The building was dim and silent. Cat’s footsteps echoed on the wooden stairs, up and up, four narrow flights. At each landing she pushed the timed light switch, which always clicked off just before she made it to the next. Serrailler. The same lettering on the plate beside the bell.
‘Cat, Hi!’ Her brother bent from his six feet four to envelop her in a bear hug.
‘I had an early call and then went to the seven o’clock service.’
‘So you’re here for breakfast.’
‘Coffee anyway. I shouldn’t think you’ve got any food in. How was Italy?’
Simon went into the kitchen but Cat did not follow, not yet, she wanted to luxuriate in this room. It ran the length of the house and had long windows. From the kitchen there was a glimpse of the Hill.
The white-painted wooden shutters were folded back. The polished old elm floorboards had two large good rugs. Light poured in, on to Simon’s pictures and his few carefully chosen pieces of furniture which mixed antiques and contemporary classics with confident success. Beyond this one huge room, he had a small bedroom and bathroom tucked out of the way, and then the galley kitchen. Everything centred here, in this one calm room, where Cat came, she thought, for almost the same reasons she went to church – peace, quiet, beauty and spiritual and visual recharging of her batteries. Nothing about her brother’s flat bore any relation to her own hugger-mugger farmhouse, always noisy and untidy, spilling over with children, dogs, wellington boots, bridles and medical journals. She loved it, that was where her heart was, where she had deep roots. But a small, vital nugget of herself belonged here, in this sanctuary of light and tranquillity. She thought it was probably what kept Simon sane and able to do his often stressful and distressing job as well as he did.
He brought in a tray with the cafetière of coffee and took it over to the beechwood table in the window that overlooked the close and the back of the cathedral. Cat sat cupping her hands round the warm pottery mug, listening to her brother describe Siena, Verona and Florence, in each of which he had just spent four days.
‘Was it still warmish?’
‘Golden days, chilly nights. Perfect for working outside every day.’
‘Can I see anything?’
She knew better than to push Simon into showing her any of his drawings before he had selected what he considered the best and fit to be looked at by anyone else.
When he had finished school, Simon had gone to art college, against the wishes, advice and above all the ambitions of their parents. He had never shown the slightest interest in medicine, unlike every other Serrailler for generations, and no amount of pressure had persuaded him even to continue sciences beyond O level. He had drawn. He had always drawn. He had gone to art school to draw – not to take photographs, design clothes or do computer graphics, and certainly not to study installation or conceptual art. He drew beautifully, people, animals, plants, buildings and odd corners of everyday life, in streets, markets, all manner of public places. Cat loved his inspired line and cross-hatching, his rapid sketches, the wonderfully observed and executed detail. Twice a year and for some snatched weekends in between, he went to Italy, Spain, France, Greece or further afield to draw. He had spent weeks in Russia, a month in Latin America.
But he had not completed his art school course. He had been disappointed and disillusioned. No one, he said, wanted him to draw or was in the slightest bit interested in teaching or promoting drawing. He had gone instead to King’s College, London, and read law, got a first and immediately joined the police force, his other passion since childhood. He had been fast-tracked into the CID and up the ranks to become a DCI, aged thirty-two.
In the force, the artist who signed his work Simon Osler – Osler was his middle name – was unknown, as was DCI Simon Serrailler to those who went to his sellout exhibitions in places far from Bevham and Lafferton.
Cat refilled her mug. They had caught up with Simon’s holiday, her family and oddments of local gossip. The next bit would be more difficult.
‘Si – there is one thing.’
He glanced up, catching her tone, his face wary. How strange it is, Cat thought, that he and Ivo are two men of triplets and yet so unlike they might not even be brothers. Simon was the only one for generations to have fair hair, though his eyes were the Serrailler eyes, and dark as sloes. She herself was recognisably Ivo’s sister, though none of them saw much of him now. Ivo had worked as a flying doctor in the Australian outback, happy as Larry, for the past six years. Cat doubted if he would ever come back home.
‘It’s Dad’s birthday next Sunday.’
Simon looked out at the shifting cloudscape above the cathedral. He said nothing.
‘Mum’s doing lunch. You will come, won’t you?’
‘Yes.’ His voice gave away nothing.
‘It’ll mean a lot to him.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Don’t be childish. Let it go. You know you can get lost in the throng – God knows there’ll be enough of us.’
She went to rinse her coffee mug in the steel sink. Simon’s kitchen, in which little more than coffee and toast were ever made, had cost a lot of trouble and a small fortune. Cat often wondered why.
‘I must get back and relieve Chris from pony duty. Work tomorrow then?’
Simon’s face relaxed. They were on safe ground again. Fifteen days abroad, completely cut off from home and his job, was more than enough for him, Cat knew. Her brother lived for his work and his drawing, and then for his life here in the flat. She accepted everything about him completely, and only occasionally wished that there was more. She knew of one thing, but it was a subject they only discussed if he raised it. He rarely did.
She gave him another hug and left quickly. ‘See you next Sunday.’
When his sister had gone Simon Serrailler showered, dressed and made a second pot of coffee. In a moment, he would unpack and go through the work he had done in Italy, but first, he put in a call to Bevham CID. Work might not begin again officially until the following day but he could not wait until then to catch up, check which cases, if any, had been closed in his absence and more importantly find out what was new.
Two and a half weeks was a long time.
I wonder if you ever realised how much I hated the dog? We had never had a pet of any kind. Then, when I came home from school one afternoon, it was there. I can see you, sitting in your chair with the brown leather pouffe under your feet and your spectacles and library book on the table beside you. For a second, I didn’t notice it. I went over to kiss you as usual, and then I saw it – the dog. It was a very small dog, but not a puppy.
‘What is that?’
‘Why has it come?’
‘I’ve always wanted a pet.’
The dog’s eyes, bright as beads, gleamed out at me from between long strands of silky hair. I hated it.
‘Don’t you love her?’ you said.
I can tell you now how much I hated the dog, hated it because it was your pet and you loved it but also hated it just for itself. The dog sat on your lap. The dog licked your face with a lilac-pink tongue. The dog took titbits from your hand. The dog slept on your bed. The dog hated me as much as I hated it. I knew that.
But strangely enough, if it had not been for the dog, I might never have discovered what I wanted to become, what my destiny was.
I know you remember the day. I was lying on the hearthrug teasing the dog by waving my fingers under its nose until it snapped, then whipping them away. I became very good at timing it to the split second and I know I would never have been caught if I had just continued in the same way, doing the same thing over and over again. But I made one mistake. Afterwards I was angry with myself for my own stupidity. It taught me to make a plan and then stick to it. I learned a lot that day, didn’t I, from a single mistake? Instead of waving my fingers under the dog’s nose I leaned over it and made a growling noise, thinking I would confuse it and that it would be frightened of me. I wanted it to be frightened of me. Instead, it sprang up and bit my face, tearing a piece of flesh out of my upper lip.
I was sure you would have to take the dog to be destroyed, for doing that to me, but you told me that it was my own fault.
‘Perhaps that will teach you not to tease her,’ you said. Can you understand how hurt I was by that? Can you?
I had never been to a hospital. You took me there on the bus, with a clean handkerchief pressed to my lip. I did not know what a hospital would be like. I had no idea that it would be an exciting place, and beautiful, and dangerous, and yet also a place of the greatest comfort and safety. I wanted to stay for ever among the white beds and shining trolleys and powerful people.
What they did to me hurt. They bathed my lip in antiseptic. I loved its smell. Then they stitched my upper lip. The pain was indescribable yet I loved the doctor who did it, and the nurse in the shining white cap who held my hand. You had stayed outside.
So, you see, the fact that you loved the dog more than you loved me and that you betrayed me with it, did not matter in the end because I had found my way. I can even forgive you for the betrayal because yours was not the worst. That came later. I got over your betrayal but the other never, because I was betrayed by what I had to love. I did not love you.
I have never told you that. But now I am telling you everything. We are agreed on that, aren’t we?
Thursday morning and the dawn just coming up through a dove-grey mist. Mild air.
On the Hill, a velvet green island emerging out of a vaporous sea, the trees are all but bare, but the patches of scrub and bramble which lie like body hair in the hollows and folds are still berried and have the last of their leaves. Halfway up the Hill are the Wern Stones, ancient standing stones like three witches squatting round an invisible cauldron. In daylight, children run in and out of them, daring one another to touch the pock-marked surfaces and at midsummer, robed figures gather to dance and chant. But they are laughed at and known to be harmless.
At this hour in the morning a few runners are making their way up and down and round the Hill, pounding intently, always alone, noticing nothing. Two are out this morning, men running seriously in silent shoes. No woman. After a time, as the light strengthens and the quilt of mist rolls back upon itself, three young men on mountain bikes race up the sandy track to the summit, straining, panting, aching, but never dismounting.
An old man walks a Yorkshire terrier and a woman two Dobermanns, around the Wern Stones and briskly back down to the path.
At night there may be people on the Hill, though not the runners and cyclists.
Later the sun rises, blood red over the scrubby bushes and brambles and mossy grass, touching the Wern Stones, picking out scraps of blown paper, the white scut of a fleeing rabbit, a dead crow.
No one sees anything unusual out on the Hill. People walk, run, ride there but find nothing, report nothing to alarm them. It is just the same as always, with its standing stones and crown of trees, yielding no secrets. Vehicles keep to the paved paths, and in any case it has rained; any tyre marks have been washed away.
Debbie Parker lay in bed, curled tight, knees drawn up. Outside her window the sun shone, bright for a December morning, but her curtains were dark blue and closed.
She heard Sandy’s alarm, Sandy’s shower water, Sandy’s Radio BEV, but none of what she heard meant anything to her. When Sandy had gone to work Debbie could sleep again, sleep her way through a silent morning, shutting out the sun, the day, life.
There was always a split second when she woke and felt OK, felt normal, ‘Hey, it’s day, here we go,’ before the crushing, blackening misery crawled across her brain like a stain seeping across absorbent paper. Mornings were bad and since she had lost her job were getting worse. She woke to headaches that fogged her mind and dragged her down, lasting half the day. If she made a mighty effort, went out and walked around the town – did anything – the pain got slowly better. Mid-afternoon and she felt she could cope. Evenings were often quite good. Nights were not, even if she had had a few drinks and fallen into bed if not cheerful then at least not caring. She woke around three with a start, heart beating too hard, sweating with fear.
Go away. Don’t come in here.
‘Ten to eight.’
The door opened, shooting light across the wall.
‘Cup of tea?’
Debbie did not move, did not speak. Go away.
‘Come on …’
The curtains were rasped open. The noise was like having her teeth pulled. Sandy Marsh, bouncy, bubbly, bright – and concerned. She sat on Debbie’s bed.
‘I said I’ve brought you some tea.’
‘You’re not OK.’
‘Tell me I’m right out of order here, but I think you need to go and see the doctor.’
‘I’m not ill,’ Debbie mumbled into the yeasty hollow of bedclothes.
‘You’re not well either. Look at you. Maybe you’ve got that thing called SAD … it is December. It’s a fact that more people top themselves in December and February than the rest of the year.’
Debbie sat up, throwing off the duvet in one fierce thrust. ‘Oh great. Thanks.’
Sandy’s bright, cheerfully made-up face was creased with concern. ‘I’m sorry. Kick me. Sorry. Oh God.’
Debbie was crying leaning forward on her arms. Sandy reached out to hug her.
‘You’ll be late,’ Debbie said.
‘Stuff late. You’re more important. Come on.’
In the end, Debbie got up and trailed to the shower. But before the shower came the mirror.
The acne was worse. Her whole face was scarred and blemished by the angry, infected rash. It spread down her neck and on to her shoulders. She had been to the doctor about it once, months ago. He had given her foul-smelling yellow ointment to spread on twice a day. It had greased her clothes and made the bedclothes stink and done her spots no good at all. She hadn’t bothered to finish the pot and hadn’t been back to the surgery. ‘I hate doctors,’ she said to Sandy, sitting in their kitchen, full of cheap DIY units whose doors kept falling off. Sandy had made toast and two more mugs of tea.
They had known each other since primary school, grown up in the same street, and rented the flat together eight months ago when Sandy’s mother had remarried and living at home had become difficult. But what should have been good fun somehow never had been. Debbie had lost her job when the building society closed its Lafferton branch and then the blackness had started to creep up on her.
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