EARLIER that morning Nesbo had begun his journey. He sat in a corner seat of the 8.15 a.m. Express to Birmingham huddled into his Abercrombie overcoat, his thoughts turned in upon himself. What did she want?
Just before the train began to move, the door to the compartment slid open and a rotund, middle-aged man in a suit stepped in. He carried a small suitcase. He nodded to Nesbo.
“How do.” He stowed the case on the overhead rack and plumped himself down on the opposite seat.
“Just made it,” he said.
“Yes,” Nesbo replied.
“I’ve business in Birmingham, you see,” the man explained. “Take me a couple of days. Nuts and screws, that’s my line. People don’t realise how many types of screw there are.”
Nesbo groaned inwardly. There were too many things on his mind to get involved in a pointless conversation. As the train gained speed he allowed his eyelids to droop and the rapid clackity-clack, clackity-clack, clackity-clack of the wheels drowned out the drone of the man in the suit.
The letter he had received from Judith was in the inside pocket of his coat. He didn’t need to look at it. He knew every word. They were few.
Leo, I need to see you. Drop me a line or a telegram.
There was no clue there. There was no warmth either. He didn’t expect any, or want any, if truth be known. He hoped she wasn’t ill.
His mind wandered back over the years. He’d just started off in the music halls, bottom of the bill, with simple conjuring tricks, card tricks, sleight of hand stuff. Judith was a chorus girl. Very pretty, with a high kick and a ready smile. And when she smiled at him his head was spinning. They were young. Far too young.
Love at first sight. All that silly nonsense. Marry in haste, repent at leisure, more like. Judith soon made it clear that she hated the chorus line and the music hall. What she wanted was a nice little house and a nice little life with Nesbo in a nice steady job.
With great reluctance Nesbo gave up the stage and took a job as a clerk with an insurance company.
“You’ll soon get used to it, Leo. You’ll do well, a clever chap like you. And can we get rid of all those magic props? Put them in the shed or I’ll burn them, see if I don’t.”
For over two years he’d endured the grinding monotony, adding up rows of figures and selling penny policies, while Judith set up a home that was spotless and ordered and cheerless.
If they’d had children it would have been different. He could never have walked away from her. To be honest, she’d said before they were married that she wasn’t fond of children. He thought she’d meant other people’s children, but no.
“Not every woman has a maternal instinct, Leo. We’re fine as we are, aren’t we?” But they weren’t.
He yearned more and more for the excitement of the stage, the challenge of an audience. When a theatre manager asked him to fill in for a few performances in an emergency, he’d jumped at the chance.
“It’s only temporary, Judith.”
But then he’d been offered a permanent spot. He gave up his safe insurance job.
“I can earn as much, Judith, more, even. I’ll get to the top of the bill, you see if I don’t.”
He’d sent money every week, had returned home as often as possible to a cold, resentful reception, and then there had been the final row.
“I’ve been to see Mr Bradshaw at the insurance office,” she announced.
“Mr Bradshaw! Whatever for?”
“He says you can have your old job back if you start next Monday. Make your mind up, Leo, because I’m not going on like this.”
He remembered her standing, hands on hips, issuing her ultimatum.
“No, we can’t go on like this. It’s best if we finish it now and we can both go our separate ways.”
“Oh, no! You can shrug off all your responsibilities, but you’ll not shrug me off. Go on, go! You’re good at disappearances.”
Over the years he’d continued to send her money. Even when he was conscripted into the Army in 1916 when they’d started taking men over forty, and he’d sat in mud-filled trenches in Flanders for 18 months, thinking up illusions and devices. Early on he’d sent Christmas and birthday cards, but received nothing in return, until the letter.
With a jolt the train arrived at Birmingham.