As my first post of November, I have an extract for you!
Title: Sorry for the Dead
Author: Nicola Upson
Date of publication: 7 November 2019
Publisher: Faber & Faber
In the summer of 1915, the violent death of a young girl brings grief and notoriety to Charleston Farmhouse on the Sussex Downs.
Years later, Josephine Tey returns to the same house – now much changed – and remembers the two women with whom she once lodged as a young teacher during the Great War. As past and present collide, with murders decades apart, Josephine is forced to face the possibility that the scandal which threatened to destroy those women’s lives hid a much darker secret.
Sorry for the Dead is the eighth book in the ‘Josephine Tey’ series, at once a compelling murder mystery and a moving exploration of love and grief
She waited on the step until Josephine was out of sight, then closed the front door behind her. The house seemed unnaturally quiet, and it took her a few moments to accept that she was finally alone. The book – a present she would never read – still lay on the table in the hallway. She unwrapped it and folded the brown paper neatly into a square, then went through to the sitting room to put it on the bookshelf with the others. Out of habit, she straightened the picture above the fireplace, wondering why she had lived for so long with something that she didn’t really like. In a moment of defiance, she lifted the canvas from its hook and put it face down on the floor.
The pointlessness of her days stared back at her from the tidy room: the vacuumed carpet and dusted shelves, everything pathetically in its place; only the coffee table showed any sign of dissent. She stacked the plates and cups carefully onto a tray and cleared away the remains of a fruit cake made the week before. It was past its best, stale and tasteless in her mouth, but it had served its purpose and the rest could be thrown away. She took it outside and crumbled it onto the low red-brick wall that separated her cottage from the one next door, smiling to herself when she imagined her neighbours’ indignation at the thought of a week’s dried fruit and sugar going to the birds. Already they thought her selfish and unfriendly, but she had been called much worse, and no doubt would be again.
April was barely a week old, but the heat could have passed for early June. She sat down on a sun-bleached wooden bench which stood just outside the back door, trying not to disturb the cat who invariably got there before her. It had taken her a long time to get used to such a small garden – just a plain, unimaginative rectangle in a terrace of the same – but she had planted it with all the things she loved most, nurturing a tiny wilderness of flowers and shrubs which had no purpose other than their beauty. A succession of warm days and spring showers had obliged her by bringing everything out before its time, and she was pleased to see the unexpected joy of early tulips. The promise of summer was everywhere, and the knowledge gave her comfort as well as pain; the rose that meant so much to her would be magnificent this year. Distracted by her thoughts, she stroked Percy’s head as he lay stretched out in the sun, thin and arthritic in his old age. He had been with her for years, a handsome white and black hunter who arrived on her doorstep on the day she moved in and stubbornly refused to leave. She had thought him a burden at the time, something else to care for and lose, but his company soon won her over; now, she couldn’t bear the thought of being parted from him.
In the distance, the clock at St John’s struck the hour with its customary lack of urgency, and she went inside to collect her purse and shopping basket. Her front door opened straight onto the pavement, and she walked out into the narrow, leafy lane and headed for the high street, taking the most direct route to make sure of reaching the butcher’s before he lowered his blinds for the weekend. She obviously wasn’t the only one to be waylaid by a fine afternoon: the last-minute queue for meat stretched out of the shop door and round the corner, and she took her place in it, nodding to one or two of the customers. Whenever she found herself in a crowd these days, she was increasingly struck by the emptiness in people’s faces, by a flat, going-through-the-motions air which she had never been conscious of before, not even in the depths of war. It was as if this fragile peace, no matter how longed-for, lacked the exhilaration of wartime, the shared sense of purpose that had helped people forget their fear and their grief. The danger had passed, but gone too was the laughing in the street, the instinctive kindnesses from one neighbour to another – and it was these small, commonplace things that mattered to most people. Now, everyone looked so tired and worn down that she wondered if the world would ever recover.
Inside, the shop smelled faintly of blood and sawdust.
‘Two ounces of ham, please,’ she said, requesting the full ration when her turn came.
The butcher nodded, and she watched as he cut thick slices from the bone and weighed them. ‘What else can I get you?’
‘Nothing, thank you.’
He looked at her in surprise. ‘That’s all you want? I’ve got some of that stewing beef you like, fresh in yesterday. It’ll save you queuing again if you take it now.’
She looked at the meat and the nausea rose in her throat.
‘Just the ham,’ she snapped, feeling the eyes of the queue on her. ‘I really don’t need anything else.’
He shrugged and took her money, raising his eyes at the woman next in line, and she left the shop without another word. Across the street, a dress in the window of Jones’s caught her eye and she went over to look at it, drawn to the startling shade of green. Its tight-fitting waist and extravagantly flared skirts were so unlike anything she owned that, on a whim, she pushed the door open and went inside, conscious of her conservative shoes and the dull, shabby skirt that had seen too many summers. The counter was piled high with the new season’s accessories, a flashback to the time before all the beautiful, feminine things disappeared, and a young girl wearing too much rouge came over to greet her. ‘The dress in the window—’ she began, but was interrupted before she could finish her sentence.
‘Ah yes, madam. It’s only just come in, and I think you’ll find the fabric is—’
‘I’ll take it.’
‘You don’t want to try it on?’
The girl looked doubtful, and she wondered how many more people that day would question the fact that she knew her own mind; strange, because she had never felt more deliberate or more certain.
‘There’s no need,’ she insisted. ‘I know it will fit.’
With a shrug, the assistant went over to the window to set about undressing the mannequin, and five minutes later the dress was hers. Rather than retracing her steps, she decided to walk back via the castle. The steep climb through Castle Gate and into the Precincts beyond made her feel every year of her age, and she paused at the top to catch her breath.
Beyond the outskirts of Lewes, the soft green downs spread out before her under a Wedgwood sky. It was a view she had always loved, a reminder of both the happiest and saddest times of her life, but today it was too much; she turned her back on it and headed for home.
She shook out the dress and hung it on her wardrobe door, then went back downstairs to the kitchen. Percy answered her call immediately, apparently oblivious to the strain in her voice, and she chopped the ham into a dish while he rubbed round her legs, making the small, familiar noises of appreciation that still seemed so out of place in a cat his size. The meat was as salty as brine and less tasty than it looked, and she felt a sudden surge of anger with herself for buying the wrong thing on this of all days. She picked him up and held him, and his ears flicked with irritation as he felt her tears on his fur. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said softly, choking back a sob. ‘I’m so sorry.’ He wriggled in her arms to be released and she let him have his way, then prepared the last of the milk and put both dishes down in the sunlight just outside the back door, making sure that he had the ham first. His enjoyment was little comfort to her, and, when he turned so innocently to the
milk, she had to walk away.
As a distraction, she tidied the already tidy kitchen. Perhaps it was her mood, but the room seemed cheerless and neglected. When everything was as she wanted it, she found the Vim and scoured the oven until it was spotless, then climbed the stairs to change. She washed at the tiny sink in her bedroom, annoyed by the dripping tap which she had never got round to having fixed, and wondered what else had been left undone. As she took the dress from its hanger and put it on, the unfamiliar fabric felt dangerous against her skin and she smiled to herself. She had been right to trust her instinct: the dress could have been made for her, and for a fleeting moment in the mirror she caught a glimpse of the woman she had once been. The knowledge tormented her and she put it from her mind.
‘How do I look?’ she asked, but the only answer was a heavy, oppressive silence.
Back downstairs, she forced herself to go outside. Percy lay in the sunshine; she could have convinced herself that he was merely sleeping were it not for the shallowness of his
breath. The tears came again, more forceful than ever, and this time she made no effort to stop them. She owed him that, at least. Gently, she picked him up and clutched him to her, then set him down in the chair that he had always made his own, talking all the time to him while she made her preparations. She closed the window on the spring day and laid a wet tea towel carefully along the sill where she knew the draughts came in, then did the same at the back door and the door into the hallway. When everything was ready, she left the note where it couldn’t be missed and sat by her cat while he took his final breath, then picked up the cushion from the other chair and walked over to the cooker. Astonished by how calm she felt, she turned the gas on and set the cushion in place, then put her head inside, as far as she could bear.
This time, there must be no mistake.
What an excerpt! Powerful and well-written, it makes me want to read more!
Thank you very much to Faber & Faber for inviting me to join the blog tour! Don’t forget to check out the other stops!
Nicola Upson’s debut novel, An Expert in Murder, was the first in a series of crime
novels whose main character is Josephine Tey, who – along with Agatha Christie –
was one of the masters of Britain’s Golden Age of crime writing. The most recent
book in the series, Nine Lessons, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger in