J. Willcocks is a great writer – of poetry and stories, so we are always pleased to share her work!
She challenged me with bird-of-prey eyes that showed the only remnant of vitality in a face made grotesque by a framing of delicate lace on the old-fashioned nightcap tied in a bow beneath the shrivelled chin.
“Does James know you’re here?”
“Of course not! He’d be very angry if he thought I’d come on his behalf. I couldn’t stand seeing him so upset. You really must stop this nonsense”.
A look of contrived innocence passed over her face. “What nonsense would that be?”
The room was both a prison and a refuge. Every inch was crammed with furniture that had grown as old and miserable as the person who owned it. Anaemic chintz fought with musty red velvet and once-golden Chinese huntsmen chased almost invisible deer across the faded silk of the wallpaper. An overpowering sickly-sweet stench of decay struggled for supremacy against the rival reek of antiseptic. I squeezed my way to the window, opening one of the small leaded panes a few inches to let the draught blow on to my face before answering.
“You know what I’m talking about. You accused James of wanting to murder you”. She let my anger hang on the air for several minutes.
“It’s not nonsense. He never thought I would live this long. He’s spent his whole life waiting for my money. Now he doesn’t want to wait any longer”.
I stared into the garden, long submerged beneath the onslaught of nature. A mixed choir of birdsong floated up from the depths of the flowering cherry. It was hard to believe that only a few yards away, on the other side of the high, moss-encrusted wall, a thriving city was going about its business. In the distance the Cathedral rose in majestic testimony to the endurance of age; a sharp contrast to the desiccated corruption of the crone propped up in the bed behind me.
“If there’s any money to leave”. I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud until I heard the cackle of mirth from the bed.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s been fifteen years since I stirred from this room. Just because I’ve let the place go doesn’t mean that I can’t afford to look after it. Why should I pay for the upkeep of something I don’t use? No-one ever got rich by throwing money away. But even if I was broke, it doesn’t mean that James would be. This house must be worth a fortune to a property developer, and even though I refuse to sell it, it doesn’t mean that I’m stupid enough to expect James to do the same. But you’ve worked that out already, haven’t you? Why else would you have married a man older than your own father?”
“Love!” she spat the word out with scorn. “Men like James don’t want to be bothered with love; they can’t cope with it. He was quite content being an insignificant little person scraping an existence as a wages clerk until his expectations materialised. Then along you came and all of a sudden his dreams turned into nightmares. Now it’s semi-detached suburban respectability. You’re satisfied for the time being. It’s better than you’ve been used to; but how long will it be before you start wanting something better? How James must hate it when he thinks of what he could give you if only I wasn’t here”.
I was beginning to feel that no-one would blame James if he did want to murder the old witch. “I know you don’t believe me, but I didn’t marry James for your money”. I thought how little she knew my husband. That seemingly cold exterior hid a passion all the more intense for the years of self-denial. “You can sneer at us if you like, but we manage very well. I’ve got a perfectly good job. In fact I’ve given up my lunch hour to come here “.
“Don’t starve yourself on my account. Have one of these. James brought them round this morning. He knows how greedy I am with them”. She held out a bowl of peaches.
Reluctant as I was to accept anything from her, the peaches did look delicious, and I was hungry. I reached over and took one.
“If that’s what you think, cut him out of your Will. As a Godson he has no right to inherit”.
“And leave it to the cat’s home? I hate cats. I’ve never been one for doing what I ought. James is as near as I came to having a child of my own. I swore I’d never marry until I met a man with as good a head for business as I’ve got. Never found one that came anywhere near, not even my own dear Papa, and he died a rich man”.
The predatory eyes sparkled with enjoyment as I dropped the peach stone into a waste-paper basket. “So you thought you’d double-bluff me by pretending the money doesn’t matter. It hasn’t worked. There’s more than even an avaricious little money-grabber like you could have hoped for. And James gets it all. But not you; I promised myself that!”
She began to laugh. The badly-fitting false teeth clacking up and down in her mouth made a noise like horses hooves on wet cobble-stones. I watched in horror. I’d accepted that she was jealous of my marriage to James, seeing in me a rival for attentions which had previously been exclusively hers. But I’d never believed she hated me so much that she would force James to choose between me and his inheritance. What a fool I’d been to hope that she would come to accept me. She disliked me even more now than she had on the day James first brought me to this room to tell her I was his wife. I’d never been confronted by evil before. It seemed to seep into her body like a life- giving elixir, bringing a flush of excitement to the sunken cheeks.
“How long did you hope James would last trying to satisfy the needs of a greedy, manipulative bitch like you? Five years? Ten? I don’t suppose it mattered as long as he outlasted me. And then you would have been a rich young widow. Not a bad pay-off for a few years of pretended devotion!”
My eyes met hers, locking in a battle for supremacy like two deadly snakes trying to hypnotize one another. “James loves me. Have you taken that into consideration?” I ground the words out between clenched teeth.
“Of course I have. James is desperately in love with you. But desperation makes people dangerous. You think James wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why would he need to? A fly isn’t going to leave him a fortune!”
There was a humming in my ears. I sank into a chair as a wave of nausea swept over me and I doubled up in agony. Through a spasm of pain I heard that hated voice, musical with triumph.
“Poor James adores you so much that he’s willing to commit murder to keep you. He thought he was being clever, and it would have worked if only I hadn’t known him so well. But as soon as I saw his face this morning, I knew that he’d poisoned the peaches.”
© Joan Willcocks October 2016