For many years Wilfred Martin collected samples of alternative medicines, homeopathic remedies and herbal pills. Most of them he never used, never even tried because he was afraid of them, but he kept the lot in a cupboard in a bathroom in his house in Falcon Mews, Maida Vale, and when he died they went, along with the house and its contents, to his son Carl.
Carl’s mother recommended throwing it all out. It was junk, harmless at best, possibly dangerous, all those bottles and jars and sachets just taking up room. But Carl didn’t throw it out because he couldn’t be bothered.
He had other things to do. If he had known how it, or one particular item among all the rest, would change his life, transform it, ruin it, he would have emptied the lot into a plastic bag, carried the bag down the road and dumped it in the big rubbish bin.
It was a decision he was bitterly to regret. But not at the beginning. The only drawback Dermot seemed to have was his appearance – his uneven yellow teeth, for instance, his extreme thinness and round shoulders.
Carl had taken over the former family home in Falcon Mews at the beginning of the year, his mother having moved to Camden when his parents divorced. For a while he thought no more about the contents of his bathroom cupboard. He was occupied with his girlfriend Nicola, his novel Death’s Door, which had just been published, and with letting the top floor of his house. He had no need of those two rooms plus kitchen and bathroom, and great need of the rent. Excited though he was about the publication of his first book, he was not so naïve at twenty-three as to suppose he could live by writing alone. Rents in central London had reached a peak, and Falcon Mews, a crescent looping out of Sutherland Avenue to Castellain Road in Maida Vale, was highly desirable and much sought-after. So he placed an advertisement in the Paddington Express offering accommodation, and next morning twenty prospective tenants presented themselves on his doorstep. Why he chose the first applicant, Dermot McKinnon, he never knew. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want to interview dozens of people. It was a decision he was bitterly to regret.
But not at the beginning. The only drawback Dermot seemed to have was his appearance – his uneven yellow teeth, for instance, his extreme thinness and round shoulders. But you don’t decide against a tenant because his looks are unprepossessing, Carl told himself, and no doubt the man could pay the rent. Dermot had a job at the Sutherland Pet Clinic in the next street and produced a reference from the chief veterinarian there. Carl asked him to pay each month’s rent at the end of the previous month, and perhaps the first mistake he made was to request that it be paid not by transfer into his bank account, but in notes or a cheque in an envelope left at Carl’s door. Carl realised that these days this was unusual, but he wanted to see the rent come in, take it in his hand. Dermot put up no objection.
Carl had already begun work on a second novel, having been encouraged by his agent Susanna Griggs to get on with it. He didn’t expect an advance payment until he had finished it and Susanna and his editor had read and accepted it. There was no payment promised on paperback publication of Death’s Door, as no one expected it to go into paperback. Still, what with being both a published author with good prospects and a landlord receiving rent, Carl felt rich.
Dermot had to enter Carl’s house by the front door and go up two flights of stairs to get to his flat, but he made no noise and, as he put it, kept himself to himself. Carl had already noticed his tenant was a master of the cliché. And for a while everything seemed fine, the rent paid promptly in twenty-pound notes in an envelope on the last day of the month.
All the houses in Falcon Mews were rather small, all different in shape and colour, and all joined together in long rows facing each other. The road surface was cobbled except for where the two ends of the mews met Sutherland Avenue and where the residents could park their cars. The house Carl had inherited was painted ochre, with white window frames and white window boxes. It had a small, very overgrown back garden with a wooden shack at the end full of broken tools and a defunct lawnmower.
As for the alternative medicine, Carl took a couple of doses of something called benzoic acid when he had a cold. It claimed to suppress phlegm and coughs, but it had no effect. Apart from that, he had never looked inside the cupboard where all the bottles and jars lived.
Dermot McKinnon set off for the Sutherland Pet Clinic at twenty to nine each morning, returning to his flat at five thirty. On Sundays he went to church.
If Dermot hadn’t told him, Carl would never have guessed that he was a church-goer, attending one of the several churches in the neighbourhood, St Saviour’s in Warwick Avenue, for instance, or St Mary’s, Paddington Green.
They encountered each other in the mews on a Sunday morning and Dermot said, ‘Just off to morning service.’
‘I’m a regular attender,’ said Dermot, adding, ‘The better the day, the better the deed.’
Carl was on his way to have a coffee with his friend Stacey Warren. They had met at school, then gone to university together, where Carl had read philosophy and Stacey had taken a drama course. It was while she was still at university that her parents had been killed in a car crash and Stacey inherited quite a lot of money, enough to buy herself a flat in Primrose Hill. Stacey wanted to act, and because of her beautiful face and slender figure was given a significant part in a TV sitcom called Station Road. Her face became known to the public overnight, while her slenderness was lost in a few months.
Walking home, Carl realised it wasn’t really a book he wanted. Stacey had mentioned pills. He wondered if there were any slimming medications among his father’s stash of pills and potions, as he had come to think of them.
‘I’ve put on a stone,’ she said to Carl across the table in their local Café Rouge. ‘What am I going to do?’ Other customers were giving her not very surreptitious glances.
‘They all know who I am. They’re all thinking I’m getting fat. What’s going to happen to me?’
Carl, who was very thin, had no idea how much he weighed and didn’t care. ‘You’ll have to go on a diet, I suppose.’
‘David and I have split up. I’m finding that very hard to take. Have I got to starve myself too?’
‘I don’t know anything about diets, Stacey. You don’t need to starve, do you?’
‘I’d rather take one of those magic diet pills that get advertised online. D’you know anything about them?’
‘Why would I?’ said Carl. ‘Not my kind of thing.’
The waitress brought the two chocolate brownies and the slice of carrot cake Stacey had ordered. Carl said nothing.
‘I didn’t have any breakfast,’ she said.
Carl just nodded.
On his way home, still thinking about Stacey and her problem, he passed the bookshop kept by his friend Will Finsford. It was the one remaining privately run bookshop for miles around, and Will had confided that he lay awake at night worrying about having to close, especially as the organic shop down the road had not only gone out of business but had had the bailiffs in.
Carl saw him rearranging the display of best-sellers in the window and went in.
‘D’you have any books on losing weight, Will?’
Will looked him up and down. ‘You already look like you’re wasting away.’
‘Not for me. For a girl I know.’
‘Not the beautiful Nicola, I hope?’ said Will.
‘No, for someone else. A friend who’s got fat. That’s a word I’m not supposed to say, isn’t it?’
‘You’re safe with me. Have a look along the shelves, health section.’
Carl found nothing he thought would be suitable.
‘Come over one evening, why don’t you?’ he said. ‘Bring Corinne. The beautiful Nicola would love to see you. We’ll ring you.’
Will said he would and went back to his window arrangement.
Walking home, Carl realised it wasn’t really a book he wanted. Stacey had mentioned pills. He wondered if there were any slimming medications among his father’s stash of pills and potions, as he had come to think of them. Wilfred Martin had always been thin so was unlikely to have used that sort of thing, but some drugs claimed to serve a double purpose, improving the skin, for instance, or curing indigestion.
Carl thought of his father, a rather taciturn, quirky man. He was sorry Wilfred was gone, but they had never had much in common. He regretted that his father had not lived to see Death’s Door published. But he had left Carl the house, with its income potential. Had that been his way of offering his blessing on his son’s chosen career? Carl hoped so.
The house was silent when he got in, but it usually was whether Dermot was at home or not. He was a good tenant. Carl went upstairs and saw that the bathroom door was open. Dermot had his own bathroom in his flat on the top floor, so had no reason to use this one. Probably he’d forgotten to close the door himself, Carl thought, as he went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
Wilfred’s pills and potions were in a cupboard divided into five sections on the left-hand side of the washbasin. Only the topmost section was for Carl’s current use; he didn’t need much space, as his toothbrush and toothpaste and roll-on deodorant were on the shelf above the basin. Surveying the collection of bottles and phials and jars and packages, tubes and cans and blister packs, he asked himself why he had kept all this stuff. Surely not for its sentimental value. He had loved his father, but he had never felt like that about him. On the contrary, he regarded the pills and potions as mostly quack remedies, rubbish really, and quite useless. A lot of the products, he saw, taking small jars out at random, claimed to treat heart problems and safeguard against heart failure, yet his father had had two heart attacks and died after the second one.
No, there was nothing here that would encourage weight loss, Carl told himself. Best throw it all out, make a clean sweep. But what was that in a large plastic zip-up bag in the second section from the top? Yellow capsules, a great many of them, labelled DNP. The foolproof way to avoid weight gain! promised the label. Behind the bag of capsules was a box full of sachets also containing DNP but in powder-to-liquid form.
Taking the plastic bag out, he noted that, further down, the label advised using with care, and not to exceed the stated dose, etc. etc. The usual small print. But even paracetamol containers said that. He left the bag of capsules where it was and went downstairs to look up DNP on the computer. But before he got there, the front doorbell rang and he remembered that Nicola – beautiful, clever, sweet Nicola – was coming to spend the rest of the day and the night with him. He went to let her in, telling himself he must give her a key. He wanted her as a more permanent part of his life. With Nicola, his new novel and a reliable tenant, life was good. For the time being, he forgot all about the slimming pills.