A Bit of Business
This month's featured story
As Annie hung her husband’s jacket on to a coat hanger, she caught sight of the grey envelope sticking out of the inside pocket. Her stomach turned and she closed her eyes until she could get her breath back. In twelve years of marriage she had never got over the initial shock when she caught a rare glimpse of one. He usually kept them well hidden.
The first had appeared within weeks of their wedding day. She watched as he slit the envelope and unfolded the single sheet of paper. There was no change of expression on his face as he checked the calendar before tucking the letter in his inside jacket pocket.
“Anything interesting?” asked Annie.
“No, just a bit of business,” he replied
She knew, of course. Indeed, it would have been difficult not to listen to the gossip and the warnings once people knew they were engaged. One day, she thought, he would tell her the truth and she would say, “I know. I’ve always known.” Until then she would keep her thoughts to herself and welcome him home with a smile every time.
Theirs had been a long and slow courtship. Annie managed the sweet and tobacco shop two doors from the wholesale grocery store where Albert worked. He would visit her almost daily for his quarter of aniseed balls and slab of peppermint cake to suck as he delivered supplies of groceries to shops all over the north of England. He was a dour Yorkshire man who said little but plainly had feelings for Annie. No other customer came as regularly or lingered over his choice of sweets as long as it took Albert. Sometimes he would buy bars of Fry’s Chocolate Cream for his mother and his sister, Ivy.
The war brought changes. Both Ivy and Annie trained as nurses and became good friends. Thus encouraged, Albert invited Annie home to meet his mother and their courtship proceeded with more enthusiasm than previously, but still with no proposal in sight. Then Ivy died, followed within a few short weeks by Albert’s mother. For the first time in his life, Albert had to manage on his own. Annie knocked on his door one day after a week of silence and found him in bed with influenza. He proposed to her that very day. More a case of burning fever than burning passion, thought Annie, but she accepted on the spot.
Albert used his life’s savings of £100 to pay for their wedding and honeymoon in Blackpool. They were both 38 years old when they eventually exchanged vows and set up home together, too old for the children they would have welcomed, especially Albert, who wanted a son to carry on the family name. Instead, they put their energy into running a pub. Albert was never happier than when he was pulling pints behind the bar of the Rose and Crown and sharing a joke with his customers. If anyone started a sing-song, Albert took little persuading to join in. I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen was a favourite, along with Danny Boy, usually with a pint of mild in his hand. Teetotal Annie kept the pub spotless, did the books and stayed in the background, running the place as efficiently as she did everything. They were a good team.
Now she had seen the familiar envelope, her day was ruined. She was on edge, waiting for Albert to mention it. Surely this time he would say something. She broke a beer glass that evening and caught Albert’s shrewd eye as the men in the bar cheered at her embarrassment. She was always so careful.
She knew the form by now; indeed, she could have written the script. Albert always waited until they were in bed together then he would switch out the light.
“I have a bit of business tomorrow, old girl,” he would say.“ I shan’t be seeing you for a couple of days.”
“Right,” Annie would reply, thankful it was dark and he could not see her face. No pleading with him, no deep sighs, no recriminations. Annie would never do that; she kept her thoughts to herself and never interfered in that side of his life.
This time though was different. Annie knew about this woman. This 28 year old model with platinum blonde hair and pouting red lips. This club hostess with smouldering eyes and many overs and perfect cleavage. Every drinker in the pub had an opinion on her although they were careful not to let Annie or Albert hear their comments.
Annie spent the rest of the day in a cleaning fury. Brasses gleamed, glasses sparkled and wooden surfaces glowed, plush red bar stools were scrubbed, rugs were hung on the line and viciously beaten. She really wished she hadn’t seen that envelope.
As usual the bar was full that evening. Pint pots clinked, darts were thrown, dominoes clattered on table tops, cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air and swirled amongst the laughter. Albert enjoyed a cigar in between pulling pints and joking with his customers. He caught Annie’s eye and winked at her as he pulled a pint. He gave her an affectionate pinch as he squeezed past her when they were clearing tables at the end of the night. He passed on a juicy titbit of gossip about one of their neighbours as they sat in bed with their cups of cocoa. Then he switched off the light, turned on his side and said, “I have a bit of business tomorrow, old girl. I shan’t be seeing you for a couple of days.”
“Right,” said Annie, as she curled into a tight ball at the edge of the bed. It was a long time before she fell asleep.
Nothing was said the next morning. Albert, as always, packed his leather overnight bag while Annie cooked the breakfast. They ate in silence and then, with a quick peck on the cheek, Albert was gone. Annie tried to carry on as normal but this time she couldn’t. Today, for the first time, she imagined his other life. In her mind, she followed Albert’s train journey; saw him reading his morning paper (but skipping the front page) then maybe having forty winks as the carriage swayed along the tracks. She pictured him arriving in London and queuing for a taxi at the station, sweating in the July heat as he sat in the back of the cab. She saw him jump out and pay the driver before moving swiftly through the noisy crowds, turning his head away from the flashbulbs. He was expected and the narrow doorway opened before he could raise his arm to ring the bell. He stepped in and waited while the bolts were slid firmly back into place.
Annie never allowed herself to think about this before. Once Albert left the house on his “bit of business” she pulled the shutter down in her mind and refused to allow herself to imagine what he was going. Tonight, for the first time, she wanted a glimpse of his other life. Tonight he would be inspecting that blonde before enjoying a hot meal and a half a pint. Afterwards he would lie on the bed and smoke a cigar.
The next morning he would wake early and wait to be served his breakfast. He would put on a clean shirt and his pin-striped, double-breasted suit. He would stand in front of the mirror and knot his tie as carefully as he always did. His short back and sides would be carefully slicked into place. If he heard any faint shouting from outside it was doubtful it would bother calm, precise and efficient Albert who had a job to do and standards to maintain. It was his calling and duty, passed down from father to son. Albert would square his shoulders and flex his fingers as they watched the hands of the clock tick by.
At the stroke of nine Albert would be the last person to look into the eyes of the notorious Ruth Ellis before he hanged her by the neck until she was dead.
Albert needed police protection to get him from Holloway back to Euston Station, hidden from the mob baying for his blood. He didn’t buy an evening paper and slept all the way back home, his black homburg pulled down over his face. That evening Annie served him roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with a smile. He ate in silence. One day he would tell her the truth and she would say, “I know. I’ve always known.”
Annie opened the doors and served the customers that evening. Regulars kept the conversation to the weather and football. Albert appeared at closing time and helped himself to a small whisky once he had bolted the doors. Annie cleared the glasses and wiped the tables. They drank their cocoa together in bed before Albert switched out the light.
“Goodnight, love,” he said
For Albert Pierrepoint, jovial landlord, beloved husband and Official Executioner, it was business as usual.