‘You needn’t.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I’d rather you didn’t tell anyone else though. I can do without the family pressure.’

‘Absolutely. And you’ll get none from me, Simon – even supposing I had a right, which I certainly don’t.’

He cleared the table, Judith made coffee and they went with it into the small sitting room. The heavy curtains were drawn, the lamps on.

‘It feels like winter,’ Judith said. ‘Which I rather like.’

They sat opposite one another. The house was very quiet. Simon thought of the three children, sleeping upstairs, children he dearly loved and about whom he sometimes felt great concern.

‘How do you think Sam is?’ he asked. ‘Cat was fretting about him.’

Judith sighed. ‘I wish I knew. I think he’s a troubled little boy and it’s probably a reaction to Chris’s death – that wouldn’t be at all surprising. He never talks about it, though Hannah does. She finds it easy to say she loved her daddy and she doesn’t want him to be dead, to have a good cry and feel better. Not Sam. Perhaps there’s something else, but what else, I’ve no idea. He is on the cusp of being adolescent of course, and I’m not sure how well he’s settled at St Michael’s. But he used to chatter away and now he doesn’t. He is perfectly polite and pleasant but a portcullis has come down.’

‘I must take him out for a day. He likes to go walking with me. But right now there’s no chance.’

‘I wonder –’

Judith got no further. There was the sound of Richard’s car in the drive, and Simon’s phone rang.


He listened, holding up his hand to his father as he came in.

The call was brief.

‘Oh, Simon, not some more dreadful news?’

‘On the contrary,’ Serrailler said, relief flooding through him. ‘Ruth Webber has just turned up at her own house. Husband called the station ten minutes ago.’

‘Is she all right?’

‘As far as they know. Someone will see her in the morning.’ He slipped his phone into his pocket. ‘Judith, do you think there’s a chance of another coffee before I head home?’

‘I’ll join you,’ Richard said. ‘Surprised to find you here at all, Simon.’

‘Yes,’ Simon said, ‘so am I rather.’


Stephen Webber stood at the window of his study among the boxes that were not to be unpacked until the move into the Deanery. It was twenty past midnight and he had left Ruth upstairs, in bed but not asleep and almost completely silent. He had come down because he had felt tears welling up and knew that, if he was to cry, he must be alone. He had not put on the lamp but there was a moon enough for him to see a little way down the garden, to where the white fencing gleamed like bone. A cat, not their cat, an unknown, ginger cat, sat in the middle of the grass facing towards him, topaz-eyed, impassive.

He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. His tears were tears of anger, relief, frustration, and they came mainly because he had not been able to find words to use, and, in any case, what he felt could not be expressed to Ruth. She had tapped so softly on the kitchen door, while he was making a pot of tea, that at first he had not fully realised what the sound was. When he opened the door, she had said nothing, simply walked past him, looked around the kitchen for a moment, as if trying to familiarise herself with it, then had sat down at the table. She wore an old mackintosh which he did not recognise, and she was dirty, her hair greasy and flattened to her head, her hands grubby. Her shoes were soaking wet.

He knew at once that she had descended far down into her depression. Her facial expression was dead, her eyes without any light in them, her shoulders slightly hunched. She said nothing, she did not look at him.

He had put a cup of tea in front of her but she made no attempt to drink it.

‘Ruth,’ he had said. ‘Oh thank God you’re alive.’

She glanced up at him, a flicker of bewilderment crossing her face.

‘They’ve been looking for you … there …’ But he could not tell her any more, she would not take it in, did not need to know about everything else that had been happening.

‘Drink your tea. You look cold.’

She shrugged.

‘You’re exhausted … have you walked a long way?’

She pulled the cup nearer to her and stared into it but made no attempt to lift it.

It was then that Stephen realised he must ring the police and also that if he did not leave the room he would burst into tears – either that or lose his temper. Once, that was what he had done when she had been missing in London for more than twenty-four hours and been brought home eventually by a neighbour who had seen her walking along a main road in the dark. He had shouted at her but it had been like shouting at a deaf mute. She had not reacted to him in any way.

It had been the same now but he had not shouted. He had persuaded her to drink half the cup of tea, then taken her upstairs, filled the bath and left her. When he had phoned the police he had gone back up, to find the bathroom door open, wet towels on the floor and the light still on. When she was well, Ruth was meticulously tidy. Tonight, she would not have noticed how she had left the bathroom.

She was in bed, lying curled on her side and turned away from him. He knew that she was not asleep but the tears had overcome him and he had come back downstairs to stand at the window in despair.

Half an hour later he was still there, numb and barely thinking, when there was a soft knock on the side door.

‘Stephen, I saw your light still on … Is everything all right?’

Miles Hurley came in, his clothes wet. Stephen hadn’t noticed that it had been raining for much of the time he had been standing at the window.

‘My dear man, you look as if you’ve had a terrible shock.’

Stephen suddenly felt as if his legs might give way beneath him and he sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Ruth’s back.’

‘Oh, thank God! When? Is she all right? Stephen, if I may say so, I think you should have a whisky. Can I get you one?’

‘You may be right. Yes.’ He started to get up but Miles put a hand on his shoulder and made him sit back. ‘I know where it is. So what happened?’

‘She just walked in. Exhausted. Very depressed. She looks as if she’s been living rough, which, if the police are right about the allotment shed, she has. But you know how it is, Miles. She said nothing. She can barely speak when it’s like this.’

‘Have you phoned a doctor?’

‘No, no. I will. Tomorrow. I will. But she’s in bed. She won’t go anywhere now and she won’t come to any harm overnight. I can’t start getting out a doctor and risking her being distressed … it won’t help just at the moment.’

Miles set two glasses with generous measures of whisky on the table, and found a jug to fill with water.

‘Perhaps you’re right. What did the police say?’

‘Nothing much. Thanked me for telling them. They’ll send someone round in the morning. I suppose they have to check it out.’

‘Certainly. But it’s no longer their concern after that.’ He drank. ‘I’m very relieved, Stephen, but I’m sorry it’s come to this again. It is such a dreadful strain for you. I really thought she was stable now – I thought the move here had done her good.’

‘So did I. I don’t know what to do. I feel I’ve failed her. Perhaps we should never have moved, perhaps she hasn’t settled.’

‘She seemed more than settled. Don’t blame yourself.’

Stephen swirled his whisky round the glass, watching it catch the light. ‘In confidence, Miles …’

‘That goes without saying.’

‘Yes. Of course. In confidence, I am utterly weary of it all. I simply cannot bear the thought of this going on and on into the future, of having to catch her the whole time, of not trusting her, of trying to do this job, trying to … to make a real impact here … while my heart is in my mouth all the time about her. I feel drained, absolutely drained.’

‘Look, why not take a few days off? Even go away somewhere? Once she’s seen the doctors and so on. I can look after things here.’

Stephen shook his head. ‘She wouldn’t come, and it may be that they think she needs a spell in hospital. I don’t know if … dear God, I hope if they think it necessary that she agrees to it. Having her sectioned is …’

‘I know. But if she does go in, then you have a break. You need it, Stephen. Everything will run perfectly smoothly.’

‘You have enough to do. I can’t dump my workload onto you as well.’

‘You can and you must. I’m very resilient. You should know that.’

Miles got up and finished off his drink. ‘Now I’m for my bed. And so should you be. Don’t try and battle on, Stephen. I’m here. Everyone will pitch in. But tonight, let us thank God Ruth is back home. Just at the moment that is what the young would call a result.’


It was hopeless now. Police were thick as blowflies all over the area so that even if any of them went down there they got moved on – ‘friendly warning’ and all that. Hayley had tried for four or five nights in the town centre, then moved out towards Hunt Square, but that was dead, and creepy as well. It was where the winos hung out. The centre had been OK for the occasional punter but several of the streets were now pedestrians only which cut the numbers down, and the police were there too, handing out leaflets with pictures of the dead girls on them, which gave you the creeps.

Besides, she hadn’t been happy with the arrangement for Liam. The woman who listened out for him had taken to nipping out to the pub. That scared her. She thought of how it had been with Abi. They could trust one another.

So now she stayed in and had no money apart from the child allowance and her benefit which never lasted. The money she’d taken from Abi’s tin had long gone.

She was watching a rubbish soap on the afternoon telly when her mobile went. She only just about managed to keep it topped up now.

‘Hello. Is that Hayley? Hayley Duncan?’

‘Who wants to know?’

‘This is Gwenda Mayo from social services. Is that you, Hayley?’

‘It’s me.’ She almost clicked off. She hadn’t anything to say to that cow who’d taken Abi’s kids away.

‘Good, thank you. Hayley, I was wondering if I could come and see you?’

‘No thanks. You’re not having my boy as well. Liam’s fine.’

‘Hayley, listen, of course I don’t want that. But something’s come up and I need to see you.’

‘What sort of thing?’

‘It isn’t ideal to talk on the phone but it’s about Abi Righton’s children, Frankie and Mia?’

‘I know their names. What’s happened to them, what have you done now?’

‘Nothing’s happened to them, Hayley, but I need to talk to you about them, please.’

If it was about them, she’d have to see the bloody woman.

‘OK. Come now if you want.’

‘Thank you, Hayley. I’ll be there within the next half-hour.’

It was less. She had started to clear the table and put the dirty pots into the sink, not because she thought social services were so important but because she wasn’t about to be judged on how tidy her flat was. They could probably use any excuse to take Liam away, even dirty coffee mugs. But when Gwenda arrived she didn’t even glance round.

‘Can I sit down?’

Hayley pushed some stuff off the chair.

‘Now, you know Abi’s children are in care.’

Hayley said nothing.

‘Well, the people who are looking after them, Brett and Louise, are very good foster-carers and they are looking after Frankie and Mia really well. They love having them and they’re very experienced. But they have found it difficult to settle the two of them, especially Frankie. And he keeps asking to see you. You and your little boy. And when he says your name, it’s quite clear that Mia understands too.’

Hayley felt a wave of something rising from her gut to her throat. She wasn’t sure if it was distress or anger, tears or the desire to kick the door down.

‘I said I could have had them, didn’t I? They’d have been great with me, and now look what’s bloody happening, poor kids. Well, if they want to see me, me and Liam, you’ve got to let them, it’s what Abi’d want and you’ve got no right to stop them, you –’

‘Hayley, that’s why I’m here. Because I think it would be a very good idea, I think they should see you. I can take you there later today if you’d come. Brett and Louise thought you could go and have tea and Liam could play with Frankie for a bit … and if it worked out well, then you could go again, re-establish contact with them. Especially in view of their mum being so much better.’

‘What, you mean if she’d been dead they wouldn’t have let us?’

‘Well, she isn’t dead. She’s responding to treatment now, so although it will probably take some time, if she goes on improving there’s every chance she will eventually have the children back home … obviously all other things being equal.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means it depends on a lot of factors – such as whether there would be a suitable flat or other accommodation available for them, how long it would be before she could look after them on her own or if she’d need help to begin with. It isn’t just my decision, I can’t say yes or no – as I said, there are a lot of factors. Anyway, will you come? I think it would be a really big help.’

‘I love those kids like I love my own. You try and stop me. You change your mind and I’ll kick up, I mean it.’

‘Nobody’s going to stop you, Hayley – nobody wants to. Quite the opposite. I’ll come about three thirty, if that’s all right with you?’

Maybe she’d been unfair, Hayley thought, after the woman had gone. Maybe she wasn’t as bad as some of them. One thing she hadn’t done was mention anything about what she or Abi did. It was about the kids, it was about making sure they were OK, and that was in her favour. No judgement. She raided all the jars and tins and mugs in the flat, and with what she found and what she could spare, she got together four pounds seventy. She’d ask if they could stop off, get Frankie and Mia a comic and some sweets and then there’d have to be something for Liam.


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