“That was the funny bit.”
“What was funny, Eileen?”
“The funny bit was not only her name and her age but where she lived. She lived there. Same as our Weeny. They even live in the same town!”
She started to laugh the terrible giggling laugh again, but her eyes were on his face and would not focus anywhere else, her eyes begged him to laugh with her, to see how funny it really was, that there should be two women of the same name and age, two Edwina Sleightholmes living in the same town, two …
Dougie Meelup’s heart began pounding so hard he felt a pressure inside his chest, inside his ears, inside his head, an awful, pulsating pressure.
“Hi, you. How did it go?”
“About half of them, straight off. At least half, I didn’t count them properly.”
Simon sat in his car in a quiet street behind the gallery. It was just after nine o’clock and he had dodged away from the private view before everyone else, before Martin Lovat, the gallery owner, could buttonhole him to go out to dinner and, above all, before Diana realised that he had left.
“Si, I’m really, really pleased. I wish we could have been there. Did the folks turn up?”
“No. Ma sent a loving note.”
“You know Dad wouldn’t be seen dead in an art gallery and Ma wouldn’t come without him. They’ve never been. I didn’t expect them this time either.”
“Hang on, Si … I thought I heard Felix. Wait.” There was an acute few seconds of intent, listening silence before Cat said, “No, false alarm. You going off to celebrate now then? Somewhere Mayfair and glam?”
“Nope. I’m driving back. I slightly wondered if I could come in.”
“What, tonight? You won’t be back till gone eleven.”
“Sorry, not a good idea then.”
“Honestly not. His lordship is waking me two or three times a night at the moment and Sam keeps coming into our bed. I was just about to go up when you rang in fact.”
“You sound bleak. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Did you see any news by the way?”
“Yes, it was all over the six o’clock. Hordes of screaming women racing after the police van taking her from court. Makes you shudder.”
“Ed Sleightholme would make you shudder.”
“Want to come tomorrow? I’ll be home by four. Supper and stay.”
“Only if you mean it.”
“Oh bugger off, Simon,” Cat said cheerfully as she put the phone down.
Through his rear-view mirror, he saw a knot of people from the gallery coming up the street. He gunned the car away from the kerb and sped off.
He should have been on a high from the success of the private view. He had spoken to a couple of art critics from the national press, had watched the red circles being stuck on to the frames of his drawings, had heard the buzz of interest all around him. But he had felt both detached from it all, as if the drawings were nothing to do with him, and yet at moments when he caught sight of one, acutely aware of just how close they were to him and hating the way anyone and everyone was able to peer, comment, judge. What he loved was the work itself, the doing of it, silently, privately. The rest he could take or leave and some of the rest he resented. He shook his head ruefully at his own thoughts.
The news, such as it was, about Edwina Sleightholme’s appearance in court, dominated every bulletin around the radio stations. She had pleaded not guilty on all counts and no application for bail had been made. Simon wondered how she had been in the dock, pictured her, small, slim, dark-haired, impassive. She had given nothing away to him or to any other officer and he guessed she would give nothing away to anyone else, not even the shrink. He had known other murderers. Apart from those who had killed in a blind moment of desperation, or alcohol-and drug-fuelled rage, they had shared Sleightholme’s same opaqueness, the infuriating, almost arrogant refusal to participate in the normal intercourse between human beings. He thought of her beside him on the shelf halfway up the cliff, afraid, and angry with herself for being so. Defiant. Closed. Would anyone ever discover why she had done whatever unspeakable things she had, to God knew how many children? Could there be anything like a reason? Her face was fixed in his mind, until he realised that what he had wanted to do was draw her, capture that expression, pin the neat cap of dark hair and the impenetrable eyes on the paper for eternity. He did not often work from memory but he wondered if he might try to do so this time. Perhaps by analysing her face, feature by feature, by looking into the eyes as he remembered them, by studying the set of her mouth and head, by trying to capture her expression full on, perhaps he might find a way into her mind and motive. Perhaps.
“A thirty-eight-year-old woman, Edwina Sleight-holme, appeared in …”
He doused the radio and picked up speed, wanting to put miles between himself and London quickly. He had steered away from Diana for the whole of the evening, apart from a hurried greeting. It had been easy, the room had been packed, people wanted to talk to him. Once or twice he caught sight of her trying to meet his eye, once he moved as she negotiated her way through people’s backs to reach him.
A car pulled out without warning into the fast lane in front of him, giving him a fraction of a second to brake, missing a collision by centimetres. Simon flashed his lights and then, furious with himself, clicked on the hands-free phone and pressed one button.
Simon read off the number of the car ahead of him. “Can you alert motorway patrol please? We’re approaching Junction 7 and I want him stopped.”
He dropped back slightly. Let the bugger reach ninety or a hundred just in time to be picked up.
“Is that you?”
“I’m trying to be a bit quiet, lad, Eileen’s just dropped off.”
“Bloody hell, Dad, is this true or what?”
“Only Leah saw it on the news and said there was a name she thought she recognised and then when I went in … Jesus Christ. What’s it all about?”
“I don’t know, Keith, I just don’t know. All I know is what it’s been like here. She saw it on the telly as well, you see, and she said, wasn’t that funny, someone with the same name, same age …”
“But it’s the same bloody town. It’s got to be her.”
“Yes, it is. It has got to be. Course. Only it was the shock.”
“So Eileen didn’t know anything?”
“Of course she didn’t know, how could she have known, what do you think?”
“Sorry, Dad, I meant, hadn’t she heard from Edwina or … well, I dunno, the police or something?”
“Edwina … Weeny … she doesn’t have anything to do with us, you know she doesn’t. Not since we got married. Not her, not Janet, though Weeny sends a card at Christmas. I always thought I ought to do something, you know, go and see her, see them both, put things right. I don’t want Eileen suffering because of me, losing her family because of me, only now …”
“Too bloody right, only now. Listen, I’m driving down tomorrow to fetch you. You won’t want to be waiting around there and you definitely won’t want to be going back on the coach. I’ll be there around dinner time.”
“Hang on … Keith, she’s waking up … I’ll talk to you later. Thanks, boy, thank you.”
“It’s all right, love, that was only Keith.”
Eileen sat up, flushed in the face. “What for? Is he all right, is it the children? What did he want?” She stared around her.
“He said he’d drive down tomorrow, take us back.”
She swung her legs slowly off the bed and then stood up gingerly as if unsure she could bear her own weight.
“Why would he do that?”
“He said you … we might not want to go back on the coach. With everyone.”
“I don’t see.’’
Dougie sighed. He did not know which way to turn, what to say or do that was not hopelessly wrong.
“It’s just a mistake that’s got to be sorted out, Dougie. I’ll sort it out. Do you think I should ring them now?”
“Ring who, Eileen?”
“The police … the television. No, it won’t be them.”
“You could maybe ring tomorrow. When we get home.”
“It wants sorting now, though. If it was one of your boys wouldn’t you want to get to the bottom of it straight away?”
“Only, the thing is, it was her name, her … where she lives … you said—”
“Oh, I know it was her, I know it was our Weeny, not someone else, I know that now, well, of course I do, there wouldn’t be two women with that name, same age, living in the same place, it’s not like Ann Smith, is it?”
“No, I mean, well, it wants sorting because of course she couldn’t have done anything like that, how could she? Well, to start with, it’s men, that’s what men do, it’s always men.”
Rose West, Dougie thought. Myra Hindley.
“It’s a terrible thing to make a mistake over, terrible. I have to go up there, Dougie.”
She stood looking out at the dark sea, and the fairy lights strung round the promenade. The road was quiet. In the end he went and stood beside her. After a minute, he put his arm round her.
“I’ll ring Keith then,” he said.
“Yes. I think if he could fetch us, I’d feel better, it’d get us home quicker. I can start sorting it all out then.”
“I’ll ring now.”
“What do you want to do about eating, Dougie?”
Eating. He did not know. The word did not have a meaning.
“They don’t know anything, do they? Here. It’s a mistake, but all the same, I’d rather it was like this, that they don’t know. Meelup hasn’t got anything to do with Sleightholme, has it?”
He felt tears prick, hot at the back of his eyes.
“Maybe we could just walk a bit.”
“Yes,” Dougie said. “If that’s what you’d like.”
“I don’t know what I’d like,” Eileen Meelup said, turning back to the dark sea.
Going out of the hotel and away from the golden lights and warm voices into the street they instinctively reached for one another. They walked vaguely, not speaking, slowly up the promenade. There were a few people about with dogs, or just strolling, going into one of the pubs. The air smelled of seaweed and burned sugar from a candyfloss stall. At the top of the promenade, where the road began to slope away from the seafront, there was a small garden with gravel paths winding between shrubs. Eileen stopped beside a bench.
He did not suggest they sit, or walk on, he simply waited. He had no real sense of where he was or why and knew that it was the same with her. There was no room in their heads for anything but what she had heard and seen on the television screen and which, ever since, Dougie had tried to picture and hear for himself. It was impossible to understand. He wanted to be sure, as Eileen was sure, that it was a confusion and a mistake, a wrongful arrest, a muddle. What else was there to believe that was not the stuff of horror? He barely knew either of the girls and only felt unhappy that they had treated their mother thoughtlessly. She had been hurt and upset. He had been hurt and angry. But that was families. They’d come round. He had said it over and over. He had felt confident. Now he was treading water and any minute he would drown.
He felt Eileen’s hand clutching at his arm as if she, too, were drowning and he was her last support.
It was some time before they went back to the hotel. They wandered around the town, staring into the lighted windows of closed shops, at shoes and jars of sweets and swimming costumes and necklaces on decapitated velvet necks. And each window they looked into reflected their own faces back and the faces were stark and grave and quite unfamiliar.
In the end, by some sort of silent signal between them, they turned and went back to the hotel and the buzz of gossip, the smell of smoke from the bar. In the doorway, Eileen hesitated.
“Be a good idea,” Dougie said. “Maybe a brandy? I’ll have a whisky. Be settling.”
A roar of laughter burst up from a group, and the laughter came rolling towards them and broke over their heads like a wave. Someone turned round and caught sight of them hesitating in the doorway. The woman glanced away.
It was enough. There was no question, after all, of going into the bar, of having a drink among the others, as if they were normal people and like them, as if none of it had happened, the television had not spoken, the day would rewind itself and begin again.
Neither of them slept.
“I cannot believe what you just told me. I cannot believe what you did.”
“OK, spare me the sermon.”
“Why? Why the hell should I? It’s about time someone preached to you, it’s about time you got it full on.”
“And if not you then who?”
“Too bloody right.”
Cat dumped Felix in his playpen under the garden umbrella and stood over her brother, who was lying back in a deckchair with a glass of beer. It was hot. The air was thick and steamy, the midges jazzing in a series of small clouds over the garden.
“Listen, can we call truce? It’s not the weather for an argument.”
“Oh, there is not going to be any argument, Si, none at all, because I am not going to argue, you are just going to bloody well listen. You are my brother and I adore you and you are a total and utter shit. You are a psychological mess and you are a menace. Whatever your problem is, you need to get yourself sorted because you are not a teenager, you are nearly forty. You have no excuse for treating women the way you’ve treated Diana. It was bad enough to string her along, enjoy everything she offered without commitment, but she was apparently doing the same. So OK. Then she fell for you which, let’s face it, she was always going to do, at which point you backed off in a hurry. I didn’t care for your way of going about it but I accept that by then Freya Graffham was on the scene and you imagined you had feelings for her.”