Linda knocks on the door of Macey’s Lodge.
She says ‘I hate to ask but could you keep an eye on Billy. There’s stuff I need to do.’
‘I’m working.’ I say lamely.
She says ‘I’m really struggling. It’s not easy now I’m on my own.’
It can’t be easy. Not now I’ve got my job back and she can’t leave Billy at mine.
Bruno is looking at Linda’s legs. She’s wearing a short skirt. And heels. It doesn’t look quite right. Like a child dressing up.
Lester says ‘He’ll be fine just playing on the field.’
I say ‘Can’t your Grandmother look after him?’
She says. ‘Actually she can’t. She’s showing symptoms of dementia.’
She knows this isn’t true. Irene is just Irene. This is wishful thinking. Trying it out for size.
‘Really?’ I say ‘She seems so …well put together.’ Bruno’s words are ringing in my ears.
Linda says ‘Don’t let appearances deceive you.’
She is taken aback by her own audacity. This is the polar opposite to Irene’s guide to life: that appearance is the only thing that counts.
We look at her, expecting more. Some sort of explanation.
Linda is giddy with her own daring. Her defiance.
She says ‘I can’t leave Billy with her. She sent him down that tunnel. Under the Infirmary. She paid her eight-year-old great grandson to break into a building site and transport stolen goods.’
There’s some sort of noise from Lester. A snort. Or perhaps a sneeze. Or something in between. He’s not sure which of them is crazy. Linda or Irene.
Linda’s confidence is wavering. She can sense his incredulity. She is being melodramatic. She must be more precise.
‘She made him cart two-hundred-and-seventy-seven boxes from the basement of the Infectious Diseases Unit to the disused septic tank.’
I say. ‘Billy? Are you sure?’
The boy who’s scared of cramped dark spaces.
Linda says ‘Absolutely.’
With that, she’s out the door.
I say ‘I don’t believe her. Billy’s terrified of tunnels.’
Bruno says ‘Perhaps we should be asking why?’
Lester says ‘Do you know what would make me really happy?’
We look at him expectantly. This is not the kind of thing he says.
‘It would make me really really happy if you two could stop indulging in stupid speculation and start doing the job you’re paid to do.’
He walks out and slams the door.
‘You know,’ says Bruno thoughtfully ‘Linda Kirkby’s actually got half-way decent legs.’
Linda dashes to the hairdressers. Punctuality is important. Elementary manners. Proper standards. It isn’t that she’s late. But she likes to turn up everywhere with at least ten minutes to spare. She shouldn’t have wasted time on all that chatter. She’s not sure why she did it. She’s never been one for small talk. But there’s something about that Bruno Brown. She starts behaving differently. Loses her usual self-possession. Her dislike of unnecessary words. Starts to gabble like a teenager. As though she wants to be interesting. She has never aspired to that before.
She settles in on the sofa. Faux brown leather, cowhide cushions. Magazines from months gone by. Flicks through the features pages. How to change your life in thirty days. How to visualise your dreams. How to be the woman you were always meant to be. She reckons it’s pretty easy. One short step would do it. Irene’s disappearance, whatever form it needs to take. Incarceration, institutionalisation, hospitalisation, death. If you say it fast enough it has a rhythm of its own. A chant. The chug chug chug of a childhood train. She’d like to say it aloud. Like a poem. But she shouldn’t be saying at all. Not even in her head.
She half expects to see her. Irene is always at the hairdressers. Having her hair ‘set’. Not just cut like other people. She is the only person Linda knows who has a ‘do’ and not a style.
The stylist looks familiar. One of Lisa Bletchley’s cousins. Irene can’t recall her name. She is running a comb through Linda’s hair. Long dark lustrous hair. The hair that Linda has hidden behind for all her adult life. An outward sign of maturity, of motherhood, of wifeliness. A sign too of order, of control. Untouched by fashion or whimsy. No fringe; no layers; no tangles. Long and thick and straight and clean. Immaculately cared for. Not one hair out of place.
Lisa Bletchley’s cousin says ‘What did you have in mind?’
‘Cut it off.’ Says Linda. ‘Short and sharp and sassy. Angular. Off my face.’
Linda walks along the High Street. She feels momentarily exposed. Light-headed without the weight of all that hair. She juts her chin out, stands up straight, walks a little faster. The world looks brighter, sharper, more in focus. She has been sleep-walking for years.
Billy Kirkby’s hanging round the door. Just being there. As though he wants attention. He has a field at his disposal yet he won’t go out of sight. Kicks his ball despondently. Nowhere in particular. From foot to foot. Against the wall. It’s driving me insane.
‘Where are Sonny and Kit?’ He’s asked this twice already. The answer’s still the same.
‘They’re at After School Club.’ Where you would be if your mother hadn’t dumped you onto me. They’re at After School Club while I look after you.
Still, it isn’t Billy’s fault. I give up trying to work and talk to Billy instead.
‘Billy, is it true that there’s a secret passage that runs under Macey’s Field?’
Billy is staring at the ground.
I say ‘Have you been in it?’
He’s not giving anything away.
I say ‘Did something happen? In the passage? Did something make you scared?’
Billy looks uneasy.
Bruno shouts from somewhere out of sight. ‘Dee, I need you in the kitchen.’ Not that it’s a kitchen. More a kitchenette.
I say ‘I’m just chatting to Billy.’
He says. ‘I need you NOW.’
It’s not like him to shout.
I say ‘Excuse me Billy.’
Bruno slams the kitchen door and hisses in my ear.
‘There are rules about interrogating children. I’ve seen it on TV. You’re meant to have some sort of training. And an impartial witness. And I’m pretty sure you’re meant to have it taped.’
‘I’m not interrogating anyone. I’m making idle conversation.’
Bruno says ‘With an eight-year-old child.’
I say ‘With one of my sons’ friends.’
Bruno says ‘Nice haircut.’
I think: You’ve been to the hairdressers. You could easily have waited until Billy was at school.
Linda says ‘I have to check on Irene. Is it OK if I leave Billy for another couple of hours?’
Bruno and I both speak at once. I say ‘We’ll be going in a minute.’ Bruno says ‘Of course.’
Bruno fills the silence.
‘So how is Irene in any case?’
I say ‘So you’ve forgiven her? For sending Billy down the tunnel?’
Linda says ‘It’s not a question of forgiving her. I have to keep an eye on her. She’s doing all sorts of peculiar things.’
Bruno says ‘Aside from the poison pen letter and the imaginary pets?’
Linda looks disconcerted.
I say ‘That wasn’t senile dementia. She was trying to scare us off. We should be used to that by now.’
Bruno says ‘It’s a funny way to go about it.’
‘I think…’ says Linda. She pauses. She isn’t used to having an audience. She decides she rather likes it. ‘I think she was resorting to desperate measures to …’
Bruno says ‘To what?’
Linda says ‘This is going to sound strange.’
We are all looking at her expectantly. Intrigued.
Linda blurts it out. ‘To protect her stash of lipstick.’
There is a pause.
‘She ran some sort of black market make-up franchise during the war.’ Says Linda nonchalantly.
‘You’re saying it’s stolen goods.’ Says Bruno. ‘That Irene was a fence.’
‘Not stolen, so much as forbidden. It should never have been made at all.’ Linda feels quite breathless. Giddy to be the keeper of so much information. ‘The government had put a stop to it. Cosmetic houses were meant to concentrate on ointments for the troops. But they didn’t. Not altogether. They carried on making lipstick. Dropped it off at the infirmary. Hidden amidst the boxes of medical supplies. Irene was the middle man. An undercover agent. A sort of Black Market Avon Lady.’
She feels a bit self-conscious. This is the longest speech she’s made in years.
She feels she ought to take a bow. Perhaps a curtsey. But it might seem a bit weird.
‘Wow.’ Says Bruno, whistling. ‘I’m seeing her in a whole new light.’