She sat on the rickety wooden bench by the water’s edge, still feeling shaky from the night before—delicate, as though she would crack into pieces at the slightest loud noise. It was the first time they had been burgled. She had read of people saying what a traumatic experience it was, how they felt that they, not just their homes, had been violated, how they couldn’t sleep at night. She always thought it an exaggeration, but now, having experienced it herself, she understood something of that invasion of home and spirit. But that wasn’t all that was making her feel as though her life had been turned upside down. No, the house would eventually be back to normal, the insurance company would pay for the damage and last night’s trauma would fade into something that was brought up occasionally at dinner parties. But her parents’ lies—how would she recover from them?
They knew something was wrong the minute they drove up the drive; the light over the porch, which was invariably lit when they went out at night, was off and the house was in darkness. From somewhere inside they could hear the faint sound of Jess barking. They parked the car, leaving the headlights shining on the front of the house, its white facade spotlighted eerily. As Susan got out of the car and climbed the steps to the front door, she felt something crunch under her feet.
‘Someone’s smashed the light,’ she said to her husband, her voice dropping to a whisper and she began to tremble slightly. ‘Do you think they’re in the house?’
‘There’s no sign of a car.’
‘They could have left it in the lane.’
‘Hang on, Susan, wait here a minute. Let me see what’s going on,’ Graham said, his voice harsher than normal—either from nerves or anger— and instinctively she felt she should stop him, but by then he had opened the boot of his car, taken one of his clubs from his golf bag and was striding towards the house.
‘No, wait. Maybe I should I ring the police,’ she said nervously, but he was already at the front door. It opened at his touch, swinging back to reveal the smashed frame and splintered wood.
‘Someone has certainly been here,’ he said. ‘Yes, we’d better ring 999. Let’s find Jess, first. I hope they haven’t done anything to her.’
Susan switched on the hall lights and walked into the lounge. She stopped in astonishment at the scene of devastation before her. ‘My God. What the hell happened here? They’ve taken the lot, TV, video player, my new iPad.’
‘Is Jess okay?’ Graham was beginning to panic. ‘I hope they haven’t hurt her.
‘She’s all right. She’s in here. They shut her in the downstairs loo,’ Susan said, opening the toilet door. ‘Oh no. Look at the mess she’s made of the door.’ She bent down and examined the damage. ‘We’ll need a new door.’
Nearly four stone of golden labrador rushed past her and flung itself at her husband, almost knocking him off his feet. ‘Okay, girl, we’re back. It’s okay now. Hush now, calm down. Good girl,’ he said, soothingly as he bent down and put his arms around the excited animal.‘Thank God they didn’t hurt you,’ he murmured.
‘Have you seen the mess?’ she asked, staring about her in dismay. ‘What the hell were they after? I can’t believe anyone could do so much damage.’ The books had been swept off the bookshelves and lay scattered across the carpet, some open as though dropped carelessly in the moment of being read, others torn, their spines bent back as though someone had searched inside them. But for what? Money? What did they expect to find inside a pile of old books? CDs had fallen out of their casings and lay where they fell. The doors to their ancient oak sideboard, which always looked as though it could withstand any onslaught, stood open and the contents of the drawers were tipped in a pile on the floor.
Graham picked his way through the debris to the George III console table where he kept a few decanters of whisky and poured himself a large glass. ‘Looks as though the thieves knew their Scotch,’ he said, rather bitterly. ‘They’ve drunk the McCallum and left the Bells.’
‘Looking for a safe, I suppose. They probably thought there was one behind the book shelves,’ she said, still unable to believe what was before her eyes, and then added sadly, ‘My jewellery will have gone.’
This had never happened to them before and they had lived in this house for almost thirty years. The thought of strangers ransacking her home, pulling out drawers and going through her personal things made her feel sick. ‘I’m going upstairs,’ she said, heading for the hallway.
‘Wait, I’ll come with you,’ her husband called after her. ‘You never know, they might still be here.’
She looked at him standing there leaning on his golf club—it was more like a walking stick than a dangerous weapon. She prayed that there was no-one still in the house because Graham would be no match for any burglar. He was approaching his seventy-second birthday, and although he was pretty active for his age, his knees bothered him and he suffered from angina. Nothing to worry about, the doctor had assured them but she doubted that he would be able to tackle an intruder, not that it would stop him from trying. ‘I’m sure there’s no-one here now and if there was, I doubt if you’d be much match for them. Why don’t you ring the police and tell them what’s happened. The sooner we do it, the sooner we can get to bed,’ she snapped. She felt so tired. The shock of finding her home invaded by strangers had drained her of any energy.
While Graham dialled 999 and explained about the break-in, Susan went to check on her office. Just as she had expected, her computer had gone, together with the printer, scanner and her laptop. The drawers of her desk hung open and their contents was scattered on the floor. Her notes for the next day, so meticulously prepared, had been swept onto the floor along with everything else. She knelt down and picked them up, sorting them carefully back into order before replacing them in their file. The burglars had gone through everything, had touched all aspects of her life. She felt violated. In a minute she would have to go into her bedroom and see what damage they had done in there.
Then she saw it, open, under the table where they’d thrown it. Her father’s wallet. When she had cleared out his belongings after he died, she couldn’t bring herself to throw it out, and it had been at the back of her desk drawer ever since. It was old and battered, black leather worn with use, and contained only an old library card, a photo of her as an eight-year-old and a ten-shilling note—a relic from pre-decimalisation days. Not surprisingly, the burglars had taken nothing from it. She picked the wallet up and held it to her face. It still smelled of her father, that distinctive tang of cigarettes and after-shave. Idly she undid each compartment, unzipping the purse section, looking carefully for anything she had missed. The photo was still there, even more faded than ever and the plastic covering that protected it was dirty, stained brown from nicotine, like so many other things in her parents’ house had been, so she gently pulled it out, curious to see if she could recognise her younger self. As she did so, another photograph fell to the ground. She picked it up and peered at it. Against a woodland background stood two smiling people, one clearly identifiable as her father and the other a woman. Was that her mother? No, impossible. This woman had long blonde hair and her mother’s had been as black as a raven’s wing, that was how her father had described it once. Her aunt maybe? She too had been dark-haired, as were all her father’s family.
Susan sat down at her desk and looked out of the window. Now, in the darkness, the lights of the town sparkled, strung out like a necklace of diamonds. She picked up the photograph again and held it under the reading lamp to examine it more closely but the faded image gave no clue to the woman’s identity. So who was she? Someone he’d met on one of his courses? A friend? A neighbour? A girlfriend? According to her mother, he was always a bit of a womaniser. A vague memory stirred in the back of her mind but it refused to reveal itself. She put the photograph into her coat pocket and dropped the wallet back into the drawer.
Each morning she would sit there at her desk and look at Brunel’s railway bridge in the distance, close enough to admire its unobtrusive lines as it spanned the Thames, yet far enough away for her not to be disturbed by the sound of passing trains. She loved that view of the water meadows and the curving sweep of the river as it headed downstream towards Windsor and beyond. She loved the room. When Aidan had gone off to university they had rearranged the house and this, the old play-room, had become hers. She had lined the walls with bookshelves and placed an old pine table under the window so that, when inspiration failed her and her computer lay silent, she could just sit and gaze at the river.
‘The police’ll be up in half an hour,’ Graham called up to her. ‘We’re not to touch anything until they come.’