Miles stood to drink his tea, needing to be at a meeting with the Precentor about changes for the Christmas services. Stephen had planned to be there but Miles would now take his place.
‘It’ll be difficult,’ he said now, ‘and you’re not up to coping with all that today. I’ll report back but in the meantime try not to fret too much. Ruth will be back – I know it. And you’ll both be in our prayers before the meeting.’
When Miles had left, Stephen prowled round the house, unable to rest, and ended up on the top floor, standing at the window that looked out over the back gardens of the other houses on the west side of the close, autumnal gardens, with shrubs and trees turning in colour and leaves falling and chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies straggling about the dying flower beds. He could not pray. It was always the same at times like this, when personal stress took over; he was only able to hand the situation over to God and leave it there, as he had done all his married life.
Because he had almost cried off marrying Ruth. There had been a couple of incidents, minor enough, but a warning, if he had been able to see or heed it, of trouble to come. They had worried him, but afterwards she had been perfectly normal and he had pushed the thought of what her slightly odd behaviour might mean from his mind, knowing that he loved her and that love was enough.
Love was not enough and never had been and, after a time, the guilt had begun to creep in and he had suppressed it, trying to make up for everything that was wrong by indulging her, letting her take over where she wanted to, giving her a say in parish matters that should have been his concern and his alone. It had not gone down well sometimes and there had been a few confrontations, but Miles had always stepped in to smooth things out.
It was quiet. He went downstairs and then up, back down, and out, walked down the close to the main gates and back, and people glanced at him and were uncertain whether to speak or not, a boy on a bike shot past and almost collided with him, he stumbled and nearly fell on the kerb.
He thought that he should go into his office, see his secretary, do some work, but he was so unfocused and troubled, he knew he would be of little use so, instead, he went into the Lady chapel, which was always quiet, and knelt there, trying to pray for Ruth’s safe return and asking for guidance in how to deal with her illness, but failing to do more than mumble a few words and then simply crouch there, empty of all feeling, looking at the icon of the Virgin and Child and the ugly Victorian candlesticks.
‘I just want to see her – I brought her these.’
‘Are you a relative?’
‘I’m her best friend.’
‘I’m really sorry but it’s strictly no visitors. She’s very ill, you know.’
‘Can you tell me what’s happening? Can you tell me if she’s going to be OK? Can’t you even just let me put my head round the door, not stay or anything, just see her, I need to see her.’
Hayley wanted to throttle the woman at the desk, wanted to jump over her stupid counter and bang her over the head and find out where Abi was and just go there, just go. Abi would want to see her, she’d want to know about the kids.
‘Listen, I have to see her, she’ll need to know about Frankie and Mia, she’ll be worried, can’t you understand that, if you got half a brain?’
‘I understand you’re upset, Miss …’
‘Hayley, but there’s no need to be offensive. I’m just telling you the situation. No visitors. I’ll take the flowers and get them put in her room, of course.’
‘Yeah, right, I bet.’
Hayley turned away. There was no point. She’d met bossy women behind desks often enough. This one had a badge on. Chris Eames. Reception. She picked up her flowers and followed the sign pointing to League of Friends Tea Bar. The hospital was huge. Abi could be anywhere. The corridor was full of people pushing things and carrying things and a few others walking along very slowly with crutches or frames. Nobody looked at you.
But the tea bar was all right, full of people, big queue, but brighter than the rest of the place so far, and with a view out to a long stretch of grass in front of another building. A man with white hair and green tabard with BGLOF on it was serving tea. Hayley got a mug full and a cheese and tomato roll. She felt better just for looking at it and then someone got up from a table by the windows.
The tea was hot, the roll fresh, though the cheese was a bit on the plastic side, and after a few minutes, she calmed down and forgot about Chris Eames. Reception.
She didn’t forget about Abi though, Abi was in her head night and morning, Abi, who’d been near-dead and had crawled God knows how far, to get to help, Abi, who everyone had assumed was dead, and wasn’t.
The one thing Hayley knew was that Abi would want to be told about the kids, no matter what state she was in.
But she didn’t see how she was going to get to her. Maybe she could write a note. No. She didn’t know if Abi was up to reading, and besides, she wanted to explain, say that she hadn’t had any choice, that the kids had just been taken into care because fu**ing social services had arrived and hadn’t believed she was capable of looking after Frankie and Mia as well as her own. And now where were they? With people they’d never set eyes on in a place they’d never been to, and what was that going to do to them? They could have been with her in their own place, she’d have taken Frankie to playgroup with Liam and had Mia all day herself. She loved Abi’s kids, and was some foster-carer going to love them?
She ate her roll and felt upset, imagining what it would be like to be taken off in a car away from everyone and everything you knew, when your mum had just vanished, and left with strangers, not told for how long or why, not told bloody anything if she knew social services. She’d had run-ins with them in the past and they’d been worse than schoolteachers, a million times worse.
Abi had to know.
There were people coming in and out of the tea bar all the time, and after she had been there five minutes, a woman in a white coat came over.
‘Hi. Do you mind if I sit here? Only there aren’t any free tables.’
‘No, you’re all right, I can move over.’
‘Thanks. Sorry to barge in.’
She was young. Her badge said Dr Esther Gilman. Nice face, Hayley thought, funny eye, a bit turned in somehow. Lovely skin. Peachy. Long neck, bit like a mushroom stalk.
Hayley glanced at her, glanced away, drank some tea, glanced again.
‘You a doctor then?’
‘Junior doctor, yes.’
‘Are you visiting, or an outpatient?’
Hayley hesitated. She didn’t want to tell all her business, but on the other hand, maybe this Dr Esther Gilman could help.
‘Complicated,’ she said. ‘See … can I tell you?’
‘Sure … unless it’s a list of symptoms.’
‘God, no, I bet you get a basinful of them without over your tea break as well. It’s … do you know about this girl, she’s my friend, Abi, the one they thought was murdered only she’s alive?’
‘I heard it on the news. She was pretty lucky, wasn’t she? Maybe it’ll give them what they need to catch the bastard. Hope so.’
‘Yeah, right, and me. Only, the thing is, she’s here, she’s in this hospital.’
‘She would be, yes.’
‘And I’m her friend, she’d … I had her kids, when she disappeared, and I’ve got to tell her about them, she’ll be going mental worrying, but I tried to get to see her, find out what room, and they wouldn’t tell me a thing, won’t let me near.’
‘She’s probably in intensive care and under sedation. They would only let in next of kin.’
‘She said, the woman on the desk. But Abi doesn’t have anyone, her kids are her family, and I think she ought to know what’s going on, nobody else will tell her. You couldn’t …’
She shook her head. ‘I’m on obs and gynae at the moment, it’s nowhere near where she’ll be, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh. Right. Sorry then.’
‘The only thing I could do …’
Hayley looked at her, willing her to go on, to say she’d do something, help, get her in to see Abi.
‘I could probably find out where she is and how she is and if it was possible I could get a message to her. I mean possible, as in, depending on her condition. I can’t do more than that – can’t smuggle you in under a blanket.’
‘Aw, that’d be great, that’d be better than just leaving it, just letting her worry. Thanks, thanks a load.’
‘You’re welcome. OK, let me write it down. What’s your name?’
Dr Gilman wrote it on the back of her hand with a biro. There were other things written there already.
‘Tell her … lots of love and the kids are fine. I don’t know if I ought to get you to tell her any more really, maybe not, maybe better waiting till I can see her. They took her kids into care, the buggers from social services.’
‘I think you’re right then. It would be best for her just to know they’re fine for now. OK, Hayley.’ She got up, swallowing the last of her milk.
‘I’ve got to run. But I promise I’ll try … don’t know if I’ll succeed, I’ve got no idea … but when I have a minute, I’ll do my best.’
She will, Hayley thought, if she can she will. You know who to trust.
There was an hour before she had to fetch Liam from playgroup. She went to the counter and got another cup of tea and an iced bun from the man with the green tabard, thinking what a treat it was, sitting here, looking out of the windows onto the green, watching people, looking at what they had on their trays, wondering about the man in the tabard. It was normal and she didn’t often do normal.
When she got outside, it had clouded over and was starting to drizzle, and by the time the bus came her fleece was damp and she was cold. Another wet night on the street then, and she had to go, she had almost no money and her giro wouldn’t come for another four days. One of the women in the other flats would listen out for Liam. Hayley told her she had to work a night shift sometimes, no choice, and that her friend was ill. All of which was the truth. Sort of. She would go out for no more than an hour, hour and a half, and then, if she’d taken enough, get back to Liam. He never woke up anyway, except for the time they’d all been sick.
She changed buses in Bevham and the bus to Lafferton took her to the end of Abi’s road, which was near enough her own, so she got off there. The rain had stopped again. She wondered if the doctor woman had seen about Abi yet, how she was, whether she knew what had happened. Hayley had no idea what Abi’s injuries were, the news didn’t say, the police wouldn’t when she rang them. Why did everyone clam up? What harm could it do to tell a best friend? Why was it some dark secret? It was habit, she decided, they said nothing because that was what they did. Said nothing.
It came to her as she got near Abi’s that she had left her black skirt drying in front of the electric fire and that it would be all right to wear now, she could do with putting that on tonight, it was newer than her other stuff. She had time. It was only fifteen minutes to the playgroup. Besides, she probably ought to check out Abi’s room.
It was quiet and empty and weird. It smelled of the kids and Abi’s hairspray. Hayley sat on the bed for a minute. She didn’t know what she felt most – scared was a lot of it, scared for Abi, scared for herself, scared, but she also felt shaky and sick. She had to go out tonight and the only way she knew how to make herself was a hit, either that or vodka, but she didn’t have money for either.
Abi sometimes had a quarter-bottle in the back of her cupboard, though it hadn’t been there for ages. Abi didn’t drink much, it was no good with the kids, she’d said, once you started you could get pissed and they’d need you and how was that looking after them properly? She’d lost it with Hayley enough times.
There wasn’t a lot in the cupboard – a box of opened Ritz crackers, Nescafé, the kids’ tomato sauce, a tin of beans, matches. In the next were the crocks. Hayley felt round behind. No bottle. There was a tin though. She pulled it out. Highland Shortbread. If there were any biscuits left, she would move them to the other cupboard. She shook the tin. Something made a soft sound. Not biscuits.
Sixty-five pounds in rolled-up notes. She knew Abi had a post-office book and that she put as much as she could into it for the kids and for when she was giving up the street, though Hayley never believed she would or could, but Abi liked her dream. Sixty-five pounds. Hayley took it to the bed and sat there counting the notes two or three times. It meant a hit. It meant she didn’t have to go out that night. It meant she could get a couple of spliffs and some cans and just stop in with Liam and a pizza, which would be better than leaving him, even if somebody was listening out. It was better.
That’s how it seemed to her, as she put the money in her purse and slung her bag across her front. Anyway, if this place was going to be empty it might get nicked and she’d pay Abi back, once she got home. If she ever did.
‘Guv? Do you have a minute?’
Simon leaned back from the computer. He had been at his desk for the past three hours and he was not a desk man by nature. The downside of promotion was that, at least when he was not on a SIFT job, he had to spend far more time than he wanted to in his office. He had talked to the Chief about it and indicated that he was going to make a change to his working pattern, spend more time out in the field, more time with the others, more time doing what he knew he was best at – being hands-on and leading from out there, not in here, even if the main planning and control was in the station. The Chief Constable, Paula Devenish, sympathised but cautioned him about retaining distance and authority. Simon had used a short sharp word about both.
‘Hi, Ben, yes, it’s fine, I’ve gone glassy-eyed staring at that bloody screen.’
He stood up and stretched to his full height. Apart from anything else, sitting for too long was bad for his back. He looked at the young DS, still smartly suited and with quite a sharp tie – he had not yet adopted the Lafferton CID dress-down casual-to-scruffy look. Simon suspected that he never would.
‘What’s on your mind?’