Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
He awoke late the following morning and examined his face in the mirror. He did not like this face. His beard stubble did not help, and underneath his eyes was dark and puffy, but it was a tired strained face staring back at him. When he went downstairs Caterine was busy rearranging all the furniture in the lounge.
“What are you doing?”
“I thought it would look better this way. What do you think?”
“I think I would have been happier if you asked me about it.”
She stood quite still. “I have just asked you.”
“Ask me first next time.” He turned and went into the kitchen.
Caterine was not in the lounge when he finished his tea and toast, but he noticed that all the furniture had been moved back to where it had been before. “Shit, Steven you are a fucking idiot,” he said to himself. He found her in the garden with the car open. He noticed a pair of suitcases in the boot.
“What are you doing?”
“I am going to Aberystwyth.”
“With your suitcases?”
“Yes, I do need clothes you know, or perhaps you have never noticed that I am woman and wear clothes.”
“Caterine, I’m sorry. Please,” but she interrupted him.
“Non, je doit aller.” She realised she was speaking in French and carried on in English. “No, I must go away and you, you, Steven, you need time to yourself to think about your father and his death.”
“Caterine, I” and again she stopped him, this time holding up her hand like an old-fashioned traffic policeman.
“I am going. I have left my Aberystwyth number on the table.” And she was gone, the Peugeot’s engine roaring away in the wrong gear as the car threw up stones in the driveway.
He watched the car drive away up the hill. He shook his head sadly and his fists tightened. “You prat,” he snarled at himself.
Sadly, he went back into the house. On a piece of paper on the dining room table was her phone number and a short message in the same precise handwriting he remembered from that first Monday evening.
‘Steven, if you need help with your father’s things, phone me.’
At least the door was not completely closed. He went to her bedroom and saw the carefully made bed, and the absence of any make up on the dressing table. However, the painting of La Rochelle was still there and there were some clothes hanging in the wardrobe. Perhaps the door was not completely closed after all. Perhaps he wasn’t sure that he wanted to try to open it.
Steven tried for three days. He did not phone Caterine and she did not phone him. As the days passed, he realised that he had made a huge mistake, perhaps the stupidest mistake of his life. It was not only the seemingly impossible task of sorting out the books, articles and magazines in some coherent order; it was also his almost total lack of expertise in dealing with the computer. Tigger felt Caterine’s absence, and spent hours sitting on the windowsill looking out of the window, or hanging about by the front door, mewing sadly and watching the driveway. He ignored Steven, except when the man tried to stroke him, when a swiftly delivered blow from the cat’s claws indicated that such attentions were not welcome.
“Yes, yes, I know, and you are right. I am to blame, but I can’t let a bloody woman rule my life.” If cats could speak, this one would have said “Why not, you dickhead?” And the cat would have been right.
The crunch came on the fourth morning when he answered a knock on the door. A tall man, wearing a blue sweater, black jeans, a cap and a brown jacket stood there. Steven noticed that he also wore Wellington boots. “Yes?”
“Mr McCann, John Riley.” He held out his hand which Steven took reluctantly.
“What can I do for you, Mr Riley?”
“Call me John, please.”
“What can I do for you, Mr Riley?” Steven did not like the look of John Riley and was certain that he would not be the bearer of good news.
Riley coughed a couple of time to clear his throat. “I was sorry to hear about your father, sir, I wanted to offer my condolences.”
“Thank you, and?”
“And, I thought you might like me to give you a price to take all the books off your hands.”
“I bid you good day, Mr Riley,” and Steven closed the door. He was in trouble now and knew he was not in any way capable of dealing with the various matters relative to his father’s possessions. He did not know what was valuable, and what was not, not only in financial terms, but more importantly in respect to research. He made a coffee and sat down to think. He needed her help to deal with all of this, but most of all, he missed her. He missed her warmth, her serious little expression, the way her hair curled about her ears, but most of all her presence.
“What do you think, Tigger.” He was sure the cat scowled at him.
“All right, I get the message.”
He phoned the flat number and got the answerphone. “Caterine, it’s Steven. I am getting into an awful muddle with all this stuff. I’ve had a guy come around offering to buy all the books, and I don’t know what to do. I really need your help. I don’t want to damage Dad’s research.” That’s blackmail he told himself.
He thought for some seconds before continuing. “Not only that, Tigger is missing you. He’s off his food and I can’t get him to eat.” More blackmail. “Besides, I miss you too. A lot. Will you please think about coming back? And I am very sorry about what happened.”
It was two days before she replied, two days, which were agony for Steven. He was beset by guilt, and caught between his desire to phone again, and his pride which told him not to.
“Steven, I will be back in a day or two, but only because I do not want poor Tigger to starve or be unhappy.” It was a short message left on his answerphone, but it gave him an immense lift. He remained in an agony of uncertainty until she arrived one afternoon. He noticed with delight that both suitcases were in the car. She made a great fuss of Tigger who was beside himself with joy, before she turned to him.
“Hello, Steven. You look thinner. Are you well?”
“I am now.” He gave her a chaste hug and a kiss on either cheek. He realised that she had won and won easily and handsomely.
And gradually things returned almost to where they had been before she left. During her absence he had not been able to concentrate on anything very much and had not even glanced at John’s journal. Steven was beginning to realise that the void in his life was gradually being filled, by this house, his father’s book and by Caterine. But most of all by Caterine.
He was unable to return to the less threatening world of 1804 for a few days, as Caterine sat him down in front of the computer, put his hand on the mouse, and said, “Alors, m’sieur, c’est l’heure. This is what your father was writing about, the death of Napoleon. See what you think.”
She had a steely look in her eye, as if she expected an argument. Instead, he simply said, “Oui, madame.” He did not want to upset the tiny rekindling of their old relationship.
The more he read, the more involved he became. His father sketched the outline of the Emperor’s career, placing more emphasis on his reported state of health than his undoubted military prowess. He followed him into exile in Elba, and from the Gulf of Lyons to his crushing defeat at Waterloo, to the final despairing hours on Isle d’Aix. He walked the deck of the HMS Northumberland with Napoleon, wondering about the despairing, suicidal thoughts with which the man must have tortured himself.
Caterine put her hands over his eyes. “I thought you didn’t know how to operate a computer?”
“It’s easy,” he boasted, leaving her hands where they were. Her perfume lingered behind him, filling his head with her scent. He made a mental note to find out what it was.
She took her hands away and he swivelled in his chair to face her.
“Where have you reached?” she demanded.
“Mid Atlantic, heading for St Helena.”
“And tell me, sir, does the sea air give you an appetite?”
He sniffed, as if seeking a cooking smell. “Yes, it does. Shall we make a sandwich, or take a walk?”
“Take a walk?” It was a mixture of question and statement; her head set slightly to one side; the dark eyes expectant.
He got up. “OK, madame, let’s go. Do I need a sweater?”
“No,” she scolded. “It’s lovely outside.”
They left the house and walked up the hill with the bridge behind them. The rain had cleared, but its passing lay reflected in small shimmers of water on the ground. Despite her assurances, the wind still contained the parting chill of winter, and he shivered a little, or perhaps her closeness produced that effect.
“Black Bull?” he suggested.
She nodded, the sun reflecting on her hair. “D’accord. Let’s go and give Holly something to gossip about.”
“There isn’t anything to gossip about, is there, for Holly or anyone else?”
“No, but a single woman and an unmarried man living in the same house will always make some people talk. Friend Holly looks like one who enjoys a good gossip.”
“You mean like you and Dad living in the same house?” He ignored her comment about Holly.
“Well perhaps, but this was different.”
“Because you are much younger than your father.”
“Most sons are younger than their fathers,” he remarked dryly.
“Tres droll, m’sieur. I can see why they made you a detective,” she responded even more dryly.
“Does it bother you, Caterine?”
“You being a detective?”
“You know what I meant.”
“Non, pas de tout. You?”
“Bugger all of them, I don’t give a monkeys.”
“You don’t give a monkey’s what?”
He laughed. “I don’t give a monkey’s toss.”
“Does that mean you don’t care?”
Steven realised that he and Caterine had been plying grown up adult games, neither going too far in case of a rebuff. He thought he liked it.
They walked up through the village, noting the tourists, and tourist coaches, invading the small market town, and crowding the bookshops. Although it was not the most direct route, they went past the ruin of the thirteenth century castle, brooding sullenly from its high perch, and casting a huge shadow in the square.
“We are taking the route touristique, oui?”
“You are very perceptive yourself today.”
She made a face and slapped him on the arm. He could almost believe that they were back where they had been before she had left.
Holly greeted them as long-lost friends, and they lunched pleasurably and in a leisurely fashion amid the chatter and smells of the pub. Steven decided that he liked his new life as he rolled the claret around his mouth and watched Caterine talking in an animated way to Holly, her hands moving in quick expressive gestures. While the two women talked, he turned over in his mind, or tried to do so, his own thoughts. His brother’s death had hit him hard, his mother’s harder still, and Maria’s hardest of all. It was his wife dying that made him throw himself so forcibly into his job, but these very actions had made him empty and bitter and had eventually led him to the botched suicide attempt. His purpose in life, his ‘raison d’etre’ as Caterine might put it, had disappeared and he was struggling to find a new one. Maybe, just maybe he could now see a signpost.
Caterine. As he looked at her talking to Holly, he realised that she might be becoming that ‘raison d’etre’. He still could not fathom out her motives, surely no one could be as gentle, warm and accommodating as she was. She must have an agenda. If she had he decided that he didn’t care. Life with her was better than life without her, so he wouldn’t enquire too closely after her motives.
“Do you have to go back to London?” she enquired as they walked back to the house in the weak early spring sunshine. The question was put nonchalantly, as if she was asking if he thought it would rain.
“No, I’m not on bail or anything. But these things can go on for years, and this probably will with my dear friend banged up in the Scrubs.” He took her hand as they crossed the road and she didn’t object. It felt smooth and cool against the scarred flesh of his own. “In any case, I’m finished in the Met. They won’t want me back, guilty or not guilty. They’d have me doing traffic in Stoke Newington High Street for the rest of my time.” He released her hand, reluctantly, as he could conjure up no good reason to keep hold of it. “And what about you? Are you due to return to France soon?”
“No, there is nothing for me in France. I will decide what to do when the University stops paying me.”
“So, we seem to be stuck with each other for a while yet?” His remark was off hand and he didn’t look at her.
She looked at him. “Yes, that’s how it seems. Is that all right with you?”
“Well,” he made a face and pretended he was turning the question over in his mind. “Well, yes, I suppose it’s OK by me.”
Caterine turned again to look at him, and in that instant their eyes met, and for several long seconds, locked. In the same instant Steven knew that he was falling in love with this woman, and he fancied something similar was happening to Caterine. At least, he hoped so, or thought that he hoped so.
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