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At last! The old, disused Battersea Power Station loomed into view, with its ugly cooling towers that always remind me of dirty milk bottles. Slowing, clicking over the points, we crossed the Thames and slowed further, and then the outside world disappeared from view as the train station enveloped us.
I stood, swaying as the train rocked a little, and gathered my raincoat and umbrella and hat from the rack above. It was a sign of my agitation that I spared little attention for the hat, a frivolous wide-brimmed straw decorated with dozens of little ribbon rosettes. It's one of my favorites, but I was too annoyed just then to be comforted by any hat. Thanks to an infuriating delay near Oxted, I was already nearly an hour late for my doctor's appointment, and I'd be later still by the time I finally reached Harley Street. I could get myself out of the train quickly enough—there was only one other person in the car—but the taxi stand at Victoria Station is a long way from the trains, and I was, by doctor's orders, moving cautiously these days. By the time I made it to the taxis, there'd be a long waiting line.
I stuffed my collapsible umbrella into my purse and glowered at my cane. Drat the thing, anyway! It refused to hook over anything, slithered down into people's way every time I sat down, and made me look like an old woman. Surely I could dispense with it before long? The break in my leg had been somewhat nasty, but it had happened months ago. Oh, the doctor had made long faces and produced irritating comments about the body healing more slowly "at your age," but apox on that! I felt about thirty-five; shouldn't that count for something? This was to be my last appointment with the specialist. I hoped he'd tell me I could now do anything I wanted, especially including running for cabs.
As the train lurched to a stop, I had a sudden thought. The nice young man across the aisle, who was now slumbering peacefully, had offered earlier to share the car that was coming to meet him. I had declined, but perhaps, after all, I'd take him up on it. A friendly person who had admired my hat, he'd seemed perfectly harmless. I hated to wake him, though.
I had gone for a cup of coffee about a half hour before, more for something to do than because I had any great desire for railway coffee, and he'd been asleep when I'd come back from the buffet car. I looked at him now, frowning with indecision. His own coffee cup, fortunately empty, had rolled off the tiny tray table with that last lurch, and his head lolled against the headrest. He looked very uncomfortable. What should I do? I didn't really know him, after all, but he was a fellow American, and we'd chatted pleasantly on the ridiculously protracted journey. He'd said he was still suffering from jet lag after only two days in England, so I could understand his sleepiness, but he was as much overdue for his commitments as I was for mine. I decided it would be a kindness to serve as his alarm clock.
I tapped him on the shoulder. "Ummm ... Mr.—" Oh, for heaven's sake, what was his name? Something Irish, I was sure. We'd talked about that. This was his first trip to the U.K., and he was going to lookup his Irish forebears if he had time after he finished with his business. Riley, was it? O'Brien? No, something less common than those, but it wasn't coming to me.
His first name I did remember. "Bill! We're here, finally. We're in London. Bill, wake up!" I tapped him again, a little harder.
His head rolled to the side, and his shoulder and torso followed, slumping against me. I suppressed a yelp and tried to move him. He was unresponsive, a deadweight.
Suddenly there didn't seem to be quite enough air in my lungs. I reached with one hand for the handgrip on the back of a seat, and with the other put two fingers under Bill's collar. The flesh was warm, but I could feel no pulse. I gulped and tried to take deep breaths.
"Excuse me, may I pass through?"
I looked back, with infinite relief. Someone had come through from the next car. The man trying to get up the aisle looked, in his dark suit and hat, extremely respectable, a help in time of trouble. "I'm sorry, but this man—well, the fact is, he seems to be ... I was just talking to him a little while ago, and it seems impossible, but I think he's—dead."
Why is it so hard to pronounce such a short, simple word?
Mr. Respectable gave me a sharp look. "He must be ill. Let me past, please, I'm a doctor."
Even better! I moved carefully out of the way, trying to keep the pathetic thing that had been Bill from sliding farther out of its seat. I didn't quite like to leave, though I was by this time pretty sure Bill was beyond any help we could provide.
It took Respectable no more than a few seconds to come to the same conclusion. He looked at me blankly. "Is—was he a friend of yours?"
"No, I didn't know him at all, but we talked while the train was stopped. He was a nice man; I can hardly believe—"
"I see." The man looked shaken, though as a doctor he must often have seen death before. Maybe he was a dermatologist, or a chiropodist, or something.
Maybe I'd better stop chasing irrelevancies and think what to do. "I suppose we ought to notify the police," I suggested tentatively, "or will the railway authorities do that? Sudden death, after all."
The doctor sighed and nodded. "Yes, of course. I'll take care of it, though his appearance is quite consistent with heart attack." He shook his head. "A young man. What a pity."
"Isn't it? Is there anything—I mean, I don't quite like to leave, but I'm very late for an appointment ..."
"I shouldn't think there's anything for you to do. I have a mobile phone, of course; I'll ring the police and give this poor chap a bit of an examination while I wait about for them to come. Thank you for your concern, madam, but I believe I can take care of anything further that is required. There's no reason for you to put yourself out."
"Well, then—my name is Martin, Dorothy Martin, and I live in Sherebury, if you should need me for anything."
He thanked me again, with the sort of bored voice that clearly indicated I was becoming a nuisance. The train was empty by this time; I'd be ages getting a taxi. Feeling heartless for leaving the poor man—which was ridiculous—I gathered my things together and walked away.
The streets, when I finally got out into them in one of London's wonderful black cabs, were crowded with traffic. They always are, but today seemed worse than usual. We were fast approaching high tourist season, and that means more foreigners trying to drive on the wrong side of the road. At least it wasn't raining, which creates an even worse snarl, though it looked as though it might start in at any time. A London June at its most typical, in fact.
I usually enjoy the luxury of a cab ride through my favorite city and make the most of it, rubbernecking at familiar landmarks like the rawest tourist, but today I was preoccupied. I spent that ride, and the half hour I had to wait in the doctor's office, thinking about the poor man on the train. He'd been young, as the doctor had remarked, no more than thirty, at a guess. How terrible and unexpected, to have a heart attack at that age! My first husband, Frank, had died of a massive heart attack that had come like a thief in the night to steal him away from me, but he' d been sixty-five and had done a lot of living. Poor Bill had had his life in front of him, or he'd thought he had. He'd never marry that pretty girl now, the one whose picture he carried around with him. He'd never look up those relatives in Ireland. He'd never have the chance to straighten out the problems his company was having in the London office, or even finish the Tom Clancy novel he'd abandoned when we'd started to talk.
He'd never see London. So close, and yet he'd never see one of the world's greatest cities. He'd been looking forward to it, too, after spending the weekend in the country with one of his business associates, recovering from jet lag. His book, Patriot Games, began in London, and he was eager to see what he'd been reading about. I twisted in my uncomfortable doctor's-office chair. If I hadn't gone for coffee when I did ... if there hadn't been such a long line at the counter ... if I'd been more observant, and hadn't just thought he was asleep ...
There was no reason why I should feel responsible, but I'd liked young Bill, and he was a fellow American, and I'd wanted to watch his face when he stepped out into glorious London. Maybe I'm a sentimental idiot, but I was near tears by the time the nurse called me in.
At least the doctor, when he had finished examining me and we were seated in his consulting room, had good news for me.
"That's looking splendid, Mrs. Martin," he said, pointing out details of an X ray. "You have the bones of a woman half your age, save for the arthritic joints. I did not expect a break as bad as this to heal so completely so soon, particularly since you insisted on so much activity. Do you have any pain in the leg now?"
"It aches a little when it rains." Which, in England, was a good percentage of the time, but I decided not to say so. The English can be touchy about their weather.
"Yes, well, that, unfortunately, may persist for quite a time, but on the whole I think I can send you off with a clean bill of health. Do what you want, within reasonable limits, of course. Light housework, shopping, a bit of a walk now and again. Use the cane when you need it. Apart from that"—he shrugged his shoulders—"don't fall down any more stairs!" He laughed.
I was unable to laugh with him. That fall had been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. If Alan hadn't been there ... "I don't plan to, Dr. Reynolds," I said rather primly.
He composed his face. "No, indeed. I'll give you a prescription for the pain, if you need it, but aspirin ought to provide relief in most cases, or ibuprofen. All right, then?"
I shook his hand and left, rather glad that Dr. Reynolds was not my regular doctor. For most ailments I went to the small clinic in Sherebury, my beloved adopted town. I'd been living in England for almost two years now and had gotten used to the idea of virtually free health care. I'd even established a good relationship with one of the doctors at the clinic. But when I had broken my leg last November, Alan had thought I'd better consult a London orthopedist. I'd murmured something about the exorbitant cost of a private doctor.
"Hang the cost, Dorothy! I've only just got you, woman, and I intend to look after you. Since you insist on getting yourself into trouble, the least I can do is attempt damage control. I'm not a poor man, my dear. And you are very precious to me."
It was the last remark that did it, of course, the words and the tone of voice in which they were uttered. We'd been married only a couple of months then. Alan hadn't uttered a word of anything but sympathy and concern when I'd fallen and broken the leg, even though I had at the time been engaged in dangerous activities of which he didn't entirely approve. I'd felt the least I could do was accept his advice.
It was probably good advice, too, and I had to admit Dr. Reynolds was competent. It was just his attitude that I found a little annoying. He seemed to feel an old lady ought to tend to her knitting.
I don't consider myself old, and I knit very badly.
I'd planned my day so as to avoid the rush hour, but the various delays had plunged me into the very worst of it. Though the Regent's Park tube station wasn't far away, my leg was aching a little, and the Underground would be crowded to suffocation point, so I waited with what patience I could muster and finally managed to snare a cab. My driver was taciturn, unusual in a London cabbie, but I didn't try to make him talk to me. He had plenty to think about, what with the horrendous traffic through which he inched the cab, making some speed in rare clear spaces, then screeching to sudden stops as the stream closed in again.
The Evening Standard was being hawked on the street corners; I made a mental note to buy one in the station and see what it said about the man in the train. It was so stupid that I couldn't remember his name.
"Bloody hell!" As the driver swore loudly, the cab stopped with a scream of abused brakes and an ominous crunch. I was nearly thrown off my seat.
"You all right, madam?" He craned his neck around as he was opening his door.
"I think so. What happened?"
"Bleedin' idiot come out o' Buckingham Palace Road there and turned the wrong way, right in front o' me! Naow, then"—this addressed grimly to the other driver—"wot the hell do you think you're doin'?"
We sat there in Lower Grosvenor Place, next to the Royal Mews and the rest of Buckingham Palace's back garden, for quite some time, tying up traffic while my cabbie explained the rules of the road to the other driver. ("I don't bloody care where you're from, you're in England now, and we drive on the left!")
Eventually matters were resolved, to the dismay of the other driver, who was dark skinned and spoke with a French accent, and whose rental car had to be towed away. The cab had suffered no worse than a dented fender, but the cabbie was mortally offended. "I own this cab, an' I'll see that bleeder pays! Sorry, madam! It's them foreigners we get everywhere these days, don't know how to talk, don't know how to drive—that'll only be three pounds fifty, madam, never mind the meter, I forgot an' left it runnin' back there. Sorry about the delay, madam—thank you very much!"
I overtipped him out of exhaustion or sympathy and caught a much later train than the one I'd hoped for. By way of small compensation, it was far less crowded than the earlier one would have been, and by miraculous intervention it ran on time. In less than an hour I was at Sherebury station. I stumbled out, climbed into my little Volkswagen, which was looking lonesome in the deserted parking lot, and drove wearily to my house. I just sat for a few minutes in my driveway, very grateful to be home at last.
It would have been even nicer if Alan had been there to greet me, but Alan was out of the country. My husband, Alan Nesbitt (I kept my former name when we married), is a policeman. He had left his position of chief constable for Belleshire several months before to take over temporarily as commandant of the Police Staff College at Bramshill, and we'd had to move to the lovely but, to me, formidable Jacobean manor that housed the college. With that appointment ended, we were able to come back home, but we'd been there barely a month when Alan, now officially retired but still in demand as a consultant all over the world, had to go to Zimbabwe for a conference on terrorism. This was the first time he'd been far away since we were married, and I missed him enormously. Zimbabwe sounds like the end of the earth. Until I looked it up on the map, I didn't even know where it was, exactly, only that it was in Africa and vaguely associated with political problems.
It would have been heaven to have Alan there to talk to. He would have poured us some Jack Daniel's, fixed us something to eat, calmed me down, and listened with interest and sympathy to the saga of how badly my day had gone.
However, only the cats were there to greet me when I finally pried myself out of the car and went into the house, and they displayed little sympathy. They were HUNGRY! Human problems have little importance compared with the urgent needs of cats, who are the ultimate pragmatists.
I pulled off my hat and took some aspirin even before I fed the cats. My head was throbbing almost as much as my leg. By way of food for myself, once my domestic tyrants had been placated, I heated a can of soup and collapsed on the parlor sofa with it and a small jolt of bourbon.
I felt a little better with food and drink inside me and the comfort of my house closing around me. I love my little seventeenth-century cottage. Just sitting in front of the lovely old fireplace, even on a warm evening with no fire, was soothing. Tomorrow, as Scarlett tritely observed, was another day, and I could start planning a more active life now that I was released from medical restrictions. Right now all I wanted to do was sit with a cat on my lap—I reached for Samantha, my Siamese, who was handiest—and read the paper. A little later I'd blow the budget and call Alan. The sound of his voice ought to complete my cure.
But what had I done with the paper? Oh, of course. I smacked my forehead in the classic gesture. I'd forgotten to buy one. The accident in the cab had driven it right out of my head. Drat! I wanted to read about the man in the train, and by morning it might be too late—old news. Alan and I didn't take an evening paper, only the Times and the Telegraph in the morning. Did Jane, my next-door neighbor, subscribe to the Standard? Was I too tired to go over there and find out?
I set Sam aside and stood up. If I let myself give in to "too tired," I'd turn into that decrepit old lady Dr. Reynolds thought I was.
Though it was nearly nine, the sky was still quite light, the long twilight of a northern country in June. I walked across my backyard and tapped on Jane's door. She opened it at once, and she and several of her bulldogs greeted me cordially.
Once we were comfortably seated at her kitchen table, she studied me critically. "Look like something the cat dragged in," she observed. Jane seldom bothers with diplomacy.
"I feel like it, too. It's been a rotten day, Jane. There wouldn't be any coffee, by any chance?"
"Just coming. Kettle's about to boil."
"I've always thought you were psychic."
She snorted. "Saw you coming across the garden. Any fool could see you needed something. There's whiskey if you'd rather."
I shook my head. "I've had as much as is good for me, and anyway I've got a headache. Coffee's better. Jane, a man died in the train today, on my way to London."
She raised her eyebrows, but the kettle whistled just then, and she turned to make the coffee. As she poured hot water over the grounds, the bright, modern kitchen was filled with fragrance. (Jane's house is also old, Georgian, but like me she prefers modern convenience when it comes to cooking.) I began to feel invigorated even before she set a cup in front of me and poured out the rich brew from the French press carafe.
"Mostly decaf, this time of the day," Jane announced. "But it tastes real." She let me take a few hot, revivifying sips before she raised her eyebrows again and said, "The man in the train?"
I told her the story. My voice got a little thick in places, and I had to clear my throat and drink some coffee.
"Upsetting," said Jane with masterly British understatement. "Who was he?"
"I can't remember! You know I'm never especially good about names. Bill something. That's one reason I came over. I wanted to look at your Standard, if you have one."
"Help yourself. Nothing in it about a dead man in a train, not that I noticed."
She handed me the paper. I skimmed quickly, frowned, and looked again more carefully. "No, nothing," I said finally, disappointed. "Maybe it happened after their deadline. I'll have to check in the morning."
I sighed. "I don't know, really. I guess I feel involved. I didn't even know him, but I liked him. I need to know what happened, who he was. I—it sounds silly, but I think I want to mourn him properly."
Jane gave me a long look, and when she spoke it was gruffly. "Not thinking there was something funny about the death, are you?"
"Jane! I admit that I've been somewhat more involved in murder than most respectable women, but I plead not guilty this time. No, this is pure curiosity, with some sorrow mixed in. I simply want to know what happened, so I can stop feeling there was something I might have been able to do."
"Glad to hear it."
When I got home, I decided my spirits had improved enough that I didn't need to call Alan. It was really too late, anyway; he was a couple of time zones away. Tomorrow would do, when I'd read the paper and could give him a coherent account. For now, the miserable day had finally dragged itself to a close, and I'd never have to live that particular one again. And tomorrow would be a good day to make a nice cozy phone call; it was certainly going to rain, if my leg was any sort of weather prophet at all. Followed eagerly by the cats, I went upstairs, took a couple of pain pills, and fell into welcome sleep almost as soon as the three of us were comfortably arranged on the bed.