A van coming fast up to the junction seemed to startle her into a dash to the pavement, where she stopped and leaned over the saddle as if her stomach was hurting her.
The crematorium funeral was an even more dismal event than usual, mainly because the two hymns chosen were French, which few of them knew, and the officiating priest had not known Marie-Elise or apparently made any effort to find out much about her.
Judith left the gathering as soon as she could, not to go into town, as she had planned, but out to the farmhouse to see if Molly had arrived back in one piece.
There was a meeting of Emma’s reading group that evening, and it was Cat’s turn to host, so Molly usually made the cake and then put Felix to bed, helped Hannah with homework or watched television with her, so that Cat was free.
Emma’s bookshop in the Lanes had been a success but would not have been so without initiatives, in the form of reading and creative writing groups, author visits and talks. Now, she had plans for a book festival over one weekend in the spring and Judith was brainstorming ideas with her and being co-organiser of the event itself. As she drove now she had ideas for both another potential visitor and a competition, and tried to keep them in mind until she could stop and write them down. If the festival was a success, perhaps they could extend it to a long weekend the following year.
‘It’s what Lafferton has been waiting for,’ she had said to Richard, coming home from the first meeting.
‘I doubt it.’
His lack of interest and support, in this as in other things, made her unhappy. She thought he had changed, always fought his corner, especially when Simon criticised him for coldness and lack of interest in whatever activities and occupations Meriel, his first wife, had had. When Judith and he had married, he had at least made a show of enthusiasm in what she was doing, even though that had not been very much, outside of home and her life with him. In the past few months, even that had gone.
The car dashboard already showed minus four and the brightness was draining out of the sky as she pulled up in the drive. The winter had been too mild. Now, in February, it had caught up on them with a week of snow and blizzards which had mainly thawed in a single day, but given way to bitter cold. Judith pulled on her coat and scarf even for the few yards to the front door. The house was in darkness, Cat’s car not in the drive. It was half-term so there was no school run and Sam was away for the week.
Wookie the Yorkshire terrier had already heard her and was yelping with delight. Judith took out her key, but the front door was unlocked. She went in and through to the kitchen to switch on the lights. Mephisto opened half an eye from his deep slumber on the sofa, took her in, and closed it again.
There were no preparations under way for the evening ahead, no cake cooling on the rack, no chocolate shortbread under cling film, no coffee pot and mugs set out. Molly had always made a start by this time, conscientious as she was.
Judith went into the hall and listened but the house had the oddly hollow sound of one that was empty.
She went back to the kitchen and put on the kettle. Cat had not been expecting her of course and had probably taken the children somewhere, but what about Molly? Where was she?
Judith went to the side door and looked across the yard. Molly’s bicycle was propped against the log shed.
‘IT’S TIMES LIKE this, you know?’
Cat had got out of her car and was watching Hannah who had flung her arms round Judith and was shouting something in her ear. Felix was still strapped into his seat playing an intricate game involving a plastic box, a tiny silver ball and nine holes on a painted golf course. Games of this demanding kind were now his passion and his skills were better than those of anyone else in the family by a mile. He was privately hoping that his presence would be overlooked and he would be left in the car all night to play this one.
Judith unwound herself from Hannah’s embrace. ‘Slow down, slow down . . . something amazing has happened and I can’t make out what.’
‘I’ve been asked to go back.’
‘For a second audition. For the part in the film, duh.’
‘The film? Do I know about this?’
‘No,’ Cat said, leaning into the car to unbuckle Felix, who squealed in protest, flailed his arms and dropped the game. Cat watched it slide under the car out of reach.
‘I’ll get it, I’ll get it, the more good deeds I do the more I’ll get the part.’
‘Doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. But thanks.’
Judith took Felix’s hand, and they went into the house. ‘What was it you said? “Times like this . . .”?’
‘Times when something good happens, even a small something, and I still want to rush home and tell Chris. Madness.’
‘No. Perfectly normal and understandable. You’re so hard on yourself.’
‘I thought you were at a funeral. Marie-Elise?’
‘I was. I went.’
‘Not exactly. But I couldn’t face the bun fight.’
Cat took out the cafetière.
‘Besides, it looks as if you’re going to need help for tonight.’
Judith told her. ‘I was just going to investigate upstairs in case she was ill.’
‘It would be seeing the hearse,’ Cat said. ‘I’ll go up in a minute.’
‘I can –’
‘Thanks but it had better be me. She talks to me.’
Hannah came in triumphantly with the game and handed it to Felix who rushed off to the den with it.
How tall she is, suddenly, Judith thought, tall and slender and no longer really a child.
Hannah’s eyes were bright with excitement. ‘OK, listen, some film people came to drama class and asked some of us if we wanted to audition, people they picked out, and I was one, only loads of us were. We went into the side room and did some stuff and they talked to us and they said they’d let us know if they wanted to see any of us again and I forgot all about it and today we got the letter and they want to see ME ME ME ME again. I have to go to an audition room, in a hotel, next week.’
‘That’s fantastic, Hanny! Well done!’
‘Yes, though of course nothing might come of it, I’m not getting my hopes up.’
Judith heard Cat’s warning words being repeated.
‘So what’s the film?’
‘A Christmas Carol. I’d be one of the Cratchit family. Have you ever heard of it?’
Cat left them making preparations for last-minute baking to feed the book group, and went upstairs.
A thin line of light showed under Molly’s door.
‘Can I come in?’
A moment’s pause, then a murmur.
Molly was curled on the bean bag, wrapped tightly in a fleece, although her sitting room was warm. The previous year Cat had rearranged the west side of the farmhouse so that Molly could have a sitting room, bedroom and bathroom which led from one another. The original thought had been that when her boyfriend Rob, now a junior doctor, came to stay, they needn’t feel they had to be part of the family house. But Rob had found it difficult to cope with the change in Molly since the attack on her by Leo Fison, now known locally as ‘Dr Death’, and he had broken up with her just before Christmas. ‘Trust a man not to do things by halves,’ Cat had said in fury. But Molly had shrugged. ‘Who can blame him? Look at me.’
She glanced up as the door opened, but did not move.
‘God, just when you think it’s OK, just when you think you really have turned a corner, something happens . . . life just chucks stuff at me, Cat, and I can’t deal with it.’
‘Judith saw you. She was driving behind the funeral cars. Panic attack?’
Molly turned her head away. Her post-trauma and anxiety state embarrassed her. Anything could trigger it – reading about a violent crime, or seeing something connected with death, like the hearse today. She had nightmares about being murdered, about lying on a bed waiting to be given a lethal syringe, about being locked in a room. Ambulances unloading bodies, bodies on slabs, bodies in freezer drawers, bodies found lying in fields and by the roadside. It had been clear that she couldn’t take her final medical exams and she’d been given a year’s deferral without penalty. Privately, Cat doubted if she could ever continue, unless the anxiety and its accompanying depression went away for good. Medicine demanded, among other things, a lifetime of familiarity with the dying and dead. Meanwhile, Molly was having regular counselling, talking to Cat if she needed to and helping to organise the Deerbon household, without giving her future profession much thought. That could come later.
‘I’ve been so much better. I really thought I was beginning to crack this. It’s so bloody unfair.’
‘The trouble is, you can’t plan these things and it’s the randomness you need to deal with. If you were told you had to walk into the undertaker’s parlour in a week’s time you could prepare yourself and do it. You’d be fine. Seeing a funeral cortège with hearse and coffin right in front of you when you’re crossing the road . . . that’s the sort of thing that throws you. Perfect trigger for a panic attack.’
‘I know I’m not going to die, I know it. But what I know in my head doesn’t seem to help at the time. I feel as if I’m dying and then I start seeing Fison everywhere. Some man on a poster looks like him, a bloke walking past me turns into him and he’s seen me, he’s not going to let me get away this time.’ She gave a small scream of anger and frustration and pushed her face down into the blanket. Cat went and put her arms round the girl and tried to calm her.
‘Moll, you are getting better, you’re so much improved.’
‘It’s going on too long.’
‘No quick fixes. We want you to get better and stay better. It’s hard but it does work.’
Molly sat up suddenly. ‘Oh my God, I’ve forgotten the book group, I was supposed to be making the cake and –’
‘Don’t worry, Judith’s here, she’s taken over.’
‘Oh God, I’m a total failure. I can’t go on being like this.’
‘You won’t. Listen, make a list of all the days this week when you’ve functioned normally, had no panics, nothing. You’ll find it’s six out of seven.’
‘It doesn’t feel like that inside my head.’
‘Your head is giving you an unbalanced version of events, that’s all.’
‘You know, when I saw that . . . hearse and the coffin inside, I just . . . if I just jumped in front of it, it would all be OK. I’d have sorted it.’
‘Is this something you’ve thought about before? Killing yourself?’
Molly winced and turned her head away.
‘You thought that killing yourself by jumping in front of a car would solve everything? Who for? And suppose you just injured yourself very badly, became a paraplegic or were brain-damaged but didn’t die?’
Molly sat up and looked at her. ‘What are you trying to do to me?’
‘Get you to face it.’
‘I face it all the time. All the bloody time.’
‘Do you? Molly, if you actually do want to die and plan to make it happen there’s nothing I can do to stop you. But I doubt if you actually do. You want to live a full, normal life, have a career, be happy, fulfil your very great potential, and you will.’
‘How can I do that so long as I feel so crap? My head’s all over the place, I can’t get rid of those thoughts, that memory, I can’t make it un-happen, I can’t pick it out of my head and chuck it away. It’s there. It plays itself over and over again like a film on a loop. I need to get out of myself and I can’t.’
Half an hour later, Cat had persuaded her to come down and supervise the cake-making, something she knew would make Molly feel better because she took great pride in her baking, which she claimed had kept her sane when working for her exams. The moment she went into the kitchen and saw the cooling rack on the table she took over, persuading Judith that she needed to leave the cake in for another five minutes, suggesting a different consistency for the fudge icing. Hannah had gone to start her homework with some reluctance.
‘What about something savoury as well?’
Molly snorted. ‘Parmesan crunch and paprika biscuits. I’ll do them. What’s the book you’re discussing tonight?’
‘Graham Greene. The End of the Affair. We avoid the latest best-sellers.’
‘I’ve never read any Greene. But I’m pretty ill-read all round.’ Molly, who was not tall, pulled out the stool to reach a top cupboard. ‘Maybe I should join, but I’m not sure I’d get through the books. I’m better as Catering Manager.’
‘She looks fine,’ Judith said, helping Cat set out the china and glasses in the sitting room.
‘She isn’t but she’s always better being busy and being with other people. I still have to remind her of it. She says she feels safe on her own in her room.’
‘Poor girl. It’s going to take a long time for her to forget what happened.’
‘She never will. People don’t. Damage limitation is what we’re about. How’s Dad?’
Judith made a face. ‘Not sure. Something’s ruffled his feathers lately but of course he won’t tell me what.’
‘I thought he talked to you. You’ve made him open up far more than the rest of us ever did. Mum just gave up and got on with her own life but you’ve been brilliant. Even Simon thinks you discovered there was a heart beating under there.’
‘You know there is.’
‘Yes. I do. Mostly. Not everyone agrees.’
‘I’ll wait a few more days for him to tell me, and if he doesn’t, I’ll have to tackle him. He’ll let it fester on and it’s making him bad-tempered and unreasonable.’
Cat glanced up from opening a bottle of wine. Judith usually sounded upbeat, even jokey, about Richard Serrailler’s moods, with which she had always coped so well. Now she sounded weary.
From the kitchen came the sound of the radio, and Molly singing softly along with Bette Midler. Cat was relieved she could stop worrying about one person in the household, at least for the rest of the evening. But that storm clouds were gathering and thunder rumbling in the distance she had no doubt at all.