‘Abi.’


She stopped. There was a moon, washing the stone of the footbridge pale, making the canal black silk.


Abi shrugged. ‘OK.’


She put the carrier bag with the box of tea bags in it on the ground under the bench.


Forty minutes later, letting herself in through the door of her room, she found Hayley smashed out on the bed and Liam throwing up for what looked like the twentieth time. She reached for the short bread tin on the top shelf, stuffed the money inside, put it back. The room smelled of dope and sick.


She went over and started to pull at Hayley, by the arms, by the hair, to shake her until she mumbled and sat up, eyes all over the place.


‘Cow!’ Abi screamed at her. ‘Cow. What did you say, what did you promise me?’


‘I’m OK, I’m OK.’


‘You are – what about them? Liam’s been sick everywhere, he’s crying, he’s filthy, he could have choked. Look at him.’


Hayley rolled off the bed and half knelt on the floor. ‘I’m sorry, I’m OK, Abs, it’s OK …’


‘Oh, get out, go on, leave Liam here, you’re in no fit state.’


‘I’m sorry, it’s OK.’


‘Shut up.’


The anger subsided as exhaustion hit her. But she cleaned Liam up, gave him a drink and an old clean T-shirt of her own to wear, then put him down again. His face was still white. Frankie and Mia had not stirred.


She undressed, sluiced her face and hands in cold water. She’d put money into the meter tomorrow.


‘God, Hayley, I thought you wouldn’t do this to me. Now sleep it off.’


She threw a cushion down. But it was cold. A cushion wasn’t enough. She got up again and found the knitted blanket.


‘Here.’


‘Thanks. Thanks, Abs. I’m OK.’


Abi switched off the lamp and pushed her feet down into the bedclothes. It was only later, waking as a dawn like sour milk seeped into the room, that she remembered she had left behind the carrier with the tea bags.


Five


The last patient left and Bronwen, the duty receptionist, tapped on the surgery door and came in.


‘Cat, here’s that note from the orthopaedic consultant and I’ll bring your coffee, only the thing is …’


Cat groaned. Her surgery had booked double the usual numbers, and there were seven patients to ring – Lafferton’s norovirus epidemic was in full spate.


‘I know, I know, but can you see one more?’


Bronwen had a sixth sense when it came to who to let in and who to send away, and Cat trusted it.


As the girl entered, carrying one child and leading another by the hand, Cat thought: I’ve seen you, I know you.


She glanced at her computer screen as the name and address came up, but they were not familiar.


‘Abi Righton? Hello I’m Dr Deerbon. Come in.’


She was worryingly thin, pale with dark hollows under her eyes, bad skin. Her denim jacket, short skirt and trainers were not adequate for the bitter weather outside, but her children were well wrapped up.


The screen showed the record of her last visit, two years before, and to Chris.


The consultation was straightforward enough – both children had the winter vomiting bug, the boy an ear infection as well. The young woman got up.


‘Thanks, Doctor, thank you. I’m sorry. I know I didn’t have a proper booking, thanks. Say thank you, Frankie, you got medicine to make you better, go on …’


The boy looked unhappy and turned his head away.


‘Frankie …’


‘Don’t worry. He’s feeling rotten. Keep him indoors and warm, won’t you?’


The girl heaved the now sleeping toddler onto her other arm and opened the door.


‘Abi …’


She glanced round. It was a child’s face, a prematurely old child, anxious, wary, masked in worldliness. But a child.


Cat remembered.


‘Are you looking after yourself? I know how it is when your children are ill … Are you eating properly?’


‘I’m fine, I haven’t had it, can’t afford to, can I? Anyway, it’s the kids get these bugs, it’s all around them. He goes to a playgroup, he got it there.’


‘You need to look after yourself as well, Abi.’ She glanced at the white bare legs. ‘Keep warm.’


Her eyes were defensive. ‘I’m fine. Thanks anyway, Doc.’ She sailed out, head up, the boy hanging on to her hand. Cat looked at the address. How had she got here? It was a good mile’s walk from the bus route. She would have to get the child’s medicine, trail home.


And it had been her, Cat was sure, crossing the road at the traffic lights, looking out for punters. Where had the children been then?


Bronwen’s instinct had been right. Cat needed to have Abi Righton on her radar.


And the others, she thought, going through to the receptionist’s office. Because there were others, too many others, on the streets, at risk.


‘We don’t know the half,’ she muttered. Bronwen nodded, understanding, keeping her counsel.


Cat went back to her room, Abi Righton’s notes were still up on the screen. They were sparse enough. Both children had been born in Bevham General and she had moved to her present address in the same month in which she last visited the surgery, when Chris had prescribed an antibiotic for a chest infection. She had attended the antenatal clinic once only, the mother and baby clinic for immunisations, but not otherwise. It was a thin record but probably not one to ring any alarm bells. All the same, Cat picked up the phone.


‘Lynne? It’s Cat Deerbon. Can I just run a name past you?’


Lynne had been the practice health visitor for over nine years, until the team had been split up. She now worked with the other community nurses out of the social services department, her workload doubled, her colleagues fewer and mainly young and inexperienced.


She came back to the phone. ‘Abi Righton doesn’t ring any bells with me and there isn’t anything on the SS register about her or her children. What’s worrying you?’


‘Nothing specific … just a hunch.’


‘Usually worth following.’


‘I know.’


‘I’ll make a note. I would say I’d call and see her but random visits for no reason aren’t part of the job any more. How are you?’


‘Fine,’ Cat said. She wanted to mean it, did not want what Judith had once called a ‘widowhood conversation’.


‘You?’


‘Counting the days.’


‘Sorry?’


‘I’m taking early retirement – didn’t you know? Can’t stand it any longer. Let’s meet sometime. I have to go but I’ve flagged up Abi Righton on my system.’


‘Thanks.’


Another one the NHS could ill spare, Cat thought, closing down her computer. Another reason for looking hard at where she herself stood. She picked up her list of visits. Once, she would have spent three hours or more on house calls, now they were discouraged as not cost-effective. Russell Jones did almost none, thought them rarely necessary. But the three elderly, frail patients she was going to see now would not dream of wasting her time, and would be better, emotionally as well as physically, for her visit. In her book, that was reason enough.


As she headed for the grid of streets known as the Apostles, though, it was Abi Righton who stuck in her mind. Abi Righton, thin, pale, malnourished, trying her best with her children, and working, Cat was sure, as a prostitute. It troubled her.


Six


Abi had a cappuccino, Marie a strong tea. Frankie and Mia were asleep in the double buggy, Frankie still pale. She had given him the prescription medicine straight away, in the chemist, expecting him to throw it back up, but he had turned his face to the inside of the buggy and slept.


‘There’s a load of girls go to the new place,’ Marie said, looking round Dino’s, which was crowded, steamy and small. ‘They meet up there, every morning nearly.’


Abi had seen them. The ‘new place’ was in the Lanes, dark wood tables and chairs and polished floors and about a hundred different kinds of coffee.


‘Yeah, well, I don’t know how they can afford it, believe me, two fifty, three quid a coffee? Anyway, I don’t know them.’


‘You do – there’s Sandy, there’s Melanie Liptrott, there’s …’


Girls who had been in their year at the Eric Anderson. Yes, she knew them. Only she didn’t.


‘Well, I like it here. You go if you want.’


Dino’s was friendly. They didn’t make you leave the buggy outside and the coffee was one pound ten a big mug. If the kids had toast or a bun, they’d get a drink free. Besides, nobody looked at you in Dino’s.


The coffee machine hissed.


‘Jonty’s back,’ Marie said.


Jonty. He beat Marie up, he drank, he did coke, he sent her out to work when she felt like death, he threw a fiver at her and expected a three-course dinner every night for a week out of it. He’d been inside twice since she’d met him five years before. He was a lowlife and if he was at the caravan Abi wouldn’t go there because he tried it on with her if Marie turned her back.


‘I’m not saying anything.’


‘It was one in the morning, it was pissing with rain. What was I supposed to do, tell him to sleep in the ditch?’


‘Yes.’


‘He’s not that bad.’


‘Yes, he is, Marie, he is that bad. What are you thinking? Is your mother there as well?’


‘No. She’s not been back for weeks.’ Marie stirred more sugar into her dark tea. ‘Probably dead and a fat lot I care.’


Her mother was a drunk and a junkie and another one sponging off Marie, but harmless next to Jonty.


‘Not your mother, Marie,’ Abi said. ‘You don’t mean that.’


‘You don’t know anything.’


‘I know one thing. I’m getting out of it.’


‘Out of what?’


Abi turned to check on the buggy. Frankie had pulled the blanket up over his face.


‘What’re you on about?’


‘What the f*ck do you think?’


‘Oh. Yeah, right.’


‘I mean it.’


‘Course you do. And then what? Get a proper job?’


‘Maybe. Maybe go to college.’


Marie spluttered so that the mouthful of tea sprayed over her coat and the table.


‘Why shouldn’t I do that? I got four GCSEs, didn’t I?’


‘Listen,’ Marie put her hand briefly on top of Abi’s own until Abi pulled it back. ‘College costs money, and what would you do with the kids? College isn’t for people like us.’


‘Speak for yourself.’


‘I do. And for you.’


‘There’s a nursery. They look after them there.’


‘What, free?’


Abi bent her head and stared into her mug because she had no answers and because she wasn’t about to let Marie make her feel stupid. She didn’t know how much it cost or if the kids could go to the college nursery or what she would do even supposing she got in, she hadn’t made plans like that, you couldn’t, you didn’t.


‘Here, did you know they raided a house in Bevham? Took loads of girls and then they went on to another, some flat, got the pimps, well, a couple of them. Dawn raid. It was on the news, cops battering the door down and yelling. Everybody yelling.’


Abi raised her head. ‘So maybe we get our streets back for a bit, till they ship in another load of illegals and it all starts over.’


Frankie woke, and as he woke, let out a wail and flailed his arm across Mia’s face so that she wailed as well.


‘I better go.’


‘See you later.’


‘Maybe. I dunno. I don’t want to leave these two with Hayley, I can’t trust her.’


‘You got someone else lined up?’


‘I told you –’ Abi manoeuvred the buggy in the small space between the tables – ‘I’m packing it in.’


Marie looked at her, her face half a sneer, half a question.


‘See you,’ she said.


Abi slammed the café door without responding, but Marie was peering through the window, wiping the steam away with her arm. Staring.


‘I mean it,’ Abi mouthed at her.


She stopped to pull the blanket round the kids, wipe Mia’s mouth.


It was as if saying it could make it happen, which it couldn’t, but it could make her listen to herself and try to believe it.


When she got back, she’d check the money and then she’d take half and put it in the post office, now, today. She had said she would give it up, always said so, and meant it, only somehow, now, she meant it more.


It had started to rain. She pulled up the collar of her denim jacket and walked faster. Frankie was grizzling. The buggy didn’t have a cover and the blanket would be soaked by the time they got back, but she knew there was over an hour left on the electric, she could put the fan heater on to dry things.


Abi felt a dart of something run through her, something she recognised after a moment as a sort of excitement. It caught her off guard. She had glimpsed something ahead of her, something about her future.


Let Marie think what she wanted.


Seven


June Petrie had an irritating habit of whistling slightly under her breath to signal the start of coffee and tea breaks, and the lunch hour. It was perfectly possible that she did not know she was doing it, and more than likely that she had no idea how close Leslie Blade sometimes came to attacking her because of it.


Usually he went outside to eat or, if it was raining, to the staffroom. But once the college heating went on in the middle of October, he took his lunch box down into the basement stacks, where the pipework warmed the whole area and he was usually undisturbed. But occasionally, because the lunch break was staggered, other librarians had to come down in search of a book, even among the old stock that was housed here, and then he felt acutely self-conscious, found sitting on a high stool with his sandwiches and fruit and plastic cup of tea spread out on the ledge in front of him. The basement windows were always slightly grimy, but they only looked onto a side alley leading to the stores. He was perfectly happy with that, not wanting a view as he ate and read his paper. When librarians came, they never spoke to him. They walked along until they had located the required book and then walked out again.


Only June Petrie sometimes came, not to find a book, but to find him and only June Petrie whistled so irritatingly under her breath.

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