Authors: Mick Herron
That morning she had cleared the dinner party debris, vacuumed the sitting room, changed the bed linen and polished the wooden handrail that ran alongside the stairs; she had cleaned the mirrors in the bathroom, swept the front path and had a long internal dialogue as to whether to defrost the fridge or wait until the weekend. She had eaten two bowls of muesli, five digestive biscuits and all four mints left over from last night. She had opened the
jobs section, closed it, and turned to the TV listings instead; had watched the last half of a pro-gramme that taught her how to find the railway station in Italian, and the first half of one about early colonial administration in Australia. She had been seriously thinking about the remaining digestive biscuits, trading the calories against agreeing to defrost the fridge that afternoon, when common sense had prompted her to leave the house instead.
Now she was eating a slice of strawberry cheesecake while Wigwam explained the Singleton family:
‘Her husband was killed a few years ago.’
She’d never realized South Oxford had such a high body count. ‘Killed how?’
‘He was a soldier.’ Wigwam made the statement a flat inevitability, as if being in the military were itself a terminal condition. ‘He fought in the Gulf War, can you imagine that?’
Sarah could. It wasn’t as outrageous as Wigwam seemed to think: somebody had to have fought there, else it would have been over too fast. ‘And that’s where he was killed?’
‘No, of course not. Dinah’s only four. Four and a bit. No, he was in some kind of accident in a helicopter or something. I think in Cyprus.’
‘You only think so, Wigwam? You’re slipping.’
She stuck her tongue out. Then said, ‘It was four years ago. There was a few of them killed. Him and some other soldiers. Dinah wasn’t even born.’
‘Did you know him?’
‘Course not. This was before they moved here, silly.’
Talking to Wigwam was a window to another world. If CNN ever started a rolling gossip channel, they had their anchorwoman right here. On the other hand, she did expect you to keep up. Sarah should have known when Maddie Singleton moved into the area: more than a duty, this was her holy obligation. What happened where you lived was of paramount concern. A war might rumble into life thousands of miles away, but who the neighbours were having round next Friday, that was news.
‘Exploding, though,’ Wigwam said, and shook her head. ‘If you were a soldier you’d expect it, wouldn’t you? Sort of. But not a soldier’s
Sarah avoided confronting whether soldiers expected to be blown up by taking a bite of cheesecake. ‘I don’t suppose she knew much about it.’
‘That’s the best way to go,’ Wigwam said with an authority that sounded born of experience, though presumably wasn’t. She nibbled at her apple pie. ‘But so
,’ she added, muffled. ‘You wouldn’t wish it on anybody.’
‘I don’t know. How about Gerard?’
Wigwam winced, to indicate that there were some things you couldn’t joke about, but also gave a quick smile to show that Sarah was forgiven. ‘Is he very important? Gerard Inchon?’
‘He thinks so.’
‘I didn’t like him very much.’
Sarah laughed. ‘Neither did I, Wigwam. Neither did I.’
‘Why are rich people horrid?’
‘Maybe you have to be horrid to get rich, I don’t know.’ She looked at the cake on her fork. ‘You know what I found myself thinking, though? That he was also horrid because he was fat.’ She shuddered. ‘This is me speaking. A couple more mornings like today, I’ll be the same size as a helicopter.’
‘You’re not fat.’
‘I eat. It’s all I do these days. I do housework and I eat. I also watch telly, but I eat while I’m doing that too. Sometimes I have the telly on while I’m doing the housework, come to think of it. If I did that
ate all at once, think how much time I’d save.’
‘You’re just depressed. Have you been looking for another job?’
‘Barely. The first month I applied for everything, and got exactly no interviews. You lose heart.’
‘You should take up something.’
Sarah groaned. ‘I don’t want a
, Wigwam. I want a life.’
‘Jobs aren’t everything.’
Wigwam would know. She had about seven, luckily all part-time. Sarah felt a pang of guilt: doing housework kept Wigwam’s kids fed. Other people’s housework. It was probably easier not to obsess on it when it wasn’t your own, but even so it didn’t make for a career.
‘Why did he say it was a bomb, though?’ Wigwam asked suddenly.
‘That Gerard. Rufus says it was probably a gas main. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? When houses blow up, it’s usually the gas. Or else they’ve been keeping something inflammable in the cellar.’
There were times when Sarah wondered what it was like inside Wigwam’s brain. She was either gifted with unusual insights, or had been stranded on this planet as a small child.
‘But Gerard said straight off it was a bomb. Why did he say that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It was an
thing to say.’ Wigwam’s eyes filled with tears again. ‘Who would want to blow up Maddie Singleton?’
‘Or whoever was with her.’
‘Maybe it was the man with her they were trying to blow up.’ A thought occurred to her. ‘It
a man, wasn’t it?’
‘I expect so. She was Catholic.’
There was a certain tortured logic to this, so Sarah let it pass. Besides, she’d had another thought. ‘If she was seeing somebody on the quiet . . .’
‘Yes. Somebody might be missing a man.’
Wigwam let this sink in. Then her eyes grew round in horror, tinged ever so slightly with delight. ‘Oh
‘Hell of a piece of news to wake up to.’
. To find your partner was unfaithful and it got him
‘I’m not sure. If I found out Mark was having an affair, I’d be quite pleased to learn in the next breath he’d been blown to kingdom come.’
‘I know. I’m not as nice as you are.’
‘You’re not getting on, are you?’
‘Me and Mark? No, not really. At least, we’re not
getting on, it’s just that there aren’t any buffers any more. Or not for me. He’s got his job, and all I’ve got’s him. I think he likes it that way, that’s what bothers me.’
‘Is he doing well at work?’
‘Seems to be. It takes up most of his time. But we don’t talk about it much, because it just leads to rows.’
‘It’s bad when you can’t talk about things.’
‘Don’t I know it. What really gets me is how much he’s changed, or how much his beliefs have changed, and he just doesn’t seem aware of it. Or he takes it for granted, as if it were part of growing up. Getting older.’
‘I know. And we don’t all grow up either, I know that too. So maybe I should be grateful. But the people he works for now, he used to hate all that. Working for the clampdown, he called it.’
‘Sure. He was never going to save the world, you know? But he was always on the side of the people who were going to. If critical theory was radical action, he’d have been Che Guevara. These days he thinks Tony Blair’ll do nicely, thanks.’
like Tony Blair,’ Wigwam said loyally.
‘You like everybody, Wigwam. That doesn’t count. You know what he said to me the other day? Mark, not Tony Blair.’ She scraped her plate with her fork for the last crumbs. ‘I was handing him a cup of coffee, and he said, “Thanks, em, Sarah.”’ Wigwam was looking distraught. Sarah remembered, not quite soon enough, that Wigwam hated information like this; she’d rather everybody had a wonderful life. So she added, ‘Anyway, I didn’t know your Rufus was taking adult lit.’
‘Oh, he’s not. He just said that to shut Mr Important up. Well, he did try it once, but he didn’t like it. So he stopped.’
he doing now?’
‘Well,’ Wigwam said. ‘He doesn’t actually want anybody to know.’
Male prostitute? Sarah wondered. Librarian? But Wigwam wouldn’t say.
Wigwam had to go to work after that, so Sarah drifted around town on her own for a while: window shopping, before succumbing to the genuine article and buying a summer dress in a closing-down sale. There it was, she scolded herself on the way home. You grouse about Mark’s job, but it lets you buy whatever you want. Even things you don’t much want but you’re too bored not to buy. That was the problem, really. She was bored.
Bored too, a bit, by South Oxford, she decided, as she crossed the bridge again going home. Not that it was worse than anywhere else. There was more to it, of course, than just the river: some dreadful pubs; two primary schools; a lake by the railway line. There was what Wigwam referred to as a community spirit, which in effect meant that neighbours felt free to complain when you painted your house, and everybody moved to North Oxford as soon as they could afford it. The last eighteen months had seen two local murders: one domestic – a battered wife became a murdered wife – and the other opportunist: a daytime burglary that went ‘tragically wrong’ according to the paper, as if there were some ideal template of burglary that this had failed to live up to. The same paper had written of a neighbourhood living under the shadow of fear, and this was crap also. Most people did not expect to be murdered, all but a few justifiably. They got on with their lives regardless of the terrors of the world: the wars brewing up whether they wanted them or not; the houses that exploded in the middle of the night. When forced to consider the ugliness that lurked on the fringes of life, they did so in a way that confirmed their views of what that life should be like. It was not a world, Sarah thought now, to bring children into – the standard excuse used by those who did not want children anyway.
Which Sarah didn’t. Her considered view was that from the age of about three children were incredibly dull, until they got to twelve or so, at which point they became unspeakable. Wigwam’s brood, her favourite example, were particularly obnoxious: snotty, ill-coordinated, perpetually whining, though she had to admit Wigwam seemed quite fond of them. The opinion remained untarnished, however. Which made it all the stranger now that she could not get from her mind the picture of a small girl asleep when a blast ripped her house apart, and of a wardrobe falling, its doors flapping open, forming a protective coffin to shield the girl from harm. The girl, in her mind, wore red overalls and yellow jellies.
And, like Sarah, was a survivor.
It was the notion of a protective coffin which haunted her. A sort of instant resurrection. But what kind of life had Dinah Singleton been born again into? With a father dead before she was born, and her mother newly following him, orphanhood was what remained. Probably not the Dickensian nightmare it used to be, but not something you’d wish on a small child even if small children did not figure highly among your priorities. And where had she been taken? Since her own survival, still not long enough ago for comfort, Sarah had nursed a dread of hospitals and the institutionalized anonymity they imposed: for all the best efforts of the nursing staff, you could never be anything more than the next patient. Not that what happened to the child was any of her business. But the image, the overalls, the jellies, nagged at her like an unquiet conscience. This was what she got for thinking children obnoxious. Something very like guilt.
Down by the exploded house, busy teams still sorted through wreckage. One or two individuals stood to one side, heads cocked, as if trying out a new perspective which might make sense of the strewn rubble: like puzzlers newly arrived at a half-completed jigsaw, they were looking for the important pieces that made sense of the rest. And with sudden clarity it came to Sarah what had been unusual about the bearded man, the man who had stood on the grass apron watching these professionals. It was that he was the only one there who looked like he knew what he was seeing. As if such damage were as much a part of his everyday as any other element in that scene: the river, the bridge, the swans who had not been fed.
She did not like hospitals, and with reason. All one winter she’d spent incarcerated in one, feeling – she’d wished – like a princess in a tale; her view a dismal car park, though at least it had had an ornamental fountain as its centrepiece. And out of nowhere, now, as she parked her car, she remembered waking one morning to see that this had frozen, and a rather dour piece of statuary become a thing of beauty. Encased in ice, as if a glacier had swooped on it overnight, the statue might have been the relic of a long-gone society, preserved by chance and freak weather; its survival made possible by the forces that sought to destroy it. A bit like those mammoths people were always finding, or hoping to find. Had that ever been true, the deep-frozen mammoth discovery? She didn’t know. But it made a good story.
That was then and this was now. Three days had passed since the night of the explosion, the first of which had seen a flurry of press interest. But the story had dwindled, relegated to small paragraphs on inside pages, all of which explored different ways of saying the same thing: that no progress had been made; that nobody knew who the dead man was. Dinah’s existence had been established that first day, and the child not mentioned since.
At any other time Sarah might have found it odd, this hasty burial of what was surely a major story. But the wind from the East was blowing all other news from the headlines: Iraqi troops had been mobilized in defiance of Western dictates, and the mutterings of US hawks were growing shrill, if mutterings could do that. Last year’s news was being dredged up once again: the old accusations about missing Iraqi soldiers. The
covered this one in detail, even giving the names of the six conscripts Iraqi ministers claimed were being held – claimed had been murdered – by Western troops. But the conclusion remained that these soldiers had perished in the storm they’d been lost in, on the Syrian border, a couple of years ago; their ‘disappearance’ simply a useful legend to a government hostile to UN inspectors.