The Crime Readers' Association

Sunday Reading: ‘Threescore and Ten’ by Margaret Yorke

22nd September 2013

Margaret Yorke was a former Chair of the CWA who was a recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger. After writing a number of romantic novels, she turned to crime fiction, with five books featuring Patrick Grant as an amateur detective. No Medals for the Major marked a turning point, and she established a reputation as an outstanding author of novels of psychological suspense. She died in 2012. 

On the morning of her husband’s seventieth birthday, a Thursday in September, Ellen Parsons rose as usual at seven o’clock. She went quietly into the bathroom, careful as she moved about not to disturb Maurice, who still slept, a straggle of grey hair falling across his pale, domed forehead.

After she had washed and cleaned her teeth, inserting her dentures, three stark molars on a pink plate, Ellen, in her woolen dressing-gown, went down to the kitchen and put on the kettle. While it boiled she laid the table in the dining room: blue-and-white Cornish crockery, honey and butter, on a linen cloth.

This was the last meal at which she would sit across the table from Maurice, and she hummed under her breath as she finished her early routine. When the kettle boiled, she made the tea and carried the tray upstairs, setting it on the table between their twin beds. After it had time to stand, she poured out two cups, with two lumps of sugar in Maurice’s. But nothing sweetened him.

‘Tea, Maurice,’ she said and took her own into the bathroom, where she dressed out of his sight. Maurice did not reply, but she knew he would now sit up, yawn, showing his bare gums, belch, and drink his tea in gulps. She would return to the bedroom to do her hair in time to pour his second cup. When he was ready to rise, she would be downstairs cooking the bacon and egg he was able to eat daily without putting on weight.

She had decided to kill him one Sunday morning a year ago in church, hearing the words from Ecclesiastes: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die….’

I have not lived yet, Ellen had thought.

Her mind ranged back over the years of her marriage to when she first met Maurice. Her father, a widower, had died after a long illness through which she had devotedly nursed him. Maurice, then junior partner in the firm of solicitors acting for her father, had called at the house to advise her. He had said she should decide nothing in haste and counselled her to keep the house for the present.

Ellen, weary from the strain of her father’s illness, was glad to agree. She set about the neglected garden and washed curtains and paintwork indoors. Maurice watched both her and the house revive under this treatment. One day he brought her some violets- another time, a book of poetry. She looked forward to his visits; he had a sweet smile.

Soon she exchanged one form of bondage for another. She and Maurice, after their marriage continued to live in the large old house on the edge of the village, and here they were still. Their only child, a daughter they named Priscilla, was born. Priscilla, against her father’s wishes, had married a young farmer and the could had at once emigrated to Australia. Priscilla wrote happy letters every fortnight and sent snapshots of her four children. She urged Ellen to come out for a visit and see her grandchildren, but Maurice wouldn’t go himself and absolutely refused to permit Ellen to go without him.

Maurice required his life to be organised smoothly. The smile that had once charmed Ellen was seen rarely after marriage. He insisted that his meals be punctual to the second. A small girl should be seen and not heard. Arguments were not allowed. And only Maurice’s opinions might be expressed.

He controlled the money Ellen inherited from her father, allowing her small amounts for her personal needs. During their short engagement Ellen had anticipated long talks with him such as she had enjoyed with her father, and discussions about books they might both enjoy – Dickens and Trollope – but Maurice read only legal tomes and the biographies of the eminent. He enjoyed silence.

Priscilla, as a child, was allowed no parties, and her friends were not encouraged to visit the house, though Ellen was able to welcome them while Maurice was at the office. Later, as Priscilla grew older, if any dared to enter the house while he was there, they were subject to such an interrogation about their lives and views that few risked a second encounter. It was not surprising that Priscilla escaped as soon as she could. The only guests Maurice invited were business acquaintances he took to his study for brandy. Once a year his partners and their wives came to dinner.

Ellen’s fragile links with other people grew weaker after Maurice retired. If she invited anyone to tea he would sit scowling and looking at his watch, finally leaving the room with some remark like, ‘See that dinner’s on time, Ellen,’ and thereby humiliating her.

But now all this would end. The resentment that had simmered for so long had at last boiled over. The house was hers and all the money – both what she had inherited and what Maurice had made – would be hers too.

The days of our age are threescore years and ten …..


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