CRIME IN THE CLUB
Marie Devlin was feeling distinctly hungover as she trudged up three flights of stairs to the top floor of the Theresian Club in Upper Montagu Street on Monday morning, a bucket of cleaning materials in her hand.
Too much Chardonnay, she thought ruefully trying to ignore the headache building behind her eyes. But it had been a great party…. just so long as her brother J-J didn’t shoot his mouth off to the family. She didn’t fancy her mother back in Dublin getting to hear about those drinking games….
At least mum approved of the Club. According to J-J, that’s because it was the next best thing to a convent.
Breathing hard and cursing the fact that the building didn’t have a lift, she passed through the swing doors on the landing, heaved the hoover from a wall cupboard and made her away along the corridor to the far end.
Thank heaven there were only three rooms to do up here. It was always quiet in the Club coming up to Easter when bookings became a trickle and there were only a few residents still around.
She retrieved a crumpled piece of paper from her overall pocket.
Yes, just Rosemary Gough, Thelma Machin and Julia Porter to attend to up here and after that the senior staff bedrooms on the second floor…. last stop the American professor on the first floor. Not too bad really.
She wondered what J-J would think if he saw Rosemary Gough’s room. There was so much religious bric-a-brac it made the place a nightmare to dust, but she was used to it by now so that the statues and holy pictures felt almost like old friends.
Mum would definitely like the little figurine of St Therese dressed in the flowing nun’s habit clasping her crucifix and roses firmly to her chest. Marie liked it too, though this morning she fancied the saint’s expression held a look of sorrowful reproach…. almost as though she knew exactly what the cleaner had got up to last night.
The bedrooms could do with a makeover, she reflected as she set to. They were perfectly neat and comfortable but so drab with the cream walls, sage green carpet, dull heavy furniture and curtains from the 1950s.
Mind you, Rosemary Gough was the epitome of drab, so the room suited her personality down to a T.
Marie wasn’t keen on the mousy little woman with badly cut hair who blinked at the world from behind thick-lensed NHS specs and never seemed to have a word to say for herself. But at least she wasn’t around this morning on account of it being her shift with the Great Ormond Street Volunteers. Personally, she couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than having the likes of Miss Gough dispensing good cheer, but she supposed there was no great harm in her. And at least she never gave Marie any hassle. Not like Mister Nosy Parker David Manners.
The Irish girl’s pretty face darkened at the thought of the Deputy Warden. Always poking and prying. To say nothing of trying to catch them out over every petty breach of the rules. For such a small grey man, he had boundless self-conceit and seemingly endless energy when it came to prowling round the building. And when he ‘needed a word’, this somehow invariably happened to be when she and the other student cleaners were half-dressed or getting changed.
He and Rosemary Gough had the same taste in books…. big fat holy volumes about the lives of saints. And they were mighty particular about them too…. always noticed if she moved anything or they weren’t lined up just so.
She wondered how Rosemary managed to afford living at the Club. Even with a discount for membership, it couldn’t be cheap. Getting by on her pension, presumably. Plus, she’d been a resident for years and years, so maybe they didn’t give her a hike when they put prices up….
At least the woman was tidy and organized. Not like Julia Porter. God, she simply dreaded the thought of doing room 18 at the other end of the corridor. What on earth could anyone want with all those newspapers and magazines, not to mention the stuff from charity shops?
It was a wonder old fusspot Manners hadn’t had a go at her about it. But then, there was something vaguely scary about Julia’s appearance with all the witchy hair and heavy eye makeup. Plus, she absolutely stank of cigarettes, so maybe he didn’t care to get too close.
Thelma Machin was a bit of a hoarder too, though not on the same scale as Julia. But at least she had some excuse for all those books and papers being a supply teacher, whereas Julia was just a part-time receptionist at the Little Flower Institute round the corner. Thelma wasn’t too bad actually. Had to be getting on, seeing the way she stooped and the whiteish hair, but she was kind to Marie at the beginning when she was homesick and lent her paperbacks from time to time.
There were worse places to end up, Marie thought as she cleaned the sink, dusted and hoovered. The residents’ rooms didn’t have en-suite, so that was one less thing to worry about. She couldn’t imagine living for years with a bathroom down the corridor. Just like being at boarding school.
Or a convent.
Despite J-J’s jibes, the Club was very comfortable, for all that it was no frills. She felt quite proud of the red-carpeted entrance hall with the reading room on one side and the television lounge on the far side of the dining room. Everywhere was traditional and old-fashioned, but there was no institutional smell of cabbage or anything like that. With its shut-in, faintly perfumed air, pictures in gilt frames and the bookcases with leather-backed volumes of religious classics, there was a feeling of Victorian parlours…. the kind of place where Dickens or some other famous person might have lived. It was quietly impressive from the outside too, situated at the end of the Georgian terrace with a pillared portico that was rather grand. She and the other two girls lived in budget quarters in the somewhat dingy basement with a shared shower, but the rooms weren’t bad and there was a pretty garden round the back. Mr Up Himself Manners didn’t like them using the garden, but Father Digby Peake the Warden was relaxed about it. ‘Just remember, no topless bathing,’ he told them with a wink. That was the thing about Father Digby, he was always up for a joke and a laugh. Not a bit like she’d thought a priest would be, though the grey-black beard gave him the air of an Old Testament prophet.
Finished with Rosemary’s room, Marie locked it carefully with her master key and moved down the corridor to Thelma’s. She had settled into the usual Monday morning rhythm and the headache had mercifully started to recede.
There was the same holy paraphernalia as in Rosemary’s, though a bit more upmarket. And all kinds of mementoes of St Therese of Lisieux. A bit like a shrine. Mind you, the Club was named for her and the place was meant to be a centre for religious research…. what did they call it, oh yeah…. Theresiana…. so it was only to be expected residents would buy in to the whole thing.
Sister Pauline the Club librarian, who lived on the second floor, was forever on at Marie about the saint’s cult. And Sister Roisin the Chaplain wasn’t much better, though at least she didn’t keep pressing prayer cards into her hand. Sister Pauline was always cornering her about Mass and Confession, but Sister Roisin (pronounced Rosheen) seemed to understand that Marie had other stuff to do…. she was more easy-going…. more laid back than Sister Pauline. Gloomily, she reflected that mum would disapprove of them wearing skirts and blouses instead of the full religious habit. But you could tell they were nuns, she thought, even without the clue of the little silver cross and chain.
Thelma’s room didn’t take long. At this rate she’d be finished in time for a quick coffee with the Housekeeper Paolo Serrano before she had to go on duty in the dining room, ready to help the cook and serve snacks for anyone who wanted a light lunch.
She brightened at the thought. Dark-eyed Paolo was outrageously camp and such fun. Not all prissy and downturned mouth like the live-in theology student Ignatius Fermor who lived on the second floor and whom she suspected of being gay. He’d made such a palaver about ‘cleaning his own room’, you’d think Marie was some kind of prostitute trying to tempt him from the straight and narrow.
It’d probably do him a power of good.
She had arrived outside Julia Porter’s room.
For some reason that she couldn’t quite analyze, Marie hesitated outside the door of number 18, a hand rubbing the small of her back.
Everything was the same as usual.
And yet, something felt different.
She looked about the hushed corridor apprehensively.
All the bedrooms on the third floor looked out onto Upper Montagu Street, unlike the second floor which had rooms front and back.
Today, the third-floor corridor felt somehow cramped and claustrophobic.
As though the Club held its breath.
Marie gave herself a shake.
That’s what came of living in a place like this, You started to imagine all sorts.
She hovered on the threshold, unaccountably reluctant to put her key in the lock.
Snap out of it, girl, she told herself. At this rate she’d never have time for that coffee with Paolo.
She turned the key.
Afterwards, she said it was as though Julia was laid out waiting for her, glassy eyes turned sightlessly towards the door.
Even if it hadn’t been for the livid weal around the woman’s neck, she’d have known Julia was dead.
From a little shelf above the bed, the statuette of St Therese looked on, waxy and inscrutable as though oblivious to the sacrilege that had taken place within the sacred precincts of her Club.
Marie Devlin backed into the corridor, her screams rending the silence.
A Case Like No Other
Late afternoon on Tuesday 16 March found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham enjoying some mild spring sunshine in Russell Square. The daffodils were out, and the pale blue sky was as clear as if it had been freshly shampooed. All around was the sense of nature stirring and preparing to put forth her best.
Or would have been were it not for what had happened the previous day just a short distance from where he sat.
It was halfway through the Police Federation fortnight, an event which was living down to expectations as usual. He and DS George Noakes were the attendees from Bromgrove CID amidst much wrathful muttering from Noakes about it being ‘some other sucker’s turn’. DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) was also down at the conference, though moving in more rarefied circles than his disgruntled subordinates. ‘Cos he’s the big cheese an’ we’re jus’ frigging plankton,’ as Noakes put it, mixing metaphors with his usual crude brio.
With his lived-in pugilist’s face, squat physiognomy, unruly salt and pepper hair (bristly as a toilet brush) and dire dress sense, George Noakes was no-one’s idea of a lean, mean fighting machine and the despair of DCI Sidney, not least for his obstinate refusal to pay due deference to the shibboleths of political correctness.
But that was precisely what Markham loved about Noakes. That and the fierce loyalty which meant the grizzled sergeant would always have his back no matter what. There was also a refreshing authenticity about the uncouth manners that made Noakes, like some old gumshoe, stand out like a sore thumb amidst the careerists and diplomats of CID. He had compassion too, though not for ‘scrotes’, and a strangely poetic, almost romantic, side to his nature that he took care to keep well hidden from the rank and file.
Perhaps this was one reason why Markham’s English teacher girlfriend Olivia had taken to Noakes from the first. She too had a markedly subversive streak that made her impatient of smooth-tongued apparatchiks (of which there were all too many in her profession) and delighted in Noakes’s outspoken honesty. At some level they were kindred spirits, and the gruff DS was devoted to her, to the considerable irritation of his wife.
Mrs Muriel Noakes was overbearing and snobbish, though with a marked tendresse for her husband’s fastidious, elegant boss. No great fan of Olivia’s boho chic and sparkiness, she persisted in her belief that ‘poor dear Gilbert’ had been ensnared by a designing hussy. Sex was at the bottom of it all, in her opinion, and she lived for the day when the handsome Inspector’s eyes would be opened. In the meantime, there existed an uneasy truce of sorts between her and Olivia who – in a strange way – had become almost fond of her protagonist.
‘It’s a Love Hate thing, Gil,’ Olivia told Markham. ‘But after the Bluebell affair, I saw how vulnerable she was.’
The ‘Bluebell affair’ was an investigation during which Noakes made the shattering discovery that Natalie Noakes, the apple of his eye, was not in fact his biological daughter but the fruit of his wife’s youthful dalliance with a ‘no-mark’. The discovery had consequences that almost ended Noakes’s police career, along with his partnership with Markham. But they weathered the crisis, although the DI was unsure to this day what had passed between Noakes and ‘the missus’.
He and Noakes never talked about it. Nor did they talk about Markham’s sad past as the victim of childhood sexual abuse. That was the thing, Somehow there was no need for words. But he knew that Noakes – the man Sidney called ‘Markham’s useful idiot’ – comprehended it all without any need for explanation.
As for Noakes and Olivia. Well, there was something of a conundrum. Clearly the DS had a secret chivalric yen for swan-necked, Titian-haired women who looked like the heroines of his childhood picture books about King Arthur. Muriel Noakes, on the other hand, was as buxom and well-upholstered as the ‘Miss Joan Hunter Dunn’ celebrated by John Betjeman and others as goddesses of the English shires.
‘A man can be in love with two women at the same time, Gil,’ Olivia assured him.
He would have to take her word for it. But still, it was unfathomable. When he watched Noakes and his wife dance – another well-hidden secret being that the Noakeses had met on the ballroom dancing circuit – he was struck by the mysterious affinity which meant they moved like a dream. It was difficult to reconcile their chemistry on the dance floor with Muriel’s sergeant-major-ish approach to marital relations. Truly, what went on behind closed doors was a great mystery.
Weirdly, Noakes hadn’t been remotely fazed by events at the Theresian Club. After the St Cecilia investigation, Markham had braced himself for superstitious mutterings and maledictions of the direst kind. But when DCI Sidney made the call and brought them in (‘you being au fait with the religious side, Markham’, a none too discreet reference to Markham’s Catholic upbringing), the DS took everything in his stride right down to the religious statues and pictures.
It turned out that Mrs Noakes was something of an aficionado of St Therese of Lisieux and the whole Little Flower set up. So none of the anticipated invective against nuns, convents and the Catholic Church in fact materialized.
Markham wasn’t sure what to make of this new born-again Noakes, but as things stood he’d take what he could get.
DCI Sidney had suggested he and Noakes link up with DI Kate Burton and DS Doyle at Southampton Row.
Just like old times.
DI Kate Burton was the earnest, achingly politically correct protégée Markham had been disappointed to lose to London.
‘It was for the best, Gil,’ Olivia had told him brutally. ‘Otherwise, she was never going to get over you.’
Olivia and Noakes were adamant that Kate had succumbed to a ‘crush’ on him. For himself, Markham couldn’t see it. Nonetheless, he knew it was good for Burton to spread her wings and leave Bromgrove. But he felt a gap. And he knew Noakes did too. For all their differences, the warhorse DS and university-educated high flyer had eventually shaken down together like an old married couple, their periodic spats as predictable as the changing seasons. The DS had discovered an avuncular protectiveness towards Burton that he would rather have been flayed alive than confess to, while for her part she had learned to appreciate the wily shrewdness that made him second to none when it came to flicking suspects on the raw. The psychology graduate and dyed-in-the-wool old school copper had also discovered a mutual passion for true crime documentaries, though it was unlikely Noakes would ever acquire any enthusiasm for Burton’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Markham suspected that each missed the other more than they cared to admit.
And now circumstances had reunited them.
The fourth member of their quartet, DS Doyle, had moved with Burton to Southampton Row. Noakes was the lanky ginger-haired young detective’s mentor in matter of football and the heart alike, with no abatement in their friendship arising from the latter’s transplantation to the capital since Doyle made frequent flying visits to his hometown, especially whenever there was a chance of seeing his beloved Bromgrove Rovers in action. With his newly minted degree in criminal law, Doyle like Burton was on the fast track to success.
Markham and Noakes were staying at the Russell Hotel on the other side of Bloomsbury Square and, fortuitously, Olivia was booked in there too courtesy of a CPD (continuing professional development) course at the University of London.
Given the leaden dullness of the conference seminars on ‘Diversity for A New Millennium’, neither the DI nor his DS was devastated to be called away. But the Theresian Club case promised to be like nothing they had ever encountered.
They hadn’t personally secured the crime scene. That was down to DCI Moriarty at Southampton Row. The previous day had only allowed a swift recce of the Club once Julia Porter’s body had been removed. Too brief a visit to allow of their forming any distinct impressions. But he’d sensed that Noakes was thoroughly intrigued by what on the surface appeared an inexplicable murder and by the whole otherworldly atmosphere the place exuded.
That was the thing about Noakes. He constantly confounded expectations.
And now the residents and staff had been dispatched to a local B&B while forensic teams combed the premises. His own ‘Gang of Four’, mandated by the powers that be to take over the investigation, was due to meet at Southampton Row on the morrow. In the meantime, he awaited Olivia’s emergence from her final seminar of the day at the Senate House.
For a moment, he missed the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s parish church in Bromgrove where he invariably gathered his thoughts at the start of each new case. Then he reproached himself for being an old stick-in-the-mud. A change was as good as a rest, and this investigation promised something unique.
A check of his watch told him it was time to head for Malet Street to meet Olivia. With a final glance at the daffodils, he said a silent prayer for the soul of Julia Porter. Whatever had brought her to that lonely end in the Theresian Club, he would not rest until they had ferreted it out.
Later, Markham filled Olivia in on the events of the day as they unwound over a banquet at China City just off Russell Square. From an Anglican background, she had a keen interest in religion, though professed to be lukewarm about holy luminaries.
‘St Therese….. Oh yes, I know the one you mean,’ Olivia said with an expressive eye roll. ‘She was a nun in an enclosed order at the end of the nineteenth century…. the Carmelites, wasn’t it…. died at twenty-four from TB. Actually,’ she pulled a face, ‘I remember seeing some creepy footage on You Tube…. from when they exhumed her body before lugging it back to the convent…. all part of the rigmarole before she could be beatified….. called ‘Blessed’ or whatever happens before they make someone a saint.’
She chewed her dim sum meditatively then added, ‘Didn’t she have these really pushy sisters in the same convent who sent out some notebooks of hers instead of the standard obituary? I read somewhere they chopped up her bed and clothes so they could send them out as relics… like some creepy cottage industry?’
Markham chuckled. ‘That’s right. The notebooks ended up being published as her autobiography, Story of a Soul. But even before she died, they were beavering away collecting hairs and tears…. There must have been something in it. Apparently on the Fiji islands her image stopped a tidal wave…. And on other occasion it sent a horde of Chinese bandits packing.’
‘Her image…. Ah, I remember that too, Gil…. It’s all coming back to me now…. She had a thing about flowers and said that after she died she would send down a shower of roses…. so the statues always show her with an armful of them…. Honestly, all that kitsch.’
‘That’s her.’ Markham’s eyes held a mischievous gleam. ‘And as for the “cottage industry”, Noakes tells me they’ve got a piece of Therese’s blanket in the Anglican church at Walsingham.’
His lover paused with a pork ball halfway to her mouth.
‘How come George is up on all of this?’she asked.
‘I believe Muriel enjoys the occasional flirtation with Catholicism,’ came the wry answer. ‘Apparently she went to see Therese’s relics when they were on tour in this country.’
‘On tour,’ she repeated scornfully. ‘God, that was necrophiliac…. bits of her thigh and leg being toted round the UK like a rock star doing gigs…. She even “played” Wormwood Scrubs…..’
Markham smiled. ‘I found it rather touching, actually…. I suppose relics make ordinary people feel close to her,’ he added simply. ‘There’s a shrine with her right arm, which wrote Story of a Soul, in the basilica at Lisieux. The convent has the ribcage inside an effigy of Therese on her deathbed, while there’s some more bones in a vault directly underneath and other parts of the skeleton that travel the world.’
‘Isn’t it meant to be a sign of holiness if a saint’s body doesn’t decay?’ Olivia demanded beadily. ‘Aren’t they supposed to be intact?’
‘When Therese was dying, her sisters were obsessed with the idea of her body remaining incorrupt, but she was totally realistic…. said there’d be nothing left of her apart from a pile of bones…. Apparently she appeared in a vision to some theologian or other and told him, “It was the dress of my day’s work that I threw off. I await the robe of the eternal Sunday ; I do not care what happens to the other.”’
‘Hmm,’ Olivia murmured appreciatively, ‘that’s rather beautiful.’ She added slyly, ‘Sounds to me like you’ve done some research, Gil.’
‘Well, no doubt the academics at the Club will fill me in on the theological side, but she’s quite an intriguing character. There’s much more to her than florets and fuzzy lambs and all the sentimental bad taste…. They created her a Doctor of the Church in the end.’
‘I don’t like saints made of multicoloured plaster in sky-blue and pink,’ Olivia retorted stubbornly. ‘All flowers, and roses and twee goodness…..’
‘Oh there were plenty of thorns and brambles too, Liv.’ Markham scooped up some chow mein while she watched him expectantly. ‘Therese was a product of her limited bourgeois environment, but gutsy for all that…. she might have been raised in a middle-class hothouse and wrapped in cotton wool to start with, but there was real heroism later on.’ Markham was surprised by his sudden inexplicable ardour for this long-dead twenty-four year old. ‘Not just her illness and the fight to become holy…. She went into religious life all starry-eyed, but that convent of hers was anything but a collection of saints.’
Olivia frowned. ‘Wasn’t there a crackpot Prioress who wouldn’t let her have morphine when she was dying?’
‘That’s right…. Mother Marie de Gonzague.’
His lover raised her eyebrows.
Markham grimaced. ‘Yep, aristocratic dame, so probably looked down on Therese because she hailed from “trade”…. lacemaking and watches.’
‘She was a psycho about the morphine.’
‘The family got round it…. Therese’s cousin was married to a doctor and he administered it surreptitiously once the disease started attacking her intestines.’
Olivia flinched. ‘What a soap opera.’
‘She rose above it, Liv…. That’s what I like about her…. Her sisters and a cousin were all lurking round her bed – pens at the ready to take down any edifying last words – and she more or less told them to stuff it…. When they asked her, “What will you die of?” she told them, “I shall die of death”.’
Olivia burst out laughing.
‘I’m beginning to warm to Therese,’ she said.
‘Oh, they’re all fighting over her, Liv…. Feminists take the sociological line…lots of Freudian speculation about the relationship with her father and sexual repression.’
‘Don’t tell me, they decided she had a crush on the Prioress.’
‘As a matter of fact, yes.’
Olivia rolled her eyes. ‘Shades of the St Cecilia investigation and dodgy convents…. George is going to love this.’
‘Well, he takes his lead from She Who Must Be Obeyed, so hopefully these days he won’t be shrieking No Popery at every turn.’ Markham took a long draught of his Châteauneuf-du-Pape. ‘Actually Noakesy seemed to know quite a lot about Therese.’
His lover’s eyebrows shot up again.
‘Muriel dragged him along to some talks at the Women’s Institute and a surprising amount appears to have stuck.’
‘I can’t imagine him going a bundle on all the tinselly stuff…. chucking rose petals at crucifixes and all the rest of it.’
Markham chuckled. ‘No, but I reckon he admires her sheer bloody-mindedness…. the way she waged a sort of guerrilla warfare against the other nuns who weren’t prepared to work at religious life and give it their best.’
Olivia was thoughtful. ‘How many of her family were in that convent?’
‘Three sisters and a cousin…. Plus, there was another sister who joined a different order.’
‘No wonder the poor old Prioress was paranoid…. probably expected them to mount a coup or something.’
Markham smiled. ‘It wasn’t just the Prioress,’ he said. ‘There’s this story about a nun who liked to come and stand at the foot of Therese’s bed when she was dying to gloat over her sufferings…. They were all pretty intense and neurotic, no doubt about it…. very much the product of their times…. “Fortress Catholicisim”, if you like.’
‘Didn’t her parents want to join religious orders before they married?’ Olivia asked. ‘I remember hearing they’ve been canonized too.’
‘That’s right, and one of the sisters is on the same track.’
‘Blimey, just like a family business.’ Olivia turned her attention to the prawn crackers. ‘I still think there’s something eminently slappable about this Little Flower of yours, Gil.’
‘Oh, no question.’ Markham’s eyes were merry. ‘Looking through the worthy tomes about her life, some of it’s hilarious.’
‘Go on. After a day of Postmodernist Feminism with earnest nerds, I could do with a laugh.’
‘Well, when Therese was in the convent, she was praying for her sister Celine to join her but it looked like big sis might have fancied the bright lights…. Anyway, when Celine went to this party, Therese started praying that the evening would be a disaster and got the whole community to join in…. It ended with some young fellow asking Celine to dance, but they both found they couldn’t take a single step, so Therese took it as a sign she was right.’
‘See what I mean…. Slappable,’ Oliva said darkly.
‘There was a relative who was quite normal, actually…. Uncle Isidore. He was a pharmacist who was very comfortably off because of money from his wife,’ Markham replied, amused by her fierceness. ‘He didn’t want Therese going into the convent at fifteen…. and he wasn’t happy about the canonization either, though the Church played all of that down.’
‘I like the sound of old Isidore.’
‘Well, he wanted his nieces to see something of the world before they renounced it.’ Markham chuckled grimly. ‘But he was on a losing wicket with Therese. When the family did a pilgrimage to Rome, she spent all her time praying to St Joseph to shield her eyes from seeing anything unsuitable. Even on her deathbed, she was asking herself if it was sinful to have enjoyed using perfume.’
‘Priceless! What a prig.’ She looked ruefully at the spread in front of her. ‘Nothing very ascetic about the way I’ve hoovered up this lot,’ she lamented. ‘Come on, Gil,’ she pleaded, ‘save me from myself.’
Markham duly helped himself to a spring roll. Suddenly serious, he added. ‘Like I say, Liv, Therese was a product of her time. But she was a giant in religious terms…. her theory of “The Little Way” had a huge impact.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Olivia looked unconvinced. ‘Wasn’t that all about her offering stuff up…. gritting her teeth when some nun splashed her with dirty water in the laundry or trying to ignore the one who kept sucking her teeth during silent prayer?’ She pulled a comical face. ‘I remember thinking it made her sound like some kind of weird Eastern fakir… totting up pains and ordeals like she aimed to break a world record.’
‘Oh there was far more to it than that,’ her lover replied. ‘But I think what endeared her to ordinary folk – the reason she’s such a big hit – is the way she fought so hard to do everything as well as she possibly could…. and did it with her very best smile.’
‘I know, I know…. But once you look past all the gilt they daub on her, it’s actually quite remarkable…. how she rose above all the crudeness and spite of convent life and tried to meet it all with love.’ He shot Olivia a penetrating look. ‘Love is blind,’ he quoted softly. ‘It is a wild torrent that leaves nothing behind in the path where it has raged.’
‘Therese said that?’
‘The very same.’
‘Well, I guess I need to mug up some more on your Little Flower…. Sounds like she was treated pretty shamefully at the end.’
‘Oh yes, the way she died was a scandal alright. There was a French priest who wrote about it in the 1950s…. his book made the Church really angry, but it was all true…. TB just wasn’t properly understood back then, and Victorian prudery played a part. The priest’s sister died in a convent too, and she wasn’t even allowed to have fresh air because the Mother Superior decided it wasn’t proper for nuns to keep their windows open at night.’
Olivia made a disgusted sound.
‘What about the sensible uncle?’ she asked. ‘Wouldn’t he have kicked up a stink?’
‘Uncle Isidore did his best, but Therese covered things up even after she’d begin to cough blood. Her mother was just the same. Had a breast tumour for sixteen years before she said anything about it, and by then it was way too late.’
‘Poor little girl. And no peace at the end with those pesky sisters whipping out their jotters like demented stenographers.’
Markham smiled sadly. ‘She had a great admiration for martyrs like Joan of Arc, but what she went through was infinitely worse than anything they endured.’
‘She sounds like a sort of eternal schoolgirl,’ Olivia murmured. ‘Didn’t she doorstep the Pope in Rome and beg him to let her become a nun at fifteen? What were they all thinking of? How could her father have allowed it?’
‘He saw it as a great honour for all of his girls to enter convents,’ Markham said simply. ‘That’s the kind of family they were. He was thrilled when she became a nun and sent so many presents to the convent they called him “Christ’s postman”.’
‘Downright unbalanced if you ask me.’ Olivia was reluctant to be won over. ‘A schoolgirl,’ she repeated.
‘With a huge following,’ Markham said. ‘In the First World War, soldiers and airmen went into battle carrying pictures and medals of her…. And it’s lasted right up until today…. It’s a real cult, believe me…. Even the Muslims revere her.’
‘Presumably her sisters’ PR campaign had something to do with it,’ Olivia observed caustically.
‘To start with, yes. They were determined to have her declared a saint…. Celine was the artistic one who took her camera into the convent, so while the others got down to editing the notebooks, she was airbrushing her photos of Therese….making her features more oval and heavenly…. All quite touching really.’
‘Makes me feel queasy,’ was his lover’s tart retort. ‘So there was a family bandwagon.’
‘In the beginning maybe…. But it took off astonishingly…. She was made a saint by popular acclaim less than thirty years after her death, when usually the process lumbers on for much longer…. There were so many stories and miracles…. The Church has a huge investment in her.’
Olivia’s gaze was penetrating.
‘Do you think the Church has got anything to do with this murder, Gil?’ she asked. ‘I mean, d’you reckon this Julia Porter was some sort of heretic…. working against the Little Flower cult or movement or whatever it is so they set out to punish her?’
‘That’s the strange thing…. Julia Porter was just this middle-aged woman who’d lived at the Club for many years…. ever since she came to London. Devout Catholic with a job as a receptionist at the Little Flower Institute. Quiet and inoffensive by all accounts…. a bit eccentric perhaps, but nothing worse than that.’
‘Something of a hoarder apparently. Obsessive about collecting newspapers and stuff most people would throw out…. It was more or less under control, though… Thery could still get in to clean her room.’
‘So she was a Therese groupie then?’
‘Oh definitely…. nothing subversive about her piety…. hugely enthusiastic about the whole shebang.’
Olivia was puzzled. ‘There must be a connection with religion somewhere, Gil,’ she said wonderingly. ‘I mean look at where she died…. the whole set-up’s so, well, unique.’
‘True.’ Markham felt as though a weight had lifted just from sharing his impressions of the case. ‘That Club’s a weird, closed world,’ he continued. ‘But at least there are only a few residents and staff there at the moment, because the place always winds down before Easter when visiting academics go home for the holidays.’
She flashed him a grin.
‘Not too many fanatics to wade through, then?’
‘Correct.’ He sighed. ‘Of course, what happened to Ms Porter may be nothing to do with St Therese and the Little Flower movement…. but something tells me there’s a link.’
‘Well, while you’re hot on the trail, I’ll take a look at those books you mentioned…. From what you say, it sounds like Therese wasn’t just a pink bon-bon but quite a toughie underneath it all.’
‘Be my guest, Liv.’ He was pleased by her interest. ‘Don’t be put off by the sugar roses and lard clouds and all the rest of it,’ he added dryly. ‘They’re just analgesics to take away the pain of the real story.’
‘I’m up for a challenge, at any rate.’ She chuckled softly. ‘Me and George both.’
‘Oh, I’d say Noakesy is shaping up to be quite a fan.’
‘Muriel’s indoctrinated him, then?’
‘Well, he doesn’t have much time for all the voodoo bollocks.’
Olivia laughed, recognizing a direct quote.
‘But he likes how Therese bucked the trend…. didn’t do anything grand or heroic but just kept at it in that dreary convent and made the best of a bad job.’
‘A saint for the tryers, then,’ Olivia concluded.
‘Yes…. the little people, if you like.’
She screwed up her face.
Markham’s lips twitched at her expression.
‘I know, it sounds dreadfully patronizing,’ he said. ‘But Therese may surprise you…. When you get past the infantilism, there’s something irrepressible about her.’ He set down his chopsticks with a satisfied air. ‘Wow, that was good.’ Again, he smiled the rare charming smile that transfigured his darkly handsome features. ‘When Therese was near the end and refused a cup of broth, the nun who brought it was offended and told her she wasn’t a saint as her sisters pretended but not even a good nun. Apparently, she replied what a blessing it was to hear on one’s deathbed that one hadn’t even been a proper nun.’
‘Feisty gal,’ Olivia observed. ‘I begin to see why she might appeal to George.’
‘Well, he likes physical courage –’
‘That too…. He seemed pretty fascinated by the clammy details of how she died…. tubercular toxins, gangrenous intestines and all the rest of it. Sorry,’ he caught himself up at the look on his lover’s face. ‘That’s not what you want to hear over a meal.’
‘No, I can see how this saint draws people in,’ she said slowly. ‘Such a strange subterranean kind of life…. locked up in that convent when she was just in her teens…. being measured for her shroud from day one.’
‘She chose it, Liv…. to save souls. And as for the rest, God was the only doctor she ever trusted.’
‘Humph.’ But Olivia’s gaze was tender. She could see St Therese had somehow got under her lapsed Catholic lover’s skin.
‘Actually she badly wanted to be a missionary and get sent to Indochina, but in those days and with what happened to her health….’
‘Awful…. Walled up within four walls and no physical escape…. brought up against your own shortcomings all the time with no let up.’
‘I think that’s part of why Noakesy admires her. Battling away day after day no matter what…. She didn’t even believe in heaven towards the end –’
‘Can’t say I’m surprised.’
‘But she kept trusting right up until the last.’ Markham reached across the table and took her hand. ‘It may sound odd, but I somehow feel I owe it to Therese as well as that poor woman to find out what’s going on in the Club.’
‘A divine mission,’ she exclaimed. Well, if the Almighty is on your side…..’
‘There’s a tale about the woman who reformed the Carmelite order, St Teresa of Avila…. The story goes that after some setback or other she was praying about it and heard Jesus say, “This is how I treat my friends”. To which she replied, ‘”If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder You have so few”.’
The meal ended in laughter.
A Foreign Country
‘You should go on Mastermind, sarge,’ Doyle was saying as Markham joined them in Kate Burton’s office at Southampton Row the following morning. ‘Seriously, this St Therese woman could be your specialist subject…. I reckon you’d clean up.’
Burton too looked reluctantly intrigued, eyes darting to her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which held pride of place in the bookcase. Markham was willing to bet the psychology graduate was itching to look up Religious Exaltation and Psychosomatic Disorders in the Index.
Sounds a terribly hard sort of life,’ she said.
‘You’re telling me.’ Noakes was gratified by their attention. ‘Getting up at five in the morning with jus’ two helpings of soup an’ some bits of veg a day.’ He shook his head sorrowfully, since decent grub was one of his non-negotiables. ‘An’ kissing people’s feet when you did owt wrong, an’ if you broke something then you had to wear it round your neck….’
Markham was amused by the way his wingman had latched on to the more gothic aspects of nineteenth-century religious life.
‘Five hours work a day and prayer on top of that,’ he broke in with a smile. ‘With just a straw mattress to sleep on and no heating. They bred them tough in those days.’
‘’Spose it weren’t all bad,’ Noakes scratched his chin dubiously. ‘The boss nun felt quite sorry for her an’ gave her a box with some hot coal so she could warm her feet up. Therese joked about it…. said other nuns would turn up in heaven with holy things while she’d be carrying this hot water bottle.’
Markham chuckled. ‘Doyle’s right, Sergeant. We’ll be hearing you on Thought For The Day at this rate.
The DS tried to look suitably modest and failed.
‘Well, our Nat went through a stage when she wondered about becoming a nun.’
A choking sound came from Doyle, hastily suppressed.
The DI remained impenetrably grave despite the mind-boggling notion of pneumatic Natalie Noakes, the doyenne of Bromgrove’s nightclubs, wanting to take the veil. Of course the trauma of the Bluebell case, when she’d been in serious danger, might have effected a personality change but even so…..
Burton carefully didn’t look at him.
‘Me an’ the missus didn’t want that for her,’ Noakes continued. ‘She’d too much character for that kind of life.’
Markham suspected the vows of obedience and chastity might also have presented problems for the Stroppy One.
‘An’ when you look at what happened to Therese…. the TB an’ her insides turning to cheese,’ Noakes added sagely.
Doyle shifted restlessly. ‘How come you know so much about it, sarge?’
It was an echo of Olivia’s question the night before.
‘The WI back home did these lectures on her. Thought I’d go along, see what all the fuss were about.’
Which, translated, meant ‘the missus’ had issued a three-line whip.
‘Turned out to be quite interesting ackhsually,’ Noakes said. A thought struck him. ‘Hey, I almost forgot. Therese were into murder an’ all.’
‘What?’ Burton was startled. Even she hadn’t envisaged a saint with homicidal tendencies.
‘Not herself,’ Noakes explained patiently. ‘But when she were little, she heard about this bloke called Pranzini…. He’d knocked off a couple of women, so they guillotined him. But jus’ before he died, he kissed a crucifix three times…. Therese decided it were her prayers that made him repent…. That’s what got her started on praying for bad ’uns, see. Murder.’
The word fell into the silence of the room like a heavy weight.
‘Well let’s hope Julia Porter’s a one-off and there isn’t some nutter out there targeting religious hostels,’ Doyle said uneasily. Then, ‘Look, why I don’t get us some drinks in from Costa next door before we get started.’
‘Champion.’ Noakes beamed at the younger man. ‘I could do with one of them muffins an’ all.’ He patted his paunch complacently. ‘No need for any of us to go in for that fasting malarkey.’
Doyle grinned. It was really a miracle the older man got through his fitness appraisals what with all the junk he put away. Any virtuous intentions formed during their last investigation at the diet clinic had clearly gone up in smoke, and Noakes was looking distinctly chunky. The horrendous combo of blue chinos, mustard sweater and ancient Harris tweed jacket didn’t exactly help matters, while the pug-like features and ungovernable hair gave him the air of a bookie’s runner. A greater contrast to the pinstriped Markham and Burton in her softly tailored charcoal two piece could scarcely be imagined. Doyle was satisfied that his own ensemble from the Dior Men’s range covered all the bases. Edgy but classic at the same time. Perfectly unobjectionable attire for scouting around this weird religious place next door.
Happily oblivious of his colleague’s reaction, as Doyle disappeared into the corridor Noakes grunted amiably at Burton, ‘You’re looking chipper, luv. So how’s it going with you an’ ole Shippers then?’ By which cordial designation he meant Professor Nathan Finlayson, the psychologist to whom Burton had drawn close during previous investigations and who bore a disconcerting resemblance to the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman.
‘Well, with it being long-distance we don’t always hook up as much as we’d like, sarge.’
That figured, the DS thought, since the pair of them were bleeding workaholics.
Markham smiled warmly at her. ‘You’re certainly looking well, Kate. Clearly Southampton Row agrees with you.’
The nut-brown pageboy swung forward to hide a tell-tale blush, but Burton quickly recovered herself, intelligent brown eyes and snub-nosed little face glowing with pleasure at the compliment.
She still ain’t over the guvnor, Noakes told himself. Poor old Shippers.
‘So we’re taking over this case are we, sir?’ she asked anxiously, as though fearful the opportunity would be snatched away before they’d got their teeth into it. ‘DCI Sidney’s squared it, right?’
‘Yes, Kate. He and DCI Moriarty are only too happy for us to take over.’ A slight tightening of the well-moulded lips. ‘In view of the cranky religious set-up.’
Burton registered the distaste. No doubt those were Sidney’s exact words.
The DCI’s resentment of Bromgrove CID’s legendarily reserved wunderkind, with his Oxbridge background and air of fastidious refinement, was an open secret. Sidney never lost a chance to needle Markham about how ‘his other half managed to crop up in so many investigations’, leading Olivia to christen her lover’s boss Judas Iscariot. Burton herself never experienced any problems with Sidney, but it was hard to watch his pettifogging persecution of the man who had been her lodestar ever since she joined CID. It was a relief to be out of his orbit.
Now she said, ‘How cranky is it, sir? I mean, the Theresian Club’s a sort of centre for research, right?’
‘Well, the intellectual engine room’s on Brompton Road…. the Little Flower Institute… located round the back of Brompton Oratory within the Oratory Gardens.’
‘Knightsbridge…. That’s within spitting distance of Harrods,’ she frowned. ‘Prime real estate.’
‘It’s down to Peter’s Pence,’ Noakes rumbled. ‘Collections at Mass an’ all the rest of it…. That’s how they can afford such a posh location.’
Burton ignored the Greek Chorus.
‘And Julia Porter worked there as a receptionist,’ she mused.
‘Musta known summat about crooked priests… corruption an’ dodgy deals.’ Noakes was keen to demonstrate he hadn’t read the Da Vinci Code for nothing.
‘Like what?’ Burton was clearly flummoxed. ‘How would a secretary have access to information like that?’
‘Came across it by accident,’ Noakes persisted. ‘Or she were earwigging…. An’ whatever she found out, it spelled danger.’
‘Hmm.’ Burton tapped a fountain pen against her teeth. ‘That all sounds a bit high-flown…. Maybe it had something to do with her personal life.’
‘She didn’t have one,’ Noakes objected. ‘Went to work an’ came home. No boyfriends, no socialising, jus’ work, sleep…. an’ hoarding,’ he added with a theatrical eye roll. ‘Newspapers an’ religious brochures, that kind of thing.’
‘What about an intruder?’ Burton persisted.
‘Highly unlikely,’ Markham said. ‘Security at the Club’s pretty tight…. Visitors have to be buzzed in, and I’d say there’s little chance of a stranger being able to wander around without getting challenged.’
Sensing her frustration, he smiled encouragingly. ‘It’s not too great a pool of suspects and the place is generally quiet over Easter. Hardly any paying guests and pretty much just the staff in residence.’ Markham slipped a hand into his jacket pocket. ‘DCI Moriarty’s done a briefing note,’ he said, handing out copies ‘There were just three other residents in the Club when Ms Porter was killed…. Rosemary Gough, retired secretary…. volunteers at Great Ormond Street…. Thelma Machin, supply teacher… Both women lived on the same corridor as Julia. Then on the second floor you’ve got the senior staff…. Fr Digby Peake, the warden…. David Manners, deputy warden…. Two nuns…. Sister Roisin Boden and Sister Pauline O’Connor, chaplain and librarian respectively…. and the housekeeper Paolo Serrano.’
‘You said three other residents, sir.’ Burton was scanning the piece of paper intently. ‘Who’s the third?’
‘Let me see…. ah yes, that’s Ignatius Fermor…. He’s a theology student at King’s…. has a room on the second floor…. plans to train for the priesthood, so they probably lodged him on the same floor as the staff out of deference to that.’
‘Yeah, wouldn’t want ole Rosie or Thelma giving him the glad eye,’ Noakes leered.
‘They’re devout Catholic ladies of a certain age, so precious little chance of that,’ Markham said dryly. ‘I’d say it was more a case of ensuring he had mentors available. Sister Roisin is also a student counsellor for the University.’
‘The DCI’s listed four “members” on here,’ Burton said. ‘Donald Trevelyan, Margaret Bertram, Kenneth Robson and Anne Leadbeater…. Do they live in the Club too?’
‘I believe they’re former residents and as such have various privileges…. their own pass keys, reduced rates if they want to stay the night, that kind of thing…. they’ve all been involved with Theresian studies.’
‘And just one visitor,’ Burton continued. ‘Tom Nevin.’
‘That’s right…. He’s their only paying guest over Easter…. American professor from the University of Florida.’ Markham folded the paper and restored it to his jacket.
‘I don’t know all that much about this St Therese,’ Burton said apologetically.
Noakes bit back the sarcastic rejoinder that sprang to his lips. If Burton ran true to form, she’d be better briefed about Therese than the Pope before the day was much older. Probably already had a reading list burning a hole in her pocket.
‘Oh, Noakes can bring you up to speed,’ Markham told her, not without a certain sly malice as he took in her expression. ‘He’s a walking encyclopaedia on the subject.’
The DI cleared her throat. ‘I had the impression her becoming a saint was some sort of vast propaganda exercise,’ she said apprehensively.
‘Yeah, but she were holy too,’ Noakes said firmly as though he was determined to brook no misunderstanding on that essential point.
‘Right, sarge,’ she replied faintly. ‘Er, what’s with the “Little Flower” terminology then?’
‘That’s cos she were really modest an’ didn’t like boasting…. said heaven’s like a garden an’ the really important saints – you know, St Peter an’ his mob – are the big flashy plants…. then there’s folk like her filling out the bits in between…. little flowers, see.’
‘Sounds more like moss,’ Doyle quipped as he arrived with their refreshments. ‘Or weeds.’
Noakes frowned portentously.
‘Only kidding, sarge,’ the other said swiftly. ‘This bird I’m seeing at the moment,’ of whom no doubt further particulars would be vouchsafed to hie mentor over a pint or four, ‘she’s a Catholic. Her mum’s well into St Therese. Always doing prayers and Novenas and things.’
The DS nodded approvingly. ‘Yeah, she’s a big deal. There’s even the king of some tribe in Africa made her regent of his country. Thass how much they rate her.’
Burton absorbed this startling information as Doyle smoothly distributed the drinks and snacks. ‘There you go, guv…. oatmeal latter and granola bar for you…. cappuccinos for me an’ sarge, espresso for you, sir…. and chocolate muffins to finish off.’
Noakes wasn’t distracted for long.
‘St Therese is probably the Left Footers’ number one saint,’ he observed wistfully through a mouthful of muffin.
Markham’s lips twitched at the way Noakes made it sound like the ecclesiastical equivalent of Eurovision. For someone with a soundly Methodist upbringing, he was an unexpected adherent of this most ethereal of saints. Burton meanwhile was trying not to boggle.
The coffee was excellent. After a few appreciative sips, he turned to Burton.
‘Even those without faith couldn’t help but admire Therese,’ he said quietly. ‘She wasn’t all about meek sentimentality. There was iron self-discipline her whole life long.’
Now that was a language Burton understood. She began to lose the startled look.
‘She died of TB, is that right sir?’
‘Yeah,’ Noakes cut in. ‘They threw everything at it…. mustard plasters, blisters, the works…. the local doc didn’t know his arse from his elbow an’ the boss nun were a jealous bitch,’ not unlike Sidney he thought to himself, ‘so the poor lass died in agony…. didn’t even believe in life after death by the end of it.’
‘But she kept on loving and trusting,’ Markham continued as his wingman paused for breath. ‘Which is a large part of her appeal…. She promulgated a doctrine called The Little Way…. I suppose you’d call it getting on with life as it actually is…. very different from the inflated Christian fantasies of martyrdom and being boiled in oil…. coping with difficult fellow human beings and family instead.’
‘She might’ve preferred the boiling oil to her family.’ Noakes had rallied once more. ‘Her sisters were in the convent, an’ they were a right pain in the proverbial…. I mean, even when she had jus’ weeks to live they kept pestering her with daft stuff about angels coming an’ taking her to heaven an’ asking her if she wanted to die on a feast day –’
‘What did she say to that?’ Doyle asked curiously.
‘Told ’em her death would be feast day enough for her.’
Like Olivia the previous evening, Doyle’s response was admiring.
‘She had a sense of humour then,’ he said with a grin.
‘She fricking needed it,’ Noakes said dourly. ‘One of ’em even told her it wouldn’t look good if she took too long about dying cos people might think her being sick were all a fraud…. The bloody cheek of it.’
Burton looked as though her prejudices about the Catholic Church were being confirmed on the spot.
‘All sounds very medieval,’ was her measured response, though Markham detected the undertone of distaste. Then, ‘Will there be clergy butting in, sir….. bishops…. people like that?’
‘I understand from DCI Sidney that Bishop Buckley requires an update in due course, and I anticipate the diocesan clergy will be taking an interest.’
Cue glum faces all around, as their thoughts travelled unbidden to clerical interference in the St Cecilia case.
‘Is this murder something to do with the Church then?’ Doyle burst out impatiently in another echo of Olivia. ‘Was Julia Porter up to something they didn’t approve of…. badmouthing St Therese or doing something to make this cult or whatever it is look bad, so they went and bumped her off?’ Even to his own ears it sounded far-fetched. ‘It’s like something out of a trashy thriller.’
‘The Da Vinci Code,’ Noakes put in sententiously.
‘Yeah, sarge, but we’re talking a hostel in the middle of London, not Vatican City…. no wicked cardinals or anything like that in the picture.’ The young detective’s freckled open face was a study in bafflement. ‘The whole set-up sounds pretty creepy…. Sorry, sir, no offence,’ he added, reddening at the remembrance of Markham’s Catholic antecedents. Rumour had it that his former boss liked visiting old churches in his spare time and had a thing for religious history. Weird but all part of the DI’s unique cachet.
‘None taken,’ Markham said lightly. ‘
Burton’s face was closed, introspective, as usual when she was thinking hard.
Noakes’s words came back to her.
Therese’s sister told her it wouldn’t look good if she took too long about dying because people might think it was all a fraud….
‘The Catholic Church has had lots of scandals involving dirty money,’ she mused, revolving new possibilities. ‘There was this book In God’s Name which claimed Pope John Paul 1 was murdered because he tried to clamp down on corruption.’
Noakes was staring as though he feared she was about to launch into a lecture on church history.
‘Maybe Julia Porter found out about some financial wrongdoing,’ she said hastily. ‘Something connected with the Institute. She might only have lived in a hostel, but if the Little Flower Institute’s big league and this Bishop Buckley wants updates, then maybe he’s worried about something embarrassing coming out.’
‘Money an’ sex,’ Noakes said oracularly. ‘Though it don’ look like Porter whooped it up. The only crush she had were on God.’
‘God and St Therese,’ Doyle amended.
‘Right,’ Markham said briskly. ‘Time to get started. Today we’re taking all the staff and residents. They’re staying in Eton Lodge, that’s the B&B two doors down from the Club. I’ve lined up a visit to the Little Flower Institute for tomorrow, then interviews with those members who don’t live at the Club.’ He ticked them off on his fingers. ‘That’s Donald Trevelyan, Margaret Bertram, Kenneth Robson and Anne Leadbeater.’ He raked the slightly over-long dark hair which was another item in DCI’s list of grievances against his handsome subordinate. ‘If there’s time today, we’ll take another look at the Club while it’s clear of everyone.’
The team got to their feet, nothing loath to crack on with surely the strangest case they had ever encountered.
It felt like a foreign country.
There was nothing supernatural about Eton Lodge, however. It was just an unpretentious but comfortable little hotel whose balding bespectacled manager was quietly accommodating and not at all fazed by having the police descend on them.
‘You can have the lounge for interviews, Inspector,’ he told them. ‘I’ll see that nobody disturbs you. There’s complimentary tea and coffee on the sideboard.’
There was nothing especially heavenly or elevated about the Theresian Club’s staff and residents either. As Noakes grumbled afterwards, ‘They looked jus’ like anybody else.’ Markham wondered what exactly he had been expecting. A whiff of incense or swishing habits no doubt.
In fact, the two nuns, Roisin and Pauline, were decidedly downbeat in their sensible skirts, blouses and lace-up shoes. Like social workers or district nurses, Doyle thought disparagingly.
Both were Irish, Sister Roisin being the more attractive of the two, with broad open features, a buxom figure and brown hair cut in a feathery mushroom hairstyle which, though decidedly nineteen eighties, gave her a youthful air. Sister Pauline was what Noakes thought of as ‘stringy’, with dark hair pulled back in a severe bun and a straight up and down figure. Thick black NHS glasses swamped plain features and made her look far older than her fellow religious. Neither of them had an alibi to speak of for Sunday night. According to Sister Roisin, she was working on the Club’s newsletter while Sister Pauline was ‘doing her spiritual exercises’.
The two women spoke of Julia Porter in respectful tones – a ‘committed Catholic…. dedicated to her job’ – which gave no indication what they actually thought of her. Reference to the dead woman’s hoarding elicited only a murmured ‘To be sure she had a great devotion to St Therese.’ And no, they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary in the Club on the day she died, nor had they seen any strangers around the building.
‘Well, they were bugger all use,’ Noakes muttered after they had left the room.
‘Early days, Sergeant,’ Markham told him. ‘And don’t forget, they’ll all be in shock.’
‘Looked to me like they were taking it pretty well,’ his wingman retorted. ‘Not ’xactly prostrated with grief,’ he added sarcastically.
‘They’ll see her as having gone to a better place,’ Doyle suggested helpfully. ‘It’s in their job description.’
Next up was Father Digby Peake.
Like summat out of the Bible. John the Baptist or one of them from the Old Testament, thought Noakes, clocking the beard and slightly over long hair.
The warden was a gentle, softly spoken character who struck Markham as more suited to the contemplative life than manager of a hostel.
‘Holy Obedience means I go where I’m sent,’ he told them wryly.
He and the two nuns belonged to the same religious order, the Brothers and Sisters of St Therese. ‘Our Rule aims for a balance of prayer and apostolic work,’ he told them before adding ruefully, ‘but these days there seems to be less and less time for quiet reflection.’
With an air of mild embarrassment, he confided that he had been watching a film in the television lounge on Sunday evening. ‘No-one else was around…. It was a Western…. I ended up falling asleep in front of it.’
Afterwards, Burton said, ‘I liked how he didn’t pretend to be doing something holy…. Another priest might’ve said he was reading the bible or something.’ Suddenly she grinned. ‘When Pope John Paul 1 died – the one they said was murdered – there was a story he’d been reading a Western in bed, but when the Cardinals discovered the body, they switched it for some prayer book because they didn’t want it to come out that the pope liked trashy books.’
‘Nowt wrong with Westerns,’ Noakes said stoutly. Like Burton, he’d found the lack of pomposity appealing.
Along with the nuns, Father Digby would not be drawn on Julia Porter. ‘The poor woman had no family here and very few friends,’ he said. ‘She didn’t really mix with people in the Club all that much…. perhaps Sister Pauline now and again, but obviously there was no question of their being confidantes.’
‘Why not?’ Doyle was puzzled.
‘We’re very aware of the danger of “particular friendships”,’ the priest said mildly.
‘What’s he mean by that?’ the young DS wanted to know after the priest had departed.
‘They don’ want the nuns turning into lezzers,’ Noakes informed him.
Kate Burton visibly cringed, but before she could say anything Markham took the bull by the horns.
‘If by “lezzers” you mean a prohibition on lesbianism, Noakes, I would say the idea is to steer clear of intimacies which might compromise their vocation and distract them from serving God.’
‘Yeah, that an’ all,’ his DS said, not at all abashed. ‘But there was summat shifty about the way Diggers said it.’
Noakes was on the money there, Markham thought with reluctant admiration for the shrewd antennae that had picked up on the priest’s discomfort. For some reason, Father Digby had been ill at ease around the subject of personal relationships. The question was why…
If Father Digby came across as understated, the theology student Ignatius Fermor came across as being the finished seminary product. Bespectacled and bookish in sweater and flannels, he was good-looking with closely shorn dark hair and clean-cut features. Markham couldn’t say what it was about the man that unsettled him, but there was the sense of intense feelings carefully banked down. Like the others, he had no alibi for the night of the murder. ‘I was writing a paper on the spirituality of St John of the Cross and its influence on St Therese.’
Of course you were, thought Noakes sourly. Presumably that was what passed for a good time with blokes like Fermor. Prissy little sod. Casting those looks up to heaven every few minutes so you could see the whites of his eyes. And it wasn’t nice the way he somehow managed to convey that Julia Porter was insignificant as a gnat in his eyes. The question being, was he really as indifferent as he appeared…..
The housekeeper Paolo Serrano was a different proposition. Tall, dark and very Spanish looking with a little pointed beard and eyes that danced in a lean El Greco-ish face, there was something puckish and engaging about him. ‘Julia’s room was a challenge for the cleaners,’ he said, ‘but they understood…. All our madres are a bit like that as they get older…. hanging on to their treasures…. keeping them close.’ He had been working out staff rosters on Sunday night before watching television in his bedsit. Serrano seemed an unlikely candidate for a murderer, but Markham sensed a reserve beneath the bonhomie…. something withheld.
David Manners the deputy warden was next. A fussy, self-important little man who no doubt got up everyone’s nose and made the lives of junior staff a misery. He clearly hadn’t liked the dead woman. his lips thinning to nothing as he spoke of her room being a ‘fire hazard’. It turned out Manners wasn’t a Catholic, which came as a surprise. ‘It’s not compulsory,’ he sniffed. ‘In fact, I’m a Quaker, but the Club has a strongly ecumenical spirit and many of our visitors hail from other denominations.’ For all the brotherhood-of-man guff, Markham sensed anti-Catholic vibes emanating from the deputy warden when he referred to the troika of Father Digby and the nuns – a superstitious dislike of priests and nuns (especially the latter) not far below the surface unctuousness. Sunday evening had seen him watching a documentary about the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Big yawn to that, Noakes thought crossly. So that was yet another of them without a bleeding alibi.
The cleaning staff followed, but it was the same story. Nobody had seen or heard anything untoward. On duty in shifts at reception, they didn’t recall any visitors.
‘Gotta be an inside job,’ Noakes said as they helped themselves to coffee. One of that lot,’ he jerked a stubby finger at the door, ‘had it in for our bag lady.’
Burton frowned at “bag lady” but held her peace. She knew none would be more zealous than the grizzled DS when it came to doubling down and tracking Julia Porter’s killer.
‘But what reason did they have for offing her?’ Doyle was frustrated. ‘Sounded to me like she was barely on their radar.’
‘That’s what we have to find out,’ Markham said quietly.
‘Hey up, here’s another one,’ Noakes said as there came a knock at the door.
It was the American professor, Tom Nevin, with the weathered looks of a strapping frontiersman and a lazy southern drawl that put Burton in mind of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. Tall, bluff with improbably dark hair for his age (out of a bottle, Noakes surmised), he spoke of the dead woman with respectful and apparently sincere chivalry. ‘I come over to London most years,’ he said. ‘Julia was always very helpful when I needed anything down at the Institute, but she was an independent sort of lady…. I guess the word I’m looking for is self-sufficient, so I wouldn’t say we were friends.’ Like the rest, he’d spent a quiet night reading and listening to music in his room.
Rosemary Gough and Thelma Machin came in together, ‘for moral support’ according to David Manners who hovered in attendance until Burton firmly closed the door on him.
They were a pallid pair, Markham thought. Rosemary Gough was a shrinking dormouse of a woman with reddened eyes and nose who shrank into her high-backed Queen Anne armchair and spoke in a whispery voice that the detectives had to strain to hear. Thelma Machin was plump and doughy with a somewhat bovine appearance. But she showed a kindly solicitude towards her fellow resident who appeared genuinely traumatised by Julia Porter’s death even though there was no evidence that they had been particularly close.
‘Fellow RCs,’ Noakes said glumly afterwards. ‘An’ living on the same corridor…. meals together…. kind of like being back at school.’
Markham recalled his lover calling St Therese an ‘eternal schoolgirl’. No doubt Olivia would regard the long-term residents as a bad case of arrested development.
The two women had been knitting and writing letters respectively. So once again, no alibi for the night of the murder.
‘Let’s take a turn round the Club,’ Markham told his team. ‘Get a feel for the place before they let everyone back in. After that, I want to get the incident room up and running. Then tomorrow we’ll scope out the Little Flower Institute and see what the other members have to say for themselves.’ He intercepted an exchange of glances between Noakes and Doyle. ‘Don’t worry, there’ll be time for a pint.’
‘Reckon we’ll need it after all this spiritual hoojah,’ Noakes said firmly.
They were like explorers in uncharted territory, thought Markham as they left Eton Lodge.
Explorers without a compass…..
In the event, it was just Markham and Noakes who attended the Little Flower Institute the following day on a blustery overcast Thursday morning, Burton and Doyle being detained by sundry administrative matters at their station to be followed by a briefing on Julia Porter’s postmortem.
Markham could tell his subordinate was well pleased it was just the two of them, which meant he had the opportunity to indulge his curiosity uninhibited by the presence of two sceptical colleagues.
The Institute from the outside was nothing remarkable. Just another unpretentious Georgian building in a quiet square. Attached to it was a gabled yellow brick chapel with central rose window beneath which was a pointed arch entrance flanked by two traceried windows. The chapel was unlocked and, peering inside, they found an unusually intimate space – just a single aisle with wooden chairs on either side. Yet there was grandeur too in the form of a carved mahogany choir, striking blue vaulted roof, triple arches behind the altar and a dramatic clerestory whose two rows of stained-glass arches, six on either side, flooded the space with light. A statue of St Therese in the porch clasping her trademark crucifix and roses was less simperingly anaemic than the usual representations, with strength of character in the painted lineaments and a resolute square chin as opposed to the insipidly romantic oval they had seen on the prayer cards in Julia Porter’s room. There was no time to stand and gaze, however, for a bustling wiry-haired bantam of a woman suddenly appeared from nowhere. Markham introduced himself and Noakes, to which she replied that she was Miss Parkin, the senior receptionist, and they were expected.
Leading them through the entrance hall of the main building, with its striking red and black tessellated floor and a sweeping staircase that smelled pleasantly of beeswax, she escorted them to a modern two-storey extension at the rear of the building. This consisted of library and seminar rooms arranged in a quadrangle around a glassed-in courtyard which held several display cases and cabinets. Following Noakes’s inquisitive gaze, the receptionist asked, ‘Would you like to take a look? We have a small collection of exhibits here, though obviously the principal relics are kept at the shrine in France.’
There followed an interesting half hour.
Markham was amused to see that the DS was dressed in what appeared to be his Sunday best, presumably with a nod to the religious side of their expedition, and wore a respectful expression quite at odds with his customary mulishness. Truly St Therese had worked some kind of miracle!
Walking around the little exhibition on tiptoe, as though fearful of disturbing the monastic hush, Noakes drank everything in open-mouthed, right down to the sepia photographs of veiled kneeling women and Victorian prayer cards.
He nudged Markham. ‘See that lass in a wedding dress,’ he said, squinting at one of the yellowing photographs, ‘that’s cos she were a bride of Christ, so they laid on the works jus’ like a proper marriage.’
‘Indeed,’ Miss Parkin nodded approvingly. ‘You’ll recall that St Therese was desperate for there to be snow when it was her turn, though the weather was warm and damp and showed no signs of that happening. But would you believe it, during the ceremony the weather suddenly changed and when she came out everywhere was covered in white.’
Noakes was clearly pleased to be acknowledged as a fellow expert, though attempted to disguise the fact with elaborate nonchalance.
‘Blimey, some of ’em weren’t half ugly,’ the DS blurted as he moved along the photo montages along the walls, scrutinizing groups of nineteenth-century religious. Then he blushed violently, suddenly realising the blunder.
But Miss Parkin seemed unconcerned.
‘True. And certain brides of Christ were jealous, petty and unkind, if not downright unhinged. When Therese’s Prioress was a novice, she once threatened to throw herself out of a window…. Luckily, they were on the ground floor at the time.’
Noakes was anxious to make amends.
‘Therese were okay, though,’ he said, pointing to some blown-up photographs of the saint…. A bit peaky looking, but living like that’d do anyone in, ’specially a teenager.’
‘Oh, many of the nuns – like Therese’s sisters – lived to a great age, Sergeant. despite the cold and the fasts and the lack of sleep. Therese seemed resilient enough to begin with – she was almost the only one left on her feet during the flu epidemic which killed three of the community – but later her health was undermined.’
‘An’ the medical care were bobbins.’
‘Well, there was a great deal of ignorance and fear around tuberculosis, even amongst the medical profession in those days.’
Noakes looked mutinous. ‘They could’ve let her have painkillers or morphine,’ he rumbled.
‘The Prioress had weird notions about narcotics and people turning into drug addicts, Sergeant. They all did.’ Miss Parkin turned back to the picture. ‘But you’re right, it was no regime for an adolescent girl.’ Then recollecting herself, ‘On the other hand, it’s really thanks to the disease that her message ended up being transmitted to the world. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, knowing that death was imminent concentrated everyone’s mind including hers…. She called TB a lottery ticket because it turbocharged her mission.’
‘Yeah, “The Little Way”,’ Noakes replied proudly. ‘I know all about that…. making the best of things even if you’ve been dealt a rubbish hand and don’ have much of a life.’
Miss Parkin beamed at him, the rather fierce features softening in a manner that took ten years off her.
‘Exactly, Sergeant. “Before we die by the sword, we shall die of pinpricks,” was how Therese put it.’
‘Gutsy,’ Noakes said gruffly.
‘Well, she was a great admirer of Joan of Arc, but theirs were different battlegrounds.’
‘It’s a strong face,’ Markham observed, looking closely at the saint’s features.
‘Authentic images were suppressed for a long time because her sisters felt her chin was too prominent… it suggested stubbornness, which didn’t conform to idealised Catholic womanhood.’
Markham didn’t care to imagine Olivia’s reaction to this revelation.
They moved on to cases containing Carmelite habits, various items from profession ceremonies and pieces on loan from the convent in France including a writing case that had belonged to Therese’s cousin.
Best of all in Noakes’s opinion were the table displays which contained 3D models of the convent buildings alongside archive photographs from the turn of the century. The brisk little woman unbent considerably as she saw how the lumbering sergeant pored over them.
‘That’s the enclosure door, locked from the inside,’ she told him. ‘No-one could ever pass through there except for clergy or the doctor.’
‘Like being walled up alive,’ the DS said with gloomy relish. ‘An’ look at that mesh thingy going right up to the roof in the church,’ he marvelled.
‘That’s the grille,’ came the reply. There were curtains and shutters too so that no-one could see the nuns in their chapel, and a little grate for them to take communion.’
They passed along to the mock-up of Therese’s living quarters. ‘Not much in their bedrooms,’ Noakes went on.
‘No, the cells were small… As you see, just bare brown wood and only the essentials…. cross, holy water stoup, bed – well it was really wood planks laid across a trestle, with a straw mattress….. And then she had a stool, table, lantern, shelf and an hour-glass to tell the time.’
‘An’ her only a teenager,’ Noakes said admiringly, contemplating walls and passages adorned with biblical texts and shaking his head in wonder at this mysterious landscape. Next was a model and pictures of the basilica in Lisieux. Such a giant building for someone nicknamed ‘The Little Flower’.
‘Hey up, what’s this?’ Noakes demanded peering into a cabinet which contained a knotted rope and little iron cross with spikes. ‘Instruments of penance,’ Miss Parkin replied sweetly. The DS shuffled backwards, shoes squeaking as though in alarm. ‘You’d think it were penance enough having no sleep an’ no decent grub without any of that kind of caper,’ he muttered squeamishly as though suddenly confronted by an outcrop of S&M where he least expected it.
A picture of the Holy House of Loreto, the building the Holy Family was supposed to have inhabited in Nazareth before it was transported by angels to Italy, met with the DS’s approval. ‘Came up in one of our cases, that did,’ he told the receptionist tapping the side of his nose confidentially and ignoring her bemused expression.
Markham’s thoughts flew to the art gallery investigation and the sinister riddle at its heart. Even now, the memory had the power to set his heart pounding. But he forced a smile. ‘One of our investigations had an archaeological dimension,’ he murmured.
Miss Parkin’s expression cleared. ‘Of course, you must come across some fascinating scenarios,’ she said politely.
None as strange as this one, thought Markham, reflecting that there was something almost surreal about a world where girls and women chose to lock themselves up for life.
‘St Therese visited the Holy House of Loreto when she made a pilgrimage to Italy,’ Miss Parkin told them before ushering them along to view various ‘travelling relics’ of St Therese and her parents.
It was apparent to Markham that Noakes had come a long way since the St Mary’s choir school investigation when he had taken a decidedly dim view of ‘nasty religious tat,’ regarding it almost as a branch of taxidermy and downright morbid into the bargain. On the present occasion, far from flinching at the velvet-lined lockets, pouches and pendants allegedly containing locks of hair, nail clippings, fragments of clothing and even the saint’s ‘last tears’, he contemplated the little museum’s treasures with a reverential interest that charmed the receptionist.
Whatever it was about this little saint and the peculiarly rarefied world she had inhabited, she had certainly got past Noakes’s defences in a most surprising fashion.
All good things come to an end, however, and they finally got down to business in a little office behind one of the seminar rooms.
‘I understand this is an important centre for scholarship, Miss Parkin,’ Markham said after firmly declining the offer of refreshment.
‘Oh yes, very much so. The Institute shares artefacts and research with the Lisieux convent and the National Shrine in Illinois. There’ve been significant bequests over the years too, so we host conferences and seminars, with visitors coming from all over the world.’
‘Are all shades of opinion represented?’ Markham enquired, choosing his words with care.
‘Well, this is a Catholic foundation, but there’s a spirit of honest scientific enquiry,’ she said. ‘After all, as St Therese said, we live in an age of inventions, so the Institute embraces all strands of thinking.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘The thing is, so many factions have claimed this saint for their own…. sociologists, feminists, theologians….’ She sounded somewhat exasperated. Aware that Markham was regarding her quizzically, she added, ‘Everyone’s so preoccupied with “isms” these days, Inspector, that it feels as though personal religious devotion barely gets a look in…. I think that’s why it’s so refreshing to find a saint who did her best with the hand she’d been dealt, like your sergeant said…. tried to be loving and generous from inside her insignificant little convent right up until her last breath.’
Noakes glowed with pleasure.
‘Thass why she said she’d send down a shower of roses, after she’d died like.’
‘Quite so, Sergeant. In fact, we’ve got some first editions of volumes from the Pluies de Roses – the collected records of miracles performed by Therese – in the archives here on loan from Lisieux.’ The hatchet features softened once more. ‘She introduced quite a revolution when it came to the idea of heaven as a place of rest. As far as she was concerned, it was going to be a place of the greatest possible action. Hence that famous declaration, “I am going to spend my heaven doing good on earth.”’
‘Yeah, solid work ethic.’ Noakes thoroughly approved of such industry.
Markham felt his way carefully.
‘Presumably, some of the items you have here in the Institute are valuable, Miss Parkin.’
‘Undoubtedly so, Inspector. In certain circles – serious collectors of religious memorabilia – they would be regarded as priceless. But even in purely cultural terms, they are prized antiquities…. heritage items…. part of the Church’s history.’
Markham and Noakes exchanged glances.
Could Julia Porter have stumbled upon a theft or some illicit transaction?
It was time to talk about the murdered woman.
‘What can you tell us about Julia Porter, Miss Parkin?’
‘I didn’t know her well,’ the woman admitted, her face falling. ‘I’m sorry for it now…. Maybe if I’d made more effort, she’d have told me if there was something troubling her. But she didn’t really let anyone close…. she was reserved and, well, almost secretive.’
If there was a secret, Julia had quite likely paid for it with her life.
‘Did she get the hump with anyone?’ Noakes asked. ‘Quarrels…. arguments,’ he prompted hopefully.
‘No, nothing like that…. I’d have noticed…. As I say, she kept herself to herself.’
‘What about staff from the Club?’ Noakes persisted. ‘Was she pals with any of ’em?’
‘Not really, though she seemed to get on quite well with Sister Roisin and Sister Pauline….’
‘How close were they?’ Markham asked.
‘Well, obviously those in religious life always have to keep a certain distance –’
‘Cos of the “particular friendships” thing,’ Noakes put in solemnly, mightily pleased with himself for remembering this piece of lore.
Miss Parkin blinked furiously. She really had no idea the police were so well up on everything these days. Sergeant Noakes didn’t look the type to take such an interest…. It just went to show you should never judge a book by its cover. And there was something so delicate, so very considerate about his phraseology….
Meanwhile Markham could only be thankful that his wingman hadn’t launched into a swingeing denunciation of homoeroticism in the Church.
‘The Sisters are mainly based at the Theresian Club looking after students and visitors,’ Miss Parkin told them. ‘But they help out here as well with exhibitions and conferences. Julia was very devout and deeply interested in St Therese, so there was a natural sympathy between them.’
‘Did Father Digby have much to do with Julia?’ Markham asked.
Was it his imagination, or was there a sudden tension in the air?
‘Not that I noticed,’ she said somewhat stiffly. ‘But he had a lot to do as warden, so he didn’t get over here as often as the Sisters.’
‘How about Iggy wossname?’ Noakes said. ‘The trainee priest guy.’
She visibly thawed. ‘Oh, you mean Ignatius Fermor. Such an asset. Heart set on the priesthood once he’s finished his theology degree. Always very courteous to Julia, but they didn’t have much to do with one another.
No, he’d taken good care of that, Noakes thought sourly, recalling the student’s supercilious attitude when they interviewed him. On the other hand, Iggy probably thought it was worth smarming to Miss Parkin who was a few rungs up the ladder and altogether more personable than the witchy haired eccentric with a passion for hoarding.
Markham enquired suavely, ‘Which religious order does Mr Fermor hope to join?’
‘I believe his heart is set on the Brothers and Sisters of St Therese,’ she replied happily. ‘Another dedicated labourer in the vineyard.’
Noakes shuffled his feet. ‘Is that the order which owns the Institute?’
The DS watched Miss Parkin somewhat apprehensively as he put the question. RCs were notoriously touchy when it came to people asking about money. Probably on account of all that stuff about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven….
But the senior receptionist didn’t seem particularly troubled by the enquiry.
‘The order and diocese are joint directors,’ she said. ‘It’s complicated…. interlocking trusts and so forth…. the Archbishop of Westminster – the Cardinal – has ultimate oversight.’
Noakes pondered this. All sounded pretty kosher. But like his old dad always said, where there’s muck there’s brass.
Markham too was thinking hard. They’d need to follow up the financial side, see if there were any murky alleyways lurking behind corporate due diligence.
He smiled at Miss Parkin.
‘Religious scholarship often generates factionalism and disputes,’ he said easily. ‘Were you aware of anything like that here…. any controversy in which Julia might have got caught up?’
‘Like I said Inspector, everyone wants a piece of St Therese…. including the atheists.’
‘The atheists?’ Noakes leaned in.
‘On account of how she struggled with terrible doubts and temptations against belief.’
‘Oh yeah,’ the DS remembered. ‘A kind of depression, right? But she said it were a good thing…. being like everyone else an’ having to work at it.’
‘I couldn’t have put it better, Sergeant.’
Noakes looked decidedly smug at this tribute. ‘So, the atheists reckon she’s really one of ’em?’ he enquired.
‘Well, there’ve been some highly contentious claims and studies,’ the receptionist answered, a shadow crossing her face, ‘including various Freudian interpretations. Extremely far-fetched if you want my opinion. But the whole point of the Institute is to embrace research and opinions across a broad spectrum.’
Markham decided that he liked Miss Parkin and was pretty sure Noakes felt the same.
‘No doubt some of this was offensive to the faithful,’ he said gently.
‘Actually, yes,’ she admitted. ‘When I went to a couple of lectures here, I didn’t recognise Therese from what they were saying.’ An angry flush mottled her cheeks. ‘A lot of it was sensationalist and downright disrespectful…. so unfair…. There was nothing fake and phoney about her – she had a wicked sense of humour, so the nuns knew there’d be no laughs if she didn’t come to recreation – and she was humble too…. One of our visitors from abroad said her reserve and modesty put him in mind of the great Eastern cultures.’ Markham recalled Olivia’s comment about fakirs. ‘So, to hear everything reduced to the lowest common denominator….’
The lowest common denominator.
Sex, thought Markham.
It was a measure of the surprising sensitivity of which he was capable, that Noakes unleashed no salvoes about unsavoury church scandals but merely observed kindly, ‘Reckon Therese don’ have owt to worry about, luv…. There’s more’n enough of us in her corner.’
This clumsy sympathy elicited a smile.
‘You’re right, Sergeant…. It’s the curse of the age, isn’t it… wanting to knock figures like St Therese off their pedestal.’
‘Did Julia go to any lectures like that?’ the DS asked.
‘Just the one, I think…. Like me, she had no time for rubbish.’
Markham made a mental note to find out more about the Institute’s programme of events.
‘Did you notice if anything was troubling Julia lately?’ he said.
‘She seemed much the same as usual, Inspector…. a bit quieter than normal, perhaps…. But then, she was never a great one for chit chat.’
At that moment, the phone on the desk rang.
‘Right you are, I’ll be along in a minute,’ she said.
Replacing the receiver, the receptionist turned a bright professional countenance towards the two detectives.
‘The non-resident Club members are here, gentlemen,’ she told them. ‘I’ll go and see that they’re comfortable and then send them in to you one at a time if that suits.’
‘Perfectly, Miss Parkin.’ They stood courteously as she moved towards the door.
‘When you’re done, just pick up the phone and dial zero…. Then, if you like, I can show you the crypt passageway that connects the Institute to Brompton Oratory.’
At the threshold, she reached into the skirt pocket of her understated twinset.
‘Before I forget, this is for you, Sergeant,’ she told Noakes, handing over a picture card with a shy duck of the head. ‘Seeing as you’re clearly an admirer of St Therese.’
The DS looked hard at the picture of a statue.
‘It’s the Virgin of the Smile,’ she explained. ‘You’ll remember that Therese had an episode of St Vitus’ dance, or chorea, as a child –’
‘Oh yeah.’ The DS was animated now. ‘Then the statue came to life an’ cured her.’
‘Correct.’ A benign nod. ‘There’s a special prayer on the back.’
And with that, she whisked into the corridor.
‘You appear to have scored quite a hit there, Sergeant,’ Markham observed.
‘She’s a nice woman.’ Noakes, unusually for him, batted away the compliment. ‘Seems like she’d have got proper upset if folk weren’t respectful.’
‘Julia Porter too by the sound of it.’ Markham frowned. ‘But somehow I don’t see the murder being connected to any theological controversy…. We’ll need to get the Institute’s educational programme checked out, though…. Perhaps Kate –’
‘You can leave all that to me, guv,’ the DS cut in with a comically proprietorial air, almost as though he held power of attorney over St Therese.
‘Excellent. Judging by what Miss Parkin said, there were some lectures or debates where the facts appear to have been warped and Therese was presented as the victim of delusions…. Passions can ride high in matters of religion, so maybe there was a difference of opinion that got out of hand.’
‘She got a bit antsy when you mentioned ole Diggers.’
‘Make sure you don’t call Father Digby that in front of anyone else, Noakes,’ the DI admonished.
‘’Course not…. But summat about him bothered her.’
‘I agree –’
Markham broke off at a knock on the door.
If the detectives had been hoping for further enlightenment from the non-resident members, they were doomed to disappointment.
Anne Leadbeater was a well-preserved woman in her early seventies with a nimbus of white hair, cultured voice and pleasant manners. A former lecturer in women’s studies at Birkbeck College, she spoke knowledgeably about St Therese and the history of the Institute without being patronising or condescending, responding courteously to Noakes’s aperçus. Markham thought he could detect from her reserve about the dead woman that she had not liked Julia Porter, but this could equally have derived from the fact that they were poles apart in terms of personality and social background. Widowed some years previously, she had a flat in Endsleigh Gardens. ‘Margaret Bertram and I live in the same block. It’s very handy for the Club,’ she told them. It transpired that she had spent part of Sunday night in her neighbour’s apartment playing cards before repairing to her own quarters.
‘So, they’re each other’s alibi,’ Noakes grunted after she had left the room. ‘Don’ mean to say they couldn’t have been in it together…. They’ve got keys to the Club an’ it’s only round the corner.’
But it was difficult to discern a motive, thought Markham as they moved on to Margaret Bertram. In her late fifties, the petite dark-haired dark-eyed woman was another cultured specimen, recently retired from her job as librarian in the Humanities Faculty at Goldsmiths College. It turned out that she had started a Ph.D. on St Therese but never managed to finish it. ‘Perhaps I will now. My chance to make up for being a failed academic,’ she said with a lack of chippiness that was rather endearing. When Markham enquired about the subject of her thesis, she told them, ‘It was going to be about the manufacture of Therese’s image…. the extent to which she was commodified by the Catholic Church.’
‘Starting with them sisters of hers,’ Noakes put in.
She chuckled. ‘Oh my, they were quite something weren’t they. But once you get past the rosewatery production line – the lace frills and painted glass – there’s this strange fire that glows through it all. If it weren’t for the galloping consumption, who knows what else Therese might have written….’
‘Is that what they called it in them days, then, her TB?’ Noakes was keen to add further nuggets to his store of knowledge, no doubt with a view to dazzling Muriel in due course.
‘That’s right, Sergeant. “Consumption” was the old-fashioned word…. The illness carried a bit of a stigma if you were middle class, because people thought it meant you came from bad stock or somehow brought sickness on yourself by your behaviour.’
Like Anne Leadbeater, she was politely neutral on the subject of Julia but enthusiastic about the Club. ‘It’s quaint and old-fashioned, but quite a unique place to live. David Manners is a pain, of course, but most of us just blew raspberries behind his back. Father Digby and the Sisters are good fun, not at all strait-laced, and the staff are nice kids. Yeah,’ she sounded nostalgic, ‘a great place to live.’ Noticeably less starry-eyed about Ignatius Fermor, she nonetheless refrained from any snide comments about fanaticism or excessive piety. ‘Respect for the cloth,’ Noakes said sagely afterwards.
Donald Trevelyan, by contrast, was gleefully indiscreet. In his seventies and flamboyantly theatrical, this stocky silver-haired former resident didn’t hold back.
‘Oh, Fermor and his clique are simply too much,’ he declared in a booming upper-class voice that proclaimed total indifference to anybody else’s point of view. ‘All that obsession with the rubric and sanctuary choreography…. lays it on so thick, he manages to make the Pope look a bit of a lefty…. Julia was the same, of course with her medals and novenas and holy pictures…. God, sometimes it just made me want to puke, all that creepy bookkeeping of virtues and totting up good deeds. I’m quite keen on St Therese – not her poetry, obviously, because it’s awful – but folk like Fermor and Julia were a real turn-off the way they carried on.’
Trevelyan’s cheerful contempt for Julia Porter – along with his disparagement of the ‘Dreary Twins’, Rosemary and Thelma, and mockery of ‘fussbudget Manners’ – made him seem an unlikely murderer, but Markham knew better than to be taken in by what could have been a polished performance.
Like Margaret Bertram, Trevelyan evinced a real affection for the Club and held Father Digby and Sister Roisin in clear esteem, though he pulled a sour face at mention of Sister Pauline who Markham suspected would have regarded his antics with a more jaundiced eye than her fellow religious.
Like most of the others, he had no alibi for Sunday evening, claiming to have fallen asleep at his mews house in Putney after over-indulging in a ‘seriously good claret’.
It was the same with Kenneth Robson, a sandy-haired softly-spoken young man with the sober mien of an accountant. ‘Actually, I’m Don’s accountant,’ he told them. ‘We overlapped at the Club and have been friends ever since.’
It was an unlikely pairing, but as they talked with him it was obvious that Robson in his quiet way enjoyed being a foil to Trevelyan, savouring the outrageousness which spiced the older man’s conversation. ‘He’s irrepressible, but goodhearted for all that,’ he said with a wry smile on hearing how his friend had characterized Ignatius Fermoy.
Robson wouldn’t be drawn on Julia Porter or the other residents beyond a bland expression of regret at her death.
Difficult to read, was Markham’s verdict as the amiable former resident chatted easily about his time in residence at the Club and move to Wandsworth the previous year. It appeared he had been working overtime for a client on the Sunday night. ‘I was hard at it till quite late.’ A self-deprecating shrug. ‘Boring and predictable, but that’s me I’m afraid.’
Boring and predictable.
Markham wasn’t so sure about that.
Miss Parkin reappeared so smartly on Kenneth Robson’s departure, that it seemed she must have been hovering nearby.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘how about I show you the crypt passageway and then I think you’ll be ready for some refreshments.’
‘Crypt passageway…. That sounds very Fall of the House of Usher, Miss Parkin,’ Markham said, endeavouring to shake off a feeling of discouragement after the unproductive interviews.
‘Oh, it’s worth seeing, gentlemen.’
‘Lead on Macduff,’ said Noakes, employing his boss’s favourite catchphrase and earning himself further brownie points with their guide for being a ‘literary policeman’.
The DS felt a certain flutter of anticipation.
That meant more history and old bones and relics.
And maybe a clue to murder……