The second book in the Vera Stanhope series, 2005
Sitting at the bedroom window, Emma looks out at the night-time square. The wind rattles a roof tile and hisses out from the churchyard, spitting a Coke can onto the street. There was a gale the afternoon Abigail Mantel died and it seems to Emma that it’s been windy ever since, that there have been ten years of storms, of hailstones like bullets blown against her windows and trees ripped from the earth by their roots. It must be true at least since the baby was born. Since then, whenever she wakes at night to feed the baby or when James comes in late from work the noise of the wind is there, rolling round her head like the sound of a seashell when you hold it to your ear.
James, her husband, isn’t home yet, but she’s not waiting up for him. Her gaze is fixed on the Old Forge where Dan Greenwood makes pots. There’s a light at the window and occasionally she fancies she sees a shadow. She imagines that Dan is still working there, dressed in his blue canvas smock, his eyes narrowed as he shapes the clay with his strong, brown hands. Then she imagines leaving the baby, who is fast asleep, tucked up in his carry cot She sees herself slipping out into the square and keeping to the shadows, walking across to the forge. She pushes open one of the big doors which form an arch, like the door of a church, and stands inside. The roof is high and she can see through the curved rafters to the tiles. In her mind she feels the heat of the kiln and sees the dusty shelves holding unglazed pots.
Dan Greenwood looks up. His face is flushed and there is red dust in the furrows of his forehead. He isn’t surprised to see her. He moves away from the bench where he’s working and stands in front of her. She feels her breath quicken. He kisses her forehead and then begins to unbutton her shirt. He touches her breasts, stroking them, so he leaves lines of red clay like warpaint. She feels the clay drying on her skin and her breasts become tight, slightly itchy.
Then the image fades and she’s back in the bedroom she shares with her husband. She knows her breasts are heavy with milk, not tight with drying clay. At the same time the baby begins to grizzle and to claw blindly in the air with both hands. Emma lifts him out of the cot and begins to feed him. Dan Greenwood has never touched her and probably never will, no matter how often she dreams of it. The church clock strikes midnight. By now, James should have his ship safely into port.
That was the story Emma told herself as she sat by her window in the village of Elvet. A running commentary on her feelings, as if she was an outsider looking in. It was how it had always been her life as a series of fairy tales. Before Matthew had been born she’d wondered if his birth would make her more engaged. There was nothing more real, was there, than labour? But now, running her little finger between his mouth and her nipple to break the suction, she thought that wasn’t true. She was no more emotionally involved with him than she was with James. Had she been different before she found Abigail Mantel’s body? Probably not. She lifted her son onto her shoulder and rubbed his back. He reached out and grasped a strand of her hair.
The room was at the top of a neat Georgian house, built of red brick and red tile. It was double-fronted and symmetrical with rectangular windows and a door in the middle. It had been built by a seafarer who’d traded with Holland, and James had liked that. “We’re carrying on a tradition,” he’d said when he showed her round. “It’s like keeping it in the family.” Emma had thought it was too close to home, to the memories of Abigail Mantel and Jeanie Long, and had suggested that Hull might be more convenient for his work. Or Beverley. Beverley was a pleasant town. But he’d said Elvet was just as good for him.
“It’ll be nice for you to be so close to your parents,” he’d said and she’d smiled and agreed, because that was what she did with James. She liked to please him. In fact she didn’t much care for Robert and Mary’s company. Despite all the help they offered, they made her feel uncomfortable and for some reason guilty.
Above the rumble of the wind there came another sound a car engine; headlights swept onto the square, briefly lighting up the church gate, where dead leaves were blown into a drift. James parked on the cobbles, got out and shut the door with a solid thud. At the same time Dan Greenwood emerged from the Old Forge. He was dressed as Emma had imagined, in jeans and the blue smock. She expected him to pull together the big double doors and fasten them with a key he kept on a ring clipped to his belt on a chain. Then he would push a heavy brass padlock through the iron rings bolted to each door and shove the hasp in place. She had watched this ritual from the window many times. Instead he crossed the square towards James. He wore heavy work boots which rapped loudly on the paving stones and made James turn round.
Seeing them together, it occurred to her how different they were. Dan was so dark that he should have been a foreigner. He could play the villain in a gothic melodrama. And James was a pale, polite Englishman. She felt suddenly anxious about the two men meeting, though there was no reason. It wasn’t as if Dan could guess at her fantasies. She had done nothing to give herself away. Carefully, she raised the sash window so she could hear their words. The curtains billowed. There was wind in the room with a taste of salt on it. She felt like a child listening in to an adult conversation, a parent and teacher, perhaps, discussing her academic progress. Neither of the men had seen her.
“Have you seen the news?” Dan asked.
James shook his head. “I’ve come off a Latvian container. Hull to sign off, then I drove straight home.”
“You’ve not heard from Emma, then?”
“She’s not much one for the news.”
“Jeanie Long committed suicide. She’d been turned down for parole again. It happened a couple of days ago. They kept it quiet over the weekend.”
James stood, poised to click the fob of his car key to lock up. He was still wearing his uniform and looked dashing in an old-fashioned way, as if he belonged to the time the house was built. The brass buttons on his jacket gleamed dully in the unnatural light. His head was bare. He carried his cap under his arm. Emma was reminded of when she had once had fantasies about him.
“I don’t suppose it’ll make much difference to Em. Not after all this time. I mean it’s not as if she knew Jeanie, not so much. She was very young when all that was going on.”
“They’re going to reopen the Abigail Mantel case,” Dan Greenwood said.
There was a moment of silence. Emma wondered what Dan could know about all that. Had the two men discussed her on other occasions when she hadn’t been watching?
“Because of the suicide?” James asked.
“Because a new witness had just come forward. It seems Jeanie Long couldn’t have murdered that lass.” He paused. Emma watched at him rub his forehead with his broad, stubby fingers. It was as if he was trying to rub away the exhaustion. She wondered why he cared so deeply about a ten-year-old murder case. She could tell that he did care, that he had lain awake worrying about it. But he hadn’t even been living in the village then. He dropped his hands from his face. No traces of clay were left on his skin. He must have washed his hands before leaving the forge. “Shame no one bothered to tell Jeanie, huh?” he said. “Or she might still be alive.”
A sudden gust of wind seemed to blow the men apart. Dan scurried back to the Old Forge to close the doors. The Volvo locked itself with a click and a flash of side lights and James climbed the steps to the front door. Emma moved away from the window and sat on the chair beside the bed. She cradled the baby in one arm and held him to the other breast.
She was still sitting there when James walked in. She’d switched on a small lamp beside her; the rest of the big attic room was a pool of shadow. The baby had finished feeding and his eyes were closed, but she still held him, and he sucked occasionally in his sleep. A dribble of milk ran across his cheek. She had heard James moving around carefully downstairs, and the creaking stairs had prepared her for his entrance. She was composed with a smile on her face. Mother and child. Like one of the Dutch paintings he’d dragged her to see. He’d bought a print for the house, put it in a big gilt frame. She could tell the effect wasn’t lost on him, and he smiled too, looked suddenly wonderfully happy. She wondered why she had become more attracted to Dan Greenwood who could be slovenly in his appearance, and rolled thin little cigarettes from strings of tobacco.
Gently she lifted the baby into his cot. He puckered his mouth as if still looking for the nipple, sighed deeply in disappointment but didn’t wake. Emma fastened the flap in the unflattering maternity bra and pulled her dressing gown around her. The heating was on but in this house there were always draughts. James bent to kiss her, feeling for her mouth with the tip of his tongue, as insistent as the baby wanting food. He Would have liked sex but she knew he wouldn’t push for it. Nothing was so important to him that it warranted a scene, and she’d been unpredictable lately. He wouldn’t risk her ending u ...