They got coffee and Danish pastries. The sun was creeping round to them. Hazel Smith had a husband. Two adult sons. She and Jocelyn would be thought simply friends. Not unalike. Not dissimilar clothes. Hazel was a head taller.
‘What would you like to ask me?’
Easy. She had had the question in mind from the start.
‘Why do you do this?’
‘Is that something everyone asks?’
‘It is. Understandably.’
‘I went to the clinic with someone I knew – not very well but she had no one. No family at all. She lived near me, I used to pop in and see her when she became ill. And one day, she just asked me, point-blank. Would I go with her. I was shocked, to be honest. But I knew her, I knew she was determined and I knew she had very little time left in which she’d be well enough to travel at all. So I agreed. Mainly because having no one – no one at all in the world – seemed so terrible. I was very glad I went. It’s six years ago now.’
‘It’s against the law – well, our law. Doesn’t that worry you?’
‘No one has been prosecuted under it. Besides, they would have to find out about me first. They won’t.’
‘Or rather, they haven’t so far and I am very careful. But if I were to be prosecuted, I’d defend myself all the way.’
‘Yes. I can see that you would.’
Hazel sipped her coffee.
‘What was wrong with the first person you took there?’
‘She had an inoperable brain tumour. And she didn’t have long.’
‘I suppose I have months – or even years.’
‘Months certainly, from what I know. But rushing is not a good way. You need time. She didn’t, and she didn’t regret it, but now I wouldn’t consider taking someone who had so little time.’
‘How many people have you taken?’
‘And …’ But she did not go on. She realised that she knew enough and did not want to know more. It was not her business. She was her business.
‘Jocelyn, now that we’ve met, the next thing is for you to think hard and then decide in your own time. Any questions, please send them via email.’ She took out a piece of paper. ‘Here are all my details. I’ll answer anything you want me to. And when you decide – one way or the other – let me know. If it’s no, fine, but I’d be grateful for a message. Would you like another coffee? I think I would.’
Jocelyn had warmed to her. In another context, they could have become friends who went on a shopping trip or to London for the day or who decided to diet one last time. Or not to diet ever again. Talked about everything, disagreed sometimes.
They had more coffee. The sun came round. The café filled up. The ducks bobbed and dived and swam for bread thrown by solemn toddlers. She was filled with rage and pain that it could not stay like this.
When she turned round from watching the ducks and the toddlers, Hazel had left.
They had not discussed money.
LENNY WAS A bad driver. She had been a bad driver all her life but it had mattered less when there were fewer trunk roads and thundering lorries. Nevertheless, she enjoyed driving and, when she got behind the wheel, felt a small surge of power and the need to behave recklessly, to take chances round bends, to overtake. Passengers closed their eyes. Olive sometimes let out little shrieks – or had, when she had been more aware of the danger she might be in.
It was a pleasant day and dry. Lenny would once have felt excited at the prospect of a thirty-mile spin. She could turn up the radio. She could put her foot down quite hard on the accelerator.
But she was not going out for fun, she was going to face the usual scene – people at the end of their tether and being firm, Olive having hysterics, the dreadful journey home as she screamed and cried and tried to open the van door, or wept and clutched suddenly, dangerously, at Lenny’s arm.
Halfway there, Lenny pulled into a lay-by where a caravan with flags hanging out, like washing to dry, was selling ‘Burgers, Sandwiches, ’Furters, Hot and Cold Drinks, Confectonairy’. Two lorries were pulled in as well. The caravan had an awning, a plastic table and chairs. She got her tea and a cheese roll and sat at the table, watching the traffic race by. The sun was on her face. And suddenly, a memory of sitting at an outside table in a French village, drinking coffee and eating slices of tarte aux pruneaux made with crumbling flaky pastry, came to her. How long ago? Twenty years? Twenty-five? More? Yes, more. They had both been teaching at Drivers Hill, had holidayed together, the first time of many. At the end of that summer they had decided to buy the cottage. Olive had been shy, still unsure of these new feelings, terrified that her father might find out. But underneath, there had been the determination Lenny had seen through to, as well as the infinite capacity for love. For admiration. For adoration. Who would not have responded to that? But she knew hers had not been a response – she had led. She had decided, during the previous term, in fact, when Olive had barely been aware of her.
The sun on her face. The cheese roll was not a tarte aux pruneaux, but she was hungry, it was fresh, with surprisingly tasty tomato and real butter, though the tea was stewed.
She wanted to turn back. Turn back the van, turn back the clock. Turn back. Olive had been alert and alive, husky-voiced and intelligent, quick-thinking, strong. That Olive no longer existed. The Olive she was going to see was an angry, foul-mouthed, occasionally violent stranger.
The sun on her face. Lenny closed her eyes. The French market square had been suddenly full of children, a long, bright kite-tail of them, graded in size, fluttering out of a primary school. Olive’s eyes had brightened. The children had gone across the square, chattering, laughing.
They had asked for more café au lait. But no more pastries. They would save themselves for a long idle lunch.
The sun on her face.
Lenny opened her eyes and saw a bright red plastic tomato full of sauce, a bright yellow plastic mustard pot. A lorry roaring past. A plate of crumbs.
She did not buy a second cup of tea, just sat in front of the empty one, and the plate of crumbs, miles and years away.
An hour later she was sitting in the proprietor’s office. The senior nurse, a man called Colin, was in a chair by the desk, looking down at a red folder. He had refused to make eye contact with Lenny when he had walked in and shaken hands, and now he looked at the file in front of him, at the floor or at the proprietor, Mrs Mulcahy. She wore no uniform but a bouclé suit with a gold-leaf brooch on the lapel. Her hair was bouffant and pale, like spun sugar. Lenny had seen her just once before, on the day she had brought Olive here.
‘We try very hard but there are limits to what I can expect my staff to tolerate,’ Colin said. ‘Physical abuse.’ He looked at the notes. ‘Scraped her nails down Ignatia’s face. Spat at a cleaner, Norah Dobson. Urinated in a pot plant. Screamed for fifty-five minutes, until sedated. Slapped Nurse Smailes across the arm, bit her hand, drawing blood.’ He glanced at Mrs Mulcahy.
‘And so it goes on,’ she said.
‘I’m sure you are, Miss Wilcox. So are we. I don’t think I have ever found myself in quite such a disagreeable situation before, but I have my staff and other residents to consider. I wonder if you’ve thought that Miss Mills really needs to be in some sort of secure environment?’
‘Secure environment? Do you mean kept under lock and key?’
‘For her own welfare and safety. That’s what I mean.’
‘Of course you do. Can I see her now?’
Colin shuffled his feet.
‘Miss Wilcox …’
‘Can I see her?’
‘I’m afraid there’s rather more to it than that. We didn’t ask you simply to pay a visit.’
She had known that all along.
She stood up. ‘You’re kicking her out,’ she said to the proprietor and the nurse, Colin, who had not even had the courage to look her in the face.
‘You’re not entitled to do this,’ Lenny had said, several times. ‘I intend to speak to my solicitor.’ But it made no difference to their bundling Olive into the van, strapping her in, putting her cases and boxes in the back. At the last moment, Colin had reached in and adjusted the seat belt under her coat collar so that it would not rub against her neck. Lenny had almost thanked him but did not, nor did she glance back as she turned out of the drive of Babbacombe House into the road.
The journey home was terrible.
Olive was silent and still for ten minutes. Lenny asked her if she was comfortable. If she was warm enough. If she knew they were going home. She did not reply. She sat stiffly with her hands together, eyes ahead.
And then it began, first the low moaning sound, and then the rocking of her body back and forth, and after a while, the tossing of her head up and down and from side to side, like a horse in a stable. The moaning became louder and changed to a cry and the cry to a scream. She screamed and shrieked and then fell silent, screamed and fell silent, struggled to get out of her seat belt.
Lenny pulled into a lay-by and took Olive’s face in her hands. Turned her towards herself.
‘This is me,’ she said, as if to the small child Olive now was. ‘This is me. Lenny. We’re going home, O.’
Olive twisted her head and bit Lenny’s finger.
She had to keep stopping because from time to time Olive lurched sideways, grabbed the gear lever or the steering wheel or Lenny’s arm, tried to open the door. And screamed. She spat at the windscreen and banged her foot on the floor, bang bang bang bang, refusing to stop. It was like having a wild animal penned in the van with her.
‘I’ll put you out on the road if you scream again, I swear.’
Olive screamed and then began to whistle, and to sing in a high crazy voice.
But a couple of miles from home she fell silent again, and when Lenny glanced across, her head had fallen forward and she was asleep.
She woke quietly when the van stopped and allowed herself to be unstrapped from the seat belt, helped out and up the path. She looked round, as if she had no idea where she was, no recollection of having lived here for twenty-six years. She touched a bush beside the front door and then held up her hand to inspect it.
Lenny waited for her to go inside but she did not, and in the end, after trying to coax her and hold her hand and lead her, she had to half pull, half shove her into the hall.
At once, Olive opened her legs slightly, to pee for a long time, making a widening, warm pool on the rug.
AS HE STOOD in front of the mirror unravelling his black tie and starting again with it, Simon wished he was not a snob about ready-tied, and so would not have to put himself through this ten minutes of stress every time he went to a formal occasion. He began to retie, slowly.
The Lord Lieutenant held the St Michael’s Banquet every other year but Simon had only been once before. He had endured rather than enjoyed it, though the food had been excellent, and the wines too, for those who were not driving themselves home in their own cars. The Chief would have had her driver, he thought, flipping right over left. He would not be able to slip away unobserved from a banquet as from a reception.
That afternoon an email had come in to say the computerised facial reconstruction of the second skeleton was shaping up well. There would be an image for him to see in a couple of days.
Ben Vanek had been ringing a colleague in his old force whose wife worked in television documentaries and who might know a producer who would find the case of interest. But Simon held out no hope there. Cold cases going back sixteen years, girls who had gone missing – there was nothing unusual enough in it for the media. The local press report had been picked up by the online crime news of a couple of nationals but led to nothing.
His tie was right. He combed his hair, put on his dinner jacket and prepared himself to be bored for the next four hours.
* * *
Haxby Castle looked magnificent, the tower and the main residence floodlit and the courtyard full of lamps, the flight of steps up to the great doors red-carpeted. Sir Hugh Barr was rising seventy and would not be Lord Lieutenant for much longer. This might well be the last banquet he gave. His successor would not have a castle in which to entertain half the county.
‘Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler.’
He walked along the receiving line. Barr. Lady Barr. Their son, Marcus. And then the daughter, whose wedding had caused the Lafferton Police Force such a headache, with royal guests and a crazed gunman on the loose, one with a habit of targeting brides. Emily Barr, now Lady Ravilious, was heavily pregnant, very beautiful.
‘Ah, the man who kept me safe on my big day,’ she said, taking Simon’s hand and holding it between both of her own for a moment.
He was very conscious that he was without a companion, but for the next half-hour he was kept busy. He knew plenty of people or they knew him and as he was representing the Chief he had to circulate, listen to this or that comment or complaint – usually made laughingly. ‘I do know this isn’t really the time or the place, Chief Superintendent, but there is a singular absence of police on the streets/slow response to call-outs/lack of a sense of urgency …’
He smiled, defended, apologised, explained, and sipped a single glass of champagne, which grew lukewarm in his hand as he went round, and identified his place, relieved to see that he was not on the top table, though he was sure the Chief would have been. If he had had a companion, he might have been too, which was the bonus for having come alone.
The occasion was as glittering as the palace State Banquets, which the Lord Lieutenant was doubtless used to attending. Plate and glass gleamed and sparkled under the chandeliers and in the gently wavering light from candles in their tall silver sticks set down the centre of each table. Staff stood against the walls in motionless ranks, waiting. Slowly, everyone filed in, found their places, waited for the top table. The three speakers, the High Sheriff, the Bishop and, finally, the Barrs. The buzz died down.
‘Bless, O Lord, this food to our use, and us to Thy Service, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.’
Chink of cutlery and glass.
Doors opening. Lines of waiters, bearing dishes.
Simon turned to his right.
Afterwards, he asked himself time and again what it had been first, what he had noticed.
Eyes. Deep violet blue. Eyes of that colour were rare. And skin. He remembered his mother saying that everyone who met the Queen noticed her beautiful skin, as she herself had.
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