Would you look at that, and just in time for Christmas.
“That’s just weird.” The two women were in the bathroom. Lucy held the shower curtain in both hands. She had spread it across the bath. It wasn’t exactly shredded but it was sliced over and over. At one end the plastic ring had broken leaving the edge flapping loose from the rail.
“I just don’t see how this could have happened. If it had been a cat, as you said, then surely it would just have pulled it down. It’s not a bird. I can’t imagine a bird anywhere near strong enough to do this. Not unless it was a bloody great eagle and I don’t think there are many of them in Garston.”
“No, you’re right. This just looks deliberate, as if someone’s been at it with a knife. You know how they show it over and over after the famous bit in the horror film? The one where that actress – oh what’s her name? Janet Leigh – that’s her. You know the Hitchock thing”
“I’ve never seen it, but I know what you mean. It does look a bit like that. The police are supposed to come later on. Do you think I should mention that to them?”
“You could I suppose. Or, they might see it themselves. Why are they coming?”
“Fingerprints and what have you.”
“Shit, they’ll find mine?”
“I suppose they will but then yours would have been here anyway. You’re always in and out.”
“Anyway even if they did it wouldn’t matter unless you’ve been a bad girl and they have you on file. Actually, it would probably be best if you give them yours. Just so they can exclude you from their enquiries.”
“Get you and the police speak.”
“I haven’t watched all those crime show for nothing.”
“Shame it doesn’t help us to find Ginny though.”
“We’ll maybe have to be more insistent that they look for her. She’s been missing a while now and nobody’s heard from her and she wasn’t in the best of health.”
“I feel like an idiot now. I said that I didn’t think she’d harm herself but – we are both coming round to thinking that might not be true.”
“I know I just said that but then I think how brave she’s been. Never wanting to cause a fuss and never complaining. Would she really just give up?”
“You know as well as I do that a great many people who do kill themselves don’t give any real clue. So it’s possible isn’t it”
They trailed back to the kitchen and made more tea, more toast and watched the day fill out. Suzanne looked across the table at her friend and smiled. “At least I’ve got you back, that’s good. I was really scared for a while there that I was going to be the last man standing.” Suddenly her eyes filled with tears that wouldn’t be held back and as she sniffed and wiped at her wet cheeks Lucy leaned and held her hand.
“It’ll be okay. It’s all going to be fine.”
They sat in the kitchen as the darkness gave over to dull grey light. They made tea and ate toast. They cried and they held hands across the table top and they worried and wondered together.
“So, what are you going to do about Steve?” Suzanne asked.
“Oh, I’ve had it with him. I can’t believe I’ve put up with his moods and bullying for so long. He has always been too keen to lash out, usually just with his tongue, now and then with a grip just too tight on my arms, once or twice a push and just once before he slapped me across the fact. I always found excuses. I’m an idiot. I never would have believed I’d have put up with it. I disgust myself to be honest. I am appalled that I valued myself so little. It wasn’t even that I needed him for his wages and so on. I’ve got my NHS pension and the money Granda left me.”
“Embarrassment, I think. When I was working it wasn’t too bad because we only saw each other at weekend and the kids needed stability so I just muddled through. Then when the kids had gone I couldn’t face telling people what I’d put up with for all those years. There I was, a specialist nurse, a professional telling people what they should do, how they should behave and my own life was just pathetic.”
“You never said. You could have told me. I had an idea and you could have come here.”
“I know, love. But I didn’t want to admit I’d made such a cock-up things. Anyway, it’s over now. I’m going to get a solicitor and start a divorce. I’ll move out. Can I stay with you until I find out how I’m fixed? I’ll be able to buy something with half the money from the house. I only need a little place. A flat would be nice. No gardening, easy to run. I might even look at one of those retirement places.”
“Oh no. You can’t. They are just God’s waiting rooms. All you do is count out the dead and demented. It’s horrible.”
“I don’t think they’re like that now. They have restaurants and hairdressers and whatnot.”
“And coach trips to garden centres. The one my mum is in is lovely but it’s too much like waiting for the inevitable. I couldn’t abide it. I would feel as though I’d given up.”
“Well you could be right but that’s for later. Tomorrow I need to find a solicitor.”
“Will you go to the police?”
“He hit you. That’s assault. You should report him.”
“No. I’m not doing that. I couldn’t bear the questions and the embarrassment. Think of what it would do to the kids. He’s their dad after all. No, I’m not doing that.”
“It’s your choice of course but honestly I think you ought to make him pay for what he’s done.”
“No. Not doing it. He can go and live with him bit on the side if he likes. He can bugger off and die, I just don’t care. I don’t want to see him again if I can help it.”
Suzanne sighed and shook her head but it wasn’t her decision to make and all she could do was be supportive. Starting again at their stage of life was daunting but she would be four square behind her friend no matter what.
They sat quietly for a while. It was Lucy who broke the silence. “What about Ginny?”
“I’ve tried to get the police interested. They don’t want to know. I was lust living in hope that she’d turn up and we could move past it.”
“Where the hell can she be?”
“I haven’t a clue and I don’t know what to do now.”
“Okay. We’ll go this morning back to the house. I know you’ve already had a look but we’ll go again. There has to be something there that’ll give us an idea of what’s going on. We need to do something properly now.
“I have a horrible feeling about it. The more time that’s past the more it seems to me that she has gone away and doesn’t want to be found.” Suzanne’s eyes filled with tears. “I just have a horrible feeling that maybe she’s gone and killed herself and the next thing we hear will be that they’ve found her body. I don’t think I’ll be able to live with that.”
“I’d love to tell you that you’re wrong, love. In all honesty, I can’t because I have started thinking the same thing myself.”
“Before we do that though, we have to work out what happened to your shower curtain.”
“Oh lord, I hadn’t thought about that for a bit. The shock of finding you in the living room. All this upset. It’d slipped my mind. Come on up and have a look.”
“Maybe a cat got in, or a bird-a big bird and it panicked.”
“So where is it now? No, come on up and see. It’s horrible.”
Suzanne would have imagined that she would scream. Anyone in this exact situation would surely scream, shout the house down. She had no voice. Fear had stolen her ability to function.
She heard a whimper, and someone whispered, “Please.”
It was herself of course but she didn’t know what she was pleading for.
The figure moved nearer just one step but into the dim light, sneaking through the curtains. Suzanne shuffled backwards on the settee. “Please, just go away. Please.”
The figure reached a hand to the switch and flooded the room with light.
“Lucy, what the hell? Luce.” Suzanne jumped from her seat and crossed the room in a couple of steps. “Lucy, what’s happened? What the bejesus are you doing? Where have you been? What happened to your face?”
“Let me sit down. Just give me a minute will you.”
Suzanne pushed the duvet aside to make room and Lucy sat on the sofa. She wrapped her arms around herself except for one moment when she touched the fading bruise on her cheekbone and the discolouration under her eye.
“Right,” she began. “I suppose you rang our Steve, did you?”
“I expect he told you I’d gone off in a mood. Huh. Okay, cards on the table here. You know he’s always been a bit handy with his fists?”
“Suzanne nodded again and reach out to touch her friend’s hand.
“He’s been worse lately. I know why. I know full well why. He’s got a bit of fluff up in Newcastle.” Tears leaked from her eyes. “It’s such a bloody cliché, isn’t it? Commercial traveller has a wife at home and his bit on the side. I’d suspected it for a bit now and this time when he came home, I called him on it. I think I was feeling a bit hyper, with all the worry about Ginny, and I was thinking ‘what if she’s dead?’ and it made me feel old. Anyway, we had a big row and this…” She pointed at her ruined face. “I left straight away, and I’ve been in one of those Airbnb things in Speke. It’s all right, I’ve got a kitchen and so on but–it’s not home, is it? Then I had your message and saw that you’d be out at the hospital, and I thought I’d just go to the house, see if he’d gone and take it from there. I didn’t want to involve you. That was the last thing you needed. Course he’d gone and there was nothing to eat and no milk or anything, so I came round here. I was just going to make a coffee and maybe leave you a note and see what was best. But I was starving. I haven’t eaten anything properly since I left and your chilli smelled so good I couldn’t resist it. I’m sorry.”
“Bloody hell don’t apologise. You know you can have anything.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind. But then I heard you coming home and to be honest, I couldn’t face you. I thought you’d have been later. Anyway, I ran for it. I put your key back under the plant pot and I was going to ring you. I went to my house for a bit and then when I came back to talk to you, the police were here, and I panicked. I didn’t know what was going on. Since he hit me, I’ve been at sixes and sevens. I’m sorry, this is all really confusing. Anyway, Steve came back tonight, and I had to run for it and didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t face the BnB place on my own. I was going to sit in here and wait for you to get up, but then you were in here sleeping on the couch. Why are you doing that?”
“Because you scared the shit out of me, that’s why. I get about the food, I don’t mind that at all. But, Luce, why the bathroom?”
“Yeah. Why did you do that? Rip my curtain. Was it an accident? It’s okay, it was only a crappy curtain from B&M–I can get another. But it scared me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What curtain?”
“The shower curtain.”
“I never touched your curtain, never even went into your bathroom. I heard you were coming home and made a dash for it. You were quick. I thought you would have been later. Did you see Ginny?”
“What time was it, when you heard me come back?”
“It was about half three. It was a surprise. I heard you out in the drive and heard the side gate and I scarpered.”
“I didn’t get back until well after five. You didn’t go in the bathroom? You didn’t rip the shower curtain?”
“Why the hell would I do that? I used your downstairs loo, but I never went upstairs. I never went to your bathroom.”
Suzanne tried to be calm and sensible. The police had told her that a car would pass down the street about every hour – they had added the rider – ‘if possible’. A bobby had double-checked all the locks on the doors and windows. She had agreed to call a security firm the next day to see about fitting cameras.
None of this was nice. She had lived in and around the same area all her life. Okay, there were problems here and there. Where was there in the world without problems? She had claimed on her insurance for a repainting job when her car had been keyed all down the side once. She never found out why. The woman next door had a robbery and lost some jewellery. Small things, distressing at the time. But it felt now as though she was under siege. The worst thing about it as far as she was concerned was that she didn’t know who it was she was building a barricade against and there was a distinct impression that the police had no idea and didn’t really expect to.
There had been no sign of a forced entry. The damage in the bathroom was minimal when you really thought about it. Horrible, scary and inexplicable, but minimal. A shredded shower curtain was nothing in the great scheme of things The thing with the chilli and the bread was just unsettling and odd. DI Tripp had insinuated that maybe a rough sleeper had found a way in and taken advantage. That was all very well but how? No open windows, no broken glass or door with a damaged lock. Apart from that people without somewhere to live didn’t stroll around the quiet streets of semi-detached houses. They were at the shops. In the city, anywhere there was the chance of a little kindness from passing strangers.
Scene of crime people were going to come in the morning to examine the kitchen and the bathroom and DI Tripp had warned her that they would need her fingerprints. She wasn’t surprised. She watched the same police programs as everyone else and knew about elimination prints. She wondered if they would want DNA. That made her feel a little uncomfortable.
She washed in the little cloakroom under the stairs. Her toothbrush was in the bathroom, but there was no way she could ever use it again anyway. Tripp had suggested just putting a new head on the electronic handle, but it wouldn’t do.
Robbery is treated as a lesser crime. It isn’t murder, bodily harm, or domestic abuse it isn’t a mugging, but the effects of someone invading your space and disrespecting your privacy are devastating.
It was no good, she tried to settle in the bedroom, but even with the lights left on in the hall and landing, she couldn’t rest. Every creak and snap of the house settling startled her to a sitting position. Her limbs were stiff with tension and her eyes stung, staring into the gloom. After an hour she gave up and dragged the duvet down to the living room. The couch was long enough for her to stretch out; the cushions were firm, and she began to dose. No sound woke her, nothing disturbed her until she woke with a start. The shadow in the corner moved towards her.
Suzanne gave them their due. The detectives were attentive and kind. It was very late when they arrived, past ten o’clock and they apologised. The younger one, a man – though she couldn’t help thinking of him as a boy, was good-looking. He had dark blond hair, cut close to his scalp and she thought that was probably because it was curly. She could see how blond curls might not convey just the image he wanted, but she imagined his mum was sad about it.
The woman was older. She was what Suzanne thought of as no-nonsense. She had worked with ward sisters with the same attitude. They were not really, hard, or unkind but life and the daily dramas had worn away all the sentiment. Her hair was on the way to being grey and it was pulled back into what they used to call a French roll. It was ageing but probably very practical. They were dressed in suits, both grey, both a bit worn-looking.
Suzanne offered them tea – the woman – DI Jane Tripp, apparently, refused on behalf of them both though the boy, the detective constable, looked as though he’d have liked one.
‘Is it okay if DC Myers has a look at your bathroom?” Tripp asked.
“Yes, of course. The other policeman, the one who came before, did see it. He told me not to touch anything. I have to say though, I’d already flushed the loo. It was instinct, sorry.”
“It’s all right. I understand that for sure,” Tripp said. She turned to the boy “Get on that will you Billy? Just have a quick gander.”
Once he had gone, she turned back to Suzanne. “Okay, I want you to start from the beginning and once I’m up to date we’ll decide on the next move. It could be we need the crime scene techs to come in. Is there anywhere you can go to stay if we decide to do that?”
“I suppose I could find somewhere. I don’t know what to do I’m scared to stay here but I don’t want to be driven out. What if one of the girls comes round? My friend Lucy. I think she might have just gone off in a huff. Maybe – although the longer it goes on the less likely that sounds. Oh, I just don’t know. She was near to tears again. She bit them back. Listen…” Suzanne leaned forward in her chair. “All this…” She swept her hand towards the ceiling. “This is horrible, I won’t pretend otherwise, it’s thrown me for a six it has, but to be honest, I’m more worried about my mates.”
Jane Tripp closed her notebook. “From my side, it all feels a bit confusing. We don’t know, do we? Whether or not what is happening with your friends, Lucy and erm…” She flipped back a few pages in her book.
“Ginny. Virginia.” Suzanne said.
“Oh yes. We don’t even know if the two things are connected. Your friends haven’t been in touch, and I get that you’re worried about them, but I am at a loss right now to see how that could connect with someone breaking in and trashing your bathroom.”
Put starkly, Suzanne could see the woman’s point but surely there was a connection. There had to be. Her life was in turmoil, and it didn’t seem possible that all of this – all of this chaos, could be unconnected.
She took a deep breath and went back to the beginning and the DI listened quietly, nodding now and then. For Suzanne verbalising it somehow made the happenings of the last few days sound far less worrying and far less scary than they were.
It was the same young policeman. He made Suzanne a cup of tea and spooned in a lot of sugar. She didn’t like it particularly but knew he meant well, and it would help her to calm down.
He was as confused as she was but, of course, not frightened and shaking. She told him about the food. She told him about the bread, though she felt silly watching him write in his notebook about the missing end of a baguette. The worst bit was telling him about the bathroom. The water, running cold by the time she had pushed open the door and screamed into the empty room that she had a knife, and the police were on their way. She told him about the shredded shower curtain and the toilet. Left unflushed after someone had used it. The whole thing was degrading and terrifying.
“Have you got someone to come and stay with you?” he asked.
“No, I don’t want anyone, I don’t want to be here myself. I’m scared stiff. I won’t be able to sleep, I won’t ever be able to use that bathroom again.”
He sat beside her on the settee. “It’s horrible for you. I do understand that. But you will get over this. People do. The first thing is, we have to make sure you’re safe. I can get on to my boss and see if they’ll arrange for a car to cruise by regularly during the night. That’s if you decide to stay here.”
“Can you do that?”
“I’ll get onto it straight away. I am going to have to refer this to the detectives. I’ve already done that. I’ve sent in a report, and they’ll be coming to talk to you. I can’t tell you when, but it shouldn’t be long. Tonight probably, if not definitely in the morning.”
“Who would do this, though? Why would anyone do this?” Suzanne said.
“That’s one of the things you need to concentrate on. You need to think – is there anyone you’ve had trouble with? Neighbours you’ve had a barney with, anything like that.”
“No, I get on with my neighbours. I don’t see any of them that much, to be honest. But I’ve never had any trouble.”
“You probably don’t want to think about this but – you know your missing friends?”
“Would they do anything like this? Try to freak you out?”
“No, no of course not. Why would you even think that?”
“You have said you don’t know where they are and they haven’t been in touch, have they?”
“No, but it’s worse than that. I told you Ginny didn’t turn up for her appointment and Lucy hasn’t contacted me at all. I’m worried sick about them both. Now, this. I just don’t understand what’s going on. Everything’s going mad around me.”
At that point, she began to cry.
There was nothing else to do but drive home. Suzanne had left the lights on in the living room so the house would be warm and welcoming.
Despite the early hour, she poured a glass of red wine and carried it through to the kitchen. The thought of eating, on her own, was depressing. She would freeze it and save it for when they were all back together.
At first, she didn’t notice the dish. The baguette was on the board on the worktop and there was something not right. She didn’t remember taking the end. It was something she often did. That lovely crusty bit with a chunk of cheese or just a big spread of butter but she just didn’t remember doing it with this loaf but it was gone. Still, she was stressed and having trouble concentrating so – who knew.
She cut herself a piece now and turned to the table, perhaps she’d just have a small bowl of chili, in the lounge with the tele on.
For a minute her brain wouldn’t catch up with what she was seeing. She had left three bowls ready on the table, now two were where she had left them, waiting. The third was smeared with the red sauce and around the place setting were crumbs from the bread and a scattering of Parmesan cheese.
She hadn’t done this. She knew for certain she hadn’t eaten chilli before she went out. Apart from anything else it was still cooking.
She placed the glass of wine on the table. She reached to the knife block and pulled out the heavy chef’s knife and walked back towards the hallway.
“Hello.” On some level, she knew how silly and pointless it had been to call out. Dangerous too, letting whoever was in her home know that she was there.
She had already been in the living room to pour her wine so she passed that door. At the bottom of the stairs, she paused and listened. There was a soft noise. At first, she couldn’t make out what it was. She froze, holding her breath.
There was someone in the shower.
She climbed the stairs, the knife held before her in one hand the other holding the banister rail. The bedroom doors were all closed. She never did that. She didn’t have any need, living on her own. So, she was on the landing with all the doors closed, no way to tell if anyone was in the bedrooms but then there was the sound of running water in the bathroom. She should call the police. She should get out of the house now and ring triple nine.
Her phone was downstairs in her bag. She didn’t dare turn from the closed doors and she couldn’t go down the steps backwards.
She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. She stepped across the landing and reached out for the door handle.
Suzanne made chilli with pork. It was Ginny’s favourite and it would improve if it was left in the slow cooker all day. Then they would have it with a crusty French stick and some red wine.
Hospitals. There was no way to guess how long they would be hanging around. The appointment was at half past two. That meant next to nothing. She would get there for quarter past. It could be that Ginny would be having X-rays or whatever and then there would be the long slog of a wait to see the doctor. If she was lucky, it would be a registrar, if not then a houseman. Probably not a consultant, the chances of that were remote but no matter, it would be ages and ages. So, she laid the table before she left and tidied the living room. Her guest room was always made up and who knew, after the few days that they’d had maybe the ‘girls’ would stay over and then they could have a good drink and a laugh, and everything would be back to normal.
The hospital car park was busy but not as full as she could remember it being in the past. Things had improved now that everyone was vaccinated and there were new and more effective treatments against the virus but there were still notices asking patients and visitors to wear masks and use hand sanitiser.
She hadn’t worked in Broad Green hospital, but had been there enough times to know her way around and the signage was good. The Rheumatology clinic was buzzing and there were sticks, crutches and walkers everywhere but Suzanne was able to find a seat near the entrance.
It was just a quarter past two so Ginny would be arriving any time. Lucy wasn’t anywhere around as far as she could see. Suzanne didn’t know what to do if she didn’t come. Neither of them had responded to the text messages, and it was going on for three full days now since she had heard anything. She wondered if she’d done something to annoy Lucy. Nothing came to mind but when Ginny had finished with her appointment, they could go to the coffee bar and talk it through. That was of course if Lucy ever arrived.
It was three -o’clock. The crowd had thinned out a little bit. She had to hand it to them, whoever was running the clinic was doing a decent job. There were a few empty chairs now. There was no sign of either Lucy or Ginny.
A nurse walked into the waiting room. She called Ginny’s name. She called it twice. She waited and looked around to see if any of the lame or infirm were trying to make their way towards her. Suzanne stood up and waved at her.
“Ms Salt, Virginia Salt?” the nurse asked.
“No. That’s not me. It’s my friend.”
“Oh right. Gone to the toilet, has she?”
“No.No She’s not here. I was waiting for her, but she hasn’t come.”
“Oh right. I see. She remembered her appointment then. We sent a reminder.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for a while. Not since last week.”
“Oh, but you came here to wait for her?”
“Yes. I was sure she’d be here.”
“But she’s not?” The nurse raised her eyebrows.
“No, it doesn’t look like it. I’m quite worried actually.”
“Well, I can put her notes to the bottom of the pile. But it’s not on, you know. We have an appointment system for a reason.”
“Yes, I know. I used to nurse. Ginny did as well. That’s why I was sure she would turn up. We know what it’s like when people don’t come on time.”
“Nothing I can do about it now. I’ll put her notes on the bottom and if she turns up, we’ll try and fit her in, but I can’t promise. It’s very inconsiderate.”
“I know. But I don’t even know where she is. It looks as though she’s gone away.”
“Well in that case she should have cancelled. She knows that if she used to work in hospitals.”
With that, the young woman turned and stomped away. She had a point and there was no argument.
Suzanne left the department and went back to the car park. She slid into the driving seat, rested her head against the steering wheel and began to cry. There was something terribly wrong. She had struggled against the feeling but now there was no getting around it. There was something wrong involving her two dearest friends in the world, and she had no idea what to do next.
There was nothing decent on the tele. Suzanne flicked through the choices on Netflix and discarded everything. She wasn’t in the mood for a comedy and didn’t want to sit through a murder or a police procedural. She told herself it wasn’t because of her worries, that was daft of course. Those sorts of things happened either to other people and you only heard it on the news, or in fiction. Though she didn’t know where Lucy and Ginny were right now, there was nothing sinister about it. It was all a huge mix-up that would be solved tomorrow when they all met up at the hospital.
She didn’t remember Ginny saying anything about going away but maybe she had. Maybe they had been told and simply forgotten. When she thought about all the events in order it had been Lucy who had started the fuss. Suzanne tried to think through all the recent weeks, had there been something? Though they were close Ginny was a private person. There had been the odd occasion in the past when she hadn’t told them she was having tests or treatments. She said it was because she didn’t want to worry them and didn’t want them to feel obliged to come with her. She could bring nothing to mind right away but, after all, she hadn’t known about this appointment. They were close but they still had their own lives, private.
As for Lucy, well that was obvious, she had stomped off because of Steve. She knew that Steve would call Suzanne and didn’t want to get her involved in a nasty row. She was sorry her friend hadn’t felt able to confide but here it was again. Private lives. It was probably how come they had been able to keep the friendship going all these years. Mutual respect.
Suzanne felt better. She felt slightly smug at how mature they all were. She made a cup of cocoa and took it up to bed with her Kindle. She was looking forward to the next day when it would all be sorted. She’d suggest a meal out after. Or maybe she should have her friends back to her house. She could put a casserole in the oven before she went to the hospital and then they could come back and have a nice meal together and laugh about the turmoil of the last few days.
When the phone woke her it was still dark. The house was silent. She felt the familiar frisson of panic this always brought as she reached for her phone and glasses on the bedside table.
Number withheld. She clicked to answer. There was silence. An open line. “Hello. Who is this? Lucy is that you? Ginny?”
She switched on the bedside lamp and pushed herself into a sitting position. “Who is this? Come on. What are you playing at? Speak if you’re going to.”
There was silence. And then faint and difficult to hear a small sound. Her name. Something that sounded very much like a sob and then nothing.”
The hairs on her arms stood on end and her stomach turned over. What the hell was that about?