NO GOING BACK
Jeremy and I pored over the photos.
‘I wouldn’t have recognised them,’ he said.
‘Well, I don’t suppose you saw her after the wedding, and it’s over ten years since either of us have seen Mike, so why would you?’ I said.
I’d hardly recognised them myself, at first. The pictures were shot using a long zoom lens, so the subjects didn’t even know they were being observed, sitting on their bench facing the sea. Unseen by them, up on the pier, I was scanning the seafront for possible shots for an exhibition coming up in Barcelona. There was a group of kids messing about on the lower promenade, some of the boys on skateboards and their girls being silly and giggly, and I was just waiting for something interesting to happen when I suddenly spotted the little drama that was going on behind them.
The woman was hunched up into her jacket, crying into a tissue, a pile of crumpled white Kleenex already on her lap. The man next to her was looking slightly away, stiff backed and straight faced, arms folded and legs crossed. They were sitting just close enough for it to be clear that they were together, but there was no point at which they touched.
Now this was an interesting shot by anyone’s standards, but what made it especially intriguing for me was the sudden realisation that the man was my ex-husband and the woman my ex-mother-in-law.
‘Mike looks older,’ observed Jeremy, ‘but she’s worn well.’ He looked back and forth at the five or six photos laid out on the dining table.
Living temporarily in my cousin Jeremy’s cottage, a bolt-hole between assignments and a permanent home, I found myself back in Sussex where I’d lived with Mike, and tolerated his parents, for the twelve years of our marriage. After the divorce I’d moved away from the seaside town which was our home, and I wasn’t even sure any of my ex-family still lived there. I certainly hadn’t expected to see them again.
‘How long did you stand there watching them?’ asked Jeremy.
‘Not long. Next time I looked through the lens he’d gone and she was alone on the bench. There was no sign of him in either direction on the seafront, so I guess he went straight up the nearest steps onto the pavement.’
‘Nina, this smacks of voyeurism,’ said Jeremy, slightly amused.
‘Sorry, but it’s what I do,’ I said. ‘How else do you expect a life photographer to get shots of people?’
‘Yeah, but when it’s someone you know…’
‘I won’t use these photos, Jeremy. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? I wonder what’s going on there.’
I laid the last three pictures out on the table.
When I’d brought the camera back onto Sylvia, my ex-mother-in-law, she was perfectly composed, patting into place some strands of hair that the wind had dared to pull out of line. A manipulative and vindictive woman, she and I had never got on so I can’t say that I felt any sorrow for her as I watched. In any case, she didn’t seem in need of anybody’s sympathy. She’d stared ahead for a bit, then after a few moments got up from the bench, put the pile of tissues into the nearest bin, and walked off along the promenade away from me.
‘Whatever it was, she seems to have got over it quite well,’ Jeremy remarked. ‘Did you get anything else today that might be useful?’
I hadn’t. There was nothing that would make it into the exhibition, most of them were too ordinary with nothing significant marking them out as anything special. The only pictures that did tell a story, and at this time I had no idea what that story was, were of Sylvia and Mike, and in all conscience I couldn’t use them. Pity, because they were actually very good shots, bright patches of sunlight against the shadows of people on the promenade making some rather striking effects.
Jeremy started gathering up his keys, wallet and music folders.
‘I’ve got to go,’ he said, heading for the studio and coming back into the living room carrying his double bass. ‘Want to come?’ he asked, as he zipped the instrument into its case.
‘Where is it tonight?’ I asked.
‘The 606. Back late, 3am-ish.’
‘No, thanks. Maybe next time.’
And then he was gone, and silence settled down in the cottage in his wake.
I looked back at the pictures on the table.
‘What is this all about?’ I muttered.
I didn’t hear Jeremy arrive home in the early hours of the morning, and I tiptoed about when I got up so as not to wake him. It had occurred to me during the previous evening that another little trip to the seaside might be a good idea, and I wanted to make an early start. Although I took my camera with me (I always do), it wasn’t my intention to try a repeat of yesterday’s exercise. Instead, there was someone I wanted to call on.
The Merry Fiddler pub, at the end of the road we used to live in, was still there and looked much the same as it had ten years previously. I got there way before opening time, but first I wanted to check out the name of the landlord above the door. It was still the same. I smiled as I thought of the many evenings we’d spent in Laurie’s pub, New Year’s Eve’s there with the crowd of regulars, celebrations of personal and national events, and helping out behind the bar if any of the girls didn’t turn in for their shift.
I should have kept in touch, I thought. Laurie had been a good friend.
With time to kill before opening, I drove into the town centre, got lost a couple of times in the new and confusing one-way system, and finally found somewhere to park. Walking back through the shopping centre I kept expecting to meet a younger me coming the other way. It was the strangest feeling, everything different but still the same, part of me, but only at a distance.
When I drove back out to The Merry Fiddler, I came in the other way, so I could go past our old house. Bad mistake, I thought, as I took in the parking area where my lovely little garden used to be. There was a child’s mobile hanging at the window of the small bedroom. At least they succeeded there, I thought, where we failed.
The pub looked exactly the same inside as I remembered it, and there in his usual place was Laurie, pulling a pint. The years rolled away for me, but obviously not for him.
‘Yes, m’dear,’ he said, ‘what can I get you?’
Twelve years of propping up his bar, and Laurie didn’t know me from Eve.
‘Laurie,’ I said. ‘It’s Nina. Remember? Nina and Mike Sutcliffe?’
He looked closely, frowning, his brain flicking back through a gallery of faces.
‘Nina… ‘ he said, playing for time. ‘Nina…’ Then the fog seemed to lift.
‘NINA!’ he shouted and lifted the flap at the end of the bar to come through and lock me in a bear hug.
He pulled me a half-pint of lager on the house, leaned on the counter and surveyed me over the pumps.
‘We never see Mike in here,’ he offered without me asking first. ‘Pity, those were good times. Some of the old crowd still come in though. Come back tomorrow evening and there’ll be people here you know – Jill and Henry, Martin and Sam… ’
‘Maybe I will,’ I said. ‘I’m staying with my cousin out at Horsfield – means driving in though so I won’t be able to drink.’
‘You’ll need a taxi then, not much chance of it being a non-alcoholic night,’ Laurie said, laughing.
‘Do any of them see Mike?’ I asked, nonchalantly.
‘Don’t know, love. Nobody’s mentioned him to me. Were you hoping to contact him?’
‘No, just wondering how things turned out for him.’
‘Jake might know, he’ll be here tomorrow.’
I stayed in the pub for an hour or so, then I drove off towards Mike’s parents’ house.
Sylvia was not an easy woman to live with. Mike’s dad was a long-suffering and extremely patient man who played golf to get away from her. Most of the time I got on OK with Gerald and once or twice I went out on the golf course with him, supposedly caddying but in reality just there for the conversation and to whack a few balls around myself. He loosened up on those occasions and we got along just fine on our own. But once Mike and I hit the rocks Sylvia cut me off completely, and that meant Gerald did too.
All this was running through my head as I drove past the golf course and up through the woods to the posh road where their house was. I parked opposite and looked across. There was a black BMW in their drive. I had no idea if this belonged to Gerald – as far as I knew Sylvia had never learnt to drive – or even if they still owned the house. Then, for some inexplicable reason I reached over to the back seat where my camera was, and took a shot of the car.
The sun was warm coming through the glass, and with nothing happening opposite to keep my attention, I started to feel sleepy. Drinking at lunchtime – even half a lager – never did do me any favours.
I only nodded off for ten minutes at most, but when I opened my eyes again, the BMW had gone. There seemed little point in hanging around, so I drove back to Horsfield and found Jeremy sitting out in the back garden fixing some new strings on a mandolin.
‘How was your gig?’
‘It took off after the break,’ he said. ‘Strange audience though, mostly Japanese tourists. None of them really listening…’
I let him talk on, because then I didn’t have to admit what I’d been up to, which I couldn’t really explain even to myself.
Later, I looked again at the seafront pictures. Mike looking distinctly uncomfortable with the situation, Sylvia (I had no doubt) milking it for all it was worth. And then I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who’d been watching this little scenario develop. There was somebody else in each shot, standing behind and a little to one side – a man in a casual black jacket and grey trousers, in his late sixties I would say. Listening in? Probably not close enough for that. Watching, definitely.
I went back to the computer and pulled the image up, then zoomed in on the man. Not Gerald anyway. I looked again at the last three shots I’d taken, and sure enough, there he was again. In the final picture of the sequence Sylvia was walking away from me, and the man, I now saw, was following her. Or maybe he was with her, just a couple of paces behind.
This was beginning to gnaw away at me.
‘Gerald? Died years ago,’ said Jake. ‘If I remember rightly he had a heart attack on the 11th green.’
This was exactly the way Gerald would want to go, where Sylvia couldn’t berate him for his selfishness at leaving her.
‘Never see him, Nina. Last I heard he was married again with a stepdaughter. Someone did tell me his business wasn’t doing so well, but that was a year or so back. Things might have changed now.’
‘He’ll be OK, Sylvia’s in the money now and she wouldn’t see him go under. Gerald would have had a big, fat insurance policy,’ I said. ‘And there’s that house.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Jake, ‘he was worth a bit. That would make Sylvia quite a catch for some poor lonely sod.’
‘If she wasn’t such a cow,’ I added, and we got some more drinks in.
Jeremy had a local gig that night, so after closing time I got a taxi over to the club to watch him then we drove home together.
Just before I got into bed I pulled the pictures out again and took another look at the last one. Sylvia’s right hand was extended backwards, as if she was hoping to take someone by the hand. Or maybe it was just my imagination, and one too many lagers in the pub.
Next day I went back into the town centre, where I supposed Mike’s office was still located. It wasn’t in the same building, but it was easy enough to find that he’d moved further up the road, into smaller premises. Maybe Jake was right.
I’d got this far, it was silly now to just walk by. So I went in, and waited while his secretary buzzed through to him. He was certainly surprised to see me, but not I think, unpleasantly. At any rate, he made us coffee and we moved into his office. Business obviously wasn’t brisk as the phone didn’t ring once while I was there.
‘Jake told me your dad had died – how is Sylvia coping on her own?’
There was a pause.
‘She’s not on her own any more. She met a bloke on the Internet,’ he said. ‘I’d say he’s probably a con-man, but she won’t listen to me and I can’t get anything on him.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘I’ve no idea, I’ve never met him. And suddenly now I find I’m persona non gratis, anyway. That’s what you get for speaking your mind to Mum when it’s something she doesn’t want to hear.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I remember.’
We chatted some more, and in a strange way it was good to see Mike again and to know that we could still feel comfortable with each other. He said he’d get in touch with Jake and the Merry Fiddler crowd again, but we didn’t swap our own addresses. It seemed neither of us needed that.
Feeling that I’d done the grown-up thing in going to see him, and solving my mystery at the same time, I left with a spring in my step.
Mike did indeed get in touch with Jake. And three weeks later, Jake got in touch with me.
‘Guess what?’ he said. ‘Old Sylvia’s got herself a toy-boy.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Mike told me.’
‘Well here’s something you don’t know – she’s gone off with him now. Sold the house and gone abroad. So that’s Mike’s inheritance up the Swanee.’
‘She’s done what? Sold the house?’
‘Yeah…Mike knew nothing about it. She knew he didn’t approve of matey-boy so the house sale was all done in secret. Then she rang him yesterday and said they were going away.’
This was news, indeed. Poor Mike, I thought, he must be devastated.
‘Where have they gone?’ I asked. But Jake didn’t know.
‘She wouldn’t say, in case he tried to follow them. He’s got no way of finding them now,’ said Jake.
The news hung in the air between us for a moment.
‘Get him to ring me, pronto,’ I said. ‘I think I can help.’
The photos took a bit of explaining, convincing Mike that initially it had just been one of life’s strange coincidences.
‘But look, we’ve got some passable shots of him, plus the car could be identified. Take the pictures,’ I said. ‘Go to the police, post them on the Internet, do whatever you need to.’
Mike tapped his fingers on the table, looking back over the shots spread out in front of him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘She’s a grown woman. Let her get on with it.’
‘Mike, you know how this will probably end. Sylvia will lose everything – you’ll lose everything…’
He pointed to the first of the photos.
‘Look at her, how manipulative is this. Crocodile tears – she was just trying to win me round. My mother has spent her entire life making everyone dance to her tune, well now she can bloody well dance alone.’
‘When it all goes wrong, she’ll come back here you know, looking for your support,’ I said. ‘You can’t just wash your hands of her.’
‘She can come back, but I won’t be here,’ said Mike. He picked up the first picture and held it up. ‘My wife’s American, and we’re going to live in the States. What Mum was doing here was trying to talk me out of it, trying to convince me that Kim’s just being selfish wanting to go home. Her going away like this is typical, it’s Mum being spiteful and getting her own back on me.’
I took the photo from him and replaced it on the table.
‘And you won’t come back.’
‘Not now. It’s not usually a good idea anyway, going back.’
‘I’ve been finding that out.’
We stood in silence for a few moments.
‘They’re good photos, Nina,’ he said.
‘I could use some of them in an exhibition, with your permission.’
‘You’ve got it. Make something useful out of this,’ he said.
I did use one of the pictures in Barcelona. It was a very successful exhibition, and I got several assignments on the back of it so I’ve spent a lot of time over there since.
But I haven’t been to Sussex again. Mike was right about that – it’s not usually a good idea, going back.