His memories of that last day were fragmentary, but some things stood out with a strange clarity, in particular the arrival at the house on the outskirts of Leicester.
He could see Mia in the kitchen, dumping the bag of stuff they’d grabbed from the fridge at home. She straightened up and ran a hand through her hair. The roots were greasy. In the rush of events she hadn’t washed her hair for days. He watched her look around, taking in the details of their new home. The house was spotlessly clean and not much smaller than their house in Chiswick, but it was drab and characterless. It was as if someone had gone into a shop with a list and simply picked out items that were both cheap and inoffensive.
Joe came in carrying a cardboard box full of odds and ends that they had hastily packed. Benji, the black labrador, trotted after him with his tail between his legs, infected by the sombre mood of his humans. Last of all came Sam, staggering under the weight of his own box of videos, books, and toys. It had been hard to persuade him to leave anything at all behind.
Sam’s eyes went to Mia’s face to see what he ought to think about the house. Jay saw the effort with which she dredged up a smile for him.
‘What are we having for dinner?’ Sam asked.
‘I’ll cook,’ Jay said at the same moment as Joe said, ‘Tell you what – I’ll go out for pizzas.’
‘Yeah!’ Sam punched the air. At ten he was still young enough for this to be a big adventure if it was handled in the right way.
Joe said, ‘Hey, did you know that the National Space Centre’s only a few miles away?’
‘Cool! Can we go, Dad?’
Jay hesitated. His eyes met Joe’s and asked the question. Would that be wise? Joe gave a tiny shake of the head.
‘Tell you what,’ Joe said to Sam. ‘I’ll take you.’
The child’s face lit up.
Mia went to bed when Sam did. Jay and Joe ran over the arrangements for the trial, and then fell to chatting about this and that. They had a Scotch from the bottle that Joe had thought to bring. It occurred to Jay that Joe was an old hand at this. How many times had he done it before? Jay didn’t feel like asking.
‘I won’t stay the night,’ Joe had told them earlier. ‘There’s a motel down the road. I’ll give you a bit of privacy.’
Jay walked him to the door. It was late August and the evening had darkened. It was a clear night with stars appearing. Seeing the unfamiliar street outside, Jay was struck all over again by the strangeness of it all. How far away they were from everything and everyone they knew. Now that the moment had come, he didn’t want to let Joe go.
Joe must have seen that in his face. He asked him what the matter was.
‘I hope to God I’m doing the right thing.’
‘Never doubt it.’ He clapped Jay around the shoulders in a manly half-hug. ‘Any worries – anything at all, even if you just want to talk – you ring me straightaway – doesn’t matter what time. OK?’
Jay looked in on Sam. He was lying on his back, arms flung out in total abandon. His hair, like Mia’s, was as pale as thistledown, bleached from the summer sun. Jay leaned over, rearranged the duvet with its pattern of planets and spaceships. At the last moment, when the police car was drawing away from the house in Chiswick, Mia had shouted for it to stop. She had run back into the house and had come staggering out with bedding spilling out of her arms. That was so like her – to know what a difference it would make to Sam to climb into a bed that smelt of home.
Benji was asleep at the foot of the bed. That wasn’t normally allowed, but Jay hadn’t the heart to boot him out.
Jay cleaned his teeth and undressed in the bathroom. He thought that Mia might be asleep, but when he opened the bedroom door, he saw her eyes glistening in the light from the landing. She was lying on her back staring at the ceiling. He slipped into bed beside her. He leaned over and through long habit put his mouth directly on hers. He tasted salt and ran a finger down her cheek. It came away wet. She had been crying.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘We’re together. That’s all that matters.’
‘We’ll be back home before we know it.’
They lay curled together like spoons. Her breathing settled into an even rhythm and he knew she was asleep.
He rolled over on to his back, too wired to relax. Would they really be back home soon? Would they be safe even after he had testified? He simply didn’t know.
After a while he fell into a restless sleep.
Something tugged at him. He tried to pull back into the refuge of sleep, but it was no good. He groaned and opened his eyes. Benji was whining. A pale colourless light was seeping round the edge of the curtains. Benji scrabbled at the door, claws clicking. Jay got up to let him in. But when he opened the door, the dog shot off down the stairs. Jay went into the bathroom, pulled on jeans and a t-shirt. Yawning, he made his way downstairs and unbolted the back door. The dog pushed past him and Jay followed him out onto the lawn.
The day had that newly washed feel. Jay gazed around. Everything was absolutely still and silent. Too still and silent? The shrubs and the pond, the clouds in the sky were freighted with expectation as if something were about to happen and they knew what it was.
Benji whimpered. Instead of relieving himself he went back to the door. He stood with one fore paw on the threshold and the other held up, like an heraldic beast. He cast an imploring look at Jay, showing the whites of his eyes.
At last Jay understood what the dog was trying to tell him.
But it was too late.
The leaking gas reached the cooker and was ignited by the pilot light and as Jay hurled himself towards the back door, something met him coming the other way, a blast of air –
It lifted him off his feet and threw him across the garden.
When he came round in hospital, Joe was by his bed-side.
Joe’s hands were bandaged and he looked ten years older. The explosion had woken him in his bed at the motel. He had rushed to the house. The fire brigade had arrived to find Jay unconscious in the garden and Joe scrabbling with his bare hands at the smoking rubble.
The two people Jay loved most in the world had been blown to kingdom come. The faithful dog had gone with them and for a long time Jay wished that he had, too.
Five Years Later
‘This is my last day.’
Jay didn’t take in what the cab-driver said. He was too busy looking through the back window, trying to decide if he had seen that car before.
The traffic was slowing down, grinding to a halt.
‘Yes,’ the cab-driver said, ‘my last day on the job. Demob happy, that’s me. I’m retiring. Well, I say retiring, me and the missus are opening a bar in Spain. This time next week, I’ll be playing golf in the sun.’
Yes, it was the same car, Jay was sure of it. Oh God. But surely he was safe enough for the moment. They were hardly going to pull him out of a cab going round Piccadilly Circus in broad daylight, unless –
What if the cab-driver was in on it, too? His eyes went to the man’s licence. Darren Clarke was the name – and this was a properly licensed black cab. He looked at the man’s solid meaty shoulders and the straw-coloured hair fringing a shiny dome. That ratty jumper – grey-and-white lozenges with pulled threads – he couldn’t be anything but a cab driver. Could he? And surely it was pure chance that Jay had stepped into this particular cab. He didn’t see how they could have planned it.
‘What’s up, chum?’ Darren asked. His eyes met Jay’s in the rear-view mirror. ‘You’ve been like a cat on hot bricks ever since I picked you up.’
Maybe it was the rosary dangling from the mirror that decided Jay.
‘I think some one’s following me,’ he said.