Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
Steven waited in the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. He had only begun to sip it, when Holly came up to him and touched him lightly on the arm. His mind was still full of the debris of his dream, and he was startled. Turning around, he said sharply, “What?” before he saw who it was. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bark. I was somewhere else and you took me by surprise.”
The girl appeared to be a little flustered, but smiled. “Your guest has arrived. I think you will be pleased. It is a lady, and she has just gone to powder her nose. I don’t know her, but I think I have seen her around the town once or twice.” She widened and rolled her eyes, indicating her approval of his dinner guest.
“Oh, well, it’s a lady, that’s one more case solved, then.” He smiled back, upset with himself for scaring her, even momentarily. “It’s a good thing I brought a clean shirt.”
‘C Bertrand’ it had said in the letter, so ‘C Bertrand’ it must be. She was trim, almost small. Petite was the appropriate adjective, as it transpired. He watched her weave her path across the bar, moving elegantly, but without any apparent haste. Her hair was dark, cut short, and curling around her ears a little. She was wearing a black trouser suit, with the jacket nipped in at the waist. She was somewhere in her thirties, and a most attractive woman. She did not look English.
She held out her hand. It was slim and cool. He thanked God that his right hand had suffered less than his left. He knew that he could not shake hands with the left, couldn’t do much of anything with the dammed thing. He was immediately attracted to her eyes, deep and dark brown, almost black. They were eyes to drown in. Her perfume drifted into his nostrils, but he couldn’t identify it.
“Hello, I’m Caterine Bertrand.” He had been right, she was French, and now he knew what the letter ‘C’ stood for.
He smiled. “How do you do? Steven McCann.” He released her hand. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Thank you, that would be nice.” They both sat on bar stools next to the bar.
“I am drinking a gin and tonic. What would you like?”
“Perhaps a kir?”
“A kir? Are you sure they have that here?”
She shook her head a little. “Perhaps.”
They did have a kir, or at least they said that they knew what it was, and he ordered that and another gin and tonic, to accompany the remains of the one he had in his hand. “Cheers” he said when their drinks arrived.
She inclined her glass a little, and nodded gravely. “Santé.”
“All right, Miss Bertrand, I am all ears. Please tell me how you know,” he corrected himself, “how you knew my father.”
She frowned a little. “All ears? Does that mean you are ready to listen?”
He smiled, despite himself, she sounded so serious. “Yes, it means exactly that.” He couldn’t remember when he had last smiled in this way, from sheer pleasure.
“I worked for your father.” She shook her head slightly and frowned again. “No, that is not right. I worked with him. I was his research assistant.”
“I didn’t know that. Unfortunately, my Dad, my father and I have not communicated a great deal in the last few years.”
Caterine nodded gravely again. It seemed to be one of her characteristics. “Yes, he said that once or twice.”
He was not sure that he liked the thought of his father discussing their relationship with a stranger, and a little tremble of annoyance flitted across his mind. He tried to move the discussion to safer ground.
“What line of research are you involved in, Miss Bertrand?”
“Please call me Caterine.” She said it as Cat-Trine. “In England you are less formal than we are in France.”
Steven smiled. “Thank you, Caterine. As you know, my name is Steven.”
She smiled, an action which transformed an attractive face into a beautiful one. “Thank you, Steven. To answer your question about my work. As you know, Arthur, your father, was Professor of History at the University of Wales.”
He nodded, “at Aberystwyth.”
She agreed. “Oui, at Aberystwyth. Your father was one of the leading experts, certainly in England, on the Napoleonic period. He has written many articles and papers, and was working on a book.”
She spoke with such fervour about the dead man that Steven wondered for a fleeting moment if the old bugger had been sleeping with her. If so, his admiration for his father increased.
“Caterine, I am ashamed to say that I had very little idea about any of that. Of course I knew that the late 18th and early 19th centuries were his specialised period, but I didn’t appreciate he was an expert. I imagined that he gave lectures to some sleepy students a couple of times a day, and drank a lot of gin.”
She smiled, again transforming her face. “Well yes, he did both of those things, but he did much more besides.”
Steven was intrigued by her obvious enthusiasm and respect for his father, and reflected that he had never been all that interested himself in his father’s work, which he had considered boring. “How did you get to meet?”
“It was simple, really. He needed someone to help with research and advertised in the academic press. A friend of mine in France saw this and showed it to me. At that time, about two years ago, I wanted to get away from France for a little while, so I applied.”
“And what have you been working on these last two years?”
“Mostly about the death of Napoleon. How he died, and whether he was murdered, and if so, by whom.”
“Napoleon has been dead a very long time to start a murder investigation. Wasn’t it 1821, on St Helena?” He spoke wryly.
She gave him a little smile, as if unexpectedly impressed by his knowledge. “Yes, you are right, the 5th of May 1821. It is still important to get to the truth, even after a long time. Don’t you think?”
“Oh, indeed, the truth is always important, even if we don’t always recognise it.” He hesitated. “It is very kind of you to meet me like this. I haven’t been in Hay for five or six years, and I really don’t know anyone here, apart from Dad, and he’s dead.” He hesitated again. “However, I’m not sure why you came to see me.”
Her small dark face became anxious and she bit her lower lip. “I wanted to talk to you about the Professor’s work. I think”
He stopped her. “Look, have you eaten? I haven’t had a bite since breakfast and I’m starving. Would you like to join me for dinner?”
She inclined her head. “Yes, thank you, I would be delighted.”
He caught Holly’s eye and she led them to a table for two in the corner of the restaurant, by the window. She fussed over the cutlery and lit a long red candle.
“I think we are ready to order.” He looked across at Caterine. “Is this fine by you?”
“Yes, I am ready.”
They ordered, scampi for Caterine and a well-done rump steak for him. “Do you have any preference for wine?”
She shook her head. “No, but probably red.”
He ordered a bottle of Rawson’s Retreat. “Australian OK?”
She smiled again. “It’s fine. The French do drink les vins of other countries.” She added with a touch of mischief in her voice. “Sometimes.”
As they ate she returned to their discussion. “Are you interested in the Napoleonic time, Steven?”
“Well, mildly, I suppose.”
“You do know about Dr John?”
“Ah, yes, my great, great, great-grandfather. I may have missed a ‘great’ or two. I know a bit about him. He was at Waterloo, I think.”
“He was at Waterloo and was wounded there, but he did much more than that. He was a very unique man.”
“I do know a little about that time. Having ‘Wellington’ as a second name makes it a difficult period to ignore”
“Ah yes, ‘Wellington’, an old family habit.” She smiled again, and he decided that he liked seeing her smile. He also liked the way she said ‘Wellington’, and ‘abit’.
Steven held up a warning finger. “We would call it an old family tradition. A habit is watching Eastenders every evening. As I heard it from my Dad, since Dr John’s time, the first born son in the McCann tribe has always been given ‘Wellington’ as a second Christian name.”
“Yes, Steven, and the second son is always ‘Arthur Wellesley’, like your father.”
“And my brother.”
She looked down at the table. “He sometimes spoke about your brother. It was a very sad memory for him, I think.”
Steven was again vaguely, and unreasonably, bothered by his father’s discussions with this young French woman of something he would never discuss with his own family.
“Yes, and not only for him. He lost a son, and I lost my only brother. Not that Dad ever discussed Arthur’s death with me.” He regretted saying that almost before the words left his mouth.
“This wine is very pleasant, Steven.”
He recognised that she was changing the subject, so he did the same. “Caterine, I truly appreciate your taking the time and trouble to come here to meet me, especially as I do not know a soul in this town.” He hesitated, not wanting to upset or distress her. “But, I am still not sure what you wanted to see me about.”
“You are his only son, his only living son. The house, his books, his papers and all his work will now be yours.” She hesitated in her turn. “I do not want to see all that effort, all those years of work destroyed. I want to help you.”
“You want to help me do what, exactly?”
She glanced up from her study of the tablecloth and looked directly into his eyes. “Preserve his work. Perhaps even take some of it on.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sure that I am being stupid, but is it all really important?”
“Yes, yes, it is. He was on the point of making some revelations on the Emperor and his death, and there are many other historians who would like to take credit for what your father has done. I think it is important we prevent that.”
“Caterine, I am not a historian, I am a policeman. Well, I used to be a policeman. I don’t know what I am now.”
“I know what you do. Your father, your Dad, gave his life to this work, and I thought that in his memory you could protect his work.”
“I would imagine that you knew the old man pretty well, and if you did, you would know that my father and I did not have a close relationship. After Arthur died in the Falklands, Dad was not interested in anything. He lost all interest in his other son, and his wife. My mother just wasted away, disintegrated, while Dad buried his grief in his books. My mother could not do that.”
She looked at him in silence, apparently shocked by the intensity of his feelings. He noticed again how attractive her face was, close to being beautiful even when not smiling. His left hand began to hurt, the bent fingers stiffening, as they did in times of stress. God knows there had been a lot of those recently. He began to rub his left hand with the right.
“Can I ask what is wrong with your hand?” Again she looked directly into his eyes.
He covered his left hand with his right. “It’s nothing, I burnt it recently.”
Still looking at him, she reached out, hesitated and almost withdrew her hand, and gently pulled his hands apart. He did not resist. She looked at the bent scarred fingers on the left hand, and the raw angry skin on the right. “How did this happen, Steven?”
“I was involved in a car crash. It’s nothing, just gets dammed painful sometimes.”
“Your father never mentioned it to me.”
“He didn’t know. His other son burned to death at Bluff Cove. My little problem was minor in comparison. I didn’t want to bother him with it. Anyway, it’s getting better.” He realised that the last bit was a lie. She may have known it too.
She was still holding his ravaged hands, and he realised that he liked it and hoped she would not let go.
“Steven, if I am asking too much, please tell me to stop. Did this happen in the same car accident in which your wife died?”
She had gone right through him, straight to the weeping wound which had lain open these last two years, and she had, unwittingly, twisted the knife of memory. Through the long dark evening of the soul, since Maria’s death, he had usually managed, sometimes only barely managed, to keep his feelings under control. Now this girl, whom he had only met an hour ago, had seen through the window of that soul. Who did she think she was, and what right did she have to ask him such questions? He took his hands out of hers.
“How did you know that?” His voice was husky, and he had an overpowering wish to blow his nose.
“Because your father told me, and I think you are very like your father.”
“My father obviously discussed a lot of things with you. Caterine, it is a very bad memory for me, and, forgive me, I still can’t talk about it.”
She stared at him for a moment. “I am sorry, I was being stupid. I didn’t understand.” She stood up. “Excuse me. I am going to the Ladies for a moment.”
He half stood but she was gone. He blew his nose. He understood what she had intended, to give him time to regain his composure, without anyone looking on, seeing and misinterpreting his pain. But the sense of intrusion and the feelings of anger remained. When Caterine returned, he was recovered. He smiled, and thought that perhaps she recognised, in his smile, his thanks.
“Caterine, I am not a writer, and I do not have the ability or intentions to write any books, but, I will help you as much as I can.” Something in her manner, in the direct way she looked at him and in the way his hands felt in hers made the decision for him. In any event, the Metropolitan Police had no time for him, except as a politically correct subject for the pillory.
She smiled, not the smile of amusement, but one of appreciation and pleasure. She reached out again and touched his hand. “Merci.”
He lay awake a very long time that night, disturbed by his meeting with Caterine. Something stirred within him. It was not lust or passion, or indeed anything he could identify. She just, well, she just disturbed him.
He rose late, but for once, relatively well rested. The dream had not come back to torment him. He went down to breakfast around nine thirty, hoping he was not too late. A plain, dark haired girl served him.
“She’s on afternoons this week, doesn’t come on till two.”
“Oh, what’s your name then?”
“I’m Ceinwyn, Ceinwyn Thomas.”
“What a wonderful name.”
“Oh, Thomas is quite common around these parts.”
“I didn’t mean your surname, I meant Ceinwyn.”
She coloured a little, as she poured his tea. “Do you like it? Most people think it’s stupid.”
“No it’s lovely. It has a marvellous Celtic feel to it.”
Ceinwyn went into the kitchen happy.
He finished breakfast and wondered what to do with the few hours between breakfast and his meeting with Phillips, the solicitor, at two thirty. He considered walking down to the river to look at the house, but the potential pain of its memories and the ghosts it would waken decided him against it. He would go there after the funeral. Instead he walked into the town. He reflected what an unremarkable town Hay must have been until, whenever it was, 1974 or thereabouts, some chap decided to open a second hand book shop, and now, there were about thirty six of them. The shops were everywhere, some just selling books, any old books and others specialising in children’s’ books, books on theatre, magic and the occult. He noticed several dealing in history, and saw that the prices varied from 50 pence to hundreds of pounds. There were conventional shops, with bookcases, and there were barely converted garages and sheds, private houses with the rooms turning in on themselves and one huge barn of a place with a double storey.
Despite himself, and the depression brought about by life in general, and his father’s death in particular, he enjoyed himself. He was feeling tired when he stopped at a pub, and had a lonely beer and a ham sandwich. At just before two thirty he presented himself at Phillips, Williams and Thomas, Solicitors, in the High Street.
Roderick Phillips turned out to be a chubby, cheerful man of about forty-five, round faced and balding. He confirmed what Steven already knew, that he was the sole member of the McCann family surviving, and, while the will would take some time to finalise legally, his father had left everything to his son.
“Oh, that’s not quite right, Mr McCann. He did leave £5000 to the Cats’ Protection League, but apart from that, it’s all yours.” Phillips corrected, staring over the top of his spectacles at his papers.
“I didn’t know that Dad liked cats.”
Phillips did his trick of looking over the top of his glasses, giving him the appearance of a rather startled owl. “Well, yes. He has, sorry, had a cat, you know.”
“Cat? No, I didn’t know he had a cat. He hated all animals when I lived at home.”
Phillips looked over his glasses at the other man, and shuffled among his papers. “Oh, yes, very fond of that cat he was. Tigger, I think he is called. You know, like Tigger and Winnie the Pooh.”
“Tigger? Yes, I do know about Tigger and his pals. What am I going to do with a cat?”
Phillips smiled his cherubic smile. “I understand he is a very affectionate animal.”
“Good”, Steven grunted.
The solicitor smiled once more, a little uncertainly this time. “Apart from the house, there is about £120,000 in various accounts, trusts etc.” He looked up again as Steven interupted him.
“I don’t need the money. I don’t need the house either for that matter, or the dammed cat. Mr Phillips, ever since my brother Arthur died in the Falklands my father lost all interest in his family, in me but most of all, in my mother. She was as hard hit as me by Arthur’s death and that old bastard did nothing to help her. She just wasted away and he never even noticed. I don’t want his dammed house or money. Nothing he can do now can make up for the damage he has done.”
Phillips stared at him, his left thumb rubbing his left temple, his face reddening at the violence of Steven’s outburst. “Nevertheless, Mr McCann, that’s how it is. There is, I believe, a very large collection of books which I understand is most valuable. Not new books, you see, but some going back to the late eighteenth century, that class of thing. Be careful, there are quite a few literary rascals around here who would relieve you of the collection, given half a chance, and give you half a crown for them.”
Steven restrained his anger. “Thanks for the tip. The funeral is at two, tomorrow?”
Phillips nodded vigorously, making the spectacles bob up and down on his nose. “That’s right, at two.”
“Will many people be there, do you think?”
“Oh, you may be surprised. The professor was very well liked, and respected around here.”
Steven got up to leave. “Tell me, Mr Phillips, who made all the arrangements for the funeral?”
“Well, as you know, we tried to contact you, and when we couldn’t” his voice tailed away.
“I understand that. I would have liked to have been involved, but.” He raised his hand as Phillips started to protest. “No, don’t say it. I’m sorry, it was my fault, not yours. Who made the arrangements.”
“Well, everything was always subject to your approval, but it was Miss Bertrand, of course. I’m sorry, I thought you knew that. She sort of acted as the Professor’s Personal Assistant.”
Steven’s mouth tightened a little. She had taken a lot of decisions upon herself. “I didn’t know any of that, but I am beginning to learn a number of things about Miss Bertrand. She is a remarkable lady.”
Phillips nodded gravely, and removed his glasses, which he polished with his handkerchief. He had a somewhat faraway look in his eyes. “Oh, yes, remarkable, that’s what she is, all right.”
Steven walked back to the Black Bull and sat in the bar with a whiskey. Holly was on duty and came to chat with him. He suspected her main objective was to elicit information about Caterine, but he failed to satisfy her curiosity. He climbed the stairs to his room and lay down on the bed. On an impulse, he took his mobile from his pocket and phoned the number written in her little note. There was only an anonymous BT answerphone, and he was tempted to hang up. On an impulse he said, “Hi, Caterine, it’s Steven. I was just wondering if you are free and would like to go out to dinner somewhere this evening?” He thought for a moment before adding, “You could tell me about the work you and Dad have been doing.” There were a few other things she might care to explain.
He lay down on the bed again, and almost instantly went to sleep. The dream came back, he could feel the heat from the flames and hear the strident sounds of the fire engine. He woke, sweating, not knowing where he was, and the fire engine kept sounding its klaxon.
As he became fully conscious, he realised that it was not a fire engine but the telephone ringing and hastily he picked it up. “Hello,” his voice sounded husky and disturbed, even to him.
“Steven, it’s Caterine. You called and left a message. Did I wake you?”
“No,” he lied, “I was just on the other side of the room.”
“Thank you, I would like to come to dinner with you, but on one condition.”
“Oh,” he was a little suspicious. “What’s the condition?”
“That I pay.”
“Oui, madame. Je suis d’accord.”
“Excellent! I will meet you at eight, is that all right?”
“Yes, eight is fine for me.”
She sounded excited. “There is a little French restaurant, about ten minutes walk from the Black Bull. I think you will enjoy it.”
“Caterine, do you live in this town? I would have thought you would spend all your time in Aberystwyth.”
“I have a flat in Aberystwyth, but when not at University, I live here.”
“My father’s house?”
“Yes, although it is probably your house now.”
“OK, I will see you at eight. A bientot.”
He put the phone down thoughtfully. There was a great deal he did not know about the delectable Miss C Bertrand. He felt an irrational anger about Caterine’s closeness to his father, something he had never achieved himself. He was also unsure of her motives in all of this. What was she after? Everyone had some kind of agenda.
He knew that sleep was no longer possible, but he lay back on the bed, his hands folded behind his head. He had the most powerful feeling that he was getting into a situation that he might not be able to control. He could not explain it, and he had not been drinking, but he had the strangest of thoughts that his life was about to be taken out of his hands. The thought didn’t worry him. He had made a pretty awful mess of it himself to date; and perhaps something, or someone else directing it might be an improvement. He knew that he needed something to fill the void in his life, something to give him a reason to want to live.
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019