‘I knew there was something about him.’
‘You never said.’
‘Doesn’t mean I didn’t think it.’ She tried to catch his eye but he looked away, took a sip of tea and set the mug back down on the bedside table.
‘I just had a feeling,’ she said, not insisting. It was a relief to be speaking about it after all the not speaking about it. It was Saturday morning; they’d got the phone call on Wednesday night. Since then: more phone calls and work and drink and trying to think of something else, forgetting sometimes for a couple of minutes at a time but always remembering then.
Lying on his back he gazed up from the bed to where a curl of plaster had peeled from the ceiling. ‘So why didn’t you say anything?’
‘You think I’m making this up?’
‘I think,’ he said, choosing his words like stepping stones in a stream, measuring each step, ‘you wish you’d noticed something. You wish there’d been something for you to notice.’
‘Of course I do; Ruth was my best friend. I haven’t slept a wink since Wednesday.’
‘You seemed to do okay last night.’
‘Nothing.’ Lately—but when had it started?—they were constantly sliding into arguments. These seemed to rise from nowhere, from everywhere; they were obvious, tired arguments but, like children, they were helpless to resist them. Sunlight seeped around the curtains and he felt an urge to be outside, walking somewhere fast.
‘Ruth was my friend too,’ he said at length. ‘She was both of our friends and I can’t stop thinking about it either. But that doesn’t change the fact that that man was here; he spent five hours here; we had dinner with him. And I didn’t notice anything about him. Even if I’d been watching him closely, and I’d no reason to watch him, I don’t believe I’d have noticed anything. If anything, he seemed nicer than her last boyfriend. He seemed like a nice, friendly guy. I liked him. You did too.’ It occurred to him that he ought to reach out and touch her now, take hold of her hand, but he reached instead for his tea, only to remember that the mug was empty.
Turning onto her side to face him, she brushed hair from her face. ‘You’ve never had to learn to watch people closely,’ she said, ‘to wonder what they might be capable of.’
Looking at her, he thought for a moment this was something else. For a moment he thought it was about her father—once, before Christmas, she’d accused him of sounding like her father, a man she called Doctor Logic and had seen only twice since college—but then it didn’t seem to be that. ‘People,’ he said, ‘don’t you mean men?’
‘Don’t get angry.’
‘I’m not getting angry,’ he said, although he was now. ‘I’m frustrated.’
‘That’s just splitting hairs.’
They both paused, both thinking the same thought. The previous day’s paper had described the murder weapon: a hatchet of the sort used for splitting logs.
‘Well, I’m positive I felt something.’ Even as she said it she felt less sure she was sure. ‘There must be a way to tell, from people’s faces or something. Otherwise what hope is there for any of us?’
‘Wishful thinking,’ he said and saw her jaw tighten as though he’d aimed a punch. Still he went on, ‘There isn’t any way, or not always. You can study a person all you like, read their horoscope, their palm, have them followed or talk to their parents, friends, brothers and sisters. You can run all the background checks, criminal, DNA, but in the end you can’t ever know what’s going on behind someone’s face.’
‘I can’t accept that.’
‘What about Ruth? Don’t you think Ruth would have noticed if there’d been something to notice?’ He dragged the covers down off his bare chest, although the bedroom was cold. ‘Or noticed sooner at least, before it was too late.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘How can you be so cold-blooded?’
‘I’m just telling it like it is.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘you’re not. Maybe it is that way and maybe it isn’t, but you’re not just telling it how it is. The way you talk, it’s like you’re pleased about it. Like it’s a good thing.’
‘Neither good nor bad,’ he said in an even tone, ‘simply a fact of life.’
There was a silence and then the sound of a lorry changing gears as it climbed the hill. His hand moved to take hers then, the two hands lying in the space between them, but she snatched hers away. ‘Don’t touch me,’ she said and rose naked from the bed.
Timing, he thought; he had a habit of saying the right thing, making the right gesture at the wrong time, half a minute too late. I should do this now, he told himself, and then he did do it, only the moment had passed already. Blinking up at her, he said nothing.
‘I’m going out,’ she told him.
But she’d already pulled on her dressing gown and was moving to the door of the bedroom.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ he yelled, ‘it wasn’t me that killed her.’
She stopped and he thought she would turn but after a second she went on. She slipped out the door and drew it closed behind her.
A minute later he heard the front door but still he didn’t rise. Anger cooled and left him alone with himself. What he thought of then was not Jane or Ruth but the guy who’d come to dinner: Mark. He’d liked Mark; the two of them had hit it off. He couldn’t believe Mark had known then what he was going to do to Ruth. So when had he known? At what stage had the thought—I could do this—occurred to him?
The air in the bedroom felt colder but instead of pulling up the covers he slid his feet off the side of the bed and sat up. His face turned to the window and sunshine, and in his mind there rose a picture of Jane. She was walking fast, striding across the park to the lake. Her mouth was drawn tight and her coat unbuttoned, trailing from her shoulders like a cloak. He made an effort to bring the picture into focus; he focused on the familiar, determined face and asked himself what thoughts or feelings it raised in him. But he couldn’t say. A strange distance had established itself between them, or had it always been there? Had she felt it, too, as she lay beside him, studying his face?
He did love Jane but sometimes he had thoughts or feelings he knew better than to share with her. Didn’t everyone have those thoughts? Sometimes he imagined leaving her and starting some other life, but that didn’t mean he would. Sometimes he said things, too, things he knew would hurt her. Sometimes he hurt her with his words but he would never ever hurt her. He would never be capable of that. Would he be capable of that? Of thinking it perhaps—yes, he could think it—but he could never actually do it. There was a difference between thinking and doing. A distance—how much of a distance? A safe distance? How could you ever know?
Masks by Paul Blaney was read by Silas Hawkins at the Liars' League Gentlemen & Players event at the Wheatsheaf on Tuesday 12 May 2009