Short Story Category: 15 Minutes
The Duchy of Lancaster’s housing estate in Harrogate is described euphemistically by local estate agents as ‘The favoured Duchy Estate’.
It was built towards the end of the Victorian era for the successful merchants of Harrogate’s booming spa town, and consists of large stone and redbrick properties, many sporting mock Tudor gables. The houses were built on a grand scale and typically featured five or six bedrooms, sometimes more, and included coach houses and large gardens. In the 1960s this Arcadian environment lost some of its shine as many houses were divided up, turned into flats or rambling old people’s homes. In more recent times they have regained their fashionable status and the flats and some of the old folks’ homes have been turned back into substantial houses. This has attracted wealthy industrialists, the professional classes, surgeons and residents from the world of entertainment, technology and all manner of commerce. Some of the older residents hang on in crumbling coach houses and summer houses that have been converted into more modest homes. For them it’s only a matter of time before the bulldozers arrive and their properties turn into gymnasiums and home cinemas.
‘You wouldn’t believe it.’
‘The people who have bought Holmewood are going to pull it down and build a completely new house.’
‘Yes, Mrs Coxwold told me. She’d overheard Marina, the footballer’s wife, in the doctor’s surgery the other day. You know who I mean?’
‘The dark-haired girl, very pretty. Isn’t she expecting another baby?’
‘Yes, she must be six months on. She’s got two already, and so young. She was telling the receptionist that they’ve rented a flat in town while Holmewood is being re-built.’
‘Isn’t she Russian or something like that?’
‘Latvian I think, maybe Polish, foreign anyway. You can’t go into a restaurant these days without being served by somebody from Eastern Europe.’
‘I know, but they are very polite and so efficient. They put our own young people to shame.’
‘Except in Betty’s Tearooms of course.’
‘But getting back to this new house, do the Resident’s Association know anything about it?’
‘As likely not, otherwise we’d have heard by now.’
‘Well, the planners must have approved of it. God knows what monstrosity they’ve allowed. Look at the Victoria Shopping Centre in town, a travesty.’
‘Indeed, that was when the Council was in their “Greek period!”’
‘And footballers are no better, they’re hardly recognised for their good taste.’
‘Don’t be so hard on them, Megan, we’ve not seen the plans yet, and the wife seems ever so pleasant.’
‘Mark my words, Esther, it’ll be a horror, bound to be. Sports personalities have more money than sense these days.’
‘Meowww!’ said Esther.
18 months later
On a snowy, late afternoon, Phoebe Longstaff was dosing in her over-heated private bedroom at the Golden Years Retirement Home. She had decided to take afternoon tea in her room and not in the urine-smelling ‘Café de Paris’ annex. As she dipped her ginger biscuit into a lukewarm cup of Typhoo tea, she stared out of the window at the snow-laden driveway and parked cars two floors below.
As was her increasing habit she pondered what might have been had she not followed her parents’ strict instructions to marry her now late husband Robert. Since being forced into this ghastly home for the decrepit and forgotten, she had the distinct feeling her own life was tapering towards the exit door. A destination she was not yet ready to reach.
Phoebe’s ire rose as she remembered her reliable but boring husband. His only lasting contribution had been his bank pension that had kept her comfortably well-off in her later years and was now paying for this over-priced retirement hell-hole. She savoured the memories of her long-standing affair with the wealthy wood yard owner and their clandestine rendezvous in expensive hotels around the Yorkshire dales. It was her only relief from the tedium of her surroundings.
She felt robbed by her lover’s premature death when aged only fifty-five. Robert had never known of her liaison or if he had, he’d never quizzed her. Knowing him, he probably couldn’t have been bothered; he would have hated the scandal and would have been more worried what they thought at the golf club and the bank, rather than his own personal humiliation. For Robert, keeping up appearances had been more important than reality.
Phoebe was stirred from her dozy state by a scratching noise coming from the window. She looked up to see a grey squirrel perched on the window ledge peering at her. Its tail darted back and forth as it showered snowflakes into the air, she immediately thought about her late husband’s reaction to the animal had he been still alive. He had hated squirrels and would have bolted off to find his air gun to try and shoot the creature – a quest, like so many things in Robert’s life, in which he would fail.
Later that afternoon, Phoebe had roused herself to take the lift downstairs to watch some late afternoon TV and perhaps chat with the only other sane resident, Liam, an elderly but spritely widower, who had once been a race horse trainer. Phoebe had singled him out as the most likely companion to join her in the breakout attempt once she’d hatched a workable escape plan. This was still in progress.
‘Now then, mother, how are you today?’ asked Esther, as she plonked herself down in a slightly sticky chair next to Phoebe in the resident’s lounge. A large TV was blaring out in the corner making hearing difficult. Most of the residents were sleeping, dribbling or staring, unable to comprehend the mid-afternoon antiques auction programme.
‘As well as can be expected in this death-factory,’ she replied.
‘Quite right, this place is a pisser,’ said the lilting Irish voice of Liam, seated two chairs away. Esther hadn’t noticed him before, thinking he was in the same comatose state of the other residents.
The suppressed smell of urine hung in the air and a large nurse bustled in with a rattling tea trolley. She shouted at the guests, ‘Tea’s up darlins,’ and then moved around the semi-circle of chairs serving the occasional resident capable of waving a limp hand or nodding some form of recognition that tea would be a nice break from the monotony of trying to stay alive.
‘Let’s go and sit in the dining room where it will be easier to chat,’ suggested Esther to her mother. With surprising agility Phoebe got to her feet and with the help of her walking frame they headed off to the dining room.
‘Can I come and stay with you for a few days, dear? This place is getting me down. I feel as if I am a prisoner in a lunatic asylum,’ Phoebe pleaded with her daughter. ‘I won’t be any trouble.’
‘The Irish gentleman in the gravy-stained waistcoat and yellow cravat seemed perfectly alert,’ said Esther, ignoring her mother’s pleading.
But Phoebe was correct in that many of the Golden Years’ residents were suffering from some form of dementia while she was, thankfully, still fully compos mentis. The problem was that if left unsupervised in her own home Phoebe was inclined to hit the bottle and then have a fall. When Phoebe could no longer cope in her own large rambling home she had moved into Esther’s ground floor apartment a short distance away. Esther did her best to hide her own meagre collection of drinks but while she was out at work her mother had a detective’s knack of sniffing them out. Esther would return to discover empty bottles of sherry and gin on the floor and under chairs. She would then search the apartment to find her mother in a semi-conscious state where she’d emptied the last bottle.
‘Mother, you know how naughty you are if I am not able to keep an eye on you. And with my work at the Council offices, I can’t be at home all the time.’
Esther’s mother had been known to steal her daughter’s car keys and stagger to the car with her walking frame, drive off to the nearest pub and go on a bender. The last time this happened she had befriended a fellow alcoholic who possessed a flea-ridden mongrel dog which he kept tethered on a rope. She was found by Esther sitting on a park bench in central Harrogate with a group of down-and-outs swigging sherry from a bottle.
Phoebe’s rebellious spirits was perhaps to be celebrated in someone of ninety-two years of age, but for Esther it was more than she could bear. With some connivance with her doctor they arranged for her admission to the exclusive and expensive Golden Years Nursing Home. The well-equipped establishment was situated in a leafy garden in the heart of the Duchy estate and only a stone’s throw from Esther’s own apartment. It was an ideal arrangement but Phoebe had not warmed to the idea one bit.
It had been a year since her incarceration and Phoebe had become resentful of her daughter. At first she tried wheedling and when this cut no ice she became downright argumentative. If only her mother had become ill or had gone a bit bonkers, like the other residents, it would have eased Esther’s conscience but her mother remained resolutely lucid and increasingly vocal.
‘You can’t come out now, mother, it’s far too cold and there’s so much snow you’ll be falling over as soon as we’re out of the door,’ she replied. ‘But I’ll have a word with the matron to see if we can arrange a few days at home over the Easter holiday when the weather is a bit warmer,’ said Esther, after withstanding another well-reasoned tirade about her cruelty and unfairness to her beloved mother. Phoebe smiled at her victory and patted her daughter’s hand in thanks.
Megan Whitehouse was a successful dentist who specialised in expensive cosmetic work. When she was training she had spent time in Florida working for a rich orthodontist who made a fortune re-building the mouths of ageing millionaires. It had inspired her to take up this form of dentistry back in the UK, and as the boom years of the noughties galloped along she developed a successful practice in Harrogate. The public would cough-up extortionate amounts of money to get their molars straightened, whitened and replaced to achieve a gleaming set of perfectly formed teeth. Her clients included soap stars, footballers, business magnates and divorcees all trying to arrest the ageing process. It was a lucrative business.
Megan was a slim well-groomed lady in her mid-forties. She carried an aura of success and men were instantly attracted to her. She’d never had the inclination to marry but rather kept a succession of lovers on the go that satisfied her carnal needs but did not encroach on her private life. She had no desire to have anyone interfere with her well-ordered life, drive her beloved Porsche or mess about with her immaculately-kept Edwardian house on the Duchy estate.
‘Why ever do you want to live in this large house?’ asked her old friend, Esther.
‘I love the space. I have my own in-door swimming pool and gym.’
‘And trainer,’ interrupted Esther with a sly grin.
‘Hold my parties and nobody overlooks me when I’m sunbathing in the all-together.’
‘Difficult to fault, Megan, I must admit.’
Esther was one of the few close friends that Megan had although Esther was probably a good ten years older – Megan was too polite to enquire about her exact age. Megan liked her friend’s uncomplicated outlook on life and she was a welcome change from her challenging job and her many suitors that she kept on a distant leash.
‘Are you going to Scott and Marina’s party over the Easter weekend?’ asked Megan.
‘Yes, I’ve already accepted. It’s Saturday the thirty-first of March, if I remember correctly. It won’t be on Sunday; as you know Marina is Catholic so she won’t miss the Easter Sunday service. They’ve turned into such a nice couple,’ said Megan.
‘Yes, and after all we said about them. Aren’t we a couple of old bitches?’ said Esther.
‘Enough of the old,’ replied Megan.
‘You never know you might meet some dishy footballer and get lucky,’ said Esther with a giggle.
‘I’ve enough men in my life at the moment,’ said Megan.
‘Anybody I would know?’
‘Well, now you mention it… would you like a drink?’
Scott and Marina’s party was in full swing. Esther had been cornered by some tedious man who sold home cinema equipment and who, for some unaccountable reason, was a guest. He was talking to Esther about the new equipment he was about to install in Scott’s basement. Esther, who had mentally switched off the man’s droning about pixel density, was instead worrying about her mother who she’d left alone in her apartment. She had taken precautions and removed all traces of alcohol from the premises and locked the few bottles she possessed in the boot of her car. Esther had her car keys in her clutch bag and had walked the five minutes to Scott and Marina’s new house.
Esther was looking for a way to extract herself from Mr Pixel when she noticed Megan in deep conversation with Jack Lawson, the senior partner of a large lawyer’s practice in Leeds, a man with a reputation for being a ‘ladies’ man’. She seemed to be giving him plenty of her attention and he was clearly lapping up the conversation and kept bending forward as Megan whispered in his ear, they were both giggling like school children. Her old friend really could be a bit of a tart sometimes, Esther thought, but her mind quickly returned to her mother back at home and what mischief she might be getting up to.
As soon as Esther left for Scott and Marina’s party, Phoebe leaned back in her special high-seat chair that Esther had bought her for TV watching. Working the controls she raised the footrest into a horizontal position and switched on the TV to watch Strictly. It wasn’t long before she was asleep.
She was woken up by a knock at the door. It was very persistent. Phoebe lowered her footrest and pushed the button that raised the seat into a tip-forward mode so that she could stand easily and reach out for her Zimmer frame. The loud knocking continued and as she reached the door, Phoebe attached the chain before half opening it. Through the gap she could see a short portly man in his early thirties; he was dressed in a suit but not wearing a tie, something Phoebe abhorred, and this made her even more suspicious.
‘What do you want, young man?’
‘Hello, I’m Finlay Footpad. Do you own this house?’
‘No, it’s my daughter’s, why?’
‘Is she about, I would like to speak to her?’
‘No, it’s Saturday evening and she’s out. You’ll have to come back on another day if you want to speak to her.’
‘When would be a good time?’
‘I’ve no idea, please go away.’
Esther’s mother was about to slam the door shut. ‘Could you give her this leaflet?’ Finlay Footpad shoved a folded brochure through the gap between the door and the retaining chain and a glossy leaflet fluttered onto the mat.
Esther’s mother closed the door and with some difficulty bent down to pick up the brochure. ‘Top prices paid for your property,’ it read. ‘Don’t go to your estate agent if you are thinking about selling.’ Esther’s mother went into the kitchen and threw the document into the waste paper recycling sack. The last thing she wanted was to encourage her daughter to move away.
‘Did you enjoy the party?’
‘Up to a point. I got collared by some home cinema bore. Goodness knows why he would want to talk to me, as if I could either afford, or want, one of his contraptions!’
‘Jack Lawson’s a terrible old letch. He told me the filthiest joke and one I can’t repeat, my dear. And him a top lawyer.’
Megan had just opened a bottle of Pouilly Fumé and was pouring the golden contents into tall crystal glasses when her mobile phone started vibrating.
‘I can’t talk now,’ she said abruptly into the phone and punched the call-end button.
Esther shifted uncomfortably on her stool and looked at Megan with a questioning expression. ‘Well, are you going to tell me or am I going to have to play “guess the man?”’
‘Men are never simple, they always want you, when you don’t want them!’
‘You do live a complicated life, Megan. Secretly, I think you quite enjoy the drama. A bit of a conspiracy spices up the relationship.’
‘I’m getting too old for fun and games. I prefer the quiet life these days, seeing old friends like you and sharing a bottle of good wine.’
‘Well, who is it?’
‘I’d rather not say, it’s a bit too close to home and I’m annoyed with myself for having entertained the idea in the first place. Now I’m having all on trying to dose down a certain person’s unwanted attentions.’
‘Oh Megan, you can’t drop these clues then not tell me. I’ll spend next week speculating on who of our motley Duchy estate associates is the lucky man.’
‘Well, it will surprise you when I tell it’s not about sex.’
Esther’s mouth dropped open. ‘Well, what is it then?’
‘Do you remember Finlay Footpad, the property plunderer who wanted to turn the lower end of the Valley Gardens into a restaurant zone and the top part to a coach park?’
‘Yes, I do recall some publicity about an idiotic scheme. It was given short-thrift by the Council, if I recall.’
‘Yes, you’ve got him in one. Well, he’s been hounding me to sell my house and turn it into exclusive apartments. He even wants to put a health spa in my garden for exclusive use of the apartment owners.’
‘Well, I never! Are you going to do it?’
‘I was tempted when he started waving his cheque book about but he’s such an odious little fellow. And he would ruin this lovely old house and garden. It should be kept for someone with a family to live in and not turned into a redoubt for bearded hipsters and ladies who lunch.’
‘I agree, Megan, but the money must be tempting?’
‘Aww… I don’t need any more than I earn now. Anyhow, I was finally put off him when he tried to chat me up. And he’s married to boot, I must be old enough to be his mother! Now he keeps phoning me and sending me lewd texts.’
‘If he doesn’t stop you could always phone the police and tell them you’re being stalked.’
‘That’s a bit extreme, but I might… As a last resort.’
On the following bank holiday Monday, Esther had gone shopping to Waitrose to buy some ingredients for the evening meal. Phoebe was sitting upright in her comfy chair admiring the budding magnolia tree in the front garden and watching the birds clamouring at the well-stocked feeding station. Suddenly, she noticed a grey squirrel hopping about the lawn contemplating how best to steal some of the bird-nuts. Phoebe remembered the invective and impotent violence with which her late husband had poured on squirrels in their own garden. Esther had inherited her father’s antipathy for these annoying creatures and she kept a loaded 2.2 air gun in the broom cupboard with which she occasionally took pot-shots. She was no more successful than her late father.
Feeling bored and in need of a drink, Phoebe decided to do her daughter a favour and scare away the unwanted pest. She managed to extract the gun from the hall cupboard and laying it across her walking frame, she walked back into the sitting room where she pulled up an upright chair next to the window. She quietly half-opened the window making a sufficient gap in which she could point the rifle.
The noise from her opening the window had momentarily frightened the squirrel and it retreated to the fence where it sat twitching its tail and cleaning itself. Esther’s mother sat back in the chair with the loaded gun resting across the top of the Zimmer frame and waited. She knew it paid to be patient with squirrels as eventually their greed would overcome caution and the rodent would return to the nuts. After five minutes Phoebe was rewarded with a clear shot. Although she was incapable of lifting the gun to her shoulder she pointed it in what Phoebe believed was the general direction of the squirrel.
It was at that moment that Finlay Footpad had decided to make a return visit to try and persuade Phoebe’s daughter to sell the apartment. As he opened the gate and started his first steps up the garden path he noticed the barrel of a gun pointing out of the window at him. He stopped in his tracks. It was that mad old woman again, he could see her sitting in the ground-floor bay window holding a rifle in her lap. Involuntarily, he lifted his hand in half-surrender, half-defence, as a squirrel hopped in front of him. It was then he heard the retort from the gun and he felt a sharp pain in his left eye and then everything went blank.
The offending squirrel scampered away unharmed and disappeared into the upper branches of a nearby lime tree. The bullet had passed right through Finlay Footpad’s left eye socket into the frontal lobe of his brain and then penetrated the central cortex. His death was instantaneous. He never heard the old woman say, ‘Oops,’ as she closed the window or saw her return the gun to the hall cupboard and resume her comfortable position in the high-seat chair.
It was not long before the squirrel returned. Undeterred, it hopped over the recumbent body on the pathway and climbed onto the bird-feeding station to resume nut raiding.
Phoebe hoped that her daughter had bought some wine to accompany dinner.
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