SOMEHOW, HE HAD thought, once they caught the man, he would be able to talk to him. But that was absurd. He wasn’t a policeman; he wasn’t a priest, or a doctor, or a psychiatrist. Why would he even be allowed to meet him, let alone ask him about Karel? After Zoe came home and broke the news, he heard ninety seconds on the radio. Police solve two cases in one. Hit-and-run driver turns out ... The short paragraph in the local newspaper was painfully bare of motivation. The driver was thirty-two, sold farm supplies, no previous record. Yet again, Matthew made his way, empty-handed, to Oxford and the police station.
“I’ll see if he’s available,” said the policeman behind the counter. “Take a seat.”
He chose the chair beneath the noticeboard with its few safety posters and began to count the linoleum floor tiles. Why did it matter what had happened that day in the field? Some maniac had stabbed a boy and left him to die. The papers were full of such crimes. But he had seen Karel lying there, his legs red with blood, the swallows stitching the air. He was beginning to think the detective had refused to see him when the policeman called his name. The interview room was identical to the last one—ocher paint, scuffed table, two chairs—and sharply colder than the room where he’d been waiting. He was standing beside one of the chairs when Hugh Price stepped through the door.
“How’s your brother?” he said.
“We found his birth mother. She isn’t any of the things we dreaded.”
They sat down. Across the small table the detective watched him, unblinking, unsmiling. It was clear he was not going to speak again. No wonder, Matthew thought, people confessed. “I know you’re busy,” he said.
This was not even worth acknowledging.
He played his one card. “I got Tomas to phone you. I was hoping you’d tell me about the man who stabbed Karel and hit Ant.”
There it was: the single, implacable syllable to which he himself had only the flimsiest of answers. “I don’t really know. Since that afternoon in the field, everything’s been different.” He did not stop to enumerate: Duncan, Rachel, his father, Zoe, even Mrs. Lacey. “That’s why I helped Tomas look for the car. I thought if we could find the man, if I knew why he did what he did, things would go back to normal. Or”—he was too old for fairy tales—“I’d understand why they were different.”
Something changed in Hugh Price’s gaze; he took in Matthew anew. “My diagnosis,” he said, “is that you’re wrestling with the problem of evil.” He spoke with a certain satisfaction, as if offering a sandwich to a hungry man. “For what it’s worth,” he went on, “I’m twice your age, and I’m still wrestling with it. Nothing prepares one for the discovery that there are people who have no conscience.”
Abruptly he fell silent. Matthew sat very still, trying not to interrupt whatever visions, or memories, the detective was confronting. A minute passed. Two.
“This is quite irregular,” he said. Loosening his tie, he leaned forward and began. “The man was driving out of town, on his way to a meeting, when he saw a boy standing beside the road. He’d never picked up a hitchhiker before, but he was anxious about the meeting, and the boy, when he bent down at the window, had a kind smile. They started talking, and the man heard himself telling the boy things he’d never told anyone. ‘I’m not bonkers,’ he told me. ‘I knew I couldn’t ask a total stranger to stay and talk to me.’ He decided to pretend the car was overheating. He pulled over, emptied the bottles he kept in the boot, and persuaded the boy to come and look for a water trough.
“But in the field things started to go wrong. When the boy said he was going to flag down a car, the man panicked and hit him with one of the bottles. Then he took the bottles back to the car, fetched a blanket and an apple. He had a set of knives on the backseat, a wedding present for his sister, and he brought one to peel the apple. He sat on the grass beside the boy and started talking.”
So the apple peel was a clue, Matthew thought, and he had thrown it away.
“At first the boy listened like he had in the car, peacefully, almost smiling. Then, suddenly, he swore. The man isn’t exactly sure what happened next, but there was all this blood.”
Matthew remembered the flies circling and circling.
“He seized the blanket, ran back to the car, and shoved the boy’s backpack into the ditch. It wasn’t until he was in the meeting that it occurred to him that people died when they lost too much blood. He planned to phone the police as soon as possible. But the meeting was followed by lunch, and another meeting. Then it seemed too late. He decided to go back to the field. If the boy were still there, he’d take him to the hospital. He thought he’d missed the gate when he saw your brother, standing by the side of the road.”
“He just wanted to talk to him? He stabbed him so he could talk to him?” He could feel himself sweating in the chilly room.
The detective nodded. “More or less.”
“And what about with Anthony?”
“That was pure bad luck. He was following the scooter, probably a bit too closely, when it swerved. He was sure he’d killed the driver, and that it was entirely his fault.”
“So none of it was planned,” Matthew said slowly. “If Karel hadn’t decided to hitch, if the man hadn’t left early for his meeting, everything might have been fine.”
“If any number of things. He told me he’d never done anything like this before, and I believe him. I’ve met some monsters, people who would go to any lengths to get what they want. This man isn’t like that. He feels guilt and he feels remorse.”
“He’ll go to prison?”
Hugh Price was on his feet, reaching for the door. “My job is to figure out crimes. I don’t necessarily believe in punishment. You’ll appreciate the irony.” He gave his triangular smile. “I’d recommend you stay away from Tomas. Did I answer your question?”
“Yes and no. I wish it wasn’t all so random.” Then, surprised at his own daring, he handed the detective a leaflet for the Salon. “You don’t have to dress up, or anything.”
Back in the waiting room, a policeman and a policewoman were standing by the noticeboard, holding the arms of a girl around Duncan’s age. Matthew was still taking in her filthy pink anorak and mud-streaked jeans, when her eyes fastened on him. “What are you bloody well staring at?” she demanded, and stuck out her tongue.
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SHE WORKED EXTRA hours at the butcher’s, she helped her mother buy groceries, she helped Duncan deliver Christmas cards, she helped her father and Matthew with preparations for the Salon, she brought Lily so many bones they filled the freezer. She watched her father; deep inside he was forging a fence, twisting the red-hot railings into place, between his feelings for them and his feelings for the woman. In the evening he opened a bottle of wine while he made dinner. Sometimes he was almost silent as they ate; sometimes he couldn’t stop talking. She and her brothers listened attentively or talked animatedly, united in their efforts to make sure their mother noticed nothing. One night, when they were eating pasta with leeks and smoked salmon, he asked if he’d ever told them how his mother foiled a bank robbery.
“Definitely not,” Zoe said. Her brothers chorused agreement.
“This is a good one.” He refilled his glass. “I must have been eight or nine, and I’d gone with her to the bank. We were standing in the queue when a man came in with a scarf over his face, which was odd because it was a nice day, and carrying a fat walking stick, which was odd because he looked young. He raised the stick to his shoulder. Suddenly it was a rifle, and he was shouting at everyone to lie down. The other customers started to obey, but Mum said, ‘Philip, is that you?’ He was our neighbors’ oldest boy. She walked over, took the gun, and made her deposit.”
“Wasn’t she worried he’d shoot her?” Matthew said.
“That’s what Dad asked. She said no, Philip couldn’t even dig a hole in a sandpit. He must have seen something on TV, and got this daft notion about robbing a bank. I wish you’d known her,” he added, “before she got ill.”
“At least we knew her,” Duncan said. “I drew a picture of her before she died.”
“Do you still have it?” said her father.
While Duncan went in search of the drawing—he kept his work in boxes, by years—Zoe said that Mr. MacLeod often reminisced about her grandmother. “He was only a teenager, but I think he had a crush on her.”
“That would make sense,” said her mother. “When I met her, Nora was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
“Did she have boyfriends?” Even in despair, love was a subject of inexhaustible interest.
Her father nodded. “One night a couple of years after Dad died, she asked Joe and me what we thought of a farmer who lived near Witney. I’m ashamed to say we made stupid jokes and pretended not to know why she was asking.” Across the table Zoe saw his hand clench around his glass. “She ought to have thrown us out of the house, and married him.”
“Would anyone like seconds?” said her mother.
“Here.” Duncan was back, holding out a slightly tattered piece of paper. “Remember, I was only four.”
They clustered around. Looking at his wavering lines, Zoe remembered her grandmother’s bed with its carved wooden headboard. She had insisted on bringing it when she moved in with them. Duncan had drawn the border of roses and leaves. And there, propped up on several pillows, her hair around her shoulders, was their grandmother, eyes closed, nose pinched, mouth open.
“May I have this?” said her father.
Duncan handed it to him. “I could make a better drawing now,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be the same.”
FOR AS LONG AS ZOE could remember, they had all taken part in the town carol singing, but this year the singing was postponed, twice, because of rain. Finally, on the twenty-third, her father phoned the singers and planned the route. First, they would go round the streets—old people and invalids sent requests—and then they would station themselves outside the Co-op and collect money for charity. They were in the hall, putting on jackets and scarves, when her mother announced that she felt a cold coming on. “I’ll stay here,” she said, “and get supper.” As Zoe passed out the carol books, she wondered if something more was amiss. Had her mother finally caught wind of her father’s affair? Then they launched into “Good King Wenceslas,” and standing in the frosty air, surrounded by the flickering lanterns, singing the words she had known all her life, she felt the present moment grow and grow until it was large enough, almost, to keep everything else at bay.
At the houses they visited, doors were flung wide; people stood on thresholds, listening appreciatively; elderly faces appeared at windows. At one house on Larch Street two women stood in the doorway, each holding a swaddled baby. “Thank you,” they chorused when “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” ended. The taller one held out a twenty-pound note.
Zoe went over. “We’re collecting for Save the Children and the Gatehouse in Oxford,” she said. “How old are your babies?”
“Leo’s ten days old,” said the one offering the money.
“And Edith is five,” said the other. “A Christmas baby.” She turned the white bundle so that Zoe could see the cap of dark hair, the tiny nose.
She had forgotten how small new babies were, how perfect. She heard herself gasp, “She’s adorable.” As she hurried to catch up with the singers, she remembered the photograph of the woman standing on the beach, smiling. Why did you have to come and spoil our family? she thought. A sinkhole had opened beneath their sturdy house.
At home they sat around the dining-room table to count the money. Her father poured five glasses of wine. Duncan took a sip of his and went to fetch a ginger beer. He helped her count the coins, arranging them in little towers. They had raised two hundred and seventy pounds, almost fifty pounds more than last year.
“All due to my collecting,” Zoe boasted.
After supper—jacket potatoes with various fillings—they scattered to their rooms to wrap presents. At the top of the stairs Lily hesitated before following Zoe. So I must be the one in most need, she thought. Beneath Lily’s attentive gaze, she laid out presents on the bed, found wrapping paper, scissors, tape. She was wrapping the tubes of paint she’d bought for Duncan when there was a knock at the door.
“I wanted to check you’re all right,” said her mother.
Her mother stepped into the room and closed the door. “Forgive me, you don’t seem fine. You keep gazing off into the distance, looking sad. I know you’re worried about Ant but is there something else? Someone else?”
In her imagining of this conversation she had always denied everything but now that her mother was here, a few feet away, regarding her without a hint of judgment, she longed to confide the events of the last six weeks. “Something happened with a friend,” she said. “Not someone you know. He’s disappeared. I don’t mean like a missing person; I mean from my life.”
“I’m sorry. You and Matthew have had a bad autumn.”
A giant NO streaked across Zoe’s brain. Rachel was a stupid, spoiled girl. Rufus was her other self, her soul mate. But that was not how the so-called facts would strike her mother. She would see an older man who had taken advantage of Zoe, lied to her, abandoned her.
“If you want to talk,” said her mother, “if I can help, let me know. I hope you feel better soon. Thank you for making an effort. It can’t be easy—all this Christmas stuff—when you’re feeling gloomy.” She smiled in a way that suggested she understood gloom.
One day, Zoe thought, smiling back, I’ll tell her—it will be a story with a beginning and an end. Then she thought, if Dad leaves her, I’ll set fire to the forge. “Thanks,” she said. “Are you feeling okay?”
She was thinking only of her mother’s cold, but Lily jumped down from the window seat, trotted over, and stationed herself a few feet away, gazing up at her mother. Her mother gave one quick glance in Lily’s direction. Then she looked back toward the window where—Zoe had not yet drawn the curtains—the dark night pressed against the glass. Watching the two of them, Zoe felt a huge, pulsing pressure. All at once she understood: her mother, too, had erected a barricade between before and after, speech and silence, and it was tumbling down, falling all around her. What if she stepped through the rubble to the other side?
Lily gave a short, sharp bark.
Her mother closed her eyes. She seemed, perhaps Zoe only imagined it, to sway slightly.
Then she opened her eyes. “Thanks for asking,” she said. “I’m going to have an early night and count on you to be my sous chef tomorrow. Who knew my vegetarian daughter would become an expert at cooking turkey?”
She smiled, a different, too-wide smile, and left the room. As the door closed behind her, Zoe had one clear, undeniable thought: She knows.
Yes, said Lily.
Answers flooded in. Her mother could have seen her father and the woman in Oxford, or a friend could have seen them, or she had overheard him on the phone, or she had noticed his adventurous cooking, or he had talked in his sleep. She hadn’t known at first, else she’d have gone with him to Wales in September, but somehow, since then, she had learned of his affair and kept both the fact, and her knowledge of it, from all of them. Now, surely, she must guess from her father’s taking to his bed, his drinking, his moodiness, his mere presence, that it was over.
But it’s not, Zoe reminded herself. Did she know about the baby? The question made her quake. She could not imagine what her mother, with her keen sense of justice, would do if she discovered the existence of their half sister, or brother. Even Lily, who was feigning sleep at the foot of the bed, didn’t have the answer.