THE ANGEL: SUE TOWNSEND
MY MOTHER WASN’T GOOD with children, she didn’t have the knack. Dogs were her thing. She trained hers to walk on their back legs and she put red satin ribbons in their hair. I used to take her favourite dog, Mitzi, to see her after she was admitted, against her will, to The Laurels nursing home. I would stand on the lawn opposite my mother’s room and get Mitzi to wave her paws. My mother would stare out of the window from her bed and then turn her head away and weep. Dogs were not allowed inside, and, for some reason, the old people were not allowed to drink coffee either. My mother eventually died at The Laurels from infected bed sores. I once visited her unexpectedly and found her being spoon fed cold porridge by a schoolboy on work experience. My mother’s nightie was open and her breasts were exposed. I complained in writing but the owners wrote back to say that ‘my mother’s human rights had not been infringed’. I won’t allow myself to get old and helpless. I want to die before I’m sixty.
I first met Anthony Adams on my fifty-ninth birthday. He came into the shop to buy a pair of brogues. There had been no birthday cards on my doormat that morning and there were none at work either. I keep my private life to myself. I told Anthony that the brogues came in three colour-ways, black, brown and ox-blood. He screwed his face up as though he were in pain. Some people find it impossible to make a decision. He looked like the managerial type: Tall, authoritative and well dressed. “Black,” I said.
It was almost half past five when I went into the storeroom. The other girls had got their coats on and were saying goodnight to each other. We don’t have to climb a ladder to reach the stock anymore; it’s done electronically, the machinery works, most of the time. But when it seizes up an engineer has to fly in from Germany. Everything is complicated now, even the weather. When I was a girl the winters were cold, you were guaranteed snow and icicles. The summers were always hot. I would walk to school in the morning and the sun would be scorching my back. The important things in our lives were written down and recorded in little books. We had a rent book, an insurance book and a post office book; you could grasp these little books, open them and read them. And you knew where you were. The Gas Board sold gas and the Electricity Board sold electricity, and if you made a telephone call you were answered by a human being. It was a simple life, even in the towns. There were pubs, cinemas, theatres, libraries, swimming baths, an opera house and the circus came twice a year – we didn’t know that the animals felt humiliated and that it was cruel of us to laugh at their clumsy antics.
The machinery brought the size eleven brogues down to me. I knelt in front of Anthony and helped him on with his new shoes, he fumbled with the laces. I was anxious to be off, he was pale and sweating and I was alone in the shop with him.
“I don’t feel very well,” he said.
My heart sank, an image of an ambulance crossed my mind and I thought about the paperwork I would have to fill in and send to head office if he collapsed on me. I asked him if he would like a glass of water and to my annoyance he said he would, so I went into the staff kitchen and ran the tap and waited for the water to turn cold. Meanwhile I watched him on the CCTV, his lips were moving, he could have been praying or singing along to a song he could hear inside his head.
It took a full ten minutes for him to sip the glass dry. He said that something terrible had happened to him recently. To be polite I made sympathetic noises. Before I could stop him he launched into his story.
“I was lying in my bath reading the Sunday papers when I heard the doorbell ring. I live on my own, no wife, no kids, they’re long gone – but I thought sod it, whoever it is will go away, but they didn’t. That bell rang and rang and rang until I thought I’d go mad. So I got out the bath, wrapped a towel round me and went downstairs. The bell was ringing constantly, like somebody had got their finger stuck. I shouted “For fucks sake!” And snatched the door open. There was a bloke on the doorstep, my height, my build pointing a gun at my head.”
He said, “Geoff Green?”
I said, “No, I’m Anthony Adams: Geoff lives opposite at number seven.”
“And this gunman ran across the road and rang the doorbell. Geoff came round the side of his house; he was carrying a paintbrush with white paint on it. A few words were exchanged then the bloke stood back a bit and fired the gun at Geoff’s head. Geoff fell onto his drive; he’d only just had it paved. Some gypsies did it with slabs they nicked off the council – the man with the gun ran down our street, jumped on a motorbike that was parked at the kerb and roared off. I ran across the road in my bare feet holding the towel round my waist. Geoff took a few seconds to die. Bits of his skull and globs of his brain were spattered on the flowers in the tub by the front door.”
He looked at me and said, “Have you seen a dead body?”
I told him that I’d only seen one, my mother’s. He said he’d seen too many.
He sighed. “Poor Geoff.” Then he said, “I’m responsible for killing him.”
I asked him what his name was, and he told me it was Anthony Adams. I said, “Do you know why Geoff Green was killed?”
He said, “No, and I haven’t asked.”
I asked him if the police had caught the murderer.
“No, they’ll never catch him – he’s a professional, a contract killer,” he said.
“Why was he killed?” I said.
“I never ask,” he said. “But he died happy, he didn’t starve to death like some poor buggers do who live only a plane ride from us.”
His face softened, I saw what he must have looked like when he was a small child.
I came very close to putting my arms around his neck and pulling his head near to mine. I said, “I’d gladly swap places with Geoff Green. I’m tired of living in this world.”
He said, “You look like a woman who squeezes every last bit of enjoyment out of life.”
I told him that appearances are nearly always deceptive. I wanted to tell him that I would like nothing better than to be allowed to fade into darkness, to not exist, be nothing, just to be a speck that disappears into nowhere. But of course I didn’t.
He said, “I’ll take the shoes.”
But it was six o’clock and the cash till had turned itself off automatically so I told him he’d have to come back tomorrow.
As I was locking up, setting the alarm, lowering the grill on the door and mobilising the security system he said, “Do you know how much he was paid? Two hundred and fifty pounds.”
I was amazed.
“Two hundred and fifty pounds,” I said. “I’ve paid more than that for a week in Skegness. I thought contract killing was something only the rich could afford.”
“It’ll cost you more in London,” he said, “and for VIPs, but in the provinces, for a nonentity that’s the going rate.”
He touched my elbow and said, “I have a drink in the Angel most nights, would you care to join me?”
I didn’t want his pity, I’m fifty-nine, grey and fat, and could have been taken for his mother. So I told him that I had to get back, then I wished him goodnight and watched him as he crossed the road and pushed his way into the bar of the Angel. Before the door closed I heard the sounds of music and laughter.
When I got home I didn’t bother with food, I walked straight up the stairs and put myself to bed. I had liked it when he touched my elbow, it’s years since I’d been intimate with a man. I was married to my husband for thirteen happy years, then I went up three dress sizes in as many months and he left me for a girl whose thigh he could span with both hands. It wasn’t only the weight: It took me too long to get over losing the babies. I forgot how to laugh. My mouth wouldn’t smile. I grew tired of people telling me that life must go on.
I don’t think I dreamt, the night I met Anthony Adams. I slept really well and I woke up eight hours later, I’ve not done that for years.
When I got to work he was there waiting at the door.
“I’ll pay you for those shoes now,” he said.
I was a bit flummoxed, I normally open the door easily enough, but with him watching me I made a few mistakes, the alarm went off and the grill came down but I sorted it out. I asked him to sit down when we got inside while I took my coat off and turned the shop lights on. Then, when the till came on I put his shoes through. He said, “I tell you what, I’ll wear the new shoes now.”
He sat down and took his shoes off. They didn’t look old. He had obviously polished them before he came out. He put his new ones on, did the laces up, went to the mirror and admired them, quite openly admired them. Men don’t usually do that, they look through half closed eyes, as if they happened to be passing the mirror.
He handed me his old shoes and said, “Can you put these in the bin.”
I said, “You can’t throw these away, they’re hardly worn. Give them to Age Concern, they’re only next door.”
He laughed and said he would. “It’s a few years since I gave to charity.”
He seemed reluctant to leave but I had too much to do, so I said, “Thank you Mr. Adams.” And he took the hint and left the shop.
At lunchtime I went for a walk around the market and bought myself some sweet apricots and a bunch of jewel coloured anemones. I went into Age Concern and his shoes were there on the rack priced at two pounds fifty. I picked them up and examined them carefully; the leather was so fine that I could see the little bumps where his toes had been. There were stains on the soles that could have been blood. I thought, with a bit of luck I won’t be here this time next year. Somebody else will be managing the shoe shop, another person will be living in my house, and yet another driving my car.
Before I went back to work I queued at the hole in the wall and checked the balance in my deposit account. After I retired I wouldn’t be able to live in my house and run my car. My pension had been stolen years ago by Robert Maxwell. I withdrew two hundred and fifty pounds.
That night I went through my clothes and threw a lot of stuff away. I found a frock I’d bought but never worn; a cocktaily thing. I put it on and sucked my stomach in. Black sequins glimmered back at me from the mirror on the wardrobe door. I searched through my shoe collection for a pair of black high heels and slid them on. I folded my hair into a French Pleat, made my face up carefully and drove back into town, to the Angel. I’m not a drinker and I didn’t know what to ask for at the bar. The barman suggested a snowball; “They’re very popular with the ladies,” he said.
I looked around the bar; Anthony Adams was sitting in the corner, alone reading the Daily Telegraph and drinking beer from a pint glass. He was wearing his new shoes. I sucked my stomach in and walked over to him. He folded his paper away and invited me to sit down. I sipped at my drink, “Ugh, it’s slimy and disgusting,” I said.
“You don’t have to finish it,” Anthony said, “Nobody’s holding a gun to your head.”
What happens next? Over to you…
THE ANGEL: SUE TOWNSEND & JOHN HALL.
JOHN HALL’S ENDING TO THE ANGEL:
“No you’re right,” I said and put the glass down. “I don’t know why I bought it. To be honest I’d rather have a cup of tea.”
Anthony smiled and asked me if he could get me something else. I said no thank you, but could I ask him a question?
“What sort of a question?” he said. “The man who was shot,” I said. “How did you know it cost £250? – and why did you say you were responsible for killing him?”
Anthony looked unsure of himself. “I was in the charity shop,” I said. “Your shoes had bloodstains on the soles.” I pulled the folded banknotes out of my pocket and put them on the table between us. “That’s £250,” I said.
Anthony picked the money up.
“Is it enough?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said with a sigh, folding the notes and putting them away.
I looked at him, expecting him to explain, but he didn’t.
“Have you got a dog?” he asked.
I was taken by surprise by the change of subject.
“I was told your mother liked dogs.”
“Were you?” I said. “By who?”
He ignored the question and continued. “What do you do with your spare time?”
I looked away. I didn’t really do anything. I confessed that this evening was the first time I’d been out for months.
Anthony drank the last of his beer. The Angel was starting to fill up. “I promised to visit a friend this evening,” he said. “Why don’t you come? I can promise you a cup of tea and we can talk on the way.”
I found myself nodding and we got up and pushed our way out into the street. Anthony’s car wasn’t far. It was a dark green Singer Gazelle. I hadn’t seen one since I was a teenager. It must have been older than him, but it was in immaculate condition and smelt of polish and old leather.
We did talk, but I didn’t get any answers. It wasn’t that Anthony was evasive; he just had a knack of steering the conversation where he wanted it to go.
As we drove, I told him about my marriage, how we used to go dancing in the early days, even things about my childhood, yet I couldn’t have told you anything about him.
When we pulled up at The Laurels, my heart sank. We parked next to the spot where I used to exercise Mum’s dog on the lawn. There was a lump in my throat and I looked away so that Anthony wouldn’t see I was upset.
The home must have changed hands since my mother’s day. The place had been extended, it was brightly decorated and there were fresh flowers at reception.
Anthony led the way upstairs and knocked at one of the doors. The door was opened by a little old lady dressed in a blue tracksuit and white training shoes.
“Anthony,” she said. “How nice, come in.”
The rooms were bigger than I remembered. Maybe it was just the decoration that made is seem larger. There was a settee and a coffee table at one end. A balding man with a round face and a broad smile jumped to his feet, spilling a Jack Russell Terrier onto the floor. Eric Eastwood was sixty-two. He’d retired from the Civil Service two years ago. His mother, he said, was eighty-five and a bit of a handful. She disappeared after twenty minutes to have a shower. She had been out cycling and wanted to freshen up because she was meeting ‘a man’ in the lounge later on.
The Jack Russell’s name was Buster. He reminded me of one of the dogs we’d had when I was young. He lay next to me on the settee with his head on my knee and went to sleep.
The three of us talked while Eric’s mother showered. Eric said he came to visit her twice a week. She wouldn’t let him come more often; she had too many other things to do.
Eric was easy to talk to. You didn’t come across his type very often. People nowadays liked to stay at arms length. He talked a lot. He told me about his allotment and his vegetables. He told me about the house that was too big for him and Buster. He told me about the bowling club that he went to. The funny thing was that he never mentioned how they knew Anthony.
When Anthony excused himself to look for the loo, Eric put a hand on my arm. “Are you and Anthony together?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
I could feel myself blushing. “No,” I said and explained that we’d only met yesterday.
By the time Anthony drove me home, I’d lost my nerve. He seemed willing to answer questions, but I didn’t try to ask about the man who’d been shot. I wasn’t sure it I still wanted to know.
It was late when we got back. Anthony walked me to the door and then he took out his wallet. He took my hand and gave back the £250, folding my fingers around it.
“Put it away,” he said with a smile. “You might need it.”
I didn’t know how to react. I just thanked him for a nice evening and said I’d enjoyed meeting his friends.
“We should do it again sometime,” Anthony said, and before he left I found myself giving him a note of my telephone number.
I had a bath before I went to bed. The water was nice and hot and I lay there thinking for almost an hour.
I got up early on Saturday morning. I’d slept really well again and for some reason things felt different.
I had a boiled egg for breakfast, sitting by the window watching the sparrows tree outside. I always used to feed them. I couldn’t remember when or why I’d stopped, but I decided I’d start again. I’d go into town and get some fat and some seed. Maybe I’d spend some of the money I’d taken out of my savings and buy a new dress. The money was still lying on the bedside table, where I’d life it. I picked it up and unfolded the notes. In the middle was a scrap of paper with a short message: “Get a dog – regards Anthony.”
As I stared at the note, the phone rang. No one had called for weeks. I picked it up. “Hello?” “Hello. It’s Eric. Eric Eastwood. I know this is very forward of me, but I wondered if you’d care to come for a walk with Buster and me? It’s such a nice day. We could have lunch.”
After I’d put the phone down, I couldn’t believe that I’d said yes. I had a strange feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach. I smiled to myself at the thought of a day out and caught sight of my reflection in the mirror. It looked like someone else smiling back at me.
In town, Anthony stood outside the shoe shop, also smiling. This case was definitely better than his last one.