I search for the right response. "You don't really think it was Layla, do you? Not after all these years."
Tony sighs heavily. "I'm inclined to put it down to Mr. Winter's overactive imagination. I thought you should know, that's all."
"Well, thanks, Tony." I want to hang up but it seems too soon. "When are you retiring? September, isn't it?"
"Yes, just another couple of months to go. Not too sure what I'll do with myself, though."
I grab onto this. "You can start by coming down to see us. I know Ellen would love to see you."
"I will, definitely."
Maybe he understands that I'm not up to speaking because he tells me that he has another call to make. I stand for a moment, trying to get things in perspective, wondering why Thomas thought he saw Layla. I make a quick calculation; we had celebrated his eightieth birthday just before leaving for that fateful holiday in France in 2006, which means Thomas is ninety-two now, an age at which people get easily confused, an age where it's easy to dismiss what they say, or what they think they saw. It can only be the ramblings of an old man. Confident, I take my keys from my pocket and carry on to the car park.
The journey home is unbelievably slow, which isn't unusual for a Friday afternoon. As I drive past the "Welcome to Simonsbridge. Please drive slowly" sign at the entrance to the village, my earlier excitement over the new deal starts to come back. It was good of Harry to book The Hideout; he said I should go for the venison steak, and I probably will.
A minute later I'm pulling up in front of the house, nothing much to look at from the outside maybe, but once inside it's my haven, and the garden, my sanctuary. In a normal world Ellen would be standing on the doorstep, as impatient to see me as I am to see her. More often than not, roused from whatever illustration she's working on by the sound of the tires scrunching on the gravel, she opens the door before I'm out of the car. But not now. And today, it seems ominous.
I tell myself not to be stupid, that she doesn't always open the door, that if I'd phoned ahead to tell her the good news, of course she'd be waiting. But I'd wanted to tell her face-to-face, I want to see her telling me how clever I am rather than just hearing it. I know how it sounds but it isn't that I have a huge ego, more that pulling off this deal is a career highlight. A result like Grant James is such an adrenaline rush. It even beats the high I get from outsmarting the markets.
The sound of my key in the lock doesn't bring her to the door. It doesn't bring Peggy, our red setter, either, which is even more unusual. Instead of calling out, I go in search of Ellen, a flicker of worry making itself felt. As I push open the door to the sitting room, I see her curled up in one of the armchairs, wearing my blue denim shirt, which she continually pinches from my wardrobe. I don't mind, I love to see her in it. She has her knees pulled up to her chest and the shirt pulled down over them, like a tent.
My silent sigh of relief at finding her there is checked by the way she's staring unseeingly out of the window, her eyes on a distant past. It's a look I haven't seen for a while but a look I know only too well. It explains why Peggy—always sensitive to Ellen's mood—is lying silently at her feet.
"Ellen?" I say softly.
She turns her head toward me and as her eyes come into focus, she scrambles to her feet.
"Sorry," she says ruefully, hurrying over to me, Peggy following more sedately behind her, her age showing. "I was miles away."
"I can see that."
She reaches up and kisses me. "How was your day?"
"Good," I say, putting my news about the contract on hold for a moment. "What about yours?"
"Good too." But her smile is just a little too bright.
"So what were you thinking about when I came in?"
She shakes her head. "Nothing."
I put my finger under her chin and tilt her head upward so that she can't avoid my eyes. "You know that doesn't work with me."
"It really is nothing," she insists.