‘Did you say anything?’
‘No. Yes, yes, I think I said how awful it was, or “that poor girl” or something like that.’
‘Did he answer?’
‘No. It was as if he was – sort of transfixed by the television.’
‘And when it finished?’
‘He got up and went upstairs. He almost ran up. He didn’t say anything at all. And then I heard the bathwater starting.’
‘Did he say anything later on?’
‘No. I tidied up and did the doors, then I went up to bed. He didn’t come for ages. He stayed in the bath for such a long time. He never does that. I was reading a magazine but I‘d put it down when he came to bed. I was almost asleep. I‘d been going to ask him about it … the programme. Only I was so tired, I just didn’t.’
‘And the next day?’
‘No. But he wasn’t himself.’
‘In what way?’
‘It … it’s not easy to say. Only … there was just something. It’s all rubbish, isn’t it? I feel stupid.’
‘No. I don’t think it’s rubbish and you are certainly not stupid. I don’t know why your husband – Stephen, did you say?’
‘Steve. Well, yes, Stephen, only he never is.’
‘He was obviously affected by the programme for some reason. I’d like to talk to him.’
‘Oh no, you can’t do that, you mustn’t come round here, he’ll know it was me, that I said something to you, won’t he?’
‘No. Can you just give me the address please?’
‘It’s 60 – No, no, I won’t, sorry. I shouldn’t have made this call. I … sorry. Forget it all. Stupid thing to do. Just stupid.’
But she had hung up. He jotted down ‘Stephen Foster, 60? Lafferton?’ and added ‘Noeline’. And the time of her call.
‘THERE ARE WARNINGS of gales in Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes and south-east Iceland.’
Jocelyn wondered which was more comforting, the voice of that night’s continuity announcer reciting the shipping forecast, or being safe and warm under her duvet while the gale raged round Lafferton.
Both were, but she knew that the deepest satisfaction came from the simple fact of being here at all, in her own bed, her own house. Alive. She looked around the room. There were three new library books on the bedside table beside the lamp, another on the quilt. The bedlinen was fresh. The photo graphs of Penny as a child, of Carol’s wedding, of Tony in his uniform, of Lottie, the old spaniel, with Penny again, arranged in one large frame on the dressing table. The reflection of the soft pink wallpaper in the mirror.
She closed her eyes for a moment and the horror of what she now thought of as the Death Room was there in every detail.
Since they had returned she had had nightmares of such horror and ferocity that she had made an appointment to see Dr Deerbon again. The nightmares woke her several times, or else attacked her just as she slipped down into sleep, and she came out of them shaking and sweating, her heart pounding so fast and hard she was afraid it would burst out of her chest.
How did people go through with it? She had asked Penny a dozen times on the journey home – because they did, many of them, people who had travelled, as she had, a long way, to the terrible apartment block, who would then lie down in the dingy room on what had looked less wholesome than a veterinary couch and accept a glass of fluid which would kill them. Had those people been more honest? Had they confronted the facts first, not fantasised about a tranquil room with clean crisp white bedlinen and a gauzy curtain fluttering in the breeze, gentle music, low lighting and sweet-faced nurses? Had they found out what it was really like and yet gone through with it?
She opened her eyes on her room again and at once she felt safe. It had not happened after all, she had run away and she would never go there again. She felt as if she had escaped from Death Row and been transported home on a magic carpet – for even though the actual return had been tiresome and fraught with delays and discomfort, it had been transformed into the most wonderful journey of her life, because of her relief and happiness. She and Penny had clung to one another for most of it, in a way they had never done before, holding one another’s arms, and even clutching hands at one point, crying together and sharing a packet of tissues, and then laughing and drinking their little bottles of wine on the plane, their hearts light, unable to believe they were both on their way home.
She tried to pick up her book but her fingers would not tighten on it. Earlier, she had gone out to post a letter and felt herself shuffling along the pavement. The symptoms were manageable but they had definitely grown worse. She noticed every tiny change, recorded it, worried about it.
Yes, but the reprieve was only temporary. She knew what was going to happen and neither her escape nor this respite made that knowledge easier.
She pulled the book closer to her, scooped it up somehow with one hand, but the fingers felt nerveless, thickened and inert, and she could not turn the page. She abandoned it and switched off the light. The wind gathered itself and hurtled towards the house. A gate banged further down the street. There was a full moon and the clouds scudding fast across it made strange moving shadows on the wall. It was like being a child again, warm and safe in her seaside bed, while the waves crashed onto the shingle and the gale roared and the street lamp outside flickered.
When the phone rang she reached out for it automatically but her hand would not grip the receiver and she ended by knocking it onto the floor. By the time she had managed to switch on the lamp, get out of bed and retrieve it, the caller had rung off.
Since returning home she had been twitchy, anxious about callers and the telephone, worrying about the security settings on her computer – though Penny had checked them and pronounced them perfectly adequate. Her illness made her vulnerable. It had been one of the reasons she had gone to the clinic. Vulnerable older people with medical conditions were prey to intruders, scams and hoax callers as well as to accidents. She had always been a woman of nerve and practical common sense. This new feeling of frailty and the nag of anxiety that was always in her mind disturbed her. She did not know herself any more.
But she was herself, that was the point. She was herself now, warm under the bedclothes while the wind raged outside. Herself.
The lamp had a dimmer switch and she set it to Low, then, with the light softened to a glow, she turned her head on the pillow and sank into sleep.
The phone woke her again, a little before eight. The wind was still high and although it was fully light, the clouds were so heavy that at first she thought it was not yet dawn. She was slightly disorientated, slow in movements, so that by the time she had re gistered the phone and managed to sit up, the ringing had stopped.
‘You were called today at …’
She dialled Penny.
‘Mother, I was just about to step into the shower. Is it urgent?’
‘Someone keeps ringing me – they rang late last night and again just now.’
‘Who is ringing you?’
‘I don’t know. Number withheld.’
‘Well, I’m not sure I can do anything about it. I’m in court this morning, and even if I weren’t …’
‘I was a bit unnerved, that’s all.’
‘Have you had your tea yet? That’s sure to help. Go and do that and get back into bed with the paper, Mother. I’ll try and call you at lunchtime.’
‘Penny, do you think …’
‘I just wondered … I mean …’
‘It’s illegal. What we did. What I did.’
Penny snorted. ‘And the police or the CPS make “number withheld” calls at strange times of the night about this sort of thing, do they? For goodness’ sake, stop it. Go and make your tea. I’ll talk to you later.’
When she opened up her computer, she found an email from the woman Hazel Smith.
I happened to hear that you had aborted your visit to Switzerland and wondered if there was anything I could do for you, any help I could give. I have counselled several people who have found it a difficult journey and one woman who, like you, could not go through with her plan. If you would like to talk to me do please ring and we could perhaps meet? I would so like to know how you are feeling, how you are facing up to things, whether you have another plan in place. Don’t hesitate to call, will you?
Jocelyn began to shake. The message nauseated her, with its false sweetness of tone, its offer of help which she found sinister, its intrusiveness, its unpleasant assumption of a friendship there had never been and could never be. The woman had seemed genuine, slightly detached, willing to be a paid companion and take a certain risk in doing so. Now, she was apparently trying to insinuate herself, trying to extend her business arrangement further, ready to advise and counsel. Jocelyn deleted the message. Then, because it felt as if it were still a stain, contaminating her computer and the whole desk, the room, the house even, she emptied the recycle bin. So it was gone. It could do no further harm. She would have nothing more to do with Hazel Smith.
But the memory of the woman and her message lingered, souring the air, weaving in and out through her thoughts. And she wondered if the phone calls might also have come from her.
Getting dressed took longer now. By the time she had done so, driven to the supermarket and talked to her next-door neighbour for ten minutes on her return, she was exhausted. She was also frightened. As she had turned out of the car park she had not been able to feel her foot as it touched the brake and pressed down too hard, almost bringing the car to a shuddering standstill. People had hooted, one man had shaken his fist out of the window as he had overtaken her.
So how long would it be before she had to give up driving? How long before she became entirely dependent on other people to fetch and carry?
‘You were called today at …’
‘I DIDN’T THINK you’d come.’
Rachel smiled. ‘You said that the last time.’
He looked at her, astonished that she should be with him, that she hadn’t hesitated when he had rung but said, ‘I’ll be there.’
‘Ken is away in Oxford until tomorrow. He goes to a clinic once every three months to get treatment.’
‘Bevham General no good?’
‘Bevham General is fine but this is alternative stuff … acupuncture, herbal medicine.’
‘There’s a practitioner he trusts. He listens to Ken. I think that’s the point really, don’t you?’
‘My sister listens to her patients. She reckons it’s important.’
‘It is. Look, for what it’s worth I don’t think these treatments do any good … but it helps him to go there, he thinks they’re doing him good so maybe they are.’
‘I don’t buy that.’
‘He has two days of people making him feel he’s important and that they can do something for him. He believes in it, he feels better when he comes home – mentally better, more able to cope. That’s worth paying for in my book. Why are you so hostile?’
‘Maybe because of a local acupuncturist who murdered quite a few people? Maybe because of all the cranks and quacks who colonise Starly? Maybe because my sister has had to pick up the pieces from some of these snake-oil salesmen? You tell me.’
They were standing in the car park of the Cross Garters at Cobwood, ten miles out of Lafferton to the west, where Simon rarely came, though not for any particular reason. But he had wanted to bring Rachel somewhere which had no memories or associations and with little chance of his meeting anyone he knew. He had rung her without hope of her being able to come.
‘You look beautiful.’ He heard himself and realised it was something he almost never said, not because he failed to notice – he always noticed – what women looked like, how they wore their hair, the colour of their eyes, their clothes, their tone of voice, but because compliments did not come easily from him. Perhaps, he had often thought, in this, if in nothing else, he was exactly like his father.
He smiled. Thank you, she had said. Not disagreeing, not being embarrassed, not turning away his words. Thank you.
‘I hope we weren’t arguing just then.’
‘What, about quacks? Hardly worth it.’
‘Hmm. Aren’t you working?’
‘Yes. Are you hungry?’
‘Not very. Maybe if we walked up to that spinney and back I would be.’
They crossed the lane, went through the gap beside the footpath sign. The spinney was on the crown of the slope ahead. A pair of buzzards soared over it, flat wings widespread.
‘They look like the Angel of the North,’ Rachel said.
He took her hand and, for a second, she paused, so that he was sure she would take it away. But in the end, she did not, and said nothing, walked on.
The breeze coming downhill blew her hair, and as she turned to shake it out of her face, Simon felt a strange sense, not of déjà vu but of the opposite – a snatched moment in the future, months, even years ahead, when they would be here, walking up the slope, her hair blowing in her face.
That is what I want, he thought. I am seeing what I want to happen.
He had never felt such a thing in his life and he had no idea how or why he did now. Rachel Wyatt. He barely knew her. He had met her less than half a dozen times. She did not know him. She had not seen where he lived, met anyone he knew. But they had talked, and that talk had included so many lines of subtext, about their feelings, their wants.
He knew her. She knew him.
They knew nothing.
The breeze was a wind as they reached the shelter of the spinney. Rachel sat down on a fallen tree trunk and looked towards the village and then turned to the west, where the Mynt Hills rose, like a distant back of a blue whale.
‘On a good day …’
‘Have you ever been over there?’
‘No. Sometimes you don’t see the hills at all … it’s as if they’re just faint clouds on the horizon. Are they very high?’
‘No … I’ll take you. We’ll climb the Mynts.’