Book Extracts

Book Extracts

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Chapter 1

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Wed, April 02, 2014 08:42PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I obviously said nothing because I heard Beattie repeat herself.

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

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

‘I said are you alright Maureen?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s probably indigestion’ said Beattie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 2

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Wed, April 02, 2014 08:41PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘There you are!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I was pushed’, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Six weeks she was in that place!’

‘Three weeks’, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So whichever way you told it I was pushed flat on my face by a ghost that Beattie may or may not have seen; Jean Shanks was back in the material world and I was being repeatedly jabbed in the arm by a Phillipino nurse who was trying her best to fend off blows from Beattie’s handbag at the same time. was good to lose consciousness especially when bells are ringing and people are calling for security. With most people you could feign deafness or ignorance. With Beattie you had to go the whole hog and black out...............

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Chapter 3

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Wed, April 02, 2014 08:40PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But nothing ‘, said Beattie


‘I haven’t finished’ said Beattie.

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

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

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

‘Remember Catherine Rookby?’

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

‘Lucky for you Maureen that I was here!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beattie tutted and gave Liza Minnelli a tug.

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

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

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

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

‘Yes Beattie.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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