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Authors: David Smith

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Death in Leamington

BOOK: Death in Leamington
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Death in Leamington

David Smith

Copyright © 2015 David Smith

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study,

or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents

Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in

any form or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the

publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with

the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries

concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.

© Copyright Death in Leamington from Collected Poems, by John Betjeman

Copyright 1955, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1968, 1970, 1974, 1981,

1982, 2001 by John Murray Press

Reproduced by permission of John Murray Press

Cover artwork courtesy of Leesa Le May


9 Priory Business Park

Kibworth Beauchamp

Leicestershire LE8 0RX, UK

Tel: (+44) 116 279 2299

Fax: (+44) 116 279 2277

Email: [email protected]


ISBN 978 1784627 256

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

is an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd

Converted to eBook by

to my romantic and delicate inspiration

Edward Elgar:

The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed… further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played… the chief character is never on the stage.

Also by David Smith

Searching for Amber

Prologue – (Andante) Enigma
A Tenderfoot in Leamington
(With apologies to Richard Baxter Townshend)

This place from a mean, inconsiderable village, has, within the last 25 years, owing to the virtue and fame of its springs, risen into great eminence, and now justly ranks with the most elegant and celebrated watering places.

Leamington History Website,
Discover Royal Leamington Spa

The boom years of my adopted hometown of Leamington started in 1784 with the discovery of a spring in Bath Lane (now Bath Street) on land owned by William Abbotts. He and Benjamin Satchwell decided to exploit the healing properties of the water and opened Abbotts’ Original Baths. They were the driving force behind the early growth of the town.

People soon flocked to take the waters and, after a visit from the Royal Family delivered a seal of approval, the building bonanza began in earnest. In a short time speculators started to plan a new town north of the river. Although the old town continued to expand, this new town to the north quickly became the more fashionable place to live. By 1828, the population of the former hamlet of Leamington Priors had risen to over 5,000 and was still rising. In 1838, the boom town was granted the title ‘Royal’ by the young Queen Victoria.

Clarendon Square, where I live and where much of the action of this story takes place, is one of the town’s Regency jewels. Laid out in 1832 to original plans by P. F. Robinson of Mayfair, the square consists of impressive and gleaming stucco buildings, all now listed Grade II, with oak trees planted luxuriantly in the central park. Its most famous resident, Louis-Napoléon of France, lived at No. 10 between coups and stirrings back home in Paris. Louis was eventually elected the last king of France, the last Bonaparte, but his time here was spent in seedy saloon bars, back room snooker halls and the occasional costume ball in the Assembly Rooms. It was a lucky if wasteful existence for a future
petit prince
and one that many of my contemporaries continue to attempt to emulate

Even the most genteel of spa towns usually has a racy skeleton or two in their cupboard and by the time that Betjeman wrote his 1930s poem
Death in Leamington
the town was already past its best. When I first arrived in this town five years ago I was effectively a ‘tenderfoot’, though the title itself was still strange to me.

There was a lot of fellers as jes’ hoofed it on their ten toes the whole blessed road. You can bet their feet was pretty well skinned for them by the time they got here, and naturally the other fellers who’d been before ’em and got heeled up first set themselves up for real old timers, and took the notion of calling every new arrival a tenderfoot. ‘Oh, then it just becomes a newcomer pure and simple,’ said I.

Richard Baxter Townshend,
A Tenderfoot in Colorado

But I must not get distracted. I have a tale to tell and I hope I have reassembled for you faithfully all the events of the past month or so. Well as faithfully as I can after detailed discussions with the main and many protagonists including my new friend Penny ‘Dore-abella’ Dore. I apologise unreservedly for the number of quotes and literary allusions, but you may know that as I am a writer, books are naturally the central actors of my life. As for the many Elgar connections, I’ll leave you to solve that little enigma – certainly all the characters in this little amusement are entirely fictional, except for those that are definitely not, and they will know who they are by their inimitable peccadilloes and reveal themselves in their finite variations. You do know what I’m telling you, don’t you?

R. B.

Chapter One
Alice bands Alice – (Andante) ‘C.A.E.’

boat beneath a sunny sky,

ingering onward dreamily
n an evening of July –
hildren three that nestle near,
ager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear.

Lewis Carroll
, A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky

Royal Leamington Spa, Friday, August 30
, 2013

My name is Alice Roberts. I should start with the evening immediately before ‘the event’. I was in the kitchen. About 7pm I remember looking up from my laptop and glancing up at the kitchen clock. It was getting late, my husband Eddie hadn’t turned up for dinner and I still hadn’t gone for my run. I’d been half-listening to the 6.30pm comedy slot on Radio 4 while typing my daily blog update and had not noticed how quickly the time had flown. The radio show that night was one of those slightly-too-clever satires on democracy and I remember thinking how ironically it contrasted with the news headlines that followed. They were all about the parliamentary debate on military strikes in Syria.

Already annoyed by Eddie’s lateness, my blood pressure was rising further as I listened to the politicians’ sound bites and tired arguments, but I calmed down a bit when
The Archers
theme music started up. Of course, the storyline was as comfortably inane as ever: Ruth and David were saying an emotional goodbye to Pip as she left for her work placement year; David, self-important as ever, was making a big thing of packing three bags of marshmallows so that Pip could keep up the family tradition of fitting as many in her mouth as she could. Although the storyline was rubbish and I should have switched it off, I liked listening to Ruth’s character, I could relate to her; strong-willed and determined, just like me. I rooted for Ruth during the ‘affair’ with Sam (like a good proportion of the listening nation probably) and the story of her breast cancer. She was now one of my personal heroes.

Anyway, by the end of
The Archers
I was getting slightly desperate as I stared across the red and white checked tablecloth at the pile of technical court papers that I still had to read. I remember running my fingers through my hair in frustration before closing the laptop lid.

‘Where the hell is Eddie?’ I muttered, but in a low voice, hoping that my seven-year-old daughter Carrie would not hear me swearing.

Our kitchen is situated at the rear of a cosy basement flat, in a row of pretty spectacular Regency townhouses in Clarendon Square, Leamington. As well as the kitchen, the three of us share a living room, two bedrooms and a restricted view onto the back garden of the main house. The flat isn’t large but it is furnished comfortably, if not luxuriously and it is surprisingly light for a basement. I designed and made many of the home furnishings myself, including the dream catchers that hang from the kitchen ceiling and the cheerful starry curtains in the windows. Carrie’s artwork had been spreading over the walls during the summer holiday and now decorated most of the kitchen.

I checked the level of the open bottle of Sancerre on the table; it was already a quarter gone (
How had that happened?
I thought). There was also a half-empty bowl of chickpeas and two discarded ice-cream wrappers on the table – the not-very-guilty evidence of our end-of-holiday ‘rewards’.

Carrie was seated on her wooden stool. I suppose we’d created a little Scandinavian dreamscape really – her shocking red bunches, freckles (she gets those from Eddie) and brightly-coloured clothing were Leamington’s answer to Pippi Longstocking. She had just finished the last book of her holiday set reading and was illustrating a page from a favourite Moomins storybook. The third person in the kitchen that evening was Penny Dore; Penny is a lovely girl, a close family friend, and now, impressively, a police detective constable. She had abandoned the search for criminals for the week and was standing by the AGA, stirring a saucepan. She helps me once or twice a week in the evenings, as she has done ever since she was a teenager, and was finishing up preparations for our evening meal. Carrie and I had had a really busy day – it was the last Friday of the summer holidays before school restarted and it had been the usual rush to find things, buy things and get all of Carrie’s school clothes ready and labelled for the new term – so I was glad for Penny’s help that evening.

‘I hope I get Miss Burley this year, Mum,’ said Carrie.

‘Yes, she’s really nice,’ I replied absently, thinking back over our mad day.


By tradition, the local mums organise a party for our children in the nearby Dell Park on the last Friday before the autumn term. We had spent an enjoyable couple of hours there that afternoon, meeting up with some of Carrie’s school friends and their mums before heading into town to get the last bits and pieces for the new term. In the park we had also bumped into another friend, Isobel, or Izzie, who works in the nursing home across the square and had recently been taking music lessons from Eddie. Izzie is a slightly other-worldly Irish nurse with striking, long, light-blonde hair, a gentle voice and an infectious laugh. Her voice is the sort of voice that could melt even the most cynical heart.

When we met her that afternoon, she was taking one of her long-term patients for a walk around the gardens. Unfortunately that turned out to be the only time I ever met Winnie. Izzie had explained that this lady was once a famous actress, Winifred Norbury. I remembered at once that I had actually seen her playing Cleopatra at the RSC. She was in her prime then, long before she succumbed to early-onset dementia that had put her in the nursing home. In the play, I remembered that she had had beautiful shoulder-length blonde hair, disappointingly un-Egyptian, more Greek goddess really. I’d marvelled as an impressionable teenager at the way she switched effortlessly from vulnerability to aggression, with serenity and swagger that left no one in any doubt that she was the most important character on the stage.

I switched off the radio and put on one of my all-time favourite records before opening up the book for Carrie. We had borrowed both
The Little Prince
and a battered Kate Bush CD from the town library that afternoon. I remembered how I had loved that book’s illustrations when I was the same age as Carrie. In fact, I was always reading then and had grown up quite the little bookworm. Later at senior school, I was mildly bullied for being a swot, but it didn’t bother me too much. I had been happy to while away the hours with my nose in a book, almost any book. To encourage Carrie in her reading, I began to sing along to the record – but I soon realised that I hadn’t listened to it for years and the words came out all jumbled. I could still remember vividly the first time I had heard its opening whale calls; now, like then, it made me think of swimming.

When I was a girl, the present library building had been a swimming pool. I learnt to swim there and can still recall the evening that we all had to jump into the pool in pyjamas to collect bricks from the bottom of the deep end for our life-saving certificates. Gosh, that was a long time ago.

I also remember that at one stage, I kept a whole collection of disembodied bugs and beetles in little tins in my bedside cupboard, before my mother threw them all out. They were carefully wrapped up in cotton wool. Maybe it was this early interest in amateur dissection that had translated into such a strong ambition to be a doctor. My hard work at school enabled me to win a place at Bristol to study medicine, the first in my family to go to university. After I graduated I trained as a junior doctor in Birmingham. That was also hard work, and at the time I could not see myself continuing to slog down that road forever. It was also around then that I first met Eddie and the serendipity joker played its part. I was chosen to participate in an experimental mobile forensics unit. The work completely fascinated me. However, unplanned motherhood meant that I could not immediately pursue this new career. It did whet my interest in pathology, however, and so, after I returned from maternity leave, I spent two years studying histopathology. I have now advanced to an ‘apprenticeship’ in forensic pathology.

After Carice, or Carrie as we soon called her, arrived in our lives, Eddie and I had argued for months about whether we should get married. Eddie was quite happy for us to continue to live as partners. ‘I am an artist and God is against art so why do we need to get some priest’s blessing?’ was his stock response. But to me this seemed to be more a convenient reflection of his general attitude to anything like a commitment rather than a fundamental philosophical position. Basically, he hated anything that constrained his own free actions; no doubt influenced by the stubborn rejection of his Catholic upbringing. In the end, my persistence and determination won through against his apathy. I insisted that Carrie needed ‘proper’ married parents and we eventually had the pretty church wedding that my mother and I had always wanted.


My daydreams were interrupted by Penny’s voice reminding me that she had to go soon. She asked if I’d mind if she ate her supper before the rest of us; of course I agreed. Penny’s very competent vegetable curry was simmering away on the AGA, smelling glorious but getting drier by the minute. Eddie, the love of my life, the man with the child in his eyes, my
romantic and delicate inspiration
and my very own Peter Pan, was still not back. I had no idea where he was, maybe coaching at the (real) tennis club or more likely drinking (real) ale in the club bar with his (real) mates. Wherever he was, he was now very late for dinner but that was hardly unusual. If he wasn’t playing tennis or rehearsing with his band he was usually working on some recording project, or occasionally giving violin lessons in the evening to supplement his meagre sound engineer’s salary.

Yes, life with Eddie has its moments. As I approach the dreaded ‘four zero’, I am beginning also to reappraise my own ambitions and have even become somewhat broody again. Our weekends are always so busy and holidays tend to be a few days grabbed here and there in North Devon or Wales, surfing or walking. We never travel abroad, no long sunny days for me luxuriously tanning by the pool like most of my girlfriends. Probably the most exotic thing we do during the year is jam along at the Leamington Peace Festival with the beatniks, spiritualists and organic food zealots.

During the week it is worse; we seem to spend less and less time together as a family, there is so much going on. I guess at heart I am happy enough but I would love to be able to buy a home of our own, rather than rent the flat, nice as it is. But money is
issue. I wish I didn’t have to care, but it is corrosive; we both work so hard to keep our heads above water. Money is such a robber of time; if you aren’t careful you can work your whole life to earn it but never enjoy it. I am pretty determined that this will not be our fate, but looking around I can see that it won’t be so easy to avoid.

When I first met Eddie, he was a DJ, five years younger than me and with his own reasonably popular band playing local gigs. He was gorgeous and had an obvious talent for music but had lacked confidence somewhat in his own ability. Although he was younger than me, I was charmed and then bowled over by him. Later he worked for a spell at an event management company but found that frustrating as it allowed no time for his own music. He went back to study for an audio engineering diploma and then got his present job at the Woodbine Street recording studio. The studio was well-known in earlier years for recording big names like The Specials and Paul Weller but now has a more eclectic clientele.

More recently he has become interested in video and film, helping his director friend Jack with the soundtracks to the art films he makes in his spare time. He also works a shift in the local music store where he can meet other artists and musicians, including composers and amateur filmmakers, some of whom he has also helped with music for their short films. But of course that does not pay particularly well. Most of the work has been pro bono to get his name out there. He has had more joy doing some background music for friends in the local games industry. It is a long and slow process and he is still a long, long way from hitting the big time. As a result we have little cash for luxuries.

Totally endearing as he is, Eddie tends to struggle with the concept of deadlines and fixed appointments. With the patience of a saint, I have encouraged him to make entries in the family diary, but they are always somewhat vague and quite often plain wrong. If I were the jealous type, I might be forgiven for wondering if he gives some of his music students a few ‘extra’ bits of tuition in these unexplained gaps in his life. But I’m not and although he is a flirt, I am quite sure he isn’t the type to initiate anything as serious as an affair. In fact, I doubt he is even capable of organising such a thing. I confess I’m not quite as confident that some of the young ladies he teaches (and probably some of the older ones too) wouldn’t be more than happy to lead him astray if they got the chance. I am well aware that he has more than his fair share of female admirers. I guess the simple problem is that he is just too beautiful.

At home he is attentive, just frustratingly unreliable, hardly ever there and too easily distracted. He is certainly not interested in adding to our family, despite the loud and persistent ticking of my biological clock, but I am working on him.


I glanced over to the washing line above the sink, where half a dozen pieces of Eddie’s clothing, including his beloved Wolves football strip, were drying. That reminds me of another bugbear: his clothing. His fashion sense leaves a lot to be desired – in the ten years I’ve known him he hasn’t really progressed much from college student grunge. I’ve concluded that this aspect of his character is probably irredeemable and have almost given up attempting to sort him out. He tends to treat any notion of ‘designer’ with disdain and is colour blind to boot, preferring his battered old T-shirt and jeans to the nice clothes I patiently buy for him in the boutique shops in Park Street.

That morning I was sure he had gone out (again) in a moth-eaten tweed jacket he’d bought at the Spot for Value gentlemen’s clothing shop, a bowtie, Levi’s and Converse shoes. All this rather than one of the smart Ben Sherman shirts and chinos I had freshly ironed for the interview he was attending that day. He had been invited to pitch for a games advert soundtrack and with the advice of Jack, he had written what I thought was a really great piece for the brief. But that morning, when it came to the moment of truth, he did not seem to have the confidence or even the motivation to carry through with it.

BOOK: Death in Leamington
4.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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