‘Sam did too. I’d broken my promise to him too often. I just wish it had been us. Or that it could be us soon anyway. Can we ever get right away together?’
Her eyes clouded with anxiety and Simon wished he could take the burden of guilt away from her, knew he could not. Ken was no better, not much worse. And so it went on.
The waiter topped up their glasses. The spaghetti came steaming in its bowls.
‘I love you.’
She looked down quickly. Picked up her fork. ‘Yes.’
‘I don’t want it to go on and on like this.’
‘Don’t. Leave it. I know, I know, but what else can I do? You know how it is.’
‘Yes, I know how it is. I’m sorry.’
And then he glanced up and saw two figures he recognised pass the window, and the door of the restaurant opened on his father and stepmother.
‘Darling!’ Judith first, warm, loving, coming quickly over to kiss him on the cheek. To look across at Rachel. She knew about Rachel.
Richard, looking buttoned, shook Rachel’s hand, put his fleetingly on his son’s arm.
‘Good time with Sam?’
‘Terrific. He loved it – snow and all.’
‘It’s been absolutely awful here – we decided we’d risk it in my car or we’d go stir-crazy. It’s all right for those within walking distance of course.’
‘Judith, come and join us,’ Rachel said.
‘No, we have our own table reserved, we won’t intrude.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Dad – at least have a drink with us.’
‘No, you’re halfway through your dinner.’ He gave Judith a sharp look. Simon watched. Usually, she would have ignored it, joined them, as he had suggested, for a glass of wine, before retreating. This time, she simply nodded and followed him to their table at the other end of the restaurant.
‘You didn’t tell me you’d met Judith.’
‘No. I didn’t, did I?’
He frowned. ‘How?’
‘We both go to Emma’s book group. So does your sister.’
‘Why didn’t you say?’
‘Oh, one reason and another.’
‘What reason and another?’
‘This reason,’ Rachel said calmly. ‘You see? Because I knew you would make some sort of fuss about it, and really, there is no reason why I shouldn’t go to a book group with members of your family, is there?’
‘There’s every reason.’
‘We don’t talk about you, Si. We never have. Not once.’
‘That puts me in my place . . .’
Rachel smiled. He pushed back his white-blond hair from where it had flopped, as ever, over his forehead, a gesture she had grown to understand. He made it when his hair annoyed him, but also when he felt caught out or embarrassed. As now.
The waiter came to take their bowls away and offer the dessert menu.
Simon waved it away. Rachel put out her hand to take it. ‘Thank you,’ she said, still smiling her open and beautiful smile. Then she put her hand on Simon’s. ‘Listen, I’m enjoying my evening. I’d like a pudding. And coffee. And you should take a deep breath and stop sulking. And forget your father and stepmother.’
He looked at her.
She was teasing him. Smiling.
He relaxed suddenly.
‘Better?’ Rachel said.
‘No need. No need for any of it actually.’ She kept her hand over his as the waiter hovered. ‘We’d both like the raspberries and Chantilly cream, please. And two black coffees, one decaf, one strong.’
She turned back to Simon. He saw in that moment that she loved him absolutely and that whatever happened she would go on loving him. He understood her, and he knew, too, that he had no excuse at all for not looking after her, protecting her, being loyal to her. And loving her in the same way.
He snatched a glance over his shoulder. There was something about the way Richard and Judith sat, a little apart, carefully not touching, the slight distance between them more than the sum of its parts. She was looking down, he was staring straight ahead in the way Simon recognised so well. He could imagine his father’s expression, haughty, proud, detached, giving away nothing. But polite. Ever and meticulously polite.
Rachel raised an eyebrow slightly. He shook his head.
A single large white bowl of raspberries was set down in front of them. Two smaller bowls. Another, of Chantilly cream. The waiter brought a bottle of raspberry liqueur and poured some over the fruit.
‘I love her,’ Simon said now. ‘And if my father loses her, I swear I will kill him.’
Rachel looked at him gravely, her violet eyes clouded. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no, you won’t and please never say that sort of thing again. You of all people.’
For a moment he was angry. No one spoke to him like that except his sister, the only person he would take it from, though his mother had sometimes been critical, as had Judith once or twice. But their tone was different. Rachel spoke in the way Cat did, almost as if he were Sam’s age and behaving childishly. He looked at her across the table. Her eyes were steady on his, as she ate her pudding quite calmly.
And then he smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’re right. Of course you’re right.’
‘It’s so easy. “I will kill him”, “I wish she were dead”, “I hope I don’t live to see it”. So easy.’
‘And then something happens.’
‘Even if it doesn’t. Once . . .’ She held her spoon very still and did not look up. ‘Once . . . it had been a really awful day . . . in all sorts of ways but mainly . . . oh, Kenneth’s illness and . . . and I wished he would die. I didn’t say it but I thought it very clearly. “I wish you’d hurry up and die.” And I’ve remembered it and felt terrible about it ever since and whenever something happens, whenever he deteriorates or . . . the thing is, you never forget what you wish and you never stop feeling guilty and . . . and when eventually it does happen . . .’
On their way out, Simon looked towards Richard and Judith’s table but they were turned away and he did not want the awkwardness of going over to say goodnight.
‘They’ll be fine,’ Rachel said, taking his hand. ‘People who come out to have a quiet dinner together in this weather are not at loggerheads. Trust me.’
The pavement was treacherous and the gutter hidden beneath inches of frozen snow. She let him lead her down through the icy cobbles, under the east arch and into the close, empty, white and ghostly under the moon.
‘Not even a cat’s paw print.’ Rachel looked across the stretches of untouched snow. There had been another light fall and the air smelled of cold, metallic and clean.
They stopped. Rachel had a fur-trimmed hood that outlined her face in soft whiteness. Simon held his breath, looking at her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Things are better left unsaid.’
‘I can’t –’
‘For now anyway.’
She smiled. Her expression was open and happy. She had learned the trick of setting the Kenneth part of her life aside. She would return to it again tomorrow. That was the only way she could divide herself between Ken and Simon without ruining both. Simon had learned to help her do it.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘A fire and a glass of Laphroaig.’
She bent, made a snowball, and threw it at him. They ran, laughing, towards the house in which his flat at the top was an eyrie and a refuge.
Nobby watched them, from his hiding place in the shadow of the cathedral. The stone gave off the cold but he would not move away until they were out of sight. He heard the echo of their laughter across the blue-white snow. Silly laughter.
He waited another few minutes before slipping out of the shadows and round the side, into the lane. Shadows here too. High walls. Icy. Be careful, Nobby, he said. You don’t want to go having an accident and getting taken to hospital and having to answer a lot of questions. You mind your feet.
There was no one else about until he reached the top of the lane. Then there was someone. Just one person, like him, walking and not as careful as he was, so once and then again he slipped and almost fell. Nobby kept back. He didn’t want to see anyone else’s accident either, have to stop and help and answer questions there as well.
Stay back. The other one reached the square and turned the corner. When Nobby caught up, he was gone. Nobody. A single taxi waiting at the rank. Then a man and a woman getting in. Not the same man.
Nobby kept to the shadows of the shops and the pub and the bus shelter, slipping in and out. Not a bad night, and it wasn’t over yet.
A LONG WAIL of distress. Then another.
Harry Fletcher opened the door of the boys’ bedroom on the third, by which time Bradley was sitting up and leaning over his bunk. Harry got him to the bathroom in the nick of time.
‘Daaaad . . .’
‘Hang on.’ Harry grabbed a flannel, wet it and wiped his son’s face. ‘Better?’
‘No . . .’ Bradley bent his head abruptly over the toilet bowl again.
‘What’s happening?’ Karen came into the bathroom, half asleep.
‘Muuuum . . .’
‘Throwing up,’ Harry said. He could cope with it. Sick. Nappies. Toilet upsets. All the stuff that seemed to accompany having kids. He mopped up, changed pyjamas, got a bowl for beside the bed. Looked at his son’s pale pinched little face with sympathy. He remembered being sick as a kid and how it had frightened him. He didn’t want his own being afraid of anything.
Outside, the snow fell again, covering the pavements and the paths and the gardens. Covering up footprints and paw prints and tyre marks. Covering every trace.
Karen’s mother had been due to move into her new bungalow the previous day but with the bad weather it was thought best to postpone until a thaw.
In the morning, Bradley was candle-coloured and weak in the aftermath of his sickness, Harvey had complained of tummy pains. They would be puking puppies, and Karen would be stuck in with them all day. He couldn’t stop work for sick lads. Couldn’t afford to catch anything.
He got into the van with a sigh of relief, feeling like someone escaping the prison cell. He loved his sons but money was scarce and he needed the work. He loved them more than he’d admit to anyone. He’d had no idea what he’d feel about having kids, hadn’t dared to look ahead, had been worried by the whole business. But the minute he saw them, he’d known. He’d do anything for them and he’d kill the person who ever wronged them. Simple as that.
Duchess of Cornwall Close was nice enough but it looked a bit raw and bleak with snow all round, no greenery, none of the bits and pieces people put on their window ledges, no doormats or pots or notices about junk mail. But a white van, bigger than his own, was parked up. And the front door was ajar.
Rosemary’s was on the far side. Bit close to the neighbour on the left, Harry thought, but it had a patch of lawn and some fencing to the right. The gardens here backed onto a path and a line of trees. They wouldn’t hear much noise from the road.
He went up to the front door and pushed it further open. ‘Who’s there?’
A man emerged from the kitchen.
‘Didn’t know anyone was still working in here, thought it was all done.’
‘Checking the electrics. Who’s asking?’
Harry stood his ground. ‘Family,’ he said.
‘Of the new tenant in here. Doing a bit of checking myself.’
‘You worked on all of these places?’
‘Most. They’re not bad. Went up a bit fast, some shoddy workmanship, but they’re not bad.’
‘Which is the warden’s house?’
‘Now you’re asking. Was going to be the bottom maisonette in the block.’
‘Not any longer. No warden after all. No money for a warden.’
‘You’re kidding? That’s diabolical!’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘What are these old people meant to do if they have a problem, they have a fire, or they can’t make the heating work, or they get taken ill? Anything could happen.’
‘Yeah, well, I don’t make the rules.’
‘That’s absolutely not on. I don’t like the idea of her being here on her own, no warden, nothing.’
‘In-law. Good for her age but that’s beside the bloody point.’
The electrician had gone back into the kitchen. Harry went into the sitting room. Bleak, with nothing in bar the carpet. It looked cold and felt cold. He went round, checking each room. Doors and windows, fastenings, locks, taps. The electrics were off. Bit of slapdash paintwork on the cupboards in the kitchen. He opened the window and closed it. It fitted badly. The door needed a draught excluder strip.
‘I’m done. You want me to let you out or what? I’m over to the flats now.’
Harry watched the sparks shut the front door and double-lock it, then walk off without another word.
When Harry passed between the bungalows he saw that the residents could be neighbourly but not too close, talk across the paths from their front doors but be secluded in their back gardens and patios, where the fences were higher. They were well designed, so that they would all get a decent amount of sun in the afternoon and evening, mainly on the gardens – the front rooms might be a bit dark but, in his experience, kitchens and gardens were what people would prefer to have bright and warm. The bedrooms were either at the back or the side, well placed for quietness. The heating system was communal, the roofs had solar panels, the walls had been decently insulated. The storage space could have been better but who wanted to bring a load of clutter forward into old age?
He went back to his van and rang Karen to report. Her mother was going to enjoy herself here, she was going to be comfortable, warm, peaceful, safe, with plenty of neighbours nearby. The only fly in the ointment was that there would be no warden, as they’d been promised.
‘I’m going to jot down a list – few odd things need finishing off. The usual workmen rushing to get done and on to the next, screws missing here and there, paintwork not properly coated underneath shelves and inside doors . . . but on the whole . . .’
When he’d gone through everything, he asked how Bradley was.
‘It’s more Harvey now, he’s been sick three times and he won’t get off the toilet.’