No experience wasted.
|Three children on a beach. The photograph had become greyer with age, the marram grass around their little sandy nest was mere faint brushstrokes. They were squinting into the camera, mum always insisted on having the sun behind her. As a child, Terry had been recorded as an eye-crunched, nose-wrinkled misery. She did not remember it that way. In between posing for shots she had been sort of happy. Not a perfect childhood, but then, whose was?
Who were the other two? She tapped the snap on her knuckles, trying to knock identities out of the past. Phil. Philomena. A curly-haired ginger brat who wet the bed and was terrified of Mr Moog, their silver tabby cat. She must have stayed nearly a year before being moved on. And the other? A no-name. A short stay. Terry could not even tell if it were a boy or girl. Everyone wore navy shorts and striped t-shirts. Mum bought them in bulk. With a sigh, Terry dropped the foggy memory back in the box.
There were hundreds of photos. All swilling around, a soup of half-forgotten days by the sea. A trip to the zoo. Paddling in the river. All with temporary, fostered siblings. All with Terry looking miserable, as if she had not been good enough. As for the others, most had that wide-eyed look of trapped animals. Or wild horses.
There was a larger, manilla envelope sandwiched in the middle. Terry made a moue, and fished it out. Inside, were her wedding photographs, taken by the professional that Michael had hired. Mr Michael Phelps. Not Mike. Not Mick. Never Micky. Michael. Even in the throes of passion, Michael. Passion was never abandoned with him.
There she was, in virginal white. Her veil thrown back, drifting sideways, as the wind curled around All Saints church and scuttled through rows of gravestones. It was an empire line dress, exactly right to cover her six-months bump. Mum had chosen it for that reason. Next to her, resplendent in a grey morning coat, embroidered waistcoat and soft grey top hat, Michael had pulled his mouth into a smile. She knew that it never reached his eyes. She was never quite good enough to earn a smile. Looking closer, she could just see the wrinkles on her nose. For a moment, she held the sheaf of photos in both hands, ready to rip asunder. Then sighed and shoved them back in the envelope.
Leaning back in her chair, she eased her top. It was still a bit too tight and she could not make up her mind whether to lose more weight or buy a new one. It had been expensive but she had fallen in love with it at first sight. It was so gorgeous, shimmering red, with black details, sexy but business-like. It put her clients on a back foot, which made it easier to put up the fees. The mother-Michael duo would have been impressed. But she definitely had to buy new boots. They were killing her bunions and putting her in a right bad mood.
Glancing at the clock, she decided that she had plenty of time for a cup of Earl Grey tea. Black, with a slice of lemon. It was one of the few good things that Michael had introduced her to. He had insisted that she learn to love it, drinking such a refined beverage added a touch of the genteel as he ripped off buyers and sellers with equal impunity. It was also Michael who had made her take accountancy qualifications, that way he could keep all his financial wheelings and mis-dealings in the family. He had paid her a decent wage, minus the college fees. It was just enough to cover the housekeeping.
By the time Daniel had started school, she had a little office in the back bedroom. Michael had tried to make her pay for the computer and software out of her wages. She showed him the figures and proved that it was cheaper to declare it a business expense, for tax purposes. He had gone over the numbers carefully, tapping the paperwork with a red biro.
'Very well.' He rubbed his forefinger across his moustache. Terry reflected that he would always lose a poker game. His tell was obvious. That, and being useless at arithmetic. 'Make sure you file the receipts.' He did not say which file, but Terry knew where she wanted to put them. And how. Nevertheless, he had passed the test. Very gently, she began to cook the books.
Daniel grew from a tow-headed angel to a blonde monster. To her despair, they were called in to the school to deal with his misbehavior. Michael never had time to go, she had to talk to the teachers, the deputy heads, the headteacher, all by herself. Finally, they diagnosed ADHD, gave him medication and in-class support. When Michael found out, he drew himself up looking just like his father, the Major.
'I have arranged a place at Durrage Hathaway Preparatory School.' He informed mother and son. 'Daniel will board term time. Hard work, rugby and the DHCF will sort him out.'
'What the eff is the DHCF?' Daniel snarled, not quite daring to use the full expletive.
'The Durham Hathaway Cadet Force. A bit of army discipline will teach you manners. Go to your room.' Michael terminated the interview by stalking out of the room. As usual, Michael got it both right and wrong. The DHCF was not a boy soldier unit, it was airforce and Daniel learned to fly. And found his freedom.
When Daniel left school, he refused to go to university. He joined a stunt pilot team and daredevilled his way around the country. Michael was appalled. Terry carried on, heart in mouth, with secret prayers. Daniel moved to Hollywood, freelancing for the big studios. Michael, never one to miss a trick, hung his son's photo in the showroom. My son, the movie star. It was good for business.
'A self-made man.' Michael was found of boasting. 'All his own work. With my help, naturally, but we don't mention that.' Wink.
Terry kept her face neutral. Michael's contribution had been criticism, disapproval and a threat to write him out of his will. She had been the one to bail him out of his indiscretions. It had knocked back her plans by a couple of years, but one thing she did know was patience. Daniel was worth every penny. As for the will. What a laugh. She wrote it, he only told her what to put in it. She only did not. Michael signed it without checking it. Never mind the small print or any print at all. His wife would do as she was ordered.
Before her plans were fully matured, Michael scotched them. He keeled over, dead before he crashed through a display of watches, pulling a stuffed panther on top of his body. He was found by a regular customer of Phelps Emporium who had come looking for silver thimbles and old walking sticks. Between the post mortem and the funeral, she had put in long hours covering her financial tracks. Michael had been easy to fool. The tax man was another matter.
'Lovely to see you, darling.' Daniel had flown in for the funeral. He had been bleached and browned by the California sun. She pecked his cheek. 'And you, too pet.' She bestowed the same peck on Gordon's cheek. She liked his current partner, a laconic Texan who did things with computer graphics. Michael had been totally unaware of the situation and had always nagged Daniel for a grandson. Arm in arm, they went into the crematorium.
'I thought dad wanted to be buried?' Daniel had a slight American nasalness to his intonation.
'Exactly.' She and her son exchanged knowing smiles. 'There's no money for a plaque, or anything.' Terry did have a stab of anxiety about it, relieved by Daniel's shrug.
They stayed a full week, the boys sleeping late in the master bedroom. Michael would have been turning in his grave. Terry imagined his ashes making a whirlwind in the green, plastic tub sitting at the back of the garden shed. She drove her son and son-in-law to the airport for their flight home and dropped Michael off at the dump on the way home.
She tried to make a go of Phelps Emporium but her heart was not in it. She did not like the cases of cheap antiques. She had no time for the collection of taxidermy. Except for the panther and its superior smugness. That, she took home and put it in what Michael had grandiosly called the parlour. Closing down the business and clearing out the warehouse took weeks. She did not want to flood the auction houses and drop the prices too far. So she had time to go through every crate, every carton, every chest.
At the back of the shelves, there lurked a dusty chest. Barrel topped, banded with iron, it had to be pirate's treasure. When she opened it, she sucked in her breath. Dropping the lid, she turned to more profitable merchandise. At three o'clock the next morning, she woke with a start. In the dark, no one could see her lips bow upwards.
The chest was manhandled into the parlour by Frankie, more muscle than grey cells. She tipped him generously and offered him a little part-time employment, cash in hand, no questions asked. He was not daft enough to refuse. She had a minder. The bits and pieces in the chest needed cleaning up and were more functional than decorative, but, with a bit of this and that, they would do. The rest had to be bought online.
Her first uniform was ridiculous. She paid through the nose for it and it was shoddy, to say the least. Trying it on, it was too small and it split. She learned her lesson and went, in person, to a discrete specialist shop. They were professional and not at all creepy. Next was to build up a client base. It takes one to know one and she already had a list of possibles.
Word spread. She had a gift for it. Years of living with the overbearing, the self-centred, had bred secret fantasies and had given her a rich imagination. She sipped her tea and adjusted her stockings. Unladdered. Good. Everything had to be perfect. The phone rang.
'Hello. Sable Services.' By habit, her voice dropped to huskiness. Honey over sandpaper. 'What is your wish?'
'Ummm. I was given your number...' A newbie. She opened her desk diary. 'Is that the Dark Lady?'
'I said, what do you wish?' There was no time to beat around the bush. Or anything else. Silence. Click. She gave a satisfied nod. He would ring back, eventually, and his hesitation raised the fees. The doorbell rang.
Before she opened it to the politician, she checked her appearance in the mirror. Black hair slicked back into a tight bun, red choker, frilled with black lace. The too tight leather corset, laced with black, giving her a voluptuous swell. The knee-high shiny boots, still killing her bunions. He was particular, prissy and ready to submit to her every whim.
She was good at her job. That was what made her so expensive.
Word count. 1893