Celine wore a coat of her mother’s for her walk to the park that day, a classic purple one of which she had always been rather fond, with large gold buttons and wide velvet lapels. The velvet was dull and scuffed with age and there was no ignoring the faint, slightly acrid smell of moth-killer rising of the thick meshed wool, but it felt good nonetheless, to be out in the blowy April sunshine without her eye on her watch for once, and no one to worry about but herself.
She sat on her usual bench, her arms curled around her handbag, her gaze fixed on the pond. A brown duck was a leading a flotilla of fluffy chicks which bobbed in her wake like corks. Boating would start soon, and ice cream vans with their annoying chimes and queues of squawking children.
After a few minutes, temptation got the better of her and she opened her bag. The money was still there, still safe, a wad of notes, wedged between her cheque book and a packet of wine gums. Celine swallowed hard, hating the taste of bitterness that surfaced through her grief. Seven hundred and eighty-two pounds. It wasn’t much to show for ten years of care. Her best ten years. Her life on hold. Her mother had only mentioned the deposit account towards the end. A nest-egg, she had called it. Celine, wiping the spittle from the corners of her poor dry mouth, had made the mistake of getting excited.
Celine briskly clipped the handbag closed. It was still a handsome sum. Watching the teller count out the notes that afternoon, she had been aware of several pairs of darting, envious eyes. Not a nest-egg perhaps, but it would certainly pay for a holiday. If she could only think of a place she wanted to visit, other than the Galapagos (she had always wanted to go there), but it wasn’t enough for that.
Several small treats then, she decided, frowning absently at her worn leather shoes; like some new curtains, and a decent telly, and taxis to and from the supermarket instead of lumbering on and off the bus; and a really classy warm coat that didn’t look like it belonged in a dressing-up box…navy cashmere with a fur collar. Celine closed her eyes, picturing how the soft ruff would flatter the loosening skin under her chin. When she opened them again her view of the pond was blocked by a tall man with a weathered face and smiling blue eyes. Early sixties she guessed, although he still had hair, heaps of it, in dashing sweeps of thick silky grey.
‘Do you mind?’ He gestured at the empty portion of bench and sat down before she could reply. He was tall and slim and wore a charcoal suit with a crisp open-necked white shirt. A gold watch glinted under the sleeve-edge of his jacket. He smelt nice – minty sweet. Celine felt the quickening of something in her belly, something she had forgotten. He was just a man, she told herself, out enjoying a dry sunny day.
‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, lovely.’ She tightened her grip on her bag-strap, thinking of her nannying days when she had talked to strangers all the time. There was something about prams and pushchairs – unlike wheelchairs – that opened conversational doors.
‘I like your coat. That colour – it suits you.’
Celine glanced away, blushing. There was something vaguely familiar about him, something she couldn’t place. She wondered if he was an actor, whether she had seen him on the telly. He had good teeth. Actors always did.
‘But you won’t need it soon,’ he went on, pulling out a packet of cigarettes and lighting up. ‘Lots more sun on the way, apparently. Early heat-wave. Do you smoke?’
‘No,’ Celine replied, wishing that she did, thinking how splendid it would be to throw her head back and blow cool, blue smoke rings at the sky, feeling at ease in the world instead of alienated by it.
‘Is it your lunch hour?’
‘No…I…I’ve taken the afternoon off…’
‘And so have I,’ he exclaimed, as if this was a matter of extraordinary coincidence. He flicked away his cigarette and swivelled to face her, grinning.
Celine smiled back, willing the shadow of her mother’s warning finger away.
‘I’m Lucas.’ He held out his hand.
‘Celine.’ His nails were beautifully manicured, with perfect crescent cuticles.
‘Well now, Celine, I don’t suppose you would consider taking a stroll round the lake with me?’
Celine froze. An image formed in her mind of her small tidy home, the bin bags in the hall, the medicinal smell still heavy in the empty bedroom upstairs. Meeting nice men in parks didn’t happen to her. Though heaven knows she had wished for such things often enough once upon a time.
‘Oh, but you have other plans. Of course you do. Forgive me…’
He was leaving, Celine realised. She stood up, gripped by something like panic. ‘No…a walk would be nice. I’d like that.’
They did two circuits of the whole park before stopping at its over-priced café for a pot of tea. Their talk moved beyond the weather. He had lost his wife, he said and then listened while she spoke about her mother.
‘I suppose you have to go,’ he said wistfully, after they had tussled over the bill, a tussle that he won.
‘No, I don’t,’ Celine confessed shyly. ‘I’m completely free.’
‘So can I take you to dinner?’ He seized one of her hands and planted a kiss on the ridge of her knuckles.
Her ugly red knuckles. Celine stared at them in wonder. ‘Yes,’ she murmured, ‘yes, you can.’
‘I have my car. I know a wonderful place. It’s a bit of a drive, but worth it.’
He had a sturdy red Ford, clearly well advanced in years, but spotlessly polished inside and out. They sped through the grimy south London suburbs and out into green swathes of countryside. He put his hand on her knee and she let it rest there, relishing its weight and warmth, her heart galloping.
They dined at a candlelit table under a glass roof, a showcase for a jet sky bejewelled with stars. When she confessed that she did not understand French, he moved his chair closer and gently talked her through the menu, eradicating her shame. The wine drowned what remained of her timidity. The waiters glided round their table like ballroom dancers. After dinner it seemed only natural that, after a quiet word with Reception, he should lead her upstairs, to a bed almost as big as her sitting room and infinitely more inviting.
Waking alone a few hours later and hearing the gurgle of a tap in the bathroom, Celine stretched into the expanse of empty bed. The images of the night washed over her, bringing back echoes of the sensations that had made her sink her teeth into the pillows. Feeling emboldened but still shy, she draped the silk cream counterpane round her shoulders and approached the bathroom door. ‘Lucas?’ When there was no answer she went in.
The truth dawned slowly, in spite of being obvious. ‘I could have told you,’ crowed her mother, while Celine reeled at the sight of the empty bathroom, the noisy dripping tap, and the contents of her handbag strewn round the basin. The money was gone. Of course the money was gone. Celine fell to her knees, clasping the rippling silk counterpane to her chest like a comforter. She had seen him in the bank, she remembered suddenly – one of the faces that, pointedly, hadn’t seemed to stare as the teller counted out her pile of money. He must have followed her out, followed her to the park. Talk about easy prey.
She ought to call Reception, or the police, or… Celine struggled to her feet, but as she did so her eye was caught by several bank notes pinned under a water glass. Three. Three of her precious fifties. On the uppermost one he had scrawled, Towards the bill, L x. She stared at them trembling, disbelieving, outraged, but then caught sight of her reflection and started to laugh. Her grey-streaked hair was wild and glorious. Her normally sallow face glowed. Her lips burned with a colour that no cosmetic could provide.
‘Oh, Lord.’ She hugged herself, giggling, remembering again the sweaty ecstasies of the night, knowing they had done her more good than a hundred tellies or cashmere coats.
Slowly, gracefully, the silk counterpane flowing from her shoulders like a royal train, she processed back to bed, where she rang Room Service and ordered a Full English. It might not be the treat she had planned, but she would finish it in style.
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