Main The Lies We Hide
The Lies We HideS.E. Lynes
The truth can set you free, or make you a prisoner… Thirty years ago, Nicola Watson lived with her parents and older brother in a respectable suburb. At ten years old, she didn’t yet understand why her stomach tightened when she heard her father’s heavy tread as he returned home late at night, or why it made her brother Graham’s stammer get worse, or why one night her mother Carol woke them both, wide-eyed and whispering, and took them out of their home and into the unknown. Now a successful lawyer in the city, with a life poles apart from her dark beginnings, Nicola has returned home for her mother’s funeral. But as she stands in her mother’s house, remembering the woman who sacrificed everything for her children, Nicola has to confront the guilt that she feels for leaving her family behind. And the belief that she played a part in the events that led to her brother going to prison for murder. All Carol wanted was to protect her children, but escaping her husband was only the beginning of the story. And when Nicola learns the truth of what her mother did, it will change everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.
The Lies We Hide An absolutely gripping and darkly compelling novel S.E. Lynes Books by S.E. Lynes Mother The Pact The Proposal Valentina The Women The Lies We Hide Available in audio Mother (Available in the UK and the US) The Pact (Available in the UK and the US) The Proposal (Available in the UK and the US) The Women (Available in the UK and the US) Contents Part I Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Part II Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Part III Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 Chapter 54 Chapter 55 Chapter 56 Chapter 57 Mother Hear More from S.E. Lynes Books by S.E. Lynes A letter from S.E. Lynes The Pact Valentina The Women The Proposal Acknowledgements For my dad, Stephen Ball, with love Part One One Carol Blackpool Pleasure Beach, 1968 They’ve only been there five minutes when Ted grabs her hand. ‘Carol, look,’ he says, tilting his head. ‘The rockets! Come on!’ In front of them is the giant spider of Maxim’s Flying Machine. Blackpool is famous for it. That and the bright pink rock that sticks your teeth together. Oh, and the illuminations, of course. Carol shakes her head. ‘No, Ted,’ she says, pulling against him as he drags her towards the ride. ‘Aw, come on! You can’t come all this way and not go on Maxim’s.’ He’s still pulling her forward; her stiletto soles slip on the grimy ground. ‘You know I can’t be doing with heights,’ she says. ‘You go on. Go on, go.’ He looks at her a moment before snatching a quick kiss. ‘All right then,’ he says, already backing away. ‘Wait here for me.’ He lets go of her hand and she watches him, the cocksure way he walks, pulling his comb from the back pocket of his suit trousers, teasing the slick duck’s arse to perfection, returning the comb with one deft hand. She loses him then, in the crowd. Meanwhile, the torpedo-shaped cars fill with thrill-seekers. They’re excited to be out on a Friday night, flush with a week’s pay, armed with pastel clouds of candyfloss and filthy innuendos. Lads joke and flirt. Girls laugh and smooth out their miniskirts. Fleeting orange sparks of last-minute cigarettes flash to the ground. Minutes later, there’s Ted: last on, hooking one drainpiped leg into his capsule, grinning and mugging at her like a lunatic. From this distance, his bootlace tie is lost against his pale pink shirt, his black velvet lapels invisible against the milk-chocolate brown of his jacket. No sooner is he in his seat than the rockets begin to chug, lurching along to the first slow, discordant notes of the organ. Smells of petrol, cigarettes and sugar syrup settle on Carol’s new cream mohair cardie. The rockets climb; as Ted’s capsule lifts, he half stands, wobbling, his body at a terrifying angle. The great metal spider extends its legs; the rockets climb higher. Ted is flying towards her now, coming up to eye level. ‘Carol Green!’ he shouts at the top of his voice as he glides past. ‘Will you marry me?’ And then he’s gone, the back end of his capsule circling away. Her mouth is open in shock. She can hear Ted laughing madly, hidden inside his pod. He reappears then, further away. He’s sitting down, thank heavens, but he’s still larking about. His rocket floats lower, there on the other side of the ride; a couple of bumps and it begins to climb once more, heading back around to where Carol stands rooted to the wet tarmac. He begins again to stand. Oh for pity’s sake. Bloody idiot. ‘Ted!’ she cries out to him. ‘Sit down, will you? You’ll get yourself killed.’ Embarrassed, she stares at her feet, covers her forehead with her hand. But here he comes again, higher and higher, over her head. ‘Carol Gree-een!’ Only the round base of the rocket above her. Only his voice. ‘Will you marry me? Oi! Carol! Can you hear me?’ Never mind me, she thinks. The whole fairground can hear you. In the puddle by her feet, the crescent moon shines up at her: a white arc in a reflected navy sky – faceless, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. The rockets revolve, faster now. Up and down, round and round on the ends of the spindly spider legs. The music reaches full speed: a heady, spinning waltz. She can’t hear Ted anymore and it looks like he’s sat down properly now, thank goodness. Oh, but he’s still waving his arms about, still carrying on. He’s always mucking about, is Ted. Always creating. But he’s never shouted down at her like that before, never asked her that. He was only joking, though. Obviously he was. She’s not stupid. Once he gets off, he’ll not ask her again. Not to her face. Will he? As if to get her attention, the funfair flashes its lights – rudely, she thinks. It might have been pouring down since dawn, they seem to say, but the rain’s stopped now, it’s getting dark and we’ll not be put out, so stop your brooding, Carol Green. This is a funfair. You’re supposed to have fun. A hiss and a heavy, industrial clunk. The rockets slow, descend, stop. The laughing riders clamber out: squeals, shrieks, names lost on the sticky air. The turnstile gives out greasy squeaks as, one by one, the new crowd pushes through while the old is spewed, chattering, through the exit. ‘Oi.’ Ted appears in front of her, blows at his black quiff, smooths one side with the flat of his hand. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’ She nods at the puddle between them. ‘Mind your shoes. Suede never comes right if you get it wet.’ He steps over in one stride and grabs her by the shoulders. His fingers are thick. He’s hurting her a bit, but she doesn’t say anything. In the blinking coloured lights, his dark eyes shine with something like mischief. She can smell Old Spice, whisky and cigarettes – things she’s been told to avoid. ‘Carol? Didn’t you hear me, what I was shouting?’ He hitches up a trouser leg, gets down on one knee. ‘Ted! Your good suit!’ Around them, people stall, stare, nudge each other’s elbows, oh heavens above. ‘Carol …’ ‘I did hear you,’ she whispers. Her hand comes to rest on the swell of her belly, a bump it’s getting harder to hide. ‘But you don’t have to, you know, just because …’ ‘Don’t be daft. I’d’ve asked you anyway.’ In his black eyes, the white sliver of moon – tiny and still grinning in a smaller, darker sky. He is so handsome. She can only bring herself to look at him for a couple of seconds at a time. Any longer and she begins to feel like her make-up needs fixing or her hair has gone wrong or something. Ted doesn’t flinch. He never flinches. ‘Come on, Carol Green. You’d be a fool not to marry me.’ Two Nicola Merseyside, 2019 That’s how it starts, for me, the story of my mother. In Blackpool, that midsummer’s night, with Ted Watson, a man I ceased to call father a long time ago. All that followed would never have occurred without his flamboyant proposal in that damp, defiant funfair. So yes, it starts there, but of course there is a before. There is always a before. My mother was pregnant, her parents had thrown her out, she was living, as she called it, in sin. Marriage was the only way out of shame, as far as she was concerned, and if I can remember every detail of that scene, if I can see those flying rockets and smell the oil and the candyfloss, it is only because, in sentimental mood, she would tell me that particular story over and over. For her, it still had a romance to it, even after everything he did to her. It wasn’t me in her belly. It was my older brother, Graham. Conceived if not in love, since I don’t believe my father capable of it, then in passion – the furtive fumblings of late-sixties sex. Any swinging associated with the decade had not yet reached the small towns of Merseyside in anything other than music and fashion, jukeboxes and coffee bars; the pill, out of wedlock, was not something my mother ever would have dreamed of. Brought up on a Northern working-class diet of fear and gratitude, she would never have had the confidence to ask for such a thing. She would not have had the vocabulary. The call came a week ago. I was on my way out of court. I was meeting Seb for a drink at Waterloo before we caught the train home together. It was Friday. We always try to meet at the station on Fridays after work. On average, we achieve this twice a month, if I’m honest, sometimes once. A shared bottled of Pinot Grigio in a busy station is what passes, what has to pass, for a date just at the moment. There’s a bar called the Cabin on the upper level, where you can drink and talk and watch the train timetable on a television screen and we know we can make it to our platform in three minutes. It’s our way of being together for as many minutes and seconds as we can, and that we still want to do this is, to me, romantic. The train ride also counts. Once home, domesticity will, we know, swamp us, and by the time we are alone again, our last remaining drops of energy will have been spent on the girls. So when the call came, I was on the Strand. A GBH case had taken less time than I’d anticipated, and I was considering texting Seb to tell him I was heading back to chambers and that I’d see him later at home. I took my phone out of my coat pocket, and at the sight of my brother’s name, my body tingled with presentiment. I just knew, as they say. ‘Graham,’ I said. ‘All right.’ The T hissed; my blood chilled. ‘Is it Mum?’ ‘Yeah.’ You can prepare yourself for a moment you know is coming. You can make plans, even rehearse it in your mind. I knew my mother was dying. She had been transferred to the hospice a month earlier. I had travelled north the previous weekend, said goodbye just in case. I truly believed I’d made my peace with the inevitable. But now here was Graham telling me that he had held her hand and that she had taken ‘this big breath, a big gasp, like’, then closed her eyes, sending one tear trickling down each side of her face into her near-white hair. ‘And then she let go,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘And that was it, like. That was it.’ My brother doesn’t say much, but he had known, without me asking, that I would need every detail, second by second, and he had given it his best shot. It was his way of including me in the immense and private privilege of our mother’s last moments. ‘Thanks for calling,’ I said, which seems ridiculous to me now, like thanking someone for reminding me of a hair appointment or a delivery. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow.’ ‘Are you going to be all right?’ ‘Yes. I’m meeting Seb.’ ‘Good. Tell him I said all right.’ ‘OK. Talk to you tomorrow.’ I had prepared. But there is no preparation. Nothing can or will help. Any plans you make for yourself and how you will behave will be forgotten. You will be alone, not with loved ones, as planned. You will be alone on the street and you will be crying like you told yourself you would not, and you will descend into precisely the red, snotty mess of your fears, blowing loud sobs into a crowd of strangers, there in your suit and your high-heeled shoes – the armour you were foolish enough to think would protect you. And you will find the sight of so many people carrying on as if nothing has happened so surreal, so fucking offensive, frankly, that you will have to stagger into a side street and find a wall to lean on while you get yourself together enough to text your husband. Mum’s gone. Seb would still be at work. I wasn’t sure if he’d even have his phone with him; tried not to let that thought fill me with panic. But he rang immediately. ‘Hey. Are you OK?’ ‘I’m fine,’ I managed. ‘Where are you?’ ‘The Strand.’ ‘All right. I can be there in half an hour, three quarters.’ He paused, enough to sense that I couldn’t speak. ‘First one there gets the drinks. I’m on my way, Nick. I’ll see you soon, all right? Walk there. Take the air, look at the beautiful city. Do you want me to stay on the phone?’ ‘No. No, I’m all right. I’ll see you there.’ If you were walking across Jubilee Bridge that day, you would have seen a very smartly dressed woman with a great haircut weeping snottily into a shrivelled tissue. Perhaps you would have smiled your sympathy and looked away. But she would not have seen you. That day she didn’t even remember to look at the view: the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, the glorious sweep of the capital’s riverside. And when she arrived at the bar, she had no idea how she had got there. Seb was already sitting on the red leather couch at the back. Bottle of white in a silver wine cooler. This didn’t make sense; I’d been nearer to Waterloo than him, but now I think about it, I think I must have wandered about in a daze for a bit. I have a memory of looking at lipsticks in Boots that can only have been that afternoon, a shop assistant asking if she could help me. I never buy lipstick in Boots. The way Seb looked at me as I made my way through the bar was enough to make tears come again. I blinked them back and sank down beside him. He kissed the top of my head. ‘Petes,’ he said. Story on that: my brother’s nickname for me is posh twat. I’m not, not really, but everything’s relative. When I first met Seb at a juvenile court case long ago, I told him this and it amused him. I don’t know what you’re laughing at, I said. You’re a much posher twat than me. Posh twat became PT, which became Petey, which became Petes. There. I let Seb hold me while I cried into the new cashmere jumper I’d bought him for Christmas, the one he said was too expensive for a social worker but which he’d not had off his back. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘This jumper’s dry-clean only,’ Seb replied, which made me laugh while, with the discretion of a priest, a waiter slid a stack of white paper napkins onto the table. I took one and pressed it to my face. ‘It’s all right, I cried most of my mascara off on the Strand.’ I met his eye. ‘Don’t say anything kind.’ ‘All right. Shall I tell you I was called Shrek four times today?’ I laughed, tears spilling. Seb isn’t ugly, but his ears stick out and his nose is, how can I put it … kind of rickety. Like a contraption that would straighten if you were to wiggle it. We have both broken our noses, actually, though mine was only a hairline fracture, with no lasting disfigurement. And of course Seb’s was broken by a slope at St Anton whereas mine was broken by a fist. His eyes aren’t all that fantastic either, to be honest. With Seb, it’s all about the smile. Think ice caps melting. Think jelly legs. Think this is probably my subjective opinion. He had filled my glass, was now topping up his own, saying nothing. ‘I’ll be all right in a minute,’ I said. ‘I know you will.’ He moved closer along the couch until our thighs touched. He tightened his arm around me and kissed my hair, and I was more grateful for him in that moment than I had been in a while. He is so kind that I forget it. That he would only ever lay his hands on me in affection or desire is something I don’t think about. But I gave silent thanks in that moment for the fact that I’d married a man so unfailingly kind that I have the luxury of letting it slip my mind. We made short work of the bottle and the just one more large glass each for the road. Once home, once the nanny had left, I was still tipsy enough to tell the girls that their grandma had died without making too much of a mess of it: delicately normal, not scary, amounts of crying. We huddled together on the sofa and had what my mother would have called a right good weep. They didn’t see their nan that much, but they loved her and spoke to her every week on the phone. Seb went for fish and chips. And that was how the immediate aftermath went: a good weep; fish and chips; Carol anecdotes and teary laughter. It was exactly what Mum would have wanted. And now here I am a week later, at the pine table of my mother’s kitchen, in the silent aftermath of her wake. Seb and the kids are at home in south London – we decided that the girls were too young to face a funeral – and so now, alone, prompted by more than a few drinks in her honour amidst cheap sharp suits and signet rings, set hair and firm bosoms, I find myself thinking about that night in Blackpool in 1968, the year my parents decided it was a good idea to get married. And remembering my mother – I have done little else since I heard – I feel an overwhelming, indescribable, almost eerie connection to her. Something not of the mind but of the body. Stage one, stage two, stage whatever, grief is the same yet different for us all. Perhaps what I mean is that the specifics of grief are individual. For me, raw and new as I am to it, Carol is knocking at the doors, asking to be let in. My mother is a spirit – not bad for an atheist like myself, for a woman of reason, of the law – and I am the medium. She’s here, she’s everywhere, inside and out, in the air, in the water, in the things she left behind. In her spotless kitchen, I open a drawer at random and find the red-and-white-checked tea towels that she favoured, the cloth napkins she never used because they were too posh, and, here, a handkerchief, laundered, pressed, initialled in bright blue cotton: TW. Thomas Wilson. Tommy. I know this handkerchief. Its whiteness is marked with an old, old stain. How that stain came to be there is the story of the night she bundled a few scant belongings into bags and took me and my older brother with her out of the fear and violence that was her life. And here, now, this night, my mother’s bravery strikes me perhaps harder than ever. So much I witnessed as a child, only understanding its meaning many years later. So much I only knew on some foggy, intangible level. But now that she is irreversibly gone, I realise I want to piece the whole thing together. Because nothing brings home our adult status like the loss of both parents. I want to understand. Graham told me some of it, but only after the years we spent estranged from one another. My mother filled in other parts much, much later as we sat up together, two women talking – dry-roasted peanuts, cheap box of red, me cadging one of the cigarettes that ultimately killed her. That I will never see her again, never feel the warmth of her next to me as we chat for hours on her soft old sofa, never hear her laugh when I say something clever or mimic someone we both know is as unbelievable to me as God. All that I have left of her, beyond the material remains, is this need to be with her, and to make final sense of her life. Call it survivor’s guilt, some vague desire to make amends for my career, my lovely home, my kind, boxer-nosed husband and my two children: well dressed, well fed, safer than I ever was. Call it the familiar floral scent of this bloodstained handkerchief that I press to my nose; call it the maudlin after-effects of too much fizzy wine drunk in toasts to her; call it, quite simply, love – for my mother, Carol, who one night in 1984, with no qualifications, no possessions and no home, struck out alone with her children into the unknown. Three Carol Runcorn, 1984 Carol is in the hallway, putting on her make-up before Pauline and Tommy’s wedding. It is the last day of her marriage, but she doesn’t know that yet. The bulb in the hall is dim. Carol Watson, née Green, has read in Woman’s Own that you’re supposed to have bright light when you apply make-up, but at this moment she can’t for the life of her imagine why. You’d never go out again if you did that, she’s thinking as she rubs a blob of foundation as thickly as she can over the bruise under her left eye. She pats at it with the ends of her fingers. In Woman’s Own there are never any tips on how to cover a shiner – this is a technique she’s invented all on her own. She tops the look off with her new red lipstick: Soldier Soldier by Avon. ‘Ted,’ she calls into the lounge. ‘Better get off soon, eh, love.’ She ducks her head into the cupboard under the stairs. Her jacket is stuck under Nicola’s anorak. Nicola, her princess, her too-clever-for-me girl. She lifts both coats, puts her daughter’s back on the hook and pulls her own free. Behind her comes Ted’s rattling cough. She steels herself and turns to face him, the war between dread and hope burning its usual hole in her chest. His eyes go straight to her lips. Dread wins out. The lipstick. A mistake. ‘It’s only for the wedding.’ She covers her mouth with her fingers. He knocks her hand away and grabs her chin. His fingers press hard on her jaw. In the dining room, the kids fall silent – an alarm system in reverse. ‘What is that?’ he says in his low, quiet voice. ‘It’s only from the catalogue,’ she says. ‘I got it with my points.’ ‘Take it off.’ He lets go and heads through to the kids, who are eating sandwiches at the table. ‘Right, you lot, there’s two Lion bars in the sideboard,’ she hears him say as she wipes the lipstick from her mouth with a cotton wool ball and some of the Anne French cleansing milk she keeps on the phone table. ‘They’re not for you,’ he jokes. ‘Just keep an eye on them for us till we get home.’ ‘Aw, Dad!’ The children laugh, and she tells herself that if the kids are laughing, then things must be normal. This is family life. Every household has its ups and downs. Women complain about their husbands’ bad moods the same way men talk about football, don’t they? She steps out into the garden and lights a ciggie to calm her nerves. In the flower bed, the funny faces of her violet pansies shimmer in the breeze. Behind them, rooted by concrete posts, the green wire fence runs along the back of all the gardens, hemming everything in. If you were to lift it up, this fence, all the little strips of lawn, the wooden pickets and the gardens and the houses would dangle from it like washing on a line. On the other side of the fence, the field stretches away – out of the estate and beyond, to the railway track, to the expressway, to who knows where. With no Pauline to talk to over the fence today, she smokes quickly and stubs her fag out on the wall. Inside, Ted is saying ta-ta to the kids. Once she’s sure he’s gone out to the car, she hurries back so she can say goodbye to them herself without him hovering over her. The two of them are still in their pyjamas, watching Saturday Superstore, their weekend treat. It’s nearly midday. ‘Get dressed straight after, all right?’ she says. They nod, blank-eyed, chewing. She picks up the empty squash jug. ‘I’ll just get you some more juice before I go. Your dad’s waiting.’ She turns to make her way out to the kitchen to find Ted filling the doorway of the dining room. ‘Jesus.’ She almost drops the jug on her foot. He throws his arms up against the door frame. ‘For Christ’s sake, I live here, don’t I?’ He glares at her like she’s mad, a fool to startle like that. ‘Sorry. Thought you’d gone to the car, that’s all. Do you want a sarnie? Don’t know when the buffet’ll be, do we?’ ‘I’m not hungry.’ ‘I’ve made boiled ham and salad cream. Or there’s tongue.’ ‘I said I’m not hungry, didn’t I?’ He heads back into the hall, shaking his head. The chink of keys as he lifts them from the phone table, another phlegmy cough. She hopes he’s not over the limit already. She smelled mint on his breath just now. He’s checking himself in the mirror, turning his head this way and that. Finding himself marvellous. He has on his best shiny grey suit from C&A, the sky-blue shirt she ironed for him yesterday and a new paisley tie she picked up in Burton’s in the Shopping City. The skin of his neck overlaps his collar in an oily fold. He’s taken trouble over his hair for once, combed a duck’s arse at the back. Usually he just does the quiff at the front and leaves the back flat, as if he’s run out of energy halfway through, but today, with it being next-door’s wedding, she guesses, he’s made an effort. He looks like a ruddy throwback. It’s 1984, for pity’s sake. Thirty-three years old and he still thinks he’s Elvis. ‘Are we going then or what?’ he calls to her. ‘Yes, love. All set.’ She bustles round the children, kissing both of them on the cheek. ‘Be good now, kids, all right?’ ‘M-Mum, stop f-f-fussing.’ Graham speaks with his mouth full. ‘Graham Watson,’ she says. ‘Mouth. How many times?’ He makes a great show of swallowing. His hair is thick and black like his dad’s. ‘B-beautiful M-Mother, please may you stop f-f-fussing?’ He opens his mouth wide, to show that it’s empty, making Nicola giggle. ‘Don’t be cheeky.’ Carol gives him a wink, lays her hand on her daughter’s cheek and smiles at them both: her world, her two reasons to keep going. ‘Nicky, be good for your big brother, all right? I don’t want any nonsense.’ Holding on to the door handle a moment, she charges the batteries of her heart with the sight of them. They’re getting older, bigger, living proof of time passing. ‘Right, troops,’ she says. ‘I’m off.’ ‘Carol,’ Ted shouts from the front door. ‘Coming!’ ‘Mum,’ says Graham. She turns back to her son. Quick, love, she wants to say, but she can’t, of course – that’ll only make him worse. ‘What, love?’ He gives her an awkward smile; his eyelids hover, almost close with the effort of speaking. ‘Y-you look really n-n-nice.’ * * * The waiting room of the register office is packed, the smell of shoe leather and cigarettes just about held at bay by a medley of perfumes and aftershaves. Ted still hasn’t come back. He said he needed the gents, but Carol knows better. He’ll be outside, smoking, swigging, looking common. Tommy and Pauline, the happy couple, are over on the far side, by the entrance to the wedding suite. Carol’s brother, Johnny, is chatting to them, waving his hands about as he does. He hasn’t brought anyone by the looks of things. Shame, Carol was hoping he might have a date. There’s a chap she doesn’t recognise next to a green plastic plant on a pillar, chatting to Trevor from Trev’s Tyres. He’s fair, very tall. He has to bend forward to hear what Trevor is saying. From behind the closed door, music drifts into the foyer. The previous wedding finished, the newly married couple will be on their way out through the back. This place is a conveyor belt, she thinks, waiting for one couple to tie the knot before the next can go in – a sausage factory, twisting links. For a few minutes then there’s no music at all, only chatter bubbling in the air, before the far door opens and a song plays out: ‘How ’Bout Us’, Pauline’s favourite. She and Tommy go ahead into the wedding suite, laughing. ‘Some people are made for each other,’ Carol whispers, allowing herself the smallest private moment of something like bitterness or regret. The crowd follow the happy couple, surging in through the double doors. Still no sign of Ted. Carol has to go in with the others, she knows that. She’s chief witness. But if she doesn’t wait for Ted, that might make him cross, and his anger will write itself on her body later, invisible ink that reveals its black message by degrees. Where the heck is he, though, really? A frantic scan of the foyer, a quick look out onto the car park at the front – but nothing, no sign. Pauline will be waiting. It’s not right to keep her hanging about, not after all she’s done. After another few seconds, Carol steels herself and goes alone into the wedding suite to find Pauline looking preoccupied at the front, standing next to a little table with a red ghetto blaster on it. Two silver-haired women fuss over paperwork. When she sees Carol, Pauline’s frown breaks into a smile. ‘Here she is,’ she calls out, waving, and to Carol’s horror, everyone turns to look at her. A last glance over her shoulder in case Ted has returned, then she pulls at the shallow brim of her hat and makes her way over to her friend. In a cloud of Poison, Pauline throws an arm around her, presses her to her ample bosom and plants several kisses on her cheek. She’s wearing the pillar-box-red suit with short sleeves that Carol helped her choose in John Lewis, and a small matching beret with black netting at the front and a little dove-grey feather. ‘You look lovely.’ It’s true, she does. Carol glances down at her own flowery blouse, long-sleeved, elasticated wrists; her ancient blue skirt already creased across the tops of her thighs. ‘Ted won’t be a minute.’ ‘Never mind Ted.’ Pauline takes Carol’s hand and squeezes it. ‘Bloody Tommy only forgot the money for the registrar. Can you believe it? I had to borrow twenty quid from me dad.’ ‘Pretty cheap to get rid of you once and for all, I’d say.’ ‘Cheeky cow.’ The two of them snigger, bump hats and snigger some more. Pauline turns away then to fix Tommy’s tie. Adrift, Carol searches for Ted along the rows, her stomach a fist. The tall, sandy-haired man is sitting at the back. At that moment, the woman in front of him bends down to fish something out of her handbag, and Carol sees that he’s wearing a kilt. That explains the frilly white shirt. Scottish, then. Either that, or he’s wearing the whole lot for a bet. He meets her eye, gives her a broad smile. Without thinking, she smiles back and then, flustered, turns away and sits down next to Pauline. She’s never seen a kilt in real life before. It makes him look hearty, she thinks, like he could carry a wench under each arm or something; tear the meat off a ham bone with his teeth. Out of nowhere, in a pungent cloud of smoke, Old Spice and cold air, Ted slumps next to her. Whisky, not vodka; she can smell it on him now. How must he have looked standing outside, propped against the wall, his red face glistening, ripe. His hip flask pushes a square bulge in his pocket; his double chin presses on his chest. The bloody shame of him. Not that he’s completely out of it yet, just dazed. But she knows that once they get to the reception, he’ll be worse, much worse; that this is just the start. Four Nicola 2019 ‘Nick?’ ‘Seb! Hi, honey.’ I pour the last dregs of a bottle of fizz into my flute. ‘You OK? Funeral go all right?’ ‘God, yes. Graham did a great job. Seb, he made a speech.’ ‘Graham? You’re joking! Wow. Good on him.’ ‘I know. He seemed to want to do it so I … well, what could I say?’ ‘So did you do yours as well?’ ‘No! It’s still in my bag. Don’t tell him.’ ‘Of course not, why would I? It’s great that he did it. That must have been a big deal.’ We both know what we’re saying. Graham hardly stutters these days, but public speaking is another thing. With my confident barrister’s rhetoric I would have walked it, but it was better that my brother did it. Sometimes the less polished speech is the more affecting. And by the time Graham had finished his halting, heartfelt tribute, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. ‘Thanks for the bouquet, by the way,’ I say. ‘That was a lovely thing to do.’ ‘Oh good, you got it.’ Down the line, I hear him sigh. I wish I could summon him to me. We could sit in the almost darkness, hold hands and say nothing at all. ‘The others have gone to the pub. I didn’t … I just needed to be on my own, you know? How are the girls?’ ‘Good, yeah. Took Phoebe to violin, and while we waited in the car, Rosa chatted me to near catatonia. Wow, that girl can talk.’ ‘She can.’ I smile. My cheeks feel like they’re under a fine face mask, which is cracking; the edges of my eyes are sticky. ‘Then nothing much, really. We went to Pizza Express for dinner.’ ‘Tea, you mean.’ ‘Don’t go all Northern on me,’ he says mock-gravely. ‘You’ve been there less than twenty-four hours.’ He has managed to make me laugh. Although, thinking about it, I have laughed a lot today. My family are very funny, their friends a hoot. To be perfectly honest, there have been moments when I wasn’t sure whether I was laughing or crying. Eventually I just gave in and let my eyes leak. I chat to Seb a little longer, let him soothe me until he yawns, making me yawn, and we say goodnight. He’ll kiss the girls for me, tell them I love them, he won’t forget Rosa has hockey practice in the morning, he loves me, he’s with me in spirit. I ring off and think about what a lovely husband and father he is, how safe our girls are with him, how safe I am. I chose him through love, yes, but there was something else in there too, always, some seed of determination for history not to repeat itself. Like much of history, mine doesn’t bear repeating. I needed a different kind of husband. And whatever children I had, I was going to make damn sure they had a different kind of father. In our separate careers, Seb and I deal with people like my father all the time. It saddens me to say that we also deal with people like my brother. If you meet me in my professional capacity, it probably means you’ve made some poor choices. It will be a low point in your life. You will be sharing details with me that you wouldn’t tell your closest friend. Grubby secrets, bloody facts. And regardless of whether I like you or not, whether I believe you or not, you have a right to a defence in a court of law. You will be relying on me to give you that to the best of my ability. What you will never know are my reasons for entering into this career and how utterly I give myself to it. I have made some poor choices too. But I try not to think about that. It isn’t, as they say, helpful. Another thing my clients will never find out is how deeply and personally I understand how grave the consequences of a guilty verdict are; how easily a beautiful soul can become a murderous mess. We have evolved from capital punishment, yes, but the loss of liberty to be with the people you love, to provide for your family, to experience your children’s childhoods, your friends, your favourite places and even your parents’ last days is for many a far greater torture than mere death. Those who go to prison suffer. Those who are left outside suffer too. My brother was guilty and served his time. My father was guilty but never made it as far as a court. His justice was of the poetic kind, as it turned out. As for myself, I am guilty too, but I use the law to try to make things right day to day. For the rest, my aim is to keep my daughters for as long as possible wrapped up in blissful ignorance. As a child, I could have done with a little more ignorance. I didn’t want to hear the things I heard, interpret the evidence I saw. Watching my mother leave for Tommy and Pauline’s wedding that afternoon, I could never have known that the next time I saw her would be in the dead of that same night: eyes wide, words hissed into the dark. I need you to keep quiet for me, love. Can you do that? Not a word, all right? Good girl. Graham knew more than I did. He was sixteen. I was ten. I never witnessed my father’s physical abuse at first hand. Through the walls of adjacent rooms, there were shouts, bangs, roars. Yelps too – like the sound my friend’s dog would make if you stepped on its paw. The way my father spoke to my mother was, for me, normal, although I do remember that my stomach used to tighten sometimes when he was around. But I hadn’t yet spent enough time in other people’s houses to realise that other fathers spoke to other mothers differently. I could not have clarified the tone of his voice as that of withering disdain, nor perceive how anxious he made her, how her every word and move around him was tentative. My unease was loose, vague. Only later did I realise that she, Carol, spent our entire childhood living in dread, that she did that for us, every day, from some received notion that she should put up with it, and because she thought she had no choice. Tommy and Pauline’s wedding reception was held at the community centre on the housing estate where we lived. I knew the hall well, because as kids Graham and I spent every summer there at the volunteer-run play scheme while my mother worked on the till at Safeway. The centre was by turns a function room, theatre, dance studio, sports club, pub, church, youth club and disco. The storeroom was a cornucopia of equipment for every possible activity: badminton nets, boxes of Golden Wonder crisps, footballs in huge net bags, scenery from last year’s Christmas play … I have no trouble imagining the place kitted out for a wedding. The DJ has set up on the stage at the back – huge black speakers, those eighties red, amber and green disco lights, dog-eared boxes of vinyl. He talks between records, takes requests, wears his thin leather tie a little askew. Long trestle tables, fetched from the storeroom earlier in the day, most probably by my parents’ friends and relatives, have been pushed together in rows. Paint splashes and chipped veneer are disguised with white paper cloths. The blue velvet chairs I would sit on later at weekly teenage discos fill now with chatting, smoking, drinking guests. Down by the long bar on the left, men lean in, heads fogged with smoke, hands tight around pints of brown and yellow. And there’s Ted, his back to Carol, a five-pound note folded between the middle and forefingers of his raised hand. My mother is sitting as far from the action as she can, at the back, where the hall is a little darker. She is wearing long sleeves, as she always does. She will have refreshed her foundation in the mirror of the ladies, will have waited until no one else was looking to do this. All around her there is motion and noise. Joy. Some of the guests barely stop to put down their bags and coats before heading straight for the dance floor, laughing together, arms pumping, mock-disco moves. They know how to have a good time. Five Carol 1984 Carol is watching Ted. He’s back-slapping, pointing, downing a chaser before picking up their drinks. Now he’s heading over, has her locked in his sights. When he gets to the table, he puts the cola she never asked for in front of her. He sits heavily, sups half his pint in one go. The urge to tell him to slow down still comes to her, but, knowing better now, she keeps her mouth shut. He pulls out his cigarette packet and shakes it. ‘Fuck,’ he mutters, his expression bitter. Without looking at her, digging in his pocket, he adds, ‘Have you got fags?’ She scrambles in her bag, offers him her pack of B&H. ‘Here y’are.’ Eyes screwed up, he holds up his own cigarettes, pushes the packet close to her face. ‘I don’t mean now. I’ve got one now, but it’s my last one, i’n’t it?’ She nods, takes one of her own and lights first his then hers. After a bit, and without a word, he shambles back to the bar, disappears into the group of men. While some people dance, at other tables groups of women exchange stories and laughter. If any of them do look her way, she doesn’t see them. That Scottish chap likes to dance, though. He’s the life and soul, by the looks of things. Under the table, she taps her foot to the beat, sings the odd line under her breath, wonders if this will be a night to remember. After a while, Ted brings her another cola and takes two of her ciggies. One she lights for him, the other goes behind his ear. Common. Common as muck. There’s a buffet, which she doesn’t eat much of, and Ted doesn’t eat at all. At the speeches, Tommy scans the room, seems to look at every one of them. ‘I might have found my Pauline late in life,’ he says. ‘But I tell you all something. She was worth every bloody day of the wait.’ Pauline catches Carol’s eye and winks, making her well up. Pauline has been a bloody rock all these years. Not that Carol has said a word to her. She’s never had to. When she lifts her glass for the toast – The bride and groom! – her throat thickens. If she can’t be happy, then perhaps Pauline can. She deserves it. The disco starts up again. The upended traffic lights flash; sixties hits replace seventies disco: the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones. Ted, who she didn’t see coming over, stumbles into the table and just about gets his bum onto the seat next to her. ‘You’re not dancing,’ he says, without looking at her. It strikes her as a strange thing to say; she hasn’t danced for the last ten years. ‘I’m not. I’m sitting down.’ ‘Are you being funny?’ Her chest flares with heat. ‘No. I’m just saying, that’s all.’ His eyes are half closed. Two fingers swear at her for a cigarette. She lights one and passes it to him. He sups his pint, mumbles something she doesn’t catch. His ciggie drops onto the table. She picks it up and puts it out before it sets light to the paper cloth. He appears not to notice any of this. After a moment, he opens his mouth as if to say something but falls against her, his forehead hot and clammy on her neck. Hands to her chest, he pushes back, eyes straining to focus, then keels backwards into his chair. His head lolls. Another beat and he slides to the floor. Christ, she thinks, eyes darting all about her to see if anyone’s looking. If they were, they’ve turned away now. She crouches beneath the table and tries to pull him up by his arms. He’s half propped against the chair leg, his chin crushed into his neck, his legs spread wide apart. It’s no good; she’s not strong enough to move him. Tommy would usually help, always helps on a Friday. But Pauline and Tommy are staying at the Holiday Inn before they drive up to the Lake District for their honeymoon. They can’t come back with her tonight. She’s not thought it through. Maybe Johnny will help, if he doesn’t get lucky. If not, she’ll have to somehow get Ted into the car and go and wake Graham. She leaves him sprawled asleep on the abrasive blue carpet. ‘… nine, ten,’ she whispers, sitting back in her chair. ‘Out for the count.’ Something close to relief allows her shoulders to lower an inch. He won’t wake up now, not till tomorrow. He is at least reliable in this one thing. She remembers her lipstick. She finds it in her bag, together with her compact. She flips the mirror open and carefully paints her lips red. She smiles, checks her teeth, rubs her lips together. There in the reflection is a girl she remembers, though they lost touch many years ago now. Lighting another fag, she wonders whether she could get half a lager and lime now that Ted’s passed out; maybe a Bacardi for her Coke. Only she’d have to get Ted’s wallet from his trouser pocket. So no. Pretending, even to herself, that she needs something else from her bag, she bends down to the floor to check again on Ted. His mouth is open, his lips wet and slack. She clenches her teeth against rising disgust and swallows hard. At least the crotch of his trousers is dry, for now. Beyond Ted’s body, she sees a movement. On the other side of the table, planted on the floor, are two enormous black shoes, a cross between brogues and ballet pumps. Out of them rise two ankles in cream woollen socks. The Scotsman. She sits up, too quickly, cracks the back of her head on the edge of the table. ‘Ow!’ ‘Ah, Christ.’ The Scotsman claps his hand over his mouth, but she can see he’s trying not to laugh. He’s a few years older than her, she thinks, now that she can see him better. Maybe late thirties. His eyes crinkle at the edges. ‘Are you OK?’ His accent is so Scottish it sounds like he’s putting it on. ‘You’re all right, love, I’m fine.’ She rubs her head. I’ve taken much worse cracks than that. ‘I’m Jim MacKay,’ he says after a moment. ‘Tommy’s cousin? Listen, are you sure you’re OK? Can I get you some ice?’ She scrutinises his face to see if he’s serious. Not about the ice; about the name. ‘Jim MacKay?’ she says. ‘Jimmy Mac? Are you having me on?’ ‘Not at all.’ He grins and bows, places one hand to his chest. ‘Not so ridiculous, is it?’ ‘No, it’s just … I don’t know … I just didn’t realise anyone was actually called that.’ He grins. ‘Jim’s all the rage where I come from. Plenty of Jims, plenty of MacKays.’ ‘And do you all wear kilts all the time?’ ‘Aye. And we have haggis for breakfast. So’s we have the strength for the pipes, you know?’ He winks at her. ‘Actually, the kilt’s only for weddings and such. Parties, like, you know? Anyway, I was just coming over to ask you to dance – you cannae be sitting here on your own all night.’ His hands are on his hips now, his spiky hair the colour of wet sand. He’s just asked her to dance. Of course, he’s not local. From under the table, Ted’s arm sticks out. She lifts it with her toe and pushes it out of sight, takes another drag on her cigarette and stares back through the smoke at Jim MacKay. He glances towards the dance floor, back at her. ‘So, do you want to dance then? Carol, isn’t it?’ ‘I’ve got a gammy leg.’ ‘Aye, of course you have. We’ve all got gammy legs. Come on, you can dance with your good one.’ He tips his head to one side and holds out a hand. She presses the tip of her shoe into Ted’s ribs. He’s as still as a slug. Once he’s out like this, he never wakes. But still … She’ll never get away with a dance. The lipstick alone is a risk; a drink would be reckless, a dance suicide. It’s barely a year since she spoke in passing to a chap in the chippy. He’d only asked her for the time, but she paid for it with two cracked ribs when she got home. No. It’s not worth it. She’d show this Jim chap her husband under the table, to explain, but for the shame of it. ‘I can’t.’ She gives a little shrug, hoping he’ll understand that when she says she can’t, she really can’t. But he doesn’t understand. ‘Just one.’ He holds up a finger. ‘A wee one. A tiny one.’ Ted is very still. As if dead. If only is the thought she catches and puts out. One record. To dance, in public, after so long … If she makes sure she stays over the far side, she could say she’s been to the toilet or something if Ted does, for any reason, wake up. Jim is waiting for her. Seeing her hesitate has been enough for him. Perhaps he has understood after all. Perhaps he knows. She drives her cigarette into the ashtray. ‘Just the one, then.’ She stands up, but almost collapses. ‘Oops,’ she says, and laughs it off. ‘I’ve been sitting for so long my legs have gone to sleep.’ She leans her hands on the table a moment while her shakes die down. ‘I’ll be hopeless, by the way. I haven’t danced for ten years.’ ‘Ach, you’ll be fine. It’s like riding a bike.’ He walks ahead of her down the length of the tables. His back is thick, his waist about three times the width of her own. They meet at the end and he leads her into the group with the lightest touch on her elbow. ‘Return of the Mac!’ Tommy punches the air, laughs at his own joke and almost falls over. ‘Good for you, love,’ Pauline murmurs into her ear. She means well, but the words are terrifying. Before Carol can bolt, though, the group has closed her in its embrace. Jim is already organising everyone into doing something called an eightsome reel to ‘Baby Love’. He grabs Carol’s crossed hands, whirls her round so fast she fears she might fall over but for his strong and steady grip. It’s a mess, a riot. It’s funny, funnier than anything she can remember. After the song has finished, men rest their hands on their knees, panting. Carol wipes her eyes and shakes her head at the other women. For a moment, she feels like one of them, if only for as long as it takes her to catch the thought, to remember that she is not. She cranes her neck to check her table, but there is no sign of Ted, no commotion. ‘Thanks, Jim,’ she says as the next song – ‘Lola’ by the Kinks – starts up. But Jim grabs her hand. ‘One more, come on.’ ‘I can’t.’ Her chest tightens. The saliva dries up in her mouth. She looks back towards her table, sees only her drink, Ted’s empty pint glass. Jim pulls her towards him and puts his hand on her waist. ‘Who is he? I’ll beat him up for you.’ How little he knows. ‘I can’t.’ ‘You can. It’s OK’ It isn’t OK. She lets Jim push her away and pull her back – a gentle slow jive. She glances back to her table. Nothing. She checks the bar. Ted isn’t there. Jim bends to speak into her ear. ‘Your hair’s so shiny and dark.’ His breath tickles. ‘It’s like Chinese hair.’ ‘Is it now?’ ‘Is there any Chinese in you, like?’ She stands on tiptoe and replies into his ear. ‘No, and there never has been.’ He throws back his head and laughs. A thrill passes through her. She has made a man laugh, a man like him. His hand on her hip has warmed its own place. She doesn’t want him to move it away. But he does, to send her spinning, holding on to the ends of her fingers. She closes her eyes, refusing to see the table, hoping this will be enough to push what lies beneath it out of her mind. It isn’t of course. Oh, if Ted could only die, slip into oblivion there, now, on the sticky floor. It would be painless. And she would be free. The first few notes of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ clear the floor by half to reveal Tommy and Pauline necking in the middle of the dance floor. Some of the guests are cheering them on. Carol steps back, unsure where to rest her gaze. Jim is looking straight at her. His eyes are blue. She thinks of Wedgwood pottery and a satin dress she loved as a teenager. ‘Thanks,’ she says. ‘That was really—’ ‘Oh no you don’t.’ He reaches for her, but she dodges his hand and waves awkwardly. ‘I can’t. Really. I’m sorry.’ She turns away. Her half-empty Coke is still on the table, watery with melted ice. Against her foot, Ted’s ribs open out and close, open and close. Thoughts of smothering him come to her. She pushes them aside, but they insist: herself, ducking under this table. Her hands on his neck. Quiet, no fuss. She could go to the ladies and come back and say, Has anyone seen Ted? On the dance floor, Jim holds out his arms to her, cocks his head to one side. ‘Come on,’ he mouths. Hand to her chest, she mimes a puff of tiredness. She has never felt less tired in her life. She sits down, but still she watches. Jim disappears in the crowd. A second later, he’s jumping up and down and waving his hand above his head. She realises he’s holding a small dagger. Curious, she stands up and moves closer, close enough to see, through heads, shoulders and arms, Jim making lassos in the air with the knife. What on earth is he doing? As if he’s heard her, he looks her way and grins. She shakes her head at him and returns his smile. The crowd thins. Jim is wiping the sweat from his face with both shirtsleeves. To more shrieks of delight, he does a comedy stagger, feigning a heart attack. Against her foot, Ted twitches, then stills. ‘OK, folks.’ The DJ’s voice is muffled through the microphone. ‘Time for some old-school rock ’n’ roll.’ Someone thumps into her back. She almost falls. It’s Tommy – he’s running towards the dance floor. ‘Jimmy!’ he yells, pointing wildly. ‘Jim, mate. You’re bleeding.’ Shouts. The music dips. Chatter fills its place. The main lights flicker on, throwing whiteness into the hall. Carol follows the line of Tommy’s finger down to where everyone is looking, to Jim, to his sock, to a great red stain spreading in the cream wool. Jim is bleeding. His eyes find hers. ‘I’ve sheathed the bloody skean-dhu in my leg,’ he says, as if she’s the only one who’ll understand what he means. But she has no idea what he’s on about. ‘The wee dagger,’ he adds, only to her. ‘I’ve sheathed the dagger in my leg. Bloody thing was so sharp I didna notice.’ ‘Nothing to do with the six pints of lager, I suppose?’ Tommy crouches in front of Jim and gingerly peels the sock away. At the sight of the wound, there is a collective gasp. Carol wants to hold back the crowd but does not, cannot move. Tommy presses a cotton handkerchief to the gash, then lifts it. A red sliver appears, thin, then oozing, like a strange red blossoming flower. ‘Right, who’s going to give this pillock a lift to casualty?’ ‘I will,’ she hears herself say. ‘I think there’s only me sober.’ Six Nicola 2019 I return Tommy’s old handkerchief to the drawer and think of my mother taking that terrible chance with a man she had only that moment met but who, she told me later, she felt she knew straight away. ‘Outside it was that fine rain,’ I hear her say. ‘You know, when you don’t think it’s raining at all but next minute you’re soaked through.’ I can hear her say it, the exact turn of phrase, as if she were here. I can feel that drizzle, the air cold after the heat of the party. Which is the point, I suppose. I want her. That’s what, that’s all grief is: wanting someone who is no longer there. It isn’t that I have anything important to say. I’d only say Hello, how’s tricks? Shall I put the kettle on? The last time I saw her, I told her about an armed robbery case. I told her about having my kitchen done, showed her the colour samples for my units. Enough to bore anyone to tears, but still, despite the oxygen tube up her nose, her body little more than a bag of bones, her once shiny black hair now thin and bleached with age, still she listened as if every word from my lips were gold. If she were here right now, she’d probably tell me about her latest trip with Pauline into Liverpool: how she picked up a bargain, what diet Pauline was on, something outrageous Pauline said to the waiter in the Casa Italia, where they had taken to going for lunch these last ten years or so. Whatever. Normal stuff, quiet stuff, the day-to-day stuff of love. But we can’t talk about anything anymore. And I can’t have back the time I didn’t spend with her when I was establishing my career, having a family, living in London. I’m still busy. An early night home is eight p.m.; a later night sees me waking up on the camp bed in chambers, scuttling out to M&S for new knickers and shirt if I’ve neglected to bring spares. Time I cannot get back. It’s not that I regret it, not quite. Just that, right now, I’d happily shove a knife into my own leg if I thought it would buy me one more minute, one more second with her. Seven Carol 1984 Tommy hoists Jim’s arm around his shoulders and limps with him across the car park to Carol’s rusty old Cortina. ‘Tommy,’ she says, scurrying alongside. ‘What about Ted? If I don’t get back in time, like? It’s your wedding. You can’t be—’ ‘Leave it with us, Carol. Not like we’re blushing brides, is it, me and Pauline? This has happened now. Your Johnny can help us later. We’ll put Ted on the settee as per, OK? Johnny can stay at yours till you get back, eh?’ ‘Are you sure? Only—’ ‘Carol. Listen to me. It’s fine. Ted’ll be none the wiser. Why change the habit, eh?’ ‘But he might wake up.’ ‘Aye, and pigs might fly. Now open this car door before my arm breaks off.’ She laughs nervously, unlocks the door. Tommy helps Jim into the passenger seat. ‘Hey, Jim,’ he says. ‘D’you want to borrow some undies? You know what them nurses are like.’ ‘Get back to your wife,’ says Jim. ‘Tell you what, you can borrow Pauline’s knickers, can’t you? Not like she’ll be needing them much longer.’ The men laugh. Tommy bangs on the roof of the car, winks at Carol and runs back to the community centre. She bites her lip and watches him go inside, rubbing the rain out of his hair. Through the brick, the steady bass of the music throbs. In the car, condensation fogs the windows. The interior is a state: the vinyl trim is hanging off the doors, yellow tongues of foam loll out, honeycomb where the kids have picked at it. These things don’t bother her normally, but she’s mortified now. ‘It’s wetter than you think,’ says Jim. ‘It is, yeah.’ She runs her hand across her own hair. It’s stuck together in a sheet. She looks a mess, she knows it. Jim’s shirt is transparent on his shoulders; his blazer lies across his lap. Start the car, Carol. Start the ruddy car and drive. ‘Right then,’ she says, nails digging into the palms of her hands. What if Ted wakes up? This will be the one time; it would be just like him. He’ll wake up, she won’t be home, he’ll know. It’s madness to take Jim to the hospital. But it’s too late to go back to the wedding. ‘You OK?’ Jim asks. ‘Fine,’ she manages. ‘What’s with the knife anyway?’ Her voice is too loud; it ricochets around the inside of the car like cowboy bullets on The High Chaparral. Out of the corner of her eye she sees him make a book with his hands. ‘Worn by the menfolk,’ he says, pretending to read, ‘the small dagger or skean-dhu is a vital part of traditional Highland dress.’ She chuckles, a release of nerves, glad that he, like her, is keeping up the jokes now they’ve left the safety of other people. ‘So are you supposed to stab yourself with it?’ ‘That’s all part of it, aye. Actually no, you’re supposed to put it into the sheath. Whoops, eh?’ Her jitters die down a little. ‘Better get you to the hospital then. Don’t want you bleeding to death. Make a right mess of the upholstery.’ ‘Well we wouldn’t want that, would we?’ She dares herself to glance at him. He’s grinning widely at her. She stabs at the ignition with the key. So many teeth. Surely he has more than most people. She wipes her cheeks, hopes her mascara hasn’t run. Finally the key finds the ignition and she pulls the shuddering car forward. Ahead, gateposts stand sentry at the exit to the car park, a big white arrow on the tarmac and the words WAY OUT. They have fallen silent. Her eyes hold the road but she can feel he’s turned to look at her; can smell wet wool from his kilt as it dries in the heat of the car. She makes herself speak. ‘So where’re you from, then?’ He tells her that he lives in Perth, that he works on an oil rig. I work the rigs, y’know? is how he says it, and she has to ask him to explain. ‘What’s that like?’ she says. ‘It’s OK. Plenty of time off and it’s a good enough laugh, y’know? Christmas is shite, though. It’s like an old folk’s home, all these trapped fellas in paper hats blowing blowers, drinking alcohol-free lager. Tragic.’ It’s raining harder. She tries the wipers on the faster speed, but the frantic swipe of them puts her even more on edge. She changes them back. The car fills with their intermittent frog croak. Up ahead, the slip road looms grey through the spattered windscreen. Jim asks her about herself. She keeps to the facts. Two kids. Yes, her husband had a few too many tonight. Yes, it’s lovely to see Tommy and Pauline so happy, tying the knot after all these years. She wonders how much Tommy has told him. He probably knows exactly what her life is. So why ask? Perhaps he’s trying to give her back her privacy, covering her as you might throw a blanket over a naked troubled soul in the street. ‘You married, then?’ Heat climbs up her face. Honestly. Her and her stupid gob. ‘Divorced,’ he says simply. ‘My marriage died the day she called me up on the rig. “It’s Saturday night, Jim,” she said.’ He imitates a woman’s voice like all men do: stupidly high-pitched, not like a woman at all. ‘“And there’s gonna be some shagging in this house tonight whether you’re here or not.” That’s what she said. Charming, eh?’ Shock courses through her. A thrill follows. ‘She never said that?’ ‘She did. Put in an emergency call. I was beside myself.’ ‘God help us. What was her name?’ ‘Moira. She was bad news, but it was a long time ago.’ They have reached the hospital. She parks and pulls up the handbrake. He’s not mentioned kids, she thinks. He’s not mentioned a girlfriend. * * * In the waiting room, Carol checks her watch every five minutes. Almost midnight. The wedding will be wrapping up soon. Tommy and Johnny will be bundling Ted into the back of a cab within the next hour or so. Poor Tommy. Poor Pauline. They shouldn’t have to get involved with her and Ted, not on their wedding day. Still, at least Tommy isn’t here, waiting for the nurse. ‘Mr MacKay?’ Carol startles. A stout nurse is standing in front of them, hands on hips. Her name tag says Elsie Bryers. She sighs with relief, realising only in that moment that it could have been someone she knew. Jim is already on his feet. Carol jumps up too, and together they follow the nurse, who is already striding ahead down the shiny corridor. ‘Elsie Bryers?’ Jim whispers. ‘Isn’t she from Coronation Street?’ Carol whispers back, ‘Shush! She might hear you! Anyway that’s Elsie Tanner, you nutter.’ Suppressing giggles, they follow the nurse into a treatment room. Under the harsh lights, she cuts away Jim’s sock, stitches his shin and straps it up with lint and tape. She is deft, gruff and kind. ‘The stitches’ll take about a week to dissolve,’ she says, shaking her head at Carol, including her in some imaginary club of women and their loveable-rogue husbands. She hands her four painkillers in a paper strip and turns back to Jim. ‘Your wife can help you to the car, all right?’ She gives Carol a last smile and heads off down the corridor. Carol pulls at her wedding ring. The nurse will have seen it and jumped to conclusions. But what can anyone ever tell from the outside? What does anyone ever know about what goes on in another person’s life? The ring is stuck fast behind her knuckle. Jim is standing up, leaning on her shoulder for support. At the hospital door, they stop and look out into the night. ‘I’ll get a cab from here,’ says Jim. She knows she should say that it’s been nice to meet him, that she’ll see him again. There are any number of things she should say. But she doesn’t say any of them. ‘I’ve driven you this far,’ is what she says. ‘May as well take you to the hotel now.’ Eight Carol The lanterns outside the Holiday Inn put Carol in mind of a deserted street party – everyone home in bed and here they are, still shining. Ted will have been thrown onto the sofa by now. If he has woken up, he’ll know she’s not there. Her chest rises and falls. But there is some small relief in the knowledge that it’s too late to go back now. She didn’t mean to come this far. Only wanted to chat to Jim a bit longer. Jim, who doesn’t make her feel mad or stupid or wrong in everything she says. She switches off the engine. There is, strictly speaking, no need to do this. The rain has eased off, the car windows have cleared. Jim’s seat creaks. She feels his hand, warm and rough, under her hair. ‘I must look a right state,’ she says, without glancing at him. His hand traces round to her cheek. He guides her face towards his, leans towards her and kisses her on the mouth. It is no more than a couple of seconds, but unmistakably it is the kiss a man gives to a woman late at night in a deserted car park. She presses her forehead to his shoulder. ‘Come on,’ he says. He limps around the back of the car. She holds her handbag on her knees. Three big breaths, Carol. One for the Father, one for the Holy Ghost and one for whatsisname, oh God, she can’t remember. The car door opens. As she unclips her seat belt, a sigh shudders out of her. ‘Come on,’ he says again, softly, holding out his hand. She throws her feet out of the car and stands up into him. He kisses her again, more firmly, his mouth opening, taking hers with it. The air is chilly now that the night is here and she finds she is shivering, glad of his arms wrapped so tightly around her, like cords on a life jacket. Through the empty lobby, they hold hands. At his room, he takes the key from his sporran. ‘So that’s what that is,’ she says, giggling, trembling. ‘It’s my wee purse.’ He shows her through the door first. ‘Let me take your coat. Sit down. Sit on the bed.’ She makes her way into the dim room, trying not to look at the bed. ‘You’re the one who needs to sit down.’ Jim switches on a lamp by the portable telly and the tea-making things. He sits down on the end of the bed, pats the space beside him. The lamp throws a dim orange glow. She checks her watch. Quarter to one. She shouldn’t be here. ‘I better check that dressing.’ There is no need to do this. She sits on the floor by his feet, takes his shoe in her hand and unpicks the laces. Jim is still and quiet, save for the soft rush of his breath. She loosens the complicated shoes. ‘Wouldn’t want to put these on in a hurry.’ ‘I can do that.’ ‘It’s all right, I don’t mind.’ She slides the brogues from his feet and rolls his remaining sock down and off. Her teeth chatter. She closes her mouth, but they won’t stop. ‘Should I make you a hot drink?’ she asks, her stomach rolling over. ‘I’m fine. Unless you want one? You’re shaking; are you cold?’ ‘No. No, I’m fine.’ Ted will be on the sofa, dead to the world. Or not. Her brother in the armchair. Or calming Ted down, telling him … telling him what? ‘I better go,’ she says, kneeling up, gathering herself to stand. ‘Look at me.’ She can only look at the floor. ‘Jim, I’m a car crash.’ ‘You’re not.’ ‘You must know something. Tommy must’ve said.’ ‘Come here.’ His voice is thick, different. He tips her head, runs his thumbs from her nose out to her ears, pushes back her hair. She kisses the insides of his wrists, aware of herself as if from above. She lays her hands on his knees, pushes her splayed fingers up his thighs. Under the kilt, movement. She draws back and laughs, her hand clapped to her mouth. ‘You think that’s funny, do you?’ He takes her hand from her mouth and holds it in his. ‘That’s the haggis.’ ‘Give over.’ They giggle, relieved to know they are both still themselves, that they can go back to these selves at any time if they need to. Jim reaches forward and pulls her onto the bed, onto him. He kisses her with an open, unhesitating mouth. There is no hiding in a kiss like that, and after years without, it almost sends her running from the room. She rolls off him, aware of her heart beating. He props himself up on one elbow to look at her. She watches him watching her, wonders what he sees. Between his thumb and forefinger he holds a button of her blouse. He slides it open and her breath catches. He meets her gaze and opens another button. ‘Jim.’ She makes to raise herself up. ‘It’s OK.’ She watches him pull the blouse down to her waist and away, watches to see if he’ll flinch at the sight of her, but his face is unchanged and tender. He kisses her left shoulder with no more than an eyelash’s pressure, returns his lips to her skin, over and over, sending little electrical currents through her as he makes his way to the bruise on her arm, which time has paled to grey. On her thigh, she knows he’ll find the thunder cloud, yellow at the edges like a halo of sunshine trying to break through. He spots it when he pulls her skirt from her hips, and then, yes, she sees something – in the tightening of his mouth, the quick flare of his nostrils. ‘Jim, stop.’ She sits up. ‘It’s OK.’ She shakes her head, willing herself not to cry. ‘It’s not.’ She shifts to the end of the bed, pulls on her skirt. ‘I’m sorry.’ She picks up her blouse and puts it back on. ‘There’s nothing to be sorry for.’ Jim grips both her hands in his, pulls her towards him and kisses her again. He doesn’t let go, as if content to stay like that, kissing like young things in a park. He runs his lips down her neck. ‘Jim, I can’t. Did Tommy tell you?’ He nods. ‘And I have eyes,’ he says. ‘You don’t deserve that. No one deserves it. I’m not much, Carol, but I’m a good man, y’know? I would never hurt you, never. You’re so … you’re just so fucking lovely.’ ‘I was.’ Tears run down her face. ‘You’re lovely too. You really are. But I have to go.’ For the first time since leaving the wedding, she is afraid; whatever madness has protected her until now, whatever spell, began to fade when she watched this lovely man see and pretend not to see the marks of her life. She was able until that point to forget it all, that other life, her life, that it was real, that it had happened, happened, would happen again. But now she is not able. She must get home now, while she still has a chance. At the car, Jim lays his rough hand on her cheek and smiles at her with such softness in his eyes that she has to look away. ‘Tommy’s got my number,’ he says. ‘You know, if things … if things change or you need … Well, just give us a call, eh? Let me know how you’re getting on. Please.’ Nine Carol It is half past one. She watches her home for signs of life. After a few minutes she gets out of the car and walks towards the house. She’d been expecting Ted to come running out, she realises. To come running out, open the car door and drag her inside by her hair. To drag her inside and knock seven bells out of her until he exhausts himself and passes out. Silently she slides her key into the lock and edges open the door. The house stinks of stale alcohol but is, at least, still. Ted is asleep under a blanket on the sofa. She eases the front door closed, creeps as far as the living room door and sees … not Ted, but Johnny. Not Ted. Ted must be upstairs. Nausea lurches in her belly. Somehow Johnny has got him upstairs. Unless he got there himself. In which case, he must have woken up. Oh God. A shuddering breath escapes her. In the cave of her chest, her heart thumps. In the kitchen, she drinks a pint of water. She leans her hands on the counter, breathes in and out, in and out. She is aware of herself, of her hands on the counter, her breath, the prickling rise of sweat on her forehead. She tiptoes back into the living room and shakes Johnny’s shoulder. ‘Johnny,’ she whispers. He opens first one eye, then the other. ‘All right?’ She nods. ‘They stitched him up. I dropped him off at his hotel.’ Johnny is blinking, coming round. With a thick smacking sound, his tongue unsticks from the roof of his mouth. His hair is standing up at the back, his crisp white shirt all crumpled, his bottle-green satin tie off to one side. It’s funny to see him so dishevelled; he’s usually not got a hair out of place. ‘All right. I’ll get off.’ A flame flares in her chest. Tommy and Pauline will be back at the Holiday Inn by now, the place she’s just left. Honeymoon suite. Rose petals on the bed. She won’t be able to call on them tonight. ‘Stay if you like,’ she whispers to her brother. He sits up, yawns. ‘I’ll get out of your hair.’ ‘It’s no bother. I can make up a bed on the couch.’ He doesn’t reply, starts putting on his shoes. ‘Ted upstairs then, is he?’ she asks, like he could be anywhere else. Johnny is on his feet now, pulling his suit jacket from the armchair, slipping his arms into the sleeves. Thirty seconds more and he’ll be gone. ‘He was out of it, don’t worry.’ ‘Was he?’ She manages a fake laugh, as if that’s unusual. But why would her brother tell her not to worry unless he knows more than he’s ever let on? Eight years younger than Carol, Johnny’s not part of their social life, hasn’t seen that this is what Ted is like week in week out. Maybe he’s seen something. Heard a bit of gossip. ‘Did he say anything?’ Johnny shrugs. ‘Gibberish mostly, daft prick.’ She follows him to the door. He’s right to go, of course he is. Bachelor Boy keeps himself to himself, always has. Can’t be getting dragged into this lot. ‘See you then,’ she whispers as he steps out. She leans over, kisses him on the cheek, pats his shoulder. ‘Thanks, eh. Safe home.’ ‘I’m sure I’ll manage.’ She breaks his gaze, scared that she might crack, fall to her knees and beg him to stay. The darkness swallows him – the last she sees of him is his head tipping forward as he lights a cigarette, shoulders hunched against the chill of the night. She closes the door behind him, bites her lip against the tiny click of the latch. On the stairs, her legs ache. Her heart starts its battering once again. In Nicola’s room, the kids sleep. Graham is on the floor with his covers over him, as he often is. They must have been chatting or playing some game, bless them. Sometimes they play Name That Tune to get themselves to sleep, not that Graham would ever admit it. She kisses their foreheads. She has left them alone tonight. She has thought only of herself, of her own delight. She has betrayed them, really. Put herself in danger when she is all they have. Never, ever will she let that happen again. She steals across the landing to hers and Ted’s room. On the bed, on top of the covers, Ted lies face down in last night’s shirt, his pants and one black sock. Ugly and snoring, a stink that catches in the back of her throat. Johnny must have helped him up here. Must have. Who took off his trousers otherwise? Who put the glass of water on the bedside table? She stares at the spare pillow; not for the first time wonders how easy or difficult it would be to suffocate him. The thought is stronger now than it has been in the past, almost overwhelming, but she’d have to be sure of finishing the job. It isn’t something she’d want to get wrong. The digital alarm clock reads 2.15. She stands over him. He might be pretending to be asleep. He grunts, rolls onto his side. The snoring stops a moment, resumes. She steps back, a blunt pain in her chest. She will not, cannot get into that bed. It’ll be her on the couch tonight. Unable to tear her eyes from the rise and fall of his chest, she takes off her clothes. The sight of him has made her feel dirty. Dirty, yes, that’s what she feels. Skin thick with filth that no brush or soap could ever scrub away. She tiptoes into the bathroom and closes the door. Sits on the loo long after she’s finished peeing, staring at nothing. The rubber shower attachment is still wedged onto the bath taps where she rinsed the shampoo out of her hair this morning. This morning, so long ago. Jim. She’d almost … Through the wall comes the beast-like rumble of Ted. She finds that she’s taken off the shower hose and is running a bath, though she can’t remember deciding to do this. She’s turned the taps to slow so as not to wake him – a habit. She pours in her favourite peach bath foam. Once in the hot water, she closes her eyes and pushes her head under the bubbles. The world fades, the repulsive pig noise of her husband all but gone. The heat eases her shoulders, slackens the tendons in her neck. Memories of Jim return in flashes: his hand on her waist, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes – you cannae be sitting here on your own all night. His voice. His touch. Tommy’s got my number … Give us a call, eh? She sits up a little and draws up her knees. The bathroom light splits into hundreds of little stars, reflected tiny in each soap bubble as it slides down her legs. She crosses her arms and runs her fingers over her shoulders, down to her elbows. But her hands are too small to feel like Jim’s. A creak on the landing. She curls up. The water swishes loud in the tub; she cringes at the noise. Ted. He’s woken up. He’s woken up and he’s— The bathroom door flies open. Ted. Eyes bloodshot and wild, blind but seeing, a look full of hate aimed only at her. His nose wrinkles, his hand shoots out in front of him, a starfish of fingers. She shrieks, folds herself smaller still, arms over her head, eyes closed. The smell of whisky goes up her nose, whisky and smoke, sweat and pubs. This is it. She has not got away with it. The punishment is now. She opens one eye. ‘Ted—’ His pink hand blurs in her face; she closes her eyes. Here it comes. A pressure on her forehead. The heel of his hand on her nose. ‘Ted—’ Holding her fast, he pushes her down, down under the water. The back of her head jams against the bottom of the bath. Her mouth and nostrils are under … under … under the water. Her arms flail, find his. Up again, out of the water. She gasps. Another splash, a white roar in her ears. His hand on her face. Underwater, underwater. Her nose … the heel of his hand on her nose … pain, so much pain. She can’t breathe. Her throat throbs. She gulps, chokes. She’s suffocating. She can’t move her … can’t move her head. She can’t … He’s too strong he’s too strong he’s too … The weight of Ted’s hand pushes, pushes on her face, pain in her nose, pain in the back of her head. Her own hands are loose in the water. The life is draining from her. The life is … Jim’s hand on her waist. I’m a car crash. You’re not … The kids … the kids standing by a hole in the ground, a coffin being lowered into the earth … It’s her in the coffin … The kids have no mother, they don’t understand, they’ll never understand … The kids, alone with Ted … She’s dead, she’s dead and she can never tell them she’d never leave them … never … Some woman, some other woman in their lives, never able to love them like she does … Her kids are walking away. Come back, she calls after them. They’re walking away. The beach is white sand. Their backs, their little hooded coats … They’re little again, they’re only small, they’re only children … I’m coming. She’s running. Wait. Hang on. She’s running … running after her children on the white sand. The sand sucks at her feet, won’t let her run, but she has to reach her kids … Wait. I’m coming. Mummy’s coming. Hang on. Hang on, I’m … The weight of Ted’s hand. Hands loose in the water. The weight, the weight … The weight lifts. She’s up, she’s out of the water. A gasp. Her own. Ted crashes against the door frame. He lurches, goes growling down the landing. She coughs. Grips the side of the bath. Not enough air – her mouth widens and sucks. Sucks. Filling her lungs. Gasping. Air. Air. Her head is light. It’s heavy. She rests it on the hard edge of the bath. Her nose throbs, the back of her head burns. She gathers up handfuls of foam and rubs her face. The smell of him is on her hands: cigarettes, whisky. Snivelling, she grabs the nailbrush. The nailbrush is in her hand. She stares at it. A crash from the stairs. The picture. He’s knocked it off the wall. The picture of the kids, smashed. ‘Fuck.’ Ted. His shambling steps quieter now. She listens, holds her breath, hears the creaking thud as he hits the settee. Forehead back on the side of the bath, she lets out a quiet, high wail. After a moment, she pulls her ragged bones out of the water, dries herself, throws on some clothes and ties back her wet hair. By the light of the bathroom, she scurries about. Into two sports bags, Graham’s rucksack, anything she can lay her hands on in the dark, she stuffs hers and the kids’ clothes. She creeps downstairs and puts the bags by the door. Ted is on the couch, snoring, on his back, mouth open. Her finger shivers in the dial as she calls a taxi: treble six treble nine. The dial tone is so loud, the number wheel crawls back from the nine so slowly she almost throws the whole lot at the wall. Into the handset she hisses her address, eyes fixed on Ted. ‘Ask him just to wait,’ she tells the cab lady. ‘Ask him to wait at the end of the drive, please. He mustn’t knock. Tell him to wait in the cab. We’ll be out. It might take us a few minutes, but we’ll be there.’ She cuts the line but doesn’t let go of the receiver. In the phone table are bills, scraps of paper and, bingo, the piece of card with a picture of a robin on a snowy branch. She turns it over, reads the number that Pauline gave her, makes the call she never thought she’d make. Back upstairs, she wakes Graham and switches on Nicky’s bedside lamp. He screws up his eyes against the dull amber light. ‘Graham, love. We’re going now. This is it.’ ‘What?’ He’s confused, still asleep, rubbing his eyes. ‘Your dad, love. We’re leaving him. Can you do it? Only it needs to be now. I need you to help me.’ Now he’s awake, awake and understanding everything. ‘Oh. Y-yeah. Y-yeah. OK.’ The sound of Nicky’s bed creaking, the sour-sweet smell of sleepy children. Nicky’s arms thread through the sleeves of her T-shirt, thin as strands of white wool. We’re going on a trip, Carol tells her. But it’s a secret trip. Nicola’s still half asleep. She’s only ten – doesn’t know if this is a dream or what. Ten. To be fleeing like this, to be homeless. Years later, when Carol thinks about this moment, she will wonder what she was thinking, what the hell she was thinking, and remember that she wasn’t thinking at all. There was no thought, only a kind of heat in her body, and this, this whispered, frantic movement in the fraught, electric darkness. She puts her finger to her lips, pulls the two of them into a huddle and shuts the bedroom door. Their eyes shine, their clothes lumpy over their pyjamas. She tries to keep her voice steady, to guide the ship of it over the roaring waves. ‘We mustn’t wake your dad. We can’t wake him, all right?’ They nod. Halfway down the stairs, they pass the broken picture frame. She turns and puts her finger to her lips again. ‘Shh.’ She widens her eyes at them, gesticulates for them to be careful of the smashed glass. Mouths clamped shut, they give tight little nods. On the next step down, Ted cries out – a half-eaten protest. Graham’s teeth are clenched. His eyelids flutter, hover, almost close. ‘Don’t …’ Ted shouts. The rest collapses away to nothing. Silence. There are eight more stairs to the front door. Then the catch. The catch will make a noise; she will have to tease it. The bags might knock against the door frame, the wall. They should leave them here and just go with what they have on. She can hear them all breathing in the dark. She can see them, as from above, halfway down the stairs. She makes a stop sign with her hand. Ted gives a loud snore. Another beat; he snores again. She looks back to the front door and waits for a third snore, to be sure. When it comes, she turns back to the kids. ‘OK,’ she mouths. She gives a thumbs-up and creeps ahead down the stairs. The latch makes a dull clunk as she pulls the lever. Her heart batters against her ribs. Sweat runs down the sides of her face. Slowly, slowly she pulls the door open and ushers the kids outside. For the last time, she glances at her husband, the father of her children. His jokes, his brown eyes, the lock of black hair that falls over one eye, his cocky way. His face red in hers, his spit in flecks on her cheek, his sickening words in her ears, the vice of his thick fingers on her arms, the unseen and sudden blow to the side of her head. His mouth is open. His leg hangs off the sofa. ‘Goodbye, Ted,’ she whispers, and closes the door. Ten Carol Huddled together in the taxi, stunned into silence, the kids stare out: round black eyes, knees pressed together. She has no right to drag them from their home. She has no right to ask them to stay. Through the dark, Graham smiles doubtfully at her and she knows then how worried he is, how scared. She should tell the driver to turn around and go back, she thinks. There was no time to tell Pauline. What on earth will she think when she gets back from her honeymoon? Will there even be a phone in this place? Is the place still a safe house? Of course it is. Of course. She’s just called them, hasn’t she? She realises she’s left the number at home and immediately a new cloud of panic mushrooms in her chest. Ted might find the number and trace it. He might … but no, no. Pauline is the only other person who would recognise that scrap of card. It was the only time Pauline ever let on about the bruises, about what she must have heard through the wall for years. ‘It’s one of them shelters.’ She bit her bottom lip, unable to meet Carol’s eyes. Carol didn’t know what to say; simply stared at the card and let Pauline babble on. ‘A safe house, like, a refuge. Where you go if … you know … if you need to, like.’ The figures went in and out of focus. ‘It’s not like you could come to ours,’ Pauline went on. ‘He wouldn’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes, would he? I mean, we’re next bloody door.’ She laughed, though she still wasn’t looking at Carol. ‘I took a copy of it myself. Never know, I might come with you.’ All Carol could think was: Pauline knows. Of course she did; always had. That was friendship, wasn’t it? All the things you knew about each other, both knew you knew, but never said in words. Eventually the cab slows, the gears surge. Nicola has fallen asleep against her brother. They’re driving through an estate, one Carol doesn’t recognise. A shudder and the cab stops outside a house. She peers out of the window. The refuge is just a house – after all that. Just a house in a row of other houses, all of them built around an area of grass with what looks like a community centre or a church. How daft she is. She was expecting an air-raid shelter or a World War Two bunker or something. ‘Here we are,’ the driver says, smiling at her in the rear-view. His eyes are brown, like Ted’s. Nicola stretches. ‘Are we there?’ ‘Yes, love.’ Carol ducks out of the cab and helps her drowsy, blinking children down. The cab driver’s dark, hairy forearm lies along the lowered window. He is humming softly. ‘How much?’ she asks. He waves his hand. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ‘Don’t be daft. How much?’ She meets his eyes, sees kindness. Pity. She takes out her purse, pulling out thirty pounds, all she has. He shakes his head. ‘Good luck to you, sweetheart, all right? God bless you.’ Before she can protest, he pulls away. She calls her thanks but he doesn’t hear. He’s reversing around the kerb, stopping now at a distance, making sure she gets in safe. There are good men in the world, she thinks. She knocks softly on the door. Within seconds, a pale woman with long, thin white-blonde hair and buck teeth answers. ‘Come in, come in,’ she whispers, reaches forward for their bags. Carol turns to see the cab drive away, a big black crow eating up breadcrumbs from the road, leaving no link between the house she’s left and the one she’s about to enter. She should get back. If she goes back now, Ted will never even know she’s been gone. ‘Come in, love, it’s cold.’ The woman’s accent is Northern, but Carol can’t pin it to anywhere specific. ‘I’m not sure I should …’ she begins. ‘I think I should …’ ‘Come in, love,’ the woman says for the third time. ‘Come on, out of the cold.’ Carol nods, steps into the house after her children. The woman tells them she’s Julie, the warden. She leads them upstairs. The carpet sinks under Carol’s shoes. Words run around in her head, words she’s trying out to make some sense of them, for herself, for the kids. Your dad isn’t well. We have to let your dad be on his own for a while. We had to leave while he was asleep because he would be too cross otherwise. Perhaps these shadowy truths will be enough, for now. ‘I won’t keep you talking,’ the warden whispers at the door of a room with a double bed and a put-me-up. ‘Try to sleep if you can and I’ll see you all in the morning, all right?’ Graham is quiet. Shell-shocked. Speaking is an effort for him at the best of times; no wonder silence is all he has just now. Nicky whispers constantly as Carol pulls the clothes from over her pyjamas. Is this a hotel? How long will we be here? When are we going back home? When is Daddy coming? Carol bats her off as best she can. There are no ready answers, nothing concrete, only sand, slipping away as she picks it up. I don’t know how long we’ll stay, love; we’ll have to see. This is a special place for women whose husbands aren’t well. Let’s wait until morning, eh? Sleep now. Night, night. They collapse, first in two beds, then one: three of them, holding on to each other. Refugees. Eleven Nicola 2019 From the mantelpiece I pick up a photo of my mother, Graham and me. My mother smiles doubtfully in the way she always did, as if she can’t trust her own happiness. It was taken on her sixtieth birthday, when we threw a party for her – a surprise; she would have panicked if we’d told her beforehand. It had to be held here, in her home – a posh hotel or restaurant would have had the same effect, plus she would have worried about the cost. I drain my glass and think about that party, my mother’s particular fragile happiness. I think about the night she left my father and try to imagine myself running out of my home in the dead of night with my two girls, not knowing what lies ahead, fearing for my life and for theirs. And for all that I have since dealt with women like my mother, with families like mine, I can’t imagine it, not really, or if I can, it is but that: imagination. It is not real, not for me. I am forty-four years old, and only in the sudden silence of grief, of a house left empty, do I even have an inkling of what she went through, what it might be like to have to do what she did just to survive. ‘Mum,’ I whisper to the smiling image. ‘Mum. What you … what you did.’ It’s half past two in the morning, and here I stand, tired and tipsy, wet-eyed and sadder than I thought it possible to be. And something else. Proud. Yes. I am so proud of her. My packet of tissues long used up, I pull from my pocket a few sheets of loo roll I must have torn off at some point. I think tea would be better than wine at this hour. I have so much to do and only a few days to do it – Monday’s case is a juvenile accused of assaulting a shopkeeper, whose leg was already broken from a fall, with his own crutch. The kid says he didn’t do it. The evidence is circumstantial. His acquittal is my job. I’m putting the kettle on when my mobile phone rings. It’s Graham. Awake then, like me. ‘Gray?’ ‘All right?’ That’s how Graham says hello, always has, always will. Such a Scouser; I tease him for it. ‘Can’t sleep,’ he says. ‘Nor me.’ I answer the bleeding obvious with the bleeding obvious. ‘Funeral was all right, wasn’t it?’ ‘Except for you making everyone cry with your speech.’ I hear him almost laugh. ‘No, you did a great job. She had such a lot of friends in the end, didn’t she?’ ‘She did, yeah.’ I hear the suck and blow of his lips on a cigarette. At least it’s only tobacco he’s addicted to these days. ‘What you up to?’ ‘Just … nothing. Looking through Mum’s things. I found Tommy’s handkerchief. You know, the one they used to bind Jim’s leg? And that got me thinking about … you know. That night.’ ‘Wh-what do you want to think about that for?’ The merest hesitation over the wh of what. I smile to myself. If you didn’t know him, you’d never know he stuttered as badly as he did. Neither of us says anything for a moment. We both know what happened after that wedding, how it changed all of our lives for ever, how it shaped us in such different ways. ‘Don’t know where to start,’ I say, changing the subject. ‘Or if I’m even supposed to touch anything.’ ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll come over tomorrow. I was going to come over anyway. There’s something … there’s some stuff I need to tell you.’ ‘Sounds ominous.’ ‘Ominous.’ He gives a derisive laugh. ‘Posh twat.’ He tells me he’ll come over at about nine in the morning. When he rings off, I realise that the hair is standing up on the back of my neck. Graham has always told me everything. Well, no, that’s not true. There were years when he told me nothing. And later, I would visit him and we would exchange only small talk. The polite distance of it used to make me cry in the car afterwards. We had been so close. I idolised him when we were kids. And when he told me not to visit him anymore, my heart broke. All our childhood confidences, our reliance on each other counted for nothing, it seemed, at that time. We were strangers. After he got out, I understood that, having killed a man, it was too difficult for him to talk to me, his little sister; that an actual stranger was what he needed to help him finally find the words. Part Two Twelve Richard Lancaster, 1992 Outside the prison, Richard sits in his mother’s car, listening to the volcanic rumbling of his guts. He should have eaten, but there was no food in the house. He could run into town and buy a sandwich, but no, he can’t risk being late, not on his first day. Instead, taking hold of the steering wheel, he bows his head and offers a short, silent prayer. Lord, give me the strength to help those you send to me today. Help me listen without judgement, help me to help them find their own way out of darkness. Amen. Outside, a grey stream of cobbles bubbles down from the castle, whose purpose these days is less to keep people out than to keep them in. In front of the gatehouse, framed by the windscreen of his mother’s old Ford Fiesta, clumps of people fidget, a motley tableau of tracksuits and cigarettes, hunched shoulders and screwed-up faces. On the bonnet of a rusted beige Astra, a cardboard tray of beer cans glistens with cellophane. In front of it, a man paces and smokes. Further down, a young woman in a tight skirt and high heels clutches an enormous bottle of champagne, the neck tied with pink ribbons that coil around her bony knuckles and fall away in shining ringlets. Thursday is release day. That’s right, Vivian did tell him over the phone, but there was so much to take in. He gets out of the car and locks it with care. The grass verge gleams with dew in the early-September sun. He hitches up his rucksack and clears the grass in one jump. Ahead, Lancaster Castle looms. Rugged squares of saw teeth crawl across the top. Slowly he moves towards it, thinking about how no one, given the choice, would want to enter here. But it’s too late to back out now. He knocks on the black gate, turns and casts a last glance over the waiting crowd. Their faces have brightened with hope. But he has nothing to offer them. In the internal courtyard, already the air feels thinner. ‘I’m Richard Crown,’ he says into the protective glass screen of the reception kiosk. ‘I’m here to see Vivian Wolff. I’m the new chaplain.’ ‘Morning, Father.’ A glimpse of spectacles. He leans in closer to the glass. The spectacles belong to a slim-faced woman with dark brown hair. ‘I’m not a priest,’ he says gently. ‘I’m just … y’know, ordinary.’ The woman says she’ll take him up to the office this first time, to show him the ropes. Under her close supervision, he unlocks the first of the gates, closes it after himself and locks it again. This process he repeats a further four times, raising his eyes more than once to the curls of barbed wire that loop along the tops of the fences. Metal is everywhere – spun, meshed and moulded; hard, pale and grey. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ She gives him a smile, for which he is grateful. He follows her across the courtyard. She tells him that the walls here are six feet thick; that there is a back entrance for high-profile cases so as to avoid the press and all that malarkey. A small square of sunlight shines in the bottom corner of the yard; a bird of prey glides overhead. Another door waits at the base of a tower. ‘This is B Wing,’ the woman says, gesturing at the door, which Richard unlocks with the last of the keys and heaves open. ‘The office is at the top of the stairs. Viv’s expecting you. Good luck.’ ‘Oh. Yes. Thank you so much.’ He closes the door behind him, locks it, checks that he’s done it correctly. The darkness is instantaneous. His eyes adjust, his nose twitching at the sour brew of trapped sweat, feet and hair. This, then, is the smell of enclosure, of institution. He wonders how long it will take him to get used to it; whether he ever will. There are four flights of stairs. He is glad of his evening jogs; his fitness means he doesn’t have to inhale too deeply. At each floor, the courtyard drops away, the square of sunlight shrinks. As the staircase darkens, Richard has the impression that he is not ascending but descending, into a basement. The door of the education office is open. Inside are two women – one blonde, the other with long black hair, a lone purple stripe flashing at the front – and a rather nondescript man with grey hair and glasses. Unsure how to call attention to himself, Richard hesitates. But then the blonde woman looks up, sees him and stands. ‘You must be Richard,’ she says, smiling. She is what his mother would have called comely, with a wench-like quality he finds reassuring. ‘I’m Viv. Nice to finally meet you. All set?’ ‘I think so.’ He is still at the door. ‘This is Richard Crown, folks. The new chaplain. He’s going to be here Thursdays and Fridays, aren’t you, love?’ Richard nods. ‘Come in, come in,’ continues Viv. ‘Richard, this is Frank, Bernadette.’ She holds him lightly at the elbow, giggling a little every time she speaks. Richard says hello. Hello, hello. He is glad of his beard, hopes it’s disguising the blush he can feel on his face and neck. Viv gives him a copy of a pamphlet entitled Clink. ‘That’s the prison newsletter.’ She hands him another note. ‘Then that’s an invite for Kevin’s leaving drinks next Tuesday. He teaches decorating but he’s moving to Chester.’ Richard tries to hold his face in a smile, and to look at no one in particular. He knows he will throw the invitation in the bin the moment he gets home, but there’s no need to say that. ‘Thank you,’ he says, and, ‘Great.’ On the desks and shelves are stained coffee mugs, overflowing pencil pots. Folders spew out sheets of paper. The musty smell of damp adds itself to the mix. Plaster bubbles on the walls. The wallpaper on the ceiling peels at the corners, as if at any moment it will come unstuck and fall on top of them all. The public sector, he thinks, crumbling; and then thinks of Andrew, who would have teased him for seeing the metaphor in everything. Really, though, how different this place would be if the rich ever found themselves at the bottom of society. Viv squeezes between two desks and rifles through a pigeonhole before sidling her way back and handing him another piece of paper: a short list of names. ‘It’s pretty relaxed,’ she says. ‘They put in an app to come to chapel; I think I said. Anyway, we give them the OK to get out of woodwork or maths or whatever it is. They might stay a few minutes, sometimes a lot longer, but if it gets towards lockdown, the guard will take them back. They’re unlocked at nine, so you’ll see them between ten and twelve, if they turn up, then they go back to their pads and are unlocked again at two for their afternoon sessions. They’re expecting a new chaplain, so they’ll be prepared.’ ‘Great.’ He scans the list, apprehension blooming in his chest. These are the men who will come to him for spiritual support, for guidance, or just to talk. He wonders how many, if any, he can lead into the light. * * * Viv shows him to the chapel. Up and down yet more stone steps. Men in matching grey jogging suits file along the corridors, close-cropped hair, tattooed forearms, subdued expressions. Richard keeps his smile as neutral as he can. Viv makes a quick detour to the cells – the pads, as she calls them – to let him have a look. When they reach the block, Richard feels his breath hold in his chest. On long landings, blue door after blue door stands open. It is, of course, recognisable from programmes he’s seen on television. But the stark reality of it takes him aback, the smell so strong here that it is only politeness that keeps him fro