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Authors: Clare Curzon

A Meeting of Minds

BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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Costa del Silencio, Tenerife, August 20
The boy in the frayed straw hat reeled in, detached the flapping fish from his hook and inspected the prize. It wasn't unlike one of those displayed last night at the restaurant at Los Abrigos. But smaller, of course. Anyway a catch.
He threw it behind him on to seaweed where it continued its desperate contortions. Sickened, he reached back and struck it with a rock. It lay instantly still, spoilt now. The boy grimaced. He lifted it by the tail and threw it back in the waves.
Hunched, he sat brooding over the sea's reflected glare. His lips tasted of salt, his shoulders were beginning to peel. He'd forgotten the barrier cream.
He un-stoppered a plastic bottle of water, warm to his hand, and drank, then let the liquid trickle down his face, splash on to his naked chest. God, it was hot. Why must Marty pick on August to dump him on the Canaries?
Although he hadn't so much picked as been picked. It was for a job, and jobs meant bread. They kept him and in circumstances to which he'd always intended to become accustomed. Marty went where he had to go, but chose when the opposition was most vulnerable. He, Neil, was the little woman left behind, this time having to pretend, for other eyes, that a stomach upset had prevented his sailing too.
It was six days since
had puttered single-handed out of Puerto Colon on its Volvo pentas, ostensibly on a tour of the islands, to fetch up at Lanzarote. The weather had stayed calm. By now Marty would have reached Agadir, trekked inland towards Marrakesh and located the isolated Moroccan farm.
That was the point where things could go bottom-up. If
they did he'd never learn how it happened, or why. There'd be an unendurable wait, then notification from the harbourmaster at Agadir of an abandoned twenty-seven-footer registered to a marine hire firm in Tenerife. By then Neil Raynes would have scarpered to the UK and a new address. And an unfaceable future.
Damn him, why couldn't Marty do a nine-to five job like anybody else – sell expensive cars like he pretended to, or get his highs on some trading floor in the City? If he must chase risks, why sail single-handed, refuse back-up?
The boy – twenty, but looking like a young Tom Sawyer in the frayed trousers and battered straw hat – collected his fishing things, slung the empty water bottle in the sea and picked his way, barefoot, back over the rocks. A golf buggy wheezed past as he climbed over the barrier to the cinder path. He slid his sandals on to trudge uphill towards the hired apartment in the row of villas that faced the tenth hole.
Cinders pricked between his toes. When he was little they used to scatter the stuff to stop him sliding on ice. Here it was the natural surface of the south end of this volcanic island, coming in all sorts of weird shapes and chemical colours. Walking on it was like crunching over a vast furnace floor. Except, of course, for the cactus flowers and butterflies.
He dumped his line, box of bait and empty creel on the doorstep and continued up towards the clubhouse for the mail, stopping off at the mini-market for more bananas and coffee. Pointless stocking up until Marty got back. It was too hot to cook, or to eat.
The dark little shop, stinking of overripe pineapples and melons, was full of ghastly English parents being pestered by kids for ices. He shouldered his way through to pick up a hand of green bananas. He'd learnt already that if you bought them yellow they'd be black next day. There was a banana tree in their diminutive garden but it hadn't picked up the idea of fruiting. Wrong sex, he supposed: the sort of balls-up that could happen to anyone.
He tucked a packet of ground coffee under one arm and doled out the despised euros. Then he padded into the clubhouse and peered into their mailbox.
There was a thick, official-looking envelope with Isle of Man stamps. His heart lurched as he recognised the name of Marty's solicitor printed on the reverse. But the letter was addressed to himself.
God, what now? Was this the final pay-off? Had something really dire happened this time? Marty taken a risk too many?
He carried it unopened back to the apartment, stood shakily on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor and steeled himself to face the worst.
Unbelievable! Nothing of any importance. A few clippings from estate agents' catalogues, and a covering letter informing him that owing to a withdrawn offer it was now possible to acquire the desired first floor apartment at Ashbourne House, near Mardham, South Bucks. Would Mr Neil Raynes, as representative for Mr Martin Chisholm, authorise a bid for the said property up to the value previously agreed?
Better than that, Neil decided. He should have a firm commitment faxed from the hotel in Los Cristianos where the young duty manager was open to financial persuasion. The signature would appear to be Marty's, admirably forged after long and meticulous practice (as also by previous agreement.)
He was glad of the chance for positive action, however minor. His part in the project to date had been totally negative: not stepping out of line; not getting drunk or stoned, not laid locally or depressed. That last was the really dodgy bit, and would be until news came through.
Ten days later there was a fax waiting for him at the clubhouse: ‘A great journey. See you soon. Hope you're feeling fitter.'
The message started with A, which was code for Albufeira in the Algarve. So Marty had pulled it off, got away unscathed, and was anchored off the south coast of Portugal. (Omit the
indefinite article, and
Great journey
would have meant Gibraltar. V
– ‘Very good crossing' –
was to indicate Valencia. The simplest codes are the safest.)
Now Neil had to phone a number in England, advise that the flight tickets to Faro were the ones to use. Marty would meet the client there, hand over the goods and be free to sail back.
Relief flooded Neil. A day or two more, then he could pick up where they'd left off. He unlocked the apartment safe and removed the spare photograph of a heavily bearded Marty, as shown in his fake Egyptian passport.
Over the kitchen sink he set light to the photograph and watched it curl to fall in ashes, which he swilled away.
Another venture accomplished. By the weekend
would have eased back into its mooring at Puerto Colon with Marty on board, clean-shaven and once more a British subject. With a satisfyingly swelled bank balance waiting for him back home.
Four weeks earlier
Plump, sixtyish and cheerfully flaunting garishly hennaed curls, Beattie Weyman was riding cloud nine. She had never bought anything so enormous, so enrapturing, in her life. Never had the money to do it, of course.
The other house, three-storeyed and wedged into a modest Victorian terrace, was constructed round a windowless stairwell which amplified sounds and smells from her lodgers' illicit fry-ups and after-hours partying. Buying the property on retirement seven years back had celebrated her lump-sum pension pay-out. That purchase had been in recognition of achievement. This new project was thanks only to a twist of fate.
It meant going upmarket; and she'd reached the time of life when acting out of character, being frankly eccentric, pepped one up with an illusion of youthful dash. The fun of
crowned it: it was heady, looking forward when you'd grown accustomed to looking back and thinking, ‘life's not been all that bad, but if only …'
So however often the builder – chummily she called him Bob – said, ‘Leave it all to me, hinny. I know what I'm doing,' she'd had to be in there with him, encouraging, suggesting, checking, commenting, at every stage of the conversion into seven flats.
At an early point on a glorious Tuesday in July, observing Ashbourne House from the gravel driveway, their interest had switched from the near completion of its interior to centre on the elegant front balcony.
‘With separate apartments,' “Bob” reminded her, ‘you gotta consider privacy. So I'll hafta put a screen between the owners' walkways out there.'
‘I'm not daft,' she told him. ‘Course there ‘as to be a screen. But your plan ‘as it plonked dead centre.'
‘For balance; he explained, weighing a weathered, upturned palm to either side of his shirt's straining buttons. ‘This here house is Regency, symmetrical. So the partition goes right over the front entrance. I'll see it's not obtrusive.'
‘But you know we've made those front-facing upstairs flats different. That one – ' and a plump index finger stabbed towards the left – ‘extends over part of the ‘all. Think of its size. The way you've shown it, ‘er right-hand window could be overlooked from'er neighbours' balcony.'
‘Bob' (real name Frank Perrin) considered. ‘See what you mean, hinny. But if I shift the divider along it'd look cockeyed from out here. Spoil the front elevation, like.'
‘Nuh. The folks I'm selling to aren't going to spend all their time out ‘ere looking up. They'll be inside,
it up. ‘Ow's she to ‘ave any privacy if the new people can walk past and peer in any time it suits them?'
Beattie had made her point. They then agreed on a wrought-iron arabesque screen because solid walls belonged to the tower-block tenements of their separate child-hoods, which both had firmly shucked off.
‘Come in ‘n ‘ave a cuppa,' Beattie invited, to celebrate her fresh victory.
Frank grinned at the cheery little body topped with a fuzz of hair which a Japanese Koi carp might have been colour-matched to. She caught the direction of his eyes and patted it proudly. ‘All me own, and nacheral too,' she boasted. ‘The curls, anyways.' She chuckled, her heaving shoulders bouncing ample breasts in a way that raised his hopes of loose-sewn buttons.
Munching his lunchtime cheese and pickle sandwich in his pick-up cab later, Frank Perrin considered what Beattie had let slip. Jobwise he'd known the old girl for quite a number of years, and they'd gossiped enough for him to guess that they'd had much the same kind of early life, she born into
London's war-shattered East End; he from a part of Tyneside which slum-clearance had relegated to history in the seventies. Both had risen through hard work and a refusal to be put down. Frank, having relocated south to catch the boom-years' redevelopment, now ran his own reputable firm with fifteen skilled workers to call on. Beattie, starting out as assistant dresser to the showgirls of the old Windmill Theatre, had scraped to save for a college course and qualified as a beauty consultant. Ability and a bouncy personality had finally found her managing the toning and cosmetic department of an Oxford Street store.
All the same, Frank knew, however successful a career, it didn't account for setting her sights on Ashbourne House. That had to be thanks to her recently deceased, childless sister who had emigrated to South Africa, twice married money there and twice been blessedly widowed.
With the sceptical outlook of a confirmed bachelor, Frank guessed that, for all the implied luxury, that too might have involved the poor cow in a lifetime of hard labour. He'd worked enough for the rich, had an eyeful of life behind the scenes. Nobody, he knew, got anything for nothing.
What tickled his curiosity now was Beattie's use of the word ‘she' as purchaser of the larger flat; still just two bedrooms, but easily the most roomy of the seven apartments. It hadn't been ‘they', which you might expect. And the other upstairs front apartment, although with a less spacious reception area, was to have multiple residents. ‘They' mustn't be allowed to peer through ‘her' windows. Which reminded him to reach across for the copy of his plans and pencil in the alteration to the balcony partition, three of the long French windows being ‘hers'; two for the ‘new people'. He sketched in the exterior detail to match the interior conversion.
The apartment Beattie had retained for herself was on the ground floor, a compact unit of three medium-sized, square rooms plus kitchen and bathroom, towards the rear on the east side. ‘I don't want it fancy, but I must ‘ave the sunrise to
shoot me out of bed ev‘ry morning,' she'd explained. Having a fondness for the old girl, he'd taken care to ensure that everything built into that unit was of the best quality obtainable.
The west side had a corresponding set of rooms, and the ground floor front contained two smaller apartments, one to either side of the house's original hall. The seventh flat ran across the rear upstairs. While the two front ones used the hall's grand staircase, No. 7 had access by the back door and the onetime servants' stairs.
Two days later the ‘new people' for the front-east upstairs flat arrived to view progress while Frank was on site. They slid noiselessly up in a silver Alfa Romeo; two well-built, fleshy blondes, obviously mother and daughter, Mrs and Miss Winter. The older, shorter one was a right royal Queen Mum; the daughter handsome and pleasant enough but, to Frank's mind, somewhat subdued.
The plasterer was just finishing inside, so they discussed colour schemes. Mother hankered after lilacs and pinks with brocade-patterned wallpaper. The daughter preferred ivory shades and vinyl matt paint. ‘Still, you'll be spending more time at home than I shall, Mother,' she conceded, ‘so choose what you like, except for my bedroom and office.'
Assured of that crucial concession Mother waved away consideration of the balcony. She viewed the newly fixed screen with little interest. Her suggestion was offhand: ‘You could grow a vine or something up it. That fancy clematis you go in for.'
‘Right.' But Daughter already knew what she wanted. ‘Fit a mirror on our side,' she commanded Frank, as she saw her mother into the car. ‘Get good quality hardened glass, and I'll add a
trompe l'oeil
archway. The reflection will extend the effect of the verandah.' She paused. ‘And I'll need to know what weight it can take. For plant tubs and so on.'
‘Right,' he said, stolidly, in his turn. So much for frontal
symmetry. It seemed this lot was aiming for a Chelsea Flower Show. He wondered what ‘she'on the far side of the mirror would do to retaliate. Be a bit of a joke if he put in a two-way mirror like they had down the cop-shop for identity parades. Nice idea, but Beattie wouldn't be on for it, and he couldn't risk upsetting a good customer.
He'd had bother enough from the single chap in the ground floor rear apartment on the west side. With a Fort Knox fixation about security, this Mr Paul Wormsley had ordered Spanish wrought-iron grilles fitted over lockable casements which opened inwards. Beattie had agreed, since those windows weren't visible from the road, and such extras would be at Wormsley's expense. He'd also ordered electronic surveillance covering the rear. Less a home than a fortress, in Frank's opinion.
Central to the ground floor was the huge, two-storied entrance hall, with its galleried grand staircase, behind which a modern laundry and utility room was now discreetly housed, replacing the original domestic offices. All apartments had separately-fired gas central heating.
Frank had yet to meet most purchasers. Which reminded him: he'd need a list of all their names from Beattie before Charlie, his electrics man, completed the phone-entry and doorbell system. He waved a hand at the ladies leaving.
Pulling away, Sheila Winter had clipped on her seat-belt, checked the rear-view mirror, switched on and put the car into gear. It would have to be the van next time. There'd be stuff to bring back: plants for the balcony and something easy-care for Mother's room.
Mother, she thought, and a shadow stirred in her mind. How long must it last, her zigzag, but inevitable, slide into premature senility? She was only just over menopause.
Her mood changes were painful to endure. Sheila was aware, in theory, of the clinical symptoms of dementia, but unsure each time whether she recognised the stages in real life. One moment it seemed certain, but Vanessa was such an
actress. The gushes of enthusiasm and the plunging despair might not actually be her, but some leftover memory of roles she'd once played. At times her mind drifted off entirely. Then, next moment, she came out with some shrewdness that made you wonder just how disturbed her sense of reality was. Of course her drinking didn't help. If only there were some reliable way of controlling her intake.
Sheila resented being forced into spying and recording, but for safety's sake someone must remain wary. It fell to her because there was nobody else: a frightful responsibility here at home when at work the new project was just taking off and needed her full-time attention.
Hang on a little longer, she told herself (or telepathically commanded her mother). At some later stage – but when exactly? – she would have to advertise for a full-time carer. A clinical gaoler.
At least out here Mother would be less a prey to danger. She'd never cared for the country, so was more likely to stay indoors and play at housekeeping with the new apartment. Thank God they'd managed to off-load that great house in Putney. Its removal had cut down the chaos and, she hoped, brought Mother closer under control.
Chaos: her mind nudged her with the word. Yes, there was that at work too, but only of the manageable, practical sort. She switched into business mode and settled more firmly in her seat, preparing to deal with the CCTV people about the garden centre's security system.
In a rear seat Vanessa (or April, as she sometimes liked to call herself) complained, ‘That's a very common old woman we've bought the place from. I hope you've checked that there's nothing dubious about the purchase.'
‘I had our solicitor look into her, Mother. She bought the house with money inherited from family.' She watched in the rear-view mirror how Vanessa appeared either not to hear, or chose to ignore, her words.
She sighed. It was as well Mother had made that remark
because for a moment she'd almost forgotten she had her there in the back seat. She'd heard that sometimes when you live with one you can get to be the same. If she didn't pull herself together people might wonder which of them it was whose mind was adrift.
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
7.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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