He had been sitting in the chair opposite but now he got up and moved to the sofa, beside her. She looked troubled for a second, but remained quite still.
‘There’s … I suppose a long version. And a short version.’
‘Whichever you like. Start with the short one?’
‘All right.’ She drank her wine. He looked at her hand on the glass and wanted to touch it, though only to reassure her, or so he told himself. But he did not.
‘Ken has Parkinson’s disease. He’s had it for six years now and it’s a vile illness. It takes everything away little by little … dignity mainly. That’s the worst. He could go out, even now, but he won’t – he hasn’t for a long time, because he feels ashamed. He hates the way it has made him look and sound. God knows he’s no need to be ashamed or embarrassed, though he’s every right to be angry. He has changed, you know? He is the same man but – not the same. I barely know him. So I feel ashamed of that. There, you have it.’ She looked away. ‘We’ve been married for nine years so there were barely three before … Ken is much older than me … so, you see …’
He did. He saw everything and took in what it meant.
‘If I didn’t go out to that sort of thing occasionally – like the banquet – it’s not often, you know?’ She looked up at him, as if she needed reassurance or even his permission. ‘I need it. I have to be myself somewhere, to be me. Just me. God, how selfish is that?’
‘Why? I don’t see that at all. Does … your husband …’ He couldn’t say what he meant.
‘I told you – he likes me to go instead of him, he says he likes to think of me at these things … but he likes my company too, a lot of the time. Someone comes in when I’m not there … he has a rota of carers – they’re pretty good but he can’t talk to them. It’s not the same.’
She finished her wine and set the glass down but did not look at him.
‘Can I ask something?’ he said. ‘You don’t have to answer.’
‘But I’ll try.’
‘You must sit next to all sorts of people at these functions.’
‘God, isn’t that an awful word?’
‘Sorry. I’ll never say it again. Now you’ve stopped me in my tracks.’
She was laughing. ‘Perhaps I know what you were going to say.’
‘You were going to ask if … if this was something I’d done before. Met a person by chance and then wanted to meet them again, not by chance. And did it. Met them. That’s what you were going to ask me, weren’t you?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve never done it before. Absolutely not. I can’t imagine how it would ever happen.’
‘But it did.’
‘Would you like another drink?’
‘Thank you. Lime and soda now.’
At the bar, he wondered how long they had, when she had to leave, when they could meet next, where they could meet … He was light-headed.
When he returned she was sitting very still again. She glanced up.
‘You did believe me? About meeting people. I couldn’t bear you to think –’
‘I don’t.’ He put his hand over hers.
‘I shouldn’t be here,’ she said.
The drinks came.
‘You haven’t eaten any of those.’
‘Nor have you.’
He took one. Put it down again.
‘But you are here. We are.’
‘Yes. I … I don’t understand what happened, Simon. I told myself all the way that I wasn’t coming here to meet you … all the way. Turning off the road, up the drive … I wasn’t coming.’
‘Listen, it’s easy for me. I’m a free agent – in case you were wondering about that. There’s just me.’
She flushed slightly. ‘I found out. Asked people. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that but I had to know.’
‘I’m glad you didn’t turn round.’
‘Can we have dinner?’
‘No. I have to get back.’
‘But not straight away. Please?’
‘No. Tell me. Tell me about Simon.’
‘No. We talked about that. I mean Simon. Not his job. You are not your job.’
‘I sometimes think I am. A lot of the time. I have to be.’
‘And the rest of the time? Tell me about that.’
He told her, told her more than he had ever told anyone, told her not only about now, Cat and the children, his father, Judith, his flat, his drawing, but about the past, his mother, Martha, Chris, and then childhood, things he had almost forgotten but which bubbled to the surface as he spoke, leaning his head against the sofa back, looking at her sometimes, and sometimes away. He could not believe how much he told her and how she listened, very still, listened as he did not know anyone could, quiet, attentive, relaxed next to him, saying nothing though sometimes she smiled.
Other people came into the bar.
‘Please have dinner with me. I won’t talk about myself any more.’
‘But I’d like you to.’
‘Meaning you will?’
‘I’ll … need to make a phone call.’
He wished he could have a second vodka. She had gone out of the bar to ring home and he waited with dread that she would return and say no, she had to leave. Or else not return at all but simply drive off and avoid him, and his calls and messages in future.
He did not dare think of any future, nothing beyond the next few minutes, the next hour. The intensity of his feelings bewildered him. He had known fun and diversion and pleasure and – and what? Affection. Yes. Desire, of course. But not this. This was unrecognisable to him and yet he barely knew her.
There was some laughter from a group at the other end of the room. The chink of glasses. He did not dare to look at the door.
She would not have dinner with him. She would not be able to or want to. What did she feel? Anything like this? Of course not. How could she?
But she had felt something. She had returned his calls. Come here. She needn’t have done so. But she needed diversions. She had told him so. A diversion. God knows, he had had enough of them but he knew quite surely that this was not one.
‘It’s fine,’ she said.
She was standing in front of him, but not smiling. She looked anxious again.
‘Sit down. I’ll go and ask if they can give us a table.’
He touched her arm lightly as he went. She jumped.
‘Rachel,’ he said, ‘it’s all right. This is all right.’
It was. If nothing else happened, if they never saw one another again, there was this and it was all right.
A time out of time, sitting at a corner table, troubled by no one, not noticed. They ate. Talked. Fell silent. He put his hand over hers and she left it there.
‘Everybody else seems to have gone,’ she said sometime later. The room was quiet. A waiter was hovering in the corner, folding napkins. Simon had no idea of the time.
Her car was on the other side of the drive from his and he took her hand as they walked to it.
‘When will I see you?’
‘Simon, I don’t know … Leave it.’
‘I mean, leave it for me to work out … leave me to get in touch.’
‘But will you?’
She looked at him but he could not see the colour of her eyes properly here. He wanted to take her back into the hotel.
‘You know I will.’
He hesitated then put his hands on her shoulders. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes. Yes.’
He kissed her once, lightly, waited until she had got into the car. Closed the door for her.
They said nothing more to one another, she simply smiled at him again and drove away.
It was only ten fifteen. He wanted to talk to someone, tell someone what had happened, what he was feeling, ask for an explanation, ask for – he supposed he meant help. Cat.
No. No, for the second time.
He accelerated the Audi through the lanes. It was a quiet night. There was a thin paring of moon. Many stars. No traffic. A horse whinnied as he pulled into a gateway to check if she had already left him a message.
Five minutes later, having turned the car inside out, he realised he had left his phone at home. He was off duty but while he was working on a case like the present one, a message might come in at any time with some vital bit of information. How had he forgotten his phone, for God’s sake? He had never forgotten his phone before now, never once.
He had never been meeting Rachel before.
‘Si? What happened? Presume it’s work but you could have let me know.’
Cat. Supper. And he had completely forgotten that too. Something else he had never done before. He had had to cancel enough times because of work but never failed to call or send a quick text.
He rang the station first but there was no one in the CID office and the duty sergeant was not aware of anyone trying to contact him. Then Cat. It rang four times. ‘Hello, this is Dr Deerbon. If you leave a message I’ll return your call when I can. The surgery number is …’
He put the receiver down. She would be in bed, probably reading, but not wanting to answer the phone, probably furious with him. Rightly.
He went into the kitchen to find a beer, changed his mind and poured a whisky. Rachel’s number was on the pad. When had he written that?
His phone was ringing.
Silence for long enough for him to say it again.
‘I … I wanted to say thank you. For dinner. Sorry, it’s very late. I shouldn’t have rung.’
‘I’m glad you did.’
‘Is it OK?’
‘Of course. I was having a drink.’
‘What? Tell me – no, let me guess.’
‘No, but warm.’
She laughed. ‘Scotch then.’
‘Nothing like it.’
‘It’s good to hear you. Was it all OK – when you got home?’
‘Yes. Yes, fine. The carers are very good – nice man, this one. Jon. He’s the only one who – he talks a bit. Politics, business … and he and Ken play chess. So it was fine.’
‘I’m glad. Rachel? I want to see you again.’
She was silent.
‘Just a drink … that’s possible, isn’t it?’
‘Simon … leave it to me? Please. I’ll ring you.’
‘Soon. Can it be soon?’
‘I have to go. Thank you again.’
But she had put the phone down.
He rang Cat again.
‘Hey, sorry, sorry about tonight … stuff, you know, and then I lost my bloody phone. Listen … can I come over tomorrow? Cup of tea? Feel free to kick my arse. Night.’
He lay awake, on his back, his hands behind his head. He could see the starless night sky. In his job, tiredness was a serious enemy, muddying thought and blunting judgement. He always urged his teams to go home and get proper sleep or they would be no use to anyone.
He had met her just twice, for heaven’s sake.
Rachel. He closed his eyes and saw her.
Opened them. Saw her.
He got up and went to the kitchen, poured some water, stood in the half-dark, drinking it.
Rachel Wyatt. Married to a much older man who had an illness which was ravaging him, slowly eating away his life and most of his pleasure in it, which was probably terminal, but not yet, perhaps not for years. He should ask Cat.
Cat, who was angry with him and rightly so, but who would be fine, forgive him, shrug it off as ever. He could ask her tomorrow. Today. Sunday.
How could he think like this? Wish a man dead? Of course he was not wishing a man dead.
Then what was he doing? He mustn’t lie to himself. He had been looking forward to a time when Rachel’s husband was dead. Come on, tell the truth. Madness. Wickedness. But the truth.
What did he expect Cat to tell him, that it could take months, years? That she did not know? That there were so many variables? All of that.
The phone woke him at seven. Ben. There had been two calls, from people who said they thought they recognised the second girl.
‘There’s no one in CID yet, guv, but I thought you’d want to know. One doesn’t sound like anything but the other might be.’
‘I’ll have them both.’
‘OK. You got a pen?’
He drank a quick, strong coffee and went out. The Cathedral Close was quiet, but the bell was ringing for the first service as he set off on his run, through the archway and down towards the canal. He preferred to go further into the country, but pounding the towpath would have to do this morning. It was deserted, a thin mist wreathing above the dark water.
To the beat of his running he heard Rachel’s name, but after a mile or so, he began to think not only of her but of Chris. He did think of Chris often, tried to remember him as he once was, not as he had been the last time he had visited, just before he had died. Now, Chris was almost present, as if they were running together as they had often done.
Chris. Healthy, full of life, not even middle-aged, Chris, with a loving marriage and three children he adored, Chris, who worked so hard for his patients and got so much out of every day. Chris, dead, of a devastating tumour of the brain which had so quickly depleted him and everything that had made him Chris.
It had only taken a few months.
Rachel had a husband who had been dying for years, was still dying, and his illness was taking everything away from him too, only more slowly, eking out a half-life and taking life away from Rachel at the same time.
He ran faster because he was angry. He was angry in a way that surprised him, a cop, used to all the tricks of death, the whole array of lives cut short and other lives ruined in the process. He had always said that being angry somewhere inside himself was what kept him sharp, kept him wanting to do the job, and that was true. The anger spurred him on – it spurred them all on, made them determined, got the results. Now, though, he was unsure of where the anger was directed. Life? Mortality? The unfairness?