OLDER AND WILDER
“You’re probably wondering why I called you here,” said Arthur Bryant as Giles Kershaw approached him through the traffic-blackened slush on Waterloo Bridge. Above them the sky had cleared but for a single blossom of cloud. Along the river, the arms of cranes drifted back and forth, as if the buildings were sprouting limbs and trying to rise.
“I know this is where you and John usually take a stroll of a summer evening,” said Kershaw, flicking back his hair in what had lately become a nervous tic, “but I rather thought you’d be fed up with being outside in the cold by now.”
“Oh, we’ve been out in the cold for years,” replied Bryant cheerfully. “We always like to come and look at all of this.” He waved his walking stick over the London view, nearly poking a passerby in the eye. “After Dartmoor, Waterloo Bridge is like the Bahamas. Besides, I don’t trust the countryside, all mud and methane. I suppose you want to know the outcome of your reappraisal for the position of PCU pathologist.”
“Actually, before you say anything I want to apologise.” Kershaw looked down at the kerb, contrite. “When I moved Lilith Starr’s body, it never occurred to me that she might have been the cause of Oswald’s death. I should have stopped to think about what had happened before acting. Instead, I was everything that Finch accused me of being. He was right to turn me down for the position. I wasn’t ready to handle the job.”
“Perhaps not,” Bryant agreed, “but I think you are now. You acted for Oswald’s sake, instead of merely obeying the letter of the law.”
Kershaw was not entirely convinced. “Renfield acted for the sake of his young recruit, but now he’ll always blame himself for that girl’s death.”
“We have no way of knowing if she could have been saved, Giles. It was Oswald who came up with such a drastic way of reviving her. In an ideal world, Owen Mills would have been able to tell everyone about his love for Lilith Starr, and who she really was, but sadly that’s not how real life is, and you recognised that. You protected all of them. Which is why John, Janice and I have decided to recommend you for the position of unit pathologist. Here, I have a little something for you.” Bryant dug into the vast pocket of his disintegrating overcoat and produced an extendable radio antenna. “It belonged to Oswald. He used it in every lecture he ever gave me about causes of death.”
“Oh, er, thank you.” Kershaw accepted the antenna with some puzzlement.
“My pleasure. Now buzz off, there’s a good chap. I’m meeting John for a pint of bitter at The Anchor. But do come and chat to me anytime. My door is always open.” Bryant clasped his hands behind his back and faced the stone balustrade, watching the boats below.
Only he could turn Waterloo Bridge into his office, thought Kershaw, smiling to himself as he headed back towards the sooty canyon of the Strand.
Bryant found his partner ruminatively rooting inside a bag of crisps in the riverside bar of The Anchor. Although it was late afternoon, the pub was unusually empty. Brackish light filtered into the saloon as if passing through an emulsifier. “Ah, there you are,” he said. “I was beginning to think you’d stood me up. Did you talk to Kershaw?”
“You realise that by promoting him, we’re reducing the size of the PCU by one?” said Bryant. “You don’t suppose Kasavian will allow us to recruit someone if I promise to tell him what went on with Princess Beatrice, do you?”
“Would you tell him?” asked May.
“Oh, of course not, I’d just make up any old rubbish. It’s worth a try, although I don’t suppose he’ll stop now until he finds a way to shut us down for good.” He irritably tapped a coin on the bar. “I say there, any danger of getting some service?” He turned to May. “They can’t get the staff, either. The barmaid who used to work here had a face like a rhino’s right buttock but by Godfrey she knew how to pull a decent pint. What flavour are those?” Bryant pulled a crisp from the packet and held it to the light. “Pea and ham? How disgusting. You know, I was thinking about poor Johann Bellocq on the way here.”
“He came to a sticky end after a brief lifetime filled with misery, didn’t he? I wonder if he felt he was fated to be betrayed by a woman, and willed his destiny upon himself? He’d had old-time religion hammered into him to the point where it drove him to commit the ultimate sin of matricide. True, he eventually earned his forgiveness at the hands of nuns, but the trauma clearly haunted him, overshadowing any chance he had of forming normal relationships. He’d drifted from town to town, getting involved in petty crime, because in his heart he knew there could be no end to his torment. And so he contrived to meet a woman so damaged by her own beauty that she could only confirm his deepest fears. Makes you think that the great tragedies of our lives are built into us as surely as DNA, and proliferate quietly and inexorably, like cancer cells.”
“Perhaps,” May conceded, looking out through lead-light windows at the hesperidian sky. “But if you follow the line of fate further back, you get to Kate Summerton, who spent her life trying to heal abused women, only to step across the line that divides good intentions from harmful influence. You might argue that Madeline Gilby was searching for someone who would confirm her neuroses. Bellocq suffered at the hands of women, Gilby suffered at the hands of men, and the pair were drawn into a relationship that destroyed them both. These tangles seem to lie in every one of our lives; we rarely have the self-knowledge to cut them free until it’s too late.” He passed Bryant a beer. “I believe we’re going to get a rather lurid sunset.”
“It’s nice having a free Friday to ourselves,” said Bryant. “Although I wouldn’t want many of them in a row.”
“Oh, I think we still have work ahead of us yet,” said May, glancing around the almost deserted saloon. “Tell me, do you ever regret not finding another partner after Nathalie?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me, there have been plenty of ladies whose company I’ve enjoyed,” said Bryant finally, creaking back on his stool, “but never enough to marry. I always knew I would prove a disappointment to them. Very few men make perfect husbands, let alone policemen. Women like partners they don’t have to worry about all the time. You hardly ever talk about your own marriage, you know. It’s obviously a painful subject for you.”
“Our family tree had poisoned roots,” said May enigmatically. “Madness and death followed us like shadows.”
“I know how your daughter Elizabeth died, of course, but you never talk about what happened to your wife.”
“One day I’ll take you to meet her,” said May, sipping his beer thoughtfully, “then you’ll understand.”
For once, Bryant had been caught by surprise. He stared at his partner as if seeing him for the first time. “Oh‘ was all he could manage.
“Do you believe in the afterlife?” asked May suddenly, turning to him.
“Me? Good Lord, no.” He smiled sadly at the thought. “I suppose the worst thing isn’t that there might be nothing after my death, but that there might be nothing before it. That’s why I stay busy. There are always regrets, of course. But you have to try and make a difference without hurting anyone along the way, so that you can reach a final state of grace without shame.”
“That’s fair,” May agreed. “Look at that, Maggie’s white corridor is back.”
“I’m not ready to look my Maker in the eye just yet,” said Bryant, shaking his head. “Let’s ignore it and have another pint.”
Outside, beyond the bridges of London, the dying scarlet sun appeared beneath the last dissipating snow cloud, to split corridors of saffron light across the ruffled grey river.