Bertie and the Hairdresser Who Ruled the World (10 page)

BOOK: Bertie and the Hairdresser Who Ruled the World
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Doreen was no fool. Neither did she underestimate Alice's intelligence. ‘Someone's trying to corrupt him.'

‘Yeah, I thought so, too. I don't think they're going to be too happy with him.'

‘Let me guess.'

‘Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds in used twenties. It took me ages to turn all the notes so the queen could look at me while I counted. He wanted to help someone less fortunate than himself. I touched his hand and looked into his eye. He's a very fine, honest, generous, good-hearted man.'

‘Alice, you have to hand the money to the police.'

‘And get arrested on suspicion of theft? Who would feed Agnes?'

‘She's a pigeon. They're not fussy. They've perfected the art of pecking.'

‘No, I'm keeping the money. It was a gift. It'll help my research.' The thought of the Ginger Ninja having access to sizeable funds made Doreen feel more than slightly uncomfortable. Her instability bordered on super-villainy. ‘One thing concerns me, though.'

‘They will target his wife as retribution,' Doreen said.

‘Yes, and her weakness is the parrot.'

‘He's a macaw.'

‘His species is immaterial. Unfortunately, the potential threat to them isn't. You have to help, Gaia, if not out of simple compassion, then because of her heritage.' Alice changed the subject abruptly. ‘How's the girl coping?'

Doreen glanced at Maggie, concerned that Alice's mind was doing that darting around thing again. It wasn't a good omen. ‘She's not as focused as you are.'

‘Give her time. She has the gift. I know she doesn't like to go up to the Hall, but see if she can help. Meanwhile, I will try to keep Timbrill under observation whenever he's in London, but my feet aren't so good nowadays. Thank heavens he's a man of disturbingly regular habits so I don't have to walk very far to find him.'

‘You don't have to do this.'

‘I'm still a Sister, Gaia. I have my duty.'

‘Alice, please come home,' pleaded Doreen softly. ‘We all miss you so much.'

There was a long silence. ‘I can't, Doreen. I just – can't,' she whispered, voice wavering. ‘Please, don't ask …'

The phone went dead.

Doreen slipped the receiver back on its cradle and stared at Sandra. ‘Someone's attempted to corrupt James Timbrill.' She recounted the conversation in full. Sandra and Maggie listened intently.

‘Alice won't return, then?'

‘No. She doesn't think she needs any help.'

‘How did she sound?'

‘Tired. Thankfully, not so crazy.'

‘We could find her, you know. If she's tailing Timbrill, we could do the same. Our paths are bound to cross.'

‘And then what? Forcibly detain her? There's no easy answer. I'm just glad she's still alive. That's the first word from her in nearly three years.' Doreen looked at Maggie. ‘What do you think, Mags?'

‘She's right. We must to go to Temple Hall,' said Maggie. ‘The Ninja always disturbs me. I need to take a look, see if anything comes to me.' A young woman in her early twenties, Maggie was slight of build, with spiked pink hair and a nostril stud. She wore dark eyeshadow to give a little depth to her wan face. Punk still ruled in Chipping Sodbury, even though it had swept through the rest of the country decades ago. It was the sort of place that set its own trends.

Despite her apparent lowly position at the salon, Maggie was a critical figure in the Sisterhood. She was Doreen's Pythia, her priestess and oracle, a position previously held by Alice until her breakdown. Because of this, Maggie had been thrust into the position prematurely, and openly acknowledged she was unprepared, but the Sisterhood had never been without an oracle and Doreen needed guidance. She felt a great deal of sympathy for her predecessor and was very conscious of the psychological pressures, but Alice was by far a more capable psychic – and therefore more susceptible to instability.

Helen herself had lived in an age where much store was laid on the mystical power of the Gods and the complex relationships between themselves and mankind. Oracles were valued above kings, so she naturally wanted to ensure the newly-formed Sisterhood was well provisioned in that direction. The inclusion of a Pythia at the heart of the Sisterhood had become an unshakeable tradition over the centuries and to simply discard such a tradition for the mere sake of modernity was unthinkable, even though today's society now almost totally rejected the unscientific notion of prophesy as hippy-dippy, a bit suspect, even a complete load of old mumbo-jumbo. Can't get an app, you see.

But for all that, it still worked.

The following morning found them driving slowly through the Cotswold village of Temple Guiting. Maggie peered out of the window. ‘I see Mrs Jenkins has castrated her laburnum again,' she said absently. ‘The poor thing's sure to die now.'

‘Still hacking off the good growth and leaving the canker?'

‘Uh-huh. It'll be down this winter or I'm Carmen Miranda.'

‘She'll be upset,' said Doreen, craning her neck as they passed the doomed tree. Or large stick, to be more accurate. ‘But I'd like to see you with a fruit bowl on your head,' she added. ‘Very healthy.'

‘You can wear your five a day,' observed Sandra. The lane twisted past the last few straggling cottages and just beyond the edge of the village they turned into the grounds of Temple Hall, gliding between stone pillars topped with statuesque stag heads, their age-old foreheads pocked and stained. A single-track gravel driveway meandered around several stately beeches before nuzzling up to the front of the old house. The car scrunched to a halt and they got out.

Temple Hall was, quite simply, breathtaking. The beautiful Cotswold limestone, once fresh and golden, had mellowed into a soft misty grey. The Hall sprawled comfortably like a corpulent elderly aunt after a heavy lunch. Its gables were tall, its roof a lichen-spotted expanse of stone slates sweeping up to the gently undulating ridge. Mullioned windows peppered the walls, peeping out from behind a rampant honeysuckle that looped and trailed around and over the central entrance porch. Inquisitive green shoots fingered upwards on a leisurely exploration towards the first floor bedrooms, laden with scented clusters of cream and yellow flowers, while ‘S' braces of black iron corseted the old building, firming it up, countering the spreading forces of gravity which had tugged steadily at it for half a millennium.

The Hall stood in extensive grounds with formal gardens wrapping around the building like a colourful petticoat of shrubs and flowers. Neat, undulating, tree-dotted parkland radiated out beyond, seeping into the surrounding countryside. To one side, behind a high wall dripping in red and yellow climbing roses, the vegetable garden had provided generations of Sisters with carrots and onions, cauliflower and sprouts, potatoes and cabbages, broccoli, beetroot and beans of broad, runner, kidney and French extraction. This sumptuous produce was renowned locally and had been a staple at the village fete WI stall for as long as could be remembered. Doreen was looking forward to her lunch. She turned away to gaze down the shallow valley towards the village nearby. Temple Guiting was little more than a hamlet nestling in a fold of soft green hills, the fields jigsawed by dry stone walls. The tower of St Mary's could be seen rising above a stand of beech off to the left. Sunlight glinted on the ponds.

An aura of peace enveloped them all. There was no sound but that of sparrows arguing noisily on the roof and the muted buzz of bees busily visiting the honeysuckle, labouring from flower to flower in a determined quest for nectar, their legs clad in oversized pollen jodhpurs. The windless morning was warm and sunny, with just a few fluffy white clouds floating serenely overhead like cotton buds scattered carelessly on a blue table. All was tranquil and timeless on this lazy early summer's morning, the quintessential English landscape, forever calm, forever dreaming.

It was, truly, lovely beyond description.

Maggie closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. ‘I adore the smell of this place,' she said softly. Doreen nodded in agreement. The Hall had been the home of the Sisterhood for centuries. There was something very special about the house and the astonishing secret it concealed. She looked up to where the land rose behind the roof in a low hill, a gentle dome covered in short grass, its rounded summit just visible between the ornate Elizabethan chimneys. A few unfeasibly woolly sheep grazed with the lethargic indifference for which their species was noted. As always, she smiled. Such secrets indeed!

‘Come on, girls, let's have a cup of tea with Jenny before we get going,' she said, entering the porch in a scented swirl of sweet honeysuckle. Maggie was right, the place smelt divine, a mixture of heady perfumes, waxed wood and distant cooking. The entrance hall was impressive, as befitted such a grand residence, with a galleried balcony leading off to the first floor bedrooms. Light streamed in through the leaded windows to splash diamond patterns on the old oak floors. Portraits lined the panelled walls. An observant guest would have noted they were all paintings of women. Some were grand indeed: a Reynolds here, a Gainsborough there, a dreamy Fragonard between the windows, and above the ornate fireplace, dominating the entire room, an extraordinary, vibrant, brooding portrait of Helen of Troy by Sir Frederick Sandys.

A woman was waiting for them. ‘Welcome, Gaia,' she said with a warm smile, kissing the back of Doreen's hand and each cheek. She was in her late twenties, willowy and slender, fresh-faced, with a tanned and healthy complexion, huge, luminously brown eyes and a dainty snubbed nose. Long, wavy, wheaten hair tumbled to the small of her back. She wore a simple white cotton dress, sleeveless, unbuttoned at the front to display a shallow cleavage and decorated with embroidered swirls around the open neckline. A polished black stone hung on a leather thong around her throat. She would have looked the epitome of sophisticated elegance but for the clumpy pink, purple and lime green floral wellington boots and supple leather utility belt slung low around her hips, its pockets and pouches stuffed with gardening tools, balls of twine and assorted horticultural paraphernalia.

‘Hi, Jenny. Been rooting around the veggies again?'

‘Of course. You don't think they grow that big without help, do you? Hello, Sandra. Had any cock recently?'

‘Jenny Clarke, the state of my sex life is not on today's agenda,' observed Sandra with a sniff.

‘So no change there, then,' sniggered Jenny. ‘Have you thought about trying a girl? Might have more luck.'

‘Men may be idiots, but women are completely insane,' Sandra declared irritably, unappreciative of Jenny's radical suggestion. ‘I think I'll stick with the idiots.'

‘Hi, Jen,' said Maggie, hugging her friend briefly. ‘Leave her be. She'll never bat for the other side. Take it from me.'

They walked through to the kitchen. ‘Right, let's get the important things out of the way first,' said Doreen ‘What's for lunch?'

‘I've some broccoli and roasted almond soup on the go with fresh crusty bread.'

‘Sounds great. I'm going to need some feeding.' Maggie's occasional sojourns into the mystical realm always left her feeling peckish, particularly since she never ate beforehand, to intensify the effect of the experience.

‘Time for tea first?'

‘Of course,' said Doreen firmly. ‘Is the Oracle prepared?'

‘We always keep it ready, Gaia, you know that. A new batch of branches arrived last week.'

‘Good. It's a bit quiet around here. Where's the rest of the gang?'

‘Downstairs – where else?'

‘No need to disturb them for the moment. You know how engrossed they get. They'll be up for lunch.'

‘They will,' agreed Jenny. ‘Are you staying all day, Gaia, or do you need to get back?'

‘We'll see how it goes. Sophie and Bex are covering the salon.'

‘I'm doing sea bass and roasting some vegetables fresh from the garden for supper, if that'll help make up your mind.'

‘Tempting. I suppose I could spare the time. I'll call Bernie and let him know.'

‘Grand. That'll be all six of us!' Jenny loved her cooking.

Opulent sixteenth-century country residences were invariably provided with extensive kitchens, and Temple Hall was no exception. The high-ceilinged room was long and filled with sunlight which fell in through tall, curtained windows. A massive fireplace filled the end wall, with iron-fronted ovens of varying sizes and complexity arranged on either side of the hearth. Copper-bottomed saucepans hung from thick bars set above the huge grate, but these were now more for show than practical use. Jenny preferred to cook on a modern six-burner gas range which stood incongruously amongst the old-fashioned oak kitchen cupboards, their blue slate work surfaces polished smooth from decades of scrubbing. She washed her hands in a gigantic granite sink inscribed in Latin around the rim and put the kettle on the range, her wellies scuffing against the stone-flagged floor as she shuffled around the large oak dining table that dominated the room. It was a substantial piece of furniture, plain and unadorned, with six sturdy legs and an accompanying harem of simple, spindled chairs.

Sandra sat while Maggie and Doreen inspected the pantries, poking, prodding, sniffing. She always sat in the same place, towards one end of the table. In front of her, the smooth surface was interrupted by a curiously lopsided diamond recess cut into the wood. An insert of red mahogany filled this shallow recess like a misshapen domino slotting into a hole. Sandra reached across the table and, pressing on one end, tipped it slightly, enabling her to lift the insert out of its snug home. She toyed with the flat diamond absently, turning it over and over before putting it back in place. The carpenter who had constructed the table had removed a disfiguring knot from the oak plank and shaped the insert to fit the resulting hole, a neat trick which preserved its flush surface. The imperfection had always fascinated Sandra. Maggie nudged Doreen and nodded over her shoulder. ‘She's at it again,' she whispered. ‘What is it with that piece of wood?'

BOOK: Bertie and the Hairdresser Who Ruled the World
8.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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