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Book Extracts

Below are some extracts of my current work.

To find out more, please visit me at: www.ianashley.co.uk



Chapter 1

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 08:42PM

Usually my
neighbour Beattie’s wrath is reserved for immigrants, unmarried
mothers, and people with food allergies. Sometimes even a nature
programme can set her off especially if it shows animals mating. Mind
you ever since she found herself forced to drink tea made with
sterilized milk at Jean Shank’s funeral Beattie had talked about
nothing else for the past week.

“£15
that wreath cost us Maureen’ she said for the umpteenth time as she
blew hard on her lunchtime soup,’ and for what? An organist who
managed to make ‘Abide with Me’ sound like ‘Oh I do like to be
beside the seaside’, that awful tea and half a Danish pastry you
wouldn’t have fed to the birds!’

Now
experience has taught me that it’s never a good idea to go about
speaking ill of dead and I do tell her but Beattie will never listen.
As far as she is concerned they are gone ‘up there’ and that is
that. I know different. Still it’s no good trying to tell Beattie
these things. When a person genuinely believes Romanian immigrants
eat babies it would be an uphill struggle trying to convince her that
the dead do walk amongst us. Speak loudly speak clearly speak now and
to hell with the consequences is her motto.

It’s all
very well her believing that ‘The truth will out’ but I do feel
that there are times when true or not things are best left unsaid.
Still because Beattie always insists on speaking her mind she’s not
what you could call popular. As you can imagine when allowed to roam
free across open border policies and into the vast hinterland of a
welfare state full of underage teenage pregnancies it is not always a
very nice mind to have to listen to.

‘For
heaven’s sake Maureen there was even a woman there in tights and a
Lurex cape!’

Although I
have learned over the last ten years that it’s never wise to try
and argue with Beattie unless you like losing I’d always had a soft
spot for Jean’s niece Wanda so I found myself sticking up for her.

‘A Human
Cannon Ball’ I said, ‘stops for nothing, not even the death of a
Loved One.’

‘Well
she could have washed!’ snapped Beattie. She blew so hard on her
soup that I felt a splash of Oxtail hit my cheek. ‘That woman
reeked of gunpowder.’

Now when
you consider that with her limp Wanda could have easily settled for a
life on disability benefit instead of carving out a nice little
career for herself twice daily on the promenade you would have
thought Beattie would have admired her enterprise. But no. Wanda
Clithold was half Shanks and therefore genetically bound to the
sterilized milk fiasco. No amount of limping in Lurex was ever going
to change that even if Wanda landed herself on Mars.

Still
leaving aside the catering arrangements Beattie did have a point.
With or without the added glamour of a local celebrity as funerals
went Jean’s was not one of the best. For a start it was at St
Jude’s and try as they might no amount of incense will ever get the
smell of that burst drain out of the hassocks. Still that’s no
excuse to skimp on the wake. Quite the reverse I would have thought.
Of course I can think of better ways of spending an afternoon
especially as Jean was more Beattie’s friend than mine. However
being as Beattie had made me pay good money for a black wool and
cashmere coat it seemed a shame not to get the wear out of it.
Apparently fake ocelot isn’t suitable as funeral attire, or so I
was told. Shame really as I’d always thought it brought a hint of
show biz to what can often be a sombre occasion. But what did I know?
After all I wasn’t the widow of the late Chairman of the local
Chamber of Commerce. I was just plain old Maureen Truscott, ex wife,
ex clairvoyant and ex con. But I keep all that to myself.

‘By the
way your hair’s twisted’. Beattie waggled her soup spoon at my
head. ‘Honestly Maureen if you have to wear a wig to a funeral
couldn’t you at least choose one that doesn’t make you look like
an out of work magicians assistant?’

Occasionally,
on days when even Beattie can see through some of the headlines in
the Daily Mail, she keeps her hand in by having a go at me. Sometimes
it’s my lack of devotion to housework, sometimes it’s my love of
bright coloured emulsion. Quite often it’s the fact that I shop at
Top Shop and wear high heels despite being a pensioner. But when all
else fails her favourite topic is my collection of ‘diva’ wigs.
Now that even she was fed up recounting the failings of Jean’s wake
over lunch in the British Home Store’s cafeteria I could tell she
was looking for another victim. And there I was, right in front of
her, my own hair hidden under Shirley Bassey.

‘I mean
why not wear Thora Hird?’ she said, ‘Far more suitable for a
solemn occasion. She did ‘Praise Be’ for a start and there is no
way she would make you look like you should be dancing round a pole
at a business man’s lunch.’

Now whilst
I can often manage to turn a deaf ear to what she calls my ‘slovenly
ways, my ‘hallucinogenic colour schemes’ and ‘my dressing like
a teenager’ I won’t hear a word said against any of my wigs.
Beattie once accused my ‘Dusty Springfield’ of having nits and we
didn’t speak for a week. But I am equally fond of ‘Shirley’.
For one thing she’s made of real human hair that has been
faithfully styled on a cultural icon and for another I lived on beans
on toast for three weeks to pay for her. ‘Thora’ on the other
hand was a free gift with ‘Alma Cogan’. But then that was
precisely the sort of thing that appealed to Beattie’s parsimonious
nature. Anyone who recycles teabags would feel a natural affinity to
free nylon fibres.

‘I mean
you don’t exactly help yourself Maureen’ she sighed, ‘ and even
you have to admit that most of the outfits you wear are more suited
to women at least half your age and then only Lithuanians hoping to
be employed as lap dancers.’

In a way
that is true. I don’t normally fit the identi-kit granny look
favoured by Beattie. She prefers what she calls her ‘heather
shades. I call it ‘World at War’ myself but I never say anything.
Still, now on funeral days I always make a conscious attempt to tone
it down and today had been no different. I thought I looked quite
sombre in my black dress and matching coat and gloves. I was thinking
Jackie Kennedy, only with more polyester. Beattie was just thinking
black thoughts; as usual.

‘If
you’d looked after your hair Maureen, like I have, you wouldn’t
feel the need to cover up, she continued. ‘Still I suppose it was
all that peroxide you used when you worked as a prostitute that
ruined yours. ‘

I
swallowed the last mouthful of my carrot and lentil soup and said
nothing. When she’s in this mood she is best ignored.

It has to
be said that although we have been neighbours in Palmerston Terrace
for the last ten years, and as dear to me as she is, if Fate hadn’t
pitched us either side of an adjoining wall we would never have even
been acquaintances. Outspoken, opinionated and very often downright
rude Beattie might be but she is also the nearest thing I have to a
friend these days. So very often it’s a case of biting your lip and
just letting her vitriol wash over you; like now.

Besides
she knew as well as I did that I’d only worked on a fun fair. I’d
once let that slip in a moment of weakness during a conversation
about short hand typing. Beattie showed me her Pitman’s certificate
and I showed her a picture of me in skin-tight Capri pants with a
towering blond bee-hive hairdo. I’ll admit that I might have looked
a bit flighty when I was ‘Maureen the Waltzer Queen’ but I can
honestly say I was never on the game. That was just one of her little
fictions. The late Arthur Hathaway having been such a perfect husband
was another one. And you didn’t need a magnifying glass to read
between those lines! If you listened to Beattie’s tales of marital
bliss her Arthur sounded a nasty little piece of work indeed. And if
I’m honest I’m not over sure she was exactly sorry to see him go.
All that sighing and eye dabbing is just an act if you ask me.

‘Of
course when I buried my Arthur….,’ she paused in the middle of
dismembering her bread roll long enough to assume what she thought
was an expression of grief and despair. It always looked more like
trapped wind to me but I held my tongue. However because I wasn’t
about to sit through that particular bench mark of funereal
excellence for the umpteenth time I seized the moment.

‘Well
I’m sure the catering at Peggy Braithwaite’s wake will be
something to look forward to’, I said, adding that we all knew how
much Peggy loved her cream cakes.

‘It’ll
be more interesting to see how many pall bearers they needed to carry
the coffin,’ she sniffed.

Well she
did have a point there. Peggy wasn’t exactly what you could call
small framed.

‘Most of
Paxton’s men are over 60 and wear trusses and you can’t expect
them to be heaving that weight about at their age. I wouldn’t be at
all surprised Maureen if management didn’t insisted on wheeling her
in, the compensation culture being what it is these days. If you ask
me that’s the only reason she’s being buried and not cremated.
Imagine all that wood going up, it would probably set light to the
chimney.’ She leaned in close enough for me to see where her
lipstick had missed her mouth adding in a low voice that she just
happened to know that they had to have the casket especially made.

It was a
well known fact that Beattie, ‘just happened to know’ a great
deal about everything that went on in Biddermouth on Sea. Not that
she gossiped. She didn’t need to. Her niece Pauline worked on the
switchboard at the local council offices. Unfortunately this meant
that everything Beattie ‘just happened to know’ she believed to
be placed beyond the reach of rational argument by the rubber stamp
of officialdom. Even so I had never believed that one about the mayor
having a nuclear fall-out shelter built under the wool shop. Anybody
with an ounce of sense only had to look at those road works to see it
was gas mains. But Beattie stuck to her guns. Even today she still
circumnavigates the manhole cover that marked the spot out of respect
for the mayoral regalia.

‘Apparently
none of the off the shelf models were big enough,’ she whispered
before launching back on to her favourite topic, namely her husband’s
death.

‘Of
course I know I had to have Arthur’s custom made but then a civic
funeral is an entirely different occasion. I mean you can’t expect
the whole of the Chamber of Commerce to walk bareheaded behind
veneered chipboard can you?

I
obviously said nothing because I heard Beattie repeat herself.

‘…..Can
you?’ she said. ‘Are you alright Maureen? You look like you’ve
just seen a ghost.’

And in a
way Beattie was right. I had just seen, or at least thought I’d
just seen Jean Shanks standing outside the supermarket.

‘I said
are you alright Maureen?’

I muttered
something about it being too hot in the restaurant. I should have
known better. Instead of sympathy I got another salvo of unwelcome
advice on the perils of wearing unseemly amounts of other people’s
hair on top of your own.

‘Anyway
it’s time we were off,’ she said swinging her handbag over her
arm. ‘It’s at St Luke’s and if we don’t get there in good
time all the best seats will have gone. Remember Eileen Murchison’s?
Jammed at the back with all those Boy Scouts? Then get a move on.
I’ve no idea why Peggy’s family chose that place. The acoustics
are dreadful and the walls are covered in graffiti. They say it’s
the play group but where do the under-fives learn words like that
unless it’s from their parents? Still have you seen those mothers?
How you can expect to bring up a child when you live in a tracksuit I
don’t know. Then again I suppose it’s got a wide aisle.’

That was
one thing Beattie was right about. She also shot me a triumphant
smile when they wheeled Peggy’s coffin in on a trolley, which I
will admit was the size of a double wardrobe with very sturdy
handles. But she was wrong about the lack of seating. Apart from the
immediate family there was only us there. Sadly Peggy’s only close
friends in life were Jean Shanks and Frieda Waverley. One of them was
dead and the other was in St Mary’s Hospital having had her spleen
removed. We didn’t really count either, only being there for the
cakes. Still we knew that a small turnout always boded well in terms
of catering largesse. Plus judging from the combined tonnage of
Peggy’s brood they definitely seemed like a family that enjoyed
their food so it looked like we were in for a treat.

‘As soon
as that last clod of earth gets thrown in ‘sang Beattie to the tune
of ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’,’ we’ll be round that
church hall double quick as I don’t fancy being trampled to death
under that lot when they whip the tea towels off the sandwiches. Look
at that grandchild. You can’t tell me it’s natural for twelve
year olds to be that size! And what is that Karen wearing? She looks
like a bungalow under an awning!’

Everything
went according to plan. Dust to dust and we were right at the head of
the queue. Beattie was over the moon and all over the food. Despite
her girdle she managed to eat four chocolate éclairs, three Fondant
Fancies and a slice of pork pie. She was so overcome by the size and
magnificence of the spread before us that she even risked her
immortal soul by telling all Peggy’s children what a wonderful
woman their mother had been and how greatly she’d be missed by
everyone. All poor Jean’s family had got had been a request for
more Rennies.

‘Decent
milk,’ she hissed using the excuse of a cup of tea to get a good
feel of the table cloth. ‘Real linen too! Has to be borrowed
surely?’

As far as
I was concerned they could have been serving fresh caviar on gold
plates stolen from Buckingham Palace for all the difference it made.
Without trying to sound dramatic I knew that we were NOT ALONE. Ever
since we’d left the restaurant I’d had a feeling that we were
being followed. Even in the church I kept turning round, convinced
that somebody was watching us. And it wasn’t the Almighty either.
By the time we got to the eulogy the feeling was so strong I could
feel the hairs on my head standing up, which was no mean feat
considering they were buried under forty pounds worth of ‘Hey Big
Spender’.

What I
needed more than anything was fresh air but my attempt at a speedy
exit was thwarted when Peggy’s daughter Karen lumbered over and
begged us to take some of the leftover food with us. I think she said
something about it only going to waste if we didn’t but it was hard
to tell because her mouth was full of Cheesy Wotsits.

‘I doubt
that very much!’ Beattie muttered but she did her bit to help and
crammed most of a ham and egg pie and a jar of pickle into her
handbag and half a dozen scones into mine. Only when our pockets were
bulging with mini chocolate rolls were we allowed to leave.

As usual,
unless it’s raining or Beattie has forced her feet into a pair of
court shoes, we took the route home along the sea front. I thought
the walk would do me good and if you hit the promenade at the right
angle Biddermouth On Sea is actually quite attractive. If you hit it
at the wrong angle you’ll probably get mugged. Like all seaside
towns and most of the inhabitants it has seen better days. But then
that was what drew me there in the first place; that and my old
friend Olive Mannering.

Olive had
discovered that it was the sort of place where a woman with a secret
could disappear. Granted I didn’t have as many secrets as her but I
had enough. Then again perhaps Olive didn’t have as many as she
thought either. One weekend she’d made the cover of most of the
Sunday papers. Not that they charged the archbishop in the end but
the damage was done. I think he got off quite lightly considering
he’d been wearing his mitre at the time. Still, after all those
years of running and hiding, living in grubby little bedsits under
assumed names and over fish and chip shops and Indian takeaways
Biddermouth On Sea was a place we both felt that we could finally
call home.

But for
how much longer, I wondered? This business with Jean was stirring up
old memories. The Dead and I had been uneasy bedfellows and I had no
wish to be dragged back into that world.

‘It’s
probably indigestion’ said Beattie.

‘What
is?’ I asked wondering if I’d missed something important.

‘You’
she replied,’ you’ve been in a funny mood since you ate that
soup. What was it? Carrot and lentil? Whatever next? If the Lord had
meant us to eat pulses we’d have been born in Africa. What you need
Maureen is a good dose of Andrews Liver salts when we get home. ‘

‘Probably,’
I said although by now my head was beginning to throb and I knew
carrot and lentil soup was the least of my problems. A martyr to
trapped wind and indigestion herself Beattie saw no reason why
anybody else should be any different. The fact that all her problems
stemmed from eating large quantities of chutney and wearing
pre-decimalisation foundation garments never seemed to enter her
head.

The
further we walked along the seafront the colder the wind became.
According to matron Hathaway a brisk walk would do me the power of
good. I wasn’t so sure. Something did not feel right. And it had
nothing to do with excess stomach acid. Out of the corner of my eye I
saw something or somebody flit from the cover of one shelter to
another. What we needed was to hide, and hide quickly.

I thought
that feigning an interest in stately homes was a stroke of genius so
I pushed Beattie into the local tourist information office. If it was
Jean Shank’s ghost that was following us we should have been pretty
safe in there. The words ‘Jean’ and ‘culture’ had never sat
well together in my opinion. Politically she may have been as bigoted
as Beattie but even I had to admit that my neighbour’s Maria Callas
was one up on Jean’s collection of James Last albums. Beattie may
have called them ‘arias’ and I may have called them ‘noise’
but there was a Maria Callas wig in my catalogue for £65 so she must
have had something going for her despite sounding like a cat in
mangle.

As it
happened I should have just kept walking. Despite being numbed by the
cold wind, my jaw almost hit the floor when I saw the life-sized
poster advertising the forthcoming coming attraction at the Town Hall
Theatre.

‘Doris
Morris, Celebrity Medium and Clairvoyant to the Stars presents ‘The
Above and Beyond’ tour.

‘Beyond
the Pale if you ask me’ snorted Beattie. ‘I mean how can she call
herself a celebrity medium? For a start it’s all hogwash. As I
always say ‘once you’re gone you are gone.’ Full stop. End of
story. But I mean to say Maureen one interview with Lorraine Kelly
and a picture with a weather girl is not my idea of celebrity
anything. And just look at the size of her. She makes Peggy look
positively svelte!’

Whilst
it’s true that Doris Morris was what my ex-husband Archie would
have called a ‘hefty piece’ it is also true to say that Beattie
wasn’t exactly on the small side herself. Despite only being five
foot two inches tall and rigorously corseted she still manages to
make most reasonable sized rooms feel small. She was not so much a
fine figure of a woman as a monolith in gabardine dedicated to the
art of the all in one foundation garment.

That said
it was also true that, as they say in America, Doris Morris and I had
history. At one point, after I’d left the fun fair, after Archie
had been exposed as a bigamist and before I ended up doing three
years at Her Majesties Pleasure and the twins were taken into care,
Doris, Olive and I had all been highly successful mediums on the
Spiritualist circuit. Some things were best kept hidden and I was
determined to keep it that way. The less I saw of Doris Morris the
better. Fortunately for once Beattie was on my side, but as usual for
very different reasons.

‘Well
one thing’s certain we won’t be paying good money to see that
load of old tosh,’ she said, ‘Of course what can you expect when
people vote for a LibDem council? Now when the Tories were in power
the Town Hall Theatre used to put on some lovely musicals. Even you
would have understood them. But look what we got last Christmas; some
girl who played a corpse in ‘Casualty’ trying to be Cinderella.’
She blushed a bit and well she might! According to Beattie she never
watches programmes like that.

‘I tell
you Maureen it’s all bare thighs and more rubbish like this! No
wonder this town has become a haven of illegal immigrants. You mark
my words Maureen by the time we get to the next election we’ll all
be smoking guano!’

’Ganja’
, I said but she shot me one of those famous ‘I happen to know’
looks and I thought ‘well you can smoke bird droppings if you want
and tried to deflect her with a leaflet about coach trips to the
Cotswolds.

‘Yes all
very nice’ she said then looked nervously at her watch. ‘You know
I don’t like being out after dark since than man was caught
exposing himself in the shopping arcade.’

She tried
to tighten her scarf around her neck but then that’s another
curious thing about Beattie. Not only doesn’t she have a waist but
she doesn’t have a neck either. Her head sits straight on her
shoulders. Had she possessed a more amenable expression she would be
a dead ringer for one of those Russian dolls. But as it is with no
neck and everything subjugated by Playtex she often just looks like
an angry skittle on the run from a bowling alley.

As soon as
we ventured outside I could tell all was not well. Whatever it was
that had been following us was still there and that could only mean
one thing. The psychic powers that had got me into so much trouble in
the past had to be coming back. Maybe they had never really gone?
Perhaps the shock of Archie’s bigamy, losing the twins and three
years in prison for fraudulent clairvoyance had simply pushed them to
one side. Either way I suddenly found myself having to think about a
lot of things I didn’t want to think about for the rest of the way
home.

Hardly
surprising then that I was quiet was it? Not that silence ever stops
Beattie having a conversation. She is like nature. She abhors a
vacuum. When she is talking to you and you don’t reply she is quite
happy to imagine your answers and use them against you later. So by
the time we’d reached the hut where the deckchair attendant was
arrested for interfering with young boys she had ticked off
everything that was right about that afternoon’s funeral. Then she
worked systematically backwards to refute each point with something
unpleasant.

Yes it had
been a lovely spread but Peggy’s children had obviously been
brought up not knowing that gluttony was one of the Seven Deadly
Sins. The tea had been refreshing but whatever possessed people like
that to think they could drink Earl Grey? It was very touching when
the grandchildren sang ‘Lord of the Dance’ but a pity they hadn’t
bothered to learn all the words. And finally it was nice to see all
the men in suits but had nobody told them white socks belonged in a
gymnasium?

‘But a
eulogy Maureen, I ask you! When did people like Peggy Braithwaite
start warranting eulogies? All she ever did was get herself banned
from Weight Watchers and spawn that God forsaken brood! Still’ she
added momentarily coming to berth alongside the promenade railings,’
at least they tried which is more than can be said for that Shanks
rabble.’

Then she
let out a shriek, clapped her hand to the back of her head and
claimed that somebody had just thrown a stone at her.

We both
looked around. I couldn’t see anybody. I couldn’t see a stone
either. Apart from a dog relieving itself on a lamppost and a man
drinking something out of a brown paper bag down the other end of the
promenade the place was deserted. It would have felt like the lull
before the storm except there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

And that’s
when it happened. Something, someone or somebody gave be me an
almighty shove and according to Beattie, down I went like a sack of
potatoes.



Chapter 2

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 08:41PM

Placed
in alphabetical order the things Beattie hates most would run to
several volumes rather like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However
under ‘B’ you would find ‘Being shown up’ and under ‘M’
you would find ‘Making an exhibition of yourself’. Under ‘R’
would be ‘Ruining a perfectly good day out’. Being taken to
hospital having rendered myself unconscious in a public place meant I
had definitely transgressed all of those and probably a few others
along the way.

I
have to admit coming round with Beattie threatening to topple over on
top of me in the confined space of a speeding ambulance was enough to
make anybody suffer a relapse. Somewhere she must have read, heard,
or ‘just happened to know ‘that the best way to keep people
conscious was to keep talking to them. I’ve heard that too, but I
thought the idea was to ask them questions to keep them thinking.
Instead she just rattled on with no need for me to even draw breath.
She was doing enough of that for both of us. Now normally when she
starts I switch off but I figured that this time round it was safer
to stay awake. The first hint of a dropped eyelid and she’d be
breaking all my ribs in a mis-guided attempt at CPR.

‘Now
pay attention Maureen, as long as you can remember your name, your
address and the name of the Prime Minister they can’t touch your
pension money! Now who are you?’

I
think I said ‘Maureen Truscott, 53 Palmerston Terrace and David
Cameron’ but even I couldn’t be sure with the oxygen mask clamped
firmly across my face. I wasn’t even sure she was telling truth.
All that sounded like another urban myth put about by social services
to keep the elderly in a state of perpetual terror: like bogus gas
men and the friend of a friend who ended up with their replacement
knee joints fitted back to front. Still somewhere in a haze of
incipient concussion and analgesics I could dimly recall the tale of
Polly Albright.

Legend
has it that she supposedly said ‘Margaret Thatcher’ whilst she
was still coming round from having her veins done. After that it took
her son Nigel three weeks to get her out of Willow Bank Home for the
Elderly, by which time she was word perfect in ‘It’s a long way
to Tipperary ‘ and could never bring herself to sit on a plastic
chair again. It is frightening how quickly people become
institutionalised; especially when they like embroidery.

So
I have to be extra careful. I haven’t got a Nigel to look out for
me. I’ve got twin daughters, Cilla and Sandie, but I haven’t
heard from them since they were six so I can’t see either of them
lifting a finger to help their poor old mum. As they say in those
detective movies, that Beattie also claims not to watch, that leaves
me in a very vulnerable situation. So there we were in casualty. Me
on a trolley, a nurse trying to do her best to get me booked in and
Beattie doing her damndest to get my rings off before they were
stolen.

‘I
know they’re not worth anything’ she said getting in everybody’s
way and almost dislocating my fingers, ‘but they are all you’ve
got. Some of these porters can’t tell the difference between
rubbish and the real thing. Evadne Collier lost her watch and her
engagement ring. Both of them heirlooms and both of them turned up in
that pawn shop near the cobblers.

Eventually
Beattie was asked, told, and then forcibly made to sit outside by two
men in security uniforms. They must have taken her some way away
because it all went terribly quiet allowing Staff Nurse Carol to get
on with her forms.

It
was just as well I said that I was sorry about my friend Beattie
because in the confusion she had me down as Mrs Hathaway. Poor soul,
it can’t have been easy trying to fill in the paperwork with
Beattie pushing her out of the way all the time and demanding to know
when she had last washed her hands.

Staff
Nurse Carol said it was ok. Apparently since the cut backs they were
used to psychiatric patients wondering about the place now that they
all had their own keys. She said that they just didn’t have the
time to keep locking them in and out. Apparently only last week one
of them even turned up in the operating theatre dressed as a surgeon.
When she laughed I got a strong whiff of cough mixture. When she
called me ‘Beattie’ again I started to panic.

‘Maureen’
I said quickly. ‘My names Maureen Truscott and I live at 53
Palmerston Terrace and the Prime Ministers name is Gordon Brown. And
I didn’t fall. I was pushed!’

‘Yes
of course you were Beattie,’ she smiled, ‘Actually it’s David
Cameron. Just make sure you get it right if Sister Mottram asks you.
She’s very old school, but not in a nice way. She hates dust. Well
if you ask me she doesn’t care much for patients either. But that’s
between us. Better make sure we’ve got your brakes on hadn’t we?
Don’t want you rolling away and getting lost! Now let’s see if we
can find a porter with enough English to get you down to the ward in
one piece. We don’t want you falling into Bogdan’s hands do we?
Not after what happened last week when he left that patient in
…..’she checked herself before adding that I was lucky the old
lady in bed three had died that morning or I would have had to been
sent to the Princess Diana Hospital on the other side of town.

‘Oh’,
I said, wondering if I should be marvelling at my good fortune.

She
paused and checked her watch. ’Just between us they’ve got MRSA
but keep that under your hat or this place will be swamped. God knows
we’ve got enough on our hands with the cystitis epidemic let alone
having to cope with a flesh eating virus.’

‘Now
don’t you go worrying yourself Beattie, ‘she added. ‘She turned
up in a goods lift of all places. Mind you if we hadn’t been stock
taking and noticed we were one drip short she might still be there
now!’

No
doubt she was doing her best to establish what I believe is called
‘rapport’. But to be honest when she confided that last week
alone they had lost 15 swabs and 2 pairs of forceps I think she could
tell from the look on my face that all she was doing was putting the
wind up me; that and the fact that I was now wearing a wristband with
the wrong name on.

She
gave the pillows an extra puff and straightened the covers.
Apparently there was nothing to worry about. All I had to do was
concentrate on getting better.

‘After
all these things always turn up,’ she said brightly. ‘Usually at
the sight of a post operative infection but we always get them back
and after a quick boil they’re as good as new. ‘

She
parked me in a side ward and I watched her disappear; the NHS in
action; squeaking her way down the corridor. You could tell from the
way she walked that she’d rather be wearing sling backs and working
in a nice office. Yet despite the fact that she reeked of cough
mixture and her foundation hardly bothered to conceal her acne she
seemed a nice enough girl. I mean it can’t be easy dealing with
death on a daily basis. Once upon a time nursing was a vocation. Now
people were forced to do it because they couldn’t get jobs in
travel agencies. No wonder she looked so demoralised.

And
she wasn’t the only one. There is nothing like being abandoned in
an empty ward without your wig and your top set of teeth for making
you feel old and unwanted. The fact that I was dying for a wee didn’t
help either.

‘Worse
things happen at sea,’ I told myself.

We
used to say that a lot in prison. Usually when somebody’s parole
was turned down or they got a letter saying their husband was leaving
them or their boyfriend had got another girl into trouble and was
having to get married. But to be honest what is the worst thing that
can happen at sea? Yes. You drown. And sometimes when the doors were
locked at night and the lights were turned out that was exactly what
it felt like.

One
of the pills they’d given me must have made me nod off because the
next thing I knew there was this great big thing looming over me
like…like a great big looming thing. He smiled and apart from the
gold teeth he looked quite friendly. Still there was something in his
eyes that made me feel sorry for the lad. He looked so sad,
displaced, which I suppose he was really, being called Bogdan.

‘I
frighten you, sorry’ he said. ‘We go to ward.’

‘Toward
what’ I said, and for a nasty moment I wondered if he wasn’t one
of those maniacs who make a habit of working in hospitals to help old
people on their way Toward The Light. Not doctors I mean; although
Beattie just happens to know such stories. Sadly these only serve to
bolster her rather right wing views on foreigners. For some reason
she has a real phobia about doctors from Sierra Leone although I
doubt she even knows where it is. But whatever the reason she once
contemplated amputating her own septic finger when Dr Ndolo was the
locum at the surgery.

Bogdan
thought I’d made a joke and laughed. I could see that with decent
dentistry he could be a bit of a heart throb. But then those Eastern
Europeans are like that. They are either drop dead gorgeous or they
look like hobbits. There is no middle ground. Fortunately my Bogdan
was a bit of a dish despite the teeth and if I’d been twenty years
younger I wouldn’t have minded being left in a goods lift with him
at all. Well let’s make it thirty years then, maybe even forty.

I
also had the feeling that he wasn’t really the sort to go leaving
people on trolleys in goods lifts for no good reason. Call it a sixth
sense but I felt sure he was not as black as he was painted. I
reckoned it had more to do with him not being British than anything
else. There is a lot of prejudice against foreigners but at the end
of the day they are only trying to make a living like the rest of us.

Of
course if you listened to Beattie they were milking the social
security system left and right, taking jobs from British people and
snatching the daily bread from out of our very mouths. Added to that
there was the TB and the host of other communicable diseases that she
claimed they brought into the country because of their lack of
personal hygiene and spitting. She didn’t exactly go as far as
saying that they eat babies but I knew the thought was there. Anybody
wondering how one small man with a dodgy moustache could wind up
killing six million Jews needed to look no further than the likes of
Beattie Hathaway.

She
was exactly the same when Mr Patel was mugged for his takings.
Beattie claimed it served him right for scratching the sell-by dates
off his yoghurts. She soon changed her tune when he shut his shop for
two weeks whilst his brother – in –law installed attack alarms
and metal grills on the windows. Walking those four extra streets to
get her newspapers not only gave her corns but a totally different
outlook on the Asian community I can tell you.

What
is sad is that you only had to listen to her to know that she had led
such a very small life. It could not have been easy living with all
those neck-less relatives. Buying Christmas presents must have been a
nightmare. You couldn’t have got a scarf or a tie on any of them.
Not that she ever talked much about her family except to harp on
about how wonderful they all were, hinting now and then that when she
ceased to be a Freemantle she had married beneath herself, but if the
photographs were anything to go by you got the impression that they
were not what you could call a barrel of laughs.

For
a start there’s not one of them with a smile in any of her wedding
photos. I mean my lot may have been a bit rough but there was always
something going on somewhere causing the branches of the family tree
to tremble. Sometimes being a Truscott could be very exciting. If you
added in the Openshaw and the Tappley cousins the effect was mind
blowing. When I was growing up the local newspapers court report was
a veritable who’s who of my genetic inheritance. Small wonder I
ended up where I did then?

Anyway
not for Beattie the thrill of a life on the waltzers that’s for
sure. And I don’t suppose she’d ever made love under Blackpool
pier either. What I am saying is that a narrow mind in the wrong
hands is a very dangerous thing. Like a hand grenade with no pin.

Despite
my forebodings the St Vitus ward looked a nice enough place. At least
it wasn’t mixed and Bogdan soon had me safely installed in nice
clean bed which considering it had only just been vacated by the
recently deceased was reassuringly cold.

The
sound of the safety bars being locked firmly into place had a
familiar ring of doom about it and my heart sank.

‘See
you alligator later!’ he said as he bowed and kissed my hand.

So
there I was, wigless, toothless and about to be sucked into care in
the community against my will. To be honest wearing a paper night
dress doesn’t do much for your self esteem either. To say I was at
my lowest ebb would have been an understatement and I had a terrible
feeling that things could only get worse.

And
as soon as I heard those footsteps I knew there was trouble brewing.
Nobody else could make that amount of noise on a wooden floor, not
even a Bogdan.

‘There
you are!’

The
curtains parted to reveal Beattie as red as a beetroot and panting
for all she was worth. Even in rubber soles she is not capable of
launching a surprise attack.

‘That
stupid woman on the desk, I think she’s a Sullivan by her second
marriage which explains a lot, only sent me all the way over to male
urology. I don’t think so, I said, but she was would have it that
she was right. Although why she thought you’d be in a ward full of
old men with catheters I really don’t know. I tell you Maureen if
there is a part of the body that can be drained, stitched back or
cauterized I’ve been there.’

She
made an ill-tempered flourish with the headscarf she was mopping her
face with. I noticed it was one of her best ones too; the one with
the map of the Isle of Wight on it. She’d bought me one but I
honestly thought it was a tea towel.

‘I
thought for one awful moment they’d sent you to the Princess Diana.
Dropping like flies they are over there, not to mention loosing limbs
left right and centre.’, she puffed before adding the comforting
afterthought that at least here I could die of my own ill-health and
not from some second hand infection.

‘And’
she said looking round with uncharacteristic caution, ‘did you know
this place is crawling with Phillipinos ? I had to ask three of them
the way before I found one that could do more than smile. You want to
be very careful Maureen.’

‘Now
you can’t say that Beattie’ I said. Love her dearly as I might
she could be a bit too BNP for my liking. In her black and white
world everything should have been white. Come to think of it I
wouldn’t have been surprised if it wasn’t her who spread the
rumour that Mr Patel scratched the sell by dates off things in the
first place.

Beattie
snapped back that she could and she would. She’d watched ‘Tenko’.
She knew!

‘When
I think of poor Alec Guinness,’ she huffed, ‘and what he went
through building that bridge….’ she snatched the curtains closed
behind her.

‘Anyway
I nipped back to your house and brought you these!’ She whispered
pointing to a carrier bag as if she was supplying me with Class A
drugs.

I
was expecting the bunch of grapes but I was not prepared when she
produced what, given the location and the circumstance, could well
have been a human scalp and part of a jaw. As it was it was only a
wig and my spare top set.

‘I
know it’s Liza Minnelli but I’m sorry to say some little brat
called Tyrone snatched up Shirley Bassey before I had a chance to
clip him round the ear. And would he give her back? No he would not.
I almost had to break his fingers. And his mother was no help. You
know the sort I mean Maureen; about twelve in a pink tracksuit and
with ‘co-habitee’ written all over her. Still that’s modern
life for you although why wearing one of those scrunchy things means
you have to lose your moral standards I know. They must be the hula
hoop of the new millennium I suppose. Still we are where we are and
if people will insist on voting the wrong way what can the rest of us
expect?’

Before
I had a chance to say anything she rammed the wig on my head ignoring
the dressing Nurse Carole had stuck over a very nasty head wound.
Thankfully
the painkillers were so strong that I merely winced.

‘Umm.
She didn’t look like that in Cabaret.’

I
reached up through a haze of pain in my shoulder and tugged the wig
round the right way.

‘I
think you were done you know. She definitely didn’t look like that.
A slut yes, demented no. Mind you I never saw all of it; mucky and
far too much gratuitous thigh for my liking.’

I
reached up and gave the wig another tug. Then I remembered the cut
over my right eye and settled for comfort and something more Rolling
Stone than Weimar Republic. Beattie merely listed heavily to one side
as if she had suddenly suffered a shift of cargo below the waterline.
Her lips pursed and I could tell she still wasn’t convinced that
anybody could have won an Oscar with that hairstyle.

‘I
expect she was on drugs anyway’. According to Beattie most people
under the age of forty were. For those that weren’t it was only a
matter of time. Her whole life appeared to be spent shoring up her
defences against a rising tide of drugs and delinquency. That
probably explained her corsets. They were a sort of Maginot Line with
eyelets.

‘I
have to say Maureen I don’t know what you thought you were playing
at!’ She wiped a finger along the window sill and grimaced at the
dust. ‘Fancy making an exhibition of yourself like that, and in a
public place?’

‘I
was pushed’, I said.

‘You
fell flat on your own face’ Beattie snorted.

‘But
I was!’ I protested. I thought mentioning that the police would be
calling to take a statement might wipe the smug expression off her
face. Instead she looked like somebody had plugged her whalebones
into the mains.

‘Are
you mad Maureen Truscott? They’ll take one look at you in that wig
and have you put in a home! Which reminds me, did anybody ask you who
the Prime Minister is?’

I
nodded. I didn’t say that I’d got it wrong. Well there was no
point provoking her further when she was in one of her moods.

She
said that she hoped for my sake I hadn’t said Gordon Brown and
reminded me of what happened to Polly when she’s said Margaret
Thatcher.

‘Six
weeks she was in that place!’

‘Three
weeks’, I said.

‘I
happen to know different Maureen, remember my Arthur’s niece works
at the Council Offices and as a government employee she would hardly
lie about such things would she? All of which brings me back to the
police and your misguided attempt to make a drama out of this little
incident. If you ask me (which I hadn’t) you’ve only yourself to
blame. I mean fancy wearing those stupid shoes at your age. Well it’s
to be hoped you’ve learned your lesson Maureen. Honestly falling
about like that is it any wonder people think you’ve got a drink
problem?’

I
sighed. That was the first I’d heard about that one. Normally it
was just wigs and prostitution. The trouble with Beattie was that
because you could never tell when she was being deliberately cruel or
unintentionally hurtful, you never knew when to bite back or when to
let it all go over your head. And right now my head hurt so I ducked
that one without even a second thought.

She
said that if I took her advice I’d forget the whole thing. After
all what would people think if they read that sort of thing in the
local paper?

‘I’ll
tell you what they’d think’ she continued before I had a chance
to interrupt her. ‘They would think that our dear little town was a
haven for thugs and vandals and before you know where you are our
houses would be worth next to nothing.

‘But
I was pushed I tell you,’ I said. ‘I felt somebody shove me in
the back just before I fell over.’

I
could feel myself beginning to come over slightly peculiar and prayed
for death before I had to listen to Beattie again. But no such luck.
When she was in this mood she was like one of those giant super
tankers, you could turn the engines off but it took a bloody long way
before it stopped.

‘Tripped
over your own silly shoes you mean’ she snapped. ‘I was there
remember. I saw everything.

She
reeled off a sequence of events, glossing over the fact that she had
been hit by an invisible stone herself, that saw her leaping into a
taxi and, being the good friend and neighbour that she was, going
back to my place, braving my mucky kitchen, grabbing Liza Minnelli
and helping herself to the travel tokens I kept in a teapot on the
mantelpiece to pay for the round trip.

‘And
this is how you repay me; threatening to slice half off the value of
my home overnight!’

I
had no way of knowing how much of this was fact and how much was
Beattie. Mind you the bit about her raiding my secret store of rainy
day bus tokens sounded very much like her. I was about to take my
life in my hands and ask if she’d seen anybody following us on the
promenade, well not just anybody, more specifically Jean Shanks when
the curtains twitched and Beattie spun round like a fornicator caught
in the act.

‘And
who are you?’ she barked at the thin young woman who had slipped
quietly into the cubicle behind her.

Apparently
her name was Monica and she had been assigned as my social worker.

I
felt a surge of panic and said ‘David Cameron’, but nobody was
listening to me. And why would they? After all I was only the person
who was being forced into the welfare system against my will. I was
old, toothless and in a paper nightdress. What rights did I have?

Beattie
heard the words ‘social worker’ and compressed her lips into an
expression that looked anything but welcoming.

‘And
what do you normally do when you’re not assigned Monica? Are you
some kind of YTS?

At
this point I started to protest but was firmly rebuffed by Beattie
who told me to keep my mouth shut and leave the talking to her or I’d
end up in a home singing ‘Tipperary’ three times a week and twice
at weekends.

Monica
braced herself against her clipboard and prepared to stand her
ground. Unfortunately my best friend was not the kind of woman she
had come across in any of her modules. She wasn’t sure if she
needed to practise intervention or anger management. Whilst Monica
dithered Beattie went for it. She was in no mood to be wrong footed
by a woman with plaits.

‘Mrs
Truscott is not homeless, and despite the wig she is not mental or a
sex worker and as far as I know my friend is still in full control of
her own water works and bowel movements. And neither is she a single
parent family……………

My
social worker let out something akin to a whimper of pain and fled,
presumably to apply for the soft option of teaching French to inner
city teenagers with crack cocaine dependency. I let out a similar
sound only mine was real pain. Not so much pain from my injury but
more from the sound of Beattie’s voice banging against my own
troubled thoughts.

‘I’ll
get a nurse,’ she said and charged off down the ward demanding
injections, bed pans and a crash team. Still at least she was gone.

Now
whatever anybody said, including Beattie, I knew I was pushed, and
more to the point I was knocked off my feet by a woman we had both
seen committed to the ground less than ten days earlier. But then why
hadn’t Beattie seen her? Or had she? Knowing her views on matters
psychic if the angel Gabrielle had appeared to a Virgin Beattie there
would have been no baby Jesus. Still it had to be said that if Jean
Shanks was going to materialise to anybody it wouldn’t be me. For
one thing we couldn’t stand each other. And for another I wasn’t
the one who had said all those unkind things about her funeral tea.
So why was she picking on me: and why now? We had a coach tour of the
Fen Country booked at the end of the month. I didn’t have time for
all this. Then again Beattie had seen the trip advertised in the same
magazine that sold Velcro fastening shoes so enough said.

Beattie
could say what she liked on this one but I knew a ghost when I saw
one. I may well have been found guilty of fraudulent clairvoyance but
once I did actually possess the gift. Sadly in my case it turned out
to be more of a curse but that’s another story. Still at one time I
had been very good even if I say so myself. It was only when I got a
bit carried away that I came unstuck. And who knew but if it hadn’t
been for that undercover policewoman it might well have been me on
that poster and not Doris Morris; only thinner of course.

I
was still pondering my unwilling return to the world of spirit when
Beattie arrived with a nurse and enough pain relief to stun an
elephant.

‘I
suppose you do have qualifications wherever it is you come from?’
she asked the tiny oriental woman who was busy trying to find a vein
in my arm.

‘Well
I hope you know what you’re doing’ she went on before mouthing
her apology to me that this was the only nurse she could find. ‘All
the real ones seem to have gone home; or they’re drunk’.

So
whichever way you told it I was pushed flat on my face by a ghost
that Beattie may or may not have seen; Jean Shanks was back in the
material world and I was being repeatedly jabbed in the arm by a
Phillipino nurse who was trying her best to fend off blows from
Beattie’s handbag at the same time.

…it
was good to lose consciousness especially when bells are ringing and
people are calling for security. With most people you could feign
deafness or ignorance. With Beattie you had to go the whole hog and
black out……………



Chapter 3

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 08:40PM

If there
is one thing Beattie dislikes more than Orientals it’s being
ignored so I assume she’d lost interest when I lost consciousness
and she went home. Either that or she was arrested for assault with a
deadly weapon. But when I eventually came round she was gone and so
were my grapes.

The tea
trolley was just getting close to my bed when all hell broke loose. I
couldn’t hear any alarms ringing but three years in prison gives
you a nose for these things. Something was up. Bogdan was shouting.
Somebody was shouting back and Staff nurse Carol was looking very
harassed. She had got the junior staff to look in all the lockers.
They were even looking under the beds. Obviously they had lost
something and poor old Bogdan was getting the blame. I couldn’t
imagine what it was but judging from the general air of panic I had
the idea we were not talking about a bed pan.

Because of
all the comings and goings I never did get that cup of tea but when
the Pill Trolley came round we all got one from each bottle and
something that might have been a suppository as I remember it took a
lot of swallowing. I slept like a log.

Next thing
it was gone ten o’clock in the morning and even though I was still
a bit groggy I could see Beattie in the distance looking like one of
those balls in a pinball machine as she ricocheted her way towards
me. Because she had thrown caution to the wind and was moving at
twice her normal speed meant I was sure she was not the bearer of
glad tidings.

Mind you I
thought I had a piece of news that would stop her in her tracks.
Strangely enough Beattie had other ideas and was in no mood to listen
to anybody.

‘Guess
who died last night?’ I said dangling the bait.

‘Frieda
Waverley,’ she snapped before I’d even felt a tug on the line.
‘I’ve just seen her Veronica crying in the corridor although why
she’s bothering with all that I don’t know, Frieda hasn’t
spoken to her since she had that black baby. And that was over twenty
years ago. Still it just proves that I was right all along. You do
need a spleen. By the way I’ve fed that creature of yours twice so
you don’t have to worry. Are you sure he hasn’t got fleas? ’

I knew
Beattie and Mr Mong had never seen eye to eye and although I was
grateful that she had steeled herself to go anywhere near him I was
determined to break my story.

‘And…’
I was going to tell her that according to one of the night staff who
had scant regard for patient confidentiality,
Frieda’s body had gone missing, Bogdan had been suspended and they
were searching for an interpreter who spoke Romanian. All I hoped he
hadn’t done anything mucky. After all he’d kissed my hand.

‘And her
body’s missing and they’ve arrested one of the porters. Yes I
know all that. My niece telephoned me this morning.

So much
for reeling in the big one! Normally she licks her lips at anything
that casts migrant workers in a bad light so I would have thought
tales of body snatching Romanians would have been right up her
street. But this morning she was so agitated all her usual bile
seemed to have evaporated. I only hoped that she hadn’t come face
to face with the shopping centre Flasher whilst changing buses.
Heaven help us if she’d been subjected to an erect full frontal.

‘Maureen
I’ll come straight to the point. We did go to Jean Shanks funeral
didn’t we?’

Well that
certainly wasn’t what I was expecting to hear after she had
expended all that energy. But I decided to play along and said of
course we did.

‘Well we
couldn’t have done Maureen. I’ve just seen her in Sainsbury’s!’
Beattie was in such a state that she pulled out a chair without
thinking. She dropped anchor with a loud snap from her corsets and
looked stunned.

Now you
will have gathered that of the two of us I’m the more comfortable
with the concept of ghosts. Whilst I may not like the idea of being
stalked by one I do accept that they exist. Beattie on the other hand
has no concept of the Great Hereafter beyond the fact that there is
one, she will be going there and joining all the other neckless
Freemantles long since departed. More importantly once there she
planned to stay put.

‘But I
can’t have done’ she mumbled, ‘She’s dead.’

Based on
my own experiences there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever. Beattie
had seen a ghost. End of story. And whilst I’m not one to gloat
part of me couldn’t help feeling that it served her right.
Personally I’d never warmed to Jean. She was too fond of doilies
for my liking but that’s what had brought her and Beattie together
in the first place. Crochet and house work. As far as I could make
out theirs had been an odd friendship; one based on a domestic
rivalry that led to some of the whitest net curtains and slipperiest
lino ever known to mankind. Where they were concerned housework had
become a dangerous addiction. Like anorexia or heroin except with a
hint of lavender, beeswax and chlorine bleach.

I thought
it was kinder to suggest that
she must have been mistaken. Foolish I know but I reckoned even
Beattie would draw the line at clouting a bed-ridden friend with her
handbag; having
said that, that poor little nurse hadn’t shown up this morning.
Then again the place was in such an uproar that she might well have
still been cowering undiscovered in a lavatory cubicle in fear of her
life. Beattie’s handbag was neither small nor a thing of great
beauty. Crammed
full of ham and egg pie it could have been lethal. If you ask me that
bag should have been subject to an amnesty and handed into the local
police.

However
being as Beattie was at this very moment being held hostage by her
own foundation garments on a plastic chair I felt brave enough to
argue the toss. Or at least suggest, ever so mildly, that she might
have got Jean muddled with any number of old ladies.

‘I mean
she was pretty nondescript Beattie.’ I said.

‘If by
that you mean she didn’t wear clothes from Top Shop then any decent
woman could be called nondescript. Including myself I suppose.’

As you’ve
probably gathered I’m a great believer in keeping up with the times
whereas on the other hand Beattie prefers to look like an extra from
a Pathé Newsreel.

‘Which
reminds me, we need to see about getting you out of this place so
I’ve brought you some decent clothes to go home in and for your
information I was not mistaken Maureen. I know that look of yours! It
was Jean Shanks I tell you. As large as life and as plain as the nose
on my face and as near to me as…as…..as…’ she paused racking
her brain for another simile but settled in defeat for a less than
descriptive, ‘ as you are now! She was by the reduced meats in
Sainsbury’s looking at some cheap stewing beef.’

Well! If
any psychic investigator needed proof that the dead retained an
attachment to their favourite earthly locations the fact that Jean
Shanks was haunting the reduced foods section was all the proof
they’d need. As far as I know she never paid full price for
anything. But that was another bond she shared with Beattie so I kept
my thoughts to myself.

However
one look at my best friend and neighbour and I could see that she was
struggling to come to terms with the fact that either the dead did
walk in Sainsbury’s, which ran contrary to her belief that they did
no such thing , or that she had been duped into buying flowers for no
good reason. I wasn’t sure which hurt the most.

But I
could see that Beattie’s thoughts were clacking away like knitting
needles inside her head. I sensed her tugging at the strands of the
impossible and plain and purling them into some sort of common place
garment. Of course the most rational explanation was that Jean Shanks
was a bona fide phantom but for Beattie that would never do.

‘Ah ha!’
she slipped the last stitch and cast off, metaphorically speaking.
‘It was an insurance scam. It had to be. There is no other
explanation. And to think we’d spent good money on a wreath!’

‘Don’t
be so daft’ I said. ‘Nobody would go to all that trouble to get
their hands on a Co-op funeral plan. I mean I know people have been
murdered for less but……..

Beattie
cut across quickly. ‘In your world Maureen, perhaps, but not in
mine. Anyway we don’t know that they hadn’t taken out an enormous
insurance policy. What if she’d been insured for millions? It does
happen you know. I knew we should have insisted on going to the
chapel of rest Maureen. Family mourners only! My eye! From now on if
we can’t see the corpse, we don’t waste money on flowers.

That said,
Beattie was back to her normal self, slightly flushed it’s true,
but triumphant. I have to say I admired her ability to get to the
crux of the matter and stay there; however wrong. Others of a more
inquisitive nature might have asked themselves what woman living on
the wrong side of the law would have been stupid enough to return to
the scene of her crime, not only in broad daylight but by the reduced
meat counter of her local supermarket? So out of sheer devilment I
did just that.

However,
true to form Beattie Hathaway had used her early morning rise to good
effect and was already across that particular bridge.

‘I t was
quite simple’, she said, swaying dangerously in her excitement.
‘They got their hands on the money and turfed her out!’

She let
out a celebratory whistle like a pressure cooker that had finally
subdued a particularly tough cut of meat and settled back down to let
her insides simmer in her own dark thoughts.

It was
then that the other social worker arrived. You would have thought
after what happened to Monica they would have brought in the big guns
but I suppose they were all out there following policy to the letter
and busily re-uniting battered babies with their violent parents.
This time they’d sent another mousy looking little thing with low
self esteem written all over her. I noticed that she was wearing
those sandals that they all wear. Funny though, you never see that
style sold in shops. I suppose they get given them when they qualify
instead of a diploma. She introduced herself as Pam and Beattie
snorted.

Neither of
us cared much for social workers if the truth be told. We’d seen
too many friends and acquaintances abused by the system to feel
otherwise. However I like to think I was less obvious about where my
opinions lay than my friend. I merely smiled and told her that David
Cameron was
Prime Minister. Well you never know. Being old is a high risk
business. You cannot afford to take any chances. Whether it’s
walking on an icy pavement or risking incarceration at Willow Bank if
you don’t look out for yourself nobody else will do it for you.
It’s a dog eat dog world out there and Beattie was looking
decidedly canine at the unfortunate Pam.

‘I
thought we’d got all this sorted out yesterday’ said Beattie. ‘Or
don’t you people talk to each other?’

I could
tell from the look on Pam’s face that she suddenly realised that
she had come face to face with Monica’s nemesis. She said quickly,
almost inaudibly, as she shuffled her paperwork, that Monica was no
longer with them.

‘Right
‘said Beattie, ‘well I’ll tell you what I told your colleague
yesterday. Mrs Truscott is not homeless, insane or incontinent. God
knows she may be a stranger to spray polish but her home is perfectly
habitable even if it is in dire need of redecoration.’

I closed
my eyes. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if having Beattie on your side was
such a good idea. It was a bit like siding with Italians in a war.
You never knew when they would stop shooting forwards and start
shooting back. And this was definitely one of those times. If Beattie
didn’t stop ranting soon I’d end up being placed in Willow Bank
for my own protection. Social services may not be too fussy about
children at risk but I was damned sure they had emergency powers that
could rescue old ladies from the clutches of insane neighbours.

Pam didn’t
react to being called a mindless cretin. But I could tell she was
unsettled. She was fiddling with her split ends. I’d love to know
why these people have such terrible hair? I mean I know mine isn’t
strictly speaking my own but I do have all my girls professionally
styled. Just because you’re a social worker and
have to eat Quorn doesn’t
mean you have to forgo a decent conditioner surely?

To give
Pam her due she did try to get a word in edgewise. At least she tried
‘but’.

‘But
nothing ‘, said Beattie

‘But….’

‘I
haven’t finished’ said Beattie.

And she
hadn’t. Without me even having to open my mouth I turned down meals
on wheels, grief counselling,
a home help and free chiropody. I did have to feel sorry for Pam. By
the time Beattie had finished with her that poor girl was clutching a
good handful of her own hair and had still found time to work a hole
in her cardigan with a finger.

‘They’re
all the same,’ said Beattie as Pam made her hasty apologies and
fled. ‘Once you let them in your house,’ she added, ‘your
life’s not your own. And let’s be honest Maureen if they got into
yours they’d have a field day. They’d probably call in the
Environmental Health people. Have you seen the state of your hob? And
I didn’t even dare venture into your cupboards.’

Then she
had another of her ‘happen to know ‘moments and added that they
never did half the things they said they would.

‘Remember
Catherine Rookby?’

I did
indeed. Social Services had promised her the earth if she took her
mother in to live with her. Instead all she got was a prescription
for Prozac and her mother got bedsores.

‘Lucky
for you Maureen that I was here!’

Lucky me,
I thought. Lucky me indeed! For overnight St Vitus’s ward had
become a very unpleasant place to be. For a start they had brought in
more uniformed security guards and seeing Bogdan marched away in
handcuffs was the final straw. Rumours of necrophiliac orgies in the
mortuary had such
a debilitating
effect on some of the heart patients that
the erratic bleeping of their monitors made the place sound like a
discotheque. Then there were the claims
about inappropriate touching from the most unlikely quarters,
including Male Urology. I mean how else do you fit a catheter?

Anyway as
I was still pondering the significance of Jean’s reappearance Staff
Nurse Carole asked Beattie if she could have a word with her in the
office. I thought that either Monica or Pam had made a complaint
about her
behaviour or she was about to be asked to help the police with their
enquiries following the discovery of the battered remains of that
poor little Philippino nurse.

I think
Beattie also felt a momentary ripple of panic emanate from the depths
of her girdle. Her mouth fell open and only silence came out. Still
as we all know attack is supposed to be the best form of defence. She
inflated herself with one enormous breath and rose like a zeppelin
from her moorings saying,

‘About
time too if you ask me!’ and stomped off, uncharacteristically
letting Staff Nurse Carole lead the way. But within a couple of
strides she was back to her old self. I could see her pointing out
balls of fluff under one of the beds.

I suppose
it’s her corsets that give her that feeling of invincibility. The
passengers on the Titanic must have felt the same. After all they
were on the world’s first unsinkable luxury liner. What could
possibly go wrong? Well we all know the answer to that one don’t
we? However I could see she was soon safely berthed out of harm’s
way in the nurse’s office refusing point blank to drink tea out of
a mug.

I was just
settling back with something that approximated to a cup of tea myself
when the next thing I knew Beattie barged out through the office door
waving a piece of paper. She had that look on her face that went
beyond the glow of triumph at my misfortune. There was a gleam in
Beattie’s eyes that made me feel like Sudetenland.

Being
discharged into Beattie’s care was not what I would have classed as
being good for my health. However it seemed that Beattie, not the NHS
knew better. I suppose they were just glad of the bed and fed up with
their staff being assaulted. So far Beattie had got through one
Philippino nurse and two social workers. I know they are always
looking to save money but…… .

Beattie
tutted and gave Liza Minnelli a tug.

‘Honestly
Maureen,’ she said standing back to admire her handiwork, ‘if
you’re going to wear a wig at least wear it properly.’

Personally
I thought that was pretty rich coming from somebody whose idea of
hair dressing was a Kirby Grip in a perm but I could tell from the
way she was hurling my things into an overnight bag that she was in
no mood to be tampered with. Not that there was much to hurl but she
was doing her level best to make it look like she was tackling one of
the twelve labours of Hercules.

‘We’re
nowhere near out of the woods as far as social services are
concerned. I should think that once that Pam gets her breath back
she’ll be filling in quite a nasty little report about you Maureen.
Plus I’ve had a hard enough time persuading that doctor to sign
your release papers as it is without you sitting there looking like…
like….some geriatric….’, she paused then added that she still
couldn’t believe that anybody would pay good money to look like
that.

‘Are you
sure it’s on the right way round?’

‘Yes
Beattie.’

‘Well if
you say so’, she said. ‘Anyway the good news is that you’re
coming home with me.’

I don’t
think I groaned. At least I like to think that if I did it was
internally. Not that Beattie would have noticed. She’d just gone
ten rounds with Dr Mukaji and won each one on points. At least I
suppose that saved her having to batter him to death.

‘Now
come on let’s get you dressed and out of this place. That taxi
won’t wait forever and you’re paying.’

Beattie’s
idea of ‘dressed’ involved me wearing one of her repeat purchase
A line frocks and a beige cardigan. Every year we go through the same
ritual of visiting the sales for her new season’s wardrobe. Every
year she buys the same thing. Now I happen to think that the only
thing that looks good in beige is a car seat and only then if you’re
not prone to travel sickness. However Beattie said she had no
intention of being seen leaving this hospital with me dressed
inappropriately. I assumed that by this she meant wearing my own
clothes. Well it’s not my fault I’ve got a bust and a waist, and
even if I say so myself my legs aren’t bad for my age, a bit
wrinkly round the knees but then you try working the Waltzers in a
mini skirt and see what happens to yours. Plus that’s why God
invented support tights isn’t it?

Once we
were safely in the taxi Beattie revealed that she had been a bit
economical with the truth as far as Dr Mukarji was concerned. I
didn’t care how sparing she’d been. I was just relieved to hear
that I wasn’t actually going to be staying at her house. I know
that sounds ungrateful when you consider the alternative but I do
like a bit of colour in my surroundings. Beattie on the other hand
blends in with her surroundings, like one of those lizards that
changes colour to wait for flies. Mind you she said she would be
popping in and out to keep an eye on me and just to emphasise the
frequency with which she intended to ‘pop’ she had helped herself
to the spare key I kept under the flower pot near the back door.

‘That
way you won’t have to keep getting up and down to let me in and I
won’t have to worry about your stilettos playing havoc with my
parquet flooring.’ She said helping herself to a five pound note
from my purse and paying the taxi driver. ‘So we’ll both be
happy.’

Somehow I
doubted it. Still it was nice to be home.

It would
have been nice to have had a furry welcome from Mr Mong but I’d
heard him bolt through the cat flap at the back the minute he heard
Beattie breaking and entering from the front. Luckily for him she can
never do anything quietly so he always has ample warning of her
approach. As I say there was no love lost there and God only knows
what abuse and intimidation he’d been subjected to in my absence.
So as disappointed as I was I couldn’t really blame him. At least
she hadn’t made him into a pair of welcome slippers.

Beattie
paused, wincing as she took in my orange curtains, floral carpet and
cherry-red three piece suite then pronounced that perhaps being taken
away from all this would be a blessing.

‘You
know Maureen living like this can’t be good for you. All these
colours, it must be like being on drugs. And it’s a wonder you’re
not asthmatic. All this dust. I can see I’m going to have my work
cut out getting this place shipshape. It looks like an advert for
Shelter. By the way I’ve got us a couple of pork chops for our
tea.’ She paused, looked at my kitchen door and said, ‘I suppose
I’ll just have to risk cooking them in that death trap.’

Seconds
later I could hear her going through the contents of my fridge
coupled with sounds of disapproval as the lid of the bin rattled back
and forth. Then the kettle clicked, china rattled and cupboard doors
slammed. There was a creak of whalebone and Beattie was back bearing
a full tea tray complete with doily. She must have had one in her
handbag. As I have said already, I am not a doily kind of woman. I
put this down to the fact that having spent most of my early life
darning holes in just about everything I will never see the
attraction in anything that looks wilfully ripped.

No darning
for Beattie I’ll be bound. She may have endured her late husband
but in exchange for his occasional unwelcomed attentions he’d had a
steady job and died leaving her a decent pension. Not that we ever
discussed the more physical side of marriage in detail. I enjoyed it.
She didn’t. End of story. But one Christmas Eve, after two
snowballs and a box of rum truffles, she did let slip that she had
never seen the point in that side of things.

After all,
she said, ‘Arthur had his marrows’ and there we left it.

She took
a sip of tea and I could tell we were having Earl Grey. Beattie never
crooked her little finger over a cup of Tetley. I could also see that
the thought of all that dust to play with had brought on one of her
infuriatingly superior moods. Beattie took a deep breath. I gave my
figurines one last loving look just in case she exploded with joy.
Fortunately a bone must have caught under her ribs, she winced and
exhaled.

‘Oh I
nearly forgot,’ she said and delved into her handbag. ‘You
remember that radio phone in competition you went in for? Well it
seems you must have won a prize! ‘. She ripped open my envelope
adding what fun we’d have on a Mediterranean cruise as long as I
promised to let her choose my holiday clothes and kept away from the
crew.

‘Ah here
we are….Dear Mrs Truscott, we have great pleasure in informing you
that….’ Her face fell as her lips moved silently and ever slower
over the words.

Now I have
never professed to be the world’s greatest lip reader but even I
could see the letter had nothing to do with Mediterranean cruises,
especially as I had never gone in for the competition in the first
place. But it did confirm one thing. Since Beattie had been banned
from taking part in phone-in programmes I had had the suspicion that
she was passing herself off as me to get her point across. No doubt I
will wake up one morning to find swastikas sprayed on my front door.

‘Oh
well’, she said folding the letter back into its envelope and
swallowing her disappointment, ‘It seems you’ve won two tickets
to that ‘Evening of Clairvoyance with the Great Doris Morris.
Anyway as I was about to say…….’

I said
that I thought we were having pork chops for our tea.

‘Well…’
Beattie paused. I saw her shoot a glance at my kitchen door,
imagining the hell behind it.

‘Indeed’
she said, puffing herself up and stomping across the room.

She looked
like she was bracing herself before stepping into the jaws of Hades.
I’m not saying she wore a martyred expression but if Joan of Arc
had stepped towards the flames with that same look on her face she
would have been canonised on the spot. The outcome would have been
the same because I knew from past experience that Beattie had an
incendiary way of cooking pork. She didn’t so much sauté as
incinerate because she ‘just happened to know’ that under cooked
pork was riddled with the worms.

There was
a lot of wailing from the smoke alarm in the hall followed by the
sound of pans being rattled and a great deal of coughing.

‘Five
minutes’ yelled Beattie and the smell of charred flesh coiled from
under the kitchen door. Shame. I was looking forward to that chop.

Eventually
Beattie cried ‘Voila’ and burst into the room from behind a cloud
of blue smoke. She looked so much like one of those pantomime baddies
that I was tempted to call out ‘She’s behind you!’ but I
thought better of it. I don’t suppose Hathaway or Freemantle she
was ever drawn to the Alhambra Christmas show. I took the girls to
one once. Cilla hated it. She screamed every time the witch appeared.
God only knows how she coped with that children’s home. Maybe she
didn’t. Maybe she’s still in therapy for having me as a mother.
On the other hand Sandie was more like her father and me. She enjoyed
every bit of it. I tell you that girl would have loved life on the
fun fair. Even as a child she was fascinated by bright lights. Her
sister just covered her eyes. That’s the terrible thing about
having twins. It’s all too easy to have one you just can’t take
to. Mind you I think with Cilla the feeling was mutual.

Anyway all
done now. A bit like this chop I suppose. Beyond help. In its lake of
gravy it looked more like one of those archaeological remains they
find at the bottom of peat bogs only less edible. Not that that
stopped Beattie. Whilst I toyed with mine she crunched her way
through hers with relish. Literally. There was nearly half a jar of
Branston Pickle on her plate and she went for seconds. I’m sure all
that vinegar can’t be good for you when you’ve already got a sour
disposition. It must only make things worse. No wonder her handbag’s
always full of indigestion remedies.

I think I
was just on the verge of being force –fed when I was saved by the
bell. There was somebody at the front door. Beattie got up, tutted,
tugged at my wig and said ‘I bet that’s social services come to
check up on us. Now you say nothing Maureen you understand? One false
move and you’ll be back in that place before you can say Winter
Fuel Allowance.’

Now
bearing in mind our recent history with social services I couldn’t
see them turning up with anything less than a police escort and a
couple of tanks. In less than two days Beattie had managed to get one
social worker to resign and one to pull out most of her own hair. So
I wasn’t surprised when I saw that the unexpected caller was in
fact Jean Shanks niece.

Well
that’s a lie. I was but then any unplanned sighting of Wanda in her
spandex suit always makes you catch your breath no matter how many
times you’ve seen her in the past. You could see that she’d been
running because apart from being all hot and bothered her breasts had
ridden up under her chin. You have to wonder sometimes how they
actually get her into that barrel. I know it’s a big gun but with
that chest she must be wedged in there like a bung on a beer keg. No
wonder she goes off with such a big bang.

‘Oh Mrs
Truscott’ she panted, ‘I’ve just seen Aunty Jean!’