Why not? Natalie would probably jump at it, give her a break. There would be the donkeys and the glass of ice cream with cochineal sauce at the Harbour bar and the game of Whack a Croc at the funfair, the candyfloss-maker to watch, hot sweetness in their mouths, melting into a pool; then the rock stall; the sand, soft as silk in great heaps by the railings, but harder, flat and dark as honey towards the water’s edge. Crazy golf. The maze. The cliff paths winding down and down.
The cliffs. The caves. Rock pools. Crabs and starfish. Kyra would love it all. A child to show the magic to, a child to laugh with. Kyra’s face, curious, interested, hopeful. Kyra would be safe. Kyra was safe. Kyra would never lie bound in the boot of the car, eyes closed, breath still.
Rock pools. Now it was the reflection in them that shone through the windscreen and the rain, the clear water, with the creatures deep down stirring the sand about.
Places to hide.
“I dreamed your father was back. He was sitting at the piano playing Scott Joplin. How silly.”
“Well, he used to play Scott Joplin.”
“Of course, but why should I dream he was doing it now?”
Magda Fitzroy shifted irritably about on her pillows. She looked bleached, and her eyes had sunk in, the bruises and cut on her forehead standing out crusted and dark as dried meat.
The ward had six beds and Magda was beside a window, but the view was of thin skeins of cloud and the side of another building.
“It was remarkable, you know, he played all that without reading music, just by ear.”
“Have you been thinking about him a lot?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
It was conversations like this, roundabout, argumentative conversations, which tried Jane’s patience, reminding her why she had had to move away from London, breathe different air, psychologically rather than literally. Magda enjoyed argument and bouts of disagreeable confrontation. It had driven her patient husband mad.
Jane’s best way was to snip off the thread of discussion sharply. But when she had done so, she had to unwind another. “You can’t go back home to be on your own after what’s happened. Maybe we should talk about things.”
Her mother turned her head to look away. On the other side of the room, an old woman snored, lying humped sideways under the bedcovers, her head back. Magda drew in her breath in irritation. Jane waited. But her mother was good at ignoring a topic she did not wish to discuss.
A trolley came, trailing the smell of urn tea.
“Here you go, Violet, up you come, darling.”
Jane went to the trolley. “Can I give you a hand?”
The woman had a long grey ponytail and a sour mouth.
“My mother doesn’t have milk or sugar.”
“What, all black? I couldn’t stomach that.”
“Nor could I.” Jane smiled. She got no smile in return.
“So you’ll come back with me then?” she said, setting the cup and saucer on the locker. Dear God, she thought, help me find a way round this. She is old. You have to love her, you have to try. But it was hard to ignore all the years of gritty dislike, and the recent ones of bitter words and derision.
Magda looked at her. “You couldn’t stand it any longer than I could. I want to be in my own home. They won’t come back, they’ve got what they wanted.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“I’d better be.”
“I’ve phoned an alarm company, they’re going to survey the house tomorrow morning. At least that will give you some security.”
“Of course it won’t. There are damned alarms going off every night, people are probably having their throats slit but no one minds, the police certainly don’t come. So don’t waste my money.”
“Mother, I can’t just go back and leave you, I’ll—”
“What? You’ll do whatever you do. Sing and pray.”
“And worry about you.”
“I thought you were supposed to have done with that. Trust the Lord and so forth.”
“At least come to Lafferton for a few days … see the place, it’s beautiful. See where I live.”
“Like the fairies.”
“At the bottom of someone’s garden, isn’t it? Seems quite fitting.”
One day, I may hit her. One day, I may kill her. One day … But she had gone past all that, years before, coming in from school at the end of every day, shaking with pent-up anger if her mother was at home, only calm when she was at the clinic, or lecturing, or, wonderfully, on some trip abroad. Sometimes, it had been Jane and her father for weeks at a time. They had looked at one another across the dining table and never said it aloud but caught each other counting off the days of freedom and peace that were left, seeing it all in one another’s eyes.
But Magda was weak now, Jane thought, weak and frightened and confused. And when it happened, she rang me. Didn’t that mean something?
“I’ve got a paper to write for the next Journal, and Elspeth is expecting me to have looked at our last chapter. I need to finish it, Jane. I still have a lot to do before I die.” She spoke matter-of-factly She meant it.
“I know. You’ve plenty more to give.”
“Do you remember Charlie Gold? Maurice Gold’s son?”
“Good Lord … yes, I do … I quite fancied him at one time. Why?”
“There’s an invitation to his wedding in the house somewhere. Sunday week, I think. I’d like to go.”
“Charlie Gold.” She saw him, dark hair, olive skin, thick eyebrows. Goodness.
“Who is he marrying?”
Her mother shrugged. “I hate the synagogue. I haven’t been since your father died. But I wouldn’t mind dying at a Jewish wedding.”
“I bet quite a few people do … all that eating, dancing as if they were still twenty … then pop.”
Jane remembered the arguments she had listened to from her room, the volleys of accusation, the despair in her father’s voice. He had suffered for marrying not only a non-Jew but an unbeliever, a rationalist, a Marxist, a woman who had laughed in his face when he had suggested they go occasionally to the Friday-night meal with his parents.
When Magda was away, Jane had gone with him instead. The memory of the ceremony, the food, the prayers, the closeness of the atmosphere was precious. She had never told her mother, and when her grandparents died within six months of one another, it was as though everything had stopped, the whole of her connection with her Jewishness had been severed. Then her father had died. It had almost gone from her memory, until news like this, of someone she had once known, brought it back like the waft from a censer, swinging its perfume towards her.
“Do you suppose those youths knew me?” her mother asked. Just for a second, her eyes flickered with anxiety.
“No … they just liked the look of the house and thought there’d be rich pickings. They expected it to be empty but you were in, so they lost their heads. How would they know you? You didn’t recognise them.”
“Might they have been watching?”
“Unlikely. There are plenty of swankier houses in Hampstead.”
“That is true. Oh, go on, get back to your cathedral. I’m sure they need you more than I do.”
“Not just at present. Anyway, I have to see the police. They’ve checked the house but they want a statement from me.”
“How can that be of use? You weren’t even there. Tell them to see me. You don’t know anything about it. I am going to discharge myself in the morning and I am then going home. And I don’t want you to be there fussing about.”
Jane got up. Humour, she had decided long ago, humour works. Occasionally. But nothing remotely funny came to her.
It was dusk by the time she left London. The sky was feathered with blackberry cloud as she headed west. Scott Joplin came from the CD player. She had seen the police, sorted out the house as best she could, bought groceries and some sweet-scented stocks to bring fresh life to a house that felt tainted. She turned her mind away from thoughts of her mother alone again there, working as usual in her garden study among a drift of papers and cigar ash. She would be fine. She was a strong woman. It was astonishing that any burglar had got the better of her. Her mother …
But her mother, for the first time in Jane’s life, had become vulnerable and the idea left her confused and anxious, half afraid, half irritated. How dare she? she thought, moving into the centre lane and picking up speed. How dare she do this to me?
The piano plinked out its jazz, faultless, confident. The memory of her father blinded her with unexpected tears.
“Can she see me?”
The nurse hesitated.
“Can she hear me?”
“She may … hearing is the … yes, she may.”
“Hearing is the what? What?”
Alarm flickered on her face.
Max Jameson had shouted. He was angry. He had spoken as if it was the nurse’s fault and it was not, but he could not apologise. “What? Please don’t pretend to me.”
“Hearing is the last sense to go, that was all I was going to say. So she may hear you … always assume that she can. That’s the best way.”
But when he looked at Lizzie, who might hear him or might not, he could think of nothing to say.
Lizzie. Already this was not Lizzie.
He saw that the nurse was looking at him with such sweetness, such concern, that he wanted to lay his head on her breast, take her comfort. She wiped Lizzie’s forehead with a cloth dipped in cool water.
“Can she feel that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I have to go outside. Can I go into the garden?”
“Of course. It’s lovely there. Peaceful.”
“I don’t want peace.”
He stood in the hot little dying room trying to speak, but only breath came. He stumbled to the door.
It had been three days and three nights and terrible to watch and still his wife would not die. Lizzie.
He sat on a bench. He wished he smoked. That would have been a good excuse. “I need to get out for a cigarette,” not “I need to get away from her dying.”
There was no one else outside. On the right, the new extension building was being finished, the windows still glassless, like eye sockets.
“Can she see?”
It occurred to Max that if he could have known the future, when her illness had begun, he would have killed her then, that it would have been kinder to have killed. His love for her was so great that he could have done it.
The air smelled sweet, of earth and cooling grass, but the next moment, of cigarette smoke. A man had come to sit next to him on the bench. He proffered the packet.
“No, thanks,” Max said.
“No. Well, I didn’t. Gave it up years back. Only you reach for it, you know, first thing you need.”
Don’t talk to me, Max thought, don’t ask and don’t tell.
“Hardest bit, this, isn’t it? Waiting. You feel guilty, like … wishing it was over, dreading it.”
Something flooded through him … Relief? Fear?
“It’s not right. You’ve done everything for them then suddenly you can’t do a bloody thing.”
“Your mother or what?”
Max stared at the dark ground beneath his feet. His lips felt thick and numb. “Wife,” he heard himself say. “My wife. Lizzie.”
“Daughter, me. Two smashing kids, everything to live for. I’d get into that bed and die for her if I could.”
“Yes,” Max said.
“Right. Generally is, that’s all.”
The man put his hand briefly on to Max’s shoulder as he stood up. Said nothing. Went.
It would have been better if he had never met Lizzie, never loved her, never been happy.
He knew he ought to go back to her.
He sat on alone in the dark garden.
Cat Deerbon switched on her torch. The block had a concrete staircase but several of the lights had failed and it was the same along the walkway outside the flats. It was some time since she had been called out here at night. Televisions and sound systems blared through windows, there were raised voices and then patches of silence and blackness, as though people were hunkered down hiding from a storm.
Number 188 was like that. No light from the kitchen window, at the front, or through the glass door panel. A train went by in the distance.
Cat rattled the letter box, waited, and then banged on the glass. A dog began to bark from further along, booming, menacing. She knew the sort of dog it would be.
No one came to the door.
The call had come from an elderly man. He had sounded breathless and distressed, and over the phone she had heard the harsh whistling in his bronchial tubes. She rattled the letter box again, shouted, and then tried the handle, but the door was locked. She moved along the walkway to stand under one of the lights and took out her mobile. As she did so, she heard a slight scuffle, the scrape of a shoe sole, nothing more, and then someone’s arm was round her neck from behind, her wrist was bent backwards and the phone was wrenched out of her hand. Cat swore and kicked out hard, but as she tried to pull away, felt a blow in her lower back which sent her, face down, on to the concrete. Footsteps, soft, sure footsteps, raced away and down the stairs.
The dog’s barking had risen to a fury.
She did not know how long it took her to sit cautiously, checking herself for pain as she moved; but she was no more than bruised and shaken and stood up, reaching out to the ledge for support.
Footsteps up the stairs again, but these were the sharp, confident taps of high heels.
Cat called out.
Ten minutes later, she was sitting on a leather sofa beside a blazing gas fire, her hand shaking as she tried to drink from a mug of tea. Police and ambulance were on their way.
“You shouldn’t be doing calls out here by yourself at night, Doctor, you was lucky it was just your phone. Bloody louts.”
Cat did not know the woman with burgundy fingernails who had been coming home off the late shift at the supermarket, but she was near to tears with gratitude.
“Who was it you was going to see?”
“He lives at 188 … Mr Sumner.”