He looked away quickly, terrified. How could his dead mother be there?
And when he looked again of course she was not.
“Simon? Have I missed a message from you? I don’t remember your saying you were coming.”
“I wasn’t far. Thought I’d drop by and see if you enjoyed your holiday.”
“I did indeed.”
As he followed his father into the kitchen, Simon caught a glimpse of her again, her back to him. Only the way she had done her hair was new. Meriel had always worn her hair upswept. Elegant. She had always been elegant. Even in old gardening clothes, elegant.
Meriel was dead. Meriel had been dead for—
She turned round.
Her hair was quite different and she was far younger. But she was tall, like his mother, and with the same way of speaking. Odd.
“I don’t think you’ve met. Judith Connolly: my son Simon.” Richard paused and his voice took on its usual faint edge of sarcasm. “Detective Chief Superintendent Serrailler. He’s a policeman.”
“I know,” she said. Smiling. Coming over to him. She held out her hand. “Hello, Simon. I’ve been wanting to meet you.”
There was a smell of cooking. Something simmered on the stove. Since his mother’s death, the kitchen had lost some of its warmth and the small touches that had made it special. There had always been flowers and flowering plants on the window ledges; there had been notes pinned to a cork board, reminders about meetings written in Meriel’s striking italic hand and bright blue ink; there had been a row of musical scores on a shelf next to the cookery books, and photographs of them all as children next to new ones of Cat’s sons and daughter, stuck up everywhere. But the plants had died and never been replaced, the music had gone to Cat; some of the photographs had fallen down or curled at the edges. The notice board was bare. Simon hated going into the kitchen. It was the one room where he missed his mother beyond bearing.
Now he noticed some scarlet geraniums on the ledge, neat in their pots with saucers beneath. There was an unopened bottle of wine on the table. Glasses.
Who was this?
“I take it you’ve seen your sister,” Richard said.
“Of course. They’re back and fully functioning. It’s brilliant.”
“I’ll telephone Catherine tomorrow.”
“Don’t you think you should drive out there, Richard, not just telephone? They’ll be longing to see you.”
Simon looked from the woman to his father and back again. Richard said, “Oh, I doubt that.” But he was smiling.
“Will you stay for supper, Simon? I’ve made a chicken pie that will feed half a dozen. I always cook too much.”
Who was this? What was she doing, cooking in his mother’s kitchen, inviting him to supper, telling his father where he should go, who he should see? Who was this?
She handed him the bottle of wine. “Would you open this?” Smiling. She had a warm smile.
She was—what—late forties? Tall. Light brown hair with some careful, fairer streaks. Straight. Very well cut. Pink shirt. Necklace of large almond-shaped stones. Large mouth. Slightly crooked nose. Who was this?
His father said, “Should we eat in here or shall I lay the table in the dining room?”
“It’s so comfortable in here. Simon, do stay. We don’t have any holiday snaps to bore you with.”
His father was avoiding his eye.
Simon picked up the bottle and went to the drawer for the corkscrew but she had it in her hand. Held it out to him.
Her look said, Don’t ask now. Later. He will tell you later. I will see to it.
He took the corkscrew. She smiled.
Tall. But not like his mother. Not his mother.
In his mother’s place. In her house. Her kitchen. Cooking in her kitchen. Not his mother.
He wrenched the cork hard out of the bottle.
The evening air smelled of bonfires. Cat Deerbon walked towards the east door of the cathedral in the gathering dusk and the woodsmoke drifting on the air was nostalgic of childhood, school satchels, her first year as a junior doctor, running across to the hospital from her room to answer a bleep when the groundsmen were burning the leaves. And her mother in the garden at Hallam House, tall and elegant in jeans in her mid-seventies, pushing the debris of the summer borders into the glowing heart of a small, neat and well-controlled bonfire.
Cat stood for a second catching her breath at the vividness of the memory, wishing she could go there now, make a mug of tea, chat, catch up.
The cathedral was still and almost empty at the end of the day. Two vergers were changing the candles in the great holders on the high altar. Someone was brushing the floor at the far end of the chancel with a rhythmic scritch-scratch of bristle on stone.
There was no service. Cat had had to drop in a letter to the New Song School and she always took the chance to sit in the cathedral for a few moments when she could, centring herself, reflecting, bringing some of her patients and their problems with her to leave in the peace and holiness of the building. She had only just returned to the practice. There were new patients, old ones returning with new problems, nothing dramatic yet. Her energies were going into opposing some changes, learning to work with others, battling the system. Chris, still not fully recovered from a lengthy jet lag, was refusing to argue, refusing to compromise, unusually irritable. But she was determined to win on one front, determined to do some nights on call, seeing her own patients when they needed her most. It would all settle down.
She closed her eyes. Her mother was there again, rekindling the bonfire with a handful of sticks and weeds.
“What would you do, Ma?” And the voice replied, “What your professional conscience dictates, of course—tempered by common sense. And don’t call me Ma!”
Cat smiled. Footsteps down the aisle beside her pew. She looked up and nodded to the verger. The smell of guttering candle wax reached her as it wove its ghostly way down the nave. She bowed her head, prayed for a few moments, then left, pausing as always to look up at the glory of the fan-vaulted roof, the stone angels on the tops of the columns blowing their gilded trumpets.
She had missed a lot of things during their time in Australia and this cathedral perhaps the most.
As she walked out into the warm evening, her phone beeped for a text message from the surgery.
Urgent ring Imogen Hse re Karin M.
Karin McCafferty. The last time she had spoken to Cat was before Australia, but she had sent a couple of emails. She was fine, she had said, still fine, scans all clear, two years after her diagnosis, the oncologist at Bevham General was “surprised but delighted.” “Dare say that goes for you too!” Karin had ended.
Karin had refused all forms of orthodox treatment for a late-diagnosed and aggressive breast cancer and had embarked, against Cat’s best advice, on a journey through all things holistic, naturalistic, alternative—both familiar and what Chris called “wacky.” Karin’s husband had left her to live with another woman in New York, but her business as a garden designer and horticulturalist had flourished and so had she. Against the odds and the medical advice, she had got well and stayed well.
Chris called it a statistical aberration, Karin called it a triumph. Cat had been both delighted—and furious. She had found it hard to talk about—and had replied only briefly to Karin’s last email.
Now she stared at the message on her phone.
She went back to the car, texting as she walked. A message to Chris that she was going to the hospice, Get curry out freezer.
How strongly did a doctor want to be proved right when being right meant a patient’s terminal illness and death? How much had Cat wished for Karin to be both wrong, totally and utterly and profoundly wrong, and yet cured? What would her mother have said? She desperately needed to know, but Meriel’s image was no longer vivid in her mind. Meriel had faded. She was leaving her to sort this one out by herself. “You don’t need me,” she heard her say.
Oh God but I do, Cat thought, as she stood, afraid to drive to the hospice, not wanting to find out what was happening to Karin, smelling the last faint smoke from the burning of the leaves.
Imogen House. There was change here too. The new wing was complete, the old senior sister had retired, a couple of other nurses Cat had known well had moved on, new ones had arrived. But Lois on the reception desk for evenings was still there and greeted Cat with a look of pleasure and a warm hug. It was Lois who was the first face of the hospice when patients arrived at night and were apprehensive as well as desperately ill. Lois who welcomed relatives who were afraid and in distress, Lois who made every one of them feel at home, in safe and loving hands, Lois who was cheerful and positive but never too chirpy, Lois who remembered every name and who absorbed what she could of the anxiety and dread.
“Karin McCafferty?” Cat said.
“Came in last week. She’s been refusing to see anyone at all, but this afternoon she asked if you were back.”
“How is she?”
Lois shook her head. “Be prepared. But it’s more than her physical state, which is actually better now they’ve sorted out her pain control. She seems very angry. I’d say very bitter. No one can get through to her. Maybe you’ll have some luck.”
“I might. I can guess what’s making her angry. Surprised she wants to see me though—Karin’s very proud, she won’t want to lose face.”
The telephone rang. “People,” Lois said to Cat, before she answered it, “behave unexpectedly. You know that as well as I do. There’s no second-guessing how it’s going to take anyone. She’s in room 7.
“Imogen House, good evening, this is Lois.”
The sense of calm and peace Cat always experienced walking through the quiet corridors of the hospice at night met her as she left the reception area, though there were voices from some of the wards, and lights were on. Whatever their beliefs about death, Cat thought, no one could fail to be affected by the atmosphere here, the lack of rush, the absence of noise and bustle that was the inevitable part of any other hospital. She turned into B wing. Here, rooms 5 to 9 were grouped around a small central area which had armchairs and small tables, and double doors that led onto a terrace and the hospice garden. Patients who were well enough sat here during the day or were pushed out in wheelchairs and even beds, to enjoy any fine weather. But now the doors were closed and the room empty.
Or so it seemed. But as Cat went across to room 7, someone said, “I’m here.”
Karin McCafferty was sitting in the chair closest to the darkened windows. The chair was high-backed and turned away, towards the light. Cat realised that she had failed to see her not only because of that but because Karin, who had never been tall, seemed the size of a child curled up in it.
Cat went over and would have bent to hug her but Karin made a movement to lean back and away from her.
“I was afraid I’d die,” she said, “before you got home.”
Looking at Karin in the light from a lamp in the corner, Cat understood that this might well have been so. The flesh seemed barely to cover her, her skin had the transparent gleam and pallor of the dying. Her fingers on the chair arm were ivory bones interlaced by the blue threads of veins. Her eyes were huge in deep sockets sunk into her skull.
“Don’t gloat,” she said, looking intently at Cat. “Don’t crow because you won.”
Cat pulled up one of the chairs. “You think very badly of me,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Karin’s eyes filled with sudden tears and she shook her head furiously.
Cat took her hand. It lay almost weightless in her own. “Listen—everything fails. Sooner or later. Everything. We don’t know nearly as much as we pretend. You did what you believed in and it gave you time—good time too, not time recovering from awful side effects, not time without your hair and being sick and exhausted or recovering from major surgery. You had the courage to reject the orthodox. And, for you, for a long while, it worked. What do I have to crow about? You could have had surgery and chemo and radiotherapy and been dead in six months. Nothing’s guaranteed.”
Karin smiled slightly. “Thanks. But it has failed. I’m angry with it, Cat. I believed, I really and truly believed, that it would cure me for good. I believed that more than I have ever believed anything, and it let me down. It lied to me. They lied.”
“I’m dying nevertheless—and I wasn’t going to die. I was going to stay well. I thought I’d beaten it. So I feel totally betrayed and if anyone asked me, should they go down the road I took, then no, I’d say, no, don’t bother. Don’t waste your money or your energy or your faith. Put your faith in nothing. None of it’s any good.”
The tears splashed down onto Cat’s hand, and now Karin leaned forward so that she could be held.
No one can get through to her. Maybe you’ll have some luck, Lois had said.
Cat felt Karin’s frail body shake in a fury of crying. She said nothing. There was nothing to say. She simply held her and let her cry her tears of weariness and pain, disappointment and fear.
It took a long time.
In the end, Cat helped her to bed and sent a text message home, fetched tea for them both and came back to find Karin lying, white as the linen of her high pillows, exhausted but calm.
“Have you been in touch with Mike?”
Karin’s mouth firmed. “No, I have not.”
“Maybe he’d want to know?”
“Then he’ll have to want. I’ve moved on from all that.”
“OK. It’s your call.”
“There is …” Karin hesitated. “I want to talk about it. About dying.”
“Do you know what happened to Jane Fitzroy?”
Jane had been the chaplain to Imogen House and a priest at the cathedral.
“No, but I could find out. She went to a convent—I had an address before we went to Sydney—and if she isn’t there any more they’ll probably know where she went.”
Simon might know, she thought but did not say.
“I liked Jane. I could talk to her.”
“I’ll do whatever I can.”
“I’ll try not to die first.”
Cat stood up. “Do you want me to come and see you again?”
“If you can bring Jane.”
“And if I can’t?”
Karin turned her head away.
After a moment, neither saying any more nor touching her again, Cat went quietly out of the room.