Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
The following day he carried on searching, but apart from once again getting dirty, he found nothing. Over dinner he suddenly said, “You know, I think I will give up the flat in London and move here. After all, I do own this dammed house, and there is no sense paying rent for somewhere I have never liked and don’t intend to live in again.”
Caterine had stopped eating, her fork poised. “What about your job?”
He was bitter. “My job? They don’t want me, and I sure as Christ don’t want them. It will take a year, maybe longer, to get this bloody business cleared up, and even if they acquit me, there will never be a future for me in the bloody Met. My cards will always be marked and I‘ll end up doing traffic on the North Circular Road. I am not going back. I am going to live here, with Tigger, and,” he added nervously, “with you, for as long as you want to stay.”
She looked down at her plate. “Thank you, I will think about it.”
They finished the meal in silence, an awkward silence, with Steven wishing fervently that he had never made the offer that he had just made. They cleared the table and began to do the dishes, Caterine washing, Steven drying.
“When are you planning to go to London?” She put the question diffidently, with her back to him as she busied herself at the sink.
“I don’t know.” He hesitated. “I suppose that I really haven’t thought it out fully.”
“What would you do up here? I mean, for a job?” She looked at him for the first time.
Thoughtfully he considered this, as he dried and dried again a dinner plate. “I’ve no idea,” he admitted. “Perhaps I could get a job in a bookshop, or maybe I will try to write Dad’s book, as you suggested. Anyway, financially I don’t really need to work, at least not for the present. I still get paid by the Police you know, and I suppose I’d get some kind of a pension when I leave.”
“Wouldn’t you miss the Police?”
“I think I stopped missing the Police some time ago. Caterine, once you get into trouble, you are finished. They don’t ever want you back, even if you are acquitted.”
“Steven, I am sorry about the Police. You know, I was only half-serious, about writing, I mean. Writing is like giving up smoking, you must really want to do it.” She laid her hand on his arm, and took the plate off him. “I’ll take that; you are rubbing the pattern off.”
Meekly he handed over the plate and stood there with the tea towel in his hands. “Caterine, the last two years have been very difficult for me. There was Maria’s death, then the arrest and suspension thing. After she died, all I had was my job and not being able to work was very difficult.” Then he stopped, realising that, even now, he was being less than honest with her, or with himself. He could find no way to speak about the suicide attempt. Perhaps some day in the future, perhaps. Or perhaps never.
“Anyway, then I come here and suddenly it seems, I have found a place where there is peace. It’s not just this house; it’s you, and even Tigger. I feel like I have rejoined the human race again. I can go to sleep without dreading waking up screaming at three in the morning. I think I am falling.”
She put her finger to his lips. “No, don’t say it. Wait. It is enough we are here together now, but it may not last. Nothing lasts. And it has been a long time since either of us made love. It is a little like getting drunk. Wait, we may both sober up in a day or two.”
He put the tea towel on the draining board and held her. “Whatever you say, madame.”
Caterine did not resist, and laid her head against his chest. “When you go to London, will you take me, please?”
He kissed the top of her head. “What about Tigger?”
“I am certain that one will be fine for a few days with Mrs Williams. He seems to have won her over.”
She was right. A couple of days later they put their request to Mrs Williams who, although surprised by their going off again so soon after their return from Waterloo, agreed without question to take care of the cat. They drove to London, sharing the driving duties, and knocked at Natasha’s door around five in the evening. She was pleased to see Steven, but a little distant towards Caterine. No, she reassured them, there had been no problems, and only two pieces of mail had been received since she had sent on the last lot.
“I owe you something for looking after the place, Natasha.”
She dismissed the very idea. “No, no, not at all, it was a pleasure.”
“Well, then, at least let me repay the postage.”
She shook her head vigorously. “Don’t even think about it, Steven.”
Steven grinned. “OK, I thought you might say that. Please accept this.” He handed over the wine originally intended for Tigger’s best friend.
“Oh” said Natasha, “Well, that’s different.” She insisted they have a glass of something with her, and it was over an hour before he turned the key in his own front door.
“I think she fancies you, that one,” Caterine remarked lightly.
He stopped, with the door key in the lock. “Who, Natasha? No, that’s silly.”
“OK, it just that women can tell these things.”
“Well, fancy me or not, it doesn’t matter. I, well you know who I fancy.”
“Tu es folle.” He then added “You’re nuts” in case she had not understood his French.
The small flat seemed even smaller than he had remembered, and more gloomy. It had a dead, unused feel to it. The cheap furniture and curtains seemed to Steven to glare at him accusingly. They appeared to be saying, “It’s not our bloody fault you know. You choose all of us.” He thought he could still detect the sickly sweet odour of whiskey and vomit, but knew this was only his imagination.
“When did you move here, Steven?” The question was put quietly and gently, as if she was afraid of intruding.
His eyes moved around the flat, and he answered without looking at her. “About three months after Maria died.”
“And the furniture?”
“I bought it at the same time. You can see that it wasn’t picked by a woman. I think I got most of it from MFI. I sold everything from the house, everything, and the house itself. I wanted to try to cut myself off from everything from the past.” He turned to look at her. “You know, it was an attempt to stop myself always being reminded of.” He hesitated. “I didn’t need to remember every day, by looking at the furniture or the curtains or the plates and saucers. I didn’t need the ghosts knocking into things everywhere I looked.”
“Did it work?”
“No, did it buggery! The bastards were still there, throwing the furniture around in my head.”
“Now? Now what?”
“Are the ghosts still there?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, it’s getting better, but, yes, they’re all still there. I know most of them by their first names.”
He ordered a pizza on the telephone, and found a bottle of red wine in his larder. Strangely, he felt as much at home dining with Caterine in this way, as in the better restaurants they had used in Waterloo. He decided that the common ingredient was what truly mattered, and that was Caterine. Despite their sharing a bed, despite their apparent closeness, he was still not sure. Part of him told him that this was his chance of happiness, after two years of hell. Another part of him said to be careful, if he got too close, the kick in the face would be even more painful.
The following day Caterine took herself off to the London shops while Steven made the arrangements to give up his rental on the flat. He did not even blink when the letting agents required three months notice. “How much?” he demanded, and wrote a cheque. All the services were asked to provide final accounts, and to disconnect the supplies at a given date. At Natasha’s suggestion he contacted the local Scout Group, who gladly accepted his offer to donate the furniture and contents for their jumble sale. He was weary but satisfied by the time Caterine returned carrying parcels.
She raised her eyebrows. “Finished?”
“Just about. The place will be off my hands in a week’s time.”
“You have done well.” She kissed him. “Back to Wales tomorrow?”
“No.” He spoke slowly. “I thought we might stay a couple more days. After all I have paid for the dammed place. I wondered if you would like to visit Apsley House?”
“What is at Apsley House?”
“It was Wellington’s home in London. It is now a museum and the present Duke still lives there. I thought that we might also go to Stratfield Saye as well.”
She raised her eyebrows again. “And what did the great duke do there?”
“He lived there a lot. That was his home in the country. It’s in Hampshire I think.”
She smiled. “D’accord.”
On the following day Steven had hoped to go to Apsley House in the morning and Stratfield Saye in the afternoon. He very quickly realised that this was simply not possible. In the first place they could not realistically use the car to go to London, and if they used public transport, there would not be enough time to get back to the flat for the second part of the plan. Accordingly, he settled for a full tour of the Duke’s London home, and in the afternoon they took a tourist’s eye stroll in the sun through the Parks before ending up in Chinatown for dinner.
It had been a good day for both of them. They had enjoyed what they were doing, and more importantly, enjoyed doing it together. He felt very close to Caterine, and with a shared bottle of wine to support his courage, he was tempted to tell her that he loved her. Then he remembered the last time he had ventured down that road, and bit his tongue. They rolled back to the flat on the Underground in a very contented frame of mind. They made love easily and slept curled up together.
He awoke screaming, once more his voice gagging in his throat. She held him in the darkness as he tried to apologise. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It was that dammed dream again. Oh, Christ, when is it going to leave me in peace?” Again he lied to her. The dream was about whiskey and tablets, double-decker buses and Kingston Hospital.
She simply wrapped her arms around him and made small soothing sounds until he slept once again.
They drove out into the country and visited the Duke’s country home, only to find it closed for restoration.
“Damm it,” he grunted in exasperation. “Damm it!”
She leaned over in the car and kissed his cheek. “As you say here in England, ‘c’est la vie’”
He smiled, Caterine, as usual, overcoming the darker side of his character. “OK, what next?”
“I’d like to go to Paris.”
“I think I would like to learn a little more about M’sieur Napoleon. To provide a, comment a dire, a balance to your M’sieur Wellington”
“OK,” he agreed. “Perhaps I might be able to see Jacques Hulin. When do we go?”
“What about Tigger?”
“Mrs Williams can keep him company for another couple of days, I think”
“Bien sŭr, madame. Je suis d’accord.”
They found their way to the Wellington Arms, quite close to the Duke’s old home, and had an excellent lunch.
“Have you ever been here before, Steven?”
“Yes, and Apsley House as well.”
“Yes, once to each of them I think, when we were kids, I came here with Mum and Dad.”
“I suppose that seems a long time ago?”
He nodded. “At last thirty years, and I’m the only one still alive. My steak is good, how’s your poisson?”
Caterine recognised the signs. “Good.”
A little more joint thinking over coffee on the matter of travelling to Paris proved that any plan to go to Paris necessitated using their passports, both of which were back in Wales.
Caterine repeated ‘c’est la vie’ again, and on the following day they drove back to Hay in a tropical downpour.
“Il ne pleut jamais en France” remarked Caterine, looking out of the window as Steven drove through a miniature Niagara Falls past a thundering juggernaut on the M40.
“Shut up” he replied grimly, leaving the blindness of his overtaking and pulling in front of the truck.
“The language of Shakespeare and all you can manage is ‘shut up’.”
“Shakespeare didn’t have to drive through this dammed rainstorm.”
“Do you want me to drive, darling?” It was said in her sweetest, most provocative French accent. He half expected her to say, as per Michelle the Resistance girl in ‘Allo ‘Allo, “I shall say this only once.”
“Caterine, ma petite, if you are not very careful, you will end up at the side of the road thumbing a lift.”
“It IS my car, darling.”
“Ah, yes, there is that aspect. Tell me where you’d like to drop me off.”
It was still raining when they got back to Hay, but had descended in intensity to a mere drizzle which clung low over the Welsh hills and reduced visibility to about one hundred yards. The sheep stood huddled, lambs sheltering under the wet coats of their mothers, staring in their imperturbable way at the passing traffic. Tigger sat outside his cat flap in the front door, and greeted them with much mewing and rubbing himself against their legs.
Steven bent and stroked the cat’s head. “Hi, Tigs. You OK?”
Caterine pushed her face affectionately towards the cat. “Steven, please go in and put the kettle on. I have some chocolates for Mrs Williams. I will be home in five minutes.”
He was, as always, pleased at her use of the word ‘home’, and he was also pleased to be there. He went in and heard the insistent sound of the answerphone. He also heard the insistent mewing of Tigger, and decided to feed him first, although he was certain that Mrs Williams had fed the little bugger already. Duty done, he went to the answerphone, and listened in half interest to two messages relating to his giving up the flat. The third was from Charlie Ramsay.
“Hi, Caterine, bonjour, it’s Charlie. Hope you are well. Can you call me, please, when you have a moment? Bye. Oh, regards to Steven.”
“Oh, cheers, mate,” said Steven sourly.
When Caterine returned he said, “Your boyfriend called, he’d like to call him back.”
She frowned. “My boyfriend? Who is my boyfriend?”
“Don’t be silly, darling. You are my boyfriend.” She kissed him and Steven felt better.
She phoned the following day, and spent a lot of time chuckling on the telephone, very much to Steven’s annoyance. “Charlie says he has found about another dozen books of your father’s. They had been loaned to students and so on, and have now been returned. Do you want to come with me and pick them up tomorrow? I have some things to do there anyway.”
“I think I had better, if only to keep an eye on you.”
“Don’t be so English, Steven.”
The little office that had been his father’s was now empty, even of the furniture, and Caterine had to borrow some chairs to wait for Charlie.
“We could have met him in his office,” grumbled Steven.
“Yes,” she agreed reasonably, “except that I didn’t know that they would have moved all the furniture out, and in any case, the last place you will find Charlie is in his office.”
“Do you think he will remember that we are here?”
“Well, I asked at the security office for someone to let him know. Will he remember we have an appointment? Oh, yes, eventually.”
As she had indicated, Charlie eventually bounced into the office and made for Caterine. She avoided him, like a fly half ducking under the challenge of a big forward. “Oh, Charlie, you remember Steven. Did I tell you that we were engaged?”
Both Charlie and Steven were struck dumb by this news, but the big Welshman recovered first. “My goodness, that was quick, and to a bloody Englishman too.” He kissed Caterine sedately on the cheek, and offered his hand to Steven. “Well done, boyo.”
He went outside the door again, and Steven thought that he might have had a fit of pique. He turned to Caterine who was smiling innocently at him with a look that suggested butter would not melt in her mouth. Before he could put the question on his lips, Charlie almost instantly entered again, backwards, pushing the door with his backside. He had about a dozen books in his arms which he dropped onto the third chair with a dusty smack.
“There we are, then. I think that’s the lot, unless the thieving little swine are holding something back.”
Steven and Caterine inspected the dusty little pile, but nothing of any significance took their eyes.
“That’s it, is it?” Steven could scarcely keep the disappointment out of his voice.
“Oh, no, I had almost forgotten.” He reached into the jacket of his sports jacket and brought out another book, which Caterine and Steven recognised at once. It was exactly the same type of book in which Dr John had written his journal. Caterine gave a little squeal and kissed him on the cheek.
Steven almost snatched the book out of Charlie’s hand. “Have you read this?”
“Oh yes, a good read it was too. The old doctor told a good story.”
“And did you read the first part?”
“Why yes, the professor asked me to read them both and tell him what I thought. As we all know the poor man passed on before I was able to give him the benefit of my views or even before I could give this one back to him.”
“Charlie, we have been looking everywhere for this.” Caterine spoke in mock reproach.
“Well, I am sorry, but you have it now.”
Steven wrung Ramsay’s hand and Caterine kissed him again. “Charlie, you’re a treasure.”
Charlie was very pleased with himself, even if he was not sure why. He touched his cheek. “I must try to find some more books to give back.”
After he had gone Steven turned to Caterine. “What’s this about our being engaged?”
“Sorry, darling. I just didn’t feel like being mauled by Charlie. If anyone is going to maul me, I’d like it to be you. I will phone him tomorrow and say he misunderstood me.”
“I’d rather you didn’t phone him at all. But you might like to let me know when we are next engaged.”
“Steven, are you jealous?”
“Yes,” he said, “bloody jealous.”
“That’s nice,” she said, and kissed him fiercely. “You don’t need to be, and you don’t need to sulk. Now, I am still employed by this university and I have some things to do. If I show you where the restaurant is, will you be happy to sit there for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and reading about Dr John?”
“Will it be OK if I drink tea instead?”
She pretended to hesitate. “Well, I suppose so.” She took his hand and hauled him to his feet. “Come on!” They marched for three or four minutes and she led him into a smart but plastic looking cafeteria. “All right, perhaps it isn’t a restaurant, but the tea is good. A toute a l’heure.”
He ordered a pot of tea and a couple of scones from a disinterested server and plopped into a chair near the door. He opened the book and recognised the familiar writing, though it looked a little more indecipherable than in Part One. The flyleaf simply said. ‘Part Two, 1816 to.” There was no closing date. He thumbed through the pages and noticed that the account ended about three-quarters of the way through the old journal. There also seemed to be a number of spaces at intervals. He began to read.
“I take up my pen again, to make a record of my life and of the great events which shape our noble country. This work is not undertaken with any sense of pride in my own part in these momentous happenings, but rather to inform my son in the years to come of the world into which he was born. My beloved Maria was safely delivered of a boy child in December 1815, and he was christened John Wellington McCann, in memory of both his father and of our great commander. I am delighted to report that the boy thrived from the start, taking instantly to the breast. By God’s good grace, my dear wife had an untroubled confinement and a short delivery, and now positively radiates good health, a justified reward for her years treading in the footsteps of God’s humble servant through the mud and rain of Portugal and Spain.
After the birth of our son, I secured a good position as an assistant to a family doctor in Guildford in the pleasant county of Surrey. It was a pleasant and not overly demanding position and allowed me sufficient time to pursue my ambition to become a physician, a matter on which I had made a beginning in 1814 on return from France. In God’s truth I was not the man who had left for the wars in Portugal and Spain in 1809. I was fast approaching my 36th year, but that was not my major handicap. My fellow surgeons had been unable to locate the French ball which had struck me in the right shoulder, as I fled from La Haye Sainte with my brave companions, and had, accordingly, left this souvenir of the Emperor to remind me of my days as a soldier. Apart from a regular stiffness in the joint, particularly when the low mists of winter shrouded our pleasant land, the wound gives little trouble and I am well able to discharge my duties to my growing lists of patients
A little frisson of fear shivered through Steven and he rubbed his raw left hand.
Were the truth to be told, my slight incapacity gives me a fame which my poor deeds do not justify, and many of my callers I swear see me to discuss Waterloo rather than their perceived ailments.
Life is quiet, and pleasant in the extreme in this fine old county town, but I must, on occasion, confess to feelings of boredom and an inability to turn my attentions to my studies. The aches and pains of the good citizens of Surrey are of little consequence to any but themselves, compared to the horrors we all experienced in the Peninsula, and in the butcher’s shop of Waterloo. It was for these reasons that I accepted a commission with the East India Company as Chief Medical Officer at Calcutta. The offer was dependent on my succeeding in the examination to the Royal College of Physicians, and I was delighted to achieve that honour with a pass of distinction. Subsequently, it was with considerable trepidation but also anticipation that my little family embarked for India. After a long, sometimes tedious, sometimes interesting voyage, we arrived at the port of Calcutta off Fort William and went ashore in a little cutter.
Steven noted the change in narration from the present to the past tense, suggesting that while John had started off writing contemporaneously, he had quite quickly gone into the past tense, suggesting the journal had been written at a later time.
My work was interesting, and necessitated my facing up to diseases and infections completely unknown in Europe. Sudden fevers came for no apparent reason and killed large swathes of the population, including the Europeans. I found that maintaining good hygiene and abstaining from an over indulgence in strong drink appeared to help at least the English remain in reasonable health. On 18th June of 1817 we were blessed with a brother for John and he was named Arthur Wellesley, again in tribute to the Duke, the date of his birth giving me no alternative, not that I sought one. My beloved Maria remained in good health.
The journal continued with details of the daily life of Europeans in India at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in particular their social activities and recreations. At the beginning of 1819, the McCann family had been in India for nearly two and a half years, and were happy. In the May of that year, an epidemic spread throughout Calcutta, and Dr John and his colleagues appeared to be helpless in the face of this overwhelming threat. Steven felt a growing unease within himself, swelling up in his throat, and tightening the muscles in his stomach. The sense of identifying with the past, and of being drawn into it, returned.
I was dropping with weariness and despair. It seemed that death was in total command of the situation, and there was nothing we could do to stem his dreadful advance. The scourge had lasted some three weeks when Maria complained of a painful throat, and excessive sweating. I did everything possible but she slipped out of my hands in three short days. My dear sweet Maria was dead, aged only thirty-two, and I, with all my supposed knowledge, had been unable to help her. My world had ended. My wife, who had depended on me, had died in my arms. This sweet, brave, strong and loving woman was gone and our two small sons would never know their mother.
The blackness of night closed over me and my reason for living had gone out with her light. I threw myself even more deeply into my work, hoping, God help me, to contract this vile infection myself, and in that way join my dear wife. It would not happen. The infection, which robbed me of my reason to live, would not give me the satisfaction of laying me low as well.
Steven sat back in the hard plastic chair, his hand to his mouth. “Oh my God. Sweet Jesus, this cannot be true.” But it was true, the evidence was there in front of him, in John’s own hand. His wife had died in his arms, and John had been powerless to prevent it happening. Steven’s wife had died more or less in his arms, and he had not been able to prevent that. The feeling returned of being somewhere between the nineteenth and twenty- first century, and the pull of the former times was becoming stronger. As so often in his agitation, his right hand rubbed against the scarred tissue of his left.
He was still sitting there staring into a world which he shared with no one when Caterine returned.
“Steven, what’s wrong? You look like you have seen a ghost.” Gently she pulled his hands apart.
Wordlessly he indicated the journal which lay open face down on the plastic table. She picked it up and read. She finished reading and replaced the book on the table. She took his hands in hers.
“Oh my God, Steven. You have seen a ghost.” She put her arms around him and held him.
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