Authors: Patricia Hall
The splash when her body touched the water would have disturbed no one. The place had been carefully chosen, a stretch of the river that ran deep between embankments in the old industrial heartland of Milford, where the mills had long ago closed down and only a small beginning had been made on replacing them with anything new. All was in darkness at that time of the night.
The woman slipped easily into the deep fast-running water. Heavy rain for days the previous week on the high hills to the west had left the river in spate. If God had chosen destruction for her, this was the perfect place. The water was dark and peaty and carried the accumulated debris of its tumbling course down from the moors, fragments of grasses and brittle bracken and heather, the occasional tree branch tufted with hanks of greasy wool left by the hefted sheep still late grazing on the unfenced land between Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The woman slipped beneath the surface of the rushing water, invisible and anonymous as the river took her past the confluence of the Maze and the Bradfield Beck, and the
channel widened out slightly but barely slackened, its flood waters breaching the banks here and there and spreading into the scrubby fields and woodland along the river’s edge beyond the town, creating a morass only the most fool-hardy walker would venture into for days. The banks of the Maze would be no place for dogs or children or small boats for a while. She would be carried a long way, far from home, by this implacable accomplice to whatever had happened that night.
And so it proved. For days she slipped down the river unnoticed, half submerged in the deepest water furthest from the bank, through the ever-widening valley, past villages, under bridges, unseen by the few intrepid walkers who ventured near in the still pelting rain, ignored by the most venturesome animals who tried to drink in the shallows, floating alone, her trailing garments taken for a dislodged tangle of weed if they were spotted at all, Ophelia with nothing at all for remembrance.
But eventually she came to rest as her clothes became entangled with a branch torn from a tree, which itself had lodged firmly under the arch of an old stone bridge spanning the river in the village of Ingleby, an ancient hamlet in the flat, open farmland where the river began its long slow meander across the plain towards the Ouse and, eventually, the sea. It did not take long for her remains and the branch, inextricably meshed, to collect more debris, pushing the flow of the river into unexpected eddies, sending ripples and even small waves lapping across the riverside path. And there she lay for days, no more than a single part of the natural wreckage from the week’s storms, wreckage that lashed and lacerated her remains. Only her long scarf was visible on the surface as the tumbling water tried to wrench it from her body like a dirty
white streamer and sent it downstream beyond the shadow of the bridge, a silent, tugging, tattered signal of distress. The fish found her body first, and then a dog, which stood, ears pricked and tail stiff, barking excitedly until at last someone came to investigate.
Rage overtook him like a foul fog, filling his mouth with bile and squeezing his chest like a vice, forcing breath from his lungs with a harsh rattle. There was never any warning. One moment he was calm and in control, and the next filled with this murderous madness, which he only half-remembered after it had abated. But more and more when he returned to his normal self he was aware of the havoc it – or was it he? – had created. Today it was the traffic. Just the common or garden everyday traffic. He had left his trip late and on the way back had hit the gridlock of parked cars outside the schools, and had only been able to inch his way along the normally quiet suburban roads of Southfield towards his home. Inevitably, his fury centred on the small blue car in front of him, inching through the stream with the heads of two children just visible through the rear window.
Close to the shops, breathing heavily and grinding his teeth, he saw his chance to overtake. Foot down, barely seeing where he was going, he swung out, crashed his foot hard on the accelerator and felt the satisfying surge of power
through his spine as he began to pass the small blue car. Only then did he see another vehicle pulling out of a side-road into his path. He pulled the wheel viciously to the left and cut in on the blue car with a howl of rage. He was not conscious of the impact, not conscious of anything except the fact that he had swerved in time to avoid the vehicle coming towards him and that the road ahead of him was miraculously clear. He put his foot to the floor and accelerated away and the surge of speed began to soothe the flames of his anger. By the time he arrived home his heart rate had returned to normal and, on auto-pilot now, he put the four-by-four in the garage and dropped down the door, unaware of the smear of blue paint on the bull-bar, or even what it signified. His voice, when he opened the front door and sang out ‘I’m ho-o-o-me,’ was completely normal, cheerful even. He had already blotted out that brief visit to his other dimension. But his voice faltered as no reply came to his greeting, and after a brief and increasingly angry look round, he realised the house was still empty. They had not come back.
Back in Southfield, a crowd had already gathered around the small car slewed across the pavement in front of the shopping parade when the Panda car pulled up at the kerb. PC Ali Mirza, who had only been a couple of streets away when he was told to attend the incident, could see a woman in jeans and a fleece leaning against the front door of the blue Nissan, which, if it had skidded any further, would have crashed through the plate-glass window of the hairdresser’s, A Fine Cut, where customers and staff in pink overalls were staring through the window in some agitation. The woman was shouting and gesticulating angrily, and Mirza made his way cautiously through the bystanders to confront her. Only just
out of his probation, he felt less than confident amongst the wealthy white residents of Bradfield’s most exclusive suburb.
‘Is this your car, madam?’ he asked, in a voice husky with nervousness. He could see two children still strapped into their seats in the back of the blue Nissan and the woman followed his gaze. School run, second family car, he told himself, hardly unusual up here, and undoubtedly a woman who would be confident of her rights.
‘My God, they could have been killed,’ she half-screamed, and promptly burst into tears.
‘Is anyone hurt?’ Mirza addressed his question then to the small crowd that was watching him, faces impassive, but got only negative shakes of the head in return.
‘So can anyone tell me what happened?’ He glanced at the driver who had by now pulled open the back door and was undoing the seatbelts of a boy of about eight and one slightly younger, both in the uniform of the primary school half a mile away. He walked to the front of the car and pulled out his notebook to jot down the registration number. The front offside wing of the car was badly scraped and dented and the lights had smashed. There had obviously been some sort of a collision but there was no sign of any other vehicle that might have been involved. He turned back to the woman, who was now half into the back of the car, comforting the two children. Careful, he told himself, she must be in shock.
‘I can tell you what happened, Officer,’ a tall elderly man in a military-looking overcoat offered. ‘It was an atrocious piece of bad driving. If I’d been a bit quicker I would have taken the number of the other vehicle, but he was away so fast I didn’t manage it.’
The driver of the car, tear-stained but calmer now, let go
of her children and turned back towards Mirza, pushing her tangled hair out of her eyes.
‘The bastard ran me off the road,’ she said. ‘He could have killed us all, people on the pavement, anything could have happened…’ She waved her hand around at the small crowd of shoppers and at the prosperous-looking hairdresser’s salon and the baker’s and the delicatessen behind them, and then leant back against the side of the car again, shivering.
Mirza stood with pen poised over his notebook.
‘Perhaps if you give me your details, madam, then you can tell me exactly what happened. Do you have your driving license with you?’
The woman shook her head vaguely, but managed to offer her name and address.
‘I picked up the boys from school,’ she said. ‘There was a lot of traffic coming back up the hill.’ She waved back down towards the main road, which led into Bradfield town centre. ‘Then I was aware of this four-by-four very close on my tail. Too close, obviously wanting to get past. But he couldn’t. There was too much traffic coming the other way.’
‘It was a man driving?’ Mirza asked.
‘Yes, I think so, I could see him in my mirror. And then when I turned off to come up here, past the shops, he turned as well and then pulled out very fast, but he didn’t notice another car coming into the main road from the turning over there…’ She waved vaguely again to a junction on the opposite side of the road. ‘So before I knew what was happening he’d cut in in front of me and clipped my wing and just pushed me over, onto the pavement. There was nothing I could do.’ She searched Ali Mirza’s face desperately for understanding.
‘Did he stop at all?’ the constable asked.
‘Of course he didn’t,’ she said, angry suddenly. ‘He shot off like a maniac.’
‘Could you describe the car? Colour? Make? Anything at all?’
‘Big, dark, blue or black, I suppose, four-by-four, with a spare tyre on the back. Like bloody tanks, aren’t they, those things? I don’t know why they need to be driving them in town at all. They’re a menace.’ She shuddered suddenly and glanced at her small blue Nissan. ‘My husband will go crazy,’ she said. ‘I’ve only been out ten minutes and this happens.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘I must get back,’ she said. ‘I’ve left my daughter with a friend…’
Mirza closed his notebook.
‘I suggest you drive home with the children now, Mrs Mendelson, and I’ll arrange for someone to contact you later to take a proper statement from you. Luckily no one’s been hurt, so no serious harm has been done.’
‘You’ll try and find that lunatic, though?’
‘I’ll put in a report, but without a registration number he may not be easy to trace.’
‘He could kill someone next time.’
‘Yes,’ Mirza said. ‘I’m sure he could.’ And after taking the names and addresses from half a dozen of the witnesses, he got into the Panda car with a feeling of satisfaction that he had handled that well enough.
Laura Ackroyd glanced at her watch, logged off her computer and ran her hands through her unruly cloud of copper hair. It had been a good day for once, with her boss, Ted Grant, thankfully out of the office at a conference of the local newspaper groups’ editors. Slightly ominous, that, had
been the consensus round the water cooler that morning. They all knew that the position of many local newspapers was potentially dire as crucial advertising slipped away to new media, and circulations dipped because the younger generation seemed not to have inherited their parents’ interest in parochial news. Stories of belt-tightening and redundancies were the stock-in-trade of the media columns these days and the staff of the
knew that they would not be immune to the chilly winds blowing through the company. But even so, Laura refused to feel too despondent. For the first time in many months she felt that life was good and could get better.
She spent five minutes in the cloakroom repairing her make-up, giving her reflection a quick smile in the mirror, and then left the office and drove up the long hill out of the town centre, through the thickening early evening traffic, and parked outside a substantial house in a leafy avenue in Southfield. This was the time she enjoyed visiting her friend Vicky Mendelson best, the hour or two after her two older boys had arrived home from primary school and the youngest child, Naomi Laura, named after her mother’s best friend, was having her tea and being prepared for bed. She had known Vicky and her husband David since they had all been students together at Bradfield University and, lacking children of her own, although she still nurtured hopes that might be put right, she relished the chance to take even a small share in Vicky’s slightly chaotic teatime rituals. But when Vicky opened the door this particular evening she did so with an anxious air, and gave Laura a hug that lacked its usual enthusiasm.
‘What’s the problem?’ Laura asked, sensing trouble. ‘You
‘It’s been an awful day,’ Vicky said, obviously close to tears. ‘Some lunatic bashed my car when I went to pick up the boys from school. And then drove off without a bloody word. I’ve had the police taking details, everything.’
‘My God, were you hurt?’
‘Fortunately no one was hurt and the boys took it in their stride, as kids do. But I feel a bit shaken up. And I’ve also got an unexpected visitor. Sorry,’ she whispered as she led Laura down the hall to the kitchen, where she saw a pale, thin woman in jeans and a loose, long-sleeved shirt, sitting at the table with her hands clutched around a mug of coffee, as if for warmth. The stranger looked up as Laura came into the room and gave a tentative smile.
‘This is Julie Holden,’ Vicky said.
‘Hi, Julie,’ Laura said cheerfully before she crossed the room to give Naomi, who was sitting in her high chair, a kiss. ‘Where are the boys?’ she asked.
‘They’re watching TV with Julie’s little girl, Anna,’ Vicky said.
Laura put her head round the sitting room door and saw two dark heads and one blonde one on the sofa in front of CBBC.
‘Hi gang,’ she said but got only the briefest murmur in exchange from Vicky’s two sons, who were immersed in their programme. Back in the kitchen she accepted a cup of coffee gratefully and took a seat next to Julie Holden.
‘Is Anna at school with the boys?’ she asked. But to her horror Julie shook her head violently and her eyes filled with tears. It was obvious that Laura had touched a sensitive nerve with what she had thought was an innocuous question.
‘She used to be, but she’s not going to school at the moment,’ Julie said. ‘We’ve got a bit of a family problem.’
Laura glanced at Vicky, who was busy wiping her daughter’s sticky hands and face.
‘Julie’s just left her husband. I’ve been telling her to do it for ages, and now she has,’ Vicky said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Laura said, her tone cautious. If she had interrupted an informal marriage guidance session she was not so happy about her unannounced intrusion. She, of all people, was the last person to offer advice on relationships. And at a point when she was beginning to think that maybe she could look forward to a family of her own, she was not keen to immerse herself in other people’s disasters.
‘Vicky makes it sound easy, but it’s not,’ Julie said, her voice thick with emotion.
‘It is when he’s been treating you like he’s been treating you,’ Vicky said angrily. ‘It’s a no-brainer. You can’t possibly stay with him.’ Laura looked from one woman to the other, Julie clutching her mug, pale and scared-looking but now with two vivid red blotches of colour in her cheeks, and Vicky, standing above her, flushed with indignation, but plump and beautiful and, the accident notwithstanding, a golden picture of contentment, and she wondered at the contrast. She felt her usual prickle of jealousy and tamped it down firmly. There was no need for jealousy now, she thought, with the future looking good.
‘I’m sorry, perhaps you don’t want me here just now,’ Laura said, finishing her coffee quickly and glancing from one woman to the other.
‘No, no,’ Julie said quickly. ‘You might be able to help. Vicky says your partner is a policeman. I think I might need
Laura hesitated. Michael Thackeray, she knew, would not welcome being dragged into a stranger’s domestic affairs, even at second hand. But catching the desperation in Julie’s eyes, she knew that she could not refuse at least to listen.
‘Tell me about it,’ she conceded, hoping her reluctance did not appear too obvious. By way of reply, Julie rolled up the sleeve of her shirt to reveal a series of blue and purple bruises the length of her arm.
‘This time he threw me across the room,’ she said quietly. ‘If I stay with him I think he’ll kill me in the end. It’s been going on for months. I’ve lost track of how long.’
Laura drew a sharp breath.
‘Have you been to the police?’ she asked. ‘They have special departments these days to deal with this sort of thing.’
Julie shook her head.
‘Then you must do that,’ Laura said. ‘You can’t let him get away with behaviour like this. It’ll only get worse.’
‘I’ve already told her that,’ Vicky chipped in. ‘She can’t let this go on. Anna’s at risk as well.’
‘No, no, he’d never hurt Anna,’ Julie said sharply. ‘He wouldn’t lay a finger on her. He adores her.’
‘You can’t be sure of that if he’s so violent,’ Laura said. ‘What does David say about it?’ she asked, turning to Vicky, whose husband was a Crown Prosecution Service lawyer and, she thought, far better qualified than she was to give advice to a battered wife.
‘I don’t want to bother him,’ Julie said, her voice dull.
‘You need a solicitor who specialises in family law,’ Vicky said. ‘I’m sure David could recommend someone.’