where he came from, mate !” His friends laughed and turned back to their beers. Eliot shook his head and gestured with his hand in a way which might have been taken to acknowledge the sympathy of the young men. Then he shrugged and walked off.
I am afraid that I will have to put off our meeting for a short time.
Gareth and I have fallen out and this has upset me to such an extent that I do not feel I could do myself justice in any interview with you. I do not know what I have done to precipitate this distressing situation, but I shall make every effort to sort things out as quickly as possible.
I will contact you again when I am in a less emotional condition.
My apologies for this hiatus.
“Gareth, I’m sending Bob down to relieve you for a few minutes. Could you pop up when he arrives, please.?”
“Come in Gareth,” said Elaine quietly, waving him to a chair.
“First of all, Gareth, I want to make it clear that your private life is your affair. On the other hand, as curator I have a responsibility to see that the museum is run efficiently, that people do their jobs properly and that potentially disruptive situations are dealt with firmly. Do you know what I am talking about?”
“No, Elaine, I haven’t the faintest idea.”
"That lunatic. I thought we’d seen the last of him.”
“He’s written to me.” She passed the letter across.
Gareth read, sighed and shook his head.
“The man is insane. I met him for the first time when ... “
“Gareth, I don’t want a blow by blow account of how this relationship started and developed. As I have said, your personal relationships are your business, but could you see to it, please, that any rows the two of you may have or may have had do not spill over into the museum.”
“Elaine, I swear to you Eliot Grace is a complete stranger, who, for some reason or other, has become fixated on the museum and now, it seems, on me ... ”
Elaine held up her hand.
“OK, Gareth. We understand each other, I’m sure.”
Gareth went back to his post.
“Mr Gareth Partridge?”
Gareth looked up from the desk where he had been preparing a graph showing the numbers of visitors to the museum on a weekly basis over the past year.
Two neatly dressed men.
“Is there somewhere where we could have a little chat?"
Each presented an identity card. They were police officers. Their faces were unsmiling. Gareth could remember any number of television programmes involving “a little chat” with police officers. He rang the office upstairs and Bob came down to relieve him.
“It’s about a Mr Eliot Grace, sir.”
They were sitting at a table in a store-room in the basement. It was only when they had sat down that Gareth realised that he had chosen a room which reminded him of an interview room in a police station.
“Eliot Grace? I thought we’d got rid of him."
“In a sense we have, sir. What can you tell us about him?”
Gareth told the story. One policeman made notes.
“What’s this all about, then? Has he been making trouble somewhere else?”
“Not that we know of, sir. Anyway he’s past making trouble. He was discovered dead this morning.”
“Oh, dear me. I’m sorry to hear that. He looked quite well the last time I saw him. Did he have a heart attack or something?”
“All the signs are at the moment that he committed suicide. He left a note. You are mentioned in it. Which is why we are here.”
“Me? What on earth did this fruitcake say about me? I’ve told you all I know about him. He was off his trolley.”
The policemen looked at each other.
“Well, we are only just starting our inquiries and we have quite a few people to interview. We may have to come back to you. Perhaps if we had your home address it would save us bothering you here.”
“Gareth, I’m very worried about this Eliot Grace thing.”
“The man’s dead, Elaine. He’s not going to trouble us any more.”
“Dead he may be, but that doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the trouble he’s causing. I understand the police came to see you here the other day?”
“How did you know that?”
“That’s not important, Gareth. What is important is that The Crichton Museum must not in any way be associated with what may well develop into a full-scale police investigation attracting the attention of the media.”
“This has nothing to do with the museum ... “
“I know that and you know that, but other people don’t look at things in the same way. What I’m saying, Gareth, is we need to distance ourselves from this before it is too late.”
“Elaine, don’t you think you’re getting a bit paranoid about this, over-reacting and all that? All right, the police had a word with me because of something Eliot Grace wrote in a note he left. But they will not be bothering me here again. If they need to see me at home ... “
Elaine looked alarmed.
“They are going to interview you again?”
“They might. I don’t know. In any event, you won’t be bothered ... “
“Look, Gareth, I hadn’t realised that things had come to such a pass ... “
“Things haven’t come to any kind of pass.”
“I think it would be best if you kept out of sight for a while. Have you any leave due to you?”
“A pity. I don’t want to have to suspend you.”
“Suspend me? I have done nothing wrong whatsoever. Why should you suspend me?”
“You could work at home, I suppose, though I’m not sure what you could do. Really, Gareth, I’m beginning to question your judgement if you make friends of weirdoes like Eliot Grace.”
“Eliot Grace was never a friend of mine. Christ, Elaine, this man is proving to be more trouble now he’s dead than he ever was when he was alive.”
“There’s no need to get uptight. You’ve put me in a very difficult position. The trustees are meeting on Friday and I could be asked how I allowed the museum to be mixed up in this sordid affair. I’ll have to think about this carefully. You’d better get back to the desk, Gareth. I’ll let you know what I have decided before you go off duty.”
Gareth made his way slowly downstairs. Somebody was not thinking straight and he was not sure whether it was the curator or himself. He thanked Bob for standing in for him and resumed his position at the desk.
“I’ve left a note for you,” said Bob.
Gareth picked up a scrap of paper.
[Chap rang you at 2.30. Wouldn’t leave his name. Said you would know who it was. Something about getting a job here.]