‘I am her father. I have loved her since the day she was born. I don’t cease to love her because I have always regretted that day. What man could? You?’
‘All of that,’ Simon said, ‘but maybe without the regret.’
‘Easy for you.’
‘If you were ever to be a parent, which I presume you will not, you would know. Are you walking back to your car?’
They went together down the quiet corridors. What his father meant, what was behind his extraordinary remark, how he judged him were questions Simon could not address now. He whited out all thought and merely walked, out of the hospital and into the car park. At his father’s car he held open the door, waited until he was seated with his belt buckled, said goodnight, and closed the door.
Two minutes later he was on the road to Lafferton, the tail lights of his father’s BMW already almost out of sight ahead.
He wanted to go back to the farmhouse; he needed to talk to Cat, but she would have gone to bed long ago, trying to rest as best she could in these last days of her pregnancy. He felt separated from her – from all of them, a feeling which would pass once her child was born, and which in any case was largely illusory and entirely on his side. It had happened before – when Cat had married Chris, and as she had borne Sam and Hannah.
He turned into the Cathedral Close. The wide avenue with the grass spaces on either side and the cathedral rising up above his head, the elegant buildings, pale in the lamplight which was a softer, more silver colour than those of the raw lights around the hospital and out along the main road, the long shadows cast by the trees … he had often thought that it looked artificial at night, a film set of a place, too empty, too tidy, too carefully arranged.
But it went with his mood. Tomorrow he would not hang about here. He knew when solitude became dangerous for him. He needed to get stuck into work. If it was a day or two before the official end of his leave, that was fine by him.
Andy Gunton stepped off the kerb and the car came out of nowhere, skimming his body. He lost his balance and fell into the gutter. A woman started screaming.
Traffic, Andy thought as he picked himself up, bloody cars and buses charging at you from everywhere.
The woman went on screaming and three people had come out of shops.
‘I’m a first-aider, sit down.’ She looked young enough to be one of Michelle’s kids.
‘I’m OK,’ Andy said. ‘Just lost me balance.’
‘You could be in shock.’
‘Yeah, well, I’m not.’ He pointed to the woman who was staring at him and still screaming. ‘You want to look at her. I reckon she is.’
He brushed at his jacket as he walked quickly off and round the corner. All the same, he was shaken. He remembered this as a quiet bit of Lafferton. How could traffic have bred like that?
There was a pub. He went in.
There were pubs enough in Lafferton and he had known a lot of them but maybe not this one. It didn’t smell of beer and tobacco, it smelled of coffee. There was a mirror running along behind the bar and a barman who looked more like a waiter in a black jacket was slamming metal coffee holders into an espresso machine.
Andy Gunton ordered a pint of bitter.
‘We only have bottled.’ The barman rattled off a list of foreign names. Andy grabbed one as it passed.
He got a bottle. No glass. He looked round. He lifted the bottle to his mouth.
No one paid any attention to him at the bar. He went to an empty table. It was pleasant. The sun shone in on the back of his neck.
He realised that his hands were shaking, that he was breathing too fast and his ears rang as if he had just surfaced after a dive. This place panicked him, just as the traffic had. Lafferton which he had thought at first glance looked the same, was not; little things were tripping him up, it was like living in a looking-glass world, everything slightly wrong.
Jeez. What was four years? A bloody lifetime, half his youth, but then again nothing, a blink; he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing, he might have landed from Mars.
The probation officer had had good legs in a very short skirt. Long slinky hair tied back. A lot of eye make-up. She talked in riddles, but he was used to that. They learned another language when they joined up, social workers, probation, briefs, whatever. Only the screws talked English.
‘Your rehabilitation programme will really get under way once you start a job, Andy. Have you anything you are especially interested in doing?’
Fighter pilot. Brain surgeon. Formula One driver.
‘Gardening,’ he had said. ‘I did eighteen months’ horticulture.’
‘There’s a new garden centre operating at the Kingswood.’
‘I suppose most people do their own gardens, don’t they? I wouldn’t think there was much call for your skills in Lafferton.’
‘It’s market gardening. It’s professional.’ He had a flash picture of the raised beds of young broad beans and early peas, the beautifully arranged sandy rows of tiny carrots. He’d learned about what hotels and restaurants wanted now; earlies, picked young, not stuff that was stringy and leathery and huge in old age. Cabbages the size of a baby’s fist not of a bride’s bouquet.
She was sifting through the papers in the file on her desk. Was she older than him? Not much.
‘You’re living with your sister. How are you finding that, Andy?’
‘How’s she finding it more like.’
‘Do you have good relations with her? The family?’
‘Well, that seems quite positive.’
‘It’s only till I get somewhere. A place. They’ve got three kids.’
‘You can put your name down for a council flat.’
‘How long’d that be?’
‘There aren’t many for single people, I’m afraid.’
‘So where are we supposed to live then? Where d’you live?’
‘As I say, you’re lucky to have your family, your sister is obviously very supportive, that’s good. You won’t feel excluded.’
‘Your parents …’ she began to sift the papers again.
‘They’re dead. Dad when I was twelve of lung cancer, Mum after I’d been six months at Stackton and don’t say you’re sorry because you’re not, why would you be?’ He felt an anger which was like foam in his mouth waiting to froth out all over this yellow-curtained office, all over Miss Long Legs.
‘Try to be positive, Andy.’
Garden centre, she’d said. He couldn’t picture what it would be like and when she’d said Kingswood he couldn’t place it. But it could be a start. For two years he’d been waiting for that – he didn’t like the words ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ but he thought of them. He wasn’t going back where he’d come from and he wasn’t going down the old road that had taken him there. He’d never got much out of it in the first place, though he’d pretended to, and there’d been a few highs, a bit of speed, an escape though he wasn’t sure now what from. Boredom he supposed. And he’d enjoyed being one of them. Spindo. Mart. Lee Carter. Lee Johnson. Flapper. They’d included him, and that had mattered. He’d liked the money as well. Everything had gone fine. They’d done small jobs, then bigger.
He hadn’t been prepared for it all to go so wrong so quickly. The man had come after him like a mad thing, running down the street; the rest of them had been in the van, its engine running, they’d yelled at him. The man had nothing to do with anything, Andy should have left him, should have run and got into the van. He still saw it, the street, the van ahead, the man desperate and sweating, pounding along to catch him, still felt the panic. He panicked too easily. He should have kept a cool head; even if he’d been caught and the man had identified him, he would only have gone down for nine months or a year. So what had he done instead of making for the van? He’d turned on the man, waited until he was close and then gone for him in the stomach, head down like a bull and the man had crashed backwards on to the concrete, splitting his head open.
Now he got another bottle of the expensive foreign beer, went back to the table and forced himself not to think about it. His back ached. Sleeping on a blow-up bed in a corner of Matt’s room wasn’t comfortable and Matt didn’t like him being there. Andy couldn’t blame him. None of them wanted him, and he knew it, but until he had a job he couldn’t get a place of his own, not even a single room in a lodging house; his allowance wouldn’t run to that and so long as he did have family who would put him up he knew he wouldn’t get anyone’s attention in the social services. He wasn’t on the streets, that was all they saw.
I ought to be happy, he thought suddenly, tipping a stream of beer down his throat. I am in a pub, I can stay or go, I can drink what I like, I can get out and walk or buy a paper. I haven’t been able to do any of this or the rest for five years … I ought to be happy.
Three women came into the bar and dumped shopping bags at the table next to him. They were smart. One of them gave him a sideways look. Nothing else.
You’ve got no idea, Andy thought. Who I am. Where I’ve been. What I’ve done. How would you?
The last mouthful he took from the bottle was only foam.
He went out into the street.
On the other side parked on a double line was a silver BMW convertible. Sitting in it was a big man. As Andy came out of the pub the car slewed away from the kerb and across the road, swinging neatly in beside him as he walked.
‘Get in,’ Lee Carter said.
Andy kept on walking.
The car slid along, keeping pace with him. Funny, he thought, having the top down in March. There was sun but it wasn’t warm.
‘What’s your problem?’ The sound from the engine was so soft Lee hardly needed to raise his voice.
Andy had turned out of the shopping street, down a side road. He didn’t know where he was walking.
‘Save your legs. It’s very nice. Leather seats.’
Just walk. Ignore him. Don’t look at him. He’s nothing to you now. Just walk.
It happened so fast he was lost. The car stopped and Lee Carter was out of it and round the front and pinning Andy against the wall.
‘I said get in. I meant get in.’
‘I’m getting in nothing.’
‘I want to buy you a drink.’
‘I just had a drink. Two drinks of poncey bottled beer. They even don’t give you a glass in those places, did you know that?’
Lee Carter released him as quickly as he had taken hold. He was bellowing with laughter.
Andy stared, taking him in. He was fatter. Sort of sleek fatter. His hair was flashily cut. His shirt and jacket were nice. He looked well. Well off.
‘I’ll take you to my place, get you a proper drink.’
‘Why did I have to crash into you?’
‘You didn’t. I been waiting for you. I knew you was at Michelle’s.’
‘Who told you? She wouldn’t.’
‘Course she wouldn’t. I can do better than that. Now, are you getting in?’
‘Not before I know why.’
‘Something to ask you.’
‘Right, well, I ain’t interested.’
Lee walked back towards the car, but stopped before he opened the door, took out a packet of small cheroots and offered it.
‘Always were a goody-two-shoes, you.’
‘If I had been I wouldn’t have been where I have.’
Lee lit the cigar and watched the smoke drift away from him as he blew it out. ‘Look, it ain’t a problem, I just want to catch up.’
‘Oh right, old times and that.’
‘No. Old times are done. New times.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I could put something in your way.’
‘Legit. I’m done with all that stuff. Doesn’t it look like it?’
Andy looked over the leather jacket, well-cut trousers. Cigar. Car. ‘Not really,’ he said.
‘Come up to my new place. Meet the wife.’
‘What sort of girl’d marry you?’
‘Come and find out.’
Andy didn’t want to get involved with any of them ever again, and Lee Carter in particular, but he was interested, he couldn’t help himself, he wanted to see the place, the wife, even if he didn’t want to hear the proposition.
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake,’ Lee Carter said and slammed the driver’s door.
A split second. You’re not going, Andy told himself.
He got in.
The car was top of the range and had everything. The CD player blasted out, of all things, Dusty Springfield. Lee Carter drove fast and flashily out on to the Flixton Road. Andy didn’t speak. He couldn’t have made himself heard anyway. The wind hurt his ears. He was terrified, not having been in a vehicle faster than the prison delivery van for so long.
They sped out of Lafferton and after five miles turned into Lunn Mawby which Andy knew as half a dozen houses and a petrol station.
It was no longer a village but an estate of detached private houses, Tudor style, with wrought-iron gates and landscaped front lawns.
They swung round two corners and up a slope. Just three houses stood at the top. Tudor again. Twisty chimneys. Big trees at the back.
Lee drove the car at the gates and as he did so, pressed a button on the side of the steering wheel. He pressed another button and a fountain in the middle of the bright green grass spurted into life.
Lee grinned and swung the car to a stop.
‘Good?’ he said, and gestured to Andy to follow him as he walked cockily up to the front door.
Quarter of an hour later the guided tour was over. Everywhere they had gone, Lee had looked at him for approval, admiration and envy. Andy had withheld them all, merely nodding as he took in the billiard room, the gym, the bar, the thick pile carpets, the plasma television, the wall-to-wall mirror-fronted wardrobes, the conservatory, the Olde Englishe oak-fitted kitchen.
They stood there now, Lee at the open door of a six-foot-high fridge.
‘Espresso. There’s a machine. Lynda works it better than me.’
Lynda had not appeared.
‘She’ll have gone to the health spa.’
‘What am I here for?’