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?”

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