Dennis Cooper leads an idyllic life as curator of the national historical site, Westbourne Park. What could be better than overseeing the spectacular flowering grounds, supervising its popular restaurant, and making sure the daily throngs of tourists leave happy? But when Gloucestershire’s Superintendent John Lambert and Detective Sergeant Bert Hook visit the serene landmark, there’s only one site they care to see: Dennis’s dead body in a pond at the edge of the gardens.
The suspects are growing wild: Dennis’s philandering wife and her lover; the restaurant’s nerve-fried staff; a new young intern from Glasgow; and a shady gardener with a violent temper. It’s clear someone held a grudge. Less clear is Dennis’s own shady past. And Lambert and Hook are determined to dig it up.
About the Author
Gregson is a Lancastrian by birth, and taught for 27 years in schools, colleges and universities.
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'I bet you could have killed her on the spot!'
Dennis Cooper started guiltily. It was so near to what he had actually thought at the time that he stared hard at his wife. Probably she hadn't meant the suggestion seriously. But these days he could never be sure what Alison was thinking.
He took a sip of his wine, watching her surreptitiously as she ate. She picked her way expertly through runner beans, broccoli and new potatoes, then left her pork chop as clean as if it had been attacked by a scavenger. Her knife and fork sped round the plate as swiftly and deftly as a surgeon's scalpels. She seemed to have become quicker over the years, as if developing this small, deadly skill had been her primary aim in life.
He said, 'I certainly wasn't pleased with her. But Lorna's very knowledgeable. You have to allow her a certain latitude.'
Alison frowned, setting her knife and fork down on the empty plate as precisely as if she had been setting a clock to midnight. 'I don't see why. You seem to me to put up with far too much from the guides. And from Lorna Green in particular. You're the man in charge – or you should be.' A tiny flicker of contempt creased her thin lips for a moment.
Dennis sighed softly, preparing for an explanation he had offered to her many times before. 'There are a lot of privileges with this job. One of the drawbacks —'
'I haven't noticed many privileges myself. But then I'm just a normal person, forced to live with you in this abnormal environment.'
Dennis wondered if she had prepared this little paradox in advance; it seemed to give her some pleasure as she delivered it. He said patiently, 'There aren't many full-time resident National Trust curators in the country. The Trust can't afford many and takes care that the ones it does employ are placed in important centres like this. We are fortunate to live here. I am reminded of that every morning when I wake up and look out over our wonderful gardens. It makes you glad to be alive.'
'Correction: it makes you glad to be alive. It makes me think how odd and frustrating it is to be stuck here miles from the normal advantages of civilization.'
'You don't consider Westbourne Park to be civilized?' He couldn't prevent a small sneer as he delivered what he considered a crushing riposte.
It was a mistake. Derision only increased his wife's aggression. 'Indeed I don't! If your idea of civilization is to be stuck out here miles from anywhere and miles from any friends, it isn't mine!'
Dennis Cooper tried to be conciliatory. He said mildly, 'I think you exaggerate a little. We're one of the busiest National Trust centres, with many thousands of visitors each year and the extensive staff which reflects that. There are friends to be made here, if you care to make the effort.'
Alison sniffed derisively. Dennis admitted to himself reluctantly that she had a good range of sniffs, able to express a variety of emotions. All of them were negative, and the derisive sniff was one of her most effective, conveying contempt without ever straying into a snort. Alison followed it with a voice in a matching dismissive tone. 'Friends? If you mean people like your Lorna Green, then no thanks! Dry as a stick women with pretensions to be historians aren't my idea of friends. Why you choose to let her walk all over you is quite beyond me.'
She sniffed again, needing no words to convey that this time her contempt was for her hapless husband rather than the absent Ms Green. Dennis sighed again, as if in counterpoint response to her sustained nasal fugue. 'When you interrupted, I was trying to explain to you that we have to take into account that Lorna Green and the other guides who help here are unpaid volunteers. She gives valuable service during the hours when Westbourne is open to the public; we simply couldn't operate without her and the thirty other people who come in and work without payment. I have to be mindful that these people are not paid lackeys but enthusiasts for what we do here. The fact that they are unpaid allows them a certain latitude when it comes to expressing an opinion. I have to be more patient with voluntary helpers like Lorna Green than I might be with paid employees.'
Alison's face set into the sullen lines she always adopted when she did not want to confront logic. 'You're too bloody patient, if you ask me. You're allowing yourself to become a bloody doormat!'
Dennis bit back the comment that he hadn't asked her and finished his second glass of Merlot appreciatively. It was a good wine, as were the others in his small cellar. The restaurant bought excellent wines in bulk and he was allowed to purchase whatever bottles he wanted at cost price. It was a small but very welcome perk of the job and it helped to make life here more comfortable. But Alison Cooper wouldn't want to be reminded of that at the moment. He ate his strawberries and cream in silence, then pronounced the quality excellent. His wife nodded, but did not smile.
Five minutes later, they sat awkwardly opposite each other in the lounge, with the evening birdsong floating agreeably outside the open window on the heavy summer air. Dennis eased himself back into his leather-studded armchair and said sincerely but unthinkingly, 'This is the life!'
Alison glared at him for a moment before she spoke, her hostility apparent in every bristling line of her still-attractive figure. 'Some life, with your nearest cinema and your nearest decent shops forty miles away!'
She rose to her full height, walked slowly across the room, and turned on the television as if pressing the trigger of a gun. The strident theme tune of EastEnders was followed by the even more strident voices of the denizens of the soap in strenuous argument. Alison Cooper's bottom hit her chair like a battering ram. She arched her body and her attention away from her husband and domesticity and towards the raucous melodrama of the box.
From nowhere at all, the thought came to Dennis that sex tonight was unlikely. His dignity did not allow him a final sigh. After a sour smile, he rose and left the room in silence.
The gardens soothed him, as they always did. A summer evening was the best time of all. This was one of the great gardens of England, which to Dennis meant one of the great gardens of the world. Whilst all the visitors wandered where they wished during the heat of the day, you had this wonderful place to yourself in the evening. All the sections were beautifully tended, whilst you didn't need to pull a single weed yourself. In the evenings, you lived here like a king, or a duke at the very least. There was not a breath of wind, but the air was cooling now, after the warmth of a perfect day. The sun was setting, a crimson orb touching the summit of the hills to the west, purpling the whole of the sky around it.
Heart of England, this was, in every sense you cared to interpret the phrase. The great battles of the Wars of the Roses, which had shaped the medieval future of the land, had been fought not far from here, by the waters of the Severn at Shrewsbury to the east and Tewkesbury to the south. The great battles of the civil war which had finally established the mother of parliaments had been at places like Worcester, a few miles to the north. And the last great invasion of the land, led by the prancing dandy romanticized as Bonnie Prince Charlie, had been quashed fifty miles north-east of here at Derby.
And now, on this so peaceful summer evening, after the stresses of the day, the crowds were gone and he had the best of all English gardens to himself.
Yet Dennis Cooper was wrong in that. He was not completely alone here, after all. He was wandering slowly through the series of 'garden rooms' which was Westbourne, moving deliberately slowly to calm his racing mind, when he heard the metallic sound of hedging shears. An irregular, clipping sound, which meant that this was a manual, not a powered, shearing. A sound which was more appropriate than machinery on this still, quiet evening.
He moved cautiously towards the noise of the shears, coming eventually upon the sight he had expected. A slight man stood with his back to Dennis as he entered the white garden. The man's head was on one side, considering carefully the effects he was securing with his shears upon the topiary bird in front of him. Dennis watched the work for a moment before he said softly, 'It's true what they say then. A garden's never quite perfect to the people who work in it.'
The slim shoulders jumped with the shock. Jim Hartley turned with a smile towards the familiar voice. 'I was so wrapped up in what I was doing that I'd no idea there was anyone else around.'
He looked even younger than his thirty-four years. Indeed, when he was enthusiastic, Jim always looked quite boyish. And at Westbourne, he was enthusiastic for most of the time. Although it was over a year now since he had been appointed head gardener, he often said that he still couldn't believe he was in charge of what was in his opinion the greatest garden of all.
There had been many raised eyebrows and some dissent at the time. The National Trust is a conservative organization, even though it strives, sometimes a little desperately, to move with the times. No one had queried James Hartley's qualifications and competence, but some had thought his experience could not possibly be wide enough for this plum horticultural appointment. Dennis Cooper had been one of the men who had pleaded his cause. Hartley had worked at Kew and at the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley. He was hard-working, enthusiastic and had strong references from all who had employed him.
Dennis was glad that he had spoken up so strongly for the youngest candidate when they were interviewing, because Jim Hartley was emphatically a success. He had moved into the long, low cottage reserved for the head gardener with his wife and two small children and quickly become one of the keys to Westbourne's ever-increasing popularity with the public. The existing glories were being consolidated, whilst some of the hitherto slightly neglected and peripheral areas of the gardens were being developed. Jim was a 'hands-on' gardener, not just a supervisor. You saw the work of his hands as well as the plans of his mind wherever you moved in the grounds.
There were twenty years between them, but Dennis Cooper felt very close to Jim Hartley. He sympathized with the younger man's attitude, where everything was a challenge, but a challenge he was confident of meeting. Dennis had been like that himself in his younger days, he fancied. Now he watched over Hartley's development almost like a father, quick to defend, anxious to praise.
He said with a smile, 'You do quite enough during working hours, Jim, without coming out here in the evenings.'
'Oh, I don't mind this. It's a pleasure, not a chore. And it needs to be done carefully – I'm not much good with the public looking on and making comments!' As if to reinforce his words, he stepped forward to the bush and made a sharp cut with the end of his small, specialist shears, sharpening the bird's beak and giving it an interrogative look, as if it was conscious of other events in this small, intimate section of the garden. It was almost like a painter stepping forward to his easel and making some tiny but telling stroke on a canvas, emphasizing his mastery of the medium.
'I didn't know that you listed topiary among your many skills,' said Dennis appreciatively.
'I don't. That's why I have to do it very slowly and without being observed. Jack Fisher usually takes care of the clipping here, but he's got shingles and will be off for a fortnight. And the public deserve to see the place at its best – they pay enough for the privilege!' Jim Hartley still thought it amazing that the public should turn up in such numbers and pay so handsomely to view his work.
'But you should be at home with the children, reading bedtime stories and so on.' Dennis, who couldn't remember much reading to the son who had long grown up and departed, was rather vague about the duties expected of a modern father.
'The meeting seemed to go all right this morning,' said Hartley, as if anxious to change the subject.
Dennis, who had chaired the meeting of the resident staff and the two representatives of the voluntary guides and helpers, had almost forgotten that Hartley had been present. Avowedly not a committee man, the head gardener chose to stay silent and observe, unless he was called upon directly for his views. 'Yes. I'm sorry if you felt you could have been better employed in the gardens. But meetings are necessary to keep everyone informed of what's going on and make sure we're all pulling in the same direction.'
'Yes.' There was a pause, whilst Jim Hartley wondered whether he should really say anything more. 'I thought Lorna Green went on a bit.'
Dennis smiled. 'She did, I suppose. That's Lorna's way. But we have to bear in mind that she gives us a lot of her time and is entitled to her opinion. It's better that she says what she thinks rather than keeping it bottled up.'
'I suppose so.' Jim, having sized up the needs of another topiary bird, leapt forward and made another small but telling incision. 'All the same, I expect there are moments when you could cheerfully kill Mrs Green!'
Dennis Cooper smiled benignly, then uttered another meaningless cliché about it taking all sorts of people to make up an interesting world. It was a remarkable coincidence, he thought as he continued on his evening stroll. Two people as different as his wife and Jim Hartley had suggested within an hour of each other the death of Lorna Green.
It was a good thing that the lady herself couldn't hear such shocking suggestions.CHAPTER 2
The lady in question was in fact very busy with quite different concerns.
Lorna Green was contending with that fiercest of contemporary ogres, senile dementia in a loved one. Her mother was eighty-four now. Until a year ago, Barbara Green had been a lively and vigorous octogenarian. She had done her own shopping, argued her corner with any political canvasser who had the temerity to knock at her door, played swift and imaginative bridge with three ladies who had once been her golfing companions.
It was just a year since the doctors had mentioned that sinister word Alzheimer's. The symptoms were there, in a mild form at present, but the tests had confirmed it. No, it wasn't possible to forecast the speed of development. Many people passed away peacefully without suffering really serious mental decline. In others, deterioration was rapid. There was much more they could do to keep the worst at bay, with the drugs now available.
Nevertheless, Lorna should now keep a close eye on her mother.
It wasn't meant to be a message of impending doom, but it rang like one in Lorna's ears. The answers to her questions confirmed it. Yes, someone should be in the house with Mrs Green. Not all the time; not at present, anyway. Lorna gave up the flat she had been renting and moved back in with her mother. It was what the people from Mrs Green's church thought a spinster daughter should do, even in the twenty-first century. Her mother still attended the high stone church where her daughters had been christened.
Lorna wasn't a churchgoer herself. She was pretty sure that she was now an atheist rather than an agnostic, and her mother's decline seemed to be confirming that for her. It was so relentless, so cruel, so illogical. Nor was Lorna a typical spinster, if there was any longer such a creature. She had never married, though she had come close to it on two occasions. She had never been promiscuous, but she had undertaken by her count four serious relationships, where she had lived with a man for two years or more. That none of them had ended in the formal ties of marriage had been her choice, on three of the four occasions. Perhaps she expected a little too much of her men, or perhaps she had simply not been the best of choosers.
She had never wanted children and she didn't miss them now. She declared that forcefully to anyone bold enough to raise the subject. Some listeners felt that the lady did protest too much, but had more sense than to voice the thought.
Lorna had a degree in history from the University of Birmingham – one of the older and more respectable universities, she assured anyone who cared to listen. She didn't approve of these modern, tin-pot institutions, which should never have been allowed to call themselves universities. All they did was add to the lengthening lists of unemployed graduates, with their degrees in media studies and sports science and even less suitable subjects for higher education. These opinions received a good deal of support from her contemporaries, except for the occasional moments of embarrassment when she propounded her views to parents unfortunate enough to have their children in attendance at these dubious institutions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "More Than Meets the Eye"
Copyright © 2012 J.M. Gregson.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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