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Authors: Reginald Hill

Deadheads

BOOK: Deadheads
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REGINALD HILL

Deadheads

A Dalziel and Pascoe novel

 

 

 

'There is a splendid kind of indolence, where a man, having taken an aversion to the wearisomeness of a business which properly belongs to him, neglects not, however, to employ his thoughts, when they are vacant from what they ought more chiefly to be about, in other matters not entirely unprofitable to life, the exercise of which he finds he can follow with more abundant ease and satisfaction.'

 

D
EFOE:
The Life and Adventures of

Mr Duncan Campbell

 

 

‘I shall never be friends again with roses. '

 

S
WINBURNE:
The Triumph of Time

 

 

 

 

 

PART ONE

 

 

 

Or, quick effluvia darting through the brain,

Die of a rose in aromatic pain.

 

P
OPE:
Essay on Man

 

 

1

 

MISCHIEF

 

(Hybrid tea, coral and salmon, sweetly scented, excellent in the garden, susceptible to black spot.)

 

Mrs Florence Aldermann was distressed by the evidence of neglect all around her. Old Caldicott and his gangling son, Dick, had been surly ever since she had made it clear last autumn that far from being willing to admit the latter's insolent, nose-picking fifteen-year-old to the payroll, she was contemplating charging his elders for the barrowloads of fruit he had stolen from the orchard.
Scrumping,
old Caldicott had said.
Theft,
she had replied, and as she knew from her connections with the Bench that young Brent Caldicott had made several appearances in juvenile court already, she was not to be disputed with.

After that the youth had disappeared, but his father and grandfather had clearly been nursing a grievance ever since. Her recent indisposition had given them their chance.

There would have to be words. More than words. If she could find somebody to take their place, heads would roll. The thought fathered the deed.

Angrily seizing a
Mme Louis Laperrière
in her gloved hand, grasping it firmly to prevent unsightly spillage, she picked her spot, applied the razor-edged knife expertly, and with a single smooth slice removed the sadly drooping head which she dropped into a plastic bucket.

Only then did she become aware that she was being watched. Behind the mazy frame of sweet peas which divided the main rose-garden from the long lawn running down to the orchard (and which, she noted angrily, had been allowed to form seed-pods that, unremoved, would pre-empt flower growth) lurked a slight figure completely still.

'Patrick!' called Mrs Aldermann sharply. 'Come here!'

Slowly the boy emerged.

Aged about eleven, small still for his age, he had large brown eyes in a pale oval face which was almost oriental in its lack of expression. Mrs Aldermann regarded him with distaste. It wasn't just that he belonged to the same ghastly sub-species as Brent Caldicott, though that would have been enough. But in addition she could never look upon Patrick without thinking of his origins, and then the anger came welling up. It took little to uncap her vast pool of wrath, and in particular any display of human weakness brought it fountaining forth.

She had been angry eleven years earlier when her niece, Penelope, had announced that she was pregnant. She had been angrier when the feckless girl had refused to name the father, and angriest of all when she had calmly announced her intention of bringing up the child single-handed. Even Penelope's feckless mother, Florence Aldermann's younger sister, had had the wit to get a wedding ring from the object of her particular folly, George Highsmith, carpet salesman, though neither this nor the fact that they were both dead prevented Mrs Aldermann from still feeling angry with them. No, death was no barrier to anger; indeed it could be a cause of it. She still felt furious at her own husband's display of weakness in dying of a coronary thrombosis, with so much still to do, so much still to expiate, in these very gardens two years before.

And finally her anger had turned upon herself when she collapsed in Knightsbridge on a pre-Christmas shopping expedition six months earlier. To be taken ill was deplorable; to have suffered a heart-attack, which she'd come to regard as a typically masculine form of weakness, was unforgivable.

Fortunately (she saw this now, though at the time she'd tended to blame her, as if 'weakness' were an infectious condition) she'd been with Penelope at the time, good-natured, unflappable Penny who had not taken the least offence (indeed, why should she?) when told after her Uncle Eddie's death that the charitable allowance he'd been making her for so many years would have to stop, times and taxes being so hard, and who had seemed quite satisfied with the substitution of tea at Harrod's on her Aunt Flo's bi-annual London visits.

A few weeks later the 'sixties dawned. Could Mrs Aldermann have foreseen flower-power, pop-art, swinging London and all the age's other lunar and lunatic achievements, she would have greeted it with vast indignation. As it was, the best she could manage in her state of ignorance and intensive care was vast indifference. Shortly afterwards she recovered enough to transfer to a luxurious private clinic. Her first real emotion and almost her second heart-attack occurred when she was well enough to enquire how much it was costing her. As soon as possible thereafter she declared herself fit enough to return to Rosemont, her Yorkshire home, to convalesce. Clearly unable to look after herself properly, she, with her doctor's help, persuaded her easy-going untied-down niece to accompany her, a large saving on a professional nurse. And during the weeks that followed, Mrs Aldermann had come to value Penelope for more than purely economic considerations. She was what all self-regarding, moderately wealthy ladies of the middle class long for: a treasure. Hard-working, easy-going, entertaining of speech and unresentful of indignity, she fell short only in the department of subservient gratitude. And, of course, of Patrick.

But even with these deficiencies admitted, Mrs Aldermann as she recovered had begun to toy with the idea of offering Penny a permanent place at Rosemont which was far too large for one old woman living by herself. There would be no question of salary, of course - they were after all blood relations - but a small allowance would be in order, and there would be the large inducement of a change of will substantially in Penny's favour.

The proposal had been made. To her amazement and irritation, instead of jumping gratefully at the chance, the feckless girl had looked dubious and talked rather nostalgically of London. What had London to compare with this pleasant old house of Rosemont with its fine gardens, beautiful views, and all of Yorkshire's loveliest towns within easy striking distance? She had once seen the kind of place her niece lived in, a dingy two-roomed basement flat in a district where the bus queue looked like an audition for the
Black and White Minstrel Show.
Why should she need time to think about so incredibly generous an offer which had even included the not altogether unselfish undertaking to place Patrick at a modest though decent private boarding-school?

So now the sight of the boy spying on her added its weight to her already great burden of anger and she opened her mouth to utter a peremptory dismissal.

But before she could speak, he said, 'Uncle Eddie used to do that.'

Taken by surprise - this was after all to the best of her recollection the first time the boy, in any of his visits, had ever actually initiated an exchange with her - she replied almost as if he were a real person.

'Yes, he did,' she said. 'And Caldicott might have done it. But he didn't. So now I have to do it.'

Her intonation placed old Caldicott and her dead husband in the same category of duty-neglecters. She sliced off another sweet-smelling but overblown
Mme Louis Laperrière
with emphatic deftness.

'Why
do you do it?' demanded Patrick.

His tone was a trifle brusque but she graciously put this down to the awkwardness of a tyro.

'Because,' she lectured, 'once the flowers have bloomed and begun to die, they inhibit - that is to say, they
stop -
other young flowers from developing and blooming. Also the petals fall and make the bush and the flower-beds look very untidy. So we cut off the blooms. It's called deadheading.'

'Deadheading,' he echoed.

'Yes,' she said, beginning to enjoy the pedagogic mood. 'Because you cut off the deadheads, you see.'

'So the young flowers can grow?' he said, frowning.

'That's right.'

This was the first time she had ever seen the boy really interested in anything. His expression was almost animated as he watched her work. She felt quite pleased with herself, like a scientist making an unexpected break-through. Not that she had ever felt it as a loss that she and the boy did not communicate. On the contrary, it suited her very well. But this particular form of intercourse which underlined her own superiority was far from unpleasant. She almost forgot to be angry, though the evidence of old Caldicott's indolence was there in her plastic bucket to keep her wrath nicely warm. As though touched by her thought, the boy held up the bucket to catch the falling blooms.

She regarded him with the beginnings of approval. It occurred to her that she might by chance have stumbled on the key to his soul. Surprised by such a fanciful metaphor, she hesitated for a moment. But then her unexpected fantasy, like a bird released from the narrow cage in which it has been all its life confined, went soaring. Suppose that in Patrick's urban bed-sit-conditioned body there lurked a natural gardener, longing to be called forth? This would make him in the instant a valuable - and costless - labourer! Then, as he grew richer in experience and knowledge, he could take over more and more responsibility for the real work of planning and propagation. In a few short years, perhaps, old Caldicott's surly reign could be brought to a satisfying abrupt end, and with it the assumed succession of the gangling Dick and the unspeakable Brent.

For the first time in her life, she bestowed the full glow of her smile on the small boy and said in a tone of unprecedented warmth, 'Would you like to try, Patrick? Here, let me show you. You take hold of the deadhead firmly so that you don't let any petals fall and at the same time you have a good grip on the stem. Then look down the stem till you see a leaf, preferably with five leaflets and pointing out from the centre of the bush. There's one, you see? And look, just where the leaf joins the stem you can see a tiny bud. That's the bud we want to encourage to grow. So about a quarter-inch above it, we cut the stem at an angle, with one clean slice of the knife.
So.
There. You see? No raggedness to encourage disease. A clean cut. Some people use secateurs but I think that no matter how good they are, there's always the risk of some crushing. I prefer a knife. The very finest steel - never stint on your tools, Patrick - and with the keenest edge. Here now, would you like to try? Take the knife, but be careful. It's very sharp indeed. It was your Great-uncle Eddie's. He planted most of these roses all by himself, did you know that? And he never used anything but this knife for pruning and deadheading. Here, take the handle and see what you can do.'

She handed the boy the pruning knife. He took it gingerly and examined it with a pleasing reverence.

'Now let's see you remove this deadhead,' she commanded. 'Remember what I've told you. Grasp the flower firmly. Patrick! Grasp the flower. Patrick! Are you listening, boy?'

He raised his big brown eyes from the shining blade which he had been examining with fascinated care. The animation had fled from his face and it had become the old, indifferent, watchful mask once more. But not quite the same. There was something new there. Slowly he raised the knife so that the rays of the sun struck full on the burnished steel. He ignored the dead rose she was holding towards him and now she let go of it so that it flapped back into the bush with a force that sent its fading petals fluttering to the ground.

'Patrick,' she said taking a step back. '
Patrick!'

There was a sting on her bare forearm as the thorns of the richly scented bush dug into the flesh. And then further up, along the upper arm and in the armpit, there was a series of sharper, more violent stings which had nothing to do with the barbs of mere roses.

Mrs Aldermann shrieked once, sent a skinny parchment-skinned hand to her shrunken breast and fell backwards into the rose-bed. Petals showered down on her from the shaken bushes.

Patrick watched, expressionless, till all was still.

BOOK: Deadheads
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