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A Taste for Death
By P.D. James
Random House P.D. James
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The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St. Matthew's in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged ten, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared. This unlikely pair of companions had left Miss Wharton's flat in Crowhurst Gardens just before half past eight to walk the half-mile stretch of the Grand Union Canal to St. Matthew's Church. Here Miss Wharton, as was her custom each Wednesday and Friday, would weed out the dead flowers from the vase in front of the statue of the Virgin, scrape the wax and candle stubs from the brass holders, dust the two rows of chairs in the Lady Chapel, which would be adequate for the small congregation expected at that morning's early Mass, and make everything ready for the arrival at nine twenty of Father Barnes.
It was on a similar mission seven months earlier that she had first met Darren. He had been playing alone on the towpath, if anything as purposeless as hurling old beer cans into the canal could be described as playing, and she had paused to say good morning to him. Perhaps he had been surprised to be greeted by an adult who didn't either admonish or cross-examine him. For whatever reason, after his initial expressionless stare, he had attached himself to her, at first dawdling behind, then circling round her, as might a stray dog, and finally trotting at her side. When they had reached St. Matthew's Church he had followed her inside as naturally as if they had set out together that morning.
It was apparent to Miss Wharton, on that first day, that he had never been inside a church before, but neither then nor on any subsequent visit did he evince the least curiosity about its purpose. He had prowled contentedly in and out of the vestry and bell room while she got on with her chores, had watched critically while she had arranged her six daffodils eked out with foliage in the vase at the foot of the Virgin and had viewed with the bland indifference of childhood Miss Wharton's frequent genuflections, obviously taking these sudden bobbings to be one more manifestation of the peculiar antics of adults.
But she had met him on the towpath the next week and the one following. After the third visit he had, without invitation, walked home with her and had shared her tin of tomato soup and her fish fingers. The meal, like a ritual communion, had confirmed the curious, unspoken, mutual dependence which bound them. But by then she had known, with a mixture of gratitude and anxiety, that he had become necessary to her. On their visits to St. Matthew's he always left the church, mysteriously present one moment and the next gone, when the first members of the congregation began to trickle in. After the service, she would find him loitering on the towpath, and he would join her as if they hadn't parted. Miss Wharton had never mentioned his name to Father Barnes or to anyone else at St. Matthew's and, as far as she knew, he had never, in his secretive world of childhood, mentioned hers. She knew as little about him now, his parents, his life, as she had at their first meeting.
But that had been seven months ago, a chill morning in mid-February, when the bushes which screened the canal walk from the neighbouring council estate had been tangled thickets of lifeless thorn; when the branches of the ash trees had been black with buds so tight that it seemed impossible they could ever crack into greenness; and the thin denuded wands of willow, drooping over the canal, had cut delicate feathers on the quickening stream. Now high summer was browning and mellowing into autumn. Miss Wharton, briefly closing her eyes as she trudged through the mush of fallen leaves, thought that she could still scent, above the smell of sluggish water and damp earth, a trace of the heady elderberry flowers of June. It was that smell which on summer mornings most clearly brought back to her the lanes of her Shropshire childhood. She dreaded the onset of winter, and on waking this morning she had thought that she could smell its breath in the air. Although it hadn't rained for a week, the path was slippery with mud, deadening sound. They walked under the leaves in an ominous quietness. Even the tinny clatter of the sparrows was stilled. But to their right the ditch which bordered the canal was still lush with its summer greenness, its grasses thick over the split tyres, discarded mattresses and scraps of clothing rotting in its depths, and the torn and laden boughs of the willow dropped their thin leaves onto a surface which seemed too oily and stagnant to suck them in.
It was eight forty-five and they were nearing the church, passing now into one of the low tunnels that spanned the canal. Darren, who liked best this part of the walk, gave a whoop and rushed into the tunnel, hollering for an echo and running his hands, like pale starfish, along the brick walls. She followed his leaping figure, half-dreading the moment when she would pass through the arch into that claustrophobic, dank, river-smelling darkness and would hear, unnaturally loud, the suck of the canal against the paving stones and the slow drip of water from the low roof. She quickened her pace, and within minutes the half moon of brightness at the end of the tunnel had widened to receive them again into the daylight and he was back, shivering at her side.
"It's very cold, Darren. Oughtn't you to be wearing your parka?" He hunched his thin shoulders and shook his head. She was amazed at how little he wore and how impervious he was to the cold. Sometimes it seemed to her that he preferred to live in a perpetual shiver. Surely wrapping up well on a chill autumn morning wasn't considered unmanly? And he looked so nice in his parka. She had been relieved when he first appeared in it; it was bright blue striped with red, expensive, obviously new, a reassuring sign that the mother she had never met and of whom he never spoke tried to take good care of him.
Wednesday was her day for replacing the flowers, and this morning she was carrying a small tissue-wrapped bunch of pink roses and one of small white chrysanthemums. The stems were wet and she felt the dampness seeping through her woollen gloves. The flowers were tight-budded, but one was beginning to open and a transitory evocation of summer came to her, bringing with it an old anxiety. Darren often arrived on their church morning with a gift of flowers. These, he had told her, were from Uncle Frank's stall at Brixton. But could that really be true? And then there was the smoked salmon, last Friday's gift, brought to her flat just before suppertime. He told her he had been given it by Uncle Joe, who kept a cafe up Kilburn way. But the slivers, so moist, so delicious, had been interleaved with greaseproof paper, and the white tray in which they lay had looked so very like the ones she had looked at with hopeless longing in Marks and Spencer, except that someone had torn off the label. He had sat opposite her, watching her while she ate, making an extravagant moue of distaste when she suggested that he share it, but staring at her with a concentrated, almost angry, satisfaction, rather, she thought, as a mother might watch a convalescent child taking her first mouthful. But she had eaten it, and with the delicious taste still lingering on her palate it had seemed ungrateful to cross-question him. But the presents were getting more frequent. If he brought her any more, then they would have to have a little talk.
Suddenly, he gave a yell, raced furiously ahead and leapt up at an overhanging bough. There he swung, thin legs jerking, the white, thick-soled running shoes looking incongruously heavy for the bony legs. He was given to these sudden spurts of activity, running ahead to hide among the bushes and jump out at her, leaping across puddles, rummaging for broken bottles and cans in the ditch and hurling them with a desperate intensity into the water. She would pretend to be frightened when he jumped out, would call out to him to be careful when he crept along an overhanging branch and hung, skimming the water. But on the whole, she rejoiced in his liveliness. It was less worry than the lethargy which so often seemed to overcome him. Now, watching his grinning monkey face as he swung, arm over arm, the frantic twisting of his body, the silver of the delicate ribcage under the pale flesh where the jacket had parted from his jeans, she felt a surge of love so painful that it was like a thrust to the heart. And with the pain came again the old anxiety. As he dropped beside her she said:
"Darren, are you sure your mother doesn't mind your helping me with St. Matthew's?"
"Naw, that's OK, I told ya."
"You come to the flat so often. It's lovely for me, but are you quite sure she doesn't mind?"
"Look, I told ya. It's OK."
"But wouldn't it be better if I came to see her, just to meet her, so that she knows who you're with?"
"She knows. Anyway, she ain't at home. She's off visiting me Uncle Ron at Romford."
Another uncle. How could she possibly keep track of them? But a fresh anxiety surfaced.
"Then who is looking after you, Darren? Who is at home?"
"No one. I'm sleepin' with a neighbour till she comes back. I'm OK."
"And what about school today?"
"I told ya. I don't have to go. It's a holiday, see, it's a holiday! I told ya!"
His voice had become high, almost hysterical. Then, as she didn't speak, he fell in beside her and said more calmly:
"They got Andrex at forty-eight pee a double roll up at Notting Hill. That new supermarket. I could get ya a couple of rolls if you're interested."
He must, she thought, spend a lot of time in supermarkets, shopping for his mother, perhaps, on his way home from school. He was clever at finding bargains, reporting back to her about the special offers, the cheaper lines. She said:
"I'll try to get up there myself, Darren. That's a very good price."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. It's a good price. First time I seen 'em under fifty pee."
For almost the whole of their walk their objective had been in sight: the green copper cupola of the soaring campanile of Arthur Blomfield's extraordinary Romanesque basilica, build in 1870 on the bank of this sluggish urban waterway with as much confidence as if he had erected it on the Venetian Grand Canal. Miss Wharton, on her first visit to St. Matthew's, nine years previously, had decided that it was expedient to admire it since it was her parish church and offered what she described as Catholic privileges. She had then put its architecture firmly out of her mind, together with her yearnings for Norman arches, carved reredos and familiar Early English spires. She supposed that she had now got used to it. But she was still slightly surprised when she found Father Barnes showing round groups of visitors, experts interested in Victorian architecture, who enthused over the baldachin, admired the Pre-Raphaelite paintings on the eight panels of the pulpit or set up their tripods to photograph the apse, and who compared it, in confident, unecclesiastical tones (surely even experts ought to lower their voices in church) with the cathedral of Torcello near Venice or with Blomfield's similar basilica at Jericho in Oxford.
And now, as always, with dramatic suddenness, it loomed before them. They passed through the turnstile in the canal railings and took the gravel path to the porch of the south door, the one to which Miss Wharton had a key. This led to the Little Vestry, where she would hang up her coat, and to the kitchen, where she would wash out the vases and arrange the fresh flowers. As they reached the door she glanced down at the small flower bed which gardeners in the congregation were trying to cultivate with more optimism than success in the unrewarding soil at the side of the path.
"Oh look, Darren, how pretty. The first dahlias. I never thought they'd flower. No, don't pick them. They look so nice there." He had bent down, his hand among the grasses, but as she spoke he straightened up and thrust a grubby fist into his pocket.
"Don't you want 'em for the BVM?"
"We've got your uncle's roses for Our Lady." If only they were his uncle's! I shall have to ask him, she thought. I can't go on like this, offering Our Lady stolen flowers, if they were stolen. But suppose they weren't and I accuse him? I shall destroy everything there is between us. I can't lose him now. And it might put the idea of theft into his head. The half-remembered phrases fell into her mind: corrupting innocence, an occasion of sin. She thought, I shall have to think about it. But not now, not yet.
She rummaged in her handbag for the key on its wooden key ring and tried to fit it into the lock. But she couldn't get it in. Puzzled, but not yet worried, she tried the doorknob and the heavy iron-bound door swung open. It was already unlocked, a key in place on the other side. The passage was quiet, unlit, the oak door to the Little Vestry on the left tightly closed. So Father Barnes must already be here. But how strange that he should arrive before her. And why hadn't he left on the passage light? As her gloved hand found the switch, Darren scampered past her, up to the wrought-iron grille which separated the passage from the nave of the church. He liked to light a candle when they arrived, thrusting thin arms through the grille to reach the candleholder and the coin box. Early in their walk she had handed him the usual tenpenny piece, and now she heard a faint tinkle and watched while he stuck his candle in the socket and reached for the matches in their brass holder.
And it was then, in that moment, that she felt the first twitch of anxiety. Some premonition alerted her subconscious; earlier disquiets and a vague sense of unease came together and focussed into fear. A faint smell, alien yet horribly familiar; the sense of a recent presence; the possible significance of that unlocked outer door; the dark passageway. Suddenly she knew that something was dreadfully wrong.
Excerpted from A Taste for Death by P.D. James Excerpted by permission.
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