Chapter One – Present Day
“I’m just popping out for some fags,” shouted George as he banged out of the house on that fateful December evening. It was a cold night, verging on snow, just a few soft particles drifting lazily through the air. The sky was inky black sparkling with stars. I peered through the curtains and watched as in his smart shoes he trod carefully down the garden path, slipping and sliding, shoulders hunched to his ears, hands stuffed into the pockets of his long overcoat.
“Famous last words,” I remember thinking as I knew that George wouldn’t be just popping for fags, not if the bright lights of our local pub the Fox & Goose drew him into its clutches, the odour of hops as seductive to George as the curled fingers on a woman’s beckoning hand. And do you know what? I was right. It was “famous last words” for I never saw George again … no not ever.
Well, I tell a lie … there was a strange sighting a while ago on Whitby beach. A fella strolling along the sands that looked a bit like George ... although this man didn’t have as much hair (as bald as an egg) and had a bit of belly which George had never had, although I’m sure that George’s obsessive liking for beer would eventually have taken its toll. My eyes might have been playing tricks on me though … maybe I wanted it to be George, wanted him to be safe … and alive. I’ve never been sure.
I paced the floor that night, backwards and forwards backwards and forwards until I thought I would wear a groove in the hardwood floors with the slapping of my pink fluffy slippers. I felt sick with the ferocious beating of my heart. I peered from between the curtains at the white frosty night and cursed George England for his selfishness as I rang his mobile willing him to pick it up but it went straight to voicemail. I texted him, “George where are you?” but the screen stayed so blank and unresponsive that I wanted to shake it like I would a naughty kid. I watched the clock on the kitchen wall as the long black hands swept around and around but still there was no sign of him.
I trawled social media but there was nothing. George didn’t do Facebook, “a total waste of time”, he’d always said and as for Twitter! He couldn’t be bothered with that either. He said people that posted stuff on Twitter were a load of twits. Well, actually he didn’t say that. If you take the “i” out of twits and replace it with an “a”, that’s the real truth of what George England called people who post on Twitter!
I tried to watch the telly but there was nothing on worth watching. Back in the day you’d have had Bruce Forsyth and his Generation Game on a Saturday night, Morecambe & Wise, the Two Ronnies, maybe a good Play for Today or a film, but now, nothing, zilch!
The only programmes were where fat people moaned about being fat or a not very intelligent family flaunted themselves in tight fitting clothes and had plastic surgery to make themselves look like Cruella de Ville! And the tattoos! Good God, tramp stamps don’t they call them? What’s the world coming to? Even the news is rubbish now … Brexit … what? And Donald Trump, he’s always on the box. Trump! Why don’t they call him Donald Fart and be done with it! What a loser! You have to laugh don’t you! And that Gogglebox … don’t even go there!
Getting back to the saga of the missing George England, why had he gone now anyway? Why not when life was hard, when the twins were little, howling all night and keeping us awake? He could have left years ago when we’d had a row and he’d crashed out of the door in a temper and gone to the pub. Okay we didn’t have the perfect marriage … who did? And there were countless times when I thought he’d gone for good. But however many times he left in a huff, he always came back.
As well as that though his timing was out, well out. I mean who went off like that a couple of weeks before Christmas? And in the snow? Christmas was family time. The twins would be devastated. Once again I cursed George England’s selfish cold heart! Bleary eyed I waited until the next day before ringing the police and reporting him missing. There had been times over the years when he’d staggered his way home the following morning so I waited just to be sure. Just so I wouldn’t look foolish.
“What’s his name?” I remember the gruff voice over the phone asking me. I imagined somebody short and round as a barrel with a great thick moustache that wriggled along his upper lip like a furry caterpillar as he spoke. I think perhaps I’d been watching too many of them old black and white murder mystery films.
“George I replied. “George England.”
“I’m his wife,” I explained, “Mrs Meredith England but everybody calls me Merry.”
“Merry England?” He asked with a slight chuckle in his voice, but I was used to that. I knew when I said our vows on our wedding day that I’d have to put up with a lot of mickey taking when I married George. Shows how much I loved him though didn’t it?
“Yes,” I replied with a sigh and my standard answer, “You couldn’t make it up could you?”
The police officer that came to the house wasn’t at all short and rotund but tall, elegant even and he had a sleek cap of wavy black hair and deep blue eyes. “Detective Inspector Patrick Kelsey at your service Mrs England,” he said in a smooth Irish brogue as he shook my hand and asked if he could come in. I noticed from the open door that it was snowing heavily now, the roads and paths whitening rapidly and large flakes had settled on the Inspector’s dark coat like a serious case of dandruff.
Discreetly I sized him up as he walked through the door, wondering at his age and calculating around mid-forties, in any case at least ten years younger than me. The totally naughty thought “toy boy” entered my mind but was gone in a breath.
A young girl accompanied him, introduced as PC Cheryl Carter, the police uniform baggy on her toothpick body like a child playing at dressing up, quite at odds with the thick blonde curls that sprouted from her head like a halo. I offered refreshments but they declined and sitting on the settee in my chilly sitting room the Inspector opened a notebook and placed it on his knee, a pen held over the pristine white page. “Now then Mrs England …” He gazed at me, eyes narrowed, lips curled.
“Please …” I butted in, “Never mind Mrs England, it sounds so old, like I’ve turned in to my mother-in-law, call me Merry …” I laughed nervously.
“Merry England?” he said. There was a brief titter from PC Cheryl Carter.
“Yes,” I nodded my head and looked from one to the other and said as if on rota, “You couldn’t make it up could you?”
“Don’t you like your mother-in-law, Merry?” he asked.
Taken aback I replied, “Of course I do, did … I was very fond of her. She died almost two years ago. Why?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “Very sorry,” as he made squiggles like code or shorthand on his pad.
“Hmm … a proper dish,” were the words that crossed my mind again and again as I watched the Inspector take a cursory glance around the room. I followed his dark blue gaze wondering what he thought of my new décor, the bare white walls, wooden floors, hardly any ornaments or pictures, minimalist that’s what they called it now didn’t they? The only thing spoiling the whole look was the huge Christmas tree that sparkled in the window for everybody to see. George had insisted that we had one even though he knew that I didn’t like clutter in the house. Lights glittered around the fireplace and red and silver tinsel framed one of the two pictures.
He didn’t comment (well he wouldn’t would he?) but instead gave me a sexy mega-watt smile before launching into a question fest about George. When had I last seen him? Where had he said he was going last night? Had he gone missing before? For how long? His dark blue eyes bored into mine with every reply making me feel guilty somehow (Good God this wasn’t a murder enquiry was it?) yet the soft lilt of his voice lulled my senses and in a strange way made me feel at ease.
He suddenly changed tack by asking me quite brusquely I thought, “Any children?”
“Yes, two,” I stammered, “Twins … grown up now of course …” I wanted to ask him, “Why, what’s that got to do with it? What’s that got to do with George not coming home?” But I didn’t dare say anything. He was fanciable, dishy, and gorgeous even but I felt cowed by him, shaky and nervous like I was being interrogated.
His eyes travelled from his note book jottings back to mine and widened as if surprised. “Grown up?” he questioned.
“Yes of course,” I said. Good God surely he could get an idea of how old I was. Did he really think I had little kids at my age? I prided myself on my carefully blonde streaked hair (to hide the rapidly increasing grey of course) and my long lean body through regular exercise but even so! “Annalise and Susannah,” I told him, “Well they’ve always been Ann and Sue to the family … they’re forty one now.” Then added, “No grandchildren though … yet.” I giggled stupidly.
He nodded, bent his head and scribbled some more, licking his kissable strawberry red lips as he did so and sending a pleasant shiver running headlong all the way down my spine. A sudden surge of guilt suffused me and thoughts tumbled through my mind, “My husband was missing and I was ogling another man, fancying another man. What was wrong with me? Was I totally deranged?”
“Merry,” he said, leaning forward now, forearms on his knees, his voice lowered “Is there anybody that you know that would harm your husband? Has he enemies as far as you are aware? In this area, in the village, in Cobby? Or anywhere in fact?”
I swallowed hastily, nervously it might seem to him, my throat felt tight, restricted. I shook my head, “No,” I said. “Definitely not … George was well liked by everybody.” I felt choked up then at the thought of George being so well liked but I couldn’t cry, not yet anyway. They were there though, the tears, waiting in my throat like a dam about to burst. Waiting in the wings so to speak.
“Merry,” he said again, softly, carefully, “Did you and George have a disagreement before he left? A row …?” He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders.
“Certainly not,” I said immediately, “George and I never rowed … never.” Like I had as a school kid, I kept my middle and index fingers firmly crossed, on both hands.
“Did he take anything with him, Merry? Any clothes? Possessions?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. His clothes are in still in the wardrobe. All his underwear too, even his favourite Calvin Klein boxers and all his socks.” I looked around a bit before I confided to the Inspector and whispered, “He didn’t always bother though, you know, with changing regularly.” The Inspector blushed … it was obviously too much for him, me mentioning George’s undies.
I filled the awkward silence by saying, “He must have his phone though because I can’t find it.” The Inspector nodded glad to be back on normal territory I suppose, then asked, “Have you a recent picture of your husband that I could take to the station, Merry?
“Not very recent,” I told him as I got up and fumbled in one of the sideboard drawers, then handed over a grainy photo of George at the seaside, hair blowing in the wind and a carefree expression on his handsome face. “I think he was in Whitby on one of those lad’s days out, a couple of years ago, but he hasn’t changed that much. He loves Whitby with a passion.”
They took their leave then. The dishy Detective Inspector Patrick Kelsey thanking me for my time and promising to be in touch soon. When he shook my hand I felt a shot like electricity run through my body. Just a curt nod from PC Cheryl Carter who from the lack of any actual speech for the past hour or so I took to be a mute? The only sound from her had been choked laughter at my name. Merry England! So what? Yes okay I can see why it’s funny but hilarious … no!
Maybe I should revert to using Meredith as my first name just to save the hassle but good God I’d been known as Merry since the top of my head reached my mum’s knee so why should I! Or, perhaps now that George was gone, I could go back to my maiden name … Meredith Leigh ... Merry Leigh. Not met with quite as much hilarity as Merry England but it had always been there every time I introduced myself, bubbling under the surface like a bad smell, like egg sandwiches taken out of a Tupperware box … yuck.
Lunch time now and still no contact from George. I decided that it would be okay to ring the girls to tell them what was going on. I wasn’t sure which one to ring first, Ann first then Sue or Sue first then Ann? I sat in the kitchen for a bit on one of my retro sleek white chairs pondering on this, looking around at the plain white walls, the white units and silver utensils that hung from thick silver hooks.
I couldn’t make up my mind so did an ip dip, a jokey one that the girls used to do when they were little, “Ip dip lamb’s poo, shall I ring Ann or Sue?” My finger landed on Ann so I picked up my mobile and pressed her number. She answered almost straight away and I cut to the chase and blurted out everything.
“Chill out mum,” she said, “If he’s gone to the Sparta Supermarket in Cobby for cigarettes he could be gone hours. The queues in there are notorious.”
“What? Queuing since last night?” I asked in amazement noting at the same time how posh Ann had become since she married Ray by saying cigarettes and not fags.
“Hmm, I see what you mean, I suppose it does seem a long time …” Her voice tailed off. I don’t really think she knew what to say. Then she said sort of rushed, “Don’t worry Mum he’ll turn up, you know what he’s like … have you rung Sue? Do you want me to ring her, save you the trouble?”
“It’s okay love, I’ll ring her,” I said.
Sue sounded marginally more worried than Ann but distracted, a bit away with the fairies if you know what I mean. She’d been that way ever since Ann had got married. Apparently she’d been researching twins and reading about the similarities that occurred so often in their daily lives. She was fascinated by it all and busy looking for a husband called Ray so she could be the same as Ann. I suggested that she put an advert in the paper, “Any Rays wanting banns,” hahaha … you know a bit of a play on those posh sunglasses and wedding banns but no, she was having none of that even said it was stupid.
Sue still liked to dress the same as Ann, have her hair the same, like when they were kids, but Ann wanted to be different, independent, which you would do at the age of forty one wouldn’t you? Ann and Ray had got themselves a nice place, a little cottage in nearby Hampthwaite. Very upmarket but Ray had a good job, albeit a longish commute on the train, doing something in stocks and shares in our local town Skelmanthorpe or Skelly as we always called it. Ann had met Ray at work as she’s PA to one of the top managers. I knew she’d make it big right from the start. Always loved reading as a kid you know.
Sue had a nice place too no doubt about that, in Cobby Village, all paid for with her job working in Cobby’s Funeral Parlour (yeah I know her dream job she says) but I knew that she was stretching herself, even taking out loans in her quest to join Ann in Hampthwaite. I told her that Ann was lucky, there were two of them and only one of Sue so she couldn’t expect to achieve as much but she wouldn’t listen, just went her own sweet way, pushing and pushing for more. There was one thing that I’d suspected over the years though, only now and then mind, that Sue might be gay? She hadn’t been as raunchy as Ann had been over men, you know, a bit passive? I could be wrong though and I’ve never said a word, but good God she’d tell me wouldn’t she … if she was …
In the meantime, I was here alone, no mum and dad, no in-laws except for George’s sister, and she’s a bit of an odd ball, all long gone, no job at the moment either. I’d left the last one in a building society in Skelly and taken my pension. I had my girls but I was alone in my little house overlooking the canal in Cobby, wondering where George had gone and wondering if he really wasn’t going to come back this time. If he did decide to come back, well, I was here, waiting, sitting at the window watching the ducks and the swans and the nasty hissing geese slipping and sliding like skaters on the frozen water.