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Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1999 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
THERE is nothing more depressing for a middle-aged lovelorn woman with bald patches on her head than to find herself in an English seaside resort out of season. Wind ripped along the promenade, sending torn posters advertising summer jollities flapping, and huge waves sent spray high into the air.
Agatha had lost her hair when a vengeful hairdresser had applied depilatory to it rather than shampoo. It had grown back in tufts but leaving distressingly bare patches of scalp. Not wishing the love of her life, James Lacey, to return from his travels and find her in such a mess, Agatha had fled from Carsely to this seaside resort of Wyckhadden to wait for her hair to grow.
She had booked into the Garden Hotel, advertised as small but exclusive. She now wished she had chosen somewhere plastic and bright and modern. The Garden Hotel had not changed much since Victorian times. The ceilings were high, the carpets thick, and the walls very solid, so that it was as hushed and quiet as a tomb. The other residents were elderly, and no one feels more uncomfortable among the elderly than a middle-aged woman who is rapidly approaching that stage of life herself. Agatha could suddenly understand why middle-aged men often blossomed out in jeans, high boots and leather jackets and went looking for a young thing to wear on their arm. She walked a lot, determined to lose weight and remain supple.
One look around the dining-room of the Garden at her fellow guests made her start to ponder the sense of getting a face-lift.
The town of Wyckhadden had prospered during a boom in the late nineteenth century, and its popularity had continued well into the twentieth, but with the advent of cheap foreign travel, holiday-makers had declined. Why holiday in Britain in the rain when sunny Spain was only a hour's plane flight away?
So on this windy day, two days after her arrival, she was charging along a deserted promenade, head down against the wind, wondering how soon she could find a sheltered spot to enjoy a cigarette and get some of the excess of oxygen out of her lungs.
She turned away from the restless sound of the heaving sea and made her way up a narrow cobbled street where the original fishermen's cottages had now all been painted pastel colours like in an Italian village and had cute names like Home At Last, Dunroamin, The Refuge and so on, showing that they had been bought by retired wealthy people. Tourism might be on the wane, but property prices in seaside resorts on the south of England were high.
She came to a tea-shop and was about to go in when she saw the non-smoking sign on the door. The government was threatening to ban smoking in pubs, Agatha had read in the newspapers. Not a word about the dangers of alcohol, she thought as a particularly strong gust of wind sent her reeling. People who smoked did not drive off the road or go home and beat up their wives. Drunks did. And with the fumes from more and more cars polluting the air, she thought that smoking had become a political issue. The left were anti-smoking, the right pro-smoking, and the lot in the middle who had given up smoking wanted everyone to suffer.
She saw a pub on the corner called the Dog and Duck. It looked old and pretty, whitewashed with black beams and hanging baskets which swung in the wind. She pushed open the door and went in.
Inside belied the outside. It was dark and gloomy: stained tables, linoleum on the floor, and if there was any heating at all she could not feel it.
She had wanted a coffee, and pubs these days sold coffee, but she felt so low she ordered a double gin and tonic instead. "We don't have ice," said the bartender.
"You don't need it," snapped Agatha. "This place is freezing."
"You're the only one that's complained," he said, scooping up her money.
Should be written on the British flag, thought Agatha sourly. "You're the only one that's complained" was always the answer to the slightly less than timid customer who dared to complain about anything.
Perhaps she should admit defeat and go home. She lit a cigarette. The pub was nearly empty. There was only she herself and a couple talking in low voices in a corner, holding hands and looking at each other with the sad intensity of adulterers. They probably met here, thought Agatha, knowing that no one they knew would see them.
There must be some sort of life in this town.
The pub door swung open and a tall man came in. Agatha studied him as he went up to the bar. He was wearing a long dark overcoat. He had a lugubrious face and large pale eyes under heavy lids. His hair was black, like patent leather, smooth across his head. He ordered a drink and then turned and looked curiously at Agatha. He was far from an Adonis, and yet Agatha was suddenly conscious of her face, reddened by the wind, and her head tied up in a headscarf because she had not wanted to wear her wig.
He walked up to her table and loomed over her. "Are you visiting?" he asked.
"Yes," said Agatha curtly.
"You've picked a bad time of year for it."
"I've picked a bad place," retorted Agatha. "I think people only come here to die."
His pale eyes gleamed with amusement. "Oh, we have our fun. There's dancing in the pier ballroom tonight." He sat down opposite her.
"How on earth to people get to it?" asked Agatha. "Surely anyone trying to get along the pier in this weather would be blown away."
"I tell you what. I'll take you."
"I don't know you!"
He held out a hand. "Jimmy Jessop."
"Well, Mr. Jessop ..."
"Jimmy, then. I'm a bit old to be picked up in a crummy pub by someone I don't know."
He seemed amused by her glaring eyes and haughty manner. "If you normally go on like this you can't have any fun at all. If you go to a dance with me, what terrible thing could happen to you? I am probably the same age as you, so I'm hardly going to try to take off my clothes and rape you."
"You don't need to take off all your clothes to rape someone."
"I wouldn't know, never having tried it."
Agatha suddenly thought of another gloomy evening alone at the Garden.
"Oh, why not. I'm Agatha Raisin. Mrs. Agatha Raisin. I'm staying at the Garden Hotel."
"And is there a Mr. Raisin?"
He looked surprised but then he said, "I'll pick you up at eight o'clock. The pier's close to your hotel, so we can walk. Want another one?" He pointed to her empty glass.
"No, I'd best get back." Agatha just wanted to get away from him, to get back to the hotel and figure out whether she should really go. If she changed her mind, she could always tell reception to tell him that she was indisposed.
She gathered up her handbag and gloves. He stood up and held the door open for her.
"Till tonight," he said. Agatha mumbled something and scurried out past him.
Back in her hotel room, she stood before the long glass on the wardrobe door and studied her reflection to see if there was anything about her that should make some strange man invite her out. Her head was tightly wrapped in a headscarf, her face without make-up was shiny and her nose was still pink with the cold. Her eyes looked even smaller than usual. She took off her coat and unwound her headscarf and looked dismally at the tufts of hair on her head. No, he must be weird. She would not go. She looked at her watch. It was nearly lunch-time. She washed her face and then sat down at the dressing-table — kidney-shaped, with a triple mirror and a green silk flounce to match the slippery green silk cover on the large bed. A flapper's dressing-table, thought Agatha. She wondered whether there was any new furniture in the hotel at all. She carefully applied makeup and then put on a glossy brown wig. Not bad, she thought. Now if Jimmy Jessop had seen her looking like this ...
She gathered up her handbag again and then a paperback as a barrier in case any of the geriatrics in the dining-room tried to start up a conversation, and made her way down the thickly carpeted stairs with their brass risers. A fitful gleam of sunshine stabbed down through a large stained-glass window on the landing, chequering the Turkey-red carpet on the stairs with harlequin colours.
The dining-room was high-ceilinged with long windows overlooking the sea.
She took a table in the corner and covertly surveyed the other diners. There was an elderly man whom the waitresses addressed as Colonel. He had a good head of snowy-white hair and a lined, tanned face. He was tall and upright and wearing an old but well-cut tweed jacket. Glancing over at him and obviously trying to catch his attention was a lady with improbably blonde hair. She was heavily powdered and her lipstick was a screaming red. She was wearing a low-cut blouse which showed too much shrivelled and freckled neck. There was another man, small and crabby-looking with a dowager's hump. Then two elderly women, one tall and masculine in tweeds, the other small, weedy, and rabbity-looking.
What an advertisement for euthanasia, thought Agatha sourly.
The food when it arrived was good, solid English cooking. That day the main course was pork tenderloin glazed with honey, served with apple sauce, onions, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, cauliflower and cheese, and peas.
It was followed by toffee pudding and lashings of Devon cream. Agatha ate the lot, and she groaned as she could feel the band of her skirt tightening. She would need to go for another long walk or she would feel lethargic and heavy for the rest of the day.
This time, as the tide had gone out, she went down onto the shingly beach where great grey-green waves crashed and surged.
She had a sudden memory of a piece of poetry learned at school.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world
Agatha brightened. It was grand to be able to remember things, if only a fragment of poetry. That was one of her fears, that her memories would be lost to her one day.
There was something hypnotic about the rise and fall of the waves. The wind was slowly dropping and pale sunlight gilded the restless sea. She walked miles before she turned back to the hotel, feeling energetic and refreshed. She may as well go to the dance on the pier with the mysterious Jimmy Jessop. It was unexpected, a little adventure.
Her mind was thoroughly made up when the blonde woman met her in the reception area and fluted, "We haven't been introduced. I am Mrs. Daisy Jones."
Agatha held out her hand. "Agatha Raisin."
"Well, Miss Raisin ..."
"Mrs. Raisin. The colonel, that is dear Colonel Lyche, has suggested we all get together after dinner for a game of Scrabble. There are so few of us. Miss Jennifer Stobbs, and Miss Mary Dulsey are very keen players. And Mr. Harry Berry usually beats us all."
"Too kind," said Agatha, backing away, "but I've got a date."
"I thought you were a business woman when I saw you. I said to the colonel —"
"I mean a date. A fellow."
"Oh, really. Another time, then."
Agatha escaped up to her room. Surely a dance on the pier was infinitely preferable to an evening playing Scrabble with that lot!
At seven o'clock, she picked up the phone and ordered sandwiches and a bottle of mineral water to be served to her in her room.
When the elderly waiter creaked in with it ten minutes later, Agatha tipped him lavishly because he looked too old and frail to be carrying one of the heavy solid-silver trays the hotel used for room service.
She ate quickly and then put on an evening blouse and a black velvet skirt. She carefully put on her wig and made up her face. Then she swung open the wardrobe door. The wardrobe could have been turned into a room in another type of hotel, she thought. It was one of those vast Victorian mahogany ones. Hanging there was her mink coat. She took it out, her hands caressing the fur. Should she wear it? Or would some animal libber spit at her and try to wrench it off her back? Or was it safe to consign it to the perils of the pier ballroom cloakroom? If she put on a cloth coat, then she would need to wear a cardigan over her evening blouse. With a feeling of sin, she wrapped it round her, remembering when she had bought it in the dear, dead days when fur was fashionable. Then she tied a silk scarf over her wig to anchor it. The wind might rise again.
When she went downstairs, Jimmy was waiting in the reception, wearing white evening shirt and black tie under another long black coat.
"Dressy affair?" asked Agatha.
"We always dress up in Wyckhadden," he said. "We're pretty old-fashioned."
"What kind of dancing is it?" asked Agatha. "Disco?"
As they walked along the pier, Agatha saw a poster, BALLROOM DANCING FOR THE OLD-TYMERS, it said. And then in smaller letters, "Old-Age Pensioners, Half-Price."
This place'll make me old before my time, thought Agatha, and suddenly wished she had not come.
They checked their coats in at the desk and then walked into the ballroom. The dancers were all middle-aged or elderly, performing a lively military Two-Step. "Shall we?" asked Jimmy. Agatha looked longingly at the bar. "I could do with a drink first."
"Right you are." He led her over to the bar. "Gin and tonic?"
Agatha nodded. He collected their drinks and they sat down at a small table next to the dance floor.
A couple came up to join them, a tall redhead with big hair, big bosoms and hard eyes so mascaraed that they looked as if two spiders were resting on her face. Her partner was small, wearing a bright red jacket and white trousers. "'Ow's our Jimmy?" asked the redhead.
"Agatha," said Jimmy, "this is Maisie and Chris Leeman. Agatha Raisin."
"Mind if we join you?" asked Maisie and she and Chris drew up chairs and sat down as well without being asked. "Fetch me a brandy and Babycham, Chris, there's a love," said Maisie. She turned to Agatha. "I haven't seen you before."
"I'm on holiday," said Agatha.
"Where you staying?"
"Oh, there's posh for you." She nudged Jimmy in the ribs. "Got yourself a rich widow, eh?"
What awful people, thought Agatha. If only I could escape. Chris came back with drinks. He asked Agatha what she was doing in Wyckhadden and Agatha explained again that she was on holiday.
"Odd place for a holiday. Most people come here to die." Chris nudged Maisie in the ribs and she shrieked with laughter.
"Dance, Agatha?" asked Jimmy.
"Yes, please." Agatha rose from the table and gratefully joined Jimmy in the Saint Bernard's waltz. Why am I such a snob? she fretted. But I really can't bear Chris and Maisie and if that's the kind of friends he has, I don't want to see any more of him after this evening. Jimmy was dancing expertly and exchanging greetings with other couples on the floor. He seemed to know an awful lot of people, but then Wyckhadden was a small place. "Have you lived here very long?" asked Agatha, executing a neat pirouette. Amazing how the steps came back to one.
"All my life," he said.
"I never asked you if you were married."
"I was," said Jimmy. "She died."
"Two. I've a son of twenty-eight and a daughter of thirty-two."
"And what do they do?" asked Agatha, wondering if she could steer him away from Chris and Maisie after this dance finished.
"John, my son, is an engineer. Not married. Joan is married to a university lecturer at Essex University. Got two kids. Very happy."
The dance finished. A tango was announced. To her relief, Agatha could see Chris and Maisie taking the floor.
They sat down again. A couple danced past. "Taking a night off from the villains, Jimmy?" called the woman.
He laughed and nodded.
"What did she mean?" asked Agatha.
"I'm a police inspector."
Agatha's eyes gleamed. "I'm by way of being an amateur detective," she said. She proceeded to give him several highly embroidered accounts of her various "cases." She was so carried away by her stories that she failed to notice he was looking more and more uncomfortable.
She was just in the middle of what she considered a highly enthralling account of a murder case she had been involved in when Chris and Maisie returned to the table.
"Care to dance, Maisie?" asked Jimmy, seemingly unaware that Agatha was in mid-sentence.
Agatha turned a mortified pink as Jimmy led Maisie onto the floor. "Dance?" suggested Chris.
"Why not?" replied Agatha gloomily.
Excerpted from Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 1999 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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