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He grabbed a coffee from the machine before going into Amelia’s room. There was someone else in reception, a skinny teenager, late teens, in a blue skirt and jacket. Mixed race, her teeth white as she smiled, bright against her caramel skin and the loose frizz of her hair. Charlie raised a hand in greeting and fought the urge to smooth down his hair. Then he caught his reflection in a picture frame, grey streaks and messy whiskers, and looked away. He was a generation too old, and he wore every year of it.
Amelia’s office was minimalist, with a coat of white paint and a glass desk in one corner. The carpet had been taken away and the floorboards stripped and stained white to match the walls, the old curtains replaced with modern office blinds. A computer hummed on the corner of the desk.
Except that it wasn’t in its usual tidy state. There were files strewn on the floor.
‘How did they get in?’ Charlie said.
‘They smashed the glass in the fire escape and climbed in through there.’
‘What about the alarm?’
‘It needs fixing, you know that.’
Charlie leant against the doorframe. ‘Did they take anything?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Amelia said. ‘It was more like a search. The monitors are still here. Even the petty cash tin and the television.’
Charlie frowned. ‘That worries me more,’ he said. ‘If they wanted something from the files, one of our clients might be in danger, if it’s important enough for a break-in. Have you called the police?’
Amelia thought about that and then shook her head. ‘If they want something from the files, the police will want to know what we think it is, and I’m not breaching a client’s confidence.’
He knew she was right. He represented burglars. He couldn’t get too worked up about one of them coming to visit.
‘Leave it, Charlie, I’ll sort it out,’ she said. ‘These are your files for court,’ and she handed over two blue folders.
‘And what did you say you were doing?’ he said.
She looked at him for a moment, as if she was about to tell him something, but then she sighed. ‘Sorting this out, and then some admin stuff; you know, like keeping the accounts up to date, and some bills. And I’ve got a private payer coming in to see me.’
He waved it away. ‘You can keep that one,’ he said. ‘They expect too much for their money.’
‘You should learn to love them, because they pay three times more than legal aid, and they won’t go through your handbag when they’re alone in the room.’
Charlie didn’t need Amelia’s take on the business. He had been doing the job longer than she had, and all Amelia could offer was something that he knew already but just didn’t want to hear.
He watched her as she sat at the desk. Charlie thought she seemed distracted, her scowls interrupted by the occasional faraway gaze.
‘You all right?’ he said.
She looked up at him, and Charlie saw vulnerability. It didn’t surface often with Amelia. A couple of times after too much booze, and when they’d talked money. Or the lack of it. Amelia was business-like, brisk, and could even be fun, when the wine flowed and the music was right. But today her eyes seemed a little wider than usual, more searching. It was just for a moment though. She shook her head, and then smiled. ‘I’m fine,’ she said.
‘Who’s the girl in reception?’
‘Donia. She wants some work experience, is about to go away to university. I thought you could show her round the court.’
Charlie rolled his eyes. Great. Now he had to babysit someone all day. This was Amelia’s idea of making business pay, getting students to work for nothing, all of them hopeful of some job opportunity that would never materialise.
‘She’s come a long way, from Leeds,’ Amelia whispered, her door open. ‘Even rented somewhere for the week. Be nice to her.’
He walked away and went to his own room. As he went past Donia, she looked up again, as if she expected him to stop, but he didn’t. There was no point in getting friendly. If she hoped for a training contract, she would be disappointed.
As Charlie went into his room, he was surprised. It was untidy, but that’s how he had left it. He put his head back out of the door. ‘Why just your room?’ he shouted towards Amelia.
‘You can ask them if we ever find out who did it.’
Charlie shrugged and closed his door. He threw his files onto the desk, before he let his feet join them as he slumped into his chair, an old burgundy recliner with coffee stains on the arms.
Charlie’s room was at the front of the building, because it came with a view of the street. It wasn’t much, just the curve of a cobbled street, but it gave him something to look at. It was the comfort to Amelia’s austere. The desk was old and scarred and faced the window, so that the sun had bleached out the varnish. There were some dirty coffee cups that had never made it back to the kitchen and a pile of files that needed work.
Amelia hated the premises, but Charlie refused to move.
So this was it, he thought, as he stared out of the window. The week was about to start. Just another grind through routine court cases. The week will end, and then it will be the same again. A lost weekend, and then Sunday spent wondering what he had said the night before. He watched an old woman walk up the hill, her back bent, as if she had spent most of her life walking up hills that were too steep to live on. That’s how it seemed in Oulton. Too steep, too cold, too isolated. The town didn’t grow or reinvent itself. It just crumbled a slow death, every closure bringing more boarded-up windows, and one more reason for people to head down into the valley and not come back.
As he looked out, he saw something further along the street.
There was the same group of young people he had seen outside the café, all around twenty years old, all in black, their hair long and dyed black to match, their faces pale. There were glints of metal in their faces. One of them had a guitar. He looked older than the rest, with wild dark hair and lighter clothes. Dirty denim rather than black. The others seemed to encircle him as they walked, and most seemed to be smiling.
They must have seen Charlie staring, because they glanced up as they passed below his window. The older one nodded, and Charlie thought he saw him smile.
John Abbott squinted as he opened his eyes. It wasn’t a bright day, he could tell that from the greyness on the other side of the glass, and there were no curtains or blinds at the window. It was later than the usual waking time, because they woke with nature, but the night before had been a late one.
He waited a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, and then looked towards the window again. There were other people moving elsewhere in the house, but he wasn’t ready to get up.
He felt Gemma stir against him, her skin warm, her arm across his chest. His thoughts went back to the night before and he grimaced. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. She’d been more excitable than normal and had chosen him again. He could have said no, that it wasn’t right, made up some excuse, but he didn’t. He gave in every time. It was the way she smiled at him, cute, coy, with large appealing eyes, and how she covered her mouth when she giggled.
It was more than just her appeal though. He had needed the warmth and the closeness, although in the harsh light of morning he knew he shouldn’t have done it.
Her leg moved across him and he pushed it away. The noises were getting louder in the house, and so he knew he had to get up. He moved her arm and slid out of bed, although that was a generous description for a mattress on the floor covered in blankets. Only a rug stopped his feet from hitting the cold wooden floor. He looked down. The covers had slipped from her. He shook his head. Gemma was too young, her shoulders thin and bony, her skin pale and mottled. Her face was too innocent for what had happened the night before, her nose small and dappled by freckles, wisps of mousy hair across her cheeks.
He padded over to the window and looked out. He was naked, but it didn’t seem to matter whether anyone could see him outside. The view calmed him. They were on the top of a long slope, with mist in the deep valley below, just bracken and gorse for the most part, but clusters of trees broke up the hills and sheep dotted the slope on the other side. John liked the isolation, the countryside the same as it had been for hundreds of years, the chimneys and terraced streets in a different valley he couldn’t see. He looked down at the Seven Sisters, remnants of a stone circle in the field in front of the cottage, just seven stone fingers rising out of the ground in a grey crescent.
They were in an old stone farmhouse, where everyone slept in cramped quarters, five to a room. The room he was in with Gemma was the exception, the party room, apart from Henry’s room, where he slept alone. The farmhouse owner slept in a room downstairs. John didn’t like to think of that, because he was neglected, too infirm to look after himself.
There was a noise behind him. He turned round. Gemma was sitting up, smiling. He went as if to cover himself, but she laughed.
‘Too late to be embarrassed now,’ she said, her voice light and soft. ‘Nothing is wrong that is beautiful, you know that. Henry said that.’
‘I know that, but, well,’ and he shrugged.
She reached over to the side of the bed and rummaged in a bag. She pulled out a spliff and lit the paper twist at its tip. That warm, cloying smell of cannabis drifted towards him. She took a hard pull and held it in, before letting it out with a cough and a smile. The first one of the day was always the worst. She leaned forward to offer it to him. ‘You’re free, babe. Leave your hang-ups behind.’
He was reluctant, but she thrust it again and said, ‘Come on, it’s okay.’
John went to her to take it from her and rolled it between his fingers, watching as the glowing tip turned soot-grey. He took a small drag and then hacked out a cough when he took in the smoke.
She laughed. ‘I thought you were getting used to it,’ she said, and then flopped back onto the bed.
‘How old are you?’ John asked, his eyes watering from his coughs.
Gemma wagged a finger. ‘I’ve told you before, details spoil a good time.’
‘It’s important though.’
‘Because of what we did last night.’
‘You’ve so much to learn,’ she said, shaking her head, smiling. ‘You’re not bound by the old rules anymore. Freedom. Remember that word, John. It’s the whole point of us. Don’t you listen to Henry? The law is just what society says we cannot do, but we are not part of that society anymore. We are our own selves, free people, living human beings.’ She turned over and propped herself on her elbows, her chin in her hands. ‘Didn’t you enjoy it?’
John looked at the naked stretch of her body. Her smooth back, her pert backside, and his mind went back to the night before. ‘Yes, I enjoyed it,’ he said, and a flush crept up his cheeks.
She giggled. ‘I can tell,’ she said, looking at his groin.
He took another drag on the spliff and then bent down to pass it back to her. She smiled as she took it, her features lost in a pall of sweet smoke, and there it was again, that disquiet that there was something too childlike about her.
As Gemma took a hard pull, John asked, ‘Where did Henry go last night?’
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