I overheard a conversation between two old women in the now closed Borders in Cardiff. "You never used to like crime, Mary" stood out as something I should at least try to draw inspiration from. So this is it, the second ever story I wrote.
The Book Club
Ann and Mary were sat in Espressions, a book and coffee shop opposite the building site that occupied most of the city they had grown up in. They were both in their sixties and had seen a lot of change in Cardiff but it was getting ridiculous now, they thought. Having finally got used to one monstrous shopping centre, now that had been knocked down to build a bigger, better, brighter one.
At the moment the bigness, betterness and brightness was represented by a set of nine foot posters depicting the ´capital´s exciting retail experience of the future´. That and a square mile of cranes, rubble and fat men in orange hats.
Espressions wasn´t the sort of place they went to normally. But a lot of those places had gone. Once, if Ann or Mary had fancied a cup of tea, then they would have gone to one of the many cafes and teashops that used to operate in the city. Nice, quiet affairs. There were coffee shops everywhere now, all of them filled with horrible teenagers with those skateboard things. And you couldn´t tell if they were boys or girls. And the price of a cup of tea in those places. One pound fifty. For a cup of tea. Ridiculous.
But now Ann and Mary were sat with a pot of tea for two and a cake each that hadn´t given much change from a ten-pound note. Sipping at their tea, they exchanged glances at each other´s little book-sized shopping bags, wondering what the other had bought.
Ann and Mary were both widowed. They´d known each other all their life; they´d grown up on Claude Road together, kids next door. Ann had married Charlie, a bus driver and they were together forty-one years until he´d had his third heart attack and died loudly in his sleep. Mary had married Charlie´s brother, Roger. Roger was a salesman for a local brewery. He´d fallen down the stairs at home after several pints down the Conservative club. The neighbours claimed they´d heard a row but the police weren´t convinced. Still, Roger was well insured and Mary had finally had the house paid off as a result. She´d taken Ann on a cruise but they were both bored now they didn´t have husbands to be bored with.
That was when they joined the Book Club.
There was a poster in the window of a charity shop that they both volunteered at. The shop raised money for the care of rescued circus animals. A man they both recognised, whom Ann always thought smelt slightly of cough sweets, came into the shop with a bin liner full of stuff he thought they might be able to sell. As he was leaving, he did an about turn and asked if he could put a poster in the window.
´What´s the poster for?´ said Ann
´Oh. It´s a book club. A friend of mine is starting one up. Like on that Richard and Judy.´
And so it was that Ann and Mary met Mr. Chubb or Peter as they got to know him. Peter Chubb was a friend of Isabella who was heavily involved in local arts. The Roath Book Club met every Tuesday 6pm at an old church hall off Albany Road. The first meeting it was just the four of them, Peter, Isabella, Ann and Mary. Ann and Mary didn´t know how it worked, that they had just turned up for something to do. Isabella explained that each week someone would suggest a book and the others would read it over the week and then talk about it. Also, somebody would be asked to nominate a book for the group to read the following week and so on.
Isabella´s initial recommendation was The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon. Ann really liked the book, Mary was not so keen. Ann’s first recommendation was a romantic novella she´d read on the cruise the summer before which was a predictable enough romp about an older woman who befriends a Turkish restaurateur with one leg. Mary chose Black Beauty as it was her favourite ever book and she was certain that no one else would have read it. Peter never turned up after the first meeting.
Over the next few months, the book group swelled. There was little Vicky who liked stories where vampires and rape prominently featured. She worked in a bank. Then there was Matthew, a shy Northern man with thick glasses who also liked horror. He had that screeching violin from the film Psycho as the ringtone on his phone. People only knew this because Matthew would show them. The Book Club wasn´t like a library; you could have your mobile on just in case the babysitter rang or the police or whoever. Nobody could recall anyone actually ringing Matthew.
There was Tony, the supermarket manager with a penchant for SAS memoirs. He was a fat man with a speech impediment and always stank of beer. Whenever he used to turn up, he would always try and sit next to Mary. The last time he turned up, he was clearly drunk and asked Mary to come for a drink with him after. She declined the offer and Tony was clearly mortally wounded by this snub as they never saw him again. There was something in the local paper a week or two later. He´d been found dead in his car. No note, just a bottle of Gordon´s and an empty packet of headache tablets.
Mary had made an ill-advised joke when they next met. Vicky had brought in the local paper, trying to look sad and shocked but failing to pull it off. Tony´s picture was in the paper underneath the sad tale of his demise. The headline read ´Suspected Suicide of Supermarket Manager´
´Oh, his poor family, ´ said Ann. ´Why do they have to make such a big headline of that? It should be kept private, these things.´
Mary began to giggle.
´I have a better headline. Who dares gins? ´she said.
It was thought best to cancel the meeting that week.
Catherine was next, both Ann and Mary thought she was a bit stuck up, partly because she had a double-barrelled surname but they admitted to each other that they really liked her recommendation, which was a book about a boy with cancer who could fly. Kim was a bored housewife who liked extremely erotic fiction, which made Ann extremely uncomfortable discussing. The book they´d been asked to read was set in Berlin in the 1920s. The things that people did to each other in that book. Ann was horrified; Mary called her an old prude. They´d had a bit of a row about it on the drive home but it was quickly forgotten unlike the daisy chain scene on page 48 of Verboten Loves.
Then there was another Vicky, who liked something called chick-lit. Duncan liked detective novels. Mark liked detective novels. Ursula was a fat Irish girl with LOVE tattooed on both sets of knuckles. She liked a book called The Tesseract, which everyone pretended to read but didn´t get past page 19.
As a result of this group, Ann and Mary had quickly expanded their literary tastes as well as the contents of their own personal libraries. It was Ann´s turn in a week and Mary´s the week after that. They had heard about Espressions from the other members of the group the week before. And so, one Wednesday morning a few weeks before Christmas, the two ladies caught the bus into the city. Surrounded by iPods and call centres, they felt almost like tourists and instinctively made their way from the bus stop towards the indoor market just to be somewhere that hadn´t changed from their childhood.
Espressions was a big glass fronted department store on the other side of the Victorian market building. It had a coffee shop on the top floor and was staffed by excitable young people with strange facial hair and those headset things you saw assassins wearing in American films.
It was a prime location and handy too as it sat on the space where there used to be a separate bookshop, record shop and an old cafe. The cafe, Bruno´s, had been there since before the First World War and both Ann and Mary remembered being taken there as young girls. Upstairs in Espressions, one wall had been entirely taken up by a huge black and white photograph of Bruno´s so people would remember it fondly.
Mary stared at the moustache of the original Bruno on the wall. Blown up like this, his moustache was now wider than her head. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the sounds and smells of Bruno´s but all she could hear was a compilation of Argentine folk music that was free with every fifty pounds you spent in the store.
The daydream ended. Ann was excitedly emptying her Espressions bag.
´Mary, come on. Show me your wares! This is what I´ve bought.´
Ann had bought three books. One was a romantic novel by someone she'd seen on a cookery programme on telly. Next out of the bag was a selection of poems by Dylan Thomas. She´d probably give it to someone for Christmas. The last book was one she´d seen on display in the front of the store. Tunnel Boy was ´a harrowing memoir of an abused childhood´. Since they´d read the book about the flying boy with cancer, Ann had become slightly obsessed with tales of survival. She hadn´t yet read Robinson Crusoe. For Crusoe to appeal now, he would have to have been raped and partially eaten by Man Friday. This was the book Ann would read first, she found herself quite excited at the prospect of a quiet evening in with Tunnel Boy.
´So. Come on what´s in the bag? ´
Mary emptied her bag. Works by Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and John D Westlake lay on the table. Murders, robberies and more murders. In the last month alone Mary´s eyes had witnessed 27 murders, 14 armed robberies, at least a dozen rapes and various blackmails, beatings and buggeries. No wonder she looked tired, thought Ann.
Ann looked at Mary. Mary stared at Signor Bruno’s 18-inch moustache.
´What´s got into you Mary? You never used to be into crime.´
At this point Fate intervened in the shape of the clumsy looking assistant who´d had the decency to look apologetic when handing Ann the heartbreakingly small amount of change from their tea and cake. He was named Michael and he was, according to the hand written badge on his striped shirt, a barista. Michael had slipped on a piece of spilt tiramisu behind the counter and, in his effort to stop himself from falling, accidentally turned the stereo up to full volume.
Consequently, the only person that heard Mary break down and confess to pushing her violent husband down the stairs and breaking his neck; to holding up a sub-post office near Monmouth with a sawn-off shotgun; and to a host of other criminal offences was Mary herself. Everyone else had their fingers in their ears trying to blot out the noise of an Argentine sheep herder mourning what could have been.
´What did you say Mary? ´
´Oh nothing´ said Ann.
Outside, the cranes swayed uneasily in the wind as the rain picked up again. Shoppers ran for cover. Espressions filled with the sound of wet people pretending to be interested in literature.
Mary stared at the window, at the fresh raindrops silently racing down the outside of the glass.