Laura ignored him, which was not unusual. She was watching a foreign film with subtitles. On screen a man was standing on a bridge at night. It was raining. Ray assumed that he was in a suicidal mood and was contemplating the water below and might or might not jump. It looked a long way down and he wondered how far you could fall into water and still survive. It probably depended on the position of your body on impact. Face-first could be disastrous even off a very small bridge. He would check on the Internet later.
‘I thought it could be a way to make some extra money,’ he said. ‘Not a fortune, but just a few extra pounds. I could do small cases at first. Finding lost wallets. Or children. That sort of thing.’
Laura bit into an apple and Ray realised for the first time that she was crying. She wiped her eyes with a tissue from the box she kept on the sofa beside her. She often cried during films. Ray had tried to encourage her to watch less emotional ones. ‘No one cries during Alien,’ he had said, but she had ignored him as always. On screen the man decided against a watery grave and walked away into the darkness accompanied by orchestral music. Ray wondered how different his life would be if he was accompanied by music throughout his daily routine. Walking to the pub would be more exciting with Wagner. Stacking shelves would be quicker with Metallica.
‘I was just thinking it could be a bit of hobby. Make the evenings more interesting. I could just take on mostly local cases. Probably just be out for a couple of hours after dinner. You would barely miss me.’
Laura sat with her legs hanging over the arm of the sofa. She wore a silk dressing gown and her skin was still pink from the bathwater she had been soaking in for at least an hour. She filled the room with soft scents of lavender and vanilla. She took another bite of her apple and chewed slowly. The film paused for an advert break. A woman with digestive issues seemed considerably happier after eating a yoghurt.
‘Ray,’ said Laura, ‘you find it challenging enough running the local supermarket. Maybe you should concentrate on that. People would hate to see you lose focus and for the cereals to end up in just any order.’
‘Well,’ he said, but could not think of anything else to say.
Over the previous year since their wedding many of their evenings had been spent in a similar fashion. Laura spent long periods of time relaxing in the bath, phoned friends, watched romantic films with happy endings and ate a variety of healthy foods, usually involving fruit. In contrast, Ray wandered around the house, drank tea, visited the pub alone and drew up plans for making himself wealthier. So far they had all failed.
‘You have all these ideas, Ray,’ said Laura.
He was expecting her to say something else but she started eating seedless grapes and returned her attention to the television.
When they had first met many people, including his own father, had expressed their surprise at how beautiful she was. He was reminded of those comments as she ran her fingers through Titian hair and stretched her slender legs. ‘Why would a woman like that marry you?’ said his father. It was a fair question and one that Ray tried not to ponder too deeply in case he found some uncomfortable answers.
He left her alone in the lounge and headed to the kitchen to make himself tea. Ray liked tea and he was known to drink up to fifteen cups a day, which had the added advantage of creating numerous work breaks. Not that he was lazy at work. He ran the supermarket with surprising efficiency. When he worked he always worked hard. Still, there were plenty of occasions when a tea was necessary to recover from a particularly troublesome customer.
‘I can be a detective,’ he said to himself, as he sat at the kitchen table and sipped his tea. It was October. Outside looked wintry and uninviting. No one had been particularly surprised to learn it was already one of the wettest months since records began, which had initiated many conversations about climate change in the Green Man. None of them had been very conclusive. The landlord had argued that climate change meant that Britain was rising and floating towards France. Tony was sure that changes in the Gulf stream were going to send the Earth spinning off its axis straight into the sun. Ray’s theory that it might make the weather harder to predict had been universally dismissed.
He briefly considered visiting the Green Man for a pint but it was raining and he was not overly keen to get wet even on the two minute walk it would take him to reach the local. He was content to sit and ruminate on his new career path. He was confident that even in quiet English villages there were occasional robberies and murders. Once he had built up some experience he liked the idea of investigating some of them himself. He had no formal training, but that had not stopped fictional detectives in the past. There would be plenty of opportunities to start small and local. Lost pets, stolen garden furniture, investigating the odd extra marital affair. The inhabitants of Diddlebury would be more than happy to pay for resolutions to such cases, especially if they concluded in the exposure and humiliation of one of their neighbours.
‘Case solved,’ said Ray, as he imagined rugby tackling a particularly violent burglar outside the bakery.
‘Talking to yourself is a sign of idiocy,’ said Laura, as she breezed in and out of the kitchen to collect a kiwi fruit and a spoon.
‘Or genius,’ he said. ‘Einstein probably talked to himself constantly about gravity. Though maybe that was Newton.’
‘And no trying to be a detective,’ called Laura from the lounge. ‘Concentrate on running the supermarket. Make sure there are enough bread rolls and important things like that.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Ray. He watched the rain and thought about some of the possible reasons why Sherlock Holmes never married.
‘Have there been any robberies or murders in the village lately?’ said Ray.
He was stood in the baking section of the supermarket with Julia. She was a woman in her early fifties who had worked solidly and earnestly for the same local shop for most of her adult life. She was divorced, played bridge and seemed to have an endless collection of floral dresses.
‘Why would you say a thing like that?’ she said. ‘Diddlebury is not that sort of place. Shall I put the food colourings in alphabetical order or ranging from light to dark?’
‘Of course it is,’ said Ray. ‘All English villages have dark secrets. Some villages like this probably have five to ten murders a year.’
‘I think light to dark is quite pleasing to the eye. I must make a note to order more blue colouring.’
‘There are probably some murders that go completely unnoticed. A few lonely old people getting bumped off on their way home. Like Mrs Winterbottom. I’m sure she was murdered. I haven’t seen her for a few weeks. Someone should look into it.’
‘Mrs Winterbottom is staying with her daughter after her bunion operation. Anyway, this is England not America, Mr Wilson.’ said Julia. ‘Those kinds of things would never happen here.’ She turned her attention to making sure the sponge fingers were neatly stacked.
Ray took a tea break. He had been the manager of the supermarket for two years. It was a job he found it difficult to be passionate about, but his applications to so many other jobs had been rejected to the point that he had lost heart and resigned himself to service in the village store. Now in his early thirties, most of his career ambitions had faltered or proved untenable. He had worked for a small film production company in London for three months and thought that it would be a permanent career until they had got into financial difficulties and he had been summarily sacked. There had been few other highlights.
He sat alone in the small office that served as a staffroom and accounts room and read a chapter of The Getaway while he drank his tea. Briefly he was transported to a world of fast paced crime and dangerous living.
‘Mrs Mackerty would like to know why there is no fruit bread in stock,’ said Julia, poking her head around the door.
‘Tell her we are sold out.’
She coughed politely.
‘I think we both now that will not work.’
Ray put his book down and drank a last mouthful of tea before walking back into the shop where Mrs Mackerty was stood by the till. In fact, stood might have been incorrect, as she was so aged that her back bent at ninety degrees making it difficult for her to look up. She leant heavily on a walking stick and every movement seemed unbearably arduous. What had remained unaffected by age was her sense of how things should be.
‘Now, Mr Wilson, I think we spoke before about how important fruit bread is for my bowels.’
‘Yes, Mrs Mackerty.’
‘I need a good supply of dried fruits to keep things moving.’
‘At my age things are not quite as efficient as they once were.’
Ray had a horrible image in his head that he was trying hard to replace.
‘I understand completely, Mrs Mackerty. I will ring the supplier and make a new order immediately.’
‘I should hope so,’ she said, and with enormous effort turned herself around to continue her shopping.
‘Well handled as always, Mr Wilson,’ said Julia, as she made a neat pyramid of biscuit boxes nearby.
‘Thank you, Julia. If there’s one particular skill I have developed over the last two years it’s dealing with unhappy elderly customers.’
‘You certainly have, Mr Wilson.’
‘I should get some of those stars they earn in fast food restaurants. Five stars for keeping pensioners well stocked with fibre.’
Mrs Mackerty was reappearing slowly from one of the aisles. She eventually stopped in front of Ray and studied his shoes to make sure she had the right person.
‘Is that you there, Mr Wilson?’
‘Yes, Mrs Mackerty. How can I be of assistance?’
‘Well I must say this is disappointing. I am afraid I hate to do this but I feel it is my duty to contact the regional manager once more.’
‘What seems to be the problem?’ said Ray.
‘There is a distinct lack of tinned prunes in the fruit aisle. I expect to be spending a prolonged period of time in the toilet this evening, and I hold you personally responsible.’
‘Sorry,’ said Ray, as he could not think of anything else to say.
At lunchtime, Ray decided it had been a difficult enough day to warrant a visit to the Green Man for a pint. He left Julia in charge of the shop, with the added responsibility of ensuring that the cheese section was categorised in a sensible and efficient way.
Outside was relatively warm for a winter’s day and fallen leaves eddied around his feet as he made the short walk to the pub. Inside it was typically busy. Diddlebury was a village where many people had very little to do and consequently a visit to the pub was a significant enough activity to make some of the residents feel that they had been busy for at least part of the day. Couples had lunch together, people drank in small groups and as was often the way men sat on stools at the bar and consumed far more units of alcohol than government campaigns recommended. John from the bakery was drinking a bottle of wine with Edward the librarian as they played scrabble together near the fire. There were a few new faces to the village, including a solitary figure with glasses who was concentrating on a crossword.
Ray took a seat beside Tony, a man in his late forties with a beer belly of considerable size, thick glasses and a smart appearance. He had been a successful businessman in his younger years but he was prematurely retired so made the most of his free time by leaving his wife at home and drinking heavily.
‘How are you, Ray? A drink to keep out the cold?’
‘Very kind, Tony,’ said Ray. ‘Just the one though. Taking a lunch break.’
‘Landlord, two of your finest ales, if you please,’ said Tony.
The landlord, Michael, was quick to serve his most loyal customer.
‘There we are, gents. Enjoy,’ said Michael. ‘I see it’s raining again,’ he added, noting Ray’s wet hair and shoulders.
‘Just a light shower,’ said Ray.
‘Climate change,’ said Michael and shook his head sadly. He was in his late forties, single, sported the soft physique that it took years of neglect and alcohol consumption to create, and was in the process of growing a subtly lopsided goatee.
Ray was thankful that no one took the climate change conversation further. He was not in the mood for wild theories and speculations. To fill the silence he decided to tell Tony about his new business venture.
‘So, Tony, I was thinking I might try and start my own detective agency. I was thinking about investigating some of the mysteries that happen locally. A bit like a Sherlock Holmes, but on a smaller scale.’
‘Wonderful,’ said Tony. ‘I could be Doctor Watson. I had better find a gun from somewhere. Who shall we investigate first?’
Ray should have realised earlier that Tony was in no particular state to be discussing new business ideas. The empty glasses were a strong indication that he was not drinking his first pint of the day. His eyes had begun to lose some of their focus and Ray could not decide if he was looking at him or at a point just above his left shoulder.
‘I was planning on just finding a few basic local stories to start with. Maybe a simple robbery to look into,’ said Ray, even though he knew he would have been better advised to steer the conversation in other directions.
‘Well that should be easy enough to arrange. Let’s start with Herbie. He knows plenty about crime.’
At the mention of his name a brooding figure with well-muscled arms and a face that looked as though a tree had fallen on it looked up from where he sat at the bar reading the Daily Mail.
‘You mention me?’ he said.
Herbie was a more recent addition to the village. He had lived in London most of his life but had moved into the countryside after a bitter divorce, or so he told people. His physical size and stern manner had been a source of constant gossip in the village and it was assumed, with no actual evidence, that he was hiding from a criminal past.
‘Know of any robberies or murders lately?’ said Tony. ‘My friend here was looking for some.’
‘Not that I know of,’ said Herbie.
‘He wasn’t saying you had actually done any yourself, just if you had heard of them.’
‘Not that you look like a robber or even a murderer.’ said Tony. ‘He was just saying that if anyone knew about that kind of thing it would definitely be you, especially as you lived in London.’
Tony raised his beer glass in Herbie’s general direction.
‘Thanks anyway. Let us know if you do hear anything.’
‘Bit of a dead end there,’ said Tony, holding up his glass again to signal more beer was required.
‘Great work though,’ said Ray, ‘I had better get back to the shop.’
He finished his drink and left quickly.
‘I am not sure the private detective idea was such a good one,’ said Ray, as he sat on the opposite sofa to Laura in the evening. She was eating blueberries. He was drinking tea and trying to make some sense of the film they were watching.
‘None of your ideas are very good, Ray.’
On screen two characters were sharing a romantic meal in a European city, possibly Paris. They were drinking wine and eating some kind of fish.
‘Is that sea bass?’ said Ray.
‘I’m not sure the fish is central to the plot.’
‘It might be. It could be symbolic.’
‘Symbolic sea bass?’
‘Possibly. Is this Love Actually?’
‘Then why is Colin Firth in it?’
Ray squinted at the screen. It seemed they were now sharing a chocolate fondant which was his favourite dessert. He decided not to comment.
‘I just think it would be simpler if we lived in a more normal village,’ said Ray. ‘I only told Tony and things got out of hand within a few seconds.’
‘If you will confide in deluded alcoholics. Anyway, you should just stick to the supermarket. You keep everything well organised there and you deal with all the complaints so well.’
‘Hmm,’ said Ray, not sure if he was being teased or not. It was easier to assume that he was.
He left her alone in the lounge and went upstairs to his study. It was a small room, cluttered by books and strange drawings on scraps of paper. On the desk was a laptop and beside it several empty teacups and biscuit wrappers. Ray had been working on an advert for his detective agency and he picked the piece of paper up, covered in scribbles and annotations, turned it over several times in his hands, then screwed it into a ball and threw it to join the other discarded ideas on the floor.
Through the window he had an excellent viewpoint of the village; soft, yellow light cast from many windows as residents undertook their final tasks of the day before sleep. He could see the dim shape of Mrs Wilkins as she watered plants in the kitchen. She was one of his least favourite neighbours. She complained bitterly and constantly about the state of his garden and how his apple trees apparently shed fruit and leaves over the fence into her property. Mr Dawson was doing some kind of exercise routine with a metal bar that involved swinging his upper body from side to side. He had been in the military some years before and enjoyed keeping fit in a variety of unusual ways, including jogging around the village dragging a sled weighed down with bricks behind him.
Ray pressed his face to the glass to see the upper window of the Hamilton’s residence where their teenage son was playing games of some kind, flashing lights erupting at seemingly irregular intervals. To the far right he could see the house belonging to Miss Stokes, a spinster and an excellent baker who repeatedly won the annual pie making contest in the village fete. That summer she had taken the title with a superb steak and stilton number that he had been lucky enough to taste. Her curtains were open and he could see where she was sat in a rocking chair in the bedroom. She was headless.
‘Oh,’ said Ray.