Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
There was no real motive and no premeditation. No money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman's disability was made known not to a mere family or a handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished by it nothing but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing. And yet, although her companion and partner was mad, Eunice was not. She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman.
Literacy is one of the cornerstones of civilisation. To be illiterate is to be deformed. And the derision that was once directed at the physical freak may, perhaps more justly, descend upon the illiterate. If he or she can live a cautious life among the uneducated, all may be well, for in the country of the purblind the eyeless is not rejected. It was unfortunate for Eunice Parchman, and for them, that the people who employed her and in whose home she lived for ten months were peculiarly literate. Had they been a family of philistines, they might be alive today and Eunice free in her mysterious dark freedom of sensation and instinct and blank absence of the printed word.
They belonged to the upper middle class and they lived a conventional upper-middle-class life in a country house. George Coverdale had a philosophy degree, but since the age of thirty he had been managing director of his late father's company, Tin Box Coverdale, at Stantwich in Suffolk. With his wife and his three children, Peter, Paula, and Melinda, he had occupied a large 1930-ish house on theoutskirts of Stantwich until his wife died of cancer when Melinda was twelve.
Two years later, at the wedding of Paula to Brian Caswall, George met Jacqueline Mont. She also had been married before, had divorced her husband for desertion, was then thirty-seven, and had been left with one son. George and Jacqueline fell in love more or less at first sight and were married three months later. George bought a manor house ten miles from Stantwich and went to live there with his bride, with Melinda, and with Giles Mont, Peter Coverdale having at that time been married for three years.
When Eunice Parchman was engaged as their housekeeper George was fifty-seven and Jacqueline forty-two. They took an active part in the social life of the neighborhood, and in an unobtrusive way had slipped into playing the parts of the squire and his lady. Their marriage was idyllic and Jacqueline was popular with her stepchildren, Peter, a lecturer in political economy at a northern university, Paula, now herself a mother and living in London, and Melinda who, at twenty, was reading English at the University of Norfolk at Galwich. Her own son, Giles, aged seventeen, was still at school.
Four members of this family—George, Jacqueline, and Melinda Coverdale and Giles Mont—died in the space of fifteen minutes on February 14, St. Valentine's Day. Eunice Parchman and the prosaically named Joan Smith shot them down on a Sunday evening while they were watching opera on television. Two weeks later Eunice was arrested for the crime—because she could not read.
But there was more to it than that.
The gardens of Lowfield Hall are overgrown now and weeds push their way up through the gravel of the drive. One of the drawing-room windows, broken by a village boy, has been boarded up, and wisteria, killed by summer drought, hangs above the front door like an old dried net. Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
It has become a bleak house, fit nesting place for the birds that Dickens named Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.
Before Eunice came, before Eunice left and left desolation behind her, Lowfield Hall was not like this. It was as well kept as its distant neighbours, as comfortable, as warm, as elegant, and, seemingly, as much a sanctuary as they. Its inhabitants were safe and happy, and destined surely to lead long secure lives.
But on an April day they invited Eunice in.
A little blustery wind was blowing the daffodils in the orchard, waves on a golden sea. The clouds parted and closed again, so that at one moment it was winter in the garden and at the next an uneasy summer. And in those sombre intervals it might have been snow, not the blossom of the blackthorn, that whitened the hedge.
Winter stopped at the windows. The sun brought in flashes of summer to match the pleasant warmth, and it was warm enough for Jacqueline Coverdale to sit down to breakfast in a short-sleeved dress.
She was holding a letter in her hand, in her left hand on which she wore her platinum wedding ring and the diamond cluster George had given her on their engagement.
"I'm not looking forward to this at all," she said.
"More coffee, please, darling," said George. He loved watching her do things for him, as long as she didn't have to do too much. He loved just looking at her, so pretty, his Jacqueline, fair, slender, a Lizzie Siddal matured. Six years of marriage, and he hadn't got used to the wonder of it, the miracle that he had found her. "Sorry," he said. "You're not looking forward to it? Well, we didn't get any other replies. Women aren't exactly queueing up to work for us."
She shook her head, a quick pretty gesture. Her hair was very blonde, short and sleek. "We could try again. I know you'll say I'm silly, George, but I had a sort of absurd hope that we'd get—well, someone like ourselves. At any rate, a reasonably educated person who was willing to take on domestic service for the sake of a nice home."
"A lady, as they used to say."
Jacqueline smiled in rather a shamefaced way. "Eva Baalham would write a better letter than this one. E. Parchman! What a way for a woman to sign her name!"
"It was correct usage for the Victorians."
"Maybe, but we're not Victorians. Oh dear, I wish we were. Imagine a smart parlourmaid waiting on us now, and a cook busy in the kitchen." And Giles, she thought but didn't say aloud, obliged to be well mannered and not to read at table. Had he heard any of this? Wasn't he the least bit interested? "No income tax," she said, "and no horrible new houses all over the countryside."
"And no electricity either," said George, touching the radiator behind him, "or constant hot water, and perhaps Paula dying in childbirth."
"I know." Jacqueline returned to her original tack. "But that letter, darling, and her bleak manner when she phoned. I just know she's going to be a vulgar lumpish creature who'll break the china and sweep the dust under the mats."
"You can't know that, and it's hardly fair judging her by one letter. You want a housekeeper, not a secretary. Go and see her. You've fixed this interview, Paula's expecting you, and you'll only regret it if you let the chance go by. If she makes a bad impression on you, just tell her no, and then we'll think about trying again."
The grandfather clock in the hall struck the first quarter after eight. George got up. "Come along now, Giles, I believe that clock's a few minutes slow." He kissed his wife. Very slowly Giles closed his copy of the Bhagavad Gita which had been propped against the marmalade pot, and with a kind of concentrated lethargy extended himself to his full, emaciated, bony height. Muttering under his breath something that might have been Greek or, for all she knew, Sanscrit, he let his mother kiss his spotty cheek.
"Give my love to Paula," said George, and off they went in the white Mercedes, George to Tin Box Coverdale, Giles to the Magnus Wythen Foundation School. Silence settled upon them in the car after George, who tried, who was determined to keep on trying, had remarked that it was a very windy day. Giles said, "Mmm." As always, he resumed his reading. George thought, Please let this woman be all right, because I can't let Jackie keep on trying to run that enormous place, it's not fair. We shall have to move into a bungalow or something, and I don't want that, God forbid, so please let this E. Parchman be all right.
There are six bedrooms in Lowfield Hall, a drawing room, a dining room, a morning room, three bathrooms, a kitchen, and what are known as usual offices. In this case, the usual offices were the back kitchen and the gun room. On that April morning the house wasn't exactly dirty but it wasn't clean either. There was a bluish film on all the thirty-three windows, and the film was decorated with fingerprints and finger smears. Eva Baalham's, and probably, even after two months, those of the last and most lamentable of all the au pairs. Jacqueline had worked it out once and estimated that six thousand square feet of carpet covered the floors. This, however, was fairly clean. Old Eva loved plying the vacuum cleaner while chatting about her relations. She used a duster too, up to eye level. It was just unfortunate that her eyes happened to be about four feet nine from the ground.
Jacqueline put the breakfast things in the dishwasher, the milk and butter in the fridge. The fridge hadn't been defrosted for six weeks. Had the oven ever been cleaned? She went upstairs. It was awful, she ought to be ashamed of herself, she knew that, but her hand came away grey with dust from the banisters. The little bathroom, the one they called the children's bathroom, was in a hideous mess, Giles's latest acne remedy, a kind of green paste, caked all over the basin. She hadn't made the beds. Hastily she pulled the pink sheet, the blankets, the silk counterpane up over the six-foot-wide mattress she shared with George. Giles's bed could stay the way it was. She doubted if he would notice anyway. Wouldn't notice if the sheets all turned purple and there was a warming pan in it instead of an electric blanket.
Attention to her own appearance she didn't skimp. She often thought it was a pity she wasn't as house-proud as she was Jacqueline-proud, but that was the way it was, that was the way she was. Bath, hair, hands, nails, warmer dress, sheer tights, the new dark green shoes, face painted to look au naturel. She put on the mink George had given her for Christmas. Now down to the orchard to pick an armful of daffodils for Paula. At any rate, she kept the garden nice, not a weed to be seen, and there wouldn't be, not even in the height of summer.
Waves on a golden sea. Snowdrops nestling under the whiter hedge. Twice already, this dry spring, she had mown the lawns, and they were plushy green. An open-air lady I am, thought Jacqueline, the wind on her face, the thin sharp scents of spring flowers delighting her. I could stand here for hours, looking at the river, the poplars in the water meadows, the Greeving Hills with all those cloud shadows racing, racing . . . But she had to see this woman, this E. Parchman. Time to go. If only she turns out to like housework as much as I like gardening.
She went back into the house. Was it her imagination, or did the kitchen really not smell at all nice? Out through the gun room, which was in its usual mess, lock the door, leave Lowfield Hall to accumulate more dust, grow that much more frowsty.
Jacqueline put the daffodils on the back seat of the Ford and set off to drive the seventy miles to London.
George Coverdale was an exceptionally handsome man, classic-featured, as trim of figure as when he had rowed for his university in 1939. Of his three children, only one had inherited his looks, and Paula Caswall was not that one. A sweet expression and gentle eyes saved her from plainness, but pregnancy was not becoming to her, and she was in the eighth month of her second pregnancy. She had a vigorous mischievous little boy to look after, a fairly big house in Kensington to run, she was huge and tired and her ankles were swollen. Also she was frightened. Patrick's birth had been a painful nightmare, and she looked forward to this coming delivery with dread. She would have preferred to see no one and have no one see her. But she realised that her house was the obvious venue for an interview with this London-based prospective housekeeper, and being endowed with the gracious manners of the Coverdales, she welcomed her stepmother affectionately, enthused over the daffodils, and complimented Jacqueline on her dress. They had lunch, and Paula listened with sympathy to Jacqueline's doubts and forebodings about what would ensue at two o'clock.
However, she was determined to take no part in this interview. Patrick had gone for his afternoon sleep, and when the doorbell rang at two minutes to two Paula did no more than show the woman in the navy-blue raincoat into the living room. She left her to Jacqueline and went upstairs to lie down. But in those few seconds she spent with Eunice Parchman she felt a violent antipathy to her. Eunice affected her in that moment as she so often affected others. It was as if a coldness, almost an icy breath, emanated from her. Wherever she was, she brought a chill into the warm air. Later Paula was to remember this first impression and, in an agony of guilt, reproach herself for not warning her father, for not telling him of a wild premonition that was to prove justified. She did nothing. She went to her bedroom and fell into a heavy troubled sleep.
Jacqueline's reaction was very different. From having been violently opposed to engaging this woman, till then unseen, she did a complete about-face within two minutes. Two factors decided her, or her principal weaknesses decided for her. These were her vanity and her snobbishness.
She rose as the woman came into the room and held out her hand.
"Good afternoon. You're very punctual."
"Good afternoon, madam."
Except by assistants in the few remaining old-fashioned shops in Stantwich, Jacqueline hadn't been addressed as madam for many years. She was delighted. She smiled.
"Is it Miss Parchman or Mrs.?"
"Miss Parchman. Eunice Parchman."
"Won't you sit down?"
No repulsive chill or, as Melinda would have put it, "vibes" affected Jacqueline. She was the last of the family to feel it, perhaps because she didn't want to, because almost from that first moment she was determined to take Eunice Parchman on, and then, during the months that followed, to keep her. She saw a placid-looking creature with a rather too small head, pale firm features, permed brown hair mixed with grey, small steady blue eyes, a massive body that seemed to go neither out nor in, large shapely hands, very clean with short nails, large shapely legs in heavy brown nylon, large feet in somewhat distorted black court shoes. As soon as Eunice Parchman had sat down she undid the top button of her raincoat to disclose the polo neck of a lighter blue ribbed jumper. Calmly she sat there, looking down at her hands folded in her lap.
Without admitting it even to herself, Jacqueline Coverdale liked handsome men and plain women. She got on well with Melinda but not so well as she got on with the less attractive Paula and Peter's jolie laide wife, Audrey. She suffered from what might be called a Gwendolen complex, for, like Wilde's Miss Fairfax, she preferred a woman to be "fully forty-two and more than usually plain for her age." Eunice Parchman was at least as old as herself, very likely older, though it was hard to tell, and there was no doubt about her plainness. If she had belonged to her own class, Jacqueline would have wondered why she didn't wear make-up, undergo a diet, have that tabby-cat hair tinted. But in a servant, all was as it should be.
In the face of this respectful silence, confronted by this, to her, entirely prepossessing appearance, Jacqueline forgot the questions she had intended to ask. And instead of examining the candidate, instead of attempting to find out if this woman were suitable to work in her house, if she would suit the Coverdales, she began persuading Eunice Parchman that they would suit her.
"It's a big house, but there are only three of us except when my stepdaughter comes home for the weekend. There's a cleaner three days a week, and of course I should do all the cooking myself."
"I can cook, madam," said Eunice.
"It wouldn't be necessary, really. There's a dishwasher and a deep freeze. My husband and I do all the shopping." Jacqueline was impressed by this woman's toneless voice that, though uneducated, had no trace of a Cockney accent. "We do entertain quite a lot," she said almost fearfully.
Eunice moved her feet, bringing them close together. She nodded slowly. "I'm used to that. I'm a hard worker."
At this point Jacqueline should have asked why Eunice was leaving her present situation, or at least something about her present situation. For all she knew, there might not have been one. She didn't ask. She was bemused by those "madams," excited by the contrast between this woman and Eva Baalham, this woman and the last pert, to pretty au pair. It was all so different from what she had expected.
Eagerly she said, "When could you start?"
Eunice's blank face registered a faint surprise, as well it might.
"You'll want a reference," she said.
"Oh yes," said Jacqueline, reminded. "Of course."
A white card was produced from Eunice's large black handbag. On it was written in the same handwriting as the letter that had so dismayed Jacqueline in the first place: Mrs. Chichester, 24 Willow Vale, London, S.W. 18, and a phone number. The address was the one which had headed Eunice's letter.
"That's Wimbledon, isn't it?"
Again Eunice nodded. No doubt she was gladdened by this erroneous assumption. They discussed wages, when she would start, how she would travel to Stantwich. Subject, of course, Jacqueline said hastily, to the reference being satisfactory.
"I'm sure we shall get on marvellously."
At last Eunice smiled. Her eyes remained cold and still, but her mouth moved. It was certainly a smile. "Mrs. Chichester said, could you phone her tonight before nine? She's an old lady and she goes to bed early."
This show of tender regard for an employer's wishes and foibles could only be pleasing.
"You may be sure I shall," said Jacqueline.
It was only twenty past two and the interview was over.
Eunice said, "Thank you, madam. I can see myself out," thus indicating, or so it seemed to Jacqueline, that she knew her place. She walked steadily from the room without looking back.
If Jacqueline had had a better knowledge of Greater London she would have realised that Eunice Parchman had already told her a lie, or at least acquiesced in a misapprehension. For the postal district of Wimbledon is S.W. 19 not S.W. 18, which designates a much less affluent area in the borough of Wandsworth. But she didn't realise and she didn't check, and when she entered Lowfield Hall at six, five minutes after George had got home, she didn't even show him the white card.
"I'm sure she'll be ideal, darling," she enthused, "really the kind of old-fashioned servant we thought was an extinct breed. I can't tell you how quiet and respectful she was, not a bit pushing. I'm only afraid she may be too humble. But I know she's going to be a hard worker."
George put his arm round his wife and kissed her. He said nothing about her volte-face, uttered no "I told you so's." He was accustomed to Jacqueline's prejudices, succeeded often by wild enthusiasm, and he loved her for her impulsiveness, which in his eyes made her seem young and sweet and feminine. What he said was, "I don't care how humble she is or how pushing, as long as she takes some of the load of work off your hands."
Before she made the phone call Jacqueline, who had an active imagination, had formed a picture in her mind of the kind of household in which Eunice Parchman worked and the kind of woman who employed her. Willow Vale, she thought, would be a quiet tree-lined road near Wimbledon Common, number 24 large, Victorian; Mrs. Chichester an elderly gentlewoman with rigid notions of behaviour, demanding but just, autocratic, whose servant was leaving her because she wouldn't, or couldn't afford to, pay her adequate wages in these inflationary times.
At eight o'clock she dialled the number. Eunice Parchman answered the phone herself by giving the code correctly, followed by the four digits slowly and precisely enunciated. Again calling Jacqueline madam, she asked her to hold the line while she fetched Mrs. Chichester. And Jacqueline imagined her crossing a sombre overfurnished hall, entering a large and rather chilly drawing room where an old lady sat listening to classical music or reading the In Memoriam column in a quality newspaper. There, on the threshold, she would pause and say in her deferential way:
"Mrs. Coverdale on the phone for you, madam."
The facts were otherwise.
The telephone in question was attached to the wall on the first landing of a rooming house in Earlsfield, at the top of a flight of stairs. Eunice Parchman had been waiting patiently by it since five in case, when it rang, some other tenant should get to it first. Mrs. Chichester was a machine tool operator in her fifties called Annie Cole who sometimes performed small services of this kind in exchange for Eunice agreeing not to tell the Post Office how, for a year after her mother's death, she had continued to draw that lady's pension. Annie had written the letter and the words on the card, and it was from her furnished room, number 6, 24 Willow Vale, S.W. 18, that Eunice now fetched her to the phone. Annie Cole said:
"I'm really very upset to be losing Miss Parchman, Mrs. Coverdale. She's managed everything so wonderfully for me for seven years. She's a marvellous worker, an excellent cook, and so house-proud! Really, if she has a fault, it's that she's too conscientious."
Even Jacqueline felt that this was laying it on a bit thick. And the voice was peculiarly sprightly—Annie Cole couldn't get rid of Eunice fast enough—with an edge to it the reverse of refined. She had the sense to ask why this paragon was leaving.
"Because I'm leaving myself." The reply came without hesitation. "I'm joining my son in New Zealand. The cost of living is getting impossible here, isn't it? Miss Parchman could come with me, I should welcome the idea, but she's rather conservative. She prefers to stay here. I should like to think of her settling in a nice family like yours."
Jacqueline was satisfied.
"Did you confirm it with Miss Parchman?" asked George.
"Oh, darling, I forgot. I'll have to write to her."
"Or phone back."
Why not phone back, Jacqueline? Dial that number again now. A young man returning to his room next to Annie Cole's, setting his foot now on the last step of that flight of stairs, will lift the receiver. And when you ask for Miss Parchman he will tell you he has never heard of her. Mrs. Chichester, then? There is no Mrs. Chichester, only a Mr. Chichester who is the landlord, in whose name the phone number is but who himself lives in Croydon. Pick up the phone now, Jacqueline . . .
"I think it's better to confirm it in writing."
"Just as you like, darling."
The moment passed, the chance was lost. George did pick up the phone, but it was to call Paula, for the report on her health he had received from his wife had disquieted him. While he was talking to her, Jacqueline wrote her letter.
And the other people whom chance and destiny and their own agency were to bring together for destruction on February 14? Joan Smith was preaching on a cottage doorstep. Melinda Coverdale, in her room in Galwich, was struggling to make sense out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Giles Mont was reciting mantras as an aid to meditation.
But already they were gathered together. In that moment when Jacqueline declined to make a phone call, an invisible thread lassoed each of them, bound them one to another, related them more closely than blood.
Copyright© 2000 by Ruth Rendell