by Cathy Ace
Enjoy this never before published Christmas mystery short story.
“John Evans is dead. It’s in the newspaper. It must be true.” Gladys Pritchard waved the South Wales Evening Post in front of her husband.
“Good riddance,” muttered her spouse.
“Died peacefully last Thursday in Singleton Hospital, it says. We only visited him the night before. Looked bad then he did, mind you; all those tubes poking out of him. Service in a fortnight. It’ll take all that time because of Christmas, I expect.”
Gladys’s face fell. “What will people say if we don’t go, Ivor? He lived next door to us for nearly thirty years. It’ll be expected.”
Her husband dropped his spoon into his dish on top of a mound of golden carrot-coins—the remains of his lamb stew. “If you think I’m going to sit in that crematorium in the middle of winter and listen to people going on about him being a wonderful person, you’ve got another think coming. Half of Swansea will be there. They won’t miss us.”
“Half of South Wales will be there, given the number of choirs he belonged to over the years. They’ll all turn out for the singing, if nothing else. And they will miss us. Everyone in the street will go. We can’t not go. They all thought we liked him. They wouldn’t know anything about the wall. No idea about how much of a misery he made our lives.” Gladys folded her arms as tightly as possible over her ample bosom.
“Next door but one down, she knows.”
Ivor knew she was right about her hearing; Gladys could hear a pin drop onto a carpet in the next room. He suspected she was right about the carrots too. “Never got it as bad as us, did she? Always picked our wall to stand next to, he did. Scales? I’ll give him scales.” He chased the vegetables around his bowl.
“Now, now, Ivor. John’s dead. Gone. No more scales. No more rehearsals for hours on end. No more ‘la-la-la, ne-ne-ne’ exercises, just a nice bit of peace and quiet in our own home. Lovely, isn’t it?”
Ivor wiped his mouth with the side of his hand and arched his back in the creaking chair. “Fan-flamin’-tastic. If he’s sung Jerusalem once, he’s sung it a thousand times. I never want to hear that song again.”
“You can’t say he didn’t have a good voice.”
“I can and I will. Twenty years ago it wasn’t so bad, but since he turned seventy? Terrible! They’d have chucked him out if he hadn’t been the choir’s treasurer for umpteen years.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Ivor, they were always short of tenors. Even asked you once, remember?”
Ivor laughed loudly. “I couldn’t carry a tune if you gave me a bucket. Besides, that last concert they gave? Modern rubbish. Nice bit of Ivor Novello never goes amiss, and I’m not saying that just because I’m named after him.”
Gladys cleared the kitchen table then rolled the dishes around in the sink-full of soapy water. “I wonder what they’ll do with the house,” she mused. “His boys will sell it, I expect. They’ve got their own places, so why would they want his?”
“You’re right. Both got posh houses. What would they want with one of these little terraced boxes? Good enough for the likes of us, but them? No way.”
Gladys smiled, placing the dishes on the draining board. “They’ve done very well for themselves. Both married nice girls, and all the children always seemed well-behaved when they used to visit.”
“Never saw any of them at his flamin’ concerts, did you? All but forced us to buy tickets, didn’t he?”
Gladys filled the kettle, and put in onto the gas ring to boil. “Go through. I’ll bring you a cuppa when it’s brewed. Take the paper to read while you’re waiting for the BBC Wales news. I’ll wipe these things and put them away so I can sit down and enjoy Coronation Street later on. Go on now, out of my way.”
The aged couple shared a friendly hug and then Ivor shuffled out of the kitchen in carpet-slippered feet. He was no longer the imposing man he’d been when he’d worked at Swansea Docks; decades of labor had wrecked his back, though he still did what he could around the house. They’d bought it a few years after they’d married, forty-eight years earlier.
“Not long till it starts,” said his wife, finally settling into her armchair beside her husband. “Look forward to The Street, I do.”
When the doorbell rang, the couple stared at each other with surprise. “Who can that be at this time of night?” snapped Gladys.
“Why don’t you answer it and find out?” mugged Ivor.
“You do it, Ivor. I don’t like to unlock the door after dark.”
Discarding the newspaper, he pushed himself to his feet and lumbered to the front door. His wife also stood, hovering out of sight, but just within earshot.
“Oh, it’s you.”
Gladys couldn’t catch the reply, but was sure it was a man’s voice.
“We’ve not long finished tea, and we were going to watch a bit of telly, but I suppose so.” Ivor turned and shouted,
His wife shot forward from her hiding place to see the elder son of their late next-door neighbor standing on the front step.
“Hello David,” Gladys’s voice softened from surprise to sympathy. “We were sorry to hear about your dad. Just talking about him, weren’t we, Ivor?”
“He’ll be missed. That’s what we were saying, wasn’t it?”
“Had a lovely voice on him, didn’t he?”
“The choir will miss him terribly, won’t they?”
David Evans watched the couple shuttlecock their comments back and forth and then smiled wearily. “Thank you. You’re both very kind.”
“Come in for a cuppa, will you?” asked Gladys tenderly. “Let’s not stand here with the door open, heating the whole street. It’s cold out. Well, only to be expected, so close to Christmas. Come on in with you.”
She guided the man into the sitting room that was crammed with a worn, overstuffed suite, and poorly-varnished dark-wood furnishings draped with crocheted doilies. Gladys pressed the “Record” button on the TV’s remote control before switching off the set. “Tea or coffee, David? I know you younger people prefer coffee sometimes.”
The fifty-five year old man who answered, “Tea’ll be fine, thanks, Mrs. Pritchard,” didn’t look as youthful as Gladys remembered him. It took her aback to realize he was balding, his little-remaining hair quite gray.
“The kettle’s not long boiled, so I’ll be quick.” She bustled out of the room.
The fan in the electric fire hummed mournfully in the silence as the flame-effect danced behind the plastic coals.
“We saw the notice in paper tonight. Funeral’s in two weeks, then,” said Ivor in appropriately solemn tones.
“Yes. Earliest we could get it booked. They’re backed up. I suppose it’ll give a lot of his old friends time to arrange buses to bring them from the valleys.”
“Gladys reckoned there’d be a load coming. Choirs travelling all together?”
David nodded. “It’ll be good to see them there, and lovely to hear them, of course. Singing was Dad’s passion. Always said you couldn’t beat a male voice choir, but I suppose you know that.”
“We were saying as much before you got here.” Ivor searched for something more. “They’ll miss him.”
“They will,” replied the dead man’s son. “The grandkids have taken it hard, too.”
“They would,” agreed Ivor, summoning sympathy. He and Gladys had, sadly, never been blessed with children. He beamed when his wife arrived, pushing her fancy “hostess trolley” bearing the best china and the teapot they never used.
The sugar was in a bowl, not the bag, and the milk was in a little jug. There was even a plate of digestive biscuits. “There she is.” Ivor’s tone suggested he’d been waiting for several hours to be rescued from a terrible fate.
When they were all holding cups and saucers, Gladys said, “It’s lovely to see you, of course, David, but…” Her unasked question hung in the air above the digestives.
“They told me at the hospital you visited Dad the day he…on his last day.” David’s hand trembled as he blew across his steaming tea.
“Not exactly,” replied Ivor. “It said in the paper he went on Thursday. We were there for evening visiting hours on Wednesday.”
“He actually died on Wednesday night, probably not long after you’d left him. We put Thursday in the announcement because that’s when my brother and I arrived at the hospital, and it seemed…right. Neither of us had seen him since Tuesday, you see. Gerry had to go to Scotland on business on Wednesday and I went to see my two girls in a school concert. It’s that time of year; one thing after another in the run-up to Christmas. The doctors had told us he was improving, so we thought it would be alright to miss a day. It seems you were the last visitors he had, and we wondered how he’d seemed. We knew he’d never have been the man he once was, but we were shocked when we were told he’d passed. We wondered…well, was he was in good spirits? Did he seem comfortable?”
Ivor and Gladys exchanged a glance as David sipped his scalding hot tea. At an almost imperceptible nod from her husband, Gladys said, “He wasn’t at all well. Looked a bit gray around the gills, you know? We’d been in and out of next door with food for him and I did bits of shopping and so forth for weeks, because he’d not wanted to go out much. That last heart attack did for him, though. You could tell just by looking at him. He’d reached the point where his teeth looked too big for his face. Never a good sign that. And he was getting on. Eighty-five, wasn’t he?”
David nodded. “Good innings, really.”
Ivor rallied. “Well, what do they know, these doctors? Just youngsters, all of them! When it’s your time, it’s your time. As the wife said, he was obviously not a well man. In good spirits, mind you; talking about when he could come home and get back to his singing. We chatted about this and that and then he asked if we could pull his curtains around him, ‘cos the lights were a bit bright, and we left.”
“So Dad seemed quite…happy then?” asked David with the eyes of a hopeful child.
“Happy as he ever was when he wasn’t singing,” replied Ivor.
David stood, grim-faced, the dark circles beneath his eyes telling the tale of his grief and loss. “Well, thanks for that at least.” He forced a smile. “We’ll see you both at the funeral, of course.” It wasn’t a question.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Ivor with feeling, also rising to his feet. “Have you made any plans for next door yet? We were saying we thought you’d probably sell up.”
David nodded. “Gerry and I talked about that. His eldest is at university now, so we thought it would be a good idea to keep it. His son and a couple of fellow-students will live there for the next few years. It’ll save them paying rent to someone else. After that, maybe Gerry’s younger son will use it and then my girls will be about ready for it. If they all go to university or college this area, of course.”
Ivor felt Gladys become rigid beside him. “Young people next door? That’ll make a change, won’t it, Ivor? I hope they’re nice,” she said, forcing a laugh. The smile froze on her face.
David’s reply was warmed by genuine affection. “He’s a good kid, is Gerry’s eldest. Talented too. He’s studying music. Got a lovely voice – must have got it from his grandfather. And he plays the bassoon. All three of them who’ll be moving in are musicians. Classical, of course, none of this rock-band stuff. It’ll be nice for them to have somewhere they can rehearse in the evenings.” He pulled up the collar of his jacket. “See you at the funeral,” called David as he slid into the leather-upholstered interior of his large, sleek car.
Once the front door was locked, Gladys burst into tears. “All those years listening to him – and now more noise? For years! I don’t know if I can take it, Ivor. I thought all that was behind us with John gone.”
Putting his arm around his wife’s heaving shoulders, Ivor steered her into the sitting room, and settled her into her chair. His heart was thumping in his chest. He’d seen the same horrified expression on his beloved Gladys’s face when John had perked up in his hospital bed, and had begun to talk happily about getting home and starting to sing again.
Then Ivor had spotted the huge syringe with a long, thin needle lying unattended on a little cart. He knew that injecting a whole container full of air into the tubes in someone’s veins killed them in a way not even the doctors could always spot. He’d seen it on one of Gladys’s TV programs a few months earlier. She liked to watch those “real emergency” ones, where they save people’s lives – or don’t. A nurse had given an interview about how, sometimes, little air-bubbles weren’t really dangerous, saying they got it wrong on telly all the time. She’d even showed how much you needed to pump into a person to make it fatal. Handy.
So that was what Ivor had done to John, to stop him coming back to the house next door to sing again. He’d wanted Gladys to be happy; that was all he’d ever really cared about. It only took him a minute to do it; his wife was picking up something the man in the bed opposite John had dropped onto the floor, then he’d closed their soon-to-be-late neighbor’s curtains around him, and they’d left. Simple.
It seemed he’d got away with murder alright, but now? Music students? The news couldn’t have been much worse. And just before Christmas, too.
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