This is the second part of my psychological crime novel. I loved walking the streets of around Marylebone and Oxford Street when I was writing it. In this section, my character Sam's obsession with her boss and Daniel deepens. But I do think she had legitimate reasons to worry...
For me weekends aren’t always welcome, but that next one was. Last Saturday’s walk had been so enjoyable that I decided to explore the canal to the west. I enjoyed inspecting the backs of the elegant Islington houses and gardens, so different from the estates and industrial conversions I was getting used to. It was a huge disappointment when, after no time at all, I came to a tunnel and the path ended. Annoyingly, I’d left my A-Z at home because I’d thought I wouldn’t need it. I had to rely on a very basic, faded map nailed to a railing that showed where I needed to go to pick up the path again but it seemed far away, almost at King’s Cross.
I committed the key street names to memory – Chapel Market, Caledonian Road – and decided that as long as I kept the BT tower and the station clock on my left, I’d be fine, which I was. When I dropped onto the towpath I could see the black, gaping mouth of the other end of the tunnel. So I hadn’t really missed a step of the journey after all. My satisfaction restored my confidence, and I set off towards Maida Vale.
The journey was totally different. There were nice new buildings, like before, and I followed the railway line, passed warehouses and factories, saw endless glossy billboards promoting all the new development around St Pancras. But the path was muddier, the tunnels dark and dank, everything seemed more primitive: the trees wilder, and the birds larger; I even saw swans. It felt lonely, and it was true that there were fewer people. It wasn’t a route to take for pleasure.
All that changed at Camden Lock which was my discovery of the day. I liked the approach to the bustle of the market from that unexpected angle. I stopped and bought a tray of noodles for my lunch. I ate them, sitting on a bench, watching people try on elaborate clothes and jewellery. The excitement of the crowd easily rivalled Oxford Street. After a break, I decided to carry on. I’d walked about a mile, I calculated, and the signs promised that Little Venice was just another two away. I could be home before it got dark and, cheerfully exhausted, there would be no obligation to stay up late on a long and lonely Saturday night.
After a brilliant night’s sleep, I met Tom, just after eleven, in front of Charing Cross station. It’s one of the loveliest times to meet people you know well in London because the tourists haven’t yet got going. We had brunch in a cafe on the Strand. Tom, in typical cabbie cliché style, favoured fry-ups but with me he had two paninis with coffee washed down like it was water. Those breakfasts cost us a fortune, but we liked them. Afterwards, we mooched up towards Covent Garden piazza.
‘It’s Ruth’s birthday in the week,’ he told me, ‘so I’d better buy a present.’
I said I needed new shoes for the autumn. I hated the ‘here-I’m-coming’ sound last year’s boots made, although they were still perfectly wearable. Tom then decided he needed some new clothes, so we planned an afternoon’s shopping. We looked in the smart men’s boutiques in King Street and he bought a denim jacket that was on sale. After that we thought about a present for his great-aunt. Tom said Ruth liked anything to do with history and suggested we look in the Transport Museum shop, but that was more for his amusement. I suggested Past Times and it was there that we found a suitable gift.
Outside the shop we heard an opera singer performing something that Tom said he recognized from a school outing long ago. We stood on the balcony and peered down at the lower level where people were seated at tables, drinking coffee, taking a break from some heavy-duty shopping, maybe. Some of them were avoiding the rain. Yesterday had been overcast but it hadn’t spoilt my walk. Now heavy drops began to patter against the curved glass roof. I listened to the music and the rain, enjoying both sounds, until I felt Tom tug firmly at my sleeve.
He said, pointing, ‘Let’s head over there a moment ...’
I looked across to the other side of the balcony. ‘But that’s a children’s clothes shop.’
‘No, no – not there ...’
Already he’d begun to move, so I followed, almost losing him in the crowd as we rounded the railings. He wasn’t looking at me but I could tell he was tense. He turned left and stopped abruptly. I wondered why until someone stumbled out of a shop, someone who almost fell on top of him. A tall, leggy blonde woman. She was about my height, but dwarfed by Tom. Younger than us both. Pretty.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry ...’ she muttered. ‘I thought—’ And she vanished.
Of course I didn’t think that the woman had anything to do with Tom until I caught his expression, which seemed utterly new, and a strange cross of recognition and guilt. I almost asked, ‘Do you know her?’ but then he put his arm around me and we nudged our way safely through the crowds, despite the rain. Moments like that were what bound us, long after we’d mastered the Knowledge. He was my rock, my protector. Besides, with all my concern for Jo, I didn’t want to have to worry about Tom as well.
We had coffee and decided to see a film at the 6.45 pm screening. We chose our seats early, because Tom didn’t like to be surrounded by too many people in case they complained that they couldn’t see over his head. Also, it was bad enough being bunched up in the narrow chairs without having to get up and down to let people through. As always, however, we had to do lots of rearranging of bags and tucking our knees in to let people pass back and forth.
At last we were settled, waiting for the ads to roll. Tom said, ‘I’m meeting an old mate next Saturday. I’m working, but afterwards, I could drive over to your place and leave the cab, and get the tube or walk. Fancy coming? He’s a laugh, Will. You’d like him.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk about Will,’ I said.
‘Hadn’t seen him for years until yesterday. I pulled up at some lights in Kentish Town and there he was, waiting to cross. Got the shock of my life. So you’re up for it? He’s got a shop in Camden High Street and has this stall—’
‘Of course you can stay.’ It came out in too much of a rush. ‘In fact, where I’m living now, it’s much closer to Camden.’
Tom turned toward me as best he could. I felt his arm slide from my shoulder. ‘Sorry?’
I twisted away from him, slightly. ‘I’ve moved out of Nadia’s.’
He looked hurt, and it was my turn to be guilty. ‘Oh, right.’ He paused, thinking hard. ‘So ... what happened, then? You haven’t gone and had a falling out, have you? I mean, I know there was a problem with—’
‘No,’ I interrupted, knowing we’d soon get cut off by the first of the trailers. I was longing for it, actually. ‘I got another offer. A better one.’
‘Well, that’s all right then.’ For a moment he’d brightened, but then was dismayed. ‘A bit sudden, isn’t it? I mean, when did it happen – you never said anything ... I could have helped you move.’
‘I moved last weekend, and you were working. It was fine. Dad organized it.’
‘OK. So ... tell me more!’
‘It’s in Islington. A warehouse conversion by the canal. Lots of narrowboats. It’s ...’ I hesitated. I swallowed hard. ‘It’s Jo and Adam’s flat. I’m house-sitting while they’re away.’
His whole body slackened, as if he’d been winded. I swear, he seemed to shrivel to half the size he really was. As if he might slip away completely. I wanted to do the same. Why hadn’t I realized that moving into Jo’s would be a terrible idea?
And yet, I challenged him fiercely. ‘Mum suggested it.’ I looked at him square on. ‘I’m doing it to help Jo and Adam out. Keep an eye on things …’
‘Oh, shit, Sam. Oh, fuck.’ The people in the row in front turned and glowered until they registered Tom’s physical presence. I got the feeling that he wanted to be invisible. He certainly couldn’t bear to look at me. ‘That’s great, that is, really great.’
I hadn’t dared imagine how he would respond. In a brittle voice I said, ‘Tom, please, don’t be like this.’
After the longest moment, he calmed himself. He placed his hands on his knees, as if containing anger. His fists were clenched.
‘I wanted to tell you,’ I said. The curtains parted and the screen crackled with light and noise. ‘I really did, I just— it’s all happened so fast …’ The echo of Jo’s words chilled me like a burn.
Music thundered. It was a kind of reprieve. Tom tried to smile. ‘Forget it, Sam. It’s OK. Let’s just – not talk about it. Watch the movie. Please.’
Next morning, I made toast and tea and we left the flat. He hugged me close, and offered by way of parting words, ‘Sorry about last night,’ he said. ‘I was surprised, that’s all.’
I’d woken on edge, feeling icy cold, but at once began to melt. ‘In what way?’
‘Moving into Jo’s place seemed like a stupid idea. But I’ve been thinking.’
‘You have?’ It was more than I had done, I realized. Tom’s efforts seemed like more than I deserved.
‘Yes.’ He was brimming with confidence. ‘I can see it all. Things will be better now, won’t they?’
For all Tom’s enthusiasm, he hadn’t explained his change of heart. But he seemed keen to elaborate so I let him. ‘Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Now that Jo’s gone it’s easier for everyone.’
Calmly, I asked, ‘Easier how?’
‘You don’t need to worry about hiding behind other people.’
Edgier now, shrinking from his touch: ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
He shrugged and said, ‘Look, I know it can’t have been easy for you in the past. Always being overshadowed by Jo. I’ve never liked it, to be honest.’
I tensed. What on earth was he talking about? ‘Haven’t you? That’s a shame. Because it’s never bothered me.’
He looked doubtful. ‘Oh really? Well ... I never liked it because ... well—’ he hesitated, but there was a smile trembling on his lips ‘—I’ve always thought you were the best. Better than Jo, I mean. Funnier and warmer and more beautiful, actually. So I’m really pleased that Jo’s off the scene. Oh, Sam, I don’t mean that harshly—’
‘Sounds pretty harsh to me.’
‘I don’t, believe me,’ he implored. ‘It’s the same when Abby left, and gave us the chance to be on our own. It was a shock at first but I was pleased. There, I’ve said it. I thought it would be all right after that, but we still had Jo, didn’t we? Occupying the limelight. You and I never had a chance.’
‘Abby and Jo haven’t got anything—’ But I couldn’t finish. My throat was dry. I took a deep breath and forced out words: ‘I won’t let you talk about my sister like that. In fact, you’d better stop anyway because you’re just sounding more and more ridiculous with every word. I could argue back, but what’s the point? Enough to say you’ve got it completely and totally wrong. I think it would be better if you just left me alone.’
‘Sam, don’t be like that. Don’t just walk away ...’
But that’s exactly what I did. He’d insulted me as Daniel had done, so he deserved the same treatment. Only I knew that it wasn’t the same. I hadn’t given Daniel much of a chance but the opportunity I’d given Tom was even less, when he deserved more. Why was that? Because I didn’t like what he was saying? Because he was speaking honestly and that reminded me of the secrets I’d kept from him?
It could have been that, I suppose, but it was also this: he had spoken to me as he’d never done before and while he selected the right moment, perhaps, he’d got the words wrong. Just like I said at the start. But thinking about it now, I’m pretty sure part of me wouldn’t have welcomed hearing it after all this time. Because I didn’t love him any more. Not enough, not in the right way.
At that moment, however, it was enough to be angry for what he had said and angry for what he hadn’t. And frightened – no, I don’t do afraid, but alarmed, for sure – that both of us really had said too much, and that this would be our final conversation.
That day, Monday, 9 October, marked a calendar month since Jo and Adam had left for Australia. They’d endured a third of their secondment without giving any grounds for concern. Otherwise, it was an ordinary Michael Coady Associates day. We had a full house and everyone needed me in some way or another. Time flew.
There was a third significance, back in Islington – a fourth if you counted the day as the first without Tom as my boyfriend (but I wouldn’t do that yet). I watched the news and cooked some dinner, and looked at a map, planning a walk for the weekend. Maybe I could aim for the flower market in Columbia Road. Brick Lane was the book my radio friend had given me, which reminded me I’d received no response to my e-mail of thanks. I looked for my i-Pod, but discovered that in the rush of leaving Nadia’s, I must have left it behind. Or had it been ‘borrowed’ previously without my permission? In her instructions/guidance for the flat, Jo had created my own user name and password for their laptop so I could download whatever music I liked.
It was quite late by the time I got to bed, so I’d not been asleep for long when I was woken, not by the comforting plash of the canal, but disturbances, first in the car park beneath, then from inside the building. It could have been some drunken, late-night reveller, stumbling about, looking for home.
I might have expected mysterious items in the post with more alarming decorations than FINAL WARNING printed on them to keep my anxieties stoked to the brim. I wasn’t courting trouble, but everyone knows it’s hard to maintain absolute privacy. Our details are everywhere. But I don’t think I ever expected trouble to come in the form of a person.
So I smiled to think that on a different occasion it could have been Jo and Adam, a little too boisterous and clumsy after a big night out in town. A leaving do or birthday party, or matching hen and stag nights. Clubbing. On a weeknight? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d coaxed Tom to go dancing. Did Jo and Adam ever have to worry about disturbing Dale and Gerry Hutchence? I could easily imagine the older, carefree couple returning just as late.
I expected the footfalls to subside but instead they got closer. How had they managed to get inside the security gates? Someone might have left the downstairs door ajar, or been neighbourly and saved a possible resident the effort of fumbling tipsily for keys in a bag ...
My own front door was deadlocked, at least. But would that deter whoever was outside? Right outside, in fact, leaning against the door, nudging the lock with something hard and blunt. If the intruder’s ambition was to break in it seemed a long way off being realized, but they weren’t deterred. No one was trying to stop them, either. Was it better to keep quiet, in the hope that if deterred by the stubborn lock, they wouldn’t be spurred on by the thought of a victim inside? Supposing they had a victim in mind.
What if this person thought the flat was empty? That would explain the late-night nature of the attempt. Maybe they wanted to break in and search amongst Jo and Adam’s things. Was I concealing something significant – unwittingly protecting something dangerous? Jo would never have set me up like that. Would Adam? What if he had something to hide which she knew nothing about?
Then I thought: someone has come looking for Jo. So far, no friends had phoned, only cold callers asking with false confidence to speak with Mr Wilding and Ms Steadman, or Mrs Wilding, on one occasion. It must have been someone who didn’t know she’d gone away. If it were a distant acquaintance, did that mean there was more or less chance that they’d be here to deliver bad news or trouble?
It annoyed me that someone thought I was Jo. We’re not interchangeable. I was quick to consider the similarities between the Wildings but less so in my own family. Jo wins hands down in the beauty stakes but since that’s been the case since she was twelve it doesn’t upset me. I’m taller, if that counts for anything, and blonder – she colours her hair, as anyone looking on the Hegarty Lowe website would know. Her eyes are brown like Mum’s and mine, like Dad’s, are blue. We do look like sisters and I imagine teachers at Meade Park did say, ‘So you’re Samantha’s sister?’ but Jo would have accepted it only as an observation. She wouldn’t have interpreted it as a slur against either of us.
Who was it? Why? Had Jo’s e-mail included other warnings about break-ins or weird neighbours that I’d only skimmed over, because I wanted to trust my own instinct and experience instead? The noises themselves gave nothing away, so I tuned out, knowing they would stop. I lay there and listened, waiting, keeping panic at arm’s length. You might think it’s strange to be more bothered by ignorance than physical danger, that’s how I felt that night.
In the end I feel asleep, without knowing when or why the would-be intruder had surrendered. There wasn’t time to worry then, because I’d woken late. I’d have to catch the tube. Not that my feet would let me walk the whole way. My new shoes had made me suffer more than loss of sleep ever could. But more significant than anything else was the fact that Tom hadn’t phoned or even sent a text.
On the way to the office on Tuesday morning, I stopped at the West One shopping centre at Bond Street. I don’t much like shopping centres and big department stores. Being in them, I mean. I love looking over the kind of architectural plans which almost convince you shopping is an artform worthy of beautiful buildings.
Scanning the shelves in Boots for a box of plasters, I suddenly saw Daniel Wilding in a dark blue suit with a green tie, standing in the deep queues at the take-away Pret-a-Manger. Amid the surge of people around me, I was reassured by his familiar presence, as if last night’s isolation and vulnerability hadn’t quite left me.
I must thank him for the gift, I decided, but was annoyed because despite being next in the queue the woman in front had a basket laden with three-for-twos. Anxiously I watched Daniel dart between several streams of people and go up to pay. He moved forward and offered a note and then suddenly it was my turn to scrabble round in my purse for change. I paid and hurried out towards him. Dipping his head to bite into his almond croissant, he saw me approach and his face suddenly steeled.
For a moment I was frightened, because I thought I had frightened him. But it wasn’t a legacy of the awkwardness of our farewell in Cambridge, which I’d only just remembered. He swallowed, looked up, green eyes gleaming, and offered a crooked but attractive smile.
‘Samantha! What a nice surprise. Sorry, I’m—’ He indicated the croissant.
‘Don’t let me interrupt your breakfast,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to thank you for the parcel. It was so thoughtful.’
‘It’s a pleasure,’ he said, through a mouthful of crumbs. ‘I’m really sorry about this!’
‘Don’t be. You’re in a hurry, I can tell.’
He glanced across Oxford Street. ‘You must be on your way to— Davies Street, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right. And you’re – well, you’ve just come down from Marylebone?’ Why was he heading south when Bayswater was due west?
He smiled at my confusion. ‘I’ve got to get down to Southwark. Look, this isn’t the moment to chat but let’s have lunch sometime.’
‘Sure. That would be great. I’m free any day.’ I wasn’t sure why it sounded like a boast.
‘Well, I’ve got to come back this way later on. I’ve got a meeting on Regent Street at two-thirty.’
Was too soon? ‘Today would be fine.’
We made a plan to meet. He hadn’t mentioned Jo or Adam, I realized as I watched him walk away. Our common link, but not our only link. Perhaps he didn’t want to ruin the conversation, remembering the last time. I admired that. As I walked on through the leafy streets, I felt as light as air.
The feeling lasted all morning, but no one noticed, not even Michael, not even that I was having lunch earlier than usual. I allowed plenty of time but my destination wasn’t far, and I spent the spare minutes assessing St Christopher’s Place. It’s a pedestrianised shopping square, two blocks down from Marylebone High Street. But there wasn’t time to investigate the shop from which Daniel’s gift had been sent because someone came up behind me, suddenly, and tapped me on the shoulder.
‘I startled you, sorry!’ Daniel smiled and my anxiety faded. ‘Shall we grab a table?’ he said. ‘Unless you’d prefer to go elsewhere—’
Was Pizza Express, where I happened to be standing, too ordinary for him? I just said, ‘No, it’s fine.’ I looked around. Plenty of people were seated outside under thick white canvas umbrellas, warmed by gas burners. ‘Let’s go inside. How about that table in the window?’
Daniel nodded, and opened the door for me. Then he did something I couldn’t ever remember anyone else doing in my company. He switched off the mobile phone he’d been carrying in his left hand and placed it inside his jacket pocket. Even so, he looked aslightly ashamed, as if he felt he should have done that sooner. No glasses, I noted, answering my query from last time.
‘Good idea,’ I said weakly, and fumbled around in my bag for phone.
‘Do you like people-watching?’ Daniel asked once we’d been shown to a table.
I hadn’t noticed I had taken the seat looking out on to the square. I said no, not really. Then I thought about the girl Tom and I had seen in Covent Garden. Tom: what was he doing right now?
The waiter returned with menus, and asked what we wanted to drink. Daniel said, ‘Shall we have wine?’
‘OK, but just a glass. You’ve got a meeting,’ I reminded him, then realized it might sound disapproving. ‘Can you recommend something? Red, perhaps ...’
He chose Valpolicella. ‘And it’s going to be grim. The meeting. Maybe I ought to get drunk and go home, ill.’
I laughed and asked, ‘I was wondering about your place. Have you got a flat in a mansion block?’ I imagined a concierge and lots of red carpet, like an hotel.
‘No, it’s fifties, ex-local authority. The people who owned it before me bought it from Westminster Council about twenty years ago. They made a mint when they sold it and I will too, eventually, I hope.’
‘You and Adam are lucky to own your own places.’ Instantly I regretted the crassness of my remark. The awkwardness of our last encounter had returned.
Daniel didn’t seem to mind. ‘There’s a bit of family money knocking about. Speaking of places – how’s the flat working out?’
I said what I’d told everyone at work. ‘I’m really enjoying being there. It’s a brilliant location. I could never have imagined that I’d end up in Islington. I’ll bet Jo thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she saw it.’ Only this time, and quite unbidden, those final words thudded backwards through my head and I bit my tongue.
Died. Worse, the Meade Park girls’ voices mocked me. Deluded. Crazy.
‘I’ve only been there a couple of times,’ Daniel said.
‘I did wonder why my dad was asked to look in on the flat,’ I said, letting the blood dissolve. But really, I’d only just had the thought. ‘You live closer.’
Daniel shrugged. ‘Nobody asked me, and I suppose I didn’t think to offer.’
Our wine arrived. We glanced at the menus again, and ordered. I wondered if, like me, Daniel always had the same kind of pizza. I didn’t want to dwell on unease any more, but I remembered again the conversation we’d had in his car. Or started to have, before I cut him off. I hoped Daniel wouldn’t want to start it up again. So why did I begin to dig? ‘Is that because you’re not very close?’
Daniel raised his glass. ‘Cheers.’ He reflected for a moment. ‘Did I say that? Well, it depends what you mean. We get along very well. I really like Addy; he’s one of the good guys, when it’s all said and done. But I can’t say I think about him every minute of the day or that I’m very good at keeping in touch.’
‘But could you say you always know what’s going on in his life? If there was something wrong, would you be able to tell?’
‘I’d like to think so. But it wouldn’t just be up to me to spot it. Our parents would see it, and now Jo.’ He regarded me earnestly. ‘Are you worried, Samantha?’
Was my sudden and stumbling hesitation as good as a yes? I hurriedly said, ‘What do you mean?’
‘Are you worried about Jo and Adam being in Australia? About Jo.’
I coloured. ‘In what sense?’
‘Well, I presume Jo told you about Addy. To his credit, he was completely honest with her, as he ought to have been. And the bad days are firmly in the past. He’s been a new man since meeting your sister. He knows how lucky he is and knows better than to mess it up. And for once it didn’t take our telling him—’
‘Daniel,’ I interrupted. This was worse than stirring. He was deliberately trying to unsettle me. I wouldn’t succumb. But what I said was only the truth. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jo didn’t explain anything.’
It was as if expressions were jostling for position on his face. I saw regret, as if he’d already said too much, or out of turn, but also excitement, as if he’d delight in dishing the dirt on his brother. But I didn’t dislike him for it, and not just because he also had that crooked smile which I had warmed to. So I decided to go along with him. When he said, ‘It’s true that Adam used to be a bit lawless ...’ I leaped in, as he expected me to, with ‘What do you mean by “lawless”?
Daniel didn’t know that I had plenty of possible answers. Joyriding. Burglary. Drugs, which was a subject I knew too much about – had Jo told Daniel? Had there been a scandal at Adam’s last job? Something that had brought about the end of his film-making and photography?
‘Cavalier, I suppose you could say,’ he said, ‘when it comes to relationships. He’s left a string of broken hearts, or hearts which thought they were broken. I’m sure they all mended, quite glad to be rid of him in the end.’ He leaned forward, and clasped his hands. I wondered if he wanted to place them over mine to anchor me and offer reassurance. ‘Sam,’ he intoned, ‘you’re worried about Jo being on the other side of the world. Obviously you are.’ He waited for me to nod but I sat quite still, waiting for him to finish. ‘But you’ve no need to worry about Jo being with Addy.’
‘I’m not,’ I said. I could have resented his assumption about what I might be feeling, like last time. But I didn’t.
He leaned back, satisfied with the job well done. ‘Besides, you’ve heard from them, haven’t you? You’ve had the e-mails and the postcards.’
‘Yes. Why? What about them?’ An edge had crept back into my voice. Had the reports Daniel received differed from mine? Did he know anything that I didn’t? Had he been saving this up till last?
Almost violently, he burst out laughing. ‘Could they be more boring? Honestly, Samantha. My parents worried about them being stranded on an isolated motorway, their car broken down, no food, no water. And some thug stopping on the way and – well, we’ve all heard what happened to that young couple ...’
I gulped. ‘I read about that.’
‘Fact is,’ said Daniel, ‘as I told my parents, Adam and Jo wouldn’t get stranded because she’d have a job getting him to deviate from the cushy, well-trodden holiday trail, which has so far been the case. My brother is a notoriously feeble tourist. Gets car sick, if he’s a passenger, and he can’t read a map to save his life. As for the very idea of backpacking—’
‘Adam loathes roughing it. It’s a nice hotel for him or nothing. I’d put money on the fact that from Adam’s point of view, they could still be in London, apart from the sun. If Jo has any grounds for complaint, it’s that Adam is basically dull. But I hope she doesn’t.’
I remembered something. ‘I thought your brother was a keen photographer. A film-maker, even. That must involve a lot of travelling to new locations. Lots of interests.’
‘Perhaps it does to someone with more dedication.’ He shook his head. ‘Not Adam. So – tell me, Samantha. Is Jo disappointed?’
Jo had said that Adam had come on in leaps and bounds. Shouldn’t I defend him? Defend Jo’s judgement? I didn’t feel moved to do either. And that was the weirdest thing: more than not disliking Daniel for his wind-up merchant tactics. I didn’t feel as if I was just following a script, doing as he asked. I felt like I was being given the chance to know my own mind.
I wasn’t careless. ‘Jo sounds more than happy. But perhaps you’re right, Daniel. They don’t seem to have done anything particularly exciting.’ I forced a laugh and he smiled. We were endorsing each other. Nothing to do with Adam and Jo.
‘Not that I’m any position to criticize,’ Daniel added. ‘I’m no saint, when it comes down to it.’ He must have seen the pizzas coming and thought he could slip the admission in, knowing we’d be interrupted and that the conversation would move on to the food, the moment lost. ‘That’s quite enough about me.’
No it’s not, I thought eagerly to myself. I was glad not to have included Daniel in my assessment of the Wildings, so I could make it now. I definitely liked him. I felt happy in his company. He was the sort of person I wanted, perhaps needed, to have around. I knew that we would become good friends. Now I have to wonder if I really wanted more than that?
I should have subjected him to a thorough enquiry about his past. It isn’t as if I only pursue the ins and outs of things that worry me. Wouldn’t it make a fabulous change to search for happiness and excitement? Here’s what spoilt it. I’m still convinced that Daniel never tried to deceive me but I know I wasn’t completely honest with him. I’d thought of Tom at the beginning of our lunch, but would I have mentioned him again if Daniel hadn’t asked? I didn’t know what to say about Tom. We’d been apart for less than forty-eight hours and already it felt final. But it wasn’t an excuse. You can’t undo twelve years in five minutes. More importantly, we couldn’t separate yet because we still had to discover what had kept us together. So there was no question of starting something new that day. Timing is everything in my story, but the trouble is it’s rarely my sense of timing that’s in operation. This wasn’t the ‘window of opportunity’ Daniel would later tell me we were waiting for. He wasn’t ready to put his request to me, let alone strike an agreement. But I felt as if he had.
I’m not a fantasist. Of course I knew that I didn’t want Daniel because I couldn’t have Michael or Tom. He was no replacement figure. I didn’t want him because Jo had Adam, either. I wanted us to have a special friendship, nothing more than that. Even so, I was full of excitement. How can I describe it? Would it be too outrageous to suggest – or just too early? – that we’d just embarked on a dangerous affair.
‘Affair’ isn’t an appealing kind of word. I hadn’t used it to describe my university boyfriend, but you don’t when you’re nineteen. I’ll bet Jo has avoided it, too, although I still don’t know how she manoeuvred away from Robbie towards Adam. I followed some of her Facebook threads but she’d deleted the confessional chats or else she’d been discreet in the first place. It was probably the latter. Some sisters would have discussed it but not us. On that subject, I hadn’t run to Jo to tell her about Tom walking off the way he had. She hadn’t asked after him, but then she asked very little about my new existence.
How did Mum and Dad describe the relationship Dad had outside their marriage? Do words even matter? It was enough that Mum knew and that this was the source of the conflict in their marriage. I didn’t know how long it went on for, or if there was more than one other person involved. Maybe Dad justified his actions or begged for forgiveness when Mum threatened to throw him out. I’d always thought that something deeper than anything I’d seen or understood bound Mum and Dad. They were together from choice, not just circumstance. But I didn’t know for sure. There were some discussions, then, that were held in private. But they couldn’t stop us knowing about it. Besides, I saw what was going on.
One day in Jo’s second year at Meade Park, I’d forgotten my house key and so I went to his office for a lift home. Jo was on a music tour but I can’t remember why Mum wasn’t around. I saw his Vectra in the council chambers car park. He was in it, and he had someone who looked so like Mum beside him that I assumed it was Mum. At that time they were going through an especially hideous patch, and Mum refused to get into a car with him. So I was surprised to see her; more so when she started kissing Dad quite passionately. It was not my mother. I assumed it was someone he worked with, his social network not being very wide. It struck me odd that Dad would choose someone so like Mum. Why not just be nicer to Mum? I fled and spent an hour hanging round Brent Cross until I knew both parents would be home, and life would seem normal again.
There’s no way that I’d have stayed to investigate. There was no way I would say anything about it, either, definitely not to Jo. It would be another secret. People might think that I have a monopoly on secrets but that isn’t true.
Secrets isn’t a particularly nice word, either. How is it, anyway, that some people are described as secretive whereas others are just private? One’s a compliment, the other clearly isn’t. I think it’s fine not to tell everybody everything. If ever I’m in any doubt about that, I often think of Zita’s truthful comment about other people’s relationships. Why bother to find out if you haven’t got a hope of understanding?
Pizza Express pizzas don’t stay hot for long, so you can’t string out a meal in their restaurants. Perhaps that’s what the ‘express’ bit means. Daniel’s hunger – a croissant on the run is not a substantial breakfast, after all – meant we’d soon finished our food. We both had wine in our glasses and Daniel insisted he had time for coffee. The place was busy. People were queuing at the steamed-up door. We ignored them.
Even though he wasn’t ready to unleash his plan, Daniel did a much better job of preparing the ground than I managed. Maybe he didn’t hold to Zita’s view: he wanted to understand everything and was fearless in his attempts to succeed.
‘Tell me more about you,’ he said. ‘About your boyfriend. Remind me of his name?’
‘Tom.’ I gulped.
‘Have you been together long?’
Unaccountably, I found myself stumbling over my answer. ‘We’ve known each other almost thirteen years.’
‘You must have been very young!’
‘I was still at school, yes.’
‘Childhood sweethearts! That’s impressive!’ Daniel enthused.
‘We’ve never lived together. I guess I don’t really know where I want to end up.’
‘You must know London like the back of your hand.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, with Tom being a taxi driver and you having chummed him through the Knowledge.’
‘Oh, yes.’ I didn’t remember saying that. But it was true. Over nearly three years, we’d covered the four hundred routes, including all those government buildings, landmarks, theatres, stations; every feature of central London a passenger’s route might take in. We’d revised, on the phone and at weekends, for the written and oral exams, the ‘appearances’, and after that we did the city’s suburbs. Tom praised my excellent sense of direction. All along, he’d had to have another job. He’d driven a community centre bus in Harlesden and had worked in a supermarket. The entire process seemed to take for ever, but they had been amongst our happiest times.
‘It’s all to your credit to maintain your independence, Samantha. It must be tempting to move in with one another, easier to afford a mortgage, but it must put undue pressure on relationships. But – well, you’ve been together thirteen years. You’ve got things well and truly sorted. Obviously.’
‘I wouldn’t say that, exactly,’ I said, keen to move on. I’d said enough and felt the edge creep back. I didn’t want Daniel to by offended. ‘What about you?’
He looked down at his coffee cup. He looked about seven years old. I wanted the crooked smile to return. ‘Confession time. Do you really want to know?’
I nodded encouragingly. ‘If you want to tell me.’
‘I’m happy to,’ he said, not quite sounding as if he were. ‘At least it explains why I’m not as close to Adam as perhaps I ought to be. It’s been harder to keep tabs on him, you see, since Lily came along.’
‘Lily is—’ I began, but stalled, as if I was facing a huge wave of disappointment which might crush me.
‘Lily is my daughter. She’s five.’ His eyes locked with mine.
I didn’t mean to look disappointed but I know I did. ‘So you’re – you have a partner?’
‘You want to know about Lily’s mother?’ He looked solemn still but I knew that any moment a smile could break across his face.
‘Not if it’s prying ...’
‘Rebecca was sort of my girlfriend. Until she fell pregnant.’
There was still no smile. It would have made me dislike him and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be teased by him, either. I felt generally confused. I said, ‘You didn’t want children.’
‘No!’ he insisted, with a vehemence that stung. But he was nervously fingering his serviette at the same time. ‘Well, yes and no ... I mean, it was fantastic when Bec told me she was pregnant, but terrifying too.’ He paused, and drained his wine glass, because his coffee cup was empty. ‘We were too young,’ he explained. ‘We were careless – I was thoughtless, I realize that now.’ He nodded, mollified. ‘It wouldn’t have worked, us being a family. We both knew that.’
‘So what happened?’ I asked. ‘You left her when she was pregnant?’
‘We split up,’ he replied and for a moment sounded defiant. ‘But yes, it was when she was pregnant.’
‘Right ... I see.’
He lurched forward. ‘I don’t think you do, Samantha. Sorry – I mean I don’t think you can. Loads of people told me I was a total shit, and fair enough. But the crazy thing – well, not crazy at all, not really – is that I was there at the birth. I had to be there, and Becky wanted it too. The moment we saw Lily, we both fell in love with her. Instantly and absolutely. And we knew what we’d done was for the best.’
‘You love her, then.’ I dared him.
‘Lily? Of course I do. She’s my daughter. But I don’t really love Becky any more.’
‘Do you see Lily?’
He nodded emphatically. ‘Every other weekend, she comes and stays with me. She likes it – she hasn’t known it any other way, admittedly. Becky lives with her mum, so it’s not as though she’s alone in the world. They’re a very strong family, although they’ve had a tough time of it lately. Rebecca’s father died earlier this year.’
‘Oh …’ I felt as if I were trying to catch him out. Why was I so disappointed?
‘But I’m tremendously lucky. Rebecca’s mum is a powerhouse of strength to Bec and her brother.’
‘Has she got a new partner?’ I asked. ‘Rebecca, I mean. If she lives with her mum, it could be hard maybe to meet people, bring them home ...’
He shook his head. ‘No, she doesn’t. Believe me, I wish she did.’ He looked so sincere but for a second, I wondered if he were being honest. Was the reason I felt rattled because I kept on picking up on contradictions in his tone? ‘She’s got the rest of her life to find one, to do whatever she wants, in fact. It’ll be easier when Lily’s older. Becky will still be young – so young ...’
‘But you’ve got someone new.’ I don’t know why I sounded so confident. Was I just acting on the assumption that this was one of the topics I’d missed in Cambridge?
He looked wounded. ‘Yes, Hannah. It’s early days, though. You see, I decided not to see anyone for a long time – a kind of penance, I suppose you could call it.’ He was reluctant to talk. About his period of penance, or Hannah, now?
I didn’t want to talk about Hannah. I said, ‘Your parents never mentioned Lily when I went for lunch. Nor did you. Do they ever see their granddaughter? I didn’t see any photographs of her.’ There hadn’t been a child seat in his car, either – but perhaps he’d taken it out to make room for the boxes? But I just knew I wouldn’t catch him out.
‘They dote on her. I often take her up to Cambridge. And, tell me, Samantha – how many photographs of anyone did you see in that house? None. Tapestries and paintings, yes, but not photos. It’s pissed Adam off no end that all his masterpieces end up in a cupboard in the spare bedroom. My mother and father prefer art on their walls, they always have done.’
‘Have you got any photos of Lily with you now?’
‘Of course.’ Instead of switching on his phone, he pulled out his wallet. It was slim, packed tight with cards and banknotes. But six photographs fell out when he tipped it upside down, loose and free, as if they were constantly being brought out and shown to people. Daniel fanned the photographs out in front of me.
‘She’s lovely,’ I said, and added, ‘She looks like you,’ to flatter him; and she did, but she was blonde to Daniel’s dark.
‘She is lovely,’ said Daniel, gathering up the pictures and replacing them neatly in his wallet. ‘I call her Legs Eleven because she’s so tall. She loves dancing – that’s her passion. Gets it from her mother, because I’ve got two left feet.’
For a moment he paused. I hoped I didn’t look unimpressed, because I was thrown, thinking of Jo, who’d won prizes in her time for dance. Jo, who seemed further away than I’d ever imagined her.
‘So that’s my story,’ Daniel concluded. He looked from his wine glass to his coffee cup, as if both were overflowing with drink. I ignored the unappealing dregs in front of me.
It was time to go. It was my turn to speak, so up to me to wrap things up. I didn’t want to seem brutal or unappreciative of the way he’d taken me into his confidence. I didn’t want him to feel rushed. I felt pretty clueless, to be honest. But surely I could have come up with a more original line than the one I offered?
‘Daniel, what time is it?’ I could have checked myself.
‘Just gone ten to two.’
‘We’d better make a move. I didn’t realize it was—’
‘I hope I haven’t kept you,’ he said. No one at the office would mind when I returned. Or even notice. Besides, Daniel’s schedule was more pressing than mine. Not that he sounded sorry at a possible delay for either of us.
‘No. I didn’t mean it like that.’ Words were no good. I took my purse out of my bag.
‘But I’d like to—’ he said.
‘Please! You’ve already given me the hamper.’ I took a card out and nodded to the waiter, who brought the bill and, within moments, I had signed it and he’d stepped away.
Daniel got to his feet before I did. ‘Well, thank you. That was lovely. You know ... I never really bothered getting to know any of Adam’s girlfriends in the past, till Jo. And to find that she has a sister who’s equally captivating but very different – I think I’m right in saying that – well, that’s a bonus.’
I felt myself blush. I never blushed. I wished I had a remark to cut across the compliments but I didn’t.
He said, ‘Don’t forget to remind your parents about Cambridge. You could come when Lily’s around, if you like. I think we’ll all be there in three weekends’ time. There’s plenty of room, so why not stay over? As I’m sure you could tell, my parents love having people to visit.’
‘Thank you. I’ll talk to Mum and Dad.’
‘And let’s do lunch again, you and me – or a drink after work; something, if you fancy it.’
‘Sounds great. Give me your numbers, and I’ll ring you.’
He took a business card from his pocket and a pen. ‘I’ll give you my home number, too. I know yours, naturally.’
Stupidly, it took a moment to think how he knew, and to overcome a completely inappropriate sense of violation. I put the card in my purse, and took out my own pen and an old, used envelope. I wrote. ‘Here you are ...’
‘Excellent,’ he said and read it, folded it and tucked it inside his wallet. ‘We’ll sort something out soon.’ His actions seemed slow which made me feel I was hurrying, as if I might fly out of the restaurant in the kind of panic Daniel would surely disapprove of, not to mention be disappointed by. So when he suggested, ‘I’ll walk down to Oxford Street with you, if that’s all right?’ what could I say but yes?
For the rest of that week, I was busy refining my new routine. In the evenings, I’d stop off at the shops in Islington, or go for a swim in the pool in Highbury, glad to give the exercise class a miss. I went to the Cinema on the Green one night and ended up in a pub on Essex Road with some people who lived in one of the top-floor penthouses. I hadn’t approached them; they’d recognized my fob when I was searching in my bag for my purse, and said, ‘We must be neighbours!’ I left them at the pub and they urged me to get in touch so we could meet up again. Unsurprisingly, they knew Jo and Adam well.
I’d had only one voicemail from Tom, left while I’d been in Pizza Express with Daniel. Tom often phoned at lunchtimes because I was invariably by myself. I’d buy a sandwich and, if the weather was nice, find a place to sit and eat in one of the grassy squares nearby. If I was meeting Jo, or Michael wanted a working lunch, Tom would know. He hadn’t known I was meeting Daniel, but then, he hadn’t needed to know. It wasn’t as if I’d requested his company, and cancelled at the last minute.
His message was a complete contrast to our last conversation. ‘Oh, hi ... it’s me. You’re busy, doing something. Don’t worry about calling back. It’s not important. So … I guess we’ll speak soon, probably. OK. Bye.’
What wasn’t important? Our relationship, its possible demise? And what about ‘I guess we’ll speak soon, maybe’? Why didn’t he ask me to return the call, or say he’d ring back later? Why didn’t he give more of a clue as to how he was feeling? Perhaps he needed time on his own, to think things over. He’d never needed it before but should I make the assumption and honour his wish? How long should I give him?
Or I could ask him to come round and either let him reassure me about the future or make him say that we were over. It wasn’t too late when I had the idea – not yet half-past ten; he might still be taking fares till midnight, or perhaps he’d finished work early and was at home with Eric. Surely he hadn’t meant the bit of his voicemail message that said I didn’t need to call back. So why not call him?
We could talk about the discoveries I’d made: things I was sure he’d never seen from the road. I’d kept a few details back from my colleagues, even from Jo and especially my parents. He could have them exclusively.
Like the fact that walking from Camden Lock to Little Venice I couldn’t understand how I’d missed noticing the zoo. Then I saw this weird pyramid – like something from the space programme – jutting out over the towpath. It turned out to be the most enormous aviary. Further along was a beautiful stretch of the canal that made it hard to believe I was still in London. And along from that, an entire row of huge, detached villas, all with lush green lawns sloping down to the water’s edge. They looked like temples or mausoleums – what kind of people lived in them? The other side of the canal was just as exclusive with ferocious PRIVATE PROPERTY signs and threats about guard dogs. There had been almost too much to take in. The point was, we wouldn’t have to talk about – well, the things we had never talked about.
He could say anything, because all I really wanted was one of Tom’s all-embracing bear-like hugs. My rock, my comforter. I did love him. I would have loved him more if he’d given me the chance. Was that opportunity now lost? Should I have tried harder? Maybe not dumping someone is as bad as holding them hostage. I’d phone Tom to apologize for storming off like that, if not for denying those charges he’d laid at my feet. I’d call him, but not just yet.
First up on Friday evening, we had our office drinks. Work was never discussed in those end-of-week wind-down sessions so there was no risk of ‘The Farmer Project’ upsetting the chirpy mood. Weekends and holidays were the sole agenda, and we got on to Adam and Jo. I was asked, ‘Are you going out to visit them in Australia?’
I looked immediately to Michael for approval. I hadn’t said anything to him because I hadn’t considered the idea for myself, though Mum and Dad had discussed it in one of their strange two-hander monologues: ‘We’ve talked about it, but we don’t think we will.’ ‘It’s a long way to go ...’ ‘We wouldn’t want to cramp Jo’s style. She’s so busy – well, you’ve read all her lovely e-mails. She doesn’t want to have to stop and look after us.’ ‘Let them enjoy themselves.’
Michael said, ‘Sounds like an excellent plan.’
Someone else chipped in with, ‘Hey, Mike, fancy setting up a Sydney office so we can all go!’
Michael laughed. ‘Seriously, Sam, how long would you want to go for? We’d be utterly lost without you – that goes without saying – but I’m sure if we really tried we could just about cope …’ He meant it sincerely.
Quickly I said, ‘I haven’t planned anything.’ Would Jo even want me there? ‘I mean, I don’t know if I’ve got enough leave to take—’ Michael interrupted with a dismissive wave of his glass: ‘Don’t worry about that …’ ‘—or if I’ve saved enough money—’ ‘Free accommodation guaranteed, that’s what you’ve got to consider,’ came the retort. ‘Besides—’ I was losing ground fast ‘—they’ll be back before we know it. And, to be honest,’ I added, making it up on the spot, ‘Australia’s never been somewhere I’ve fancied going.’ At least that took the pressure off me as everyone let out a howl of disagreement and practically said I was mad.
I stayed local on Saturday, and kept the evening free for Mum and Dad. It was now nearly a fortnight I’d spoken to them, let alone seen them. I was twenty-nine old and I felt a sense of abandonment that was, to be honest, humiliating, like being given a dressing down in public. I hadn’t felt like that since I was a child.
Why were they avoiding me? If they were sulking – for whatever reason – I hoped an invitation to the flat where I would cook them something special would help them recover and, if necessary, redeem me. The kitchen shelf had a library of lavish cook books which looked just battered and splashed-on enough to be reliable. None of them was by Zita, I noticed. Mum sounded pleased to hear from me, though she didn’t sound very keen on the idea of ‘trekking down to Islington. I’ll see what your father says.’ I knew that Dad would support her.
I wasn’t suspicious of them – not yet. So I gave in without an argument, and agreed to visit them instead.
As soon as I got to the house, Dad opened a bottle of champagne and raised a toast. ‘What’s the occasion?’ I asked, wondering if Mum now felt guilty for turning my offer down? Then I felt stupid because it was bound to be some new triumph Adam and Jo had achieved in Sydney.
But Mum and Dad looked sheepish. I knew I had misread the situation. They exchanged glances and somehow agreed that it was Dad who should explain.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘we’re happy now but to be perfectly truthful, Sam, we had a nasty surprise the other day. Your mum and I.’
‘Oh ...What happened?’
‘We found Jo’s passport.’
That was when I went cold all over. ‘You what?’
‘We weren’t prying,’ he said, a touch defensive. ‘The washing machine stopped working and we were trying to find the manual – you know, try and diagnose the problem, or look for a number to ring. The passport was in the bureau in the lounge, where we keep all the instruction manuals – just shoved there, for safekeeping – and that’s when we found it.’
I knew I’d heard clearly but I had to make sure. ‘Jo’s passport?’
Mum said, ‘I know! Can you imagine? We were beside ourselves. Worried sick. I mean, you saw her go through those immigration gates as clearly as we did. You’ve had the e-mails, the phone calls, there are parcels on the way. It’s just not possible, is it?’
‘What’s not possible, Dad? Mum? What are you saying?’
A beat passed. I looked from one to the other, each face a protective mask. ‘That she never went away. That’s what your mother and I concluded. I mean, it’s all we could think. So that begged the question, Where is she?’
What were they waiting for me to say? I should have said, ‘You must have made a mistake! That’s ridiculous!’ I could have shot my own fears down in flames. But what I said was: ‘When was this?’
‘Must have been Tuesday,’ Dad said, checking with Mum, who nodded. ‘Yes, that’s it. And then while I was a pub quiz last night, your Mum picked it up and had a good look at it and realized, of course, that it was an old one!’ They both laughed.
I said, ‘You still went to quiz night?’
‘Sure I did.’ He shrugged. Mum nodded in approval. ‘What could we do, Sam, love?’
I practically screeched: ‘Why didn’t you tell me before now?’
They squirmed a little. ‘We’ve been busy ...’ said Mum.
‘You’ve got mobile phones, for god’s sake! So do I. So does Jo.’
‘We didn’t try and call her. Didn’t want to ... intrude.’
‘You didn’t – what?’
‘And we didn’t want to worry you.’
Then they smiled at each other. ‘And this morning, Jo phoned, so we knew she was all right. She thought it was funny, too.’ He raised his glass. ‘So, a toast to happiness is in order, don’t you think?’
I slammed my glass down on the table. ‘Dad, Mum. It isn’t funny at all!’ How petulant I felt, and jealously recalled the ease with which Daniel had teased his parents; probably Jo had been as relaxed with Zita and Roger. I felt more excluded than ever before.
‘Well it’s a bit mad, love. We got into such a panic, your mother and me. Worst-case scenarios. I mean, it looked new, but then Jo hardly ever used it. She wouldn’t be without a valid passport. You know Jo. Ever efficient. Wouldn’t want to be without a means of escape now, would she?’
I should have known to challenge them because expired passports are returned with one of the corners clipped. Doesn’t everyone know that? Maybe it didn’t occur to my parents, because it didn’t occur to me. My excuse was that I didn’t want to think that they had lied to me. But already I felt crushed, as if this were further confirmation that their first loyalty would always be toward each other.
It seemed completely inappropriate to finish off the champagne while eating in subdued silence, but that’s what we did. There was no other news to exchange. In truth, I felt that they didn’t deserve any genuine news, having made up that ridiculous story of their own. The same applied where the Wildings’ were concerned. They didn’t deserve to know about Roger and Zita and their children. I didn’t need to say anything as unsurprisingly the other family did not emerge in conversation.
Hardly anything did, in fact. I found it so unbearably tense that in the end I cracked, and told Mum and Dad about the walks I’d been on.
Mum’s knife and fork clattered to her plate. ‘But it’s getting so cold and dark!’
‘Clocks go back the weekend after next, Sam.’
‘What about the traffic on the main roads and, off the beaten track, the weirdos that you read about. That part of London can be dangerous, you know. You’re careful, I hope.’
‘Of course I am.’ I sounded deliberately brusque. ‘I wouldn’t walk anywhere that wasn’t streetlit, or where there weren’t other people.’ But as I said that I wondered, with a sudden thrill, Wouldn’t I?
Mum chattered on, ‘You ought to invest in one of those high visibility jackets – you know, the fluorescent jobs that cyclists and the police wear. All the emergency services, in fact. Not especially flattering, I’ll admit, but that’s not the point, is it?’
‘The other day,’ said Dad, ‘I saw a group of school kids wearing them out on an excursion. It’s a sensible idea, unless everyone starts wearing them all the time, of course. Then it’d be the people without them who have the higher visibility.’ He laughed.
Mum smiled before adding, ‘Mind you, I’d be even more worried if you decided to bike into work. You’re safer as a pedestrian, I don’t doubt.’
Why couldn’t I trust anything they said that night? Why couldn’t there be a trace of genuine concern for other people amid their alarm?
The only option was to bring the conversation to a close. ‘As hobbies go, it must be the safest in the word,’ I told them, my jaw clenched in order to keep my voice at a reasonable level. ‘Besides, you know I never get lost. Think of how I did all the map-reading in Portugal? And I’d never go anywhere risky. I don’t need a bright yellow jacket or reflectors or lights or anything like that. Imagine being all done up like a Christmas tree!’
I forced out a laugh and they joined in, but with less enthusiasm than if the joke had been their own.
‘Speaking of special equipment, love,’ Mum added after awhile, ‘you’ll never guess what Jo and Adam did at the weekend! Rock-climbing. Did you read the e-mail—’
‘No, not yet. So … Really? Did they enjoy it?’
‘Enjoy? I don’t see how you could enjoy it. I’d be terrified. But no, Jo said it was wonderful. Adam was a bit reluctant, apparently, but he soon threw himself in. Or threw himself off,’ she joked, ‘or whatever they do. She persuaded him. Christ, can you imagine?’
I did then what I never do, I virtually switched off. I couldn’t be frightened, not after the passport incident. I wouldn’t allow it. Did they notice? Is that why they abandoned that topic and returned to me?
‘You know, Sam,’ Mum said, ‘it’s funny that you should be into exploring London on foot, because your auntie Barb used to be a guide on those official London Walks. She did it for years. Quite an elite group, she was amongst: historians, actors and even the Blue-Badged experts. What she didn’t know about the history of London wasn’t worth knowing. I could ask her for tips, if you like. I know you wouldn’t fancy joining a group.’
I supposed it was her attempt at flattery. But how could I be pleased that she’d conjured the name of an aunt I’d once been fond of but wasn’t able to see because Mum had all but severed the relationship?
After we’d eaten and I’d helped clear the table and made coffee, it was time to go. I was tired; tomorrow I planned a longer walk so wanted to be rested. My parents didn’t try to detain me. Dad said he’d drive me to the station but I told him not to worry. And for once – for the very first time, I think – he agreed and Mum nodded assent, saying she’d try to phone me in the week. Don’t hurry, I thought dismally. I couldn’t have guessed at what disaster she’d try to drag me into next. And I didn’t want to try.
I lay in bed on Sunday night, willing sleep to come. My walk – that final section from Limehouse to Victoria Park – had been interesting and when I’d got home I’d felt tired, but I was wide awake now. I didn’t meant to think about Daniel but annoyingly, when I went over the route I’d describe to Tom – not today’s – I couldn’t help but think it was Daniel who would be interested to know about the mansion blocks. He’d grown up in Paddington, so perhaps he knew exactly what I was referring to.
Actually, I’d thought of him when I got to Maida Vale. You can’t walk the last bit of the canal, because Edgware Road gets in the way. I didn’t mind, I’d seen enough. I did think, however, of walking down the Edgware Road towards Marylebone and making a quick tour of the streets, of the shops and restaurants – surely there was more on offer than Pizza Express – trying to predict where Daniel lived. Would I recognize the dark green car if it were parked on the street? I should have noticed the registration number. Perhaps he’d taken it to Cambridge for the weekend.
Before long, I was thinking about the meal we’d shared. It had been just a lunchtime pizza but it had lodged deeply in my mind. I’d squirrelled away the details and they came back to me: the view from our table of the three sides of St Christopher’s Place; the squiggly design of the menu, and Daniel, of course: the crooked smile, the green eyes, his tie which had a shimmery quality. The colours in it seemed to swirl: purple, orange, brown. I let the mix linger in my thoughts, like a nice dream of which I was reluctant to let go.
But one a.m. was approaching, already Monday morning, and I was still awake. The building was silent. All my neighbours had fulfilled their weekend goals and were asleep in preparation for the week ahead. Michael would be working from home today, which was unusual. Before we’d stopped for drinks on Friday he’d casually said to me, ‘Exciting new project on the horizon. All to be revealed in good time, Sam.’ Why hadn’t I felt the urge to ask the obvious question? Namely, ‘Is this the Farmer Project? Michael, what’s it all about?’ I just didn’t care enough.
Suddenly, the door at the end of the corridor slammed with a bang that echoed on every surface from wood to concrete to carpet. As before, it seemed to disturb only me. And I knew, instantly and anxiously, that the intruder had returned.
After the last time, I’d introduced myself to Ian the porter – as Jo had recommended doing – and asked if any of the other residents’ had mentioned disturbances or intruders. He said not. He also said that even though it could be a pretty rough area, the building had a good reputation for safety. The building specs themselves, Ian told me, because I’d let him know I knew a bit about the subject, were first-rate. In a similar development on the other side of Hackney, a flat had proven to be so impenetrable that the fire brigade had had a job getting in to investigate traces of smoke.
I’d been reassured, but I wasn’t calm now. I wasn’t unfamiliar with being stalked, of course, and nor am I easily frightened. As before, I was more annoyed than worried. In fact, felt a flare of injustice. This was my flat now, for the next few months, at least. How dare anyone come looking for Jo. But did I dare to think that this person had come looking for me? This wasn’t an opportunity to be noticed.
I didn’t want to be given an ‘opportunity’ (as Tom had put it) if Jo was to be credited for it. Now I can see the fundamental flaw in that logic. Jo may have been a link between me and Rebecca, and Maureen, and Hannah, and Daniel. But she wasn’t the only link. And yet I dismissed the real threats these people posed – and the dangers surrounding them – because I thought they’d been contaminated by Jo’s influence. Otherwise, I’d have had my eyes wide open. I’d have seen more. I could have tackled the conflict head on.
The closest I came to confronting anything that night was a kind of longing for the footsteps to come closer – to come and thump on the door or snap a fire extinguisher from its fixtures. That way, my intruder’s intention would be made absolutely clear. Then he – did I really assume it was a he? – could retreat, satisfied or deterred. Or was I the intruder, determined to cause damage and harm, demented for it. It was the strangest sensation, just beginning to creep into my consciousness. How could I explain it?
I didn’t have to. The letterbox swung and rattled. The footsteps faded and I was left with a hollow disappointment, struck by the sheer improbability of anyone coming looking for me. I could almost hear the snorts of derision from the girls from Meade Park as they watched me get on and off the tube. I could neither cast blame for anything nor court it. Everyone else had freedom but me. Defeated, I sunk my head into the pillows and tumbled into sleep.
I’d forgotten that Michael had the day off. I put it down to being distracted with the house move and anxieties about Mum and Dad and Jo. My family had intruded on the realm which I deliberately kept clear of trouble. They had forced me to compromise my standards.
Usually, when Michael is out of the office, he leaves me with a string of things to do, too much for a single day, although he never complains that tasks weren’t done. But he’d left no instructions, and he didn’t phone in or e-mail. I answered general messages but Michael dealt with anything that came to him direct. I knew his password, in case of emergencies, but he’d obviously changed it, without me noticing.
My disappointment wasn’t a patch on my colleagues’ reaction. I’d assumed everyone have been told about the day’s arrangements, but apparently not. At the team’s disposal, I involved myself in a dozen conflicts that all were blamed on Michael. It was an endless round of trouble-shooting with lots of apologetic, chasing and pleading phone calls. Pretty quickly I realized that the others had ample grounds for their complaints.
It didn’t feature in every gripe but ‘The Farmer Project’ was impossible to ignore. And still I wasn’t yet suspicious. I’d wondered – and even suggested to the others – that perhaps Michael and Patrick were thinking of buying a second home in the country, which was something they’d spoken of doing. Although, since we’re a commercial practice, it was more likely that Farmer must be a company name, a shop or even a small, regional department store. I was wrong.
Without help from me, the description had evolved. Now it was ‘Mrs Farmer’ or ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ which someone took as a cue to sing ‘Three Blind Mice’ and from there a reworking of old nursery rhymes to incorporate dubious lyrics. I laughed along – they were funny – but they were only distractions and therefore, ultimately frustrating. Then someone said, ‘Has anyone actually met Maureen Farmer?’ Everyone shook their head, me included. I actually felt admonished, as if I were in the presence of the woman at the radio station once more.
It was as if I’d taken his side against the team’s and consequently, I was being punished instead of him. I decided I wouldn’t warn Michael of the potentially mutinous mood. You could say that counts as a dereliction of duty. But equally, it’s my job to keep Michael focused and deflect problems that can be resolved without his intervention. If anyone wanted to lodge a complaint they could have done so themselves. They knew better than to come running to me. I listened to their grievances just enough to ensure that they didn’t know any more than I did. Without exception, they got on with their work. What else should be expected of such an eminently capable group of professionals?
At midday I checked my watch to see if I’d made it to lunchtime yet – not quite – and put my phone back inside my bag, ready to tackle another hour’s work. Just before I did, I noticed the text symbol flash into the window. I hoped it would be Tom, wanting to meet. I didn’t think Daniel would communicate by text, preferring a conversation instead.
I opened the message and read: FANCY A WANDER ROUND JL? WILL BE THERE 12.30. MEET OUT FRONT BUT TXT 1ST. LV, MUM X
I’d seen my parents at the weekend and hadn’t expected to catch up with again so soon, especially since we’d become a bit lapsed on the communication front. Perhaps Mum wanted that remedied once and for all. Odd that she hadn’t mentioned this proposed expedition. Well, maybe not. I knew that what Mum meant by a ‘wander round John Lewis’ wouldn’t be a casual meander, window-shopping. Most likely, she’d had spent yesterday or this morning working and suddenly realized she hadn’t enough cotton or buttons or needed a zip in a particular colour. So she’d drop everything and head into town. I’d chum her round – or sometimes Jo would – and we’d catch up on news and then go our separate ways. Not for our mum long, lingering lunches with wine and coffee. Sometimes we’d pick up lattes for the office and train, that’s all.
I sent a quick SEE YOU THERE SX and looked forward to the break from the mad tyranny of the office.
I won’t describe what Mum wanted to buy or which departments we looked in after haberdashery, after Mum made her announcement. The familiar setting did nothing to ease the sting. The main thing to say is that I got it completely wrong. It was the first test of Jo’s sabbatical. Did Jo, before setting off for Australia, have any idea that our fears were about to be realized? But what Jo did or didn’t know wasn’t of any help to me.
Some people might say, who could be expected to get it right? Even the Meade Park girls ought to have been understanding. Many of them, if they didn’t actually suffer the upheaval and turmoil of their parents splitting up, feared it, as we did. If you took my aunt’s viewpoint, the shock could have been worse for its delay. Finally, I understood what Barb might have meant. If I’d had that level of comprehension when I’d chatted to Zita Wilding perhaps she’d have been more convinced by my words, instead of looking taken aback. If I’d understood properly, I might not have said it at all.
What was there to say now? If your parents stay together until you’ve grown up, how can you feel indignant and hurt when they waited for your benefit? It’s not always like that, I suppose. People can grow apart after twenty years as much as after two or twelve, or meet new people who appear to offer more than their current partner. But Mum and Dad waited for me and Jo. We were now equipped with the maturity for coping. It would have been deeply selfish to object. But how can you wish your parents well in circumstances like that? Already, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to feel that you know them. An event like that only makes them seem more like strangers.
As a child, I’d wondered where we’d end up living if Mum and Dad divorced. Would Jo and I take it in turns to spend time with each together, or be separated one apiece, from the start? Would we have got any say in where we lived? That no longer applied, of course. So why did I decide I had to declare an allegiance?
Did I pick Mum’s side because I was frightened that she might have even worse things to reveal? Or was it because she was here and Dad was not? Why protect her when Dad – about whom I’ve hardly said anything at all and who, at that moment, seemed totally neglected, worse than Tom – was unable to defend himself?
I asked my mother, ‘Has Dad been having an affair?’ I was careful not to sound too confident, to presume an inappropriate intimacy.
Mum had had a defensive, defiant look on her face. Now her expression faltered, as if the boundaries had shifted, against her expectation. She’d come along thinking she could declare that the marriage was over and walk off, while I digested the information, or churned through whatever response seemed natural, alone. Hadn’t she?
‘No,’ she said briskly, then added, with curiosity, ‘What makes you say that?’
That moment was the closest we’d ever come to being equals. Emboldened, I told her about seeing the woman in Dad’s car. To this day I don’t know why I did that. It hadn’t plagued me. I really don’t have a monopoly on secrets. As soon as I began speaking, I knew I was completely out of my depth. I thought of the ‘murder’ I’d witnessed because, from time to time, I’d wondered what would have happened if, on seeing Mum emerge from the french windows, I’d rushed to her and told her what I’d seen. Would we have phoned the police, or gone round ourselves – with the bride’s mother and possibly others as reinforcements – to investigate? Perhaps they knew Tom’s family well, living only on the other side of the fence? Would Mum have praise me, or scolded me for getting involved?
Or would she have barked with laughter as she did now? Had my fear of ridicule stopped me twenty years earlier? I’d have been denounced as a fantasist and the events four years hence – the months of my stalker – would have been greeted with, ‘It’s only her imagination. We should have seen it coming. Do you know what mad scenario Sam conjured when she was ten?’
Now she put her arms around me. ‘Oh, Sam, love! Is that what you really thought?’
‘Yes,’ I said, wounded. Confused. ‘It’s what I saw.’
Her grip slackened but her voice tightened. ‘What you saw,’ she said, with emphasis, ‘was your aunt Barbara’s final attempt to lure your dad away from me.’
I looked at my mother, as if she were a stranger. But it wasn’t as if I felt I knew myself at that moment. I didn’t. So I didn’t even try to interrupt.
Mum explained, ‘She was passing by his work by chance, so she said, and wanted a lift. It was rather obvious to your father what she really wanted, and he wasn’t having a bar of it.’ She shook her head, more amazed at her sister’s audacity than impressed at her husband’s restraint. Or was she? How was I to know?
Mum continued: ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why Barb and I are no longer in touch?’
Of course I had. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I just ...’
‘And why we stopped going to visit your grandparents?’
I was lagging behind. A story was forming before my eyes but far too slowly. Mum hadn’t any time to wait. ‘Yes,’ I said again, hoping it sounded more assertive than I felt. It was just like being at the Wildings. The more I said the more I felt I was lagging behind. ‘It’s because they split up. You were upset ...’
It was wrong, I knew it was wrong. But Mum wasn’t angry. ‘They didn’t split up, Sam, love. It’s all perfectly amicable.’ And then her expression tightened and she looked away, as if she didn’t want me to hear what she was saying. ‘What isn’t is the fact that they refused to accept that Barb had done anything wrong. When her marriage fell apart, she actually went back to live with them. They gave her a roof over her head, money. A car, even. None of which I begrudge her for. None of it.’ She looked at me then. ‘What I objected to was the fact that when it came to protecting my marriage, they didn’t lift a finger to help. Well, sod that for a game of soldiers, I thought. Sod them all.’
It hurt her to admit that, I could see. More than the eventual break-up of her marriage? I mustn’t say that because I don’t know. I’ll never know.
She pulled away from me, pressing a hand to each cheek, as if to stem tears. She had to do it herself because she didn’t think I could help her. And when she spoke next, she tried to make light of the situation. The way you do when you’ve potentially embarrassed yourself in front of a stranger. ‘God, what a sorry state of affairs. Whoever said you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family knew a thing or two, didn’t they?’
Or maybe she was trying to make it easier for me to understand. I know I wasn’t in an understanding mood, that’s for sure. Was my next question entirely justified, or more oil on troubled waters? ‘Does Jo know?’
Mum adjusted the shoulder strap of her bag. Did she think the conversation was over? ‘About what?’
It was a good question. About Barb and our grandparents? It was entirely probable that Jo knew and that – being Jo – she would have overcome all obstacles to sustain her own relationships. Not to put anyone’s nose out of joint, but because she hadn’t done anything wrong. Why should she miss out? Mum and Dad wouldn’t have objected.
‘No,’ I said, with irritation. ‘What you’ve just told me. About you and Dad.’
Mum looked away. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Guilty. But again, I don’t know which. ‘No, she doesn’t. Not yet. There isn’t any need, with her being so far away. It’s not as if either of us is moving out – there’s plenty of space. But for all intents and purposes, we’re not together. That’s the main thing.’
I said, ‘If you don’t feel the need to tell Jo, why have you told me?’
She tried to be kind, I could tell. ‘We thought we ought to tell you first, Sam, seeing you were older. We thought you’d be better at handling it. We don’t expect you to tell your sister, though. Of course we don’t expect that.’
Was I supposed to thank her? It was the last thing I wanted to do.
‘But you waited till she went away, didn’t you?’ I challenged her. ‘You thought it would be easier to do it when Jo wasn’t here.’ Tom’s words thudded into my head, adding conviction to my own. But I wouldn’t have thanked him, either.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Sam. If we’ve waited at all, it was only until we were at ours wits’ end. Until we couldn’t take a moment more of each other’s company. Honestly, love, you might think you’ve seen a lot over the years and I’m sure you have. Too much. Your father and I aren’t happy about that at all. In fact, it makes us even angrier – but at ourselves, more than each other.’ She folded her arms and lowered her voice over the intrusive din of tannoy announcements, the burble of shoppers, the ping of the lift doors closing and opening. ‘The fact is, you haven’t seen anything. It’s got worse, believe me, and that’s all I’m going to say. Your father is a good man and he deserves to be happy and so do I. This is our chance.’
Tom’s words again. I swallowed hard, to get rid of them.
‘I don’t believe you, Mum. You’re doing this to protect Jo. You’re frightened of how she’d react. She might try to make you change your mind. She—’
Mum blinked away hot tears. She grabbed my shoulders but she didn’t shake me, she just held me again, as if trying to soothe me. We were fused together but we were so unalike. We remained completely different people. Almost, I thought, like rivals.
She said. ‘Sam, Sam, you’re upset, of course you are. This is more of a shock than we thought it would be. I’m sorry, so sorry ...’
A beat passed, and I admit to enjoying that feeling of Mum soaking up my confusion and upset, but it was as if I could hear what she was thinking too. I knew she wasn’t trying to take my pain away.
I stepped back. ‘Well, if that’s all you wanted to say, then I’d better get back to work. We’ve got a busy afternoon.’
Mum nodded, and checked she had her shopping bags. ‘All right then, love. Take some time to let it all sink in.’ Then, almost as an afterthought, she said, ‘I don’t see why you’re objecting so much. I mean, you didn’t think that Jo’s disappearance was going to be an exclusive opportunity for you, now, did you?’ The light in her eyes magnified her disbelief. And pity, too, I think. ‘Oh, Sam, darling, is that really what you thought?’
You could ask: is the story of my parents’ separation mine to tell? It was expected, but the news struck me like a thunderbolt. Neither of them planned to move out, or divide their friends into groups, or embark on new relationships. In fact, it was as if nothing had changed, as if it were a false alarm. But things had changed for me. From that point on, I was better equipped than I’d ever been to spot suspicious behaviours and motivations. My eyes were open wide. And my parents are to thank for that. Or else blame. I wasn’t full of self-pity, however. I felt a new kind of alertness which was quite empowering.
Admittedly, my situation didn’t exactly reek of empowerment. Mum said her piece and basically left me to it. She offered me time to ‘adjust’ to the idea. And then what? Was I supposed to phone them up and endorse the plan? Ask them about the logistics of their new circumstances? Offered her a place to stay if she needed some space? I hadn’t offered very much in the way of sympathy. But what was I to do or say? We’d never had a conversation that was anything like the one we’d needed.
It looked as if I’d never be their equal, let alone have the advantage over them. In fact, I had the feeling that I’d formed a pact with my parents – with both of them, because I hadn’t needed to take either side. I’d accepted their terms, without understanding what they were. And without even knowing what had brought them into being. The reasons for their separation remained as mysterious as whatever had glued them together. What counted was that all three of us were complicit in suppressing the news from Jo.
But there was one pact I swore I’d never agree to. It might seem crazy to admit this but I think I had for so many years laboured under the misapprehension that my parents’ relationship and mine and Tom’s were linked. As if one sustained, or eroded, the other. As if each of them was vying to be broken up so that we could sample freedom. And as long as Mum and Dad rumbled on, I could put up with Tom. Mum had got in first, and – briefly – I’d felt robbed of a chance that should have been my own. It’s the most shameful thought I’d ever had. If it were the motive for a murder it could well put the reason for the death at the end of this story in the shade.
Luckily it isn’t true. A lot of things I’m writing about are linked, but not those two relationships. Despite knowing that last year, I decided to keep all thoughts of Tom strictly to myself. It was a kind of safeguard. Not that there was anything new to relate. Two weeks had passed and I still hadn’t phoned him. Some distraction at work or home always got in the way. Or else my courage failed. Silence prevailed at his end, too. Would we get back together? The question loomed and hovered, tantalisingly within reach one moment, then seeming impossible the next. But most of the time, it felt alive, like a sort of lifeline. Keeping Tom to myself was a kind of insurance policy that would be valid for as long as Mum and Dad kept Jo in the dark, burdening only me with the knowledge.
Rereading what I’ve written, there’s no doubt that a lot had happened. Nearly all the participants are in their rightful places – the places they assigned for themselves, at least, or else the places they aspired to be. Some fast work had been undertaken in the weeks since Jo and Adam had flown to Sydney, and in the months and years before, as well. I only have to look at the word count and page tally in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen to know that. In fact, this feels like the midpoint of my story. It is the middle, if you accept that things began long before Jo and Adam went away.
As I read, I skipped bits, but made quite a lot of alterations. The odd word here and there, a little bit of resequencing. It got to half five and I fancied a cup of coffee. Also, I knew the others would be thinking of packing up soon and I didn’t want to seem unfriendly by not saying goodbye.
Unsurprisingly, once I emerged from Michael’s office I was instantly collared. Even less surprisingly, the photocopier was to blame. It had ‘broken’ in the middle of a massive job needed by the morning. It took ten minutes to fix but twice as long to get the toner off my hands. My colleagues were horrified at the state was in, but their effusive gratitude made me smile. I cleaned up in the bathroom, said a few goodbyes, and returned to Michael’s office.
‘Sam ...’ Patrick looked up from the computer screen, his normally serene and open face – he and Michael are one of those gay couples who look alike – drained of its regular tan. It was a mask of chalky white. Then I realized who my flatmate’s ex reminds me of. Patrick.
It’s never difficult to chat when he pops in, but it was an effort to be more than vaguely cordial just then. I could understand why he looked so embarrassed – or did his expression convey guilt? He won’t know that in my mind snooping is a lesser crime than sustaining ignorance, or faking it. Not everyone is as rigorous an investigator as I am, admittedly, but Patrick is, I’m sure of it. He’d read my account. He’d do anything to protect his own interests. I’ve often suspected he was jealous of my attachment to Michael. Was he dismayed that I didn’t fancy him?
What did Patrick make of what I’d written? I had nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, there are harsher critics out there than him. But above all, I didn’t feel threatened because I knew deep down that Patrick and I are basically allies in support Michael. Life is back to normal in the office now, more or less. He won’t mention what he has read to his partner, I feel sure of that. So why did he continue to look so full of shame?
‘Mike asked me to stop by ...’ His throat was dry, so the words scratched him. But then my own simple greeting – the obvious ‘Patrick, no one said we’d be seeing you!’ – had caught in my throat, so it was hard not to be awkward. He stumbled through his explanation, ‘We’re going to the opera tonight and Mike left the shoes he wants to wear here, somewhere. So he asked me to ... Oh, Christ.’ He couldn’t even look at me. ‘I mean, who’ll give a fuck what he’s got on his feet?’ He slid back from the desk in an act of surrender. ‘I should have phoned ahead to let you know I was coming.’
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘Have you found them? Michael does keep rather a lot of clothes here but that’s the one area I refuse to tidy up for him.’ I managed a laugh, which Patrick echoed lamely.
Then, annoyingly, a batch of Tom’s words butted in from the morning we parted on City Road ‘Oh, shit, Sam. Oh, fuck. That’s great, that is, really great.’ What had I done? Nothing to harm. Nothing to frighten. I thought of the look he’d given me in the cinema the night before – Patrick’s was like that now. I thought of Mum in John Lewis, doubting what I thought I saw, not just the woman in Dad’s car, but the day of the murder. Doubting all my expectations, in fact. No. Not Mum. It couldn’t be Mum. The Meade Park girls – yes, them again. I heard them. Crazy. Deluded.
I offered Patrick a smile. ‘They must be here somewhere!’ There was a sports bag by his feet. ‘Do you want to go and get changed while I have a look? Just give me a minute. Wouldn’t you think—’ again, the words were borrowed but they weren’t Tom’s ‘—I’d know this office like the back of my hand?’
Michael was in the office at his usual time of eight forty-five the following day, Tuesday 17 October. Once again, he was distracted but never rude or thoughtless towards me. But aided by my fresh, sharp awareness, I felt the need to look beyond the limitations of his mood.
I wondered about the comments my colleagues hadn’t made. With the exception of Laura, they seemed to have shut me out of all but formal, business-related concerns. So what was going on in their minds? Were they secretly worried, if not about Michael personally, then about the security of their jobs? For all I knew, they may have been fighting his preoccupation by looking for work elsewhere. Did they think Michael was facing some massive legal crisis that would destroy our reputation? Or perhaps he was looking to merge with another firm? There had been plenty of approaches over the years. I was familiar enough with the retail press to know how tough it was on the high street – anyone could tell that just by browsing in the shops.
I didn’t think disaster was looming, and not just because I didn’t want to, because it would have been disloyal to think that. I genuinely believed that Michael was too shrewd a businessman to sabotage the firm. He’d won awards for his work, he’d had pages of media coverage, he was eminent in his field. It was simply impossible to think of life without Michael Coady Associates.
What of Michael, personally? His health, I mean. Was he was taking time off for medical appointments? Could he have had a scare? Surely Patrick would have said something on Monday afternoon? Or was that the reason he’d looked guilty, because he was concealing a truth that I would want to know however upsetting it might be? I wouldn’t contact him to ask, even though I had all his details. I’ve been to his office in Victoria as often as he’s been to Davies Street. But it wouldn’t have been right to create that sort of dependence between us. Even displaying our emotions – much less sharing a confidence – would be a step too far.
I wracked my brain. Had Michael had any suspicious symptoms of late – tiredness, forgetfulness, a strange pallor; anything at all really? No alarm bells rang. I wasn’t about to invent mystery ailments as accusations. I remembered all too clearly the panic we’d once had when Dad started getting tight pains in his chest that it took ages for the doctors to understand and fortunately, dismiss. Mum was panic-stricken which only made things worse between them. Dad was angry and argumentative, probably because he was frightened. There seemed no room for Jo and me to be afraid, though we were. Afterwards, when the crisis was over, it was Jo who succumbed to a whole host of horrible complaints. She was never ill, but she was signed off work for two weeks with stress. Mum and Dad, unsurprisingly, blamed each other, for causing her such stress.
The only other person who might, I thought, hold some kind of explanation for the change in Michael was Maureen Farmer. Could she have been a doctor he was seeing, a specialist of some kind? I did an internet search, limiting it to London, to start with. Nothing medical emerged. Nothing on the professional networking sites, either, seemed like a lead. I didn’t bother with the social ones because Michael isn’t on them. I kept searching and then, a couple of screens in, I read about a Maureen Farmer who’d recently retired from the magazine business. She was now offering her services as an after-dinner speaker.
That stood out. A few weeks earlier, I’d been tidying up our journals shelf, weeding out the back issues. I cut out and filed the pages people had highlighted, and put the rest out for recycling. Among the copies of Architectural Reviews and Builders Weekly was Woman at Home, a monthly glossy that Mum occasionally buys but which could have no significance for an architects’ practice. How had Michael acquired it? Laura’s? She’d just scoffed, ‘It’s for middle-aged women!’ so I put it out for recycling.
I searched some more. Until April of last year, Maureen Farmer had been the editor of Woman at Home. So what was her connection to Michael if she was no longer employed? We couldn’t be designing some swanky publishing headquarters. Were we, prosaically, doing a private job for her? What kind of job?
What I wanted was to extract some exclusive knowledge about her, earned solely through my special affinity with Michael. Certain I could uncover more information if I applied my usual rigour, I looked amongst recent correspondence. Michael had promised to provide me with his new password but he hadn’t yet, so I had to content myself with the print-outs. It was my job to file hard copy e-mails, which I did, but they revealed nothing. I made phone calls to our solicitors and accountants. I hedged my way around other matters that probably didn’t need to be dealt with as hastily as my approach implied. Again, nothing emerged but the friendly way they treated me – we’d spoken often over the years – almost reassured me that nothing was awry. It was so frustrating.
I couldn’t spend all my time researching. Plenty else was going on: problems with other jobs, like one client revealing that they’d gone into administration just when work was about to begin on fitting out their newest store; a consignment of expensive ceiling lights had mysteriously arrived on-site completely smashed to pieces; a perfectly accurate invoice was contested by a client to whom we knew we would soon be owing a massive favour. Ordinarily, Michael would have shown an interest in all of these.
I wondered if Michael would break with tradition, and reveal all at Friday night drinks. That presumed – that is, I hoped – the news would be good enough to end the week on a high. And I was hopeful. Michael said he’d be back in the office by five and so I waited until ten to get out the glasses and nibbles. I’d spent my own money on luxury crisps and savouries from M&S at lunchtime. I was trying to curry favour with the others, more than Michael. We always had a plentiful supply of wine, and I’d put three bottles in to chill earlier in the day. I was pleased with the spread, so felt somewhat slighted by the comment, ‘Wine? This week, we deserve champagne! Sam, where’s the Bolly?’
I suggested we wait for Michael but I was quickly overruled. The drink lubricated everyone enough to relax into the cheery banter that we were used to. More wine flowed. It was as if it had never been part of anyone’s plan for Michael to join us.
Afterwards, with nothing arranged for the evening, I started to tidy up. Nobody objected, much less offered to help. I stood at the sink washing and drying the glasses slowly and with care. I was expecting Michael to fly in full of apology. I would offer him a glass of wine and the third of a bag of crisps that I’d saved. I wouldn’t fire demanding questions. We’d chat idly, in the spirit of Friday drinks.
The longer I waited the more I knew he wasn’t going to come back. I didn’t feel snubbed, and I didn’t feel disappointed. Why not break my attachment, once and for all? Michael clearly had no plans to preserve it. What good had it done me? Why did I need it?
At seven thirty, I put out the lights and locked the office. I’d done it a thousand times before, but not, like tonight, without that sense of letting something go, of leaving safety behind. I was only returning to the flat; no haven, especially. And yet I felt liberated as I stepped onto the pavement on Davies Street and turned towards the busy crush of Oxford Street. A cold night: there was rain in the air, that acrid autumn smell that overrides traffic fumes and the smell of takeaway food.
I didn’t mind the confident clip of my heels on the pavement. Only I could hear them and only just, beneath the snarls and shudders of the buses and taxis. In the dark winter coat I’d started wearing again I blended in, of no consequence to the people around me, and yet in no way diminished. But no matter how bold I felt, I knew it was too soon to hope for the answers I needed. I desperately craved some genuine action, but for now, I had to settle for my usual conduct, which felt like stepping in and out of the shadows.
The rain had cleared by the time I woke on Saturday morning and it was a bright, crisp autumn day. I tidied up, put some clothes in the wash, and had an early lunch, fuelled ready for another walk. I decided to visit the Canal Museum near Kings Cross, behind the Caledonian Road, not far from where I’d picked up the towpath on my walk to Little Venice. Someone had talked about it at last night’s drinks. I could find out about other branches of the canal and plan future walks. I’d take the same route as before, maybe shaving a few minutes off having consulted the A-Z first.
When I got there a mob of over-sixties was assembled around the ticket desk, and my heart sank. As they busily discussed concession passes and group rates frustration surged within me. Then I wondered if I really wanted to go inside after all. I’d no doubt the exhibits were interesting and educational, well-maintained and tastefully presented, but what would I do with the information? I’ve never wanted to be a repository for facts you absorb just because you think you should.
Who was there to share the knowledge? The candidate I had in mind was Daniel. I’d texted him on the way out of the flat, in the hope that we could meet again soon. I couldn’t imagine that we’d ever be short of things to say. We’d discussed Lily and her mother, and Adam and Jo. We’d talked about Tom and Hannah, both of whom seemed unlikely to resurface as topics of conversation. The path was clear for – well, everything, really. I didn’t need to burden either of us with the history of the Grand Union Canal.
I felt a little guilty about not going in and coughing up the modest admission fee. At least I didn’t help myself to the free leaflets, even though they covered the walks I’d been on. They could have filled in the blanks between my own observations. I looked in the tiny bookstall, wondering if I could find an interesting map, but saw nothing that improved on the one I already had. In the end I bought a couple of postcards, to show goodwill, and headed back out onto the street.
Just then, my phoned pinged. Daniel wondered if I’d be free to meet on Monday night. So soon! I felt the tang of satisfaction at the swiftness of the arrangement. It more than made up for my failure to accomplish the museum visit.
What next? The rest of the afternoon lay ahead, and I was eager to be outdoors. With autumn here, I might have to cut short my plan to explore London on foot, when I’d only just begun. I should get in as many walks as I could.
Curious to see where I’d end up, I followed the back streets through a mix of new builds and old around to York Way and came to the vast brick wall of the side of Kings Cross station. That reminded me of the Wildings in Cambridge. I still hadn’t spoken to Roger and Zita since my visit. But I’d see plenty of Daniel and didn’t want to seem greedy for company.
If you’re at Kings Cross you think immediately of St Pancras. Don’t they call it the gateway to Europe since Eurostar moved in? Although you’ve always been able to get a train to Luton Airport. St Pancras made me think of my grandparents, because when we were young, we’d catch the Luton train from Cricklewood, which went through St Pancras, and Gran or Grandad would pick us up at Harpenden, where they’d lived since Mum was a teenager. That had been even longer ago than I’d told Zita: more like fifteen years. Half my lifetime ago.
When I thought the family trees would help explain how everyone was connected, I was so vexed about including Maureen Farmer that at first I forgot to put my grandparents in. Then I reasoned that if they came into it, the story would mushroom and become too unwieldy to tell. More unwieldy, at any rate. I decided that Mum’s parents were better left out of it. I felt a pang of guilt about that. I’d had the same feeling standing opposite King’s Cross station. I hadn’t thought of Gran and Grandad on the way to the Wildings. I’d mentioned them only when asked.
That Saturday afternoon, weeks later, I made myself think of them. It was better than standing glued to the pavement for the rest of the afternoon. A day wasted. Then I thought, what if I went to St Pancras and caught a train to see them? I had both sets of their details in the address book in my bag. I sent cards, still, and received them. It would be comforting to reclaim a lost activity – or share it with Jo, perhaps. Wouldn’t they be pleased to see me? Surely they would.
So why did the prospect carve a massive dent in my slightly precarious confidence? I pictured myself sitting on the train, feeling exactly as I had on the way to Cambridge: totally unprepared. Would my grandparents flesh out details of family history that Mum had spared me? I wouldn’t be equipped to reject or contradict anything I might not want to hear but would be forced to listen to. Even worse was this: my role as granddaughter seemed remote. Was that so very surprising when I didn’t know how to fit in around Mum and Dad? Or Jo, come to that?
I summoned the courage to keep going. I plunged through Kings Cross station, which was predictably heaving with departures and arrivals. You don’t need an airport to disappear, I realized. It was easy to feel squashed and squeezed out just by standing on the concourse awaiting an intercity train.
Once through the station, I crossed over the street, but stopped at the steps leading up to St Pancras. Was I brave enough to buy a ticket and get on the train to see what truths awaited me at the other end? Was I right to be so full of apprehension? Did I need to understand the past to have an ongoing relationship with Gran and Grandad? With anyone, in fact? If I faltered here did it mean that all my chances were equally doomed? The challenge seemed too much for a single Saturday afternoon.
So I walked on, away from both stations. I passed the British Library, and Euston, and crossed over Euston Road. I crossed the road at one of the gates of Regents Park. In Marylebone High Street I wandered from shop to shop, admiring beautiful objects and ornaments, lavishly-filled hampers, elegant clothes. Perhaps I’d buy something for Jo and Adam for when they got back, as a welcome home and thank you for letting me stay in the flat. I browsed for several hours but didn’t purchase anything. There was plenty of time to do that before mid-December, and I was sure I’d be returning this way often in coming weeks.
My memory of the one that followed was of approaching each day with a sort of calm, controlled sense of expectation. I wouldn’t mind if it passed in an ordinary, calm way, free of revelation, or fluctuations of mood. But I wouldn’t give up hope that change wouldn’t happen.
Monday was passable, though uneventful. I was looking forward to seeing Daniel, but at four o’clock he phoned on my mobile. He sounded distressed.
‘Samantha, I’m so sorry but I won’t be able to make tonight. Lily’s in hospital – casualty at the Royal Free in Hampstead – she slipped on the floor of the school’s gym and has done something terrible to her ankle.’
‘Oh no,’ I said, conjuring images of a dance step gone wrong, the horrible crunch of bone. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ I was sorry to hear the anxiety in his voice, for sure. ‘Is it broken?’
‘We don’t think so, but she’s in an awful lot of pain, the poor darling, and as you can imagine she’s distraught at the prospect of not being able to dance for weeks.’
‘Are you at the hospital?’ I asked.
‘I’m stuck in traffic. Her mother’s with her, and her gran.’ I wondered if he meant Zita. Maybe Lily would convalesce in Cambridge? He said, ‘Becky’s mum.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’
I heard him smile. ‘That’s sweet of you, but no, thanks. It’ll be OK. We’re just a bit anxious at the moment. Would it be all right if you and I rearrange for later in the week?’
‘Yes, of course. We don’t have to make a plan now,’ I said, though I would have liked to nail a date and time. ‘Ring me when you can, once you know how Lily is and whether you need to spend time looking after her.’
‘Thank you, Samantha. That’s very kind. Promise, I’ll be in touch soon.’
‘OK. Well, take care and try not to worry. I’m sure everything will be all right.’
I hoped it didn’t sound too glib, but he can’t have been deterred – and the injury can’t have been too serious – because he phoned back on Wednesday, at the end of a morning when everyone seemed prickly, and invited me to dinner on Friday night.
‘My treat,’ he said, ‘to apologize for messing you around on Monday.’ I thanked him and asked after Lily. She’d had a very bad sprain, and was off school and under strict instruction to rest. She was still in quite a lot of discomfort but was putting on a brave front. Daniel was visiting her each evening, and lavishing her with gifts, probably. But he wouldn’t do that on Friday because Zita would be driving down from Cambridge to give her granddaughter a change of scene. He’d follow at the weekend.
Laura and I went for a cafe lunch on Thursday. Being the only women in the office it was something we’d often talked about, but because she liked to finish on time often she didn’t stop for a break. I enjoyed hearing all about her little boy, who was seven, and her husband. She said to come round for supper one evening. ‘We’ll look at our diaries when we get back to the office,’ she promised, and sure enough, she came straight over to my desk and suggested next week. ‘How about next Wednesday? Charlie works from home on Wednesdays. He’ll pick up Josh, and then he can get the dinner on. You and I can travel back together, and just relax.’
I was delighted to accept. The offer of friendship had been a long time coming, but it felt sweeter now than it could have done at any other time. It seemed to prove that my life, at last, was moving on.
A parcel was awaiting me when I got home from work. It was twice the size of Daniel’s box, which perhaps made the Hutchences – if they were around – think twice about lugging it inside for safe-keeping. The postmarks were from Sydney, and I remembered Mum mentioning that Jo had sent us all parcels. I hadn’t expected mine to arrive for ages – if it made it all; you heard about things going missing in the post. Jo had sent it airmail, courtesy of Hegarty Lowe, which seemed like the kind of extravagance only Jo would deem essential and therefore get away with.
Inside were clothes which were pretty hideous: garish colours and patterns, slightly baggy, patterned with stereotypical images of Australia: koalas, ugly-looking birds, jars of Vegemite. Jo was the sort of person who’d choose gifts with special care, knowing precisely the tastes of the recipients. I tried not to despair at the implications of her choices for me, which felt more like a burden than a gift. I was glad I hadn’t rushed to buy them a present on Saturday afternoon. I hoped – or rather, I assumed – that Mum had fared better with her acute sense of what constituted style and taste.
Not that I planned to find out. It seemed too soon to speak to my parents. But as it happened, Mum phoned later that evening, so say that their parcels had arrived and she assumed that mine had too. She didn’t sound especially grateful.
‘I suppose Jo only sent mine as a kind of joke,’ I said. ‘She doesn’t really mean for me to wear them.’
‘Joke?’ Her bark of scorn startled me. ‘Joke! Well, Sam darling, if you saw what arrived this morning just as I was going out, you wouldn’t be laughing, I can tell you.’
‘What exactly did she send you?’
‘Four large cartons – sent airmail, at ludicrous expense no doubt. She sent them through work, but that’s not the point. Four boxes!’
‘What was inside them?’
‘Clothes, souvenirs, knick-knacks. Trivial things. For her. And she wants us to look after them. Won’t fit into the spacious but empty flat, oh no!’
Was this Mum’s first admonition against Jo since she’d regretted Jo disclosing our details to the Wildings? A strange thrill went through me, but not pleasantly.
Before I could think of a reply, Mum continued: ‘Sam, we spent weeks sorting through all her belongings. Both in her room, and the loft. Not just because of going to Australia, but because she was moving in with Adam. We threw out loads.’
I hadn’t known that. ‘You’ll need more space for yourselves,’ I said. I remembered helping Mum sort through the fabric she wanted to get rid of. ‘That’s fair enough.’
It was as if I’d missed the point. ‘We just don’t want to be burdened with things no one needs. Inhibited. It was selfish of her to assume that we would.’
Inhibited. I felt queasy. ‘So did Jo get rid of loads?’
‘I made sure she did.’ Mum’s laugh sounded cold. ‘I stood by, egging her on, and in the end she admitted there was masses that could go to the charity shops or else the tip. So you can see why I’m not thankful for receiving three boxes of brand-new stuff, can’t you?’
Poor Jo, I thought. How had she felt, being forced to discard elements of her life, in ignorance of the reason? It was the first time I’d felt sympathetic towards Jo in – well, in as long as I could remember. Then I thought: she hadn’t said anything to me. If she’d truly been worried, or suspicious, she could have asked me. I was certain such a query wasn’t among the points I might have overlooked in her e-mailed list.
‘I didn’t throw away anything without asking Jo,’ said Mum, perhaps by way of reassurance. ‘And I suppose I’ll have to hang on to this lot at least until she’d back.’ She let out a sigh, as if the toll of the past week’s events – or longer? – were catching up with her, and she was surrendering to their pressure. But she wasn’t at all. ‘And don’t worry, Sam. I’ll let you have first pick of what to keep of your own stuff next time you come to the house.’
First I’d been made to side with them. Now they’d cast me out. I felt tricked, too. Wasn’t it a set-up: the passport incident all over again? They were treating me like a child. Constrained by my own limited understanding and experience. Excluded from the vast store of knowledge that grown-ups like to keep to themselves. But I wasn’t too disheartened. After all, it may have happened only very recently – might still be happening, in fact – but I felt I had gained a lot of ground since I was ten years old.
The prospect of seeing Daniel was even more enticing at the end of that stressful week. I was pleased that he’d postponed it so I could savour the anticipation.
In my mind I had upped the stakes and to reflect my expectations, I put on my favourite dress, tights in a contrasting colour, and changed into the shoes I kept for formal presentation in the office. I’d bought the dress for one of Michael and Patrick’s parties. It had been a fun occasion, and I’d met some interesting new people. I can’t remember why, but none of my colleagues had been able to make it, so nobody recognized my outfit. But nor did they ask if it was new or special. I didn’t mind, especially not that Michael had failed to comment.
Daniel and I met for a drink in a bar in a hotel on Baker Street, and he came with his mobile phone already switched off and put away. Being a Friday, I’d stayed in the office for a glass of wine, to show solidarity, which was just as well or I’d have arrived first. I wanted the thrill of walking into the room and seeing him poised, waiting for me.
Daniel, too, had lifted his game. As before, he looked both suave and at ease. I noticed his eyes at once. I saw Roger in him and perhaps, also, aspects of Zita. His suit was a darker grey than the one I’d seen him in and his tie was the deepest orange.
We wouldn’t be sharing a quick pizza in a busy chain. He’d booked a restaurant which he named, in case I’d heard of it (I hadn’t) and wanted to object (I said it sounded lovely, which it did). It was the perfect venue: not overly formal but reasonably plush, with attentive waiters who didn’t hover intrusively. The lighting was subtle but you never had to stumble through darkness. Location-wise, it was in a quiet side street, very close to where he lived. I was pleased that he’d selected a restaurant in his area, rather than Islington which would always be Adam and Jo’s neighbourhood. Our table was against the wall, away from neighbours, equidistant between the kitchen and front door.
We talked about what we wanted to eat so we could discuss the wine. Soup to start with for me and then the lamb. Daniel chose a prawn starter and then linguini. He’d been here before – I didn’t interrupt to ask with whom – but he let me choose and I picked white because he’d chosen seafood and also I prefer it. Soon the wine came and I tasted it and made appreciative noises.
When the waiter had gone, having taken our orders at Daniel’s suggestion, Daniel said, ‘I’ve never had dinner with anyone who has actually said the wine was awful and sent the bottle back. Have you?’ I laughed and agreed that I hadn’t, though people must. Irritatingly, I thought that Jo and Adam would have no hesitation about doing so. They wouldn’t come across as rude, just confident. I blinked them away.
I wasn’t people-watching, but surreptitiously, I caught our reflection in the surfaces of the bar’s mirrored walls. We looked just like all the other couples in the room.
‘What a blissful way to end the week,’ said Daniel.
‘That’s just what I was thinking,’ I said, glowing.
‘I feel so totally at ease in your company, Samantha. You’re so – I was about to say mature in your outlook, but that wouldn’t be a compliment.’
‘Not when you’re only two years older than me,’ I replied.
That lovely crooked smile. ‘True! But sometimes I feel as if there’s a decade between Addy and me.’
Did my disappointment show? Of course it wouldn’t be possible to not mention Adam and Jo. Perhaps it was ideal to speak of them early, to get the obligatory topic out of the way.
Daniel’s own expression tightened. Perhaps he was just sensitive about his age. Whatever his reaction, he needed to renegotiate his words. ‘At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Samantha ... Well, that’s the trouble with Adam. He looks so boyish and cheeky, he gets away with bad behaviour. Or he used to.’
‘Call me Sam, please,’ I said. I wanted to change the subject, to talk about ourselves. ‘Samantha reminds me of being at school.’ But not the way Daniel said it, I realized. ‘I mean, I quite like my name. I’m just not used to the full version. What about you? Would you prefer—’
‘Daniel, always, please.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘I had every variation on Dan when I was at school. Dan, Dan the dustbin man being a favourite. But there was Dan Dare, Danny Boy ... the worst, to my mind at least, was Dan the Man.’
I laughed. ‘OK. Daniel it is.’
‘What’s Jo short for? I never thought to ask. Josephine?’
‘Joanna.’ So we were destined to speak of his brother and my sister. I said, ‘So, what do you think about Jo and Adam going rock-climbing at the weekend?’
Daniel shrugged. ‘Did they? I didn’t know that.’
‘They must have told your parents ...’
‘Neither of them mentioned it to me. To be honest, I haven’t heard from Adam for a week or so.’ He didn’t sound dismayed.
‘You’ve been preoccupied with Lily.’
He nodded vaguely, as if this were neither a reason nor excuse. As an afterthought he added, ‘Enjoy it, did they?’
‘Apparently. Mum was beside herself at the thought of it, no wonder Jo only told us afterwards.’
‘But no harm done,’ said Daniel.
‘None whatsoever,’ I said. Then I realized that he’d assume I was blaming Adam for their undertaking such a dangerous pursuit. Hurriedly I said, ‘It was Jo’s idea. She persuaded Adam.’
But it wasn’t the answer he wanted. He seemed as difficult to read as he’d been in Cambridge. Or perhaps I was being too analytic? Daniel seemed relieved when our entrees were served, the conversation interrupted. ‘This smells good,’ he said. The aroma of the soup calmed me considerably.
It was very hot, so I skimmed the surface and sipped it – feeling instantly stronger. Recovered. ‘So Lily is much better now?’
Daniel put down the fork he’d only just picked up. ‘She is, thank you. All the attention she’s getting is distracting her from her ankle, which is entirely our plan. Her London granny’s spoilt her rotten and my mother’s doing it all over again. It’s a hard life.’
‘I’m glad she’s OK,’ I said. I pictured Zita fussing with trays of food and piles of toys and books. I quashed an image of my own mother de-cluttering a messy bed. No, that wasn’t fair. But I didn’t have any images to replace it.
I must have looked bereft for Daniel to ask: ‘Do you wish you’d chosen something else?’
I looked into my bowl. ‘No, it’s perfect!’ I took some more, letting the warmth spread through me, numbing my anxiety. So much so, in fact, that my mind was a void, not a single question in view. I always had questions. This was new. But it was not upsetting, just unfamiliar. So why did I get cold feet and plunge in with an irrelevant question?
‘If you don’t mind me asking—’ I began, at which he leaned back expansively, to show he didn’t ‘—before, when you were talking about your ... about Becky. You said – well, how old is she? How old was she when she had Lily?’ Why had I said that? Why did I want to know?
His smile was forced. ‘I thought you’d work that one out, Sam. Well, it’s the truth so there’s no denying it. Becky was very much younger than me. She’s twenty-one now. When she had Lily she had only just turned sixteen.’
I shivered. One of the serious subjects we’d been made to tackle on the radio programme was teenage pregnancy. We interviewed dozens of young parents. I’d spent hours listening to more tapes than ever made it on the air. Some of them filled me with horror. Those teenagers had sounded so clueless, so vulnerable. Becky was older than many, but Daniel had been very much older. He should have known better. He’d confessed his guilt but that doesn’t let the crime melt away, no more, really, than denouncing a bad thought you’ve had.
‘As I think I said, I should have been more responsible. But I didn’t take advantage of Becky, Sam. You can ask her if you want. I’d like you to meet her. Would you like that?’
Already, he’d offered to introduce me to the rest of his family, and to spend a whole weekend getting to know Roger and Zita. Now he was offering more. But what did I want? There were too many choices. I floundered and instead of considering his offer I resorted to the fallback position. ‘Has Jo met her?’
He looked disappointed. ‘I’m not sure that she has. Adam and Jo are so wrapped up in each other that they tend to overlook other people. Slightly selfish, I suppose. I know that sounds like sour grapes.’
‘Of course it doesn’t,’ I said decisively. ‘As far as I can tell, you’ve got nothing to be jealous of – in anyone. Nothing at all.’
He said it was sweet of me to say that. I didn’t protest, because I didn’t want us to ricochet back and forth, degenerating into attempts at modesty. We exchanged a look of confidence which was enough to get beyond that sticky moment, and continue.
The main courses were served and we talked about food. Cooking was an interest of Daniel’s, though he didn’t hold out great hope that Lily would develop a sophisticated palette. She was still stuck in a chicken nuggets and spaghetti hoops phase. He called his hobby ‘messing around’ in the kitchen, although I knew he’d be more committed and enthusiastic than me. And better – although instead of pleading ignorance, or admitting to culinary failures, I said, ‘I could do with some lessons,’ which pleased him. ‘I’d be happy to pass on the little I know.’ I said I’d like that. I nearly volunteered Jo’s kitchen as a location, thinking you could even film a TV programme in it, but held back.
We didn’t have dessert but we had coffee served with amaretto biscuits. We were mellow and so very comfortable. We were entitled to relax, having both had demanding weeks. I could have happily sat in silence, ensconced in the warmth of the restaurant and the company. We knew each other well enough by now for silence not to seem awkward. Not that we had run out of things to say.
I was going to ask Daniel what a typical Cambridge weekend was like for him when he mentioned that he’d done a little digging about Michael Coady Associates. The word he’d used was ‘confessed’, though he didn’t sound at all embarrassed. The ‘digging’ had uncovered nothing more than a funny anecdote from one of his colleagues. I remembered it, albeit from Michael’s point of view. We laughed. Daniel asked what Michael was like to work for. I answered vaguely, and positively, making no reference to our current troubles. In the back of my mind I was glad I hadn’t asked Michael about the management set-up at Whiteley’s. It could look rude, but aside from that, it seemed to be a sensible policy to keep people in separate compartments of my life.
At the start, I wanted Michael and Patrick spared from this. Was that to avoid smearing them with the mess belonging to people with whom they had no blood ties? Or was it because I didn’t want Daniel to have to read about Michael, in case it aroused jealousy? Had I cared enough about Tom to keep him apart from both? Would Daniel have minded? Would he even notice who was in and who wasn’t, so long as his own progress was accurate and clear?
I had thought of inviting Daniel to begin reading this story from here. It’s an ideal place to start. I don’t think what follows would be too upsetting. The worst of it comes at the end, so he won’t be shocked, because he was there. He’s had plenty of time to be upset. Wouldn’t he just say that life must go on? But I’m not convinced it’s time to let Daniel see it. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made so far. I’m confident I haven’t left out any details. But will I ever let Daniel see it? I’d hate to offer, only to be told that he had more important things to do.
Daniel frowned as the table was cleared, as if resented the intrusion, even though we’d finished our coffee and eaten the biscuits. It was twenty to eleven, not late at all for a Friday night. I wasn’t sure if prolonging the evening was what I wanted, not if we were only going to speak of Adam and Jo. Although it was entirely my fault that they’d been brought back to the conversation. Did Daniel think I wanted to talk about them?
Adam and Jo were, at least, a way in for Daniel to speak of what he wanted. I’m not suggesting he orchestrated the conversation, but he had ambition. What about me? It sounds crazy to claim I had no agenda when I said so much, more than I normally did. I conjured the names, I debated his statements. Would it be naive to say I was simply enjoying myself? Letting my guard down? Would it be true?
Daniel wanted to stay, that was for sure. ‘The other day,’ he said, ‘you asked if everything were a sort of competition between Adam and me.’
I tried to nip the argument in the bud. ‘I’m sorry, Daniel. That wasn’t fair of me. I just – I just—’
‘No, you were absolutely right. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. And I’ve decided that I don’t want to spend my whole life talking about Adam as if he were my only point of reference. Especially now that he’s out of the picture. It sounds harsh but if I had my way, he’d stay out, too.’
Was that meant to shock me? I adopted a look that I hoped was a little bit sceptical, so he was forced to explain.
‘I admit,’ he said, ‘that I’ve always resented the fact that Addy got away with everything. Not just relationships but other things, like financial mishaps. Always running to Dad and Ma for more money to get him out of his latest scrape. Don’t worry, Sam, as I told you, those days are over. But he could wing anything. Everyone thought it was part of his charm.’
Was my aunt Barbara like that? I didn’t want to think of her, however, so I made Daniel tackle another question. ‘If he’s not like that now, then why does it upset you so much?’
I suppose it might have looked like I was defending Adam, but Daniel took it well. ‘In some ways – the most important ways – he’s changed. Where other people are concerned. But not with me.’
‘What do you mean?’
He heaved a sigh, as if foreseeing the huge toll an admission would take. But he answered: ‘Time and again, I turned a blind eye to what Adam did, or forgave him, or put his failures down to bad luck. I even bailed him out of trouble once or twice. And yet – and yet—’
There was a knot of frustration in his voice and on his face, which reminded me of Tom. Once again, I made Daniel deal with my distraction. ‘Go on,’ I coaxed. ‘Tell me.’
‘He’s never forgiven me—’ he snorted ‘—as if it was ever his right to, for what I – for what happened with Becky. And because he didn’t approve, everyone else came around to thinking it was the crime of the century. Not just leaving, not even getting her pregnant, but seeing her in the first place, and keeping in touch with her now.’
‘Everyone?’ Not Roger and Zita. Not them ...
‘Yes, even my parents.’
‘But they adore you!’
‘They make a good show of it ... OK, OK, that’s not kind.’ For a moment he was subdued. ‘Yes, they love me. They’re my parents. But under the surface, they disapprove. They’ll never forgive me. They acknowledge Lily, they love her. They would never wish she hadn’t been born. They just wish – well, they wish it hadn’t happened the way it did.’
‘But they’ve never said so. So maybe—’
‘I’m overreacting? You think I’d invent something so serious?’
Now I felt accused. ‘No, I don’t think you’re making it up. I’m just very sad to hear it, that’s all.’
He smiled again. It seemed like hours since he’d last smiled at me. ‘Thank you, Sam. You’re so kind to me.’
We couldn’t end it there. In any case, I’d forced out the admission so wasn’t it my job to wrap things up? Perhaps Daniel felt too exposed, too weakened to do it himself. I felt as if I were wading into unchartered waters. I saidm ‘Surely not everyone thinks that, Daniel. Your mates, your ex-girlfriends—’ I broke off. How could I speak so confidently of people I’d never met – never given a second thought to?
He sounded irritated. ‘There haven’t been ex-girlfriends.’ He really did stress the s. ‘I’m not saying I’ve been celibate over the years, Sam. I’ve just been – cautious about getting involved. Because it always seems my parents and brother are looking over my shoulder, watching in case I ruin another family’s lives.’
‘But Becky doesn’t blame you, does she?’
‘No. No, she doesn’t. She’s about the only one.’
‘And Hannah.’ The word sounded new and daring. ‘You must have told her ...’
‘Of course I have.’
‘And she obviously doesn’t think you’re an ogre.’
He gave a half smile. ‘No, she doesn’t. I wonder what you’d make of Hannah, Sam?’
Perhaps I stumbled. I don’t know why else I’d have tried to make a joke. ‘You want to introduce us? An hour ago you wanted me to meet Becky. It’s going to be quite a gathering, isn’t it?’
He burst out laughing. ‘That’s very good, Sam,’ he said. ‘Very funny ...’
‘I’m being serious.’ I sounded sharp, but I was annoyed at myself, not Daniel. It had been bad enough dragging Jo and Adam back into the conversation. What on earth had possessed me to be so cavalier with Hannah and Rebecca? As if they were just names, like ancestors on a family tree, or phantoms in the ether.
He said, ‘I haven’t introduced Hannah to many of my friends yet. It didn’t go so well with my parents and frankly, that’s rather put me off. Lucky for me, Hannah is patient, she understands.’
Mildly, I said, ‘Then I hope it works out for you,’ I said.
‘Thanks, Sam. And you and Tom – that’s going as well as ever. Can’t believe it – fourteen years is amazing!’
‘Only thirteen,’ I said. I felt slightly sick. Did I owe it to Daniel to be honest about Tom? Wouldn’t Daniel make my first time of telling easier than just about anyone else I knew? I couldn’t go through with it. I couldn’t offer him the truth. Why is that? ‘It’s never been a proper relationship,’ I said. It was much easier than the truth, perhaps that’s why I said it. Then I wobbled a bit. ‘In fact, at the moment – well, we’re taking a bit of a break.’
His voice was all concern. ‘Oh. I see. Was it your decision, Sam? Are you OK with it?’
I nodded. ‘I’m fine with it. Just fine.’ Guilt made all the delicious food I’d eaten churn inside me. No more than I deserved, of course. I deserved for the evening to be over too. ‘Do you think we should—’
‘Of course, of course. Whatever you want.’
Daniel assumed I was too upset to stay, perhaps that he had even upset me. He took out his wallet and gestured for the waiter to pay the bill. The transaction was over quickly – the waiting staff were hovering. Probably, they wanted to go home too. But once it was done, I realized that I didn’t want to leave. Or, at least, to leave without saying something significant and memorable.
I put my hands flat on the table, pressing against the cloth as if channelling strength and summoning words. They came.
I said, ‘If you want my opinion, I think it’s ridiculous that your parents and Adam are punishing you for what happened. When you told me about Becky and Lily, I was surprised, I admit. But already I knew that you aren’t a bad person; you couldn’t mean anyone any harm. If I could see that having known you for six weeks then it’s blindingly obvious to people who’ve known you all their lives? At least, it should be.’
It was the longest speech I had ever made, apart from defending my urban walks to my parents, but this time I spoke with total vindication. Daniel looked amazed.
‘You should challenge them,’ I added. ‘You can’t let them act as if you have no right to continue your life. And you won’t be able to hide Hannah from them for ever, or just pretend she doesn’t exist when you speak to them.’
He seemed to take an eternity to respond. In those moments my self-assurance flickered. Then he nodded, beaming. I thought of Tom – no, I didn’t. Not that time.
He said, ‘You know, Sam, I’m so very pleased that you’ve said that. Thank you. Because I quite agree. And it’s exactly what I will do. I’ll confront them. Trouble is ...’
‘Yes?’ I didn’t want him to falter.
‘I don’t think I can do it on my own. I need help and I … You don’t have to answer me now, you can forget I ever asked, but well, will you help me, Sam? I think you’d be the perfect person. You and I are so alike, as I’ve said before. And better still, you’ve listened to me tonight, and, I think you understand exactly how I feel. You know me, better than anyone else.’
Would I have said yes to anything to he asked? I don’t think so. I wanted to help him, though. I wanted to say yes. But I’d hated spending the day as family ambassador at the Wildings’. At work, acting as go-between for Michael and for the others had been taxing. What if I was to be Daniel’s willing but ignorant assistant for the six weeks that remained of Jo and Adam’s trip?
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I can’t do that. I can’t help you.’
His look was an appeal, but still I shook my head.
‘But why not, Sam? Can you please tell me why not?’
I had to provide a reason. It wasn’t difficult, but I’m not sure I agreed with the one I came up with. ‘You want to come out from the shadows – that’s fine, that’s absolutely fine. It’s what you were talking about when you drove me to the station in Cambridge that day. I told you then I wasn’t interested in doing that and I’m not. I don’t want to be visible like that. I don’t need to – well, draw attention to myself.’
It’s what I should have said to Tom. That way, the conversation would have been sustained, and we might still be talking. But would it have been the truth? There was some comfort in realizing that I couldn’t have lied to Tom.
‘Besides, I really can’t see how I could be of any use ...’ I was wriggling in my seat, covered in torn bits of serviette that were staining my fingers red. With each twist of the paper I was losing confidence. My life had changed, hadn’t I? So maybe ...
He beamed. ‘Oh but you could help so much! You absolutely could. You understand what I’m trying to do—’
‘But it would just be interfering. And why should your parents and Adam trust anything I said? Just because I’m Jo’s sister? I mean, I’m not Jo and—’
‘No, you’re you. I’m very glad of that. And it wouldn’t be interfering.’
‘But I don’t even know what you want to achieve.’
‘Acceptance, that’s all. And then, afterwards, to retreat. That’s the crucial part. I should have made it clearer. I don’t want to hog the limelight any more than you do. The idea is as abhorrent to me. Adam can have that if he wants, and I expect he does. Not me. No. What I want is only temporary. There’s only a fairly small window of opportunity in any case. Just till Addy and Jo get back. I’ve got two months to convince everyone I’m not a monster after all and then I can get on with my life. It’s that simple.’
It sounded straightforward. It sounded watertight. I resisted.
‘Please, Sam,’ said Daniel in a quiet voice. ‘Will you reconsider? It won’t be difficult but it’s so important. You’d be doing me such a tremendous favour. I’d be in your debt for ever, I really would.’
Even with such a tantalising promise, I stalled. But I couldn’t not answer. Daniel was prepared to go on until he’d worn me down or convinced me. I could have delayed with question after question, hesitation after hesitation, but what good would that have done? I’d be treading water, just like I’d been doing for years, accepting whatever version of real life other people fed me.
That was when I saw another way. It hadn’t been available on our first proper meeting, in Cambridge, five weeks before. At that time the bonds between us had been established. Jo and Adam’s plans anchored us in our roles as the siblings left behind, the poor relations. I hadn’t thought to challenge them, but Daniel was unafraid. I’d never particularly wanted a brother and didn’t want one now. And for all Mum and Dad exasperated me, I didn’t want to replace them with Roger and Zita; although, I admit, for awhile it had seemed a whole lot easier to acquire a new family than new friends. And more appealing.
‘Friend’ wouldn’t do justice to Daniel, that was for sure. Together we would be making something new. Our own bond that had nothing to do with anyone else. Besides, my track record with friends was appalling. They always deserted me in the end: Abby, and everyone else at Meade Park; the radio station crowd; Nadia; the neighbours I’d met at the cinema. Everyone.
So if not family and not friend, what? I desperately wanted Daniel in my life in some unique way. What would be his role? What else was there? I swear I didn’t think lover, not then. That would have been crazy. Although we still looked like a couple when I checked the mirrored walls. Did names and labels even matter? The timing counted, that’s for sure. This was my moment – our moment. It wasn’t revenge against my parents’ revelations. It had nothing to do with the developments in their own lives. That was the brilliant thing. It didn’t feel like a habit, but something wonderfully new and unexpected and exclusive. Daniel asked me again, ‘One more time, Sam ...’ And I said yes.
For me, there was no doubt about its significance, but it already qualified as a landmark weekend. Summertime would finish in the early hours of Sunday morning. The clocks would go back one hour, restoring the hour we’d lost in March. I didn’t feel the usual pang of sadness at the loss of summer and the dwindling of the year. In fact, instead of looming, needing to be filled, I wanted to pack so much into the days ahead.
I’d slept in, which seemed a waste, and I felt hungover. So I had a long, hot bath and while the water was running I put some clothes into the washing machine, and left others to soak in the sink. I charged my phone, which I’d forgotten to do for a couple of days. Until then, I wouldn’t have cared if the battery had died and I was out of contact. But things had changed. Effort was required. I didn’t know what kind of effort, but I was very happy to invest it.
As we’d left the restaurant and Daniel walked me up to Baker Street station. I said, as nonchalantly as I could, ‘What happens now?’
He smiled as if he was hoping I’d ask the question. ‘We wait.’
‘Wait for what?’
His response was an enigmatic, ‘Our window of opportunity.’
It sounded as if the word was as new to him as it was for me. It didn’t sound like opportunities as Tom had put it. There – my double standard once again. At that moment, Tom seemed very distant from my thoughts. And I didn’t care if the whole thing was planned or if Daniel was improvising as he went along. All I heard was the ‘we’ in ‘We wait’. I mentally practised it all the way home on the tube, relishing the fact that I wasn’t doing this alone.
I had toast and coffee and switched on the radio, tuning into the community radio station. For the first time in several months I heard the familiar voices of my old friends. I felt a stirring of affection, even pride and satisfaction. Not a trace of any bitterness or regret. Best of all, it sounded like one of our most interesting programmes. The subject was childless people who took on partners with children and became instant step-parents. There were some disturbing case studies, and some that made me laugh.
I wondered what it would be like to spend time with Lily, as Daniel had suggested. I’d often imagined myself being a fond, involved aunt to Jo’s children – she’d always claimed to want a considerable brood – but not a mother myself, which assumed I would always be with Tom. I suppose I had assumed that. In crowds, he shied away from children, as if they’d be frightened of him, even though he was the gentlest of giants. Looking back, I can see he was anxious about the whole concept of family. Perhaps he felt that his experience – and Abby’s – was not just inadequate training but a disincentive to embarking on a family of his own. But since it was among the topics we never discussed, how could I know for sure?
The end of the programme coincided with the mail thudding through the letterbox. I decided to sort through the week’s post. At last something of interest had turned up amongst the bills and circulars. The crest of Meade Park stood out on the envelope straightaway. I’d let my subscription to the school magazine lapse years ago, but it was no surprise that Jo still received it. She’d been a prefect and a former committee member of the ex-students’ union, after all. She wouldn’t mind if I opened it. No familiar faces stared out from photographs, but there was a piece calling for all ‘Brits in Oz’ to contact someone in Sydney, so I booted up the laptop and sent Jo an e-mail with the details. Waiting for me was her latest update. News and views about more days out and evenings on the beach, but no cause for concern. Nothing to alert me to trouble.
That day, autumn seemed to have given way to winter. It was the kind in which the sky never brightens, and darkness seeps in early. I decided not to risk a walk through the suburbs or along a different stretch of the canal, but – rare for me – to go shopping for clothes. My new shoes had been my first purchase in months. If I’d had a close girlfriend to chum me while we discussed our lives and loves then it could have been a regular occupation. But Abby didn’t talk about clothes, once Tom arrived on the scene. Jo had always gone shopping with her own friends.
A new wardrobe seemed like a good investment. I needed a haircut too, and thought about finding a local salon, who could offer me something better than the practical bob I’d had for years. Would Upper Street prices be beyond my means? I could really indulge myself and try Mayfair. I’d think about it, perhaps ask Laura where she went. If it rained the last thing I’d want was to ruin a new hairstyle before I’d had the chance to try to replicate the grooming back at home.
At least in central London I could easily wait out a shower in a shop or a café. There’d be a difference, this time. It wouldn’t feel like hiding in the shadows.
With plenty of walking ahead of me, I caught the 19 to Piccadilly Circus. At dinner, I had asked Daniel where he bought his clothes. ‘I’m not yet Savile Row when it comes to suits, but you can get some bargains in Jermyn Street.’ In those elegant back street shops I saw his colours, even the tie in the very dark orange. I imagined his fingers testing the smoothness of the fabric. I saw shoes, too, proper lace-ups, and imagined him wriggling into them at the start of the day, or easing out of them of an evening.
On the other side of the street was Waterstone’s. I’d finished Brick Lane, and had quite enjoyed it. I could have done with another novel on the go, but didn’t want to lug books round that day. So I cut through one of the arcades on to Piccadilly. There was the Ritz and Green Park. I crossed over, and up, to New Bond Street.
The countdown to Christmas had begun. There were decorations in all the windows and strung from lampposts and shop awnings. Sometimes Michael asked me to pick up gifts he’d ordered from shops for Patrick. I used to fantasise that they were gifts from me to Michael. Not any more. I wondered if I’d be buying for all the Wildings this year, or just Daniel. I wanted to find something special for Laura, other than the Secret Santa presents for which we never paid more than ten pounds. Then I thought of Mum and Dad and felt a lurch. Where would we all be on the twenty-fifth of December?
Would it be appropriate to buy clothes for Daniel? It might be better to wait till his birthday – which was in February, three weeks before mine – so it wouldn’t get lost amongst all the other gifts. He might like a tie to match or contrast with those amazing green eyes. What colour were Michael’s? Tom’s were blue, I wouldn’t ever forget that. But Michael? Grey, I hazarded, but it was a struggle to remember.
With Christmas getting closer, the streets were heaving with extra shoppers as well as the usual moochers and tourists. I was in no rush, and didn’t need to battle my way through the crowds. I kept getting bumped and pushed out of the way, but I didn’t mind.
Coming out of Prada I clocked the blond bob as its owner vanished. I was sure I’d seen her inside the shop as well. I never drew attention to myself, and hadn’t now, apart maybe from browsing somewhere from which I had no intention of buying anything. The sales assistants didn’t think my presence was suspicious, if they noticed me at all. Why was this woman interested?
I saw her again, two or three minutes later. Maybe that wasn’t so unusual. Then I realized I’d seen her before. A face remembered from the pages of the Meade Park magazine? No, it was before today. I was certain. I felt as if she wanted me to notice her, to remember our connection. It was a kind of tease.
When I stopped or veered suddenly through the crowd, she did likewise. If I went into a shop, she waited. Ten minutes passed like this, though it felt like twenty. I was being followed, no question. For how long would it last? The air was scented with rain, and sharply cold, but everyone was soldiering on, not yet deterred. It was only half-past two and I wasn’t ready to give up and go home.
It was the girl from Covent Garden piazza. Then that instant, amazing thought gave way to another that was even more surprising. It was me she’d wanted, not Tom. Somehow he had known that. He was simply being protective. But he wasn’t here now, so it was up to me to understand who she was and what she wanted. The pressure was on. I didn’t expect to be struck by another thunderbolt – welcome though this one would be – but something had to happen. I was quite proud of the questions that occurred to me then. If not who and why, then why not try when else and where else? From there my mind leaped on to: was she the late night intruder at Jo’s? I hadn’t known for sure it was a man. Above all, I hadn’t forgotten about the disturbance. If there was to be a third it was overdue. Was this encounter in its place?
I didn’t want to appear too cool in case she tried to engage me in a drastic or dangerous way. But I didn’t want to lose her. I continued my steady progress up New Bond Street, pausing at windows, occasionally venturing inside shops. I was almost at the top, on Oxford. She kept pace with me when I turned round to check once, and then a second time. And a third. And then I lost her.
Had I been going too slowly and she’d got bored? Or run out of time? I had to face the dismal possibility that she was in pursuit of someone else. Or maybe in pursuit of no one. My instincts fought both. It wasn’t that I longed to be noticed – of course it wasn’t that. I had to understand the connection. The girl knew me, or knew about me.
I paused for as long as I dared to waste time being still. Where to go next? How could I find her again or perhaps surprise her? I knew all the surrounding streets; all their destinations: west to Hyde Park, east towards Holborn. Due north was Marylebone, but I hesitated, because that was Daniel’s territory. I didn’t want the pursuit to bleed into a part of town for which I had only happy memories – not to mention expectations. Stupid of me to think that Marylebone wasn’t on her list of possible destinations, that it was the perfect place to lure her, while letting her think that she was luring me. Perhaps she’d followed me to St Christopher’s Place, or trailed me as I’d browsed in its on the High Streets, or watched me enter or leave the restaurant with Daniel. Why didn’t I suspect that she knew exactly where I would go? How could I have been so short-sighted?
From that moment, I should have embarked on a search for who I needed to be afraid of, and why. Which other people were at risk, or to be avoided, also. It should have been the chance to put into practise all those years of cautious surveillance, of wary isolation, not daring to expose my fears to the outside world in case they reacted against them, and me.
But I didn’t give a single thought to waiting for a murderer to find me and silence me. Or trying to stay ahead of a stalker on the Metropolitan line on the way to and from school. Was it because both those things were based on fantasy and this was real? People might say that, of course. They might even say it was a test set up by Daniel to prepare me for the help I’d promised to give him. Would anyone think that? Maybe it’s a little too far-fetched.
What that afternoon was actually about, I think, was feeling involved in the world which had always seemed to spin beyond me. It was about immersing myself as a necessary component amongst millions of others – or even amongst one other; just the girl and me. Whoever she was – though I’m not sure that even mattered.
Should that make me feel guilty, given what was to happen in a few week’s time? (Yes, the murder.) I can hear people say that I might as well have given up and gone home. That isn’t fair. I still felt the need to do something, go somewhere. Make a statement, find something out, be constructive. Work was an option, but I never went in at weekends. I carry a set of keys in my bag for emergencies, but I’ve only had to leap to Michael’s aid out of hours twice in all the years I’ve known him. I didn’t want to go there now, as if even approaching Davies Street meant giving more of my attention to Michael than he deserved.
If the girls from Meade Park had been watching, I know what they’d say: ‘You missed out on Marylebone. Strike one. But surely even you might have considered that an excellent place to set a trap would be the office?’
My hangover, which I thought had faded, thudded back into my head. It was the last thing I needed. I looked in my bag for some paracetamol but the packet I found was empty. I couldn’t face the West One Shopping Centre on a Saturday, but I didn’t feel I could shrug off my queasiness and start my clothes shopping in earnest. I suppose I hoped, too, that the girl might reappear, if I kept going.
Why not go to the office? I could raid the first aid box, drink plenty of water or settle with a coffee for a bit. It was practically a stone’s throw away. Left into Grafton, where Old and New Bond Streets met. Berkeley Square: a perfect place to hide in, I’ve always thought, even though it’s hard to find pure darkness in London. I was on the move, almost without realizing. Claridge’s was up ahead, then Davies Street, more or less deserted. No shops, just blocks of flats and offices, all red-bricked, quiet.
That was when I saw the girl, no more than ten paces from the office, turn and look at me. I admit, I was surprised all over again. Adrenaline pumped inside me. My hangover almost felt sweet. She quickened her pace and I fixed my line of vision to follow. She got as far as the front door of the building next to ours and was blocked, suddenly, by Michael, who was standing on the steps outside our building. His being there seemed wrong to me. It was as if he’d got in the way. And then the girl broke into a run, and she vanished, for good.
Michael might have noticed her, but he was engrossed in conversation with a woman. She was Mum’s age, or more. She was smartly dressed, more formal than Zita Wilding. Michael was in jeans and a jumper. Casual clothes, but he seemed anything but casual. He looked ashen, a bit like Patrick when I caught him spying on this account of Tom and Abby. The woman wasn’t a friend, that was apparent. And no relative of his that I’d met. I knew all our clients by sight, but in recent weeks anyone could have crept onto the books.
Had Michael seen the girl? Had the woman? Had I imagined her? Worse, I thought: had Michael done something to frighten the girl and make her disappear?
‘Sam!’ Michael broke into my thoughts. He sounded more startled than sharp. I think he was glad of the interruption to his companion’s tirade. ‘What are you doing here?’
I could have asked the same of him, of course, but if the woman was a client it would look disrespectful. I acknowledged him with a wave and crossed the street to join him. I wanted to ask, ‘Did you see that girl?’ But the woman got in first.
‘I think that’s enough of an intrusion on my weekend.’ Her voice was tart. ‘I’ve made my expectations clear. I want to see the plans by Wednesday morning. Courier them if necessary. I’ll be at home. Waiting.’
Michael nodded. He looked dejected, but he made sure he sounded appreciative, even ingratiating. ‘Of course, of course. Thank you for your time, Maureen. It was so good of you to stop by. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.’
He watched – we watched, separately – her storm off towards Oxford Street. Following the girl? Why would I have assumed that then? I don’t think I did.
‘That was Maureen Farmer,’ I said.
He nodded. He didn’t sound surprised that I knew the name and, weirdly, having said it aloud, it sounded so ordinary, so unthreatening. I was glad he hadn’t introduced us, in case I’d look disappointed. I didn’t want to be seen to be dismayed. I didn’t want to feel it. But Michael had spoilt Maureen, somehow. And he’d made the girl go away.
So yes: I saw the link, plain enough. The first clue. A good clue. But in the end, of course, it was the wrong link, and therefore not all that useful.
‘Oh Sam,’ said Michael, turning to face me. He was trembling, teetering on the edge of the steps as if he might tumble off, as if he wanted to fall. ‘I think I’ve done a terrible thing. I feel quite ill. Um ... are you busy right now? I mean – could we go for a drink? I could do with one, I tell you.’
Until recently, I’d have loved nothing more than to respond to his plea. But he’d abused that. It felt right to be tough, to punish him for – what, exactly? Scaring the girl away? Causing trouble at the office lately, by letting Maureen Farmer come between him and the team, and the team and me? Or for letting Patrick come between him and me all those years ago. All those things seemed possible. They tumbled inside my head, all mixed together, but in a way it was impossible to unscramble. I could only watch them in frustration, feeling wholly inadequate, ill-equipped to accomplish anything at all.
It got worse. I had a flash of insight, not about any of the people I’d encountered that afternoon or even recently or in the past. About myself. I wondered if the only person who had ever truly denied me anything was me. If I continued to be cold towards Michael, would I be doing myself a disservice? If the business was faltering, or Michael was planning to sell, would I be the first casualty? And then I thought: Was this how I treated everyone I encountered? Was this what lay in store for Daniel?
I panicked. I thought I’d had a special compartment for Daniel and for Michael, but there must have been dozens – one for every single person I knew – because at that moment, they all flew open. It was as shocking as if a flock of birds had taken flight from a seemingly calm horizon. I felt overwhelmed. I felt afraid that I had taken on too much. I needed to shut down. To lock myself away, in a compartment of my own.
So my shame and regret I told Michael was sorry. I meant it, because I was about to lie to him, and I hadn’t done that before. ‘I’ve got to meet my mother and I’m already late. I’ll see you on Monday.’ I drew in a deep breath, and added, ‘I’m sure everything will be all right.’
The rain set in early on Sunday, tainting the week with an inauspicious start. All the balcony doors were closed, so the building had a sealed, impenetrable appearance. I heard music being played and phones ringing, but little else. How were people passing the time? Were they relishing this perfect excuse to stay in and read the papers or watch box sets? They might finally embark on the spring clean they’d promised themselves at the end of last winter, or put up some shelves or weed their libraries. What about the people in the narrowboats, gently bobbing up and down on the water? There seemed to be even fewer signs of life on the windswept canal. And, as if to spite it all, the rain lashed and thrashed for hours.
Jo had left the number of a handyman who lived in the building but she’d also said, ‘There’s nothing that can’t wait until we’re back.’ I wanted to be busy and there were things I could do around the flat: replaced a tile that had fallen from above the bathroom sink, oiled the hinges in a cupboard, change the light bulb in the vestibule. Tom could fix anything, and so could my father. What about Daniel? Was he handy about the place? I liked the thought that he wasn’t, as I dug out the toolbox from the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink.
He was in Cambridge with Lily. Would they be housebound? I suspected that Daniel wasn’t much of an outdoors person anyway. Did Lily play with her father’s old toys, as well as her own? A rocking-horse, perhaps, or an elaborate train set. I could imagine Daniel being nostalgic for the lost years of childhood, before he and Adam drifted apart. I could imagine him feeling a wrench when his parents had sold the house he’d grown up in and moved on. The Cambridge house must have been bigger than their Paddington home – no shades of Dale and Gerry Hutchence there – so perhaps he wouldn’t have had to throw out any hoarded childhood possessions. If he’d had a room there I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t seen Lily’s either, come to think of it. I was sure she must have her own space. Had Roger and Zita been protecting it from me?
There was so much I didn’t know. I longed to be able to cut straight to thinking of Daniel exclusively, but it still seemed I had to go through other people to reach him.
On Monday morning I logged on before joining the others in the kitchen for coffee. I put the meeting with Michael on Saturday from my mind as we listened to descriptions of galleries visited and films seen. Michael, himself, was silent. Had he forgotten about our encounter? Nothing was said when we went through the regular end-of-month administration. I set up a conference call for him, which swallowed most of the morning, and got on with my own work. I wasn’t avoiding him, exactly, but almost.
At lunchtime I went to Oxford Street and returned the clothes I’d forced myself to buy but would never be happy with. My shopping trip had been soured, unsurprisingly, but I’d held out hope that it could be rescued with some pleasing purchases. I ended up exchanging one skirt that was so brightly coloured it was garish for another in a subtler colour. No trouble about returning the jumper that was missing buttons – how could I not have noticed? – with its label intact. I settled for two long-sleeved T-shirts and yet another pair of black trousers.
The week went on. No word from Daniel. Nothing from Tom. Even Jo had gone temporarily quiet. Mum phoned to advise me that our annual practice of wrapping up warm on Bonfire Night, and taking thermoses and a hamper to the rec on Claremont Road, to watch the fireworks wasn’t an option this year. Apparently, they’d be busy all weekend. I didn’t ask about their plans. I doubted the change was because it wouldn’t be fun without Jo. It was just part of the new regime, which still seemed no different from the old one.
They seemed no happier, that was for sure. Most of the conversation entailed me listening to my parents argue in the background.
‘We’re still trying to work out what the new difference is,’ Mum said. ‘What’s the saying? About springing forward.’
‘Just because our clocks change doesn’t mean theirs do at the same time.’
‘This year, they coincide. Jo confirmed it.’
‘So there’ll be an even greater time difference between us and them.’
‘At the moment it’s what – nine hours.’ Was she talking to me or Dad?
‘If we’re an hour earlier, it’ll be twelve hours.’
‘No. They go forward, don’t forget.’
‘Then it must cancel it out. It’ll be the same time as it is now.’
‘No, it won’t. It’ll be ... eleven hours.’
‘How can you go from nine hours to eleven? My money’s on one hour cancelling the other out.’
‘Well, if you ring Jo at nine at night here on a Saturday morning and expect her to sound bright and breezy at having been woken up at seven, then you can deal with the noise.’
I felt a deep relief that the person dealing with it wouldn’t be me. I didn’t exactly relish the thought of existing in avoidance mode. I wanted to be engaged with the world: to tackle it head on. I must be ready for Daniel at all times, I reminded myself. Accept all challenges. But at work there’s no doubt I was still avoiding Michael.
Late on Thursday, he caught me at my home-away-from-my-desk, the photocopier. He was walking past, smiling about something as he went. ‘All right?’ he said. Then he backtracked and said, with a slight frown, ‘Sam, I’m sorry about Saturday. I must have seemed a bit, well ... desperate.’
The phrase rabbit caught in headlights would aptly describe my reaction. I pulled a sheaf of pages from the sorter, and knocked them into order against the side of the machine. ‘It was my fault,’ I said, my cheeks burning. I experienced a delayed rush of guilt. ‘I wish I could have stayed, but Mum hates being kept waiting, and I was already running late.’
Michael shrugged. ‘As long as I didn’t upset you.’
He lingered, as if he were about to say more. I turned to leave and found myself speaking. I hadn’t meant to. ‘So ... is everything all right. You said – you said you’d—’
Was he so desperate to get his confession off his chest that the merest prompt was all it took? Would any remark have done the trick? Or did he want me, and only me, to be the person he confessed to?
I was practical. ‘Come on, Michael. Enough of the mystery. Tell me what it’s all about.’
Maureen Farmer was what it was all about. The Farmer client, Farmer’s wife; a widow whose house in Chiswick he was redesigning. She had recently retired, and she wanted to embrace a new found hobby of painting so she wanted, among other features, a studio. Only she kept changing her mind which was why the project was swallowing up so much of Michael’s time.
‘Is that why she yelled at you?’ I asked, no more impressed than I’d been on Saturday afternoon. Funny to think how drastically that was about to change.
‘Yes.’ His voice was weary. ‘She alleges that I keep misinterpreting her instructions.’ He shrugged, self-doubtingly. ‘If you ask me, she doesn’t know what she wants.’
I was indignant on his behalf. ‘Why do some clients have to be so impossible?’
‘Well, she calmed down. For a while at least. But she’s threatened to take her business elsewhere, without paying.’
‘She can’t do that!’ Though it had happened once before, a long time ago, through no fault of Michael’s as far as I’d been able to tell. I said, ‘Why don’t you just ditch her if she’s such trouble?’
‘I can’t, really.’
‘Being professional is one thing,’ I interjected, ‘but if the client is being—’
‘Sam, it’s not just that. You see, I’m doing the job as a favour to Pat. Maureen worked in publishing, an editor of one of the women’s glossies—’ I remembered the rogue magazine. Patrick worked in contract publishing. ‘—and she’s put lots of work his way over the years. He feels that he owes her.’
‘Oh. Right. But why has it been such a secret?’
He looked to the floor. ‘Pat asked me to keep it quiet. He doesn’t want any accusations of favouritism. Besides, we’re stretched enough as it is, and it’s not exactly going to boost our profile. But the real problem is that I’m probably the least expert in some of the detail out of the whole team. They’d be pissed off to know that, and quite rightly. So you can see, Sam, on all fronts, I’ve landed myself in the shit.’
‘I could help you explain it to them,’ I said. ‘When the time is right.’
‘That’s kind of you, Sam, but I think I’ll have to face the music alone. If we get as far as starting the work, that is.’
‘Fair enough.’ I sounded cool. ‘The offer’s there.’
‘Thanks again.’ He made as if move off again.
There was one thing I had to check. ‘Did everything go all right yesterday?’
‘Wednesday? What happened then?’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Nothing special.’ He wasn’t that keen to confide in me, I realized. He didn’t want my help. I asked him, ‘Are you still going to the meeting in Albemarle Street after work? I’ve printed out the agenda. It’s in the red file.’
He smiled. ‘Great. Thanks, Sam. You’re a star, as if we need reminding.’
Then why, I thought a little waspishly, did you bother to mention it at all?
The Residents’ Association had put up posters announcing a party on the canal bank on the night of 5 November, although fireworks had been going off all over London all week. Everyone was welcome, encouraged to attend, no RSVP necessary. There’d be food and drink – ‘just bring your own blankets’. I really wanted to join in. It would be the highlight of my week.
I began that cold but dry Sunday with a walk across Highbury Fields but gave up because of the wind; it was just too unpleasant with leaves and grit churning all around me. On the way home, I inspected the antique stalls and tiny shops of Camden Passage, warmed by the presence of other people. I stopped off in Tesco, because I’d decided to share something with the neighbours later on, or even to invite them back in the flat once the fireworks were over. I bought some bottles of wine, knowing people would bring alcohol if food was on offer. I could have used Jo’s cookbooks but I didn’t want anything to go wrong, so bought snacks I could heat up.
There was a friendly buzz outside from dusk onwards. Just after seven, I wandered down and in between the portable barbecues that had been set out between the landscaped tubs of grasses and potted trees. Almost immediately, someone placed a plastic glass of wine in my hand. Disguised by blankets and huddled under hoodies people still found their way into conversations. No sign of the Hutchences, though, nor my film friends.
‘Who do you belong to?’ I was asked. ‘How long have you lived here?’ ‘Funny not to have bumped into you before. Sam, you said your name was? I’ll look out for you.’ There was no accusation in the questions and anyway, I refused to feel like an impostor. I didn’t always mention Jo and Adam. It seemed to make little difference to my reception whether I said their names or not. Why hadn’t I worked this out before?
I felt happy, as if I were with Daniel, but I didn’t fantasise that he was there. At the same time, I thought of Tom, carefully stepping between groups of people, to come and join me. What if they were to meet – how would I introduce them to each other? It was a thought I could handle, let sink in and come up with an answer later. In the smoky air I relaxed, my senses dulled by the warmth and the wine. I felt unthreatened. When the fireworks began, everyone slipped into a rhythm of delighted sighs and wonder, with banter in between the explosions and shrill screams. I joined in.
I didn’t dare to expect too much. I didn’t want to overreach my ambition. All the food was in the flat, waiting, but what if I brought it down and it was refused because people had had enough? And if I coaxed them upstairs they would see all Jo and Adam’s things and the talk would turn away from me as if I wasn’t there. So I left, a little after eleven. The chilled pizzas could keep but some of the things I’d already heated needed to be deal with. Maybe I could take some into work in the morning? I tidied up, then flicked on the TV and watched the news – more firework celebrations – and then went to bed.
I lay there and listened to people drift back inside, though many had talked about going to the pub for last orders. Issues were discussed, like garage security and the emptying of bins, but mostly social arrangements were made. A visit to see some Spanish film at the Barbican; a lazy lunch proposed at a trendy new bar in Hoxton. Even a working party to deal with the weeds that grew out of the concrete pavers. Someone had offered to lend a collection of DVDs, another a folding sofa bed. A community at work, twenty-four hours a day. The radio team had been like that. Marriages, too. What would my partnership with Daniel be like? I’d just have to wait. Be patient. In the meantime, I could use the weeks I had left to make an impression here. ‘You never mentioned a sister, Jo,’ the neighbours would say. ‘How kind of her to look after your flat.’ Well, maybe that was a step too far. A little too smug. I could keep in touch with people though, surely. Jo wouldn’t object to that.
I felt wonderfully sleepy – better than if I’d had a long walk – and quickly drifted off. And then, all of a sudden, I was woken. Footsteps in the corridor, not friendly shuffling, and no accompanying banter.
I’d never considered the way fear takes you straight back to a moment of its own choosing. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve travelled to escape it and how much progress you’ve made. And so it wasn’t difficult for me to think myself back to last Saturday and to realize that this was encounter number four. And why not – since the last one had been sabotaged?
But I didn’t feel defeated. Did that mean whatever she wanted – whoever she was –wasn’t having the desired result? Was I meant to have done something to ensure my safety and the end of these visits? Revise some aspect of my behaviour? Leave the flat, leave my job, leave town. Or avoid people? My parents? Daniel? Michael? Even Tom, because technically, we were still together. At that thought, I instantly began to feel better. I had nothing to fear. Nothing to hide.
So, perfectly calmly, I got out of bed, pulled my coat on over my pyjamas, slipped into shoes and went quietly towards the door. I wasn’t reminded of getting off the train at West Ruislip or wherever to track down my stalker but I really do think it was almost the same. It didn’t occur to me to pick up anything in defence, but what would I have chosen? Jo and Adam hadn’t any need of weapons. I stood behind the door and counted slowly to ten. The harsh blows continued, but I counted between them. Seven, eight, nine …
On ten, I wrenched open the door, keeping well back, and peered around into the open corridor. Then I saw. It was a blond girl but it wasn’t my blond girl. And it wasn’t my front door she was banging on, but Dale and Gerry’s.
‘What the—’ I began, but got no further.
Next door sprang open and Dale appeared, her hair in a messy bun, herself in a nightdress. ‘Jennifer!’ she hissed, and I went cold. Frozen.
Without the door to pound the girl’s fists clenched and then she started pummelling Dale in the chest, wailing uncontrollably.
‘For goodness’ sake! Jennifer!’ Dale hissed, but gently now, and she broke free to put her arms around the girl and hold her tight in a way that seemed both fierce and tender. I didn’t know what to do. I’d been pulled into this moment and yet it was clear that I was the intruder. ‘There, there …’ Dale soothed, her lips pressed closed to the girl’s forehead, while the whimpering continued. ‘You’re safe now, darling. Come inside.’
Dale stepped back from the doorway, to let Gerry emerge, tousle-headed. He rubbed his brow, in fatigue but frustration too, I thought. He said, ‘I’m sorry, Sam. Sorry to have woken you. Our youngest daughter, Jennifer. She hasn’t been to stay in a while. We thought it would be a good break for her. I’m sorry ...’
‘It’s fine,’ I said too quickly, not looking at Dale, fearing she would want to silence Gerry, that she would think he’d compromised their privacy by saying too much, and that they would shout at me. Knowing that it wasn’t fine for me. ‘I was ... worried, that’s all,’ I said. ‘Is everything—’
‘Everything is fine,’ soothed Dale, though she didn’t mean to comfort me. She and her husband exchanged tender looks of shared gratitude and love.
‘We’d better say goodnight,’ said Gerry, his arm now around his wife, who was still rocking their daughter. All three retreated. The girl hadn’t looked at me once. Why would she? None of them cared what I thought or did.
So to nobody I said, ‘Oh. Yes. Goodnight.’ Gladly, I closed the door on my unpredictable, unknowable neighbours. Was this a reward for my new-found powers of observation? A mystery solved. Progress, finally.
But the comfort didn’t last beyond the morning. Jennifer Hutchence was the night-time prowler. Could it be true? It didn’t feel right, that’s for sure. What were the chances of having two stalkers? Or had I just imagined her, like those other times? Then again, if she did exist, she was still out there. For all I knew, she could have been downstairs with the last of the revellers on the canal side, waiting to slip in, unnoticed. She might yet return. And this time, she might be frustrated or angry or vengeful. Should I have phoned my dad or Tom or Daniel? Should I get a weapon for my own protection?
I could circulate as many searching questions as I liked but I still didn’t feel close to achieving any answers. Satisfying answers, I mean. Although I had no idea that a crime was brewing, I can’t shake off the feeling that I was – I’m not anymore, not after the murder – drawn to search for the sinister in every situation. Was that a legacy of my childhood, or would it have emerged in any case? Was that what had drawn me to the boyfriend I’d had at uni? He had been so totally wrong, so unlike anyone else I’ve fancied, and yet for months I’d found it impossible to tear myself away. Had I been looking for that kind of attraction ever since, without realizing it? Or without being given the chance to find it, perhaps.
I’m not sure. I don’t think that idea occurred to me last year. The reason that Guy Fawkes’ night was ultimately disappointing wasn’t because it had nothing to do with being stalked or protecting Jo. I’d simply wanted to stay and watch the Hutchences and share their tenderness – something I wouldn’t have imagined existed, based on my experience of them so far. I was actually jealous. Which made me feel guilty about my own family. Had I pushed them all away from me? That old, familiar, stultifying feeling. That’s why it was disappointing.
The week seemed to mock me: that sense of nothing having happened, while knowing that life had changed. I had moved on, and never lost the urge to prove it. How much longer, I wondered, would I have to wait for the opportunity? No, I need a different word to describe my anticipation. After all, I was critical of Jo for stealing Abby’s words. Besides which, I’m not sure how much Daniel actually featured in my goal.
So there I was, waiting for a chance. I couldn’t see any coming. I wasn’t expecting anyone to step in to help. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt but just the same, I was wary of trusting other people. But I wasn’t looking for trouble. Enter Ruth. Now, this was progress.
I would have seen Tom’s great-aunt for her birthday in September if we hadn’t fallen out, so it was likely to be awkward when she came into the office, at six on Wednesday evening, to collect Michael and wait for Patrick. Apart from Michael, who had been in a meeting since half-past four, I was the only one left. Laura’s husband had phoned to ask if she could swing by M&S on the way home for some last-minute ingredients; I’d agreed to meet her at the tube at half past. I was really looking forward to our evening together.
I’ve said that we don’t have a proper reception area, so Ruth parked herself in one of the chairs in front of my desk. ‘I’ve been away recently,’ she explained as she took the glass of water I’d given her. She sipped thoughtfully. ‘Greece – absolutely magic, it was. Have you been, Sam?’
I had once, with Tom. Didn’t she know? Had she forgotten? Or did she know about me and Tom and had decided not to refer to him? ‘Ages ago,’ I said. I didn’t want to chat to her but it would have been rude to keep on working. ‘I haven’t been anywhere exciting this year, though my sister’s in Australia.’
‘Lucky thing! I have to confess part of me regrets coming back at all. It’s going to be a long winter. I can feel it in my old and experienced bones. Travelling takes its toll at my age, Sam, though every steep climb and every bumpy camel ride is worth it.’
‘It certainly agrees with you,’ I said. ‘You look so well! You’ve got a fantastic tan.’
Maybe she was still in holiday mode, with all her relations left behind. But then she wouldn’t be here waiting for Michael and Patrick, who were like a second family.
She said, ‘Back to reality now, catching up with people and putting down roots. That’s what the autumn is all about. Summer for adventures, autumn and winter for staying indoors with friends. I haven’t seen my boys for ages; I’ve missed them,’ she beamed. ‘We’re going out to dinner for a good catch up. The business is doing well, I hear?’
‘We’ve certainly had our hands full,’ I said, ‘though August was a bit quiet.’
‘You’d expect that.’
‘Patrick’s busy commissioning – whatever that means!’
‘That’s good.’ And then I blurted, with a crack in my voice that surprised us both. ‘How’s Tom?’
Transformed from a spirited traveller, Ruth forlornly shook her head. Would she rather I hadn’t asked? No. Unless Tom hated me so much he’d told Ruth not to talk about him. ‘Not great, Sam, to be perfectly honest,’ she said with a sigh. ‘He misses you.’
‘He does?’ My voice still quavered.
She laughed. ‘Naturally he does. I don’t know what happened between you, it’s none of my business. But now, especially now, he needs some stability in his life.’
That was unexpected. Time slowed. ‘Why now?’
‘He didn’t tell you, did he?’ It sounded like an observation, wholly lacking in judgement.
‘No,’ I said, as though the fault lay with me. ‘He didn’t tell me anything.’
She shook her head again, dismayed at both of us, perhaps, or it could have been the general state of the world. That’s the thing about Ruth, I’ve realized; she never seemed burdened by responsibility. But even by that standard, she sounded far too casual when she said, ‘The poor lad’s found out that his mother is alive.’
I hadn’t heard right. Yet it took every scrap of effort not to scream. I hadn’t screamed when I was ten, when I’d seen Tom’s mother being killed. I’d never screamed at my parents when they shouted each other down, though Jo had done that once, I now recalled, when even her patience had been stretched too far. Now I wanted to scream to block out any other thoughts, to extinguish the calm look of resignation on Ruth’s face, of acceptance. But I had no voice within me.
‘But I saw ...’
Ruth’s look was encouraging, just like Mum’s had been. No, again. Mum was Mum – there was nobody like her. ‘Sam, what did you see?’
Exactly. What had I seen? Had I even – was it possible? – made it up? ‘Nothing. Nothing important.’
Ruth shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter what I’d been about to reveal. As if she couldn’t feel threatened by anything anybody said. She addressed her own concerns. ‘I told Eric he should have been straight with Tom from the start. Now they’re not even speaking. It’s a disaster.’
Not speaking? I could never have imagined such a breach. One of the reasons I’d kept my silence with Tom was the knowledge he wouldn’t believe his father could have committed such a crime. He’d have been right to think that, and me wrong. Again.
I said, ‘Tom thought his mother died in an accident.’ Although I vividly remembered how unconvinced I’d been when Abby had explained it to me.
Ruth shrugged, trusting only her own views. I couldn’t depend upon my own but I disliked her for her confidence. ‘He was old enough to know the truth. But Eric wouldn’t admit it to himself, let alone anyone else. Even his son.’
‘Admit what?’ I said, urgently.
As if I’d goaded her, Ruth delivered the answer with zeal: ‘Helen left Eric. She’d fallen in love with another man long, long before, and wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. In fact, she was already pregnant by him when she told Eric she was leaving.’
‘I see,’ I said. They were the words I’d used with Daniel, and I expected Ruth also to say that I understood nothing.
But she just continued, as though my comprehension or lack of it wasn’t relevant. ‘Eric wasn’t devastated. He was angry. Absolutely furious. I don’t know how much store he holds in the traditional values of marriage but knowing him, what Helen did was a blow to his dignity. Which is probably why he told Tom she was dead. In fact, I think Eric would have preferred it if she’d died.’
The look on my face must have shocked her.
‘But he wouldn’t have killed her,’ she said, as if seeing right through me to what I thought I’d witnessed. I fought a shiver and faced her, stonily. I could withstand anything. All I had to do was employ my new-found skill of patience.
‘But he made her disappear,’ I said.
Ruth composed herself. ‘The family court awarded Eric custody.’
‘Didn’t she contest it? Don’t mothers usually get preference?’ For all the fears I’d held, I knew hardly anything about how divorce worked.
‘I imagine that in the circumstances she felt it was best if she stayed away. She may have even been afraid of Eric and what he might do.’
Ruth looked away then, refusing to meet my gaze, in case I tried to twist her words into a new fantasy. I could imagine Eric being violent, but the image belonged only to that twenty-year-old scene. I’d avoided him ever since. Had Tom ever hinted at his father’s foul temper? I couldn’t remember. Suddenly, for the first time, I wondered if Tom had been in the house that afternoon? Wasn’t it weird to have never connected him to the event when he’d seemed tainted by it ever since?
I asked, ‘Did you keep in touch with Tom’s mother?’
‘No, out of respect to Eric. But I knew she’d moved out of London with her new husband and the baby. I don’t know where she is now.’
Finally, I found the voice to challenge. ‘So why is she back in touch with Tom now? How did she—’
‘It wasn’t Helen,’ said Ruth. ‘His half-sister got in touch. Her own father died earlier this year. She has a brother in Australia, and when he came back their mother – Tom’s mother – told them about Tom. It’s only natural they wanted to find him, I suppose.’
‘This half-sister,’ I began, my chest tightening. Uppermost in my mind was the image of the girl in the piazza, who might or might not have been the girl who’d followed me to the office, the person in the corridor outside Jo’s flat. Could she have been Tom’s sister? ‘What does she look like?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Ruth replied. ‘I haven’t met them. I don’t know anything about Helen’s second family. I couldn’t even tell you her married name.’
Voices broke into the silence after Ruth’s last comment. I looked up and saw that Michael’s meeting had finished; I’d forgotten all about him while talking to Ruth.
In an effort to sound assertive, I said, ‘Michael should be free in a minute.’
She smiled. ‘Good. I might give Patrick a call, just see where he is.’
As she got out her mobile, the door opened and Michael ushered Mrs Farmer out. It had been a long meeting but a productive one, it seemed. He looked enervated, for the first time in weeks.
I turned to Ruth as she dropped her phone into her lap. ‘Ruth, what’s the matter?’
‘Dear lord I think I’ve seen a ghost. That woman—’
There was still some distance between us but I recoiled. I whispered, disapprovingly, ‘Careful, Ruth. That woman is a client.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Maureen Farmer, if it’s important for you to know.’
‘D’you know who else she is?’ Ruth suddenly sat down, still white
‘Ruth, what’s wrong?’
‘Maureen, you say? That’s what she calls herself now. Well, it might have been her middle name, I suppose. And Farmer must be the man she married. Forget all that, though, Sam. Who she is is our Tom’s mother, Helen Mackie, as was. I’ve not seen her for twenty years or more but it’s her.’
I told Ruth not to mention this strange coincidence – if that’s what it was – to Tom or Michael and thankfully, she agreed. Actually, my demand frightened her, I think. Just as I’d alarmed Abby by securing her silence half a lifetime ago. But maybe Ruth’s agreement had more to do with silencing me. I’d already decided to keep quiet. It wouldn’t be difficult because, really it’s what I’m best at.
Nobody seemed required to say anything. Both women were saved by Michael’s appearance. He was polite to Maureen and business-like. He summarised an action plan and then asked me to phone a restaurant on her behalf to delay a booking. Then he gushed over Ruth like the long-lost relative that she virtually was. Patrick buzzed to say he was downstairs, so everyone left. I was glad to have a few moments to compose myself before locking the office and enjoying the rest of my evening.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. It seemed unreal. Of course, I might not have believed Ruth’s story. I reminded myself that she had been wrong before. It was at one of Patrick and Michael’s garden parties, about five years earlier. Tom and I would go to them together if he wasn’t working and especially if Ruth was there. That day, I’d managed to persuade Mum and Dad to come along. It became clear early on that they weren’t enjoying themselves. Dad started talking to a woman. He’d had a few drinks, but was merry rather than tipsy. Mum was engaged in an intense conversation with Patrick’s sister. I couldn’t tell if each had clocked the other. Tom, unhelpfully – and unusually – was elsewhere, chatting. Only I was marooned, guarding them all.
I felt a tap on my shoulder; it was Ruth. I hadn’t had the chance to speak to her yet. ‘Don’t worry, Sam.’ Her hand lingered. ‘He’s quite, quite safe. He needs your mother as much as she needs him.’ She nudged my shoulder first so we were looking at Dad, and then at Mum who, suddenly, was laughing. ‘They’re very lucky people. It would be a foolish person who tried to pull them apart.’
I didn’t know Ruth very well. She had never married but that didn’t mean she had no experience of love or even any concept of it. Maybe she knew lots about long-term relationships, about Eric and Helen Mackie’s, in particular. But she didn’t know a single thing about my parents. She had no right to comment. I wanted to be angry with her. To tell her to mind her own business. So why had I felt a breath of reassurance envelop me in its warmth?
And why did I feel it again in the office that Wednesday evening? It was because I’d never been offered vital details on a plate. Even with Daniel – who’d offered me more than anyone ever had – I’d had to step around the facts to find my own way in. But it wasn’t Ruth who’d given me this unexpected gift. Maureen Farmer had opened a door that I longed to slip through. On the other side lay freedom.
But I was suspicious. I didn’t want it to be some sort of shared conspiracy between Ruth and Maureen Farmer against Michael and me. (Of course, there was no ‘Michael and me’ anymore.) I thought I’d been watching carefully, but could I have missed a look that passed between the two women? Or had the look been exchanged already at a previous meeting? How random was this one? As well as losing tabs on Tom, I’d lost my close watch on Michael’s diary. Ruth could have phoned him, angling for dates, and discovered when his last client meeting was and, more importantly, with whom. Patrick might have talked too, and certainly would again. After all, he’d been Michael’s way in.
Was Tom mine? Ruth had said that Tom’s half-sister had contacted him, which could explain why I’d heard so little from him lately. But there must have been more to it than that. I should have spoken up. I should have gone straight to Tom. So am I to blame for the tragedy at the end of this story?
What was going on? Perhaps Helen/Maureen had no intention of reconnecting with her firstborn child. Perhaps the girl had found out about Tom by accident and bullied their mother into telling the truth. Maybe she’d sought Tom out in defiance of her mother. It’s horrible of me to think that, I know. To not think about Tom. To worry, instead, that the reason Helen/Maureen – what was I to call her? – had come back was because she had failed. Her dream had crashed. Finding Tom would be a bitter reminder of her failure.
It was agony. I wanted to be in touch with Tom, and I wanted to know more about Maureen Farmer. But I wanted them separately. Was it possible to have one without the other? If Tom found out the truth about his parents, and burst all those secrets – his own compartments – open, would we have anything left to say to each other? Would he need me? Then I had another thought, which felt like a little reprieve. We still didn’t know why Abby had disappeared. At least Tom and I had that mystery to bind us together.
The only real comfort, I think, is that I didn’t feel disappointed for my own sake. I realized I’d been living a lie for twenty years. I’d witnessed nothing more than a domestic dispute which had led to divorce. A good thing I hadn’t reported it. The incident no longer mattered. If it ever had. Perhaps it had been only a crutch on which to hang other fears. Which wasn’t something I had to worry about anymore.
At last, this was the connection that brings all the family lines together, all those names – our names – that I’d found so hard to fit together on the family trees. And it’s true that I favoured one name over the others, more than I should have done. But looking back, I truly don’t think I was obsessed with Maureen Farmer. It wouldn’t have been possible to focus on just one cause.
Jo and Adam had reached the end of their second month in Sydney. For me, that was as significant as my new discoveries about Tom’s family. My sister and her boyfriend were two-thirds of their way through their secondment, and still safe and sound. Better than that, they were triumphant. But what would they come back to? I had to wonder, with some reluctance. When would Jo find out about Mum and Dad? How would she react? Towards them? Towards me? What would Daniel have accomplished before Adam’s return? How would it shift the dynamics within the Wilding family?
More importantly, since Jo and Adam were guaranteed to return, I’d be homeless in a month’s time. I’d restock the fridge and pantry, pack my bags, tidy up, and leave the place exactly as I found it. As if I’d never been there, in fact. Jo and Adam might let me stay on for a few days, possibly weeks, but I wouldn’t want to impose for longer. What if I asked Tom if he wanted to find some place together? It was years since we’d talked about it. My excuse was that he seemed too settled with Eric to adapt to a new arrangement. But was that really my only hesitation?
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I knew I couldn’t just wait for Daniel to snap his fingers and call me to attention. If that was his plan. As always, my fluttering thoughts finally descended with a thud at the thought of Mum and Dad. Maybe nothing could have happened until my parents made their intentions clear. For all that I felt trapped in a contract with them, Mum and Dad remained in a league outside my own. It was impossible to guess their feelings or predict their moves. Maybe we’re always dependent on our parents, anyway. I felt it so strongly that I was – remembering Mum’s word but taking it for myself – inhibited.
I had to discover their plans. I couldn’t wait for their next invitation. I couldn’t even be sure it was in the offing. So on Friday night, I invited myself to Cricklewood. And was downright lucky that they happened to be at home.
For once, I skipped Friday night drinks in the office. The atmosphere at work had seemed to pick up in the past few days, so it felt less essential than in the past couple of weeks. But really, I wanted to get to my parents’ as soon as possible. I was anxious about what was awaiting me.
I didn’t really think that the house would have been divided into halves with a washing line or measuring tape. But I was surprised that nothing seemed any different. There wasn’t so much as a cushion out of place. No room had been stripped of its furnishings awaiting conversion for a different purpose. Nothing was new. What’s more, Mum and Dad appeared just as they had the last time I’d seen them. Apart from the fact that they didn’t argue. But hadn’t that stopped once Jo had gone away? They’d sided not against each other, but against me.
There wasn’t champagne, but there was wine and nibbles, and Mum had a roast in the oven, filling the house with wonderful smells. Could it have been because she wanted to butter me up, to soften her next blow when it was delivered?
What did we talk about? Jo and Adam had just spent three days in Melbourne at a conference and were tacking on a weekend in the Dandenong Ranges. Dad told a story about work, which Mum laughed at as if it were the funniest thing she’d ever heard. I explained them about Dale and Gerry’s daughter, how meeting her had surprised me, but not about the other disturbances. Mum said how much easier it must be, living in a big block of flats. Keeping a house and garden going was a lot of work. I wish I hadn’t mentioned the Hutchences, in case it had seeded an idea. Then I realized probably Jo had spoken of them. Not that she’d have endorsed their way of life. Not Jo.
I know I wasn’t trying to stir. It was in total innocence that I asked: ‘How was last weekend?’
Dad turned to Mum with a puzzled look. I think he was asking if it was question they should answer. ‘Last weekend? What were we …’
She didn’t hesitate. ‘We went to the see the Morgans. That’s what we did.’
‘The Morgans?’ I queried, as if the name was unfamiliar. And I suppose, in their new life, they might have acquired friends with the surname of my long vanished friend. I certainly hoped that. But I couldn’t deny a dreadful sense of foreboding.
‘Yes!’ Mum exclaimed. ‘We worked out it must be fifteen years, nearly sixteen since they left London.’
Before I had the chance to say anything Dad cut in, ‘They’ve moved twice since them. First time, it was Aylesbury, now they’re in deepest Buckinghamshire. And loving it.’
‘Loving it,’ Mum agreed. ‘All that space they’ve got with the children all grown up and gone. Married, even.’
‘Abby,’ I said, and there was a lump in my throat.
‘Yes, she’s in Edinburgh. Got together with a lad from Paisley. They’ve got two children. Sweet little things, they are, going by the photographs.’
‘I never knew you were still in touch with them,’ I said, trying not to feel wounded. And failing.
‘Weren’t you, love?’ said Mum. ‘We’ve always had a Christmas card.’
‘You never told me that.’
Dad shrugged. ‘I suppose we didn’t think you’d be interested, given you’d fallen out with Abby.’
‘What? I never fell out with Abby. They went away. Suddenly.’
My mother said, ‘Just because you suddenly stopped being pals didn’t mean we had to lose contact.’ She sounded crushed, as if it were all my fault.
No. Our parents had never been friends. In fact, I remembered Mum being snooty about Abby’s mum, who didn’t go out to work, because she was susceptible to migraines. I suddenly wondered if Mum and Dad were confusing the people they’d seen with another couple. By way of a test, I said, ‘How is Mrs Morgan these days?’
‘Hasn’t had so much as a headache for years,’ Mum said. ‘Moving out of town must have done her the world of good.’ Moving away from you, Sam, I heard behind the words.
I said, ‘We didn’t fall out. Abby went away. I lost my best friend and you said – I remember, you said –’ it was practically all they’d said ‘— they hadn’t left a forwarding address. Tom didn’t have one. So how come you’ve managed to keep in touch?’
Mum. ‘It doesn’t require much effort, love.’
Dad. ‘Just a friendly gesture. Every now and then.’
‘Jo’s always been very good at that, hasn’t she?’
Dad shrugged. ‘Well, it’s not difficult. Providing you really care about the person.’
I bit down hard on my tongue to stop tears. I couldn’t believe I was about to cry in front of my parents – not about this. Once, yes. Not now. I tried one last time: ‘I didn’t fall out with Abby! Why are you suggesting that I did?’
‘Didn’t you, Sam?’ said Mum, regarding me in pure disbelief.
‘No,’ I protested. ‘They left because Mr Morgan’s business went bankrupt and they lost all their money.’
‘Bloody hell, Sam,’ said Dad. ‘I don’t know where you got that idea from. They’re not exactly rich – and they’re certainly not flash, but I don’t think they’ve ever been in dire straits.’
‘Not that it’s any of our business,’ Mum said. ‘People’s financial affairs. I wouldn’t dream of discussing them. It’s why I don’t much like the Wildings, to be brutally honest. Now they’re a bit showy …’
I was hot and my head was pounding. I felt sick, the food heavy like stones in my stomach. ‘You don’t even know Zita and Roger. You didn’t go to their house. And I didn’t fall out with Abby!’ I practically screamed it. If only I had.
‘Really?’ Mum, doubtful, crushed me, stamping out my chance to reject her wild claim. ‘Well, that’s how it seemed at the time, love. And really, it comes as no surprise because it seems that falling out with people is a bit of a hobby of yours, Sam.’
‘Sorry?’ From rage and heat, my voice shrivelled.
Mum. ‘We know about Tom. And we’ve very disappointed, we have to say.’
Dad. ‘But that’s nothing compared to how Tom feels. He’s devastated.’
‘You obviously don’t realize just how much you meant to him. Mean to him still.’ She got to her feet and started collecting the plates. ‘We’re very sad that you didn’t think you could talk to us about it.’
Dad joined her, inspecting the gravy boat and picking up the salt and pepper shakers. ‘Is there someone new, Sam? Don’t feel embarrassed if there is.’
I let the words tumble down. I couldn’t have stopped them, and there was nowhere to seek shelter. I sat at the table while my parents bustled about me, in and out to the kitchen. Dad made a start on the washing up, while Mum organized tea. Each of them slotted in and around the other’s movements, perfectly dovetailed, as if it was a routine they’d practised for years. In a way it was, which is why their so-called separation seemed like a total sham. Then again, not every step was along a well-trodden path. The revelations may have sprung from the past but their delivery was newly executed and perfectly timed.
‘Kettle’s on!’ Mum returned with a cake in a Tupperware box. ‘If anyone’s got any room for afters.’
Before they could disappear again, I asked, ‘How do you know about Tom? Have you spoken to him? Has he called you?’
‘No,’ Mum said in a neutral tone.
‘Haven’t spoken to Eric in years. Or Ruth, come to that. When was the last time – oh, that party, a while back, at your Michael’s …’
Dad returned to the room, and examined the cuffs of his shirt, which he’d accidentally soaked. He said, ‘Just about the only person we recognized. No one else bothered to engage us in conversation.’
‘Mum, Dad, please. Just tell me. How do you know?’
Mum said, ‘It was those interfering Wildings, actually. They keep trying to impose their “friendship” onto us. Anyway, they said if we wanted, their other son – is he David—’
‘To keep an eye out for you, in a sort of brotherly way, then all we had to do was say the word. When I asked why, well ... they told us,’ said Mum. She added, ‘So it’s true then.’
‘Yes.’ I practically hung my head in shame, as if I were nine years old.
‘You haven’t said anything to Jo—’ was Mum issuing a caution? ‘—she’d be so upset and I don’t think it would be fair to spoil her time away. She ought to be enjoying herself, away from all our troubles.’
‘No, I haven’t told Jo,’ I said.
At that, if not because of it, her voice softened. Unless I imagined it, relieved that the conversation was over. Except it wasn’t quite. Mum leaned across the table, and clasped my hand. ‘Honestly, love, you should have told us. You know, Sam,’ she added with an indulgent laugh, ‘if we left things up to you we’d all be completely in the dark.’
So Abby had lost contact with Tom and me from choice. She had withdrawn from us because we weren’t good enough for her. Maybe in her view we deserved no better than each other. It wasn’t flattering – especially since I’d often hoped that Abby would have approved of me and Tom together – but it wasn’t nearly so sinister as whatever we’d feared lurked beneath the surface of her disappearance. We’d been plagued by Abby’s ghost all these years, holding us back from a deeper commitment, as if she might come back to reclaim Tom.
I thought of returning to a life with Tom, sharing the hugs and the snuggling up, feeling protected by my rock and comforter. Feeling familiar. Then I thought about Daniel, who physically had never offered more than a friendly peck on the cheek – brotherly, as Mum had so aptly put it. That definition irritated me more than the fact that Daniel must have told his parents about me and Tom, for Roger and Zita to have let it emerge in a conversation with Mum and Dad. None of them could have meant any harm by it. After all, surely Mum and Dad would already know. In the Wilding family they would have done, but not ours.
Daniel hadn’t intended to betray me, but Mum had wanted to keep me in my place. Jo had set me up in the role by getting together with Adam, but she’d gone away. She wasn’t enforcing anyone’s behaviour. She never did. So I imagined a different scenario. Daniel’s lips soft against my cheek. Then I might pull away, quickly, and tilt my head so it wasn’t my cheek he was brushing but my lips. And he would kiss me—
How? Like Tom had never done.
Like Michael never would.
Had Barb tried to kiss Dad like that? Had he kissed her?
What about Mum and Dad? Jo and Adam ... None of this mattered and there was no reason for any of them to get in the way of what might happen.
So flashes of Tom and Daniel both flickered before my eyes. Only they weren’t in competition. It wasn’t as if I could choose. When had I ever been offered a choice? In the past few weeks, sleeping alone, on the nights that weren’t softened by the tiredness of a long walk, I had the feeling that the only placed I’d ever belonged was in the narrow bed in my student digs where my boyfriend had fucked me – not made love, never that – all those times, sometimes all night long, impaling me, battering me, bruising me.
He told me I loved it. He was usually so off his head I’m surprised he noticed my reaction. Sometimes, though, we’d wake late in the day, and he’d look at the crumpled bedclothes, the torn sheets, and then, finally, at my body which still seemed wilful, even provocative. With my eyes closed I could feel him watch. His eyes would slowly travel down from the lank hair that covered my still made-up (or make-up streaked) face downwards: over those smeared, shadowed parts of my body. He would hold in his breath and then, as he decided he should feel no guilt about anything, he let it out with a smile, because he admired me for what I really was. Someone who not only expected, but hungered for punishment. Somebody bad, who wasn’t expecting to change anytime soon. In his view bad was good.
That confirmed it. Bad was what I was. I deserved exactly what I got. At last, here was the retribution for all I’d seen and imagined, punishment for the thoughts I wanted to banish but kept returning to, when others were available, when people offered me friendship, relationships even, and I spurned them. Would I always do that?
Maybe I did have a choice. Or maybe I had to make a decision. You might say that there could have been no greater incentive that weekend than that to go straight to Tom. We were each other’s only ally. I certainly felt more allegiance to him than to my parents. And none to Abby. I wouldn’t seek her out. I wouldn’t give Mum and Dad the satisfaction of leaning on them for her address. Tom, however, was entitled to know the truth, but I wasn’t sure how to express it in a way that sounded positive.
But I didn’t go to Tom. What was my excuse? Perhaps I thought he might lead me to his mother. Ruth could have been wrong about Helen/Maureen not getting in touch. Tom would want to share – but wouldn’t it be better to find my own way to her? That was the trouble with Tom. He represented the safe, the familiar, the ties of obligation I admit, I wavered. I felt drawn to embrace him. But then commonsense kicked in and I realized that the only thing Tom stood for was the past.
I didn’t go unpunished for my decision. Or maybe what happened was another example of a compartment slamming closed. The closing of a door happened in a literal sense, the following morning, when I went out to buy a paper. I’d just pulled the chain from the lock when I heard my neighbours’ low voices and realized that they, too, were about to leave their flat. I thought about waiting till the coast was clear. I hadn’t seen them since Guy Fawkes, which wasn’t unexpected. I wondered, though, where did they go when they weren’t in the flat? Did they hide in the rooms and keep silent? And because there had been no further night visitors, I hadn’t given their troubled Jennifer a second thought.
At the time, I was still brooding about my parents. How could they have kept Abby from me for all these years? Had they actually lied to me? I knew I wouldn’t force them to explain. I didn’t have the courage. But that made me think it would be pathetic to hide from Dale and Gerry Hutchence too. So boldly I went out.
‘Sam—’ Dale sounded so severe I thought I’d done something wrong ‘—I must apologize again for disturbing you the other day. It won’t happen again, I assure you.’
‘Don’t worry, Dale,’ I said weakly, suddenly feeling quite embarrassed. I felt rather pale and my mind was ascatter. Dale was the last person with whom I could sustain a conversation. ‘In fact, it’s a relief to be able to explain those other times.’
She frowned. ‘Pardon?’
‘I’d been woken before,’ I said. And suddenly, it felt reassuring, and also necessary to be voicing my troubles out loud. ‘Late at night. Everyone forgets their keys from time to time, don’t they?’
‘Indeed they do.’ She sounded aggrieved. ‘But it wouldn’t have been Jennifer you heard, Sam.’
‘Really?’ I felt a knot tighten in my stomach.
Dale shook her head. ‘No. She was in hospital from the end of the summer. She tried to take her own life. An overdose, and not her first attempt. She was under strict observation. Well, last week, they seemed to see signs of improvement. They let her out. We wanted her here, naturally, or at one of her brothers’ and sisters’ homes.’ Dale sighed. ‘November fifth was her first night here. Her only night. After that, she insisted on going back to the flat she’d shared with some rather unsuitable friends. Neasden – have you ever been there?’ She didn’t expect me to answer. ‘They were the people who’d got her into such a mess in the first place.’
‘Oh,’ I said. The knot loosened, tightened again. ‘Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope she improves. It must be difficult for you all.’
Dale nodded sagely. ‘Indeed.’ She paused, as if considering some sort of puzzle. ‘Has there been someone else in the building?’ She didn’t sound very curious. Then she said, with more interest, ‘Someone troubling you?’ I suppose she thought her smile passed for reassurance, but it struck me as purely triumphant. Don’t think you have all the answers, it said. You haven’t the first idea about solving mysteries. Dale concluded, ‘It wasn’t Jennifer. I’m afraid, Sam, you must look elsewhere for the blame.’
I have decided not to show any of this to Daniel. You could argue that it’s still too soon, but that isn’t the reason. As I’ve said, he might, being kind, dissuade me from finishing. Or he might dismiss it. Perhaps he’s already done that. After all, for him the night we spent together could have been no more than a one-off reimbursement for services rendered, or expected. How did he view our attachment?
For me, where Daniel is concerned, there’s more to lose now than before. I need his friendship, his love – or whatever you want to call it – because it’s all I’ve got that’s real. So, worse than having my version of events met with indifference would be watching him engage with my story only, at the end, to disengage from me further. Of everyone who might call me crazy or deluded I’d be most hurt hearing it from Daniel. The way I depend on him has changed, necessarily. I like to think of it as a fluid thing, which is better than being fragile.
Maybe a name for our relationship wasn’t necessary, but an idea of my role would have been useful. It could have shunted me up the pecking order of people who claimed his attention. Because I really wanted to see him, as soon as possible. I felt at risk of losing the momentum I’d gained. When I sent him a text that Saturday morning, I was full of apprehension. I was as vague as you can be in text speak, but the gist was I hoped he’d be in London this weekend, and that he might have the time – I didn’t say the inclination – to meet. He phoned back instantly and suggested that evening. Perhaps he’d been about to call me himself.
‘I’ll cook, if that’s all right,’ he said, making it sound like an apology. ‘I’ve had two work dinners this week and I really can’t face another restaurant.’
Of course it was all right, I told him. It was generous of him to invite me over. He must have thought he’d given me his address already because he sounded surprised when I asked. I’d have remembered if he’d given me those details for sure.
When I arrived, Daniel apologized that the meal wouldn’t be fancy but it would be quick to prepare. I assured him I didn’t mind and in fact, it couldn’t have been more delicious. Pasta with mushrooms, good red wine, cheeses afterwards. I loved it all.
I didn’t have ridiculous expectations. There hadn’t been time to build the evening up to unreachable heights, because I’d had a busy day: tidying the flat, a trip to Sainsbury’s, then venturing out for a walk once I got back – nowhere special, just through the back streets of Clerkenwell, which I’d read was full of historical interest but didn’t seem particularly relevant to me. The hours slipped by easily enough. All right, I admit, it was an ordinary day. My walks had lost their allure and not only because of the drop in temperature, the howling winds and constant threat of rain. A dull Saturday would have been vastly improved by something exciting, like a date, for instance. But I’m not a fantasist. I reminded myself, I did not love him. I didn’t want to fall in love with him.
There were other reasons for practising restraint. Daniel had a girlfriend, and a daughter, and an ex-girlfriend, not to mention his brother and parents. I thought he might kiss me goodbye at the end of the evening. He’d given me a peck on the cheek last time, as we’d gone our separate ways. We had a lovely evening together. Time galloped. Midnight loomed.
Then time slowed. Without comment, Daniel opened another bottle of wine and insisted that we leave it on the sideboard for a while to breathe. We watched it, talking about wine. I didn’t really want anything else to drink and had, in fact, already asked for and downed two glasses of water. My throat felt thick so I asked questions, just to keep going – to keep awake, perhaps. No, I was nowhere near sleep. I had no plans to leave. Daniel seemed happy to share his knowledge of fine labels and choice grapes.
‘It’s a particularly good one,’ he assured me and then he laughed. ‘I’m boring you, sorry, like some old soak on a TV programme.’
‘No you’re not,’ I replied, and should have left it at that. But I added, as if from nowhere – that’s how it seemed to me: ‘It’s just that I get tired of waiting.’
He stayed in the armchair, one leg hanging off the side, foot encased only in a sleek grey sock swinging. ‘Sam, you’re right. You’ve been very patient.’
I genuinely thought he was going to get up to pour the wine. Would I have been disappointed? When I’d arrived, Daniel had been dressed in a warmer version of what he’d worn on our day in Cambridge. He’d ditched his shoes and his sweater, and his shirt had become unbuttoned to halfway down. His chest was pale and downy.
I looked away when he handed me a glass of wine. Before taking a sip, I said, ‘So …’
‘Where’s ... Hannah?’ Where had that come from? Time began to speed up again.
He perched on the edge of the sofa, leaning towards me. I drank in the now familiar scent of his aftershave, for comfort, as I might have inhaled Michael’s scent once, but the effect was different. It was intoxicating.
He whispered, ‘Sam, she isn’t here.’ He slipped off the arm of the sofa and landed on the cushions. I reached out toward him.
Was this what I’d been waiting for all along? Incredible to think I didn’t know by then, but I’m sure I wasn’t just giving in to confusion when I let Daniel take control. And then his hands travelled up my body, fingers stretching out to knead my breasts, and upwards, fingers tracing circles around my shoulders. Then my top was over my head, so lightly I couldn’t feel the cotton, just his warm hands. My bra. His shirt was off, I’d done that. His trousers open, sliding down his hips.
He said, ‘You’re right. The waiting’s over.’