Dr. Margaret Handley of Heydown Cottage, Barnstaple, Devon meets the regular postman, Jack Geddes, at her gate close on 9am on a Spring morning, dressed in her usual morning outfit of blue jogging bottoms and a t-shirt portraying Mozart, though jogging is the last thing on her mind. She remarks on the clear blue sky and the breeze coming in from the sea, though Geddes, a member of a nearby lifeboat crew for close on 20 years, scans the sky gloomily, as indeed he has always done for as long as she has known him. They share an interest in hybrid tea roses, and spend a few contented moments admiring Dr. Handley’s abundant peace roses, unfolding pastel yellow with delicate pink edges in the bright sunshine.
Geddes turns down the offer of tea, taking it as a signal to resume his slow and steady round, and hands over an unusually large pile of correspondence, secured by a thick, red rubber band. Her shrewd eye is drawn immediately to a thick foolscap-sized buff envelope at the bottom of the pile, a contrast to the usual batch of blue airmail from her family and crisp white envelopes from the Department of Anthropology at a well-known London university. Until two years ago, Dr. Handley lectured in social anthropology but retired to her Devon retreat at 57 following the early death of her husband, Arnold, from cancer of the oesophagus. Two years in Devon have facilitated a quiet observation of visitors, which she hopes one day to publish.
She walks cautiously back towards her kitchen, one hand leaning heavily on a stout carved knob-handled blackthorn stick, a testament to the hip replacement operation that has substantially reduced her mobility. She sits slowly, pours tea into a white china cup and looks hard at the buff envelope. The distinctive left-facing slant of the writing brings a sly grin to Dr. Handley’s face, but she delays the pleasure by completing her tea before using a breakfast knife to slit open the envelope.
“What are you up to, you old bugger,” mutters Dr. Handley to herself as she withdraws a sizeable stack of paper from the envelope. From the top, a single page letter in high quality watermarked paper stands out, bearing a gold and navy logo announcing the sender to represent Regal Carpets, manufacturers of finest density carpets and rugs since 1869. To the right of the page is printed in glossed ink the legend: “From the office of Gordon Evitts, Managing Director.”
She reads on: a hand-written letter, written quickly and with increasingly abrupt and jagged letters. Dr. Handley’s lips purse slightly but she reads on apace:
My Dear Margaret
As well as you know me, I must admit to embarrassment in neglecting you these past few months. As you will hear, my time has been much distracted since the delightful time we shared last summer. And I promise I will visit again, if only to repay your many kindnesses, admire those magnificent roses, and to buy you a good dinner and the fine vintage your company well deserves. I trust your hip is now behaving as intended by the West Country surgeons, but then I never did have much faith in sawbones after their abominable treatment of my mother.
Cut to the chase: this is sadly not a matter of social pleasantries – I’m afraid I need your help once again. Indeed, while I know you have chosen to live without artificial aids to communication…
Dr Handley chuckles to herself as she reads this.
…the news will not have passed you by that our former colleague Henry Marshall (or Professor Marshall as he would have insisted on being called) died in horrific circumstances ten days ago. If you know this, I am sure that you will be greatly saddened, and if not, then I can only apologise for being the bearer of grave tidings. But Henry’s death is but one of a series of bizarre circumstances that have happened to me lately. They may or may not be related, but I need the opinion of someone trustworthy before I take action. You’ll see what I mean when you read the attached.
Rather than repeat what I’ve already written, I’ve photocopied pages from my journal to give you background and the relevant facts. As I’m sure you know I’ve written these past 27 years – every day since my academic career was ruined, to be precise – so I would appreciate your absolute discretion. But then, I hardly need mention such a thing to one as wise as you, Margaret! You will also find enclosed a number of relevant documents and newspaper cuttings. Perhaps you could return these when next we meet.
No doubt you will read between the lines and understand the gravity of a situation that led me to write like this. Out of character does not begin to describe it! Margaret, I hope we can meet to discuss this curious account very soon. Your opinions are most welcome.
“Melodramatic as ever,” murmurs Dr. Handley. “Whatever has Gordon been getting up to?”