CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 4
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Liv hardly recognised Carlo’s. The old pizzeria had expanded to absorb the shop next door and there was a glass conservatory at the back. The cheery red-checked tablecloths had gone, replaced by white starch. And the tables were as far apart as the stars.
But Rosa was sitting in their old corner. She looked just the same, hair slightly greyer, but the jewel-coloured cashmere scarf was unmistakable. Today it was emerald. She waved a hand as she saw Liv in the doorway.
Liv went over and sat down opposite her. “What happened to this place?”
Rosa smiled. “The students grew up and got rich. So did Carlo’s. But if you mean the echoing space, that’s down to social distancing.”
Liv looked round. The waiters were all wearing visors. A little plastic pot on the table said it was hand gel. The knives and forks and napkins were in a wipe-clean envelope. She shook her head. “I’m an idiot. Of course it is. I just haven’t been out to dinner for a while.”
Rosa looked startled. “What? Not even between lockdowns?”
Liv was rueful. “Life got very complicated. Getting out of a business you’ve been in for ten years is amazingly time-consuming. At one point I practically lived on Zoom. Anyway, I didn’t feel like socialising.”
Rosa nodded, clearly unsurprised. “You went into hermit mode?”
“Yes,” Liv admitted after a moment. “Actually, I don’t think I ever really got out of hermit mode after Lockdown 1.”
“Since March? That’s bad.”
Liv thought about it: the sleepless nights, the cold clutch of despair, the feeling of sheer helplessness. She shook her shoulders. “Not great, no. But it’s over now.”
Liv stiffened. “Why do you say that?”
“You said you were scared,” Rosa said simply.
Rosa knew her too well, thought Liv. They’d first met when Rosa was a mature student turning into a newly appointed Junior Fellow and Liv was a too-young first year. An alliance of the bewildered, Rosa always called it. They had navigated the ages-old customs of Cambridge University together. It had taught them each other’s strengths. And darkest fears.
“And you don’t scare easily. It was the first thing I noticed about you.” Rosa leaned forward, very serious. “When we met I was on the point of running way. Did you know that?”
Liv shook her head.
“Well, I was. In twenty-four hours I’d made every mistake in the book, and boy did the Senior Common Room let me know it. I was a bag of nerves when you found me. Do you remember it?”
Liv smiled. “Of course I do. You were sitting by the fountain, smoking. I thought you were so cool. Were you really thinking of leaving?”
“I’d packed my bags. Well, I’d never really unpacked them. I said to you, ‘I’m out of my depth here.'”
“I remember that. It made me feel better.”
“But do you remember what you said?”
Liv shook her head.
“You said, ‘I’ve been out of my depth all my life. You just have to keep quiet and watch what other people do.'”
Liv considered, a little puzzled. “Hmm. Doesn’t sound bad.”
“It was a life-saver. A career-saver for me, anyway.”
“You’re not serious?”
“Cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die serious. I’d have been out of Cambridge before dinner time if you hadn’t said that.”
“Oh Rosa!” Liv’s hand went out to her friend across the table.
And then they both remembered social distancing and froze at the same time.
Liv laughed. “Sorry.”
Rosa sat back and smiled. “Damn virus. I forget all the time. Anyway, that’s why I know there’s something badly wrong. Nothing ordinary scares you.”
“Maybe I’ve changed,” Liv muttered.
Rosa frowned but at that moment the waiter arrived to take their order.
When he left, Rosa said crisply, “You haven’t changed that much. You’ve been out of your depth all your life, remember. Now tell me what exactly scared you.”
Liv smiled in spite of herself. Rosa was always happier with her mediaeval French poetry than everyday college life but she was a shrewd observer. She often made Liv laugh with her accounts of confused students and barmy college politics, but underneath it all was a very strong sense of reality. If Liv’s fears were nonsense, Rosa would say so and they would both laugh. And everything would be all right again.
Liv took a deep breath. “I think I’m being watched. And I don’t know if it’s real.”
She told Rosa everything. The grey van that might or might not be following her; the man in the street who met her eyes for a moment and then turned and walked away so very fast; the footsteps after dark in the empty street…
Rosa listened attentively. She didn’t laugh.
“When did you first suspect you were being watched?”
That was easy. “April 30th. It was a Thursday night and we were putting the bins out. The Prime Minister had said the pandemic was past its peak and the lodgers argued over whether they could believe him. Emma said something about him wiping out all the lies at the end of every month, so he’d could start again next day.”
Rosa, no fan of the present Government, chuckled. But then said, “Hang about. Lodgers?”
Liv smiled. “Three students. They were doing work experience with the Agency until Simon the New Broom kicked them out.”
“And you gave them Living in Belgravia Experience?” asked Rosa, eyebrows climbing.
“There were five bedrooms and only me rattling around in that house. It seemed obvious. Emma had a creepy landlord, so I offered her a spare room. Eventually they all moved in. It was nice.”
Francis hadn’t liked it at all. That had been an added bonus, Liv thought now. She didn’t say so. Rosa had introduced Liv and Francis, back in the day. Probably still had a soft spot for him. People did.
Rosa still looked sceptical.
“After Simon said no more work experience, I did a deal with their college. We agreed I could mentor them myself. I still had a bit of work to finish up and all my notes from when Edwin mentored me, right back when we started.” She smiled reminiscently. “They really engaged. It worked surprisingly well.”
“Sounds more like a full blown apprenticeship than work experience. Board and lodging thrown in. Lucky students.”
“Lucky me,” corrected Liv. “They kept me sane. I think.” She shivered suddenly.
Rosa didn’t comment on that. “And that night, you all saw him, this man you think was watching you?”
“No, just Em. She saw him when she came up from the basement with her recycling. She thought he was lost. He asked her where the Rossignols lived and she said, ‘Here. Come in.’ Only when she turned round, he wasn’t there. She went back up the steps but he’d disappeared. Completely.”
“She told the rest of us. The boys started making up James Bond-type stories to account for it.”
“Of course,” said Rosa, who had two sons.
“I didn’t think much about it at the time. I mean it’s easy enough to find out someone’s address, isn’t it? But then—”
Liv swallowed. “You must understand, I was probably going a bit peculiar by that time. The students had all moved out. I’d been on my own for several weeks. The country was still in lockdown. The only time I spoke to anyone face to face was when I got out to shop. Once a week. Simon was still sending me stuff he wanted off the new agency’s books, so I was busy tidying it all up. But when I stopped work, there was…nothing. My diary was full of crossings out. I keep reminding myself that I might have imagined it.”
Rosa was patient. “Imagined what?”
“Um, footsteps.” Liv clutched her arms round herself but went on steadily enough, “Late at night. As if someone was prowling up and down the street and kept passing my house.”
Rosa shivered too. “Ugh. Nasty. How often did this happen?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t keep a record. Yes, I know I should have. But I didn’t want to believe it.”
“You still don’t,” Rosa pointed out. “Want to believe it, I mean. Is that all?”
“I was putting out rubbish very late one night. Well, early morning really. I’d been working and I’d forgotten the last couple of times and the kitchen bin was overflowing. So I pushed myself to grab it up and take it out. We always leave it on the pavement, outside the gate from the basement steps.” She moistened her lips. “The street was empty. Absolutely empty. And silent. Not a car engine anywhere, not even on the Cromwell Road. And then all of a sudden, the motion-activated light came on at the house opposite. It startled me and I dropped the rubbish sack. When I picked it up again, I heard footsteps rushing away.”
“Not running. But clipping very quickly on the pavement. As if he was in a very great hurry.”
“Sounds like something out of The Third Man.”
“Yes,” said Liv eagerly. “That’s it. That’s what I think. A scene from an old movie that I half remembered because I was overtired and I’d been alone too much. I was hallucinating. That explains it, doesn’t it?”
Rosa shook her head, very slowly.
“You’re the most grounded person I know, Liv. You don’t see stuff that isn’t there.”
Liv shut her eyes briefly.
But Rosa was inexorable. “You’ve told me what you heard. Now tell me what you saw.”
So she said it out loud for the first time. “A person’s shadow at the end of the steet, disappearing round the corner.”
Find out more in Episode 5, available to read here