A bottle of arsenic and a dad’s dose of pure cunning: Continuing our series from P.D. JAMES

On Saturday, the Mail launched its exclusive P.D. James series with a chilling short story, The Part-Time Job. Today we continue with the first part of Mr Millcroft’s Birthday — when an elderly man surprises and appals his mean-spirited children with some shocking claims… 

Mildred Millcroft, seated in the front left-hand seat of the Jaguar, thumped her copy of The Times into a manageable shape for reading the social pages. She said: ‘I see from the paper that Father shares his birthday with a number of distinguished people.’ She read out their names and added: ‘That would please him. Quite a coincidence.’

Rodney Millcroft grunted. Since neither their father nor either of them personally knew any of the distinguished people mentioned, he couldn’t see why Mildred regarded the felicitously shared birthday as a coincidence.

He wished, too, that she wouldn’t read the paper while he was driving. The perpetual rustle distracted him and, more dangerously, she was apt to turn over the pages with a flourish of disjointed leaves which momentarily obscured his vision. 

It was a relief when she completed her scrutiny of the Court pages and the Births, Marriages and Deaths, banged the paper into shape, although hardly the shape the publisher intended, and tossed it on top of the wicker picnic basket on the back seat. She was now able to give her attention to the purpose of their journey.

'It isn¿t easy to manage a satisfactory picnic sitting in line on a hard bench with no table'

'It isn¿t easy to manage a satisfactory picnic sitting in line on a hard bench with no table'

‘It isn’t easy to manage a satisfactory picnic sitting in line on a hard bench with no table’

‘I’ve put in a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé as well as a Thermos of coffee. If Mrs Doggett puts it in the fridge as soon as we arrive it should be drinkable before we leave’.

Rodney Millcroft’s glance was fixed on the road ahead.

‘Father has never liked white wine, except for champagne.’

‘I daresay not, but I thought champagne was going a bit far. Mrs Doggett would hardly like champagne corks popping all over Meadowsweet Croft. It’s upsetting for the other residents.’

Her brother could have pointed out that for a mild, three-person celebration it was only necessary for one cork to pop, and that this was hardly likely to provoke a bacchanalia among the elderly residents of Meadowsweet Croft.

He was, however, not disposed to argue. On the subject of their father the two were as one, their alliance, offensive and defensive, against that difficult old man had for over 20 years given an appearance of sibling amity which, without this common and reconciling irritant, it would have been hard for them to sustain.

He said: ‘This was a particularly awkward day for me to get away. I had to rearrange a number of appointments at considerable inconvenience to important patients.’

Rodney Millcroft was a consultant dermatologist with a large and highly lucrative practice which caused him little trouble. His patients rarely called him out at night, never died on him and, since they were as difficult to cure as they were to kill, he had them for life.

Mildred could have pointed out that the day wasn’t a particularly convenient one for her either. It had meant missing the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the District Council, who could hardly be expected to arrive at sensible decisions without her.

In addition, it was she who had had the trouble of preparing the picnic. Mrs Doggett, the warden of Meadowsweet Croft, had telephoned to say that a tea party for the residents had been arranged for four o’clock complete with birthday cake, and it was to avoid this gruesome celebration that Mildred had said firmly that they could be there for luncheon only and would bring a picnic to be eaten either in their father’s room or in the garden.

Since she, too, would be sharing it she had taken some trouble. The picnic basket contained salads, smoked salmon, tongue, cold chicken, with fruit salad and cream to follow. Enumerating these delights, she said: ‘I only hope he appreciates it.’

‘Since he has shown no sign of appreciating either of us for the last 40 years he is hardly likely to begin now, even under the stimulus of a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and the heady excitement of his 80th birthday.’

‘I suppose he would argue that he passed over to us Uncle Mortimer’s three million and that was appreciation enough. He’d probably say that he’d been generous.’

Britain's queen of crime writers P.D. James died in 2014 (pictured at Guildhall, City of London)

Britain's queen of crime writers P.D. James died in 2014 (pictured at Guildhall, City of London)

Britain’s queen of crime writers P.D. James died in 2014 (pictured at Guildhall, City of London)

Rodney said: ‘That wasn’t generosity, merely an extremely sensible and legal device for avoiding Capital Transfer Tax at death. It was family money, anyway. Incidentally, he made the gift seven years ago to-day. He can die tomorrow and it will all be tax-free.’

Both reflected that this was, indeed, a birthday well worth celebrating. But Mildred reverted to a perennial grievance. 

‘He has no intention of dying, and I don’t blame him. He can live another 20 years for all I care. I only wish he’d drop this obsession about moving to Maitland Lodge. He’s perfectly well looked after at Meadowsweet Croft. The home is extremely well run and Mrs Doggett is a most capable and experienced woman. The local authority have a very good reputation for their geriatric services. He’s lucky to be there.’

Her brother changed gear and turned carefully into the suburban road leading to the home. ‘Well, if he thinks we’re going to find over sixty thousand a year between us to pay for a place at Maitland Lodge, it’s time he faced reality. The idea is ludicrous.’

They had had this conversation many times before. Mildred said: ‘It’s only because that dreadful old Brigadier is there and keeps visiting Father and telling him how wonderful the place is. I think he even took Father to spend a day there. And it’s not even as if they’re old friends. Father only met him on the golf course.

‘The Brigadier is a bad influence on Father in every way. I don’t know why they let him out of Maitland Lodge. He seems to be able to hire cars and travel the whole country at will. If he’s so old and frail that he needs to be in a Home they should see that he stays there.’

Both Rodney and Mildred had every intention of seeing that their father, Augustus, stayed in Meadowsweet Croft. Although 80, he was not particularly frail, but a total inability to cook for himself or, indeed, do anything which he regarded as women’s work, coupled with an acerbic tongue which had driven away a succession of housekeepers except those who had been alcoholic, mad or kleptomaniac, had made residential care inevitable.

It had taken his children considerable time and trouble to persuade him into Meadowsweet Croft. The relief for them, if not for him, had been considerable.

They told him on their infrequent visits that he was a very fortunate old man. He even had a room to himself where he was able to display the results of his lifelong hobby, a collection of ships in bottles.

Meadowsweet Croft was nowhere near a meadow, nor was it a croft and it could only have been described as ‘sweet’ by a visitor partial to the smell of lemon-scented furniture polish. It was, however, very well run, almost aggressively clean and the diet so carefully balanced in accordance with modern theories about the feeding of the elderly that it would have been perverse to expect it also to be palatable.

Mrs Doggett was a State Registered Nurse but preferred not to use the title or wear her uniform since, after all, Meadowsweet Croft was not meant to be a nursing home and her old dears shouldn’t be encouraged to think of themselves as invalids.

She encouraged exercise, positive thinking and meaningful activity and was occasionally a little discouraged to realise that all the activity her residents wanted was to watch television in the lounge with their chair backs placed firmly against the wall as if to guard against the possibility of anyone creeping up on them during the more enthralling moments of Midsomer Murders or Wallander. They had had a lifetime of exercise, positive thinking and meaningful activity.

It has to be said that Mrs Doggett and the residents in general got on very well together, with the exception of one central misunderstanding; she took the view that the old people hadn’t come to Meadowsweet Croft in order to live a life of self-indulgent idleness, and the old people thought that they had.

But they recognised that there were worse places than this — the grave for one — and when Mrs Doggett proclaimed, as she frequently did, that she loved her old dears, really loved them, she spoke no more than the truth.

In order to love them the more effectively she made sure that they were never out of her sight. This constant surveillance was helped by the architecture of the home. It was a single-storey, U-shaped building built round a courtyard with a central lawn, a single tree which obstinately refused to thrive, and four precisely arranged flowerbeds which were planted with bulbs in the spring, geraniums in the summer and dahlias in the autumn.

The courtyard was furnished with solid wooden benches so that the residents could, in summer, take the sun. Each bore a plaque with the name of the person it commemorated, a memento mori which might have distressed users less tough than Mrs Doggett’s old dears. The benches, not built for comfort, were solidly constructed and practically indestructible, and their occupants had no intention of adding to them.

It isn’t easy to manage a satisfactory picnic sitting in line on a hard bench with no table. Mildred had thoughtfully provided large paper napkins, and they sat in a row with these on their laps while she passed plates of salmon and ham and distributed lettuce leaves and tomatoes.

The other benches were unoccupied — the residents had no great love of fresh air — but the picnickers were watched by interested eyes while, across the courtyard, Mrs Doggett occasionally waved an encouraging hand from her office window.

Augustus Millcroft ate heartily but in silence. Conversation was perfunctory until the fruit salad was finished when, as his children expected, he embarked on his old grievance. They listened in silence, then Rodney Millcroft said: ‘I’m sorry Father, but the idea is impossible. Maitland Lodge costs sixty thousand a year and the fees will almost certainly rise. It would be an insupportable drain on our capital.’

‘The capital which you wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for me.’

‘You passed over to Mildred and me the greater part of Uncle Mortimer’s legacy and naturally we’re grateful. We can assure you that the money hasn’t been wasted. You wouldn’t have made over the capital if you hadn’t had confidence in our financial probity and acumen.’

‘I didn’t see why the bloody government should get it.’

‘Precisely.’

‘But now I don’t see why I shouldn’t have a bit of comfort in my old age.’

‘Father, you’re perfectly comfortable here. This garden really is delightful.’

‘This garden is Hell.’ Rodney said: ‘In leaving the capital to you, I’m sure Uncle Mortimer thought of it as family money to be properly invested and left in turn to your children and grandchildren.’

‘Mortimer never intended anything of the sort. That last Christmas, when we were all together at Pentlands, the Christmas he died, he told me that he was proposing to send for his solicitor as soon as the office opened after the holiday, and to change his will.’

Rodney said: ‘A passing fancy. Old people get them. It’s as well that he never got the chance.’

His father said: ‘No. I saw to that. That’s why I murdered him.’ Mildred felt that the only possible response to this statement was, ‘What on earth are you saying, Father?’ It was, however, a question which it was hardly logical to ask. Her father’s voice had been embarrassingly loud and clear.

Mildred found her voice. She said: ¿Uncle Mortimer died of a bad heart and viral pneumonia complicated by gastroenteritis.¿ ¿Complicated by arsenic.¿

Mildred found her voice. She said: ¿Uncle Mortimer died of a bad heart and viral pneumonia complicated by gastroenteritis.¿ ¿Complicated by arsenic.¿

Mildred found her voice. She said: ‘Uncle Mortimer died of a bad heart and viral pneumonia complicated by gastroenteritis.’ ‘Complicated by arsenic.’

While she was searching for a reasonable response, her brother said calmly: ‘That’s absolutely ridiculous, Father. Murdered him? How did you murder him?’

‘With arsenic.’

Mildred found her voice. She said: ‘Uncle Mortimer died of a bad heart and viral pneumonia complicated by gastroenteritis.’

‘Complicated by arsenic.’

‘Where did you get arsenic, Father?’ Rodney’s voice was studiously calm. Unlike his sister who was perched rigidly upright on the edge of her seat, he stretched back in as relaxed a pose as the hardness of the bench permitted, like a man who is prepared to waste a little time indulging his father’s senile fantasy.

‘I got it from Smallbone, your uncle’s gardener. He used to say there was nothing like arsenic for dealing with dandelions. When Mortimer found out he pronounced that the stuff was too dangerous to have about the place and made Smallbone destroy it.

‘But Smallbone kept a small quantity of the arsenic for himself in one of those old-fashioned blue poison bottles. He told me that having it gave him a feeling of power. I can understand that. Knowing his opinion of his employer, I’m only surprised that he didn’t use it on Mortimer before I did.

‘I knew where he’d hidden it in the garden shed, so when he died I hid it even more securely. It gave me a sense of power, too. Smallbone always said that arsenic didn’t deteriorate with age, and he was certainly right there.’

Rodney said sarcastically: ‘And I suppose you administered it to Uncle in his medicine and, despite its well-known appalling taste, he drank it down immediately.’

His father didn’t at once reply. His sideway glance at his children was one of reluctant cunning mixed with a certain self-satisfaction. He said: ‘I suppose I’d better tell you the whole of it now that I’ve begun…’

  • Mr Millcroft’s Birthday is taken from SLEEP NO MORE: SIX MURDEROUS TALES by P. D. James, published by Faber & Faber at £7.99 in paperback. To order a copy for £7.03 (offer valid to 16/1/21), go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. P&P free on orders over £15. 

Published with kind permission of the Estate of P.D. James. 

Link hienalouca.com

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