Authors: Deborah Crombie
Gemma stopped, puzzling for a moment, then realized she’d seen that same design in some of Sandra Gilles’s work.
By the time she reached Hanbury Street, notorious in Whitechapel lore as the site of the grisly death of Jack the Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman, the Banglatown part of Brick Lane had begun to recede. Here, the walls of the old Truman Brewery made a canyon of the narrow street, the smokestack a darker shadow against the night sky. But at street level, music boomed from the Vibe bar, and the pedestrians who jostled past her were young and for the most part white, clubbers dressed for a Saturday night on the town. This once-disreputable part of the East End had become a destination spot, a mecca for the hip and affluent. There was still enough of an edge, she thought as she passed a DJ setting up turntables in a makeshift stall on the pavement, for the West End patrons to feel they were living a bit dangerously.
More shops were open here, now offering vintage clothing, records, books, coffee and Wi-Fi, and as she neared the old Bishopsgate railway line, the graffiti became more visible.
Then she caught the scent of freshly baked bread and her steps quickened. She saw two bagel bakeries ahead on the left, both with lights on and doors open. As she drew closer, her mouth watered and she felt a bit light-headed. Warmed-over pizza at home seemed light-years away. She would need something to get by on.
Gemma chose the second bakery, Beigel Bake, simply because the queue was longer—usually a good sign that the food was worth the wait. But the service was friendly and efficient and the queue moved
quickly, just giving Gemma time to take in the no-nonsense interior, the huge steel ovens in the back, and the two Royalty Protection Command officers in full gear ahead of her. They were enormous, like nightclub bouncers on steroids. She’d have expected some of the pierced and tattooed clubbers, or the obviously homeless man on the pavement, to give them a wide berth, but Beigel Bake’s cheerful atmosphere seemed to erase boundaries.
With a cup of stewed tea in one hand, and a salt-beef bagel with mustard in the other, she came out again into the street, munching as she walked. She thought she had never tasted anything quite so good.
The sandwich lasted her almost to Old Street Station, and as she neared the tube stop, she tossed her empty polystyrene cup in a rubbish bin. She stopped for a moment to look at the Banksy painting high on the side of a commercial building on the far side of the Old Street roundabout. It was called
, she knew, and was a tribute by the anonymous street artist to a friend who had been killed by a train. But she’d never before quite realized how haunting the androgynous child was, with its angel wings and safety armor, a death’s-head, a memento mori, held in its outstretched hand.
She thought suddenly of Charlotte Malik, with both her parents missing, and shivered.
Hazel sat curled in a corner of her rose-printed sofa, arms wrapped tight round her chest even though the bungalow windows were still open to the warm evening air. She hadn’t bothered turning on the lights, or eating, although she knew she should do both.
Her irritation with Gemma for having so patently wanted rid of her at Naz Malik’s house had lasted her the first half of the way home. Her smoldering resentment towards Tim for having searched out an old friend because it was thought his wife
have betrayed him had fueled the remainder of her drive.
But by the time she’d reached the bungalow—she still couldn’t
think of it as home, in spite of the enthusiasm she had manufactured for Gemma—even that had flickered out. Hazel was self-analytical enough by training and by nature to see her anger for what it was—a transference of her own guilt. How could she blame Tim for seeking out someone with whom he could sympathize?
Now she felt shocked and more than a little sickened by her behavior that afternoon. A family in the midst of trauma, a child in distress, and rather than doing what she could to help, as Gemma and Tim had done, she had sniped at them both.
What sort of person had she become? She seemed to have lost her compass, and with it, any confidence in her ability to make the right decisions. She’d convinced herself that coming back to London was the best thing, convinced herself that she and Tim could work together to do what was best for Holly, but now she doubted her resolve.
Hazel thought of the house in Islington, of Tim tucking in Holly and the little girl, Charlotte, as she used to tuck in Holly and Toby, and she trembled with longing. It was her place, and she had forfeited it. She could see no way back. Despair rose in her, black, bitter as bile.
A woman’s voice came clearly from beyond the wall of the darkened garden. The words were unfathomable, the intonation so familiar it struck to the bone. She was calling her child in for the night.
He heard the sound of water falling. It came and went in rhythmic susurrations, like the curtains of rain that had swished across the rice fields of his childhood. His mind wove in and out of memory—smells of cooking combined with the warm, ripe scent of farmyards; the light, green filtered, always; the air thick as syrup. Air so thick it pressed on his chest…He opened his mouth in a gasp, trying to expand his lungs, and the movement brought him close to consciousness once more.
The faint recollection of pain made him keep his eyes shut tight, and he began to drift again.
Then there was movement. Hands pulling at him, the grunt of someone else’s effort. Space spun and he flailed out as arms gripped him, lifting. He forced his eyes open but the movement made him queasy, and he saw only shifting, tilting shadows he couldn’t grasp. His glasses—what had happened to his glasses?
He groped at his face, but a vaguely familiar voice was urging him forwards. He stumbled—his feet seemed disconnected from his brain—but the hands and voice kept him moving.
There was a click, and the feel of the air changed—fresher, damper—and he suddenly knew he was outside, although he hadn’t realized before that he’d been inside.
The sharp scent of petrol exhaust tickled his nose. He heard the muted sound of traffic, saw moving flashes of light. Then the hand shoved him down, his forehead cracked against something hard, and blackness descended.
When he woke once more, he was moving, propelled by an arm round his shoulder, his unwilling feet tangling with each other. It was dark, truly dark. Rough things caught and scraped at his face, and when he lifted a hand to his cheek it was wet. Then he was falling, falling, and the scent of warm earth rose up to meet him.
At certain times, it was so quiet that I could hear the call to prayer from the East End mosque on Whitechapel Road, and the clatter of trains as they passed along the underground line from Shoreditch station. Sunday mornings brought the distant sounds of pealing church bells and music-box tunes played by roaming ice-cream vans. From the backs of the curry houses came the smell of Indian cooking and, when the wind was in the right direction, the sweet aroma of fresh bagels from the bakeries.
Salaam Brick Lane
Gemma woke on Sunday morning tired and headachy from having tossed and turned during the night. She’d gone to bed cross with Duncan, something she hated even when the cause was a mere domestic argument. But this, this had been much worse than a squabble over chores or work. When he’d told her about Cyn’s call, she’d lashed out at him in a burst of fury that left her shaking.
He’d said, with irritating reasonableness, that there would have been nothing she could do if he had told her earlier. She’d been in
Spitalfields with no car, and even if she’d taken the tube from Liverpool Street to Leyton, then what? Her mum would have been in bed, her dad exhausted, and neither glad to see her.
The fact that she knew he was right made her no less peeved. When he asked her what had happened in Brick Lane, she’d merely snapped, “Long story,” and gone off to check on the children—Toby asleep, Kit texting on the phone that had been his birthday present, which she now swore was biologically attached to his thumbs.
But upstairs on her own, the anger started to drain away. Feeling sweaty and dusty, she’d shed her clothes in a heap on the mat and slipped into a hot bath. The bathroom window was open, and night sounds from the garden drifted in with the occasional breeze. It amazed her that London could be so quiet off the main thoroughfares—but when she listened very carefully she could hear an underlying faint hum of the city, and occasionally the distant squeal of brakes or slamming of car doors.
By the time the water had cooled, she’d realized that she’d merely focused on Duncan as the nearest target for her own worry and her irritation with her sister. As she patted herself dry and slipped into pajamas, she resolved to apologize, but when she went out into the bedroom, he was asleep. All she could do was curl up against his back and listen to his quiet breathing.
She was up and dressed early, before Duncan and the children were awake. As soon as she deemed it even remotely civilized, she rang her sister from the quiet confines of the kitchen.
“Cyn, why the hell didn’t you ring
” she hissed when her sister answered, trying to keep her voice down.
“Gemma!” Cyn sounded cheerfully surprised, artificially so, and Gemma’s heart plummeted into her stomach. “I was just going to call you,” her sister added. There was a murmur of voices in the background, but not, Gemma thought, Cyn’s husband, Gerry, and her children, Tiffani and Brendan.
“Where are you?”
“Hospital. The London.” Gemma heard rustling and the background noise faded, replaced by her sister whispering, “I can’t talk. You know it’s against regulations to use phones on the ward.”
“Ward? Why are you on a ward? What’s happened?”
“Mum’s weak. Her white cell count is down. They’re going to do a transfusion.”
“A transfusion? But—”
“Look, you’d better just get here, all right?” Cyn’s phone went dead.
Having left a note for Duncan, Gemma thought furiously as she drove across the city. The Royal London Hospital was in Whitechapel, near where she had been last night. Why was her mum there, and not at Barts in the City, where she’d been treated before? The two hospitals were part of the same system, administratively linked; perhaps it had been a matter of the availability of beds on the wards, rather than the need for a more advanced treatment.
Her route took her past Marylebone and Euston, St. Pancras and Kings Cross, then into City Road and down Commercial Street. Hawksmoor’s church seemed more forbidding in the harsh morning light, offering no comfort.
Her quick glimpse of Fournier Street, however, had been reassuring. It looked as quiet and ordinary as any street should on a Sunday morning. She thought of ringing Tim, but decided it was still too early. Nor could she cope with speaking to anyone until she had learned what was going on with her mum.
The congestion increased as she traveled east down Whitechapel Road, which was clogged by the Sunday market. Any other time the array of Asian foods and spices would have tempted her, but by the time she reached the ugly warren of buildings that formed the London, she was fidgeting with impatience. The parking gods were with her, however, and she managed to slip into a metered space on a side street.
An inquiry at the main desk sent her to a ward in one of the outbuildings. God, she hated hospitals—hated feeling helpless and inadequate—hated not being able to do something, anything, that would help her mother.
A nurse buzzed her into the ward and directed her to her mother’s curtained cubicle. The energy that had driven Gemma since waking that morning suddenly evaporated, and her hand shook as she pulled aside the drape.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, love,” said her mum. Vi Walters was propped up in a hospital bed, IV lines taped to her arm. She looked pale but alert, and there was no one else in the cubicle.
With an inward sigh of relief, Gemma kissed her mum’s cheek. It felt warm to the touch. “How are you?” Gemma asked, pulling up a chair. “Why are you here? And where are Dad and Cyn?”
“You sound just like your son.” Her mother shook an admonishing finger at her.
“I know, I know,” Gemma admitted, smiling in spite of her worry. “One question at a time,” she and her mother repeated in unison. Gemma laughed, then sobered. “Seriously, Mum, how are you?” She couldn’t help glancing at the IV. “Cyn said a transfusion…”
“I’m just a bit run down,” said Vi. “They say it’s the effects of the chemo on my immune system, so I need a little boost. And my veins have gone a bit wonky, so they’re going to put in a port to make the chemo easier.”
Gemma put together the bright spots of color in her mother’s cheeks with the warmth of her skin. “You’ve got a temperature.”
“Well, just a bit.” Vi didn’t meet her eyes. “They say it’s not unusual. Low white cell count.”
“Where are Cyn and Dad, then?” Gemma asked, not wanting to address what she suspected was evasion quite yet.
“You sister has taken your father home, thank goodness, so that he can get some rest and I can have a little peace.” Vi closed her eyes.
“That’s the worst thing, you know, his worrying. I try so hard not to…but yesterday I just couldn’t go on with things…”
“Mum.” Gemma took her mother’s hand as she thought about the complexities of her parents’ relationship. Her view had changed since her mother’s diagnosis. She’d always thought her father the dominant partner, and her mother’s mission in life as catering to his needs at the cost of her own.
But that had only been the surface, she’d realized, something she would have seen much more easily if her perceptions hadn’t been clouded by her own place in the family dynamic.
The truth was that her mother was the stronger of the two, and that her determination to reassure him was pushing her far beyond her limits.
“Mum,” Gemma said again. “Maybe…Maybe you should let Dad take care of you. I know you keep trying to take care of him, the way you’ve always done—the way you’ve looked after all of us—but it’s not…I don’t think it’s helping him. If you put him in charge, let
, then maybe he wouldn’t feel quite so…so helpless.”
“So who died and made you a psychologist?” Vi asked, with a hint of her usual asperity, but then she squeezed Gemma’s hand and smiled.
“Hazel would probably report me,” Gemma admitted ruefully. “Mum, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, no, I suspect you’re right.” Vi sighed. “It’s just that he’s so frightened, and I can’t imagine how he would manage if I, well”—she lowered her voice, as if admitting to a dark secret—“if I was gone. But I suppose learning to look after me would be a start.” Frowning, she added, “Did Cyn tell you that neither of you were donor matches?”
“Yes.” Gemma didn’t mention that it was Duncan her sister had told. “But surely—there’s an international database for donors, isn’t there?”
“They’ve put me on the list. But they said the chance of a match was only one in ten thousand…”
Gemma struggled to conceal her shock, then said with as much conviction as she could muster, “You’re not going to need a donor match. You just need to rest, and to let the treatments do their job.”
“Right.” Vi sat up a bit straighter, as if Gemma’s pep talk had encouraged her. “I’d better be fit in time for your wedding. And you had better choose the venue so you can set a date. You said you were going to find something this week.”
“Well, I—” Gemma felt the telltale color rise in her face—she’d never been able to get away with anything as a child.
“You haven’t looked, have you?” Her mother’s teasing tone did not quite disguise her disappointment.
Scrambling, Gemma told an outright lie. “I have, honestly, Mum. I’ve narrowed it down.”
“Tell me about them, then.” Vi settled herself a little more comfortably, her expression expectant.
“Oh—” Gemma tried to remember some of the places she had rejected out of hand as either too big, too expensive, too pretentiously posh, or just plain silly. “Well, there’s the London Eye, but I’m not very good with heights. Or the HMS
. Or the London aquarium. Or, um, Fulham Palace.”
Vi’s eyes had widened. “You can get married on the London Eye? Sounds very impractical to me.”
“You can get married at Westminster Abbey if you want—a civil wedding, that is. You can even get married in the changing rooms at Tottenham Hotspur. Or at the London Dungeon.”
“Why on earth would anyone want to be married there?” Vi gave a shudder.
“Thrills and chills.” Gemma couldn’t help grinning. “The boys would love it.”
“But you wouldn’t. Nor Duncan, I daresay.”
“No.” Gemma looked away. She had left out the stultifyingly boring reception rooms in generic hotels and restaurants. All the prospects had depressed her. She just couldn’t get her mind round the thought of being married in a place that meant nothing to either of them and by a person neither of them knew.
“You won’t consider a church wedding?” Vi asked softly. “Even, you know, Church of England. I’m sure Duncan’s family would like that.”
“Yes, I suppose they would. It would have to be St. John’s, though, our parish church, and we don’t know the rector. Winnie—” She didn’t want to voice her fears about Winnie. “And I don’t feel quite right about using our parish church for hatch, match, and dispatch,” she amended. “It just seems a bit callous, somehow.”
“And it seems to me you have far too many scruples,” said Vi, a little tartly. “Gemma, you’re not—you’re not getting cold feet?”
“No, of course not, Mum.” She wasn’t about to admit it was the second time she’d been asked that in as many days. “I just want—I just want everything to be right.”
Vi seemed to shrink a little, as if suddenly tired. “Well, I hope it doesn’t take you as long to make up your mind about this as it took you to decide you wanted to marry Duncan.” She took Gemma’s hand again. “You couldn’t do better, love. And I do want to see you married.”
“Mum! Don’t talk like that—it’s not like you at all—” Her phone chirped, making her jump. She’d forgotten to turn it off. Grabbing it from her bag, she glanced at the caller ID as she pressed Ignore. It was a London number, unfamiliar. “Sorry, Mum. I—”
“I hope I’m not interrupting?”
Gemma started at the sound of the man’s voice. She hadn’t heard the cubicle curtain move. Guiltily, she slipped her phone into her bag as she turned. A coat and tie—a consultant, then, and a bit sleek and overfed looking.
He gave her a perfunctory smile, letting her know that the apology was strictly rote, then turned to Vi. “Mrs. Walters? I’m Dr. Alexander, your anesthetist. We like to have a little chat before procedures.”
“An anesthetist?” said Gemma, alarmed. “But—”
“It’s routine. For the port,” Vi told Gemma, but she looked at the consultant a little anxiously.
“Absolutely routine, Mrs. Walters. It’s just to make you comfortable. You’ll never know you’ve been under. Now,” he added, his tone making it clear it was time to get down to business, “are there any allergies we need to know about?”
Vi nodded at Gemma. “You go, love. Return your call. I’ll be fine.” But as Gemma gathered her bag and leaned over to kiss her, Vi whispered, “But don’t forget what I said.”
Gemma waited until she was outside the hospital annex to check her message. The voice was male, impatient, and recognizably Cockney. “DI Weller here. Ring me at your earliest convenience.” He left the same number she’d seen on the caller ID.
This was the man, she remembered, who was supposed to be in Shropshire at a wedding and not to be disturbed. Had Sergeant Singh passed along her message, after all, and now he was ringing to give Gemma a bollocking for wasting his time? In no mood to be trifled with, she found a quiet spot between buildings and punched the Return Call key.
He picked up on the first ring. “Weller.”
“This is Inspector James. You rang me?”
There was a murmur of voices, quickly fading, as if Weller had moved out of range. “Look,” he said abruptly, “I don’t know what you have to do with this, but we need to have a word. I’m at Haggerston Park. You know it?”
Gemma searched her memory. Haggerston Park had a farm—
she’d been there once, with Toby’s infant school class. And it was not far from the London, just to the north in Bethnal Green. “Yes, but—”
“North side. Come in at Audrey Street.”
“But can’t you tell me what’s going on?” asked Gemma. “Has something—” The sudden roar of the air ambulance powering up drowned out her words. She looked up, searching for the helipad, shouting, “Sorry,” into the phone. The sound grew louder, then the distinctive dark orange helicopter rose above a nearby building. The sight gave her a little chill of excitement—odd, she thought, for a person who didn’t like heights.
As the helicopter moved away, she saw that she’d lost her call. It looked as though Weller had hung up on her.
So DI Weller was not in Shropshire, but in London. Gemma glanced at her watch. Not yet eleven o’clock. Whatever had brought Weller back from Shropshire at that speed could not be good.
Gemma put her mobile back in her bag and hurried towards her car. No point in ringing him back, she was only minutes from the park. And if the news was bad, she preferred to hear it in person.