Burleigh Hall. It was like a coin dropping into a slot. It was a long time since he had been there.
‘If you’d still like to meet …’
‘Yes. I would, yes.’
‘That’s good. Do you know Burleigh Hall?’
‘I think so.’
‘About three miles from Starly, going west. You drop down the long hill and after about a mile there’s the sign. Turn left and that’s the long drive up to the hotel.’
‘There’s a quiet bar on the first floor. Or there was when I was last there. Rachel?’
‘But if you’d rather not, just say.’
‘No. No, I wouldn’t rather not …’
‘Maybe when you see me you won’t feel the same.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No. Nor do I.’ He hesitated. ‘Is it OK?’
‘Yes. It’s good. Good feeling.’
‘I’ll see you soon.’
Good feeling. It was.
OLIVE DRUMMED HER heels on the floor and when Lenny bent into the van for the third time to try and coax her to get out, Olive spat, first at the windscreen, then at Lenny.
For the past week she had refused to stay in one room but wandered about the cottage like a lost soul, from room to room, upstairs and down, and when Lenny had locked and bolted the front and back doors she had kicked them.
She would not, or could not, wash herself and, when Lenny tried, she beat her fists. But then, once or twice, she had suddenly gone limp and quiet and crumpled to the floor whimpering and so Lenny had managed to get her clean.
Dressing and undressing were battles, and she had to be fed with a spoon but at the last minute would turn her head sharply or push it away so that food spattered everywhere.
She followed her. In the end Lenny could no longer stand it. She had shut Olive in the back bedroom which had a lock and key. It gave her half an hour’s respite but then the banging and shouting and crying started up again.
Lenny hardly ate, hardly slept. She looked at herself in the mirror and saw an old, sour-faced, withered woman and hated what Olive had done to her. Hated Olive.
And now she wondered if someone else might have to come and drag her from the van. But then, miraculously, Olive looked at Lenny and stretched out both her hands, meekly, and Lenny took them. Olive looked round but without interest or expression on her face. Just looked, holding Lenny’s hand.
The woman’s voice made Olive turn, and as she turned, she smiled and dropped Lenny’s hand.
‘I’m Moira Fison, the Sister here. Would you like to come and see the house?’
What was it? The pleasant, warm voice, the gentleness of expression, the way she spoke to Olive as if she was … was not …
‘Don’t worry about the bags and so on, someone will bring those.’
It was like arriving at a hotel. A tall young man in an overall was walking towards them and the Sister was indicating the old van. ‘Miss Mills is in room 4, Andy.’
It smelled of new paint and carpet. The last place had smelled of urine and synthetic air freshener. It was quiet and seemed empty but very soft music played. Lighter Mozart. Lenny wondered if Olive would recognise it. She had come to hate music. When Lenny played the piano she made a droning noise, louder and louder and louder, until she had to stop.
They were going up the wide staircase, treading softly on the new carpet, Olive still holding the Sister’s hand and looking at her occasionally, smiling.
Unfair. Unjust. Unkind. She had loved her and looked after her and helped her for twenty-seven years, and now, she was the one Olive kicked and spat upon and railed against and fought, and this woman she had met two minutes ago was allowed to hold her hand and lead her up the stairs, this woman was smiled at and trusted.
In the room, the bright, cheerful, comfortable room that smelled of the same new paint, new carpet, and had a window onto the garden, Olive sat on the bed and smiled, but not at Lenny. Smiled at the new woman and held out her hands and the woman took them. Lenny did not understand how this could happen, this instant trust, how Olive could simply abandon her and turn to a stranger and smile, hold out her hands, become calm.
She went over to the bed and touched Olive on the arm. I’m still here. I’m here. Look at me, look at me.
Olive bent her head swiftly and bit Lenny on the wrist.
The Sister took Lenny downstairs, washed her wrist and sluiced it with disinfectant, covered it with a dressing.
‘This is what happens,’ Lenny said, still angry, ‘this is what she does. She’ll do it to you too, she isn’t always docile.’
‘I understand. Is that comfortable?’
‘Then let’s go into the sitting room and have a cup of tea. Dr Fison – my husband – will come to meet you too. We can talk everything over.’
The sitting room was bright, with yellow curtains and sunny sofa covers. Pictures. Nice antique sideboard. Piano. Nice room.
‘There are only two other residents at the moment. But in any case we are never going to have more than eight or nine. So Miss Mills will have a lot of attention – nobody is going to be left sitting in a chair staring into space.’
‘She quite likes to sit in a chair. She’s not easy with food now. She was always interested. She cooked. Far better cook than me. Now she doesn’t want to eat.’
‘Miss Wilcox, we can’t put the clock back and we haven’t a cure but we can do a lot to stimulate and help everyone individually through each bit of the day … time doesn’t mean anything to them but there can be advantages in that.’
‘I didn’t notice any. She gets very restless. She wakes in the night.’
‘Please don’t worry. We can deal with difficult situations. It’s always easier for people outside rather than … family.’ She looked at Lenny. ‘No emotional involvement, no memories of how they were before it started. People come to us and we start there. We take them as they are. It helps. We have no expectations.’
‘Just as well.’ Lenny stood up. Said, ‘Payments. The direct debit is all set up. Can I visit?’
‘Of course you can visit ! Whenever you like. There’s a guest room if you want to stay. Just let us know the previous day.’
‘I won’t need that.’
‘She’s in good hands.’
You would say that, Lenny thought. You have to say that.
It was a relief to get out of the place, get away from the new paint and the new carpet and the emptiness.
Her hand hurt. Let Olive bite them for a bit.
She drove the van home as badly as ever.
But it was too quiet. She had grown used to Olive’s presence – for it could not be called company now – the restless movements in and out of each room, up and down stairs, the abrupt fits of laughter, the sudden wails or shrieks or bursts of tears. The rages.
Lenny made tea and took it into the music room. The furniture seemed to settle as she closed the door. The piano lid creaked faintly. She took out Schumann, played a few bars, but they sounded hollow in the room and she realised she was still half listening out for Olive, for sounds that meant distress or anger or accident.
She took down one of the albums that stood in a matching line, dark blue backs arranged edge to edge.
Devon. Provence. Corfu. London.
Sunshine. Blue sea. Famous buildings. But mainly, Olive. Olive swimming. Olive in a small boat, waving. Olive on the Rialto Bridge. Olive on Exmoor wearing a headscarf. Olive holding her hand up against the sun. Lenny had taken them. Olive didn’t like using the camera, she fidgeted about and claimed that she couldn’t see properly through the viewfinder, didn’t know which button to press. There were just a few without Olive.
Lenny turned the pages, remembering this place or that, the weather, the small hotel, the smells, the taste of the food. Had they been happy? Lenny no longer knew.
They had not been so young by then, but not old either. 1984. They had met the year before that but things had moved quite slowly. Olive had been cautious. Lenny would have preferred to plunge ahead, incautiously, preferred to be reckless in those days.
She knew where reckless could lead.
Olive, close up, sitting on a pebble beach with her legs stretched out, face turned to the camera lens. Lenny could not read her expression but perhaps she was about to ask a question – or just to say something. Talk. Olive talked, asked, told, described, rarely waiting for a reply. It was like a small child chattering and it was one of the things Lenny had found lovable about her at the beginning. She was not used to someone who talked as she breathed. It was when the talking had begun to wind down, when there were long silences, when a sentence would stop and never be completed, another one started, about something different, unrelated to what had gone before.
The silences had grown longer. The forgetfulness become serious. ‘What time is it?’
‘Ten past three.’
‘Thanks. What time is it?’
‘Ten past …’
Lenny set the album down, open at the page on which Olive sat on the pebble beach. When had it all changed? What had happened? She knew the answers. But not why. Never why. Only that the Olive she had first met, first loved, first lived with, had vanished.
It was getting dark but she did not put on the light or return to the piano. The cottage was quiet. Once they had had an affectionate dog. Once.
It occurred to her that she could have one again. Her own dog. She could have what she wanted. Do as she liked. For two years she had had a feeling that everything was temporary. That the care homes would find it too difficult to cope and that Olive would come back to her. And Olive had. Only of course it was not Olive. Olive had gone.
However, the moment Lenny had walked into Maytree House she had known. This was not temporary, this was not another of the places that could not cope. This was where Olive would stay, living and dying.
Lenny could have a dog now. Or two.
The house was quiet. Too quiet.
In the quietness, she remembered things she wanted to forget.
HE BRUSHED HIS blond hair back and it flopped onto his forehead again and he remembered being fifteen or sixteen years old and trying to plaster it down. Now there was gel, of course, but now he didn’t care, since this woman or that had told him they liked it as it was, flopping forward. But Rachel was not one of those women.
The Burleigh was an old manor house with a stylish modern extension at the back. In Simon’s experience, there were two kinds of floodlights on hotels or pubs – cheap garish orange, and designer silver-white, like this one, but this one also had a touch of warmth which enticed you in, up the shallow flight of stone steps and into the hall. Pillars. Deep sofas and chairs arranged in corners. Lamps. Heavy curtains, drawn together. A small reception table, not a corporate desk. The office was out of sight. Flag stones. Rugs. It was much smarter than he remembered, obviously refurbished.
But the library bar was still there, up the stairs to the right. More discreet lamps. Dark green velvet sofas.
Rachel sitting on one, in the far corner. He looked at her for several seconds before she saw him. She sat quite still, not flipping through a magazine, not fidgeting, not putting her hand to her hair, not turning round. Just sitting.
Maybe when you see me you won’t feel the same.
He felt the same, and yet it was not the same, because what he felt now was far more and it disturbed him so much he had an overwhelming fear that he would panic and run. He ought to walk away, this was the last moment in which he could make the decision, before he became quite unable to choose. He ought to leave now.
She looked up and straight at him. And then he could not leave.
‘Hello.’ She did not put out her hand or stand up. He saw that her expression was not as tranquil as it had seemed from a few yards away. She was very pale. Her eyes were the colour he remembered, the same deep violet, but anxious.
‘Let me get you a drink. What would you like?’
‘Anything. Lime and soda?’
‘You could have one real drink. I shall.’
‘Is that all right?’
‘Yes. We can always have coffee afterwards if you’re worried. But one is fine.’
‘A small glass of white wine then, please.’
He touched her shoulder briefly. ‘It’s all right,’ he said.
He had a single vodka, chose a good Sancerre for her. Asked for something better to eat than nuts and olives.
The drinks came first. Heavy glasses, a separate bowl of ice. Then the small tray of canapés. Good canapés.
Then silence. Rachel was looking down. He wanted to say everything and could say nothing. Drank.
‘That was – very strange. The Lord Lieutenant’s dinner … banquet,’ she said. ‘I know what you were doing there. Your job – you had to go instead of …’
‘But what was I doing there? I still don’t know. We were asked but of course Kenneth couldn’t …’ She stopped and looked down.
‘Go on,’ he said, after a moment. ‘If you want to. Only if you want to.’
‘I don’t know if you want to hear.’
She looked at him. What is this? he thought.
‘The thing is … Ken would like to have gone … of course he would. He used to enjoy all those things, dinners, public stuff, and now he can’t, so he likes me to go and then come home and tell him everything about it. I suppose it’s the next best thing to being there.’
‘You paint the picture.’
She hesitated. ‘Some of it anyway.’
‘I’ve been to other things … dull dinners, the theatre occasionally, opera … I‘m not very good at opera. I like ballet but it never seems to be the ballet. Then I go home and paint the picture for him. I suppose that sounds strange.’
‘Not in the least. It sounds good. A good thing to do. Will you tell me about him? About home. No, probably you’d prefer not to.’
And he didn’t know if he wanted to hear it.
Yes, he did know. He wanted the man not to exist. But he wanted to hear her talk so that he could look at her and listen to her and feel whatever it was he was feeling. It was important. Not small talk. Non-talk. False talk.