“Si, one end of the curtain pole in our room has come down, can you sort it?”
He followed them up. Sam had gone quiet.
“I feel as if I’m climbing the north face of the Eiger,” Cat said.
“I know about that, you see the north face—”
“Save it, Sam.”
“Oh. That’s quite a lot of things we have to discuss tomorrow, there’s the possibility of an earth tremor, the structural weakness of fairground rides, the …”
“Relative steepness of a flight of stairs versus the north face of the Eiger. Scoot into the blue bathroom, I’ve put all our stuff in there.”
“Oh pooh, I like the big bathroom best, can’t I use that, I always did when Granny was here and I know it’s Grandpa and Judith’s bathroom now but they won’t mind and …”
“Sam, I’ve had enough. I’m exhausted and I need my bed. Bathroom. Go!”
As he was lifting the end of the curtain pole, Simon glanced at the double bed where Chris lay, curled on his side. His scalp looked raw. The hair had been shaved and there was a long line of sutures curving across his head.
“He’ll be like this till nine or so. He’s on some pretty knockout stuff.”
His brother-in-law looked different, Simon thought, and not only because of his head. He seemed to be far away in another place. Simon looked away.
“Poor Dad,” Cat said. “Too much to cope with.”
“Dad? Christ, he’s not the one you should worry about.”
“Oh, sorry, yes. Broken leg. Nasty that.”
“She was bloody lucky. Sam’s right. They were both bloody lucky.”
“I dare say she’ll be well looked after here, dressing gown behind the bathroom door and all.”
“You’re an A1 shit sometimes. I don’t know you as a brother when you come out with things like that. I can’t deal with you now but don’t even think of saying anything to Dad. Oh, get out.”
He felt as he had felt as a small boy, tempted to say something, knowing it should not be said, unable to stop himself. Something goaded him on. Of course he should not have said what he did, not now, not to Cat. Not ever. But from the moment Sam had mentioned the bathroom he had known that he would. The goad had pricked and pricked away.
He went downstairs, furious with himself.
“In here with the decanter.”
He went into the study where Richard had stirred the remains of the fire together and was sitting beside it. He looked younger, Simon thought, seeing him as he went in, not suddenly older, which was the way he should have seemed now, but suddenly younger.
“I’d better get back actually, they’re bound to call me and I’ve got to be in for a press conference first thing.”
His father glanced round. “You know best.”
Nothing more. If he had said, no, stay, I want to talk to you, we don’t see enough of one another, we don’t talk enough … No. He wouldn’t stay, not now.
As he turned the car, he saw the study light go out.
In the flat, the answering machine flashed. Simon waited for the cathedral clock to finish striking before listening.
“You have two new messages. First message.”
“Duty Sergeant Lewis, guv. Report that the fire service have recovered another two bodies from the wreckage of the fairground ride. Also, the Chief is bringing the press conference forward to half eight. Thank you.”
There was a pause. A breath.
“Oh—Simon. Hello. This is Jane. Jane Fitzroy. I’ve just been listening to the news. I didn’t think you’d be at home, obviously, but … I just wanted to say how awful. And my prayers and thoughts are with everyone. So, well … that’s all and I’ll … I’ll catch you sometime. And it’s Jane. If you didn’t hear that. Thanks. Goodnight, Simon.”
He laughed as he rode. He went the back way, not through the town but on a four-mile detour, so that he approached the road out towards the Moor from the far side. Had to. No risks. No one knew him out here. And he laughed. Sometimes he grinned. Sometimes he smiled. But mostly he laughed aloud.
It had been good. Better than good. There they had all been, dressed up and nowhere to go and they’d been waiting for him, expecting him. Had they? Had they seriously thought he would have shot a kid’s water pistol at the fair? He hadn’t so much as tried the shooting range though he’d walked past it and watched a couple of times, watched idiots who couldn’t have shot a barn door at ten feet. Didn’t matter. He’d enjoyed it. So had they.
What had it cost and all to catch a sniper who was never going to shoot? That wasn’t his way, ripping off into a crowd at random. People who were mad did that and he despised them. Youths in America who walked into a schoolyard and gunned down a dozen innocent kids, college boys who turned on their classmates with a machine gun. They were sick. They were crazy. They needed locking up for life, only they rarely saw the day out, they turned the gun on themselves. Almost always. Which was one thing he was never going to do because he was not sick, not crazy, not a weirdo, not high on drugs. He had a purpose, he had plans and targets and methods. He was different.
It had been good to know he could be at the fair and be certain, absolutely certain, that nothing was going to happen. He laughed.
But then as he accelerated on a straight bit of road, he remembered that eight people were dead and dozens injured because of some moron. He heard the screams again. He heard the shouts for help deep inside the collapsed ride. That sort of carnage was what deranged youths who rushed into churches and baseball stadiums and school classrooms caused. The electric chair was all they were fit for and he despised them for shooting themselves and taking the easy way out.
All the same. He smiled again, remembering.
He had timed it right today. It was cold and bright, no haze, no wind. Clear. He parked the bike out of sight in a dip, took his bag off the back and walked the rest of the way, up the steep slope. At the top he turned and looked out over the countryside. A pair of buzzards soared high, wings open flat and stiff like the paddles of windmills. The distant town was a faint smoky blue line. He thought he could fly himself from here, just open his arms, lift off and soar on the current of air.
He opened the bag and took out the roll-up tin and tobacco. Papers. Licked. Rolled. Struck the match. The smell of the smoke and the taste of the cigarette was like nothing else. Smoking in the open air. Eating something cooked in the open air. Nothing like it.
He never smoked indoors.
He lay on his back and blew a smoke ring at the sky. He thought about nothing, but he felt and his feeling was a diffused warmth and satisfaction which filled his mind and his body. He was happy. Things were going well. He was good at planning, and it showed. It was idiots who tried to do this sort of thing without a plan, opportunists who came unstuck because they had not thought of every possible error. Leave nothing to chance. He didn’t.
It was good to lie here knowing that every time he carried out a part of his plan he was doing it because Alison had made him. He was not a violent person. He didn’t need some sort of stupid revenge. That was for losers. But what Alison had done to him had caused all of this. Alison was responsible. If the time ever came for him to talk about it, that would be what he would say and he would give details, chapter and verse, so that it was absolutely clear. If he were ever caught …
He sat up. He took the roll-up out of his mouth and smiled. Laughed. Laughed and laughed and laughed.
He put the cigarette out carefully and picked up his bag.
It was beautiful inside the spinney. The light came sifting down through the trees and onto the fallen leaves, though there had not yet been one of the autumn gales to strip the bulk of them off. He knew the spot. Nothing had changed.
He opened the bag, took out the small white-painted cans and set them up in a row on the fallen tree. Then he went back thirty paces, carrying the bag.
A minute later he was lying on his stomach, carefully poised. The white cans were bright in the sun.
He levelled. Waited.
Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!
Got up and replaced the cans and paced back again. Forty strides this time. The leaves made a soft crunching sound as he lay down. A conker in its prickly bright green ball was beside his hand. He smiled.
Levelled the gun again. The cans were smiling back at him. Beautiful. White.
Statistics was the only class on Monday. They were out at half eleven.
“Coming into town?”
Tom hesitated, standing beside his Yamaha.
“Cheer you up, man, you need it. Look at you. Listen, your mum’s going to be fine.”
“Right then, so, what? Leave the bike, come into town. You got any cash?”
Tom shrugged. He had cash. At the hospital his mother had made him take twenty quid out of her bag. He had been going to say no when Phil had appeared and asked him if he was all right for money. Bloody cheek. Tom had taken the twenty-pound note and left without answering. What was it to do with Russell?
“Where do you want to go?”
He knew what it was. Luke had always looked out for him, since they were in juniors. The only problem now was Luke had a tendency to rib him about the Jesus Gang. When he’d been at the camp in the summer Luke kept sending him filthy texts. Thing was, they were very, very funny. But three nights ago, it had been Luke who’d rung him, Luke who’d fetched him, Luke’s dad who’d driven him to the hospital and waited and then taken him back to theirs, Luke’s mum who’d fed him and handed him a clean cloth to cry into when it had all hit him. And hugged him. They’d all hugged him. He hadn’t known then if she would be alive or dead the next morning.
Rattlers was in a back street near the bus station and did pie and peas, pie and chips, pie and mash, pie and eggs. It was small and greasy and permanently full.
“You God-bothering this weekend?” Luke asked as they got mugs of tea and ordered food.
“Don’t call it that.”
Luke gave him a shove and grinned. They hung about by the counter waiting for a couple of workmen to leave their table.
“Didn’t notice God round on Saturday night. Maybe off duty?”
“Yeah, well, my mum might have died.”
“Right, she got spared, the other eight didn’t.”
Luke elbowed his way to the table before someone ahead of them in the queue.
Tom sat down and stared out of the window onto the graffiti sprayed on the wall of the bus station. BRING BACK HANIGN.
“Your mum going to marry that Russell bloke?”
“Be OK. He’s OK.”
“It wouldn’t and he isn’t. He’s weird.”
“Does make you wonder.”
“What sort of teacher goes Internet dating.”
Tom flushed. “Who said that?”
“No. No, I never did. I’ve never told anyone about that.”
“Right. I dunno then. Didn’t know it was a secret. Jesse Cole said Mr Russell told them.”
“Phil told Jesse’s class?”
Their food arrived. Luke stabbed a knife point into the pastry to release a plume of steam. “No big deal,” he said.
“Yes it is. It makes her look weird as well and she isn’t.”
“I know she isn’t. Everybody knows she isn’t. What’s it matter? What do your Jesus lot think then?”
Tom bent his head. He didn’t answer. He never did. That was his. And private.
“Anyway, you’ll be off, doing this Bible-bashing course, won’t make any difference to you, will it? When you get back what do you do with it?”
“This Bible-bashing thing.”
“You going to stand on street corners and that? Come and be saved?”
Tom flicked a pea across the table into Luke’s face.
“Right.” Luke flicked a pea expertly back.
When they came into the street, stuffed full, Tom said, “I hate him.”
“You can’t say that.”
“You can go to hell for hatred.”
“I would,” Tom said. “I’d even go to hell.”
Luke glanced at him. He means it, he thought. He hates him and he bloody means it.
At home, Tom made himself more tea and found a slab of milk chocolate at the back of the fridge. He stood at the kitchen window, biting a chunk of chocolate and then slurping hot tea and sloshing the two around his mouth together. He thought about his feelings with both shame and a certain amount of interest. He had never hated anyone, as far as he could remember. He had hated things. The cancer that had killed his father, for instance, but that had felt like a righteous and pure kind of hate. If he thought about it enough he could conjure up that hatred even now and it was like a clean burning flame, straight and steady. What he felt for Mr Russell was messier. A dirty, dingy sort of hate. It was mixed up with too many other things. His father again. Anger. Confusion. A small-boy jealousy. Dislike of Mr Russell’s brand of atheism, which scored intellectual points and sneered and jested and talked clever. He could demolish arguments so comprehensively that Tom felt inept and a failure because he couldn’t defend his beliefs and speak out convincingly for what he knew as Truth. But what he did most was worry. He knew that it was his responsibility to bring his mother and sister to Jesus, to save them, and he had failed.
He stopped himself. NO. Failed so far, not failed period. When he got to the States and to the Bible college he would learn the way to succeed and when he got back he would begin again. He couldn’t bear the idea of them being outside in the darkness of ignorance, condemned. But he knew what might happen while he was away. He’d seen them together. Lizzie thought it would. Lizzie thought it was a brilliant idea, make sure Mum wasn’t on her own once the two of them had left. And maybe getting together with someone was a good idea. The right someone. A picture of Phil Russell came into his head, smirking, a sarcastic, superior sneer on his face, and fury surged up inside him. He went and knelt down in front of the cross on his bedside table and closed his eyes.