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.
Chapter Eleven – Wine and Sequins
Eleanor got up early to give the house a quick clean before the rest of the family got up. As usual, she had to move Daryl’s running shoes, which she did with no shortage of bitterness. She tidied up all of Timmy’s cords and controls that seemed to always spread across whole lounge room. She dusted, swept the tiles in the kitchen, and got the vacuum cleaner out. She would vacuum after everyone was awake, as she certainly didn’t want to wake Kathy up. As she was doing a final check of the lounge room, she noticed a small corner of red poking out from under the couch. Probably one of Timmy’s socks, she thought. She reached down to pull it out, and found that it was one of her own credit cards. For a moment she was entirely dumbfounded as to how it could have got there, and then it hit her. Daryl. Of course.
Eleanor checked in her purse, and found that all of her usual cards were there. The card from under the couch must be her spare credit card, linked to her emergency credit account that she only used for holidays, unexpected expenses, or in case of emergency. Of course, she was far too well organised to have any emergency expenses come up, and she hadn’t been on a holiday for some months now. The credit card was usually tucked, unused, in a drawer in her office. Perhaps that was what Daryl had been looking for when he had been in her office! Eleanor clenched her fists in anger. The nerve of that man! She had the panicked thought that perhaps he had run up a large debt on her credit card. She tried to remember what the credit limit was, but somehow the numbers eluded her. She would have to call her bank.
Eleanor waited until Daryl had marched pompously out of the front door, dressed in his office attire, holding a piece of toast and trailing crumbs. Timmy was next to leave for school, scruffy and bleary eyed. Kathy was still in her bedroom, possibly still asleep, when Eleanor telephoned the bank.
“Ma’am, you know that you can check all of these details on your internet banking account?” the cheery voice on the other end of the line asked.
“Young lady, I’ve never been able to figure out internet banking, and it’s probably not worth me wasting my time on when I can just phone you. Now, can you tell me if there have been any recent transactions on this account?”
On the other end of the line, Eleanor could hear keyboard clicks. “Why yes, ma’am, I can see quite a few transactions on this account in the last 3 weeks.” Eleanor’s heart sank.
“Can you tell me the full amount that is now owing?” Eleanor always made sure to pay her credit card balance in the same month that she used it.
“Of course,” chirruped the friendly voice. “You have sixty-seven dollars and fifty cents owing on this account in total.”
Eleanor frowned, puzzled. It seemed like a very small amount to go to the trouble of stealing a credit card. “Can you tell me what the transactions were for?”
“Why yes, of course. They all seem to be charged to a company called E R Holdings.”
“Oh. Do you know what kind of company that is?”
“Oh, no ma’am, I’m sorry, I don’t have those details. I can make some enquiries and get back to you, of course.”
“Thank you.” Eleanor hung up the phone, even more puzzled.
At the Friday morning walking group, Judy and Giles were ready to go. Judy was wearing a very bright pink tracksuit, and Giles had a pink scarf tied around his neck, matching his pink collar and lead. When Eleanor arrived, Blanche and Brian were already leading the group in a warmup. Eleanor was annoyed with herself, she hated being late.
“Everything ok?” Judy hissed in a stage whisper, above the sound of Blanche directing everyone to gently stretch their calf muscles.
“Oh yes, fine.” As the group set off, Eleanor filled Judy in on the credit card, and that someone had made some fairly insignificant charges on it.
“Oh, interesting. What do you think it means?” Judy loved a good mystery.
“Well, I don’t really know.” Eleanor was puffing a bit as she tried to keep up with Judy, who was in fine form. “Maybe it’s some kind of test to see if he can siphon off small amounts of money before he goes for the big amounts of money. Or maybe I signed up for something with that card and then forgot about it. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m that absent minded. Although perhaps it’s dementia setting in.”
“Well, perhaps when you find out what the charges were for, maybe then you’ll find out.” Judy tugged gently at Giles’ leash. He had stopped to sniff a post. “Look, I must admit that this is an interesting development, but I must know if you are ready for Sunday night? Will Roger take you to Catherine’s house for the dinner party? Or shall we go together? I only ask because Vince asked if he and I should go together, and I didn’t want to say yes if that meant you would be arriving on your own.”
Eleanor smiled. “Oh, that’s very thoughtful of you, Judy, but I’m sure Roger will call for me. I can ask him to, anyway. I feel as though we’re good friends these days.”
Judy nodded. “I’m sure it will cause a scandal amongst the biddies if we each arrive with one of Tranquil Waters’ most eligible bachelors. And you know I’m all for causing scandal.” She winked broadly at Eleanor. They continued striding, Eleanor concentrating on keeping up with Judy, who seemed hell bent on overtaking the leaders of the pack. They passed Clara, who was sporting new yellow tracksuit pants and a newly styled hairdo. “Eleanor, Judy, how are you both?” She said, pumping her arms in time with her strides. “Are you looking forward to Sunday night? I know I am. I heard that new fellow, Mr Bianchi, will be coming along.” It was certainly the talk of the village today, thought Eleanor. Those who were not invited were jealously sniping about those who were invited, and those on the invite list were bubbling with excitement.
“Oh, do you think so? You mean Vince? I hadn’t heard.” Judy replied to Clara, eyes wide with innocence. Eleanor suppressed an eye roll.
On Sunday evening, Eleanor dressed carefully into the dress that she’d chosen, as well as the new shoes. They were terribly uncomfortable, squeezing her bunions, but she supposed she could slip them off under the table and no one would know. She stood for a few minutes in front of the mirror, then finally decided that her hair would have to do. She dusted her face with foundation, and applied Kathy’s coral coloured lipstick. She wouldn’t mind. Good enough, she thought.
“Oh mum, you look so lovely!” Kathy said when Eleanor came out into the kitchen. “What’s the occasion?”
“Just a dinner party, dear. Don’t wait up.” She felt a small pang of guilt. She was sure she had told Kathy that she was going out, but maybe she should have been clearer. Surely Kathy would be fine to cook dinner for her family, though. She must have done it before she came to live in Eleanor’s house.
The doorbell rang, and Eleanor kissed Kathy goodbye, then went to answer it. Roger stood on the doorstep, in a suit jacket and open collared shirt, hair neatly combed. “Oh, Eleanor! You are as pretty as a picture.” He gazed at her for just a few seconds too long, and then offered his arm. “I thought that we might walk to Catherine’s place? It is a lovely stroll.” Eleanor agreed. It was a lovely evening. She tucked her hand into Roger’s arm, and they set off. The walk took them through Tranquil Waters, past the pond and the library, and out down the sidewalk. The sun had only just set, and the sky was still orange around the edges. As they left the village, the large sign behind them proclaimed Tranquil Waters Retirement Village for anyone who was unsure of where they were. Catherine’s house was only a short stroll down the sidewalk from there. Eleanor had counted before, and there were only five houses separating Catherine’s lovely home from the village. She told Roger about the inhabitants of each house that they passed. “The Cuthberts live here. A retired couple who enjoy gardening, as you can see.” The first house in the row had an elaborate, beautiful garden. “This house is a young couple with a child. The mother often takes him for walks through the grounds of Tranquil Waters, and as you can imagine, everyone makes quite a fuss of him.” Eleanor chattered on about the remaining few houses, enjoying having someone to talk to who was such a good listener as Roger was. Catherine’s house was quite elegant, and as they walked up the driveway, Eleanor felt a small flutter of excitement. It was always lovely to go out for the evening and forget about her troubles at home.
At the door, Catherine greeted them graciously, dressed very elegantly and kissing the air with her hallmark red lips. She ushered them into the lounge room, where Blanche and Brian, as well as Clara and Mary, were already seated. They soon each had a drink in hand, Eleanor sipping her wine very slowly so that it didn’t go to her head. It was always somewhat of a surprise to see Blanche and Brian out of their active wear, but they were dressed very elegantly, with Brian’s tie matching Blanche’s blouse perfectly. Clara looked lovely, but she always seemed as though the spark had gone somewhat from her when her usual nemesis Joan was away. Eleanor suspected that they both very much enjoyed their usual sparring. The next to arrive were Walter and Frida. Walter clasped Eleanor’s hands warmly when he saw her, and said, “How lovely to see you, Lucy.” Eleanor didn’t have the heart to correct him. Peter, wearing a jaunty red bow tie, came in next. He immediately struck up a conversation with Brian about golf. Eleanor found this very difficult to understand. She loved playing golf, but really, what was there to discuss on the subject? You either had a good day, or you didn’t. Finally, Judy and Vince, fashionably late, swept into the room. Eleanor stifled a chuckle. Judy was wearing a deep purple blouse with a sequined pattern over one shoulder, aqua trousers, purple embroidered slippers that would fit in well on the set of Arabian Nights, and she had a purple, aqua and pink scarf twisted artfully around her head. Eleanor had to hand it to her – Judy certainly knew how to make an entrance. As well as that, the show stopping outfit, which would make anyone else look like they had been dressed by an out of control clown, suited Judy perfectly. Vince, ordinarily a strikingly handsome man, well dressed in a navy suit jacket and pants, and a pale blue shirt, paled in comparison to his companion for the night. Judy, walking into the room on his arm, looked like the cat who had caught the canary. She introduced Vince to all of the assembled group, and he smiled pleasantly, accepting the glass of wine that Catherine thrust into his hand. Catherine was a gracious hostess, making sure that all of her guests had a drink and a comfortable place to sit while they chatted. After some small talk, Catherine summoned everyone to come through to the dining room.
Catherine’s dining room was a work of art, as far as Eleanor was concerned. The large room was beautifully decorated, with cream walls and elegant, minimalist art. The long table was laid with a deep blue cloth, all of the settings elegant and elaborate. Catherine neatly steered everyone to the seats that she had assigned for them, and the canapes were served.
“Catherine, these are delicious,” said Vince, as he stuffed one of the little blini topped with cream cheese and smoked salmon into his mouth. “You must have been cooking all day.”
Catherine smiled at him. “I agree, they are lovely. But I must admit, Vince, I use a catering service these days. Many years ago, I cooked all of the food for dinner parties like this, and did all of the cleaning up myself as well. These days, I don’t have the energy for that, but I do still like to entertain. I get other people in to help me make it possible.” Eleanor admired the Catherine’s easy grace, and also the neat swing of her blond bob. She made a mental note to ask her where she got her hair done. Eleanor was seated next to Roger on one side, and Blanche on the other side, with Judy and Vince across the table. Clara was sitting on the other side of Roger, and was holding forth in great detail about her grandchildren and how they were certainly gifted and exceptional. Peter, in the middle of discussing his golf swing at great length, was topping up people’s wine glasses, and by the time the main course was served, the conversation was in full swing.
“I say, Eleanor, we’ve moved our retirement funds over for your young son in law to invest.” Brian said, leaning around Blanche. “It’s early days yet, but so far it looks like he’s making us more money than the old guy.” He shovelled a mouthful of lamb into his mouth, chewing with a rapturous expression on his face. Of course, thought Eleanor, he’s a shrewd operator. He gets you in with some good results to start with, then down the track he will funnel off all of your money. Judy must have seen her face darken, and she rushed to change the topic of conversation. “Blanche, did I hear you say that your daughter is moving to the area?”
Blanche’s face lit up. “Oh, yes, that’s true! Isn’t that wonderful? She’s been living in Sydney for years now, with her family. Of course, we don’t like the hustle bustle of the city, but it’s lovely that we’ll get to see some more of them. And the grandchildren. Such sweet boys, they’re five and seven years old now.” On the other side of Blanche, Eleanor noticed Brian grimace.
“Yeah, will be lovely to see them, until they expect us to look after the kids all the time,” he grumbled. “And they’re not sweet boys, they’re tiny hurricanes.”
Eleanor sympathised. She knew what it was like, and before too long, sweet boys turned into unfathomable teenagers. “Yes, family is wonderful, but sometimes it’s nice to enjoy them from a bit of a distance,” she added.
“Ah yes, how is your little family situation going?” Blanche asked. “They’re still staying with you, I take it? Oh Catherine, I really must say, this lamb is delightful. Really quite exceptional.”
“Yes, Kathy and her family is still staying with me.” Eleanor took a sip of her wine, feeling a delicious little buzz. She would have to be careful not to drink too much.
“Oh, how nice for you. Although how you manage to fit them into your little house is indeed beyond me.”
Eleanor glanced down the table, where Vince was managing to be totally engrossed in the conversation while also in raptures about the food. It certainly looked like he was enjoying himself. The group finished their meals, cleaning up every scrap of the lamb with mint sauce, roasted potatoes, wilted spinach and asparagus, and honeyed carrots. This time, Mary had bought the dessert, a rich chocolate pudding served with cream and ice cream. Vince had two helpings, and then declared himself to be a happy man.
“Well then, shall we move back to the lounge?” Catherine asked, after the table was cleared. “I have a rather nice port, and a good selection of other drinks in the cabinet.” Eleanor steadied herself on Roger’s arm as she walked to the lounge. She really should stop with the drinks, but a very small port to sip would be rather lovely.
“So, Catherine, you don’t have any desire to move into the village?” Judy asked.
“Oh, why would I? With all my friends and the lovely facilities so close anyway. And forgive me, Judy, but I don’t think any of the houses in Tranquil Waters have lounge rooms that can accommodate so many.” Eleanor thought of Judy’s cramped lounge room, which felt crowded with five adults and a dog, and stifled a smile. “I’m quite happily enjoying my retirement here.”
“So tell me, Catherine, if you don’t mind my asking. Is there a Mr Worthington? Perhaps tucked away in bed somewhere?” Vince smiled charmingly.
“Oh, no, I don’t mind you asking at all.” Catherine smiled, pouring the drinks into crystal glasses. “There hasn’t been a Mr Worthington for many years ago now. Fifteen, to be exact. It really was a blessing in disguise – he was a bitter, cruel man. He wasn’t always like that, of course, but he became insufferable. I sometimes think that old age has a tendency to accentuate parts of our personalities, don’t you agree? So, for example, if a person has a slight habit of complaining, in their old age they will do nothing but complain.”
“Oh yes,” Judy chimed in. “So an impatient person might become even more impatient, until nothing anyone else does is good enough or fast enough.” Eleanor thought of Mr. Johnson, the wheel of his walker stuck in the grate, shouting impatiently at the very people who had come to rescue him.
“Yes,” continued Catherine, “my theory is that if we aren’t careful, we can become caricatures of ourselves.”
“Of course. But I think sometimes when we get older, we censor ourselves less, so rather than becoming either angry or controlling or some other characteristic, perhaps we always were like this, but we don’t hide it as much in our old age?” added Roger, sipping at his scotch. “And might I add, Catherine, this scotch is the best I’ve had in years.”
“Well, I don’t think that all of us senior citizens are terrible people,” chimed in Blanche. “Tranquil Waters is home to some of the most generous, thoughtful, good natured and funny people that I know.”
“Oh certainly,” agreed Catherine. “I only mean that everyone struggles to keep the negative parts of their nature in check, and sometimes in their later years, it seems that some people simply give up this struggle and let the negative parts of their nature win. I do believe we must always strive to be the best we can be.”
“So tell me, what happened to your husband in the end?” Vince asked. Eleanor was grateful for the question, as the conversation seemed to be getting increasingly philosophical, which she found difficult to follow in her slightly fuzzy state. “Heart attack? Cancer? Pillow over his face while he was sleeping?”
Catherine laughed. “Oh, nothing quite so dramatic! He’s still alive. As far as I know, he’s living in the Caribbean on a yacht with a young blonde. It’s such a cliche, I know, but what can one do? He did always prefer blondes.” She tilted her head, and her blonde bob shimmered in the lamplight. A ripple of laughter hummed around the room.
“Don’t you think it would be easier if he were dead?” Asked Blanche. “Then you wouldn’t have to think of him on that yacht.”
“Oh, I don’t really mind,” Catherine smiled. “After all, I have a perfectly lovely life here. And he always did get rather sea sick.” She chuckled. “Still. It would be handy if you could wish people dead that we don’t like.”
“Oh, absolutely, I agree. I can think of at least one person that I would wish dead.” Judy spoke emphatically, then she caught sight of Eleanor’s face. “Oh, I was just thinking of the costume designer for the drama production. She called me fat today. Right to my face. Can you believe?” Eleanor couldn’t help but laugh at the aggrieved expression on Judy’s face.
Eleanor and Judy walked home together from Catherine’s place. It was a beautiful clear night, with a nearly full moon that provided enough light to walk home safely, even in their state of slight inebriation. “Are you sure you didn’t want to walk home with Roger, Eleanor?”
“Oh no, they were so engrossed in that conversation about different types of scotch when we left. Plus I would rather walk home with you, Judy.” Eleanor and Judy were arm in arm, enjoying the crisp, cold air after the warmth of Catherine’s house.
“So tell me truthfully, what do you think of Roger?”
“Oh, I think he’s a perfectly lovely man. A very good companion for lunch, as well. He’s quite a good conversationalist.”
Judy nudged Eleanor in the ribs with her elbow. “Silly. That’s not what I meant. What do you feel about him? Is it love?”
Eleanor laughed. “Oh Judy, I honestly don’t think so. Do you remember being a teenager? Falling in love with every handsome man to look your way? I haven’t felt like that for a long time now.”
“Well, I know you might find this hard to believe, but it’s been quite a while since I was a teenager. Decades, in fact. But I still remember it, of course. And just because you don’t feel that same, giddy feeling of infatuation doesn’t mean you can’t be in love with Roger.”
“Oh I don’t think so, Judy. I guess after my husband passed, I’ve never even thought about another relationship. It seems like an unnecessary complication, doesn’t it? Aside from the situation with Daryl, I’m perfectly happy with my little life here at Tranquil Waters.”
“Don’t you miss it? Being married? Companionship, and, well, all the other things?” Judy nudged Eleanor’s ribs again. It was too dark to see her face properly, but Eleanor was sure Judy was winking in her direction.
“No, not really at all. I have all the companionship I need here. You, for example. Companionship without having to clean up after someone or put up with their snoring. It’s really the best of both worlds, don’t you think? And I don’t miss the intimacy side of things at all.”
“Oh, I miss it. I’d happily put up with someone’s snoring for a bit of ‘intimacy’.” Judy laughed. Her voice grew serious. “And it’s not just sex, although that would certainly be nice. I also miss the simple things like cuddling on the couch, or having someone hold my hand while we go for a walk. I always did love those things about having a husband. Even if the man could snore fit to wake the dead. Giles is good at cuddles, of course, but he doesn’t really like holding hands.”
“So what about Vince? Do you fancy him? You looked a very handsome couple this evening when you walked in together at Catherine’s place. A very grand entrance indeed.” Now it was Eleanor’s turn to nudge Judy in the ribs.
“Oh, I don’t know. I like him, certainly, but I suspect Vince is the kind of person who likes the ladies, and enjoys the attention of being a single man in a place like this, full of women. He is quite flashy, don’t you think? Handsome and suave, just the type to be popular with the ladies. I think I would be more suited to someone a little less fancy, someone who would allow my star to shine as brightly as it always does.” They both laughed. “And here we are, at my doorstep. Poor Giles must be pining for me, he does worry so when I’m out late at night.” Eleanor thought that Giles was probably fast asleep on the couch, enjoying the quiet house. “Thank you for walking me home, my friend.”
Eleanor felt a rush of gratitude and warmth towards Judy, almost certainly not just due to the quantity of wine she had consumed. “Oh Judy, I am so grateful for your friendship. Thank you for supporting me in my wild plans. I do rather think I would be quite lonely if it wasn’t for you.” She embraced her friend, managing to avoid being tangled in the sequins on Judy’s outfit.
“Of course, you’re very lucky to have a friend like me.” Judy laughed. “But I’m grateful for your friendship as well, Eleanor. Who needs a lover or a husband when you have a good friend, right? What is it that the young folk say? Sisters before misters?” She laughed.
“I’ve never heard that before, Judy. I’m far too old for such sayings. But yes, I think perhaps it is better to have a good friend than a partner. Now I must go and get to bed before these sandals have to be cut off my poor suffering feet. These sandals that you made me wear, I might add, instead of my comfortable, sensible, beige orthopaedic shoes. Tell me again how lucky I am to have you?” She smiled at her friend, standing like a small purple cloud on the doorstep. She reach out and gave Judy’s hand a last squeeze before determinedly setting off on aching feet for her beloved little house. It might not be as grand as Catherine’s house, Eleanor thought, but she wouldn’t trade her little home for any place in the world.