Excerpt

A Brush With Death

Ali Carter

The following is an exclusive excerpt from A Brush With Death, the first in a charming new series about pet portraitist and amateur sleuth Susie Mahl, and the debut novel from cyclist and animal enthusiast Ali Carter.

It occasionally crossed Alexander, Earl of Greengrass’s mind that his past would come back to haunt him. A perfectly human thought, but one which came in the night and was always dispelled by the first ray of light through the gap in his bedroom curtains. He congratulated himself these days on conquering his demons and never letting his convivial character be dragged down by the silly mistakes any attractive young aristocrat might make.

The radio hummed as the alarm set it off; Radio 3 gently stirring this seventy-five-year-old man from a particularly sound night’s sleep. He stretched out an arm to turn the violin strings down; his ears weren’t ready for a deaf man’s volume quite yet, and long gone were the days where his faithful wife’s leg would give him a nudge to go and make her a cup of tea. Sharing a bed was an occupation they’d mutually given up long ago, and now he was no longer Chairman of the Game Conservancy, other than helping his eldest son learn the ropes of running the estate, Lord Greengrass’s day began with a distinct lack of urgency.

On this particular Sunday morning in November, he rose from his pillow only to be hit by a rush of light-headiness. Something last night must have upset his sugar levels and just as he was going over his movements the cry came along the landing.

‘Alexander! Alexander! What the heavens are you doing. We have to leave right now.’

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Maybe it was the effort of travelling the length of the corridor, but Diana, Countess of Greengrass, rarely made the trip to her husband’s bedroom.

He knew there was no need to answer, time wasted in speech would set him back a second or two, something he couldn’t afford when he suddenly remembered today was a commemoration service, church was an hour earlier and his wife’s role as organist demanded her presence.

His Lucozade tablets were on the bedside table, but in a flash of forgetfulness Lord Greengrass, now immaculately dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, forgot to put them in his pocket. An unforgivable mistake if his wife should find out.

She was already in the car pulled up to the door, furious Butler Shepherd was nowhere to be seen; one could tell by the great speed she achieved down the beautiful drive of Beckenstale Manor into the village of Spire. The sky was yet to fully lighten in that dragged-out way only a winter sky can.

Lady Greengrass took little notice of her husband as he followed her into the church. Not a soul to be seen. All those years of rushing assured her a life ahead of time.

‘I’m going to rest in this pew,’ he said, just inside the west door, assuming his wife might wonder where he was if she couldn’t see him in the front row.

He sat down, crossing his legs in that masculine way only the aristocracy can, and his shoulders drooped with the lethargy of missing breakfast. He blamed himself and only hoped the glass of water and everyday vitamin he’d taken at his bathroom sink would tide him over for the next hour of ceremony and a little bit of mingling with the community afterwards.

Spire church was large and austere for such a modest village, but today all that space might actually be needed, thought Lord Greengrass as he saw the villagers file in. Had he been of a less simpatico nature he would have minded that his son and grandchildren weren’t here. As it was, what truly mattered to him was his and his wife’s presence. Not every village boasted an Earl and Countess on their doorstep, and so all enjoyed, whether they liked them or not, seeing this pair in their finery.

One cheeky wink and Lord Greengrass was flat out on the ground, deliriously gasping for life, his eyes flickering with a sparkle of hope that the shadow on the wall had come to help.

Looking up towards the altar, he could see his wife’s shoulders had begun their work-out, rising and falling rather more exaggeratedly than the music. Getting in the spirit was, for Diana, what church was about and Lord Greengrass certainly didn’t use the doctrine as a wager for his morals; attending the Sunday service was a duty instilled early on in his traditional English upbringing. His family had been coming here for several generations and this thought gave him a warm feeling of pride as he slipped a large note into the collection basket.

With the service in full flow, and feeling a pinch in his bladder followed by the resulting desperate need to spend a penny, Lord Greengrass slipped out and headed round the back of the church, down the mossy side where no one went, confident his wife wouldn’t have time to notice in the organ mirror that he had gone to relieve himself.

It was liberating to get a good breath of crisp air and he felt glad of a little space to himself. So glad in fact that he took his time finding a quiet concealed spot between two flanking walls at the back of the church. He fumbled with his flies, old fingers clumsy with the tight buttons and stiff tweed cloth. There it was. And holding it with two hands, Lord Greengrass raised his chin, crunched the back of his neck and gave a wink to the stone sculpture of Christ above him. Immediately he was overcome with wooziness and a sudden caterwaul from the congregation sent the old man toppling to the ground, breaking his fall with a blow to the head.

One cheeky wink and Lord Greengrass was flat out on the ground, deliriously gasping for life, his eyes flickering with a sparkle of hope that the shadow on the wall had come to help.

***

Home is an eighteenth-century white weather-boarded cottage under the Downs just west of Lewes. Within thirty minutes on foot from my front door I can be at the height of Ditchling Beacon, looking out over vast swathes of southern England.

A country full of houses … and pets. Pets their owners adore like children—sometimes more than children and sometimes replacing children. I know a woman in her seventies, chain smoker and gin drinker. Her only child may get a smile of welcome, but no kisses left—these are given in abundance to a small, white, short-legged poppet. This dog replaced the last one, taken too early, run over, damn extendable leads. A reckless invention for beloved pets. There’s another couple I met recently who live in a rambling house in Berkshire. They have five dogs, five children and a parrot. Every morning Mrs Finnes opens the kitchen door to let the dogs race out into the garden. When it’s time for them to come back, she whistles just once, and then Percy the parrot takes up her whistle until Macy, Darcy, Ivy, Benji and Bridget come bounding back in.

Short-legged, long-limbed; stout, minute; smelly, hairy, fluffy; obedient, disgraceful, greedy, neurotic—the British love their pets.

Short-legged, long-limbed; stout, minute; smelly, hairy, fluffy; obedient, disgraceful, greedy, neurotic—the British love their pets.

I grew up thinking a house is not a home without a pet. Now just turned thirty-two and with a place of my own, I’ve lost the need of such an outlet of affection. I don’t have it in me to love an animal enough to pander to its needs and routines.  However, despite what I may think, ignorant friends and sometimes the odd stranger will come to my house, observe my country living and almost immediately exclaim: ‘You don’t have a dog?’ and on realising this to be true suggest, ‘Well, perhaps a cat is the answer?’

The presumption that currently without boyfriend, husband or child I must be lonely, irritates me. People don’t often think in advance that a pet is a tie, and with it comes the need of routine and long periods of time spent at home; a recipe for loneliness and less of a social life. I am and always have been happy in my own company and relish the peace and quiet of having no one around when I am at home. My job enables me to run to my own routine and go away whenever I want.

I’m an artist, a painter really, and that’s how I’d like to be remembered, but I have a side-line cash-earner drawing people’s pets. It’s not that I intended to be a pet portraitist, but through my own doing, I’m ashamed to say, I fell into it. I had been drawing people’s four-legged friends on the front of my thank-you cards: an accept-able alternative to the conventional two-sided letter, with the bonus that I could write less in thanks.

Soon my cards were scattered across enough mantel-pieces in the south of England that pet portrait requests started rolling in. ‘Oh, the Burlington-Smythes were here for a shooting weekend, simply adored your sketch of Trigger, and are just dying for you to draw Bumble, you know, their naughty black Lab?’

I was quite taken aback by the surge of commissions and very quickly realised that I’d stumbled upon a profitable business.

I tend, particularly in the winter when my deckchair is hung up and watching cricket is over, to spend my weekends with people who have mantelpieces towering above upholstered fire fenders. I entered this social sphere five years ago with my good-looking then boy-friend Geoffrey, and was introduced to the glamour of the rich and dazzling grandees. Geoffrey was dumped within a year, being unsuitable long-term material: ten years older and very much on the wagon. He’s now pitied by friends, drowned in booze and living with his mother on their heathery estate in the north of Scotland.

I, on the other hand, have been kept on by his southern circle, and enjoy many a house party, filling a spot as the single, eccentric artistic friend. The upper-classes love a token misfit at any gathering, someone who makes them feel they are in touch with modern life. It’s either me, or a confirmed bachelor: we each add in our own way a colourful touch to their conventional set-up. It occurred to me early on that these society grandees have a combination of adored pets and money.

Some of you might have come to the macabre conclusion that there is guaranteed repeat business in drawing pets, and that’s why I do it. But the pure truth is that I do it for the money, or at least enough money to subsidise my penchant for expensive underwear. As a single woman there are few things which give me a greater boost of self-confidence than knowing that underneath an outer layer is designer seduction. My lacy, red-hot twinset—and I don’t mean the cashmere sweater and cardigan kind—or my midnight-blue real silk G-string or leopard-print push-up cleavage enhancer, all studded with sparkles, give me that little oomph that a woman on her own needs.

The process of picking what to wear each day, and admiring myself in the mirror before getting dressed, gives such pleasure that the more underwear I can buy the longer the whole decision-making process lasts. As soon as there is any fraying, fade in colour or tethering then the piece is relegated to a painting rag and I begin the major save. When I have enough money to cover the cost of returning to L’Hôtel for a night and indulging in the lingerie boutiques of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Rue St Honoré, I set off on the Eurostar with an empty holdall and a wodge of cash. Bliss.

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Excerpted from A BRUSH WITH DEATH: A Susie Mahl Mystery by Ali Carter. Copyright © 2018 by Ali Carter. Published by Oneworld Publications/Point Blank. Used with permission.




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