By Roger Jefferies
I rang the bell, leaning forward to hear if it sounded. Then there was silence. Like much else at the house it was evidence of the slow decline since Ralph had left. I was quite tense about this meeting.
I knocked again. There was a muffled shout from within; ear to the door I heard footsteps. Then the door was tugged open, creaking on its hinges, stiff and badly fitting. “Thank heavens you’ve got here,” Emmy cried, hysterically. “Father’s just killed Mother.”
That’s the sort of remark that puts one at an immediate conversational disadvantage, especially standing on the doorstep in the rain. It altered things at once. Emmy was agitated.
Irritatingly, the driveway, where we’d parked, was at one side of the house, but the front door was at the other end. That meant we had walked in the wet along a gravel path in front of the long windows in the front. Having forgotten an umbrella, Ingrid had tried unsuccessfully to cover her head with a scarf. Her hair, which nowadays looked uncombed and wild at the best of times, was, as we stood at the front door, damp and lank as well.
Pulling the scarf off her head, Ingrid said, “That’s terrible. How did he do it?”
I was irritated. “That’s not the question. Why, is the question. Can we come in, Emmy dearest?”
Emmy was already turning away and we followed her, wiping our feet on the worn mat. She was ahead of us, flapping her hands a bit trying to sweep us along. We crossed the wide hall towards the kitchen. Emmy called out, “Come along. We’ll have a drink.”
It was a big kitchen with a long refectory table, at the far end of which, that afternoon, stood a bowl of fruit, some wine bottles, glasses, a telephone, and an address-book and notepad.
I was trying to digest what she’d said, what had happened. But Emmy sat down and at once picked up a glass of red wine. “Help yourselves. Don’t stand there, take your coats off and sit down, for God’s sake.”
“I’m shocked,” I said. “What on earth’s gone on? Your parents seemed very settled.”
Emmy shrugged. “People seem and then they’re not”
Ingrid was struggling out of her coat. I helped her and then she stood looking vaguely at the room as if unsure what to do next. “Oh, Emmy. I’m so sorry. It sounds awful.”
“He strangled her.”
“But why, how?”” Ingrid asked.
“He woke up and found his hands round her throat.”
Ingrid gave a little cry.
“He should have kept his hands to himself,” I said.
Emmy glared. “That’s not funny, John.”
“What happened next?” asked Ingrid.
I wasn’t sure where this was going. “We’re not the coroner, Ingrid.”
“No, I’m sorry, But I want to know. It’s dreadful.” Her voice was weak. I looked at the two women. Some people think that Ingrid drinks which would account for her slurred syllables and gait. But she doesn’t, much. Her mother was exactly the same. When Ingrid was young it went with her prettiness, and was rather sweet. She was a wraith-like nymph, very Burne-Jones, if you know what I mean. Now she’s rather irritating. Louche is the word I think.
Emmy, on the other hand, is strong, impetuous. She was very nervy just then, dressed in a dark blue silk jacket, trousers, white blouse, her black hair awry, a pale white face, dark red lipstick. She has full lips; I know that mouth. She was drinking steadily.
“For heaven’s sake. Will you both sit down and have a drink.” Emmy pointed at the chairs and pushed a bottle down the table. “I tried to ring you, warn you. No reply.”
We’d been driving. And Ingrid forgets to switch on her mobile.
“He owned up at once and they took her to hospital,” said Emmy. “Too late. She’s still in there, her body I mean. He’s been arrested on suspicion of murder and now they’re sectioning him. I’ve to go up first thing to-morrow.”
We sat down on opposite sides of the table. I poured a glass of red for myself. Ingrid said, “Don’t give me wine, John, if you were actually thinking of getting me a drink. Is there anything else? Gin, is there gin?”
“Mind you,” Emmy was saying, “my parents didn’t like it when Ralph pushed off. Ma blamed me and Father blamed her. No one blamed Ralph. There’s gin over there and some tonic in the fridge, but no ice. There’s a lemon in the bowl here. Get a knife from the drawer.”
Ingrid stood up and went to the sideboard. As she came back, clutching a bottle, a can, and a large knife, she said, “What’s your mother got to do with Ralph?”
“Father said she’d brought me up badly, not to look after a man. That’s a joke. Ralph couldn’t look after a dog, and didn’t look after me. I never felt as though he saw me. I was there like a clock on the mantelpiece. An occasional change of battery.”
I had heard this lament in one form or another several times. The fact was, when Ralph had been there, she managed quite well. Perhaps I helped. She exasperated him of course, to the point that he coped by largely ignoring her. Left the door open for me, so to speak.
Ingrid was carving a slice of lemon. “I still don’t understand why he did it. Put his hands round her throat in his sleep. Do you believe that? Was he just trying to scare her? Did your father hear voices, egging him on?”
Emmy snorted. “Voices! He’s deaf, doesn’t wear his hearing aid in bed.”
“I mean in his head. Some people do. You read about it.”
“I love my mother. Oh, I know we fight over things, she sees Father in me. But it’s so final, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. No farewell, no warning, nothing. She’s gone, just like that, for ever.” She started to cry. “Ralph never said goodbye either. Just a note to say he wasn’t coming back and would I get his shirts from the cleaners and send them on.”
“I do John’s shirts,” Said Ingrid.
I didn’t like any of this. I had Emmy privately when we could manage it, and while Ralph was around there was a stopper in the bottle. We were contained. But when he went, she became greedy. Things had blown up, and now this development.
Emmy was dabbing her cheeks. She pointed out of the window. “Still bloody raining. Not much of a spring. Permanent winter.”
I tried to cheer her up. “It’s not murder. Manslaughter, diminished responsibility. You’ll have to get a medical opinion.”
“I don’t want to be the daughter of a killer. I’ve no one to support me. And where were you, John, when I needed you?”
“Probably not with me,” Ingrid said. Then she poured herself another gin. The tonic fizzed in the glass. I thought, why did Emmy have to say that?
“Your father must have snapped,” I said. “Had a bad dream, your mother was fighting him, something like that. And your mother wasn’t a soft soul, was she?”
“Perhaps he meant to do it,” Ingrid said. “I know the feeling.”
“Stop talking about it. My mother’s still in the mortuary.”
We were all drinking. The rain splattered on the window. There was a pause.
I know I’ve wanted it both ways. Home with Ingrid, out to play with Emmy. It was time to have a chat now to clear the air. To see how it was with both of them. I mean, Ingrid’s not enthusiastic about me, we’re like old clothes. It takes a while to throw them out; they hang in wardrobes, memories of other times. Emmy wanted a thrill once in a while, the secrecy stirred the excitement; I remember the breathlessness as much as anything. Now I thought we could reach an understanding between us. Emmy and Ingrid know each other, and could get on. They might go to exhibitions and yoga together, and share me. Ménage a trois. Not very usual in East Grinstead, though we could move to Tunbridge Wells.
Ingrid began to pour herself another gin.
“That’s the third, Ingrid,” I said. “Do you have to?”
“Stop bloody minding me. I’ll drink myself under the table if I want to. You want to manage me. You want me to comb my hair, get tidy. I’m so useful for your self-esteem; you can look after me, make allowances for my little weaknesses, condescend, and be the strong one. ‘Poor Ingrid,’ you’ll say to your friends, ‘She’s got like that, just like her mother was.’ And then you can escape your duties on a rest day and fuck Emmy.”
She’d never spoken like that to me. It was the drink in her. I looked at Emmy. How would she take it? Not well, I feared.
Emmy stood up. “It’s true. I’ve been John’s hobby. He can’t quite leave you, Ingrid. He’s got no feelings, but I thought he might just do. But don’t put him to the test: he backs off, folds up. I’ve had a shock to-day. I’ve seen things as they are, John. You’re useless.” She leaned down on the table with both hands spread out.
I could have protested and made an exit after these dismal character references. The whole point of the visit had dissipated in a haze of alcohol. Too late; Ingrid wasn’t letting go, her blood was up. I was unprepared.
She stood uncertainly and picked up the kitchen knife she’d sliced the lemon with. It was large and sharp. “I don’t know which of you to stab. Both of you if I can. You’ve devalued me.” She lifted the knife. I thought she was now unstable enough to do some harm.
Emmy reacted swiftly. She seized an empty bottle and smashed it against the side of the table. There was the sound of shattering glass, and she was now holding the jagged end. “Careful you two. I’ll glass you both.”
I pushed my chair back and stood up, facing them, trying to be reasonable. “Don’t you think this is going a bit far?”
“Not far enough,” Ingrid said. She began to advance down one side of the table and Emmy started down the other, both brandishing their weapons. “There’s only one villain in here. You, John. We both have scores to settle with you.”
They were serious. I backed away. Emmy was too quick. She dashed past me to the kitchen door and locked it, throwing the key in the air. I was now between them. Ingrid was advancing with her blade, not too steadily. Emmy crouched like a cat, waiting, the hideous broken bottle held in front of her like a dagger. Could I run for it somewhere? I quickly surveyed the room.
“Take your trousers off,” said Emmy. “Remind me what you’re made of and we’ll rearrange it.”
There was a chair at the end of the table. I could get a foot on it and up on to the table and make a dash along it. “Look,” I said, pointing. “The sun’s out. Spring. It’s stopped raining.” They turned to see and I jumped. I was along the top of the table in a jiffy; I picked up the fruit bowl and threw it at Ingrid. It hit her, fell to the floor, and shattered. There were apples and lemons and oranges everywhere bouncing and rolling about. She dropped the knife. But Emmy was quick and grabbed my legs, jabbed the bottle in my calf and twisted it and again; I shouted out, it was horribly painful. Then the telephone rang. The shrill bell was like an alarm filling the room. It went on and on. We all froze and I slowly collapsed; blood was seeping through my trousers.
I remember saying, “Answer it,” and Emmy holding the receiver away from her ear and announcing, “Father’s tried to kill himself.”
I think then Emmy took charge of me, . She tied a tea towel round my leg into a sort of tourniquet. Then the two of them dragged me slowly to the car along the path. My feet scraped the gravel. They pushed me onto the back seat. There was blood all over the place. Apart from Emmy’s urgent instructions to Ingrid, neither of them said anything else. Emmy slammed the car door on me and went off without looking back.
Ingrid drove to the Queen Victoria and parked the car outside ‘Minor Injuries’, blocking the road. Someone came over and helped her pull me out. My leg was tormenting. It’s not manly, but I wanted to cry.
There was a long wait inside. Ingrid said nothing the whole time. She sat apart and looked away. She looked very untidy, like a poorly paid carer from abroad.
“How am I going to explain this to them,” I said. “How it happened?”
No reply, but she stood up, and didn’t move for a moment as if reflecting on what I’d asked, then she walked along the corridor and out of the building.
© Roger Jefferies July Revision 2017