This novel was written as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which challenges writers to produce a 50,000-word novel between November 1st and November 30th. For more information about this crazy but wonderful scheme, please see the website – www . nanowrimo . org
My sincerest thanks go to Jon for proofreading this story, and to my friends and family who were so encouraging during November 2005.
A Quiet Crusade is dedicated with love to my parents.
There is a regrettable tendency in Britain when the temperature reaches one hundred degrees Fahrenheit for newspapers to print headlines along the lines of 'Phew! What a Scorcher!' and for practically the entire country to grind to a halt. Hot weather is alien to us. It takes us by surprise. This might suggest to foreigners that the British are more naturally inclined to cope with cold weather, but anyone who has witnessed the chaos on the roads caused by a whole inch of snow in southern England, will realise that this is just not the case. The weather, for the British, is a perpetual source of vexation and headlines whatever the season.
On this particular day, with the thermometer nudging towards 'Phew! What a Scorcher!' territory and the air-conditioning on the blink, David Robertson was finding things hard going. He adjusted the angle of the computer screen on his desk, but no matter which way he turned it, there seemed to be a dreadful glare across the dratted thing. The sunshine was just too bright today. He wondered whether anyone would object to him typing up his story in a nice, dark broom cupboard. That might work.
At least the article he was writing was shaping up nicely. As a very junior employee of the Cambridge Daily News, Dave was not given very demanding tasks, but what he was asked to write, he tried to craft as well as he could. He couldn't help but smile at the photograph around which his text was developing – an elderly couple standing proudly in their garden, beaming at the camera. Kimbleham's Golden Couple the article was titled. Fifty years ago the bells of St. Matthew's Church rang to celebrate the marriage of Henry and Agatha McBride. This Saturday it will be the sounds of champagne corks popping that will mark their golden wedding anniversary as they celebrate in style in Kimbleham Village Hall…
Not exactly deathless prose, but David was happy with it. He read through the other five paragraphs carefully, making one minor adjustment. Glancing at his watch he was pleased to see that he would be well on time to finish this whole article by lunchtime. The sub-editor would be pleased. There had been too many occasions during David's brief career in journalism when his boss had given him the 'time is of the essence' lecture.
"Jenny," he said, looking across the desk. "Would you mind checking this for me? You know, before I send it onwards and upwards."
Jennifer Abbot, looking wan and weary in the heat, dragged herself round to his side of the desk and adjusted the screen again to get a good look at the text.
"Jesus, can't they get us some blinds or something," she muttered, squinting at the screen. "How can they expect us to write when we can't make out what we're typing? Okay, let's have a look…" She took a seat and settled to her work.
Dave took a long swig from his bottle of mineral water then held the cold bottle against his forehead. He was tempted to open the window even though they had been told to keep them shut because of the new air-conditioning system. He reached out and tapped his fingers against the latch.
"Just open it, for God's sake," Jenny growled without looking away from the screen.
"But Bob said—"
"Yeah, and if Bob had chosen a decent air-con unit in the first place instead of buying a pretend one from Toys R Us, we wouldn't be roasting in here. Open the window, Dave."
He cracked the window an inch or two and sighed as a hint of a breeze wafted through. Much better. He turned his attention to Jenny who was engrossed in the article. Did absorption mean it was dreadful? Were there no mistakes, or were there so many that she was deciding which one to tell him about first?
"Looks good to me," she said eventually, stealing Dave's mineral water and finishing the bottle. "Nice feel-good story. Cute couple. Good picture, too."
"Yes. And you know, I didn't ask them to pose like that, or anything. The husband, Henry, just took charge. You'll want the photo out in the garden, won't you, on a corking day like this. He actually used the word 'corking'. And his wife, Agatha. Well, she was lovely. Brought out some homemade sponge cake. Really tasty. Not like the stuff you buy from the supermarket. And she offered me a choice of tea – Earl Grey or Assam. I mean how often to you go to somebody's house and get offered more than one type of tea?"
"Hmm. Yeah. Nice."
Dave examined the photo again; Henry was magisterial, holding one arm around his wife in a way that was part protective and part possessive. His smile could have been used to light a city. And Agatha small, bird-like face gazed out from the picture with a kind of calm confidence. She looked as if she were a happy woman, safe in the strong embrace of her husband of fifty years.
Jenny seemed to pick up on Dave's line of thought.
"Half a century together, huh?" she said, and there was grudging admiration in her voice. "Long time to put up with each other."
"Oh, I don't think it's like that," David said. "He's very much in charge, and that wouldn't suit most modern women, but I think Agatha is very contented with her lot. That's the impression they gave me anyway."
Not that he was an expert on these things. As far as long-lasting relationships went, Dave was somewhat less than successful. It had been pointed out to him that David was to romance what King Herod was to child-care.
"My God, Henry is a busy man, isn't he," said Jenny, pointing to the paragraph in which Henry's hobbies were listed. "Cricket club, golf club, Parish council, Conservative club. Blimey! He's certainly working hard in his retirement."
Dave dragged his thoughts away from his poor excuse for a love life and focussed on the article. "Yes, he was a busy man with his hardware business and now he's a busy man of leisure. You know, he had it all written out for me. A list of his accomplishments and his pastimes, and dates and places. As if he were the one writing for the newspaper." He tapped a neatly-written piece of paper on his desk. "Look. Date he met Agatha. Dates of birth for their daughter and granddaughter. Dates for establishment of McBride's Hardware in Cambridge. And again in Huntingdon. And Newmarket."
Jenny took the piece of paper. "Not a lot about little old Agatha, is there. Where does she fit into all this?"
"No, he did write something down." Dave craned to see. "Right down there. At the bottom. It's a bit cramped because he was running out of space, I think. Agatha Rose McBride – hobbies: knitting, Women's Institute, reading."
"It was big of him to give her a whole eight words, eh?"
Dave rolled his eyes. "It really isn't like that, Jen. If you'd met them, you'd understand." She threw him a sceptical glance, went to drink from the bottle of mineral water, swore quietly and then tossed it into the bin. "Anyway," he said, beginning to feel irritated, "have you finished proofing it?"
"Yeah, yeah. It's good. No probs." Jenny dragged herself back to her side of the desk and slumped into her chair with a sigh. "Too damned hot. Can't work properly in this heat." She fiddled listlessly with the computer mouse. "Is it lunch time yet?"
David tried to ignore her. For once he was feeling good about his work and he didn't want Jenny's cynicism to drag him down. The article was finished in good time, which was something of an achievement for him. He would email the story to the sub-editor and then take a few minutes to enjoy the successful completion of a task. Dave 'Titanic' Robertson had actually managed to write something without making a complete dog's breakfast of it. The icebergs of misspelling, incorrect punctuation and factual errors had been avoided. He was on the up and up.
The phone he shared with Jenny rang shrilly, snapping him out of his reverie. That's how junior he was; he hadn't even been given a phone of his own yet. He kept being reassured that one was on its way soon, just as he'd been told that the creaky, old fossil of a computer that he was using was just a temporary set up until a proper one could be obtained for him.
Jenny scooped up the telephone.
"Yup?" Her gaze flicked over to him. "He's here. Hold on a sec'."
She slid the handset across the desk and then sat watching him.
"David here… Yeah, I did…Is there a problem?" Dave switched the receiver to the other ear and sat up sharply. "'Scuse me? Could you repeat that? When? Really? Oh, I'm terribly sorry."
The next few seconds saw Dave slump gradually until he resembled a sack of potatoes in a suit. It was as if the life had drained out of him.
He found words that he hoped were appropriate, not that any words could be much use in such a circumstance. By the time he'd finished the conversation, his forehead was resting on the table.
Jenny grinned. She pulled the receiver from his unresisting hand and hung up. "Good news, eh?"
Very slowly Dave lifted his head and let it drop back to the table with a thud. And again. And once more, this time accompanied by a small whimper.
"Dave, either stop doing that or do it hard enough for you to pass out. Dillydallying in the middle is just annoying me."
Dave lifted his head mournfully. "He's only gone and snuffed it, hasn't he!"
"Henry-bloody-McBride! Heart attack last night." In his head Dave added, Couldn't he have waited a week? Now I'm going to have to re-write the whole sodding thing!
"Just as well somebody phoned the news in. Kimbleham's Golden Couple might have been in rather bad taste when one half of the couple is six feet under."
"Oh, come on. It's not as if you knew him. Anyway, watch this…"
Jenny came over to Dave's side of the desk again and took command of his computer, shoving him gently out of the way. He watched as she took a copy of the picture of the McBrides and opened it in the photo editing software. Swiftly she dragged an expanding rectangle over part of the picture and chose an option from the menu. Crop. In seconds Agatha McBride had been deleted from the photograph. Henry remained beaming out at them.
"There we go!" chirped Jenny. "All ready for you to write the obituary. Right, I'm taking a ciggie break. See you in ten."
And she disappeared leaving David to stare at the image of a dead man. After a while he brought the original picture to the screen once more and took a few seconds to look at Agatha's gentle smile. Then right click, delete, confirm, and Henry's widow was consigned to the computer's bin.