When I looked up from the book it was nearly midnight and Julia Pons was knocking on my door. Full disclosure: when I came back to Brighton, planning to settle here, I moved to a sunny (though not cheap) place near to the border with Hove, thinking that my wandering days might finally be over and that in the long term I might scab up the money for that houseboat I had always dreamed of. But right now, that seemed like a distant dream to me on my limited means. I was actually in debt each month after paying the rent.
Right now my flat was in a state, and so was Julia. Pons hadn’t said in his email exactly where he was going, and so I hoped that if nothing else I might get some more information from her. She sat down on the edge of the rusted cot in the bedsit and I made tea in a copper kettle on the ruined hob. Julia Pons was twenty-seven. She was in the early stages of a promising career at American Express when ill health had forced her out, and I think that was what had caused a lot of the friction between her and Sterling. People said it was her career in Brighton that had dragged him away from London – A lot of people in that city worked for AmEx. In that corporate culture if you showed any weakness they would flay you alive and cast you out on the street. Julia, with her nervous disposition, with the weight of positive women’s-place-is-at-work propaganda encouraging her and perhaps one or more pushy parents who saw her as a high achiever, had been set up to fail. And so she had been thrown on the heap at twenty-five, hyper-tension they said, and sitting around at home all day for a year she had slowly gone insane.
Sitting there on the edge of my bed she didn’t even remove her coat – although the heating was on – and I could see she’d been crying. She’d tried to hide it under her dark makeup, and smudged her eyes. ‘Ste’s gone,’ she said, using her pet name for him. ‘He kept threatening to buy a ticket and jet off around the world in pursuit of this insane book he’s writing.’
‘And that’s where he’s gone?’ I asked, handing her the scalding mug.
‘No,’ she said. ‘He said he’s gone to Lancashire to hear a man speaking about skulls. Do you know anything about that?’
I thought about it for a second.
‘This fella with the skulls – his name wasn’t Fripp, by any chance, was it?’
It appeared that I was going to have to buy a ticket and get on a train if I wanted to find out.