He didn’t want to ask what Amaryllis thought of the watercolours. She frowned every time she glanced at them. As she finished her fish supper and scrunched the paper up, he couldn’t help it.
‘What do you think?’
She reconsidered the pictures. ‘Nice,’ she said. ‘Sunset behind Longannet. Grangemouth refinery with smoke and flames. Where did you get them?’
‘That craft shop near the harbour. It’s got a café upstairs.’
‘Is their coffee any good?’
”Not bad…But what do you think about the mystery?’
That was the whole point. He wouldn’t have bought the pictures if there hadn’t been a mystery.
‘What mystery?’ she said.
‘Didn’t you find the note?’ Christopher noticed a pile of Christmas paper in the corner, flung down carelessly. He scrabbled through it to retrieve the note. ‘What do you think this is?’
‘I thought it said Merry Christmas,’ she said. ‘How did you expect me – ?’
‘Never mind – just read it,’ he said.
She read the note.
‘So,’ she said, ‘what happened to the other sister?’
It sounded lame when she put it like that. He resolved never to buy her a present again.
‘It’s great!’ she added. ‘It’s the best present since my first Barbie doll.’
She must be joking about the Barbie doll. Surely Amaryllis had never played with dolls – at least, not in a good way.
”Is the craft shop open tomorrow?’
‘They won’t mind me asking questons, will they?’
He knew Amaryllis didn’t care whether people minded or not. She was a trained interrogator; sometimes her skill spilled over into everyday conversations.
‘It was the owner who gave me the idea.’
Indeed, the man, desperate for the sale, had been over-anxious to help Christopher with his Christmas present plans.
‘It’s a puzzle,’ said the craft shop owner the next morning. He sat at the table with them while they drank lukewarm coffee. ‘I’ve wondered about it since I took over the shop. The pictures were in the box-room. There was a cupboard full of stuff, but I binned most of it. Tourist junk.’ He shuddered. ‘I thought I might be able to sell the pictures – local interest – so I did some digging about the artists.’
‘They were sisters, were they?’ said Amaryllis.
‘Yes, you can see the signatures. Rose and Violet Lawson. Two very different styles.’
Amaryllis held up the one with the black zigzags of smoke and cloud, the chimneys thrusting into the sky, and the bright flames. It was done crudely, Christopher thought, although he was no art critic. The other picture, the pretty one, was drawn and painted with a delicate touch. ”What makes you think something happened to one of the sisters?’
‘I thought I’d track them down,’ said the owner. ‘To be honest, I hoped they’d want the pictures back. The shop was in their family years ago. Their grandmother opened it after the railways came, as a tea-room for day-trippers from Edinburgh. Only they didn’t arrive, not in any numbers. They went to Queensferry, and Culross, but not to Pitkirtly. It’s that bit further, I suppose, and there are no ruins.’
‘So did you?’ said Amaryllis.
‘Did I what?’
‘Did you track them down?’
‘Well, I found Violet. She lives in a care home just outside Dunfermline. I popped in to see her – a very bright lady. It’s a shame when families just abandon older people. I’m sure with help she could be living in her own home.’
”Did Violet say anything about the pictures?’
‘Yes, indeed. She had two other watercolours in her room. Said she wanted to study art but her father wouldn’t allow it. I suppose it would have been considered fast for a woman to be an artist.’
‘What about her sister? Rose?’
‘Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of the mystery…Rose has completely vanished.’
‘You mean she’s dead?’ said Amaryllis.
‘Somebody must know’ said Amaryllis. ‘There are death records, aren’t there?’
”Not for her, apparently’ said the shop owner.
‘Maybe she emigrated,’ Christopher suggested. ‘England – America. Maybe she died overseas.’
‘When was she last in touch with her sister?’ said Amaryllis.
‘That’s the thing,’ said the shop owner. He lowered his voice. ‘Violet says she left Rose in the cellar.’
‘Left her in the cellar?’ Christopher squeaked.
Amaryllis remained calm. No doubt she had come across worse things during her career in the security services.
‘It’s nonsense, of course,’ said the shop-owner. ‘There isn’t even a cellar… But Violet was insistent. Said Rose didn’t want to come out. She was afraid of their father.’
This wasn’t a cosy Christmas mystery after all: it was turning into a dark tale of child cruelty.
‘Maybe Violet’s just forgetful,’ said Amaryllis.
‘She seems to have all her marbles,’ said the shop-owner.
‘How long is it since the Lawsons owned this place?’ said Amaryllis.
‘Twenty years ago – maybe thirty,’ said the shop-owner. ‘They sold it to a Miss Bakewell, who thought she could cater for those same imaginary day trippers. I bought it when she moved to the Lake District.’
‘And there’s definitely no cellar?’ said Amaryllis. ‘Can I have a look?’
‘Well, I suppose – ‘
‘Good. We’ll start upstairs.’
Eventually they arrived at the back door. Amaryllis stood in the hallway for a while, staring around. Christopher wondered if she might start tapping the walls, but she didn’t seem to need to do that. .
‘That’s where the door opened on to the cellar steps,’ she said, pointing .
‘What do you mean, the cellar steps?’ said the shop-owner. ‘I told you, there isn’t a cellar. It was all in Violet Lawson’s imagination!’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Amaryllis. ‘There was a door there. What else could it be for? Most of these houses used to have cellars. They’re prone to flooding at high tide. They’re often bricked up, but some people still use them for storage.’
He stared at her. ‘How on earth do you know that?’
”I know a lot about this town,’ said Amaryllis. ‘Do you live in the building?’
‘No,’ said the shop-owner. ‘I’m renting a flat up in the High Street.’
‘I suppose the Lawsons lived here,’ she said thoughtfully.
Christopher shivered. He had a vision of Rose Lawson trapped in a cellar waiting either for rescue or high tide to end her captivity. Were there scratch marks on the door, where she had tried to claw her way out? Had the winter been as cruel as this one – had she curled up one night in a corner, fallen asleep and died of cold?
Amaryllis led the way upstairs. She picked up the pictures and peered at the signatures on each of them.
”Funny,’ she observed. ‘From what you’ve been saying, Rose should have been the one who did Grangemouth, but it looks as if that’s Violet’s work. Rose did this one.’
She held up the chocolate-box picture of the pastel-coloured sunset.
Christopher had a thought. ‘What if they swapped identities? What if Violet’s really Rose?’
‘Maybe they signed the wrong pictures,’ said the shop-owner.
‘I don’t see that it makes much difference,’ said Amaryllis. ‘There’s still one in a home and one unaccounted-for.’
‘But maybe,’ said Christopher, ‘if we looked again we’d find a death certificate for Violet Lawson.’
Amaryllis was irritated when she found out only deaths up to a certain date were available online and they would have to go to Edinburgh to look up later ones. She seemed to think Rose (or Violet) Lawson was inconsiderate to have died after 1960.
‘Of course,’ said Christopher, ‘either of them could have died anywhere in the world… Maybe it isn’t such a good mystery, after all.’
‘It’s good,’ said Amaryllis, smiling.
The trip to Edinburgh was fruitless, except that they found a separate register of overseas deaths as well. Back at Amaryllis’s flat, they tried all the English records they could find online, then they gave up and ordered pizzas.
‘So,’ Amaryllis summed up, ‘either we’ve missed something, or both sisters are alive and we don’t know where one of them is, or one was locked in the cellar and left there to die without anyone knowing…’
As he stared at the icicles that dangled above the balcony, gleaming like crystal in the light from the window, Christopher shivered again.
‘So,’ said Amaryllis, ‘the question is, do we break down the cellar door and start looking for remains, or -?’
‘Remains?’ said Christopher faintly. ‘Shouldn’t we call the police if we suspect there are remains?’
‘I doubt if the police would take action based on the evidence we’ve got ‘ said Amaryllis.
‘We don’t know which sister’s in the cellar and which one’s in the old people’s home,’ said Christopher. ‘And whether one of them murdered the other or whether it was an accident, or the father did it… Two signatures on the pictures and only one artist to tell the tale.’
‘We’d better sleep on it,’ said Amaryllis.
Christopher woke up in the night, freezing. Eyes half-open, he grabbed for the duvet and pulled it towards him. An unseen force tugged it away again.
‘It’s no use fighting,’ said Amaryllis.
‘How did you get in?’
‘I have my methods.’
He switched on the lamp and saw her expression. ‘You’ve solved it, haven’t you?’
‘It was your idea,’ she said..
‘You know which sister is which?’
‘It’s better than that. I just stopped by to let you know we’ll have to go round to see Miss Lawson today. Meet me at the bus stop at ten to ten.’
‘Couldn’t you have phoned? Did you have to break into my house to tell me that?’
She vanished as he grumbled. She really was the most annoying person he knew.
The bus was late. Christopher was pleased he had put a couple of cheese sandwiches in his pocket in case they got stuck somewhere in the wild untamed land between Pitkirtly and Dunfermline. The main road, however, was clear of snow apart from a scary patch around Inverkeithing. They ate the sandwiches anyway.
‘Give me a clue!’ he said when they were almost at the care home.
‘Two signatures, one artist,’ she said. ‘You said it yourself.’
‘One artist! You mean there was only one sister? …Do you think she’ll tell us the truth?’
‘Ah, what is truth?’ said Amaryllis. As she spoke, a woman in nurse’s uniform opened the door of the home.
‘I often ask myself that,’ said the woman.
‘We’re here to see Miss Lawson. Violet Lawson. I rang up earlier.’
Christopher wasn’t sure what Amaryllis had told them. It must have been convincing, because they were allowed to visit Miss Lawson for fifteen minutes as long as they didn’t get her into a state.
‘We like your pictures,’ said Amaryllis after they had introduced themselves. She held up one of the watercolours. Miss Lawson peered at it. She was in bed, looking fragile and fluffy with some pink knitted thing round her shoulders.
’Longannet,’ she said.
‘Yes. And here’s Grangemouth.’
Amaryllis turned the other one round for Miss Lawson to see. She frowned. ‘That was Rose,’ she said.
‘Yes!’ said Amaryllis. She moved the other picture to the front and said ‘Violet’.
Then she started to swap them faster and faster. ‘Rose… Violet… Rose… Violet. Rose. Violet. Rose. Rose. Violet. Violet. Rose.’
Christopher and Miss Lawson watched, aghast.
‘No!’ said Violet Lawson at last, covering her eyes.’Not Rose – Violet.’
‘They’re both the same anyway,’ said Amaryllis quietly. ‘Aren’t they? You’re Violet and Rose.’
‘Rose was in the cellar,’ moaned Violet.
‘Yes, but she got out of the cellar,’ said Amaryllis. ‘And you painted all the pictures.’
‘I painted,’ said Violet, ‘Rose was in the cellar.’
At that moment, perhaps hearing agitated voices, the nurse appeared and scolded them. Soon they were on their way down the drive again.
‘So,’ said Christopher as they trudged through the snow to the bus station. ‘Violet and Rose are the same person, but they paint in two different styles. How do you explain that?’
‘Of course, I’m not a psychologist,’ said Amaryllis, ‘but I think Rose must be another persona invented by Violet to act out the trauma of a bad experience in the cellar. Rose painted in a much fiercer, more emotional style than Violet, expressing Violet’s experiences as the other half of her personality couldn’t.’
‘It sounds a bit too simple to me,’ said Christopher.
In truth he had been hoping the puzzle would keep Amaryllis amused for longer than this.
The next morning, they walked along the harbour wall. The sky over Longannet Power Station was particularly bleak.
‘No pretty pink sunset today,’ sighed Amaryllis.
They turned their steps towards the craft shop.
A few doors along, an elderly lady was struggling to clear snow from the pavement. Christopher hurried to help her.
‘Thanks, son. I’m getting too old for this!’ she said, chuckling.
Christopher and Amaryllis made token sounds of disagreement.
While Christopher was heroically shovelling, Amaryllis asked, ‘Did you know the Lawsons when they had their shop along here?’
‘The Lawsons? Oh, aye, everybody knew the Lawsons.’
The old lady paused, perhaps to reflect on the good old days when everybody knew everyone else, and people thought nothing of helping each other out in times of need – and everyone died of typhoid or cholera at the age of thirteen, Christopher reminded himself.
‘They kept themselves to themselves,’ she added. ‘Nobody knew what really happened.’
‘Happened?’ Amaryllis prompted her.
‘What happened to the other girl,’ said the very old lady. ‘She just disappeared overnight, you know…. Now, was it Rose or was it Violet? They were quite alike, you know, and it was a long time ago. Mr Lawson said she’d gone to stay with her auntie in Burntisland. We never saw her again. But he had the cellar bricked up, and we all wondered about that. Poor Mr Lawson – he was on his own, you know, and he had such a hard time with the other girl. I saw her in the back garden once, burying the rabbit.’
‘The rabbit?’ Christopher and Amaryllis were both surprised into speech.
‘It wasn’t even dead!’ said the old lady. ‘It struggled a lot and she just laughed. She’s been in that home ever since her father died.’
‘I’ve got two of her pictures,’ said Amaryllis.
‘She always was artistic,’ said the old lady, nodding. ‘Maybe that’s why she went off the rails.’
‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’ said Amaryllis later as they walked back up the road.
‘It’s funny that nobody reported it or did anything about it.’
‘Oh, that. I thought you meant it was funny we jumped to the wrong conclusion,’ said Christopher.
‘That too,’ said Amaryllis.