The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
NUMBER FOUR, THE AVENUE
21 June 1976
Mrs. Creasy disappeared on a Monday.
I know it was a Monday, because it was the day the dustbin men came, and the avenue was filled with a smell of scraped plates.
“What’s he up to?” My father nodded at the lace in the kitchen window. Mr. Creasy was wandering the pavement in his shirtsleeves. Every few minutes, he stopped wandering and stood quite still, peering around his Hillman Hunter and leaning into the air as though he were listening for something.
“He’s lost his wife.” I took another slice of toast, because everyone was distracted. “Although she’s probably just finally buggered off.”
“Grace Elizabeth!” My mother turned from the stove so quickly, flecks of porridge turned with her and escaped onto the floor.
“I’m only quoting Mr. Forbes,” I said. “Margaret Creasy never came home last night. Perhaps she’s finally buggered off.”
We all watched Mr. Creasy stare into people’s gardens, as though Mrs. Creasy might be camping out in someone else’s herbaceous border.
My father lost interest and spoke into his newspaper. “Do you listen in on all our neighbors?” he said.
“Mr. Forbes was in his garden, talking to his wife. My window was open. It was accidental listening, which is allowed.” I spoke to my father, but addressed Harold Wilson and his pipe, who stared back at me from the front page.
“He won’t find a woman wandering around the avenue,” my father said, “although he might have more luck if he tried at number twelve.”
I watched my mother’s face argue with a smile. They assumed I didn’t understand the conversation, and it was much easier to let them think that. My mother said I was at an awkward age. I didn’t feel especially awkward, so I presumed she meant it was awkward for them.
“Perhaps she’s been abducted,” I said. “Perhaps it’s not safe for me to go to school today.”
“It’s perfectly safe,” my mother said, “nothing will happen to you. I won’t allow it.”
“How can someone just disappear?” I watched Mr. Creasy marching up and down the pavement. His shoulders were heavy and he studied his shoes as he walked.
“Sometimes people get confused and need their own space.” My mother spoke to the stove.
“Margaret Creasy was confused all right.” My father turned to the sports section and snapped at the pages until they were straight. “She asked far too many questions. You couldn’t get away from her rabbiting on.”
“She was just interested in people, Derek. You can feel lonely, even if you’re married. And they had no children.”
My mother looked over at me as though she were considering whether the last bit made any difference at all, and then she spooned porridge into a large bowl with purple hearts all around the rim.
“Why are you talking about Mrs. Creasy in the past tense?” I said. “Is she dead?”
“No, of course not.” My mother put the bowl on the floor. “Remington,” she shouted, “Mummy’s made your breakfast.”
Remington padded into the kitchen. He used to be a Labrador, but he’d become so fat, it was difficult to tell.
“She’ll turn up,” said my father.
He’d said the same thing about next door’s cat. It disappeared years ago, and no one had seen it since.
* * *
Tilly was waiting by the front gate, in a sweater which had been hand-washed and stretched to her knees. She’d taken the bobbles out of her hair, but it stayed in the exact same position as if they were still there.
“The woman from number eight has been murdered,” I said.
We walked in silence down the avenue, until we reached the main road. We were side by side, although Tilly had to take more steps to keep up.
“Who lives at number eight?” she said, as we waited for the traffic.
I whispered, in case Mr. Creasy had extended his search.
“I liked Mrs. Creasy. She was teaching me to knit. We did like her, Grace, didn’t we?”
“Oh yes,” I said, “very much.”
We crossed the road opposite the alley next to Woolworth’s. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock, but the pavements were dusty hot, and I could feel the material of my shirt sticking to the bones in my back. People drove their cars with the windows down, and fragments of music littered the street. When Tilly stopped to change her school bag to the other shoulder, I stared into the shop window. It was filled with stainless-steel pans.
“Who murdered her?” A hundred Tillys spoke to me from the display.
“No one knows.”
“Where are the police?”
I watched Tilly speak through the saucepans. “I expect they’ll be along later,” I said. “They’re probably very busy.”
We climbed the cobbles in sandals which flapped on the stones. In winter ice, we clung to the rail and to each other, but now the alley stretched before us, a riverbed of crisp packets and thirsty weeds, and floury soil which dirtied our toes.
“Why are you wearing a sweater?” I said.
Tilly always wore a sweater. Even in scorched heat, she would pull it over her fists and make gloves from the sleeves. Her face was handkerchief-white, and sweat had pulled slippery, brown curls onto her forehead.
“My mother says I can’t afford to catch anything.”
“When is she going to stop worrying?” It made me angry, and I didn’t know why, which made me even angrier, and my sandals became very loud.
“I doubt she ever will,” said Tilly. “I think it’s because there’s only one of her. She has to do twice the worrying, to keep up with everyone else.”
“It’s not going to happen again.” I stopped and lifted the bag from her shoulder. “You can take your sweater off now.”
She stared at me. It was difficult to read Tilly’s thoughts. Her eyes hid behind thick, dark-rimmed glasses, and the rest of her gave very little away.
“Okay,” she said, and took off her glasses. She pulled the sweater over her head, and, when she appeared on the other side of the wool, her face was red and blotchy. She handed me the sweater, and I turned it the right way, like my mother did, and folded it over my arm.
“See,” I said, “it’s perfectly safe. Nothing will happen to you. I won’t allow it.”
The sweater smelled of cough medicine and unfamiliar soap. I carried it all the way to school, where we dissolved into a spill of other children.
* * *
I have known Tilly Albert for a fifth of my life.
She arrived two summers ago in the back of a large, white van, and they unloaded her along with a sideboard and three easy chairs. I watched from Mrs. Morton’s kitchen, while I ate a cheese scone and listened to a weather forecast for the Norfolk Broads. We didn’t live on the Norfolk Broads, but Mrs. Morton had been there on holiday, and she liked to keep in touch.
Mrs. Morton was minding me.
Will you just sit with Grace while I have a little lie-down, my mother would say, although Mrs. Morton didn’t sit very much at all, she dusted and baked and looked through windows instead. My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down, and so I was minded by Mrs. Morton quite a lot.
I stared at the white van. “Who’s that then?” I said, through a mouthful of scone.
Mrs. Morton pressed on the lace curtain, which hung halfway down the window on a piece of wire. It dipped in the middle, exhausted from all the pressing. “That’ll be the new lot,” she said.
“Who are the new lot?”
“I don’t know.” She dipped the lace down a little further. “But I don’t see a man, do you?”
I peered out. There were two men, but they wore overalls and were busy. The girl who had appeared from the back of the van continued to stand on the pavement. She was small and round and very pale, like a giant, white pebble, and was buttoned into a raincoat right up to her neck, even though we hadn’t had rain for three weeks. She pulled a face, as though she were about to cry, then leaned forwards and was sick all over her shoes.
“Disgusting,” I said, and took another scone.
* * *
By four o’clock, she was sitting next to me at the kitchen table.
I had fetched her over because of the way she sat on the wall outside her house, looking as though she’d been misplaced. Mrs. Morton got the dandelion and burdock out, and a new packet of Penguins. I didn’t know then that Tilly didn’t like eating in front of people, and she held on to the bar of chocolate until it leaked between her fingers.
Mrs. Morton spat on a tissue and wiped Tilly’s hands, even though there was a tap three feet away. Tilly bit her lip and looked out of the window.
“Who are you looking for?” I said.
“My mother.” Tilly turned back and stared at Mrs. Morton, who was spitting again. “I just wanted to check she’s not watching.”
“You’re not looking for your father?” said Mrs. Morton, who was nothing if not an opportunist.
“I wouldn’t know where to look.” Tilly wiped her hands very discreetly on her skirt. “I think he lives in Bristol.”
“Bristol?” Mrs. Morton put the tissue back into her cardigan sleeve. “I have a cousin who lives in Bristol.”
“Actually, I think it might be Bournemouth,” said Tilly.
“Oh.” Mrs. Morton frowned. “I don’t know anyone who lives there.”
“No,” Tilly said, “neither do I.”
* * *
We spent our summer holiday at Mrs. Morton’s kitchen table. After a while, Tilly became comfortable enough to eat with us. She would spoon mashed potato into her mouth very slowly, and steal peas as we squeezed them from their shells, sitting over sheets of newspaper on the living room carpet.
“Don’t you want a Penguin or a Club?” Mrs. Morton was always trying to force chocolate on to us. She had a tin-full in the pantry and no children of her own. The pantry was cavernous and heaved with custard creams and fingers of fudge, and I often had wild fantasies in which I would find myself trapped in there overnight and be forced to gorge myself to death on Angel Delight.
“No, thank you,” Tilly said through a very small mouth, as if she were afraid that Mrs. Morton might sneak something in there when no one was looking. “My mother said I shouldn’t eat chocolate.”
“She must eat something,” Mrs. Morton said later, as we watched Tilly disappear behind her front door. “She’s like a little barrel.”
* * *
Mrs. Creasy was still missing on Tuesday, and she was even more missing on Wednesday, when she’d arranged to sell raffle tickets for the British Legion. By Thursday, her name was being passed over garden fences and threaded along the queues at shop counters.
What about Margaret Creasy, then? someone would say. And it was like firing a starting pistol.
My father spent his time stored away in an office on the other side of the town, and always had to have the day explained to him when he got home. Yet each evening, my mother asked if he had heard any news about Mrs. Creasy, and each evening he would sigh from the bottom of his lungs, shake his head, and go and sit with a bottle of pale ale and Kenneth Kendall.
* * *
On Saturday morning, Tilly and I sat on the wall outside my house and swung our legs like pendulums against the bricks. We stared at the Creasys’ house. The front door was ajar, and all the windows were open, as if to make it easier for Mrs. Creasy to find her way back inside. Mr. Creasy was in his garage, pulling boxes from towers of cardboard, and examining their contents one by one.
“Do you think he murdered her?” said Tilly.
“I expect so,” I said.
I paused for a moment, before I allowed the latest bulletin to be released. “She disappeared without taking any shoes.”
Tilly’s eyes bulged like a haddock. “How do you know that?”
“The woman in the post office told my mother.”
“Your mother doesn’t like the woman in the post office.”
“She does now,” I said.
Mr. Creasy began on another box. With each one, he was becoming more chaotic, scattering the contents at his feet and whispering an uncertain dialogue to himself.
“He doesn’t look like a murderer,” said Tilly.
“What does a murderer look like?”
“They usually have mustaches,” she said, “and are much fatter.”
The smell of hot tarmac pinched at my nose, and I shifted my legs against the warmth of the bricks. There was nowhere to escape the heat. It was there every day when we awoke, persistent and unbroken, and hanging in the air like an unfinished argument. It leaked people’s days onto pavements and patios and, no longer able to contain ourselves within brick and cement, we melted into the outside, bringing our lives along with us. Meals, conversations, arguments were all woken and untethered and allowed outdoors. Even the avenue itself had changed. Giant fissures opened on yellowed lawns and paths felt soft and unsteady. Things which had been solid and reliable were now pliant and uncertain. Nothing felt sure anymore. The bonds which held things together were destroyed by the temperature— is what my father said— it felt more sinister than that. It felt as though the whole avenue was shifting and stretching, and trying to escape itself.
A fat housefly danced a figure of eight around Tilly’s face. “My mum says Mrs. Creasy disappeared because of the heat.” She brushed the fly away with the back of her hand. “My mum says the heat makes people do strange things.”
I watched Mr. Creasy. He had run out of boxes, and was crouched on the floor of his garage, still and silent, and surrounded by debris from the past.
“I think it probably does,” I said.
“My mum says it needs to rain.”
“I think she’s probably right.”
I looked at the sky, which sat like an ocean above our heads.
It wouldn’t rain for another fifty-six days.
27 June 1976
On Sunday, we went to church and asked God to find Mrs. Creasy.
My parents didn’t ask, because they were having a lie-in, but Mrs. Morton and I sat near the front so God could hear us better.
“Do you think this will work?” I whispered to her, as we knelt on the slippery cushions.
“Well it won’t do any harm,” she said.
I didn’t understand much of what the vicar was talking about, but he smiled at me from time to time, and I tried to look sinless and interested. The church smelled of wax and old paper, and gave us shelter from the fat midmorning sun. The wooden ribs in the roof arched over the congregation, pulling heat and sweat into the cool, dry stone, and I shivered under a cotton dress. We had divided ourselves out in the pews, to make it look full, but I edged towards Mrs. Morton and the warmth of her cardigan. She held out her hand and I took it, even though I was too old.
The vicar’s words rumbled like distant thunder.
“I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.”
I watched a bead of sweat make a path down Mrs. Morton’s temple. It was easy to drift off in church if you angled yourself properly.
“I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague. For they have not listened to my words.”
That caught my attention.
“Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name and when they call to me, I will answer them.”
I stared at the thick gold cross on the altar. It reflected every one of us: the pious and the ungodly; the opportunist and the devout. Each of us had our reasons for being there, quiet and expectant, and secreted between the pages of a hymnbook. How would God manage to answer us all?
“Lamb of God,” said the vicar, “who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”
And I wondered if we were asking God to find Mrs. Creasy, or just asking Him to forgive her for disappearing in the first place.
* * *
We walked outside into buttery sunshine. It had spread itself over the graves, bleaching the stones and picking out the names of the dead. I watched it creep up the walls of the church until it reached the stained-glass windows, where it threw splinters of scarlet and purple into a cloudless sky. Mrs. Morton had been absorbed by a clutch of efficient women in hats, and so I wandered around the churchyard in careful, horizontal lines, in case anyone were to be accidentally stepped upon.
I liked the feel of the ground beneath my shoes. It seemed safe and experienced, as though all the bones that were buried there had made wisdom grow in the soil. I walked past Ernests and Mauds and Mabels, now beloved and remembered only by the dandelions which grew across their names, until a neat, gravel path brought me to the chancel. The graves here were so old, lichen had eaten into who they used to be, and rows of forgotten people stared back at me from headstones that stooped and stumbled like drunks in the earth.
I sat on newly mown grass, behind a grave which was patterned with whorls of green and white. I knew the women in hats were inclined to be time-consuming and I began to make a daisy chain. I had arrived at my fifth daisy when the chancel door opened and the vicar appeared. The breeze caught the edge of his surplice, and he billowed like sheets on a washing line. I watched him march across the graveyard, to retrieve an empty crisp packet, and when he returned to the doorway, he took off his shoe and banged it on the church door to get rid of the grass cuttings.
I didn’t realize something like that would be allowed.
“Why do people disappear?” I said to him, from behind the gravestone. He didn’t stop banging, but slowed down and looked over his shoulder.
I realized he couldn’t see me, so I stood up.
“Why do people disappear?” I said again.
The vicar replaced his shoe and walked over to me. He was taller than he had been in church and very earnest. The lines on his forehead were carved and heavy, as though his face had spent its entire time trying to sort out a really big problem. He didn’t look at me, but stared out over the gravestones instead.
“Many reasons,” he said eventually.
It was a rubbish answer. I’d found that answer all by myself and I didn’t even have God to ask.
“They wander from the path. They drift off-course.” He looked at me and I squinted up at him through the sunshine. “They become lost.”
I thought about the Ernests and the Mauds and the Mabels. “Or they die,” I said.
He frowned and repeated my words. “Or they die,” he said.
The vicar smelled exactly the same as the church. Faith had been trapped within the folds of his clothes, and the air was filled with the scent of tapestry and candles.
“How do you stop people from disappearing?” I said.
“You help them to find God.” He shifted his weight, and gravel crunched around his shoes. “If God exists in a community, no one will be lost.”
I thought about our estate. The unwashed children who spilled from houses and the drunken arguments that tumbled through windows. I couldn’t imagine God spent very much time there at all.
“How do you find God?” I said. “Where is He?”
“He’s everywhere. Everywhere.” The vicar waved his arms around to show me. “You just have to look.”
“And if we find God, everyone will be safe?” I said.
“Even Mrs. Creasy?”
A crow unfolded itself from the roof of the church, and a murderous cry filled the silence.
“I don’t know how God can do that,” I said. “How can He keep us from disappearing?”
“You know that the Lord is our shepherd, Grace. We are just sheep. If we wander off the path, we need God to find us and bring us home.”
I looked down at my feet whilst I thought about it. Grass had buried itself in the weave of my socks and dug sharp, red lines into my flesh.
“Why do people have to die?” I said, but when I looked up, the vicar was back at the chancel door.
“Are you coming for tea at the church hall?” he shouted.
I didn’t really want to. I would rather have gone back to Tilly. Her mother didn’t believe in organized religion and was worried we’d all be brainwashed by the vicar, but I had to say yes, or it would have been a bit like turning down Jesus.
“Okay,” I said, and picked the blades of grass from my knees.
* * *
I walked behind Mrs. Morton, along the lane between the church and the hall. The verge was thick with summer: stitchwort and buttercups, and towering foxgloves, which blew clouds of pollen from rich, purple bells. The breeze had dropped, leaving us in a razor of heat, which cut into the skin at the tops of my arms and made speaking too much of an effort. We trudged in a single line, silent pilgrims drawn towards a shrine of tea and digestives, all strapped into Sunday clothes and decorated with sweat.
When we reached the car park, Tilly was sitting on the wall. She was basted in suncream and wore a sou’wester.
“It was the only hat I could find,” she said.
“I thought your mother didn’t want you to be religious?” I held out my hand.
“She’s gone to stack shelves at the co-op,” Tilly said, and heaved herself down from the bricks.
The church hall was a low, white building which squatted at the end of the lane and looked as though it had been put there whilst someone made their mind up about what to do with it. Inside, it rattled with teacups and efficiency. Smart heels clicked on a parquet floor and giant, stainless-steel urns spat and hissed to us from the corner.
“I’m going to have hot chocolate,” said Tilly.
I studied Mrs. Morton, as she ordered our drinks. Early widowhood had forced her to weave a life from other people’s remnants, and she had baked and minded and knitted herself into a glow of indispensability. I wondered who Mrs. Morton would be if she still had a husband— Mr. Morton hadn’t been searching for the New Seekers in the footwell of his car and driven himself headfirst into the central reservation of the M4. There had been a female passenger (people whispered), who appeared at the funeral in ankle-length black and crimson lipstick, and who sobbed with such violence she had to be escorted from the church by an anxious sexton. I remembered none of this. I was too young. I had only ever known Mrs. Morton as she was now, tweeded and scrubbed, and rattling like a pebble in a life made for two.
“Hot chocolate.” Mrs. Morton handed a cup to Tilly. We all knew she wouldn’t drink it, but we kept up the pretense, even Tilly, who held it to her face until steam crept over her glasses.
“Do you believe in God, Mrs. Morton?” I looked up at her.
Tilly and I both waited.
She didn’t reply immediately, but her eyes searched for an answer in the beams of the ceiling. “I believe in not asking people daft questions on a Sunday morning,” she said eventually, and went to find the toilet.
The hall filled with people. It was far more crowded than the church had been, and pairs of jeans mixed with Sunday best. It appeared that Jesus pulled a much bigger crowd if He provided Garibaldis. There were people from our avenue— Forbeses and the man who was always mowing his lawn, and the woman from the corner house, who was surrounded by a clutter of children. They clung to her hips and her legs, and I watched as she slipped biscuits into her pocket. Everyone stood with newspapers in their armpits and sunglasses on their foreheads, and in the corner a Pomeranian was having an argument with a border collie. People were talking about the water shortage and James Callaghan, and whether Mrs. Creasy had turned up yet. She hadn’t.
No one mentioned Jesus.
In fact, I didn’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked into the room, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Arctic roll.
* * *
“Do you believe in God?” I asked Tilly.
We sat in a corner of the hall, on blue plastic chairs which pulled the sweat from our skin, Tilly sniffing her hot chocolate, and me drawing my knees to my chest, like a shield. I could see Mrs. Morton in the distance, trapped by a trestle table and two large women in flowered aprons.
“Probably,” she said. “I think God saved me when I was in hospital.”
“How do you know that?”
“My mum asked Him to every day.” She frowned into her cup. “She went off Him after I got better.”
“You’ve never told me. You always said you were too young to remember being sick.”
“I remember that,” she said, “and I remember it was Christmas and the nurses wore tinsel in their hair. I don’t remember anything else.”
She didn’t. I had asked— times. It was better for children if they didn’t know all the facts, she’d said, and the words always left her mouth in italics.
When she first told me, it was thrown into the conversation with complete indifference, like a playing card. I had never met anyone who had nearly died, and in the beginning the subject was attacked with violent curiosity. Then it became more than fascination. I needed to know everything, so that all the details might be stitched together for protection. As if hearing the truth would somehow save us from it. If I had almost died, I would have an entire speech to use at a moment’s notice, but Tilly only remembered the tinsel and something being wrong with her blood. It wasn’t enough— when I connected all the words together, like a prayer.
After she told me, I had joined her mother in a silent conspiracy of watchfulness. Tilly was watched as we ran under a seamless August sky; a breathless look over my shoulder, waiting for her legs to catch up with mine. She was protected from a baked summer by my father’s golfing umbrella, her life lived far from the edges of curbs and the cracks in pavements, and when September carried in mist and rain, she was placed so close to the gas fire, her legs became tartanned in red.
I watched her without end, inspecting her life for the slightest vibration of change, and yet she knew none of this. My worries were noiseless, a silent obsession that the only friend I had ever made would be taken from me, just because I hadn’t concentrated hard enough.