About the Book

Four collections of some of Ruth Rendell’s greatest original crime thrillers.

About the Author

Ruth Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, and will be remembered as a legend in her own lifetime. Her ground-breaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced readers to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford.

With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her sixty bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Rendell won numerous awards, including the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE, and in 1997 became a Life Peer.

Ruth Rendell died in May 2015.

Collected Short Stories

Ruth Rendell

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Epub ISBN 9781409007920
Version 1.0
Published by Arrow Books 1994
7 9 11 13 15 14 12 10 8
Collected Short Stories © Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd 1987
Ruth Rendell has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work
First published in Great Britain in 1987 by Hutchinson
Arrow Books
The Random House Group Limited
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, SW1V 2SA
Arrow Books is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 9780099546207
About the Book
About the Author
Title Page

The Fallen Curtain
People Don’t Do Such Things
A Bad Heart
You Can’t Be Too Careful
The Double
The Venus Fly Trap
The Clinging Woman
The Vinegar Mother
The Fall of a Coin
Almost Human
Divided We Stand

Means of Evil
Old Wives’ Tales
Ginger and the Kingsmarkham Chalk Circle
Achilles Heel
When the Wedding Was Over

The Fever Tree
The Dreadful Day of Judgement
A Glowing Future
An Outside Interest
A Case of Coincidence
May and June
A Needle for the Devil
Front Seat
Paintbox Place
The Wrong Category

The New Girl Friend
A Dark Blue Perfume
The Orchard Walls
Hare’s House
Bribery and Corruption
The Whistler
The Convolvulus Clock
Fen Hall
Father’s Day
The Green Road to Quephanda

The Fallen Curtain
The incident happened in the spring after his sixth birthday. His mother always referred to it as ‘that dreadful evening’, and always is no exaggeration. She talked about it a lot, especially when he did well at anything, which was often as he was good at school and at passing exams.
Showing her friends his swimming certificate or the prize he won for being top at geography: ‘When I think we might have lost Richard that dreadful evening! You have to believe there’s Someone watching over us, don’t you?’ Clasping him in her arms: ‘He might have been killed – or worse.’ (A remarkable statement, this one.) ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about.’
Apparently, it bore talking about. ‘If I’d told him once, I’d told him fifty times never to talk to strangers or get into cars. But boys will be boys, and he forgot all that when the time came. He was given sweets, of course, and lured into this car.’ Whispers at this point, meaning glances in his direction. ‘Threats and suggestions – persuaded into goodness knows what – I’ll never know how we got him back alive.’
What Richard couldn’t understand was how his mother knew so much about it. She hadn’t been there. Only he and the Man had been there, and he couldn’t remember a thing about it. A curtain had fallen over that bit of his memory that held the details of that dreadful evening. He remembered only what had come immediately before it and immediately after.
They were living then in the South London suburb of Upfield, in a little terraced house in Petunia Street, he and his mother and his father. His mother had been over forty when he was born and he had no brothers or sisters. (‘That’s why we love you so much, Richard.’) He wasn’t allowed to play in the street with the other kids. (‘You want to keep yourself to yourself, dear.’) Round the corner in Lupin Street lived his gran, his father’s mother. Gran never came to their house, though he thought his father would have liked it if she had.
‘I wish you’d have my mother to tea on Sunday,’ he once heard his father say.
‘If that woman sets foot in this house, Stan, I go out of it.’
So gran never came to tea.
‘I hope I know what’s right, Stan, and I know better than to keep the boy away from his grandmother. You can have him round there once a week with you, so long as I don’t have to come in contact with her.’
That made three houses Richard was allowed into, his own, his gran’s, and the house next door in Petunia Street where the Wilsons lived with their Brenda and their John. Sometimes he played in their garden with John, though it wasn’t much fun as Brenda, who was much older, nearly sixteen, was always bullying them and stopping them getting dirty. He and John were in the same class at school, but his mother wouldn’t let him go to school alone with John, although it was only three streets away. She was very careful and nervous about him, was his mother, waiting outside the gates before school ended to walk him home with his hand tightly clasped in hers.
But once a week he didn’t go straight home. He looked forward to Wednesdays because Wednesday evening was the one he spent at gran’s, and because the time between his mother’s leaving him and his arrival at gran’s house was the only time he was ever free and by himself.
This was the way it was. His mother would meet him from school and they’d walk down Plumtree Grove to where Petunia Street started. Lupin Street turned off the Grove a bit further down, so his mother would see him across the road, waving and smiling encouragingly, till she’d seen him turn the corner into Lupin Street. Gran’s house was about a hundred yards down. That hundred yards was his free time, his alone time.
‘Mind you run all the way,’ his mother called after him.
But at the corner he always stopped running and began to dawdle, stopping to play with the cat that roamed about the bit of waste ground, or climbing on the pile of bricks the builders never came to build into anything. Sometimes, if she wasn’t too bad with her arthritis, gran would be waiting for him at her gate, and he didn’t mind having to forgo the cat and the climbing because it was so nice in gran’s house. Gran had a big TV set – unusually big for those days – and he’d watch it, eating chocolate, until his father knocked off at the factory and turned up for tea. Tea was lovely, fish and chips that gran didn’t fetch from the shop but cooked herself, cream meringues and chocolate eclairs, tinned peaches with evaporated milk, the lot washed down with fizzy lemonade. (‘It’s a disgrace the way your mother spoils that boy, Stan.’) They were supposed to be home by seven, but every week when it got round to seven, gran would remember there was a cowboy film coming up on TV and there’d be cocoa and biscuits and potato crisps to go with it. They’d be lucky to be home in Petunia Street before nine.
‘Don’t blame me,’ said his mother, ‘if his school work suffers next day.’
That dreadful evening his mother left him as usual at the corner and saw him across the road. He could remember that, and remember too how he’d looked to see if gran was at her gate. When he’d made sure she wasn’t, he’d wandered on to the building site to cajole the cat out of the nest she’d made for herself among the rubble. It was late March, a fine afternoon and still broad daylight at four. He was stroking the cat, thinking how thin and bony she was and how some of gran’s fish and chips would do her good, when – what? What next? At this point the curtain came down. Three hours later it lifted, and he was in Plumtree Grove, walking along quite calmly (‘Running in terror with that Man after him’), when whom should he meet but Mrs Wilson’s Brenda out for the evening with her boy friend. Brenda had pointed at him, stared and shouted. She ran up to him and clutched him and squeezed him till he could hardly breathe. Was that what had frightened him into losing his memory? They said no. They said he’d been frightened before – (‘Terrified out of his life’) – and that Brenda’s grabbing him and the dreadful shriek his mother gave when she saw him had nothing to do with it.
Petunia Street was full of police cars and there was a crowd outside their house. Brenda hustled him in, shouting, ‘I’ve found him, I’ve found him!’ and there was his father all white in the face, talking to policemen, his mother half-dead on the sofa being given brandy, and – wonder of wonders – his gran there too. That had been one of the strangest things of that whole strange evening, that his gran had set foot in their house and his mother hadn’t gone out of it.
They all started asking him questions at once. Had he answered them? All that remained in his memory was his mother’s scream. That endured, that shattering sound, and the great open mouth from which it issued as she leapt upon him. Somehow, although he couldn’t have explained why, he connected that scream and her seizing him as if to swallow him up, with the descent of the curtain.
He was never allowed to be alone after that, not even to play with John in the Wilsons’ garden, and he was never allowed to forget those events he couldn’t remember. There was no question of going to gran’s even under supervision, for gran’s arthritis had got so bad they’d put her in the old people’s ward at Upfield Hospital. The Man was never found. A couple of years later a little girl from Plumtree Grove got taken away and murdered. They never found that Man either, but his mother was sure they were one and the same.
‘And it might have been our Richard. It doesn’t bear thinking of, that Man roaming the streets like a wild beast.’
‘What did he do to me, mum?’ asked Richard, trying.
‘If you don’t remember, so much the better. You want to forget all about it, put it right out of your life,’
If only she’d let him. ‘What did he do, dad?’
‘I don’t know, Rich. None of us knows, me nor the police nor your mum, for all she says. Women like to set themselves up as knowing all about things, but it’s my belief you never told her no more than you told us.’
She took him to school and fetched him home until he was twelve. The other kids teased him mercilessly. He wasn’t allowed to go to their houses or have any of them to his. (‘You never know who they know or what sort of connections they’ve got.’) His mother only stopped going everywhere with him when he got taller than she was, and anyone could see he was too big for any Man to attack.
Growing up brought no elucidation of that dreadful evening but it did bring, with adolescence, the knowledge of what might have happened. And as he came to understand that it wasn’t only threats and blows and stories of horror which the Man might have inflicted on him, he felt an alien in his own body or as if that body were covered with a slime which nothing could wash away. For there was no way of knowing now, nothing to do about it but wish his mother would leave the subject alone, avoid getting friendly with people and work hard at school.
He did very well there, for he was naturally intelligent and had no outside diversions. No one was surprised when he got to a good university, not Oxford or Cambridge but nearly as good – (‘Imagine, all that brainpower might have been wasted if that Man had had his way’) – where he began to read for a science degree. He was the first member of his family ever to go to college, and the only cloud in the sky was that his gran, as his father pointed out, wasn’t there to see his glory.
She had died in the hospital when he was fourteen and she’d left her house to his parents. They’d sold it and theirs and bought a much nicer, bigger one with a proper garden and a garage in a suburb some five miles further out from Upfield. The little bit of money she’d saved she left to Richard, to come to him when he was eighteen. It was just enough to buy a car, and when he came down from university for the Easter holidays, he bought a two-year-old Ford and took and passed his driving test.
‘That boy,’ said his mother, ‘passes every exam that comes his way. It’s like as if he couldn’t fail if he tried. But he’s got a guardian angel watching over him, has had ever since he was six.’ Her husband had admonished her for her too-excellent memory and now she referred only obliquely to that dreadful evening. ‘When you-know-what happened and he was spared.’
She watched him drive expertly round the block, her only regret that he hadn’t got a nice girl beside him, a sensible, hard-working fiancée – not one of your tarty pieces – saying up for the deposit on a house and good furniture. Richard had never had a girl. There was one at college he liked and who, he thought, might like him. But he didn’t ask her out. He was never quite sure whether he was fit for any girl to know, let alone love.
The day after he’d passed his test he thought he’d drive over to Upfield and look up John Wilson. There was more in this, he confessed to himself, than a wish to revive old friendship. John was the only friend he’d really ever had, but he’d always felt inferior to him, for John had been (and had had the chance to be) easy and sociable and had had a girl to go out with when he was only fourteen. He rather liked the idea of arriving outside the Wilsons’ house, fresh from his first two terms at university and in his own car.
It was a Wednesday in early April, a fine, mild afternoon and still, of course, broad daylight at four. He chose a Wednesday because that was early closing day in Upfield and John wouldn’t be in the hardware shop where he’d worked ever since he left school three years before.
But as he approached Petunia Street up Plumtree Grove from the southerly direction, it struck him that he’d quite like to take a look at his gran’s old house and see whether they’d ever built anything on that bit of waste ground. For years and years, half his lifetime, those bricks had lain there, though the thin old cat had disappeared or died long before Richard’s parents moved. And the bricks were still there, overgrown now by grass and nettles. He drove into Lupin Street, moving slowly along the pavement edge until he was within sight of his gran’s house. There was enough of his mother in him to stop him parking directly outside the house – (‘Keep yourself to yourself and don’t pry into what doesn’t concern you’) – so he stopped the car some few yards this side of it.
It had been painted a bright pink, the window woodwork picked out in sky-blue. Richard thought he liked it better the way it used to be, cream plaster and brown wood, but he didn’t move away. A strange feeling had come over him, stranger than any he could remember having experienced, which kept him where he was, staring at the wilderness of rubble and brick and weeds. Just nostalgia, he thought, just going back to those Wednesdays which had been the high-spots of his weeks.
It was funny the way he kept looking among the rubble for the old cat to appear. If she were alive, she’d be as old as he by now and not many cats live that long. But he kept on looking just the same, and presently, as he was trying to pull himself out of this dreamy, dazed feeling and go off to John’s, a living creature did appear behind the shrub-high weeds. A boy, about eight. Richard didn’t intend to get out of the car. He found himself out of it, locking the door and then strolling over on to the building site.
You couldn’t really see much from a car, not details, that must have been why he’d got out, to examine more closely this scene of his childhood pleasures. It seemed very small, not the wild expanse of brick hills and grassy gullies he remembered, but a scrubby little bit of land twenty feet wide and perhaps twice as long. Of course it had seemed bigger because he had been so much smaller, smaller even than this little boy who now sat on a brick mountain, eyeing him.
He didn’t mean to speak to the boy, for he wasn’t a child any more but a Man. And if there is an explicit rule that a child mustn’t speak to strangers, there is an explicit, unstated one, that a Man doesn’t speak to children. If he had meant to speak, his words would have been very different, something about having played there himself once perhaps, or having lived nearby. The words he did use came to his lips as if they had been placed there by some external (or deeply internal) ruling authority.
‘You’re trespassing on private land. Did you know that?’
The boy began to ease himself down. ‘All the kids play here, mister.’
‘Maybe, but that’s no excuse. Where do you live?’
In Petunia Street, but I’m going to my gran’s . . . No.
‘Upfield High Road.’
‘I think you’d better get in my car,’ the Man said, ‘and I’ll take you home.’
Doubtfully, the boy said, ‘There won’t be no one there. My mum works late Wednesdays and I haven’t got no dad. I’m to go straight home from school and have my tea and wait for when my mum comes at seven.’
Straight to my gran’s and have my tea and . . .
‘But you haven’t, have you? You hung about trespassing on other people’s property.’
‘You a cop, mister?’
‘Yes,’ said the Man, ‘yes, I am.’
The boy got into the car quite willingly. ‘Are we going to the cop shop?’
‘We may go to the police station later. I want to have a talk to you first. We’ll go . . .’ Where should they go? South London has many open spaces, commons they’re called. Wandsworth Common, Tooting Common, Streatham Common . . . What made him choose Drywood Common, so far away, a place he’d heard of but hadn’t visited, so far as he knew, in his life? The Man had known, and he was the Man now, wasn’t he? ‘We’ll go to Drywood and have a talk. There’s some chocolate on the dashboard shelf. Have a bit if you like.’ He started the car and they drove off past gran’s old house. ‘Have it all,’ he said.
The boy had it all. He introduced himself as Barry. He was eight and he had no brothers or sisters or father, just his mum who worked to keep them both. His mum had told him never to get into strangers’ cars, but a cop was different, wasn’t it?
‘Quite different,’ said the Man. ‘Different altogether.’
It wasn’t easy finding Drywood Common because the signposting was bad around there. But the strange thing was that, once there, the whole lay-out of the common was familiar to him.
‘We’ll park,’ he said, ‘down by the lake.’
He found the lake with ease, driving along the main road that bisected the common, then turning left on to a smaller lane. There were ducks on the pond. It was surrounded by trees, but in the distance you could see houses and a little row of shops. He parked the car by the water and switched off the engine.
Barry was very calm and trusting. He listened intelligently to the policeman’s lecture on behaving himself and not trespassing, and he didn’t fidget or seem bored when the Man stopped talking about that and began to talk about himself. The Man had had a lonely sort of life, a bit like being in prison, and he’d never been allowed out alone. Even when he was in his own room doing his homework, he’d been watched – (‘Leave your door open, dear. We don’t want any secrets in this house’) – and he hadn’t had a single real friend. Would Barry be his friend, just for a few hours, just for that evening? Barry would.
‘But you’re grown up now,’ he said.
The Man nodded. Barry said later when he recalled the details of what his mother called that nasty experience – for he was always able to remember every detail – that it was at this point the Man had begun to cry.
A small, rather dirty, hand touched the Man’s hand and held it. No one had ever held his hand like that before. Not possessively or commandingly – (‘Hold on to me tight, Richard, while we cross the road’) – but gently, sympathetically – lovingly? Their hands remained clasped, the small one covering the large, then the large enclosing and gripping the small. A tension, as of time stopped, held the two people in the car still. The boy broke it, and time moved again.
‘I’m getting a bit hungry,’ he said.
‘Are you? It’s past your teatime. I’ll tell you what, we could have some fish and chips. One of those shops over there is a fish and chip shop.’
Barry started to get out of the car.
‘No, not you,’ the Man said. ‘It’s better if I go alone. You wait here. OK?’
‘OK,’ Barry said.
He was only gone ten minutes – for he knew exactly and from a distance which one of the shops it was – and when he got back Barry was waiting for him. The fish and chips were good, almost as good as those gran used to cook. By the time they had finished eating and had wiped their greasy fingers on his handkerchief, dusk had come. Lights were going up in those far-off shops and houses but here, down by the lake, the trees made it quite dark.
‘What’s the time?’ said Barry.
‘A quarter past six.’
‘I ought to be getting back now.’
‘How about a game of hide and seek first? Your mum won’t be home yet. I can get you back to Upfield in ten minutes.’
‘I don’t know . . . Suppose she gets in early?’
‘Please,’ the Man said. ‘Please, just for a little while. I used to play hide and seek down here when I was a kid.’
‘But you said you never played anywhere. You said . . .’
‘Did I? Maybe I didn’t. I’m a bit confused.’
Barry looked at him gravely. ‘I’ll hide first,’ he said. He watched Barry disappear among the trees. Grown-ups who play hide and seek don’t keep to the rules, they don’t bother with that counting to a hundred bit. But the Man did. He counted slowly and seriously, and then he got out of the car and began walking round the pond. It took him a long time to find Barry, who was more proficient at this game than he, a proficiency which showed when it was his turn to do the seeking. The darkness was deepening, and there was no one else on the common. He and the boy were quite alone.
Barry had gone to hide. In the car the Man sat counting – ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. When he stopped he was aware of the silence of the place, alleviated only by the faint, distant hum of traffic on the South Circular Road, just as the darkness was alleviated by the red blush of the sky, radiating the glow of London. Last time round, it hadn’t been this dark. The boy wasn’t behind any of the trees or in the bushes by the waterside or covered by the brambles in the ditch that ran parallel to the road.
Where the hell had the stupid kid got to? His anger was irrational, for he had suggested the game himself. Was he angry because the boy had proved better at it than he? Or was it something deeper and fiercer than that, rage at rejection by this puny and ignorant little savage?
‘Where are you, Barry? Come on out. I’ve had about enough of this.’
There was no answer. The wind rustled, and a tiny twig scuttered down out of a treetop to his feet. God, that little devil! What’ll I do if I can’t find him? What the hell’s he playing at?
When I find him I’ll – I’ll kill him.
He shivered. The blood was throbbing in his head. He broke a stick off a bush and began thrashing about with it, enraged, shouting into the dark silence, ‘Barry Barry, come out! Come out at once, d’you hear me?’ He doesn’t want me, he doesn’t care about me, no one will ever want me . . .
Then he heard a giggle from a treetop above him, and suddenly there was a crackling of twigs, a slithering sound. Not quite above him – over there. In the giggle, he thought, there was a note of jeering. But where, where? Down by the water’s edge. He’d been up in the tree that almost overhung the pond. There was a thud as small feet bounced on to the ground, and again that maddening, gleeful giggle. For a moment the Man stood still. His hands clenched as on a frail neck, and he held them pressed together, crushing out life. Run, Barry, run . . . Run, Richard, to Plumtree Grove and Brenda, to home and mother who knows what dreadful evenings are.
The Man thrust his way through the bushes, making for the pond. The boy would be away by now, but not far away. And his legs were long enough and strong enough to outrun him, his hands strong enough to ensure there would be no future of doubt and fear and curtained memory.
But he was nowhere, nowhere. And yet . . . What was that sound, as of stealthy, fearful feet creeping away? He wheeled round, and there was the boy coming towards him, walking a little timidly between the straight, grey tree trunks towards him. A thick constriction gripped his throat. There must have been something in his face, some threatening gravity made more intense by the half-dark that stopped the boy in his tracks. Run, Barry, run, run fast away . . .
They stared at each other for a moment, for a lifetime, for twelve long years. Then the boy gave a merry laugh, fearless and innocent. He ran forward and flung himself into the Man’s arms, and the Man, in a great release of pain and anguish, lifted the boy up, lifted him laughing into his own laughing face. They laughed with a kind of rapture at finding each other at last, and in the dark, under the whispering trees, each held the other close in an embrace of warmth and friendship.
‘Come on,’ Richard said. ‘I’ll take you home. I don’t know what I was doing, bringing you here in the first place.’
‘To play hide and seek,’ said Barry. ‘We had a nice time.’
They got back into the car. It was after seven when they got to Upfield High Road, but not much after.
‘I don’t reckon my mum’s got in yet.’
‘I’ll drop you here. I won’t go up to your place.’ Richard opened the car door to let him out. ‘Barry?’
‘What is it, Mister?’
‘Don’t ever take a lift from a Man again, will you? Promise me?’
Barry nodded. ‘OK.’
‘I once took a lift from a stranger, and for years I couldn’t remember what had happened. It sort of came back to me tonight, meeting you. I remember it all now. He was all right, just a bit lonely like me. We had fish and chips on Drywood Common and played hide and seek like you and me, and he brought me back nearly to my house – like I’ve brought you. But it wouldn’t always be like that.’
‘How do you know?’
Richard looked at his strong young man’s hands. ‘I just know,’ he said. ‘Good-bye, Barry, and – thanks.’
He drove away, turning once to see that the boy was safely in his house. Barry told his mother all about it, but she insisted it must have been a nasty experience and called the police. Since Barry couldn’t remember the number of the car and had no idea of the stranger’s name, there was little they could do. They never found the Man.
People Don’t Do Such Things
People don’t do such things.
That’s the last line of Hedda Gabler, and Ibsen makes this chap say it out of a sort of bewilderment at finding truth stranger than fiction. I know just how he felt. I say it myself every time I come up against the hard reality that Reeve Baker is serving fifteen years in prison for murdering my wife, and that I played my part in it, and that it happened to us three. People don’t do such things. But they do.
Real life had never been stranger than fiction for me. It had always been beautifully pedestrian and calm and pleasant, and all the people I knew jogged along in the same sort of way. Except Reeve, that is. I suppose I made a friend of Reeve and enjoyed his company so much because of the contrast between his manner of living and my own, and so that when he had gone home I could say comfortably to Gwendolen:
‘How dull our lives must seem to Reeve!’
An acquaintance of mine had given him my name when he had got into a mess with his finances and was having trouble with the Inland Revenue. As an accountant with a good many writers among my clients, I was used to their irresponsible attitude to money – the way they fall back on the excuse of artistic temperament for what is, in fact, calculated tax evasion – and I was able to sort things out for Reeve and show him how to keep more or less solvent. As a way, I suppose of showing his gratitude, Reeve took Gwendolen and me out to dinner, then we had him over at our place, and after that we became close friends.
Writers and the way they work hold a fascination for ordinary chaps like me. It’s a mystery to me where they get their ideas from, apart from constructing the thing and creating characters and making their characters talk and so on. But Reeve could do it all right, and set the whole lot at the court of Louis Quinze or in medieval Italy or what not. I’ve read all nine of his historical novels and admired what you might call his virtuosity. But I only read them to please him really. Detective stories were what I preferred and I seldom bothered with any other form of fiction.
Gwendolen once said to me it was amazing Reeve could fill his books with so much drama when he was living drama all the time. You’d imagine he’d have got rid of it all on paper. I think the truth was that every one of his heroes was himself, only transformed into Cesare Borgia or Casanova. You could see Reeve in them all, tall, handsome and dashing as they were, and each a devil with the women. Reeve had got divorced from his wife a year or so before I’d met him, and since then he’d had a string of girl friends, models, actresses, girls in the fashion trade, secretaries, journalists, schoolteachers, high-powered lady executives and even a dentist. Once when we were over at his place he played us a record of an aria from Don Giovanni – another character Reeve identified with and wrote about. It was called the ‘Catalogue Song’ and it listed all the types of girls the Don had made love to, blonde, brunette, redhead, young, old, rich, poor, ending up with something about as long as she wears a petticoat you know what he does. Funny, I even remember the Italian for that bit, though it’s the only Italian I know. Purche porti la gonnella voi sapete quel che fa. Then the singer laughed in an unpleasant way, laughed to music with a seducer’s sneer, and Reeve laughed too, saying it gave him a fellow-feeling.
I’m old-fashioned, I know that. I’m conventional. Sex is for marriage, as far as I’m concerned, and what sex you have before marriage – I never had much – I can’t help thinking of as a shameful secret thing. I never even believed that people did have much of it outside marriage. All talk and boasting, I thought. I really did think that. And I kidded myself that when Reeve talked of going out with a new girl he meant going out with. Taking out for a meal, I thought, and dancing with and taking home in a taxi and then maybe a good-night kiss on the doorstep. Until one Sunday morning, when Reeve was coming over for lunch, I phoned him to ask if he’d meet us in the pub for a pre-lunch drink. He sounded half-asleep and I could hear a girl giggling in the background. Then I heard him say:
‘Get some clothes on, lovey, and make us a cup of tea, will you? My head’s splitting.’
I told Gwendolen.
‘What did you expect?’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I thought you’d be shocked.’
‘He’s very good-looking and he’s only thirty-seven. It’s natural.’ But she had blushed a little. ‘I am rather shocked,’ she said. ‘We don’t belong in his sort of life, do we?’
And yet we remained in it, on the edge of it. As we got to know Reeve better, he put aside those small prevarications he had employed to save our feelings. And he would tell us, without shyness, anecdotes of his amorous past and present. The one about the girl who was so possessive that even though he had broken with her, she had got into his flat in his absence and been lying naked in his bed when he brought his new girl home that night; the one about the married woman who had hidden him for two hours in her wardrobe until her husband had gone out; the girl who had come to borrow a pound of sugar and had stayed all night; fair girls, dark girls, plump, thin, rich, poor . . . Purche porti la gonnella voi sapete quel che fa.
‘It’s another world,’ said Gwendolen.
And I said, ‘How the other half lives.’
We were given to clichés of this sort. Our life was a cliché, the commonest sort of life led by middle-class people in the Western world. We had a nice detached house in one of the right suburbs, solid furniture and lifetime-lasting carpets. I had my car and she hers. I left for the office at half-past eight and returned at six. Gwendolen cleaned the house and went shopping and gave coffee mornings. In the evenings we liked to sit at home and watch television, generally going to bed at eleven. I think I was a good husband. I never forgot my wife’s birthday or failed to send her roses on our anniversary or omitted to do my share of the dishwashing. And she was an excellent wife, romantically-inclined, not sensual. At any rate, she was never sensual with me.
She kept every birthday card I ever sent her, and the Valentines I sent her while we were engaged. Gwendolen was one of those women who hoard and cherish small mementoes. In a drawer of her dressing table she kept the menu card from the restaurant where we celebrated our engagement, a picture postcard of the hotel where we spent our honeymoon, every photograph of us that had ever been taken, our wedding pictures in a leather-bound album. Yes, she was an arch-romantic, and in her diffident way, with an air of daring, she would sometimes reproach Reeve for his callousness.
‘But you can’t do that to someone who loves you,’ she said when he had announced his brutal intention of going off on holiday without telling his latest girl friend where he was going or even that he was going at all. ‘You’ll break her heart.’
‘Gwendolen, my love, she hasn’t got a heart. Women don’t have them. She has another sort of machine, a combination of telescope, lie detector, scalpel and castrating device.’
‘You’re too cynical,’ said my wife. ‘You may fall in love yourself one day and then you’ll know how it feels.’
‘Not necessarily. As Shaw said –’ Reeve was always quoting what other writers had said ‘– “Don’t do unto others as you would have others do unto you, as we don’t all have the same tastes.”’
‘We all have the same taste about not wanting to be ill-treated.’
‘She should have thought of that before she tried to control my life. No, I shall quietly disappear for a while. I mightn’t go away, in fact. I might just say I’m going away and lie low at home for a fortnight. Fill up the deep freeze, you know, and lay in a stock of liquor. I’ve done it before in this sort of situation. It’s rather pleasant and I get a hell of a lot of work done.’
Gwendolen was silenced by this and, I must say, so was I. You may wonder, after these examples of his morality, just what it was I saw in Reeve. It’s hard now for me to remember. Charm, perhaps, and a never-failing hospitality; a rueful way of talking about his own life as if it was all he could hope for, while mine was the ideal all men would aspire to; a helplessness about his financial affairs combined with an admiration for my grasp of them; a manner of talking to me as if we were equally men of the world, only I had chosen the better part. When invited to one of our dull modest gatherings, he would always be the exciting friend with the witty small talk, the reviver of a failing party, the industrious barman; above all, the one among our friends who wasn’t an accountant, a bank manager, a solicitor, a general practitioner or a company executive. We had his books on our shelves. Our friends borrowed them and told their friends they’d met Reeve Baker at our house. He gave us a cachet that raised us enough centimetres above the level of the bourgeoisie to make us interesting.
Perhaps, in those days, I should have asked myself what it was he saw in us.
It was about a year ago that I first noticed a coolness between Gwendolen and Reeve. The banter they had gone in for, which had consisted in wry confessions or flirtatious compliments from him, and shy, somewhat maternal reproofs from her, stopped almost entirely. When we all three were together they talked to each other through me, as if I were their interpreter. I asked Gwendolen if he’d done something to upset: her.
She looked extremely taken aback. ‘What makes you ask?’
‘You always seem a bit peeved with him.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’ll try to be nicer. I didn’t know I’d changed.’
She had changed to me too. She flinched sometimes when I touched her, and although she never refused me, there was an apathy about her love-making.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her after a failure which disturbed me because it was so unprecedented.
She said it was nothing, and then, ‘We’re getting older. You can’t expect things to be the same as when we were first married.’
‘For God’s sake,’ I said. ‘You’re thirty-five and I’m thirty-nine. We’re not in our dotage.’
She sighed and looked unhappy. She had become moody and difficult. Although she hardly opened her mouth in Reeve’s presence, she talked about him a lot when he wasn’t there, seizing upon almost any excuse to discuss him and speculate about his character. And she seemed inexplicably annoyed when, on our tenth wedding anniversary, a greetings card arrived addressed to us both from him. I, of course, had sent her roses. At the end of the week I missed a receipt for a bill I’d paid – as an accountant I’m naturally circumspect about these things – and I searched through our wastepaper basket, thinking I might have thrown it away. I found it, and I also found the anniversary card I’d sent Gwendolen to accompany the roses.
All these things I noticed. That was the trouble with me – I noticed things but I lacked the experience of life to add them up and make a significant total. I didn’t have the worldly wisdom to guess why my wife was always out when I phoned her in the afternoons, or why she was forever buying new clothes. I noticed, I wondered, that was all.
I noticed things about Reeve too. For one thing, that he’d stopped talking about his girl friends.
‘He’s growing up at last,’ I said to Gwendolen.
She reacted with warmth, with enthusiasm. ‘I really think he is.’
But she was wrong. He had only three months of what I thought of as celibacy. And then when he talked of a new girl friend, it was to me alone. Confidentially, over a Friday night drink in the pub, he told me of this ‘marvellous chick’, twenty years old, he had met at a party the week before.
‘It won’t last, Reeve,’ I said.
‘I sincerely hope not. Who wants it to last?
Not Gwendolen, certainly. When I told her she was incredulous, then aghast. And when I said I was sorry I’d told her since Reeve’s backsliding upset her so much, she snapped at me that she didn’t want to discuss him. She became even more snappy and nervous and depressed too. Whenever the phone rang she jumped. Once or twice I came home to find no wife, no dinner prepared; then she’d come in, looking haggard, to say she’d been out for a walk. I got her to see our doctor and he put her on tranquillizers which just made her more depressed.
I hadn’t seen Reeve for ages. Then, out of the blue he phoned me at work to say he was off to the South of France for three weeks.
‘In your state of financial health?’ I said. I’d had a struggle getting him to pay the January instalment of his twice-yearly income tax, and I knew he was practically broke till he got the advance on his new book in May. ‘The South of France is a bit pricey, isn’t it?’
‘I’ll manage,’ he said. ‘My bank manager’s one of my fans and he’s let me have an overdraft.’
Gwendolen didn’t seem very surprised to hear about Reeve’s holiday. He’d told me he was going on his own – the ‘marvellous chick’ had long disappeared – and she said she thought he needed the rest, especially as there wouldn’t be any of those girls to bother him, as she put it.
When I first met Reeve he’d been renting a flat but I persuaded him to buy one, for security and as an investment. The place was known euphemistically as a garden flat but it was in fact a basement, the lower ground floor of a big Victorian house in Bayswater. My usual route to work didn’t take me along his street, but sometimes when the traffic was heavy I’d go through the back doubles and past his house. After he’d been away for about two weeks I happened to do this one morning and, of course, I glanced at Reeve’s window. One always does glance at a friend’s house, I think, when one is passing even if one knows that friend isn’t at home. His bedroom was at the front, the top half of the window visible, the lower half concealed by the rise of lawn. I noticed that the curtains were drawn. Not particularly wise, I thought, an invitation to burglars, and then I forgot about it. But two mornings later I passed that way again, passed very slowly this time as there was a traffic hold-up, and again I glanced at Reeve’s window. The curtains were no longer quite drawn. There was a gap about six inches wide between them. Now whatever a burglar may do, it’s very unlikely he’ll pull back drawn curtains. I didn’t consider burglars this time. I thought Reeve must have come back early.
Telling myself I should be late for work anyway if I struggled along in this traffic jam, I parked the car as soon as I could at a meter. I’ll knock on old Reeve’s door, I thought, and get him to make me a cup of coffee. There was no answer. But as I looked once more at that window I was almost certain those curtains had been moved again, and in the past ten minutes. I rang the doorbell of the woman in the flat upstairs. She came down in her dressing gown.
‘Sorry to disturb you,’ I said. ‘But do you happen to know if Mr Baker’s come back?’
‘He’s not coming back till Saturday,’ she said.
‘Sure of that?’
‘Of course I’m sure,’ she said rather huffily. ‘I put a note through his door Monday, and if he was back he’d have come straight up for this parcel I took in for him.’
‘Did he take his car, d’you know?’ I said, feeling like a detective in one of my favourite crime novels.
‘Of course he did. What is this? What’s he done?’
I said he’d done nothing, as far as I knew, and she banged the door in my face. So I went down the road to the row of lock-up garages. I couldn’t see much through the little panes of frosted glass in the door of Reeve’s garage, just enough to be certain the interior wasn’t empty but that that greenish blur was the body of Reeve’s Fiat. And then I knew for sure. He hadn’t gone away at all. I chuckled to myself as I imagined him lying low for these three weeks in his flat, living off food from the deep freeze and spending most of his time in the back regions where, enclosed as those rooms were by a courtyard with high walls, he could show lights day and night with impunity. Just wait till Saturday, I thought, and I pictured myself asking him for details of his holiday, laying little traps for him, until even he with his writer’s powers of invention would have to admit he’d never been away at all.
Gwendolen was laying the table for our evening meal when I got in. She, I’d decided, was the only person with whom I’d share this joke. I got all her attention the minute I mentioned Reeve’s name, but when I reached the bit about his car being in the garage she stared at me and all the colour went out of her face. She sat down, letting the bunch of knives and forks she was holding fall into her lap.
‘What on earth’s the matter?’ I said.
‘How could he be so cruel? How could he do that to anyone?’
‘Oh, my dear, Reeve’s quite ruthless where women are concerned. You remember, he told us he’d done it before.’
‘I’m going to phone him,’ she said, and I saw that she was shivering. She dialled his number and I heard the ringing tone start.
‘He won’t answer,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have told you if I’d thought it was going to upset you.’
She didn’t say any more. There were things cooking on the stove and the table was half-laid, but she left all that and went into the hall. Almost immediately afterwards I heard the front door close.
I know I’m slow on the uptake in some ways but I’m not stupid. Even a husband who trusts his wife like I trusted mine – or, rather, never considered there was any need for trust – would know, after that, that something had been going on. Nothing much, though, I told myself. A crush perhaps on her part, hero-worship which his flattery and his confidences had fanned. Naturally, she’d feel let down, betrayed, when she discovered he’d deceived her as to his whereabouts when he’d led her to believe she was a special friend and privy to all his secrets. But I went upstairs just the same to reassure myself by looking in that dressing table drawer where she kept her souvenirs. Dishonourable? I don’t think so. She had never locked it or tried to keep its contents private from me.
And all those little mementoes of our first meeting, our courtship, our marriage, were still there. Between a birthday card and a Valentine I saw a pressed rose. But there too, alone in a nest made out of a lace handkerchief I had given her, were a locket and a button. The locket was one her mother had left to her, but the photograph in it, that of some long-dead unidentifiable relative, had been replaced by a cut-out of Reeve from a snapshot. On the reverse side was a lock of hair. The button I recognized as coming from Reeve’s blazer, though it hadn’t, I noticed, been cut off. He must have lost it in our house and she’d picked it up. The hair was Reeve’s, black, wavy, here and there with a thread of grey, but again it hadn’t been cut off. On one of our visits to his flat she must have combed it out of his hairbrush and twisted it into a lock. Poor little Gwendolen . . . Briefly, I’d suspected Reeve. For one dreadful moment, sitting down there after she’d gone out, I’d asked myself, could he have . . . ? Could my best friend have . . . ? But, no. He hadn’t even sent her a letter or a flower. It had been all on her side, and for that reason – I knew where she was bound for – I must stop her reaching him and humiliating herself.
I slipped the things into my pocket with some vague idea of using them to show her how childish she was being. She hadn’t taken her car. Gwendolen always disliked driving in central London. I took mine and drove to the tube station I knew she’d go to.
She came out a quarter of an hour after I got there, walking fast and glancing nervously to the right and left of her. When she saw me she gave a little gasp and stood stock-still.
‘Get in, darling,’ I said gently. ‘I want to talk to you.’
She got in but she didn’t speak. I drove down to the Bayswater Road and into the Park. There, on the Ring, I parked under the plane trees, and because she still didn’t utter a word, I said:
‘You mustn’t think I don’t understand. We’ve been married ten years and I daresay I’m a dull sort of chap. Reeve’s exciting and different and – well, maybe it’s only natural for you to think you’ve fallen for him.’
She stared at me stonily. ‘I love him and he loves me.’
‘That’s nonsense,’ I said, but it wasn’t the chill of the spring evening that made me shiver. ‘Just because he’s used that charm of his on you . . .’
She interrupted me. ‘I want a divorce.’
‘For heaven’s sake,’ I said. ‘You hardly know Reeve. You’ve never been alone with him, have you?’
‘Never been alone with him?’ She gave a brittle, desperate laugh. ‘He’s been my lover for six months. And now I’m going to him. I’m going to tell him he doesn’t have to hide from women any more because I’ll be with him all the time.’
In the half-dark I gaped at her. ‘I don’t believe you,’ I said, but I did. I did. ‘You mean you along with all the rest . . . ? My wife?’
‘I’m going to be Reeve’s wife. I’m the only one that understands him, the only one he can talk to. He told me that just before – before he went away.’