‘So? God, you’re an idiot sometimes, Ed. There is a woman who actually seems normal, who seemed to have a handle on you, and you run a mile.’
‘I really don’t want to talk about it, Gem.’
‘What was it? Too frightened to commit? Too soon since the divorce? You’re not still hankering after Lara, are you?’
He took a bit of bread and wiped it around some sauce on the plate. He chewed for a minute longer than he needed to. ‘She stole from me.’
It felt like a trump card, laying it down like that. Upstairs the children were arguing. Ed found himself thinking of Nicky and Tanzie, placing bets in the back seat. If he didn’t tell somebody the truth he might actually explode. So he told her.
Ed’s sister pushed her plate across the table. She leant forwards, her chin resting in her hand, a faint frown bisecting her brow as she listened. He told the tale of the CCTV, how he had pulled out the drawers of the chest to move it across the room, and how there it had been, sitting on some neatly folded blue socks – his own laminated face.
I was going to tell you.
It’s not how it looks. The hand to the mouth.
I mean it is how it looks but, oh, God, oh, God –
‘I thought she was different. I thought she was the greatest thing, this brave, principled, amazing … But, f**k it, she was just like Lara. Just like Deanna. Only interested in what she could get out of me. How could she do that, Gem? Why can’t I spot these women a mile off?’ He finished, leant back in his chair, and waited.
She didn’t speak.
‘What? You’re not going to say anything? About my poor judge of character? About the fact that yet again I’ve let a woman screw me out of what’s mine? About how I’m an idiot on yet another count?’
‘I certainly wasn’t going to say that.’
‘What were you going to say?’
‘I don’t know.’ She sat staring at her plate. She registered no surprise whatsoever. He wondered if ten years of social work did that, whether it was now ingrained in her to appear visibly neutral whatever shocking thing she heard. ‘That I see worse?’
He stared at her. ‘Than stealing from me?’
‘Oh, Ed. You have no idea what it is to be truly desperate.’
‘It doesn’t make it okay to steal someone else’s stuff.’
‘No, it doesn’t. But … um … one of us has just spent the day in court pleading guilty to insider trading. I’m not entirely sure that you’re the greatest moral arbiter around here. Stuff happens. People make mistakes.’ She pushed herself upright and began to clear the plates. ‘Coffee?’
He was still staring at her.
‘I’ll take that as a yes. And while I’m clearing the plates you can tell me a little more about her.’ She moved with a graceful economy around the little kitchen while he talked, never meeting his eye. She had her thinking face on. When he couldn’t think of anything to do other than sit there with a slack jaw, Ed got up and helped her put the plates into the sink.
She pushed a drying-up cloth towards him. ‘So here’s how I see it. She’s desperate, right? Her kids are being bullied. Her son gets his head kicked in. She’s afraid it’ll happen to the little girl next. She finds a wad of notes at the pub or wherever. She takes them.’
‘But she knew they were mine, Gem.’
‘But she didn’t know you.’
‘And that makes a difference?’
His sister shrugged. ‘A nation of insurance fraudsters would say so.’
Before he could protest again, she said, ‘Honestly? I can’t tell you what she thought. But I can tell you that people in tight spots do things that are stupid and impulsive and ill thought-out. I see it every day. They do idiotic things for what they think are the right reasons, and some people get away with it and others don’t.’
When he didn’t reply, she said, ‘Okay, so you never took a ballpoint home from work?’
‘It was five hundred pounds.’
‘You never “forgot” to pay a parking meter and cheered when you got away with it?’
‘That isn’t the same.’
‘You’ve never exceeded the speed limit? Never done a job for cash? Never bounced off someone else’s Wi-Fi?’ She leant forward. ‘Never exaggerated your expenses for the taxman?’
‘That isn’t the same thing at all, Gem.’
‘I’m just pointing out that quite often how you see a crime depends on where you’re standing. And you, my little brother, were a fine example of that today. I’m not saying she wasn’t wrong to do it. I’m just saying maybe that one moment shouldn’t be the whole thing that defines her. Or your relationship with her.’
She finished the washing-up, peeled off the rubber gloves and laid them neatly across the draining board. Then she poured them both a mug of coffee and stood there, leaning against the sink unit. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I just believe in second chances. Maybe if you had the litany of human misery trudging through your working day that I do, you would too.’ She straightened up and looked at him. ‘Maybe if it were me I’d at least want to hear what she had to say.’
He couldn’t think of a reply.
‘Do you miss her?’
Did he miss her? Ed missed her like he would miss a limb. He spent every day trying to evade thoughts of her, running from the direction of his own mind. Trying to dodge the fact that everything he came across – food, cars, bed – reminded him of her. He had a dozen arguments with her before breakfast, and a thousand passionate reconciliations before he went to sleep.
Upstairs in a bedroom a thumping beat broke the silence. ‘I don’t know if I can trust her,’ he said.
Gemma gave him the same look she had always given him when he told her he couldn’t do something. ‘I think you do, Ed. Somewhere. I think you probably do.’
He finished the rest of the wine alone, then drank the bottle he had brought with him, crashing out on his sister’s sofa. He woke sweaty and dishevelled at a quarter past five in the morning, left his sister a thank-you note, let himself out silently and drove down to Beachfront to settle up with the managing agents. The Audi had gone to a dealer the previous week, along with the BMW he had kept in London, and he was now driving a seven-year-old Mini with a dented rear bumper. He had thought he’d mind more than he did.
It was a balmy morning, the roads were clear, and even at ten thirty, when he arrived, the holiday park was alive with visitors, the main stretch of bars and restaurants filled with people making the most of rare sunlight. Others were walking, laden with bags of towels and umbrellas, to the beach. Well-dressed children skipped past the open-air restaurant with the outdoor pizza oven or dragged reluctant parents towards the covered pool. Tubs of seasonal flowers punctuated the pavement with perfectly laid-out, gaudy displays. He drove through them slowly, feeling irrationally furious at the sight of them – at this sterile semblance of a community, one in which everyone was in the same income bracket and nothing as messy as real life ever intruded as far as the perfectly aligned flower displays. He drove slowly past them all into the residential sector and pulled into the immaculate drive at number two, pausing to listen to the sound of the waves as he stepped out of the car.
He let himself in and realized he didn’t care that this would be the last time he came here. There was just a week left until he completed on the sale of his London flat. The vague plan was that he would spend the remaining time with his father. He had nothing planned beyond that.
The hallway was lined with boxes bearing the name of the storage company that had packed them in his absence. He closed the door behind him, hearing the sound of his footsteps echo through the empty space. He walked upstairs slowly, making his way past the empty rooms. Here and there he saw evidence of the storage men’s efforts: a stray roll of packing tape or an offcut of bubble wrap. But essentially the whole house was packed and otherwise empty. Next Tuesday the van would come, load the boxes and take them away, until Ed could work out what to do with his stuff. That was the problem with owning more than one property: what did you do with spare sofas, spare beds, when you were struggling to see how you would fit one lot into a one-bedroom flat?
Right up until then, he supposed, he had ploughed resolutely through what had been the worst few weeks of his life. If you had looked at him from the outside you might have seen someone grimly determined, sucking up their punishment. He had put his head down and kept moving on. Perhaps drinking a little too much but, hey, considering he’d lost a job, a home, a wife, and was about to lose a parent, all in a little over twelve months, he thought he could have argued that he was doing okay.
And then he spotted the four buff envelopes propped up on the kitchen work-surface, his name scribbled on them in ballpoint pen. At first he assumed they were administrative letters, left by the managing agents, but then he opened one and was confronted by the filigree purple print of a twenty-pound note. He extracted it, then pulled out the accompanying note, which said simply, ‘THIRD INSTALMENT’.
He opened the others, tearing the envelope carefully when he reached the first. As he read her note, an image of her sprang, unbidden, to mind and he was shocked by her sudden proximity, by the way she had been waiting there all along. Her expression, tense and awkward while writing, perhaps crossing out the words and reworking them. Here she would pull her ponytail from its band and retie it.
Her voice in his head. I’m sorry. And it was then that something started to crack. Ed held the money in his hand and didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t want her apology. He didn’t want any of it.
He walked out of the kitchen and back down the hall, the crumpled notes clutched in his hand. He wanted to throw it all away. He wanted never to let it go. He felt as if something in him was about to combust. He walked from one end of the house to the other, backwards and forwards, trying to work out what he needed to do. He gazed around him at the walls he’d never had a chance to scuff, and the sea view that no guests had ever enjoyed. He had never felt at home there. He wasn’t sure he’d ever felt at home.
The thought of it: that he would never feel at ease anywhere, belong anywhere, was suddenly overwhelming. He paced the length of the hallway again, exhausted and restless, still overcome by the feeling that he should be doing something. He opened a window, hoping to be calmed by the sound of the sea, but the shouts of the happy families outside felt like a rebuke.
A free newspaper sat folded on one of the boxes, obscuring something beneath. Exhausted by the relentless circling of his thoughts, he stopped and absentmindedly lifted it. Underneath sat a laptop and a mobile phone. It was such an unlikely sight that he had to think for a minute to work out why they might be there. Ed hesitated, then picked up the phone, turning it over. It was the handset he had given Nicky back in Aberdeen, carefully hidden from the casual view of passers-by.
For weeks he had been fuelled by the anger of betrayal. When that initial heat dissipated, a whole part of him had simply iced over, become glacial. He had been secure in his outrage, safe in his sense of injustice. Now Ed held a mobile phone that a teenage boy who possessed next to nothing had felt obliged to return to him. He heard his sister’s words and something began to open up, almost audibly, inside him. What the hell did he know about anything? Who was he to judge anyone?
Fuck it, he told himself. I can’t go and see her. I just can’t.
Why should I?
What would I even say?
He walked from one end of his empty house to the other, his footsteps echoing on the wooden floors, his fist tight around the notes.
What kind of a fool would forgive?
He stared out of the window at the sea and wished, suddenly, that he had gone to jail. He wished that his mind had been filled with the immediate physical problems of safety, logistics, survival.
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