I’m standing by my car in the hospital car park when I see Tina hurrying between the parked vehicles and I wave to attract her attention. She doesn’t see me, so I run across and catch her just as she’s collecting a couple of magazines from the back seat of her mother’s Peugeot. She slams the door and turns and crashes into me and I apologise.
Why do I always do that? Apologise when it’s not my fault, I mean.
‘Hi Phil,’ she says.
‘How’s your dad?’
‘He’s better, much better,’ she smiles a wide, adorable smile and I think of Erin. Where do they get these smiles from? ‘He’s out of danger and back in a ward. He can’t remember anything about that night though, not a thing, but he’s speaking and making sense so it’s looking good. The doctor says it’ll be a long journey but he should make a full recovery.’
‘That’s good; that’s really good.’
‘Good and bad - I hoped he might get Wayne off the hook. But he doesn’t remember anything. Wayne’s been to see him a couple of times, though.’
‘I’ve got some news,’ I tell her.
‘Can you tell me on the way into the hospital?’ she asks. ‘Only he wants something to read and I promised I’d get straight back.’
It’s already mid-afternoon, I’m tired and I’m not planning on re-entering the hospital but, what the hell, we have a lot to catch up and I figure it’ll be good to see her father briefly and then maybe I should call in and see Simon again. He might have got something typed up by now and I figure it’ll be easier to read something on his laptop than listen to him spitting words through his wired jaw. Maybe he’s collated notes and he’s going to share everything with me.
Yeah, and maybe when I get home there’ll be a cheque from a mysterious relation who wants to take me away from all this.
On the way across the car park and through the hospital I tell Tina about Slattery and how he’s starting to think Wayne isn’t guilty after all.
‘You believe him? Maybe he just wants to find Wayne.’
‘I don’t know where Wayne is,’ I remind her.
‘He doesn’t know that.’
‘I believe him,’ I say, ‘but I don’t trust him enough to lead him to Wayne, not yet.’
‘The blackmailer seems to have gone away,’ she says.
‘Yeah, I thought he might.’
I make a mental note to go and see Alasdair again soon. There are a couple more questions I want to ask the bastard.
As we head through the hospital maze, following a neat yellow line along one corridor and then a green one along another, I wonder if I’ll find my way out alone. I start to look at people and wonder if they came in years ago, just to visit someone, and then couldn’t get out again. Maybe they’ve grown old in this place. Maybe they’ll just keep walking round and round until they die.
I try to explain this to Tina but she just looks puzzled.
‘You just go out the way you came in,’ she says.
Easier said than done; I look at an old man in a dressing gown and slippers who’s walking towards us.
‘He’s probably institutionalised,’ I say. ‘If he found his way out now he’d never cope. The world out there has changed.’
‘Phil,’ she says, ‘the psychiatry department is at the end of the red line. When we finish I think you should follow it – get yourself some help.’
Her father is lying back, supported by a whole family of cushions, but his eyes are open and he has that impatient look I always associate with him, like he’s waiting for you to get to the point, even when there isn’t one. Mrs Oldfield is sitting beside his bed but they’ve moved beyond the hand holding stage now that he’s on the mend and I hear her talking about redecorating the lounge.
‘Hello, Philip,’ she says and she seems genuinely pleased to see me. ‘It’s good of you to visit.’
She thinks I’ve come here just to visit her husband. I decide it’s kinder to say nothing to disillusion her.
Mr Oldfield grunts and nods and something, which on another face might resemble a smile, flickers.
‘Here, dad, these are the best I could manage,’ Tina says, and she drops the magazines on the bed beside him. He picks them up without lifting his head and angles them towards his eyes. One by one he drops them back.
‘What the hell do I want with “Good Housekeeping?”’ He asks. ‘And what’s this, “Amateur Photography?” These are your mother’s.’
Tina’s face breaks into a smile but she’s taking no nonsense. ‘They’re all we had in the car. I’ll go down to the hospital shop and buy you something if you like.’
‘And waste more of my money? Just get me a paper before you leave; something trashy, not the intellectual stuff you read.’
I listen for a while as Tina and her mother talk between themselves and Mr Oldfield listens and grunts occasionally. Then he sneaks “Good Housekeeping” and starts to flick through the pages. He sees a grin slip across Tina’s face and drops it as if he’s been caught with a porno mag.
‘No need for you to grin. I was glancing at designs for the lounge, nothing more.’
‘I believe you,’ Tina says.
I don’t get how she can tease him like that. I’m still in awe of him after all these years and even now he flashes that look at me, the warning look, the one he uses if he thinks someone is sniffing round his daughter. He’s very protective and very scary where Tina’s concerned. I get a sudden urge to leave but it’s too soon so I give it about fifteen minutes during which time I manage no more than a handful of sentences. No-one mentions JAYDEE or blackmail letters so I think I’ll do the same.
Hell, I might only have a day to live but it still wouldn’t be fair to upset him with queries that might save my life, would it?
Then I think about leaving and glance down the ward. Mr Oldfield doesn’t miss it and turns his eyes on me like a machine gun.
‘Going already? Ah well, we won’t keep you. Tell that friend of yours I want to see him.’
‘Which friend, I’ve got more than one?’
I smile and then, lacking anything like encouragement, don’t smile.
‘Wayne,’ he says, ‘tell him I want to see him.’
‘That might be difficult. I’m not sure where he is at the moment.’
Mr Oldfield looks impatient. ‘Tell him I have to see him again, soon as he can make it.’
‘Take Tina with you,’ he says. ‘She’s as bored as you are.’
Tina takes the hint and stands up. She leans over the bed and plants a kiss on his forehead. ‘I’ll come back tomorrow, grumpy,’ she says.
He lifts a hand, which I take. ‘Thanks for visiting,’ he grunts.
‘I’m glad to see you looking so much better, Mr Oldfield,’ I tell him. ‘You had everyone worried for a while there.’
‘Thomas,’ he says, ‘Call me Thomas.’
‘Okay,’ I say but It’s a bit like calling an ex head teacher by their first name. I don’t know if I’ll get the hang of it. I feel as if I’ve been asked to break a rule that can’t be broken. Maybe it’s a test.
‘Come on,’ Tina says.
I say goodbye to Mrs Oldfield and we head out of the ward.
‘I’m going to visit Simon Walsh again, while I’m here. You want to come?’
I give a brief, sympathetic outline of what happened.
We ask directions from a nurse, who looks like she’s heading for home after a particularly depressing shift. She forces a smile, which seems to cost a lot of effort, and directs us further into the maze of coloured lines. I’m about to admit defeat when I see departments and rooms I recognise and then Simon’s ward. I feel like an explorer suddenly emerging from jungle to find a river he previously navigated.
‘I can find my way out from here,’ I say to Tina. ‘We’re safe.’
Erin is beside Simon’s bed and she stands up as we approach. I feel like we’ve just interrupted an intimate moment and my stomach lurches.
‘This is Erin,’ Simon says to Tina, the smile of a rival emerging through the barrier of his wired jaw.
If she’s embarrassed she doesn’t show it. She stands up and smiles that smile, first at me and then at Simon. The look on his face tells me he’s fallen for her – big time – and suddenly all my sympathy evaporates and I want to add to his discomfort. I lean forward and give her a kiss on the cheek and remind her about our date.
Yeah, that did it.
He tries to smile but his battered face and dribbling jaws aren’t the most attractive setting for a smile. There’s something a bit ‘Hannibal Lector’ about it. I feel doubly good but I still don’t like the way she takes his hand and holds it gently and smiles at him.
‘Pass me the laptop,’ he says to me, without looking away from Erin. ‘It’s on the bedside table. You’ll have to read it here. I’ve no printer and no spare memory card. It’s all there, nothing left out.’
I lean over and read while he lies back and closes his eyes. Tina joins me but Erin just sits beside him. He’s been busy. The facts are all there and he’s gone to a lot of trouble sorting and arranging them so that links can be seen or assumed. He’s reached pretty much the same conclusions I have; only he’s written it out better.
Tina is impressed. ‘This is really good,’ she says. ‘Why do you waste time on sensationalist shit like the headline you gave me?’
He keeps his eyes shut but a flickering smile plays across his lips.
I get the feeling he’s dreaming of a desk in the press room of a major national paper and something tells me it’s not a tabloid any more. He’s scented better things, more suited to his particular talents. Something else tells me he imagines Erin there with him, pursuing her own career maybe, but with him nonetheless.
I think I hate him.
It’s only as we stand up to leave that a curious look appears on Tina’s face.
‘Have we met before?’ she asks Erin. ‘I’m sure I recognise you.’
Erin shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘We’re you at Stoneybeck College?’
As we head out of the hospital into the early evening air, Tina still can’t shake the feeling.
‘Erin’s a couple of years younger than me but I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere. I can’t think of anywhere else but school. What’s her surname?’
‘Erin Sawley,’ I tell her.
‘No, no that’s not it. I’m sure, I’m quite sure... Damn it, why can I not remember?’
‘Stop thinking about it for a while and maybe it’ll come to you – like when you can’t remember an actor or a singer or the name of a record in a pub quiz.’
‘I’ve never done a pub quiz.’
‘Then what are you talking about?’
I don’t really know so I shut up.
‘You’d better follow me in your car,’ she tells me. ‘You can’t leave it here. It’s anti-social and it’s evening visiting soon. The parking is bad enough without you hogging a space.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘To see Wayne, I want to know why my dad wants to see him. My dad won’t tell me, so Wayne will have to.’
And I want to know how come Wayne and Thomas on such good terms. The last I remember, Mr Oldfield looked at him as if he was a deadly nerve agent. Now they’re buddies. I don’t get it.
We’ve only gone half a mile when Tina indicates left and pulls into the car park of a supermarket. She jumps out of the car and runs towards me, leaving the car door wide open.
‘I’ve remembered. I knew I’d seen her before. She was at my school, but she’s maybe two or three years younger. She became head girl. Her father’s quite an important figure. Sawley is her mother’s name. Her father’s name is Thornton.’
I feel the hair on my neck rise and a cold shiver passes through me.
‘Gerald Thornton? Gerald Thornton MP?’
She nods. ‘Yes.’
Suddenly coins start to fall into slots and something begins to whirr.