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My Policeman

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Random House
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english
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Contents


Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Bethan Roberts

Dedication

Title Page

Part I

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Part II

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Part III

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Part IV

Chapter 31

Part V

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Acknowledgements

Copyright





About the Book


From the moment Marion first lays eyes on Tom – her best friend’s big brother, broad, blond, blue-eyed – she is smitten. And when he comes home from National Service to be a policeman, Marion, a newly qualified teacher, is determined to win him. Unable to acknowledge the signs that something is amiss, she plunges into marriage, sure that her love is enough for both of them...

But Tom has another life, another equally overpowering claim on his affections. Patrick, a curator at the Brighton Museum, is also besotted with his policeman, and opens Tom’s eyes to a world previously unknown to him. But in an age when those of ‘minority status’ were condemned by society and the law, it is safer for this policeman to marry his teacher. The two lovers must share him, until one of them breaks and three lives are destroyed.

Unfolding through the dual narratives of Marion and Patrick, both writing about the man at the centre of their lives, this beautifully-told, painful, tragic story is revealed. It is a tale of wasted years, misguided love and thwarted hope, of how at a time when the country was on the verge of change so much was still impossible. Bethan Roberts has produced an intense and exquisitely raw yet tender novel, which proves her to be one of our most exciting young writers.





About the Author


Bethan Roberts was born in Oxford and grew up in nearby Abingdon. Her first novel The Pools was published in 2007 and;  won a Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers’ Award. Her second novel The Good Plain Cook, published in 2008, was serialized on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and was chosen as one of Time Out’s books of the year. She also writes short stories (in 2006 she was awarded the Olive Cook short story prize by the Society of Authors) and has had a play broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Bethan has worked as a television documentary researcher, writer and assistant producer, and has taught Creative Writing at Chichester University and Goldsmiths College, London. She lives in Brighton with her family.





ALSO BY BETHAN ROBERTS

The Pools

The Good Plain Cook





For all my Brighton friends, but most especially for Stuart





MY

POLICEMAN


Bethan Roberts





I





Peacehaven, October 1999


I CONSIDERED STARTING with these words: I no longer want to kill you – because I really don’t – but then decided you would think this far too melodramatic. You’ve always hated melodrama, and I don’t want to upset you now, not in the state you’re in, not at what may be the end of your life.

What I mean to do is this: write it all down, so I can get it right. This is a confession of sorts, and it’s worth getting the details correct. When I am finished, I plan to read this account to you, Patrick, because you can’t answer back any more. And I have been instructed to keep talking to you. Talking, the doctors say, is vital if you are to recover.

Your speech is almost destroyed, and even though you are here in my house, we communicate on paper. When I say on paper, I mean pointing at flashcards. You can’t articulate the words but you can gesture towards your desires: drink, lavatory, sandwich. I know you want these things before your finger reaches the picture, but I let you point anyway, because it is better for you to be independent.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that I’m the one with pen and paper now, writing this – what shall we call it? It’s hardly a journal, not of the type you once kept. Whatever it is, I’m the one writing, while you lie in your bed, watching my every move.

*

You’ve never liked this stretch of coast, calling it suburbia-on-sea, the place the old go to gaze at sunsets and wait for death. Wasn’t this area – exposed, lonely, windswept, like all the best British seaside settlements – known as Siberia in that terrible winter of ’63? It’s not quite that bleak here now, although it’s still as uniform; there’s even some comfort, I find, in its predictability. Here in Peacehaven, the streets are the same, over and over: modest bungalow, functional garden, oblique sea view.

I was very resistant to Tom’s plans to move here. Why would I, a lifelong Brighton resident, want to live on one floor, even if our bungalow was called a Swiss chalet by the estate agent? Why would I settle for the narrow aisles of the local Co-op, the old-fat stench of Joe’s Pizza and Kebab House, the four funeral parlours, a pet shop called Animal Magic and a dry-cleaner’s where the staff are, apparently, ‘London trained’? Why would I settle for such things after Brighton, where the cafés are always full, the shops sell more than you could possibly imagine, let alone need, and the pier is always bright, always open and often slightly menacing?

No. I thought it an awful idea, just as you would have done. But Tom was determined to retire to a quieter, smaller, supposedly safer place. I think, in part, he’d had more than enough of being reminded of his old beats, his old busyness. One thing a bungalow in Peacehaven does not do is remind you of the world’s busyness. So here we are, where no one is out on the street before nine thirty in the morning or after nine thirty at night, save a handful of teenagers who smoke outside the pizza place. Here we are in a two-bedroom bungalow (it is not a Swiss chalet, it is not), within easy reach of the bus stop and the Co-op, with a long lawn to look out on and a whirligig washing line and three outdoor buildings (shed, garage, greenhouse). The saving grace is the sea view, which is indeed oblique – it’s visible from the side bedroom window. I’ve given this bedroom to you, and have arranged your bed so you may see the glimpse of the sea as much as you like. I’ve given all this to you, Patrick, despite the fact that Tom and I never before had our own view. From your Chichester Terrace flat, complete with Regency finishings, you enjoyed the sea every day. I remember the view from your flat very well, even though I rarely visited you: the Volk’s railway, the Duke’s Mound gardens, the breakwater with its crest of white on windy days, and of course the sea, always different, always the same. Up in our terraced house on Islingword Street, all Tom and I saw were our own reflections in the neighbours’ windows. But still. I wasn’t keen to leave that place.

So I suspect that when you arrived here from the hospital a week ago, when Tom lifted you from the car and into your chair, you saw exactly what I did: the brown regularity of the pebble-dash, the impossibly smooth plastic of the double-glazed door, the neat conifer hedge around the place, and all of it would have struck terror into your heart, just as it had in mine. And the name of the place: The Pines. So inappropriate, so unimaginative. A cool sweat probably oozed from your neck and your shirt suddenly felt uncomfortable. Tom wheeled you along the front path. You would have noticed that each slab was a perfectly even piece of pinkish-grey concrete. As I put the key in the lock and said, ‘Welcome,’ you wrung your wilted hands together and pulled your face into something like a smile.

Entering the beige-papered hallway, you would have smelled the bleach I’d used in preparation for your stay with us, and registered the scent of Walter, our collie-cross, lurking beneath it. You nodded slightly at the framed photograph of our wedding, Tom in that wonderful suit from Cobley’s – paid for by you – and me in that stiff veil. We sat in the living room, Tom and I on the new brown velvet suite, bought with money from Tom’s retirement package, and listened to the ticking music of the central heating. Walter panted at Tom’s feet. Then Tom said, ‘Marion will see you settled.’ And I noticed the wince you gave at Tom’s determination to leave, the way you continued to stare at the net curtains as he strode towards the door saying, ‘Something I’ve got to see to.’

The dog followed him. You and I sat listening to Tom’s footsteps along the hallway, the rustle as he reached for his coat from the peg, the jangle as he checked in his pocket for his keys; we heard him gently command Walter to wait, and then there was only the sound of the suction of air as he pulled the double-glazed front door open and left the bungalow. When I finally looked at you, your hands, limp on your bony knees, were shaking. Did you think, then, that being in Tom’s home at last might not be all you’d hoped?





FORTY-EIGHT YEARS. THAT’S how far I have to go back, to when I first met Tom. And even that may not be far enough.

He was so contained back then. Tom. Even the name is solid, unpretentious, but not without the possibility of sensitivity. He wasn’t a Bill, a Reg, a Les or a Tony. Did you ever call him Thomas? I know I wanted to. Sometimes there were moments when I wanted to rename him. Tommy. Perhaps that’s what you called him, the beautiful young man with the big arms and the dark blond curls.

I knew his sister from grammar school. During our second year there, she approached me in the corridor and said, ‘I was thinking – you look all right – will you be my friend?’ Up until that point, we’d each spent our time alone, baffled by the strange rituals of the school, the echoing spaces of the classrooms and the clipped voices of the other girls. I let Sylvie copy my homework, and she played me her records: Nat King Cole, Patti Page, Perry Como. Together, under our breath, we sang Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger as we stood at the back of the queue for the vaulting horse, letting all the other girls go before us. Neither of us liked games. I enjoyed going to Sylvie’s because Sylvie had things, and her mother let her wear her brittle blonde hair in a style too old for her years; I think she even helped her set the fringe in a kiss-curl. At the time, my hair, which was as red as it ever was, still hung in a thick plait down my back. If I lost my temper at home – I remember once shutting my brother Fred’s head in the door with some force – my father would look at my mother and say, ‘It’s the red in her,’ because the ginger strain was on my mother’s side. I think you once called me the Red Peril, didn’t you, Patrick? By that time, I’d come to like the colour, but I always felt it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, having red hair: people expected me to have a temper, and so, if I felt anger flaring up, I let it go. Not often, of course. But occasionally I slammed doors, threw crockery. Once I rammed the Hoover so hard into the skirting board that it cracked.

When I was first invited to Sylvie’s house in Patcham, she had a peach silk neckerchief and as soon as I saw it I wanted one too. Sylvie’s parents had a tall drinks cabinet in their living room, with glass doors painted with black stars. ‘It’s all on the never-never,’ Sylvie said, pushing her tongue into her cheek and showing me upstairs. She let me wear the neckerchief and she showed me her bottles of nail varnish. When she opened one, I smelled pear-drops. Sitting on her neat bed, I chose the dark purple polish to brush over Sylvie’s wide, bitten-down nails, and when I’d finished, I brought her hand up to my face and blew, gently. Then I brought her thumbnail to my mouth and ran my top lip over the smooth finish, to check it was dry.

‘What are you doing?’ She gave a spiky laugh.

I let her hand fall back into her lap. Her cat, Midnight, came in and brushed up against my legs.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

Midnight stretched and pressed herself along my ankles with greater urgency. I reached down to scratch her behind the ears, and whilst I was doubled over the cat, Sylvie’s bedroom door opened.

‘Get out,’ Sylvie said in a bored voice. I quickly straightened up, worried that she was speaking to me, but she was glaring over my shoulder towards the doorway. I twisted round and saw him standing there, and my hand came up to the silk at my neck.

‘Get out, Tom,’ Sylvie repeated, in a tone that suggested she was resigned to the roles they had to play out in this little drama.

He was leaning in the doorway with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to the elbows, and I noticed the fine lines of muscle in his forearms. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen – barely a year older than me; but his shoulders were already wide and there was a dark hollow at the base of his neck. His chin had a scar on one side – just a small dent, like a fingerprint in plasticine – and he was wearing a sneer, which even then I knew he was doing deliberately, because he thought he should, because it made him look like a Ted; but the whole effect of this boy leaning on the door frame and looking at me with his blue eyes – small eyes, set deep – made me blush so hard that I reached down and plunged my fingers back into the dusty fur around Midnight’s ears and focused my eyes on the floor.

‘Tom! Get out!’ Sylvie’s voice was louder now, and the door slammed shut.

You can imagine, Patrick, that it was a few minutes before I could trust myself to remove my hand from the cat’s ears and look at Sylvie again.

After that, I did my best to remain firm friends with Sylvie. Sometimes I would take the bus out to Patcham and walk past her semi-detached house, looking up at her bright windows, telling myself I was hoping she would come out, when in fact my whole body was strung tight in anticipation of Tom’s appearance. Once, I sat on the wall around the corner from her house until it got dark and I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. I listened to the blackbirds singing for all they were worth, and smelled the dampness growing in the hedges around me, and then I caught the bus home.

My mother looked out of windows a lot. Whenever she was cooking, she’d lean on the stove and gaze out of the tiny line of glass in our back door. She was always, it seemed to me, making gravy and staring out of the window. She’d stir the gravy for the longest time, scraping the bits of meat and gristly residue around the pan. It tasted of iron and was slightly lumpy, but Dad and my brothers covered their plates with it. There was so much gravy that they got it on their fingers and in their nails, and they would lick it off while Mum smoked, waiting for the washing-up.

They were always kissing, Mum and Dad. In the scullery, him with his hand gripped tight on the back of her neck, her with her arm around his middle, pulling him closer. It was difficult, at the time, to work out how they fitted together, they were so tightly locked. It was ordinary to me, though, seeing them like that and I’d just sit at the kitchen table, put my Picturegoer annual on the ribbed tablecloth, prop my chin in my hand and wait for them to finish. The strange thing is, although there was all that kissing, there never seemed to be much conversation. They’d talk through us: You’ll have to ask your father about that. Or: What does your mother say? At the table it would be Fred, Harry and me, and Dad reading the Gazette and Mum standing by the window, smoking. I don’t think she ever sat at the table to eat with us, except on Sundays when Dad’s father, Grandpa Taylor, would come too. He called Dad ‘boy’ and would feed his yellowing Westie, crouched beneath his chair, most of his dinner. So it was never long before Mum was standing and smoking again, clearing away the plates and crashing the crocks in the scullery. She’d station me at the drainer to dry, fastening a pinny round my waist, one of hers that was too long for me and had to be rolled over at the top, and I’d try to lean on the sink like her. Sometimes when she wasn’t there I’d gaze through the window and try to imagine what my mother thought about as she looked out on our shed with the slanting roof, Dad’s patch of straggly Brussels sprouts, and the small square of sky above the neighbours’ houses.

In the summer holidays Sylvie and I often went to Black Rock Lido. I always wanted to save my money and sit on the beach, but Sylvie insisted that the Lido was where we should be. This was partly because the Lido was where Sylvie could flirt with boys. All through school, she was seldom without some admirer, whereas I didn’t seem to attract anyone’s interest. I never relished the thought of spending another afternoon watching my friend being ogled, but with its sparkling windows, glaring white concrete and striped deckchairs, the lido was too pretty to resist, and so more often than not we paid our ninepences and pushed through the turnstiles to the poolside.

I remember one afternoon with particular clarity. We were both about seventeen. Sylvie had a lime-green two-piece, and I had a red swimsuit that was too small for me. I kept having to yank up the straps and pull down the legs. By this time, Sylvie had rather impressive breasts and a neat waistline; I still seemed to be a long rectangular shape with a bit of extra padding around the sides. I’d had my hair cut into a bob by then, which I was pleased with, but I was too tall. My father told me not to stoop, but he also made a point of telling me to always choose flat shoes. ‘No man wants to look up a woman’s nose,’ he’d say. ‘Isn’t that right, Phyllis?’ And Mum would smile and say nothing. At school they kept insisting that with my height I should be good at netball, but I was dreadful. I’d just stand at the side, pretending to be waiting for a pass. The pass never came, and I’d gaze over the fence at the boys playing rugby. Their voices were so different to ours – deep and woody, and with that confidence of boys who know what the next step in life will be. Oxford. Cambridge. The bar. The school next door was private, you see, like yours was, and the boys there seemed so much more handsome than the ones I knew. They wore well-cut jackets and walked with their hands in their pockets and their long fringes falling over their faces, whereas the boys I knew (and these were few) sort of charged towards you, looking straight ahead. No mystery to them. All up-front. Not that I ever talked to any of those boys with the fringes. You went to one of those schools, but you were never like that, were you, Patrick? Like me, you never fitted in. I understood that from the start.

It was not quite hot enough for bathing outside – a freshening wind was coming from the sea – but the sun was bright. Sylvie and I lay flat on our towels. I kept my skirt on over my costume, whilst Sylvie arranged her things in a neat row next to me: comb, compact, cardigan. She sat up and squinted, taking in the crowds on the sun-drenched terrace. Sylvie’s mouth always seemed to be pulled in an upside-down smile, and her front teeth followed the downward line of her top lip, as if they’d been chiselled especially into shape. I closed my eyes. Pinkish shapes moved around on the insides of my eyelids as Sylvie sighed and cleared her throat. I knew she wanted to talk to me, to point out who else was at the pool, who was doing what with whom and which boys she knew, but all I wanted was some warmth on my face and to get that far-away feeling that comes when you lie in the afternoon sun.

Eventually I was almost there. The blood seemed to have thickened behind my eyes and all my limbs had gone to rubber. The slap of feet and the crack of boys hitting the water from the diving board did nothing to rouse me, and although I could feel the sun burning my shoulders I remained flat on the concrete, breathing in the chalky smell of the wet floor and the occasional waft of cold chlorine from a passer-by.

Then something cool and wet fell on my cheek and I opened my eyes. At first all I could see was the white glare of the sky. I blinked, and a shape revealed itself, outlined in vivid pink. I blinked again and heard Sylvie’s voice, petulant but pleased – ‘What are you doing here?’ – and I knew who it was.

Sitting up, I tried to gather myself together, shading my eyes and hastily wiping sweat from my top lip.

There he was, with the sun behind him, smirking at Sylvie.

‘You’re dripping on us!’ she said, brushing at imaginary droplets on her shoulders.

Of course, I’d seen and admired Tom at Sylvie’s house many times, but this was the first time I’d seen quite so much of his body. I tried to look away, Patrick. I tried not to stare at the bead of water crawling its way from his throat to his navel, at the wet strands of hair at the nape of his neck. But you know how hard it is to look away when you see something you want. So I focused on his shins: on the glistening blond hairs that covered his skin; I adjusted the straps of my one-piece, and Sylvie asked again, with an overly dramatic sigh: ‘What do you want, Tom?’

He looked at the two of us – both bone-dry and sun-blotched. ‘Haven’t you been in?’

‘Marion doesn’t swim,’ announced Sylvie.

‘Why not?’ he asked, looking at me.

I could have lied, I suppose. But even then I had a terrible dread of being found out. In the end, people always found you out. And when they did, it would be worse than if you’d simply told the truth in the first place.

My mouth had dried, but I managed to say, ‘Never learned.’

‘Tom’s in the sea-swimming club,’ said Sylvie, with what sounded almost like pride.

I’d never had the urge to get wet. The sea was always there, a constant noise and movement on the edge of town. But that didn’t mean I had to join it, did it? Until that moment, not being able to swim hadn’t seemed the least bit important. But now I knew that I would have to do it.

‘I’d love to learn,’ I said, trying to smile.

‘Tom’ll teach you, won’t you, Tom?’ said Sylvie, looking him in the eye, challenging him to refuse.

Tom gave a shiver, then snatched Sylvie’s towel and wrapped it about his waist.

‘I could,’ he said. Rubbing roughly at his hair, trying to dry it with one hand, he turned to Sylvie. ‘Lend us a bob.’

‘Where’s Roy?’ asked Sylvie.

This was the first I’d heard of Roy, but Sylvie was obviously interested, judging by the way she dropped the question of swimming lessons and instead craned her neck to see past her brother.

‘Diving,’ said Tom. ‘Lend us a bob.’

‘What are you doing after?’

‘None of your business.’

Sylvie opened her compact and studied herself for a moment before saying, in a low voice, ‘I bet you’re going to the Spotted Dog.’

At this, Tom stepped forward and made a playful swipe for his sister, but she ducked to avoid his hand. His towel fell to the floor and again I averted my eyes.

I wondered what was so bad about going to the Spotted Dog, but, not wanting to appear ignorant, I kept my mouth shut.

Sylvie let a small silence pass before she murmured, ‘You’re going there. I know it.’ Then she grabbed the corner of the towel, jumped up, and began to twist it into a rope. Tom lunged for her, but she was too quick. The end of the towel landed across his chest with a crack, leaving a red line. At the time, I fancied I saw the line pulsing, but I’m not sure of that now. Still, you can picture it: our beautiful boy beaten by his little sister, marked by her soft cotton towel.

A flash of anger passed across his face, and I bristled; it was getting cooler now; a shadow was creeping over the sunbathers. Tom looked to the ground and swallowed. Sylvie hovered, unsure of her brother’s next move. With a sudden grab, he had the towel back; she was ducking and laughing as he flicked the thing madly about, occasionally slapping her with its end – at which she’d let out a high-pitched squeal – but mostly missing. He was gentle now, you see, I knew it even then; he was padding about and being deliberately clumsy, teasing his sister with the idea of his greater strength and accuracy, with the idea that he might strike her hard.

‘I’ve got a bob,’ I said, feeling for change in my cardigan pocket. It was all I had left, but I held it out to him.

Tom stopped flicking the towel. He was breathing hard. Sylvie rubbed at her neck where the towel had hit. ‘Bully,’ she muttered.

He held out his palm, and I placed my coin in it, letting my fingertips brush his warm skin.

‘Thanks,’ he said, and he smiled. Then he looked at Sylvie. ‘You all right?’

Sylvie shrugged.

When he’d turned his back, she stuck out her tongue.

On the way home, I smelled my hand, breathing in the metallic scent. The tang of my money would be on Tom’s fingers now, too.

Just before Tom left for his National Service, he gave me a glimmer of hope that I clung to until his return, and, if I’m honest, even beyond that.

It was December and I’d gone to Sylvie’s for tea. You’ll understand that Sylvie rarely came to my house, because she had her own bedroom, a portable record-player and bottles of Vimto, whereas I shared a room with Harry and the only thing to drink was tea. But at Sylvie’s we had sliced ham, soft white bread, tomatoes and salad cream, followed by tinned mandarins and evaporated milk. Sylvie’s father owned a shop on the front that sold saucy postcards, rock dummies, out-of-date packets of jellied fruits, and dolls made from shells with dried seaweed for collars. It was called Happy News because it also sold newspapers, magazines and copies of the racier titles wrapped in cellophane. Sylvie told me that her father sold five copies of the Kama Sutra every week, and that figure trebled over the summer. At the time, I’d only a dim idea that the Kama Sutra was, for reasons unknown to me, a forbidden book; but I’d pretended to be impressed, opening my eyes wide and mouthing ‘Really?’ as Sylvie nodded, triumphant.

We ate in the front room, and Sylvie’s mother’s budgerigar provided a constant background tweep. There were plastic chairs with steel legs and a wipe-clean dining table with no cloth. Sylvie’s mother was wearing an orangey shade of lipstick, and from where I was sitting I could smell the lavender cleaning fluid on her hands. She was extremely overweight, which was strange, because all I ever saw her eat were salad leaves and cucumber slices, and all I ever saw her drink was black coffee. Despite this apparent self-denial, her features seemed lost somewhere in the swollen flesh of her face, and her bosom was enormous and always propped up on display, like an oversized, well-whipped meringue in a baker’s window. When I knew I shouldn’t spend any more time looking at Tom, who was sitting next to his mother, I would fix my eyes on Mrs Burgess’s cushiony cleavage. I knew I shouldn’t really look there, either, but it was better than being caught with my eyes wandering all over her son. I was convinced I could feel the heat rising from him; his naked forearm rested on the table, and it seemed to me that his flesh was warming the entire room. And I could smell him (I wasn’t just imagining this, Patrick): he smelled – do you remember? – he smelled of hair oil, of course – Vitalis, it would have been then – and of pine-scented talc, which I later learned he dashed liberally beneath his arms every morning before pulling on his shirt. At that time, as you’ll recall, men like Tom’s father did not approve of talc. It’s different now, of course. When I go to the Co-op in Peacehaven and pass all the young boys, their hair so closely resembling Tom’s as it once was – slicked with oil and teased into impossible shapes – I’m overwhelmed by the fabricated scent of their perfume. They smell like new furniture, those boys. But Tom didn’t smell like that. He smelled exciting, because, back then, men who covered their own sweat with talc were rather suspect, which was very interesting to me. And you got the best of both worlds, you see: the fresh odour of the talc, but if you were close enough, the warm, muddy smell of skin beneath.

When we’d finished our sandwiches, Mrs Burgess brought through the tinned peaches on pink dishes. We ate in silence. Then Tom wiped the sweet juice from his lips and announced, ‘I went down the conscription office today. To volunteer. That way I get to choose what I do.’ He pushed his dish away and looked his father in the face. ‘I start next week.’

After giving a brief nod, Mr Burgess stood up and held out his hand. Tom also stood, and clasped his father’s fingers. I wondered if they’d ever shaken hands before. It didn’t look like something they did often. There was a firm shake and then they both glanced around the room as if wondering what to do next.

‘He always has to outdo me,’ Sylvie hissed in my ear.

‘What’ll you be doing?’ asked Mr Burgess, still standing, blinking at his son.

Tom cleared his throat. ‘Catering Corps.’

The two men stared at one another and Sylvie let out a giggle.

Mr Burgess suddenly sat down.

‘This is news, isn’t it? Shall we have a drink, Jack?’ Mrs Burgess’s voice was high, and I thought I heard a little crack in it as she pushed back her chair. ‘We need a drink, don’t we? For news like this.’ As she stood, she knocked the remains of her black coffee over the table. It spread across the white plastic and dripped on to the rug below.

‘Clumsy cow,’ muttered Mr Burgess.

Sylvie let out another giggle.

Tom, who seemed to have been standing in a trance, his arm still slightly outstretched where he’d shaken his father’s hand, moved towards his mother. ‘I’ll get a cloth,’ he said, touching her shoulder.

After Tom had left the room, Mrs Burgess looked around the table, taking in each of our faces. ‘Whatever will we do now?’ she said. Her voice was so quiet that I wondered if anyone else had heard her speak. Certainly no one responded for a few moments. But then Mr Burgess sighed and said, ‘Catering Corps isn’t exactly the Somme, Beryl.’

Mrs Burgess gave a sob and followed her son out of the room.

Tom’s father said nothing. The budgie tweeped and tweeped as we waited for Tom’s return. I could hear him talking in a hushed voice in the kitchen, and I imagined his mother weeping in his arms, devastated, as I was, that he was leaving.

Sylvie kicked my chair, but instead of looking at her, I fixed Mr Burgess with a stare and said, ‘Even soldiers have to eat, though, don’t they?’ I kept my voice steady and neutral. Later on, this was what I did when a child answered me back in class, or when Tom told me it was your turn, Patrick, at the weekend. ‘I’m sure Tom will make a good chef.’

Mr Burgess gave a tight laugh before pushing back his chair and hollering towards the kitchen door: ‘For God’s sake, where’s that drink?’

Tom came back in, holding two beer bottles. His father snatched one, held it up to Tom’s face and said, ‘Well done for upsetting your mother.’ Then he left the room, but instead of going into the kitchen and comforting Mrs Burgess, as I thought he might, I heard the front door slam.

‘Did you hear what Marion said?’ squawked Sylvie, snatching the other bottle from Tom and rolling it between her hands.

‘That’s mine,’ said Tom, grabbing it back from her.

‘Marion said you’ll make a good chef.’

With a deft flick of his wrist, Tom released the air from the bottle and tossed the metal cap and the opener aside. He took a glass from the top of the sideboard and carefully poured himself half a pint of thick brown ale. ‘Well,’ he said, holding the drink before his face and inspecting it before taking a couple of gulps, ‘she’s right.’ He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked directly at me. ‘I’m glad there’s someone with some sense in this house,’ he said, with a broad smile. ‘Wasn’t I going to teach you to swim?’

That night, I wrote in my hard-backed black notebook: His smile is like a harvest moon. Mysterious. Full of promises. I was very pleased with those words, I remember. And every evening after that, I would fill my notebook with my longing for Tom. Dear Tom, I wrote. Or sometimes Dearest Tom, or even Darling Tom; but I didn’t allow myself that indulgence too often; mostly, the pleasure of seeing his name appear in characters wrought by my hand was enough. Back then I was easy to please. Because when you’re in love with someone for the first time, their name is enough. Just seeing my hand form Tom’s name was enough. Almost.

I would describe the day’s events in ludicrous detail, complete with azure eyes and crimson skies. I don’t think I ever wrote about his body, although it was obviously this that impressed me the most; I expect I wrote about the nobility of his nose (which is actually rather flat and squashed-looking) and the deep bass of his voice. So you see, Patrick, I was typical. So typical.

For almost three years, I wrote out all my longing for Tom, and I looked forward to the day when he would come home and teach me to swim.

Does this infatuation seem faintly ludicrous to you, Patrick? Perhaps not. I suspect that you know about desire, about the way it grows when it’s denied, better than anyone. Every time Tom was home on leave I seemed to miss him, and I wonder now if I did this deliberately. Was waiting for his return, forgoing the sight of the real Tom, and instead writing about him in my notebook, a way of loving him more?

During Tom’s absence I did have some thoughts about getting myself a career. I remember I had an interview with Miss Monkton, the Deputy Head, towards the end of my time at the grammar, when I was about to sit my exams, and she asked me what my plans for the future were. They were quite keen on girls having plans for the future, although I knew, even then, this was all a pipe-dream that only stood up inside the walls of the school. Outside, plans fell apart, especially for girls. Miss Monkton had rather wild hair, for those days: a mass of tight curls, specked with silver. I felt sure she smoked, because her skin was the colour of well-brewed tea and her lips, which frequently curled into an ironic smile, had that dry tightness about them. In Miss Monkton’s office, I announced that I would like to become a teacher. It was the only thing I could think of at the time; it sounded better than saying I’d like to become a secretary, but it didn’t seem completely absurd, unlike, say, becoming a novelist or an actress, both of which I’d privately imagined myself being.

I don’t think I’ve admitted that to anyone before.

Anyway, Miss Monkton twisted her pen so the cap clicked and said, ‘And what’s made you reach this conclusion?’

I thought about it. I couldn’t very well say, I don’t know what else I could do. Or, It doesn’t look like I’ll be getting hitched, does it?

‘I like school, miss.’ As I spoke the words, I realised they were true. I liked the regular bells, the cleaned blackboards, the dusty desks full of secrets, the long corridors crammed with girls, the turpentine reek of the art class, the sound of the library catalogue spinning through my fingers. And I suddenly imagined myself at the front of a classroom, in a smart tweed skirt and a neat chignon, winning the respect and affection of my pupils with my firm but fair methods. I had no conception, then, of how bossy I would become, or how teaching would change my life. You often called me bossy, and you were right; teaching drills it into you. It’s you or them, you see. You have to make a stand. I learned that early on.

Miss Monkton gave one of her curled smiles. ‘It’s rather different,’ she said, ‘from the other side of the desk.’ She paused, put her pen down and turned to the window so she was no longer facing me. ‘I don’t want to dampen your ambitions, Taylor. But teaching requires enormous dedication and considerable backbone. It’s not that you’re not a decent student. But I would have thought something office-based would be more your line. Something a little quieter, perhaps?’

I stared at the trail of milk on top of her cooling cup of tea. Apart from that cup, her desk was completely empty.

‘What, for example,’ she continued, turning back towards me with a quick look at the clock above the door, ‘do your parents think of the idea? Are they prepared to support you through this venture?’

I hadn’t mentioned any of this to Mum and Dad. They could hardly believe I’d got in to the grammar in the first place; at the news, my father had complained about the cost of the uniform, and my mother had sat on the sofa, put her head in her hands and cried. I’d been pleased at first, assuming she was moved to tears by her pride in my achievement, but when she wouldn’t stop I’d asked her what was wrong and she’d said, ‘It’ll all be different now. This will take you away from us.’ And then, most nights, they complained that I spent too long studying in my bedroom, rather than talking to them.

I looked at Miss Monkton. ‘They’re right behind me,’ I announced.





WHEN I LOOK over the fields to the sea, on these autumn days when the grass moves in the wind and the waves sound like excited breath, I remember that I once felt intense and secret things, just like you, Patrick. I hope you will understand that, and I hope you can forgive it.

Spring 1957. Having finished his National Service, Tom was still away, training to become a policeman. I often thought with excitement of him joining the force. It seemed such a brave, grown-up thing to do. I didn’t know anyone else who’d do such a thing. At home, the police were rather suspect – not the enemy, exactly, but an unknown quantity. I knew that as a policeman Tom would have a different life to our parents, one that was more daring, more powerful.

I was attending teacher training college in Chichester but still saw Sylvie quite a bit, even though she was becoming more involved with Roy. Once she asked me to go with her to the roller rink, but when I got there she turned up with Roy and another boy called Tony, who worked with Roy at the garage. Tony didn’t seem to be able to speak much. Not to me, anyway. Occasionally he’d shout a comment to Roy as we skated round, but Roy didn’t always look back. That was because his eyes were caught up with Sylvie’s. It was like they couldn’t look anywhere else, not even where they were going. Tony didn’t hold my arm as we skated round, and I managed to get ahead of him several times. As I skated I thought of the smile Tom had given me the day he’d announced he was joining the Catering Corps, how his top lip had disappeared above his teeth and his eyes had slanted. When we stopped for a Coke, Tony didn’t smile at me. He asked me when I was leaving school, and I said, ‘Never – I’m going to be a teacher,’ and he looked at the door like he wanted to skate right through it.

One sunny afternoon not long after that, Sylvie and I went to Preston Park and sat on the bench beneath the elms, which were lovely and rustly, and she announced her engagement to Roy. ‘We’re very happy,’ she declared, with a secretive little smile. I asked her if Roy had taken advantage of her, but she shook her head and there was that smile again.

For a long time we just watched the people going by with their dogs and their children in the sunshine. Some of them had cones from the Rotunda. Neither Sylvie nor I had money for ice cream and Sylvie was still silent, so I asked her: ‘How far have you gone, then?’

Sylvie looked over the park, swinging her right leg back and forth impatiently. ‘I told you,’ she said.

‘No. You didn’t.’

‘I’m in love with him,’ she stated, stretching out her arms and closing her eyes. ‘Really in love.’

This I found hard to believe. Roy wasn’t bad looking, but he talked too much about absolutely nothing. He was also slight. His shoulders didn’t look as though they could bear any weight at all.

‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ Sylvie said, blinking at me. ‘I love Roy and we’re going to be married.’

I gazed at the grass beneath my feet. Of course I couldn’t say to Sylvie, ‘I know exactly what it’s like. I’m in love with your brother.’ I know that I would’ve ridiculed anyone who was in love with one of my brothers, and why should Sylvie have been any different?

‘I mean,’ she said, looking straight at me, ‘I know you’ve got a crush on Tom. But it’s not the same.’

Blood crawled up my neck and around my ears.

‘Tom’s not like that, Marion,’ said Sylvie.

For a moment I thought of standing up and walking away. But my legs were shaking, and my mouth had frozen in a smile.

Sylvie nodded towards a lad passing by with a large cornet in his hand. ‘Wish I had one of those,’ she said, loudly. The boy twisted his head and gave her a quick glance, but she turned to me and gently pinched my lower arm. ‘You don’t mind that I said that, do you?’ she asked.

I couldn’t reply. I think I managed to nod. Humiliated and confused, all I wanted was to get home and think properly about what Sylvie had said. My emotions must have shown on my face, though, because after a while Sylvie whispered in my ear, ‘I’ll tell you about Roy.’

Still I couldn’t respond, but she continued, ‘I did let him touch me.’

My eyes shifted towards her. She licked her lips and looked to the sky. ‘It was strange,’ she said. ‘I didn’t feel much, except scared.’

I fixed her with a stare. ‘Where?’ I asked.

‘Round the back of the Regent …’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Where did he touch you?’

She studied my face for a moment and, seeing that I wasn’t joking, said: ‘You know. He put his hand there.’ She gave a quick glance down to my lap. ‘But I’ve told him the rest will have to wait until we’re married.’ She stretched back on the seat. ‘I wouldn’t mind going the whole way, but then he won’t marry me, will he?’

That night, before sleep, I thought for a long time about what Sylvie said. I re-imagined the scene again and again, the two of us sitting on the bench, Sylvie kicking her skinny legs out and sighing as she said, ‘I did let him touch me.’ I tried to hear her words again. To hear them clearly, distinctly. I tried to find the right meaning in what she’d said about Tom. But whichever way I formed the words, they made little sense to me. As I lay on my bed in the dark, listening to my mother’s coughing and my father’s silence, I breathed into the sheet I’d pulled up to my nose and thought, she doesn’t know him like I do. I know what he’s like.





MY LIFE AS a teacher at St Luke’s began. I’d done my best to put Sylvie’s comment out of my mind and had got myself through training college by imagining Tom’s pride in me on hearing I’d successfully become a teacher. I had no grounds for thinking he would be proud of me, but that didn’t stop me picturing him arriving home from his police training, walking up the Burgess family’s front path, his jacket slung carelessly over one shoulder, whistling. He’d pick Sylvie up and swing her round (in my fantasy, brother and sister were best of friends), then he’d go in the house and peck Mrs Burgess on the cheek and hand her the gift he’d carefully selected (Coty’s Attar of Roses, perhaps, or – more racily – Shalimar), and Mr Burgess would stand in the living room and shake his son’s hand, making Tom blush with pleasure. Only then would he sit at the table, a pot of tea and a Madeira cake set in front of him, and ask if anyone knew how I was getting on. Sylvie would reply, ‘She’s a schoolteacher now – honestly, Tom, you’d hardly recognise her.’ And Tom would smile a secret smile and nod, and he’d swallow his tea with a shake of his head and say, ‘I always knew she was capable of something good.’

I had this fantasy in my mind as I walked up Queen’s Park Road on the first morning of my new job. Although my blood fluttered around my limbs, and my legs felt as though they might buckle at any moment, I walked as slowly as I could in an effort to keep from sweating too much. I’d convinced myself that as soon as term began it would turn cold and possibly wet, so I’d worn a woollen vest and carried a thick Fair Isle cardigan in my hand. In fact, the morning was unnervingly bright. The sun shone on the school’s high bell tower and lit up the red bricks with a fierce glow, and every windowpane glared at me as I walked through the gate.

I’d arrived very early, so there were no children in the yard. The school had been shut for weeks over the summer, but, even so, as I went into the long empty corridor I was immediately assailed by the smell of sweet milk and chalk dust, mixed with children’s sweat, which has a special, soiled aroma all of its own. Every day from then on, I’d come home with this smell in my hair and on my clothes. When I moved my head on the pillow at night, the taint of the classroom shifted around me. I never fully accepted that smell. I learned to tolerate it, but I never ceased to notice it. It was the same with the smell of the station on Tom. As soon as he got back to the house, he’d take off his shirt and have a good wash. I always liked that about him. Though it occurs to me now that he may have left his shirt on for you, Patrick. That you might have liked the bleach and blood stench of the station.

That morning, trembling in the corridor, I looked up at the large tapestry of St Luke on the wall; he stood with an ox behind him and a donkey in front. With his mild face and neatly clipped beard, he meant nothing to me. I thought of Tom, of course, of how he would have stood with his chin set in a determined pose, the way he would have rolled up his sleeves to show his muscled forearms, and I also thought about running home. As I walked along the corridor, my pace gradually increasing, I saw that every door was marked with a teacher’s name, and none of them sounded like a name I knew, or a name I could imagine ever inhabiting. Mr R.A. Coppard MA (Oxon) on one. Mrs T.R. Peacocke on another.

Then: footsteps behind me, and a voice: ‘Hi there – can I help? Are you the new blood?’

I didn’t turn around. I was still staring at R.A. Coppard and wondering how long it would take me to run the length of the corridor back to the main entrance and out on to the street.

But the voice was persistent. ‘I say – are you Miss Taylor?’

A woman whom I judged to be in her late twenties was standing before me, smiling. She was tall, like me, and her hair was strikingly black and absolutely straight. It seemed to have been cut by someone who’d traced the outline of an upturned bowl around her head, just as my father used to do to my brothers. She was wearing very bright red lipstick. Placing a hand on my shoulder, she announced: ‘I’m Julia Harcourt. Class Five.’ When I didn’t respond, she smiled and added: ‘You are Miss Taylor, aren’t you?’

I nodded. She smiled again, her short nose wrinkling. Her skin was tanned, and despite being dressed in a rather outmoded green frock with no waist to speak of and sporting a pair of brown leather lace-ups, there was something rather jaunty about her. Perhaps it was her bright face and even brighter lips; unlike most of the other teachers at St Luke’s, Julia never wore spectacles. I sometimes wondered if the ones who did so wore them mostly for effect, enabling themselves to look over the rims in a fierce way, for example, or take them off and jab them in a wrongdoer’s direction. I’ll admit to you now, Patrick, that during my first year in the school I thought briefly of investing in a pair of glasses myself.

‘The infant school is in another part of the building,’ she said. ‘That’s why you can’t find your name on any of these doors.’ Still holding my shoulder, she added, ‘First day’s always frightful. I was a mess when I started. But you do survive.’ When I didn’t respond, she let her hand drop from my shoulder and said, ‘It’s this way. I’ll show you.’ After a moment spent standing there, watching Julia walk away, swinging her arms by her sides as though she were hiking over the South Downs, I followed her.

Patrick, did you feel like this on your first day at the museum? Like they had meant to employ someone else but due to some administrative error the letter of appointment had been sent to your address? I somehow doubt it. But that’s how I felt. And I was also sure I was about to vomit. I wondered how Miss Julia Harcourt would deal with that, with a grown woman suddenly turning pale and sweaty and throwing up her breakfast all over the polished corridor tiles, splashing the toes of her neat lace-ups.

I didn’t vomit, however. Instead I followed Miss Harcourt out of the junior school and into the infants’, which had its own separate entrance at the back of the building.

The classroom she led me to was bright, and even on that first day I could see this quality was underused. The long windows were half disguised by flowered curtains. I couldn’t see the dust on those curtains at once, but I could smell it. The floor was wooden and not as gleaming as the corridor had been. At the head of the room was the blackboard, on which I could still see the ghost of another teacher’s handwriting – ‘July 1957’ was just visible on the top left-hand side, written in curling capitals. Before the board were a large desk and a chair, next to which was a boiler, encased by wire. At all the rows of low children’s desks there were chipped wooden seats. It seemed depressingly usual, in other words, except for the light trying to get through those curtains.

It wasn’t until I stepped inside (waved on by Miss Harcourt) that I saw the special area of my new classroom. In the corner, behind the door, tucked between the back of the stationery cupboard and the window, were a rug and some cushions. None of the classrooms I’d entered on my training sessions had had this feature, and I daresay I took a step back at the sight of soft furnishings in a school context.

‘Ah yes,’ murmured Miss Harcourt. ‘I believe the woman who was here before you – Miss Lynch – used this area for story time.’

I stared at the red and yellow rug and its matching cushions, which were plump and tassled, and I imagined Miss Lynch surrounded by her adoring brood as she recited Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from memory.

‘Miss Lynch was unorthodox. Rather wonderfully so, I thought. Although there were those that didn’t agree. Perhaps you’d rather it was removed?’ She smiled. ‘We can have the caretaker get rid of it. There’s a lot to be said for sitting at desks, after all.’

I swallowed and finally found enough breath to speak. ‘I’ll keep it,’ I said. My voice sounded very small in the empty classroom. I suddenly realised that all I had to fill this entire space were my words, my voice; and it was a voice over which – I was convinced at that moment – I had very little control.

‘Up to you,’ chirped Julia, turning on her heel. ‘Good luck. See you at break.’ She gave a salute as she closed the door, the tips of her fingers brushing the blunt line of her fringe.

Children’s voices were beginning to sound outside. I considered closing all the windows to keep the sound out, but the sweat I could taste on my top lip prevented me from doing so on such a warm day. I put my bag on top of the desk. Then I changed my mind and put it on the floor. I cracked my knuckles, looked at my watch. A quarter to nine. I paced the length of the room, looking at the distempered bricks, my mind trying to focus on some piece of advice from the training college. Learn their names early on and use them frequently, was all that would come to me. I stopped at the door and peered at the framed reproduction of Leonardo’s The Annunciation hanging above it. What, I wondered, would six-year-old children make of that? Most likely they would admire the muscular wings of the Angel Gabriel, and puzzle over the wispiness of the lily, as I did. And, like me, they probably had very little comprehension of what the Virgin was about to go through.

Beneath the Virgin, the door opened and a little boy with a black fringe that looked like a boot mark stamped on his forehead appeared. ‘Can I come in?’ he asked.

My first instinct was to win his love by saying Yes, oh yes, please do, but I checked myself. Would Miss Harcourt let the boy straight in before the bell went? Wasn’t it insolent for him to address me in this manner? I looked him up and down, trying to guess his intentions. The black boot-mark hair didn’t bode well, but his eyes were light and he kept his feet on the other side of the door jamb.

‘You’ll have to wait,’ I answered, ‘until the bell goes.’

He looked at the floor, and for an awful moment I thought he might give a sob, but then he slammed the door shut and I heard his boots clattering in the corridor. I knew I should haul him back for that; I should shout for him to stop running at once and come back here to receive a punishment. But instead I walked to my desk and tried to calm myself. I had to be ready. I took up the blackboard rubber and cleaned the remains of ‘July 1957’ from the corner of the board. I pulled open the desk drawer and took some paper from it. I might need that, later. Then I decided I should check my fountain pen. Shaking it over the paper, I managed to scatter the desk with black shiny dots. When I rubbed at these, my fingers became black. Then my palms went black as I tried to wipe the ink from my fingers. I walked to the window, hoping to dry the ink in the sunlight.

As I’d been arranging and decorating my desk, the noise of children playing in the yard had been steadily increasing. It was now loud enough, it seemed to me, to threaten to swamp the whole school. A girl standing by herself in the corner of the yard, one plait hanging lower than the other, caught my eye, and immediately I stepped back from the window. I cursed myself for my timidity. I was the teacher. It was she who should move away from my gaze.

Then a man in a grey overcoat and horn-rimmed spectacles stepped into the yard and a miracle occurred. The noise ceased completely even before the man blew his whistle. After that, children who’d been screaming with excitement in some game, or sulking under the tree by the school gate, ran and took part in the formation of orderly lines. There was a moment’s pause, and in that moment I heard the footsteps of other teachers along the corridor, the confident clack of other classroom doors opening and closing, and even a woman laughing and saying, ‘Only an hour and a half until coffee time!’ before a door slammed shut.

I stood and faced my own classroom door. It seemed a long way from me, and as the marching children came closer, I took in the scene carefully, hoping to keep this sense of distance uppermost in my mind during the forthcoming minutes. The wave of voices began, gradually, to rise again, but was soon stemmed by a man bellowing ‘Silence!’ There followed the opening of doors and the swish and scrape of boots on wood as children were allowed to enter their classrooms.

It would be wrong, I think, to call what I felt panic. I was not sweating or feeling nauseous, as I had been in the corridor with Julia. Instead, an utter blankness came over me. I could not propel myself forward to open the door for the children, nor could I move behind the desk. Again I thought about my voice, and wondered where exactly it was situated in my body, where I might find it if I were to go looking. I might as well have been dreaming, and I think I did close my eyes for a minute, hoping that when I opened them again it would all become clear to me; my voice would come back and my body would be able to move in the right direction.

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a boy’s cheek pressed against the glass panel in the door. But still my limbs would not move, so it was a relief when the door opened and the boot-mark boy asked again, with the hint of a smirk, ‘Can we come in now?’

‘You may,’ I said, turning to the blackboard so I wouldn’t have to watch them appear. All those tiny bodies looking to me for sense, and justice, and instruction! Can you imagine it, Patrick? In a museum, you never face your audience, do you? In a classroom, you face them every day.

As they were filing in, whispering, giggling, scraping chairs, I took up the chalk and wrote, as I’d been taught at college, the day’s date in the left-hand corner of the board. And then, for some strange reason, it struck me that I could write Tom’s name instead of mine. I was so used to writing his name every night in my black book – sometimes a column of Toms would form, and become a wall of Toms, or a spire of Toms – that to do the same so boldly in this public place suddenly seemed entirely possible, and perhaps even sensible. That would shock the little bleeders. My hand hovered over the board and – I couldn’t help it, Patrick – a laugh escaped me. Silence fell on the class as I stifled my guffaw.

A moment passed as I gathered myself, then the chalk touched the slate and began to form letters; there was that lovely, echoey sound – so delicate and yet so definite – as I wrote, in capitals:

MISS TAYLOR.

I stood back and looked at what my hand had written. The letters climbed towards the right-hand side of the board as if they, too, wanted to escape the room.

MISS TAYLOR

—my name from now on, then.

I hadn’t meant to look directly at the rows of faces. I’d meant to fix my eyes on the Virgin above the door. But there they all were, impossible to avoid, twenty-six pairs of eyes turned towards me, each pair utterly different but equally intense. A couple stood out: the boy with the boot-mark hair was sitting on the end of the second row, grinning; in the centre of the front row was a girl with an enormous number of black curls and a face so pale and thin that it took me a second to look away from her; and in the back row was a girl with a dirty-looking bow in the side of her hair, whose arms were crossed tightly and whose mouth was bracketed by deep lines. When I caught her eye she did not – unlike the others – look away from me. I considered ordering her to uncross her arms straight away, but thought the better of it. There’d be plenty of time to tackle such girls, I thought. How wrong I was. Even now I wish I hadn’t let Alice Rumbold get away with it on that first day.





SOMETHING STRANGE IS happening as I write. I keep telling myself that what I am writing is an account explaining my relationship with Tom, and everything else that goes with it. Of course, the everything else – which is actually the point of writing at all – is going to become much more difficult to write about very soon. But I find, unexpectedly, that I’m enjoying myself immensely. My days have the kind of purpose they haven’t had since I retired from the school. I’m including all sorts of things, too, which may not be of interest to you, Patrick. But I don’t care. I want to remember it all, for myself, as well as for you.

And as I write, I wonder if I will ever have the courage to actually read this to you. That has always been my plan, but the closer I get to the everything else, the more unlikely this seems.

You were particularly trying this morning, refusing to look at the television, even though I’d switched it from This Morning, which we both hate, to a rerun of As Time Goes By on BBC2. Don’t you like Dame Judi Dench? I thought everyone liked Dame Judi. I thought her combination of classical actressiness and cuddly accessibility (that ‘i’ in her name says so much, doesn’t it?) made her irresistible. And then there was that incident with the liquidised cornflakes, the tipping-over of the bowl, which made Tom exhale a hefty tut. I knew you weren’t quite up to sitting at the table for breakfast, even with your special cutlery and all the cushions I’d provided to stabilise you, as Nurse Pamela suggested. I must say I find it difficult to concentrate on what Pamela says, so intrigued am I by the long spikes protruding from her eyelids. I know it’s not particularly unusual for plump blondes in their late twenties to wear false eyelashes, but it’s a very strange combination – Pamela’s brisk white uniform, her matter-of-fact manner, and her partygoing eyes. She repeatedly informs me that she comes every morning and evening for an hour so I can have what she calls ‘time out’. I don’t take time out, though, Patrick: I use the time to write this. Anyway, it was Pamela who told me to get you out of bed as often as possible, suggesting that you could join the ‘family table’ for meals. But I could see your hand was utterly wild as you brought the spoon up to your face this morning, and I wanted to stop you, to reach out and steady your wrist, but you looked at me just before it reached your lips, and your eyes were so alight with something unreadable – at the time I thought it was anger, but now I wonder if it wasn’t a plea of some kind – that I was distracted. And so: wham! Over it went, milky slop dribbling into your lap and dripping on Tom’s shoes.

Pamela says that hearing is the last of the senses to go in a stroke patient. Even though you have no speech, you have excellent hearing, she says. It must be like being a toddler again, able to comprehend others’ words but unable to make your mouth form the shapes necessary to communicate fully. I wonder how long you’ll be able to stand it. No one has said anything about this. The phrase ‘no one can say’ has become detestable to me. How long until he’s on his feet, Doctor? No one can say. How long until he’ll be able to speak again? No one can say. Will he have another stroke? No one can say. Will he ever recover fully? No one can say. The doctors and nurses all talk of the next steps – physiotherapy, speech therapy, counselling, even, for the depression we’ve been warned can set in – but no one is prepared to forecast the likelihood of any of it actually working.

My own feeling is that your greatest hope of recovery lies in just being here, under this roof.

Late September 1957. Early morning at the school gates, and the sky still more yellow than blue. Clouds were splitting above the bell tower, wood pigeons were purring their terrible song of longing. Oh-oooh-ooh-oh-oh. And there Tom was, standing by the wall, returned to me.

By then I’d been teaching for a few weeks and had grown more accustomed to facing the school day, so my legs were a little sturdier, my breath more controlled. But the sight of Tom made my voice disappear completely.

‘Marion?’

I’d imagined his sturdy face, his moon-white smile, the solidity of his naked forearm, so many times, and now here he was, on Queen’s Park Terrace, standing before me, looking smaller than I’d remembered, but more refined; after almost three years’ absence his face had thinned and he stood straighter.

‘I wondered if I’d bump into you. Sylvie told me you’d started teaching here.’

Alice Rumbold pushed past us singing, ‘Good morning, Miss Taylor,’ and I tried to pull myself together.

‘Don’t run, Alice.’ I kept my gaze on her shoulders as I asked Tom, ‘What are you doing up here?’

He gave me a flicker of a smile. ‘I was just … taking a walk around Queen’s Park, and thought I’d look at the old school.’

Even at the time, I didn’t quite believe this statement. Had he actually come up here just to see me? Had he sought me out? The thought made me catch my breath. We were both silent for a moment, then I managed to say, ‘You’re a bobby now, aren’t you?’

‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘Police Constable Burgess at your service.’ He laughed, but I could tell he was proud. ‘’Course, I’m still on probation,’ he added.

He looked me up and down then, quite brazenly, taking his time over it. My hands tightened around my basket of books while I waited to read the verdict on his face. But when his eyes met mine again, his expression remained the same: steady, slightly closed.

‘It’s been a long time. Things have changed,’ I said, hoping to draw a compliment, no matter how insincere.

‘Have they?’ After a pause he added, ‘You certainly have.’ Then, briskly, before I could blush too hard: ‘Well. I’d better let you get on.’ I’m remembering now that he looked at his watch, but that may not be true.

I had a choice, Patrick. I could say a quick goodbye and spend the rest of the day wishing we’d had more time together. Or. Or, I could take a risk. I could say something interesting to him. He’d returned, and was standing before me in the flesh, and I could take my chance. I was older now, I told myself; I was twenty years of age, a redhead whose hair was set in brushed curls. I was wearing lipstick (light pink, but lipstick nevertheless), and a blue frock with a trapeze skirt. It was a warm September day, a gift of a day when the light was soft and the sun still glowing as though it were summer. Ooh-oooh-ooh-oh-oh went the wood pigeons. I could well afford to take a risk.

So I said: ‘When are you going to give me that swimming lesson?’

He gave a big Tom laugh. It drowned out everything around us – the children’s shouts in the schoolyard, the pigeons’ calls. And he slapped me on the back, twice. On the first slap, I almost fell forwards on to him – the air around me became very warm and I smelled Vitalis – but on the second I steadied myself and laughed back.

‘I’d forgotten that,’ he said. ‘You still can’t swim?’

‘I’ve been waiting for you to teach me.’

He gave a last, rather uncertain, laugh. ‘I bet you’re a good teacher.’

‘Yes. And I need to be able to swim. I have to supervise the children, in the pool.’

This was an out-and-out lie, and I was careful to look Tom fully in the face as I uttered it.

He slapped me on the back again, lightly this time. This was something he did often in the early days, and at the time I was thrilled by the warmth of his hand between my shoulder blades, but now I wonder if it wasn’t Tom’s way of keeping me at arm’s length.

‘You’re serious.’

‘Yes.’

He put a hand to his hair – shorter now, less full, more controlled after the army, but still with that wave that threatened to break free at any moment – and looked down the road, as if searching for a response.

‘Do you mind starting in the sea? It’s not really advised for beginners, but it’s so warm at the moment, it would be a shame not to; the salt, it aids buoyancy …’

‘The sea it is. When?’

He looked me up and down again, and this time I did not blush.

‘Eight on Saturday morning all right? I’ll meet you between the piers. Outside the milk bar.’

I nodded.

He gave another laugh. ‘Bring your costume,’ he said, starting off down the road.

On Saturday morning I rose early. I’d like to tell you that I’d dreamed all night of being in the waves with Tom, but that wouldn’t be true. I don’t remember what I dreamed, but it was probably located in the school, and it would have involved me forgetting what I was supposed to be teaching, or being locked in the stationery cupboard, unable to get out and witness what kind of havoc the children were creating. All my dreams seemed to be along these lines at that time, no matter how much I longed to dream of Tom and myself in the sea, of the two of us going out and coming in, coming in and going out with the waves.

So: I rose early, having dreamed of desks and chalk and cardboard milk bottle tops pierced with a straw, and from my window I saw that it was not a promising morning. It had been a mild September, but the month was drawing to a close now, and as I walked past Victoria Gardens the grass was soaked. I was very early, of course; probably it wasn’t yet seven, and this added to the delicious feeling I had of doing something secret. I’d left my parents sleeping, and had told no one where I was going. I was out of the house, away from my family, away from the school, and the whole day lay ahead.

To pass the time (I still had at least forty minutes to kill before the enchanted hour of eight in the morning arrived) I strolled along the front. I walked from the Palace to the West Pier, and on that morning the Grand Hotel in all its wedding-cake whiteness, with its porter already standing to attention outside, complete with top hat and gloves, looked incredibly average to me. I didn’t experience the pang I usually felt on passing the Grand – the pang of longing for hushed rooms with potted palms and ankle-deep carpets, for discreet bells rung by ladies in pearls (for that was how I imagined the place, fuelled, I suppose, by films starring Sylvia Syms) – no; the Grand could stand there, ablaze with money and pleasure. It meant nothing to me. I was happy to be going to the milk bar between the piers. Hadn’t Tom looked me up and down, hadn’t he taken in the whole of me with his eyes? Wasn’t he about to appear, miraculously tall, taller than me, and looking a bit like Kirk Douglas? (Or was it Burt Lancaster? That set of the jaw, that steel in the eyes. I could never quite decide which of the two he most resembled.) I was very far, at this point, from what Sylvie had told me about Tom on the bench in Preston Park. I was a young woman wearing a tight pointed bra, carrying a yellow flowered bathing cap in her basket, ready to meet her recently returned sweetheart for a secret early-morning swim.

So I thought as I stood by the milk bar’s creaking sign and looked out to sea. I set myself a little challenge: could I avoid looking towards the Palace Pier, the way I knew he would come? Fixing my eyes on the water, I imagined him rising from the sea like Neptune, half draped in bladderwrack, his neck studded with barnacles, a crab hanging from his hair; he’d remove the creature and fling it aside as he shrugged off the waves. He’d make his way noiselessly up the beach towards me, despite the pebbles, and would take me in his arms and carry me back to wherever it was he’d come from. I started to giggle at myself, and only the sight of Tom – the real, living, breathing, land-walking Tom – stopped me. He was wearing a black T-shirt and had a faded brown towel slung over his shoulders. On seeing me, he gave a brief wave and pointed back the way he’d come. ‘The club’s got a changing room,’ he called. ‘This way. Under the arches.’ And before I could reply, he walked off in the direction he was pointing.

I remained standing by the milk bar, still imagining Neptune-Tom coming out of the sea, dripping salt and fish, spraying the shore with brine and sea creatures from some deep, dark world beneath.

Without turning around, he shouted, ‘Haven’t got all day,’ and I followed him, hurrying behind and saying nothing until we reached a metal door in the arches.

Then he turned and looked at me. ‘You did bring a hat, didn’t you?’

‘Of course.’

He unlocked the door and pushed it open. ‘Come down when you’re ready, then. I’m going in.’

I went inside. The place was like a cave, damp and chalky-smelling, with paint peeling from the ceiling and rusty pipes running along one wall. The floor was still wet, the air clinging, and I shuddered. I hung my cardigan on a peg at the back of the room and unbuttoned my dress. I’d graduated from the red bathing costume I’d worn that day at the lido years ago, and had bought a bright green costume covered in swirly patterns from Peter Robinson’s. I’d been quite pleased with the effect when I’d tried it on in the shop: the cups of the bra were constructed from something that felt like rubber, and a short pleated skirt was attached to the waist. But here in the cavern of the changing room there was no mirror on the wall, just a list of swimming races with names and dates (I noticed that Tom had won the last one), so after pulling the flowered cap on my head and folding my dress on the bench, I went outside, wearing my towel around me.

The sun was higher now and the sea had taken on a dull glitter. Squinting, I saw Tom’s head bobbing in the waves. I watched as he emerged from the sea. Standing in the shallows, he flicked his hair back and rubbed his hands up and down his thighs, as if trying to get some warmth back into his flesh.

Almost toppling, and having to grab my towel to keep it from falling to the ground, I managed to walk halfway down the beach in my sandals. The crunch and crack of the pebbles convinced me that this scene was real, that this was actually happening to me: I was approaching the sea, and I was approaching Tom, who was wearing only a pair of blue striped trunks.

He came up to greet me, catching my elbow to steady me on the stones.

‘Nice cap,’ he said, with a half-smirk, and then, glancing down at my sandals, ‘Those will have to come off.’

‘I know that.’ I tried to keep my voice light and humorous, like his. In those days it was rare, wasn’t it, Patrick, for Tom’s voice to become what you might call serious; there was always a lot of up-and-down in it, a delicacy, almost a musicality (no doubt that’s how you heard it), as though you couldn’t quite believe anything he said. Over the years, his voice lost some of its musicality, partly, I think, in reaction to what happened to you; but even now, occasionally, it’s like there’s a laugh behind his words, just waiting to sneak out.

‘OK. We’ll go in together. Don’t think about it too much. Hold on to me. We’ll just get you used to the water. It’s not too cold today, quite warm in fact, it’s always warmest this time of year, and it’s very calm, so it’s all looking good. Nothing to worry about. It’s also very shallow here, so we’ll have to wade out a bit. Ready?’

It was the most I’d ever heard him say, and I was a bit taken aback by his brisk professionalism. He used the same smooth tone I did when trying to coax my pupils to read the next sentence of a book without stumbling. I realised that Tom would make a good policeman. He had the knack of sounding as though he were in control.

‘Have you done this before?’ I asked. ‘Taught people to swim?’

‘In the army, and at Sandgate. Some of the boys had never been in the water. I helped them get their heads wet.’ He gave a short laugh.

Despite Tom’s assurances to the contrary, the water was extremely cold. As I went in, my whole body clenched and the breath was sucked out of me. The stones drove into my feet and the water chilled my blood immediately, leaving my skin pimpled, my teeth chattering. I tried to concentrate my energy on the point where Tom’s fingers met my elbow. I told myself that this contact was enough to make it all worth while.

Tom, of course, made no sign of noticing the iciness of the water or the sharpness of the stones. As he walked in, the sea rocking at his thighs, I thought how springy his body was. He was leading me and so was slightly ahead; this allowed me to look at him properly, and as I did so I managed to steady my juddering jaw and breathe through the cold that was smashing into my body with each step. So much Tom in the waves, springing through the water. So much flesh, Patrick, and all of it shining on that bright September morning. He let the water splash up his chest, still holding my elbow. Everything was moving, and Tom moved too: he moved with the sea or against it, as he wished, whereas I felt the movement too late and only just managed to retain my balance.

He looked back. ‘You all right?’

Because he smiled at me, I nodded.

‘How does that feel?’ he asked.

How, Patrick, could I begin to answer him?

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘A bit cold.’

‘Good. You’re doing well. Now we’re going to do the tiniest bit of swimming. All I want you to do is follow me, and when we’re deep enough, let your feet lift off the bottom and I’ll hold you up, just so you can feel what it’s like. Is that all right?’

Was that all right? His face was so serious when he asked me this that it was hard to keep from laughing. How could I object to the prospect of Tom holding me?

We waded further out, and the water took my thighs and waist, touching every part of me with its freezing tongue. Then, when the sea was up to my armpits and beginning to splash at my mouth, leaving a salty trail on my lips, Tom put a hand flat on my stomach and pressed. ‘Feet off the bottom,’ he commanded.

I needn’t tell you, Patrick, that I obeyed, utterly mesmerised by the huge strength of that hand on my stomach, and by Tom’s eyes, blue and changing like the sea, on mine. I let my feet lift and I was borne upward by the salt and the rocking motion of the water. Tom’s hand was there, a steady platform. I tried to keep my head above the waves, and for a second everything balanced perfectly on Tom’s flat hand and I heard him say, ‘Good. You’re almost swimming.’

I turned to nod at him – I wanted to see his face, to smile at him and have him smile back (proud teacher! best pupil!) – and then the sea came up over my face and I couldn’t see. In my panic I lost his hand; water rushed backwards through my nose, my arms and legs whipped about wildly, trying to find something to grip, some solid substance to anchor me, and I felt something soft and giving beneath my foot – Tom’s groin, I knew it even then – and I pushed off from that and managed to come up for a breath of air, heard Tom shouting something, then, as I went under again, his arms were around me, gripping my waist and pulling me free of the water so my breasts were nigh on in his face, and I was still struggling, gasping the air, and it wasn’t until I heard him say, ‘You’re all right, I’ve got you,’ in a slightly annoyed tone, that I stopped fighting and clung to his shoulders, my flowered bathing cap flapping loose at the side of my head like a piece of skin.

He carried me back to shore in silence, and when he deposited me on the beach I couldn’t look at him. ‘Take a moment,’ he said.

‘Sorry,’ I gasped.

‘Get your breath back, then we’ll try again.’

‘Again?’ I looked up at him. ‘You are joking?’

He ran a finger along the length of his nose. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m not joking. You have to get back in.’

I gazed down the beach; the clouds were gathering now and the day hadn’t warmed up at all.

He held out a hand to me. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Just once.’ He smiled. ‘I’ll even forgive you for kicking me where you did.’

How could I refuse?

Every Saturday after that, we met in the same place and Tom tried to teach me to swim. I’d wait all week for that hour with Tom in the sea, and even as it got much colder I felt this warmth in me, a heat in my chest that kept me moving in the water, kept me swimming those few strokes towards his waiting arms. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was a deliberately slow learner, and as the weather worsened we were forced to continue our lessons in the pool, even though Tom still swam in the sea every day. And, gradually, we started talking. He told me that he’d joined the police force because it wasn’t the army, and everyone said he should, what with his height and his fitness, and it was better than working at Allan West’s factory. But I could feel that he was proud of his job, and that he enjoyed the responsibility and even the danger of it. He seemed interested in my job, too; he asked a lot about how I taught the children and I tried to give him answers that would sound intelligent without being off-putting. We talked about Laika, the dog the Russians had just sent into space, and how we both felt sorry for her. Tom said he’d like to go into space, I remember that, and I remember saying, ‘Perhaps you will, one day,’ and him laughing hysterically at my optimism. Occasionally we talked about books, but on this subject I was always more enthusiastic than Tom, so I was careful not to say too much. But you’ve no idea, Patrick, how liberating – how daring, even – it felt to talk about these things with Tom. I’d always thought, up to then, that I should keep quiet about what I would now call my cultural interests. Too much talk about such things was tantamount to showing off, to getting ideas above your station. With Tom it was different. He wanted to hear about these things, because he wanted a part of them too. We were both hungry for this other world, and back then it seemed as though Tom could be my partner in some new, as yet undefined, adventure.

Once, as we were walking along the poolside back to the changing rooms, both wrapped in our towels, Tom suddenly asked, ‘What about art?’

I knew a little about art; I’d taken art A level at school, liked the Impressionists, of course, particularly Degas, and some of the Italian painters, and so I said: ‘I like it.’

‘I’ve been going to the art gallery.’

This was the first time that Tom had told me about anything he did – apart from swimming – in his spare time.

‘I could get really interested in it,’ he said. ‘I’ve never looked at it before, you know? I mean, why would I?’

I smiled.

‘But now I am, and I think I’m seeing something there, something special.’

We reached the door of the changing rooms. Cold water was dripping down my back, and I began to shiver.

‘Does that sound stupid?’ he asked.

‘No. It sounds good.’

He grinned. ‘I knew you’d think so. It’s a great place. All sorts of paintings in there. I think you’d like it.’

Was our first date going to be at the art gallery? It wasn’t a perfect location, but it was a start, I thought. So, smiling brilliantly, I took off my swimming cap and shook my hair in what I hoped was a seductive way. ‘I’d love to go.’

‘Last week I saw this picture, massive it was, just of the sea. It looked like I could jump into it. Really just jump into it and swim in the waves.’

‘Sounds wonderful.’

‘And there’s sculpture, too, and watercolours, although I didn’t like those as much, and drawings that look unfinished but I think they’re supposed to be like that … there’s all sorts.’

Now my teeth were chattering but I kept smiling, sure an invitation would follow.

Tom gave a laugh and slapped my shoulder. ‘Sorry, Marion. You’re cold. I should let you get dressed.’ He rubbed his fingers through his wet hair. ‘Same time next Saturday?’

It was like that every week, Patrick. We’d talk – we were good at talking, back then – and then he’d disappear into town, leaving me damp and cold, with only the trudge up Albion Hill and the weekend with my family to look forward to. Some Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons I met Sylvie at the pictures, but her time was mostly taken up by Roy, and so most of my weekends were spent sitting on my eiderdown, reading, or preparing next week’s lessons. I also spent a lot of time at the windowsill, looking out at our tiny yard, remembering how it felt to be held by Tom in the water, occasionally spying a shiver in one of the neighbours’ curtains, and wondering when it would all begin.

A couple of months later, Sylvie and Roy announced their wedding date. Sylvie asked me to be bridesmaid, and, despite Fred teasing me about how I should really be maid-of-honour, I looked forward to the event. It would mean a whole afternoon with Tom.

No one used the phrase shotgun wedding, and Sylvie hadn’t confided in me, but there was a general feeling that the speed of the preparations meant that Sylvie must be expecting, and I presumed this was why Roy had been coaxed up the aisle of All Saints’. Certainly Mr Burgess’s face, rust-red and clenched in a grin, suggested as much. And instead of the fancy three-tier cake and Pomagne affair that Sylvie and I had often discussed, the reception was held at the Burgess’s house, with sausage rolls and mild ale for all.

You would have laughed, Patrick, at the sight of me in my bridesmaid’s dress. Sylvie had borrowed it from a cousin who was smaller than me and the thing barely skimmed my knees; it was so tight around the middle that I had to wear a Playtex girdle before I could get the zip done up at the back. It was pale green, the colour you see on sugared almonds, and I don’t know what it was made of, but it gave a soft crunching noise as I followed Sylvie into the church. Sylvie looked fragile in her brocade frock and cropped veil; her hair was white-blonde and despite the rumours there was no sign of any thickening about the waist. She must have been freezing: it was early November and the cold had bitten down hard. We both carried small posies of brownish chrysanthemums.

As I walked up the aisle I saw Tom, who was sitting in the front pew, holding himself very straight, staring at the ceiling. Seeing him in his grey flannel suit, rather than his swimming trunks, made him look unfamiliar, and I smiled, knowing I had seen the flesh beneath that stiff collar and tie. I stared at him, telling myself: It will be us. Next time, it will be us. And I could suddenly see it all: Tom waiting for me at the altar, looking back over his shoulder with a little smile as I entered the church, my red hair blazing in the light from the doorway. What took you so long? he’d tease, and I’d reply, The best things are worth the wait.

Tom looked at me. I snapped my gaze away and tried to concentrate instead on the back of Mr Burgess’s sweating neck.

At that wedding, everyone was drunk, but Roy was more drunk than most. Roy was not a subtle drunk. He leant on the sideboard in Sylvie’s living room, eating great chunks of wedding cake, staring at his new father-in-law. A few moments earlier, he’d shouted, ‘Lay off me, old man!’ at Mr Burgess’s unmoving back, and then he’d retired to the sideboard to stuff his face. Now the room was quiet, and no one moved as Mr Burgess collected his hat and coat, stood at the door and stated in a steady voice, ‘I’m not coming back in this house until you’ve hopped it and taken my trollop of a daughter with you.’

Sylvie fled upstairs, and all eyes turned to Roy, who was by now crushing cake crumbs in his little fists. Tom put on a Tommy Steele record and shouted, ‘Who’s for another?’ while I made my way to Sylvie’s room.

Sylvie’s sobs were loud and breathy, but when I pushed the door open I was surprised to find she was not sprawled on the bed, beating the mattress with her fists, but standing before her mirror, naked except for her underwear, with both hands curled around her stomach. Her pink knickers were slightly slack at the back but her bra stood up impressively. Sylvie had inherited her mother’s expressive bosom.

Catching my eye in the glass, she gave a loud sniff.

‘Are you all right?’ I began, putting a hand on her shoulder.

She looked away, her chin quivering with the effort of suppressing another sob.

‘Don’t take any notice of your dad. He’s overemotional. He’s losing a daughter today.’

Sylvie gave another sniff and her shoulders drooped. I stroked her arm while she cried. After a while she said, ‘It must be nice for you.’

‘What must be?’

‘Being a teacher. Knowing what to say.’

This surprised me. Sylvie and I had never really discussed my job; most of our conversations had been about Roy, or about films we’d seen, or records she’d bought. We’d been seeing less of each other since I’d started at the school, and perhaps this wasn’t just because I had less time and she was busy with Roy. It was like at home; I never felt quite comfortable talking about the school, about my career, as I was afraid to call it, because no one else knew the first thing about teaching. To my parents and brothers, teachers were the enemy. None of them had enjoyed school, and although they were quietly pleased, if a little puzzled, by my success at the grammar, my decision to become a teacher had been met with stunned silence. The last thing I wanted was to be what my parents despised: a toffee-nosed show-off. And so, as often as not, I said nothing about how I spent my days.

‘I don’t know what to say all the time, Sylvie.’

Sylvie shrugged. ‘It won’t be long before you can get a place of your own now, though, will it? You’re earning proper money.’

It was true; I’d started saving money and it had crossed my mind that I could rent a room somewhere, perhaps on one of the wide streets in the north of Brighton, nearer the downs, or even on the seafront at Hove, but I didn’t relish the thought of living alone. Women didn’t live alone then. Not if they could help it.

‘You and Roy will have a place of your own, too.’

‘I’d like to be on my own,’ sniffed Sylvie, ‘so I could do what I bloody well like.’

I doubted this, and said in a soft voice, ‘But you’re with Roy now. You’ll be a family. That’s much better than being alone.’

Sylvie turned away from me and sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Got a hanky?’ she asked, and I passed her mine. She blew her nose loudly. Sitting next to her, I watched as she took off her wedding ring, then slid it back on again. It was a thick dark-gold band, and Roy had one to match, which surprised me. I hadn’t thought he was a man who would wear jewellery.

‘Marion,’ she said, ‘I’ve got to tell you something.’ Leaning close to me, she whispered, ‘I lied.’

‘Lied?’

‘I’m not expecting a baby. I lied to him. To everyone.’

I stared at her, uncomprehending.

‘We have done it and everything. But I’m not pregnant.’ She put a hand over her mouth and let out a sudden shrill laugh. ‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’

I thought of Roy’s open mouth, full of cake, of his eagerness to push Sylvie along at the roller rink, of the way he couldn’t tell what was interesting to talk about and what was not. What an absolute fool he was.

I looked at Sylvie’s stomach. ‘You mean – there’s nothing …?’

‘Nothing in there. Well, just my insides.’

Then I too began to giggle. Sylvie bit down on her hand to stop herself from laughing too loudly, but soon we were both rolling on the bed, clutching one another, shuddering with barely suppressed mirth.

Sylvie wiped her face with my hanky and took a deep breath. ‘I didn’t mean to lie, but I couldn’t think of any other way,’ she said. ‘It’s a terrible thing, isn’t it?’

‘Not so terrible.’

She tucked her blonde hair behind her ears and giggled again, rather listlessly this time. Then she fixed me with her eyes. ‘Marion. How am I going to explain it to him?’

The intensity of Sylvie’s stare, the hysteria of our laughter just moments before and the stout I’d drunk must have made me reckless, Patrick, for I replied: ‘Say you lost it. He’s not to know, is he? Wait a bit, and then say it’s gone. That happens, all the time.’

Sylvie nodded. ‘Maybe. It’s an idea.’

‘He’ll never know,’ I said, clasping her hands in mine. ‘No one will know.’

‘Just us,’ she said.

Tom offered me a cigarette. ‘Is Sylvie all right?’ he asked.

It was late afternoon now, and getting dark. In the gloom at the back of the Burgesses’ garden, beneath a wedge of ivy, I leant on the coal bunker, and Tom sat on an upturned bucket.

‘She’s fine.’ I inhaled and waited for the dizzy feeling to knock me slightly out of time. I’d started smoking only recently. To enter the staff room you had to push your way through a curtain of smoke anyway, and I’d always liked the smell of my father’s Senior Service. Tom smoked Player’s Weights, which weren’t as strong, but when the first hit came my mind sharpened and I focused on his eyes. He smiled at me. ‘You’re a good friend to her.’

‘I haven’t seen her much lately. Not since the engagement.’ I blushed as I said the word, and was glad of the darkening sky, of the shade from the ivy. When Tom didn’t respond, I galloped on: ‘Not since we’ve been seeing one another.’

Seeing one another was not what we were doing. Not at all. But Tom didn’t contradict me. Instead, he nodded and exhaled.

There was a noise of slamming doors from the house, and someone stuck their head out the back and shouted, ‘Bride and groom are leaving!’

‘We’d better see them off,’ I said.

As I straightened up, Tom put a hand on my hip.

He’d touched me before, of course, but this time there was no solid reason for him to do so. This wasn’t a swimming lesson. He didn’t need to touch me, so he must have wanted to, I reasoned. It was this touch, more than anything, that convinced me to act as I did over the following few months, Patrick. It went right through the sugared-almond green of my frock and into my hip. People say that love is like a lightning bolt, but this wasn’t like that; this was like warm water, spreading through me.

‘I’d like you to meet someone,’ he said. ‘I’d be interested to know what you think.’

This was not the utterance for which I’d hoped. I’d hoped for no utterance at all. I’d hoped, in fact, for a kiss.

Tom let his hand fall from my hip and he stood up.

‘Who is it?’ I asked.

‘A friend,’ he said. ‘I thought you might have things in common.’

My stomach turned to cold lead. Another girl.

‘We should see them off …’

‘He works at the art gallery.’

To cover the relief I felt on hearing that masculine pronoun, I took a long drag on my cigarette.

‘You don’t have to,’ said Tom. ‘It’s up to you.’

‘I’d love to,’ I said, exhaling a plume of smoke, my eyes watering.

We looked each other in the face. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.

‘I’m fine. Perfectly fine. Let’s go in.’

As I turned to walk back to the house, he put his hand on my hip again, bent towards me and let his lips brush my cheek. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Sweet Marion.’ And he strode indoors, leaving me standing in the gloom, my fingers touching the dampness he’d left on my skin.





THERE WAS PROGRESS this morning, I’m sure of that. For the first time in weeks, you spoke a word I could understand.

I was washing your body, which I do every Saturday and Sunday morning, when Pamela doesn’t make her visit. She offered to send someone else at weekends, but I refused, telling her I’d cope. As always, I was using my softest flannel and my best soap, not the cheap white stuff from the Co-op but a clear, amber-coloured bar that smells of vanilla and leaves a creamy scum around the old washing-up bowl that I use for your bed bath. Wearing the scratched plastic apron I used to don for painting sessions at St Luke’s, I pulled back the sheets to your waist, removed your pyjama jacket (you must be one of the few men left in the world to wear a blue striped pyjama jacket, complete with collar, breast pocket and swirling piping on the cuffs) and apologised for what was coming next.

I will not avert my eyes at the necessary moment, or at any moment. I will not look away. Not any more. But you never look at me as I tug down your pyjama bottoms. Leaving you the modesty of the sheet over your lower half, once I’ve whipped the things from your feet (it’s a bit like a conjuring trick, this: I rummage beneath the sheet and – hey presto! – produce a pair of pyjama bottoms, fully intact), my hand, clutching the flannel, searches out your unclean places.

I talk all the while – this morning I remarked on the constant greyness of the sea, the untidiness of the garden, on what Tom and I watched on television the night before – and the sheet becomes damp, your eyes squeeze shut, and your drooping face droops even more. But I am not distressed. I am not distressed by the sight of this, nor by the feel of your warm, sagging scrotum, nor by the salty smell coming from the crinkled flesh of your armpits. I am comforted by all this, Patrick. I am comforted by the fact that I am tending you, cheerfully, by the fact that you let me do this with the minimum of fuss, by the fact that I can wash every part of you, rub it all clean with my Marks and Spencer’s Pure Indulgence range flannel, and then throw the cloudy water down the drain. I can do all this without my hands shaking, without my heart-rate increasing, without my jaw slamming shut with such fierceness that I fear it may never open again.

That, too, is progress.

And this morning I was rewarded. As I was squeezing out the flannel for the last time, I heard you utter something that sounded like ‘Eh um,’ but – forgive me, Patrick – at first I dismissed it as your usual inarticulacy. Since the stroke, your speech has been strangled. You can do little more than grunt, and I’d sensed that, rather than face the indignity of being misunderstood, you had chosen silence. As you are a man whose speech was once impressively articulate – charming, warm and yet erudite – I had rather admired your sacrifice.

But I was wrong. The right side of your face still droops badly, giving you a slightly canine appearance, but this morning you summoned up all your energy, and your mouth and voice worked together.

Still I ignored it, the sound you made, which now had changed to ‘Whu om’; I lifted the window slightly to let the stale night smell out, and when I finally turned to you, you were staring up at me from your pillows, your sunken chest still naked and damp, your face screwed into a ball of agony, and you made the sounds again. But this time I almost understood what you said.

I sat on the bed and pulled you forward by the shoulders, and with your limp torso resting on mine, I felt behind you for the pillows, dragged them upright and rested you back on your nest.

‘I’ll get you a new jacket.’

But you could not wait. You blurted again, even clearer this time, with all the urgency you could muster, and I heard what you said: ‘Where’s Tom?’

I went to the chest of drawers so you wouldn’t see my expression, and found you a clean pyjama jacket. Then I helped you push your arms into the sleeves, and I fastened your buttons. I performed all this without looking you in the face, Patrick. I had to look away, because you kept saying it: ‘Where’s Tom where’s Tom where’s Tom where’s Tom where’s Tom’, each time a little quieter and a little slower, and I had no answer for you.

Eventually I said, ‘It’s wonderful that you’re talking again, Patrick. Tom will be very proud,’ and I made us both some tea, which we drank together in silence, you exhausted and drooping over your straw, with your bottom half still naked under the sheets, and me blinking at the grey square of the window.

I’m sure you knew it was my first time in the place. I’d never found cause to step into Brighton Art Gallery and Museum before. Looking back, I’m astonished at myself. I’d just become a teacher at St Luke’s Infants’ School, and I’d never been to an art gallery.

When Tom and I pushed through the heavy glass-panelled doors, I thought how the place looked like nothing so much as a butcher’s shop. It was all the green tiles, not that Brighton swimming-pool green that’s almost turquoise and makes you feel sunny and light just looking at it, but a mossy, dense green. And the fancy mosaic floor, too, and the polished mahogany staircase, and the glinting cabinets of stuffed things. It was a secret world, all right. A man’s world, I thought, just like butchers’ shops. Women can visit, but behind the curtain, in the back where they do the chopping and sorting, it’s all men. Not that I minded that, at the time. But I wished I hadn’t worn that new lilac dress with the full skirt and kitten-heeled shoes – it was mid-December and the pavements were frosty, for one thing, and for another, I noticed that people didn’t dress for a museum. Most of the others were in brown serge or navy-blue wool, and the whole place was dark and serious and quiet. And there were my kitten heels, tapping inappropriately on the mosaic, echoing around the walls like scattered coins.

Those shoes made me almost level with Tom, too, which can’t have pleased him. We walked up the stairs, Tom slightly ahead, his wide shoulders pushing at the seams of his sports jacket. For a big man, Tom walks lightly. At the top of the stairs an enormous guard was nodding off. His jacket had fallen open to reveal a pair of yellow polka-dot braces. As we passed, his head flicked up and he barked, ‘Good afternoon!’, swallowing hard and blinking. Tom must have said hello, he always answered people, but I doubt I managed anything but a smirk.

Tom had told me all about you. On our way to the museum I’d had to listen again to his descriptions of Patrick Hazlewood, Keeper of Western Art at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, who was down to earth, just like us, friendly, normal, no airs and graces, yet educated, knowledgeable and cultured. I’d heard it so many times that I’d convinced myself you would be just the opposite. Trying to picture you, I saw the face of the music teacher at St Luke’s – a small, pointed face flanked by meaty ear lobes. I was always amazed that that teacher, Mr Reed, looked so much like a musician. He wore a three-piece suit and a fob watch, and his thin hands were often pointing at something, as if he were about to start conducting an orchestra at any moment.

We leant on the banister at the top of the stairs and took a look round. Tom had been there many times before, and was eager to name things for me. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘That’s a famous one.’ I squinted at it. ‘Well, it’s by a famous artist,’ he added, not telling me the name. I didn’t press him for it. I didn’t press him for anything, back then. It was a dark picture – everything almost black, the paint dusty-looking – but after a few seconds I saw the white hand stretching up in the corner. ‘The Raising of Lazarus,’ said Tom, and I nodded and smiled at him, proud that he knew this information, wanting him to know I was impressed. But when I looked at his usually solid face – that broad nose, those steady eyes – it seemed to have gone a little soft. His neck was pink, and his lips hung drily open.

‘We’re early,’ he stated, looking at his fat wristwatch, a present from his father when he joined the force.

‘Will he mind?’

‘Oh no,’ said Tom. ‘He won’t mind a bit.’

It was then I realised that Tom was the one who would mind. Whenever we met, he was always exactly on time.

I looked down into the foyer and noticed, tucked by the side of the stairs, a huge multicoloured cat that seemed to be made of papier mâché. I don’t know how I’d missed it when I’d first come through the door, but, needless to say, it wasn’t the sort of thing I’d expected to see in a place like this. It would look more at home on the Palace Pier, that cat. I still hate its Cheshire grin and drugged-looking eyes. A small girl put a ha’penny into the slot on its belly and spread her hands wide, waiting for something to happen. I nudged Tom, pointing downwards. ‘What’s that thing?’

Tom gave a laugh. ‘Pretty, isn’t it? Its stomach lights up and it purrs when you feed it money.’

The girl was still waiting, and so was I.

‘Nothing’s happening now,’ I pointed out. ‘What’s it doing in a museum? Shouldn’t it be in a fairground?’

Tom gave me a slightly puzzled look before breaking into a big Tom-laugh: three short trumpets, eyes squeezed shut. ‘Patience, sweet Marion,’ he said. I felt the blood in my chest warm.

‘He is expecting us?’ I asked, ready to become annoyed if he wasn’t. It was early on