Short Story: Room of Shadows

By J.M. Shorney and Peter Shorney. Illustration by Peter Shorney

September 29th, 1986.

Darren Soames remembered the phone conversation with the editor of the North London Gazette. It involved something about ‘local colour’ and ‘juicy murder’. As he pulled up next  to the sign Wilmingly Gardens, he hunched forward in his car to get a better look at the block of flats.

Having researched the life of Rupert Gifford, this wasn’t the kind of place Darren Soames expected him to end up. Prison does make all the difference, he told himself. Grabbing a file and his dictaphone from the front passenger seat, Soames stretched himself from the car and strode up to the green painted door of the block’s entrance.

He pushed the button for Flat 4. A minute passed before the speaker reverberated with a hesitant, “Yes?”

“Mr Gifford, Rupert? It’s Darren Soames. We arranged to have a chat today. Do you remember?”

Another pause.

Don’t go quiet on me, Gifford.

Darren Soames was twenty two, and not long out of university. He’d managed to put together Room of Shadowsan article on three violent assaults, one in Peckham and two in Shoreditch. He’d made a link between the three incidents before a police statement came through matching his own investigations. 

It got a lot of attention, giving him a springboard to investigate a case he’d heard about in his studies. The case of Rupert Gifford’s crime of passion.

A buzz and a click allowed the young journalist entry into building. He stepped through as a gust of wind blew in some dead leaves, which skittered around him. The building was clean, with a faint disinfectant smell in the air. Soames studied the signs to take him to Flat 4 and took the lift to the first floor.

Reaching the end of the pale green corridor, Soames knocked on the door to Gifford’s flat. Rupert Gifford opened the door tentatively. He looked every bit his fifty nine years, yet still retaining the slimness his held from pictures taken of him in 1964 – the year he was sentenced for the murder of his wife and her lover. He’d been released just two days previously, with a year to go on his sentence, due to heart problems.

Soames was ushered through to the lounge. It was small, housing a sofa that had seen better days, a coffee table, an armchair and painted dining room chair in need of a fresh coat. There was a cream and black portable TV in the corner on a black ash coloured unit.  Other than that, there were no pictures or anything else to show the owners personality.

“It’s temporary, this.” Gifford said, reading the young man’s face as it scanned for clues about the tenant’s life and interests. “Like a halfway house. Until I get stuff sorted out.”

“I suppose it’s tricky finding a place… what with everything.” Soames chose his words carefully. The last thing he needed was to upset his interviewee.

“I don’t know, it didn’t involve kids or a copper so no one seems to give a shit.” Gifford said, casually. “Tea or coffee? It’s instant. Bloody awful mind. Had better in prison.”

For a moment, Soames’ thought processes battled over the question of whether or not to accept a drink from a committed murderer. However, as it was a crime of passion and not the result of a serial killing, he asked for a cup of tea.

Soames followed Gifford to the kitchen and stood in the doorway as the tea was being made.

“I hope you don’t mind if I record our conversation,” the journalist said, “just to make sure everything is accurate.”

“Yeah, that’s alright. You know all about what was in the papers then?” The older man poured the freshly boiled water into each mug.

Soames hit record, and reached out to take the mug that was passed to him. As they strode back into the lounge, he said, “Oh yes. I researched it when I was studying journalism.”

“Yeah?” Rupert Gifford seemed to have a knot of irritation in his voice as he sat in the armchair.

Darren Soames placed the dictaphone on the arm of the sofa closest to Gifford, and placed his weight down on the sofa. Trying not to spill his tea, he suddenly felt like an amateur. He might not poison me, but I don’t want to push his temper, he thought. But the need to be taken seriously as a journalist took over. It wasn’t a social call. There was a job to do.

“Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” ventured Soames. “In court you suggested your mother was responsible for the deaths of both your wife,” he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “and Johnny Webber. But she was seventy two and bed-ridden.”

Gifford, already sat cross-legged in the armchair, looked directly at his interviewer unspeaking. Eventually, he said. “I’ll tell you where we’ll start, and it goes way before the case. This goes back years.”

Soames found himself intrigued by the promise of more in-depth story than a set the record straight piece. From his knowledge of the case, Gifford’s wife had been having an on/off thing for years, but there was little more reported than that. “Okay, so let’s get some background,” he said. “Tell me about your family.”

“My dad, Samuel, was a Jew in the East End,” began Gifford. “He wasn’t rich, just had a little shop selling fruit and veg. Barely made enough to live really. Course, that changed.” He took a sip of tea.

“He met my mother, Cora Bethune then. She was a customer of his who came in more and more regularly. After a year or two of dancing around the inevitable, they got married. It wasn’t easy for them. Mum used to say how much she would push him to make something of himself, to build up his business.”

Soames was wondering how much of this was relevant, but one thing he’d picked up is how much the ‘sins of the father’ have an effect on people.

“Things did change. They’d been married nearly a year when Mum introduced Dad to some friends of hers. ‘From church,’ she said.” The tinge of distaste was evident in Gifford’s voice.

“You didn’t like their friends?” Soames asked.

“I didn’t know them well. I was a kid and kept out of the way really. But no, as I got older I really didn’t.” Gifford picked up his story. “From then things started to change for Dad’s business. In about three years it really took off, so he was able to open a second shop.”

“That’s impressive,” the young man enthused.

Sitting back in the armchair, Rupert Gifford said coolly, “Yes, yes it is.”

During the course of the interview, Gifford continued to tell of his father’s successes, which led to the purchase of a rambling house in Surrey. It was a huge home for small family and Rupert grew up playing among its long corridors and sprawling garden.

“It was like a castle, a fantasy world to me. It was huge. But one place I would rarely go in was my mother’s room.”

“Your mother’s room?” Darren Soames asked. “Your parents slept separately?”

“I never thought anything of it until I got to talk to other kids at school. Mum and Dad always had separate rooms.”

“And you never went into your mother’s room?”

“Not as a child, not often. You know how your memory is when you’re really young, like it’s all stills, like photos in your head? All my childhood memories are like that, except one.

“I went into Mum’s room one day. I was probably about six or seven. It was always dark in her room. The oddest thing about it was the shadows. They didn’t… make sense.”

Soames gestured for him to continue, caught up in the story.

“The shadows weren’t always cast by the furniture, or the bits and pieces Mum had around the place. And they would move.”

A wordless raised eyebrow from his interviewer propelled Gifford on. “The shadows would twist in the corners of the room. They would sometimes leap from the edges of furniture pushed against the walls. I was fascinated by it, but they seemed to become somehow larger, getting closer. I ran out of there and wouldn’t go back in for, oh, years I think.

“I asked my parents about it, but they put it down to imagination. I stuck to my guns for a while, but I took greater comfort from believing it was all in my head. Occasionally I would hear odd voices in the corridors coming from her room at night, like chanting. Dad just said she liked to pray. That’s all it was, just praying.

“My father died in my twenties. and soon after that my mother took to her bed with a weak heart. That pretty much became my life for some time, looking after her. It got too much, so I asked Mum to hire a nurse. Begged really. Her name was Bella. Bella Ritchie. We hit it off straight away. I thought she was very pretty. Of course, we didn’t get to spend much time together, Mum kept her busy. I managed to get to kiss her by the old oak tree at the bottom of the garden. Stupid really. It was in the view of Mum’s bedroom. Perhaps it was a dare on my part at the time. So long ago now.”

“What happened?” Soames hoped to keep the interview on track, but was finding the older man’s story of interest, even before the murder that would change his life.

“Mum accused Bella of stealing. I knew it was nonsense, but she sacked her. I should’ve been more forthright, put up more of a fight to keep her. Mind you, knowing my mother she’d have made Bella’s life a misery until she resigned anyway. From what I understand she never found work as a nurse again after that.”

“Did you go back to being her carer?”

“No, thankfully. Mum hired someone else, but she was a lot older. Proper matron type. I don’t even remember her name.” He leant forward to place his half-drunk coffee mug on the ash table in the middle of the room.

Even that movement, minimal as it was, made Gifford wince slightly. Darren Soames imagined that prison had perhaps aged this man far more than he’d first realised.

“Is that when you met Rose Carson?”

“Not long after,” confirmed Gifford. “I had money, not from any allowance mind. I’d studied accountancy, and got a good job at a firm. I wanted to go out and see the sights. I was in my mid-thirties and felt like I was wasting my life. I’d go into London. The swanky clubs didn’t do it for me. Rose was a singer. I saw her at some club. My memory isn’t what it was, I don’t know what it was called,” he said, anticipating the interviewer’s question.

“Rose wasn’t exactly the best singer, too husky, but it didn’t matter. The punters didn’t care, I certainly didn’t. Not when she did a bit of a strip routine during her shows. I thought she was stunning.”

Soames was keen to check the facts of the published stories in the press at the time. Leaning forward, he asked, “You were aware that Rose Carson had a boyfriend at the time though?”

“Oh yes,” said Gifford. His face darkened. “Johnny Webber. They were both about ten years younger than me. He was cool and all that, but Rose had turned twenty six. She wanted more than some pretty wide boy.” He failed to hide any of the disdain in is voice. Darren Soames to wondered if this tone was even stronger during the court case, leaving the jury in no doubt of Gifford’s guilt. Soames pushed further with questions about Johnny Webber.

“He was a nasty piece of work really. Just a petty criminal.” Gifford explained. “If Rose wanted a new fur coat, or some trinket, he’d rob a warehouse or steal from a jewellers. She pretended not to know about it, or turn a blind eye to the other girls he would chat up. He’d even flirt with girls in the club while she was on stage.

“One night I got to talk to Rose properly after one of her shows. Johnny Webber was probably hitting on some girl somewhere. She was pretty jealous by him not being around and asked me to escort her home. One thing led to another, and it developed into a real relationship. It was something that was mine, away from the house, away from my mother,” Gifford took a deep breath, “for the first time in my life.”

Rupert Gifford elaborated on their blossoming relationship, and how Rose used to joke that there was more hair on his face from his greying spade beard than was ever on his head. His look was something of an incongruity among the clubs and bars of the Swinging Sixties. However, it was Gifford’s solvency that attracted Rose as much as anything else. Yes, she still vied for nice things, but she was over-awed by a man who could pay for it with his own money.

“We got married. I loved her very much. I believed she loved me in return. Mum was dead against it. She hated Rose. She even shouted at her over dinner one night, calling her a strumpet and a golddigger.

“I made the mistake of thinking we could all live under that one roof. Whenever I mentioned maybe buying a house and moving out to my mother, she would go into a terrible mood, and I never felt like rocking the boat. To me, the family home was big enough for us three. And aside from the odd tensions it was okay. For a while.”

Soames asked Gifford to embellish on his story. It was clear that tempers must’ve been fraying in the house and people had been known to crack under that kind of pressure. Sometimes violently.

“Rose started to notice things. Things I’d not taken notice of for years. She began to hear the chanting coming from my mother’s room. Like my parents, I just told her it was because Mum was very religious, so prayed a lot.

“Then Rose went into Mum’s room, for a hairbrush or something. She saw the shadows, like I had seen as a child, that I put down to infantile fantasy as an adult. She told me what she saw, but again, I dismissed it as imagination. Seems so stupid. I spoke to her like she was a child. I think I regret that most of all. You can fight with someone you love, you can feel envy, jealousy and pain because of them. But to dismiss someone you care so deeply about? That’s unforgivable.”

Gifford retrieved his coffee mug from the table. His hands were noticeably shaky and his demeanor became even more sullen than before. Soames allowed him to get himself together after a minute or so.

“It must’ve been tough.” the young man empathised.

Gifford nodded. “We couldn’t even have sex most of the time. Mum used to take sleeping pills to knock her out as she always suffered from terrible insomnia. Somehow she still seemed to bang on the wall when we were about to get down to it. My room wasn’t near hers, but it seemed to be with such force you could hear it around the house. Sometimes she would call out to me that she needed something. Actually, we couldn’t have sex at any time.”

The story unfolded further; Gifford had become a successful freelance accountant, and was attending a meeting with a client. “Rose hated being alone with Mum in the house. So she called for company.” Gifford said with a sneer. Rose invited Johnny Webber  to the house.

“I had no idea she had become so disillusioned with our marriage. In hindsight, I can see why. But to go back to him…”

Soames took to his notes, which referred to a newspaper clipping at the time of the trial. “During the court case, you said that you believed Rose and Johnny were trying to murder your mother. I’ve read the reports from the time and the information is confusing. There’s no evidence of this, and there was some argument between you and your counsel at the time over it.”

Gifford nodded. “I’d finished my meeting and was heading home. When I got there, I found Rose, on the floor by Mum’s bed. She was gripping a pillow. I think she meant to suffocate Mum as she slept.”

“She was still asleep in her room?”

“Yes. Out cold, or seemed to be. I’m not sure. The thing is, it had to be quick because Rose hardly had time to drop the pillow.”

“Or she was too shocked?” offered Soames.

Gifford nodded in agreement. Of course, this didn’t fly in court. I got done for Webber’s death too.”

“A car crash, wasn’t it?” Soames said, glancing at his notes.

“Turns out he’d won a lot of money playing cards, believe it or not.”

“That was lucky,” Soames said, then realised how crass that came across in light of the man’s fate. Rupert Gifford couldn’t help but let out a chortle at the dark humour. His expression clouding again, Gifford told the young man the car had been found partially burned out, crumpled against a tree at the end of the lane leading from the house.

“He was killed instantly,” Gifford added, “they said his brakes had been cut. I couldn’t have done it. If I’d have caught Rose with him at the house, I wouldn’t have spent my time under his car looking for a bloody brake cable. I’d have broken his nose, sure. They weren’t having it of course, the jury. The judge said I ‘did coldly and with presence of mind devise a way to end a man’s life.” Gifford huffed.

Soames said, “You’ve obviously had a lot of time to think about this. What do you think happened now, looking back?”

Darren Soames sat at his desk in his small Highgate office, listening to the closing moments of his interview with Rupert Gifford.

“What do you think happened, looking back?”

(Pause)

“I can say this now. I’ve nothing left to lose. In that room, among those shadows, was something capable of dark, dark things. I can’t say more than that, except my mother was part of it.”

Soames stopped the tape, and pulled a sheet of paper to slide into his electric typewriter. He shivered involuntarily, and saw a dark shape from the extent of his peripheral vision. A shadowy figure dislodged itself from a corner of the room where light failed to penetrate.

Blinking his eyes momentarily, Darren Soames put it down to his imagination.

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