But he was too tired to do more than stare at the plant and the hideous card and the CD of The Mikado and say nothing. And in the end, Norah leaned back in her own chair, and after a while, closed her eyes, and the two of them slept, opposite one another in the quiet room.
Hayley bought a couple of cans of cider on the way home, and a frozen toad-in-the-hole, and some ice cream. She hadn’t treated herself for a while and she’d earned a good whack the previous two nights, when one of the girls who hadn’t been around for a while offered to have Liam. Hayley hadn’t been sure, so Carmen said she’d come and stay with him at Hayley’s, not take him to hers, so long as she could bring her little girl. It had been a bit strange because she was used to doing this with Abi, but it had seemed to work out, Liam hadn’t objected, and she’d been able to go out for longer than usual. They’d all moved away from the canal area, down to Hunt Square and the surrounding streets, which weren’t crawling with police and which felt safer.
Tonight, though, Liam had gone to be with Frankie and Mia, to stay over. It had all been worked out, the social services woman had agreed, though it made Hayley mad the hoops they had to jump through just to get the kids together and make it all above board. Still, it was done and Liam and Abi’s kids were over the moon.
She wasn’t going out tonight. She was going to enjoy her feast and a horror film which she’d rented and sleep in late tomorrow. Then she’d go and see Abi again. They’d put her funny little drawing of Beanie Man in the paper, on television, on posters, and Hayley had looked at it quite often, without being able to see how anyone could ever spot whoever he was from it. She’d always seen him in the dark, the beanie pulled right down almost over his eyes, and there was precious little else to go on. Beanie Man. He could be anybody.
Hayley turned into the gate and up the steps, humming.
‘Wondered when you were going to show.’
She jumped so hard she dropped the cans. He was sitting on the steps, with a roll-up hanging out of the corner of his mouth and his usual cocky expression.
‘Jonty fuckin’ Lewis, you scared the bloody daylights out of me,’ she said, grabbing her cider. ‘What the hell are you doing here? I don’t want you on my fuckin’ step, thanks.’
He shrugged. He looked as if he’d slept under a hedge, and when she got closer, she smelled his filthy smell.
‘Thought you’d done a bunk. Well, as you haven’t, do it now. Bunk off.’
‘I’ll have one of them cans.’
‘You will not.’
But he reached out and wrenched the pack from her hand, pulled the ring off a can and downed it in one.
‘Look, I just bought those, they’re mine for tonight, what do you think you’re fuckin’ playing at?’
‘What’s happening tonight then?’
‘Nothing. I’m having a night in. So you can bunk off, like I said.’
‘You got any money?’
‘If I had, you think I’d give it you?’
She stood facing up to him but he wasn’t about to let her past him and she knew she didn’t stand any sort of chance if it came to a scrap.
‘What do you want, Lewis?’
‘I’m not your friend. I was Marie’s friend. Did you do her in?’
‘Don’t you start, I had enough of that. No, I fuckin’ did not.’
‘OK, well, I still don’t want you round me. Can I get into my house, please?’
‘Oooh, my house, my house. My one-roomed slum.’
‘Look, I don’t know what you want, only –’
‘You’re out of luck then.’
‘You got cash?’
‘Nope. Even if I had, would I give it to a lowlife like you? I don’t bloody think so.’
‘Got a spliff then?’
‘I don’t do drugs.’
‘You fuckin’ little liar.’
‘Not any more. I’m clean, I’ve got my kid, I’m getting a nice house with a friend and I can do without you on my step.’
‘Got a fag then?’
Suddenly, before Hayley realised what was happening, Jonty launched himself off the step and onto her, knocking the cider and her carrier bag onto the ground and shoving his hand into her pockets, first one, then the other, holding her round the neck from behind. But she didn’t smoke, hadn’t for years, and when he didn’t find anything he shoved her hard so that she fell face down onto the step, the edge against her forehead, and, just before she blacked out, she screamed.
Jonty grabbed the other cider can and ran.
Ruth had felt a lot of different things over the years. The pills blunted the edges of what she felt but the feelings were always there. She sometimes thought of them as a poisonous jellyfish floating about helplessly under the great swell of the sea, the ability to sting, hurt and even kill still wound up but powerless because of the press of grey-green water on top of them. So she could be raving or suicidal, resentful, passionately jealous, or high as a kite with an ecstatic happiness, but these feelings were coiled up uselessly inside her and she was under the grey-green water which was her medication, drifting to and fro, but never able to surface, never able to release the pent-up emotions.
When it all reached an unbearable point, when she was boiling under the surface, then the only way she knew to get release was to stop the pills so that the water receded in a slow tide and she could float upwards until she was above it.
But over all the years she had never known this particular feeling. It was anger. Rage. Fury. It was nothing to do with being down in the black pit nor to do with shooting up towards the sun. It was quite different. She had been angry as normal people were angry, of course she had, but that was anger over something that had happened, or not happened, often something trivial. This was very strange. It was an anger unrelated to anything or anyone, and it was both ice cold and like the raging core of some great conflagration. She felt as if she had the strength of ten, and as if her skin were prickling, as if she had ants crawling beneath it.
Perhaps they had changed the composition of her pills in some way and this was the cause, though usually re-starting them only made her feel nauseated and slightly disconnected.
She had no way of dealing with this pent-up rage. Stephen was constantly hovering over her, trying to ensure that she was improving, trying to persuade her that they should take a month or two away. Irritability was her symptom then, and a restlessness. She could not sleep or be still or read, watch television or sit through a service in the cathedral, she prowled about the house and waited, waited for the sting to be drawn from this thing.
Stephen came in late. She had gone to bed but was still awake.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you,’ he said. How kind Stephen was, how often he shouldered the blame, assumed something was his fault when it patently was not, and how little he deserved to be saddled with a wife like this, she thought, sometimes a shrew, sometimes a depressive, sometimes a maniac, never equable and pleasant and supportive.
Why had he married her? She had been pathetically grateful for it, always felt entirely undeserving, never repaid him generously. But he should have a better wife.
‘I’m just going to sleep,’ she said.
But the restlessness would not be stilled in her. Stephen fell asleep; and after another half-hour, she slid out of bed, dressed in the dark and went downstairs and out of the side door.
It was cool but not cold. The autumn had been mostly mild. There was a full moon and the Close was full of silvered spaces with deep shadows between. Now that she was out Ruth felt better, she could breathe more freely, and walking along the paths between the dark houses calmed the feelings. She had on jeans and a pair of soft-soled shoes that made no sound so that she felt like a ghost or a shadow herself and the idea was pleasing. No one could see her, no one knew her, no one could identify her. She was entirely alone. She had felt happy with the same idea when she had been in the shed. Although she had been sliding down and down, there had been something comforting about curling up there on her own, without being watched, without Stephen fretting about her. Alone had been good. She did not like herself, she was a person she would never wish to know, she hated having to live with the person she was, and yet for those days and nights she had begun to come to terms with this woman, Ruth Webber, and to accept her own dislike, and the knowledge that others disliked her.
But there was this anger now. Inside her head. Deep down in her head like the core of a smouldering bonfire.
But walking in the cool night air was helping. She reached the end of the Close. She knew Simon Serrailler’s car. It was parked there but all the lights in his flat at the top of the building were out. She looked up. It was a good building, handsomely proportioned, sitting well in its place, looking down the grass avenues towards the great bulk of the cathedral.
She turned back towards Stephen, towards the house, but then walked past it, to where the real Deanery stood, empty, windows like hollow eyes, but waiting for them. It would be better when they were there. A new start. It might be better.
Only there had been something … one thing. It came back to her now, but like a feather tossed by on the wind, and out of reach. Some sound or sense. Something.
She shook her head. She would stay out here. She was feeling better.
She crossed the grass and it was when she was only a few yards away from the door that she heard it. Stopped. And then saw, and as she saw, she drew in her breath sharply and everything came together in a terrible, blinding flash of realisation and disbelief. But she had no time to piece it all together because there were sudden footsteps and something lashing out at her. She fell and in falling opened her eyes wide and knew. Knew. But knew nothing more.
‘No, Grandpa, you have to, you have to blow when we sing.’
‘Actually, he blows after we sing,’ Sam said.
‘Of course it isn’t the same thing – how can “at the same time” be the same as “after”?’
‘All right, you two. This is Grandpa’s birthday and you don’t squabble.’
‘I would be perfectly happy for you never to sing,’ Richard Serrailler said.
‘Don’t be silly, how can you have a birthday without people singing? You can’t. You have to. You’re forced to.’
‘Right, stand back a second.’ Judith lit the candles on the chocolate cake with coffee icing, which was Richard’s regular choice.
The candles flickered briefly, then the flames steadied.
‘Go on, Grandpa, close your eyes and make your wish.’
‘Wish,’ Felix said, ‘Wish fish.’
Richard groaned slightly, closed his eyes briefly and blew. The candles went out as one.
‘Happy birthday to yooooooooo …’ Felix sang.
‘Happy birthday, dear …’
‘As the last note died, Hannah shouted at the sound of a car. Felix raced to the door.
‘Sorry, sorry – Oh no! Have I missed the singing?’
Richard Serrailler shot his son a look.
‘Many happy returns, Dad. Sorry, I couldn’t get away. You know.’
‘Oh, I do know indeed. It was ever thus.’
Simon put a bottle of malt whisky on the table and hugged Hannah who was dancing beside him, then bent to Felix who had grabbed him round the knees. Sam stood back, silent, watchful.
‘Hi, Sam. Did you win?’
‘Did you score?’
Sam had been playing for the St Michael’s under twelves hockey team. But now he wandered out of the room without saying anything more. Simon glanced at Cat but she was cutting up the birthday cake and helping Judith to hand it round. He had promised to take Sam out for a day, promised to talk to him, promised …
‘And are you any nearer to resolving these investigations?’ Richard asked, his tone as cynical as ever when talking about the police. Simon stuffed a forkful of cake into his mouth in order not to have to reply. ‘I imagine this drawing of a man in a strange hat hasn’t got you very far.’
‘What man in what strange hat? What kind of a strange hat?’ Hannah pulled at Simon’s arm.
‘’At,’ Felix said, out of a chocolate-smeared mouth, ‘’at.’
‘Richard, have you opened all your parcels?’ said Judith, giving Simon a conciliatory glance.
‘I have, apart from Simon’s munificent bottle which I will open later. Unless you’ll join me now, Simon, or are you wanted by the police?’
‘He can’t be wanted by the police, he is the police.’ Sam had come back into the room with a Sherlock Holmes book. ‘Would I like this?’
‘Certainly you would,’ Richard said. ‘It’s about a highly successful detective.’
‘All right, Dad, I get the message.’
‘Darling, you haven’t even had a cup of tea. I’ll make some fresh. Richard, could you possibly get a piece of kitchen roll, damp it and wipe Felix’s face and fingers?’
‘No, I –’
‘No, Cat, you sit down and enjoy your cake, Richard is quite capable.’
Simon marvelled at how his stepmother managed to calm every wave that threatened to engulf a family gathering, to smooth and distract and restore order, and he wondered again how he could have got it so wrong and not recognised her qualities from the beginning. Because, he thought now, it wouldn’t have mattered if she had been a canonised saint, I wasn’t ready for anyone at all to replace my mother. Not that Judith has ever behaved like that. He watched her now, handling his father, Cat, the children, smiling, calm. It has taken a long time, he decided, but now I love her.
Cat was sitting on the edge of the Windsor chair in the corner, watching everything. She was very tense. Simon caught her eye. He did not want to talk shop in the middle of the party, but he needed a word about Ruth Webber.
A couple of minutes later, Cat slipped away into the side garden, and Simon followed her.
‘Stephen rang me,’ she said. ‘I know Ruth’s bunked off again. I should have insisted on her going into hospital. I’m kicking myself. But I thought, and the psychiatric unit did agree, that it was worth giving her the chance …’
‘You made a judgement call – you’d have done the same thing again.’