The plot twists and turns over many months as I follow the lives of three families jolted sideways after two untimely deaths.
Michael’s friend Janey has lost her dad to cancer and Michael understands this, but the other person who died? Nextdoor neighbour and dear friend Irma. Was it a heart condition, an accident or murder?
The safe, cosy world of young Michael and his Nan changes dramatically. Michael also has to cope with George, a bully, who moves into Irma’s house with his father Shawn prior to her death.
The sudden loss of Irma is deeply felt by Michael. As the saying goes he has “an old head on young shoulders” but is confused over what actually happened and gets no help from the adults. Strong opinions and conflicting advice are tossed his way.
Deep down Michael believes Irma was murdered and is determined to convince Nan and the gatekeepers. There are complexities to face and he over-reaches in the hope of finding justice. Anxiety joins his grief, he challenges his homelife and raises old questions. Why does he live with his grandmother? Where are his parents?
During a bad night, Michael’s old teddy bear comes down off the shelf for support as he works on his theory of Irma’s demise. He thinks she may have been poisoned. The chicken soup in question was homemade by Irma and well loved by Michael, his favourite panacea for cold symptoms. In fact, he is sniffling when she goes off to make him chicken soup and disaster strikes.
At one stage, Michael suspects his Nan – she’s my favourite character! – and while out walking he dashes away and hides. Quote “Michael?” calls Nan. I don’t move. “Michael”. “He’s fallen in the bloody moat,” says the man who isn’t Grandad. “Good job there’s no water in it.” “Feeder canal,” says Nan. “This is no time to be right about everything,” he growls. I’ve never heard anyone tell Nan off like that before. Unquote.
Author Maria Donovan portrays well-rounded, believable characters and each brings small yet highly significant details to the story. Bully and his father are thorns in Michael’s side but nothing distracts him from the hunt for clues. Janey has her own family problems. To relieve her frustration she gets a box of golf balls and stands in The Middle, a green opposite the houses, and slogs each white ball as hard as she can…
Being of a nosey disposition myself, I empathise with Michael’s underlying emotions and the need for resolution. Unfortunately this drive consumes him to the point of performing an ill-advised concert song. Tension escalates and stoic Nan marches towards a showdown. Maria Donovan’s tightly written finale comes at a penultimate time of year for everyone.
Skillfully woven through the story are school holidays, the seaside, and events on telly like Wimbledon, Test Cricket and 2012 Paralympics. Halloween high jinks are followed by a traditional Guy Fawkes bonfire night. Occasionally the zeitgeist side-tracks Michael’s quest yet adds a kaleidoscope of nostalgia for me.
Michael’s journey isn’t for children although young adult readers would identify with the youthful side. Part mystery, part coming-of-age, I think adults will enjoy the unique elements of the plot, and appreciate less gore than currently found in mystery novels.
Maria Donovan’s book walks a fine line between innocence and adult behaviour and succeeds in capturing the mood beautifully. It demands to be read again. Seek out those clever clues!
My star rating
‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ is Maria Donovan’s debut novel and was a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize. Apart from this book, Maria has many literary credits to her name including her flash fiction story ‘Chess’ which won the Dorset Award in the Bridport Prize 2015.
Maria is a native of Dorset UK and has strong connections with Wales (also in the book) and Holland. Her past careers include training as a nurse in the Netherlands, busking with music and fire around Europe and nine years lecturing in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan, South Wales.
Maud Fitch was well-known to the local police. While Maud would say she was recognised for her crime-busting phone calls and neighbourly good deeds, Sergeant Ron Tisdale on the front desk of Kingsgrove police station expressed the opinion that she was a nuisance caller.
“In fact,” he said in his rich baritone voice, “she’s a serial pest.”
Sergeant Tisdale had just hung up from her latest telephone call.
“It’s not as though Maud fits into the lonely old woman category,” he said generously. “She’s got a good family, a part-time job and plenty of hobbies.”
A junior officer asked what the problem was this time. “An escaped nerd alert?”
“Don’t be too cheeky, lad,” said Tisdale, careful not to let his soft spot show. “This time Maud has been observing her retired neighbour across the road and she thinks he’s murdered his sister and disposed of the body.”
The younger officer laughed. “Wasn’t that a storyline on TV last night? She’s a sponge. She absorbs everything she sees on television and translates it to her own life to spice things up.”
“That might be so but I’ll log the details just the same,” said the Sergeant. He rubbed his chin. “I think I’ll drop by Ms Fitch’s place on my way home this afternoon. Just a quick visit to check that everything is fine.”
Being the senior officer, he ignored the knowing wink from his subordinate.
Maud had made a comment about uncharacteristic behaviour which sounded an
alarm bell in his orderly mind. At the very least, he wanted to see that sparkle in her eyes when she had a hunch about something.
* * *
Maud saw Angus McDowell draw the living room curtains again. He seemed to open and close the floral curtains three or four times a day in a vain attempt to make it look like someone was at home. That in itself was unusual in such a safe little town like Kingsgrove but it was always his sister, Felicity, who did the domestic work inside their home. Angus was the outside type. He trimmed the garden, attacked the weeds and planted flowers as orderly as a row of chairs at the movies.
“He’s been doing that curtain thing for several days now,” said Maud. She shaded her eyes from the afternoon sunlight which gleamed down on her pale skin and auburn hair. She turned and caught Sergeant Tisdale with a transfixed look on his face. “And I haven’t seen Felicity for almost a week.”
The Sergeant cleared his throat and reached for his fourth helping of Maud’s homemade biscuits.
“Perhaps she’s gone on a holiday?” he suggested. “Has he told you anything specifically to the contrary to arouse your suspicions?”
Maud poured more hot water into his coffee cup and frowned.
“That’s just it, he’s cut himself off, Sergeant.”
“Please, call me Ron,” he said.
“Angus isn’t answering the phone or the door bell,” she added, “Ron.”
“Maybe Felicity is visiting family and he didn’t want to go with her. Could be he’s home alone having a kind of bachelor break.” Sergeant Tisdale muttered to himself, “Lord knows we all need one of those occasionally.”
Maud understood that his daughter was leaving the grandchildren with him more and more now that his divorce had come through, thinking that it would cheer him up.
“He’s not the type,” she said emphatically. From her position as a twice-divorced woman with grown-up sons, Maud felt she could speak with authority on the slovenly ways of men when left to their own devices. Angus was neither a loner nor a slob.
The Sergeant shrugged his broad shoulders.
To highlight her next words, she tapped her spoon on the side of her cup.
“He’s been doing everything under the cover of darkness.”
After she had outlined the nocturnal behaviour of her neighbour, Sergeant Tisdale said “I don’t want to snuff out your theory with a fire blanket, Maud, but I hardly think getting the groceries delivered or taking out the rubbish and collecting the mail after dark constitutes a criminal case.”
Crumbs were starting to gather on the front of the Sergeant’s shirt and he automatically brushed them off. Maud’s glare made him hang his head like a school boy. He apologised as she hurried out of the room to find her hand-held vacuum cleaner. When she came back she noticed he had taken the opportunity to stuff a savoury cheese sandwich in his mouth.
Over the suction noise of the vacuum, Maud said “I haven’t told you the clincher yet.”
“Clincher?” mumbled Sergeant Tisdale. The look on his face indicate that he thought this was another word for Maud’s guesswork. But she knew he was actually allowing himself enough time to swallow the sandwich. It gave her the chance to air her next piece of evidence.
“Yesterday, when I dropped by, there was no flower bed in the back garden. Now there’s one near their old jacaranda tree.” Her voice rang with triumph.
Sergeant Tisdale smiled politely. “The McDowell’s have a neat garden, they like gardening, I see nothing unusual with that.”
“But, Ron,” gasped Maud, “it was dug in the middle of the night.”
“Well?” said Sergeant Tisdale as he eyed the last biscuit.
Maud shoved the plate towards him. “It’s the same size as a graveyard plot.”
Unimpressed, Sergeant Tisdale sighed. “And?”
“And there’s no flowers planted in it,” said Maud. “The reason I think this is so significant is the fact that Angus has a bad back so all the hard work is carried out by a landscaper who arrives around ten o’clock in the morning.”
She waited for a rebuke, similar to the kind her family dished out, which usually ended with her being told she was a sticky beak. Instead, Sergeant Tisdale asked “When did you last…?” With a dramatic squeal, she cut him off and pointed out the window. “Look! He’s fussing at the curtains again. I can see his gardening overalls.”
Sergeant Tisdale half rose from the armchair which caused a cushion to tumble to the floor and coffee to slop onto his trousers. Maud gave a snort of annoyance but it was directed through the window.
“Too late,” she said. “He’s ducked out of sight.”
“Sorry about that,” said Sergeant Tisdale. He sat back down and carefully reached for a paper serviette.
“Oh, don’t worry…” began Maud.
“No, I don’t mean spilling my coffee,” he said. “I meant twitchy behaviour. It happens a lot around policeman. Police cars also have a way of making citizens nervous.” He dabbed at his knee with the disintegrating paper and changed the course of the conversation. “Maybe he’s worried about you, Maud.” She rejected this idea with a wave of her hand. “No, I think he knows we’re on to him.” For emphasis, she punched a small fist into the palm of her hand.
“Let’s nail him,” she said.
“I’m shocked,” said the Sergeant and smiled. “You have a wonderful imagination.”
His comment was ignored because Maud remembered something else she’d forgotten to tell him. “You know, I rang all the hospitals in Kingsgrove and none of them had a Felicity McDowell on their patient admissions list.”
By tilting his head to the side, Maud thought his interest was piqued but he dashed her hopes.
“What’s the motive, Maud? From all reports, Angus and Felicity McDowell have got on very well over the years, considering they are brother and sister. No sibling rivalry there. They’ve settled into retirement together after the death of their mother and have never put a foot wrong, so to speak. Now, answer me this,” he said and leaned forward slightly. “Why do you think Angus has murdered his sister Felicity?”
His voice sent a shiver up Maud’s spine. She sucked in a lungful of air and expelled it slowly. “Well, dear Ron, I was saving the most incriminating evidence until last.”
Sergeant Tisdale put his cup aside, drew himself up in the armchair and displayed credible anticipation.
“The McDowells were arguing just before Felicity disappeared.” Maud moistened her lips. She believed this was the good part. “Felicity was leaving the house and she shouted at him saying he was a boring old man and it showed. She didn’t want to end up a wrinkled prune like him. She said he was stuck in a rut and should live a little, move with the times.”
“How did you hear all that?” asked Sergeant Tisdale.
Maud felt guilty and knew it showed. “I was watering the garden.”
With reluctance, Sergeant Tisdale rose from the comfort of the chair and said “Hurt feelings yes, murder no. An argument like that doesn’t indicate Angus would have been angry enough to commit murder.”
Maud was crestfallen. She had hoped Sergeant Tisdale would look into it for her. However, his next words brightened her outlook.
“I’ll call on Angus tomorrow, just for a little man-to-man talk. But I’m not promising anything. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for Felicity’s absence.”
As he walked towards the door, Maud followed him and voiced her main worry. “I certainly hope Angus is not a serial killer or I may be next on his list.”
Sergeant Tisdale assured her that normal people don’t turn into serial killers overnight. He thanked her for the afternoon tea and was just about to cross the threshold when he paused. He asked Maud if she had seen or spoken to either of the McDowells in the past week.
“No, except for partially seeing Angus at the window,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“We don’t know if that person in the house across the road is actually a McDowell. It could be anyone.”
As far as Maud was concerned, their conversation had taken a turn for the worst. She was horrified to think that perhaps both McDowells were murder victims.
“Oh,” said Maud. “Both murdered.”
She opened and shut her mouth then managed to utter “Oh, Ron.”
Sergeant Tisdale told her how this particular thought had been niggling at the back of his mind. Maud couldn’t tell if he was serious. “Don’t worry,” he said and gave her elbow a squeeze. “Just speculating out loud. Not a very plausible scenario. Also, if someone was in there house-sitting, I’m sure you would have witnessed other comings and goings.”
“And surely they would have told me if they were going away?” said Maud. She felt indignant at the very idea of being excluded from this information.
“Not necessarily,” said the Sergeant. “For example, they might have been too embarrassed to say they were going to a nudist camp.”
Despite herself, Maud laughed. It was an unlikely event as far as she was concerned. She said if that was the case, she would never be tempted to join them.
“Shame,” said Sergeant Tisdale.
As she closed the front door, she was aware that the Sergeant’s look was one of interrupted longing. She assumed he was disappointed he had not been invited to dinner. With a final vacuum of the armchair, she dismissed the flaws of men because a plan of action had already germinated in her fertile mind.
Dusk had melted into darkness and the clock numerals glowed towards midnight as Maud changed her clothes. She put on her black slacks and a dark blue shirt which she buttoned to the top. In the wardrobe she found a black cap her nephew had left behind. Once it was firmly clamped on her head, she surveyed the effect and was satisfied she looked slinky enough to blend into the night.
“Now for a bit of sneak and peek,” she whispered to the mirror.
At first, Maud thought it would be a good idea to dig up the grave-like mound beside the McDowell’s jacaranda tree but visions of a gruesome discovery quickly ended that notion. Now she wanted to see who was in the McDowell house.
She crossed the dimly lit road, opened the wooden gate and tiptoed across the springy lawn. The act of trespass did not enter her mind. She headed for the side of the house because, she reasoned, it was less visible from the road and more likely to have an open window. Startled by a creature rustling in the shrubbery, she paused and held her breath. It was then she heard another sound. The sound of digging. Maud was sure her heart skipped a beat.
“Caught in the act,” she thought. Surprised at her bravery, she moved forward. She wanted to see who was doing the dirty work.
“Maybe the body is being moved?” This thought made her shudder.
Maud crept along paving stones as she followed the noise around the corner of the old house. Dull light from an open doorway partially lit the back garden. There, hunched over the newly-dug garden bed, was a shadowy figure wearing heavy grey overalls and thick gloves. Although she only had a back view, Maud guessed it was Angus. She could distinguish his movements and watched him dig at the soil with a small trowel.
Suddenly her bravado faded and Maud lost her nerve. She couldn’t tackle him and she certainly couldn’t accuse him of anything. It was too tricky, too dangerous even. Inwardly she chastised herself for doing such a foolhardy thing.
As she cursed her impulsive behaviour, her innermost thoughts screamed in a high pitched voice “Run, run now,” but she willed herself to stay calm.
She started to back away. As she moved slowly down the path, she felt for the stability of the wall. Without warning, she stood on a loosely coiled water hose and staggered. It twisted around her ankle. The more she flayed, the more entangled she became until the hose wrapped around her leg. Finally she fell backwards and plonked down in a puddle of water.
The silhouette jumped up and ran over to her. Two sturdy boots halted in front of her downcast eyes. Maud did not want to look up. She did not want a confrontation. She knew she was cured of sleuthing for life. One steel capped boot tapped with intimidation as she forced herself to look upwards.
In the same instant she raised her eyes, the backlit figure spoke.
“Maud Fitch,” said a female voice. “What on earth are you doing spying on me in the middle of the night?”
“Felicity! You’re safe!” cried Maud, flooded with relief.
“Of course,” said Felicity. “Now answer my question.”
Maud gulped. “I thought you were dead.”
“Obviously not,” said Felicity.
“But, but,” stammered Maud, “why are you dressed in Angus’ clothes?”
“To do a spot of gardening,” said Felicity.
Maud felt bold enough to ask for some assistance. Felicity helped her untangle the garden hose and she stood upright. As she brushed at her damp slacks, Maud saw a line of potted plants waiting to be transplanted.
Unable to resist, she said “Why do it at this time of night?”
“Planting by the lunar cycle,” said Felicity.
“Angus does the gardening. Where is he?”
“None of your business,” said Felicity. She appeared about to add something, instead she pulled off the gardening gloves and shoving them into a plastic bucket.
“You didn’t…” Maud’s voice faded.
Felicity shot her a sly grin. “You reckon I’ve bumped him off and buried him in the garden, don’t you?”
Maud nodded and wondered how fast she could run.
“I could easily do that to you,” said Felicity matter-of-factly, “and nobody would ever know.”
“Ron Tisdale would,” said Maud, then covered her mouth.
“Will the good Sergeant be arriving next?”
“Yes,” lied Maud.
Felicity appeared unfazed by this and Maud watched as she swiftly removed the stained overalls. Unfortunately it was too shadowy for Maud to tell if the marks were made by grass or blood. Felicity jammed the overalls into the plastic bucket and stood there wearing a pair of tight jeans and a flattering top. To Maud’s dismay, Felicity then snatched up a pair of pruning shears and shook them menacingly at her. “You’re a nosey old sticky beak,” she said.
Maud was relieved when Felicity dropped the shears into the overcrowded bucket. She retorted “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Felicity chuckled. She sat down on the door step in the pale glow from the kitchen beyond and ran her fingers through her newly-cropped hair. It was almost a challenge.
Her attitude no longer threatened Maud but she was disconcerted when Felicity smiled and crossed her legs in a relaxed fashion. Maud wondered why her image was so cool, so casual. And, she noted with surprise, so young-looking. She thought “If Felicity is older than me then she should look older.” In fact, Felicity looked younger and more unlined than when she and Maud first met ten years ago. It took Maud a few seconds to work it out.
“You’ve had Botox injections,” she accused.
“Yes, I have. Got it done last week when I was in Sydney, only took a few hours. And I’m loving it,” said Felicity with a girlish toss of her head. “When do you think Sergeant Tisdale will get here?”
“I think you should be arrested,” Maud exploded. “Obviously you wanted a new life, a carefree younger life. You didn’t want Angus hanging around, poor old wrinkly Angus, so you killed him. Clearly the treatment has addled your brain.”
“You’re the one who’s addled.” Felicity glared as much as the Botox treatment would allow. “Angus got knifed. It was no accident.” She paused and straightened her sleeve. “I persuaded him to go under the knife. I’ve been covering for him while he recuperates from cosmetic surgery.” Maud was dumbfounded. “Angus, cosmetic surgery? Never!”
“It’s true,” said Felicity. “It’s our little secret. Please don’t give the game away. He should be home tomorrow so you can check out the work for yourself.”
“I won’t be coming back, I couldn’t imagine anything more awful. What a ludicrous thing to do,” shouted Maud. She turned and stormed off before she realised her behaviour was excessive but she had gone too far to make amends. As she rounded the corner, she yelled over her shoulder “You’re a couple of vain peacocks.”
She muttered all the way home about people who couldn’t grow old gracefully, who were image obsessed and wanted immortality through the process of body distortion.
“I love my wrinkles,” she said defiantly. Then wondered if it was true.
* * *
Next day, Maud had driven home from work and cruised down the last familiar stretch of her own road when she saw Sergeant Tisdale’s police vehicle pull away from the kerb outside the McDowell residence. For her own benefit, she needed to know what he had been told about her unseemly actions and started to formulate an excuse.
She flashed the headlights then flagged him down with windmill-like arm gestures. The Sergeant appeared both annoyed and amused but pulled over good-naturedly and lowered his car window.
Maud was ready with her questions but he spoke first.
“I’ve solved the McDowell mystery,” he said.
Maud went to speak but he kept talking. “Old Angus and Felicity are there. He told me that both he and Felicity had each taken a short vacation.”
She gave a wary nod.
Sergeant Tisdale continued “The separation must have done them both the world of good. They look ten years younger.” Maud smiled. At that moment, she experienced a revelation. She decided that saving face was not as important as keeping a friend’s secret. Sergeant Tisdale looked at her expectantly. “Glad to hear it,” was all she said.
Maud accelerated sharply and left the Sergeant behind without a second glance.
She knew he wouldn’t give up on her that easily and she had biscuits to bake.
(With my thanks to Maud Fitch, friend and fellow writer)
The old lady across the road died alone but at a good age after a good life, well, that’s what the family said as they stripped her house of all its fixtures, fittings and 1960s furniture. They singled me out from the group of neighbours on the front verandah and asked me if I would like anything from Mary’s junk, er, they cleared their throats, her mementos and stuff. I raced home to my mother and being politely greedy I raced back with her message that we’d take anything they didn’t want, and also Mary was a lovely old gal. She was too, she used to worked at the university and was clever, always keeping up with radio bulletins and had newspapers delivered from London and New York.
Mrs Anglesea and her toddler were standing at their front gate, wiping eyes and sniffing about poor Mr Roberto gone, gone forever. No more bark-bark said the toddler. Mary’s terrier Mr Roberto had been bundled into a pet carrier and taken to the local vet. The carrier came back empty. Even my mother blinked at that. But to help the family with their clear-out, she gave them a load of flattened cardboard boxes from a high-end removalist company. My mother didn’t know they cost money so it wasn’t until she saw them in the back of some bloke’s ute did she twig that they’d sold them on.
So, it was with the feeling of recompense that we were offered, and graciously received said my mother, a framed drawing of a grey English village, a chrome-legged brown laminated table and an old armchair. I was pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given the choice of some of the good things like her TV or bookcase or favourite figurines but I had already spotted a woman trundling them out to her white van. I knew she sold stuff on eBay and sent them a million miles away. I wondered if Mary had followed her belongings or left her soul in the house like my mother said she would have . . .
AUTHOR NOTE This story has been temporarily withdrawn . . . it was rewritten, submitted, and subsequently awarded Third Place (and won a cash prize) in a short story writing competition with the option for publication.