Simon. She was sure. Simon wanted it. It was not something casual or temporary, without strings, without commitment on either side, this thing that had happened between them. It was rare, she knew that, rare and precious and not to be spurned. How many people experienced it and knew it for what it was?
She walked slowly up to the house. The air was mild. She could stand here all night, just to be near to him. But that would not be near enough.
What would he say if she rang the bell? She saw that there was an intercom. He had to let her in at the main door. He would tell her he was working or about to go to bed. He had someone else with him. She could not have borne that.
He could be angry or irritated, and she would creep away, humiliated and chastened and angry with herself.
But then there were all the other possibilities.
She hesitated. Went up to the intercom. Hovered her finger above the bell. Took it away.
She rang, pressing the bell hard, urgently.
Simon knew who it was the second he heard the ring, though why or how he could not tell. But he had been thinking of her as he had sorted through some sketches, picturing her here in the room, sitting, reading or simply watching him, legs curled beneath her, glass on the table beside her. He had regretted the text the moment he had sent it, had thought of it over and over again. He should have sent another one immediately. But he had not. A sort of terrible paralysis had overcome him. He was uncertain quite what to say and so had said nothing, no words at all. An hour earlier, he had thought that he would send her not a text message but some flowers and a card. But how would she explain the arrival of flowers? Would she have to? He did not know the way things were arranged in her house, how much her husband saw, knew, what questions he asked.
And so the flowers had not been sent either.
There was a moment’s silence after he pressed the intercom. Of course it would not be Rachel and he knew better than to open the door automatically.
She came running up the stairs.
Ten minutes later, a bottle of wine open, poured, they lay half in, half out of each other’s arms on one of the sofas, saying little, intent on one another, disbelieving.
‘Happy?’ Rachel said.
‘I couldn’t bear it. If you’d meant what you said.’
‘I didn’t. You should be able to recall texts.’
‘Good God, faxes.’
Simon leaned over and kissed her. ‘I was right,’ he said. ‘At the banquet. I was right. There’s nothing else to say really.’
‘So was I. And no. But there is, isn’t there? That’s the trouble.’
‘Not now. Not tonight.’
His mobile rang.
‘Someone’s just come in on the hotline, sir … think you ought to hear it.’
‘Who is it?’
‘Woman from California. Regarding the ID of Skeleton 2.’
‘OK, thanks, put the recording through, but on the landline, it’s clearer.’
He switched off and turned to Rachel. ‘Sorry, sorry …’
‘No, absolutely don’t be. Of course you must.’
He topped up her wine glass. Leaned forward again and kissed her.
The phone rang.
‘Here you go,’ the duty telephonist said. ‘Not a brilliant line.’
‘Have you got contact details?’
‘Lafferton Police special incident line.’
‘Oh yes. Thank you. Hi there.’ The voice was English with an American overlay.
‘Can I help you?’
‘It’s more – can I help you. I have something you should know. I … we only just looked at the local newspaper online. We used to live near Lafferton but it’s some years ago now and we don’t check back too often.’
‘May I have your name please, madam?’
‘Sure, of course. It’s Ryman. Celia Ryman. Mrs Ryman.’
‘And where are you calling from please?’
‘My address, you mean?’
‘If you’d give me that, yes please.’
‘It’s 1446 Surfway Boulevard, Santa Monica, California, USA.’
‘And the phone number?’
She gave both her landline and cell numbers.
If every caller, with or without useful information, could be so efficient.
‘Thank you. Can you tell me what your information is regarding, Mrs Ryman, please?’
‘Sure, it’s about – as I just said, my husband was glancing through your online local news and he came across the photo … a facial reassemblage of a young woman whose body I think was found?’
‘My husband called me to look, and the second I saw it, I agreed with him. We’re not in any doubt really.’
‘Did you recognise the young woman?’
‘Well, we used to live in a village outside Lafferton, pretty village called Bransby. We were there for nine years – the Old Forge, in Bransby. Both our children were born in the Bevham Hospital – Bevham General – and when they were around three and four – they’re very close together – we had an au pair, from one of those places that changed their name – Balkan states. It used to be Yugoslavia, you know? Former Republic of Yugoslavia. So I’m not sure what it would be now, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t worry, we can sort that out. What was your au pair’s name?’
‘Agneta. Agneta Dokic. And this is her. I’m absolutely as sure as I can be. This is Agneta’s face.’
‘When did you last see her?’
‘She left us in a bit of a hurry actually – under a cloud, you’d say. I caught her stealing money, let her know that if she did it again I’d have to lose her – which would be a real pity, she was a great au pair, the kids loved her, she was very reliable, very trustworthy. Or I thought she was. Only then one or two other things went missing – I bought a bracelet for a bridal gift and it just vanished. Then a pair of my own earrings went missing. I found them in Agneta’s room, in her make-up bag, and that was that.’
‘You sacked her?’
‘I didn’t have time. She was out, it was her day off. I put the earrings on the kitchen table with a note, asking her about the bracelet and saying I would talk to her in the morning. But when I got up around seven thirty, it turned out she’d already gone. We never saw her again.’
‘What about her things? Didn’t you have to forward anything to her?’
‘No. She’d taken her handbag and a sort of canvas tote bag she used but left most of her other stuff. She never returned. I never saw her again. I thought she’d been too scared to come back and face us, maybe just run off. It was odd she hadn’t taken more if that was the case though – she didn’t have a lot of clothes, but there were some, and books.’
‘Did you ask any of your neighbours if they’d seen her?’
‘Yes. She used to work for someone else in the village because once my kids had started nursery she had free time, so I said it was fine by us if she wanted to give someone else a hand. And so she got a job with some other people in Bransby, not au pairing, just general household help. She was very good, she’d do cleaning, cooking, shopping – and she could drive. So she worked for them two or three hours here and there, and as soon as I found her things gone I rang, but they hadn’t seen her, they didn’t know anything. I wasn’t surprised. But interestingly, they said they had wondered if she had taken things from them – money had disappeared, and a silver ornament. But they were a bit – I guess you’d say chaotic, so I’m not sure how reliable that was.’
‘Can you give me their names and an address please?’
‘The address was Tadpole Cottage, and I’ve been racking my brains to remember their names but I just can’t. My husband can’t either. We didn’t really know them.’
‘And you never had any communication with Agneta again? Or with her family? Did you have an address?’
‘Yes, but it was a PO box and I didn’t want to send her things there, so when we left England to come out here I gave all her stuff to the charity shop. No, we heard from nobody. No one got in touch with us, but I wasn’t really surprised. Only of course now, now I find out what happened, which is truly awful, well, seems odd that no one did make contact. Her family must have had our address. You’d think so. She was a good girl, a nice girl, you know … this thieving was the only thing, and maybe it was … I don’t know. Maybe she’d problems at home, maybe she’d suffered some sort of trauma. I’m sure we could have talked it through, maybe sorted it all out. I feel very bad about that.’
‘I don’t think there’s any need. Thank you very much for contacting us, Mrs Ryman, it’s extremely helpful. I’ll just read back your details to check I have them down correctly and someone will be in touch.’
‘Only don’t forget, it’s a nine-hour time difference. It’s early afternoon here.’
‘Thanks for the reminder. Now, you are Mrs Celia Ryman, you live at …’
The duty operator came back on the line. ‘And that’s it, guv.’
‘Terrific. Absolutely terrific. Good work.’
‘Send it all across to my email please.’
As he turned away from the phone he looked over at Rachel, sitting with her feet up, head resting on the back of the sofa. This is love, he thought. I have never known it before but now I do.
It seemed the simplest thing in the world.
* * *
Kenneth Wyatt woke out of a nightmare that he was drowning and could not breathe. Awake, he still could not breathe. His lungs seemed to be full of water, his throat was tight. But there was oxygen. There was Rachel. Rachel always woke on the instant.
He pressed the bell which was attached to his headboard, never out of reach. No response. He pressed again. The house was absolutely still. Dark. Silent. Jason had not stayed – he remembered that now. But where was Rachel? Out in the car. He’d heard her drive away. Drive away, leaving him. Leaving him alone.
He kept his finger on the bell. Heard it ringing, ringing.
He could not breathe, his chest was tight now, as well as his throat, his heart racing. Then he managed to draw a breath, but it was painful, the air dragged up from his lungs like water over shingle.
His finger weakened on the bell, but he had the mobile phone, tied to the headboard, switched on. One number to press.
‘Stay,’ Simon said, holding her face in his hands. Her eyelids had the faintest blue tinge, like the eyelids of babies. He breathed her.
‘My phone,’ Rachel said. He let her go at once.
‘Ken. It’s too late for anyone else.’
She fumbled about in her bag.
Simon poured the last of the wine into his glass. Waited. Because he could not bear to listen or think of Rachel talking to her husband, he went over in his mind what he would say to Mrs Ryman in Santa Monica, California. If he had not been with Rachel now, he would have got onto it the moment the station operator had rung off. But he would not feel guilty. Could not. It was a cold case. The girl had been dead and anonymous for sixteen years already. She could wait another day.
‘I have to go, Simon, I’m sorry … I knew something would happen if I left him on his own, I should never have done that, it’s the most appalling thing … I’m so sorry …’
‘Rachel … listen …’
‘No, please, leave me, don’t touch me, don’t stop me.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it but you have to calm down for a couple of minutes or you won’t be safe.’
‘He could be dead in a couple of minutes. Please let me go.’
‘Let’s ring for an ambulance.’
But she was out of the door and flying down the stairs. He wanted to follow her, if only to check that she arrived home safely, but he had had more to drink than she had, he dared not get into the car.
‘Rachel …’ He raced down the stairs.
She was fumbling with her keys, dropping them on the grass, letting out a shout of frustration. He jumped forward and retrieved them. ‘Listen – ring me. Tell me how he is. Ring me.’
She got in, looking quickly at him, her face full of anxiety, spinning the wheel as she reversed out of the space.
He saw the dust kick up behind the car as she went fast out of the close.
The oxygen cylinder was on the other side of the room. He could not have reached it, could not have used it by himself. Someone had to help him. Someone had to help him with everything. He was trapped. It came with the illness. But he minded that Rachel was trapped by it too, so he could never blame her if she went out. He did not blame her tonight.
She would come. He did not know where she had been, how far away she was, but she would come, she had said so, she was on her way the second she heard his voice.
Even that had calmed him, her voice, so that by the time he heard the car, her key, her running steps, his breathing was easier. She came flying through the door of his room, her violet eyes full of panic.
‘I’m so sorry, darling, I’m so sorry. You’re fine now. I’m here, it’s OK.’ As she talked to him she was moving the oxygen to the side of the bed, hooking up the tubes.
She bent to kiss him. Rested her lips on his forehead. He smelled her. Something fresh. Sweet. Her forehead was damp. He moved his hand to touch her.
‘I’m so sorry.’
The mask was over his face, and he was breathing easily again. Rachel sat on the bed and took his hand.
‘I am so, so sorry.’
He moved his head. No, he was saying. No. He pulled the mask down to speak but she replaced it gently.
‘No. I’m going to call the doctor.’ Though she knew that all she would get would be advice over the phone at best, that if she was seriously concerned she should ring for an ambulance. But she was not. It had happened before. He woke and found himself alone, perhaps trying to cough, could not, panicked, his breathing tightened. Sitting with him, calming him, the oxygen, was all he needed. Then sleep. He always slept, from relief.