Sally Geyer took a bite of the wholemeal cheese sandwich she had prepared that morning and walked to the window of the classroom. The sight of the busy playground was a testament that too few of the children went home to lunch – those that did were envied, but branded spoilt.
People had funny ideas about the country, Sally mused. Her friends from college who had stayed in London and taught inner-city kids often talked as though she spent idyllic days in a West Country blur, ringed around with rosy-cheeked mini-yokels who walked to school across the red and green fields, humming songs about Grey Mares and Uncle Tom Cobley.
What they needed was a couple of weeks with the hard-bitten tykes from Mutley Plain who bussed in from the suburbs of Plymouth. Half of them with granddads laid off from the shipyard and fathers who hardly expected to find work at all. Needed them though, or the school which served a small village and the farms around, would be under threat from its falling rolls.
The playground had been understaffed at break and the sudden increase in the noise level that came faintly through the window shutting out a raw November day grabbed Sally’s attention.
As her eyes scoured the playground, she could see that a group of around seven children had formed a circle. Instincts honed from years as a primary school teacher informed her that something extra troublesome was going on. Where were the precious midday supervisors when you needed them? Furthermore, who cared if Zoe Coombes had sodding time-of-the-month problems (twice a month, seemingly)? If she couldn’t do playground duty she should say so while there was time to change the rota.
On opening the window, Sally immediately caught the loud taunting voices of the children who were singing “Brown girl in the ring”. Sally took a chestful of air, but before she had time to shout out, a slim white woman in her late twenties marched purposefully through the ring of intimidating children.
Even from this distance, the horrified teacher felt the woman’s rage. Her shoulders lifted and quivering, her stride was close to a rush as she shouted out words that could not be heard; yet Sally knew were aggressive. Sally’s concern shifted; it was the tormentors who were at risk now, and whether it served them right or not, she couldn’t have mothers laying into them. Sally’s shout turned heads.
Now that the little girl had been pulled clear and clamped close under her mother’s arm, Sally recognised Andrea easily. She was the only mixed race child at Styne Oak Junior School. There were the Chinese restaurant children and Ahmed the newsagent’s youngest son, but somehow Andrea was always on her own.
For the first time Sally saw how alike the two were. Good-looking both of them, tall, long legs and necks, fine-boned, a challenging set to their heads, though where the woman’s dark blonde hair was clipped up in a swirl that waved down her back, the child had a cloud of close natural curls. Even fear could not make Andrea appear anything less dignified than bewildered.
There had never been anything like this before. What were they going to do about it thought Sally who was now bracing herself for the walk to the Head’s door? And anyway, she was too late. Andrea’s small pointed face turned for a moment as her mother swept her away, in response to Sally’s call. That was all the comfort she had.
Marcus Carpenter raised his shaven head from under the duvet, stretched out his arms lethargically before swinging his legs out of the double bed. He brought his six-foot, well-built frame upright and dressed only in boxer shorts, walked to the television set, switched it on before making himself a cup of black coffee. The caffeine was necessary to face the day, any day, that all seemed the same now.
Even though the bed-sit was modest and somewhat sparsely furnished, with only a few nondescript posters adorning the wall, Marcus had managed to keep it fairly clean.
He had acquired a decent music system, which might have been the main focus of the room, not the bed or the sofa that nestled beside the warm friendly radiator. Instead, it was the large domineering colour television with video, which was the real focus of the bed-sit that had been equipped almost entirely on a single trip to Ikea in Croydon.
He had been ‘ill’ back then and Ayesha, his social worker, had taken him there in her roomy old estate.
With Ayesha’s help, he could have achieved a bright, homely look; perhaps fitted his little abode with cheerful colours and smart little space-saving fitments. A cheery, spotted breakfast and dinner set for one … co-ordinating quilt and pillows; sunflower-splashed voile curtains called ‘Primpta’ had been all within his means. The final effect could have been similar to a room in a modestly priced bed and breakfast, or a cheap hotel. However, Marcus hadn’t been up to it.
As things stood, the curtains were pale mushroom, the crockery white, the ready-framed prints were abstract in shades of olive and brown. The bed-sit was not particularly warm or inviting (in fact Marcus still didn’t consider it home – accommodation was the right word), which was underlined by the lack of any ornaments, photographs or trace of connections. It definitely had the look and feel of a reclusive single man.
He went back to the bed where he lay propped like an invalid, remote in hand watching the morning chat show. For a full hour, he watched vigilantly, as if his life depended upon it.
Throughout the proceedings – the distresses and the tears, the comforting and the confrontations of the walking wounded who had come to share their most intimate wounds; secrets now made public to the millions of faceless unknown viewers, Marcus’ face remained calm and unmoved. From time to time, he nodded and made an “mmmh-hmmm” deep in his mouth, like the swallowed shadow of an acknowledgment.
When the programme ended, Marcus checked the clock beside the bed, rose up lazily and walked to the bathroom. This room was the one redeeming feature, the piece-de-resistance. Equipped with a modern walk-in power shower, tasteful cream fittings, it was as if all the real imaginative efforts and thought had been put into this room.
He rubbed his eyes, flushed the loo then walked back to the main living area and looked out of the window that gave a splendid view onto a mixed street of offices, convenience retail stores and flats. It was quite a good street with apartments moving up the scale, subject to endless refurbishments from property developers who had homed in on affordable blocks whose postcode inner-city-centre location gave promises of stratospheric rents.
He noticed the familiar shape of a young white woman burdened with luggage walking towards him, her straight brown hair catching the sunlight, sending out rainbow sparks of bronze and gold. She was dressed in denim jeans and jacket, humping a holdall that bounced awkwardly against her fragile leg (which might even have been bruising it). Her body bent ungainly under the weight of the rucksack she had stuffed with books. His eyes followed her as she made her way trickily down the street and turned at last into his block.
When she disappeared from his view, Marcus snapped back to the now, went to the ‘kitchen’ area of the bed-sit and opened the fridge. After a cursory glance which confirmed that no fresh fruit, no green stuff was within; he removed the two remaining eggs and half a tin of baked beans then delved a second time for a plastic carton and proceeded to make himself a micro-waved omelette of sorts.
He beat the eggs in a bowl, added a splash of boiling water and a sliver of the horrible pearlized spread from the carton. It was a joyless meal for a man who had been used to taking care of himself, who had previously used freshly chopped herbs in an herb-chopping gadget from Habitat and sang the praises of a pestle and mortar for pounding spices.
Neither was it a meal for a man who had regularly dined in restaurants. They might not have been expensive eateries, but Maxine had always known how to find the good ones.
Both he and Maxine had disliked mass-produced, processed food, preferring to patronize small, local shops; ones with tempting trays and boxes out on the pavement, shops that had baskets brimming with fruit and vegetables imported from all the warm corners of the earth, smelling of earth and rind when it was sunny in London.
Towards the end of their marriage – when he was earning really well – Maxine would take the car and make trips to Waitrose in Chingford. It wasn’t purely for the ‘Fairtrade’ policies of the supermarket’s buyers that Maxine favoured this brand.
Marcus always had doubted deep down, how much she really cared about saving the whale, and protecting dolphins, or paying Third World farmers a proper price for their coffee beans. She wasn’t a bleeding heart type, but she liked the taste of its classy products, and knew from her women friends that they had snob value, as well as the moral high ground. Even at their son’s playgroup, all the top mothers shopped at Waitrose. Maxine had been an aspirational wife with a healthy appetite.
Now when he shopped for himself, he had to be selective. Neglecting the years of practice, which had taught him that cheap did not always represent value – ‘needs must’ – now meant that compromise was the sad fact.
Meanwhile, Natasha pushed open the door to Lambton House by turning her back and leaning against it. After this manoeuvre, she dropped her holdall for respite and slipped her fingers under the rucksack straps to ease the pressure. The reddening of that too thin skin where the nylon webbing had chafed would last for days. After a necessary rest, she took up her gear again and prepared to trudge up the two flights of stairs that lead to her father’s flat. There was no happy lift of her chin or to the corners of her full, sweet mouth as she climbed.
She fished for her key, took a deep breath before she inserted it into the lock and tentatively eased the door slightly ajar. Thankfully, the flat was quiet. Natasha hurriedly carried her luggage through to a small bedroom and closed the door behind her.
Marcus placed the plate, mug and bowl in the small sink before ambling back to the window. His eyes widened fractionally as he steadily became more alert. Another young woman; polished and presented this time, wearing a smart white trouser suit that sang a duet with her cafè-au-lait skin tones, opened the door of a gold BMW that was parked opposite his block. He drank in her long shapely legs and ample bosom as she slid stylishly behind the wheel before gunning the engine and driving away.
Marcus’ mouth hardened at the woman’s competent performance of being drop-dead gorgeous. As his life had shrunk, so had the play of his facial expressions; his feelings now displayed in small contractions of the muscles as if he were economizing and could not afford anything more expansive. It had been a long time since he had experienced such emotions.
When the night drew in and tiredness took over, Marcus switched off the TV and cried himself to sleep.
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The right of Harry James to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
This novel is a work of fiction. All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at school and was intrigued by the main character – Raskolnikov. His irrational belief that he deserved a better lot might have struck a chord; but it was his slow decline that fascinated me.
In Consequences? I hope I have created my own new Raskolnikov with modern day issues.
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Marcus Carpenter lives alone, his life scarred by a bitter divorce. Things change for Marcus when two women enter into his life. One becomes afriend – the other the target of fascination.
When D.I. Claudia St Clair, a black London based detective is given the task of leading a team investigating the murder of two women, she is keen to prove her skills and bring the case to a swift close. However, during the course of the investigation, dark secrets from one of the victim’s past are revealed that take the case in an unexpected direction. Can Claudia and her team solve the seemingly motiveless case?