CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 1
There was fog over the rooftops when Liv looked out from her bedroom window for the last time. She kind of loved this view of her bit of London. Like Mary Poppins and her sweep, she saw Victorian chimneys, with a distant church tower and, even further away, a block of Edwardian apartments.
There was often a light in that distant top floor. Not this morning. Everything was dark. As dark and cold as the soon-to-be-deserted bedroom, waiting to be emptied of all that she’d not already got rid of. More like Scrooge than Mary Poppins, thought Liv, wryly.
The sky was getting lighter by the minute, behind the fog. Time to go then.
She turned her back on the rooftops. A nice memory. One of the few.
She went downstairs for the last time. Five flights, fourteen steps each. It was a big house. Impressive, Patrick Fell had called it. “Clever Francis, the perfect house for the right parties,” he’d said in a voice that was only just the polite side of mocking. “Had you as the perfect hostess, too.” And looked at her as if she were part of the furnishings he called impressive.
Liv went into the kitchen. She’d asked the students if there was anything they could use and they had descended like locusts. The movers would take the rest later today. When she’d gone.
In the drawing room she switched on the table lamp in her cosy corner. She had loved the small circular table where she used to sit to listen to music. Loved it and felt safe and happy there. Until cynical Patrick Fell had made her look up and take stock of the rest of the room. And then she’d seen, really seen, the impersonal designer arrangement, the chilly artwork. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
Liv stroked the back of her ugly chair which had been so comfortable. Until it wasn’t.
It wasn’t the house’s fault, she thought. It was a kind house. Just not a happy one.
For a moment she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the wall. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hope the next people will be sweeter.
On impulse, she unplugged her old table lamp and added it to the boxes and bags to go into the car. Then she took the shiny new keys from their place on the hall table.
The main streets were deserted, still dark except for shop windows and Christmas decorations in the trees and lamp posts. Liv barely noticed any of them, except for the stylised Christmas trees outside a world-famous jeweller. They looked less like trees than gigantic wizard’s hats, she thought, amused.
She parked the car in a residents’ parking bay in a quiet square. She let a grey van swish past and then got out and locked the car. She’d have to remember to surrender her resident’s parking permit, she thought. Something else to go on the Endings List.
She went back onto the main roand and took the bus to the Food Bank Centre. With the buses so empty these days, it was hard for anyone to follow you on a bus without revealing themselves.
It was still dark and it looked like a ghost bus, with its harsh white light and scattering of passengers. Nobody got on after her for four stops.
Liv sat two seats behind a nurse she often saw. In the summer the woman had worn a crisp white uniform. Now she was huddled in coat and muffler and her head was drooping. She kept jerking awake but, even so, she nearly missed her stop. Over their masks, they smiled to each other. Liv had woken her up once, when she was so deeply asleep she would have overshot that stop. Now they shared silent, rueful goodwill.
The manager was unlocking the Food Bank door as Liv arrived. He was struggling. “I think the damn lock’s iced up.”
Liv took the key from him. He suffered badly from rheumatism and the cold would have made his hands painful. “Put your gloves back on, Daniel. I’ll see what I can do.” She made a business of opening the lock, to comfort him. He was too young for rheumatism, fortyish, just a few years older than Liv herself.
She made coffee, hovering while he checked messages and the day’s schedule. He sometimes asked for help with the keyboard, when his hands seized up completely. But today he seemed OK. She put the coffee mug down beside him and started her routine job, packing trays of basic supplies for delivery to families who were isolating.
Eventually he emerged, looking harrassed. “Another fifteen clients added to our list.”
Liv said encouragingly, “We can cope.”
“I know we can cope,” he snapped. “It just shouldn’t be necessary. We’re a developed country, for God’s sake.”
After a moment he said abruptly, “Sorry. Bad night. Five year old had the horrors.”
And you were in too much pain to sleep, thought Liv compassionately. Daniel hated his rheumatism and wouldn’t take pain relief until he was almost hallucinating.
She said lightly, “Being childless is not all bad, then.”
It seemed as if he didn’t hear. “I drove past St Mary’s this morning.” The church hall was one of their distribution centres. “People were queuing. And it wasn’t even light yet.”
“Mrs Marshall was saying yesterday that it’s getting like the War,” Liv offered.
“No, it’s not. In the War everyone queued,” said Daniel. “Only the poor queue now. They just stand there, waiting. The rich don’t wait. When did you last queue, Liv?”
He wasn’t being nasty. He thought of himself as rich too. She chuckled suddenly. “Um, yesterday, actually. At the Post Office.”
The great thing about Daniel was his sense of the ridiculous. He gave a startled crack of laughter, a lovely Jamaican bass boom, making even the concrete walls ring. “You got me there. Let’s hear it for The Post Office, the great leveller.”
Her shift was supposed to last four hours but she worked longer. It was busy and cheerful.
Last week someone had brought in a twig Christmas tree, decorated with shiny sweet wrappers, made by a child whose whole class had been sent home because of a virus diagnosis. Now people were adding spare decorations from their own Christmas store. Liv particularly liked a threadbare blue and silver tinsel. It still glittered merrily, between the stretches of bald string.
When she couldn’t put off leaving any longer, she set off at a brisk walk. In the latest lockdown, you were supposed to take as much outdoor exercise as you liked, weren’t you? She walked fast, occasionally glancing in a shop window. Nobody seemed to be keeping pace with her.
She walked all the way back to the square where she’d left the car. Got in and drove the few streets to the Estate Agent’s.
Robin, the agent who’d sold the house, looked up with a welcoming smile. It had been an easy sale. “All well?” he asked.
“Fine, thank you. I had the locks changed yesterday. Four keys. Here—and the paperwork to go with them.”
He received both, with raised eyebrows. “That’s very good of you. The purchasers could have done that.”
“I’ve lost a couple of keys over the years. I didn’t want there to be any hiccups,” said Liv vaguely. She didn’t say that Francis still had one. It wouldn’t matter now that the locks were changed. “The storage company’s booked for eleven tomorrow. And the cleaners for the next day.” She’d already emailed Robin details, but Liv had run an office for ten years and knew it was as well to remind people.
“I’ll see to it. Completion should be tomorrow morning. I’ll email you when the money’s been transferred.”
“Thank you. Oh and I’ve got a box of stuff that I’d be grateful if you could send to someone for me. It needs a sender’s address and I haven’t got one yet.”
“No problem,” said Robin. “Tell me where to find it.” A very easy sale.
“I’ve got it with me, in the car.”
He came and got it, barely glancing at the address label Liv had printed off last night. It showed the Estate Agency as sender.
They shook hands and parted.
Liv settled into the driving seat with a great sigh. Done.
And then she looked in the rearview mirror.
What does Liv see? Find out in Episode 2, available here
Super atmospheric, Sophie. I love it.
Praise from a master! Thank you, Lesley!
Exciting! Looking forward to tomorrow’s episode.
So hope you like it, Jan.
Loving this. You have set up the mystery with the light touch of a master. Looking forward to part 2 now x
Thank you, Melinda. Hope Part 2 doesn’t disappoint.
excellent writing as always. Captured me from the first sentence. thanks so much
Thank you so much, Nancy. Hope you continue to enjoy it.
So looking forward to more of this!
Bless you, Liz. Hope you enjoy it.
Just catching up now! I was going to read one and then off to work, but I can’t. Like Bridgerton, I’m going to have to binge! Fabulous…
Oh, how kind of you, Liz. Thank you.