school and maintenance for clothes and etceteras to me, and I passed on cash to William as required. It was an arrangement which worked excellently on many counts, not least that it meant that William didn't have to live with Sarah and me. Her husband's noisy and independent-minded brother was not the child she wanted.

William spent his holidays on farms, and Sarah occasionally said that it was most unfair that William should have more money than I had and that William had been spoiled rotten from the day my mother had discovered she was pregnant again at the age of forty-six. Sarah and William, whenever they met, behaved mostly with wary restraint and only occasionally with direct truth. William had learned very quickly not to tease her, which was his natural inclination, and she had accepted that doling out sarcastic criticism invited a cutting response. They circled each other, in consequence, like exactly matched opponents unwilling to declare open war.

For as long as he could remember William had been irresistibly attracted to horses and had long affirmed his intention to be a jockey, of which Sarah strongly and I mildly disapproved. Security, William said, was a dirty word. There were better things in life than a safe job. Sarah and I, I suppose, were happier with pattern and order and achievement. William increasingly as he grew through thirteen, fourteen, and now fifteen, seemed to hunger for air and speed and uncertainty. It was typical of him that he proposed to spend the week's mid-term break in riding horses instead of working for the eight 'O' Level exams he was due to take immediately afterwards.

I left his letter on my desk to remind myself to send him a cheque and unlocked the cupboard where I kept my guns.

The air-gun that I'd taken to school was little more than a toy and needed no licence or secure storage, but I also owned two Mauser 7.62s, an Enfield No. 4 7.62 and two Ansch?tz. 22s around which all sorts of regulations bristled, and also an old Lee Enfield. 303 dating back from my early days which was still as lethal as ever if one could raise the ammunition for it. The little I had, I hoarded, mostly out of nostalgia. There were no more. 303 rounds being made, thanks to the army switching to 7.62 mm in the sixties.

I put the air-gun back in its rack, checked that everything was as it should be, and locked the doors on the familiar smell of oil.

The telephone bell rang downstairs and Sarah answered it. I looked at the pile of exercise books which would all have to be read and corrected and handed out to the boys again on Monday, and wondered why I didn't have a fixed-hours job that one didn't have to take home. It wasn't only for the pupils that homework was a drag.

I could hear Sarah's telephone-answering voice, loud and bright.

'Oh. Hallo, Peter. How nice…'

There was a long pause while Peter talked, and then from Sarah a rising wail.

'Oh, no! Oh, my God! Oh, no, Peter…' Horror, disbelief, great distress. A quality, anyway, which took me straight downstairs.

Sarah was sitting stiffly upright on the sofa, holding the telephone at the end of its long cord. 'Oh no,' she was saying wildly. 'It can't be true. It just can't.'

She stard at me unseeingly, neck stretched upwards, listening with even her eyes.

'Well, of course… of course we will… Oh, Peter, yes, of course… Yes, straight away. Yes… yes… we'll be there…' She glanced at her watch. 'Nine o'clock. Perhaps a bit later. Will that do?… All right then… and Peter, give her my love…'

She clattered the receiver down with shaking hands.

'We'll have to go,' she said. 'Peter and Donna-'

'Not tonight,' I protested. 'Whatever it is, not tonight. I'm damned tired and I've got all those books…'

'Yes, at once, we must go at once.'

'It's a hundred miles.'

'I don't care how far it is. We must go now. Now!'

She stood up and practically ran towards the stairs. 'Pack a suitcase,' she said. 'Come on.'

I followed her more slowly, half exasperated, half moved by her urgency. 'Sarah, hold on a minute, what exactly has happened to Peter and Donna?'

She stopped four stairs up, and looked down at me over the bannister. She was already crying, her whole face screwed into agonised disorder.

'Donna.' The words were indistinct. 'Donna…'

'Has she had an accident?'

'No… not…'

'What, then?'

The question served only to increase the tears. 'She… needs… me.'

'You go, then.' I said, feeling relieved at the solution. 'I can manage without the car for a few days. Until Tuesday anyway. Monday I can do by bus.'

'No. Peter wants you, too. He begged me… both of us.'

'Why?' I said, but she was already running again up the stairs, and wouldn't answer.

I won't like it, I thought abruptly. Whatever had happened she knew that I wouldn't like it and that my instincts would all be on the side of non-involvement. I followed her upwards with reluctance and found her already gathering clothes and toothpaste onto the bed.

'Donna has parents, hasn't she?' I said. 'And Peter, too? So if something terrible's happened, why in God's name do they need us?

'They're our friends.' She was rushing about, crying and gulping and dropping things. It was much, much more than ordinary sympathy for any ill that might have befallen Donna: there was a quality of extravagance that both disturbed and antagonised.

'It's beyond the bounds of friendship,'I said,'to go charging off to Norfolk hungry and tired and not knowing why. And I'm not going.'

Sarah didn't seem to hear. The haphazard packing went ahead without pause and the tears developed into a low continuous grizzle.

Where once we had had many friends, we now had just Donna and Peter, notwithstanding that they no longer lived five miles away and played squash on Tuesdays. All our other friends from before and after marriage had either dropped away or coupled and bred; and it was only Donna and Peter who, like us, had produced no children. Only Donna and Peter, who never talked nursery, whose company Sarah could bear.

She and Donna had once been long-time flat-mates. Peter and I, meeting for the first time as their subsequent husbands, had got on together amicably enough for the friendship to survive the Norfolk removal, though it was by now more a matter of birthday cards and telephone calls than of frequent house-to-house visits. We had spent a boating holiday together once on the canals. 'We'll do it again next year,' we'd all said: but we didn't.

'Is Donna ill?' I asked.


'I'm not going,' I said.

The keening grizzle stopped. Sarah looked a mess, standing there with vague reddened eyes and a clumsily folded nightdress. She stared down at the pale green froth that she wore against the chill of separate beds and the disastrous news finally burst out of her.

'She was arrested,' she said.

'Donna… arrested?' I was astounded. Donna was mouselike. Organised. Gentle. Apologetic. Anything but likely to be in trouble with the police.

'She's home now,' Sarah said. 'She's… Peter says she's… well… suicidal. He says he can't cope with it.' Her voice was rising. 'He says he needs us… now… this minute. He doesn't know what to do. He says we're the only people who can help.'

She was crying again. Whatever it was, was too much.

'What,' I said slowly, 'has Donna done?'

'She went out shopping,' Sarah said, trying at last to speak clearly. 'And she stole… She stole…'

Well, for heaven's sake,' I said, 'I know it's bloody for them but thousands of people shoplift. So why all this excessive drama?'

'You don't listen,' Sarah shouted. 'Why don't you listen?


'She stole a baby.'

Вы читаете Twice Shy
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату