‘Forty-eight, yes. Thank you.’
He noticed the clock on the dashboard so he knew what time it was but what was the day? He could not remember the day.
The street was quiet. Were people at their windows? He felt spying eyes following him as he went up the path to the front door, judging eyes, and heard the whispering tongues. He wondered if he would ever live down the shame. Word would get out. Word always got out. June Petrie knew. He could not imagine June Petrie staying silent.
He was fumbling about for the key with fingers that seemed to have lost all sensation when the door opened.
Hearing Hilary’s voice, full of warmth and understanding, he thought he might burst into tears, but he only shook his head and went in as she held open the door for him.
‘Come into the kitchen, I’ll make you tea. You’ll perhaps want to get yourself together.’
Before you see her, she meant, before you have to come up with an explanation.
He followed her and reached for a chair before his legs gave way under him.
‘It’s quite all right,’ Hilary said. ‘I told her you’d been called away, you had to go with a work colleague somewhere, you hadn’t had time to explain, or else I’d misunderstood, I said, being stupid as I am. You needn’t worry.’
He looked at her but could not speak. Hilary. How old was she? In her forties, with, he knew, a husband and two children, boys. What else did he know? Nothing else, except that without her their lives would not have functioned so easily. He felt a wave of guilt, that he knew so little about her. Did he take her for granted? Easy to do so.
He watched her, pouring milk into the jug, water into the teapot, unfussed, not making anything of it. A large, fair-haired woman in grey trousers and a brightly coloured T-shirt. Hilary.
‘It was all a mistake,’ he said. ‘Something – some confusion – someone else … they made a mistake, you see … but they had every right to … I had to clear myself, I had to answer the questions, of course. I’ve no complaints, I can’t blame them, they’re doing their job, they have to do their job.’
Hilary set down the mug of tea and then, briefly, placed her hand over his. It was a soft hand but her touch quite firm. He felt the tears behind his eyes but they did not show.
‘She’s watching the lunchtime news,’ Hilary said, ‘you know she doesn’t like to miss that. You take your time.’
She did not watch him or fuss over him, she started to put clothes into the washing machine, and then to fold up a basket of dry clean ones, moving patiently from this to that, so that, after a while, he began to calm down, to drink his tea and feel his heart beat less erratically, to hear the tick of the kitchen clock and the soothing hum of the machine, and realise that he was home and quite free.
‘You’re free to go, sir.’
He had never been further than the reception area of any police station and that perhaps only a couple of times in his life. But that must be true of most people. Most people did not know anything about the rooms and the talk and the procedures and the smells and the noises beyond the front desk. It had been like entering a foreign country, full of people he knew existed, people like actors he had seen on television, dressed in uniforms or none, people going down corridors carrying files and banging in and out through swing doors. He had felt dirty, and guilty, from the moment he’d realised that he was being questioned, ‘interrogated’, not simply spoken to, from the moment he’d entered the bare room with the table and chairs and linoleum floor. He had understood quickly how easy it would be to agree to anything, become confused, forget things you knew perfectly well, in the anonymous, impersonal, horrible space between four beige walls.
‘Why?’ The one word they had used again and again. ‘Why? Why?’
He heard them now, their voices trapped inside his head, and realised that if he forgot their faces, over time, forgot how many of them there had been and certainly forgot their names, he would not forget the room, and its smell, and their voices asking him why.
‘I think I’d like to have a bath.’ He had begun to itch with the need to get the smell and dirt from his skin.
‘The water should be hot. I had the heater on for doing all this. You go while she’s watching her programme and then, you know, she has a nap, so you’ll have time to yourself.’
She took his mug to the sink, rinsed it out, put it on the draining rack. The sun was shining through the window. The kitchen was neat and clean. The clock ticked.
He wanted to say something to Hilary, that he was grateful to her for saying nothing, carrying on with what she was doing, not asking questions, but he did not know how.
As he went up the stairs he heard the television, voices, the sound of an explosion, more voices.
The sun was shining into the bathroom, washing across the white enamel and the pale blue wall, highlighting the rim of the toothbrush holder.
He turned on the taps and as he watched the steam rise from the surface of the water, he began to cry, uncontrollably and to his own intense shame. He stayed in the bath for some time, topping it up until the water ran cold from the taps, and went on silently crying.
But in the end, changed into clean clothes, he felt better, as if crying in a way he could not remember having done as a grown man, and rinsing his body, had removed more than simply the smell and dirt and memory of the police station and the interviews.
He came downstairs. Hilary had gone, without disturbing him, but there was a note on the kitchen table about food for supper. His mother would nap for a bit.
He wondered if he should telephone the library, or if he could go out to buy a paper, but he had no energy, his body felt as if he had been awake and lifting heavy weights for a week, and besides, people would be in the street, people would look out of windows, people who might know – would know. So, not going out, or being able to concentrate on anything, he went quietly back upstairs and lay on his bed, and after some time, during which he went over everything that had happened, every detail of what had been said and done, and could not stop himself, he slept, deeply, without stirring or dreaming, and woke uncertain where he was or why the light was fading.
He went into the bathroom and drank two full glasses of water then sluiced his face and washed his hands. From the front room he could just hear the sound of voices from the television. He had to go to her. He had no idea what he was going to tell her, he relied on himself to make up something, but he could not lurk up here as if he were a guilty man.
As he went downstairs, though, he realised that the voices were not from the set, they were those of his mother and Hilary, loyal, thoughtful Hilary, who was not supposed to be working at this hour but who was doing so because she would know how much she was needed.
She came out of the front room now. ‘You’ll feel better for that,’ she said. ‘Can I get you something to eat now? There’s a bacon and egg flan I was heating up for Mrs B, with some salad, but she won’t eat it all of course.’
She went calmly into the kitchen, letting him take his own time, do what he wanted without being fussed.
‘Thank you, Hilary, thank you, I can’t tell you –’
‘You don’t have to. But – I think she’d like to see you.’
He had been putting it off, but she was right, of course she was right.
‘It isn’t any of my business but she has been asking.’
‘But it is your business, Hilary. Where my mother is concerned, everything is. I don’t think I’m hungry though, I’ll just get a bit of something later on.’
‘Fine. I’ll leave the rest of the pie covered up. There’ll be plenty of salad.’
He was more grateful to her than he could express, grateful that she did not tell him he must eat something, did not insist on his sitting down, just got on quietly with preparing Norah’s supper and left him alone.
Norah looked round as he went in. She had switched the television on to a quiz programme.
‘Oh, Leslie, Hilary’s just getting a spot of supper. Do you want to watch this or shall I turn it off?’
She sounded as usual. He might just have come in, as usual.
He sat down. The television chattered away brightly but it might have been broadcasting in Mandarin for all it meant to him.
‘Where was it you had to go for the library?’
‘Manchester, was it Hilary said?’
So that was what she had said. Manchester.
They watched the screen in silence and she did not look at him again. He wondered what she was thinking, whether she had been worried or just accepted it because that was simpler. She had enough to battle with.
‘Hilary’s taking me to see the specialist on Thursday, did she say? I’m going to mention this new treatment – there was that programme about it, you remember.’
He began to feel disorientated, wondering if any of it had happened, or if he had not, after all, just returned from a normal day at the college, so little had anything seemed to impact on her. It was only the fact that Hilary was here when she should not be that reminded him of the truth of things.
She came in now.
‘Would you like me to help you into the kitchen and eat there or shall I bring your supper in here?’
Norah chose to stay where she was. The evening went on. Hilary set out the food, told Leslie where she had put the remainder. Went home. The television went from quiz to comedy to a documentary about Africa. It was only when a violent American film was flagged up that Norah flicked about, trying other channels, but found nothing of interest.
When the room was suddenly quiet, he got up, afraid of having to sit with her without any distraction, afraid of the questions that would surely come, afraid that she knew more than she had said. Afraid.
‘I think I’m going off to bed early,’ he said, ‘I’m rather tired. Would you mind?’
He settled her with the reading lamp, her glasses, her drink, a new library book. An ordinary evening. He bent over to kiss her. She said nothing except, ‘Goodnight, Leslie.’
He felt uneasy, and restless, not tired after all. He had slept so much earlier, he wondered if he would ever need to sleep again, and everything was churning round in his head, bits of the interviews, odd remarks, the sound of a heavy door slamming, the scrape of the chair on the bare floor.
He waited an hour, lying on his bed fully dressed, until the house settled back into itself, and when he looked down through the stairwell, he could see that his mother had switched off her light.
Then he went out, closing the door very quietly, as he always did.
‘Frankie, will you stop doing that to her? Pack it in, you’re making her cry.’
Frankie lifted up the plastic car quickly and banged it down again on Mia’s arm, lifted and banged it, lifted and banged it. Mia howled.
‘I’ll put you on the landing and shut the door on you. Now stop it. Why do you have to do stupid things like that? Play with your trucks properly, that’s what they’re for, not for bashing Mia with.’
Abi turned back to the sink where she was rinsing out a basinful of their clothes, and, seizing his chance, Frankie brought the plastic car down but this time on his sister’s head. She ducked, and it scraped her on the cheek, raising even louder howls.
Abi leapt at Frankie, who slipped out of reach round the other side of the table.
The trouble was, he was almost four and growing fast, his energy pent-up inside the one room and ready to break out every other minute. Playgroup finished at twelve but Frankie needed full-time school, needed occupation and other children – or at least a garden in which to let off steam. Mia, normally placid, was now wound up by him to the point where she screamed if he went near her.
And if it was like this now, what was it going to be like when Frankie was six years old, and eight and eleven, growing, frustrated, and even more likely to cause trouble? If they were still living in one room then?
But no, they wouldn’t be, they couldn’t. She had a boy and a girl so they’d have to give her a council flat soon. Trouble was, a council place would be somewhere scummy like the Dulcie estate, or even as far as Bevham. She was torn between wanting a flat of her own no matter where and dreading what it would be like.
Frankie was banging one of the cars on the underside of the table loudly and rhythmically.
‘Frankie … look, do you want to watch Bob the Builder? Watch anything?’
Bang bang bang bang. Howl. Howl. Howl.
‘Jesus Christ, what’s going on?’ Hayley knocked and came into the middle of the row as Abi reached under the table and dragged Frankie out by his arm.
‘He’s driving me bloody nuts – I don’t know what to do with him.’
‘Liam, get over there and play with Frankie and don’t start fighting.’
Hayley dumped her tote on the table. ‘You heard?’
‘They’re still looking for Jonty.’
‘So what’s new? They’ll find him. He hasn’t got the brains to go far.’
‘They let the other guy go.’
‘Right. Who was it anyway?’
Hayley shrugged. ‘They never say a name, do they, not till they charge them. Anyway, obviously wasn’t him.’
‘Jonty Lewis is capable of murdering a hundred girls if he felt like it. Be good when they catch up with him.’
‘I’m not that worried now, are you?’
Abi shook her head as she unstrapped Mia from her high chair.
‘Listen, Abs, that flat’s still free.’
Abi said nothing. But she had thought about it. She knew where the flat was, there’d be more room until the council did come up with something.
‘What?’ Hayley looked straight at her. ‘Go on, what?’
‘I was thinking we should take them out.’
‘Victoria Park, maybe.’
‘Well, it’s not raining,’ Hayley said doubtfully.
‘Come on then, you lazy cow, you never take Liam anywhere. We can get an ice cream if the hut’s still open.’
Hayley sighed. ‘They’re playing all right though,’ she said, looking under the table.
‘Yeah, for five minutes. Be better for them racing round out there. Come on, shift.’
‘It got really disgusting here,’ Hayley said as they sat on a bench half an hour later. ‘They’ve made it a lot nicer.’
The paths had been relaid, the flower beds cleaned up and replanted, and the children’s play area was full of brightly coloured new slides and swings and roundabouts set on a bed of thick rubber, with a boundary fence.