The English Lady Murderers Society: Sample
HOW TO FORM A WOMEN’S GROUP
|The villages of France are full of English murderers. They flee there after killing the past and sometimes slaughtering their inconvenient relatives. The weather is better than England, though there’s a worry over the exchange rate. Unfortunately no crime is perfect.Janet found herself on a sunny June morning breasting a hill on the road from Lavelanet to Quillan in the wooded foothills of the Pyrenees. In front of her was the castle of Puybrun and below it the village with its lake and camping site. Wheat fields stretched beyond the village to a rugged limestone escarpment glittering with light, and everything was beautifulShe arrived after a drive of God knew how many hundreds of miles with umpteen bags and cases crammed in the back of her VW Golf. All the while she told herself, ‘I must change this car,’ because the journey through France had been slow and tedious. With a right-hand drive, she couldn’t see to overtake, and was stuck for miles behind lorries with enormous trailers. Whether she could get rid of a right-hand drive car was another matter. And in any case would she be staying long enough to make a swop worthwhile? She feared she might have to reconcile herself to twelve months of driving along narrow country lanes at the speed of a tractor.From the main road a narrow lane, the rue du Cimetière, led presumably to a cemetery. A row of three cottages stood on one side and an old barn on the other. Her own house (if that was the right expression for a rented place she’d never seen before) was shuttered and in darkness, and the power was off. The tiled floor was crunchy with dirt and dead insects. If she could find the fuse box, she was capable of switching everything on, but the instructions for finding it needed enough light to see by. And there wasn’t of course: not in the absence of electricity.’I must have a cup of tea,’ she said aloud, and worked out a plan for getting one: the old can-you-spare-some-sugar ploy; though did anyone really do that these days: just turn up at a neighbour’s door asking for small necessities: tea, sugar, flour? It smacked of running out of housekeeping money until Friday’s pay packet; of the War and rationing; of stories in Woman’s Realm. Of her mother’s life in fact.It seemed implausible in this day and age but it would have to do.
Belle answered the door to a trim attractive woman with auburn hair, who wore a cream blouse and well-cut black slacks; good quality if not absolutely the best; Principles not Jaeger for example (but hadn’t Principles gone out of business?); not that Belle shopped there except for accessories. They didn’t have clothes in her size. Nowhere had clothes in her size.
The stranger gave a smile and said, ‘Hullo, I’ve just arrived in the village and was wondering if you could tide me over with a cup of sugar?’
‘You don’t have a cup,’ she pointed out.
The stranger looked at her empty hands and after the briefest of hesitations burst into laughter, which she suppressed between cries of, ‘I’m sorry!’ so that Belle found herself laughing without knowing why.
‘Come on in,’ she said. ‘Let’s have some tea; then we’ll see what I can do to help you out. My name’s Belle by the way.’
‘I’m Janet. Belle…?’
‘Short for Belinda. I don’t know what my mum was thinking of. You can’t call a girl Belinda – not in Clitheroe anyway – not without starting a fight in the school yard every playtime.’
‘I’m from Oldham,’ Janet said.
Belle acknowledged the understanding. ‘My mum always did have ideas above herself. She owned a haberdasher’s shop. It made her royalty in our street.’
She invited her visitor to sit and went to the kitchen to put on the kettle. When she returned Janet was examining the room.
‘Charlie and I have only been here a few months ourselves,’ Belle said. ‘You’ll have to forgive the wallpaper.’ It was a dingy brown pattern of acanthus leaves. ‘It’s weird, isn’t it, that a country that’s the fashion capital of the world and supposed to know everything about good taste should like grotty wallpaper? But it’s the same everywhere in France.’
‘Like the cheap Indian restaurants we used to go to when we were students?’ Janet suggested.
Belle beamed. ‘Just like that. Do you take milk? In your tea? Milk? We only have UHT, I’m afraid.’
‘Sorry. I don’t like it either, but it’s all the local shop stocks. You can get fresh at the supermarket.’ Belle launched into a list of local towns and markets, feeling her tongue running away with her, and finishing with: ‘and in Mirepoix on Mondays; perhaps we could go one of these days.’
Immediately she thought, ‘Me and my big mouth.’ But Janet smiled and said, ‘I should like that.’ Belle noticed the lines around the smile. She decided that Janet, for all her smartness, would never see sixty again, and she flattered herself that her own skin was smoother, a benefit of being – what was the expression? – ‘well-covered’.
‘Bugger the tea and the rotten UHT milk.’ Belle returned to the kitchen and this time produced a chilled bottle and a couple of glasses. ‘We should celebrate your arrival. This is Blanquette de Limoux, the local tipple.’ The wine fizzed as she pulled the stopper and poured. ‘Not too early?’
‘Provided it’s just one glass.’
‘Why did you come here – I mean to my house?’
‘The others were all closed up – because of the heat I suppose. I saw your shutters were open and the car was a Jaguar, and really I was too tired to start practising my French on strangers.’
‘Well, you’ve come to the right place. Where are you staying?’
Janet waved vaguely, ‘One of the houses down the lane. It’s called La Maison des Moines, which sounds grander than it is.’
‘Oh, I know it. In fact there’s a story that links it with this place.’
‘A murder story – or, at any rate, a sort of a murder story. Apparently about ten years ago an Englishman was living here – I mean in my house – with his girlfriend. She went missing and everyone supposed and still supposes she was murdered, because she was never found.’
‘And what’s the connection with La Maison des Moines?’
‘Well, your place was the home of a very sinister old Hungarian called Harry Haze, and he and the English couple were very thick until this Haze also upped sticks and vanished. So the thought is that Haze may have killed the girl, or maybe the Englishman killed the pair of them. No one really knows.’
Belle thought it was a good story, and possibly even true. It didn’t trouble her; after all it wasn’t as if there’d been body parts scattered through her house and blood sprayed up the bedroom walls. It might have been better if there had been. Someone would have got rid of that damned wallpaper for one thing. Janet seemed interested rather than concerned.
Belle thought her visitor looked tired, but she liked her not least because of the winning laugh when she was caught out without a cup for the sugar. She was reluctant to let her go, and Janet looked as if she was happy to rest for the moment.
‘Are there many English in the village?’ she asked.
‘A few. I haven’t counted. I know half a dozen or so – women, I mean; obviously there are men as well’
‘What are they like?’
But Belle had thought of something else and answered, ‘Have you bought your house?’ The rapid change of subject threw her visitor.
‘Oh, do you mean: am I settling here? I don’t know. I’ve taken it furnished for a year while I decide. It’ll depend. … And the other English women?’
‘They’re okay, the ones I’ve met. All sorts – no, that’s not true: there are no gangsters’ molls or footballers’ wives; I think they tend to live on the Riviera. In fact, now I think of it, I suppose we must be a fairly select bunch: people who want to live here and can actually afford to. It isn’t everybody, is it?’
‘No,’ Janet agreed.
Belle nodded. It wasn’t something she’d thought of before: that she and the other women had an unspoken quality in common that had brought them from England to a corner of France that wasn’t especially fashionable even though it was lovely. She gave thumbnail sketches of those she knew, beginning with Earthy.
‘Eartha? As in Eartha Kitt?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Belle supposed it might be ‘Eartha’, but Earthy herself had a ragged-edged, homemade look as if you could unravel her and knit her into something else, so that her name seemed somehow quite appropriate. ‘I’m sure she pronounces it”Earthy”, but it doesn’t seem likely, does it? Then again, neither does”Eartha”; what”Earthas” do you know apart from Eartha Kitt?’
Just as quickly as before, Belle changed the subject and began to talk about her husband Charlie and how they’d abandoned England and intended to retire permanently to France. The explanation involved a complicated excursion into Charlie’s career and the story of her children and their current partners, which Janet was quite unable to follow.
Then they returned to the subject of the other women, and Belle rattled on until Janet was dizzy from the detail. ‘What on earth am I doing?’ Belle wondered, but she couldn’t stop. ‘She probably thinks I’m a drunk; swigging bottles of blanquette in the middle of the day on any excuse. What a dismal start to a friendship, assuming it’s going to be one.’
Until the end the visitor said nothing about her own life or circumstances, but now she came out now with a strange remark as a sort of comment on Belle’s account of the English women of Puybrun.
She said, ‘You know, as you were telling me about them, I was thinking that they sound like the inhabitants of one of those preposterous English villages where people are always getting murdered, with bodies turning up in the library or the vicarage: I mean like St. Mary Mead or that place in the silly television series Midsommer Murders.’
Belle was quite taken by the idea.
Then Janet said, ‘But Puybrun isn’t really like that, is it? Or not quite. It’s a village of exiles. Our murders are somewhere in the past, somewhere in England, in the lives we’ve put behind us. And maybe there are no bodies, just… I don’t know… situations that we’ve buried somewhere in the shrubbery.’
‘I can think of some murders I’d like to have done,’ Belle said; then on reflection added ‘But I suppose murder is just another of those things I meant to get round to in life but never managed. Like learning to tango properly.’
‘I learned to tango,’ Janet said. She spoke as if it were a fond but sad memory.
Janet returned to La Maison des Moines and this time had no difficulty finding the fuse box and switching on the power, after which she could see enough to open the shutters and let daylight in. For the lair of a possible killer (the vanished Mr. Haze, or whatever you were supposed to call him in Hungarian) it was really quite pleasant in an understated style, with some nice pieces of country furniture. Not that Janet was much concerned with interior decorating other than the thankful absence of grisly French wallpaper, about which Belle had been right. She unloaded the car and set about opening windows to air the place, dusting and sweeping it through. She suspected there was a wasps’ nest in the chimney and there were definitely field mice in the basement. The latter opened on to the road through a double door, but at the rear it was buried in the earth among old masonry that gave a hint of the origin of the house’s name: traces of a bricked-up mediaeval arch.
Janet was an observant person. She didn’t think Belle was a drunk. She’d noticed that the bottle of blanquette was half-full and closed with a stopper. Belle might drink more than Janet did, but serious topers always finished the bottle. No, Belle was obviously just sociable and didn’t find enough opportunities to express her good nature. Was Charlie entertaining company? He hadn’t showed his face and so Janet didn’t know.
The biggest shock was Belle’s size. She was what Janet’s mother would have called ‘a bigwoman’. It was that as much as the failure to take a cup for the sugar that had caused Janet to burst into nervous laughter on the doorstep. She was fat and had an enormous bosom (again Janet could hear her mother tutting, ‘That poor woman must have backache something awful!’). Yet the effect was oddly graceful in its generosity like the fat mamas working the markets of West Africa. She was ‘as stately as a galleon’, Janet decided from a phrase she’d read, though she had no knowledge of galleons. Why not a galleass, sloop, pinnace or corvette? Or ‘as graceful as a dhow’? Dhows truly were graceful. Belle made a success of her size because she had the wit and confidence to wear bright loose clothing and had a good feel for pattern and colour and no fear of being gaudy. Evidently she made her clothes herself and was good at it. Janet had spotted a sewing machine, and Belle had said her mother was once a haberdasher.
When the house was tolerably straight (at least she wouldn’t find herself treading on insects in the dark), Janet decided she’d better get some food. The afternoon and evening had faded. Her cottage was blessed with a view up the hill to the castle and she paused to take in its silhouette against a limpid sky where swifts were still screeching after insects. She recalled that a hundred yards or so along the road towards Lavelanet was a place that advertised itself as a Kazakh restaurant and pizzeria; she thought it was called the Altay. Janet was prepared to give it a try, even if it meant dining on goat pizza.
These days Janet found eating on her own in restaurants fascinating and lonely in equal parts. With David she’d been able to share deliciously malicious comments about the other guests; but that was gone and all her sharply-observed quips that had caused David to collapse in laughter remained stuck in her head or twisted silently round her tongue.
She thought: ‘I’m falling out of the habit of speech.’ She was aware that she’d left Belle to flounder; that she’d said very little and revealed even less. It wasn’t caution or natural reticence: she’d simply got out of the habit of telling the tale of her own life and feelings. And every time I open my mouth I want to cry. Which was inexplicable because it had nothing to do with David’s death; she’d found herself struggling to hold back tears in all sorts of situations long before he died. What was that all about?
She returned to the cottage with its strange name: La Maison des Moines, ‘the Monks’ House’. It made her think of Munchausen – a name that seemed to have the same origin, though that was no doubt coincidental and there was no reason to suppose the house was named after the Baron. Interesting though. The Baron was famous for his fantastic stories, and the house apparently had its own story: a tale of disappearance and possible homicide. She wondered if she could make something of it? Probably not.
She went inside and everything was in order and there was nothing too horrible scuttling across the floor. She made herself some coffee, having decided against taking it at the Altay, and she set out her laptop on the lounge table and started it up, watching it go through its comforting routines with their ‘pings’ and short phrases of music. Then she opened a new document in Word and after much consideration began to write:
‘What I most regret in life is murdering my husband…‘
She began to cry.