2. Serialisation of The Station Road Sewing Circle by Lou Lewis (with permission)
I’m not very comfortable standing up in front of people. I much prefer the company of a good book, any book really. Just as well that I say it to myself as I’m the only librarian in Pembroke town. That said, the letter I had received on Saturday morning had to be read out to the entire membership of the Station Road Sewing Circle whether I was comfy about it or not.
Bessie the Law brought our Knitting for Korea session to a close, having announced that between us we had sent off twenty-two jumpers and fourteen vests to the needy children in Asia whose country had still not recovered from their war.
“Now then Bron, over to you, I believe you have news for us from within the hallowed halls of our library!”
I stood up and pulled out the letter which had robbed me of a great deal of sleep all over the weekend. “I received this,” I waved the wafer-thin grey paper in front of me, “from a very good customer of the library, namely Miss Hyacinth over in Markson Hall. She has asked me to pop out to feed her two cats while her housekeeper and the gardener, a married couple are away on their annual family visits. She says that whilst her sister Miss Holly is very ill in the West Wales General Hospital in Carmarthen, due to her own circumstances she herself is unable to look after Ruby and Emerald. Two things I must say, she thinks the world of her two pets, gems they are to her and as I have never owned a cat, I wouldn’t know the first thing about seeing to their needs.”
Bessie interjected. “Bron love, no need to be worried on that account, plenty of us here have cats and a show of hands would tell you who would be more than pleased to help you out.”
I shook my head. “Thank you for that, I probably would have found the answers in a book on one of the library shelves, it’s more of a concern to me where she sent me this letter from.” I waved the notepaper again. “The heading on this is ‘Pembrokeshire Police – Haverfordwest Castle - Remand Wing’.”
Joan the Tip gasped. “What on earth is she doing in there?”
I said. “They are going to charge her with poisoning her sister Holly.”
At least eight hands, all belonging to well-experienced cat owners shot up into the air, a sewing circle mystery had surely beckoned.
I was so relieved that Maggie the Shop and Myvvi the Dead had volunteered to help me with my mission to look after the cats. I opened up a new bottle of Bulmer’s full-strength cider the moment the three of us entered my flat above the library.
Maggie gave her approval. “We need something a bit stronger than tea if we are going to get that poor woman out of prison. I might only know her from every Thursday when her gardener drives her into town to do a bit of shopping but I tell you this, she is very much a lady. She wouldn’t harm anybody, least of all her own flesh and blood.”
I agreed with her. “Miss Hyacinth and Miss Holly had always lived with their late aunt but it was Miss Hyacinth who enjoyed the gentler side of country living. She has always been a bit fussy though, she liked reading but wouldn’t have any library books which had been previously handled, so to speak, by anyone else. I arranged to send her a list of all the new releases each month so that she could make a selection which I would then send out to the Hall as soon as they came in.
Myvvi piped up. “To keep a balanced eye on all of this it’s worth saying, the sisters didn’t get on all that well. My husband and I buried their aunt out at Cresselly eighteen months ago. There was something in her bequest about at least one of the girls having to live at Markson Hall for as long as the cats were alive. Beryl the Will told me it was a difficult reading for her husband their family solicitor. Miss Holly, was more of a city girl and had recently returned from Bristol. She can’t wait to get back there. She simply wants to sell up and get back to her busy life in England.
I confirmed. “Miss Hyacinth on the other hand worships the two tortoiseshell brindles, Ruby and Emerald, she calls them her naughty torties.”
Maggie brought us back to the truth of it all. “Can we agree that this could have the makings of a miscarriage of justice? We must find out how Miss Holly ended up in hospital and why the police are convinced that Miss Hyacinth put her there. I think a trip out to Markson Hall to feed our new feline friends is called for. We’ve stocked the shop with the new Whiskas brand of cat-food, they won’t turn their noses up at a few tins of that, I’m sure.”
Myvvi added. “My Hillman Minx hasn’t been used to carry mourners for weeks now, staying in the garage – spotless it is, it’s ready for a good run out this evening. There will be enough times over the next few weeks for Bron here having to cycle out.”
We went with Maggie up to her shop, picked up the cat food then strolled down to the Undertakers premises on the Town Quay. Myvvi drove her car out of the garage. She was right to say it was sparkling, it proved to be comfortable too.
It was still quite bright when we drove up the short lane and parked on a wide gravel area alongside an Armstrong Siddely Sapphire. Its immaculate appearance would have given Myvvi’s gleaming Hillman Minx a run for its money. Markson Hall couldn’t be described as a stately home but it would by most, be safely considered to be a well-kept manor house. I retrieved the back door key from inside the greenhouse as directed by Miss Hyacinth’s letter and we stepped into a large modern kitchen complete with the mandatory AGA cooker. I had read that they were bringing in new colours to replace the standard cream model, this one was a gentle pastel blue. Miss Hyacinth had said that she enjoyed cooking, no doubt this room was her domain. On the worktable was a recipe book surrounded by ingredients. I looked at the open page to see that a Cottage pie had been on the menu.
Maggie leaned over. “That must have been last Thursday’s meal. Miss Hyacinth didn’t come into the shop and no doubt didn’t go into the butcher’s two doors down for her Welsh beef mince.”
Myvvi added. “Her sister must have been admitted to hospital overnight and Hyacinth was arrested before she could even dip her hands into the flour.”
I shivered to think that if any poison was going to be administered, it would have probably taken place in this very room.
Maggie led us into a large dining room, she called out. “I’ve found the little lodgers, they’re up on the top of the sideboard.”
I went in to see a pair of furry faces looking down from the top of an antique Welsh dresser. They didn’t seem to be upset at all by our intrusion. They only stirred when Maggie returned to the kitchen, found a tin-opener and the pungent but not unpleasant aroma of Whiskas filled the air. It was clear that Maggie had formed a friendship for life as the tortoiseshell pair rushed into the kitchen and tucked into the generous helping in their bowls.
We found Myvvi in the living room. She was thumbing through the books she had seen on the long polished side table. “Your Miss Hyacinth had a wide taste in books it seems.” She turned to me. “there’s everything here from romance to social history. She didn’t believe in buying new though, all of these are library books with a single stamp inside the cover showing that she was the first borrower.”
“For all her fussy and old-fashioned values,” I explained as we wandered about trying to have a good look without touching anything else. “She tried to keep up with things. I’m already keeping an eye out for the second James Bond adventure, it’s due out in a couple of weeks.”
My eyes took me across the heavily laden shelves in a solid oak open bookcase. It was populated with the usual sets of limited editions and encyclopaedias. The evening sun glinted back at me from a book on the top shelf almost out of reach. I realised that it had been given a protective plastic covering much like I would put on the new more expensive books when they first arrived at the library. I was thankful that the most fitting description of me during my school days was ‘tall and gangly beyond her years’. I reached up on my toes and pulled the book out. It was entitled ‘At last, a Weed-Free Garden.’ I opened it and wished I hadn’t.
“This is a library book with a card inside made out to a Miss H Markson. I remember this book coming in a few months ago but I’ve never sent it out here.”
Maggie looked at me. “Are you sure, it could have slipped your mind!”
I sighed. “The card is from Tenby library, this was ordered behind my back so to speak.”
Myvvi spoke in the voice she usually reserved for grieving relatives. “I know it’s upsetting when you find out something about someone who you have a high level of respect for. What’s a gardening book going to tell us about Miss Hyacinth’s predicament?”
I had turned over to the contents page. “It’s becoming worse - there’s a chapter underlined here called – Sodium Chlorate how to prevent harm to humans and pets.”
Maggie whistled. “That’s the last thing we wanted to find on her bookshelf. The more we find out here the less we seem to know about this lady.”
Myvvi said. “I know I’ve been doubting Hyacinth up to now but we need to know what the poor girl is going through. Do you think they’ll be allowing her visitors? We ought to go see them both. I had some dealings with Holly over her aunt’s funeral, she can be a bit of a madam. Me and Bron could go to the West Wales hospital to pay her a friendly but of course, concerned visit.”
Maggie caught her drift. “Then Bron and me could go over to the Remand Centre in Haverfordwest to let Hyacinth know how we are getting on with her cats.”
I agreed with them but I wanted to see Hyacinth first. “Let’s go to see the real victim in all of this before we do anything else!”
The policemen had shown Maggie and me into a brightly lit room, bare but for a table with chairs each side. There was a single chair by the door. He told us where to sit and we waited for Hyacinth to arrive.
I was half expecting her to be dressed in a uniform with broad arrows running up it but she had a skirt and plain top on, worn but still tidy. Her face lit up when she saw us but the large smudges under her eyes confirmed to me that the Remand Centre sleeping arrangements were nothing like indeed her own bed.
The policeman sat by the door.
Maggie confirmed that the torties were well and that they had taken to the latest cat-food with evident vigour. She added quickly that the new diet had probably taken their appetite and attention away from their mistress being absent.
I asked Hyacinth. “What’s the food like in here?”
She mouthed ‘awful’ before confirming “It isn’t all that bad.”
Maggie lowered her voice. “What evidence have they produced against you?”
Hyacinth shrugged. “Apparently Holly has been given small amounts of a gardening chemical, over a few weeks or so.” Her voice broke but she recovered. “If she’d had it all at once it could have killed her.”
I asked. “Are they saying because you do the cooking, that’s how you gave it to her?”
“We only eat together in the evenings so the only food she doesn’t prepare for herself is that meal. I can’t believe that this is all happening. She’s a real pain to me over Ruby and Emerald but she is my sister. I wouldn’t even know how to do such a thing. We leave all the garden business to O’Brien our gardener.
I persisted. “Tell us about your evening meal routine so that we can understand where the police are coming from.”
“I simply cook the evening meal and plate it up. Holly doesn’t like eating it when it’s hot, so I put the meals on the food trolley to cool off. I then nip upstairs to change for dinner. When I come down, I take them into the dining room. Holly is usually sat up at the table waiting.”
Maggie wanted to know. “You both have the same meal don’t you, you could pick up either plate, how would you know which plate was intended for your sister?”
Hyacinth blushed. “I don’t like eating my greens but Holly can’t have enough of them. Her plate is always piled high.”
For the first time my faith in this all being an injustice wobbled. I sighed. “So as you plate up every night you would know exactly which meal would end up in front of your sister?”
“That’s what the police are saying. They insist that I have plenty of time to put something in her food.”
I needed to dig down, our visit was confirming her guilt, not giving her back her freedom. “The only other time the food could be tampered with is when you were upstairs changing, is there anyone you can think of who would need to go into the kitchen at that time?”
Hyacinth welled up. “Ruby and Emerald are allowed in the kitchen to eat their food, but this is not their doing. I don’t want to give my sister any reason at all to get rid of them. She’s only interested in selling our home.”
Maggie knows about cats, she has two that live in and a couple of strays who hang around the back of her shop for scraps. “How can you be sure that your torties haven’t picked up any chemicals in the garden and brought them in with their paws? If I’m not wrong, your Ruby with her huge appetite would be very likely to take an interest in your food whether it was hot or cold.”
Hyacinth dabbed under her eyes and said carefully. “I take every precaution to ensure that there has been no contact between Ruby and my sister’s plate.”
I’d had enough. “You need to be honest with us Hyacinth love, is there a connection between Ruby and this entire business. You can’t sacrifice years of your life for a cat surely?”
Hyacinth put her hands on the table and looked at us both in turn. “Over the past few months, I’ve been finding Ruby sat on the table next to the food trolley, not every night mind you. The table is on the same side where I put Holly’s plate. I have been switching them over and giving Holly my meal to make sure that a single cat’s hair can’t find its way on to her plate.”
“Just a minute,” Maggie stopped herself from raising her voice and alerting the policeman by the door. “You said she has plenty of greens, you don’t have time to do it all over do you?”
Hyacinth gave us a faint smile. “I simply move her greens on to what was my plate.”
I had another question which had been burning my tongue off. “Have you ever used another library other than mine?”
Her eyes, still damp widened. “Of course not, you have given me all the reading I could ever want.”
The policeman stood up and announced that our time was up.
I placed my hands over Hyacinth’s. “Try not to worry, whatever you’ve told us today will go no further. This has been a very useful visit. We’ll be doing all we can to get you back to Markson Hall before you know it.”
Maggie and me made good use of the bus-ride from Haverfordwest down to Neyland. We went over every detail we could draw out from our chat with Hyacinth. Before I knew it, we were off the bus and walking down to the ferry.
“From what we’ve learned,” she summarised. “it appears that Hyacinth who is the supposed poisoner is in fact the poisonee, so to speak. in that, she has been giving, from time to time, her poisoned platter to her sister.”
“We can’t rule out Ruby the wayward cat, she could be contaminating her plate, she’s near enough when she jumps up on to the table.”
“Then again,” Maggie cautioned me. “There may be another way that the chemical is arriving in the kitchen, come to think of it we could try to find it in the greenhouse or the small potting shed next to it.”
I wanted to unravel things further. “We could walk up to the Hall from the other side of the ferry to feed the cats, there’ll be enough light to have a rummage in the outbuildings.”
There were still quite a few loose threads in all of this but I was feeling that some of it was coming together in one picture, you might say a bit of a tapestry.
We alighted at Hobbs Point to find Myvvi waiting in her Hillman Minx. A welcome sight indeed!
“I couldn’t wait to hear how your trip has gone,” she explained. “I thought you could do with a lift up to the Hall.”
We sped along the London Road and in no time at all were going up the lane to Markson Hall.
“That’s interesting,” remarked Maggie. “There’s smoke coming out of the gardener’s cottage chimney. I thought the O’Brien’s were still on their travels.”
“They might have been contacted by the police,” I suggested. “It wouldn’t do any harm for us to explain what we’re doing here.”
Myvvi smiled. “You mean the apparent reason – feeding the kitties.”
An older man with an outdoor face on him emerged from the cottage. He was wearing dungarees which had seen better days. I explained that we were there by Hyacinth’s invitation.
He shook his head. “A nasty business in any family, rest assured my wife and I will be keeping well out of it all. She will be more than happy to feed the cats though, now we are back.”
I decided that a simple question would save us the bother of finding an excuse to nose around the place. “You keep a lovely garden; you must spend dawn to dusk keeping the weeds down?”
His face beamed. “They don’t get a look in here, careful mulching and being quick with the hoe sends them on their way. I follow my father you know, a natural approach to husbandry is vital.”
I gathered that he didn’t have many opportunities to share his horticultural wisdoms.
“Another thing I’ll tell you for free, you won’t find a single bug on my roses,” he paused to see if we were following him, our half open mouths were good enough. “I plant mint between the rose bushes, aphids and the like can’t stick the smell of it.”
We were saved from the next instalment of his well-thumbed gardening hints by Mrs O’Brien coming out of the cottage door, she looked every inch a housekeeper, there wasn’t a scrap of clothing on her that hadn’t been well starched. “What’s going on here then,” she was smiling. “I sent him over to the post box to collect our letters and here he is chatting up three young ladies.”
I explained our presence to which she responded. “Well thank you for looking after Ruby and Emerald, lovely torties those two. Terrible business up at the Hall, coming on top of all she was having to put up with.”
Maggie wanted the same answer as me, but I couldn’t think how best to ask it, she said. “It’s not very nice being cooped up in there all day is it?”
Mrs O’Brien responded with “Miss Holly might have a private ward, but hospital food is the same the world over. She’ll be missing her sister’s cooking.”
I realised that the O’Brien’s had only been given half the story, however I was intrigued with anything that Holly was having to put up with. “She was suffering a bit before all this business then?” I tried to be as sympathetic as I could.”
Mrs O’Brien obliged me. “Nonstop it was, sometimes several letters a week. I take the mail up each morning to the living room from the box at the bottom of the lane you see. Whilst I would never look at private correspondence, the address of the debt collection company was plain enough on the back of the envelope. They are the only letters we have ever had from Bristol, must be to do when she lived up there.”
I was pleased with the O’Brien’s voluntary information but I needed to pay one last visit to the Hall.
“Could we feed the cats one final time,” I asked. “We can say our goodbyes and all then.”
Mrs O’Brien gave us her approval and then pointed to the lane to remind her husband that he was in the middle of his errand.
Ruby and Emerald didn’t seem all that bothered about our efforts to give them a fond farewell. I went into the living room and collected the now overdue library book.
Myvvi and me sorted out our plan of action as we sped along the Carmarthen Road up to the hospital. My earlier phone call had confirmed that Miss Holly had been moved into a private room prior to her imminent discharge. We duly entered through the paying patients’ entrance and were shown by a nurse to the room in question. The décor was as good as any room you’d find in the Lion Hotel back in Pembroke. Soft drapes, deep carpets and more pastel shades than you’d find on a decorator’s paint chart. Sat in a comfortable armchair looking as well as anyone royal was Holly in her brocade dressing gown.
We were barely in the door when she greeted Myvvi, ignoring me. “It’s good of you to visit but if you’d waited a few more days, I’d be able to welcome you into Markson Hall.”
Myvvi introduced me as a friend of Hyacinth’s and opened up our rehearsed response. “We wanted to see that you had recovered fully from your ordeal and to let you know that the cats are in the pink of health.”
She retorted. “A bit pointless don’t you think coming thirty miles to give me bad news.”
Myvvi smiled grimly. “Well there are a few things that we’d like to clear up with you, bearing in mind that your sister is still in custody.”
“Nothing to do with me,” she scoffed. “If the Pembrokeshire police want to trump up charges against an innocent person, that’s down to them.”
I piped up. “You don’t think your sister had anything to do with your illness then?
“Of course not, she’s too soft and doesn’t have the backbone to harm a fly.”
Myvvi nipped in. “How do you think the poison found its way into your body?”
“No idea. Must have picked it up somewhere. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, not to mention my sister who puts those horrible animals before me and my well-being.”
“You don’t like living there with them, do you? Myvvi pressed her. “You’d rather sell up and go back to your city life in Bristol?”
“City life for sure instead of a backwater like Pembroke, not sure if it would be Bristol though.”
“Too many debts to settle I dare say,” Myvvi ventured. “We saw the letters piling up back at Markson Hall.”
Holly looked at her silk slippers. “That’s a private matter which is none of your business.”
I came in on cue. “I can tell you what isn’t a private matter,” I reached into my bag and pulled out a plastic-covered book entitled ‘At last, a Weed-Free Garden.’, this library book is public property, and to boot, it is now overdue.” I opened the cover and showed the contents page to Holly. “You needn’t worry about being called to account for defacing the book, I’ve rubbed out the pencil marks on a certain chapter which no doubt you’ve had a personal interest in.”
Her face was red, she spoke in a whisper. “You appear to have worked out what’s been going on. Perhaps you’d like to tell me how the poison arrived on the wrong plate.”
That’s the nearest we’ll ever get to a confession I thought.
Myvvi stepped in. “What we know about your goings-on isn’t the important thing here. We have a proposal which we don’t think you’re in a position to refuse.”
Holly slumped in the chair. “Let’s get this over with!”
The Station Road Sewing Circle was more than ready to hear how Maggie, Myvvi and me had restored peace and goodwill at Markson Hall. Maggie explained how we had convinced both sisters to a sworn secrecy for their own benefit but most of all to keep our involvement out of it.
“We agreed between us that Holly would never know that her younger sister had been unwittingly putting the poisoned meals in front of her and Hyacinth would never find out that her sister had planned for her to be so ill that control of the Hall’s finances would be taken away from her. Holly agreed to contact the police in Haverfordwest to explain that she had somehow picked up the poison and to request her sister’s release.
Myvvi then said. “They both were in receipt of a generous allowance from their aunt’s estate. Due to her lavish lifestyle, Holly had run up considerable debts in Bristol. Hyacinth on the other hand had quite a bit of savings because she had led a quiet life looking after her aunt. We persuaded Holly to take an interest-free loan from Hyacinth to pay off her debts. The loan would be repaid when eventually the Hall would be sold.”
I summarised. “I agreed to send the library book back to Tenby and to explain that because of illness no fine should be paid. The main piece of literary evidence against Holly would soon be circulating around the gardeners of the seaside town. I also popped out to Markson Hall to collect the almost full bottle of weed-killer, which Holly had been keeping under lock and key in a box under her bed. I left it early one morning outside the Agricultural Merchants in Carew with a little note tied to it.
‘Please find attached bottle, the contents of which are no longer required. Long live Weeds.’ Before I had sat down three ladies were heading for the kitchen to put the kettle on. Tea with Bessie the Law’s heavy bread pudding would go down nicely as we all chewed over the ins and outs of the now-solved mystery at Markson Hall.