April 2022 Books Monthly Review of books and stories magazine - on the web 24 years...
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Continues in this issue: The Four Marys...


Contents: The Front Page | Fiction | Fantasy & Science Fiction | Children's | Nonfiction | Nostalgia | The Silent Three | The Four Marys
Growing Up in the 1950s | Pen and Sword Books | Living with Skipper | Acker Bilk Album Sleeve Notes | The Back Page | Email

The Four Marys Part 1
The Four Marys Part 2
The Four Marys Part 3
The Four Marys Part 4
The Four Marys Part 5
The Four Marys Part 6
The Four Marys Part 7
The Four Marys Part 8

The Four Marys - A Murder Mystery

By Paul Norman

Part Four (You can access the other parts from the main menu)

Chapter Seven


At a little after seven thirty, Mike stood looking in the window of the SPCK bookshop in the corner of the bus station square, wondering why a bookshop would choose to sell only religious books and tracts, altar candles and bibles. It was a captive audience, obviously, there had been a branch in Gloucester, and he had gone in there one day to see if there were any titles suitable for his school prize, which had been for English Literature. The manager had spoken to him, asking him if he had “fire in his belly, and a passion for God”, and showed him a small section of classic English literature titles, but nothing had appealed, and he had asked why they didn’t carry more popular titles. “All chosen by the powers that be, we have no say in what is stocked,” the manager had told him, and Mike supposed the same must be true of this branch.

To the left of the SPCK bookshop was a public house, and then the road, Danestrete, where the Locarno Ballroom and the newly opened bowling abbey stood. To the right there was another, empty shop, and then a very narrow shop selling LP records. Hanging in the window was a record featuring Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Mike had spent one summer, a few years ago, reading English playwrights, and had borrowed the entire works of Noel Coward from Gloucester City Library, and had loved everything he read. He had heard a few of Coward’s songs on the radio, they often played them on Two-Way Family Favourites, and he particularly liked Coward’s clever lyrics and his clipped way of enunciating every word very clearly and concisely as he sang his own songs. He decided there and then that he would purchase the record, which was called simply “Noel and Gertie”, as soon as he was off duty and the shop was open, which would probably be Saturday.

A bus pulled in from the right, past the pub, and he saw that it had come from Hitchin. Sure enough, Martha Baker was on it. She was about to wave at him when she saw he was there, waiting for her, but realised at the last moment that she was not supposed to know him, and she got off the Hitchin bus without a word and made her way to the stop for the green Routemaster that would take her to the Hyde.

Around a dozen people got on the bus, including Martha and Mike, but none answered the description she had given him at the hospital. However, as the bus pulled into the Hyde car park, Mike spotted a man wearing a leather jacket standing in the gap between the off licence and the hairdressers’ shop, where the precinct ran through to Elmes’ hardware shop. Martha got off the bus, leaving Mike and one other person, an old lady carrying what appeared to be a very heavy shopping bag. Mike took the bag and hopped off the bus, offering her his hand to help her off too.

Whereabouts do you live?’ he sked the old lady.

Foxfield, right opposite,’ the old lady said. Mike glanced across at Martha, who had already started to walk through the shops towards Hydean Way, where she lived with her Aunt in her father’s house. There was little traffic about, so he carried the old lady’s shopping for her, saw her safely across the road and into her house, then crossed back into Hydean Way, where he saw Martha, a hundred yards or so ahead, and perhaps fifty yards ahead of him was the man in the leather jacket, whom he swiftly overtook. He produced his warrant card from his trouser pocket and showed it to the young man.

Excuse me, Sir, would you mind stopping and answering a couple of questions?’

When he caught up with him, Mike could see right away that it was a man in his mid-twenties that he was talking to. He looked at Mike in complete astonishment, and started to run back towards the Hyde, but Mike stopped him, produced his warrant card from his trouser pocket again, and gave him a quick caution.

I’m a plain-clothed police constable, D.C. Thompson. You followed that young lady home off the bus last night, she reported you and I’m investigating why. You were following Nurse Baker tonight,’ he said accusingly. ‘You were waiting for her to get off the bus at the Hyde, I saw you. Now we can do this down at the station, or we can do it right now, right here, and I hope you have a good explanation.’

I can explain, officer,’ the man said. He looked to be just a few years older than Mike, possibly mid-twenties; he had short, sandy-coloured hair that could almost be termed ginger, and matching eyebrows and beard. His pale brown eyes were penetrating, but not unfriendly. His height was exactly as Martha had described it. He certainly did not look like a rapist, but then who could tell nowadays?

Go on.’

My name is Barney Cottingholme-Cole. A long, unwieldy name, I know, but Cottingholme is an extremely old family name. I tend to go by the name of just Barney Cole, it’s not so pretentious…’

Wait a minute. Cottingholme? That’s Nurse Baker’s original name.’

Barney nodded. ‘I know. She’s my sister. She has been missing for several years, and my father, our father asked me to see if I could find her. Late last week I tracked her here, to Stevenage, and last night I nearly plucked up the courage to knock on her door and introduce myself, but I bottled it at the last minute. Tonight I was going to give it another go.’

You know where she lives?’

Here, in this road. I don’t know the number. That’s why I was following her. Probably never will now, because you’re going to arrest me for following her, I imagine.’

Can I see some ID? Driving licence, for example?’

Barney Cole took his wallet from his inside pocket and fished out his driving licence, which indeed confirmed his name as Barney Cottingholme-Cole.

The family name is Cottingholme-Cole, my mother is Mary Cole, and she married my father, Sir Matthew Cottingholme. Same initials, you see, both M.C. My sister’s name is Mary Cole too, named after my mother, but I managed to find out that she goes by the name of Martha Baker.’

Right. If what you’re saying is true, then we’ll go and knock on her door and you can tell her what you’ve just told me.’

I’m perfectly happy to do that if you’re with me. You know where she lives, then?’

Mike had memorised Martha’s address from her police file. He couldn’t wait to hear what Barney Cottingholme-Cole had to tell Martha about his attempt to find her and meet up with her. He would have written a letter first, if it had been him in this situation.

Come on. We’re almost there.’

They crossed the road and Mike went to number 43 and rapped loudly on the door. It was a three-bedroom semi-detached house with climbing roses attached to a neat piece of trellis beside the front door. Each of the three windows at the front was adorned with clean, nicely patterned net curtains. After a delay of around fifteen seconds, Martha opened the door. Her eyes widened in alarm as she saw the two men standing there.

Can we come inside, Martha? I’m convinced Barney means you no harm.’


Please? Best we do this inside, otherwise the neighbours…’

Of course. I’ll put the kettle on, make some tea. The living room is through there.’ She ushered them inside, but still looked anxious.

She pointed to a door on the right. There was a two-seater sofa, old but serviceable, and two separate but not matching armchairs. A picture showing a country lane scene with a farm house at the end of the lane hung above the fireplace. There was a coffee table, on which was a pile of women’s magazines, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Own, Peoples’ Friend, and a bookcase in the corner by the front window containing a number of well-read paperback books, a two-volume encyclopedia and a Pears’ Cyclopedia for 1955. Beneath the window was a battered old gramophone on which lay a number of LP records. With his trained policeman’s eyes, Mike noted that the topmost LP was the soundtrack to West Side Story, one of his own favourites. On the opposite wall was a sideboard, similar to the one Mike’s parents had owned, an old utility sideboard from the war years that had used to contain bottles of National Health Orange Juice and Cod Liver Oil one side, and his father’s bizarre collection of spirits, with names such as Drambuie, for example, in the other side.

Mike and Barney took an armchair each. After a few moments, Martha returned with a tray on which there were three mugs, a teapot, a jug of milk, a pot containing sugar cubes, and a plate of chocolate digestive biscuits.

Right,’ Mike said, taking the proffered cup of tea, helping himself to milk and a biscuit, ‘this man claims to be Barney Cottingholme-Cole, which is your original name…’

How do you know that?’ Martha demanded with a frown.

We’ll come to that later, shall we? He claims to be your brother. That’s as much as I know. Now I suggest we let him do the talking…’

Barney took his cue. ‘I discovered a few months back from an ancient aunt that I had a sister, born seven years after me, who was put up for adoption for some reason, whilst I was at boarding school, and I set out to find her. That particular year, I wasn’t allowed home for the summer holidays, ostensibly because my – our parents had gone off on a round the world cruise. You’re my sister. At least, I believe you are. I was plucking up the courage to come and knock last night after I followed you home off the bus, but I got cold feet at the last minute. Suppose you turned me away with a flea in my ear? Suppose you didn’t believe my story?’

How do I know you are who you say you are?’

I can easily prove who I am, I’ve already shown my driving licence to Constable Thompson. I spent the first ten years of my life at boarding school, and never saw my parents until I was in my mid-teens. For one reason or another, your and my paths never crossed, and I didn’t even know that I had a sister. My mother was mysteriously absent all those years ago, for the best part of a year, obviously she was giving birth to you at the time. I didn’t see her much in those days anyway, being at boarding school myself, just the odd weekend and the summer holidays. My father came down occasionally and gave me some excuse about Mother not being well or away visiting with some relative or other. I didn’t pay much attention at the time, we’re not close or anything like that, but when I started to think about tracking you down, I realised she’d been missing for most of the year in which you were born. They obviously didn’t want me to know anything about you. I don’t know why you were abandoned, given away, I mean, and that’s not why I’m here, to take you home to the family pile, or anything. I still live with my parents – our parents, when I’m not at work, that is. I’m supposed to be at school right now, I’m a teacher, but I bunked off at the beginning of the week to come and look for you, having finally traced you here to Stevenage. They think I have the ‘flu. I was supposed to be back at school today, but I haven’t had time to get in touch with them. I’m staying in a B and B in the Old Town, and there’s no phone.’

School being?’

New Hall School, Chelmsford. Is that important?’

You need to inform them where you are, in case they’ll have reported you missing,’ Mike said, making a note in his notebook.

You can use the phone in the hall,’ Martha said.

Barney returned a few moments later and picked up his mug of tea. It was still warm, still drinkable. They were not speaking to each other properly, and Mike guessed that it would take quite a while for Martha to come to terms with the fact that she had an older brother who still lived with her birth parents. If she even cared. It was bad enough to have been sent off to boarding school by her parents. He would understand completely if she wanted nothing to do with Barney Cottingholme-Cole.

Barney – Mr Cole, do you think it would be an idea if you were to make tracks now, make an arrangement to come back and talk to Martha sometime in the future when she’s had time to get used to the fact she has a brother? Just a thought? It must have been something of a shock for her. I can arrange to be here when you return, if Martha wishes?’

I need a drink,’ Martha said abruptly, standing up and going to the sideboard.

Barney?’ Mike said. So Martha Baker kept bottles of alcohol in her sideboard, just as his father had done.

Of course. I’m sorry to have frightened you last night. That was never my intention. I just wanted to get to know my little sister.’

Mike thought he saw a tear forming in Martha’s eye, and put his hand in his pocket to produce a tissue, but she wiped it away with her hand and smiled thinly. ‘I would like to see you again, but you are not to tell our mother and father where I am, not ever. If you do, I won’t ever see you again, and I’ll move away, somewhere you can’t find me. Do you understand?’

Of course. If you give me your phone number, I’ll ring, make some arrangement to come back, next week, next month, whenever you’re ready. Thank you for seeing me, Martha.’

She showed him to the door after writing down the telephone number for him on a piece of paper, and Mike heard the door click as she closed it. He watched Barney Cole walk back down the street towards the Hyde.

Do you want me to go?’

Martha shook her head. ‘It’s been a bit of a shock. I was convinced he was the rapist, it really frightened me. Are you off duty now? Has your shift finished? Would you like a drink?’

Mike held up his hand. ‘No, thanks. But I’m on duty again first thing tomorrow. There’s been a murder down at the George the Fifth playing fields. I’m to attend the post mortem tomorrow morning. I’ll need a clear head. It’ll be grim, she was there for a fortnight before someone found her this morning.’

Martha grimaced. She opened the sideboard door to reveal a number of bottles, sherry, whisky, brandy and rum. She took out a glass and poured herself a generous measure of whisky, then sipped it quietly. It occurred to Mike that Martha seemed hardened to the taste of strong alcohol, especially at her young age, but it was not his business. All the same, he would have preferred it if she hadn’t been drinking right now.

How did you know my original name was Cottingholme?’

Mike saw no reason to lie. ‘I read your file. At the nick. It’s quite thick.’

Checking up on me?’ Martha frowned. ‘Why was my real name in my file? I didn’t tell the police anything about that when I was arrested. I’ve already told you, I don’t want to know about the people who abandoned me. I didn’t tell them my birth name, so why is it in the file? And why were you reading it anyway?’

I wanted to know all about you.’

Why is my original family name in my police file?’ she asked again.

I have no idea. I’m new to Stevenage, just came up here from Gloucestershire. Someone at the nick must have made enquiries about you when – when you were arrested. I read some of the notes in the file…’

Martha sat on the chair opposite to Mike’s. ‘Then you’ll already know I’m a wild child. But maybe you won’t know why. One weekend, at school, there was a parents’ do or something. Founders’ Day, Sports day or something like that. My parents, or rather the people I thought were my parents, Edwin and Winifred Baker, came to the school, and you can guess what happened. My friends, the girls I relied upon to keep me on the straight and narrow, realised they weren’t my real parents because they were second-generation Jamaican-English, and I was excluded from just about everything after that. Ostracised. Edwin and Joyce are coloured, you see. Unthinkable! Obviously they’re not my real parents, but when they turned up at my school, the damage was done. I started drinking, I started smoking, I even made enquiries from one of the sixth formers about getting hold of some drugs, though it never came to anything. I more or less had to buy myself back into their affections, which wasn’t easy, let me tell you. Girls at a private boarding school can be real bitches, believe me! The drink was enough, really. Anyway, it all came out, from Mum and Dad, who I was, what my name was – they’d already changed it to Martha Baker, and I vowed never to use my real name ever again. How could they do it? Why did they do it? You know they’re titled? Sir Alastair Cottingholme-Cole and Lady Mary, his wife, the woman who abandoned me. I know she’s my mother, my birth mother, but I don’t really know that he’s my real father.’

Mike’s eyes widened suddenly. It hadn’t occurred to him that her mother had played away from home with another man. It was a possibility.

I guess you come across people like me all the time.’ She laughed shortly. ‘Expelled from boarding school, drunk and disorderly, shoplifting, is there anything I’ve forgotten, or does that cover it all?’

Why?’ Mike asked softly. ‘Why do you do it? I can understand why you’re angry with them, but surely you can put it behind you? Move on, sort of thing? If you’re determined not to have anything to do with them, surely you can forget all about them? You’re not doing yourself any favours by getting a reputation like this. What about your nursing career?’

Spoken like a policeman,’ she said bitterly. ‘I never saw them after I turned thirteen, my real parents. They paid the school fees, made sure I never wanted for anything, got me a good education, and I’ve been told there’s a monthly allowance and a bequest waiting for me when I’m twenty-one, but I’m not going to touch it, I don’t want their money. I imagine they felt guilty. But they abandoned me!’ Her eyes blazed with a sudden fury. He wanted to go to her and take her in his arms and comfort her, but he didn’t think her mood would countenance that. She didn’t know him well enough, not yet.

I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It must have been awful not seeing your real parents for so long. Did you ever make any attempt to find out where they were, or why they did it, like Barney has?’

She shook her head. Her golden-blonde hair shook in the soft evening sunlight, which was fading fast. ‘No. As soon as I found out I was abandoned, then put up for adoption, I vowed never to find them, never to see them. I hate them,’ she finished quietly. ‘What’s different about Barney that they kept him but got rid of me?’

Mike could now think only of the obvious reason, that her mother had had an affair, and that her father, Barney’s father, was not her father. But he kept it to himself. It had evidently also occurred to Martha.

I should leave you to it,’ he said, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece, which said 8:25. ‘I have an early shift, like I said.’ He stood up and went to the door. She was watching him all the while. On impulse, he said, ‘Can I see you again?’

I’d like that,’ she said in little more than a whisper. ‘But you don’t know what you’re getting into…’ Her hazel eyes were watery with tears that had not yet formed fully.

He ignored that last remark. ‘Great. I’ll see you tomorrow, at the hospital, if you’re on shift. You can show me where the mortuary is. If not…’

You won’t like me. Not when you get to know me. You already know what I’m like,’ she said, standing up. She reached up and planted a gentle kiss on the side of his mouth, and his heart soared. ‘You really won’t like me. I’m not the girl next door, I’m not fucking Sandra Dee, for Christ’s sake!’ Her eyes were wild with anger again, suddenly, as though someone had touched a nerve and she was remembering the circumstances of her birth. ‘And yes, I’m on shift tomorrow. Early shift like you.’

Not too much more whisky, tonight, then,’ he suggested, wondering why she had mentioned Sandra Dee. But then, she was someone who looked a lot like Sandra Dee with a great deal of Brigitte Bardot and a young Marilyn Monroe thrown in for good measure. For very good measure, in fact. Mike felt his eyes drawn again to her angelic face, but he was also conscious of the fact that she had a very good figure. Her breasts weren’t large, but they were large enough; but then he didn’t particularly like large-breasted girls anyway. Her curves were in all the right places, and he had already noted the flare of her waist, the beauty of her legs and her arms, which were bare. Standing before him in her flared skirt and pretty lemon-coloured blouse, all he could think of was that she had to be the one the Ouija board had earmarked for him. How many girls called Martha could there be in Stevenage New Town, he wondered.

I’ve only just got started, don’t you worry. Aunt Joyce won’t be home till ten-ish. I’m going to listen to some music and get very drunk…’

I wish you wouldn’t,’ he said, touching her arm softly, and feeling the thrill of a mild electric shock run through his hand, but knowing already that he didn’t know her well enough for her to take any notice of what he said. They had only met just a few hours before. ‘I have to go now. I’ll see you tomorrow. Try and think about something other than getting drunk.’

Like you, for instance?’ Martha said, and slid her hand around his neck, pulling his mouth to hers. He could feel her small, perfectly formed, firm breasts pressing against his chest, and relaxed into the kiss, which was delightful and heart-stopping. For him.

That’s enough for now. To be going on with. If you’re really hell-bent on getting to know me, that is. I’ll see you tomorrow, Constable,’ she said, and her sweet breath, mingled with the faint taste of the whisky, was soft against his cheek. He wished he could stay, but knew that he shouldn’t and in any case, he got the distinct impression that she wanted to be on her own. Except for the whisky, that was. Reluctantly, he went to the front door and opened it.

Your adoptive mother, Winifred Baker. You don’t talk about her, you didn’t mention her much. What happened to her?

Tears again formed in Martha’s eyes. ‘She died. Four years ago. Cancer. She was lovely. I miss her, I miss having her to talk to. She probably would have set me straight,’ she said wistfully. ‘Aunt Joyce is alright in small doses. She’s very strict!’

Martha Baker smiled and waved him goodbye, then shut the door. He wanted to look back, but he was afraid that if he did, she would be standing at the window with her glass of whisky in her hand, drinking, and she would most probably have lit a cigarette, too. There had been no evidence of smoking in the house, no ashtrays, no packets of cigarettes, leastways not in the front room, but she was, after all, a wild child. And knowing that she had been given up for adoption after her thirteenth birthday, by parents who were extremely well-off, who could blame her. Who could know what was going on in that pretty head of hers?

The Four Marys continues in the May issue...

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its 24th year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email at paulenorman1@gmail.com and I'll let you know where to send it.