Murder in the Afternoon


Murder in the afternoon


There was a time tunnel at the stately home.  Corinne knew it well because she had been there before.  A kind of  dimly-lit passage, it ran between the car park and the open area of gravel  in front of the  house.  She paid her fee and walked through it, moving thus from the present into the past as she came out of the darkness and into the sunlight, seeing at once the crowds milling around:  the tourists like herself wearing ordinary clothes and the people around them, who purported to came from Tudor times, wearing ornate velvets and silks or home spun and rags - some barefoot, some wearing  intricate ruffs and ornate jewellery.  She loved it.  It was so easy to imagine yourself in the past. If it wasn't for the ordinary  people like herself who had just climbed out of cars and coaches she would find it totally convincing.  And she wanted to be convinced; to lose herself in the past; to forget her loneliness and anger for an afternoon at least. It had worked last time she came.  She hadn't given a single thought for several hours to the man she had thought her lover until she had caught him cheating!

She wandered towards the moat where a narrow bridge led towards the house itself and turning right instead of going on into the house she walked alongside the water where a peacock strutted and flirted its tail proudly  as it looked at itself in the reflections.    A group of Tudor people stood there.  They were playing some kind of game on the grass and were unembarrassed by her curiosity. They were there after all to be stared at. One  of them, a man, caught  her eye.  He doffed his velvet cap and gave her an elaborate bow, smiling impishly. She laughed. That was  nice.  It was friendly. It proved she was still attractive, something her lover's insults had  almost made her doubt, and it wasn't too threatening.  There was no way he was going to talk to her, not unless she approached him more closely and even then he would talk that wonderful mock Shakespearean language which these people managed to improvise.  She was very impressed with  the way they did it. It showed how talented they were, how completely they had entered into the parts they had chosen to play. Something she needed to learn to do.  To play the cool, independent, confident woman of the world.  Then with or without a man she could hold her head high.

Still  managing to smile cheerfully, she walked on, leaving them to their game. Round the back of the house  it was all very busy. She was heading towards her favourite places, the dairy, the kitchens, the dimly lit, dusty barns where they wove and spun and dyed their wool and did all the everyday things of life when lives were real and proper and self sufficient in a time when people made everything themselves. The dark shadowy areas, lit by candles and stray beams of sunlight from the high windows,  filled her with excitement; inspired her. It was wonderful to see the people chatting, gossiping, laughing round the smoky fires. She spent a long time staring at them as they worked, then at last, overwhelmed with sudden unexpected sadness that she was not part of a community such as this, that she was alone, she turned away,  threaded her way out of the crowd, and headed up towards the orchards to the part of the garden which was deserted. No tourists came here, because nothing was happening.  There was nothing to watch. It was empty.  It was a place to think.

Slowly,  trying to imagine herself wearing a long velvet gown instead of  her usual trousers and  casual cotton sweater, she walked into the trees. And stopped in surprise.  There were things going on here after all.  She could see a group of Tudor-dressed  people in the distance.  They were talking together quietly, urgently, and she found herself wondering if she was going to catch them out talking ordinary English or did they, even here away from the crowds with no-one to watch and listen,  still keep themselves in the parts which they had so carefully constructed for themselves? 

The grass was soft and damp under the trees. They didn't hear her coming.  She walked slowly, not hiding her approach, but as she drew near to them she began to feel inexplicably nervous.  There weren't any other tourists here and they were clearly and convincingly  talking about something personal and secret. She wondered suddenly  if they would  welcome someone watching them    She paused, pretending to examine the leaves on a damson tree near her, trying to look casual, wondering whether to bring out the sketch book which she always brought everywhere with her.  She groped in the haversack on her shoulder and produced the small  pad and the pen and  perversely perhaps, given her suspicions about their preoccupation with themselves,  she began to move on towards them.

The group shifted. There were five of them. They were talking - then shouting.  Two of them walked apart. They were throwing insults at one another. She couldn't  hear them properly. In fact she couldn't hear quite what language they were using, but if it was acting  it was a very convincing show of a quarrel.

She stopped, leaning against the trunk of a tree, regretting that she had approached them so closely, wanting suddenly to turn back towards the house, to the noise of the ordinary, touristy people talking and laughing, to the children screaming as they chased the peacocks. It would be nice to go in search of the tea room . It was growing very hot. The sun beat down between the trunks of the trees. but her eyes kept being drawn back to the quarrel ahead.  She was as trapped by it as were the participants, and in a way as involved. Their voices were growing louder. She could almost  feel the heat pouring off the men.  One of the two was waving his arms about. She could see his face growing red as he gesticulated and the way the feather on his jaunty cap  shuddered around his face, curling beneath his chin.  Even as she thought about it he tore off the cap and throwing it down he jumped on it, seemingly absolutely beside himself with rage. The man next to him, she realised suddenly had his hand on the hilt of the sword which had been hidden by his cloak. She caught her breath. 

Stepping away from the tree a little to show she was watching,  she moved closer, hoping  that one of them at least would catch her eye and acknowledge her presence, perhaps with another morale-boosting, good-humoured bow, a bow that would defuse the atmosphere around them. But they didn't see her. Two of the men caught at the one who had the sword as he drew it with a rasp of metal from its sheath .  They pulled at him  trying to restrain him, but his anger had overwhelmed him.  He waved the sword for a moment over his head and the one who had broken away stepped back his red face suddenly white.  'No, he shouted. 'No!'

The blade entered his body through the velvet and through the white shirt.  Red spilled down his front.  Corinne caught her breath. She tried to remember that this was make believe.  If this was happening on the stage he would have something secreted under his clothes to contain the blood - some kind of bladder they wore, so she believed, to hold the gore - Kensington Gore, that's what they called it, didn't they?  It was very convincing. The man clutched at the sword, plucking at it  as his assailant pulled it out, his fingers stickily trying  to hold together the hole in his clothes,  trying to stop the blood, the gore seeping out. With an awful expression on his face he fell to his knees onto the grass. The others looked round. They seemed horrified.  Stunned. And the one whose sword it had been looked at the bloody weapon in his hand for a moment as though he couldn't believe that it were there, then he dropped it on the grass and ran, passing within a few feet of her as he headed towards the house and out of sight amongst the trees

Embarrassed, Corinne waited.  Did they expect her to applaud?  What did people do under these circumstances?  What was supposed to happen next?  Would they send for a policeman?  Did they have policemen in Tudor times?  She found her mouth had gone dry.  She couldn't move. She wanted to go back to the house. She wanted her tea.  She wanted to be with people but she was trapped, watching the drama they had enacted for her beneath the trees. 

The three remaining men stood huddled over the other. One  bent over their companion  who was lying, awkwardly hunched  on the ground.  His face was white too.  There was a moment's silence then he looked up at the others.  'He's dead.'   The words, stark, modern or ancient, without embroidery, echoed in the silence of the orchard.  She held her breath. What were they going to do now?  The man who had bent over his fallen friend touched his shoulder and rolled his body over. It flopped over, convincingly inert, and sprawled at their feet. 

As she watched the three of them lifted him awkwardly. He was heavy.  His cloak dragged on the ground. One shoe fell from his foot.  They heaved their heavy bundle up and began to run  with it towards the trees in the distance. In a moment they had gone. 

Released at last to move Corinne hesitated.   She wasn't sure what to do.    Suddenly she didn't seem to feel like being with other people after all . She had been caught up for however short a time in the drama of the moment.  Openly now she walked forward, composing herself. 

She went and looked at the grass where they had been.  It would be there - the great red stain  -  and she would be able to tell now what they had used - ketchup? gore? - and she could reassure herself that it had all been make believe.  She looked around in the grass.  There was nothing there. It must be the wrong place. She moved forward, looking for the shoe which she had seen fall from the man's foot. There was no sign of it.  She moved forward to the next tree and looked again, but the ground there too was untouched, the long grass uncrushed; there was no sign of the sword , no sign of the shoe, no sign of the blood which had so copiously flowed from the man's chest. There was nothing.

A strange shiver swept over her and she realised that she was feeling very cold.  This was odd.  This wasn't right. Almost without meaning to she followed the way they had gone, away from the path through the nettles and the long grass.  There was no sign of anyone having come this way, never mind three men, encumbered by cloaks,  dragging a heavy burden.  She looked into the shadows beyond the hedges. Where had they gone?  She saw now that there was rabbit fencing round the orchard, and on the far side of the hedge an electric fence and beyond that a field of  grazing cattle. Of course the men could have vaulted hedge and fences.  Once out of her sight they could have put down their burden, and he, miraculously alive again, could have run with them lightly, tiptoeing, probably laughing, out of sight of their audience.

She walked back again, searching meticulously,  more thoroughly now, determined to find at least a trace of them.  There was a tiny core inside her which was growing steadily more afraid. She walked up to the corner of the orchard, along the back hedge. looking at each tree, quartering the ground.  It should be easy to find the sword and the shoe. She did the whole thing twice, gridding backwards and forwards beneath the trees, tall, old fashioned,  ancient apple trees heading back towards the house. 

There was nothing in the orchard. 

Probably  there never had been. 

She began to retrace her steps back towards the open sunlight and the tourists and the people in their costumes enacting scenes from a Tudor past and she was looking at them suddenly with different eyes, knowing in some inner part of herself, that she alone of all the people there had had a glimpse of the real thing.. 

'Corinne?' The voice behind her pulled her up short.  'I've been looking for you.'

She turned. 

The lover.  Repentant.  Charming.  Rueful.  'Please?' He held out his hand.

She was still a little shocked.   Still slightly shaky, she realised, suddenly. Had it not been for that she might not so easily have decided that it would be nice to have someone to have tea with.

Anyone, as long as he belonged to the present. 


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