Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
The office, or room, as it would more properly be described, in the University, was much smaller than Steven had imagined it would be, particularly as it would have been shared by Caterine as well as his father. Like the house, there was a small forest of books springing from almost every nook and cranny, seemingly glaring at him as if to challenge his right to make any adjustments in their living conditions.
“Where do we start, Caterine?” He looked around the small quarters rather helplessly, conscious that his hands were making an involuntary gesture of this helplessness.
“It isn’t as bad as it looks,” she reassured him. “Many of the books are the University’s. So is all the furniture.”
“And that thing?” He pointed to the computer which she had switched on, and which was going through its electronic warming up exercises.
“I can take care of that. I will download all his private work to disc, and we can examine it at home.”
“You can examine it at home,” he corrected her. “My ability goes as far as pressing the first couple of t.., buttons.” He had stopped himself just short of saying ‘tits. He wasn’t sure whether he liked her use of the word ‘home’. It was not really her home, just somewhere she had lived for a while. Not, he told himself, that it was his home either, and her greater length of stay probably gave her the greater entitlement to use it.
“OK, it is not a problem for me, I am accustomed to it. Will you look at the books and papers? I think you should put everything which is the University’s on one side.”
“How will I know which is which?”
“It will be stamped on the inside cover, ‘University of Wales’.”
“OK, I suppose a trained detective should be able to manage that little job.”
Caterine smiled. “If you can’t, you can do what your father always did, ask a woman to help.”
“I don’t suppose he ever gave this woman a slap on the derriere for being cheeky?”
“Unfortunately, not.” They both laughed.
They had driven to Aberystwyth in the Peugeot, travelling south from Hay towards Brecon before turning right along the A470 and a succession of nondescript Welsh towns to reach the A44 and picking up speed. He made up his mind to pay a visit to the Museum to the Welsh Regiments in Brecon. He knew that his father had not been the only one to try to put Arthur out of his mind. He was thinking more and more about Arthur and had done since he received the news of his father’s death. If Arthur had not died in the Falklands, would his father have opted out of a normal life? Would his mother have withered away to die a lonely unhappy death? Would he be here now, travelling in a small car with an attractive, if unknown French girl? Steven didn’t know any answers to these questions. Once again, he had the feeling of being drawn somewhere. Where? He didn’t know the answer to that one either. He wondered if this was some kind of mechanism to stop him dwelling on the scars in his life; Maria, Arthur, his father and his suicide attempt. If it was, he needed it to work. By God, he did!
The day was clear and sharp, with a steel grey sky above and the first hints of summer below. The sheep stared with marbled eyes, apparently untroubled by the passing traffic, or, in their perverse way, scattered in alarm at some unseen minor danger.
Caterine had introduced Steven to several people at the University, all of whom had expressed their condolences at his father’s passing and told him how much he would be missed. Steven was moved at the apparently genuine affection and regard that they all seemed to have for the dead man. While he and Caterine were in the room working steadily through their allotted tasks, about half a dozen students also came in to express their sorrow at their, as well as his, loss.
Time passed quickly, as he and Caterine worked, occasionally exchanging a comment or two on what they found. Soon, Steven had a large pile, or several piles, of books beside him. These were the ones for the University, and on his other side, an even larger collection which were either his father’s, or were unidentified. Caterine knelt beside him on the floor and began checking on the various piles of books and documents, shuffling them occasionally and changing one or two items to a different group. Despite himself, he felt a comfortable tingle in the back of his neck just being beside her. A small strand of black hair fell across her forehead, and he was tempted to lean over and push it back in place. He resisted the temptation and was disappointed when she straightened and got up.
“OK, Steven, that is enough for now. We can take this lot home,” she indicated the greater pile, “and finish sorting it out there.” This time he took some exception to her repeatedly using the word ‘home’, but he didn’t say anything. He felt that he should be feeling more comforted instead.
Steven remained on his knees and picked up a book from the pile to be moved. It was a thick red journal, bound in red leather with black binding on the spine. “Have you seen this before?” He held out the book.
“No, what is it?”
“It is some kind of journal. It’s hand-written, but pretty well faded.”
She took the book from him and scanned the pages quickly. “It looks like someone’s account of some war, or battle. There are still a few around, lost in attics and so on, and Arthur, the professor, collected them. There were many like this one written, mostly badly written, but occasionally one is found which says something new, or is worth publishing. We will take it with us and look later. I will call Charlie and get him to move the other lot.” She dropped the journal back onto its pile.
“Who’s Charlie?” He got up, dusting the knees of his trousers.
“Charlie Ramsay, the Assistant Bursar. He looks after the University’s property.” She phoned someone and had a short conversation, chuckling once or twice.
“He will be over.”
Charlie Ramsay proved to be a large young man in his late twenties, with a shock of tousled fair hair, and spectacles, which gave him a faintly surprised look. He was wearing a beige sports jacket, grey trousers with a check shirt and black tie. He looked like he had bought his clothes in an Oxfam shop. Even Steven believed that he looked better himself. Charlie seized and hugged Caterine, without even appearing to see Steven.
“Good to see you again, Caterine.”
“Charlie,” she disentangled herself. “This is Steven McCann, the Professor’s son.”
Charlie saw Steven for the first time. “Hi, Steven, good to meet you. Sorry about the circumstances, your father was a hell of a man.” He grasped Steven’s hand. Charlie’s hand was warm and the skin rough. Steven thought he detected Old Spice as the man’s after-shave. It reminded him of Arthur.
“Thanks, most people seemed to like him.” Steven still had difficulty in referring to his father in the past tense.
Charlie nodded. “That’s right, like, and respect him.” Charlie had apparently the same difficulty.
Caterine interrupted. “Charlie, can you be an angel and have these books returned to the library?”
“For you, my girl, anything.” He went to hug her again, but she nimbly avoided this manoeuvre.
“Charlie, we must go, before it gets too dark, and one of your Welsh dragons appears on the road.”
He agreed. cheerfully, “Yes, you must avoid those boyos.”
Steven decided that he did not like Charlie Ramsay. He was too big, too jovial, too Welsh and too bloody familiar with Caterine. At the back of Steven’s mind, a little thought suggested that he might be jealous. He tried to dismiss it, but it stayed there, smiling and wagging an admonishing finger at him.
It was several days before he happened on the journal again, days spent in a peaceful and comfortable atmosphere with Caterine, checking and rechecking the thousands of books, trying to achieve some order in the chaos, and trying to decide on what to keep and what to discard. They worked together for most of the morning and walked to one of the many pubs in Hay for lunch. They acquired the habit of walking for an hour after lunch, mostly by the river, talking endlessly, before returning to work. Their conversations, although easy, never ventured into personal territory.
Steven realised that he enjoyed her company and even quite liked the continual book checking. For perhaps the first time in a week he thought of his other life, that of a detective in London, and realised with a shock that that life seemed a distant and fast disappearing memory. As he had hoped, his powers of self-delusion were working well, and he had almost convinced himself that the dreadful night in London had been an accident. In a week or two he would believe that it had never happened at all.
It was the evening of the Saturday, one week after his arrival when he found the journal again and sat in front of the fire with a Scotch. Tigger was curled up in the armchair, so Steven sat in the settee. Caterine was busy on the computer. The front page was stuck to the flyleaf and he carefully prised it open.
The journal of Dr. John McCann
Being an account of the writer’s experiences in the Peninsula
And on special assignments on divers other matters.
“Caterine, Caterine, come here, quickly. Look at this. It’s Doctor John’s journal.”
She joined him and together they examined the faded and occasionally stained and unreadable pages.
“Where did the old man get this?” He looked up at her.
“I don’t know, but there was an old aunt or cousin or someone who died about six months ago and I suppose he may have got it from her. Can I read it?”
“Yes, there was someone, an old spinster, cousin, I think. I never met her. This is incredible. Go back to your computer, little French person, I am going to read it first. He was my great, great, great ancestor, after all.”
She gave him back the book, and made a face at him, which he returned.
He settled down on the settee, with his whiskey. Tigger rose sleepily, stretched once or twice, perfunctorily licked his fur, and joined the man on the settee. Steven reflected that all he needed was a pipe and slippers.
I was born on 5th June 1780 in Northampton, the first child to Henry John McCann, surgeon apothecary in that town, and my beloved mother, Harriet McCann, who was born in York and was the only daughter of Mr Samuel Marshall, magistrate in that place, and his wife Martha. My father had been born in Portadown in Ireland in 1742, so was 38 years of age at my birth. My mother was in her thirtieth year and had suffered several miscarriages before God in his wisdom granted my parents a son.
I had a happy childhood and was joined just before my fifth birthday by a brother, Richard Henry, who in later life was always known as Harry while I was always called John by my parents. We grew up in the warm bosom of a happy family, and it was with extreme trepidation that I set out in 1798 for medical school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, for I was determined to become a doctor and follow in my father’s footsteps. St Thomas’s was one of the great teaching hospitals of England, with a history going back to the Middle Ages, and my parents were delighted at my being accepted.
Steven looked up at Caterine, frowning at the computer screen. “This is great, Dr John’s life story, in his own words.”
She smiled at him. “OK, can I please let me read it after you, sir?” The ‘sir’ was added as a deliberate provocation.
“If you are good,” he promised.
I studied all my subjects most seriously, as my father, although a successful doctor, was not a rich man, and I was determined to spend his monies wisely. It was my intention to become the foremost surgeon in Britain.
Steven sipped his whiskey thoughtfully, and stroked Tigger, who raised his head and rubbed it against the man’s hand. The journal went on detailing John’s life in London, a life spent without a great deal of money. John had taken some cheap rooms not far from the hospital, on the south bank of the Thames. He told of occasional visits to the theatre, coffee in coffee shops, and walks in the parks, but mostly of lectures, and the apparent joy of watching someone, usually dead, being dissected. He wrote of a winter’s night in 1801, when he was wakened from sleep by the porter of the hospital.
I was aroused roughly from my sleep by a violent shaking of my shoulder. I looked up at the candle moving in front of my eyes but could not make out if it was held by a man or the Devil himself.
“What is it? Who wakes a man in the middle of the night?”
“‘Tis I, sir, John Baker.” Baker was the night porter at the hospital, and an old soldier.
“Baker, what is it, man?”
“A message for you, sir. The horseman was most insistent I wake you”
“Message, what message? What does it say?”
“I know not, Mr McCann, I never did learn to read.” He offered a folded piece of paper, and I opened it with trembling fingers. It was from my beloved mother. I took the candle from Baker and by its flickering light read the note.
“My dear son,
You must come quickly. My dear husband, your father, is grievous ill,
and I fear will soon be taken by God.”
I took horse, no easy matter securing a horse at three of the morning and rode to Northampton. I arrived about one hour before my dear father expired. I stayed with my mother for a week before travelling south once again with a heavy heart.
Steven sipped his whiskey. “I know the feeling, old boy” he thought.
Dr John finished his studies in 1804, and accepted a position in York, which was almost as far from Northampton in a northerly direction as London was in a southerly one. His journal told of the vicissitudes of a young doctor, especially one so recently out of medical school.
Caterine left the computer and stretched as she came over to the settee. “Interesting?”
“Fascinating. He expresses so many feelings and emotions. It is not what I expected from someone from the 18th Century. He also practised in York, where I was born.”
“Well, I am tired, and I am going to bed. What about you?”
Steven was not sure if this was an invitation or not but remembered the conversation they had had when walking around the house, and decided it was not. “I will read a little longer.”
She leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “D’accord. Don’t stay up too long.”
He was moved by the small kiss and the gesture of caring, and he squeezed her hand gently. “D’accord. Sleep well.”
He read on, Tigger slumbering beside him, twitching now and again as some strange cat dream agitated his brain. The journal continued, telling of Dr. John’s widowed mother’s difficulty in simply making ends meet, and trying to raise her other son. When Harry was 18, she had been able to put together enough money to purchase him a commission as an ensign in the first battalion of the 48th Regiment of Foot, the local county regiment. Life improved for all of them, but only marginally, and money matters continued to bother her.
Steven paused to pour himself another whiskey and realised that it was nearly midnight. The fire was dying down, and he was beginning to feel cold. He drank the fiery Scotch neat, as was his habit, and decided to go to bed. He cuddled Tigger’s ears and remembered the solicitor’s words. “He’s a very affectionate animal, you know.” Well, Roderick Phillips had been right about that. Tigger mewed a little and rolled onto his back, eyes closed, and paws in the air.
“You silly old moggie.” Steven scratched the soft hairs on the cat’s stomach and went to bed. Caterine’s door was slightly ajar and the light was still on. He considered knocking and asking if she was all right but decided against it.
He did not sleep well, his dream had returned, but this time the familiar nightmare had Dr John and his mother peering over his shoulder as he struggled with the burning car.
He struggled from underneath a heavy weight to surface in a nameless sea.
“Steven, are you all right?” Caterine’s voice was calmer now, as she recognised that he was leaving whatever hell he had recently been inhabiting.
“Yes, yes, I’m OK.” He shook his head and his eyes brought her face into his vision.
“You must have had a nightmare. You were screaming.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
She took his hand, the claw like left hand. “Would it help to tell me about it?”
He hesitated, but then told her the whole ghastly story, and of his recurring dreams, but not the attempt at suicide. He finished with, “I don’t know why it came tonight, I haven’t had it for nearly two weeks.”
“The whiskey, “she suggested gently.
He remembered afresh his earlier battle with whiskey and tablets but dismissed the thought from his mind. “No, not that. The journal, I think. It is strange to read your own flesh and blood from 200 years ago.”
“Will you get to sleep again? I can make some tea, if you like.”
“What time is it?”
“About three thirty, I think. I can stay with you for a while if that would help you.”
He shook his head and squeezed her hand. “No, I’ll be OK. Thanks anyway.”
Later, lying naked on top of the bed, as his sweat soaked body dried, he knew that he would have liked her to stay, and that, almost against his will, he was becoming fonder and fonder of C. Bertrand.
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