Tom slept in next morning, doing all he could to avoid facing the day for as long as possible. The temperature had dropped significantly and he lay with his head sandwiched between two pillows, trying to keep warm and at the same time block everything else out until he had no choice but to get up. He wanted to go and see Siobhan again, but the thought of how she might be when he got there was enough to make him find excuses to stay home. He decided she’d probably have gone to work anyway. It felt better to try and fool himself like that than to have to face up to a reality he couldn’t bare to imagine. He didn’t know what he’d do if he lost her. He didn’t know what he’d done.
He forced himself out of bed and traipsed through the dark house, scaring himself shitless when he literally stumbled over his brother who was lying on the sofa in the living room, one leg on the floor. Tom decided to leave him sleeping. It was easier than having to explain what he was doing and why. There was only one person Tom wanted to talk to.
He dressed and drank a mug of strong coffee before putting on his coat and getting ready to head out. He needed to fill up with petrol, then get straight over and sort things out with Siobhan. He grabbed his keys, marched up to the front door, then stopped. He didn’t want to go. Pull yourself together, you fucking jerk, he ordered himself. Get a grip. Was he going to add agoraphobia to his list of self-inflicted problems now? Maybe if he tried hard enough he could convince himself he was OCD too? That’d give him something to stop himself getting bored, he thought, washing his hands a hundred times a day or religiously checking, double-checking, then triple-checking light switches and power sockets.
He made himself leave.
From outside his house, Tom thought Thatcham looked quieter than usual today. That was a relief, as he’d decided he wanted to avoid speaking to people as much as he could this morning. He zipped up his coat and breathed in the cold, fresh air. Everything looked suitably grey and miserable, a light mist obscuring the view and leaving the outskirts of the village hidden as if they’d been rubbed out. The trees on the hillside were uniformly spindly and brittle-branched, their trunks twisting and climbing up into the fog like they were trying to escape.
Tom got into his car and drove away from the house. He stopped when he’d only travelled a short distance. There was someone leaning up the low stone wall at the side of the road as if they were catching their breath or being sick. It was Will Preston. Tom had been introduced to him in the pub by John Tipper a couple of months ago. He was one of the local lifeboat crew – a group of volunteers who lived and worked around Thatcham. Tom had considered volunteering himself. He liked the idea of running through the streets like a hero. He’d seen it happen regularly since he’d been here: a sudden siren would wail and a single flare would be fired up over the small lifeboat station, then the crew would come running from different directions and they’d be launched in minutes. Tom had already decided he’d wait until next spring to put himself forward though. The winter didn’t seem the most sensible time to learn how to sail and rescue people from the sea.
Tom wound down the window, concerned. ‘Morning,’ he shouted over at Will. ‘Everything all right?’ Will didn’t react. He remained looking ahead, staring out towards the ocean which, because of the mist, could barely be seen. The lack of any visible response briefly wrong-footed Tom. Perhaps he hadn’t heard him? He cleared his throat and tried again. ‘Morning.’ Still no response. Ignorant bastard.
More concerned with getting to Siobhan, Tom continued down into the village and pulled up on the petrol station forecourt. He killed his engine and everything became quiet, save for a constant, high-pitched yapping noise. He walked back towards the road and found a small dog tied to a lamppost, spinning circles and barking continually. He recognised it immediately. He’d heard the damn thing too many times before. He knew its owner too. It belonged to Ken Trentham, the old drunk who spent his days either in the Badger’s Sett or wandering through the village causing trouble. Tom found Ken sitting on a bench a few metres further along the road. His scruffy head was hanging forward and he looked like he’d passed out. He was probably off his face on something as usual, Tom decided. For all the negative social stigma attached to being the town drunk, Tom found himself thinking that Ken might not have been as hard done by as he’d always presumed. He spent most of his time in an alcoholic daze, his uncomplicated life completely free of any responsibility or pressure, all booze and lodgings paid for by the state. On the face of it, it looked like a pretty good deal. Tom checked himself. Are you serious? Listen to what you’re saying. And then an even more frightening thought materialised: Did Ken start off like me? If I don’t sort myself out, is this what I’m going to become?
Tom noticed that Ken’s eyes were open and unblinking. Shit, was he dead? He stepped over the growling dog, whose frayed rope lead was at full stretch, then shook Ken’s shoulder. He was relieved when the drunk looked up, mumbled something, then looked back down again.
‘Pissed, as usual,’ an unexpected but immediately recognisable voice said, startling Tom. It was John Tipper. ‘This happy little bunny spent his giro in the pub last night. Drinking like a fish, he was.’
‘Might have guessed,’ Tom said. ‘How are you this morning, John?’
‘Top of the world,’ he said quickly, putting down the bags he was carrying. The tone of his voice was far from convincing.
‘It’s probably nothing,’ he replied, his face dropping. ‘Just put my foot in it with the missus, and I can’t work out why.’ Despite the fact that the normally unfailingly positive pub landlord was clearly out of sorts, Tom took satisfaction from his demeanour. It was nice to know he wasn’t the only one having a miserable time of things. ‘Ever get the feeling you’re pulling in a different direction to everyone else?’ John said.
‘Most of the time,’ Tom replied without hesitation.
‘I’m bound to have done something wrong, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Honestly, Tom, thirty-five years we’ve been married and there’s hardly been a cross word between us in all that time. This morning she can barely bring herself to look at me. She’s still in bed, as far I know. At this time of day! I’m supposed to be opening up in half an hour and we’ve got a big booking for lunch today. I had to come out and get a few things from the supermarket because my delivery from the caterers hasn’t turned up. I tell you, Tom, it’s enough to turn a man to drink.’
‘Well you’re in the right place for it,’ Tom joked.
John ignored him. ‘I just wish she’d tell me what it is I’m supposed to have done, you know? Give me a clue, at least.’
‘You can’t think of anything?’
‘We were quiet last night and I was moaning about there not being enough punters in. I was talking about changing the food menu, you know, re-launching it, spicing things up a bit. You know what she’s like about her kitchen. I probably said something that upset her. She didn’t say anything at the time, mind. She was still talking ten to the dozen in bed when I was trying to get to sleep.’
‘Maybe that’s it then?’ Tom suggested. ‘She’s got the hump because you went to sleep while she was still talking to you.’
‘Truth be told, that happens most nights. She’s usually had a few halves of Special Brew and she doesn’t even notice. No, Tom, this is different.’
The two men stood together for a few seconds longer, the only noise coming from Ken Trentham’s dog.
‘Best get back with all this,’ John said, lifting his bags. ‘I’ll see you later, Tom. You’ll be in on Friday night?’
‘We’ll be there,’ Tom said. John nodded, managed half a smile, then walked away, hunched forward and with his shoulders rounded as if just being alive this morning was too much of an effort. Tom watched him disappear into the mist then returned to the car and started filling it up.
Christ, he thought as he entered the kiosk shop to pay, even this place looked like it couldn’t be bothered today. There were holes in the displays which hadn’t yet been re-stocked. Darren Braithwaite, the part-time cashier, was working at a speed which was slow even by his miserable standards. He was filling a display of chocolate bars, moving one or two at a time as if it was all too much effort. His lank hair covered much of his face but Tom could see his mouth hanging open gormlessly. His eyes were glassy, probably still stoned from last night. At least he’s acting normally, Tom laughed to himself.
He picked up a few things as he walked around the small store. He noticed there was another car on the forecourt now, and as he made his way to the check-out, the owner of the car, a short, white-haired man, burst through the kiosk door and crashed into him.
‘Bloody hell, take it easy.’
The man apologised immediately. ‘Sorry,’ he said breathlessly. He began to regain his composure. He was in his late fifties, Tom thought, and he didn’t recognise him as being from the village. His face was flushed red and he constantly looked back at his car.
‘Don’t know what’s the matter with them,’ he said.
‘All of them.’
With that he threw a twenty pound note at the cashier and rushed back outside.
What is this? Tom thought, Invasion of the bloody Body Snatchers? As dumb as it sounded, there was no denying the man’s behaviour left him feeling uneasy.
Tom waited as the cashier lethargically processed the payment, then rang through Tom’s purchases. While he was waiting, his phone rang. He answered it immediately, hoping it would be Siobhan. For a few seconds he wasn’t sure who was calling. It was a little girl. It sounded like Bethany, one of James and Stephanie’s kids, but he didn’t know why she’d be phoning him.
‘Beth? Bethany, is that you?’
‘Did you mean to phone me?’
No answer. Tom finished paying and went back out to the car.
‘Daddy’s not very well.’
‘Beth, this is Tom, your dad’s friend. Did you know you’d phoned me?’
‘I just kept trying numbers.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I kept trying the numbers in Daddy’s phone.’
‘You’re the only one who answered.’
‘How many people did you try, Beth?’
‘Nearly all of them.’
‘Where are your mum and dad?’
‘Can I talk to one of them?’
‘They won’t talk.’
‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘Just a bit worried.’
‘I bet you are,’ Tom said. He could hear the nervousness in her voice. ‘Wait there, Beth. I’m just at the petrol station, not far from your house. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.’
Tom pulled up outside James and Stephanie’s house and rang the bell. There was an uncomfortably long delay before the door opened inwards. Beth was standing in front of him, still wearing her pyjamas.
She nodded. ‘I’m okay.’
‘Shouldn’t you be at school today?’
‘Mummy didn’t take me.’
‘Where is she?’
‘In there with Daddy.’
She opened the door fully and stood to one side, giving Tom a clear view into the heart of the narrow little house. Stephanie was lying on the sofa, barely dressed. James sat bolt upright in an armchair opposite, staring into space, his mouth hanging open. Tom shut the door behind him, stepping over Mark, Beth’s younger brother, who was lying curled up in a ball in the middle of the floor. He crouched down and checked the young lad. He was awake and alert, sucking on his thumb. ‘You okay?’
‘He’s just tired,’ Beth answered for her brother. ‘He keeps falling asleep.’
Tom turned his attention to the children’s parents. ‘James? Steph?’
Neither of them reacted. After a few seconds, James turned his head slightly and looked at Tom. He had a puzzled expression on his face, as if he was waiting for things to come into focus.
‘What’s up, mate? No work today?’
‘No work today,’ he replied, his voice quiet and slightly slurred.
‘Are you sick? Has something happened?’
No answer this time. Tom turned his attention to Stephanie who was gazing up at the ceiling. He discreetly leant down, picked up the flap of her open dressing gown, and covered her legs. She was showing herself, and it made him feel uncomfortable.
He crouched down beside her and shook her shoulder but she didn’t respond. Aware of movement behind him, he turned around and saw Beth trying to watch over his shoulder.
‘What’s the matter with them?’ she asked, her wavering voice quiet, almost like she didn’t want to be heard.
‘I’m not sure,’ Tom replied, wishing he could give her a better answer – any answer, even. ‘How long have they been like this?’
‘Just today,’ Beth told him. ‘I don’t like it.’
A sudden, high-pitched cry from elsewhere in the house made Tom catch his breath. The baby. He cursed himself for not thinking about little Felicity sooner. When neither of her parents reacted, he stood up.
‘Where’s your sister?’
‘Still in her cot,’ Beth replied. ‘She keeps crying. I tried to get her to stop, but she won’t.’
‘Does she have any milk or anything like that?’
‘Mummy feeds her.’
Now what did he do? Things were happening at such a rate in this house that he didn’t know which way to turn. He ran upstairs and checked from room to room until he found the baby in her cot. Although he knew she’d probably be able to do very little to help, he was relieved when he heard Beth follow him upstairs.
‘I don’t know very much about babies,’ he admitted as he peered into Felicity’s cot. The smell was worse than the noise. He was no expert, but it was clear both from the stench and the bulge around the baby’s middle that it had been a long time since her nappy had been changed.
‘Stephanie,’ he shouted downstairs, hoping she’d hear him and snap back into life. ‘The baby needs changing. Will you come up and do it?’
He waited for an answer he knew wasn’t coming.
‘She won’t,’ Beth said. ‘I’ve asked her loads of times.’
‘Do you know what to do?’
‘I’ve seen Mummy do it, but I can’t. Can you?’
‘Looks like I’ll have to. You’ll have to tell me if I’m doing it right. Where’s all the stuff?’
Beth dived over to a corner of the room then returned clutching a fresh nappy, a bag of cotton wool, a tub of cream and a packet of wipes. Not at all sure what he was doing – and feeling distinctly uncomfortable about touching the baby – Tom slowly removed her pyjamas. He braced himself and undid her bulging nappy, gagging both at the smell and what he saw and doing what he could to hide his disgust from Beth.
‘I don’t like that,’ she said, backing away.
‘You and me both,’ he admitted, eyes watering, swallowing down bile. ‘Now be a good girl and try and find me some clean clothes for your sister.’
Ten minutes of struggling – both with the distressed baby and his delicate stomach – and the job was done to a decent enough standard. He carried Felicity downstairs to her mother and, between him and Beth, managed to get Stephanie sitting upright. He propped her up in a comfortable position so she could feed her child. Tom cringed at every moment, drowning in the awkwardness of the situation, trying to pull the top of Stephanie’s nightdress down low enough so the baby could get to her breast without inappropriately touching her flesh himself. She didn’t react when he inadvertently touched her breast. Thankfully instinct at last seemed to take over. Stephanie finally held onto her daughter, and the little girl latched onto her mother’s nipple and began to feed.
Tom turned his attention to James and Mark. He picked the young lad up and laid him down on another chair, covering him with a blanket, then focussed on his father.
‘James!’ Tom shouted in his face, pulling him forward and shaking his shoulders. ‘James, mate, what’s going on?’
No response. His eyes barely flickered. Tom shook him again and then dropped him back into the chair.
‘Shall we get the doctor?’ Beth asked.
Tom couldn’t bring himself to look at her. He didn’t want her to pick up on the fear he was beginning to feel in the pit of his stomach. ‘I don’t know.’
He put on his coat and moved towards the front door.
‘You going?’ Bethany asked. ‘Please don’t go.’
Tom didn’t want to leave the children, but he knew he had to go. They weren’t his responsibility, Siobhan was. ‘Is there anyone else who can look after you?’
‘Mrs Price,’ Bethany said.
‘Who’s Mrs Price?’
‘Don’t know. Just this old lady who comes around when Mummy and Daddy go out sometimes.’
‘Do you know where she lives?’
‘Does she come in a car?’
‘No, I think she lives near here. Mummy makes Dad walk her home. I’ve stayed up and heard them talking before now.’
‘Which way’s her house?’
‘I’ll go and find her.’
With that he opened the door and took a step out onto the street. He turned back. Bethany was standing in the doorway, eyes wide. Behind her he could see Stephanie, head drooping, just about managing to hold onto her baby.
‘Will you come back?’ Beth asked.
Tom steadied himself. He had to do this. ‘I’ll go find Mrs Price. Either she’ll come and look after you or I will. I won’t leave you on your own, okay?’
She nodded and he forced himself to go.
Tom tried five houses before he got any answer. It wasn’t Mrs Price, but he did find a Mrs Simpson, a reassuringly lucid woman in her late-sixties. When he explained what was happening she immediately agreed to look after the kids. She knew them – rather, she’d heard them – and, more importantly, she too had realised something was seriously wrong this morning. She tried to ask Tom about it, pleaded with him to explain the inexplicable, but he couldn’t. Despite her protests, he left her.
He felt like a callous, uncaring shit as he drove away, but the truth was James, Stephanie and their family were not his main concern. He needed to get to Siobhan.