Saturday, 29 April 2017

1 - Old and New

The day Lisa Keys came to introduce herself to Dorothy Price in Upper Grumpsfield should have been one of rejoicing and gladness. At least that’s what Mary Baker, who was now established at St Peter’s parish church as its lady curate, said later when she realized how crestfallen Dorothy had been. There was nothing diplomatic about getting Lisa to take over the chorus.
But the moment Dorothy, chief musical cook and bottle-washer in the village, set eyes on the woman, she was worried that it would make Lisa’s task difficult if not impossible. Dorothy dreaded the use of the word ‘reincarnation’ in connection with the new chorus director, and she wasn’t far wrong.
The untimely and violent demise of Laura Finch, last but one choral director, had been followed by a spell under the direction of Lester Keys, but he had gone to sing at the BBC. The Finch Nightingales had been left to their own muddled devices more or less overnight except when Gareth Morgan, the organist at St Peter’s, condescended to conduct a rehearsal. Dorothy, who had no desire to conduct the chorus, had advertised for a person prepared to take on the Finch Nightingales, as the chorus still called itself even after mobbing Mrs Finch out of the MD job.
Lisa Keys was the first and only volunteer for the post. She had applied only after Lester had talked his twin into it for long enough. He had found the Finch Nightingales excruciating and had cure for their terribleness. He thought Lisa might have.
“They’ll think you are a re-creation,” he told Lisa.
“But from what you have told me, that will be a reason for booting me out,” said Lisa.
“I don’t think they’ll go that far. Those chorus ladies need a director and you are nothing like Mrs Finch, except in looks, thanks to our profligate daddy. I’m sure you will be a great success.”
Despite the encouragement, Lisa had a funny feeling about stepping into the shoes of an elder half-sister she had never met who looked just like her except for the age difference. Their father was a life-long womanizer who had left ample evidence of his side-line.
Anyone who had known Laura Finch still knew that she had spent her later life putting a rather distasteful early life behind herself, but it was her bossiness and sarcasm that had really cooked her goose for the Finch Ladies. People who had known her said that she had it coming to her, meaning her murder, which was solved to the satisfaction of the law. But there was still speculation about it since the half-crazed village idiot had confessed to her murder, but was so prone to lies and deceit that people had their doubts. The doubters included Dorothy, who could have named at least one chorus member who was capable of killing and at least as bossy.
Cleo Hartley’s detective agency had no evidence to support Dorothy’s suspicion, either. In Cleo’s view, Betjeman Crighton had been a welcome scapegoat, which meant that the real killer was still footloose and fancy free. In that case she was possibly still singing in the choir, Dorothy thought.
Cleo had to admit that the confession delivered by Betjeman in one of his more lucid moments had been convincing. She warned Dorothy not to be suspicious thanks to theories of her own because someone who had up to now been relatively harmless might decide that the world would be a better place without her. Someone who had killed once and got away with it might do it again. That could be an idle threat, but Dorothy’s enthusiasm often got the better of her and had to be curbed. And of course, according to Dorothy’s theory, the murderer was still on the loose.
Memories can be distorted, but not be edited out without a degree of amnesia or dementia. The chorus had been abysmally awful, but Laura had not thought so and in those days the vicar had admired, adored and supported her.
In her youth, Laura had been a cruise-liner singer of operetta and tragic arias, the top notes of which she could not reach, but had aimed at with grimacing determination. Dorothy knew her from the days in London when she had played the piano and helped her to learn those songs. She had despaired of ever getting Laura to listen to herself singing out of tune.
Laura’s stage career had lasted until she was ejected from the cruise ship for soliciting frustrated husbands on the passenger list. Years later, after a life now swathed in the mists of time, Laura had returned to respectability with her move back into the old family home in Lower Grumpsfield. What could be more fitting than to invent a ladies’ chorus, even one that sang out of tune apart from having other grave shortcomings. Audiences felt uncomfortable, but Laura was more concerned with excessive volume than precise intonation and beauty of tone.
Grass had grown over Dorothy’s theory about the truth of Laura’s death. If there had been a chorus plot to silence Laura once and for all, Dorothy had never been aware of it. Betjeman Crighton was the killer of Laura and her son Jason by his own admission and had been consigned to a mental institution. The case was closed.
To be fair, Lester Keys had tried valiantly to get to grips with the chorus, but he only stayed until he had a job at the BBC. As far as Dorothy knew, Lester had disowned the Finch Nightingales from the start, as that would have nulled and voided any attempt to join that most exclusive broadcasting service on which he had set his sights.
After Lester had left, taking with him the hearts of many of the younger Finch singers, membership dwindled. Only the core members who had mobbed Laura out of her directorship were as thick as thieves and kept it going at all. Their determination to keep on singing far outweighed their vocal prowess. Dorothy was not the only one to think they would be advised to start a watercolour society instead. You can hide watercolours and they are blissfully noiseless. The deficits of a choir are evident as soon as its members open their mouths to illicit whatever sound they can muster.
Shortly before Laura’s end, she had moved to Upper Grumpsfield and despite any shortcomings Dorothy wanted to keep the chorus going. Many surrounding villages had choruses and Gareth Morgan’s church choir barely counted since it consisted mainly of Robert Jones the butcher singing all the other members into oblivion. Mr Morgan had gone back to Wales suffering from self-inflicted heart-ache and only returned when Dorothy pleaded with him to take up his old job again. As in many a church choir, members were willing but often poor singers. A presentable ladies’ or even a mixed chorus would be a wonderful contribution to village culture, but in the end Mr Morgan had declined to do more than play for the Finch Ladies’ rehearsals.
In retrospect, Dorothy’s shock was deep when she set eyes on Lisa Keys.
“You remind me of someone and it isn’t your brother,” she had said.
“I know. Lester showed me her photo.”
“I don’t think I quite understand,” said Dorothy. “Laura Finch had a sister Flora Snow, who lives in Huddlecourt Minor, and two other sisters nobody here has ever set eyes on. Laura herself did not admit to having any of these sisters and the story only came to light later. Flora and Laura lived near enough to meet but never did, as far as I know. Flora knew about Laura, but I don’t know if Laura even knew about Flora, and you were never mentioned.”
“I also know about Cora and Nora,” said Lisa, “and I’m certain that Flora knows about Lester and me, but I’ve never met any of them, although we are related. All those women are or were my half-sisters. My full name is Isadora, Miss Price. Only Dora would have been worse and I avoided being given that shortened name by calling myself Lisa as soon as I could talk. I did not know then that all the names of his offspring rhymed. I don’t know if my mother knew. I must ask her.”
“Your father must have been a dreadful ladies’ man,” said Dorothy. “Do you suppose the name-giving was an aid to remembering his children?”
“My mother told me she had met him at a restaurant. He had been sitting alone and so had she. They got talking and ended up in his hotel room. After that night she never saw him again, but had him traced through the hotel and managed to get money out of him for our upbringing. Lester and are twins, born of mother’s one night stand with a guy we never met.”
“A grungy story, Miss Keys, but not your fault,” said Dorothy. “I wonder how many other one-night stands he had that produced siblings.”
“I’ve never tried to find out,” said Lisa. “I only know the story because our mother was obliged to tell us when she got news of his death and learnt that he didn’t have any money to leave us.”
“So the names were kept in a list, I suppose. I like Mr Finch Senior even less now,” said Dorothy.
“And Lester does not know if he has any brothers. He plans to investigate one day.”
“Well, the MD job is yours,” said Dorothy. “I expect you already have a good idea of what those nightingales are like.”
“Crows, Lester called them,” said Lisa.
Lisa Keys started working with the chorus the following Tuesday, the regular chorus night. She told Dorothy that she would work first with the small chorus left behind by Laura Finch and not really increased in membership with Lester since the new members had to gain the approval of the old ones, and that was more than most of them could take.
Even Lester had not been able to get members to join despite being good-looking and friendly. Dorothy agreed. Lisa would be able to find out if she was accepted by the remaining members before trying to attract new ones. The only disadvantage would be Lisa’s half-sister relationship with Laura Finch. It remained to be seen whether Lisa could overcome the startling disadvantage of looking just like Laura. After all, Lisa had a gentle voice and kindly smile, neither of which Laura could have claimed.
Dorothy, however, was now facing another problem. Cleo had more or less given up her Hartley Investigation Agency and sent Dorothy into what she called well-earned retirement. But Dorothy was far from feeling like twiddling her thumbs. There was no doubt in her mind that Upper Grumpsfield still needed a detective agency, but there was no money to be made on small fry cases, really important cases were too hot to handle, and Cleo had had to foot quite a lot of bills privately.
As if to console Dorothy, Cleo had left a little door left open in case the agency should become viable again, but she was not optimistic, and there was a plan to turn the office into a book shop with just a corner for agency business – but let’s not jump the guns.
It was with a heavy heart that Dorothy made her way to the Hurley cottage to tell Cleo that she was resigned to retirement.
“I’m glad you are not taking over that chorus after all, not just because there are a few rather nasty women in it, but because I have other plans for you.”
“Don’t you think I’m too old to do anything new?”
“Of course not. The Hartley Agency took a break, but I know that something is missing in the village and I want to put that right.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“I’m thinking of opening a library combined with a bookshop,” said Cleo.
“Nobody buys books,” said Dorothy. “We all have e-readers.”
“Books are coming back into fashion, Dorothy, and we are going to support the novelty.”
“Yes, we. You and me.”
“If you think …”
“It’s worth a try, Dorothy. We can get the chorus to open it. I just hope they have a few tuneful songs in their repertoire by then. They have a very bad reputation as the Finch Nightingales. How is Lisa Keys getting along with them?”
“She’s staying and planning an open evening soon to attract more singers.”
“You will be organizing it, I assume.”
“I’ll be helping. Anyway, I’ve never run a bookshop, and inviting that chorus to sing is tantamount to driving away our customers.”
“But it might get better with Lisa and it’s going to be some weeks before we can open the bookshop.”
“We don’t have to invite them yet, do we, Cleo?”
“No. Not until we have an opening date here,” said Cleo. ”We’ll call our new venture ‘Old and New’ and have a selection of used and newly published books. We can do readings with invited authors and get a writer’s club going. It will be fun and I’m going to consider it as my new hobby. After all, my sleuthing started as a hobby, didn’t it? I think it will fill quite a gap in your life, too, Dorothy. Be truthful. Time lies heavy on your hands these days.”
“Having a month with the family at Frint-on-Sea did help me cross the bridge, but now we are almost in the run-up for Christmas, Cleo, and apart from getting entertainment set up for that I have nothing at all in my diary.”
“That won’t be the case once you have regular times at the bookshop,” said Cleo. “It will also bump up your pension.”
“That won’t be a consideration. If I have less, I spend less,” said Dorothy. “What does Gary say about the idea?”
Chief Inspector Gary Hurley was Cleo’s unashamedly passionate husband and probably her greatest admirer. He would approve because Cleo needed challenges in her life. Counselling criminals and bewildered cops in her part-time role as social worker at Middlethumpton Police Headquarters was gratifying, but allowed little space for entrepreneurism. Cleo had enjoyed running Middlethumpton library; managing an investigation agency had been challenging; running a bookshop would be exciting.
“I haven’t told him yet,” said Cleo.
“May I remind you that you now have six children to rear? How are you going to find time to run a bookshop?” said Dorothy. “I’m sure Gary will think you are crazy.”
“Seven kids counting Lottie, but Gary wants me to be happy.”
“You are happy,” said Dorothy.
“I’ll be happier still when I have a new challenge, Dorothy. The au pair is coming from France next week. That will help a lot and you will be on hand, won’t you?”
“As I said, I’ll have to think about it. Are you going to ask your mother or Grit to join the crew?”
“Not Gloria. Gary’s mother and Roger Stone will be glad to help, I’m sure,” said Cleo.
“But you haven’t asked them yet either, have you?”
“No, but Roger is going to marry my mother-in-law, and Grit is bound to help.”
“If you ask me, you’d better think again about the whole venture, Cleo. It sounds like chaos waiting to happen.”
Cleo had to be satisfied with Dorothy’s reaction. It would not make it any easier to tell Gary of her plans, since he very often thought along the same lines as Dorothy. And there was Joe to consider. Joe was Gary’s twin brother and very critical of anything he thought warranted a closer look.
Very soon Lisa Keys’ open day for the chorus was announced. Readers read about the rebirth of the Finch Nightingales in the Monday edition of Bertie Browne’s freebie Gazette and thought it would be a bit of a laugh to go there, if nothing else, since male singers were also invited, and that was something Laura Finch would never have done.
Although Dorothy was pleased that Cleo wanted her to join in with the book shop project, her thoughts were temporarily consumed by the potential future of the bedraggled chorus, which was in truth not much better after Lisa’s valiant attempts to improve it before the open day could make or break the whole venture.

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