Mary Doughty was dreaming deeply and took a few seconds to recognize the sound of the telephone. She and her husband woke up almost simultaneously and he reached straight for the phone. “Hello?... Yes… Yeah I do… Right, I’m on my way.” His Scouse accent always returned slightly when he was half asleep. He put the phone down and rolled out of bed without looking at his wife. Mary sat up and stared at him until he sensed her eyes and agreed to meet her gaze. “How long will you be gone this time?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” he muttered grumpily as he pulled up his trousers. “You know I never know.”
“It’s just that Lucas promised he’d call today.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand that his father is indisposed.” Charlie’s posh voice was returning. “We’re paying for him to be educated in the realities of living decently as well as the three R’s.”
Mary looked at the clock; it was 2.38 AM.
“Remember what we're doing Friday night.” said Charlie loudly as he entered the adjoining bathroom. The sound of the washbasin filling with water came through the open door. “Go out and buy yourself a new dress.”
“The Nugents? OK.” said Mary half to herself. “I used to love shopping for expensive clothes… before I could afford to.”
“Well, learn to love it again.” he answered with a touch of irritation. He strode out of the bathroom fastening his tie. “I’ll be back…”
“I know!” she interrupted. “Maybe later, maybe tomorrow morning.”
He smiled jovially. “And what a life my going away has given us eh?” He leant down and kissed her briefly on the cheek, which nowadays was the limit of his physical affection. “Do you know that, hour-for-hour, I’m spending less time at work now than I did when I was at Collinger’s?... Have a nice day.” He walked out of the bedroom without looking back. Mary heard the front door slam. A few minutes later the growl of an engine echoed in the drive she looked out of the window in time to see her husband’s plain white van pulling out onto the road. It vanished around the corner. Its engine died away into the distance of the quiet night. Mary stood by the window for a few minutes. It was a hot, sticky night and sweat tickled her skin. “There’s a difference though, Charlie.” She murmured. “At Collinger’s you used to tell us about what you were doing.”
She went back to bed and tried to sleep. She kept her eyes on her precious Madonna statue, which she’d insisted remained in the bedroom with them, praying until sleep descended onto her again.
Mary awoke to the sound of birds in the front garden. Hot, dusty sunbeams shone through the open window. After washing she went downstairs in her dressing gown. She surveyed her huge kitchen with a strange sense of anticlimax. This one room was twice the size of the kitchen in their first house in Belswill and almost as big as the entire floorspace of her former council flat in Liverpool. She’d once dreamed of living in a house like this. It was a fairytale palace that had filled her head all those years ago when Charlie had taken that little velvet box out of his pocket and placed that ring on her finger. They’d lived for three months in their new home. It was a six bedroom modern detached property set back from the plexus of twisty, leafy cul-de-sacs off Belswill’s exclusive Lowdown Road area, on a forested hill to the west of the town. It had a huge wetroom and Jacuzzi, a master bathroom, pantry, cellar, reception room, study, double garage and conservatory. There were two acres of garden surrounding the house on all sides and hedges and trees that gave the house privacy. It was just four months since they’d moved from Liverpool. She looked at the framed portraits of Lucas, Brendan and Cara in their immaculate and complex school uniforms. Charlie didn’t permit their children’s old school photos from Liverpool to be displayed in the house, in fact he loathed any memoir connected to their previous life before March, so Mary kept them in one of the kitchen drawers. She pulled one of Lucas out to compare it with the more recent photo. His elaborate, traditional blazer and tie of Galton looked incongruous beside his simple local state-school sweatshirt. She signed and took out her mop and bucket to do the cleaning. Charlie had suggested that they employ a housemaid, but Mary had hated the idea of somebody else looking after her home.
The phone rang; Mary’s heart leapt. She picked it up before its first ring ended. “Lucas?”
“Lucas, my darling! How are you?”
“Hm.” He gave a verbal shrug. “OK, I suppose. I do miss (Name of Lucas’ former school- Ed).”
“I know, Son. But Galton will make you the Best of the Best. Me and your dad only want everything that’s the best of the best for you, Bren and Cara.”
“I know, Mum. Thanks.”
There was a pause. “Lu, how’s Brendan?”
“I… haven’t seen him all week, Mum. Juniors dine separately from us.”
“I thought you all dined together.”
“Only in the Winter Term.”
“I’ve not heard from him all week; I’m a bit worried about him.”
“Don’t be, Mum. I’ll take care of him.”
“So… are you coming home for the weekend?”
“I can’t, Mum. I’ve got CCF.”
“What, all weekend?”
“Yeah, we’re camping out Saturday night at Hallingbury… I’ve got to go, Mum. Mr Blaine is coming. Bye,”
“OK, Son. Take care. Love you.” But he’d put the phone down before she could get all the words out.
Mary went out to the shops in her new Lexus. She didn’t like driving, but the good thing about being a two-car family was that she no longer had to plod along the pavements with bulging shopping bags, the rain soaking her or the sun baking her, the handles cutting into her fingers. She didn’t go to the usual supermarkets either; Charlie insisted that she buy her groceries from the high-class shops in town where everything looked and tasted nicer and was wrapped in decorative green packaging. It was a glorious summer’s day and as soon as she’d stowed the shopping in their huge fridge, one you could walk into, she sat on the patio. Charlie did no gardening in the huge two-acre grounds; instead he paid a horticultural contractor to do it. As Mary sat under the awning with her magazine a man in a yellow uniform was mowing their lawn. He was the only other person she saw all day. The neighbours, a hundred and fifty yards away on both sides, were virtually unknown to her; people to exchange good mornings with on the odd occasions she saw them. She watched TV all evening and read a book and went to bed at about ten o’clock after saying her prayers. She knew when Charlie would be back, or rather she could narrow it down to the nearest twenty-four hours. Sure enough she was woken at 5.15 AM by the van’s tyres crunching on the gravel drive. He always left between midnight and 3AM and came back came back between 4 and 6 in the morning, most of the time the following morning. Occasionally he’d return a couple of hours later the same night and once he was away two days, returning two mornings after leaving. He always went away in midweek, occasionally a Thursday to Friday. He never called her while he was away and fielded all her questions on his return; she’d given up asking him. He carefully locked the van in their smaller separate garage with an extra large padlock and never opened it except when he drove it. All she knew was that whatever work he did was obviously paying very well. Maybe it was foolish and unfair to question it too much.
“Morning, Mary.” He sounded exhausted, even more so than usual. He kissed her on the cheek and then went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. Mary pretended to be asleep and Charlie hardly noticed whether she was or not.
He slept through the morning and got up in the afternoon to make plans for the Nugent’s party the following day. He phoned Lucas in the evening and the two chatted about Lucas’ forthcoming mock battle with the Combined Cadet Force. “Keep your rifle oiled and your ammo dry!” recommended his father enthusiastically. “Once the enemy is in your sights remember: he’s not a man, shit! Just blow the motherfucker’s head off!”
Mary turned to her husband and gasped. When he’d finished the call she said: “Charlie! Do you have to use language like that to our boy?”
“Come on, Mary. He’s sixteen years old; nearly a man. He can handle a few four-letter words.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’re talking to him as if violence and killing is something glorious!”
Charlie groaned. “As if you’d understand! I tell you Mary, I think our oldest boy is bound for a career in the Forces. Not just as a common squaddie either; we’re talking officer material. I can see him going to Sandhurst!”
Images of the recent invasion and occupation of ACAIR by US and British forces filled Mary’s head, and she imagined her two sons dressed in combat gear running around in the desert with mortars and bullets falling all around them. She put her fingers in her mouth and bit her nails.
Charlie raised his eyebrows and grunted noncommittedly when Mary asked him what he thought of her new dress and jewellery. “Come on; we’ll be late.” He walked to the bedroom door and beckoned her to follow.
“OK; I’m ready.”
He swung round. “Mary, could you say ‘alright’ instead of ‘OK’?”
“Why? What’s the difference?”
“’OK’ is a word only common people use.”
Mary bit back a guffaw of laughter. “Sure, Charlie.”
“’Charles’.” He corrected again. “Decent people don’t shorten names.”
Charlie wore a stiff black tuxedo and bow tie. He walked unnaturally as they left the house for the car with his body straight and his head rigid. They got into Charlie's BMW and drove through town to the Nugents’ house. Ever since he’d first been a guest there he’d obsessively chortled at every opportunity about how the Nugents’ house was far smaller than their own, and he wasn’t planning on breaking the habit tonight. “Call this a garden!?” he laughed as they drove in through the gates. “It’s a bloody window box!... And look at their porch! It’s half the size of ours.” Mary didn’t reply. As they parked in their allotted space beside Mercedes, Bentleys and other expensive cars a butler approached. “Good evening, Sir and Madam.” He said. “Mr Nugent bids you welcome; please step this way.”He led them into the house where he took their overcoats and showed them into a high-ceiling reception room which resounded with happy and enthusiastic voices.
“Charlie and Mary, how are you?” Jeff Nugent came up and shook their hands. Mary noticed that Charlie didn’t object to his name being abbreviated this time. “Would you like an aperitif… Dobson!” he snapped his fingers. Another butler appeared at their side holding a silver tray of glasses filled with pink liquid. “Thank you.” said Mary as she took hers and sipped it. “Very nice.” She said to the butler “Did you make it?”
“No, madam. I merely serve them to your good selves.”
His traditional butlers’ accent made her giggle. “Is your name Jeeves by any chance?”
He laughed politely. “No Madam, it’s Dobson. And nobody here is called Mr Wooster either.”
She smiled at him although she didn’t understand.
“Mary!” her husband hissed at her and motioned her away from the crowd with his eyes. When they were alone together in the hallway he turned on her fiercely, his eyes burning like hot coals. “Are you deliberately trying to make me look a fool!? What have I always told you!? Never speak to a servant except to order. Do not engage them in conversation and never thank them!”
“W… why not?” Charlie stuttered. “What do you mean ‘Why not?’ It’s just not done!” His manner softened a bit. “Look, Mary… you have to do things this way to fit in. These parties are an essential part of the civilized society we’ve moved into. It’s very important that we play our part and impress.”
Mary found herself wanting to laugh. “OK…erm… alright, Charlie… Charles.”
“And could you try to do something about your accent?”
“Right you are, Pet.” She laughed in her old Scouse accent.
Charlie glanced quickly behind him with such an expression of embarrassment on his face that she apologized and they returned to the gathering.
The aperitif was a sweet, punchy cocktail. She sipped it and tried to blot out the conversation around her. When dinner arrived she took her seat beside her husband and worked her way through the delicious courses. She concentrated on the flavour of the food and the feel of the silver cutlery and bone china plates. She never spoke to anyone through the entire meal. The women were as irksome and inane as the men. Carol, Nugent’s wife, sat opposite her on the table, but she hardy even looked at her. Charlie waffled to Nugent and the other guests in his best accent, telling them his prestigious tales about his various non-existent money-making enterprises. He was a very proficient blagger and never slipped up on any details. All Mary had to do was nod her head and look proud of him. God, when can we go home? She seethed to herself.
Unfortunately the party lingered on after dinner; bottles of brandy were passed round like soda pop and the guests slowly became more glassy-eyed and red-cheeked as glass after glass was knocked back. Charlie was no exception and Mary deliberately avoided the brandy because she knew she’d have to drive home. The guests hit the roof at about 2AM and the party began to break up. They all bade each other a warm farewell and Mary helped Charlie stagger to the car. He slouched in the passenger seat dribbling as he drunkenly eulogized the evening and the people he’d met there. He never stopped talking for the whole journey. “You know, Mary,” he said as they opened their front door. “You were wonderful tonight.” He kissed her and fetid brandy fumes filled her nose. “Thanks for being such a good wife to me.” He stomped up the stairs ahead of her and crunched onto the bed. He was instantly asleep. Mary stood watching him as he lay prone on the bed snoring. His tuxedo jacket was pulled up around his midriff and his creased, stained shirt-tails were hanging out. One shoe was still on his foot, the other sat on the floor on its side, its laces splayed. For a brief moment Mary felt a flash of bitter hatred for him; but it was only momentary and she scolded herself before undressing for bed too.
He was still asleep in the same position when she awake in the middle of the next morning. She yawned and stretched and went downstairs to make two cups of coffee. When she brought them back upstairs Charlie had not moved and continued his raucous slumber oblivious to the scent of the coffee. So Mary drank both cups and then placed a big glass of water and some aspirin on the bedside table in anticipation of Charlie’s hangover when he finally awoke. She reached down to pick up his discarded shoe; as she did so she saw that his bunch of keys had fallen out of his pocket and had been lying underneath the shoe all night. She picked them up too and was about to place them on the bedside table so Charlie would find them when an idea struck her. She tried to stifle it but it reemerged. She turned the keys over in her hand. There were four of them in the bunch, a front door key, the BMW key, the back door key and another that she didn’t recognize, but she immediately guessed which lock it opened. She walked out of the bedroom to the landing window which overlooked the back garden and the garages. Her eyes moved from the secret garage housing Charlie’s work van to the keys in her hands. “No!” she said aloud and returned to the bedroom to leave the keys for Charlie. As she entered the room her eyes caught the Madonna and she stopped in her tracks. “What should I do?” she whispered to the statue. Then she put her hands together and prayed, the key-ring hooked around one of her fingers: “Hail Mary. Full of Grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The statue of her worshiped namesake met her eyes and she made a decision.
Mary walked quickly, afraid Charlie might wake up and also that she might hesitate. She went out of the back door and stepped up to Charlie’s secret garage. It had a thick white-painted door with dark frosted glass windows. Mary felt a cold shiver as she approached it. The padlock was hard and solid, sealing a slightly rusty hasp. It felt as heavy as lead as she lifted it and inserted the key. It opened. Click! She jumped at the sound as if it might carry to the bedroom and awaken the man she was deceiving. She lifted off the lock and pulled open the hasp, placing the lock on the floor by the door.
There was nothing but darkness inside. The first thing which struck Mary was the smell. The garage was full of a harsh chemical odour like bleach or tarmac, underlined with the oily, rubbery scent of a motor vehicle. There was a light switch on the wall which she flicked on illuminating the white shape of the van, the only object in the room. She peeked through the windscreen and saw nothing except the usual dashboard and seats. The doors were open and the ignition key lay on the dash above the steering wheel. As she went around to the back of the vehicle she ran her hand along the rear chassis, which was unmarked and windowless. The chemical stench got stronger as she approached the rear. She opened the double door at the back and pulled them wide. She was faced with another set of doors; these ones were made of smooth grey metal and fastened with a hook-latch. She recognized it as a refrigerated compartment. As she opened the inner doors a foul, meaty stink made her reel back. It reminded her of the smell in her fridge when a pork chop went off. She held her nose and peered into the back of the van, her heart pounding. The interior of the van had four shelves arranged along both sidewalls. They were the size of small bunks, but had nothing on them except man-sized metal trays on a bed of rollers as if the trays were meant to be slid in and out of the vehicle. She felt herself go dizzy with shock as she recognized what they were; this was an undertaker’s van. Except most undertakers’ vans were black and this one was white. She whimpered aloud when she saw that one of the trays was caked with dried blood. “Oh, Charlie!”
She screamed aloud and turned to face the garage doors. A silhouette filled the doorway. It was Charlie, shabbily-dressed, unshaven and with only one shoe on his foot.