‘Nice outdoor table and chairs. Tell you what, Rosemary, let me buy you those . . . house-warming. Let me know what sort you like. You can have breakfast out here, anything, it’s pretty sheltered. Not overlooked either.’ He climbed on a couple of slabs to look over the fence. ‘Not overlooked. But you’re not far from next door either.’
‘Wonder who I’ll get. We share a front path. Hope we get on.’
Harry put his arm round her. ‘You get on with anybody and everybody, Rosemary. Never known anyone so friendly.’
It was true. One of the best things about her.
‘The electrics aren’t finished by the look of things. I’ll keep an eye on that, and they haven’t done a second coat on the paintwork.’
‘I’m not moving in for another three weeks, Harry. Nobody’s moved in.’
‘They’ll sign them all off together. Wonder if the flats are done?’
‘I’m relieved I haven’t been given one of those.’
‘What’s wrong with a flat? Call it an apartment – see the difference?’
‘There isn’t any – and I don’t care what it’s called, I couldn’t live in one.’
‘Good job you won’t have to then. This is going to suit you very nicely.’
On the other side of Lafferton, Gordon Dyer was spending another day clearing out cupboards. Kitchen cupboards, bathroom cupboard, cupboard above the wardrobe, cupboards in the sitting-room wall unit, and then there were the shelves, and then there was the shed. He sat down. It was cold in the kitchen but the gas had gone up sky-high and even in this snow he didn’t put the heaters on until seven and went to bed at nine, unless there was something he wanted to watch, when he kept it low, put on another jumper and sat with the old car rug over him. Greta had thrown the rug out a dozen times, and he’d always managed to sneak it back again. When she went, he had it cleaned and then spread it on the sofa. She’d have hated that. But then, Greta would have hated a lot of things he’d changed. Hated the kitchen table being on the other side and the bed against the wrong wall and the shower he’d had put in and the wallpaper up the stairs and the blue three-piece suite. She’d left him six thousand pounds, though where she’d got it from heaven knew – probably been squirrelling it away for years. He’d gone out and bought all the new stuff for the house and still had just over three thousand left.
He looked at the electric-blue sofa. She’d have hated it.
What she would have said about a move to the sheltered bungalow he could guess only too well. ‘Poky place.’ ‘What would I want to be among all old people for?’ ‘Call that a garden?’ ‘Why’d they have to name it after royalty? I can’t do with royalty.’
Gordon was happy to have his new home named after anyone or anything. He was pleased with it. He needed far less space, he needed neighbours, he needed someone listening out, he needed a new start. Why not? He might even meet somebody. He and Greta had never been more than accommodated. He wondered if seventy-eight was too old to find a woman who might be more. Love even.
He wondered what it might be like.
Twelve bungalows. One block of four maisonettes and a warden’s flat. But Duchess of Cornwall Close still wasn’t quite finished.
‘Typical,’ Elinor Sanders said, having to spend the night with her sister Muriel while her furniture went into the depot.
‘Stop complaining. You’re lucky to have a place. Not that I know why you bothered coming away from Newcastle.’
‘Nothing left for me in Newcastle. Newcastle’s a young person’s place, all those students, all those out on a Friday night. Nothing for anyone my age.’
‘Never heard anything so daft. I suppose you want a sherry.’
‘Well, do you or not?’
‘Nothing left there at all.’
‘I don’t know what there is for you in Lafferton either.’
Elinor looked at the twin sister she had fought with since trying to elbow her out of the shared womb. ‘And you, my only surviving flesh and blood.’
The sherry brought their animosity to a head. They quarrelled over Elinor’s gloating that at least she had had a husband and spent the evening in silence.
‘She’ll be gone in the morning,’ Muriel reassured herself as she got into bed, ‘they’ll get the heating sorted tomorrow, surely to God.’
They did. By four o’clock Elinor was surrounded by her own chairs and tables in 12 Duchess of Cornwall Close, and at seven, Muriel was drinking her sherry alone.
It’s better, Elinor thought, even though the bungalow was so silent, the street outside a traffic-free cul-de-sac, and only a couple of other houses occupied. ‘It’s better we live near one another and I won’t miss Newcastle.’
But that night, lying in a bedroom as yet without curtains and quiet as the grave, she did.
Two doors away, Ray Hartwell had been asleep since nine. Ray had not wanted to move. They were starting to demolish the other houses in the street and he had sat tight. The landlady had bribed him and then upped the bribe. The landlady had tried to get the council involved but they were not prepared to move someone physically and told her to negotiate. She had upped the bribe a last time, offering him far more than he was worth, and then, recognising a final offer when he saw one, Ray had agreed to move if the council gave him somewhere new in a decent area of town and on a subsidised rent. Duchess of Cornwall Close was entirely allocated and with a waiting list. Ray had threatened to occupy his house while they tore down the walls around him. He had suggested arson and made sure he was seen carrying a petrol can. The offer of a maisonette came the following day. Ray did not like maisonettes or flats, so he stuck out for a bungalow. A few more days of building small bonfires, prowling round them with a box of firelighters, and he was given the keys to number 8 as the builders left. Number 8 was supposed to have been the warden’s.
A leaflet had come through the door, a welcome letter from the warden and a note about activities and facilities that would be available before long.
Ray threw it in the plastic carrier bag he used for a bin. Activities and facilities did not interest him and he could do without the welcome letter. The front-door key had been his welcome.
Ray lay on his back and snored and a faint wash of snores even reached Elinor Sanders two doors away and ruffled her sleep so that she turned over and back and murmured quietly, but did not wake. She had gone to bed in the knowledge that if she wanted to sleep in she could, though her conscience would not have let her stay in bed beyond eight thirty.
Ray would wake at five and get up at ten minutes past, as he had done for sixty years. He made black tea with four spoons of sugar and sat at the window drinking it, looking out. He would do the same in Duchess of Cornwall Close, staying at his window for an hour or more.
Ray liked to think he missed nothing.
How long does it take to stop dreaming about the old life? I walk those streets not these streets. I see the people who live there not here. They call me by my own name. This name isn’t my own name and never will be, even though I went through all their tripwire tests until they were satisfied. How do you stop being the person you were since the day you were born? You’re born all over again with this new name, new past, new place, new house, new life, but your memories aren’t new, are they?
Anyway, I like those memories. I liked that life. I like to think about what happened. Everything. I like to walk those streets in my dreams not these streets. I like to lie in bed before I drop off and go back there. Go back. Be me. Remember everything.
Keeps me warm at night.
QUIET. A STRANGE, muffled quietness. A cool moonlight coming through the window and silvering the opposite wall.
Elinor Sanders had slept a little, woken, slept a little less. Switched on the light and switched it off again. Then sat up suddenly, afraid of the silence and the odd light. It was bitterly cold. She was used to cold, used to living in the North-East after all, but the walls of the new bungalow felt raw-cold, without having had any heating to penetrate the bricks and settle there. The bed was deep and soft and she was warm inside it, but the air outside chilled her face and one arm which had been outside the covers.
She got up and went to the window. The paving stones on the paths were pale as bone. The air was brilliantly clear, the moon full. Cold.
She went into the kitchen. Colder. Looked out of the window again, waiting for the kettle to boil. There was a light in one of the other houses. Someone else not able to sleep. Would it be all right here? The North-East was very friendly – too friendly, sometimes, but you were never ignored, never left to rot, never without someone you could call on, or call out to. Would that be true here? ‘The South?’ they’d said, wondering at her state of mind. They weren’t friendly in the South. They kept themselves to themselves and nobody just popped in.
The light went out. The moon had gone behind heavy clouds. She drank her tea. She should get a cat. If cats were allowed. Dogs were not, she knew that, there were notices up already, little wooden signs in the grass. A cat could be the best company and no trouble at all.
She sat for some time in the soft silence but then, as she went back to bed, something caught her eye. It was snowing again, great fat flakes like goose feathers spinning slowly down. Elinor stood looking at them and some memory of childhood came back to her, of their father holding them both up at the window to see the snow falling, she with his right arm round her, Muriel with his left, trying to make him put Elinor down, trying to get all his attention.
That’s how it always was.
She watched the snow falling until her eyes crossed with following the flakes and trying to see where exactly each one lay on the ground. By the time she had climbed into bed the grass was already covered in a soft eiderdown.
She went to sleep, snow flakes twirling and turning behind her eyes, warmer.
It was after eight when she woke, unusually late. She lay in bed, enjoying the warmth and the sense of rest after a poor night. She might get her tea and bring it back here with the new Woman & Home she had not yet looked at in the flurry of moving. Why not? What else was there to do? Muriel boasted of being up at seven in all seasons and weathers, but when she was up, what did she do? Clean the house that was already so clean it was in danger of being rubbed away. And when did she ever have tea with a friend, read a book, window-shop, go on an outing, take a proper holiday, play cards? It was clean, clean, clean.
Elinor got up and put on her dressing gown. She would fetch tea, toast, the magazine and the new book of needlepoint she’d treated herself to for her birthday, and get back to bed to relax, a word Muriel did not understand.
It had obviously gone on snowing for some hours, though now it had stopped and the sky was blue and cloudless. The lawn and the paths were pillowed in snow.
Beautiful, it seemed to her. Beautiful, and untouched.
But not untouched. Footprints, clear and deeply trodden, came diagonally across from the corner where the paths met, to her bungalow.
‘CAN YOU DROP me in town?’
‘Of course I can’t, Sam, what are you thinking? How would that would go down at home? You’ve been away for a week.’
Sam hunched into his seat and did not reply. He had spent much of the journey from Norfolk sending and receiving text messages. Once, a call had come through but he had said, ‘Text, I told you,’ and clicked off. Otherwise, he had said little. They had stopped for lunch, and again in mid-afternoon at a service station which doubled as a shopping arcade, and Simon bought some groceries. Sam sat over a Coke and a banana, alternately texting and watching the people coming in and out through the swing doors, as if he were expecting to see someone.
The mobile signal in Norfolk had never been good, so perhaps he was catching up with his friends now. Simon remembered his own adolescence, albeit without the text facility, when he had closed the door before taking a phone call at home, though the call had usually been about nothing much. Cat had monopolised the phone every evening, so much so that their father banned its use except within strict time limits. The age of fourteen had caught up with Sam. His old talkativeness had died to long silences and occasional grunts, though he had been better on their week away than he was at home. They had talked about plenty of things, including police work, music of all kinds, Sam’s future, cricket, seabirds, books and films. Chris had not been mentioned. It seemed to be the only no-go area, one of which Simon was keenly aware.
Brown earth showed through the snow in the fields of the Midlands but by the time they headed towards the M5 it had scarcely thawed at all and towards late afternoon a freezing fog descended, slowing them down to a crawl.
‘Ring your mum, will you? Tell her we’ll be later than I thought.’
‘She won’t worry.’
‘All the same . . .’
Sam sighed and started to text.
‘Can’t you call her?’
‘She picks up texts OK.’
‘I know. Just thought she might appreciate a voice.’
‘I hate talking on the phone.’
Simon focused on the fog warning signs and the queue of traffic ahead. He knew what Sam meant. He spent a lot of his working day talking on the phone. When he was off duty he liked the silence of his flat, sometimes music, and messages left so that he could reply when he felt like it – often by text.
The only person he always wanted to talk to, always wanted to hear, was Rachel.
Rachel. He felt delight that she was no more than fifty miles away and that surely, surely, he would see her, tonight even, certainly tomorrow.
The traffic queue shunted on for a couple of dozen yards, then stopped again. Sam had his iPod on. He listened to a strange mixture of sound and words – Just William and Sherlock Holmes audiobooks, classical trumpet and oboe music, obscure new rock bands. And bagpipes. He had his head back, eyes closed. Simon glanced at him. His face in repose was still a child’s face just overshadowed by that of the young man to come. It was like watching a new creature emerge from a chrysalis, seeing the nephew he had known since he was ten minutes old change as he inched towards adulthood. Would he ever have his own children? He was happy to share his sister’s three, engage with them as much as he liked, while always able to leave. He could not imagine being in the thick of what he saw as the general mayhem of family life. If he and Rachel . . .
They had never let themselves touch on the subject, because of her situation, because of Kenneth, because they did not dare venture into such dangerous territory.