Breaking Free – Living Alone

As Andy had pointed out, in yet another neatly typewritten note left in the cupboard where he kept his muesli and oats, and her chocolate Shreddies, he was leaving her on a Friday so that she had the weekend to get over it, and put on a brave face when she returned to work on the following Monday.

Two days to get over ten years of unmarried tolerance.

Jude had done her the world of good coming over with food and wine the night Andy flew out of her life.  Emboldened by red wine, the two of them had ignored all of Abigail’s calls, giggling like two schoolgirls, as the voice on the phone grew angrier and more frantic by the minute.

They stayed up late; watching rubbish films and nibbling on pieces of kebab meat. Sarah found other notes from Andy positioned strategically around the house; in the bathroom cabinet a yellow post-it reminded her that she had to make a dentist appointment, another note was sellotaped to the wall of the garage requesting very politely that Sarah did not use his mountain bike.  The bike was firmly chained to the garage wall in three places, and whilst Sarah contemplated buying a bolt cutter and giving the freed mountain bike to the first homeless person she saw, she decided that she would probably buy the wrong bolt cutters and have to leave the mangled mess for Andy to crow over when he returned.

The she remembered.

He wasn’t returning.

At least, not to this house.  This house was for sale and, if Roseanne the estate agent was to be believed, there were dozens of couples dying to buy it. Roseanne and Abigail had turned up at the house on the Sunday morning. Sarah let them in and half-heartedly apologised for not answering the phone. The she delivered some more apologies for the fact that the house was already a tip after only one and a half days of being Andy-free. Abigail brought out a frilled apron and a pair of Marigolds from her capacious handbag.  Sarah felt nauseous but watched sullenly from the sofa, whilst Abigail moved around the house like a miniature whirlwind; tidying up, wiping down, and separating the rubbish from the recycling. Roseanne wandered around the house too, identifying the fixtures and fittings that were to be sold with the house. Sarah felt strange; the numbness she had felt when Andy left, returned like protective armour against Abigail’s shrill complaints, and Roseanne’s endless advice about moving on and moving out sooner rather than later.

On the Monday morning Sarah phoned in sick.

She wasn’t lying, she was sick.  Sick and tired of finding Andy’s notes, and listening to the endless litany of Abigail’s phone messages. She and Jude had talked long into the night about what the future could hold for Sarah, and came to the conclusion that now was the time to make some drastic changes. Although she had worked her way through the ranks of social care to a reasonably senior position, Sarah had become disenchanted with the work several years ago.  She refused to apply for further promotions, and was known to be obstinate and bloody-minded, especially when her department started employing trouble-shooters with no social care experience to run the department and cut down on expenditure.

There had been mutterings in the office about voluntary redundancies but most of the staff, like Sarah, were afraid of change and decided to stay put in the safety zone.

“Except I’m not afraid of change now!”

Sarah said to herself as she jumbled up the cutlery in the drawer, and left an empty glass tumbler unwashed on the draining board.

“Change has been foisted on me and I’m going to do something about it.”

Jude was always there for her, if not in person, at least at the other end of a phone, but she had three children and a kind husband whilst Sarah had – well nothing much really. After having a long phone conversation with her manager, Sarah applied for, and was granted voluntary redundancy. She had to work a month’s notice but would get a reasonable lump sum that would tide her over until she knew what she wanted to do.

She didn’t want to carry on living in Andy’s house. He had put notes and post its in the most ridiculous places, and after six weeks she was still finding them, and what had seemed like a concerned fondness for so many years, was now seen as the act of a control freak. Jude had offered Sarah the use of their spare room, but it wasn’t really spare because it would mean moving their eldest child back in with her sisters. She had thanked Jude profusely, but explained that she felt the need to live in a completely new space. She just didn’t know where that space would be.

Three days after leaving her office for the last time, Sarah decided to go on a train ride. She and Andy had been on trains before, but they were always unusual, and had been restored by men in navy boiler suits, who enjoyed the way Andy bombarded them with technical questions whilst Sarah looked on, reading old station posters until she knew them off by heart.

This was an intercity train ride, taking her away from her provincial town and into the heart of things. After leafing through a couple of social work magazines, she’d drawn up a list of agencies in the city that she liked the look of, and with a sheaf of CVs in her bag, she was armed and ready to see what a change of environment could do for her. She had taken her good suit to the dry cleaners and ironed a clean blouse – Andy had left a post-it on the iron which she screwed up and threw away, then retrieved and straightened it out because she couldn’t remember how to use the iron. With hair freshly washed, and a reasonable amount of make-up applied, Sarah had looked in the hall mirror before she left the house and decided that she looked very employable.

She had always been on the thin side and Andy’s healthy diet had kept her that way – despite the chocolate Shreddies.  People were supposed to lose weight when they split up; she was sure that she had read it somewhere in one of the glossy magazines she now felt able to buy without Andy snorting with derision.  Drinking wine and eating unhealthy food had caused Sarah to put on a little weight, but she could still get into her clothes, and Jude’s husband Dan said she looked better for it.

The thought of going into an agency and trying to sell herself seemed a little daunting but then she turned the situation on its head, and reminded herself that she had been going into strange houses and telling people how to live their lives for so many years now, that her nerves abated within seconds and the calm, controlled Sarah took over.

Watching the houses and fields go by, Sarah wondered idly what Andy was up to now. He sent her a postcard each week; his tiny writing full of descriptions of the places he had been and the people he had met.

They were SO boring.

She had to face up to it. Andy was boring too. He hadn’t made her feel happy or excited, or even interested for years. They had just plodded on; two people sharing the same airspace but with no interests in common, and no desire to encourage an interest either. Nevertheless, she had pinned each one, picture side up, on the kitchen noticeboard as a record of his travels. It appeared that he still hadn’t found himself though.

Looking around the fairly crowded carriage, Sarah noticed that nearly everyone was plugged into a computer device of some kind; large unwieldy laptops that took up all the room on the few tables in the carriage, smaller brightly coloured tablets and Kindles. She felt something of an oddity, and was reluctant to bring a dog-eared and much-loved paperback out of her bag. Despite his desire for efficiency, Andy despised modern technology and would just about tolerate her bringing her work laptop and mobile home. When she gave up her job and lost both useful items, Jude and Dan took her shopping for a new mobile phone that seemed to possess more apps than she knew what to do with, but had the advantage that neither Abigail nor Roseanne knew the number. When Sarah’s phone rang now, she knew that it was either a friendly call or someone wanting to sell her a new kitchen or boiler system. Whenever that happened, she told them that she was only renting, and passed on Abigail’s phone number, a smile of secret glee on her face when she thought of how much this would irritate Andy’s unlovely sister.

Looking around at her travelling companions, Sarah resolved to buy a new laptop if she did nothing else today.  She would go into one of those big stores, throw herself at the mercy of some squeaky-voiced youth that knew all there was to know about technology, and get herself kitted out with an all-singing, all-dancing, lightweight something or other in an unusual but functional bag. The thought of polluting the non-technological atmosphere of Andy’s house with such an item made her feel very happy, and it was with a lightness of step that she got off the train in the vast, glassy dome that was the station.

Dan and Jude had very kindly set up the sat nav on her phone and loaded in the addresses of the three agencies that seemed most likely to want to utilise her skills and talents. The first two were in easy reach of the station, but she would need to get a tram out to the third and had resolved to treat herself to lunch at the Quays, and a little retail therapy afterwards.

It was a long time since she’d had to attend any kind of a formal interview so Jude had given her some tips; don’t tell them that you are about to become homeless, don’t tell them that your partner of ten years has just left you and run off to Thailand, and most of all, don’t tell them that you took voluntary redundancy because you had become so bored and frustrated by your job that you had to force yourself to go in every day. Instead, she was to tell them that she was relocating to the city because she was looking for a new challenge, that she was flexible with regard to location and client group, and was available for work within a week. Jude also went through Sarah’s CV and updated it removing most of the information that had appeared so vital when she’d put it together ten years ago. Condensed down to two pages, even Sarah thought it looked impressive as Dan printed off several copies for her to take away.

A printer! She’d have to buy a printer too, but that would be too heavy to lug around with her today. Sarah shook her head. She was thinking of the large unwieldy printer stations dotted around the offices at work. They must make smaller ones than that surely?

She walked purposefully to the first agency, experiencing only the smallest hint of nervousness as she entered, and introduced herself to a bored-looking receptionist who took her CV and ushered her over to a row of chairs that had seen better days. There were two other people sitting on the chairs and Sarah felt perplexed as she took covert glances at them.

The male had huge holes in his ears and nostrils, made by the large ear and nose rings inserted there.  She could also see a line of stud piercings over one eyebrow. He had bothered to put on a shirt and tie, but the black tie looked out of place against his multi-coloured Hawaiian shirt, torn jeans and tattered red Converse boots. He wore no socks and looked about sixteen.

The female was no better. From the feet up she wore huge studded platform boots, fishnet tights that had seen better days, a tiny black net skirt and a yellow vest that showed her multitude of tattoos off to great advantage. Her hair was a back-combed nest of unfeasible green, and her tiny face sported even more piercings than her male companion. She might have been pretty once.

The receptionist beckoned Sarah over and led her down a dark corridor.  She knocked on the door before opening it and announcing, “Sarah Gibson to see you. Her CV is on the top of the pile.”

It was a very short interview.

The owner of the agency was very impressed by Sarah’s CV and would need to make some enquiries, but she was sure that she could find something suitable within the next month or so. In the meantime, had Sarah thought of doing domestic cleaning, caring or shop work? No, Sarah hadn’t and she didn’t want to, either. They parted with a handshake that convinced neither of them that a working partnership had been formed.

The second agency was even worse.

It appeared to be a meeting place for the disenfranchised youth of the area; the primary attraction being a free hot drinks machine, a large flat screen television, and armchairs. Sarah didn’t wait to be seen, she just dropped off her CV and got out of the door as quickly as she could.

Dispirited, Sarah decided to find the tram stop and start her retail therapy early.

The movement of the tram soothed her to some extent, and its low speed meant that she could take in the beautiful architecture of the city, and work out where the decent shops were. She liked the Quays though. It was one of the few places that Andy had taken her to that she actually appreciated.  Well, she didn’t really appreciate the War Museum, but she had been given the opportunity to go off and browse in the nearby outlet centre, provided that she didn’t buy anything for the house. She didn’t buy anything at all. She just looked and enjoyed.

The third agency was in the middle of the Quays, and a sudden change of mind inspired Sarah to get it over and done with so that she could enjoy the rest of the day. Walking in through the plate glass doors, she was glad that she hadn’t come here laden with shopping bags and tired from her exertions. The only other person waiting to be seen was wearing similar clothes to Sarah. No piercings, tattoos or strange coloured hair, she too was clutching her bag a little nervously and shot a tentative smile at Sarah when she sat down. Sarah smiled back.

The interview this time was more complex. The male interviewer went through Sarah’s CV with a fine toothcomb, and before long she found herself admitting to all the things Jude had told her not to say, and even, worst of all, getting slightly tearful when she talked about the break-up of her relationship. She was handed a box of scented tissues and tried to dab daintily although she desperately wanted to give her nose a good blow. Her CV was accepted however, and her hand was shaken very firmly on leaving. The interviewer and owner of the agency, now known as Miles, pointed her in the direction of a nice coffee shop. Sarah felt slightly more optimistic than she had at the previous two agencies and decided to treat herself to a large latte and a sticky cake to go with it. She had just sat down on a seat near the large glass windows when she heard a familiar but long-lost voice calling her name from the door.

Breaking Free – A Sign of the Times

The ‘For Sale’ sign outside her house came as a bit of a shock. She didn’t remember putting it up for sale and she didn’t recall her partner Andy saying anything about it. Sarah parked her car outside the house, grabbed her bag and files, locked up and went to inspect the sign again. It looked new.  Had the estate agent made a mistake and hammered it into the garden of the wrong house? She looked at the houses either side of hers and shook her head. Surely one of them would have said something; they were on good terms with all their neighbours and putting your house up for sale was the sort of thing you let other people know about.

Wasn’t it?

Still puzzled, Sarah let herself in and put the files on the hall table, bag on the floor and keys in the designated bowl. Andy bought the bowl for her; partly out of affection and partly exasperation as they were late for yet another of his trainspotter meetings because she couldn’t find her keys. It was a very pretty bowl. White pottery with a pattern of delicate poppies and cornflowers. It was feminine in a way that, try as she could, Sarah could never achieve. She didn’t do little dresses with frills, spend hours over her hair and makeup, nor squeeze her feet into fashionably high and uncomfortable shoes.  She was aware of the fact that she would never be Andy’s ideal woman, but then for the last ten years, he had been anything other than her ideal man.

“Andy? Hello?” She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the neat but characterless coat stand.

“Up here.” Came the reply. His voice sounded odd, and she wondered what she had done this time. Taking extra care to put her boots neatly on the shoe rack, Sarah walked slowly up the stripped pine stairs. He wasn’t in their bedroom. She turned around and went into the guest bedroom, not that they ever had any guests. Andy stood behind the bed, which was covered with clothes, toiletries, and a very large rucksack that still bore the label of the outdoor pursuits shop Andy loved to frequent. He looked up and gave a slightly guilty smile that made him look even more goat-like than he normally did.

She frowned.

“Some idiot’s gone and put a For Sale sign up in our front garden. I was just going to ring the estate agents and ask them to remove it. What’s all this Andy? Are we going somewhere?”

“Erm, WE aren’t. I am. The sign isn’t a mistake. I’m putting the house up for sale.”

“Our house? Why?”

“My house. My mother’s house originally. I’m going away.”

“But – but – we’ve lived here for ten years. Where are you going?”

Sarah sat down on the very edge of the already crowded bed.  She didn’t like the house. She had never tried to remove the remnants of Andy’s childhood, and his mother’s desire for a neat, orderly and feminine environment.  Any attempts on her part had been gently but firmly rebuffed, so she gave up eventually.

“We aren’t going anywhere Sarah. I’m leaving tonight and I’ve put the house sale in the hands of my solicitors. You can stay here until the house is sold of course, but the estate agent thinks that she can get a fairly quick sale.”

Brain whirring as she tried to process Andy’s words, Sarah sat immobile on the bed. Andy continued packing things into the rucksack.  He was an excellent packer; she would say that for him. He folded clothes very precisely, and knew exactly which of the Velcro pockets of the rucksack would be best for the object in his hand.

“Where are you going Andy? Shouldn’t we have talked about this?”

Patiently, he put down the pair of immaculately ironed shorts that he was rolling into a sausage that would prevent any travel creases.

“I’m going to Thailand. I’ve worked my notice already, and my plane leaves at twenty-hundred hours. I have booked a taxi to take me to the airport. I don’t want any scenes; you know how embarrassing I find them.”

“Why Thailand? Why now? Are you going alone? Why are you selling the house? Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago when you handed in your notice?”

“So many questions Sarah. I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand, and whenever I raised the subject, you made some silly comments about ladyboys and kidnapping. Some idea you got from one of those trashy novels you read, I suppose.”

“But – but – but what am I going to do? I won’t have a home anymore, what will our friends think?”

“MY friends already know, and think that I am making the right decision. We’ve gone stale Sarah.  We were never that compatible in the first place, but your untidiness and slapdash ways have been driving me to distraction for years. It was charming at first, but now it’s just self-indulgent. My sister will be coming over to pack away my belongings and put them into storage while I’m away, so I’d be grateful if you could start looking for somewhere else to live so that she has less to go through.”

Sarah hated Andy’s sister Abigail with a passion.  The thought of her rummaging through the house, their house, made her feel incredibly angry.

“Don’t I have any say in this at all?”

She shouted at him, her hands clenched into tight fists that desperately wanted to punch him in the face, to grab hold of that silly ginger goatee beard and tug it till his eyes watered.

“Ah yes. Time for the hysterics. This is why I didn’t tell you before. You really are rather predictable.”

“I hate you, Andy!” she said vehemently.

“Good. That makes it a lot easier for me.”

He picked up a neatly typed list and handed it to her.

“This is an inventory of the contents of the house. Those typed in black belong to me, those in red are yours, or things that we bought together that I don’t wish to keep. Abigail, my solicitor and the estate agent all have copies of this letter too.  Would you mind moving off the bed now please? I have to finish my packing.”

Sarah stood up and walked slowly to the door.  She felt numb, unreal. Her instinct was to go into their bedroom, throw herself on the bed and cry extremely loudly. This would have no effect on Andy whatsoever. Passion of any sort was alien to him.

She went into the bedroom nevertheless and got under the duvet. She rolled over to Andy’s side of the bed and sniffed his pillow hoping that the remaining scent of his hair might break through the wall that was building up around her.

Nothing.

He’d changed the bedding.

Sarah wanted to scream, and shout, and rave. How dare he! How dare he plot and scheme behind her back in this way? She’d seen no change in his manner over the past month, had she? She rewound her memories and found no major arguments.

Nothing.

She found no major moments of happiness either.

Andy would wake her with a cup of coffee, then he would shower and shave round the edges of his beard, eat his horribly healthy breakfast, and be out of the door before she had even made up her mind as to whether she would shower or have a bath. The choice was usually dictated by how long she had lingered over her coffee and the news. They had been embroiled in a cold war over the television in their bedroom almost from the start of their relationship. It was Sarah’s television, and she needed its cheery morning information to wake her up.  Andy had no time for lingering, and lost no opportunity to express his disdain. 

The more she thought about it, the more Sarah had to admit that Andy was right. They were going through the motions of a relationship but there was no laughter left, no fun. Just a distant, healthy, athletic landscape gardener and an untidy, disorganised social worker who found her partner’s style of living both reassuring, and stifling.

It was warm and comforting under the duvet and, as had always been her habit, Sarah fell into a deep sleep that wiped away all that had happened since she had arrived home. It was such a deep sleep that she barely registered the affectionate peck on the cheek and the gentle ‘Goodbye’ as the bedroom door clicked shut.

When she woke, the house was quiet, too quiet.  She reached for the remote and turned on the television in time to catch the end of the ten o’clock news.  It wasn’t until she’d finished watching the weather that she remembered Andy.

“Andy?”

She called, half hoping that he would reply but knowing that he had gone. She rolled out of bed and wondered for a moment why she had been in bed fully clothed in her going-to-meetings suit and vaguely pretty blouse that she had allowed Andy to buy her.

“Andy?”

She called again and pushed open the guest bedroom door. The bed was bare now, save for another copy of Andy’s inventory list. She pushed it onto the floor in disgust and decided that she was hungry. Making as much noise as her be-socked feet would let her, Sarah stomped down the stairs in a manner guaranteed to annoy Andy, if he was there.

But there was no response.

The curtains in the lounge were drawn and the sidelights on, the kitchen was similarly put into evening mode by Andy before he left.

Thoughtful to the last.

Thoughtful!

How could it be thoughtful to abandon your partner of ten years and sell the house from under her? Sarah pouted as she opened the fridge door looking for immediate food. The shelf containing Andy’s macrobiotic foodstuff, and bottles of water was empty. Her shelf was always more interesting anyway. It certainly was now; Andy had stocked it with the items that he usually found disgusting. Sarah extracted a can of Diet Coke, some sliced cheese and bread.

She made her sandwich and left the knife and chopping board on the worktop. She didn’t even bother with a plate, as ten years of Andy’s rules flew out of the window. It felt good to be curled up on the sofa, balancing her sandwich and can on the leather arm, whilst flicking through the TV channels for something other than wildlife and gardening.

The phone rang and without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet knocking over the can and spreading breadcrumbs onto the floor.

She looked at the phone.

Abigail.

No thanks.

Leaving the answerphone to deal with her much-loathed sister-in-law, Sarah dug her mobile out of her bag and went back into the lounge, stepping over the sticky mess on the floor. She could hear Abigail’s annoyingly sweet voice being patronising over the phone as she left a message guaranteed to patronise and infuriate Sarah.

When in doubt, phone a friend.

“Jude?”

Sarah could feel her voice cracking already.

“Hello Honey. No need to explain. I got home from work today to find a type-written note from your ex-beloved explaining why he was running away to Thailand without you and selling the house. Little rat!”

“Why didn’t you call me Jude?”

“Your phone was off.”

“He must have done it before he left. Pig!”

“He’s gone then?”

“Yes indeed!”  Sarah tried to inject as much enthusiasm into her response as possible.

“And I bet you are drinking Diet Coke and eating a sandwich in the lounge without a plate or coaster in sight.”

“Right again. I’m not sure what to do now though. I spilt my drink on the floor and there are crumbs everywhere.”

“I’m on my way. Are you still hungry?”

“Yes, this cheese sandwich is disgusting.”

“Good, what we need is red wine and kebabs.”

“Won’t Dan mind?”

“No, my darling husband sends his love and hugs, and asks that you send me home in one piece tomorrow. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Stepping Back – That Nightshirt and Those Pigtails

Mark tried to open the front door as quietly as possible but Pluto was already on the other side of it, tail wagging furiously.  Rachel wasn’t far behind, and Mark couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her.  Pigtails, old navy cotton nightshirt, and spectacles perched on the end of her nose. 

His Rachel.

He tugged one of her pigtails and pulled her close. “I’ll take Pluto out for a wee now, and then you can get into bed.”

“No way!  I took him out about an hour ago so he can hang on while you tell me what’s happened.”

Rachel pulled Mark into the living room and sat herself down on the sofa while he kicked off his shoes and wriggled his toes.  Not content with having Rachel sat next to him, he pulled her onto his lap and buried his nose into the softness of her neck. “Okay.  The guy, whose name is Jason by the way, had arranged to meet up with Pete with money for the heroin, but Pete didn’t show because he had been beaten up by the smugglers when he couldn’t pay them.  He’d managed to hide the drugs, which is why we found them when he turned up here after being on the run.  Although we have the Portuguese end of the smuggling ring under lock and key, Jason is our link to the people buying and distributing the drugs.  They are not going to be happy about having lost their money as well as the drugs. Jason is absolutely terrified and singing like a bird in exchange for protection.  He’s in a bad state and needs some legal medication to keep him alive. We will provide it, but the tentacles of these organisations spread throughout the penal system, as well as quiet country villages like this one.  We can keep him safe until he testifies but once the court case is over, we can’t guarantee anything.”

“Will you have to go back to work now?” asked Rachel, a little sadly.

“No.” said Mark, pulling her even closer.  “This is a really big case that is already being dealt with by the Met.  They are grateful to us for giving them another piece of the jigsaw but this is their area of speciality, and I for one, am very happy to hand it over.  This won’t be the last time though Rachel.  The job I do isn’t very safe; apparently, with my colouring, I have the knack of blending in rather than looking too obviously like a copper.  It also means that you might have to put up with long hair, designer stubble, a beard, a moustache or even both.  Can you deal with that?”

“I may need to wear my spectacles more often, and buy some new flowing scarves.  Can you cope with me when I have a deadline to meet, and I need to shut myself away?”

“If you can cope, then so will I.  Perhaps you could wear that green scarf that I saw in the wardrobe?”

“Just the green scarf?”

“Rachel, you are most definitely not the shy girl my little sister took under her wing at Uni.  What’s else has been going on in our part of our world?”

“Mrs K and I had a drink after you left; we have put the world to rights one way or another.  She approves of pale peach for our bedroom and will be scrubbing the walls and wardrobes with sugar soap while we are out shopping in the morning.  I had to Google sugar soap so that I’d know what she was talking about.  I have also spent some time looking at the merits of gloss and emulsion, masking tape and whether brushes are better than rollers and paint pads.  It’s complicated.”

“What else did the two of you talk about?”

“The funeral, bright clothes for the girls…”

“And babies.  Don’t tell me that you avoided talking about babies?”

Rachel shook her head. “I tried, but you know what she’s like when she puts her mind to things.”

“And her opinion is?”

“Leave it to fate. If we are meant to have children, then we will, and if we aren’t, we’ll still have Lou and the girls. Oh, and she said you should stick to wearing boxer shorts and avoid tight jeans.  Much better for male fertility apparently.  I Googled that as well, and she may have a point.”

“Time to put Pluto and the laptop to bed.  It sounds as if we might be a bit busy in the morning.  Mrs K is a very light sleeper though, and always knows when I come in late, so with any luck she won’t be tapping at the bedroom door with a pail and some sugar soap.”

“I’ll go and get my dressing gown; better to be prepared. Mrs K doesn’t think that this nightshirt is particularly attractive.”

“That nightshirt and those pigtails are making me feeling wide awake again.”

“Good.”

Rachel ran down the corridor to collect the dressing gown that she had left on the bed that morning. Mrs K had hung it up on the back of the door of course, as well as vacuuming the space where the dressing table used to stand. Mark had settled Pluto down and was waiting for her in the corridor. He smiled and picked her up in his arms; a move reminiscent of the early days of their relationship when he had to carry her to the bathroom and back, every day. This time was different; this time she held on very tightly and kissed him as he pushed open the door with his foot, and then shut it very firmly behind them.

“Talking about babies…” he said, as he laid Rachel very gently down on the bed.

Stepping Back – Wedding Dresses, Walls or Wardrobes

The journey home in the dark from Lou’s house was completely different from Rachel’s first walk with Mark. Pluto took the opportunity to sniff and anoint every tree, bush and lamp post, giving Rachel the opportunity to broach the subject of contraception and babies.  He listened intently, as she knew he would, and when she finally ran out of words, he stopped walking, told Pluto to sit and took her in his arms. “Lou is right; I never wanted children with Sorrel, she was too self-centred and used to get impatient with pregnant friends or those who already had children.  Then I met my nieces, and I don’t need to tell you how much I love them.  You don’t know if you can have children, although I dispute the comment about you being too old.  Life is a lottery and we seem to have won first prize so far; if you get pregnant and all goes well, then that is just another benefit of being together.  If it doesn’t work out, we have each other, Lou and the girls, not to mention the other side of things.”

Rachel looked at him quizzically. “The other side of what?”

“Doh!  Do I really have to explain what happens when two people want to make babies?”

“Oh yes, of course. We do seem to be getting rather good at that side of things.”  Rachel felt thankful that her blushes couldn’t be seen under the streetlight, but even more relieved that yet another concern had been laid to rest.

Just as they were approaching the house, Pluto began to snarl, and then bark in his most ominous stranger-danger manner.  A male emerged from the bushes and held his hands up.  Rachel recognised him immediately; the skinny young man she had seen talking to the Portuguese travellers on the beach months ago.  Even in the darkness, his soiled and bedraggled appearance was obvious,

“Who are you and what do you want?” said Mark.  “Before you say anything, I should warn you that I am a member of the police force, and that this is a police dog.”

The man stood very still and Rachel pulled her rape alarm out of her handbag, just in case.

“Looking for a mate of mine.  Name’s Pete.  I’ve been calling at all these houses to try and track him down.  The woman next door told me to wait here for you because you know Pete.”

Mrs K popped up from behind the fence, and outside the man’s view.  She mimed the telephone again, and Rachel took this to mean that she had already contacted the police. Mark nodded and handed Rachel Pluto’s lead. “Before I let you inside my home, I would like you to turn out your pockets and put them on the bonnet of the car.  Have you got anything that might cause any damage to yourself or anyone else?”

The man pulled out a paltry collection of coins, some keys and a tattered piece of paper.  Mrs K pointed towards a bush where Rachel could see the dark shape of a rucksack; Mark had spotted it too, but not knowing what it contained, he chose not to pick it up. “Do you have anything else?” he asked.

The man shook his head and did his best not to look in the direction of the bag.  Mark was torn; he didn’t habitually carry handcuffs on him when he went out to dinner, but going inside to get them might put Rachel at risk.  Mrs K came to the rescue once again, and threw Mark the handcuffs that she had grabbed from his wardrobe after nipping into the house through the patio doors, when she first set eyes on their visitor. The man seemed a bit surprised at being cuffed and cautioned, but hung his head in defeat when Rachel and Pluto approached the bag in the bushes.  Pluto, the police dog who had proved unsuccessful at sniffing out drugs, ammunition and money, set up a very excited bark, followed by several sneezes.  Rachel made sure that she placed a tissue over the handle to make it more obvious but knew that she shouldn’t touch it otherwise.

“When did you last have something to eat or drink?” Mark asked.

“Can’t remember.  Pete was supposed to meet up with me a couple of days ago but he was a no show, and the usual people I deal with at the cottages were gone too.  The others wouldn’t speak to me.  I didn’t see anyone there that I recognised anyway.”

Further interrogation was halted by the appearance of two of the local bobbies, driving a police van and quite excited by Mrs K’s summons. They loaded the man into the back of the van; Mark let Rachel and Pluto into the house and rummaged in his wardrobe for some gloves and a couple of evidence bags.

“I’m sorry.” he said as he held Rachel very close again.  “Are you sure that you want to get involved with someone who is never really off-duty?  I made the arrest so I need to go back to the station with the lads.”

Rachel kissed him. “What do you mean ‘get involved’?  I am involved and I intend to keep it that way.  At least you’ve had a decent meal; good job we were drinking fruit juice.”

Mark shook his head. “Sometimes I get an instinct about something; I felt that it would be better to wait and have a drink when we got home.  Copper’s nose maybe? I also had visions of Damaris and her trout pout trying to run us down again. Don’t wait up though, you don’t need to.”

“Rubbish!  Pluto and I will watch trashy late-night TV on the sofa until you are back home.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can.  I’m still technically on leave so I can pass a lot of the paperwork to whoever does the interviews.  You say you recognise this bloke?”

“I saw him with the Portuguese people about four days after I arrived.  It was the morning after I dropped the glass of water and broke the light bulb.”

Mark also smiled at the memory of their first meeting. “A night I will never forget.  If we can tie this guy in with the drug smugglers, we’ll have even more evidence.  I’m not telling anyone that Pluto has finally found his paws as far as spotting contraband.  The contents of that rucksack could prove very interesting as well.”

There was a gentle tap on the window and the sight of Mrs K giving a thumbs up. Rachel let her in through the patio door and they waved Mark and the police van off. Mrs K instinctively took the sherry bottle and some glasses out of the cupboard and sat down with Rachel at the kitchen table. She brought Mrs K up to date with regard to the funeral, furniture moving, painting, decorating, and building a flat pack desk once it had been acquired. Pluto settled down at their feet; his head on Rachel’s shoe and a paw extended to rest on Mrs K’s.  Time to bring up the most delicate subject.

“There’s something else Mrs K, and as you are the next best thing to being a Mum that Mark and I’ve got, I want you to know about something that is important to us both.”

“Well, I know you’ve been busy, but you can’t possibly be pregnant yet, or is there some new-fangled way of finding out really early?”

Rachel laughed and blushed at the same time. “I don’t even know if I can have children. I mean, I was on the pill for a long time and the subject never arose with Sam, but with Mark…”

“He’s a smashing uncle to Lou’s girls and if you are lucky enough to fall, then he’ll be a brilliant dad.  How does he feel about it?”

“We’ve agreed to leave it up to fate for now. What with planning Pete’s funeral and sorting out the house a bit first, it’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.  What do you think about a pale peachy colour?”

“Wedding dress, or walls and wardrobes?”

“The latter.  Lou’s girls are already planning their wardrobes for the funeral.”

“Not black though; children shouldn’t wear black.”

“I think we’re all agreed on that.  We’re celebrating the Pete that we all used to know, and he was never a person for darkness and gloom in the old days. Jenny is going through a bit of a Goth phase, but I’m sure she can be tempted to get something more cheerful if Mark and I are paying.”

“You are a good girl, Rachel.  What were you saying about flat pack furniture?”

“We’re going out tomorrow to get decorating stuff, and a desk and chair for my old room. I need to do some research on the Internet about what we need.”

“First things first; once you’ve gone out, I’ll give the wardrobes and walls a good wash down with some sugar soap.  Pale peach will lighten up that room no end, and make the dressing table look less out of place.  I’m going to bed now.  I’ll leave you and Pluto to nod off on the sofa; I know you won’t be happy till he’s back home and safe but you’ll have to get used to it.  He’s no ordinary policeman, and there will always be times when you are home and worrying.  You know where I am though.”

“I do.  We both do.  Goodnight.”

Stepping Back – Rachel’s Powers of Persuasion

The voyage of discovery took longer than expected and by the time Mark and Rachel were about to leave the house, Sally had already been on the phone declaring that she was starving to death.

“Just one thing,” said Mark as they got into the car.  “How did you get the complaints dropped?”

“Me?” said Sally innocently.

“Yes, you.  Total honesty, remember?”

“When I went to get dressed there was a message from Tony on my phone.  He wanted to know why Sam was in the office looking smug.  I texted him about the complaint, and I may have reminded him about the clause in our contracts that threatens dire consequences if an employee is found to have brought the company into disrepute.  Whatever way you look at it, Sam and Adele both did that by breaking the law.  Sam’s latest piece openly acknowledged that he drove without insurance, and that Adele’s car had originally been taken without consent.  Although she changed her mind, she had to admit all the parking and congestion charges that hadn’t been paid. Tony spiked Sam’s piece as a consequence because it was a clear admission of guilt and did not reflect well on the company.  He was told to go away and write more objectively about the way the locals helped to rescue the car that his girlfriend had lent him.  That’s all.”

“All! You should have been a lawyer. No, that’s wrong.  You are what you are and you are brilliant. Thank you.”

He kissed Rachel very soundly before starting the car, and having to concentrate on the short ride to Lou’s house, where Sally was standing in the front door and rubbing her stomach in agony.

“Over-dramatic Sal.  Have you all decided what you want to eat?” said Mark, picking Sally up and whirling her around.

“Chinese!  We all want Chinese, don’t we Mum?”

“We do,” said Lou, hugging Rachel and whispering in her ear, “Jenny and I have been making up excuses for you two.  I have no intention of asking what took you so long.”

Jenny had already identified the required dishes for everyone bar Mark and Rachel; once they’d added their choices to the list, Mark rang up and ordered the food. “Twenty minutes.  Whose coming with me? If you smile and ask nicely, I’ve heard that they add extra prawn crackers to the bag.”

“Me, me, me.” said Sally as she jumped up and down hanging on to Mark’s arm.

“And me too.” said Sarah.

“You can stay here Pluto.  We’ll make sure that there are enough prawn crackers for everyone.”

“Do dogs eat prawn crackers?” asked Sarah.

“Pluto does.”

Mark kissed Rachel and hugged Lou before being dragged out to the car by his nieces.

Lou looked suspiciously at Rachel. “In the kitchen.  There’s something worrying you and we need to sort it.”

Rachel followed meekly and sat down on her favourite kitchen stool. Lou knew her too well. “Thing is Lou, I was on the pill all the time that Sam and I were together. He wanted children even less than he wanted commitment. I just went along with it.  One of my final acts of rebellion when he left was to throw the pills in the bin.  I haven’t bothered to do anything about it since and well…”

“You and my big brother have been at it like a pair of rabbits.  Sorry to be so crude, but the two of you can barely keep your hands off each other.”

Blushing, Rachel nodded but had to admit the truth of Lou’s assertion. “Neither of us felt this way before.  One thing we are agreed on, is that sex with our previous partners was just that and nothing more. Making love with Mark is incredible, and wonderful, and you are right, we cannot keep our hands off each other.”

“And now you are worried that all this bonking is going to result in a baby?  Have you talked to Mark about this?”

“Not yet. It only really occurred to me just then, watching him with Sally and Sarah. I don’t even know if I can have children.  I’m getting on a bit, and they say that being on the pill for a long time reduces your fertility. He may not even want children.”

“Rubbish.  One thing I remember Mark saying in the days after Sorrel left, was that he would have loved to have children, but that she was incapable of caring for anyone but herself.  You on the other hand, are a brilliant auntie and would make a wonderful mother.  Talk to him tonight when you get home?”

“I will.  Things are looking up workwise for both of us.  All the complaints have been dropped so Mark can go back to work when his leave is over, and Tony has definitely got the book deal for me – and the paper.  We are going to talk about my working from home permanently.  Mark and I are going out to buy me a proper desk and office chair so that I can work more comfortably.  Oh, and paint. We both hate Mark’s dark brown wardrobes so we’re going to paint them in a more soothing colour.”

“You two certainly move fast when you get going.  Though I have to admit that there have been times over the past six months that I’ve wanted to give you both a good kick up the bum to get you going.”

“It was me that needed a kick, not Mark.  He’s known right from the moment we met, but he also knew that he had to give me the space to make my own decisions and not pressure me.  It’s another of the things that I love about him Lou.  It wasn’t until I came here, spent time with you and the girls, and then met Mark, that I realised how much of myself had been lost while I was living with Sam.”

“I know.  I also knew that that for as long as we’ve been friends, you’ve always had to make your own mind up.  I suppose that not having proper parents made you allow Sam to take charge.  Mark will never do that – unless he’s being a policeman of course.  Talking of which, here comes the cavalry with our dinner.  Don’t be upset if Sally and Sarah prevent you from sitting next to your intended.  They might take a while to get used to the situation.”

There was enough food for several banquets, and as Lou predicted, Mark was commandeered by two of his nieces. Jenny consented to come down and join the feast for a while, but found the whole engagement business a bit boring – or so she said.  Lou had a feeling that Jenny was just as torn between Mark and Rachel as her little sisters were. Food settled everyone down however, and gave Mark the opportunity to talk about the funeral arrangements.  “We need to know what you would like before we speak to the funeral directors, girls,” he said. “I know that your Dad went away, and that makes you feel sad, but he was a very popular man once.  Your Auntie Rachel and your Mum knew him best in those days, and so did most of the older people in the Village.  Whatever happened when things went wrong with him and he went away to Portugal, he loved your Mum once, and he has always loved you girls.  What we want to do is to give him a proper send off, a proper goodbye from all of us and from the Village.  What do you think?”

“Will we have a party?” asked Sally.

Lou raised her eyebrows. “It’s called a ‘wake’ darling.  It’s a kind of party, but once it’s over we can have a proper party to celebrate Auntie Rachel and Uncle Mark’s engagement.”

“Can we have new dresses for the funeral?”

“Of course.  Nothing black though.  Your Dad wouldn’t have wanted you dressed like little old ladies.”

“Can we have new dresses for the engagement party too?”

“Definitely.” Mark smiled at Rachel across the table.

“If you are going to get married as well, does that mean you’re going to have bridesmaids and a big white dress like a meringue?”

“Bridesmaids yes.”  Said Rachel. “White meringue no.  I’m relying on you and your Mum to help choose something that is more me than a big white dress.  Perhaps Ben’s friend will have some ideas?”

“That was something else I forgot to tell you Rachel.” said Mark.  “When we were talking about wedding rings, he also mentioned that he had some antique wedding dresses in the back of the shop, but he wouldn’t let me look at them because it was bad luck apparently. I picked something else up in the shop though.”

He handed her the blue velvet box he’d put in his jacket pocket.  Rachel opened it up; a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings that matched her ring, and shone in the lamplight.

“Oh Mark!” she said.  “I didn’t even see you buy these. They are beautiful!”

Lou admired the earrings and gave Rachel a hug.  “Bruv, you are full of surprises. We could spend hours browsing in that shop, Rachel, but between the tea room, cooking and feeding this lot, I don’t have much of a social life anymore, and nothing to dress up for.”

“That will change.  Trust me.” Rachel winked at Lou and mouthed ‘Doctor H?”

Lou blushed and threw a napkin at her before taking plates and cutlery out to the kitchen.

“You entertain these young ladies Mark, Lou and I will clear up.” said Rachel.  “There are still some prawn crackers left and Pluto has his eye on them.”

Stepping Back – Furniture Moving

The little pine dressing table should have been easy for two people to move from one end of the house to the other, but Pluto decided that it was a new game, and getting the way was his main aim.  Just as Mark and Rachel were beginning to feel slightly desperate, relief came in the form of Jenny, Sarah and Sally who had arrived to take Pluto out for a walk – and to find out about the exciting news. Rachel proudly showed off her engagement ring, and explained that they were getting takeaway for tonight’s dinner.

“Does that mean that you and Uncle Mark are getting married?” asked Sally.

“Of course, it does silly. Eventually anyway.” said Jenny.

“We need to arrange your Dad’s funeral first, and when that’s over and done with, we’ll have a big engagement party in the Village, and start planning the wedding.”

“Thank you, Uncle Mark,” said Sarah.  “I never really liked that Sorrel lady that you were married to. I think you’ll be much happier with Aunty Rachel.  You suit each other.”

“Hmm, babes and sucklings and Mrs K, eh?  Can you girls take Pluto home with you after his walk.  We have some furniture moving to do and he doesn’t like it much.”

“Why are you moving furniture?”

“Shut up Sarah.  What kind of takeaway are we having?”

“Whatever you like Jenny.  Have a chat with your Mum, and we’ll be down a bit later.”

“What’s wrong with the furniture?  I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain on the way home.  Come on.”

Mark winked at Jenny, but wasn’t sure that he had overstepped his role as a sensible uncle just a little. Getting the dressing table into its preferred place was much easier without Pluto.  There was plenty of room but the pale pine made the huge built-in wardrobes look even darker.

“What colour should we paint them?” asked Mark as he sat on the bed and surveyed the bedroom with an ill-disguised dislike.  Rachel sat down next to him and leaned against his shoulder. “Not white or magnolia – too insipid.  How about a sort of pale peach? It would pick up the colours in the dressing table and lift the whole room.”

“Are you any good at painting?”

“I did the flat when I first moved in.  It was totally magnolia and white gloss.  I didn’t go for all this feature wallpaper stuff but I added a bit of colour here and there. It was quite liberating, actually being able to decorate my own space after years of boarding school, halls of residence, and rented houses.”

“You’re one up on me then.  The flat in Edinburgh was decorated by a friend of Sorrel’s.  Much in the way of garish wallpaper, clashing colours, and hideously expensive.  I always felt that a home should be a soothing place, not somewhere that you get migraines every time you look at the walls.”

Rachel lay back on the bed and smiled.  There was a great deal to look forward to. Mark leaned over and kissed her. “It’s only four o’clock. We’ve a couple of hours until we need to leave for Lou’s. So?”

“So, go and double lock the front door – just in case Mrs K decides to pay us an unexpected visit.”

Mark was out of the room like a shot and would have been back even quicker but his work phone rang as he was passing.  Rachel took the opportunity to take off and fold her dress carefully, before getting into bed.  She didn’t hover by the door this time, but Mark wasn’t gone long and when he returned, he was smiling broadly. “Did you squeeze in an opportunity to contact Tony this morning by any chance?”

Rachel shrugged. “I might have done. He likes me to check in every now and then. We had a quick text while I was getting changed into my new dress.”

“Did you tell him about the complaints?”

“I had to.  It was important that nothing happened to get you into more trouble.  What’s up?”

“Nothing.  All complaints against me have been dropped and my enforced leave has been cancelled.”

“Oh.” said Rachel looking rather disappointed, but happy that Tony had somehow managed to persuade Sam and Adele to see sense.

“I told my boss that I would like to take some leave anyway.  He was quite understanding when I explained that you and I had Pete’s funeral to organise, and that we’d just got engaged.  I am on leave for another two weeks which should be enough time to get the funeral out of the way, redecorate and buy some new furniture, shouldn’t it?”

“How much time have we got left today?”

“Plenty.” said Mark. “It was very dark last night, and I think that we were too occupied with taking that first step to get to know each even better.”

“Would that be the first time, the second or the third time?” asked Rachel.

“Three times? I intended to have a full voyage of exploration in the daylight this morning and kiss you all over, starting with your very beautiful toes, but Mrs K’s vacuum disrupted me.  Now I will be making a complete investigation, and ensuring that your pyracanthas scratches and wounds have well and truly healed.”

Rachel giggled. “Something Sam would never do. Far too demeaning.”

“Sod Sam.” said Mark, but this time he said it out loud.

Stepping Back – Mr Davenport-Hooper

By the time they arrived back at the Square, Mrs Kneller had well and truly spread the happy news and everyone they met wanted to admire Rachel’s engagement ring when giving their congratulations. Well, nearly everyone they met.  Edward Davenport-Hooper was sitting on the same bench that Lou’s daughters had occupied when his sons had started their attempted reign of terror.  He stood up when he saw Mark and Rachel walking across the Square. He looked stern, but a little sad. “Hello Mark. My wife has been arrested apparently; attempting to pervert the course of justice regarding her lies about the date of birth of my sons, speeding, dangerous driving, and aiding and abetting an attempted assault.  My boys have been sent back to school and put under a very strict curfew.  My daughter looks like something out of a freak show and won’t leave the house.  I have advised the police that any complaints made against you should be withdrawn.  We are getting a psychiatric assessment for my wife because she doesn’t appear to be in her right mind – if she ever was.  I don’t understand the situation, but I do feel that I need to apologise for the other members of my family.”

He held out his hand to Mark, who took it and shook it warmly. “I know that you have never been involved in this Sir.  Is there any way we can help?”

“Now that my daughter is staying home, she has started learning to cook and do a little housework.  Our housekeeper is giving her lessons, and as it’s estimated that it will take six months or more before the stuff in her face goes down, she has plenty of time to learn and practice.  I think that the boys are safe where they are for now, but my wife may need to go away somewhere for a rest cure. Thank you for asking Mark, and I believe congratulations are in order.”

“Thank you, Sir. Can I introduce you to Rachel; my fiancée.”

Mr D-H took Rachel’s hand and kissed it. He looked up and she was sure that she saw a hint of a smile on his face. “I’ve read some of your work; Damaris and my wife showed the articles to me.  I think that I was supposed to be cross but I couldn’t help chuckling.  Well done on catching those drug smugglers too, Mark.  I’d better be off. I need to sort out the shrink for Doris as soon as possible.”

With that, he doffed his hat and set off across the Square in an almost jaunty fashion.  Lou had come out of the tea shop to see what was going on and grabbed Rachel’s hand to examine the ring. “It’s lovely! So very YOU as well.  I know that I shouldn’t compare, Mark, but it’s far more beautiful than that chunky knuckle duster that Sorrel wore. I always worried that she’d take someone’s eye out with it.”

“Hmm.” said Rachel. “That would have been an arm, several legs and an eye, not to mention the compensation.”

Mark laughed and put his arms around her. “Rachel’s warped sense of humour is just one of the many things that I love about her. Can I treat us all to dinner tonight, Lou? I’d suggest going out but Pluto’s been home all day long and could do with some company.  How about a takeaway to give you a rest from cooking?”

“That would go down well in all areas; you won’t be able to have a celebratory drink if you’re going out to get food though Mark.”

“I’ll drop the food off and take the car back home.  Rachel and I should be safe walking back now that Damaris is off the road.”

“And her mother I hear?”

“That leaves Sam and Adele’s father as far as the complaints are concerned.  To be honest, I am quite glad to have some time off.  Rachel and I need to talk about the house and making a few changes.”

“Did Mrs K actually catch you at it?” said Lou, giggling.

“No, but it was a close thing, and I should have remembered that she comes in earlier on Mondays because of visiting the old people. I think we are forgiven though, and once she actually sees the ring; we will definitely have her blessing.  Ben’s friend says he has another friend who does wedding jewellery, nothing like Sorrel’s hideous lump, just plain gold with a simple pattern that can echo the theme of Rachel’s engagement ring.”

“So that’s what you two were talking about.” said Rachel, unable to avoid admiring the ring again. “It was all very mysterious Lou.”

“Where are you off to now?”

“Back home.” said Mark.  “I think we may need to rearrange some furniture, and look at how we can brighten the old place up a bit.”

Rachel frowned.  “I love it as it is. It’s quirky.”

“Nothing major.  You noticed that the wardrobes in my – our bedroom – are extremely dark and depressing.  I’ve always felt that a dab of paint would improve them but never got around to it.”

Rachel squinted, trying hard to remember the state of the wardrobes but all that had happened since she first saw them had made the memory fail. “I shall look at them with fresh eyes now.”

Just as they were about to get in the car and go home, Mrs Kneller appeared, and departure was delayed whilst she admired the ring and administered maternal hugs. “I called the police and got them to take my copy of the birth announcements from the Evening Echo of Daw’s twins.   That’s put that lie to bed anyway.  I hear she’s been arrested?”

“We spoke to her husband; he was very apologetic and thinks that his wife has flipped.”

“Oh, there’ll be a nice little holiday away for her then.  I took Pluto out in the garden before I left so he’s done his business.  Might need a bit of fussing though.”

“The girls will come up to take him out for a walk in about an hour – so be warned.” said Lou.  “I’ll let you break the news about your engagement and tonight’s takeaway though.”

Driving back home there were a couple of things that puzzled Rachel and needed sorting out. “Did Sorrel like the house?”

“Never saw it.  She was long gone when I bought it.  We lived in a very posh fully furnished rented apartment in the Marina complex when we moved down to help Lou.  Mrs K did for most of the residents and we kind of took a shine to each other from the start.  Sorrel didn’t. When she left, I was looking around for somewhere smaller and more homely that didn’t have any lingering memories, and Mrs K asked if I wanted to have a look at her next-door neighbour’s house.  The owner had passed away in a hospice and his family were looking for a quick sale.  I’d sold our flat in Edinburgh, so I had enough to be a cash buyer, and as soon as I set eyes on it, I knew that it was the bolt hole that I needed.  Something about those funny little porthole windows at the front, and the sail loft.  I bought new furniture.  You can rest assured that you are the only other person to share my bed.”

Rachel blushed but at the same time felt immensely relieved that Sorrel’s ghost would not be haunting them.  Once the London flat was sorted out and sold, Sam’s ghost could also be banished.  She just hoped that her plan to get him and Adele’s father to drop their complaints against Mark had worked.

Pluto was indeed overjoyed to see them, and wandered around in a happy tail-wagging fashion as Mark and Rachel surveyed the bedroom with new eyes.  The wardrobes were of a very old-fashioned dark mahogany, and there was distinct lack of a dressing table and drawer space.

“Could we move the dressing table in here Mark?  I think Mrs K is right about keeping my clothes where they are.  Your police stuff takes up a lot of room, doesn’t it?”

“Considering how rarely I wear it, but I have to be able to access some of it in a hurry.  There’s plenty of room for the dressing table, and I had a thought about your old room.”

“What?”

“Writers need their space, don’t they?  If we’re rearranging furniture, how about buying a proper desk for you to work at, and a decent chair?  You’d have a lovely view of the garden and it would be an improvement on using the kitchen table – although if you want to use the kitchen table, I’ve no objection to that either. You need to write in a place where you feel comfortable and inspired.”

Pluto started dancing around the room and barking as Rachel sealed her answer with a kiss.

“You’ll need to get used to this mate.” said Mark.

Stepping Back – It’s Official!

It was a short but very happy drive down to the Square; they waited patiently while Lou served some customers and tried to avoid holding hands or showing any signs of affection.

“Hello you two.” said Lou.  “I understand that you are ‘on leave’ Mark because of false complaints made against you.  You look remarkably cheerful under the circumstances.”

“We have some other news for you; much better news.”

Rachel looked over at Mark and took a deep breath. “How do you feel about me actually becoming a real member of the family Lou?”

Lou shrieked. “Are you two – are you really, truly an item now?”

Mark nodded. “Mrs K was a little disapproving when she found us sharing a bedroom this morning, but changed her mind when I announced that I wanted to make an honest woman of Rachel.  She has given us till midday to break the news to you, before it goes public.  In the meantime, we are off to find an engagement ring.  Any ideas Lou?”

“I’m too gobsmacked to think.  Oh Rachel, I am so happy I could skip round the Square!  There’s Ben! Call him over, you have to tell him too.  He’ll be over the moon. Go on Mark, go and get him.”

Rachel took Lou’s hands. “While you are being ecstatic there is something that I need to ask you about.  Pete’s funeral. I know it’s painful but the girls need to have a way of saying good bye, and so do many of the Villagers who knew him.  I will always be grateful that you let me help out with your Mum all those years ago, and now that I know she was Mark’s Mum too, it means even more to me.  Mark and I talked about it yesterday, and we want to pay for the funeral and organise it – if you’ll let us.  This is not something you need to go through on your own, and once it’s over and done with we can get on with happier events.”

“Like?”

“Well, I guess we should have an engagement party, and maybe, a wedding?  What do you think?”

“You’ve chosen the right day to drop this on me.  I suppose I do owe it to the girls to give Pete a good send-off.”

“Splendid.  According to Mrs K, you being a widow woman makes you even more attractive to Dr Hussein.”

“Did she really say that?”

“She did, and who knows better than Mrs K?”

Mark and Ben appeared in the tea shop doorway.  Ben swept Rachel up in a huge bear hug. “Rachel!  You shameless hussy!  You’ve gone and stolen the lovely Marky from underneath my very nose!  I take it that Mrs K hasn’t started up the Village semaphore yet?”

“She gave us till midday; after that, the whole world will know.” said Rachel managing to detach herself.

“We need your help though, Ben.” said Lou.  “Where can they buy an engagement ring?”

“Nothing flash or expensive.” said Rachel as Mark took her hand in his.  “Perhaps something antique?”

“You need look no further than my friend across the water.  He has some exquisite jewellery as well as those gorgeous dresses, one of which you just happen to be wearing today. It suits you.”

“One other thing Ben.  Who can we go to about Pete’s funeral?  Mark and I will be helping Lou and the girls, but I’ve no idea where to start.”

“I am your fairy godmother indeed!  I know a lovely couple of chaps who live up the road and run their own funeral service; cars, flowers, organising the service, and if you don’t want a religious do, one of them is a humanist celebrant.  Shall I give them a call and ask them to contact you, Lou?”

“Sounds good Ben, but I’d rather they dealt with Mark and Rachel for now.” Lou was looking rather overwhelmed by the whole situation, coupled with the fact that the early lunch hour crowd was heading towards the tea shop.

“We’ll leave you in peace Sis.” said Mark as he kissed Lou goodbye.   “I’m going to carry Rachel off on the little pink ferry to see if we can find a suitable ring on the other side of the river.  We’ll be back before closing. Concentrate on sarnies and cupcakes; everything will sort itself out.”

Mark took Rachel’s hand and followed Ben outside into the Square, where he was busy spreading their good news.  After numerous congratulations, they went down to the Quayside and took their places on the little pink ferry.  It was something that Rachel had been promising herself since she had arrived months ago, and she felt quite moved that Mark had remembered how much she wanted to make the short trip across the river. The boat trip was every bit as sweet as she had remembered; being able to look back at the Village and see the Marina in the sunlight, was just another memorable aspect of the day.  Mark sat with his arm around her, and looked every bit as happy as she felt.  The shop wasn’t far from the ferry dock, and Ben had already been on the phone to his friend, who greeted them with enthusiasm, as well as asking Rachel to do a quick twirl in her new dress.  He pulled chairs out for them both in the shop, and after passing over a tray of rings, went into store room, and brought out a bottle of champagne and three glasses.

Rachel saw the ring straight away; a tiny diamond set in gold, surrounded by eight petal shaped sapphires. Gingerly, she took it from the tray and tried it on, anxious in case it was too big, or too small.  Just like Cinderella, it fitted as if it had been made for her.  Mark smiled and raised her hand to his lips.  Rachel gulped, and Ben’s friend handed her a tissue and a hastily poured glass of champagne.

Mark took the ring off her finger and knelt down. “I ought to do this properly.  Rachel, I love you more than I ever thought possible.  Will you marry me?”

“Yes! Oh Mark! Oh!  Is the ring very expensive?”

“It’s the right ring for us, so the cost doesn’t matter.”

Mark handed his credit card over, paid and pocketed the contents of a small blue velvet box as well.  He had a feeling that now the ring was on Rachel’s finger, nothing would remove it.  She sat staring at it and absent-mindedly sipping her champagne while the transaction was taking place. 

An engagement ring!  

Something she knew Sam would ever have entertained, and looking over at Mark, who was smiling happily, Rachel was glad that the subject had never arisen, and that she had made the right choice in the end. The pink ferry was getting ready to leave just as they got to the dock, and the journey back to the Village was even more magical.  Rachel kept looking at her hand, and at the blue and white stones echoing the bright blue of Mark’s eyes and the colours of the river around them. It was definitely the right ring.

“Tell me honestly Mark, was it very expensive?”

“Honestly. No.  The only other experience I had of buying an engagement ring was Sorrel’s.  She insisted on having it made from Cornish gold by a friend of hers.  It was abstract and ugly, cost me an arm and several legs, and I never liked it. The wedding rings were even worse.  It was a good job that I didn’t have to wear mine when I was working.  This ring is you.  It suits you and if I’d looked at the tray first, this is the ring I would have chosen for you.  True blue of the sea and the river, and an absolute diamond to all those who love you.  Pretty scary to those who don’t, though.”

He kissed her in a very thorough way that made her shiver and feel relieved that they were the only people on the ferry apart from the captain, who very discreetly kept his back to them and his eyes on the river.

Stepping Back – Rumbled

It was the sound of Mrs K vacuuming that woke them both the next morning.  Although it was wonderful to be curled up in bed in Mark’s arms at last, Rachel couldn’t help wondering what kind of reception they would get when her own empty bed was discovered

Mark jumped out of bed and pulled on a tee-shirt and jeans. “Mrs K has made me promise not to wander around the house naked.  I fear that we may have offended her sensibilities this morning. Stay put and I’ll try to pour oil on some troubled waters.”

Rachel grinned and slid back down under the duvet.

“Good morning, Mrs K!” said Mark cheerfully as he opened the kitchen door.  “How are we this morning?”

“’WE are fine.  I hope you aren’t playing fast and loose with our Rachel. We didn’t have that sort of thing going on in my day.”

Mark leaned against the kitchen table. “I have no intention of doing anything to upset Rachel, but yes.  We are now an item.  Lou doesn’t know yet, so if you could give us a chance to tell her before the jungle drums start beating, we’d both be grateful.  I am officially on leave due to the fact that I have had complaints made against me by Rachel’s ex, and the entire Davenport-Hooper family, and my boss needs me to keep my head down.”

As he had suspected, Mrs Kneller’s initially cool response to Mark and Rachel’s new sleeping arrangements turned to total outrage against the absolute cheek of Sam and the D-H family to make complaints about him.  He took the opportunity to nip down the corridor and fetch Rachel’s dressing gown before Mrs K had drawn breath.

“There’s orange juice there for the pair of you.  Make sure you remember to bring the glasses back.  Pluto’s been out for a wee and I’ve fed him.  I take it that Lou will be your first stop once you’re up and about?  I’ll finish off here and leave you to make your own breakfasts.”

Rachel was waiting behind the bedroom door and pulled on her dressing gown quickly before going into the kitchen.  Mark went back into the bedroom, sat on the bed and kept his fingers crossed.

“I know it’s not the way things were done in your day Mrs K, but please be happy for us?” said Rachel.  “You know that you are so much more to us both than the next-door neighbour who comes in and does.  You are the Mum that neither of us ever knew, and the last thing either of wants to do is upset or offend you.”

Mrs K looked at Rachel over the top of her spectacles; she shook her head but gave Rachel a hug of forgiveness. “Heaven knows, I’ve had my mind set on you two becoming a couple, but I thought there might be a bit more courting before you jumped into bed together.  This isn’t just a fling though, is it?”

“I can only speak for myself but I’m hoping that this will be a permanent arrangement.”

“An engagement and wedding then?”

“Possibly but we need to focus on Pete’s funeral, and getting Lou and the girls through it first.  Whatever Pete became in the end, he was from this Village, and should be sent off by properly by his family and old friends.  Will you help us with it?”

“I suppose it will be a bit less work in this house with only one bed to make; the pair of you have known sadness in your lives, so you need to make up for it in your own way.  Your Mum indeed! Go and get our Mark, and I’ll put the kettle on for some coffee.”

“Thank you.” Rachel gave Mrs Kneller another hug, and almost skipped back to the bedroom where Mark, now fully clothed was waiting for her.

“I heard. Detectives need to have good hearing.  Rachel, you are indeed a clever wordsmith.”

“I meant it Mark.  Whatever other people may think of Mrs K, she has a huge heart, and I hated the thought of her being offended by our behaviour.”

“You gave all the right answers.”

“All of them?”

“If I had a ring on me, I would be down on one knee asking for your hand in marriage.  Perhaps we are both more old-fashioned than we realise?  Your being here has improved my life one hundred percent, and I love the thought of sharing the rest of it with you.”

Rachel wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, so she did both and buried her face in Mark’s chest.

“Is that a yes then?”

“No one’s every proposed to me before – with or without a ring – but yes, please.  You make me feel so happy, and able to do all the things that I want to do.”

“Get dressed then and I’ll put the toast on, and ask Mrs K for her blessing.”

Grabbing her clothes from the night before, Rachel downed the orange juice and ran down the corridor to her bedroom, hiding her face.  Mrs Kneller watched her go and turned to Mark. “You haven’t upset her already, have you?”

“I don’t think so.  Tears of happiness, I hope.  I just asked her to marry me and she said yes.  We need to go and buy a ring though, so I can do it properly.  You can release the news at lunchtime if you like?”

“Good lad.  Well, for what it’s worth, you have my congratulations.”

“It’s a blessing from you that we need.”

“Go on with you.  It’s what I’ve wanted since the first time I met our Rachel.  She’s pure gold.  I’ve put some toast on, and once Rachel’s dressed, I’ll strip and remake her bed.  She may as well keep her clothes in that wardrobe, you haven’t much room in yours with all that police stuff.”

“I thought about getting her a proper desk and chair so that she can write in there, rather than on the kitchen table or balancing on the dressing table.  If she wants one that is.  There’s a lot to think about, but Lou and the girls come first.”

Having dried her eyes and got dressed, Rachel came back into the kitchen to the welcome sight of Mrs K and Mark in a very congratulatory hug.  He raised his head and grinned. “Mrs K will wait till midday before making the official announcement; that should be enough time to put a ring on your finger, and make us both more respectable? You aren’t having second thoughts, are you?”

Rachel took Mark’s hand and shook her head.  “Not a chance. Perhaps I should go and put a dress on if there’s going to be an event?”

“Good idea lovely, and you Mark, need a shave.  It’s all very well being on leave, but no one likes to kiss a man with stubble.  I’m right aren’t I, Rachel?”

Rubbing her hand along Mark’s chin and cheek, Rachel nodded. “Designer stubble may be very trendy up in London, but I do love a nice clean shave.”

Remembering that Sam had been sporting a great deal of stubble when he turned up in the village, Mark hastened to the bathroom.  By the time he had returned shaven and smooth, Rachel was waiting for him, and wearing a dress that he hadn’t seen before.

“I like that one as well.  Is it new?”

“I bought it at Ben’s friend’s shop.  You waited outside in the car so that I could browse in peace, and make my own choices.  It was another thing about you that I appreciated.”

Mark put his arm around Rachel’s waist and gave her a squeeze.  Mrs K looked on with an approving smile. “Well, you certainly make a handsome couple, I must say.  If you’re going shopping you can leave Pluto with me. I expect the girls will want to come and take him out when they come home from school anyway.  Out of my way now, I have work to do!”

Stepping Back – Dark Wardrobes

Eating Shepherd’s pie in the kitchen with Mark felt like the epitome of a domestic bliss she had always wanted.  Rachel enjoyed the camaraderie of cooking together, and chatting about nothing in particular while they prepared the meal and sat down at the kitchen table to eat together.

“Thank you.” Mark said as he finished off the last of the Shepherd’s pie.  “This is definitely worth coming home for.”

Rachel pulled a mock-disappointment face. “Just the pie, or me and Pluto too?”

“Everything.  The house feels far more like a home than the flat I shared with Sorrel. Mrs K cleaned most of the apartments in the block, but I did the cooking.  It wasn’t Sorrel’s thing. Mrs K kept me sane when Sorrel’s antics got too bad.”

“Mrs K is rather special.  Apart from Lou – and you – she’s the only person who ever really looked after me because they wanted to.”

“I’m so glad that you two get on…”

“If the last couple of days have taught me anything, it’s that I am well and truly over Sam, and that I don’t want to go back to working in London.  I feel happy and welcomed here.  It isn’t just the old memories, it’s the new ones too.  The way people have rallied round to support Lou and the girls – and me as well. If I sell the flat in London, I’m burning my boats, but with the money in the bank I can concentrate on writing.  I may have to buy more long and flowing scarves though.”

Mark laughed and leaned back in his chair.  Rachel could tell that there was something that he was burning to say, but didn’t know whether or not he should.  Mark’s work mobile rang out in the hallway and he jumped up to answer it.  Rachel cleared the table and tried not to listen.  It didn’t sound like it was very good news, but Mark’s voice remained calm, low and level.  She started on the washing up in order to distract herself and had managed to wash, dry and put away before Mark returned to the kitchen looking annoyed but not furious. “I’ve been asked to take some gardening leave.  Sam has put in an official complaint about me, so has Adele’s father and the entire Davenport-Hooper family.”

“No!  Mark!  I’m so sorry! This is all my fault!”  Rachel turned around and leaned against the sink feeling as if the whole world was crumbling again, and just when she was beginning to feel safe and happy.

“Come here Rachel?” He put his arms around her, and gently turned her so that her face was nestled against his chest. “Shush.  None of this is down to you.  It’s the work of arrogant and power-hungry people who think that that money and influence can break the law.  My job is very important to me, but ensuring that I do things by the book is just as important.  Regarding Sam, I made sure that I recorded everything I did and submitted it at the time of the arrest.  Although Sam initially broke the law by taking Adele’s car without permission, that charge has now been dropped, and she has paid the fines that she owed.  I couldn’t overlook the lack of insurance however, and that’s why the car was impounded.  Adele’s father is just annoyed about having to get someone to come down here to collect it.  As for the D-H’s; on two of the occasions where the twins were spoken to by the police, I was not involved. Apparently, our Daw has said that the boys are minors, and should have had an appropriate adult when they were interviewed.  That needs checking out, but again that’s for someone else to do.  There have also been questions about why we didn’t report Damaris for nearly knocking us down, but I was still working undercover at the time, and making too much of a fuss might have blown the whole operation.  Daw has been spoken to about transporting her sons (especially if they are minors) to our house knowing that they had offensive weapons that they intended to use on you.  Daw also got another speeding ticket which means that she’s used up all her points and will now be disqualified from driving.  With all this against them, the D-H collective has decided to fight back and accuse me of harassment.  I am angry, but my boss feels that it will disappear once an investigation is started.  Look on the bright side Rachel. I’m on holiday again until it all blows over.”

“But none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for me!”

“I don’t see it that way and neither does my boss. In fact…”

“What?”

“He’s read your pieces online, and says he found them very entertaining, and informative.  He also said that you must be someone very special.  I’m inclined to agree with him.”

Rachel pressed her forehead against Mark’s shoulder and breathed in the scent of him that she had come to know so well. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. “I miss the pigtails; they’re yet another quirky aspect of you that I…Oh Rachel, why can’t I say what I want to say?”

Rachel smiled. She stroked the side of his face and looked into those beautiful blue eyes. “You could always try kissing me instead?”

Mark needed no other invitation; it was the kiss that they had both been waiting for.  She was where she wanted to be, in Mark’s arms and feeling every fantasy turning into a rather wonderful reality. Pluto had other ideas however.  All this hugging and kissing just made him feel left out, so he leaped around the kitchen barking and yelping, until Mark and Rachel had no choice but to pay some attention to him.

Mark looked at him sternly. “That’s enough now Pluto.  You’re just going to have to get used to this. Isn’t he, Rachel?”

Rachel reached down and ruffled Pluto’s ears.  “We’ll have to be discreet and confine ourselves to a Pluto-free space.”

“Does this mean what I think it means?”

Rachel smiled and nodded. “Looks like we’ve really become an item now Mark.  It isn’t just Lou and the Village that makes me want to stay. You’re an even bigger part of it; have I got a future with you?”

Mark held her so tightly that she thought he was going to squeeze the life out of her, and she tapped his shoulder in protest. He loosened his grip. “I’m sorry; I’ve just been waiting for you to give me a sign that I was in with a chance. I was attracted to you right from the very first moment you sat on the bed while I picked broken glass off your legs.  The more I’ve come to know you, the stronger my feelings have grown. You and I made the wrong choices the first time around, didn’t we?”

“Second time lucky, and I think we’ve both learned from our mistakes.  I’ll admit that I found you very attractive right from the start too, but Sam kept getting in the way.  I love the way that you let me be me, whether it’s the clothes I wear, or the words that I write. Ease up on the bear hugs though, I don’t want to find myself having Ben and Dr Hussein treating me for cracked ribs.”

“Sorry Rachel. I just can’t believe it’s true.”

“Let’s take Pluto out for his late-night walk and put him to bed, and then…”

“And then?”

“I think it’s about time you showed me around the rest of the house, and I’m not talking about the sail loft.  After all, you have become very familiar with my bedroom, but I’ve never set foot in yours.”

Once Pluto was settled on the sofa and the living room door firmly shut, Mark opened his bedroom door, and walked over to switch on the bedside lamp. Rachel stopped on the threshold for a moment and surveyed the hitherto unknown territory. The room was dominated by a set of built-in wardrobes in very dark wood surrounding Mark’s bed. “It’s functional.” he said.  “I just sleep in here and keep all my police kit in the wardrobes. The curtains on the road side are kept drawn all the time, but I have a good view of the garden through the other windows.  I toyed with the idea of having doors out onto the patio, but I’ve never got around to it. It isn’t very romantic in here I’m afraid.  Your room is much nicer; Mrs K picked up some things to make it more homely when we knew you were coming to stay.”

Mark shut the door and leaned against it; looking a little embarrassed by his sombre surroundings.  Turning towards him, Rachel reached up and held his face between her hands as she kissed him. “You and I are alone in this room, and that’s what makes it romantic.  I don’t care where we are as long as we finally get the opportunity to get to know each other properly.”

“There’s another thing, Rachel?”

“Mm-m?”

“I was about to ask you if you had anything on under those pyjamas but as you’ve just taken them off…”