Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
They drove back down the M 5, the little Peugeot burbling away happily. Caterine sat somewhat stiffly, driving in silence. Steven watched her intently.
“A penny for them.”
“I said ‘a penny for them’.” Steven repeated himself.
“Steven, sometimes you can be aggravating. A penny for what? Do to want to go to the toilet?”
He roared with laughter. “No, that is to spend a penny. I will give you a penny for your thoughts.” He began searching in his trousers pocket. “I haven’t got a penny. I will increase my offer to twenty pence.” He held up the coin between his thumb and index finger.
Caterine laughed. “Sometimes you can also be very silly.”
“And your thoughts?”
“Not worth a penny really. I don’t know what my thoughts are. I just feel, well, disturbed.”
He nodded. “I know what you mean.” But he didn’t. He wasn’t sure if she meant about Waterloo, or about each other. He decided not to ask; it may come out.
She turned her head a little. “And I will give you a Euro for yours.”
“My thoughts? I don’t think you would get value for your Euro. Well, I am like you at the moment, disturbed, deflated, unsettled.” Steven didn’t feel able to commit himself to a personal discussion in case he was again presuming too much.
She said, without turning around. “But there is something more, n’est pas?”
He was silent for several moments, so long so that she glanced around at him. “No answers?”
“No, it isn’t that.” He determined to play safe and discuss Waterloo. “It’s, it’s, I don’t know how to say this, but it felt like I had been there before. Not Ligny, not Brussels or Plancenoit, but at Waterloo and Quatre Bras and especially at La Haye Sainte. That must sound crazy, or like I have been drinking, but while I was there, I could swear I could hear the sounds of battle, the shouts of the men, the cannon fire, the cries of the wounded. I could almost smell the smoke.” He laughed nervously, feeling foolish, but continued. “It all came flooding in on me. It was strongest at La Haye Sainte. Dr John was leaning on my shoulder.” He paused and touched her arm. “Am I nuts, out of my tree, gone doolally?”
She looked at him and shrugged. He thought he detected a strange look in her eyes, one he had never seen before. It looked like scorn. “If you are asking me if you are crazy, well I think you are. All les Anglais are crazy.” She treated him to a dazzling smile to disarm him, and it worked. “Anyway, Steven, I do understand a little of what you are saying. I, too, felt that I had been there before. It was like walking with ghosts. As I told you, we call it ‘deja vu’ in French. Do you think everyone who goes there feels this way?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. It must be because we are both related to someone who fought in the battle, and in your case, someone who died there. And as I told you, we also call it ‘deja vu’ in English.” He as pleased that the conversation had not got onto their own relationship, as he had no clear idea what he felt about that. He had felt pretty sure of things in Waterloo, but now he wasn’t so certain.
They were both quiet for several miles. Steven broke the silence. “Have you read the journal?”
“No, only the bits we read together at Waterloo. Why?”
“It finishes at Waterloo. There is no more after John’s description of the fighting and the treatment of the wounded.”
She shrugged again. “Well, as you say, it all finished there, didn’t it? The war was over, and you packed Napoleon off to that dreadful rock in the middle of the Atlantic.”
He decided to ignore her comments about Napoleon; after all she was French, and they all seemed to have a different view of Mr Bonaparte to other people. “Well, for most people, yes, it all did finish with Waterloo, although the Allies chased the French Army all the way to Paris. However, John’s frontispiece to the journal mentions India, and, I quote, ‘divers’ other matters.”
“Are you sure? We need to check it again?”
He nodded. “Yes, I will when we get home.”
However, a number of events occurred which drove out of his mind the need to check the journal. They got back to the house around seven thirty and were very promptly met by Mrs Williams.
Steven grinned nervously. “Did Tigger behave himself?”
“Oh, yes, he was a perfect angel. No trouble at all.”
Steven looked down at the cat, sitting on his back legs on the kitchen floor. He needed to check they were both talking about the same animal. Steven could swear that the cat was smirking at him, but at the same time he was certain that it was, in fact, Tigger.
“That’s very good, Mrs W. We brought you a little present from Belgium.” He handed over the two bottles of wine. As the wines were from Bordeaux, his description as coming from Belgium was not totally accurate. He didn’t think that Mrs Williams would notice the difference. She didn’t.
“Oh, I am very sorry, Mr McCann, but neither David nor I drink.”
Before Steven could open his mouth long enough to reply, Caterine plunged her hand into her shoulder bag, and produced a large box of Belgian chocolates. “I thought that might be so, so I also got these. You do eat chocolates?”
“Oh, yes, we both love chocolates. Anytime you need a catsitter, just ask. Tigger is really a very affectionate animal.”
Both Caterine and Steven joined Mrs Williams in looking at the cat. This time Steven was certain that the little bugger was grinning from ear to ear.
After she had gone Steven put his arms around Caterine and hugged her. “That was brilliant. I didn’t know you had bought her chocolates.”
“I didn’t buy them for her, but for me.”
He kissed her on the nose, and then, on the mouth. She kissed him back, and for long seconds they stood in the kitchen just holding each other. Gently she freed herself.
“Come on. I will make some coffee and then we must unpack and fix some dinner.”
Later that evening, after they had eaten, she got up from her chair yawning. “I’m tired. It must be bedtime.” She held out her hand. “You coming?”
This time the meaning was clear, it was an invitation.
“No, I think I will read for a while.”
Her arm dropped to her side and again he saw the look on her face he had seen in the car. “Ghosts?”
He nodded. “Ghosts.” He was lying.
She turned and left the room.
He sat for a long time trying to analyse what was going on. Whatever way he looked at things, he didn’t come out of it very well. A beautiful attractive woman, with whom he thought he was in love, had invited him to share her bed and he had declined. He could argue with himself forever about possible criminal charges, about attempted suicides, about the ghost of Maria, but the plain simple truth was that he didn’t know if he was up to it, either emotionally or physically. It had been two years since he had been near a woman and twenty years since he had known any woman other that Maria. At the same time that look in Caterine’s eyes would haunt him forever.
The following days were difficult. Caterine was cool and stand-offish and he became scared to approach her. The moment had gone. Three days after their return from Belgium she announced that she was driving to Stanstead on the following day to visit her parents in Nice. She had never mentioned her parents before and he somehow got the idea that they were dead. Apparently not. She kissed him perfunctorily and took off in the car. She had not left an address or telephone number, so he settled down to work, going through his father’s notes. She didn’t phone and he became increasingly lonely. The cat shared his solitude and moped around the house and even a visit by Mrs Williams failed to restore his feline good humour. Steven could not understand much of what he found among his father’s documents and that he could understand made no sense. One particular handwritten note mentioned a Jacques Hulin at the Institut Napoleon in Paris. The note said simply ‘Suspect-de Montholon.’ ’What did it mean?
Often he would get up from his computer and books and walk to the window to stare at the traffic on the road going towards the town from the bridge. Would he ever see her again? Steven was not a religious man, but he felt a prayer would do no harm. “Please God, keep her safe and send her home.”
It was eleven in the evening and he was watching TV with Tigger on his lap when the cat suddenly looked into the distance, pricked up his ears and ran to the door and pushed through his cat flap. Steven got up heavily and walked to the window but there was nothing to see and no sign of the cat. He shrugged and sat down again. It was fully three minutes later when he heard a car pull into the drive and saw it was Caterine’s Peugeot. He opened the front door and she came in carrying a suitcase with Tiger running between her feet.
“This one, he met me outside the gate.” She nodded in the direction of the purring Tigger.
“Hi. How are your parents?”
“They are well, thank you. And you?”
“You had Tigger.”
“He’s lonely too. Can I get you some tea?”
She took off her coat and took the suitcase into he bedroom before joining him in the kitchen.
They both spoke at once.
“Caterine, I’m sorry, I am a dickhead. I was just afraid, it’s been such a long time. I have so missed you. I never want to be parted from you again.”
“Steven, I was stupid, I was angry and stupid. I cannot appreciate how much you must still suffer from Maria’s death.”
Suddenly they were in each other’s arms, laughing and crying at the same time. He started to say something.
She put her fingers to his lips. “Shush.”
She took his hand, “Let’s go to bed.”
“What about your tea.”
“Forget the tea.” She led the way to the bedroom and they made love for the first time, gently and easily. There was tenderness but not overwhelming passion in their lovemaking. Both were too fragile for that.
He awoke, lying on his right side, having slept dreamlessly for seven hours. The alarm clock on the bedside table read seven minutes past seven. He lay without moving, trying to remember whether he was still at Waterloo. There was a tiny noise behind him, like some small animal. He turned gently, remembering with a rush the previous evening and early part of the night. Caterine lay on her back, her left arm flung across the bed, her right folded across her stomach. Her small breasts peered over the duvet like the noses of a pair of puppies. A small sprinkle of freckles chased each other across her chest from her left shoulder to just below her right breast.
Steven remained still, just looking at her. On the other side of the room the early sun shafted through a crack in the curtains, catching the little mites of dust, sparkling in the light. God, she was beautiful. He had known that before, but now, well now it hit him between the eyes. He had not made love to anyone since Maria’s death, and had been awkward and clumsy. She had helped. God, Maria, why did I have to think of her? He did not want to move, as he wished for this moment, which would never come again, to last as long as possible.
Eventually the pressure of nature on his bladder required him to get out of bed to relieve himself. He padded barefoot across the floor to the bathroom and returned on tiptoe, slipping back into bed as quietly as possible.
“Bonjour.” It was said softly, almost inaudibly.
“Hi. Good morning.” He leaned over and brushed her mouth with his lips. “Are you all right? No regrets?”
She shook her head a little. “Steven don’t be foolish. I have been waiting for you for weeks.”
They kissed again and made love once more, afterwards falling into a deep sleep, which was broken by Tigger sitting on Steven’s chest and mewing.
“What do you want, hairy legs?” Steven growled as the cat stared into his face.
Beside him Catherine snuggled closer. “He wants his breakfast.”
“OK. I will make his breakfast, and yours, but only on one condition.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “What is your condition, M’sieur.” It was said in her best ‘Allo, ‘Allo, voice.
“That you stay right there until I get back.”
“All right, but I have one condition, too.”
“That you put some clothes on, just in case the postman calls.”
After breakfast, he checked Dr John’s journal, which had remained untouched for over a week. He had not been mistaken. There was mention of India, and of ‘assignments on divers other matters’. He held the book out to her. “There you go, it’s all there. There is something missing. It doesn’t look like any pages have been torn out, so there must be another volume, at least.”
Caterine agreed. Steven spent the afternoon searching the house and turning over hundreds of books. Caterine curled up in the settee with Tigger and read the journal at one sitting. They came together for coffee, made by Steven. His hands and shirt were dirty and smeared with dust from the books.
“Steven, you’re, you’re tres sale.”
He growled in bad humour. “Great, what is that exactly?”
“You are dirty. Go and wash your hands, at least. Presumably you did not find anything?”
“Only dust and spiders and half the insects in the Welsh border region. By the way, does the name Jacques Hulin mean anything to you?”
“No, obviously French. Who is he, or was he?”
“I think he may still be around. I found his name on a piece of paper. He’s at the Institut Napoleon.”
“The Institut studies all things about Napoleon. He is probably a friend or colleague of the Professor. He had many contacts there.”
“The paper also mentioned de Montholon.”
“Ah yes, read on M’sieur. You will read a lot about that one.”
They went to bed together again that night, and this time it seemed to Steven that they had been doing this for half a lifetime.
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