Today's Reading

THREE

She left the door of the interview room open and George Alderley, who must have handed the toddler over to a colleague, obliged with cups of tea.

As Joanna sat down opposite the woman she decided to be circumspect in her questioning rather than going in all guns blazing. 'First of all,' she said, her voice brisk, neutral and matter of fact, 'I need your name.'

The woman seemed to look right through her.

Joanna looked right back. The girl had tawny eyes, brown flecked with yellow. They were cat-like and yet surprisingly candid. Her lashes were long and she was wearing no trace of make-up, as though she'd just got out of bed. Her skin was very pale, almost anaemically white, and she was chewing her lips but saying nothing.

'Your name,' Joanna repeated.

This time the woman shifted her gaze to focus on Joanna, but she still made no attempt to respond. She didn't even open her mouth.

Joanna tried a different approach. 'We should really get you out of those wet clothes.'

The woman seemed to shrink away from her into the chair.

'Do you want to use the bathroom to change? We can lend you some clothes.'

There was no response. Not even a shake of her head, nothing but this fixed, blank stare.

Joanna waited for a while before standing up, decision made. 'We have some clothes you can change into. One of the female officers will give you a hand.'

She opened the door. PC Dawn Critchlow appeared, as though by magic, a pile of clothes in her arms. If anyone could coax the woman to speak it would be Dawn. She had a natural talent for persuading people to trust her and confide in her. With a smile Dawn held out her hand and the young woman rose from the chair, following her meekly. As they passed Joanna spoke in the officer's ear. 'Bag up those clothes.'

Dawn nodded.

Ten minutes later they both reappeared, the girl now wearing loose grey jogging pants and a cream sweatshirt. Her hair had been partially dried but was still lank and damp. Joanna spoke softly to Dawn. 'Does she have any obvious injury?'

Dawn shook her head. The woman was standing, looking from one to the other, perhaps waiting for direction. Joanna indicated for her to sit down again.

And tried a gentler approach. 'We do need your name.'

The girl continued to stare at her, her eyes fixed and unresponsive. It was hard to work out whether this was deliberate obstinacy, a natural reluctance, or her silence was due to some other factor. Whatever the reason Joanna felt unnerved. What was going on in her mind? Was she unable to process the request? Like Jeremy Western before her she ran through various ossibilities. Was she deaf? Dumb? Didn't understand English?

Joanna repeated slowly, 'What's your name?'

The woman gave no sign that she had heard, let alone understood the question. Joanna tried another approach accompanied by a friendly, almost conspiratorial smile. 'And the child? A little boy, isn't he? Is he your little boy?'

The eyes never dropped their steady gaze on her but there was not a flicker of response. The pupils remained constricted.

Joanna indicated the cup set on the table. 'Drink your tea before it goes cold.'

Obediently the girl lifted the cup, answering three tacit questions. She heard, understood, and could process a simple direction. As she drank, her eyes were fixed on Joanna's face. But whether they held appeal or stubbornness was impossible to decide.

Joanna picked up her pen. 'Whatever lay behind the circumstances in which you came to our attention I hope to be able to help you. But first of all I do need some basic details. You understand what I've just said?'

No response.

Joanna looked around her, met Dawn Critchlow's eyes, gave a slight, frustrated shake of her head and tried again. 'Do you know where you are?'

This time the girl's eyes moved slowly around the room as though committing it to memory. Her lips moved now, forming silent words. This, Joanna reflected wryly, was turning into a very one-sided interview.


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book THE GOLDENACRE by Philip Miller.

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