Peter’s THE YELLOW ROOM CONSPIRACY has been reissued from Orion.
And it’s available on amazon:
BIG FAT THUNDERING WARNING: Read the excerpt that follows here FIRST, BEFORE you click on either link. For some reason known only to the gremlins that have invaded their brains, whoever are in charge of such things have seen fit to give away the FABULOUS ENDING OF CHAPTER ONE as the synopsis/come-on/‘product description’ (in amazon’s magnificently literary phrase). Do yourselves a big favour and read it in context here.
And then of course buy the book immediately.
* * *
. . . Her hands had begun to tremble. Sherry dribbled down her wrists. I picked my way out and took the glasses from her.
‘Bother,’ she said. ‘I thought I was going to make it all the way.’
I grunted. Shock, emergency, a quick little surprise sometimes, can do that. The shakes go for a few minutes. It’s a commonplace of the disease. If she needs to Lucy can make use of it, deliberately as it were shocking herself into momentary full control, but of course there is a law of diminishing returns. She put a quivering hand on my elbow and let me lead her up to the bench at the top of the border. It’s only there for looks, and the occasional visitor – as far as I’m concerned there are always more interesting things to do in a garden than sit down. But now the sun-sodden stone was delectable against my spine, as necessary to me as the drink. Two doves answered each other, from the orchard and from beyond the stables. The patch of common hemp agrimony at the top of the Maroon Border murmured with insects, which is one of the things it is there for. Something honey-scented drifted on the imperceptible breeze. Lucy leant against my side, her shakes dwindling from their after-shock extravagance to their usual steady tremor. Only the radio was wrong. It was like the focal point in a Magritte, deliberately placed in the perspective between the borders in order to deconstruct the idyll. The black casing contradicted the sunlight. The shape, mean-proportioned, square-edged, embodied the unnaturalness of artifact among all the growth and green. The object itself snapped at me about what I’d done.
I put the glasses on the bench, strode down the path, slid the secateurs into my pocket, took the radio into the scullery yard and dropped it in the bin. When I came back Lucy appeared to have fallen asleep, bolt upright, a knack she’d always had. She was wearing a sleeveless linen shift with nothing, I guessed, underneath. (She could still dress herself, but simplified the process as much as she could.) Though I’d done her hair well that morning, by now it had half-loosened itself from its bun, but that had always been her style. I remember a diplomatic reception, presumably while she was still married to Tommy Seddon, as she was hostess. Royalty of some kind had just arrived and she was greeting them. I was admiring the way she made her formal curtsey look like a friendly and natural gesture when her sister Harriet, standing beside me, whispered ‘Trust Lucy to look as if she’d already started going to bed when she suddenly remembered she was supposed to be here.’
Now straggles of fine grey hair hung down by the pale slant of her cheek. The ‘masked’ look, symptomatic of the disease, was only slightly present, subsumed for the moment into the mask of beauty she had always worn. Her thin white arms seemed frail as paper. Her whole attitude cried to me of her vulnerability (though both frailty and vulnerability had, until her illness, been almost pure illusions). Once again, for the thousandth time, the pang of love stabbed through me. I stood letting it fade away, much as I had done with the blood-loss a few minutes before, and then walked on. My footsteps woke her, or she had not been asleep, but she didn’t open her eyes till I settled beside her.
‘I switched it off as soon as they said the name,’ she said.
‘I was stuck.’
‘Yes, I saw. That was a terrific shot, Paul. I’ll buy you a new one for your birthday.’
‘See if you can find a water-proof one. They have them for camping.’
‘May I have my sherry?’
I held it to her lips so that she could empty it enough for her to hold without spilling, then picked up my own and sipped.
‘What a perfect day,’ I said.
‘It’s all looking too beautiful,’ she said.
‘I only see what’s still wrong with it. Oh well, I suppose it’s not bad. Let’s hope the weather holds.’
‘You always say you prefer to look at gardens in the rain.’
I must have sighed. Despite the banalities of con¬tentment, the aftertaste of the radio programme kept regurgitating itself in my mind. Lucy read my feelings.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘Don’t let’s talk about it.’
‘I think we’ve got to. As a matter of fact I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m going to start getting worse soon.’
‘Nonsense. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t stay pretty well as you are for years still. You’re on a plateau. I had a long talk with Liz Sterling, when was it . . .?’
‘She doesn’t know. I’m the only one who knows. It’s been quite a nice plateau, and I’m glad it’s lasted as long as it has, but I can feel the edge coming. It doesn’t matter what Liz Sterling says.’
I opened my mouth to snap at her, and closed it again. What was the point? I’d lied to her about what Dr Sterling had told me.
‘What’s for lunch?’ I said.
‘It’s cold. Let’s stay here. It’s lovely here. Please, Paul. I want to talk to you. I’ll make it as easy as I can for you.’
‘You don’t have to make it easy for me.’
‘It’s really just two things . . .’
I was aware of some inner effort taking place. This itself was a rare event – not the effort, but my awareness. I suppose I know her better than anyone else in the world, but I am nowhere near understanding her, why she is what she is, says what she says, does what she does.
‘I’ll have the good news first. If any,’ I said.
‘I don’t know if it counts,’ she said. ‘Will you marry me, Paul?’
I was startled into laughter and spilt some sherry. Years and years ago, lying sleepless in a dirty little hotel in Samos, I’d heard faint rhythmic murmurs from her and realised she was counting.
‘Greek sheep?’ I’d murmured.
‘Men who’ve proposed,’ she’d said. ‘It’s your fault — you set me off, teasing me about Waldemar.’
(He was some kind of international financial brigand who had a plush cruiser moored in the harbour. Lucy had spotted him and let on she’d met him. I’d suggested making ourselves known in the hope of an invitation on board. Lucy had refused, saying that he was one of her rejectees and hadn’t taken it well. I rather crassly – I was in a bitchy mood – had asked how long the list was and where he came.)
‘I’ve got to thirty-seven,’ she said. ‘Not counting the ones where I didn’t speak the language so I didn’t know whether actual marriage was part of the proposal.’
I’d already known, even then, what she’d been telling me, that part of our unspoken contract was that I should not figure in that list.
‘I want it soon,’ she said now. ‘While . . . while I can still understand what’s happening. It’s all right, Paul. I’m not trying to tie you up. I’ve got everything worked out. While you were in Scotland I got Timmy to come and we went round and looked at some homes and found one which will do. He’s going to sell enough of my shares to buy an annuity which will cover the fees. And we’ll have a marriage contract which will say you’ve got to let me go there as soon as it’s no fun living with me.’
Timmy is her son, now Lord Seddon. I like him. He and his wife Janice come and stay two or three times a year. Lucy’s daughter, Rowena, is beautiful in her mother’s style, but has opted for a life of near-fanatical uprightness, and so is uneasy with Lucy and me.
‘As your husband,’ I said, ‘I shall surely . . .’
‘No you won’t. I’m going to tie it up like a miser in a novel. Timmy says . . . does that mean “Yes”?’
‘A provisional yes, subject to contract, as the estate agents say. Do I get a kiss, or must I listen to the bad news first?’
She sat still. Again I could sense the inner process. It wasn’t the proposal of marriage which had caused it earlier, either. It must have been whatever was coming now. I waited, steeling myself.
‘This is while I can still understand, too,’ she said. ‘Will you tell me how you killed Gerry? I think I know why, but how? How did you get into the room? And out again?’
The drumming dark that I had experienced in the flower-bed returned. This time it can have lasted only a few seconds. Lucy seemed not to have noticed.
Silence. The doves. Bees. The far drub of a helicopter. Sunlight. The flood of memory. In my mind’s eye a large lawn, also sunlit, but the air dense and still. Four women in sports gear gazing towards the facade of a large house, their postures tense with amused alarm. The tinkle of breaking glass. All different, all long ago, but in my own throat and chest the selfsame sickness and oppression that I was feeling now.
‘I had always imagined it was you,’ I whispered.
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