Martha took the scenic way home, as she often did, across the wide sweep of sand at St Brelade’s Bay and up the path next to the Fisherman’s Chapel which led round the point to the house she shared with Auntie. They’d kept her talking longer than she’d intended, those two old queens in the Portuguese café who amused her by being straight out of an E. F. Benson novel.
‘How’s your auntie?’ they’d asked as she sipped her sherry, and she’d told them: as well as could be expected, considering her age. Ninety-eight come February and still keeping active, though the eyesight was no longer as good as it might be and she suffered quite dreadfully from arthritis, poor love. But, all in all, Martha couldn’t really complain. They’d rubbed along nicely, the two of them, these twenty-two years, since the tragedy of Gerard and all the anguish that had entailed. And you needed someone to keep you company, particularly in the twilight of your life. A dog wasn’t enough.
She paused to gain breath at the top of the steep climb and gazed back over the flat steel-grey water of the Channel. Odd the way things happened, that here she was, a resident of Jersey where Gerard had been born but never returned to since he left it in his impatient teens. It was a good place to grow old and Auntie liked it too, the friendliness, the healthy living, the mellow climate and lack of traffic or fuss. No crime either which was a boon to two old ladies, rattling around together in more rooms than they could use, yet able to leave the door unlocked both day and night. Where else in this tough old world could you find that sort of safety? Certainly not in America where both of them had been raised; not any longer.
Martha never tired of this breathtaking view though she knew it now as well as her own face. It gave her a reassuring sense of peace and stability, missing through all those hectic years as the wife of a man continuously on the move, with all the toings and froings and ups and downs such an existence demanded. Not that she’d begrudged him a single second. When Gerard died, so horribly prematurely, she’d thought her own life had come to an end. She glanced back towards the hillside cemetery where her darling now rested in peace. Where she could tend his grave at her leisure and really keep her eye on him at last, bless his heart.
The front door of the ochre-tinted house was slightly ajar, which was not a good thing. Martha frowned as she pushed open the gate. Lately Auntie had been growing careless. Lack of fear was one thing but allowing easy access to any passing goat or cat or chicken quite another. She tutted as she walked up the path between the geraniums and sea-pinks and meticulously scraped the sand from her sensible brogues. She and Auntie needed to have a word. Else she wouldn’t feel easy at leaving her alone next time.
‘I’m back!’ she called as she slipped out of her lightweight mac in the shady hall, but the air was as still and undisturbed as when she had left and the door to the sitting-room, which they still called the front parlour, wide open and welcoming and clearly hiding no secrets. It was ten past four. The walk to the village had taken longer than she’d intended but these days what was there to hurry back for? Except Auntie who shortly would be wanting her tea. Martha headed towards the kitchen to put on the kettle, but paused at the foot of the staircase.
Damp footprints, just discernible on the pale beige of the serviceable carpet, led upwards in a single row, drawing her eye. Footprints from heavy rubber boots, it would appear; a man’s boots.
‘Hello there!’ she called, more jauntily than she felt, venturing up a couple of steps and peering through the banister rails towards the landing, but there was no response. Only the heavy ticking in the hall of Thomas Annesley’s clock and the distant skirling of the inevitable seabirds. Apprehension clutched at her throat; all of a sudden the house seemed unnaturally still.
‘Auntie!’ she called, with a confidence she didn’t feel, tripping lightly up the stairs and round to the master bedroom where the door, unusually, was flung wide open. One glance confirmed her worst fears though nothing appeared to have been disturbed apart from the awfulness on the bed. Across the crocheted bedspread, like a broken doll, Auntie lay draped with her hair shaken loose from its combs, head down dangling towards the floor, eyes popping out in terror, clearly dead. The dressing-gown cord that had been used as a ligature was still twisted tightly around her throat, and mindlessly Martha moved to touch it, then froze as she sensed the slight stirring behind her.
She turned. And gaped incredulously, clutching her throat. After all these years, this couldn’t be happening. It took her a moment to come to her senses. Too long.
‘You!’ she breathed, dumbfounded. There was so much she suddenly needed to ask but time had already run out for her. The automatic was raised to the centre of her forehead and she was dispatched, cleanly and effectively, with a single shot.
‘Too terrible,’ said Douglas in the bar. ‘We were only talking to her yesterday lunchtime, weren’t we, Lionel?’ The older man nodded. Tall and stoop-shouldered and defeated by life, he had seen it all in his time and then some. But cold-blooded murder in a place like St Brelade’s was worse than anything he could recall. Especially of such a refined old lady. There was something, they’d always said, well, classy, about her. As if she had secrets she wasn’t betraying, though she lived quite quietly up there on the cliffs, with only her ancient aunt for company. Bette Davis, they’d called her privately, because of her elegance, that self-contained hauteur that belied what was actually a far gentler nature.
‘They say she was once married to a very distinguished man,’ said the barman, polishing glasses. ‘A composer, or something, who came from these parts. But that was all a long time ago.’
‘American, I’d guess from her accent.’ Douglas prided himself on his powers of observation. ‘And a right beauty she must have been, too, in her time. Pity, really, we never got to know her. I’ll bet she had a tale or two to tell.’
‘What have the police to say about it?’ Lionel, a former Navy man, cared about these details, liked to see things shipshape and in their place.
‘Not a lot,’ said the barman, scrutinising a glass. ‘A competent job, neat and efficient. Nothing stolen, nothing displaced. Almost like an ordered execution.’
‘Goodness me!’ Now Douglas was seriously shocked, his reaction tinted by a tiny chill of pure terror. Thrilling, really, in a forgotten backwater like this. Whatever next!
‘You’d better watch it, son,’ said the barman mock-seriously, choosing his words with care to titillate and entertain.
The old codger was well into his seventies but still enjoyed being teased. The eyes behind their bottle lenses fairly gleamed with excitement. Worth making that steep climb for; better than The Archers. ‘Come along, Lionel,’ he said, draining his glass. ‘Time for beddy-byes. Doesn’t do to stay out late these days.’
‘Watch out for the Big Bad Wolf,’ called the barman.
‘Behave!’ said Douglas, with a saucy wave of the hand.
Alone in her farmhouse kitchen, Odile Rochefort Annesley stood motionless, gazing across the silent vineyards as a sepia sun sank in a leaden sky. At this time of year there was nearly always a storm brewing and soon she would check the shutters before she set about preparing a meal. It was mid-afternoon but almost dark; the daylight hours were short. There was no electric light in this stern old house but that’s how she preferred it, au naturel, the way it had been since her parents’ day.
What was exercising her mind right now was something she had just read in the newspaper. France-Soir lay spread across the old oak table, her neat gold pince-nez resting upon it where she’d flung them down in anguish. Was this endless nightmare never to go away? Had she to go on fighting even after all these years? She twisted stray ends of her thick grey hair, which she still wore up in the style of her girlhood, and pushed them severely back into the knot on top of her head. With her slight figure and erect carriage, from behind Odile still resembled the lissom seventeen year old who had first caught the eye of Cornelius Annesley so fatefully and so long ago. But closer to, in the dull, dying rays of the almost extinguished sun, the fine parchment skin revealed the fact that she was now an old woman.
Something must be done and without further delay. With the gritty determination for which she was noted, Odile swept out of the kitchen and into the dim front room where she lit the gas-brackets, opened her writing desk and settled down to compose a letter. It was time she told someone and told them fast; this latest occurrence was her responsibility and might not have happened had she been a little less stubborn. A flash of Cornelius’s beloved face came and went swiftly at the back of her mind but she pushed it away. She sighed. It had been a long, hard struggle, these past forty years, and not for the first time she questioned her decision. No time, however, for futile self-recrimination. Unless she acted swiftly, it might be altogether too late.
© Carol Smith 2003