Lies & Consequences
Fourth in the Nankervis family chronicle
There's nothing in the whole world so hard to bear as injustice.
Cressida thought the words sounded terribly impressive, and she didn't particularly care that they weren't original - or even, in the context in which she thought them, appropriate. In her mind, it had been unjust, there was no possible doubt about that. She was the injured one, and they had turned her away without a second thought, because he -
She stopped that thought abruptly. Her talent for self-dramatisation had never managed completely to rationalise the harsh events of her recent life: there were some scenes that couldn't be re-written, some dark places that wouldn't bear close inspection. She consoled herself with the simplistic, if dramatic, statement that they were too terrible, therefore she mustn't let herself think about them. She imagined herself as the tragic heroine of one of the paperback romances that formed her favourite reading. Beautiful, of course, that went without saying, and somehow tragic, with a dreadful secret in her past that she would never tell. Could never tell, she liked that better. There was no need to dwell on it in too much detail, and the romanticised version helped to blot out the real truth. Truth and Cress had never been on very friendly terms. A wonderful imagination, her mother had said, teasing. A shocking liar, had said her classmates at school, less forgivingly. Don't think about it. Concentrate on the story.
There's nothing in the whole world so hard to bear as injustice.
Somehow, this time the truism was less comforting, probably there were a lot of things that were harder to bear. Cress stirred uneasily and the entrance to one of those dark places gaped at her invitingly. She shut her mind. If the words had become disturbing, then she mustn't think them. Everyone kept telling her that she mustn't think so much about unpleasant things, as if simply not thinking about them would make them go away.
They had told her to pull herself together, she reminded herself in disgust. Pick up the pieces, they had said encouragingly. But there were simply too many pieces to pick up. They must see that. This, Cress found an easier thought because there was a certain amount of truth in it. None of them had known quite what to do, what to say, and in a rare moment of complete honesty, Cress could see their problem. But that didn't excuse how they had chosen to deal with it.
Take Allison, for instance. Seven years her senior, a worldly young woman, an air hostess or whatever she called herself - cabin crew or something - with a flat of her own near Gatwick, fully in command of an independent life that Cress suspected the family knew very little about. She envied Allison, but that was one thing. It was quite another for her to be so pleased with life and with herself, and she had no right to be so unfairly critical. She couldn't know how her more sensitive sister felt, she was hard.
'If you had any decency at all, you would stop whining and be pleased,' she had said, her brown eyes snapping indignantly. 'You let him take all the blame - you're even beginning to believe your own l - '
Allison had never finished that sentence, because Mum interrupted her, cutting her short with a warning lift of her hand, and a look had flashed between them, so quickly that Cress had nearly missed it, and had been unable to interpret it. If any of them came near to understanding, of course, it would be Mum. Poor baby duckling, she had used to say, when Cress had wept for some childish upset that either of her sisters would have shrugged off. She's born with no oil on her feathers, we must look after her.
But that was a long time ago.
Without realising it, Cress wriggled in her seat, uncomfortable. She had never been good at reality. I thought it was true, she told herself, knowing that she had not. She let her thoughts run free again, touching up memory to make it acceptable. If she did anything else, she would start to be frightened again, and that wouldn't do.
Cressida bent forward so that her hair, the long, black glossy hair that Mike had loved to brush for her in those lost days so far, now, beyond recall, fell forward to hide her face like a curtain. Her voice was taut with the effort to control it.
'I told you,' she said, in desperation. 'And I told him, too - I can't ever bear to see, or speak to him again - never, never! Please...'
But there, the scene went a bit wrong, because what Allison had actually said at that point was, 'Selfish little pig!' and Mum had given her a sorrowful look and said, 'But Cress, my poor baby, it's his home too. You can't make us turn him away. We must all try and put it behind us. We have to, you must see that, or it's going to be...' She had let her voice tail off, and then said, under her breath as if she didn't want Cress to hear her, 'impossible.'
That would take some editing. She tried anyway.
Put it behind them! The shock of their betrayal went deep, like an arrow into living flesh. The pain of it took her breath, made her answer almost without thinking,
'All right then, I won't make you turn him away. I'll go!'
'I'll go to Gran, then,' had been her actual words, spoken sulkily, but they lacked nobility, so she re-wrote them now. She hadn't needed to defend her determination very hard. None of them, not even Mum, had made a serious attempt to prevent her, and she had packed her bag, slammed the door behind her with childish defiance, and walked off into the blue... well, to catch the bus to the station, actually, but that wasn't terribly romantic so she re-wrote that, too.
'Let us know when you get there,' had been Allison's parting shot, but she was still angry and her voice had held neither warmth nor caring, and that, there was no need to re-write. It was true. Mum had kissed her, but it was just an ordinary kiss.
'Perhaps it's all for the best for now,' she had said. 'Take care, darling, remember we all love you.'
Dad had simply filled in the background, looking desperately unhappy. But no, they had none of them reached out to stop her. None of them. Not one. And none of them had offered to run her to the station, either, which she had resented. It wouldn't have hurt them!
And so she had gone out into the world, alone, where she had no friends now, no refuge waiting for her. Gone without a word, to make what she could of a life that she no longer valued - to make what she could of life without Mike, while in the home that had been hers since childhood, they prepared a welcome for his ki -
Even Cress couldn't go that far.
She could, of course, have done exactly what she had said she would do, and gone to her maternal grandmother, Gran would have been pleased to see her, spoiled her and made much of her - but she, too, had a different slant on events that she would have tried to put forward, as Cress well knew. So, she had got on the train at Launceston, yes, but when it reached St. Austell she had stayed on it. She was still on it, now.
As the long track to the far south west rolled under the wheels of the train, Cress sat in her seat, consciously clamped in misery. She had never really intended to go to Gran, or for that matter anywhere, she had simply been putting pressure on the family. She had gone to the station more than half-expecting that Dad would come rushing after her in the truck, and when he hadn't, she had got on the train simply because there was nothing else to do.
When she didn't turn up at Gran's, they would all be worried. The thought gave her a strange satisfaction. So, let them worry, was her unspoken thought. Let them be sorry! Then she bit her lip, suddenly uncomfortable and for a second, genuine tears pricked behind her eyes. There was nothing at the end of her journey, and they had made it impossible for her to go back.
A faint, a very faint surge of indignation pierced the sticky tide of her self-pity. After all that had happened, after all that she had been through, the family had withdrawn their support and given it to him. They couldn't seriously expect her to face him. They simply couldn't!
They didn't, remarked her better self, unexpectedly, and with unusual and unwelcome objectivity. They won't make you meet him at all. Not ever again, if you don't want to. But they won't shut him out, either, and they won't admit your right to expect them to. And how are you so different, anyway? If you weren't at this moment sitting in this train and going away, he would have nobody to turn to and that, as you know perfectly well, is why they didn't stop you. Not because they don't love you. Because they love you both.
And you've had your share.
She considered this proposition for a mile or two, liking its overtones of high-minded sacrifice, but the part didn't suit her temperament. It required her to be positive and self-reliant, two things at which she had never been good. She dismissed the novel idea and immediately forgot it, thinking instead, But how could they love him, how can they be so cruel to me, after what he put us all through, what he did? The tears rolled down again. It'll serve him right, when I don't turn up at Gran's. They'll hate him then.
For I have no haven, she thought, dramatically, abruptly changing pitch. I have none at all. There isn't a haven in the whole wide world, in the universe, where you can hide from your memories. And while I can remember him, he isn't wholly dead, nor all that happy time we had together.
That was true. She smiled at the secret thought, hugging it to her as if it was a precious thing, and the woman in the opposite seat, who had been about to ask her if she was all right and offer her sympathy and a cup of tea from her flask, suddenly changed her mind.
The train stopped at Truro, another town with which she was familiar, but she didn't get off. She couldn't, she could not! For once, she couldn't analyse why - the conceptions of self-blame or personal guilt had no place in her interpretation of events, even in her beloved romances it existed only when wrongly assumed - but her instincts told her that the one place that she was never willingly going to want to visit again was the Helford River, she shuddered away from the mere thought of it. Anyway, she had no way to get there, she had never gone by train.
And there was nothing for her there, either, not any more.
Never again, never. The hanging woods, the sparkling water, the picture-book village with its shining white inn on the foreshore, the boats, the friendly faces... gone, all gone. Blown away in the explosion that had wrecked her world and left her in this miserable nowhere, where life could never be the same . Would she ever be able to be whole again, to live again?
She couldn't recall his face clearly; which seemed odd when she had known him all her life. His photograph had been taken from the table in the lounge two years ago, of course, and put in a drawer where she needn't see it. Mum had cried when she put it away. She hadn't known that Cress had seen her.
The train gave a jerk and started on its way again, and Cress went with it. It was stopping at every station now, but she didn't leave her seat. The woman opposite got off at Hayle, relieved to do so for some reason that she couldn't explain, but Cress sat where she was, paralysed with self-pity, and let the train take her where it would. St. Erbyn and the shining, irretrievable past were well behind her. Ahead, the end of the land, the end of the world, oblivion.
But however easy it had become to shut out unwanted faces, unwanted memories had proved a different problem. She would never, for instance, forget Mike's funeral - Oh Mike, my dearest, how could I ever forget that day we said our last, long, goodbye? In the real world, she was conscious of a faint resentment that his name had been Mike, it struck a discordant note. He should have been called something more romantic, like Luke, or Damien maybe. She frowned, but only for a moment before returning to the long procession, herself weeping behind the coffin, her eyes reddened and her nose swollen and sore, supported on Dad's arm, and the tears running down his face, too. For some reason it wasn't possible to fantasise the sting out of that, it remained uncomfortably real and genuinely, deeply painful.
As did the trial.
There were tears there, too. Mum sniffing into her handkerchief, Dad looking so white and ghastly that she had really wondered if he was going to faint, and then herself... cool and self-controlled against the hysteria of the others, as she stood in the witness box and told how she had had to go away - to run away, if they wanted to put it like that, because loving someone wasn't enough and she had needed to find herself - as a person, as an artist. She had given up art school to marry Mike.
... and because she had so selfishly gone away, the man that she had loved was dead and in his grave, and how could she ever forgive herself?
That had the ring of truth, of genuine tragedy, she told herself. The fact that her modest talent demonstrably didn't justify it, she ignored, using it for an excuse had meant she hadn't needed to be too specific about the events that had led up to her flight. She had run, and Mike had followed, and met his death in doing so, those were the facts. Her fault, her tragedy... tears, tears, tears.
Counsel for the defence had called her a spoiled, immature child. Her eyes had met... well, his, across the courtroom and her own had filled, against her wish. His had remained steady, thoughtful rather than anything else What was going on in his head behind that steady look was beyond her comprehension or imagining, but she thought that he had been afraid, and so he should have been. And then came the verdict, the judge passing sentence - but there was no need to remember all that. It was rather sordid and uncomfortable. Cress and reality weren't on very good terms: what she had - inadvertantly, she assured herself - done, frightened her if she thought about it too hard. She preferred to nurture her deep and lasting grief, to feed her sense of personal tragedy, all the more poignant since she had become gradually aware....
Her heart leaped, rising like a singing bird, all unaware that she stood on shifting ground that could drop her through, if she wasn't careful, into unknown and dangerous territory. She had discovered something, in those days, that she couldn't do without, and so - she didn't. It had never occurred to her that the night she had reached out in her misery and guilt and despair and truly felt his arms come around her had been a turning point that might be that of no return.
Mike, Mike, our love so strong, so deep that it can span the great river, rise out of the grave, warm me with just an echo of what we lost, just enough to make things bearable. Give me time, oh my love, my darling. I can stand without you, I will, I promise, I will let you go. I can rebuild my life, I can come to terms with tragedy. I'm trying, I really am - I love you - I need you - stay a little while, just a little while.
But the rebuilding foundations were only fragile, even with this help. It had taken one telephone call to destroy them.
One telephone call, to say that he was coming home.
Just one telephone call to shatter the illusion of regained peace, and send her, raw and shaken as if it had all happened yesterday, out into an uncaring world, away from love and comfort, catapulted on the elastic of her own divided and outraged loyalties, with no place where she could hide. The fact that the instincts that had sent her flying had been genuine only confused her. She found the colours of the real tragedy too garish, preferring the delicate pastels of her own illusions. So -
They had been cruel to make her go.
She had almost thought there, let her go. She pulled herself up abruptly, but the thought once given expression was as slimy and insidious as creeping oil.
After two whole years? The question slid into her head, coloured with incredulity. Years that had been easier by far for herself than for him, so far as material things went. Years full of love and sympathy and kindness. He had had none of these.
He had what he deserved.
The train rattled on over points, coming into St. Erth now. It would run out of line soon, and she would have to get out. Penzance, she supposed. Well, why not? It was as good as anywhere, when you were so unhappy that everywhere looked the same.
Perhaps it had been time she left. Cress stirred uneasily again, as so often in the past afraid of looking facts in the face, even in the privacy of her own mind. Home was home, she didn't want to feel that she didn't belong any more in the semi-detached villa that her father had rented for them in Launceston only last year, or in the rambling house in St. Austell where she had grown up. The only thing was, it was so very difficult to think back to the time before she married Mike. Four years that had, all unknowingly, comprised a lifetime. Before that, there was being a child, school, college, friends and a loving family, but the gulf was too wide, too deep, it felt like a different life. Then Mike. Then tragedy.
It took two years, they had told her - everyone had told her. At least two years after you lost someone, before you could begin to live again. Her two years had run their course, but she was different, wasn't she? More sensitive, and anyway, Mike had been... but she couldn't even think the M-word. Instead, she felt thankfulness, and absolution from whatever it was her head was trying to tell her. Because if getting over it meant letting Mike go, putting her love behind her, then a hundred years wouldn't be long enough. And if that was wrong, then she would just have to be wrong.
Penzance was the terminus. Cress took her suitcase and left the train. Nobody had asked to see her ticket, nobody seemed to want her to pay an excess. She left the platform and walked out into the sunlit station yard.
She had no idea of where she wished to go. The bus station was next to the railway station, she went there and as the Trelewan bus was waiting, she climbed onto it.
The bus pulled out into the late-afternoon traffic and Cress began to consider seriously, for the first time, exactly what she was going to do. On her left, as they rumbled along, the sea sparkled cheerfully in the late evening sunshine, to her right, shops and cafes were beginning to stir to the approach of Easter. Perhaps, Cress thought, she could find work in the town. Mum had been saying for some time that it might help her to get herself a little job, had even asked her if she wanted to go back to college to finish her course - but going back was beyond imagination. Nobody had ever yet succeeded in going back. Cress thought in clichés quite a lot of the time. She never questioned whether they were true. It was enough that they were familiar.
So, a job? That would be a positive step. She didn't need it in order to live, thanks to the wonders of Life Insurance and her parents' help, but perhaps she did in order to live fully.
She considered this revolutionary idea as the bus travelled through Penzance to Newlyn, past the busy harbour and up the hill into open countryside, but reality had become tangled with fantasy again, and after the first surprise at having thought of it at all, she didn't consider it as a genuine option. It became an element in the story she made up about herself.
At least, if she worked she would have less time for thinking. She let her thoughts run on, speculating. She would be good at her job - whatever it was - but remote, and somehow unattainable. Her workmates would whisper about her. There was a shadowy boss in the fantasy somewhere, not a bit like Mike of course, perhaps the rugged, dark womaniser in A Lover for Ruby - his name had been Rafe she recalled, but of course it had been he, not Ruby, who had the secret sorrow.
The houses had been long left behind now, and the bus was bowling along a twisty road going ever westwards. Fields with cows and a stone circle, also with cows, a hill, a dip, another hill. Glimpses of sea sparkling to her left, and a junction on the right with a signpost reading TRELEWAN 1½, but the bus kept straight on. The switchback road narrowed, curled downhill, crossed a bridge over a shallow stream and wound upwards again across a green expanse of farmland before plunging gently downhill into trees. There was a gate across a driveway with the name THE QUOIT carved into it, and a glimpse of a grey house among leaves. An optimistic early-season sign swinging from the branch of a convenient tree read BED & BREAKFAST and VACANCIES in roughly painted black lettering. On impulse, Cress left her seat and made her way forward along the bus, leaning towards the driver's ear.
'Can you drop me off somewhere along here?'
It was a country bus, with country habits. She stood by the roadside with her holdall at her feet and watched it drive away, and then, picking up the bag and slinging it over her shoulder, she began to walk back towards the wood.
It was very quiet, very still, under the spreading branches, just beginning to fur over with green ready for spring. The rhododendrons that almost hid the house from the road rattled their leaves, and on her left, a copse of pussy willows was powdered with its fluffy blooms. She wasn't sure after all if she was ready for so much isolation... peace, quiet, trees, the stirring little wind among the leaves... time would stand still here, unlimited time, uninterrupted time... time in which to think, peace in which to rediscover herself, if she was still there to rediscover. Time to come to terms with things as they had to be, they wouldn't change. Water under the bridge couldn't flow back. The sanctuary that she had fled so precipitately was no longer unreservedly her own.
Tragedy for those at home had two faces. Not simply the abruptly, shockingly bereaved daughter, but the son too.
Cress stopped abruptly on the verge.
I can't. If I'm alone, I won't be alone. They will sit on either side of me, Mike and him, and if I call there won't be anyone to hear and help me, their ghosts will rend me apart, the dead and the living.
The low sun shone out of the pale, April sky, the wind ruffled green shoots in the broken stone wall beside her, beyond the concealing bushes the grey house waited, square and quiet. The gate, not quite closed, moved gently in the light wind, creaking on its hinges.
The quoit. The burial place. The place, perhaps, to bury the past.
And if she could still not confront what she had done - no! - what had happened to her squarely in the face, or manage the whirl of devastating emotion that had sent her rushing out into the world only this morning, then at least here it wouldn't confront her every hour of the day, and time, that greatest of all healers, could do his work. From this quiet place, she could go forward. Never go back. She had said that herself. She should have added, long, long ago, never stand still.
Mike would be there to help her. She felt his love reaching out to her as a warmth that shamed the spring sunshine.
Cress walked forward along the verge, and opened the gate.
The house was built of granite, square, grey and uncompromising amid its concealing rhododendrons and camellias. The camellias were in bloom already, snow white and vibrant, vivid crimson, and on a rough little lawn to the side, a hutch and a wired-in run housed a family of black and white rabbits. The place didn't look particularly prosperous, in fact it had a run-down air that Cress hadn't expected, and the bushes so close to the windows made it dark, but the room to which she was shown was clean and freshly painted, and at least it was somewhere to be. Everyone had to be somewhere.
The owner, or at least, the woman of the house, was young, not so very much older than Cress herself, a dark, Irish beauty in tight, faded jeans and a torn shirt, who introduced herself as Kate - short for Caitlin, she said, but nobody called her that. She had a forceful, rather scornful way with her, but perhaps it was just her manner. Cress, left alone in her room, went to the windowsill and sat down, leaning her forehead against the window frame. She had been treated with the gentleness due to an invalid rather than the bereaved for so long now that Kate's brusque welcome had left her feeling bruised. To Kate, she was simply a visitor. Her name had meant nothing. Nobody but herself, now, cared at all. Yesterday's news. Mike had died at twenty-eight and already become yesterday's news. She drooped.
Her window looked out over the lawn, with distant glimpses of sea over the rhododendrons. As she sat there, feeling isolated in her self-imposed perpetual misery, a man came out of the bushes and began to walk towards the house. He was tall, thin almost to the point of emaciation, with unkempt brown hair and a close, stubbly beard. He walked with a purposeful stride, and as he walked he yelled,
'Kate! Katie! Where the shit are you, Katie?'
A voice called back from somewhere below, but to Cress it was just a mumble. The man passed from her sight, and she heard laughter. People, living their lives together. A shiver ran over her skin. Her loneliness pressed on her.
The lawn was empty now except for the rabbits, hopping and nibbling in their run. Cress got stiffly to her feet, threw her bag on the bed, and began to unpack, throwing clothes and books onto the bed until she came to the bottom. Mike's photograph lay there, under her white woolly jumper, safe in its silver frame. She picked it up and held it in her hands, letting the sense of her own isolation pour round her, enfold her. The pain of her own emotion choked in her throat.
Mike. Dear, kindly, loving Mike, companion of so few short years of perfect happiness, so cruelly ended. Her conscience, which still retained a spark of life, gave a small twinge. It hadn't been perfect happiness, that was the whole point - but, she told herself hurriedly, that had only been on the surface. Underneath it had been perfect. It was her own need for her art that had caused the pressure, that was it. Her conscience, shrugging its shoulders, fell silent. She looked down at Mike's lean, intelligent face with its narrow, mobile mouth and the thin hawk nose, and the frame of exuberantly curly fair hair so different from her own, straight and dark, falling nearly to her waist. The photographer hadn't quite caught the look in his eyes... grey eyes, quietly smiling, deep, warm. Of all things, she had most loved his eyes.
Conscience stirred again, memories rose unwanted to the surface. The last time he had looked at her with those eyes, it had been with hurt, anger, distress... scorn. Not with that loving smile that had turned her heart over and made her blood run like fire through her veins. Oh Mike, Mike, how can I ever say goodbye? If I had known, if I had only known, how short our time would be I would never, never, have wasted a moment of it.
There was a brief knock on the door, and Kate came in holding a hot-water bottle.
'I thought you might like to borrow this,' she said, holding it out, limp and flat. 'There's no radiators in this house, but the water in the tap is sizzling hot, thank God, with the stove downstairs. If your feet are warm it never seems so bad, somehow.'
Cress had been so far away with her fantasies that it took her a moment to come back. She stood there with the photograph in its silver frame pressed against her heart, and her eyes dark pools of tragedy.
'Good God!' said Kate, appalled. 'What on earth is the matter?'
The tears that Cress so often shed stung yet again behind her eyes now. She swallowed. Red-eyed at Mike's funeral, red-eyed through the awful weeks and months that had followed, come down to crying over a pink hot-water bottle and the kindness of a stranger. Fantasy and unacceptable reality grated painfully where they came too close and touched. She couldn't face it.
'So kind - ' she said, with a tight throat.
Kate dropped the hot-water bottle onto the bed.
'What you need is a nice cup of tea,' she said, briskly. 'I've just made one for Charlie, I'll bring one up for you.'
'Charlie?' queried Cress. 'Oh yes - your husband. I saw him outside, I think.'
'Oh, we aren't married,' said Kate, and grinned at her. 'Marriage is strictly for the birds.' Her eye fell on Cress's wedding ring, circling the third finger of the hand that held the photograph, and she hurriedly back-tracked. 'It's all right for some, I suppose.'
'It was all right for me,' said Cress, rather too defiantly. She put the picture down on the dressing table, arranging it carefully so that she could see it from the bed. Kate watched her with a sardonic gleam in her eyes.
'They're none of them worth tearing yourself to bits for,' she suggested. 'Gone off, has he?'
'He's dead,' said Cress.
'Oh!' Kate looked momentarily taken aback. 'I'm so sorry - I didn't realise.'
'Yes,' said Cress. She stood for a moment, looking down at Mike's loved face that would never smile at her again, and added the terrible, the unforgivable thing. 'He was murdered,' she said.
Kate went downstairs to the kitchen in a thoughtful mood.
'We've got ourselves a real weirdo this time,' she said. Charlie was sitting at the kitchen table with his mug of tea and the paper. He looked up.
'What, the PG?'
'Yes.' Kate picked up the teapot from the edge of the stove and stood holding it. 'She's been telling me her husband was murdered.' Her voice, rich as cream and soft as velvet, thrilled on the words.
'But that's terrible.'
'Yes, it is.' Kate gave a sigh, and hooked a spare mug towards her by its handle. The tea gurgled into it, hot and black, just the way Charlie liked it. 'Somehow, she makes it sound like something out of one of those tacky little romances. She had a pile of them on the bed. She almost made me feel it wasn't true.'
'Perhaps it wasn't.' Charlie wasn't that interested. His attention began to stray back to the sports page.
'I think it was. You didn't see her face.' The top of the milk bottle had left her fingers greasy. Kate licked them thoughtfully. 'The awful thing is, I think she's looking to me for sympathy.'
'Is that so difficult to give?' He had almost stopped listening.
'And a mother-figure to lean on and dry her tears,' said Kate, caustically. Charlie gave a great bellow of laughter.
'Not if I can help it.' Kate picked up the mug and the bag of sugar and made for the door. 'If she wants a shoulder to cry on, she's come to the wrong shop. I'm dreadfully sorry for her, if it's true, but I can't stand wet women. Will crying bring him back?'
She walked briskly out of the door and Charlie turned back to his newspaper with a smile. Kate's heart, he knew, was a lot softer than she made out - but other people's tragedies were their own affair. He poured himself another mug of tea, absently, with his eyes on the rugby results.
If Kate had no intentions of being a substitute-mother figure, she was at least kind in her way. Cress came downstairs later on, composed and calm, and asked if she might use the telephone.
'There isn't one,' said Kate, cheerfully. 'They cut us off. There's a box up by the crossroads, it's only a few minutes walk. It's usually working in the off-season - while it's still there.'
'And meals,' said Cress. 'You only do bed and breakfast, don't you?'
Cress had never been practical, it had been a contributory factor in her own personal tragedy had she but realised it, and her lack of practicality was all too obvious. She was one of those women, Kate thought in irritation, who needed to be looked after every minute of the day.
'I can do you an evening meal if you like, but it'll be whatever we have, and you'll have to eat it with us,' she said, knowing it was against her better judgement but, in the face of this helplessness, unable to help herself. 'And not every night, mind. We aren't always here.'
'Is there somewhere in the village where I can eat?'
'There's the pub. It's a bit of a walk in the dark, though.'
Cress's chin jerked up as if Kate had hit her.
'I don't like pubs much anyway,' she said.
'Please yourself.' Kate shrugged. 'It'll have to be Penzance then. There's nowhere else.'
'Are there buses?'
Kate looked at her in despair.
'Haven't you any transport of your own?'
'Then why pick on somewhere like this, right out in the sticks?' asked Kate, she thought reasonably. Cress's face crumpled.
'I needed to be alone,' she said, dramatically. Kate laughed, but kindly.
'Well, you'll certainly be that here! All right, I suppose I can hire you my bike when I don't need it - it isn't much, mind, but it'll get you around. But the phone box is only a short walk, you can find that all right on foot. It's usually working out of season.'
She gave Cress directions and shut the door on her, raising her eyes expressively to heaven, although there was nobody to see her. Charlie had said that their guest might be in shock still, and perhaps he was right. But if anyone murdered Charlie, she thought vaguely, she wouldn't sit around under the rhododendrons wringing her hands. She would get out there and murder them!
Outside, the bright evening sun had long ago faded into twilight, clouds had begun to build up behind the trees and the wind was rising. It was only April, after all. Cress walked along the deserted road, her feet crunching on small stones, enjoying the loneliness now of the place, that was so different from the unrecognised loneliness of her spirit. Things didn't look too bad from here. You could - you had to - get over the death of a loved one eventually, she had been constantly told so although there were no signs of it yet, and of course Mike was still near. For other tragedies, it was different.
The phone box showed as a glow of light ahead of her, and her footsteps began to slow. She had left it too late, she realised. He would be there. There wasn't the remotest chance that he would be the one to answer the telephone, but he would be in the same house where her own voice would be speaking... why, oh why, the real Cress asked unexpectedly, was this hurdle being so much more difficult to surmount than the fact of death, which was so utterly final and awful? She need never see him, need never speak to him again, there was no need to cringe at the thought that he might, however distantly, hear her voice speaking to someone else. Probably, he wouldn't even be within earshot. It was all that they could give each other now, total withdrawal. He had no apology, she no forgiveness. Stalemate. She was glad for it, if it kept them apart. Her moment of honesty was over. Whatever the truth that lay behind it, she wouldn't find it now. Guilt wasn't a concept she understood; if her lies had taken her a step too far, she would never admit it simply because the results had been too far-reaching. It had all run away with her. It was still running now.
She stood outside the phone box on the damp grass verge for some time, wishing that she didn't have to open the door and go in, reaching after the idea of herself that was so much easier to live with than the uncomfortably torn, dutiful daughter, who knew somewhere inside her that she had no right to worry everybody so. But it was no use, even her fantasies allowed that you could not demand - but she preferred the word need herself - the last reserves of sympathy from people who loved you and then suddenly walk out and not even let them know that you were safe without putting yourself in the wrong. Being in the wrong wasn't Cress's favourite place. Steeling herself, she went into the booth and dialled the number of her home.
Allison answered. It would be Allison.
'Hullo Cress,' she said. 'Are you OK? Where are you?' She wouldn't give Cress the satisfaction of knowing how much she had worried them all, walking out like that and never turning up at Gran's. Her voice was so cool that Cress felt physically chilled by it.
'Down somewhere near Land's End,' Cress said. 'I'm in a B&B for a few days. The people are very nice, it'll be quite fun for a change, I'm going to enjoy it. I thought it was time I stood on my own feet.' Allison couldn't see her, but she lifted her chin bravely.
'You sound better,' said Allison. She relented a little. 'Happier. I'm sorry if I was horrible, Cress. Mum says I was. I didn't mean to be.' A discerning ear might have thought that she sounded rehearsed, but Cress, whose whole life, to quite a considerable depth, had always been rehearsed, wasn't critical. She spoke her own line:
CRESSIDA (with generous forgiveness) 'I know I've been being a drag. I'm sorry too. Is everything all right at home?'
She hadn't meant to ask that. She hadn't meant to say anything that would admit, even to herself, that there was a chance that everything wasn't all right, that the quiet home she had left was likely to be the scene of terrible emotional devastation. They weren't, after all, emotional people.
'Oh, fine,' said Allison, and it was impossible to tell from her voice if she was speaking the truth or not.
One had to go through the motions. Civilisation demanded it, and she had begun this, not Allison. Cress swallowed.
'So he got back safely?'
Allison made a small sound that down a telephone wire could have been taken for a laugh, a sob, or even a hiccup.
'Of course,' she said, and added, unasked and unwanted, 'He might never have been away. We all behaved perfectly, and it's all been quite easy.'
So he wasn't within earshot. Cress was glad.
'Oh - good,' she said.
Over the distance, her voice sounded so detached and complacent that Allison was swept by an awful impulse to add, we've all been acting our socks off, and Dad is shut in his office and Mum is crying in the washing-up, and it's all a million times worse than a self-centred little bitch like you could ever dream! She bit it back with an effort. Time might show Cress where she had erred, people had already tried and failed. No point in starting it all over again.
'Well, I'm glad you're settled happily, even if you didn't think to tell us what you were planning,' she said, instead, trying to keep the sting out of her voice. 'Have a nice time. Be sure and send us a postcard.' No. She wasn't being sarcastic, was she?
'Give Mum and Dad my love,' said Cress.
'I will.' For what it's worth.
End of conversation. Cress put down the receiver and stepped out into the cool, windy night. It was a relief to have that over.
She walked back to The Quoit. The house was warm and welcoming as she went in through the door, with a rich smell of frying onions thick in the air. Charlie poked his head through a door at the end of the small hall.
'Grub up,' he said cheerfully. 'We were just waiting for you to come in.'
That first meal they had together was impersonal. They talked of ordinary, everyday things, the erratic bus service and whether Cress could eat macaroni cheese (she couldn't, ugh!), things of that kind, and after it, Kate refused an offer of help with the washing-up. Feeling vaguely dismissed, Cress made her way back up to her room and lay on her bed with a book.
Lovely, after all, to be quite on her own, she told herself.
The book was a light romance of the most superficial kind, perfect holiday reading. Cress, who had what her sisters considered an unnatural passion for such things, tried to become interested in the doings of the pretty blonde heroine and the tough, on the whole rather arrogant and unreasonable hero, but found that for once they were failing to hold her attention. Usually, she could lose herself in the doings of the repetitive and stereotyped pair, but tonight her head was playing tricks on her. For one thing, the hero was dark (they generally were) and her imagination, which was normally equal to anything, couldn't seem to hold his image steady. He would come glowering onto the scene, six-foot-plus of unreconstructed alpha male, and before he had taken three paces into the story there would be nothing left of his creator's intentions but the colour of his hair. His piercing blue eyes, that wreaked such havoc on the heroine's susceptible little heart, would have become hazel, alight with laughter, and his rather-too-long, luxuriant and wavy hair would be close and fine, and - regrettably - starting to recede a little on the temples. His grim (but devastatingly attractive, of course) lips would soften and betray evidence of a lively sense of humour that the script hadn't written for him, and his impressive height and lean, rangy body would be impossible to visualise. It was infuriating.
And it hurt a lot more than she cared for.
Cress laid down the book and stared across the room at Mike, smiling at her from the dressing table.
Mike, Mike, Mike. Mike, I love you - I loved you. No, I love you. I love you still. Whatever I do, wherever I go, whoever I meet, your corner of my heart is always warm for you.
Mike, my friend. Mike, my love. Mike, my husband. Mike who died and left my life a wasteland.
Mike who died, and not in an accident or an illness, or any half-way bearable thing, but at the hands of my own brother, whom I once loved too... and who was freed from prison this morning on parole after serving just two-thirds of a three-year prison sentence for manslaughter.
Oh God, why can't I cry any more?
Why is it that he, who is alive, is more dead to me than you, who are truly dead and in the grave?
My husband. My brother.
And my tears.
She lay on her bed in the lamplit room with the book face-down on her lap and grieved, torn between what was true and what she would have liked to be true, but at that moment and in that place, with Kate and Charlie laughing in the room below, and the rabbits sleeping in their hutch under the window, she was still redeemable. She had only to reach out and take the reality - the casual friendships, the new life, the wider horizons that beckoned within her grasp and she could still be safe.
She had only to turn her back on her dangerous fantasy and tell the truth.
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