3 NOVEMBER 2001
Some time during the early hours of the morning, as Lorraine lay awake, listening to Ronnie snoring, her joy and relief that he was alive started turning to anger.
Later, when he was awake, insisting on keeping the curtains drawn in the bedroom and the blinds down in the kitchen, she rounded on him at the breakfast table. Why had he put her through all this suffering? Surely he could have made one quick phone call, explaining everything, and then she wouldn’t have been to hell and back for almost two months.
Then she began crying.
‘I couldn’t take the risk,’ he said, cradling her face in his arms. ‘You’ve got to understand that, babe. Just one call from New York showing up on your bill could have created questions. Insurance investigators are all ex-cops – they’re no fools. And I had to know you were acting the grieving widow.’
‘Yeah, I sodding acted that all right,’ she said, dabbing her eyes. Then she took out a cigarette. ‘I should get a bloody Oscar.’
‘You’re going to deserve one by the time we’re through.’
She gripped his strong, hairy wrist, pulled it tightly against her face. ‘I feel so safe with you, Ronnie. Please don’t go. You could hide here.’
He shook his head.
‘Can’t we do anything so we don’t lose this place? Tell me again, what money’s going to come in?’ She lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply.
‘I’ve got a life insurance policy, with Norwich Union, for one and a half million pounds. You’ll find the policy in a deposit box at the bank. The key’s in my bureau. Sounds like there’s going to be special dispensation for 9/11 victims. The insurance companies are going to pay out on the policies, even where bodies haven’t been found, instead of the statutory seven-year wait.’
‘One and a half million! I could take the policy to the bank manager. He’d let me stay on!’
‘You can try, but I know what that bastard’ll say. He’ll tell you there’s no certainty they’ll pay out, or when, and that insurance companies always wriggle.’
‘So this one might wriggle?’
‘Nah, it’ll be OK, I reckon. Too emotive, this situation. But they’ll give you a good grilling, for sure. So make sure you stick to your story. Appear helpful, but say the minimum you have to. Then there’s going to be the 9/11 compensation fund. I’m told we could be looking at two and a half million dollars.’
‘Two and a half million?’
He nodded excitedly.
She stared at him, doing a quick calculation in her head. ‘That would be about one and three-quarter million pounds? So we’re talking about three and a quarter million quid, give or take?’
‘Give or take, yeah. And tax-free. For one year of pain.’
She sat still for some moments. When she finally spoke there was a tinge of awe in her voice. ‘You’re unbelievable.’
‘I’m a survivor.’
‘That’s why I love you. Why I’ve always believed in you. I have, you know, haven’t I?’
He kissed her. ‘You have.’
‘Nearly. We will be. Gently, gently catchee monkey…’
‘You look strange with a beard.’
‘Sort of younger.’
‘And less dead than old Ronnie?’
She grinned. ‘You were a lot less dead last night.’
‘I waited a long time for that.’
‘And now you’re talking about waiting a year? Maybe longer?’
‘The compensation fund will pay out fast to hardship cases. You’re a hardship case.’
‘They’ll prioritize Americans before foreigners.’
He shook his head. ‘Not what I’ve heard.’
‘Three and a quarter million quid!’ she said again dreamily and rolled the ash off her cigarette into the saucer.
‘That’ll buy you a lot of new frocks.’
‘We’d need to invest it.’
‘I’ve got plans. The first thing we have to do is get it out of the country – and you.’
He jumped up, went into the hall and returned with a small knapsack. From it he removed a brown envelope, which he put on the table and pushed towards her.
‘I’m not Ronnie Wilson any more. You’re going to have to get used to that. I’m now David Nelson. And in a year’s time you won’t be Lorraine Wilson any more.’
Inside the envelope were two passports. One was Australian. The photograph was a barely recognizable one of herself. Her hair had been changed to dark brown, cut short, and she’d been given a pair of glasses. The name inside said Margaret Nelson.
‘There’s a visa stamp in there for permanent residence in Australia. Valid for five years.’
‘Margaret?’ she said. ‘Why Margaret?’
She shook her head. ‘I have to be Margaret – Maggie?’
‘For how long?’
‘Great,’ she said. ‘I don’t even get a choice in my own name?’
‘You didn’t when you was born, you stupid cow!’
She said the name aloud, dubiously, ‘Margaret Nelson.’
‘Nelson’s a good name, classy!’
She shook a second passport out of the bag. ‘What’s this?’
‘It’s for when you leave England.’
Inside was a photograph of her again, but in this one she had grey hair and looked twenty years older. The name said Anita Marsh.
She looked at him in bewilderment.
‘I worked it out. The best way to disappear. People remember good-looking women, blokes in particular. They don’t remember little old ladies, they’re almost invisible. When the time comes you’re going to buy two tickets in advance on the Newhaven- Dieppe ferry for a night-time crossing. One ticket in your name, one in Anita Marsh’s name. And you’re going to book a cabin in Anita Marsh’s name. OK?’
‘Want me to write this down?’
‘No. You’re going to have to memorize it. I’ll be contacting you. I’ll go through it all plenty of times more with you before then. What you’re going to do is leave a suicide note – you’re going to write that you can’t bear life without me, you’re miserable being back at work at Gatwick, life sucks – and the doctor’ll be able to back it up that you were on antidepressants, all that stuff.’
‘Yeah, well, he won’t be lying about that.’
‘So you get on the ferry as Lorraine Wilson, looking as beautiful as you can, and make sure plenty of people see you. You dump your bag, with a change of clothes, in the cabin booked in Anita Marsh’s name. Then you go to the bar and you start giving the impression that you are sad, and drinking heavily, and not in any mood to talk to anyone. The crossing’s four and a quarter hours, so you have plenty of time. When you are out in mid-Channel, leave the bar and tell the barman that you are going out on the deck. Instead, you go down to the cabin and transform yourself into Anita Marsh, with a wig and old-lady clothes. Then you take your clothes, your passport and your mobile phone and you drop them over the side.’
Lorraine stared at him in utter astonishment.
‘In Dieppe you take a train to Paris. There you rip up your Anita Marsh passport and buy a plane ticket to Melbourne as Margaret Nelson. I’ll be waiting for you at the other end.’
‘You’ve thought of bloody everything, haven’t you?’
He could not immediately tell whether she was pleased or angry.
‘Yeah, well, I haven’t exactly had much else to do.’
‘Promise me one thing – all this money – you’re not planning to sink it into a scheme, are you?’
‘No way. I’ve learned my lesson, babe. I been giving it a lot of thought. The problem is, once you get into debt, you’re on a spiral. Now we’re free, we can start again. Start in Australia and then maybe go off somewhere else, live life in the sun. Sounds good to me! We can eventually put the money in the bank, live off the interest.’
She looked at Ronnie dubiously.
He pointed at the envelope. ‘There’s something else in there for you.’
She pulled out a slim cellophane bag. Inside was an assortment of loose stamps.
‘To help tide you over,’ he said. ‘Expenses. And give yourself a couple of treats to cheer yourself up. There’s a 1911 Somerset House One Pound – that’s worth about fifteen hundred quid. There’s an 1881 One Penny that you should get about five hundred quid for. There’s about five grand’s value in total. Take them to this guy I know – he’ll give you the best price. And when the big money comes through, he’s the guy you get to convert it into stamps. He’s straight. We’ll get the best value from him.’
‘And he knows nothing?’
‘God, no.’ He tore off a blank strip from the back of Hello! magazine on the kitchen table and wrote down the name Hugo Hegarty, with the man’s phone number and address on it. ‘He should be sorry when you tell him about me. I was a good customer.’
‘We’ve had a few letters of sympathy and cards over the past weeks.’
‘I’d like to see those, read what everyone says about me.’
‘Nice things.’ She gave a sad laugh. ‘Sue was saying I needed to start thinking about a funeral. Wouldn’t have needed a very big coffin, would we? For a wallet and a mobile phone.’
They both giggled. Then she dabbed away more tears that had started rolling down her face.
‘At least we can laugh about it,’ she said. ‘That’s good, isn’t it?’
He walked around the table to her and hugged her hard. ‘Yep. That’s good.’
‘It’s far enough away. We can be anonymous there. Also, I’ve got an old mate who went out there years ago. I can trust him – he’ll convert the stamps back into cash, no questions asked.’
She looked at him with a startled expression, as if she had just been shot. ‘Ricky Skeggs?’
‘Yeah. You went out with him before me, didn’t you? He used to have all his birds call him Ricky. Like it was a special privilege. Chad in business, Chad to his mates, but Ricky to his birds. He was always very particular about things.’
‘It’s the same name,’ she said. ‘They’re both versions of Richard.’
‘No, it’s not actually whatever, Ronnie. And I didn’t go out with him. I went on just one date. He tried to rape me, remember? I told you all about it.’
‘Yeah – rape used to be his idea of foreplay.’
‘I’m serious. Surely I told you the story. Back in the early 1990s, he had a Porsche. Took me out one night-’
‘I remember that Porsche. A 911 Targa. Black. I worked for Brighton Connoisseur Cars – we rebuilt it after it had been written off – wrapped around a tree. We spliced the rear end together with the front end of another one. Flogged it to him cheap. It was a fucking death trap!’
‘You sold that to your friend?’
‘He knew it was dodgy and not to drive it too fast. He just used it for posing – and pulling dolly birds like you.’
‘Yes, well, after a few drinks at the bar I thought he was taking me to eat something. Instead he drove me up on the Downs, told me he allowed the girls he screwed to call him Ricky, then he unzipped himself and told me to suck him off. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘Then when I told him to take me home, he tried to drag me out of the car, said I was an ungrateful bitch and he was going to show me what a proper shag was. I scratched the side of his face, then I hit the horn and suddenly there were headlights coming towards us. He panicked and drove me home.’
‘He didn’t say a word. I got out of the car and that was it. I used to see him around town from time to time, always with a different woman. Then someone told me he’d gone to Australia. Not far enough in my view.’
Ronnie sat in awkward silence. Lorraine crushed out her cigarette, which was burnt down to the filter, and lit another one. Finally Ronnie spoke. ‘He’s all right, Chad is. He was probably just pissed that night. Got a big ego, always had. You’ll find he’s mellowed now, with age.’
Lorraine was silent for a long while.
‘It’ll be all right, babe,’ Ronnie said. ‘It’ll work out. How many people get a chance of a totally new start in life?’
‘Some start,’ she said bitterly. ‘Where the person we are going to be totally dependent on once tried to rape me.’
‘You have a better plan?’ Ronnie snapped suddenly. ‘You have a better plan, tell me?’
Lorraine looked at him. He seemed different from before he’d gone to New York. And not just physically. It wasn’t just the beard and the shaven head, something else seemed to have changed. He seemed more assertive, harder.
Or maybe, because of the long absence, she was seeing him as he actually was for the first time.
No, she told him reluctantly, she didn’t have a better plan.