Inspirational at school. A bully at home… but did he really try to gas his wife? A pressure-cooker marriage boils over in the latest thrillingly dark tale from the queen of crime P.D. JAMES
No one introduces a twist in the tale quite like P. D. James, as the Mail’s exclusive series of her short stories has shown.
Today, we publish part one of our third and final headscratching whodunit, A Very Desirable Residence.
During and after Harold Vinson’s trial, at which I was a relatively unimportant prosecution witness, there was the usual uninformed, pointless and repetitive speculation about whether those of us who knew him would ever have guessed that he was a man capable of scheming to murder his wife.
I was supposed to have known him better than most of the school staff, and my colleagues found it irritatingly self-righteous of me to be so very reluctant to be drawn into the general gossip about what, after all, was the school’s major scandal in 20 years.
‘You knew them both. You used to visit the house. You saw them together. Didn’t you guess?’ they insisted, obviously feeling that I had been in some way negligent, that I ought to have seen what was going on and prevented it. No, I never guessed; or, if I did, I guessed wrong.
But they were perfectly right. I could have prevented it. I first met Harold Vinson when I took up a post as junior art master at the comprehensive school where he taught mathematics to the senior forms.
I was supposed to have known him better than most of the school staff, and my colleagues found it irritatingly self-righteous of me to be so very reluctant to be drawn into the general gossip about what, after all, was the school’s major scandal in 20 years
It wasn’t too discouraging a place, as these teaching factories go.
The school was centred on the old 18th-century grammar school, with some not-too-hideous modern additions, in a pleasant enough commuter town on the river about 20 miles South East of London. It was a predominantly middle-class community, a little smug and culturally self-conscious, but hardly intellectually exciting.
Still, it suited me well enough for a first post. I don’t object to the middle class or their habitats; I’m middle class myself. And I knew that I was lucky to get the job.
Mine is the usual story of an artist with sufficient talent but without enough respect for the fashionable idiocies of the contemporary artistic establishment to make a decent living.
More dedicated men choose to live in cheap bedsitting rooms and keep on painting. I’m fussy about where and how I live so, for me, it was a diploma in the teaching of art and West Fairing Comprehensive.
It only took one evening in Vinson’s home for me to realise that he was a sadist. I don’t mean he tormented his pupils. He wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with it had he tried. These days the balance of power in the classroom has shifted with a vengeance and any tormenting is done by the children.
No, as a teacher he was surprisingly patient and conscientious, a man with real enthusiasm for his subject (‘discipline’ was the word he preferred to use, being something of an intellectual snob and given to academic jargon) with a surprising talent for communicating that enthusiasm to the children.
He was a fairly rigid disciplinarian, but I’ve never found that children dislike firmness provided a master doesn’t indulge in that mordant sarcasm which, by taking advantage of the children’s inability to compete, is resented as particularly unfair.
He got them through their examinations too. Say what you like, that’s something middle-class kids and their parents appreciate.
I’m sorry to have slipped into using the word ‘kids’, that modern shibboleth with its blend of condescension and sycophancy. Vinson never used it. It was his habit to talk about the alumni of the sixth.
At first I thought it was an attempt at mildly pompous humour, but now I wonder. He wasn’t really a humorous man. The rigid muscles of his face seldom cracked into a smile and when they did it was as disconcerting as a painful grimace.
With his lean, slightly stooping figure, the grave eyes behind the horn-rimmed spectacles, the lines etched deeply from the nose to the corners of his unyielding mouth, he looked deceptively what we all thought he was — a middle-aged, disagreeable and not very happy pedant.
No, it wasn’t his precious alumni whom he bullied and tyrannised. It was his wife.
The first time I saw Emily Vinson was when I sat next to her at Founder’s Memorial Day, an archaic function inherited from the grammar school and regarded with such reverence that even those masters’ wives who seldom showed their faces at the school felt obliged to make an appearance.
Britain’s queen of crime writers P.D. James died in 2014 (pictured at Guildhall, City of London)
She was, I guessed, almost 20 years younger than her husband, a thin, anxious-looking woman with auburn hair which had faded early and the very pale, transparent skin which often goes with that colouring. She was expensively and smartly dressed — too incongruously smartly for such a nondescript woman, so that the ill-chosen, too-fashionable suit merely emphasised her frail ordinariness.
But her eyes were remarkable, an unusual grey-green, huge and slightly exophthalmic under the arched, narrow eyebrows. She seldom turned them on me but when, from time to time, she gave me a swift elliptical glance it was as astounding as turning over an amateurish Victorian oil and discovering a Corot.
It was at the end of Founder’s Memorial Day that I received my first invitation to visit them at their home. I found that they lived in some style. She had inherited from her father a small but perfectly proportioned Georgian house which stood alone in some two acres of ground with lawns slanting green down to the river.
Apparently her father was a builder who had bought the house cheaply from its impoverished owner with the idea of demolishing it and building a block of flats. The planning authority had slapped on a preservation order just in time and he had died in weeks, no doubt from chagrin, leaving the house and its contents to his daughter.
Neither Harold Vinson nor his wife seemed to appreciate their possession. He grumbled about the expense; she grumbled about the housework. The perfectly proportioned façade, so beautiful that it took the breath, seemed to leave them as unmoved as if they lived in a square brick box. Even the furniture, which had been bought with the house, was regarded by them with as little respect as if it were cheap reproduction.
When at the end of my first visit I complimented Vinson on the spaciousness and proportions of the dining room, he replied: ‘A house is only the space between four walls. What does it matter if they are far apart or close together, or what they are made of? You’re still in a cage.’
His wife was carrying the plates into the kitchen at the time and didn’t hear him. He spoke so low that I scarcely heard him myself. I am not even sure now that I was meant to hear.
Marriage is both the most public and the most secret of institutions, its miseries as irritatingly insistent as a hacking cough, its private malaise less easily diagnosed.
And nothing is so destructive as unhappiness to social life. No one wants to sit in embarrassed silence while his host and hostess demonstrate their mutual incompatibility and dislike.
She could, it seemed, hardly open her mouth without annoying him. No opinion she expressed was worth listening to. Her small domestic chat — which was, after all, all she had — invariably provoked him by its banality so that he would put down his knife and fork with a look of patient, resigned boredom as soon as, with a nervous preparatory glance at him, she would steel herself to speak.
If she had been an animal, cringing away with that histrionic, essentially false look of piteous entreaty, I can see that the temptation to kick would be irresistible. And, verbally, Vinson kicked.
Not surprisingly they had few friends. Looking back it would probably be more true to say that they had no real friends. The only colleague of his who visited from the school, apart from myself, was Vera Pelling, the junior science teacher, and she, poor girl, was such an unattractive bore that there weren’t many alternatives open to her.
Vera Pelling is the living refutation of that theory so beloved, I understand, of beauty and fashion journalists in women’s magazines that any woman if she takes the trouble can make something of her appearance. Nothing could be done about Vera’s pig-like eyes and non-existent chin, and, reasonably enough, she didn’t try.
I am sorry if I sound harsh. She wasn’t a bad sort. And if she thought that making a fourth with me at an occasional free supper with the Vinsons was better than eating alone in her furnished flat I suppose she had her reasons, as I had mine.
I never remember having visited the Vinsons without Vera, although Emily came to my flat on three occasions, with Harold’s approval, to sit for her portrait. It wasn’t a success. The result looked like a pastiche of an early Stanley Spencer. Whatever it was I was trying to capture, that sense of a secret life conveyed in the rare grey-green flash of those remarkable eyes, I didn’t succeed.
When Vinson saw the portrait he said: ‘You were prudent, my boy, to opt for teaching as a livelihood. Although, looking at this effort, I would say that the choice was hardly voluntary.’ For once I was tempted to agree with him.
Vera Pelling and I became oddly obsessed with the Vinsons. Walking home after one of their supper parties, we would mull over the traumas of the evening like an old married couple perennially discussing the inadequacies of a pair of relatives whom we actively disliked but couldn’t bear not to see.
Vera was a tolerable mimic and would imitate Vinson’s desiccated tones. ‘My dear, I think that you recounted that not very interesting domestic drama last time we had supper together.’
‘And what, my dear, have you been doing with yourself today? What fascinating conversation did you have with the estimable Mrs Wilcox while you cleaned the drawing room together?’
Really, confided Vera, tucking her arm through mine, it had become so embarrassing that it was almost enough to put her off visiting them. But not quite enough, apparently. Which was why she, too, was at the Vinsons’ on the night when it happened.
On the evening of the crime — the phrase has a stereotyped but dramatic ring which isn’t inappropriate to what, look at it as you will, was no ordinary villainy — Vera and I were due at the school at 7pm to help with the dress rehearsal of the school play. I was responsible for the painted backcloth and some of the props, and Vera for the make-up.
It was an awkward time, too early for a proper meal beforehand and too late to make it sensible to stay on at school without some thought of supper, and when Emily Vinson issued through her husband an invitation to both Vera and me to have coffee and sandwiches at six o’clock, it seemed sensible to accept.
Admittedly, Vinson made it plain that the idea was his wife’s. He seemed mildly surprised that she should wish to entertain us so briefly — insist on entertaining us, was the expression he used.
Vinson himself wasn’t involved with the play. He never grudged spending his private time to give extra tuition in his own subject but made it a matter of rigid policy never to become involved in what he described as extramural divertissements, appealing only to the regressed adolescent.
He was, however, a keen chess player and on Wednesday evenings spent the three hours from nine until midnight at the local chess club, of which he was secretary. He was a man of meticulous habit and any school activity on a Wednesday evening would, in any case, have had to manage without him.
Every detail, every word spoken at that brief and unremarkable meal — dry ham sandwiches cut too thick and synthetic coffee — was recounted by Vera and me at the Crown Court, so it has always intrigued me that I can no longer visualise the scene. I know exactly what happened, of course. I can recall every word. It’s just that I can no longer shut my eyes and see the supper table, the four of us seated there, imprinted in colours on the mind’s eye.
Vera and I said at the trial that both Vinsons seemed more than usually ill at ease, that Harold, in particular, gave us the impression that he wished we weren’t there. But that could have been hindsight.
The vital incident, if you can call it that, happened towards the end of the meal. It was so very ordinary at the time, so crucial in retrospect.
Emily Vinson, as if uneasily aware of her duties as hostess and of the unaccountable silence which had fallen on the table, made a palpable effort. Looking up with a nervous glance at her husband, she said: ‘Two such very nice and polite workmen came this morning ––’
Vinson touched his lips with his paper serviette, then crumpled it convulsively. His voice was unusually sharp as he broke in: ‘Emily my dear, do you think you could spare us the details of your domestic routine this evening? I’ve had a particularly tiring day. And I am trying to concentrate my mind on this evening’s game.’ And that was all.
The dress rehearsal was over by about nine o’clock, as planned, and I told Vera that I had left a library book at the Vinsons’ and was anxious to pick it up on the way home. She made no objection.
She gave the impression, poor girl, that she was never particularly anxious to get home. It was only a quarter of an hour’s brisk walk to the house and, when we arrived, we saw at once that something was wrong. There were two cars, one with a blue light on the roof, and an ambulance parked unobtrusively but unmistakably at the side of the house.
Vera and I glanced briefly at each other, then ran to the front door. It was shut. Without ringing we dashed round to the side. The back door, leading to the kitchen quarters, was open.
I had an immediate impression that the house was peopled with large men; two of them were in uniform. There was, I remember, a policewoman bending over the prone figure of Emily Vinson. And their cleaning woman, Mrs Wilcox, was there too.
I heard Vera explaining to a plain-clothes policeman, obviously the senior man present, that we were friends of the Vinsons, that we had been there to supper only that evening. ‘What’s happened?’ she kept asking. ‘What’s happened?’
Before the police could answer, Mrs Wilcox was spitting it all out, eyes bright with self-important outrage and excitement. I sensed that the police wanted to get rid of her, but she wasn’t so easily dislodged. And, after all, she had been first on the scene. She knew it all.
I heard it in a series of disjointed sentences: ‘Knocked on the head — terrible bruise — marks all over the parquet flooring where he dragged her — only just coming round now — human fiend — head resting on a cushion in the gas stove — the poor darling — came in just in time at 9.20 — always come to watch colour TV with her on Wednesday night —back door open as usual — found the note on the kitchen table.’
The figure writhing on the floor, groaning and crying in a series of harsh, grunting moans like an animal in travail, suddenly raised herself and spoke coherently. ‘I didn’t write it! I didn’t write it!’
‘You mean Mr Vinson tried to kill her?’ Vera was incredulous, head turning from Mrs Wilcox to the watchful, inscrutable faces of the police.
The senior officer broke in: ‘Now Mrs Wilcox, I think it’s time you went home. The ambulance is here. An officer will come along for your statement later this evening. We’ll look after Mrs Vinson. There’s nothing else for you to do.’
He turned to Vera and me. ‘If you were here earlier this evening, I’d like a word. We’re fetching Mr Vinson now from his chess club. But if you two will just wait in the sitting room, please.’
Vera said, ‘But if he knocked her unconscious and put her head in the gas oven, then why isn’t she dead?’ It was Mrs Wilcox who replied, turning triumphantly as she was led out: ‘The conversion, that’s why. We’re on natural gas from this morning. That North Sea stuff. It isn’t poisonous. The two men from the Gas Board came just after nine o’clock.’
They were lifting Emily Vinson onto a stretcher now. Her voice came to us in a desperate wail. ‘I tried to tell him. You remember? You heard him? I tried to tell him . . .’
- A VERY Desirable Residence is taken from Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales, by P. D. James, published by Faber & Faber at £7.99 in paperback. © PD James 1976. To order a copy for £7.03 (offer valid to 19/1/21), go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. P&P free on orders over £15. Published with kind permission of the Estate of P. D. James.
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