A Question of Identity

Page 30

He filled in a further report, on a closed file, and sent it through to his boss. Then he switched off his computer and locked the system, closed and locked his office door, and went down to the canteen.


HE'D BEEN A night man for as many years as he could remember, starting when he was a miner on shifts. Always preferred the nights. When the pit closed and he eventually got another job it was as a nightwatchman. So he thought it must be in his nature. Maybe he'd been born at night? He never knew his mother after the age of five, so he couldn't ask, but he had a feeling. Everything seemed to fit him at night, everything seemed to work better. He could hear more keenly, see further, and he had a sense of things happening, round the corner, on the other side of a wall or a patch of shrub.

The man from the paper had dropped a copy off at the shack, and Nobby had read what had been written. It included a nice bit about him at nights. 'Nobby Parks likes to look out for other people,' it said, 'especially when they're sound asleep. He keeps an eye open. Many a burglar has been deterred, noticing Nobby wandering down the street at two in the morning. And when there was a late-night ram raid on a jeweller's in Lafferton's small exclusive shopping area, the Lanes, Nobby was around. "I was handy," he says, "I saw what happened and gave them some useful bits of information."'

He had folded the paper up carefully and put it not among the piles of others but in the top drawer of the old sideboard, where he kept essentials – his reading glasses, his out-of-date passport, his pension book. A photo of himself in pit gear, coming off the very last shift the day it closed for good. The collar and lead from a dog he'd once had.

Now, he had been twice round the perimeter of the Hill, gone in and out of the maze of streets called the Apostles, down the Lanes once or twice. He'd stood in the square watching the last taxi driver give up and set off for home, pressed back into a doorway when a group of drunken lads started a punch-up and the police sirens came wailing down. It was milder now, the sky cloudy but there was no rain and the towpath and verges were drying up a bit. He went down to what he called the Jesus Bus, by the printworks, got hot chocolate and a slice of cake, and had a chat to the lads, who knew better than to try and preach to him. Anyway, he'd told them he was a fully paid-up Christian who didn't hold with church. After that, they'd given up.

It was gone three when he finally made his way home. He was pleasantly tired. He'd have a brew, a roll-up and the last couple of chocolate Bourbons before getting into bed like a mouse into a deep nest, and sleeping the sleep of the just.

No one about. He didn't need any sort of torch or light to show his way. He knew every inch of this towpath. He heard a rat plop into the canal water, just under the bridge, saw a car go over, lights sweeping across the arch of bricks and away.

A hundred yards to home. He might read the article in the paper again before he went to sleep.

Fifty yards. The old lean-to against the warehouses was in deep shadow. The door was loose on its hinge and in a wind swung and creaked so much that sometimes Nobby had to get up and shut it and hold the broken padlock with a piece of stick. But tonight, it was still. The canal water was like glass. The air was moist and heavy.

The lean-to door was open but he didn't look closely enough to see a shadow within the shadows, or sense the slight flicker of movement.

He pushed open the shack door and went in. He switched on his torch and went to the paraffin stove. Lit it. Lit the paraffin lamp. Put the torch back on the shelf, his coat and boots by the door. Then he made a brew. Rolled a cigarette, and sat back in the wicker chair, enjoying the peace and quiet.

For a moment, something seemed wrong. Something was slightly different. He looked round. But the shadows of the lamp didn't reach the corners of the shack and he couldn't see anything unusual near to hand.

He sat thinking. Pleased with himself. Pleased with events.

It was another roll-up and twenty minutes before he got up, went outside to the dense patch of weeds and peed into them.

It had begun to drizzle a little.

He looked round but the cloud cover was too heavy for him to see anything. Even the movement of shadow on shadow over by the old lean-to.

He went back inside, latched the door, half undressed, into his long johns, jumper, socks. Got into his nest of bedding and old coats, turned on his side and pulled them up almost over his head.


Fifteen minutes later, the darkness, silence and stillness were disturbed by a single figure, moving swiftly. A small flicker. A flare. A carefully aimed lob. The flaming ball of material hit the wooden shack roof, swift as a falling star. Seconds later, the whole place was an inferno. The shadows were broken again for a split second as someone ran, along the towpath, under the bridge, across the waste ground and away.

Nobby Parks's shack blazed like a tinderbox throwing flames high into the night sky.

Stupid. Stupid. Fucking stupid. You never do that. You know it and you always knew it. You plan, you work it out, for weeks, months maybe, and that's part of the whole thing. Part of the pleasure. You never let a single thing happen without a plan and you have backups to your plan, and you have an abort to your plan.

Bad enough having one fuck-up. You could have waited. You weren't sure she'd seen you, but you panicked. You never, ever panicked before. The reason it went wrong before was down to bad luck. Simple. Not you making a mistake, not the cops being clever. Bad luck.

But now?

This is not what you do. Not part of the game at all. Shit, what kind of a bloke would torch an old dosser's shack with him in it, out of panic?

He didn't deserve that. Even if he had seen something. Heard something. Knew something.

Yes, but if he had. If he did.

You can't take that chance.

And how else was I supposed to shut him up? Tell me that.


'WHAT ARE WE reading this time? I'm so behind.'

'The Great Gatsby.'

'Yes, I remember now. I read it donkey's years ago, but I haven't had a chance to read it again. I'd better not come.'

'Judith! You missed last time. It's in the bookshop tonight as well. Emma gets agitated if people miss. She's having a tough time keeping an independent bookshop open . . . come on. You can just listen and if you start now you can get a couple of chapters under your belt.'

I have got to get to the bottom of this, Cat thought, putting the phone down. Something is wrong, I have no idea what, but Judith is not herself and she won't talk to me.

Her stepmother had made one excuse after another for not coming to the book group, to Sam's matches, Hannah's play, lunch with Cat at Steeleye's. Enough.

She sat at the kitchen table reading the paper over her coffee, a fifteen-minute break before going back to her desk and working through more papers, trying to firm up some of her ideas for the PhD. She had taken Wookie for a long walk and the house was quiet apart from the distant churning of the washing machine.

But she could not get Judith out of her mind, and if it was not Judith, Sam and Hannah probed their way in. Simon had told her briefly about his conversation with Sam and indicated that he thought things would now improve . Certainly Sam was behaving better, was less inclined to sneer at Hannah, grunt at Cat and slouch off to his room rather than give any help. Hannah was still wary, and tried not to be on her own in a room with him.

It was not the ideal setting in which family life could thrive.

But Molly had emailed a couple of days before to say that she was coming down to see the medical school about taking her finals or possibly repeating her last year altogether. She asked if she could stay a night or two at the farmhouse.

Cat was delighted. Molly sounded steadier and more optimistic in her email. If she had made enough improvement, there was no doubt in Cat's mind that she ought to finish her qualifications and it would be good to have her about the house again. But she knew how careful the med school would be. PTSD did not vanish in a hurry. They had to be sure that Molly could cope, for their sake but most of all for her own.

Wookie pattered after her into the study and turned round and round on his bed, which was in a patch of winter sunlight, before finally settling into a satisfactory nest and looking at Cat with one eye. After a moment, sensing in some way that he was there, Mephisto strolled through the door and climbed in beside the terrier. There was barely room and the cat overlapped the bed with his huge fluffy tail and forepaws, but his head rested on Wookie, without any protest from the dog. Both slept.

Silke came at half past six. At ten to seven, Cat phoned Judith.

'Are you ready? We can both park outside Si's and walk through if you like.'

There was a pause. 'Darling, I can't – my car seems to have something wrong with it.'

'What sort of thing?'

'Making a sort of – grinding noise. I don't want to risk being stranded.'

'Use Dad's.'

'Heavens, you know what he's like about anyone else driving his precious car. No, I'll –'

'Right.' Cat said. She clicked off.

Twenty minutes later she was driving up to Hallam House. She waited a moment.

The lights were on in the back rooms and one on the upstairs landing but the kitchen was in darkness.

She did not get out of her car, just hooted loudly. Nothing. Hooted again.

A light went on in the hall but no one came to the door.

Cat rang Judith on the mobile.

'Hello? Oh . . .'

'I'm outside,' Cat said. 'Waiting.'

'Oh Lord, you shouldn't . . . you're going to have to go on without me, I can't –'

'I am staying put here until you come out, wearing your coat and carrying your copy of The Great Gatsby.'

She sat back and put on the radio, to hear the beginning of Front Row. They were into the third item, about an Eric Ravilious exhibition, before Judith came out of the front door. She had on her coat, carried her bag, and had a scarf pulled up round her neck and covering her chin.

'Dentist . . . root canal. I daren't let the cold air onto it.'

The air was much milder after the weeks of sub-zero. Cat looked at Judith carefully for a moment, then set off. They talked about her PhD on the way, the options, the areas of particular interest she had narrowed down to, how long it was going to take her and what it might lead to at the end of it all.

'You're looking forward to it, aren't you?'

'Yes. Nervous though. A PhD is a big step from a short course. What happened to your thoughts on doing an Open University degree by the way?'

'That's all they are. Thoughts. I don't think I could do it.'

'Why not? People of ninety do degrees.'

'Nothing to do with age. Just commitment. And your father isn't keen.'

'Now that doesn't sound like you.'

There was a difficult silence. Cat had deliberately arrived early for just this eventuality. They were in the centre of town now, but she pulled up in an empty side street and switched off the engine.

Judith looked out of the window.

'If you want to talk and not go to the book group you know that's absolutely fine. We can go and get something to eat or –'


'I'm concerned. You know I am.'

'It's all fine, darling. We'd better get a move on.'

There were ten members of the book group but they rarely had a full house. Tonight, eight sat round the front of Emma's bookshop. The idea was that although the Lanes were quiet at night, people still went through, and the bar on the corner and the brasserie were open until eleven, so lights on and a group sitting talking in the shop full of books attracted attention.

Emma provided coffee, others brought cakes and biscuits, and they all put money into a communal pot to buy wine. Cat always looked forward to the group evenings, and until the last few months, so had Judith. Tonight, she sat at the back, on a chair behind two others, her scarf still round half her face. Someone asked if she was all right, and sympathy was universal at her murmured 'Dentist. Root canal.'

It was Emma's turn to introduce the book and she held up her copy to get their attention.

Cat listened, but every so often took a covert glance at her stepmother. The discussion began but Judith did not say anything. They had some pleasantly fiery disagreements, the usual people took the floor and wouldn't give it up, the usual others said little. In five minutes they would break and whoever's turn it was would go out to the kitchen to organise the refreshments.

A slight movement caught the corner of Cat's eye and she looked at Judith. The scarf had slipped. The right-hand side of her face, around her cheekbone, was badly bruised and flared red, and there was also a livid patch on her jaw.

Cat looked away but not before Judith had realised. She flushed, and pulled the scarf back up.

Cat sat through the rest of the evening on autopilot, drinking a glass of wine too quickly, then a cup of sweet black coffee, eating nothing, her heart racing. She could not look at Judith again, did not say a word about the book, nor even take in the rest of the conversation.

'I think that's it, then. What a great discussion. Cat, you're hostess next month, your turn to choose our book. What are we going to read?'

She hadn't the faintest idea, not given it a second's thought. Now, she looked quickly round the shelves.

'The Magic Toyshop. Angela Carter,' she said, seeing a new edition displayed on the table.

People said this or that – they had read Carter, they hadn't, they admired her, they weren't sure.

Cat took Judith's arm as they went out into the street.

'I'll get a taxi home, no need for you to bother coming out all that way.'

Cat said nothing at all, merely walked down through the narrow streets to Cathedral Close and her car, parked at the top. Simon's own car was absent, his lights not on.

Judith sighed. 'The pressure he must be under.'

'I know. But he has the coolest head of anyone I know. He never lets it get to him, just works harder.'

'Did you hear about the fire? That poor man, burned to death – it must have gone up like a tinderbox. They say he had a paraffin stove and lamp – dreadfully dangerous things. You really should have let me get a taxi, darling.'

Cat said nothing, simply drove out through the archway and hit the road home. She switched on the car radio to a Bach cello recital. It was like a balm as she drove through the darkness, praying that she would get it right, say the things she had to say and not upset her stepmother.

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