‘She could not have borne this.’


‘But the not knowing …’


Lowther turned to face him. ‘Yes. It was terrible. Unthinkable. After several years one lives with it but hope never quite fades and … well. One lives with it. She lived with it. She hoped. I always knew deep down that something like this would happen. I don’t think my own hope was alive after – what? – a year, perhaps less. But Eve hoped. This would have killed her.’


Serrailler drank his coffee. It was best to let Lowther talk.


‘Is there any chance you’ll find out more, do you suppose, or is that hopeless too?’


‘Absolutely not. The case has been formally reopened and I am the senior investigating officer. I’ll get a small team together and we’ll start from the beginning – but now we have rather more to help us.’


‘Harriet’s skeleton. Yes. We can hardly call it a body. I presume she won’t be able to rest in peace for some time?’


‘I hope it won’t be too long. You need that. I’ll press the pathologist to find out everything he can and see if we can have her handed over for a funeral – and burial.’


‘Thank you, Simon.’ He shook his head vigorously as if to shake off water after a shower.


‘I must get back,’ Simon said. ‘And get on. I’m sure it’s what you want me to do. We can provide a family liaison officer, someone from uniform – they’d come and stay here, listen to you, support you in whatever way …’ He trailed off.


‘I think not. Thank you.’


‘I had to ask.’


‘But perhaps – you yourself would keep me informed if there is any progress?’


‘Of course. It goes without saying.’


‘I have a meeting of the hospice trust this afternoon …’


‘You’d like me to cancel it for you? I’ll ring my sister.’


‘No, no, naturally I will go. Life cannot stop. I will not let this – this person – this – I will not let them do any more.’ Lowther clenched his fists briefly. But his eyes showed already that he had accepted the truth. Shock was there, and grief, and there would be more of the same to leave their mark. ‘I wonder though – will they know? When will people find out?’


‘I have a press conference later today. We’ve kept the media away from it until now, but I must tell them, otherwise there will just be wild rumour and speculation.’


‘Do you think reporters will come here?’


‘Almost certainly. But you don’t have to see them and you have absolutely no obligation to comment. If you do want to say anything you can issue a statement through our press office. Or if you feel you want to be interviewed, let them guide you on that too … some papers would be fine, others not so fine.’


‘I would prefer not.’


‘I’ll tell the press office – and if anyone comes here, just turn them away.’


‘Thank you. Thank you for coming, Simon.’ He hesitated. How little it takes, Serrailler thought, to etch fresh lines onto a man’s face, to add a hundred years. But it was not ‘little’, this news that he had had to bring Lowther. ‘I think,’ he said now, ‘that before long this will prove to be a relief. Sixteen years is a long time to wait and not to know. Anything is better than that. At least, I hope it is.’


Simon put a hand on Lowther’s arm. Perhaps it was the last straw. He could not tell. But as he walked to his car he saw the man turn away, unable to hold back his tears.


Five


‘JUST LIFT UP your right arm, will you?’


Jocelyn did so.


‘And the left. Fine. Now, stretch both arms out and rest them on my desk, hands spread.’ Cat looked carefully. Turned Jocelyn’s hands over one by one, and back. Touched her forefinger to the knuckles. The joints were not swollen or reddened.


‘Where is it most painful? Hands? Knees?’


‘No, no, my knees are fine.’


‘Have you had any mobility problems at all? Going upstairs?’


‘I can do that.’


‘Walking – stretching and bending?’


Jocelyn hesitated. Cat Deerbon was being so thorough, so careful, but she didn’t know how much was relevant, whether to bother about …


She said, ‘I – this is going to sound weird.’


‘No, go on.’


‘I sometimes feel as if I’m walking a bit sideways … or even shuffling. I sometimes feel – it’s as if I’m drunk. But I almost never drink. I had a gin the other night, at a friend’s house. I can’t remember the time before that. Glass of wine at Sunday lunch? Really.’


Cat smiled. ‘Don’t worry. Can you just walk over to the door and back again? Slowly.’


Jocelyn got up. Walked there. Walked back.


‘Again. Do you mind?’


She did not.


‘Tell me what happened with the radio knob. Here – try this.’ Cat held out a small tablet bottle. ‘No childproof top, you just twist it.’


Jocelyn took it. She knew what she wanted to do, was trying to do, but her hand wouldn’t cooperate.


Cat watched. ‘Does it hurt when you try to do that?’


‘No. My hand just doesn’t work.’


Cat asked about her general health.


‘I get tired. But I’m seventy-three. I’m bound to get tired, aren’t I? I remember my mother being tired when she had arthritis.’


Cat stopped herself from looking at her computer screen. It was too easy a way out. ‘Look at your patient.’ She had had it dinned into her by a consultant on her first ward rounds. ‘Look at your patient, listen to your patient. They’ll tell you what you need to know.’


She looked at her patient. ‘You don’t have arthritis,’ she said. ‘You’re not in pain; your joints aren’t swollen or tender to touch.’


‘Oh. All right,’ Jocelyn said. ‘Both my mother and my aunt had arthritis.’


Cat waited, said nothing.


‘I think I can work it out for myself … I have multiple sclerosis, don’t I?’


‘No,’ Cat said, ‘I don’t believe you do.’


Jocelyn was visibly taken aback.


‘You haven’t been wandering round the Internet, have you? I know it’s tempting, and there’s plenty of helpful information there, but self-diagnosis via Google is a dangerous occupation.’


‘No. Not really.’


‘Not really.’


Jocelyn laughed. ‘So, it isn’t anything and I’m sorry I’ve bothered you, Dr Deerbon. I should have more sense at my age.’


‘Do you think of yourself as old? You’re only seventy-three. That isn’t old these days.’


‘No, but my daughter reminds me about it a lot. Perhaps that’s it.’


‘Well, tell her not to.’


‘You don’t know Penny.’


‘OK. You don’t have arthritis, and I’m pretty sure you don’t have MS, but you do have something. You did right to see me.’


‘So what is it?’


Cat hesitated. ‘I’m not absolutely sure. I’d like you to go for an MRI scan – just to eliminate a few things really. And I’ll get you an appointment with a neurologist.’


‘Oh good heavens, is that really necessary? It isn’t troubling me much, you know. I really don’t think I should take up a specialist’s time.’


‘We need to get to the bottom of this, but don’t worry, an MRI is painless and I’ll send you to someone new at Bevham General who comes highly recommended. Let’s sort you out. You’ll get the usual appointment through the post but it might be a while, I’m afraid.’


‘How long?’


‘Hard to say. I can try and push it through – unless you’ve got private insurance?’


‘Yes,’ Jocelyn Forbes said, ‘I do. I’ve paid a fortune into it over the years – so did my husband – and never had much need to call on it. Is now the time?’


‘Now,’ Cat said, ‘is indeed the time.’ She turned to her computer screen with some relief.


Private health insurance would ensure an appointment within a few days. And after that? If she was right about her diagnosis, time would make absolutely no difference. Sometimes, Cat wondered if the old ways had not been the best, when a GP suspected that a patient had an untreatable, incurable illness and for those reasons delayed telling them so for as long as possible. ‘You cannot and must not lie to them,’ her father had always said. But was withholding the truth for a while really lying?


When Jocelyn Forbes had gone, Cat made a note on her pad and rang for the next patient, but Kathy came through on the intercom. ‘That’s it – one cancellation, two no-shows. Can you sign a batch of forms?’


‘Give me a minute.’


She went back to her screen, did a search. Read. Read more. Then spun her chair round and looked at the patch of curdled grey sky through the top window. Once, she could have gone through to Chris, asked his opinion, compared notes. She had a flash image of him, frowning, listening to her, tapping his pencil on the desk. His coarse brown hair standing on end where he had run his hand through it over and over during the morning’s surgery. Sam had the same hair, made the same gesture. She clenched her hands tightly.


Go and talk to Russell then, see what he thinks. No. She had been a GP for fifteen years longer than Russell Jones, so how would it look if she confessed to doubt over a diagnosis?


Instead, she picked up the phone.


‘Dad?’


‘Good morning, Catherine. Why aren’t you attending to patients?’


‘Finished. I’ve got something I’d like to run past you if I may. Can I come over?’


‘Now?’


‘If it’s convenient.’


‘It is.’


He replaced the receiver. Judith might have worked miracles in softening Richard Serrailler’s abrasiveness but she had had no success with his telephone manner.


Jocelyn had planned to walk into Lafferton and browse around the new Lanes bookshop, have coffee, pick up something for supper from the deli. Instead, she asked the surgery receptionist to call her a taxi. She felt drained, as if her legs had been filled with sand, and there seemed no time, now, for a relaxed morning in town, no time for anything but to get home and confirm it. Dr Deerbon had been as helpful, concerned, friendly as she always was, and what she had said was right. Quite right. But she did not understand. Not fully. How could she? Waiting to find out the official way would be agonising. Jocelyn did not intend to wait. She had guessed in any case, of course she had. Guessed. Knew. She had only to remember her father, who had died of it, at forty-six.


The taxi drove slowly and the roads were still in a mess, this or that one blocked off, diversions here, no through roads there, caution, repairs, potholes. She closed her eyes. Her thoughts swirled around but they would clear later. She was quite calm; she felt purposeful. She had plenty of self-control and soon she would be in charge again, decisive. Cool.


She wondered how Penny was faring in court, Penny, with her brilliant insight, clever and rational line of argument, persuasive manner. Penny was cool. Coolness itself. She was prosecuting in a child abuse case, something so distressing Jocelyn did not want to know any details. How her daughter managed to remain so detached, so unemotional about such things was a mystery. Cool.


Does she get it from me? Some of it, yes. But I can be detached about myself only, not about the pain and misery of others. ‘I could never do your job,’ she had said.


‘No, Mother. You could not.’


Home. She looked at the outside of the house as she turned away from the taxi. White-painted pebble-dash. Detached. Bow windows downstairs and up. Wooden gate. Path to the front door. Porch. Side path to the kitchen door and on to the garden. Privet hedge, clipped low so that she could see into the street. Wide avenue. Neighbours in similar houses on either side. Pleasant neighbours, but she did not know them as she had known their predecessors. The world had changed. Her world was different.


How much did she love this house? This avenue? Those neighbours? This place? This world? The different world?


Love?


Not at all, she thought, getting out her front-door key. Not at all.


She tried several times to turn the key in the lock. Tried again. In the end, the pleasant neighbour she barely knew came to her rescue. ‘These locks,’ she said, pushing open Jocelyn’s front door. But looked over her shoulder as she went away.


Six


THERE WAS A news-stand.


‘LANDSLIDE GRAVE SKELETON IS MISSING HARRIET.’


Cat looked at it, registered. Oh God.


She pulled up. But Simon’s phone was on voicemail. She didn’t leave a message.


‘Lowther,’ her father said, as she went into the kitchen at Hallam House. ‘Poor devil. Is it better to know?’


He stood for a second, his hand on the coffee percolator, looking out of the window. Judith had gone to see her son and a new grandchild, in Ludlow, for a couple of days.


‘It’s a sort of closure, I suppose.’


‘Not unless they find out who and how and when.’


‘And why. No. Is Simon involved?’


‘I imagine so. We’ve got a hospice trustees meeting this afternoon – important one too, financial crisis report. No one’s rung to cancel but I can’t believe John Lowther will be there.’


‘Why not? He’s not a man to duck. Staying away won’t help matters.’


Cat had always wondered if his absolute reasonableness was just that, or if he was as cold and hard as he seemed. He had been a distant father, yet he had loved them, she had never doubted it. He had expected a lot – demanded even – been ambitious for all of them, reserved his deepest feelings for the child who had been unable to fulfil a single one of his hopes. Listening to him now, rational as always, she still wondered. And of course he was right. Staying away from a meeting would not help. But attending it might hurt.


He poured her coffee and led the way into his study. Kitchens, in his view, were for cooking.


His computer was open on a page of the online medical journal he still edited, papers beside it, and those on the table neatly ordered, magazines stacked, books carefully arranged. Simon, she thought. It is the only thing Dad and Simon have in common – this tidiness and order. Or was it? No. They were more alike than either would care to admit.


‘You wanted to ask me something?’

***

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