Helter Skelter – Chapter 1

Vanessa Hamilton awoke to the sound of a child’s laughter. Caught between the limbo of sleep and wakefulness she shoved back the duvet and sat up in the dimness of the curtained room with a smile on her face. And then reality crashed in like a punch to the heart.

She was alone, although she could still hear the murmur of voices downstairs. Saturday morning kiddies’ television, she realised. Richard must have left it on. He always watched the news before he went to work. And the child’s laughter had reached inside her dreams.

It had been the sweetest of dreams. She and Jennifer had been playing hide and seek in the forest. Her daughter had been running ahead of her, feet crunching over pine needles, the white material of her dress flashing between the trees.

“Wait ’til I say ready, Mummy. No peeking.”

“No peeking,” Vanessa had agreed, covering her eyes with her fingers, but leaving a gap to check Jennifer didn’t wander too far from her sight.

Then she’d woken to find it wasn’t real. There were no pine needles cracking underfoot, no flickering of sunlight and shadow on the forest floor, and no Jennifer, and although the reality wasn’t as devastating as it had been in the early days it still hurt enough to leave her breathless.

Vanessa knew yesterday’s letter from Purbeck District Council had sparked it off. The letter was tucked inside a zipped compartment of her bag, but she didn’t need to keep it. She knew it word for word.

‘We are writing to inform you we are planning to carry out upgrades to Saint Mary’s memorial garden. Disruption will be kept to a minimum, but you might want to remove any personal effects temporarily for safekeeping.’

Vanessa had no personal effects on her daughter’s grave, but the letter had opened the raw wound in her heart. She’d planned to show it to Richard last night, but he’d been tired and irritable after a day spent on the phone arguing with a Spanish property developer, so she’d waited. The timing had to be right. She badly needed his support, but he wasn’t likely to feel the same way as she did. How could he when Jennifer wasn’t his child?

Aching, she reached across to touch the cold space beside her. Richard had been gone a while, but the bed still smelt of him. She breathed in the faint scent of his expensive cologne mixed with the more pungent smells of last night’s love making

Then, swiping the last of sleep from her eyes, she swung long legs over the side of the bed and padded, still naked, to the window. She drew back the heavy velvet curtains. Just for a second she’d expected to see something other than the leafy suburban road that lay beyond the nets. Just for a second she’d expected to see blue skies above a wide sweep of bay and the summer glitter of the sea. Jolted she drew back into the room, the thick carpet, soft beneath her bare feet.

It had been five-and-a-half years since she’d left the cliff top fairground where she’d grown up and where she’d fallen in love with Garrin Tate, Jennifer’s father. Rationally, she knew it should be long enough for her to be able to move on, but sometimes she felt as though the past became more vivid as time went on. Sharper and more brightly coloured, as though she were viewing it through an immensely powerful telescope.

When she and Richard had got married, he’d made her promise she’d break all ties with her previous life. At the time it was what she’d wanted, too. She’d been desperate to get away from the grief of losing Jennifer. Desperate to put the past behind her, but it had crept into her head more and more lately. It was the letter. It had stirred up more than the memory of Jennifer.

Last night as she’d lain beneath Richard, moving with the familiarity of years, she’d looked up into his blue eyes and she’d seen Garrin’s dark ones staring back at her. Time had fragmented and memories had sliced through her and she’d felt Garrin’s hands moving over her body, a musician playing a hand-made guitar with the grace of the ancients, neither learned, nor practised. She’d moaned softly caught between two worlds. Then Richard had tensed above her and his face had come back into focus, his eyes smoky with passion, and in that moment she’d hated herself for the deception because he didn’t deserve it.

When she’d met him she’d been in pieces and he’d taken her away from Kane’s Funfair, ‘the best funfair in the world’ and he’d given her back her life. He’d been infinitely patient and kind. A rock when it seemed nothing else had been constant. Sometimes she felt she owed him her sanity.

It had been easy to slip into his world – easy to turn her back on the fairground and the people she’d grown up with, because the most they’d been able to offer her was gruff reassurance that life went on. For Vanessa it hadn’t – part of her had died when she’d lost her daughter.

Lately, she’d begun to wonder if perhaps all she’d really done back then had been to run away. Annoyed at herself for such disloyal thoughts, she stood under the shower, letting the sharpness of cold water wash away the night.

It was a surprise to be greeted by the smell of toast as she descended the stairs. A nice surprise. Richard met her at the kitchen door.

“Sweetheart, I was about to bring you breakfast in bed. You needn’t have got up.”

“I thought you’d gone to work.” She looked up into his smiling blue eyes feeling guilty because she’d been thinking of another man. “So what have I done to deserve breakfast in bed?”

“Don’t you remember?” His voice was teasing and he put out a hand to brush back a strand of long dark hair that had worked loose from the towel turbaned on her head. “Fancy a repeat performance?”

The question was rhetorical. He was dressed for work. Although not formally, as on week days. His pale blue shirt was open at the neck. He wasn’t wearing a tie and his trousers were thin summer casuals. He smelt of aftershave and his fair hair, gold in the morning sun, was freshly washed. She was amazed he hadn’t woken her, but then she’d been so deeply immersed in the dream. Maybe now was a good time to tell him about the letter.

“Richard, can I talk to you about something?”

“Of course. Will it take long?”

She noted the quick glance at his watch. Perhaps she should leave it until later, he wouldn’t appreciate being held up.

Ignoring her instincts, she plunged in before she could change her mind. “I had this letter. It’s probably easier if I show you.”

He read it, seated at the breakfast bar in their sunny kitchen. Vanessa held her breath as a slight frown crinkled his handsome face.

“You don’t have any personal effects on her grave.” It was more statement than question, as he pulled the coffee jug towards him.

“No.”

“Then, why go back, sweetheart? Why put yourself through it?” Long fingers curled around hers. He had beautiful hands – the finest of gold hairs on the backs of them. Manicured nails, Perfect. So different from Garrin’s hands with his fingernails always dirty from working outside. Why couldn’t she get Garrin out of her head?

She took a deep breath. “I want to. I need to make sure she’s okay. Is that wrong?” She hated the edge of desperation that was creeping into her voice.

“It’s not wrong. It’s… self destructive.” He held her gaze. “You know I’ve only got your best interests at heart, don’t you?”

She nodded. It was the one thing she’d always been sure of. “You don’t have to come. Although it would be lovely if you did.”

His fingers tightened around hers. “I can’t let you go on your own. But there’s no way I can come with you today. I’m working. I should have already left.”

“And that’s more important than my daughter, is it?”

“It’s not a case of more important, Vanessa. I have things that can’t wait. You know I do. The Spanish deal. I’m on the brink of completing it.” He dropped her fingers and stood up and she could see the tension in his shoulders as he paced to the kitchen sink and tipped away his untouched mug of coffee. It was pointless pursuing it – she knew it was. Yet there was a part of her that couldn’t let it go.

“I could drive down on my own.”

“I’d really rather you didn’t. At least not today.” He still had his back to her so she couldn’t see his face. But his voice was rational, level. As though it was her who was being unreasonable. Maybe she was. She had, after all, only just sprung it on him. He couldn’t drop everything. And it wasn’t, she thought with a tug of pain, as if Jennifer couldn’t wait.

“Can we talk about it later?” she said quietly.

“Of course.” He looked at his watch, tutted, and headed for the hall. It was only when the front door slammed behind him that she realised he hadn’t kissed her goodbye. He always kissed her goodbye. Unease tangled with sadness and she was tempted to phone him on his mobile. But that would probably make things worse. He’d said they could talk later. She should have listened to her instincts and waited.

She spent the morning catching up on paperwork for his business, printing out invoices and enveloping a small pile of cheques for suppliers he’d signed the night before. He wouldn’t be in a hurry to send off the cheques, but she should really get the invoices in the post so they arrived Monday. It was as she was driving to the post office that it struck her she could just carry on into town and surprise him. They could go into Chandlers Ford for lunch. When they were first married they’d done it a lot. They could sit in a pub garden; it was hot enough to eat outside and they could get things back on an even keel. Then, when they did talk tonight at least he wouldn’t be on the defensive. Not that they’d rowed exactly, but she hated the way they’d parted.

Vanessa wondered if perhaps she should phone ahead and warn him she was coming. He might already have made lunch arrangements, not that it really mattered if he had. Waitrose was next door to his office. If he wasn’t there she could do the weekly shop and catch up with him later.

Feeling a lot better now she didn’t need to wait until this evening she drew into the supermarket car park, and was just pulling into a space when she saw Richard coming down the steps next door. She turned off the ignition and was about to get out and go across when she realised he wasn’t heading for his own car, but to another one parked alongside. Damn, he obviously did have a lunch appointment after all.

Vanessa caught a flash of blonde hair as a woman got out to greet him. It was Tara, one of the shareholders in his property development business. Vanessa hesitated. She’d never felt that comfortable around Tara, who was older than she was and always immaculately turned out. She wished she’d worn something smarter than canvas shorts and a skimpy tee-shirt. The June air was sultry and she’d hardly bothered with make up. Neither had she had time to blow dry her long dark hair. She’d just let it dry naturally while she caught up on Richard’s paperwork, which meant it was a frizzy mess. Perhaps she should leave it, after all.

No, that was ridiculous. She applied lipstick in the car mirror, checked her face wasn’t too flushed, and got out just in time to see Richard put his arms around Tara’s shoulders and dip his head to kiss her.

For a moment that felt like a couple of centuries Vanessa stayed where she was transfixed. Even from this distance she could see it wasn’t just a friendly peck on the cheek, but something far more intimate; a lingering lover’s kiss. A hips-close-together kind of kiss. The kind he gave her. Used to give her, she corrected, certain he would glance up and see her at any moment. He must surely feel her gaze across the short expanse of car park. But then someone moved across her line of vision – a woman with a toddler and a shopping trolley – and Vanessa leant heavily against her car, the heels of her sandals sinking into the overheated tarmac and her arms goose bumping in the summer sun.

This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. He’d only got out of their bed a few hours ago. Last night they’d made love. They always made love on Friday nights. Richard was a creature of routine. She’d noticed nothing different. Nothing to suggest he was seeing another woman. With another rush of guilt Vanessa remembered the flashback of Garrin’s face and wondered if some part of her subconscious had known this was happening.

The next time she looked up, Tara’s car had gone. Still leaning against the door of her Mercedes Sports, she got her breathing back under control and wondered what to do.

It felt as though part of her world had just been knocked off kilter. It was still hard to believe what she’d just seen. Maybe there was a simple explanation. Deciding the only way she’d know for sure would be to phone him, Vanessa dug her mobile out from the depths of her bag and dialled his number. He answered almost instantly.

“Hello, sweetheart. I didn’t expect to hear from you. Is everything okay?”

“Yes, it’s fine.” She was amazed at the steadiness of her voice. “I just wondered what you were doing for lunch? It’s such a lovely day – it seems a shame to be cooped up in that office.”

“I know, pet. But I’m right in the middle of something.”

She decided to give him one more chance. Anything but lies. She could have coped with what she’d seen if he didn’t lie to her about it. Still with her voice on monotone, she went on softly, “Surely you can spare an hour, Richard. You have to eat something, don’t you?”

“I grabbed a sandwich earlier.”

“And I’m in town,” she added, resisting the urge to tell him exactly where in town she was. “I could drop you off a cold drink? Or how about an ice cream? I’m quite near your office.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Sweet of you, but I really can’t stop. If I don’t get this deal tied up today, it’ll be weeks – you know what the Spanish are like. ‘Manjana, manjana’. I’m waiting for a call right now.”

How can you be so sure of yourself, you bastard? Vanessa felt pain boiling into anger. It was all she could do not to hurl the phone across the car park. She couldn’t believe how easily he lied. Had he always been able to lie like this? Why hadn’t she seen it coming?

“I’ll make it up to you later,” Richard went on smoothly. “Why don’t you book a table at Antonio’s. With a bit of luck we’ll have something to celebrate by then. How does that sound?”

It sounded reasonable, a loving husband reassuring his wife. There was even a faint hint of regret in his voice, as if he really would rather be out in the sun with her than waiting for a business call. Had she not just seen him kissing Tara and driving off with her she’d have been satisfied with that. A little disappointed maybe, but she’d have understood. Like she always understood when he was late home, or had to cancel an evening out because something had come up.

Now she knew just exactly what it was that had come up, every instinct she had wanted to scream abuse at him, but she wasn’t going to have this conversation on the phone. Neither did she want him having the whole afternoon to prepare what he was going to say. To talk her round in that calm rational way he had.

She took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll see you later,” she said quietly and disconnected.

For a few moments she stayed where she was, leaning against the car door, her eyes closed against the heat and against her husband’s betrayal.

They would sort it out, all right. She wasn’t the type of wife who could turn a blind eye to her husband playing away, as she suspected many of his friends’ wives did. But it would be on her terms and in her time. No way would she be waiting meekly at home for him. She needed some space to think. And not at home. She hesitated, realising with a jolt that not one of the few friends she’d made since her marriage, would appreciate her turning up on their doorstep with an overnight bag.

Vanessa thought about the letter and got slowly into her car. She’d always believed Richard when he said he didn’t want her visiting Jennifer’s grave because he didn’t want her hurt. A short while earlier it would have seemed underhand to go back without telling him. Now she knew he was capable of cheating and lying to her, it changed everything. There was nothing to stop her going to see Jennifer now.

Still feeling dazed she edged the Mercedes through the normality of Saturday shoppers and out on to the main road, once more. Her mind was on overtime. She’d stop off at the house, grab a change of clothes and drive down to Knollsea. She could be there in an hour.

Her hands tightened on the steering wheel and she was glad of the air- conditioned coolness of the car. She was shivering, part rage, part shock, yet there was a corner of her mind that was icily calm.

She would not do anything impulsive. When she’d seen Jennifer she would book into a bed and breakfast for a night or two. It was easier to get things into perspective when you had some distance from them.

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