A STUDY IN CERISE (7/7)

‘So you see it couldn’t have been Ursula, officer. Look, the evidence is here in my notebook. I wrote it down just as Mrs McManus told it to me:

One for sorrow,

Two for mirth,

Three for a wedding,

And four for death.

Three magpie-coloured beads for a wedding, officer. In the bride’s room. Four magpie-coloured beads for a death, in my room. It’s like a confession.’

‘I see that, young man. Yes, I do see. But why would the McManus woman choose to confess to you, in particular?’ Charlie thought carefully about that and the best he could come up with was this.

Mrs McManus possessed a dark sense of humour. It had amused her, in a strange way to make boy-detective Charles a gift of a real piece of evidence. She knew she wasn’t coming back. Patrick and weird Jorge had run away together – to Brazil, probably, since apparently Jorge was related to one of Rio’s biggest gangster families – and Mrs McManus had run away as well, probably in the same general direction. Charles couldn’t imagine Mrs McManus letting her beloved Patrick out of her sight. She would find somewhere to live within spying-on distance of her son, even if Patrick didn’t realise it. She would be keeping a beady eye on him and his pal Jorge. Charles didn’t much fancy Jorge’s chances of remaining un-digitalis’d or belladonna’d in the long run, whether he decided to carry on being best mates with Patrick or decided to branch out and make new amigos. To be honest, Charles’s interest in the whole McManus/Jorge triad was rapidly being overtaken by anxiety that the police or somebody, anyway, should hurry up and find poor old Ursula; tell her the coast was clear.

Surprisingly, the police had been able to tell that it was only red ink on the dress. Besides, Christina hadn’t been stabbed. According to the coroner she had been poisoned with digitalis (which came from foxgloves according to Wikipedia). There were a great many foxgloves growing the hotel grounds, but the police told Charles that Mrs McManus had probably brought the poison with her, in tablet or in liquid form, rather than going to all the bother of brewing up witchy potions in her room. This was a disappointment.

Ursula would have assumed that her sister was asleep when she crept in to attack the dress with her nail-scissors, but in fact Christina was already deceased! It occurred to Charles that, passport or no passport, Ursula might have chickened out of going abroad at the last minute. Ursula was a timid sort of person inside, for all that she was enor…quite biggish on the outside. His guess was confirmed a few days later when a postcard arrived from the Helford River, Cornwall, addressed to him. There was no message and it wasn’t signed, but it had a picture of a quiet, wooded creek and a sailing boat.

Ursie was safe, though probably without French pirate.

And either way Jorge was toast, in Charles’s professional opinion.

THE END

A STUDY IN CERISE (6/7)

He retreated to his room to digest the news. And because of the chaos. Noise, people wandering around clutching mobile phones, people shouting and sobbing. Cars arriving. Police sirens. He supposed, eventually, someone would come to tell him, ever so gently, that he had been bereaved. Not for a while, he suspected. They had forgotten about him.

‘Charles, have you by any chance seen my passport?’ Ursula’s voice was casual but Charles was not fooled. She had been crying, and in her hand he glimpsed a screwed up tissue. He felt a bit ashamed of himself.

‘Charles, sweetheart, it’s urgent. I don’t care why you borrowed it, I really don’t. I just need it. Now. Please. Where did you put it?’

‘Where have you put it for safe-keeping, my little magpie?’ Magpies again. He’d pointed magpies out to Mrs McManus, then she’d given him the new magpie rhyme, and here was Ursula calling him a magpie. It must be synchro.. synchro… that thing about coincidences. Wikipedia had a long section on it. A new thought struck him. Had he inherited magpie genes, too? Could he be a mixture of Mynah, Magpie and Boy?

‘In my evidence drawer,’ he said, fetching it from the drawer of the bedside cabinet.

‘Thank you, Charles.’ Her voice was getting shakier. ‘I may be away for a while. I am going – on holiday. For a while. Be a good boy, won’t you? Look after yourself.’

‘But you hardly ever go on holiday, Ursula. I mean, there was that once when you went to Cornwall, but that was because of that soppy Frenchman’s Creek, wasn’t it? You quite liked the idea of pirates sailing their boats up the river to carry you off to France.’

‘How did you know that?’

‘I know lots of things, you’d be surprised.’

‘What was it called, that boat?’ he asked. He realised he was trying to stall her.

‘La Mouette.’ A large tear appeared at the inner corner of her right eye and trickled slowly down.

‘Oh yes, The Seagull. I looked it up in my French Dictionary at school.’

‘Charlie, dear, I want to explain something. I probably shouldn’t, but I don’t want to leave you thinking…’ Another tear started down her cheek. Charles could never bear tears. He went and put his arms round her waist.

‘Don’t cry, Ursie. Please don’t cry.’ She took a deep breath, obviously attempting to pull herself together.

‘I didn’t kill Christina. I wanted to – oh, at times I could have – but whoever it was, it wasn’t me. But I did – oh dear, I’m getting this arse about face as they say at the zoo – I did do something wrong. I stabbed her wedding dress. She’d foisted this giant cerise bridesmaid number on me at the last moment…’

‘Yes, I saw it.’ Charles had felt nothing but sympathy for Ursula when Christina showed him the hideous thing, laughing. He hated their sister too, he realised. It had been at the back of his mind ever since Suit Lady accidentally informed him of Christina’s death – guilt. He should be wailing and screaming. What did they say, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Yet he hadn’t gnashed a single one of his.

‘I stabbed it with my nail scissors in a fit of rage, and because I knew I couldn’t wear the pink dress, and because I knew she was marrying him for the wrong reasons…’

‘She told you that?’

‘Yes, it’s the trust, isn’t it? He gets all this money when he’s twenty-five. What I can’t understand is why he’s marrying her. I mean, he isn’t of that…’

‘It’s something to do with a waiter called Jorge. I read her diary.’

‘You read -? Ah, that makes sense.’ It still didn’t make sense to Charlie.

‘But that isn’t all, Charlie. I did another awful thing. I took a bottle of red ink and I – I threw it at the dress. I suppose I wanted it to be really ruined, you know, beyond repair. I wanted her to know just how much it hurt, being fat, being plain, and being mocked. Being expected to wear a cerise bridesmaid gown with puffy sleeves that show off your blubbery bingo-wings. I wanted – ‘

‘Don’t worry, sis. I know you wouldn’t kill her.’

‘But somebody has! And by now they will have found the wedding dress hanging behind her door, all stabbed and everything, and ink all over it and all over the carpet and…’ She took another deep breath and untangled his arms from around her waist.

‘Now I must make my getaway too, Charlie. Like La Mouette. Right now. You remember that pirate? He had to flee or they would have hanged him at the Assizes in… Bodmin, or wherever it was. Look after yourself, Charlie. Have a good life. Oh no, that sounds…’

And then she was gone. And the moment he had gone Charles knew why his instincts had told him to stop her. If you run away people always assume you are guilty. Christina had always been horrible to Ursula, and Ursula hated her. Everyone knew that. And if someone told the police that, and then they learned that Ursula had run away, with her passport…

It was as good as a confession.

He had to get into Christina’s room. It had been a game before, now Ursula’s good name – maybe her life, or at any rate her freedom – depended on it.

Distractedly, he went to close the evidence drawer, and only then did he notice it had been burgled. Well, not burgled exactly, but the things in it had been looked through and rearranged. In particular, something had happened to the black and white necklace he had bought at the junk shop yesterday. It was still in the drawer, but someone had cut the thread that held it together. Four beads had been removed, two black and two white. He knew that because they were laid out in a neat little row on his pillow. Black, white. Black white.

It transpired that Ursula was not the only missing person. Mrs McManus and her son Patrick, for a start, together with Jorge the Brazilian. Charles scouted around, ears flapping. Still no one had noticed him or thought to tell him his sister was no more.

From what he overheard he gathered that the police were temporarily at a loss. It was no wonder, really. In Agatha Christie novels and suchlike all the suspects would lurk conveniently around in the library afterwards so that Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot could explain, often at incredible length, which of them was in fact the murderer. There wasn’t a library, of course, but not a single suspect had had the decency to lurk, anywhere in the hotel. Had they been in league with one another? Had the bride been murdered by a committee?

Christina’s bedroom was now a crime scene, and a uniformed policeman had been posted outside the door. Charles’s mind seemed to have gone into overdrive since the murder. No more daydreams and digressions into Mynah bird beaks and the various languages of the sub-continent. His sister’s actual body, he knew, had been taken away by the police. Everyone was still clamped to their mobile phones and shouting, so he kept overhearing things whether he wanted to or not. He had to get into her room.

What would Sherlock do, he wondered; manufacture some kind of diversion to lure the policeman away from outside the bedroom door? He peered round the corner at the policeman. The man was large and solid, with a granite face. Not the type to be diverted by an eleven year old boy, Charles decided.

The rooms on either sides of Christina’s were empty. This was because they had been inhabited by Mrs McManus, on the right, and Patrick McManus, on the left, and both now had ‘departed’. Charlie made a mental note of the floor they were on, and also counted the number of rooms from the far end of the corridor up to Mrs McManus’s room. Then he took an elaborately casual stroll outside the hotel and cast an equally casual glance upwards. He counted windows from right to left (since he had counted them from left to right inside the building) and noted that whilst all the rooms on this floor had access to a balcony, each of the balconies were shared between two rooms with some kind of division in the middle. Mrs McManus’s room shared a balcony with Christina’s whilst Patrick’s balcony shared with the room next to that. Which meant that he only needed to get into Mrs McManus’s room, open the window and climb out, get over the barrier (hopefully it wouldn’t be too high) and sneak into Christina’s. Which is what he did. The policeman, though still on duty, seemed to think it was his duty to face the wall in front of him, never wavering, like one of the sentries outside Buckingham Palace. Charles tiptoed along the wall. He was light on his feet, and had occasionally practiced tracking, which someone had given a book about last Christmas.

His sister’s corpse had been removed, naturally. Her wedding dress had also been removed (‘evidence’ he thought) although a puddle of dried red stuff on the carpet attested to Ursula’s version of events. He bent to inspect it more closely and touched it with his finger, which came away stained a watery bluey-red. Ink, no doubt about it.

It was under the bed that he found what he had been looking for. Three beads from his necklace, laid out in a row. One white, one black, one white. He left them undisturbed, just as he had left the four he found on his pillow. Finally, things were beginning to make sense.

A STUDY IN CERISE (5/7)

Charles fished a stub of pencil out of his pencil, and wrote on the first page his new green notebook:

One for sorrow

Two for mirth…

He was glad Mrs McManus had gone, but now began to worry because she had made him late. His mother and sisters were in a tearing flap over this wedding, and lateness on his behalf had become a greater than usual misdemeanour. And what about wimpy Patrick – wimpy by nature if not in appearance – and that ferocious-looking Brazilian of his? Would they be lying in wait for him? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Not this afternoon, at least. So why did he feel he had?

He needn’t have worried. About that, anyway. When he got back to the hotel all was in uproar. People were screaming and crying. Behind the reception desk harassed-looking woman in a black suit and strange fish-net-looking tights was phoning the police. Her nail-varnish, he noticed, was a kind of green colour. He tugged at her sleeve. She whirled round. Her hair was coming loose from its grips, and she was very pink in the face.

‘Who’s been murdered?’

‘The Bride, of course! Where have you been? Stabbed to death, right through her wedding dress. Oh! Oh dear, I shouldn’t have…You wouldn’t be from the local press, would you?’

Charles, for one inappropriate second, felt rather pleased. A woman in a smart black suit and green nail varnish had mistaken him for a grown up, a Man. And then the information hit home. The Bride was his sister.

Christina had been stabbed.

To death.

But the wedding wasn’t till tomorrow. Why had she been wearing her wedding dress?

A STUDY IN CERISE (4/7)

‘And what are you up to, young man?’ Patrick’s mother – Mrs V McManus according to the little brass plates on her pale blue leather luggage – fell into step beside him. He had been following her, on and off, for the past twenty-four hours but it was something a shock to realise that Mrs McManus had also been following him. How could that have happened?

‘Oh, just keeping an eye on proceedings, Mrs McManus’ he replies. In his head Charles-the-detective had been puffing reflectively on an imaginary briar-root pipe. Charles-the-boy was not sure now whether he had also mimed the pipe-puffing ‘out loud’, an embarrassing thought.

‘Eye on proceedings, eh?

Me too, little Charlie.

Call me Veronica.’

Charles didn’t like being addressed as Little Charlie, and he didn’t think he could bring himself to address Mrs McManus as Veronica. She was more or less old for a start; you didn’t call old people by their first name. And she had a bullet point way of talking which, though undoubtedly efficient, seemed to leave all the hard work to the listener. It was difficult to think what to say back.

Away with the fairies, Veronica McManus decided. Brainless, but could be useful.

‘Oh, look, two magpies!’ blurted Charles. He had a tendency to blurt, when he was nervous. He pointed to two magpies, sitting on adjacent lamp-posts just ahead of them.

‘Do you know the rhyme, Mrs McManus?’

‘Veronica.’

  • ‘One for sorrow
  • two for joy
  • three for a girl
  • and four for a boy
  • Five for silver
  • Six for gold
  • Seven for a secret
  • Never to be told.

Did you know that, Mrs McManus? So two for joy. That means the wedding’s going to go really well. It’s a good luck sign. Had you heard about magpies? They were in Wikipedia.’

On the TV screen inside Charles’s head, a storm of black and white birds flapped out of his favourite website, through the screen, into his bedroom, somehow becoming three-dimensional in the process, flapping around his head, squawking. If only the pavement would open and swallow him up, or Mrs McManus would disappear…

‘Tell me about your sister, Little Charlie.’

‘Ursula?’

‘Oh, the large … no, not that one.

The little sl…Miss Congeniality.

The one who thinks she’s marrying my son.’

‘But she isn’t – is.

I mean, it’s all set.

Tomorrow.

Church in the village.

Etcetera.’

Curses!

Charles had noticed he tended to pick up people’s accents and verbal peculiarities; in fact the more nervous a person made him, the less he wanted to annoy them, the more likely he was to start imitating them. Mynah birds did this, he knew. He had read it on the internet. I must have some Mynah bird genes, he thought. Maybe I’ll start growing a beak. Hopefully when I’m quite old. It would be very inconvenient to start growing a Mynah bird beak just as one was looking for one’s first girlfriend. Charles felt there were a few years yet before he needed to obtain an actual girlfriend, but lately he had begun to consider the idea. What would happen if you had already proposed to a lady, and the lady had accepted, and the marriage was all arranged, and then the great yellow-orange beak started to sprout? Could you have a beak amputated? Wouldn’t that hurt? And would your mouth still be there underneath?

Her voice broke into his thoughts.

‘Your sister.

Why is she marrying my son?’

‘For the money.’

Had he said that out loud?

‘She has mentioned the money?’

‘The trust.

In her diary.

I read it.

Sorry.’

Had he said that out loud too?

Curses! It seemed he had.

Charles was usually pretty expert at white lies where his parents and sisters were concerned and yet seemed quite impossible to lie to Mrs McManus. It was as if she was hypnotising him. It wasn’t as if rainbow-coloured circles were going round and round in her eyes. What was it? He decided it was something in the voice. Something about the way she barked questions out kind of compelled you to bark answers back, immediately, before you’d had time to think. Curses! Would Sherlock have said Curses!? No, Sherlock didn’t swear. And Sherlock wouldn’t have blurted out to the groom’s mother that the bride was more interested in her son’s trust money than his magnificent personality.

‘I – I’m sure she loves him too.

Apart from that.

Really…’

‘That rhyme about magpies,’ said Mrs McManus.

‘There are many other versions of that rhyme. For instance:

One for sorrow

Two for mirth…’

It felt like some kind of spell. The words seemed to be going round and round in his head. Like the eyes. Except that the eyes were not. Going round. By the time the rhyme ended she had vanished, as quickly and silently as she had appeared.

A STUDY IN CERISE (3/7)

He thought he might walk down to the village, same as yesterday. It was a fifteen minute walk away, down the hotel drive, turn left onto the main road and then just plod as the traffic rushed past. He supposed this was the country, but not the interesting sort with rolling hills and woodland. The village was disappointing too. Rather than village green, horse troughs and quaint old inns, it had a junior school, a grim, flat-faced pub with a weedy car-park called The Black Swan and a second hand shop which sold rusty mangles; salt and pepper sets in little glass holders; bisque dolls with broken faces; plastic popper beads and thin gold rings from dead old ladies’ dressing tables; books about the Nazis, and celebrities who died twenty five years ago. Yesterday he had gone in there and bought a string of black and white beads. He didn’t know why. He was bored, and they were black and white, and there was something about black and white that interested him. Like chessboards. The man said they were a sixties throwback.

People were always saying stuff to Charles which he felt he ought to understand but didn’t quite. Had the beads belonged to a sixty-year old lady who – in her devil-may-care youth, perhaps – had been in the habit of ‘throwing them back’ over her shoulder? Or perhaps they were the sort of necklace ladies wore dangling down the back of low-backed evening dresses, often with a knot in the middle? That was a possibility, but these beads were extremely large and clunky. If you ‘threw them back’ surely it would be painful when they landed. For want of anywhere else to put it, he had put it in his evidence drawer.

Today he was heading for the village’s only other attraction – the minimart, which sold chocolate bars and interesting items like tap nozzles, skipping rope handles, boxes of golden safety pins, pencils with erasers on the end (did anyone write with a pencil nowadays?) and Sudoku quiz books in recycled paper. It was run by an unhappy Asian lady and her ancient, equally unhappy mother. Even when giving change or putting stuff in plastic bags the two women’s eyes never entirely unglued themselves from the tiny TV set beside the counter, within which cavorted pretty Asian ladies with many bangles and smirking Asian gentlemen in white robes, round and round big trees, in colourful parks and so forth, singing the whole while but never quite getting round to kissing one another.

By the time he reached the outskirts of the village a chill breeze had sprung up, and a large grey-black cloud had appeared overhead. Charles decided to take a short cut over the village ‘rec’. He had discovered yesterday that this was a short cut to the main street with its handful of uninteresting shops.

The recreation ground had no children in it. This time of day, of course, they would be in school since unlike him they had not been given half a week off for a wedding (smirk!). A row of three swings swayed half-heartedly in the breeze; an ornamental flower-bed displayed it rows of purple and yellow pansies like soldiers on parade to nobody in particular and a red and yellow slide was collecting a sheen of raindrops as the grey-black cloud began to do as it had threatened.

Charles had been so sure the park was empty that didn’t spot them straight away: two young men sitting on a bench in the far corner, somewhat overhung by a silver birch tree. Charles deduced at once that this was the sort of bench people would normally avoid on account of where it was. When the sun was blazing down there would be insufficient shade from that excuse for a tree; and when, as now, the sun went in, it would be a dank, chilly spot. Charles didn’t take much notice at first. His gaze was unfocussed, for he was still pondering the problem of the throwback beads. He did notice that one young man was dark, almost swarthy, the other fair. And then something odd happened. For a moment Charles didn’t think it odd, and then it came home to him, that the dark one, whose arm rested along the top of the bench, had just leant towards the fair one and they had ‘almost kissed’ exactly like the Indian couples in the film. But of course that couldn’t be right. It was just this dim grey light, like you get when it’s trying to rain.

And then the fair man looked up, and both men spotted him. And then, oh horrors, they were calling him over. And then, oh no, he realised who it was he had been staring at this past minute. The fair one was Christina’s fiancé Patrick, and the dark one was one of the wedding waiters. He had seen the dark, swarthy chap in the dining room this morning. They had been having some sort of rehearsal for the Big Day; this one had caught Charles’ attention because he was swarthier than the rest, and grim-faced, a bit scary-looking. In a few microseconds Charles escalated from feeling rather stupid to feeling rather clever, as one realisation after another rained down on him. Now, suddenly, he also knew that the waiter had to be Jorge, the weird Brazilian. He was just so weird-Brazilian-looking. Unmistakeable, and too much of a coincidence. Perhaps Jorge hadn’t been invited, but followed Patrick down from London anyway, getting himself taken on as a temporary waiter, just to be able to share in the wedding experience.

They were gesturing for him to come over. Automatically he started towards them. No reason to run away, after all; not as if he’d done anything wrong, apart from accidentally spotting them almost-kissing, which they couldn’t have been doing anyway. So why did he feel so much like running away? And the next minute he was running away, across the rec and into the village, not looking round to check if they were following him, just heading for the minimarket. They couldn’t do anything to him in there, he reasoned, thinking of all those little stacks of baked bean and soup tins. Not without knocking stuff over, and not without the Indian ladies witnessing – whatever.

Once inside, he made for his favourite bit at the back, the bit with the plastic gadgets and the outdated stationery items. Already weird Jorge’s menacing face had begun to fade from his memory. He risked a sideways glance through the shop window. No sign of them. Probably they hadn’t seen him come in – he was running quite fast. Maybe they hadn’t followed him at all. It was probably nothing, he thought, picking up a glossy green exercise book and puzzling over the word Avoirdupois on its glossy green back. It had complicated-looking tables of Weights and Measures too. What were rods, poles and perches, he wondered. Were they the same thing, and if so why?

They probably only wanted to ask me the time or offer me an extra-strong mint, he told himself. He bought the exercise book. The tiny Indian ladies and gentlemen were still dancing round trees in the tiny TV, singing away. The Indian lady watching them looked even unhappier than yesterday.

‘Maybe you should get out for a walk every now and again,’ he suggested kindly. I have read that fresh air and daylight are good for your mood. It’s the ultra violet.’ She did not look up. Silly of me, he thought. She probably doesn’t speak English. I wonder what she does speak. Would it be Hindi or Urdu or one of the others? He recently discovered on Wikipedia that there are a hundred and twenty-two major languages in India. How could you fit all those languages into one country, even a big one? Britain had only Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish – and nobody much spoke them, except Welsh. He suspected even the Welsh didn’t really understand what they were saying. It was just something they pretended to be speaking to annoy English tourists about, the equivalent of rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, carrots and peas, watermelon cantaloupe, watermelon cantaloupe’ and natter natter (to which the appropriate reply is grommish, grommish) that actors make when they are pretending to be crowds. Charles spent a lot of time on Wikipedia playing a game of his own invention, codename: WikiDip.

He decided not to return to the hotel via the recreation ground, all the same. The sun had come out again; no need for short cuts. Patrick and weird Jorge were probably on their way back to the hotel by now. It was getting on for evening and Jorge must be due back on shift soon. But just in case.

A STUDY IN CERISE (2/7)

Ursula and Christina had a younger brother. He was called Charles and he had recently been reading the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, not so much because he liked it as because he had mislaid the charger to his e-reader, and the battery indicator was now down to one bar. There were a few ‘real’ books in the house, but they had been randomly and miscellaneously acquired and were uninteresting. There was How to Cheat at Gardening by some crumpled-looking woman in a cardigan and a floaty skirt in deckchair. There was Pilgrim’s Progress sandwiched between water-stained blue cardboard covers. This Charles finds incomprehensible. There was The Forsyte Saga in a hundred and two (well, perhaps not quite that many) paperback volumes, black. It had very small print, on paper so thin as to be almost transparent – about Victorians or some such. And there was A Study in Scarlet. The book was fairly short and Charles read it from end to end, but he didn’t enjoy this one either. He disliked pompous old Watson and that pointy-nosed, pipe-smoking smartarse Holmes. He did not enjoy the wordiness or the great long diversion to Salt Lake City in the United States, where people called Mormons were doing good things and then, incomprehensibly, bad things in connection with one or other of the characters who might or might not be the murderer that Holmes has, in his smartarse way, known about all along. Charles couldn’t remember which character, or why, and, after wading through so many tedious chapters-worth of Salt Lake City Mormons he no longer cared.

However, the story had influenced him. He had begun to picture himself as a detective in the making. Charles imagined real detectives to be like the detectives on TV, in those series commonly described as ‘gritty’; middle-aged men who lived on take-away food, drank cheap whiskey, fell asleep in their cars and would lean forward to shout in their suspects faces whilst carrying out interrogations. He was not interested in being like them. Neither was he interested in being like Sherlock Holmes, whom he detested. He had invented a new kind of detective. The kind that was really Charles, but cleverer, and unsuspected by all.

Charles in his detective persona had taken to following people about, flattening himself against the wall, round corners so as to overhear their conversations, and transporting small items of ‘evidence’ to the safety of his bedroom. Currently, his ‘evidence drawer’ – actually the drawer of his bedside cabinet – contained a rusty corkscrew with a knotted-pine handle. He had filched his sister Christina’s diary from under her pillow and from Ursula’s dressing table drawer her passport, which for some reason she had left out.

Charles glanced briefly at the photo in the back of Ursula’s passport, which made her look even plainer than she did in real life. Charles was a trifle muddled at this stage of his existence and had overlooked the fact that removing and hiding other people’s possessions was theft, technically. Initially he was not much tempted to read Christina’s diary. Having been only too closely associated with her for the past eleven years he suspected that whatever she had scribbled in this twinkly Day-Glo orange book of hers would be rubbish; but he was bored so he opened it anyway.

Christina’s spelling was even more atrocious than he had expected, but what she wrote was interesting:

‘ Patrick doesn’t luv me, of corse, but I don’t mind about that. He is of course a famus film actor. All the girls fancy the pants off him. Who culd guess from his burly good luks the actual situashun? That Brazilian weirdo Jorge lurking around him all the time. What a peece of luck it was that I twigged their little secret!!! Now he knows he has to marry me now or I’ll tweet it, I’ll bleat it, I’ll – what else has got EE in it? Dunno. Ideal husband, and it’s not as if he’s gonna get jealous and cramp my style, luv-wise.’

Charles flicked forward a few pages.

‘Better still, Paddy Boy is rich. Or at least he will be when he gets to 25 an that’s only 2 years away. Some sort of trust thing, wch he was stupidly showing off about when we first met. I don’t understand and don’t care about, except he – we – I – am gonna spend, spend, spend, spend, spend.’

Charles was shocked, in spite of himself. He knew Christina was greedy, but marrying someone just for their money? Even knowing they didn’t love you?

What exactly did she mean about this weird Jorge? Why should being friends with weird Jorge mean that Patrick had to marry Christina? ‘Why would his lady fans mind? And what did Christina mean by ‘their little secret’ and ‘the actual situashun’? I’m missing something here, he thought. All the same, I’ve learned a quite a bit.

A STUDY IN CERISE (1/7)

HER bridesmaid frock lay in wait for her when she arrived at the wedding hotel which Christina, flaunting her supermodel earnings and recent TV contract for the cosmetics giant EverGold, had hired exclusively for three days. It meant the guests were arriving in undisciplined dribs and drabs, far too early, eager to take full advantage of the free accommodation, excellent food, filchable toiletries, complementary white fluffy towelling bathrobes and ‘extensive grounds with lake, swans, boathouse and nine-hole golf course with resident professional’. Presumably the resident professional offered lessons or tips to any nine-hole golfers who might happen along. Even bearing in mind Christina’s lengthy guest list, this was overkill. It was tacky and tasteless, but Christina liked to live it large these days.

There it was, lurking behind the door with a dirty little satin (more likely polyester-satin since intended for Ursula) snigger. It was a particularly disgusting shade of cerise, too, reminding Ursula of the engorged sexual organs of female baboons when in heat. Baboons were something she happened to know about, since she worked at a zoo. ‘Always a hands-on person, Ursula,’ her father liked to say. Parents said things like that about their disappointing children. ‘He’s good at swimming and does very well on the school allotment’, or ‘She’ll probably turn out to be something creative.’

Ursula actually worked with tapirs, anteaters and capybaras but passed the baboon enclosure several times a day, often wheeling a wheelbarrow or hefting a sack of smelly, overripe fruit. Tapirs, in particular, liked fruit. Ursula knew, although she would never have been able to explain how, that her sister had picked this shade with baboons in mind – had actually gone to the zoo and researched it. Probably even took pictures on that all-singing, all dancing phone.

Christina was a bitch, of the subtle, successful kind. Were you to accuse her, she would swivel those über-blue eyes in your direction and with a sweep of those meticulously-fanned lashes smugly acknowledge her guilt whilst demonstrating to all other occupants of the room her innocence, her sweetness and your own lumpy neuroticism. I am lumpy, thought Ursula. My face is not my fortune; I have a tendency to pimples; I sweat quite noticeably when I’m hot; I am a size twenty, on a good day, but this dress is at least a twenty-four. I am lumpy and probably neurotic too.

She lifted the cerise monstrosity and held it up, still on its hanger, against her over her jodhpurs and blue shirt, which smelled of tapirs, anteaters and capybaras. She turned to look at her reflection in the mirror.

Christina stood there, smirking.

‘It rather suits you, Ursie.’

Ursula whisked round.

‘I will not wear it.’

‘You didn’t really think I was going to let you fade into the background as requested, Ursie? Some classic, long-sleeved number in ivory silk? That was just a joke. The wedding’s the day after tomorrow, anyway. Even if I decided to change it, there would be no time.’

Which was why she had kept the dress under wraps until today.

Many years of suffering had taught Ursula not to follow the many diversionary rills and streams of Christina’s covert attacks, but to stick doggedly to the point. She did not say, for instance, ‘It wasn’t a joke. You lied to me straight-faced’. Neither did she say ‘You know full well it will make me look like an inflated globe with that nominally-cinched waist forming the equator.’ Neither did she waste energy pointing out what Christina already knew, that those hugely-puffed yet dreadfully short sleeves would draw attention the swaying pads of flesh beneath her arms.

She simply said, ‘I will not wear it’ and this time knew she meant it. Something had snapped inside her and she knew that this would be her first and last stand. Whatever she had to do to make not wearing the monkey’s-bum-coloured frock happen – be it incurring the wrath of her entire extended family, running away to Scotland to live forever in a caravan or worse – and she suspected it would be worse – that was what she was going to do.