‘OK,’ she said. ‘Anyway, the van might be out, they’ll give us some tea bags.’


‘Not seen it for a week.’


‘Or Loopy Les.’


Hayley let out a snort of laughter. Mia woke, coughing, and Liam threw up a stream of pale vomit that went arcing across the floor.


Twenty minutes later, Abi was on the street. The sky was clear and a sneaky wind had got up, the sort that went through your clothes and out the other side. But it was dry. Rain was the pits. If you stood somewhere you could be seen properly, you got soaked. And cars didn’t stop so much in the wet. Nobody came by on foot when it rained. Not that you got too many of them anyway, apart from Beanie Man, unless you went right into the town when they were turning out of the pubs. She used to do that quite a bit, but lately it had been hopeless. Four girls had turned up one night, brought by a van and dropped off near the Lanes, foreign girls, across from Bevham where there were too many of them now. A couple of nights after that there were three more.


The police had started moving them all on, no messing, whereas before they’d left you alone.


She walked quickly, cutting across the car park and then along the main road to the grid of streets between the canal and the bypass, short cuts for motorists heading to Bevham. On one side, there were the posh apartments carved out of the Old Ribbon Factory, expensive but now with several For Sale boards cluttering up the front. Who could afford those? Yuppie couples, buy-to-lets, only the bottom had dropped out of all that. She could picture them, all the same, from glances up into the lighted windows and photos in old magazines, guess what they’d be like inside. Space. Lots of wood on the floor. No kids. You didn’t live here if you had kids. But why shouldn’t you? Why didn’t she have the right to live with her two in a place like this instead of in her dump of a room?


She knew why.


She reached the corner opposite the snooker club. There were a couple of girls nearby. The foreigners. Another two round the corner. Abi turned away, cut through a side alley, came out into the last street before the main road. It ran alongside the locked gates and high fence of the printworks, but it wasn’t bad – there was shelter and the Reachout van sometimes stopped in the works entrance. And the men knew this part, knew which girls were generally here. The police didn’t seem to bother either, not like they did in the town centre.


She saw Marie leaning on the street lamp near the corner, smoking. Nobody else. Abi pulled the collar of her jacket up tighter. Her legs were cold, but they always were, you had to wear a short skirt and some of them wore low tops as well. But in winter it made sense to look after yourself a bit. If she got sick, she was no use. The collar of a fleece wasn’t a lot but it helped. It was quiet. There weren’t even many cars going down the main road. She walked up and down a couple of times, then went towards Marie.


‘Y’all right?’


Marie shrugged and threw her cigarette butt onto the pavement.


‘Nobody else been around?’


‘I saw that van go by. Foreign girls. Think it was that one.’


‘They better not stop here.’


Marie shook her head. ‘Going towards town.’


‘They’ll get moved on.’


‘Yeah, but there’s more people about in town, isn’t there? Dead here, I tell you.’


‘I’m sick of them.’


‘We never had any of that, you know. It was us. That was it. Maybe a new one now and again …’


‘That girl with the dead white face.’


‘Melissa.’


‘Right.’


‘She didn’t last.’


‘No. Them foreign girls just better not stop here,’ Abi said again.


Marie looked at her. ‘British jobs for British workers.’


They both cracked up.


A car came round the corner and they separated, Marie crossing the road to wait by the warehouse. It didn’t stop. Ten minutes more and three girls came down the street, girls they knew. They separated too, one of them walking down towards the canal end, the others crossing over.


It was colder. Abi banged her feet on the path. Then, two cars, and another, slowly round the corner and gliding up the street. Abi felt herself caught in the headlights of one, saw Marie go towards the kerb where another had stopped. Maybe it wasn’t going to be a dead night after all.


But it was another twenty minutes before there was anyone else, this time on her side of the street. She moved forwards but it stopped a few yards away and doused the lights. Engine off. Driver’s door open.


Bloody hell, it was only him. She moved quickly away. Marie was getting out of a car further up, pushing money into her inside pocket.


‘Keep walking, it’s Loopy Les down there.’


Marie glanced. She looked young, Abi thought, young in the half-light, not like she looked under the street lamp. Like they all looked. She knew Marie lived in a caravan on a patch off the Starly Road. Her mother was with her on and off, when she wasn’t locked up or drunk in a ditch somewhere.


Footsteps.


‘Abi? Yes, I thought so. Abi and … who’s that … ?’


‘Marie.’


The girls glanced at one another. They didn’t mind Les. But he wanted to stand and chat and that put off any punters driving down.


‘Hiya.’


‘Come here, nearer the gate.’


They followed him to where there was a bollard by the turn-in to the factory. He had his usual canvas satchel, plastic bags of sandwiches, the chocolate bars, the flask of coffee.


‘Cold for you tonight,’ he said, unwrapping the packets. ‘Too cold to be out on the streets.’


‘Yeah, yeah. Thanks anyway.’


Abi wasn’t hungry but the coffee was OK, still quite hot, and she took a couple of bites of the chocolate, before putting the rest in her pocket to take home.


‘That’s a good bit of cake.’ Marie was scoffing the food down as if she hadn’t eaten all day, which, Abi thought, she probably hadn’t. She was thin as a rake, bony-thin. She smoked instead of eating. She stuffed another half of ham and bread into her mouth.


He’d been coming out like this for the best part of a year. He just turned up, brought the food and the flask, chatted a bit about nothing. She’d wanted to ask him why he did it but had never bothered. He wasn’t one of the Reachout lot, wasn’t Sally Army or any other Church, so far as she knew, and besides, he never preached at them, never mentioned anything like Jesus. He chatted about the weather and asked them if they were all right, asked after anybody who hadn’t been out for a while. Once, when he knew one of the girls who’d used to come was ill, he’d offered to get her a medical appointment, take her to the hospital. She hadn’t gone and the next week the word was out that she was dead of an overdose. Les had asked about her but they hadn’t told him anything.


Just lately, he’d been coming out a couple of nights a week. Hayley had seen him as well.


‘I thought you’d be nearer town. Bit warmer, bit more shelter.’


Abi shrugged.


‘Safer as well.’


‘We’re all right. We look out for each other.’


They could never quite decide if he was OK or not. He wasn’t weird. He wasn’t anything. All the same …


One of the girls had asked him if he was looking for payment in kind but Leslie had been horrified. He’d jumped in his car and driven off fast, leaving the flask behind on a bench, and nobody had seen him for a couple of weeks after that.


‘Say what you like,’ Hayley had said, ‘not normal.’


Only he seemed normal, watching them eat the sandwiches he’d made for them, pocket the chocolate bars he’d bought out of his own money, finish off the hot tea or coffee. He had a normal coat, normal trousers, normal blue wool scarf. Normal black shoes. Normal. He was clean, he shaved, he hadn’t got anything special about him or anything peculiar either. Just normal.


Only not.


Abi handed back the plastic cup. ‘Thanks.’


Not normal. How could it be?


‘Oh, Christ.’


‘What?’


‘I remembered I have to get tea bags. I’ve got to go to the all-night. Fuck it.’


A car turned round the corner.


Marie walked quickly away, sensing it would stop further down. Abi swore.


‘Cheers, Les,’ she said, and went, not wanting to mess around there keeping him company or whatever and waste the rest of the night. She hadn’t even earned the money to pay for the tea bags yet.


But as she got to the top of the street, a car came off the main road and flashed its lights at her.


Her last punter dropped Abi off by the printworks just after midnight. Things had got a lot busier, she had more money than she’d expected, but that was it, she’d had enough. She’d always had enough, had enough before she started out, but it wasn’t going to be forever. That was what kept her going. Knowing it wasn’t going to be forever. Four years. You could put up with anything for four years. Or if she did really well maybe three.


The street was empty. The others had gone. She’d take a cut along the canal towpath and over the footbridge. She didn’t like going that way usually but it saved ten minutes.


As she passed the bollard by the factory, she saw something. Maybe Les had left his satchel behind, though that wouldn’t be like him. Neat and tidy, that was Les.


She couldn’t make it out until she got right up to it. It was a plastic carrier bag from the supermarket on the Bevham Road. She hesitated. You never knew.


‘Les left it for you, I was going to text you.’ Marie appeared out of the shadows. ‘He went but then he came back with it.’


‘You OK?’


Marie sounded odd. She had her head turned away.


‘Nothing that won’t go away. I’m off, Abs, I’ve had it. You walking back a bit my way?’


It was a couple of miles to the field and Marie’s caravan. She carried flat shoes in her pockets, put them on instead of the heels once she was ready to go, and as she bent down to pull one on, Abi caught a glimpse of her face.


‘You want to get that bash seen to, Marie. Did you take his number? You don’t have to put up with that stuff – you can go to the cops, you know, if you get their number.’


‘Yeah, right.’


‘You can.’


‘That’s what you’d do then?’


‘Only saying.’


‘Well, fuckin’ don’t.’ Marie wobbled as she put on the second shoe.


‘I don’t mind going to the top with you, only I’ve got to get back to the kids.’


‘Nah. You’re all right.’ Marie waited.


‘What?’


Marie pointed to the carrier.


‘Yeah.’ Abi picked it up. Reached inside.


Two Hundred Tea Bags. Full Flavour. Economy size.


Three


Nothing happened for a day, sometimes, miraculously, even a couple of days. Everything went on as usual; she got up, made breakfast, drove the children to school, did her job, shopped, collected the children, made supper. It was dry or it rained; it was cold or mild. The world turned. And then the grief roared up towards her again quite without warning, hit her so hard it took her breath away and left her sobbing or shaking, sick or terrified, a tidal wave of recollection and misery and hopelessness.


Cat Deerbon opened the door of her car and then leaned against it for a moment, head on her arm, trembling with tears that seemed to come from somewhere in the depths of her body, another wave with the power to knock her off her feet. Behind her, the lights of Imogen House fanned out onto the tarmac. It was twenty to ten.


She had been fine for the past half-hour or so, altering the dosage of a patient’s pain relief, talking to a family, even fine while she had been examining Cassie Porter and sitting by her bed, listening to her, holding her hand. Fine discussing Cassie and another two cases with the night sister. Fine having a cup of tea with Lois, the receptionist. Fine. And all the time knowing that she would not be fine once she had left the building and stopped being a duty doctor and could let her guard drop. Fine, until she was alone.


Cassie Porter was twenty-seven and dying of a brain tumour.


People did. This was a hospice. Cat was a doctor.


A year ago, her husband, Chris, had died of the same type of brain tumour, though not here but at home, in their bed, as she lay with her arms around him. He had sent plenty of his own patients into Imogen House, he was hugely supportive of the place and encouraged Cat to do more palliative care work. But he had refused to be admitted there himself, refused to die anywhere but at home. Cat did not know whether the fact that at least there were no memories of his death held forever in the hospice made it easier to work there or not. Nothing affected her either more or less. It got worse. That was all. Time passing made it worse. People told her it got better and people were wrong.


She wept on, tears running down her arm and onto her hand. Tears were infinite and the well was bottomless. She had learned that now. In a few moments they would cease, but there was always, always, the next time, in an hour or a day. Tears were exhausting, uncontrollable and ultimately pointless, but now they were as much part of her life as hunger or the need to breathe.


The only thing time had done was teach her to accept that.


A car turned in through the gates and parked in the visitors’ area. Cat had encouraged Cassie Porter’s family to come in now. She didn’t think Cassie would die that night but it was better to doubt her own clinical judgement, have the relatives there, ensure that there was time for things to be said before a patient slipped into a last unconsciousness. Better to be wrong, better that they had time to talk again, to say the loving words over and over, than that the chance was missed forever. Because Chris had died at home it had been easier. She had been there most of the time, the children in and out. Yet not everything had been said. They had talked, but last things had been left unspoken because Chris had preferred it, cut her short if it had seemed she was trying to say what he refused to hear. In the end, she thought now, Chris had never been able to face the fact that he was dying. That was why he had not allowed her to say some of the things that she would now never be able to say. It had been his choice, his right, but it was unfinished business and somewhere half buried within her, Cat knew, was anger and frustration because of it.


Perhaps that was partly why she was crying now, why the tsunami of grief had swamped her so that she would have to wait in the car until she felt sufficiently in control to drive home. Perhaps. Or perhaps there was never a specific reason. Missing Chris, feeling totally bereft of him, wanting him back, sinking to the depths every time she remembered that he would never come back, longing for him so that she felt ill and incapable of functioning as a human being – all of it needed no prompting, like some memories that were touched by a piece of music, or a chance remark, or going into a particular building. All of it was now part of her, wrapped around her like a second skin. The best she could hope for were some periods when she was occupied and preoccupied enough to be unaware, as one can sometimes be unaware of pain for a short time during sleep.

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