Harold Coke had taken the whole thing very badly. At first, when he did not get up for work on Monday morning, Emily put it down to a bad cold, but as the day went on she began to realize how disturbed he had become by the whole affair. When Harold finally did decide to come downstairs Emily was surprized to see that he had not bothered to dress; simply putting on his trousers and pulling his thick blue dressing gown over his pajama jacket he had refused anything to eat. Now he sat there, staring into the fire and becoming animated only during the six o'clock news.
Around seven Threlfall dropped round. He had wanted to show Harold some notes he had written about The Eternal Light. His idea had been to work up a little brochure that he would leave with the vicar at the Church Hall. "The Ideal Wedding Present" it was called, "still bringing light into your life when your grandchildren are on your knee". Although he did not hold out much hope in that quarter he wondered if Coke could provide some suitable poetic quotations.
He waved the foolscap page in Emily's face. "Something classical" he explained, "not that Coke really knows much about that sort of thing. Thinks he does, thinks he knows about many things. But then I suppose you have a great deal to put up with, Mrs C."
Emily shook her head and put her finger to her lips. Threlfall, misinterpreting her, went on, "No, not that. Coke and his obsessions, going to the library, reading books on the bus. That sort of nonsense. Not the other. "
But Emily had started whispering. Stupid woman, made her look even more like a rabbit. "He's a little under the weather today, I'm afraid," she mouthed at Threlfall, carefully enunciating each word. "Maybe you could cheer him up. Take him out of himself a little bit, as it where."
Eager to be out of the drafty hallway Threlfall attempted to push past, but Emily laid a restraining hand upon his arm. "He's taken the whole thing very badly, you know."
"What?" said Threlfall, only half comprehending. "Who's bad? I don't know. He's got a cold, has he? That's all."
Upstairs in his bedroom Little Eric, hearing sounds of altercation, gently opened his bedroom door so that it would not squeak. He had once hung a Tate and Lyell Golden Syrup can with a string threaded through its centre over the bannisters so that he could listen to the conversations below. He had seen a drawing of such a telephone in "The Marvels and Mysteries of Science". But the device did not seem to work, all that he could hear was a sort of metallic hissing when he had put is ear to the can at the other end. Then, after he had overhead his father speaking of bone conduction for the deaf, he had gripped the end of the string between his teeth but this was no better. His father had also told him that the human body was a great aerial that could pick up radio waves, but he had never been able to hear anything, no matter how hard he had tried. Tonight he was going to experiment with electricity.
"About that terrible thing." She looked in vain into Threlfall's face for a sign of encouragement that they could continue their whispered conversation without direct reference to anything unpleasant. "That thing. That..er.. what happened. You know, at the..". Emily glanced down the hall, ".... at the cinema."
With a grunt Threlfall finally succeeded in edging past Mrs Coke and, opening the living room door, encountered total darkness.
"No, we're not in the lounge tonight", Emily cautioned in a loud, projecting sort of voice. "We didn't light the fire. Much cosier in the dining room, isn't it?"
Then dropping into a stage whisper, "The m..u..r..d..e..r" she continued. "Mr. R..o..b..e..r..t..s."
Threlfall, unable to make head nor tail of any of it, plunged on down the hall and burst into the dining room where Harold Coke was hunched over the coal fire.
"Bloody nonsense, Coke. Worrying about germs and all that. Want to get yourself out of that chair and go for a damm long walk. There's too much self indulgence in the world today. That's why we're all going to pot. Now this idea of mine, Eternal Lights. That could put us both quids-in if you want to come in with me. Put a bit of your hoardings to one side and I'll make you a partner."
Harold continued to stare into the fire while Emily fussed behind Threlfall trying to remove his coat.
"Don't you find it a trifle warm in here, Mr Threlfall? Would you like me to hang your coat in the vestibule."
"Hot? No, it was damm cold outside. Need to warm up first."
Emily sighed, "Would you care for a cup of tea, Mr Threlfall?"
"Tea, ah. Then there was that Scotch you were telling me about, Harold, aged in sherry casks, wasn't it?"
Harold Coke refused to be drawn, he continued to stare into the fire.
"They said that the bullet went into his chest. You think that would be enough to kill someone outright, wouldn't you? But his heart was still beating when the police arrived. Do you think that he felt anything, that he knew anything? You see, his brain must have still been working. Would it be like a dream? All sorts of things are going on in a dream but you can sometimes hear voices from outside? Would he know he was dying?"
Suddenly Threlfall's penny dropped. "Oh, that? Dammed barbarians. People like that should be given the cat, hangings too good for them. Give them the cat first and then hang them."
"I been wondering, why would anyone do that? Why did they have to kill him? What sort of person would do that? What did it mean to do a thing like that?"
"Don't waste your time thinking about things like that, Coke. Animals, that's all they are. Beyond understanding. String the buggers up, if you'll pardon me, Mrs Coke, but you've got to speak plainly some time. Society won't be safe as long as people like that are on the loose. Too much sympathy these days. It all comes down to socialism. And the schools. Remember when they were all out learning a job at twelve?" He looked knowingly at Coke, "Education puts ideas into their heads, think they're better than they really are."
Harold Coke did not seem to be listening. It was if he was voicing thoughts for his own benefit alone and was indifferent to anything that Threlfall had to offer in the way of wisdom and advice.
In the end Threlfall walked over to Mrs Coke who was still hovering over the door. "Taken it badly, hasn't he? I've seen people who were shell shocked behave that way. Not that Coke would have experienced anything like that, the war was very comfortable for some, I must say."
Emily gestured behind her. "I'll just put on the kettle, make a cup of tea. If you could...?"
"Take him out of himself, yes. I'll explain about The Eternal Light to him. Get him interested in something else."
"Then I'll just...?" Emily asked.
"And that whiskey. If there was some of that... Works wonders."
Emily busied herself in the kitchen. In the end she decided not to set out the very best tea things, after all she didn't want Threlfall to think that he was anything special, even if his house was detached. But she did get out the silver tea pot and sugar bowl and gave then an extra nice rub up.
Upstairs Little Eric had crept along the landing in order to fill his camber pot at the sink, and was now sitting on his bedroom floor with the door closed. Little Eric was focussing his attention on the electric fire in his room. He had managed to remove the Bakelite cover at the back and was attempting to free the wires from its interior. He had spent the earlier part of the evening looking at a diagram of the electrolysis of water in "The Marvels and Mysteries of Science". It showed two wires leading from a battery and going into a beaker of water. Bubbles rose out of the water and the gases they contained could be collected in test tubes.
Little Eric knew that these gasses were oxygen and hydrogen and, when combined together, were highly explosive. The Germans had used oxygen and hydrogen to power their rockets. Little Eric imagined himself collecting great qualities of these gases and exploding them. He had attempted the experiment earlier that evening, using the battery from his father's torch, but nothing had really happened. No bubbles had appeared at the ends of the wires and Little Eric had been bitterly disappointed. Clearly something more powerful was needed.
Emily gave the two men plenty of time to chat together. She knew how much Harold would appreciate a manly talk. But when she wheeled the tea trolley into the dining room she realized that Harold had not been brightened up and taken out of himself. In fact the two men were arguing, and Threlfall didn't stand up when she entered, or even offer to help her with the tea trolley. But then there were times when she found Threlfall a terribly ignorant man, despite the fact that he did not have a single trace of Liverpool in his accent. Nevertheless, he was the sort of man, she suspected, who would not even know the difference between a tea trolley and a dinner wagon.
"And I say it's the living we've got to concern ourselves with, Coke, not the dead. Not the dying, not those who have vanished from the earth. You want to reserve your sympathy for where it is due."
"But I keep trying to tell you that I didn't know him. I don't know anything about him. I don't even know if he was married," Harold was saying in exasperation.
"But you told me that he used to buy flowers outside Whites. He must have been buying flowers for someone, mustn't he? That stands to sense, doesn't it? So he must have been married." Threlfall winked across at Emily as if you say. "See, I've taken him out of himself."
"It was a terrible thing to do. A gun, and the bullet when right into his chest. Was his mind alert, could it go on working and feeling even if he was unconscious?"
"Yes, we know all about that, Coke. But get back to the flowers. If we bought flowers, he must have been buying them for someone. He must have been married."
Emily tried to recall if Harold had ever bought her any flowers. At least not since the time he had come home on leave from Hereford. "They didn't say anything about a wife on the wireless, Mr Threlfall," she said.
Upstairs Little Eric, crouching on his bedroom floor, had finally extracted the wires from their Bakelite container inside the electric fire. Carefully separating them, he placed their bare ends into the water in his chamber pot. Then, standing up, he moved the whole contraption to the other end of his room, under the window. Holding the plug of the electric fire in his right hand, he retreated towards his bedroom door and prepared to plug it into the wall.
Harold shook his head. "No, I never really knew him. He worked at Whites for a time, in the men's clothing department. But I never knew him. I knew him to nod to, that's all; but I never really knew him. And now its all over, like a match going out. I don't even know if he was married. I could have spoken to him, said a world. You wonder if you could change things. Like the things you read about in the papers. Like a person crossing a road and a car skidding. What if it all happened a moment later?. But really, you can't do anything. We've got no part in it. It just goes on, things like that. And we can't do a thing. It doesn't seem to have to have a meaning. It doesn't add up. There had to be something more."
At that moment the lights went out. Threlfall cursed and, moving towards the door, crashed into the tea trolly. "Blood, thing", he cursed. "Where's your fuse box, Coke? Come on man, jump to it. I don't like to be kept in the dark."
But all of Harold Coke's efforts at the fuse box were in vain, for the lights had gone out in the entire street and Little Eric was in his bed with the sheets pulled up over his face. The electrolysis has been terrific, much better than anything in his book. For, as soon as he had pushed the plug into the electric socket, the water in his chamber pot had begun to boil, and he had seen what looked like bright coloured lights or liquid sparks flickering inside; pink and green and violet until, when the two ends of the wire happened to touch, the whole experiment had ended in an explosion.
From under the covers Little Eric began to think about ways of extending and improving his experiment. There must have been a great deal of hydrogen and oxygen given off, he thought. Next time he'd use thicker wires and find a way of collecting the gases. He could even begin work on a moon rocket.
Taylor was puzzling it out in his own mind. Trying to see a pattern in it, trying to tease out the sequence of events, to discover those things that did not add up, willing to wait until the questions came to him. He knew that, when the questions came, the case would solve itself. He really didn't have to do very much himself, just wait and listen. At some point someone would say something, a question would be overheard. Something very simple, but the sort of question that would not rest until if found an answer. And so Taylor began visiting the Beehive and the Crown. Dropping in around closing time. Standing at the bar and having a word with the locals, offering around his cigarettes, nursing a pint in the snug and waiting for people to come up to him.
As the days progressed Taylor realize that he did not need to do anything, not even walk the streets, for he had become a magnet towards which everything was slowly being drawn, inevitably and without his volition. And thus one day Cullen dropped into the Beehive and came over the Taylor's table to have a word with him, to pass the time of day, to accept the offered cigarette and exchange a joke.
Taylor knew they would all come to him, and that each one carried a question close to his chest; a question that would be finally voiced, introduced casually, spoken of in passing, worked into the topic of other matters. Taylor knew that, sooner or latter, one of them would bring the question he was seeking, the question that would set the noose around a neck. And thus, for the first week at least, Taylor had no need to knock on doors or take statements. And, for the first week at least, he was quite content to leave Vera and Marge to their own devices. Indeed, he did not even give them a thought.
Ivor and Auntie had been very concerned about the funeral. After all, Morag Roberts had hardly been out of the house these last few years but, on the other hand, it would not do for the widow to be absent. People would notice things like that, and what on earth could Ivor say when the reporter from the Crosby Herald asked him who had attended the funeral?
In the days that followed Morgan's death her neighbours had been extremely kind and helpful, popping over and asking Morag if she needed anything from the greengrocers, or a nice piece of fresh plaice from the fish shop. But Morag would not come downstairs and some of the neigbhours began to feel a little snubbed. After all, they were only trying to be kind and none of them had the slightest intention of snooping. Admittedly one or two people had been rather indiscreet when the reporter from the Liverpool Echo had been seen knocking at the Roberts's front door.
Mrs Roach had run across the road in her carpet slippers and shouted to the young man. "You won't get her to the door, the stuck-up bitch." But then everyone knew what a trial Mrs Roach had been to her unmarried daughter these last few years. Not exactly mental, but something had definitely turned in her brain. The next door neighbours said that she could be heard muttering obscene words in the garden as she threw out the crusts of stale bread for the birds every morning. It had even been rumoured that she had once invited two Boy Scouts into her back kitchen during Bob-a-Job Week telling them she would show them "her bees." Miss Roach heartily denied the vicious talk about her mother but the neighbours could not help but notice the steady stream of Boy Scouts that came ringing the Roach's doorbell during the rest of the week.
Mrs Roach was busy giving the reporter a piece of her mind when her daughter came over to lead the old woman back indoors. Miss Roach tried to smooth things over with the young man as best she could, but somehow it only seemed to make it worse when her words appeared in cold print. But then everyone else agreed that had been some truth in what Miss Roach had said. Morag Roberts had certainly been a strange woman, not at all sociable and a great trial to her poor, departed husband.
On the day of the funeral Ivor stayed downstairs looking over the little nicknacks in his brother's display cabinet and checking in the draws - just to make sure that everything was nice and tidy, that is. Not to snoop, but to assure himself that Morag was still able to cope with things. Aunty was upstairs in the bedroom trying to calm the widow and persuade her to attend the funeral.
There was certainly some nice stuff in the house, Ivor had to admit. Of course most of it had come from father's house, so in a sense it belonged to him too. More so now that poor Morgan had been taken from them. In a moral sense it should really come to him for he could tell that Morag was incapable of caring for his father's cups and trophies, of giving them a polish with a soft cloth and keeping everything nice and looked-after. When things had had a chance to die down a little he would try to have a quite word with Morag, or ask Auntie to speak to her.
In the end, Auntie came downstairs shaking her head. Morag would not be moved, she refused to go to Chapel for the funeral service, but at least she had agreed to walk in the procession to the graveside afterwards and attend the internment. That would be something, Ivor agreed, particularly if a photographer should be present and he could be honest in telling the man from the Crosby Herald that Morag Roberts had been the principle mourner at her husband's funeral. After all, attending meant waiting. There were attendants in Shakespeare's plays at school and they waited on the king. So even if Morag waited in the limousine outside the chapel she was really attending the funeral, wasn't she? Aunty nodded in agreement.
But an hour or so later, when the funeral cortege finally drew up at the graveyard, Morag was overcome with great difficulty in breathing. As Ivor tried to persuade her to get out of the car, and even took her elbow in an attempt to lift her out, her attack assumed the proportions of a severe crisis. It was so worrying that Auntie took out her smelling salts and insisted in saying with her. But, in the end, Morag managed to get her breath and, inspite of the terrible chocking sensation in her throat, smiled and laid a hand on Auntie's arm, as if to say that she at least should be at the graveside to cast a handful of earth onto Morgan Roberts's coffin.
And thus Morag remained seated in the first car as the coffin was removed from the hearse and the party slowly made its way along the tree-lined path to the site of the grave.
It was then, just as they were drawing out of sight, that something rather curious happened. It may have been that Mrs. Roberts felt so ill then she believed it necessary to be taken immediately to hospital, or to Dr Spink's surgery. But at all events, when the party returned from the grave they realized to their considerable confusion that the lead car had vanished. Ivor Roberts and Aunty were forced to get into the second car with a cousin of Morag Roberts and, even though there was considerable leg room in the limousine, the whole business was far from dignified.
Imagine too their concern when, on arriving back at the Roberts's home they discover no limousine parked outside. Luckily Ivor had a key of his own - Morgan had given it to him several years ago when he had wanted a spare key cut for the house - and thus Ivor was able to open the front door and allow the mourners inside. It was only several hours later, as they were all having a good cup of tea and talking over old times, that Morag Roberts returned. But instead of coming into the front room she went straight upstairs to her bedroom, closed the door and refused to speak to anyone. At the time the whole thing was a mystery and no one was quite able to account for what had transpired.
Several weeks later, however, a friend of Ivor Roberts met the driver of the limousine in a cafe and, in casual conversation, began to piece together a most curious and disturbing sequence of events. The driver told him that, when the last of the party had begun to gather at the grave, Mrs Roberts had tapped him on the shoulder and simply said, "Drive on, please".
That sort of thing had never happened before, he said. They drove slowly past the graveyard, onto the main road and, since she did not tell him to stop, into the country. Soon they were passing potato fields, cottages and small farms and after a time Mrs Roberts spoke to him again, directing him to pull onto one of the smaller lanes where she could stop to enjoy the view. After this she instructed him to drive to Formby and park as close to the river as possible. Morag opened the car window so that she could breath in the salt air. She asked him if he could pick out the Welsh mountains in the distance, and then enquired if he knew any of their names.
On the way back they stopped at a tea room and the driver waited in the car, reading the Sporting Echo, while Mrs Roberts went inside. When she returned to the car she asked the driver to write his name on the back of the company card so that she could telephone him if she ever needed to go on another Little Outing. Indeed it so transpired that Mrs Roberts felt called upon to book the hire car on several other occasions. One morning she went so far as to direct the driver to take the Mersey Tunnel to the Wirral and to drive towards Wales. In the afternoon they made a tour of Mold, Loggerheads and Ruthin and on the way back she asked him to stop at a proper restaurant. Again the driver remained seated in the car while Mrs Roberts went inside.
As he listened to this story Ivor Roberts became increasingly disturbed and decided that he should speak to Aunty about it. After all, think of the expense of hiring a car for a whole day and driving into Wales. Morgan had never liked to waste money, so that it was possible to view the whole matter as an insult to his memory. He even began to wonder if Morag may have lost her mind to grief.
It was not so much a matter of money, not in a negative or acquisitive sense, but of respect for a person's wishes and memory. After all, Morgan would have wanted them to keep his memory alive, and for each of them to have partaken in that which he had so thoughtfully left behind on earth. There should be something to help Aunty in her old age, and he was quite sure that Morgan would have been only to willing to have helped him (Ivor) in his new business.
No, Ivor was quite sure that he and Aunty were not like other families who thought about nothing but money when a close relative had died. It was not like that at all; it was a matter of propriety, of caring for those who had been left behind and of a keeping a friendly and concerned eye on his sister-in-law. And when he thought of all those Sunday afternoons he had wasted, taking Aunty over, looking at the same dull photographs, and hearing Morgan go on an on about his cinema. Well, it made his blood boil.
In the end Ivor visited Dr Spinks and asked him, quite frankly, if had considered the possibility that Morag Roberts had lost her reason. Would it perhaps be kinder if Aunty moved in an took charge of her, or even if she could be looked after in a nursing home? Dr. Spinks was rather rude and refused to discuss the details of the case with Ivor, beyond saying that he'd always believed that a drop of gin and tonic did far more for a lady's nerves that all that Freudian nonsense. When Ivor protested that he was not being taken seriously the doctor informed him of the weekly cost of a private nursing home and asked him who intended to pay for it.
Ivor Roberts then took the step of contacting the driver of the Car Hire firm and suggested that he should refuse to take the lady out in future. But the driver told him that he knew which side his bread was buttered on, and that the lady in question wasn't a bad old bird anyway. When Ivor threatened to report him to his supervisor the driver became belligerent and, poking Ivor in the chest with a stubby forefinger, say that what he did in his own time was his own bloody business. And anyway the boss didn't have a leg to stand on, did he? Because he, the driver, knew exactly where the company was getting its petrol from.
In the end, out of desperation, Ivor Roberts wrote a straight but kindly note to Morag. After all, directness was the best policy and one should sometimes be cruel to be kind. He pointed out how difficult it would be for him to come visiting with Aunty if they never knew when she (Morag) would be out on one of her many trips in the Hire Car. He knew that Morgan had always enjoyed those Sunday visits and hymn singing and it was something dear to Aunty's heart too. She had always loved to play the piano for Morgan, even if is was sometimes a painful task for her with her arthritis. Indeed, she had always hoped - and here Ivor crossed out the word "hoped" and wrote in "expected" above - that the piano would come to her one day, just as Morgan had always intended it that his fine collection of records - "and the phonograph also" Ivor had inserted above - should go to him (Ivor). And there was not sufficient room in a short friendly note like this to mention one or two other little mementos that, after all, were strictly the property of the whole family, having been passed down from Ivor and Morgan's father, or having been purchased with the money he had left. Anyway, it was always better to talk over these little matters face to face.
"That should work", Ivor told Aunty. So imagine his righteous anger when, on the following Sunday, he and Aunty found that Morag had gone out yet again. Ivor rapidly fired off another little note, mentioning how distressed Aunty had been, and how dangerous it was to break the routine of an elderly person. He was quite sure Morag would understand how unkind that could be, what with her own experience of bad nerves and sickness. He even wondered if she should perhaps make a visit to Dr Spinks, just to let the doctor give her a once-over. He realized how distressing the shock of Morgan's death had been to her, how it could disorient even the firmest mind and disrupt the stoutest constitution, it was at a time like this that people should stay close to home and rely upon the services of their immediate family. It may even be best if Aunty moved into the spare room. Or Morag may like to consider selling up and moving in with Aunty. Looking after a house by oneself could be a particular strain. Particularly when it contained Memories.
Morag Roberts did not reply to this note either and, in the end, after waiting several more days Ivor went round early one Sunday morning. The Hire Car was parked outside with the driver seated inside reading The Reveille. Ivor Roberts noticed the lace curtain in the front room twitch as he approached the front door. He knocked in a firm but friendly manner but there was no answer.
After several moments Ivor stepped back and to peer through the upstairs windows. In the end he decided to go round the back and try the kitchen door - after all, you never knew when someone could have taken a bad turn. At this point the driver got out of the car and shouted over to him. He said that the lady did not want to be bothered. She had told him all about Ivor Roberts. She didn't need any advice and anyway she did have a man who could give her plenty of good suggestions, meaning him (the driver). So why didn't he (Ivor Roberts) just push off and mind his own sodding business.
Ivor Roberts looked round quickly and noticed that curtains had begun to move in the houses opposite. Of course he was perfectly confident that he could have remonstrated with the driver, as he told Aunty afterwards, but he was unwilling to become involved in an unseemly altercation. particularly on the Sabbath.
Mr Roberts walked away in he what he felt to be a dignified, measured and equitable manner. He had, of course, to keep glancing down to ensure that he did not trip over any cracked paving stones. One or two people came out to remove leaves from their front steps, and check that their garden gates were properly locked. They nodded to Ivor as he passed.
For the first time in many years Ivor Roberts did not attend Chapel that night but set enquiries in motion that would lead to the name of a reliable but assertive solicitor.
Contact F. David Peat