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Book by George Elizabeth
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It was the knowledge of a touch—reserved for him but given to another — that drove Ted Wiley out into the night. He'd seen it from his window, not intending to spy but spying all the same. The time: just past one in the morning. The place: Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames, a mere sixty yards from the river, and in front of her house from which they'd departed only moments before, both of them having to duck their heads to avoid a lintel put into a building in centuries past when men and women were shorter and when their lives were more clearly defined.
Ted Wiley liked that: the definition of roles. She did not. And if he hadn't understood before now that Eugenie would not be easily identified as his woman and placed into a convenient category in his life, Ted had certainly reached that conclusion when he saw the two of them—Eugenie and that broomstick stranger — out on the pavement and in each other's arms.
Flagrant, he'd thought. She wants me to see this. She wants me to see the way she's embracing him, then curving her palm to describe the shape of his cheek as he steps away. God damn the woman. She wants me to see this.
That, of course, was sophistry, and had the embrace and the touch occurred at a more reasonable hour, Ted would have talked himself out of the ominous direction his mind began taking. He would have thought, It can't mean anything if she's out in the street in daylight in public in a shaft of light from her sitting room window in the autumn sunshine in front of God and everyone and most of all me.... It can't mean anything that she's touching a stranger because she knows how easily I can see.... But instead of these thoughts, what was implied by a man's departure from a woman's home at one in the morning filled Ted's head like a noxious gas whose volume continued to increase over the next seven days as he — anxious and interpreting every gesture and nuance — waited for her to say, "Ted, have I mentioned that my brother" —or my cousin or my father or my uncle or the homosexual architect who intends to build another room onto the house — "stopped for a chat just the other night? It went on into the early hours of the morning and I thought he'd never leave. By the way, you might have seen us just outside my front door if you were lurking behind your window shades as you've taken to doing recently." Except, of course, there was no brother or cousin or uncle or father that Ted Wiley knew of, and if there was a homosexual architect, he'd yet to hear Eugenie mention him.
What he had heard her say, his bowels on the rumble, was that she had something important to tell him. And when he'd asked her what it was and thought he'd like her to give it to him straightaway if it was going to be the blow that killed him, she'd said, Soon. I'm not quite ready to confess my sins yet. And she'd curved her palm to touch his cheek. Yes. Yes. That touch. Just exactly like.
So at nine o'clock on a rainy evening deep in November, Ted Wiley put his ageing golden retriever on her lead and decided that a stroll was in order. Their route, he told the dog — whose arthritis and aversion to the rain did not make her the most cooperative of walkers — would take them to the top of Friday Street and a few yards beyond it to Albert Road, where if by coincidence they should run into Eugenie just leaving the Sixty Plus Club, where the New Year's Eve Gala Committee were still attempting to reach a compromise on the menu for the coming festivities, why, that's what it would be: a mere coincidence and a fortuitous chance for a chat. For all dogs needed a walk before they kipped down for the night. No one could argue, accuse, or even suspect over that.
The dog — ludicrously albeit lovingly christened Precious Baby by Ted's late wife and resolutely called P.B. by Ted himself — hesitated at the doorway and blinked out at the street, where the autumn rain was falling in the sort of steady waves that presaged a lengthy and bone-chilling storm. She began to lower herself determinedly to her haunches and would have successfully attained that position had Ted not tugged her out onto the pavement with the desperation of a man whose intentions will not be thwarted.
"Come, P.B.," he ordered her, and he jerked the lead so that the choke chain tightened round her neck. The retriever recognised both the tone and the gesture. With a bronchial sigh that released a gust of dog breath into wet night air, she trudged disconsolately into the rain.
The weather was a misery, but that couldn't be helped. Besides, the old dog needed to walk. She'd become far too lazy in the five years that had passed since her mistress's death, and Ted himself had not done much to keep her exercised. Well, that would change now. He'd promised Connie he'd look after the dog, and so he would, with a new regime that began this very night. No more sniffing round the back garden before bedtime, my friend, he silently informed P.B. It's walkies and nothing else from now on.
He double-checked to make sure the bookshop's door was secure, and he adjusted the collar of his old waxed jacket against the wet and the chill. He should have brought an umbrella, he realised as he stepped out of the doorway and the first splash of rainwater hit his neck. A peaked cap was insufficient protection, no matter how well it suited him. But why the hell was he even thinking about what suited him? he pondered. Fire and ice, if anyone wormed a way inside his head these days, it would be to find cobwebs and rot floating there.
Ted harrumphed, spat in the street, and began to give himself a pep talk as he and the dog plodded past the Royal Marine Reserve, where a broken gutter along the roof erupted rainwater in a silver plume. He was a catch, he told himself. Major Ted Wiley, retired from the Army and widowed after forty-two years of blissful marriage, was a very fine catch for any woman. Weren't available men scarce as uncut diamonds in Henley-on-Thames? Yes. They were. Weren't available men without unsightly nose hairs, overgrown eyebrows, and copious ear hairs scarcer still? Yes and yes. And weren't men who were clean, in possession of their faculties, in excellent health, dexterous in the kitchen, and of an uxorious disposition so rare in town as to find themselves victims of something akin to a feeding frenzy the very moment they chose to show themselves at a social gathering? Damn right, they were. And he was one of them. Everyone knew it.
Including Eugenie, he reminded himself.
Hadn't she said to him on more than one occasion, You're a fine man, Ted Wiley? Yes. She had.
Hadn't she spent the last three years willingly accepting his company with what he knew was pleasure? Yes. She had.
Hadn't she smiled and flushed and looked away when they'd visited his mother at the Quiet Pines Nursing Home and heard her announce in that irritating and imperious way of hers, I'd like a wedding before I die, you two. Yes, yes, and yes. She had, she had.
So what did a touch on a stranger's face mean in light of all that? And why could he not expunge it from his mind, as if it had become a brand and not what it was: an unpleasant memory that he wouldn't even have had had he not taken to watching, to wondering, to lurking, to having to know, to insisting upon battening down the hatches in his life as if it weren't a life at all but a sailing vessel that might lose its cargo if he wasn't vigilant?
Eugenie herself was the answer to that: Eugenie, whose spectral-thin body asked for nurture; whose neat hair — thickly silvered though it was with grey — asked to be freed from the hair slides that held it; whose cloudy eyes were blue then green then grey then blue but always guarded; whose modest but nonetheless provocative femininity awakened in Ted a stirring in the groin that called him to an action he hadn't been capable of taking since Connie's death. Eugenie was the answer.
And he was the man for Eugenie, the man to protect her, to bring her back to life. For what had gone unspoken between the two of them these past three years was the extent to which Eugenie had been denying herself the very communion of her fellow men for God only knew how long. Yet that denial had declared itself openly when he'd first invited her to join him for a simple evening glass of sherry at the Catherine Wheel.
Why, she's not been out with a man in years, Ted Wiley had thought at her flustered reaction to his invitation. And he'd wondered why.
Now, perhaps, he knew. She had secrets from him, had Eugenie. I have something important I want to tell you, Ted. Sins to confess, she'd said. Sins.
Well, there was no time like the present to hear what she had to say.
At the top of Friday Street, Ted waited for the traffic lights to change, P.B. shivering close at his side. Duke Street was also the main thoroughfare to either Reading or Marlow, and as such it carried all manner of vehicles rumbling through town. A wet night like this did little to decrease the volume of traffic in a society that was becoming depressingly more reliant upon cars and even more depressingly desirous of a commuter lifestyle defined by work in the city and life in the country. So even at nine o'clock at night, cars and lorries splashed along the soaked street, their headlamps creating ochroid fans that reflected against windows and in pools of standing water.
Too many people going too many places, Ted thought morosely. Too many people without the slightest idea of why they're rushing headlong through their lives.
The traffic lights changed and Ted crossed over, making the little jog into Grey's Road with P.B. bumping along next to him. Despite the fact that they'd not walked even a quarter of a mile, the old dog was wheezing, and Ted stepped into the shallow doorway of Mirabelle's Antiques to give the poor retriever a breather. Their destination was almost in sight, he reassured her. Surely she could make it just a few more yards up to Albert Road.
There, a car park served as courtyard for the Sixty Plus Club, an organisation attending to the social needs of Henley's ever-growing community of pensioners. There, too, Eugenie worked as Director. And there Ted had met her, upon relocating to the town on the Thames when he could no longer bear in Maidstone the memories of his wife's lengthy death.
"Major Wiley, how lovely. You're on Friday Street," Eugenie had said to him, reviewing his membership form. "You and I are neighbours. I'm at number sixty-five. The pink house? Doll Cottage? I've been there for years. And you're at..."
"The bookshop," he'd said. "Just across the street. The flat's above it. Yes. But I'd no idea ... I mean, I've not seen you."
"I'm always out early and back late. I know your shop, though. I've been in many times. At least when your mother was running it. Before the stroke, that is. And she's still well, which is lovely. Improving, isn't she."
He'd thought Eugenie was asking, but when he realised she wasn't — indeed, she was merely affirming information that she already had — then he also realised where he'd seen her before: at Quiet Pines Nursing Home, where three times each week Ted visited his mother. She volunteered there in the mornings, did Eugenie, and the patients referred to her as "our angel." Or so Ted's mother had informed him once as together they watched Eugenie entering a cubicle with an adult-sized nappie folded over her wrist. "She hasn't any relatives here, and the Home don't pay her a penny, Ted."
Then why, Ted had wanted to know at the time. Why?
Secrets, he thought now. Still waters and secrets.
He looked down at the dog, who'd sagged against him, out of the rain and determined to snooze while she had the chance. He said, "Come along, P.B. Not much farther now," and he looked across the street to see through the bare trees that there was not much more time either.
For from where he and the dog stood sheltered, he noticed that the Sixty Plus Club was disgorging its New Year's Eve Gala Committee. Raising their umbrellas and stepping through puddles like neophyte high-wire artists, the committee members called out their goodnights to one another with enough good cheer to suggest that a compromise on comestibles had been finally achieved. Eugenie would be pleased at this. Pleased, she'd no doubt be feeling expansive and ready to talk to him.
Ted crossed the street, eager to intercept her, his reluctant golden retriever in tow. He reached the low wall between the pavement and the car park just as the last of the committee members drove away. The lights in the Sixty Plus Club went out and the entry porch became bathed in shadow. A moment later, Eugenie herself stepped into the misty penumbra between the building and the car park, working upon the tie of a black umbrella. Ted opened his mouth to call her name, sing out a hearty hello, and make the offer of a personal escort back to her cottage. No time of night for a lovely lady to be alone on the streets, my dearest girl. Care for the arm of an ardent admirer? With dog, I'm afraid. P.B. and I were out for a final recce of the town.
He could have said all this, and he was indeed drawing breath to do so when he suddenly heard it. A man's voice called out Eugenie's name. She swung to her left, and Ted looked beyond her where a figure was getting out of a dark saloon car. Backlit by one of the streetlamps that dotted the car park, he was mostly shadow. But the shape of his head and that gull's-beak nose were enough to tell Ted that Eugenie's visitor of one in the morning had returned to town.
The stranger approached her. She remained where she was. In the change of light, Ted could see that he was an older man — of an age with Ted himself, perhaps — with a full head of white hair scraped back from his forehead and falling to touch the turned-up collar of a Burberry.
They began to talk. He took the umbrella from her, held it over them, and spoke to her urgently. He was taller than Eugenie by a good eight inches, so he bent to her. She lifted her face to hear him. Ted strained to hear him as well but managed to catch only "You've got to" and "My knees, Eugenie?" and finally, loudly, "Why won't you see—" which Eugenie interrupted with a rush of soft conversation and the placement of her hand on his arm. "You can say that to me?" were the final words Ted heard from the man before he jerked himself away from Eugenie's grasp, thrust the umbrella upon her, and stalked to his car. At this, Ted breathed a cirrus of relief into the cold night air.
It was a brief deliverance. Eugenie followed the stranger and intercepted him as he yanked open the door to his car. With the door between them, she continued to speak. Her listener, however, averted his face, and cried out, "No. No," at which point she reached up to him and tried to curve her palm against his cheek. She seemed to want to draw him to her despite the car door that continued to act like a shield between them.
It was effective as a shield, that door, because the stranger escaped whatever caress Eugenie wanted to bestow upon him. He dived into the driver's seat, wrenched the door closed, and started the engine with a roar that resounded against the buildings on three sides of the car park.
Eugenie stepped away. The car reversed. Its gears ground like animals being dismembered. Its tyres spun wickedly against wet pavement. Rubber met tarmac with a sound like despair.
Another roar and the car was speeding towards the exit. Not six yards from where Ted watched in the shelter of a young l...
Absorbing . . . the pleasure of the book is the slow, surprising and often shocking unravelling of the various links between the main characters (Marcel Berlins, The Times)
A long and absorbing read that will please lovers of the traditional crime novel (Scotland on Sunday)
Elizabeth George orchestrates the family-secrets theme like a maestro . . . worthy of a standing ovation. (Amazon.com)
keeps the reader on the knife's edge of suspense, thanks to George's skill at weaving together intriguing characters, disturbing action, police procedure, psychological insight, and mordant wit. First-rate suspense with a stunner of an ending. (Booklist)
A very accomplished crime writer who is able to keep the reader's suspense right up to the last page. (Woman's Way, Dublin)
Thoroughly enjoyable. (Bookseller)
A Traitor to Memory is more PD James than Ruth Rendell . . . very convincing . . . the book makes a serious and valid point about what is left of the personality of a musical prodigy if the music is taken away. (Classical Music)
Plots of dazzling inventiveness are the hallmark of George's first-rate murder mysteries. A story to keep you engrossed al the way to Inverness and back. (Livewire)
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