The discovery of the skeletal bodies of children in caves off the North Yorkshire coast made all the front pages. Richard stood in the village shop scanning the reports, seeing Simon’s name, recalling the disappearance of the Lafferton schoolboy David Angus, son of one of his own former hospital colleagues.
What kind of person did such things? Unusually, what kind of woman? A psychopath? Certainly. A damaged soul? An abused child growing up into a warped adult?
He knew the considered view, the opinion the professionals would put forward. But for him, there was no excuse, no rationale, no justification. This was a child murderer hard-wired as evil, unredeemable from birth. That such individuals existed he had never doubted. Someone, somewhere, would be concocting a case against the woman’s parents, siblings, carers, minders, schoolteachers, God knew who else, all of whom would suffer the torments of guilt and self-blame for the rest of their lives. But why should they? This was no one’s doing. This was the Devil stalking the earth, seeking whom to devour. Richard Serrailler was not a religious man but he had had a childhood and upbringing steeped in the Bible. And it was at times like these, he thought, still reading about the piles of small bones as he walked up the drive of Hallam House, that the Bible stood him in good stead.
He opened the front door. The percolator would be on. They might take the coffee, with the papers, into the garden.
But to his surprise, there was no smell of coffee and the kitchen was empty.
Richard went to the window.
At first, he thought that she had tripped over the rose branch and as he hurried out he cursed himself for not dealing with it before he went to fetch the papers. But in fact she was lying a foot or so away. She had not moved the branch.
He bent down and touched her hand, then felt for the pulse in her neck. After a few seconds, he turned her over gently. Her blue eyes were open. He stroked her face with his finger. The skin was soft as chamois, and cool.
For several moments, Richard Serrailler did not leave her, only sat on the path, holding her hand. Once he said, “Oh my darling.” The garden was hot and still around them. The secateurs lay on the path beside her, next to the trug full of weeds, dry stalks, spent flowers. A wood pigeon made its monotonous cooing sound from deep inside the holly tree.
In the end, he went inside to call Ian McKay, their GP for thirty years. After that he rang Cat. She was taking a surgery. No, he said to Kathy he would not interrupt her but she must call him straight back.
Simon was not at the station. He left a message and another, into the middle of the Australian night, for Ivo. Then, methodically, he spooned coffee into the percolator, filled it with water and put it on, before collecting a thin quilt from the airing cupboard, and taking it outside, to lay carefully over his dead wife. He closed her eyes and brought the quilt up to her neck, not covering her face, so that she lay in the sun like someone peacefully sleeping.
Natalie read the whole of the newspaper article again more slowly. She couldn’t get her head round it, couldn’t take it in at all. What else were they going to find? How many more, for Christ’s sake?
Kyra had gone to a theme park for the day with the Jugglers Holiday Club. The coach had left at seven and they wouldn’t be back until late.
Bloody good job. Bloody …
It was one of the hottest days of the year and Natalie felt cold. There were goose pimples on her arms. After a minute she went upstairs. Kyra’s room was still and silent and neat and clean. She looked out of the window, on to the house next door. Then she looked at the garden.
Fred West. They’d dug up the patio first, then the whole garden, then dug under the cellar. She couldn’t remember how many they’d found.
Ed’s flower beds were overgrown with weeds and the grass hadn’t been cut. The police in white suits had poked about a bit and then gone. No one had been near. It looked a mess. Kyra kept wanting to go next door and do stuff, get the grass mown, weed the flower beds, kept saying how Ed would mind it being untidy, Ed would be pleased if they did it, Ed wouldn’t like coming home and seeing it like it was. She couldn’t shut her up.
The heat haze shimmered over the concrete path. Over the long grass.
She ran down the stairs, found the scrap of paper she’d scribbled on and rang the journalist, Lucy Groves.
“Not at my desk. Please leave a message. I’ll get straight back to you.”
“It’s Natalie Coombs. I’ve changed my mind. I said I wouldn’t but I will. I’ll do it.”
Natalie went out. She had to go out. Staying in and thinking about the house and garden next door was more than anyone could stand.
There was a knot of people by the gate of Ed’s house. Natalie didn’t recognise any of them. Gawpers. Made her shudder. She went to open her car door and they turned to gawp at her.
“Bugger off,” she shouted. “Leave us alone, this ain’t a bloody peep show, people have to live here.”
As she headed down the road, a television van was turning in. She hoped it wouldn’t still be there when Kyra got back or there’d be more questions, more fretting.
She drove across town to Donna’s. Donna had a new baby and no car so was mostly in.
She’d been to school with Donna and in those days they’d had plans, plans for getting out of here, plans for going abroad, plans for making a lot of money, plans for doing what you wanted not what everyone told you to, plans for getting a name in the world. Then Natalie had had Kyra and Donna, stupid cow, had taken no notice of anything she saw or Natalie said, but gone ahead and done the same, had Danny first, and now Milo who Kyra called Lilo.
Natalie had wanted to shake her, still did, except that she knew it was herself she wanted to shake. How had they got like this, when you looked back and remembered everything they’d said, planned, promised, agreed? “No way.” They had gone through the list often enough. Men. Dead-end jobs. Drugs. Smoking. Being a slag. Babies. No way.
The only one they’d both stuck to was the drugs. No way. But sometimes Natalie thought they might as well have done drugs.
Donna was in. The front door was open and Danny was standing in the hall wearing only a T-shirt and peeing on to the stairs. Milo was screaming somewhere. Natalie knew better than to try and make herself heard by knocking or shouting out. She walked straight in to where Donna sat at the kitchen table, crying.
It took twenty minutes to change Milo, clean up Danny and the stairs and set him in front of a Rugrats video, make tea and listen to some of Donna’s misery.
“Right,” Natalie said, “now shut up. It’s my turn. You remember all that stuff we used to say about getting out, going somewhere else and making something of ourselves, all that.”
“Yeah, right. Stuff.”
“We’re gonna do it.”
Donna got up and went to the freezer drawer of the fridge and took out a tub of ice cream.
“No,” Natalie said, “you put that right back. What good will that do? What you just been moaning about? That you’re fat and spotty, right, well, why are you fat and spotty, Don? You never used to be fat and spotty—well, OK, we were all a bit spotty but not fat. You eat that all day, what do you expect? Put it down the sink. Now listen. I got plans for us, girl.”
“Plans,” Donna Campbell said, sitting down again heavily. “Ha.”
“We’re getting out of here. Going to somewhere by the sea … maybe North Wales, or maybe Devon, I haven’t quite made up my mind, only we’re going. We get there, Kyra’ll be at school, yours can go somewhere two or three days, a nursery or maybe a minder, and we’ll start up. In the end, we’ll do proper catering, dinners and functions, but not first off, we—”
Donna put her hand up. “Please, Miss—”
“I’m psychic. Pick a card, any card. Word you was going to say is ‘Money’”
“Too right I was and that don’t take a bloody crystal ball.”
“Not a problem.”
“Now you have taken something.”
“I am getting money. I’m getting five grand any day now, and when it’s all sorted, another, wait for it, forty-five grand. Makes fifty. Fifty grand.”
Donna stared at her. She didn’t argue. Natalie hadn’t taken anything. Natalie didn’t say things she didn’t mean. She wasn’t any kind of a dreamer. Donna waited.
“Ed, you mean? If that’s why you want to move, I’m not surprised.”
“It is and it isn’t. I’m sick to death of having people knock on the door and peer through the windows and hang around outside. I’m sick of looking into that garden and—”
“—wondering what’s buried.”
“T’ain’t a joke, Donna. You heard the news last night?”
“I know. Couldn’t get my head round it. That could have been your Kyra. Could have been Danny. Bloody hell. What’s it got to do with money anyway?”
“I rang up a paper. I had a reporter come.”
“I know. It’s my story. ‘I lived next door to Ed Sleightholme.’ Mine and Kyra’s. She’s coming again Thursday. I’ve started off but we’re going to have to see each other a few more times. She takes it all down on tape.”
“I thought they couldn’t print things when there hasn’t been a trial and that?”
“They can’t. Only it’ll all be open and shut and they pay me some money now after I’ve signed the contract—I have to say I won’t talk to another lot—and then when the trial’s over, they print the whole thing and I get the rest.”
“Fifty thousand pounds.”
“It’s a lorra lorra money, Donna.”
“And the point is, I get five thousand soon as it’s signed, up front. That’s enough for us to move on. How much notice do you have to give the council?”
“Right, same with my landlord. By the time we’ve done that, I’ve got the money and we’re off. We need to sort out where, find a place to rent—we’ll have to share to start with, no point in wasting money.”
“Hang on. What was the idea? You said you knew how we’d start.”
“Right. You know sandwiches? You get rubbish in most sandwiches and you buy a sandwich from a garage, more than rubbish. They’re disgusting. OK, we suss out a place which has four or five garages with shops … and we sell them sandwiches. Good sandwiches. Sandwiches women would want to buy, lady reps and that, not truckers, they only want grease. Nice salads, good bread, organic maybe, and done up nice, little cardboard plate, napkin … and home-made cakes in slices … cost, what, about three quid a cake to make, less, sell them for one fifty a slice. They get petrol on their credit cards, they look round, grab all sorts of stuff, drinks, crisps … well, they’d grab our sandwiches, our cakes … What?”
“Just thinking what you said. ‘Lady reps.’”
“Seems kind of …”
Donna poured herself more tea. Her face was sad. Natalie wanted to shake her.
“Big step, Nat. I mean, it all sounds great, only—”
“Listen, you get a chance. One. This is ours. If you’re not on, I’m still doing it, Don. Just rather have a mate to do it with.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, what? What?”
“Nothing.” Donna looked at her. “I was just imagining it. Living by the sea.”
They looked at one another.
From the living room came the sounds of Danny singing to the Rugrats music and of Milo working up to a scream.
It was what heaven would be. Once they had given her drugs to take the pain away for hours at a time, it was what heaven would be. No one else was in the hospital wing for three of the four days she was in there. The walls were white and there was a window through which the sun shone, on to the white walls and the white bedcover and the white pillow.
No one bothered her. She could lie for hours listening to the quiet and looking at the sun on the white walls.
She had said nothing about how she got hurt. There had been a load of questions.
“Don’t know.” “Don’t know.” “Don’t know.”
So in the end they’d given up.
But this morning heaven had gone. There was no sun. Another woman had come into the wing and made retching noises half the night.
She ate breakfast. Saw the doctor. Got dressed.
Then it hit her. It hadn’t hit her until now, until she was putting her feet into her shoes. The wall was grey not white and the woman was being sick again and it hit her that this was it. It. For however many years. Life. What did life mean? Life. It wasn’t temporary, it wasn’t a few weeks or a misunderstanding. She knew that now. They knew it, she knew it. Nothing was said. Nothing might ever be said. Didn’t need to be.
Things would happen of course. People. Journeys. Questions. Courts. However long it took, it would all happen, but at the end of it, that would be that.
Ed picked up her cup and hurled it at the wall, and when it smashed, the dregs of tea dribbled down the greyness. She watched the drips. It was hours before they stopped her from watching them and made her leave and then it all started up, more of them talking at her, more questions, the doctor, the shrink, the Governor.
The sun came out and went in again. She saw it now and again through windows or reflecting on different walls.
Once she heard a noise. She was being taken down a corridor, to see someone else, and the noise started, a hissing noise that grew and seemed to be coming at her from all sides, as if someone were spraying the sound out of a hose. They’d seen her then. They knew. Someone shouted. The hissing stopped.
She was moved. Not just out of the hospital wing. Moved to another section of the prison. She seemed to have spent the entire day walking about.
“My back’s bloody killing me.”
“Not time for your painkillers yet.”
“Jesus. Where’s this?”
She stood in the doorway of the new room. It was smaller. Different. There was a glass panel in the wall. An outer lobby with a chair.
“What’s this for?”
“You’ve been moved.”
“I liked where I was.” The woman shrugged. She had two hairs on a mole under her chin. Ed wanted to pull them out. “Where’s Yvonne?”