When Frank Hocking awoke that morning in his bed at the Kingsmere Care Home, among those standing in the doorway to his room were two Detective Constables from the Metropolitan Police.
‘Mr Hocking,’ the nurse said. ‘You’ve got some visitors.’
At eighty-four, his eyesight was failing. He studied their dark forms in the doorway and nodded. ‘Bring them in, Elizabeth.’ And then, ‘It’s about time,’ he said, beckoning them to him with a gnarled finger.
Sometimes she watched him sleep. In his armchair by the window, head bowed. His frail hands clasped over his stomach like a man in prayer. She unravelled her scarf from around her neck and hung her scarf and coat on the peg behind the door and untwisted the lanyard from around her neck. Written in thick red letters over the face of the pass was the word VISITOR. Below a photograph of herself. The receptionist had taken it without her knowing, months back. Now every time she passed the reception desk she eyed the webcam perched on top of the computer monitor with distrust. She lifted the pass and stared down at her pale face, a round face with dark eyes. Always the same thoughts.
She sat in the chair beside Mr Hocking, studying the winter light that fell though the lace curtains. The care home’s garden was bordered by a row of chestnut trees which in the spring and summer months had bloomed and stretched their imponderable branches out over the garden’s benches and lily pond, their thick boughs raised in torsional poise like venerable beings of an older order. But now they stood lank and desolate. Hunched over like of the many of the residents in the adjoining communal room.
She took the book from her bag and thumbed the browned pages. She read the opening lines: The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,’ then sat pen in hand with no more to record.
Mr Hocking stirred. He shifted his hands from his lap and raised his head.
‘Well, hello sleepy head.’
He blinked several times, gazing at her through rheumy eyes. Like a child, she thought.
‘I must have dozed off,’ he murmured.
‘I guess so.’
‘No rest for the wicked.’ He laughed silently. Then he fell to coughing. She fetched him a glass from the sink. He took a sip of water and sat there shaking his head. ‘I can feel it in my bones,’ he said, grinning now. He often made himself laugh.
‘You’re morbid today, aren’t you?’
‘It’s the truth. There’s no point denying it.’
He handed her back the glass. Then he raised himself out of the chair and rested his hands on the small of his back. Like a swimmer stretching before a dive. She had stopped asking him if he needed help getting out of the chair. It was another of his sensitivities, the most recent of them being the framed photographs on his beside table. She didn’t want to pry.
Lila brought over two cups of tea. She came back again with a plate of digestive biscuits and some UHT milk pots. They sat at a table in the corner of the communal room.
‘I hate these things,’ he said tearing the lid off a pot and pouring the milk into his tea. Marbling grey. ‘We’re not at war anymore.’
He sat back, stirring his tea. Three women playing Bridge at another table looked at him and began whispering among themselves. He waved at them, then returned to agitating the tea. He said, ‘Do you think I’ll be allowed back anytime soon?’
‘Well, it’s up to the girls Mr Hocking. Give them another few days.’
‘No one likes a cheat.’
‘No, I guess not.’ He pursed his lips, but did not smile.
They drank their tea.
Lila did not want to prompt him about what they had spoken of at her last visit. But in truth, it was all she had been thinking about this last week. One bullet, six chambers. Five of them empty.
On the other side of the room a group of residents sat in a semi-circle around a television. Some leant slightly forward in their chairs, held motionless in its spell. Bargain Hunt.
Suddenly one of them started clapping. That’s my grandson, Lila heard a woman say.
Mr Hocking drummed his fingers on the side of his cup.
She said, ‘You’re quiet today.’
‘Am I.’ He cleared his throat. Then he said, as if taking upon himself the effort of sustaining the conversation, ‘I want to get out of here for a day. Nowhere special, just somewhere different.’
‘Any idea where?’
He shook his head. ‘I thought that instead of you coming here next week I could meet you somewhere.’
‘So we could talk.’
She understood now. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘I’ll let them know at reception.’
‘Don’t bother. I’m not in prison. I can leave anytime I want.’
‘I know. But there’s no harm in letting them know.’
‘Mm. I suppose.’
She thought, how very weary he looks. Not like man she met many months back.
‘Okay. Mr Hocking.’ She was smiling now.
‘What are you grinning at?’
He arched one of his eyebrows and raised his bony finger. ‘I’ve got my eye on you.’
She laughed, and she could see that he enjoyed watching others laugh. There was a light in his eyes. Something, she suspected, had stayed with him since boyhood. And that thought in itself brought gladness to her. For the boy-child had never left, nor never would. She hoped.
‘No more for me,’ he said clutching his stomach. ‘I’ll be pissing like a racehorse.’
‘How very gentlemanly of you.’
‘Who said I was a gentleman.’
‘Are you winding me up?’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’ He was grinning now.
Lila got herself another tea and they sat for while. Outside it was growing dark.
‘I bought another book I thought we could start.’
‘I’m tired today. I hope you don’t mind.’
‘Not at all.’
They sat for another hour watching the nurses hand out mince pies and then medication in small papers cups. Their talk drifted gently and predictably from the care home to Brexit to older, and they both agreed, simpler times.
They went back to his room and Mr Hocking sat in his chair by the window. He switched on the reading lamp.
‘Pop the wireless on before you leave, will you.’
She wrapped her scarf around her neck and put on her mittens.
‘See you next Thursday,’ she said.
She turned to go.
‘I’m not what you think I am. I’m nothing. I don’t know why you come back every week.’
‘Well, Mr Hocking. I know who you are. And I do know why. You rest now. I’ll see you Thursday.’
The old man closed his eyes. His profile framed in the soft lamplight.
He leant over and switched on the lamp by his bedside. He took a tissue from the box on his nightstand and coughed again, harder this time into his hands, and lowered the tissue from his mouth. Flecks of blood spotted the white tissue. Dark blotches that reminded him of his boyhood. The sad echo of children’s voices on that darkening afternoon. Flicking ink on the back of Greenwood’s shirt in Form Room. Watching the blotches swell and bleed into the grey cotton like his very own Rorschach test.
He swung his legs out from under the covers and sat on the side of the bed, regaining his breath. His narrow shoulders moving up and down under his pyjama shirt. He looked down at his hands resting in his lap. They did not seem his own. Nothing seemed his own anymore, he considered. Not for a long time.
He went to the window and moved back the curtain and looked out at the darkness. Small birds flittered about unseen in the predawn, their singing heard faintly among the dark and twisted trees. His breathing was slowing now. He coughed again, but not hard this time and then he leaned forward and rested his head on the window. The image of himself caught in the cold glass. Eyes closed, like a bowing penitent.
He went to the bathroom and poured himself a glass of water. The doctor had told him as much as she could. It had first happened a couple of months back, coughing into the sleeve of his cardigan. Lowering his arm into his lap, embarrassed of what his body had done. No one had noticed at the table, after the next hand he folded and told the others he was tired and went to his room.
So he had booked an appointment with his GP who referred him to a specialist at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. The doctor was young. She said she wanted to do some more tests, to check there wasn’t anything unwelcome, she said, smiling warmly. Unwelcome was the term she had used, as if she was explaining sickness to a child. But over time that changed. On his third visit she explained the intricacies of a malignant lung tumour and that was when Elizabeth was notified.
He remembered returning to the care home that afternoon in the rain. He was embarrassed for Elizabeth when he saw her. But she just smiled and said, look at the state of you Mr Hocking. You’re like a drowned rat. Elizabeth was Filipino. She was short and slight, her hair held neatly in place beneath her nurse’s cap. She stood there with her hands on her hips, and then she giggled. Like a child. She helped him take off his coat which she lay on the arm of the chair beside the radiator, and then ran him a hot bath. Like his mother had done for him, many years ago.
He gazed at himself in the mirror. His face gaunt, pale as bone. The face of a dying man, he knew. He closed his eyes and there she was. So frail and thin in her mother’s coat. Moving in the shadows of that ruined alley among the rough sawn planks and red-brick buttress. The sound of her heels tottering in that cold darkness where she all but vanished. God, he whispered. Tears filling his old eyes. He steadied himself on the basin and wept silently. For them both.
Lila met Mr Hocking by the steps of Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common and they walked along Rectory Grove to the Sultan Cafe and sat in a booth at the back. The cafe was warm inside and the windows were clouded with steam, the wooden sill beneath swollen and blistered from the damp. An elderly man at a table by the window looked up when they came in and regarded them with mild curiosity. He rubbed his sleeve on the glass and peered out into the morning cold like some grizzled watchman sentineled over the empty street.
Lila removed her scarf and hat and placed them on the seat beside her. She kept her coat on and when she caught him staring she told him that she felt the cold more than most people did.
‘Bad circulation,’ she said, almost apologetically.
They ordered tea and eggs and toast. The waitress did not write down the order, she nodded when they were done and disappeared through the saloon doors into the kitchen. Mr Hocking slid the menu back between the bottle of ketchup and napkin dispenser. His hand tremoring as he did so.
‘It’s the medication,’ he said.
‘You sound embarrassed.’
‘Well, I am. That stuff gets to me.’
Two workmen came in and sat at a table across from theirs. Mr Hocking watched them. One of the men nodded to him politely as he drew out his chair to sit down and he nodded back. Both men sat forward, resting their elbows on the table. Staring at their mobile phones, wordlessly.
The waitress brought their mugs of tea and set down two spoons beside them. ‘Can I get you anything else?’ she said, glancing at Lila.
‘Can we get some more milk?’
Mr Hocking smiled and nodded to her as she left.
Lila stirred the black tea, thinking. It was only after a while that she realised he was murmuring under his breath. She said, ‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine. I’m just collecting my thoughts. It’s been a long time, you see.’ He folded his hands over the tabletop. Watching her. After a while he spoke, ‘I suppose I should start at the beginning.’ And so Mr Hocking, the frail and unassuming elderly man she had been visiting and reading to for eight months now, began regaling the story of the time he had a shot and killed a woman outside the Flamingo nightclub on Carnaby Street in 1952.
‘My mother never spoke of my father much. He stayed around until I was born and then he left, went back to Ireland. He was from Carlow so I’m told, but that could be a lie. I never wanted to find him anyhow.’ He took a sip of tea and wet his old lips. ‘We lived alone, my mother and I, in a small house in Roehampton and from a young age I was always getting into trouble. First it was with the neighbours and then later on the police.’
‘You were a wild child.’
‘A wild child. I like that,’ he said, nodding approvingly to himself. ‘No, I was more a pain in the neck. Sometimes the police would come knocking at our door. The neighbours would peek out from behind their curtains. My mother was a prideful woman.’ He paused, contemplating his dead mother’s face. ‘And then she would thrash me and scold me, but her heart wasn’t in it. We both knew that. We only had each other.’
He spoke of the poverty faced by Londoners during that time. The war had ended and they were there to pick up the pieces. There was food rationing and work was hard. His mother worked in a textiles factory in Hammersmith where she made just enough for them to get by. He attended school locally and left at sixteen to work, but that steady line of work didn’t last long he told her. Lila watched him as he spoke, gesturing with his old hands to place the scene.
The waitress placed a small jug of milk on the table. Lila thanked her.
Mr Hocking was silent now. His fingers arched in a gable, his head lowered like a man considering an important wager. He raised his eyes and whispered softly, ‘I wish I’d never found the damn thing.’
Lila finished stirring the milk into her tea. She tapped the spoon on the edge of her mug, thoughtfully, and set the spoon down. She said, ‘I assumed you owned it.’
‘Where did you find it?’
‘I stole it.’
‘I’m not proud of what I did. None of it.’
Lila was silent.
‘If I hadn’t of burgled that house none of this would have happened. She’d still be here.’ He pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on the side of his mug. ‘It was the first week of May in nineteen-fifty-two. I was a young lad then. The house was in Putney. It was by the Heath, you know those large detached houses set back from the road. It was a moonlit night. Cold. I remember the cold. It’s funny what details stick in your head, after so many years. Quinn was an Irish lad I used to hang around with during those days. He was the one that told me about the house. The family were away that week, skiing. Quinn was a mechanic and had done some work on their car and must of heard they were going away. I reckon he thought about doing the same as me, but he had a steady job then and didn’t want any more bother from the police. He was Irish you see, the police gave them a lot of bother back then.’
‘So you were alone that night?’
‘I was alone. It was in a bedside drawer.’
‘Was it loaded?’
Mr Hocking raised his arthritic finger. ‘A single bullet. The other chambers were empty.’
‘Did they keep a box of ammunition?’
‘I never found any. I think the gun was mostly there to scare people. I doubt it had ever been used.’
‘How old were you?’
‘So now you had the gun. How long after until it…’
‘Until it happened.’
Lila nodded. She sipped her tea and watched him. She could see that it was hard for him talking about it.
‘It was about a week or so later. I’d got the bus up to Regents Street and went to a pub by the Circus. I stayed in there most of the night, drinking and tomcatting. Do they still call it that, tomcatting?’
Lila giggled. ‘No,’ she said. It was a term her grandmother would have used, reproachfully.
‘I thought not,’ he whispered. The soft murmurings of those sleepless nights. Her pale face captured in that flare of light as it all but disappeared into nothing. As if she never was.
He pressed his lips together and glanced up at the waitress who had arrived with their food.
‘Be careful. They’re hot,’ the waitress said, placing the plates down.
Mr Hocking flattened a napkin out over his lap. They waited turns, peppering their eggs in silence.
‘Were you on your own?’
He nodded. ‘Try to imagine what London was like after the war. Bombs had flattened the city. The place was a mess. The men who’d come back weren’t the same anymore. They knew it and so did everyone else. They drank back then, I mean really drank. And people were loose, it wasn’t as frowned upon as it is now. If it helped people get over it, helped them forget then who could blame them, considering?’ Then after a moment he added, ‘It was my first time.’
‘You know. Paying for it.’
‘Oh,’ she said, buttering a slice of toast. They were both embarrassed.
‘After the pub I walked up to Carnaby Street. And that’s where I met her. She was standing on the corner chatting to a friend and then she came over to me. She was young, about my age maybe a year or two older. She asked if I wanted to buy her a drink but I was eager to get it over with. That’s when her face changed, she became distant. Business-like. She took me over to an alley that led to the Blue Lagoon. The building beside it had been bombed so the alleyway was a scaffold walkway. She wanted to talk money straight away. I can see that I had offended her. She was Brummie, she spoke with a thick accent. We went to and fro about money. I was young, I tried to big myself up. Assert control. Then she was laughing at me, sarcastically like. That’s when I pulled the gun out, only scare to her. But it went off in my hand. She clutched her stomach. I’ll never forget her face, that look she had. It wasn’t anger. It was total fear. I’d stripped everything away from her and left the bare bones.’ He lowered his eyes. ‘She tried to scream but the shot had winded her. I can still smell the cordite, taste it.’
Lila sipped her tea, trying to take it all in. He didn’t look as if he were explaining, he looked as if he were apologising. It was if he wanted her to forgive him, to absolve him from the crime. Not for the first time in her life she felt that sharp pang of inadequacy. Being asked something that was beyond her, more than she was capable of giving.
‘You killed her.’ She didn’t know why she said this.
‘I didn’t mean to, it just happened.’
Lila lowered the fork from her mouth and set it on her plate. The violence and horror of that night seemed so far removed from the man that she could not fathom such a thing ever happening. As if it was diminished to the point of non-existence.
Mr Hocking watched her. He grimaced as if he had some unsavoury taste in his mouth. He said, ‘I just want to do the right thing. After all these years.’
‘You mean get it off your chest.’
‘In a way. But maybe more than that. I promise you, there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by where I haven’t pictured her. Alone in that alley.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘After you shot her.’
‘I ran,’ he said, nodding decidedly. He held the mug of tea in both hands now like a microphone. His final testament. ‘I wasn’t thinking. The adrenaline kicked in and I was off. I heard a woman scream, a man tried to grab my arm but I shook him off. I came out on Regent’s Street and ran back toward the Circus. I jumped on the back of a twenty-two bus. It took to me to Putney and I got off and walked home from there.’
‘Did you still have the gun on you?’
‘In my coat pocket. The barrel was still warm.’
The coffee machine at the counter groaned. Steam shot out in short sudden wisps, milk spuming into a lone cup.
‘I assume it was in the papers.’
Mr Hocking was silent.
‘What was her name?’
‘Rose. Rose Byrne.’
‘That’s a pretty name.’
Again there was silence. The workman at the table beside theirs leant forward and bit into his fried egg sandwich. Warm yolk dripping and marbling over the plate.
Mr Hocking cleared his throat. ‘Do you mind if we get some air?’
‘Are you okay?’
Lila nodded. They paid and she helped him stand up out of the booth. As she leant down to pick up her bag he touched her shoulder, at first she thought it was so that he could steady himself but then she realised that it was something more. His hand rested there a moment, as if to ask for forgiveness. Then he turned and made his way toward the front of the cafe. His eggs lay untouched.
They walked back toward the common. The winter sun glinting in the windows of the parked cars by the curb-side.
Lila placed a cigarette in her mouth. She said, ‘Do you mind?’
‘No, no. You go ahead,’ he said, squinting.
She could tell he was tired. They sat down on a bench overlooking the playing fields. Two schoolboys passed by with skateboards under their arms.
‘Do you mind if I have one?’ he said.
‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’
‘I’m a dead man, Lila. One cigarette isn’t going to change a thing.’
She cupped her hand over the flame. He studied her face, wincing against the smoke. He held the cigarette aloft, his arthritic hand trembling. Then he said, ‘It’s all a game of luck in the end. Good luck, and bad.’
‘You mean life?’
‘That’s all it is. Luck.’ He drew deeply on the cigarette, his eyes closed. ‘Shipyard confetti,’ he whispered, blowing two thin streams of smoke through his nose.
Lila didn’t understand. She waited.
‘That’s when I knew there was no reasoning. None.’ And then after a pause, ‘I hardly had a scratch on me.’
‘What’s shipyard confetti?’
‘Nuts and bolts. Nails. The nasty stuff they put into bombs. It was probably before your time.’
‘You mean like the IRA?’
‘Mm. I was in one of the pubs that they bombed.’ He watched her. His eyes red from the smoke.
His recall of events were disjointed. His eyes wide, as if he were witnessing the events on a screen and trying to pause at the correct moment and rewind. But she supposed that was how the past played out in such an old mind, among a lifetime of disordered reel.
‘I couldn’t have done anything for him,’ he said. ‘There was nothing left of him in the end.’ He turned his face toward her again, he became stoic. ‘I was in the Kings Arms near Woolwich Dockyard, it was 1974. I was living around there at the time, I used to go in their most nights. I knew the landlady, Maggie. She was a lovely woman. You see the pub was right by the army barracks so the place was full of soldiers most nights, that’s why they targeted it. In the newspapers they said that that the bomb was thrown through the window into the bar, but I don’t remember it like that. Sure it went off, but not like that.’
‘What happened then?’
‘I was in the back of the pub, having a pint on my own, and Maggie walked right past my table without saying a word, without saying hello. She was collecting glasses and slamming them into stacks, like she was mad at something. I asked her if she was okay but she just gave me one of those looks.’ He laughed and put his hand to his face. ‘Now I’ve never been married but a man knows that look from a woman. And he knows when to shut his mouth.’ He crushed the cigarette with the toe of his shoe. ‘Some of soldiers that night were trying their luck. I told her she should be flattered. She was a pretty woman, Maggie. We chatted for a while, I have no idea what we were talking about, it seems so long ago now. But I can picture her there, standing to the right of me wiping down one of the tables. Then this young lad came strolling out of Gents and passed Maggie and I. He had a grey suit on, his hair slicked back. He couldn’t have been a day older than twenty.’
‘A boy,’ Lila said.
‘Mm. I found out later that he was a clerk at court. Poor sod. He had nothing to do with any of it. Just having a drink in his local on a Friday night.’
Lila watched him. His eyes were lowered now.
‘I’d been watching him on the fruit machine that night. He was so sure he was going to get the jackpot. Sipping his beer and giving some lip to the soldiers behind him. They were laughing, but he didn’t care, he was young. I watched the lad walk over to the fruit machine and before he could get his jackpot that was it. He was gone.’
A bus on the road behind them churned through its gears. The warm smell of diesel in its wake.
‘I didn’t see anything thrown in. It just happened. Well, Maggie lost a leg. Shrapnel tore right through her knee. Apparently she told the doctor to cut it off, imagine that,’ he shook his head. ‘The soldiers at that table were killed bar one, I think.’
‘And me, well. I didn’t have a scratch on me. I couldn’t hear out of my right ear for a good week, but besides that, nothing. What I’m trying to say is that we all get dealt our hand, good and bad. There’s no reasoning to it. Some poor unfortunate sod will leave his house in the morning and never come home. That’s just the way it is, always has been.’
Lila understood now. The story was his pardon, something to appease the guilt. She looked away. There was a grief in his expression, a kind of bewilderment. He watched her, as if waiting for approval. To be granted absolution.
Lila said, ‘Have you spoken to the police?’
‘Please don’t say her name.’
Lila stubbed her cigarette out on the bench, she looked away.
‘My mum died three years ago,’ she said. ‘Myeloma. It’s a blood cancer. It worked its way up through her body. In those final weeks she couldn’t even see. She died in total darkness.’
‘She was the strongest person I’ve ever known. She didn’t deserve any of it.’
Lila wiped a tear from her cheek. ‘You’re right when you said that there’s no reason to any of it. The doctor said the same thing to me. It wasn’t genetic or passed down to her. It was a lottery and her name got picked out.’
Mr proctor placed his hand on her arm. She looked down at his large hand. That ancient capacity to offer someone else their presence. As if by nature we were each cloaked in a veil of loneliness, and once shown kindness by another there was a sense that things should or could be otherwise.
Lila said, ‘Promise me you will speak to the police. If not for her family, then for me.’
He shrugged. ‘But what good would it do, stirring it up after all these years.’
‘It would be closure for her family. They never got that.’
‘You said you wanted to do the right thing.’
‘I know. But I’m not sure if I can.’
‘You can,’ Lila said, ‘But first, you need to forgive yourself.’ She was surprised by her words. It was something her mother would have said to her.
He closed his eyes. ‘I’m so weary of it now, after so many years. It’s become a part of me. I’m not sure I can do it on my own.’
‘I’ll be here with you.’
He opened his eyes. Squinting, his old eyes abashed by the daylight. Then he turned his head toward her. ‘There is something you could do.’
‘I haven’t got very long left, Lila. I thought maybe you could help me make a statement.’
‘About what happened that night. You could help me write it all down and then when I’m gone, well you could go to the police and tell them what happened.’
There was silence.
‘I don’t think I could handle all that questioning. Not now.’ There was another silence. He looked down at his hand on her arm. When he looked up again she was looking away into the distance.
She finally spoke. ‘A reprieve.’
‘This is your reprieve.’
‘Will you help me?’
‘No,’ Lila said. ‘I can’t.’
He closed his eyes again, and frowned as if he were carefully forming his conclusion. But he did not speak. Instead he withdrew his hand. She felt his body stiffen next to hers. She watched him, but he turned his head away.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. Then without another word she picked up her bag and walked back toward Clapham Common Station. She looked back. He hadn’t moved from the bench. His head lowered, his hand clasped on his knees as if in prayer.
Lila did not visit the care home the following week. She telephoned Elizabeth and said that she was ill. It was a lie, she knew, he would understand.
It snowed that week, a light snow that dusted the pavement and settled over the frozen commons and parks. From the window of her flat Lila watched some children scrape ice from the bonnet of cars. They signed their names and drew hearts with their gloved fingers. A road sweeper passed by the children trundling his cart. Stooped like some weary itinerant. Scattering salt in his wake.
That evening she lay in bed watching the cold rain blister against her bedroom window. What right did he have to withhold his story, after so many years? It made no difference how long it had been. Those questions had hung in the air for over sixty years, and now they could finally be answered. And yet, the fact was all the same, she knew. He had made up his mind long ago. It was a burden he had carried with him through the years and in that negligence the suffering had been permitted to bloom deep within him. Yet there it stayed, locked away.
She questioned herself over the coming days, whether she had made the right choice in not helping him. That old nagging habit of self-doubt. But ultimately she knew she could not, and with that realisation came a kind of relief.
When Lila arrived at the care home the following week there was nobody behind the reception desk. A little sign hung on a door opposite, on a metal chain: Visitors are asked to report to staff. She made her way to his room. The walls of the corridor were greyish white, it reminded her of a hospital ward. She rapped her knuckle gently on the door. Elizabeth stood by the open wardrobe, extracting clothes from their hangers and tossing the metal hangers onto the bed. She turned and caught sight of Lila in the doorway.
‘It is Thursday today, isn’t it?’ Lila said. ‘I haven’t come on the wrong day?’
Elizabeth placed her hand over her mouth, closed her eyes. Lila then knew that he was gone. She surveyed the room from the doorway. The photo frames by his bedside had been removed, the radio had been placed on the side table next to the armchair. Objects in the room shifted and altered to erase the routine of an elderly man who had spent his dying months sat alone in the armchair beside the window, tapping his foot idly to the music from the radio, or sometimes humming softly to a simple melody that rose from the depths of his consciousness, from another lifetime.
Lila sat on the bed beside Elizabeth. She was sorry that Lila hadn’t been told. She had been on leave herself earlier that week when one of the other nurses had called to let her know.
‘I asked them to call you.’ And then almost immediately without pause, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘When did he go?’
‘Was it peaceful?’
‘He passed in his sleep.’
Passed. What a strange phrase, Lila thought. The indirectness of it, and how little it connoted the reality. Our need to tiptoe around an unspoken certainty.
‘He was quite a gentleman,’ Elizabeth said. ‘A real character. He kept to himself quite a bit. Oh, and those dirty jokes!’ After each declaration, a brooding pause. She smiled to herself at this last one. Then she said, ‘Did everything go okay on Thursday?’
‘Your trip out together.’
Lila shook her head. ‘We got into an argument. I shouldn’t have left him. I’m sorry.’
‘He seemed out of sorts when he came back. He went out again on Friday and was gone the whole day. Then the police came on Saturday.’
‘Yes. I thought you knew.’
‘I had no idea.’
‘Oh silly me. They left a card. There were two of them.’
Elizabeth left the room and returned. She held out the card.
‘They didn’t say what it was about. But when I spoke to him that evening he said that you would know. He said everything was in hand.’
'Is everything okay?’
‘Everything’s fine,’ Lila said. There were tears in her eyes. She laughed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
The nurse placed her hand on Lila’s arm. She said, ‘It’s not my place to pry.’ She stood up and took the pile clothes from the floor. ‘I’ll leave you a minute, to say your goodbye.’
Lila went to the window. The room looked out over a roof the floor below, covered in grey shingle and patches of dark moss. A lone crow. Drinking from a small pool of water. It soon took flight and hung silently in the vector of some cold zephyr and arced momentarily and then vanished into the trees. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and laughed silently. Everything was in hand. He had finally done the right thing, after all this time. She pressed the card against the pane of glass. Rose’s family would finally have closure and if she needed to play her part she would, to corroborate his story. Her story.
She dialled the number on the card.
‘Hi. Is this Raj Dulay?’
‘Um, I got given your card. It’s in relation to Frank Hocking.’
‘Sorry, who is this?’
‘Sorry. My name’s Lila Ryan.’
‘Yes. I knew Frank Hocking.’
‘Of course. I left my card with one of the nurses. We spoke to your grandfather last week.’
‘Oh he’s not my grandfather.’
‘Right.’ There was a long pause. ‘I’m just looking over my notes here. He said that you were his granddaughter. That’s what I’ve written down.’
‘Well no. I used to come and read to him, at the care home. I visited him once a week. It’s a charity thing through the council.’
‘Right. So you’re not related?’
‘No. I don’t know, it may have been easier to say that I was in granddaughter.’
Lila still held the card against the pane of glass. She traced the Metropolitan Police logo with her thumbnail. She said, ‘I know he came to speak to you, about Rose. He told me everything that happened. If I can be of any help at all I’m more than willing. I can make a statement.’
‘I think it’s best if I came to see you in person.’
They agreed to meet the following week at a coffee shop by Lila’s work.
‘Can we make it six?’
‘It’s funny,’ Lila said. ‘All of this. It was so long ago.’
‘Does time make a crime any less serious?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘Not many of our cases go this far back, but you get the occasional one. There’s a look some people get when you tell them how long ago the crime was. You can see them weighing it up in their head. They’re thinking it it worth it?’
‘Opening up old wounds.’
‘Exactly. But it has to be done.’
‘I keep thinking about her, about Rose. It’s all so tragic. I mean I know it was his fault, but he didn’t mean it. It was an accident.’
There was a long pause. The officer let out a deep sigh.
‘I shouldn’t really be discussing this over the phone.’
‘Of course. I’m sorry.’
‘But I want to be sure we are on the same page here.’
‘Rose Byrne was murdered. She was shot from behind in the back of the head. Point blank.’
‘She was executed.’
Lila let go of the card, it landed face down on the sill below.
‘Mr Hocking made a statement. He admitted to murdering Miss Byrne. They were lovers.’
‘But I don’t understand, he never meant it to go off. It was accident.’ She placed her forehead against the glass. ‘He knew her…’
‘The police report and witness statements match what he told us. There were details he gave which didn’t appear in any of the newspapers at the time. I don’t doubt that he’s the person responsible.’
I’m not what you think I am. His words came back to her. Now she knew why.
The voice on the end of the phone echoed in her ear.
‘Hello? Are you still there?’
‘Just my luck,’ she whispered.