Betty Fraser’s cooking was legendary. Everybody said so. From her neighbours in the kitsch-looking 1970s tower block where she lived to the people she met on her daily pilgrimage to the local shops, Betty Fraser enjoyed god-like status. On most days, the kitchen in her tiny flat in Rathcoole estate was alive with a cacophony of wondrous smells. Everywhere in sight pots bubbled away on the small gas stove or were stacked high in her sink along with pans, crockery and cutlery. Betty was famous long before any of the celebrity chefs had graced our TV screens; some even called her ‘Rathcoole’s Delia Smith.’
Known also as a great conversationalist and raconteur, Betty typically held court in the front sitting room of her home, perched on the edge of her regal looking velvet armchair. Betty Fraser was revered; part of an elite group of wise old ladies who the local community paid deference to at every opportunity.
Another reason for Betty’s fame was her larger-than-life personality. She was one of the most gregarious human beings to have ever lived in the estate. A saint with a penchant for curing all manner of serious illnesses and afflictions, she may not have been, but she believed in “doing a good turn,” for other people. She’d be the first to offer counsel or lend a sympathetic ear if it was sought, or to extend the hand of friendship over a “wee cup’a tay.” Nothing was too much trouble.
Rather than expecting her well-wishers to genuflect in her presence, Betty preferred a modestly quiet life. She was devoid of pretension, so much so that she had a habit of granting an audience to anyone who was open to the prospect of indulging in a yarn with her over endless cups of tea and cigarettes. Rathcoole’s Delia Smith had been a dedicated smoker most of her life, sticking to a strict forty-a-day regime ever since her time as a machine operator at the Carreras tobacco factory in Carrickfergus. It was of little surprise to anyone that the wallpaper in Betty Fraser’s sitting room had turned a musty yellow colour after coming under heavy attack from such habitual chain-smoking. What did surprise people, though, was that everything else in the room – the satin curtains, the tartan carpet, the brass ornaments, the beautifully upholstered settees, even the rickety wooden table – looked so immaculately clean. Nobody could ever say that Betty Fraser wasn’t house proud.
Secreted in the rear living room of the flat was Betty’s husband Davy, a retired sheet metal worker, who spent most days glued to the huge colour television that was always several levels too high in volume. That Tuesday morning, Davy was following the horseracing live from Ascot. He’d an each-way bet on the 11.15 and 12.30 and was eager to follow the form of the runners and riders. The living room was very much Davy’s domain. On the floor beside him lay the Fraser’s pet dog Alfie, a miniature schnauzer with a grumpy-looking face and sleep apnoea. As always, he was flat on his back in the death prone position, comatose, occasionally snoring, than alert to any sign of uninvited guests.
On the day news reached Betty of terrible goings on in the estate, Alfie was fast asleep while Davy struggled to focus on the television screen. Apart from not having shaved, Davy was smartly dressed; his shoes were polished, his brown slacks and open-necked white shirt were neatly pressed. He wore a cream coloured cardigan Betty had bought him at Christmas from the Kays catalogue. His spectacles positioned close to the tip of his nose were held together precariously on one side by Sellotape, a consequence of Alfie having awoken from his slumber by a snore and a snort that frightened him so much he flipped over heavily, breaking Davy’s glasses in the process. As the race neared an end, Davy pressed the volume button on the remote repeatedly, cheering and swearing loudly as his horse galloped in front of the others. The race was all but won. Davy became ecstatic. He rose to his feet and punched the air, before sitting back down to work out his winnings. In the room next door, Betty was fully ensconced on her regal armchair, diligently puffing away on yet another cigarette. Just then the doorbell rang, prompting her to set her cigarette down carefully in the ashtray. ‘I’ll get it Davy,’ she shouted at the top of her voice. Davy was oblivious, the TV drowning out everything outside the small living room. Making her way to the hallway, Betty opened the door to be greeted by her childhood friend, Mags Hylands.
At sixty, Mags was the same age as Betty but looked ten years older. A life plagued with illness, she was very much the matriarch of her expansive family, a role she’d adopted even more since her late husband Billy died of cancer twelve months earlier. Like Betty, Mags was a well-known figure in Rathcoole. Her reputation had grown out of her unrivalled ability to spread outrageous rumours. A few weeks earlier, she’d managed to convince half the estate that Sean Connery had died. People were so convinced they held a minute’s silence in the social clubs around the estate on account of the actor’s staunch support for Glasgow Rangers. The East Way ladies’ dart team even started a memorial fund and planned a charity walk in his memory, though this had more to do with his starring role as James Bond than his football team preferences. As news emerged of his rude health and recent appearance at an Old Firm match, a search began for the originator of the vile rumour. None of it could be traced back to Mags; neither, for that matter, could the rumour she’d started of an imminent visit by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams to open a new community centre in the estate. It later emerged it was Prince Charles.
On the day Mags Hylands called, she had something of even greater importance to tell Betty. It must have been serious because the first thing she did was to close the glass door of the sitting room tightly behind her as she entered.
‘He’s a Sleekit get thon fella Tommy McClean. Jean down the road seen him at it the other night,’ she pointedly informed Betty who hadn’t even sat back down when Mags started.
‘Seen him at what Mags?’ replied Betty.
‘You know. Up to no good. Says she seen him bate his wife. What’s her name again? Bev. Tanya. Debs, I think. Oi that’s it - Debs. Battered her to death in their sitting room, Jean says.’
‘You’re hav’en a laugh Mags luv. Are you frigg’in serious, like? Merder, you say? Round here. Nat possible luv. Thon fella doesn’t have it in ‘im.’
Mags took a long drag on her cigarette and exhaled slowly, generating a huge puff of wispy smoke.
‘Well that’s what Jean says anyway luv. Says she seen him hit’er a big dig on the gub. A proper bat'en, she says. Apparently, he emptied her.’
‘Jean’s not wise in the head Mags, luv. You know that. She’s a wild imagination thon auld doll. I’m sure Tammy just scelped her arse for her. I heard she’s a bit of a girl round the estate. She might’of deserved it. You just don’t know luv. Besides, even if he did lay a hand on her, you don’t get a hide’n like that “for licking sugar,” as my auld ma wud have said.’
‘Oi, dead on. That’s not what I herd. Jean’s no mug, so she isn’t Betty. Honestly luv.’
‘But the peelers would’ve been round, surely. You’re just exaggerat’en. If auld Mrs Jamison next door to themuns had seen anything, she’d have reported it. She’s a nosy auld so and so, so she is.’
Mags laughed and rolled her eyes. She took another drag on her cigarette.
‘Sure, who’d go to the peelers round here? In Rathcoole! Hahaha! Nat a chance luv. More chance of seeing pigs fly! Frig sake Betty luv, is yer head cut?’
Betty sucked her teeth dismissively while taking another puff on her cigarette. She’d a wonderful ability of keeping it dangling from her mouth as she spoke. When she blew smoke out, she did so with gusto.
‘Did you see anything yourself Betty? I mean, you and Davy have a brilliant view of those houses from your wee flat up here. You must see some sights luv.’
‘Not as much as you,’ Betty muttered under her breath.
‘Nothing luv. I didn’t see anything. Sure, you know my Davy. He’s either watchen the futball or down the club most nights.’
‘That’s a shame luv. Youse have a great wee spot up here. I’m jealous of youse. I’d be here all day sat in front of this big windee. Watch’in the world go by. Pure bliss luv.’
Mags stretched over to the crowded ashtray on the mantelpiece and stubbed out her cigarette.
‘I think yer gett’in carried away with yourself Mags. Frig sake luv. Since your Billy died, I swear, you’re like the News of the World!’
They both laughed. Mags stopped abruptly to cough. She had a horrendous smoker’s cough. It seemed to go on forever.
‘I miss Billy, Betty, luv, I really do, but my head isn’t away, you know. I know what I herd. Give’us another fag there luv, I’m gasping.’
‘Where’s your proof, other than what Jean said luv?’
Mags paused for a moment before she spoke. ‘Who needs proof luv. It doesn’t matter about proof for God’s sake. Nat when you think about it.’
‘You know what people ‘ill say luv,’ Betty said, raising her eyebrows as she took another drag on her cigarette. Stubbing it out in the ashtray.
‘So what else is happening with ye then? How’s Tanya do’in luv? What age is the wee boy now? Must be five.’
‘Oi, luv, that’s right. Wee Johnnie is growing up fast. Anyway, luv, let’s not get aff the subject here. What are we going to do about Tommy McClean?’
‘Ack come on Mags luv. There’s nat’in we can do. You can’t go accusing somebody of sumfin like that. Merder luv? I mean, it’s a serious business.’
‘Oi, I know that luv.’
‘We need proof and nat just auld Mrs frig’in Jamison’s say so, like.’
‘Definitely luv. Let’s see what I can do then. I’ll go round there later and have a wee juke.’
‘A juke at whaaa?’
‘Those bin bags luv. Must be some clues or sumfin.’
‘Ye can’t do that luv!’
‘Do what Betts luv? Nobody ever got lifted by the peelers for bin hok’in.’
‘I know that but you’ll get a bad reputation for frig sake. People ‘ill talk.’
‘Just you let me worry about that. I’ll do it later when everybody’s watchen Corrie luv. Nobody will see me. I’ll be in and out of thon backyard like lightning.’
‘Just you be careful.’
‘Ack, I’ll be fine luv. Trust me.’
Betty knew there was no talking to Mags. She’d known her long enough now to know that trying to stop her doing something she’d set her mind to was futile. Mags Hylands was a strong-willed woman who people often talked about in hushed tones as a busybody but they wouldn’t have told her that to her face. She was a bruising sort of character. She was built like a flyweight boxer but had the ability to swear in a way that scared off any kind of opposition that came within spitting distance of her. Mags knew how to handle herself and other people.
After a couple of hours the ladies finished a second packet of cigarettes before Betty announced that she had to get the dinner on early. Davy had won big on the horses and that usually meant that he’d be heading down to the bookies at lunchtime followed by a few pints in the Blues Club.
It was shaping up to be a busy afternoon of cooking for Rathcoole’s Delia Smith.
Just over a week later, Betty was busy hoovering her hallway when she looked up to catch a glimpse of a tall, bulging figure on the other side of the frosted glass front door. Whoever it was seemed to be out of breath like they’d walked up the fifteen floors of the multi-story tower block. The doorbell rang. Betty answered it to find Tommy McClean standing over her. He’d worked up a sweat.
‘Alright Betty luv. Have you seen Mags Hylands?’ he said. ‘Debs is look’in her. The two of them have some catching up to do. I dunno. Those two. Wind up merchants, I tell ye.’
Betty became suspicious. Tommy was, as Mags had informed her, acting sleekitly.
‘No luv. I haven’t seen her since last week. Have you tried Agnes in number 97 two floors down, Tammy son. She sometimes goes to her wee flat to see her and the kids.’
‘I’ll give her a shout. No worries, like. Sorry to bother you Betty luv. I’m knackered after walking up those stairs luv. Friggin lifts are out of order again. Somebody’s probably reported it, I’m sure.’
‘Oi luv. Been like that since yesterday. I told the Housing Executive Office. They’re sending somebody out next week they said. Sure luck on the bright side luv. You’re heading back down now.’
‘That’s true luv,’ said Tommy. ‘See ye later luv.’ He’d no sooner turned round than Betty slammed the door shut and bolted it. She breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Davy! Davy! Get yer arse out here now,’ she shouted up the hallway.
‘Oi. For fuck sakes luv, what are ye gulder’in at?’
‘Just get yourself out here. I need you a minute.’
‘Gimme two seconds luv,’ Davy replied as he lent forward on the toilet seat squeezing out the last of the contents of his bowels, most notably the massive Ulster Fry Betty had cooked him earlier that morning. ‘What do ye want? I’m busy taken a shite here.’
‘Dirty hallion, ye. Just hurry up and get down the sitting room when yer finished.’
‘Oi. Whatever luv. I’m near finished this new book you bought me at Christmas. It’s on D-Day. I’ve just got to a good bit on the Ulster Rifles. They’ve just come under sniper fire from the friggen Nazis.’
Betty shook her head then carried on hoovering. She started humming to herself, occasionally popping over to the look out of the letterbox to check that Tommy had gone. In the distance, she heard Davy break wind then belch. Ten seconds later he was flushing the toilet and washing his hands.
‘Right luv. What is it,’ Davy asked as he pulled up the zipper on his jeans. ‘I was enjoying that friggin book there for frig sake. Better be good. Whaa do ye want now woman?’
‘Thon Tommy McClean. He’s up tee no good, I tell ye.’
‘In what way? Sure half the people round this estate are up to no good!’
‘I’m sure that man has murdered Mags.’
‘You whaaa. Davy burst out laughing. Mags. Sure I’ve wanted to do her in sometimes. She doesn’t know when to shut her bake. Woman’s a menace.’
‘Very funny Davy. I’m worried about her luv, that’s all.’
‘Frig sake woman give my head peace, won’t ye.’
‘Mags was round here the other day telling me that Jean Jamison seen Tammy McClean hammer his wife. Kilt her apparently.’
Davy laughed so much he nearly choked.
‘Jesus luv. And ye believed her, like.’
‘I’m sure there’s something aff about him. He was just here asking where Mags was.’
‘Frig sake who do ye think you are? Miss Marple!’
‘Mrs Jamison says there’s an extra few bags out the back for the bins on Monday. Could be her body, like.’
Davy wasn’t having any of it. He stood wide-mouthed as his wife spouted a rumour started by a woman everyone knew to be totally unreliable. As they stood in the hall, the doorbell rang again. Betty could make out the figure of a woman this time. She unlocked it and opened it to reveal Mags who was clutching a Duty Free bag.
‘Here you go luv. Here’s a few cartons of fegs for ye.’
Betty stood open-mouthed, She looked like she was frozen to the spot.
‘But. But. I thought you were killed for frig sake. Mags. Where were you, like?’
‘Benidorm luv. A wee last minute cheapy I gat in the Abbeycentre the other week. Oh, Betty, luv, you wanted to see them apartments. They were class. I didn’t wanna come home.’
‘Really! I says to my Davy. I says, Mags has been merdered.’
‘Ack away to that with ye. Don’t be stupid, like. Who’d merder me?’
‘Well Tommy McClean for a start! Just like he did with his poor wee wife.’
‘Tommy?! Ack no, luv. Sure she was away to visit her mummy up the coast. She’s back now. I was gonna…’
‘But you said auld Mrs Jamison saw it happen.’
‘I think she’s go’an a wee bit senile luv. Wee Ashleigh. The home-help. Lovely wee girl she is. A hard worker. Says they’ll have to put auld Mrs Jamison in a home soon. She’s losing her marbles,’ Mags said as she let out a long, coarse cough. ‘Gives’a smoke luv. I’m choking.’
‘You scared me half to death! You silly bitch, ye! Don’t ever do that again!’
‘Don’t worry luv, I won’t.’
No sooner had they finished talking than the two women had moved into the sitting room, shutting the door tightly behind them like they always did. Betty unwrapped the carton of cigarettes and threw a packet over to Mags. It was shaping up to be a long morning.
Next door Davy relaxed back into his chair with a big sigh. ‘Dear oh,’ he said before lifting the remote to start channel-hopping. Murder She Wrote was on RTE 2. He laughed quietly to himself.
‘Who needs Jessica Fletcher round here when I’ve got Betty Fraser,’ he said quietly to himself.
At that moment Alfie barked. Alfie never barked. There was someone else at the door.