More than the money, his job gave him an anchor in the grey swell which was his life. The basic routine of getting up, having a shower, making a pot of tea, preparing his daily sandwich lunch while the tea brewed, had been disrupted. His small daily ritual spoiled forever. A ritual he’d performed every day for the last 40 years, apart from a week’s holiday in Scotland in 1987 and a five day stay in hospital 10 years ago. He no longer sat at the table with his tea and newspaper, he no longer completed the daily crossword.
He could hear her upstairs, ‘I prefer a bath if I’m honest,’ she’d said when he asked her why she took so long in the bathroom, ‘I’d rather have coffee if you don’t mind,’ she’d said when he poured her a cup of tea. There was no bread in the bread-bin, no butter in the dish and the only cheese left in the fridge had teeth marks in it as if nibbled by a mouse with dentures. Another day with no packed lunch, but he was sure he’d bought cheese yesterday. He wasn’t really sure of anything these days. Since Meredith, Merry, had moved in. Since Beryl had gone.
She bubbled into the kitchen just as he was pouring coffee into her Minnie Mouse cup and his battered blue mug. Her nose wrinkled.
‘No sugar Bill and it’s a bit strong, remember I said I like my coffee sweet and frothy, a bit like me,’ her laugh bordered on hysteria, grating, insincere. She bustled into the dining room in a cloud of ‘Mon Amour’ and sat at the table.
‘I’ll try and remember.’
He drank his coffee standing by the kitchen sink, if he sat at the dining table she’d bombard him with things he had to do on the way home.
‘See you later’, he called as he left via the back door, he could hear her shouting back but was already down the lane by the time she reached the gate. If she needed anything she would have to go to the shops herself, it was bad enough losing his morning routine without having to respond to her every whim.
As he walked the mile to work, he pondered on the situation. Poor Beryl had gone downhill very fast after a stroke. Meredith was her younger sister, eager to help, desperate to move in so she could minister to Beryl night and day. So she said. In truth he’d cared for Beryl during the night, he was the one who bathed her, combed her silky hair, applied a sliver of frosty pink lipstick in the mornings before he left for work. Meredith, ‘Oh come now Bill you must always call me Merry, all my friends do,’ just about managed to help Beryl with the minestrone soup she insisted on making at lunchtime so there was always a soup stain on the sheet when he came home.
He made his own dinner because by the time he got home Meredith was too exhausted to cook anything. ‘Minestrone soup is my forte Bill and I’ve made enough to last the week.’ He preferred egg and chips which always seemed to annoy her somewhat.
After the funeral, Beryl having slipped into an unexpected coma while he was at work, Meredith said she’d stay with him while he got back on his feet, until he got back into his routine but now she’d become a permanent fixture.
‘What about your job?’ he’d asked her when two months had passed.
‘Well I had to give it up when I became Beryl’s carer didn’t I, but we’ll manage won’t we pet?’
‘You can’t stay here rent free,’ he’d said when the horrific thought of her staying sank in, ‘and what about your flat?’
‘I gave notice on the flat when I moved in here, after all I couldn’t leave you to cope on your own. Beryl would never forgive me, “You’ll look after my Bill won’t you Edith” was almost the last thing she said to me, so obviously she meant me to stay with you. She was always so formal was Beryl, she always called me Edith for some reason, I prefer Merry it’s jollier isn’t it Bill?’
There was no point arguing with her, for some unfathomable reason she’d decided this was her home but any vague efforts to ‘look after him’ were half-hearted at best and non-existent at worse. Five months on and she was thoroughly ensconced in his once immaculate bungalow.
‘Here he is, how’s old Bill?’
It was a standing joke, one or other of them said it every day.
‘Plodding on,’ he replied barely cracking a smile.
He went to his office, restacked the paperwork in his inbox, opened the new mail and sorted it into date order. The first was a request to do a talk to a local youth club so he set it aside to answer later. The second was handwritten on yellow notepaper, embellished with daisies and unicorns. There was no postmark, no address just a few stark words in purple ink.
‘Beware the cuckoo, ask her about Dora Westerall.’
He was tempted to screw it up and bin it but the name Westerall rang a distant alarm bell.
‘You alright mate, you’ve gone very pale. That sister-in-law of yours too hot to handle?’
Another standing joke, they were convinced he was literally making merry with Merry. The thought made him shudder.
‘Can you find the file on the Westerall case Jim?’
‘It’ll be in the archive but I daresay I can. What for?’
‘Oh just had a thought, it’s probably nothing.’
It was a slim folder, Dora Westerall was a local recluse. Her death hadn’t been deemed suspicious but as they’d forced entry there was the inevitable paperwork. He wasn’t involved, two duty coppers and his detective sergeant was enough to wrap it up pretty quick. The top sheet contained the usual name, address, D.O.B, no known relatives etc etc. A brief medical history that said she had a long standing heart complaint, her doctor signed the death certificate accordingly because he’d visited during the week of her death along with her social worker. The second sheet detailed visits by the council after complaints about rats under her shed and a statement from a neighbour that said Mrs Westerall’s social worker had gone above and beyond her job by staying over at night, leaving meals for Dora. Her words were along the lines of ‘I don’t know what old Dora would’ve done without Edith. She especially loved her minestrone soup I’m told.’
He slipped the anonymous letter inside the folder and placed it in his drawer.
‘Think I’m going to knock off a bit early Jim, call me on the mobile if you need me.’
‘An afternoon of delight with Merry? Give her our love.’
The back door was open and he could hear Meredith’s tuneless singing and the unmistakable smell of ‘Mon Amour’ and minestrone soup filled the kitchen. It turned his once cast-iron stomach, he’d never liked minestrone soup but had recently started having it for dinner so he wouldn’t have to cook anything else.
He stood by the door and took in the scene. Her blonde curls, her inappropriate housecoat, her ridiculous fluffy mules, her bottom jiggling to the sound of David Essex coming from the radio. The noxious mix of perfume and soup made him gag but also cleared his mind.
‘Minestrone soup is your forte if I’m not mistaken. Is there anything you want to tell me Edith? Anything to do with Dora Westerall or my lovely Beryl?’
‘It was clearly an accident Bill, she must have slipped on those high heels and pulled that huge pan of soup over. Banged her head hard on the tile floor. Commiserations mate, you’ll have to start looking after yourself now. You know the drill, we’ll soon have this lot cleaned up. Miss Bell from the coroner’s office is satisfied it was an accident so we’ll be out of your way soon.’
Bill stirred the pot and while it brewed he buttered two slices of brown bread, laid a slice of cheese and a slice of ham on top of one piece of bread, carefully lined up the other piece on top and cut the completed sandwich in half, lengthways not corner to corner. He put the sandwich and an apple in his lunch box, poured a cup of tea and sat at the table with his newspaper.
‘Chief Inspector finds horror scene at home,’ Coroner rules accidental death in the case of Meredith Taylor. The Chief Inspector says he is devastated by the sudden and tragic death of his sister-in-law who had become his housekeeper following his wife’s death earlier this year.
He pours a second cup of tea and begins the crossword.
© Nita Lewsey 2019