The Landlady (2)
'It's Weaver,' Billy said. 'W-E-A-V-E-R.'
'Oh, of course it is!' she cried, sitting down on the sofa. 'How silly of me. I do apologize.'
'Do you know something that's extraordinary about all this? Both those names, Mulholland and Temple, I not only seem to remember each one separately but they appear to be connected as well. As if they were both famous for the same sort of thing, if you see what I mean.'
'Well, come over here now, dear, and sit down beside me on the sofa and I'll give you a nice cup of tea and a biscuit before you go to bed.'
Billy watched her as she busied herself with the cups and saucers. He noticed that she had small, white, quickly moving hands, and red fingernails.
'I'm almost positive I saw them in the newspapers,' Billy said. 'I'll think of them in a second. I'm sure I will.'
There is nothing more annoying than a thing like this which remains just outside one's memory. He hated to give up.
'Now wait a minute,' he said. 'Wait just a minute. Mulholland... Christopher Mulholland... wasn't that the name of the schoolboy who was on a walking tour through the West Country, and then suddenly...'
'Milk?' she said. 'And sugar?'
'Yes, please. And then suddenly...?'
'Schoolboy?' she said. 'Oh no, my dear, that can't possibly be right because my Mr Mulholland was certainly not a schoolboy when he came to me. He was a university student. Come over here now and sit next to me and warm yourself in front of this lovely fire. Come on. Your tea's all ready for you.'
He crossed the room slowly, and sat down on the edge of the sofa. She placed his teacup on the table in front of him.
'There we are,' she said. 'How nice and comfortable this is, isn't it?'
Billy started drinking his tea. She did the same. For half a minute, neither of them spoke but Billy knew that she was looking at him. Her body was half-turned towards him and he could feel her eyes resting on his face, watching him from over her teacup. Now and again he caught a peculiar smell that seemed to come from her direction. It wasn't unpleasant, and it reminded him - well, he wasn't quite sure what it was. New leather? Or was it the corridors of a hospital?
'Mr Mulholland loved his tea,' she finally said. 'I've never seen anyone in my life drink as much tea as dear, sweet Mr Mulholland.'
'I suppose he left fairly recently,' Billy said.
'Left?' she said. 'But my dear boy, he never left. He's still here. Mr Temple is also here. They're on the third floor, both of them together.'
Billy put down his cup slowly on the table, and stared at his landlady. She smiled back at him and then put out one of her white hands and patted him comfortingly on the knee.
'How old are you, my dear?' she asked.
'Seventeen!' she cried. 'Oh, it's the perfect age! Mr Mulholland was also seventeen. But I think he was a little shorter than you are - in fact I'm sure he was. And his teeth weren't quite so white. You have the most beautiful teeth, Mr Weaver. Mr Temple was a little older. He was actually twenty-eight. I wouldn't have guessed it, though, if he hadn't told me. There wasn't a mark on his body.'
'A what?' Billy said.
'His skin was just like a baby's.'
There was a pause. Billy picked up his teacup, drank some more and then put it down again in its saucer. He waited for her to say something else but she seemed to have fallen into another of her silences. He sat there, looking ahead, biting his lower lip.
'That parrot,' he said at last. 'You know something? It completely fooled me when I looked through the window from the street. I thought it was alive.'
'Sadly, no longer.'
'It's very clever the way it's been stuffed,' he said. 'It doesn't look at all dead. Who did it?'
'Of course,' she said. 'And have you met my little Basil as well?' She nodded towards the dog curled up so comfortably in front of the fire. Billy looked at it. Suddenly he realized that this animal had all the time been as silent and motionless as the parrot. He touched it gently on the top of its back. It was hard and cold but perfectly preserved.
'Good heavens,' he said. 'How very interesting. It must be awfully difficult to do a thing like that.'
'Not at all,' she said. 'I stuff all my little pets myself when they die. Will you have another cup of tea?'
'No, thank you,' Billy said. The tea tasted faintly bitter and he didn't really like it.
'You did sign the book, didn't you?'
'That's good. Because later, if I forget what you were called, then I can always look it up. I still do that every day with Mr Mulholland and Mr... Mr...'
'Temple,' Billy said. 'Gregory Temple. Excuse me for asking, but haven't there been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years?'
Holding her teacup high in one hand, moving her head slightly to the left, she looked at him out of the corners of her eyes and gave him another gentle little smile.
'No, my dear,' she said. 'Only you.'
- THE END -