Chapter Twenty Two
Maggie had rounded the corner of Acacia Drive onto Maple Avenue when she saw Jennifer coming out of Beth’s house with a rucksack. Acting on impulse and having no idea why she did it, she had pulled back into the cover of an overhanging laburnum bush.
She was delighted to note that Jennifer appeared to be leaving, as in leaving Beth’s house, maybe even leaving the country. Hell, thought Maggie, she could leave the bloody planet as far as she was concerned. With a bit of luck she was going for good. Hopefully Beth had come to her senses and thrown the freeloading little freak out. She certainly didn’t look as though she was nipping to the shop for a pint of milk. Her backpack was bulging and she had a carrier bag in each hand. The rucksack appeared to be heavy because at the gate she readjusted it twice so that it sat more comfortably on her shoulders and then she pulled on the two pieces of webbing strap so that it fit better on her slender frame then she set off down the hill at an unhurried pace.
When Jennifer had gone far enough down the road for Maggie to feel that she wouldn’t be noticed, she walked passed the two houses that would take her to Beth’s gate. She opened it quietly even though Jennifer was too far away to hear it and slipped inside. She knocked on the front door three times, then twice more when she didn’t get an answer. She bent over, flipped open the letterbox and whisper-shouted, ‘Beth. Beth, are you in there?’
She was annoyed when it seemed that Beth wasn’t at home. Checking on Jennifer’s progress from the front garden and seeing that she was nearly out of sight at the corner of Maple and starting up the hill of Central Drive, Maggie turned to the living room window and looked inside. The house was neat and tidy. The TV was off, the door was closed. Evidently there was no one home.
Beth may well have been at work and Maggie was disappointed that she didn’t get the chance to confront her about the lies she’d told. She needed to get through to her friend. With the wind taken out of her sails she was flummoxed as to what to do next. Her brow knit in thought as she pondered Jennifer’s movements. If she was going any distance, the quickest way into town, and indeed out of Ulverston, was down Birkett Drive. She couldn’t walk far with all that baggage and Birkett was on the bus route. Why hadn’t she gone that way and waited at the bus stop? Maggie decided to follow her. Jennifer was out of sight now but she’d seen her turn onto Central Drive. She crossed the road where there was more cover and followed the route that Jennifer had taken. When she rounded the first bend on Central Drive she saw Jennifer struggling up the hill a little way ahead of her and hung back, keeping close to the walls and overhanging trees so that if Jennifer looked back she wouldn’t see her.
At the top of the hill she peered round the corner. The distance between them wasn’t so great now and Jennifer wasn’t far ahead of her. She never looked back until she got to the driveway of the big house on the corner of Rake Lane where she glanced behind her and to either side before quickly going through the gate and disappearing from sight.
What the hell was she up to? That was where Beth said that flash git she met at the speed dating lived. Was there some connection between him and Jennifer? The only link she was aware of was between him and Beth. Maybe Beth had been seeing him all this time and she had thrust the lovely Phantom on him, too. Maggie couldn’t help smiling; somehow she couldn’t see what’s-his-face and Goth girl hitting it off.
Without the faintest idea of what she would say if she was caught snooping Maggie followed Jennifer up the drive. The grounds were overgrown, lush with trees and vegetation. She was surprised at the neglect. Remembering the bloke who lived here she’d have expected manicured lawns, neatly pruned bushes and doctor-attended trees. She remembered his name. Marc, with a C. He was all show, more front than Brenda Big Tits from number sixty-four.
Jennifer let herself in the front door with a key.
Nothing in this jigsaw fit.
Bolder now, Maggie circled the house hoping to look through windows and spy through doors. Every door was solid and every single window had closed horizontal blinds and any chinks in these were masked by heavy lined curtains. It seemed this Marc fella valued his privacy above natural sunlight. Maggie wondered if he was a direct descendent of Edward Cullen and spent his days in the dark.
Was Beth in the house, too? Should she knock and ask to speak to her? Having come here, that would be the logical thing to do, but she stopped herself. Instinctively, she knew that something was very wrong. She’d had a feeling for weeks that Beth was in some kind of trouble. Obviously it tied into Jennifer somehow, but where did Marc fit into it? Maggie tried to rationalise what was stopping her from marching up to the front door, hammering on it with a taking-no-prisoners attitude, and demanding to speak to Beth. She’s never been a shrinking violet. The feeling she had was one of foreboding.
She had too many questions to just let it drop now. She would keep trying Beth at home until she caught her in, hopefully alone. But either way she couldn’t let go now. She felt deflated as she left the grounds of the house and almost turned back, going against her instinct to proceed with caution. Then she remembered that Jess had a school friend across the road and a few doors down from Marc’s house. The Reid family home was a small detached bungalow, an ordinary house, nothing anywhere near as grand as the big house on the corner. Sophie had been to Maggie’s house for sleepovers and Maggie was reasonably friendly with her mum, Helen. She was still trying to formulate a valid reason for being there when she walked up the neat path and knocked on the door.
A man answered, presumably Helen’s husband. ‘Yes?’ he asked, smiling.
‘Oh, hiya. Is Helen in, please?’
‘Ah… Yes.’ He paused.
‘It’s Maggie. Maggie Johnson.’
‘I’ll just get her.’ He smiled again and left the door ajar. She heard him walking towards the back of the house and said in a hushed tone, ‘It’s somebody called Maggie for you.’
‘Who?’ Helen sounded irritated.
‘What does she want?’
‘I don’t know, go and bloody ask her.’
Maggie heard more footsteps coming up the hallway and the door was opened by Helen, drying her hands on a tea-towel. ‘Oh, Maggie! Hello. What’s up?’
‘Hiya, Helen. I was just out for a walk and as I was passing your house anyway, I thought I’d give you a knock to ask about the girl’s homework. Thing is, Jess keeps telling me that she hasn’t got any and it seems a bit unlikely. I wondered if Sophie has been bringing much home lately. You know how they get at this age.’
Helen looked bemused. ‘Um, Sophie’s out at the moment so I don’t know how much help I can be. I think she was doing a geography assignment last night, but I don’t know if she’s in the same geography group as your Jess. Do you want to come in a sec and I’ll have a look in her schoolbag for you?’
‘Oh, that’d be great, thank you.’ She followed Helen down the hall and into a spacious and spotlessly tidy lounge. ‘Hope it’s no trouble.’
‘Um, can I get you a cup of tea, or anything?’ Helen asked, the offer sounded as though it was made reluctantly but it would have been rude not to have done so.
‘A coffee would be great thanks,’ Maggie replied. She wanted a cig, too, after trudging up that hill, but it didn’t look like the kind of house where she’d be welcome to spark up in the lounge. Helen made coffee and then ran upstairs to get her daughter’s schoolbag. Maggie felt guilty about the invasion of privacy; she knew that Jess would not welcome her mother rooting through her possessions at all.
They talked about schoolwork and their daughters in general and then Maggie went in for the kill and changed the subject. ‘I was just looking at the big house on the corner. They’ve done a lot of work on it, haven’t they? It’s absolutely beautiful.’
‘Yes,’ Helen told her, ‘It’s been gutted inside and had a complete refurbishment. It was an old people’s home for awhile, you know, but this new owner has taken it back to a family house. I haven’t been in it, of course, but I believe he’s made a good job of it.’
‘It’s nice that it’s a proper home again.’ She purposefully tried to keep her voice level and not show too much interest. ‘I remember when I was a kid, two old ladies had it. Sisters I think. They were a creepy old pair. Who has it now? Do you know?’
‘Not really. Some new people from out of town. Leeds. I think he’s called Mister Robinson. I seem to remember that name from somewhere but don’t quote me on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s bought it to sell on. It’s too big for just him and his daughter. Well, at least I think it’s his daughter. I’ve seen them once or twice. Keep themselves to themselves. He’s not the sociable type. I haven’t seen either of them about for awhile and I noticed the garden needs doing. A good lawn really ought to be kept trim don’t you think? Maybe he’s moved onto his next project and put it on the market already but he really should get somebody in to keep on top of the garden. It will make a big difference to the value.’ She paused, her eyes going to the window as though she could see the old house from where she sat.
Maggie could see that the woman was itching to say more. ‘Well, I expect they’re nice people, having a house like that.’
‘Actually,’ said Helen, ‘now you come to mention it, there was some rumour or other.’
‘I’m not sure if there’s any truth to it. It’s all very vague, you know what Henry Daly’s like. Half truths and lies, as my Mum would say. Apparently there was a scandal and Mister Robinson had to leave Leeds in a bit of a hurry.’
‘I wonder what happened,’ Maggie said.
‘From what I could gather at the time, I think the police were still wondering that, too.’
‘Oh, that’s awful. Do you know what it was about?’
Helen shrugged and stared into her mug. ‘I think it was something to do with money, bad money if you know what I mean, dodgy dealings, that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, you can still let Jess come around here. Besides, the Community Action Group probed a bit at the time and none of us have had any problems with him.’
‘Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing more than a parking ticket.’ Maggie agreed,’ You know how people exaggerate.’
After that, Maggie steered the conversation onto different subjects. She’d wanted to ask about Marc in the middle of a range of subjects so that it wouldn’t seem out of place. She prolonged her coffee for another five minutes and she bet that Helen was as relived as she was when she stood up to leave. She wondered if Marc was really Phantom’s father, surely he was too young. And if Phantom was living with Beth on the strength of just one date with Marc, where was he now? If he’d gone away on business, surely he’d have put measures in place for the care of his daughter. Maggie had no idea what Beth had got herself involved with, but she knew, with every fibre of her being, that it wasn’t good.
Back at home she checked the phone book under the name of M. Robinson. There was no listing for Rake Lane. She went onto the internet and looked up Robinson on the electoral roll. Again she drew a blank. However, the electoral roll threw up eleven Mark Robinsons in Leeds over the last five years … but only two Marc Robinsons with a C. Maggie took down the addresses.
She went to her search engine and typed ‘Marc Robinson phone number, Leeds.’ Then a thought occurred to her, based on something that Helen had said. She deleted what she had typed and replaced it with ‘Marc Robinson Arrested.’ A black man of that name, in America, had been arrested for shop lifting. There were several listings of this story but nothing else on anybody with the name Marc Robinson under any crime. He wasn’t on the electoral roll. Google and Bing had no record of him. She kept refining her search terms, swapping as many relevant words and phrases as she could think of. She found nothing; it was as though the man had never existed. She even did a search on ‘Jennifer Robinson’ and ‘Marc and Jennifer Robinson’, all with the same result: nothing. What were they running away from? Maggie was determined to find out.
The next morning, Graham said she was mad. He said that if she wanted to know who they are, and what they’re about, so badly, she should just go and ask them instead of tearing off halfway across the country on a wild goose chase. He moaned that for what his opinion was worth she should just keep out of it and mind her own sodding business. Maggie was stuffing things into her bag for the journey, but took the time to tell him that his opinion was superfluous and that she’d made up her mind. ‘Come with me, if you like. It’s a nice day and we’ll be back in time for the kids coming out of school.’
‘What do I want to go to bloody Leeds for? The Bradford Bulls are way better than Leeds.’
‘Fine, I’ll drop you in the centre of Bradford on the way down. Leave you there with an anti-Muslim sign round your neck.’
Graham rolled his eyes, huffed, and said, ‘I’ll stay here and keep the beers company, cheers.’
‘Drinking before ten? You’re turning into your father.’
Graham laughed. ‘The day we have enough money to keep beers in the fridge is the day I get pissed at ten o’clock in the morning.’
Maggie kissed him, hoisted her bag, and left him to the beerless fridge.
She enjoyed the three-hour drive and was determined to get to the bottom of whatever was going on with Beth. When she found the correct area on the outskirts of Leeds, the first house that she pulled up outside was a mid-terrace two-up two-down. She was lucky that the door was opened on her first knock. The man who answered was beyond middle age and walked with a limp. He was happy to chat and told her that he’d lived in the house three years. His brow furrowed in thought as he tried to recall the name of the previous occupant. ‘No, love, no. It’s gone. Doubt I could say it even if I could remember. Darkie, he was. Had one of them nappies round his head and wore a long dress. I couldn’t tell you how long he lived here.’
The second address looked more promising. It was a large detached town house with a decent sized garden front and rear and enough parking for three cars, at the back of Roundhay Park. It was not as grand as the Ulverston house but would fit well with the profile Maggie was compiling on Marc. She knocked but there was no answer. It was lunch time. She’d expected that. People would be at work. She’d told Graham that she’d be back in time for the kids coming in from school and had left him to pick up Barry at lunchtime. She hoped that she wouldn’t have to wait until the evening to get somebody in, Graham wouldn’t be pleased.
A couple of blocks down on the same street as the house was a pretty little cafe. She went in and ordered a meat and potato pie, chips, peas and onion gravy with two slices of bread and butter, a cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate cake. The cafe was small with only five tables that would comfortably fit two people each and a couple of four-seater tables at one end. Only one other table was occupied and the elderly proprietor wasn’t busy. Maggie got into conversation with her. Phyllis made all of her own cakes and pastries and everything was cooked from scratch on the premises, she learned. Maggie complemented the lady on her baking and after the other couple had left, their table had been cleared and the crockery used had been washed and put away, the lady came back out into the dining area to chat some more. Maggie being Maggie, she soon had the old lady narrating her life story and even persuaded her to bring a coffee over and join her.
‘So, what brings you here, love? We haven’t seen you about before.’
‘Oh, I’m just here for the day, Phyllis. Hoping to look up a cousin from years ago but I haven’t had a lot of luck so far. We were close as kids, but you know how it is, families separate and nobody asks the kids what they want.’
Sensing a bit of gossip, Phyllis pulled her chair in closer. ‘What was she called? If she lives around here there’s a good chance we might know her. Me and my Arthur, we get most of the locals in for their breakfastses and a bit of a chat.’
Breakfastses, thought Maggie, what the fuck? But this was more like it. She felt that she might just have struck gold. With a bit of luck, she’d stumbled on the perfect talking history book. ‘It’s a he, actually. Marc,’ she told the woman. ‘Marc Robinson. I’ve got an address for him as living at number fifty three.’
Phyllis drummed her fingers on the table in thought and then used them to count down the numbers of houses on the street. Her eyes opened wider when she hit on the correct house and then she looked dejected. ‘No, no love, the Bankses live at number fifty three. Lovely woman, Janet is. Just had another baby; that’s her third and him only working on the… Oh, oh, hang on though,’ she sounded excited. ‘Yes, Robinson, of course, him and the lass. He had to look after his sister, you know. Sad story. Parents both killed in a car accident, but you being family and all, you’ll know about all that. I never took to him, personally. Never came in here. Too grand for the likes of us. But oh my, that young ‘un; he had his hands full with that one. But they left here about two year ago now, maybe more. It was Sharon I felt sorry for.’ Her eyes clouded with a far away look as she remembered.
Maggie was excited. ‘Sharon?’
‘Yes, his girlfriend, Sharon. Ooh, let’s think now… Sharon. Cabot, that was it. Sharon Cabot. What a lovely lass she was. Used to come in here reg’lar. Think she liked to get out of the house sometimes, you know. That little ‘un could be hard work and her rambling round in the house on her own all day, I think she liked a bit of company. Oh, I liked Sharon, was sorry to see her go.’
Phyllis didn’t need much encouragement to continue.
‘Well, they came here when little Jennifer was about ten or eleven. Came from Coventry, I think. Yes, Shaz used to go back to visit her folks there sometimes. She wasn’t here long. Homesick was part of it. She missed her friends. He kept her pretty isolated. Don’t mean to speak ill of your relatives, love, but I think he was a bit of a bugger with her, if you know what I mean. Anyway, one thing and another, and then one day she comes in all teary and said that she was leaving him and had to get away. We kept in contact with a Christmas card for a couple of years and then lost touch as you do. You know how it is.
‘And then they left, too, there was some talk of the police looking to talk to him about something or other, nobody really knew what, went up north somewhere, and that was that. The bankses moved in. Mind they’ve had their troubles, too. Jonathan their lad, he got run over last year, was in a bad way. Then Don was made redundant and had to take any job he could find. We gave him a couple shifts here, washing dishes till he was back on his feet, poor soul. Big house to keep up, that one. Can’t be easy for them.’
Maggie hardly dared to ask, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a forwarding address for Sharon, have you?’ She quickly amended herself, ‘And one for Marc and little Jennifer too, of course, if you have it, please.’
‘Well definitely not for him, no offence,’ she said, sniffing her distain. ‘Like I said, I didn’t have a lot of time for the bloke. As for her, the cheeky tyke, I was heart glad to see the back of her. But I do believe I’ve got Sharon’s address in my book. You can have that if you like. Of course I don’t know if she’s still there, haven’t heard form her in, well, it must be three years now. If you’ll mind the café for me, I’ll nip upstairs to get it, but the schools will be kicking out soon and I’ll have my mid-afternoon rush so will have to get on.’ She left to get the address book, taking Maggie’s used plates and their cups with her and leaving them in the kitchen area. Maggie liked Phyllis and mused at her trust in leaving her till unattended to help a stranger and almost gave her a warning about being so outwardly friendly with newcomers, she’d hate to think of the old lass being taken advantage of. When she came back, Phyllis handed over the address and asked Maggie to pass on her regards to Sharon. In return, Maggie promised to go back one day and ‘bring the family.’ Despite Phyllis’ protestations she left her a five pound tip and thanked her for all her help. As she left, she saw Phyllis stuffing the fiver into the charity box on the counter.
Maggie had her next clue on the paper trail and knew her next move but she still wanted to try the house again to see if she could get any further information. A lady answered this time and she heard a baby crying in the background. Janet Banks confirmed that somebody called Robinson had lived there before her, but she couldn’t tell her much else. She said that nobody had ever come to collect the mail and that eventually they had put an elastic band around it and had given it back to the postman.
The only interesting thing that Janet had to add was that about three months after they had moved in a policeman had come looking for Marc. She hadn’t been able to give him a forwarding address because the Robinson’s hadn’t left one. Maggie thanked her and left.
On the phone, Graham was exasperated. ‘You what?’ he yelled down the receiver, almost perforating Maggie’s ear drum. ‘I can’t take the night off, just like that.’
‘Oh, please Graham. Please. Do this one little thing for me and I’ll wear the French maid’s outfit and make you very pleased that you did.’ She could sense him relenting.
‘You can’t get round me like that,’ he said. She knew that she could. ‘One night. I mean it, Maggie. You’d better be home tomorrow; this isn’t fair on me, or the kids. You have responsibilities, you know. And don’t spend too much.’
‘Love you, Squishy.’ Maggie was smiling when she hung up.