‘How did the make-up come to be there anyway? Under Macey’s Patch?’
‘It wasn’t.’ Says Irene. ‘It was in the Infectious Diseases Unit. In the store-room. We had to move it before they knocked it down.’
‘We?’ says Linda, vaguely. She is trying to imagine Irene breaking into a derelict building. Carrying heavy loads. ‘How?’
‘There’s a tunnel.’
‘From the Infirmary. Below the dorm. It runs the whole way to the War Room.’
‘The War Room?’
‘The old septic tank. It’s under Macey’s Patch.’
Irene still finds it thrilling. Secret passageways. Clandestine manoeuvres. Contraband. She recalls the moment when it dawned on her. That you didn’t need a lantern or a match. That you could navigate by following the pipework with your fingers. You had to watch your step. Especially in winter. When your fingers were too numb to feel the heat. Before you knew it they were burning. Chilblains that persisted. For seconds, minutes, days, months. Until the ground began to thaw and the itching settled in. She’d give anything to feel it now. Life-affirming pain. Respite from the numbness and the silence and the unremitting cold. From the sense that she is fading. That she will never feel these things again: the burning and the itching and the welcome warmth of spring.
Linda is eyeing her suspiciously.
‘Did you do it by yourself?’
The whole thing is preposterous. Irene is in her nineties. Elegant. Tiny. Frail.
‘I issued the instructions.’ Irene days defensively. ‘In any case it’s man’s work.’
Linda almost laughs. The sheer absurdity. The notion of her grandmother with hired muscle to hand.
She says ‘So who did you get to help?’
Irene looks to the left and to the right. As though there might be someone listening.
‘I have my ways and means.’
Linda feels uneasy. There is something in Irene’s expression. The twinkle in her eye.
Linda runs through the list of possibilities in her head. Colin in the Butchers, Arthur from the Bingo, Pat McGinty from the shop.
Irene says. ‘Let’s just say I believe in keeping business in the family.’
Linda is growing increasingly uneasy.
‘Is Alan involved in all of this?’
‘Not Alan, no.’
Taunting; testing. Willing Linda to press on.
Realisation starts to dawn.
‘You asked Billy to move your make-up?’
‘I didn’t ask him, I employed him. He was grateful for the job.’
Irene starts to shiver. Turns the gas fire up full blast. She likes to hear her heat. She can’t stand central heating. The way you don’t know if it’s working. Not unless you touch it. Not like the pipework in the hospital. Cranking into action, and chuntering away. The beckoning call of warmth and life. The pops and bangs and hisses. It’s silent now, of course. The heating long since disconnected. But still, she wanted Billy to see it. To have his adventure too.
Linda shuffles through the objections that are swirling round her head. Rattles them out in quick succession. Tries them all to see what sticks.
‘It’s child labour, exploitation.’
Irene says ‘All boys love an adventure.’
‘It’s dangerous, it’s dark. And Billy hates dark spaces. The poor boy must have been terrified. It isn’t safe. It’s falling down. There could have been an accident and no-one would have found him. It’s trespassing, it’s illegal.’ She says this last word with emphasis, glad that she has seized on something so tangible and dramatic.
Irene smiles serenely. ‘They’re not going to arrest an eight-year-old. That’s the beauty of it. Can you imagine what they’d say if they discovered me down there? I’d have to pretend I’d lost my marbles. Nobody would question Billy’s motives. Youthful curiosity. An innate need to explore. At worst, he’d get a good clip round the ear.’
‘This isn’t Billy Bloody Bunter.’ Linda screeches in frustration. ‘Policemen don’t give errant schoolboys a good clip around the ear. Billy would be a young offender. With a track record that would follow him for life.’
Irene says ‘It’s not like you to be melodramatic.’
Linda looks defeated. ‘I can’t believe he didn’t tell me.’
This is what upsets her most.
Irene gives a knowing smile.
‘Oh.’ Says Linda icily. ‘You told him not to tell me.’
This seems the greatest crime of all.
‘You can’t do that. You can’t go telling Billy to keep secrets from his Mother.’
Irene plays her ace.
‘Men like to have their little secrets. You of all people should know that.’
‘Did you make any money? From selling make-up?’
Irene looks affronted. She doesn’t discuss earnings. It’s indelicate. Indiscreet.
‘It wasn’t about the money. It was about patriotic duty. About giving every woman the opportunity to look their personal best.’
‘But you must have made some money?’
Irene shrugs. ‘Enough to purchase this apartment.’
Linda is incredulous. ‘You own this flat?’
She says ‘flat’ quite deliberately. A dig at her Grandmother’s pretensions. Irene thinks apartment sounds more cultured, that it suggests a world of Continental Boulevards, Gracious Living, Parisian Aristocracy.
Irene arches an eyebrow in surprise. ‘Well yes.’ She says. ‘Of course. Who else would it belong to?’
Linda is struggling to articulate quite why she’s so surprised.
She says ‘You’ve always been so scathing about mortgages. What’s the phrase you always use? The Bank of Last Resort for Imbeciles and Fools.’
‘Absolutely.’ Says Irene. ‘If you can’t afford the merchandise you’ve got no right to buy.’
It takes a moment for the implications to sink in.
‘You bought it outright? Without a mortgage?’
‘Of course.’ Says Irene blithely. ‘And plenty more besides.’
Linda contemplates this new-found information. How could she not have known? She never thought to ask. This has always been her problem. Lack of curiosity. Failure of imagination. She’s been told often enough.
So, the inheritance is significant after all. There’s a property to play for. It’s not unpleasant. Light and airy. Well looked after. Nice high ceilings. Nowhere for Billy to kick a ball. But better than no home at all. If Irene were to drop dead now all Linda’s problems would be solved. She could put her own house on the market before it’s repossessed. She can pay the mortgage off and have a decent sum left over. Enough to tide her over until Alan comes to his senses or she works out how to get a job.
It’s a shame Irene’s so agile, so clearly in rude health. Still, she shouldn’t be living in a flat. All those stairs, at her age. She may be sprightly now, but it can’t go on forever. Surely the state must have some sort of obligation to step in. If Irene’s too infirm, too frail, to live an independent life. It would be a relief to get her somewhere she’ll be properly looked after. Before she gets Billy doing Christ-Knows-What and lying to his Mother. Before Linda accidentally spins the tea tray at her neck.