Since he was eating alone in the Bull the previous night, it was possible that Ed was fishing nearby, on some kind of break, and would be eating there again that evening. I deliberated over whether to go there again myself (in low heals!) or whether to walk the river bank to see if he was fishing and attempt to strike up conversation there. It could be awkward to be at the pub on my own, and easier to talk outside, and yet I didn’t know him from Adam really and to be out alone with him by the river invited risk. It felt weird to be contriving a meeting. The only referent to this kind of thing in my life had been in my adolescence with boys I wanted to get to know, but I was all too aware at my age now of dramatic scenarios of different complexions and with different things at stake. This was of one of those kinds: quite scary.
I chose the same time of the evening as I’d gone with Linda and went to the Bull alone. Ed sat as before at the corner table, and after getting myself a drink I went decidedly to his table. He pre-empted me: “Cecile, isn’t it?”
“Yes” I lingered over the word, wondering what to expect next.
“Elly’s mum. We met once. She mentioned you”. He was not a bit contrived, there seemed to be no threat beyond the disclosure that he knew Elly. This was threat enough though. I had expected to wrestle with how to broach his loss of Becky, and here he was referring to Elly.
“You don’t know Elly do you? Why would you?” I tried not to let my emotions froth and betray my disturbance.
“I met her in this pub actually. She was alone, waiting for Rose, who stood her up – not for the first time.” He looked carefully at me. I said nothing, so he continued, “to be honest I think she chose to speak to me to get away from the lads at the bar. They were giving her a hard time playing games, showing off to each other, and she’d had enough but didn’t want to leave and let Rose down. I don’t think she really wanted to speak to me, but since I’d made the first move all those years ago, at your house, she saw an opening.”
“And did she say anything about that?” I asked flatly, feeling my eyebrow rise cynically.
“She did. She asked me whether I still wanted her to apologise, and I said that I never had expected that. What I wanted was not really the point.”
“So why did you want to see her then?”
“To blur the issues. Turned out, though, that she didn’t need them blurring”
“Blur the issues”. It wasn’t a question back to him. I wanted to see if saying it made the comment seem any more comprehensible.
“You have to admit the direction even by then had become pretty clear hadn’t it? You must have felt that badly.”
I stopped myself from asking him whether the issues around Becky were ‘clear cut’, but it took effort.
“If you mean that people had made their minds up about her then yes that was obvious.”
“Why don’t you take a pew?”
“No, all the same”. I put down my emptied glass and left. As soon as I was outside, though, I regretted leaving. It was a stupid move, vain rather than astute. I wanted to know more, I absolutely had to. The information he might have,well it could make all the difference. This time I had a sleepless night.
“Linda” I phoned as soon as it was late enough that she’d be up. “Are you free tonight?”
“Well I could be babe. What do you have in mind?”
The only thing I could think of was the truth – that was the sensational thing after all that would get her there.
“To be honest I want to see if Ed is in the pub again and get to speak to him some more. He had contact with Elly apparently, after Becky’s overdose. I don’t know what it was all about, but I need to know.”
“Yes I understand. Don’t you think Jase should know?”
Oh Jesus! She wanted to strengthen her bonds with Jason – over this of all things. Fuck that. “Actually, forget it Lyn. Not sure now. Might have got the wrong end of the stick.”
So there I was again, alone in the Bull in this bizarre rendezvous with Ed.
I took the pew this time. “You must know this was a shock” I said.
He nodded pleasantly.
“So what exactly did Elly get from this friendship with you?” I wasn’t disguising my condemnation.
“You’re more direct than she led me to understand. Anyhow, that’s hard to answer in her absence.”
“So she came over to you, asked you if you still wanted her apology. What then?”
“She wondered how Beccs was doing, she said.”
I lifted my head slightly in a nudge for him to continue. He did:
“I said that so far as I knew she was doing okay; that she’d been discharged a month or so earlier.”
I began to wonder from his composure whether Ed even knew that Becky had died. Surely he must do. He continued:
“Of course she was in hospital a lot after that and never really recovered herself. She nearly died many times. It’s very hard to have lost her now.”
The alternations of unbearable tension with comparative relief in the conversation had now at least resolved themselves onto this desperately sad fact. He did know, of course he did. Miraculously he seemed able to contain his grief. I wondered whether he was out of touch, whether that explained it, since he can’t have had much contact with her.
“I haven’t seen her for years actually – you might know that her mother and I split up. Neither of them wanted me near them.”
“That seems an extreme thing for them to do”
“You wonder how extreme my behaviour must have been to warrant it.”
He was correct.
“The reason they rejected me was that I was sceptical of Becky. I questioned what she was saying about Elly and Rose. Becky had made accusations about me a few years before so I couldn’t take these at face value. I said to her that a false accusation would be devastating for everyone involved”.
I wanted to empty every disturbing question from my mind as quickly as they were surfacing, but managed to hold onto them.
“Look, this is really hard. These aren’t the sorts of things I’d expected to be saying, or hearing actually. I wanted to convey my condolences to you, and believe me I still do.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.”
And that was that for a while. He continued to eat his sausages and mash, and I wondered how to get some purchase again on the conversation.
“You go away for long stretches don’t you? Anything interesting? Is it work related?”
Clumsy questions, but he answered sensibly: “I do a lot of field work.”
“My work, my subject, you probably won’t have heard of. It’s interdisciplinary, called ichnology – I’m an ichnologist”
I nodded, though not such as to insinuate that I knew what ichnology was. He’d obviously had this kind of exchange many times by now. He continued with an explanation:
“I study traces of organisms’ lives, their relationships to their environments through the impressions they leave – tracking and tracing on a geological time scale you might say.”
Well that made sense of his absences, but left the new and distasteful mysteries unanswered.
“I’m having a rest from following in the footprints of the past – for a week or so at least”.
“So you’re off again soon then?” I wondered what I was up to here. As though I was ascertaining his future whereabouts in case he slipped the trap, in case he evaded justice. I’d watched too many Poirot or Columbo or some such. The case was that this man Ed had made a friendship with my daughter, but it was after that first incident with Becky was over and done with, and seemed to be without connection to the second incident of her disappearance, so as inappropriate as it was, it wouldn’t explain the damage. Yes but what sense could be made of this friendship in view of him being the parent of the victim: Elly’s accuser? What was that all about? It needed understanding.
“So what did you mean about blurring things? And was that what you wanted to do the next time you met? Or was there something else?”
“Well our meeting was merely coincidental as I said. She saw me as the best of two bad options to alleviate an uncomfortable situation. So we needed to find things to say. When we talked she had a lot of interesting ideas, and interesting questions to ask. I was happy to listen and respond”
“Yes. The kinds that had raised people’s hackles. That’s right”
“And did she refer to my hackles?”
“You should know that mothers are not meant to answer such questions – at least not in the register in which they are posed – she knew that.”
I felt myself filling my lungs fully for the first time since Elly disappeared. I didn’t speak for a while.
It took this very short exchange for me to understand why Elly would enjoy talking to Ed. Whatever else might be going on he was evidently able to respond to her in a way that I couldn’t. I decided to ask him a question she had asked me in the early days. It embarrassed me when I voiced it, but he didn’t amplify that feeling:
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think there’s anything after death?”
“I believe that what I am, who I am, lives beyond me, and so I needn’t fret about my insignificance.”
“Does that mean you believe in god, then, or not?”
“I believe in sanctity.”
“The sanctity of life?”
He nodded, “And of death.”
I stopped asking abstract questions since there was only a specific one left – burning to be made.
“Do you know Elly’s so-called godfather?” and I’d barely finished speaking before my body lurched into the knowledge that it was him – it was Ed. His weren’t the kind of answers I’d given her. When Elly first asked me if I believed in God I told her that I used to but that I hadn’t thought about it for years. That clearly disgusted her. I got bogged down then in her anguish over what happens when we die. Actually I’d felt cornered and bullied, as though I was being made to answer questions that no sensible person could satisfy. After repeated episodes of this I eventually turned my back on her. I might even have said something like I hadn’t got time for this. In fact I probably did because she’d retorted “I’ll get out from under your feet then”, which made me smile, not because it wasn’t painful but because it evoked something from the past – the past was alive in the present and that was a joyful feeling. It even outweighed the hurt, hurt that was tempered by the fact that Elly had cited the exception rather than the rule as her weapon – my habit, my instinct, had always been to keep Elly close, not send her away.
“She called me GF. At first it was ‘Mr Beccs’. She resisted my suggestion that she might just call me Ed. GF stuck. I don’t think Rose has ever known me as anyone else.”
“She made it to the pub then – Rose?”
“Not on that evening. She’d gone to the Crown instead.”
“But other times?”
“Well, for a while they used to come in together and we’d chat, but then Elly seemed to back off from her and they’d be in the bar on different occasions. I was here rather a lot. I wouldn’t say either of them were here all that much.”