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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Imperfect Women

A Novel

Araminta Hall

MCD

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ELEANOR


“Eleanor.”

She sat up because she hadn’t even been aware of answering the phone and the night was still black and nothing made sense. Her head spun, and she dropped it forward to make it stop, which allowed other things to fall into place.

“Robert?”

“I’m sorry to wake you.”

“What time is it?”

“Just after four.”

“My God, has something happened?”

“No. Well, I don’t know. Nancy’s not here. I must have fallen asleep when I was reading, because I’ve just woken up and she’s not back. And her phone’s going straight to voice mail.”

The streetlights were seeping in through the cracks in Eleanor’s curtains, and she tried to focus on the strip of artificial light, as if it meant something.

“You don’t know where she is, do you? I mean, she didn’t by any chance come back to your place after dinner, did she?” His voice sounded like overstretched elastic.

“No—no she didn’t.” She swung her legs out of the bed, and all the irritation she’d felt for Nancy the night before, for ages really, sloshed around her body. “Look, I can be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Oh God, you don’t have to…”

“It’s fine, Robert. I’ll throw on some clothes and get in the car.”

The elastic in his voice snapped. “Oh God, do you think, then … I mean, should I call the police?”

“No. Wait for me.” Eleanor pulled on her jeans as she spoke, and her irritation mutated to anger. She wanted to pick up something and hurl it against the wall. She wanted to scream into Nancy’s perfect face. She wouldn’t let her get away with this. She would recount everything, every last painful second, she would spare her nothing.

* * *

As she drove the few miles between her small flat and Nancy’s large house, Eleanor calibrated all the words she would say to her friend when she saw her next. How she would demand that Nancy stop playing these stupid games with them all and just bloody own up to what she’d done, so they could get on with their lives. Over the years, Eleanor had watched Nancy constantly create little dramas in her life, culminating now in this big one, and she couldn’t help wondering if it was to add interest to a life that wasn’t nearly as full as it could have been. She wondered sometimes what it must be like to occupy Nancy’s brilliant brain but never put it to any tangible use. Nancy could really have been or done anything, yet she had so often failed to commit to anything wholeheartedly. It sometimes felt like Nancy had written herself out of the story of her own life, and surely that was an act of sabotage.

Eleanor stopped at a red traffic light, and three teenagers tripped across the road, their arms interlinked, their faces creased by laughter. And then she just felt sad because they almost felt like a message from her past, or a rip in the seam of time, because they could have been Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary from more than twenty-five years before.

One of the girls turned as they passed the car, and her gaze locked with Eleanor’s, her smile faltering for a moment before she was pulled back into the conversation by her friend. They looked like the students Nancy, Mary, and she had been when they’d met, on almost the first day of their first week at Oxford, amazed at their luck in finding one another so soon. Eleanor wondered if the girls were going back to a messy house in which they’d laugh about the night they’d just had before talking about the people they were going to become, the loves they would experience, the lives waiting for them to step into.

As she started driving again, she tried to remember what it was they’d felt so certain they’d accomplish. She supposed she’d not swerved too far from her path, although she’d imagined herself running Oxfam and sitting on committees by now, instead of working with the small aid charity she’d set up. Mary had wanted to stay in the world of Greek gods forever and had her eye on a life of academia. In actuality, Eleanor thought, Mary’s life more closely resembled the punishment of a Greek god, with her terrible marriage that seemed to have sucked the life out of her, although she did undeniably adore her children, who were now not even children, and where the hell did time go. It was hard to even remember what Nancy had wanted to be. Eleanor thought it had to do with journalism. Maybe editing a newspaper had been her ultimate goal, although it all seemed so unlikely now, as the idea of Nancy ever being satisfied enough by anything seemed so implausible.

Nancy and Robert’s house was lit up like a Christmas tree. Eleanor could tell from the road that he must have been into every room, and now the place shone out of the dark street as if ready for a party. Robert’s face showed up in the rounded living room window, and he opened the front door as she came up the steps, where they hugged a greeting, him drawing her in as he always did.

“Shall I make some tea?” he asked as they went down to the basement kitchen.

“I’ll do it. Sit down,” Eleanor said.

He did as he was told, folding his already crumpled body into a chair and rubbing his hands in his eyes, creasing further his rumpled skin. His blond hair was a mess, sleep ravaged, she thought, and it spiked her familiar tenderness for him.

They sat together and sipped their tea, neither of them saying anything. Neither of them wanted to be the one to say it, neither wanted to know or tell. For a second, Eleanor thought, they could have just been a couple, an early start at work beckoning, their comfortable house settled around them.

“Do you know where she is?” Robert asked finally.

“Not exactly.” Eleanor cupped her hands around her mug and tried to imagine how she was going to say what she knew.

“But there is someone else, isn’t there?” He looked straight at her with his question.

“Oh God, Robert, I could kill Nancy.” She couldn’t be the one to tell Robert, but then again she couldn’t lie to his face.

“How long has it been going on?”

“You need to have this conversation with her.”

“But I can’t. She’s not here.”

Nancy had been putting her in impossible situations for most of their lives, Eleanor thought, but this was perhaps the worst. She might not forgive her this time. “Oh, Robert, I’m so sorry.”

“Did she go to him last night?”

“After we met, she said she was going to meet him. I didn’t know beforehand, I promise.”

“It’s not your fault, Eleanor.” But his voice was harsher than she’d heard before. “Do you think that’s it, then? Have they run away together?”

“I really don’t think so. She’s been trying to end things with him, but he hasn’t been taking no for an answer.” For the first time, Eleanor felt a seam of fear in her belly because Nancy had been wanting to end the affair for a while now and she couldn’t imagine what this other man could have said to make her change her mind like this. Nancy wasn’t mean. She wasn’t the sort of person not to come home to her husband of more than twenty years. Eleanor spoke again to allay her fears. “She’s hardly told me anything about him, beyond the fact of him. She was upset last night. She really has been trying to finish things.”

“Who is he?”

Eleanor felt nausea rise through her body with the warmth of the tea. “Really, I don’t know. All she’s told me is that he’s called David and she met him through a work thing.”

He flinched at the information as if she’d burned him. “But is it serious enough for her to do this—for her to leave?”

Eleanor thought of Nancy’s pale face from the night before, from this same night, really, which was an absurd thought. It was true that she’d wanted to end the affair, but she had also been visibly devastated, and it was always so hard to tell with Nancy what was real or exaggerated. Eleanor comforted herself with the thought that Nancy was impetuous and daring. It was possible that she had done something this stupid. Eleanor looked back at Robert and his sharp blue eyes, his solid being, and she couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been enough. She’d gone to bed that night feeling guilty that she hadn’t been nicer to her friend, but now she thought she hadn’t been harsh enough.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s been going on for about a year.”

Robert rocked back with her words.

“But really, she was in the process of ending it, or at least trying to. She wants to try to make it work with you.” God, Nancy deserved less than this.

“So this could just be one last…” His words trailed into the air, their sordidness sullying the perfection of the new kitchen Nancy had just put in.

“Oh, Robert, this is fucking ghastly. You don’t deserve this. I am so sorry.” Eleanor thought of the times she’d sat around this table, eating Robert’s food and drinking his wine, of the weekends spent at their Sussex house, of the comfy beds and hot baths, of the fireside chats and the long walks. And it seemed shameful that she had betrayed him.

“Anyone would have done the same in your position. I mean, Nancy’s your friend.”

“But you’re my friend too.” She reached over and put her hand over his as she spoke, and his skin was surprisingly soft.

The smile he gave her was stretched and tight.

“If it makes it any better, I’ve told her how much I disapprove of it all since the beginning. I’ve never encouraged her.”

Robert checked the clock above the door, and Eleanor followed his gaze. “I suppose I should be getting ready for work,” he said.

“But it’s only five thirty.”

“We’ve got a big case on.”

“But I mean, surely today. Are you really going in?”

“I can’t sit around here moping. And I’d rather not make any decisions before I’ve spoken to Nancy. It would be better to keep busy.”

“So you’re going to forgive her?” Eleanor’s voice sounded shrill to her ears. “Without knowing any of the facts?” The charm of Nancy’s life reverberated around her, and for a moment she couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear that Nancy would get away with this as well. But she pushed that thought away. She needed to stop letting the last year sour her feelings. Nancy was also a woman she loved and cherished, who made her laugh, who was always at the other end of the phone, who often took care of her.

“I didn’t say that,” Robert said.

Eleanor heard the pureness of the anger in his voice. His hand was gripping the side of the table, the veins standing out on his skin. “But we’ve been together for a very long time. And there’s Zara. I mean, you don’t just throw away more than twenty years.”

The moment felt unreal, maybe because it was so early and still as dark as night outside. Eleanor swallowed her tears along with her shame—of course she didn’t know what it was like to consider those sort of things—other people, longtime loving. But then Robert stood, so Eleanor did the same. He clearly wanted her to leave.

“Thanks for coming,” Robert said as they made their way back up the stairs.

They stopped at the front door. “How did you know she was having an affair?”

Robert shrugged, his eyes refusing to rest on hers. “Something’s obviously been up for a while. I suppose it’s just one of the things you consider.”

Eleanor rubbed Robert’s arm through his jersey. “I think you’ll sort it out. I hope you do.”

He opened the front door, and the chill of the early morning was penetrating. “If you hear from her today,” he said, “let me know. She might not call me.”

“Of course I will. And you me.” She was shivering with the cold, but Robert hadn’t seemed to notice. “Anyway—” She turned to go, but as she did, a white car pulled up outside the house. She looked back at Robert, and his face told her that she wasn’t wrong. They both watched in the silent, thick stillness of the morning as two policemen got out of the car and turned toward the house.

“Oh God,” Robert said behind her.

As the two men came up the steps, their uniforms blended into the dark.

“Mr. Hennessy?” one asked.

“Yes,” Robert said.

“Can we come in please, sir?”

Robert stepped back, and Eleanor remembered that you had to invite vampires into your house—they couldn’t just walk in.

They went back into the hall. Eleanor wanted to shake them all, to ask the policemen why it wasn’t strange to find them standing on the doorstep before dawn. She didn’t want to be part of their world, in which everything and anything was probable.

“Is there somewhere we can sit down?” one of the policeman asked, so Robert opened the door to the drawing room, which was painted in the bright yellow Nancy had always loved. One room in every house should be sunny, Eleanor recalled her saying, as she sat on the sofa as if they were a group of friends who happened to be meeting before most people were awake.

“Sorry—and you are?” the policeman said to Eleanor.

“Oh, sorry, this is Eleanor Meakins. She’s a good friend of my wife’s.” The statement hung terrifyingly in the air when it should have needed explanation.

“Please, Mr. Hennessy, sit down,” the policeman said.

“No,” replied Robert, “I’d rather stand.”

The policeman removed his hat, and his colleague copied. “I’m very sorry. The body of a woman in her late forties was found just over an hour ago, and we have reason to believe it is your wife, Nancy Hennessy.”

At that, Robert sat down, right next to Eleanor; she felt the sofa compress and his body sink against hers. She concentrated on that for as long as she could while the rest of the world spun around her.

“What makes you think it’s Nancy?” Robert asked finally.

“Her bag was found with her, and her driving license was in her purse.” The second policeman still hadn’t spoken, and Eleanor wondered if he was on some sort of training exercise.

“Oh my God. What happened to her?” Eleanor said, her mind filled with the thought of Nancy spending the night out in this freezing cold.

“At the moment we’re not entirely sure. But it looks like she suffered a head trauma.”

Eleanor tried to make sense of the words that were being said. They had called Nancy a body, and now they were talking about a head trauma. Surely someone hadn’t hurt her in some way, surely there was some mistake? She felt a sickening anger at that thought, and a desperate desire to rush to her friend and soothe away her pain.

“Where is she?” Eleanor asked. “I mean, is she dead?”

Both policemen and Robert turned to look at her, as if she were stupid. “Yes,” the speaking policeman said finally. “I’m sorry, I thought you understood…” He blushed a deep crimson. “She’s in a mortuary now.”

“Where was she found?” Robert asked.

“By the river, near Hammersmith. I’m sorry to ask, but have you got a recent photo of your wife?”

Robert didn’t seem like he was going to move, so Eleanor stood and fetched a photo from the mantelpiece. She picked a recent one of Nancy with her arm around Zara. Bad photos of Nancy didn’t exist, but this one was particularly luminous. The sun was behind her, accentuating her perfection with an outline that almost made her glow. She handed it to the policeman, and he nodded when he looked at it.

“We’re going to have to ask you to come and identify the body, Mr. Hennessy. Or if there’s someone who can do it for you…”

Robert groaned, a low, bearlike sound.

“I can do it,” Eleanor said.

“No,” Robert said. “It should be me.”

Their eyes met as he spoke, and Eleanor felt a jolt of terror pass through her as she realized that everything about Nancy’s death was worse than any other death anywhere. They would all suffer, and nothing would ever be the same again.

* * *

As she waited for Robert on the cold plastic chairs outside the viewing room, Eleanor couldn’t remember how they’d arrived at the mortuary. She tried to reassemble the journey in her mind, to give it some cohesion, but nothing came. Robert reappeared relatively quickly, but his eyes were unfocused and his body appeared to be trembling.

“Do you mind if I go in?” Eleanor surprised herself by saying, but he waved her in, so then she felt like she should.

The room was artificially dark, or at least subdued, with fake flowers dusty in vases and a navy velvet chair in one corner. The outline of a body, which Eleanor supposed to be Nancy, lay on the bed, covered by a sheet. A woman was standing next to the shape and she nodded, so Eleanor nodded back. The woman leaned forward and folded the white sheet back, so Eleanor only realized what she was doing once it was too late and she didn’t have any time to prepare herself for what she was going to see. And then there was nothing more to do than step closer and look at her friend. She momentarily felt a pang of relief because they’d clearly got it wrong, it wasn’t really her. It was just a facsimile of Nancy, a waxwork, a cardboard cutout. Eleanor wanted to reach out and feel her skin, which already looked devoid of anything meaningful. Her beauty, which had been so present in life, had vanished, as if it knew what was to come, as if it couldn’t bear to let itself mush and decay and be eaten by worms. Eleanor gasped at her own thoughts, but the woman holding the sheet averted her gaze, and besides, she must have seen everything in this terrible room. What a job. It seemed impossible that anyone would want a job like this.

Eleanor stepped closer. There was something wrong, or missing perhaps, that she couldn’t work out. Nancy’s left cheekbone was swollen, and a yellow bruise had crept up under the strange, turbanlike thing she was wearing. Her jaw looked strange as well, almost as if she’d been to the dentist and hadn’t removed the wad of cotton wool they used. She wanted to turn away because it all spoke of something very ugly that had happened to her friend, and she couldn’t bear to think of the violence that must have produced those marks. Nancy’s last moments had been painful, that much was blindingly clear.

But the strangest thing was that Nancy didn’t have any hair, or at least that her hair had been completely covered by this odd turban. Nancy was always surrounded by her golden hair, long and straight at university, rising up, curling, now a flouncy bob that stopped just above her shoulders. This was as far as her hair would go, Eleanor realized with a jolt. Nancy would never have another haircut.

But mixed in with all of that was the knowledge that Eleanor had known Nancy had been going to meet her lover, and what if he was the person who had done this? What if Eleanor could have said the right words to stop her going and didn’t? She hadn’t even tried, she realized. Sickness rose through her and her anger at this woman she had shared so much of her life with pooled in a mess by her feet, so she was just left with shame at herself. Eleanor had loved this woman and had let this happen to her.

“Why has she got that round her head?” Eleanor pointed at the turban, as if it mattered.

“The wound on the back of head was quite substantial. This is how we contain it,” the woman answered.

“Will there be a postmortem?”

“I would imagine so.”

“So they’ll cut her up? She won’t ever look like this again?” Eleanor couldn’t understand why any of this mattered, but it was fueling a building desperation inside her. She wanted very much to lean down and kiss Nancy’s alabaster cheek, but she didn’t dare—not just because she was being watched but because of what it might make her feel.

“They’re very good at their job. And it really is essential in cases like this. It helps us recover all the evidence.”

Eleanor nodded, because what else was there to do. She heard the woman replacing the sheet as she left.

A policeman drove them home, or at least to Nancy’s home, which already felt vacuous without her in it, or the knowledge of her return. It was filled with other police, inside and out, the rooms busy and crowded. There were also a few people loitering outside, a couple with cameras slung about their necks, one of whom rushed up to them and asked Robert if he wanted to make any comment, before being pushed aside. Once inside, a policewoman asked Robert if he wanted them to inform Zara; she said a family liaison officer could be sent to her university halls and she would be taken care of. But Robert said no, he had to do it, which was not something he looked capable of. He considered driving up to tell her in person, but Eleanor persuaded him against that, and they compromised by dispatching the family liaison to be there after Zara had taken the phone call. Eleanor left him alone and went down to the kitchen with a different policeman. She started to make tea, aware that there was nothing really useful she could do and that from now on all tasks might seem pointless.

It was absurd that nothing was different: you still had to get a tea bag from its box in the cupboard, drop it into a mug, fill the kettle and flick the switch, listen to the sing of the boil, pour the water, fish out the bag, add milk. She watched herself perform these tasks, but they were as unconnected to her as the used brown bag that she dropped into the bin.

Eleanor and the policeman sat and had their tea in the kitchen and Eleanor thought it was just another moment, that was all. And she’d had plenty of terrible moments in her life. Probably none quite as terrible or unreal as this, but nonetheless, another moment to be lived through, like all the others. What was important was for her to remember this wasn’t about her, it was about Nancy, Robert, and Zara. She mustn’t think about her dinner with Nancy the night before, or what had been said—or not said. She couldn’t fall apart, not yet.

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions,” the policeman said, breaking into her thoughts. The sky had lightened to a dead gray outside, and when she looked up through the window, she could see the trees on the street stripped and bare, tiny specks of rain pattering the glass. “My name is Detective Sergeant Daniels, and we find if we get these cases started quickly, we have much better outcomes.”

“What do you mean? What cases?” Momentarily Eleanor was lost in what he meant.

“Suspicious deaths.” The policeman looked exasperated, and it made Eleanor realize that this had now officially become something else.

“Do you—I mean, do you think she was murdered, then? I mean, isn’t it possible that she fell or something?” Except she had seen Nancy, and her face sort of put paid to that thought, but she clung on stubbornly because it had to be the best option in a series of terrible ones.

“Everything is possible at this stage,” Detective Sergeant Daniels said calmly. “But there are certain indications that are pointing us toward the thought that this wasn’t an accidental death.”

“Oh God.” It felt like things were slipping away and they were entering a new realm.

“Mr. Hennessy told us you had dinner with Mrs. Hennessy last night.”

“Yes.”

“It makes what you tell us extremely important.”

“I suppose it does.” She could hear herself speaking, but it all seemed unlikely.

“How did Mrs. Hennessy seem? Do you know where she went after dinner? What time did you leave the restaurant?”

Eleanor drew in her breath because now, she knew, was the moment that she would make everything change. “We left around ten and Nancy went to meet her lover.”

The detective sat forward, unable to check his excitement. “Her lover? Who is that?”

“I don’t know.” Eleanor suddenly felt so weary she worried she might simply fall asleep. There was too much to tell and too little time.

“Does Mr. Hennessy know about the lover?”

“Yes. At least he does now. He rang me at four this morning because Nancy hadn’t come home, and I came round and told him. But he’d guessed already.”

“How had he guessed?”

She looked at the eager man writing in his book, and it struck her again that this was no more than a job to him, possibly a promotion if all went well. “I’m not sure. He said they’d been getting on badly and it’s one of the things you consider.”

“And you say you don’t know the lover’s identity?”

“That’s right. Nancy was very ashamed about it all. She’d only spoken to me about it because she felt so guilty, but she never told me any details.” Eleanor remembered what it had been like in the early days of the affair, when she’d practically had to peel Nancy off the ceiling to have a conversation, but she also wanted to protect Nancy from what she knew everyone would think because that wasn’t the truth about her friend. “The only thing she ever told me was that he was called David and she met him through work.”

“Nothing else? No surname?”

“Of course I’d tell you if I knew his surname.”

“But you’re sure he was called David?”

“Yes. It was the only specific piece of information she ever told me about him. And only because I asked so many times. She said I didn’t know him, so there was no point in telling me any details.” But then Eleanor remembered something from the night before, which seemed like a thousand years ago. “Oh, actually, I asked Nancy last night if he was married and had children, and she said yes.”

“That’s all she said? She didn’t tell you the name of his wife, or how many children?”

“No.” Eleanor focused on a line of red spots at the side of the policeman’s chin, which could be a shaving rash.

“Do you know how long it had been going on?”

“A bit over a year, that I know of.”

“So possibly longer?”

“Possibly, yes.” Although Nancy was bad at keeping things to herself, so Eleanor thought it unlikely.

“And did Nancy talk to anyone else about this?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Maybe our good friend Mary, but I think I’d know if she had.” She thought of Mary going about her life, and it seemed impossible that it hadn’t yet been shattered. “She was really scared about Robert finding out, so I can’t imagine she spoke to anyone else about it.”

“And she said she met him through work?”

“Yes. I think she said at a party.”

“Where did Mrs. Hennessy work?”

“Well, actually, mainly at home. She translates books. She speaks fluent French, so if a publisher buys a French book, she translates it into English.”

Eleanor thought the policeman looked depressed at the number of paths that answer could lead him down.

“And when you left the restaurant last night, did Nancy tell you where she was meeting this David? Or did you see which direction she went?”

Eleanor felt her face flush with the memory of their parting. “Actually, Nancy left before me. I stayed on to pay, so no, I didn’t see where she went.” She wondered if the policeman understood what a terrible friend she was.

“Did you pay because Nancy had no money on her?”

“No. I mean, I didn’t ask, I just offered to pay.” At least that made Eleanor feel a bit better. “But Nancy always had money on her.”

“Would she have been carrying cash, do you think?”

“I don’t know. Why are you asking this?”

He looked like he didn’t want to tell her why, but then he said, “When she was found, her purse was lying open next to her body and there was no cash or cards in it.”

“She definitely would at least have had a card on her.”

“And did she have a phone?”

“Yes, of course. Was that gone as well?”

“We didn’t find one. Did you see her use her phone last night?”

Eleanor searched through her memory, but all she could see was Nancy’s pleading face. “No. Sorry. But I’m completely sure she would have had it on her.”

“Yes, most people do.”

“But surely her … I mean, the man she was meeting wouldn’t have robbed her?” It would definitely be better if she hadn’t been killed by the lover, as if it made Eleanor less responsible.

The policeman nodded, but then ruined it by saying, “Robbery isn’t the only reason someone might take those things.”

“Oh God—because there could be messages from him on her phone? Can’t you trace it somehow, or read the messages anyway?”

“We’ve got a team working on that now, but it’s not quite as easy as TV shows would have you believe.” He leaned back and stopped himself from stretching. “Anyway, you’ve been very helpful, Miss Meakins.”

* * *

Eleanor stayed until Zara got home, and then she left them to it—a weeping bundle of misery that made her feel like an intruder. Also Nancy’s mother, Pearl, was on her way, and the thought of seeing her was too much right then. She promised to come back in the morning, not sure if she was needed or wanted, except that Robert looked so grateful, she thought she should. It was dark again by the time Eleanor left, and this time nothing stopped her; it could have been a replay of the morning, and Nancy might not be dead and time could have unraveled, and any way you looked at it, nothing was ever going to be the same again.

She sat with her hands on the steering wheel, her body feeling shredded, as if a car had run over her and then reversed again and again. Her mouth was dry and her heart jarred against her ribs, the sweat lining her armpits so her own odor rose to greet her. Mary still didn’t know. It wasn’t something Eleanor had felt capable of telling her over the phone, but the policeman had warned her it would be all over the news that night and it was coming up for six o’clock, and she doubted Mary watched it that early, but who knew. She started the car and turned in the direction of Kilburn, inching along with the rush hour traffic, men and women locked in their own private lives, nothing out of the ordinary.

Mary’s gate was still hanging off its hinges as it had done for years. Her front garden was still a mess of weeds, and the broken pane of glass in the door was still held together with Scotch tape. Eleanor rang the bell, and Maisie answered, which meant Eleanor had to smile.

“Hi, Ellie.” Maisie smiled, her newly acquired teenage spots heartbreaking. “I didn’t know you were coming round.”

“I’m not. At least, I am, but nobody knew.”

“Mum!” Maisie shouted. “Ellie’s here.”

Mary came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands down her skirt, her hair hanging by her face in long strands, and Eleanor found herself thinking she should cut it, as if that would resolve something.

“Ellie, what a lovely surprise,” Mary said, stepping forward. “Is everything okay? You don’t look well.”

Eleanor found that something had lodged in her throat, so even though she opened her mouth, all she could do was cry. “Mimi,” Mary shouted up the stairs, “come here.”

There was a thud, and then Mimi was there, staring at Ellie along with her little sister, and Eleanor knew it was all wrong, she was doing it all wrong.

“Take Maisie and go and watch some telly or something,” Mary said. “Don’t come into the kitchen.” Then she took Eleanor by the elbow and led her through to the hot, steamy room that smelled of mince, and closed the door. “Sit down,” she instructed, and Eleanor did because otherwise she was going faint anyway. “Do you want anything?”

“Some wine. Or whiskey. Or anything.”

Mary opened the fridge. “Howard’s got a beer in here.”

“That’ll do.”

Mary handed her the cold black can and sat next to her. “What the hell’s happened, Els?”

She tried to think of a good way of saying what she knew, but there was none. “Nancy’s dead. The police seem to think she was murdered.” The beer tasted yeasty and reminded her why she didn’t like it, but at least it stopped her crying.

“What on earth do you mean?” Mary’s eyes were wide behind her glasses. She looked like a cartoon character.

“Oh my God, Mary, she’s dead.”

Mary sank into a chair and started crying in a way Eleanor wished she could, in a pure and complete way, with noise and tears and snot. Eleanor moved her chair closer and put her arms around her old friend, and they sat together while Mary heaved and moaned.

Eventually Mary’s tears subsided, and when she pulled away, her eyes were swollen, her cheeks blotchy. “But how? I mean why? When?”

“They found her really early this morning, on a path by the river in Hammersmith, right next to the bridge. She died from a large wound on the back of her head.”

Mary cupped her hand to her mouth as if she might be sick. “Oh my God. But I mean, who did it? Do they know why?”

“No.” Eleanor felt the weight of all the conversations she’d had that day.

“Was she raped?”

The question felt like a jolt. “God, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, surely they’d have told us that.” Maybe they’d said something to Robert, and the thought churned her stomach.

“Was it a mugging that went wrong or something?”

“It could be. Her bag was next to her, but her cash and phone are missing.”

“Oh God, she can’t be dead over an iPhone.”

Eleanor took her friend’s hand. “Did you know she was having an affair?”

“No. My God, did she tell you?”

Eleanor thought it was always there in friendships, even this far down the line—that possibility of jealousy. “Yes, but I think only because she was desperate.”

“So they think he did it?”

“Yes, maybe. I saw Nancy last night, and she was going to meet him afterward. She’s been trying to end it for a couple of months, but he’s been making it very hard for her.”

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know. She never told me.”

“How long have you known?”

“About a year.”

“Is that how long it’s been going on?”

“I don’t know. I think so, pretty much.”

Mary looked at her like everyone else had that day. A year of knowing that about one of your best friends, and you don’t get her to tell you who it is? What sort of friend does that make you? What sort of person? Eleanor felt like she might float away soon.

“She must have told you something.”

“She didn’t talk about it much. I know he was called David and she met him through work, but that hardly narrows it down.”

“God, poor Robert,” Mary said finally. “How is he? And Zara?”

“Terrible, as you’d expect.”

Mary’s face folded in on itself, and the tears came again. “Oh, I can’t bear to think about them.”

Eleanor gulped from the metal beer can again, forcing the thick liquid down her throat.

“I can’t get my head around any of it,” Mary said.

“Mary Mary Mary…” There was no pause between the words. They simply rolled down from upstairs and through the door of the kitchen.

“What’s Howard doing home?” Eleanor didn’t bother to keep the harshness out of her voice.

“He’s been here all day. Some sort of sick bug.”

Howard continued to bang on the door, repeating Mary’s name, and Eleanor watched her friend stand automatically. “For God’s sake tell him to shut up,” she said, so unlike herself that Mary paused on her way to the door and sat down again.

“You should have done that years ago,” said Eleanor.

“What?”

“Not answered him.”

Mary leaned forward onto the table, her greasy hair pooled across her arms. “Oh God, Ellie, not now, please. We’ve got to get through this first.”


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