Two lessons at the library had shown her enough. She had said she wanted to check things about her family. Family trees. “Oh, everybody’s into genealogy now,” the woman had said, “we get dozens in here. Mind you, nothing will take the place of getting out there and looking up public records, church records, all of that. You won’t find everything on the Internet and in my view it won’t be half so exciting. The detective work’s best done on foot, you know.” But she had said it was a start. That was what they’d agreed on. How to make a start. It was easier than she had expected.
She was clicking on the mouse as they walked in.
“Here, there’s a visitor for you, love. Can you drag yourself away from that for a minute? It’s …”
The young woman introduced herself quickly.
“Lucy,” she said. “It’s Lucy Groves.”
“Lucy Groves,” Dougie repeated. He looked foolish. Hadn’t he asked her name at the door? Now he said, “I’ll put the kettle on.”
Eileen had found a newspaper report about one of the abducted children and it was in the middle of the screen. She swung round on her chair and then swung back again in confusion, wanting to get rid of it and not knowing how.
A nice-looking girl. Pretty. Nice hair. Smiling. She held out her hand. Eileen hesitated. She had no idea who she was or why she was here and Dougie had his back to them, busy with the kettle. Eileen glanced round again at the screen, hoping the picture might have vanished of its own accord, but it had not. The headline bored into her brain. “Just a moment … I have to just do this. If you’d wait a minute …”
She swung her chair round again. It was an old typing chair. Keith had got that too, from a friend whose office had closed down. The screen was full of print that she did not want anyone else to see. She fiddled with the mouse under her palm, clicking it this way and that. The printing moved sideways and back again but that was all.
“Can I help?”
The girl was at her shoulder, looking at the screen. “It’s a nightmare at first, isn’t it? Your husband said you were just learning. You’ll be an expert in two ticks, honestly, but if you want me to do anything …”
Eileen felt her neck prickle. The girl was too close and she seemed to be both looking at the screen and looking at her, in an odd way. She smelled of something like sweet apples.
“No.” Eileen pressed the knob on the front of the screen and the picture shrank to a pinpoint of light and went out.
“Ah … don’t know if they told you, but it’s probably not a good idea to do that. It’s really better to close down first—just switching it off can mean you lose data.”
Eileen backed away and got off the chair. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m so sorry, you must wonder what on earth is going on, some total stranger walking in and trying to teach you how to work your computer. I do apologise.”
Eileen said nothing. The girl put her bag on the sofa. Bright green. Big. A big bag.
“I’m Lucy Groves.”
“I’m so sorry to barge in …” She looked confused. A bit pink. She pulled the grip out of her hair at one side, fiddled with it and put it back. Eileen felt suddenly sorry for her. “I wanted to talk to you, if it’s possible. I really won’t take up much of your time but it is quite important.”
Dougie was mashing the tea.
She was from the police. It was obvious. A plain-clothes policewoman. It was the only thing she could be and it was all right. In a way, Eileen felt a huge sense of relief that someone had come who knew about it, so that she didn’t have to skulk and didn’t have to pretend. It would be good to talk to her. A nice young woman. Her eyes were the most wonderful deep blue. Eileen had never seen such a deep but bright blue in anyone’s eyes before.
“Sit down,” she said, “please. Dougie’ll get us a cup of tea.” She jumped up and went to the cupboard for the tin of biscuits. Empty. She’d been lax, not bothering with things, not stocking up. She saw everything at once, as if the young woman had shown it all to her. How she’d neglected things.
“Dougie …” She beckoned him out of the room into the hall. The young woman sat, fiddling with her hairgrip again. “Can you pop to Mitchell’s, get one of their malt loaves and something … Swiss roll or a Battenberg, whatever they’ve got?”
“But the tea’s mashed.”
“Doesn’t matter, we can have another pot, only it seems rude, I’ve got nothing in, I’m ashamed of it.”
He looked round for his jacket.
“Police,” Eileen whispered.
She jerked her thumb. “You can tell.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t been able to.
“Plain clothes. She’ll be a help now, she’ll be able to give me a better idea what to do, how to go about getting it sorted out. You got enough money?”
“Of course I’ve got enough money.”
At the door, he glanced back. Yes. Policewoman. Now she’d said so, it was obvious, of course it was. And it was always going to be a policewoman. It was always going to come.
He went out to the car.
“What a lovely man,” the girl, Lucy Groves, said. She leaned forward slightly, smiling. She had her hand on her bright green bag. “But perhaps you’ll feel more comfortable talking to me now we’re on our own.”
“Dougie and I don’t have secrets.”
“No, no, I’m sure you don’t. But isn’t it true that sometimes it’s difficult to say some very personal things?”
Eileen was silent.
“Mrs Meelup, you’re probably wondering who on earth I am and why I’m here. I should explain everything carefully. There’s nothing at all to be alarmed about … absolutely not. Quite the contrary. I’m here to protect you, if anything. You can talk to me. I can reassure you. I know you will want to talk, people in your sort of situation always do. You need to talk and I do understand that it isn’t always easy to talk to those closest to us. You’ll want to protect your close family … that’s so natural. It’s perfectly OK.”
She spoke quite softly, but quickly, so that Eileen had to lean forward to catch everything she said, and the girl leaned further forward in her turn, so that they seemed almost to be putting their heads together, to be forming an intimacy with scarcely a space separating them.
“I don’t know what terms you use,” Eileen said. “I mean, are you a constable, or a detective policewoman or what? Seems funny not to know how it works.”
Lucy Groves smiled but moved back slightly, widening the space between them again. She reached up and took out her hair clip, fiddled with it and pushed it back. “Please don’t worry, please. I can understand how frightening it is.”
“Not frightening. Only you didn’t say.”
“It is alarming when the police arrive, you feel threatened, don’t you, wondering what you should say or dare say even, what they might make you confess to?”
“It’s normal. It’s natural. People do feel like that. Nothing that has happened is your fault, nothing at all, yet you will feel it is. Goodness, that’s understandable.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Maybe the best thing would be for you to start telling me how exactly you do feel? I don’t want to put words into your mouth. I want you to tell me the story as you see it. As it affects you. How you feel now, whether you’re bewildered or angry or ashamed. Have you seen Edwina yet?”
There was something awry, like a picture that wasn’t straight or a voice that was odd. Eileen fumbled around in her mind, trying to work out what it was. Have you seen Edwina yet? “I thought you’d know that sort of thing. I thought it would all …”
The girl was leaning forward again. “Mrs Meelup, can I just ask you if you would let me …?” She had her hand on the bright green bag. Eileen looked at it. Smoke. She was going to ask to smoke, which surprised her. She didn’t think police did, on duty. Like drinking. Maybe it was different when they didn’t wear a uniform. Only she didn’t care for smoking in her house.
“I’ll understand if you say no, of course, and it is absolutely up to you, completely. It’s just that it would make it easier for me. To remember.”
“I want to be sure that everything you say, every word, is accurate. I’m here to help you tell the truth, to put your side of things, your story. I’m not in the business of putting words into your mouth, you know. You do understand?”
She didn’t. She was understanding less and less as the young woman said more and more.
“So would it be all right?” She reached into the bright green bag and took out a small silvery box. She held it up. “To use this?”
“I thought you were going to ask to smoke a cigarette,” Eileen said.
Lucy Groves laughed, a loud, high little laugh. “Oh help! No. God, no, I don’t smoke, haven’t for about ten years, not since we smoked walking home from school, you know, thought it was soooo sophisticated. God, how funny.”
They both looked at the small silvery box which Lucy Groves had set down on the table.
“State of the art. I promise you. No whirring, no clicking, no interruptions, you’ll forget it’s there in ten seconds.”
“What is it?”
“Yup. Digital. Everything you say, everything you whisper, will come up clear as crystal. It won’t miss a thing.”
“I didn’t know you used tape machines.”
Lucy Groves smiled. “I promise. It looks after itself. Don’t worry.”
The front door opened.
“Reinforcements,” Dougie Meelup called.
Something was wrong. Eileen’s voice told him that but he couldn’t quite tell how badly wrong. The young woman started up, and he noticed that the shyness had got hidden, that she seemed a slightly different person now, not fiddling with the hair clips, not looking down at her lap.
“Mrs Meelup, what I would like you to consider very carefully is this. You will get other people coming to see you. If we can find you, so can the rest of the others, and not everyone will play fair, I warn you. Now, I have a very, very good offer for you. Not everyone will offer you anything at all. I’m glad I got here first because we aren’t in the business of deceiving and cheating. You have a story to tell, we need your story. Your daughter Edwina Sleightholme stands accused on some very serious charges. Whatever the small details, those are the facts as everyone knows them and is talking about. They are talking about them, you can be quite sure … well, of course they are. You would, wouldn’t you? Now, what we want is to hear everything from you … about Edwina as a child, her growing up, school, friends and all of that, how she got on with you, with her sister and her father … the full story. If it’s interesting we would run it over at least a couple of weeks, maybe more and it could even be a book, so of course you’d stand to make even more. But our initial offer is just for the story. Exclusive to us. Now, clearly nothing can be printed until after the trial, it’s all sub judice, but the moment everything is over, we’d run with it … no one else would have it, and you can tell the truth, the whole truth …” She laughed a short little laugh.
Eileen sat staring at her. Dougie saw the confusion on his wife’s face, the shock and bewilderment, the uncertainty about what to say or how. He took a step forward so that he was in front of Lucy Groves.
“I think I’ll speak now if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, Mr Meelup, the man with the cakes! But the trouble is, you see, you’re not really anything to do with all of this, are you? It really is your wife’s story, the story of Mrs Sleightholme, not of Mrs Meelup. If …”
“I said I would speak now and I’d be glad if you would let me do it.”
She fluttered her eyelashes in mock surprise. “Well, please do.”
“Thank you. Now, young woman, when you came in here, I very foolishly didn’t ask you your business. You oiled your way inside and my wife took you for a policewoman, as well she might. Instead of which it turns out you’re a newspaperwoman. A newspaperwoman. Well, I thank you, but we don’t want you. I’ll ask you to put your things together and leave and I’ll ask you not to come back, not to dare to show your face anywhere near.”
He was shaking. Lucy Groves hesitated. He could see her, working it out, trying to see a way past him or round him or through him to Eileen but there was no way. He didn’t move. And then Eileen found her voice.
“You pretended to be the police,” she said softly.
“Mrs Meelup, I did no such thing.”
“You sat in my house and you took my trust.”
“I’m really sorry you see it like that. I’m here to try and look after you. Because, believe me, you are going to need it. You are going to need all the help you can get. It’s only a matter of time. And you’ll find, when you think back, that I didn’t mention the police.”
“What do you mean, I’ll need help?”
“I should have thought it was pretty obvious. Mrs Meelup, listen to me … I’m trying to help you here. OK, yes, we get something out of it, of course we do, but only if you run with us and trust us. Then we look after you when the going gets tough. Which is when people find out who you are … those that don’t know already. I’m amazed, frankly, that you haven’t had anything nasty happen so far.”
“I think you’d better go now,” Dougie said.
She ignored him. “You do know what I mean, don’t you, Mrs Meelup?”
“You took me in.”
Lucy Groves shook her head. She was putting the recorder away.
“The thing is, it’s all a big mistake. She’s done nothing, nothing wrong at all, and never these terrible things, not in a million years. Of course she hasn’t, you’ve only to know her. Of course she hasn’t.” Eileen stood up, summoning reserves of dignity and strength. “I know what the truth is. The truth is that there’s a dreadful wrong being done. Someone who took and harmed and killed little children is out there wandering the world waiting to do it all over again while Wee— while my daughter is under wrongful arrest. That’s the truth, and when it’s all sorted maybe I’ll tell it. Only not to you. Not to you.”