It was most inconvenient of all for Miss Bevan, of course. Monday was her Oxfam day.
Although the shop would be shut because of the bank holiday, she was expected down at the stockroom at ten o'clock to look over some new things. She wondered how many bags there would be, and who from. Often as she picked things over she would try to imagine the frenzied domestic blitzes that produced most of the things that came Oxfam's way, but she never could. She kept her cupboards tidy and their contents current and consequently never needed to update her life in that sudden way, discarding books on invalid cookery and unfashionable hobbies along with macrame plant holders and clothing with ludicrous lapels. It occurred to her that real absent-mindedness lay less in losing things than in keeping them, because woeful inattention could be the only explanation for people hanging on to things like that for so long. But sometimes, and she fancied she could always tell, the bags were handed in not by triumphant turners-out of cupboards but by the slightly guilty relatives of someone 'recently deceased', and she had never got used to the smell that came from those bags whose owners, she felt, must have simply decayed carelessly away rather than actively died. And having died their overdue deaths, they left behind disembodied clouds of a stench like boiled wool sprinkled with damp pepper, which loitered above their empty clothes. No, it was not a job she liked, but when had she ever failed to do a job because she did not like it?
She preferred being out front. All you needed for that was confidence and a firm hand. Her mind wandered back to the previous week and how she had (as she had told the Oxfam Area Supervisor) averted a very undesirable incident. Mrs. Silber, so tremulous and slow, was lucky that she had been there to take control of the situation. It was Alice Silber who had been on the till when the young girl and the youth had swept in and pounced on the raccoon coat that had gone on the rail that morning.
Alice Silber had said, first thing, 'Oh, Imogen, we can't put that out. They don't let us put any furs out nowadays.'
'That's nonsense,' she had replied. 'It's a perfectly good fur. Someone donated it. Yes, dear, I'm familiar with the arguments, but look how old it is. This coat was made before animal rights were even invented. I'm putting it out.'
So out it had gone. Out of consideration to Alice she had agreed not to put it in the window, but had hung it prominently on a rail just inside, visible from the door. The girl had simply marched in, grabbed it, dumped it on the counter and demanded in a loud voice that it be got rid of. Alice Silber, the silly woman, had opined that they should try to 'talk it through' (that phrase!). Fatal, of course, and pointless, because one cannot reason with these people. Then the young man had pitched in about being patronised and when she herself had come down from the steps where she had been rearranging Alice's hopeless display of woven baskets from Indonesia, Alice was actually saying that she had always felt sorry for the little creatures, too, and agreeing that perhaps an organization like Oxfam should take an ethical stance on the fur trade. It was typical of Alice to cave in like that, but she was not going to be shouted down by a pair of arrogant hippies. They were not even clean. The row that followed had emptied the shop, but she had taken pleasure in showing them the door and putting the coat back on the rail. It had gone now, bought within days, so she rather hoped that the new stuff this morning would include another. Yes, it would be enjoyable to sell another, and win another victory for common sense and a bit of backbone.
Imogen Bevan braced herself over her second cup of breakfast blend and thought further into the rest of the day. Oxfam till one, then home for luncheon. She used the proper words for things, even in her mental lists. For luncheon she would have half of the mushroom soup in the refrigerator along with some wholemeal toast, a piece of smoked Orkney cheese and an apple. She pictured her neat little meal, wholesome, elegant, not at all fuddy-duddy. Somewhat like herself, really. Taking a pride. Maintaining her standards, which seemed even more important now that she had retired and no longer had to maintain a whole school's standards and see that things were done properly, the way a good headmistress insists they are done. And as long as she went on doing things properly, in the same way now at seventy-four as she had done at sixty-four, and in the same way in another ten years' time at eighty-four, she felt certain she could hold off any descent into that region of malodorous geriatric drift, whose atmosphere eddied around the clothes of those who had so disgracefully let things slide to the extent of shuffling off the mortal coil.
She ran some hot water into the sink, tied on an apron and carried her breakfast things over to the draining-board. As she mopped at her egg cup, she planned further. After luncheon she would rest with the Telegraph crossword for half an hour. Then she would telephone the cleaning contractors again, since there had been no response to the message she had left on Friday. It was all very well, she had told the answering machine, just putting a shine on the hall floor and rubbing the door furniture, but when she had had to stoop down to pick up the post (she was always first there) she had seen the state of the skirting boards. And they need not think that they could just flick a broom round when they came next Friday. She and her fellow residents at number 11 paid for a cleaning service for the common areas and she expected them round at once to do a proper job. There had been no response, but what could one expect from these people? She would leave another message this afternoon and call again first thing on Tuesday morning.
Had she really said 'fellow residents'? she wondered, sniffing. She had taken a tea towel with acorns on it and was now drying her saucer. A slip of the tongue, for she certainly could have no fellow feelings towards those homosexuals on the first floor. She supposed that what they got up to was their business, and simultaneously assumed the right to condemn it. And they seemed to have no qualms whatsoever. If she ran into one of them going in or out she would have to suffer the most breezy greeting, as if it were quite normal that they should be on proper neighbourly terms. She didn't welcome friendliness from that sort of person. Their flat was empty again. All the coming and going between Bath, London and Brussels because of work, so-called. Treating her like an ignoramus. She took a plate and wiped it vigorously. She followed the news. The foreign news reporting in the Telegraph was second to none and readers had not been spared the details of that disgusting Belgian business. The country was overrun by homosexuals, paedophiles and pornographers. Those two upstairs could even be dealers in that sort of filth; she had always been dubious about what they claimed to do for a living.
Now she was drying the cutlery, which had of course been properly rinsed. After her telephone call to the cleaners she had a letter to write to the spineless chairman of the Camden Crescent Residents' Association, to press upon him again the need for action about the nasturtiums in the window box of number 21, and to report again that the Londoners who had number 9a had brought their cat for the weekend again, in breach of the lease. That might take her up to teatime (Earl Grey). After that she would tidy up the plants and water the tomatoes on her back patio. Beyond that, there was an evening to fill with a little television, a lamb noisette and vegetables, some lemon mousse, a blouse to iron for the morning, and her bath. Very satisfactory, she thought, putting away the cutlery and thinking (incredulously, for it was the bank holiday) that she had just heard the postman.
She mounted the stairs from her flat up to the ground-floor hall. It was empty and echoing, its bare white walls and chequered floor almost chilly. She picked the package up off the mat. She could tell by the size and weight that the plain Jiffy bag contained a videotape. She turned it over in her hands. Hand-delivered, of course, no postmark. Plain white label, name and address handwritten in black capitals. Sealed down, not just held with those clips you can get. Miss Bevan's heart began to beat faster. This would be just the way that kind of thing would start, one at a time. It would start so slowly you might not even notice it and then it would gather momentum and lead heaven knew where. She looked round the empty hall, and back at the package in her hand. She would know within seconds if it was something innocent, or not. If necessary she could reseal it with some tape of her own and just leave it on the post table. Nobody would know. That's if it were harmless, which it wouldn't be, and of course she wouldn't watch it, she would take it straight to the police. Really, it was her duty to open it. With a last quick look around the hall she tucked the Jiffy bag under her apron and made for the door down to her basement flat.
When she first held the package over the steam pouring from the kettle she almost scalded her hand. Then, turning the package over too late, she saw that it was the address label which was peeling away, while the seal remained perfectly intact. Worse, the lettering had not been done in fast ink, and had run into grey illegible streaks. She began to wish that she had never embarked on her private crackdown on crime. Rousing herself, she whipped the soggy label right off and tore it into grey shreds. She rolled the pieces into a damp little nugget and pushed it in among a mass of tea leaves and eggshell in the waste bin. It would be an easy matter to write out another label in anonymous-looking capitals. She held the package over the kettle once more. The kitchen was filling with steam and still the seal would not budge. Obviously something much stronger than any standard envelope sealing had been used, and why would that be, unless to keep the vile contents secret while in transit? Certain of what she would find, she took the package in both hands and, with the strength of a holy warrior, tore at the wrapping.
So no, it was not convenient, it being not only the August bank holiday Monday but also the anniversary of Diana's death. The crowd, although smaller than expected, had been building up all weekend. A persistent swarm of thirty or so were intent on sleeping out in Parade Gardens, and there were bye-laws against that sort of thing. Others were encamped on benches in Abbey Churchyard. There were already twenty extra uniformed officers policing the abbey environs who expected that, among the many flocking to Bath intent on lighting candles, leaving flowers and praying prayers, there would be several dozen others who would manage to overcome their grief sufficiently to concentrate on parking illegally, thieving from cars, stealing from shops or drinking themselves to disorderliness.
Not a convenient day either for the Accident and Emergency Department of the Royal United Hospital, where the staff were waiting with weary fatalism for the admissions of keening girls, legs buckling from the combined effects of lager, sun and standing too long in sweaty crowds united in mourning. The poor air quality would bring in one or two emergency asthmatics and the temperature alone guaranteed a few heatstroke candidates as well. They could expect the heat to add to the domestic incident tally this year. There would, depressingly, be the usual bank holiday traffic victims. Then there would be the botched suicides, people too lonely and depressed to go out and get stung by swarms of bees, bitten by their neighbours' dogs or electrocuted by their lawnmowers.
It was not convenient for the police. It was not convenient for the hospital. Nor was it convenient for Mrs. Maupesson or her granddaughter in the pushchair, whose progress along Camden Crescent was interrupted shortly after nine o'clock that morning by the appearance of Miss Bevan from the basement flat of number 11. She emerged from the area steps behind the railings, unusual in itself, because she generally came and went by the main front door to number 11 and thence by the door at the end of the hall which led down into her flat. Mrs. Maupesson, coming out of number 27 without her glasses on, had at first thought it also unusual that Miss Bevan, normally reserved, seemed so animated. Really, the woman was babbling, and although Mrs. Maupesson was too far away to hear clearly what she was saying, she seemed to be insisting with some urgency that Mrs. Maupesson stop and accept, what were they? Handfuls of tomatoes? No, it was two rather limp bunches of flowers that she was holding out. She had one in each hand, twin nosegays of bright red, shiny, drooping peonies, petals falling and splashing everywhere. But then Mrs. Maupesson drew nearer and saw that what Miss Bevan was waving at her were not bunches of flowers at all, but the remains of her hands.
All inconvenience to Miss Bevan came to an end at two thirty-five p.m. when her heart, affronted by the demands made upon it by trauma, anaesthesia and a sedated three-hour wait for an operating room, stopped. Its determined resistance to all resuscitation attempts somewhat inconvenienced the surgical team. They had, having removed several bone shards, just succeeded in re-establishing a blood supply to the scant remaining muscle and tendon tissue, so that after further restorative surgery Miss Bevan might have had a chance of continuing her life with the aid of two quite serviceable claws.Chapter Two
Detective Chief Inspector Andrew Poole took the call from DC Heaton and afterwards sat on at his desk, leaning across it with his chin cupped in one hand. He hoped he'd rung off with the kind of weary but purposeful authority that junior officers needed.
'Right, thank you, Constable. No point you hanging on there any longer. Still no relatives shown up? Better get on down to the woman's flat, then. DS Bridger's freezing the scene but we'll need to establish who's to be informed. Bound to be some family or friends of the deceased somewhere or other. And Heaton, when they've been tracked down: "cause of explosion not yet known". Same thing if there's any press there. All right?'
Excerpted from Fearful Symmetry by Morag Joss. Copyright © 2005 by Morag Joss. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.