Arthur & Alma At Breakfast
Sometimes when I’m writing the Bryant & May mysteries I forget the sheer amount of conversational detail that has gone before in earlier novels, so today I selected a chapter at random and read it back, to see if the characters had shifted away from where I intended them to be – I’m delighted to find that they’ve developed in an organic, natural way. Here as a reminder of those earlier days is an edited version of Arthur and Alma arguing from Book 4: ‘White Corridor’.
- Good Morning Arthur
‘The urge has come on me to speak to you about carpet slippers, Mr Bryant,’ Alma Sorrowbridge told her former lodger. ‘You wander in from the garden with half of London on your boots, all over my spotless kitchen floor, and it does my head in.’
‘I thought you wanted me to get into the great outdoors,’ grumbled Arthur Bryant, lowering his library book with reluctance. He wore his tweed overcoat and pyjama bottoms to the table, in protest over Alma’s restrictions on the bar heater, which had been faulty ever since he had tried to fix it with a fork.
‘Yes, but I didn’t expect you to bring it back in with you. I thought you might come to Regent’s Park with me, instead of digging holes in the garden looking for – whatever old rubbish you expect to find out there.’
‘Old Rubbish? Relics, Madam!’ Bryant peered over his pages and scowled. ‘You have no idea of the history upon which you stand, do you? I don’t suppose you know that near this site, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was slaughtered in most vexing circumstances.’
‘I read the papers,’ Alma bridled.
‘I doubt you’d have been reading them in 1678, when his body was discovered among the primroses near Lower Chalcot Farm. I dig through London clay, the most recalcitrant material imaginable, in the hopes of finding evidence of death. And once I find it, as I surely will, it will end another chapter of my biography.’
‘Here, am I in this book you’re writing?’ asked Alma, suddenly suspicious.
‘You most certainly are. So I should watch your step, especially when it comes to forcing me on route marches and making me eat your bread and butter pudding.’
‘You’re a stubborn old man,’ Alma decided, folding her arms. ‘A proper walk would do you the world of good.’
‘I am not being dragged around a park to feed ducks and admire crocuses while you hand out evangelical leaflets to disinterested passers-by,’ snapped Bryant. ‘Besides, I’m already planning a trip of my own this week which will require the commandeering of your decrepit Bedford van, and I intend to drive with the windows closed specifically to avoid breathing in the odours of the so-called countryside.’
‘But your lungs is filled with London soot. When you cough it’s like a death-rattle. You’ve got clogged phlegm in your tubes.’
‘I am trying to eat a boiled egg, if you don’t mind,’ Arthur Bryant complained. ‘I can’t imagine how long you cooked it. The yolk isn’t meant to be this colour, surely.’ He shut one eye and peered into the eggcup as if half expecting to find baby chicks nesting inside. ‘And your toasted soldiers are rudimentary, to say the least. You’re meant to use fresh bread.’
‘You can’t make proper toast with fresh bread. You’ve never complained before, and you’ve been eating it for over forty years,’ Alma bristled.
‘That’s because I used to be your tenant, and was scared of you. We all lived in fear of making the place untidy, only to have you come charging forward with your squeejee and your lavender polish. Well, now you’re my tenant, and I can finally take revenge.’
‘It would be nice if you could put the book down long enough to eat,’ Alma suggested.
Bryant’s great watery eyes swam up from his copy of The 1919 Arctic Explorer’s Handbook Volume II: Iceberg Partition. ‘This is fascinating stuff,’ he told her. ‘Maggie Armitage sent it to me.’
Alma harrumphed and made a face. Bryant’s theatricality was catching. ‘That woman is godless,’ she complained.
‘Quite the reverse. As a practising white witch she’s more aware of true religion than most Christians, whose experience usually only extends to miming O God Our Help In Ages Past during weddings and christenings.’
‘Well, I hope you’re going into work today, and not just sitting around reading.’ Alma disapproved of such pointless activities. ‘I’m planning on a spot of hoovering.’ She shifted him to clear away the breakfast things.
‘Just in time, I’d imagine. There was a rumour the BBC was coming around to film an insect documentary inside your hall rug.’
‘Are you insinuating I don’t keep a clean house?’ asked Alma, mortified. ‘All these years I’ve been looking after you, with your spilled chemicals and your disgusting experiments. Who fed rotting pork to carnivorous plants on top of his wardrobe during the heatwave of 1974?’
‘That helped me catch the Kew Gardens Strangler, if you recall.’
‘You boiled my tropical fish in 1968, and filled my bedroom with mustard gas.’
‘In order to track the Deptford Demon, as well you know. I didn’t realise your aunt was sleeping in the house at the time.’
She could have mentioned that the ancient detective also grew plague germs in her baking trays and ruined her best kitchen knives putting stab wounds in sides of beef to determine methods of death. He had also rewired the toaster to see if it could be made to electrocute anyone walking across a wet kitchen floor in bare feet, and had been able to answer in the affirmative after nearly setting fire to a Jehovah’s Witness. ‘You filled my sink with sulphuric acid last Christmas, and if I hadn’t been wearing Marigolds to do the washing up, I’d have ended up in hospital. Took the finish right off my plug, but did I complain?’
‘You most certainly did, Madam, and the fact that you bring it up at the drop of a hat reminds me how long you bear the grudge.’ He rose and collected his battered brown trilby from the table.
’I wish you wouldn’t leave that thing over the teapot, it’s unsanitary.’
‘Most probably, but it keeps my head warm. When you’ve as little hair as I have, such small comforts are appreciated.’ He smoothed the pale nimbus of his fringe back in place. ‘I might remind you that I am still the breadwinner in this household, attending to police work for six decades with an unbroken record, despite your regular attempts to poison me. I could have taken holidays but was too conscientious.’
‘Too scared of missing out on a good murder, more like,’ sniffed Alma. ‘It’s not natural, all this morbidity, especially at your age.’
‘It’s not morbidity, it’s my job. In my field there’s no substitute for first-hand experience. You knew what to expect when you took me in.’
‘I knew you was on the side of law and order, I didn’t expect you to experiment in my lodgings with meat and germs and explosives.’
They bickered to such an extent each morning that they might as well have been married. The plump Antiguan landlady (she still thought of Bryant as her tenant) attempted to reform Bryant by tricking him into church attendance, goodwill whist drives and assorted charity events, but he invariably saw through the subterfuge and reminded her that his adherence to Paganism precluded any chance of a late conversion.
‘Will you be home in time for dinner tonight?’ Alma asked, waggling a cake slice between thick brown fingers.
‘That depends on the form of culinary witchcraft you’re intending to inflict upon me.’
‘I’m baking a mutton pie with sweet potatoes, callaloo and cornbread.’
‘If I’m back in time, I’ll join you at supper. I don’t suppose another hour in the oven will adversely affect the texture of your concoctions.’
Alma folded her arms against him. ‘You’re a very rude man, Mr Bryant. I don’t know why I put up with you.’
‘Because you know the quality of your life would be immeasurably poorer in my absence,’ said Bryant, pushing his luck.
He tightened his scarf around his throat and, whistling an off-kilter air from The Pirates Of Penzance, set off toward the tube station.
The very Christmassy paperback featuring Bryant & May’s first collection of missing cases ‘London’s Glory’ is out now, a snip at £8.99. It contains an introductory essay on crime fiction and all kinds of surprises. Buy it for a relative you wish to annoy!