We deferred our hospital meeting for a couple of days. As Mary explained (being all-business-like), there was too much to consider without input from her close family friends. Close family friends? Hmmm. I began to smell a rat. She’d not seen me or Richard for decades. A couple of charity Xmas cards which arrived around Easter and a commiseration card when we lost Angelique. A sodding sympathy card, plus one abortive phone call that ended with me sobbing, sniffling and snorting, and her cutting me off mid-stream.
Apart from Jane’s funeral, Mary needed to talk with the father of Jane’s baby — an arrangement that NEMO agreed to handle. Definitely a big fat rat.
Mary, the chameleon, and sniffing into a hankie, insisted on seeing the tiny mite, and that brought fresh tears when she saw him hooked up to monitoring equipment and a drip.
‘He’s...he’s so helpless.’
‘Not at all. Mr. Donaldson says he’s got a fine pair of lungs. This one’s a fighter...’ Damn. I bit my tongue when Mary’s eyes glistened. I placed my arm around her waist. ‘Let’s go. You’ve had a stressful day.’
‘I’m still hyped-up,’ she said. ‘Too much coffee, petal, although I must say the flavour is far better than Harrods own.’
I couldn’t help but grimace at how Mary could switch moods and emotions in times of stress — maybe by reinforcing the familiarity of her London upbringing, it gave her comfort.
We hailed a taxi outside the hospital; strangely, or not, no sign of Hamish to wave us off, and Mary didn’t mention him. Back at the Manor, in one piece after surviving yet another anxious ride, Mary, although admitting her tiredness, cajoled me into contacting Richard.
I struck it lucky. He had entered his number in the phone book, and Mary wasted no time trying to contact him, but from the scowl on her face he wasn’t answering. She had more luck with Charles — if you could call an argument, lucky. After a few minutes of sparring and getting more agitated, she handed the phone to me.
‘You talk to him, he’s making no sense.’
‘I don’t think…’ but Mary thrust the phone in my hand.
‘It’s important, petal.’
I braced myself. I wasn’t going to grovel, but already I found Mary hard work, and I could do with someone, even Charles, to distract her and give me some space.
To my surprise Charles sounded like his world had collapsed; unusually, he apologised most profusely for his behaviour when I heard about his misadventures. I had no appetite for taking full-time care of Mary, and I let him persuade me to take back Hannah.
I clicked off the phone and handed it back to Mary. Her eyebrows were raised.
‘He’s coming back.’
‘When? And what’s this about “don’t go there?”’
In no mood for a Spanish Inquisition, I relayed his exact words. ‘Charles said, “Okay. See you soon”.’
Maybe my tone or maybe my brusqueness upset Mary.
‘For god’s sake, petal. Where is he?’
Probably worming his way into Hannah’s severance pay by now. Or worse. I shrugged as if it was of no consequence. ‘He was going to get his visa renewed in Medan. Hannah’s gone with him. You know, for translation.’
‘Our housekeeper.’ I threw her another bone. ‘In the meantime, with Richard on walk-about, I’m dogsbody.’
Mary’s eyes glinted. I could almost picture cogs whirring inside her head. Charles and Hannah at it? Richard out of the picture?
Who would she focus on first? But she did neither. Maybe the day had taken its toll.
‘I need a drink,’ she said. ‘Something strong, petal.’
I raided the cocktail cabinet, yet again, and looked ruefully at the half-empty bottle of Smirnoff and depleted tonic bottles. Reminded me of my brief fling with Hamish — a sense of glorious well-being, followed by a hangover. That liaison had all come to nothing, and now I’d compromised myself by taking Charles back.
But, to hell with it.
I poured out two tumblers of vodka, carried them into the kitchen, and added ice cubes and a splash of tonic.
Back in the lounge, with the curtains drawn and our side lamps glowing, I settled down with my tumbler and waited. If I expected or dreaded a cross-examination about Richard and Charles I would have been disappointed.
Mary took a slug, rolled her eyes — my measures were generous — and fixed her gaze on me. Ears pricked like a Siamese cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. Her tongue slid over her lips. ‘Tell me about Hamish,’ she said.
Mary laughed. ‘I’ve got eyes, petal. I’ve watched you and Hamish together. Awkward intimacy, I’d call it.’
Mary unsheathed her claws, struck. ‘Feeding me a load of tosh about Richard and Charles doesn’t fool me, petal.
Pinned to my chair by Mary’s insight, albeit skewed by inaccuracy, I resisted retaliation. I could have raised the matter about Richard’s only-a-quickie confessional, I could have punched her lights out, I could have kicked her back to sodding Cheltenham, I could have…but I didn’t. Not then. My hands unclenched. There would be a time and place after we laid Jane to rest.
Instead, I swallowed a deep gulp of my drink, and fed her with a different load of tosh (my abridged version).
‘We had dinner together, shared a bottle of wine, he escorted me home. That’s it. End of.’
‘That’s it? End of?’
‘Mary—nothing happened. Hamish is...’ I stifled a cough ‘...happily married. Ours is a doctor/patient relationship, nothing more.’ I glanced at my watch. ‘It’s getting late. Why not try Richard’s number again while I rustle up some eats.’
The deflection worked. The eats turned out to be odds and sods — frozen barbecued chicken legs fried to a crisp in the microwave, together with a pan of soggy rice noodles — but Richard still wasn’t answering his phone.
Mary chomped through the chow without cringing. Didn’t call my dosh a load of tosh. She must have been famished, but her mind was on other things. ‘You said he was on walkabout, petal. Where is he, exactly?’
Lame Duck searching for his toy-boy. Poker face. Disarm her. ‘“Not too far”, he said — maybe Sabang Island where a few locals speak English.’ I put all my chips into the pot. Serious money. ‘We need someone younger to do some work around the House. He’s been scouting around.’
But definitely not another young woman.
She swallowed it, and stacked her hand. ‘Oh well. I’ll try again tomorrow. Hopefully, both Charles and Richard are on their way back.’
Why did I have the nagging feeling it wasn’t going to be that simple?