Vera, Eileen, Eve and Julie at the launch of their book The Guilty Suitcase
in WordPlay, Prospect Street, Caversham
Excerpts from The Guilty Suitcase
Love in an Eggcup
We walked home together. ‘What will your mother say when you tell her?’ said Paul.
‘That I’ve passed with flying colours? I don’t know. I don’t want to go to that boarding school. What will you do?’
‘I shall go. I’d like to get away.’
‘I thought you loved your Mum?’
‘I do, but I don’t like him.’
‘What are flying colours, Paul?’
I went to the grammar school. That year everything changed. My father wasn’t at home. Mummy said he had to go away because of work. When I went to play with other children, their parents would come to the door and tell me to go away; no one could come out to play. Paul was at boarding school.
One day, on the way home from school, a girl came up to me. ‘Your dad’s a gaolbird; he stole money from the bank!’ She pulled my hair and ran away. Now I knew why Mummy cried at night when she thought I was asleep. I didn’t tell her about the girl.
My father came back, thin and grey. We were to move to the Midlands to live with my Grandmother. My toys would go in an auction; there wasn’t room for them in Gran’s house. The doll’s house, the pram, the two Christmas trees and their decorations - all to be sold. I watched sadly as they were put in boxes or lot numbers were tied to them. In the madness of moving, the egg cups disappeared. I couldn’t even say goodbye to Paul.
James Mackenzie was twelve years older than Sarah and she was in love with him. At the start of their three year affair he had extracted a promise from her.
‘If anything happens to me while we are together, you must walk away. Jane does not deserve the anguish it would bring. It is bad enough that I’ve fallen in love with you and this alone has meant a diminution of my attention to her. You do realise that I will never be able to marry you?’ He reiterated, ‘I’ll not leave Jane and the boys. She is a good woman.’
And I am a very bad one, she had acknowledged to herself, but had immediately replied, ‘This is enough.’
At the time, she had laughed, ‘I do think you’re being very melodramatic, darling, I fully intend to stay with you whatever the consequences.’
‘Then we finish this at once.’ She faced him across the bland desert of the hotel bedroom while he outlined to her the possible outcome of their liaison. His low-toned Edinburgh voice was severe and uncompromising, and she already knew enough of him to know that he was immovable. And so she had accepted, although not with good grace.
‘Well, I think you should inspect the ceiling in case of unprecedented falling plaster,’ she had thrown back at him.
He had poured them both a glass of wine, and moving over to her on the bed had said, ‘I really thought that it should be you who would do that. Inspect the ceiling, I mean.’
The launch of The Guilty Suitcase with the Mayor of Reading
Photo courtesy Surrey & Berkshire Media Ltd publishers of Reading Evening Post
She had contemplated throwing a party to celebrate her divorce but when she found the decree absolute on her doormat one evening a few days later, she felt oddly depressed. In any case, who would come? Instead she opened a bottle of wine and sat staring at the document for a long time. She was startled from her reverie by the door bell. And even more surprised to find two police officers outside.
‘Actually, no. I’m using my maiden name now I’m divorced. But how can I help?’
‘May we come in?’
‘Certainly,’ she replied and led the way into the living room.
‘It’s about Mark Hunter, your husband … I mean ex-husband,’ the police constable corrected himself.
‘What’s he been up to now? Dropped dead in the street, I suppose.’
My first recollection of joy was as a small child in Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, one sunny afternoon, picking daisies and putting them in my straw bonnet. Two young Americans in uniform stopped to talk to my grandparents seated on a bench nearby and, before I knew it, they had picked daisies, so many, and made long daisy chains which they put round my neck and that of my grandmother before continuing on their way. To me this was sheer joy, until I reached home and discovered the fresh-faced little daisies had wilted; a lesson to be learned that joy is often short-lived.
In contrast, going to the theatre to see my first performance of a ballet was the next joy. It lasted from the moment we stepped from the car in front of the theatre, my sister in a dusky pink taffeta dress, myself, in pale daffodil, my mother in blue. We climbed the thick-carpeted staircase leading to the seats, already filling with chattering people. Then the hush as the lights dimmed, the orchestra played, the curtain went up and the stage was filled with dancing figures in colourful costumes. The ballet was The Nutcracker and that must have been when I decided that I too wanted to dance.
The only splash of colour on the pale corridor walls were framed prints of the countryside and evenly spaced teak wood doors, each with a single nameplate.
Behind one of these, the sun shone through a high barred window onto a man sitting in a legless, rounded upholstered chair; his thin frame bent beneath hunched shoulders. The hiss of the hydraulic door made him look up and he registered his surroundings: in the ceiling a single, round opaque light, that was never turned out, and cream-cloth walls buttoned at intervals. His eyes searched for the hidden door and, as it opened, a broad figure in a blue striped dress entered carrying a tray. The man drew his legs up under his chin and hugged them with long-boned fingers. He dropped his head so that he didn’t have to look at the giant ant walking towards him, with its smiling black face, spiked dark hair and large, spectacled eyes.
It spoke, ‘Medicine time, John.’
The hypodermic needle pricked his skin and black claws pushed the plunger down and then caressed the hole in his arm with a swab. A black-jointed hairy arm encircled his shoulders, cradled him into its soft belly and a claw brushed the thin grey hair from his forehead. He struggled to free himself from its suffocating warmth, leapt from the chair and scrambled under the plastic framed bed. The door hissed open and closed. He was safe again.