‘She hates it – she’d do anything to avoid that.’
‘But she’s had a bad relapse, Stephen, and frankly, if I may say so, it’s very unfair on you.’
‘No, no. I can care for Ruth. I wouldn’t want to put her in hospital against her will, never.’
‘You’re a good man, Stephen, but you do need to think of yourself. Still, perhaps some of us can do a little of that for you. That’s partly why I wanted to talk to you.’
They went into the house and at once Stephen started to go in and out of rooms looking, before saying, ‘I must just check the bedroom,’ and took the stairs two at a time.
When he came down again a moment later, Miles was in the kitchen, filling the kettle and setting out a couple of cups.
‘She’s asleep, thank God.’
‘Good. Now, Stephen, let me get to the point. I think you need to hand over the reins for a while. Frankly, you look worn out and you have your hands full. I want to take some of the burden off your shoulders. There’s this whole question of the launch of the fund-raising for a visitors’ centre – it’s terribly important and you simply cannot take that on just now …’
They went into the sitting room where Stephen listened to Miles Hurley confidently outlining what he proposed to do, and felt a sudden rush of gratitude and relief as well as a realisation of his own inadequacy. Miles was so much more competent, so organised, so able. He should be the one in charge. Perhaps this was a God-given opportunity for him. The thought of struggling with the vast amount of new initiatives, while worrying about Ruth in her present highly vulnerable state, had been pressing on him. Now he saw a door by which he might escape, and honourably, at least for a time.
‘You need to be able to concentrate on looking after Ruth. Perhaps you could go away for a few weeks, once she’s feeling better. It would do you a power of good.’
Stephen sighed. ‘I’m not sure. Ruth might not want … I think we may be better staying quietly here. And we have the move into the Deanery coming up.’
‘Well, I’d think about it. It’s not fair on everyone else. If you’re weary and only half focused on the job it’s almost worse than if you’re absent altogether.’
‘And is that how I’ve seemed to you, Miles?’
‘In recent days, frankly, yes. I know you’d prefer me to speak the truth.’
Easy for you, Webber thought, easy for a man who has only his work, is without ties and responsibilities. Easy for you. But Miles had always supported him, even if he had also sometimes tried to lead from behind.
‘This job should have been yours,’ he said now.
‘Oh no. I like things as they are.’
It occurred to Stephen that he was either pushed by Miles or by Ruth, that he was not and never had been his own man. He felt impotent and frustrated, as so often.
Ruth was lying on her back, awake, but did not turn her head or acknowledge Stephen as he went in.
‘Can I get you anything? Tea? Are you hungry?’
‘It would have been better if I hadn’t come back.’
‘Better for you or for me?’
‘You should have let me kill myself years ago. Whatever has happened since has been your fault.’
Stephen sighed. He sat down on the chair beside the bed and tried to take her hand but she pulled it away.
‘This isn’t you talking, Ruth, this is your illness. You aren’t yourself.’
‘Oh. Who am I then? Not this person lying here. Not Mrs Dean? Not Ruth Webber?’
‘You’re ill and you’re depressed … you don’t really want to die, you never have, and when you’re well again you’ll understand that.’
‘You should have let me kill myself.’
‘Suicide is a sin. I believe that. Though I’m sure if it’s committed when the mind –’
‘– when the balance of the mind is disturbed. Ha.’
‘Yes. Then of course that’s different. But you’ll come up from this dreadful pit, you’ll be able to see life clearly again. It just takes time for the medicine to work – only a little time.’
They were both silent. Then he said, ‘Miles suggested he could take over if we went away – had a holiday somewhere. He feels things would carry on fine and God knows I think he’s right. I’m beginning to believe he should have had my job in any case. Would you like to go away? We had a wonderful time in Switzerland, if you –’
‘I haven’t lost my memory.’
‘We could go by train, spend a week in Wengen, move on down, go to … go anywhere you’d like. Or perhaps further afield? You wanted to go to New Zealand.’
‘Did I? I wonder why.’
‘Shall I say yes to Miles?’
‘It’s difficult for me, Ruth. I want to help you and you won’t let me.’
‘I don’t know which way to turn.’
After a few moments, he went quietly out.
Abi was propped up, her eyes closed. A couple of the machines had gone, and one of the tubes. As Hayley went round to the chair on the far side of the bed, Abi opened her eyes, looked concerned for a moment, but then smiled. She was less pale, and her eyes didn’t seem to be so sunken into her head.
‘Hey, Abs, you look so much better!’ Hayley leaned over and gave her a gentle hug. Abi lifted her hand and touched her arm.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ the nurse said. ‘She can’t talk but she’s much brighter, you’re right there. She gets tired though so take it easy.’
‘I’ve got something to show you,’ Hayley said, ‘and you’re gonna be so pleased, you’d better believe it.’ She opened her bag and took out the envelope in which she’d put the photos Lou had given her.
She put it on the bed by Abi’s hand.
Abi looked at it for a moment, then slowly lifted the flap and tried to reach inside, but in the end Hayley had to take out the contents for her.
‘What have you been saying to her?’ The nurse came through the door to see tears rolling down Abi’s cheeks.
‘It’s her kids. Photos … She didn’t know if they were happy or anything and now she’s got their pictures. You’d cry.’
‘I think I would. Let me have a look.’
‘Abs, I’ve seen them, I took Liam. They’re great, they’re really great.’
The tears went on spilling down as Hayley told her everything she could remember about her visit, the smallest thing about Frankie and Mia – what they’d had on, what they’d said, how they’d seemed, the house, the people … she talked until her mouth was dry and Abi watched her face, as if by staring into it hard enough and then back at the photographs she could somehow conjure up the children into the room.
Hayley was still talking when the door opened. She knew it was a copper. They thought because they weren’t in uniform nobody could tell.
‘I might have to go but you keep those, they’re for you. I’m going to see them again, Abs, and I’ll get some more. And listen, once you’re out of here there might be a flat, the social woman said you’d get a priority now. God, don’t you bloody deserve it?’
Ben Vanek and Steph Mead saw at once that Abi had taken a step forward, though they had been warned that she was still very ill and that there could be permanent damage to her throat. The nasogastric tube feeding her had not been taken out.
‘She’s had some photos of her children brought in … that’s done her a power of good, can’t you tell?’ said the nurse.
Abi moved her hand towards the pictures that were still on the bed and Steph went to look.
‘These are great, Abi. They look really well.’
Abi nodded and smiled, but her eyes were brimming with tears.
‘Don’t tire her – she’s had one lot of excitement and I don’t want her blood pressure up.’
The detectives sat next to one another on the chairs beside the bed.
‘Abi, do you remember the last time we were here?’
Abi hesitated, her eyes clouded.
‘The first time we came you were pretty much out of it but if you can remember back to a couple of days ago … Do you know what we want to ask you about?’
After a second Abi nodded slowly.
‘I know you can’t talk but you can nod and shake your head. I want to find out if you remember anything at all about the night you were attacked. Is it any clearer in your mind?’
Abi hesitated and her face was shadowed with anxiety.
‘Don’t get upset … just do your best. Now, try and picture what you can remember. You’re out. It’s dark. Are there any of the other girls out on the street?’
Abi had closed her eyes. Now, she frowned. Opened her eyes, but her expression was blank.
‘Is anything coming back to you?’
Gently, Vanek pressed on, asking if she remembered whether it was fine or wet, if she was wearing her leather skirt, her anorak, had she stood on the corner by the entrance to the printworks, had the Reachout van been round? There was no response until then but at the words ‘Reachout van’ there was a flicker of something …
‘You remember the Reachout van?’
A long pause.
‘You know what I’m talking about?’
A slight nod.
‘Good. The last time you were working, that night, the one when you were attacked, had you seen the Reachout van?’
Another long pause, then a slow shake of the head. Vanek was pleased. They knew that the van had not been out that night.
‘Well done. OK, if the van wasn’t out what about Leslie? What do you call him – Loopy Les?’
‘Was he around? Did he bring you girls sandwiches and a drink that night? Can you picture him? Under the street lamp, where he usually is, near the works? Was he there?’
After a moment, Abi shook her head. She had closed her eyes and her face had gone pale. Vanek needed to get as much out of her as he could now before she was too exhausted.
‘Not many punters that night?’
‘Any? Do you remember anyone stopping? Any cars at all?’
They pressed her about car makes and colours, tried to describe men – tall, short, fair, dark, fat, thin, old, young, regular, new. But Abi could not answer.
The nurse put her head round the door, glanced at Abi, then said, ‘Five minutes.’
‘Do you remember where you were? Was it on the street?’
A pause. Then a headshake, quite firm, and a sudden expression of fear.
‘Was it down by the canal then?’
Abi looked agitated.
‘Good girl. You were on the towpath?’
‘Were you by the bridge?’
Abi looked around her, eyes flicking about, clearly still afraid.
Steph Mead said, ‘It’s OK, Abi, it’s all over and you’re safe. But the more you can remember the more it will help us to catch whoever did this. Now, did you see anyone? I know it was dark but did you see a man?’
Pause. A nod.
‘Was it someone you know? Did you recognise him?’
A slight nod.
‘Someone you’d met there before?’
‘A regular punter?’
‘Had you met him on the towpath before?’
‘I’ll give you some descriptions – if you’re too tired to nod, just raise a finger for yes, and keep still for no. Is he young?’
‘Is he tall?’
‘What about his voice? Do you remember his voice?’
Abi raised a finger at once.
‘Is it an English voice?’
‘A loud voice?’
Nothing. Then Abi started to make movements with her hand which they could not understand. She closed her eyes again.
‘We can’t go on much more,’ Ben muttered.
‘What is it, Abi?’ said Steph, quietly.
Abi moved her hand about again, then her finger on the sheet, before picking up one of the photographs and tracing her finger over it.
‘Oh, she wants to write something down,’ Steph said. She turned to a new sheet in her notepad and handed it to Abi, with her pen. Abi smiled, hesitated, then wrote a word slowly. Her writing was weak and slow but when she turned the pad they clearly read ‘Whispery’.
‘He talked in a whisper?’
She nodded several times.
‘Thanks, this is really helpful, Abi, try and keep going a bit longer. Now, did you see his eyes?’
‘Did he have any facial hair? A beard or a moustache?’
The finger did not move.
‘What about his hair? Does he have dark hair?’
Suddenly, Abi’s eyes lit up and her face was bright with a flash of recognition.
Now she was agitated. She pulled the pad towards her and hesitated. Closed her eyes for a moment. Then she drew something and turned the pad round for them to see it.
Vanek looked. Frowned. Passed it to Steph.
‘Is this his head? The shape of his head? Oh, I get it, he’s bald?’
Abi took the pad back.
She drew the outline of a head, with a primitive face, such as a child would draw. Ears, nose, mouth. But then she drew a shape on top of the head, and the shape came down low.
‘Is that a hood? He was wearing a hood of some sort – a hooded jacket?’
Violent shake of the head. Abi drew something again.
‘I can’t work it out, Abi. It’s a shape but …’
Abi wrote under the shape slowly. ‘BEANIE’. And then, the writing tailing off as her hand weakened, ‘BEANIE MAN’.
Vanek got up and put his hand over Abi’s. ‘That is absolutely great, Abi, you’re a star. Now you have a good rest. You’ve done so well.’
He nodded to Stephanie Mead. ‘Let’s move.’
The room was crowded and everyone was attentive. For days and days they had been sifting through details. Appeals to the general public had brought in hundreds of phone calls.
‘And don’t dismiss anything that seems a bit off the wall as a crank call,’ Serrailler had said. ‘If in doubt, follow it up. Sometimes, the cranks have the one vital piece of information even if they don’t realise the fact.’