Bracken was staying in a grotty hostel up town until she could get somewhere else to live, but because she no longer had any dependants she seemed to have been pushed quite far down the list. This was annoying, but was not her primary grievance.
The morning after the fire, Bracken’s aunt had been found sound asleep on her own couch. She had apparently been evacuated by the bomb disposal people and just gone home, without stopping to think about the baby or her brother in law.
To add insult to injury, she was unable to recall any of the events after Bracken and Nigella had left for their night out. She was deeply apologetic, but no idea where Nicky or the baby were. Bracken, furious, assumed she had been so pissed she forgot all about them. As such, she the two had had a series of blazing rows, and now they weren’t talking to one another.
Her aunt maintained she had not been that pissed, but she couldn't explain what had happened to leave a black hole in her memory where a grown man and a child should have been. She was so worried about the potential for early onset alzheimers that it seemed easier to feud with her niece than to face the problem head on, and of course she felt terribly guilty, which makes people get quite defensive.
Nigella had sided with her mum out of a vague sense of family loyalty, so she too had stopped talking to Bracken. Bracken blustered that was fine by her because at least she didn't have to watch Nige throw herself at Jimmy Bob at every available opportunity, but when she was alone it was one of the things she cried about.
Never being one to read between the lines, Nige believed that Bracken was being very unreasonable expecting her to choose between her mum and her cousin. Her response to this was straightforward, with deviant tendencies. You see reader; Nigella was the only person other than themselves who knew that Aloysius and Esmeralda were not really a couple. She had witnessed a heated argument between them in the car on the night of the fire, when Bracken was investigating and they thought she was out for the count. As a result, she had decided that the best revenge for angry words (and of course her wronged mother) would be to take a crack at the beloved Al. And because Esmerelda was still hanging around like a bad smell, bracken would never know until it was too late.
In addition, the recording of Jeremy Kyle loomed large in Bracken's consciousness. She wondered if she'd get any sympathy for the vanished baby. Probably not. He'd say it was her own fault for going out and leaving him. But at least her aunt might get denounced as unfit to look after kids on national telly.
"Have you found anything yet," she said into the phone.
The police had launched a missing persons search for Nicky and the baby, and Bracken had been phoning for updates several times a day, sometimes going in to the station and waiting round for hours till someone took pity and talked to her for a bit.
As far as she could gather, they were looking with the assumption that Uncle Nicky had gone a bit brain wrong and taken off with his young nephew, for some as yet unknown end. Bracken didn't think that was it, but had been told that hunches didn't mean anything unless you were a fully trained police officer.
"It's not a hunch," she had said, "I know Nicky. He's not the kidnapping type."
"Well," the attending officer willfully misunderstood, "maybe your son went with him willingly, but if it was without your permission we have to treat it as kidnapping."
"Went with him willingly? He's sixteen months old!"
"They're often easily led at that age. You need to be teaching stranger danger from birth, in my view."
"But it's his uncle you're saying he's with! He looks after him every day!"
"Gosh," said the officer, who was actually an undercover actor doing research for a bit part in River City, "it's actually the perfect crime, isn't it?"
"Anyway," Bracken continued abrasively, "Nicky doesn’t have any money, and he’s feart of his ain shaow. Where would he go?"
"Oh I dunno," the police-actor replied airily, "there's all kinds of jolly free things to do in Edinburgh during the day. Maybe they've gone to the Museum of Childhood, or the Brass Rubbing Centre, or the National Gallery. Or maybe they're playing 'I spy' on the meadows. Or they could be at one of the libraries for Rhymetime."
Bracken balked at the mention of the library. She hadn't been back in since the fire. It wouldn’t be the same without the buggy as a kind of shield. And she didn't think she could cope with seeing Al all loved up, as he no doubt was.
"You're a muppet," she said to the police-actor, "they've been gone for two weeks, I doubt they're just wandering round various Edinburgh tourist attractions. Do you not think someone would have seen them?"
"Hm. I see what you mean."
There was a pause.
"Maybe they went to Glasgow. There's all animals and stuff at the Kelvingrove museum. Kids love that sort of thing."
"Right," said Bracken, "well if you get on to investigating that and let me know how you do. What was your name again?"
"Officer Moriarty," said the police-actor, with pride. He had spent ages trying to come up with a good fake name.
"Riiiiiight," Bracken said, wondering whether maybe she had dialled the wrong number.
She wrote down the name so she could ask not to speak to him next time she called.
“Good luck thwarting Sherlock Holmes,” she said, and hung up.
At the other end of the phone, the police-actor felt foolish.
“So that’s where I’ve heard that name before,” he said to no-one in particular. “And he’s not even one of the good guys.”
“Y’know, Jimmy Bob,” said the officer at the next desk, “there’s this thing called the internet, which might help you out with some of your research. Shall I show it to you?”
“I know how to do the internet,” Jimmy Bob said, “I’ll have you know I’ve got 807 facebook friends.”
“Is that so,” his companion remarked dryly. “The middle of a crowd is one of the loneliest places to be.”
“How does that work?”
“Ach, forget it.”
Bracken left the payphone and stared up at the sky.
It was overcast, and looked like rain. But then it always did these days. It was as though the weather was making an effort to reflect her mood, she thought sometimes. There would be something offensive about waking up to glorious sunshine.
A flock of geese honked over in their V-formation. She hadn’t seen them do that over the centre of town before. Maybe they were lost. Or opting for a city break instead of flying south…
‘I’m spending too much time on my own,’ she thought, ‘I nearly laughed at that.’ She shoved her hands into her pockets and began the four-mile trudge from the hostel to work. She did have change for the bus, but walking it was one way to fill in the time now that she had nobody to talk to look after.
As she walked, she watched the crowds with an intensity that made anyone who caught her eye give her a wide berth. Every time she saw a man with a small child, she stared at them extra hard to check… but it was never Nicky, and by extension never the wean. She couldn’t decide whether she liked the way her heart jumped whenever it looked like this time, it might actually be them… it was sort of like getting butterflies, and that had to be better than feeling nothing at all.
The rain came on with an onomatopoeic sound of your choosing, and she pulled up her hood around her ears. Her mood, like the last couple of chapters, was decidedly mopey.
Just ahead of her a car pulled in to the side of the road, and she grimaced unattractively when she recognized it as the one Esmeralda had given her a lift in just a couple of weeks previously. It seemed like it had been months.
“Bracken,” Esmeralda called as she leaned over to wind down the passenger window, “can I give you a lift somewhere?”
“Nah, that’s OK,” she said, “I’ll be mega early if you do that, so…”
“Well that’s better than getting drenched surely? Come on, we can sit in the library whilst we’re waiting for your shift to start. I’m sure I can persuade Al to give us some coffee…”
Her brain melted a little at the mention of his name. She wondered what he was wearing today. Something from Marks and Spencer, maybe.
“How is Al doing,” she asked, her voice a picture of concern.
“Oh, he’s a little bit up and down, as you might expect,” Esmeralda said vaguely. “Come on, get in the car and I’ll tell you more.”
As she suspected, this promise of information about Aloysius sealed the deal, and Bracken reluctantly opened the car door.
“So,” said Esmeralda, “any word on your uncle and your little boy?”
“Nothing,” Bracken said miserably, “and I think the polis who are working on the case might be retarded.”
“Oh dear,” Esmeralda replied in a tone that sounded 96% like real sympathy and almost completely masked the note of amusement underneath, “that’s no good at all. What makes you say that?”
“Well I don’t mean actually retarded, like special needs,” she qualified, “I just mean like a bit dozy.”
“I’m sure they’ll come good in the end,” Esmeralda said, although she had good reason to believe that this was not the case.
“I hope so. Anyway, you were saying about Al?”
“Well, he’s a bit moody,” Esmeralda said, “more so than usual I mean. But he’s settled in well at his job, and started running the rhyme sessions with the mummies and the lickle babies.”
“Aw,” said Bracken wistfully, “there’s nice.”
“Yes, he’s very good,” she gushed, “he plays harmonica and ukulele so he gets a bit of live music in there.”
“Sounds good,” Bracken said. “The wean likes harmonica. Always gurgles away tae ‘eeself when we’re up town and he hears a tramp playing one to get money for methylated spirits.”
“I miss him.”
“I know you do, sweetie. But maybe its not such a bad thing.”
“Well, think about it. This is a chance for you to start again, be who you always wanted to be, before motherhood got in the way. You didn’t plan to get pregnant when you did, did you?”
“Well no, I guess not.”
“So maybe this is the opportunity to do what you did plan on doing. What did you want to be when you were seventeen?”
“A bus driver.”
“Yes. They ran a campaign to get more drivers and they said they paid them 26k a year and I thought, ‘that’ll dae.’ I’d drive a bus for that money, wouldn’t you?”
Esmeralda thought of the small private fortune she had amassed over the past few years through nefarious wheelings and dealings.
“Yeah,” she said, “wow, I didn’t know they made so much cash!”
“Mmm,” Bracken continued, “but I kind of went off the idea after a while. Sitting down all the time, you probably get piles and stuff like that.”
“Oh yeah,” Esmeralda agreed, “I hadn’t thought of that.” Which was true, she hadn’t.
They turned down the road where the library and school sat next to one another, listening to the rain drumming on the car roof.
“Bracken, I’ll level with you,” Esmeralda said as she pulled into the library car park, “there’s a reason why I was asking you those probing questions about your future ambitions from the past.”
She suppressed a groan.
“Really, Esmeralda? What’s that?”
An almighty clap of thunder drowned out the other woman’s answer, and they high-tailed it into the building before the rain took out one of their eyes.
Once inside, the looks on the faces of Adric and Aloysius put it out of her mind.
“What’s the matter with you two,” she asked, “except for the obvious of course – sorry to be insensitive at this difficult time.”
Aloysius smiled sadly.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“The matter,” boomed Adric, who lost all sense of volume control in times of stress, “is everything and a half.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he replied, this time in a quarter of a whisper, which is the most dramatic level it’s possible to whisper at, “that they are closing the library.”