They ordered a large dish of antipasti. The wine came. Bottles of water. Chunks of fresh bread. The bowl of deep green olive oil.
Simon waited. The restaurant was busy, as always, but at this table they could talk without being overheard, they had a space to themselves. The candlelight reflected in the window.
I want to be here with Rachel, he thought. I have to bring her here tomorrow or the next day, somehow I have to seal things by bringing her here.
Would she come back to the flat? It was not a question he had ever needed to ask. He had always decided if women he knew were invited there or not. It was not automatic, but if he did ask them, it had never occurred to him that they might say no. None ever had.
Judith drank some wine before she said, ‘It’s easier here. You know I’ve never been a tearful person – I don’t mean I’ve never cried – of course I have – but not very often in front of other people.’
‘You mean you want to cry now?’
‘I don’t want to. I’m afraid I might.’
Her hand was on the table and he put his own over it for a moment, as much to steady himself as her. He had had a moment of sudden chill.
They were silent as the platter of antipasti was set down.
‘Not often comfort food is also such good food,’ she said. ‘It’s all right, darling, don’t look so stricken, I’m not about to announce a divorce.’
‘Now that’s a relief.’
‘Did you really think …?’
‘For a second.’
She shook her head. ‘I love Richard. I do love him very much. I love him in quite a different way from the way I loved Don – when I married Don, I was twenty-two, he was the first man I ever looked at seriously, and we had over thirty years and two children together. Of course it’s different.’
‘I’m coming to the conclusion that’s always true. All love is different.’
‘In a sense. But something happened and it’s shifted the ground on which our marriage stands. That’s your phone.’
He went outside to take the call. It was a mild evening and there were people strolling down through the Lanes, couples, groups of the young, two girls pushing bikes. It was a world into which nothing harmful should intrude.
‘Guv? Woman on the special line. Wants to talk to you. Wouldn’t tell me any more. Sounded agitated. Said she’d seen the recon. Hung up.’
‘You got a number?’
‘No, trying to trace the call. But she’s going to ring again later tonight.’
‘Did she say when?’
‘No. Could be any time.’
‘OK – listen, I’m eating out. If she calls again ask her if she’ll ring back at ten o’clock tonight. I’ll be home. Put her through to my landline. And keep tracing. Anything else?’
‘A few other calls, nothing that sounds up to much.’
As he turned to go back into the restaurant the phone rang again.
‘Simon? Paula Devenish. Any chance you could come and see me tomorrow morning?’
‘Of course. How are you?’
‘Stir-crazy, but threatened with dire consequences if I set foot in a police station. Half past ten?’
‘I got them to hold back our main course but they’ll bring it now. Unless you have to go?’
‘No. All in hand.’
Her halibut and his fegato alla veneziana arrived with a flourish. Simon topped up her glass. He looked directly at her as she drank.
‘So. You should tell me,’ he said.
‘Yes.’ Judith flushed slightly, not with the wine. ‘Right. You know how your father can be – he says something, apparently out of the blue, though it rarely is. I’ve learned that he will have been brooding about it for hours – days sometimes. The more significant the thing, the more he is inclined to drop it from a great height. It can make him seem insensitive.’
‘He is insensitive.’
‘No, Simon, he isn’t. I know how it is between you two and I wouldn’t dare to tell you that you don’t know him, or that you are wrong about him. The man you have known since you were born is the man you know in a way only you can – well, you and the other two. But I know him pretty well now, and the point is, I know him differently. I haven’t the childhood baggage and that makes for a clearer view.’
‘Whatever. But now he’s said something which has clearly upset you. Doesn’t sound sensitive to me.’
‘He isn’t good at timing. I‘d just had a long phone conversation with Vivien, who keeps going from one unhappy relationship to the next, and right after that, one with Emma – you know, she has the new bookshop? – and she appears to be doing exactly the same.’
An image of Emma flashed into Simon’s mind. He’d found her attractive – but not very. And that had been before Rachel. Emma? He couldn’t even remember her last name.
Judith was looking down at her plate.
‘So I was feeling a bit battered. He must have known – he must have heard me. I came off the phone and put the dish of lamb chops on the table and he said, “Martha’s death wasn’t natural, you know. I can’t remember if I’ve told you this. Her mother took the decision that Martha’s life was no life.”’ She spoke so quietly that Simon had to lean forward to catch every word. ‘He told me that you knew.’
‘Yes.’ He finished half his glass of wine in one go, before he could trust himself to say anything and his hand shook as he did so. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I knew.’
‘But I can’t believe he told you.’
‘Well, I’m his wife now, aren’t I? Maybe it’s as simple as that.’
‘If that’s the case, why didn’t he tell you before now? Why not even before you were married to him? Had you been talking about Martha?’
‘No. He never talks about her. Simon, your father has barely so much as mentioned her name in all the time I’ve known him. I don’t know why he came out with what he did, let alone at that particular moment or in that way, but I know I wish he hadn’t. I so wish that. He should never, ever have said any of it. That should have remained something between him and Meriel. But not me. It’s a family matter in which I have no part and I shouldn’t be made to have one.’
He knew she meant it. She had never attempted to discover things about their past nor felt that she had any right to be told them. So far as Judith was concerned, her life in the Serrailler family began with her marriage to his father. It was one of the things that, once he understood it, had brought him round to liking and respecting her – albeit late in the day.
‘What did you say to him?’
‘I was very angry. I have never been so angry. I couldn’t sit down at the table and eat with him, I had to go out … I just stood there in the dark, I didn’t know when I might be able to go back into the house and face him.’
‘When did you?’
‘I don’t know – it must have been half an hour. It was a long time. I walked around … I was shaking so much … I couldn’t think. The worst part was when I went back – he’d eaten supper by himself, he’d cleared away and gone off into his study. I went to bed … I was trying to read but not taking in a word. I knew we’d have to talk but I couldn’t face it that night. I just turned over and pretended to be asleep. That old one.’
‘Did he try to wake you?’
‘He got up and made the tea – just brought the tray up as usual, and the newspaper. And …’ She looked at him.
‘And,’ Simon said, ‘he carried on as if nothing had happened.’
‘Jesus, don’t I know that one. I know every word of the script. God knows it was played out often enough at home. I don’t know how my mother stood it. I couldn’t, nor could Ivo. It’s what my father did time after time – dropped something in the middle of a perfectly pleasant normal occasion, breakfast or Sunday lunch or when everyone was in the garden, anything, so long as we were all together and happy. And bang. Crump. The sound of a bomb going off, scattering everyone, shaking us up, horrifying us … you see? You see what he’s like? I thought you’d changed things.’
‘Yes,’ Judith said. ‘I thought I had too.’
‘Have you talked to him about it since?’
‘No. I can’t. For the first time, I don’t know how, I don’t know where I could possibly begin.’
They finished the bottle of prosecco, had coffee. Several tables emptied, other people came in to fill them. Judith turned the conversation, asking a few questions about the Lowther case, then about Sam, who had been in detention twice at school recently.
‘And that’s not like him.’
‘Bad work or bad behaviour?’ Simon asked.
‘Behaviour. He works hard. But Cat has enough on her plate at the moment, she doesn’t need this.’
‘I‘d better have a word with him. Try and dig a bit.’
‘He likes going walking with you.’
‘I’ll drive up to Wales with him, stay overnight in a B & B, climb. Trouble is, I don’t know when.’
Judith stirred her coffee. She did not ask the question but it was in the air between them. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to answer, to talk about Rachel at all. He had never felt himself to be on such ground before, so important, so uncertain.
‘Darling, you have to go home and take a call, I am dropping with good food and wine and tiredness, so if you would walk me to the taxi rank …’
‘When is Dad back?’
‘Tomorrow. I want a long sleep and a good lie-in tomorrow morning while I do some thinking.’
‘Are you going to talk to him?’
‘About Martha? No. But I need to think about it – or rather, about why he told me and what he might have been expecting to come out of it. What he thought my reaction was going to be. I just don’t know. I don’t understand and that makes me feel …’
‘Not so much unhappy as – bewildered, I suppose. I thought I knew where I was. I don’t. Insecure is more the word. And I shouldn’t feel that, not by now.’
Walking along towards the cab rank, Simon felt another surge of anger towards his father. ‘He doesn’t bloody well know what he’s got,’ he said, ‘he doesn’t know how lucky he is and he doesn’t deserve you. Listen –’ he opened the taxi door, but put his other hand on Judith’s arm – ‘listen, don’t let him bully you. He bullied us, he bullied my mother. I won’t have him doing it to you, Judith. Neither Cat nor I will. We care about you.’
She kissed him and got quickly into the cab without saying anything else. In spite of her best efforts to conceal it from him, he saw that she was crying.
The call came seconds after he had sprinted up the stairs.
‘Serrailler.’ There was a silence. ‘Simon Serrailler here. You’ve been put through directly to me and no one else is on the line.’
‘How can I help? Do you have some information about Harriet Lowther?’
‘Listen, I’m on my own and nobody else can hear this.’
Which was not true. The call was being recorded.
‘If you don’t talk to me I can’t help you.’
He waited. She was there, he knew. She hadn’t replaced the receiver. But it was another thirty seconds or more before she said, ‘Hello?’
‘Hello. This is DCS Simon Serrailler.’
‘I don’t want to give my name.’
‘That’s fine. But please understand that if you don’t it makes it harder for us. I’m trying to solve a serious crime. I need you to give me any information you may have about this, and I might need to get back to you. That’s hard if you won’t even tell me your name. Listen – this is a murder investigation. I am trying to catch a killer who is still out there, after sixteen years. A murderer.’
He heard the slight reaction to the word as he emphasised it but then there was a silence again.
‘It’s my job to find this murderer, and I will, but it isn’t easy and every bit of information, every tiny detail and snippet, might be the vital bit that links things together. So if you have anything to tell me, however small or apparently irrelevant it is, then please tell me. If it isn’t important and it doesn’t lead anywhere, how can that matter? It can’t. But what if it is? You don’t know. It’s my job to decide, my job to follow it up. You’ll have done your bit. Only, if you don’t tell me, and it does turn out to be the one missing piece I need – how would you feel? Can you live with that? Now – please talk to me. Will you talk to me?’
There was a small sigh and then the woman said, ‘It’s probably nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing. But … well, like you just said.’
‘Yes. I‘d rather hear about nothing than miss something important. What’s worrying you?’
‘The television programme …’
‘They showed that day – well, they made it look like that day.’
‘The reconstruction, yes. You saw it?’
‘Yes, I was watching – I was actually in the middle of watching the programme when he – when Steve came in. My husband came in. He started watching it … we watched about ten minutes, I suppose, but then that bit of the programme came on … about the girl. The reconstruction part. And he … he just behaved … well, it was odd. I don’t know. It is nothing, isn’t it?’
‘Just go on telling me what happened, Mrs …?’
‘Mrs Foster. Will you tell me your first name?’
‘I didn’t mean to say it.’
‘Mrs what Foster?’
She sighed. ‘Noeline. Born on Christmas Day of course.’
‘Did your husband say anything while he was watching the programme?’
‘No. He just got up, and changed chairs, then he seemed – I don’t know – fidgety. He picked up the paper to look at what was on the other channels … he found the remote and flicked over but then he went back and sat watching really … really intently, you know? As if he was afraid to miss any of it. He sort of – leaned forward as well. I’ve never seen him do that.’