Somewhere over the Irish sea an almighty storm must have exploded, a tempest of such Biblical proportions that a flock of seagulls, a flock of chaotic, tumbling, terrified birds, hundreds upon hundreds of them, had been forced miles inland: herring gulls, black backed gulls – all now so far away from the wild spray and sleet that Rachael doubted they would ever find their way back to their desolate ocean home.
But what a stupid thing to think. As if seagulls could get lost, or would be bothered by wintery English weather. Rachael knew that the real reason for the God-awful screeching above her was unromantic and mundane: the city’s landfill site attracted any number of scavengers, of a variety of species, and the gulls were swooping over hillocks of human waste. Some herrings, at least, would swim safer today.
She gathered her thoughts and concentrated on the scene in front of her. Peter, her ex-husband, and Val, his mother, leaned against the footbridge railings, Peter in a blue anorak over his suit, Val in a too-tight black jacket. They stared north. Val breathed heavily, red-cheeked and rigid-jawed. After a few moments she pulled a green plastic tub from a carrier bag at her ankles. Thirty feet below, the early morning traffic sped by in rhythmic waves, lights still on, occasional windscreen wipers moving like scolding fingers. Rachael had to resist the urge to flick them the V.
Peter took the tub. ‘Human ashes are heavier than most people anticipate,’ he said. ‘They’re crushed bone, to be precise, not ash at all. Phosphates and calcium. That’s why one mustn’t put them on the roses, Ma, no organic value in them at all, none whatsoever.’
As soon as the lid was off, a puff of grey dust blew up and out of the tub, some of it settling on his moustache.
Val looked at her son and opened her hands. Peter tipped a small amount of ashes into his mother’s cupped palms. He then nodded at Rachael and she too opened her hands and let him tip a pile of ash into them. She wondered which parts of Terry’s crushed skeleton she was cradling. Tibia? Rib? Thick skull?
The lid crunched as Peter screwed it back on. Val tipped some of her ashes back into his hands and then they all became still, waiting for a suitable break in the traffic. At this hour, the M6 was mostly lorries and vans, but with every passing minute the volume of Audis, BMWs and Range Rovers increased as the west Midlands commuters accelerated through the bitter morning.
‘We’ll just throw ever such a tiny bit,’ Val said, mindful of creating a danger to other road users. In these conditions, she’d repeated since leaving the house, in these conditions the safe stopping distance would be at least seventy-five meters, and she would not be held responsible for causing a hazard.
Now, standing by the railings, she looked wildly at Rachael and Peter.
‘It was his favourite motorway,’ she said, her voice breaking.
They opened their hands and let go. Terry’s dust didn’t plummet into the traffic as Val had feared, but was snatched horizontally away from them, whipped into thin cloudy columns which stretched and curled over the hard shoulder towards the junction with the M54. The road to north Wales.
Val whispered something which Rachael could not hear. Drops of moisture collected on Peter’s moustache and the seagulls continued their incessant shrieking up above.
After a few minutes of what she hoped was a respectful silence, Rachael put her gloves back on and rested a hand on Val’s shoulder.
‘Perhaps he’s on his way to the caravan,’ she said, and instantly wished the words back, heat flooding her face. ‘No, no. I’m sorry. I meant -’
Val looked at her in bewilderment. Peter put the plastic tub back in the carrier bag, blinking hard.
Five minutes later the three of them had climbed down the steps and walked to where the Volvo was parked. Rachael sat in the back and let her breath steam up the window. Peter put on Radio 2 and drove at a steady fifty-five miles per hour for fifteen minutes.
The countryside was ugly in this part of the world. Flat, scrubby fields stretched to a horizon jagged with chimneys, tower blocks and steel pylons. Bone-thin ponies stood motionless beside barbed wire fences, and mile after mile of the roadside bramble was strewn with fluttering plastic.
The King’s Head Hotel and Executive Golf Club sat five minutes off the dual carriageway, hidden by a shimmering wall of poplar trees. Peter reversed into the first space available after the disabled bays, then got out to open the passenger door for Val and helped her across the car park.
After they’d used the toilets, Rachael bought them all coffee and carrot cake in the Garden Terrace bar, her treat, she absolutely insisted. They were the only customers.
On a far wall, a wide screen TV showed a twenty-four hour news channel, the two presenters silently mouthing events unfolding in Libya, Iraq and London, whilst a stream of words slid across the screen.
Rachael said she would stay in the bar whilst Peter and Val took the rest of Terry down to the river, or at least as far as Val was able to walk. After they left, Rachael went to the window and watched the two slow-moving figures with the carrier bag cross the wet lawn. The February drizzle was turning into a cold, hard rain and she did not expect them to be out there for very long.
Two years ago, on a golden September evening, the TV playing impossibly loudly, she had taken Peter’s supper plate to the kitchen, put it in the dishwasher and told him she was going for a bit of a walk. He hadn’t looked away from the girl dancing with a little white dog.
Peter moved back in with Terry and Val a week later. Rachael kept the house – she had paid for most of it, and Steve moved in after a respectful period. A lazy, workable truce settled between them all and Rachael continued to do Terry’s books because she was a good accountant and why not?
She heard a soft chiming from her bag and pulled out her phone. Steve’s message was a single question mark. She typed back a single exclamation mark, followed by two x’s, then went to the bar and asked for a vodka and slim line tonic. Double.
‘Any ice with that?’ According to the shiny badge on her breast, the woman serving was called Lorrelle. She was older than Rachael by about ten years. Rachael shook her head.
‘He used to drink here a lot,’ Lorrelle said, putting Rachael’s glass on a frilly paper mat. Her nails were manicured to a sharp, bloody red. Her lipstick matched.
Rachael flinched. ‘You knew him?’
Lorrelle laughed without humour. ‘Not personally. But I recognised her, the wife. From the papers. I’m good with faces. Poor cow.’ She crossed her arms. ‘Sorry. You related?’
‘Nope. Daughter-in-law. Ex.’ Rachael swallowed the vodka in three long pulls. She wiped her mouth cowboy-style, and slid the glass back to Lorrelle. ‘We all make mistakes.’
‘Terry Hastings,’ Lorrelle said. ‘My niece was one of his pupils. Passed first time. Surprise surprise.’ Again, the humourless laugh. She waved Rachael’s ten pound note away. ‘No, you’re all right, love.’
Peter and Val returned half an hour later. The cold wind brought with it a swirl of dead leaves which scurried around their ankles like rats. Val’s shoes were caked with mud, the tops of her feet spilling out over the tight cream pumps, so wholly and predictably inappropriate for the weather. She sank into the leather sofa, her hair stuck to her cheeks, her chest heaving, her skirt and knees wet through.
She looks like a walrus, Rachael thought, feeling the zip of vodka and caffeine loosen her neck and shoulders. Poor love. Days numbered, surely. And then what? Peter would inherit a business that no one would touch with a bargepole and a house with sticky carpets that smelled of dog and bacon.
‘So that’s that,’ Peter said, his eyes hard. He sat back in his chair, the empty green tub by his feet. He clicked his fingers in the direction of the bar. Rachael watched as Lorrelle slowly turned around. Peter raised his chin and nodded at the cups on the table. Lorrelle stood still, hands on hips. Rachael noticed a small patch of red developing on the side of Peter’s neck. He pointed again to the table. Lorrelle cupped a hand behind one ear and raised her eyebrows.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ Peter said, and cleared his throat. ‘Refills, if you don’t mind.’
Lorrelle didn’t move.
‘Is there a problem?’ Peter said, the red patch spreading up his throat. Rachael wanted to kick her feet with glee.
Lorrelle wiped her hands on a towel and walked slowly towards them, just like a bear, Rachael thought, a bear that had stepped out from its cage.
‘What can I get you?’ she said, standing over Peter.
‘More coffee, thanking you,’ Peter said. His neck was puce. ‘Ma?’
‘I think I’d like a small sherry, please,’ Val said. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her cheeks blotchy.
‘A sherry,’ Lorrelle repeated. ‘Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Olorosso?’
Val stared at her.
‘Or Harvey’s Bristol Cream?’
Val nodded. ‘Yes, yes, a Harvey’s Bristol Cream. That will be lovely. Thank you.’
Lorrelle looked at Rachael. ‘Another mineral water for you?’ she asked.
Rachael smiled. ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’
‘Perhaps we’ll be left in peace now,’ Val said.
She sipped at the sherry. Peter stared at the ceiling, gripping his coffee, knuckles white.
‘Do you want to undo your tie a bit, love?’ Val said. ‘You know he wouldn’t have minded.’
Peter shook his head and closed his eyes.
On the TV, the news channel showed a smiling Royal over on the other side of the world shaking hands, dozens of people in native dress dancing energetically around him. Rachael watched as the Royal clapped and laughed, sweating in his suit, trying a few clunky moves himself. A beautiful girl placed a garland of flowers around his neck. Everyone looked so happy, so delighted, so carefree. Rachael imagined herself out there with the dancing natives, the flowers, the sunshine, the awkward Royal. How lovely to be him. How strange and lovely.
‘I’ll get a cab back,’ she said, half an hour later, as Peter and Val stood up to leave. ‘I’ve got nothing on this afternoon. Or I’ll call Steve. Really. You go.’
Peter frowned. ‘I’ll be in touch. About the books. You’ll need to tie things up.’
‘I know,’ Rachael said. ‘I do know.’
‘Right then,’ Peter said. ‘Well then. Bye.’ He held his hand out.
Rachael took it. ‘Bye,’ she said. ‘Take care.’
Val picked up the empty green tub and put it back in the carrier bag. Rachael kissed her swiftly, then Peter helped her on with her jacket and they headed for the door. A couple of minutes later Rachael heard the Volvo’s engine revving, then the crunch of tyres on gravel, and then all was quiet. She returned to the leather sofa.
Lorrelle brought over two large vodkas and two bags of pork scratchings and sat down next to Rachael. They clinked glasses.
‘To new friends.’
‘New friends.’ Lorrelle opened both packets and tipped the scratchings out onto the table. ‘I’ve got keys to the store room,’ she said. ‘Perks. Help yourself.’ She put a handful of scratchings in her mouth.
Rachael took a couple.
‘These’ll kill me,’ Lorrelle said, crunching, ‘but I’m addicted to them. I think it’s the salt. I think I’m lacking in salt or something.’
They finished the vodkas and the pork scratchings, then Lorrelle went behind the bar and picked up a pack of Marlboros. Rachael followed her out into the back yard. The rain had stopped and now a pale, wet sunshine picked out silvery drips on the beer crates and barrels.
‘How is she?’ Rachael asked. She watched a blackbird hopping and pecking around the dustbins; quick, jerky movements: peck, peck, run, peck, peck, run. ‘Your niece, how is she now?’
Lorrelle looked up to the sky and Rachael followed her gaze. The seagulls were still there, miles away over the landfill, catching the thermals, rising and dipping crazily in their unknowable world. Lorrelle took a deep drag on her cigarette and then smoke streamed from her mouth and nostrils like a ghost leaving her body. The blackbird, suddenly startled, flew into the shrubbery, calling out a loud chook chook chook. Lorrelle threw her cigarette onto the ground, twisted the stub under her foot and lit another one. She turned to Rachael.
‘Kelly? She’ll be ok. You know.’ Rachael saw tears balancing on her eyelashes. ‘She’s going to go back to college. She’ll be ok.’