“Yes. Imagine is the word. It only got real for you once she was safely dead and don’t interrupt to tell me that is a shitty thing to say because shitty or not it’s true. You were in a mess and you dumped Diana in the most unkind and graceless and hurtful way. She still has feelings for you, still thinks there’s hope, well, that’s sad and the only thing to do, the only thing, Simon, is to be polite but distant. ‘Sorry, nothing’s changed.’ She isn’t a fool. She’d get the message.”
“Yes. But what do you do? Not only take her out to dinner, which was stupid and thoughtless but not downright wrong—”
“But sleep with her. I know. Fuck it, Cat, I know, I know.”
“What were you thinking? You absolute and total bastard. You thoughtless, selfish, self-regarding, self-serving, mindless shit.”
Felix looked up at his mother’s suddenly raised voice, his small face crumpling. “Now look what you’ve done.” Cat picked her son up and took him on to her knee. He was sticky and radiating heat. Cat buried her face in his damp fair hair. She was shaking.
Simon sat in silence. She was right and he knew it and he was furious with her. The one person in the world by whom he had always felt unconditionally loved, the one person he trusted and to whom he had always been able to tell anything, had spun round and hit him hard in the face.
“I’m not sorry,” Cat said weakly. But she did not look at him.
“I don’t know why I’m crying because I’m right and I’m glad I said it, it wanted saying, you’re the one who should be crying.”
“Of course we can’t leave it.”
The air was thunderous. They sat in silence, Felix burrowing into Cat’s shoulder and kicking his feet against her, fractious in the heat. Simon twisted his beer glass round and round. He wondered if he had better not simply go, now, let the air clear between them for a few days rather than stay on for supper and have a sour evening.
Cat set a reluctant Felix down on the grass. “Come on, let’s give the chickens their corn.”
She took his hand and they went slowly off, Felix waddling beside her towards the paddock. She did not look back. Simon sat on miserably. The last time he and Cat had fallen out it had taken the death and funeral of their sister to bring them together again.
He got up. Felix was standing on the paddock rails, held firmly round his waist, waving his arm imperiously at the chickens. Simon stood beside them.
“Why?” he said at last. “I need to understand why and I don’t. I can’t.”
“Why do I harangue you? Why do you behave so badly to women?”
“Why am I like this?”
“For a hot afternoon.”
“The thing is, I’m not unhappy. Inside my own skin.”
“Bully for you.”
“Sorry. But listen to what you just said.”
“OK, I’m a selfish bastard.”
“Among other things. A whole lot of much better things.”
“Look, I’m not your psychiatrist, I’m your sister. The only thing I think you have to decide PDQ is what to do about Diana. Because you owe it to her. And don’t say you don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you in love with her?”
“Do you like her?”
“I enjoy her company.”
“Would that be enough for you?”
“Christ, Cat, I don’t want to marry her.”
She looked at him. “Here, take him.”
Simon took his nephew and sat him on his shoulders as they walked towards the shed to collect chicken feed. Felix drummed small feet into his chest, squealing with pleasure. The shed was cool and smelled sweetly of the dry corn and meal in galvanised bins against the wall. Cat lifted a lid and began to scoop some into a bucket and the dust rose in a pale golden cloud.
“OK,” Simon said, “but what should I do?”
“Not for me to say.”
“That’ll be a first then.”
“No, I mean it, Si. It isn’t. You need to work it out. What do you want, who, where, when? I’d do most things for you but I can’t do that.”
She scattered corn into the dry patches of soil around the hen run and the birds began fussing about, busying themselves among it. Felix drummed his heels again.
“Maybe I should just get right away, Cat? And don’t tell me only I can decide.”
His sister linked her arm in his. “OK, just say that again, but this time replacing the word ‘get’ with the word ‘run’. Think about it while I put sir down for his nap and fetch you another beer.”
Lynsey was finishing her shower when the phone rang at ten past eight.
“Hi, it’s Mel from Towers Rogers.”
“Hey. You’re in early.”
“I know, but you’ll like this. You know the fishing tackle place?”
“Behind Gas Street?”
“That’s the one … there’s the warehouse, the place they use for a shop which is actually the old lock-keeper’s cottage.”
“You’d never know. It’s a mess.”
“Someone—I can’t say who—put in a plan for getting rid of the lot and replacing it with a block of flats but now they’ve gone bust. Since then local planning has tightened as you know and presumption is now not to knock down and have new build. The council wants the whole site restored in keeping for part housing, part small workshops for local people.”
Lynsey sat down at the kitchen table. “You have my interest.”
“Thought I might. It’ll go out from here tomorrow. You’ve got twenty-four hours to suss it out and decide.”
“That’s not very long.”
“I’m not even supposed to be giving you that. If anyone finds out both our arses are bacon.”
“What ballpark figure would we be looking at?”
“It’ll go to auction with a guide price of ninety as a come-on, expect to pay upwards of one thirty, maybe a hell of a lot more.”
“So if I’m interested, I could put in a pre-emptive of what?”
“I’ve given you the figures, Lyns. Up to you now. Have to go.”
Forty minutes later, Lynsey was parking her car in one of the side streets leading to the canal. She had a map of Lafferton on the passenger seat and knew roughly where she was headed but not how accessible the site would be, whether she was even allowed to be there.
In the car, she had run through figures in her head. Whether she had to put in a pre-emptive bid or risk attending the auction, she had to find a great deal of money. This would be the biggest project she had undertaken but Mel knew that she had been looking for something like this for over a year. To convert one of the last redundant buildings sympathetically, to bring it back to its old glory and yet put it to new uses in the contemporary world, was a dream she had been keeping warm. Everything she had done as a property developer up till now had been relatively small. She had no doubt at all about her abilities, about the people she could call on, about her taste and eye for detail and period, about how something like this could be turned into a major success. Whether she could—dared—raise so much money was another matter.
She got out of the car, folded the map and put it in her pocket. The street was quiet and shady. The forecast was for another hot day. She could see the tow-path and the gleam of the canal.
“Lizzie! Oh God, Lizzie, please …”
He was a few yards from her, beside the entrance to the Old Ribbon Factory. He looked more unkempt and wild-eyed than she had remembered.
Lynsey touched the mobile phone in her pocket for safety.
“Wait.” He came towards her.
“I am not Lizzie,” she said firmly. “Whoever Lizzie is, I am not her. You mistook me for her before. I’m sorry. I have to get on now, I’m meeting someone, I’m late for an appointment.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” He reached out a hand. Lynsey shrank back. “Why did you come down here? Down this street?”
“I told you. I have an appointment.”
“You’re doing it on purpose. Because you look like her.”
“I don’t know you. If you don’t leave me alone now, and let me get on without following me or shouting after me again, I’ll have to call the police.”
“From behind you could be her. Everything. Not when you turn round, not when you talk, but from behind you’re Lizzie.”
“No,” Lynsey said gently, “I’m not Lizzie. You know that.”
She began to edge away from him, not turning her back completely, keeping her hand in her pocket, touching the phone. She wished someone would come out of one of the buildings but no one did. She wondered how long it would take to run away, how long before the police might come, whether he would follow her towards the canal. Perhaps it would be better to turn back. Someone might drive down this street any minute but once she was among the old buildings and if he came after her, anything could happen.
But he did not follow her. At the end of the street, she looked back. He was standing staring after her, an unfathomable expression on his face. She turned the corner, began to walk along the towpath in the direction of the semi-derelict buildings and sheds beside the lock-keeper’s cottage.
A woman was coming the other way with a terrier on a lead. It saw Lynsey and began to bark and somehow the barking restored her nerve.
She stopped and took out her phone but then hesitated. She wanted to get on. She had to see the buildings before anyone else, and besides, what would she say? He had done nothing. It was the second time and she felt threatened but, face it, he hadn’t made any threats. The police would probably laugh.
The old warehouses were in a bad way but by no means as bad as she had feared. They were exciting. Lynsey wandered around, taking quick pictures, her brain calculating as she explored. It was cool and dim inside the main, large building with dust motes dancing in slants of sunlight coming through gaps in the boarded-up windows and down through holes in the roof. This section could be converted to perhaps four apartments. The lock-keeper’s cottage ought to be turned back to its original state, as one house, but it was in a bad way. The sheds and outbuildings were easy. Small units for craftspeople could be quickly carved out of them at minimal cost.
The auction estimate was way lower than the lot would fetch. She would have to see the bank manager to find out if she could raise enough for the purchase and the work. In her head she knew it was unlikely but her head was also a business one and she had no doubt that, if she were to take the next big step up the ladder, the rung was here in front of her. Miss this and another such opportunity would be a long time coming.
The noise made her leap up from the old workbench she had sat down on to think. Someone was banging on the side of the building and she had no right to be here, she was trespassing and she could not use Mel’s name for authority. She slipped the camera into her pocket as the side door gave way.
He stood, blinking into the dark space, the sun behind him, haloing his hair. Lynsey’s skin prickled. He had neither touched nor threatened her but now she felt absolutely sure that he was about to do so and there would be no one driving or walking by down here. The chances of another dog owner coming along the towpath were probably minimal.
He came slowly inside and she realised that he had not actually seen her yet and that his eyes were still adjusting to the light.
“Lizzie? Where are you? I saw you come in here, I followed you. Why didn’t you come home? Why did you come down here? Lizzie.”
Lynsey remained frozen, working out what to do. She was fit and a fast runner, she had the advantage of being able to see him and to see her exit behind him. She could wait and hope that as he came further into the building, away from the open door, her exit route would be clearer, or she could go for it now and risk his grabbing her as she fled past him.
She thought he must be able to hear her heart thudding. It seemed to her to be echoing round the empty space of the entire building.
She remembered that the first time he had followed her he had started to cry. Now, his voice came through sobs again, hysterical, desperate.
She waited. It took a long time, but eventually, he did move, though not away from her to the other side of the warehouse, but towards her. In a moment, he was bound to see her. She had on a white shirt. He couldn’t fail to see her.
“Lizzie,” he said very quietly now. “What is it like?”
Lynsey opened her mouth to answer, then bit her lip hard.
“Being dead,” he said. “Tell me. What’s it like? I need to know. I need to picture you. Being dead.”
Lynsey made a single move, away from the bench and across the warehouse towards the oblong of bright light. She moved fast and with the purpose of an arrow and as she reached the sunlight, she skidded on something loose lying on the floor and crashed down.
As she fell, she screamed, louder than she knew it was possible to scream.
When it was bad you had just your thoughts to help you. Thoughts could take you anywhere.
It was hot. Her clothes stuck to her back and her neck and her hair felt sweaty all the time. The heat made everyone boil up. She could hear the racket, the shouting, swearing, banging, screaming, on and on into the night. It was like a lid on a boiling pan. She didn’t see any of it. They kept her separate all the time, even on exercise, though when she did go out the others knew and started banging. It wasn’t nice. It frightened her.
She ate her food alone, read, watched her television, went out, came back, walked through the corridors to see the shrink, walked back, and the heat was thick everywhere, you smelled it and breathed it.
But if she thought hard enough she could get away, for a bit.
The sea. Driving down the motorway. Her garden. Kyra. Those were the best. And when it got bad, there was always the other. She didn’t tell herself that she went there sometimes. She kept away from that. But she did go. Usually it was at night when the banging started up and seemed to go right through her head, like someone driving nails. It was a secret, furtive journey, and it took her a long time. But then, it always had. Once she was there, she closed the doors behind her and locked them. She didn’t know she was there then.