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.

Stepping Back – Dreadful Damaris

By the time Rachel arrived at Lou’s house the walk had given her a healthy glow in her cheeks and her freshly washed hair had lost some of its initial fluffiness. Jenny opened the front door and looked her up and down before nodding in approval.  “Very nice Auntie Rachel, you look far more girly than usual.  It wouldn’t have anything to do with our other dinner guest, would it?”

“Leave her alone Jen, you look lovely Rachel.  Makes a change from your usual jeans and baggy jumper look.  I appreciate your efforts even if my horrible daughter doesn’t.” 

Lou took Rachel’s arm and squeezed it, steering her into the front room, which also looked as if it had been given a bit of a makeover.  Pictures of Mark; with Lou, with the girls, and with a stunningly beautiful red head who Rachel took to be Mark’s ex-wife Sorrel.  She found herself hoping fervently that it wasn’t Damaris. 

Lou picked up the picture.  “I’ll put this one away, he won’t thank me for leaving it up.  He doesn’t talk about Sorrel at all.”

“I thought it might have been – what was her name? Damaris?”

“Good Lord No!”  Lou laughed and tucked the picture behind some books.  “Damaris is a blonde, a brassy-streaked bottle blonde, with a mahogany spray tan, and extremely enhanced curves.  In another age they would have said she was pneumatic and compared her to Monroe.  I think she looks like a tart, but I’m biased.  She and her horrible mother did their best to drive me out of business by spreading nasty rumours about my baking, and making racist comments about me and the girls.  They were trying to divert customers to a friend of the family who had set up an ‘artisan bakery’ in the next village. We rode out the storm thanks to a number of lovely regulars who continued coming, and persuaded others to come back, but it was touch and go for a while.”

“And the artisan bakery?”

“Went bust ages ago.  It helps if you know what your customers want, and around here they don’t go a bundle on rock-hard seeded loaves and sour grape chutney.”

Rachel looked incredulous.  “And Mark still goes out with Damaris despite all this?”

“He doesn’t know why I don’t like her.  I didn’t tell him about it.”

“Why not?  He could have gone in there and threatened them or something!”

“When you get to know him better, you’ll realise that he is not that type of detective; not that type of person.  Mark is one of the most honourable people I know, and I do my best not to get him involved in my battles just in case he’s pushed too far and loses his temper – and his job.”

“He didn’t lose it with Pete then?”

“He desperately wanted to; as my new-found brother, and uncle to the children that had been abandoned, he wanted to rip Pete limb from limb and it took a lot of persuading to stop him flying out to Portugal and doing the dirty deed.  I managed to convince Mark that the girls and I couldn’t cope without him, not to mention Sorrel’s protestations; she was clingy to say the least.  Anyway I’ve a few things to finish off in the kitchen before dinner, come and tell me about your day.”

Rachel followed Lou into the large and well-equipped kitchen.  Most of the baking for the tea shop took place here, and the kitchen had been remodelled for that purpose.  Perching on a stool whilst Lou put the finishing touches to the sauce, that would accompany the fresh sea bass she had acquired from Jeff at the Gun’s brother; Rachel ran through her day.  When she reached the part about the Spanish-sounding men, Lou frowned and stopped stirring the sauce.

“They are probably Portuguese; we have quite a few families living outside the village in some old cottages that belong to one of the boatyard owners.  It’s become quite a settlement; some of the children are at school with our girls. Most of the residents are fine, but they have a few relatives who come over on yachts and bring contraband.  Don’t tell Mark I told you, but this is the job he’s been involved in for the past year or so.  We know they are bringing drugs in but it’s really hard for the police to catch them.  Mark might be interested in what you saw and heard though so if you can bring it up in conversation …….”

“Sure.  I also paid a visit to a boutique that I believe is owned by Damaris.”

“Ooh!  Dee’s Designs!  Hideous place, hideous designs and hideously high prices.  You didn’t actually buy anything did you?”

Rachel grinned.  “I bought a nice green silk scarf that I cannot wear down here because your brother is of the opinion that all lady writers are middle-aged and wear long, flowing scarves.  I acquired some disgusting silver and turquoise earrings for our receptionist at work – she will absolutely adore them – and a lovely little water colour of the Square and your tea shop.”

Rachel picked up the picnic basket, pulled out the picture and handed it to Lou who let out a squeal of delight.   “Oh! Wow!  I know who painted this.  She’s one of my regulars.  Miss Sharp.  It looks as if it were painted a few years ago though, two of the shops in the Square have changed hands since then.  I expect Damaris only brought it because ‘Dee’s Designs’ is in it.”

“It’s for you.”

“No!  Really?  Oh Rachel, thank you.  I love it and I’ll put it in pride of place in the tea shop.  Miss Sharp will be so pleased.  You couldn’t have brought me anything nicer.”

“Good.  Watch your sauce!”

Lou squealed again and stirred gently until the sauce was smooth and velvet.  From the yells and laughter coming from the lounge, it sounded as if Mark had arrived and was busy teasing his nieces.  Putting the sauce to one side, Lou gave Rachel a meaningful look and motioned for her to follow.

Mark was on the sofa; Sally was snuggled up to him, Jenny was perched on the arm of the sofa, and the usually reticent Sarah was curled up on his other side.  He was wearing an old pair of jeans that fitted him very well, a battered but clean navy sweatshirt and the disreputable deck shoes.  He grinned as they walked into the room and Rachel, feeling self-conscious anyway, blushed as she found herself under his perceptive scrutiny.  He had the good manners not to make any comments about her appearance, but she was sure that she saw just the tiniest wink, which made her blush even more. Jenny opened her mouth to make another tactless teenage comment but was grabbed by Lou, who hustled her into the kitchen after motioning the others to their seats at the table.

Sally and Sarah grabbed the seats next to Mark, leaving Rachel to sit opposite with Jenny, and Lou at the head of the table.  Lou’s pep talk to Jenny had limited success however, in that she sulked, rather than made any more intemperate comments. There was good-natured sibling banter between Mark and Lou that enabled Rachel to sit back and watch rather than try to join in. The occasional sly glance confirmed that Mark was indeed very attractive, with bright blue eyes that were totally different to Sam’s.

Stop it, Rachel!  Stop comparing.  There were times when Rachel felt that the only way to overcome the visions of Sam was to be quite stern with herself.  There was no one else to do it, although she was sure that if she asked, Lou would oblige. This was something that Rachel knew she had to sort out for herself however.

The fish was beautifully cooked, and although Mark raised an eyebrow when Lou lied about it coming from Tesco, he ate with gusto and demolished two bowlfuls of apple and blackberry crumble before volunteering himself and Rachel to do the washing up.  It was Rachel’s turn to raise her eyebrows when Lou graciously accepted the offer and threw herself down on the sofa grinning.

Rachel followed Mark into the kitchen; he looked at her quizzically then picked up a tea towel.  “I’ll dry if that’s okay, I know where everything goes, and you might find it less hazardous if you wash, given your habit of smashing things.”

She opened her mouth to argue but decided it would be a waste of time.  Her washing up technique was thorough however; she decided that she didn’t want to give Mark the opportunity to hand back any smeared glasses or grubby forks.  They worked in a companionable silence, eventually interrupted by Lou putting on the kettle and shooting interrogative glances in Rachel’s direction.

Mark took Sally and Sarah off for a bedtime story.  Jenny sloped off to her room, her hair straighteners, her laptop and mobile phone, leaving Lou and Rachel to finish their coffee at the kitchen table.

“He definitely likes you.  I can tell these things. He keeps looking at you and smiling.”

“Leave it Lou.  I have no desire to be involved with any man at the moment – or ever.” Rachel said defiantly.

“Not even if Sam turned up and begged you to marry him – on bended knee?”

Rachel blushed.  “He wouldn’t.  I mean no.  I mean that I wouldn’t take him back under any circumstances.  At least I don’t think I would.  Oh, I don’t know Lou.  I wish I could just slam the door on what we had, but it’s so hard when there was so much.  I honestly don’t know what I’d do if he turned up here.  Part of me never wants to see him again, and yet there are times when I ache for him.”

Lou put her arm around Rachel’s shoulders. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mark in the door way, and signalled to him to go into the other room for a while.  Rachel cried quietly, a tissue clutched to her nose as Lou held her tight and made the same soothing noises that brought back memories of past disastrous dates and humiliations.  Coming up for air and deciding that this was not the time for all-out sobbing, Rachel blew her nose, squared her shoulders and gave a weak grin. “Thank you, I’m okay.  Do I look dreadful?”

“No, but go up to my bedroom and put on some more lippy and a dab of powder, I’ll persuade Mark to make some coffee.  He’s probably fallen asleep by now.”

Lou went back into the lounge and nudged Mark awake. “Well?”

He squinted at her through half-open eyes. “You were rather economic with the information about your friend Rachel.”

“I didn’t tell any lies.”

“No, but you didn’t tell me that along with being clumsy and stubborn, Rachel was also rather lovely.  I don’t mean glossy magazine stuff either.  She is very easy on the eye. but doesn’t seem know it. I like that.”

“I thought it better to let you two make your own minds up about whether you could share the house together.”

“Well, so far, so good.  She’s definitely stubborn though.”

“It’s another of the things we found that we had in common; probably what drew us together at Uni.  That and the fact that Rachel hasn’t a racist bone in her body, and stuck up for me when the others in our residence were making nasty comments. She threatened to punch one of the boys.  He backed off so she didn’t actually have to do it but she was fully prepared to.  I held her specs. I for one, am very glad to have her back and I hope she stays for as long as she needs to.”

“No rush as far as I’m concerned.  Mrs K seems to have taken a shine to her too.”

By the time Rachel came back to the lounge, Mark was pouring coffee and watching the news.  Lou was curled up in the armchair leaving Rachel a choice between an upright chair or the place on the sofa next to Mark.  Grimacing at Lou she took the latter, making sure that she sat as far away as possible.

At the end of the news Mark yawned, stretched and got to his feet.  “Shall we go then Rachel?  A nice bracing walk up the lane to wake us up?  I’ll be up at the crack of sparrows again tomorrow.”

Lou saw them both out to the door, hugging Mark and then Rachel, and standing in the doorway to watch them as they walked up the lane.  Rachel did her best not to shiver, but the thin cotton dress and cardigan were not much protection against the cold night air.  Mark offered her his arm and she took it, warmed by his very solid and comforting presence. She talked lightly about her day at the beach, remembering to throw the incident with the Portuguese sailors into the conversation in a fairly inconsequential way.  Mark’s interest was sparked, and he began to fire questions at her that made her feel as if she was in a police interview room.

They had just come round the bend in the lane when they heard the sound of a roaring engine and were temporarily blinded by full on headlights.  A bright red sports car came into sight, and Rachel realised that it was heading straight for them.  Mark blocked Rachel with his own body, and pushed her into the hedge, narrowly avoiding being hit by the car himself as it screeched to a halt some yards further down the road.

“For God’s sake Damaris!” he yelled, hauling Rachel out of the hedge, “You nearly killed us.”

A blonde vision in a tight red dress unfolded herself from the driver’s seat and sashayed over, wiggling in a pair of killer Louboutin heels, and draping herself over Mark’s shoulder. “Don’t be so dramatic darling, I just thought I’d give Mrs Kneller a shock.  Oh, gosh.  You aren’t Mrs Kneller, are you?  So sorry! Not wearing my contacts tonight.”

“Then you shouldn’t be driving.  Have you been drinking as well?” said Mark as he shrugged her off and turned to Rachel who was surveying the wreckage that the hedge had made of her dress, legs and face.  She couldn’t be sure but she had a feeling that she was bleeding in more than one place, and the skirt of her dress was definitely ripped.  Mark turned back to Damaris; he did not look like an adoring fiancé. “Go home Damaris, and for God’s sake, drive slowly.  I need to get Rachel back and see to these cuts.”

“Oh, darling Mark, I thought you might invite me in for a nightcap.” She drooped and pouted but to little effect.

“Push off Damaris, before I call the police.  And drive slowly!”

Sulkily, she tottered back to her car and after revving the engine, smirked at Rachel and roared off into the night. 

Mark took Rachel’s arm and steered her up the road to the cottage.  She was in too much pain to argue and allowed herself to be led down the driveway and into the kitchen.  In the bright light she looked down at her legs, and was shocked to see how much damage the hedge had done to them. Without saying a word Mark lifted her up very carefully, and sat her on the kitchen table, before turning around and getting out a First Aid box from one of the drawers.  He took a clean tea towel and ran it under the tap before gently wiping the blood from her legs.  He still looked absolutely furious and Rachel, shocked and in pain, started to shake. “I’m sorry Mark.”

“Hey, it’s okay Rachel.  It’s bloody Damaris I’m angry with, not you. Your legs are a bit scratched; they look worse because of the blood, but there’s not so much damage now I’ve cleaned you up.  Your dress is pretty torn up though.  Shame, you look really nice in it.  I think you need a drink.  Whisky, brandy or sherry?”

“Umm, sherry please.  Does she always drive like that, your – fiancée?”

“Yes, she does.  And whatever she says we are not engaged; we are not even an item.  I have taken her out a couple of times on some very boring dates, and went to a dinner dance that her mother was hosting.  That does not constitute an engagement in my book.”

He handed her a generous glass of sherry and poured himself one as well. “Cheers.”

Rachel sipped at the sherry and began to feel a little less shaky as the warmth filtered down through her body.  She took another sip and looked down at her legs, then at the rip in her dress which was showing off rather more of her thigh than she would have liked.  She tried to pull the material together to cover her modesty; Mark put down his glass quickly and grabbed her hand. “Hang on a sec, there’s quite a deep cut on your leg there, I didn’t see it before.” 

He grabbed up the tea towel and rinsed it through again, before dabbing it very gently on the cut at the top of her thigh. He was right; it was deep, deep enough for stitches. “I ought to take you along to A&E.”

“No!” Rachel wailed.

“Are you sure?  I don’t relish the thought of going; we could be in there for hours.  Let me have a look at what’s in my emergency kit in the car.  Back in a minute.”

Rachel drank the last of her sherry and tried not to look at her leg. Mark ran back in clutching a small packet.  “Steri-strips!” he cried triumphantly.  “Do you want to do this or do you want me to?”

“You please, I’m not good with blood – or sick – or anything like that really.”

“Okay.  Drink some more sherry.  Oh, you already have.  I’ll top you up then.” 

He poured her some more sherry and she tried to concentrate on the glass, and not on the soft black curls barely an inch from her nose as Mark concentrated on sticking the cut together.  He surveyed his handiwork with some pride then put a clean dressing on top of it and pulled her dress back down. “Good girl.  I think it’ll be okay now.  How are you feeling?”

“A bit wobbly.  I’m not sure if it’s the drink or all this blood, or – or.”

Mark handed her his handkerchief, then sat down on the table next to her and put his arm around her shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “I’m sorry Mark, blubbing twice in one night, I feel such an idiot.”

“Sssh.  Come on, I’ll help you to your room.  Will you be okay with getting undressed?”

“Of course, I will!”  Rachel felt quite outraged, until she noticed that Mark was grinning at her. 

He picked her up from the table and carried her down the hall to her bedroom; pushing open the door with his foot. She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, trying not to enjoy the warmth of his skin against hers too much.  He placed her very gently on the bed and sat down beside her. “Are you sure you’ll be okay now?  I’ll get you some water.  Don’t want you falling over in the middle of the night again.”

Rachel sat in the middle of the double bed, slightly drunk, slightly shocked and having more than slightly enjoyed being carried to her bedroom by Mark.  He brought a fresh glass of water back with him and put it on her bedside table.  Frowning, he removed a stray twig from her hair and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Call me if you need anything, please?  I’m really sorry about Damaris.  This has made my mind up about her though.  The end of a very imperfect relationship.  Goodnight Rachel, and sweet dreams.”

She watched him close the door, very slowly moved off the bed and got changed into her nightshirt.  She managed to stagger next door to clean her teeth but it was a relief to finally get into bed, find a position that wasn’t too uncomfortable, and drift into sleep with a rather sweet fantasy of Mark’s strong arms picking her up and carrying her off to bed.

Stepping Back – On the Beach

The journey to the beach was becoming so familiar to Rachel that she felt she could almost get there with her eyes shut.  She smiled and waved in response to the boat builders at Pete’s old boatyard, catching a whiff of paint and fibreglass that was reminiscent of the golden summers she and Lou had enjoyed. 

It wasn’t a conventional beach by any means; very little sand, mostly muddy shingle, but with plenty of huge rocks that provided an excellent perch from which to watch the yachts sailing in and out of the Marina, and the little pink ferry shuttling across the river.  When she wanted more action, Rachel walked further round the headland to where the river broadened into sea and the big liners were tugged into the port.  She was in the mood for crashing waves today, so she carried on walking until she came to the old blockhouses, one of which was the home of a transplanted Bofurs gun.

At the weekend and during the holidays, the blockhouses teemed with small children climbing from one building to the next, playing hide and seek, or more complex war games, but on this chilly morning, Rachel had the beach and the blockhouses to herself.  She climbed the steps and sat on the wall at the top, breathing in the scent of salt and seaweed peculiar to this part of the coast.  It was a fine clear day, and she not only had a good view of the shoreline but also of the Island on the other side of the water.  She and Lou had sailed there many times, and it remained a place of very happy memories. 

Lost in her reminiscences for a while, she had managed to move Sam into that part of her mind where his presence couldn’t cut and hurt her.  Whenever she returned to the present however, he was a constant, as was his subsequent betrayal and desertion.  She could see him in her mind, see every part of him, feel the warmth of his skin against hers and smell the faint musk of his aftershave.  As she filled her lungs with his imagined scent, the tang of the sea broke through the reverie, and reality returned.  The tears that she hid from Lou and the girls flowed freely here on the beach, with no one but the gulls and the occasional dog walker as witness to her grief.

As far as Lou was aware, Rachel came to the beach to get inspiration, but it was the only place she felt safe enough to give vent to the feelings she had to keep locked away inside.  If he had turned up then; if Sam appeared on the beach at that moment with his penitent grin and irresistible charm, she would have taken him back.  She would have thrown herself into his arms and forgiven him for everything.  What a fool she was!  She shook her head in amazement at her own stupidity.  Sam wasn’t coming back.  He’d been gone for over a month, and as far as she knew, the affair with Adele had been going on under her very nose for several weeks before that. He’d made his choice but what choices had she ever been given?

Pulling a tissue from her pocket, Rachel blew her nose defiantly and dabbed at her eyes, after glancing around quickly to make sure she was still alone.  A huge oil tanker slid slowly into the port and several small boats tacked to and fro up the river in order to catch the best of the wind.  She climbed off the wall and walked down the steps to the shore, placing the lunch basket down, and picking up stones to skim across the water.  The complex search for the correct size and shape of stone concentrated her mind, and the further science of getting the right angle and spin on the skim rescued her from the bad place again.

Having exhausted the supply of stones on that particular stretch of beach, Rachel picked up the basket again and headed back.  Her path lay towards the foreshore; the picnic benches, car park, and a patch of green that overlooked the river.  Settling herself down on a bench, she unpacked the basket; feeling a better constriction in her chest at the delights Lou had prepared for her so lovingly.  A package of her favourite chicken salad sandwiches, a bottle of fresh orange juice wrapped up in a cool pack, sea salt crisps and Lou’s speciality, two cupcakes in girly pink with chocolate icing, red butterflies and a golden letter ‘R’.  In the four days that Lou had been sending her off to the seaside with a packed lunch, it had never been the same dessert two days running.  Even Lou’s daughters, streetwise as they were for such a small village, enjoyed their mother’s packed lunches, and were the envy of friends who were given an allowance to hit the fish and chip shop, or buy boring school lunches.

Sitting there each day, nibbling absent-mindedly at her sandwiches and watching the boats sail past or moor up at the jetty, Rachel had become familiar with the regular fishermen, and wondered if one of the them was the brother of Jeff at the Gun. She’d lost count of the nights that she and Lou, had spent evenings at that particular pub, playing pool and drinking orange squash.  At ten pence a shot and free water, it had been a cheap night out, and there were usually a few boys who would buy them something a little stronger, and challenge them to a game of pool. They’d scrape together a pound for the meat raffle on a Friday night in the hope that they would win something to cook for the weekend back in the grubby kitchen of the halls of residence where they lived.

By the time they started their second year at Uni, they had moved into a cottage in the Village rented by Rachel and paid for by her ever absent grand-parents. The girls acquired part-time jobs to enhance their social lives, and as barmaid and sous chef at the more affluent Crown Inn, orange squash and pool became a thing of the past. It was in the Crown that they had made further acquaintance with Pete and his fellow yachties, and were enticed on board to crew on trips around the Island, and further down the South coast.

Bringing herself back to the present, Rachel realised with a start that she had finished all the food and drink in her basket and was idly picking up the last crumbs of her cupcakes with a wetted finger.  She sighed; and took the wrappings and bottle over to the recycling bins; noting the presence of a group of men talking animatedly in a language that sounded Spanish, but not quite.  She couldn’t be absolutely sure but she got the distinct feeling that the men weren’t particularly happy, especially not with the thin, gangly young man wearing washed out jeans and a tee-shirt that had definitely seen better days. He was shivering and hugging himself in a way that wasn’t just from the chill of a breezy day; his hair was lank and his sunken eyes had huge pupils. 

Whilst living in London, Rachel had seen many young men and women in a similar state, and it saddened her to see that even here, in this sleepy backwater village, the steely hand of the drug world had taken hold. She shuddered and throwing the last of the wrappers in the bin, picked up the picnic bag and decided to go back to the cottage.  The foreshore no longer felt the safe haven she had thought it to be earlier.

As she walked past the group of men, she felt them scrutinising her and keeping her eyes forward, she walked briskly up the hill and into the first shop she could find. Unfortunately, it was the designer boutique she had been avoiding for the past couple of days.  It was a typical tourist trap; the windows adorned with expensive and impractical dresses and tops. Rachel was tempted by a long silk scarf in shades of green, but remembering Mark’s comment about lady authors in flowing scarves, she put it back quickly and turned her attention to a display of silver and turquoise jewellery.  It was particularly pricey and not very nice, but the dangling earrings and spike-adorned necklaces provided a suitable subject for browsing.

“They are darling, aren’t they?” gushed the assistant, picking up a particularly ferocious looking bracelet and holding it out to Rachel.

“Lovely.” She replied, “and so – original.”

“Oh yes, we pride ourselves on only stocking artisan goods in this boutique.  All our stock is made in the locality by artists and dressmakers known to the owner personally. She is an artist herself, of course.  Those lovely hand-painted vases on the bookshelf are hers.  Such a talented person.”

Rachel looked over at the stubby clear glass vases adorned with amateurishly painted flowers. She smiled and decided that she would have to buy something in order to get out of the shop.  Tucked away on a lower shelf she found a little watercolour of the Square.  As she picked it up to examine it more closely, the assistant tutted. 

“That ugly little thing.  I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  You can have it for twenty pounds but I wouldn’t give it house room.”

Rachel rummaged in her pocket for her purse and was pleased to see that she could pay by credit card. With Lou providing her with food, she hadn’t had cause to go the bank since the day she’d arrived and bullied Lou into accepting all the cash that she’d brought down with her.

In order to mollify the now slightly sniffy assistant, Rachel took the least offensive pair of turquoise earrings, and in a moment of devilry, picked up the green scarf as well.  The assistant rang up the purchases; her attitude warming as she realised how much her commission would be.

“Are you staying in the village or just visiting?” she asked in a friendlier manner.

“I’m staying here for a while.  My friend Lou runs the teashop up in the square.”

“Oh.  Lou.  Well in that case you’ll know our owner’s fiancé Mark.  He’s going to be marrying Damaris in the autumn.”

“Oh, how lovely.” said Rachel, wondering how this piece of information tallied with what Lou had already told her about Damaris.  She picked up the rather gaudy carrier bag containing her purchases, said goodbye, and left the shop. 

The group of men had disappeared from the Quayside, and the Square was beginning to fill up with muscle cars disgorging yummy mummies collecting their tiny offspring from nursery.  In an hour or so it would be packed as the school run began.  Rachel decided not to call in at Lou’s tea shop to return the picnic bag, and hurried back to the cottage instead.  She and Sam had never discussed the idea of children, but that wasn’t to say she hadn’t fantasised about adorable babies and toddlers with her hair and his eyes. Yet another area of her life that smacked of failure.

Closing the cottage door behind her, she felt relieved to be able to shut herself away from reality for a while.  Her mobile rumbled and she pulled it out of her pocket.  A text in reply to the one she’d sent earlier agreeing to take on the commission.  She could tell from what Tony didn’t say that he was relieved to get her reply.  An email containing the details would follow, so could she turn her laptop on please? The laptop was still sitting in a bag by the side of her bed, and with a sigh she went into her bedroom, dumped the carrier bag on the bed and set the laptop up on the dressing table.  Lou had given her the password for Mark’s Wi-Fi; he had a separate secure network for official business, but this was for his own personal use – and that of his guest.

Once the laptop was on line, Rachel’s inbox filled up ominously and only stopped when the tally reached three hundred and twenty-seven.  She sighed again and set about sorting the junk mail from the real emails, then separating the dull from the more interesting correspondence.  By the time she’d finished she was down to about seventy emails, some that she would answer and some that could be safely ignored for the time being. The worst were those of commiseration from friends who had heard about her leaving London, and assumed that she’d had some kind of breakdown in the wake of Sam’s desertion.

She put together a cheery standard reply about working on a piece about the countryside and being able to tie that in with visiting an old friend and her family.  It combined cheerful practicality with tinge of truth, and through the wonders of cut and paste, she managed to respond to two thirds of the outstanding emails, and decided that the rest could keep whilst she read the email from Tony in greater detail.  It was long; with two attachments, so she dug out a memory stick and saved it all in the hope that she could persuade one of Lou’s girls to print it off for her.  She knew that she should make more of an effort to be green and save paper, but sometimes she needed the tangibility of a paper copy in her hand.

Looking in the mirror, Rachel felt that the pigtails and sea air had done sufficient damage to her hair and a shower was in order.  As she dried her hair, wrapped in a huge fluffy black towel, she also decided to make more of an effort with her clothes.  This had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Mark was coming for dinner, and she in no way wanted to impress him, nor give him the idea that there was more to her than a clumsy, short-sighted woman with pigtails who might or might not possess at least one flowing scarf.

Oh, Rachel.  Whatever happened ‘to thine own self be true?’

She looked in the carrier bag and carefully extracted the watercolour, propping it up on the dressing table next to her laptop.  It brought back memories of happier days, and no matter what the stupid shop assistant said, Rachel could see that whoever had painted it loved the Village and the Square in particular.  There was a signature in the corner but even with her glasses on, Rachel couldn’t quite make it out. The hideous earrings hadn’t improved in style or beauty on closer inspection; they would do as a present for the receptionist in the office who had a penchant for the kind of dangly earrings that looked as if they could cause serious damage to herself or anyone nearby if she moved too quickly.

The green silk scarf was rather gorgeous though; going from pale jade in the middle out to vivid emerald at either end, and tasselled with tiny faceted silver beads that caught the light and sparkled.  She was tempted to build up an outfit around it but had a feeling that it might lead to a conversation about Damaris and her designer shop that Rachel now realised, from looking at the carrier bag, was called “Dee’s Designs’.  Something of a misnomer considering the only items in the shop actually designed by Damaris were the tacky painted glass vases.  Rachel felt relieved that she hadn’t allowed herself to be bullied into buying one.  

Looking through her wardrobe, she found the item she’d been thinking of; a sleeveless dress in a soft lilac which was fitted to the waist then flared out in gentle folds to below her knees.  An old Oxford blue cashmere cardigan that she’d found in a flea-market, and comfortable blue sandals completed the outfit, and satisfied Rachel’s vision when she looked in the mirror.  Her dark blonde hair hung in shining, newly washed strands around her shoulders, and as she turned this way and that she felt happy with the effect, but it needed one more touch. Rooting around in her makeup bag, Rachel found the string of amethyst beads and matching earrings that she had thrust in there as an afterthought, just as she was leaving the flat in London four days ago.

Finally, she was ready.  She tucked the watercolour into Lou’s picnic basket, locked up the house, checking all the doors and windows, once, twice and a third time just for luck.

Stepping Back – Lou

“So, you and our Mark were clearing up broken glass in the middle of the night then?”  Lou raised her eyebrows at the thought, as she placed the picnic basket containing sandwiches and a flask on the kitchen table.  “He put a note through my door on the way to work. Mrs K has also just informed me that he came home late last night.”

“Yes.  News certainly travels fast round here,” said Rachel pulling a face. “You could have been a bit more honest in your description of him.  My vision of the elderly recluse has been blown right out of the water. Why didn’t you tell me about Mark before?”

“I didn’t know myself.  Mark is the result of my mother’s misspent youth. She was only fifteen when he was born, and he went off to live with his paternal grandparents.  His father disappeared into a commune in India and was never seen again.  My mother was kept out of the picture in case she was a bad influence on him. They called him Mark in order to dissociate him from any Afro-Caribbean heritage. By the time Mum had married my father and achieved a level of respectability, she had lost all contact with them. Mark did very well at school, then Uni, and into the police force.  As you may have noticed, he has the kind of appearance that can blend in with most nationalities. We only met up when his grandparents died and the solicitor told him that he had a little sister and three gorgeous nieces.  By that time Mark was married and working up in Edinburgh. He and I have inherited my mother’s curly hair and colouring, but he has his father’s eyes apparently. The girls will be pleased.  We can put the rest of his photos back on display now.”

“Lou!  What are you up to?”

“Look at it this way Rachel.  You’ve come down here to escape from a relationship that took over your whole life.  Would you have come if I’d offered you a room in the cottage of my extremely attractive and eligible older brother?  No.  You’d have thought that I was trying to set you up – which I’m not.  I’d have had you stay with us, but Jenny really needs a room to herself now she’s in senior school.  Besides, Mark is not the most sociable of characters.  You might have been staying here for months without setting eyes on him.  If he’s invited himself to dinner tonight it can only be because he approves of you.”

“We only talked for a few moments – and I wasn’t exactly looking my most glamorous – scruffy old nightshirt and plaits, blind as a bat and littering his hallway with broken glass – some first meeting!  What have you got me into Lou?”

“Nothing.  Even we don’t see that much of him, he seems to specialise in these undercover jobs where he’s gone for weeks on end.  You might not have met him at all so I didn’t see the point in giving him a big build up.   Hand on my heart Rachel.  I invited you down for a break, not to set you up with my big brother.  Having you here this week has brought back a host of happy memories for me, and to be honest, your being here is doing me the world of good too. Mark currently has a brainless beauty from the village hanging on his every word anyway. Her name is Damaris and her parents own that very posh restaurant on the High Street, as well as a number of other local businesses.”

“Damaris?”

“Oh, don’t ask!  She has extremely gormless twin brothers called Dickon and Dominic as well.  Probably saved them a fortune in Cash’s name tapes when Mummy packed them all off to boarding school.  Her mother is the ghastliest woman I’ve ever met; all fur coat and no knickers, and her father is a vague and chinless member of the local gentry.  If Mark thinks he’s going to clutter up our exotic family tree with that kind of dross, he’ll have to bump me off first.  He spends most of his time avoiding her and cancelling dates so I don’t think it’s at all serious.  Not that you’d care anyway because you’re still drooling over Sam the Man.”

Rachel took the picnic basket and smiled ruefully at her old friend.  Lou grinned back; the signs of worry and stress briefly stripped away by the twinkle in her eyes. For the moment the strain of bringing up three girls and running a business alone seemed to disappear, and they were both bright-eyed freshers in their first week of university again. 

Lou glanced down at her watch. “Time to go.  Melanie’s opening up the shop this morning and although she’s coming along, I don’t like to leave her on her own too much.  Where are you headed today?”

“My usual place.  Who’d have thought you’d end up living here all those years ago when we came down with the grotty yachties.”

“Steady on.  I married a grotty yachty.  Not that it did me much good.  The sea won.  The last I heard Pete was doing holiday tenders out in Portugal, and surrounding himself with bronzed bimbos.  Mark and I seem to have the most appalling taste in partners – and now you too.”

“How long has Mark lived here?”

“He and Sorrel moved down here a couple of years ago.  They used to live in a very posh part of Edinburgh where he worked on some rather nasty people smuggling rackets.  Sorrel was very beautiful but impractical, and completely wrong for Mark.  When he discovered that he had a younger sister that no one had told him about, he got a transfer South to help me with the girls and the shop.  One season of the high life here, and Sorrel was off with a handsome sea captain who promised a more entertaining future.  Our divorces came through almost exactly a year apart.  At least you and Sam never tied the knot.”

“If the subject came up, I received an eloquent speech on the importance of being a free spirit and how we didn’t need rules and regulations to keep us together.  Sometimes I think we only lasted as long as we did because I didn’t push him for commitment.  Good luck to his new lady anyway.”

“Do you know who she is?”

“Yes.  Her name is Adele.  She works for the paper as a fashion editor.  Saudi Arabia is her country of origin, but educated at the very best places in England and France.  Tall, elegant, immaculately dressed, and blessed with a very rich daddy.  He couldn’t have found someone more opposite to me if he tried. Don’t say it, Lou!   I may not be the shy specs-wearing mouse that you took under your wing any more, but Adele is not someone I could ever compete with.”

Lou hugged Rachel and shook her head. “You are worlds away from the little boarding school girl that you were and you know it.  You have brains and a huge amount of journalistic talent which I am constantly boasting about to anyone who will listen.  There are still people in the Village who remember us from Uni days and they often ask after you.  I’m glad you kept the specs though, always something to hide behind.”

“If you need a hand in the shop any time Lou, you only have to say?” said Rachel.  “You won’t accept any rent off me for your brother, and the little that you take for food wouldn’t keep a gnat alive. Let me help?  God knows I’ve nothing else to spend the money on.”

“You’re staying on for a while then?”

“My boss Tony texted to say that he’s got a commission for me to write a series of articles about our Village life – if I accept it.  He knew that I’d go to pieces if I had to see Sam and his new paramour every day, so I’ve been offered a kind of sabbatical. Initially for three months but if I turn in the work – who knows?”

“Great news!  Let’s talk about it later though.  Go and get your inspiration from the sea, and I’ll cater to the needs of my regulars, and the more pernickety tourists.  Just don’t make any hasty decisions Rachel.  Promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

Rachel waved as Lou got on to her bicycle and rode off to her shop in the centre of the village.  Closing the door, Rachel finished washing up her breakfast dishes, dried up meticulously, and put them away together with the plate and glass that Mark had left on the drainer.  He’d left her a note too although she hadn’t told Lou about it.  The note was stuck to the inside of her door, so there was no doubt that it was meant for her and not Mrs Kneller.  She drew it out of her pocket and looked at it again.  It was very simple; just ‘Good Morning’ and a face with two long pigtails, but it made her smile inside and out for the first time in weeks.

She put it back, and sighing, picked up her mobile.  Tony had texted to see how she was; he’d promised not to phone unless there was an emergency, but this was his tenth text in four days so she felt it was time she replied to confirm his offer of the commission and sabbatical.  It was only just after half-eight but his response was swift, and she pictured him lounging in his office chair, huge mug of tea in one hand and iPhone in the other. The TV would be on, as would his radio, and the computer would have several different news channels up as he flicked from one to another, in case he missed anything.

Tony believed in straight talking, so Rachel wasn’t surprised to find reference to Sam in his messages. It appeared that Sam and Adele had gone off to Dubai for a holiday, leaving everyone fuming at the short notice.  Not that there would be any repercussions – Sam was too valuable to the paper for that and although Adele was only a junior fashion editor, no one would want to risk upsetting Sam or her father, by sacking her. 

The news of Sam’s latest exploits left Rachel with constricting lump in her throat that even another quick glance at Mark’s note couldn’t dispel.  It had been a month now since Sam had moved out and she wondered when, if ever, the pain of his leaving would ease.  His belongings had been removed very swiftly from her flat on the day that she received his letter; she’d been away at a conference that weekend and returned to find gaps in the bookcase, a half empty wardrobe, his letter, and a vase of white roses with a card saying ‘Sorry’ on them.

She’d spent most of that day in a daze induced by alcohol, and the final loss of his physical presence.  Walking in to this stark reality had almost pushed her over the edge; as it was the roses went out of the window, but not the vase.  Even in her rage and grief, Rachel still had consideration for her neighbours.  Sam had stayed away from the office for the rest of the week, emailing his pieces and ignoring her texts.  A call to Lou had brought her to her senses to some extent, and with it came the invitation to stay.  It had taken a while to tie up life’s loose ends sufficiently to escape from London, but now at last she was in a place that held no reminders of her life with Sam.

She could remember quite vividly when she and Lou had first discovered this village.  They were in their first year at university; two lonely girls in a busy hall of residence occupied by middle-class girls and boys who had never had to cope before without parents or staff to look after them.   They found themselves invited by accident to a very grand party held in the grounds of a nearby stately home, and met up with a group of hard-drinking, fast-living and devilishly handsome young men with sun bleached hair and real suntans. Footloose and fancy-free, the two girls were invited to more parties, and to the yachting weekends that led to both of them falling in love with this little village, and ultimately to Lou losing her heart to Pete, the most rakish and gorgeous yachty of them all.

Their romance continued to everyone’s surprise, and culminated in a glorious drunken wedding two days after Lou and Rachel’s graduations. Lou had a win on the new Lottery, and abandoning the career of journalism that she had been studying for, used the money to set up home with Pete in the Village.   They bought a share in a local boatyard for Pete, and Lou built up clientele in her little teashop, in between giving birth to her three beautiful girls.  Whilst Lou felt happy and settled with her life, Pete obviously didn’t and Rachel, though saddened, wasn’t surprised when he got the seven-year itch, voted with his feet and sailed off into the sunset six months after his youngest child was born. 

In the meantime, Rachel had worked her way up through regional newspapers and local radio until she had reached her current post on a national broadsheet.  She specialised in the slightly bizarre, rather than more traditional reporting, or women’s issues.  She had a knack for finding common ground with her interviewees, and it was this ease that had first brought her to the attention of Sam Miller, the newspaper’s headline reporter. 

His single-minded pursuit of her was the talk of the paper and a source of wonder to Rachel.  She considered herself to be forgettable; of average height and on the slim side, her hair had mellowed into a dark blonde, and the dowdy specs had been replaced by something more stylish once she could afford them. Sam was not attractive in comparison with Pete and his sun-bleached cronies, he was only a little taller than Rachel, with thinning brown hair.  His eyes were the stuff of dreams however, a deep, dark brown that twinkled and enchanted by turn.  He was the kind of man that knew everyone’s name, and his charisma usually gained him friends wherever he went.  When Sam decided to move in with her, Rachel felt that life was perfect.  It didn’t matter that he travelled extensively, or that she barely saw him, even when they went out together.  He always came back to her at the end of the evening, no matter how many attractive women – and men – had been hanging on his every word. Life with Sam was rarely dull and Rachel was aware that his reputation had helped her career along as well.

The arrival of Mrs Kneller interrupted these sad musings, and putting on the bravest of faces, Rachel picked up her basket and a waterproof jacket borrowed from Lou, in readiness for her trip down to the beach.

“You’ve met our Mark then?”  Mrs Kneller said as she hung her coat up under the stairs.

“Yes.  I broke a glass I’m afraid but I think he managed to pick up most of the glass.  He said he was going to vacuum later.”

Mrs Kneller peered over the top of her bottle-bottom thick spectacles.  “I’ll do the vacuuming.  He likes to think that I leave it to him but I still do it.  Don’t you tell him mind!”

“I won’t say a word.”  Rachel smiled conspiratorially, “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Good girl.  You go off and have a lovely day.  Lou’s getting some nice fish in for your dinner tonight.  I saw her having a word with Jeff from the Gun, he’s got a brother who brings in a lovely fresh catch every day.  Don’t tell Mark where it’s coming from though, there might be a problem with Jeff’s brother and his fishing quota.”

“The secrets in this village!   I never knew there was so much going on.”

“You don’t know the half of it my dear.  There are that many skeletons tucked away in cupboards and under patios!  You could write a book about it!”

“You’ll be the first person I come to then.  I’ll get out from under your feet now.  Don’t work too hard.”

Mrs Kneller smiled knowingly as she opened the front door and watched Rachel walk down the road with a lighter step than she’d seen before. “You’ll do my dear,” she said to herself.  “You’ll do very nicely.”