Authors: Denise Mina
Kay was almost finished. She was catching up on the twice-a-year jobs, the washing and buffing of glassware that was never used. To her almost certain knowledge Mrs. Thalaine hadn’t touched these wee red vases in three years. But she’d been given them by one of the kids, and she liked them. Kay pressed them down into the hot water and watched the grease lift and the sheen return to the glass. Her hands were pink to the wrists. She smiled at the steam settling on her face like artificial perspiration, cooling her down before her body had time to respond to the need.
The doorbell rang all the way across the house. Kay turned to see who it was. The kitchen window looked out onto the courtyard and the front door.
A man and a woman stood looking at the door. Both in suits, but not sorry the way salesmen were. They looked confident, weren’t swinging their briefcases nervously or letting off weak practice-smiles.
Mrs. Thalaine’s lady-trot clip-clop hurried to the hall followed by the sound of her unlocking and opening the door. Kay turned back to the sink and her washing, taking the vases out, putting them on the draining board, her meditation broken by curiosity. She craned to hear the muted conversation in the hall.
The man and woman introduced themselves. Kay couldn’t hear the details but Mrs. Thalaine mumbled some questions and then she heard footsteps coming this way. She resented it because she still had bits to do and then she’d promised herself a smoke and a sit on the bench before she moved on to the Campbells’.
Margery Thalaine sounded nervous, her voice high and a little shaky. Whoever they were, if they were hassly salesmen, she would surely know to bring them into Kay so she could tell them to fuck off. They came to this area every so often because of all the money and the polite old people. It took the staff to tell them where to go.
Sure enough, steps through the hall, low voices making conversation but now Mrs. Thalaine quite chatty, not sounding irritated the way she did when she was being made to do something she didn’t want to.
A pause outside the door and then it opened. Mrs. Thalaine stood there for a moment, the suits behind her, and Kay read her face for clues. Calm. A little excited. She wasn’t supposed to get excited.
“Kay? These are the police.”
At that Kay turned towards them, looked them up and down, getting their measure. The man looked back at her arrogantly, tipping his nose up, squaring up to her. The woman leaned forward and held her hand out.
“I’m DC Leonard.”
Kay would not shake hands with a police officer. She held her hands up, wet. The female dropped her hand. Kay didn’t respect many people and the police were low on her count.
Her wet hands dripped suds onto the floor she had just cleaned. Another thing to do. “You want me to…” She sounded cross, she knew she did, and she didn’t want to upset Mrs. Thalaine.
Mrs. Thalaine smiled weakly. “If you wouldn’t mind…”
Kay dried her hands, knowing she looked cross and promising herself she’d come back and explain on her way to the bus stop, that she didn’t like the police or trust them, that she’d had trouble with them.
She softened her voice. “Well, I’ll just leave it there today, if that’s all right with you.”
Mrs. Thalaine’s chin twitched anxiously so Kay touched her forearm as she passed on her way to the door, letting her know she wasn’t angry with her.
“Actually,” Kay turned back at the sound of Margery’s voice and saw that she had been comforted, “could you take the recycling with you?”
Suddenly angry, Kay pinched her mouth. “Can’t you take it round yourself, Margery?”
Margery pinched her mouth back. She didn’t like Kay calling her by her first name in front of visitors. They looked hard at each other for a moment until Margery broke off and sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. “I’d rather you took it.”
Kay left the room and slammed the door behind her. She stomped through the long living room. Bright sun streamed in the long wall of small windows, hitting her pupils like a series of slaps.
She opened the door to the hall cupboard. There was the bag she had set out nicely for Margery: a bag for life, Waitrose, to take the poor look off her. Kay had set it there for her, near the door, handles up, ready to go.
Kay always arrived half an hour early, thirty minutes that she insisted she didn’t get paid for, just to listen to Margery moan and weep because she was lonely and so much had gone wrong and she couldn’t talk about her worries to her clubhouse ladies because none of them ever admitted to having troubles. And this morning over those stupid wee cups of tea that wouldn’t wet a mouse’s tongue, it took her twenty minutes to get Margery to promise she would leave the house at least once a day, and today’s expedition was to the recycling bins a hundred yards away.
Kay felt foolish and tricked, as if all the intimacy they had shared meant nothing, as if she had been kicked back into her place. But her sadness was too deep and she knew it was really about Joy. She didn’t love Margery. She was trying to replace Joy, that soft, kind intimacy, sometimes mother, sometimes child. Looking at the bag of recycling, she remembered a tiny withered hand touching her forearm. She had to clear her throat to chase the tears.
She glared at the bottles in the dark cupboard, called them bastards under her breath, cursed herself for being a mug. She turned and looked out of a living room window into the kitchen.
Through the French windows she could see the policewoman filling out a form on a clipboard. It’d be some neighborhood snoop scheme. Margery could run it, she could invite all her phony fucking pals into her house and feed them Markie’s biscuits and daft wee sandwiches and pretend that she wasn’t flat and fucking stony broke or scared to leave the house, that she didn’t wake up in the night and listen for her husband’s breathing just to make sure he wasn’t dead.
Kay took her coat down from the peg and threw it on. She took her handbag and slung the strap over her head, lifted the Waitrose bag and her own poly bag and then realized she needed the loo. She slammed the cupboard door, put the bags down in the hall and went into the bathroom.
Washing her hands, she looked at herself in the mirror. Her roots were showing. She could see specks of gray. She looked more than tired; she looked defeated. She stepped back, turned to the side slightly so the harsh daylight wasn’t on her. Holding her eye in the mirror, she smiled softly and liked what she saw.
“I’m nice,” she whispered, thinking about listening to Margery’s complaints. She nodded, knew she was right. “The gift’s to the giver.”
Becalmed, she unrolled some toilet paper and wiped the watery splashes off the basin, buffing it to a shine, threw the paper in the toilet, flushed it and walked out to the hall, picking up the bags on her way out.
She knew Mrs. Thalaine would see her walking away from the door, stepping awkwardly across the badly spaced paving-stone path set into perfectly raked white gravel chips. Kay didn’t look back but thought to herself that she should go home and get the photos of Joy out and she wasn’t going to kid herself anymore. She wouldn’t come early tomorrow. She’d come on time. And she decided to buy a hair dye on the way home and maybe some cream for her hands.
She kept her head high until she was sure she was out of view of the kitchen window and then she reached into her handbag for her cigarettes, lit one and sauntered around the corner, enjoying it, knowing she was early for the Campbells and needn’t hurry.
It was breezy, rain threatening, too windy for an outdoor smoke to taste pleasant but she enjoyed it anyway because it was her time. That’s all she got for herself nowadays, the spaces in between, but it was enough for her.
The wheelie bins and recycle point was a source of much local dispute. No one wanted to see the bins or have them near their house. A compromise had been reached. A space the length of two cars had been tarmacked and surrounded by high box hedging. It always made Kay smile, the prudishness of it, as if they were ashamed of needing to use a bin. It was a natural windbreak. She leaned into the cushioned hedge and took another draw on her cigarette. It was a nice one. She felt the anger at Margery sucked deep down into her lungs and dissipate through her stomach.
The sound of a car engine came over the hedge so she dragged one last draw, a nasty scratchy one, and dropped the cigarette on the ground, crushing it with her heel and stepping away from it. There had been complaints about cigarette butts left by the bins. Picking up the Waitrose bag for life she thought “fuck Margery,” lifted the lid for the household rubbish and threw it in just as the car came past.
The car stopped behind her and she turned to it, expecting to be ticked off by a local for dropping her smoke there, but it was the police from Margery’s.
The male officer was driving. He rolled down his window, a stupid big grin on his face, and he was nodding slowly as if she was a bit simple.
“Should that not have gone in the recycling?”
The grin was big, open-mouthed, she could see his tongue twitch and glint inside.
“If she cares so much about the environment she can bring it back herself,” said Kay sullenly.
Undeterred, he carried on grinning and talking slowly, his accent muted as if she wouldn’t understand. “Do you not care about the environment?”
She saw his eye stray to her tits and that he wasn’t even respectful enough to be embarrassed when he saw that she had noticed. She folded her arms over them.
“Did you just stop here to blind me with your wit, or was there something I could help you with?”
Scolded, he slunk back in his seat. The woman officer who had tried to shake hands with her leaned over to the window. “You Kay Murray?”
“You used to work up at Glenarvon?”
“Sure, up until a couple of months ago when Mrs. Erroll died.”
“Could you come up and tell us if anything’s been taken?”
“Was it burgled?”
“We don’t know. We don’t know if anything’s missing.”
Kay frowned. “Ask Sarah Erroll. She’s home, I think.”
“I’m afraid Sarah Erroll was killed last night during a break-in. Mrs. Thalaine said that Sarah was selling off items of furniture and crockery and stuff but we don’t know if the intruder took anything. Could you come up and tell us if you think anything’s missing?”
“Killed? Sarah? In the house?” Kay was aware that she was slurring.
“Oh.” The woman seemed to realize suddenly that Kay was upset by the news. “I’m afraid so, sorry for telling you like that…”
“Who’s killed her?”
The man wasn’t grinning now. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
“She’s twenty-four…” Kay was calculating the difference in ages with her own kids, eight years between her and Joe.
The woman officer tried again. “I’m sorry, were you close?”
She was about to light another cigarette to blunt the shock when she realized that Margery was alone in the house, sitting with news of another sudden death, another reason to be afraid. “You never told her, did ye?”
“Marg—Thalaine, Mrs. Thalaine?”
They looked at each other and she knew they had.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” She hurried around the bonnet of the car, touching it, finding it warm.
“You’ll come up?” the woman called to her through her own window.
“After,” shouted Kay as she sprinted back along the road. “I’ll come after.”
The cushioned rings around Thomas’s ears were hot and itchy as the Piper rattled down through gray clouds to Biggin Hill.
It was small, little more than four seats and an engine, a go-cart of a plane. He never liked landing in the Piper. The plane was so small he always had an image of a balsa wood collapse on landing, the plane caving in on itself like a soggy cardboard box, crushing him. He took deep breaths to calm himself, sucking in the stale smell of Captain Jack’s sweat. They were inches from each other. Thomas couldn’t even pass the time reading because the cabin lights had to be out and the plane juddered so much it made the letters jump. All he could do was think.
Now he was alone and unseen, he wasn’t haunted by images of the dead woman or the smell of baby wipes. Now all he could think of was his parents.
Moira. Distant, stupid, no-longer-pretty mother. She’d be fainting away every half hour, unable to cope with the loss of a man who’d been phoning his mistresses from the breakfast table for years. His grandmother used to say of her that she made a meal of everything, that’s why she never ate. She was a suffocating, empty vacuum. She didn’t even like him. Everything was reserved for Ella.
Squeak was right: there were no children. Just a plain woman in a tumbledown house. His father wouldn’t stand for that. He insisted on immaculate decor, perfect clothes, appropriate dress always. It was shock and awe but in the wrong house, and the mistake was his. It was a foolish mistake. People would find out and think him foolish.
In the rumbling dark his mind ricocheted between the messy old house and the image of Squeak on all fours, staying out of the light, looking up at him. He couldn’t blame Squeak but took it on himself, as if Squeak was a part of him that he had allowed to grow and fester unchecked. One small rational part of him recognized that it was wrong to be so loyal, and he was astute enough to know that he had picked Squeak randomly, because they had been physically close for a long, long time, because his parents weren’t fulfilling the roles they were supposed to and he needed to attach himself to someone. He was Squeak. It was irrational how much he was Squeak. These were not rational times. Every time he looked up everything had changed completely.
The headphone cushions were really itchy. He worked his index finger up under the leather cuff and scratched the skin around his ears hard. Moira wouldn’t come to the airport to get him. She’d probably be hiding in the house, in her own apartments, with Ella.
They were suddenly below the clouds, low enough for Thomas to imagine tumbling out of the plane, remaining conscious while hurtling towards the ground. The pilot took instruction from the landing tower again, their conversation crackling suddenly in Thomas’s itchy earphones. Captain Jack had flown him many times and spoke in that strange stay-calm voice they used on commercial airlines. He sounded like a bad radio DJ.
Whatever Doyle said, Thomas wouldn’t go back to St. Augustus’s. He tried to imagine his life now, how it would be day to day, what he would fill the day with. He wondered if his dad dying meant that the creditors couldn’t take their house. Thomas would still have his rooms, away from the main house, on the ground floor. It was a granny flat really. The last people used it as a granny flat. Two large rooms onto the garden, with a small kitchen and a bathroom. When they moved in his dad let Thomas have it for his own because he was smoking a bit and they wouldn’t allow it in the house. It was bad for Ella’s asthma.
He imagined himself in the bed, lying in the dark, finally, properly alone and free to think. He didn’t feel grief or sadness like he was supposed to. What he felt was bewildered and so angry that he wanted to reach forward and strangle Captain Jack.
Alarmed by his thoughts, he clasped his hands together on his lap. He looked out of the window.
His father was gone.
He had filled every room he walked into.
“Look at them, looking at me,” he said to Thomas and Ella as they walked into a restaurant once. Ella hugged her father around the waist and said something pathetic. But Thomas looked at the man, at his white hair, silvered with mousse, and knew that everyone was looking at him because he looked so moneyed. His jacket had never been rained on, his collar was new-white, he was bringing two children to a three-starred Michelin restaurant full of financiers in dark suits. It was not for the benefit of the children, nothing was ever about them. They were eating there so that people could see him squander two-hundred-quid meals on an awkward teenager and a soppy kid. His father wasn’t special, he was just rich. Now he was dead. Thomas kept thinking he had killed him, that he’d heard about her and hanged himself. It was as if he was hoping that. He had to remind himself over and over that his father had been swinging from a beam before Squeak even started the engine.
Thomas looked out of the window. He should hang himself too. He’d like to see them then, the creditors protesting outside the security wall of the house, throwing eggs and burning newspaper over it, when it could land on anyone, Ella or a dog or someone. He’d like to see the headlines when his fifteen-year-old son was found hanged. They’d make it all about the money and the public pressure. They’d feel terrible. The newspapers that had gone for his father would reverse their position, denounce others for attacking, call for calm. He smiled at the back of Captain Jack’s head.
They were coming down, circling, lining up to the landing strip. Thomas looked out to the horizon. He could see Bromley on the far right, Blackheath maybe, sinking down, down, disappearing, being swallowed by the earth. They were coming down fast.
His breathing was so loud it made the voice activation start up and the pilot asked him to repeat what he had said.
“Nothing,” said Thomas, sounding urgent. “Just breathing.”
They were lined up with the landing lights, a perfect straight-on landing. Coming straight at it, dipping down, nose low. Thomas abandoned the deep breathing and began to pick at the edge of the seat covering.
The plane bumped onto the runway and slowed, tipping a little so that they could feel the weight shifting alarmingly to the nose. It righted itself, slowed to a crawl and Captain Jack spoke into the headphones, using the stupid voice, telling the tower that they had landed.
Slowly, the plane taxied to the brightly lit mouth of the hangar, a slit of fraudulent yellow warmth. The doors were pulled back waiting for them. It was empty as they rolled in slowly. Usually there were a few aircraft in there and they had to wait and get a tow but the pilot had been told to drive straight in. Thomas looked for the ATR-42 but couldn’t see it. Captain Jack performed a perfect stop, no heavy jolts forward, no bumps. The engine died.
He shut down the engine and lights, switch by laborious switch. Somewhat inappropriately, he thanked Thomas over the headset for his company this evening. Definitely a failed airline pilot, Thomas thought, drunk at the departure desk or something like that.
Testing his knees for steadiness, Thomas undid his seat belt and stood up a little, pulling the headset off and dropping it onto the seat. Outside a man in a boiler suit wheeled some steps up to the plane. Thomas waited for Captain Jack to open his door, scrabble out and help him down.
Then he saw her.
She was standing in the freezing cold of the hangar, on a concrete platform in front of the office door. She knew the plane because she’d often met him coming off it, coming back from school. Dark hair, and holding her long green sheepskin shut. Nanny Mary. Thomas felt a burst of love for her, a need for her and, as always, the follow-through: a feeling of disgust and self-loathing, slimy, like her juice under his fingernails as he lay in bed at night, the smell of her on his bedsheets, her hard runner’s body lying next to him, unyielding muscles in soft skin. She caught his eye, sensed his mood and smiled uncertainly. Thomas looked away.
The pilot opened the door to a shock of cold and stepped out. Thomas pushed the chair forward and stepped down to the freezing ground, ignoring the pilot’s outstretched helping hand, not making eye contact. Mary came towards him, reached out a hand too and Thomas ignored that as well.
“Where’s the car?”
“Tommy, you’re bleeding.” She reached forward to his ear but he yanked his head away, cupping his hand over it. Cold wet dampened his palm. He had scratched too hard.
“Where’s your luggage?”
Captain Jack climbed back in and found his duffel bag in the back, behind the seats. He handed it down and Mary made a big show of getting it for him. Thomas watched her reach up, look into Captain Jack’s face—though she had made jokes about him many times behind his back—and smile a snaky smile.
She carried the bag to the car for him, holding the weight easily, swinging it into her outside hand at one point, making him panic. Afraid she would take his hand, he tucked both deep into his trouser pockets until he could feel the hole forming in the bottom of the lining and a patch of stiffness from a burst biro.
Jamie, his mother’s favorite driver, was standing by the car, rubbing his hands to keep warm. She had sent Jamie and he hoped for a moment that it was out of affection, an attempt to give him a warm welcome, but it wasn’t. Jamie was only here because she didn’t need him. She was indoors, in the warm, with Ella.
Jamie smiled nervously, nodded and opened the door. Thomas said, “All right?” and got in before Jamie answered. Mary climbed in after him. Behind them the boot popped and Jamie put the bag in, slamming it shut, jogged around to the front and got in.
She had set it out before she came to the hangar: two Starbucks’ cups, plastic not paper, sat in the cupholders between the two seats. Steam rose from the sip hole, the smell of chocolate. She pointed to them as Jamie started the car and pulled out.
Thomas looked out of the window next to him. “No.”
She smiled and picked hers up, wrapping her big hands around it. “Thought you might be cold.”
“I’m fine.” He could see her reflection in the dark window, saw her eyes stray to his belly and his groin. He had a shuddering need for her and felt sick. “Don’t want anything.”
She looked away. “You’re still bleeding.”
He caught his own eye in the smoked glass window. “Shut the fuck up, Mary.”