Short Stories - Hector's Other Woman

Read a short story starring Ann Cleeves' Vera. 

On impulse Vera took herself off to Holy Island. She had a sudden craving for crab sandwiches and a blast of sea air. Of course she hadn't stopped to check tide times, but arrived at Beal just in time. Hector's Land Rover made it across the causeway as the water was blowing in and the last tourist cars splashed back to the mainland. It was a big tide of the autumn equinox and a blustery north-easterly wind carried sharp showers of rain. Arriving at the Snook there was a rainbow, and Lindisfarne castle in the distance like an illustration from a child's picture book.

The hotel looking over the harbour had rooms free and again on impulse Vera chose the grandest. It was a little shabby but large with windows on two sides, one facing the priory and the other the Herring Houses and the castle beyond. The receptionist made no comment. The island was used to visitors of all sorts: trippers and romantics and pilgrims. Perhaps she thought Vera was a nun in mufti, a nun with expensive tastes.</p> <p>Vera left her bag in her room and walked out. She hated the island when it was full of visitors, but midweek in November once the tide came in, there were only locals and the occasional mad tourist. Walking through the village she saw there was a house for sale right next to the pub. Perhaps she should retire here once they forced her out of the service. But she knew she'd never leave the house in the hills, the house where she'd grown up, where she'd lived with Hector. Her father, deceased. The man who most haunted her dreams.

She strode briskly down the straight lonnen, north towards the sea. In the distance there was a lone birdwatcher at the end of the track. He must have disappeared into the dunes because when she looked up again he'd gone. She was heading for the triangular stone that marked Emmanuel Head, for no reason other than that it gave her somewhere to aim for. She wasn't in the mood for wandering without purpose. She lost sight of it occasionally as she followed random paths through the sandy land, but then she emerged at the top of a dune and she was almost on it and there was a view along the beaches on either side of it. Gannets were diving not far from shore and a group of scoter bounced in the choppy water. There was nothing to break the wind here and she found it hard to breathe.

She leaned against the marker stone, sheltering as best she could. Looking back at the island the light was beginning to fade. It wouldn't be dark for a couple of hours, but the colour was seeping out of the grass and the stone. Then, suddenly, she was pitched back more than thirty years. Another autumn afternoon. Another wild dash to Holy Island just before the tide. Then Hector had been driving and she'd been an unwilling passenger, bullied to accompany him. She'd been in the middle of her A level year and had been reluctant to leave her books.

'Come on Vee,' he'd said. 'All work and no play' And she'd done as he'd wanted. Then she always did.

He'd bought her lunch in the Lindisfarne Hotel and drunk too much. Red wine with his steak and whisky after. He talked a lot, became excitable, almost manic. If it had been the spring, Vera would have suspected he was planning a raid on birds' eggs. Hector had been an egg collector all his life; it wasn't a passing childhood phase, but an obsession, a strange passion. It was also a business because he traded the eggs, and collected rare ones on commission. That and a small inheritance from his family was all the family had to live on. The business was illegal of course, and that was why Hector enjoyed it so much: he loved the risk, the possibility that he might be caught. But that time thirty years ago, it had been autumn too and long past the breeding season. There would be no eggs on the shore or along the edges of the pools. Nothing to steal.

When the time came to pay the bill, Hector pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket. He held it under the table to take out the money, but Vera saw him. She'd always been curious, a child who pried into other people's business. It was stuffed with notes, more cash than she could count. Presumably he'd recently made a good sale. Once he'd sold a young peregrine to an Arab prince and they'd lived well for months.

After lunch Hector said he was going for a walk. 'No need for you to come Vee.' His tone breezy. 'You can sit in the Land Rover and do some work.' Because that time there had been no hotel room. They planned to leave as soon as the tide ebbed. She waited in the car park until he'd disappeared down the straight lonnen towards the coast. Then she went after him. Partly because she was bored and partly because she didn't trust him. Occasionally he stopped and looked behind him, checking that nobody was following. He hadn't seen Vera. Even then she was a big young woman, but she could move quickly and she knew how to hide, how to fade into the landscape. Hector had taught her well when he'd taken her on his raids in the hills for eggs and young birds of prey.

At Emmanuel Head he'd stopped and looked around him again, this time with more purpose, as if he had an appointment. He even looked at his watch. After a few moments, Vera saw the woman walking along the beach, scattering the wading birds that settled again behind her. It was as if she were kicking up large flakes of confetti. She had red hair and wore Wellingtons and a long Barbour coat. Rather county, Vera thought, watching from a distance, but as the woman approached she changed her mind. This woman was pretty not middle-aged horsy, and under the waxed coat she wore a long floral dress. It was the time of Laura Ashley, of high waists and frills. The hair was wild. She could have been an art student and that made her exotic to Vera. She was young, older than Vera but not by more than five or six years. What could her father have to do with this woman?  The couple stood for a moment, looking at each other. Hector rested his elbow on the back of the wooden bench that stood next to the monument, a way of steadying himself against the wind. Perhaps he was still a little drunk. They didn't touch but they'd met before, Vera was sure of that. Words were exchanged but she was too far away to hear. She tried to read the relationship from the way they were standing, but failed to make sense of it, couldn't decide if it were affectionate or hostile. Now, she thought, she'd make a better fist of it. Now she was more experienced at picking up a gesture, an expression. Then she was young and naïve.

When Hector held up a hand after several minutes of conversation, Vera couldn't tell if he were cautioning patience or asking the woman to wait for him. Or perhaps it was just a stilted way of saying goodbye. In any event he turned away from her and began to walk along the path skirting the shore that led back towards the castle. The woman did wait, her coat pulled around her. As she watched him walk away, she seemed suddenly to shrink. Her shoulders dropped and it was as if the life had been sucked out of her. There was a sense of terrible resignation. Then she straightened her back again and returned to the beach, retracing her own footsteps in the sand.

Vera scrambled up to the triangular marker stone of Emmanuel Head and watched them, far apart on different tracks, making their way down the island. But although they walked separately she had the sense that they were aware of each other's position. This was like a dance with the whole of Holy Island as the ballroom floor. It seemed inevitable that eventually they would come together once more.

Vera decided that she would follow Hector. If she dropped down onto the beach the redhead would notice her. It would be impossible to be quiet with the waders calling whenever they were disturbed. She watched until Hector turned into the crooked lonnen and was hidden by the hedge and then she went after him, moving very quickly, light despite her size. She was close enough to see him turn into the small cottage, hardly more than a shack, which stood surrounded by an overgrown garden. It had a corrugated iron roof, covered in rust, and a small wooden veranda. There were no other houses in this part of the island and now that the light was fading nobody else was about. Hector took a key out of his pocket and let himself in. The redheaded woman wasn't as quiet as Vera and it was easy to hear her coming down the lonnen. Vera slipped behind a dry stone wall and waited. The woman walked up to the path to the cottage and tapped lightly on the door. Now there was a light inside. Not electric. It flickered. Perhaps the place was so isolated that it had no electricity. A tilley lamp perhaps or calor gas. Hector opened the door and the woman went inside.

'You've decided then?' Hector's voice. Triumphant. A tone Vera knew well. She didn't hear the woman's answer. Or perhaps his companion knew better than to speak when he was in this mood. But how well did she know him? The door was shut. Vera glimpsed him briefly through the window closing the curtains.</p> <p>She climbed from her hiding place and back to the track. It was almost dark and there were no streetlights here. She didn't want Hector to bump into her as she stumbled back to the Land Rover. After all she didn't know how long he would be. How could she explain that she'd been following him? She didn't take the direct route to the car park. Instead she made her way towards the village. She could always tell Hector that she'd got bored waiting and wandered out in search of a café for tea. Her head was spinning with questions and remembering the woman, standing at Emmanuel Head, the collapse in will and posture as Hector had walked away from her, Vera felt the stirring of anger and defiance. Until then she'd blamed herself for Hector's attitude to her: if she were prettier, thinner, more compliant, he would be different towards her. But the red headed woman had been pretty and thin and still, it seemed, he felt the need to bully.

Vera didn't want to picture what might be happening in the cottage with the rusting iron roof. Instead she focussed on detail. How had Hector got the key? Did the place belong to one of his shady friends: the bizarre and eccentric brotherhood of illicit falconers and taxidermists to which he belonged? Had he stolen it? Blagged it? Hector could lie for Northumberland and he had no shame. And how had he met the bonny redhead? What could she possibly see in him?

The pub in the main street was already open and Vera stood for a moment looking in through the window. Inside there was a fire and a game was being played. A strange game involving a quoit strung from a rope attached to the ceiling. The players swung the quoit towards a pair of horns fixed to the wall and attempted to loop it onto one of them. An islander pushed his way in from the street and through the briefly opened door Vera heard laughter, smelled beer and the smoke from the driftwood fire. She would have loved to go in but in the Holy Island of the 1970s she knew she wouldn't be welcome. The pub wasn't the place for a young woman to enter alone. Not a stranger. She wandered back to the Land Rover.

Hector arrived just in time for them to follow the tide back to the mainland. In fact he hadn't been in the cottage for more than half an hour. Vera's understanding of sex was rather sketchy. How long did it take to make love? Because she assumed that was what had happened there. Hector hadn't had a regular girlfriend since Vera's mother had died, but somehow he had persuaded the pretty young woman to have sex with him. The redhead hadn't wanted to – that was clear from her attitude at the marker on Emmanuel Head. So he must have had some hold over her. On the journey back to the house in the hills, Hector still seemed elated and excitable. Vera said very little, but no response was expected from her. She wondered what had happened to the sad young woman. Had she stayed on the island or was she driving back to the mainland too?

Thirty-five years later, leaning against the marker stone and feeling the gusts of wind eddy around her, Vera thought that her decision to become a police officer had stemmed from that day. It was the last thing Hector would have  wanted for her and that was enough. The next day she'd phoned her local police station and arranged an informal interview. She'd sat her exams and then she'd joined up.

She'd met Hector's redhead, the only other woman in his life it seemed, a few years after she joined the force. There'd been a joint operation and the serious crime squad had come up from Newcastle. It was the early eighties, a time of big hair and big shoulder pads, a style that, like the Laura Ashley ruffles, had passed Vera by. The operation involved local council corruption, organised crime and an agency supplying high class prostitutes. Vera had been seconded to the team, presumably because there were so few women in the squad. The meeting had been held in the station in Kimmerston, and there'd been a pin board with photos of the main players. Most of her colleagues smoked and she'd viewed the images through a haze of cigarette smoke. That was when she'd seen the woman. Not on the board, staring out at her, but sitting at a table at the front of the room in conversation with the DCI in charge of the operation. The wild red hair had been cut and she wore grey trousers and a black jacket, a neat white blouse. She looked more like a businesswoman now than a student. 

'Who's that?' Vera nodded towards the woman and directed her question to Kevin Moore, her sergeant.

'Ah,' he said. 'The lovely Judy Laidlaw. Already a DI. Ambitious. She's tipped to be the first female Chief Constable in the UK. And I wouldn't bet against her.' He paused. 'I'll introduce you later. She's a great one for getting women into the CID and I know you'll not be happy until it happens for you.'

Throughout the meeting Vera watched Laidlaw. The images she'd constructed around the woman and Hector shifted, as the patterns in a kaleidoscope change when the tube is turned. This was a strong woman, with a career of her own. Laidlaw would be the equal partner in a relationship. What could she have seen in Hector? Had Vera been wrong? Could they have cared for each other? Had he met her on other occasions? Or was something altogether different going on?

When the operation was over - completed successfully in that the girls and the thugs at the bottom of the heap were arrested and the politicians and the moneymen remained untouched - they all went to a pub in the city centre. Vera was treated as one of the lads by the men in the team. She drank pints and didn't ask for favours. Judy Laidlaw was rather different. She flirted with them, stroking their egos, and they were queuing up to buy her vodka tonics. Kevin Moore was as good as his word and introduced the women. His voice was mellow with beer. 'Meet our Vera,' he said. 'Sharp as a tack. You could use her on your team.' And he melted away towards the bar. In the crowded pub the women could have been alone. They took a small table in a corner and the noise continued away from them.

'Vera?' Laidlaw's eyes were unfocussed – the vodka tonics were taking their toll - but her voice was gracious. Still she knew she had it in her power to deliver favours.

'Aye. Vera Stanhope.' Emphasising the rural accent. She looked up at the inspector. 'I think you know my dad.'

Laidlaw set down her drink. She looked around her to check that her colleagues were out of earshot, and again Vera recognised the despair she'd seen in the woman at Emmanuel Head. 'What do you want?' 'To know what was going on between you and my father.' 'Nothing. Nothing was going on.' A look of distaste. 'Nothing like that.' 'I saw you on Holy Island, one November afternoon.'

Laidlaw gave a tight little laugh. 'He said he'd brought his daughter. Cover, he said, though who would be interested in us?' Then, quite serious. 'You do realise this could ruin me?'

'I want to know.' Perhaps the drink made Laidlaw reckless, persuaded her that really Vera posed no threat. Or perhaps now she found the secret unbearable. In any event she started talking and the words spilled out. 'I was Northumbria's first Wildlife Liaison Officer. A new post and nobody wanted it. But I knew it would get me noticed and a woman in the force needs all the visibility she can get. You'll understand that.'

Vera nodded. 'Your father did his homework. Checked me out. I was the enemy, the new opposition. I'd head up any investigation into wildlife crime. He discovered that I had a baby and no husband, that I was ambitious. That I was in debt.' Vera said nothing, but she knew what was coming next. She remembered the wallet packed with cash as Hector paid for the lunch in the Lindisfarne Hotel. 'He offered me money,' Laidlaw said. 'More money than I'd seen before. I went to the island determined to stand firm. But he persuaded me.' 'Oh yes,' Vera said. 'He can be very persuasive.' 'So after that I turned a blind eye.' The woman shrugged. 'Birds' eggs. That's not real crime, is it?'

'It's against the law,' Vera said, though hadn't she turned a blind eye too? She'd moved out of the house in the hills as soon as she could, but she knew what Hector was up to. 'What will you do?' Laidlaw asked.

'Nothing,' Vera said. 'None of my business.'

And a fortnight later she'd received an application form for a new post in CID. Now she sat in the bar of the hotel on Holy Island, drinking whisky and rereading the piece in The Newcastle Journal that had brought her here. An article about recently retired Chief Constable Judith Laidlaw, who had ended her career in Thames Valley, but had begun her service in Northumbria. It seemed she'd already been awarded an OBE in the honours list for her probity and for the quality of her leadership. Vera went back to the bar and raised a glass to her benefactor, to Hector's other woman.