Mavis Forthright carefully rehearses her jump from Portsmouth’s Round Tower. She’s existed for over five decades. Lived hardly at all. Will end her misery with a few second’s fall into the cold sea. Except she’s not quite ready to die. A half day’s delay to try a bacon sandwich from the cafe won’t matter. Mother’s no longer there to disapprove.
She delays another day to lend Janice a book. Then a week to use her new paints. A month. Until the end of term. Mavis makes new plans; to create paintings full of emotion, to live, perhaps even make friends.
As if to balance her survival a number of people connected to Mavis die. At first that doesn’t matter. They’re people she dislikes. Mavis continues painting, tending her garden, feeding the birds and keeping her home properly clean, without additional concern. Then people who’ve been kind to Mavis are killed or injured. That shouldn’t happen.
Why are people dying? Is it because of charming Norman who’s back from her past, or is that strange boy Jake her mistaken guardian angel? Perhaps Mavis herself is to blame. She must learn the truth, stop the deaths and protect those she’s learned to care about before she can enjoy the new life she’s making for herself.
When I woke up wondering what would happen to Mavis, after having started the book the evening before, I knew the author had succeeded in bringing her main character to life on the page. Authentic characterisation, coupled with a teasing and fast-paced plot, resulted in my galloping through this book.
a page-turner in the very gentlest of ways, almost reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s writing style.
a strong sense of place throughout the book, from the striking cover to the closing page.
this story will make you smile for a long time.
I can’t help feeling we all know a Mavis.
Here are the opening few pages –
Above her, a seagull screamed.
Mavis looked up, beyond the huge stone permanence of Portsmouth’s sea wall, to the heavy bulk of the dark, menacing sky. The icy blasts from the Solent taunted and threatened, first pushing her forward and then buffeting her back. The seagull screamed again; its cry echoing her misery. Mavis shivered and strode towards the Round Tower. There was a week before she would die; she needed the comfort of looking down into the lichen grey waters.
“Spare some change, love?”
Mavis stopped walking and looked back. A man, huddled in an anorak, sat with his back to the rampart.
“Were you speaking to me?” she asked.
“Anyone who’ll listen really,” he answered, without lifting his head.
Other people hurried by, turning their collars up against the biting wind and their faces away from Mavis and the beggar.
He glanced up, but didn’t make eye contact. “I’m hungry and I’ve got no money, no job, nothing. I asked if you could spare some change.”
Mavis shook her head. The man was just a filthy layabout. He would probably spend any money she gave him on drink and drugs. Mavis didn’t have time to worry about the problems of a down and out.
She walked on.
It was cold, too cold to be hungry. Mavis had eaten her sandwiches before leaving the office. She fed the birds every day, though they did no work. She’d judged the man by his appearance and her own prejudices. Perhaps he truly did need food. She went back.
“Are you actually hungry, or do you want the money for drink?”
The man looked up again; he stared at her for a moment before replying. “A woman gave me a sandwich yesterday afternoon. I’ve not eaten since then.”
“Come with me.” Mavis waited for him to rise, before leading the way to White Hart Road.
“Where are we going?” the man asked as he hurried after her.
“To the chip shop.”
“Nice one. Cheers.”
“I shall buy you one meal; that is all.”
“That’s good of you. Thanks.”
“Do you have nowhere to live, no family?”
“Then you should go to social services or a church and ask them for help. You can’t rely on the compassion of strangers; that won’t get you far. If you wish to change your life, you must do it yourself.”
The man looked at her for a moment and then half nodded, half shrugged.
“What would you like?” she asked as she walked through the open doorway of the chip shop.
He looked as though he didn’t understand the question.
Mavis pointed at the large price list, high on the chip shop wall.
“What would you like?” she repeated.
“Oh, right. A hot pie would be nice, if that’s all right?”
“A pie, portion of chips and a soft drink, please,” she said to the boy behind the counter.
Mavis looked at the hungry man.
“Steak and kidney, and a Coke?” he said.
“Steak and kidney, and a strawberry milkshake, please,” Mavis said. She turned to the man. “The milkshake will be more nourishing than a can of fizzy drink.”
“The pie’ll be a couple of minutes. Is that OK?”
“Yes,” Mavis answered. She took a ten pound note from her purse, accepted her change and turned to the hungry man.
“Enjoy your meal.”
Mavis left him to wait for his food and walked briskly towards the stone steps.
“Thanks very much,” the man called after her. She didn’t look back.
Mavis climbed the steep granite steps. High above the busy street and the narrow pebble beach she was exposed to the full force of the salt-laden wind. She hurried along the uneven walkway, towards the dank shelter of the fortifications. The stench of stale urine ensured she didn’t stop to catch her breath before she’d climbed the final steps and reached her destination. Her heart thumped from the exertion. Mavis’s kindness towards the stranger had delayed her, but not for long. She clutched the stone perimeter for support and looked out to sea only a few minutes later than she’d expected.
She stepped back from the edge and gazed around her. The short rows of wooden benches were as empty as her life. She approached the concrete plinth topped with its bronze coloured plaque. ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ had been the quote on her calendar that morning. The raised images of the plaque could tell visitors a great deal about the local attractions, but there was no one to show an interest in the information. She removed a suede glove and ran her chapped hand over the chilled surface, touching the raised shapes of the landmarks: sea forts and the Anglican cathedral; the Isle of Wight she’d not visited since her schooldays; the Spinnaker Tower she’d not seen the view from. So many places she’d never visited; so many things she would never do.
Mavis turned her back to the sea; she knew it needn’t be that way. Tomorrow, in her lunch break, she could walk to the cathedral and admire the stained glass windows. She could go to Portsmouth at the weekend, have a drink in one of the Gunwharf bars or coffee shops and then ride in the lift to the top of the Spinnaker Tower. She could look out at the sea, the ferries and the Isle of Wight or over to the masts of HMS Victory and Warrior in the historic dockyard. Standing on the glass floor, she could marvel at how small the people appeared as they queued for their turn to witness the same sights.
Mavis faced the sea again. She knew she wouldn’t do any of those things. She’d work another week; spend another weekend alone and then climb the grey stone steps for the final time. She’d climb up slowly, and descend quickly.
Mavis had not lived well; her death must be more successful. She must be careful about any clues she left. There would be an investigation into her death. In her mind, a dashing detective and his side-kick knocked on doors, made enquiries. A fluffy looking sharp-witted old lady read her obituary in the paper and provided fascinating revelations about Mavis’s past. A wigged judge asked uncomfortable questions in court.
It would be easiest and simplest to leave a statement. That solution wasn’t without disadvantages. There was Cousin Linda to think of; she would be hurt to learn the life she’d helped Mavis to create had proved unbearable. There were the birds too; she was sorry she couldn’t continue to feed them. She’d enjoyed watching them and feeling they depended on her. Soon, there would be no one to chase away her neighbour’s cat. The birds would still be fed though; she’d made sure of that. Her estate was willed to the RSPB. The house could be sold to raise money, provided an arrangement was made to ensure suitable food and clean water were always supplied in the garden. She’d wondered about her life assurance. If suicide was suspected, the company might not pay. With that in mind, her explanatory note never progressed beyond a rough draft. She read it. Just a list really, of disappointments; a description of loneliness. After tearing it into thin strips, she balled it in her hand and held it over the drop, from tower’s edge, to the ebbing sea. Her fingers didn’t release her unhappy thoughts. The wind didn’t blow her troubles away. Mavis held them tight. She would take her litter away with her.
Her heavy coat shielded her body from the worst of the wind, but not her stocking clad legs and bare head. She would have been far more comfortable in her lined suede boots. Boots were unsuitable for the office; she wore low-heeled court shoes in the same deep blue as her coat. She hunched her shoulders, raising the collar to protect the back of her neck. Still the cold, sharp gusts tugged at her greying hair and numbed her ears.
Mavis fumbled in her shoulder bag for a handkerchief. The cold wind made her eyes run. Returning the damp cotton to her bag, she saw the tube of E45 cream. She might as well use some; it would be wasted otherwise. Sitting on a backless wooden bench, she unscrewed the cap. After squeezing cream onto her palm, she ran a finger around the thread to clean it and replaced the cap, taking care no trace of cream soiled the outside of the tube. Using her right index finger, she dabbed cream on each nail of her left hand. She repeated this in mirror image, until each nail was topped with a wisp of cream. She held her hands flat in front of her to ensure the distribution was even. On her rounded nails, the effect looked like the tiny iced biscuits she’d enjoyed as a child. She massaged the cream into her cuticles and then rubbed her hands together until the cream was absorbed. She did so almost every day, yet her hands were rough and sore. Still cracks appeared in her cuticles and the sides of her nails. Cleaning fluids stung and clothes and paper snagged at her skin.
A large ferry went by; a passenger waved. Mavis didn’t know who they were waving at; there was no one there but her. She wondered where the ferry was headed; not to the Isle of Wight, it wasn’t a Wightlink boat. Not a boat at all, but a ship. Sailing to France or, possibly, Spain.
Mavis knew where she was going.
Next week, she would get the bus as usual from Lee-on-the-Solent into Gosport. Her ferry ticket would be punched for the harbour crossing. Once in Portsmouth, she would walk down past Gunwharf Quays. The bars and shops would be closed; the first members of staff arriving to unlock the doors and switch on the lights. Perhaps cleaners would be there dusting and sweeping. There would be security staff too, but no one would notice her walk by. No one ever did.
She would walk on, past the café and tattoo parlour, under the railway bridge but not turn left as had become her routine. Instead, she would go right and follow the old harbour wall. Passing through the fortifications, she would hold her breath to avoid the smell. No one would hear the echo of her footsteps. She would sit on this bench at the top and have a last drink to wash down the pills. The fall alone was unlikely to kill her. She’d seen children diving off the tower for fun on summer days.
There would be no children and no tourists. Mavis had visited the tourist information office to enquire after shipping movements. When a visiting warship or a new ferry was expected, the tower filled with amateur photographers. They gathered together with their uniform anoraks and radio scanners. Strange hobby.
Other than the regular ferries to the Isle of Wight and the continent, no ships were forecast to pass through the harbour entrance during the third week of January. Mavis would be alone.
Her death would not look accidental if she were to leave work at an unusual hour, or make a special journey to Portsmouth. Tide times had been carefully checked to ensure a high tide coincided with her lunch break. She wished to be washed out to sea, not smashed on the tower’s foundations. She would drink the gin and swallow the sleeping tablets. There would be no pain. All she would feel was cold, empty numbness. Death would echo life. After, there would be no more loneliness. The water would cover her, the ripples cease, and it will be as if she’d never existed.
First though, would come the climb, onto the wall and over the dull silver safety rail. Once there, the worst would be over. She would choose a position where the outer rail was missing; very little remained of the rust pitted, blue painted metal. Mavis stood and walked to the wall. She imagined grasping the railing and hauling herself up. It would require effort, but she could manage. She could sit for a moment, longer if she wished, to compose herself. Then, she would slide forward, keep sliding forward until the solid grey stone, with its saggy wrapping of tarmac, was no longer beneath her. There would be the air and then the water and then nothing.
Or perhaps she would stand? That might be better. She could stand right on the edge, poised neatly between life and death. She could stand, calmly waiting for the right moment and then step forward. Just one small step to the end she longed for. Or she could jump. She did not think she would jump. It did not matter; all that mattered was she climb and then fall. Then nothing would matter.
Mavis backed away from the wall; she wasn’t quite ready. The tide was not high enough; she did not have the tablets. It was not time yet. She glanced at her watch; not time to return to the office either. She planned to walk in just as work resumed. There would be no chance for one of the girls to ask if she’d enjoyed her lunch break. Such questions were, for Mavis, always difficult to answer. That day there could be no answer at all.
Mavis heard a child’s squeal of excitement and quick light footsteps. A small girl, wrapped in quilted pink, raced around the perimeter wall. She screeched and whooped, running with outstretched arms. Her fingers, protected by knitted gloves, were held wide apart like woollen shooting stars. A woman arrived in the child’s wake.
“Look at me, Mummy,” the child called as she climbed onto a bench. She skipped along it and jumped off the end, darted up the steps and behind the seating area. Around and around she ran. Each time she passed the telescope she hooked her elbow around it and swung twice about, before ducking under the railing and continuing her lap. Blonde hair and ribbons streamed behind her. Her feet moved swiftly over the tarmac surface. Mavis could not distinguish each separate step; they merged into a flutter of sound.