Excerpt from Echoes of a Murder
22nd March 1930
When Pauline Bowen leaned her body against the guardrail and lifted her face to the stars, she had no idea she had less than half an hour to live.
As she stood there, Pauline was considering her future in terms of years, not minutes. Empty years. Lonely years. Years she had thought would be the same as her past, crammed with dinner and bridge parties, bizarrely named cocktails, even more bizarre dances, and luncheons with the other wives. She would applaud her husband as he played polo and cricket and she would perform in the amateur dramatic productions at the club.
Pauline considered herself an excellent performer. For the past twenty years, she had played the part of Mrs Geoffrey Bowen to perfection. She’d given her husband two healthy children and packed them off to boarding school so they wouldn’t be in the way, hung off his arm at his work and social functions, pretending not to be bored, and listened attentively to his complaints and soothed them away. And she’d kept herself in as good condition as was possible for a thirty-seven-year-old mother of two, so he needn’t be ashamed of being married to a frump.
But none of that had made any difference in the end, for Geoffrey had told her one morning during breakfast that he was leaving her for another woman. He’d prefaced this announcement by telling her not to make a scene in front of the servants, to be calm, and she had done as he wanted, but only because she couldn’t quite believe what she’d heard. ‘It’s unfortunate, but there it is,’ Geoffrey had said. ‘I can’t live with you anymore, so I’m leaving.’ Just as if he was telling his barber how he wanted his hair cut. He’d spread marmalade on his toast and drunk his coffee, then thanked her for taking it so well before leaving for the office. Pauline had sat at the table while it was cleared, staring at the embroidered pattern in the cloth, trying to work out what she had done wrong.
After the first shock had passed, after her disbelief had turned to anger, Pauline’s primary emotion had been shame. Remembering the broken-off glances and the whispers that had followed her around for months, she realised Geoffrey’s affair had not been a secret among their friends. She could picture the men’s conversations over their port and cigars. ‘I say, Geoffrey, how’s it going with that young filly of yours? Wearing you out, is she?’ And Geoffrey would have smiled that smug, guilty schoolboy grin of his, raised his eyebrows in ‘a gentleman never tells’ kind of way, then told them everything. And the chaps would have wordlessly agreed to keep it among themselves, then gone home and told their wives. Pauline’s ignorance of the affair would be bandied back and forth in the hairdressers, in the Ladies’ room, talked about over the heads of manicurists and pedicurists and before the servants, but never in front of Pauline. When Pauline was around, amused glances would be exchanged behind her back, her friends revelling in their secret knowledge while pretending to feel so sorry for poor dear Pauline.
Pauline found that humiliation the hardest to bear, everyone knowing and thinking her a fool. It was why she hadn’t been able to stay, why she was returning to her family. Back to her parents, who had no idea she was coming. She hadn’t dared write to them, knowing what they would say. Her mother would have written back, telling her to stop being so silly with all this talk of leaving. She would have to let Geoffrey have his mistress – that’s what men did and Pauline would have to put up with it – but she must put her foot down and tell him there was no possibility of his leaving. Appearances must be kept up. That was all that mattered.
But Pauline didn’t have it in her to keep up the lie that her marriage was fine, and so she hadn’t written to her parents to warn them of her intentions, but simply left. But if Geoffrey thought she was going to slip away and let him and his tart have everything she’d spent her lifetime building, then he could think again. Geoffrey would pay through the nose for his betrayal, so much so that his mistress would wonder if he had been worth all the trouble.
Pauline was resolved on one other point. She would not let Geoffrey ruin the rest of her life as he’d ruined all that they’d had together. She would seek pleasure in life; if Geof- frey could have his fun, then so could she, and to hell with reputation. After so long worrying about what other people thought of her, Pauline was determined not to care anymore. She would be the woman she wanted to be rather than the woman society expected her to be.
And tonight, the woman Pauline wanted to be was a woman who was desired. Her mind had already conjured a lover for her, and so, the breeze lifting the curls from her forehead was not the cool wind from the north but the breath of a stranger. The goosebumps pimpling her arms had not risen because she was feeling chilly but were the effect of his touch.
She shivered. Her imagination was powerful, but even so, she couldn’t fool herself for long. There was no lover beside her and Pauline heaved a deep sigh.
It was as she turned her head away from the wide, dark expanse of night that she saw him standing in the shadows. She’d noticed him before at dinner, handsome in his way but with an air of awkwardness, looking away whenever she caught his eye, and that had discouraged her from considering him as a lover. Woefully out of practice in flirting, Pauline needed a man to make the first move.
Or did she? The old Pauline would have thought so, would have shied away from being so forward, but the new Pauline was a much bolder woman. Why should she not do the chasing?
Making sure there was no one around to witness her first attempt at seduction, Pauline hooked her hands behind her on the rail and showed him her body. He took a long look, appreciative, she thought, and her confidence grew.
‘Why are you hiding there?’ she said in a voice she hoped sounded like a purr. Pauline crooked her finger at him. ‘Come here.’
He came towards her, a little shyly, like a child unsure whether to take the treat offered to him.
‘What’s your name?’
He told her in a whisper.
‘That’s nice.’ She slid her hand down his shirt, knowing this was no time to be coy.
He stroked her cheek. The gentle gesture surprised and dismayed her. It seemed to promise affection and that was something she didn’t want. Pauline angled her face away with a ‘don’t do that’ smile. His fingers brushed her throat and moved down to stroke the collarbone peeking out from the edge of her green silk dress. She expected, wanted, his hand to move lower, but it came back up to curl around her neck, and she grew impatient. Silencing a tut, Pauline slid her hands around his waist.
She had expected to feel his arousal, but his body didn’t respond. Instead, his other hand curved around her neck and both thumbs rubbed either side of her windpipe. Pauline gave in, closing her eyes and tilting her head back. She’d waited this long for a little passion in her life; she could wait a few minutes longer.
But then his fingers tightened. His thumbs squeezed.
Pauline couldn’t breathe. Her eyes snapped open in alarm and she tried to pull out of his grasp, but he held on tight. She tried to push him away, but he stood firm. She would have kicked at him if she could, but her legs were giving way beneath her and everything was turning dark.
The last point of light Pauline Bowen saw was the gleam in her would-be lover’s eyes.