A short story by Peter Burnett
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Inspector Gregory said, “Mrs Magnusson, there is no compulsion on you to speak at this moment. But I advise you that nothing is too slight to tell us, especially if you are in doubt. I don’t need to remind you that this is a case of murder and murder rules out all minor considerations.”
He leaned forward and spoke earnestly.
Julia Magnusson’s face was pensive under her pale gold hair.
At the back door the junior police detective folded his arms.
Julia Magnusson’s eyes seemed to observe them all with intelligence.
She played with a small pin-cushion.
Inspector Gregory could not analyse his feelings about her.
Julia Magnusson’s look betokened a slight alarm.
“Nothing you can say will harm anyone who is innocent,” said Inspector Gregory.
Julia Magnusson raised her head and in a whisper she began to speak.
“It was because of the baby that this death occurred,” she said, “because before the baby I had a job. I used to be a professional woman before I had David. I used to be at the office every day at 8am right up until my maternity leave and then I was just in the house all day getting ready for the baby. All the time I was away from the office I missed the people and I missed the work. I even missed the clients. I had a parking space of my own so you see I wasn’t just a nobody before I had the baby. My husband said that if I missed the office so much then he would become a house husband and stay at home and look after David and do the cooking and the laundry and every other daytime activity. He said he would give up his job so that I could go to work and I agreed and went back to work. The people in the office were delighted. They are a legal firm and I am an actuary and they were over the moon to have me back ― and my husband became a house husband and life carried on like that.”
Inspector Gregory copied down the monologue.
His hand was slight and easy on the paper as he noted the main points.
Julia Magnusson looked sad and thoughtful as she spoke.
He signalled her to carry on.
“Funny to imagine my husband as a child-minder isn’t it? A big hunk like that. One minute he’s a fireman rescuing people from blazing buildings and the next minute he’s got an apron on. He was in the fireman football team you know and he was in a lot of fires too, and he even drove the fire engine. t suited me however. Being back at the office was good for me, even though my husband found it strange at first. Look at him ― can you not see him in a fireman’s uniform? He looked great and it’s so heroic. But this is economics and not gender. I earned more than him and so by the laws of the jungle it was my job that took precedence.”
Julia Magnusson pressed her hand against her face.
She stowed her tongue in the hollow of her cheek.
Inspector Gregory looked up and she smiled coyly at him.
The junior police detective coughed.
She turned and caught his eye.
“I fitted back into work just like I’d never gone. It was wonderful to go back to that routine. The best thing was that I was always able to come home and my husband had everything ready. He would have cooked and cleaned and David was there too ― my little baby. He’s quite a hyperactive child these days and always running about and quite embarrassing in a way. But back then he was just a baby and he simply lay there and looked beautiful.”
Julia Magnusson sighed and whistled up a cigarette.
The junior policeman at the door looked away.
Julia Magnusson had her back to him, and she faced Inspector Gregory.
Inspector Gregory cocked his ears inquiringly.
Julia Magnusson’s hand settled on the pin-cushion again.
“I’ll read you my report,” said Inspector Gregory. “It reads : People in the houses adjacent at the foot of the cul de sac had been startled or awakened by a scream at a few minutes after midnight. First your neighbours to the left who had been playing gin rummy and then the neighbour on your right who had been returning from the theatre. One of the other neighbours said that he had been awakened by what he thought was a scream.”
Julia Magnusson registered shocked surprise.
The Inspector faced her.
He made a kindly murmuring sound which invited her to continue.
The junior policeman blanched.
“I think my husband still wanted to work as a fireman,” said Julia Magnusson, “because sometimes I’d see him doing nothing for long periods, simply staring at the floor and looking so unhappy. When I saw him like that I knew that he was thinking about being a fireman. It’s funny if you see a man like that with a washing basket hanging out underwear, his own underwear, and of course my underwear. He would be in the garden and sometimes even wearing his apron and he would be hanging out my underwear and next to it was his own underwear. After his being a fireman, hanging out underwear was what he did. My little pants and his big ones. It all seemed tragic. I realised that it was tragic when I watched my husband hanging out the washing and I didn’t find him as attractive as I did when he was a fireman. Then things changed and I would say that after a year I began to get bored of him always being depressed. The worst thing about that was that I didn’t like going to the office as much as I used to. Although some of the men in the office were quite attracted to me it wasn’t the same as seeing my husband coming in after a fire. He’d have that smell of heat and smoke all over him ― and a burning smell. I never got tired of the men in the office looking at me and I could chose what to wear in the morning, like my blue suit, or my black skirt and red shirt, or my stockings which always seemed to get some of the men interested. And yet my husband would always be at home and wearing his apron and doing the dishes and he didn’t care for it and I didn’t care for him either. I mean my husband has big muscles, despite not getting the same exercise that he used to in the fire brigade. But wearing rubber gloves and smelling of soap, I did not find him so attractive. I used to get the eye from all those nice men at work and of course the younger men too, but my husband would be here at home cleaning, or taking David to the park in his pram. You can see the problem.”
Inspector Gregory subsided in his chair with a contrite little “oh”.
The back door was open and the curtain blew up.
Julia Magnusson raised her head and looked at Inspector Gregory.
He had the impression that she was looking beyond him.
It was a concentrated vagueness that he couldn’t explain.
She spoke again.
Everybody in the room stiffened like hounds on a live scent.
“When I say that I think my husband still wanted to work as a fireman I don’t know if he ever did anything about it. I’m usually occupied with work and with keeping the legal firm in order because I have several staff to organise. I tried to talk to him about it but you can’t have your eyes in both directions all the time. On top of that, I’m looking for a promotion, not this year, but maybe next year. For the last two years since I’ve been back I’ve been working towards this. I don’t think it will be this year, but I might just be lucky. In any event, it’s a certainty for next year the way I’m going. This promotion would have benefitted my husband too, because there’d be more money and we could have even got a child-minder until David went to school. My husband could have begun to look for work, although I wouldn’t think they would have let him back into the fire brigade. I don’t really know what he could have done to be honest. I mean he doesn’t have many qualifications and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted him working in an office, because I know that men in offices get so unhappy. The men in my office are all unhappy. I think they are frustrated. It’s not a life for most men, sitting in an office. I’m lucky that I’m a woman and that I can concentrate on my work whereas men never seem to get anything done. Sex tends to prey on them and it depresses them. I wouldn’t want my husband in that kind of environment, it’s just not for him. I mean, if a man wears a red satin shirt in an office, you know he looks stupid. But if I go into my office in a red satin shirt, I get away with it.”
Inspector Gregory received this information in silence, but its effect upon his thoughts was bracing, for instantly he began to look away in embarrassment.
Julia Magnusson said nothing. Her glowering eyes fixed on the Inspector and her breath came in short gasps.
Inspector Gregory stood up and paced the floor. Now there was dark puzzlement in his fine eyes.
Julia Magnusson could almost feel him waiting in that quiet, earnest way of his, waiting for her to speak again.
The policeman at the door let out a barely audible, forlorn, sniffling sound.
Inspector Gregory felt a little bewildered.
“I think daytime television killed him in the end,” said Julia Magnusson. “I used to watch the daytime shows when I was on maternity leave ― and it was horrible. Have you noticed that these women on daytime television talk about sex even when they’re not talking about it? It drove me mad sitting there with a big lump inside me, not being sexy, looking at these women in their TV suits. In the end I couldn’t wait to get back to work. When I was pregnant the men in the office seemed to think that a woman with a large bump like that wasn’t worth it and that a baby was a turn off. And that’s another reason why I couldn’t wait to go back to the office. When I did go back it was just as if I was a new person starting there, because everybody was taking notice. Even the fat little bitches that work on reception. I could tell they were threatened, jealous as shit with their stupid corkscrew perms and those little mouths that would just suck anything that you stuck in front of them. The way I walked through the reception and into the main floorspace that first day ― everybody looked. I was so glad to get away from the baby in one respect because it wasn’t an easy birth, and I found it hard to even look at the baby for about a year and even then I didn’t think it was very pretty. But my husband really loved the baby and didn’t mind looking after it, so it turned out to be quite a good deal. I got my job, and my husband got to watch the television all day which I suppose wound him up for his monthly sex, which I admit is a small price to pay. And he did like the baby which I thought was a good thing.”
Inspector Gregory listened obligingly until Julia Magnusson had stopped.
She glanced at the clock.
She fidgeted while the Inspector tapped his pen on his notepad.
The inspector turned around and put on his coat.
“Swell,” he said. He was smiling. “I can see how everything would work on your mind. I’d have felt the same, especially if I thought I was in danger from a frustrated husband.”
The younger policeman at the door sniffed.
A blare of obscene mental vapour wafted across Inspector Gregory’s mind and abruptly he noticed that through the back of Julia Magnusson’ shirt, you could see the line of her brassiere.
Inspector Gregory straightened his coat stiffly and spoke in sober grey.
“Once we have removed the screwdriver out of your late husband’s head we’ll take prints anyway ― even if we know they’re yours. It’s just a formality you understand. I’m not going to arrest you however because I don’t think we should cause you any more upset in the meantime. I would just get some rest and try to avoid the living room if you feel under stress. The body should be out of there in the next two hours but if there’s anything you need before then there’s my number. You can call me if you get worried about anything at all, or if you feel you want to see your son.”
Julia leaned on the table and pulled over a magazine.
“I’ll try and get some rest,” she said. “I’ve got work tomorrow and a lot to catch up on. Once you fall behind that’s you scuppered. You know what it’s like.”
The Inspector nodded and signalled for the junior officer.
They left the room together and closed the door softly as Julia lay down to rest for an hour.