TEN MILES out of Reading and June still hadn’t spoken. Passing a spotlighted church, she said woodenly, “Elspeth didn’t need me. Every suggestion I made she twisted into this mantra she’d worked up: ‘It’s a phase. He’ll get over it.’ Yet when I tried to catch an earlier train she found ways of holding me back. Another cup of coffee or some chicklit book she’d read. I was played for a fool.”
A fool! But without cap and bells, only the lounger.
“Someone to talk to,” he said, concentrating on winding unlit roads.
June nodded. “When Elspeth took up with him she dropped her friends. Now she feels the pinch.”
“But why Reading?”
“There were no more direct trains. Change at Reading but I missed the connection.” Then she trembled, gnawed at her knuckle.
“I tried to negotiate a taxi but the driver wouldn’t have it and drove off. Left me alone on the forecourt. Then two young guys...”
A long silence ensued. “I found a police station but they weren’t exactly pleasant. No credit cards, no identity, no mobile, a woman who didn’t seem to know what was up and what down. Grudgingly they offered a free phone call and it was then I realised Elspeth wasn’t the only woman who’d dropped her friends. I have precisely two: one in Hamburg, the other in South Shields. Amazingly I remembered your landline number.”
She paused as if to phrase an apology but said nothing. The strain of getting out the right words was beyond her.
He said, “It’s nearly two hours’ drive. You could do with some sleep.”
The transition was immediate and she was still snoring when he pulled into his driveway. A gap in his hedge provided a tortuous shortcut to her house but he was reminded of her stolen shoulder bag. No house-keys.
As if in a badly rehearsed play he opened the car door from the outside and eased her feet on to the gravel. Cack-handedly he turned her body, conscious this was close to an act of violation. The chestnut hair smelled of shampoo and he needed to hold her firmly as she stumbled, more asleep than not, out of the car and in through the front door of his house. As he lowered her on to the couch her jacket slipped round her torso, he lost his grip and she dropped the last foot. But the couch must have welcomed her as she sighed, turned on to her side and curled up foetally. He found a duvet, laid it over her and that seemed to be that. Other than to remove those sensible court shoes he’d seen from another angle, a lifetime ago. Dawn was breaking as he got into bed, having first closed the bedroom door, normally left open. Not a hope of sleeping.
At nine he got up, shaved, made coffee in the hope that the smell would waken her. The snoring had ceased, replaced by profound slow breathing he could hear from the kitchen. It wasn’t just fatigue she was sleeping off but the shock of being robbed. Living alone he’d developed new routines and it was unthinkable that he should drink coffee without reading The Financial Times but that would have required a walk to the shop. Just his luck she’d wake up while he was out. And where might he leave a message she’d be certain to read?
In his study he booted up the laptop, trawling through City sources who might be willing to enter into a paid-up bond agreement with the parents of a twenty-two-year-old youth living in Goring who’d already totalled two BMWs. Knowing he’d find a finance manager whose view of risk – modified by greed – differed quite widely from his. Still the slow breathing continued.
Some time after ten there were stirrings and it became obvious she’d found the first-floor bathroom without announcing herself first. Slightly offhand, he reflected, then re-reflected; bladder pressure can be a more powerful imperative than social nicety.
In the kitchen she asked for orange juice which he hadn’t got, refused toast, and drank coffee distractedly. It was clear she didn’t want to enlarge on yesterday other than to murmur, more than once, “Played for a fool.” Her manner was dull and remote. There was nothing to say.
But they were both in accord in some ways. Waiting for the percolator he had slipped out into the garden, folded the lounger and put it away in the shed.
“Look, there are things you need to do,” he said finally. “Cancel your credit cards, talk to your bank. Whatever. Use my study for that. Meanwhile, I’ve had a look at your house and the bathroom window’s open. I have a ladder and I’m sure I can get in that way. Just tell me where the duplicate key is.”
As if he’d encouraged her to learn Mandarin; her eyes unfocused, mouth slightly open. A throat dead to sound.
“OK, OK. You don’t want me in your house. If you prefer, you can use the ladder. Or we’ll look for an unimportant, cheap window to break.”
Nothing was getting through. “I’m going to the shop for a paper. Can I get you anything?”
She made an enormous effort. “Er... milk”
Eventually they parted. Her side door proved to be unlocked, she was persuaded to make the calls on her landline and he convinced himself she wanted to be alone. By midday he was back at the laptop. Late in the afternoon he heard a slight shuffling noise at the front door. On the doormat lay a blank envelope containing two twenty-pound notes. No message.
The Scotch bottle was empty; the evening’s TV programmes shallow and meaningless. He stayed in the bath as the water cooled around him, reflecting on things beyond retrieval.
That a woman’s company - even a woman’s presence – could soften his misery.
That the contours of June’s unyielding face had been abruptly illuminated and dignified by memories of a Nuremberg museum. Where he, a callow exchange student who didn’t get on with the German family accommodating him, had killed time, examining engravings by the town’s favourite son, Albrecht Dűrer, and his contemporaries. Commissioned portraits of local aristocrats - serious men of authority and charitable instinct who might, on bone structure evidence at least, have sired June: die kleine Prinzessin.
That the scent of shampoo could be as intimate and erotic as that of knickers in a laundry basket.
Shivering in the tepid water, he was reluctant to reach for the towel and cause these thoughts to fade. Just suppose he’d passed off the lounger as comedy rather than humiliation, comforted June effectively, been less stiff-necked? But suppositions weren’t his thing.
Ultimately Meg had brought him to this state of affairs. And, ironically, Meg would have understood his confusion. Shrugging, laughing in mild contempt, swiftly, she would have drawn the necessary conclusions. Straightened him out. Then turned to her Bristolian lover.
But now all Meg wanted was his money. And he was bloody well freezing.