'I can't believe you let my grandmother gamble away her entire life savings,' said Steph. 'Okay, it wasn't much but really - every single penny?'
'I tried to stop her,' said Annie. 'I tried to make her see sense...'
'It's true,' said Grace. 'She did. But she's not very persuasive. I wouldn't send her into a hostage situation.'
'And I don't suppose it occurred to you that frittering hundreds of pounds away on games of on-line poker was the cleverest thing to do either,' said Steph, rounding on her grandmother. 'What is Bob going to say, eh?'
'It wasn't his money to have a say over,' said Grace. 'And don't get snarky with me, young lady. I took a risk and it didn't pay off, that's all. No-one has died. Not yet, anyway.'
Steph took a deep breath. 'If you were that desperate to get rid of the money, you could have just donated it the project.'
'And where is the fun in that?' said Grace. 'Besides, what would a few hundred quid do? A few games of poker seemed the obvious way to turn a little into a lot as quickly as possible. I bet that theatre is in a right state.'
Steph agreed it was. She showed Grace the series of dimly lit photographs she'd taken on her phone. 'You can't see much but you can certainly get a gist of the mess,' she said. 'Have a look, Annie. What do you think?'
Annie had retreated to the door, her coat hanging over her arm. Suddenly, she felt like running away and never returning. She felt exhausted, like she had let everyone down. 'No...thank you...' she said. 'I think I ought to go now. I'm sorry. I really am. But I promise I'll find a way to make it up to you.'
'You don't have to go,' said Steph, but Annie was already out the door and making her away along the corridor to the reception hall. She nodded at the night staff, who pressed a button and released her into the cool Autumn air. The day staff were starting to arrive for their shift, and across the car park, Annie could hear Winifred letting out a couple of soft brays from the warmth and safety of her temporary stable.
Annie got in her car and sat, her head resting forward lightly on the steering wheel. Of course, she would have liked to see the photos of the theatre. Of course she wanted still to get involved in the pie-in-the-sky dream of reviving it to a living, breathing performance space. And she knew just how to raise some money, to right the wrong deed she felt was her responsibility.
She dialled the number of the vicarage office and left a message. 'Can someone call me back as soon as possible please. I've decided I would like a collection to made at my husband's funeral after all.'
No-one saw Annie for a week. She didn't answer her phone, she didn't come at night to the theatre. Steph and Nora discussed going to Tony's funeral, but they both felt it would be an intrusion. After all, they didn't know Annie that well. Annie failed to do her volunteer shifts at the hospice, too, and the staff said there had been no contact, no excuse. They had put Annie's non-appearance down to her bereavement. They had called her and left a couple of messages, just to show some concern. 'She'll be back when she's ready,' they said.
Grace agreed. 'Don't badger the poor woman,' she said, when Steph had visited and said there was still no news. 'It's only been a week. I wouldn't be surprised if she was staying away because she was fed up with you two wittering on about that bloody theatre.'
'Gran!' said Steph. 'Hallpikes was your idea. You are the one who suggested it. The rest of us were all for doing little things but oh no - what was it you said? 'Let's go for something big,' you said. 'I'm not long for this world and I'm not going to waste what little time I have left on some piddling project. I want to leave my mark,' you said.'
'All right, all right,' said Grace. 'But as I said, Annie'll be back.'
'How can you be so certain?' said Steph.
'She's standing right behind you,' said Grace.
And there, indeed, she was. She was wearing a bright red coat and matching shoes, and her hair had been cut into a short, sharp bob. 'Good grief, Annie!' said Steph. 'You look amazing!'
'Red hat, no knickers,' said Grace.
'It's a red coat and shoes, Grace,' said Annie, stepping forward and giving the old lady a hug.
'Same difference in my book,' said Grace, pushing her away, not unkindly, but she couldn't be doing with all that sentimental stuff. 'Where have you been? Steph's been fretting something chronic about you.'
'Slight exaggeration, Gran,' said Steph, feeling slightly embarrassed. 'How are you, Annie? How was the funeral?'
Annie took off her coat and sat in the armchair by the window. 'It was as good as a funeral can be, I suppose,' she said. In truth she couldn't remember much about the day other than feeling a sense of numbness and otherworldliness. She looked at Grace. 'I wasn't sure I'd find you still here. I thought you were only staying a couple of weeks.'
'Bob's spending more time with his brother,' said Grace. 'And I'm quite happy here. The doctor reckons I ought to stay a bit longer anyway. Says my breathing is sounding a bit rough. She's talking out of her backside, of course. What do you know? I said. You can't be more than twenty five years old. I've got vests older than you.'
'I bet that went down well,' said Annie.
'I don't care how it went down,' sniffed Grace. 'And she only tried to say it was Winifred's fault. Dander in her fur, or something. Rubbish! That donkey's put more life into me than any amount of steroids could.'
Annie laughed. 'And how's Hallpikes shaping up?' she said.
Steph rolled her eyes. 'It's going to take years at the rate we're going. My dad's got his mate involved, and he's set up a generator to give us some light. That was a fright, when we saw the place properly - much worse than it looked under the light of a couple of torches.'
'I'll bet,' said Annie. 'And no-one's spotted you going in and out?'
Steph laughed. 'Not yet,' she said. 'We are like the ninjas of the night!'
'I still haven't been,' grumbled Grace. 'But as soon as this foot is better, I'll be down there with my Marigolds and bleach, don't you worry.'
'Nora is loving it,' said Steph. 'She's been down the library during the day, researching the theatre's history. She's got photos, old performance programmes, everything. Quite an album of evidence she's gathering. She's insisting we stay true to the fabric of the building. Restoration in its purest form, I think were her exact words. That's all very well, I told her, but restoration of that kind is going to cost a lot more money than we are ever likely to lay our hands on. Woodchip and magnolia, and soap, water and elbow grease will be about our limit.'
'Maybe this will help get things started?' said Annie. She reached into her handbag (also red) and drew out an envelope. 'Here,' she said, passing it to Steph.
Opening the envelope, Steph's face drained pale and then flushed pink. 'Annie!' she said. 'Where did you get this?'
'Collection at Tony's funeral,' said Annie. 'There's fifteen hundred pounds there. I want it to go towards rebuilding Hallpikes.'
'But won't you need this?' said Steph. 'For bills or...or having a holiday, maybe?'
'Oh, don't you worry about that,' said Annie. 'Tony has left me very well looked after. In fact, as soon as the insurance companies pay out and probate has been dealt with I should be able to provide more cash.'
It had been a shock to Annie, on visiting her solicitor, just how astute Tony had been with their finances. There were several insurance policies that paid out handsomely, and the rest of the mortgage was dealt with. She wouldn't be poor. And the congregation at the funeral had been very generous.
'I still feel bad about Grace losing all her savings,' she added. 'So I want you to have this,' and she passed Grace an envelope containing the exact amount of money she had lost on the on-line poker. Grace prodded about in the envelope. She took out two twenty pound notes.
'I vote,' she said, 'we use this to get in a takeaway, and the rest can go into the Hallpike Renovation Pot.' And she leant forward and pressed her envelope into Steph's other hand. 'Call Nora and her the good news. Tell her Annie is back. Tell her the Night Owls are having a curry.'
Col was stepping lightly and kindly around his wife. After her outburst, he'd decided the best approach would be not to mention her returning to work, or Ruby's night time waking, or that damned woman, Steph, that she had suddenly and inexplicably become friends with. The less he said, the quicker Nora would settle down, get back to normal. He'd come home from work to find her sitting at the kitchen table which was covered in old papers and photographs. Ruby was lying on a blanket on the floor, rolling around and covered in mushed up biscuit. Both of them seemed very cheerful.
'What's this, then?' said Col, picking up a couple of photographs.
'It's the old Hallpike Theatre,' said Nora. 'Do you know it?'
'Down Pope Road?' said Col.
'That's the one,' said Nora. 'Beautiful, wasn't it? It's an old wreck now, though. Sad.'
'Why the sudden interest?' said Col. He put the photos back on the table and went to fill the kettle. There was no sign of any evening meal being cooked, but he bit his tongue. Looks like it'll be egg and beans on toast again, he thought.
'Oh, I just saw it the other day when I was out with Ruby, and I got to thinking about its history,' said Nora. 'Don't you think the council should renovate it? We haven't got a theatre in town.'
'I think the council have got better things to spend our council tax on than tarting up an old wreck of a building,' said Col. 'And who goes to the theatre these days? People want to see exciting films at the cinema, or go to night clubs. They don't want to spend their evenings in some drafty, musty building watching some amateur production of 'Oklahoma.' '
'Why not?' said Nora, who could think of no better way to be entertained. 'I'd go to the theatre more often if there was one closer to hand. It's such an effort travelling into London, and so expensive too. There must be some kind of renovation grant that can be applied for. '
'It sounds like you are thinking of taking the Hallpike on yourself?' Col laughed.
'And what is so funny about that idea?' said Nora, treating her husband to her best glare.
Col shrugged. 'Nothing, love,' he said. 'Nothing at all.'
'Good,' said Nora. 'Because I think I might