I say ‘So how was Judy?’
My mother says. ‘I’ve realised we don’t have that much in common. I’m not sure we ever did. When I look back on it, the friendship was pretty much based on orange curd.’
She looks deflated, disappointed. I’m searching for something to say, something reassuring. But I have to get the phone.
Lester picking up where we left off.
‘It’s no good talking to the wife. We need to talk to Mr. Kirkby.’
‘He’s at work during the day.’
‘What does he do?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Ask his wife. Tell her we need to speak to him.’
‘I can’t call Linda Kirkby and say we’d rather deal with her husband than with her. It’s out-and-out discrimination.’
‘It’s common sense. Just get her talking and bring the subject round to where he works.’
‘We can’t go turning up at his office to tell him we want to buy a bit of his garden and make a small adjustment to the corner of his house.’
I can hear Bruno sniggering in the background.
‘That’s exactly what we’re going to do.’ Says Lester ‘He’s not going to start getting all sentimental about dead pets and leafy views if we get him in front of his colleagues. It’s much better to get him in business mode. He’ll negotiate a deal.’
‘When you say “we” I take it you mean “me”?’
He’s hung up. I’ll take that as a Yes.
She calls them in the end. The police. It doesn’t seem quite right. But she has to talk to someone. She can’t think who else to call. She’s not sure if it’s a crime. To flee from your financial obligations. It can’t be legal, surely. ‘Is that what me and Billy are?’ she thinks ‘Financial obligations’.
They’re not unsympathetic. The lady at the police station is happy enough to listen. A little bored perhaps. But methodical. She runs through a list of questions. When did she last see him? Had they had an argument? Was there something on his mind? Is this the first time he’s gone missing? Could Alan be suicidal? Is there anything at all that might indicate foul play?
‘No,’ says Linda, ‘nothing at all. That’s precisely what’s so odd. Everything was absolutely normal. It’s as though he’s been possessed.’
She does her level best to make the woman understand.
‘I don’t think he’s in danger. It’s as though he’s joined a cult.’
She’s started so she’ll finish. Though she knows it sounds insane.
‘I’m not suggesting he’s been kidnapped. But…’
Linda starts to falter.
‘There’s someone at the door. I’ll have to call you back.’
‘I was hoping it might be possible to have a quick word with your husband.’
I had planned to work up to this discreetly. Work it into casual conversation. But it’s tricky when she isn’t going to let me in the door.
‘He’s at work. Can I help?’
‘I just wanted to pick up on discussions about the project. I realize he works long hours. I thought perhaps it would be best if I called him at his office.’
I’m not sure what I’ve said but it’s clear I shouldn’t have said it. Her expression flickers from suspicion to disbelief to something approaching horror.
‘It’s nothing that important.’ I say hastily. ‘I can speak to him another time.’
She says ‘You can say whatever you’ve got to say to me.’
I look over her shoulder. At the sunlight and the sycamore tree. The field, the open view.
I think of Lester. I can’t bottle it again.
I say. ‘We were wondering if you’d be interested in selling part of your garden.’
I decide not to ask her if she’s particularly attached to the front right corner of her house.
She says. ‘I’d happily sell the whole bloody thing. Not that anyone will want it once you’ve built all over the field.’
It’s hard not to look too excited. Buying the whole plot would solve an awful lot of problems.
I say ‘Do you have any idea how much you’d want for it?’
She draws herself to her full height. Pulls her cardigan tight around her. Looks me in the eye.
She says ‘Get out of my house’.
‘It’s as though he’s changed into a completely different person.’ Says Linda. ‘He says things he’d never say. It’s as though he’s been brainwashed, or joined a cult. ‘
It’s funny the things that you can say to a disembodied voice. Daft things really. Things you wouldn’t say inside your head, let alone to someone else.
‘Do you think your husband might be having some sort of mental breakdown?’
She’s not sure how to answer.
‘Does he sound in any way disturbed?’
It would be easier, neater, to say yes. A breakdown, a mid-life crisis. Some sort of deep depression, Not ideal but it might preserve a little of her dignity in tact. But Alan doesn’t sound unhappy. Not at all. He sounds triumphant. Indifferent, cutting, cruel.
Bruno says. ‘Lester will go ballistic. You have to talk to Alan Kirkby.’
‘I can’t get hold of him. I don’t know where he works’.
Bruno taps on his computer. Types Alan Kirkby into Google. It takes him less than thirty seconds. A job title; a landline; a head and shoulders shot.
‘Nice work Sherlock.’ Bruno says sarcastically. ‘He’s a slippery bugger. Tricky to track down.’
We scrutinize the photograph. Grey suit. White shirt. Cheap tie. Diagonal stripes. A half-smile towards the camera. A pen in his left hand.
I say ‘Left-handed’.
Bruno says ‘It’s a bit late to play detective. You’ve already failed.’
I say ‘Why would you choose that pen if you were posing for a photograph?’
The words ‘I’m made from old car tyres’ are clearly visible down the side.
Bruno says ‘So are you going to call him?’
‘You call. It might be better man to man.’
The conversation’s short and sweet.
‘So?’ I say. ‘What did he say?’
‘It went straight through to Reception. Alan’s at home on sick leave. He’s not been in all month.’
‘I wouldn’t say he sounds troubled. It’s just that…’
Linda struggles to find the words.
‘Ah’ says the woman on the other end of the phone. ‘Ahhh.’
Linda can tell she’s losing interest. Just another middle-aged man who’s grown tired of his marriage. Just another middle-aged woman who won’t accept her fate.
Linda struggles on. ‘I realise this sounds absurd but my husband appears to have assumed a completely different personality. He talks as though he hates me. As though he sees me as the enemy…’
‘I know love.’ The voice says kindly.
Linda’s getting irritated. It isn’t sympathy she’s after. She wants her old life back.
She says ‘So how are you going to find him?’
‘It’s not our job to find him.’ The woman on the help desk has changed her tone entirely. Sharper, thinner, brusque. She’s dealing with a lunatic. God knows it’s not the first time. She needs to cut this short.
‘It’s not a missing person case. More a marital dispute.’
My mother says ‘So how was your day?’
I’m debating how to answer.
She carries on regardless. ‘You don’t think Daniel might be having an affair? He seems a bit distracted.’
I say ‘I think he’s having some sort of breakdown’.
It’s easier now I’ve said it. Now I’ve given it a name.
His mother prefers to call it burnout. He has shined too brightly; flown too high; worked too hard for far too long. I have my story too. I am supporting him in sickness, as I would in health. Adhering to the wedding vows we never saw fit to take. I am supportive, loyal, strong. I cling to this version of events. I prefer it to the alternative: that I am the root cause of his misery. That I have failed to make him happy. That I couldn’t make it work.
He can’t articulate his story. He doesn’t have the words. He can barely speak at all. Not to me. Not yet.
Perhaps my mother can sort it out. Tell me what to do. Make all our problems go away.
She says ‘It’s probably just as well I’m going home tomorrow. It sounds like you two need some space to sort things out.’
‘The CSA?’ Says Linda meekly.
‘The Child Support Agency. They can help to track him down’. The voice has changed again. Not irritated now, but perfunctory, fluent, professional. As though she’s reading from a script. ‘They can’t bring your husband back. But they can make sure he contributes towards the cost of bringing Billy up.’
Linda writes the number down. There’s another number too. Citizens Advice. They’ve got a useful leaflet. About getting back into the workplace when you’ve had time out to have children.
Linda cradles the receiver in her hand and gazes through the window. Towards the field where Billy plays and the hospital beyond.
The disembodied voice says ‘Mrs Kirkby….. Mrs Kirkby. Are you there?’
So there it is. The end of Billy’s childhood. The end of her existence as a home-maker and a mother. She’s going to have to get a job.