Back in his office he pulled out the record of the call that had come in anonymously. A man. I saw her definitely. The thing is … I saw the bus … I’m pretty sure it was that same bus. Only she didn’t get on it.
Why had no one linked these two calls at the time? They had been flagged up as possibly important but no one had visited Joan Cook or, apparently, made any serious attempts to trace Mr Anonymous – if they had, it would have been in the reports. Why hadn’t they? Yes, there had been hundreds of calls, but these two had been singled out and yet not pursued. It was always in the detail, he thought, pulling his jacket off the chair. It was always somewhere in the tiny detail.
He went downstairs to see the press officer. For years there had been two of them, plus a secretary, in what had been a decent-sized office. Now, there was only Marianne in a cubbyhole. Things were never quiet but handling the usual daily events plus Serrailler’s two high-profile cases was as much as she could cope with, and if she had not been efficient, experienced and very cool-headed, there would have been chaos.
‘Can we put out a request? Is tomorrow morning possible?’
‘Glad you don’t want it now. Yes, can do.’ She opened a new file on her computer. ‘Did you go down to see the recon by the way? I won’t be sorry to get them off my back – nice guys but …’
‘You could say. Looking forward to the programme though.’
‘Be interesting to see what it turns up.’
‘The usual, I dare say. Where do you want this to go, Simon?’
‘Everywhere. OK, here we go: “Lafferton Police, investigating the case of the missing schoolgirl Harriet Lowther … blah blah –” the usual general call for info – but then: “In particular they are anxious to hear from the anonymous caller who contacted the special information hotline after Harriet’s disappearance. The caller claimed to have seen her waiting at the bus stop in Parkside Drive, but he stated that he did not think she had actually boarded the bus when it pulled in. If you were this man, the police would like you to ring them again urgently. Please contact –” then give the hotline number and add my name as well, would you? I want to flush this guy out. He knows something or he saw something and he might respond to a name rather than a general request.’
‘Anonymous usually does. I’ll put it out to catch the local news bulletins first thing.’
It occurred to him as he went out that Marianne actually preferred to have the job, and the office, to herself, even if the work pressure was intense. She was one of the best of their civilian staff – and the best tended to like to hold the reins on their own. And it also occurred to him that, other than missing the extra pairs of hands in terms of time, he too preferred to have his job to himself.
The programme went out the following night. In the end, the other two-thirds of it were given more prominence than the Lafferton section and very little of the reconstruction was used, though what they did show – the girl waiting at the stop and the bus drawing up to it – was the vital part. Simon watched it, drinking a glass of beer, the window open onto the cool evening, and wondered if being a BBC producer was even more frustrating than trying to solve a cold case.
He remained slouched in front of the television, beating both Jesus College, Cambridge, and the University of Warwick on University Challenge.
‘What was the name given by the British to the metal foil used to baffle German radar during World War II?’
‘Window,’ Simon said as his phone rang.
‘Evening, guv, duty switchboard here. I just had a call, anonymous, about the Lowther case. He asked to speak to you personally.’
‘Can you trace?’
‘Trying, but he said he’d call again.’
‘OK. When – if – he does, do your best to keep him. Can you replay him to me?’
The man sounded local, middle-aged, hesitant. He was not muffling his voice but he spoke as if he had his head turned slightly away from the receiver.
‘It’s about the girl … I saw the TV programme tonight. Thing is … when it happened – after she went missing, I mean – I did ring in then. I’ve never really forgotten about it, only … it’s just that … hearing she’s been found … I mean, she’s dead, we know that now … not just missing … then seeing this … Can I speak to the man in charge? I don’t want to say any more now … I need to talk to him, the Superintendent … the Detective Super, I mean … how do I get to talk to him?’
The operator replied, smooth, reassuring.
‘If you’d give me your name, sir, and a contact number, I’ll make sure your message is passed on to the Superintendent. I can’t do anything if you won’t tell me those details, I’m afraid.’
‘Can you … is he there now? No, he wouldn’t be, I suppose. Look, I’ll call again.’
‘Your details will remain confidential, I guarantee. I just need your name and a contact phone number, if you could let me have those, sir?’
‘No, it doesn’t matter. Leave it. I have to go, sorry.’
‘Don’t hang up, sir, please, your name won’t be made public if that’s what you’re worried about. Just a surname is fine for now.’
‘I’ll ring in the morning.’
He rang off suddenly, as if someone had interrupted him.
Simon got another beer and stood by the window. It was quiet. He thought about the girl – both girls, though it was difficult to keep someone in mind if you could not give them a name, an age, an origin, any detail at all. Harriet Lowther he felt he knew – sporty, musical, friendly, just gaining a bit of independence, possibly enjoying the company of a boyfriend.
Was there a boyfriend? No one had identified one, not the Lowthers, or the Cadsdens. No boy had come forward, either to say he knew Harriet or even to say that he knew someone else who did. And it was simply not possible that anyone had been going out with Harriet Lowther without a single other soul in the world being aware of the fact. Girls confided in their friends. Boys did too, though rather less. Someone would have known.
Simon was as sure as he could be that there had not been a boyfriend. And Cat had confirmed that four toes on one foot would not deter a sporty teenager.
But if, as Joan Cook and the anonymous male caller seemed to believe, Harriet had not got on the bus for which she had been waiting, then perhaps she had changed her mind at the last minute and walked away. If so, in which direction? Heading out of town towards the country? But why would she do that? So had she headed to Lafferton on foot? If so, why? Because she felt like the walk? Then why not just start walking in the first place?
Had she seen someone on the bus she didn’t want to talk to? Or someone who was not on the bus but whom she did want to talk to? Someone walking by? A friend? If so, had she seen them by chance? Or had they arranged to meet at the bus stop?
No one had reported seeing her anywhere other than at the stop – not walking in any direction, or standing talking to someone. And they surely would have done.
So had Harriet seen someone in a car? Had the car stopped? Had the driver spoken to her? Had she been offered a lift? Had she prearranged to meet someone in a car? Expected to be given a lift? Into Lafferton then? In which case why wait for the bus? Because the bus stop was a convenient place to wait for someone who would be collecting her?
He felt as if his head were full of bees. To get rid of them, he went to the table and pulled a drawing out of the folder, one of a series he was working on, of churchyards and gravestones in villages around Lafferton. But this one, of an eighteenth-century monument to a mother of three young children who had died giving birth to a fourth, he had drawn inside St Cuthbert’s, Up Starly. It was a monument he loved, smooth, pale, distant and yet full of love and grief, the tiny marble children clinging to the idealised young woman’s feet and arms, her hair streaming down her back, eyes closed, hand stretched out towards them. The churchyard group of drawings would be one of the focal points for his next London exhibition and this its centrepiece. The dead. And the living. The living would include some new drawings of Cat’s children. But he knew he wanted Rachel there. She came into his mind now.
He wanted to spend hours sitting looking at her, drawing her. He wanted to be with her.
He looked down at the young mother, the clinging children, the graceful flowing lines of the whole monument, too good for an uninteresting village church – and yet why not? Why should a small ordinary village church not have a masterpiece of sculpture to commemorate someone once so loved and so alive?
He reached for a pencil from the row laid out neatly in front of him, but when he looked down at his drawing again, all he could see was Rachel.
SHE WASN’T GOING. She wouldn’t go. There was no point at all in being there. Olive didn’t even know she had been moved to another place.
It will unsettle her, Lenny thought, if I go. It’s happened, hasn’t it? Look how she was the last time. She saw me and started to cry, she took my arm and tried to pull me out of the room, out of the front door. She wanted to come home with me and I couldn’t take her home, she didn’t understand why and it tore me apart.
She wasn’t going.
The room was a mess. She had opened a single window for half an hour and in that time a bird had managed to fly in, panic, skim round and round madly, dropping feathers. They lay on the floor, on the bookshelves, on the piano, on the stool, and droppings too, little greenish-white blobs on the keys and inside between the strings.
She needed to clean the house, not just this room but right through it, the kitchen, where the stove was crusted with brown dried grease, the grill that had been spattered with cold fat for months, with a silt of crumbs in the tray. The bathroom had soap scum, limescale; their bedroom, soft balls of grey fluff under the furniture, grubby pillowcases, stained cover.
Their bedroom. They had never slept in separate beds, not once since they had been together, until Olive had gone into the first home for a week, to give Lenny some rest. On those nights Lenny had lain awake and put her arm out now and then to check that Olive was there and had not gone wandering, and when the other side of the bed had been empty, had sat up in alarm – and then remembered. Would Olive mind being alone in bed at night? Would she call out for her?
‘To be honest, I don’t think she even noticed,’ the nurse had said.
But how could that be true? You did not sleep with someone for nearly thirty years and not notice if, without warning, without telling you why, they were no longer in your bed. Though Lenny had told her, time after time, tried to prepare her. ‘On your holiday,’ she had said, ‘I won’t be staying with you, O. I won’t be there at all. You understand that, don’t you? I’ll be here at home, waiting for you to come back. You do understand that?’
Now she rang up Maytree House every day, and every day they said the same thing. She was settling. She was calm. She seemed perfectly happy. She was amiable. ‘A lovely person.’ Calm before the storm – Lenny knew that perfectly well. She was calm herself now, here in the cottage on her own. She could not face destroying that, going to find Olive shouting or screaming or grabbing hold of her and clawing at her, desperate to be taken away. Let her stay and be calm. Let her go.
She went outside to get the bird feeder. They had always had such pleasure in watching the birds, noting if one was absent, riffling through the books on the window ledge to identify something new. Olive had filled notebooks. Bird diaries. But gradually had simply sat in silence staring, or else wandered out into the garden ignoring them entirely.
The phone rang as Lenny was gently pouring nuts into the metal tube. It made her jump and spill them all over the floor. Olive had done that the last time she was home, not accidentally, but by taking the bag down and shaking the nuts and scattering them. Lenny had shouted – no, screamed – in anger and desperation. Olive had stared at her for a moment blankly before bursting into tears. A small child’s tears.
So it had started all over again but more quickly this time. They wanted her to come at once, they couldn’t cope, Olive had to return home. She sighed.
‘Are you all right, Miss Wilcox?’
‘Yes. What’s she done this time?’
‘Nothing. Well, nothing to worry about. She’s fine.’
‘What’s she doing?’
‘She’s just having a walk round the garden with Lorraine, one of the carers – it’s such a nice day. No, it isn’t anything to worry about really but we’ve got a bit of a puzzle we can’t solve. And just now and again she seems worried about it – a bit agitated, if you understand me.’
‘It’s a name …’
‘That’s the thing … we don’t know. She can’t tell us but she says it sometimes and then gets very upset and agitated. I thought you would know and maybe give us an idea of how we can calm her down. The trouble is she only mutters it, says it almost to herself.’
‘It sounds like – Agatha maybe?’
‘Yes. We’ve all tried to make it out. I repeated what she was saying – or what she seemed to be saying – but she got very upset. Perhaps it wasn’t Agatha.’
‘I don’t know. I can’t think of anyone called Agatha.’
‘Well, whatever it is, it’s the only thing that’s disturbed her since she came here, so if you do think of what it might be …’
‘Perhaps it isn’t a name.’
‘Should I come to see her? I wanted her to settle down first. If she sees me she might get upset about – not coming home with me.’
‘I don’t think you’ll find that now. They do move on a stage, you know … when some things just don’t upset them any more.’
‘You mean she might have forgotten me?’
‘No, I don’t mean that, or not yet anyway, though you can never quite predict how things have moved on. But she might have forgotten home … where it is, what it means.’
‘Is that a good thing? Is it?’
‘Sometimes. Letting go can make them more peaceful … they come to an acceptance. But this is hard for you – it’s always hardest for the ones looking on. If you ever want to come and talk to one of us about that you only have to ask. Dr Fison is very good at helping relatives come to terms with it all. You’d find him such a help if you ever need to get it off your chest.’
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