The day before
13 May, 12.30 p.m.
Moira Summers was on the top deck of the number 23 bus, her face turned up to the sun like a cat – it was the first day that year that could really have been called hot. She felt the bus pitch and begin to chug up the Mound. She’d always loved this view from the 23: on the right, the Castle, black and hewn, seeming to rise up out of Princes Street Gardens’ seething trees. On the left, the whole of the New Town laid out in its smart grid. In the sunshine, Jenners department store and the Balmoral Hotel looked like gilded chocolate boxes, and the Scott Monument was Meccano-model-like, unreal.
She forced herself to press the bell and shuffle out of her seat, down the aisle and then the stairs of the swaying bus. She alighted outside the National Library of Scotland, whose double doors were mobbed by a gang of school kids. Moira felt herself tense. She’d come to sit in peace and do some studying for her OU degree, but the thought of being holed up in the dark, oppressive reading room on a day like this had already put a sullen feeling in her chest. A school-trip group clattering about the place practically guaranteed that she’d get nothing done.
‘I want you in pairs!’ A young, blonde woman was standing at the top of the steps inside the library entrance. ‘In pairs, in pairs,’ she chimed at the teens, but they paid no attention. Moira guessed they were maybe thirteen or so, but she’d become increasingly bad at guessing the ages of children. She always guessed too young – her own son, Ryan, was twenty, and although he looked like a man, she felt sure he could really only be ten at the most. Surely. Had time gone by so fast?
‘Pairs,’ the teacher said again. She looked young, too. Out of nowhere, Moira thought of her husband, Jackie: he’d been a teacher when she first met him. He’d taught PE to kids this age for decades, and she could imagine him making the same sing-song chant as this young woman. She tried to picture him: the young, lean man he’d been when they met, and found that she couldn’t. It hasn’t even been that long, she thought. I can’t lose him yet.
As Moira blinked away her tears’ warning sting, she realised the young, blonde teacher was speaking about her. She pointed down the steps at Moira – the pointing hand weighed down by a massive, turquoise-coloured ring. ‘Kids, this lady wants to come in.’
‘Oh no, I don’t,’ she sang over the heads of the children. Then she laughed, because it was true. But the mob did begin to trickle over to one side of the steps, and form a vague line.
Moira dithered. The ring on the teacher’s hand looked like the lurid, sugary gobstoppers Ryan used to whine for in the corner shop, back when he really was ten years old. The children in front of her seemed to bear no resemblance to him, though – to the kids he’d been in school with. Children – and especially older children – seemed so much tougher, more streetwise, these days.The girls lounging on the steps before her all wore the same black, elasticated leggings, tiny skirts stretched over them so tight that Moira could see which girl was wearing lacy lingerie, and which was wearing piped cotton. She blinked and blushed, feeling like a pervert and a pearl-clutching granny all at once.
‘Come on in,’ the teacher called, over the heads of the chattering line.
But the boys at the top of the mock-marble steps were shoving and elbowing. Moira watched one of them take a slow, calculated look over his shoulder, and then swing out backwards, slamming his weight into a smaller boy on the step below. The big kid kept his hand firmly on the banister, making sure that he didn’t fall – but his victim careened sideways into empty space, landing with a clatter and smack on the hard staircase.
‘Jason!’ The young teacher barked out the name in a way that sounded well practised. Moira winced, looking at the young man now sprawled on the steps. Another Jason, she thought. The bad ones are always called Jason – something Jackie used to say.
She turned away from the steps and the library, walking quickly until she had left behind the snickers of the tight-skirted girls. Moira thought of that boy’s mother – how later, her kid would likely come slamming home morose, silent, and pound up the stairs without looking at her. Had that mother also given up asking what happened? Had she too begun to assume that this was just the man her son was growing into? And did she also, in moments of barefaced honesty, suspect that her own behaviour might be to blame?
Again, Moira blinked the sting from her eyes: stop it. She’d essentially just bunked off school, and it was a beautiful day. Don’t waste this.
Across the street was an orange-fronted sandwich shop, not much more than a fridge and a space where two or three people could stand. Moira ordered a BLT with mayo – old-fashioned, she thought, scanning the fridge’s display of quinoa, hummus and pomegranate seeds – and swung the meal in its brown paper bag as she paced up the ramp into Greyfriars Kirkyard.
This was a popular picnic spot: office workers in smart clothes sat in ones and twos on the grass, some with their shoes kicked off. A knot of people took it in turns to snap photos at the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, and to add to the pile of sticks left as presents for his canine ghost. Moira veered away from the kirk itself, heading downhill along the pea-gravel path. Her breath caught in her chest. A slim, vigorous laburnum tree blazed over the path in front of her: its vivid yellow blooms hung so thick that they bent the branches groundward in graceful arcs. She couldn’t believe no one was down here, photographing this. She fished out her mobile, and thumbed a couple of photos of her own. They didn’t do it justice.
Clutching her lunch, Moira ducked under the laburnum’s branches and settled herself on the grass at its foot, leaning back against the trunk. It wasn’t a comfortable seat, but the sunlight filtering through the tree’s canary-coloured blooms made her feel warm and safe. Like sitting in her own miniature cathedral, or – Moira smiled – one of those plastic snow globes filled with glitter instead of snow. She chewed on her sandwich and looked out across the kirkyard. Many of the headstones were disintegrating now, having borne centuries of Edinburgh’s famous sideways rain. Some had fallen face down on top of their graves. But in sheltered spots, there were still a few intricately carved gargoyles, winged and grinning skulls, hourglasses . . . even the occasional angel.The fancier Edinburgh families had crypts, sunk into the grass – ironwork grilles protecting underground rooms where no one living had set foot in years.
A peal of laughter clattered across the kirkyard, and Moira looked up. A boy of about Ryan’s age was sitting on the roof of one of the crypts, swinging his legs off the lip of the doorway. Across from him, a girl with pale-coloured hair balanced atop a headstone, her back turned to Moira. She’d stretched over the pathway to pass the boy something, and it had dropped onto the gravel below.The graveyard rang with their laughter: the laughter of two people who were very drunk, or perhaps high on some substance or other. Moira watched as the boy climbed gingerly down from his vantage point – his tender dance on the gravel below made her realise he wasn’t wearing shoes. The thing he retrieved was white, and he cradled it in both hands like a kitten. It was, Moira realised, a half-wrapped fish supper. He picked his way across the path, and handed it up to his girlfriend, waving away what seemed to be an offer to share. They looked radiant, the two of them: lit up in the sunshine, framed by shifting yellow blossoms, and young, so impossibly young. The boy stood at the base of the headstone, rubbing his girlfriend’s feet as she ate – even at this distance, Moira could see that apart from his bare feet, the boy was well dressed, smart. Sunlight flashed off his glasses. The girl’s kicked-off flip-flops were splayed on the grass below, near where the meal had fallen. Moira quietly gave thanks for her steady hands, holding the sandwich in its clean, brown paper.
She wandered out of the kirkyard dazed, everything a little too bright outside the laburnum’s golden cocoon. She turned right, passing shop-fronts with their windows dressed for summer: sunhats, gauze scarves, sandals with rainbow-jewelled T-bars. I’m walking to work, Moira thought. But it was nearly a year since she had taken early retirement – two years since Jackie had died and his life insurance had allowed her to – and far longer since she’d worked here. And of course, when she turned the corner, the old Royal Infirmary looked nothing like it had when she’d walked here every day as a young staff nurse. Behind the original sandstone hospital buildings, the developers had stacked up blocks of flats that looked to be made entirely from glass. On the lower floors, twenty-foot blinds hung from the ceilings to keep out prying eyes. But the topmost floors seemed to have no curtains or blinds at all: they were transparent boxes, open to the sky. Moira sighed. She was glad that her old workplace was being put to good use, now that the new, state-of-the-art hospital had become established in the suburbs of Little France. She just wished it had been turned into something more accessible: a brief internet search had told her a while back that even a studio in the development would cost nearly a quarter of a million.
Moira crossed the street, and stepped into the patched shade of the sycamores at the entrance to the Meadows. There were no gates here, but there was a sandstone monument built to mark the entrance: tall as a bungalow, a stone unicorn carved at the top. Moira gave the unicorn a very slight nod, as she always had, walking to and from the Infirmary each day. She remembered Jackie again – little scraps of him seemed to be everywhere today – standing in the shadow of that monument, waiting for her to come out of work so they could go to the pictures, or walk through the park to the ice-cream parlour. She could pick out his tall, wiry figure a mile off, even in the dark, with the orange streetlight slanting over his shoulder and hiding his face in shadow. That was the way she saw him now: half obscured by time’s fallen curtain. She thought she’d been so careful, too – trying to preserve every memory.
She idled down the hill a little troubled, passing through the park, along the east side of the old Infirmary site. She stepped into a little flagged courtyard, with saplings planted in square beds, and angular, dark-coloured marble benches. This both was and was not a place Moira recognised. A lot of the so-called modern buildings that had made up the hospital had been torn down: only the listed sandstone remained. She sank onto one of the hard benches, tipping her face upwards as though trying to hear the memory that was forming. She thought about the night shifts she used to do in summer, coming on in the evening – finding herself climbing the stairs yet again because the lift was full or broken or just too slow – and stopping for a moment on a high landing. Those long summer evenings, the last of the light would stream in off the park, slightly green, and dust from the hospital’s bodies and blankets would swim in shimmering eddies up and down the stairs. She’d treasured those small, still moments in the midst of a chaotic shift. She wondered now if she’d lost the ability to feel things as keenly as she used to as a young woman: that perhaps it was age that kept her from properly remembering Jackie, from properly committing to her OU course, or from talking to Ryan about why he was so moody these days. Even now, lounging on a bench in a pretty courtyard, on a beautiful late spring day with absolutely nothing in the world that she needed to do, Moira still didn’t feel as calm and whole as she once had, pausing mid-shift in that stairwell.
She could hear an ambulance somewhere. At first, she wondered if the sound was inside the memory; ambulance sirens had been a big part of the general background noise in this place. Perhaps it was a ghost ambulance, hanging around the old building where it had drawn up so often. But no – Moira’s more logical mind kicked back in. It was somewhere behind her, held up at the Tollcross junction, perhaps, and moving closer.
The siren grew louder until it felt like the vehicle must be almost on top of her. Moira half expected it to screech round the corner and into the little sheltered square. She could hear the engine now, as well as the siren – it could be only metres away. She’d learned as a nurse that there was nothing quite like the sound of a siren to grab the attention of passers-by – that there’s something in human beings that is drawn to screams and spatter and tragedy. People want to see what will be wheeled out of the back of an ambulance. They want to see it happen to someone else, because if it’s happening to someone else, it isn’t happening to them. But even as she had this thought, Moira found herself rising, and walking towards the sound.
As she rounded the corner, the siren was shut off, and the back doors of the vehicle were being banged open.Three young men in fluoro vests and hard hats were shouting at the paramedics, telling them to hurry, gesticulating with wide-open arms.They all looked very young, Moira thought. She loitered at the corner of a building, trusting that her middle-aged-woman status would keep her from being seen.The workmen all had tool-belts strapped to their waists, and as they hustled the paramedics and stretcher into the building site, the D-rings and instruments jingled like chunky chatelaines.
I should leave, Moira thought. A couple of other people had stopped to gawk, and she realised how distasteful it looked. But she didn’t move. She looked up, past the hoarding, at the visible bits of the building site sticking up above. There was a huge pile-driver, bright yellow and oddly gallows-like with its supporting struts. A massive crane swung in the air, visible only in bits between the buildings. She could see part of its latticed central mast, and the ladder inside, which a man was now slowly climbing down. Clearly, all work had stopped. This crane operator looked tiny – the drop, if he fell, was massive. Moira felt a prickle of fear: there were so many horrible ways to be hurt in a place like this. Did she really want to see what might be brought out to this ambulance?
It was too late to move.The paramedics came rattling back into view, trailing their patient on a stretcher. For a moment, she forgot how to breathe. On the stretcher was a dark-haired young man – same fluoro vest, same tool-belt – the upper right corner of his body impaled by an iron-coloured rod.
‘Ryan,’ she heard herself say. It wasn’t – the boy didn’t even look that much like her son. But he was about the same age, the same build, and just for a second her imagination superimposed her son’s face over the face of this stranger. His teeth were gritted hard, she could see. Even with a starter bar jammed through his shoulder, he was determined not to cry out. To be brave.
‘Wait, you know that kid?’ Another of the rubberneckers – a young woman with blonde hair, young enough to be a student nurse – appeared at Moira’s elbow.
‘No,’ Moira said, unable to pull her eyes from the stretcher, ‘no, I just—’
But the girl had already started towards the ambulance, waving an arm to get the paramedics’ attention.
‘Hey!’ she was shouting. ‘Hey! There’s a woman here who knows this guy!’
The two men were bumping the stretcher into the ambulance. The one at the back, still out in the open air of the site, poked his head round the vehicle’s open door. Moira flinched. She ran after the girl, the two of them arriving by the ambulance at the same time.
‘Listen,’ Moira said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘You know this man?’ The paramedic looked exhausted, but then, she thought, they always did.
‘No,’ Moira replied, unable to meet his eye. She made the mistake of looking into the ambulance instead, where the young man – now sheltered from the collective gaze of his workmates – had begun to hiss in pain, pulling quick, ragged breaths through his teeth.
‘She’s mistaken,’ Moira said. She looked hard at the girl – perhaps too hard, because she shrank away behind the open door of the ambulance, and out of sight.
‘I – I’m a nurse.’ Moira’s face burned. As if this information could do anything to explain the last thirty seconds.
The paramedic raised his eyes heavenwards. She wanted to apologise to him – she wanted to apologise over and over, to grovel – but she couldn’t form the words.
‘Sorry, love,’ he said, ‘but I think we’ve got this covered. I need you to stand clear right now.’
He swung himself up into the ambulance, and slammed the door. Moira leapt back as the siren started up again, clanging in her ears. The driver turned the vehicle neatly around and then it sped off, kicking up a brown haze of building-site dust.
Moira stood listening to the siren as it moved off through the city. To stave off the crushing embarrassment she felt, she tried to imagine the route it might be taking to get the boy to Little France. She listened as it looped round the far end of the Quartermile, and then onto the long drag of Lauriston Place, where it could pick up speed. But beyond that, she lost the thread of the journey, and could only listen as the wah-wah-wah got slowly quieter, swallowed by traffic noise.
Looking up, she saw that the trio of workmen had returned, and were doing the same as she was – standing still and quiet with their heads cocked, listening. She tried to imagine what she must look like to them, with her mousy wash-and-go hair and the same faded jeans she’d worn while she’d been pregnant with Ryan. They’ll just think I look like someone’s mum, she thought. Someone’s mum, someone’s wife: nothing to identify her but the wedding ring her dead husband had given her. Moira cursed herself for having said her son’s name at that crucial moment, for pulling the attention of the paramedic towards her, and away from the suffering boy. She imagined his mother, probably hard at work somewhere right now – tapping away at a laptop, or chairing a meeting. That woman had no idea, but she was about to get a terrible phone call. Then Moira remembered the boy from earlier – the little boy, who’d been pushed down onto those hard stone steps. She straightened, giving her head a shake to dislodge the last of her embarrassment. She turned to walk back the way she had come, now with a purpose for the rest of the day: whether he liked it or not, it was time. She’d left it too long, but no longer. She was going home to talk to her son.
13 May, 4.55 p.m.
When Helen Birch finally arrived at Gayfield Square, Banjo Robin was standing out front, as though waiting for her. She’d hoped the dappled shade thrown by the square’s trees might turn her into just another anonymous pedestrian, but as she approached she realised he’d clocked her. She pulled in a long breath and steeled herself for the verbal barrage, which she guessed would begin when she was about twenty paces away.
‘Don’t start, Robin,’ she said, as she reached his earshot. ‘I don’t work here any more, okay?’
She might as well not have bothered.
‘Ken what, hen? This time youse’ve really fucked me over. Like pure fucked me over.’
Banjo Robin was a local pain in the ass. He was somewhere in his early sixties, and ran with a crowd of similarly aged folk musicians who were what the official documentation would call vulnerably housed. They weren’t homeless as such – Robin had a girlfriend in every postcode district, and lived with whichever one he hadn’t yet punched that week – but they were of no fixed address. On the rare occasions when he was sober, Robin was startlingly adept at the banjo. Problem was, he liked to top up his busking money by slinging illicit substances.They were usually dubious in quality and minuscule in quantity, which was how he’d managed, thus far, to avoid the jail. But he was a regular visitor to the drunk tank. When a call went out about a sixty-something man urinating in the street, loitering suspiciously around parked cars or shouting obscenities at some woman’s lit window in the small hours, it was highly likely that the attending panda car would return from its drive-by with Banjo Robin in the back seat.
Unsurprisingly, he knew all the officers at the Gayfield Square and St Leonard’s stations by name.
Right now, he was babbling. Birch drew level with him and held up one hand, palm flat, as though trying to stop traffic.
‘I mean it,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell me, I don’t work here any more. If you want to talk to someone, you can come inside.’
He made a huffing sound.
‘Been inside,’ he said. ‘Cunts willnae dae anything.’
He began patting himself down, and with shaking hands fished a tobacco pouch and rolling papers from somewhere about his person.
‘Am I right in thinking,’ Birch said, as he began pinching little hairs of tobacco into a meagre cigarette, ‘that my colleagues in there have asked you to leave?’
‘Naw.’ Robin put out a thin, grey tongue to damp down the cigarette’s long edge. ‘Well, aye, but that’s no fucking fair, I mean, is it? I mean is that even fucking . . . professional?’
Birch couldn’t help it: she rolled her eyes.
‘Okay. Well, if they’ve refused to help you in there, and they’ve asked you to leave, then there’s really nothing I can do.You should go home now, Robin.’
‘See that’s the hale fucking problem,’ Robin replied. He paused, and tried in vain to light his cigarette: the lighter sparked and sparked and sparked. ‘I dinnae have a hame. Bee fucking threw me out, for nae fucking reason, and then called you lot on me.’
Birch shook her head. She’d met Bee, the Tollcross girlfriend, a couple of times years back, attending Robin’s domestic disputes. She’d seemed a nice, gentle sort of woman. She had a pretty north-west-coast accent, hennaed hair and several cats. Why she put up with this bozo time and again was anyone’s guess.
‘I’m going in now,’ Birch said. ‘I’d advise you not to follow me.’
The lighter finally caught. He grunted at her as she moved past him.
‘Good luck, Robin,’ she said. Funny, she thought. I might even miss him.
The lobby was dim, though strip-lit. The station was a low, modern-ish building that had been wedged in between rows of tall, old tenements. Those big trees out in the square didn’t help. The only natural light that got in was thrown in odd oblongs over the floor, reflecting off the hi-vis police vehicles parked up outside.
‘Hello, Sergeant,’ she said.
Al Lonsdale had known Birch longer than anyone else here. He was one of the custody sergeants, and right now he was standing to the extreme left of the lobby’s glass doors and peering out through them – sideways, like a kid playing hide-and-seek.
‘Keeping an eye on Banjo?’ Birch asked.
‘Just want to make sure he goes his merry way, the slack bugger.’
Birch smiled. Al was from Wakefield, but decades of living away from that city had failed to knock the edges off his accent.
‘We checked him in to his usual suite last night,’ Al went on. ‘Just your regular Banjo shenanigans – he’d had a skinful, of course. We ought to set him up with a loyalty card, he’s here that much.’
Al shuffled away from the door, and as he passed Birch, he looked into her face, twisting his head like an inquisitive bird.
‘You all right, love? You look a bit . . . off.’
Birch smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but Al rarely required a response.
‘Of course,’ he was saying, ‘I should be moderating my tone around you now, shouldn’t I? Now you’ve got your pips, and all that. I should be calling you Marm.’
Birch laughed. On Al’s tongue the word had no r in it – he sounded a little like a sheep, bleating.
‘Maa-m?’ she mimicked. ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
Al grinned widely.
‘All right, Detective Inspector Fancyknickers,’ he said. ‘No need to take the piss.’
He made to slip behind the lobby’s desk, but Birch caught him by the arm.
‘I’ll miss you,’ she said. ‘I’m going to miss this old place a lot.’
They stood looking at one another for a second, Birch still holding on to his forearm. Then Al reached down and pulled her into a bear hug. She sniffed.
‘Arright, arright,’ he said, his voice muffled against her hair, ‘no need to get all soft about it.’
Over his shoulder, Birch noticed the pile of boxes she’d asked to be brought down for her.
‘That’s enough now,’ Al said, opening his arms. ‘Any longer and I could have you for sexual harassment. And me old enough to be your dad.’
Birch’s face hurt from smiling while trying not to cry.
‘That’s not super politically correct of you, Al,’ she said.
‘Well, you know – all this equalities legislation. It changes too often for us old-timers to keep up. Speaking of which, let me summon up some burly young man to help you with those boxes.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘The car’s not far.’
Al got in behind the desk.
‘You take what you can get now, missy,’ he said. ‘It’ll not be like this working at headquarters, you know.There’s no one’ll give you the time of day over there.’
Birch shook her head.
‘Hey, Sergeant,’ she said. ‘For a start, they don’t call it headquarters any more – we’re all equals now, remember? And secondly, it’s fine. They’re fine. They’ve given me a very nice welcome so far.’
Al gave one, sharp nod.
‘Aye, well, see that it continues. I don’t want to have to come down there and have a word with that chief inspector of yours.’
For a moment, Birch allowed herself to imagine Al storming into DCI McLeod’s office, sworn to defend her honour. She was still smiling, but the smile was weak. Al was right. The new place did feel impersonal. Shit. Have I done the right thing?
But Al had the phone receiver lodged between ear and shoulder.
‘You just stand there and look decorative,’ he said to Birch. ‘I’ll have a dashing young constable down here in a jiffy. Least we can do on your final visit, eh?’
The boxes were filled with stuff that needed sorting out – had needed sorting out for years. She’d collected them last because she’d been putting it off. Now they were slung in the back of her car, the seats pulled down to accommodate them. The last tie she’d had to the station at Gayfield Square was loosed.
Al had got a janitor, in the end, to help her with the boxes. The poor guy had made the mistake of wandering into the lobby, and Al had exclaimed, ‘Just the man!’ He may have been right: the janitor had found an old moving trolley, which – though it gave him some difficulty outside on the cobbles – did make for a quick job.
‘You hear about that kid?’ the janitor had asked in the space between hefting one box into the car and lifting another. ‘The one who got impaled?’
‘Aye. Got the radio on in my office and they said, wee gadge working on a building site up town falls ten feet off, I don’t know, something. Ends up with a starter bar running right through him.’
‘Ouch,’ Birch said, and then, after a pause, ‘What’s a starter bar when it’s at home?’
The janitor made a gesture in the air.
‘They stick up about so long, out of foundations on buildings. They’re sort of twisty. Like an old-fashioned butterscotch cane, ken? Maybe you’re too young to remember those.’
Birch was plenty old enough, but didn’t say so.
‘Oh okay, I know what a starter bar is. Poor kid.’
‘Aye.’ The janitor looked at her with what might have been suspicion. ‘Surprised you didn’t hear about it, on your police radio or whatever.’
‘Oh,’ Birch said. ‘I’ve not been very gettable today. But it’s likely someone from this place did attend.’ She nodded backwards towards the station. A thought struck her.
‘Is the boy dead?’ she asked.
The janitor hauled another box off the trolley, and planted it with a rattle in the back of the car.
The janitor hauled another box off the trolley, and planted it with a rattle in the back of the car.
‘Not yet,’ he said.
Now, as she drove home, Birch had no difficulty keeping her mind off the boxes – the impaled boy loomed large in her imagination.
Please don’t let that come across my desk, she thought – and the thought came back over and over, like a mantra. Sounds like a potential nightmare.
But she was also thinking about what the accident must have felt like for that boy. A quick Google on her phone before she’d started the engine had told her he was only twenty. My brother’s age, she thought, though it wasn’t true. In her mind, her brother Charlie was forever twenty. In fact, he’d have celebrated his thirty- fourth birthday that year, had he still been around. She imagined the building-site boy framed inside scaffolding, his back to the terrible drop, working away on something, thinking his own private, mundane thoughts. In her mind he was handsome, as all twenty-year-old boys are – in a gangly way that they themselves have never noticed. She imagined he had Charlie’s face. And then she imagined him falling. Flying backwards as though pushed, eyes wide, hands grabbing at nothing. How long does it take to fall ten feet? Probably half a second, if that, she decided. Barely long enough to register what’s happening to you.The sort of fall that a person could potentially walk away from with nothing more than an impressive bruise or two. But not this time. She remembered saying ‘ouch’ to the janitor. I can’t believe that was my reaction, she thought.
Traffic on Leith Walk was heavy. Birch trundled along past the Polish food markets and the phone-unlocking shops; past the artisan doughnut bakery and the Sikh women’s food co-op. At one particularly stubborn set of traffic lights, she sat admiring a rainbow of shimmering saris behind the plate-glass window of a small boutique. She tried to crowd the injured boy out of her imagination, and found herself thinking again about Charlie. He’d been gone for so long now. How does a person just go missing, she thought, without a trace, in this day and age? It was such a well-worn thought that it occurred to her without emotion attached – only nagging annoyance at the lack of an answer. She’d spent fourteen years keeping Charlie in the back of her mind, and she filed him away there now, his twenty-year-old face like an old photograph gone soft at the folds.
Were the roads always busy on a sunny day? It seemed illogical – surely people would be keener to walk when the weather was beautiful. Or maybe it just seemed busier when the weather was hot, because she was so keen to get home and take off her shoes. Salamander Street and Seafield Road were like car parks at this time of the day, no matter where you joined them. Birch rolled past the cemetery at walking pace, watching cyclists zip and weave through the standing traffic. The scent of hot grease from a McDonald’s Drive-Thru mingled with the sweet death-stink of the Seafield sewage treatment works, the hundreds of idling engines chucking their fumes out behind them. This is the Edinburgh the tourists don’t see, Birch thought, cursing the cocked-up traffic-light sequences no one had put right for years. But soon enough she was past them, and got up the speed to kick into fourth gear as the sea – blue as a travel agent’s catalogue – blurred between the buildings.
A secret she hadn’t told anyone: Birch had always wanted to live on the Portobello prom. Ever since she was a little girl, brought there with her little brother for donkey rides and ice cream, she’d longed to set up home in one of the little villas that faced out to sea. The dream had become a plan, and then – only two months ago – the plan had become a reality. A mid-terrace villa had come up near the Joppa end of the beach, at a reasonable price because of its state of disrepair. Birch had moved in the day her promotion to DI was announced. Most things were still in boxes. Driving along Portobello High Street, she felt a thrill that hadn’t yet worn off: I’m going home.
She parallel parked on the side of the street. Her new house had a garage, down a narrow, cobbled lane at the back, but it was still full of the previous owner’s stuff. He’d died, the old man who’d lived here before, and while his kids had been willing to come up from London to empty the house, they’d balked at a tumbledown garage filled almost to the roof with tea chests. Birch had too, if she was honest – she still didn’t know what was in most of them. She decided there was enough room left in the garage for the boxes she’d just hauled from Gayfield Square – they could wait until some weekend when she’d time to sort the whole lot out. Yes, she thought, I’ll do that, knowing already that it wouldn’t happen.
She walked round the front of the China Express – a cheap hole-in-the-wall takeaway that occupied what had once been the cafe at the tail end of the prom – and along the seafront. To her right, the tide was out. Children, tiny as bugs from this distance, jumped and splashed in the waves. Bikes zoomed up and down the prom, and there were dogs everywhere: dogs proudly carrying driftwood in their mouths, dogs running away from the water to shake a fine, salty spray onto passers-by. To her left was the neat row of front gardens that the prom-dwellers kept. In some of them, her neighbours sat out on shady camping chairs, wind-up radios murmuring in the warm air. Birch called out her hellos, and waved. Her own garden was the only unkempt one in the row.
She reached it now. The wooden front gate needed painting, and up the side of the brick path two hollyhock bushes grew rampant, pushing their ten-foot blossom towers into the air. The garden had been cared for once: the plants here weren’t wind-sown weeds, just woody and overgrown versions of their former, well-kept selves. Birch was loath to clear them. The garden was ugly, but it was old, and she felt that was worthy of respect. It also smelled wonderful, thanks to a dusty, pale yellow rose whose creeping fingers had long since turned its supporting trellis to matchwood. Around the living-room window, honeysuckle was preparing to flower. The plant was so thick that if Birch had plunged her hand into it, her arm would be sunk elbow-deep in foliage before her fingers could touch the wall.
Before she unlocked the peeling front door, she stood with her back to the house, looking out. From here, she could see North Berwick Law, out where East Lothian curved round into the Forth. Along the horizon she could see the huge freighters crawling through their shipping lane. Beyond them, a grey-green smudge that lit up at dusk with a string of pin-prick lights, was Fife.
A woman in a hot pink shirt walked by, a portly old chocolate Labrador plodding beside her.
‘Beautiful evening!’ The woman raised one hand in greeting, and then tilted it towards Birch. ‘Something in your garden smells delightful.’
‘The roses,’ she called back from the path. ‘They’re enjoying this sunshine.’
The woman hadn’t stopped, but her voice trailed back to Birch as she moved beyond the hollyhocks – a hot pink backdrop between their leaves.
‘Long may it last,’ she said. ‘Cheerie-bye!’
Birch turned to the door smiling, keys in hand.
She’d quite forgotten about the injured boy. It wasn’t until she was truly settled in for the evening that he came back to her. She’d kicked off her shoes, changed into her yoga pants, and uncorked some wine.The house faced roughly east and, deciding she needed a little sun on her bones, she headed out to the back garden, where some of the day’s heat still lingered. The only bit of garden she’d cleared so far was the slate-coloured patio: a few flags wide but big enough to accommodate a garden bench, which, like everything here, had seen better days. Birch had dragged an IKEA coffee table out – she’d only paid £15 for it, so a little rain-damage wouldn’t hurt – and now she was looking at a wavering red spotlight on its surface as the late sun shone through her half-filled glass.
Oh God, she thought, remembering the boy. Please don’t let that come across my desk.
She closed her eyes, tried to focus on the sun’s heat, the sound of the waves as the tide crept back towards the house. Beyond the garden wall, cars buzzed by at intervals, like bees. Somewhere, someone had a barbecue going – the smell of smoke drifted over the rooftops from the twilit beach.
I’ve got enough to think about right now, Birch thought, opening her eyes again. As if on cue – somewhere far off in the blue evening’s calm – came the panicky call of a siren.
13 May, 8.59 p.m.
Above the matte Astroturf of the high-school playing fields, and above the ponytailed heads of the girl footballers, moths and midges birled and hung. At this distance, they looked like flecks of glitter swimming through liquid. Swifts dived in and out of the floodlights’ glare, their calls carrying over the car park in the warm evening. Ishbel Hodgekiss zipped up the electric windows of her Nissan Qashqai. She wouldn’t risk a midge bite, even at this distance.
The dashboard clock read 20:59, so she flicked on the car stereo to catch the headlines. She’d expected the Radio 2 announcer, but instead she was treated to a blast of cheesy jingle: Abigail had tuned the stereo over to local radio again.
Questions are being asked, said the newsreader, about an industrial accident that happened earlier today in the centre of Edinburgh.
Ishbel bent over the steering wheel, trying to see how to retune the station, the newsreader’s bouncy speech pattern grating in her ears.
The site developers claim, he was saying, that the man was not following correct safety procedures when he fell ten feet into the building’s foundations. Our correspondent Jenna Buckie has more . . .
Somehow, Ishbel found the right button, and flicked through stations until she heard a voice she recognised. She settled back to listen, and began to scan the football fields for any sign of Abigail. Practice had just finished – she’d heard the full-time whistle – so any minute now her daughter should come sauntering out through the gate in the tall, green chain-link fence, and over to the car.
Ishbel didn’t entirely approve of her daughter’s continued interest in football. After-school clubs were all very well, but now Abigail was in college, her mother felt that any extra-curricular activities ought to be more academic in nature. The fact that Abigail still lived at home brought Ishbel a quiet, if guilty, joy: it was perhaps the only silver lining to her daughter deciding against attending proper university. But she couldn’t help but feel that this weekly return to high school – to practise for an under-25s team that included girls far younger than her – was doing Abigail no favours.
‘You can’t put football practice on your CV, you know,’ Ishbel had said, more than once.
‘You can, Mum,’ her daughter would reply. ‘It shows you’re a team player.’
Ishbel still hadn’t come up with a suitable response to this.
Girls began to trail out of the long, low buildings and back across the Astroturf to be met by their lifts. The younger ones climbed into cars like Ishbel’s: family saloons and people-carriers manned by parental taxi-drivers. But older girls, the ones more Abigail’s age, tended to walk up to empty cars – tiny Ford Kas and rusted Citroën hatchbacks – slinging their gym bags into the passenger seat and driving away on their own. Abigail hadn’t yet passed her driving test, though the constant switching of the radio station was testament to her practising. Every week there were a couple of girls who were picked up by unsuitable-looking boyfriends. These young men would sit in their decked-out Imprezas – engines running, music shuddering through the tarmac – and then peel out with a hiss of air from their full sequential gearboxes. Ishbel shuddered.
‘There’s a boy,’ Aidan had said to her one night, about a week ago. He’d said it in a breathless voice that Ishbel remembered girls at school using to divulge information while swapping lipstick in the French-block loos. He said it as though he were a co-conspirator – there was no trace of paternal concern.
‘What do you mean, there’s a boy?’ She’d known exactly what he meant – she just didn’t want to admit it.
‘I mean,’ he said, ‘I think our daughter may have a boyfriend.’
Ishbel went quiet. Abigail had had boyfriends before, of course, but that was in high school – back when Ishbel could reasonably lay down rules and curfews and ask Aidan to help her enforce them. Now, Abigail was nineteen. In her head, Ishbel heard her own voice saying no, no, no, no.
‘How do you know that?’
Aidan had smirked at her. He’d been standing in front of the dressing table, shrugging on a clean shirt, and in the wrap-around vanity mirror, Ishbel had watched his three-times-reflected torso disappear into the fabric. For some reason it had occurred to her then – for the first time in what must have been years – what an attractive man he was. Still was. A spike of some old anxiety bothered at her.
‘She told me,’ he’d said. ‘She talks to me, you know.’
Ishbel had been folding laundry. She remembered looking down at the white cotton T-shirt in her hands and seeing it turn pink as anger clouded her vision. She was angry with Aidan a lot lately – they were angry with each other. She’d had that thought and then verbalised it, almost without meaning to.
‘Aren’t you angry?’ The words had come out sharp, an elastic band snapping.
‘Angry?’ She’d amused him, it seemed. She pulled in a breath. Is he just making this up, she wondered, to rile me?
‘I just . . . In the past, you’ve been one of those “no one’s good enough for my baby”-type dads.You’ve hated her boyfriends.We used to joke about it.’
He looked away from her, and pulled his hands down the front of the shirt to smooth it.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘And you know as well as I do that if this young man decides to break her heart, then I’ll go for his knees.’
Ishbel had rolled her eyes. As a young woman, she’d loved his gallusness, his masculine swagger. Now she found it grating, and he knew that. He was still speaking.
‘But she’s an adult now. Protective dad needs to know when to take a step back.’
He’d paused, and shot a glance back at her. ‘Neurotic mum could learn to calm down a bit, too.’
Ishbel had closed her eyes. These small barbs were part of the daily routine these days, the double-act shtick the two of them seemed to have established. Why do I stay? she’d wondered to herself, more than once. Abigail, was the answer. Abigail, who adores her dad. She’d never forgive you.
A long silence opened out between them. That old anxiety swished around inside Ishbel like dirty water, until she’d felt like she had to speak.
‘She talks to me, too.’
Aidan had made a maybe face at her. Not for the first time, her palm itched with the desire to slap the expression away.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘But you’ve been pretty distracted lately.’
Ishbel shook herself out of the memory. Across the road, Inverleith Park was blurring into a dark mass under its trees. If she looked in the rear-view mirror, she could see the spiked turrets of Fettes School silhouetted against the dimming sky. It wouldn’t be properly dark until after ten, but beyond the football field and its ring of artificial light, the city was an indistinct jumble of gables and spires. Streetlights began to flick on. The clouds turned pink: another fine day tomorrow, Ishbel thought.
Aidan was right. The Telford case – the biggest complaint she’d ever dealt with at work – had thrown her totally off balance. Even now it was all over, nearly three years since the initial complaint, she was finding it hard to get back into her old work-life flow. She had been distracted. So distracted that she’d let a week go by since that conversation with her husband, and she still hadn’t spoken to Abigail about the whole boyfriend issue. Aidan had told her that this boy was on Abigail’s course at college, and he had his own car and some sort of job. ‘He seems to come from a nice family,’ Aidan had said, twisting his voice into a parody of Ishbel’s own. ‘I know that sort of thing is important to you.’ She’d shrugged off that particular jab – she picked her battles carefully these days. But she’d allowed herself a small eye-roll. Her husband always accused her of being too status conscious, yet she found his endless positioning and repositioning of himself almost too tiring to keep up with. ‘Now there’s a real man,’ he’d say, about some athlete or celebrity he approved of. For years, she’d found it charming – sexy, even. Exciting. Now, she was relieved they’d had a daughter, not a son . . . but she was also worried about what Aidan’s enthusiasm for this new boyfriend meant. She’d pressed for more information, but Aidan claimed that was all he knew.
‘I’ve seen a photo, though,’ he’d said, puffing out his chest, an I know something you don’t know gesture. ‘He’s the tall, dark and handsome type. And he’s got a twinkle in his eye.’ Aidan had grabbed his keys: heading out once again to some rendezvous Ishbel didn’t quite know the details of. ‘You should be worried,’ he’d said.
Around Ishbel, the car park emptied.The football coach walked back out onto the pitch in her coat to patrol for litter, for jumpers or mobile phones left behind. Ishbel watched her: a small, compact figure pacing the perimeter. Soon the floodlights would be damped out, and the feeding swifts would be replaced by bats. Abigail had not come out. Ishbel’s was the last remaining car.
The clock now read 21:19. Ishbel made a clucking sound in her throat as she pulled her phone from her handbag, and dialled her daughter’s number. The phone rang through to voicemail. Ishbel could have predicted this – if Abigail was rushing to change her clothes and saw her mother calling, she’d surely ignore it. She’d know the call was a tacit nag: get out here already. Ishbel caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the driver’s side mirror. She looked pale, her short dark hair – dyed, these days – a little mussed. God, I look old, she thought. In her head, she was still Abigail’s age, and she always got something of a surprise, looking at her reflection and seeing the thinning lips and crow’s feet of an older woman.
Ishbel was seized by the impulse to leave a voicemail.
‘Abigail,’ she said, ‘this is your mother. Remember me? I have half a report to write tonight and I’d hoped to be home getting on with it by now. Whatever you’re doing, please get a move on, okay?’
She flicked the display to end the call, and felt thwarted. The cruelty of smartphones: you didn’t get the satisfaction of slamming a receiver down.
Ishbel didn’t return the phone to her bag, but propped it on the dashboard, just in case it rang. As she looked up from its glowing screen, her eye was caught by a far-off movement, a quick swim of light. A block away down the hill, Comely Bank Road ran parallel to the car park: from her vantage point in the car, Ishbel could make out the lit canopy of a newsagent’s, and the odd car rattling past the crossroads.
What had caught her eye was a city bus – a single-decker with big plate windows, lit up from inside. Some glitch in traffic had caused it to stop across the junction, idling in the yellow box until someone blew their horn. Standing, hanging on to the bus’s overhead rail, was Abigail. Ishbel was a long way off, and the bus moved on almost as soon as it had stopped, but she’d recognise her daughter’s profile anywhere. Unsure of her next move, she sat in the car, her hands on the steering wheel at two and ten, scrolling through a cycle of silent questions.Why would Abigail be on a city bus? Hadn’t she been at practice? If not, then why? And where had she been?
There must be some reason, Ishbel thought. Come on. But she could think of none.
It took about a minute for her daughter’s small figure to round the corner at the bottom of the block.The twilight made the vision indistinct, but Ishbel knew it was her. The pale cloud of hair, the shoulders hooked inwards – no matter how often Ishbel nipped at her to stand up straight – the striped, drawstring gym bag slung on one hip. The figure she was sure was Abigail slipped into the grounds of the school through a side gate, and disappeared.
Ishbel’s phone buzzed, but the text was not from her daughter. It was Aidan.
Assume you picked up Baby okay? If you’re at shop, pls get dishwasher tablets. A.
Baby was a pet name Abigail hated – or she hated it when it came out of Ishbel’s mouth. For some reason, from Aidan it was allowed. When Abigail was born the two of them had struggled to name her. Back then, you weren’t told the gender of your baby ahead of time, but Aidan’s mother believed in all sorts of old wives’ tales and convinced Ishbel she was carrying a boy. When Abigail arrived – the most feminine baby ever, her long blonde lashes already fully formed – they were caught unawares, unable to use Nathan or Jackson, the names they’d prepared. So, for a long few days they called her Baby, and Aidan had never really stopped.
Baby late out. Back soon. I. Ishbel thought about adding an x to the end of the text, but the corners of her mouth turned down at the very idea. She hit send.
She watched Abigail open the door onto the pitch and step out into the floodlights’ yawn. As she got about halfway over, they blinked out, plunging the practice fields into darkness. Instinct caused Ishbel’s heart to miss a beat, but her eyes became accustomed to the new dimness in only a second or two. Abigail was still trudging towards the car, the striped bag thumping against her side.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ she said, swinging open the passenger door. ‘I got chatting with Ms Lessenger.’
Emily Lessenger was the coach Ishbel had just seen patrolling the empty pitch. She flinched at her daughter’s smooth lie.
‘No you didn’t,’ she replied. ‘Ms Lessenger’s been out here, checking the pitches. I saw her. She was on her own.’
Abigail ditched the striped bag in the footwell, and slammed the car door.
‘When, just now?’ The girl’s face was placid, moon-eyed: butter-wouldn’t-melt.
‘Five minutes ago,’ Ishbel said. ‘Or so.’
Abigail tossed her head, shaking her hair off one shoulder and onto the other.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Before that, then. I talked to her and then got changed. Sorry. I didn’t realise the time.’
Ishbel studied her daughter. Believing her would be easy: it had been some other girl on the bus, some other girl who snuck across the street and through the school to the pitch. Just another girl with blonde hair and a stripy bag. Believe it. She could feel her daughter willing her to.
‘I phoned you,’ Ishbel said. She decided she ought to start the engine: the dash clock read 21:26. As Abigail rummaged in the gym bag for her phone, Ishbel reversed out into the road, and pulled away.
‘Oh yeah,’ Abigail said, lighting up the smartphone. ‘One missed call. Sorry.’
Ishbel made a left, and then an immediate right. She liked to drive along the park, past the Inverleith mansions with their oriel windows and electronic gates.
‘I’ve got a text from Dad as well,’ Abigail added, looking down at her phone – the pose Ishbel saw her in most often these days. ‘He says to say to you: dishwasher tablets.’
They paused at the ‘give way’ sign on Inverleith Row, waiting for another city bus to pass: the double-decker 23 to Trinity. Going my way, Ishbel thought. Typical. Now she’d have to follow in its chugging wake.
‘We don’t have time for dishwasher tablets,’ Ishbel said. ‘I’ve got to work on this report tonight, it’s due back to the complainant tomorrow. It’s late enough as it is. Text him to wash up by hand for once. It won’t kill him.’
Abigail snorted, but began thumbing out the text.
‘You know he’ll leave it for me to do when we get in,’ she said.
‘Yeah? Well it wouldn’t kill you, either.’
They drove on in silence. The 23 pulled up at a stop beside a row of takeaways: pizza, curry, Chinese. Ishbel glanced in the rear-view mirror, then nipped out past the bus and into the right-turn lane for Ferry Road. A cab driver pipped his horn as he let her go by. ‘Screw you,’ Ishbel hissed.
Abigail glanced up.
‘Jesus, Mother.’ She laughed. ‘You’re cranky this evening.’
Ishbel pressed her back teeth together. She steered off Ferry Road and into Trinity. They’d be home soon: only a few more streets. She had to say something.
‘Where were you really, Abigail?’
Her daughter’s head snapped up.
‘What do you mean?’That moon-eyed face again.
‘Tonight,’ Ishbel said, pushing her voice into an even line. ‘Instead of going to practice. Where were you?’
Abigail laughed again. It was a confident laugh, there were no cracks in it – but there was something else. A little edge of nastiness.
‘I don’t know what you mean. I went to practice.You dropped me off. You saw me walk in.You just saw me walk out again.’
Ishbel soothed the car down to a lower speed.
‘No,’ she said. ‘What I saw was you getting off a bus on Comely Bank Road just now. What I saw was you sneaking in the side door of the school. Then I saw you walk out.’
There it is, Ishbel thought. There’s the crack in the veneer.
‘I saw you, Abigail.You got off the bus, you sneaked in the side door, and then you walked out over the pitch to make it look like you’d been at practice the whole time.’
Abigail said nothing. Her phone rested in her hands, its screen dark. She didn’t look down at it, just stared ahead through the windscreen.
‘Is it this boy?’ Ishbel kept her voice light, even as she tried to push out of her head the image of her daughter being bundled into some dim bedroom: some pungent male space full of pizza boxes, Playboy posters on the walls. ‘Dad told me you . . . might have a boyfriend.’
Abigail rolled her eyes.
‘Dad can’t keep his mouth shut.’
It was true, then: Abigail had sought her father’s confidence, but had deliberately kept this fact from Ishbel. Had Aidan always been so smug about things? She couldn’t, right then, remember.
‘Is it anyone I know?’ As she said it, Ishbel realised that she didn’t really know who Abigail socialised with these days. She knew of only one other person from the same high-school year who attended Three Rivers College – and he was a dark-haired boy.
‘Is it Ryan?’ she asked.
Abigail still wasn’t looking at her.
There was a pause. Abigail wrinkled her nose.
‘Wait – you mean Ryan Summers? From high school?’
‘Summers,’ Ishbel said. ‘That’s it – that’s his name.’
‘Jesus,’ Abigail said. ‘Absolutely not. I mean – ew. Ryan Summers is a total creeper. I wouldn’t go out with him if he was the last straight man on this planet.’
‘Okay!’ Ishbel lifted her hands from the steering wheel for a second, then imagined the driver in front seeing the two white stars of her palms flashing in their rear-view. ‘I just wondered.You can’t blame me for being interested in this boy . . . especially if he’s good enough to miss football practice for.’
She was trying to sound jokey, throwaway. It wasn’t working.
‘His name, for your information, is Jack. I’m surprised you don’t know that already, since Dad’s been blabbing. But I didn’t miss practice for him – I didn’t. I haven’t been anywhere near him tonight, okay?’
‘I wouldn’t mind if you told me you wanted to miss practice sometimes. I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to go to . . .’ Ishbel swallowed, and tasted acid. ‘To a friend’s, or something. But tell me. Just tell me, Abigail.’
They’d reached the road-end for Primrose Bank: home, Ishbel thought. She turned right. Abigail was still staring straight ahead, but Ishbel could practically hear her daughter’s mental gears shifting.
‘I just want to make sure you’re . . . being careful,’ Ishbel said.
Her daughter drew in a breath, as though to speak. As she pulled the car into the front drive, Ishbel thought maybe Abigail was about to own up – to admit what she’d been doing, and apologise.
‘Mother,’ she said instead, ‘you’re on fucking crack.’
Ishbel blinked hard. A shudder ran through her. She’d never heard Abigail speak like that – not once, in almost twenty years. The engine was still running, and her foot was still on the brake, keeping the car from rolling back out of the drive and into the road. But Abigail grabbed the bag at her feet and shoved open the passenger door.
‘Don’t you think you can speak to me like that,’ Ishbel heard herself say. Abigail slammed the door on her words, and stomped around the front of the car. As she passed, the car’s headlights lit up the backs of her legs.There were grass-stains on her acid-wash jeans.
Ishbel wrenched the handbrake on and turned the key in the ignition. Abigail had unlocked the front door and stormed through it – now it slammed behind her. Ishbel grabbed her bag and climbed down out of the car. When she reached the front door, she found that her daughter had slipped the security chain on, so she couldn’t get in.
‘We’re going to have serious words, madam!’ Ishbel yelled through the three-inch gap the chain allowed. She put her finger on the doorbell and left it there, listening as the non-stop trill filled up the house.
‘Darling.’ Aidan’s face appeared. ‘Please.’
Ishbel let go of the bell, and the door handle, which she’d been clutching so hard that the lines of its brass octagon had sunk into her palm. She listened as Aidan fumbled the chain off from the other side. He let her in.
‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ he said, ‘but can we think of the neighbours?’
Ishbel dropped her handbag onto the stripped wooden floor of the hallway.
‘Never mind the neighbours, Aidan. Where has she gone?’
Her husband put a hand on her shoulder.
She flinched the hand away.
‘She’s been sneaking around somewhere. She was late getting out of football, then just after I texted you, I saw her get off a bus at Comely Bank. She let herself into the school and walked out again to make it look like she’d been there all along. She thinks I was born yesterday.’ Aidan opened his mouth to speak, but Ishbel went on: ‘Then she gets in the car and lies about it, to my face. Right to my face, Aidan. Smooth as anything.’
Ishbel realised she was shaking. What was it – shock? Anger? Worry, she thought. But her husband was smiling at her.
Her eyes widened.
‘What do you mean, that’s all? Where has she been? Why is she lying to me? Why didn’t she tell me she’s got a boyfriend?’
‘Come on, Bel. Did you never have secrets from your parents?’
He made that slap-worthy face again, and then added, ‘I mean, from your mother?’
Ishbel paused, then waved her husband aside and stepped past him.
‘I can’t believe you’re saying this to me.’
She started up the stairs. Behind her in the hall, Aidan was still talking.
‘Did you never sneak off anywhere on your own? Did you never want to have something that was just for you?’
Ishbel whirled around, hand on the banister.
‘Do you know something else?’ she asked. ‘What else has she told you? Do you know what this is about?’
Her husband frowned.
‘No,’ he said, and she could see he was telling the truth. Damn. Him being party to something else that she wasn’t would have stung, but at least she’d have had a chance at winkling it out of him. ‘I told you everything last week. But Bel, she’s nearly twenty years old. She’s an adult. What she does and where she goes isn’t really our business any more.’
Ishbel smacked the flat of her hand off the banister. It hurt.
‘For Christ’s sake, Aidan,’ she said. ‘You know why I’m upset about this. It’s not the doing and the going – it’s the lying. I mean, why lie to me? Why swear at me, why be abusive? She’s not just coming and going as she pleases.There’s something going on here.’
Her husband threw up his hands: a whatever, you win gesture. It irritated her. Why wasn’t he angry, too? What was this?
‘No.’ She brought her hand down again. ‘You don’t get to just surrender! For once, just for once, Aidan, I need you to be on my side. I need you to feel the way I feel, or at least acknowledge it. She still lives under our roof, she still eats our food, I still sit in that godforsaken car park every week waiting for her to come out of football. When none of those things are true any more, then she can come and go as she pleases. When I’m no longer washing her jeans for her, then she can roll them around in the dirt. But while she lives here I have the right to know what the hell’s going on!’
In the quiet that followed, Ishbel realised she was breathing hard. The staircase and its landings rang with the harmonics of her outburst. But she didn’t feel any better. Something was still pent up inside her.
‘You hear that, missy?’ She tilted her head up, sending the yell in the vague direction of her daughter’s bedroom. Her voice was beginning to get hoarse. ‘We’re not done here, you know. You’re not going to lie to my face and get away with it, not while you live in this house!’
There was no answer. No sound came from above her head. Ishbel wondered if her daughter had even heard her – she could have put on her noise-cancelling headphones. She could be watching a TV show right now, oblivious. Down in the hall, Aidan’s hands were still in the air, as though someone were pointing a gun at him. Ishbel could see him on the edge of her vision. She felt as though all the life were ebbing out of her.
‘Well,’ Aidan brought his arms down by his sides. ‘Now that we’ve all had chapter and verse, can you please calm down?’
Ishbel glared at him, but the fight in her was dying.
‘I don’t know what’s going on with you, Aidan,’ she said. ‘This really isn’t like you at all.’
‘You’re just being melodramatic,’ he said. ‘And I think you know that.’
They stood looking at one another for a long time. Aidan in the hall, his shirtsleeves rolled up, a hole in one sock. Ishbel five stairs above him, her feet sore in her high-heeled shoes, and her heart thudding in her ears. Of course, she thought. He wouldn’t care about our daughter disappearing at all hours of the day and night. He does it himself, all the time. She tried to push the thought away.
‘Did you buy dishwasher tablets?’ Aidan said.
Ishbel brought both hands to her face, to shut him out.
‘I’m going to bed,’ she said, speaking into her own palms.When Aidan said nothing, she added, ‘In the spare room.’
But a moment later, when she dropped her hands, he’d already walked away.