Discover the first chapter of Mark Billingham’s new novel Cry Baby.
Available for order now here
‘Sweet,’ Maria said.
Cat looked at her. ‘What?’
‘The pair of them.’ Maria leaned back on the bench and nodded towards the two boys in the playground. Her son, Josh, had just landed with a bump at the bottom of the slide and Cat’s son, Kieron, was hauling him to his feet. The boys high-fived a little clumsily, then ran towards the climbing frame, shouting and laughing.
‘Yeah,’ Cat said, grinning. ‘They’re proper mates.’
‘We can still do this, can’t we?’ Maria asked. ‘After you’ve gone.’
‘Haven’t gone anywhere, yet.’ Cat sipped the tea bought from the small cafeteria near the entrance. ‘Might all fall through, anyway.’
Maria looked at her, as though there might be something her friend hadn’t told her.
‘I mean, these things happen, don’t they? All I’m saying.
Some form not filled in properly or whatever.’
‘Presuming it doesn’t, though,’ Maria said. ‘It would be such a shame if we can’t still bring them here.’ She looked back towards the playground, where the two boys were waving from the top of the wooden climbing frame. The women waved back and, almost in unison, they shouted across, urging their children to be careful. ‘They do love it.’
‘Well, it’s not like I’ll be going far.’ ‘I’d hate that,’ Maria said.
Cat smiled and leaned against her. ‘You can always bring Josh over to the new place. Put your lazy arse in the car. There are decent parks in Walthamstow.’
‘This is our special place though,’ Maria said. ‘Their special place.’
An elderly woman they often saw in the wood walked by with her little dog and, as always, the boys rushed across to make a fuss of it. Cat and Maria sat and listened while the woman talked about how nice it was to get out and about, now the warm weather had kicked in, and told them about the campaign to install new bird-feeders and bat-boxes. She stayed chatting for a few minutes more, even after the boys had lost interest and gone back inside the playground, before finally saying goodbye.
‘How’s Josh doing at school?’ Cat asked.
Maria shrugged. ‘Could be better, but I think things are improving.’
‘Well, he’s still missing Josh. Still saying it’s unfair they can’t be at the same school.’
‘It is unfair.’ Maria shook her head, annoyed. ‘You know, a neighbour of mine went out and bought one of those measuring wheels. Walked it all the way from her front door to the school gates, trying to persuade the council she was in the catchment area. A hundred feet short, apparently. It’s ridiculous . . . ’
‘He shouldn’t be there for too much longer anyway,’ Cat said.
‘What about schools near the new place?’
‘Yeah, pretty good. Best one’s only fifteen minutes’ walk from the flat, but it’s C of E.’ Cat shuddered. ‘Got to convince them I’m a full-time Godbotherer if he’s going to get in there.’
‘You must know a few hymns,’ Maria said.
‘“All Things Bright and Beautiful”, that’s about my lot. Not sure I can be doing with all that stuff, anyway. When I went to have a look round, one of the other mums had a moustache Magnum would have been proud of.’
‘Something about not interfering with what the Lord had given her, apparently.’
‘Mental, right? Anyhow, there’s another school a bus-ride away, so it’ll be fine. It’ll all work out.’ She stood up and brushed crumbs of blossom from the back of her jeans. ‘Right, I’m des- perate for a pee . . . ’
‘Pizza when you get back?’
Cat stared across at her son and his best friend.
The boys were walking slowly around the edge of the play- ground, in step together and deep in what looked like a very serious conversation. Josh raised his arms and shook his head. Kieron did exactly the same. They were almost certainly talking about Rugrats, but they might have been discussing the Mad Cow crisis or growing tensions in the Middle East.
Cat smiled. ‘Sounds like a plan,’ she said. ‘I’ll round them up.’
Maria watched Cat walk away through the trees towards the toilets by the café, then turned back to watch their children playing. It had been more than chit-chat, because she would certainly miss Cat when she moved, miss seeing her as often. They were unlikely friends. They said as much to each other all
the time. Maria was five years older and lived in a nice house in Muswell Hill, while Cat’s place in Archway was somewhat . . . rough and ready, much as she was.
The odd couple, she’d heard people say that.
Best friends, however much they might seem mismatched to others. Well, Cat was probably Maria’s closest friend, at any rate, and Maria found herself becoming a little jealous if Cat talked about any of her other mates for too long. Maria had lost touch ages ago with the girlfriends she’d met at university and she wasn’t particularly close to anyone at work. Most of the women she’d thought of as friends up until a few years before had mysteriously melted away after the divorce. Almost all had been one half of a couple, so perhaps they’d simply wanted to avoid any awkwardness, though Maria preferred to believe that they could not really have liked her very much to begin with, so told herself she was better off without them.
That she still had time to make new friends. True friends.
Now, Josh and Kieron were racing one another around the playground perimeter. They pulled faces at her as they flew past. They reached the far side, then stopped to get their breath back, before Kieron whispered something to Josh and went tearing away into the trees.
Maria shouted across, warned her son not to go too far, then watched him run off to follow his friend.
She and Cat had met five years earlier, at a mother and toddler group in Highgate, no more than a mile or so from where she was sitting now. Each of them had remained immune to the charms of the po-faced ‘group facilitator’. Both had laughed at the petty one-upmanship of some of the more competitive participants. They had agreed that, as far as refreshments went, wine – or better yet whisky – would have been far more conducive than herbal tea and Hobnobs, and had quickly made arrangements to remedy the situation in their own time.
They had been equally delighted to discover just how much they had in common. The important stuff at least. The pair of them single, for a kick-off, if for very different reasons.
Maria glanced up and saw Josh moving quickly through the trees behind the playground; a flash of his bright yellow coat. She smiled, remembering the look on his face when she’d brought it back from the shop.
‘I’ll look like a big banana, Mummy.’
Cat had been right, of course – she usually was. The brave one, the sod-it-who-cares one, the one whose glass was always half full. There was no reason why anything should change, nothing that mattered, anyway. There was no need to worry. So, the four of them might not be able to come to the wood quite as often as they did, as they had been doing for the last couple of years, but it wasn’t as if Cat and Kieron would be miles away. And, of course, there was always the possibility they might not be moving at all; hadn’t Cat said that herself? However things panned out, the most important thing was that the boys stayed close, saw each other as often as possible.
Important to Maria, too.
She reached into her bag for cigarettes and lit one. She never smoked in front of Josh, but could not resist seizing the opportunity for a quick one while he was out of sight. A habit she’d quit at her husband’s insistence, taken up again when he became her ex-husband.
One with a glass of wine in the evening. Several with several glasses.
She sat back, closed her eyes and let the smoke out slowly, then looked up when she heard one of the boys shout from somewhere in the wood. She couldn’t hear what he was shouting, and it was hard to tell which one it was anyway, but then they were alike in so many ways. Same size and shape, same colour hair. Maria had lost count of the times she’d taken Kieron’s hand by mistake, walked away with him.
‘You’re welcome to take both of them if you really want to,’
Cat had said, the last time. She’d laughed, even though she’d made the same mistake herself, several times. ‘I’ll hop on a plane to Majorca for a couple of weeks.’
As soon as she glanced around and saw Cat coming back towards the bench, Maria stubbed the cigarette out, but the look on her friend’s face made it clear she had not been quite quick enough.
‘Thought you were going to pack those in.’ ‘Trying,’ Maria said. ‘It’s been difficult, you know.’ ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t see it if you give me one.’
Maria reached into her bag again and offered the Silk Cut across. Cat took a cigarette and turned to look for the children. ‘Where are the boys?’
‘They’re messing around in the woods,’ Maria said, pointing. ‘I just saw Josh . . . ’
Without waiting for a light, Cat began walking towards the playground.
Maria stood up. ‘I heard them shouting—’
Cat moved quickly through the playground towards the exit on the far side, calling her son’s name, oblivious to the stares of other parents whose kids stopped what they were doing to watch. Maria hurried to catch her up and they both stopped dead when Josh appeared suddenly and came running from the trees towards them.
His yellow coat was streaked with mud and he burst into tears the instant he laid eyes on his mother.
‘Josh?’ Maria leaned down and took her son’s face in her hands. ‘You OK?’
‘Where’s Kieron?’ Cat asked, looking towards the trees. ‘Josh, where’s Kieron?’
The boy began wailing and buried his face in his mother’s stomach.
The unlit cigarette fell from Cat’s hand and she began to run.
Cry Baby is out 23rd July in hardback and ebook and available to order now.