She walked the few hundred yards to Mrs Gladstone’s house, trying to forget Tommy, breathing deeply of the scented plants which spilled out of garden after garden. Jasmine. Buddleia. Lilies. But no roses, Tommy was right.’ The sky was like a Rothko canvas she’d seen in the Tate, the colours layered above one another like Eton Mess topped with mandarin segments and custard. She always found Rothko’s paintings calming, the colours melting and merging together. She took a book from her handbag, the latest Frank Bale detective novel, ideal for the mode of stop-start reading demanded by commuting on public transport. She opened it at the current page and there was her bookmark: a postcard of Rothko’s ‘Light Red Over Black.’
She breathed in the sweetness of the flowers, the glowing sky and the layers of Rothko’s paint, and let them soothe her. Careful not to stand on the whitewashed doorstep that sparkled with daily scrubbing, Rose rung the doorbell of 17 Child Street. It was a tiny terraced house, immaculate, its postage stamp garden packed with candy-coloured bedding plants. Not a single rose.
The door was opened by an elderly lady who was wiping her hands on the sort of floral wrap-around pinny that Bizzie wore. Her eyes squinting in suspicion.
“Mrs Gladstone? My name’s Rose Haldane.” She quickly explained her mission, showing her press card in response to a request for identification.
Mrs Gladstone examined the plastic rectangle, her eyes flitting from the photo to Rose’s face, then smiled. “Call me Phyllie, dear, like the cheese.”
Rose followed her down a dark narrow hall, swallowing down the heavy oil scent of moth balls in the air. The distinctive camphor smell took her straight back to her mother’s wardrobe.
Phyllie wasn’t deaf but was able to speak without breathing. Rose sat for five minutes, nodding and smiling, as Phyllie talked while making tea. Rose wasn’t sure she could face more tea.
“I had a bad night, gave up at five and made a cup of tea, tired all day, popping here and there, you know what it’s like, tidying, so many things to do, so I thought I’d have a bit of early tea and put me feet up to watch ‘Win or Lose’ and then you rang the bell just when it was the £500 question”.
“Oh not to worry dear, someone else will win tomorrow.” She laid out two china cups and saucers, sugar bowl, delicate milk jug covered with strawberries and a biscuit barrel decorated with a picture of the Queen Mother. “Milk?”
Rose accepted the cup of tea which Phyllie poured with a slight wobble and spill.
“Now what is it you want to know again, dear?”
“Nice girls they were really, but they could have done with a regular bath and they were too thin. Didn’t eat proper, you see. Eliza and me’d take them a cake now and then but we didn’t tell our other halves. Eliza’s Tommy would have gone mad if he’d known we was concerting with the enemy.”
“You know Tommy and Eliza?”
“Oh yes, mmm. Lovely lady, was Eliza. Dead now you know.” She took a sip of tea and looked at the Queen Mother.
“Can you remember any of the girls, their names, what they looked like?”
“Well now, let me see.” Phyllie put on her glasses as if to think. “There was a lovely blonde girl, very pretty she was when she made an effort. She was always coming and going at odd times. Shift work, you see. Mmm. She always called hello and waved.”
Is this Susan?
“Lovely long strawberry blonde hair. Sometimes she wore it in a French pleat under a blue cap, a bit like a nurse or a bus conductress. Very neat.” She nodded to herself. “I do like long hair, not these short cuts you have these days. Makes you look like men.”
Rose’s hand ventured towards the curls at the nape of neck. “What about the other girls?”
“Well there were quite a few lived there over the years.” Phyllie took off her glasses and wiped the lenses with the corner of her pinny. “I only spoke to the nice ones who smiled at me; some were very sullen, didn’t have time to say hello.” The glasses went back on her nose. “Let me see, the other nice one had long hair too but she plaited it with beads, looked like it needed a wash if you ask me. She wasn’t always there, she’d disappear for long spells and then turn up again. Like a bad penny, my Bert said.”
Kate, it had to be. “Did you see her boyfriend?”
“Humph. Never short of a man on her arm, that one. Used to wake us up at all hours, beeping their car horns, kissing and cuddling in the street. Tommy threatened to get his shotgun out once when she hung a banner out of the window. ‘Peace’ it said. Quite right too, the world would be a better place if there was more of that around.” Phyllie humphed again. “But he didn’t.”
“Get his gun out. Tommy didn’t. Eliza talked him round, told him the bobby wouldn’t do nothing about kids messing around. It was just a pretty girl with her boyfriends.”
Rose’s stomach flipped like a pancake. Never mind the police, Phyllie had said ‘boyfriends’. Plural.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #53: Rose has a panic attack and Nick arrives just in time…
This is the 52nd instalment of ‘Ignoring Gravity’ about identity detective Rose Haldane. To start reading from the beginning, please click on the category ‘My Novel: Ignoring Gravity’ in the right hand menu.