Madison left Cathy to live with me. They got a divorce, even though she didn’t want it, and we were married immediately. Five months later he was dead. His death was quick, but strange; even the doctor didn’t really know why he had died. Several causes of death were listed on the birth certificate: organ failure, oedema, pneumonia – but they all seemed wrong, somehow. He wasn’t a young man, but he hadn’t been unhealthy. However, at the inquest, the coroner accepted that he’d died from natural causes.
At the time of his death, no settlement with Cathy had been agreed. Madison had been astute financially and had employed excellent lawyers and accountants. He’d started salting money into various bank accounts for me, some of them offshore, almost as soon as we met. He knew that it had always been my ambition to run my own business and he was determined not to let Cathy stand in my way. He said he was too old to work again, but it would be his very great pleasure to watch me succeed.
There was a will: it split his assets equally between Cathy and me. My lawyer said that this was fair, since, if he had left Cathy to live on his own and offered her a fifty-fifty split, this would have been more than generous. Now that he had passed on, his share had come to me, as was fitting. After all, I was his wife. Her lawyer disagreed because of the surprising smallness of the estate: it was worth less than fifty thousand pounds. Even the house that Cathy lived in had been re-mortgaged. There must be much more money, concealed somewhere, said her lawyer. Madison’s accountants blamed the modesty of the inheritance on some unwise business ventures. Cathy contested the will, but her appeal failed.
Braemar Cottage, the house that I had shared so briefly with Madison, was old – built in the eighteenth century, according to the deeds, though Madison thought that an even older property had once stood on the site. Montrose, the house that Cathy now lived in alone, was also several hundred years old – Madison had liked old buildings.
I don’t care for the past: thinking about it depresses me; seeing evidence of it all around suffocates me. Besides, the neighbours said that there was a ghost at Braemar Cottage, of a headless woman in a blue dress. The place gave me the creeps. I decided to sell it and buy somewhere bright and new: a place that would give me a clean sheet, with no past. I found a buyer almost immediately – it is amazing how many people are sentimental about ‘period’ properties. It was through him that I discovered that Montrose had also been put on the market (I suppose that Cathy couldn’t afford to keep it), but he had preferred Braemar Cottage, because of the new bathrooms and kitchen that I had insisted should be installed before I had agreed to live there.
The sale went through so quickly that I had to move into a hotel for a while. I found my perfect residence quickly, too: a luxury flat on the top floor of a new tower block in Camden – the internal fittings and decorations weren’t even completed when I viewed – with integral office space for my new business. The building possessed all of the virgin blankness that I craved. It was ultra-modern, stylishly asymmetrical, minimalist but opulent in an understated way. For example, although there were three conventional lifts for tradespeople and visitors, residents were given a pass to a special glass lift that had been installed exclusively for their use. Day and night there were two porters at the security desk in the main entrance, as well as a doorman standing sentry at the revolving doors. It was one of the porters, a short, cheerful East-Ender called Jarvis, who, during one of my inspection visits, volunteered to introduce me to the glass lift.
“I hope you don’t get vertigo,” said Jarvis as, with a waft of his pass-card, the glass doors slid open. We were on my floor at the top of the building, the eighteenth. He pressed the button, the doors snapped shut and the lift shot swiftly into motion, all, it seemed, in the same second. I had hardly had time to take in the spectacular view across London before the lift, its glass walls, sides and floor all so highly polished that we appeared to be suspended in air, plummeted like a diving angel. The sensation was extraordinary: it was like being in free-fall through space, both exhilarating and frightening. I held on to the rail, and looked down through the glass as the marble floor of the basement flew towards me. As I looked, the black-and-white squares of the floor broke apart and revealed a gaping pit beneath. There was something in the pit, writhing and hideous. I tapped Jarvis’s arm, forcing myself not to grip it.
“What’s that?” I gasped.
Jarvis and I stared down together. At the same moment, the lift slowed and drew smoothly to a halt.
“What?” said Jarvis. “See something interesting as we was coming down, did you? What was it?”
“I thought that the floor was opening up. Obviously I was wrong – it must have been a trick of the light.”
“It’s with it being glass,” said Jarvis. “It plays tricks on your eyes. Optical illusions, innit? That’s part of the fun.”
Footnote: This concludes the series of five short story openings under the theme of ‘The Village’. Readers of In the Family may perhaps recognise my experimentation with some of the fundamental features of fictional writing (plot development, narrative voice and perspective, character depiction, dialogue, context, atmosphere and mood and so on) that did influence my writing of the novel. I hope that you have enjoyed dipping into them. Thanks to those of you who have commented here and on Twitter and to those who have very kindly retweeted for me whilst I have been away. Normal service resumes tomorrow!