Stephen went over and laid his hand on her arm. ‘This needs careful thought, Ruth. I really don’t know if this is suitable or even if it would be permissible to turn part of the actual cathedral into some sort of social centre. Now, it would be best if we went. Maybe we could go out somewhere? I can take an hour or so off. Shall we drive into the country, have a walk and lunch?’ As he spoke he was guiding her, his hand still on her arm, out of the crypt and back up the aisle towards the side door, feeling her resistance but being quite firm and in control.
‘I don’t know what on earth you mean, permissible? What sort of word is “permissible”?’ Honestly, Stephen, you’re the Dean, you can do what you like.’
As they neared the door, he noticed one of the cleaners who was dusting the rows of chairs give them a strange look. He smiled slightly but moved Ruth calmly on. He was familiar enough with looks of that kind.
As they got through the door, Ruth suddenly took off, dancing away from him with a laugh, waving to him to follow.’Come on then, if you don’t want us to have the stuffy old crypt, let’s look at the Song. School, that’s my second option, that choirmaster has far too much space. How on earth can they justify keeping all those shelves full of old music and what looks like a hundred pianos and things? We’ll soon clear that lot out, we can get rid of the music desks, we’ll put comfortable chairs and they can build a sort of private room at the end for counselling, then …’ Stephen could not keep up with her but he managed to stop her before she got to the wooden doors that led to the Song School, taking hold of her arm and turning her round.
‘Ruth,’ he said gently, ‘why have you done it again? It’s a couple of years since the last time and you promised me and the specialist that you’d never come off your medication again. But you have, haven’t you?’
She made a child’s face. ‘Oh pooh, Stephen, don’t be such a spoilsport. Come on, I want to get in there and start pulling it apart. We’ll have our shelter for the street girls right here, you’re probably right, this would be much better than the old crypt, that’s a bit creepy, I can see that now. Clever old Stephen, always right, darling Stephen. But you said we could go out for the day – let’s do that shall we? This can all wait. Where can we go? Let’s go to the bank machine and get some cash and have a really slap-up expensive lunch somewhere, treat ourselves. We never have proper treats. Come on – or no, I’ll go to the bank, you run off and change, I’m not being taken out by an old crow of a parson in his black suit.’
‘Try and stop me, you do that.’
‘Please, come here. People are staring at us.’
‘What, do they want me to give them something to stare at? All right then, all right, look those people walking up there, hoy, you, want to see?’
She had started to step out of her skirt, kick her shoes away and now to unbutton her top. Stephen took hold of her and slipped his own jacket round her shoulders, picking up her discarded clothes.
‘Come with me now, we’ll go back into the house and find your tablets. You have to keep taking them, you do know that. I should have realised sooner.’
‘Ha, well, I haven’t got any, I shoved them down the pan weeks ago, I hated them, you know what they do, they take my soul away. So what are you going to do?’
Slowly, he managed to half pull, half persuade her around the path and up to the front door of the house, but as they reached it, Ruth gave a loud hysterical laugh and darted away from him again, throwing off his jacket which dropped to the grass and running, barefoot, to where Miles Hurley was crossing towards the building which housed the diocesan offices.
‘Miles, wait, hey, I want to see you, just the man I want to see, you’ll be on my side, wait, wait.’
She gabbled as she ran, and gave little skips and jumps, but as he caught sight of her, Miles turned and fled, disappearing through the side gate to his bungalow. Ruth stopped dead, shrugged, and sat down on the grass, holding her arms above her head in an odd gesture, as if worshipping the sun which had just come out again.
Stephen went wearily over to her.
‘Sit down, it’s wonderful, the grass isn’t damp. We should sit on the grass more often, we should enjoy the world around us.’ It was as if she were drunk, or high, though her speech was perfectly clear and coherent.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’m sure we should. That’s why I wanted to go out. We’ll go over to the Moor and walk. It will calm you down. Then have some lunch.’
‘I am calm. I’m just very happy too.’
‘I know.’ He held out his hand and after a moment, smiling, she took it.
It had been like this many times before but it never got easier to accept. He knew what to do and exactly what he was dealing with, but somehow, in the periods between, when she was taking the medication which balanced her moods, he forgot – sometimes even forgot that her mental condition was a permanent one. The drugs worked. They were stabilising, and she had gone for as long as two and a half years without deciding to stop taking them. Whenever she did so, it was a few weeks of slow change, which went unnoticed until she tipped over the edge into mania. Strangely, it always went this way. The depressive episodes, during several of which she had had to be hospitalised, seemed not to come as a result of ceasing the drugs. Stephen did not know which was worse, the mania or the depression. He was only profoundly grateful that medication existed and was effective. He had asked her why she stopped taking it and the answer was always the same – that although it stabilised her moods, it took the edge from everything, both enjoyment and sadness. There was no black or white, no light or dark, she had once explained, but a universal muffled grey. Through this, she had to force herself to function, and for most of the time she managed to do so and became competent, even forceful, determined to prove that she was the equal of anyone. He had learned patience, at least when he was with her, though sometimes his patience snapped without warning when he was with others, and over something quite trivial.
It had begun a couple of years after they were married, mildly at first, and she had still assumed they would have a family and that she would put all her energies into it. No children had been conceived, and once the manic-depressive episodes had become more frequent and severe, it had been hinted that having children might not be the best thing for her – though no doctor had ever come out and said point-blank that it was definitely inadvisable. Ruth had been adamant that, on the contrary, babies, several of them, would cure her for good. He had felt trapped between wanting her to be fulfilled and happy, and above all to be well, and fearing the outcome if she did conceive.
She never had. Privately, he had always thought it was God’s plan and an answer to prayer, even though he knew Ruth had prayed very differently.
In the car on the way out of Lafferton she hummed and sang and once or twice grabbed his hand as he changed gear. He felt anxious, wanting her to get some exercise in the fresh air in the hope that it would tire her and calm her down, knowing from past experience that it might do just the opposite. She had sometimes been awake for forty-eight hours, kept going on a tide of euphoria and nervous tension.
He waited until they had left the car and started to walk up the sloping track in the hazy autumn sunshine. Sheep grazed in a field to the west of them, and buzzards soared overhead on their flat wings. Ruth put out her arms in imitation and turned round and round, once almost losing her footing, now speeding up, running backwards and laughing at him.
But the climb gradually calmed her enough for her to be willing to sit next to him, their backs against an incline, and to look out over the country towards the cathedral tower which was just visible, rising out of the haze. Stephen felt the warmth from her body next to his, and the energy too. She was coiled as a spring, ready to jerk up and dance or laugh or run. He felt a thick fog of despair fall on him, almost blotting out the view and the sky, almost palpable. He had forgotten how it could be.
He was loyal to Ruth and knew that he would remain so, but he also knew that the years had drained him of love for her and now he only felt an affinity and a great sympathy, plus the affection born of a companionable daily life and a shared purpose. They saw eye to eye on many things, not least the way things should go with the cathedral and his mission there. But living with her and in the shadow of her mental state was exhausting and he was reminded all over again now how it depleted his energies and blurred his focus.
‘Ruth, you need to see a doctor, you know that, don’t you? You must get some more tablets.’
‘I’m fine. I feel better than I’ve felt in months, I feel free.’
‘I’m worried that if you go on without them for much longer you’ll crash down. You know how bad that is when it happens. You don’t need me to remind you.’
‘It won’t happen. I feel quite sure. It can never happen again, I’ve got it tamed, Stephen. Now, let’s go and have lunch, let’s order everything we like, why not? Let’s eat until we’re sick!’
But she had begun to run down the track, arms outstretched again, as a small child would run, and as it was steep, after a while she ran faster and faster and seemed unable to stop herself. He could see the level ground and some shrubs before the gate to the car park and tried to scramble down behind her and save her from falling, but before he had gone far, she had plunged into the bushes and was sprawled headlong. He reached her in a frenzy of concern. She lay quite still. But as he bent down, terrified that she was badly injured or unconscious, she looked at him and burst into hysterical laughter, shrieking and trying to get to her feet but falling back and laughing more.
Stephen stood up again and waited, not touching her, not speaking, waited for what felt like hours until she ran out of steam and at last fell silent, looking up at the sky with a beatific smile.
Something was hurting her stomach. She turned over and pulled her knees up and for a moment sank back into the muddy half-sleep she had been dragged from, but then it was hurting her in the small of the back, a regular hard thump of a pain.
Then the noise, low at first, but growing louder, insistent in her ears.
Hayley sat bolt upright.
Now, the noise, which she realised was that of her own son saying her name angrily over and over again, ‘Maam, Maaam’, was joined by another.
‘Jesus, Liam, pack it in, will you? What do you think you’re bloody playing at, banging me kidneys like that? Pack it IN.’
Her head was banging too.
She thought that it was not yet morning, then realised that the curtains were still pulled together.
She sat for a few moments, trying to get her thoughts together, wondering why she felt so bad.
Hayley reached out and tried to swipe him but he dodged expertly away.
Yes. Oh Christ.
She’d put the kids to bed and they’d all gone to sleep straight off, but then the telly had packed up, like it often did, snow all over the screen and a sound like an electrical storm coming out of the speakers. She’d twiddled the aerial and shaken it, switched it on and off, but nothing had happened. She’d read an old magazine of Abi’s and made a mug of tea. Looked at the kids sleeping.
What she could do with was a can. Or maybe a couple of cans. Nothing else. She’d promised and she was sticking to it. But a can wouldn’t hurt. Only Abi had gone out, and Hayley went through all the cupboards but there wasn’t anything.
It had taken her a bit of fighting with herself, about going out and leaving the kids alone, but it was only a quick sprint up the road to the pub, she’d be five, ten tops, and back, cans in her pocket, they weren’t going to be waking up any time soon.
Only they had always sworn they never would. Never. Leaving the kids was right out.
She’d checked on them twice. Opened the door. Waited. None of them had stirred. She’d put the door on the latch, and run.
That was all she’d done and it was only ten minutes and a few, and she’d got back, racing up the stairs out of breath, but with three cans of strong cider in her pockets and a couple of bags of crisps in her hand.
They’d all been asleep, as she’d left them. Nothing had happened. Of course it hadn’t.
She remembered how pleased she’d felt and how she’d tried the telly again and it had worked. It did that. You couldn’t second-guess Abi’s bloody telly, but it was on and she’d watched NCIS and then half of a weird sci-fi film, and drunk the cans one after the other until her mind had gone cloudy.
The next thing had been the pain in her back from Liam’s thumping.
Hayley pulled herself out of the bed and across the room. Mia was standing up in her cot, staring at her. Frankie was on the rug with his cars, which he always was, and Liam had joined him. Frankie had no pyjama bottoms on. The day came in. It was bright. Sun.
Hayley looked round.
Twenty past nine.
For a second it didn’t register.
Twenty past nine?
‘Abi? Frankie, where’s your mum gone? She gone down to the bathroom or what? Christ, kid, you’re supposed to be at playgroup and that.’
Her head was pounding more now she was standing up and she went through the cupboards and drawers until she found the last couple of Nurofen in a pack and took them. She felt the kettle. It was cold. Fuck it, couldn’t Abi have even boiled the kettle?
She went to the door, opened it and shouted out onto the landing and down the stairs.
‘Abi? Listen, it’s nearly half past and the kids aren’t even dressed. Abs? You in the bathroom or what?’
Slowly, Hayley went back into the bedsit and shut the door. Liam and Frankie were still down on the floor, making tyre-scream noises. Mia stared. Huge dark eyes. Pretty. She reached out her arms to Hayley.
Half past nine.
As she lifted Mia up, Hayley felt it, a sick coldness, like water running down her back.
She found her mobile in her jacket pocket, hanging on the back of the chair, and dialled Abi.
There was no reply and no voicemail. The phone was just dead.
She made a mug of tea and stood staring out of the window, holding Mia, leaving the boys, not dressing them, playgroup the last thing on her mind. Mia smelled of dirty nappy.
The headache had gone and her brain was more focused, only it wasn’t somehow, it was like having a running tap inside it, pouring water and rinsing everything from her mind. All she could do was drink the tea and stare out of the window onto the backyards and a white cat sitting on next door’s fence in the sun. Mia was quiet, clinging to her.