“I’ll drive” I announced, “if that’s okay.”
I didn’t want the feeling that tended to come over me as a passenger. I used to view it as a kind of luxury, being able to daydream and watch the scenes pass by, but now it felt less like letting someone else do the driving and more like being driven. I didn’t want to be driven anywhere, I wanted actually to take myself there, preferably alone. Jason didn’t say much of course, but even so it would have oppressed me to remain a passenger.
He shrugged, putting the keys on the seat as he got out of the driver’s door.
I drove his 4×4 quite tentatively, stalling it a few times at junctions. My ears were so muffled with my anxious thoughts that I couldn’t hear the revs and was dropping off the accelerator too much.
“Shall I drive? She’s playing up a bit – misfiring.”
“If you like” I said, but I didn’t stop and get out. His suggestion was enough to make me feel angry and to drive with more aggression, which the car readily responded to.
I’d been wondering throughout the journey whether to raise things with Jason, or ask him things, but each time I felt ready, the wind was taken out of me, so I just glanced over at him a few times instead.
We were doing this, going to meet Elly: to see her for the first time in, getting on for what? – three years.
“How’re you feeling?” was the most I could do to try and vent the tension.
“Well. I really want to see her. I’ve missed her.”
“What d’you think it’ll feel like, seeing her after all this time?”
“I expect it’ll depend how she is and how she feels.”
“Hmph”. He was right. There was no preparation for this was there?
He fished out his phone and re-activated the satnav for the final few miles. She wanted to meet at the toposcope, Kinver Edge. It wasn’t somewhere we’d ever been as a family, nor separately either. The parking was along a busy road, which I hadn’t envisaged given the minor roads into the town. I went around to the boot. “You didn’t bring the dogs” I almost accused him. “She’d have loved to see them again, I’m sure she would.”
“The puppies aren’t old enough, and they need their mum, and the old’un struggles with the distance a bit now.”
It showed me how much out of touch I was, and also how much I wanted something more than myself as an inducement to Elly. Maybe Jason would be enough, but we hadn’t been enough for her to stay, had we? And yet, she had contacted us, not the other way around, so maybe things had changed.
“Watch out Cecy,” Jason grabbed me and pulled me back from the roadside. I hadn’t been too far out by my reckoning, so it felt presumptuous for him to grab me like that. I’d have made a stand if my mind wasn’t more intent upon tracing each of the dusty paths upwards to seek out signs of Elly. He’d already chosen and embarked upon a path though, leaving me behind. I was torn between looking at the information board and catching him up so as to make sure he didn’t get there first.
“Can you just wait a second Jase?”
I decided to approach him rather than risk his patience by getting him to wait whilst I studied the map on the board.
“Is this the right way?” I asked instead.
“It heads upwards. We want the toposcope don’t we?”
I could have brought to bear my many recent experiences that gave the lie to simple deductions like that. What if the path swung around past our view and out beyond the edge? What if the top was fenced off or there were crags in the way?
As the path ascended and presented us with a pointer to the toposcope I felt petulant that, in this instance, the territory was as simple as he dictated. Just go upwards, steeply, that’s all. But I had to get on an even footing before seeing Elly. Otherwise she’d just see in me what she always had, and possibly walk away.
“So how’s Lyn?” As soon as I’d said it I thought, bloody hell! What the hell are you doing?
“Sorry?” He turned back to see me. “Didn’t hear what you said.”
Thank god. The sound of exertion in his ears was obviously as noisy as in mine.
He carried on striding the oversized steps upwards. I followed on, and tried to look less comical than him. When we got to the top the ground levelled out like a saucer. We walked more closely, slowly, across to the circular platform standing solidly at the land’s upmost tilt. The first place name to catch my eye was New York, making me feel wryly sceptical of this ‘scope. Then I saw the Clees, and gained some incentive to use the dial, following the line it set out across the valleys into the rain clouds. There was nobody around apart from couples with dogs that intermittently darted into the basin of this hill fort from its edge to collect thrown balls, then tiptoed out again as the hidden thorns pricked their paws. The mound delineating the circle was even and regular, and was picked out even more strongly by the worn path that traced the fort’s perimeter. The inner area, devoid of trails, looked strange. It’s unlike humans to deliberately walk in circles, and it was clear that, now the scrub had been cleared there was a transition to make. Soon there would be straight lines cutting across from the toposcope to the paths stretching away from the fort.
“Cecy, there she is…I think” Jason’s voice modulated more than usual, which brought me out in goose bumps and prickled the backs of my hands. I followed his gaze to see Elly heading inwards, towards the centre of the great disc of bare ground, in our direction. I could see that her hair had grown long, and that she was thinner. As she got closer, and I could make out her face more clearly, what struck me was something about her eyes. They could have looked brighter, more intense, because of the ruddiness of her skin. That was possible. Or they might have just grown that way. Anyhow, she didn’t look diminished in any way, not at all as though she’d been eking herself out to survive. She looked strong.
“Mum. Dad.” She was the first to speak.
“Elly,” we said together. Then, “you look well”, this being the only observation to make when there was so much missing between us. It maybe should have invited more than the “yes” we got in reply.
“Look, shall we walk?” she suggested, and led us off the way she’d come. We left the fort down a steep bank which took us onto a heath lying under the forested edge. There we stopped briefly before I led on.
“Elly, quite a lot has happened since you left. I’m not sure how much you want to know about right now.” I was going to add that I was desperate to know what had been happening for her, but resisted.
“Well. I do know that Beccs died.”
Jason asked her if she’d read about it, but she just said that it was word of mouth.
“Who told you?” He didn’t hide his surprise.
“Well I heard from her dad actually.”
Initially it passed over me, buoyed-up as I was by the sense that I had privileged knowledge that not even she was aware of, let alone Jason, but then it sank in that she and Ed must have had contact and that he’d kept it from me. Not even Elly’s presence there with me was enough to stop me obsessing about Ed and sickening as the reinterpretations of his character, and our friendship, came flooding in.
“Cecy. Did you hear? Elly’s asked how we both are.”
“Oh, yes, well.” I turned to look at Jason. Then I thought, what’s the point being delicate about it? “We split up Elly, a while ago now. I’m living at home still and dad’s taken the house on the hill, the foresters cottage.”
There was no sign of distress, nor much surprise. In fact it seemed quite mundane, even irrelevant, to her really, so neither of us bothered to mitigate it with anything else. Her reserve made me want to grab hold of her. Jason just came out with it; “We’ve missed you Ellz”, he said. It was ballsy. I wasn’t expecting any kind of explanation, and I’m pretty sure Jason wasn’t either, but she exhaled decidedly in preparation to bring something of herself back to us:
“Look, I did try to get back to see you. About a year ago actually, but something happened and I had to leave. I am sorry to have put you through it.” She looked at me, then at Jason, adding, “But being sorry wouldn’t have made any difference.” Jason asked her what she meant. I didn’t. Something got me dwelling on the phrase though.
We walked down the slope steadily towards the trees, then as we reached them the pressure that I was trying to hold back broke through and what I blurted was an admission that I knew Ed, but maybe, I added, not as well as I thought. It had to be said; the sooner the better.
“In fact,” I continued as carefully as I could under the strain, “I’m sorry to say Elly that he’s a suspect in a murder inquiry.” Knowing that I couldn’t just dump this disclosure and run from it I elaborated, nervous to have the burden of the story. “A boy, young man, has been found, quite near to here, between Enville and Alveley. He’s been dead a year they think. Apparently Ed spoke to him last, that’s what they think, soon before he died.”
Elly was shaking her head slowly. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve come back now. He told me that he was suspected.” She was looking directly at us, voice slow and vowing to us that Ed was nothing to do with it, apart from taking a call from herself on the boy’s phone.
We walked on dazed, uncommitted, Jason probably realising, as I was, that he’d failed to quash the expectations of this longed-for meeting with Elly that were now being battered. But he could, perhaps, see a way out that I couldn’t:
“So what are you saying Elly? Do you know what happened? Were you in trouble?…are you in trouble?” Ah, I understood him. If she was in trouble he might be able to help. That was certainly a role, an option, for him.
“Well dad. In a way I am, but maybe not how you mean it. I did kill him”
Jason’s entire head blinked, and his throat constricted. He wasn’t ready for that. Before I had a chance to ask her why, he was on the warpath: “And you’ve been talking to this…this Ed?”
I was imagining her glasses in my hand and picturing the derelict hut with its stony walls sunk in mud. If I’d returned to it…but she wasn’t there by then, and the body must have been. It made me squirm at the memories of those Mosquitos. As I rubbed my face I realised Elly was speaking, Jason listening:
“He’s been in Scotland, working. We met there. We’ve talked things over.” She watched her feet as she walked, breathing steadily: composed. Then, looking at us again, she informed us that in fact he’d given her the money to get back down here on the train. “I look a bit fresher than I usually do. I’ve only walked three or four miles!” Well what was that for? I’d have liked to think she was excusing her composure, incongruent as it was with telling us she’d killed someone. We were so distracted by those details, dissipated, that at that moment any one of us could have just stumbled off and it go unnoticed, except perhaps by Elly whose footing remained firm.
“Do you know anything about this Cecile? After all, you’ve spent a hell of a lot of time with him.” It was the first time I’d seen Jason in a moral panic, but it didn’t bring out anything warm or helpful from me.
“Well what would I know exactly? Don’t turn on me.”
“Have you mum? Spent a lot of time with GF? I didn’t know that, he didn’t say.” She seemed curious but not offended.
“Seems to me that this guy, Ed, GF, needs to be brought back from Scotland to answer to all of this.”
“I’m telling you dad. Whatever you think of him, he didn’t do it. I killed the guy.”
“So what then? Is it a rescue mission then?”
“It’s the truth.”
“And only part of it though?” It was a request, not a question. Jason was making his next move. It was self defence, must have been. “You don’t need to tell us what happened if that’s difficult.” He paused but she didn’t say anything, so he tried again, “but you will have to tell everyone eventually, in court.” Was he trying to shock her into sense? He was looking at me with his palms up to the sky. But I couldn’t rescue him any more than Elly refused to.
“Were you provoked?” Jason tried again.
“I’m not a victim dad.”
I was now beyond asking for details, but Jason saw that as his last resort I think. She wouldn’t say much. We learned that the lad had joined her, or rather attached himself to her, for a few days, that she had broken her ankle and that she’d learned of Becky’s death through him. He was conveying a returned message from Ed. She gave no reason, really, for killing him, and no account of herself – of what was going through her mind.
“What’re you going to do?”
“To murder? Elly! Listen to me…” and then he petered out, tears down his face which brought tears down mine as well.
I tried something more congruent: “Is it really that clear-cut Elly, who’s a victim and who’s a perpetrator?”
“But would it do me any good to plead mitigation? I mean beyond getting off lightly?”
And it suddenly occurred to me that we’d been here before somehow; “Like Rose d’you mean? Is that why you left? Partly? I remember Elly. You were so angry with me for wanting you to apologise like Rose did.”
“Yes I was. You’re right. She hadn’t done anything, neither of us had. She apologised for everyone else and to save her skin. She lied.”
This was the Elly I knew but seemed to have forgotten, only this time I felt courageous enough to understand her.