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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (29 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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She came into the lower room and called up to him.

Cautious in case he had again been deceived, and Lynch was about to appear alongside her, he shouted down for her to wait where she was.

He heard her descend the few stairs she had already climbed.

She stood away from the open door and watched him come down to her.

‘Close it if you like,' he said. ‘Where is he? What errand are you on this time?'

She could hide neither her surprise nor her dismay at the remark.

Mercer, too, had not anticipated sounding so caustic or dismissive.

‘I don't know where he is,' she said.

‘And I'm supposed to believe you?' he said.

‘It's the truth. Is that why you didn't want me to come up – because you thought he might follow me?'

‘You sound as though it was the last thing he'd do.'

‘So does that mean
I'm
not to come here again?'

‘What do you want?' He was still not convinced that Lynch was not about to appear, with or without her contrivance.

‘I came to say sorry for the sandal thing,' she said. ‘To apologize.'

He looked immediately at her feet. She wore a new pair of shoes. She, too, looked down at these. They were black, with a double strap, and covered little of the tops of her feet or her heels.

‘You do realize that he manipulated the whole situation, don't you? He knows he can't do it when it's just me and him, so he uses you – stands you between us – to play his pathetic games.'

‘I know all that,' she said. ‘I'm not stupid. He got me these.' She turned one foot and then the other towards him.

‘Did you walk into town with him?'

‘Of course not. Barefoot? Is that really what you think he was going to make me do? You thought he wanted to get at you by making
me
do that?'

‘He's more than capable of it,' he said. He saw how inappropriate the flimsy-looking shoes were for the rough ground of the place.

She shook her head – whether in disbelief or disagreement at what he had suggested, he could not be certain.

‘I'd have been cut to pieces. He told me to go home and then he went without me. I'd wanted to go with him, get away from here for a few hours at least. He came back with these.'

‘Did you look for your old ones?'

‘Glad to be rid of them, to be honest. They were rubbish; I'd had them for years. At least these fit me. He told me how much he paid for them.'

‘What did your mother say?'

‘About what?'

‘About losing your old ones. She can't have been too pleased. They would still have fitted your brother.'

‘What do you think she said? Anyway, I imagine
you
went looking for them.'

‘Oh?'

‘It's the kind of thing you'd do.'

‘Because of the guilt I'd feel at having caused you to lose them in the first place?'

She considered this. ‘It's just the kind of thing you'd do. She went looking for them when she heard what had happened. Waited until he'd gone, of course, and then went looking. She was out for hours.'

‘Did you help her? You at least had an idea where they'd landed.'

She shook her head. ‘I told you – I didn't want them
back. He told her it was all your fault, told her everything that had happened.'

‘She wouldn't necessarily have believed him,' Mercer said.

‘Why not? He's still her husband, isn't he?
She's
still his wife.'

‘Did he—' He stopped abruptly.

‘Did he what? Did he hit her?'

‘I only meant that it's obvious to everybody here that they're having a few problems.'

‘Is that what they are – “a few problems”?' She walked in a circle around the room, pausing to inspect the empty cases and surveying rods which were now stored there. ‘I know exactly where the sandals are,' she said eventually. ‘And I saw you looking for them after he'd gone. I waited until you'd finished and then I went out and got them. An hour later, she started looking.'

‘Where are they?'

‘I buried them.'

‘And you let her go on looking?'

She clicked her lips. ‘She found this. She took something from her dress pocket and gave it to him. It was a cigarette lighter, small and made of brass with a regimental crest on one side. ‘It probably belongs to one of the men. She told me to bring it back to you. She never told him she'd found it.'

He took it from her. He flicked the cog against the flint and a small flame appeared. ‘I'll ask,' he said.

‘She said there might even be a reward. Might mean a lot to a soldier, something like that, she said.' She avoided his eyes as she spoke, indicating to him that the suggestion had come from her and not her mother.

‘I'll mention it,' he said.

A group of men congregated outside. They were
uncoiling cable, and the empty wooden spools lay beside them. Everything Mercer and Mary now said would be overheard by them.

‘Come up,' he said to her, indicating the open stairs. She climbed ahead of him, her new shoes close to his face.

‘Do you accept it?' she said as he lowered the trapdoor behind them.

‘Do I accept what?'

‘My apology. The sandals.'

‘Of course,' he said. ‘I just wish that sometimes you could see more clearly what he's doing. I know he's your father—'

‘But sometimes he behaves as though everyone in the world hates him and he hates everyone in the world. That's
her
speaking, by the way.'

‘I can imagine.'

‘I don't think he hit her over the sandals.'

‘So was it something else?'

She shrugged. ‘Mostly it doesn't have to be anything specific. If he's that way out, then he doesn't really need a reason.' She walked around the room in the same way she had circled and examined the one below. She had not been there in over a week and the floor and surfaces were cluttered. Unwashed dishes had accumulated; empty glasses stood in clusters. A dozen charts lay unfurled in layers across his desk. She batted her hand at the flies which still circled the room.

‘Does he hit you and Peter?' he asked her as she picked up the book he was reading, her free hand across the back of the chair in which Jacob had slept.

She hesitated before answering him. ‘We're both still just kids to him. Of course he does.'

‘You say it as though you believe he has a right to do it.'

‘So what am I going to do? And besides—'

He waited, but she refused to continue.

‘“Besides” what?'

‘He won't be here for that long,' she said. She put down the book and turned to face him.

‘Oh?'

‘Not according to him.'

‘Whatever you tell me, I won't repeat anything,' he said.

‘He'll still get to know.'

‘Not from me. What about the conditions of his parole?'

‘He said he wasn't going to stick it for much longer, that he could do a lot better for himself somewhere else. She begged him not to go, but he said they'd got more important things to do than to come looking for him. He told her she'd lived her life by the book and look where it had got her.'

‘They
will
go after him,' Mercer said. ‘I know it makes little sense, but it's what they'll do. They'll have no alternative.'

‘I know,' she said. ‘It's the Army.'

‘And are the rest of you included in these plans of his?'

She looked sharply up at him.

‘I see,' he said. ‘Only you.'

‘He told me not to say anything. Especially to her.'

‘It won't happen, Mary.'

‘Why won't it? Because
you
say so?'

‘And you'd go? Just like that? You'd leave your mother and Peter? You've just said you know they'll come looking for him.'

‘Exactly –
him
, not me.'

‘And your mother would once again be—'

‘He said she'd had her chance. She could have gone
any time he was away. She could go with him now – we could all go – but she won't.'

‘This is all she knows,' Mercer said, realizing how feeble a reason or excuse this was to her.

‘And so I'm expected to stop here and rot with her, is that it?'

Once again, he heard Lynch in everything she said. Unwilling to prolong the argument to its predictable conclusion, he indicated the teapot on the table, suggesting to her that he made them a drink, but, as before, she insisted on doing this herself. She stood panting after her outburst.

‘Did he say anything more specific?' he asked her when she had regained her composure and as they waited for the kettle to boil.

‘I'm not
that
stupid,' she said, her voice now even and low. ‘He'd soon get as sick of me as he gets of her. I'd get in his way. I'm
already
in his way.'

‘What do you mean?'

‘I heard him. I was supposed to be asleep – we both were, but we weren't – and he said he wouldn't even have come back here in the first place if it hadn't been for me. He wanted to see me, he said. He said she was flattering herself if she thought
she
was the reason he'd come back.'

‘He came back here because it was part of his release agreement,' he said.

‘That's what she said.'

‘And?'

‘He just laughed at her and said, “Exactly”, and that as soon as he was in the clear, he'd go. He told her then that he was thinking of taking me with him. She started screaming at him. He told her he'd asked me and that I'd been desperate for him to take me. She accused him of lying and he said that all she had to do was ask me.'

‘And did she?'

She shook her head. ‘She won't do it. But I can see it every time she says something to me or looks at me.'

‘And what will you tell her if she does ask?'

‘She won't.'

‘Because for as long as she doesn't ask, then she doesn't have to hear you say you're going.'

‘Something like that.' She lifted the steaming kettle from the stove and poured the water into the teapot.

‘It would kill her,' he said.

‘She'll get over it.'

‘That's him talking, not you.'

‘He says I've got to start thinking of myself. What else is going to happen to me stuck here?'

In the drawer of the table upon which she set the cups and saucers lay the plans from which the houses and the road's end had already been erased.

‘I'm going to be sixteen soon. Millions of girls of that age are already working. And I don't mean on farms or in factories. I told her what you'd said about me going to college.'

‘And?'

‘At first she said you ought to mind your own business, but I think she could tell that I was taken with the idea. In the end, she seemed quite keen on it. But then she spoilt it by saying there wasn't a college in the town, so where would I go?'

‘I take it she mentioned none of this to your father.'

‘What do you think? She knows what he'd say.'

‘He'd say you were likely to get your head stuffed full of fancy words and ideas.'

‘Exactly like you.'

‘Exactly like me.'

They sat together at the room's centre, beyond all
sight of anyone looking up from below. She put down her cup and held out her hand to him.

‘What?'

‘Your hand,' she said, and gestured.

He held out his hand and she clasped it. ‘I just wanted to see what it was like,' she said.

‘And?'

‘That's all you ever say sometimes. “And? And? And?”'

‘And?' he said. He felt her fingers settle into his palm.

‘I just wanted to see what it was like. I've never held a man's hand. Except his. You think I flirt too much with the others on the site.'

‘No, I don't.'

‘Yes, you do. You don't say it, but you think it.'

‘I just think you ought to be careful, that's all.'

‘Why – because they're supposed to be grown men and I'm only a girl?'

He saw again how lightly and easily she moved around him.

‘Something like that.'

‘Don't worry. It's what they think as well. They're not going to try anything, especially now
he's
back.'

‘There's still a lot of room for misunderstanding.' She gripped him harder. ‘You should listen to yourself sometimes. Sometimes you talk round and round in circles because either you don't want to say what you mean or you don't know
how
to say what you mean.'

‘Lucky for me that you can read my mind, then.'

‘I know. You can let go now.'

He released his slack grip, but her hand stayed where it was for several minutes longer.

‘You'll go, won't you?' he said as she finally withdrew from him.

‘A minute ago you told me he was lying, that he was using me and that it would never happen.'

‘I meant with or without him. He's just the stick come back to stir everything up.'

‘More tea?' she said, mimicking a voice she might have heard on the wireless.

‘And you understood that all along.' He held out his cup to her, and in that instant she seemed a completely different person to him.

‘She even said that
she'd
be better off without him,' she said.

‘She might be right.'

‘So what have any of us got to lose?' She licked her finger and wiped at a mark on one of her shoes. ‘I saw Jacob and Mathias yesterday,' she said, straightening and sitting back in the chair with her cup held on her legs.

‘Together?'

‘In one of the lanes not far from town.'

‘What were they doing?'

‘Just standing.'

‘Did they see you?'

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