BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
“MY WIFE’S trying to kill me.”
The casual manner of Hugh’s matter-of-fact statement almost caused me to choke on my breakfast.
Hugh is an agreeable sort of chap, not prone to exaggeration, a considerate fellow-traveller on the daily commute to London and one who intuitively understands the need to demolish the fare in the dining car with the minimum of unnecessary chatter. Today’s bombshell, therefore, really did come as something of a surprise. Hugh, though, characteristically did not seem in any rush to expand on the subject.
I have known Hugh and his wife, Elaine, for years. She is a delightful woman, a gentle soul with a bright smile and a ready laugh. I found it impossible to imagine a person less likely to be indicted for serial axe murders or for insinuating arsenic into the breakfast marmalade jar. They had been married for decades with never more than the occasional marital hiccup, the sort that every married couple has on occasion: after Ladies’ Night at the Scottish Country Dance Club, for instance, when the Laird enjoys one too many Strathspeys with a certain young lady of questionable sobriety, and one too few with the missus. In other words, nothing serious enough to warrant being the recipient of the cold shoulder past lunchtime the following day.
“I can’t imagine why Elaine would do this to me,” Hugh continued amiably, as if he were not in the least perturbed by his apparently imminent visit to the undertaker’s. I looked around to see who might be eavesdropping. After all, the First Class dining car of the 7:12 from Salisbury to Waterloo could hardly be compared with the inviolate privacy of the Friday evening confessional. Not that Hugh was a Catholic; staunch Church of England at Christmas and Easter, you understand, unless he was away somewhere warm. “And as a barrister you probably find it odd that she should,” he said, adding a little Bisto to thicken the gravy of his murder-mystery plot.
The other diners, the same gents who habitually ate their breakfasts on the 7:12 to Waterloo, seemed oblivious to Hugh’s utterances, tucking into the grapefruit segments in light syrup and the burnt sacrifice of the day. Not even our usual waiter, the young man with the lank hair and buck teeth, feigned interest.
I glanced up as Hugh helped himself to a spoonful of Frank Cooper’s Vintage Oxford and, with difficulty, for you know how thick it is, managed to transfer it from the spoon to the side of his plate. Hugh was from the old school and properly brought up in the matter of marmalade etiquette.
Hugh’s assertion, however, that his wife was on the point of accelerating the claim on her hubby’s life insurance gave rise to a complex rearrangement of my eyebrows. This I followed by a quizzical, disbelieving look that had led many a witness in cross examination to recant his earlier testimony. My courtroom theatrics failed to make any impression on Hugh so I tried a different tack. I leaned forward across the table separating us in the confidential manner of conspirators not wishing to be overheard hatching a plot to blow up the House of Commons or dispatching an unnecessary Caesar or two, steepled my fingers, and waited.
When no elaboration poured forth I put my hand to my ear. “I’m sorry, Hugh. I’m not quite sure I heard you correctly,” I said.
This tactic, frequently put to the witness during cross examination, more often than not elicited a backtracking of a piece of the story that had perhaps been under-rehearsed.
“Elaine’s trying to kill me,” he repeated, almost loud enough to be heard above the rhythmic clack of the train over the tracks and the background hum of conversation. “Not for the insurance money, you understand and not in the conventional way with the candlestick in the conservatory, or the lead pipe in the library.”
“That’s something of a relief,” I assured him earnestly before he could continue.
“I’m fully convinced that she’s blithely unaware of what she’s doing. And she insists it’s for my own good.”
The train slowed and clanked to a noisy stop at Basingstoke. A horde of Waterloo-bound barbarians from that wretched dumping ground of London’s superfluous population flung open the doors amid shouted greetings and muttered curses. For a few minutes the First Class dining car resembled the turmoil of Sandown Park at the start of a five furlong maiden handicap as shiny-suited commuters pushed and shoved their way past each other with no consideration for the diners.
While waiting for the restoration of calm and sanity I ruminated on Hugh’s case and failed to see how euthanasia would be of benefit to him. He was as healthy as any man of his age had a right to be, especially now that his rugby playing days were safely at least three decades behind him. And he had long ago embraced the movement away from the liquid lunch in favour of a sandwich at his desk. Elaine seemed to dote on him and if she did not, she at least smiled at his occasional eccentricities. It was, therefore a conundrum why his wife should want to kill him, and for his own betterment. As any good member of the plain clothes branch of London’s Metropolitan Police would have said, there was more to this than meets the eye. Or more strictly speaking, the ear.
The eyebrows burst into another round of gymnastics and the cold-eyed stare of the hardened barrister bore into Hugh. Every copper worth his salt knows that there is no pressure like silence to induce the suspect to cough up the goods in the form of a duly cautioned, signed confession. Hugh should be putty.
“You see,” Hugh finally said, glancing about furtively before relieving his chest of the burden he carried within, “I turn 65 this year.”
My eyebrows briefly expressed surprise.
“Sixty five,” he continued after a gulp of air, “is apparently an age when the Government considers me no longer middle aged but officially old. That is, old, as in eligible to receive the Old Age Pension and, if I am very needy, whatever income supplements or social security benefits there may also be,” he explained. “I’m not sure,” he added, “what they all are in any case.”
Without question, Hugh is obviously no longer the stripling youth whom Elaine married nearly 40 years ago. Over the years that I have known him, Hugh has occasionally confided that, under Elaine’s careful tutelage that brash and callow young man had evolved into a reasonably good cook, house cleaner, chauffeur, precision loader of dishwashers, mover of heavy furniture, and gardener. In particular, the chief mower of grass and hedge trimmer. Even if he was still inept in the more manly arts involving power tools, plumbing and anything to do with electricity, Elaine had obviously found enough other uses to make him worth keeping on, like an old family retainer of yore.
Hugh spread some marmalade on a piece of crustless, barely grilled, British hotel-style white toast and sipped thoughtfully at a cup of coffee long grown cold.
“There was never a middle age pension or whatever to draw on when I was feeling a bit tattered and dog eared, more’s the pity,” he lamented, chewing absently on his last quarter of toast. “Then a few months ago the Ministry of Old People called me to ask if I had completed and submitted the paperwork necessary to become Officially Old. A nice lady spoke to me slowly and carefully. She probably thought I was a halfwit, senile or deaf. She sounded disappointed when I assured her that I didn’t need an interpreter.”
As we flew through the station at Fleet, Hugh lapsed into silence, leaving me no further along in my search for the motive behind Elaine’s homicide plot. I wondered if there was perhaps something in Hugh’s past that had prompted his wife to bring forward the departure date of her husband’s final journey.
I knew that Hugh had spent a considerable part of his early life in the Cro-Magnon pursuit of rugby balls. After he finished at his university the need to earn a living reared its head. The mysteries of adjusting averages with a firm of marine insurance adjusters in the City took his fancy. He met Elaine; they married within the year and, at her suggestion his reluctant retirement from rugby followed immediately upon the heels of the arrival of their third child. When the last of the children headed off to university Hugh and Elaine moved to their present home outside Salisbury. He and I became friends and fellow travellers in the pursuit of an honest daily crust in London.
In the years since I had come to know him only a little arthritis bore testimony to the head-first, if occasionally ill-considered, exuberance with which he habitually tackled life’s obstacle course and opposing rugby players alike. On reflection, there seemed nothing in Hugh’s blameless past that should provoke homicidal feelings in his life’s partner.
“The actuaries in charge of the pension scheme, or whatever they call it,” Hugh offered as he put down his empty coffee cup, “are betting that I shall shortly be consigned to the great recycling bin. I’m sure they chortle and rub their hands with glee every time somebody with an annuity or a pension pops off early. Take my word for it; actuaries can be like that,” he said, nodding for emphasis before embarking upon another considered pause in the narrative. I sensed, however, that the sluice gate had opened a crack. I was sure the rest would pour out in short order. I was not wrong.
“I’m really not ready to sit back every morning with the newspaper, sipping that ghastly tonic wine they keep flogging on the telly or that stuff that’s supposed to fortify the over-40s. But that’s what Elaine seems to think will be my new lot in life unless I do something about it. She’s come up with the perfect solution to what I consider a non-existent problem: what to do when I retire.
“She suggests that we take up golf. To that end she proposes that we sell the house and move to a smaller bungalow on a golf course. There will be no stairs to climb, she says. She’s eager that the en suite bathroom in the master bedroom features one of those walk-in tubs with hand rails you see advertised on TV. The obligatory postage stamp garden will have a lawn too small for me to mow. I’ve come to believe that she may actually have one such place in mind.
“Never mind that I actually enjoy gardening. The stairs are not a bother, even with this wonky knee, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our present house. The neighbours are great. The children have somewhere to stay when they come home for an occasional weekend with their latest love interest in tow. Their sleeping arrangements seem less of a sensitive issue than when Elaine and I were dating.” He suppressed a grin. “And the last thing I need is someone trampling through my petunias in search of an errant golf ball.”
Hugh looked up from his careful study of the toast crumbs on the white linen tablecloth. I knew that he played golf occasionally and it was as if he were reading my mind when he continued, “Now, I must confess to playing the occasional round of golf, though I don’t belong to a club. I have probably averaged two rounds a year over the past 35 years. Elaine plays somewhat less frequently.
“Elaine seems determined that we play golf together once I retire. She tells me that she knows people who do this. Frankly, I’m not sure how they stay married. I have steadfastly refused to teach my wife to drive, play bridge or golf. We have enjoyed a long and happy marriage. There may be a connection; I’m not sure.”
Hugh pushed the toast crumbs into neat piles as he spoke, moving them about as if they were chess pieces on an imaginary board.
“If we do as she suggests and move into a bungalow on a golf course, in time and with practice, I might be able to go a round of 18 holes with three wheezing geezers, listening to them brag about their grandchildren while they change oxygen tanks and swallow Advil. Two weeks shivering on the Algarve in February with the rest of my discretionary income going into golf club membership fees holds less attraction than spending the winters in Barbados.”
He stopped pushing the crumbs around, mate having seemingly followed check. He pulled a face as he looked up.
“I suppose it could be worse,” he said glumly. Then his face brightened.
“You don’t know this any more than Elaine does. It is my deepest, darkest secret and your kidneys will be on toast if it ever, and I mean ever, goes beyond the two of us.”
He glared at me. His Adams Apple bobbed. The menacing look gave way to a sheepish one. He cleared his throat and glanced furtively about him. The confession I sought was about to pour out. He’s a cat burglar, I guessed. Or worse; a closet French speaker.
“Solicitor/Client privilege. My lips are forever sealed,” I assured him.
“Well, old boy, it’s like this. Other than the annual fortnight in the West Indies, winters are not the highlight of my year except for one thing: I write. One day a week I go into the office, shut the door and spend eight hours at my computer, writing. For seven years, between Guy Fawkes Night and Easter I’ve officially been on a four day work week. I’m on my fourteenth book. They’ve all been published, under a pen name of course. Elaine has no inkling.”
He sat back with a look of satisfaction crossing his face. “Not exactly what you were expecting, I bet,” he chuckled. I shook my head, completely fooled by the revelation.
“If you go to your favourite bookstore,” he said, “and ask for the novels of Amber LaFlamme someone will direct you to the Romance section. It is under that name that I pen titillating bodice-rippers for ladies of a certain age. In that medium I transport them through the power of imaginative hyperbole back to the sensual, heady days of their scarce-remembered youth. I give them a glimpse of what once was and what might have been, that all-too-brief interlude between childhood and the acquisition of husbands, cellulite, comfortable underwear and home rinse hair colour.”
I nearly laughed out loud but caught the first chuckle and strangled it before it fled my throat. Hugh fixed me with the type of stony stare normally associated with Indian chiefs in bad Westerns.
“You may laugh,” he muttered sotto voce. “The heaving bosoms and breathless dialogue that abound in this harmless froth are the staple of supermarket paperbacks and earn the retailer a tidy profit.”
“And you?” I asked.
“I do all right out of them I have to admit. So far only my agent and publisher know the identity of Amber LaFlamme. And now you, of course.”
“My lips are forever sealed, Hugh,” I repeated. “But what started you on this decidedly different career?”
We were through Surbiton by this time and the train slowed as it habitually did approaching the congestion of countless commuter trains converging on Clapham Junction.
Hugh looked thoughtful for a moment. “Staring back at myself unmasked every day during the morning shave,” he said with the hang-dog expression of middle-aged men who have failed to live up to their early potential. “I felt an urge to do something completely different with my life. I was past climbing the Matterhorn or bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower. No, I wanted to do something that no-one would ever suspect me of doing.
“I knew Elaine liked to read in bed before turning out the light and I felt a certain kinship with those undemanding husbands fortunate enough to be able to sleep with the other bedside light on while their wives quietly turned the pages of their paperbacks. Curious to know what kind of reading was popular at that time of night, I sneaked a look at the cover and made a mental note. It was my eureka moment. Here was my niche. But for obvious reasons, personal as well as professional, I decided on anonymity in my second career.”
Hugh took a pause for thought and I had the presence of mind not to interrupt.
“Do you have any idea,” he asked, “how many millions of copies of these books are sold every month?”
I shook my head.
“No, nor do,” he said, “I but it runs into lots of millions, that much I can tell you. I read several of them before Elaine gave them to the book stall for the church jumble sale. The rest is history. Elaine has even read one of my offerings. I was very tempted to sign it for her but decided against it. It would spoil the romance if she knew that Amber LaFlamme was her husband of advanced middle age.”
The train slowed to a fast walk as it threaded its way through Clapham Junction, the cue for some to start gathering from the overhead racks bowler hats, pencil-thin, tightly furled umbrellas and equally slim black leather briefcases of the type once popularized by James Bond.
“If Elaine is indeed trying to kill me by incarcerating me in a small cell on the edge of a golf course,” he said in a quiet and gloomy voice, “I hope you will still drop by and see me during visiting hours. If I didn’t have my writing I might fade away to nothingness in mere months. I may even have to confess to her, though I can’t say I’d look forward to it in the least. I suspect she would laugh with derision. Or not believe me. There should always be a few secrets between a man and his wife, don’t you think?”
I agreed rather than start a discussion on the topic.
“If Elaine is unknowingly trying to kill you,” I suggested, “perhaps she really is doing it because she loves you, like she says. Though I can’t think why she still would after all these years.”
“You’re cynical,” Hugh replied, and after another pause for thought, added, “and probably right. But now you mention it, I’m convinced that can be the only reason. She’s doing it for me because she still cares for me.” He sounded positively pleased by the revelation. “Do you think she’d appreciate an autographed boxed set of my oeuvres in my will? As a gesture of gratitude? No? Well, you’re probably right again.”
We stood and reached for our bowlers, brollies and briefcases in the rack. The undignified dash down the platform before disappearing into the bowels of the London Underground for the last part of the trek to the office in the City fast approached. The train screeched to an abrupt halt before it hit the buffers and Hugh and I joined the small army of City-bound gents noisily flinging open the doors.
“I realize it’s not feasible for this creaking, arthritic Neanderthal to play one last game of rugby before the actuaries get the last laugh,” Hugh said over his shoulder. “But I’m not ready for a walk-in bath tub.”