‘Oh no. She seemed fine.’
‘She’d just dropped her head down on her chest and gone. Not a murmur.’
Cat glanced at Molly. ‘All right?’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Molly said. ‘I … We only just left her … I was planning to come and see her again. I don’t believe it.’
‘No,’ Cat touched her arm. ‘When death happens like that you don’t, quite.’
Two nurses were on a break in the staffroom. A chocolate cake had appeared on the table with ‘Thank You’ iced on it in cream.
‘Are you all right, Molly?’
‘Yes. I just couldn’t take it in. Mary. I still can’t.’
‘The difference is that you see the occasional death in a general hospital but mostly you’re dealing with the living at all ends of the spectrum. Here, we are only at one end and it’s relentless, there’s no balance. You have to learn to deal with it carefully or it affects you too much – it pulls you about emotionally working here and it’s right it should. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. But you have to look after yourself. Do you think you could do it?’
‘I’m not sure.’
The chocolate cake was sliced into, more coffee brewed. One of the nurses had a daughter getting married the following week. The talk turned to frocks and flowers. It was how they dealt with it every day, Cat thought, how they stayed sane. Coming in here, leaving the ward and the patients, pain and distress and bereavement at the door, eating cake, chatting about everyday events, about the news or the weather or, as her mother would have said, ‘the price of fish’.
Her mother. She had tried to put what Simon had told her out of her mind, and while she was working, she could, but the moment she stopped thinking about a patient or a drug dose or the effect of the day unit closure, she was back there, with Meriel, with a syringe of potassium, with her sister Martha. With killing. Mercy killing. But killing. And Si had known. When had he known? He had not said. If it had been before his mother had died, he might have taken action, but what action? Reported it. And then what? Arrested her? Of course not. For Cat, human life was sacred. For Simon, it was all about bringing criminals to justice. Yet he had failed to make certain that justice was done when the perpetrator was his own mother.
Cat could not decide if she wanted to talk to her father about it or not, whether there would be any point at all. Ill feeling. Anger. Resentment. There would be all of that. Knowing Richard, he might even refuse to discuss the subject at all. He was perfectly capable of remaining tight-lipped and silent. He had told Judith, without warning, and upset her considerably. Why? Judith had no reason to know. Now, it would be there for good, troubling her. What is known can never be unknown.
Unless everything else is, she thought suddenly. Dementia. The gradual dismantling of what you once knew. The unknowing of everything.
She looked at Molly, fresh-faced and laughing now, chocolate icing round her mouth. Molly. Twenty-four. Facing a working life of dealing with dying and death, with unravelling and unknowing.
She shook herself. There was a lot more to it than that and much of it more positive. Watching people get better, relieving serious pain, preventing this or that serious illness, diagnosing something in time, helping a baby from womb to world, saving a life in an emergency, confident of your skills.
‘Come on, Molly. We’re going to the pharmacy. The first principle of palliative care – appropriate and adequate pain relief.’
But the image was in front of her eyes as she opened the door. Her mother. Martha. A syringe of potassium.
There was no unknowing.
FREE LATER 2DAY. Maybe we can meet 4 a drink?
The text had come an hour earlier and he had still not replied. The case was opening out and at last he had the sense that something important was going to emerge, some new lead. Cat had only replied briefly to the message he had left on her phone, and in the cool, non-committal voice he knew, which meant that she was being distant with him. And now Rachel. He sat in the Cypriot café with an empty coffee cup. He picked up the phone on the table in front of him.
‘Ben, I need you.’
‘I’m on this burglary, out at Pyrbeck. Another with the same MO, couple and a visiting daughter beaten up. You getting anywhere?’
‘Yes,’ Simon said.
Outside, he read Rachel’s text again. He wanted to see her but seeing her was never straightforward, never just a drink or dinner for two people, it was full of emotional tension and frustration; unanswered, perhaps even unanswerable, questions hung in the air between them, messing things up, distracting them. Just now, he couldn’t afford it.
Sorry, up to eyes. Have to leave seeing you till case is wrapped up. Will be in touch. Miss you. S.
He hesitated only for a second before clicking on Send.
* * *
Message received. Rachel had started to empty a drawer in the kitchen as soon as she had sent the text to Simon, to give herself a distraction, but emptying a drawer did not stop her thinking, imagining, wondering. Panicking. The drawer was on the table, beside it a carrier bag into which she was sorting the rubbish, the broken paper clips and dry biros, old labels and bits of string and unidentifiable small plastic objects. She did it on autopilot, her mind on Simon. Kenneth was asleep in his chair beside the open sitting-room window. He slept a lot during the day and not always well at night and there was nothing she had so far been able to do to reverse the order of it.
She read it. Read it again. Zapped it.
Her hand shook.
She shouldn’t have sent the text, shouldn’t have asked him, should have waited for him to make the next move, should …
Should. Shouldn’t. Ought. Must.
The text was perfectly clear. The subtext of the text that was. Yes, he was up to his eyes in his case but that was not the reason. Whatever he felt, seeing her was too fraught with difficulty. She was married, he was reluctant to involve himself further, and who would blame him? He would be in touch when his case was closed. Except that there would be another case and then another. Of course he would not be in touch.
It was the right decision.
The decision she should have made herself if she had been principled enough. Strong enough.
She looked down at the small metal bottle opener in her hand. It was bent at the edge. Why had it been kept? Why had most of this junk been kept?
He was in her mind, his tall frame, his features, his steady look, his hands. Beautiful hands. She had noticed his hands before anything else, as he had reached to pour something or hand her something, at the banquet. His hands and his extraordinarily fair hair.
What had happened between them had been as final and as definite as anything in her life, and it had happened then, that evening, when they had sat next to one another and talked and looked with astonishment into each other’s eyes and quickly away, terrified.
He could not mean this. The words were not his words. He would not use such brisk, dismissive, polite words. Will be in touch.
She could not bear it and she could not wait. Will be in touch. When? In a week, or a month? How long? Cold cases took years to solve and so might this.
Will be in touch.
She always got up automatically when Ken called her. He was awake, he was too cold or too hot, or uncomfortable in some way or other.
She went to him, her mind elsewhere.
He asked for a drink but Rachel knew that it was her company he wanted. She felt guilty for tidying out a drawer, texting Simon. Thinking about Simon. She felt guilty about everything. It was her condition. And Ken’s condition was misery and there was no end to it. His limbs, his sight, his hearing, his mind, his breathing, his digestion, his bowels, his mood, name it and it was affected by the illness, and he bore it, for the most part, with great stoicism. He was not cheerful. No one could be in his state and feel cheerful. But he complained little, apologised when he did so, tried not to let her know about his lowest moods, tried not to call her to do this or bring that. He sat in his chair, or propped up in bed, listening to the radio, occasionally watching television, sometimes wanting music. He had been a reader and he still had books beside him but it took such a long, slow time to get through them now, he had almost given up. Rachel read out the reviews from the weekend papers, asked if he would like this biography or that history, and if he showed a flicker of interest, ordered them for him. The pile of books on the table in his room had doubled in the last few weeks. Sometimes she read aloud to him, which he liked, but when she had suggested audio books, he had refused. Pride. She did not always understand.
One or other of the carers was there at half past seven every evening to help her put Kenneth to bed. If she was going out, they then stayed with him, using the spare bed in the small den adjacent to his room.
Tonight, when the slow business of undressing, washing, toilet, pyjamas, guiding into bed, was done, Jason, that day’s chirpy helper, was going off. Jason was the youngest of the three carers, the most cheerful and upbeat, black, full of talk about his twin baby daughters, his mother, his brothers, his music sessions. Kenneth listened to him in a bemused way but Jason delighted him, with his jokes and his patois and his swift, expert, gentle handling.
When Jason had gone, Rachel and Kenneth watched twenty minutes of television, but it was poor fare and Kenneth was dozing. She switched off, kissed him, turned out the light and left the room.
The house became very quiet. Rachel made coffee. Ate the remains of some ham. Wandered into the sitting room and looked at the TV listing but found nothing she wanted to watch. Wandered out again. She could have a bath. Get into bed early. She had bought a pile of books earlier in the day, from Emma at the new bookshop in the Lanes. The latest Joanna Trollope. Wolf Hall. A replacement copy of Middlemarch, as she had lost her own. Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light. A book of poems by Elizabeth Jennings. The shop was tempting. Emma managed to find books no one else seemed to stock or even to know about, treasures from small publishers, reprinted classics. Rachel looked at them on the round table now. She spent evening after evening reading, often in a chair beside Kenneth’s bed while he slept, sometimes in the day when he liked her to be near him but was happy not to chat. She had a vision of herself in ten years’ time, still sitting, still reading beside him, when he would have deteriorated further but still be alive. She was not yet forty. Kenneth was seventy-seven.
The drawer was emptied, wiped out, relined, replaced, the few things that ought to be kept put back neatly inside it, the rest in the bin.
At twenty past ten she had picked out the book she wanted to read first, made a cup of camomile tea, was going to lock up.
A surge of desperation and longing stopped her on the way to the front door.
Kenneth was asleep. She checked. She went back almost on tiptoe. Checked again. His breathing was never good but it was regular and he was propped up on two pillows, as comfortable as he could ever be. She wiped a dribble of saliva from the corner of his mouth.
Then she went upstairs and changed out of her shirt and jeans, combed her hair, swapped her useful flat shoes for high heels.
Ten minutes later, she was turning the car out of the drive.
Kenneth Wyatt, barely sleeping, heard her. Glanced at his clock, the face always backlit when his room was dark.
Rachel went out in the evenings, to supper with this or that friend, occasionally to a film, even to London then back on the last train. She went to the odd official dinner or cocktail party, once or twice a year to a banquet, to which they were always both invited. She went to be his eyes and ears, to help him feel that he was somehow still part of public life, in the swim, merely excluded temporarily, as if he had broken a leg or was recovering from a bad bout of flu.
But not at this time. If she was going out, she usually left by seven, was home by midnight.
She did not take the car out at a quarter to eleven.
He lay back. He did not mind Rachel being out, was acutely conscious that she gave up such a lot of her life attending to him. He had sometimes wondered if she would meet another man. If she had already done so. But if she had, she had never given the slightest hint, there had been nothing to make him suspicious.
Suspicious. No. Early on in his illness he had made a promise, not to Rachel but to himself. He had told no one. He had promised that he would not criticise or object, not even comment, if it became clear that she had a lover. She would not leave him. He loved her. But she was a young, beautiful woman and he was almost forty years her senior with a long-term, un attractive, debilitating illness. Might she not with good reason look for another man?
* * *
The roads were quiet and the centre of Lafferton deserted. As she drove through the archway the cathedral clock struck eleven. The lamps in the close were ancient, carefully preserved over a hundred years or more, listed now and making the place look like a waiting film set. They cast soft light onto the cobbles and the grass. St Michael’s itself was floodlit until midnight.
She knew where the building was, although she had never been to it, had a strange sixth sense which guided her directly up to the far end. Everything was in darkness around it. The first three floors were dark too. But at the top, light shone from the long windows.
She did not park in the bays directly in front but some distance back, beside one of the sets of legal chambers. Judge Davitt the board read in front of the designated space. But she would be gone long before His Lordship came in the next day.
She walked slowly up the path. The great bulk of the cathedral, like a docked ocean liner, reared up to her left, the eighteenth-century houses, set back behind the wide grass verges, stood pale-fronted and decorous. And always ahead of her, beckoning her on, the rectangles of light from his windows.
When she was twenty she had been in love with a man, almost as much in love as she was now, and had come out after dark in just this way, to stand outside his house, looking at the gate, the path, the hedge, the porch, the windows. His car. Looking until her eyes blurred, looking until each thing transposed itself onto the next. She could see them even now, they were so imprinted on her mind, though if she tried to recall the features of the man himself, Tim Scully, she could not. She had stood outside the house night after night. Once, he had come home late and his headlights as he turned in might have picked up her figure if she had not ducked and crouched behind the gatepost of the house next door. She had watched him get out of his car, put his key in the lock. Go in. Heard the door shut. Seen lights come on. Hall. Front door. A side window. Upstairs. Watched the curtains blot the lights out one by one.
She felt as if she had no skin. No pride. No shame. He had sent a note which was as clear as it could be that he did not want to see her again. She should have left it at that. What man wanted a woman hanging about on his doorstep, unable to take no for an answer?
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