Read Wexford 4 - The Best Man To Die Online
Authors: Ruth Rendell
Jack Pertwee was getting married in the morning and the Kingsmarkham and District Darts Club were in the Dragon to give him what George Carter called a send-off.
‘I don’t like the sound of that, George,’ said Jack. ‘I’m getting married, not buried.’
‘It comes to the same thing.’
‘Thanks very much. I’ll buy you another drink for that.’ He moved up to the bar but the darts club chairman intercepted him.
‘My round, Jack. Don’t you take any notice of George. Marilyn’s a lovely girl and you’re a lucky man. I know I speak for us all when I say there’s no one here who wouldn’t like to be in your shoes tomorrow.’
‘His pyjamas more like,’ said George. ‘You ought to see them. Black nylon they are with a karate top. Cor!’
‘Keep the party clean, George.’
‘What’s it to be then, gentlemen?’ said the barman patiently. ‘Same again?’
‘Same again, Bill, and have one yourself. No, Jack, man is a monogamous animal and there’s no partnership on earth to touch a happy marriage. Especially when you’re starting off on the right foot like you and Marilyn. Bit of money in the Post Office, nice little flat and nothing to reproach yourselves with.’
‘You reckon?’ Jack was in a hurry to gloss over that right foot and reproaching stuff. The chairman’s homily called to mind the short - but too long - talk he and Marilyn had suffered two days before in the vicar’s study. He downed his beer, looking around him uncomfortably.
‘The first ten years are the worst,’ he heard someone say, and he turned, suddenly nettled. ‘Well, damn it,’ he said, ‘you are a bloody cheerful mob. I notice it’s the bachelors who don’t have a good word to say for marriage.’
‘That’s right,’ the chairman concurred. ‘Pity there aren’t a few more husbands to back me up, eh, Jack? Charlie Hatton now. There’s an ux-ux-what’s the word I want?’
‘Don’t ask me. What the hell does it matter, anyway? You and your words. This is supposed to be a stag party, not an annual general meeting. What we need is someone to liven things up.’
‘Like Charlie. Where d’you reckon he’s got to?’
‘He said he’d be late. He’s bringing the lorry down from Leeds.’
‘Maybe he’s gone home first.’
‘He wouldn’t do that. The last thing he said to me on Wednesday, “Jack”, he said, “I’ll get along to your rave-up on Friday even if I have to knock the guts out of her. I’ve told Lilian to expect me when she sees me”. No, he’ll come here first all right.’
‘I hope nothing’s happened to him, that’s all.’
‘Well, he’s had that lorry hi-jacked twice, hasn’t he?’
‘Bloody old woman you are, George,’ said Jack, but he too had begun to feel uneasy. It was nine-thirty, only an hour to go before the Dragon closed. Charlie was going to be his best man. Marvellous wedding he’d have if they found his best man at midnight somewhere in the Midlands with his head bashed in.
‘Drink up,’ said the darts club wit, ‘and I’ll tell you the one about the girl who married the sailor.’
‘I’ve heard it,’ Jack said dolefully.
‘Not this one you haven’t. Same again, please, Bill. There was this girl, you see, and the night before she got married her mother said, “Now whatever you do, don’t let him. . .”’
‘Hold your horses, mate. Here’s Charlie now.’
They were all big men, topping six feet, but Charlie Hatton was a little fellow with a brown face and very brilliant sharp eyes. They flashed quickly and calculatingly over the assembled company before Charlie smiled. He showed a set of perfect white teeth which no one there but Jack knew were false. Charlie was sensitive about having false teeth at thirty - why hadn’t all that wartime milk and orange juice set him up for life as it had his contemporaries? - but he didn’t mind Jack knowing. He didn’t mind what Jack knew about him, within reason, that is, although he had ceased to confide in him as absolutely as he had in the days when they had passed through Kingsmarkham Primary School together. They were friends. In another age and another society it might have been said that they loved each other. They were as David and Jonathan, but if anyone had hinted such Jack would have poked him on the nose, and as for Charlie. . . The drinkers in the Dragon all privately and rather proudly believed that Charlie was capable of anything.
Marilyn Thompson was Charlie’s wife’s best friend; Charlie was going to be Jack’s best man and one day he thought he would be godfather to Jack’s first child. Many a time they had drunk thus together, as boys, as youths, as men, and come out under the same starlit sky to walk beside each other up the familiar High Street where every house was a landmark and every face part of a shared history. There might have been no one else in the pub tonight but the two of them. The others were but background and audience. Jack was passing through a door tonight, dying a little and as always Charlie would die with him too.
If these emotions stirred under the stubbly balding crown, Charlie showed none of them. His grin wide, he slapped Jack on the back and peered six inches up into the bridegroom’s handsome red face.
‘I made it then, me old mate. My brother Jonathan, very pleasant hast thou been unto me; thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. . .’
‘I reckoned you would,’ said Jack and his heart was filled with joy. ‘I’d have had it in properly for you if you hadn’t. What’re you going to have?’
‘Not that gnat’s piss, for a start. Eleven bloody hours I’ve driven today. You’re a mean devil if you can’t run to scotch, Jack.’
‘Give me a chance, I . . .’
‘Put it away. It’s only my fun, you know me. Seven doubles, Bill, and you needn’t look like that. No wonder they reckon the beer’s on the turn in here. I’ve taken the lorry back to the depot and I’m walking home if that’s what’s worrying you. Happy days, Jack, and may all your troubles be little ones!’
Charlie had opened his wallet with a flourish, taking care that its contents were visible to all the patrons of the bar. His pay packet was there unopened and he didn’t open it now, but paid for his round from a wad of notes held together with an elastic band. It was a thick wad and although most of the notes were green, some were blue.
‘How the rich live,’ said George Carter.
‘You want to make something of it, do you?’
‘No need to get touchy with me, mate. I must want my head tested sorting mail all day when I could be picking up wads of it on the lorries.’
‘You ought to know. It’s your bloody head. Take it along to a trick cyclist if it bothers you.’
‘Break it up,’ said the club wit. ‘I was just telling you about this girl and what her mother said on the night before she got married to the sailor.’
‘Who got married?’ said Charlie. ‘Her mother? Bit late in the day for that, wasn’t it? O.K., mate, it’s only my fun, but Jack and me heard that one our last term at school. And the sailor said, “Have it your own way but if we don’t we’ll never have kids”. Right? That the pay-off?’
‘Thank you and good night.’
‘Don’t be like that,’ said Jack. Charlie had a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way. Funny he never fell foul of him. ‘My round, I think.’
‘Can’t have that, Jack. Seven more doubles, Bill. Jack, I said put it away. I can afford it. There’s plenty more where that came from. I come in late, didn’t I, so I’ve got lee-way to make up?’
‘No more for me,’ said the man whose joke Charlie had spoiled. He patted Jack’s shoulder and said good night while the others drank their whisky in an awkward silence.
‘Last orders, gentlemen, please,’ said the barman.
George Carter dipped his hand into his pocket and brought out some small silver. ‘One for the road then, Jack?’
Charlie looked at the little coins. “What’s that? Your missus’s housekeeping?’
George flushed. He wasn’t married; Charlie knew he wasn’t married; knew moreover that his steady had chucked him two weeks before. George had got the deposit ready for a house and made the first down payment on a dining suite. ‘You bastard,’ he said.
Charlie bristled at him, a smart little fighting cock.
‘Nobody calls me a bastard.’
‘Gentlemen, gentlemen,’ said the barman.
‘Yes,’ said the chairman, ‘pack it in. Talk about folks being touchy, Charlie. No wonder they’re touchy when you pick on them the way you do.’ He smiled breezily, struck an orator’s attitude. ‘Now the evening’s drawing to a close, and I reckon we ought to take the opportunity of conveying to Jack here the heartiest good wishes of the Kingsmarkham and District Darts Club. I for one . . .’
‘We’ll take it as said then, shall we?’ said Charlie. ‘A hearty vote of thanks for the chairman.’ He put another flyer on the counter. As red as George had been, the chairman shrugged and gave Jack a nod which was meaningful and sympathetic but which Jack ignored. Then he went, taking another man with him.
The barman wiped the counter in silence. Charlie Hatton had always been cocky but in the past weeks he’d become insufferable and most of the meetings had broken up like this.
Of the stag party now only Jack, Charlie, George and one other remained. He was a lorry driver like Charlie, his name was Maurice Cullam and until now he had scarcely opened his mouth except to pour alcohol down it. Now, having witnessed the rout and ignominy of his friends, he took his last drink and said:
‘Been seeing much of McCloy lately, Charlie?’
Charlie made no reply and it was Jack who said, ‘Why, have you?’
‘Not me, Jack. I keep my hands clean. Money’s not every thing. I like to sleep quiet in my bed.’
Instead of the expected explosion, Charlie said softly and mildly, ‘Time you did. Time you slept for a change.’
Maurice had five children born in six years. Charlie’s crack could be taken as a compliment and as such, to the relief of George and Jack, Maurice took it. He smiled sheepishly at this tribute to his virility. Considering Maurice’s wife was an exceptionally plain woman, there were a good many ripostes Charlie could have made, ripostes which might have been transparently insulting. Instead he had chosen to flatter.
‘Time, gentlemen,’ said the barman. ‘Here’s wishing you all you wish yourself, Mr Pertwee.’ The barman usually called Jack by his Christian name and Jack knew “Mr Pertwee” was a mark never to be repeated, of the respect due to a bridegroom.
‘Thanks a lot,’ he said, ‘and for a grand evening. I’ll be seeing you.’
‘Let’s be toddling, Jack,’ said Charlie, and he tucked his fat wallet away.
The air was soft and mild and the sky scattered with many stars. Orion rode above them, his belt crossed by a wrack of midsummer cloud.
‘Lovely night,’ said Charlie. ‘Going to be a fine day tomorrow, Jack.’
‘Happy is the bride that the sun shines on.’ Drink had made George sentimental and he turned his mouth down lugubriously as he remembered his steady and the down payment on the furniture.
‘You have a good cry, mate,’ said Charlie. ‘Nothing like a bit of a weep to make a girl feel better.’
George led the Kingsmarkham group of Morris dancers and in the past Charlie had fripped him when he appeared in his motley suit, his cap and bells. He bit his lip, clenching his fists. Then he shrugged and turned away. ‘Get stuffed,’ he muttered. The others watched him cross the road and make his unsteady way down York Street. Jack raised one hand in a feeble salute.
‘You shouldn’t have said that, Charlie.’
‘Ah, he makes me sick. Let’s have a bit of a sing-song then, shall we?’ He put one arm around Jack’s waist and the other, after a barely discernible pause, around Maurice’s.
‘One of them old music-hall ballads of yours, Charlie.’
They meandered along under the old overhanging house fronts and Jack had to duck his head to avoid cracking it on a lamp in an iron cage. Charlie cleared his throat and sang:
‘Mabel dear, listen here!
There’s robbery in the park.
I sat alone in the Y.M.C.A.,
Singing just like a lark –
There’s no place like ho-ome,