There’s always a last. He stopped at the door to his own residential block and looked round. Last working day. Last time he’d clean a garden fork. Last eyeball-to-eyeball with Hickley. Last warm boiled egg with beetroot and potato. Last game of pool. Last night on the bed. Last. Last. Last.
His stomach churned momentarily as the giddy thought of the outside world came to him again. He had been there, first on shopping trips with a screw, then on the greengrocery run, delivering, but it wasn’t the same, he knew that. Open prison began to loosen your shackles bit by bit but you still had them, you still belonged inside and not out, you were still conditioned by where you ate and slept, the company you kept, your past, the reason you were there.
Your body might be allowed out, but your mind stayed behind, your mind could not, dared not, take it in.
He unlocked his door. The late-afternoon sun touched the mushroom-coloured wall making it look even dingier. The whole place needed painting. They must have tried quite hard to start with, someone had probably been proud of themselves for their efforts to make it look as little like a prison cell as possible, and the public areas more youth club or office block. Now, though, everything needed recovering, repainting, refurbishing, replacing and never seemed scheduled to get it.
Last time, last time, last time. Out of here. Out …
Andy opened the window. He remembered the first few days and how he couldn’t get used to that little thing, being able to open his own window when he wanted to. He’d kept on doing it, opening and closing the window, opening and closing it.
He leaned out. Tomorrow, this room would belong to someone else. Another man moved from closed to open prison would do it all over again. Open the window. Close it. Open it. Close it, over and over. Tomorrow.
There was a bang on the door and Spike Jones was in the room before Andy had time to call out. Spike was OK.
‘They’re getting up a five-a-side.’
‘Anyway, I’ve handed in me boots.’
‘Right. You taking Kylie Minogue?’
Spike laughed, picking up the rolled-up poster which was propped against the cupboard. He wouldn’t be leaving Birley for another ten months. He’d always had his eye on that picture.
‘You ent brooding?’
Brooding. Andy turned back to the open window. Brooding. No. That had been at the start, in the first days and weeks at Stackton, when he hadn’t known day from night and thought his mind was going. Brooding. He hadn’t done that since coming here and getting out into the market garden. He wasn’t about to take it up again.
The evening passed, like all the rest of them, and he was glad of that. He wouldn’t have wanted anything to be different. He ate in the canteen, stood outside with a couple of the others watching the floodlit five-a-side, having a roll-up, went back in and played pool for an hour. At ten he was in his room, watching The West Wing.
He woke confused and sweating out of a nightmare. Security lights round the perimeter meant that it was never completely dark. It was just after three.
Then the shock of what was going to happen hit him again and he was terrified so that his stomach clenched and his throat felt tight. Four and a half years of prison life, of learning to conform, putting on a front, keeping his own real self so concealed that now he scarcely knew who that self was, of routine, of rules, of learning, and of every emotion there was played out, four and a half years swinging from rage to despair to acceptance to hope and back again. In five hours the four and a half years would be over. In five hours he would be out there. In five hours this room, this place would be nothing to him and, even more, he would be nothing to any of it. History. His name off the registers, his face forgotten.
Andy Gunton lay on his back. If it was like this after four and a half years of a sentence, how was it for the ones who came out after fifteen or more? Did they feel this sudden wash of panic at the thought of being without walls, without props, without the deadening routine which after a short time became the only thing you clung to for safety?
He remembered the first week at Stackton. He had been twenty. He’d known nothing. The stench of the place and the racket, the dead faces and suspicious eyes, the need he had had not so much to break out or run away but simply to vanish, to dissolve, the droning snores of Joey Butler, his first cellmate, that he never got used to, never slept through deeply enough, the red scaly patches on his skin which erupted in eczema after a couple of nights on the prison mattress and did not properly heal until he had come here – all of it came back to him, he lived through it all again, lying awake looking at the dull glow of the lights on the wall. They said it did one of two things to you. It took your soul away so that you never belonged to yourself again, you belonged in prisons for ever after and just went on doing whatever it took to get back there, or it scared the lights out of you, changed you, chewed you up and spat you out. Cured you.
He had been cured from the moment he had handed in his own clothes and put on the prison uniform. He could have been let out then. It had worked. He wasn’t coming back.
How could he have dreamed he would feel like this, four and a half years on, terrified to go, clinging to the familiar, half longing to be told of a mistake, that he had another term to serve, that this room would be his tomorrow night after all?
He went on staring at the light on the wall until it began to change and soften to pale grey as the dawn came up.
Simon Serrailler had slept deeply and woke to the sound of the cathedral clock ringing eight. The flat, the perfect space he had created with such loving care for himself, was cool and silent, filled with the bland light of a March morning. He pulled on his dressing gown and padded into the long sitting room, curtainless and tranquil with its polished elm floor, books, piano, pictures. The light was not blinking on the telephone answering machine. No one had rung to tell him his sister was dead.
He filled the grinder with coffee beans and the filter with water. In half an hour the first cars would pull into the spaces at the front and the sound of the early arrivals at work echo up the stairs. The rest of this Georgian building had long been converted into offices for various Diocesan organisations and a couple of solicitors. Simon’s was the only residential flat. He had usually left for the station by eight and was not often home until after seven, so he rarely met anyone else – during the day the building had a life of its own, about which he knew little. It suited him, self-contained and private as he was, content in his orderly space. He relished his job, had enjoyed almost every day of his life in the police force, but his refuge here was essential to him.
Now, mug of coffee in hand, he went to three of his own drawings framed and hanging on the wall to the right of the tall windows. He had done them on his last visit to Venice and he saw at once that they were better than anything he had produced during the previous few days there. He had not worked so well for a long time, unsettled as he had been by the events of the previous year. The murder of Freya Graffham had hit him hard and not only because the death of a fellow officer was always a blow from which it was tough to recover. No, he said, and went briskly back to the kitchen for more coffee. Don’t go there, not again. He dressed in jeans and sweatshirt and took the canvas satchel he used to hold his drawing things. The offices were opening, voices came through half-open doors, kettles boiled in cubby-holes. Strange, Simon thought. The building felt different, no longer his. Strange. Strange to be wearing jeans instead of a suit on a weekday morning, strange to be here instead of overlooking a back canal in Venice. Strange and disorientating.
He drove fast out of Lafferton.
The hospital might have been a different place too. He had difficulty finding a parking space, the foyer streamed with people on their way to outpatient appointments, porters pushing wheelchairs, gangs of medical students, flower deliverers, two women setting up a charity stall. Down here the smell of antiseptic was barely detectable.
The lift was full, the wards were noisy. Somewhere, someone dropped a bucket and swore. But in Martha’s room, nothing had changed. The monitors blipped on, the fluorescent green wavelets rippled across the screens, the liquid in the plastic bag above her head drip-dripped. At first he thought that his sister looked the same but when he went closer, it seemed to Simon that the colour of her skin had darkened slightly. Her hair was damp, her eyelids tender as the soft skins of mushrooms.
He wondered, as he always did when he saw her again, how much went on in her mind, what she recognised and understood, whether she thought and if so how deeply. That she felt he was in no doubt. Her feelings had always moved him for she expressed them as a baby, crying and laughing as readily and absorbedly, ceasing as quickly, though he had never found it easy to make out what might have stimulated her emotion or whether the response was to something external or inside herself.
Her handicap so affected her features that it was hard to detect any family resemblance there but to Simon that only made her more completely, uniquely herself.
He pulled the chair up close to her bed.
He was too absorbed in his drawing to notice the door opening. He wanted to catch the spirit of his sister by freeing her, on paper, from the medical apparatus that surrounded her and as he looked at the hairs on her head, the curve of her nostril beneath the wide nose, and the eyelashes, like the hairs of a fine paintbrush on her cheek, he saw that she was beautiful, as a child is beautiful, because neither time nor experience had in any way marked her face. Drawing her eyelids with the finest pencil lines, he almost held his breath.
‘Oh, darling …’ The front of her hair glittered with raindrops. ‘Cat told me you’d come back.’
They looked at the still, oddly flattened figure on the bed.
‘You mustn’t be.’
‘Every time I come in through that door I feel torn in two,’ Meriel Serrailler said. ‘Afraid she will be dead. Hoping she will be dead. Praying but I don’t know who to or for what.’ She bent now and brushed her lips against Martha’s forehead.
Simon pulled the chair back for her.
‘You were drawing her.’
‘I’ve been meaning to for a long time.’
‘Poor little girl. Have the doctors been in yet?’
‘Not this morning. I spoke to Sister Blake last night. And Chris was here.’
‘It’s hopeless either way. But none of them will say so.’
He put his hand on his mother’s arm but she did not turn to him. She sounded, as she always did when she spoke about Martha, cool, detached, professional. The warmth in her voice, familiar to the rest of them, seemed absent. Simon was not deceived. He knew that she loved Martha as much as any of her children but with an entirely different kind of love.
His drawing lay on the bedcover. Meriel picked it up.
‘Strange,’ she said. ‘Beauty but no character.’ Then she turned to face him. ‘And you?’ She looked at him with disconcerting directness. Her eyes were Cat’s and Ivo’s eyes, very round, very dark, not his own blue ones. She waited, still and quite composed. Simon picked up the drawing and began to cover it with a sheet of protective film.
‘I wish your father hadn’t rung you. You needed a holiday.’
‘I’ll get another. I’m going for a cup of tea. Shall I bring you some?’
But his mother shook her head. At the door Simon glanced round and saw that she was stroking her daughter’s hair gently back from her face.
‘Come over here … have lunch with me.’
‘I’m going to Hylam Peak … it’s a good walking day. I’ll get a pub lunch.’
‘I’ll ring you later.’
Simon put the phone down. His sister knew him too well. Brooding? Yes. When he felt like this he was not good company, he needed to put distance between himself and home and, as Cat herself had once said, walk the brooding out of his system. It was everything – having to break off his time in Venice, Martha, and still the hangover from last year. The following Wednesday he would be back at work. He needed to brood now.
Hylam Peak was one of a chain of hills that ran thirty miles to the west of Lafferton, approached by a twisting road that climbed across open moorland. A few damp villages huddled in the shadows of the steep dips between the peaks. In summer the tracks were bright with slow-moving trains of walkers, climbers hung like spiders from ropes attached to the rocky outcrops. These peaks were Bevham’s playground. People got out of the city to fly kites and microlights, hang-glide and race mountain bikes.
For the rest of the year, especially in bad weather, no one came. Simon liked it best on days like this, when he could sit at the top of Hylam Peak among the cries of the sheep and the soaring buzzards and look across three counties, draw, think, even sleep on the dry patchy grass, and speak to no one.
He wondered how people survived in families and crowded places of work, buses, trains, busy streets day in, day out, without a solitary escape to wild empty places.
He was the only one in the roughly fenced-off area that served as a car park. He took out his canvas satchel, immobilised the steering wheel and zapped down the locks. Nothing at all was left in the car apart from an old rug and neither radio nor CD player was fitted. The park might be deserted now but places like this were easy targets for thieves whatever the season.
An hour and a half later, he sat alone on the rock slab at the summit of the Peak. The March sun chased shadows like hares across the landscape below him. The air was clear and filled with the melancholy bleating of hundreds of the native long-fleeced sheep scattered over the hills.
He felt idle. He had been up here times without number and drawn the peaks and the cloudscapes over them as well as the sheep in every season, every weather until, at least for now, there was nothing left for him to put his pencil to.
Brooding, Cat had said. But now that he was up here he felt light-headed in the cool spring air and he did not brood. The sun was on his face. He rolled on to his back and crossed his hands behind his head. A single lark spiralled up into the blue sky and higher, to the whiteness beyond.
Its trail of song was sliced into and drowned by the judder of a helicopter and its shadow fell across Simon’s face, blotting out the sun. He sat up, shocked. The thing was skimming the peaks in a whirl of metal blades. He saw its undercarriage, so close he might have reached up his hand to touch it and as he watched it cross the valley, going east, he could make out the outline of two of the figures inside. It was neither the air ambulance nor a police helicopter but, so far as he could tell, a private one.