‘Sorry. No, I know you wouldn’t.’
‘Nothing to listen to anyway. Mum doesn’t say anything – only I did just happen to hear her and Judith talking, that’s all. Then I saw you.’
‘Went to someone’s house and his dad was driving me back. Saw your car.’
‘Sam . . .’
‘Yeah, I know about it, her husband being ill, all that. Hey, look – hello!’
A Border terrier had come running up and dropped a ball at Sam’s feet, before standing back and waiting, making little yaps of demand. Sam threw the ball far and fast. ‘Wow, look at that.’ The terrier went across the sand like a greyhound, splashing through pools and retrieving the ball.
‘I miss Wookie,’ Sam said. ‘He’d have had a great week.’
‘Next time, we bring him then.’
The dog came back with the ball, dropped it and looked at Sam. ‘He’s laughing,’ Sam said. ‘Look at that.’
Yes. A laughing dog. A laughing boy, throwing the blue ball away again. In the distance, some people were shouting, waving, trying to get the dog back.
Stuff, Simon thought. What ‘stuff’? What would make him sure he could leave Lafferton at the click of his fingers, and be happy?
There was always stuff.
They were tucked into a sofa in the Wells Beach Cafe with two mugs of chocolate and a pile of hot buttered toast when Simon had a surge of anxiety about Rachel. He should have told her he was coming away. He should . . .
But it was Sam’s mobile which rang next. When it did so, his face closed up so tightly it almost snapped. He looked at the screen, then got up quickly. ‘No signal. Shan’t be long.’ He disappeared like a shadow through the door and out of sight.
Simon finished his hot chocolate. Sam. Stuff. Something was – well, what? He didn’t know. Something. That was all.
The door opened on three people and one Border terrier, blue ball in its mouth, followed by Sam, who asked for more chocolate, then moved to the opposite sofa and bent over to make a long fuss of the dog. It was some time before he could be parted from it and when he was he scooted out of the door ahead of Simon, managing not to meet his eye. He bought two more drinks and slices of cherry cake. He would read the paper and wait. Hassling Sam would be counterproductive. The call would be from one of his friends – fourteen was the age when innocent phone calls suddenly became intensely private.
A second later he banged in through the door, face screwed up in panic.
‘I just . . . I was just talking to . . .’ He stood trying to get his breath.
‘Hold on, calm down –’
Sam waved at him furiously, took several more quick breaths. ‘I just stopped talking to Jake and it rang again and it was Mum, she tried you but she . . . and Molly . . . Molly . . . she’s gone to hospital, but the roads are so bad down there, Mum said, they might not get there in time . . .’
‘Sit down, Sam. Now, tell me slowly. What’s happened?’
HARRY ANSWERED THE phone. It was gone eight, the boys were in bed, flat out after playing in the snow since the early morning. There was a smell of bacon coming from the kitchen and Harry had a bottle of lager in his hand. Things couldn’t get better, he thought, picking up. Things could not get better. Funny that.
‘Hello, Rosemary. How are you?’
Rosemary didn’t answer to the usual description of ‘the wife’s mother’. She never interfered, was always good-humoured and had her own life. She had welcomed Harry from the start, and never breathed a word of criticism. Harry would not have gone so far as to say that he loved Rosemary Poole but he had no problem with her at all.
‘Karen’s cooking supper – can she ring you back?’
‘No, just give her a message . . .’
‘Have you been OK in this weather? I meant to ring you only I know you’ve got the neighbours.’
‘Oh yes, Geoff Payne has been wonderful, got a gang together, cleared everybody’s front. No, I had a letter . . . post didn’t get through until after two and then what with everything . . . only I’ve got one. One of those sheltered bungalows. You know – Duchess of Cornwall Close.’
‘The new ones?’
‘That’s it. I’ve been allocated one. It was in the letter.’
Rosemary had been on the waiting list for sheltered accommodation for three years, long before she needed it – she was only seventy-six now – but she had diabetes and the previous year a hip replacement operation had been unsuccessful. She was struggling to cope in the old three-bedroomed family house which had a big garden and was too far out of Lafferton.
‘Now that’s a bit of good news. When do you get the key?’
‘Two weeks. The thing is, Harry . . .’
‘You need help with moving. I’m working all hours but we’ll sort something.’
‘It’s brand new. I can’t get over it. Never moved into a brand-new house, Harry, I’m over the moon.’
He had a thin moustache, like kids draw on faces with a biro. He never took his eyes off me. Staring, staring. I hated him. But who else had I got?
‘You’re nobody. This is no-man’s-land, here. You’re not the person you were any longer and you’re not the person you’re going to be either. It’s my job to graft that new person onto you until the graft takes and it’s part of you – no, not part of you, that’s wrong. You. It’s you. Do you follow?’
I couldn’t sleep for it. I’d get up and look out of the window onto that bloody square where they did their drill and I’d try not to think about it because it was the future and the future scared the shit out of me. What he said. The stuff he made me repeat after him. Scared me.
So I stood and looked out at the empty square and I thought about the past. I felt good then and they couldn’t take that out of my head even if they took it in every other way. The past was mine and it’d always be there, to make me feel good.
NIGHTS WERE BEST. Days, he mostly slept. People walked their dogs along the towpath past his shack and annoyed him, them chatting and the dogs barking, and when the kids went by on bikes the tyres made a screechy sound and that annoyed him too. Nights were best.
He generally went out, even in the rain. Didn’t mind the rain. The snow he hadn’t liked at all, it went over his shoes and soaked his trouser ends and once he got a few yards it was too deep anyway, so he stayed in. Got his stove going, got some soup on. Thought a lot.
But before the snow, it had been very good. Cold but good. He’d been walking for a bit, watching, listening, waiting, and then it had happened, right where he was. That had been a good bit of luck, the car reversing fast, the man and the woman on the corner nearly getting run over, then the crash of the shop window as they backed in. He’d felt his heart thump. He could have told the coppers everything because he’d seen everything, but they didn’t want to know. It annoyed him. A lot of things annoyed him. He’d heard what one of them said – ‘Get Parks out of here.’ What for? He hadn’t done anything and he had evidence. Nobody else had seen what he’d seen, which was all of it. Nobody else. He saw a lot of things at night that nobody else saw. He could have told the coppers plenty. But why would he? ‘Get Parks out of here.’ They’d no respect.
The snow had stopped and was starting to melt a bit, but he wasn’t going out unless he had to and he didn’t have to yet. He’d got plenty of tins, he’d got tea. He was all right. By the time he had the feeling he had to go out at night or his head would burst, the snow would have gone.
He turned over the blanket and did the same with the old eiderdown, which had a rip in the top and stuffing coming out. He turned his pillow over as well. That was the bed made. The curtains at the windows were thick wool, made out of ancient coats strung together. They helped warm the room.
There was an upstairs room in the shack. Two rooms. But he hadn’t been upstairs for fifteen years.
He took off his jacket, kept his trousers and jersey on. Got into bed again.
A siren sounded along the main road. Then it was quiet. Snow made everything quiet. It was just before noon.
Nobby Parks slept.
‘STAY WITH US, Molly . . . stay with us. You all right there, Doc?’
Cat was cramped up beside the stretcher in the air ambulance, holding Molly’s hand and watching the paramedic adjust the leads that were attached to her, recording everything, showing the faintest of pulses, the blood pressure so low it did not seem possible the girl could be alive. Her face was chalky and looked oddly flat beneath the oxygen mask, as if the features were sinking back into her head.
‘Any idea how many she’s taken?’
Cat shook her head. Molly had been prescribed antidepressants, tranquillisers and beta blockers by her GP. Cat had found two empty foil packs, one with a few tablets left, but she did not know how many there had been for Molly to take in the first place.
The helicopter began to descend. Out of the window, Cat could see nothing but white fields, tipped at a sick-making angle. Air ambulance pilots were skilled and experienced and she was not afraid, just queasy.
‘Landing in two minutes. How’s she doing?’
‘Be glad to get there,’ the paramedic said into his mouthpiece. Meaning, get a move on, we’re losing her.
She had rung Hallam House before leaving the hospice but there had been no reply. She had left a message, then tried as many other people as she could think of, but either nobody answered or else her friends were marooned by the snow.
‘I can look after Felix. We’ll be fine. I know what not to do and you have to go in the ambulance with Molly.’
Cat had looked into her daughter’s face. Hannah’s expression was assured, serious.
Could she? How irresponsible would it be to leave her in charge of a five-year-old, when she had no idea how long it would be before she could get back?
‘No,’ she said. ‘I know you’re twelve and I know you’re sensible, Hanny, but anything could happen.’
‘Such as what? I won’t cook anything, I won’t answer the door, I won’t –’
‘Anything might happen.’
‘You have to go with Molly. What if she wakes up and doesn’t know what’s happening or where she is? That’d be so scary. Listen . . .’
The helicopter had clattered over the house before coming down into the pony field where the snow had drifted high up against the barn, leaving patches of grass just visible.
Dear God, what should I do? Tell me what to do.
The answer came with the sound of an engine and Judith, driven in a neighbour’s Land Rover.
Cat had her hand over Molly’s. She could still feel a thready pulse but in spite of the thermal blanket over her, the girl was cold.
Judith sat at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee and her laptop. Hannah was about to go into Cat’s study and onto the computer.
‘Han, I don’t mind playing Internet Scrabble – I rather like it. I just don’t see the point when we’re under the same roof and there’s a Scrabble board in the cupboard.’
‘Nobody plays it with a board any more, the letters slip all over the place. I really thought Molly was dead.’
‘I know, darling. It was frightening, but you did the right thing.’
‘You can die quite a long time after you’ve taken an overdose. If it’s paracetamol. I mean, like, days and days after. It makes your liver fail.’
‘I know, but that wasn’t what she took. Are you sure you don’t want a drink of anything?’
‘I might get some water in a minute. Everybody should drink plenty of water. You should. Coffee is full of caffeine, it can dehydrate you and it makes your heart race.’
It was difficult to extricate oneself from this sort of conversation with the health-obsessed Hannah. The phone came to her rescue.
‘She’s gone into intensive care. I didn’t think we’d make it this far.’
‘I can stay as long as I’m needed, you just decide as you think best.’
‘What about Dad?’
There was a very slight pause before Judith said, ‘I’ll let him know.’
Cat was not too preoccupied to notice the pause, and the edge to her stepmother’s voice.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if I said my old name. Not by accident. Said it, told someone. I had enough warnings about how you slip up, get caught off guard. Man comes to the door with a parcel. ‘Name?’ and before you know it, you’ve told him.
THERE WAS STILL work to be done on the sheltered bungalows in Duchess of Cornwall Close and the maisonettes were nowhere near ready. The snow had delayed them for another three days and if it had been up to Nick and Piotr there would have been no turning up on day four either. Just after nine, the building manager had been on the phone to them both. Just before ten, they were on site, by which time Matt Williams was sitting on a window ledge drinking tea, having been at work since eight and well ahead with the wiring.
‘I hate the bastard. I fuckin’ hate him. What’d he have to come in for?’
Piotr shrugged. ‘I guess the snow is going pretty quick.’
‘Wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t fuckin’ slept here, make sure he was on time. I fuckin’ hate him.’
‘So shut up with your fuckin’ everything.’
Matt did not look up from his Daily Mirror.
The three of them had worked together for several weeks without exchanging more than a dozen words a day, mainly because of Nick.
‘I just don’t like him. Work with him if I have to but I don’t have to like the bugger as well.’
‘He’s OK, this Matt, what’s your trouble with him?’
To Piotr, dislike of a fellow human being who had done you no harm, without any reason forthcoming, was wrong. Matt said little, but worked hard.
The previous week, Nick had asked Piotr to have a pint at the end of the day and pointedly not invited Matt.
‘Rude, I think, Nicko, you maybe ask him another day.’
‘I fuckin’ won’t, I don’t like him.’
‘Wish you give me good reason.’
‘What is shifty?’
‘Don’t trust him.’
‘How you don’t?’