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.