Before she went to collect him from nursery, she was suddenly feeling so good she put the radio on and then cleared up, washed up, put everything away, wiped the windows, vacuumed, dusted round until it all looked good. She felt full of energy. If there was the chance of Abi getting a decent flat from the council, maybe they could get one together. Abi would need help when she got out of hospital, though Hayley wasn’t sure how much damage had been done. She’d bought the local paper a couple of times, and kept listening to Radio Bevham, to try and find out more, but they had only ever said ‘serious injuries’.
She wasn’t sure what to expect from the foster-people. She’d never met any. The house was smaller than she’d imagined and the woman, Louise, a bit younger. Friendly.
‘Hi, Hayley, nice to meet you. I’m really glad you could come – Frankie’s been asking and asking after you, it got quite upsetting. I didn’t tell him you’d be here today, hope you don’t mind, only if you hadn’t been able make it at the last minute or anything … well, you know.’ She bent down. ‘Hello, Liam. There’s a surprise for you … do you want to go through?’
There was one long room that had been made out of the original two, with the sitting part at the front and a play part at the back, in front of some doors that looked out onto a long narrow garden. Hayley saw a swing and a slide. But then she saw Frankie beside a car track on the floor. For a split second, his face was a blank, a complete blank, as if he didn’t dare react in any way to anyone. And then he saw Liam. She had never understood before exactly what it meant when you said someone’s face ‘lit up’, but now she knew. Frankie hurled himself towards her, grabbing her round the knees, and at the same time Liam gave a lurch onto him, so that all three of them were together in a huddle, with Hayley crying and the others laughing.
‘And here’s Mia,’ the woman said, and picked up the little girl from where she had been playing with a plastic dog on the floor.
‘Hi,’ Hayley said, through her tears. ‘Hi, Mia, hi, sweetheart, it’s me, it’s Hayley and Liam.’ She reached out and Mia clambered into her arms and clung with her legs as tightly as a monkey gripping a tree trunk.
The boys separated themselves and were soon brawling affectionately on the rug, laughing and yelling.
The three women looked on, unable to stop smiling. Lou took several photographs with her mobile phone. She made tea and they sat at the table, watching the boys play-fight and race toy motorbikes across the floor, Mia on Hayley’s lap and looking at her anxiously every so often for reassurance. Hayley fed her sponge cake.
‘God, I just wish Abi was here. I just want her to see them like this. It would do her more good than all the hospital stuff.’
‘You could take these pictures in to show her. I’ll load them onto the computer and print them off for you.’
She’s nice, Hayley thought. Ordinary, nice eyes, gingery hair, jeans and a sweatshirt. What kind of people could take in someone else’s kids, not knowing how long they’d stay, not knowing what they were like? She couldn’t. She’d have Frankie and Mia but that was because she’d always known them, they were like her own.
She wished they were her own.
Lou had opened the doors and the boys charged out into the garden and started roaring round making plane noises. Mia watched and laughed but still clung to Hayley.
Gwenda Mayo was looking at her. ‘She’s fine, you know,’ she said. ‘She’s very happy here.’
‘Only it still isn’t the same, is it? It’s strangers. I’m not a stranger.’
‘Abi’s going to be fine to look after them. She’ll be OK once she’s out of hospital, she’s tough, Abi, she’ll fight for her kids.’
‘And nobody’s saying anything different, Hayley. I just want to make sure they’re well and happy while they’re here.’
But she hugged Mia tight. She liked the woman and the kids were fine, she could see that. It was the social services who needed to know.
Louise printed off four pictures, really good, fun pictures of the kids, and gave them to her.
‘Can I come again, bring Liam?’
It was Louise she’d spoken to but Louise’d had to glance at the Mayo woman, as if she couldn’t decide for herself, which made Hayley mad, and it was the Mayo woman who answered.
‘I’m sure we can arrange that, Hayley, but let’s see how things go.’
‘They’re going fine, look at the lads, look at this little one. Why wouldn’t it be OK? I want to be able to tell Abi all about them more than just once, I’m, like, standing in for her here, you know?’
‘Well, I have an appointment, so we’ll have to leave it there for today.’ Gwen Mayo stood up.
‘I wonder … perhaps Liam can stay for the rest of the day? He and Frankie are having such a good time. Maybe you could come back for him later?’
‘I don’t think we could make that work, Louise. I can’t fetch Hayley, I’m tied up for the rest of today now, and she hasn’t got a car. This is quite a way from where she lives. It just isn’t convenient.’
You don’t want it, Hayley thought, that’s why it’s not convenient. You’re scared of letting me come here without you in case I snatch them or something daft like that. Control freaks is what you lot all are.
The worst was peeling Mia off her. She clung and clutched and then Liam wouldn’t move from Frankie. It took a lot of hassle and at the end of it Hayley was in tears herself. Lou looked pinched and upset. Only the Mayo just carried on, urging them out, saying goodbye, not bothered about how they all were.
In the car, Liam sat with his thumb in his mouth and said nothing. Hayley knew how he felt. She didn’t trust herself to speak either, just kept hold of the photos in case the Mayo wanted to confiscate them.
At Hayley’s door, Gwenda said, ‘It’s been good for the children, good to see one another. It was worth doing.’
Hayley took Liam by the hand. ‘Right,’ she said, ‘and if it’s worth doing once it’s worth doing more times. So I’ll be ringing you.’
She went inside and closed the door without looking round.
The late shift was always unpopular because the library was packed with students, and at the start of the college year, they caused more work because they didn’t know their way around the stock or the systems, queued at the desk to ask endless questions, were unfamiliar with, ignored, or complained about the rules, dumped their bags in everyone’s way and generally prevented the staff from getting on with what they all regarded as their real work. A younger colleague who had more sympathy with the students once accused June Petrie of being much happier when the place was full of books and empty of people. June Petrie shared this with Leslie and for perhaps the only time they were instinctively in tune with one another.
Tonight was more crowded than usual because there were late lectures midweek and the students piled in at the end of those. June and Leslie were both on the desk and at one point Leslie had told a youth sharply that if he continued to stand in the queue with his iPod in his ears emitting tinny noises, to the irritation of everyone around him, he would bar him for the rest of the term.
‘You can’t do that. You haven’t got the authority.’
‘Oh yes I can and oh yes I have and oh yes I will. Now please be so kind as to turn that thing off.’
June Petrie glanced at him. It was unlike Leslie to be irritable, let alone to raise his voice. He was always even-tempered and patient even when annoyed by something. But he had not been himself for the past few days. He had spoken little, either to her or the other staff, he had made one or two errors, forgotten a few things, which was entirely out of character. Leslie Blade was a meticulous man with an almost finicky insistence on correct detail. Now, he seemed either distracted and worried, or simply absent, as if he were only half conscious of the world and others around him.
June was well aware of the rumours that had been circulating and had dismissed them loudly, out of a natural loyalty to a long-standing colleague and because she simply did not, could not, believe them. Leslie, a suspect for the murders of several women? Leslie, a suspect for any violent or even simply illegal activity? It would be laughable if the whole business had not been so upsetting and frightening. When the murdered women had been prostitutes it had been lamentable but seemed far removed from her life, the lives of most people in Lafferton. Now, it had been announced on the news earlier today, they had found the body of a married woman and mother of two children, a woman simply on her way to work, and that had changed everything. If Mrs Leah Wilson, whose body had been in the canal, could be attacked and strangled and dumped – and within yards of a mass of police officers and their vans – then it could happen to anyone. June Petrie would not even cross the car park at the college on her own if she was on the late shift.
The police had questioned two men and later released them, and then one of them had been questioned again. That was when the rumour about it being Leslie had started buzzing around. No one knew why. No one knew anything. But the rumour persisted and Leslie was given odd looks. People kept their distance. Only June behaved in the same way as ever towards him simply because the whole thing was completely incredible.
Leslie. He looked thinner in the face. If she could persuade him to join the Savoyards it would do him a great deal of good, introduce him to new people, give him something of a social life. She was sure he had none and his excuses always sounded half-hearted. She would have another word about it; not now, the place was still seething with students – she would find him out when he had his break.
‘Where are the maps?’
‘Maps? If you mean the geography section, that’s in the Sir Geoffrey Cass building which is on the other side of the square, you take the –’
‘I’m not doing geography, I’m doing physics. I just want a map of the place.’
Leslie Blade’s voice was tightening.
‘Lafferton, this place.’
‘Young man, if you need a map of Lafferton, I suggest you –’
June slipped in between them. ‘You could take your break now, Leslie. Now, you said you wanted a map?’
Leslie stepped back but when June had sent the student away with the address of WH Smith in the town centre, he touched her arm.
‘I am perfectly capable of managing to explain to –’
‘I know you are, of course you are, you just seemed a bit weary. I do understand, silly little queries which really we shouldn’t have to deal with. I thought you might want a bit of peace away from them.’
‘I’ll take my break when it’s time.’
He spoke so sharply that June moved away to the other end of the desk and decided not to approach him when he went for his break, and certainly not to suggest again that he would enjoy membership of the Savoyards.
The students thinned out after nine o’clock and the library became calmer, though there was still the residue of forgotten jackets and pens, and the mass of books to put away on the trolleys ready to be re-shelved on the following day. They should have finished at ten but were rarely away before half past and though June saw Leslie go through the door that led to the stacks on the precise minute when his break began, she did not take one herself. They were a member of staff short, not because of sickness but because one had left and was not being replaced. Cuts were cuts. The library was always one of the first to suffer.
She did not notice at first that Leslie had not returned at the end of his break. A last-minute queue at the counter and a student who had been sick all over one of the tables meant that the other two in the main reading room were running round trying to sort everything out well after the closing bell.
‘June, did Leslie go home early? He hasn’t been back since his break.’
‘Not that I know of, and in any case, he would have come through here on his way to the staffroom. I didn’t see him.’
‘Nor did I.’
June Petrie and Melanie looked at one another in silence for a moment.
‘I’d better go and check.’
‘Do you want me to come with you?’
‘No, no, you finish tidying up.’
The stacks were in darkness but the stair lights were on – Leslie must have put them on when he had come down. June hesitated and then called out his name. There was no reply and the silence ahead was so complete that she felt unnerved and went back to ask Melanie to come with her after all. They went carefully, switching on every light. It was still silent. Their footsteps echoed through the stacks.
He always took his break in the window facing the last bays of books and that was where they found him now, his flask and packet of biscuits untouched. He was sitting on his usual high stool and his head was resting on the ledge in front of him.
‘Oh,’ June said softly. ‘Leslie?’
She put out a hand but then drew it back.
‘Best not touch,’ Melanie said. She leaned over Leslie and listened. Then she looked at June.
‘Get someone over here,’ she said, ‘and call an ambulance.’
Stephen Webber seemed to have aged thirty years, Cat thought. He was ashen, his eyes had a dead glaze and his expression was lifeless.
He brought in a tray with two cups of coffee and a plate of biscuits. Ruth was curled in a ball on the chair opposite Cat, her face turned away, her arm up as if to protect herself. Stephen glanced at her and then at Cat. He said nothing, simply half-shook his head and went out. He had told her that it had taken an hour to persuade Ruth to get up and have a shower and dress, longer to agree to see Cat. She had twice tried to walk out of the house rather than accept a visit so that in the end he’d had to lock the doors. His eyes had filled with tears when he had admitted as much. Cat was as concerned about him as she was about Ruth. Medication would restore her to stability, but the effect on Stephen was deeper and might be less easy to treat. He’d had too many years of the strain, and the combination of a recurrence of the nightmare plus his new job was putting him under tremendous pressure.
After a long time he had managed to get Ruth to come into the sitting room where Cat was waiting, but Ruth had refused to look at her, had simply gone to the chair and huddled in it.
Beforehand, Stephen had said that he would do anything, give anything, not to have Ruth go through the anguish and humiliation of being sectioned and sent to hospital against her will.
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