Read an Excerpt
A Poisoned Mind
'The face of courage,' said the caption under a photograph that made Trish Maguire's teeth ache with sympathy.
Angela Fortwell's spare features were stripped of everything most middle-aged women used to disguise reality. There was no make-up or floppy fringe to soften the harshness of her cheekbones or the lines on her forehead, and no fake colour in the hair itself. She'd kept her own washed-out browny grey, and the ragged ends looked as though she'd cut them with sheep shears. Her eyes, deep set and very dark, looked out of the newspaper with an expression that said 'J'accuse' more clearly than any headline.
Trish let herself reread the interview, skimming back through the woman's description of how she and her husband had decided over twenty-six years ago to abandon their City jobs for the satisfactions of sheep farming on the fringes of the Northumberland National Park. Some phrases stuck out: 'We wanted our children to breathe clean air and eat honest food. We couldn't have them growing up with all the scary greed we'd found in London.'
How cruel that such a wholesome ambition should have been punished with one disillusion after another, Trish thought.
Having successfully produced a son they called Adam while they were still in London, the Fortwells had never produced another child. The one they had grew up to resent them for what they'd given up. He'd departed at the age of eighteen and cut off all contact. The last line of the interview read: 'He didn't even write or phone when his father was killed. He could be dead, too, for all I know.'
And this was the woman Trish's head of chambers was about to trounce in court. The ache sharpened as she jammed her teeth even more tightly together.
In spite of the barristers' cab-rank rule, which stated that any suitably qualified member of the Bar who was free to take an offered case must do so, Trish wondered how Antony Shelley could bring himself to accept this one. Brilliant and cynical as he was, he'd trot out all the familiar answers if she ever put the question, so she wouldn't bother.
Instead, she contemplated the only task she had this morning and the various ways she might spin it out. She had taken silk earlier in the year, becoming a senior barrister with the grand title of Queen's Counsel, and her practice had suffered in the usual way.
Once you were a silk, you were much more expensive than you'd been as a junior, and you had to have a junior of your own on every case, adding even more to the costs for the client. Few of them would willingly take a risk on an untried QC, but until you'd done a few big cases, you couldn't prove yourself capable.
Trish was used to self-control these days, and to organising her thoughts to stop them destroying her peace. Counting her pleasures usually helped so she set about it now. The most childish was provided by the jealousy of her old rival in chambers, Robert Anstey, who was still a junior.
When the position of QC had been reinstated after a short interval and a great deal of protest, both of them had applied. Only she had succeeded and Robert still couldn't understand how anyone could possibly prefer her to him. After all, he was endowed with everything she lacked: masculinity, a comfortable upbringing amid rich legal connections, a posh voice, public-school education, and three glorious privileged years at Oxford.
She should also have found pleasure in her rare freedom, but that was harder to appreciate. For the first time in years she had unoccupied hours during the day. Once she would have been too busy ever to sit idly like this without having to pay later. Now she could put her feet on her desk and read the newspaper, look forward to a long lunch with Antony, and still know she'd be home in time to organise tea for David, the 14-year-old half-brother who lived with her, and probably for his alarming new schoolfriend too.
The thought of the friend made her swing her feet back to the floor and open her laptop, to look again at the draft of a letter she'd been writing to their head teacher. Several false starts had made her bless the laptop for saving her from all the screwed-up balls of rough paper she would once have chucked in the bin. Eventually she felt she'd achieved the right tone of stern reproof, without descending to insult - or not much insult - but she wanted to be quite sure before she printed and sent it off.
David has been bringing Jay Smith home for tea most days since the start of term, and we have now come to know each other well enough for him to tell me his place at Blackfriars is only temporary. It wasclear he wouldn't be happy answering questions, so I may have some details wrong, but the impression he gave me is that one of the teachers at his old school was so frustrated by his combination of brains and refusal to work that he negotiated for Jay to be given a single term at Blackfriars to see how rich boys are educated, in the hope that it would make him focus on what he was throwing away. If this is true, I am shocked.
From the little Jay's said, I know he has a difficult background, and it's not hard to deduce from his attitude and the few anecdotes he's shared that he must often have been in trouble. He is clearly bright, has a great deal of charm, and has never put a foot wrong while I've been around. But I think the stress of knowing he will soon be sent back to what sounds like the worst of sink schools is undoing any good his time at Blackfriars might have achieved.
I seriously dislike the thought of any child being subjected to the torture of Tantalus, and that's more or less what you're doing to Jay. I believe that, having taken him on, you have a duty to keep him until he has had a chance to take his A levels. I feel so strongly about this that I am willing to share the cost. If you and the governors agree to keep him, I will pay half his fees for the next four years.
Yours ever, Trish Maguire
Even though her earnings had dropped after her recent promotion, she'd been stashing away more than enough over the past few years to cover all Jay's fees and never miss the money, but she was so angry with the way the school had behaved she was determined to make them pay a fair share.
Aware that rage often made her pompous, she went through the letter again and decided the torture of Tantalus was over the top.
What she actually wanted to say was: you've chosen to bring into the school a boy with so many problems he's like an unlit Molotov cocktail. Anything you do to make him angry will be like putting a match to it. If it were not for the fact that my beloved brother likes him and has more or less adopted him, I would leave you to deal with the inevitable disaster yourself. As it is, I can't.
She rewrote the letter in the simplest style, avoiding the torture of Tantalus and all hints of criticism, decided it would do and faxed it to the school. She was just checking her email in-box when Antony put his head round her door to summon her to lunch. This was his last working day of freedom before he had to go to court to defend Clean World Waste Management, whose exploding chemical tanks had killed Angela Fortwell's husband, and he wanted to make the most of it.
Trish nodded to him, clicked out of the email window, and reached behind her for the new jacket slung across the back of her chair. Its rich chestnut-coloured silk tweed did much more for her pale skin than the black and white she had to wear in court. Over the years, she'd learned to seize any opportunity to sport something brighter, however clearly it might advertise her brief-less status.
'Weird how that bull's-turd colour suits you,' Antony said as they emerged from chambers into the late autumn sun.
Ignoring him, she turned her face up to the warmth. This was one of those special London days, when the air tasted clean, the sun shone in a bright blue sky, and the trees stillheld on to some of their newly reddened leaves. The ones that had already fallen were neatly swept into piles awaiting collection.
Trish loved their smell. The spiciness might be the product of rot, but it always made her think of childhood firework parties, and roasting apples with the sugar slowly turning to caramel.
'If George were here,' Antony went on as they strolled towards his favourite restaurant, 'he'd be reciting Keats's "Ode to Autumn". "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" and all that.'
Trish shot a quick sideways glance at him. Whenever she'd seen him with her partner the two men had got on perfectly well, which was hardly surprising given that George was a successful London solicitor and they had a lot of friends in common, but Antony rarely passed up any opportunity to tease her about George's more stolid qualities.
'His taste's a bit less obvious than that,' she said, trying not to sound defensive. 'And it's not his fault anyway. It's the kind of British-Empire family he comes from. They brought him up to use poetry for all the feelings proper chaps aren't meant to have. Other Men's Flowers and all that.'
Antony laughed. 'You always rise to the bait, Trish, even now after - what? Ten years?'
'Not quite. But getting on that way.'
'How's it going?'
'Great,' she said, without explanation.
She'd passed through several stages with George, none of which she would choose to describe to anyone else and some of which had been pretty rough. Now they'd bothregained their sense of humour, and they lived in a state of emotional comfort that still seemed extraordinary. They knew who they were and why they had come together in the first place. Trish also knew that, whatever happened, she could trust George. She hoped the same was true for him.
'What are you thinking about?' Antony asked, pushing open the door of the restaurant so that she could precede him.
'The menu,' she said and knew from his familiar snort that he didn't believe her for a second.
Angie was standing in the kitchen of Fran and Greg's first-floor flat in Kentish Town, gaping at the heaps of files they'd filled as they'd worked to prepare her case against the people responsible for John's death.
'What's the matter, love?' Fran said, tossing a swathe of silky red-blonde hair over her ample shoulder. 'You look like you've seen a ghost.'
Angie shook her head and rubbed a hand over her eyes, feeling the edge of an ancient callus snag on her eyelid. Next to Fran's magnificence, she felt dried-up and old.
'I just don't know what I've done to deserve all this,' she said, waving at the files before she remembered her ugly hands. She stuffed them in her pockets. 'Without you two, I'd be stuck up there on the farm, writing my useless letters to people who couldn't care less about John or the farm or me, and wondering whether I'd starve before the cancer got me.'
The temperature in the heart of the fireball had been high enough to destroy the carcinogenic benzene there, but plenty had been left on the fringes of the explosion to leach into the ground and poison the watercourses. And the rainthat had seemed like a godsend at the time had actually made everything far worse, diluting the fire crew's foam and spreading the pollution far and wide.
Fran leaned over to give her a kiss. 'And without you, I'd still be handing out our leaflets in shopping centres, knowing hardly anyone would bother to read them or understand why companies like CWWM have to be stopped before they destroy the whole world with their filthy chemicals.'
'She's right, you know,' Greg said, pushing a stoneware mug towards Angie. 'If you hadn't been brave enough to risk everything by being a litigant in person, we'd never have got them into court.'
Angie nodded her thanks for the tea and he beamed before returning to the cooker to stir his pan of bean stew. Steam billowed out, scented with onions and herbs, which made her realise how hungry she was.
Enough to enjoy another compost heap of vegetables? she asked herself with a disloyal spurt of silent laughter.
'What's so funny?' Fran asked, sounding hurt enough to need an answer.
'I was just thinking how much John would have liked you.' These days Angie could usually say his name aloud without crying or feeling as though someone had her guts on a hook and was slowly pulling them out of her, but it had taken a long time. 'And yet how hard he'd have had to work to stop himself quarrelling with you.'
'Quarrelling? Why? He sounds like such a good man.'
'He was, and he'd have loved your generosity, and the way you care so much.' Angie enjoyed Fran's smile and hoped it would last. 'But he would have had difficulties with some of your principles.'
Greg stopped stirring and turned to look over his shoulder again. His brown eyes were oddly set, with one apparently higher than the other, which often made it hard to read his expression.
'Like what?' he said.
'He claimed that if everyone went back to eating meat we'd get our farm in profit again and save the planet.'
'I don't understand.' Greg's eyes looked as vulnerable as a new lamb's and his voice was puzzled. Angie wished she didn't have to spell it out.
'Well, one of the chief causes of global warning is methane. And you know how a diet of beans'
Fran managed to laugh, but Greg didn't. Angie wondered if he was about to explain that cows produce more methane than any other living creature.
'Was money so very tight?' he said after a short tricky silence.
'It gave us nightmares for years.' Angie had lost all desire to laugh. 'That's why John cancelled all the insurance policies, which is why I have to win this case if I'm ever to get enough money to make the farm habitable again.'
'You will win,' Fran said, stroking Angie's bony wrist. 'And you'll get justice for John. When it's over no one will ever again be able to say his death was an accident.'
'I hope to God you're right.'
In the first terrible aftermath of the fire, Angie had assumed the police would charge the directors of CWWM with murder, or manslaughter at the very least. When she'd heard nothing from them, she'd written to everyone with any kind of power, from the local Chief Constable to the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, her MP and the Prime Minister, begging them to help. No one haddone anything except tell her to wait until after the official investigation.
None of the lawyers she'd approached had been prepared to help either. All of them had wanted to know the results of the official inquiries before they decided whether to act for her without money up front. Legal Aid hadn't been available. She was too asset-rich to get that, which would have been funny if it hadn't been so cruel. The fire had made the farm and the land even less saleable than they'd been when she and John had first tried to find a buyer for the wreck of their broken dream.
Close to despair, she'd started to look up the friendlier of her old City contacts, most of whom were now chairing multinationals and quangos. Some had been sympathetic but none had seen a way to help. One had even written to criticise her 'vindictive attempt to pillory CWWM', adding:
It really won't help to use emotive words like 'murder'. Whatever happened to the tanks, John was not murdered. Stick with reality and you'll do better.
I know you, Angie. You let your temper ride you at the slightest possible opportunity. Give yourself a chance this time and ignore it. Wait for the official report, not least because you could get far more compensation then than if you push for a sum now.
In case your financial situation is too parlous to wait, I'm enclosing a cheque to tide you over.
If he hadn't reminded her about the past consequences of her awful temper she might have seen the generosity in his cheque. As it was all she'd noticed was how patronisingly he'd phrased his letter. She'd torn up both and sent thepieces back, telling him charity was no good to her; she wanted justice.
Only the next day she'd had the first approach from Fran, offering both sympathy and the practical help of her small pressure group, Friends Against the Destruction of the Environment, which she'd explained was known as FADE. Angie could still remember how she'd leaned back against the cold Aga, reading and rereading Fran's letter, looking for the trick in it because by then she'd learned never to rely on anyone, except her best friend Polly Green.
But it had been genuine. Over the next months, Fran had become a real friend. Greg was kind too, although he didn't have Fran's lovely powerful warmth or her ability to laugh at all the right moments, and their flat had turned into far more of a home than the empty farmhouse with its agonising echoes of John.
Angie looked round the bright kitchen now, watching them work, occasionally turning to smile at her or say something easy and unimportant she could answer without thinking.
In the far-off days of her City career, when she and John had been high-spending young stars of corporate finance, she would have looked down on this Housing Association two-bedroom, first-floor flat in one of the grottier areas of Kentish Town. Now, with the laborious years stretching out behind her, she felt cradled in luxury at the very thought of the shabby refuge, with its hot water on demand, bus stop right outside the front door and tube station an easy walk away.
A POISONED MIND. Copyright © 2008 by Natasha Cooper. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.