We went to Norwich.

Sarah had been right. I didn't like the reason for our journey. I felt a severe aversion to being dragged into a highly-charged emotional situation where nothing constructive could possibly be done. My feelings of friendship towards Peter and Donna were nowhere near strong enough. For Peter, perhaps. For Donna, definitely not.

All the same, when I thought of the tremendous forces working on that poor girl to impel her to such an action it occurred to me that perhaps the unseen universe didn't stop at the sort of electromagnetics that I taught. Every living cell, after all, generated electric charges: especially brain cells. If I put baby-snatching on a par with an electric storm, I could be happier with it.

Sarah sat silently beside me for most of the way, recovering, re-adjusting, preparing. She said only once what must have been in both of our minds.

'It could have been me.'

'No,' I said.

'You don't know… what it's like.'

There was no answer. Short of having been born female and barren, there was no way of knowing. I had been told about five hundred times over the years in various tones from anguish to spite that I didn't know what it was like, and there was no more answer now than there had been the first time.

The long lingering May evening made the driving easier than usual, although going northwards out of London in the Friday night exodus was always a beast of a journey.

At the far, far end of it lay the neat new box-like house with its big featureless net-curtained windows and its tidy oblong of grass. One bright house in a street of others much the same. One proud statement that Peter had reached a certain salary-level and still aspired to future improvement. A place and a way of life that I understood and saw no harm in: where William would suffocate.

The turmoil behind the uninformative net curtains was much as expected in some ways and much worse in others.

The usually meticulously tidy interior was in much disarray, with unwashed cups and mugs making wet rings on every surface and clothes and papers scattered around. The trail, I came to realise, left by the in-and-out tramp of officialdom over the past two days.

Peter greeted us with gaunt eyes and the hushed voice of a death in the family; and probably for him and Donna what had happened was literally hurting them worse than a death. Donna herself sat in a silent huddle at one end of the big green sofa in their sitting-room and made no attempt to respond to Sarah when she rushed to her side and put her arms round her in almost a frenzy of affection.

Peter said helplessly, 'She won't talk… or eat.'

'Or go to the bathroom?'


Sarah looked up at me with furious reproach, but I said mildly, 'If she goes off to the bathroom when she feels the need, it's surely a good sign. It's such a normal act.'

'Well, yes,' Peter said limply. 'She does.'

'Good, then.'

Sarah clearly thought that this was another prime example of what she called my general heartlessness, but I had meant only to reassure. I asked Peter what exactly had taken place, and as he wouldn't tell me in front of Donna herself we removed to the kitchen.

In there, too, the police and medics and court officials and social workers had made the coffee and left the dishes. Peter seemed not to see the mess that in past times would have set both him and Donna busily wiping up. We sat at the table with the last remnants of daytime fading to dusk, and in that gentle light he slowly unlocked the horrors.

It was on the previous morning, he said, that Donna had taken the baby from its pram and driven off with it in her car. She had driven seventy odd miles north-east to the coast, and had at some point abandoned the car with the baby inside it, and had walked off along the beach.

The car and the baby had been traced and found within hours, and Donna herself had been discovered sitting on the sand in pouring rain, speechless and stunned.

The police had arrested her, taken her to the station for a night in the cells, and paraded her before a magistrate in the morning. The bench had called for psychiatric reports, set a date for a hearing a week ahead and, despite protests from the baby's mother, set Donna free. Everyone had assured Peter she would only be put on probation, but he still shuddered from their appalling future of ignominy via the press and the neighbourhood.

After a pause, and thinking of Donna's trancelike state, I said, 'You told Sarah she was suicidal.'

He nodded miserably. 'This afternoon I wanted to warm her. To put her to bed. I ran the bath for her.' It was a while before he could go on. It seemed that the suicide attempt had been in deadly earnest: he had stopped her on the instant before she plunged herself and her switched-on hair-drier into the water. 'And she still had all her clothes on,' he said.

It seemed to me that what Donna urgently needed was some expert and continuous psychiatric care in a comfortable private nursing-home, all of which she was probably not going to get.

'Come on out for a drink,' I said.

'But I can't.' He was slightly trembling all the time, as if his foundations were in an earthquake.

'Donna will be all right with Sarah.'

'But she might try…'

'Sarah will look after her.'

'But I can't face…'

'No,' I said. 'We'll buy a bottle.'

I bought some Scotch and two glasses from a philosophical publican just before closing time, and we sat in my car to drink in a quiet tree-lined street three miles from Peter's home. Stars and street lights between the shadowy leaves.

'What are we going to do?' he said despairingly.

'Time will pass.'

'We'll never get over it. How can we? It's bloody… impossible.' He choked on the last word and began to cry like a boy. An outrush of unbearable, pent-up, half-angry grief.

I took the wobbling glass out of his hand. Sat and waited and made vague sympathetic noises and wondered what to God I would have done if, like she said, it had been Sarah.

'And to happen now,' he said at length, fishing for a handkerchief to blow his nose, 'of all times.'

'Er… oh?'I said.

He sniffed convulsively and wiped his cheeks. 'Sorry about that.'

'Don't be.'

He sighed. 'You're always so calm.'

'Nothing like this has happened to me.'

'I'm in a mess,' he said.

'Well, it'll get better.'

'No, I mean, besides Donna. I didn't know what to do… before… and now, after, I can't even think.'

'What sort of mess? Financial?'

'No. Well, not exactly.' He paused uncertainly, needing a prompt.

'What then?'

I gave him his glass back. He looked at it vaguely, then drank most of the contents in one mouthful.

'You don't mind if I burden you?' he said.

'Of course not.'

He was a couple of years younger than I, the same age as both Donna and Sarah; and all three of them, it had sometimes seemed to me, saw me not only as William's elder brother but as their own. At any rate it was as

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