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From the Trade Paperback edition.
"If there were a craft guild for writers, I'd apprentice myself to Ruth Rendell."
"Rendell is a master of the form."
—Washington Post Book World
"Ruth Rendell is the best mystery writer in the English-speaking world."
The bungalow in Tabard Road looked exactly as it had done in Jean Burden's lifetime. The floors gleamed, the windows shone and there were flowers—chrysanthemums at this season—in the Poole pottery vases. Plain English food was served at regular times and the children had the cared-for look of children who have a loving mother. The beds were made by eight-thirty, the washing was on the line by nine and a pleasant cheerful voice sounded a greeting to those who came home.
Grace Woodville had seen to all this. It had seemed to her the only way, to keep the house as her sister had done, to act with the children as her sister had done. She already looked as much like her sister as is possible for two women who are not twins. And it had worked. Sometimes she thought John and Pat almost forgot. They came to her when they were hurt or in trouble or had something interesting to tell just as they had gone to Jean. They seemed happy, recovered from the wound of Christmas. It had worked for them and the house and the practical business of running things, but it hadn't worked for Mike. Of course it hadn't. Had she really thought it would?
She put down the phone and looked into the glass where she saw Jean's face looking back at her. Her own face had never seemed like Jean's while Jean was alive, but quite different, squarer and stronger and more fulfilled and—well, why not say it?—more intelligent. It was like Jean's now. The liveliness had gone out of it, the sharp wit, and that wasn't surprising when she thought how she spent her days, cooking and cleaning and comforting and waiting at home for a man who took it all for granted.
She called out, "John? That was your father. He won't be home till ten. I think we'll eat, shall we?" His sister was in the garden, gathering caterpillars for the collection she kept in the garage. Grace was more afraid of caterpillars than most women are of mice or spiders, but she had to pretend to like them, even to gloat over them, because she was all Pat had for a mother. "Pat! Food, darling. Don't be long."
The little girl was eleven. She came in and opened the matchbox she was holding. Grace's heart squeezed and chilled at the sight of the fat green thing inside. "Lovely," she said faintly. "A lime hawk?" She had done her homework, and Pat, like all children, valued adults who bothered.
"Look at his sweet face."
"Yes, I am. I hope he'll grow into a chrysalis before the leaves die off. Daddy won't be home for dinner."
Pat gave an indifferent shrug. She didn't love her father much at present. He had loved her mother more than her, she knew that now, and she also knew that he ought to love her to make up for what she had lost. One of the teachers at school had told her that he would, that all fathers did that. She had waited and he hadn't. He had always stayed out late working but now he stayed out nearly all the time. She transferred her simple animal-like love to her Aunt Grace. Privately she thought it would be nice if John and her father went away and left her with her aunt and then the two of them would have a lovely time collecting better and rarer caterpillars and reading books on natural history and science and the Bolshoi Ballet.
She sat down at the table next to her aunt and then began to eat the chicken-and-ham pie which was just like the ones Jean used to make.
Her brother said, "We had a debate at school today on the equality of the sexes."
"That was interesting," said Grace. "What did you have to say?"
"I left most of the talking to the others. One thing I did say, women's brains don't weigh as much as men's."
"They do," said Pat.
"No, they don't. They don't, do they, Auntie Grace?"
"I'm afraid they don't," said Grace, who had been a nurse. "But that doesn't mean they aren't as good."
"I bet," said Pat with a vindictive look at her brother, "I bet mine weighs more than yours. My head's bigger. Anyway, it's all boring, discussions and stuff. A lot of talk."
"Come along, darling, eat your pie."
"When I am grown up," said Pat, beginning on a perennial theme, "I'm not going to talk and argue and do boring things. I'm going to get my degree—no, maybe I'll wait till I've got my doctorate—and then I'm going to go to Scotland and make a big investigation of the lochs, all the very deep lochs, and discover the monsters that live in them, and then I'm . . ."
"There aren't any monsters. They looked and they never found one."
Pat ignored her brother. "I'll have divers and a special boat and a whole staff and Auntie Grace will be at the station looking after us and cooking for us."
They began to argue fiercely. It could happen, Grace thought. That was the horrible thing, it could just happen. Sometimes she could see herself staying here until they were grown up and she was old and then tagging along after Pat, being her housekeeper. What else would she be fit for then? And what did it matter whether her brain weighed less than a man's or more or the same when it was stuck in a little house in the depths of Sussex, atrophying away?
She had been a sister in a big London teaching hospital when Jean died and she had taken the six weeks' leave that was owing to her to come here and care for Mike and Mike's children. Just six weeks she was going to stay. You didn't spend years of your life studying, taking cuts in salary, to study for more qualifications, going to the States for two years to learn the latest obstetric methods at a Boston clinic, and then just give it all up. The hospital board had told her not to and she had laughed at the very idea. But the six weeks had lengthened into six months, into nine, ten, and now her post at the hospital had been filled by someone else.
She looked thoughtfully at the children. How could she leave them now? How could she even think of leaving them for five years? And then Pat would be only sixteen.
It was all Mike's fault. A hard thing to think, but true. Other men lost their wives. Other men adjusted. On Mike's salary and with his allowances he could afford a housekeeper. And it wasn't only that. A man as intelligent as Mike ought to realise what he was doing to her and the children. She had come at his invitation, his passionate plea, thinking that she would have his support in her task, certain that he would make an effort to be home in the evenings, take the children out at weekends, compensate them in some measure for the loss of their mother. He had done none of this. How long was it now since he'd spent one evening at home? Three weeks? Four? And he wasn't always working. One night when she could no longer stand the sight of John's bitter rebellious face she had phoned Wexford and the chief inspector had told her Mike went off duty at five. A neighbour had told her later where Mike went. She had seen him sitting in his car on one of the paths in Cheriton Forest, just sitting still and staring at the straight, parallel, endless trees.
"Shall we have some television?" she said, trying to keep the weariness out of her voice. "There's quite a good film on, I believe."
"Too much homework," John said, "and I can't do the maths till my father comes. Did you say he'd be back at ten?"
"He said about ten."
"I think I'll go into my room, then."
Grace and Pat sat on the sofa and watched the film. It was all about the domestic lives of policemen and bore little relation to reality.
Burden drove to Stowerton, through the new part and into the old High Street. Fontaine Road was parallel with Wincanton Road, and there, years and years ago when they were first married, he and Jean had for six months rented a flat. Wherever he went in Kingsmarkham and its environs be kept coming on places that he and Jean had been to or visited on some special occasion. He couldn't avoid them, but the sight of them brought fresh hurt every time and the pain did not diminish. Since her death he had avoided Wincanton Road, for there they had been especially happy, young lovers learning what love was. Today had been a bad day, bad in that for some reason he was ultra-sensitive and prickly, and he felt that the sight of the house where their flat had been would be the last straw. Control might go utterly and be would stand at the gate and weep.
He didn't even look at the street name as he passed it but kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. He turned left into Fontaine Road and stopped outside number 61.
It was a very ugly house, built about eighty years ago, and surrounded by a wild untended garden full of old fruit trees whose leaves lay in drifts on the grass. The house itself was built of khaki-coloured bricks with a shallow, almost flat, slate roof. Its windows were the sash kind and very small, but the front door was enormous, quite out of proportion, a great heavy thing with inset panels of red and blue stained glass. It was slightly ajar.
Burden didn't go into the house at once. Wexford's car, among other police cars, was parked against the fence which divided the end of the street from the field Stowerton Council had turned into a children's playground. Beyond this came more fields, woods, the rolling countryside.
Wexford was sitting in his car, studying an ordnance survey map. He looked up as Burden approached and said:
"Good of you to get here so fast. I've only just arrived myself. Will you talk to the mother or shall I?"
"I will," said Burden.
There was a heavy knocker on the front door of number 61, shaped like a lion's head with a ring in its mouth. Burden touched it lightly and then he pushed open the door.
A young woman was standing in the hall, holding her hands clasped in front of her. The first thing Burden noticed about her was her hair which was the same colour as the dead apple leaves that had blown in on to the tiled passage floor. It was fiery copper hair, neither straight nor curly but massy and glittering like fine wire or thread spun on a distaff, and it stood out from her small white face and fell to the middle of her back.
"My name is Burden, Inspector Burden, C.I.D. Before we talk about this I'd like a photograph of your son and some article of clothing he's recently worn."
She looked at him, wide-eyed, as if he were a clairvoyant who could sense the missing boy's whereabouts from handling his garments.
"For the dogs," he said gently.
She went upstairs and he heard her banging about feverishly, opening drawers. Yes, he thought, it would be an untidy house with nothing in its place, nothing to hand. She came back, running, with a dark green school blazer and an enlarged snapshot. Burden looked at the photograph as be hurried up the road. It was of a big sturdy child, neither very clean nor very tidy, but undeniably beautiful, with thick light hair and large dark eyes.
The men who had come to search for him stood about in groups, some in the swings field, some clustered around the police cars. There were sixty or seventy of them, neighbours, friends and relatives of neighbours, and others who had arrived on bicycles from further afield. The speed with which news of this kind travels always amazed Burden. It was scarcely six o'clock. The police themselves had only been alerted half an hour before.
He approached Sergeant Martin, who seemed to be involved in some kind of altercation with one of the men, and handed him the photograph.
"What was all that about?" said Wexford.
"Chap told me to mind my own business because I advised him he'd need thicker shoes. That's the trouble with getting the public in, sir. They always think they know best."
"We can't do without them, Sergeant," Wexford snapped. "We need every available man at a time like this, police and public."
The two most efficient and experienced searchers belonged, properly speaking, in neither category. They sat a little apart from the men and viewed them with wary scorn. The labrador bitch's coat gleamed like satin in the last of the sun, but the alsatian's thick pelt was dull and rough and wolflike. With a quick word to the man Sergeant Martin had admonished not to go near the dogs—he appeared to be about to caress the alsatian—Wexford passed the blazer over to the labrador's handler.
While the dogs explored the blazer with expert noses, Martin formed the men into parties, a dozen or so in each and each with its leader. There were too few torches to go round and Wexford cursed the season with its deceptive daytime heat and its cold nights that rushed in early. Already dark fingers of cloud were creeping across the redness of the sky and a sharp bite of frost threatened. It would be dark before the search parties reached the wood that crouched like a black and furry bear over the edges of the fields.
Burden watched the small armies enter the wide swings field and begin the long hunt that would take them to Forby and beyond. A frosty oval moon, just beginning to wane from the full, showed above the woods. If only it would shine bright, unobscured by that blue-black floating cloud, it would be a greater asset than all their torches.
The women of Fontaine Road who had hung over their gates to see the men go now strayed lingeringly back into their houses. Each one of them would have to be questioned. Had she seen anything? Anyone? Had anything at all out of the way happened that day? On Wexford's orders, Loring and Gates were beginning a house-to-house investigation. Burden went back to Mrs. Lawrence and followed her into the front room, a big room full of ugly Victorian furniture to match the house. Toys and books and magazines were scattered everywhere and there were clothes about, shawls and scarves draped over the furniture. A long patchwork dress on a hanger hung from a picture rail.
The place looked even dirtier and frowstier when she switched on the standard lamp, and she looked stranger. She wore jeans, a satin shirt and strings of tarnished chains around her neck. He didn't need to admire her, but be would have liked to be able to feel sympathy. This woman with her wild hair and her strange clothes made him immediately feel that she was no fit person to be in charge of a child and even that her appearance and all he associated with it had perhaps contributed to that child's disappearance. He told himself not to jump to conclusions, not yet.
"Now, what is the boy's name and how old is be?"
"John. He's five."
"Not at school today?"
"It's half-term for the primary schools," she said. "I'll tell you about this afternoon, shall I?"
"Well, we had our lunch, John and I, and after lunch at about two his friend from next door came to call for him. He's called Gary Dean and he's five too." She was very composed, but now she swallowed and cleared her throat. "They were going to play in the street on their tricycles. It's quite safe. They know they have to stay on the pavement.
"When John goes out to play I look out of the window every half-hour or so to see he's all right and I did that today. You can see all the street and the field where the swings are from my landing window. Well, for a bit they played on the pavement with the other boys, all boys from around here, but when I looked out at half past three they'd gone into the swings field."
"You could make out your son from this distance?"
"He's wearing a dark blue sweater and he's got fair hair."
"Go on, Mrs. Lawrence."
She took a deep breath and clasped the fingers of one hand tightly in the other.
"They'd left their tricycles in a sort of huddle on the pavement. The next time I looked they were all on the swings and I could pick out John by his hair and his sweater. Or—or I thought I could. There were six boys there, you see. Anyway, when I looked out again they'd all gone and I went down to open the front door for John. I thought he must be coming in for his tea."
"But he wasn't?"
"No, his tricycle was on the pavement by itself." She bit her lip, her face very white now. "There weren't any children in the street. I thought John must have gone into someone else's house—he does that sometimes although he's not supposed to without telling me so I waited—oh, five minutes, not more—and then I went into the Deans to see if he was there. It gave me a shock," she said, half-whispering. "That was when I first started getting frightened. Gary was there, having his tea, and there was a boy with him in a blue sweater and with fair hair, but it wasn't John. It was his cousin who'd come over for the afternoon. You see, I realised then that the boy I'd been thinking was John ever since half past three was this cousin."
"What did you do next?"
"I asked Gary where John was and he said he didn't know. He'd gone some hours ago, he said—that was how he put it, hours ago—and they thought he was with me. Well, I went to another boy's house then, a boy called Julian Crantock at 59, and Mrs. Crantock and I, we got it out of Julian. He said Gary and the cousin had started on John, just silly children's teasing, but you know what they're like, how they hurt each other and get hurt. They picked on John about his sweater, said it was a girl's because of the way the buttons do up at the neck, and John—well, Julian said he sat on the roundabout by himself for a bit and then he just walked off towards the road."
"This road? Fontaine Road?"
"No. The lane that runs between the swings field and the farm fields. It goes from Stowerton to Forby."
"I know it," Burden said, "Mill Lane. There's a drop into it from those fields, down a bank, and there are trees all along the top of the bank."
She nodded. "But why would he go there? Why? He's been told again and again he's never to leave the street or the swings field."
"Little boys don't always do as they are told, Mrs. Lawrence. Was it after this that you phoned us?"
"Not at once," she said. She lifted her eyes and met Burden's. They were greenish-grey eyes and they held a terrified bewilderment, but she kept her voice low and even. "I went to the houses of all the boys. Mrs. Crantock came with me and when they all said the same, about the quarrel and John going off, Mrs. Crantock got out her car and we drove along Mill Lane all the way to Forby and back, looking for John. We met a man with cows and we asked him, and a postman and someone delivering vegetables, but nobody had seen him. And then I phoned you."
"So John has been missing since about three-thirty?"
She nodded. "But why would he go there? Why? He's afraid of the dark."
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Posted February 22, 2014
One of Rendell's earlier books featuring Inspector Wexford. I've read it many times, but I still think the ending is surprising. Wonderful, believable characters; strong sense of time and place.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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