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. You can find Chapter One here, or the previous chapter here.
Chapter 8 – Ermengarde
At the next craft morning, the invitation to the dinner party came. Eleanor and Judy were cutting squares from scrap pieces of fabric to make a quilt. “A joint project!” bubbled Patrick happily, if slightly too loudly. “I think it would do this group good to work on a project all together.” Eleanor could still see a faint bruise on his forehead where he had been hit by Joan’s walking stick. Both ladies who had been involved in the fight were also conspicuously absent, that is until Clara popped her head in the door. “Hello everyone! Not staying, not staying, just need to pass on some invitations.” She fluttered her eyelashes at Patrick. “Oh, how are you Patrick? I bet you have some wonderful things planned for the craft group this morning.” She made a beeline for Judy and Eleanor. “Ladies, just here to pass on some invitations from Catherine. You know, for her dinner party.” She spoke in a very carrying stage whisper. “So exciting, so exclusive. It seems like she’s added you two to the regular group.”
Eleanor and Judy were both given neat little envelopes, neatly printed with their names. Clara wrung her hands in mock distress, a sure sign, Eleanor recognised, that she was about to deliver some juicy gossip. “I really don’t know what she’s going to do. Joan has gone away for a couple of weeks, so she’ll miss the party, such a pity, such a pity. Joan’s visiting her daughter, of course, more trouble going on with one of her grandchildren, I hear.” She raised her eyebrows archly, and mouthed the word ‘drugs’, widening her eyes in mock horror. “But enough about that. Catherine does so like to have an even dozen at her parties. I don’t know who she will invite instead.” Again, she glanced around the room and spoke in the elaborate stage whisper. “She wouldn’t want anyone to feel upset that they had missed out.”
Eleanor and Judy exchanged a glance. “Oh, you know who she could invite?” Eleanor spoke earnestly. “The new gentleman, Mr. Bianchi. I hear that he is a lovely conversationalist, and surely no one could be upset about Catherine welcoming-”
“Oh yes, lovely idea,” Judy cut her off, “but I’m sure he wouldn’t be interested. It’s not really his thing, I don’t think. You know, Clara, dinner parties aren’t for everyone.” Eleanor looked at her friend in alarm. “You know who she should invite?” Judy continued. “Kitty Mason. She would certainly make a lovely addition to the party, don’t you think Clara?” Kitty Mason was well known around Tranquil Waters for her long monologues about her own health problems. She had been known to talk for twenty minutes, without seeming to even pause for breath, just about the arthritis in her knees.
Clara looked taken aback. “Oh, yes, Kitty…. Well, I am but the messenger. I’m off to see Catherine now, I’ll be sure to suggest that she invites Kitty. Although, it is rather a pity about the new gentleman. What did you say his name was?”
“Vince Bianchi. Charming gentleman. Quite handsome, too.” Judy said, with an airy wave of her hand. “Anyway, give our regards to Catherine.”
Clara wandered out of the craft hall, bestowing waves and air kisses on some of her friends, and giving Patrick a wave and a wink. The young man looked visibly relieved when she had left the hall.
“What was that about?” Hissed Eleanor, keeping a smile pasted to her face, carefully cutting out a polka dotted square.
“That,” Judy whispered, “was a lesson in how to get Catherine Worthington to do something. You can be sure, my dear Eleanor, that Clara will repeat our conversation to Catherine word for word. Including the part where I said Vince wouldn’t be interested in attending, and my suggestions of having Kitty instead. She will assume that I’m trying to keep Vince away from her, perhaps because I fear her romantic rivalry.” She waved her scissors airily, alarming the lady who was sitting on her other side. “Clara will, of course, tell her that Vince is both handsome and charming. Which he is, by the way, don’t you think? Catherine will take it as a personal challenge to have him attend her dinner party.”
Eleanor leaned back in her chair and laughed. “Ah, Judy, you really do like your intrigues, don’t you? Well, let’s hope that you are right.”
Judy nodded sagely, cutting into a striped pink piece of material. “Oh, I am, Eleanor. Mark my words. Vince will get his invitation.”
On her way to Bridge, two mornings later, Eleanor saw Vince walking down the path towards her. He was quite handsome, she thought, smiling at him in greeting.
“Ah! Eleanor.” He stopped in front of her and took her hand. “You’ll never guess who paid me a visit yesterday.” He smiled. “Or maybe you will be able to guess, as I’m quite sure that you had something to do with it. Catherine Worthington. She has requested my presence at her dinner party, in fact, she has quite insisted that she wanted me to be there. Lovely woman, very charming, but certainly not the kind of person that you can say ‘no’ to very easily. Luckily, I was very glad to accept her invitation.” He winked. “You have fulfilled your part of the deal, Eleanor.”
Eleanor laughed. “Ah, well, that was really Judy’s doing. So we shall see you at the next meeting of our, ah, Tea Appreciation Society?”
“Oh yes, I shall see you there.”
Eleanor met Judy at the door of Marjorie’s house. “Now Judy, you mustn’t be smug about this, but your plan worked. Catherine has invited Vince to the dinner party.”
Judy smiled haughtily. “I told you so. I know how Catherine’s mind works. She’s just like me, you know.” They both laughed.
Inside, Marjorie was waiting with a pot of steaming tea and a custard tart. Also at the table, in the seat where Gladys usually sat, was one of the other ladies from the village, Amina. “Oh, ladies, I’m afraid Gladys has called to say that she won’t be able to make it today, so Amina has kindly come along as our fourth for Bridge.”
Eleanor frowned. “Now, that’s very unlike Gladys. I’m concerned about her, you know. Surely you know what is going on with her, Marjorie?”
Marjorie waved a hand. “Oh, nothing, I’m sure. She’s fine, just a little cold, that’s all she said. Now, ladies, you really must listen in to the fabulous gossip that Amina has been telling me…”
Eleanor sipped her tea and mentally berated herself for not going to check in on Gladys. She would do it this week, she promised herself.
In the kitchen that evening, Kathy was helping Eleanor peel vegetables for soup. It was nice, Eleanor thought, to be doing something with her daughter, just the two of them. From the next room came muted sounds of gunfire and that awful racket that young people these days called music. She really must remind Timmy to keep the volume on his video games down. “I’m worried that he plays those games too often, mum. They must be having some kind of impact on his brain, don’t you think?” Kathy picked up another carrot, peeling in long, steady strokes.
“Hmph. Of course it must have some kind of impact. Daryl should spend some more time with the boy, get him to play some sports.” Eleanor started to chop potatoes, throwing them into the pot that she had ready. Kathy sighed.
“It’s not just Daryl, I should spend more time with him I guess. Sometimes I just feel like he doesn’t want to know me.” The slight plaintive note in her voice took Eleanor suddenly back to when Kathy was a child. She had been shy at school, and sometimes struggled to make friends. Eleanor suddenly thought that this was what she sounded like now.
“Oh, pish posh Kathy. You don’t need to be his friend. You’re his mother. Just tell him he needs to stop playing that confounded game and go out for some fresh air.” She would have said ‘go out and play with some friends’, but of course, everyone at Tranquil Waters was about 60 years too old.
Kathy sighed again. She really was doing that a lot these days. Eleanor thought about telling her to cheer up, but then reconsidered. It never really helped. “Yes, I should, I know mum. It’s just, sometimes it seems so hard I’d rather just let him play. Less of a fight, you know?” Eleanor raised her eyebrows, but kept her mouth shut. It was nice to actually have a conversation with Kathy, and she didn’t want her to go off with that wounded air she got sometimes. She glanced up at the kitchen clock, and rubbed her wrist, feeling the absence of her watch. “I guess I’d better get the soup on now. We can have an early dinner.”
“Oh, mum, where’s your watch? I noticed that you haven’t been wearing it much lately.”
Eleanor frowned. “I really don’t know. I left it on the windowsill, I’m sure, and I haven’t seen it since.”
Kathy pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Hm, I feel like I’ve seen it somewhere just recently. Only I can’t recall where. Anyway, I’m sure it will turn up, mum.”
Yes, thought Eleanor. It will turn up for sale in some pawnbroker’s shop, I’m sure. Daryl. She took a deep breath to calm herself and carefully unclenched her fists.
At dinner that night, Daryl slurped his soup noisily. Eleanor gritted her teeth at the sound. “Lovely soup, Ellie! Delish!” He tore his slice of bread into two, scattering crumbs on the tablecloth, and dipped on of the pieces into his bowl. Kathy and Timmy, Eleanor was pleased to see, could at least eat their soup like civilised human beings.
“How was work, Daryl?” Kathy asked, quite listlessly, Eleanor thought.
“Oh, you know! Work’s work.” Daryl spoke through a mouthful of bread, scattering still more crumbs. Eleanor made a mental note to vacuum after dinner. “You know, it just takes a while to build up a client base, make some good contacts, all of that. I won’t bore you with the details.”
“So, how long do you think it will take?” Eleanor was careful to keep her tone neutral, but perhaps she had spoken slightly sharply, judging from the way everyone looked at her suddenly.
“Oh, how long is a piece of string?” Daryl waved a hand airily. “We’re making some good contacts, certainly. In fact, we’ve had a couple of Tranquil Waters residents come and sign up as clients recently. That’s good, isn’t it?” He slurped again, noisily. Eleanor was furious. If any of her friends and neighbours lost their life savings due to that scoundrel Daryl, she’d never forgive herself. She raised her eyebrows archly at Daryl. “Yes, progress is good. But just remember Daryl, not all new businesses make it. In fact, many don’t. One day you may have to face that fact and get a real job.”
Daryl’s face lost some of its usual bluster, and for a moment he looked shocked and hurt. Eleanor almost felt sorry for her sharp words, but then she rubbed her wrist, feeling the slight indentation where her watch usually sat. She wouldn’t apologise to that monster, who was probably right now planning to siphon off the retirement funds of the entire village. Kathy and Timmy, she noticed, were both staring at her. Well, they both needed to learn to stand up for themselves. She stuck out her chin defiantly. After a moment, Daryl laughed. “Oh Ellie, you sure tell it like it is, don’t you? Don’t worry, I’m making a good go of it. We’ll be fine, and we’ll be out of your hair before you know it.” Timmy slid off his chair, with a muttered “may-I-be-excused?” and slunk out of the room. Kathy started to clear the table. Eleanor glared at Daryl for a moment more, trying to prove to him that she was serious. He grinned back at her, then laughed again, “Ha, ‘get a real job’, you don’t pull your punches, do you Ellie? Wait til I tell the guys at work…” He stood up, still chuckling, then walked out of the room, leaving a circle of breadcrumbs around his chair. Eleanor gritted her teeth hard, and then thought that she should probably get her blood pressure checked. She would make an appointment with the doctor this week.
The next morning, after a frenzied rap on the door, Judy let herself in to Eleanor’s house. “Oh, good, you’re at home! Oh, darling, I really must have a cup of tea. Do you have time? Oh, I’m in such a state.” Today, Judy wore an elaborately patterned blue and red scarf over a voluminous green tunic. Or perhaps it was two scarves, wound around each other? Her hair was neatly styled, and she had swapped her pink highlights for blue. The woman must spend a fortune at the hairdresser, Eleanor thought, idly. “Yes, of course, Judy. I’ve just put the kettle on, in fact. What’s going on?”
Judy flounced to the kitchen table and sat down in a flurry of scarves and tunic. “Oh, it’s this drama production. You wouldn’t believe the difficulties!” In fact, Eleanor thought, she would believe the difficulties, because they were the same every year. “Do you remember that I told you that Riza has been sick? She’s playing Ermengarde, the niece of the main character, Dolly. That’s me.” She smiled at the thought. “Well! It turns out that Riza has pneumonia, and will be in the hospital for a couple of weeks at least, and then probably on bed rest after that. It’s a calamity!”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Eleanor spoke, pouring the tea. “I hope she’s going to be ok. We must send some flowers, or chocolates. Do you think you’re allowed chocolates when you have pneumonia?”
“Yes, yes,” Judy waved an impatient hand. “We’ll send flowers, chocolates, whatever. But who am I going to get to play Ermengarde? It’s really a problem, Eleanor! Every person who lives here, who has the remotest interest in theatre, is already involved in the production. I can’t think of anyone else who might be interested. What are we to do?”
“Hm, yes that is a problem. Let me think about it for a little while. Is that the only thing that is worrying you about the production?” Eleanor sipped her tea, thinking that it really was perfectly brewed.
“Oh well that’s the main thing. It’s a fairly significant problem, you know.” Judy sipped her tea. “Of course, Bill keeps falling asleep, and there are some problems with the set and the costuming, of course. Maria is doing the costumes, you know her? For some reason, she’s having trouble with my costumes, would you believe? I mean, I’ve asked her to add a few flounces here and there, she really was making them rather plain… Oh, that reminds me, she’s having some problems with her computer. Something about needing to update one of the programs, I don’t know. She heard that Zara was going to help Clara with her computer and she asked if Zara could look at hers too? Could you ask her Eleanor?”
“Yes, of course. She will be at the library this afternoon, I’ll ask her then.” She paused. “Why Judy, I’ve just had a thought. Now she may not agree to this, but how about if we ask Zara if she’d like to play Ermengarde? What do you think?”
Judy beamed. “Oh, she would be perfect! It’s not a difficult role to learn, certainly not for someone who is young and has all of their memory still functioning. Would you ask her, dear? Please?”
Zara was so pleased to have two new computer jobs that Eleanor didn’t feel too bad asking about the role of Ermengarde.
“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve never done any acting before. I don’t think I’d be very good.”
Eleanor smiled at the girl. “Oh, my dear, this is a group of senior citizens, not professional actors. If you manage to stay upright and remember all of your lines, you’ll be doing better than some of them. In fact, they’re in such a big pickle at the moment that you could just stand there and read the lines from a piece of paper and you’d still save the show.”
Zara looked at her with those wide, heavily made up eyes, and Eleanor imagined what she would look like in Ermengarde’s period costume, instead of those ridiculous ripped jeans and black jumper. She would be lovely. Perhaps she would invite Joe to come and see the show. “Look, my dear, why don’t you just have a look at the script, then have a talk to Judy.” She would leave it up to Judy’s impressive persuasive powers. “Maybe you should talk to your mum as well, she might not want you to be involved.” A bit of reverse psychology couldn’t hurt.
Zara smiled. “Ok, I’ll have a talk to Judy. It can’t hurt.”
“Of course, my dear. Just have a little chat to her. It can’t hurt.” Eleanor knew she was as good as signed up.
As promised, Eleanor met with Roger again for lunch. This time, when she arrived at the cafe, there wasn’t a soul that she knew in there, except for Roger – punctual again. He was sitting in a booth in the dimly lit cafe, the walls adorned with faded prints and greasy smudges. A bored looking waitress nodded to her as she came in. Despite the gloomy atmosphere in the cafe, there were a few customers seated at the laminex tables. She spotted a gentleman with a long beard and tattooed arms, a man and a woman both wearing hi-vis vests and work boots, and a bewildered looking young man in a tracksuit. Good, no one her own age – they probably all had the sense to eat elsewhere. There were actually a few more people, dotted around at different tables. More than she expected.
Roger smiled as she slid into the booth opposite him. She was wearing her usual tan slacks and a simple blue shirt. No fancy scarf or lipstick today – she didn’t need it just to have lunch with a friend, she had decided. “Hello Eleanor, you’re looking lovely today. How are you? Ready to enjoy some fine dining?”
She smiled. The cutlery on their table was standing in a plastic basket, next to the salt and pepper shakers, which certainly could do with a wipe down. “Oh yes, quite looking forward to it, actually.”
They looked over the laminated menus. Burgers and different types of sandwiches seemed to dominate the menu, with a few pasta and chicken options thrown in for good measure. Eleanor had been thinking she would order a salad, but she couldn’t see one on the menu. Perhaps it was just as well, it didn’t look like the kind of establishment that specialised in salads.
“What can I get for you folks?” The waitress asked. Up close, Eleanor could see that she was chewing gum, and that she was actually quite young and fresh faced. Her apron, though, could have done with a thorough soaking, and she had about seven earrings in each ear, which by Eleanor’s book, was at least six too many.
Roger glanced thoughtfully at the waitress. “Well, it’s the first time I’ve eaten here. What would you recommend? I was thinking about a hamburger, but I think the wait staff always know what’s good.”
The gum chewing waitress smiled at him, looking instantly years younger. “If you were thinking of a burger, you should get Gus’s special. People come in specially for that.”
Roger nodded. “Done. And we’d better have a pot of tea for two.”
“Sure. And for you?”
“Well, I was thinking about having a salad, but you don’t have any on your menu-” Eleanor started.
“Yeah, no salads, but if you want, I’ll get Gus to whip you up a nice little salad. Want chicken on it?”
“Yes, thank you. That sounds lovely.” The waitress clicked her pen and walked away, then reappeared to place a bottle of water and two glasses on the table.
‘Well. Let’s hope that what this place lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in food.” Roger smiled at her. “Although I must say, it’s already made up for it in peace and quiet.”
Eleanor listened quietly for a moment, and noticed that there wasn’t the usual obnoxious cafe music blaring, just a gentle murmur of conversation from the neighbouring tables. “Lovely.”
“I’ve just had an invitation to another dinner party at Catherine Worthington’s place. Are you and Judy coming again?” Roger looked hopeful. They chatted pleasantly, and Eleanor filled Roger in on Judy’s problems with the drama group, and some other light gossip from around Tranquil Waters. He laughed at hearing that Zara would be cast in the upcoming theatre production. “She’ll be the darling of the whole group. They’ll want to keep her on as their mascot.” It was true-already, after only attending one rehearsal, Judy was in raptures about Zara’s ‘youthful energy’ and her ‘unmined talent’. The meals arrived, and Roger’s eyes widened at the size of the burger that the waitress put reverently in front of him. Eleanor’s ‘little’ salad filled the enormous bowl that the waitress set in front of her, and, after the first forkful, she pronounced it delicious. “Well, Eleanor, when you described this place, you certainly didn’t mention that the food was so good. It’s a true hidden gem.” He poured her a cup of tea that was fragrant, hot, and just the right strength. “What do you say that we make this lunch here a regular occasion?” He smiled at her disarmingly, and, to her own surprise, Eleanor found herself agreeing.