"Hi, this is Robert. Leave a message after the beep. Thanks."

She rang Robert's mobile over and over, the knot of panic in her throat getting tighter each time the message came on. Something was wrong. She knew it was. The date, the names in the news stories and in Robert's diary, a séance – it all meant trouble, and trouble meant Alison; Alison who was muddling up Robert's thinking and undoing what little healing he'd managed to achieve. She wished she had never encouraged him to write that damned book, or better still, that he'd never met Alison at all. The woman was thoroughly delusional, and yet at the same time there was something compelling about her. In a less enlightened age, Barb thought, she would probably have been some sort of religious mystic, or else the village witch.

"Hi, this is Robert. Leave a message after the beep. Thanks."

"God!" In frustration, she pressed the End button and then tried Jude's house instead, thinking it was just possible that Robert was there and couldn't hear his own phone over the party noise. It took ages to get someone to answer and then ages more to get Jude on the line, and when she finally did, her heart sank at the news that Robert had been there, but had slipped out and left after only a few minutes. Jude sounded as if she wanted to complain about Robert's behaviour to a sympathetic ear, but Barb was in no mood to play that role at the moment. She made the first excuse she could think of and hung up, then stood undecided in the middle of Robert's dark office, imagining all the awful things that could possibly have happened to him, and wondering what she ought to do. How could she find him if he wouldn't answer his phone? What had life been like before mobiles existed, anyway? It had been less than fifteen years, and already she could hardly remember a world in which people were not instantly accessible when she wanted them.

"Hi, this is Robert. Leave a message after the beep. Thanks."

At last, admitting defeat for the moment, she switched the desk lamp off again, tucked the party invitation back into Robert's diary where she had found it, and left, pulling the door shut behind her. She was meant to be at Jude's right now – half an hour ago, actually – but she couldn't go when she was this upset. Jude would know something had happened and worm the truth out of her, and that would do neither of them any good. Instead, she went home, where she tried Robert twice more ("Hi, this is Robert. Leave a message after the beep. Thanks.") before deciding that a hot bath might calm her. Yes, a bath, and then a cup of tea, and by the time she was finished, Robert would see all his missed calls and ring her back, and she would know he was safe. Oh please, just let him be safe.

She was half undressed and pouring lavender salts into the steaming water when her phone buzzed and jittered itself off the edge of the sink and onto the clean white bathroom tiles. Scooping it up, she glanced at the screen and went weak all over with relief when she saw Robert's name.

"Robert, where the hell have you been? I've been calling and calling." She hadn't intended to sound so accusing, but Robert barely seemed to notice.

"I'm sorry, my phone was shut off. I was with Alison, there was a, a, thing, a séance, and –"

"I know."

"You do?"

"It's a long story," said Barb, privately resolving to apologise for reading his diary as soon as the moment was right. "I'll tell you later. Where are you now? Are you all right?"

"Yeah, more or less, but something's the matter with Alison. She collapsed – she just fell over – and she stopped breathing for a bit. The ambulance crew brought her back, but she's in intensive care and no one will tell me anything, you know how they can be if you aren't a family member, and she hasn't got any family ..." He faltered. "Can you come here? I'm on my own, Irene's gone -"

"Irene Moser?"

"Yes. Will you come? I know it's not what you'd planned for the evening, but everything's different now, everything's changed, and I've got to talk to someone about it. Please, Barb. I need you."

He couldn't have said anything more guaranteed to spur her into action if he'd tried – in fact, thinking about it later, she wondered if he'd deliberately used his intimate knowledge of her to elicit the response he wanted. Not that it would have mattered anyway; she would have gone to him even if he had told her to stay away. She had thought she would feel better as soon as she heard his voice, but he sounded so scattered and disoriented that she was more frightened than ever.

"Of course I'll come," she said.

Robert told her where Alison had been taken, and twenty minutes later she walked through the hospital's sliding doors, pulling an involuntary face at the unmistakable scent of disinfectant and bodily excretions and illness. Part of the reason she had gone into academia was to avoid the dreary medical setting: she could have done well as a clinical psychologist on a hospital's staff, but working in this environment day after day would have crushed her soul within a few years. She followed the signs for the intensive care unit, and finally rounded a corner into an almost deserted waiting area full of sickly mauve chairs and outdated magazines, with one lonely pot plant as a nod to life and health.

"Here, Barb." Robert stood up, and she hurried over to him, looking for signs of injury or trauma as she went. There were none she could see, but his clear blue eyes were glassy and red-rimmed, as if he'd been crying. Instinctively, she reached out and gathered him into her arms, and he let out a long, trembling sigh and rested his forehead against hers for a moment.

"She's stable now," he said. "Unconscious, but stable."

"That's good," Barb said, feeling a minor pang of guilt that she hadn't even been thinking about Alison's well-being. She wanted Alison far away and out of Robert's life, but that didn't mean she wanted her to die. "I'm glad. Can you tell me what happened?"

He pushed away from her embrace. "Do you promise you'll believe me?"

"I promise I'll listen."

"Come and sit down, then."

They sat facing each other on hard hospital chairs, and he told her, in broken words and phrases, about Irene Moser and her group of survivors. How they had formed a circle in the dark, how Alison had gone into some sort of trance and spoken in the voices of strangers, and then – Josh's voice, Josh's words, coming from her mouth with the ring of total authenticity. He had never ever thought such a thing was possible, but … Fresh tears spilt down his face, and he let them fall without trying to brush them away, without even seeming to feel them. He talked on and on, almost manic in his agitation, and Barb held both his hands in her lap and let him get it all out without trying to respond. There would be time enough later to help him realise how he'd been tricked. She'd used him, that woman, played on his grief and hope. It wasn't anything new, but oh, it hurt to see it done to someone she cared for so deeply.

"What do you think, Barb?" He squeezed her hands hard, so hard that the small bones ground together and made her wince. "I know, I know it's the opposite of everything we've always taught and believed in, but I've never – I wish you had been there to see it, so you could understand."

"I'm trying," she assured him. "Truly I am. I want to understand what you thought you heard –"

"Not thought. I did hear it. I swear I did."

"I know you did," Barb said. He was so pale, and the shadows under his eyes so deep, that it tore at her heart to look at him. How had the bright, enthusiastic, good-humoured boy she'd taken under her wing turned into this haunted and ruined man? "But Robert, it's getting late, and you look completely knackered. Don't you think you ought to get some rest?"

"I can't leave Alison –"

"Alison needs to rest too," she said. "You can come back in the morning if you like. You won't help her wake up any sooner by spending the night in that chair."

Robert looked at the door to the intensive care unit, then up at the round electric clock on the wall. "Okay. I suppose you're right. I've given the staff my phone number already, so they can call me if anything changes." He rubbed both hands across his face roughly, as if trying to scrub away the pain of the day. "Can you give me a lift? I took a cab to get here."

"Absolutely, but I don't think you ought to be alone. Come and stay with me instead."

He shook his head. "No, I appreciate it, but I'd rather sleep in my own bed. I'll be all right now that we've talked."

"Let me stay with you, then, on the boat," Barb persisted. "It won't be the first time, and tomorrow's Saturday, it isn't as if I have to be in work early."

"For Christ's sake, Barbara, I don't need a bodyguard." Robert's voice was sharp with sudden annoyance. "I'm not going to go home and drown myself in the harbour, if that's what you're worried about. Just because I may have seen some real evidence of life after death, it doesn't mean I want to experience it personally. I'm not stupid."

"That's not what I meant," said Barb, feeling tears of her own well up. She looked away, but Robert had already seen them, and even through his exhaustion and upset, seemed to realise that he'd hurt her.

"Oh, hell. I'm sorry, Barb. Don't cry. Of course you can stay with me if you want to."

"If you're sure ..."

"I'm sure. I'll just go and tell the charge nurse I'm leaving."

He disappeared into the ICU, and she waited, not very patiently, worrying that he might change his mind at the sight of Alison in her hospital bed and decide to keep vigil here after all. After a few minutes, he returned, looking sombre.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing, only there's no change. I was hoping –" He broke off. "I want her to be better, that's all. There are still so many things I need to ask her. There's so much I need her to explain."

"We should go," Barb said, hoping to distract him. He cast a last glance back at the closed door, but when she slipped her arm through his, he came along without further protest. They walked through the corridors together, past abandoned linen trolleys and bins marked BIOHAZARD, past endless wards with the sounds of late-night television and the smells of old hospital dinners floating through their doors. Far away, a child cried - a lost, lonely sound - and she felt Robert flinch. She moved closer to him, near enough for the side of her breast to brush his arm, and silently promised herself that everything would be all right. Tonight he wasn't ready to listen, but in the morning she would lay out all the evidence and make him see reason. He'd always respected her judgment before. Surely he would trust her, believe in her, more than a woman he barely knew, wouldn't he?

Wouldn't he?


Note: Just amusing myself by wondering what happened immediately after the end of the last episode in series 1. Back to the usual epic soon.