At Death’s Door
VISIT TO MR. AND MRS. POLLING
“I shouldn’t think these neighbouring shopkeepers will know much,” said Rupert Priggley as he climbed into Deene’s Bentley Continental, “but I’ve found one really fruitful little line for you.”
“Oh, have you?”
“Yes. There’s a boy called Baker in the Upper Third. Scholarship. His father’s a bricklayer. Three days ago the old man finished putting a new fireplace into Purvice’s back room. According to the boy there’s nothing his father didn’t overhear while he was working there.”
“Extraordinary,” said Carolus, “how everybody likes to be defined in some way with anything in headlines. The lengths to which they will go to be a witness. Still, I suppose we’ll have to see your man. This evening, perhaps?”
“I’ll fix it at afternoon school. The best of it is you’ll be putting one over on the police if you get anything from him. His eldest son’s a copper. Local C.I.D.”
“I know. He’s working with my friend Detective Sergeant Moore. Surely if there was anything to be got from his father he would have it?”
“I don’t know. The old man is such a fearsome bore that nobody takes him seriously. I should think Geoffrey Baker keeps away from him at a time like this.”
They parked the car near Market Street and walked round to the fruiterer’s shop in which Mr. and Mrs. Polling worked together. Mr. Polling was a large, sad-looking man who seemed to have caught something of the vegetarian qualities of his own wares, the placid downcast lifelessness of an elderly cabbage or turnip. His wife was sanguine and talkative.
Carolus made as large purchase as he could and Rupert Priggley added a few choice pears to it.
“You might want these,” he explained airily. For all his affected sophistication he kept a schoolboy’s eye for grub.
When Carolus began to ask questions Mr. Polling became more melancholy and said that the police have been after them already for information but there was not much they could say.
“We tried to think the best of Mrs. Purvice,” said Mrs. Polling brightly. “Well, we try to think the best of everyone. But of course she wasn’t what you’d call a generous woman and there was no getting away from it.”
“Far from it,” sighed Mr. Polling as softly as if the wind had stirred some heavy leaves.
“And we weren’t on the best of times, there’s no blinking that fact, because she’d taken us to Court over the rent and meant to have us out of here if we didn’t pay it. But I wouldn’t have wished her ill—not to have anyone murder the poor old thing. Mean she might be but you can’t have people battered to death for being mean.”
“Or can you?” asked Rupert Priggley in a bored voice. “I can’t think of anything much worse myself.”
“Well, it wasn’t very nice,” conceded Mrs. Polling. “Trying to put us in the street just because business was bad for a few weeks. It’s picking up again now, we think, though today has been quiet. Mr. Polling was only saying. You’d think it would bring people in, wouldn’t you, anything like that happening next door? But no. We’ve scarcely had a customer all day.”
As if to belie her the door wheezed open and a small girl entered.
“Yes, dear? Raspberries? Lovely, aren’t they? Ever so fresh. Tell mum I’ll see her on Sunday.” She turned back to Carolus as the door closed. “What was it you wanted to know about Mrs. Purvice?” she asked.
“Almost anything you can tell me. Whether she had any friends or relatives, for one thing.”
“Friends? Well, it depends what you mean by friends. There was people came to the shop who never bought anything. And late at night, more than once. There’s no back way to her place so it had to be the shop door or nothing. We’ve seen them go in before now.”
“Who, for instance?”
“Well, I’ve never seen anyone to recognize except the one time. The Reverend Colbert, that was. But I know they did come. And in the day-time, too. Mr. Polling’s said more than once, he’s said, I wonder whatever it means, he’s said. Well, you don’t know, do you, with anything with anyone like that? But when you ask about her friends I shouldn’t like to say. I’ve never heard of what you’d call a friend of hers. Nor has Mr. Polling.”
“Not to say friend,” agreed Mr. Polling.
“As for relatives, that’s another matter. She had a son, you know.”
“So I hear.”
It was the police told me. They wanted to know if we’d seen him because he was down here the afternoon before she was murdered, it seems. I don’t know how they think we should of seen him, I’m sure, and I told them I said, we don’t watch everyone coming in and out and I doubt if we should have recognized him if we had of done. He was down here some years ago but we never took much notice. So they turned round and said it was a pity we couldn’t tell them more. So I turned round and told them, I said it’s a pity they couldn’t find out for themselves who’d done it without bothering us, I said.”
Listening to this high-speed rattle by Mrs. Polling, it was difficult to tell whether it was natural ability or whether it concealed something. Mrs. Polling seemed to be no more than a good-natured creature who talked too much but she might be cleverer and perhaps less good-natured than she appeared. As for Mr. Polling, his melancholy supineness could conceal emotions, fears, anxieties, guilt, indeed almost anything but secret gaity. They made a strange couple.
“You don’t know the son by sight, then?” pressed Carolus.
“Well, it’s some years ago and I might not of done. But there’s one thing I didn’t tell them after their talking to me like that. She’s got a sister-in-law. I know because I’ve seen her. Some years ago now, not long after Mrs. Purvice’s husband Passed On, this lady came down to see her from Poplar where she lived. It was about the Will. Old Purvice didn’t leave much; he’d been an invalid for years, no one ever caught more than a glimpse of him up at the bedroom window, as far as I know, except Dr. Ratlock who used to call. But what he did leave ought to have gone, or some of it did, to this sister of his and she came down here after it and stayed in rooms in Canon Street because she said she wouldn’t stay in the house with Emily Purvice or she might be poisoned same as her brother had been. She was a party who liked a drop and when she’d had one or two would talk more than she ought to have done. Not that Mrs. Purvice seemed to mind. She just took no notice of anything anybody said, being too busy with things no one else knew anything about.”
Rupert Priggley seemed distantly intrigued by Mrs. Polling’s delivery and watched and listened with a sort of fatigued fascination.
“You don’t know this sister-in-law’s address, I suppose?” asked Carolus.
“Well, I do, as it happens. She slipped in here one day without Mrs. Purvice knowing anything about it and was ever so talkative. You could see she’d had a few. She said if anything was to happen to Mrs. Purvice she’d like to know. I’ve been thinking of dropping her a card I suppose she’ll have seen it all in the papers. I think she hoped there might be something for her in the Will, being the late Mr. Purvice’s sister and that, but I shouldn’t think she’d got much of a chance, not if Mrs. Purvice could help it, though what she’ll have done with her money goodness knows because she won’t want her son to get hold of any, I shouldn’t think, not from all accounts at least. So when this sister-in-law came to see me, she turned round and said, ‘If anything should happen to the stingy old cow,’ she said, and she wrote it all out on a piece of paper. If you wait a minute I’ll see if I can find it. You serve these,” she added to her husband, for two large women had entered, carrying baskets.
“Yes?” whispered Mr. Polling.
“Some nice Spring onions if you’ve got any. I suppose you’re kept busy now with the murders and that?” said one, brightly but ambiguously.
“Terrible thing,” said her friend. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll have a bundle of those radishes. Yes, it must have been a business for you, happening next door and that.”
“Horrible,” said the other woman. “No, I shan’t take any radishes. They repeat on me so. Well, good day, Mr. Polling.”
“They can’t be real,” said Rupert Priggley when they had gone. “I just don’t believe it.”
Mrs. Polling returned with a used envelope in her hand.
“Here it is,” she said. “I found it in my work box. Mrs. Miller, 149 Railway Road, Poplar. That’s it. I’m surprised she hasn’t read about it and come down. Perhaps she will tomorrow.”
“Thank you very much,” said Carolus. “And there’s nothing else you can tell me about Mrs. Purvice?”
“Oh yes there is!” said Mrs. Polling as though she had been challenged. “There’s a great deal I can tell you about her. She’d fallen out with the two young ladies who keep the animal shop next to hers on the other side. Well, I’m not saying some of the pets don’t make a bit of a noise and that and when they had those peacocks in a run at the back of the house we nearly went to the Cruelty to Animals man ourselves because they couldn’t have been treated right the way they screamed in the morning .”
“Peacocks do scream,” reflected Carolus.
“So shall I, in a minute,” said Rupert Priggley.
“So they may do, but it wasn’t very nice, waking you up like that. Worse than a child teething. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right and Mrs. Purvice didn’t ought to have bought that puppy from them they were both so fond of then kept it shut up so that they could hear it whining and then offered to sell it back for I don’t know how much. They were very upset about it, I do know that. I said to Mr. Polling, I said, those two young ladies are ever so upset about that puppy, I said.”
“Do you know a boy called Drew?” asked Carolus.
Whatever the Pollings may or may not have been concealing before, it was certain that this question made them extremely uncomfortable. They exchanged glances and Mrs. Polling seemed about to speak, then stopped. When at last she answered it was in a subdued manner.
“I know his mum,” she replied.
“But not him?”
“Not to speak to.”
“Not to have anything to do with,” added Mr. Polling, watching Carolus with sad anxiety.
“He was in our Borstal institution, wasn’t he?”
Mrs. Polling made an effort and got into her stride again.
“Yes, he was, and it nearly broke his mum’s part. You couldn’t want a nicer woman and Mrs. Drew, though I never fancied having her in the shop because there’s something wrong with her which the doctors don’t seem to understand.”
“You mean she doesn’t come here?” suggested Carolus.
Again that suggestion of tension in the Pollings.
“Well, hardly ever. Not more than I can help. I’m always afraid, when you sell food, of passing anything on.”
“When was she here last?” asked Carolus.
“When was she? It’s hard to remember who comes in and who doesn’t. She’s been looking very poorly lately. Yellow as a guinea she is and can’t go two paces without being out of breath, poor soul. Suffers cruel with her health and then young Jim being sent to Borstal, well she has had a time. But there was something funny about it, all the while Jim was away.”
“Funny about what?”
She used to come around to see Mrs. Purvice pretty well every week and whether it was true or not I can’t say but I’ve heard Mrs. Purvice used to give her money. She was on the Public Assistance, I do know that, but this was something extra if you can believe it, which I find it hard to do knowing Emily Purvice. I said to Mr. Polling, I said, if Emily Purvice is giving money to Mrs. Drew, I said, it’s not for nothing. You can be sure of that, I said. And I still say the same. She never gave anything away without a reason for it.”
“Do the police know about that?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure, what the police know and what they don’t know. They never asked me about it and I never told them.”
“Well, thank you both very much for all you’ve told me. It has been most interesting,” said Carolus.
“Fascinating,” echoed Rupert Priggley. “So succinct.”
“That’s all right,” said Mrs. Polling, beaming. “Only too glad. I expect you’ll be writing about it, won’t you? Mr. Polling’s got his name down at the library for your other book. He’s a great one for reading. I never seem to have the time though I like a good book now and again. If there’s anything else you want to know come and ask me, won’t you?
“There is one other thing.”
Rupert sighed noisily.
“What’s that?” asked Mrs. Polling.
“Did you hear nothing that night? Nothing at all from next door.”
There was silence, but only for a few seconds.
“No,” said Mrs. Polling with a touch of defiance. “Not a sound.”
“And you saw nothing?”
“Saw? Of course not. I should have told the police if I had. I must of been in bed and asleep when it happened.”
“What time did you go to bed?”
“I can’t say about that. Before midnight, anyway. I don’t stay up late when I’m on my own.”
“And you were on your own that evening?”
“Of course I was. Who else do you suppose would have been here. We’re not people to have parties in the evening. Mr. Polling had gone to his meeting.”
“Thank you again,” Mrs. Polling.
“You’re welcome, I’m sure,” said Mrs. Polling. But she sounded less hearty and assured.