Simon Tolkien Final Witness
This book is dedicated to my wife, Tracy.
Without her it could not have been written.
Turning over and over in the sky, length after length of whiteness unwound over the earth and shrouded it. The blizzard was alone on earth and knew no rival.
When he climbed down from the window-sill Yura’s first impulse was to dress, run outside and start doing something. He was afraid that the cabbage patch would be buried so that no one could dig it up, and that his mother, buried in the open field, would helplessly sink deeper and deeper away from him in the ground.
From Doctor Zhivago,
A Personal Note on the Writing of Final Witness
My name is Thomas Robinson. I am sixteen years old.
In a tall nineteenth-century house on a fashionable street in…
It hadn’t always been like this between Greta and Thomas.
Peter took the stairs two at a time but at…
The sound of the clicking cameras and the reporters’ unanswered…
The first thing that Greta was aware of on entering…
Judge Granger allowed his eyes to travel down the two…
One hundred and twenty miles to the east of the…
It had been a long time since Thomas had stayed…
Thomas woke at ten o’clock in a pool of sunshine…
The next morning, Thomas waited at the top of the…
‘And now, with your Lordship’s leave, I will call my…
On Friday the court did not sit until half past…
Greta left the courthouse by a side exit and walked…
‘How was it, honey?’ asked Peter.
They got to Rowston with the dawn. It was the…
After the funeral, Peter stood beneath the portrait of his…
‘The next witness, my Lord, is Matthew Barne.’
Police Constable Hughes arrived in court in full uniform other…
On that same Monday afternoon, the third day of the…
‘Right, Mr Lambert, remember the age of the witness and…
Peter sat in the back of his official car drumming…
Peter paced the rooms after Greta had left, checking off…
Thomas walked over the Albert Bridge and on into Battersea…
The Family Records Office opened at ten o’clock on Thursday…
Afterwards Thomas never knew how they managed to get through…
The man was dressed in a white paper suit. The…
On a bright spring day four years later Thomas drove…
Also by Simon Tolkien: The King of Diamonds
Also by Simon Tolkien: The Inheritance
About the Author
Other Books by Simon Tolkien
About the Publisher
A PERSONAL NOTE ON THE WRITING OF FINAL WITNESS
I never thought I would be a writer. I think in retrospect that I always felt overshadowed by my famous grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, and believed that it would be presumptuous to even think of following in his footsteps. Instead I took the safe course after leaving university and went to law school in London in order to become a solicitor. I didn’t want to go – it felt at the time like I was voluntarily putting on a straitjacket, and for the next few years it really did feel like my horizons had narrowed as I learnt company and land law statutes by rote, and sat in an Islington law office under the senior partner’s watchful eye, conveying houses and flats from one North London owner to another. But then one day – several years after I qualified – I was told to go and represent a man accused of an assault at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court. I lost the case but a new and unexpected world opened in front of me. It was certainly scary – the magistrate was quite fierce and the prosecution lawyer didn’t give an inch, but the courtroom was exciting. The decisions that I made mattered and I had to think fast and on my feet.
Soon afterwards I changed firms and began to work full time in criminal law. Now I was spending a lot of my time in prisons like Brixton and Wandsworth preparing serious cases for trial, but there was something missing. I had to hand my work over to a barrister when the day of trial arrived and I realised with growing frustration that I wanted to present the cases in court myself. Perhaps arrogantly, I believed that I could do just as good a job of breaking down witnesses and convincing juries. I knew it was going to be difficult becoming a barrister – there were few job openings and the tall wrought-iron gates of the Inns of Court seemed an impenetrable barrier when I drove past them along the river. But I made endless applications and in the end I got lucky – I got taken on at 2 Paper Buildings in the Temple and finally realised my dream of representing defendants in the Crown Court.
As a barrister I tried to be ready for all eventualities but of course I never was. The court was a live theatre where the course of a trial could change in a moment – defendants who fervently insisted on their innocence could well be guilty and each side’s witnesses could be lying for any number of reasons. The jurors seemed to be watching your every move, and the judges were far fiercer than the magistrates I had encountered in the lower courts. I enjoyed arguing the law – sometimes the outcome of a trial could depend on the interpretation of a single word in an obscure statute, but most of all I loved the human drama of the courtroom. Masked behind the legal language and procedures lay raw human emotions and terrible events – gruesome crime scene photographs or a witness’s sudden collapse could tear away the veil of formality at a moment’s notice.
I loved my work as a barrister, but as the millennium approached and the Peter Jackson movies of The Lord of the Rings appeared on the horizon I began to feel restless again. Now everyone in the world seemed to be talking about my grandfather, and in sharing his distinctive surname I felt that I needed to forge an identity of my own and become a writer in my own right. I had grown in confidence as a barrister and I no longer felt so inhibited by my grandfather’s achievements. For the previous ten years I had kept a diary, even while remaining convinced that I couldn’t write, and through the thousands of daily entries I had slowly found a voice that I was comfortable with. I wrote my first book in nine months working at weekends and in the evenings after court, and dispatched it full of optimism to innumerable literary agents in the UK and US, only to find that each and every one of them turned it down with varying degrees of politeness. Slowly and reluctantly it began to dawn on me that this first novel wasn’t a masterpiece but rather a necessary learning experience, a way of teaching myself how to write fiction. I found it very hard to start over, but I steeled myself to do so, and one spring day I sat down in my back garden and began work on the novel, which became Final Witness, first published in the UK under the title The Stepmother.
I made an important decision with the book at the outset. I wanted above all to make my readers suspend their disbelief and so I set my book squarely in a world that I knew – the world of criminal law. I decided that I would tell the story of a family torn apart by jealousy, murder and accusation through the medium of a trial in the most extraordinary courthouse that I had ever worked in – London’s Old Bailey, where the judges wear black and the most notorious and important cases are tried.
Final Witness was a success – it was translated into eight languages and has changed my life. In the years that have followed I have given up the law, moved to California and become a full-time writer. Having had two more novels published in the States – The Inheritance, also a courtroom drama, in which a detective races against time to save an innocent man from death by hanging, and The King of Diamonds, in which the same detective faces personal ruin as he accuses his wife’s lover of a double murder – I am now hard at work on a new novel about a fictional assassination attempt against Winston Churchill, and I am delighted that HarperCollins is to publish all three of these books in the coming year. However, Final Witness still holds a special place in my heart. I wrote it with passion and determination and the day of its publication was the proudest moment of my life, reinforcing my belief that the most wonderful and unexpected things can happen to people if they stay the course and remain ready to seize new opportunities as they appear.
Santa Barbara, California June 2011
My name is Thomas Robinson. I am sixteen years old. Today is Thursday, 6th July, and I am making this statement to Detective Sergeant Hearns of the Ipswich Police. I have made two statements already in these proceedings. Everything that I say is true to the best of my knowledge and belief, and I make this statement knowing that, if it is tendered in evidence, I shall be liable to prosecution if I have wilfully stated anything which I know to be false or do not believe to be true.
I live in the House of the Four Winds, which is on the outskirts of the town of Flyte on the coast of Suffolk. The only other person who lives here now is the housekeeper, Jane Martin, who looked after me when I was a boy. My father never comes to visit me any more.
My mother was killed in this house on the 31st May last year. I described everything that happened in my first two statements. Two men came and murdered her. One of them had a ponytail and a scar behind his jaw. I was here too but hidden in a secret place behind the great bookcase at the top of the stairs. It was made for Catholic priests to hide in when the Protestants were searching for them hundreds of years ago. I hid there but my mother didn’t. She couldn’t because there was not enough time. That’s why she died.
The men didn’t see me, but I saw the man with the scar through the little spyhole in the bookcase. He was bending down over my mother, and I saw him when he got to his feet with something gold in his hand.
I remember his face more clearly than any face I’ve ever seen, although I only saw him for a second or two. It’s like my memory took a photograph. Small, dark eyes, thin, bloodless lips and a thick scar that ran down from behind his jaw into his strong bull neck. You could see the scar because he had his black hair in a ponytail.
I’d seen the man before. He was with Greta in London. It was six weeks before he killed my mother. I only saw him from behind, but I know it was him. He had the same ponytail and the scar.
Yesterday evening at about seven o’clock I saw this man again. For a third time.
Jane Martin goes to the town hall in Flyte on Wednesday evenings for the Women’s Institute, and so I was alone in the dining-room eating my dinner. There are windows looking out to the front and towards the lane on the north side of the house. They were all open. I think I was listening to the sea and remembering things like I some times do.
I don’t suppose I would have heard them come if the television had been on, but I felt that something was wrong as soon as I heard the car pull up in the lane. We use the lane to go down to the beach, but nobody else does. It’s too far out of town and I wasn’t expecting any visitors.
They came through the door in the north wall just like they did on the night my mother died. They must have had a key. I saw them coming down the lawn to the front door. They were moving quickly, and there was no time for me to get upstairs to the hiding place behind the books where I’d hidden before. I ran instead to the old black bench, which is beside the door going from the dining room into the hall. It has a seat that opens up and I got in there. There are carvings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on the front, and you can see out through the holes in their eyes. When I was small, I used to climb in there when I played hide-and-seek with my mother and Aunt Jane, but now I didn’t fit very well and I was frightened, very frightened.
The police have installed a panic button in the house, and I pressed that before I got in the bench. It’s connected to Carmouth Police Station and makes them come if I need them.
I was in the bench when they came in through the front door. There were two of them and they used a key. I’m sure of that. The one with the scar was in charge, but he didn’t have his hair in a ponytail this time. He wore it long so I couldn’t see the scar. He called the other man Lonny. They wore leather jackets and jeans, and Lonny was wearing a baseball cap. He was overweight and looked like a boxer. I’d never seen Lonny before. I’d say they were both in their thirties, but they could have been older.
They looked around the rooms downstairs for a while, but they didn’t touch anything and they had gloves on.
Then the one with the scar said, ‘Lonny, watch the fucking road while I go upstairs. The kid’s behind that bookcase where he was before. Greta told me how it works.’
Lonny came and stood really close to where I was, but I couldn’t see him because he was to the side of me, and the man with the scar went upstairs. It was really hard not moving and I tried to hold my breath. That made it worse, and I thought Lonny would hear my heart beating. It sounded so loud to me.
About a minute later the man with the scar was back and I could hear anger in his voice, like he was getting ready to do something really bad. He wasn’t shouting though; it was almost as if he was talking through his teeth. And I can’t remember the exact words he used. All I can do is give the gist of them.
‘Fucking kid’s in here somewhere,’ he said. ‘Look, he was halfway through eating when we got here. He can’t have gone far.’
‘Want me to turn the gaff over, do you, Rosie? I’ll find him for you.’
I could hear the eagerness in Lonny’s voice, like he really wanted to break something.
‘No, I fucking don’t. I don’t want you to touch anything, you moron. Just keep a fucking watch and leave it to me. And don’t call me that again.’
The fat man went to stand by the front door. It was half open.
‘Lonny the loser,’ said the man with the scar. ‘He’s a fucking loser, isn’t he, Thomas?’
I couldn’t see him but he wasn’t far, and I almost answered because he said my name so suddenly and naturally, but I bit my tongue instead.
‘I’m sorry about your mother, Thomas. Really I am. And I promise you that you’ll be fine. Scout’s honour, Tom. Scout’s honour. All we want is to take you on a little holiday. That’s all. Until this trial is over and done with. Somewhere nice and sunny with plenty of foreign girls. Topless beaches. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Tom? So why don’t you be a good boy and come out and we can get to know each other.’
I could hear him moving about opening doors and cupboards all the time he was talking in this mock-friendly voice he’d put on, but now there was a pause. When he spoke again, the hard edge was back in his voice.
‘Too scared to come out, are you, boy? Too fucking scared. Want to play fucking games with me, do you, you little runt?’
He stopped suddenly, his voice cut off by the sound of the siren, and a second later they ran out of the front door. They must have waited in the lane until I buzzed the police in through the front gate and then driven away without anyone seeing them.
I would recognize both these men again, and I would also recognize the voice of the man with the scar. It was soft and he said the bad words slowly, like he enjoyed saying them over and over again. I think he would have killed me if he’d found me. I really think he would.
Like I said before, I have tried my best to give the gist of what the men said when they were in the house, but I can’t remember all their exact words. However, I am sure about the names they called each other and I know that the man with the scar said about the hiding place that ‘Greta told me how it works.’
When I went upstairs with the police officer afterwards, the door in the book case was standing half open.
I confirm that I am still willing to attend court and give evidence for the prosecution in the trial of my stepmother, Greta Robinson.
Signed: Thomas Robinson
Dated: 6th July, 2000.
In a tall nineteenth-century house on a fashionable street in Chelsea, Greta Robinson was getting dressed. She kept very still, with her head slightly to one side as she considered herself in a full-length Victorian mahogany mirror positioned in the middle of the master bedroom. She was wearing a sleeveless black Chanel dress cut just above her knee, a pearl necklace and a thin gold watch on her left wrist. She stood five feet seven inches high in her stockinged feet.
Greta’s short black hair matched her dress. It was swept back above her small ears and so exposed the full width of her cheekbones. There was something faintly Asiatic about her face, and her cool, green eyes accentuated an aura of detachment. However, this was contradicted by her full, red lips, untarnished by lipstick and always slightly parted as if she was about to tell you something that would change your life for ever. Contradiction was the secret of her attraction. The boyishness of her face was in opposition to the fullness of her figure. With an easy motion she stepped out of the dress and looked at her nakedness for a moment with a half-smile. Her full breasts needed no support, and there was no trace of fat around her hips or waist. There had been no child to change her contours.
Turning, she picked up a Christian Dior dress from where it lay draped across the back of a nearby Chippendale chair and put it on. It was black like the other, but it had sleeves, the hemline was longer and the neck was cut higher. Greta’s eyes hardly blinked as they concentrated on the reflected image of their owner. There was much for her to admire, but it was not narcissism that motivated her scrutiny today. Appearance was vital. Her barrister, that wily old fox Miles Lambert, had told her that. She was about to go on stage. The men and women who would be gazing at her from the jury box day after day as she sat in the dock or gave evidence must learn to love her. Her fate would be in their hands.
Their lives were not glamorous. They had no titles, no designer dresses, no fashionable home to go back to after the day in court was over. Nobody noticed what happened to them. She must not repel them. She had been, after all, just like them once upon a time.
She took off the necklace and replaced the gold watch with a simple one on a black leather band that matched her dress. Narrowing her eyes, she bestowed a half-smile of approval upon her reflection.
‘Showtime,’ she whispered to herself softly before she turned and padded over to the bed, where her husband lay sleeping. Looking at her at that moment, you’d have had to say that she was just like a cat. A sleek, well-cared-for white cat with a pair of glittering green eyes.
He looked good for his age, she thought. A full head of black hair with not too many silver flecks, a strong and wiry body; its outlines were clear and firm where he had wound himself up in his sheet during the long hot night. He had been sleeping badly for some time now, and she had often woken at three or four to see him standing by the open window gazing out into the night as if he could find some answer to his difficulties in the empty street below.
There had always been an inflexibility about the man, even before he was overtaken by disaster. He gave the impression of holding his features firm by an effort of will. It was apparent in the set of his jaw and the rigidity of his head upon his neck, but in the last year the lines on his forehead had become deeper and more pronounced. Recently he had formed a habit of passing his thumb and index finger along these furrows as if this was the only way of resting his piercing blue eyes, which never seemed to close. Except in his sleep, of course, like now, with little more than three hours to go before his second wife would go on trial for conspiring to murder his first.
Greta sat on the side of the bed and gently stroked her husband’s cheek with the tip of her finger, feeling the bristly facial hair that had grown there during the night above the hard jawbone. ‘You don’t know how to fight, do you, darling?’ she whispered. ‘You’re pretty good at conquering but not so good at fighting. That’s the trouble. You can’t step back and defend yourself; you just keep on coming until you’ve got nothing left. Nothing left at all.’
‘What’s left?’ asked Sir Peter Robinson, looking up at his wife in the confusion of his first awakening. ‘What is it, Greta?’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all, darling. Except that it’s nearly half past seven and it’s time to get up and face the jury.’
‘Oh, Christ. Jesus Christ and all his saints. Christ.’
‘I agree we could do with some help, but perhaps that’s asking too much. Come on, Peter. I need you today. You know that.’
Sir Peter unclenched his fists with a visible resolve and got out of bed. Greta stood and stepped back into the middle of the room. She put her hands on her hips.
‘How do I look?’
‘Ravishing. Like, like …’
‘Like Audrey Hepburn in that movie. What was it called?’
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Well, let’s hope Judge Stranger likes old movies.’
‘Granger, Greta. Granger.’
Two hours later, John the chauffeur was driving Sir Peter and his wife along the side of the River Thames in the black Daimler with the darkened windows, which insulated the minister of defence so successfully from the population that had re-elected his party into government three years before. Two short years ago, Sir Peter had been riding high with a beautiful wife in the country and a personal assistant named Greta Grahame, whose bright efficiency had made him the envy of all his colleagues in the Palace of Westminster. But today the Daimler did not stop at the House of Commons or at Sir Peter’s offices in Whitehall but purred on towards an unfamiliar destination under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, built on the foundations of Newgate Prison. Less than fifty years ago, men and women had been sent by the Queen’s judges to their deaths after being convicted of crimes just like that for which Greta was about to be tried.
At the entrance to the courthouse the crews of photographers and journalists, with their long insidious lenses and soft woolly microphones, were waiting for Sir Peter and his wife to arrive.
Against all the odds, the prime minister’s support had kept Peter in his position for far longer than any of his friends or enemies had ever expected. But Peter knew that he could not continue to defy political gravity if the trial didn’t go Greta’s way. Everything he had achieved was hanging in the balance, threatened with imminent destruction. And who did he have to thank for this state of affairs? His son, Thomas. His own flesh and blood.
Thomas, who had had everything he ever wanted and was now repaying him with this. Thomas, the little bastard, who was so determined to bring everyone down because of what had happened to his mother. God knows, he wasn’t the only person who’d been hurt.
Sir Peter felt a surge of rage against his only child run through his body like electricity, and instinctively he gripped his wife’s arm.
‘God, Greta, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be. It’s not your fault,’ she replied, understanding that it was everything, the whole sorry mess that he was referring to and not the sudden grip, which had left a red mark on her slender wrist.
‘Fucking little rat. That’s what he is. A rat.’
Greta did not respond. Instead she turned to look out of the window. This was not a time to let their feelings show. The car had turned into the Old Bailey and was encircled by the swarm of reporters as it slowed to a crawl over the last 150 metres of its journey. She thought they looked just like people caught in a flash flood, holding their cameras high above their heads as if they were the only belongings they could hope to save from the rushing waters.
But that was wrong, of course. She was the one at risk of drowning. And as her husband had just said: all because of that boy. The ‘fucking little rat’. Her stepson, Thomas.
It hadn’t always been like this between Greta and Thomas. Three years ago everything had been fine, or as near to fine as it could be between them. Thomas was just thirteen, and she’d just started working as Peter Robinson’s personal assistant.
He was as dreamy a boy as she’d ever met. He had fair hair the colour of summer straw, which he wore long so that it fell forward over his forehead. He had already developed a habit of brushing his hair away from his eyes with the back of his hand before he spoke, a habit that would stay with him all his life. It was part of a natural diffidence, which led him to speak in a tone of uncertainty even when he was sure of what he wanted to say. Yet underneath he had already developed the qualities of stubbornness and determination that were to become so evident after his mother’s death.
He had inherited his mother’s liquid blue eyes and delicate mouth, which endowed his face with an attractive half-feminine quality. He also had her fine hands and long, tapering fingers, suggesting a future as an artist or a musician. Not a future that his practical-minded father wanted for his only son.
Peter had had such grand hopes for Thomas when he was small. On the boy’s sixth birthday Peter got down the model aeroplanes that he and his father had made together when he was Thomas’s age. He arranged them lovingly in squadrons on the nursery floor and told his son their names. But Thomas only pretended to be interested. As soon as his father had left the room, he picked up the book of fairy stories that he had been reading and left the Hurricanes and Spitfires to gather dust.
Two weeks later the dog pursued a ball into the corner and broke the model of the bomber that his grandfather had flown in over Germany fifty years before. That evening Peter packed all the model aeroplanes away in a box and took them with him when he went back to London. Already his political career was keeping him away from home during the week, and Anne would not hear of selling the House of the Four Winds. Peter felt it was not him but the house that his wife really cared about. Her house and her son.
Peter could sense the expectation in his son when he was about to leave at the end of each weekend. He grew to hate the way the boy seemed to cower when he spoke to him. There was no reason for it. Peter had done nothing to deserve such treatment. He had struggled all his life to make his own father proud of him, and there was not a day that he did not thank providence for letting the old man live just long enough to know that his son had become the minister of defence. But Thomas didn’t care what his father thought. He had no pride in his father’s family, no interest in his father’s achievements. Thomas’s heart and mind belonged to his mother and to the house in which her family, the Sackvilles, had lived for generations.
As the years passed, father and son moved ever further apart. Thomas loved stories – he couldn’t get enough of them – but Peter never read fiction. It was almost a matter of principle. His mind was fixed on the here and now, and he felt nothing but irritation on rainy days when Thomas lay reading for hours at a time. The boy would stretch himself out on the window seat in the drawing room with cushions piled high under his head so that he could see over the dunes to the North Sea, where great waves crashed upon the shingle beach. He would imagine the postman’s knock on the back door as signalling the arrival of Long John Silver and his pirates come to claim their treasure from Billy Bones. Or when he was out walking the dog in the evening he would be looking for Heathcliff striding across the moors in search of a bloody revenge.
Thomas knew where all the wrecks were to be found off the coast. He had their locations marked with black crosses on a map on his bedroom wall, and he would swear on a stack of Bibles that he had heard the church bells of the lost city of Dunwich tolling bleakly in the small hours from their resting place beneath the waves. But such legends had no meaning for Thomas’s father, who saw their only value as keeping up the local tourist trade.
Within only a few months of being hired, Greta made herself indispensable to Sir Peter and began to accompany him on his weekend visits to his family at the House of the Four Winds. For at least half of the time they would be working in either Sir Peter’s study or the drawing room, with its french windows leading on to the garden where Anne spent so much of her time planting and pruning and tending the rose walks for which the House of the Four Winds had become so famous in recent years. And Thomas would be out there too, wheeling a barrow or unravelling a hose. Always helping his mother. The two were inseparable.
Greta made a great effort to get on with Thomas, and by and large she succeeded, for a time at least. She was a good listener when she wanted to be, and she read as much as she could about Suffolk and its history so that Thomas began to come to her when he needed information for the stories he was always writing and reading to his mother in the evenings. Anne raised her eyebrows and laughed in a disconcerting way when she heard of the assistance being given to her son by her husband’s PA, but otherwise she said nothing. Greta, however, felt an obscure disapproval emanating from Lady Robinson, a sense that the mistress of the house had found her out but chose to let events take their course without interference.
‘I know who you are and you’re not one of us,’ she seemed to be saying. ‘And you never will be one of us, however hard you try.’
And so Greta cultivated the boy but remained at a distance from the mother. Sometimes when Anne had one of her recurring migraines and lay upstairs silent with a white flannel over her head and her white bedroom curtains drawn against the sun, Thomas and Greta would walk on the beach and look for amber. Greta knew all about amber because she’d read a book about it.
Sometimes Peter and Anne would be invited out for lunch or dinner at the house of another well-connected family, and Greta, Thomas and Mrs Martin, the housekeeper, would remain behind. It was on one such Saturday that the first trouble happened. It was the birthday of Mrs Martin’s sister, and the housekeeper was taking Thomas with her to the party in Woodbridge. Thomas enjoyed these visits. Mrs Martin’s brother-in-law owned a seagoing boat, and Thomas had already extracted a promise that he would be taken out night fishing when he reached the golden age of fifteen, only five months away.
By midday Greta was alone in the House of the Four Winds. She finished typing out the corrections to a speech that Sir Peter was to give at the party conference the following week and then went out into the front hall. There was not a sound anywhere except the murmur of the sea as she climbed the stairs to Lady Robinson’s bedroom and closed the door softly behind her.
Greta stood in the centre of the room watching herself in the freestanding mirror as she slowly and deliberately undressed. It was the third time that she had done this, and each time it gave her greater pleasure. Now she carefully opened the top drawer of an antique chest and took out three or four pairs of Anne’s silk underwear, setting to one side a lavender sachet embroidered by the lady of the house. One by one she tried them on, pressing the white material against her body until at last she settled on the sheerest, thinnest pair of all and turned her attention to the closets containing Anne’s dresses.
Her green eyes sparkled as she passed the material between her fingers and raised it to her nose. As she breathed in deeply, it was almost as if she was holding Anne close to herself. Turning, she laid out five of the dresses across the wide bed and slowly tried each one on. Her erect nipples visible through the fabric of each dress and the faraway look in her half-closed eyes told their own story. She was too absorbed to notice the sound of the front door opening down below, and she didn’t hear the footsteps on the stairs as she pulled a lemon silk brocade dress over her head. She only knew that she was not alone when she looked in the mirror to admire herself and saw Thomas standing in the open doorway behind her.
One of Greta’s greatest qualities as a personal assistant was her calmness under pressure.
‘It’s almost unnatural,’ Sir Peter had told his wife only the previous weekend when they were lying in the bed across which Anne’s evening dresses were now draped. ‘It’s like there are all these boats being tossed about in some terrible tempest out there in the bay and she’s in her own boat in the centre and the storm’s having no effect on her at all. She’s one in a million, Annie. I bet that some of the other MPs would pay a king’s ransom to get hold of her, but then, she’s completely loyal. That’s another of her qualities.’
‘Yes, I see what you mean,’ Anne had replied. ‘It is unnatural. She must have worked very hard to become what she is.’
Now, at this moment of crisis, Greta remained just as calm as her employer would have expected. Only a slight shudder indicated her awareness of the boy’s presence. Thomas, however, stood rooted to the spot and his cheeks flushed crimson. His eyes were fixed on the reflection of Greta’s full breasts in the mirror, with the rose-red nipples clearly visible as the buttons on the front of the yellow dress remained undone right down to the waist.
Greta looked evenly at the boy’s reflection in the mirror but did nothing to hide herself.
‘You’re looking at my breasts, Thomas.’ There was a purring note in Greta’s voice that the boy had not heard before.
‘No, no. I’m not.’
‘All right. You’re not.’ Greta laughed, pulling the front of the dress together. ‘My mistake.’
‘You’re wearing my mother’s dress. The one she said was like spring daffodils. And you’re in her room. Why are you in her room?’
‘Well, Thomas. If you sit down a moment, I’ll try to explain it to you.’
Greta picked up two of the dresses from the bed and gestured for the boy to sit in the space that she had cleared, but he didn’t move from the doorway.
‘You shouldn’t be in here. You don’t belong in here.’
‘No, I don’t. You’re quite right. But Thomas, try to understand. I don’t have beautiful clothes like your mother does. I can’t afford them like she can. And I didn’t think it would do any harm if I tried them on just to see what I looked like. It doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?’
‘It’s not right. They belong to my mother.’
‘Yes, they do. But I wasn’t going to steal them. I wouldn’t be trying them on in here if I was going to do that, now would I?’
‘She wouldn’t want you to have them on. She wouldn’t want you in here. I know she wouldn’t.’
‘All right, perhaps she wouldn’t,’ said Greta, changing tack. ‘Perhaps she would be upset if she knew. And then she might get one of those horrible migraines. No one wants that, do they, Thomas?’
Thomas did not reply. His lower lip trembled and he looked like he was going to cry. Greta pressed home her advantage.
‘Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t tell her? Then no one would get hurt. What do you say? It can be our secret. Just you and me.’
Greta put out her right hand towards the boy, thus allowing the yellow dress to fall open again, exposing her breasts.
Thomas took a step backwards, but Greta reached over and took his hand, pulling him toward her.
In the years that followed, Thomas always recalled this moment as one of the most significant of his childhood. It was a turning point of sorts. An end and a beginning. Certainly his memory chose to preserve the scene in extraordinary detail. Closing his eyes as an adult, he could recall his mother’s room with the sea breeze coming in through the half-drawn curtains; the sun shining on the rich mahogany chest with its top drawer open; the mass of clashing colours on the bed where Greta had laid out his mother’s clothes; the bright red sleeve of a gown that his mother had worn at Christmas cutting across the white of her pillow like a wound. And closer to him was his father’s personal assistant: raven hair and green cat’s eyes, yellow dress and full, exposed breasts with red nipples, which gave him a sense of urgency he’d never felt before. He was repelled and attracted all at the same time. And the mirror had been between them. They had seen each other in the mirror before she turned and began saying things. Things about his mother that he didn’t want to hear.
She took his hand, and he felt sure that she was going to place it on her breast. The breast that he could now see again so full and close. And he knew that that would make a secret between them that he could never break.
Thomas dragged his eyes away from Greta and focused on the first thing he saw. It was the white flannel on the edge of the sink in the corner of the room, the one his mother used to cover her eyes when she had her migraines.
Thomas wrenched his hand away from Greta, and the force of his action took him out into the hall.
‘No,’ he said, and all his being was concentrated in the one word.
Greta flinched, but whether from the hurt to her hand or the force of his response, Thomas didn’t know. The shudder was certainly gone from her face as soon as it had appeared, and she laughed softly.
‘I was only shaking your hand, Thomas. You certainly have got an active imagination. Your father’s right about that.’
There was no time for Thomas to reply. At the bottom of the stairs the front door was closing behind Mrs Martin.
‘What are you doing up there, Thomas? I told you the presents were in the kitchen. Come on or we’ll be late.’
Greta and the boy exchanged one final look, and then he turned and was gone.
If that bloody old housekeeper hadn’t forgotten her sister’s stupid presents and sent the boy back for them, I might not be here today, Greta thought to herself as she allowed her husband and the chauffeur to escort her to the courthouse door.
Thomas had waited until the weekend was over to tell his mother. And Greta never had to discuss the incident with Lady Robinson. It was Sir Peter who raised the subject with his personal assistant midway through the following week, and he did so in an uncomfortable, almost apologetic way that made her feel slightly sick. She, of course, had had time to prepare her response.
All morning her employer had been coming in and out of her room on one pretext or other. The ground floor of the London house had been converted into offices the year before, and Greta worked in the front room. A printer and fax machine stood on an elegant oak sideboard, while Greta sat at a circular walnut table in the centre of the room amid computer screens and telephone lines. Her employer circled the table nervously, clearing his throat.
‘What is it, Peter? Something’s bothering you.’
‘Yes, it is. It’s something I need to talk to you about, but it’s damned difficult to know how to go about it. It’s about Anne and that boy, Thomas. God, I wish I could understand him better.’
‘What about Thomas?’
‘Well, he’s told Anne something and she’s told me. And, well, it’s about you. She said I ought to talk to you about it.’
‘It’s about your wife’s dresses, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, that’s it. Thomas says you were trying them on. Last weekend when we were out. I told Anne that the boy’s made it up. Trying to cause trouble for everyone. He needs to be sent away to a good school. That’s what he needs. But Anne won’t have it.’
‘I did try them on. I shouldn’t have done but I did.’
‘Yes. Because they’re beautiful and I wanted to see what I looked like in them. I haven’t ever had clothes like that, Peter. I’m not a rich girl, you know that.’
‘But couldn’t you have gone to a shop? A boutique or something?’
‘I suppose so. I do sometimes. It’s just they never leave you alone. It’s like they know who’s got the money and who hasn’t.’
Sir Peter was defenceless against this turning of the tables. His dependence on Greta had increased with each month that had passed since she first came to work for him, and it was in his nature to be impressed by straightforwardness of all kinds. Greta’s feminine attractions also had a more powerful effect upon him than he cared to admit.
‘Well, you shouldn’t have done it, but at least you’ve been honest enough to admit it, which is more than most people would have done. It’s my fault in a way. I probably don’t pay you enough.’
And so Greta succeeded in turning the disaster with the dresses to her own advantage. Sir Peter spent more time with her after the incident and began taking her out for working dinners when they were in London during the week. They would often be seen at The Ivy or Le Pont de la Tour with their heads close together in animated conversation. And not only that: Sir Peter raised her salary by fifty per cent, so that now she could afford designer dresses of her own to wear when she went out with her employer. As autumn faded into winter Sir Peter commented to himself that Greta looked prettier every day. And there was nothing wrong in having a pretty PA. He’d done nothing to be ashamed of.
Of course the society tittle-tattles and gossip writers didn’t see it that way, and stories began to appear in the tabloids and magazines, although they never made the headlines or even the front pages. The height of the publicity was a black-and-white photograph on page 21 of the Daily Mail of the two of them leaving a restaurant together under a caption that read ‘Minister Out on the Town’.
No word of all this reached the House of the Four Winds. Flyte might as well have been a thousand miles from London. Anne didn’t read tabloids or magazines, and none of her friends had the bad taste to raise the subject of Sir Peter’s personal assistant in her presence. She visited London less and less often, preferring to concentrate on her garden and her son.
For his part Sir Peter no longer visited the House of the Four Winds every weekend as he had done in the past. He went there once or twice a month while Parliament was in session, and Greta continued to accompany him on these periodic visits as his government duties made non-working weekends an impossibility.
The atmosphere in the house was strained, but Sir Peter refused to admit it. Anne was aloof, taking long walks with her son or shutting herself up in her room when Greta was there. The incident with the clothing lay between them unresolved. Anne was embarrassed, and Greta interpreted her silence as condemnation.
A conversation at the dinner table one evening the following January brought matters to a head. Greta sat equidistant between Sir Peter and his wife at the long dining-room table. The central heating had overcompensated for the inclement weather, and the room was hot and stuffy. The three diners were struggling to make their way through a dessert of cherry pie and custard.
Anne had been talking about a rich northern industrialist called Corbett who had bought himself a stretch of coastline on the other side of Flyte. He had made a fortune manufacturing paper clips and was now building himself a mansion overlooking the sea. More than one of the Robinsons’ neighbours had remarked in recent months on the similarity of this edifice to the House of the Four Winds, although it was clearly on a much larger scale.
‘I expect they’ll be sending their butler round to take photographs of the garden soon,’ said Anne. ‘Watch out for men in morning coats with stepladders and telephoto lenses,’ said Anne.
‘Oh, Anne, I’m sure it won’t come to that,’ said Sir Peter. ‘You shouldn’t be so sensitive.’ He had become increasingly impatient with his wife’s preoccupation with this subject during dinner.
‘I’m not being sensitive. It’s the principle of the thing that’s distasteful. People should be what they are. They shouldn’t try to wear other people’s things.’
‘Especially when they come from the north,’ said Greta, suddenly joining in the conversation.
‘No, wherever they come from.’ Anne stopped, realizing what she’d said. ‘Oh dear, I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I meant at all.’
‘It’s not your fault. You’re a lady and I’m not. People need to know their place. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?’
‘No. No, I’m not. I’m saying that people should be themselves and not try to be other people. That’s got nothing to do with knowing your place.’
‘Well, if I’d stayed being myself, I’d probably have ended up working in a paper-clip factory,’ said Greta in a rush.
‘My dear, I don’t know why you’re getting so agitated. I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about this man, Corbett. You shouldn’t be so quick to take offence.’
Greta said nothing but put her napkin up over her face. A series of visible shudders passed through her upper body, bearing witness to her distress.
Part of Anne wanted to get up and put an arm around the girl. She was clearly upset, and it was rare for her to lose her self-control. But another, stronger part felt repelled. Greta seemed to cause nothing but trouble. It was Greta, after all, who had gone into her bedroom as a trespasser and put on her clothes like they were her own. It was Greta who had got Thomas so upset. Greta was the one who should be apologizing.
‘Look, who’s the injured party here?’ said Anne, unconsciously transferring her attention to her husband, who was moving about uncomfortably in his seat at the other end of the table. ‘I didn’t go and try on her clothes, did I?’
‘No, of course you didn’t. She’s got none for you to try on. That’s the whole bloody point, can’t you see that?’
‘Yes, I do see that,’ said Anne, getting up from the table. ‘I see it only too well. I’m going to bed. I think I’ve got a headache coming on. This home isn’t London, you know, Peter. I’m not here to have political debates with you. Greta may be, but I’m not.’
Anne closed the door before Sir Peter could reply. Greta’s face remained hidden by her napkin, but her shaking shoulders showed that she was in even greater distress than before. Sir Peter wound his own napkin into a ball and tried unsuccessfully to think of something to say to comfort her.
Eventually he got awkwardly to his feet and went over to stand behind Greta’s chair. He shifted his weight irresolutely from one foot to the other and then put out his hand tentatively so that it came to rest on her shoulder.
‘Please, Greta. Don’t cry. She didn’t mean it. She just got upset, that’s all.’
A few strands of black hair had fallen across Greta’s face as she bent over the table, and Sir Peter pulled them gently back over her ear, stroking the side of her head as he did so.
Greta looked up at him smiling through her tears, and he found himself staring down at the swell of her breasts beneath her simple white blouse. He felt a surge of sexual excitement.
‘Thank you, Peter. I’m sorry I was so silly. You’re so—’
But Greta didn’t finish her sentence. Sir Peter pulled himself away quite violently and stood half swaying by the wall. Across the room a portrait of his wife’s father looked down at him with an expression of aristocratic contempt. It was a bad picture but a good likeness, painted in an era when family portraits were no longer in fashion. The artist had caught the aristocratic curl of his sitter’s lip and the distant look in the half-closed eyes. Sir Peter remembered the old man’s cool disapproval when he had come asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
‘Going places, Anne says. But which ones? That’s the question, isn’t it, young man? Which ones?’
‘All right, you old bastard,’ Sir Peter whispered to himself as he stared up at the portrait. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’
‘What did you say, Peter?’ asked Greta.
‘Nothing. Nothing except that you’re not the only one who’s felt out of place in this damned house. I’ve got to go now. See if Anne’s all right. You understand.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Greta, wiping her eyes with her napkin.
Peter took the stairs two at a time but at the top he found his bedroom door locked. There was no reply when he knocked and called out his wife’s name.
After a minute or two he walked despondently down the corridor to an infrequently used spare bedroom. The still heavy air of the evening persisted into the night, making it hard to sleep. Peter stripped himself naked, but still he felt his skin prickling and his heart beating too fast.
Getting up, he opened the old leaded windows as wide as they would go. Outside, the six thin yew trees at the front of the house stood completely still. Black clouds scurried across the sky, shutting out the pale crescent moon, and in the north over towards Carmouth jagged white lines of lightning rent the sky and were gone. There was a distant sound of thunder but no rain.
Peter remembered staying in this room when he and Anne had come to visit her father before their marriage. He’d lain on this bed listening to the sea, feeling the same anxiety mixed up with sexual frustration. Down the hall Sir Edward had lain snoring. Anne was in her room across the corridor, shut in with the stuffed bears and embroidery of her childhood.
‘Got everything you want, young man?’ had been his host’s last words before they went upstairs. Said in a tone that implied he wasn’t going to get anything more – like Sir Edward’s daughter, for instance. But he had. And now the old bastard was under the sod up in Flyte churchyard and Peter was the knight of the house.
He was a knight because of what he’d done in his life. Not like his father-in-law, who had inherited his title. Peter’s father had fought to defend his country and had instilled in his son a belief in duty and service. But all this counted for nothing with Sir Edward. The old man had lost no opportunity to make his feelings known. Peter wasn’t the right class. He was a self-made man, a nouveau riche. Not what Sir Edward had in mind for his aristocratic daughter.
But perhaps the old man had been right to oppose the marriage, thought Peter bitterly. He and Anne had less and less in common now. Before there had been her beauty and his determination to win her against the odds, to make her choose him over her father. Peter was always most fulfilled when he was overcoming obstacles.
He had thought that he would be delivering her from a tyrannical father and a boring rural life, but as it turned out, that was the life she really wanted. She had an inner contentment entirely foreign to her husband. She was happiest growing her roses and listening to her son’s stories. Far away from London and everything that mattered to Peter.
Thomas, of course, had driven his parents even further apart. He had made his father redundant, turned him into a visitor in the house, and, in the last year, Peter had come to rely more and more upon his personal assistant for companionship.
The sound of the thunder came closer, answered by the crash of the waves on the shore. Outside in the corridor Peter heard footsteps. He pulled on his shirt and opened the door just in time to see a figure standing outside the master bedroom at the end of the corridor. The next moment his wife stood framed in the suddenly illuminated doorway before she reached forward and pulled Thomas inside.
His son hated thunder and lightning, and Peter had been woken many times on stormy nights to find Thomas in the bed curled up on the far side of his wife.
‘He’s got to learn to cope with it on his own, Annie,’ Peter would say. ‘He’ll be frightened all his life if you carry on mollycoddling him like this.’ But his wife would not listen.
‘You don’t understand, Peter. You haven’t got an imagination like Thomas or I have. I remember how frightened I was by the Suffolk storms when I was young. They made me think that the world was going to end.’
The door of the master bedroom closed, and the corridor was plunged back into semi-darkness. Peter felt a sudden stab of jealousy. His son was now lying in the bed where he should be. They made him feel like an intruder in his own home. They didn’t want him and they didn’t understand him. Only Greta did.
Peter remembered their first meeting. It had been at the time of the Somali crisis in late 1996, when the prime minister had sent in the SAS to rescue the British diplomats held hostage there. The mission had been a disaster. Most of the hostages were killed, and so were several of their would-be rescuers. The newspapers called it a national humiliation, and everyone blamed the prime minister. People said that the hostages would still have been alive if he hadn’t been so impetuous. He should have tried harder to negotiate their release. But Peter didn’t agree. He’d been to Somalia. The revolutionary government there had no concept of negotiation or compromise. There had been no alternative but to act.
In the aftermath, however, Peter had felt unable to do anything himself. He was paralysed by the rumour and division swirling all around him. Every day the media talked openly about the prime minister as yesterday’s man and speculated about his successor. Senior ministers smelled blood and jockeyed for position. The government’s approval rating was the lowest in ten years.
Then one day everything had changed. Peter had agreed to be interviewed by a local newspaper about a hospital closure in his Midlands constituency, and a young reporter called Greta Grahame turned up to ask him questions. She was pretty and enthusiastic, and Peter took her out to lunch as a way of distracting himself from the political mess down in London. But the wine loosened his tongue, and he ended up telling her everything he thought and felt about the crisis. She listened while he drank the best part of two bottles of wine, and then she told him what to do. Her advice was so simple, but it hit him like a bombshell. ‘Speak out,’ she said. ‘Do what you think is right. Don’t worry about other people or the future. If the prime minister was right, then he deserves your support.’
Later in the afternoon, Greta interviewed Peter about the crisis, and by the end of the week the story had been taken up by all the networks. It was as if everyone had been waiting for someone to say what Peter had said. The political tide turned, and in the reshuffle that followed the prime minister’s election victory three months later, Peter was made minister of defence. The conduct of future military rescue missions would be his responsibility.
Peter did not forget the young reporter in his moment of triumph. He gave her a job as his personal assistant, and he had never for a moment regretted his decision. She was always there for him. Not like Anne, who found politics boring and got a migraine every time she left Suffolk. Greta stayed up with him into the small hours drafting and typing his speeches. She encouraged him through the bad times, and she shared in his successes. Greta. Where would he be without her?
Peter thought of his personal assistant sleeping now on the other side of the corridor. It was extraordinary how she’d carried on coming down here even after what had happened with the dresses, particularly as Anne hadn’t made it any easier for her. She came because he needed her. And Anne wouldn’t even come to London for the opening of Parliament. She was too busy with her garden. With all those bloody roses.
Peter turned out the light, leaving the windows open in the vain hope of a breath of wind to circulate the fetid air in the room. Outside the thunder persisted but there was still no rain. He twisted and turned, and the wet heat made the sheet cling to his body.
Around two o’clock he fell into an uneasy sleep. He dreamed that he was standing naked at the foot of his own bed here in the House of the Four Winds. The room was dark, but he could see by the light of the full moon, which hung outside the high open windows like a witness. In front of him a woman was lying face down on the soft white eiderdown. She was wearing a white silk skirt with the hemline ending just below the knee. It was the same skirt that his wife had worn at dinner that evening. Above the waist the woman was naked, and she lay with her invisible face and forearms supported on a mass of white pillows. He couldn’t tell if she was sleeping, and so he leaned forward and slowly traced two lines with the tips of his fingers down the back of the woman’s calves, feeling the strength of the tightening muscles underneath.
As he reached her ankles, she drew herself forward, away from him, and raised her body up into a kneeling position. The skirt gathered up on to her thighs, and Peter followed her, kneeling at the end of the bed. Reaching out with both hands, he took hold of the skirt and folded it up on to the woman’s waist, exposing her perfectly shaped buttocks.
And then it was as if time and movement were suspended. He knelt above the woman’s body with every fibre of his being willing himself forward to take hold of her. Yet nothing could happen unless she gave some indication of her consent.
It was a tiny wisp of wind that broke the moment. Some stealthy movement in the still air elicited a scarcely audible sigh from the naked figure beneath him. She pulled her knees forward and apart, raising herself up on her forearms so that Peter could see the swell of her breasts hanging down on to the white eiderdown. Everything was revealed to him, and with a cry of fulfilment he thrust himself forward and deep into the very centre of the woman beneath him.
As he pulled himself back from the brink of orgasm and prepared to enter her again, Peter called out the name of this woman that he loved so much.
‘Anne. Anne. I love you, Anne.’
But the woman, who half turned her head toward him out of a mass of white pillows, did not have his wife’s blue eyes. These eyes were green. Glittering green. How could he have mistaken that raven hair for the brown tresses of his wife? It was Greta beneath him on the bed. And someone was beating on the door trying to get in.
Peter woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in the strange bed with his body covered in sweat. It was not a knocking on the door that had woken him but the crash of the old leaded window against the casement. It had broken free of its catch and was swinging madly to and fro in the great storm that had burst over the house while he was asleep. A grey light showed that it was past dawn, although no sunlight penetrated the cloudy sky.
As Peter watched, the window crashed against the casement again and two of its leaded panes broke. The sill was awash with rain and shattered glass. Peter leapt from the bed and tugged at the window, forcing it back on to its latch but catching his elbow as he did so on a shard of broken glass. Blood dripped on his feet and on the apple-green carpet. Looking down, Peter saw that his penis was only now beginning to wilt. He stood still for a moment regarding himself with disgust tinged with a sense of ridicule before he crossed to the bed and wrapped the sweat-soaked pillowcase around his arm.
Outside, the previously statuesque yews were being blown in all directions by a screaming wind while the great rain beat against the House of the Four Winds with an unappeased fury. Beyond the yews the black gates stood open and Peter could see a small figure struggling up the drive toward the house.
Peter pulled on his clothes as fast as he could and ran down the wide curving staircase to the front door. Dropping the pillowcase tourniquet from his arm, he turned the key in the lock and opened the door. Mrs Marsh from the cottage across the road was dimly recognizable beneath her raincoat as she struggled to make her way up the steep steps to the yew tree terrace. Sir Peter hurried forward and pulled her into the house.
‘What is it, Grace? You look white as a sheet. Has something happened?’
‘No, it’s all right, Sir Peter. It’s just that my Christopher’s a volunteer on the lifeboat and they got called out just before midnight. He usually keeps in touch with the shore by radio when the boat’s out and so I can phone them to see that everything’s all right, but our telephone line’s gone down and so—’
‘You can’t. And so you need to use ours. Come into my study, and you can take your coat off.’
‘Thank you, Sir Peter. I’m sorry if I got you up.’
‘You didn’t. The storm woke me. Broke the window upstairs. It seems like quite a gale.’
‘It is. I haven’t felt the wind like this since the storm we had here ten years ago. I just hope that Christopher’s all right. I don’t know what I’d do—’
‘It’s all right, Grace, everything’s going to be fine,’ said Sir Peter with a conviction that he did not feel as he picked up the telephone on his desk. He had heard the underlying panic in her voice.
‘Damn. It’s dead too. Look, Grace, I’ll drive you down to the harbour. It won’t take a moment.’
Mrs Marsh weakly protested, but Peter remained firm. There was nothing in fact that he wanted more at that moment than to get out of the house and put a space between himself and the events of the night. The trouble with Anne; the debauchery of his dream; the blood on the floor.
‘There, I’ve written a note telling Anne where we’ve gone. I’ll just get my coat, Grace. I won’t be a minute.’
When Peter came back, he found that Grace Marsh was no longer alone. Greta had put a coat over her nightdress and was sitting beside Grace on the old black bench in the hall, the one with the four evangelists on the front. As she turned towards him with a look of concern Peter felt himself plunged back into his dream and it was only with a supreme effort of will that he fought down a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to take her in his arms.
‘What? You’re up as well.’ Peter blurted out the first words that came into his head.
‘Yes, I want to come too. Please let me.’ Greta’s green eyes glittered.
‘All right. But mind yourself on the steps. That wind’ll blow you into the road if you let it. Grace, you hold on to me. I’ll have you down at the harbour in less than ten minutes.’
Peter held the steering wheel of the Range Rover almost in his lap as he craned forward on to the dashboard in order to pick out the turns in the narrow road that wound down to the harbour. He was conscious of Grace Marsh straining forward just like him, as if willing herself closer to the harbour and news of her husband.
Going out to sea now would be like signing one’s own death warrant, thought Peter to himself as he glanced out at the foaming mass of furious high waves beating against the shore.
‘I’m sure everything’s going to be all right,’ he said, summoning as much conviction into his voice as he could. ‘Everyone on the lifeboat is very experienced.’ The harbour came into view through a sloping wall of rain.
‘I know. Thank you, Sir Peter. It’s just that there’s not been a storm like this one since 1989. And that was when …’
Grace’s voice trailed away. Peter knew why. The storm of ’89 had not only uprooted the great chestnut tree in Flyte churchyard planted in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee; it had also ended the lives of two Flyte fathers swept from the deck of the lifeboat as it went to rescue a sinking fishing boat out in the bay.
In the back of the Range Rover Greta gazed out at the sea. She felt electrified by the storm. Never had she seen such violence. She heard nothing of the anxious conversation being carried on in the front.
Peter parked beside the Harbour Inn and walked down the unmade road to the harbour master’s hut in search of news.
‘They had them on the radio about half an hour ago,’ he told the others when he returned to the car. ‘They’re expected back at the harbour mouth in the next ten minutes.’
‘But what about my Christopher?’ asked Grace Marsh. ‘Did they say anything about him?’
Peter sensed the rising hysteria in her quavering voice and tried to inject a note of reassurance into his answer.
‘Nothing one way or the other, Grace. But that’s good, I think. They’d have said something on the radio if anything was wrong.’
Peter did not mention the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding that he’d found in the hut. More than a dozen men in there, and no one saying anything except in brief answer to his enquiry. The radio communication that he had told Grace about had been cut off halfway through.
The minutes passed without any sign of the lifeboat, and the storm began to die away. On the opposite bank of the Flyte River the landscape took shape. Tethered boats rode high on the churning water and, beyond the harbour, fields of waving reeds and grasses rose toward Coyne church. Several trees stood twisted at crazy angles.
Like men broken on the rack, thought Greta, now standing beside Peter and Grace Marsh at the back of a small group at the water’s edge. Everyone had their eyes fastened on the mouth of the harbour where the Flyte River begins and the North Sea ends.
It was just after the bells of the two churches, Flyte and Coyne, had finished tolling the hour of seven that a boat came into view, ploughing its way slowly downstream.
Soon everyone could see the bright yellow caps and raincoats of the crew moving about on the deck. They tied up at the end of a long wooden jetty and came ashore almost immediately.
It was easy to distinguish the rescued shivering strangers plucked from the murderous sea by their rescuers, men of Flyte whom Peter recognized from their other lives as bank-tellers or fishmongers or churchwardens. Their faces, however, were haggard, drained by the struggle with a force so much more powerful than themselves.
Peter kept an arm around Grace Marsh and watched the silent men coming up the jetty in the hope of seeing his neighbour. A minute passed and the last man reached the bank. There seemed to be no one left on either the boat or the jetty.
‘Where’s my husband?’ cried Grace in the voice of the about-to-be-bereaved. ‘Where’s my Christopher?’ As if in answer, Christopher Marsh and another yellow-coated man appeared out of the boat’s cabin carrying a third man in their arms. A drowned man. Peter could tell from the way that they carried him; as if it was a duty rather than an act of love. Their shoulders sagged with their load and their failure.
‘He was on the other side of the boat. Drowned before we could get to him, poor bastard,’ said Abel Johnson, bank-teller turned lifeboatman.
He finished his sentence with a mute cry of protest as Grace Marsh pushed him aside in her rush towards her husband.
‘Christy. I thought you were dead, Christy. Oh God, I don’t know what I would have done.’
‘It’s all right, Grace,’ said her husband, who had had no option but to deposit his burden on the ground at the end of the jetty as his distraught wife threw her arms about him. ‘You mustn’t take on like this. How did you get here?’
‘Sir Peter brought me. In his car.’
‘Well, thank you, sir. It’s a kindness. Grace takes it hard when we go out at night.’
‘Perhaps you shouldn’t do it any more, Christopher. Find someone to take your place.’
‘Well, I don’t know, sir. It’s like a duty. My father was on the lifeboat and his father before him.’
As the two men talked, Greta stood looking down into the face of the drowned man. Blue jeans and a thick sou’wester jersey. A black beard flecked with white, and thick black curly hair. A big, strong, seafaring man, and now just a corpse. A thing to be disposed of in an appropriate way. Morgue meat.
The man’s blue eyes were like glass. There was nothing behind them, and the last of the rain pattered down on his upturned face, causing him no discomfort. His hands hung limp at his sides. Five hours ago they would have been wiping the water from his eyes. From his blue, far-seeing eyes.
Life and death. Everything over in a moment as the drowning man’s lungs collapsed and he floated face down in the sea. His whole huge life gone, and now he lay discarded on the ground while people talked about the weather and a man embraced his wife.
It was this that struck Greta most of all: the extraordinary insignificance of the fisherman’s death. A man from the lifeboat was cupping his hands in a practised gesture to light a cigarette. The landlord of the Harbour Inn was sweeping the water from his doorstep with a broom, and the dead man lay untended on the muddy ground.
Christopher Marsh gently disentangled himself from his wife’s embrace and he and the other man from the lifeboat bent to pick up the corpse. Wearily they shuffled along the uneven road toward the harbour master’s hut.
Peter turned to Greta. There was a faraway look in her green eyes as she gazed out to sea. He thought that she looked quite extraordinarily beautiful at that moment but also inscrutable. He had no idea what she was thinking.
It was the end of January 1999. It would be four months before another person died of unnatural causes in Flyte – and that would be murder. A cold-blooded murder that would be talked about in houses the length and breadth of England. A murder to put this sleepy fishing town forever on the map. Sir Peter’s own wife, the beautiful Lady Robinson, gunned down in her own home by armed robbers while her son hid behind a bookcase less than ten feet away.
The sound of the clicking cameras and the reporters’ unanswered questions ceased suddenly as the doors of the Old Bailey closed behind Greta and Sir Peter. Security men watched impassively as they emptied their pockets and passed through a metal detector. Then up two wide flights of stairs and into a great open area, which made Greta think for a moment that she had arrived on the concourse of one of Mussolini’s north Italian railway stations.
I am on a train journey though, she thought to herself wryly. I am but Peter isn’t, and I can’t get off the bloody train. It goes really slowly, stopping at all the stations along the way as the witnesses give their evidence, and all the time you don’t know where it’s going to end. Barristers and relatives and reporters get on and get off, but at the end they all go away. And then it’s just me. Just like it’s always been. Just me.
‘Are you all right, darling? You look pale. Is there something I can get you?’
Peter stood looking concerned but impotent at the side of his wife, who had halted, swaying slightly in the middle of the great hall.
‘No, it’s nothing. I was just feeling a little faint, that’s all. Getting here is quite an ordeal, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it’s ghastly. Those reporters are just like bloody parasites. Sit down a moment and get your strength back. There’s plenty of time.’
They sat on one of the tan leather benches that were positioned at regular intervals through the hall. There was no adornment on any of the walls apart from a clock that had stopped. The morning light penetrated weakly through dirty net curtains hung over the high windows.
All around them barristers were moving to and fro. Their long black gowns billowed out behind them, and their patent leather shoes clicked on the marble floor. The eighteenth-century-style horsehair wigs that were part of the barristers’ required dress would have seemed absurd if their owners were not wearing them with such apparent confidence. Greta was suddenly filled with a sense of being out of her element. How could she control what happened here if she didn’t know the rules? She got up from the bench hurriedly. Sitting still only made things worse.
‘Come on, let’s go and find Court 9. That’s where we’re supposed to be meeting Miles.’
Greta injected her voice with a sense of purpose that she was far from feeling.
A small crowd was waiting outside the bank of elevators and Greta glimpsed the squat figure of Sergeant Hearns, the officer in the case. He smiled lugubriously when he saw her, and Greta couldn’t decide whether it was a greeting or a spontaneous expression of pleasure at seeing the object of his investigation inside the courthouse at last. In any event, she didn’t respond, turning suddenly on her heel and calling to her husband.
‘Come on, Peter, it’s too crowded. Let’s take the stairs.’
Peter turned obediently to follow his wife. He was determined to stand by her but there were some places, of course, where he could not follow. She would be alone in the dock. Alone when she gave her evidence. Alone when the jury came back with their verdict.
He worked his fingers into the wrinkled furrows on his forehead and hid his face momentarily behind his upturned hand.
At that very moment four floors above them Miles Lambert, Counsel for the Defence in the case of Regina v. Greta, Lady Robinson, was buying two cups of coffee in the barristers’ cafeteria. One white with two sugars for himself and one black with none for his opponent, John Sparling, Counsel for the Prosecution.
Miles Lambert was sixty-six and single. Forty years of drinking fine wines and eating rich food with other successful lawyers had earned him a florid complexion and a rotund figure that he kept encased within expensive, tailor-made suits, complete with waistcoat and gold watch and chain. Court etiquette required him to wear a wing collar and starched white neck bands; but outside court he was known for extravagant ties of wildly clashing colours that matched the handkerchiefs that poured from his breast pocket when he was not using them to dab his sweating brow. Although in recent years ‘Lurid Lambert’ had given way to a new nickname – ‘Old Lurid’ – opinion in legal circles was that Old Lurid might be sixty-six but as a defence lawyer he was at the height of his powers.
Miles’s pale blue eyes looked out on the world from behind a pair of gold-framed half-moon spectacles, and those who knew him well said that the eyes were the key to understanding his character. They were small and shrewd, and if you studied them carefully, you would see that they seemed to become more quiet and watchful as Miles became more exuberant. It was as if they took no part in his loud laughter and extravagant gestures. They remained detached and attentive, watching for weaknesses, waiting for opportunities.
John Sparling was as different from Miles Lambert as it was possible to be, given that they were two successful lawyers of roughly the same age dressed in approximately the same way. He was tall while Miles was short, and thin while Miles was fat. He wore no glasses, and his large, grey eyes looked out coldly on the world from above a long, aquiline nose. His mouth was small, with thin, straight lips, and he spoke slowly, forming his questions with careful decision and always pausing after the witness had answered for the extra fraction of a second that was enough to tell the jury his opinion of what had just been said. He was fond of telling juries that they must put pity and sympathy aside in their search for the truth. Sparling’s enemies said that this was something that he had no need to do himself, as he had had all pity and sympathy excised from his character at an early age.
John Sparling never defended, and Miles Lambert never prosecuted. They were polar opposites, and yet in a strange way they liked each other. You could almost say they were friends, although they never met outside the courthouse, where they spent their days in an unending struggle over the fate of their fellow human beings.
If pressed, Sparling might have described himself as an instrument of justice. It was an article of faith for him that nobody should escape the consequences of his actions – least of all the wife of a cabinet minister. Sparling had been looking forward to this case for weeks, but then so too had his opponent. For Miles Lambert, the criminal law was not so much about justice, it was about winning. It was something the two men had in common. They both hated to lose.
‘So, Miles, you’ve got Granger,’ said Sparling. ‘Her ladyship must be pleased.’ His lower lip raised slightly, the nearest he ever got to a smile.
‘Haven’t talked to her about it yet,’ replied Miles Lambert as he vigorously stirred the sugar into his coffee. ‘But yes, I’d prefer old Granger to one or two of those death’s head judges that sit on the first floor. Defence’ll get a fair crack of the whip at any rate.’ He would have liked to have ladled four spoonfuls into the cup, but his doctor had set strict limits on coffee and sugar since Miles had suffered a minor heart attack two years before. The instructions to reduce stress by taking on fewer cases, however, had fallen on deaf ears.
‘He’ll like your client, I expect,’ said Sparling. ‘Old Granger’s always been one for the ladies, hasn’t he?’
His Honour Judge Granger was known as a fair judge with something of a defence bias. Miles was secretly very pleased to have got him, although it wouldn’t do to gloat.
‘It’s not the judge that matters,’ he said diplomatically. ‘It’s the jury.’
‘Hoping for a few priapic jurors too, I expect.’
Miles smiled broadly, but behind his cup of coffee he was registering a slight surprise. It was unlike John Sparling to be so cynical about the legal process. Something must be bothering him. Miles needed to find out what it was.
‘You’re exhibiting an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, if you don’t mind me saying so, John,’ said Miles in a bantering tone. ‘Not what you need on a Thursday morning.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Miles. Have you got those further statements?’
Miles’s smile gave way to a grin. It was the return of the killers to the murder scene the previous week that had got under his opponent’s skin. It was too much of a good thing.
‘Yes. I got them on Friday evening through the fax. The policeman at the scene, follow-up investigation by the omnipresent Sergeant Hearns. And the boy, of course. Your star witness.’
‘My star witness.’
‘Uncorroborated to the last.’
‘All right, Miles. We’ll let the jury form their own opinion about that.’
‘Oh, yes. The priapic jurors.’
Sparling gave another of his smile imitations. He looked determinedly tolerant.
‘Yes, the priapic jurors,’ he said. ‘But it wasn’t them I was asking you about.’
‘No,’ Miles acknowledged. ‘You want to talk about the statements, don’t you, although I can’t imagine why. I’ve got them. You’ve got them. You’re calling these witnesses. What else is there to discuss?’
‘I want to call the boy last. Hearns says he needs time to get over what happened last Wednesday.’
‘If it happened.’
‘All right, Miles. I’ve read the police statements too, you know.’
‘No trace of any intruders whatsoever. No one saw the car come. No one saw the car go.’
‘It happened in the evening. The place was deserted.’
Sparling sounded defiant, but this only encouraged Miles to goad his opponent more.
‘You’ve got no forensic evidence at all. Admit it, John.’
‘I do admit it. But the prosecution still says that Thomas Robinson is a witness of truth, and there’s no reason to change that.’
‘Maybe not. But I reckon you could have done without his latest contribution. Lonny and Rosie. I wonder where he dreamed them up from. He’s been watching too much television.’
‘Not when they drove up, he wasn’t.’
‘No. Very convenient.’
Miles finished his coffee and put on his wig. He’d enjoyed his pre-court skirmish with John Sparling even more than usual. The wily old prosecutor would never admit to being unhappy with his case, but Miles would have bet good money that the new statements had not been welcome arrivals in Sparling’s chambers at the end of the previous week. The Crown’s case depended too much on the unsupported evidence of young Thomas already. This latest development made the case positively top-heavy, thought Miles, patting his own bulk contentedly.
Certainly the defence had more to gain than to lose from the new statements. He’d seen Lady Greta in conference on Saturday morning and obtained her assurance that she knew nobody called either Lonny or Rosie and that she had not told anyone about that hiding place in the House of the Four Winds.
‘I’m going to find my client,’ said Miles, getting up. ‘I’ll take her instructions, but I can’t see us objecting to you calling the boy last. Better make sure he turns up, though. Statements are one thing, evidence is another.’
Miles was gone in a swirl of wig and gown before John Sparling could think of a suitable response.
Peter and Greta were waiting outside Court 9 with Peter’s lawyer, Patrick Sullivan, a handsome Irishman who bore more than a passing resemblance to Liam Neeson. Patrick and Peter had been at university together, and it had been a natural development for him to become Peter’s lawyer when Peter had started to need one. The work had taken up more and more of Patrick’s time since Peter had become a minister, and Greta’s trial had made it virtually a full-time occupation.
Patrick was no criminal lawyer, but he had given Peter and Greta vital support in those nightmare days after Greta was first arrested. He had conveyed a sense that he was truly on their side, that he believed in them, and that was what Peter had craved more than anything else.
Greta, unsurprisingly, had retreated into her shell as the police began investigating Thomas’s allegations against her, and Patrick seemed to restore some of her confidence. Later, after Greta was charged, Peter had asked Patrick to find a top criminal barrister to take on her case. He appeared to have succeeded admirably. Everyone that Peter spoke to agreed that Miles Lambert was one of the best in the business.
‘I’ve reminded Peter that he can’t be in court during the trial,’ said Patrick.
‘That’s right,’ said Miles. ‘Not until after you’ve given your evidence. But Patrick’s told me he’s going to be here most of the time and so Greta won’t be on her own. No need to worry about that.’
He smiled encouragingly. They’d been over this many times already, but it was better to be safe than sorry. He’d had witnesses before who had disbarred themselves from giving evidence by sitting in court during the trial.
‘How are you feeling, Greta?’ he asked solicitously. Trial for murder was a terrible experience for anyone to go through and Miles knew that waiting for it to begin was one of the worst parts of the process.
‘All right, I suppose. It’s not easy, though. I felt like I was in a zoo when we got out of the car.’ Greta’s normally even voice shook, and Peter took hold of her hand and squeezed it. Not being able to be with his wife in court and share her ordeal was almost more than he could bear.
‘I know,’ said Miles. ‘I’m sorry about that. But look, the important thing to remember is that you’re not going to need to say anything until the middle of next week at the earliest. It’ll probably be the end of next week, in fact. The prosecution has got a lot of evidence to get through, and they’re calling Thomas as their last witness. They say he needs time to get over whatever happened last Wednesday.’
‘Nothing happened,’ Peter interjected. ‘He’s made it up just like everything else. He just can’t stop. Ruining our lives and his.’
‘All right, Peter,’ said Greta. ‘Not now.’ She drew a great deal of support from Peter’s anger against his son, but this was not the time for any loss of control.
‘Is this a problem?’ she asked. ‘Thomas going last?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ replied Miles. ‘It’ll make the jury see how little the prosecution has got without him.’
‘Yes. Yes, I see that.’
Greta smiled, but this only made the tension in her face more visible. She looked perfect, Miles thought. She’ll make the jurors that aren’t priapic come over all parental when she touches her eyes with that little white handkerchief she’s got in her bag.
‘That was the usher,’ said Patrick, returning to the group and breaking the momentary silence. ‘We’re wanted inside.’
‘I’ll be here at lunch, Greta,’ said Peter. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too,’ replied Greta as she turned to follow the lawyers through the swinging doors of the courtroom.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he added. ‘Just you see.’ But she did not reply. The doors had closed behind her, and he could not follow.
The first thing that Greta was aware of on entering the courtroom was the sound of many voices suddenly becoming still. The benches on the left of the court were thronged with the same reporters who had surrounded her outside. There was to be no escape from them, although the cameras and sound equipment were absent.
Before her arrival the court had been just another room, but now there was the beginning of drama, the certainty of action to come. Everything was lit by bright artificial light because this was a place removed from the outside world. There were no windows and the soundproofed walls were bare except for the extravagant lion-and-unicorn emblem behind the judge’s empty chair.
Miles Lambert came to a halt beside the dock. This was a dark wooden enclosure at the back of the court, which Greta had had to occupy once before when she came to court in the spring to plead not guilty. Now a security woman with cropped black hair and a sallow face bent to open the low wicket gate and stood aside for Greta to enter the enclosure. The latch of the gate clicked behind her.
‘Now, Patrick’ll be watching to see if you need anything,’ said Miles in a soothing tone. ‘Have you got plenty of paper and pens? You can pass me a note if you think of something important, although I doubt we’ll get much beyond the prosecution’s opening statement this morning, and you don’t need to worry about that. It’s not evidence.’
Greta nodded and bit her lip. As if paper would help her. With all these people looking at her and strangers deciding her fate.
‘We ought to get a jury fairly soon. Remember not to look at them directly. They don’t like that. But let them look at you. There’ll be a bad minute or two with the photographs of the body. I can’t stop Sparling showing them those but it won’t last long. The judge’ll see to that. Granger’s all right. We could have done a lot worse.’
Greta smiled wanly. She was grateful to Miles Lambert for trying to make things easier for her.
The security woman tapped Greta on the shoulder, interrupting the conversation.
‘You need to surrender to custody. It’s the rules.’
‘But haven’t I just done so?’
‘No, I’ve got to search you. Check your bag.’
‘Oh, all right,’ said Greta, offering her handbag up for inspection.
But this wasn’t enough.
‘It’s through here,’ said the woman, touching Greta’s arm this time as she guided her through a door in the side of the dock out into a small holding area. The once white walls were covered in obscene words and pictures drawn by rapists and murderers raging against their fate. Greta thought how strange it was that such a place should exist within a few metres of the judge, sitting in all his pomp and glory. But neither the graffiti nor the stale smell of urine emanating from a lavatory cubicle with a seatless toilet in the corner really bothered Greta. She’d seen worse.
It was the staircase in the far corner that sent a shiver down her spine. She couldn’t see more than the first three steps from where she stood near the door to the court, but it was enough to know that they went down and not up. Down to the cells below, from which there would be no escape. One word, one little word from the jury, and she’d be stumbling down those stairs with guards holding her elbows. Greta felt that it was like having the chance to see the scene of one’s own death before it happened. She was suddenly gripped by a wave of nausea and sat down on the bench that ran the length of the room as if she’d just been punched.
‘Come on now,’ said the security woman with a note of irritation creeping into her voice. ‘You can sit on your arse in court all day. But right now I need to search you. It’s the rules.’
Greta held herself rigid while the woman’s hands patted down her body. Shoulders, breasts, stomach, thighs; with each touch Greta felt herself being claimed by a system that was too big for her. Too impersonal. She kept her eyes fixed on the whitewashed ceiling until the search was over, never allowing her gaze to stray for a moment to the staircase in the corner.
‘All right, you’re fine,’ said the woman, holding open the door to the dock.
Back in the courtroom Greta breathed deeply. She took out her handkerchief and held it to her nose. The fragrant Chanel perfume allowed her to imagine the cool interior of the drawing-room at home. The chandeliers and the rich hangings. With an intense effort of will she forced the holding room and the descending staircase out of her consciousness. Then, opening her eyes, she ran her hands through her perfectly layered black hair and settled back into her chair as she began to take in her surroundings.
The reporters had gone back to talking amongst themselves, and in front of her the barristers were unpacking heavy files and law books on to the long tables. To Miles’s left a tall, distinguished-looking man in wig and gown was listening to the police officer, Detective Sergeant Hearns.
They made a strange pair, thought Greta. Hearns in his ill-fitting suit and kipper tie standing almost on tiptoe to whisper what he wanted to say to the barrister, who leaned slightly to his left, allowing Greta to see his profile; the long, thin face and the aquiline nose. This must be the man that Miles had told her about. John Sparling, Counsel for the Prosecution.
As usual Hearns was waving his crude, stubby-fingered hands about for emphasis. Greta remembered this irritating habit from the interview that she had had to undergo before she was charged.
‘I put it to you, madam, that you’re the brains behind this conspiracy,’ he had said then.
‘The éminence grise, Mr Hearns?’ Greta had asked, resorting at last to sarcasm.
‘Don’t bandy foreign words with me, madam,’ he’d countered. He always addressed her as ‘madam’; never Greta or Miss Grahame. Perhaps that was something they’d taught him at the training college. Interrogation techniques for aspiring detectives.
‘This is a very serious allegation, madam. A lady is dead and I’m putting it to you that you’re responsible.’
‘And I’m putting it to you that you’ve been reading too many detective stories.’
And so it had gone on. Hour after hour in the dingy police station in Ipswich. At least she wouldn’t have to hear all the interviews played back. Miles had managed to agree with the prosecution that a summary would be read to the jury at the end of their case.
Greta pulled her mind back to the present. Hearns had finished putting whatever he had to put to Sparling, and as the lawyer turned back to his papers his eyes met Greta’s for a moment. She could not read his expression. It was distant but knowing, cool but penetrative. She shivered.
A loud knocking on a closed door to the right of the judge’s chair brought everyone in the court to their feet. Immediately the door opened and His Honour Judge Granger swept in, preceded by the court usher. He was an old man with only a year or two left before his retirement, and yet he carried himself ramrod straight. His threadbare wig was perched forward on his head above a pair of bushy eyebrows. His face was very lined and his cheeks were sunken, but his bright grey eyes told a different story. They seemed as if they belonged to a much younger man as they darted around the room taking in everybody and everything, before he gathered his black robes about him and sat down heavily in his high-backed chair. There was a shuffling and scraping as everyone else in the courtroom including Greta followed suit, but she was only allowed to remain seated for a moment.
The clerk of the court, dressed also in wig and gown, rose to his feet.
‘The defendant will stand.’
Greta did so.
‘Are you Greta, Lady Robinson?’
Greta tried to keep her voice up, but the words that came from her lips sounded small and distant. Not how she wanted them to sound at all. She needed to remember what her elocution teacher had taught her before she came south. ‘Projection’ it was called. She hadn’t worked as hard on that part of the course, as her attention had been focused on changing her accent. Losing the thick northern vowels and replacing them with the long a’s and o’s of the British ruling class.
The judge had heard her answer, at any rate. He treated her to a half-smile and gestured downward with his hands.
‘Sit down, Lady Robinson. Sit down.’ His voice was surprisingly high, and its almost feminine tone was accentuated by the courtesy with which he always spoke. Loudness and rudeness formed no part of Judge Granger’s judicial vocabulary.
‘Now, Mr Sparling.’
The counsel for the prosecution got slowly to his feet. ‘Yes, my Lord.’
‘What about bail?’
‘There are conditions of residence and reporting, my Lord.’
‘Reporting, Mr Sparling?’
‘Yes. On Wednesdays and Saturdays to Chelsea Police Station.’
‘Well, I don’t think we need persist with that now that the trial is under way. Residence should be quite sufficient.’
‘Very well, my Lord.’
‘Now, there is one other matter that I want to raise with you both at this stage, gentlemen. I’ve been looking at these photographs.’
‘Of the house, my Lord?’ asked Sparling. ‘Or the victim?’
‘Of the victim. There are five, I believe. Showing these very dreadful wounds. Now, I can’t see any need for them to be shown to the victim’s son. The medical evidence is agreed as I understand it. Death occurred as a result of two gunshot wounds to the shoulder and the head, with the second shot being fired at close range.’
‘That is correct, my Lord,’ said Sparling. ‘The photographs will be given to the jury during my opening statement this morning, but the Crown will not show them to Thomas Robinson, who will by agreement be giving evidence last.’
‘Oh, why is that, Mr Sparling? He should surely be your first witness.’
‘Ordinarily, yes, my Lord, but the Crown wishes to give him the maximum time to recover from the events of the 5th of July. Your Lordship has seen the new statements?’
‘Yes, I have. Well, I suppose that does seem sensible in the circumstances. Now, Mr Lambert, about these photographs.’
‘I won’t show them to Thomas Robinson, my Lord,’ said Miles Lambert, rising from his seat and pushing the table back a few inches as he did so in order to make room for his ample stomach.
‘There is one matter of admissibility on which we will need your Lordship’s ruling,’ added Miles, ‘but that is perhaps better done before Detective Sergeant Hearns gives his evidence.’
‘Yes, Mr Lambert, I agree. Let’s press on. Miss Hooks, we’re ready for the jury now.’
This instruction was directed at the court usher, a diminutive lady less than five feet tall. She looked out on the world distrustfully through an enormous pair of black-framed glasses with thick lenses that seemed to cover nearly half of her pinched little face. Her black gown fell almost to the floor, and Greta feared for a moment that she might stumble over it as she moved as quickly as her small legs would carry her towards the door in the far corner of the courtroom, behind which the jurors were waiting.
The strangest thing about the jury was their lack of strangeness, Greta reflected, as each of the twelve stood in turn to swear or affirm that he or she ‘will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence’.
Here were her judges. A motley assortment of men and women plucked at random from the capital’s population. An Indian man with a turban and another without. An Italian in an expensive suit, who she caught, out of the corner of her eye, giving her an admiring glance. Two middle-aged ladies with big hair and large busts on either side of a young man in a crumpled T-shirt with a picture of Kurt Cobain on the front. An Oriental girl with a tiny voice, who had to be made to take the oath twice because nobody could hear her the first time round. Four other men of nondescript appearance, who would hopefully have Greta’s pretty face well in mind when it came to reaching their verdict; and finally a woman in her forties, who looked exactly like Margaret Thatcher might have done at that age if she’d had short black hair and worn a trouser suit. She took the oath in a determined voice that made everyone in the courtroom sit up while she held the Bible above her right ear, in the manner of a president on inauguration day.
The names of the other jurors had flown past unnoticed, but Greta caught this one as it was read out by the clerk: Dorothy Jones. Greta thought that there was nothing Dorothy-like about her at all as she extracted a black pen from her clutch handbag and tapped it menacingly on the table in front of her.
In the well of the court John Sparling allowed a half-smile to momentarily crease his thin lips. Here was a juror who wouldn’t have trouble in obeying his instruction to put all pity and sympathy aside in her search for the truth. She’d be like a hound on the trail of a wounded fox when it came to that task.
To Sparling’s left Miles Lambert moved his bulk uneasily about on his chair as the Indian man without the turban stood up to take the oath. He didn’t like the look of the woman in the trouser suit. The rest seemed all right, and he’d got what he wanted with eight men to four women, but the Margaret Thatcher lookalike would no doubt try to take over and get herself elected as forewoman before the day was out.
Miles knew the type, and he thought nostalgically of the good old days when the defence had the right to get rid of up to three jurors for no reason at all. Now there was nothing one could really do unless the jurors knew the defendant or one of the witnesses. It was one area in which Miles felt that the American system was decidedly better. He’d have liked nothing better than to cross-examine this Jones woman about her beliefs and prejudices, but it wasn’t to be, and she was only one of twelve. Perhaps the men would rebel and elect the youth with the grungy T-shirt to chair their deliberations.
‘All sworn, my Lord,’ said the usher in the shrill voice of those who go through life suffering from an incurable doubt that people won’t hear what they are about to say.
The jury settled themselves in their chairs and looked up expectantly at the judge but it was the clerk of the court who claimed their attention. He rose to his feet holding up a piece of paper.
‘The defendant will stand.’
It was the second time the clerk had said these words. The third time would be for the jury’s verdict.
Greta stood, holding herself steady with her hands resting on the brass rail of the dock.
‘Members of the jury, the defendant stands charged on Indictment 211 of the year 2000 with one count. That between a date unknown and the 31st day of May 1999 she did conspire with persons unknown to murder Anne, Lady Robinson. To this charge she has pleaded not guilty, and it is your task having heard the evidence to say whether she is guilty or not.’
Guilty or not. Guilty or not. Guilty or not. Greta held hard to the rail as the courtroom suddenly swirled in front of her and the words echoed in her mind. Her trial had begun.
Judge Granger allowed his eyes to travel down the two rows of jurors as they shifted in their seats, still trying to adjust themselves to the formality of the courtroom and the stress of taking the oath.
Lord knows what petty prejudices they brought into court with them, thought the old judge. What coloured spectacles they used to view the evidence. He was glad he wasn’t able to hear the discussions they would have, shut up in their jury room, as it would only have made him want to interfere. And he had learned over the years that the best way to a fair trial was to interfere as little as possible. Juries weren’t infallible, but they were better than lawyers or civil servants, and they must be allowed to reach their own verdicts.
The judge turned his head toward the counsel for the prosecution and nodded imperceptibly.
John Sparling got slowly to his feet and gathered his gown about him.
‘Good morning, members of the jury. Let me begin by introducing myself to you. I am John Sparling, and I am appearing for the prosecution in this case, and on my right is Miles Lambert, who is representing the defendant. She is sitting in the dock.’
Sparling paused after the word ‘dock’ on which he had laid a heavy emphasis, as if he wished to imply that that was where the defendant should be.
‘Members of the jury, I am now going to open this case to you, and that has nothing to do with keys and doors.’ Sparling laughed gently, eliciting the same response from several of the jurors. He knew the importance of making contact with the jury, and he never made the mistake of talking down to them, treating them instead with an unwavering courtesy. ‘No, the opening is designed to help you.’
Miles Lambert grimaced. Sparling always used this trick of portraying himself as the jury’s assistant helping them to reach the only possible verdict: guilty as charged.
‘To help you to understand the evidence by giving you a framework within which to place it. This is particularly necessary because the Crown’s most important witness will be giving evidence last.’
Sparling did not say why. He did not tell the jury that Thomas Robinson was too traumatized to come to court to give evidence today. Instead he made it seem as if this was the Crown’s decision. To save the best for last.
‘And so, members of the jury, let me tell you what this case is about. It is about an old house and the people who lived there. The House of the Four Winds was built in the sixteenth century and is famous for its rose gardens and an ornamental staircase that curves up from the front hall to the first floor above. The staircase is important, and I shall come back to it later.
‘The house is on the outskirts of a fishing town called Flyte on the coast of Suffolk. The Sackville family have lived there for generations. Anne Sackville was born in the house and her mother had no other children. At about 9.30 on the evening of the 31st May last year she was murdered in the house by two men, who have not to this day been identified. The hunt to apprehend them continues.
‘Anne married Peter Robinson. You may have heard of him, members of the jury. He is now Sir Peter Robinson and he is the minister of defence in the present government. They had one son, Thomas, who is now aged sixteen. You will be hearing from him next week.
‘Sir Peter had a personal assistant, who is the defendant. She has now become his second wife and the Crown says that that is part of what she hoped to achieve when she entered into a conspiracy to murder Anne, Lady Robinson.
‘It is clear that Sir Peter came to depend heavily on the defendant’s assistance, and he would take her with him on his weekend visits to the House of the Four Winds. I will leave it to the witnesses to describe to you how the relationships between the family members and the defendant developed in the ensuing two years, but it is right to say that by the spring of 1999 the defendant and Lady Robinson were certainly not friends.
‘I come now to the day of the murder. The 31st of May 1999. The housekeeper, Mrs Martin, left at five o’clock, as she was going to stay with her sister in Woodbridge. This was something that she almost always did on a Monday evening, but on this occasion she was accompanied in her car by Thomas. Mrs Martin was giving him a lift to a friend’s house in Flyte, where he was due to spend the night. You will hear evidence from the mother of this friend that it was the defendant who made this arrangement. This had never happened before, members of the jury, and the Crown says that it is highly significant. It shows that the defendant wished Lady Robinson to be alone in the house later in the evening.
‘Before she left, Mrs Martin checked that the windows and doors in the house were secure, and she also checked that the east and west gates and the door in the north wall were locked. This was her custom, and she did not deviate from it on the afternoon of the 31st of May.’
Sparling paused and drank some water. He appeared to hesitate and then picked up some documents from the table in front of him as if coming to a decision.
‘I have spoken of doors and gates, and before I go any further I need to explain the layout of the house and its grounds. There are photographs and a plan.’
Again Sparling paused while the diminutive usher with the long gown distributed copies to the jury. His opening was going well. Sparling could see that. The eyes of all the jurors were fixed upon him. He had their undivided attention.
‘You will see the points of the compass in the corner of the plan, members of the jury. To the east of the house is the sea and to the west the main road connecting the coastal towns of Flyte and Carmouth. To the south are the grounds of another property, and to the north is a small, unpaved stretch of road that runs from the main road down to the beach alongside the north wall of the property, and it was here that the two killers parked their car at about half past nine that evening. There were tyre marks found in this lane, which are consistent with a car turning at speed.
‘They parked their car and then entered the grounds through the door in the north wall, which was unlocked. The police found footprints on both sides of the door, but there were no signs that the door had been forced or that the lock had been picked. It was unlocked at half past nine, but at five o’clock Mrs Martin had left it locked. The Crown says that it was unlocked by the defendant before she left the house at half past seven with Sir Peter Robinson in order to drive down to London, where Sir Peter was to attend a government meeting early the next day.
‘Turn now to your album of photographs, members of the jury. You can see the lane and the door in the first two photographs, and then there are pictures of the outside of the house. Notice the wide lawn that the killers had to cross to get to the house from the north wall.’
Greta sat in the dock listening to Sparling, even though she would have preferred not to. She could see how the jurors were hanging on to the loathsome lawyer’s every word as he slowly set the scene and painted in his characters. All of them had names, of course, except her. She was the defendant.
And now there were photographs to look at. They were supposed to help the jury imagine what the place was really like, except that the small police photographs could convey nothing of its reality, thought Greta. The reality of the murder, perhaps, but not the haunted beauty of the House of the Four Winds. The leaded windows set in the old stone weathered by thousands of North Sea storms. The symmetry of the six ancient yew trees standing guard over the front approach and the wide lawns shimmering under the elm trees. All of it encircled by the high stone wall covered by generations of lichens and mosses.
Greta pictured to herself the two wooden doors in the north and south walls, each bearing an inscription in faded early nineteenth-century gold lettering. Beyond Anne’s rose gardens to the right of the house was ‘The South Wind’ and that opening on to the lane was ‘The North Wind’. Greta did not know if there had once been west and east wind doors set in the walls at the front and the back of the house, but if so, they were now long gone, replaced by black wrought-iron gates of intricate design.
Greta had never seen the south door open. Over the years it had become half obscured by a rampant rambling rose, which flowered brilliant white in the summer. However, the north door was in constant use as it was the most frequently taken route from the house to the beach. It was opened with a huge key that hung from a nail in the back hall, and Greta well remembered the part played by the old key in the games that a younger Thomas used to play when she first visited the house with Peter more than three years before. It was the key of the castle, and seeing it as she came down the back stairs from her bedroom in the mornings, Greta had caught herself wondering more than once what it would be like to be the mistress of the House of the Four Winds.
‘The two killers crossed the lawn and came to a halt in front of the study windows.’ Sparling had finished showing the jury the exterior photographs and had now resumed his account of the night of the murder.
‘“Fuck,” said one of them. “They’re all fucking closed.”
‘He said this because he expected at least one of the windows to be open. You will recall that Mrs Martin checked the windows before she left at five o’clock and they were secure, but when Thomas came home unexpectedly at eight-thirty he discovered that the window facing on to the north lawn was open. He closed it before he went up to his bedroom. The Crown says that it was the defendant who left that window open.
‘Thomas Robinson came home because he had found that it was the defendant who had arranged for him to spend the night at the house of his friend in Flyte and he had been unable to get his mother to answer the telephone. On his return he found her asleep, and there is agreed medical evidence that Lady Robinson took a sleeping tablet that evening. Her son did not wake her but went to his bedroom at the end of the corridor overlooking the north lawn.
‘He had turned out his light but was not asleep when he heard a car drive up and park in the lane. Going to his window, he saw two figures crossing the lawn and then come to a halt in front of the study window below where Thomas was standing. It was then that Thomas heard one of the men say those important words: “Fuck. They’re all fucking closed.”
‘Foul language, members of the jury. Foul language and foul play.
‘Within seconds the men began to smash out the glass in one of the study windowpanes. It is possible that the butt of a handgun was used for this purpose. One of them then leaned in and opened the window latch. Either at this point, or as they climbed into the study, one of the men cut himself slightly on the broken glass, and the small amount of blood that was left on the windowsill was sufficient to yield a DNA profile. Unfortunately, however, no match for the profile has been found on the police national DNA database.
‘Once inside the two men made their way through the study into the main entrance hall. You can see the layout of the ground floor on the plan, members of the jury. By this time Thomas had gone to his mother’s room and shaken her awake. It was his idea to go to the hiding place that is situated at the top of the front stairs, and he pulled his mother along after him. She was wearing a long white nightdress and no slippers.
‘This hiding place is almost as old as the house, members of the jury, and you can see it in your photographs. It was made for Catholic priests to hide in when the Protestant government was searching for them in the sixteenth century, and it is clever but simple as the best of these priests’ holes are. There is a wide bookcase at the top of the stairs, which turns on its axis when a certain set of books is pressed. Behind them is a lever, which operates the mechanism.
‘Thomas and his mother could hear the breaking of glass and the men moving down below. They got to the bookcase just as the men arrived in the hall. The men heard the movement at the top of the stairs when Thomas opened the bookcase, and they shone their flashlights up the staircase. He heard one of them shout: “There she is. She’s up there. Look, she’s up there.” And then he felt the bookcase close so that he was shut in the hiding place alone. His mother had shut him in to save him. She knew that they had seen her, but her son was already inside and she hoped that they would not see the bookcase close. She was right. She did save her son, but she could not save herself.
‘They shot her twice. The first bullet was fired upwards from the bottom of the stairs and hit her in the shoulder as she stood in front of the bookcase. She fell down screaming, and then one of the two men came up the stairs and shot her again. Shot her in the head and killed her while her son was no more than ten feet away. Less than the distance that I am from you now, members of the jury.’
Sparling stopped. He had achieved his purpose. He could see anger in the eyes of the jurors. Surprise and horror but above all anger. Now was the time to show them the final set of photographs.
‘Here is the murdered woman lying on the carpet with the bookcase behind her. Thomas would have been invisible behind that. And here is the staircase curving up from the hall below. One shot fired from there and then another from point-blank range at the top of the stairs. You can see the wounds. These men came to kill. This was no robbery gone wrong. They came to kill and to rob. And who sent them, members of the jury? Who sent them? That’s the question.’
Sparling stopped, allowing his gaze to move slowly from one juror to the next. The answer, he seemed to be saying, is to your left. Sitting in the dock with her head bowed because she doesn’t want to look you in the eye.
The judge looked up and cleared his throat. Sparling was going beyond the boundaries of an opening address. It was time to move on.
‘Yes, Mr Sparling,’ he said, allowing a note of irritation to creep into his voice.
‘Yes, my Lord. I’m sorry,’ said the counsel for the prosecution as he closed the album of photographs with visible reluctance.
The moment was past, but it had been just as unpleasant as Miles Lambert had warned Greta it might be. The photographs were bad. She knew that. They made people angry, seeing all that beauty destroyed by lead bullets. The home invaded. The boy hiding in the dark only a few feet from his mother. There were sacred principles here that had been transgressed, and someone would have to pay. That was the problem. Miles had told her that. The need to make someone responsible. Otherwise the photographs were unbearable.
‘They left her lying there, members of the jury, and went into her bedroom and ransacked it. They took their time because they believed there was no one else in the house. They broke into the small safe concealed behind the portrait of Lady Robinson’s grandmother and took the jewellery that Lady Robinson kept there. Necklaces, rings and bracelets of enormous value. Heirlooms that had been handed down through generations of Lady Robinson’s family, the Sackvilles, going back as far as when the House of the Four Winds was built more than four hundred years ago.
‘Then they left, stepping over the body of Lady Robinson to go down the staircase. There is a spyhole in the wall of the hiding place and Thomas was able to see the faces of the two men in profile as they went past. One of them had a ponytail and a scar behind his right jawbone. Thomas had seen a man with a ponytail and a similar scar with the defendant in London six weeks before, and he believes that the two men are one and the same, although he only saw the man in London for a short time and from behind. It will be for you to weigh up the strength of that evidence when you hear from Thomas Robinson, members of the jury.
‘However, two other matters are significant with regard to the man with the scar. First, neither he nor his companion were wearing masks. They wore gloves but no masks and the Crown says that this is because they did not care whether Lady Robinson saw them or not. Their intention was to kill her, and the dead can tell no tales. They cannot give evidence or attend identification parades.
‘Second, Thomas saw the man with the scar bend down out of sight for a moment as he crossed from the bedroom to the stairs. Thomas could not see the body of his mother, but he knew where she had fallen, and when the man got up Thomas could see him putting something in his pocket. He could see the glint of gold, members of the jury.
‘That glint of gold is vitally important. The Crown says that it was a locket that the man with the scar had torn from the dead woman’s neck, leaving a scratch mark there as he did so. That locket subsequently found its way into the possession of the defendant, members of the jury. Into her desk in her husband’s house in London.’
The jury turned to look at Greta, and she involuntarily bit her lip. That bloody locket, she thought to herself. To be having to sit here exhibited like an animal in a zoo because of a trinket. She turned away, resolved to shut her ears to the rest of Sparling’s speech. That was what Miles had half-jokingly suggested she should do when they had talked about the case in his chambers on Saturday.
‘It’s not evidence, Greta. It’s the evidence we need to worry about. Leave old Sparling to me.’
She should have taken his advice.
‘The prosecution has the first word, my dear, but we have the last. Remember that. We have the last.’
Greta smiled. She had a lot of faith in Miles.
One hundred and twenty miles to the east of the Old Bailey the boy who was figuring so prominently in John Sparling’s opening address was standing at his bedroom window in the House of the Four Winds looking out over the broad expanse of the north lawn. It was a bright summer’s day, and the sun shone down through the branches of the elm trees, creating a fantastic play of shadows on the newly mowed grass.
One hundred yards from where Thomas was standing, the north gate of the property stood closed and locked. Thomas shivered as he looked at it even though his room was warm, even hot. As had happened so often in the last few months, Thomas could not stop his mind from going back to the previous summer, to the night of his mother’s murder.
In his imagination, Thomas saw the man with the scar and his sidekick pulling up in the lane in the dark. The sidekick would have been driving, Thomas thought, with the other giving directions in his soft, cruel voice. Pushing through the unlocked door in the wall, Thomas imagined that they must have hesitated for a moment while the man fingered the scar running down behind his jaw and let his eyes run over the house, visible in the pale moonlight. Thomas thought of him in that moment as if he was a cat enjoying the defencelessness of what he was about to destroy before he set off across the lawn with the gun hard and metallic in his pocket. He knew where he was going, and nothing would deflect him from his purpose.
Just as it had done a thousand times before, Thomas’s mind flew to his mother, sleeping so peacefully in her bed with the moonlight shining down through the half-drawn curtains. Sleeping in the same room where her parents had slept. Where her father had died looking up at the portrait of his wife on the wall. Where Thomas had often slept himself, driven by the Suffolk storms to find comfort beside his mother in the small hours. Life and love and death going on through the generations of the Sackvilles, until Greta came.
Hardly anyone had been in the room since Anne’s death. Sir Peter never came, and it was only Jane Martin who went in there once a week to dust, and she didn’t stay long. She had not yet been able to face the task of disposing of her employer’s clothes. The dresses still hung in the closets just as they had before their owner’s death, as if nothing had happened.
Thomas kept his distance. He had been determined from the outset to remain in the House of the Four Winds. He was his mother’s heir. To leave would have meant defeat, and he honoured her by remaining, but at a cost. Everywhere he went reminded him of her. He tried to help himself by avoiding the front stairs and his mother’s bedroom, but he often found himself standing outside his own bedroom as he was now, gazing down the corridor to the closed door at the end, remembering his failure.
Over and over again he’d replayed it in his mind. He’d had to shake her so hard to get her to wake up, and there’d been no time. He could hear the men downstairs. Perhaps if he’d been quicker or made her go in front, then she’d have got inside the hiding place and the man with the scar would never have seen her, never have shot her, never have taken her away. Put her in a black, wet hole in Flyte churchyard.
Suddenly Thomas felt violently sick. His legs went weak and he was barely able to make it into the bathroom before he threw up, kneeling on the tiles with his arms hugging the cold porcelain of the toilet bowl. He retched again and again until he had nothing left.
Back in his bedroom, Thomas tried to think of something good. The trouble was that the past was his mother and her death destroyed it all. Made it unbearable. He looked out of the window again and tried to reclaim the north lawn for his own. It was across the lawn to the north gate that he would go with Barton at his side almost every morning of the holidays for as long as he could remember. Walking barefoot with the Labrador padding after him, making a path through the glistening dew on their way to the beach. There Thomas would break off a piece of driftwood and throw it high and far and the dog would rush headlong across the sand and into the sea, grasping it miraculously from the clutch of the waves before bringing back the prize to his master.
At night there was a ritual. The word ‘bedtime’ said by Thomas’s mother, even in the softest voice, would transform Barton into a wolf. He would growl menacingly and push Thomas up the back stairs toward his room. Protests were useless. The growls would redouble in volume and even turn into snarls until Thomas reached his door, whereupon the dog would spring on to the bed and curl up in contentment.
Thomas loved the Labrador passionately, and Barton loved him. The two were almost inseparable. When Thomas wrote stories about being marooned on a desert island, he never imagined himself alone. Barton was there to keep him company, protecting him from the wild animals that tried to attack their camp after the sun went down. If Thomas was a Knight of the Round Table dressed in the helmet and breastplate that Jane Martin had given him for his tenth birthday, then Barton would be his black charger dressed up for the tournament in one of Lady Robinson’s most beautiful silk handkerchiefs.
Time passed and Barton grew older. He could no longer always catch the sticks that Thomas threw out into the waves. The dog would stand at the water’s edge looking puzzled as the tide took his prize away, and his sleek black tail that had always crashed from side to side with the joy of being alive now hung still. Thomas put his arm around Barton’s warm neck and went to tell his mother.
The vet in Flyte listened to Barton’s heart and shook his head a fraction.
‘There’s a murmur. Give him these tablets and don’t let him strain himself. He’s an old boy now, Thomas. Nearly ninety in our years.’
Nearly ninety? Barton wasn’t ninety. He was three years younger than Thomas. ‘But dogs don’t live that long, darling,’ said Anne in the car on the way home. ‘We must enjoy them while we can.’
Two months later Barton could not get up the stairs. Thomas picked up the old dog and carried him up to his room. He slept on the bed all night but toward dawn he began to whimper and Thomas fetched his mother.
In the morning Barton was no better, and they called the vet.
‘It’s not fair to Barton to make him carry on,’ said Anne to her son. ‘He’s hurting inside, Tom. You can see that.’
‘But I don’t want him to die,’ cried Thomas with his pyjama-clad arm wrapped around the old dog’s neck.
Barton looked up at his master and tried to get to his feet, but the effort was too much and he laid his head down on the floor again.
‘He’s trusting us. Trusting us to help him. You have to understand that, Tom.’ And Thomas did. Love worked both ways.
He kissed the dog and held his paw while the vet prepared the injection. And then it was all over in an instant. It was something that Thomas never forgot: the thinness of the line between life and death.
He and his mother buried Barton in the garden under the old elm tree that stood by the north gate so that Thomas could see the grave from his bedroom window. They held hands and said a prayer thanking God for Barton’s life, and the next day Thomas made a wooden cross with Barton’s name and dates and dug it deep into the soil.
Anne had thought of buying a puppy before Barton died so that Thomas would have another dog already there when Barton was gone. However, she ended up not doing so. It wouldn’t have been fair to the old dog to see a puppy rushing about as he lost his strength and couldn’t compete for Thomas’s attention.
Anne took care also to allow her son enough time to properly mourn his friend. Thomas and she would pick the wildflowers that grew on the edges of the marsh and bring them back to lay on Barton’s grave, but Anne soon came to realize that these walks were only making things worse. Thomas would forget what had happened and look up expecting to see Barton bounding towards him across the dunes, only to realize that the Labrador was gone for good and nothing would bring him back.
After two weeks, Anne decided that it was time to act. Breakfast was over, and Thomas was sitting on the front step watching the early sun make patterns on the hall carpet as it shone down through the yew trees. A paperback copy of Robinson Crusoe lay face up beside him, but in truth he hadn’t read anything since Barton’s death. The sea was quiet, and as Thomas looked down over the lawn to the front gate and the houses beyond the road, he felt an enormous desolation settling over the world. There seemed to be nowhere to go and nothing to do.
The voice of his mother calling to him from the top of the stairs startled him out of his lethargy.
‘Come on, Tom, we need to get packed.’
‘Because we’re going to London. This afternoon. Everything’s arranged.’
‘London. Why are we going to London?’
‘For a holiday, Tom. For a change of scenery. To put some colour in your cheeks so you stop walking around looking like the Carmouth Ghost.’
‘I don’t look like the Carmouth Ghost. She was a woman who killed her husband with a steak knife, and I’m a—’
‘You’re a fourteen-year-old who’s been having a terrible time and doesn’t know what to do with himself.’
‘But, Mum, you hate London. You know you do. That’s what you always say to Dad when he wants you to go up there for one of his political things.’
‘I’m not going up there for them. I’m going to London to spend time with you.’
‘Yes, of course. He’s promised to take time out to be with us. He knows you’re having a bad time at the moment. That’s why he wrote you that letter.’
‘Not exactly a letter. Five lines. “I was sorry to hear about Barton. Here’s ten pounds. Buy yourself something at the shop.”’
‘He’s very busy, darling. He meant well.’
‘No, he didn’t. If he cared, he’d have come down here last weekend.’
‘He couldn’t. There was a conference he had to go to. You know that.’
‘I know that he doesn’t care about me. Or you. That’s what I know.’
‘That’s not true, Thomas.’
‘It is true. Spending all his time with Greta. Green-eyed Greta.’
‘She’s his personal assistant, Tom. And the fact that she’s got green eyes has got nothing to do with it. She’s very good at her job, and we must try to like her for your father’s sake.’
‘Everything is for his sake. Nothing is for ours,’ said Thomas, becoming visibly angry. He kicked his book to one side and went and stood at the top of the steps leading down to the drive.
Behind him he felt his mother approaching, but he did not turn his head even when she came to stand beside him. He fought to hold back the tears that were starting in his eyes and bunched his hands into hard fists.
Anne worried for her son as she stood beside him between the yews. He was so rigid and unbending as he fought to control emotions of anger and grief that threatened to overwhelm him. She thought of the old beech tree by the south gate broken by the great storm in January when the fisherman drowned in the bay. It had been too rigid, unlike the yews that swayed in the wind.
Peter had been here that night. With Greta. Driving Gracie Marsh down to the harbour. Anne didn’t like Greta. She had formed that opinion long before her son had found the woman trying on her clothes. She had seen Greta watching everyone, insinuating herself into their lives, but Anne had held her peace because Greta had done nothing wrong and it was clear that Peter needed her so much for his work.
Anne could tell that Greta had changed her accent, and she felt that the girl was watching her in order to imitate her. Sometimes it almost seemed as if Greta was trying to become her.
‘She’s not one of us,’ she had once caught herself saying to her husband in an unguarded moment, but she had accepted his retaliatory accusation of snobbery as just. Forgiveness was part of the code of manners by which Anne lived her life, and she had forced herself to accept Peter’s explanation for why Greta had tried on the dresses. She had money and Greta didn’t, and if she’d been nicer to her, then perhaps Greta would have felt able to ask to borrow a dress or two.
Thomas, of course, didn’t see it that way. It was ironic given all the efforts that Greta had made to get on with him. All those books she’d read about Suffolk. Anne didn’t know how she’d found time. It was as if something more had happened in her bedroom when Thomas found Greta trying on her clothes, but there was no point in asking her son. He’d found it difficult enough to tell her about the dresses.
‘Let’s not talk about Greta or your father, Tom. I know things aren’t easy at the moment with what’s happened to Barton, but you shouldn’t try to make them worse. You’re not the only one who misses Barton. Jane loved him and so did I. What we both need is a change of scenery. London’ll be good for us.’
There was a note of appeal in his mother’s voice that Thomas could not resist. He loved his mother and could not bear to make her anxious or distressed. That would lead to one of the terrible migraines that hurt her so badly. The long afternoons when his mother lay on her bed with her face covered by a flannel sighing with the pain were the worst days of his childhood. Afterward she would be weak for days, sitting in the rocking chair by the kitchen door in her dressing gown, drinking the cups of peppermint tea that Aunt Jane made for her in a special teapot.
‘Yes, Mum. I’m being silly. I’d love to go with you. I’ll go and get packed.’
‘Jane’s washed your shirts. They’re in the laundry room. And you’ll need to take your blazer for the theatre.’
‘The theatre? What are we going to see?’
‘Macbeth. At the Globe. I’ve got tickets for Thursday night. Just you and me.’
‘Macbeth! Oh, Mummy, I love you! It’s the one I’ve always wanted to see.’
Thomas ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and hurried to his room to get ready.
Anne smiled. What a strange boy he was! It was the first time in two weeks that she’d heard real happiness in his voice, and what was it that had caused this change? A tale of ghosts and bloody murder, treachery and treason.
They drove with the top of the Aston Martin down. It was a beautiful car that Anne had had since she was in her twenties. The garage in Flyte that had looked after her father’s Rolls-Royce did the same for the bright red sports car he had given her for her twenty-first birthday. Driving it made her feel young again. The world that flew by in a blur of fields and hedgerows seemed full of possibility. She was a fool to have shut herself and Thomas up in the house for so long.
Thomas also felt exhilarated. He loved to watch his mother drive. Her beautiful hands laced themselves around the spokes of the steering wheel, which was small, like in a racing car, as she sat back in her tan leather seat and allowed the wind to blow her brown hair over her shoulders. She was wearing a white summer dress with an open neck, and Thomas could see her favourite gold locket glinting in the sun where it lay heart-shaped on her breastbone. His father had given it to his mother on their wedding day, with a picture of them both shut inside.
On her finger Anne wore a blue, square-cut sapphire ring. The stone had been brought back from India by Thomas’s great-grandfather just before the First World War. There was a family rumour passed down through the generations that old Sir Stephen Sackville had stolen it from its native owner, who had then cursed him and his descendants, but no one believed the story. The jewel seemed so pure and magical and the portrait of Sir Stephen hanging in the drawing room at the House of the Four Winds was of a kindly old man, saddened by the early death of his daughter, Anne’s mother, in a riding accident. She had only been forty when she died, the same age that Thomas’s mother was now, and Thomas had often come into his mother’s bedroom to find her sitting at her dressing table gazing up at the portrait of her mother hanging on the wall above the fireplace.
‘I’m wearing the ring for you,’ said Anne, sensing her son’s attention to the sapphire. ‘I know it’s your favourite.’
‘Grandmother’s wearing it in the portrait, isn’t she?’ asked Thomas, who loved family history. ‘I was looking at it yesterday.’
‘Yes, she always wore it. Her father gave it to her when she was twenty-one. There’s that old story I told you about it. About where it came from in India. I’ve got a letter about it somewhere. I’ll have to dig it out. The sapphire’s so very beautiful. Wearing it makes me feel close to her. It’s silly, I know.’
‘No, it’s not.’
‘You’re right. It’s not.’ Anne smiled at the certainty in her son’s voice.
‘I do so wonder what she was like, Tom,’ she went on after a pause. ‘My father used to say that she was a daredevil. Always getting into scrapes and running up huge debts that old Sir Stephen had to pay off. But everyone forgave her because she was so pretty and full of life. Then suddenly she was dead. Killed by a horse, of all things.’
‘How old were you, Mum?’
‘When it happened? Five. I’d just turned five.’
‘It must’ve been awful. Really awful.’ Thomas suddenly wished that he’d not brought up the subject of his grandmother.
‘I don’t know, to be honest,’ said Anne. ‘I mean, yes, it must have completely traumatized me, which is why I can’t remember anything about it except one image, which may have nothing to do with her death except that I feel sure it does. It’s seeing my father sitting on the front stairs. I can’t remember if he was crying or not but I know that he never sat anywhere except on a chair and there he was sitting on the stairs.’
‘The front stairs?’
‘Yes. And for many years I couldn’t remember anything about my mother at all. I would look at the old photograph albums, but they didn’t mean anything, and curiously it was that painting you like that gave me the strongest sense of her. It used to hang in the hall, and I’d gaze at it for hours until one day a memory came back to me.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.