The traffic began to crawl again. Outside, freezing fog, darkness, snow on the fields and piled high along the verges where the ploughs had been through.
He glanced at Sam again. His face was innocent and expressionless in sleep. He did not stir when Simon’s phone rang.
‘Hi. We’re jammed on the motorway. Should have been back an hour ago but the traffic’s solid.’
‘OK. I’m still at Imogen House, and there’s been another snowfall today. The main roads are fine but it’s bad around us. How’s Sam?’
‘I’ve missed him. I didn’t think I’d miss him so much.’
‘He’s missed you but he’d die rather than say so. We’ve had a great week. Any news?’
‘Sort of. Hannah is in the last three for this film part . . . It’s ridiculous, I shouldn’t want something so shallow and frivolous for my twelve-year-old daughter and I want it so much I can’t focus on anything else.’
‘She’ll get it. And you’ll focus.’
‘Bit worried about Dad and Judith. Storm clouds banking up there.’
‘Oh God . . . he just can’t help it, can he?’
‘I know. I’m treading on eggshells though. Can’t say anything.’
‘Listen, we’re moving again.’
‘There’s plenty of food in. Stay the night?’
‘Let’s see. God, I forgot – what about Molly?’
‘Discharged home with her parents and recovered – physically at least.’
‘That says it all. We’re moving properly now. See you in a bit.’
Cat put the phone down and finished her tea. The staff-room was empty and she was glad of it, as they all sometimes were when a break was badly needed. She had done some slow breathing, looking out at the darkening sky and the snow. Now that her son and brother were on their way home and Molly was safely off with her family, she could relax at least one part of herself, the part that was always tense when this or that person was away or travelling. There remained the semi-anxiety, semi-excitement about Hannah – but Cat had a feeling that she would get the film part, even though she tried to keep it out of her mind. When it came to Richard and Judith she veered between hope and despair and that was harder to forget, it flowed deep down and even through her dreams, like underground water, it clouded her waking and troubled her at random moments.
‘Cat . . .?’
She got up, knowing at once where she was needed.
‘I think you should try her daughter again.’
‘Would you mind doing it? Not sure I’ve the patience.’
‘Not sure I have,’ Cathy said. ‘But let me practise.’
Whatever response Cathy got from Penny, Cat saw as she went into Jocelyn Forbes’s room, was now irrelevant. Jocelyn lay, her right hand on the cover, palm upwards, as if waiting for someone to put theirs into it, eyes closed, face already changing as death took over. Cat took hold of the hand, utterly unresponsive as it was, and pressed it.
The silence in the room was absolute and like a balm, a healing silence. She had known it so often, this strange sense of being ‘at the still point of the turning world’, and never ceased to be overcome by it. Death, she thought. Death, how little we know. How often and how surely you come at the perfect moment and make things right and how little we trust to that. Even Chris, she realised now. Everything that had been wrong was put right, even though her world had split open from end to end and forever.
She sat beside Jocelyn Forbes, hand still on hers, remembering, understanding. Saying goodbye.
The door opened quietly. Cat looked at Cathy, who shook her head.
But half an hour later, Penny Forbes burst through the doors, dishevelled and out of control, upsetting a woman and two teenage children who were waiting to see Cat after the death of a beloved husband and father. They were quiet, stunned, pale, anxious, needing tenderness and gentle answers to unanswerable questions. Penny gave no sign of being aware of them as she stood wailing, demanding to see her mother, demanding to know why she had not been told that Jocelyn was about to die so that she could have been with her, demanding to make a complaint, demanding, demanding . . . The family huddled together, looking at her out of shocked and tear-stained faces, the mother trying to distract her son and daughter from the scene being played out a yard or so away, looking desperately at Lois, the receptionist, willing her to make Penny disappear.
It was the ever-capable Cathy who fielded her, led her to the family room, listened to her rage, brought her coffee and tissues, sat beside her.
‘I want to see Dr Deerbon, she’s the one who’s answerable for this, she’s the one who has to explain.’
‘Dr Deerbon will be with you as soon as she can. She’s seeing a bereaved family.’
‘I’m bereaved, and I’ve had a lot to go through these last months, she knows that. And I’ve been unwell, I’ve had to take a lot of time off work as a result of the strain of it all. I think Dr Deerbon owes it to me to see me before other people. I could have seen my mother before she died, I could have talked to her, and we had a lot of unfinished business. I had her and now I’ve no one.’
Staff Nurse Cathy Loughran knew all there was to know about Penny Forbes in relation to her mother, but said nothing, nodded sympathetically, sat patiently. She was used to every sort of family reaction, even to people coming to blows – used to genuine grief, mock grief, grief which ran deep and did not show, showy grief which ran shallow. Penny had hidden away, frightened of a final encounter with her mother, self-absorbed, not wanting to face the truth. Now she had retreated into her own world and erected a ring of defences around herself. The inevitable had happened – Jocelyn had died without her daughter saying goodbye and resolving any tensions and differences they might have had. Guilt would run riot.
Cat stayed longer with the bereaved family than she might have done, letting each one of them have time to speak about what they felt, knowing how irreplaceable these moments were and how they would value them for the rest of their lives. They left the building in a sad, close group, clinging to one another for comfort, looking back several times to where they had left the one person they wanted to be able to take with them and to the place which had meant everything and could no longer do so. People had strong feelings towards the hospice in which those they loved had died, wanting to stay, to come back and help out, to continue being a part of what they could not bear to abandon.
Cat had watched from the doorway until their car turned out into the road, after which she took a deep breath, sent up a prayer for strength and patience with a woman who was, in truth, one more of the bereaved in need of compassion.
Penny Forbes was angry with herself and directed that anger onto Cat, who could take it but who still had to bite her tongue when accused of keeping the woman away from her mother. She let her rant for some time, saying nothing herself and then suggested that she might go to see Jocelyn now. She had been moved into the hospice chapel of rest, which some staff preferred to call ‘the viewing room’. Cat led Penny in. It was a place of comfort, a place where suffering was at an end and the dead person was safe from fear and at rest, whatever beliefs or unbeliefs were held. Cat never failed to gain consolation and strength from being in the chapel with the dead, always felt herself to be in the immediate presence of God. Few, if any, left unmoved.
Penny grabbed Cat’s arm and dug her nails into it, pulling her back. ‘I can’t. I can’t face it.’
‘It’s entirely up to you. But you should see her. You need to make your peace with her, Penny.’
‘What? What do you mean by that?’
‘And you need to say goodbye. If you don’t you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’
Penny had turned away and buried her face in a handkerchief. Cat felt her patience fraying to breaking point.
‘I’ll come with you.’
‘I don’t want to see her like that.’
‘But not long ago you were going to watch her kill herself in a Swiss clinic. This is going to be easier.’
‘I must have been mad.’
‘No, you were being loving and supportive.’
‘I’ve never seen a dead body. A human one.’
‘This is your mother, Penny – not “a dead body”. She looks peaceful and she looks younger.’
It was several more minutes before Penny shuffled reluctantly in behind Cat. The door swung slowly to and closed with barely a sound.
Jocelyn did indeed look peaceful and younger, her face less lined now and her features relaxed and gentle. Cat went over and put her hand on the dead one. Cool. Very different from the last time. But Jocelyn’s hand, nonetheless.
One second and there was a blessed silence. The next, there was a sound that made Cat step back as if in self-defence. Penny had put her head back and let out a terrible noise from the back of her throat, a noise between a roar and a wail that echoed round the small room. It seemed that Jocelyn lay as still as she did out of a sort of defiance, eyes closed against it.
The door opened and Cat made a small gesture to the member of staff who had been passing, to indicate that she was all right, but then she took Penny by the arm and led her out of the chapel.
IT WAS LOVELY. You got out of bed just after midnight. Had a pot of tea. Made a big fat doorstep sandwich of cheese and pickle and sardines. Bag of crisps. Bar of KitKat.
Then into your coat, your hat and your boots. Big boots. Then you went out.
And there was no one. The snow had covered the towpath and the banks of the canal. Over the bridge it was piled three inches. Down the steps. Hold onto the rail, mind.
Then you were down on the other side and up the street and there was no one. A car on the main road then not another for ages.
Nobby smiled, crunching the snow. Sweet as a nut. Lovely. He pushed his boot down into it. Stood still. Pushed the other boot down. Stood looking round. The sky was clear, the stars like the bright heads of pins in a velvet pincushion.
They had names, and he knew some of them but not which name belonged to which.
He walked slowly. No one about. Empty world. Half a mile. A mile. Into the town. Along the road past the hill which was like one of the Alps in a picture.
Untouched snow. He laughed as he sent it flying, kicking it in all directions. Then he fell over and rolled in it. Got up before his clothes were too wet and walked on and laughed now and again because the snow made him happy. Snow and night. Night and snow.
No one about. No one to see Nobby. That was all right. Then a dog saw him. Ran away. He got near town. Lights on. A car or two. A cat. Snow. But it was messed up here where people had trampled it on the pavements. He hated them. How could they make snow into such a dirty mush? They should respect it.
He said it aloud.
A police car went slowly round the town square so he dodged into a shop doorway. They’d stop and ask him, where was he going, what was he doing, why was he in town at this time, get in, Nobby, we’ll take you home, you’re better off out of this cold, aren’t you? What did they know?
He waited till they were well away. It was cold but all right in the doorway and he liked the smell of the night air, sharp and clean. He couldn’t see why people said they hated snow. Snow was good. Snow was a beauty if you walked in it, though it messed up the roads for cars. But cars messed up everything, messed up the quiet and the emptiness. Mucked the snow.
After a bit it got too cold just standing so he went down the narrow lane towards the cathedral and stood marvelling at the snow there, great white billows of it, curvy and soft, over the grass, over the stones, on the paths. Holy snow. He wouldn’t walk on holy snow.
Nobody about. Nothing. Taxi rank had two cabs. Empty ones.
Then there was somebody, walking quickly, softly down towards him, hands in pockets, collar up, head down. Nobby stopped. You never knew. He pressed himself into the wall on his left. The man walked on. Didn’t pause in his stride. Then he was up the slope and round the corner into the darkness. Not glancing back. Never saw Nobby Parks.
It was like school lessons. They wrote down a chunk of stuff about where I’d come from, my family, where I was born, where I went to school, all that. All made up. I couldn’t get my head round it. I said that was daft, anybody’d find out I hadn’t lived in that street and been to that school, especially now, with what you can get on the computer. They said I had lived in that house, been to those schools. I said I hadn’t. They said, You have now. It’s all in there. Someone checks those school registers, there you’ll be. That street. There you’ll be.
‘So, what about Lynne then?’
‘You don’t know any Lynne.’
‘My wife. Lynne Keyes.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Yes, you are. You’re divorced. Now. It’s all been done, all legal. Alan Frederick Keyes had a wife, Lynne Margaret Keyes. They’re divorced.’
That’s what they do.
This stuff they put under my nose. House I’d lived in, schools, even people in my class. Best friends = Jim Little. Peter Wainwright. Larry Urmston. Their addresses. Names of their brothers and sisters. Birthdays even.
That’s another thing. My birthday.
‘When’s your birthday?’
‘Twenty-second of March.’
‘That’s Alan Keyes’s birthday. When’s yours?’
‘Fifteenth of July . . .’
‘Twentieth of . . . July.’
‘OK. You have to snap it back. Nobody hesitates about answering when their birthday is. When’s your birthday?’
‘Twentieth of July.’
‘I CAN’T TALK about it here. It makes me feel even more guilty.’
They were the only ones in the Italian restaurant apart from a solitary businessman eating with an iPad propped in front of him. The roads were still difficult. Simon and Rachel had walked from Cathedral Close. How the businessman had arrived they had already asked themselves in whispers.
They had eaten hot langoustines with lemon mayonnaise. Spaghetti alla vongole was on its way. The bottle of house red was already three-quarters empty.
Simon put his hand over Rachel’s. He had not wanted to ask about her husband but it never seemed right to ignore the subject altogether.
Rachel smiled. ‘I’m so pleased you had a good week. You needed that.’
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