“So,” she said, taking a deep gulp from her mug, “where do we start?”
A soft breeze caressed the tops of the cedar tree at the end of the garden. The cuckoo called out again.
“Well, I was hoping you could tell me how you came to know Laura?” I ventured.
“She never mentioned you or said anything about you so it came as quite a surprise when we discovered your phone number in her calls list.”
“Yes, I gathered that from what your wife said when she called yesterday,” she replied.
I noticed a slight lilt to her otherwise old-school English accent but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Before we start, tell me, I don’t suppose there’s anymore news?” she enquired.
I shook my head.
“Dear, dear,” she muttered, chewing her lower lip. As she did so her hand absent-mindedly felt for the small silver dove on the chain around her neck.
“Has she left no clues whatsoever, none at all?” she asked.
“None that we’ve discovered. I rack my brains everyday, and most of the night, going over and over the last few days and weeks,” I explained.
“And how are you coping?” she asked. After a short pause, “I’m sorry if I’m prying, do forgive me, we barely know each other but I came to know Laura quite well I think over the time we spent together and she spoke of you often. Fondly,” she added with reassurance.
She looked down into her mug. As she did I thought I caught a whisper of regret in her eye.
“As well as can be expected, I guess. Parminder is throwing herself into her work but she’s not sleeping well. Neither of us are,” I confessed.
“And your other daughter? Saffi is it? How has she taken it?” Alice asked softly, leaning forward.
“She’s very upset, understandably. At first she was in shock but now the anger seems to be surfacing. Lots of tears, slamming of doors and yelling. All very understandable. She needs someone to blame, I think.”
“Don’t we all?” she replied enigmatically.
I stared hard at a nearby pot filled with purple tulips; I was determined not to crumble. This was only our first meeting after all.
“But enough of us,” I said brightly, if somewhat falsely. “Tell me how you came to know Laura?”
A cat jumped up on her lap.
“Oh! Jasper!” she cried softly. Stroking the cat, she settled back on her chair.
“It was back last September, if I remember correctly. I walk Percy most days in the Wick across the road and always return through the church yard – the one you came through to get here.”
“You have a dog?” I asked, casting my eyes around the garden.
“Yes a little Jack Russell. He’s over with my daughter today as I didn’t want him disturbing our time together. Typical terrier – barks at anything that moves!” she laughed lightly.
“Laura always wanted a dog,” I explained, my voice trailing as I consider how things might have been different if we’d given in to her. The gnawing guilt and self-questioning was unrelenting.
“We were nearing the back gate, where you came through, when I saw her sitting on a bench,” she continued. “It was Percy who saw her first, actually. He went bounding up to her, barked and then sat at her feet staring up at her. It was quite peculiar. I’d never seen him do that before,’ she explained.
“She seemed to like Percy and we chatted for a while about him. As it was mid morning I wondered if she should’ve been at school.”
“Well, yes, she certainly should have been!” I blurted out in slight alarm. Laura had always been a girl to obey rules, to do the right thing, so this was quite a shock to hear she had been skipping school.
“She said it was her study break time. She’s in Lower Sixth, is that right?”
“Yes. And they do have study break, but I was under the impression they had to stay in school….” I explained, my eyebrows rising in annoyance.
“Well, either way, she seemed quite distressed so I didn’t push her to get back to school. Neither did I press her as to why she was sitting on that bench on a Wednesday morning – at least I think it was a Wednesday,” she gazed into the distance, thinking. “Yes, it was, Nel my cleaner comes that day, and she was there when I eventually got back in.”
“Eventually?” I enquired.
“Something in me sensed it was right to give her a bit of time, Mr Roberts – sorry, Marcus,” she corrected herself. “We chatted for what must have been an hour as she said something about getting back for lunchtime when we parted.”
“When did you say this was?” I asked, a million thoughts swirling through my mind, dashing about like fireflies in a jam jar.
“September I think, or early October,” Alice replied.
“Over six months ago?” I asked rhetorically, feeling increasingly agitated at this revelation but trying desperately not to show it: this was not Mrs Carruther’s doing after all and I didn’t want to upset her.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” she mused. “To be honest, Marcus, I had no idea that you weren’t aware she was meeting me,” she confessed, her brow furrowing, her eyes meeting mine. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
We sat in silence for a while. A thrush was singing its spring song in its unrelentingly cheerful manner.
Normally I would relish its call but at that moment it jarred and I wished it silent.
To be continued.