Tuesday Afternoon Murder Club is a fun project that I’m working on, a lighthearted story set in a retirement village. I’m going to publish the story as a serial, so stay tuned for more episodes. If you haven’t already read the previous chapters, here is Chapter One, Chapter Two, and Chapter Three.
Chapter Four – Project Orchid
Joe arrived at Eleanor’s flat in a rusty Corolla, an ugly yellow beast of a car that Eleanor made him park in the carport out of sheer embarrassment. He had inherited Daryl’s height and his good looks, but, Eleanor felt, had a lot more of Kathy’s personality. Luckily.
“Gran! It’s so good to see you.” He enveloped Eleanor in a bear hug. She came up to his chest-when had he gotten so tall? He had then marched into her home, kissing Kathy’s cheek, tousling Timmy’s hair and roughing him up in his best big brother fashion, and eventually, ending up in front of the refrigerator.
“Gran, this is delicious.” Joe spoke through a mouthful of meatloaf. “You should see what they feed us on Campus. All kinds of salads and steamed vegetables, lean meats, and gluten free cardboard crap. I know they’re trying to keep us healthy, but really, we all just end up eating at Maccas. I really missed home cooking.” He shoveled another mouthful of meatloaf into his mouth, while also eyeing off the cake Eleanor had made that morning on the counter. “Where’s dad?”
“Oh, he’s gone into the office for a bit this morning. He had some things to finish off, and Saturday morning is a good time to get things done, as it’s usually quiet.” Kathy spoke brightly, but Eleanor thought she could detect tension in her voice.
“Oh, ok.” Joe pushed his empty bowl to one side, and looked hopefully at the cake. Eleanor cut him a slice, noting that he didn’t seem to care that his dad wasn’t around. No great loss, then, if he wasn’t around at all…
Just then, the front doorbell rang, and Judy let herself in. She was draped in an orange and yellow shawl today, looking like a giant walking sunflower. She ignored Eleanor, Kathy and Timmy, and made a beeline for Joe. “Oh, darling, it’s so good to see you!”
“Aunty Judy, you look radiant as usual. Seems like you’re getting younger every time I see you.”
Judy beamed at him. “Oh, and you’re looking as handsome as ever. Have a girlfriend yet? I bet you’re breaking hearts every day at that University of yours.”
Joe grinned through a mouthful of cake. “Oh sure. They’re just lining up to have their hearts broken. How about you? Got yourself a handsome toy boy yet? Or are you just playing the field too?”
Eleanor rolled her eyes dramatically. “Well, if you too have finished…. Would you like a cup of tea, Judy?”
Judy waved her hands dramatically. “Oh, no love. My son and his family will be arriving any minute now. I just wanted to come and say hello to Joe.” She pinched his cheek, while Joe swatted her away good naturedly.
“How is my mum’s old flame?” Joe teased. Judy’s son, Keith, had dated Kathy many years ago, well before Daryl was on the scene. Kathy’s cheeks coloured, and she shushed her son, who was now onto his second slice of cake.
Judy laughed. “Oh, of course I wish Keith had married your mum, so that you were my grandson, rather than being wasted on Eleanor. But his wife is very lovely, and you should see their children. Three boys and a girl! It’s really rather chaotic when they visit me.”
“Can I come past this afternoon for a visit?”
“Of course! Bring Timmy, if you can pry him away from that video game machine.” Across the room, Timmy, who had quietly crept away to play on his xbox, looked around guiltily. “And now, I must go!” Judy blew kisses at everyone, and swept from the room.
On Sunday morning, Eleanor knocked on Judy’s door at exactly the time she knew her friend would be having a cup of tea.
“Oh, Eleanor! Come in, would you like a cuppa? I’ve just put the kettle on.”
“Ah, Judy, you are nothing if not predictable. Yes please.” Giles wagged his tail happily at her, trying to sniff her ankles as she walked. “How was your visit from your family yesterday.”
“Good, as usual, but always exhausting. I always feel like I need a strong whiskey when they leave. Those boys…. whoooeee! They just don’t stop.”
Judy’s lounge room looked a little more disheveled than usual. The stack of magazines on the coffee table was more like a lopsided pile, there were books on the floor, and some children’s cups in random places around the room, such as on a dresser, the windowsill, and one balancing precariously on top of a ceramic giraffe. One of her potplants showed signs of someone digging in it, and there was a mysterious smear across the window. “Well, it looks like they certainly had fun!”
Judy raised her eyebrows. “Yes, they did, which is more than I can say for poor old Giles. After the baby tried putting pegs on his tail, he ran away and spent the rest of the morning under my bed. Keith and Amy are going well, though. Amy truly has the patience of a saint.” Judy made a cup of tea, and they both sat down on the couch, Giles curling up contentedly next to Eleanor.
“And how about you? How’s the home situation at your place?”
Eleanor shrugged. “A bit worse, with Joe home of course. Such a mess everywhere, and I can’t even go into my own lounge room! There are dirty socks, empty bowls and cups, TImmy’s xbox games, and Joe’s study books all over the room. Daryl has been hanging about all weekend as well. He’s nagging poor Joe about his grades, and berating Timmy for all kinds of imagined offenses. I can’t bear to hear it.” She sighed dramatically.
“Well, it’s lucky that we are going out to Catherine’s dinner party tonight then, isn’t it? You get a chance to get away from it all.”
“Well that’s just the thing, Judy. I don’t think I should go. If I’m out, there will be no one to keep an eye on Daryl, to make sure he doesn’t pick on the children or mess up my house any further. Do you know, the other day I caught him shining his work shoes with one of my tea towels! He truly does not care about my things. Plus, he was very specifically asking me what times I would be out this evening. I’m sure he is planning something-…”
Judy held up a finger in front of Eleanor’s face, silencing her. “Eleanor, this is Catherine Worthington we are talking about here. If you fail to attend her dinner party, especially on such short notice, for anything less than a broken bone or a reasonable stay in the ICU, then you can forget about having a social life in the future. You’ll be a pariah. She throws the best dinner parties in town, she organises the Christmas party and at the Valentines’ day social. She is on the committees for half a dozen different things as well. If you get in her bad books, my dear, it’s all over. So you’re going to forget about Daryl and the rest of your damn family for the evening, and I’ll be at your door to collect you at 6pm sharp.”
Eleanor opened her mouth to protest, but Judy held out her palm and turned away her face.
“Do you think my black slacks and that pale green shirt I bought last week are suitable?” She asked meekly.
Judy grinned at her. “Attagirl. With a bit of red lippy and your pearls, they’d be perfect.”
Catherine Worthington’s house was not actually on the grounds of Tranquil Waters. She lived in one of the larger houses that was adjacent to the Tranquil Waters grounds, close enough to be considered an honorary resident. Catherine met Eleanor and Judy at the door, in an elegant red sweater and black skirt. Her blonde hair, in a perfect bob, shone under then lights, and her outfit was completed by delicate gold earrings. She was rather short and more full figured than one might expect, but Catherine always held herself with a tall elegance.
“Ladies! How lovely to see you. Please, put your jackets in here and come and get a drink.”
Eleanor always felt like she should put on a affected English accent when she spoke to Catherine, and call her ‘darling’. She reigned in the impulse, and spoke in her regular voice. “Thank you Catherine. We’re very glad to be here.”
After a minute or two, wine glasses in hand, the ladies were seated at a long table in Catherine’s dining room. There were twelve places laid at the table, which was beautifully set with a lace tablecloth, a full dinner set, and vases of flowers. Blanche and Barry, the leaders of the walking group, were there, as were Clara and Joan, seated at different ends of the table. Eleanor didn’t know the other dinner party guests very well. Walter and Frida were seated near Blanche and Barry, and the three other singles, Mary, Peter and Roger, were seated closer to Catherine’s end of the table. Eleanor was seated next to Roger, a silver haired man with a deeply lined face, and handsome, twinkly eyes. “Well, Eleanor, is it?” He asked. “I’ve seen you at bowls, you’re a very accomplished player.” Across the table, Judy caught her eye and winked.
The dinner guests were all witty and charming, and the wine flowed as well as the conversation. The meal was superb — roast pork with crispy crackle, the meat falling apart underneath her fork. The pork was served with apple sauce, like God intended it, in Eleanor’s opinion. There were also crispy roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, and cabbage, fried in butter with bits of bacon. Blanche and Barry had brought dessert, a brandy soaked trifle, covered in whipped cream and served with warm custard. Beside her, Roger’s eyes widened at the sight of it. “My cardiologist be damned, I’m having a bowl full of that. It’ll be worth the heart attack.” Eleanor smiled-the wine was certainly going to her head, but she hadn’t thought of home, or Daryl, since the start of the meal. After dessert was over, Catherine poured small glasses of port, while Peter and Roger cleared the table.
“Eleanor and I will do the dishes,” Judy volunteered. This snapped Eleanor from her dreamy reverie. She’d been thinking about how long it had been since she’d had port. Perhaps not since her late husband had been alive?
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Catherine insisted. “Just leave them on the bench — I’ve got the cleaning service coming in especially tomorrow morning.”
After insisting again, just enough to be polite, Judy left the dishes for the poor cleaners the next morning, and they sipped port until Clara started to yawn and Mary’s eyes started half closing with sleep. Blanche and Barry were the first to leave, then the rest of the diners drifted away, Clara and Joan arguing loudly over who’s house was closer to Roger’s and should therefore walk home with him. In the end, Peter walked Joan home, and Roger walked Clara home. Eleanor and Judy strolled home arm in arm. “See, Eleanor, aren’t you glad I bullied you into going tonight? You had a good time, didn’t you?” She nudged Eleanor with her elbow. “And I think that Roger was quite taken with you as well.”
Eleanor couldn’t think of a witty comeback. “Well, he did hold onto my hand for quite a long time while he was saying goodbye. Although perhaps that was just because he’d had two glasses of port by then and he was trying to keep his balance.”
Eleanor said a warm goodbye to her friend, and floated home, feeling quite tipsy. Outside of her little house, she stopped. She clearly remembered closing her study door before she left, light off, and asking Timmy and Joe not to go in there. And now, she could see the light in the study shining from behind the curtains. All of a sudden she felt very sober.
On Monday morning, Eleanor and Joe went for a stroll in the garden before he went back to university. “I’m sorry that you don’t have a more comfortable place to come for your weekends, Joe. It certainly doesn’t make it easy to study.”
“Oh, Gran, don’t worry about it. Your place is great, really. I love it here.”
Eleanor smiled. “Good. Although I do hope your parents find a place of their own soon. For Timmy’s sake, of course.”
Joe sighed. “What’s the matter, love?” Eleanor asked.
“Nothing really. I’m just a bit worried about mum. She seems really worried and a bit anxious at the moment. Not really herself. I think this whole thing with dad’s new business is putting a lot of pressure on her. It’s like she’s living in his shadow, you know?”
Eleanor nodded. Of course. Everyone was living in the larger than life shadow of Daryl. They rounded the corner near the pond in silence. The gardener, standing by the pond with one of the residents, gave a small, startled noise as he noticed them. He picked up a shovel and bucket and scurried off. The resident he had been talking to, an odd, reclusive man, gave Eleanor a strange smile as she walked past. “Morning Eleanor.”
“Good morning Thomas.” They continued on down the path towards the main buildings of the complex.
“That was a bit wierd.” Joe spoke in a quiet voice. “Does that guy work here? Looks like a stoner to me.”
“A stoner? You mean, like a druggie?”
“Yeah, you know. Likes the sacred herb. Friends with Mary Jane.” Joe grinned cheekily at her. “Enjoys a hot salad.”
Eleanor frowned. “Mary Jane? Who is…. Actually, never mind.” She could never keep up with young people’s slang. “But it did look rather suspicious, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, they were up to something.” Joe paused. Eleanor looked up to see what had caught his eye. Zara was walking up the path towards them, in her usual black attire. She gave Eleanor a little wave as she went into the Library.
“Who’s that?” Joe breathed, next to her.
“Who? Oh, that’s old Mrs Clarke. Would you like me to introduce you?” Eleanor chuckled, gesturing to a lady in a purple tracksuit, pushing her walker up the path.
“Gran.” Joe elbowed her. “No, the young girl.”
“Ah, you mean the girl with the black hair and nose ring? She’s quite pretty isn’t she, despite her strange fashion choices?” She noticed that her handsome grandson had flushed a lovely shade of pink. “That’s Zara. Her mum works here, so she often hangs out at the library while her mum is at work. I can introduce you to her next time you’re here if you like.”
“We should have code words.” Eleanor had only just arrived at Judy’s house, on Tuesday afternoon, and already Maude was in full flight. “You know, so that we can talk about the secret operation without anyone knowing.” Judy handed Maude her cup of coffee. She poured Eleanor’s cup of tea, into a delicate cup that said ‘If tea can’t fix it, it’s a serious problem!’ Eleanor took a sip.
“It’s not a bad idea, Eleanor.” Judy said. Already, Eleanor’s eye roll reflex was twitching, and they’d only been here for a few minutes. Giles yawned loudly and passed wind, before sniffing at his own behind in surprise.
“Oh, and another thing.” Maude was leaning forward on the couch, face alight with enthusiasm. “I met the new man yesterday. You know, the chemist? Vince Bianchi, that’s his name. Sounds very Italian mob, doesn’t it? I saw him at the library and managed to bump into him. He seems nice.”
Eleanor looked at Judy, eyes wide. She was worried that Maude might have quietly had a word with Mr Bianchi and asked him to join them in ‘sending someone to sleep with the fishes’, or some other cliched phrase. “Uh, Maude, you didn’t mention anything to him about our plans did you?”
Maude’s eyes were wide and innocent. Her glasses made them look enormous. “Oh, no, of course not.”
“You haven’t mentioned this to anyone, have you?” Eleanor narrowed her eyes in suspicion.
Maude paused. Eleanor’s heart dropped. “Ah, no, not really. I haven’t told anyone, only….” She paused.
Both Judy and Eleanor sat forward in their seats. “Maude!” Giles sat up with a snort and a startled look.
Maude looked guilty. “Well, it’s just that I got talking to Barry yesterday at the bus stop. I was going in to town to do some shopping, I always go on a Monday afternoon, it’s really much quieter. And did you know that if you ask, the bus driver will drop you off right in front of-”
“Maude!” Eleanor frowned sharply at her. Giles whimpered. “What did you say?”
“Oh, well I got talking to Barry. We sat next to each other on the bus. He’s really very lovely, although sometimes he gets very confused. I’m sure he knows my name, but he was calling me Sally the whole-”
“Maude!” Judy and Eleanor spoke together.
“Oh. Ah, well, he asked me what I’ve been doing lately, and I told him about the murder club. It just slipped out before I realised what I was saying. And if it makes it any better, I’m fairly sure he thought I was talking about playing some kind of board game. In fact, he asked if he could come next time.”
Eleanor groaned. “Maude, this is exactly what we were talking about. You can’t tell anyone, not even Barry.” Barry was well known around Tranquil Waters for being a bit confused. He often called people by the wrong name, and occasionally called the librarian, Mrs White, ‘mother dearest’. Once, Eleanor had seen him sleeping soundly on one of the benches in the garden.
“Oh, I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I won’t mention it to him again, and I’m sure he’ll forget all about it. And don’t you worry, I won’t say another word. I’ve learnt my lesson.”
Eleanor sipped her tea thoughtfully. Maude really was so enthusiastic and so eager to help that she couldn’t stay angry with her. She decided that she wouldn’t smile at her yet though, she didn’t want to let her off too lightly.
“Well, no harm done, right?” Judy chimed in. Today, she had tied a red scarf around her head, bohemian style, and she was wearing a green caftan with enormous purple flowers printed on it. She looked like an ageing gypsy. “So now what we really need is some kind of pretext to talk to this Vince Bianchi fellow, and see if he can help us.”
“Well, I could just invite him over for a cup of tea?” Maude looked hopeful.
“I guess so, but I think we need an excuse of some kind, otherwise he’s going to think that we’re from the ‘desperate ladies on the prowl for replacement husbands’ club.” Judy raised her eyebrows. “We need a man to fill a part in the drama production, and two of the ladies almost came to blows arguing over who was going to ask ‘the new gentleman’ if he wanted to be involved. Unfortunately though, it turns out he’s not interested in acting at all.”
“Oh, I know!” Maude almost shouted. “When he was at the library, I saw him choosing a book about orchids. Does anyone happen to have an orchid?”
Judy raised her eyebrows and grinned wickedly. “Ah. It just so happens that I have a sick orchid that I need to ask someone’s opinion about. Mr Bianchi might be just the fellow.”
Eleanor was surprised. “Do you really?”
Judy laughed. “No. But I’m sure I can get one before he comes around.”
“Well that’s settled then.” Eleanor laughed. “Good work, Maude. Checking out his books in the library was a great strategy.” Maude beamed with pleasure.
“Oh, and how about code words? I can’t very well say that I’m coming over to Judy’s place for Murder club, can I?”
Eleanor sighed. “Ok then, how about you have a think about code words, and let us know next Tuesday.”
On her way home, Eleanor realised, with a sudden jolt of panic, that her watch was not on her wrist. It was the only item of jewelry that she wore every day, an expensive Cartier watch that her husband had given her for an anniversary not long before his death. She only ever took it off to wash the dishes. That must be it-she must have forgotten to put it back on, and left it on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. When she got home, she went straight to the kitchen sink, but the windowsill was completely empty.