Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
It was eight in the evening when he arrived home, feeling gritty and soiled. The smell of vomit and stale whiskey was still present, and he opened several windows. He half listened to the messages on the answerphone as he stood opening his mail. Neither means of communication communicated anything to Steven that he wanted to know. There was nothing from either the Police or the Hospital. Perhaps he had got away with it. He poured a large Scotch and sat down heavily. He didn’t like this pokey little flat, even though he knew that it had been his own choice, and that it was preferable to the house that he and Maria had shared for sixteen years. He had intended to shower but lacked the energy and fell into bed. He was asleep within seconds.
He awoke around seven, having slept well, at least for him. The dream had not come back to plunder his rest. That was now at least a couple of days running, which was a record of sorts. He lay in bed for some twenty minutes, the feeling of unease swirling around him. He was still unable to identify a rational reason for this threatening sense of foreboding, but it had clung to him since leaving Hay. He arose at last and showered, standing for a long time in front of the mirror, razor in hand, staring at the face of a stranger, before deciding to shave this stranger’s stubble.
He returned the little car to the rental company and had a coffee and toast in a café before taking the Underground to St James Park. His appointment at Scotland Yard was at eleven, and he was not looking forward to it. He did not like Commander Colin Wood, and found it almost impossible to conceal his dislike. His antagonism went back a long time and was shared by Wood. At one time, on D division, they had been young detective constables working together. Steven had taken out a warrant to search a house for drugs and found it was as clean as a whistle. The dealer taunted him and mentioned his friend, Colin Wood. Steven was convinced the dealer had been tipped off, a belief strengthened when he learned that the man was an informer of Wood’s. Dislike, however, was not a viable option for a suspended Detective Chief Inspector when dealing with his superior officer, and certainly, Wood had climbed much higher in the job than Steve.
At the Yard he was no longer able to flash his warrant card and walk in, for the simple reason that his warrant card had been taken away when he was suspended. He had become a non-person, as far as the Metropolitan Police was concerned. He announced himself as simply Steven McCann, without giving his rank, but he suspected that the receptionist knew who he was anyway. Wood’s secretary met him in the lobby, and smiled briefly, her lips drawn back from her teeth.
‘You stuck up little bitch,’ he said to himself, returning her bared teeth smile, and followed her into the lift.
Wood was in his office; the door half open as Steven stood behind the secretary as she knocked politely on the door.
“Come”. The Commander did not even bother to look up.
Steven hated that, the discourteous bastard, and he knew what was coming next.
Again, there was no attempt at even glancing at the visitor, and Steven had the barely restrained urge to take out his dick and wave it at Wood. He refrained from this action as being one undoubtedly prejudicial to his situation.
Wood did not look up, and Steven sat in the uncomfortable chair placed centrally in front of the Commander’s desk and studied the bald patch on the Commander’s lowered head and thought disrespectful thoughts. It was several minutes before the other man looked up from his papers.
“Ah, McCann.” He sounded surprised, as if he had been expecting someone else.
“Yes, sir. We have a scheduled meeting.” He thought, “Who the fuck were you expecting?”
“Indeed, indeed.” Wood shuffled some papers and extracted a single sheet. “We tried to contact you at home yesterday, and there was no reply. You are supposed to inform this office of your absences.”
An icy calm gripped Steven, only just freezing out his anger. “I was at my father’s funeral. In any case you have my mobile number, which you could have used, as you didn’t choose to leave a message at my home. I’m not in bloody prison, yet.”
The Commander looked up, as if prepared to debate the point. Instead he said, “I am sorry about your father.” He coughed a little and continued. “Have you been informed about Mr Eustace?”
“Do you mean Mr Winston Churchill Eustace?” He added, “Sir,” as a deliberate afterthought. He knew, as he said it, that it sounded as if it was a studied insult. Which it was.
Wood looked up again and adjusted his spectacles. “Yes, the man who has accused you of racist behaviour.”
“Oh, that Mr Eustace, convicted drug dealer. The HIV positive man who bit me. Has he died of aids?”
“Mr McCann, I advise you that this matter is serious, and you should regard it as such.”
Steven was silent but said ‘bollocks’ under his breath.
“Well, Mr Eustace has been charged with murder.”
Steven looked at his superior officer for some seconds and then burst out laughing. “Well, bugger me gently. Nice one. Did he murder anyone we know?”
“He has been charged with the murder of a George Bentley. Do you know him?”
“Of course, I know, knew the bastard. Out of the same sewer as Winston, a crack dealer. No bloody loss that one. Always were hacking at each other over turf. Does this mean that I’m off the hook? Can I go back to work? I’d like to wipe the smile off your secretary’s miserable face.”
“I suggest you confine your comments to this matter. No, you are still under suspension. The complaint is out of my hands. It is being investigated, as you know, by the Police Complaints Authority. The PCA advises that their enquiries will continue, as far as you are concerned. They may, however, take longer to resolve.” He added as an afterthought, “Because the death of Bentley has complicated matters.”
Steven chuckled, “And not least for poor old George, who is dead.”
Wood looked up, his face stiff, his eyes hostile. “Do you have anything pertinent to say?”
“Can I go back to work?”
“No, you are suspended.”
“Can I put my papers in? I have had enough of this bleeding nonsense. I am suspended because a Jamaican drugs dealer says I called him a ‘bastard’ and he has just murdered someone. It’s bloody crazy.”
“May I remind you that Eustace has merely been charged with murder, not convicted. In this country you are innocent until you are proven guilty.”
“Not if you are a member of the Metropolitan Police you aren’t. I want to jack it in. Can I do that?”
“No, you know that you cannot resign until the complaint has been resolved.”
“That could take another year, maybe more.”
“It very well might.” Commander Wood closed his papers with an action that spoke of finality.
Steven pushed back his chair as noisily as he could and stood up. “Thank you, sir. Please do not get up to show me out. Frankenstein’s bride can demonstrate her usual delight in performing that little duty.”
He left the building, his face red, his collar biting into his neck, his mind a tornado of emotions, none of them pleasant. He pulled off his tie as he went into the roadway and walked quickly to Victoria Street. He knew where he was going, and it wasn’t very far away. The Albert public bar was cool and not yet full of lunchtime Londoners seeking some liquid relief from the day.
A large barman with curly black hair and a short goatee beard was languidly drying glasses as he went to the bar counter.
“G’day mate. What’ll she be?”
What a surprise, Steven told himself, an Australian barman.
“A large whiskey, Glenmorangie, if you have it. And have one yourself, mate.”
He took his drink to a small table near the Gents toilet and sat down heavily. It was cool and quiet in this part of the bar and would stay that way until the stream of male customers for the toilet became a river. “Fuck me, Steven, you are in a right fucking mess.”
“Sorry, did you say something, mate?”
He waved to the barman. “Sorry, Aussie, I was talking to myself.”
He had no job to go to. London was being shafted by criminals and he, DCI Steven McCann, acknowledged thief taker, couldn’t get onto the streets to help catch the bastards. His wife was dead, her death a constant reproach to his still being alive. His father had left him with a large house, a cat, a virtual Ben Nevis of books, and God knows what else. And there was the girl, Caterine, with her disconcerting eyes staring directly into his, seeing into his soul it seemed. She was only a girl, for Christ’s sake, only one girl in millions. He didn’t need her, didn’t need any of them, didn’t need the house, the books, not even the dammed cat. Especially not the cat. But Christ he needed something just now, something to hang on to, just long enough to get his feet back on the ground. He didn’t want to try the tablets routine again, still less the London buses.
He looked at his hands, the left an ugly claw, the right a permanently scarred reminder of something he wished he could forget but knew he never would. It was the left hand that Mr Winston Churchill Eustace had bitten when Steven had tried to arrest him. Perhaps that was why he had hit him so hard, hard enough to break his jaw in two places, or was it three? Eustace was HIV positive, everyone knew that, and Steven had spent long months before he was given the all clear. God, how he wished he had hit the bastard harder, and called him something a damm sight worse.
He finished the whiskey and ordered another, before leaving, a little light-headedly, and walking to St James’ Park. It was grey, and not very warm, and he regretted not having worn an overcoat. He spent a long time on a bench in the park, before coming to a decision. He hauled out his mobile phone and searched in his pocket for a phone number scribbled on a piece of paper.
“Caterine? Hi, it’s Steven. Yes, all right, how about you? The meeting? It wasn’t important. I will be there sometime on Sunday. Yes, me too. I’m looking forward to it.” And he was. The decision having been made, he suddenly felt light-headed, or perhaps that was the whiskey. He went home.
The next two days were busy as he put in order the small elements of his life. There was no point in staying here, not in this God forsaken little flat, living a miserable existence, without being able to bury himself in his job, as he had done after Maria’s death. He spoke to his neighbour, a large dishevelled lady who tried to make a living as a writer, unsuccessfully as far as he knew. A bit like himself as a copper, he thought. She readily accepted the set of keys he offered her and agreed to check his mail from time to time. He also wrote down Caterine’s number, which was probably his number now. She already knew his mobile number.
“Will you be gone for long, Steven?”
“Honest to God, Natasha, the way I feel right now, I could go away forever.”
“Well, take care, and keep in touch.” She hugged him, which was the nicest thing to have happened for a long time. No, he reflected to himself, it was the second nicest thing to have happened. Caterine was in number one position there.
He didn’t own a car these days, not in fact since that dreadful afternoon two years ago, so he checked on the trains. He decided that he could get as far as Hereford fairly simply by rail, and then a bus after that. When, however, he passed this information to Caterine, she insisted on meeting him at Hereford station, and he was childishly pleased to allow himself to be persuaded.
On the Sunday morning, with a couple of suitcases in hand, he said goodbye to the flat without regret, and began his journey, with an unexpectedly light heart. He had brought a book but quickly lost interest in it and sat looking out the carriage window with anticipation. As the miles clickety clacked past, he could feel the tension leaving his body like sweat through his pores. It was an odd, even eerie experience. It was the journey from Hay in reverse, as his uneasiness slipped away from him. He was reminded of the time when, as a young man, after joining the Police, he would take the train to go home on holiday, or for a long weekend. Yes, that was it. He had no home, and had not had one since Maria died, but he felt like he was going home. It was little, but it was enough. He slept.
He awoke as the train pulled into a station, and he hurriedly got off, to wait half an hour for his connection. He wondered if he should phone Caterine to tell her he was coming. “Don’t be bloody stupid” he muttered to himself. “She knows you’re coming”.
He was a little disappointed not to see Caterine waiting on the platform, but while he was looking around in confusion, she suddenly appeared beside him.
“Hello”. She smiled, a little shyly he thought.
“Hi”. He hesitated and then leaned towards her and kissed her on each cheek. Steven was not sure if you should do that with French women you hardly knew, but he had wanted to, and she did not seem to mind. Her skin was soft and cool to his lips and her perfume was the same as on the first evening they had met. His earlier suspicions about her now seemed childish and he realised that he was also pushing them aside, like his memories of the attempted suicide.
“The car is over here.” She led the way. “You have come back then?”
“Did you not think that I would?”
“I wasn’t sure. I hoped you would. Why have you come back?” There was that directness again, and she looked over her shoulder, without breaking stride, and looked into his eyes, in that shuddering, brain numbing way she had.
They reached the car and she opened the boot and Steven threw his suitcases in. “I am not sure, either. There is nothing for me in London. I am not allowed to go back to work and there is nothing for me to do. At least, up here, perhaps I can do something useful, even if only sorting out Dad’s affairs.”
She got into the driver’s seat and he climbed into the front passenger’s seat.
“Besides, I am glad I’m back, too” He added.
She drove off, following the river Wye upstream towards Willersley, but turning off before reaching the town, to follow a succession of small back roads towards Hay.
“Tigger is looking forward to meeting you, Steven. He was out when you were in the house the other day, but I have told him all about you. I’ve made him promise to be on his best behaviour.”
“Is he trying to impress me, then, this Tigger of yours?”
She sounded surprised. “Oh, no. He doesn’t need to impress us, he’s a cat. They do what they want to do. And, anyway,” she turned to him with that smile which so transformed her face. “Anyway, he’s your cat, now. Well, as far as a cat belongs to anyone.”
Steven could not help smiling back; her face demanded it, somehow. “You like cats, do you?”
She took both hands from the wheel and shrugged at the same time. “It’s all a question of being a cat person, or not, I think.”
“Please put your hands back on the steering wheel.”
Caterine glanced at him and saw that he was not smiling. “Sorry, I suppose you are a little sensitive to cars.”
“No, it is me who should apologise. I am a bit over sensitive, I think.”
The sun beamed out of a faultless sky, lending the low hills a charm he had not noticed before. Sheep, lambs tucked in the shelter of their mothers, glanced up lazily as the little Peugeot scudded by.
“It’s quite beautiful here, you know. I never noticed it before.”
“It can be,” she agreed. “It is just that it rains a lot, sometimes. All right, most times”
They completed the journey in a companionable silence. The house looked different. He put his suitcases down and stared around. “It’s different. What’s happened?”
“I hope you don’t mind. I got a man to cut the grass and trim the bushes. Prinning he called it. I hope it was all right.”
“No, it’s absolutely fine with me. And it’s called pruning.” At the same time the old thought returned to whisper to him that she presumed too much.
She brightened. “Good! What is prinning then?”
“It must be a French word.” She made a small face at him.
The house was different too. It had been clean and fairly tidy before, but now it was…He could not find the word. It looked more like a home.
“Steven, I hope you will be pleased, but I have fixed up your old room, taken all the books out, put up new curtains and” Again the thought that she just assumed he would stay in the house. But why not, it was his house. He wished she had asked him.
“Hey,” he took her arm. “It’s OK, I am a rough copper, or ex copper. I can settle anywhere. Anyway, it won’t be for ever.” Even as he said it, he had a feeling that he might just be wrong. The feeling he had known before had crept back again.
She had made a considerable effort with his room, and as he sat on the bed emptying his suitcases, he felt like he has slipped into some kind of time warp. It was like just after the family had moved from York and he had sat in this room, but not on this bed, looking out of the window, a small frightened boy. In some way’s things hadn’t changed. He had just got older. He was still small and frightened.
There was a knock on the door.
Caterine stuck her head around the door. “Will you be ready for dinner in half an hour?”
“What, I get dinner as well?”
She was puzzled. “What?”
“Forget it. Yes, half an hour it is. When do we start work?”
“Tomorrow. Tonight, we have dinner and talk.”
And they talked, and talked and talked, and he realised, not for the first time, that he enjoyed talking to this girl, and looking at her small alert face and captivating eyes. He put it down to the two bottles of Macon Villages they had somehow managed to drink. He told her of his mother and father, and Arthur, always his parents’ favourite son, and how the family had simply disintegrated after Arthur’s death. His father had tried to push the event out of his consciousness, and his mother, in her time of need, had no one to turn to for comfort. He brushed over Maria’s death, still too raw to discuss with strangers, even beautiful strangers. Or with anyone else, he told himself.
She told him of La Rochelle, and growing up there, a Protestant in a Catholic country. She related the great siege of 1629, and the deaths from starvation of 23,000 Protestants. She told him of her time at the University of Nantes and of her marriage to Philippe, a chemist.
“We got divorced, and I came to England.” She too was raw and had no more to say.
“Wales,” he reminded her, “not England.”
“Wales,” she agreed. “Let’s load the dishwasher. Tomorrow we start work.”
As they cleaned up in the kitchen together, he felt guilty. He was enjoying this shared domesticity with this French girl he hardly knew. He felt that he was being unfaithful to Maria. He felt he should change the subject and try to clear his mind.
“Where’s this famous Tigger then?”
“Oh, he’s asleep on my bed.”
He felt an entirely unreasonable surge of jealousy towards the cat. He kissed Caterine on the cheek once again, and they went to their separate beds.
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and privately self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019