‘I put sugar in it as well.’ Jason set down the tray. He had brought two cups of coffee and two ring doughnuts.
‘No, Jase …’
‘You’re wasting away, Sandy. I don’t like it.’
It was true that she had lost almost half a stone since Debbie had gone missing. Jason sat on the edge of her desk. ‘No news then?’
Sandy shook her head. She had given up ringing the police station. Not that they weren’t always very nice to her, said of course they’d be in touch at once if … everything being done … following up a lot of leads … In other words, not a thing.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ Jason said, ‘they searched the Hill, right?’
‘Crawled all over it.’
‘But what were they looking for? I mean, they didn’t know Debbie, you did. They might have overlooked something you’d have spotted.’
‘That’s the problem.’
‘I don’t think they could have missed anything … there were so many of them, Jason. Though I suppose they were …’ she swallowed, then said quickly, ‘they were looking for bits of her clothing – or blood or … things.’
‘It’s OK, don’t get upset.’
‘It is upsetting. Sorry, I don’t mean to snap, sorry.’
‘No, you’re fine, don’t be daft. But I still wonder if there might be a point in you and me going up there, having a poke around.’
‘It would make me feel I was doing something. There’s not much else I can do except go over and over everything she said, everything she did, anything that might be a clue. But that’s just made me stay awake all night. I wouldn’t dare go up there by myself, but you’re right. I might just get some sort of feeling. Sounds stupid.’
‘No it doesn’t.’
‘I thought last night – I’ve begun to get angry with her, you know? If she’s gone off on purpose and she just isn’t letting anyone know, whatever the reason, whether she was depressed again or what, then I’m angry. I know that’s wrong but I can’t help it. Then I think, that isn’t Debbie, it just isn’t in her nature. She’s a very considerate person, she’s really thoughtful. She’d never, ever put us all through this. She’d have rung me or her dad or texted me. I’ve been her best friend since we were five, first day at infant school, Jase. I know Debbie. I just know something’s happened to her. But no one seems to want to do any more. They don’t talk about extending the inquiry or going nationwide with the appeal but they won’t say why. It’s really getting to me now. I’m angry all the time. If I’m not angry with her I’m angry with them.’
‘And it ain’t doing you any good. So what about going up there?’
‘Isn’t it still cordoned off?’
‘No, all the tapes and stuff have gone, I drove by this morning.’
‘That means they’ve given up then.’
‘Whatever. We haven’t.’
‘But what could we do?’
Jason got up. ‘I don’t know, babe, I just think you’d feel better for it.’
‘No. I couldn’t be there without thinking horrible thoughts. But thanks.’
He picked up his coffee and the remains of his doughnut and wandered off down the room to his own desk.
Sandy clicked on to the first file of the day and settled down to work. She was busy, which helped, and when three of the girls suggested a quick lunch in the bistro nearby she agreed with pleasure.
That evening, for the first since Debbie had gone, Sandy stayed home in the flat alone. She had been trying to avoid it and for a short while that had helped, but she was not a person to flinch from difficult things and having changed her mind and resolved to go to the Hill with Jason at the weekend, she was determined to face the empty flat now.
As soon as she got in, she put on the radio, found a station playing old hits and turned up Blondie singing ‘The Tide is High’. Sandy took it through to the bathroom, where she poured some purple liquid called Intensity into the water which brought foam frothing over the edge and on to the mat. It smelled exotic and she wallowed in it, while the music changed to Wings with ‘Mull of Kintyre’.
Come on, it’s not so bad, you’re doing fine.
After the bath, she spent half an hour giving herself a manicure and pedicure, fiddling about with different nail polishes, put on a face mask and then some rejuvenating cream she had bought that lunchtime, along with two new tops which were in carrier bags on the bed, to be tried on again later, after she had cooked pasta and fresh tomato and mushroom sauce with Parmesan and drunk a glass and a half of some white wine she found in the cupboard, left over from Christmas. Then there was Coronation Street and The Bill, a couple of cheques to write, and a new Penny Vincenzi novel to start. She should have done all this long ago. Running away never did anyone any good.
She went to bed not long after ten with her book and a cup of tea. She had changed the sheets, so that it felt cool and fresh.
She had read two pages of her book when, without warning and as a response to no particular thought or reminder, Sandy started to cry. She sat up and reached for the tissue box and then she cried for twenty minutes, tears of fear and anxiety pouring down her face, tears that released all the pent-up strain of the past week, tears that came with great gulping sounds. She missed Debbie, she dared not imagine what had happened to her or where she was but she was terrified that Debbie was not alive.
The thought had been pushed down inside her for days; she had been optimistic and cheerful, determined there was a logical explanation – maybe not a simple one, or one that she would like, but an explanation all the same, and that when she had heard it, from Debbie, she would be able to sort things out.
Now, she accepted that there could be no explanation other than the worst of all. She had spoken the truth when she had told Jason that Debbie was the last person to disappear without warning. Wherever her friend had gone, if it had been to try and solve some problem she had never spoken about, she would still have been in touch, with her of all people. They had never failed to tell one another things that were important since they had been little girls in the playground. Debbie was dead. Someone had attacked her and taken her away. Someone had killed her. Someone was hiding her. She said it over and over to herself as she wept, and in the end had to go to wash her face in cold water in an effort to calm herself down.
Then she went back to bed, and lay, still crying, not wanting to put out the light, not able to read, but for hour after hour wondering, wondering and dreading.
The blue suit, the brown-and-pink print two-piece, and a plain mauve jumper and tweed skirt were laid out on the bed, but she was no nearer deciding which would be right to wear, and then, suddenly, she saw the funny side of it. There had to be a funny side.
Here I am, Iris Chater thought, dithering about what clothes would be right, as if I were going out to a smart lunch when what I’m going to is … but she could hardly bring herself to think the word. Still, it was funny; as if it mattered what anyone wore when they went to a group evening with a medium, as if people were going to judge her by her clothes, or even notice her at all.
She put the blue suit and the two-piece back in the wardrobe and kept out the jumper and skirt.
It had taken her a long time to decide. She had left the idea alone, after she had visited Sheila Innis the first time, partly because it worried her, but mainly because she was still upset about Harry not having come to speak to her. All the rest had been too strange to sort out and the suggestion of going to a group had taken some working through as well. In the end it was curiosity that had decided her. Now she had met the woman, and not been frightened by sitting with her alone, hearing things about her own past she had all but forgotten, getting messages from people she hadn’t thought of for fifty years, she had known she would go to the seance eventually and then it had just been a case of waiting until what seemed like the right moment.
She was feeling brighter in herself and the lighter mornings and evenings helped, and the fact that she could get out to do a bit in the garden. The end of the day was the worst. She missed Harry the most then and never seemed to be able to settle easily to anything. But in the day she went out more, even if it was only shopping, and once a week to the hairdresser and twice she and Pauline had gone on the bus into Bevham for the day, with lunch out. She saw plenty of Pauline but not in the same dependent way. In the end, though, Iris had told her about the visit to the medium; it had been Pauline who had first suggested it after all, and secrets always came out in the end. She wasn’t ashamed. Pauline had been interested and very understanding and sympathetic about Harry’s silence.
All the same, something held her back from saying that she was going to a group seance. Maybe she would talk about it eventually, maybe she wouldn’t.
She would get the bus part of the way there, then walk the last bit, and if it was very late finishing, she might get a taxi home. Harry had never been happy about her being out by herself after dark, and made her take taxis once he had stopped driving the car, so she always had the numbers with her. She couldn’t imagine Mrs Innis would mind her ringing for one. She had said to be there at seven. ‘There’ll be six others, Mrs Chater, and you’ll find everyone very friendly and the whole meeting quite informal and relaxed.’
She had gone on to ask Iris about herself, whether she was feeling more able to cope.
‘The only thing is, there are days when it doesn’t seem as if he’s in the house at all and he was always there, at the beginning as soon as I walked in, I said, “Hello, Harry,” because I knew he was there.’
‘He’s still with you all the time, but you have been getting out more, spending less time thinking only about him, focusing on him.’
‘I still miss him, I do still think of him a lot of the time.’
‘We have to move forward. Our loved ones don’t want us to try and live in the past. But they’re never far away.’
She’d felt better then.
When she left the house, the biting wind had dropped so that, although it was cold, it was pleasant to walk. As planned, she got off the bus a stop early, to calm her nerves.
All the stories her mother used to tell about table-turning and Ouija boards revolved round her head, all those spooky happenings behind drawn curtains. Everyone went to seances then, they were an entertainment, but when she was young, she had hated to hear about them, hated the relish in her mother’s voice when she talked about whoever had ‘come through’ and what the medium had looked like in a trance, ‘all white-faced and peculiar’. She tried to keep the pleasant room in Sheila Innis’s house in mind, the comfortable chair and the vases of flowers and nice curtains, the fat cat Otto.
As she turned into the avenue, she heard footsteps behind her. An elderly man walked past and nodded ‘Good evening’, as he went on ahead.
A couple of minutes later, she saw him turn into the gate of the medium’s house, so that they stood together on the doorstep.
‘Same destination, then. I don’t think we’ve met here before, have we?’
‘No, this is my first time … well, I’ve seen Mrs Innis.’
‘But not been to a seance? You’ll find it very interesting, very. I’m Jim, Jim Williams.’
They were shaking hands as Sheila Innis opened the door.
This time it was a different room with a long table and chairs. The curtains were drawn and the lamps lit, so that when she walked in, Iris Chater felt quite comfortable, almost at home, and Jim Williams took the seat next to her after leaving his coat. There were five others, four women all middle-aged to elderly and a younger man. He looked unhappy, Iris thought, ill at ease and downcast; he was pale, with a bad skin, and dark circles beneath his eyes, and when he showed his hands, she saw how bitten the nails were.
Sheila Innis came in. ‘How nice to see you all. Good evening, everyone.’
They all murmured except the young man, who seemed to slip down in his chair as if hoping to disappear.
The medium took her place at the top of the table. She wore a cream blouse with a row of blue beads and a pale blue jacket. Smart, Iris thought, and wondered if she should have worn the two-piece after all.
‘We have to welcome just one new guest this evening. Iris, if I may introduce you in that way. We don’t like to be too formal.’
They all looked at her and smiled, and Iris felt welcome and as if she belonged with them. She wondered why she had been so nervous. Only the young man looked away. The medium hadn’t introduced him as new, so he must be familiar with it all. Iris wondered about him. A tragedy, she decided, a young wife? Something he’s never recovered from.
The lights dimmed, though no one had got up to touch a switch. There must be a clever arrangement under the table. One standard lamp set behind Sheila Innis remained a little brighter, though it left her face shadowed. Everyone had gone very still.
‘Let us bow our heads and ask for a blessing on our circle tonight. Let us invite our spirit guides to join us and for our loved ones on the other side to come near. Let us at the same time warn any disturbed, malicious or mischievous spirits to leave us and to seek guidance and peace in other realms.’
It was like praying, but not quite the same. Iris closed her eyes and folded her hands and imagined herself in church, saw the altar and the cross. Then, she tried to picture Harry but could not. She opened her eyes again quickly. Bent heads, hands folded on the table. The lamp shining on the medium. The quietness in the room. Her heart began to beat too fast. She looked at Sheila Innis. Her face was stiff and without expression, her eyes closed, her head tipped slightly back. No one spoke. Nothing moved. Iris saw the leather binding on the cuff of Jim Williams’s sports jacket, out of the corner of her eye.
‘I have someone with me … a young woman, a very attractive young woman. She has an unusual bangle on her wrist … I can’t see it closely … come nearer, dear, show me the bangle … thank you, now she’s holding it up. It’s silver … and in the shape of a snake … the head and tip of the tail come together at her wrist but don’t quite meet. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Does anyone …?’
‘It’s Carol. My Carol had a bangle like that, she went on holiday to Bali and brought it back, it wasn’t long before she was killed, it was her last holiday. Is she saying anything? Does she look all right?’
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