I can pinpoint exactly the moment that everything started to go wrong. It was when I saw Stephen’s car parked outside the house.
Up until then it had been a perfect day. The rehearsal had gone like a dream and as I drove home, a warm breeze flowed in through the open windows of the car. It was one of those rare August days that has a Mediterranean quality. The vast fenland fields stretched out on either side of me, golden in the haze of mid-afternoon, and far off in the distance a tiny tractor moved in a cloud of wheat dust.
The motion of the car had worked its usual magic on Grace and she was fast asleep. She wasn’t a easy baby to settle, but one thing you could say about her: when she did at last drop off, not much short of an earthquake would wake her. I slipped a tape into the cassette-player. A bass voice and a soprano swooped and soared, mingled briefly and parted, as they sang of the love of a woman for a man, of a parent for a child, of passion and pain and renunciation. It was the scene in La Traviata where Alfredo’s father pleads with the courtesan Violetta to renounce his son.
The Old Granary, where I live, is a few miles south east of Ely. And it was as I bumped down the long rutted track to the house, that I spotted Stephen’s Audi. I hardly had time to wonder what he was doing home so early, because the next instant a dark shape shot out of the bushes by the gate. I’d swerved before I knew what I was doing. The gate post loomed up in front of me. I was about to stamp on the brake, when I thought, Grace! She was buckled into her car seat, but – I hauled the wheel round, missing the post by a hair’s breath. The car lurched and shuddered over the ruts of the track. It was heading for the water channel that runs through the garden and under the house. Now I did slam the brakes on and the car juddered to a standstill.
I turned to look at Grace. She was still safely strapped in. Her eyes and mouth were round with astonishment, but she didn’t make a sound. The breath had been jolted out of her. The cassette player was still belting out La Traviata. Violetta on her deathbed was pouring out her love for Alfredo. I reached over with trembling fingers and switched off the music. I got out of the car. I was breathing hard, and my legs were so wobbly that I had to lean against the bonnet. A few more inches and we would have plunged down through the reeds and chickweed into two feet of water.
I looked back. A black and white collie dog was loping away, its tail between its legs. It disappeared round a bend in the track. Silence settled over the garden and the surrounding fields. I could smell the fragrance of grass crushed under the car wheels. The dustbin by the gate had been knocked over and across the lawn there was a trail of chicken bones, tin cans, and shreds of kitchen roll.
The door of the house opened and Stephen appeared on the doorstep. Grace got her breath back and began to wail.
‘Cass, what’s happened?’ He came running towards me.
‘A dog. Ran straight out in front of me.’
He put his arm round me and I leaned against him.
‘Are you alright? And Grace –?’
‘She’s just shocked, I think.’
By now she was yelling her head off. Stephen opened the back door of the car and reached in to unbuckle her. ‘Come on, little one,’ he crooned. He lifted her out and hoisted her onto his shoulder.
‘I’ve already chased that bloody dog away once this afternoon,’ he told me. ‘Found it rummaging in the bin when I got home.’
‘Looks too well fed for that. Must be from one of the farms.’
‘What are you doing here anyway?’ I asked. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine. But I got an urgent call this afternoon. I’ve got to go away for a few days.’
These business trips had happening increasingly often of late. Stephen is a partner in the small firm of solicitors that specialises in patent law. With the growth of Silicon Fen over the last few years, their business had expanded.
‘A night or two in London?’ I asked.
”Fraid not.’ He wasn’t meeting my eye.
‘Well, where then?’
‘Los Angeles!’ I was astonished. ‘But why? And when are you leaving?’
‘I’ve got to fly out today. A taxi’s coming to take me to the airport in half-an-hour.’