He believed it.
He had closed his eyes. Now he opened them and looked around his room, drawing from its calm order. Then he stood up, twisted this way and that a few times, and went to fetch himself a whisky. He was spending the evening in, alone, watching a documentary about Italy and reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin. It was time he desperately needed, time he had been looking forward to, limited enough for him to relish every moment. He wanted to go through his sketchbooks of his spring break in the Faroes where he had gulped in lungfuls of crystal-cold air and walked among seabirds and grass-roofed houses and felt both invigorated and deeply peaceful. He had an exhibition next year, half of which would be of these drawings, the rest of portraits, many of his mother. He wanted to sift through them, place them in perfect order which would take a long, careful time.
He stretched out on the sofa. It was not only time which he did not have. He needed a calm emotional sea and he could not see when he might get one.
His brother-in-law had a brain tumour. Simon knew enough to be aware that his chances were slim. He was very fond of Chris, he would find it hard if he were not around, but it was his sister he had most in his mind and in his heart. Her future, with three young children and a stressful job but without her beloved husband, was unimaginable. She would need Simon. He would need to have strength and time and love for all of them. There was no one else.
The cathedral bells started up. Simon went to the window and looked down on the close.
Not true, a voice niggled, not true and you know it. There is Dad. And now there is Dad and Judith.
She is a nice woman, the voice niggled. She is warm and kind and seemingly straightforward and she will do your father a power of good. What possible reason is there for your being so antagonistic towards her? None.
While work was muddied and turbulent, while Chris was ill and very probably dying, and Judith was in his mother’s place, he could settle to nothing here, could not take pleasure from his drawing and planning his next exhibition, could not relax and simply be.
The phone rang.
She was crying.
“I’ll come,” Simon said.
It was another mild night, another day had stretched out the long decline of summer even further. The close was empty, the bells ringing on through the evening. Simon stood for a moment listening. He was neither musical nor spiritual—he left that to Cat. She did music and God for both of them, she had once said. But he thought about Chris, facing a horrible illness, and a horrible treatment and very possibly a horrible death, and his thoughts were as close to prayer as he ever came.
If a SIFT case came up now and looked like taking him away from Lafferton for any length of time, he decided that he would ask to be left out. He was needed here, not halfway across the country after an elusive and anonymous murderer, though if he wanted one of those, he didn’t have far to look.
As he sped through the narrow town streets, his mobile rang. He ignored it. Right now Cat came first.
“Jamie, be quiet and go to sleep.”
He was a good sleeper. If he hadn’t been, Bethan Doyle would have gone off her head. He woke before six but in any case they had to be ready to leave the house at seven so it didn’t matter. She walked to the nursery, then caught the bus to Bevham to be there at eight. Mornings were death but she’d rather that than depend on Foster, rather be independent, rather have no money. Not that she had much money now by the time she’d paid for the nursery and her rent. But she was her own woman. And if her wedding-dress business took off she might even give up the day job.
Jamie wailed. She closed the door and switched on Corrie but the wails came through the wall. There wasn’t anything wrong with him.
The television wailed too, the Corrie signature tune, drowning him out for a minute. Bethan went into the kitchen and switched on the kettle, but when she came out, Jamie’s cries were so loud that next door were banging.
She went into the dark bedroom. His cot was in one corner, her bed in the other. Poky little room. She suddenly wanted to throw things around, she hated the pokiness so much. And the street it was in and the people next door and the rest of them all round. She was on the council list but they’d only offered her on the roughest estate in Bevham and she wanted to stay here. Lafferton was a step up and it was away from Foster. When the time came the schools were decent. If she could get a job here so she didn’t have to fork out for fares, it would be even better.
She had plans. It all took so long but she did have plans. Jamie hadn’t been planned, far from it, but he was here so the plans had to be for them both. Children grew up, it wasn’t forever. Her plan was to go to the college, do dress design and business studies and move from sewing at home to opening a wedding shop. Already her ads had brought in some work. She had a beautiful beaded dress on the go now. If she could just go out there and shout at all the girls as easily led by boys as she had been. If she could force them to see. But she’d make it. She was sure.
She pushed Jamie’s damp hair back from his forehead. It was close in the room. That was probably why he couldn’t get off.
Bethan drew the curtains back and opened the window a notch. A warm breeze blew in, ruffling Jamie’s blanket, which hung on the end of his cot, and making him laugh. Blowing in the smell of chips too.
She could have killed for a packet of hot fish and chips but that was another thing you didn’t know about, how you were completely stuck, tied to them. Some mothers would have left their babies, run out to the chip shop a couple of blocks away. Some would stay out for a drink as well. Some would leave two or three kids together with an older one supposedly responsible enough to look out for them, aged all of ten or eleven.
The smell of chips was taunting her.
“Jamie, lie down. Come on, it’s night, it’s sleep time. Lie down.”
He had been on his knees but now he pulled himself up and held out his arms to her, a big fat smile on his face.
“Jamie, come on, lie down. Look, here’s Mousey.”
There was a ring at the bell. Jamie began to bounce up and down waving Mousey with one hand, holding onto the end of the cot with the other.
She wouldn’t go. It would be someone collecting or selling or just kids. Kids were a pain but she didn’t blame them. They were bored.
Jamie was still standing up and now he was banging on the side of the cot. Sometimes he banged his head there which woke her up. That was worrying. Why would he bang his head so hard it must hurt? She had mentioned it to the doctor when she had taken him for his jabs but the doctor hadn’t seemed interested, just shrugged and said, “They do it sometimes. One of mine did it.” Bang bang bang.
Then the bloody bell again.
She left the bedroom door open so that Jamie could hear her. If she closed it he would bang his head and shake the cot bars even more.
The chain was across the door. She was always careful, locked the windows at night, kept the chain on whenever she was in by herself, which was usually.
She shifted the Yale and opened the door the short distance until the chain tightened.
She didn’t let the chain off, just put her head out a bit further.
The noise of the shot made Jamie sit down suddenly in the cot. He stared through the bars, to where his mother had been standing in the hall and was now lying there, and then he began to scream.
He screamed for a long time. The front door had been pushed shut and his mother still lay. Jamie banged on the cot bars. No one came. After a time, he sat and looked at his feet, then he crawled across and reached for Mousey and lay down pressing the toy to his face. He shouted once or twice, but Mousey was there, soft and comforting, and at last he fell asleep. The hall light stayed on and after a while it rained in through the open bed room window onto the sill. The child stirred and woke and tried to get under the blanket but sleep came over him again.
He woke twice, and once he stood up and banged the cot, first with his fists then with his head. He banged for a long time. His mother still lay on the floor and would not come to him and the light stayed on. The rain was heavier now, soaking the curtain.
In the end, the darkness thinned to grey and the child fell across the cot and slept, Mousey beneath his body. He slept past six o’clock and seven, and did not wake until after eight. But nothing was different. The rain beat on the windows and the light was still on and his mother still lay on the floor in the hall and the child began to cry quietly now, realising the point less ness of shouting and banging the cot, hungry and dirty and cold.
But still nothing happened. Nothing changed. No one came and his mother did not get up.
Jane Fitzroy drove slowly up the long drive between the rows of swaying poplars whose leaves lay in soft golden heaps on the grass. The convent buildings had not yet come into view. There were just the mown fields on either side, and the trees of the park. The trees, of course, had grown and been cut down and others planted and matured, but in the same places, so that the parkland could not have changed much since the eighteenth century when it was laid out. The main house and a hundred or so acres had been bestowed on the abbey fifty years later and was theirs in perpetuity. Which in itself was a worry, Jane had found out within a short time of arriving there. Once there had been 120 nuns in the community. Even thirty years ago there had been over seventy. Now there were twenty-two and more than half of them well into their eighties. New postulants arrived occasionally and a few made their vows and remained. But, in ten years, there would not be enough nuns to justify the upkeep of the house and grounds. There probably were not enough now but they had a generous benefactor. When she died, no one knew what would happen to the abbey or the nuns.
Jane stopped the car and got out and the amazing silence washed over her. There was a ripple of sound from the breeze in the poplar branches and a slight rustle as it shifted the piles of leaves, but otherwise, nothing. Silence. The most astonishing, palpable silence she had ever known. It filled her with a sense of calm now, as it had done every day of the six months she had spent here. The silence had become part of her for that time, had lodged inside her, and something of it had remained for her to draw on even after she had left. Now, as she breathed it in and let it fill her again, she felt that she was topping up her inner store, to see her through the next few months. If it had only been a question of simply living with this silence, she would be here still.
It was ten past eleven. The abbey would be at work. She got back in her car, drove up to the side of the building, parked and wandered back into the grounds. No one was about. Deer grazed in the distance. A squirrel raced up a tree trunk and peered down at her. Jane walked on, to the oak with the bench around its base where she had sat so many times, reading, thinking, saying the office. And struggling with herself. Now it felt pleasant to sit here free of the struggle, decision made. It had been painful and messy but she knew now that however happy she was to be back as a visitor she had been right to leave.
Life had been a confusion of plans made and unmade, sadness and above all restlessness—for over two years, she realised now. It had begun when she’d gone to Lafferton, which had turned out to be the wrong place for her in some senses, the right in others. But in Lafferton things had been frightening and unsettled. She had been naïve, she had antagonised some people, not given others a chance. Even before she had been ordained as a priest she was fascinated by the monastic ideal, had read extensively about it in the past and present and some part of her longed for the cloister. She had come to the abbey in an emotionally vulnerable and fragmented state and her time here had given her healing and a measure of peace. It had restored her to herself, put many things into perspective and, in a strange way, helped her to finish whatever growing up she had had to do. She had been content and the time had been satisfying and absorbing. But from the first week, although she had clung to her dreams, and known that she was gaining a great deal from this place and the people in it, she had also known that the life was not for her. Not permanently. The reality, she saw now, was not so much too rarefied as too mundane, and what had unsettled her most had been the claustrophobia of living with a small group of other women in confined circumstances. Because the convent routine was utterly confining, in spite of the house being huge and the park and gardens being free and available, Jane had missed the outside world. She realised she had romanticised monasticism and mistaken her own capacity to live it. The truth had come as a shock and a lesson in humility. She had been ashamed and crestfallen, but the other nuns had treated her with admirable and exceptional kindness and common sense. “You’re not the first and you won’t be the last,” the abbess had said. Sister Catherine was a realist.
Jane got up and wandered back and entered the paddock where the chickens were pecking about the grass around their wooden coops. There was the sound of a machine. She went through the gate. The last runner beans had been harvested. One of the sisters, wearing boots and ear-muffs, habit carefully tucked up, was going over a large strip of ground with a rotavator. Jane watched until she reached the far end, turned expertly and came towards her, glanced up and then began to wave madly. The nun stopped the machine. There was a rich smell of freshly dug soil.
“Jane! I’d have known that hair anywhere! How lovely to see you. Have you come to stay? Have you come for lunch?” Sister Thomas opened her arms and wrapped Jane in a warm hug, then held her at arm’s length, smiling. “You look so well. The world suits you. You’d grown peaky in here, you know, and look at you now. No one told me you were coming. Look, when you left I was sowing and now we’ve harvested almost everything and I’m turning the ground for the autumn broad beans and the sprouts are well on. Come on up to the house, does the abbess know you’re here, she’ll be thrilled, everyone will be pleased to see you and looking so well, the world suits you, did I say that? Yes, well it’s true and we miss you but I think it was for the best, looking at you now, Jane, you were needed elsewhere. Tell me now, where are you, what have you been up to?”
Sister Thomas, kind-hearted and enthusiastic, had always chattered nineteen to the dozen during the periods when they were not in silence, as if everything was pent up in her for hours and came pouring out when the stopper was removed. Others spoke little at any time, as if they had forgotten how to, had lost words, so locked were they in their world of silence and contemplation.
All nuns were allowed to speak freely to visitors at any time. Hospitality and making guests feel at ease came first. It was a civilised rule. A lot of what was here at the abbey Jane had found far more civilised than she had expected. It was one of the things she missed, this and the habitual, mutual courtesy and consideration. Here, people automatically put others first. It was a way of life. The contrast with the outside world was brutal. Most of the nuns, who had not been beyond the abbey walls since their first admittance, would not survive outside. The abbess went out. She knew exactly what the world was like and was remark ably unfazed by it. But then, the abbess was an exceptional woman.