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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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The Girl Next Door (13 page)

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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“There’s no answer to that, Rosemary. You know there isn’t.”

“Are you sorry? Do you want me to forgive you?”

“Can we talk about it tomorrow? I want to go to bed.”

He thought she would start crying. She didn’t. “Have there been lots of others? Right through our marriage, have there been others?”

“No. No one else. I’m going to bed.”

When a crisis of this kind happens in a marriage, the first action that is taken, as against words exchanged, is that one of the partners—spouses they used to be called—moves out of the marital bed, into the spare room or onto a sofa. When Alan went into their bedroom, intending to fetch his night things and go to the spare room, he found that Rosemary had been there before him, her nightdress already on the single bed, her little radio that she called a wireless on the cabinet along with her reading glasses.

N
EITHER OF THEM
slept much. He thought, We can thrash this out over and over, as people do, or as I’ve been told people do, and in the end I shall go. She has never lived alone in all her life. What will she do? I won’t desert her, I will be there, I will do anything she asks—except stay with her. I am old but I won’t tell myself that on those grounds I am entitled to some happiness for the years that remain to me. I’m not, no one is. He slept a little, woke up, and got up at five thirty.

She was already up and not in her dressing gown as she would normally have been at this hour. She wore a floral dress she had made herself. Her hair was carefully arranged in waves and curls as if the night before she had used those rollers she sometimes did for a special occasion next day. He saw, to his horror, that it was not “as if,” that was what she had done, and he shivered. It was her way of trying to get him back.

“Alan, if you will promise not to see her again, I will forgive you. I will let bygones be bygones. Just promise me and we can forget all about it.”

He said nothing.

“After all, it was very short-lived, wasn’t it? You could call it a moment of madness. You’re over seventy years old. You don’t want
this kind of upheaval, do you? Just tell me you won’t see her again and let this be the end of it. I won’t hold it against you.”

He hadn’t expected this. She was being reasonable, and that was unusual to say the least. Men want peace and a quiet life. He had had more than half a century of a quiet life and he wanted no more of it. He wanted Daphne, and their ages didn’t matter.

He said the things he had thought of in the sleepless night: he would be there when she needed him, he would never desert her. He added other things: she could have the flat, he would give her any income within reason that she asked for, but he was going. He would stay only to pack a case. Then what he had feared happened, what he had been so relieved about when it appeared it was not going to happen. She stood up, clenched her fists, and began to scream. She beat her fists against his chest and screamed into his face. Though much stronger than her, he was still shaken by it. He held her by the arms, enduring the noise, knowing the remedy was to slap her face but unable to bring himself to do this. A horrible change took place. Instead of screaming she began kissing him, clutching his shoulders and covering his face with kisses.

“Rosemary, stop. Please stop.”

She threw herself onto the sofa, sobbing now. He went into the bedroom he had shared with her until the previous night, found a suitcase, and threw clothes into it. Most of his stuff would have to be sent, but who would send it? One of his children? He heard Rosemary shouting now. She was standing in the bedroom doorway.

“No one will speak to you, do you know that? Your children won’t have anything to do with you. You’ll never see your grandchildren again. Have you thought of that?”

He found his mobile phone and the charger, which he dropped into the suitcase. Rosemary came in and snatched the phone out of his hand. Back in the living-room he picked up the landline receiver and called the number of a taxi service he had sometimes used, but never to be driven the distance he wanted now. “Hamilton Terrace,
London North West Eight,” he said. Rosemary would know the address now but she would have to know it sooner or later.

She had begun shouting that she would like to kill him. Going back into the bedroom, he found her pulling all the clothes he had packed out onto the floor. She had dropped his phone into the washbasin in the bathroom and run both taps onto it. He put the clothes back, a jumble of shirts and odd socks and pyjamas. She watched, waiting, he supposed, for him to leave the room again. He did but with the case, which he put a leather strap round. She was muttering threats, how she hoped he would die, how she would like to kill Daphne. The landline phone rang to tell him his taxi was waiting in the block car park. He said good-bye and she screamed at him again. He closed the front door behind him and walked out into the car park, savouring peace and silence.

Three-quarters of an hour later he put the keys Daphne had given him into her front door locks, the top one, the middle one, and the bottom one, feeling that he had come home.

13

L
ONG AGO
L
OUGHTON
had really been a village, and right up to the Second World War and beyond its residents still talked about “going down to the village” when they went shopping. Like any village it had its class system, and everyone, including the children, knew that the poor lived in Forest Road and Smarts Lane, the middle class in those streets bounded by Hillcrest Road and Rectory Lane, and the rich ones in Church Lane and Alderton Hill. Everyone knew everyone else or knew of them as is true of villages, so when the cleaner gave up her job at Anderby, on the Hill, on account, she said, of “goings-on,” the news spread along Smarts Lane, where she lived, and reached the ears of Clara Moss in Forest Road. She was already working for the Batchelors in Tycehurst Hill, but she could do with a second job. So Clara Moss, a soldier’s widow, her husband killed in the first year of the war, came to work for John Winwood and his wife, Anita. As for the “goings-on,” she didn’t care about that, it wasn’t her business. The house next door to Clara’s had been sold in the year before the war for two hundred pounds. If hers was worth the same, it made her feel rich.

She never grew rich. She might have done so when she was old and the house would have sold for two hundred thousand pounds. But where would she have lived? She had no children to take her in,
and she was afraid of old people’s homes. You heard such dreadful things about them. She would have been all right in her house if she hadn’t had her knee done, but the pain was so bad she couldn’t carry on as she had been. Nor could she work, not at her age. When Fred died in the war after a year of marriage, she had been nineteen, and now she was eighty-eight. She was waiting for the second knee to be done. Clara loved the NHS; it had been good to her when it did her hip and her broken wrist when she fell on the ice, but it did keep you waiting. Months had gone by since they’d said the knee must be done. It had started giving her gip, as Mr. Batchelor put it. Clara loved Mr. Batchelor almost as much as the NHS—not that she would have admitted that even to herself. He had had his hip done on the private and hadn’t had to wait, but what was the result? He was still limping about and he still used a stick.

Now she had to have an MRI scan and Mrs. Batchelor was going to take her in the car. Clara liked this Mrs. B much better than the first one, whom she’d worked for when she first went to Carisbrooke, but she wished it was Mr. Batchelor that was taking her. It was for something to do with her heart, this scan. When you got to her age, there was always something wrong with you. She wanted someone to talk to and not just the TV. It was small and the colours faded as if she were sometimes looking at it through fog. The people on it weren’t real, and it was real people she wanted, though no one was left now. Her sisters were dead and their husbands. She couldn’t expect nephews and nieces to bother with her even if they knew where she lived. Fred’s family were long gone. When she was young, it was family you knew, not friends. They
were
your friends.

Since her knee had got so bad, the girl next door had done her shopping for her. Mrs. B said she shouldn’t call her a girl, it wasn’t politically correct, whatever that meant. It had nothing to do with politics as far as Clara could see. She should say “young woman,” Mrs. B said. When Clara remembered, she compromised and said
“young lady.” The young lady next door was called Samantha, and she had a partner instead of a husband. Clara didn’t know what to think about that so she didn’t think about it. Samantha went to the supermarket for her, and when she came back and Clara tried to pay her, she often wouldn’t take the money. Not that it came to much, tea and bread and Flora margarine and Tiptree jam, half a dozen small eggs, and a bit of ham. In the days when she could make it round the corner to the surgery, the lady doctor had told her she should be eating vegetables and fruit, but Clara had never liked that kind of food, and now that she couldn’t walk so far, she didn’t have to hear that sort of thing. That was one blessing.

M
AUREEN
B
ATCHELOR AND
Helen Batchelor were having tea at Carisbrooke. George had graduated from the sofa to a new armchair with a footrest, and Stanley was in the garden, throwing a ball for Spot. Having taken care to eat no more than a ginger biscuit each, Maureen and Helen were exchanging views on their favourite subject, the stubbornness of men, their intractability and tendency to hide their heads in the sand when threatened by anything unpleasant. George, wishing he could be outside with his brother and the dog, had nodded off. Helen was holding forth on men’s unwillingness to go to a doctor even when anyone could tell they had all the symptoms of cancer or heart disease, to which Maureen rejoined with a tale of a friend of hers whose husband had now had a stent and a quadruple bypass as a result of refusing to keep a hospital appointment.

George opened his eyes and struggled to his feet. “Need a bit of fresh air,” he said. Taking hold of his stick, he took two steps towards the open French window, then one more before crumbling at the knees, the stick slipping from him, and crashing to the floor. Stanley came running across the lawn, followed by Spot. Helen was already on her knees beside George, her arm under his head, lifting him a
little to check his face, to see if he could lift an arm and if he could speak.

“Nine nine nine,” she said to Maureen. “Now. Ask for an ambulance and tell them he’s had a stroke.”

The women behaved in exemplary fashion, as Stanley said afterwards, and Maureen said it was funny that they had been talking about that very thing and then this happened. The ambulance came quite quickly and took George away to the stroke unit at St. Margaret’s Hospital, Maureen sitting beside him and holding his hand. His mouth was pulled down on one side, but he could speak and he could see. Left behind at Carisbrooke, Helen cleared away the tea things while Stanley poured her a stiff gin and tonic.

“You need it, baby,” he said, though she hadn’t argued.

She was sitting down, stroking Spot for comfort and sipping the gin, when her phone rang or, rather, began playing “I Walk the Line.” It had to be Maureen with news, though it was a bit soon. Instead of her sister-in-law, it was a woman she knew from her bridge club who lived in a flat in Traps Hill.

“I don’t believe it,” said Helen.

“It’s true. They’ve split up. Alan’s left her for someone else, I don’t know who. At his age! He’s must be seventy-five. But people don’t grow old like they used to, do they? I’ll let you know if I find out any more.”

Stanley, with a small glass of wine because he was driving, said, “What was all that about?”

Helen told him.

“Alan Norris? No, it can’t be. Him and Rosemary are the perfect couple. No, no, it must be someone else.”

“Well, Suzanne seemed to know all about it. Let’s get off home and wait to hear from Maureen. She may know more.”

It was hard to say whether Helen meant more about the Norrises or about George.

T
HANKS TO
H
ELEN’S
prompt action, George Batchelor responded to treatment quite quickly. The clot-busting drugs, according to the doctor, were effective. He was made to get up when he longed to stay in bed, walked around his private room holding Maureen’s arm, and became surprisingly cheerful. Maureen, however, took it badly. Stanley, who had described the Norrises as the perfect couple, could now have had that term applied to herself and George.

“I realised Dad might die,” she said to her daughter. “The funny thing is, I’d never really thought of it before.”

“We’re all going to die one day, Mum.”

“Yes, but not soon. He might have another stroke, he might have one tomorrow. It’s left me feeling really depressed.”

“Try and put it out of your mind. How about those friends of yours, those two who’ve split up? At their age? You don’t think about them dying, do you?”

Maureen wasn’t interested in the Norrises. She wasn’t interested in anyone but herself and George. How dreadful, she thought, only to realise how much you love someone when you’re about to lose him. George was at home now, preoccupied with his health. He had sent her out to buy a sphygmomanometer and took his own blood pressure several times a day. In spite of the doctor’s warning he overdosed on low-dose aspirins, intended to thin his blood. Apart from a quick visit to the pharmacy, Maureen never went out. She was afraid that if she left him alone, he might have another stroke. By night she hardly slept, dreading that if she fell asleep, she might wake to find him dead.

Relatives came to visit George: Stanley and Helen of course, and Norman came over from France, bringing Eliane with him. Maureen didn’t want any of them. All she wanted was to stay at home alone with George. The day came when she was due to take Clara
Moss for her MRI, but she’d have to miss that. There was no need to go out because they had all their groceries delivered. Helen brought chocolates and a bottle of sherry, though Maureen wouldn’t allow George alcohol, she was too frightened. She did worry a bit about not seeing Clara, but Clara had no phone, strange as that was. Maureen had heard that the young woman next door did her shopping for her, so that would be all right. Still her conscience worried her, and she asked Helen if she would go and knock at Clara’s door, just to see if she was mobile.

“I couldn’t do that,” Helen said. “I don’t know the woman, it’d be very awkward. I’d be embarrassed and so would she.”

Maureen said she sometimes thought she’d never go out again, she’d be too afraid to leave George.

“He won’t be stuck here for ever,” Norman said. “He’ll want to be out and about and you’ll be with him.”

When she told George that no one had visited Clara Moss, he was disproportionately upset. Well, it seemed disproportionate to her.

“She can get about, George. She’s not bedridden. I’d call her quite a tough old bird.”

“I can order a car and have it take me to Forest Road. The driver can help me up the path, and once I’m inside Clara’s house, I can sit down. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not having it, George. You’ll kill yourself. I’ll take the phone away.”

George said all right, he wouldn’t do it, but to pass him the two phone books, the one for North West London and the local one. He would find someone else to “look in” on Clara and take her to the hospital.

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
7.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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