A Wing and A Prayer
written by: David Milner
The detective had been no use whatsoever. When she had finally got to speak with him, after two cups of stewed tea the desk sergeant had made for her. She couldn’t remember the detective’s name, now. What the blooming hell was he called?
He’d seemed preoccupied, fiddling with the knot of his tie. A pleasant enough looking bloke of thirty or so. He’d offered her one of his cigarettes. Which she’d declined. Then he was fiddling with the middle button – of three – on his dark grey blazer. Whilst having the brass neck to ask her, how well she knew her sister. What did he mean, this detective? What was he getting at?
Mrs. Warris, the landlady of the lodging place, wasn’t joking when she’d said the room wasn’t up to much. “It’s cheap, if not too cheerful, dear”, Mrs. Warris had laughed through her wintry cough. Five shillings for the week she was charging, apparently this was reasonable for Brixton, Marjorie suspected the woman would have gone lower. The single bed took up most of the space, the room was that small. On a rickety table stood a white enamel jug and matching bowl for washing in. The floorboards were loose underfoot, the window frame looked brittle, and the curtains were made from potato sacks. “Knocked ‘em up meself”, Mrs. Warris had offered from the doorway, indicating the window. “I’ve no spare blankets”, she’d said as she was leaving.
It was the blackest of nights. Sat on the lumpy old bed, Marjorie had done nothing but stare at the letters from Enid. Seven in all, sent home to Rochdale at monthly intervals, the last one post-marked Brixton 19th October 1946. Then… nothing. Nothing over Christmas? It wasn’t like Enid. And mam getting ill with worry. Back and forth from the local station putting telephone calls through to the police at Brixton for nothing but the same old assurances. Mam worn down, looking older by the day. Christmas came and went.
She’d forgotten to show the letters to the detective. So much turmoil going on inside her head, never mind the world outside. Marjorie was used to the bombsites of Manchester, but London was worse. Whole streets she’d seen in ruins. How was it all getting rebuilt? Churned up earth and concrete piled high. All talk of the future now; the work, hope, and the sacrifices still to be made. She bet that detective wasn’t losing sleep over some young woman gone missing.
Marjorie pulled out a woollen cardigan from her suitcase. She wrapped herself in its meagre warmth and held her arms to her breast. She was dog tired. And starved dog hungry. A cheese sandwich before she’d boarded the train at Manchester Piccadilly was all she’d eaten this day. She’d decided against the pie and eel shop up the road from the lodgings, as it was chocka with blokes and cigarette smoke. Now she’d murder for a lamb chop, or a steak and kidney pudding… Stray words and sentences were trying to form clues inside her head. She was proper jiggered, couldn’t concentrate, her feet were aching. She heard the groan of water pipes. And the old house creaking, like it was being stretched on a rack. The wind howled to the heavens. Marjorie wouldn’t remember her eyelids closing.
With an awakened air of interest, Mrs. Warris entered the room of the young northern woman.
“Wake up, wake up, there’s a good girl….” Marjorie hadn’t expected to be awoken personally, with a cup of tea. Taking the cup and saucer, she couldn’t help but notice rolls of flab under the frayed blue housecoat. There was a load more of Mrs. Warris without a girdle.
“Someone wants see ya’”
“Someone to see me?”
“Bill.” Mrs. Warris quickly glanced over her shoulder, folding her arms over the mound of her bosom.
Bill, had she said? Marjorie didn’t know a Bill, didn’t know anyone in London.
“Yer what?” She asked, staring at the woman.
“Copper. Downstairs,” Mrs. Warris pursed her lips, arched her eyebrows, and lowered her voice to a stage whisper, “Asked for you by name. A Detective Moncur.”
He was wearing the same blazer with the loose middle button from the previous day. He looked younger in Marjorie’s eyes, cleanly shaved, fresh faced, almost; happen it was the winter sunlight streaking through the window of the small front room. They shook hands. No band on his wedding finger. Mrs. Warris offered to make another pot of tea. And left.
“I need your assistance, Miss Doyle.” Detective John Moncur began.
Enid was Marjorie’s elder sister by two years. And was the light of life itself for the Doyles. A natural for the stage: singing, dancing, telling jokes. No wonder folk said she was another Gracie Fields. Although, truth be told, a whole lot prettier; Enid had Joan Fontaine type looks! Detective Moncur agreed with that once he laid his chestnut-coloured eyes on the photographs.
“She – Enid,” the detective corrected himself with a curt smile, “mentions Tony quite a lot.”
“Yes, I suppose she was going steady with him.”
“Did Enid include photographs with her letters?”
“We called her Eenie.” Marjorie smiled as the detective nodded his head. “Eenie, Meeni, Mynie, Mo and Marjorie,” counted off on her fingers.
“Have you tried to contact him, Miss Doyle?”
The question took her by surprise. “No… I wouldn’t know how.”
The detective tapped the right side of the note paper with the tip of his index finger, “She never included an address… Strange that.”
“No, she… we were not able to reply.” Marjorie began to feel her temperature rise, as the detective sat back in the armchair, crossing his legs at the ankle. An uncomfortable silence had descended on the shabby front room. Marjorie wondered if her neck was reddening.
“Tony runs a nightclub, a few actually.”
“Well, yes, Enid was singing at… as she mentions in the letters.” She was picking up odours that she couldn’t place, damp, or smells from the drains. There was dust everywhere, fine cracks in the ceiling, paintwork peeling. This was a horrible house.
“He’s Maltese. Though he’s been in London since before the war.”
Mrs. Warris shuffled in, looking like an overstuffed doll in a rumpled, rayon blouse, carrying a wooden tray, tinkling with teacups and spoons. Everything seemed to be inflating in size…
“Don’t get up.” Mrs. Warris was saying at the detective, who wasn’t getting up. He was lighting a cigarette. Marjorie was having difficulty drawing breath, felt like a pebble had landed in her throat.
“Sit down, dearie.”
Their voices were muffled, as though overheard from another room. Layers of dust everywhere.
“There are no flowers…” Marjorie wasn’t sure if this were her voice.
“Beg pardon, dearie?”
“You don’t keep flowers.”
“Miss Doyle, are you?”
Why did the police know of Tony? These London folk knew horrible things. What weren’t they letting on? Why was the Detective coming to see her now?
“Is Enid dead then? She’s dead, isn’t she? Tell me. Is it this Tony Maltese fella….’as he done it… Killed Enid? Oh, Mam…. Mam?”
The walls closed in. Her brain caught fire. Everything went dark.
They moved her into a small hotel on a quiet, tree-lined road in Norwood. Marjorie could have done without the nearby cemetery, reminding her of things. She needed the rest. She thought of Mrs. Warris, not a bad sort, really, meant well. Happen when all was over and done with, she’d pop round with some flowers for her.
Detective John Moncur drained the last of his tea from the chipped cup. The leaves at the bottom, he would have sworn, were heart shaped. He smiled, sat back in the wooden chair, struck a match, and lit a cigarette. Marjorie Doyle was much in his mind; the pitch and trill of her voice, the doe-like eyes, and the pale, somewhat undernourished pallor of her skin, deepened his smile. He supposed he was attracted by her mournfulness, in amongst her obvious feminine attributes. Living in the shadow of a flamboyant sister hadn’t dimmed her innocent vivacity. He had a feeling that he’d never have to keep an eye on her to know where she was.
The Chief Super had taken some convincing “the girl” was up to it. John Moncur was banking on it, by instinct alone. What else did they have? A wing and a prayer.
The lady who worked on Marjorie’s hair and make-up was a professional; had worked on films with Alfred Hitchcock. Over her hair, dyed a daring platinum blonde, Marjorie wore a maroon-coloured, turban-style, velvet hat. They gave her a grey woollen overcoat, sculpted at the waist. And the cocktail dress – a lighter shade of maroon to the hat – was Christian Dior? Marjorie had never heard of Christian Dior, but the dress, with its wasp-waist, fitted her to perfection. And she loved, best of all, the patent leather ankle strap sandals. As a “finishing touch” the film lady added a pair of Mother of Pearl clip-on earrings. Well, Marjorie twirled this way and that, forgetting herself in the dress mirror. And they all laughed, lightening the seriousness of the situation, because Detective Moncur was responsible for the cost of everything!
The transformation was remarkable…. ‘Truly remarkable’ the older, grey-haired, top detective said. John nodded his approval.
“You look….” And couldn’t say what he wanted to say.
He asked, instead, if she was ready.
Before they entered the club that Maltese Tony owned in Clapham, detective Moncur had reminded Marjorie that she was called Jean, and that his pretend name was Bob. He was wearing a dark blue, double-breasted suit, white shirt, brightly patterned tie, and looked every bit the hoodlum. He gently squeezed her hand.
This was a Speakeasy, then, like she’d seen in films starring Bogie or Jimmy Cagney. Only this were for real. Her heartbeat pulsated with nervous, fearful energy as she descended the stairs to the club. She swallowed over her dry tongue, and instinctively reached for John’s – Bob, he was – ‘Bob’s hand.
“People are staring.” She managed to whisper against his manly chest.
“Remember, your name is Jean.” He said, placing his hand firmly on the small of her back. A swarthy looking waiter appeared and seemed to stammer his request for her coat. ‘Bob’ casually ordered a pale ale for himself…
“And a gin and tonic for the lady.”
The club was lit by lamps and candles. There were alcoves you couldn’t see into, partly due to the dirty blue ribbons of smoke hanging in the air. A staggered collection of notes, played softly and skilfully by a black man seated at a grand piano, wafted over them as they wended their way to a vacant table.
“You like a spot of jazz, Jean?”
“If that’s what it is, why not, Bob.” She giggled, then quietly cleared her throat, as the air already tasted acrid with cigarette smoke.
Before their drinks arrived, Marjorie wondered if Enid had stood by the piano on the small stage, wearing a dress of shimmering silk… only a true image wouldn’t form.
She couldn’t feel Enid here. Her spirit was not in this dark place. Marjorie felt the Detective’s hand delicately placed on hers. Their eyes met. Enid was dead. There would come a time for her and Mam to grieve. Now it was a matter of trapping those responsible.
The drinks were brought to the table by a man who needed no introduction. He was unmistakably himself.
“Well, good evening.” He began, placing the drinks on the table, “Your first time?” He continued and clicked his fingers at a waist-coated waiter to bring him his own tipple, like it was the Ritz, not some stinking, drinking rat hole. He lowered his tall frame into a chair and sat open-legged opposite them. Oh, he was handsome, jet black hair and dark eyes a girl could melt into under normal circumstances. His royal blue, woollen suit was tailor made, no mistake. A deep-red silk kerchief bloomed from the top pocket of his blazer. Tony.
“It’s not my first time.”
“No? I don’t recognise the face.”
“Perhaps you weren’t here that particular night.”
“And that would have been when?” He parted his lips into a devilish smile revealing a row of straight white teeth.
“I can’t remember.” Bob said, before gulping a mouthful of pale ale.
The waiter appeared and placed a tall glass of light amber liquid onto the table.
“A high ball, as our American friends call it, or I should say ‘your’ American friends, I’m not sure what they feel toward people of my country.”
“Malta, your country of origin?”
“You are correct, sir. And you are?”
“Bob, and this here is Jean.”
“Bob and Jean, delightful. I’m Tony.”
Marjorie tilted her head slightly toward the right and extended her forefinger into the soft of her cheek; a cute, kittenish move she’d witnessed Enid perform a thousand times.
“What’s a high ball when it’s at ‘ome?” She smiled.
“Ah, it’s whiskey and water.” He drank from the tall glass, then said, “Your voice it’s…”
“What about it, Tony?”
“Delightful, delightful, but not London born.”
She felt the detective’s leg pushed hard against her own. She wanted to hold and squeeze his hand, “Manchester. You heard of it, Tony?”
“A-haar…” Tony’s head shot backwards as his chest and shoulders heaved with laughter. Marjorie stole a furtive glance at the detective.
“Delightful.” Tony resumed, “Isn’t she just delightful.”
His power and charisma were undeniable, but Marjorie had this rotten swine pegged for a fake. He terrified her, being this close, but she smiled sweetly, holding her feet in the ankle strap sandals firmly to the floor.
It was like a dream that she was arranging from the centre of her consciousness. She had the will to destroy this filthy pig. She had a strong man at her side watching her every move and utterance. She was giddy… giddy with guilt as much as anything, for despite the reason they were here, Marjorie, for what felt like the first time in her life, was enjoying herself.
Tony brandished a packet of du Maurier cigarettes, she liked the red gloss of the packet with its slanted white lines, a piece of modern art in hand-sized form.
“I’ll say no, if you don’t mind.”
“They’re filter-tipped.” Tony offered.
“I’m just over a heavy cold, Tony. And taking care of my voice, you see.”
“She’s a heck of a singer, Tony. Should hear her sometime.” The detective chipped in.
“Oh, stop it, now, Bob… Tony has enough on his plate, I’m sure.”
This was the Devil’s own work. The more Tony laughed and clicked his fingers ordering his minions to bring forth the drinks, the more desperate he appeared. His eyes bore into Marjorie’s as though he were pleading into something diabolic. And she teased and led him, by the snout, babbling and giggling her way through a pack of lies. She had the strength to play footsie with him, watching his eyes retreating into fathomless speculations, imagining the blood running weak in his veins. Through the thinning smiles and hollow laughter something was beginning to show itself on Tony’s face. An outer layer of invincibility whittled away. They had him. Still, she would have reached across the table to rip out his windpipe. They had him.
The murdering swine had come face to face with a ghost.
No one had killed Enid. No one person was to blame. In the years that passed Marjorie Wilson (nee Doyle) rationalised the tragedy as a trick of fate. One night, Enid, having drank too much – champagne, Marjorie liked to imagine – had fallen down a flight of stone steps. Rotten luck. Perhaps they all were responsible; mam and dad (when he was alive) and Marjorie. All encouraged Enid to use her gifts and make a real go of her life.
John informed her that it hadn’t taken long for one of Tony Lombardi’s cronies to crack under the strain of interrogation.
“So, it was just an accident… human error.”
“The disposal of a corpse is a serious offence, you know.” John Moncur grimaced and stepped back on his heels, wishing he hadn’t spoken so brusquely. He watched as the pretty young woman coiled a small handkerchief over her delicate fingers. A brave girl.
“Did he love her, you reckon, that Tony?”
“In my opinion, yes, yes he did.”
A whistle blew. A bowler hatted man rushed by. The ten-thirty train to Manchester was due to leave. John carried her suitcase a little of the way.
“I’ll be alright from here, thanks. Thank you, John.”
His eyes followed her as she tottered along the platform to her carriage. The first taste of spring was in the air. Marjorie might just turn her head back towards him. He lit a cigarette… and smiled anyway.
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