When the police left, Gaby went back to the kitchen and poured herself another glass of wine. She needed to pull herself together, to get her story straight before Caroline came in. It was one thing talking to the police, who didn’t know her, quite another talking to Caroline, who knew her as well as anyone in the world, who behaved quite often as if she was Gaby’s big sister, her protector: indulgent, but somehow in charge of Gaby’s morals.
Gaby’s mother had never cared about her in that way. Linda, her mum, had been occasionally wayward herself. There’d never been a father on the scene. The two of them had lived in a council flat in north London and Gaby had often been left to fend for herself. Linda had always been a grafter, cleaning offices, stacking supermarket shelves, just to put food on the table. But as soon as Gaby had got to secondary school, she hadn’t been around much. She’d had Gaby while she was still a teenager and felt she’d missed out on life. Once Gaby was halfway independent, her mum had started making up for lost time. There’d been so many boyfriends that Gaby had lost count. Gaby had just got on with things, had felt her way through life without, it seemed, any rules.
She’d discovered art even before school, scribbling on scraps of paper, losing herself in the designs to block out the chaos of the flat; her mother’s constant exhaustion from work had meant there was little energy to keep on top of things at home. In class she’d doodled instead of listening to teachers. It had been a rough school in a poor area and they’d just been grateful that she was quiet, not disruptive. She still had a maths book decorated with cartoon dragons, strange imaginary landscapes. An art teacher had been her salvation, praising her creations, sending her out at weekends to look at galleries, showing her a different world.
Gaby had come into her own at art college, made friends, become the joker in the pack, still living at home and including Linda’s exploits in stories to entertain the other students. They’d been mostly middle-class kids, with an eye to making it in advertising or film. Her passion had always been painting. A year after college, she’d been doing the same sort of work as her mother — bar work, cleaning — putting off the inevitable slide into teaching, when she saw the advert in the Guardian for an artist in residence at the Woodyard Centre in North Devon. She’d skipped most of the details, just seen there was a salary she could live on. And the words studio space had jumped out at her.
Sitting on the little train easing its way down the Taw Valley from Exeter to Barnstaple, she’d seen paintings in the dense trees, the water and the watchful heron, and decided she wanted this job more than anything else in the world. She’d been interviewed by two men: Jonathan Church, who managed the whole of the Woodyard Centre, and Christopher Preece, who was chair of trustees. Jonathan had already shown her around the centre, describing its philosophy. ‘This is a space where everyone should feel comfortable — the A-level students attending specialist masterclasses and the guys in the day centre who have a learning disability. We very much believe in art for everyone.’ She hadn’t said she only cared about her art. She’d seen the big empty room in the roof and imagined herself there, painting. She’d have promised the earth to get the gig. The interview had gone well. She’d always been good at telling people what they wanted to hear. And then Christopher Preece had asked her if she’d need somewhere to stay. ‘I could put you in touch with my daughter. She’s looking for a lodger.’ They’d met that evening and Caroline had showed her the house, the room. The place had been pretty boring then, magnolia paint, hardly any furniture.
‘I need so much stuff,’ Caroline had said. ‘But the budget’s pretty tight and I don’t want to ask my dad.’
So, Gaby had introduced her to the joys of charity shopping, freecycling and eBay. As the house filled with Gaby’s purchases and creations, they’d become close friends. Very different — Caroline was so earnest, reliable and punctual and Gaby was none of those things — but strangely interdependent. Gaby cared what Caroline thought and didn’t want to upset or offend her. She thought she’d lightened Caroline, made her more fun. Now, hearing the key in the door, she wondered how she would break the news of Simon Walden’s death to her.
Gaby must have been sitting almost in the dark with her daydreaming because when Caroline flicked the switch as she came into the room, the sudden light came as a shock.
‘What are you doing?’ Caroline disapproved of drinking too much in the week, though she didn’t mind letting her hair down if the mood took her.
‘It’s Simon.’ Gaby turned around in the low sofa and looked at Caroline.
‘What about him?’
‘The police were here earlier. He’s dead.’
She saw that Caroline was as thrown by the news as she had been. They both had their own reasons for mourning Simon. Caroline dropped onto the sofa beside her. ‘Did he kill himself?’The question seemed loaded with guilt. ‘I didn’t notice he was depressed. If anything, a bit manic, I thought.’ A pause. ‘Oh, I should have realized!’
‘He was murdered,’ Gaby said. ‘On the beach at Crow Point.’ She thought she’d hit just the right tone. Not cold, but not too upset either. Caroline would never believe upset.
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When Matthew got back to the house, Jonathan had lit a fire and was sitting on the floor of the living room, the curtains open to let in the moonlight, a glass on the low table beside him. He’d been reading but he set down the book when he heard Matthew.
‘A drink? Something to eat?’
‘I might have to hand over this murder investigation.’ It had been on Matthew’s mind since he’d left the station. He followed Jonathan through to the kitchen. ‘The victim was a volunteer at the Woodyard. And one of the people he shared a house with has a residency there.’
‘Who was killed?’
‘A man called Simon Walden. Did you know him?’
‘I recognize the name. He worked in the cafe with Bob.’ Jonathan took an opened bottle of Chablis out of the fridge.
‘Walden had mental health problems,’ Matthew said, ‘and it seems one of your trustees pulled strings to get him the placement.’
Jon frowned. ‘Whoever it was didn’t go through me.’
‘Christopher Preece? His daughter runs the project at St Cuthbert’s. She was Walden’s landlady.’
‘They must have organized it directly with Bob. He runs his own show there.’ Jonathan handed a glass of wine to Matthew. ‘They can’t take the case off you just because I manage the place. That’s crazy. It’s the first major investigation since you took over the team. Besides, Joe Oldham’s an idle bastard. He won’t want to run a case like that. He couldn’t do it! He has the sensitivity of a gnat. Imagine him stomping through the Woodyard, upsetting people.’
‘Joe doesn’t stomp.’ But Matthew could understand Jonathan’s point and he smiled.
The Woodyard was Jonathan’s pride and joy, his baby. The site was on the south side of the Taw and had once belonged to a timber firm, that had long since stopped operating. There’d been the carcass of a huge warehouse built of old brick, full of rusting machinery. There’d been plans to demolish the buildings, flatten the site and put up a retail park. At the same time the council was contemplating closing the day centre for adults with a learning disability where Jonathan worked. He’d made the imaginative leap to connect the two. Matthew had been living and working in Bristol then, but he’d been swept up by Jonathan’s enthusiasm. Most of their phone calls had included his plans for the site, his passion for bringing together different groups of people in one place — artists and adults with a learning disability — so it seemed to Matthew that the project almost embodied their love affair, the reckless, unimaginable possibilities of two alien individuals becoming one.
‘Don’t we have enough stores already in Barnstaple?’ Jonathan would rant. ‘The high street’s already all charity shops, hairdressers and estate agents. Why not use the timber yard as a community hub? Let’s have an arts centre, a cafe, a place for people to meet and explore ideas. And my people from the day centre can be there too, right at the heart of things instead of being hidden away from view as if we’re somehow ashamed of them.’
Jonathan had formed a committee, pushed through the plans, persuaded the Lottery Fund to give them cash and had raised match funding. Now the Woodyard was just as he’d imagined. There was a theatre and studio space, a bar and a cafe. The day centre for adults with a learning disability was there too, in a space converted from one of the smaller buildings. And he managed the whole place. Matthew couldn’t have been more proud.
Today, though, Jonathan’s involvement with the Woodyard might provide complications. ‘I might have to hand the case over,’ Matthew repeated. ‘My choice, not Oldham’s.’
‘Well, don’t do anything until he forces your hand! You want to work this, don’t you?’
Matthew thought for a moment. ‘Yes. I definitely want to work it.’ A pause. ‘I’m just not sure it would be right.’
‘I love you to bits, you know that.’ Jonathan had an accent that Matthew had struggled to define when they first met. Jon had been brought up on Exmoor, a farmer’s son. No university for him. He’d left school at sixteen and travelled. There’d been no real explanation when Matthew had asked why. Just: Things weren’t brilliant at home. It was for the best. He’d worked in vineyards in France, picked strawberries in Spain, and he’d cooked for rich sailing types on smart yachts out of ports throughout Europe. Romantic stuff that had turned Matthew’s head, made his mind spin. Wherever he’d stayed, Jonathan had picked up odd accents. When he was serious, though, his voice became rural North Devon again. Now he was definitely serious.
‘You keep me real and rooted.’ Jonathan put his hand on Matthew’s arm. ‘But you do have far too many principles. Sometimes I think you hide behind them. Just have the balls to take this on. Just this once, Matthew. Fight for it.’
When Matthew woke the next day, it was already light and he had a moment of panic, convinced he’d be late. He never overslept, but he’d been awake until the early hours, restless. He’d arranged to go to the victim’s home with Jen this morning — he needed to get a feel for the place and the people who had known Walden best — and he had a brief rush of horror when he thought he’d missed the appointment. The other side of the bed was empty. But when he checked his phone he saw that it was still early and he had plenty of time.
All night, he’d been aware of Jonathan sleeping beside him, motionless, the gentle breaths not moving his body. Jonathan had a gift for sleep that Matthew envied more than anything. More than his husband’s easy confidence, his courage, his ability to laugh off hurt and insults. Now Matthew was alone in bed and that rarely happened. Usually he was the first up. Jonathan was in the kitchen and there was the smell of coffee and toast. For years this had seemed unattainable: a companion, a shared home, love. Matthew thought he was the most fortunate man in the world and the anxiety and insomnia of the night before seemed like an indulgence.
But your father died less than two weeks ago and you only found out because of a notice in the North Devon Journal. His funeral was yesterday. Cut yourself a bit of slack, Matthew. You’re going through a tough time. Dump the guilt.
Then Matthew felt himself smiling because he could hear Jonathan’s voice speaking the words.
They stood together in the kitchen drinking the coffee. Jonathan had already eaten the toast; he knew Matthew didn’t do breakfast. Outside everything was clear and sharp-edged, sparkling. A breeze blew the river into tight little waves and scattered the light. There were new daffodils on the edge of the grass.
Walden’s body had already been moved to the mortuary and the CSIs had finished their work, so there was nobody on the toll gate to stop cars coming through. The barrier lifted automatically, as it always did on exit. As he pulled out onto the road that led towards the sea, Matthew saw Colin Marston standing on the verge, scanning the flat land leading towards Braunton Burrows, the extensive area of dunes that stretched between the marsh and the shore.
On impulse, Matthew turned the car left at the junction, away from the village and the main road and towards the coast. This way to Ilfracombe was longer but he had time to spare and there would be less traffic. And the route brought back memories. His father had worked for an agricultural supply business and occasionally, during school holidays, Matthew would be allowed to go with him on business calls to farms along the coast. His father had converted to the Brethren to marry, and away from the house he’d seemed more relaxed, younger. Not like the rest of the sect. They’d chatted about trivial things — football, fishing — and his dad would describe the customers they’d be visiting:
Geoff Brend would be a good enough farmer if he didn’t take to the bottle whenever he hit a bad patch.
And then when they’d driven into the sunset towards a whitewashed farmhouse at the head of a valley leading down to the sea:
Mary Brownscombe’s a grand woman. She kept the business going while her Nigel was ill with cancer and she’s still making a go of it now.
The woman had been out in the yard when they’d arrived. Everything had been flooded with the red glow from the sun setting over the sea at the bottom of the Brownscombe land. Matthew had thought it the most beautiful place in the world ... magical. It was a picture-book farm with ducks on a small pond by the side of the house and bales of hay in the barn.
All the young Matthew had seen of the woman when he’d first got out of his dad’s vehicle was her outline. She’d come up to them and given his dad a little hug and that was when Matthew had first seen her face, the grey eyes and the dark hair tied back with a bit of bailer twine.
‘Good to see you, Andrew.’
Matthew had been expecting an old woman. Then, he’d thought all widows were old. But she’d been about the same age as his mother, dressed in jeans and wellies and a sleeveless vest top. His mother never wore jeans. He’d followed the adults into the house, which had a collie in the kitchen and books. Books on shelves and piled in heaps in corners.
Mary had made tea and put an open packet of chocolate biscuits on the table for Matthew to help himself. There were never biscuits in the Venn house unless his mother made them herself. She said God wanted his children to care for their bodies as well as their souls, and they weren’t going to eat fried food or processed junk while she had the time and the strength to cook for her family.
The grown-ups had talked about business while Matthew played with the collie. But once the order had been placed, his father had still sat there, long after his cup was empty. There’d been some conversation, but Matthew had stopped listening. After a while, the man had got to his feet.
‘I’ll be back next week. And the boy’ll be at school then so I’ll be on my own.’
Mary had stood up too. ‘You’ll be very welcome.’ A pause. ‘Always.’
Out in the yard, the colours had been fading into dusk. Matthew had climbed into the car, waiting for his father to say goodbye. The adults hugged again and then they were driving away. Usually his dad talked about the meetings that had just taken place, chatted and gossiped about the customers, but that night, he’d remained silent all the way home.
Now, driving along the narrow lanes to investigate the murder of an apparently lonely man, Matthew thought for the first time that his father had loved Mary Brownscombe. There might not have been an affair, but there’d been a tenderness in the encounter that had seemed unusual even to a boy. Matthew wondered if Mary was still at Broom Farm and if she’d been to his father’s funeral. He imagined her sitting at the back of the chapel of rest, weeping, incongruous.
He’d arranged to meet Jen Rafferty in the car park at the top of Hope Street, and she was already there, sitting in her vehicle, looking at her phone. She seemed to spend her life on her phone. They walked together down the hill to twenty Hope Street and Jen filled him in on overnight actions.
‘We released a photo of Walden to the press, as you agreed.
It’ll be on the television news this morning. We were too late to get it in this morning’s newspapers, but I’m guessing it’ll be all over social media. Ross was going to monitor that. And there are a few more details of him.’
‘The victim’s wife has been notified?’
‘Yes, someone from Avon and Somerset went to see her last night. I haven’t talked to them yet.’
‘Do they have any children?’ Matthew wondered how it would be to have a father who’d run away only to meet a violent death. Would they turn him into a hero or a martyr? Blame the mother? Or carry resentment around like a burden for the rest of their lives?
‘No, no kids. Apparently, she’s in another relationship now. She doesn’t live in their old home any more. There’s a different address.’
They’d arrived at the house. Jen paused on the pavement. At the bottom of the street a homeless man in a shabby sleeping bag with the stuffing seeping out stirred and raised himself onto one elbow. She knocked at the black door. They heard footsteps and the door opened.
A young woman stood there. She was stylish in an art student sort of way: model skinny, very short hair and a slash of red lipstick, a sweater dress over black tights and heavy boots. Long black earrings. The tights had a hole at the back of one leg. She grinned at Jen. ‘You’re a bit early. I’m the only one up.’
Jen went through the door first. ‘Hi, Gaby. This is my boss. Inspector Matthew Venn.’
‘Well, you’d better come in. I’ll give Caz a shout.’
Matthew followed her into the kitchen. He thought Jonathan would have felt at home here; he would have loved the clutter of pans and jars, the mismatched furniture, the little pieces of art. A large painted wooden parrot hung from the ceiling and sticks of pussy willow had been stuck in a brown earthenware pot. Brightly coloured towels were draped from an overhead rack like a string of flags, but they stopped halfway. Matthew found the effect of the room disturbing, overwhelming. He would need to concentrate to think straight here.
‘Take a seat. There’s coffee in the pot.’ Then Gaby was gone. It seemed to Matthew that her mouth, scarlet with lipstick, remained in the room like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. He heard her call from the bottom of the stairs: ‘Hey, Caz. The cops are here. They want to speak to you.’
Jen had wandered over to the coffee pot and waved it in his direction. He nodded and watched her take a mug from a dusty cupboard, was ridiculously pleased when she rinsed it under the tap before filling it for him.
There was the sound of footsteps on bare floorboards, doors closing and a young woman appeared. Gaby followed her, shepherding her like a dog or a mother, then presented her with a flourish. It seemed everything was a performance for her.
‘This is Caroline, known to her friends as Caz. She’s the kind one who landed us with Simon. My landlady.’
Caroline was small and round with a button nose and huge spectacles. ‘Give it a rest, Gaby. Show a bit of respect. Simon’s only been dead for a day.’
Matthew felt that the interview was already slipping out of control. ‘Do you know that? Did you see Simon yesterday?’ He needed facts to hang on to.
Caroline shifted a pile of Guardians and Observer Magazines and sat on what looked like an old church pew next to the table.
‘He was here first thing, wasn’t he, Gaby? I left before you, but I heard him in the bathroom and we had a shouted conversation. Did you see him at breakfast?’
There was a moment of silence. ‘Briefly,’ Gaby said. ‘And I can assure you that he was still alive when I left.’ Another silence. ‘Shall I make toast for everyone?’ Now there was a hint of desperation in her voice. ‘Or would that be seen as a form of bribery and corruption?’
‘You can make toast for yourself and your friend,’ Jen said. ‘But we’d like to ask you both some more questions.’
Jen would do the talking. That had been Matthew’s decision. She was engaging and he’d decided the women might find her less threatening. Now, he thought that these women would be hard to intimidate.
‘Just sit down, Gabs.’ This was Caroline. ‘This is serious and we can have breakfast later.’
‘Yes, miss.’ But Gaby sat.
Jen looked around the table. ‘I’m very sorry that your friend died yesterday.’
‘No friend of mine.’ The words were muttered, barely audible, followed by a shocked silence. ‘Well, I’m sorry …’ Gaby fixed her eyes on the parrot. ‘I’m not glad he’s dead. Of course I’m not. But I’m glad he’s not living here any more.’
‘Why do you say that?’ Jen put down her coffee mug on a coaster that could have been made from elaborately knotted rope.
Gaby took a while to answer. ‘We were happy here before he moved in. We were close. It was fun. Then suddenly having this stranger in the mix, a bloke we scarcely knew, seemed to spoil everything. He was so tense, you know. Uptight. And that was contagious. The whole house felt different, unsettled.’
‘It was only temporary,’ Caroline said. ‘He already had plans for moving on. He was going back to Kingsley House, the hotel where he worked until the autumn, as soon as the season started. Besides, his rent made a difference. He wasn’t here out of charity. And he was a wonderful cook. All those amazing Friday night meals. You never complained about those.’
‘I was thinking of moving out.’ Gaby was muttering again. ‘I couldn’t stand it. I was looking for a place of my own.’
‘You never said!’
‘I’d complained about Simon enough, about the way he made me feel, but you wouldn’t listen, Caz. It was as if you cared more about him than me.’ Matthew thought she sounded petulant and spoiled like a child in the playground, dropped for another ‘best friend’. Perhaps such a beautiful woman was used to getting her own way. It must have been hard, though, having a stranger about the place when the friends had been so close. Hard, too, for Walden to live with the resentment.
‘When did you last see him?’ Jen directed the question towards Caroline.
‘As I said, I heard him yesterday morning but I didn’t see him. Sometimes I gave him a lift into Barnstaple, but not yesterday. I shouted up to ask him, but he said he wasn’t ready and he’d make his own way in. Something important had turned up. I wondered if he had a meeting at the hotel to discuss starting work there again at the beginning of the season.’
‘Did he volunteer at the Woodyard every day?’ ‘Most days,’ Caroline said. ‘He enjoyed it.’ ‘Who organized the placement?’
‘I did.’ Caroline paused. ‘My father’s on the board of trustees, so I know the place. I thought it would be great for Simon’s confidence; it would help him to prepare for paid work again.’
‘Simon Walden had psychiatric problems?’ Jen asked it as a question but it was clear that she knew the answer.
‘He’d suffered from depression and alcohol dependence, but there’d been a huge improvement since he started living here.’ The reply was almost defensive.
‘You were his social worker?’
Caroline hesitated. ‘His project worker. My father set up a small charity at St Cuthbert’s in memory of my mother, a place where people in crisis would be made welcome. She suffered depression and committed suicide when I was a teenager. It changed my life. Neither of us wanted any other family to go through that loss. I trained as a psychiatric social worker and took over the running of the project once I’d had a few years’ experience in the field. We run it as a safe space for people with mental health problems during the day and organize evening group sessions a couple of times a week.’
Caroline seemed young, in her early thirties at most. Matthew wondered how she could spend her day in such emotionally intense situations, working with people who must remind her of her mother. He found the notion horrific. But then, he thought, he was spending his working day investigating murder. The sensory overload in this room made him feel suddenly ill, as if he’d overdosed on sugar, and besides, they shouldn’t be having this conversation in front of a witness.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘I suggest Miss Henry heads off to work. Let’s leave Miss Preece and Sergeant Rafferty here to chat in private.’ He turned to Gaby. ‘I’ll catch up with you at the Woodyard later if I need to.’
Gaby stood up. He followed her out of the house. She lingered on the step, but he turned away and walked briskly up the hill to his car.