High Visibility — part three

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This is the third, final part of my psychological crime novel — an homage to Ruth Rendell. Looking back, I remember being pleased when I got to the end after many years and drafts. I'd love another idea like this and to write about the dark side of loneliness in London...

13

 

 

I woke early, before five o’clock, to the sound of rainfall, drumming on the windows. Weak orange light leaked in through a chink in the curtains. The room was warm and I was hot. I looked about for a glass of water but recognized nothing and realized, then remembered, I was not at home. I was at Daniel’s, but it didn’t seem strange. Not like my first morning in the Islington flat.

            My body seemed to tell me I was in the right place. As I rolled from my side to my back, I relaxed my hips and loosened the tightness that I felt in my ankles and wrists. I lay back and for a long moment savoured the feeling of Daniel, of the feeling of him having been inside me, the mark of him down my thigh, and between my legs. It took the edge off the pounding in my head.

            The waiting’s over. They were the last words he’d spoken to me, and for a split second they alarmed me, because there was nothing to follow them. Over, the word echoed. The end of our pact before – before anything had happened? Should I have resisted him last night, told him, No – this can’t be the end of the waiting. But what else was there to wait for?

            Already I’d gathered a huge list of certainties that had done me no favours.

            I didn’t love Michael.

            Abby had cast me adrift because she’d tired of me.

            Tom’s mother was alive. Perhaps she’d set out to find him. Had he lost me?

            My parents loved me but their own fears would always inhibit them.

            Jo was safe and well. No harm had come to her. None would.

            None of these explained where I was with Daniel. Last night had been exciting. I hadn’t slept with anyone other than Tom since for ever. Daniel’s body, although so unlike his, felt familiar, but wildly exciting too. Being with him now, however, just seemed strange. I didn’t regret it but even now I’m not sure it really was what I wanted all along. Sometimes things just happen, I accept that, and they’re no big deal. Except that everything that was happening mattered to me. It had to.

*

Daniel stirred just after seven, and I managed to gently snare him into wakefulness before he subsided into sleep. For over an hour I’d lain there on my own, wondering what I could say to him to keep that over at bay for as long as possible.

            We said hello. We kissed, lightly, and then he pulled back. There was no awkwardness. He was at ease, so I took my lead from him, or tried to. He made a vague comment about getting some coffee on – ‘soon’ – and asked if my head was as bad as his.

            ‘I’m OK.’ It wasn’t quite true, but I felt better for saying it.

            ‘Talk to me then, Sam.’ He murmured, his eyes half closed, as if he remained under the influence of sleep. ‘You can say anything you like.’

            I suppose I’d wanted him to talk, to spell out a possible future. I felt a strong resistance to speak in case I incriminated myself. I was feeling guilty about Tom, as well. So why did I end up saying what I did? Perhaps, in my guilt, I was trying to push Daniel away?

            ‘What’s the worst thought you’ve ever had?’ I said.

            I was surprised at how quickly he answered, and how unfazed he was by the question. Maybe he was still half asleep.

            ‘Friday morning,’ he said. ‘I went into a meeting, looked at the agenda and realized I’d been given entirely the wrong set of figures. I was furious. Lucky for him the offending colleague wasn’t there. I could have killed him.’

            ‘Really? Is that the worst? I don’t believe you.’

            ‘Well, admittedly, it wasn’t the crime of the century.’ He yawned. And shrugged. ‘We all make mistakes. But this guy makes more than his fair share.’

            ‘But you didn’t kill him. Did you confront him back at the office?’

            I could tell he was surfacing properly. ‘No. I was all set to give him a bollocking but when it came to it, I couldn’t be bothered.’ Then he shrugged. ‘Let’s see you do better, Sam. What’s the worst thought you’ve ever had?’

            ‘Do you really want to know?’

            Did he hesitate? A little, I think. Wouldn’t it have been so much nicer for him to go back to sleep? But he said, ‘Yes. If you’re happy to tell me. Well, maybe happy isn’t the right word, but— Go on. Be brave.’

            ‘This might sound worse than it really is ...’ That’s what I said, but I’m sure I couldn’t entirely see what was coming.

            ‘Why not let me be the judge of that?’ He smiled the lovely crooked smile. It wasn’t sexy, not now, but I didn’t mind. I had his attention. I said, ‘Sure.’

            ‘OK. Promise I won’t interrupt again.’ He leaned up on one elbow. I could hear the rise and fall of his chest. At least he wasn’t holding his breath, waiting for me to speak.

            I began slowly and with caution, as if only the next few words at a time were in sight. But there seemed no delay. I didn’t feel I was waiting to catch up. ‘I never said, I could kill Jo or, I wish she was dead—’ I heard Daniel’s breath catch in his throat, but he said nothing. ‘—but for a long time I imagined what might happen.’

            ‘You did? Why did you do that?’ He’d promised not to interrupt but he was stopping me because already I’d said too much.

            ‘I thought that life would be better.’ Was that true? It felt right, so it might have been. ‘I thought it would help Mum and Dad.’

            ‘How so?’

            ‘I told myself, if Jo wasn’t here then Mum and Dad would stop their fighting and go their separate ways.’

            ‘The bonds of the Steadman family would dissolve, simply vanish, and you’d all be free to move on?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘Simple as that?’

            ‘Well, no ... It couldn’t have worked that way, because Jo wouldn’t be free if they divorced.’

            He said, ‘She sounds about six the way you say that, not twenty-six.’

            ‘No. Listen.’ I realized how much it mattered to me that he understood. That I did, too. ‘If the family fell apart then it would destroy Jo. To her family matters more than anything – it’s a blueprint for her own life. So it would be easier, you see, to have her out of the picture.’

            ‘Right,’ said Daniel, considerately. ‘So how was this scenario to have been realized?’

            ‘Nothing to do with me,’ I said, shaking my head, as if needing to make it true. To be sure, I added, ‘I couldn’t kill anyone. I don’t know the culprit would be. But probably it would be made to look like an accident.’

            ‘Of course,’ he said, as if conjuring the image. ‘A dark winter’s evening – the roads dangerous.’

            ‘Something like a hit and run.’ Would it?

            ‘You’ve been watching too much TV.’ He smiled. ‘Does Jo have any enemies? Is this scenario likely?’

            ‘None at all,’ I said, but I didn’t feel dragged down by my own logic. New inspiration burst through. ‘Although I suppose, it could have been an accident. Would it be possible for the driver not to even know what he or she had hit? If he didn’t stop, wasn’t apprehended, it would make things even easier. No long-running inquest to drag everything out over months and into the open for others to get involved with.’

            How ironic those words sound now but they didn’t then. Daniel, to his credit, took them seriously. I think I could too because he did.

            ‘Easier for everyone,’ he said. I think the idea spooked him.

            ‘Yes.’

            His gaze, his physical bearing, his words hardened. ‘Especially you.’

            I slid up on to the pillows. ‘What do you mean? Jo’s disappearance – her death – wouldn’t have benefitted me at all.’

            He sat up properly, as if to offer his full attention. ‘Sam, that isn’t true. You’d benefit the most.’

            I shook my head vehemently. ‘No, not at all. Tell me. How?’         

            Daniel was determined to push his point. ‘You’d be the sole child, the inheritor of the family fortunes.’

            I hadn’t thought of that. If I truly had rehearsed this speech in some pocket of my mind, that aspect hadn’t been included. But I could defend myself. ‘The house is all my parents own. There isn’t any more money.’

            I’d already explained to him about Meade Park. Then I was stung by a memory, sudden and sharp, from when I was younger and worried about Mum and Dad splitting up. What if there had been more to Dad’s parents’ estate than we knew about which would become available only on the condition that my parents stayed together? I couldn’t have said that to Daniel. It would be too much.

            Instead, I said, ‘I’m not interested in money. I’ve never thought what it would be like to have it. What I would have got, being the only surviving child, was more attention. But attention is the last thing I want.’ The image of having my parents to myself, being eternally trapped between their warring sides filled me with despair. Their battles with me.

            Daniel knew nothing about that, but he was sympathetic. ‘I can believe that.’

            ‘What you have to understand, Daniel, is that Jo’s death would never bring me and my parents closer together.’

            He said, terse for once, ‘You make it seem as if divorce is a worse crime than murder – that murder could merely be a stepping stone to the annulment of a marriage?’

            I didn’t want to lose him. I was frustrated that the flow of words might be turning him against me. ‘I know it’s not. Although the way our parents stayed shackled to each other you might think otherwise. So many times they could have parted.’ Wasn’t this the kind of betrayal I’d been afraid of committing that day in Cambridge? But maybe, since Mum’s savage update, the rules had changed. ‘Ever since we were small there was sniping, bickering, blazing rows. They argued in front of us, but they never involved us.’

            ‘Was it all bad, Sam?’

            ‘Oh no! We had some good times. For every ruined holiday or spoilt Christmas, there were happy ones to remember, especially birthdays.’

            ‘I love birthdays,’ said Daniel. ‘I get excited, like Lily. Tell me about yours.’

            ‘Dad loved decorating the house and garden. Mum made our favourite food. When we were very young, she used to make us birthday dresses. Not horrible Sound of Music things from curtains. Gorgeous dresses. She should have been a fashion designer.’

            ‘Sounds like a happy, old-fashioned sort of childhood. In a good way, I mean.’

            ‘All the while,’ I said, ‘I had this feeling that it could end. We knew what happened when parents split up.’

            ‘Happened to lots of children we grew up with.’

            ‘We lost friends who suddenly moved away or who couldn’t hang around after classes or at weekends because they were being picked up by one or other parent, handed over with military precision. We got used to meeting friends’ step-parents and hearing nightmare stories about horrible stepbrothers and sisters ruining toys or clothes or space.’

            ‘Actually, I remember one girl who longed for all that mess, who regarded her happily married parents as boring. At least Lily is spared that.’

            Now it really did seem I was speaking about a fantasy. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t making a general comment on—’

            ‘No, you were talking about killing your sister. That’s different. But my point remains. Lily will grow up not knowing anything other than her parents living apart. Who knows, she might even get an extra set of parents into the bargain. One day.’

            ‘Would you mind?’

            I knew I was being irrelevant and he told me. ‘Right now, I’m more interested in what’s been going on in your family. And what might happen.’

            ‘I’ve never wanted Jo to disappear. And I should explain, now it won’t, you see, because Mum and Dad have actually split up and—’

            He put a finger to my lips to silence me. ‘What do you want to happen next, Sam?’

            ‘I don’t know.’ It sounded more truthful than anything that had gone before it.

            ‘You want to know what I think?’

            At once I sat up. ‘Of course!’

            ‘I think it’s time to move away from what you call the shadows, Sam. There’s far too much going on there in the dark. You need to come out where everyone can see you.’

            ‘Is that where you are?’

            ‘It’s where I’d like to be. Where I’d like you to be as well.’ He pushed the duvet back but I didn’t feel cold; just a thrill deep within at what would happen next.

            All my doubts dissolved. Or did I just push them away when I said, with mustered confidence, ‘Then I’m there.’

            ‘Not yet, Sam,’ he answered. His mouth closed over mine and he moved his body up over me; his legs arcing wide until they closed over me. His breathing became heavier. I tried to resist. To think: You betrayed me to my parents. I can’t trust you. But I was hanging on his every word. He said, ‘Soon, I hope, you will be.’

            And I swear that, in that moment, I promised myself I’d do what was long overdue. See Tom.

*

Some people will say that every time I start to write about something important I compare it to the murder. Even before it hits the page, it’s relegated to the dull and everyday. As if I don’t want it to count for anything. I’d reject that claim and I can say, hand on heart, that it doesn’t apply to what happened next.

            The murder was close by and, if it had happened any earlier, then perhaps we wouldn’t have paid Jo the attention she deserved. Then again, maybe it was because of Jo that the ultimate crime was delayed. For maximum impact. Both events are crucial to my story, but they stand worlds apart. You might say it’s amazing to think that the same group of people were involved in both. The difference that really matters is that the murder was totally unexpected, but I’d known from the start that Jo would disappear. Which is exactly what happened, sometime late at night on Friday 17 November. Australian time – for us it was earlier that morning. That date will be forever burned upon my consciousness. But not my conscience.

            I took no satisfaction in having my worst fears realized. And I didn’t think I was responsible. How was that possible? As if by giving voice to my theories about Jo and exposing our family history to Daniel, I’d somehow propelled it into reality? I actually think I’d disowned the words as soon as they were spoken. And while I’d begun with a kernel of truth, I’d had to do some inventing as well. I had to get to the end of the argument or else Daniel would think I was mad. I could tell that he wasn’t impressed. Neither was I. But I only talked because he wouldn’t. Not that I’m blaming him, of course.

            There is one strange outcome of the night I spent with Daniel – although I guess I could just put it down to a combination of shock and disbelief and fear. When I heard that someone had died – when Daniel told me, who else but him? – I reached, automatically, for my fantasy explanation. Like a reflex, it was. I had a mental picture of the people involved and I could envisage the scenario.

            ‘It was a hit and run,’ I said. I could vividly picture Daniel’s car, its wing clipped or windscreen smashed. So I rushed in to save him the effort of telling me because I could see that, quite understandably, he was in no state of speak of it to anyone. I was doing him a favour.

            Of course, I was completely wrong. I had no idea. There was no way I could understand, as he’d already told me. Once again, he gave me the look that confirmed it. Patrick’s look. The expression on the faces of the girls at Mead Park.

            ‘Crazy.’

            ‘Deluded.’

            At least there was nobody to make a meal of the night Daniel and I spent together. It had no influence over the future. It didn’t even seem to be guided by the past. What I mean is, I’m sure I didn’t go to Daniel’s determined to take him to bed. I don’t regret it, I enjoyed it. I think what I actually liked best was that it made me think of Tom. I was longing to see him, but I wasn’t ready, not yet. So the waiting wasn’t over by any means.

            But waiting for what? Of things completely unforeseen? Fears not yet imagined? Why would anyone make fears up? I suppose you might, as a kind of defence. If you’re always expecting the worst you can be relieved when it’s never as bad as you think.

            Of course, in the end, for us, it was worse. Because of the murder. But that was in the future – knowledge I didn’t yet have, wasn’t even seeking – and I mustn’t leap ahead.

            Jo deserves her moment, such as it was. The fact that it came from nowhere made it so much harder to comprehend. Jo’s disappearance was less likely to occur then than at any other time.As I’ve said, she had only a month left in Australia, and it promised no risk whatsoever. She and Adam were knuckling down to work, finishing off the projects they had been brought in to complete. Inevitably there had been hiccups, like the departure of a local team member, and a bug in some newly-invented software that was proving problematic in London also, but nothing insurmountable.

            There were no further trips away; no venturing onto lonely roads, into choppy seas or untamed wilderness, no hazardous sports to try. Apart from weekends on the beach, and relaxing evenings in restaurants, the only highlight in store was the office Christmas party on their second-to-last night, Thursday, 14 December. It was going to be a big night, e-mailed Jo, in their honour, celebrating a successful three months – which would be repeated next year, with a reciprocal placement from Sydney to London – and a sad one, in some ways, as they’d formed many friendships which they’d find a wrench to leave behind.

            As well as accepting the need to move on, I’d begun to form a list of questions. First up was, who would pick them up from the airport? Roger and Zita wouldn’t hesitate, even though they had the farther distance to travel. It wouldn’t have surprised me if my parents, in their zeal to rid themselves of baggage, had sold the car by then. Then there was the question of Christmas. The shops were full of cards and decorations and carols were being piped from every ceiling. But Mum and Dad still hadn’t said a word about it. Where would we all be?

            For a lot of people, Jo’s disappearance turned out to be a non-event. Maybe they trusted her to find her own way back, knowing, as I said at the start, that she couldn’t ever be lost. Or maybe we’d just neglected her. We’d kept things from her, not wanting her to worry about what she’d left behind. Or not wanting her to intervene and stop our plans.

            At any rate, a week after we’d learned of her disappearance, Jo came back. It could have marked the end of the story but wasn’t. It certainly isn’t the end of my story. If anybody wants to read it, they might as well wait until the very end.

*

It happened when life was rumbling on, except for my own which had stalled. I got ill. On Tuesday morning I’d woken with a headache, even though I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol since Saturday night. I went into work as usual but felt poorly by lunchtime. Laura diagnosed the first office cold of the winter and plied me with Echinacea to stop it spreading. I left dead on five-thirty and was in bed at nine o’clock, but didn’t sleep well.

            ‘Take some time out,’ Michael had urged as I’d said goodbye. ‘Sam, you’re never ill, but lately – you’ve seemed a bit—’

            ‘What?’ I flared.

            He shrugged defensively. ‘Wound up, I guess. More than usual.’

            ‘It’s the change in the weather, I guess,’ I invented hurriedly. ‘But I’m fine, really.’

            ‘You don’t look it. And we don’t want you to get seriously unwell.’ He added, as if unaware that I was long past succumbing to such compliments: ‘We can’t afford to be without you.’

            I remembered the last compliment he’d offered me. This did me no favours, either.

            Laid low, I was more vulnerable than ever, and more available. Perhaps I was the only person in the entire building. Anyone wanting to seek me out could enter with less suspicion than might be incurred late at night. The trouble with that theory was, how did they know I was inside? If they’d been watching me enter and leave the building each day and had begun to miss me, perhaps they assumed I’d gone away. If there was an intruder, that is. Who was the girl?

            Nobody phoned. Some post arrived for Jo and Adam, which I let accumulate on the door mat. Michael and the team must have decided to let me rest completely. I managed not to think about them – or Maureen Farmer – eventually. Nor Tom, as it happened. Nothing from Mum and Dad.

            Daniel might call, I thought. He hadn’t been impatient to be rid of me on Sunday morning. Once I’d showered and dressed, it had seemed strange lingering in the flat. He’d apologized that the contents of his fridge weren’t up to a decent breakfast. I wondered if it was an excuse: would someone generous enough to send hampers of the highest quality to virtual strangers skimp on provisions for himself? I suggested we go out and he agreed. ‘Be in touch,’ he said at the end, kissing me briefly on the cheek as I’d got up from the table to leave.

            My hopes of hearing from him had begun to fade towards the end of the week. I supposed he’d be in Cambridge at the weekend, though maybe Lily’s injury had upset his routine. It was weeks since she’d hurt her foot and although I had no idea how long a sprain took to heal, I guessed it would be faster in a child. At least he’d be able to find me when he was ready. I felt sure that he’d phone my mobile, in any event, rather than the office number.

           Each time I woke, it was to the realization that I’d made no progress. But nobody knew I was ill, did they? That excused nothing. Instead of stalling, I had to accept that perhaps my life had gone backwards.

*

I felt much better on Friday, though not well enough to go into the office. I thought I should put my time to good use by starting the search for somewhere to live. I went out to buy Loot and the Evening Standard, and combed the internet for suitable websites. I can’t say the prospect excited me. I hadn’t unpacked much, so the physical effort wouldn’t be huge. But I was nervous. I knew London well enough to be clear about which areas to avoid. I could fit in to any new neighbourhood, so long as it wasn’t more than a quarter of an hour-or-so’s walk to the tube. If I kept my interest in walking, it ought to be a hobby not part of my routine. It’s strange to think how bullish I became, when everyone else was desolate with sadness and shock. Nobody was in any position to give me help – they couldn’t help themselves. It was inertia that pushed me on, alone, and led me to make my first unwise decision

            Whatever I decide about my current place – although it might be decided forme – I accept that the flat was a big mistake. Maybe I’ve got poor judgement, but while the area seemed rundown, it truly didn’t strike me as dangerous. We’d done a radio programme debating the virtues of a nice place in a rough area, versus the shabbiest property somewhere pleasant. Both had advantages, but there seemed little to be gained from my new home, apart from the fact that it was cheap and accessible. It seemed unwise to waste money on what was only intended as a temporary move.

            By the time Jo got back it was almost Christmas, so I stayed with Mum and Dad, which might come as a surprise, though there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Early in January, I found a studio flat at the top of a house near Shepherd’s Bush. After everything that had happened, I needed to be in new area, away from the people I’d been so close to of late. Actually, it was closer to Goldhawk Road tube station, but from White City I could catch the Central line all the way to Bond Street. Getting to work easily mattered more than anything, at that time. It was the only stability in my life, if a precarious one at that.

            The first fortnight went OK, and then I got mugged. It was a bitterly cold Wednesday night. I had stayed late at the office because we had a tender package to submit at nine the next morning. Michael shouted me dinner to say thank you – he’d been especially sensitive since Jo and Adam’s return – and that cheered me up. We’d had wine, because we were pleased with our proposal and the possibility of starting the year with a landmark project. We needed it, to be honest, after all the time wasted with Maureen Farmer, if ‘wasted’ is the right word.

            So it was nearly ten o’clock when I got out at White City, and walked past the shops on Wood Lane. The crowd from the tube quickly dispersed and I found myself walking alone, thinking about work, still, though not particularly about Michael. I didn’t hear footsteps or see shadows. However, the lights and noise of the traffic seemed confined to the road itself.

            I came to the crossing and was about to turn the corner. Suddenly, I felt myself being grabbed, and dragged almost off my feet. It was difficult to regain my stance in my big winter coat and my arm got trapped under the strap of my bag. But because I knew the ins and outs of the area already, I managed to twist us both round so I was facing into the traffic, towards the edge of the pavement not the shuttered recess of the closed-up shops.

            From my radio days I remembered the advice not to resist an attack. I tried not to struggle, my movement being restricted enough as it was. Just as my arm was given a final tug and I realized he had my bag, I screamed. Finally, finally, months or even years after I ought to have surrendered to the pressure of being made to see bad things, having other people’s judgements trampled over my own, I let rip.

            He fled with my bag. He was so swift that I couldn’t form a proper description. Not that I wanted to recognize him again, either in a police station or in the street. Maybe I turned away – I don’t know. I was shocked, of course. Not injured, apart from a sore shoulder. Not frightened, especially. Perhaps I wanted a little bit of it. Finally, finally to be a victim. I don’t know.

            Daniel would say I wanted to be rescued. It was why I’d moved there in the first place. As it was, I couldn’t think of anywhere to go except Cricklewood. A black cab had spotted me, pulled over, and I got in. I didn’t want to go to hospital, but to Mum and Dad’s. Should I have gone to Jo’s? She might not have been in, but anyway I decided against that. Dad paid the taxi and they both ushered me inside. They made me tea, they talked to me. They had never been so loving. Or if they had, I hadn’t noticed. Or maybe I hadn’t allowed it. They spoke to the police, they got the family doctor round, and kept me at home for a couple of days. Michael sent flowers, and so did Roger and Zita. I slept a lot. Tom left a message. Daniel visited. Jo did too. I was back at work after two days.

            But I wasn’t allowed to return to the flat. While I was resting, and the police were following whatever procedures follow such an incident, my parents contacted the landlord and went round to the flat. It was their first time, because I hadn’t let them see it. They were appalled. They were angry with me, though more furious at the letting agent, at the landlords, the other tenants, mostly of which seemed to be foreign language students who kept to themselves. And their friends, because some of their faces I’m sure I saw only once.

            ‘Why didn’t you say the heating was broken?’ ‘Didn’t you insist they fix the broken windows before you moved in?’ ‘Isn’t someone meant to change the light bulbs in the communal areas?’ ‘Sam, love, I hate to say it, but living here as a young woman on your own you’re practically asking for trouble.’ By comparison, this new flat is a palace, but Mum and Dad haven’t seen that either.

            That’s when we fell out. Having screamed, I found the voice to be angry. It was my business where I lived. I appreciated their concern but it was my choice. Mum and Dad had brought home all my possessions. I had no choice but to be imprisoned in Cricklewood until I was able to find somewhere new. I didn’t speak to my parents for the ten days I was there, until I came here, to Kennington. Then I stopped taking their calls. Every single day for two weeks they phoned me. At work, on the mobile. I refused to speak to them.

            That was nine weeks ago. Up till and including now, as I write this, in an empty flat, willing the ex boyfriend to stay away. I’m in my room at the back of the flat so there’s no light on in the front. Even if the other story ends up not belonging to me, this one does.

*

As far as that first internet search went, I drew zero inspiration. None of the properties I’d read about appealed. And who wouldn’t feel deterred by the prospect of trudging round London on dreary, cold evenings, looking at skanky rooms in far-flung suburbs? Everyone would be more stressed than usual with Christmas and end-of-year expectation.        

            Or was I secretly hoping for a miracle? Hoping that Daniel’s plans for us might, after all, move on a stage and furnish me with a possible future? Did I secretly think I’d be moving into Daniel’s flat? Having spent one night in his bed, did I intend others, a string of others, but not on a permanent basis, not yet? I wasn’t insensitive to his other life with Lily, for whom he’d decked out the smaller, second bedroom in a pink and pony theme. I didn’t want to intrude on their time together. Not that I’d have known how to, lacking experience of small children, although I did think if I spent more time with Laura from work and her family, I could gain some useful tips.

            What was more likely was that I’d remind Daniel of my situation – if he needed reminding; he knew as well as I that his brother would reclaim his flat – and he’d mention it to his friends and colleagues. If we spent more time together, as I supposed I hoped, I’d meet them all. If it were soon, maybe there would be opportunities to ask around about accommodation. But ‘soon’ seemed a long way off.

            I had no radio friends to ask favours of, either; no Nadia. None of my friendships with the neighbours had got off the ground. I mentioned it to Laura at work. She was the only person I felt close enough to, and although she said she’d have a think, I didn’t hold out much hope because I’d learned the other night that most of her friends were in families like her. They’d all lost touch with what she’d called the ‘singles scene’ long ago.

            I wondered if any of the other flat-owners had rooms they wanted to rent. It wouldn’t be as unnerving as being confronted by strangers and having to get used to their habits and opinions. Not that I’d ever been nervous of strangers – not until now, at least. I would like to live here permanently, I thought. My days of recuperation spanned the longest unbroken period of time I’d spent inside the building. It had proven to be a calm, peaceful place, its own rhythms and routines no more intrusive than life on the canal amongst the birds and plants.

            There were ninety flats, so it was perfectly possible that a room was available in one of them. I could put up a note in the corridors or talk to the porter. There had been no more disturbances, but I wasn’t sure about making myself known to an intruder in that way. I could have e-mailed Jo and asked for her advice. But would she have wanted me to stay on the premises? I still didn’t know how the arrangements had been made in the first place. She’d done me a big enough favour already.

            Besides, I felt bad about the e-mail I had planned but had never written. As I lay in bed on Thursday, thinking about my upcoming displacement, I imagined writing to Jo to bring her up to date with Mum and Dad’s developments. It sounds like spiteful behaviour, I know, but I guess my isolation had got to me. It was bad enough having no friends to turn to for support, but my efforts to find a new family had failed as well. I had nobody and when I thought about it, having lost Tom, even less than before.

            I didn’t e-mail Jo. It was my usual fear that I couldn’t say anything she didn’t already know. That, and the age-old concept of everyone being in the know except me. But then, in a more lucid moment, I saw another way of looking at it. Maybe Jo knew about Mum and Dad and hadn’t responded, because her disapproval was even greater than mine. She was so disgusted she was almost ashamed to admit to it. She thought that given time, the whole thing would blow over, and we’d go back to the way it was before. Perhaps she’d told them that. She’d given them a deadline: ‘I’m back a week before Christmas. You’ve got until then to sort yourselves out.’ Only Jo could get away with a line like that. Only Jo could make them listen.

            Or perhaps she didn’t care. That was another idea that I had. I may have wanted her gone, but what if her desire to leave us all behind was even greater? What if Jo had been driven to forge her own path through life because she despaired of ours? She had been desperate to get away? Maybe I’ll ask her. Despite the brick wall that’s gone up between me and our parents, I’ve seen Jo since this second house move. But we haven’t started to talk about last year’s events. It’s still too soon.     

 

14

 

 

I got up on Saturday and was determined to take the day, and my life, head on. I had hardly any food in. However empty, Daniel’s fridge would be chock-full in comparison. I’d head for Sainsbury’s at the Angel before it got too crowded, but first would fortify myself with strong coffee and the papers for an hour or so. I dressed and went down to the garage on City Road. I’d got to the end of the street when, from deep within my coat pocket, I heard my mobile ring for the first time in days.

            ‘Sam, darling!’ Mum was breathless, distraught as I’d never heard her. I didn’t even mind that she hadn’t asked after me. Something more important was at stake. Something had finally happened. ‘Oh, Sam. It’s awful. Absolutely awful. We don’t know where Jo is.’

            I didn’t say, ‘I knew this would happen!’ How would it have helped? In fact, I didn’t know how to respond. Nothing seemed familiar or reassuring. It was all I could do to stay on my feet. A bus swept by and for a moment I pictured myself slipping under its wheels and being dragged along the road. It was almost tempting to have every single thought obliterated. But Mum’s words wouldn’t go away.

            Adam had just phoned. It was late at night in Sydney, Saturday night. Jo had stormed out of the flat twenty-four hours earlier, as they were getting ready to go out with friends. At first he thought she’d make her own way there. She’d be calm when she arrived and, while possibly cool with him, which he’d got used to lately, she wouldn’t appear ruffled to the other guests. But he attended the supper party alone. Apparently, he made some feeble excuse about Jo not feeling well and possibly getting a taxi there if she recovered, which sounded improbable and selfish to me. Why hadn’t he stayed home if she wasn’t well? I wonder if the friends had made an utterance of disapproval.

Adam thought she’d be back in the flat when he got home but she wasn’t, nor did she return next morning. He phoned as many of their friends as he could, having to backtrack on his earlier deception to those who’d been at dinner on Friday and who’d perhaps thought that Jo was ill. No one had seen her. He reported her missing to the police, knowing, at least thinking, that you had to wait twenty-four hours to be dubbed a ‘missing person’, no matter how sick with worry you were.

‘And he was, Sam.’ Mum sounded forgiving, which surprised me ‘Sick with worry.’ Then he’d phoned Mum and Dad. He’d called his own parents also.

            ‘Sounds as if you’re on your way home,’ Mum said. ‘You must be tired, so I’ll let you get back—’

            It must have been the dregs of my cold. What did she think I’d been doing all night? ‘Mum, I’m OK. What can I do to help?’

            ‘Nothing, darling. We’re waiting by the phone; we’re not going anywhere. But you get on and do whatever you need to. As soon as there’s news we’ll call. I promise.’

            It’s shameful to admit, but is it really any surprise that I did not believe her? But I wasn’t all that concerned with the thought that Mum was lying. I just wanted her to be wrong.

*

After the call, I remained fixed to the pavement, trying to take it all in. I must have resembled one of the bag ladies I’d see around the streets, looking lost until they asked strangers, quite forcefully, for spare change. I felt a bit homeless, certainly rootless, myself. I couldn’t have absorbed any more news, so I didn’t buy a paper. I returned to the flat, holding my mobile as if it were some weird transmitter from outer space. I wanted to trust my own resources. Over and over, I told myself: Jo can’t have disappeared. She couldn’t have, for all the reasons I’ve supplied. Because she was Jo.

            There was no news all day, and none on Sunday. Later, I learned that the New South Wales police were investigating Jo’s disappearance, scrutinising her e-mails, her Facebook and MySpace pages, letters she’d received, memos sent, trying to find evidence that she’d planned to go away or perhaps had been lured to her fate. We didn’t have the comfort of that knowledge then. When I phoned Mum and Dad they were brusque, wanting to leave the line clear in case Jo tried to get through. I appreciated that they were upset, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they resented me butting in. But I didn’t give up.

            All I really did, I can see now, was sit on the diaries, the piles of incoming post, Jo’s personal effects, thinking that keeping them all in check, in case Jo did come back, for when Jo did come back. I didn’t e-mail her, didn’t try to call her, nor spoke to anyone about what had happened. I hadn’t decided not to tell anyone in the office, but somehow it never arose. If someone saw me flinch when the phone rang or an e-mail arrived then they didn’t think it worthy of mention. I was on tenterhooks as I awaited news, but none came.

            I’d assured Mum that I’d have the mobile on at all times. It was in my hand the minute I got through the ticket barrier at Bond Street on both Monday and Tuesday mornings, and at Angel in the evenings. My heart missed a beat each time I checked the screen for a missed call. But it didn’t ring until I’d turned into Davies Street, on Wednesday.

            Daniel, all bright and breezy. If it hadn’t been such a stressful time, I’d have been thrilled to hear his voice. He said, ‘Sam, how are you?’

            ‘Not great, to be honest. Awful, in fact.’

            He spoke cautiously. ‘How come?’

            ‘Jo’s disappeared.’

            His response was a barely audible ‘Oh fuck.’

            ‘You didn’t know.’

            It was as if I was asking myself the question. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if the Wildings knew what had happened, let alone to consider their response. Roger and Zita must have been worried sick, to say nothing of Adam. Suddenly, I wanted to be waiting for news with them in Cambridge, where their concern would be transparent. Unlike our own.

            Now he was sheepish. ‘Well ... actually, I did know. That’s why I phoned. I didn’t know if you’d been told—’

            ‘Why wouldn’t I know?’ I didn’t want him to think that my parents had cut me out of the loop. Ridiculously, too sharply, I said, ‘Who told you?’

            ‘Ma called me last night. She’d been trying all day, but I was out of town and there was poor mobile reception.’ Zita hadn’t phoned me, I thought, with surprising bitterness. But why would she when she knew my own parents would be in constant contact? Daniel added, as if by way of consolation, ‘I haven’t spoken to Adam for weeks.’

            ‘Why did you say “oh fuck”, like you were surprised?’ Immediately I realized. I knew why. He’d thought I was mad. Crazy. Deluded. Sam and Mum and Dad had kept secrets from me because they thought I’d overreact. This was no different. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, not quite sure what I was apologizing for, or why.

            ‘Sam, you’ve nothing to be sorry about.’ He was all concern. ‘Look, it’s a horrible, horrible shock. But I think we can both see that it’s not entirely unexpected.’

            So he’d believed me! He didn’t think I was a lunatic. My spirits soared. ‘Really?’

            ‘Well, for weeks now we’ve known – whether or not we’ve acknowledged it to ourselves – that Jo and Adam have had their difficulties. All thanks to Adam, I might add.’

            I remember his warnings. I hadn’t acted on them, because he’d tried to reassure me. What was he saying now? I should have worried?

            ‘Jo hasn’t said a word of complaint about Adam,’ I replied, to undermine his confidence. ‘Perhaps she’s upset him.’

            ‘I should think it’s more than likely to be the other way around, Sam. My guess is that Jo has gone off for a few days for some thinking time.’

            ‘She wouldn’t just abandon work like that! She wouldn’t not phone us.’

            He was silent for a long moment. ‘She did phone, Sam. She phoned my mother.’

            It was a shock. I stumbled over an answer. ‘To say she was running away?’

            His voice softened. ‘No, just to say hello. To say she was all right.’

            ‘She didn’t phone my mother.’ But how did I know that?

            His voice was flecked with annoyance. ‘Are you saying I’m making it up?’

            ‘No.’ I sighed. Daniel and I had spoken of being competitive with our siblings. But not with each other. ‘Not at all. But I’m still worried because we don’t know what’s really going on.’

            ‘Naturally you are.’ His voice was soothing. ‘We all are. Look, are you on your way into the office? Shall we meet for coffee first? I can rearrange my morning; it’s the least I can do.’

            Was there any more to say? I wouldn’t be good company, I knew. Why hadn’t Mum let me go to the house? Why hadn’t she told me if she’d heard from Jo herself? So that I’d arrive at the office with nothing to report, as if nothing had happened, and that’s how it would seem, just like Tom’s mother’s murder, something I’d imagined.

            ‘Thanks, but no. It’s fine. I’ll go into work. It’ll take my mind off things.’

            ‘OK. I’m around all day, all evening too, Sam, if you want to – well, talk.
Whatever you want.’

            I took comfort from Daniel’s words, but I was in no doubt at all: his was only a strictly limited offer. And eventually I convinced myself that I didn’t really mind at all.

*

I’ve made a list of the other things that happened that week because I had only a vague memory of them happening, apart from one. Patrick came into our office for an afternoon when the power went off at his workplace. We didn’t cross paths long enough to manage a conversation. I had an e-mail from Nadia, asking after me, with no mention of the i-Pod, though I’d already bought myself a new one. And my radio friends e-mailed, asking if I wanted to come back because, apparently, my enemy had gone. I put replying to both off until a quieter time, and even now those messages remain unanswered. If Maureen Farmer’s name was mentioned, I didn’t hear it. If someone rapped on the front door of the flat in the dead of the night, mercifully I slept right through it, undisturbed.

            What I remember most is calling Tom. I’d promised myself I would. There wasn’t anything to stop me, nor anyone. There wasn’t anything else I could do.

            But it wasn’t straightforward. I couldn’t launch into the conversation knowing that I holding things back. I’d have to tell him about Jo. What would he say? He’d told me he thought Jo’s absence would be a good thing. I’d secretly agreed with them, then. Now, though, how could we be happy when everyone else was drowning in worry? If we could be happy together again.

            After an hour of dithering at home on Thursday night, I phoned his mobile. I didn’t have a message prepared so I was relieved when he answered. He was at home, too, which was good. He didn’t sound surprised to hear from me, nor particularly pleased, but perhaps he was playing it cool. Or maybe he was as nervous as I was. When he asked how I was, I said that we were worried about Jo but he didn’t rise to the bait. He agreed to meet, and could make lunch tomorrow, if that suited me. I said it did, because Michael would be out of the office all morning – no explanation – so I could operate on a timetable of my own.

            Tom and I met in a café on Upper Regent Street for an early lunch. I went to the counter to order coffee, soup and rolls and when I came back, we exchanged small talk, as if it were a first date and not our millionth meeting. I think we both knew that we hadn’t got together to talk about Jo and that it was best if her name wasn’t even mentioned.But I became so cautious that it stopped me from mentioning things that we could say. Then, suddenly, everything I was trying to suppress seemed to swell up inside me. All the names bubbled up, overwhelming me.

            But it turned out I’d said the right thing. I’d found the way in. I said, ‘Ruth told me everything.’

            He nodded. He wasn’t surprised. ‘Good old Ruth. My great-aunt.’

            ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I felt the need to say it again. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t there to hear it from you. And I’m sorry I didn’t phone you sooner.’

            ‘Great-aunt!’ he scoffed with contempt, a quality I’d never heard in his voice before. ‘Bloody marvellous aunt, more like it.’

            ‘Tom ...’ Was he rejecting my apology so soon?

            ‘Sam, she’s no more my great-aunt than Camilla Parker-Bowles.’

            ‘I don’t understand …’ How could I expect to understand? I hadn’t even bothered to wonder.

            He was patient. ‘It was just a lie they told me. When I was young. After my Mum … well, she left, didn’t she? She didn’t die.’ It was as if he’d heard it a thousand times but still couldn’t believe it. ‘She got married again, only her husband died earlier this year. That’s why she wants to find me. She felt it wasn’t fair to do it when her husband was alive.’ He’d softened, saying that, but then added, harshly, ‘Not that Ruth or my dad would think to spare anyone’s feelings.’

            He looked so tense, his big body hard and taut. I wanted to comfort him, but seemed to have forgotten how. ‘Tom …’

            ‘Least of all mine. As if I wasn’t even there half the time. Well, I was. And I did wonder, sometimes, what was really going on.’

            Suddenly, it dawned on me. This was what it felt like to be hit by a thunderbolt. ‘They were lovers.’

            ‘Exactly, Sam!’ He made it sound as if I’d cracked an elusive code. I was only catching up with him. I’d left it too long and was lagging behind. ‘My dad and my so-called “great-aunt” have been having it off for nearly thirty years. Before my mum went. For all I know, Ruth was the reason they split up. Maybe he had his affair first. Maybe he drove my mum towards someone else.’

            ‘Have you talked to Eric about this?’

            Tom turned away, his face burning with as much shame as anger. ‘I’m not speaking to the fucker.’

            ‘Tom!’ I baulked. But I wasn’t taking sides. I couldn’t feel sorry for Eric, even though the charge I’d privately levelled against him all these years was unfounded. What about his partner-in-crime? I couldn’t be angry with her, either. Without Ruth’s admission in the office the other afternoon, I might not have come back to Tom at all. ‘What about Ruth?’ I asked. I actually felt a pang of loyalty towards her.

            ‘No point talking to her, Sam. I wouldn’t believe anything that came out of that woman’s mouth.’

            I should have said something to confirm I was on Tom’s side. Somehow, I knew better than to look to Tom and Ruth. I certainly didn’t think of Helen/Maureen, although I should have done, of course I should have done. Instead, my mind sped towards our own past: Tom’s and mine. And disparate thoughts were falling into place. For days now, people had assailed me with facts. Some I should have known, some I didn’t need to know. But all of them struck me with the weight of a burden, despite the fact that I couldn’t do anything about them. At last, here were some of my own. It felt brilliant. I really did feel empowered.

           I said, ‘That day in Covent Garden, when we were listening to the music, when we’d been shopping for Ruth’s present. Was she ...’

            He nodded vigorously, as if once again I was putting the pieces of the puzzle together all by myself. ‘That was Bex, Sam,’ he said. ‘My half-sister.’ He glowed. ‘She’s got a daughter, too, so I’m a great-uncle. I’ve got a half-brother in Australia as well.’ He paused, to let the facts sink in. Or maybe he was stealing a moment to relish his change of status. ‘And that’s the main thing, Sam,’ he said, beaming at me. Every bit of him seemed to shimmer with happiness. ‘I’ve got a new family now. A brand-new family that should have been mine all along. And at last I’ve got truth where all I had before is fucking lies. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. It won’t. I’ve finally got a mother whom I hope I can get to know. I don’t know how I’ll feel about her reasons for doing what she did. Maybe I will have to get my dad’s side of the story as well. But Bex is going to help. She’s going to guide us through it all. She really wants to – before her brother comes back.’ He smiled, proudly. ‘Her other brother.’ He laughed.

            ‘And what I’d really like, Sam,’ he concluded, leaning forward towards me, his lovely, bulky self closing in over me, while I sat, rigid, tiny and insignificant, and worse than that, shielding myself as I’d always done, not that I had anything worth protecting, ‘is for you to be there with me.’

            I just sat there, listening to this new, excited Tom, ignoring the world around us. Tuning out of my own thoughts. There was a lot to take in, after all. I didn’t want to miss a word.

            ‘In the past, other people have got in the way of us and we should never have let them, Sam.’ He shook his head, so rueful, so apologetic. ‘More people than I realized at first – all those lies have been pressing down on us. Abby, for instance. Abby got in the way of you and me.’

            I’m not a fantasist, although I think I might have been in a dream. I felt dozy – was my cold coming back? But now I was wide awake. Abby’s name had pierced the bubble, dragged us back to the real world. I prickled, defensively. And then I said, ‘What about Jo?’     

            Tom hung his head, his smile gone. ‘I was wrong about Jo. I thought it was her; I thought she disapproved of me, she knew you could do better. Well, maybe you could but I want the chance to show you otherwise, Sam, if you’ll let me. I should have taken the chance while she was away – I shouldn’t have let you walk away like that, Sam. It was rubbish of me.’

            He smiled. ‘But it doesn’t matter. Jo’s coming back and it won’t make a blind bit of difference to us. Not if we do things properly and I really think, Sam, we can do that. Everything’s out in the open. There’s no one to fear. We can be ourselves, the way we always should have been. And here’s something else … something to make it easier. At least I hope it will.’ There was genuine hope in his eyes. Then he closed them as he summoned the courage to say, ‘Let’s live together. Find a place somewhere – doesn’t have to be special, though it will be, once we’re there. And ...’

            I don’t know why I mentioned Jo. Maybe it was a reflex. I knew exactly what I should have said, should have asked.

            Of course I made the connection between Rebecca and Bex. As soon as Tom said the word ‘Australia’ I had an image of him striding out across that vast landscape heroically in search of Jo. At the same time, it struck me that it wasn’t an effort Daniel would make. However, Daniel had said his ex-girlfriend had a brother. He hadn’t mentioned that said brother had been in Australia at the same time as Adam, his own flesh and blood. Well, lots of young Brits go ‘down under’. Maybe the fact that Jo and Adam were there too wasn’t special. Or special enough. Just another coincidence? At any rate, the heroic image of Tom didn’t last. Not his fault, I can hear people say. And they’d be right. I’d promised Daniel everything, but I couldn’t even provide Tom with an enduring legacy.

            And I think that’s what stopped me. The fear of being for ever ensnared by the past so it wouldn’t ever be possible – despite Tom’s assurance – to have a future. All I could think of was of everything I’d withheld from him. As if I had always been hoping to drive Tom back. Not that I’d ever had anyone lined up to replace him. No fantasy boyfriends, no real ones tempting me. Not my uni boyfriend – definitely not him – not even Michael, not really, and not Daniel, either. I hadn’t wanted anyone else. Was that really my problem? I didn’t want a future?

            No, I just didn’t want it handed to me on a plate, so it seemed familiar – even finished – already. If only Tom had understood that. So that was how Helen Mackie dissolved before my very eyes, and with her, Maureen Farmer. It wasn’t difficult. She’d only ever been a ghost-like figure, anyway. Perhaps she’d failed in her efforts. Could nobody succeed?

            I can’t help but wonder, though, if my own mother had reinvented herself – instead of declaring change but carrying on as of old – we’d be on better terms today?

            Finally, I spoke. ‘Oh, Tom. I’m sorry.’ I meant it. ‘Tom, it’s about us … We can’t go back … Tom, it’s over.’

            I shook as I said it, I sobbed. He looked so confused, so sad, but I kept saying the words over and over again, to try to make them real.

*

Nobody commented on Michael’s good mood when he turned up after lunch on Friday afternoon, but I was expected to notice. He kept passing by my desk checking to see if I was OK. ‘You hair looks different,’ he said. ‘It’s nice. Have you changed your style recently?’ Not that long ago, I told him, getting back to work. But when I saw him give a little jump for joy in the kitchen as I went in to make coffee, I couldn’t help but say, ‘What’s going on?’

            It was the moment he’d been waiting for, and the look on his face confirmed I was exactly the person he intended to share it with.

            ‘Sam!’ he beamed. ‘Marvellous news. At last, at last! We’ve agreed the plans. The council have given planning permission. Now I can finally, finally make a start on the working drawings.’

            He’d just described the usual process when a new job looks certain to go ahead. It’s a stage that can take weeks or in some cases months. It didn’t help me to understand what he was talking about, although he could only have been referring to the one client whose demands had consumed him these past months. I’ll admit now, hope stirred within me.

            Even so, I sounded cool as I said, ‘Which job is that?’ I had to let him know that even if he’d dropped out of the real world I remained a functioning part of it. I dropped in a few of the names he’d seemed vague about recently. ‘Stephenson? Ludlow and Cullen?’

            ‘The Farmer Project.’ He sounded almost impatient. Why would he think it was uppermost in my mind? He hadn’t known about my fleeting interest. Perhaps I played it too cool because he clarified, ‘Maureen Farmer’s house. You know who I mean, don’t you, Sam? The woman you had the misfortune to see me with at my least composed.’ He tried to make a joke of it, but I didn’t want to be reminded of being followed through the streets of Mayfair. I still didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t think I ever would.

            I tried to be encouraging. ‘She was here the day Ruth Dreyfuss dropped by,’ I said. He looked at me as if I oughtn’t to have known that. As if I’d been snooping. That annoyed me, so I said, staking my claim, ‘She’s looking well. Ruth, I mean. It was nice to catch up with her.’

            ‘I’d forgotten you knew Ruth,’ he said, hesitantly, I thought. ‘You were friendly with—’

            ‘Tom, yes,’ I said, in a tone which I hope implied it was the first and would be the last word on the subject.

            I expected Michael to probe deeper, but what he said was, ‘Funny the people you hang onto, isn’t it? I mean, Ruth was a part of Pat’s life thirty-five years ago – more. But he won’t let go of her.’ He sounded rueful. Was he expecting me to comfort him? I don’t have a problem with Patrick, of course, and I didn’t want to stir. ‘I am pleased for him, really. I guess I’m not so interested in hanging onto my childhood. When and Pat Ruth get together I never seem to get a look in.’ He shrugged and smiled. ‘Mustn’t be jealous. Such an unappealing trait.’

            Michael looked forlorn, and I felt a small charge ripple through me. Just a tremor, but enough of an echo to remember how I’d once felt. And I stepped back towards the sink, away from him, not closer. Someone walked past and regarded us for a second; they way they used to look at Michael and me. It was ages since I’d noticed them do that.

            ‘We were talking about Maureen Farmer’s house,’ I reminded him. ‘So it’s good news?’

            ‘At long bloody last. I feel as if it’s aged me ten years.’

            I made myself laugh. ‘That’s terrific. Are you going to tell everyone about it now?’

            ‘Of course. But first I’m going to try to finally extract some money from Maureen. By rights, I ought to add a case of champagne to the bill, but I daren’t push my luck.’

            I thought back to the invoices I’d processed, the accounts I’d examined. How could I have missed this? ‘You mean she hasn’t paid us anything?’

            He lowered his voice. ‘Afraid not. That’s why I haven’t broadcast the news.’ He shrugged again. ‘The things we do for love, right?’

            He fetched himself a glass of water and I made coffee and we went our separate ways as everyone now did in our office. Later he brought me Maureen Farmer’s invoice, already sealed in an envelope, and asked me to post it. ‘First class – no better still, send a bike round.’ He paused. ‘That’s a joke, Sam. First class will be absolutely fine.’

            Days ago, that envelope would have had the power of a talisman. Even so, it was with a kind of reverence that I dropped it in the first box I came to. It was before six-thirty, so I hoped for a next-day delivery. First thing, preferably before nine o’clock. When I got home, I looked up the W4 address in the A-Z. I Googled houses for sale in the area, but I couldn’t tell if they were representative of Maureen’s. I could dig out Michael’s plans, of course. There would be photos at work.

            I wondered if Tom had seen the house yet. Was he there right now? If I were to go round there, who would I find? If only I’d done that. I wouldn’t have felt out of place, that’s for sure. In some strange way, because of the connections I’d made – and abandoned – I might have felt like I belonged. A rare feeling. A good feeling.

            Needless to say, it didn’t happen. I wasn’t about to go charging off through the streets of West London. I never got the chance, either, because, once again, Jo got in first. She came back.

*

That’s not a complaint, although I can see from looking at what I’ve written so far it’s as if I’m accusing Jo of getting in the way again. And I’m not saying she slyly slipped into the country early. But she did get back in touch. She phoned me on Saturday morning. It was just after seven and I was still in the shower. Shaking myself dry, I pulled a towel round me and hurried out to the kitchen.

            ‘Sam! Sam, it’s me!’

            At first I thought it was a trick played on me by parents. Not Jo’s phone call, obviously, but Mum’s panic. The scenario of Jo’s disappearance. That meant Daniel must have been in on it too, and his parents. I kept my cool. No point getting angry at Jo. ‘Jo,’ I said in a steady tone.

            ‘Oh, Sam, it’s bloody brilliant hearing your voice!’

            ‘It’s good hearing yours. Are you all right?’ Despite my resolve my heart was racing, stalling the slow charge of relief that was seeping through from head to toe.

            ‘I’m fine, I’m absolutely fine. I just had to get away. I just had to, Sam.’

            ‘Tell me everything,’ I said, and prepared myself.

            I blocked out Mum’s words, my conversation with Daniel – in fact, every word that had robbed me of my sense of belonging to my family. And every thought I’d contributed to that loss myself. It was deluge but ironically, I felt as if a weight was lifted from above me. All the remained was Jo. That’s what mattered: Jo was talking to me.

            If I’d been expecting an opportunity to arise from Jo’s absence, wasn’t this it? Why hadn’t I considered that before?

            ‘If you want to tell me,’ I added.

            ‘Oh, Sam, that’s exactly what I want to do. Otherwise it won’t seem real. But – where do I start? Well, I guess with the fact that Adam should never have come. He didn’t have the experience. We should have realized, I suppose. Once he realized that it was as if he just kind of gave up. He didn’t try. He took the piss at every opportunity. If we went out with colleagues – and everyone was so nice about including us in everything – he’d get drunk too quickly and he’d be embarrassing; so embarrassing, Sam.

            ‘When he was sober he wanted to go to the beach all the time,’ said Jo. ‘I mean, I did too, but he’d go surfing before work and wouldn’t be in till after ten. I couldn’t always wait for him. He’d go after work, too, so he’d leave on the dot of five. It got noticed, obviously. I tried to have a word with him but he thought I was just pulling my weight in the relationship.

            ‘And then he just stopped bothering to fit in with what I was doing. He met this crowd. They were cool, I liked them, but their lifestyles were totally different. Not all of them worked, for instance. And there was this girl … well, I don’t know what went on … Don’t really want to know.’

            ‘Jo …’ I hadn’t meant to interrupt, but nor had I expected to feel such empathy for my sister. I had to stop us both, and catch my breath.

            ‘Then it got worse.’ She actually laughed. ‘Now it’s better I can tell you how bad it was, Sam. I thought I was pregnant.’ She paused, and swallowed hard, reliving the horror. ‘I felt such an idiot. It was like a punishment for turning a blind eye to what Adam was getting up to behind my back. Here was something I couldn’t ignore.’

            ‘What did Adam say?’

            ‘I didn’t tell him, Sam. Does that sound crazy?’

            ‘No, not crazy—’ I wanted to reassure her. I knew what crazy meant.

            ‘You see, I’d already decided that things had to end. We had to live separately, or one of us had to come back. If I was pregnant, well, it would have been – not impossible but … There’s no question ... I couldn’t have had a child with him. He’s not ready – we weren’t. I knew we wouldn’t ever be. But I wasn’t pregnant. I was just late – it must have been the stress – god, I sound like a lunatic, Sam, I know, but it’s just relief, the adrenaline of relief – oh god.

            ‘It was just the most incredibly lucky escape. I didn’t expect to get another one so I knew I had to call the shots. I couldn’t wait another month. I was all set to book my flight and get the first plane home. Then I calmed down, a little. I went away – one of my bosses has a place on the northern beaches …’

            ‘A beach house?’ I tried to imagine it; instead of the people to whom Jo had turned for comfort.

            ‘No, an apartment. It was perfect. Exactly what I needed. Just me and my thoughts for the first time ever,’ she mused. Then, on surer ground: ‘Honestly, Sam, they were brilliant about giving me the space I needed.’

            ‘They sound like good people, Hegarty Lowe,’ I said. ‘On both sides.’

            ‘The best,’ said Jo. ‘More than I deserved.’

            Not more, I wanted to say, and although my throat was full of words, I couldn’t locate those among them. ‘But what about the police? Mum said – weren’t they looking for you?’

            ‘Lots of people disappear, Sam,’ said Jo. ‘Most of them turn up, sooner rather than later. It was no big deal.’

            ‘Oh,’ I said, oddly disappointed. ‘You just wanted a bit of low visibility?’

            ‘I like that!’ Jo said. ‘Low visibility – that’s exactly right!’

            I could hear her adopting the words, using them in future conversations. No acknowledgement to me. I didn’t mind. Why couldn’t we share? We were sisters, after all. But I was new to this. I felt like I was interviewing someone on the radio.

            I said, ‘So – what’s the plan? You’re staying?’

            Jo was her buoyant, confident self. ‘I am. I’m not ready to come home just yet. Besides, I don’t want to leave the guys here in the lurch and I don’t want to cause any awkwardness for the team back in London.’

            ‘What about Adam?’

            ‘He’s resigned. It was mutual decision. He’s decided to spend the rest of the year here, taking photographs, making films. I think he needs it, to be honest. The corporate world doesn’t really suit him and so he needs to find one that does. No better place than Australia for that.’

            ‘So Adam isn’t coming straight home?’

            ‘No. And don’t worry about the flat, Sam. You can stay as long as you like. Even when I’m back. I won’t be moving out in a hurry.’

            ‘What about work?’

            ‘Business as usual, I think. My boss in London actually phoned me to say he knew none of what had gone wrong was my fault. He said he appreciated the contribution I’ve made over here, but that they couldn’t wait to have me back. In my old role but with a view to promotion next summer. Sam, I’m so lucky.’

            I made sure I found the words this time. ‘It isn’t luck, Jo.’   

            She was modest. Cautious. ‘Well ... I don’t know ...’

            ‘What will Adam do eventually? Will you ever see him again?’

            ‘OK. This really will sound mad to you, but I’m hoping that with Adam there won’t be any long-term bad feeling.’

            ‘No?’And not just because Jo couldn’t hate anyone, either. Not even me.

            ‘No. He behaved badly, Sam, but I think he knows that. But it wasn’t all his fault. And I’ve missed him. I don’t regret getting together with him.’ Now she hesitated. ‘Do you remember I told you about Robbie, and how things were wrong but I didn’t realize it till I met Adam?’

            ‘Yes!’ I was relieved to remember, to share.

            ‘Well, I guess I owe Adam that. He gave me a wake-up call. He’s given me two, in fact, but – who’s counting?’ She laughed again. ‘If he still wants to be friends, then I’d like that. I really would. Does that sound crazy?’

            ‘Not at all.’ How could it, given all the weird beliefs I’d conjured in my life? In fact, thinking of myself and Tom, I was envious. Would Tom and I remain friends? From the way we parted it seemed unlikely. I said, ‘Have you told Mum and Dad?’

            Jo’s tone changed. She sounded anxious, like I’d said the wrong thing. ‘I’d been trying to get through to them for a couple of days. Mobiles, the landline. I left messages. I mean, I said I was OK, there was nothing to worry about. But even so ...’

            So their words and actions didn’t match? I could believe it, but it wouldn’t help Jo to say it if it came as a surprise. ‘They have been worried,’ I said. ‘Out of their minds with worry.’

            ‘Well, I did get through. Just now, in fact. To be honest, they sounded a bit annoyed with me.’

            While it might have suited Mum and Dad for Jo to go away, they wouldn’t have wanted anything bad to happen to her. Equally, if she came back too early it might have interrupted their plans.

            ‘Must be the stress.’ I sounded unconvincing.

            ‘Maybe.’ Jo was doubtful too. Then, herself again, she added, ‘But I knew you’d answer straight away, Sam, and I knew you’d be absolutely lovely. And you have. I don’t know why I didn’t think to call you first.’

            Did it have to be like that? Would it always? Would I ever be Jo’s ideal confidante?

            ‘I wish you had,’ I said. ‘But that’s not important right now. Are you OK, Jo? Are you absolutely sure?’

            ‘Yes, Sam, I’m totally fine. It’s been a hell of a ride, I admit. But it’s over, and now I’m going to enjoy the time I’ve got left here. Truly. But hey – I haven’t asked anything about you. Your e-mails give nothing away. Talk about Ms Discreet. What’s your news?’

            I faltered. I had to tell her about Tom. Could I retrieve something from the dying words our conversation that offered some hope of a future with him after all. If Jo told me I’d made a big mistake – even if she berated me for the first time ever – then maybe it would be the spark I needed to offer the apology he deserved. If anyone could do that it was Jo.

            But yet again, I held back. ‘I’ll tell you when you’re home. It won’t be long now, will it, and this phone call must be costing a fortune—’

            ‘Don’t worry about that, Sam. I’ve had so many calls to the office in London from here which Rod – this is his flat – is totally cool with that one more won’t hurt. I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want to know. So tell me!’

            Another invitation? Or perhaps she just wanted to be flattered, like when she’d asked me about Meade Park in the months before she joined, preparing the ground for her arrival. It was easier to think that, to creep back to the way things had always been. I mumbled an evasive answer and, as soon as I could, ended the call.

 

15

 

 

Just like at the start I can hear the accusations. Would they have reached fever pitch by now if I hadn’t promised to build up to the murder – promised to end with a bang? The voices might easily come from the girls at Meade Park who’ve plagued me all the weeks I’ve spent getting to this point, or they could – and perhaps more reasonably – come from whomever will be reading my words. Daniel, possibly. But anyone, really.

            ‘You were never afraid that anything bad would happen to Jo.’

            ‘And you never really believed that Abby had left because of anything you’d done.’          ‘You fooled Tom into thinking the only thing you had in common was being abandoned by Abby, when for him, plainly, as he told you, it was love, or something that might have grown into love.’

            ‘Neither of you knew a thing about relationships, but you had each other, which was more than enough to build on. But you didn’t love him. You must have known that, and yet you strung him along for over ten years, keeping him in hopeful anticipation of fulfilling what you never intended, but seemed to have approved of.’

            ‘God, how he wasted all those years! After Abby went, he could have met someone else, moved in with her and settled down, started a family ...’

            ‘Even discovered the rest of his own, instead of waiting for his mother …’

            ‘Waiting for his mother – who had suffered no doubt because of the distance you helped enforce – to make the first approach, by which time it had been spoilt for her—’

            ‘She hadn’t just lost one family, after all, but two.’

            ‘Not only was her second husband dead – the man who gave her the love she hadn’t known in her first marriage – but her daughter’s own life had, in her eyes, been corrupted too young. She—’

            ‘Helen/Maureen.’

            ‘—could see it, but not Rebecca. And in Maureen’s eyes her daughter’s blindness was entirely due to her misguided obsession with that bastard Daniel Wilding. She had borne his child to prove she loved him – to possess him – because she knew he’d leave. Which he did.’

            ‘You nearly made the same mistake.’

            ‘You fell in love with Daniel – or thought you did. Remember your devotion to Michael Coady?’

            ‘How can you know for sure what falling in love really means?’

            ‘Here’s the thing, though. If you’d cared about either Daniel or Tom, you should have done more than just “clock” that Daniel’s Rebecca was Tom’s Bex – one and the same person.’

            ‘You said there weren’t any coincidences. Well, you were right about that.’

            ‘And even though you’d dumped your fantasy hero Maureen Farmer, you should have realized that Daniel and Tom were still in danger.’

            ‘And Michael. If you care to think about him.’

            ‘But you were too busy trying to fit in. So much for making it seem real. You were only interested in making it yours.’

            ‘Crazy.’

            ‘Deluded.’

            ‘Or just plain jealous.’

*

The week that followed Jo’s phone call began, like so many of the others I’ve written about, primed with obligation, but no obvious means of ringing the changes. I walked to Hampstead and Highgate on Saturday morning, taking in as much detail as I could. And it was fascinating and I was very happy to be doing it. I talked about it in the office on Monday. Turned out, someone on the team grew up in Archway so knew it very well. Did I go to the cemetery? I hadn’t, but we were all treated to a full description of its various legends and superstitions. ‘Let’s have a team outing!’ Michael suggested. I don’t think he was entirely joking.

            Then things got interesting. Tom left a message for me while I was at lunch with Laura on Monday. ‘You probably don’t want to hear my voice,’ he said, ‘but I really need to talk to you, Sam. I wouldn’t bother you if it wasn’t important.’ It upset me to hear him sound so despondent, though I know I probably deserved it. I hadn’t meant for us to part on bad terms, and we hadn’t, exactly, but nor had I managed any hopeful lines about staying in touch or even wishing him good luck for the future. There were no words left. Or so I thought.

            The least I could do was phone him back – in any circumstance. I wanted him to know we could talk on any subject. Nothing would be unimportant. I said I could meet him whenever, wherever. He suggested a pub on Rosebery Avenue, pointing out, thoughtfully, that it was on my way home. He didn’t stand up when I arrived, but I leaned across the table to kiss him on the cheek. There was no small talk, this time.

            ‘It’s about your new friend,’ Tom said, over the burble of voices surrounding us. At least there were no distracting carols. I could tell that was why he’d chosen this pub; Tom loathes Christmas songs. ‘I think he’s in some kind of trouble, or going to be.’ He took a long sip from the pint of bitter in front of him.

            ‘What new friend?’ I said, but of course I knew. Then, ‘You mean Daniel, don’t you?’ Tom hadn’t intended ‘new friend’ to sound critical. I’d drawn that conclusion. From guilt, I supposed, and embarrassment. Should I have said, ‘He isn’t a friend’? Could I have done so without tagging on ‘not any more’? Then what would have happened? I cut into my thoughts and handed control back to Tom.

            ‘Daniel, yes.’ Tom nodded.

            My fingers tightened around the stem of my wine glass. ‘Why are you worried about Daniel? Have you been in touch with him?’ It was difficult to sound neutral but I tried.

            He shook his head vehemently. ‘No, Sam. That wouldn’t be right. But you’ll have talked to him. And you will again, won’t you?’

            ‘I suppose so,’ I said. I explained about Jo coming back. And the fact that she hadn’t severed all ties with Adam.

            ‘That’s good, good,’ said Tom, hurriedly. ‘Brilliant news. But ... this will sound really weird, Sam – bizarre, in fact – but you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to believe me. You know I was telling you about my mother and my sister getting in touch?’

            ‘Yes, of course. You’re really happy about it.’ Tom didn’t look happy now, that was for sure.

            He grimaced. ‘Yeah, I thought it was good news. Hark at me, carping on about having the truth at last.’ He gulped more beer; he was down to the last third of his pint. He might be driving, but I tapped the side of the glass, to see if he wanted another. ‘No thanks, Sam. I’m OK.’

            ‘Tom, what’s wrong?’

            ‘Turns out, it was only part of the truth. The part they didn’t mind me knowing.’

            They, I thought. Helen. Maureen. Bex. Rebecca. But none of them seemed real to me. ‘What didn’t they want you to know?’

            He practically spat out the answer. ‘They never came looking for me, Sam. I was the means to their end. It’s your friend Daniel they want. That’s why I think he’s in trouble.’

            ‘Tom, slow down.’ I suddenly felt very calm, focused. I was at the centre of things, the glue that bound everyone together. I had a responsibility to break through to the truth.

            Tom was all patience. ‘Daniel is the father of Bex’s child, right? She’s obsessed with the little girl, you only have to spend five minutes with them – and believe me, I should know, I’ve spent longer. But she’s just as obsessed with the father. Keeps going on about how Lily takes after him and not just in looks. It’s as if he’s living with them too.’

            ‘I didn’t know that,’ I said, feeling chilled by it, as Tom intended. As he did.

            ‘My mother has tried everything to get Daniel to stay away. Even bribery.’

            ‘Really?’ I was dumbfounded, or perhaps my ignorance was finally getting the better of me.

            ‘Pretty drastic, eh? Sometimes I feel like I’ve stepped into a madhouse when I go round there.’

            I thought of the address on the envelope I’d posted. I’d imagined a serene environment protecting a powerful core. Something else I’d got completely wrong.

            ‘Don’t think I’m jealous, Sam. I’m not. I wouldn’t have allowed my mum to get near me if I thought I’d be jealous of her new life.’

            ‘Of course not,’ I said, without knowing. Then, carefully as I could, I picked up the thread once more. ‘But is Rebecca … well, delusional in some way?’ That sounded insensitive. ‘I’m sorry, she’s your sister; I didn’t—’

            ‘It’s a fair description, Sam, Truth is, I don’t think Bex’s got time to be my sister, Sam. She’s too busy being Daniel’s girlfriend.’

            I shot him a look. I didn’t mean to. ‘Ex-girlfriend.’

            Tom frowned and nodded. ‘As you say, Sam but – and, well, I don’t meant to upset you now, but in Bex’s mind they’re still together. I know my mother wants it to end – she wants it more than anything – and I know she’d do anything she could to make that happen.’

            ‘Which is why you think Daniel is in danger?’

            Tom paused, peered into his glass, as if to avoid meeting my gaze. ‘Not just him, Sam. Not just him.’

            ‘Me?’ I blurted. A few startled people looked up, though not for long. ‘Why me? I’ve got nothing to do with these people.’ It just tumbled out, but it was the truth, I realized, and not to be regretted.

            Tom looked sheepish. ‘I’ve talked to them about you. Of course I talked about you. And it is you I’m worried about, Sam, to be honest. Being Daniel’s girlfriend and—’

            I protested. ‘I’m not, I’m not. I never was!’

            ‘Oh, OK. So that’s a mistake.’ At first he sounded pleased, but that quickly gave way to a troubled kind of puzzling. ‘I mentioned to Bex that you’d recently moved. I thought her answer was weird. She said, “Fast work.” But what she said next was even weirder, “Well, at least she’ll have Oxford Street on her doorstep.” I hadn’t even told her where you’d moved to.’

            All the threads were beginning to mesh. I felt their tautness, as if there were stitches in my body being pulled together. It wasn’t a feeling that I liked. It reminded me of being in the cinema with Tom. I wanted to burst the stitches open and escape. But I didn’t do that, I’m glad to say. I relaxed myself enough to be able to sit and listen. To be honest, I did not have high expectations.

            I said, making light of it, ‘You’ve been to the flat. The nearest shops are on Upper Street. You could hardly call it the West End.’

            Tom nodded, exerting every effort to get the full picture. ‘I know. She could tell she’d said the wrong thing. To be honest though, Sam, I was still getting to know her at that stage – still am. I didn’t feel I could ask. But I knew she wasn’t describing Jo’s flat.’ He paused again, but I could tell he knew what to say next. ‘Where does Daniel live?’

            ‘Marylebone. Just off the high street.’

            ‘But you don’t live there. Have you been spending time there? Sorry – it’s none of my business, I just—’

            ‘Once.’ What was Tom getting at? ‘And yes, I did stay over. That’s all.’

            He nodded. ‘Once, I was at my mum’s and Becky burst in, completely soaked with tears. She kept bawling, screaming things like, He’s had her round again. She’s been there again. I can smell her.

            ‘And you thought she was referring to me?’

            Tom nodded, but gave no hint of seeking disappointing or relief.

            I shook my head. ‘Not me. No.’

            He shrugged. ‘Another girl, obviously. Or girls. I wonder how many there are.’

            ‘Her name is Hannah,’ I told him, wondering if I should right now, right here, because this conversation was so unlike any others we’d had. It felt wrong, somehow.

            He nodded. ‘It’s revenge, Sam. Bex thought you were taking Daniel away from her. Then she realized it wasn’t you, it was this Hannah person. So Hannah’s the person in danger.’

            I said before I had some sympathy for Hannah. Still do, I guess. I don’t mean because she died, although of course it’s a tragedy. As I said, she didn’t stand a chance against the Wildings. She was willing to fight her corner, though. I should explain: Rebecca never came to the Islington flat. The times it hadn’t been Jennifer Hutchence it had been Hannah. She thought I was more of a threat than Rebecca. Hannah had a friend in the building – and no, I haven’t asked Jo about this other coincidence – and used her visits as a chance to let me know that she was on to me. She was watching me. Hands off Daniel, she seemed to be saying.

            But I feel most sorry for Rebecca. All she wanted was her family to be united. She’d found Tom, her half-brother, which seemed the most amazing good fortune, since she’d only recently lost her beloved Dad. Now she wanted her former partner and father of their child as well. I envied her desire for completeness. And her determination. Her ruthlessness? Perhaps it’s that, but I’m not sure.

            And of course, I care about Tom. Or I would, but it seems pretty clear to me that he doesn’t want my concern. To be fair, I tried my best in the pub that evening. I started to take him seriously. I felt a heady mix of loyalty and love, just as I’d done at the end of Jo’s phone call. It was tinged with guilt, because I was aware of its recent absence.

            ‘Tom,’ I said, leaning across to place my hands on his, which suddenly seemed tiny because he’d clasped them together in a nervous ball. ‘I’m sure that isn’t true. About your mother and Bex only wanting you to get to Daniel through me.’ How could I know?

            He wouldn’t be easily convinced. ‘I’m not sure, Sam. I think trouble’s brewing.’

            ‘Come on, Tom. I’m not trying to protect Daniel, to pretend nothing’s wrong. I wish I could prove it to you.’

            ‘That’s kind of you, Sam, really. I don’t expect anything, though. I just want you to take care. That’s all.’

*

I so wanted him to be wrong. I hadn’t thought to connect Daniel to Maureen to Tom. It sounded like a family tree gone wrong, or an overambitious – and expensive – addition to the London Underground. It was just one of many associations I ignored, in favour of others.  Despite Tom’s warning, I wasn’t frightened. Perhaps because it was Tom, I couldn’t be afraid. Was he still my rock, my comforter? Would that always be the case in some way? I can hope. But somehow, the fact that I hadn’t heard from Daniel – didn’t know if I was even waiting to hear from him – began to annoy me. There was Tom, wracked with concern he possibly needn’t have shouldered, and Daniel, completely unburdened. Believing himself, perhaps to be at all times beyond risk. And he’d branded Adam with a tag of carelessness. Other things began to irritate me. I didn’t even know if Daniel had the latest news from Jo. I hadn’t heard from Mum and Dad, either. I felt tense, but amazingly alive and alert as well.

            I woke on Tuesday with the practical, urgent need to be clear about what it was possible to understand. It would be excellent preparation for Jo’s return. I’m pleased to note that mattered more than looking out for Daniel’s airy-fairy instructions. To start with, I needed to know where everyone was.

            No one is invisible, however hard they try. E-mails, texts and phone calls can be dodged, so the obvious thing was to lie in wait for Daniel. I didn’t go to his flat, or his office. I decided that every day for a week I’d repeat the journey I’d made the Tuesday morning after I’d moved into the Islington flat and had received the gift box from the Marylebone shop. I struck gold on the first day. There he was, snacking on a Pret-a-Manger almond crossing on Tuesday morning. He looked startled, only not like before.    

            ‘Sam! Hello—’

            I burned with the thrill of a successful plan realized. I admit, I was pleased to see him. But my tone was deliberately cool. ‘Daniel … what a coincidence.’

            ‘Well, it’s my routine,’ he admitted, defensively I thought. ‘Every Tuesday I have a meeting with group management in Southwark.’

            But I didn’t feel snubbed, because he was on the defensive. So it was easy to arrange lunch, as before, though I detected reticence in him, some awkwardness.

            I suggested Pizza Express, and he agreed and added, ‘Why not today?’ and we both laughed at the exact repetition of our previous encounter. Perhaps he just wanted to get it over and done with. By chance, we were slotted into the same table as before and I ordered Valpolicella. I wondered if the waiting staff would be the same and concluded probably they were. Would we eat the same pizza as last time?

            That was the question I asked him when he suddenly interrupted me. ‘Sam, I’m sorry—’

            ‘Is this a bit freaky? Is it too similar to last time?’ I said, with a laugh.

            ‘Well, Pizza Express doesn’t change much. You wouldn’t expect it to,’ he said. He gestured for a waiter, who was approaching, to back away. With what looked like a real effort he said, ‘It’s just that things have changed, and …’

            I nodded encouragingly. What did he know? Who was he afraid of – if anyone? And: how much of it would he share with me?

            He began to fidget. ‘It’s so typical of Adam. He still manages to fuck things up while making everything seem so normal. I can’t face my parents now because I know that they actually do, at long last, disapprove of Adam. They can’t deny they’re angry, hurt and ashamed at his behaviour. And they know that’s what I’ve been waiting for all along to happen. They think I’m laughing on the other side of my face.’

            I shook my head. ‘Zita? Roger? No – I can’t imagine them thinking that …’

            ‘Sam, you’re right, you can’t imagine. You can’t know.’

            ‘Perhaps not,’ I said, shrugging off the familiar put-down. ‘But Daniel, why is it such a problem for you even now?’

            He spread his hands until he saw that they were trembling. ‘What I wanted to happen … what we were waiting for …’

            ‘I’d thought the waiting was over.’ Despite myself, there was a lump in my throat.

            He looked away. ‘Sam, Sam ... I do have feelings for you. I really do. But at the moment, they’re so tied up with the family—’ He groaned on the last words as if speaking of a dangerous sect.

            ‘Are you saying you love me like a sister?’

            ‘No …!’ he spluttered. But he had no alternative.

            I just said, ‘I’m glad.’

            My answer satisfied him, I think. Or else, he’d finished dealing with me and wanted to go back to speaking of himself. He said, ‘I suppose I should be pleased that I don’t need a big chance after all. But how can I be? It’s like something has been taken away from me. If I complain I’m just a baby throwing my toys out of the pram. Whatever I say or don’t say, I’m still being measured against my brother. I’m only good because he’s bad. Nothing’s changed, and yet it’s all different. It’s not proper change. It’s just a shuffle and no one is any better off.’        

            I’ve had that thought myself, of course. So I’m glad I didn’t let Daniel take it exclusively. ‘But something has happened,’ I contradicted him. ‘Jo’s come back. We thought she’d been taken and that didn’t exactly help us, did it?’

            He scowled; no, he actually looked affronted. ‘Sam, what’s that got to do with anything?’

            ‘What do you mean?’

            He frowned. ‘Well, it was all a bit unlikely, isn’t it? A twenty-six year old woman in a place like Sydney. I mean, it’s not exactly the back streets of Basra, is it? And think how well-connected Jo is. I’ll bet she never gets a moment in the day to herself. Think about it.’

            I wanted to say, ‘Why are you throwing all my own arguments back in my face?’ It was as if I’d been slapped, evicted somehow from my own life. The very complaint Daniel had just made himself. The one he’d stolen from me.

            ‘She disappeared, Daniel,’ I said, my voice rising. ‘How can you act as if it didn’t happen?’

            ‘If I remember rightly,’ said Daniel, adding insult to injury, ‘the only person who actually used the word “disappeared” was you.’

            He was wrong. Jo herself had used the word disappeared, I was sure she had. I didn’t lose my cool. So what? I’d needed to see Daniel and that need had now been met. Like him, I wanted the meal to be over, but not desperately, like before. All I really wanted was to get to the day when we’d drive to the airport to pick Jo up and bring her back to the flat. Lost in all that was affection for Daniel – perhaps it was love – but it had to be sacrificed along with everything. I think I miss it still, from time to time.

*

I’d meant what I said to Tom about wanting to prove his theory wrong. What happened next made that possible, although it’s not really my achievement. I hadn’t gone looking for it. I hadn’t sought out Maureen Farmer – or Helen Mackie, if you prefer – in the first place. But what matters most is that she hadn’t come looking for me.

            The encounter I had longed for was only a phone call at the tail end of Friday.

            ‘Who am I speaking to, please?’ asked the tense, controlled voice at the other end of the line.

            ‘I’m Sam Steadman. Office manager. Can I help you?’

            ‘Ah, Ms Steadman. I hope you can. My name is Maureen Farmer—’

            Did I actually gasp? I know I had the urge to interrupt with something like, ‘Maureen, it’s me!’ I couldn’t do that. Then I thought, It’s Tom’s mum. Shouldn’t she have recognized my name? Tom had spoken of me. He would have mentioned where I worked. She would know all the connections.

            My excitement faded and I tuned back to Maureen Farmer’s rant which, to be fair, was not rude, just full of frustration. ‘—it is now the first of December, which means I’ve been waiting three months for approval. And so you can understand why I’m somewhat aggrieved to have received in today’s post a second invoice when I’ve only just paid ...’

            I asked if she wanted to speak to Michael, but she didn’t. She just wanted it to be known that she had no intention of paying the invoice. What she really wanted was to have nothing to do with Michael Coady Associates from here on in, and that all future communications would be handled through her solicitor. At the end of the call, she sounded close to tears.

            I promised to pass the message on – do what I could to wrap things up efficiently – and mentally cut my own connection. I accepted the truth. It was never Maureen Farmer’s plan to bring harm to Daniel, nor to me, or Michael Coady Associates, or Michael and Patrick. She was concerned about her daughter’s state of mind, but she had no plans to use her influence to help or hinder other people. She just wanted her house to be remodelled – for something to be straightforward and complete after the devastation of her husband’s death.

            The fact that it coincided during a fracture in Michael and Patrick’s relationship was as unknown to her as it was to us in the office. But after the hearing, and the sentence, Michael sat us down. It was just before Christmas – several days clear of our team lunch so the mood wouldn’t be spoilt. He apologized for his recent behaviour. After twenty years, he and Patrick were going through a tricky patch. Like all couples, he said, and everyone except me offered knowing, sympathetic nods and murmurs. Michael intended to close the office over the holiday season, as usual, but then to take an extra two weeks off. He and Patrick planned a month in South Africa. They had a wonderful time and seem to be on the road to recovery. But I’m glad they didn’t go to Australia, even though I doubt I’d have had an ounce of concern left in me to give.

            As for Tom, yes, his mother wanted him, but she didn’t yet know how to go about doing it. Then came the murder and one of her children was taken from her. Tom had to slow his efforts to put his family back together, but he was and I guess still is patient. Luckily for Helen – or Maureen – I can’t call her both, this gave her the time and the space to try to win him back.

 

16

 

 

I was doing well in my efforts to know where everyone was, to keep the threads held together. The last people to reconnect with were Mum and Dad, and Roger and Zita. Knowing that my parents were unlikely to come to me, and reluctant myself to spend a day in Cricklewood, facing the cull of my possessions, I hatched a plan.

            The cull happened gradually over Christmas. It was quite useful in gearing up to move flats, and not nearly as drastic as I’d feared. Perhaps at last I’d gained some ground. I lost it, after the mugging, but perhaps – just possibly – I might be able to re-establish it one day. After the next move. After I’ve moved on.

            I phoned the Wildings on Wednesday, the day after my lunch with Daniel. It didn’t feel like going behind his back. I doubted he’d care who I spoke to. I was more nervous about contacting Roger and Zita out of the blue after such a long period of neglect, but Zita, of course, acted as if there was nothing to be sorry for. I enlarged on the argument I’d later summarise for Mum and, without hesitation, Zita invited us all to Cambridge. Exactly as I hoped she would.

            ‘How thoughtful, Sam,’ she said. ‘What a wonderful idea! You’re all more than welcome to stay over.’ I said that was generous of her, but not necessary. Mum and Dad would think it a step too far. Then I thought, I could stay. I hadn’t been out of London for the whole three months of Jo and Adam’s trip. A change of scene would do me good. After all, Mum and Dad had been to see the Morgans ... and who knew who else?

            ‘It’s not one of Dan’s Lily weekends,’ Zita added, determined to convince me, ‘but it never takes much to persuade him to get out of London. I’m sure he’d be delighted to show you round Cambridgeshire.’

            I wasn’t entirely sure of that myself, but I accepted the invitation. I wasn’t hung up on getting out of London but I suddenly felt very excited about being away from the Islington flat.

            What I said to Mum was: ‘I think we should all be together. The three of us, and the Wildings. To plan for when Adam and Jo are back.’

            ‘What do we need to plan for?’ Mum sounded nervous, I thought. As if she’d given the subject all the consideration that it required and was satisfied with her conclusions.

            ‘We’re going to stay in touch, aren’t we?’ I said, allowing no time for her to interject. ‘Jo and Adam haven’t fallen out, so there’s no reason for the rest of our friendships to suffer. Anyway, we owe Roger and Zita.’

            ‘We do not owe them anything.’ Mum was defiant.

            ‘You’re wrong there, Mum. You cancelled lunch at very short notice, and Zita was upset. You’re lucky that the invitation still stands. And so we’re having lunch together this coming Sunday. I’ve already accepted from us all.’

            She tried annoyed. ‘I’m not sure if ... I’ll have to ask ...’

            ‘Come on, Mum,’ I said, as encouragingly as I could. ‘Don’t try to wriggle out if it. We’re not doing this for us,’ I added, breathing in, hoping my words would convince her, astonished at the authority in my voice. Where had that come from? Ah, the answer was in my next breath: ‘We’re doing it for Jo.’

            It wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t mind saying it. And to my amazement and delight, Mum said yes.

*

On Saturday Daniel took me to Ely, because I said I’d never been before. We walked down to the river through Cherry Hill Park which was the best way of seeing the cathedral, according to Daniel. We had lunch at the Boathouse and then strolled around the shops and stalls set up with hand-made gifts for Christmas. I say ‘strolled’, but it was a battle against the cold and wind. We stayed out as long as we could stand it. There was solidarity in the shared endurance, even if it wasn’t to be found elsewhere. We drove back through the Fens and I was captivated by the eerie atmosphere. I thought back to my walks along the wild stretches of the canal in London. They seemed to belong to a different era.

I knew that Daniel felt the whole weekend was fairly pointless and that he was going along with it just to humour me. But that night, when we went to a Chinese restaurant in town, he acted like the perfect host he’d been on my first visit to his family home. As each course of food was brought to the table, and more white wine with it, I saw Zita and Roger begin to relax. They had been nervous, too, I realized. Did they think we wanted them to apologize for Adam’s behaviour? I didn’t want to say anything, to make an issue of it. I just wanted us all to get on, like we had before, only better. I wanted Mum and Dad to see that when they came tomorrow, and feel that it was something they could share.

*

Roger and Zita seemed unperturbed when it got to midday on Sunday and there was no sign of my parents, but I was concerned. They hadn’t called to say they were leaving late. The radio traffic news didn’t report any problems and, though it was another cold day, it hadn’t rained. The roads ought to have been clear. I rang Mum’s mobile but it was switched off.

            ‘Just goes to show there isn’t an emergency,’ Zita tried to reassure me. ‘Don’t worry, Sam. They’ll be here.’

            Zita had planned to serve lunch at one-thirty, but assured me it could easily be delayed. She probably knew better than any of us how to keep good food from spoiling. It was ten past two when they finally arrived. I couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed, as well, and hurt.

            ‘Zita, I’m sorry …’ Mum began, pushing past Dad, pushing past me.

            ‘Mum! Where have you been?’ I blurted.

            Zita stepped back to allow us room to enter. ‘Ellen, Malcolm.’ Her voice was brisk but not curt. ‘I hope you’re all right. It’s good to see you. Do come inside.’

            ‘We had a couple of delays—’ Dad began vaguely, and silently handed Zita a yellow plastic carrier bag. She took it with a nod of thanks. Dad looked so white, so exhausted. I couldn’t ever remember him looking like that.

            ‘Your father forgot to bring the wine I’d bought specially, even though I reminded him twice and told him where I’d left it,’ Mum said, to me and Zita.

            ‘If you knew where it was, why didn’t you put it in the car yourself?’ Dad countered.

            ‘And he only bothered to mention it when we were between junctions on the M11, so it wasn’t easy to stop …’

            Dad broke in, ‘But we did stop. Of course, we argued about where we would stop, which village we’d go into, even though I’m sure any of them would have Done. But, we stopped eventually, and went to a shop. And then your mother refused to get back in the car. I sat, parked, in the middle of some high street, with her standing on the pavement, ranting at me for almost an hour.’

            She rolled her eyes. ‘It wasn’t anything like an hour!’ Then she narrowed her gaze so it alternated between Zita, who was trying not to look startled, I could tell, and me. My mouth was gaping open in horror. ‘I just couldn’t bear to be with him,’ Mum went on in a low, slow whisper. ‘I couldn’t bear it at that moment.’ She turned to Dad. ‘After the way you spoke to the girl in the shop.’

            ‘She short-changed me. And she was surly. I just wasn’t in the mood …’

            ‘You? Not in the mood?’ Mum scoffed heartily. ‘When have you been in the mood to be civil lately? When have you ever—’

            ‘Mum! Dad! Stop!’ I practically screamed it. I was red in the face and was holding back tears. This was the most venomous debate they’d had in years. ‘What’s going on? Why are you trying to spoil today?’

            Zita gave a tactful cough. I’d forgotten she was standing there. She said, ‘I’m going to make some tea. Sam, why don’t you take your mum and dad into the sitting room? I’ll bring the drinks in, and then I’ll see to some lunch. I think I’ll put some fresh veg on, so we won’t be eating until after three. I hope nobody minds too much. I think the three of you could do with some time to talk.’

            Don’t go! I silently willed Zita. I wanted to be with the Wildings. At that moment, I wanted them to be my parents. But Roger and Zita returned to the kitchen, out of the way, secure in their marriage, their happiness. They knew they were all right, at least. They were safe. I was stuck with Mum and Dad and the terrible realization that nothing had changed and never would.       

            And then it did.

*

Now I really have come to the end. The final scene took place that Sunday when we were all in Cambridge, at my request. Daniel was away from London purely because I asked him to be. If he had been in his flat when Rebecca turned up, Hannah might be alive today. If I had kept a closer watch on those two women – included them in my surveillance – I could have prevented the murder from taking place.

            Crazy. Deluded.

            Or perhaps, for a change, people might be kind and say: ‘Don’t blame yourself, Sam, it would have happened anyway.’

            ‘It could have happened on any other weekend.’

            ‘Hannah hadn’t been back to the flat in weeks. Rebecca had practically disappeared.’

            ‘It’s not your fault ...’

            Would Daniel defend me? He might not dare. If he had been honest with me about Hannah, he could have brought her to Cambridge that day. Hadn’t he said he was keen for us to meet? But I don’t think it occurred to him to invite Hannah, if I was to be the special guest. He wouldn’t have wanted to upset me. Or, if not me, his parents.

            Poor Roger and Zita must be haunted by the fact that they never warmed to Hannah. Fortunately, their relationship with Lily and Rebecca hasn’t been compromised. They have always been careful about that. Lily is their only grandchild and, as Daniel told me, they are devoted. But since that devotion is conditional on Daniel’s parenting ambition, they’ve always been conscious that their bond could be severed. What if Daniel offended Rebecca, permanently, or – and this was more likely – if Rebecca saw sense and found a new partner who offered more than Daniel would, and who insisted that he be completely cut from their new lives? I think Maureen Farmer quietly hoped that that would happen. She knew all about moving on, after all. I think Roger and Zita wanted – and still want – whatever is best for Lily and Rebecca. They have kept a respectful distance from Maureen, in case sides needed to be taken, and things get ugly. Although I later learned that they had attended her second husband’s funeral. Rebecca, for the record, adored Roger and Zita. They were like a second set of parents to her. After her own father died, Roger was her only dad.

            I hate to think of Roger and Zita treading on eggshells, but that must have been what it was like for them. I’m sure that tangling with our family only made things worse. I’d like to keep in touch with them on a regular basis, but it’s awkward. I’ve still got Daniel, of course. And now that I know Daniel won’t read this, I can be frank about what he did and didn’t say – what he ought to have said and done and didn’t.

            He had betrayed me – it’s an ugly word, but I can’t think of another – by telling his parents of the break with Tom. And they’d passed the information on, as I’ve said. But did he also imply that he’d lined himself up to fill Tom’s shoes? He didn’t say it to me, that’s for sure. But how else could Roger and Zita have inferred that we were an item? I can’t be entirely sure that they did, and it isn’t something I can ask.

            More importantly, who told Jo? It must have been our parents. I thought Mum had been teasing when she encouraged my first visit to Cambridge. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell Tom,’ she’d giggled, not that she was renowned for her gently mocking humour. She certainly hadn’t expressed a preference for Daniel. Or maybe Mum and Dad were deeply upset about my split from Tom, but somehow couldn’t find the words to say it to me? Have I talked about the way they embraced him as a son? No? Then that’s because they didn’t. It never bothered me. But perhaps I had already begun to take Tom for granted. Maybe, from the very beginning, when Abby practically handed him over to me? But now isn’t the time to record that, or the place.

            What matters is that Jo concluded that Daniel and I had got together. Or soon would. Why did she do that? Why did she have to get involved? So that she could claim her role in the story? Did she really want to be able to blame herself if anything went wrong? Or claim the praise if it all went well? That’s not Jo’s style. Here’s another scenario: Jo being Jo would have welcomed the news of my friendship with Daniel, because she wanted me to be happy. She had despaired of me and Tom ever going beyond the stage of spending weekends together, the occasional week-long break. Secretly, she’d been desperate for me to move on for ages. Her split from Adam wouldn’t jinx my chances with Daniel.

            Jo remained fond of Adam, but she was suspicious of his brother. Just as Daniel had spoken about Adam, Adam had told Jo about Daniel. Perhaps he hadn’t been quite so damning, but he’d seeded enough doubt for Jo to be cautious in recommending Daniel as a potential partner to anyone, least of all her own sister. She was reluctant to interfere, was in the midst of sorting out her own life, was disadvantaged by being on the other side of the world. But she couldn’t do nothing. That’s Jo for you.

            Jo e-mailed Daniel to ask whether he was serious about me and suggested, if he wasn’t, the decent thing would be to let me know, so I wouldn’t waste my time. He was noncommittal, apparently, or else too vague for Jo’s liking. So she got Adam on the case, who in turn talked to Roger and Zita. The first result was Adam’s redemption. Of course, Roger and Zita hadn’t wanted to criticize their younger son. Now they had a bigger problem – Daniel, who had a track record for this sort of behaviour. I should have been flattered that they cared enough about me to want to spare me from getting hurt. The message from all three of them was, ‘Leave Sam alone!’

            Jo needn’t have bothered. Daniel was only too happy to oblige. I mean, he hadn’t any romantic designs on me to lose. But Jo still thought she’d put me at risk. The result was that everyone looked at me when they should have been watching Hannah and Rebecca ...

*

At around three o’clock that afternoon, when we we’d just started on our lunch, Rebecca left Lily at home with her mother, and drove to Daniel’s flat to confront Hannah. Rebecca knew that Hannah had moved in – at Hannah’s insistence, so Daniel later told me. She’d have to know, because of Lily spending every other weekend with her father. I’d seen no evidence to suggest that the night I stayed over. No clothes or toiletries or magazines, no extra plates or cups in the draining board or in the sink. Had Daniel put them all away to spare my feelings, or had I just missed them? Perhaps Hannah had moved in afterwards. Daniel had chosen the last possible opportunity for me to visit his flat when we could be alone together.

            At least Rebecca had stopped confusing me with Hannah. Rebecca – Bex to Tom – though I was Daniel’s new girlfriend. Which had made me, for a while, her target. So Tom really did save my life. Rebecca must have seen me and Daniel together. I’m not sure how, because I doubt that people living in Chiswick spend much time wandering idly through the streets of Marylebone. She must have planned it. I think, however, that seeing me and Tom in Covent Garden Piazza was pure chance. Tom had thought it odd, but said nothing. Although he did set his sister straight on my relationship with Daniel, after I’d convinced him that Daniel and I weren’t a couple.

            Rebecca confronted Hannah in Marylebone that dark, wintry afternoon. Rebecca arrived, hysterical. Her mother had no idea of her plan and said she was perfectly calm when she left their home. Her driving went unremarked upon, that’s for sure, and she must have seemed calm enough for Hannah to let her in. For all that, the two women’s discussion must have sounded like a schoolground fight, the kind that went on around me at Meade Park all the time. ‘Hands off my boyfriend!’ ‘He’s not yours, he’s mine.’ And so on.

            Hannah was no pushover. Apparently, she said some deeply wounding things to Rebecca. She made out that there wouldn’t be a place for Lily in the life she intended to build with Daniel. Was that what made Rebecca see red? Not just her own personal loss of the man she had loved since she was a child, who had rejected her, but whom she still loved to a degree which prevented her from starting over? The women began to fight. I dare not imagine what it was like. If I tried, the image of Tom’s parents – Rebecca’s mother – would leap to mind. That would be ironic, but in poor taste, too. And besides, I’ve tried to erase that from my memory.

            They fought and, so Rebecca said, Hannah stumbled and fell. She hit her head on the edge of a large, solid bookcase. But Rebecca didn’t stop there. She got down on her knees and she shook Hannah, begging her to take back her words, to let Daniel go, to leave them all alone. She shook, and she shook, and she shook.

            The verdict was manslaughter. Even though Rebecca had had some psychiatric treatment for her obsession with Daniel, had once been hospitalized, and was most probably still grieving for her dead father, she was fully aware of what she was doing.

            How did Daniel react? He was devastated. But I don’t think he feels guilty about what happened. He admits he ought to have been more supportive. I asked him, ‘Did you ever think you and Rebecca might get together again? You said you’d fallen out of love with her, but is that true?’ Can you ever fall out of love with someone absolutely? Daniel made a spluttery sort of answer – disbelief that I’d asked, horror even. But he’s never actually answered the question with a straight yes or no. At least he hasn’t lied.

*

My life has never been what you’d call frenzied, but the other day Jo – who, though single at the moment, is so busy that she rarely stops to draw breath – said, ‘Sam, you must be doing something with your spare time or else you’d go insane!’ She knows that life isn’t exactly convivial here with Guy and Lulu. So I told her about this account. She helped me to get back into it, but it’s funny to think that I’d never considered her to be my ultimate reader. But Jo is welcome to read it if she wants. I haven’t spared her feelings, but I haven’t critical of her, either. On reflection, however, I might leave out the last few paragraphs. I’ll include them here but they won’t be in Jo’s version. She doesn’t need to see them. She was there.

*

I was outside Angel tube station when it opened on the morning of Saturday 16 December and arrived at Heathrow about ninety minutes later. The status of Jo’s flight on the indicator board read BAGGAGE IN HALL so I hoped there wouldn’t be long to wait.

            The Wildings were in mourning for Hannah, who had been buried at the start of that week. My parents were only too happy to maintain low visibility, as was their custom; the only ones who could. So when I volunteered to meet Jo at the airport on my own no one objected to that. And let’s not forget, I’m here sister. Who else should be there to greet her but me?

            We hugged and kissed and I could tell she was pleased to see me. She was gasping for a proper coffee so she’d stay awake but she didn’t want to intrude on my free time. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured her. ‘I’ve set aside the whole weekend for you.’ Jo said she was pleased to hear it, because I’d been so mysterious of late. That made me feel a little guilty: I’d set time aside to tell her only bad news.

            Perhaps that’s why I allowed her take the last word for her own. She’d been absent for most the story; but maybe, it really had happened because of her. I have to finally accept that it wasn’t because of me. I won’t fight it. I just wish ‘the last word’ was different from the one she uttered:

            ‘Oh Sam! What have I done?’ She was anguished. ‘Was it my fault, what happened? It was, wasn’t it? It was. You don’t need to say anything.’ What she meant, perhaps, was that I shouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t listen to me. She never did. Wasn’t that why I began this account, because no one would ask for my version? I reached out to try to comfort her but she wouldn’t be consoled, not yet. The chance will arise, I hope, the opportunity. ‘Perhaps it would have been better for everyone—’ she said, though I could barely hear her through her sobs ‘—if I really had disappeared after all.’

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