Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The Banker's Niece 37: Anoraks and wellies


‘Sometimes’, said Jane to her friend and housemate Heather, ‘I wonder if there are only two sorts of men at university: anoraks and wellies.’
    Jane had met Heather the year before when living next to her in one of the university ‘flats’ – twelve bedrooms sharing a bathroom and kitchen. These were considered by the university authorities as the next step on the road to independence after ‘Hall’ in your first year when your meals were provided and, if you were female, the warden kept an eye on your morals. The flats were self-catering and unsupervised but still – like Hall - with separate buildings for women and men.
    Now she and Heather had moved from the campus and shared a house with three male students – Mike, Pete and Gordon. This was unusual as the students tended to stay living with their own sex but, in spite of this and in spite of what the university authorities might think, the world hadn’t ended. Maybe it helped that the boys were friends of friends looking for somewhere to live and neither Jane nor Heather had had a close relationship with any of them before they moved in together.
    Had had. Things might have altered slightly since then – but Heather didn’t know about that, or at least Jane hoped she didn’t.
    They were having a glass of sour white wine each in the university’s Exe bar which they’d got to know in their second year as it was only a short walk from the flats. Now they had to climb on their bicycles and pedal across the city to reach it but that was OK. Like the flats, and unlike the Dart bar in one of the university’s original nineteenth-century buildings, the Exe bar and its building were only a few years old. This meant plenty of space, good lavatories and lots of students to watch.
    Except for those who lounged on the floor in a rectangular depression known as the Heffalump Trap, people sat on metal armchairs around metal coffee tables. The night sky loomed through floor-to-ceiling windows along one side, the room’s white-brick walls doing nothing to offset their chill. People streamed past. Lavatories doors clanged. The din of voices rose and fell. It was a bit like being in Victoria Station, thought Jane, but at least you felt you were in the middle of something, that something was happening. It was probably an illusion.
    ‘Nothing wrong with wellies,’ said Heather.
    Jane gave her a small smile. It was their height that had drawn them together, Heather being if anything taller even than Jane, but Jane couldn’t confide in her like she’d confided in Fee.
    ‘Wellies’ for example – the posh students who could afford cars and so lived in cottages outside the city and proclaimed as much with their footwear, and who all knew each other from before, and who stood around in large groups talking loudly without caring in whose way they were or who they were annoying – were a subject on which she and Heather had had to agree to differ. For some reason which Jane couldn’t fathom, and even though Heather was intelligent and rational enough to be pursuing a degree in law, her dearest wish appeared to be to marry some landed twit. Perhaps, coming from ‘nouveau-riche’ Surrey, as Jane’s mother would have put it, she’d never (unlike Jane) come into close contact with the breed.
    Another subject they didn’t discuss was Jane’s past, in particular her two years in London. Heather was ‘saving herself’ for her lord, or duke, or marquis, or earl, or even her lowly sir, and closed off whenever Jane tried to talk about what had happened to her. It depressed her, Heather said. She didn’t want to know about it.
    It was hard sometimes being two years older than almost every other undergraduate.

The day after Jane lost her virginity she cried all the way to work on the tube. All the other passengers avoided looking at her, hiding behind their books and their newspapers, and no one said a word.
    She arrived at the bank with red swollen eyes and Alan gave her a funny look. Kelvin wasn’t in yet, thank goodness, and she and Alan started to talk – about rape for some extraordinary reason.
    ‘I think there’s psychological rape as well as physical rape, don’t you?’ she said, astonishing herself and not at all sure where the idea came from. It seemed to reach her mouth without going through her brain. She wasn’t even sure what she meant by it.
    Alan stiffened as if shocked.
    ‘Yes,’ he replied.
    Kelvin swept in half an hour late and went straight up to Jane, bending over her desk and asphyxiating her with tobacco fumes.
    ‘Sylvia and I had a filthy row last night,’ he whispered, ‘and I wanted you to know that if ever we split up you’ll be the first person I come to.’
    She gave in her notice that morning and left the bank at the end of the week.
    She decided she had to leave London as well and her mother drove up to help her clear her belongings from the house in Fulham.
    For the next few months she lived at home, working as a temporary secretary at small local organisations to which she bicycled. The work was excruciatingly boring and often she wondered what would become of her, but not enough to contemplate returning to London. Anything was better than that.
    Her parents left her alone thankfully – perhaps they guessed that something had happened – but sadly Ollie was in America for a year before going to Cambridge so she and Bunty had to roam the Downs without him.
    One day in March as she sorted through the chaos of papers in her desk she came across a letter from her French teacher at school. ‘Very sorry to hear you’re not going to university,’ said the letter. ‘If you ever change your mind, do get in touch. I would be happy to help.’
    Yes! she thought. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go to university. She had enough money saved to finance at least the first year and after that she’d see what happened.
    She attended interviews at several institutions but the place she liked best – it was friendly and pretty and far enough away – was the University of Devon, and she started there in the autumn.
    That was two years ago, and now here she was at the beginning of her third and final year.
‘Quick,’ squealed Heather, crouching over the table. ‘Put your head down. He’s here again.’
    Jane dutifully propped her elbow on the table and rested her head on her hand, all the while watching out of the corner of her eye.
    A tall figure in a long black cloak flashed past, coming to a halt on a lone chair in a far corner.
    ‘I don’t know why you bother hiding,’ she replied. ‘He never talks to anyone.’
    ‘I know,’ said Heather, her voice muffled by her arms, ‘but I sometimes get the impression he’s looking this way.’
    ‘And does that matter?’ asked Jane.
    ‘Of course it matters,’ expostulated Heather. ‘He’s a loony. Anyone can see that.’
    When they left half an hour later, Jane noticed that the man was still there, motionless in his corner, with the hood of his cloak pulled over his face, like Strider in Lord of the Rings.

Back at the house she went up to see Gordon in his room under the eaves. He was at his desk, papers spread out before him.
    Everything about him was brown, she thought: his hair, his eyes, his jumper, his trousers and his socks – and she would know about those as he left them on once when they were having sex. It was a fitting colour she supposed for someone who studied wildlife.
    Yes, he was a scientist - and almost an anorak, one of those lost male souls conversant only with facts and whose idea of a night out was a visit to the Exe House television room.
    ‘Women marry for security,’ he’d announced to her one day, as if he were an expert.
    ‘Where’s your maternal instinct,’ he’d exclaimed another time when Jane admitted that she didn’t want children, as if all women were the same.
    Still, at least he wasn’t a wellie and, being a postgraduate, he was older and more intelligent than most, only those with the best results being able to proceed to the next stage. Sometimes she even enjoyed his company. 
    ‘Janey,’ he smiled looking up. ‘I was hoping I’d see you.’
    She tried to look encouraging.
    ‘There’s a departmental disco tomorrow night’, he said, ‘and I wondered if you’d like to come.’
    ‘OK,’ she said.
    It would make a change.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Banker's Niece 36: Chris's story

Do not read this chapter if you haven't read earlier ones and are intending to do so

As she makes herself that long-promised espresso, Jane realises that her hands are shaking.
    She drinks the coffee standing by the French windows looking out at her garden, currently a mixture of mud and slush. The sun is struggling over the horizon in a haze of washed-out orange. She knows how it feels.
    At last, slightly nauseous and with a migraine headache forming in her right temple, she sits at the table and picks up the papers, the only proof she has that the small person who appeared and then disappeared in the space of a few seconds was real and not the fleeting hallucination of a fevered brain.

Dear Jane, she reads.

I know – or think – that this letter is probably going to be as hard for you to read as it is for me to write, and I’m not saying that to excuse myself. It’s my way of saying sorry (in the first instance – there are so many more, but I’ll come to those) for approaching you like this. By which I mean - for approaching you full stop, and for doing it by letter. It was the only way I could think of to get and keep your attention.

I do have a specific purpose in contacting you but I don’t think I can explain that without going right back to the beginning, and the beginning was autumn 1978. So bear with me – please.

As you may – or may not - know (perhaps I’m flattering myself in thinking that Rick ever told you anything about me other than my existence), autumn 1978 was when I started my postgraduate degree at the University of Devon. Much of my research involved humping heavy kit around the coast in order to test samples of seawater and almost immediately I realised that I couldn’t manage on my own.
    'You could try Rick,’ said one of my colleagues, rolling his eyes. ‘If you can find him and if he deigns to speak to you.’
    I saw what he meant. For a start, Rick’s electronic workshop was in the basement of the science building and there were two ways to get to it.
    One was through a yard to an outside back door but I took one look at the dark dirty space crammed with skips and decided to try the other. This took me through the mechanical workshop, a maze of lethal and noisy machines, not to mention the workshop’s denizen - who only stopped sawing long enough to scowl at me.
    At last I reached Rick’s door and knocked. After getting no answer, I tried to push the door open but something was in the way. Eventually I managed to make enough of a gap to squeeze through whereupon I was met by a forest of electronic technology – on the floor, on a workbench, on shelves, some winking, some with its guts spilling out – as well as a vipers’ nest of tangled wires underfoot. Radio 1 was playing out from somewhere but of Rick there was no sign. Nevertheless, I trod my way in, hoping none of the wires was live and planning to leave a note on his desk – if I could find it.
    ‘Whadda ya want?’ said a gruff voice, and this creature emerged from behind the open door of a tall cupboard.
     He was tall and thin with a tangle of long wavy hair. Instead of a technician’s white coat, he wore a green t-shirt and black jeans, and he looked as if he hadn’t shaved for days. He was like a rogue weed in a carefully tended garden and I was amazed that he’d managed to persuade the university to employ him – or indeed why he’d wanted to be employed by the university in the first place.
    ‘I,er, I, er, I’m Chris,’ I said, debating whether to back out now, while I was still alive.
    ‘Hello Chris,’ he said.
    Well, it was a start.

I realise now that it was because I was a woman – the only woman academic in the science department at the time, to be precise – but it wasn’t that difficult after all to enlist him. I explained my mission and he offered me a cup of tea and soon we were perched on lab stools, chatting away like old friends. And that’s all we ever were, to start with. Friends.
    We saw each other intermittently over the winter but in the spring, with a spell of fine weather, we started going out every day. Rick couldn’t have been more helpful, driving the van, carrying equipment, and then sitting for hours staring out over the waves while I fiddled with samples. I could see he had something on his mind, so one day when I was feeling brave I offered him a pub lunch and, as we sat in the garden over our fish and chips and pints, he began to talk about you.
    He told me how the two of you were once engaged but your parents forced you to pull out. He told me that you were now living together but that something had changed – for both of you – and that all you did was argue.
    ‘I shouldn’t be talking to you,’ he said. ‘I feel disloyal. But I have no one else. Who can men talk to after all except women? Certainly not other men.’
    And, of course, one thing led to another and I could sense myself falling in love with him, even though all I wanted to do was help. I knew however that Rick wasn’t in love with me and that you would always come first. In fact he told me so, right at the beginning.
    Then, when he confessed to you about me, and you left, we fizzled out. Our raison d’être had gone. The band took off, he gave up his job at the uni and I never heard from him again.
    Until the beginning of this year.

I did marry and we had a daughter but, as soon as she finished at university and started making her own life, my husband and I realised that there was nothing left between us. We divorced and he moved to France. I stayed in the family house and carried on teaching at Norwich University where I’d been since receiving my PhD.
    About eighteen months ago I was approached by the marine-environment charity Making Waves who were setting up a research centre at the University of Devon. Would I like to run it?
    I didn’t hesitate for a second. It was my dream job. It was what I’d been working towards all my life. It meant I could do what I enjoyed most and make a difference to the world. I sold the house, bought an apartment in a complex run as a community in case it was difficult making new friends in my fifties, and moved there last summer, not thinking what a return to Devon might bring.

Early in January I was walking along a corridor in the department when someone called my name. I turned and it was Rick.
    ‘Rick!’ I squeaked. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
    I was so pleased to see him. I recognised him instantly. Except for the hair – short and grey – he’d hardly changed. He still looked as if he’d crawled through a hedge in a hurry. He still didn’t answer questions.
    ‘Fancy a coffee?’ he said.
    We went to the Dart coffee bar. D’you remember it? It’s the one where all the posh students went – the ‘wellies’. Luckily they seem to have gone.
    We sat on some blue plastic armchairs in a corner and since the term hadn’t yet started we were almost alone. I told Rick what I’d been doing in the thirty-five years since last I’d seen him and he told me about his thirty-five years on the road with the band – which had gone by in a flash, he said – and how he’d recently bought a farm in Devon near his mother (now a widow). It was therefore a good hour before Rick said, ‘I bet you can’t guess who else is back in Devon.’
    I couldn’t. I thought we’d talked about all our mutual acquaintances.
    ‘Jane,’ he said.
    I reeled. It was the last thing I expected. It raised so many questions, not least how Rick had found out about you, but I didn’t bother asking them as I knew he wouldn’t answer.
    It occurred to me that Rick passing me in the corridor might not have been quite so accidental after all, and that Rick might have had more than one motive in moving back to Devon himself.
    ‘Makes you think, doesn’t it,’ he said, as if picking up on my thoughts and trying to divert them.
    ‘Think what?’ I asked, my sceptical scientist’s brain on alert.
    ‘Oh, you know, about higher powers and things like that.’
    I snorted, but I couldn’t say anything because the convergence of the three of us did seem fortuitous and I was finding all sorts of unexpected emotions welling up in me. So much so that I began to doubt whether the door to the part of my life that involved you was quite as firmly closed as I’d thought.
    Which is not my way of excusing what happened next. At least I don’t think it is, since all that the coincidence, happy accident, synchronicity – whatever you want to call it – said to me was that here at last was my chance to make amends.
    ‘I’d like to get in touch with her,’ said Rick thoughtfully.
    ‘How do you know she’s not married and crawling with children and grandchildren?’ I asked.
    ‘She’s not,’ he said. ‘I checked.’
    Hmm. Curiouser and curiouser.
    ‘Well why don’t you get in touch with her?’ I said.
    ‘She might be angry. I might rush her. I might scare her off.’
    Was he being diplomatic or was he afraid? How much did he still care about you?  I felt concerned for him, just as I did all those years ago, especially because I could see (reading between the lines) that he wasn't finding his new life easy.
    ‘What I need,’ he continued, ‘is some of way of gaining her attention, of letting her know I’m here, without putting her under pressure.’
    And that’s how it started. Whether Rick had the plan in mind all along, or whether it was a spur of the moment thing, I don’t know. I never asked. It’s not my business. And I went along with it because I wanted to help.
    Same old, same old.
    ‘Why don’t we pretend to be engaged?’ he said excitedly, as if the idea had just come to him. ‘That way, she’ll have time to think. The news will take her back and reawaken all those old emotions which she’s probably been squashing all these years – I know I have – and give her a chance to work out what she really feels.’
    ‘But how will she find out about the engagement?’ I asked - which was probably the least important thing I should have said.
    ‘I don’t think you need worry about that,’ Rick laughed ruefully. ‘Just leave it to me and my publicist.’

So that’s what’s happened and, as soon as it did, I knew I’d done the wrong thing. How painful it would be for you if you did still care about Rick. How dishonest it was.
    So that’s why I’m writing this letter – novel – for you. I'm sorry it's so long and so detailed. These are murky moral waters and I need to be sure I'm telling you everything (without being sure what that everything is).
    Please forgive me. Please let me know if there’s any way I can help, anything you’d like me to do.
    And please believe that there’s nothing between me and Rick except an old friendship. We’ve only met once since that encounter in January and that was in order to work out the details of the plan. I haven’t told him that I’m contacting you, and I won’t – unless you want me to. I’ve never told anyone else any of the things that Rick told me about you – not even my husband.
    Nor am I blaming Rick, or putting pressure on you to get in touch with him. The opposite in fact. What we all need at the moment – especially you –  is the truth.
    I’m sorry for the ruse. I’m sorry for what happened thirty-five years ago.
Wishing you all the best

Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Banker's Niece 35: The list unravels

It’s 7am and still dark outside. Jane sits at the kitchen table nursing a double espresso and a piece of toast and honey and listening to snow sliding off the roof. With any luck this means a thaw is underway and she’ll have a trouble-free journey to work (with Joe, all being well).
    Beside her plate is the shorthand notebook with yesterday’s list and as she glances at it she wonders when to ring Henry. She wants to get the call over with but if she rings too early he might be out with his dogs. Then she’ll have to speak to Mrs Henry and she can never think of a single word to say to the poor woman. She’ll have a shower, put on her work clothes and ring him from her study. That way the timing will be right and she will feel business like.
    As Sharon promised, the black hole didn’t kill her. In fact, once she’d stopped panicking and remembered to breathe, something new began to coalesce, some new part of herself that held on to her while she was plummeting. And afterwards, when the agony finally stopped, it soothed her to sleep.
    She wonders if this new part of herself is related to the one who’s poked her in so many unexpected directions over the past year – to the Mind Body Spirit Fair, to Sharon, to the job at Courtney Press, to Exmoor even – and, if so, whether it’s a part she can trust.
    Even if it is a ‘higher’ part, as Sharon would say, her life isn’t exactly easy-peasy at the moment. In fact, she feels this morning as if she’s holding on to it by her fingertips.
‘Jane,’ barks Henry in the sergeant-major telephone voice that reminds her so much of her mother.
    It’s 7.15. She was halfway up the stairs on her way to the bathroom when she heard the ring. She had to run down and take the phone in the kitchen, next to the remains of breakfast, still unwashed and wearing her dressing-gown. And he’s got in first. It’s infuriating.
    ‘Oh Henry,’ she says, ‘I’m so glad you rang. I’ve been meaning to –’
    ‘Jane,’ barks Henry again. ‘I’ve been thinking about our business relationship and decided it’s time –’
    ‘Yes,’ says Jane. ‘I agree. I –’
    ‘- for us to part company. We’ll call it your resignation, and I’ll give you a reference if you need one –’
    ‘I was going to –’
    ‘I’ll pay you till May and you can work out your notice at home as you’ve obviously been under stress of some kind.’
    ‘I –’
    ‘I’ll send Sam over this morning with some files.’
    ‘I –’
    ‘Oh, and by the way, you were right about one thing. Colin is a little shit. He’s defecting to another publisher. Bye.’ He slams the phone down.
    Damn. Damn. Damn. She’s lost again. How can she be so feeble? How can Henry be so obnoxious?
    Her chest is heaving like that of a bull about to charge. She isn’t even pleased about Colin. And, anyway, why was Henry telling her? She can’t believe he was doing it out of kindness. Did he think it was her fault that Colin's defected and that she should have lent her body to Colin for the sake of the business?
She showers in a fury, forgetting which bits she’s done and which she hasn’t. She jams her finger up her nose when spreading cleanser on her face and spears herself in the gum with her toothbrush.
    Half an hour later, cleanish and clothed - in whatever came first out of the cupboard; she couldn’t begin to put an outfit together with her usual focus – she stomps down to the kitchen and decides she’s due another espresso.
    That should give her the strength to tackle the rest of her list, even if the most important item has gone kaput.   

As the last drops of espresso dribble from the machine to her cup, a knock sounds on the back door. It slides open and William enters, still in his manure-spattered overalls.
    He looks – and smells - like a ten-year-old boy. What was she thinking trying to seduce him yesterday?
    ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘What d’you want? I was going to text you.’
    He takes a step backwards and nearly falls off the doorstep. ‘I, er, I, er, wanted to check you were OK.’
    ‘Sit,’ she says, pointing at a chair.
    ‘You’re not OK,’ he says, obeying her.
    ‘Coffee?’ she barks, hearing herself sounding like Henry or, worse, her mother.
    ‘Er, yes, if you like.’
    That is the wrong answer. She’s doing him a favour, not the other way round.
    She froths some milk, adds it to the espresso she’d intended for herself and plonks the cup in front of him.
    ‘Eggs?’ she snaps, whisking over to the back door which William has left open and slamming it shut.
    ‘Oh, no . . . not really,’ he says. ‘I can’t stop long. Things to do . . . you know.’
    The room falls silent.
    Jane can hear the fridge whirring and hot water gurgling round the radiators. She stands with her back to the sink.
    William clears his throat. ‘Something happened?’
    ‘Oh, I’ve only gone and lost my job, that’s all.’
    ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Sorry.’
    ‘Not your fault,’ she snaps.
    The room falls silent again and then another knock sounds.

Sam enters: black boots, black leggings, black lycra mini-skirt, black polo-necked jumper, sage-green leather biker’s jacket, pink hair. Cardboard box of files.
    William leaps to his feet, knocking over his cup of coffee. His face is beetroot. He stares at Sam.
    Sam stares back at him.
    ‘Sam – William. William – Sam,’ says Jane.
    Neither takes any notice of her.
    Jane picks up a cloth and mops the spilt coffee which is already dripping on to the floor.
    ‘I’ll um. I’ll er . . .’ she says.
    Sam and William continue staring at each other.
    Jane flees up the stairs and into her bedroom. Kicking the door shut behind her, she throws herself on to the bed and wraps her face in a pillow. To her fury, sobs break out.
    She hears the back door open and close and breathes heavily into her pillow.
    The phone rings again and she wraps the pillow around her ears.
    The phone refuses to give up. It rings again, and again, and again.
    She wipes her nose on the pillow and hauls herself over to pick up the handset by the bed.

‘Jane,’ says her mother’s voice. ‘I’ve caught you at last.’
    ‘Yes,’ says Jane, surreptitiously swallowing sobs.
    ‘Oh,’ says her mother. ‘Are you all right? Only you sound a bit peculiar and you didn’t answer your phone at the weekend –’
    ‘Fine,’ says Jane.
    Jane’s mother takes a slurp of something. When in doubt, fortify yourself with liquid, preferably artificial: that’s the family’s motto.
    ‘I was thinking, um,’ resumes her mother, her beverage - whatever it was - obviously having done the trick. ‘Um, I was wondering whether to come down and stay with you. I’d love to see Lavinia’s cottage, and to meet your –’
    Jane knows exactly what she’s going to say. She’s going to say ‘your nice new neighbour’ which is what she always calls William, as if she can possibly know what he’s like, never having met him. But he’s nice of course because he’s ‘suitable’.
    ‘No,’ says Jane, finding her voice at last. ‘It’s not convenient. And I wouldn’t get your hopes up about William. We tried to have sex last night and it was a fiasco and now I think he’s gone and fallen for someone else.’ A sob escapes.
    The line falls silent. There aren’t even any sounds of slurping. And for a moment Jane wonders if she’s done it this time, if she’s managed to be so bad that her mother is gone. It’s the crying of course, not the s-word, that will have done the trick.
    Then the most peculiar noise fills the earpiece. It takes a few moments before Jane realises what it is. It’s her mother laughing, but not in a way Jane has ever heard her laugh before. She sounds free. And happy.
    Jane slams the phone down and flings herself back on the bed.

There’s a small tap on the back door. It sounds more like a rabbit than a person, so she ignores it and burrows under the duvet. The last thing she wants to do is venture into the kitchen. God knows what she’ll find there.
    The tap comes again and Jane heaves herself up.

The kitchen is deserted, thank goodness. The cardboard box of files sits accusingly on the table. She opens the door.
    A figure is standing there, looking worried. It’s tiny, with very short hair and, except for the lines on its face and its well-fitting brown coat, could be a young boy. Strangely though, it’s familiar.
    ‘Yes,’ mutters Jane.
    ‘Jane?’ says the figure tentatively.
    ‘I think so,’ Jane answers.
    ‘I’m Chris,’ says the figure, looking at the ground. Her voice is tiny, like her body. ‘Rick’s, um, fiancée.’
    Jane hears the words, but she doesn’t understand them. Who is this Chris? Who is this Rick? What are they doing in her life?
    Chris thrusts a sheaf of papers into Jane’s hand. ‘Read these. Please. They might explain.’
    And, before Jane has time to respond, she’s gone.

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Banker's Niece 34: The Rock crumbles

Jane sits up in bed. With its down duvet and organic unbleached brushed-cotton linen, her bed is her favourite place in the world and something she would definitely take with her to a desert island. In deference to the weather she’s fished out her long-sleeved, ankle-length nightdress and wearing it makes her feel like an old maid, as they used to call them – which she is, she supposes (except for the ‘maid’ bit). It’s not an unpleasant feeling. In fact it’s rather comforting. And she’s always preferred Miss Marple to any other fictional detective.
    William was right. The supper did cheer her up.
    They sat in the pub's dining area at a proper table and because it was Monday they had it to themselves. The cheesy potato pie was sublime, as William promised - mashed potato glued together with strings of extra-tasty Cheddar, crunchy topped and so hot it stripped the roof of your mouth. Thank goodness she isn’t vegan yet.
    She explained her lack of car by saying that she became stuck in snow leaving work and had to call a taxi and excused her tears by saying something about the difficulty of adjusting to life in the country, leaving her friends behind, having trouble at work etc etc. Not really lies but not really the truth either and she felt slightly guilty, but William seemed to accept the stories.
    Then they fell to talking about their families.
    William told her about his father’s insistence on changing for ‘dinner’ every night and using proper linen table napkins and Jane told him about her mother still using a non-fillable fountain pen which she had to keep dipping into a bottle of ink and of how she ran her finger over every letter which arrived to see whether the address was printed (bad) or embossed (good).
    Jane laughed so much she almost fell off her chair. It was extraordinary how you could switch so quickly from despair to merriment.
    She was cross with herself for not having gone out with William before. He’d often asked but she’d always demurred as she couldn’t bear to think of the gossip they would engender if she (a single woman) appeared in the local pub with her neighbour (a single man).
    There had been some funny looks from the old codgers on the bar stools but she didn’t care now. Her conscience was clear. They’d got the sex thing out of the way. They were good friends, that was all.
    Apart from her brother Ollie, she’d never had a male friend before. It wasn’t at all bad and, if a foretaste of the future, she almost looked forward to it.
    They didn’t even have to go through all that palaver when they said good night. He stopped at her house, getting out of the car to see her to the back door, where they kissed each other decorously on the cheek and then parted. Lovely.
    And the warm glow is still with her, so much so that she’s picked up her spiral-bound shorthand notebook and decided to make one of her lists. But not just any old list (sort rubbish, do washing load, clean bath).  A proper life-changing list. It’s time – more than time – to get herself in order, and the happy outcome of the contretemps with William has given her confidence. But where to start?
    She taps her pencil against her teeth and steadies the notebook on her raised knees.
    She likes pencils. They’re more subtle somehow than ballpoint pens, more conducive to catching those ideas which flit like ghosts through the dusty rooms of the brain.
    She writes ‘List’ at the top of the page and thinks about tomorrow, and the answer comes to her. Henry. Point number one.

1 Henry
First thing in the morning she’ll ring him and give in her notice. That way, she’ll get in first. That might salvage both her pride and her career in publishing and, given her behaviour, it would be the honourable thing to do. After all, it’s what politicians do when they make a mistake.
    Whether Henry accepts her resignation and she does in fact leave Courtney Press and what she’ll do if she does are, she thinks, questions she can leave unanswered for the moment.

Which brings her to point number two.

2 Joe the Taxi
Even if she does leave Courtney Press she’ll still be working out her notice. So she’ll have to ring Joe as well first thing to see if he can give her a lift in, which – if he can - will be a great opportunity for him to see her calm and normal for a change.
    At the same time, she can prepare him for taking her to Exmoor to retrieve Clio, explaining that a visit to a friend went wrong due to circumstances entirely beyond her control (snow) and giving the impression that she’s totally on top of the situation.
    The fact that he is – according to Lauren – in his late fifties and unattached (a widower) and that he reminds Jane of Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak in the 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd has absolutely nothing to do with Jane’s desire to appear sane in his eyes. It’s because he lives in Muddicombe and she would hate the locals to get the wrong idea about her.

And thinking about good and bad impressions leads her into the next item on her list.

3 Lauren (and Gavin)
Gavin may be a prat but he’s Lauren’s prat and she should apologise to Lauren for being so rude to him, as well for her behaviour in general at the party since it was Lauren, as far as she remembers, who salvaged the situation by finding the vomit receptacle, leading Jane to a discreet corner of the room and ringing Joe.
    She ought to have spoken to Lauren this morning, instead of avoiding her by entering through the back door. She’ll use the front door tomorrow.

Maisie and Tom are best left alone for the moment as they’ve no doubt had more than enough of her which leaves one final item to be tackled in the débâcle that is her life at the moment (as Sam would put it).

4 Mother
Because of her migraine on Saturday and her hangover on Sunday she didn’t answer the phone when her mother rang and she’s not yet returned the call. She’ll do that at the first available opportunity as she wouldn’t want her mother to be worried. That might lead to her visiting which sort of wastes all the effort of moving to the other side of the country.

Oh, and one other item.

5 William
Not a problem any more of course but she doesn’t want to be in his debt. She’ll text him when she wakes and ask him to come over for breakfast. She has croissants in the freezer and eggs in the fridge. She could even open a tin of baked beans for him if he wanted. He’ll enjoy that after the milking.

She puts down the pad and pencil and wriggles her feet under the hot water bottle. The house is growing cold and it’s more than time for her to switch off the light and burrow under the covers.
    There is however one thing that still niggles and she might as well clear it out now, while she has the impetus.
    She puts on her fleecy dressing-gown and slipper-boots and pads through to the spare bedroom where her computer lives.

Even if she does have to pay £10 to subscribe to the archive, finding the item is easy – too easy, like it was bumping into Sharon first time or coming across the job ad. But then she does know the name of the publication, the date and the item’s position so she doesn’t have to read anything into that.
    As she opens the page however, that ease – that sense of events unfolding without her input – makes her stomach knot and she remembers that she collapsed the last time she saw the words. But perhaps there was no connection between the two events. They were a coincidence, nothing more.
    ‘There’s no such thing as coincidence,’ snaps Sharon’s voice in her head.
    It doesn’t make her feel any better.
    She reads again the snippet that caught her eye in the village shop.

The Rock crumbles
In a shock announcement last night, singer Rick ‘The Rock’ Rockford, 61, revealed that he is to marry for the first time. Renowned for his playboy lifestyle and string of young, beautiful and famous girlfriends, Rick has finally settled on 58-year-old boffin, Dr Christine Beckford (pictured above with Rick). ‘I’ve always liked intelligent women,’ said Rick, ‘and now at last I’ve found one.’

She falters.
    Does she carry on? What will she find?
    But maybe this is the final room, and once she’s dusted it everything in her new life will come right.
Has old age finally caught up with him?
Rick Rockford last night dealt his fans a double whammy when he announced not only that he is to marry but also that he has left super-group Minotaur.
    ‘I’ve bought a house in the country,’ said Rick. ‘I’m moving back to Devon where I come from in order to concentrate on writing music. I’ve had enough of life on the road.’
    At one stage dubbed ‘the Peter Pan of rock’, Rick has begun increasingly over the last few years to look his age (see pictures, right). Is he now acting it too? Or is this latest move just one more fad?
Minotaur crashed into the charts in 1981 with their debut album ‘Ariadne’s thread’. Rick, who co-founded the band, attributed its success to a broken heart.
    ‘I’m on the rebound,’ he told your
Daily Star at the time. ‘I had to throw myself into something.’
He also threw himself into the rock and roll lifestyle, becoming as famous for his love life as his career. (See list of girlfriends, below.) When challenged about his behaviour he always maintained that he was faithful: 'I only ever date one person at a time,'
   And on the subject of marriage, he was adamant. ‘There was only one woman I ever wanted to marry,’ he said, ‘and she wouldn’t have me.’
    So why the change, and just who is Christine Beckford, his fiancée?
Mystery woman
According to official sources, Dr Beckford works for the marine-environment charity Making Waves, heading up a research facility at the University of Devon. Rick claims she is an old friend.
    ‘Chris knew me before I became successful. She has her own career. She’s not after me for anything,’ he says wryly.
    Our reporter tracked her to a decaying mansion in a remote part of the county (see picture, left).
    ‘We’ve not seen Chris for weeks,’ said a housemate.
    Locals spoke of ‘the hippies on the hill’.
    ‘We don’t know what goes on up there,’ said the landlord of the Fox and Hounds in the nearby village of Buckland Abbot. ‘And we don’t want to neither.’

Well, it was only to be expected. It had to happen some time. And she already knows most of it.
    But why does it have to be Chris?
    And Devon?
    And the University of Devon?
    And why is her beloved study turning into something out of a nightmare?
    And why is the strength vanishing from her body as if she were bleeding to death?
Without warning, like a migraine, the darkness returns. Only now it’s not a wave. It’s the bottomless black hole she remembers from long ago.