She sat in the dark, her food uneaten.
She should ring. They were too old for all this, Elinor was right, it was too wearing. She should ring or even get out her small car and drive back to her sister’s house. Apologise? No, of course not. What did she have to apologise for? But just arrive, stay for five minutes, say something warm, something welcoming, something Elinor would immediately interpret as a gesture of remorse.
Why did she feel so strongly that she ought to do this? She had nothing to feel bad about. They just didn’t get on. Plenty of sisters didn’t get on. Plenty of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, aunts and nieces. It was the way of things. Blood might be thicker than water but that very fact probably made matters worse.
Family. Muriel got up and switched on the light, carried her tray into the kitchen. She had often thought the entire concept of ‘family’ overrated.
She made a cup of coffee and went back to the television, which was now showing a drama about MI5. Muriel was fascinated by spies. She wished she could have been born a generation earlier and worked at Bletchley Park.
In Duchess of Cornwall Close, the lights flickered two or three times. Elinor went to the window but, so far as she could see, other people had electricity and there was a blue glow from the television at number 1, opposite. Her lights went out. So whatever the man had done hadn’t solved the problem, and it was gone eight, he wouldn’t be about now.
The doorbell made her start but as it rang the lights came on again.
‘I thought you might find a torch handy, I’ve got a spare.’
It was Rosemary Poole. Nice-looking woman, Elinor thought, tall, well-styled hair, seemed too young to be living here.
‘Come in, come in. Have your lights been playing up?’
‘On–off, on–off, it’s going to give me a migraine if it goes on.’
‘Are you sure about the torch? That’s very kind of you.’
‘I’m quite sure. It may be all right now, but if you need to get up in the night and they’re not working . . .’
‘I was just making myself a cup of coffee, can I tempt you? Or tea?’
‘That’s very nice, I will. A weak coffee would be nice.’
Two hours later each woman knew a good deal about the other – past lives, husbands, jobs, changes.
Elinor talked a lot about Muriel and felt both relieved and disloyal. Rosemary Poole was a good listener. ‘I only had a brother,’ she said, ‘eight years older, so I never really knew him. He was married and away by the time I remember much. I longed for a sister.’
Elinor shook her head. Took the coffee cups away. The lights went on and off. On again. Stayed on.
‘Did that electrician call on you earlier?’ she asked Rosemary. ‘He was supposed to have found the problem and sorted it out but clearly he failed.’
‘I didn’t let him in actually.’
‘I suggested he come back in the morning. He didn’t have any sort of card or badge and of course I didn’t recognise him. He could have been anybody.’
‘Well, I let him in here and he seemed all right. Faffed around with the wiring and the fuses and so on. Still . . . now you say that, I probably shouldn’t have.’
Rosemary got up. ‘Take no notice, it’s my son-in-law Harry talking. He makes a fuss about that sort of thing. He’s very good, keeps an eye out for me, but I tell him, I’ve got all my faculties and I’ve lived a long time. I don’t need a nanny.’
‘Perhaps I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Come over to mine. My daughter baked me a cake and I can’t eat it all myself. About eleven?’
‘I’d like that. Thank you, Rosemary. And for the torch.’
Elinor watched the light go bobbing down the path and across to number 1, and did not close the door until her new friend was safely inside.
She knew that she would feel uneasy until she rang Muriel. The fact that she had had such an unexpectedly pleasant evening with Rosemary Poole made her conscience raw about the hostile atmosphere that had surrounded her parting with her sister.
She rang but the answerphone picked up.
‘Mu? It’s me. I’m sorry, you’ve obviously gone to bed. I just wanted to have a word – I don’t like it when we seem to part on such bad terms. So – if any of the ill feeling was my fault, I’m sorry. Let’s try again. I’ll give you a ring sometime tomorrow. I’ve had a nice evening with a neighbour who popped in so I hope you’ll meet her too. All right, talk tomorrow, sis. Night-night.’
Rosemary Poole rang her daughter. A grandson answered.
‘Is that Bradley?’
‘Hello, Harvey. Isn’t it time you were in bed, sweetheart?’
‘Yeah. Here’s my mummy.’
‘Hi, Mum. Everything all right?’
‘Everything’s fine, I’ve had a really pleasant evening getting to know one of my neighbours – Elinor Sanders. We found we had such a lot to talk about, quite a few things in common. I’m going to be very happy here, Karen. Oh, and the electrician is coming round, will you tell Harry? I’m going to get him back tomorrow. Is Harry there?’
‘No, it’s one of his snooker nights out. You make sure that electrician does come back, Mum, I don’t want you having a fall. Proper lighting is very important.’
‘Yes, thank you, dear, I do know that.’
‘Sorry. Listen, I’ve got to go, they’re both in the bathroom with the taps on. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, might try and pop over after work.’
‘Only if you’ve the time, Karen. Don’t you worry about me. I’m very comfortable. You see to those two terrors now.’
‘Goodnight, dear, big hug for the boys and Harry.’
I’m a lucky woman, Rosemary thought, as she put the phone down. It had just struck her as she was speaking to Karen. Lucky to have her and a son-in-law and grandsons she loved, lucky to be near them but not too near, lucky to have this nice brand-new bungalow with one friend made and the prospect of plenty more.
She went cheerfully in search of the Radio Times to pick her programmes for the next few days.
Excited. I haven’t been excited for all this time. No ups, no downs. No probs. Thought it was all sewn up, to be honest. I mean, who’d be stupid enough to rock this lifeboat I‘m in? Got lucky, that’s all, but when you get as lucky as that, you keep your fingers crossed and don’t walk under ladders. Who’d have expected luck like mine? At least, that’s what it seemed like. Luck.
In the depot, where they were brainwashing me – because that’s what it was – they were all buttoned up and proper, not allowed to let out what they were really thinking, but they’d give me a look and I knew what it meant. I knew what they really thought. That I was guilty as hell. I’d done all of it. Just got lucky. Well, they were right, weren’t they?
They said, ‘None of this is going to be down to luck, it’s down to learning, remembering, watching yourself, not slipping up, always being on your guard, never being able to relax. It’ll get easier, mind. In five years a lot of it will come easy. Someone asks your name, you’ll give them the new one, someone asks where you were born and when, you’ll parrot it off because the old place and date have gone from your mind. It’ll feel odd on your birthday – the one you have now. The day’ll go by and nobody’ll mention it because there’ll be nothing to mention. But suppose you get married in the future –’
‘Hang on, I’m married already.’
‘No, you’re not, you’re divorced.’
‘So . . . you’re telling me I can get married again?’
‘Nothing to stop you.’
‘What about the papers, all the forms you have to sign? It’s all legal stuff. They’ll be wrong, won’t they?’
‘No. The forms will be correct in every detail. New name, date of birth, place, occupation, all of it.’
‘But it wouldn’t be legal.’
‘It will be legal, take my word for it.’
‘Everything. Every last bit of paper. All legal. You’ll be legal.’
‘So if I get married . . .’
‘You get married.’
‘What do I tell her? She – whoever she is – she’ll have a right to know who I am, won’t she?’
‘She’ll know who you are.’
‘Not the real me, she won’t.’
He’d sighed and leaned forwards across the table. ‘It will be the real you. The old you won’t exist any more.’
‘She could find stuff out.’
‘No, she couldn’t, because there’ll be nothing to find.’
‘How do you mean, nothing to find?’
‘Wherever she looks – this woman you might marry who you haven’t yet met – wherever she looks, if she does, she’ll draw a blank. Hospital records, schools, register of electors, bank, credit cards . . . you name it. She won’t find anything because there’ll be nothing there. There was stuff there – it was all there once. Not any more. It’s gone. Thin air. That person you called yourself – that person you were . . . he doesn’t exist any more. Do you get it yet?’
The police officer had clicked his fingers.
He didn’t exist. There was no trace left of him.
But he was sitting here. Breathing. Drinking a cup of tea out of a plastic beaker. Hand on the table in front of him. His own hand. The same hand he’d always had.
‘I‘m still me. This is my flesh and blood.’
‘It is,’ the officer said, closing his file. ‘And then again, it isn’t.’
Kept me awake that one did.
Still does sometimes.
SIMON PUT A mug of tea carefully down on the bedside table. Rachel was asleep, head turned away from him, one arm flung out. He touched her hair.
‘It’s seven o’clock.’
She stirred slightly but did not wake.
‘Rachel . . .’
They had enjoyed three days together, the rest of his leave after Norfolk. They had spent most of it in the flat, Rachel cooking, listening to music, reading, watching Simon sort his new drawings. Plus a night in the hotel where he had first taken her to dinner. It had been a time out of time, they had seen no one else.
When he returned this evening, she would be gone. Kenneth returned from his respite care today and Rachel was adamant that once he was home he deserved her presence and full attention. Kenneth knew about their affair. He was an honourable man. He loved Rachel, enough to free her, so long as she did not leave him. How long his illness would drag on, no one knew. Years? Possibly, though Rachel did not seem to think so. It was not something they discussed. For now, Simon was content but he knew he would not always be so. And Rachel? How did she really feel about dividing her life and betraying her husband? There was no chink in the face she presented to the world, but he was under no illusions. It would wear her away. Ultimately, if nothing changed, it would destroy her.
He put on his jacket. Phone in his inner pocket. Keys from the small silver dish his mother had given him when he had made Inspector. He paused and looked down. Rachel breathed gently, peacefully, arm still flung out.
Simon bent and kissed her cheek. Then he scribbled a note and put it next to the mug of cooling tea. Love you x.
Driving to the station for the first time in almost a fortnight, he anticipated what he might have missed, speculated on the papers that would be piled on his desk, the email load on his computer. He knew there had been a ram raid, just before the snow had more or less blocked off the town centre, that two school kids of fifteen had been caught red-handed trying in a hopelessly inexpert way to hold up a post office, and that there had been a flasher out and about in the back gardens of the Dulcie estate. Other than that, the weather had deterred a lot of criminals and the force had been busy on emergency traffic duties.
There would be the usual welcome, the sarcastic jokes about Norfolk, the wry comments about everything running a lot more smoothly than when he was at work . . .
Other than wishing Rachel could be in the flat when he returned that night, Simon wanted nothing more than to be back in harness. He had loved his time with Sam, he felt refreshed and energetic. He swung the car into his space and ran up the stairs, into one of the DCs running down.
‘Guv.’ The man shot past Serrailler barely glancing at him.
The DC paused. ‘Nasty one.’ He ran on.
Along the corridor, DS Ben Vanek was heading out of Simon’s own room. ‘There you are, guv. About to ring you.’
‘A death. Came in half an hour ago. Incident room’s being set up.’
The DCS’s room looked bare, clean and tidy, but there was a neat stack of files on the desk and his coffee machine was already filled up – his ever-efficient secretary, Polly, welcoming him back.
‘Fill me in.’
‘Duchess of Cornwall Close, the new sheltered housing . . . lady aged eighty, only just moved in, tied to a chair in her bedroom with electrical flex, and strangled.’
‘Who’s on the scene?’
‘Patrol were first, Steph – sorry, DS Mead – and DC Dotman are there now, forensics and pathologist on the way.’
‘Where’s the DI?’
‘Ah, you don’t know – he had an RTA . . . very smashed up, still in intensive care at BG.’
‘No one. You were coming back so –’
‘Right, consider yourself Acting DI for now. I‘ll clear it with the Chief later.’
‘Guv . . .’ Ben flushed pink.
‘Right, I’m over there. What else is going on?’
‘Ram raid on the post office in Burley Road. The owner was on scene and they beat him up, lots of stuff taken, mainly booze and fags, bit of money, plus a load of chocolate Easter eggs.’
‘Wankers. Is the man conscious?’
‘Yep. Nasty head wound and a broken wrist but nothing life-threatening.’
‘OK, I’m leaving that to you.’
Serrailler was back on the road a minute and a half later.
Duchess of Cornwall Close was stacking up with police vehicles, and crime-scene tape had already marked out number 12, its front path, the whole of the grassed area around it and the bungalows on either side. Everyone was stopped at the tape to give names and details to the uniform on duty. A pressman and his photographer, sticking out a mile from everyone else, were turned back but the tape was lifted for Serrailler. He nodded at the pathologist who was coming in behind him.
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