It was always trying, visiting Mary’s mother. Most Saturdays Slater would rise early and sit in the box room he liked to call his study with a pile of academic papers, perhaps a lab notebook or two or a student’s thesis, and catch up with everything he hadn’t been able to do during the week. He’d emerge briefly around 11 for fresh coffee, then take a late lunch. Towards late afternoon, if Mary wasn’t visiting friends they’d go for a walk out towards Fulbourn or over the Gogs, afterwards often heading into town for dinner. They never booked ahead, but rather looked around until they found somewhere not too busy, hang the cost.
Was the spontaneity of their Saturday evenings was an attempt to recover some lost romanticism? Or maybe one or other of them was trying to apologize for something—or even simply reminding themselves that perhaps not having children was not without its benefits. All his friends had grown up, had children, and although they seemed to work as hard as he did he could occasionally feel their envy, disguised though it was as pity.
Whatever the reason, he looked forward to Saturdays—except when once a month when they’d make the tedious drive to Leicester, to the drab Fifties vision that was the Eyres Monsell estate, to the semi smelling of stale cigarettes, Camp coffee and cat piss.
In another life, perhaps, he could have got on with Mary’s mother. She had been, by all accounts, quite a looker in her youth. But while some women age gracefully, maintaining an air of elegance, even desirability, well into their greying years, she had fared no better than her council estate environment. Neither was she immune to the more medical slings and arrows of age: the signs of creeping dementia and incipient angina were clear.
She’d also taken an immediate and deep-seated dislike to her only son-in-law. When they arrived at her door, Mary had to tell her Tom’s name repeatedly. When at last she did appear to remember him, she would ask why he’d dropped out of med school, or what kind of career was journalism for the husband of her daughter. He had almost convinced himself that the old bat wasn’t at all senile, but rather was deliberately needling him.
As usual, they had driven home in silence. Slater let Mary through the door first, then threw his keys with slightly more force than intended onto the table. Mary frowned without saying anything, and Slater hated himself just a little bit more.
The decanter was rattling on the edge of the whisky tumbler when the doorbell rang.
That was the single thought that occupied his mind. The blue lights reflecting off the windows in the quiet Cherry Hinton street, the two uniformed officers hammering on the door, the shrillness of Mary’s voice, audible even out here in the allotments.
When, two hours after they’d arrived, the police went back to their car and drove off, Michel wasn’t totally surprised that Tom wasn’t with them. Even the Cambridge police must have realized there wasn’t a shred of evidence. No; what was surprising was that they had got involved at all at this stage. There was but one hypothesis that fit his observations, but he couldn’t yet be sure he was right. He needed the fox to come out of its hole.
He’d waited all afternoon; a little longer wouldn’t hurt.
And there it was. The white Ford with the Sheffield licence plates turning into the cul-de-sac, reaching the end, and reversing into the Slaters’ driveway. And the platinum blonde—and someone else he didn’t recognize—crunching up to the front door and ringing the bell.
When the door opened, he pinched out the joint and walked slowly up to the house.
When the police had gone, Slater stood with his forehead pressed against the wood of the front door, the tumbler still in his hand but the whisky untouched. Behind him there was silence, but it was the silence before an earthquake.
I will be calm, he thought. Whatever happens, I will be calm.
A chair creaked; footsteps across the hall to the kitchen. A clink of glassware and the sound of running water.
The footsteps returned, and he heard Mary gulp down the water.
“What,” she said, just a hint of a quiver in her voice , “was that all about?”
Slater moved his head away from the door and looked up at the architrave. Hmm. Mould. That’s going to be have to seen to this summer.
He turned around to face her, dispassionately noting the water dripping from the corner of her mouth; the wide, unblinking eyes; her hand, still holding a glass, hanging limply at her side.
“There’s some mould up there above the door. We should get the wood treated,” he said.
He barely flinched as the glass exploded against the doorframe, inches from his face.
I am so fucking calm, he observed, a bomb could go off and I wouldn’t notice it.
He looked down, and poked a piece of broken glass with the toe of his shoe. “For some reason,” he said, “the Cambridgeshire Constabulary think I had something to do with the death of Charlotte Stowell. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, as you know.” He looked up, and smiled brightly. “Good job that was one of the cheap Tesco glasses and not your mother’s crystal.”