She put in her name—first name only—and age. The next stage was to narrow down the kind of “people” she wanted to meet. Age group. That was surprisingly easy. Between forty-five and sixty. Marital status. She ticked Widowed. Then Divorced. Not sure about divorced but so many people were now, and the reasons were less—what? Sinister? Worrying? She did not tick Single. Few really eligible men were still single after forty-five.
She entered her geographical area. Narrowed it down a bit.
Occupation. Professional. Media-related. Public services. Administrative. Business. Farming and countryside. Almost any of those. She could probably find something to chat about even to a farmer. She ticked each box.
She had expected there to be more stages, more questions, but she was asked if she would now like to see photographs and brief details of anyone matching her outline.
She went to make a coffee. Somehow, photographs of people, real people, took it one big step away from being a game, made it serious, committed her.
No. It did not commit her. It was just photographs. And oddly enough, she was excited. Who would she see? What kind of men? They would probably all be bald. Or with huge bushy beards. Or small eyes. (‘Never trust a man with small eyes.” Her mother.) Or bad teeth. Or …
She took her coffee to the table, set it down and decisively clicked on the “Yes” button.
It was the first one. How do you tell that you like someone from a photograph? How do you know that you want to meet them?
He was fifty-two. He had brown hair. He had a warm expression. Slightly diffident smile. Nothing especially distinctive. But a good face. Good-looking? Yes, but not overwhelmingly handsome. It was his expression. Warm. Trustworthy. Yes.
She glanced at the others. One was out at once—the bushy beard. Another was too old. Perfectly OK but she couldn’t believe he was sixty or under. The last one was fine. Nothing against him. But when she looked back at the first there was no contest.
“Click beside any photograph if you would like to know more about this person.”
“Phil is Head of History at a boys’ school. He has been widowed for five years and has two grown-up sons. His interests include cooking, cricket, books and ornithology. He loves his job and has many friends but since his sons left home he has felt the lack of a special companion in his life.
If you want to send your profile and photograph to Phil, click HERE.
If you would like to leave a voicemail for Phil, click HERE.”
She clicked twice.
“There is not any such word as plam.”
“There is so such a word as plam.”
“You’re making it up. Uncle Si, isn’t he making it up?”
“Don’t ask me,” Cat Deerbon said, dropping a handful of walnuts into the salad bowl, “you know I can’t do Scrabble.”
“You don’t ‘do’ Scrabble, duh. You play it.”
“Sam, how many times have I told you, ‘duh’—and especially ‘duh’ with that face—is incredibly insulting and you do not do or say it.”
Sam sighed and turned back to the board. “Plam,” he said, “is a word.”
“What does it mean then?”
“It’s … the sort of way Australian emu birds land. They go ‘plam.’”
Simon Serrailler stood up with a shout of laughter. “Brilliant, Sam. I give you ten for Creative Cheating.” He wandered over to the other side of the kitchen and dipped his finger into the salad dressing. “Needs more lemon.”
“I doubt it.”
“And a pinch of sugar.”
“Why not make it yourself?”
“Can’t be arsed.”
“Mummy, Uncle Simon said—”
“I know, and it is a most unattractive expression. Don’t say it again, please.” Cat glared at her brother.
“You’ve got bossier. That’s Australia for you. Loud, bossy women.”
Cat threw a piece of lettuce at him. Simon ducked. The lettuce landed wetly on the floor.
“God, I love it. Love it, love it, love it.” Simon threw himself onto the old kitchen sofa. “I wish you knew what it was like when you weren’t here and those people were and I couldn’t come and—”
“You told us,” Sam said, tipping the Scrabble letters into their green drawstring bag, “how awful it was.”
“Yes, about a million zillion times.”
“So you missed us. That figures.”
“Si, will you open that bottle? Sam, please put the mats on the table. Hannah—”
“I have to go to the loo, I absolutely-scootly have to.”
“Mum, you have to stop her doing that, she’s always doing it, she does it to get out of things, she doesn’t need to go to the loo at all.”
Simon rummaged in the drawer for the corkscrew. “You know,” he said to Cat, “it is “absolutely-scootly” typical of Dad. It really is.”
“He can see us when he gets back. Don’t make a thing of it.”
Richard Serrailler, Cat and Simon’s father, had announced that he was taking a holiday just when the Deerbon family returned from Australia.
“But he doesn’t go on holidays. He hates holidays. And what’s he going to do in Madeira for two weeks, for God’s sake?”
“Soak up the sun?”
“He hates sun.”
“He just didn’t want to make a song and dance about us coming home after nine months—he wants to pretend we haven’t been away at all, and by the time he gets back it’ll feel as if we haven’t. Actually,” Cat put the salad bowl on the table, “it feels like that already.”
“God, sis, am I glad you’re home.”
She gave him a brief smile, before bending to take the fish out of the oven. “Give Chris a shout, will you? He’s probably fallen asleep with Felix. Chris does jet lag like nobody else.”
But Chris Deerbon walked into the kitchen as she spoke, rubbing his hand through his hair. “I think I must have gone to sleep.” He looked puzzled.
“So long as Felix has too.”
“Half an hour ago.” He poured the wine into glasses and handed one to Simon.
“Here’s to home.”
“In Australia, we had supper outside nearly all the time. We had barbecues on the beach. We had a barbecue in the garden, it went with the house. Everyone there has barbecues—they call them barbies, like Hannah’s puke dolls.”
“Wish you were still there, Sam?”
“I don’t,” Hannah said. “I missed my friends and my pony and my bed and I missed Uncle Simon most of everything.”
Sam made a loud sucking noise.
Simon looked round the table at them all. He felt a burst of pure and extraordinary happiness.
“Do you get a lot more money being a Detective Chief Superintendent?” Sam asked.
“I get a bit more.”
“Do you get to do more interesting things? More important cases?”
“Some. My really important cases are likely to be with SIFT though.”
“We get called in precisely because they’re important—”
“Serious Incident Flying Taskforce. I thought everything a policeman did was serious.”
“Then I don’t see—”
“Eat your fish, Sam.”
“Is it because they’ve had no luck solving them, so you’re their last resort?”
“Not usually. They might need more minds focused on something, if it’s very difficult. They might need a detached point of view and a fresh eye, they might need us because their own resources are becoming overstretched—all sorts of reasons. The best thing for me about SIFT is that we’re out there doing, not sitting behind a desk. The higher you get in rank, the easier it is to get trapped in an office all day.”
“In Australia, the police wear fleeces and baseball caps.”
“Ever seen your uncle in a baseball cap, Sam?”
“He’d be cool.”
“This,” Hannah said, “is blah-blah boring talk.”
“Go to bed, then. You shouldn’t be at grown-up supper if you get bored with grown-up conversation, you should be playing puke pink Barbies.”
Cat sighed. The bickering between her son and daughter had got worse in Australia.
Wondering now if it was to be a permanent and tiresome feature of their relationship, she turned to her own brother. “Did we wind each other up like this?”
“No. Ivo wound me up. I wound Ivo up. Not you.”
Cat had spent two separate periods with their triplet brother, who worked as a flying doctor in Australia, and had come away each time feeling that they might well not be related at all. Ivo seemed to be from a different planet. He was brash, stubborn, opinionated, tough. She had left him both times with relief and some bewilderment.
“Dad,” she said now, her fork to her mouth. “I suppose that’s the answer. It was staring at me. Ivo is like Dad.”
“Could have told you that,” Chris said.
After the children had gone to bed, they opened another bottle and Mephisto the cat bumped in through the flap and settled on Simon’s stomach.
“Did this boy take to strangers living in his house?”
“Apparently he was absolutely fine.”
“Traitor,” Simon said, stroking him. Mephisto half closed his eyes. “How have they settled back to school?”
“Hannah strolled in as if she’d never been away. Sam a bit less easily. His class has split into different groups so he’s lost some of his old friends and there are new boys … but he’ll be fine. It’s sport, sport, sport now anyway—he was rarely within four walls all the time we were in Sydney.”
“Oh, I was within four walls. Chris and I were working, you know.”
“I mean coming back.”
“Good. Great in fact.”
“OKish,” Chris said. He had been the one to press for them to take the sabbatical in Australia, the one who had extended it from the original six months. The one who had been loath to return. “But at least we’ve come back to find that, at last, the role of the GP is getting more recognition.”
“You mean double the money for half the work. No nights, no weekends, no bank holidays. Jolly nice—I take your point.”
Cat groaned. “Si, this is an area where angels fear to tread. We’ve had so many arguments about it we’ve made a pact: Chris and I don’t discuss the new GP contract.”
Cat had always been bitterly opposed to agencies covering nights and weekends for the practice, other than on a locum basis to give her and Chris an occasional rest. She had come back ready to do battle to retain her right to visit her own patients out of hours, only to discover that not only was Chris against their taking that work back in-house, but so was every other GP in the area. It was impossible for her to do out-of-hours by herself and so, resentfully, she had had to concede defeat.
“For now,” she had muttered. “But I’ll find a way. I hate leaving my patients to the mercy of some doctor flown in from abroad at huge cost to cover a few nights here or even worse, someone on call from fifty miles away. It isn’t safe, it isn’t right, it is also over-stretching the ambulance service and over loading hospital A & E and it is not conducive to patient welfare and peace of mind.”
But the arguments over it had become too angry.
She and Chris had agreed to go back to work and accept the status quo, focusing on catching up with changes and reacquainting themselves with patients, staff and all the routine of a busy surgery.
“Seen a lot of Dad?” Cat asked now.
Simon made a face. “Took him out to a pub lunch a couple of times. Dropped by, but he was often out. I hate going to Hallam House now.”
“I know you do, but with us away and no Mum he needed you a lot more.”
“Not so’s you’d notice. I took flowers up to Martha’s grave on her anniversary. I rang Dad—thought we could meet up. He wasn’t in. He never mentioned it. I don’t think he’s thought about Martha since she died. Or about Mother come to that.”
“That’s unfair, Simon.”
Simon had been close to Martha, their handicapped sister, close to Meriel, their mother. Their deaths had been two blows from which he knew he had not recovered and probably never would.
It was easier for Cat. She had Chris, she had three children and she had escaped to Australia.
Escaped? He looked at his sister now, curled in the sagging kitchen armchair with her legs under her, holding a glass of wine. She looked well. But to call it an escape—for her—was wrong. He knew that if Chris had not pushed, she would never have left Lafferton. Cat was like him, a home bird. She seemed entirely settled and content to be back in the farmhouse.
Simon closed his eyes, stroking Mephisto until the cat’s purr was like the throbbing of an engine. He realised exactly how miserable his months without the sanctuary of this house and this family had been.
He let out a deep sigh of contentment.
She didn’t have time to look around and take anything in—the people sitting at tables or standing near the bar—because as she went inside he was there, saying, “Helen? Yes, of course you’re Helen. Let’s get out of here, it’s packed, this was a thoroughly bad idea.”
And he took her elbow and guided her through the door. Outside it was a warm September evening. Dark. The Old Ship was strung with fairy lights.
It had taken ten days. She had sent him her details, received his, sent a voicemail message, got one back. It felt right. She was comfortable.
Phil had suggested they meet at this pub in the centre of Lafferton. She hadn’t known it, but both Elizabeth and Tom had said, “Oh, that place is OK. You’ll be fine there.” So here she was.
“Let’s get right out of Lafferton. Do you know the Croxley Oak? The food is good so it won’t be empty but we should be able to hear ourselves think.”
“Shall I follow you then?”
“What? No, no, I’ll drive us back here, you can pick up your car later.”
It wasn’t the plan but she was swept along by him, across the car park, into a dark-coloured Peugeot, clicking the seat belt and then off, out of town, on the road, heading somewhere else. It had happened before she could disagree. The country road was dark. Once, a car overtook them too fast. Dark road again.