© BM 2008
Chapter Ten – Episode 14
Kate Fouchet sat at a small table in Costa Coffee, idly sipping her Cappuccino, and looking up from time to time to watch the people arriving at London Heathrow’s Terminal Four. It was very early, still not seven in the morning, and she was tired. The last few days had drained all the energy out of her. Sometimes the apparent hopelessness of the situation depressed her immensely, and she realised that care was needed to stop herself from becoming ill. She could not take on all the responsibility of her father’s condition; he would not want her to do so. But who else was there? Peter was concerned, of course, but Alex was his father in law, not his father, and he could not feel as she did. Her mother had long ago ceased to care about her ex-husband, and there was no good reason why she would want to start now. Richard, his son, surely he would care, would shoulder some of the burden. Wouldn’t he?
Richard’s plane had landed from Dubai about ten minutes before, and she estimated that it would be at least another half hour before he could get through the Baggage Hall and Immigration. She looked at the steady stream of travellers coming through the automatic doors. She pondered where they had all been and where they were all going. “I wonder,” she thought to herself, “ if there are any other people here like me, waiting to tell a relative that one of their nearest and dearest was close to death?”
The trickle of arrivals had increased to a flow now, indicating that the baggage from some flight or another had been delivered. She had waited to greet people before, but always in different circumstances, waiting for friends from overseas to arrive on holiday. She studied the arrivals more closely. That man, the one with the shaven head, was wearing a suit and tie. Why did he choose to wear a suit and tie, and then sit all night in an aircraft seat? His clothes were crumpled, and he looked crumpled too. He stared straight ahead, looking neither to left or right. He was not expecting anybody to meet him.
That girl, what would she be? Nineteen, perhaps, dressed in denim shorts so short that her buttocks were showing, and a white shirt, tied above her midriff, where a stud glittered in her navel. She appeared as oddly dressed as the shaven headed man in the crumpled suit. At least she was being met. A man of about fifty hurried towards her and hugged her. Boyfriend? No, probably not, unless he was very lucky. More probably her father. They moved off, the man’s arm around her shoulders. She seemed happy to see him. Kate remembered an occasion in Brighton, a few years ago, before the children were born, when she and her father had been having lunch. They had been laughing and joking, when she overheard one nearby elderly lady say to her equally elderly female companion, in a loud stage whisper, “He’s old enough to be her father.” Kate had turned to the whisperer, and said very loudly, “He IS my father.”
She got up, and moved away from the coffee lounge to the barrier outside the Arrivals Hall. How long had it been since she had seen Richard? Two years, three? She had a strange thought. Will I recognise him? Will he recognise me? Perhaps I should have made up one of those little signs, like the taxi and limo drivers have, and which carried messages like, ‘Mrs Smith’, or ‘Mr Yakomoto’, or even ‘Shell Oil’.
“You are being silly, dear,” she told herself, “stop it.”
Kate had known Richard all her life, and yet, she felt that she knew him less well now, than at any other time in that life. They were not enemies, nor were they friends. Their lives had so little in common that they touched at very few points. In fact, they touched only at two points, their mother and their father. If, when, she corrected herself, both of them are dead, and she shuddered at the thought, she and Richard will have no points of contact. They still exchanged Christmas cards, but that was about it. It was, she reflected, curious the way inherited genes had the way of playing strange tricks. She looked the image of her mother, Anne, and Ceinwyn looked the image of Kate. Yet Kate knew that she had little of her mother’s character, but a lot of her father’s. Richard, on the other hand, was, more and more, starting to take on some of his father’s facial features, but his character derived directly from Anne. She sometimes wondered if Richard had gone out of his way to be different from his father, and if she had done the same in respect of her mother. She could not remember actively doing so, but if she had, it would have been subconscious anyway.
He came through the automatic doors, and to her relief, she knew him at once. Silly girl, she chided herself. With a shock, she realised that in the years since they had last met, he had begun to look like his father even more than she had remembered
They hugged. “Hi, Richard, how are you?”
“Hi, sis. Bloody tired, I’m getting too old for night flights.”
“That’s funny, Dad always used to say that.”
“How is he? Any change since we spoke?”
“No, I’m afraid not. He is just the same.”
“Sis, I know how close you two were, sorry are. Is he going to die?”
“Richard, no one knows. I don’t, and the doctors haven’t a clue either. There is a worse prospect than his dying. That is if he lives and is brain damaged. If he comes out of the coma, and is not brain damaged, he should be OK, as, apparently, physically, there is nothing wrong that cannot be fixed.”
“The Jag was written off?”
“Where was he going? I think you said it was on the A24. Was he on his way to see you?”
“No, not me, he never just drops in. He always phones first.”
They reached the car park, and she unlocked the Freelander from a distance, by pressing the button on her key. Richard dropped his suitcase in the back and climbed gratefully into the front passenger seat.
“You still like your Land Rovers, then?”
She patted the dashboard. “My baby, I just love them. My only vice.”
“Well, that and children.”
“Oh, yes, and them.”
“Are they both well? And Peter?”
“All well, and he sends his regards. He’s working his socks off, as usual. And what about you, brother dear? No patter of tiny feet yet?”
“Well, we have another cat, but kids, no, not yet. We have plenty of time for that sort of thing.”
“Maybe. How does Jilly feel about it?”
“She’s cool. She’s happy to wait.”
“Have you asked her how she feels, or are you just guessing. Some others, less sensitive that your sister, might say bullshitting.”
“Don’t hold back, Katy, say what you really think.”
She sensed that he was becoming angry, and she decided to drop the subject. “Sorry, it isn’t my business.”
So did Richard. “Yes, let’s leave it.” He took off his jacket and threw it into the back seat. “Well, if Dad was not going to see you, where was he going?”
“Well, I went to the police station afterwards, after the accident, I mean, to pick up his things. You know, things from the car, CD’s, cassettes, that sort of thing.”
“There was a bunch of flowers. Roses, actually, red roses.”
“For a lady?”
“That’s who a man normally gives red roses to, and not his sister or daughter, or the lady who does his ironing.”
“Is there a new woman in his life?”
“No, I don’t think so, Richard. He would have told me, I think. In any case, there has not been a lady in his life, properly, since Francesca left. He didn’t believe that there ever would be anyone else”
“Well, is she back on the scene?”
She shrugged, as they turned off the Airport perimeter road, and went up towards the M25. “Really, I don’t know. I still think he would have told me.”
“He was not off on a book signing?”
“No, all that had finished, I think. And anyway, he would not take red roses to a book signing. But don’t leave Francesca. There may be something in that. Do you have her address or phone number?”
“No, not me, I haven’t a clue.”
“Well, brother dear, perhaps after we have been to the hospital, you and I can do a little detective work, before you catch the train north?”
Richard nodded. “All right, Katy. You’re the boss. Always have been. I suppose poor old Dad thought so too.”
“Do not start, Richard Millar, or you will end up on the M25, thumbing a lift.”
He held up his hands. “OK, mein fuhrer. Where do we start our detective work?”
“Dad’s house, I have a spare set of keys.”
Kate had become such a regular visitor to the hospital that she knew many of the staff, especially those in her father’s ward, and they knew her. A number greeted her, with a wave, or a nod, or a smile. One nurse even called her Kate.
“You’re pretty well known here, sis.” Richard was making a statement, not asking a question.
“Yes, but I wish I wasn’t. They are wonderful here, but I would rather I had never met any of them.”
He put his arm around her shoulder, and squeezed. “OK, sweetheart, I’m back now. We can share.”
She was pleased to note that many of the tubes had been removed from her father, and he seemed to be sleeping now, instead of being comatose, but there were still no signs of recognition. She thought that his face had a better colour, but also thought that it might be wishful thinking on her part.
Richard turned to her, and spoke in something akin to a whisper. “This is my first time. Can you see any improvements?”
“You don’t need to whisper, Richard, I don’t think Dad can hear us. No, no improvements, not really. Although they have taken away most of those ghastly tubes they had sticking out of him yesterday.”
They stayed for about twenty minutes, more, she felt, from a sense of loyalty, than anything else. As they were leaving, she was pleased to see Richard go up to the unconscious figure in the bed, lean over, and kiss his father’s forehead. “I love you, Dad.”
They were both glad to get outside the hospital, and feel the air cool them. The brightness of the morning had given way to clouds, rolling in from the west. “The summer is dying,” she thought, “and so is my father.”
“If you wish, Richard, you can use our spare room, and go home tomorrow. Would you like to do that?”
She was pleased when he agreed. “OK, Katy. I told Jilly when I spoke to her from Dubai that I would probably stay with you and Peter for a day or so. Will I be safe from your two?”
She made a little grimace. “Well,” she dragged the word out, “I cannot give you any guarantees in that direction. However, they haven’t actually eaten a guest for at least a month now.”
“God, they must be hungry!”
They drove to Kate’s. The house was empty, with Peter at work and the children at school. Richard showered and changed his clothes, and an hour after arrival, they were driving north towards Surrey.
“It happened on this road, the accident, I mean. Here, on the A24. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Hmmm, yes, about five or six miles from here. I will show you.”
As she approached the part of the road where the accident had occurred, she slowed down. “You can see this break in the middle of the road; well the lorry was crossing in front of him, from left to right, through the central reservation. Dad was coming the other way. Didn’t have much of a chance.” She paused as they drove past the spot. “The Police told me that they have several witnesses who said that Dad wasn’t speeding, or anything like that. The lorry just came right out in front of him. Didn’t have a chance. The lorry driver has been charged with dangerous driving.”
Richard hesitated. “It was an accident, wasn’t it? You don’t think…..”, he broke off in mid sentence.
“No, I don’t. He loved that Jag too much to hurt it.”
They were silent. There really was not anything to say. They reached their father’s house and Kate parked the Freelander in the driveway. She fumbled with the keys and opened the front door. There was an eerie silence about the place, and a strange stale, disused smell, as if the house was also dying. Their feet seemed to echo in the hallway, despite the carpet.
“It’s funny,” he said. “It makes you feel as if you should be whispering.”
“I know what you mean. Houses know when they are not being lived in.”
He smiled at her strange statement, but nodded in agreement.
“What are we looking for, Katy?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She was close to tears. “A letter, address book, something like that.”
In the kitchen there was an empty mug lying in the sink. It had what appeared to be coffee stains. She ran it under the hot water, and dried it with a tea towel. “That reminds me,” she said as she put away the mug, “I must turn the hot water off.”
Richard walked around the house, marvelling at how clean and ordered everything was. His father had a disciplined mind, and Richard supposed that this was a relic of his time in the Army. In the study, he noticed his desk and computer. This must have been where “A mud hut in Mali” had been created. His father had sent him a copy, but had not signed it. He had said that that would be like showing off, and he did not want to show off to his children. So Richard had bought a second copy in Waterstones, with the price ticket still on it, and had presented it to him when Alex had been up north. “OK, Dad. I paid coin of the realm for that one, it isn’t a freebie, and I would like the author to sign it.” Alex had done so, but under protest, saying Richard had not needed to buy a copy.
It was a good book, a novel, but with strong autobiographical undertones. His father had discounted that aspect. “Everyone’s first book is based on their own experiences. Once you have got that off your chest, you can try again, and see if you have anything more to say. The second one is the hard one.”
“Are you planning a second, Dad?”
“No, I think I have said all that I wanted to say.”
Kate joined Richard, breaking his reverie. “Do you want to see if there is anything on the email, while I have a look round?”
“OK. Do you see these?” He indicated three photographs, two of Francesca, and one of the pair of them at a formal function, somewhere. “He still loved her.”
“He never stopped. Perhaps she did not deserve it. Dad said that didn’t matter. You do not choose the person you fall in love with, any more than you choose your parents.”
Richard went through the e-mail, but found nothing of interest. Kate was as unsuccessful in finding any mail, although she checked through the many files her father had maintained, in clear plastic folders. She did find an address book.
“I know this. I gave this to Francesca for her birthday not long after they met. I don’t think she ever used it. I never thought that he would decide to use it, as it has these little flowers all over it.” She rubbed her finger softly over the book. “I will check this later. Let’s see to the rest of the house.”
Richard listened to his father’s voice mail, and noted some names to call. He also checked the call recorder, scrolling down through and recording the numbers. He called out to Kate. “Sis, the accident was on Wednesday last, is that right?”
Kate came through from the bedroom. “Yes, that’s right. Why?”
“There’s a call recorded here on Wednesday afternoon, at 15.17. The number was withheld, but they did not leave a message.”
“A lot of people do that these days. Dad hated it.”
They found nothing else that might have assisted in deciding where Alex Millar had been going on the day of the accident, but Kate was able to busy herself in other ways. She opened the windows to let some air into the place. She also checked the fridge and removed a number of items that would not last much longer. She dropped these into a black plastic rubbish sack, where they were joined by two bunches of decaying cut flowers. She found an air freshener, and sprayed every room in the house. There seemed to be nothing else that they could do, so they left, Kate setting the alarm and locking the door.
“Thanks for what?”
“For coming, for being here. I don’t think I could have faced it on my own. It’s a bit like visiting a tomb. Do you know what I mean?”
“It is odd, knowing that he might never see the place again. All his books, his music, the paintings, and those silly stuffed animals.”
“They were not silly to him, or to her at one time. They all had names you know, and she left them all behind. He once said it was like deserting your children. He could not bring himself to throw them away. It would have been like throwing part of Francesca away. He just couldn’t do it.”
They drove back to Kate’s in a thoughtful and sombre mood, brother and sister lost in their own thoughts. There was little time, on their return, to do other than await the children’s homecoming, in a storm of laughter, which stopped when they saw Richard. Kate introduced him.
“This is your Uncle Richard. You have met him before, Thomas, but Ceinwyn, you would have been too young to remember.”
They shook hands shyly, but as the evening went on, they lost their awkwardness, and by bedtime, Ceinwyn, in particular, was climbing all over ‘Uncle Richard’. With the children in bed, the three adults had dinner, and after initial discussions about families and houses and cars, they got down to talking about Alex and what would happen if he died.
The following day, after Peter had left for work, Kate took the two children to school, and woke Richard up, on her return. “Come on, sleeping beauty. You can’t stay there all day, you have a wife and three cats to go home to.”
“And a couple of dogs. What time is it?”
“A bit before ten. You’ve missed Terry Wogan. What would you like for breakfast?”
They visited the hospital again, where Kate thought she saw some improvement in her father’s condition. Doctor Spence, whom she had met earlier, was in the room, carrying out an examination.
“Mrs Fouchet, Kate. How are you? No, no, please come in, I was just finishing.”
She introduced Richard, and the two men shook hands. “Any change” enquired Richard.
“Well,” the young doctor hesitated. “I do not want to raise your hopes unduly, but there are some signs that your father is responding to stimuli. Now, please, do not build too much into this. It sometimes happens, but it does not always follow that the patient recovers. What it does mean is that your father is not as deeply unconscious as we had thought.”
Kate felt her heart beat increase, despite the doctor’s caution. “But that’s good, isn’t it? It could mean that he is coming out of it. Doesn’t it?”
Spence nodded. “Yes, it might mean that, and it might not. We need to keep monitoring to see if this, and I stress, small, improvement continues. Even if it does, there can be no guarantees about the patient’s, sorry, your Dad’s, longer term prospects.”
They left the hospital a little more optimistic than they had entered it.
“I’ll drive you to Horsham, Richard. There are more trains from there and you can go to Waterloo or Victoria which ever suits you best”
“Thanks, sis, it’s kind of you.”
They talked on the journey about their lives as children, in Australia, and Malaysia, none of which Kate truly remembered, as she had been too young. Her memories of those times were handed down memories of other people; her mother and father, and now Richard.
“Dad was always a sort of hero to me, you know.” He spoke reflectively, and she remained silent, never having heard her brother speak in this way before. “He was always so certain about everything, so sure he could handle anything that came along. In the Army, I think he was good, you know, confident and capable. Nothing ever fazed him. And people seemed to like him. Even when he was away, I suppose fighting somewhere or other, I never worried. It never occurred to me that anything could ever happen to him. You know, not that anything would happen, but that nothing ever could happen.”
She agreed. “I have always felt the same.”
“And then they got divorced, and I hated him. Really hated him. I could have killed him.” He was silent for some moments before continuing. “But, as you get older, you realise that there are two sides to every story, even your parents. I don’t hate him anymore, haven’t for some six or seven years. When you get married yourself you start to understand some of the problems, and perhaps appreciate the troubles you parents had. Anyway, it was a long time ago now, a lot of water has flowed over the bridge, as they say.”
“Did you like Australia?” Having rediscovered her brother again, Kate was anxious not to lose him too quickly.
“Yes, it was great. I was only a kid, but we lived near the beach and I spent all my time in the sea. And then you came along and spoiled it all.” He punched her playfully on the arm.
“Thanks very much, “she said. “I didn’t ask to be born.”
“It is funny, though, Kate, you were born in Oz and can’t remember a thing about it.”
“It is not all that funny to me, brother dear. I wish I could remember more about it. I suppose it is my homeland.”
“Don’t be silly, dear, if you had been born in Malaysia, would you feel you were a Malaysian?”
“No, I suppose not, although I can remember little bits about Penang. I remember Choy would take me for walks along the beach, when Mum was asleep in the afternoon. I remember it was very hot.”
“Do you remember swimming? You were like a little fish.”
“Yes, I do. I have not thought about Australia or Malaysia in years.”
She dropped him at Horsham station, and they hugged before he departed. She had not talked with her brother like that in years, and as she turned the Freelander around, she had a pang of regret that it took an accident to her father to bring brother and sister into some limited contact. She hoped they would not slip away again.
When she got home, she felt restless, and unsettled, as if she should be doing something, but she couldn’t think of anything to do. She prowled around the house for some time, picking up and putting down various things, and tidying the children’s toys. She then remembered the address book that she had taken from her father’s house. She made a coffee, and sat down with the book, turning over the pages from ’A’ to ‘Z’. She had first looked, as a matter of course, at ‘F’ and ‘P’ to try to find either Francesca or Paglioni, but without success. She turned back to ‘D’, and studied an entry. “Daina” she said to herself. “Haven’t I heard that before?”
The STD code had a familiar look to it, and she went into the kitchen and checked the local telephone directory. “Yes!” she told herself. “Worthing!” Was ‘Daina’ what he used to call her? She had a feeling that it was. And what was it she called him? It was something like ‘Tiger’. No, not ‘Tiger’. Was it ‘Lion’? No, it was ‘Simba’, an African word for lion. That’s right, ‘Simba’.
She phoned the number, trying as she did so, to work out a plausible excuse if it was not Francesca. But it was her. Kate recognised the voice although the two women had not spoken in nearly ten years.
“Francesca, it’s Kate.”
“Kate? Kate who?”
“Kate Fouchet. Alex’s daughter.”
There was silence. “Yes, Kate, what can I do for you?” Even after almost twenty years in England, there was still an Italian accent.
“I’m phoning because of my father.”
“What about him?”
“Did you know that he had had an accident?”
“No. Accident? What kind of accident?”
“A traffic accident. His car hit a truck. Not far from here, on the A24.”
“How is he? He’s not ….”, the voice tailed off.
“No, he isn’t dead, but he has been unconscious since it happened.”
“When did it happen?”
“Last Wednesday, about lunchtime.”
“Oh my God, last Wednesday, at lunchtime.” There was silence.
“Francesca, are you all right?”
“He was coming to see me. We were going to have lunch. I went to the restaurant, and waited, but he didn’t turn up. I thought he had changed his mind, and I just went home again.”
“He had red roses in the car. Obviously they were for you. Did you not phone him?”
“Yes, of course I phoned him, but there was only the answerphone.”
Kate winced a little. That had been a stupid question. Of course there could only have been the answerphone.
“It was in all the papers. Did you not see any of them?”
“No, I don’t read the papers. They are too depressing.”
They talked further, and Kate explained all she knew about Alex’s condition.
“Can I visit him?”, Francesca asked.
“Do you want to?”, Kate was uncertain. “You two had been apart a very long time.”
“Yes, I think I would. Will you come with me?”
Kate agreed. “Yes, I will be happy to.”
“Kate, please give me your number. I need some time to think. I will phone you.”
Kate did so. “Francesca, I don’t know if you know, but he never stopped loving you.”
“I know.” She was silent for several moments before continuing. “Goodbye, Kate, thanks for letting me know.”
Kate was more unsettled now, and wandered out into the garden. It was a fine September day, and quite warm. On an impulse she changed into her bikini, poured herself a gin and tonic, and sat in the sun to think. It would probably be the last opportunity for this year. In ten minutes she was asleep. Her dreams were wild and disturbing, of Australia and Malaysia, and Richard swimming in the pool at Butterworth, and Choy holding her hand as they walked along the beach. And her father and Francesca were there in their early days, when they were both so clearly in love that people could almost touch it. And there was Anne, before she became bitter, putting her to bed in their married quarter. She always placed several cushions on the floor alongside the bed, as Kate had the trick of falling out of bed, which was not only frightening and sometimes painful, but also woke up her parents.
She awoke with a shiver, and looked at the empty glass still in her hand.