It was not yet ten a.m. but Andy Durden was already having a bad day. First he had dropped his bowl of cereal, breaking the dish. With the last of the milk already finished in his coffee, the only fruit gone mouldy, he had been forced to go without. The sky had been relatively clear when he had left his flat, but by the time he had got off the train it was raining heavily. Walking up the hill from the train station, without an umbrella, he had got a soaking. When he arrived at the shop that he worked in, Ideal Records, the lights had fused, and he’d had to grovel around on the floor to flick the switches. The cleaners clearly hadn’t done their job properly, so when he climbed to his feet he noticed that his wet white shirt had picked up all shades of mud and dirt. And that was before he’d nicked his jeans on a corner of the racks, tearing them at the back pocket. When the computer was starting up, he had knocked a pile of secondhand CDs over, which in turn dominoed into his coffee, the coffee spilling over the computer keyboard. The first thing that had gone in his favour was that the keyboard seemed to be working okay, even the keys were sticking a bit. Yet when he’d cleaned it he had managed to turn off the toolbars and, no matter how many different ways he tried, he couldn’t get them back again. This was all before the shop had even opened, but left time for the toilet seat to slip when he sat down, making him pee on his damp, torn jeans.
The boss had left him a note: Won’t be in until after lunch. Please place the orders and put stuff on the desk on sale. Didn’t have time to do the filing – please do that too. If you have time give the racks a tidy.
‘If you have time kiss my arse,’ he mumbled, and instead found time for a game of Candy Crush Saga on his phone after opening the door and turning the sign round. A Chocolate Spawner appeared on his board right after a piece of candy had been liquorice locked. Andy was frantically tapping at the screen when someone knocked on the counter, startling him. So engrossed in the game, someone must have entered the shop without him noticing.
‘Knock knock. Hello?’ the shrill female voice called. ‘Is there anybody in?’
Putting his phone down, Andy peered around the corner. ‘No,’ he replied after a stare. ‘This is the kind of shop that you just come in and help yourself. You know the sort?’
‘Eh?’ The woman was screwing up her face, almost as if she was in pain. ‘What?’ she sort of shrieked. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing,’ Andy said, stepping to the counter and leaning on it. With the way that his day had started, he would have put money on this particular customer being the first to trouble his morning. ‘What do you want? I mean, how can I help you?’ The shrew-like little creature staring back at him, blinking fiercely, was just another regular customer who was a few grooves short of a record. It was never an easy transaction, if she even did end up buying something. She tapped on the André Rieu DVD that she had placed on the counter.
‘You sold me this the other day,’ she said, still tapping.
Andy looked to his left, and then back at her. ‘Did I sell it to you,’ he asked, ‘or did you buy it?’
‘What?’ she asked. A little bit of bright white spittle had appeared on her thin bottom lip. ‘What?’ she asked again, spraying the spit to the counter. Screwing his face, Andy looked at the globule, next to the André Rieu DVD. He looked from the spit, to her, to the spit. Her screwball expression remained fixed on him.
‘So did I sell it to you?’ he said, shrugging and then exhaling. ‘Did I literally come out into the street and chase you, saying, “Wait! Mrs Phipps! You simply have to have this André Rieu DVD in your life?’ Standing there looking at her, Andy widened his eyes. ‘Did I?’ he could hear the strain of the morning in his tone. This was sure to be a long day.
‘My name is not Mrs Phipps,’ she replied.
‘Well, sorry. Whatever your name is then.’
As she just stood there staring at him, Andy wondered if maybe he had gone too far. He had always lived by the belief that you couldn’t offend anyone who appeared so dim-witted that it was a surprise that they could even find their way to the shop, let alone understand how currency worked. It wasn’t that she showed offence, it was that she was just standing there, staring as if at a bus timetable.
‘My name is Miss Phipps,’ she said eventually.
‘Miss?’ he said. ‘Figures.’
‘What?’ Miss Phipps asked in a clipped tone.
Leaning forward on his elbows, Andy sighed. ‘Do you think that witiswastedontheweird?’
‘What?’ Miss Phipps said again. ‘I don’t know what you said.’ Her voice rose at the end, not quite impatience, just a strange inflection. Andy looked her over: her sharp little teeth between her not-quite-closed thin lips; her straight, wiry hair, sticking out from the side of her head, not quite all grey, more like drastically over-salted burnt pigs cheeks; her mottled skin, almost translucent but dotted with sun spots; her thin blue blouse, covered with abstract impressions of flowers. She was a little thing; it was strange that she appeared quite vulnerable – by her sheer lack of perception when clearly being mocked – yet Andy could see that she wasn’t going to back down easily. The first customer of the day, he thought. Excellent. This will set the tone of what’s to come, for sure.
‘So,’ he said, ‘what’s the problem with the DVD that you bought?’
‘It’s a documentary!’ she yelled, a springtime field of worry lines worming across her dotted forehead, her top lip curling back above her pointy teeth. ‘I didn’t want a documentary; I wanted music!’
‘So you don’t like André Rieu, then, is that what you’re saying? You really want him fiddling in front of a crowd of geriatrics rather than trying to engage you with his charm, doffing his Dutch cap to you?’ Andy found himself smiling at Miss Phipps. It tingled through his lips.
‘Well . . . ?’ For the first time her solid stare faltered beneath the perplexity of thought. ‘I wanted music!’
‘Why did you buy a documentary then? Andy asked, slitting his eyes. His stare briefly darted from Miss Phipps to someone passing the window. Not the best business sense, but he was glad that they hadn’t come in. Business sense doesn’t really matter when you’re on a salary.
‘I didn’t realise it was a documentary,’ she shrilled.
‘Oh well,’ said Andy, ‘some you win and some you lose.’ Being on a salary also meant that he it didn’t really matter if he refunded Miss Phipps; he knew that actually it would make his day easier. But it was the principle of the thing. And getting a bit irate at a crazy went some way to relieving the monotony of doing some work.
‘I don’t want it,’ Miss Phipps said, sliding the DVD forward on the counter.
Pursing his lips, Andy looked at the DVD. ‘Okay. Maybe you could give it to a friend?’
Miss Phipps’ hand yet lingered on the DVD. One of her fingers twitched. ‘Can’t you take it?’
Andy inhaled and held it. When he exhaled his coffee and fags breath directly at her he was surprised that Miss Phipps didn’t even flinch. She certainly was short of a few senses. ‘Look, even though I do consider us to be friends’ – a comment that raised something resembling a smile – ‘I’m not really a fan of André, myself. I don’t really want it either. Thanks for the offer, though,’ he added.
Miss Phipps stared at the DVD as if she was about to part from a pet dog: sad and a bit lost in contemplation of the future. She looked up, her teeth digging into her lower lip. ‘Can’t you buy it back from me?’
‘Oh, you mean you’d like to return it!’ Andy said with a laugh. ‘Silly, silly me. I thought that you wanted to give it me, as a gift! Ha-ha.’ He rubbed his forehead. Oh, the misunderstanding! How comical. ‘Well . . .’ He pondered the cover of the DVD, André’s self-satisfied smile. Like a chess player theorizing all possible consequences before confirming their move, Miss Phipps’ fingers were still lingering on the case. Andy carefully slid the cover out from beneath her surprisingly unseasoned hand and looked at the disc. He scratched his chin. As if watching a bouncing ball, Miss Phipps looked from the case to Andy. He looked at her, his expression grave. ‘This was sealed when we sold it to you – when you bought it, I mean.’
She nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘So you’ve watched it?’ he asked.
Picking out splodges of flowers on her blouse, he sucked his teeth. ‘So do you think that we’re a lending library? That you can just try things out?’
‘Yes,’ she said. Seeing his face, she changed her mind. ‘No.’
‘No!’ he said, slamming the cover down. ‘That’s it, isn’t it? It’s secondhand now, isn’t it? I’ll give you a fiver for it, which is a pretty generous offer if you want my opinion.’
‘But I bought it for fifteen pounds!’ Spittle reappeared on both Miss Phipps’ lips and the counter. Andy tried to picture the image of her at home, trying out the André DVD – he often imagined customers’ home lives; how the weird and the mad filled their days. No wonder that she was in as soon as the shop had opened: she’d most likely been thinking of nothing else all night.
‘Ah, you bought it!’ Andy said, pointing a finger upward. ‘Yes?’
‘Yes?’ Miss Phipps agreed hesitantly, looking to the finger for the answer.
‘Or another way to look at it is that you rented it for a tenner! No?’ Andy looked at the cover, held it up for Miss Phipps to look at.
‘Yes.’ Andy opened the cash register, removed a five pound note and handed it to Miss Phipps. ‘Excellent. Cor, I’m glad we sorted that out! Let me know when we can help you with something else.’ Miss Phipps returned his smile. Crazies: they didn’t even know when they were being robbed. He went out to the backroom and put it on the pile of “stuff” to put on sale. Fifteen pounds, she’d said. Well that meant that he could keep the difference. After all, he’d done the work.
Pen in hand, Andy was just starting to do some work when the phone rang.
‘Ideal Records,’ he said, exhaling into the receiver.
‘Did you place my order?’ the caller asked. Andy recognised the voice. He could probably have added who would be the first person on the phone on a morning such as this to his betting slip. Mr Wilkinson.
‘Sorry?’ he asked, his face clouding over, his grip on the biro tightening.
‘My order,’ Mr Wilkinson said again. Andy also liked to imagine faces to fit the voices. For Mr Wilkinson he had always thought of Fredrickson from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but with a voice like one of Terry Jones’ female Monty Python characters. When he had first phoned to place an order by telephone Andy had thought that it was one of his friends making a prank call. ‘Did you place it?’
‘I don’t even know who I’m speaking with,’ Andy said. ‘Who are you?’
‘Mister Wilkinson,’ Mr Wilkinson said. ‘Should know that by now.’
‘Well, we do have more than one customer, har-har.’ Andy shook his head. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Have you placed my order?’ Mister Wilkinson asked again. Perhaps this is Miss Phipps’ cousin, Andy thought. How do they get along in the world?
‘What do you mean, “have we placed your order”?’
‘Have you placed it?’ Mr Wilkinson said, getting a little impatient now.
‘Have you placed an order with us?’ Andy asked, matching him.
‘Yes!’ Mr Wilkson squawked.
‘And am I right in saying that you are phoning to see if we have now placed your order with our supplier?’ Andy knew that his tone was fierce. He had known straight away what Mister Wilkinson was asking him. Someone else with too much time on their hands and not enough to live for. Right, he decided, Mr Wilkinson’s order will have a couple of quid added to it, a tax for the stress. And that couple of quid would not go through the till.
‘Yes!’ Mr Wilkinson said, reflecting Andy’s tone.
Andy took a couple of breaths – in through the nose; out through the mouth. ‘When did you place your order?’ he sighed.
‘Yesterday,’ Mr Wilkinson said, still sounding a bit incredulous.
‘Thing is, see,’ said Andy, ‘I’m trying to place the orders with the companies right now, but I keep getting interrupted by time wasters. So I will be placing your order, just as soon as I get a free moment.’
‘No need to be like that.’ Except for the money he spends, maybe Mr Wilkinson is a prank caller in some way, Andy thought. Can people really be this stupid and not know it? Everywhere he goes and everyone he phones must have little tolerance for him. Maybe he enjoys that?
‘I’m not being like anything,’ Andy said. He rubbed at the slight throb that had started in his temple. ‘I’m just trying to get on with . . . my life.’
‘Well, you don’t sound very happy,’ Mr Wilkinson said. And Andy could imagine his smile at the discomfort that he was creating. Couldn’t Mr Wilkinson see that by accepting his order in the first place that he was doing him a favour? Well he could just . . . Andy had to stop himself from saying it aloud.
‘Look, I’ve got some orders that I need to place – I might not have mentioned it. Is there anything that I can actually help you with today?’
‘Yes, actually there is,’ Mr Wilkson replied. ‘I’m looking for a Warren Beatty film called Mermaid. The music to it.’
Fire burned as Andy inhaled. ‘I’ve . . .’ Gritting his teeth, he allowed the fire to subside. ‘You’ve asked me about this before,’ he said in a mock-jovial manner. ‘You’ll remember that I told you that they never actually made that film. Remember?’
‘Oh yeah,’ Mr Wilkinson said.
‘So the fact that they never actually made it means that there wasn’t a soundtrack. Because there isn’t a soundtrack means that we can’t get it for you.’
‘It says in your advert that you can get anything,’ Mr Wilkinson screeched in his grating pitch.
‘Yes, well, they have to have actually made it for us to get it,’ Andy replied. ‘We’ll be sure to change the advert to read that we can get anything as long as it exists, but orders might take a little longer if they’ve never been recorded. Really, I’ve got to go now; I’ve got a proper customer in the shop,’ he lied. ‘Thanks for your enquiry. Bye now.’ Andy put the phone down with force. He looked at the pen in his hand. And then he broke it in half.
Looking at the splintered biro, Andy felt the barest twinge of regret at how he’d dealt with the first two customers – but it was still going to cost them – that if this was what the day was going to throw at him then why not just live with it. And then he heard the door close. He knew full well what to expect. Not an attractive twenty-four year old who knew exactly what she wanted but “maybe you could play me something good” too. It would be another testing waste of time. Stepping towards the counter, he certainly would never have guessed that two uniformed policemen would be waiting there. It somewhat made his prickly skin freeze.
‘Morning, sir,’ the older of the two policemen said, ‘we are looking for Andrew.’
Andy’s first thought was Do I have any weed on me? If he had, it would have been a sure giveaway where he kept his stash by the fact that his hand went straight to the zippered condom pocket. He was relieved to recall that he’d left it at home, where not even his girlfriend Zoe could find it. His second thought was Mum. The officer had referred to Andrew: only his mum would give them his full name. What if something had happened to her?
‘What?’ he said, his bones jittery. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Are you Andrew?’ the officer asked. Neither of the policemen had smiled; both of them were staring hard at him. The older one had a short dark carpet of hair, flecked with white lines. Along his thick jaw the skin was heavy with dots of shaved stubble – one of those twice-a-day shavers. The other officer stood aligned with his colleague’s shoulder; Andy wasn’t short, but these two were both over six feet tall. The second policeman had thinning sandy hair, a youthful complexion on the cheeks of his broad face, and sticking-out ears. It was his stare, estimating Andy, that was making him feel uneasy.
‘Um, yeah, yes, Andrew or Andy.’ Andy tried to smile in an attempt to relieve some of the authority facing him. It came out as more of a twitch.
‘May we have your surname please, sir?’ the first officer asked. The younger policeman withdrew a pad and pen from his hip belt. With the weight of the heavy black uniforms and the amount of bling that they were wearing, Andy guessed that they were carrying about two kilos around with them. These two would clearly be under no stress from that. He wanted to ask the younger of the two to stop looking at him like that. Even when he had taken the pen and pad out he hadn’t shifted his glare.
Andy itched behind his ear. ‘Er, yes, it’s . . .’ He hesitated. The younger officer had him foul-hooked by the eyes. His mouth was dry. Why did he feel guilty? Was it him that they were after or the bearers of tragic news? If they were Family Liaison Officers then they’d have victim’s families in tears before they had even imparted their condolences.
‘Your surname, sir,’ the officer asked again, but this time not a question.
‘Durden,’ Andy answered, itching further around behind his neck. ‘Can I ask . . . uh, is everything okay?’
The younger officer had momentarily taken his eyes away from Andy to write, but he now returned to glaring. Andy tried to concentrate on the older policeman, but could feel something akin to hatred grabbing at his peripheral vision.
‘Is that Dee Yoo Arr Dee Ee En?’ the officer asked.
Andy walked the letters back through his head. ‘Yes,’ he said. The younger officer showed the older one his pad, who nodded. ‘Can I – ?’ But the policeman cut him off.
‘Mister Durden, we have received a complaint from a local lady of vulnerable position that you have stolen from her.’ The policeman raised his heavy jaw and joined his colleague in glaring at Andy. His itching finger suddenly felt as though it was scratching at a hollow wall. His heartbeat slowed and echoed in the thud in his temple. A shiver had crept into his nerves. His voice felt very small when he spoke.
‘She was returning a DVD but she’d already opened it,’ he said. ‘I . . . I could only buy it back at a secondhand price. I gave her a fiver. Five pounds.’
The policemen exchanged a glance. The older officer scratched his chin. It sounded like a bulldozer driving over gravel.
‘The lady in question claims that you visited her premises on more than one occasion and proceeded to remove more than five hundred pounds over a period of time.’
Andy’s shivering ceased and a pair of words entered his head. Oh shit!
‘Andrew Durden, I am arresting you on suspicion of theft and suspicion of elder abuse,’ said the officer. ‘You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something that you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’ The younger officer unclipped a pair of handcuffs from his busy belt. ‘Understand?’
Bile rose into Andrew’s throat.
‘Now, Andrew, is there anyone else here with you today?’ the older officer asked. ‘Andrew.’
‘Uh, what?’ Andrew was visibly shaking now. He most definitely regretted the way that he spoken to the customers that morning now. Maybe if? He eyed the handcuffs. ‘I . . . I haven’t done anything wrong!’ he said.
‘We’ll figure that out back at the station,’ the policeman replied.
‘The station! But –’
‘Is there anyone here in the shop today,’ he asked again, attempting to peer around the doorjamb. The younger officer was moving to come around the counter. Andy backed into the corner and held up his hands. The phone began to ring.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No, there’s no one here but me. I . . . I can’t come with you. Who’ll look after the shop?’
‘Do you have a set of keys?’ the older officer asked. ‘You’ll have to lock up, I’m afraid, because you’re coming with us.’
‘But the boss isn’t in until after lunch,’ said Andy. ‘I can’t just lock up. Can’t I come down to the station later? Wait. Wait!’ he said to the young officer, who was now holding out the handcuffs.
‘Turn around,’ the young officer said, looming over Andy. He was surprised by the gentleness of his voice; he had expected that his voice would be brusque. But his grip was firm. As he was being pushed against the counter, Andy saw a customer peering in through the door – a middle-aged premature retiree. A regular customer. He saw Mr Heald hesitate, and then curiosity led him inside. The older officer turned around.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but the store is going to be closing in a moment.’
Andy couldn’t look. The brightness of the day, the surrealistic street-sounds of the world going by outside, swamped Andy’s senses as he closed his eyes, wishing Mr Heald away. He wondered where the police car would be, what sort of walk of shame he would have to undertake. He heard the shop door close.
‘I think there’s been some kind of a mistake,’ he said hopelessly as the younger officer gripped his hands tightly and applied the handcuffs. ‘I’m a Catholic.’ Andy’s clothes had almost dried out, but his shirt would remain dirty.
Having been led through the backdoor of the police station, the desk sergeant appraised Andy with less severity than had pinned him in the shop. The younger policeman released his sore wrists from the handcuffs. Andy looked at the whiteboard behind the desk: names and birthdates and offences – one for public exposure; probably a customer of the shop – written in blue ink. There were a few spaces empty.
‘What have we got?’ the desk sergeant asked. Andy supposed that the lack of compassion and the fact that the desk sergeant looked at him less like a person and more like at a betting slip was due to the conveyor belt of people who came through here. Criminals.
‘Step up to the line, Andrew,’ the younger officer spoke. ‘Right up to it. Not beyond it. Stop there.’ He grabbed Andy’s arm and squeezed. ‘Suspicion of theft and suspicion of elder abuse, Sarge.’ The younger officer placed the keys for the shop on the high counter. Now the desk sergeant showed a bite of malice in his look.
‘Hmm.’ The desk sergeant looked down his nose at Andy. ‘Empty your pockets up on the counter here. Remove your belt and shoes and put them on the counter too.’ After relinquishing the details that the desk sergeant would later fill in on the board, Andy was led away through to the cells, where the door clanged closed behind him. The slot on the door was opened, eyes peered through, and then closed again.
He had never been in a cell before. In spite of the warm day, only a chill cold permeated through the thick brick walls. He sat down on a wooden bunk and looked around the cell. The wire-encased strip light filled every corner sharp white, reflecting from the white-washed walls with a foot-high blue strip around the bottom. The floor was polished concrete, chipped and dented in places, the uncomforting cold travelling through his socks to his feet. Looking at the only other thing in the room, a shiny metal toilet with no lid, he thought that criminals had used that very commode; proper criminals who went into fights armed with knives and ran people down in their cars. He laid his head down on the folded blanket and closed his eyes.
He thought of the shop. The police officers had taken his keys from his pocket and locked the door. As he was led away he had looked back at the OPEN sign still turned round and the lights on. They had at least let him turn on the alarm. What would the boss, Mark, think when he arrived after a lunch, probably a bit sizzled? Would he have to hear about this? A bit of a curmudgeon, he wouldn’t be happy no matter what lie Andy managed to fabricate. But Andy had bigger lies to invent before then.
Andy had been told CID would be coming to interview him, but had not been answered when he’d asked when. He’d declined the offer of a solicitor, having been warned that he could expect a longer wait if he did. That would only make him look guilty, he surmised, and he wanted out of here as soon as possible. Or what if he owned up to it straight off the bat and just offered to repay the money, would that mean that this could all be swept under the rug? A “Sorry I won’t ever do it again”, would that suffice? Again, though: guilty. He’d have a criminal record. Thinking, he couldn’t lay still. Elder abuse, what the hell was that? He hadn’t touched her! And the way that everyone had looked at him.
He pondered over the worst that could happen to him. Real criminals have laid here, he thought. I’m in real trouble, he thought.
Waiting for the duty CID officer in the interview room, Andy could not stop twirling his feet. He hadn’t yet decided what to say. Laying on the bunk, one moment he had decided that he would confess to everything, and the next that he would shut up shop and either decline to comment or deny the fact. It was this indecision that was making his feet dance.
The interview room was exactly like on telly. There was the table, bolted to the floor; four light plastic chairs; the little tape recorder screwed onto the table. Dark blue walls, a suspended ceiling and sparse light. He looked up. In fact, one of the lights wasn’t on or wasn’t working. Tactical? Maybe. Confess or lie and deny? Lie and deny or confess? They had already cautioned him and taken his prints, but did that mean that they’d decided already? He had decided on approximately what he would say just as the door opened.
A man in a suit with a pointy nose and a bald head was followed in by a uniformed officer. The man in the suit alarmed him none, but a uniformed officer walking into the room reminded him of when Darth Vadar appeared around a doorway in Star Wars: the air leaves the room.
‘Hi,’ the man in the suit said. ‘Andrew?’ He held out his hand and Andy shook it. ‘I’m Inspector Higgins. Have you been treated fairly here today?’
‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, to be honest,’ Andy blurted. ‘I haven’t –’
‘We’ll get to that,’ Inspector Higgins interrupted with a wide smile. He sat down directly opposite Andy; the policeman, a bored-looking man of about forty, next to the inspector. He put a tape into the recorder, pushed the button and read out a few formalities, giving Andy the right to silence and reminding him that what he did or even didn’t say could later be used against him. ‘So, Andrew,’ he began, ‘you’ve been brought down here today because of allegations of theft and of elder abuse.’
‘What is elder abuse?’ Andy asked, folding his arms, attempting to appear relaxed. ‘I mean, I’m not a violent person at all!’
The Inspector chuckled lightly. ‘No, no. And no one is accusing you of being so. Elder abuse is taking advantage of an elderly individual in any way, be it physical, financial, psychological, sexual, what have you.’
Jesus, Andy thought, once you have that on your C.V. no one is going to know which one it is, are they? His thoughts jumped in another direction. Unfolding his arms, he gripped the sides of the chair and his feet started their involuntary tango. Inspector Higgins smiled. The policeman’s countenance had changed from indifferent to malicious. Andy’s eyes slowly travelled from him to the table.
‘The individual who has filed this charge is a Mrs Tottersgill,’ Inspector Higgins continued. ‘Are you familiar with this name?’ he asked.
‘Well, yes,’ Andy said. ‘She’s a customer in the shop that I work in.’
‘And that’s . . .’ Inspector Higgins consulted some notes on the desk in front of him, turning pages. ‘Ideal Records on the Gabriel’s Hill road, is that correct?’
‘Yes,’ Andy replied. He itched at his forehead and could see little flakes of dry skin flutter down before his eyes. He tried perching his head on his hand, but it didn’t feel right so he removed it. If he was looking at himself from across the desk then he’d think that he was guilty as sin. Instead, Inspector Higgins smiled on.
‘Do you enjoy your job?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, you know, it’s all right,’ Andy answered. ‘Except for the cus–’ He stopped himself.
The Inspector nodded. ‘Except for the?’
‘Except for the new Coldplay album, I was going to say.’ Andy laughed. ‘You a fan?’
Wrinkling his nose, Inspector Higgins looked at the policeman next to him. ‘Not really, to be honest. But my wife is. Officer George?’
‘Yes,’ Officer George replied. ‘They’re good.’ Folding his arms, he stared at Andy, as if challenging him. Andy found that his eyes were beaten down to the table again by that stare, again with the feeling that he was hooked a line. At least Inspector Higgins had agreed with him, and he was the one in the suit.
‘What about financially, Andrew?’ Inspector Higgins asked with a couple of companionable nods. ‘Do you earn a comfortable wage?’
‘I don’t really have any complaints,’ he replied. ‘I mean, we could all do with a little bit more, right?’ His smile felt like someone had spewed on his face. How could he be so stupid as to say something like that when he was being accused of theft? ‘But my girlfriend earns well enough to break the shortfall,’ he quickly added. ‘So between us we do all right, yes, thank you.’
Continuing with his understanding smiles and nods, Inspector Higgins asked a few more questions about Andy’s girlfriend and his home life, a bit more about how long he’d worked for in the shop, holidays and background. Andy found that it was easier to avoid the policeman altogether. This was just a chat with a friendly-enough and understanding fellow. He was soon completely at his ease.
‘Have you ever visited Mrs Tottersgill’s residence?’ Inspector Higgins asked, completely against the flow and out of the blue. Having had a few hours to wallow in the cell, Andy wasn’t completely caught off guard. Why lie about that?
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Quite often. She doesn’t get around so easily these days, so I offered to take her orders round there, rather than her have to come to us. If customers want things posted but are on my route home, I sometimes drop their orders off to them. I quite like to do it. And it saves everyone a few quid, too.’
‘And have you ever taken any money from Mrs Tottersgill?’ Inspector Higgins was now biting his bottom lip, nothing threatening just avuncular concern. Andy raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
‘Only payment for her order,’ he said, ‘which I then take into work the next day and put in the till.’ He linked his fingers and leaned forwards on the desk. ‘Look, I know that she’s old, and I can only assume that she’s got a little confused over things. I mean, she once offered me a fiver at Christmas as a thank you: I didn’t even take that! So no, only what she owes for the orders. Does she have a cleaner? Have you questioned her yet? Or him?’
‘Does she hand the cash directly to you, Andrew?’ Inspector Higgins asked, ignoring him. ‘Or do you help yourself from her purse?’
‘Well, I . . .’ Andy huffed a bit at the new tone that was creeping into the inspector’s voice and questions. ‘Sorry, I resent that a bit. That’s accusatory.’
Inspector Higgins raised his hands and folded them over the table. Andy noticed a smear of ketchup on the cuff of his suit jacket. This was clearly a man who lived in his work. ‘Let me put it another way then: does Mrs Tottersgill take the money she owes from her purse and hand it to you, or is the cash left on the table for you to take?’
Andy leaned back in his chair. He bit the inside of his lip. This was an attempt at entrapment, he was sure. Well he wasn’t prepared to fall for it. Instead he prepared his answer very carefully. ‘I do the favour of delivering Mrs Tottersgill’s orders by hand, because I like to do favours for the less-abled, okay?’ Inspector Higgins nodded, his smile returning. ‘When I arrive, she usually has her purse ready.’ Inspector Higgins smiled again. Andy hesitated, taking a moment to ensure that his voice wasn’t rising. ‘I’m only there for a minute or two. “Hi. Let me know if you’d like anything else. Hope you enjoy it. Seeya.” And then I’m gone!’
Inspector Higgins was still nodding. He removed his hands from the table and placed them on his lap. He licked his lips and glanced at the policeman. ‘Have you ever laid hands on her purse?’ he asked. ‘Ever touched it yourself?’
‘No.’ Andy said. ‘No.’ He itched his arm beneath his sleeve. ‘Never. Not even once. Anything else?’
‘Could you tell me the colour of the purse?’ Inspector Higgins asked.
Shaking his head, Andy puffed out air. ‘I don’t know. Green, I think?’
‘And she definitely takes it from her purse and then hands it to you?’
Putting a finger to each temple, Andy leaned his elbows on the desk and closed his eyes. ‘As far as I can remember, yes? She’s a sweet old lady. I think that she quite likes me visiting her, to be honest. And again, I like to help out.’
‘That’s good of you,’ Inspector Higgins said. ‘And, Andrew, when did you last go to Mrs Tottersgill’s room in the . . .’ The Inspector consulted his notes. ‘The Alexandra Hall Retirement Home?’
Andy pursed his lips and searched the point where the far wall met the ceiling. ‘I don’t know, two weeks, or thereabouts?’
‘So it’s not that far back to remember is it?’ Inspector Higgins shrugged. ‘And as ever, Mrs Tottersgill then removed the payment from her purse and handed it to you.’ Andy nodded. ‘Are you sure that’s how you remember it? You don’t recall if she first took the purse from her handbag, maybe, and then gave to you?’
Andy thought back over everything that he had said, all of the questions that he had been asked. He wasn’t sure why the inspector kept referring to the purse, but he’d never touched it. He’d never even seen it. If that’s the game that he wanted to play then that was fine. ‘I don’t remember seeing her handbag. And I can’t exactly remember the colour of the purse – not having seen it close up – but I’m pretty certain it was green. She usually dips down one side of the sofa; maybe her handbag’s there? I didn’t ever think that it would be important to pay attention to the little details. If I’ve missed something then I’m truly sorry, but as I remember it then yes. That’s about how I remember it, yes.’
Inspector Higgins pushed the papers together and folded the top of the folder over them. With that, Andy felt that he would soon be leaving, even though that couldn’t be soon enough. He thought of Mark in the shop. It might have even gone closing time by now – he’d spent most of the day either getting soaked or abused. As worst days ever go . . . yep, this was probably it. He decided that there was no way that he was ever going to drop anything off to Mrs Tottersgill again.
After a sideways glance at the policeman, Inspector Higgins moved the folder to one side. He was now wearing the expression that all members of the constabulary had greeted Andy with that day. Observing Andy, he stroked his chin.
Andy noticed how dark the inspector’s eyes were, how they were quite narrow, close together, almost like a bird of prey. The inspector moved his chair back away from the desk and crossed one leg over the other. ‘It was Mrs Tottersgill’s son who first noticed that the cash was missing,’ he said, allowing his words to travel slowly across the room to Andy, linger and pop. A lump formed in Andy’s throat. ‘He visits her once a week, usually on a Wednesday so that he can accompany her to collect her pension. Mr Tottersgill doesn’t like for her to have lots of cash around, but she insists that she has three hundred pounds at all times . . . in a drawer in her sideboard . . . “in case of emergencies”.
‘She doesn’t need the cash really though, Mr Tottersgill informed us. He does a weekly online shop for her and, really, there’s little else she needs except for a bit of change for bingo in the home and for the “polite young man” who comes around to deliver her weekly MGM musical. He began to collect the receipts from Ideal Records and compare them against what was missing. One time he checked and there was only one hundred and fifty pounds in the drawer. So we’ve dusted the drawer and have found prints that are not Mrs Tottergill’s, nor are they her son’s.’ Inspector Higgins leaned forward. Now sweating heavily from his armpits, Andy noticed that his hands were fists. ‘Andrew, whose prints do you think will match when we compare them with yours?’
Words were popping like bubbles all over Andy’s head. He looked at the dry black ink on his fingertips. His eyes were picking out every line in the grain of the table that he had memorised. He tried to clench his hands, but did not have the strength. His feet were now as still as Odette’s at the finale of Swan Lake.
‘Truth told,’ Inspector Higgins continued, ‘we’ll never know exactly how much has gone missing over time. Andrew?’ His foot knocked the desk as he unfolded his legs. Andy looked up. ‘Mrs Tottersgill doesn’t own a purse. When she lost it the last time – if she lost it – her son said that the safest place for her cash was in the drawer in the sideboard.’ The biggest popping bubble yet covered Andy in truth and woe.
Inspector Higgins sucked his bottom lip and released it with a smack. He opened the folder. ‘Andrew Durden, I am charging you with theft and financial elder abuse.’ After reading a few more rights and what Andy could expect to happen next, including a court appearance, Inspector Higgins moved his hand to turn off the tape recorder, but his finger hovered over the stop button. ‘Oh. For the record, Andrew’ he said, ‘I thought that the last Coldplay album was excellent.’ And he stopped the recording.
The next day, wearing a baseball cap low over his face, Andy was walking down the gravel driveway that leads to Alexandra Hall Retirement Home. It had always surprised him how anyone could walk in here and into any building that they wished. There was no security at all – except for the office building that was manned by a pair of late-middle-agers. After all, he well knew how vulnerable these OAPs were. He didn’t suppose that anyone had been warned to look out for him; they hadn’t rubber-stamped his criminal record yet. Still, it wouldn’t do for anyone to recognise him if they had been alerted. That was why he was wearing the cap.
After the interview had finished and his world had been turned upside down, Andy had thought over how he could get himself out of the situation that he found himself in. He had been charged and a court date had been set for the next week. Inspector Higgins had informed him that he could most likely expect a custodial sentence. He had almost blurted out, What, for stealing a little bit of cash? But the tape recorder had still been rolling and he’d just managed to stop his tongue. He knew that it hadn’t been just for stealing cash. After the stop button had been pressed, Inspector Higgins had allowed the accompanying policeman to say a few words. Andy had come to understand that “those who prey on the elderly or vulnerable” are not much liked by officers of the law. The way that it had been worded: was that who he was? Absolutely not! He’d just made a mistake. They’d see. But he’d never felt more like a criminal as he skulked through the sculpted lawns and blossoming flowerbeds that led to Mrs Tottersgill’s room.
His boss, Mark, hadn’t been at all pleased when he’d phoned him later that evening. But Andy had managed to flip the situation, saying that he’d explain at another time – after he’d weaved a few more lies, and once he knew how today panned out – that he was going through something right now and had been called away immediately. He’d cut Mark short, who was now sounding more concerned than angry, and told him that he had to go; that he wouldn’t be able to come in tomorrow. Andy had barely slept, but whether he still had a job had been the furthest thing from his mind.
The building that housed Mrs Tottersgill was at the far end of the sprawling site. As ever when Andy had been here, the only person that he had passed was the groundsman. Like Andy, his head had been down. The buildings became newer red-brick monstrosities the further that you wondered into Alexandra Hall Home, leaving the stately stone buildings as the happy front of the home. Some of the residents had their own front doors; Mrs Tottersgill was housed on the ground floor of a communal building. Andy slipped in through the front door, past the busy sitting room, and glided like a spectre along the corridor towards her room.
It was dingy in the corridor, poorly-lit by uplighters and nothing else. The ceiling was covered in swirling artex; the walls, painted white, so thin that each blaring television competed with the Wagner Ring Cycle next door. Andy supposed that you probably wouldn’t receive noise complaints from the neighbours here. The doors all had brass numbers attached, just like any average street. It was funny, he’d always thought, that each door also had a letterbox outside. This was a community; a campus for the infirm. Yet they probably all left piles of cash just lying around. This place was a goldmine guarded by wobbly old beings. After Andy rang Mrs Tottersgill’s bell, cap in hand, he glanced down each length of the shadowy corridor. He never had much liked the smell here: vegetable stock and mothballs.
From the corridor, he had easily heard the bell, even over the blunderbuss of televisions and music. It seemed to be quiet inside the flat, but she’d never not been in when he’d come before. Not that he’d phoned ahead this time to say that he would be coming. Maybe he shouldn’t have come, but what other option was there? Go to court and try to smuggle his way out of the net that was that tape recording? A custodial sentence! “Preying on the elderly”! The corridor seemed to be stretching away, elongating, as if saying, Even if you run now you won’t get away. You’re stuck, mate. A note left for her would have been evidence; it had to be this way.
Maybe she was in the communal sitting room. He rang again. If she was, would a bunch of geriatrics gang up on him if they knew? He could just picture himself having to barge his way through the massing throng, over threadbare wingback armchairs and rickety tables, a couple of brittle bones snapping and a charge of physical elder abuse being added to his rap sheet. He heard the key being turned in the lock on the other side of the door.
She was a frail little old thing. By stealing the cash, he’d not really thought that he was doing her much harm. He truly had liked the feeling of helping her out by hand delivering her orders. Looking down at her now, though, he wished that he’d only ever done her the favour and not the crime – or at least less of a crime. Her small, pursed lips; her old Mother Hubbard dress with the wildflower meadow pattern. She’d not always been old, like this. She would have once climbed over rocks and run through pastures, maybe swum in wild streams. She would have been attracted to young men.
‘Oh, hello, love,’ Mrs Tottersgill said, looking up at him from far below. She moved her walking stick a touch. It looked like it had hurt. ‘I didn’t think that I’d ordered any more VDs.’
VDs. Always made him laugh, every time. But now Andy could only offer a sad smile. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I haven’t brought an order here for you.’ He glanced down the corridor. ‘May I . . . come in?’
‘Oh, well . . .’ she looked towards her sideboard. ‘I –’
‘I think that I’d better come in,’ Andy said, stepping inside the entrance, past the airing cupboard and into her sitting room. ‘I won’t keep you for long.’ He put his hand into his pocket.
The huge stereo hi-fi was playing some baroque music at a low level. By the crackle, it sounded as if one of the channels had gone in the amplifier. He looked at the large sepia photo of a young man wearing an army dress uniform complete with peak cap. He looked strong and determined, but with a twinkle of humour in his eyes. Or perhaps it was love. Andy wondered what that young man would have done to him now if he had been witness to the situation that he found himself in. He gripped the item in his pocket that he’d brought with him. Maybe the young man in the picture would appreciate the valour of Andy’s trying to make things right for his widow. Mrs Tottersgill closed and locked the door – Andy felt immediately guilty that she was locking him in, a criminal – and hobbled through to join him in the sitting room.
‘Mind if I sit?’ she asked. ‘My hips are sore something terrible today.’
‘No,’ Andy said. ‘No. Can I, uh, help at all?’ He held out a hand towards her, but found that it curled closed as she helped herself down. He kneeled down on the opposite side of the glass-topped walnut coffee table and looked Mrs Tottersgill in the eye. She glanced again towards the sideboard, and then towards the kitchen. A ray of sunlight travelled slowly up the wide window, through the net curtains, and brightened the room. His mouth was dry and there were butterflies in his stomach, as if he were preparing to declare a proposition. Which he was. ‘Mrs Tottersgill, we’ve always got along pretty well, but I have wronged you,’ he said. ‘I . . .’ From his pocket he pulled the little green embroidered purse, stitched with beads, stared at it, and slid it along the table to her. A last-minute addition to the formulating plan, he’d bought it that morning. ‘I made a mistake.’ Andy looked up at Mrs Tottersgill for the first time; she seemed pretty impassive, but she kept wringing her hands and looking all around the room. Andy could understand that.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘So sorry. But this can just be kept between us, okay?’
She looked down now at the purse on the table. She frowned. ‘I recognise that,’ she said, and a little smile crept on to her face. ‘Albert bought me that purse.’ Both of them looked towards the portrait photograph. The portrait was looking back only at her.
‘I, um, I . . .’ Twisting his lips – but hopefully this would be the last lie – he gripped the fingers of one hand tightly. ‘Yes! And look,’ he said, opening the brass clasp. ‘Five hundred pounds,’ he said, showing her the bulge of cash within. ‘It must have been here all along. And between you and me, you won’t pay a penny for any DVDs that you want in future. It can be our little secret, okay?’ Andy smiled easily. It felt good. Now he was doing what was right. This might all be all right. ‘Okay?’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘That’s my purse, but that’s not my money. My money’s in the sideboard over there. That’s where Keith says I should keep it.’
The guilt washed over Andy anew. He began to tap on the table. He found that he couldn’t even glance at that sideboard. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You lost this, remember? And you found it in the back of your drawer with all of your missing cash still inside!’
Leaning forward, Mrs Tottersgill rubbed her hip. ‘What missing cash?’ she asked. She kept looking over Andy’s shoulder, and around the room.
‘Well . . .’ Andy’s knee was beginning to become uncomfortable. He shifted slightly. ‘You remember that the police were here?’ Mrs Tottersgill nodded. ‘Well they think that this money was missing. But if you could just tell your son –’
‘Tell me what?’ a voice said from behind Andy.
Wriggling around, he fell back on to his backside and skittled backwards into the coffee table. Leaning on the doorway to the kitchen, smiling broadly, was a huge man. He was the spitting image of the man in the photograph. ‘I don’t think that you’ve met Keith, have you, love?’ he heard a little voice say from behind him. The butterflies returned in blustering swarms, rising from Andy’s sickened stomach, blocking his airways.
‘I was trying to make it right,’ he squeaked, gripping the edge of the shag rug.
Keith was running a hand over his bicep. His smile had slipped away. ‘Trying to make . . . it right?’ Keith asked, a look of disgust covering his face. Andy had become familiar with that particular look over the past twenty-four hours. A small noise of attempted agreement slipped out of him. But something more than the resemblance of the photograph; he did recognise this man from somewhere.
Standing upright, Keith kept his arms folded. The same twinkling humour in the eyes of the portrait shone from his eyes. ‘I thought that it would be you,’ he said, the humour turning to disdain. Puzzlement blended with Andy’s terrified expression. Keith nodded. ‘Yes, when I first realised that mum’s money was missing, and that it was probably from someone in the shop, I figured that it would be you.’ Keith stabbed a finger towards Andy. The puzzlement soon returned to terror, but blitzed with guilt as Andy began to recall where he recognised Keith’s face from.
‘See,’ Keith continued, ‘I came into your shop one time, do you remember? By the look on your face I’d say that you do. Do you remember how you laughed when I said that I wanted a Whitney Houston CD?’ Andy felt the tears creeping into his eyes. He could feel how tight the handcuffs had been on his wrists. He remembered how cold that cell had felt in yesterday’s heat. ‘Do you remember when you were out the back and you changed the price ticket? You told me that it had been put on sale for the wrong price when I challenged you. Do you remember doing that?’