Since she had nursed her mother through multiple sclerosis, her aunt through two years of paralysis after a stroke and her only sister Hazel through breast cancer, Shirley had found that looking after the incurably ill was a part of her life she could not conceive of being without. She was consoled by the knowledge that she was wanted and needed and that she was good at what she did, and brought something to it other than a disinterested professionalism. She brought commitment, and cheerfulness, all the benefits of lack of personal ambition, and, in the case of Martha Serrailler, love. She had loved the girl since she had first arrived here, loved her because to Shirley there was no more reason not to love her than there would be not to love a newborn baby. Martha was a newborn baby. She had no more knowledge, no more ability or personality than one; she could do no harm, could never lie or steal or cheat, never hurt or insult; she was perfectly innocent, like a white sheet of paper. Everything she did was innocent, every noise she made, every odd random gesture of her body. Her bodily functions were as innocent as a baby’s too. Shirley could never understand why anyone should find them any more troublesome or unpleasant to deal with.
She went up the stairs. There was a small kitchen at the end of Martha’s corridor. Shirley would get her breakfast ready, the baby cereal and the spouted drinking cup of weak lukewarm tea, the mashed banana, the plastic spoon, the bib.
After eating, Martha would be taken out of her night clothes, washed, dried, cleaned, changed; Shirley would brush her fair hair and tie it back, showing Martha the little box of ribbons and clips and rings, letting her reach out and ‘choose’ one. Then she would wheel her out of her room, down the corridor and along to the lift. It was a bright morning. Martha would sit in the conservatory, where the sun would warm her pale face and hands and brighten her blonde hair and the birds would come to the window feeder, which seemed to give her pleasure.
To Shirley, Martha’s being like a baby extended to her lack of a sense of time which meant that she did not grow bored and restless and dissatisfied. She simply switched off and dropped into some twilight place inside herself, or she went to sleep. Only occasionally did she grunt and cry out, and in this, too, she was like a baby, if a meal was late or she was filling the nappy she wore. Once, she had screamed and flailed about, and it had taken Shirley and Rosa half an hour to find that her sandal had been buckled too tightly, pinching a fold of her skin into it.
Rosa was in the kitchenette now, waiting for the kettle to boil.
‘Good morning, darlin’, how’s things?’
Rosa sighed. Rosa so often sighed as a prelude to any response or remark that Shirley took no notice, though she had once said that Rosa was like the boy who cried wolf and when she had something to sigh about no one would ask her what was wrong.
‘Can’t wake up this morning and Arthur’s wet his bed again.’
‘So what’s new?’ Shirley bent to the fridge to get out the fresh milk.
‘They heard anything about that little boy yet?’
‘Not when I listened at half past five they hadn’t.’
‘If they catch him …’
‘Or her …’
‘No woman would take a little boy from his parents like that, no way.’
‘That was years ago.’
‘Human nature don’t change.’
‘I’d like them hung at a public hanging like they had in history. I’d pay to go, I would.’
Shirley spooned Ready Brek into a plastic non-tip bowl.
‘They said her brother was in charge.’
‘Yeah, well, he’s the top man at Lafferton, he would be.’
‘Do you think he’s handsome?’
‘Mr Serrailler? Never thought about it.’
‘Course you have.’
‘All right then, I have … yeah, only his hair’s too fair for a man. Looks lovely on Martha though.’
‘If she was normal, it’d be really attractive.’
‘Rosa, you haven’t got to say that sort of thing, not in here and not anywhere.’
‘Move over, let me get at the fridge. They didn’t mean this kitchen for two.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, I do feel sorry for her, poor girl.’
‘You needn’t. I think she’s happy.’
‘How can you know that? Don’t be daft.’
‘I just know. Like a baby’s happy. Well, she doesn’t know any different … like a baby. If she’d been … like us …’
‘If she’d had an accident or what, like Arthur, then she might remember … but what you don’t have …’
‘… you don’t miss. Really, what would have been kindest would have been for her to have died of that last go of pneumonia.’
‘That’s a terrible thing to say.’
‘No, it isn’t, it’s the truth and you know it. She’d have just drifted off and never known and that would have been that. She can’t get better, she’ll grow old like this.’
‘So where’s the point? You believe in God and heaven and that, so wouldn’t you say that’d be better for her? Certainly be better for her poor family anyway.’
‘They’re OK … they can afford for her to be looked after properly here. They come and see her … Dr Serrailler was here again last night wasn’t he, I saw in the book, and Simon, until all this little boy business … and Dr Deerbon’ll come only she’s having a baby any minute, maybe had it … they don’t ignore her, they haven’t just dumped her.’
‘That’s true. Like Arthur’s wife.’
‘And son and daughter.’
‘Right. If I had my way –’
‘You’d have a public hanging. OK, let’s go. Bloodthirsty little thing you are, Rosa Murphy.’
‘Morning, my darling. How’s my Little Miss Sunshine this morning?’
Shirley often wondered if Martha moved at all in the night. Every morning, she was lying on her right side, looking towards the door, her eyes open. She lay like it now and made her little murmur, of recognition and, Shirley always thought, pleasure. Shirley bent over and kissed her forehead and pushed her hair back from where it had fallen over her face.
Martha smelled of warmth and dirty nappy.
Shirley looked down into her eyes. The eyes looked back, but what was there, she wondered, thinking of what Rosa had said, what was really behind them? It worried her that any day anything could happen to Martha, and she would have no say in it at all. They could take her from here, have her at home, send her somewhere else, give her to strangers, and she would lie as she lay now, she would eat and drink messily, fill her nappies, make her noises, flail her arms. Look up into the face of anyone, with that unfathomable blue-eyed stare.
‘Poor Little Miss Sunshine,’ Shirley said softly. Maybe Rosa was right. If she’d simply gone to sleep quietly in the hospital, overcome by the infection, if her lungs had given out, wouldn’t that have been the best for her? It would happen one day. She’d been at death’s door two or three times. What was the point of her getting better?
She stood upright quickly, shocked at herself, shaken by her own thoughts.
‘Lord Jesus Saviour, forgive me my sin and bless this girl. Lord Jesus Saviour, touch me with your love.’
Martha lifted her arm and twisted her hand about, and her eyes followed the movement and she smiled.
‘All right then, my darling, you’re off to see the birds.’
Shirley lifted the brake on Martha’s chair and went out of the room and down the corridor, singing ‘Jesus Saves’.
‘You want to make yourself useful you could wash up.’
‘You only have to ask.’
Michelle swept crumbs and bits of sugar flakes from the kitchen table into her hand and threw them in the direction of the bin. Andy went to the sink. The dishes were piled up from the previous night’s fish and chip and ketchup supper.
‘I’m buyin’ you a present next time I go out, new washing-up brush. Look at this.’ The bristles were completely flattened and there were tea leaves stuck down between them. He turned on the taps.
‘Guess who I saw just now anyway.’
‘Go on then.’
‘That Nathan Coates.’
‘Wasn’t you in his class?’
‘Oh yeah, Dean. That Nathan’s up himself. I waved at him, but oh no.’
‘He’s a copper.’
‘Didn’t look like one to me.’
‘Gawd. What’s he doing up here then?’
‘Probably spends half his time this way.’
‘He went down Maud Morrison. What do you reckon?’
‘Bloody hell, how should I know … could be a dozen things, couldn’t it … you know more about what goes on round here than me. I been away, remember, ha ha.’
‘Yeah, well, it isn’t like that up this end.’
‘Oh no, there’s people buy their own houses this end, it’s got a lot more respectable.’
‘I shall find out, mind.’
‘I bet you bloody will.’
‘Don’t use up half a bottle of that, it costs.’
‘Needs half a bottle to get this fat off, you want to wash them up straight away.’
‘You watch yourself, you’re only here …’
‘OK, OK … I’ve got to see the probation officer today, maybe she’ll have something … flat or summat.’
‘Probation won’t get you a flat.’
‘Or a job. You gotta do that for yourself.’
‘I might have already.’
‘Got a job.’
‘What, street cleaner?’
Michelle lit a cigarette, put on her leather jacket and went out without waiting for a reply.
It took her all of ten minutes to find out why the CID were up this end of the Dulcie and two minutes more to join the other women at the end of the close. There were half a dozen of them but others were on their way, some pushing buggies and pulling toddlers, others returning from taking older children to school.
‘They kept it dark,’ Michelle said to the woman beside her.
‘Don’t they always? Try and get past us!’
A few laughed. Then, after the laughter, came the first shout.
It was taken up. ‘Paed out. Paed out. Paedophile, paedophile, out, out, OUT.’
After a moment a curtain in the upstairs window shifted slightly.
‘Get out here, Brent Parker, we know who you are.’
‘Yeah, and what.’
‘Paed out, paed out, paedophile, paedophile, out, out, OUT.’
Placards came, home-made from sheets of old wallpaper tacked to board. ‘No Paedophiles.’ ‘Paedophiles OUT OUT OUT.’ ‘Protect our children.’
The curtain did not move again.
Andy Gunton went to the upstairs front-room window, from where he could just see the gathering crowd in the close. He did not need to open the window to hear them.
Nonces. They’d been hated inside, never safe, never off their guard, always looked out for by the screws. Beat up a nonce, trip him in the shower so he cracked his head open, knee him in the balls during a game, it was the quickest way to becoming a hero. There hadn’t been many of them but you could tell a mile off, even if they didn’t wear NONCE across their foreheads. They had a smell about them, they were shifty-eyed, there was just something. You never cured them, a screw had said. Treatment programmes, shrinks, rehab … might work on junkies, often did, surprisingly often really. But on nonces, never. Once a nonce, always a nonce … they were clever though, they knew the game and all the tricks, they could pull the wool. But they didn’t change.
He didn’t fancy the chances of one against Michelle multiplied by fifty … even against Michelle on her own come to that. What were they doing, putting him on a family housing estate anyway? Nonces wanted segregating off, putting in blocks of flats for singles, so the police knew where they were and what they were up to.
It was his only prejudice. He prided himself on not caring about blacks and browns and yellows. Live and let live. Even gays. But not nonces. No way.
In the end, uniform had to go round to the back of Brent Parker’s house and break in, while back-up tried to clear the crowd outside. By the time Nathan Coates arrived, Parker was in the kitchen, shaking, standing beside his snake tank.
‘I want protecting.’
‘We’ll get rid of them. I was coming up to have another word with you anyway.’
‘You won’t leave alone, will you? I served my time, I done with all that, but you’ll never leave alone. I told you last night, we don’t need to start again. And I ain’t stopping here without protection. You drive off, what do you think they’ll do? You think I’ll be safe, do you?’
‘You could try letting one of your reptiles out for a walk. I doubt they’d come close after that.’
‘Reptiles need heat.’
‘Plenty of it out there. OK, they’ll be gone in a half a minute. Forget about them. Sit down.’
‘I’m all right standing.’
‘Suit yourself. You said last night you didn’t know anything about the missing boy.’
‘You weren’t involved, weren’t even interested.’
‘I’m not … no more than most people.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Stands to reason.’
‘Kid goes missing, it’s a terrible thing. You don’t want that happening. Kids aren’t safe.’
‘No.’ Nathan looked at the man. He was unshaven, he smelled, his hair was filthy, and he had his hands on the snake tank as if it were a protective talisman. He had shifty eyes. Only that was the sort of thing you were told not to think … eyes were eyes, call them anything else other than blue or brown, you got told it was inadmissible. But Nathan knew shifty eyes when he saw them – they shifted.