Sweet Old Lady…
When we think of murder and those who commit it, it’s common to think of a man, someone brutal and evil looking, calculating and without remorse, or sometimes someone consumed by jealousy or thoughts of revenge or greed perhaps. On those rare occasions when the murderer is a woman, again we conjure up an image of someone hard and evil looking, like those now infamous pictures of the likes of the British child murderer, Myra Hindley, or the American serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. The truth is, there is no look or image for a murder, they look just like you and me, and everyone else…
Sweet Old Lady…
Elspith Eliza Harrington and her husband had moved to the quaint little village not long after the advent of the internet. With so many different sources of entertainment available, work for an aging actress of the stage had become harder and harder to come by, and Elspith was not one to take second-rate roles in the smaller theatres…
Life in the village was pleasant. Elspith and Mr Harrington had settled in well, especially that nice Mr Harrington, who had been born and raised not more than a few miles away. The villagers were so proud that a local lad had made a name for himself; he had enthralled the locals with tales of the theatre, and best of all had brought fresh life to the local ‘amateur dramatics’ group.
She was by far the more famous of the two, but Elspith was a Londoner, it might take longer for her to gain their acceptance, or so Elspith thought and hoped.To the villagers they were just a normal couple. In private, things were very different…
Elspith had been an actress in her younger years; it’s what had attracted Mr Harrington to her in the first place. He was the casting director at the Strand Theatre, and she became his latest, and as time would show, greatest discovery. She wasn’t his only discovery though; he auditioned many chorus girls, always willing to provide a helping hand to the careers of the many young girls dreaming of theatrical stardom, and his wandering hands and roving eye were always more than willing. For Elspith though, time had made her his prisoner, his cash cow, and his possession. Many of her friends and admirers had urged her to leave the old bastard. One particular admirer, Charlie, a charming but brutal East London gangster, had even offered to have Mr Harrington entombed in the foundations of his new house. Years later she regretted not taking him up on his offer, especially when Mr Harrington’s extra-marital affairs gradually became common knowledge throughout the business; Eliza didn’t like that; he would have to go when the opportunity arose. That took much longer than Elspith would have liked, thirty years longer in fact….
“I wish you’d let me drive the car as well, it would make life so much easier for me.” Elspith said.
“I’ve said no. Everywhere in the village is within walking distance for you.” Mr Harrington replied.
“I know that, but I just mean so that I can go a bit further, see some of the countryside, it seems a shame to be surrounded by so much beauty and not be able to see more of it.”
“You haven’t driven in years; it would cost too much to add you on the insurance.”
“And whose fault is that if you never let me drive in the first place? As for the insurance, it is my money we’re living off after all.”
Mr Harrington didn’t reply. He just looked at her. Elspith could sense his resentment, and immediately regretted saying anything. It wasn’t that she was sad at having maybe hurt his feelings, he didn’t have any, but she knew he would be even more unbearable now for the next few days, deliberately making her life even more of a misery in a multitude of different ways.
Elspith missed her old life. Her days of stardom were long behind her, but it would have been nice to lend her experience to the local amateur dramatics group like her husband, but Mr Harrington would have none of it. She knew the locals would have liked her to participate more, and resented her for not doing so, thinking she believed herself to be ‘far too grand’ for them, a belief she knew her husband encouraged on the quiet.
As time passed the locals treated her with more and more indifference, while affording Mr Harrington the adulation he never had in the theatre; it was his revenge, she thought, for remaining in the shadow of her public success for all their years in the theatre together.
Over the years the villager’s indifference gradually turned to thinly disguised scorn. If Elspith and Mr Harrington were visiting one of the village shops, he would be greeted with a friendly smile and social chit chat, she with little more than begrudging nods. He was invited to numerous social gatherings, often related to his involvement with the ‘am-dram’ group; she remained at home, left to her own devices. It was during those times Elspith thought about and plotted an end to her situation, waiting for just the right opportunity to put her plans into action…
It was that time of year again, the summer charity fete. Mr Harrington was rehearsing another of his awful period dramas. Against her husband’s wishes, Elspith had volunteered to run one of the food stalls. Such generosity with her time and effort had not been warmly accepted, but anything that reduced the workload of the village fete committee was never refused, no matter how unpopular the source of the offer.They had a committee for just about anything – jam making, the church roof, even what colour the bus-stop benches should be. Elspith had learned to despise the small and narrow-minded extent of village life.
Mr Harrington did nothing to support her, choosing instead to belittle her efforts at every opportunity…
“I don’t see why you’re doing this. It’s just a village charity fete, not one of your grand star studded fund-raising events, can’t you just do as I ask for once and not try and hog the limelight?”
“I’ve always done as you asked, or more like what you’ve told me to do. I’m bored not having anything to do – you won’t let me play a part in any of the amateur dramatics, you won’t let me drive, I’m practically your servant and prisoner. Why are you so against me taking an active role in village life?”
“Because you’re not one of us, you’re just a chorus girl who got lucky, and that was thanks to me. Why can’t you be grateful for the life you have and not try to be the centre of attention? This is a village, not the starring role in a west-end production.”
Elspith already knew that’s how he thought of her. Despite it being her money that had bought them their lovely house and provided the income for their comfortable life, he regarded her success as his own and therefore the money too. And why shouldn’t he, he often thought, he had given Elspith her first big break in the business – her hard work and talent were incidental…
With Mr Harrington out of the way at rehearsals, Elspith was busy with her baking: fancy tea cakes, sausage rolls, savories, chocolate cookies, all manner of delicacies to tempt the appetite. She was a bit behind, having had to wait for various ingredients that were hard to come by – her old friend Charlie had been most helpful in that department. He’d long since retired from his ‘other activities’ so was glad to be of help, ‘just like old times’ he’d remarked when she made the unusual request.
All those days spent alone while Mr Harrington had been at rehearsals, out with friends, and socialising had given her all the time she needed. She now knew more about the countryside and all it had to offer than most of the locals; she was amazed at how many of the local plants, fruits, berries, and the such like were actually quite dangerous. She also knew as much about the villagers: Mrs Collins for example, the chairwoman of the local ‘am-dram’ group, had a severe allergy to nuts, while that equally obnoxious sister of hers had an intolerance for penicillin. Daisy Morgan, the church organist, was diabetic, while Jack Miles, the postman, had a heart condition for which he took a blood thinner to help his circulation.
The selection of culinary delights Elspith had produced was impressive. Even Mr Harrington had to begrudgingly concede she had done well before leaving for his early morning walk. How smug he would have been had he known the truth, that Elspith had secretly gotten her old friend Charlie to deliver in food from Royal food suppliers, Fortnum and Mason.
Elspith allowed herself a rare moment of reflection of how good life might have been in the village. The doorbell interrupted her thoughts…
“Oh, hello Charlie, I’m so pleased you could make it.”
“Eliza my darling, anything for you babes.” Elspith laughed out loud; only Charlie ever called her by her middle name or ‘babes.’ She knew she was far too old now for such endearments as the latter but she appreciated the flattery.
“I know, but thank you anyway.” She replied, smiling, and gave him a theatrical kiss on both cheeks.
“So Eliza, are you sure about all this?”
“After thirty years, never more so.”
“That’s my girl. I’ll be off then before he gets back, but I’ll be hovering around in the background to keep an eye on things.”
The fete was going well. The locals and a fair number of visitors had turned out in force. Elspith stood in dutiful attendance at her food stall, one of several but by far the most popular – it was difficult for the others to compete with the professional products of the Royal food suppliers:
“Really, Elspith, these look delicious,” said Mrs Collins, looking over the pastries in the middle of Elspith’s display.
“Thank you Mrs Collins, one does one’s best…”
“Oh please, call me Margaret; you’ve obviously worked so hard.” Elspith forced a weak smile in acknowledgement.
If only Mrs Collins had known just how true that was, about how much work had really gone into her efforts; not just the baking and cooking, but the planning and the preparation, thirty years’ worth, and it wasn’t simply to earn Elspith the accolade of calling Mrs Collins by her first name.
“I’ll take one, please, no need to wrap it.”
“My pleasure… And please, I’ve got a couple more already wrapped for you later, my little thank you for all your theatrical efforts with my husband.” It was Mrs Collins’ turn to force a smile, not quite sure of Elspith’s meaning…
“Yes, you’ll enjoy these, they’re a particular favourite of mine too,” Elspith assured her next customer, Daisy Morgan, “and I think I may have made too many of the sugar free butter candies so if you stop by towards the day’s end I’m sure they’ll be plenty left if you want some to take home?”
“That really is most kind of you. I have to be so careful with my diet.”
“Yes I know, but I had so many friends in the theatre, particularly the dancers, who had to maintain their figures for their work that I learned of all sorts of ingenious delicacies they came up with. I can give you the recipe for them if you would like?”
“I’d like that very much. We must be sure of seeing more of each other from now on.”
“Yes. And I’d like that very much, bye for now.”
“These honey filled scones taste great Mrs Harrington, I’ll take four.” It was no wonder Jack Miles had a heart problem and struggled to get the post delivered on time. Elspith knew he wouldn’t share a single one of them with his wife.
“Four it is Mr Miles. And here’s an extra two, free of charge for when you get home.”
“Hmmm,” said Jack, “I’ll enjoy them later. I can’t remember the last time I tasted honey this thick and succulent. How did you make it like this?” Elspith looked at him with her sweetest smile. It was best all round that she didn’t answer that question, at least not truthfully…
“So, how’s it going Eliza? Selling lots?” Asked Charlie.
“I should say, but I think that’s more to do with the quality of the Fortnum and Mason suppliers than my selling skills. This lot are getting the very best the world’s chefs have to offer for less than the price the local bakers would charge.”
“Hmm,” Charlie muttered, and then adding, “well just you be careful you don’t get them mixed up. You said yourself some of the villagers were alright to you.”
“No need to worry. I’m not one of the Borgias, you know. I’ve been most careful.”
“And you’ve sold to everyone you wanted to then?”
“Yes, to every one of them, it couldn’t have gone better if I had planned every last detail.”
“But you did,” Charlie laughed.
“Ha! So I did!” Snapped back Elspith with a huge mischievous grin…
It had been a busy but enjoyable day. Elspith’s catering efforts had gone down a treat. For the first time in years, the villagers had been really nice to Elspith. But it was all too little and too late…
Later that night, Margaret Collins went into anaphylactic shock, the result of something she ate, though exactly what couldn’t be identified.
Two days later both Daisy Morgan and Elizabeth Collins died in strange circumstances: Daisy from an extreme diabetic attack brought on by elevated blood-sugar levels and Elizabeth from some sort of penicillin induced heart attack.
A food source was suspected in both cases, but like with Margaret Collins, what particular food or where from was a mystery.
The mystery deepened further when the following day, Jack Miles died from a sudden and massive heart attack. Traces off an anti-clotting agent were later found in the autopsy, the very last thing you would expect to find in someone taking a blood thinning agent for clogged arteries.
And who could have foretold of Mr Harrington’s suicide? No one had suspected anything going on between him and Margaret Collins. He must have loved Margaret very much to be so distraught to kill himself when he heard of her death…
Poor Elspith, people thought. The village had finally warmed to her…
“Not guilty!” The verdict of the month long trial was greeted by cheers and knowing nods of approval from the public gallery. The friends and admirers of the defendant had left little room for the usual assortment of morbidly curious onlookers.
Elspith Eliza Harrington allowed herself a wry smile as she listened to the Judge telling her she was free to go. She made a pretence of trying to adjust her hearing aid, forcing the judge to repeat himself. There was nothing wrong with her hearing but it amused her to do so…
The verdict had never really been in doubt; the evidence was flimsy and circumstantial at best. And even if it had been stronger, without absolute proof or a full confession, who would have believed that the frail looking sweet old lady standing in the dock could really have been responsible for multiple deaths in a quiet country village?
A court usher assisted Elspith descend the three short steps from the dock, not that she needed any help; truth be known, she was fit as a fiddle and with a razor sharp mind to match, but the frail, slightly confused persona had served her well so why abandon it just yet?
Only two people in the court weren’t fully taken in by Elspith’s performance: Judge Billingsgate, who had frequently indicated his disbelief by way of repeated interruptions of the defence; prolonged fiddling with his silver rimmed glasses as he pulled them midway down his nose to peer over betrayed his scepticism as surely as standing up and calling her a liar. And then there was Inspector Musgrove, the officer in charge of the investigations that had brought them all to this point…
It was sheer bad luck for Elspith that Inspector Henry Musgrove had been at the village fete that day otherwise the whole affair might never have come to court. What clinched his suspicions was seeing Charlie at the fete too. You see, Henry Musgrove hadn’t always been a country copper. Twenty years previously he’d led the task-force assigned to gathering the proof to convict Charlie Hawton – unsuccessfully.
There was nothing to connect Charlie with the unexplained deaths but it was obvious he knew, and was fond of Elspith Eliza Harrington.
In his mind, wherever Charlie was there was a crime waiting to be solved- if he couldn’t prove Charlie was responsible it would have to be the dotty old woman instead. He simply hadn’t counted on the ‘dotty old woman’s’ theatrical skills – the jury never stood a chance…
Charlie gave the inspector a cheeky wink from the gallery before proceeding to greet his ‘now’ fiancée, his beloved Eliza.
Accepting Charlie’s marriage proposal was a small price to pay for the opportunity of one last great performance…