By Steve Mosby

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She was asking questions but didn’t seem to be listening to the answers, and answering mine without saying much. But then, it’s difficult to do small talk when the shadow of big talk is looming over you both. ‘Okay,’ I said eventually. ’ ‘All right then, I am. ’ I guessed. But our food arrived, so I leaned back to allow the waitress space to slide the plates onto the table. Ally hooked a strand of hair behind her ear and picked up her knife and fork. ’ She nodded around the bar. ’ I did my best to smile.

Hello. ’ It was a woman’s voice, but not Ally. ’ I sat down on the bed. ’ ‘Oh good. This is Marsha Dixon. ’ It took me a second, but then I thought: Ah, yes. I’d met Marsha a handful of times, and found a mental picture of her now. A woman in her fifties, with grey hair in double plaits, like a schoolgirl. Very bohemian. When I was much younger, my father had explained to me that a lot of the people in publishing were flamboyant, and for a while I’d imagined he meant some weird variety of exotic creature, distantly related to flamingos.

Her small body begins trembling slightly. Instinctively, without considering how she’ll react, Sullivan reaches out and rests a gentle hand on her shoulder, feeling the rough fabric of the dress against his palm. The little girl almost flinches, but doesn’t. The fear is overridden by an innate, desperate need to be comforted. It is as though she hasn’t been touched with kindness or reassurance for quite some time, if ever, and it requires bravery – a leap of faith – for her to believe such a thing is even possible any more.

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