10: BAD LIGHT
As many literary critics have shown [see Melton & Barthol, 1968], the author of a crime story faces two contradictory pressures when constructing a dénouement. On the one hand readers must be rewarded for their patience with the pleasure of surprise; on the other hand the conclusion must flow logically from what has gone before in order to achieve psychological plausibility. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
I’d only spoken to Steven for a moment at the end of the meeting. He came over and said: ‘Jane, we must have a talk. About Josie, and the other stuff. Tonight, if at all possible.’
‘Do you know the Purple Heifer? In a village a couple of miles out of Harlow? Nine o’clock.’ When I nodded again he said: ‘Fine. See you there. I can’t talk now.’ He was gone so quickly I doubt if anyone else noticed we were speaking. It reminded me of the old days, when he would be running round organising flyposting or something, fixing up details and moving on, like one of those people who plays thirty games of chess at the same time.
So although the rendezvous was scarcely romantic, I felt more excited about a date than I had done for twenty years.
I set off in good time, because I didn’t want to be late, and I wasn’t sure how long the drive would take on a Saturday night. It was only just after half past eight when I arrived. I faced a long, boring wait in a strange pub full of people whom I didn’t find particularly appealing.
I couldn’t even pass the time by drinking, since I would have to drive back, and I wanted to be clear-headed to discuss whatever it was Steven wanted to discuss. I ordered half a pint, found just about the only empty table left in the bar, and sat down to sip my drink as slowly as I could, watching the clock as I did so. Time dragged by extremely slowly. I had nothing to read with me, the level of conversation was so noisy that I couldn’t hear the juke-box – which in any case was alternating between Boyzone and Robson and Jerome – and there was no other source of entertainment available. For want of intellectual stimulus I began to count the squares on the wallpaper, and then to engage in a variety of calculations based on the results. Unfortunately the scope of my O‑Level maths was pretty soon exhausted.
In this situation the only source of variety and amusement was getting up to go to the toilet. However I felt it was a pleasure I couldn’t indulge in too frequently in case people assumed I had lacerated my bladder and called an ambulance. I need not have worried. If I had ruptured my spleen and lain on the carpet screaming in agony I doubt very much whether anybody would have noticed.
On the next table a man who had obviously already had a few drinks was telling a story which culminated in the fact that when he had arrived at the Goat and Compasses George had not been there. ‘George wasn’t there’, he declared, ‘he wasn’t bloody there.’ The look on his face implied that this was a fact of such an extraordinary nature that it called into question the whole foundations of existing human knowledge. Why, I wondered, was it so remarkable? Were George’s feet nailed to the floor of the Goat and Compasses? Had he sworn an oath that his soul was forfeit to the devil if he ever left the bar of the aforesaid hostelry? Did the life of the speaker’s children, the honour of his mother, depend on George having agreed to keep a rendezvous which he had then callously abandoned?
To be honest, it did appear that the speaker’s companions – two men and a woman – were equally puzzled as to the point of the anecdote, since they were not showing the shock/horror/amusement that the speaker clearly believed the tale called for. Just in case they, or any one else in the pub, happened to have missed the point, he told the whole story from the beginning again. After he had completed the third presentation of the story, he reached over to the next table and tapped another man on the shoulder. ‘You weren’t there, were you George?’ And he bellowed with laughter to make up for the silence he was eliciting from his fellows. George looked far from contrite, and as far as I could see there was no physical reason why he should not have absented himself from the Goat and Compasses if he had so wished.
I was still mulling this over when someone sat down across the table from me. It was not Steven but a man in his forties, balding and with glasses, a copy of the Guardian under his arm. When I looked up and smiled at him, he immediately engaged me in conversation about the Common European Currency, something he was convinced would be of enormous benefit to the British economy. When he had been elucidating his position for about five minutes, I rather misguidedly nodded. He took this for an enthusiastic endorsement of his entire economic perspective and proceeded to develop the argument further. In particular he explained how he had once gone to France on holiday and while he had been there the pound had risen sharply in value, so that when he changed back his remaining currency on return he had made a loss of about ten pounds. With a common currency this, of course, could no longer occur. The trouble with politicians, he said, was that they didn’t live like ordinary people; they didn’t have to change money when they went abroad. So they didn’t appreciate how important the Single European Currency would be. I toyed with the idea of pointing out the logical fallacies in his argument, but he was generating them faster than I could refute them, so I decided not to bother. Thankfully, he was quite content with an occasional nod or muttered acknowledgement on my part, and did not seem to expect a more active participation. He continued with a string of personal anecdotes interspersed with pertinent facts gleaned from the financial columns of the Guardian.
I was still a little unsure whether this was part of some attempt at a chat‑up. However, if he made a practice of attempting to pull women by discussing the European currency, I could be fairly confident that he had suffered many failures in the past and therefore was probably harmless. Still, I had to admit that it was marginally more entertaining than analysing the wallpaper.
Fortunately his attention was now diverted by the appearance of a rather drowsy wasp, left over from summer, which was buzzing around near the table. Standing up, and waving his Guardian with what appeared like expert technique, he attempted to steer the wasp towards the door. The benighted beast, however, obstinately refused to be guided. My erstwhile companion wandered over the pub, jostling several people and spilling beer on all sides. Finally he came back to the table and began maligning the wasp for its stupidity in refusing to be led outside. I tentatively suggested that it was because of the position of its eyes on the sides of its head that it found it difficult to discover the way out of a confined space. ‘It’s not its eyes that’s the trouble,’ he insisted, with a quiet fury that opposition to the European currency had failed to evoke in him, ‘it’s its brains. It’s got no brains.’
The excitement of the last few moments had made the time pass more quickly. Looking at the clock I was surprised to see that it was after half past nine. It looked as though Steven was not coming. So I should sleep alone tonight after all. At ten o’clock I finally dragged myself away from my intellectual soul-mate, who was still expounding how the single currency was putting vital pressure for reform on the antiquated aspects of the Portuguese economy, and climbed back into the car. I hardly noticed the traffic. I was trying to work out what was going on. What was Steven playing at – and what did I feel about it?
Steven had only said a few words, but that had been quite enough to ensure that I would meet him, even if it had meant pulling out of a major appointment.. To have been complicit in events like that, events that led to a death, created a bond that it was impossible to break, even if nearly thirty years had elapsed.
But even if he hadn’t given me that powerful reminder of the past, I should have been tempted to meet him. For there was something in his smile, something in the way his eyes twinkled faintly as he spoke, that also seemed to establish a link across the decades and tie me to a past I could never be free of.
I didn’t doubt that Steven had genuinely wanted to speak to me about something. I was profoundly curious to know what it might be. But I was equally curious to know what it would be like to be with Steven again, to sit across a table from him and talk in intimate terms.
There had never been a clean break with Steven. We had seen each other regularly until the early seventies, then much less frequently for a few years more. I could still remember the last time, a rather dismal February evening in 1977; but at the time we had no sense it would be our last night together. I had expected that he would phone me again, some time within six months at the most. But he didn’t. It was around the time when he was making his rapid move to the right, and he was shaking off his former lovers, friends and acquaintances and preparing himself for reception into a new milieu. Doubtless he hadn’t wanted to take the risk of a major row with me if he had explained his new orientation. Though I was rather politically rootless at the time, I should certainly have exploded with fury at his betrayal. Clearly he preferred to vanish without making a formal break.
This brought me back to the question I had been asking myself, and trying not to answer, ever since Steven had made the rendezvous. Indeed, I’m not at all sure I hadn’t been asking it ever since I saw him in the Goose at lunch-time. If he wanted to sleep with me, would I say yes?
Certainly, as I had watched him on the platform that afternoon, my feelings had been very mixed. I didn’t agree with what he had been saying. But Steven had been impressive. From that first Sunday night meeting, when he had explained what Trotsky said about violence, I had always been fascinated by his ability to put across an argument, so clearly and simply that anybody could understand it, yet without losing anything of the force and the complexity of the argument. He always related to his hearers but never patronised them. He hadn’t lost any of his skill.
Although he was obviously now into his fifties, he didn’t look it; indeed he was an awful lot better preserved than I am, although he’s a few years older than me. Indeed, one of the problems that was nagging away at me was whether I wasn’t nurturing an enormous illusion. A man like Sadler could pull women who were much younger and more attractive than me. The fact that he wanted to see me about something rooted in our shared past didn’t mean that he still fancied me.
Indeed, if he was throbbing with unrequited lust for my ageing body, then why had he not bothered to turn up? Maybe something better had turned up; probably he had just had second thoughts and decided that a Saturday night out with a girl-friend discarded two decades ago was not a good idea. The thought didn’t do a lot for my self-esteem as I drove back through the dark and increasingly damp night.
In any case, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I had no address for him, no telephone number – somebody of his status would be highly unlikely to be in the phone book, though he could find me there soon enough – or contact me at the University.
I supposed I could contact him through one of the papers he wrote for, but since he wasn’t on the regular staff of any of them, it would probably take weeks for it to percolate through to him. Anyhow, I had nothing new to say about those events of thirty years, nothing new to add. But if I said I wanted to meet him again, maybe I’d just be setting myself up as a fool who fondly imagined that he still lusted after me.
I parked the car, and ran inside through the rain that was now beginning to fall quite fast. There was nothing to be done. I had been in for about an hour when the phone rang. It was Steven. My heart leapt, almost as though I were a seventeen‑year‑old hearing from her first boy-friend.
He apologised profusely; indeed he sounded a bit agitated in a way that I was not accustomed to Steven being. Apparently something had gone wrong with his car; he went on at great length recounting the precise mechanical details, and telling me of problems he had had with it. He enquired if I had been to the Purple Heifer, and whether I had got home safely – rather nugatory I felt, since if I had smashed myself up I would scarcely be talking to him now. He was particularly concerned about how long I had waited – when I told him I had left the pub at ten he had repeated the time after me, rather as though it had some kind of special significance, like the number of the beast. He also seemed very keen to know what time I had arrived home.
But when I asked him what he had wanted to talk to me about, he was very dismissive. ‘Come on, Jane,’ he said, ‘I was just trying to excite your curiosity. I saw you again, and it suddenly struck me that it was a pity we hadn’t met for such a long time. I rather fancied a quiet drink and a bit of a chat with you – about the old times in general, nothing in particular. We must meet up soon. I’m going out of town for a few days, up to Glasgow to investigate if there’s any danger that there will be Scottish Nationalist terrorism if they don’t get devolution. I’ll give you a ring when I get back; I’ll tell you about the kilted Che Guevaras I’ve met; you’d probably support them.’
He rang off. From his manner I had little hope he would call again, and I had no intention of making myself look silly by chasing him. But all the same I dialled 1471 and noted his number. I couldn’t help feeling rejected and humiliated.
Of course he didn’t ring back. And circumstances meant that I didn’t have much time to think about it..
The next day I heard on the news about Terence Wicklow had been found dead. My first reaction was one of extraordinary joy and delight. My second, which came only a few seconds later, was of profound regret that he appeared to have died relatively quickly. I don’t know how painful it is to have one’s skull crushed by a cricket bat, so I live in hope. But it wasn’t the method I should have chosen myself. A jug of Prussic acid over his groin would have been my favourite; followed perhaps by gouging his eyeballs out with a red hot fork and making him eat them. But in any case the bastard was dead. Now there’s only Thatcher and Cliff Richard to look forward to – somehow it makes you feel old.
So, as I suppose Inspector Stoddart realised pretty quickly, I had the motive to kill Terence Wicklow. But when she interviewed me the first time, I didn’t really pick up the fact that I might be a suspect. It’s not the sort of thing that happens to respectable middle-class people like me. I know lots of innocent people are fitted up for murders they didn’t do – it’s all tied up with Performance Related Pay. But if they aren’t professional criminals, then they’re generally either black or Irish, which to the police seems to mean the same thing. I didn’t really see myself as Dreyfus or the Del Morecambe One.
I suppose I did make myself seem a bit suspicious by being quite rude to Stoddart the first time I saw her. If I’d thought there was any chance that I might fall under suspicion, I’d have been a lot more polite. So when I was called in for the second time, and I could see that they were a lot more serious, I told her almost everything. I gave her the precise times to within a couple of minutes. I told her about the long conversation about the European Single Currency. I gave her a lot of details about the pub. The only thing I didn’t tell her was that I had gone there to meet Steven. For two reasons. Firstly, because I didn’t want to tell her why he had asked me; those events of twenty-eight years ago were the very last thing I wanted to discuss with the police. And secondly, if I suggested it was some sort of romantic tryst, then I risked making myself look a real fool. She had only to ask Steven if it was true. Now he had just published an article about the Wicklow murder in which he had suggested, rather delicately, that I might be in some way responsible, by preaching the doctrine of picket-line violence and corrupting the morals of my students. So if he was asked if he had tried to date me the previous weekend, the overwhelming likelihood was that he would say no. Ever since I had discussed Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours with Steven a quarter of a century ago, I had no illusions that he believed in absolute truthfulness at all times. He was always ready to tell a lie in a higher cause, and nowadays there was no higher cause than the advancement of Steven Sadler’s career.
So I declined to give the name of my potential date – leaving Stoddart to understand that it had been a married man. It was a double-bluff. If I had in fact been dating a married man, then there would have been no difficulty in producing him if necessary at a trial; if Stoddart recognised that then she might hold back.
But I began to think I had better sort out my alibi. I telephoned the Purple Heifer and asked for the landlord. Somewhat unwillingly they fetched him to the phone. I said I’d been in the pub just over a week before and I wondered if anyone remembered me.
‘No,’ he said, ‘ I don’t think so. Is there something memorable about you? Green ears? Two heads? What’s the matter? Did you pinch a beer mat? Put it in the post and we’ll say no more about it.’
I tried to explain that it was in connection with a police enquiry. The jocular tone turned sour.
‘Listen, lady. This is a public house. You know what public means? It means anyone can come in. We sell drinks. To anyone. Anyone over the legal age, of course. We don’t ask their names. And we don’t keep records. So I can’t help you. Sorry.’ And with that he slammed the phone down.
I got the very clear feeling that if I went up there and asked questions of the bar staff or tried to find my erstwhile companion who was so enthusiastic about the European currency, I might well risk physical injury.
But when the third interview came up, I realised that the pressure was on. I knew I couldn’t draw Steven into it now; it would look very suspicious if I suddenly brought his name up out of the blue after all this time; so I had to stick by the story I had been telling from the start, which was, after all, ninety-five per cent true; the only gap was the phone call from Steven which, of course, he could deny at any time. Even if I got BT to dig out the records it would only prove Steven had phoned me – he could still lie as to what it was about, perhaps say it was a query arising from the conference.
It was now that I began to recognise that if I was not going to get framed for a murder I hadn’t done I had better start trying to find out who had really done it. Maybe the story was settling down at last and I was being cast in the role of the detective. The police didn’t seem to care who had killed Wicklow so long as they could get a conviction; I had a strong vested interest in the truth. I saw Sue and Mike, and with Sue I visited the bizarre Lisa Schwarz, the only CIA agent I have ever knowingly met. John I’d written off from the start; he can hardly get himself together to tie his shoe-laces.
I’d learnt by now that Steven had been called in as a political consultant on the investigation. At first it just looked like a rather grim coincidence that his arrival had coincided with the time at which suspicion had begun to focus on me. But when I thought about it I began to wonder if it was a coincidence after all. Steven had always had a gift for manipulation. I had attended many meetings in which Steven had apparently played almost no role, or where he had not even been physically present. But yet I knew, as well as anyone did, since I was often acting as his agent, that Steven was organising the whole thing, that he had decided who should speak first and how the rhythm of the meeting would go.
I had the sense that it was all happening again, but that this time Stoddart was his agent – and I was his victim. Why should he want to push suspicion onto me? Doubtless his personal friendliness had been a front and part of his scheme. But what deep grudge did he have against me, so deep that he was happy to see me jailed for murder?
I puzzled over this one. Then finally, as I was talking to Sue, it came to me. Because I had nourished the stupid fantasy that Steven still fancied me, I had then simply converted it into the equally romantic fantasy that he felt personal animosity against me. I had to come to terms with the humiliating fact that he didn’t feel anything at all; he was simply using me. That explained why he had vilified me in the press and then, a few days later, when he had seen me, had been thoroughly charming. It was not the reawakening of lust that I had flattered myself I had provoked with my ageing charms. Steven had simply realised I could be useful. Obviously my value was that, by attracting the attention of the police, I was deflecting attention from him. That in turn led to the corollary which now hit me with the force of a powerful blow to the stomach. He wanted me to deflect attention from himself because he was the killer.
It still seemed hard to believe. There were too many improbabilities, too many coincidences. But then, as I reflected, there are so many improbable things that could happen in life, that it’s not at all surprising that a few of them do happen. If you see what I mean.
I left a message on Steven’s answering machine. .
I also realised that it was going to be necessary to add an appendix to this narrative.