Is it true? Only she could tell you that, and she said she won’t be saying. The only thing is, I’m the weakest link, and I’m scared. So although I promised, on everything I hold dear, to keep schtum, I’m writing this as a precaution, so if anything happens to me – you get my drift – there’ll be consequences.
I met her a few months ago at a drinks party being held by a very outgoing couple who moved in the higher echelons of our small-town society. Our host, Bernard, was a big, solid man, just starting to run to fat, with a loud booming voice, and a jolly manner. His wife, Shirley, was the opposite – small, almost bird-like, quietly dressed, but with what looked like good pieces of jewellery.
It was a motley group, I suppose. The majority of the people there were connected in some way with the Potteries about ten miles away, and took their social status from the size and stability of the pottery which employed them in their various owner or managerial roles. It was a financially unstable period for the industry, with closures, mergers, takeovers, and outsourcing, and there was an edge to the gathering, a feeling of ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’. I could feel a strain in the atmosphere, in the too-bright laughter.
The rest of the guests were the local vicar and his wife, a couple of doctors, and one or two academics from the nearby university, where I teach nineteenth century social history, (as well as occasionally contributing to various newspapers and periodicals, whilst labouring intermittently over my ‘opus’, a somewhat pretentious novel, if I’m honest.) I’d moved here to Rockshall fairly recently, and a colleague had asked me along, to ‘see how the other half lived’, as he put it.
Anyway, there we were, packed tightly into a large pleasant though characterless room, which had magnolia walls, a pale green carpet, heavy brocade curtains held back from the patio doors by fringed ties, and a couple of framed prints on the wall. The day was darkening, and I could see my reflection beginning to appear on the patio doors, in front of the winter-shrouded lawn, with its trees beyond. I was watching a solitary robin pecking disconsolately at the grass, when a voice behind me said, “It will look lovely in Spring.”
I turned and saw the speaker. It was a woman in her early thirties, with shoulder-length brown hair and a pleasant if unremarkable face. She was holding an empty glass, and looking out wistfully, as if willing the leaves to burst forth, and the robin to sing. She turned to me and held out her free hand. “Eleanor Bettles,” she said, “generally known as Nora.” She smiled, and her face was transformed.
“Mike Priestley,” I responded, returning the slight squeeze she gave. “May I get you another drink?”
“Thank you, that would be nice, but just fruit juice, as I’ll have to drive home. That’s my husband over there,” and she indicated a man engaged in conversation with our host, a large glass in his hand. “Nigel doesn’t know when to stop, once he gets going”; and she laughed, as though to diffuse the sting in the remark. I looked more closely at her, and that’s when I saw the hurt and pain in her eyes.
Nora and Nigel, I discovered, lived in a village about four miles away. Nigel was in upper management at one of the largest and most secure firms in Hanley. So many of the smaller firms were going under, their skilled workforce left redundant. Meanwhile, the larger businesses were increasingly getting their work done more cheaply in Indonesia. The practices in the local factories were for the most part antediluvian, and therefore slow and expensive, and those firms which couldn’t afford to modernise went to the wall, or were swallowed up by the bigger more modern concerns. In all my time in the area, I never heard of any woman in management in the Potteries. Certainly at that party where all this began, all the men talked together, and their wives congregated in groups, chatting to each other, their hair and make-up immaculate, their nails manicured, their clothes and shoes expensive.
I brought a cranberry juice to Nora. I was thinking what to say, when she began to ask me about myself – where I lived (a couple of miles away in a rented apartment in a big Edwardian villa on the outskirts of Rockshall), and whether I was married and had a family (no, and no). In return I asked her about herself. I began by enquiring if she worked, and if so, at what?
“How strange,” she said. “The first question men round here ask each other is what they do. No-one ever asks the women. They ask them what their husband does, as though they are just appendages of their men. Have you ever read ‘The Stepford Wives’? That might have been written about this place. Well, Mike, this is a first, so well done!”: and she beamed at me, and her whole face lit up and became almost beautiful.
“I suppose you could say I’m an artist, but not a very successful one in terms of money – which is all that seems to count around here.” There was a bitterness in her voice. “I went to Art School, but hereabouts, it’s if you’re female you go there to learn how to be a paintress.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“A paintress is a local term for a woman who paints the pottery. Generally, though not always, they’re better at fine movements than men, so it’s a rather niche occupation for women.”
“So did you work as a paintress?”
“Oh no, I’m not that kind of artist. I like to work in oils or mixed media, big sweeping abstracts. The sort of thing no-one round here would ever think of putting in their houses.” She made a dismissive gesture at the insipid print on the wall nearby.
She made no mention of children, and I didn’t like to ask if she had any. I remembered a few years ago asking a woman if she had kids, and she burst into tears. She’s just found out, after numerous tests, she could never have any. You can understand my reluctance to ask the question again.
She volunteered the information.
“No children. I’ve had tests, and there’s no reason I can’t, but Nigel won’t be tested. He says it must be my fault, and refuses point blank.” A slight pause. “Whatever must you think of me, telling you all these personal details? I’m so sorry if I’ve embarrassed you.”
“No, no, not at all,” I said, trying to be reassuring, though I was indeed taken aback by such confidences from someone I’d just met.
Then I realised she was near to tears.
“It’s just, I don’t know, a gathering like this, all the other wives talking non-stop about their wonderful children, and I just stand there, utterly alone with nothing to say. They’re not being unkind. It’s just they have no other interests beyond their families – apart from their appearances.” She shrugged her shoulders resignedly.
“What are you working on at the moment?” I asked, hoping to distract her. It worked. She began to talk animatedly about a large canvas she had under way, meant to represent famine.
“Goodness! You certainly think big!” I said, ungrammatically.
At this point, Shirley came up and took my arm. “Excuse, me Nora,” she said, ”There are some people I’d like Mike to meet,” and she steered me through the crowd towards a couple of middle-aged hippy types, who turned out to be the local vicar and his wife. I glanced back. Nora was standing there, staring disconsolately out at the now-dark garden.
The vicar and his wife, Gary and Liz, were surprisingly good company, and shared my love of jazz, and I was still with them when the party broke up half-an-hour later. Nora and Nigel were nowhere to be seen.
Time went on, the new term started, and I was busy with preparation, tutorials, lectures, and marking. Gary and Liz invited me over for a meal, and so did some of my colleagues. They didn’t seem to expect me to invite them back, as I was on my own, and that was a relief. I’m not much of a cook. I thought no more about Nora, until I bumped into her in Sainsbury’s.
“Mike! It is you, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yes, and you’re Nora-the-artist! I replied.
“Fancy you remembering that!”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, and then realised what an idiotic thing it was to say. After all, if you’re in a food shop, you are going to be shopping for food.
“Nigel has asked some associates and their wives to dinner, at short notice, so I’m trying to find something ready-made that will look as though I’ve done it myself. I don’t have time to do anything fancy.”
“OK, I’ll come round with you and see if I can help. I try not to do any entertaining, but on the odd occasion I have to, and I’m a whizz at winging it. When I get to the point where I've been to three or four dinners to the same people, I invite all of them en masse, which makes for an interesting evening, as all my colleagues hate each other.”
Nora laughed. She thought I was joking. I wish!
“I can see you’ll be a great help,” she said drily.
We trawled round the aisles, gradually assembling a menu, and I gave her a few tips, such as putting a good dash of sherry in tinned soup (heated up, of course), with a swirl of cream on top; and by the time everything was sorted, we were quite exhausted, so parked the trolley and went into the café to have a cup of coffee. Who knew food shopping could be so enjoyable?
That’s how it began, our weekly meetings in Sainsbury’s – all perfectly innocent: at least, then – a meeting of two lonely people who each felt like an alien in the environment they’d somehow landed in.
It was about a month later that I noticed something was wrong. Nora kept wincing as she picked items from the shelves. She saw me looking questioningly at her, and I thought she blushed. “Just a bit of stiffness,” she said. However, when we were sitting in the café later, without our coats, she automatically pushed up the sleeves of her jumper, and I saw the purple bruises on her wrists.
“What are those marks from?” I asked.
She sat for a long minute, then turned to me, her eyes brimming with tears.
“He hits me, Mike. This is nothing, just marks from when he grabbed me to stop me getting away. I’ve bruises all over, except my face. He’s careful not to hit my face, where it would show.”
I was shocked beyond measure.
“But why? I mean what reason does he give?”
“He says it’s all my fault we don’t have kids, that it makes him look less of a man in other men’s eyes, and if I say it isn’t me, he needs to get himself tested, he goes bananas.”
“Why do you stay, then?” I was genuinely puzzled.
“Because I’ve nowhere to go, and no money of my own. I’ve no family, no friends. God, I’m so unhappy. I wish I was dead.”
She broke down completely. People at nearby tables were looking at us, glaring at me, assuming it was something I’d said or done. I got up, moved round, and put my arm around Nora’s shoulders. She turned to me, her head against my chest, and sobbed as though her heart had broken. I could see she was in no state to drive home, so I said, “Come back to my place, and just rest and relax until you feel a bit better. We can leave your car here, and pick it up later.”
I swear to you that up to that point our friendship had been platonic.
Nora came back with me to my flat, and, as they say, ‘the rest is history.’ There were no lectures or tutorials on Wednesday afternoons, the theory being that all students needed to do sport to keep their high spirits under restraint. I had one lecture at ten, and then the rest of the day was free, and that became the day Nora drove over, left her car in the nearby pub car park, and walked to the villa, for the few hours which became the centre point of our lives.
I had never known such bliss. I thought about her all the time. I lived for Wednesdays, when we could be together. The rest of the week was grey. I managed to do my paid work, but everything came to a halt on my opus; and if I managed the odd article in the next four months, it was a miracle.
It was then when the bomb dropped. Nora told me she was pregnant, and it must be mine.
And although I went through the motions, and said all the right things, I felt as though a bomb crater had opened in front of me. What on earth was I going to do?
Later, when Nora had gone, I sat down and thought about it. I had very little money, just a couple of thousand in savings. I rented this flat, my car was seven years old, I had no tangible assets. The flat, though pleasant, was only really big enough for one – two at the most. Certainly not three; and it was on the top floor, which would present difficulties were a baby to be there. Nora said she had neither money nor assets. If Nora were to move in with me, it could only be temporary. We’d have to find somewhere bigger. But could I afford a bigger place? But what was the alternative? My mind went round and round, getting nowhere.
The week dragged by, but next Wednesday eventually came. Nora was in a sombre mood. She’d been having thoughts of her own.
“I haven’t said anything to him. If I do, he’ll suspect it isn’t his. Then he’ll hit me, with who knows what consequences. Or else he’ll pretend it IS his, and that would be worse. And there’s no room for me here.”
I started to say we would find a way, and look for something bigger, but she put her hand over my mouth.
“No,” was all she said. Then, “I’m going now. I’ll be back when I’ve thought of something.”
“But….” I began.
“No!” she said loudly. “Enough!” Her eyes were blazing. This was a side of Nora I’d never seen, never imagined. She picked up her bag, and went. Just like that.
I didn’t hear from her, and three weeks went by. I didn’t try to phone her at home, because if Nigel were to answer I had no excuse for ringing, and didn’t wish to arouse his suspicions, as who knew what he’d do. Then Gary and Liz invited me round for a kitchen supper. It was a convivial evening, with plenty of good food and wine, and I was feeling very relaxed until Liz dropped another bombshell.
“You probably haven’t heard what’s happened, Mike, in your dreaming spires;” and she laughed. Anything less like dreaming spires could not be imagined than the brutalist concrete slabs of the University where I taught.
“You’d better tell me then,” I laughed back.
“You remember Nigel Bettles? Well, he’s dead!”
“Yes,” Gary took up the tale. ”Everyone knows he drinks too much, and as far as we can gather, he’d had a skinful, fell all the way downstairs, and hit his head. They’ve got marble floors in that monstrosity they live in.”
“Nora reckons to be an artist, but there’s no sign of any taste there,” Liz said.
“Liz!” Gary was shocked. “That’s not a kind thing to say.”
“No, but it’s true, anyway.”
“Anyway,” Gary echoed, “there’s an inquest next week, and I’m doing the funeral, provisionally the following Wednesday. It’s a cremation.”
My mouth was bone-dry, by heart pounding, my thoughts whirling. I couldn’t speak. They didn’t notice, just carried on, the momentum of the story taking them forward.
“There was talk at first, but there’s no question of it not being an accident. An Inquest is just a formality after a fall. Nora said they’d been celebrating. She had just found out she’s pregnant, after all this time. Nigel must have been thrilled, and had celebrated a bit too much, and lost his balance, going to fetch another bottle.”
“It’s a good thing for Nora he was so well-insured. And she’ll have his pension, too,” Liz said.
Gary looked shocked.
“Well, look at it from a practical point of view. Imagine you were in Nora’s shoes. She’s never going to earn anything from those awful daubs she does, and she’s got too high an opinion of herself to do any actual work – and she can’t live on thin air.”
“You mean like we do,” said Gary, and they both laughed.
I’d managed to recover a bit whilst they were talking. I made my excuses soon after, and went back to my flat. The following day I rang Nora. Nigel wasn’t going to answer the phone, after all.
“Hi, it’s Mike,” I said.
There was a long pause, then “Who?” Nora said.
“Mike. Mike Priestley.”
“Oh, yes, I remember.”
“Is there someone there, Nora? Can’t you talk?”
There was silence, and then she said, “I told you I’d think of something. Obviously I did. I don’t want you to ring me any more, or to try to contact me in any way. From now on, if our paths do happen to cross, we’re just social acquaintances, OK?"
“Wh....what do you mean?” I stammered. “What are you saying?”
“Oh, Mike, you surely didn’t think I’d spend my life in some pokey little flat with you, did you? You’ve been very useful, so thank you. But now that’s it. And don’t go shouting your mouth off, it will just make you look deluded. People think you’re eccentric anyway. If you do start blabbering, be prepared for consequences.”
My heart was hammering. I’ve never felt such cold fear. “I shan’t say anything, I swear,” I said, coward that I am.
“You’d better not.”
Then she hung up.
She had just told me, albeit in a roundabout way, she had killed her husband, that she’s used me as a stud, and that she’d get rid of me if she thought it would be expedient. I had meant nothing to her. She’d got what she wanted – and I would never be safe.
And now, suddenly, in the midst of the hurt and pain I was feeling, I was very scared. She was obviously utterly ruthless. Had she planned this from the beginning? How many lies had she told me? Did Nigel, in fact, beat her up, or had she faked the marks to give her an excuse to fall into my arms? If I went to the police, I had no proof of anything, and as she’d told me in no uncertain terms, I was already considered an oddity. No-one would believe me. It might be she’d do nothing, but I’d never know for sure. My safety from now on was an illusion.
I’m going to look for another job, as far away from here as possible, and hope I can get away before anything ‘happens’ to me. I am, after all, ‘the weakest link’. In the meantime, this account is my insurance policy for if I don’t manage it. I’ll send it to me solicitor in the morning.