Abby’s phone remained silent. It seemed that her lifeline to the world had flat-lined. It was almost three hours since she had heard from Ricky.
She stared bleakly out of the window of the empty railway carriage, clutching the plastic bag into which she had scooped all the medicines she could find in her mother’s bathroom and bedroom. She told Doris that she was putting her mother in a rest home because she was worried about her ability to look after herself, and that she would phone her with her mother’s new address and phone number. Doris said she was sad to lose her neighbour, but that her mum was lucky to have such a lovely, caring daughter to look after her.
Some irony, Abby thought.
More and more of the sky was turning blue. Large clouds scudded across it as if they were on some urgent mission. It was becoming a fine, blustery autumn afternoon. The kind of weather in which she loved walking along the seafront, particularly the under-cliff walk at Black Rock, past the Marina and towards Rottingdean.
Her mother used to enjoy that walk too. Sometimes, they would do it as a family on a Sunday afternoon, her mother, her father and herself. She loved it when the tide was in, waves exploding on the groynes and sometimes smashing up against the sea wall itself, hurling spray over them.
And there was a time, somewhere back there in the mists of her childhood, that she remembered she had felt content. Was that before she had started going with her father to the big houses he did work in? Before she saw there were people who were different, who had lives that were different?
Was it then? Her personal tipping point?
In the distance to her left she could see the soft hills of the Downs as the train headed back towards Brighton. To where so many memories of her life lay. Where her friends still lived. Friends who didn’t know she was here. Whom she would have loved to see. More than ever she craved the company of her friends now. To pour her heart out to someone not involved in all this. Someone who could think clearly and tell her whether she was mad or not. But it was too late for that, she feared.
Friends were the one part of life that was not a game. But sometimes it was necessary to discard them, however hard that was.
Her eyes started watering. She had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She’d eaten nothing all day except for the one digestive biscuit at Hugo Hegarty’s house, and she’d drunk a Coke on Gatwick Station platform a short while ago. She was too knotted up for anything more.
They were passing through Hassocks. A short while later they entered Clayton Tunnel. She listened to the roar of the train exploding off the walls. Saw her own pale, scared reflection staring back in the window.
When they emerged back into light – the sloping greenery of Mill Hill to her right, the London Road to her left – she saw to her dismay that she had a missed call.
Then it rang again. It was Ricky.
‘I’m getting increasingly worried about your mother, Abby. I’m not sure she’s going to survive much longer.’
‘Please let me speak to her, Ricky!’
There was a brief silence. Then he said, ‘I don’t think she’s up to speaking.’
A new, darker slick of fear spread through her. ‘Where are you?’ she said. ‘I’ll come to you. I’ll meet you anywhere, I’ll give you everything you want.’
‘Yes, Abby, I know you will. We’re going to meet tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow?’ she screamed at him. ‘No fucking way! We’re going to do it now, please. I have to get her to hospital.’
‘We’ll do it when it suits me. You’ve inconvenienced me quite enough. Now you can have a taste of what it feels like.’
‘This isn’t inconvenience, Ricky. Please, for God’s sake. This is a sick old lady. She hasn’t done anything wrong. She hasn’t harmed you. Take it out on me, not her.’
The train was slowing down, approaching Preston Park, where she wanted to get off.
‘Unfortunately, Abby, it’s her that I have, not you.’
‘I’ll swap places.’
‘Please, Ricky, let’s just meet.’
‘We will meet, tomorrow.’
‘No! Now! Please, today. Mum might not survive until tomorrow.’ She was getting hysterical.
‘That would be too bad, wouldn’t it? For her to have died knowing her daughter is a thief.’
‘God almighty, you are a callous bastard.’
Ignoring the remark, Ricky said, ‘You’re going to need a car. I’ve posted the key of the Ford I rented to your flat. It will be there in the morning.’
‘It’s been clamped,’ she said.
‘Then you’ll just have to rent something yourself.’
‘Where are we going to meet?’
‘I’ll phone you in the morning. Go hire a car tonight. And have the stamps with you, won’t you?’
‘Please can we meet now, this afternoon?’
He ended the call. The train jolted to a halt.
Abby climbed out of her seat and made her way unsteadily along to the exit, holding tightly on to her handbag and the plastic bag with one hand and the handrail with the other as she climbed down on to the platform. It was 4.15.
Got to hold it together, she thought. Got to. Somehow. Somehow.
Oh, Jesus, how?
She thought she was going to throw up as she left the station and walked over to the taxi rank. To her dismay, there were no cabs waiting. She looked at her watch, anxiously, then called the number of one of the local companies. Then she called another number, one she had called earlier. The same male voice answered. ‘South-East Philatelic.’
It was the one stamp dealer in the city whose name Hugo Hegarty had omitted to give her.
‘It’s Sarah Smith,’ she said. ‘I’m on my way over, just waiting for a taxi. What time do you close?’
‘Not till 5.30,’ the man said.
An anxious fifteen minutes later the taxi appeared.