Stepping Back -Picking Up Some Pieces

The insistent buzz of Rachel’s mobile woke her just after nine o’clock the next morning.  She picked it up and groaned when she saw the time. “Hi Tony.  What can I do for you?”

“Write me a very quick piece on the drug smuggling ring that is based in your village.  I take it that you have more information than the official stuff that is currently filtering through online?”

“How about the plucky teenage girls who rescued their friend from the wicked Portuguese bad men, hid behind the Bofors gun on the beach until the local pub landlord and some fishermen brought them back under some very smelly and fishy tarps in the back of a truck.  The drug-smugglers went down to the beach to grab the girls as hostages, but by that time they were long gone, and the police were able to catch them without anyone being injured.  I can’t give you the official police version but I guess our readers would rather go for the human touch anyway?”

“How soon can you get 500 words to me?”

“I’ll set up my laptop in the kitchen.  Will half an hour do?”

“Rachel, you are a star.  I take it that you won’t be popping up to town today then?”

“No.  After yesterday, I intend to write this piece, eat some breakfast, have a shower and tidy up a bit.  Then we are all off to Lou’s house for a late Sunday afternoon roast.”

“Good.  I have to warn you that Sam was intending to meet up with you at the flat today.  He had some idea that you might let him have the flat rent free for old times’ sake.”

“Not a chance.  That’s why I got the locks changed so quickly.  How are things with Sam and dear Adele anyway?”

“Decidedly dodgy.  I think Adele’s daddy is one of the few people that have failed to be charmed by Sam.  That’s why I wanted you to get a piece in quickly.  Sam is bound to be champing at the bit to get down there and scoop all the best parts of the story.”

“Again, not a chance.  My landlord played a very important part in the arrest, our next-door neighbour rallied the local troops, and my best friend’s eldest daughter is one of the plucky teenagers.  Pluto and I played a bit of a role in it too.  You could tell Sam not to waste his time; the rumours about how he dumped me have been widely circulated in the Village, and if he wants information, he will have to pay for it, and no, we do not have a spare room for him.”

“Rachel my dear, I would say that you are well and truly back to your old self.  Now get on and write me a piece that I can get online asap.”

“Will do. And thank you.”

“You are a far more valuable commodity than you realise.”

“You say the sweetest things.  Bye!”

Pulling on the dark blue velvet dressing gown that Lou had persuaded her to buy, Rachel gathered up her laptop and set off for the kitchen.  Pluto was still asleep and so was Mark, so she shut both doors, and sipping some very welcome orange juice, set about turning the previous day’s events into something that would convey both the danger, and the loyalty of all concerned.  She had almost finished the first draft when a yawning Mark emerged with Pluto nudging at his heels.  Seeing her engrossed in typing, he put the kettle on for coffee, dropped a kiss on top of Rachel’s head, and took Pluto out into the garden.

As was her habit, Rachel ran the spellchecker through the piece and then edited it again.  This would usually be enough but she felt that this time, Mark’s opinion was particularly important.  She got up from the chair when he returned from the garden. “If I make some toast, will you have a quick read through this piece before I send it off – please?”

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t usually ask anyone to check my stuff now – that’s up to Tony, but I want to make sure that I haven’t said anything legally unwise.  I don’t want to jeopardise the smuggling investigation.”

“Thank you.”

Before sitting down at the laptop, Mark dashed into the hallway, and took something out of his coat pocket.  Curious as to what he has trying to hide, Rachel peered over his shoulder and noticed that he was wearing spectacles.  He caught her looking and stared down at the keyboard. “My guilty secret.  I only wear them for very close work. Even Lou doesn’t know about them.”

Rachel sat down on the other chair so that she could see him better. She nodded and smiled. “They suit you.  Studious, but rather cute?”

She smiled even more at the sight of Mark blushing. 

Touché.

She couldn’t resist kissing the top of his head in return.

Rachel made toast and coffee, giving Mark a glass of orange juice and putting some food down for Pluto.  It was another step away from the past when Sam had checked everything.  There had been too many occasions when he had rewritten a piece and sent it off to Tony before she had been able to look at the changes herself.

The sound of Mark chuckling made her smile, and realise that she’d made the right choice of reader.  He got up and hugged her; a friendly hug, tucking his spectacles back into his jacket. “I love it!  I don’t know that we could use it all in court but it certainly shows how a small village can get together and support each other in a crisis.  Were the tarps really that smelly?”

“Foul.  It took me and Lou ages to fumigate Jenny’s bedroom after her friends had left.  Coffee is ready, and I’ve done some toast.  I just need to send this off to Tony so he can get it into the online version.”

With a press of the button, it was gone.  Rachel barely had time to butter a slice of toast before the answering ping showed that the piece had been read by Tony and accepted. “There’s something else I need to tell you Mark.  Sam may be on his way down here to get a ‘scoop’.  I’ve told Tony that there is nowhere for him to stay and that he might have trouble getting the people in the village to talk to him, once they realise who he is. Perhaps we should get Mrs K to spread the word and tell everyone to make some money out of him?”

“Somebody taking my name in vain here?” said Mrs Kneller as she popped her head around the back door.  Rachel grinned. “My ex-boyfriend is probably going to turn up and start poking around for information.  He can pay for it, but make sure people don’t sell themselves short, nor say anything that they could get into trouble for.”

“Consider it done.  You two finish your breakfasts and make sure you put your clothes in the wash from yesterday.  I can still smell fish, and that bathroom was in a right state.”

Mark looked guilty. “Sorry. I had to bag up Pete’s clothes for evidence; that’s when I found the drugs, so I needed to get him down to the station as soon as possible.  He wasn’t happy about the handcuffs.  I’m afraid he was very ill and died without regaining consciousness even though we got him into hospital so quickly.”

“Poor Lou.  She and the girls are better off without him though.  Leaves the path clear for Dr H anyway, her being a widow woman is more respectable for a doctor’s wife than being a divorcee. I’ll come in a bit later anyway.”

And she was gone, still leaving Rachel and Mark a little dumbstruck.  They cleared away the breakfast things, ready to be washed up later, if Rachel could get them done before Mrs K returned.  The vagaries of the elderly plumbing system meant that having a shower at one end of the house and a bath at the far end, resulted in a lack of hot water in one room or the other. Mark waited for Rachel to yell that she had finished before he went to run his bath; smiling as he thought about how quickly the two of them had fitted into routines that complimented each other, the house, and Mrs Kneller.

Showered and having totally banished the aroma of old fish, Rachel rummaged in her wardrobe for something suitable to wear.  True to her word, Lou had managed to get the lilac dress invisibly mended, and although there were newer clothes, as well as those that dated back to Uni days, this was the dress she wanted to wear, and she wondered what Mark would think. Who was she kidding! She hoped that Mark would be pleased to see her in her favourite dress again.

He was.  The sight of Rachel coming up the corridor in the lilac dress brought back a host of memories and feelings. He smiled and bent down to check that the scratches on her legs had fully healed from the pyracanthas attack. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you before, but we were waiting in the trees behind the beach yesterday, and when I saw you, my first instinct was to call to you, to get you out of there. Then I realised that you’d spotted the girls, and that the best thing I could do was to trust you.  You looked so relaxed when you and Pluto sauntered back to the Quay, and then we saw Jeff just as casually trundling down in his truck.  The rest of the team were very impressed by the way you got the girls out safely.  The gang were intending to get hold of Maria and Jenny, and use them to get to Pete.  Whatever happens between us Rachel, I will never underestimate you again. I promise.”

Rather stunned by this speech, Rachel didn’t really know whether to blush, laugh or cry in response.  Saved again by the timely arrival of Mrs Kneller and the vacuum cleaner, she chose to smile instead. “Dirty clothes are in the wash Mrs K,” said Rachel. “I’ve stripped my bed too; I didn’t have a chance to shower last night and we were too busy cleaning up the girls at Lou’s first.  We’ve been invited down to Lou’s for Sunday lunch so we’ll get out from under your feet, if that’s okay?”

“That’s lovely.  I’ve put the word out about your nosey ex.  Are you taking Pluto with you?”

“Of course.  The girls would be very cross if we left him at home.”

“I don’t think he likes the vacuum much either.  Have a nice lunch and don’t go falling into any more bushes now!”

Stepping Back – More Bad News

The girls were in bed, Lou, Rachel and Pluto were all dozing off on the sofa when Mark finally arrived.  He looked tired and his skin had lost its usual healthy colour.  He sat down on the armchair and ruffled Pluto’s ears. Lou leaned over and gave him a hug. “You look knackered.”

“I am, and I’m sorry Lou but it doesn’t get better.  Pete’s gone.  He died without regaining consciousness from the internal injuries he got in the beating.  The only positive thing that has come out of this is that one of the ‘uncles’ has told all and incriminated the other three that we arrested.  Maria’s parents are in the clear; they were under duress and had little choice about putting up with the drug smugglers. Will you be okay Lou?”

“I did all my crying over Pete when he first left.  The man who turned up here yesterday wasn’t the man I married.  Go home Mark, and get some sleep.”

He looked over at Rachel, who was deliberately keeping quiet. “Do you want to stay here, or do you and Pluto want to come home?”

“Home please, if that’s alright with you.  We’ll cancel the London trip Lou. I think we could all do with a lazy day.”

“Good idea.  I doubt if you could last another night on that sofa, Rachel.  How about if we have a proper Sunday roast; about two o’clock?”

“Sounds wonderful,” said Mark.  “Come on Pluto. You can have a quick walk in the garden before we go to bed.”

The journey home was quiet; Rachel didn’t want to pump Mark for more details, there would be plenty of time for that tomorrow.  The most important thing was that everyone was safe; except for Pete, but at least he wouldn’t have to endure any more pain or the stress of a court case and probable imprisonment. Mrs Kneller had left the porch light on and a plate of sandwiches and biscuits on the kitchen table.  It was this thoughtful touch that proved to be the final straw.  Rachel tried to hold back the tears but all she really wanted to do was to feel Mark’s arms around her and know that he understood.  He understood.  The embrace might have led to something more, but Pluto expressed his desire to be included by jumping up and down around them, and barking excitedly.

With a guilty laugh, Mark broke away and took Pluto out into the garden.  Rachel took a very deep breath, blew her nose on a piece of kitchen roll, and found the sherry bottle and two small glasses.  Other people may rely on whisky in stressful moments but sherry always seemed to raise her spirits and then induce much-needed sleep. Pluto returned with Mark following behind him.  Rachel handed Mark a glass of sherry.

“Cheers.” said Rachel, raising her glass. “Much as I could do with a shower, and clean clothes, once this sherry is gone, I am off to bed, and no Pluto!  You can stay in the living room my boy, and have the sofa to yourself tonight.”

“Same for me.” said Mark.  “I’ll see you in the morning, Rachel and…I’m glad you and Pluto came back with me.”

It was another moment that could easily have progressed, but Rachel took the wise choice, gave Mark a swift hug and a peck on the cheek, then set off down the corridor to her room.  She had a feeling that if she had turned around, she would have gone running back down the corridor and into Mark’s arms, but it wasn’t the right time for either of them. Mark watched her go; glad that she was back under his roof but wishing that she hadn’t gone.  Settling Pluto in the living room he went back to his own bedroom relieved to find that Mrs Kneller had cleaned up the mess that Pete had left in the bathroom.

Stepping Back – Rachel’s Rape Alarm

The sound of Lou clattering in the kitchen and the smell of coffee roused Rachel from a troubled sleep.  Although a spare duvet and some pillows should have made the sofa a reasonable place to stay the night, Pluto had decided that he should share the space with her.  In an effort to flatten his sleeping area, he had performed several circles before he settled down, and seemed confused that Rachel was less easy to flatten than the duvet.  She wriggled out from under him and made her way to the kitchen.

“Did I wake you?” said Lou.  “I can’t face a day in the shop without coffee and toast.”

“It was a relief.  Pluto is not a good bed mate.”

“Any news from Mark?”

“No.  He said he’d text if he was home, but nothing so far.”

Rachel accepted the glass of orange juice and sat at the breakfast bar yawning. The sounds and scents of the kitchen brought Sally and Sarah downstairs, and Pluto from his nest on the sofa.

“No Jenny?” said Rachel as she handed round toast and cereal.

Lou shook her head. “She’s probably been up all night, watching YouTube or texting with her mates.  If she’s not down by eleven o’clock, can you go and knock on her door, please Rachel?  Sally, Sarah.  I know that you two will be very good for Auntie Rachel while I’m at the shop but I don’t want either of you to leave the house today. I’m sure Pluto can make do with the garden.”

“I’m not picking up his poo!” said Sally.

“Nor me!” Sarah echoed her sister’s sentiments.

“Good job I came prepared with poo bags then.” said Rachel as she kissed the girls on top of their heads.  Lou loaded the food for the shop in her bicycle baskets and panniers, and rode off prepared for a quieter day after the previous day’s events. Rachel washed up the breakfast dishes, took Pluto out for a walk in the garden and tried not to breathe in as she cleared up after him.  Sally and Sarah watched her from the window, nudging each other and giggling. All four of them settled on the sofa to watch the endless display of films on the children’s TV channels; Pluto and Rachel slept.

Waking with a start at a distant noise, Rachel looked at her watch and seeing that it was gone eleven o’clock, and there was still no sign of Jenny, set off upstairs to wake her.  There was no response to her knock, and very gingerly, Rachel opened the bedroom door. The room was in darkness and she tiptoed in, calling Jenny’s name softly.  Still no response, so she walked over to the window and drew the curtain back just enough to let a little light in.  There was a lump in the bed that reminded Rachel of her boarding school days, and the attempts that were made to fool the teachers who prowled the dormitories making sure everyone was tucked up safely and asleep.

As she suspected, the lump was a pillow and judging by the coolness of the bed, Jenny was long gone.  Rachel hesitated about calling Lou; she had enough to worry about.  There had been no message from Mark, but if he’d had a late night, he might still be asleep or had gone back to the station.   She decided to call the house anyway, and help came in the comforting form of Mrs Kneller.  Mark hadn’t come home, so she was relieved to hear Rachel’s voice and get a brief explanation of what had happened. “That Pete!  He’s always been trouble.  I suppose it was him that left the bathroom in such a state. Do you want me to get people out looking for Jenny my love?”

“Could you? Discreetly of course.  I’d go myself but I can’t leave Sally and Sarah.”

“I’ll make a few calls and tidy the bathroom first, then I’ll come down and look after the little girls so you can nip out with Pluto.  I’ll make us some lunch while I’m there.”

“You really are a saint Mrs K. See you soon.”

Rachel went back downstairs and explained to the girls that Jenny had gone out, and she needed to go and look for her, but that Mrs Kneller was coming down to make them some lunch. Relieved that she had changed into jeans and trainers before they left the house, Rachel found an old jacket of Lou’s and filled the pockets with articles that she felt might help in her search for Jenny.

True to her word, Mrs Kneller wasn’t long and brought with her a bag full of sweets that she kept ready and waiting for her grandchildren. “Jeff from the Gun’s got some lads out on the Quay and the Common.  I warned them to be careful in case there was any rough stuff. I’ve also heard that a group of Jenny’s friends were seen in the Square earlier, but not Jenny.  She’d probably steer clear in case her Mum saw her from the shop, so I’d say that they’ve arranged to meet up elsewhere.  I rang Ben as well; he said to tell you that he and Dr H are available to help if needed. I’ve got their numbers too. Good luck, and don’t you go taking any risks neither!”

Pluto looked extremely happy to be out for a proper walk, and remembering that he still had the trained ability to recognise bad people, Rachel squared her shoulders and set out for the beach via the Quayside but avoiding the Square.  On the way, she saw Jeff from the Gun, his brother and some mates lounging around the boats and trying to look casual.  Jeff shook his head, and Rachel headed on down to the beach.  As she was nearing the Bofors gun, Rachel heard a voice calling her very softly.  It was Jenny! Down behind the concrete blockhouses, Rachel found her, and three of her friends crouched on the shingle.

“Please don’t tell me off Auntie Rachel.  Maria was so scared; she was desperate to get away from her uncles and we thought it might look more normal if some of the girls went round to call for her.  We usually go out together on Saturday mornings.  I went on ahead in case the uncles were looking for me because of Dad.  We don’t really know what to do now though.”

“Stay here for now. I’m going back to the Quayside and I’ll get Jeff and the lads to come down and collect you.  You might have to hide under a smelly old fish tarpaulin in the back of his truck though.”

“Where will we go?”

“Back to yours.  Mrs K is there with Sally and Sarah; I believe there is still a policeman keeping an eye on the house, but he can’t be that good if you managed to get past him Jenny.”

Jenny looked sheepish. “Don’t tell Mum but there’s a way of getting out through the garden without being seen.”

Rachel took the rape alarm out of her pocket and handed it to Jenny. “Okay.  Just stay put and, if anyone you don’t know approaches you, press the red button.”

“Cool.  I think we should all have these.  The Dim twins would never come near us again.”

“Don’t take any risks.  Your Uncle Mark thinks these men are pretty dangerous.  Maria is right to be scared of them. I’ll see you back at the house.”

Trying to maintain a casual dog-walking pace without looking as if she was in a hurry, it still didn’t take long for Rachel to reach the Quayside and ask Jeff for assistance.  In a similarly nonchalant manner, he threw a couple of old tarpaulins into the back of his truck and drove back down to the beach with his brother.  Rachel stayed where she was; chatting about the weather and fishing until Jeff returned with a suspiciously giggling load. He winked at Rachel and drove on up the main road to Lou’s house where the girls shook off the fishy covers and went inside to wash and spray themselves with anything that didn’t smell of fish.

Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel had seen a group of men walking down to the beach, and headed back to Lou’s house where a very confused police constable was standing outside.  She assured him that the girls were safe but that there might be something going on down by the Bofors gun.  Once inside the house, Rachel texted Mark to update him, but didn’t expect a response. She made sure that the other girls contacted their parents to say where they were.  Maria wisely chose not to, in case her parents unwittingly let the uncles know that she was with Pete’s daughter. It was a nervous wait, only relieved by the array of sandwiches that Mrs K had made for lunch, and which she insisted on taking out to the police constable as well.  The girls all seemed to find the whole thing hilarious; Rachel wondered if she was the only one who was aware of how dangerous the men might be, and she couldn’t stop thinking about Mark, and whether he might be at risk.

His text, when it finally came through, made her heart beat faster but in a good way.

Four in custody. Taken by surprise so no one hurt.  Teenagers can go home.  See you at Lou’s later xxx.

By the time Lou returned from the tea shop, the number of girls in her house had been reduced to three again, and Mrs K had gone back to finish the housework.  Jenny had begged Rachel to explain to Lou what had happened, and retreated to her bedroom in case there were repercussions. Initially cross, Lou had to admit that although Jenny was in the wrong, her intentions were good because she and her friends had been so worried about Maria.  Rachel took on full responsibility for Jenny’s escape by admitting that she had fallen asleep and not heard her leave the house.  She didn’t let on about the secret exit in the garden however.

Stepping Back – Bad News

It was late evening when Mark’s car pulled onto the driveway at Lou’s house.  He was alone and aware that the news he was about to deliver was not good.   Time to bite the bullet.

Lou and Rachel had been in the living room, looking out for him; Sally and Sarah had been persuaded to go to bed earlier than usual, Jenny had gone to her room with strict instructions not to tell any of her friends what was going on.  She reluctantly agreed. Rachel let Mark in, and by the look on his face, she could tell that he was steeling himself up to break bad news. “Have you eaten?  We’ve saved you some curry and rice. Lou’s just warming it up for you.”

“I’m starving.  Before Lou comes back, I have to tell you that Pete’s been arrested, but we’ve had to take him to hospital.  It isn’t good.”

“Be straight with her.  She can take it – now.”

“Take what?” said Lou as she appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

“Sit down and listen to Mark, Lou.  I’ll finish off sorting out the food.”

Lou and Mark sat down on the sofa and Mark took her hands in his. “Pete’s in hospital; he’s also under arrest.  I got him cleaned up and fed, but while he was in the bath, I discovered that he had quite a quantity of heroin on him, far more than for his personal use.  I had no choice but to arrest him and called in a couple of PCs to take him back to the station.  When they got him there, he had some kind of a fit and had to be taken off to hospital. He’s unconscious but stable; I went in to see him before I came back.  The doctor says that there’s an awful lot going on with him that is due to more than addiction. He’s had a pretty bad beating recently as well.  I’m sorry Lou.”

Mark put his arms around her and held her while she cried; loud, angry sobs that brought Jenny from her room.  Rachel put Mark’s dinner on the table and sat down on the other side of Lou. “Go and eat now, Mark.”

Rachel gave Lou some tissues and waited while she mopped herself up.

“What is it, Mum?  What’s happened to Dad?”

“He’s not well Jenny; he’s in hospital though so go back to bed.  I’m okay. I’ve got Rachel and Mark here, and as long as I know that you three are safe, I’ll stay okay.”

Jenny gave her mother a hug, and started to go back to her room.  She stopped, turned around and gave Mark and Rachel some rarely dispensed hugs as well before running back upstairs.

“Are you okay Sis?” said Mark, tucking into curry and rice like there was no tomorrow.

“Rachel and I talked about this earlier; the guy who turned up here wasn’t the Pete that I married and had three children with.  Are you saying that he was carrying drugs when he came to my house, in front of our children?”

Mark nodded. “I’m afraid so. It wasn’t something that I could ignore.  He wasn’t happy about me arresting him either.  Said that I was being disloyal to the family.  I’m afraid that I pointed out that putting you and the girls at risk by turning up at the house with drugs, and a violent group of criminals on his tail, could hardly be considered to be loyalty either. I don’t think I’m his favourite person at the moment.”

“You are most certainly ours.  Does that mean that we are safe now?”

“Unfortunately, no.  The gang will have tracked him here, then to our house and the police station, but they may not be aware that he’s in hospital. Short of going over to the settlement, I can’t think of another way of tipping them off.”

Lou laughed. “That’s because you have no children. Teenagers have their own network.”

She went into the hallway and called for Jenny to come down.  Puzzled by this summons, Jenny reappeared, clutching her mobile phone.

“Tell me honestly Jen, have you communicated with any of your friends about Dad?”

“No. You and Rachel told me not to.”

“Are any of the Portuguese girls in your group of friends?” Mark asked.

“Maria mostly, and a couple of others. Why?”

“I need you to let your friends know that your Dad has turned up here, but he’s been taken ill and is now in hospital.  No need to mention which one.  You can say that he’s unconscious though.”

“Anything else, Uncle Mark?”

“No.  Your Mum is right. The main thing is that word will get around that your Dad is not here, nor at our house, so there’s no point in the heavies turning up.  He’s been admitted under an assumed name and we’ve got people at the hospital keeping an eye on him.  Keep it light Jenny. No mention of drugs or being arrested, just that your Dad is very unwell.”

“Is he?”

“I’m afraid so.  He has internal injuries from a beating that he was given, but that’s another thing to keep to yourself.  Can you do this?”

Jenny gave Mark one of those patronising looks that teenagers have down to a fine art, before running back up the stairs and closing her bedroom door. Lou took Mark’s empty plate into the kitchen and returned with a plate of cupcakes and scones filched from the batch destined for the teashop. “Eat up.  I’ll make some more.  It will give me something to take my mind off everything else. What do we do now Mark?”

“Stay safe.  Get some sleep.  Do you want to visit Pete tomorrow?”

Lou shook her head.  “No, and I don’t want the girls to visit him either.  Seeing the state that he was in when he turned up earlier was bad enough, they don’t need to see him unconscious in a hospital bed and covered with tubes.”

“Jenny might need to visit him,” said Rachel.  “She’s that much older than the other two, Lou.  Speaking from experience, she may need to be able to say goodbye. Don’t deny her that opportunity.”

Lou took Rachel’s hand and nodded. “Would you and Mark take her?”

“Of course.”

Lou went back into the kitchen; knowing that cooking for the shop was the best way of taking her mind off things. Mark sat down next to Rachel and Pluto, who seemed to have realised that something was wrong, and was resting his head on Rachel’s knee.

“You okay Rachel?”

“I am.  How about you?  It can’t have been pleasant having to arrest Pete.”

“No.  I felt torn in too many directions; Pete is the father of Lou’s girls, she used to love him once, part of me wanted to sort things out for him but once I found the heroin, the policeman in me took over.  He wasn’t happy; did all the emotional blackmail stuff, but it didn’t work.  Was he right?  Have I been disloyal? “

“No.  You were protecting the people that you love. More than anyone, you know how dangerous these people are, and how drug addiction can make you forget all about the things that should be important to you.  Lou is furious with Pete more than anything else. He did enough damage when he left them, and now he comes back and wreaks more havoc just when Lou is feeling independent and rebuilding her life.”

“Like you then?”

“I’m fairly sure now how I would react if Sam turned up out of the blue.  He doesn’t belong here any more than Pete does. How about Sorrel?”

“I don’t know where she is, and I don’t want to know either. Do you want to stay here tonight or come back to the house with me?”

“I’ll ask Lou.  Are there still policemen keeping an eye on us here?”

“Yes, at our house and the shop as well. It’s a good job that it’s the weekend.  Will you and Lou still go up to London on Sunday?”

“It depends really.  Will it be safe?”

“Pluto and I will spend the day here.  I’m sure that the girls will keep me on my toes.

Jenny came thundering down the stairs. “I just had a text from Maria.  She lives on the settlement and she says two of her uncles and some of their friends are visiting, and they were asking questions about me, and about my Mum and Dad.  She doesn’t like them, says that they are really creepy.”

“What’s Maria’s surname?  Did she say if they are her mother’s brothers or her father’s?”

“Her surname is da Silva, but these people are called Santos, and she doesn’t think that they are real uncles, just people who turn up every now and then demanding food and accommodation.  Her Mum and Dad don’t like them and she thinks they are too scared to say no.”

“I’m going to have to get back to the station,” said Mark, reluctantly getting up from the sofa. “Will you and Pluto be alright staying here then, Rachel?”

Lou came in from the kitchen, brushing the flour from her tee-shirt. “What’s happened? Did I miss something?”

“Jenny’s given Mark some very useful information, but he needs to go back and sort things out.  Do you mind if Pluto and I stay here?”

“Just like old times.  I would welcome your company – and Pluto’s too of course.  Are we safe now then, Mark?”

“Possibly.  At least we know the names of the people we are looking for now.  Radio silence now Jenny.  I wouldn’t put it past them to try and grab one of Pete’s family as a bargaining chip.”

“Does that mean I can’t meet up with the others tomorrow then?”

“Where do you usually meet up?”

“Down on the Common; by the guns.  Auntie Rachel knows it, it’s one of her favourite places too.”

“Yes,” said Rachel. “And I’ve seen a group of those men down there as well. They made me feel very uncomfortable.”

“Don’t go tomorrow, Jenny?” said Mark. “It might not be safe for you, or for your friends.”

“Oh! Whatever!” She stomped back upstairs, no doubt feeling that she had to make a token protest at least.  Mark said his goodbyes, and felt particularly happy that it was Rachel standing in the doorway, waving good bye to him, and blowing a kiss.

Stepping Back – An Unwelcome Visitor

Mark’s initial reaction was to refuse Rachel’s offer of rent if she managed to let the London flat.  Wisely, he kept silent on the matter, and let her explain what she wanted to do.  The thought of having another six months at least of her company made him feel happy, and as he formulated a reply, he remembered how much she had told him about Sam controlling what she did. “Okay. If you’re really sure, but I have one condition.”

Rachel paused, a chip halfway to her mouth and ready to argue.

“I have an account for Lou and the girls that they don’t know about.  I put some money in it every month from my salary.  It’s in case they need anything urgently, and it’s in my will that any money in it belongs to Lou and her dependents.  If you want to pay me rent, perhaps we could arrange for it to go straight into that account. Between us, we have plenty of money to pay for food and bills, there’s no mortgage on the house, and neither of us are out wining and dining every night.  Is that okay?”

Nodding enthusiastically, Rachel swallowed what was left of the chip and smiled. “Thank you.  I thought you would argue with me.  I like the idea of my rent for the flat helping Lou; she hates taking money from me for food as it is, and with three hungry girls, it can’t be easy making ends meet.”

“How do you feel about spending another six months here though?”

“Coming here has been the best therapy for my getting over Sam.  I want to stay here. I’ve asked Lou if she’ll come up to London with me on Sunday, and help pack things up.  Tony has said that he has someone in mind for the flat. Will you be able to help out with the girls?”

“Of course. You know that I would have gone up there with you though?”

“This is a part of my life that I’m letting go of.  Lou has met Sam, and visited the flat before, she also wants to root through my clothes before they go to the charity shop.”

“Are you saying that I’m a part of your life now?”

“Part of my feeling happier here is having you as a friend Mark, and knowing that you understand about my need to be myself again.  It’s much easier to write here, and the articles are going down very well, although I may have to tone down this latest D-H escapade.  I can hardly believe the behaviour of those boys myself.”

Mark was very quiet, and Rachel wondered if she’d said too much – or too little.  She reached out and laid her hand over his, relieved when he looked up at her and smiled. “You’ve helped me too.  For a long time after Sorrel left, I felt that I didn’t need anyone else in my life; I had Lou, the girls, my work and Mrs K of course, but since you came to stay, my life has undoubtedly become more interesting…”

“Just interesting?”

“Quite exciting as well, and please tell me if I’m out of line, but I look forward to coming home now.  I was just going through the motions before.”

“Seeing your car in the driveway earlier made me feel relieved, and very happy to be home. Going up to London and packing up is another step on the road to recovery.  The other thing that Tony mentioned was putting the articles together to make a book.  That would take some time though.”

“Longer than six months?”

“Possibly.  I could always look for somewhere more permanent to live?”

“Don’t tease, Rachel. If you are happy here then you can stay as long as you want to.”

“I am happy here Mark.  I’m dreading the thought of going back to my flat, but if I have Lou with me, I know that I’ll get through it, and come back a more settled me.”

The phone rang.

Reluctantly, Mark reached over and picked it up. It was Lou.  A very frightened Lou. “Mark! We need help! Pete’s just turned up here.  He’s in a right state, and says there are people after him for money, and threatening to harm us if he doesn’t pay up. I’m scared Mark, and I don’t want him here.”

“We’re on our way.  Rachel and Pluto can stay with you, and I’ll organise a watch on the house.  I’ll fetch Pete away and see if I can get to the bottom of this. We’ll get this sorted.”

Rachel, sensing urgency without needing to know why, changed into jeans, an old jumper and trainers. Mark put Pluto’s lead on and strapped him into the car, stopping for just a moment to watch Rachel ensuring that the house was well and truly locked up.

“Your nieces have taught me well,” she said as she got into the passenger seat. “Tell me what’s happened and what you need me to do.”

“Stay with Lou.  Pete’s turned up and he’s in trouble.  I’ll get him away from their house and request some surveillance but I’m trusting you to keep them safe.”

“Again?”

“Exactly.  You and Pluto together are a force to be reckoned with.  If this is the work of the Portuguese blokes, they tend to prefer threats to action but I’d rather not take any chances.  Their aim is to stay under the radar, and by threatening Pete, they may have made the move we’ve been waiting for.  Sorry to get you involved in this…”

“Lou and the girls are my family too.  I don’t have anyone of my own anymore.”

“I’ve never asked.  I always assumed that you had a clutch of relatives tucked away somewhere.”

“Once this is sorted, I’ll explain.  It’s not something that I talk about much.”

Lou was at the front door looking anxiously around and her face brightened as soon as she saw Mark’s car draw up.  Pete appeared beside her, and Rachel was shocked at the change in his appearance.  The mop of blonde hair had gone, replaced by a close crop of dark stubble on his head and face.  His sailor’s tan had faded; the pallor and the dark shadows under his eyes indicated that he too might have fallen victim to hard drugs. He was painfully thin; his clothes were dirty and torn, and if you saw him on the street, you would assume that he was homeless. “Rachel, long time no see.  You’re looking very well, and this must be the famous Pluto that the girls have been telling me about.”

“Sorry to spoil the reunion Pete,” said Mark firmly. “But I need to get you out of here while I sort out some protection for this house. I’ve had dealings with your Portuguese friends before and I don’t want my family put at risk.”

“They’re my family too!” Pete protested.

“Then show some consideration, and stop putting them in danger. In the car please?”

Pete sheepishly waved goodbye to the girls.  Mark hugged Lou, and with only a moment’s hesitation, hugged Rachel too, before getting back into the car and driving off. The girls were temporarily distracted by Pluto, giving Rachel the opportunity to drag Lou into the kitchen and pour two glasses of sherry. “I feel so angry that he’s put us at risk,” said Lou. “And I feel sorry that he’s in this state but I don’t feel any of the things that made me fall in love with him all those years ago.  Is that bad Rachel?  He is the father of my girls after all, and I couldn’t love them more than I do.”

“Do you remember me telling you how I fell in love with Sam’s eyes; that they were deep and brown and like a puppy dog?”

“I do.”

“Well, I’d rather look at Pluto’s eyes now.  I see love, and trust, and honesty there.  What do you see when you look at the girls? Lou?  They are the very best parts of what you and Pete once had.  It’s Pete that has changed and that was his choice, it was never yours.”

Lou hugged Rachel and refilled their glasses.

“Not too much sherry.  It may take Mark a while to set up surveillance; Pluto and I are here as your protectors.  Yes, I have my rape alarm and some spare batteries.  I forgot the walking stick in the rush to get out but I’m sure we can put some kind of arsenal together if necessary.  Is your CCTV on, and are all the doors and windows secure? I think we need to talk to the girls about what’s going on.  This is not a time for any rebellions or tears.  We need to present a united front.”

Not surprisingly, it was Jenny who initially rebelled, followed by tears from Sally and Sarah, who were confused by the change in their father’s appearance, and frightened about the bad people that were after him.  “Is it drugs Mum?” asked Jenny.  “I don’t remember him looking like that last time I saw him.”

Lou looked over at Rachel for support.  Realising that she probably knew just as much about the drugs side of things from what Mark had told her, Rachel took the lead. “Your Uncle Mark has been working undercover to get find out more information regarding the importation of drugs through boats coming into the Marina.  It looks as if some of the Portuguese people from the cottages outside the village may be involved.  That’s not to say that all of them are; there are bad people everywhere but fortunately there are always more good people that are willing to look out for each other.  You are safe in the house because Uncle Mark has already set up some good security.  He’s going to ensure that someone is keeping an eye on us as well, but I’ve promised him that we’ll all stay here together until he tells us it’s safe.”

Jenny opened her mouth, about to raise some protestations but a quick look from Lou changed her mind.

“What will happen to our Dad now?” asked Sally.

“He’s gone back to our – to Uncle Mark’s house,” said Rachel.  “Once he’s explained what has got him into this mess, I have no doubt that he’ll be offered a bath, some clothes and a decent meal.  We over ordered on the fish and chips for dinner tonight anyway.”

“We haven’t had our dinner yet, Mum.”

“Quite right Sally.  Time for some food.  I was going to make us a curry.  Is that okay for everyone?”

“Sounds wonderful.  I didn’t have a chance to finish my chips.”

Leaving Jenny to put on a favourite DVD for the younger girls, Lou and Rachel went into the kitchen where Rachel took up a knife ready to chop vegetables.  Lou took out the required spices and turned to her friend, knowing that there was more to this than met the eye. “I’m sorry. I interrupted your cosy dinner. How cosy was it?”

“It may have been a very opportune interruption.  We were discussing the future.”

“As in your future, Mark’s, or both?”

“We’ve come to arrangement about letting my flat and staying on here a while longer.  I think Mark would have liked to come up to London with me but…”

“You don’t want him rooting through your wardrobes again?”

“Well, that too, but I think that it has more to do with keeping that part of my life separate from my life here.  You’ve seen the flat. You’ve met Sam. You’re an important part of my past, and it’s because of you that I could come back here when I needed to escape and recover.  How much have you told Mark about my history?”

“What, before we met?  He knows a fair bit about our wild Uni escapades, and I always boast about your achievements, but I didn’t think it was right to talk about your family.”

“My lack of family you mean.”

“None of that was your fault.  It’s something that you and Mark have in common; babies born out of wedlock and brought up by grandparents in order to avoid disgrace.”

“Grandparents who packed me off to boarding schools as soon as they could, and gave me a sizable amount of money as a good riddance gift when I was eighteen.”

“Did you have any contact after that?”

“No, the solicitor made it clear that I only got the money if I made no further attempts to contact them.  They died together on one of their trips abroad about five years ago; one of the conditions of their will was that although everything they owned comes to me, the house and contents were to be sold first.  That’s how come I had the money to buy the flat, and keep a healthy nest egg in the bank. The only thing I have is this watch that my grandfather sent me when I graduated.  It belonged to my mother apparently but I’ve no idea about my birth parents other than my mother’s maiden name.  It was never discussed.  I suppose that now I’m financially secure and totally independent, this might be a good time to do a bit of searching on the Internet.”

“I was lucky enough to have had time with my Mum and my Dad. There are family resemblances between us though; I think Mark has inherited the unruly curly hair but it looks better on a bloke anyway.  Jenny is constantly straightening hers and wanting to know why we all have brown eyes, but Mark’s are bright blue – his father’s eyes.  I’m more than happy to help you trace your folks – if you want me to?”

“To be honest Lou, you and the girls are all the family I need.”

“And Mark?”

“Still early days.” said Rachel firmly. “But I do enjoy his company and, if I was going to fall in love again it would be with a man who respects me, and gives me space to be myself. Is that enough?”

“For now.  Let’s get the curry made and see what the future brings.  I’m so glad that you are here though Rachel.  I feel much safer than I did when Pete turned up on the doorstep.  Can you chop this onion please?  Finely?”

Stepping Back – Boudicca of the Bar

It didn’t take long for Pluto to settle in and make himself a permanent member of the family.  Something in his doggy psychology caused him to focus on Rachel as the most important part of his new life.  Mrs Kneller fed him first thing in the morning when she came in, but it was Rachel that gave him his evening meal, and who snuggled up on the sofa with him in the evenings when Mark was away. The rule about ‘no animals on the furniture’ was quickly abandoned. One, two or all three of the girls would come up every day to take Pluto for walks; sometimes Rachel came too but on other days she would be busy writing at her laptop in order to supply Tony with new material for the Village series, which was growing rapidly in popularity.

It was one of those bright sunny days when Rachel, still using the stick for any lengthy walks, ventured into the Square with Sally, Sarah and Pluto. Jenny was at home studying for mocks, and Lou was in the tea shop happily garnering gossip for Rachel.  On his way to afternoon surgery, Ben came over to make a fuss of Pluto initially, although he also took a sneaky peak at Rachel’s scratches and pronounced her his star patient before he patted Pluto’s head, gave Rachel a big kiss on the cheek, and disappeared into the medical centre. It was pleasant to be sitting on a bench in the Square, just watching the world go by. Rachel left Sally and Sarah with Pluto, and went into the tea shop to see Lou, and get some cupcakes and juice to fuel them up for the walk home.  Lou threw in a nice lump of cheese for Pluto as well, so he wouldn’t feel left out. It was while Rachel was insisting on paying for their food, that they heard Pluto barking and cries coming from the girls.  Rachel rushed outside and saw two blonde haired boys who bore a passing resemblance to Damaris, shouting, swearing, and teasing Pluto, who for once had seen humans that he didn’t like at all, and responded in the manner that he had been trained in at police dog school.

“Back off!” shouted Rachel, using her walking stick to form a barrier between the boys and Pluto.

“Why should we?  This is our village, and when we’re home people have to do as we say. Who are you anyway?”

“I lived in this village long before you were even thought of.  I can tell just by looking at you that you don’t live here because you spend most of your life tucked away at boarding school.  This is my dog and these are my nieces, and I will not tolerate such behaviour, so BACK OFF!”

They looked at each other and sneered. “We’ve heard all about you from Mother and our sister.  You broke up our sister’s engagement.  We’re going to make life very uncomfortable for you.”

Rachel leaned over to Sally and whispered, “Cover your ears and try to cover Pluto’s too.  This shouldn’t take long.”

Still holding the boys at bay with her stick, Rachel rummaged in her bag and brought out a small black object that looked like a torch.  She pressed a button, and instantly an ear-splitting howl emitted from the rape alarm that she’d never needed to use before.  She didn’t have to keep the button pressed for long; people rushed out of the houses and shops in the Square to see what the noise was.  Seeing the dreadful D-H boys being prevented from wreaking havoc by Rachel and her alarm, a rousing cheer and applause broke out, and the boys ran off in the direction of the Quay.

“Is everyone okay?” said Rachel.   “Sorry about the noise.  The ringing in your ears wears off quite quickly or so I’m told.”

Lou stood in the door way of the shop. “Perhaps I should invest in rape alarms for all three of my girls?”

“I think that Pluto actually showed us some of his police dog training, Auntie Rachel,” said Sally looking rather forlorn. “Does that mean he’ll have to go back to the police kennels now?”

“Barking at bad people is the only part of the training that he actually passed. So, he is ours now – if we want to keep him?”

“When you say ‘ours’ who do you mean by that, Auntie Rachel?”

“Very sneaky Sarah.  I have finished my three-month sabbatical, and as the articles are doing very well, it looks as if I can stay here for a while to write some more. By ‘ours’, I would say that Pluto belongs to all the people who love him, and want to look after him.”

Several of the people who had come out to investigate the sound of Rachel’s alarm were still in the Square, chatting to each other and making a particular fuss of Pluto.  The affable atmosphere was disturbed by the sound of a police siren and blue flashing lights as the local beat police car screeched into the Square and stopped near the bench. 

A policeman got out of the car, hurriedly pulled on his hat and drew his baton. “Is this the rabid dog!”

This was received with much laughter, which confused the policeman even more. “I got a 999 call saying that there was a rabid dog loose in the Square and that he’d already bitten two people.”

“I’ll lay even money that Daw Hooper as was, made that call,” said Mrs Kneller, who had joined the crowd.  “The only thing that’s been rabid in this village today is Daw’s nasty little boys.  Home from school for the holidays and hell bent on causing trouble. You should book her for wasting police time, Constable.  This here is Pluto and he’s been doing police dog training but it’s been called off because he won’t bite people.  He certainly gave those two boys a good barking at though.”

The policeman had the grace to blush in the face of Mrs Kneller’s protestations. Pluto was doing his best to look adorable and offered his paw, head tilted to one side.  Obviously, a dog lover, the policeman took Pluto’s paw and crouched down in front of him. “Doesn’t look rabid to me.  If he was, I’d imagine that you would all be back in your houses rather than out here.  I do know who made the call, although I can’t disclose that information of course.  There was some talk of someone being assaulted?”

Rachel stepped forward and held out her walking stick. “I used this to prevent the boys from getting too close to Pluto and the girls, but no one was hurt.  I used a rape alarm to scare them off; it’s a horrible noise but it does seem to be quite effective.”

“I can only apologise then…”

“Don’t you apologise!  Those boys of Daw’s are a liability. Instead of coming up here causing trouble and harassing people, they should have one of those ASBOs slapped on them.  I’ll give a statement about their behaviour!” said Mrs Kneller, and the crowd behind her roared their approval.

“I’ll take some names then.  I can’t promise an ASBO, but it will give me a little more evidence in the face of the false emergency call.”

He turned to Rachel first and held out his notebook.  His face turned rather red when she gave her address and he realised who else lived there. “Erm. Say hello to Mark for me, will you?”

Rachel smiled and gave the smallest of winks to acknowledge that the secret was still safe. The excitement of the afternoon had taken its toll though, and home was the only place she wanted to be.  Mrs Kneller, never one to miss such a sign, touched Rachel’s arm. “High time we got you and Pluto home, my dear.  You look beat.  You do realise Constable, that the older sister of those boys nearly killed our Rachel a couple of weeks ago. Drunk driving and not wearing her glasses, that Damaris nearly ran Rachel and Mark over.  She’s the one you should be investigating.  Mind you, we haven’t seen much of her since she had that Botox stuff in her lips.”

Sally and Sarah went back into the shop so that Lou could come out and say goodbye. “Mrs K is right Rachel.  You do look a bit peaky now.  Will you be okay walking back?”

“She’s got me and Pluto to mind her, Lou.  She’ll be fine once we’re indoors and I’ve got the kettle on.”

Lou hugged Rachel and whispered in her ear. “Never mind a cup of tea or coffee.  A glass of sherry would be better.”

The crowd dispersed after giving their details to the policeman; Rachel, Pluto and Mrs Kneller headed back up the main road towards Mark’s cottage.  The sight of his car in the driveway gave Rachel an unexpected, but thrilling attack of the butterflies.  Mark came out to greet them, and as Mrs Kneller’s tale unfolded, he took Pluto’s lead from Rachel, and very gently propelled her into the living room.

“Sherry, I think Mrs K, some water for Pluto and I’ll put the kettle on.  Then you can tell me all about it, but slowly.”

“On one condition Mark?”

“I think I know what you are about to say and if you are going to tell me to promise me to do nothing then I promise, unconditionally.”

Over sherry, tea and some biscuits that Mark had brought on the way home, Rachel let Mrs K tell the tale with gusto, raising her eyebrows occasionally when the story grew a little with each repetition. Mark had taken Rachel’s hand protectively when he heard about her accosting Damaris’s brothers.  She didn’t actually mind though, and even squeezed it back.  Mrs K rapidly identified the need for some privacy and sped off next door.

“Are you okay Rachel?” he asked.

She nodded.  “I just felt a bit wobbly when the policeman came roaring up with the blues and twos on.  I thought he was going to take Pluto away, and the girls were really scared.  He changed his attitude when Mrs K and all the neighbours told him that the call was fake. When I gave him our address, he got extreme apologetic and blushed.”

Mark looked down and tried to hide his smile.  Rachel hadn’t let go of his hand either.  Hope was definitely springing. It might have progressed further, but an officious knock at the front door interrupted the sweetness of the moment.  Mark got up to answer the door, but having seen that it was Doris Davenport-Hooper, he went through the patio doors and emerged in the driveway. Doris jumped at his sudden appearance from behind, then gathered up every ounce of outrage she could muster. “I don’t want to speak to you.  It’s that harlot that you’re shacked up with that I mean to talk to.”

“Be very careful Mrs Davenport-Hooper.” Mark’s voice was calm but authorative.   “I could have pressed charges against your daughter for dangerous driving, speeding, and assault when she tried to run us down in her car.  From what I have heard your sons have also been behaving in an antisocial manner, and the residents of the Square are all prepared to give evidence to that effect.  As for my guest Rachel, she is a well-respected journalist from London, who would never behave in the same irresponsible manner that we are seeing in all three of your children. Our dog Pluto is not rabid; on the contrary he is very well behaved and was protecting my nieces from your sons. Apparently, you made a 999 call, and wasted police time by lying about an incident that you hadn’t even witnessed.  Whatever you may think, none of your family is above the law.  I’d like you to leave my property now, and if you or any of your relatives persist in harassing us, I believe that I already have sufficient grounds to take out a private injunction against you.  Good bye.”

Rachel was watching from behind the blind in the kitchen, and had to hold her breath for fear of laughing too loudly.  Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed Mrs K leaning on the party wall, completely unabashed. Mrs Davenport-Hooper glared, first at Mark and then at Mrs K who was waving her fist in triumph, before getting into her car, roaring off the driveway, then swerving to avoid a car that was coming down on the other side of the road. That would have been bad enough, but the car happened to belong to the police constable who had been in the Square earlier. 

Mark backed into the doorway so that the constable could turn his car around, and set off up the road in pursuit.  Mrs K applauded. “Well done our Mark.  That told her.  Cocky old bat.  Can he arrest her for dangerous driving?”

“Possibly.  He has at least two witnesses, three if you count Rachel giggling behind the blind in the kitchen. I must check that we have a CCTV recording of that as well.”

Rachel chose that moment to open the front door and join in with Mrs K’s applause. Pluto barked, but it was his happy and excited bark.

“We’d better call Lou and warn her that the D-H family are on the warpath.” said Mark.  “I installed CCTV outside the shop and the house, but I doubt if the terrible twins are likely to take notice of that.”

Taking the initiative, Rachel phoned Lou at the shop but found that she had already closed up for the day, so she called the home number instead, then handed the phone over to Mark, who explained what had happened.

“Can you actually take out an injunction against them Mark?  The girls were really scared until Rachel stepped in with her stick and rape alarm.  She was quite magnificent; people were still talking about her standing up to the Dim twins long after she and Mrs K had gone home. Is Rachel okay though?  I haven’t seen her that angry since we were in the Gun together, and some drunken marine engineers made hateful comments about us because we ignored them.”

“What did she do?”

“Picked up a soda syphon and sprayed them with it.  Then she picked up a second one from behind the bar and let loose with that one too. I had to hurry her out.  We laughed all the way back to our house.”

“Boudicca of the bar eh!”

Realising what Lou and Mark were discussing, Rachel pulled a face and threw a cushion in Mark’s direction.  Pluto sensed a play fight and began jumping and barking with excitement.  Before things could go any further, Mark said a rapid goodbye, and crouched down to make a fuss of Pluto, keeping an eye on Rachel unless she launched another cushion, or worse. “I always wondered what it would be like to use a soda syphon on someone Rachel; I was never brave enough.”

“It wasn’t bravery.  They were drunk and foul-mouthed, and I wasn’t prepared to put up with it.  We were banned from the Gun for a week after that. It was meat draw night as well. Talking of which, what are we having for dinner tonight?  I didn’t realise you’d be back today, or I’d have got something in.”

“Takeaway?  Chinese, Indian, pizza or fish and chips?”

“I really fancy fish and chips. And cider. Have we got any cider?”

“I’ll pick some up while I’m out.  I’ll leave you in Pluto’s care for now.”

“He may not have bitten them, but he certainly has an impressive bark.  Don’t tell the police dog school, they might want him back.”

“No danger of that; they’re more than happy that he’s found a good home with us now.”

Us.  There it was again. Rachel was becoming accustomed to hearing it.  It was never a term that applied to her as a child or young woman until she met Lou, and had never been assumed with Sam.  They usually did what he wanted to do.  Takeaways were a hidden pleasure for Rachel whenever Sam was away; the thought of fish and chips would have caused him to turn up his very Roman nose.  

She had been mulling over the further six-month sabbatical that Tony had offered her that morning.  The London flat seemed a lifetime away; Tony had also suggested that she sublet it rather than leaving it empty any longer. That would mean a trip to London to clear out her clothes and the few personal belongings that were left there.  Could she really turn her back on the life she had led with Sam so easily?  Mark said that the happy times with Sorrel were fading, and she was beginning to understand that her memories of Sam weren’t really happy, but were largely about how he imposed his will upon her, and how she allowed him to.

Rachel phoned Lou again whilst Mark was out fetching dinner to check that it would be okay with her.

“The thought of having you here for another six months is bliss; the girls love you; Pluto loves you, and as for me, Mark and Mrs K…you belong here now Rachel.  You have to stay.”

“Will you come up to London with me?  I don’t think I can cope with going back into the flat on my own, and I need to bag up all my clothes.”

“Can I have first pick?”

“Of course.  I need to talk to Mark about it first.  If I let the flat, I’ll be able to pay him some rent.”

“He won’t take it.  As far as he is concerned you are looking after his house while he’s away. Pluto adores you, and I’ve never seen Mrs K so happy.”

“And Mark?”

“Do you really need to ask?  He respects your wishes about being friends and needing time to find yourself again, but when I see the two of you together.  It just looks right.  That’s not just me matchmaking either.”

“I’ll speak to him tonight.”

“About?”

“Staying on for another six months.”

“At least?”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Love you, Rachel.”

Stepping Back – Village Life?

Life took on a lazy but comfortable similarity over the next few days; the scratches and the cut healed up and with the end of the antibiotics, came an energy that Rachel didn’t feel she had experienced for some time.  Although she did her job on the paper, and did it well, she knew that she had been operating under Sam’s shadow for far too long.  After reading the guidance that Jenny had printed out for her, she had sent off a specimen article to Tony; nothing too extreme but with a tantalising taste of what goes on in village life.  He liked it.  In fact, he liked it so much that he said it was one of the best things she’d written for years.  Tony was not one for compliments so his email made her feel very happy.  And strangely free.

Mark didn’t ask to read the article before she sent it off.  She was pleased that he accepted that this was her work, and that she knew what she was doing. Sam had always made a point of checking her submissions, and although his suggestions were valid and sometimes an improvement on the original, it often made her feel that she had lost possession of her own words. Whilst Rachel was still housebound, Mark had gone down to Lou’s and rescued some board games; they proved an even match for each other at Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, but Rachel had the upper hand at Scrabble.  She could never have done anything like this with Sam; he was not a good loser, and either announced that he was bored, or went off into a sulk that could last for hours, or even days.  Rachel learned quite quickly that it was easier to lose to him.

Stop comparing Rachel!

Before Mark went back to work, they took the opportunity to go out in his car and visit some of her old haunts.  Rather than risk the pink ferry on a cold and windy day, he drove her round to the dress shop belonging to Ben’s friend.  Mark stayed outside in the car park however, which made Rachel feel more relaxed about choosing clothes that she liked rather than having to seek approval, or succumb to someone else’s taste. They had a long and leisurely pub lunch afterwards, then sat in the car park watching the boats and the people passing by.

Sam and Sorrel were usually the subjects of their conversations, but no longer in such a sad, or longing way.  Rachel admitted to Mark something that she had failed to admit to herself; all through the relationship, she was only an extension of Sam’s life.  She wore the clothes that were appropriate to their social status, if they went out for a meal, she felt herself automatically pushing her own plate away shortly after Sam had decided that conversation with other people was more important than eating the food in front of him. When she found herself thinking so negatively about Sam, she initially put the thoughts away as being unfair to him, but after blurting this out to Mark, he confessed that he felt quite free to have uncharitable thoughts about Sorrel now. After all, leaving him was her choice. Rachel longed for a time when she could accept Sam’s desertion with the same alacrity, and not feel that it was a reflection on her any more. For Mark, Rachel was a wonderful source of information about the mother he shared with Lou, that he’d never met and whose very existence was always denied by the grandparents who raised him.

Lou, Mrs Kneller, and Ben to a lesser extent, kept their beady eyes on the friendship that was growing between Rachel and Mark.  Lou knew her friend of old, and she could see that Rachel’s personality and confidence were coming back gradually; time was the one thing that she, and Mark needed more than anything. Although he didn’t really want to go back to work, Mark knew he was needed there, and he also appreciated that he had to give Rachel more space now that she was physically and emotionally feeling independent.  Mrs Kneller and Lou could be relied upon to keep an eye out for her, and from what Rachel had told him about life with Sam, Mark realised that making her own decisions was her way of resolving all that she felt she had lost.

As it was Sunday and the tea shop was closed, Lou and the girls decided to go on a clothes shopping spree with Rachel now that she was up to driving again. It was time to buy some new, pretty but practical underwear, and although she avoided the kind of lacy, girly nightwear that Mrs Kneller recommended, Rachel managed to find some cotton shorts pyjamas, and a warm dressing gown that would provide decent cover.  It took some cajoling from Rachel and the girls, but Lou eventually agreed to accept new outfits all round, including a couple of tops that would add a bit more interest to her tea shop tabards.

Lunch at a local pizza restaurant was on Rachel too, and although she was quite taken aback at how much she missed Mark’s company, spending quality time with the rest of her rediscovered family, made her feel even less like returning to the solitude and silence of the London flat. It was garrulous Sally who pushed the point home however.

“When are you going back to London, Auntie Rachel?”

“I see, trying to get rid of me now that you’ve been fed and clothed.” said Rachel smiling.

Lou put her hand over Rachel’s. “She doesn’t mean that do you, Sally? She means that she wants you to stay and needs to know how long we have with you – as do we all.”

“The first article has gone down well, although Tony wants me to spice it up a bit.  Any gossip gratefully received.  Mrs K assures me that I am no trouble, and Mark…”

“What about Uncle Mark?  I bet he wants you to stay as well.  He fancies you something rotten.”

“Shut up Sally!” said Jenny. “You are so embarrassing!”

“It’s okay Jenny.” said Rachel.  “Your Uncle Mark has been a very good friend to me, and I have to admit, I am far more comfortable and relaxed in his house than I would be back at my flat in London.  Mrs K says I have roses in my cheeks, which is good because that’s a far more attractive look than pyracanthas scratches.”

“Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you Rachel!” said Lou with a familiar twinkle in her eyes. “One of Damaris’ chums came into the shop boasting about how Mummy had paid for a week-long spa holiday so that Damaris could recover from having her heart broken by Mark, and her shop front defaced by a still unidentified vandal.”

“Poor dear.  Have we found out who did the art work yet?”

“Well, Miss Sharp has taken up her paintbrushes again; she is doing commissions and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone paid her to do a job on ‘Dee’s Designs’.  The best bit about Damaris and her holiday is that she had lip fillers done at the spa, and now looks like a trout.  I got that bit of gossip from another friend of hers who had a glimpse of the pouty face when she called round with some sympathy flowers.”

“Oh well, life should be a bit quieter now, those filler injections can take months to subside.”

“Don’t count your chickens Auntie Rachel,” said Jenny. “Her brothers are due home for the holidays soon.  They are both stupid and will do anything Mummy or Damaris tell them to do.”

“She’s right.  Last time they were home they spent most of the holiday hanging around the Square and insulting the passers-by.  I had to shut the tea shop early on a couple of days because I was so fed up with the noise and rudeness. Oh! I’ve just had a text from Mark.  He says can we all call at the house before you drop us home, Rachel? He has a surprise, and so far, he has Mrs K’s blessing.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“No, Auntie Rachel, that sounds great!  We haven’t had a nice surprise since you decided to come and stay.”

Rachel gave Sarah the hug that she so deserved, and unable to stand the suspense any longer, she paid the bill and hustled them all into her car. The girls played guessing games on the way back; Rachel and Lou were hoping that it wouldn’t be a horse, or a llama, or even an alpaca, although the general consensus was that alpacas were very sweet.

Mark was waiting for them in the doorway; grinning sheepishly about his surprise.

“Okay Bruv!” said Lou, grabbing his arm.  “What have you got tucked away in there?”

“Before I let you in, this is subject to Rachel and Mrs Kneller’s approval.”

Mrs K popped her head out of the kitchen window.  “It’s a yes from me!”

Rachel felt just a little backed into a corner. “Let’s get it over with but if it’s a tarantula, I’m going straight back to London!”

Mark went back in the house and came back leading a very sweet but rather bouncy young chocolate Labrador. “His name is Pluto; he’s been in training to be a police dog but he hasn’t done too well.  He doesn’t like biting people; money and drugs make him sneeze, and he’s far too friendly for his own good. I’ve brought him home for a holiday because the alternative was rehoming at the dog shelter.  He is on trial at the moment, but only if you and he take to each other Rachel.”

There was a moment when everyone but Rachel held their breath.  One look into those big brown eyes, and for a moment she was reminded of Sam, but then Sam would never have sat sweetly at her feet holding out a paw.  She crouched down and took Pluto’s paw, receiving a slightly slobbery lick in response. “I always wanted to have a cat or a dog to keep me company in the flat while Sam was away, but he claimed that he was allergic to pet hair.  I never had pets as a child because of boarding school, although Lou and I won a goldfish at the fair when we shared a house.”

“What happened to the goldfish Mum?  You never told us about the goldfish!”

“Ah. Yes.  The goldfish.  Will you tell them Rachel, or shall I?”

“Sorry girls.  It expired.  Lou was away sailing one weekend with your Dad, and I forgot to feed it.  When I remembered, I gave it too much food and it ate itself to death.”

“I think you owe us a pet then Auntie Rachel.  We’ll come and take him out for walks if you like, and you can come too now your legs are better.”

Rachel looked over at Mark, who appeared to be holding his breath while he waited for her response.  A part of her felt pressured but looking at the girls’ excited expressions, and then down at Pluto’s happy little face, her choice was easy. “Let’s go inside and talk to Mrs Kneller.  There will be more vacuuming to do with a dog in the house.”

Rachel and Pluto led the way, followed by the three very happy girls, and Mark who was giving his sister a very big hug.

“You seem to have made quite a few people happy at once.  I suppose you were worrying about Rachel being in the house on her own now that you are back at work?”

“Partly that and…”

“And finding yet another reason for Rachel to stay?”

“She seems to be happy, especially now that she can drive, and walk with the stick. She likes her independence.”

“She’s happy because you are giving her the space to be herself again.  She’s a lot more like the Rachel I used to live with.  Last time I visited her in London she was quite cold and official.  Sam seemed to have sucked all the life out of her.  Does she talk about him much?”

“Not as much; we talk about Sorrel sometimes.  I know I should have talked to you about her after she left but I thought that you had enough on your plate with Pete going.”

Lou punched him in the arm. “You fool!  I’m always there to listen but right now, I think you and Rachel can be the best therapy for each other.”

“As friends.” Mark turned his head away so she wouldn’t see the guilty blush.

“As friends of course, and if that friendship develops into something else, we’ll all be happy but NO pressure.  You are further on the road to recovery than Rachel is.”

“Funny, that’s almost exactly what she said.  I know she needs space and time, but I confess that, as the girls say, I fancy her something rotten! I think that she needs to laugh more, and that’s where you and the girls come in.”

“From the noise I can hear coming from the garden, I think Pluto might be playing a big part in that too.”  

Stepping Back – Village Life?

Life took on a lazy but comfortable similarity over the next few days; the scratches and the cut healed up and with the end of the antibiotics, came an energy that Rachel didn’t feel she had experienced for some time.  Although she did her job on the paper, and did it well, she knew that she had been operating under Sam’s shadow for far too long.  After reading the guidance that Jenny had printed out for her, she had sent off a specimen article to Tony; nothing too extreme but with a tantalising taste of what goes on in village life.  He liked it.  In fact, he liked it so much that he said it was one of the best things she’d written for years.  Tony was not one for compliments so his email made her feel very happy.  And strangely free.

Mark didn’t ask to read the article before she sent it off.  She was pleased that he accepted that this was her work, and that she knew what she was doing. Sam had always made a point of checking her submissions, and although his suggestions were valid and sometimes an improvement on the original, it often made her feel that she had lost possession of her own words. Whilst Rachel was still housebound, Mark had gone down to Lou’s and rescued some board games; they proved an even match for each other at Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, but Rachel had the upper hand at Scrabble.  She could never have done anything like this with Sam; he was not a good loser, and either announced that he was bored, or went off into a sulk that could last for hours, or even days.  Rachel learned quite quickly that it was easier to lose to him.

Stop comparing Rachel!

Before Mark went back to work, they took the opportunity to go out in his car and visit some of her old haunts.  Rather than risk the pink ferry on a cold and windy day, he drove her round to the dress shop belonging to Ben’s friend.  Mark stayed outside in the car park however, which made Rachel feel more relaxed about choosing clothes that she liked rather than having to seek approval, or succumb to someone else’s taste. They had a long and leisurely pub lunch afterwards, then sat in the car park watching the boats and the people passing by.

Sam and Sorrel were usually the subjects of their conversations, but no longer in such a sad, or longing way.  Rachel admitted to Mark something that she had failed to admit to herself; all through the relationship, she was only an extension of Sam’s life.  She wore the clothes that were appropriate to their social status, if they went out for a meal, she felt herself automatically pushing her own plate away shortly after Sam had decided that conversation with other people was more important than eating the food in front of him. When she found herself thinking so negatively about Sam, she initially put the thoughts away as being unfair to him, but after blurting this out to Mark, he confessed that he felt quite free to have uncharitable thoughts about Sorrel now. After all, leaving him was her choice. Rachel longed for a time when she could accept Sam’s desertion with the same alacrity, and not feel that it was a reflection on her any more. For Mark, Rachel was a wonderful source of information about the mother he shared with Lou, that he’d never met and whose very existence was always denied by the grandparents who raised him.

Lou, Mrs Kneller, and Ben to a lesser extent, kept their beady eyes on the friendship that was growing between Rachel and Mark.  Lou knew her friend of old, and she could see that Rachel’s personality and confidence were coming back gradually; time was the one thing that she, and Mark needed more than anything. Although he didn’t really want to go back to work, Mark knew he was needed there, and he also appreciated that he had to give Rachel more space now that she was physically and emotionally feeling independent.  Mrs Kneller and Lou could be relied upon to keep an eye out for her, and from what Rachel had told him about life with Sam, Mark realised that making her own decisions was her way of resolving all that she felt she had lost.

As it was Sunday and the tea shop was closed, Lou and the girls decided to go on a clothes shopping spree with Rachel now that she was up to driving again. It was time to buy some new, pretty but practical underwear, and although she avoided the kind of lacy, girly nightwear that Mrs Kneller recommended, Rachel managed to find some cotton shorts pyjamas, and a warm dressing gown that would provide decent cover.  It took some cajoling from Rachel and the girls, but Lou eventually agreed to accept new outfits all round, including a couple of tops that would add a bit more interest to her tea shop tabards.

Lunch at a local pizza restaurant was on Rachel too, and although she was quite taken aback at how much she missed Mark’s company, spending quality time with the rest of her rediscovered family, made her feel even less like returning to the solitude and silence of the London flat. It was garrulous Sally who pushed the point home however.

“When are you going back to London, Auntie Rachel?”

“I see, trying to get rid of me now that you’ve been fed and clothed.” said Rachel smiling.

Lou put her hand over Rachel’s. “She doesn’t mean that do you, Sally? She means that she wants you to stay and needs to know how long we have with you – as do we all.”

“The first article has gone down well, although Tony wants me to spice it up a bit.  Any gossip gratefully received.  Mrs K assures me that I am no trouble, and Mark…”

“What about Uncle Mark?  I bet he wants you to stay as well.  He fancies you something rotten.”

“Shut up Sally!” said Jenny. “You are so embarrassing!”

“It’s okay Jenny.” said Rachel.  “Your Uncle Mark has been a very good friend to me, and I have to admit, I am far more comfortable and relaxed in his house than I would be back at my flat in London.  Mrs K says I have roses in my cheeks, which is good because that’s a far more attractive look than pyracanthas scratches.”

“Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you Rachel!” said Lou with a familiar twinkle in her eyes. “One of Damaris’ chums came into the shop boasting about how Mummy had paid for a week-long spa holiday so that Damaris could recover from having her heart broken by Mark, and her shop front defaced by a still unidentified vandal.”

“Poor dear.  Have we found out who did the art work yet?”

“Well, Miss Sharp has taken up her paintbrushes again; she is doing commissions and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone paid her to do a job on ‘Dee’s Designs’.  The best bit about Damaris and her holiday is that she had lip fillers done at the spa, and now looks like a trout.  I got that bit of gossip from another friend of hers who had a glimpse of the pouty face when she called round with some sympathy flowers.”

“Oh well, life should be a bit quieter now, those filler injections can take months to subside.”

“Don’t count your chickens Auntie Rachel,” said Jenny. “Her brothers are due home for the holidays soon.  They are both stupid and will do anything Mummy or Damaris tell them to do.”

“She’s right.  Last time they were home they spent most of the holiday hanging around the Square and insulting the passers-by.  I had to shut the tea shop early on a couple of days because I was so fed up with the noise and rudeness. Oh! I’ve just had a text from Mark.  He says can we all call at the house before you drop us home, Rachel? He has a surprise, and so far, he has Mrs K’s blessing.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“No, Auntie Rachel, that sounds great!  We haven’t had a nice surprise since you decided to come and stay.”

Rachel gave Sarah the hug that she so deserved, and unable to stand the suspense any longer, she paid the bill and hustled them all into her car. The girls played guessing games on the way back; Rachel and Lou were hoping that it wouldn’t be a horse, or a llama, or even an alpaca, although the general consensus was that alpacas were very sweet.

Mark was waiting for them in the doorway; grinning sheepishly about his surprise.

“Okay Bruv!” said Lou, grabbing his arm.  “What have you got tucked away in there?”

“Before I let you in, this is subject to Rachel and Mrs Kneller’s approval.”

Mrs K popped her head out of the kitchen window.  “It’s a yes from me!”

Rachel felt just a little backed into a corner. “Let’s get it over with but if it’s a tarantula, I’m going straight back to London!”

Mark went back in the house and came back leading a very sweet but rather bouncy young chocolate Labrador. “His name is Pluto; he’s been in training to be a police dog but he hasn’t done too well.  He doesn’t like biting people; money and drugs make him sneeze, and he’s far too friendly for his own good. I’ve brought him home for a holiday because the alternative was rehoming at the dog shelter.  He is on trial at the moment, but only if you and he take to each other Rachel.”

There was a moment when everyone but Rachel held their breath.  One look into those big brown eyes, and for a moment she was reminded of Sam, but then Sam would never have sat sweetly at her feet holding out a paw.  She crouched down and took Pluto’s paw, receiving a slightly slobbery lick in response. “I always wanted to have a cat or a dog to keep me company in the flat while Sam was away, but he claimed that he was allergic to pet hair.  I never had pets as a child because of boarding school, although Lou and I won a goldfish at the fair when we shared a house.”

“What happened to the goldfish Mum?  You never told us about the goldfish!”

“Ah. Yes.  The goldfish.  Will you tell them Rachel, or shall I?”

“Sorry girls.  It expired.  Lou was away sailing one weekend with your Dad, and I forgot to feed it.  When I remembered, I gave it too much food and it ate itself to death.”

“I think you owe us a pet then Auntie Rachel.  We’ll come and take him out for walks if you like, and you can come too now your legs are better.”

Rachel looked over at Mark, who appeared to be holding his breath while he waited for her response.  A part of her felt pressured but looking at the girls’ excited expressions, and then down at Pluto’s happy little face, her choice was easy. “Let’s go inside and talk to Mrs Kneller.  There will be more vacuuming to do with a dog in the house.”

Rachel and Pluto led the way, followed by the three very happy girls, and Mark who was giving his sister a very big hug.

“You seem to have made quite a few people happy at once.  I suppose you were worrying about Rachel being in the house on her own now that you are back at work?”

“Partly that and…”

“And finding yet another reason for Rachel to stay?”

“She seems to be happy, especially now that she can drive, and walk with the stick. She likes her independence.”

“She’s happy because you are giving her the space to be herself again.  She’s a lot more like the Rachel I used to live with.  Last time I visited her in London she was quite cold and official.  Sam seemed to have sucked all the life out of her.  Does she talk about him much?”

“Not as much; we talk about Sorrel sometimes.  I know I should have talked to you about her after she left but I thought that you had enough on your plate with Pete going.”

Lou punched him in the arm. “You fool!  I’m always there to listen but right now, I think you and Rachel can be the best therapy for each other.”

“As friends.” Mark turned his head away so she wouldn’t see the guilty blush.

“As friends of course, and if that friendship develops into something else, we’ll all be happy but NO pressure.  You are further on the road to recovery than Rachel is.”

“Funny, that’s almost exactly what she said.  I know she needs space and time, but I confess that, as the girls say, I fancy her something rotten! I think that she needs to laugh more, and that’s where you and the girls come in.”

“From the noise I can hear coming from the garden, I think Pluto might be playing a big part in that too.”  

Stepping Back – Far Too Many Men

The sound of male voices outside in the corridor filtered through into Rachel’s somewhat confused and disturbing nightmare.  She had initially been on a boat; a yacht to be more precise, sailing down the river toward the Island.  Lou and the girls were on board and the sun was shining, so it started as a sweet dream. Then things changed, and the yacht was overrun by Damaris and a bunch of Portuguese sailors clutching cutlasses between their teeth.  She was just being made to walk the plank when Mark turned up in a speedboat, except that it wasn’t Mark, it was Dr Hussein and then when she looked again it was Sam, and Damaris had turned into Adele. A smirking Adele.

 Rachel shook her head in the vain hope that her thoughts would become less muddled.  “It’s just my subconscious jumbling everything up together.  I’m probably still in shock.”

She looked around the room; everything seemed as it was before she went to sleep, apart from the fact that there were now two men bickering outside in the corridor. “Hello?” she called.  “Is that you Mark?  I’m awake now.”

The door opened and Mark peered round it, a very serious expression on his face.  “Are you okay?  Did we wake you?”

“Out of the way Marky boy.  Medical professional coming through.  You must be the lovely Rachel?  I am the equally lovely Ben and I am here to make you all better again.  How do you do?”

A vision in a pure white and very neatly tailored nurse’s uniform; Ben was all that Lou had described and more.  His immaculately coiffed blonde hair was set off by a real tan that put Damaris’s patchy brown to shame.  Rachel took his outstretched hand and was surprised by the strength of his grip. 

“Not all poofs are pansies darling, I work out every day and kick box for fun.  I’ll never be quite as macho as darling Marky here, but I get by.  Out you go Mark.  I have a patient to see to and I don’t want you slavering away while I’m doing it.”

Mark looked over at Rachel, who nodded her assent.  Looking more than a little downhearted he backed out of the room.  Rachel pulled back the duvet again; she was beginning to feel like the bearded lady at a circus, and wondered if she should start charging admission fees.  For all the high camp, Ben was actually a very good nurse; he checked over the scratches on her legs and face, then very gently removed the dressing on her thigh. “Oh! Poor you!  That must have really hurt!”

“I didn’t notice it at the time.  I’m still not sure if Damaris would have actually run me down if Mark hadn’t thrown me into the bush. Her driving was pretty erratic.”

“Blind as a bat and too vain to wear her specs.  One of these days she’ll get caught speeding but Daddy will buy her a ‘get out of jail free’ card; she’ll bat those baby blue eyes and flash a bit of cleavage at the judge and hey presto, she’s back on the streets careering around like a loon again.  She’s been after Mark since he moved down here with Sorrel. That was before she had the boob and nose jobs, and the tummy tuck, mind you.  I don’t know why she doesn’t just have laser eye surgery and be done with it.  She’ll be on the Botox next; her Mummy already looks like she’s been embalmed.  Have you met Mummy yet?

Rachel shook her head, entranced by the flood of words and wondering whether Ben would make a good subject for one of her village articles.

“Pure poison, darling.  Common as muck and forgets that those who’ve lived in this Village for years know exactly what she was before she married old Davenport.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was the village bike, more like a tatty old kid’s scooter.  Damaris is the brightest of the bunch I’m afraid, her dopey brothers haven’t got the sense they were born with. That’s why Mummy keeps them tucked away at boarding school – it’s actually more like a posh Borstal really. There!  All done!  You’ll be pleased to know that your wound is looking healthier this evening.  I will come again before surgery in the morning, and if you’re very good and have continued progressing I may even let that big lug outside carry you into the lounge to watch TV.  Bed rest for tonight though.  Are you two an item?”

“I – no – I split up with my partner just over a month ago.  Lou asked me to come down for a rest and to get away from seeing my ex and his new girlfriend every day. I’m not with anyone.  I don’t want to be with anyone.  I’m totally off men.”

“Hmm.  Not convinced.  Still, you’ve plenty of time if you’re here for another three months.  Time to get the old one out of your system and choose between your two lucky suitors.”

“Two?”

“Oh yes darling, Dr H is rather smitten with you too.  Said he was intending to ask you out for a drink when you’re back on your feet.  Might have a bit of competition with your bezzie mate though.  Lou has the hots for the Doc too.  Anyway, must dash.  I’ll pop in whilst old Mother Kneller is scrubbing the floorboards in the morning.  Remember, bed rest this evening and no shenanigans with our Marky!  Toodle pip!”

And like a white whirlwind he was gone.  Mark tapped gently on the door.   “Is it safe now?  Am I allowed in?”

“Of course,” said Rachel, pulling the duvet up to her chin and leaning back against the pillows.  Mark sat down gingerly at the end of the bed. “I’m really sorry about the infection.  I thought I was doing the right thing with those Steri-strips but apparently, I didn’t get all the bits out first. How does it feel?”

“Sore, but Ben says it’s looking okay.  Did you get the tablets from the chemist?”

“Yes.  I left them on the kitchen table, Ben distracted me.”

“I’ll bet.” 

“Not like that!” said Mark, looking highly offended, “I’m not his type at all.”

Laughing, Rachel shook her head. “I didn’t think for one moment he was, but you have to admit he’s rather larger than life.  Have you had a good day?”

“Your Portuguese friends have kept me rather busy, and then I was – I was – well, worrying about you.  I’ll get your tablets. Lou said she’d phone me when dinner is done and I’ll fetch it from hers.  Are you allowed to get up yet?”

“No, Ben says I have to wait till tomorrow.  Could you help me out to the bathroom though, Mark?”

“Of course.”

Rachel had thought that he might take her arm and walk her out as Lou had done earlier but no, in a moment she felt herself lifted out of bed and carried to the bathroom as if she were light as a feather. Mark put her down in the doorway. and she hurriedly pulled down her nightshirt to cover what modesty she had left. 

“I’ll get the tablets; call me when you’re ready to go back.”

Left alone in the bathroom again, Rachel decided that the scratches on her face were looking less red than before.  She fluffed up her fringe a little, put on some deodorant and grimaced at her reflection.

“Are you okay in there?”

Staggering slightly, Rachel made it to the doorway only to find herself picked up and carried back to bed again.  She had to admit, there was something rather reassuring about being looked after in this way.  Sam would never have done anything like this.  He’d disappeared for a week the first time she had a cold because he didn’t want to catch her germs.  His tolerance level for illness hadn’t improved over time.

Stop comparing, Rachel!

Mark placed her very gently on the bed. He sat down again, a bit closer than he had before, and took one of her hands in his. “Can I just say a few things?”

“Fire away.  I’m a captive audience after all.”

“Damaris is not my fiancée, not even my girlfriend.  I went to dinner at her parents’ house once, but only then because she tricked me into it by saying it was a dinner dance.  I’m really sorry about the bush but I thought she was going to run you down.

“She sent me flowers.”

“Oh! Did she?  That was kind of her.”

“Not really.  The flowers were hideous and the card that came with it was insulting.  She claims that you have a habit of picking up waifs and strays.  Which am I?”

“Neither.  You are the things that she aspires to be but will never attain.  You’re real.  She isn’t.”

Rachel blushed and tried very hard not to look him in the eyes, very aware that there was a large possibility that he might kiss her, and though the idea of that was quite appealing, it was all too soon. “Thank you,” she said quietly, trying to formulate sentences in her head that wouldn’t sound too trite when she uttered them.  “Mark, we’re both adults – and – it isn’t just the infection that is making me feel hot and bothered right now…”

“Good…”

“…but …”

Mark sighed and raised his eyes heavenwards. “Why does there have to be a but?”

“Because I’m a month out of a long-term relationship, because Sam broke my heart, and I’m not in a good place right now, because I don’t know you very well yet, you are my best friend’s big brother and I would hate it if anything went wrong, and because my leg hurts like hell.  Have you got those tablets please?”

“Rachel, I’m so sorry.  Here they are.  I’ll get you some fresh water – or juice – do you want juice?  Or wine?  You shouldn’t really take this stuff with wine – bad idea.”

“Water would be lovely.  Thank you.” 

Rachel gave a sigh of relief as Mark took her glass off to the kitchen to refill it.  She tried to look at the situation as analytically as possible.  Mark was gorgeous; funny, extremely sexy, bright and obviously very good at his job.  He was Lou’s much-loved brother though, and if she had a fling with him and it didn’t turn out right, well there would be more heartbreak for both of the., Lou and the girls would hate her and she’d be homeless.  And deep at the heart of it all, there was still Sam.  She didn’t know if she still loved him – or hated him even.  He was still there though; still standing between her and anything she tried to plan for the future.

Mark came back with the water and she took it from him, knocking back the pills in the hope that they would put her to sleep again.  He sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hand in his again. “Okay.  I think I understand.  I think we are attracted to each other but it’s a physical thing right now and you aren’t in any state to do anything other than sleep, eat …”

“… and go to the bathroom.”

“Yes, that too.  Anything I know about you I know from Lou and vice versa.  If we can, let’s put the physical thing to one side for now.  I’ve taken a few days off so I can be here …”

“Mark!  You didn’t have to do that!”

“I did it because I wanted to – and I do feel responsible.  Damaris was my stalker and it was me that pushed you into the hedge after all.  When you feel a bit better, maybe we could go out for a drink, for dinner perhaps? Just as people who are getting to know each other.  Sort of a date maybe?”

Rachel smiled and squeezed his hand.  “Yes, I’d like that – although Dr Hussein has beaten you to it.  I’ve already promised him I’d go out with him for a drink.”

“I shall have words next time I see him.  Lou’s got a bit of a thing for him and I don’t want my little sister’s heart broken in two again.” 

She frowned.  “I didn’t realise it was that serious.  I would never do anything to hurt Lou.  Just don’t leave me alone with him though.  He has very lovely eyes and an extraordinary bedside manner.” 

She yawned and felt her eyelids beginning to feel very heavy; the painkillers must be very strong.  Mark got up, and letting go her hand gave her a brief but loving kiss on the forehead. “Go to sleep.  I’ll wake you up a bit later when I’ve fetched dinner from Lou’s, then after that you can have the benefit of my best interrogation techniques.”

“That’s not what I meant by getting to know each other better.” Rachel protested.  Mark grinned, winked and left the room.

Stepping Back – Dreams or Nightmares?

The sound of Mrs Kneller woke Rachel from a troubled sleep.  She wasn’t sure whether she had dreamed it or not, but she had a vague memory of crying out in the night, and the sound of Mark’s voice, soothing and calm, cutting through the fear, and his arm around her shoulders as he gave her a sip of water and some painkillers.  She scrabbled around on the bedside table; found her glasses and a piece of paper.  Blinking frantically, she had to wait till her eyes had adjusted sufficiently to be able see what was on the paper.  He’d drawn another picture of her. No pigtails this time, just a curtain of hair and two scared eyes peering over the edge of a duvet. “Have left a message for Mrs K to look in on you and call the GP in if necessary. You have a bit of a temperature – that will account for your delirious babblings during the night – I hope. M x”

Delirious babblings!  Oh no! What had she said?  Rachel swung her legs out of the bed in order to get up, but the sudden movement left her dizzy and disoriented.  She collapsed back against the pillows with an audible moan.  Mrs Kneller must have been in the hallway; she rushed in and had tucked Rachel back into bed before she even knew what was happening. “You stop right where you are young lady!  I don’t know what has been going on but I’ve no doubt you’ll tell me once you’re feeling a bit better.  There was a note from our Mark put through my door early this morning, AND a phone-call just as I was getting ready to come out.  Had to make sure that I’d found the note he said.  Of course, I found it.  I’ve orders to check on you and call Dr Hussein in if I think you need it.  What’s happened to you?  You’re white as a sheet!”

Rachel closed her eyes, took a deep breath and did her best to tell Mrs Kneller about the hedge, meeting up with Damaris, and Mark’s subsequent first aid skills.

“Show me your legs then, especially that nasty cut.  She’s a wild one that Damaris.  If I was Mark, I’d tell her I was a copper, and if she still insisted on breaking the law, I’d get her locked up!”

Lifting the duvet up so that Mrs Kneller could cast an unprofessional eye over Mark’s medical handiwork, Rachel frowned.  “You mean Damaris doesn’t know what he does for a living?”

“No, there’s only Lou, the girls, me – and now you – as knows what he does.  He does undercover work.  Folks round here just think he dabbles in boat stuff and a bit of business.  You haven’t told anyone have you?”

Rachel shook her head, trying to sit very still whilst Mrs Kneller examined minutely the scratches down her legs.  She raised one side of her nightshirt and tried not to wince while the dressing was removed.  She didn’t want to look but felt that she ought to, even to her non-medical eyes, the wound looked red and it certainly felt sore.  Mrs Kneller put a hand to Rachel’s forehead and tutted. “You sit tight.  We need to get the doctor in to you.  Mark’s done a good job but it looks to me as if that cut has got infected.  No arguments!”

Not normally a person who acquiesced easily, Rachel had the sense to recognise an immoveable force when she met one.  She closed her eyes again and tried desperately hard to remember what she could possibly have said to Mark when he heard her calling out in the night.  She put a hand to her own forehead; it felt cold although she felt as if it should be on fire.  Common sense persuaded her that Mrs Kneller was right, and the situation needed some real medical intervention. 

She heard the clattering of cups and saucers in the kitchen. The aroma of fresh toast and coffee prompted her to look at the clock.  Half-past ten! She should have been at Lou’s ages ago.  She was about to get out of bed again when Mrs Kneller bustled in with a breakfast tray and plonked it unceremoniously on the bed. “You stay put!  Lou knows what’s gone on.  Mark dropped a note through her door as well, and I rang her at the teashop after I called Dr Hussein.  He’s popping round after surgery in an hour’s time.  I’ll stay till he’s been, then Lou’s going to pop in with your lunch.  I’ll check in on you again this afternoon and Mark says he’ll be home early.  I’ve made you some breakfast. The doctor says you’ve to eat, and then you can have some more of these painkillers, but you can’t have them on an empty stomach so I’ve not to give them to you till you’ve eaten up every scrap of that toast and drunk your orange juice.  I made fresh coffee in that pot thing so you can have more if you want it.  Here you are.”

She moved the tray closer to Rachel and stood menacingly with her hands on her hips whilst Rachel, still reeling slightly from Mrs Kneller’s kind but scary arsenal, buttered the toast and took a sip of cold orange juice.  She had to admit, everything tasted extremely good, far better than it did when she made her own breakfast.  Seeing that her patient was being compliant, Mrs Kneller nodded and left the room.  The low hum of the vacuum cleaner soon permeated the cottage as it was made ready for the doctor’s visit.  Rachel finished the last piece of toast and had moved onto the coffee when Mrs Kneller returned, a disdainful look on her face and carrying a very large and garish bouquet of dyed dahlias. “No prizes for guessing where these have come from.” she said, handing Rachel the card that had been attached to them.  She stood, carrying the flowers like a reluctant and very cross bridesmaid, and Rachel hurriedly opened the envelope. “’So sorry about your little fall last night.  I’m sure my darling Mark got you home safely.  He’s so good with waifs and strays.  Kind regards, Damaris D-H’. What does the D-H stand for?”

“Not what you’re thinking, but it might just as well.  They go by the name of Davenport-Hooper.   He’s the Davenport; local landed gentry as was, fallen on bad times so he married Doris Hooper. Her dad was filthy rich, and I mean filthy.  Made his money in rag and bones so she’s no call to be putting on airs and graces.  Tongue on her like a fishwife though she does her best to sound posh.  The kids all went away to school and had those elocution lessons.  Our Daw is the only one who sounds common now, except when she puts in an appearance at that posh restaurant of hers in the Square.  She can’t cook or manage to save her life, so she has people to do all that for her.   Finished your coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.  Breakfast was lovely.”

“Good.  Here’s your painkillers and some fresh water.  Do you want these flowers?”

Rachel grimaced as she swallowed the tablets. “Not really.  Would you like them?”

“Lord in heaven no!  I’m going round the old peoples’ once I leave here.  They like a nice bit of colour in the residents’ lounge.  If I mix them up with some white chrysanths, they might look a bit less ….”

“…tacky?  Please take them with my blessing.  I would imagine that she sent them in an effort to get back in Mark’s good books, rather than to say sorry to a waif and stray like me.”

“You’re worth a million of her, my lovely!  You have a little doze now, and before you know it Dr Hussein will be here.  He’s a bit gorgeous but not a patch on our Mark.  Dr H is very smartly dressed though, and he does have a lovely way with him.” 

She took the tray off the bed and went back to the kitchen, pulling the door closed behind her.  Rachel turned over onto the side of her that wasn’t throbbing and took a deep breath.  She could understand this sort of thing happening to foreign correspondents who were dodging bullets, and diving behind burned out buildings, but she was on a three-month sabbatical in a sleepy South coast village for heaven’s sake!   She’d barely banished this thought and closed her eyes when she heard a gentle tapping on the door and turned over to see Mrs Kneller ushering in an extremely attractive man carrying a large black bag. “Here we go my dear, here’s Dr Hussein to sort you out.  I looked in on you a short while ago and you were well gone.”

Rachel blinked. “What time is it?  Was I asleep long?”

Dr Hussein sat down on the bed next to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse.  The room was silent whilst he glanced at his watch, then apparently satisfied he opened his bag and took out his in-ear thermometer.  Rachel sat patiently until he removed it from her ear and dropped the disposable end into his waste bag. “Okay.  It’s a quarter to twelve, and according to Mrs K you dozed off about an hour ago.  Your pulse is a little bit racy but that’s not uncommon in my patients.  You have a raised temperature which is probably due to an infection.  Can I have a look at your cuts and scratches please?”

For the second time that morning, Rachel pulled back the duvet and raised her nightshirt up on one side.  Dr Hussein examined the scratches and nodded but shook his head when he got to the cut on her thigh. “Mark’s done a good job on the scratches, but he really should have taken you down to A&E for this cut.  I’ll clean it up now, give you some fairly strong antibiotics, and I’ll get the district nurse to come in again for the next couple of days to change the dressings and check it over.”

“Why is the cut infected? I was pushed – I mean I fell into a bush.  The scratches are okay.”

“The scratches are superficial but this cut was caused by a branch that probably snapped when you fell against it.  There’s a fair chance there may still be some debris in there but the Steri-strips are holding it in.  This is going to be a bit painful I’m afraid. I’ll spray some local anaesthetic on it but you might want to bite the pillow if it gets too much.”

He pulled several items from his bag and laid them on the bed before pulling on some blue rubber gloves.   Rachel decided not to watch, and buried her head in the pillow. Mrs Kneller hovered nearby, a look of total fascination on her face as Dr Hussein began the painful process of removing the strips and washing out the wound. “Got it!” he cried triumphantly, holding aloft a piece of twig that he’d extracted with his tweezers.  He continued probing the wound, occasionally patting Rachel’s leg when her muffled yelps became too audible.  Mrs Kneller fetched fresh water.

“We’ll just put a dressing on for now rather than stitches.  The cut may knit together without them if you rest up for a while.  No gallivanting down at the beach for the next couple of days, and we’ll see what Nurse says when he visits.  Take these tablets for now and perhaps Lou can get the prescription for some antibiotics filled this afternoon.  The painkillers Mark left for you should be strong enough, but bed rest is the best healer of all.”

He stood, and Rachel gingerly sat up; her leg did actually feel better already, and she smiled.  He really was rather gorgeous, with brown eyes that rivalled Sam’s and a particularly attractive set of cheekbones.  He extended his hand and she took it. “Thank you, I’m sorry to have been a nuisance.”

“Not at all Rachel, you are much the most attractive patient I’ve seen all day – and yes – I know that I shouldn’t make comments like that, but I find it very hard to stick to political correctness when in the presence of a lovely woman. Perhaps we could meet up when you are feeling better?  Lou tells me that you are likely to be here for the next three months.”

Rachel blushed and ducked her head down; it had been a long time since anyone had paid her such a plethora of compliments.  Dr Hussein smiled, patted her hand and said his goodbyes before being shown into the bathroom to wash his hands and dispose of his rubbish.

Mrs Kneller came back after seeing him out. “I’m off now my lovely, you were a very brave girl, that must have hurt a lot and you barely squeaked.  I’ll take these flowers with me and Lou will be in shortly.  She’s got a key so you won’t need to get up.  I might pop in later to see how you are.”

“I’m very grateful for all you’ve done, and especially glad to see the back of those hideous flowers.  Thank you.” 

Mrs Kneller patted Rachel’s hand, straightened the duvet and left, clutching Damaris’ bouquet as if it were some poisonous snake.

It wasn’t long before Lou popped her head around the bedroom door and grinned sympathetically at her. “I come bearing gifts.  Poor you!   Grievously assaulted by a pyracanthas bush and meeting Damaris Doubly-Horrid in the same evening.  How Mark can actually bear to be anywhere near her amazes me.  Did you think she was attractive?”

Lou sat down with a bump on the bed then moved back gingerly as Rachel winced. “Sorry, sorry. At least you got to meet gorgeous Dr H.  My girls absolutely adore him and, I have actually been out with him for a drink a couple of times …”

Rachel waited for Lou to draw breath.  “I can see that Damaris is attractive….”

“…you’re trying to be nice and kind.  Don’t bother. She’s horrendous.”

“… but I found her a bit too – blonde? Too orange.  Too in your face.  She sent me some disgustingly disfigured dahlias this morning.  They’d all been dyed in unnatural colours.”

Lou looked around the room.

“No, Mrs K’s taken them off to the old folks’ home.  She’s going to dilute them with some white chrysanthemums and spread some colour around the residents’ lounge.  I thought Dr Hussein was very charming, and obviously good at his job.  My leg hurts a lot less now.  It wasn’t Mark’s fault that it got infected, there was a piece of twig that got stuck behind the Steri-strips.  It’s out now anyway.  How come you know all about it?”

“Network Kneller.  Who needs the Internet when you live in a small village?  Mrs K is friends with the health centre receptionist, who told the story to everyone that went in there after she got the request for Dr H to make a home visit.  Mrs K phoned through the grocery order to the SPAR, so everyone knew there, ditto with the chemist, the butcher, and little old me!  Virtually everyone who came into the Square this morning knows that Damaris nearly killed you by trying to run you over – and all because she was jealous that you were staying in Mark’s cottage.  Rumour has it that you and Mark have been seeing each other for months, that when he disappears it’s because he’s gone up to London to see you.  Damaris wasn’t the most popular girl in the Village anyway, but now! Oh! How I laughed!  People also know that Damaris said that she thought she was running Mrs K over rather than Mark’s guest, which makes it look like a deliberate act rather than an accident.”

“But Mark!  What will he say when he finds out?”

“He knows already.  Laughed like a drain.  This has actually worked wonders for his undercover work.  There were some people in the village who were getting a bit curious about his frequent absences; they’ll be satisfied with the explanation that he’s been spending time in London with you, and it may help with some of the foreign nationals that he’s trying to catch as well.  I believe that the guys you saw outside Dippy Dee’s are currently under some kind of surveillance at the moment.”

Feeling as if her head was going to burst, Rachel took a deep breath and tried to make some sense of it all.  Realising that she had probably overloaded her friend at a time when she should have been looking after her, Lou started to unpack the basket she had brought.  It was a lunch designed to tempt the palate of any invalid; tiny triangular sandwiches, Greek salad with feta cheese in a little earthenware bowl, dainty iced biscuits and a couple of mini-muffins.  She disappeared in to the kitchen and came back with a fresh glass of orange juice and a tray to put it all on. “I’ll stay while you eat, then I’ll clear away and pop the prescription into the chemist on the way back.  Mark says he’ll be home at tea time and will pick up the tablets.  He has a few loose ends to tie up.  I’m making a huge stew for dinner so he can pop down and get some for both of you.  He’s really sorry about pushing you into that bush you know, but he seriously thought that Damaris was going to run you both over.  She ought to wear her glasses – or contacts at least – but too vain and too lazy.”

“You’ve talked to Mark then?”

“Yes, quite a long conversation for him.  He was very worried about you.”

“Did he – did he say anything about me being delirious?  About me …babbling?”

Lou grinned. 

“He told me that he heard you calling out in the night and he came in with some water because he didn’t want you getting out of bed and falling over.  Why? Can you remember what you said?”

“No.  I only know he’d been in here because he left me a note.”

“Did he?  What did it say?  Can I see it?”

“Oh, I’ve put it away somewhere.  It was just to say that Mrs K would sort things out for me.   That’s all.”

Lou looked disappointed, but sat still whilst Rachel attempted to eat some lunch.  It all looked so enticing but her appetite seemed to have disappeared. 

“Don’t worry,” said Lou, “I’ll put the muffins and biscuits on the bedside table in case you want them later.  I bet you need the loo though?”

Nodding gratefully, Rachel eased her way out of bed and although it was slow going, Lou helped her next door to the bathroom and told her to yell when she was ready to come back.  As she stood up to wash her hands, Rachel caught sight of her face in the mirror, and reeled back in shock. The pyracanthas had done some damage to her face as well, although Mark seemed to have cleaned them up, there were several scratches down one side of her face.  Gently she combed her hair so that it didn’t look quite so much like a bird’s nest, splashed some water on her face to freshen up and made her way back to the bathroom door. 

“Lou, are you there?” she called.

The door opened and Lou helped her back to bed, settling her back against pillows that had been plumped up and straightened. “Shall I plait your hair before I go?” she asked.

“Yes please – and I can’t do anything about the state of my face but a smidge of lipstick …”

“… and a dab of Chanel No 5.  I remember.  I’ll also take your dress home with me, give it a good wash and see if I can get it mended.  One of my regulars does dressmaking and alterations; I’m sure she’ll be able to put it right.”

“It’s not an expensive dress; it is my favourite though.”

“I know.  I even remember the charity shop that you bought it from.  You did look lovely last night.”

“Not so lovely now.  I really do look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.”

Lou finished the two neat plaits, passed her the lipstick, mirror and perfume, then nodded in satisfaction at the finished result.  “You look and smell very sweet. Is this for Mark’s benefit?  Or is Dr H popping back later?”

“Neither.” said Rachel, a little abruptly, then grinning “I thought I’d try my luck with the district nurse.”

“Ben is gay, extremely camp, and rather wonderful.  The Village took a while to accept a male district nurse but all the old dears love him now, and the mummies spend hours chatting with him about mastitis, cabbage leaves, and cervical stitches, at the post-natal clinics.  If you need anything, Ben is the best person to go to.  He has friends everywhere. Right, I’m off, get some sleep and Mark will be here soon.  Your phone is fully charged, and on the table, you have fresh water and nibbles.  Sweet dreams.”

Kissing her on the unscratched cheek, Lou picked up the basket and was gone.  In a matter of moments Rachel was asleep again but the dreams were not sweet.