We meet in neutral territory. Starbucks by the station.
I say. ‘I’m not sure I can live like this. With the uncertainty.’
Daniel is nodding kindly. Avuncular. Understanding.
‘I’ve been thinking about what makes me happy.’ He spells out each word with care. He has rehearsed his lines. ‘I’ve realised I don’t want to be tied down.’
He doesn’t mean to be unkind. He looks relieved, optimistic, hopeful. Pleased to have expressed himself with such clarity. I envy his self-knowledge. He is on a roll. Dreaming of a future. He wants to travel. Build a business. Fly to foreign places. Be the man he wants to be. Above all, he is planning to be free.
I would love to stay and listen. But I have to talk to Linda Kirkby. If I don’t get somewhere this time Lester’s going to explode. There are other things to deal with. Emails to be typed on the jam-encrusted laptop; letters from school and VAT returns; washing; cooking; tepid tea. Later, only later – after Hairy Maclary of Donaldson’s Dairy; marmite; prosecco; school uniform; bed – in that heady heavy limbo between bedlam and oblivion, I will digest this information. Consider my position. Articulate a response.
Our boys are six and four. They think we are a family. I am ashamed – mortified – I can’t find the strength, the time – the will – to fight for that belief.
I wonder when I lost my voice.
‘We were wondering if you were serious about wanting to sell your house.’
Linda looks confused.
I try another tack.
‘You know we’re planning to build new houses out the back. On Macey’s Field.’
‘Ideally, we’d like to access the development from the High Street.’
Not a word.
Lester’s warning about ransom strips is ringing in my ears.
‘We don’t have to, of course. We could bring traffic in from Risborough Road.’
Jesus. Is she ever going to speak?
‘It would make things simpler for us if we could buy an entire building plot and bring a proper road right through. But if that isn’t possible it would be great if we could at least put in a footpath. We were wondering about the strip of land that runs between your house and Number 31.’
‘Billy’s kickabout pitch?’
I’ve got her attention.
‘Perhaps you could discuss it with your husband.’
She looks distracted. Her eyes have started to glaze over.
‘Perhaps I could.’ She says. ‘Who knows?’
Time for a change of tactics.
‘Mrs Kirkby.’ I say firmly. ‘I’m wondering why you didn’t tell me that Alan’s sick off work.’
She is looking at me blankly. As though she doesn’t understand.
I say ‘Is your husband ill?’
She says ‘It’s funny you should say that. I was wondering that myself’.
It’s clear she’s close to tears.
I could just leave. Ignore the oddness of the conversation. Close the door. Trot down the garden path. Leave her to her confusion and her sorrow and her anger and her shame. God knows, I’ve enough worries of my own.
The voice inside my head says ‘Walk Away’.
I say ‘He doesn’t live here, does he?’
She is silent. Assessing. As though she’s not quite sure herself. As though there are so many members of the household it’s tricky to keep track.
Searching for the answer. Finding the right words.
She settles for simplicity.
‘He did. But now he doesn’t.’
‘So it’s just you and Billy living here.’ Breezy, matter-of-fact. Just commenting on an oversight; making a mental readjustment to correct an administrative error.
She’s in no mood to be breezy.
‘He’s left us. He walked out.’
She is challenging me now. Daring me to disregard her tragedy. To bat it all away with a sing-song comment and a cheery smile.
Two can play at that game.
I say ‘My husband’s walked out too’.
I say. ‘He’s left.’
Bruno says ‘Dee, I’m sorry. I knew things weren’t going well.’
‘Not Daniel.’ I say. Though that’s a lie. ‘Alan Kirkby. He moved out ten days ago.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Linda Kirkby told me.’
Bruno is looking thoughtful. He’s doing that tapping thing again.
‘You don’t think there’s something strange about the fact that he disappeared the moment we announced our plans to build?’
‘You think he was so traumatised at the prospect of new housing on his doorstep that he walked out on his wife and child?’
Bruno mulls this over. ‘I think maybe he disappeared a while ago. It’s just that we’re the first people who have made a serious effort to track him down.’
‘He hasn’t disappeared. He’s just moved out. Men do it all the time.’
‘You don’t think it’s odd he’s not at work? That no-one’s seen him?’
I say ‘You’re making this much weirder than it has to be.’
‘So where’s he gone? If he’s not at home and he’s not at work?’
‘Who told the office he was sick? Did Alan call in himself or did Linda call in for him?’
‘You’re the one that spoke to the receptionist’.
Lester says ‘Do we have any proof that he’s alive?’
I say ‘He’s called the house. To speak to Billy.’
‘Have you checked the phone records?’
‘I must admit I haven’t. I can’t think why.’ I say sarcastically. ‘Probably because I’m not a private detective. It’s a bit beyond my pay grade to go prying into people’s private affairs.’
Bruno says ‘You’ve made a pretty good job of it so far.’
Lester isn’t letting this go. ‘It would simplify things. If he’s dead. Presumably it means the house belongs to her. You’re absolutely certain they were married?’
‘They both have the same surname. There’s a photo of their wedding on her mantelpiece.’
‘So even if he didn’t leave a will, the property would pass to her.’
Bruno is relishing the drama. ‘Does she still stand to inherit if she murdered Mr Kirkby and buried him at Macey’s Patch?’
I say. ‘This is complete and utter madness. I’m going to find out where he is.’
She lets me straight in this time. Now we’ve shared our shameful secret. Bonded over our abandonment. It’s not the warmest welcome, but she’s put the kettle on.
I say ‘So how are you?’
She says ‘How do you think I am?’
She isn’t one for small talk. I should have learnt by now.
Sod it. I’m going in. Picking up where we left off.
I say ‘So why do you think he left?’
‘He thinks I’m boring and obsessive and I only care about the house. He can’t stand the fact that I don’t bring in any money and I spend all day tidying up’.
She is matter-of-fact; mechanical. As though he’s made her learn the litany of her faults by heart.
‘What about you?’ She asks. ‘Why did yours leave you?’
‘He thinks I’m ambitious and obsessive and I only care about my job. He can’t stand the fact that that I’m always out at work and I never tidy up.’
Matter-of-fact as well.
‘It’s a shame we didn’t meet before.’ I say. ‘We could have done a swap’.
It’s the first time I’ve seen her smile.
‘Dammit’ she says ‘we blew that one didn’t we? I bet he’s better-looking than mine as well.’
‘Did you want a cup of tea? I’d offer you something stronger but I never drink at home’.
‘You’re a single mother now. Perhaps you ought to start.’
‘If I started drinking I’m not sure I’d ever stop.’
‘Just don’t buy bottles with corks. You’ll always drink the bottle if you’ve gone to all the trouble of tracking down the corkscrew and pulling out the cork.’
‘Are you saying you don’t want tea?’
‘I’m just saying the way to drink in moderation is to stick to bottles with screw-top caps.’
She’s holding up a teapot. Encouraging me to focus. Waving it gently like a flag.
‘Yes please.’ I say ‘Tea would be lovely.’
‘Sorry.’ She says. ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt.’
‘It’s easier to pour yourself a glass. But the chance of drinking to excess is significantly reduced.’
Christ I sound officious. And mildly deranged. A public information broadcast that’s gone wrong in the edit.
She says ‘Do you take milk?’
I say ‘I’ll bring a bottle with me next time.’
Against the odds we might be friends.
She glances towards the window, towards her view.
She says ‘If things were different I might like you. As it is I want you dead.’