Wells, Somerset: ten years previously
Harrietʼs husband Oswald was missing the day she came back from London. With no note or message left waiting for her she didnʼt know what to think. That evening she searched the house, the attic, the potting shed and garage, and the next morning rang everyone she knew: friends, neighbours and acquaintances, Oswaldʼs business contacts, even her brother-in-law in Cornwall whom she hadnʼt spoken to in years. No-one could tell her anything. It was only on the morning of the third day that she found him, in the one place sheʼd overlooked, his private workshop at the bottom of the garden: found him dangling from the end of a rope.
The police asked if there was any reason why he should take his own life. No reason at all, sheʼd replied, lying, covering up for him as much as for herself.
Just the week before theyʼd argued fiercely. It was when sheʼd come across those papers, though “come across” did not quite convey her actions, the way sheʼd broken into his desk, suspecting him of hiding something. His guardedness, his reticence, his regular absences required explanation. Surely sheʼd behaved reasonably, but when confronted with the evidence he was the one to be enraged.
“You mustnʼt see those!” heʼd shouted, snatching them out of her hand, saying they were for his own personal use and it was a wicked betrayal. Sheʼd already read them, though, twenty, thirty pages in all, notes about a brotherhood and the search for something called “the light”: deeply mysterious and not what sheʼd expected. Sheʼd thought instead he was having an affair! That she could have understood, a still not unattractive man having a delayed midlife crisis. This was far, far worse, for it suggested that after twelve years of marriage she still didnʼt know him, that were sides to his life heʼd kept from her. In her view that was the real betrayal.
Where did she think it came from, heʼd bellowed at her: the money, the house, their status in the city, their precious social connections? Didnʼt she think there was a price to be paid? Heʼd raved, sounded deranged, but what could he mean? Thinking she deserved her life sheʼd never troubled herself with such questions.
The shouting over, his anger abated, heʼd slumped in the armchair and said that if ever “they” found out it would be the end of him. Found out what? The notes, the papers, he shouldnʼt have kept them, for it was a flagrant breach of the rules. What rules? The ones heʼd sworn to. And who in any case were “they”? This brotherhood heʼd written about? He couldnʼt say, he wouldnʼt say, even when she promised to tell no-one. More and more heʼd looked like a man defeated.
Not knowing what to make of it, sheʼd accused him of being weak and deceitful, and had that contributed to his fatal state of mind? If sheʼd shown more understanding, might things have turned out differently?
Whatever her own failings that evening, the incident had indeed been the end of him. Yet still she hadnʼt learned who “they” were or what theyʼd been doing or why heʼd considered them so dangerous. One thing she was certain of, however: Oswald was not the type to kill himself. Someone must have driven him to it or strung him up. Had they applied duress, had they made him confess? But how could they known about those notes? True to her word sheʼd told no-one, so what power, what knowledge, what forms of coercion had they used?
In the days that followed the police pressed her again and again about what she knew, but the more they questioned her, the stronger grew her conviction that she mustnʼt say, especially when, after theyʼd finished their searching, those papers were missing from the house.
What in godʼs name had been going on?