She pulled Nick’s list out of her pocket and checked the addresses.
Mr & Mrs Thomas Tyler, 14 Child Street. They lived at the white house? It looked more like the home of a thirty-something childless couple than pensioners. She tapped the cool steel knocker, and a thirty-something peered around the part-opened door, her foot with its red-painted toes in a fierce platform sandal braced against the bottom of the door to prevent unwelcome intruders.She spoke through evenly-capped white teeth. “Mr & Mrs Tyler? They don’t live here any more. Mrs Tyler died two years ago and we bought this when her husband moved to a flat. Sheltered accommodation, the kind with a warden. I’ve got the address somewhere, hold on.”
She disappeared, shutting the door behind her. She left behind her the floral scent of something Rose identified as expensive from the perfume advertisements in Vogue, the kind with the scented strip you rubbed against your skin. This was definitely not a plug-in air freshener sort of house.
As Rose rubbed at a brown mark on her linen trousers, squashed chocolate biscuit from number 12, the neatly-ironed thirty-something re-appeared with a piece of paper.
It wasn’t far. Cornwall Mansions was a tall red brick mansion block with dusty dandelions growing out of cracks in the wide front steps. The front door was ajar. Rose stepped in, feeling as if she should ask permission. The reception desk through the hatch in the entrance hall was deserted.
Tommy lived on the ground floor, number 11. His door was open wide to the long corridor of cream-painted brick that reminded Rose of school. He beckoned her in with an impatient flick of his wrist, his eyes hardly leaving the television screen in the corner of the room where greyhounds wearing numbered jackets were getting ready to race. The voice of the commentator echoed off the sitting rooms walls but Tommy showed no inclination to turn down the volume. Rose showed him Alanna’s photo, her NUJ press card as identification, and told him why she was there.
“Do I remember what, you say?” He cupped his hand to his ear.
She perched on the edge of the sofa, raised her voice and repeated her question. 130 decibels, she knew, was the noise level of a Def Leppard concert. Normal human conversation measured 40 decibels. This was in the leasehold deeds of her flat: ‘noise level not to exceed 40 decibels between 10.30pm and 07.00am.’ She’d checked it out two months ago when Michelle and Lewis’s predecessor downstairs had played Michael Jackson at 100 decibels seven days in a row until 2am and got an ASBO as a result.
“You’ll have to speak up lass, my hearing’s not what it was.”
“Do you have a hearing aid?” Rose shouted each word with a slight pause between each one, and willed her mouth to curve into a smile.
Tommy fumbled beneath his green cable knit jumper, producing a high-pitched squeal which echoed off the glass-fronted teak veneer cabinets and momentarily silenced the voice of the racing commentator.
“You’ll have to talk a bit louder young lady, I’m deaf you know.”
Rose wished for patience then went back to the beginning. She had to get him talking about something, anything. That was the secret to a tricky interview, first get someone talking then you could re-direct their conversation.
Tommy was watching the dogs, his right ear tipped towards Rose. “12 mChild Street? What do you want to know about that dirty place for? They never cleaned it, you know, rubbish piled up outside. I told my Eliza, ‘don’t you have nothing to do with them.’ I was afraid she’d get bitten by a rat and catch the plague.”
“The plague?” Positive affirmation showed interest and encouraged the person to continue talking, so Rose nodded and smiled.
“Aye, filthy people. It was just as bad in Queen Elizabeth’s time. The first one. She drove to Islington one day for the fresh air… that was when it was in the country you know, not like now, no Tube, and her coach was surrounded by rogues. They arrested hundreds and sent them back where they came from, quite right too. I blame the brickworks. People coming from all over to get a job here.” He looked at Rose, waiting. “Foreigners.”
“Er.” Her mind went blank. He was one of those people who made statement after statement, stopping suddenly and expecting the listener to react as if they’d just explained the cure for cancer rather than the average inside leg measurement. Rose’s news editor at Medicine magazine had been like that.
Tommy hissed. “They don’t teach history properly in schools these days. No, not now. In the 1800s it was. That brick company has a lot to answer for if you ask me. Ruined our gardens. Solid clay our soil is, that’s why the brickworks were here of course.” He looked at her properly for the first time. “You know how they make bricks, do you? You mix the clay with water and extrude it into a strip, then cut it into bricks with wires. Then you dry them.”
Rose didn’t care about bricks.
“Of course nowadays they make different colours and shapes of bricks, and bricks with holes which have better thermal properties. But we could never grow roses.”
Roses, she thought, what have roses got to do with bricks? I’ve got to get him back on track. “Do you remember any of the people there?”
He looked at her as if she’d said Arsenal played rugby. “No-one lived at the brickworks.” He pulled out a pouch of loose tobacco and started to fill his pipe.
“No, at the squat.” Rose pressed her fingertips together so hard that the blood drained away from beneath her nails.
“All… long… haired… hippies.” His words issued between spittled sucks on his pipe. At last he inhaled smoke and leant forwards with a little sigh of satisfaction. “You couldn’t tell which were boys and which were girls. I wanted to take my scissors to the lot of them. Free love, that’s what they called it. You know…” he turned his back on the dogs, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “… they swapped around. It was in the paper last week. All hippies did it in the Sixties. Disgusting.”
Rose bit down a retort. Just ask the questions, she thought, get the answers and go. I don’t have to like him.
“The council got them out in the end. Not soon enough for my liking. Not a job to rub between them but always enough money for booze and fags. Where’s the sense in a welfare state paying people to do nowt? One girl hung a banner out of the top window, I remember. Peace.”
“That’s what it said, the banner. ‘Peace’. With an odd squiggle in the middle.”
“A squiggle?” Did he mean a symbol? The only peace symbol Rose could think of was CND. “What did the girl look like, the one with the banner?”
“Damn,” he said, his eyes on the television screen as the race finished. He ripped up a slip of white paper before turning back to Rose. “What? I can’t remember that, it was years ago.”
The greyhounds for the next race were lining up and Tommy turned towards them.
Rose stood up. “The girl with the banner, was she…”
“Aye, daft she was, stood on the windowsill once as well. Soft in the head if you ask me.”
Was it Kate? But why would she stand on a windowsill?
“She nearly fell out. I was all for calling the police. Stupid. Young girls these days aren’t so daft, they have a baby so they can get a free flat.”
Rose was back on the pavement before the hooter started the next race. Outside it was a beautiful quiet summer evening. She referred to Nick’s list again. Phyllis Gladstone was next.
“Hey, miss. Miss!” Tommy was standing at the top of the mansion steps, holding her notebook out at arm’s length.
“Oh, thanks.” Rose took it from him. She couldn’t believe she’d been that desperate to get away from him that she’d left it behind. “Thanks Tommy.”
“Alright lass.” He stared at her. “Long, straggly hair, she had. The lass with the banner. Dark it was, a bit like yours.”
Did he mean Kate? She so wanted to believe Tommy, but the journalist’s voice shouted in her head so righteously she couldn’t ignore it. His description could fit 50% of hippies in the Sixties and Seventies. Was Tommy a reliable witness? No.
One interview done, one more to go.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #52: Rose meets the lovely Phyllie…
This is the 51st instalment of ‘Ignoring Gravity’ about identity detective Rose Haldane. To start reading from the beginning, please click on the category ‘My Novel: Ignoring Gravity’ in the right hand menu.