The Muirlocks - chapter one
The Muirlocks lived in a rheumy Victorian red brick on the northern edge of Freedom Fields Park. Bleak and windswept for most of the year, the area afforded a decent view of the city centre and Plymouth Sound beyond. The house, a two-storey number, was set in a tight little mews, reached from the main street by a cobbled lane which led to a dingy stretch of courtyard with space for several cars and dustbins and precious little else. Two other families shared the mews, to the right the recently retired Hardbuckles, to the left Mrs Melanie Simpson and her unfortunate son Eugene.
Charleroi Muirlock, the patriarch, was the wrong side of sixty and penniless into the bargain. He’d spent the dregs of the family wealth bringing up his twin sons, Blake and Carrington, the fruits of a fiery union with a cellist he’d met playing Wigmore Hall in the early eighties. Some claimed it was rape, but Charleroi was reticent to endorse this point of view. That Roxanne had been persuasive, even forceful, was not in doubt. But to his knowledge no Muirlock man had ever admitted to being overpowered, and he wasn’t going to be the first to buck the trend.
Twenty-six years on, and poor old Charleroi was no closer to recovery. Gone were those heady hopes of plying his trade in the gilded halls of Europe, gone those dreams of comfortable affluence and that delightful little Gite in Armagnac with the clematis and the bubbling brook and the rusting 2cv. Gone were all these fantasies, and many more to boot. No sooner had Roxanne given birth, than she was killed by the unfortunate combination of a sneaky drink and a poorly judged epidural. Leaving him the dubious, single-handed task of raising the little wretches.
The twins were non-identical in almost every sense of the phrase. While Blake had taken on his father’s once slim physique and his safe approach to life, Carrington had taken on his mother’s manly bulk, her unconventional morals and her personality. As a toddler, Blake had prattled happily with his toys, arranging them into tidy parochial scenes. Carrington had eaten dog ends from the ashtray and displayed a penchant for leaving surprises in the biscuit barrel. In those delicate pre-teen years, Blake had drawn charcoal sketches of the local wildlife. Carrington had done his best to decimate the local wildlife with a selection of homemade snares and siege devices. And on and on it went. Like a meandering stream, the former had followed the path of least resistance. Like a tsunami, the latter had forced his way through every obstacle life presented him.
By the time the boys left school, the Muirlock finances were shorter than a midget on its knees. Charleroi had already sold off what was left of the family interests, and was reduced to giving violin lessons to the aspiring middle-classes and their offspring. But still it proved to be nowhere near enough. Under duress, he’d finally decided to let the upper floors of the house in a last ditch attempt to make ends meet. Through a friend in the business, he’d secured a contract to provide housing for the ostensible invasion of asylum seekers. And with the very last of his funds, he’d had the place remodelled and health and safety certified. Thus he was able to send both sons to university, though regrettably not to one with any sort of pedigree.
Blake had treated academia as a calling, a job to be carried out to the very best of his abilities. He’d attended every lecture and seminar, set up temporary home in the library, kept his room in halls fastidiously clean, and had seldom been seen propping up the Student Union Bar. If effort alone could have secured a top degree, then Blake was due a first class honours with bells on top. Sadly he lacked the imagination, and had come away with a second best and a chip the size of Devon on his shoulder. Carrington, on the other hand, had treated the whole experience as a holiday. When he wasn’t avoiding lectures or fornicating with reckless abandon, he was growing marijuana and supplying a fair percentage of the campus. To whit he’d only lasted the first two years, caught red-handed during an inspection by the bursar.
At present, Blake was living with Charleroi and working part-time shifts at the local sorting office. Data entry, and well below what he’d come to expect from his foray into the world of work. The rest of his time was taken up with the maintenance of the house, and the corralling and supervision of the ever-changing tenants in the rooms above. Charleroi did his best to help, but his knees weren’t what they used to be, and God alone knew where dear old Carrington was. The last they’d heard from him, a year or so ago, he was blazing a trail through Singapore with someone else’s wife.
If there was one bright spot on the horizon, it was in the form of a Mrs Pearl Lumbago, a widowed student whom Charleroi had been teaching for the better part of a year now. Terse and haughtily spoken, she was in the market for a husband, and more disconcertingly a sexually permissive one. Under normal circumstances, Charleroi would have run a country mile. And indeed, it was testament to the darkness of his financial situation that he entertained her overtures. She was persistent, filthy rich, and had recently invited him on a once in a lifetime, round the world luxury cruise. So despite numerous moral reservations, Charleroi had eventually bitten the bullet and agreed to tag along.
* * * * *
Blake was drinking decaffeinated coffee at the kitchen table when his father bustled in looking irritated. He had in his hands a clutch of letters that had just come through the door, and he proceeded to open them while waiting for his bread to toast. A hatful of bills, a house insurance reminder, nothing from the boy yet, and still no rent cheque from the bloody agency. ‘Oh, good Lord,’ he muttered. ‘What’s holding them up this time?’
‘Probably a hangover from the postal strike,’ said Blake. ‘Is there anything for me?’
‘Not a sausage.’ Charleroi brought his toast to the table and sat down stiffly. ‘You’ll have to keep your eyes peeled and pay it in the moment it arrives. We can’t have any more debits bouncing, we’re in enough hot water as it is.’
‘Don’t worry.’ Blake passed over the butter dish. ‘I’m sure it’ll be here in time.’
‘Have you looked at that list yet?’
‘Yes, several times. Like I keep telling you, there’s nothing to worry about.’
‘That’s easy for you to say.’
In a bid to reassure him, Blake took the list from his pocket and studied it pointedly. Most of the things were common sense, worm Fudger every other week, make sure the boys upstairs didn’t burn the place down, keep on top of the meter readings, don’t leave the house unoccupied overnight, and so on and so forth. Since he took care of most of this anyway, the list seemed unnecessarily patronising.
‘Be sure to keep an eye on Lev,’ said Charleroi through a mouthful of heavily buttered toast. ‘He’s forever trying to move some dreadful girlfriend in. And Mr Wang, he’s a bugger for dodgy electrical items. You’re happy with the fusebox?’
‘Ecstatic Dad.’ In point of fact, Blake was anything but happy with the fusebox. Since he had to visit it almost every day, and since it was a swine to access, his relationship with the thing was strained to say the least. The electrician who’d fitted it had claimed to be certified, but on the evidence of his handiwork, certifiable was probably closer to the truth. Blake took his life in his hands each and every time he paid a visit, and had actually taken to wearing Marigolds when he did so. ‘When’s your lady coming to get you?’
‘Oh, about twenty minutes.’ Charleroi stood, emitted a thunderous belch, and took his tea plate to the sink. ‘And I really wish you wouldn’t keep calling her that.’
‘Would you prefer I called her Mother?’
‘Don’t be a fool all your life. And remember, I’m doing this for the greater good.’
‘Rather you than me,’ Blake muttered. ‘Do you think you’ll be able to keep her at bay for the whole three months?’
‘Lord I hope so,’ he sighed. ‘I’m just going make a final check of my bags. There’s some mail for the boys out there in the basket. Can you do the honours and take it up?’
While Blake went outside and around to the upper part of the house, Charleroi headed down the hall towards his bedroom. The remodelling work had left them with precious little space, and the lower floor was cluttered to say the least. A shower room and toilet were shoehorned beneath the now redundant staircase, and a partition wall gave them two rather pokey bedrooms. And although the music room, lounge, and kitchen retained their original dimensions, they were cluttered with a lifetime’s worth of junk.
Charleroi’s bedroom was an excellent case in point. Barely the space to swing a field mouse, let alone a cat. Always the hoarder, he just couldn’t bear to throw anything away, no matter how useless or unsightly the offending item might appear to the untrained eye. Shelves groaned under the weight of books unread and oddments seldom polished, and his wardrobe doors bulged outward from the mass of outmoded clothing which could no longer accommodate his portly abdomen.
As he was verifying the location of his passport, Fudger came in and clambered up onto the counterpane. Hardly the most athletic of dogs, and certainly not the most sanitary, the effort took the wind from his lungs and he collapsed in a wheezing lump. Charleroi surveyed him tenderly. ‘Don’t worry fellow,’ he said, stroking the Weimaraner’s silken head and oversized ears. ‘I won’t be gone forever, you know?’
Fudger closed his eyes and grumbled fractiously.
Before taking his bags to the hall, Charleroi knelt and reached beneath the bed, pulling out a battered old violin case and snapping it open with practised reverence. Handed down through seven generations, the Klotz was a thing of rare and costly beauty. Not quite a Stradivarius, but that hardly seemed to matter. He ran his fingers over its burnished body and affectionately strummed his thumb across the strings. A shame not to take it away with him, but somehow it didn’t really seem worth the risk.
* * * * *
Pearl Lumbago slid another cigarette into the holder her late husband had picked up for her during some pornographers’ convention in Rotterdam. It was made of ivory and mother-of-pearl, and at sixteen inches in length was quite impractical for anything but the opera. Not that she cared too much about practicalities. When you had enough money, practicalities were some other fool’s department. She coughed lightly, and Brampton reached back from the driver’s seat and lit the assembly for her. Drawing hard, she sank into the Bentley’s leather upholstery and allowed herself a smile.
The car swept down from the edge of Dartmoor, silvered here and there by the early January frosts. Ponies and sheep skulked disconsolately among the scraggy outcrops of gorse and blackthorn. She felt a twinge of pity for them, but the thought soon passed and she was back to dwelling on the particulars of her long-awaited voyage. The perfect time to get away and live it up a little, and with an eligible bachelor who appeared to have all his own faculties and an authentic family lineage.
‘Take us through Forder Valley, Brampton,’ she said. ‘If I have to see Crownhill Village one more time this year, I’ll die from the depression of it all.’
Wishing that would be the case, Brampton swung a left and they skirted the airport and entered the city through the quiet easterly suburbs. As they drew closer to Freedom Fields Park, it began to spot with rain. Pearl was pleased to see this, taking it as an affirmation that she was getting out of England at just the right time. Brampton parked the car outside the entrance to the mews. He erected an umbrella and passed it to her as she clambered spryly from the back.
‘Will you be wanting help with Mr Muirlock’s luggage, Ma’am?’
‘Not to worry,’ she said, already setting off up the lane. ‘I’m sure he’s quite capable, and if not that dreary son of his can do the do.’
‘As you wish Ma’am,’ Brampton mumbled to himself. When she was out of sight, he lit a cigarette and got back into the car. Dreadful woman. She may have softened slightly since Mr Lumbago passed away, but he was still looking forward to putting his feet up and not being at her constant beck and call. Even if it did mean taking care of her menagerie.
When Pearl came to the door, Charleroi was in the hall with Blake running through the list again and throwing in a dozen other points of little consequence. That his father was nervous about the coming ordeal was understandable, but that these nerves manifested themselves so obtusely was proving a rather bitter pill to swallow. He was more than capable of keeping the house secure and dealing with the renewals and the maintenance. Therefore, and for the first time in his life, he was actually pleased to see the bony figure of Mrs Lumbago hovering on the step there.
‘Are we hot to trot then, Charlie?’ she beamed. ‘Got your passport somewhere safe?’
‘All present and correct,’ he replied, cringing inwardly. He truly wished she wouldn’t keep using that pet name. It made him feel like one of her bloody Persians.
As Blake brought the bags down the steps, the front door snicked shut behind him.
‘Bugger,’ said Charleroi, reaching into the pocket of his sports coat.
‘Don’t panic Dad, I’m not completely stupid, I’ve got my own key here.’
Blake ferried the bags to the Bentley and was glad to the heart when it finally pulled away. Three whole months of space and time, three lovely months of delightful solitude. Though not too much solitude of course, for he could now entertain without the embarrassment of his father’s terrible flatulence. That and the horrid cooking smells which pervaded the lower floor like a pall of mustard gas. Before going back to the house, he decided to pop down to Mutley Plain and see if his monthly copy of Writers Journey had maybe come in early.
Meanwhile, the Bentley was working its way downhill towards Lipson Vale. The steep neighbouring streets seemed sad and drab through the heavily tinted windows. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t bring your fiddle,’ Pearl smiled. ‘We’ll have an awful lot of time on our hands, you know? Still, I’m sure we can find plenty of other things to keep us occupied.’ A lewd wink creased the already gnarled topography of her face.
Recoiling, Charleroi hunkered forward and roundly cursed himself for his lack of foresight. Buggered if he was going to spend the next three months without some form of escape from this randy old witch. Their cabin might not be all that secure, but neither, it seemed, were his hopes of remaining unmolested. He cleared his throat and asked Brampton if he wouldn’t mind turning the car around.
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