‘Darling, so glad you could come.’
‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’
‘Did you have a difficult journey?’
‘Snow’s about six inches deep, but the old Mitsubishi didn’t let me down.’ Bruce Catterick took off his fedora, shook the snowflakes from his coat and hung both on the hat and coat stand in the hall. He smoothed down his suit and straightened his Guards’ tie. He was a man of early middle age, well over six feet tall, handsome from some angles, and rangy with it.
‘Come in and meet the other guests,’ said Sally Graham. She slid across the floor like a pair of closing curtains and led the way into the lounge.
‘This is Bruce Catterick,’ she announced to the assembly. There were murmured greetings from the twenty or so people in the room.
‘How do you do?’ said Bruce. He took up a position just inside the door.
‘Sally, who are these people?’
‘Oh. Just a few odds and sods from round here. A dentist, a quantity surveyor, two chartered accountants, chairman of the Rotary, the vicar, the Member of Parliament for East or West somewhere or other.’
‘I don’t feel comfortable amongst this mob. I don’t know anybody.’
‘You know me.’
‘Well, as long as you stick to me like glue for the duration.’
‘I’ll try, Bruce, but I’m the hostess. I’m supposed to circulate. Your usual poison?’ ‘Yes. Scotch. With ice.’
‘Which scotch would you like? We’ve seven different malts. Would Talisker suit?’ ‘Talisker would be fine. Better make it a double.’
Sally handed him an expensive crystal glass.
‘Where is the Great White Leader, then?' asked Bruce. 'Having his weekly audience with the Queen? Teaching Tiger Woods how to use a mashie niblick?’
‘Henry’s in the conservatory. He’s discussing business with some of his City friends. It’s about shares in Rio Tinto Zinc, or something. He’ll be through shortly.’
‘That sums him up to a T, doesn’t it? A nouveau riche windbag expounding words of wisdom to as rascally a bunch of sycophants as you’ll find this side of the Kremlin.’
‘Don’t be so jealous. You’ve nothing to be jealous about.’
‘Don’t I? You live in a wonderful home. Your drive’s nearly as long as the M3. Christ, you even have a bidet in your bathroom. I bet the bloody thing once belonged to Louis XIV.’ ‘Darling, don’t exaggerate. The bidet came from Harrods.’
‘Your mansion in leafy Godalming beats my three-bedroomed shack in Staines.’ ‘Well, you did choose to be a middle manager in, what is it, a company that makes valves? You could have gone into the City.’
‘What, like Henry and his business fiends? Never in a thousand years.’
Henry made his grand entrance. Bruce looked at him.
Henry was short, bald, and gave every appearance of being Mr Pickwick’s great-great-great grandson. He did have rather large ears which gave him the appearance of a Californian leaf-nosed bat, albeit an unfashionably plump one.
‘Henry, I want you to come and meet Bruce Catterick. He’s a friend of mine. We met at the badminton club.’
Henry waddled over and extended a hand like a seal’s flipper.
‘Pleased to meet you. I hope Sally’s looking after you.’
‘She is, thank you.’
‘Badminton, you say? Dab hand with a shuttlecock, are you?’
‘I’ve had my moments.’
'Where are you from, Mr Catterick?’
‘Originally Accrington. Now Staines.’
‘I wonder which is worse. Oh, there’s Snetterton over there. I have to tie up some loose ends with him.’
Bruce surreptitiously raised two fingers at Henry’s retreating back. Sally smiled. ‘You mustn’t think ill of him, Bruce. He’s suspicious of anyone with a northern accent. Something to do with flat vowels. He thinks everyone north of Hemel Hempstead is working-class.’
‘Ee bah gum, is that reet? Well, Ah’ll go to the fut of our stairs. Wukking class, indeed. The bloody barmpot.’
Sally laughed. It sounded like someone tuning a ukulele.
‘Come into the library,’ said Sally. ‘It’ll be more private there. Can I refill your glass?’ ‘No, one’s enough. I’m driving.’
‘Soft drink, then?’
‘I’m fine, thank you.’
They walked along the passage and opened the door into the library.
It was a spacious room, decorated in a tasteful dove grey with a deep red pile carpet to deaden any noise. Bookshelves covered every wall. They were crammed with books of all shapes and sizes. Bruce picked up a volume at random. It was a first edition, bound in Moroccan leather. ‘The Collected Short Stories of Maxim Gorky. Does he read any of this stuff?’ ‘Of course not, darling. He confines himself to the Financial Times and the Economist. Maxim Gorky never made anyone any money.’
‘They say Stalin had him bumped off. The death certificate read ‘pneumonia’ but not everyone believes that,’ said Bruce.
‘I don’t suppose it bothered Gorky as he lay on the undertaker’s slab.’
‘Gorky was an idealist, a romantic, a poet, like me. Your husband is a money-grubbing capitalist hack who, more by luck than ability, has made a fortune by conning people.’ ‘Bruce, darling, look at everything he’s given me.’
‘Everything except love and affection.’
‘Darling. Love and affection are such overrated concepts. I love material possessions. I want luxury in my life. I need expensive things, jewellery, perfume. It’s surely not too much to ask.’ ‘I suppose that’s why you laughed out loud when I gave you that bottle of Calvin Klein Euphoria toilet water last Christmas. Euphoric you certainly weren’t.’
‘Bruce. I can’t help it if I normally use Creed’s Aventus Eau de Parfum on my skin. You wouldn’t want me to look like a withered old hag and smell like a manure-heap now, would you?’ ‘No, except that stuff’s more expensive than saffron.’
‘What do you think of my outfit?’ asked Sally.
‘I think you look ravishing. I love that purple velvet dress you’re wearing.’ ‘Velour.’
‘I love that purple velvet velour you’re wearing.’
Sally tut-tutted at the feebleness of his joke.
‘What about my necklace?’
‘It suits your complexion perfectly. What are those stones – they’re as deep brown as your eyes.’
‘Smoky quartz. Henry had a little man in Cavendish Square make them up.’ ‘I suppose he asked the jeweller to go and dig up the stones himself.’
‘You are silly. A nine-year-old in Mozambique did that.’
‘What about the chain?’
‘It’s twenty-four carat gold. I think the necklace cost about ten thousand.’ ‘You see this watch?’ Bruce exposed a shirt-cuff and brandished his left wrist. ‘Twenty pounds from Henry Samuel.’
‘Your point being?’
‘It tells the bloody right time, doesn’t it?’
‘Darling Bruce, I’m beginning to think you’re a closet Marxist.’
‘No, I’m not. I’m just pointing out the waste, the extravagance. Oh, I know your necklace is exquisite, but then, so are you, and yet you’re throwing your life away by staying with him.’ ‘You shouldn’t judge me too…’
‘Harshly? No, I could never do that. I think you’re the victim of circumstance, that’s all. Your husband’s lack of love and affection also applies to our so-called friendship, does it?’ ‘That’s below the belt, Bruce. It’s unworthy of you.’
‘I thought you and I…’
‘Had something special?’
‘You always need reassurance, don’t you?’
‘Just a little pointer in the right direction, that’s all.’
‘Anyway, you get plenty of that from little wifie, tucked up nice and warm in Dunroamin.’ ‘Actually, it’s Mulberry Lodge.’
Sally laughed. ‘That’s ironic. How many mulberry trees do you have in your ten square yards of garden?’
‘None. If you must know, mulberry’s cultivated as a shrub, rather than a tree. In Staines, anyway.’
‘We have several in our garden.’
‘Courtesy of the Emperor of China, no doubt.’
‘Courtesy of Sutton’s.’
Bruce shook his head. What a woman! What a mind! What a waste!
Sally regarded him thoughtfully.
‘Poor Bruce. You want the world, and you can’t have it. You think it’s at the end of your fingertips, but it’s really on the planet Neptune. You’re reaching out but you’re just grasping thin air. Go back to little wifie in Staines and count your lucky stars that you’re where you are and you’ve got what you’ve got.’
‘Thank my lucky stars? Lucky? I’m the unluckiest man in the world. It’s not a question of wealth, or who you can get to suck up to you. It’s a question of emotional ties, of wanting, no, longing, for something with all your heart and knowing, if there was just a spark, just a frisson, I could realise my dreams.’
. ‘Does any of this really matter, Bruce, darling? What was it Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca? Something about life not being worth a tin of beans?’
‘His actual line was: “It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”’
‘There you are, you see. Three little people. You, me, Henry. None of our problems are worth a hill of beans.’