CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
London. The summer of ‘89. A family holiday. The Tall Ships Races were in town and the Tower Bridge had been opened three times that day already to allow the majestic ships to glide through. Epic traffic jams. The entire city was at standstill.
It was my first visit and I was excited.
We had spent the night at dad’s cousin. No idea where she lived to this day, other than that it was on the south side of the Thames. We had met her at her work—once we had found the place. We had the address, somewhere in Docklands, but no map that would have shown us how to get there.
Dad asked directions from an old man who spoke at length in what we could only assume was cockney. Dad nodded and said thanks and we drove off. We asked what the man had told him and he said he had no idea. He hadn't understood a word.
We found a more helpful person who gave us good directions: “And whatever you do, don't drive into the tunnel that goes under the Thames.” So, naturally, that’s where we ended up in driving.
We children considered the tunnel an exciting adventure; one that we got to repeat immediately, as we had to get back to the other side of the river. Dad was less thrilled. He had to drive in that traffic; a tough task for a small town man.
Dad’s cousin rode with us to her home so that went painlessly. She lived in a nondescript part of London: blocks of flats built close to one another, fairly modern brown brick erections. Nothing British about them, which I found disappointing.
She told us it was a restless neighbourhood, but we didn’t encounter anything sinister. We wouldn’t. We kept to indoors the whole evening. That we got to stay in such a dangerous neighbourhood added flair to our visit though. We didn’t actually want to experience anything scary. It simply made us more aware that we weren’t at home.
We took a train to central London the next morning. Like all tourists, we were utterly clueless, but there were helpful locals and we got to the right train.
Trafalgar Square. Chaotic and swarming with people. They were tourists mostly, loud and equally clueless. We tried to stick together so that we wouldn't get lost in the crowd. Time before mobile phones, it was important.
Hot day. The hottest of a holiday already filled with endless sunshine, with no wind to offer relief. But it had to be borne. We only had that day to see London. Dad didn't like big cities and he wouldn’t consider staying longer.
We got on a sightseeing bus, a double-decker with no roof. We took upstairs seats. It was a new experience and we would see better from there. Besides, the bus didn’t have air-conditioning so it would have been insufferable inside. Of course, sunshine combined with faux leather seats didn't make the roof such a great choice either.
A sign said the tour would take an hour and a half. But there were those traffic jams.
It was the longest drive of my life. It felt like that at any rate. Nothing is quite as exhausting as sitting under a scorching sun for hours with nothing to drink, nowhere to flee. With no idea how to navigate the city, we were afraid get off the bus and continue on our own. So we stayed on the bus.
It took us twenty minutes just to cross a bridge. Which one, I have no idea. I had stopped paying attention to the tour guide by then. The loudspeakers were lousy and I couldn’t really hear anything anyway.
It’s the oddest things that stay with you when you visit new places. I remember a hospital, of all things. It didn’t look much—a grey concrete monstrosity—but the bus was stuck next to it for a long time. I had nothing else to look at.
I saw important cultural landmarks on that endless tour, but I remember best a tunnel we crawled through. It offered some shade, but it wasn’t any cooler in there. Filled with the exhaustion fumes of all the cars stuck inside, the air was heavy to breathe and it tasted foul. I couldn't wait to get out.
When we finally emerged from the tunnel, the sun hit us with full force again.
On we drove. After a while, I didn't see the sights anymore. I could only think how thirsty I was, my tongue stuck onto the roof of my mouth. I wanted the tour to end.
It took us three hours to get back to Trafalgar Square. First thing after getting off the bus, I bought a Coke from a vendor. My hands were shaking, making it difficult to open the can. I could practically taste the drink, feel it fizz on my tongue. It would be everything I had ever wanted and more.
I took a long, deep pull.
A bitter disappointment. My drink wasn’t cold at all but as warm as the air. A warm Coke doesn't taste of anything. It didn’t feel like anything either, the bubbles non-existent. But it was wet so I drank it.
At a restaurant later, I had a proper Coke, cold with fizz. I had seen Madame Tussauds and the mummies at the British Museum, yet that is what I remember the best of my day in London.
In the evening, there was a huge thunderstorm.
The whole village gathered to bury the great man. The day was hot, as it had been for weeks now. “All it takes is a careless spark, and the fields will burn,” farmer Locke had noted gloomily only the previous day. The boy had overheard, having been cleaning up the storage behind the shop where the men had gathered.
Families arrived together to the funeral, dressed in their Sunday best, the heavy clothes making them sweat in the sweltering heat. Little girls were carrying bunches of wild flowers they had picked that morning, squeezing the wilting bouquets tightly in their small hands. Little boys were looking awkward, their unruly hairs tamed with water by their hard-handed mothers.
Women had their best handkerchiefs ready, their red-rimmed eyes a testament that the embroidered pieces of cloth weren’t just for show. The men, their hats held solemnly against their chests, wiped their noses in the backs of their hands when they thought their wives wouldn’t notice, only to be rewarded with angry frowns.
They progressed in respectful silence through the stone fence of the churchyard, past the graves old and new, towards the back where a grave had already been opened. It was next to where the great man’s wife had been laid to rest a few years earlier, a beautiful spot bordered with rosebushes the great man had planted himself after his wife died – her favourites. They had taken over much of the lot, and the gravedigger had eyed them with misgiving as he dug the grave.
He had shaken his head, wondering if there would be enough room for everyone around the grave. If the proper order of things had been followed, women and children wouldn’t have been allowed at the grave, the place suitable only for men. There would have been enough room then. But the great man had decreed otherwise, and the villagers had nodded their heads in concert with his wishes.
It was late August and the harvest time was over, but everyone agreed they would have attended the great man’s funeral even if it had been the busiest time of the year. Only Mrs Jones, the shopkeeper’s wife, expressed her displeasure that she had to close the shop in the middle of a weekday, much to the embarrassment of Mr Jones, the shopkeeper.
“Think of the loss of income,” she bemoaned. “Two hours it’ll take, at least, with no one here to serve the customers. The boy will have to stay and keep the shop open. He’s new here and doesn’t care to attend.”
Mr Jones shook his head. He was a quiet man, but with great strength of will he constantly needed with his wife of twenty years. “The shop stays closed and the boy comes with us. Who would we sell to anyway, with everyone at the funeral?”
“Someone might pass by.” But even Mrs Jones knew that that wasn’t likely to happen in their remote village. So the shop was closed and they all went to the funeral, the boy included.
It was true that the boy didn’t care to attend. He had never been to a funeral, and wasn’t entirely sure he wanted the experience now. He had heard that they made one look at the body at funerals. He shivered as if cold, thinking what it might be like.
But Mrs Jones was wrong to assume the boy hadn’t known the great man. Everyone had known him. The boy had occasionally run errands for him, and had been given a penny for his trouble every time. He had saved every one of them, and was now a proud owner of twelve pennies and a farthing, the latter given to him by a customer when he had held his horse.
The boy remembered the great man fondly, and so he had put on a new pair of trousers without murmur. They had been handed down to him by Mrs Hester, having belonged to her youngest son, and only one other boy before that. They were short trousers, even though Mr Jones had noted that at eleven the boy was old enough to have proper trousers.
“He’s so small no one will think it strange,” Mrs Jones had said, begrudging the expense. “And at any rate, it’s no use giving him long trousers before the cold season begins. He’s bound to grow and they’d be too small in no time.”
The shirt was new too, turned from Mr Jones’s second best Sunday shirt. It was too large, but Mrs Jones had said the boy would grow into it. The socks, however, were a perfect fit, made especially for him. They reached to his knees and scratched only a little. It was too hot to wear socks, but Mrs Jones wouldn’t hear of him leaving them off.
More than the new clothes, it was the feast after the funeral, and the prospect of treats there, that lured the boy into attending. Ice cream had been mentioned. The boy had never had ice cream, and he could barely contain his excitement.
“Just think of it, ice cream in August. Have you ever heard of the like? I don’t know where they’ve kept that much ice when ours has been used a month back,” Mrs Grey, the innkeeper’s wife, had said to Mrs Jones when she came to the shop to buy yarn and some sugar. The boy had been worried ever since that the ice would be gone after all and no ice cream would be had.
The entire village was standing around the grave, some among the rosebushes, when the pallbearers arrived with the coffin of the great man. The vicar walked before it with the sexton keeping the rear. The vicar took his place at the head of the grave as the pallbearers lowered the coffin next to the open grave, and his wife and children gathered behind him.
The villagers had assumed their places around the grave according to their rank; the wealthiest landowners near the vicar, then the lawyer, Mr Horle, with his wife, and the village clerk, Mr Waddell. Then the teacher, the lesser landowners, and the craftsmen, each on their rightful place, all the way down to old Tom. He was a homeless pauper that the village kept together, offering him shelter in their barns and feeding him, even though he was almost blind and couldn’t work for his upkeep anymore.
In the village hierarchy, the boy should have been only a little higher up than old Tom. He was an orphan and an outsider too.
He had been passed around from family to family since before he could remember, his life a collection of harsh voices, heavy hands, and hard labour. More than once he had thought to run away and head to London to make his own way, or maybe to the sea, but nothing had come of those plans. Ship boys were treated even worse, he had learned from an old sailor, and the likeliest fate a slender boy would meet in London was becoming a chimneysweep. The boy didn’t fancy crawling up and down the hot, dirty flues, his lungs turning black, or getting stuck and dying inside a chimney, his bones found only decades later.
Mr and Mrs Jones hadn’t seemed like a better option when he had been told he would have to go with them. Life had taught him to expect little and definitely nothing good. But they had dressed him in clean clothes, fed him regularly, and made him attend the school, all previously unheard of occurrences. And while he wasn’t entirely sure he liked the school, he liked working behind the counter at the shop and helping in the storage room. It all required that he learned to read and write and do sums, so he endured the school.
Mr and Mrs Jones told everyone the boy was the orphaned son of Mrs Jones’s cousin they would raise as their own. They didn’t have children, so everyone accepted it as the truth.
But the boy wasn’t quite like their own son. He slept on the floor of the storage room, but at least the mattress was clean and soft, and he had even been given a blanket. He had a nook at the back, too, where he could keep his little treasures: a toy soldier and the curious stone egg he had found. He didn’t eat with Mr and Mrs Jones, but they never skimped on the food. If Mrs Jones was somewhat quick to box his ears, she never did it without a cause. And every Sunday, after church, Mr Jones gave him a lump of candy while Mrs Jones supervised to make sure it was one of those damaged in transportation.
The looks didn’t matter. The candy was creamy and sweet, and took ages to melt in the boy’s mouth. He imagined ice cream to be like that candy, only cold. It had to be the best thing ever.
Everyone in the village treated the boy almost as good as Mr and Mrs Jones’s own son. They let their children play with him, and didn’t accuse him of stealing every time something went missing. And at the great man’s funeral, he didn’t have to stand at the back of the crowd with old Tom, but almost in the front row between the stalwart shopkeeper and his wife.
“Do not fidget or pick your nose, or do anything that might put us in poor light,” Mrs Jones had admonished the boy as they prepared for the funeral. “There’ll be no ice cream for you if you do.”
The boy wasn’t ill-mannered as a rule. Schooled since infantry by a string of people who only saw him as a burden, he knew the consequences of disobedience. But nothing had cured him of curiosity. As he stood between Mr and Mrs Jones, he stared with open interest at the people gathered at the grave.
The boy knew everyone in the village, the vicar, the blacksmith, the yeomen. They all respected Mr Jones, and were nice to the boy whenever they noticed him. The children he knew from the school. Even the vicar’s children attended, though he maintained that he was abler to teach them himself. As it was, his children stayed at home most evenings, learning Latin and arithmetic, when other children gathered to play.
The boy could play with other children, provided that he had finished his chores. He was friends with some and enemies with others, the lines ever fluctuating. He would bloody someone’s nose and have his bloodied in turn when the opponent was one of the larger farm boys, against whom his street urchin’s fighting skills weren’t enough. Afterwards, they would go to the creek together to wash their faces so that their parents wouldn’t find out, the animosities forgotten.
The great man didn’t have any family, and the boy wondered if he had been an orphan too. Maybe he had been passed around, had been no one, until one day he had become someone. The boy couldn’t quite fathom how that could happen. And how did one become such a great man that everyone would gather to mourn for his death?
The question burned inside the boy, but if he asked it from Mr Jones now, it would surely result in having his ear boxed. Worse, Mrs Jones might prevent him from having the ice cream. Standing absolutely still, he forced the question down, not wanting to give her any cause to deny him the promised treat.
The vicar was in his element at the great man’s funeral. For once he could put his skills to proper use, the small parish not offering an out for them often. A much larger parish would have suited him better, but it wasn’t easy to come by a living without a patron, and so he had to make do.
He had worked on his speech for days, and now that it was time to recite it, elation made his voice quiver, causing the opening quote from St Augustine to lose its strength. He gathered himself, and the Plato quote went much better. By the time he reached the most eloquent verses from the Bible, his voice had assumed its usual vigour.
That they were standing by the open grave under a scorching sun didn’t affect the vicar. Building momentum, he went on as if everyone was sitting comfortably in the cool confines of the Gothic stone church that loomed over the village. He saw the red-rimmed eyes and the handkerchiefs that rose to wipe the cheeks, and his heart filled with satisfaction of the job well done.
The vicar would have been surprised to learn that no one was listening to him, not even his wife. She was occupying her mind with more mundane matter of preserves, and whether the apples and plums would be too dry by the harvest time. She had many mouths to feed and needed plenty of preserves to see them through the winter. In her defence, she had heard the speech already when her husband rehearsed it, and had even been as bold as to make a comment or two.
Other villagers were likewise occupied, or were simply trying to stay upright in the heat. The cloy smell of the roses added to their discomfort in the breezeless day. The handkerchiefs were used for mopping brows as much as for drying tears.
The boy wasn’t listening either. The sun was getting to him too, making it difficult to stand still under its glare. Sweat began to run down his brow, but he didn’t have a cloth to dry it with. It reached his eye, but he didn’t dare to wipe it with his sleeve, judging, correctly, that he would be reprimanded for it. Blinking furiously, he made his eyes run, which eased the sting.
The vicar saw the boy cry, and he smiled benevolently. The boy must have more than met the eye for a verse from Milton to affect him so. The next quote he directed straight at the boy, and had the pleasure of seeing him twitch. Others were twitching too, the poorest at the sides of the crowd he hadn’t thought would be receptive to his sermon.
It wasn’t his words that made people twitch. A bite at the back of a farmworkers hand, discarded with a surreptitious swipe at the seam of a trouser, was the first sign of the onslaught about to take place. Then another man jerked in sudden pain, then his wife.
Restlessness travelled inwards to where the boy stood between Mr and Mrs Jones. He startled when he was bit at the back of his knee, on the bare skin between the trouser leg and the sock. He twitched, but controlled the movement immediately before Mrs Jones would notice.
His leg burned where he had been bit, but he couldn’t reach down to rub it without making a scene. But when a bite followed another, each worse than the other, he risked looking down.
A swarm of horse-flies, large and nasty-looking, were attacking his legs, and all the mourners. Angered by the heat, they were determined to feast, having been deprived of food ever since the cows were moved from the common field by the churchyard.
Shivers of fear ran down the boy’s spine. He had once witnessed how a herd of cows stampeded to a river, driven mad by a much smaller swarm. Their eyes had rolled in horror and they had made pitiful sounds, but nothing had helped. If horse-flies could frighten an animal the size of a cow, what chance did he have?
There was nowhere for the boy to run, surrounded by the villagers as he was. He jerked, as if to jump forward, and Mr Jones’s hand landed on his shoulder, heavy and restraining. The shopkeeper’s legs were covered in horse-flies too, but the bites didn’t reach through the thick wool of his best Sunday trousers, and he remained ignorant of the attack.
There were horse-flies everywhere now, and more were rising from the rosebushes. They dug in every surface they could reach, their bites painful. In the relentless onslaught, they boy stood absolutely still, tears of pain and fear running down his face. Snot filled his nose, blocking his throat too, making it difficult to breathe.
The mourners grew increasingly restless, as the swarm cut through their ranks, finding meaty targets in bare necks and faces. The smallest children couldn’t be held quiet for long, their cries of pain heart-breaking. Their mothers tried to shush them, embarrassed that their offspring would disrupt such a grand occasion, but finding it impossible to protect their young.
Throughout this, the vicar went on with his speech. There were no rosebushes at the head of the grave where he stood and so he remained oblivious to the attack his congregation was under. He took the cries of the children as the usual behaviour of their kind, and the restlessness of the people as a sign of their lesser minds that couldn’t follow the heights of his eulogy.
He therefore finished his speech at the appointed time and not a moment earlier, and moved on to the funeral rituals. “Earth to earth,” he intoned, sprinkling the sand, and the mourners sighed in relief.
By now, the boy was shaking with the effort of holding himself still. He didn’t feel the bites anymore, his skin having gone numb, but the insects were pushing into his mouth and nose, frightening him. That Mr Jones was getting restless too, the attack finally reaching his skin, didn’t ease the boy. Not even when Mr Jones lifted his hand to his neck where he was bit particularly painfully. The boy knew there were different rules for the likes of him than there were for the likes of Mr Jones.
The proper rituals performed, the pallbearers stepped forward without delay, relieved to be able to move at last. The great man was lowered to his final resting place much faster than the vicar thought was proper. The mourners turned to leave – or flee – when the vicar proposed a hymn, hoping to steer the proceedings to more solemn again. If the congregation groaned, they did so silently, and remained in their places.
The boy didn’t sing, despite being urged to by a frown from Mrs Jones. He didn’t know the hymn by heart, and at any rate, he couldn’t move his lips anymore to form the words. A bite had made his lip swell and thereby almost useless.
He didn’t care for the pain; he barely felt it now. He worried he wouldn’t be able to eat the promised treats. Surely he had earned the ice cream for behaving so well.
The vicar began the hymn with a pace suitable for a funeral. He had a good voice, strong and carrying, and he liked to lead the singing when the occasion rose. He finished the first verse, and paused to inhale and contemplate the lyrics of the second verse, only to sputter when he realised the congregation was already midway to it. They were singing in a pace completely unsuitable for a hymn, and getting faster.
Perplexed and dismayed, the vicar jumped to the third verse with them, but his attempts to slow down the pace was met with unprecedented stubbornness. The villagers went even so far as to skip three whole verses to the last one.
The song ended, leaving the vicar no choice but to stop singing too. He was about to reprimand his flock, when old Tom spoke from the back of the crowd, loudly enough for everyone to heard. “There isn’t a man so great that he couldn’t be brought to his knees by a little insect.”
The laughter of the villagers held a great deal of relief. As one, they left to get as far away from the horse-flies as possible, the great man forgotten in his grave. There was a feast to attend to.
That night, the boy slept on his mattress, his stomach full of ice cream, and smelling of liniment Mrs Jones had smeared on the bites. Even in his sleep, he was smiling.
I stalked a stranger today. At the Paddington station on my way to work this morning. It’s not a pastime I indulge in often, and never in this intensity, but he was different.
I noticed him instantly when I walked into my usual café at the station for my morning latte and took a place in the line. He was so out of place here I couldn’t help but see him. He was sitting at the far table by the low railing that marked the border of the café, reading a paper, a cup of coffee in front of him, ignoring the people around him like he was inside his own bubble.
A man waiting. With purpose.
I was instantly intrigued. Who was he? Why was he here? Who or what was he waiting for? I could barely tear my eyes off him, almost forgetting to move forward in the line. I wasn’t the only one, mind you. Everyone watched him.
He was definitely the kind of man you notice. A bespoke suit that fit his lean body like a glove, and handmade Oxfords. Mother of pearl cufflinks and silk socks. Hair cut neatly and recently by an expert. In his mid-forties, which when you’ve entered your fifth decade yourself, is just the perfect age for a man. Especially if the man wears his age with such self-confidence as he did. Not classically handsome as such, but he had an assertive face of a person accustomed to being in command.
A businessman, definitely. One with hundreds of employees and dozens of underlings ready to fulfil his every command. He would never be unreasonable with his requests and always graceful when they were met, causing his people to want to please him even more. I could see it all in my mind’s eye: a secretary blushing faintly every time he praised her, her heart picking up speed. Her nights would be filled with impossible dreams of the two of them together.
He wouldn’t even notice. The bastard.
You didn’t often see men like him at train stations. They belonged to first class lounges at airports – if they travelled commercially. He looked like he could afford his own jet.
Perhaps he was waiting for someone. He sat so calmly there, leaning his side against the backrest of his chair, long legs stretched before him, one ankle crossing the other, occasionally glancing at people walking past the café – never those inside it. He never checked his watch, a timepiece so understated in its elegance it had to be expensive. He wasn’t in a hurry to catch a train.
I was so preoccupied by him I almost missed my turn to order and then fumbled with the change. Who was he waiting for? Not a business partner, obviously. People came to see him in a glass-walled office at the top of a high-rise, or in an expensive restaurant. Or in a gentlemen’s club. But not at a train station.
Unless… He was a spy meeting a contact!
That idea appealed to me instantly. The newspaper he was reading was a sign with which the contact would recognise him. The contact would then ask for a time, and he would glance at his expensive watch and give it, only it wouldn’t be the correct time, but a code.
My name was called to get my coffee, which interrupted my musings of international espionage. I didn’t really believe he was a spy anyway. He was too noticeable to be one.
I didn’t have a reason to stay anymore, but I didn’t want to leave yet. He was still here, waiting. So I paused on my way out, daringly quite near him, and began to dig my phone from my bag. I would pretend to have a call so people wouldn’t wonder why I was standing there.
But before I could find my mobile – the bag is insanely large, I don’t know why I keep it when I can never find anything in it – the man checked his watch and then finished his coffee in one. He was about to leave. And I still hadn’t figured out who he was waiting for.
What if he was waiting for his wife?
That idea stung. I don’t know why. He was miles beyond my league – even if I had been blessed with self-confidence that stated no man was beyond it, which I wasn’t. Men like him didn’t go for forty-one-year-old librarians. Not the dowdy-ones anyway. He hadn’t even glanced at me and I had stood almost in front of him for a good while now.
But that’s imagination for you. I could picture him as a spy, easily, and I was perfectly willing to entertain an idea of a passionate affair with him, even though I knew there was no chance for it – but only if he was free. I couldn’t imagine a wife away.
Belatedly, I checked his ring finger and found it empty. The relief I felt was disproportional. If he had been here to meet his wife, he would surely have worn his ring.
Just then, the loudspeakers announced an arriving train. I couldn’t hear from where, but the man immediately folded his paper, got up and headed out without a glance back. I followed.
I didn’t mean to. I was already going to be late for work, having dawdled in the café, but I didn’t care. I had to see who he was meeting with.
His mother? That I could believe. He had the air of duty about him that stated he would fetch his mother from the station should she so request. But I would imagine, too, that he would feel impatient if he was forced to abandon his empire for it. Instead, he had sat there so calmly, not annoyed at all that he had to wait. So not the mother, then.
He walked towards the correct platform in such long strides I had trouble keeping up with my short legs and high heels. Was that excitement I detected in his step? Who could cause such an assured man to suddenly hurry up so as not to miss the arrival?
A mistress, of course. No, a fiancée.
My heart fell. But I couldn’t give up now. I had to see for myself.
He reached the platform and I hurried to catch up. He paused and I did too, standing so close to him I could smell his divine aftershave. I pretended to be waiting for someone too, though why I bothered, I don’t know. He didn’t glance around; he had eyes only for the train that glided to halt just then, and the first class car - naturally. He looked almost impatient now. Considering how calm he had been until then, I found this to be quite out of character.
The door to the first class car opened and a gorgeous woman in her early twenties peeked out, tall and slender with a dark red hair that reached the small of her back in luscious waves. I’d always wanted a hair like that instead of the thin strawberry blond that was fizzy no matter what I did. I hated her at sight.
The man smiled, a wondrous sight that took my breath away, and lifted his hand to catch her attention. Of course he would have a beautiful fiancée, but a woman that young? I was dismayed.
The woman spotted him and her face lit. “Dad!” she yelled, jumping down on the platform and starting towards him.
All my fantasies came crashing down with one word. Not in one of them had he been a father, let alone to a grown woman he was now hugging warmly like they hadn’t seen in ages. International businessmen slash spies did not have children. I felt cheated. Then angry. I had wasted my morning on him and now I would be late and my boss would yell at me.
Well, she wouldn’t yell. She was a very nice lady. But still. With a huff, I turned around and headed to the nearest exit.
Outside the station, a Bentley with a driver. Waiting. I didn’t give it a glance.
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