Circle of Deceit
Harry Miller delved again into his trouser pockets and pulled out a credit card, his gym pass, four tenners and his car keys. ‘Where is it?’ he muttered – he knew she’d be livid if he didn’t bring back the right sort.
‘Good morning, Mr Miller.’
He glanced across the Deli’s cheese counter at the smiling white-coated assistant. ‘Hello, Stella.’
‘What can I get for you today?’
He rummaged again, but there was no note. Was it mild, mature or something else? His mind was a blank. ‘Just a half kilo of cheese,’ he said finally.
Waving a hand over the twenty-three varieties on show, she asked, ‘Which one?’
His breathing deepened as he tapped the glass counter thoughtfully and turned at the two people standing behind him. He glanced back at Stella. ‘Serve them first.’
He stood to one side and watched her weigh and wrap cheese for the other customers and silently cursed the pain gripping his head. Three months ago, he could recite the registration numbers of each of the fifteen company cars he’d had. Now there were days when he had difficulty remembering the name of his old company. He swallowed hard as the blackness descended again.
Stella’s voice brought him out of his thoughts.
‘Have you remembered?’
As he surveyed the different coloured wedges of cheese, a tall, mid-forties woman, hair in a tight bun, dark glasses perched part way down the bridge of her nose, pushed against him.
‘Lost the shopping list again Harry?’ she asked.
He turned and sighed – this was all he needed. ‘Hello Miranda.’
Miranda Wagstaff looked at the assistant, raised a hand to her mouth, and said conspiratorially, ‘His memory’s shot.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with my memory,’ protested Harry.
‘Ok then, tell this young lady what you want. I’ll wait.’
He couldn’t remember, and he wasn’t going to search for the note again. Not in front of Miranda – she’d like nothing better than to put him down. He wondered if her years as a prison officer before she met husband Roger had made her tetchy or whether she’d always been that way.
‘Well, while he’s trying to remember, you can serve me,’ said Miranda.
‘Just as soon as I’ve served Mr Miller, Mrs Wagstaff.’
Harry half-smiled at Stella. It wasn’t as if he’d had fifty things to do before he got here. He’d only been to the gym – a healthy body means a healthy mind the company doctor used to tell him. Harry wished that was still true. ‘Go on serve her,’ he said.
‘But you were first and you let those others go,’ Stella said softly.
He glimpsed her look to him and couldn’t decide if it was pity or embarrassment.
Miranda’s order took a while and Harry wondered if she and Roger were having another of their soirées.
She packed her purchases into a small bag with wheels and waved a gold ring-laden hand at him. ‘Say Hello to Veronica for me.’
I’m sure you’ll talk to her before I do, thought Harry.
Stella watched Miranda leave and looked back at him. ‘Can I suggest mature cheddar? I think that’s what Mrs Miller usually has.’
He nodded. ‘Thanks.’
Harry drove onto the large paved drive in front of his double garage and parked. He looked through the windscreen of his ex-company BMW 730 at his four bedroom detached house. It was different from the other houses in this tree-lined avenue on the outskirts of this prosperous London commuter belt town. They were all different – exclusively designed the brochure had said when Harry and Veronica bought it in 1989. He remembered the world was different then. They were happy in ‘89.
He grabbed the bag of cheese, walked along the path between the house and the garage and, through the window, glimpsed his wife’s silver Volkswagen Golf cabriolet inside. She was still home.
He opened the back door into the kitchen and, through the hallway, heard Veronica in the sitting-room talking on the telephone. He placed the cheese in the fridge, filled the kettle and switched it on – his gaze catching two large envelopes on the granite work-surface. He pushed aside one with a logo of an electricity company and stared at the other. It had his name and address in handwriting – his handwriting. His heartbeats quickened as he picked it up. Two weeks before he’d sent the first three chapters and a synopsis of his children’s story to a literary agent. This agent. Was two weeks too soon – or too late for a good response? Three agents had rejected it already. Was this number four or could it be ...? He ran a finger under the flap and pictured himself being interviewed at the film premiere when his book hit the big time.
He pulled out his story pages and a flimsy compliments slip.
“It’s not what we’re looking for.”
The sentence, typed in red at the top of it, put a knot of disappointment in his stomach.
He turned the slip in his hands. There wasn’t a “Dear Harry” or even a “Dear Mr Miller” ... nothing. ‘Bet he hasn’t even read it,’ he mumbled and, at the sound of stiletto heels on the wooden floor of the hallway, stuffed the papers back into the envelope.
‘One thing that’s all I asked you to get.’
He turned to Veronica standing in the doorway. She was wearing mascara and her hair was up. She looked younger than her forty-seven years.
‘How much easier can I make it, Harry?’
He was going to point to the fridge, but she looked like she had more to say.
‘You can’t go on forgetting like this. If it’s not leaving the shower running, or the oven on, it’s other things.’
He pulled a jar of coffee and a mug from the cupboard and placed them on the counter top. ‘Do you want a drink?’ he asked.
‘No, I want you to get yourself sorted. I don’t want you ending up like my mother.’
‘In a home you mean?’
‘Loopy is what I meant.’
‘She wasn’t loopy.’
‘She was senile; I had no option.’
‘She was seventy-four, she was just getting old that was all. She didn’t have to go into a home - she could have lived with us.’
Veronica flicked him a look. ‘And I would have been her nurse I suppose? You know I’ve never been able to deal with illness and running round after sick people.’
‘I know,’ he said.
‘Anyway, you need something to occupy your mind. You need to get back to work, otherwise ...’
‘Otherwise what? You’ll put me in a home?’
‘You’re already in a home Harry … ours, and you’re here all the damned time with nothing to do.’
He dropped a spoonful of coffee into the mug and stirred in hot water. ‘Look, Vee– ’
‘Don’t call me Vee! You know I hate it.’
‘Yes, you think it’s common,’ he said under his breath.
‘I told you retiring at fifty was too early. Your mind isn’t occupied enough.’
‘I have my writing.’
‘Who wants to read children’s stories?’
‘Precisely. That’s not going to earn you anything is it?’ She rested back against the edge of the work-surface and folded her arms. ‘Why can’t you be more like Roger? He’s captain of his golf club and his consultancy is doing really well. He bought Miranda a Jaguar for her birthday.’
‘I hope it bites her.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘This isn’t about me retiring early. It’s about you not being the wife of a Director anymore.’
‘Well, at least I had some standing at the Institute and people used to invite us places. Where do we go now?’
‘Nowhere. That’s where!’
‘Look, those people were business associates. The only reason they invited us anywhere was because they wanted my company to save them a fortune in tax.’
‘Roger left work six months before you and immediately started that consultancy. He knows what he wants from life and he gets it.’
‘I know what I want from life, I want to write. I’ve always wanted to write.’
She launched herself away from the counter top and faced him. ‘But there’s no money in writing.’
He glanced at the agent’s envelope. ‘I’m not interested in the money; I just want to do something for me for once.’
‘You’re selfish, Harry. You don’t care that we’re living on the bread line.’
‘Bread line? I get forty grand a year pension.’
‘Well, it’s not enough.’ She flounced out into the hallway and disappeared back into the sitting-room.
Harry picked up his coffee and the envelope and followed her. ‘It’s enough for our needs ... a good car each, holidays whenever we want.’ He watched her drop onto the sofa and stare through the French doors onto the long, sun-drenched lawn. ‘We can travel further than the Canaries, you know.’
She turned. ‘To America I suppose?’
‘What’s wrong with America?’
‘I can’t see your fascination with that country. I know you had to go there on business, but I didn’t like it there. All that “Have a good day” rubbish.’
‘At least they say it.’
‘And it’s long haul. I can’t bear long haul flights.’
‘So you keep telling me.’ He sipped on his coffee as she turned back and gazed out onto the lawn again. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘why did you think I hadn’t bought the cheese?’
‘Miranda rang. She said she saw you at the supermarket, looking vacant.’
He pictured Miranda telling the assistant that his memory was shot. ‘Well, for your information half a kilo of cheese is in the fridge and I didn’t need your note.’
Veronica didn’t respond and he walked out through the hall and into his study.
He sat at his desk and placed his coffee mug on a coaster next to a picture of himself, Veronica, Miranda and Roger, surrounded by the directors of a Japanese bank, at a party just before Roger left the company. Harry wondered what Veronica would do if she knew that the Japanese, that same night, had offered him a lucrative consultancy with their bank – and left the invitation open. He lifted the photograph and studied the expression on her face – smugness. She loved to let people know that her husband was the Finance Director of a multi-national company. And, while they were at those events, how she would play a loving and supportive wife – an image she lost immediately they left, when she would revert to the cold woman he knew so well.
He closed his eyes for a moment at a pain in his forehead, then opened them and pulled the agent’s slip out of the envelope. He held it two hands and re-read the rejection. Maybe his story wasn’t good enough. Maybe Veronica was right, and he should give up.
‘No, can’t give up.’ He spoke the words almost without thinking, took a breath and dropped the slip into the shredder alongside his desk. As the machine whirred into life and ate the paper, he switched on his laptop.
He opened the file: Mac’s Other World and smiled to himself. He’d been working on this story, of a boy with super powers, for the last two years and, despite the four rejections, he loved writing it. It had given him an escape from the pressure of work – and, since he retired, Veronica. Writing for him wasn’t about money or fame – he knew the successes of the J K Rowlings of this world were few and far between. It was about creating characters, giving them a challenge – an almost insurmountable difficulty to achieve their goal.
As Harry typed, the words on the screen began to blur and he rubbed finger and thumb across his eyes in an attempt to refocus.
‘You sit too close to that computer. It’s no wonder you get those headaches.’
He looked up at Veronica’s face peering around the study door.
‘Miranda has invited us over for drinks on Sunday.’
Harry sat back in his chair. ‘Do we have to?’
‘Yes we do. She’s influential in the Institute. The Vice Chairperson’s role is due up soon and I want it.’
‘And if you played your cards right Roger might give you some business leads.’
‘What do I want business leads for?’
‘For when this writing fad has passed. You’re going to need to do something sensible to earn some money.’
He leaned onto the desk and began typing again. ‘It’s not a fad.’
‘By the way, have you still got that note I gave you? For the cheese?’
He decided not to say he’d lost it and shook his head.
‘That cheese is mature, I wanted mild. Take it back.’
‘I can’t take it back. It’s not a dud light bulb. Anyway I like strong cheese.’
‘Do it! Prove you can do something useful. I’m going to my lunch club.’
‘Hello Mr Miller, eaten it already?’ asked Stella smiling.
‘No, I got the wrong sort.’ He placed the parcel of cheese on the counter. ‘It should have been mild.’
‘Mild? But I’m sure Mrs Miller has mature.’
‘Actually we’re not supposed to take food back. Not unless it’s off or–’
‘It’s OK. I’ll pay for a new piece. Just dump that for me would you?’
She nodded and he watched her cut another slab, weigh and wrap it – a curl of dark hair poking out from beneath her white cap as she placed the cheese on the counter. Her green eyes fixed him with a stare.
‘Can I get you anything else?’
He felt like saying: Can you wrap up a hug? But decided against it. ‘No, thank you.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want to take the other one back just in case she changes her mind?’ she asked.
He grinned. ‘You understand the way my wife’s mind works.’
Stella tilted her head and smiled. Her look warmed him. There was something about this woman that made him feel good.
She leaned forward, the smile dissolving. ‘By the way, that Mrs Wagstaff, I didn’t want you to think I was agreeing with her this morning. I’m sure your memory’s fine.’
Harry closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
‘Are you alright, Mr Miller?’
He nodded. It was easier than telling the truth – that he was fed up with forgetting, fed up with Veronica, fed up with life. ‘I’d better go.’
‘You look pale.’ She walked from behind the counter, pulled off her cap and shook a mane of dark hair into place. ‘Would you like me to get a Taxi for you?’
Harry stared at the way her hair framed the concerned expression on her face – it had been a long time since anyone had shown that much interest in him. ‘I’ll be fine.’
- - -
Sunday drinks with Miranda and Roger dragged. The cathedral-vaulted sitting-room of their six bedroom house on the edge of town was populated with well-dressed business women and career wives whose husbands were either golf fanatics or fishing enthusiasts. Harry was neither.
A lecture on the merits of coarse fishing from a tall bearded man, to whom Roger had introduced Harry as soon as he arrived, was wearing thin and, making his excuses, Harry began scanning the throng for Veronica.
Glimpsing Miranda in conversation with a dark-haired, thick-set thirty-something male, he approached. ‘Sorry to interrupt, but have you seen Veronica?’
‘You haven’t forgotten where you left her, Harry, have you?’ suggested Miranda.
He didn’t reply.
‘Have you met Andre?’ she asked placing a hand on the arm of the T-shirted muscle man next to her.
‘No.’ Harry held out a hand. ‘Are you rods or balls?’
Andre frowned at Miranda. ‘I am not knowing these words. I am getting very mixed down.’
‘Up, dear, getting mixed, up,’ she said. She turned to Harry adding, ‘Andre’s Czech. He’s picking up the language while he’s doing some gardening for us.’
‘I was with military. Do you want–?’
‘No. Harry doesn’t want lessons in unarmed combat.’ Miranda glanced around the room and then at Harry. ‘While you’re looking for Veronica, see if you can find that husband of mine and tell him I need more champagne opened.’ She tugged on Andre’s arm. ‘I want you to meet the Mayor.’
As Miranda left, Harry caught sight of Roger and Veronica at the foot of the hall stairs.
He walked across to them and relayed the message.
‘Vee tells me that you’re interested in getting back into business,’ suggested Roger.
‘Am I?’ Harry shot a look at her. ‘I wouldn’t call her Vee she hates–’
‘I hate formality, Roger, you can call me what you like.’
‘You’re a lucky bloke Harry, having such an attractive and ambitious wife.’
‘I suppose I must be.’
‘She’s been bending my ear on your behalf since she arrived.’
Veronica smiled. ‘Roger’s said he’s looking for a partner and I told him you’d be ideal.’
‘I don’t want a job.’
‘Nonsense, old boy, it’ll be a pleasure working with you again.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘Right, I’d better go and get that champers opened.’
‘What have you been saying to him?’ demanded Harry.
‘He’s offering you a half share in his consultancy. Who knows where it could lead?’
‘The divorce courts?’ His aside was missed as Veronica darted off toward a woman waving at her.
The afternoon quickly turned into an extraordinary meeting of the Institute and Roger suggested that the men leave the women to it and visit the local pub.
Harry grimaced, the last thing he wanted was to go drinking with Roger and his pals. ‘No, thanks,’ Harry said when asked.
‘Go with them!’ Veronica gripped his arm. ‘And see if you can get Roger to discuss that partnership. For heaven’s sakes, look enthusiastic. I’ve done some major groundwork on this for you.’
At the pub, Roger’s group decamped from three taxis and, while he and his friends moved noisily north into the Lounge Bar, Harry headed south into the Public.
‘Hello, Mr Miller. You’re looking better.’
The familiar voice made Harry turn as he entered the bar. On the other side of the room Stella was collecting empty glasses. His heart beat faster as she approached. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’
‘I could say the same for you.’
Harry pointed through the servery to the Lounge Bar. ‘Actually, I’m with them.’
‘Mr Wagstaff’s friends?’
He noticed the surprise in Stella’s voice and felt the need to qualify the association. ‘We’re not really friends. He and I were directors at the same company.’
She walked round behind the bar asking, ‘What can I get you?’
‘I’ll have a pint of lager, thanks. Is this a second job?’
‘I’ve worked here for a couple of years. Saturday nights and Sunday lunchtimes, mainly.’ She slid his drink onto the counter and took the five pounds he offered to the till. ‘I’m glad I’ve seen you.’
‘When you left on Friday afternoon I found a note on the floor under the front of the counter, it had your name and address on it.’
He felt his face heat. If his wife had to write notes why do it on their headed notepaper?
‘Strange thing was, it said mature cheddar.’ She dropped change into his hand. ‘I thought it was odd.’
‘Mature cheddar,’ confirmed Stella.
‘But she said …’ Harry hesitated. ‘Have you still got the note?’
‘No, sorry. Does it matter?’
Stella turned, scribbled in a notebook next to the till and Harry’s gaze settled on her legs. They were trim and her tight jeans clung to athletic thighs and a pert bottom. The white coat and cap she had to wear behind the Deli’s cheese counter did her no favours. As his gaze moved up her back to her shoulder-length dark hair, a long lost frisson rose within him. It increased for a moment as she glanced back and raised the notebook.
‘I’m not supposed to be doing this, Alec, the manager, doesn’t like it. He says he pays me to work, not write stories.’
‘You write stories? I do too.’
‘Hey Harry! We’re going up to the golf club for a few wets. You coming?’ Roger’s slurred voice echoed through the servery opening between the bars.
‘You’ll have to make your own way back. Don’t get lost.’ The comment was greeted with knowing chortles from the Lounge. ‘D’you want me to write down my address?’
Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘No, I know where it is.’
‘But how’re you going to get back, old boy?’
‘I’m taking him, but don’t tell his wife.’
Harry stared at Stella and then at the straight faces in the lounge.
‘Sorry,’ she whispered, ‘couldn’t resist it.’
He smiled. ‘Don’t apologise. You’ve just upped my street cred.’ As Roger and his crowd left the Lounge, Harry supped on his pint and then glanced at Stella. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll get a taxi.’
‘I was serious. I’m due off soon and I rarely find anyone who’s interested in writing.’
Harry studied Stella’s face as she enthused about books and plot-lines while she drove. He found the sparkle in her eyes, as she flicked him the occasional glance, electrifying.
‘I’m sorry I do tend to ramble on,’ she said. ‘I hope I’m not boring you.’
‘Not at all. It’s brilliant to have someone share my interest.’
‘What are you working on?’
‘A children’s story about dysfunctional kids with special powers.’
‘How many words?’
‘Wow, that’s good.’
‘What about you?’ he asked.
‘Had anything published?’
‘No. Trying to get an agent is demoralising.’
‘Tell me about it.’ An image of the agent’s compliments slip resurrected itself. ‘I’ve had four rejections in as many months.’ He pointed up ahead. ‘That’s Roger’s house, there.’
‘Nice place.’ She pulled into a space between a Bentley and a Mercedes outside the Wagstaff’s double gates. ‘I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, Mr Miller.’
‘Please, call me Harry.’ He stared at her and she smiled back – her eyes holding his gaze. He didn’t want this moment to end.
Her smile became a frown. ‘What?’ she asked.
‘Could we meet again?’ Harry closed his eyes for a moment. What was he doing? This woman was probably young enough to be his daughter. ‘I’m sorry ... you’re probably busy.’
She laughed and touched his arm. ‘I’d love to.’
‘Perhaps we could go for coffee and talk about our writing. Do you get a day off from the Deli?’‘Tuesdays.’
Harry wants to write - he can't go back to work - can he? Will Veronica not stop picking until he does? Is Roger the successful businessman that Veronica believes him to be? Can Miranda be trusted? There's two hundred thousand pounds at stake and Harry needs it - needs it desperately. And Stella - where does she fit into all of this?
You've just read the first 3,500 words of my 15,000 word short story Circle of Deceit. It's on Kindle here: http://goo.gl/YbL0J