Tom

 

It was hard. By the spring of '40, not knowing how long it was going on for, we were already hard pushed to keep the war interesting for our readers.

Even before everyone had their Andersons up and their blackouts in place the paper was little more than a Ministry of Information pamphlet. It wasn't my idea of journalism.

I'll admit it. I was bored. Too young to fight in the first war, too sick to fight in the second. Stuck on some lousy local rag reporting on civic functions and lost pets, always on the look out for a story. Yes, there were times when I thought a missing child would liven up my day. Makes you think. You have to be careful what you wish for.

Of course, the fact that it was the Thorntons made good copy. It sold newspapers and that's what it's all about. It's a simple equation. The further they fall the more papers we sell. And they do all fall. There isn't a single pedestal built sturdy enough to uphold the so called irreproachable. Because there's no such person.

There was a brief period when it all began when I was taken to task. It was suggested by someone that it wasn't in my, and I quote "…interest to pursue this particular line of inquiry." Interfering hypocrite. All I had to do was make him aware of what I was aware of. That put a stop to it.

Like all the best stories it fell into my lap.

I was visiting my solicitor, Leslie Bulstrode, clearing up some matters to do with my father's will. I was his executor. There wasn't a lot to deal with just some nonsense about his coin collection. Didn't really see the point in it myself.

Dr Thornton was being shown out as I was being shown in. He always gave me the creeps; that grey skin and those red rimmed eyes like he never got enough sleep. And the raincoat. Brown and shabby hanging off his lank frame. Anyone would think he was a reporter not the wealthiest doctor in town.

I knew he wasn't Bulstrode's client; I make it my business to know these things. I thought maybe Bulstrode was ill which was why he'd called in Dr Thornton. A slightly overplayed "How are you?" told me nothing. Unsurprisingly.

Bulstrode hadn't had time, actually I hadn't allowed him time, to put away the file he'd been looking through. Journalists learn very quickly to read upside down, so whilst leaning forward on to his desk in apparent fascination with his words, I saw the name Marjorie Wilcocks.

And that you may say is when it began.

That's when I started taking an interest in the Thorntons and discovered how close Audrey Thornton was with Joe. Her nephew I suppose he was. But not by blood.

A very, very enterprising young man. Funny what the war brought out in people and not all bad. All I know is if you got hold of a couple of extra ounces of sugar here and there, maybe some petrol, batteries, stockings for the girls, chances are at some point down the line it passed through the hands of Joe Bailey.

I liked the lad. But that's all he was, a lad, a boy. They all grew up too fast. Dressing them up, arming them, sending them away from home and some of them not even shaving yet.

One day we'll be able to see what the war did to us. How it changed us.

Mostly folk did the best they could but there were some who were determined to make the best of it. Exploit it, you might say. Joe was one of those. And so was Audrey Thornton. You could say so was I.

I'm not proud of the part In played in all this. But then this isn't my story.

I was only a reporter doing my job.

 

           

  ****

 

              Nell               

Of course it was me Audrey came to when the news broke. Not when she first knew about it, I suppose. I don't know when that would have been. I mean when other people started talking about it.

We were sat at my kitchen table.

Audrey's icy fingers wrapped themselves around mine holding, squeezing. I remember a fleeting embarrassment for the soil under my finger nails.

"Audrey, what is it?"

She had been sat there for so long not speaking I was beginning to wonder if she ever would.

Finally she spoke. "Robert," she said, "is under investigation."

"By who?" the words spat out. An unthought through response, automatic meaningless.

"The police," Audrey said. She picked her red leather purse off the table, opened it, found a cigarette, lit it and gripped my hand again.

"Why?" whatever her answer I knew that yet again our world had split into before and after.

"There are some vicious rumours circulating."

"Will they arrest him? On what charge?"

"M…m…murder." Audrey retched the word out as if it had been clogging her throat.

"Audrey, you don't have to." I tried to retrieve my hand to be able to show some comfort to her but she held on tightly, the smoke from her cigarette climbing and drifting slowly as if drawing a frame around her.

"Please, Nell. I want to talk about it." She took a breath. "There are rumours spreading that in order to…" She breathed deeply and started again. "You know Robert has been left money, cars by…" Again. "People are saying he's…he's…" She dropped my fingers and put her hands over her face, "killed them to get their money." She didn't move. Just sat with this strange mask of immaculate red nails and jewelled fingers moulded to her face.

I don't think I actually heard what she said. But my words came out anyway. "But that's ridiculous. He's a good doctor, everyone knows that. Who would say such a thing? It's unthinkable. How many are we talking about?" I only knew of one. Marjorie Wilcocks.

"Thirty." She said it as I received it; a perplexing amount. A simple word, two tiny syllables but large enough to arouse suspicion.

Audrey dropped her hands and lit another cigarette. "That's how many bequests he's had," she said. "Not how many…"

Even if I hadn't interrupted I doubt she would have finished the sentence. "Why do they think that? What about all the patients he's got that haven't died? Like Henry? It's crazy. Of course doctors are going to have lots of patients who die. Most people only go to them when they're really sick." I spoke quickly firing my words in a desire to make this untrue, to undo what had happened, to return our lives to normal. Although any true normality had long since gone.

Audrey allowed herself a small joyless laugh. But she didn't answer.

"Why would anyone think that? I don't understand."

Audrey widened her eyes, her pupils dilating until there was no colour to be seen in them at all, only black.

"Jealousy," she said.

She tidied herself up as if she suddenly needed to be that envied person, running her hands over the fine weightless wool of her blood red skirt, rearranging her expensive hair style, checking her pearls were being shown off to their best. "Pure simple petty Eastbourne jealousy. Robert's worked hard for this town. They've admired our home, praised our food, courted our company, all the while waiting, just waiting for us to fall. Or for all I know contriving a way to ruin us. Spiteful, jealous…" She flexed her right hand like a cat springing its claws, long red talons ready to scratch. "Well they won't be able to prove a thing."

Up to that moment I believed the most Audrey could be accused of was buying goods on the black market, mostly from Joe, I admit. Her argument was that she could afford it and that's what the black market was for: those who could afford it. It was true, you would never have known there was a war on in their home.

Apart from the twins of course. The girls. Abigail and Sylvie.

They stayed long after Eastbourne was declared unsafe for evacuees. Long after our own children were being encouraged to leave. Long after…

When was it we became used to death?

When Audrey sat at my kitchen table and told me about Robert, Henry was still alive and Joe hadn't yet gone away.

In fact Henry was asleep on a deckchair in the garden. In the sun, which would give him a headache and I thought I may well have to ask Robert for something for it. And how did things now stand? Would this police investigation impact on his treatment of Henry? And I wanted to scream and hit out at Audrey for allowing this to happen. Henry more than needed him he depended on him and so did I.

"Audrey," I put my hand across the table to reach for hers but she was busy fussing with her bag, searching for something/nothing. A distraction. "Anything I can do, anything you want…" I looked around my kitchen, drab, functional, empty and thought of hers, bright, luxurious, overflowing. What could she possibly ever want from me?

Audrey looked around her and I remember a wistfulness I'd not seen before flitted across her eyes. "You don't have to do a thing," she said with such warmth and tenderness I almost forgave her for the years of barely concealed contempt for the life I had chosen. But then the old Audrey reappeared. Her back stiffened, her skin tightened, her eyes distanced. "Eastbourne is going to love this," she said rising.

A badly timed shift of the planet let a screen of sunshine in through the small larder window momentarily blinding me, obscuring Audrey from view and reinforcing the divide between us. As if, despite her uncharacteristic display of warmth, I needed reminding.

I wasn't left out of the vicious attacks, spiteful comments, reporters using all kinds of unscrupulous methods to try and get information from us. As if Joe, or Henry or I could possibly be involved. If there had ever been any suggestion of complicity would I have struggled day to day to get my family fed?

Butter or jam but never both.

If any of us had benefited in any way from Robert's legacies it would have thickly sliced fresh bread oozing with butter and honey whenever Henry wanted it.

If I benefited at all it was that I never paid Robert for his treatment of Henry. He was my brother-in-law. He never asked for payment because we were family. Henry's illness had no cure and no progression. He would never get better and he never got any worse. All we could do was keep him comfortable and keep him safe.

But ultimately I failed to do even that.