Helen’s old lover, Roddy Clark, moved in all the right circles. He had been for most of his life a child of promise, then a deliverer. His had been a precocious talent; at twenty-eight, following his success in uncovering a major City fraud, he had been appointed head investigative reporter of a major national newspaper, the World, a position which he still held three years on. His title sounded good, but the freedom and scope of his job could be a boon or a curse. Uncovering scandals was a patchy business; they never seemed to come in a steady flow and you could spend months chasing fantasies. Roddy had enjoyed one and a half fruitful years, followed by one and a half barren ones. The vagaries of his business contributed to his mercurial personality, and to his moodiness.
He wasn’t conventionally attractive, but force of personality made him so. When Roddy was up, he shone. He had thick hair the colour of mahogany, combed back over his forehead, cut crisply short above his ears, angled down, stopping in a razor line above his collar. His eyes were dark, narrowed, set in an almost permanent attitude of scrutiny. His customary pose was head tilted slightly to one side, a half-smile playing on his thin lips. A slight body, clothed fashionably, but beyond that his physical side seemed almost an afterthought. The focus of his being was his mind, alive with intelligence. He had a biting wit, amusing to watch, discomfiting to receive.
The house Roddy lived in was north-facing. Skinny to the point of superciliousness, it peered down the hill over its aquiline features. Six floors including the basement, where Roddy had lived since his uncle died five years ago and bequeathed it to him. It was a good address, but the flat wasn’t quite what Roddy would have liked. Basement for a start. On a bad day, it made him feel like a troglodyte, but it allowed him to devote a large part of his salary to a lifestyle that would otherwise have been beyond his means: good food, fashionable clothes, exotic travel, expensive art. A lifestyle that his parents and theirs would have thought shabby, until losses in the Lloyds insurance market and inherited complacency eroded the family money. Roddy had explained many times that this was not quite how he should have been living, until Helen almost felt that she was in some way to blame. Her and her six-figure City salary, as if the more she earned the less he did. Roddy squandered money, she seduced it. Part of Roddy was jealous, another part infinitely proud of her.
He loved her, he said. Wanted to marry her. She enjoyed him, his intelligence, his wit, the sense of edge. He gave her an insight into the arena of news and newspapers, a world she despised and was fascinated by in equal measure. But she didn’t want to marry him. Or anyone else for that matter. One day, if the right man came along, but not yet. Four months ago she had left Roddy. There had been no dramatic catalyst, she had merely woken one morning and seen no point in it any more. She was no longer moved by his physical embrace. His ability to transport her had lasted scarcely a year. For the last six months, she had stayed with him merely through habit. There was comfort in that, it helped define the boundaries of a life that had never been rooted, but, after a while, Helen’s natural restlessness eroded that solace. Helen had told him quietly and calmly that it was over. Roddy had stared at the veiled sadness in her eyes, a sorrow that enraged him, for he had always known it had nothing to do with him. He had brooded for two months, then regrouped as a friend. Helen was happy to accept him as such. She was still fond of him, and now she could enjoy the habit of seeing him without the claustrophobia of commitment. Roddy would still suggest occasionally that they get married, but he seemed to Helen to be giving up hope graciously. That surprised her. Roddy was notorious. What he wanted, through a mixture of intellect and cunning he usually got. When he failed, he did not like to be reminded of his failure, but he still seemed to crave Helen’s presence.
She took out her keys. Roddy insisted she keep a set in case he locked himself out, something which he arranged to do occasionally. She buzzed to warn him she was entering, and let herself in. He was in the drawing room, talking to someone on the telephone. He sat on the arm of a chair, leaning forward, a lock of dark hair falling into one eye.
‘Hang on. I said hang on!’ He jumped to his feet, strode across the room, grabbed Helen around the waist and kissed her cheek.
‘Hi, gorgeous.’ He eyed her outfit, down to her trainers. ‘You’re looking short.’ He grinned, ducked out of her way, and returned to the phone.
‘Gotta go. Hel on wheels is here.’
Helen pulled a face.
‘Heavenly Hel, then?’
They had met nearly two years ago at a dinner given by her boss, Hugh Wallace. Roddy’s opening line had been some kind of humorous insult. She had looked beneath the world-weariness and answered with kind words. He had been floored. Each was a novelty to the other; he was a journalist of all things, one of the species which had destroyed her father’s name. He was well born, well schooled, a member of the establishment, would have thought himself refined. She was sauvage, under-educated, born of notorious blood, but she was compassionate, with an odd, accepting view of the world as if pain and tragedy were not to be fought, but to be wept with and then smiled goodbye. Happiness too. She made Roddy think of the Kipling poem, ‘If’. He had said so that first night he met her. She laughed and told him she grew up on Kipling. Her father read ‘If’ to her every night for years. It was her staple to which he would add Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, Enid Blyton, the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion.
Roddy thought she would have made the perfect Kipling heroine, that ‘If’ should have been dedicated to a daughter, not a son. She seemed to treat both triumph and disaster the same — with a wry smile, a shake of her head, and a ‘let’s see what comes next’ expression in her sardonic eyes. She was able to mix with his titled friends and with the dustman with equal ease. She gave up eight years at sea, working as a ship’s cook, and won herself a job in the City, where every working day she made a heap of all her winnings and risked them on a game of pitch and toss. She gambled her money and that of her employer with equal sang-froid. She wouldn’t have cared if she’d lost her slim savings, so they grew and she made enough to buy a half-million-pound flat in Dawson Place while he had to make do with the legacies of other people’s talent. He always felt that she was the kind of woman who slept with a packed suitcase at the foot of the bed, so that she could disappear one morning without a backward glance. The prospect of loss was to him exhilarating. Since she had actually left him, part of him would never forgive her.
He was obsessed by sculptures. He had a collection. They filled his flat and lurked in his garden. Helen loved their smooth marble. It seemed to her that with a kiss and an embrace they would stir and come to life. She opened the french windows, walked out into the garden and stroked the naked figure of a man.
‘Busy day?’ asked Roddy, coming up behind her, watching her hands moving over the marble.
‘How much d’you make?’
‘Don’t change the subject. You have a strange look, like a lioness who’s made a kill, debating whether to eat it now or save it for a rainy day.’
Helen laughed. She went inside, sat on the sofa and took off her trainers.
‘There was a bit of bother on the tube.’
‘What kind of bother?’
She slipped on her high heels. Roddy’s eyes lingered over the curve of her calves as she crossed her legs and leaned back on the sofa.
‘There was this jerk, causing a bit of aggro, so I got him in sankyo and —’
‘What in heaven’s name is sankyo? Explain, please.’
‘It’s a hold used by the army snatch squads in Northern Ireland. They scan a hostile crowd, identify the ringleaders, then run into the middle of the crowd, get the ringleader in this armlock, and run him out. The pain is excruciating. Get someone in sankyo, they’ll follow you anywhere.’
‘Don’t need aikido for that. Hey, listen, can I write it up? City diary. It’d be perfect.’
‘Do that and you’re dead, Roddy. You know how I feel about the press.’
How could he forget? She’d told him not long after they started going out. He remembered her cool dispassionate tone as she recounted what the press had done when her father disappeared. He knew that behind her calm lay simmering rage.
‘They steal your anonymity, your freedom, they hijack your soul. That happened to my father, and because he wasn’t around my mother and I got crucified. Can you imagine how it felt? Almost all of my mother’s friends turned their back on her, people pointed and whispered behind their hands every time she left the house. At school all the kids taunted me, until I learned to fight. There were cameras outside for what felt like years although it was probably only months. We had to live in darkness with the curtains drawn day and night. It was like being in prison, and all the time on the news and in the papers, they were saying these things about my father and his face was everywhere, but not where it should have been. At home with us. It infected my whole childhood.’
He could see the speech behind her veiled eyes.
‘It’s a great story, Hel.’ He cursed his sense of loyalty to this girl. She was a walking story. He’d long dreamed of doing a piece on her, and, God, he could really do with a break. Jencks rises from the ashes of her father’s reputation, a golden little phoenix if ever there was one.
‘Yeah, it always is. Print this and forget me.’
‘I might occasionally want to kill you, Hel, but forget you? Never.’
‘That’s comforting.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘What time are we supposed to make the pilgrimage to Hampstead?’
‘Roz said to be there around nine.’
‘What kind of sadist gives a dinner party on a Tuesday night?’
‘Don’t go then.’
‘Know thine enemy.’
‘C’mon, Hel, you’d eat Roz for breakfast.’
‘She’ll have called in reinforcements, don’t you worry. A committee of lentil eaters.’
‘You like lentils.’
‘Yeah, but I wouldn’t dream of serving them at a dinner party.’
‘Neither will Roz.’
‘Good job. There’ll be enough hot air as it is.’