Then She Vanishes – Claire Douglas

I sit back in my chair and re-read the article. The deadline is in twenty minutes. It’s taken me nearly an hour to write just five paragraphs. If I don’t send it soon it won’t make the front page tomorrow, and my news editor, Ted, will have my guts for garters (one of his favourite phrases and always said in a droll tone). I glance out of the window at the rooftops of Bristol. I can see the cathedral’s spire from up here and the buildings that cluster around College Green. I can tell it’s raining by the sea of colourful umbrellas obscuring the pavements, moving almost as one. A line of traffic chugs up Park Street and a double-decker bus belches smoke as it heaves itself up the hill, like an unfit runner. Ever since I spoke to DCI Ruthgow this morning I’ve not been able to get the interview out of my head. His words are eating away at me. I’m dying for a cigarette but I daren’t leave my desk until I’ve filed this story. I glance across at Jack, my smoking companion. He’s hunched over his computer, tapping at his keyboard, a phone cradled between shoulder and chin. Sensing me watching, he lifts his head and pulls a silly face. And then, in a placatory voice, he says into the receiver, ‘Yes, yes, I quite understand, Madam.

No, I didn’t realize they would use that photo of your cat … I agree, quite inappropriate given his untimely demise … Uh-huh, yes, not Fluffy’s best side admittedly but, no, I didn’t think he looked fat.’ I can’t help but smile and turn back to my computer, studying the words on the screen again, trying to push away the thought I’ve had since speaking to DCI Ruthgow earlier. But it won’t budge. Is it my Heather? Tilby is a small town. I should know: I grew up there. And this Heather Underwood would be the same age as the Heather I went to school with. The Heather I was best friends with. We lost touch when we left school, but for a while – for a good couple of years, in fact – we were inseparable. As far as I remember, there was only one caravan park in Tilby, and it was owned by Heather’s family. The surname is different – she was a Powell back then – but it’s too much of a coincidence, although not beyond impossible.

Heather isn’t that unusual a name. I flick back through my notebook, trying to decipher my shorthand. Yes, in our interview Ruthgow confirmed that, after killing two people, Heather Underwood went back to the caravan park where she lives with her husband and young son and tried to take her own life. Heather always wanted to leave Tilby. Would she really still be living at the same address after all this time? ‘Haven’t you finished that yet, Jess?’ I turn to see Ted standing over me, his breath smelling of coffee and cigarettes overlaid with a faint hint of mint. He runs a hand over his beard. It’s the colour of a tobacco stain, the same as his hair. ‘Yep. I’m just about to file it.’ ‘Good.

’ He peers at my screen. ‘Didn’t you go to school in Tilby?’ ‘I did.’ I don’t remember telling him that, although it’s on my CV. But the man’s like a bloodhound. ‘You’re about the same age, aren’t you? Did you know this girl?’ I take a breath. ‘I’m … Actually, I’m not sure. I was friends with a Heather. But …’ But the Heather I knew would never have been capable of something like this, I want to say. The Heather I knew was sweet, quiet, kind. She always had so much time for people.

The old woman with the beginnings of dementia whom we’d bump into in the corner shop: Heather would help her home when it was obvious she couldn’t remember the way. Or she’d pilfer blankets from her house to give to the homeless man who slept beneath the underpass when it was cold. She was always polite and wellmannered, remembering to say thank you to bus drivers and shopkeepers when I always forgot, desperate to eat my sweets or get to my destination. Yet there was another side to her, too. I remember the last time I saw her: her green eyes had blazed, her fists clenched at her sides. That was the only time I’d ever seen her in a rage. I had been scared of her sudden unpredictability, like a horse I’d always thought placid that was now about to rear and buck. But it was towards the end of our friendship, when everything went wrong and she was angry with the world. With me. It was understandable.

I’ve tried not to think about Heather in recent years, but now a picture of her forms in my head, like a reflection in water, slowly sharpening and gaining focus. Dressed in a long, floaty skirt and DM boots, twirling around on the lawn, singing along to ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ by The Cure; the tinkling sound of the many bangles jangling on her arm; cantering on her little black pony, Lucky, her long dark hair cascading down her back. I take a deep breath. I really need a fag. Ted makes a smacking sound as he chews gum in my ear, reminding me he’s still standing beside me. ‘You better get your butt down to Tilby,’ he says, in his Essex accent. He’s lived in Bristol for years but has never managed to pick up the West Country twang. Although, when he’s had a few, he likes to rib me about mine. ‘And take Jack with you. See if it’s the Heather you knew at school.

She’s unconscious so the police can’t charge her yet.’ The subtext being that we can print what we want until they do. Ted doesn’t often show excitement or happiness or any other emotion apart from grumpiness. Unless he’s had a few beers, when his humour shows through like a slice of sunlight beneath a grey cloud. Most of the time he wears a harassed expression and, when he’s not smoking or drinking coffee, he frantically chews gum, his jaw going nineteen to the dozen. But now his small blue eyes shine with rare delight, as though he’s a pitbull about to be given a slab of raw meat. ‘I was about to look on the electoral roll – see if she still lives with Leo or Margot.’ ‘Don’t worry about that now. Even if it isn’t the Heather you knew, you still need to be there. Interview whoever she was living with.

Describe where she shot herself for colour. You know the drill.’ I do indeed. I could do it in my sleep. Yet before, when I worked in London, I never knew the people involved. Now, if it’s my old friend Heather … I shake my head, not allowing my thoughts to go there. I have to treat it as any other job. I stand up and pull my sheepskin coat from the back of the chair. It’s heavy and warm (it’s always so cold in here – the heating rarely works properly) and I wrap it around myself gratefully. I got it in the charity shop on Park Street, where I buy most of my clothes, and it’s the colour of toffee with a shaggy cream collar and cuffs.

Jack’s still on the phone so I scrawl a quick note, saying I’ll meet him outside. ‘Nice coat, Jess,’ calls our receptionist, Sue, as I scurry past, shoving my notebook into my bag. She’s in her late fifties with a crop of silver hair and twinkly eyes that crinkle when she laughs. She’s like a lovely cuddly aunt who always refers to me as ‘a girl’, asking me about my life and my boyfriend, as though living vicariously through ‘my youth’ even though, at thirty-one, I’m not particularly young. Some days I feel very, very old. And very, very jaded. Like today. ‘Thanks,’ I call back, taking the cigarettes from my pocket as I head out of the reception area. ‘Got it for a bargain in BS8.’ ‘And I’m liking the new fringe,’ she adds.

I touch it self-consciously, although I know it frames my face, softens my blunt bob, and the platinum blonde contrasts with my chocolate-brown eyes. ‘Very Debbie Harry.’ I laugh off her compliment – although I’m secretly delighted – promising to bring her back a coffee (the machine stuff in the office tastes of plastic), then shoulder my way through the door, down the stairs and onto Park Street. Our offices are in a red-brick building directly above a newsagent’s. There are only six of us who work out of here – two snappers, two reporters, including myself and a trainee called Ellie, Ted and Sue. Our headquarters are on a trading estate a few miles out of town. We type up our copy, then send it down the line to the subs at HQ. Jack and I often joke that our office is where the dregs are sent. The staff they don’t want to get rid of, but don’t want hanging about the main newsroom. I can’t understand what Jack’s done to warrant such a situation.

How could anyone dislike him? I tell him that he’s only here because he was the last in. As soon as a snapper leaves HQ (and it’s amazing how high the turnover of staff is there, how quickly they jump ship to a daily like the Bristol Daily News), Jack will have left before he can say ‘digital camera’. I doubt the other photographer, Seth, will ever go anywhere else. He’s long past retirement. I can’t allow myself to wonder how I’d cope without Jack if he left. I know it will happen eventually. Jack pretends otherwise, but underneath his easy-going persona he’s ambitious. It’s only a matter of time before he moves on. I, on the other hand, am happier here in our little office, away from prying eyes and ears. And Ted is a good boss.

Despite his grumpiness, he trusts us and leaves us to make our own decisions (and most afternoons he leaves early to slope off to the local pub). I don’t want to be stuck out on some soulless industrial estate. I like being able to walk out onto Park Street. I love the hustle and bustle, the shops, the cafés, the buskers. It reminds me of London. Not to mention that I can walk to work from where I live. I’ve been given a second chance and I’ll always be grateful to Ted for that. He took me on when nobody else would. We have our own entrance: a single blue door set into the brick wall. There’s no sign, nothing to suggest that a newspaper operates behind it.

Sometimes a homeless man huddles under a dirty blanket in the doorway. He’s called Stan. I often bring him a coffee when I’m getting one for Sue. Today he’s not here, just an empty can of Foster’s scrunched up in the corner and the faint whiff of urine. I shelter in the doorway and light a cigarette, inhaling it deeply. The rain is still coming down. It’s fine and drizzly. I like the rain. I always have, the heavier the better; the way it smells, the sound it makes as it clatters into drains, the whoosh of it as tyres part puddles. Even nicer if it’s accompanied by thunder and lightning.

Most people think it odd, but Heather felt the same as me. I remember the sound of it drumming on the aluminium roof of the barn at her family’s caravan park. We loved that barn, with its mezzanine level where they kept the hay for the horses. They had so much land, acres of it. It had been her uncle Leo’s idea to set up one of the fields as a caravan park. We used to escape to that barn with our art pads, tartan blankets embedded with yellow hairs from the family’s ancient Labrador, Goldie, pulled over our knees as we tried to sketch the pond or the fountain in her garden, or the caravans in the field beyond, a ribbon of sea glistening enticingly in the distance. Her house was amazing: five bedrooms and a room they called the Den. So much grander than the cramped cottage with the low ceilings that Mum and I shared. Although Heather’s house wasn’t posh: it was lived-in, with old-fashioned furniture, sanded original floorboards and checked blankets thrown over the back of well-worn sofas, very different from the pristine yet sparsely furnished two-up-two-down we had. Heather tried to teach me to ride.

She had such patience, leading me endlessly around the paddock on Lucky, while I tried to get the hang of it. She would tell me funny stories of her mishaps, like the time she thought she’d lost the use of her legs after one of the horses bucked her off. ‘I was such a drama queen about it,’ she’d said, giggling, ‘lying in the middle of the field insisting I was paralysed. My instructor just told me to stop being silly and get back on the horse.’ Despite Heather’s best efforts I never took to riding. I preferred spending time grooming the pony and French-plaiting its tail. Heather had a menagerie of animals in that barn – a goat she’d rescued, chickens, a pet rat. She spent time with each one, tending them with such love I could only watch with a mixture of awe and envy. My own mother never allowed me to have any pets, saying they were a tie, but Heather’s mum, Margot, was happy for her to have all sorts of animals parading about the place. They even had a peacock that strutted across the field, showing off its feathers.

Sometimes, guiltily, I wished my mum was more like Heather’s. I keep trying to imagine that same sensible girl as a grown woman walking into a house and shooting dead two people. Tilby’s only fifteen miles away. It won’t take me and Jack long to get there to find out for certain. If he ever turns up. I keep the car parked at my flat on the Welsh Back. It’s only a ten-minute walk from here. I take another deep drag of the cigarette, instantly feeling calmer. I’ve given up everything else that was bad for me: London, the Daily Tribune, binge-drinking, the odd recreational drugs, the constant moving around, living with different housemates. But I can’t give up this.

I need some vices. I blow out smoke slowly. An old lady wearing a clear plastic hairnet shoots me a disapproving look as she shuffles past. Undeterred, I carry on puffing until only the butt is left. Why is Jack taking so long? Tilby Manor Caravan Park. The name pops into my head. That was what the Powells had called it. I’d forgotten. I can still remember how much I loved spending time there. We spent our days sketching, or playing house in one of the empty caravans, or spying on Heather’s big sister and her boyfriend.

It was idyllic, really. I spent more time at her home than I did my own. Until our childhood was cut brutally short in 1994. I went back to her house only a few times after that, and our friendship, which had once been so strong, began to weaken and break, like a strand of my now over-processed hair. By the time we were doing our GCSEs we were acquaintances, mumbling a hello to each other as we passed in the corridors. If this woman, this killer, is the Heather I knew at school, the story could help my career and put me back on the map, which I desperately need after what happened at the Tribune. I know so much about her and her family. Too much. But is that what I really want? And at what cost? 2 Jess We speed down the M5 in my mint-green Nissan Figaro, Jack looking uncomfortable in the passenger seat. He’s been forced to lean to the side slightly so that he can get his legs in, even though he’s pushed the seat as far back as it will go.

His camera bag sits on his lap and he cradles it like a beloved puppy. I quickly fill him in on the story, casually throwing in that I once knew a Heather from Tilby. He’s not fooled. He knows me too well. I try to concentrate on the road to avoid the concern in his eyes. ‘It’s got to be her, hasn’t it? Do you want me to look it up on my phone? I can get the electoral roll. See who’s registered there?’ I shake my head emphatically, pushing away any doubts. ‘It’s not necessarily her. It would be extremely out of character.’ I’m not sure if I’m trying to convince him or myself.

‘And no point looking it up. We’ll be there soon.’ I’m trying to put off the inevitable. ‘But you said you haven’t seen her since you were teenagers. People change. Something might have happened to turn her into a killer.’ I shrug, trying to look like I couldn’t care less either way as I concentrate on ignoring the little voice inside my head that says, Do you remember what she told you? It was a secret you promised never to tell. And if you had told, it might not have happened. I mentally shake myself. I was fourteen.

It was nearly twenty years ago. How can I be sure I’m recollecting it all correctly? Jack shuffles against the seat. ‘I’m glad to be getting out the office. Honestly, if Mrs Hodge rings up one more time complaining about the photos I took of Fluffy …’ I giggle. ‘Fluffy? Seriously?’ ‘It had been a quiet news day.’ He grins, then shifts his weight and winces. ‘I’m in pain here. Just saying.’ ‘How tall are you?’ I laugh as I move into the left-hand lane. The turning for Tilby is coming up.

‘Nearly six five and most of that is leg.’ He raises an eyebrow as if daring me to contradict him. Not that I would. It’s true, he’s all limbs. ‘You’re practically a giant compared to me.’ I’m at least a foot shorter. ‘Yes, well, my height is a slight disadvantage when I’m forced to travel in Noddy’s car,’ he says, his eyes twinkling. I smack him hard on his bony thigh. ‘And what do you suggest I drive? Some corporate BMW or Mercedes? You can always take the bus next time.’ But I’m smiling as I say it.

Jack is one of my favourite people. Nothing ever seems to get him down. Five years younger than me, he’s full of spark, of life, always ready with a quip or a joke. When he started at the paper last summer we soon bonded over our shared love of cigarettes and Kraftwerk. At that time I’d been working at the Herald just a few months. Now he’s one of my closest friends in Bristol. Actually, he’s my only friend in Bristol, apart from my boyfriend, Rory. Jack cranes his neck, like an elegant giraffe, to get a better look out of the windscreen. ‘Where is this place?’ he says, as I swing right at the roundabout. ‘I thought we were going to the beach.

’ Jack is from Brighton but moved to a flat in Fishponds with his police-officer boyfriend, Finn, nine months ago. I know he misses living by the sea. ‘The caravan park where Heather Underwood was found is about half a mile inland,’ I explain. ‘To get to the beach you have to take a left at the roundabout.’ I haven’t been to Tilby for more than a decade, not since my mum remarried and emigrated to Spain, but I remember the way. The address Ted gave me was number 36 Cowship Lane. I never took much notice of road names back then – I’d been fourteen the last time I was at Heather’s house. And, anyway, I always took shortcuts. I had to trudge through fields of cowpats and long grass to get from my house to hers, but even so, I know that was the name of her road because I remember us laughing at it, nicknaming it Cowshit Lane. The road narrows and I see the familiar landmarks: the church on the corner where Heather and I used to sketch the gravestones, the Horseshoe pub with its mock-Tudor exterior – we’d stood outside one summer, spying on her uncle Leo and his hot new girlfriend – the row of identical cottages with the playground opposite.

I point to number seven. ‘Me and my mum lived there,’ I say, my heart unexpectedly heavy. I haven’t seen Mum in too long. ‘Oh, aren’t they sweet? They’re like little toy houses,’ says Jack, pressing his nose to the glass. Jack is what my mum would call posh. He grew up in a big, rambling house with sea views and speaks the Queen’s English, not a dropped h in sight. He went to boarding school and skis at his family’s lodge in the winter. His mother’s a barrister and his dad is a partner in some big corporation. But there’s no side to Jack. He’s not being snobby in his assessment of the cottage I grew up in.

He just says things as he sees them. ‘They’re full of character, aren’t they?’ ‘Yes. But you’d be permanently stooped living in one,’ I acknowledge. I slow down as we drive along the high street. There’s a Costa now and a WHSmith. Greggs is still there – Heather and I used to club together to buy one of their sausage rolls on the way home from school. It’s been updated with an awning and a few rain-spattered bistro tables outside – one of the chairs has toppled onto its side in the wind. The Gateway supermarket has been replaced by a Co-op. And then I come to the clock tower. It’s smaller than I remember and sits in a triangle between a fork in the road.

It’s where I – along with most of Tilby’s youth back in the day – used to hang out when we couldn’t be bothered to walk the ten minutes to the sea front. But that was after Heather, when I’d tried to fill the chasm she’d left in my heart by turning my attention to Woodpecker cider and boys. ‘Shit,’ I say, as a lorry beeps at me and I’m forced to move lanes. ‘It’s all one-way now.’ I take a sharp left onto a narrow track. ‘This is Cowship Lane. Look out for number thirty-six.’ Most of the properties are detached with land. Some are bungalows, others barn conversions and then, towards the end of the lane with a huge corner plot and the sea in the distance, I spot it and my stomach convulses. It’s the house from my memories.

There’s a huge sign now with ‘Tilby Manor Caravan Park’ emblazoned on it at the entrance to the driveway. I’m sure they didn’t have that back then. Even though, deep down, I’d known it would be her, I still feel a sudden crushing sadness as I turn into the sweeping gravelled driveway with the familiar stone house in front of me. Everything comes flooding back: the long summer evenings, the smell of hay that would tickle my nose and make me sneeze, the tinkle of the pond, the dust motes floating in the fading sunshine of the barn. I know that, from the main bedroom at the back of the house, you can see the sea; her sister’s bedroom overlooked the front lawn, and Heather’s the caravan park in the distance. For a short time in my life this was like a second home. I swallow the lump in my throat and pull in beside a battered Land Rover. Behind the house is the caravan site – a two-acre field that used to accommodate about eight static caravans, with space for ten tourers – although it’s not visible from here. To the right-hand side of the house is the barn where we used to hang out. It has police tape surrounding it now, a piece of which has come loose and is fluttering in the wind.

Is that where it happened? Where Heather shot herself? I’m struck by the horror of it. It’s nothing new, I tell myself. I’ve seen it all: a family carried out in body bags after the father killed them all and then himself because he was in debt; the bloodied pavement where a terrorist attack took place outside Madame Tussaud’s; a tent erected in the woods after a missing teenager was found dead. With each story I had to remain detached for my sanity. But this. This is different. This is Heather. I turn off the engine and stare straight ahead, my hands gripping the steering wheel. The front door is around the side. But from here I can see into the bay window of the living room.

I remember that room. Heather and I used to snuggle under blankets during the winter, the smell of burning wood and ash from the open fire making our nostrils itch. I take a deep breath. I can almost remember the smell, the feeling of contentment. There’s a woman at the window, partly obscured by the gossamer net curtains. Her face is in shadow, but by the set of her hair in its familiar chignon and the shape of her long, elegant neck and sharp nose, I know she’s Heather’s mum, Margot. ‘So?’ Jack asks, turning to face me. When I don’t say anything, he adds gently, ‘The shooter. It’s your one-time friend, isn’t it?’ I nod and blink away tears before he notices. He’ll tease me mercilessly.

Tears don’t go with my persona as a hard-nosed journalist. Jack often says I’m as hard as nails. I think he admires it. ‘Shit,’ he mutters, under his breath, but I notice a light in his eyes. Of course he’s going to be excited by this – I would be, too, if I were him, if it was someone else. Anyone else. But not her. Not Heather. Jack’s hoping this will be our way in, and I’ve had the same thought. Yet it could be a hindrance.

I might be the last person Margot wants to see. I wouldn’t blame her. I can still recall her final words to me on the phone all those years ago, her acidic, accusing tone, her once-friendly voice brittle and strained. I grip the steering wheel, unable to move, uncertain of the reaction I’ll get. Jack opens the passenger door and turns to me before getting out. ‘Well, come on. What are you waiting for?’ He assesses me, his eyes softening. ‘Don’t tell me the nerves are kicking in? That you really are human, Jessica Fox.’ I know he’s teasing me but he’s closer to the truth than he knows. Usually, when faced with a task like this – a death knock or door-stepping a celebrity, a disgraced official – I hide behind my journalist façade.

But Margot knew me before I was a journalist. She knows the real me. It will be like I’m standing before her naked. I’ll have nothing to hide behind. I take a deep breath and follow Jack. He’s got his camera case slung across his body but he still looks conspicuous. Paparazzo. I turn to him. ‘Perhaps you should stay here a minute. I don’t want to spook Margot.

’ I remember her as a straight-backed horsy woman, kind and caring, like Heather, but on first impressions she could be brusque and no-nonsense. A little intimidating. Jack shrugs good-naturedly. ‘Sure, whatever you think. I’ll wait in the car.’ I hand him the keys and smile at him gratefully, hoping Margot hasn’t spotted us already. I walk slowly around the side of the house to the front door. Nothing much has changed – even the door is painted the same olive green – and I see the fountain in the distance, the hedges that hide the fields beyond and the caravan park. And in that moment I imagine I’m fourteen again, calling for Heather. I almost expect to hear the soft bark of Goldie and I feel a lurch in my heart.

Don’t be soft, I tell myself. That was a long time ago. I rap on the door and wait, my heart hammering despite the bollocking I’m inwardly giving myself for being a wuss. I need another fag but I know that would be unprofessional. Oh, come on, Margot. Open the door. I know you’re in. And eventually, after what feels like years, the door opens and she’s standing there in a waxed jacket and cream jodhpurs, a furious look on her face, her arms folded. Her once raven hair is streaked with white, and her eyes are lined, her neck jowly. She would only be in her late fifties but looks older, more weathered, although she’s still striking.

Tall and slim, she’s wearing a slash of red lipstick that is darker around the edges. Her green eyes access me but I can tell she doesn’t recognize me. ‘I don’t want to talk to you,’ she snaps. ‘Leave us alone. I’ve told the other one and I’m telling you the same. If you come here again I’ll call the police.’ I lift my eyes to hers. ‘Margot,’ I say softly. ‘It’s me. Jessica Fox.

Heather’s old friend.’ And then, with a jolt of recognition, her face pales. And in that moment I can see that she’s unsure whether or not to slam the door in my face.

.

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