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They were young and in love, and like lovers everywhere they thought it would last for ever.
They thought they would, too.
They drove out to their favourite restaurant on the South Downs, the sleek, low car treading down drifts of fallen leaves in the narrow lanes. Tom had reserved a table as soon as he knew he was going to need it. Jane called him a control freak, but he wouldn’t risk their evening for the sake of a phone call. He didn’t want the occasion to be less than perfect.
Once he was sure this was the right thing for them he’d imagined proposing here: in a quiet corner of The Cavalier, with its long views over the patchwork fields and little spinneys of Chain Down. They’d come here the first time he wanted to impress her, again for their three month and six month anniversaries, and once in between to celebrate Jane’s birthday. Of course he’d planned to take the next step here.
Events overtook them. After he’d done all his thinking, about what he wanted and also what was best for both of them, after he’d reached what he was sure was the right decision, even after he’d booked the table at The Cavalier, they were in her car – his was in the garage for a service – and somehow he couldn’t wait a moment longer. He proposed to her in an elderly VW, with his feet among discarded crisp packets, in a queue of traffic waiting for the lights to change in the middle of damp and faded Dimmock. It may have been the least romantic spot for a proposal ever.
Jane did nothing to make it more memorable. She didn’t come over all coy and indecisive. Coy and indecisive were not her style. She gave it less thought than the choice of her next gear, said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ and drove off without missing a beat when the lights turned green.
Tom was still trying to figure out what had happened when she spotted a parking space and pulled in. ‘Er…you did say yes?’
She nodded. ‘That’s right.’
Puzzlement crinkled his brow. ‘You didn’t have to think about it?’
She breathed heavily at him. ‘Tom, I’ve been thinking of little else for the last three months. All I was waiting for was for you to recognise the blindingly obvious and say something.’
He grinned; then a sudden fear wiped the grin from his face; then it too was gone and he managed a nervous, almost embarrassed little chuckle. ‘So that’s it? We’re getting married?’
Jane nodded. ‘We’re getting married.’
Finally Tom looked around him. ‘That’s the jeweller’s.’
‘Yes.’ It seemed she had a ring picked out.
The following evening they were on their way to The Cavalier, Tom’s car humming between the high hedges, the autumn leaves a crisp russet carpet in the wash of the headlamps. The powerful engine was singing after its service, and his heart was too. Jane seemed to be taking engagement in her stride, much as she took everything else – calmly, clear-headed and purposeful. But when he sneaked a quick sidelong glance at her, Tom kept catching a smile of sheer happiness on her face. She masked it when she saw him looking, but if he looked again in a couple of minutes it was always back. He hadn’t been fooling himself. She wanted this as much as he did.
It was dark by the time they ate. It hardly mattered. Today the soft views would have been wasted on them. They bathed in one another’s gaze, and might as well have been eating rissoles from a lay-by chip van.
Over dessert Tom produced a box from an inside pocket. Jane arched a thin eyebrow, wiggled her finger at him. Diamonds glittered in the light of the candles. ‘Got one,’ she said smugly.
‘Yes,’ nodded Tom, ‘and no. That’s an engagement ring. It’s a token of a contract. This is an engagement present. It’s because I love you. And because, in a public place, this is the only way I can show you how much without being prosecuted.’
He put it on the table between them. After a moment she picked it up and opened it. Her face went still.
In mounting anxiety Tom looked from his gift to the girl and back. ‘You don’t like it? It’s all right, I’ll find something else…’
Her hand slid across his wrist on the table. She had artistic hands: delicate, expressive, and strong enough to beat him at arm-wrestling. She pinned his hand to the tablecloth. ‘Over,’ she said quietly, ‘my cold dead body.’
It was a necklace. Jane hadn’t much experience of good jewellery – she’d always bought cheap, used extravagantly and given it away when she tired of it. This was something else. ‘It’s beautiful.’
‘You like it?’
It wasn’t a question she felt the need to answer. She peered closer. ‘It’s got a star in it!’
Tom laughed softly. ‘My mother loved that star.’
‘This belongs to your mother?’
‘Not anymore.’ She looked up at him, waiting for him to explain. ‘She wants you to have it, Jane. My father bought it for her. She loved it for twenty years, but she hasn’t worn it since he died. She won’t wear it again. It’d give us both a great deal of pleasure to see you enjoy it.’
A jewel that carried that much family history alarmed her. But Tom was right. It should be worn. It was too beautiful to be kept for ever in a box. ‘What is it?’
‘Sapphires are blue.’
‘But they are always valuable.’ She made an effort to sit up straight, away from the grey-black gem with its golden many-rayed star. ‘I can’t take this. Tom, thank Imogen for me, but it’s too precious.’
He’d anticipated this. ‘It’s a gift,’ he said simply. ‘The value doesn’t come into it. Tell you what,’ he reached for the box, ‘put it on while you’re thinking about it.’
She knew what he was doing. He thought that, once she’d worn it, she wouldn’t want to give it back. But she lacked the resolve to stop him lacing the gold chain about her throat. ‘Well…maybe for tonight,’ she murmured.
It was late before they left The Cavalier. They were the last to go; less scrupulous waiters would have been clearing their throats and tapping their watches. But eventually they realised what the time was, made their apologies and headed across the road to the car park.
People talk about a car coming out of nowhere, but they never do. They’re always there, they’re just not always very noticeable. Particularly if it’s late at night, and you’re talking and laughing and you have other things on your mind. And the car in question has no lights on, and the engine is idling barely audibly, and you step out into what you think is a clear road.
The engine roared. By then the car was so close the sound seemed to be all around. The startled couple spun, Tom one way, Jane the other, looking for it; they bumped into one another and clung together like frightened children. The one thing they didn’t do was the one thing that might have saved them – pick a direction, any direction, and hurl themselves as far as they could from the centre of the road. So the car hit them. It hit them both, threw them into the air and hit them again as they came down.
Disasters – real disasters – have a strange effect on the human mind. Time slows right down. There seems to be plenty of it, for making and filing observations, for rational thought. Jane, lying in the dark road with Tom’s arm across her throat and one of her own legs twisted under her body, thought: He must have been drinking. He must have left The Cavalier just ahead of us, and because he’d been drinking he forgot to put his headlights on. The police will throw the book at him. And only after that did she think: I hope we’re all right.
After the second impact the car stopped. Jane’s sideways view of the lit windows of The Cavalier was momentarily occulted by a pair of legs. The man stooped over her.
She said quite clearly, ‘Get help. At the restaurant. Call an ambulance.’
She thought he was shocked too, that he couldn’t take in what she was saying. She tried again. ‘Call an ambulance. Don’t touch us. Get help.’
Her handbag was still over her shoulder. She felt the strap tug and pull free. She saw the stooped figure take the watch from Tom’s outflung arm and then rifle his pockets for his wallet. Then he turned back to her.
They were the only words he ever spoke to her. But he lifted her head by the hair and fumbled for the catch at the nape of her neck. Not shocked at all – he knew better than to break the necklace with a snatch. He freed it carefully, and used her hair to wipe her blood off it, and then he let go of her. The sick crack as her head hit the tarmac yet again was the last thing she knew.
LIARS ALL. Copyright © 2009 by Jo Bannister. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.