‘Do you really think we can get away with it?’
‘If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be suggesting it, would I?’
‘We could go to jail. That’s my third worst fear. First funnel-webs, then childbirth, then jail.’
‘Neither of us is going to jail, you ninny. One day we’ll be sweet little old ladies and we’ll probably forget that it didn’t happen the way we said it did.’
‘I can’t imagine us as sweet little old ladies.’
‘It does seem unlikely.’
‘A marriage is hard work and sometimes it’s a bit of a bore. It’s like housework. It’s never finished. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and keep working away at it, day after day. Of course, the men don’t work as hard at it as we do, but that’s men for you, isn’t it? They’re not much good at housework either. Well, they weren’t in my day. Of course, these days they cook, vacuum, change nappies–the lot! Still don’t get equal pay in the workforce, though, do you? You’ve got a long way to go, you girls. Not doing much about it, though, are you?’
‘Yes, OK, Aunt Connie, but the thing is I’m not interested in marriage in general. I’m interested in Alice and Jack’s marriage. How would you describe it? Ordinary? Extraordinary? Cast your mind back! Even the tiniest detail would be helpful. Did they love each other, do you think?’
‘Love! Pfff! I’ll tell you something, something important. Write this down. You ready?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m ready.’
‘Love is a decision.’
‘Love is a decision?’
‘That’s right. A decision. Not a feeling. That’s what you young people don’t realise. That’s why you’re always off divorcing each other. No offence, dear. Now, turn that silly tape-recorder off and I’ll make you some cinnamon toast.’
‘I’m stuffed full of food, Aunt Connie. Really. Look, I have to say you haven’t been at all helpful. See, the Munro Baby Mystery is like a jigsaw puzzle. You’re a piece of the puzzle. If I found all the pieces I could actually solve it. Imagine that! After all this time. Wouldn’t you like that? Wouldn’t that be fascinating?’
‘Oh, Veronika, love, why don’t you just get a job? A good steady job in a bank, perhaps.’
Out of the blue, just after the Easter break, Sophie Honeywell’s ex-boyfriend, Thomas Gordon, calls her at work to ask if they can meet for a drink. He says he needs to talk to her about something ‘quite serious’.
‘But nothing too serious, I hope?’ Sophie hears herself sounding bright and brittle. Her heart beats fast, as if she’s just had a bad fright, and in fact it did give her a start when she heard that familiar but now strange voice. This is the first time they’ve spoken since their very messy break-up three years ago.
‘Nobody’s died, I hope?’ she asks, all hale and hearty.
What a stupid thing to say. She never says that sort of thing. It must be nerves.
There is a pause and then Thomas says, ‘Well, yes, actually, somebody has died.’
Sophie hits the palm of her hand against the side of her head. She has a moment of dithery throat-clearing and then, just in time, she remembers the polite thing to say to bereaved people. ‘Thomas,’ she says gently and sadly, ‘I am so sorry.’
‘Yes, thank you,’ replies Thomas briskly. ‘So, can we meet for a drink?’
‘Yes, of course we can. But, ah, well, who died?’
‘I’d rather talk about it tonight.’
All of a sudden it’s like they have never broken up. Why can’t he just come out and say things? Her mouth begins to gape into one of those silent shrieks of frustration that used to characterise so many of her phone conversations with Thomas. ‘But I’ll be worrying all afternoon wondering who it is. Who? Who died?’
He sighs heavily and says, as if proving a point, ‘My Aunt Connie.’
‘Oh.’ Sophie tries not to sound relieved. ‘I’m sorry.’ She remembers his Aunt Connie well, but the old lady must have been at least ninety and it’s not as if she had ever been likely to see her again, since she and Thomas aren’t together any more. Surely, after three years of stony, betrayed silence, he hasn’t asked her for a drink just to tell her that his Aunt Connie has died?
‘I guess it will be in the papers,’ she says. ‘She was something of a celebrity, wasn’t she?’
‘Yes, it probably will. Look, I’ll see you tonight. It will be nice to catch up. So, the Regent at six. Are you right to get there?’
The Regent is a five-minute walk from her office. ‘Yes, of course. I’ll see you then.’
She puts down the phone and slowly writes ‘Thomas, 6 p.m.’ on a Post-it note and sticks it to her computer, as if there’s a chance it will slip her mind. She had forgotten his habit of worrying about how women, being such helpless, fragile creatures, could cope with transporting themselves from place to place.
That’s unfair. She gives herself a mental rap across the knuckles for pretending that Thomas is sexist, when in fact he is a sweet-hearted person who is always worrying about transport arrangements for both men and women. He is like everyone’s worrywart of a dad.
Of course, he is now a real dad. It seems his heart has recovered from when she ‘fed it through the paper shredder’ (his words, written in a drunken, pitiful email full of weird metaphors) as he is now married to a girl called Deborah and they have a new baby, called Millie or Lily or Suzy, or something similarly cutesie.
She is only pretending not to know the baby’s name. She knows perfectly well that it is Lily.
Sophie looks back at her computer screen. When Thomas called she had been in the middle of writing a memo to the Morale Committee. So far she has a heading:
This is how she always cheerily begins her memos to the Morale Committee. She dislikes the Morale Committee because it is a ridiculous concept (in place before she started) and its members are all so relentlessly upbeat and self-righteously whiny about the need to have more ‘fun in the workplace’. But it would not do for the Human Resources Director to disband the Morale Committee. Morale would surely plummet without the Morale Committee!
COMMITTEE MEMBERS! IT’S TIME TO PUT YOUR THINKING CAPS ON!