Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Wichenford Court Murder - Chapter Three

Book Title: The Winchenford Court Murder
Genre: Crime Detective Mystery
Author: Julius Falconer

After secondary school, which he had enjoyed, Gibson Buckenham attended the London School of Business and Finance for a three-year ACCA qualification. Armed with this, he had returned to his home county to start work as an accounting technician with the county council. After five years he had graduated to the post of finance officer, with responsibilities that included the payroll, budgets and financial systems of the council. Now in his forties, he could congratulate himself on being one of the council’s finance managers, with oversight of personnel, efficiency and savings, financial processes, legal requirements and so forth. He was a person of considerable standing locally, although quite unknown to the public at large. During his first years of work at Worcester, he had made the acquaintance of Catherine Warbeck, three years his junior, who, after an extensive courtship, had agreed to be his wife. She worked as a hair-stylist and beautician for ‘Hairs Something New’ in The Cross, Worcester - facials, manicure, waxing, massage, make-up, eyelash extensions: a bit of everything to make the modern woman elegant, attractive and feeling good about herself. She argued that modern beauty treatments were the logical development of the (perhaps) less sophisticated techniques practised by that all-time siren Cleopatra, who, if ancient sources are to be believed, bathed in asses’ milk and honey, used sea salt as a cleansing agent, rubbed in a cream compounded of olive oil and lime to tone up her skin and, as a final touch, dabbed on myrrh oil or frankincense oil – or both - to create the ultimate and irresistible fragrance.

From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs,

as Shakespeare tells us. If Catherine’s treatments were expensive and short-lived, so be it: pleasing one’s man was an essential part of modern life, mainly because the modern man required such pampering and stimulation. She herself was, of course, a model of glamour.

Gibson and Kate had got married at St.Lawrence’s Church, Wichenford, within feet of the impressive Buckenham memorials, not because either was fervently pious but out of social convention. They had started out in a house on the Oldbury Road in Harborne but had, in time, graduated to Windsor Avenue. There they lived as other middle-class couples live, amidst an uneventful round of work, socialising, holidays and harmless pursuits like golf, the cinema and the theatre. Now Gibson was conventional. Centuries of Buckenham propaganda had inculcated in his psyche the unshakeable conviction that upper middle-class English is the culmination of human endeavour. Many attempts have been made to define its essential quality: a world of public schooling, tennis parties, continental travel, dinners in secluded country houses and bespoke suits (Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time), received pronunciation (George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion and, I suppose, William Russell’s charming play Educating Rita),  prescribed etiquette (Lord Chesterfield, Letters to his Son), an ignorance of lower social classes (George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris), and so forth: we need not pursue that here. According to Gibson – and this is sufficient for us - all the virtues of Empire were founded on the values of Britain’s middle class. Kate, on the other hand, was less hide-bound. Her father was the owner of a small business, her mother a hospital matron. (Captivated by her beauty, Gibson had, in the appraisal of his parents, married a little beneath him.) Her work brought her into contact with all manner of customers, from the well-to-do to the nouveaux riches (perhaps that should be rather nouvelles riches!), from the older woman wishing to appear younger to the school-girl wishing to appear more sophisticated, from the pathetic to the heartening. She was glad to do her best for all.

One of her particular customers was a woman called Parmelia Hick-Stephens, who sashayed in every three weeks for a full treatment. Lady Hick-Stephens’ husband, Sir Denzel, was a wine-merchant in Worcester, highly thought-of amongst connoisseurs as a supplier of unusual and infallible vintages. The mutual attraction between Kate Buckenham, beautician, and Parmelia Hick-Stephens, minor aristocrat, is not easy to account for. Of course, any relationship between one who provides an intimate service and her client can develop into something a little warmer than mere professional contact, but in the present case, something akin to real friendship blossomed. Kate received Parmelia’s confidences and Parmelia Kate’s; they chatted like school-girls. The one would no more dream of making an appointment with a member of staff other than Kate, than the salon would allow a member of staff other than Kate to treat Lady Hick-Stephens. On her uniform, Kate bore only her Christian name, but in the course of only a few sessions, her surname and her family circumstances came out in full. Parmelia learnt, therefore, early in their acquaintance, that Catherine Warbeck had married into the Buckenhams of Wichenford Court. In itself, this was not a recommendation, as the family’s reputation locally was tainted with accusations of reserve to the point of arrogance, but Parmelia made no adverse comments on that score.

One day, Lady Hick-Stephens suggested to Kate that they might meet for coffee in the town, socially, as she had something particular to discuss. Kate was intrigued. They chose a Wednesday, which was Kate’s day off, and Parmelia picked a secluded coffee-shop off the Shambles. Outside the salon, no one would have remarked on these two middle-class women walking arm in arm, amiably conversing as friends do, and they took their seats without attracting the slightest attention. At the time of this particular encounter, Lady Hick-Stephens was in her late forties, tall, elegant. Her rich brown hair tumbled down in great festoons on either side of her face. Large brown eyes straddled a long, straight nose, with narrow nostrils and a well-rounded tip. Kate’s artful work had given Parmelia’s made-up lips a lush appearance at the centre of a resplendent smile, to which her ruddy cheeks added a dynamic of health and good humour. Parmelia was therefore, on the basis of art wedded to nature, a very attractive woman. She also evinced qualities of self-possession and natural leadership. Kate, on the other hand, was equally but differently beautiful, with an intangible, Pre-Raphaelite grace and delicacy – a sort of Burne-Jones Beggar Maid, as it might be. Her brown hair was smoothed back into a french plait, leaving her wide eyes and subtle features to make their full appeal.

My remembrance is, although I speak under correction, that, in his Barchester Chronicles, Anthony Trollope states as his aim the recording of everyday life in an English cathedral city, yet not once in six considerable volumes does he mention the weather! There is no reference to the sun, clouds, rain, frost, temperatures seasonal or unseasonal. For Trollope, the weather was clearly of no importance in narrating the lives of his deans and archdeacons, precentors and bishops. Your present chronicler will not leave you similarly in ignorance. When Lady Hick-Stephens and Mrs Gibson Buckenham entered the Daily Grind café, the sun was shining.