Chapter 11: Wednesday Afternoon and Evening - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
Conscientiously trying not to look overtly curious, Caitlin surveyed the gathering. They were subdued, as she had expected, but she had taken advantage of the CID’s indifference to spread a version of events majoring on unfortunate adulteration of herbal remedies, which had allowed the guests to replace their earlier panic with a superior assumption that it had clearly been an accident waiting to happen. Cathy’s personality, undoubtedly, had contributed to their collected approach to the events of the day. By mid-afternoon, Áine’s birthday party was proceeding with decorous merriment, helped along by healthy doses of sherry and Madeira to complement the tea.
Lucy - she caught her eye across the tea-table - had, it was true, been quick to point out that she had warned Cathy publicly about the dangers of dosing herself with home-gathered remedies. As indeed she had.
Caitlin paused. Instinct - natural prejudice - might favour casting Lucy as First Poisoner, but what on earth could be her motive? Cathy had irritated her, it was true, but no more than she had irritated anyone else, and after all in four more days she would have been free of her forever. Would a deeply logical ex-mathematics teacher with strong moral principles risk so much, simply to save herself four days inconvenience?
Put that way, it did seem unlikely. However - a thought suddenly struck her. Lucy, after all, was a teacher.
What more likely than that she had decided to teach Cathy a lesson about the dangers of home-grown remedies, and had adulterated her tisane with caladium to send a salutary message, without any intent to do worse than frighten her? When the results were more severe than expected, naturally she would have been too frightened to reveal the substitution. Second Poisoner, in that scenario, was a much more plausible role. Caitlin looked again at Lucy, who was in the act of consuming a scone with jam, clotted cream, and an attitude of indefinable but nevertheless irritating superiority; and mentally shrugged.
How would I ever tell?
Suppose we consider Alan, instead.
She paused again. Alan’s hurried and intense warning to her, discreetly out of sight of the rest of the delegates, his insistence that she should not take the risk of searching Cathy’s room alone (accompanied by, she recollected, an equally intense disclaimer that he was suited to accompany her) had come as a genuine surprise. And there was, as she had suspected, some sort of discreditable secret in Alan’s past; she had heard rumours of anonymous letters circulating about it. Could his warning indicate guilt? Maybe he knew that there would be something there to find. Cathy, too, had been in academia, before she had concluded that intellectual fulfilment was of less interest than solid cash, and become something-unspecified-in-IT. Academia was a very small world. If Cathy, for example, had known his secret and been blackmailing him he might easily have chosen to eliminate her, and exploited her well-known interest in natural remedies to do so.
She shook her head impatiently. Why, in such a case, go out of his way to give a warning which must incriminate him? Surely, if he were the poisoner, it would be all to his good for her to have messed up any potential evidence against him? Probably he’d just learned caution when dealing with students in halls of residence for possession offences, and was passing on the benefit of experience. Or - her brow cleared - more simply, he presumably taught courses on creative writing in genres other than fantasy. Very likely, courses on mystery writing. She briefly speculated on what kind of faction fights those would produce. Did the supporters of blunt instruments gang up on those who preferred psychological warfare or obscure oriental poisons? Or would it be the writers of police procedurals who despised the purveyors of classic whodunits for their cosy inaccuracies?
Anyway, if he’d taught at all in that field, it could hardly fail to strike someone accustomed to seeing literary patterns and structures that what they had here conformed to almost all the Golden Age village mystery conventions. After which, it would be second nature for Alan to slip into character, and assume foul play on the scantiest of evidence.
She looked across the room. Alan was talking to Julian, who, it appeared, was unburdening himself at some length about the high-handed, aggressive and neurotically confrontational way Jacqueline had taken charge of the situation, and Alan, rather obviously to anyone except Julian, was looking for a means of escape. Caitlin allowed a small sigh to escape her. If you divided the world into those you assumed were capable of pushing people off cliffs, and those likely to form their victims, Julian was indubitably a pushee. And, she recollected, Cathy had shared a writing sub-group with him. Had it been only the caladium, she might have suspected her of deliberately making herself ill to avoid any need for further proximity with the man.
A sort of “Beam me up, Scotty” with a side order of self-harm.
Caitlin shook her head. Nevertheless, enough of Julian’s tirade had stuck in her head for her to contemplate another possibility.
For after all, there had been Crippen. And Buck Ruxton: shivery memories of childhood holidays in the Lakes, comfort stops en route in Lancaster and having the Very Square where It Happened pointed out to her.
Bloodstains in the bathroom, blood on the knife / Oh Doctor Buck Ruxton, you murdered your wife -
To say nothing, of course, of that other doctor from Lancashire. Only last year, that had been.
She bit her lip, hating herself. Undeterred, thoughts descended unstoppably.
According to Richard, no-one ever actually takes the Hippocratic oath. And she’d certainly have known exactly how all the drugs inter-acted. And she has every excuse not to be - quite stable.
Münchausen-by-proxy, they call it, don’t they? And Jacqueline - from all accounts - showed up most - impressively - today. It must have been a major boost to her ego, given how they’ve all been despising her, and whispering behind her back.
It’s only in detective stories that the obvious suspect is always innocent.
A hand caught her forearm. “Sorry to disturb you, you looked miles away. But they want you to cut the cake.”
She blinked. Ken smiled down at her. She blinked again, unbelievingly.
And if I were thinking along those lines, I’d have to say that a complete personality transplant overnight is a damn suspicious circumstance, too. I mean, he’s been so nice. To everyone. All day. It’s almost as if he was a completely different person.
Not, of course, that it’s the sort of evidence I could expect CID to take on board. On today’s showing.
Maybe he’s just enjoying the fact that he now doesn’t have to compete to be the biggest shit on the course.
She smiled in return. “Of course. Lead me to it.”
The rest of the party had gathered around the table and its remarkable centerpiece.
“No offence meant to the kitchen, Mrs Naismith,” Kivren breathed anxiously, “And my own grandmother couldn’t have bettered the scones. But we wanted to do something a bit personal, too. As a surprise. And we couldn’t actually bake a cake for Áine, of course, but we did the next best thing.”
Nicci leaned over excitedly. ” We got it from the village shop. And decorated it ourselves. I did the lettering.”
She had to admit, imaginative deployment of the hectically-coloured icing tubes stocked by Mrs Waley, combined with the flaring gold and silver candles, had produced an intriguingly psychedelic effect that swirled across the butter-cream sponge.
And I’ve seen worse spelling.
At least once. Probably. Almost certainly, in fact. Come to think of it.
“You know,” Nicci added, “The woman in the shop, she said the cakes were sold in aid of the WI. I mean, I knew about the nude calendar, of course. But I never realised the WI did cakes, too.”
Caitlin blinked, slowly. There had been times over this fortnight - and this was not the least impressive of them - when she had wondered whether anyone could genuinely be as unaware of her surroundings as Nicci purported to be. Today the possibility hit her with a new and sinister undercurrent.
Of course, if one followed tradition and searched out the least likely suspect -
Ken’s hearty guffaw dislocated her thought-processes.
“Nicci, sometimes you are inimitable. Simply inimitable!”
Grinning manically, he repeated the phrase a couple of times, as though it meant something special to him. Nicci looked up at him in deep, almost suspicious, surprise.
I suppose she can’t believe he doesn’t sound hostile, for once, poor kid. And I can’t say I blame her. What is he on?
Ceremoniously, he bowed to her and handed her a large knife.
“Now, Áine - blow out the candles, and make a wish. And then, Mrs N, cut it up for everyone. And make sure my bit’s a large one. It looks absolutely scrumptious.”
Áine cocked a disconcerted eye in Ken’s direction. Caitlin thought it looked as though she, too, were looking for his concealed hip-flask.
Or acid tabs, for that matter.
Notwithstanding, Áine blew heartily. The candles - Caitlin was abruptly reminded of Sunday evening - guttered, flared sideways, and finally died in a nostril-filling odour of hot wax. There was a ragged outburst of singing. As it drew to a conclusion she raised the knife.
To the sounds of clapping she cut the cake. True to his word, Ken was first to dive in and seize the most substantial piece. She carefully watched to see that the guests were all dutifully tucking in before - politely, and in a most hostess-like way - she raised the smallest slice that had remained on the cake- to her lips.
“Very many happy returns!” She said in Áine’s direction, and bit through the lurid frosting.
She had been circulating among the guests chatting for some time when the first intimations of discomfort became apparent. She blinked. The claws beneath her midriff fastened on harder, and began to rip. Her lips parted in a silent, involuntary, scream. Kivren, to whom she had been talking about the Edinburgh Fringe, looked up in alarm.
“Mrs Naismith? Are you all right?”
She nodded. The swirling clouds of agony were beginning to deepen. She could hardly have much time.
“Heartburn. Cake too rich, I think,” she jerked out through gritted teeth. Kivren looked barely convinced. With a supreme effort, Caitlin smiled at her. “Got some stuff in my room. Be right back.”
On her way towards the door she could feel the waves of pain building, and the darkness pressing in on the edge of her vision. She only barely made it out of the room on her own feet. As she passed into the hall she heard an exclamation from the direction of the door to the kitchens.
She caught, gratefully, at Elise’s arm. The German girl, who had been about to go in to serve the guests with another tray of cakes, deposited the tray carefully on a walnut bureau, and put her arm around Caitlin’s shoulders.
“Not well,” she muttered, anxious to get the words out, conscious she was losing precious seconds trying to explain. “My room. Now.”
Once on the sofa in her own sitting room she stretched out a little. The relief was only marginal. She gulped.
“Shall I be calling Herr Doktor Howard?”
“Yes, please, Elise. At once. No -“
She paused. This was important, and she summoned all her strength before speaking. When she did so, she gabbled it out, afraid of fainting before conveying it all. “Do one thing first. Important. Call the Manor. Whoever answers, tell them please; get someone here at once. Fastest means possible. Got that? Then, go and calm the guests. Tell them I’m lying down for a bit. Hope to be back with them shortly. Call Richard after that.”
She faintly heard Elise begin to demur, and she shook her head decisively. “No Elise. That way round. Please.”
Dimly, through the gathering clouds of pain, she was conscious of Elise tapping at the phone key-pad, of the muffled, accented sounds. She dropped back her head. It was all turning into someone else’s story. There was only the pain to connect her with the world at all, and somehow, intense as it was, even that was becoming somehow detached from reality.
She heard the click as the sitting room door closed. She permitted herself a deep shuddering breath.
Is this death, then? And, if so, couldn’t it hurry up a bit? Oy, mate, some of us are in agony round here.
Caitlin closed her eyes, and allowed herself to sink into the pain rather than fighting it.
Notwithstanding that, she was abruptly conscious of a rush of air into the sitting room, and a faint “pop” like the opening of a champagne cork. Her thoughts swirled with inappropriate hilarity.
Fastest means possible. As requested. How - odd.
From some remote place on the boundaries of time and space she found her hand being gripped tightly, and heard a high, panicky voice say,
“Caitlin? Wake up, Caitlin! What’s the hell did you let the fuckers give you, you bloody Muggle imbecile? Oh shit! Now listen to me, Caitlin, because I mean this. Don’t bloody well die on me now, for fuck’s sake, or I’ll fucking kill you. Got that?”
Speaking was an almost insurmountable effort.
“Hi, Draco. Glad - you could get here -” she murmured, and then abruptly gave up the struggle, letting herself spiral downhill into nothingness as the blackness closed above her head.
The black clouds slowly cleared from Caitlin’s vision, and she found herself stretched on the sofa in her sitting room. The agony in the region of her stomach showed little sign of easing, though. She raised her head very slightly; the effort was like raising a tonne weight.
“Oh,” a faint familiar voice rasped from somewhere behind her left ear. “It’s working then.”
She made the supreme effort, and pushed herself up a little further. Draco was slumped on the floor, his head resting against the sofa arm. It was ecru cotton, and its off-whiteness contrasted horribly with the chalk-like pallor of his skin. He grimaced.
“Don’t exert yourself. Please.”
She let her head flop down again, and was conscious of the faintest possible exhalation of relief from behind her, almost a whimper.
She formed what she needed to say as a whole, in her head, before uttering it. Even so, she had to get the words out in bunches of three or so at a time, with pauses for breath in between.
“What’s happening ? - And what’s up with you? You look - awful -“
The faint, breathless tones seemed almost amused. “Pot, meet kettle. I’ve seen healthier looking corpses. But at least you’re conscious.”
He stopped, abruptly, like a clockwork model running down. She could hear his breathing; fast, and shallow. Disturbingly, she felt her own breathing pattern match it. Panic gripped her.
“Draco - what the hell?”
He coughed before answering. She felt the tightness in her own lungs.
“Old habits dying badly. Death Eater trick. Assume - on the battlefield - you’re the one left standing. With you: badly injured enemy; also, badly injured member of your side. The latter someone who - politically - you can’t just abandon. You - draw on the surviving enemy’s life force to - top up your colleague enough to get them home for treatment.”
Her eyes flickered round the room. She knew the answer before she spoke, but asked the question anyway.
“So - where’s the critically wounded enemy in this scenario, then?”
There was a pause. Then, a heartbreaking attempt at a nonchalant drawl.
“Fuck! Knew I’d forgotten something.”
Caitlin steadied herself. No-one could ever have accused her of being a woman who lacked courage, but for a moment her nostrils caught the smell of fragrant wood smoke from the hearth, and the whiff of beeswax polish from the panelling, and they were inexpressibly precious. Too precious to renounce. Lightly, or at all. And the bright eyes of the boys in the photographs on her desks signalled her the same message.
She set her teeth and ignored them all.
“Draco, too risky. Stop it. Now.”
The response was immediate.
“And you? If you don’t?”
“Don’t fret. Death Eaters usually reckoned - at least an extra 40 minutes or so. With the wounded. I’m perfectly healthy. Can hang on indefinitely.”
There was an imitation of the old airiness in the breathy tones, and, by some supreme effort of will, he had achieved an upright sitting posture, so he was looking her in the face, his head on one side, the shadow of a cocky, infuriating grin on his lips. Still, in the tension that clawed her hands, and, still more, in her suddenly accelerated heartbeat, she could read the truth underlying the comforting words.
The ghost of a grin deepened a little. “Bugger! Sounded - so convincing.”
“Pity you didn’t feel that way,” she snapped, and then winced as the sudden energy of her little outburst woke the sleeping demon below her ribcage, and the agony increased again.
When she could open her eyes again there was a glass of water by her hand, but Draco was lying stretched on the carpet, his eyes closed. She was finding it harder to breathe than she had. She sipped at the water, trying to exert herself as little as possible as she swallowed.
A few seconds later there was the sound of a key in the lock, and a high pitched carefully accented voice saying,
“She will be in here, Herr Doktor Howard. She was collapsing half an hour ago - I think it will be the ulcers - my father, also he suffers from the ulcers - No, not alone, the young man her friend who was making me find you will be with her -“
There was a gasp of surprise from the doorway. She guessed that Richard must have spotted Draco on the carpet. She waved her hand, frantically, at him. He turned, shielding the scene from whoever was behind him.
“Well, I think I can take it on from here. Elise, you’ve done a splendid job. Thank you. I don’t suppose you could pop down to the kitchen and ask them to boil me a large pan of water, could you? No, better make that two pans. Biggest they’ve got. Oh, and see if you can find me a pressure cooker and get it absolutely spotless, OK? Thanks.”
The door opened fully. She heard a warm Lancastrian voice behind Richard say, “Draco? I trust that was “made” as in “forcibly persuaded” rather than in the Claridges sense? Draco? Draco? Oh, shit.”
Caitlin found that her voice could barely rise above a whisper. “Get in, for god’s sake, both of you. And shut the door.”
They obeyed. She forced her lips into a parody of a smile. “I thought - boiling water was for babies. Bit past that stage, me, Richard.”
He knelt by the sofa, a grim echo of her own smile on his lips. “It’s for getting superfluous energies away from where they might do any harm. Also - I’m sorry to say this, Caitlin - but the village is totally cut off. The Salisbury road is thoroughly blocked, and there’s what feels like the tail end of a hurricane whipping through the county. If they tried to scramble a helicopter it couldn’t land. If I do need to do anything - interventionist - I’ll need to do it here. And then the hot water will come into its own.”
He withdrew, slightly, evidently to survey the wider picture. Neville was kneeling on the carpet next to Draco, supporting Draco round the shoulders with one arm, his wand out, muttering something. Draco’s eyes flickered open; his lips moved.
“You got here,” he whispered. “Thank god.”
Suddenly, and with a sense of indefinable intrusion, she felt her heartbeat steady, and her limbs relax with relief.
“You stupid bugger,” Neville muttered hoarsely. “Any idea what they poisoned you with? And why did you - of all people - let them get the chance?”
Draco’s head lolled weakly on his chest.
Caitlin cleared her throat. “Not him. Not poisoned. He’s doing something - keep me alive - I keeled over shortly after tea -“
“Did you check that everyone was eating the same as you, and no-one could have got at your food?”
She nodded. “Ate nothing but Mrs Waley’s W.I cake, anyway. Saw it cut. And they all ate it.” She frowned for a moment. “Not Nicci. Probably.”
“Told you I should have given you a bezoar.”
Draco’s rasp was slightly stronger than it had been. Richard snorted.
“Don’t suppose it would have done a lot of good against bleeding ulcers. Which - bright lass that German girl of yours, Caitlin - I’d be prepared to stake my reputation is what you’ve got. Hardly surprising, given the stress you’ve been under recently. And I daresay you haven’t been eating properly.”
Neville, his eyes stretched with worry, but an expression of self-conscious reassurance pasted over his features, murmured, “Well, not if you’ve been reduced to eating Mrs Waley’s WI cake.”
She could feel all through her body the good his calming presence was doing in the room. She summoned up the faintest of smiles to reflect her gratitude, and said, “I know. Getting worse. Lemon-butter cream - I think it was lemon -“
You fool. And you loaded the murderer’s gun yourself.
Richard half turned towards her strangled squeak, and she reached out a hand and gripped his wrist.
“Get someone down to the kitchens. Before they wash up. Cake remains. Won’t wait.”
On the instant, Neville was gone.
She shook her head in exasperation that her insight had come too late. And that the slowness of her perception was likely to kill more than her, now.
“Bleeding ulcers. Not stress. Aspirin.”
And then the world clouded around her, and the pain came back again.
She could not have said how much later it was - mere moments, surely - when the door swung open again. Neville was holding a plate in front of him.
“I was a bit late. We had to retrieve it from the bin,” Neville said abruptly. Richard, fastidiously, raised the fragment of cake - tea-leaves and bits of paper clinging to it - to his nose, and sniffed. His face changed. He nodded. “Forensic lab will get something off that one. But I’d say you were right. But that’s for later. As is working out how they could have found out about your sensitivity.”
Her face twisted with bitter irony. “Told them. Idiot.”
“Anyway,” the doctor said firmly, “Bleeding to death is bleeding to death whether internal or external. And you’ve no bloody business being conscious enough to back-chat with me about causes while you’re doing it. If I could get you to hospital we’d be shooting you full of coagulants to stop the bleeding, and giving you a transfusion, before shoving you on a drip.”
Draco, from his supine position on the floor, muttered, “Sod coagulants. Neville?”
White to the lips Neville raised his wand, pointed it at Caitlin, and muttered,”Sanguinem supprimeo.”
She felt something move within her gut, and could not restrain a small squeak. The doctor looked enquiringly across at the two young men. Neville shrugged. “Stopping the bleeding. One we all learned in Recent Events. Even me.”
Despite weakness, Caitlin felt the anger spike through her body, presumably in response to Neville’s self-deprecation. She looked as severely as she could muster at Draco. “Stop wasting energy.”
Richard, rather obviously opting to ignore the myriad cross-currents, turned to face her. “Well, we’ll have to do an emergency transfusion anyway. Just as soon as we find a suitable match.”
She tried to keep the bitter edge out of her voice.
“You’ll be lucky.”
He blinked at her, and then, suddenly comprehended. “Oh, god. I remember now. Yours is rare, isn’t it?”
“Very rare. Exponentially worse. Less than one match in ten thousand. Less than a thousand people in the village, all told. The hospital in Salisbury - probably wouldn’t have it.”
“Well,” Neville sounded extremely dubious, “I could try to get you there on the back of one of the brooms -“
“Don’t be fucking ridiculous.” It was the loudest Draco had spoken since she regained consciousness. He tried to raise himself up; she felt the effort jab through her, even as he failed and flopped back, defeated.
His voice was low and urgent. “It’s blowing a full gale out there. Krum couldn’t get through in conditions like this. Let alone with a passenger.”
Neville gestured passionately. “So what’s the alternative? Try everyone in the village? And still fail?”
“Hell.” She opened her eyes to see Richard pace, frustrated, across the sitting room.
“Can’t - you - just find the closest and - make do?” Draco, she could hear, was running out of strength too. Neville, evidently recognising the sound, gentled his voice as he responded.
“I don’t think so. I know about rare groups - shit, I’ve even got one myself - and it just isn’t that simple. The wrong sort of blood would almost certainly be fatal.”
Draco’s face twisted into a mirthless grin. “Reminds me - of something. Can’t think what.”
Richard looked up. “You have a rare group? How do you know?”
Neville shrugged. “Blood donor. I - gather - when I moved from Lancashire to Wiltshire my home NHS thought they deserved a transfer fee.”
The doctor’s face was calculating. “Happen to know which it is? I mean, the odds are phenomenal against this, but at least we’re in the right ball-park -“
Neville fumbled briefly inside his coat; found a wallet, thumbed through various bits of paper and cards in it, and flicked something over to the doctor. “Here.”
“Hm. O Rh neg (good start, anyway): D- C- c+e+ (golly, you weren’t joking about rare, were you?) M+ S- (goes on a bit, doesn’t it?) - yes - I see - Hm. Caitlin, can I borrow your computer to get onto the surgery extranet?”
A brief wave of the hand was all she could manage. She closed her eyes but was conscious of the sound of rapid tapping at a keyboard. And then a low whistle.
The atmosphere in the sitting room was suddenly oppressive. And it appeared she was the only one allowed to break it. She managed, briefly, to speak.
“Assuming your records are right, and his are, you’ve just managed the equivalent of winning the National Lottery. Twice. Jesus! A perfect match in an unrelated pair, within a sample size of a few hundred. What are the odds against that? Mind if I write it up for the Lancet when this is all done and dusted?”
She made a faint “ugh” sound which he could take for assent or not as he chose. Abruptly, his voice changed, deepened with suspicion. “You two aren’t doing anything to influence this, are you?”
“No.” Neville’s voice sounded aggrieved. Then he amplified. “I know there’s no point, and he hasn’t the energy.”
“Hm.” His voice became gentle. “Caitlin, I have to warn you. It’s an unsterilised environment - there won’t be much blood we can use - it’s going to be risky - “
“Compared to what, Richard?” Her voice was weary in her own ears. “Get on with it.”
His voice was grave, accepting.
“OK. Just hang on a minute, then, while I do the confirmatory test.”
As he came to the oily aftermath of the spell still swirled round inside his consciousness, poking dark tendrils into the buried corners of his mind, pulling things out that he had thought he had buried forever. He would have bad dreams tonight, he suspected; dreams infused with pain, and screams, and formless things from those worlds on the edges of which he had once been forced to wander.
All Dark Magicians are mad, his great-grandfather had told him once. If they aren’t when they start (and most are) they are by the time they end.
And, with all the reckless assurance of 13, he had laughed openly at the timid conservatism of the old man, arrogant in the certainty that he knew better.
A large, square calloused hand with blunt grimy nails and stubby fingers reached down to where he was slumped against a handy chair-arm, and grasped his shoulder. Momentarily, Draco was unsure whether the gesture was intended as reassurance or reflected a need for support.
He nodded, wearily. “I’ll live. I think. And you two?”
“I’m fine. Bit tired. And Elise made me drink a cup of this revoltingly sweet tea. I gather she had some spare hot water that needed a home. Oh, and I copped a ticking off for asking her couldn’t she make carajillos with it instead. Much more what I was in the mood for.”
Draco grinned weakly. “I could try my charm -“
“You might have more chance. I reckon she rather definitely prefers blonds. More Aryan, I suppose. Anyway, want any tea?”
He shook his head.
“And if she offered, I hope you passed on the cake - How’s Caitlin?”
“On the sofa. Better than she was, but still - not looking too good. We gave her all the blood Richard was prepared to take from me - I think you’d passed out by that stage - God, think how the news that you faint at the sight of blood would blow your ice-cold Death Eater reputation -“
He allowed all his injured dignity to sound in his voice.
“According to ma, even the Dark Lord had phobias.”
“Being the Dark Lord means never having to worry about being called a wuss,” Neville said dryly. Then, a questioning note entered his voice. “What about?”
“Foxes, oddly enough. No, don’t ask me. They didn’t tell me all the inner secrets. Actually, come to think, make that any. “
He allowed his indignation at the earlier comment to suffuse his expression.
“And, anyway, I was hardly at my best earlier on. After all, it was your blood. I don’t faint at the sight of just anyone exsanguinating. You should be flattered.”
The hand moved from his shoulder, catching his chin and turning his head so he was looking straight up into his lover’s eyes. The worry lines had not yet smoothed from Neville’s face.
“Flattered? I’ve spent too much of this afternoon being just plain terrified. God, love, of all the ways I’ve been scared I’d lose you, grandiose self-sacrificial gestures were reassuringly low on the list.”
There were several things he could have said, but in the end he just shrugged. Neville looked at him quizzically.
“Blood debt. Year before last. Ducking out not an option.”
Neville paused for a moment. And then said, very gently,
“She’s not a witch, Draco. It wouldn’t have been compulsory.”
That brought him to an abrupt standstill.
Now why didn’t I think of that? She isn’t. Of course.
Actually, come to think of it, neither was Ekaterin.
That was different. That was to do with getting a ticket home.
So - what was your excuse this time?
There were implications there that he was not sure he was prepared to deal with at the moment. He took refuge in a change of subject.
“Anyway, about Caitlin?”
Neville, as he had suspected, had been doing his own form of camouflage. He winced, slightly, when brought back to the topic.
“She’d do better with a second transfusion before they try to move her. If we can find anywhere to move her to. And Richard refuses to take any more of mine -“
“And you’re a bloody young fool to offer, as I’ve told you before.”
The forceful voice came from across the room.
“Whatever mumbo-jumbo you claim you can do to boost your speed of recovery,” the doctor added. “I’ve run myself close enough to a brush with the BMA already over what I’ve taken out of you this afternoon alone. It’d be more to the point if you could tell me where Caitlin’s sons are to be found at present, and whether we can get a donation from one of them in time-“
A faint voice breathed from the sofa. “Bad luck, Richard. Phil’s in Palo Alto, and Ricky’s - playing NATO war games. In an undisclosed location.”
“We could use a locating charm,” Draco said. “With a bit of luck, his unit may not be anywhere too impossible to find. And then Apparate in with one of those bag things -“
” Vampires Invade War zone in Fly-by Blood-Snatch Mugging,” Neville muttered. Richard made the sound in his throat that is usually written as “Tsk”.
“You’ve got no other relatives living locally, Caitlin?”
Her voice was barely audible.
“No other relatives living. My aunt was the last.”
Memory woke to life in an explosion behind his eyes. With an enormous effort - and against Neville’s voluble protests and attempts to restrain him - Draco took two strides over to the bureau, and started rummaging.
It took him no more than a few seconds to find what he wanted, and spin the odd, stiffly frozen photograph across to Neville before collapsing back down on the sofa.
“Here,” he hissed. “That’s Caitlin’s - ah - aunt. Take a look at it. Recognise someone you know?”
Neville peered at the photograph, blinked, blinked again, and said, “Well, it’s certainly a remarkable resemblance. Judging by the family albums, anyway.” He looked up. “But how come you know what Gran looked like when she was young?”
“Your grandmother?” Richard’s expression was suddenly alight with interest. “Now there’s a thought. One in four chance. Does she live locally?”
Neville, he noted with wry amusement, carefully avoided the doctor’s eyes. “Well,” he mumbled, “She’s certainly reachable. In a pinch. But, Draco? How come you spotted Caitlin’s aunt looked like Gran?”
He shrugged. “Slytherin common-room. Photograph over the mantelpiece. Saw it for getting on for a third of my life.”
His lover had an expression that blended shocked amusement, and frantic concern that any form of levity in that room, at that time might be misinterpreted.
“Good grief! Well, as Gran says, knock me over with a half-pound weight.”
Draco raised an eyebrow, trusting it took the concept of sardonic with it to new heights.
“To think the popular assumption in our house was that the Slytherin common room was decorated solely with busts of Grindlewald and portraits of the most scarily dangerous witches and wizards of the last three centuries -“
He made his voice deadpan, indifferent. “Yes. Obviously. 10 points to Gryffindor for getting something right at last. So, given we agree on that - well, including your grandmother in the Slytherin gallery was anomalous how, exactly?”
As he had hoped, Neville did a double-take. Then his expression changed to one of reluctant acknowledgement.
“Fair point. I suppose.”
Richard, catching on at last, leaned over where they were both looking at the photograph. “Do I get you right? Are you really saying that Miss Franklin strongly resembled your grandmother, Neville?”
“Well, yes. I mean, at least - when she was - ah - that sort of age.”
He gestured vaguely down at the photograph. The girl with the Forties’ hairdo and the stooping falcon’s intent eyes smiled warily back at them. Neville gulped, and obviously qualified his opinion.
“Um - apart from Miss Franklin being a bit shorter. And - ah - rather less sturdily built.”
“And about ten times less terrifying,” Draco added. There was an inhalation from the sofa.
“Try telling that to the Waffen SS.” Despite her evident debility, Caitlin was, it seemed, beginning to take an interest in life.
Richard walked over to the window, staring out momentarily into the garden, and then turned round, hitching his backside onto the window-ledge, and spreading his large hands impressively. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said abruptly, “But as it’s a matter of life and death - “
He paused in thought. Then, with a rush like a dam bursting, speaking rapidly as though terrified he might change his mind, he continued.
“Look, Caitlin, I know you’ve wondered. And I’ve certainly no definite information about you. But - as her medical practitioner - and she would, I think, approve in the circumstances - I think it’s only fair to tell you that Miss Miranda Franklin did most certainly once bear a child. And also that she, too, had a very rare blood group. Probably, if I recall correctly, that one.”
“And it’s against my religion to believe in unexplained statistical anomalies. A chance - however improbable - that you’re related makes a lot more sense than getting that blood match by pure coincidence. Which, I think, adds up to: I’d love to meet your grandmother, Neville. Soon. Now would be better, in fact.”
Neville gulped and nodded. “OK. I’d better be getting back to the Manor, then -“
There was a warning cough from the window. “I’d avoid rushing about, at the moment, if I were you - “
“Well, how else can I -?”
“Ever heard of the telephone?”
“Certainly.” For once Neville - though pale - was looking defiant. “I’d be surprised if Gran approves of it, though. And I can tell you for an absolute fact, we aren’t on it. In Roughlee.”
“That may be so.” The doctor looked at him dispassionately for a moment. “I was thinking of your housekeeper at the Manor. I understand Caitlin talks to her from time to time. I think you’ll find your number on the blotter.”
With, Draco noticed, slightly shaking hands, Neville reached across to the handset, muttered a few brief instructions when Mrs P. answered, and relapsed back looking exhausted when he had hung up. Richard looked at him a trifle grimly, but forbore to comment.
Be wary of summoning demons, unless you know you have the strength to Banish them again.
He sighed, but was too tired to raise any more extensive objection.
“Aye, I know all that.”
The new arrival, a discreet square of bandage on her arm her only concession to weakness, sat bolt upright on a hard chair behind the desk. The very line of her backbone was an eloquent rebuke to the three invalids disposed about the room.
“But how else are you planning on getting her to the hospital, eh? Neither of the lads can drive her - between them, they look as though they don’t have the energy of a wet lettuce -“
Draco lifted his head slightly. He was still bone-shatteringly weary and the shocks of that afternoon’s revelations were still reverberating through his brain.
“Oh, if as much,” he breathed fervently. Emily Longbottom favoured him with a chilly glare. He found it difficult to meet her eyes.
Neville has a cousin who’s a Muggle.
Uneasily, he recollected a long-ago dinner party at the Manor, glimpsed by a nine-year old boy from a place of concealment round the bend of the main staircase, at which a Ministry man, loud in his confidence that he was too influential to be blatantly contradicted, asserted over the pre-dinner champagne that no: Muggles were more ingenious and more to be credited with the ways that they sought to overcome their limitations than wizards commonly thought. And he recalled wrapping his arms around his knees in gleeful satisfaction as the smooth, assured tones of his father, cutting easily above the babble of cocktail chat, riposted easily, “There may be something in what you say, Zabini, but let us face it: would you want your daughter actually to marry one?” And, in the ripple of tension-releasing laughter which had spread over the select gathering, had come the affirmation from the Ministry man that no, indeed, he certainly had not the least intention of going that far.
Draco gulped, and looked nervously at his lover.
Caitlin is Neville’s cousin.
There. That sounded a good deal better. A lot better, come to think of it, than Eustace is Neville’s cousin. And since they knew nothing about this Eugene person who had - amazing as it appeared - been Mrs Longbottom’s - er - um -
He paused to allow his mind boggle-room, took a deep breath, and brought his thoughts up to the starting block with a stupendous effort.
Mrs Longbottom got put up the duff by a Muggle she wasn’t married to. Back in the dark ages. Before, actually, I thought they’d even invented extra-marital sex.
And, it would seem, the child - a girl - had been brought up by her Muggle father’s relatives, grown up and gone to war. And she, too, had conceived a child, equally without benefit of clergy. That child being Caitlin.
He gulped again.
Let’s look at this mathematically. We don’t know anything about Caitlin’s father. He might even have been a pureblood. And this Eugene - he might have had some magical blood, too. Caitlin might be more than three-quarters, with a bit of luck. Probably missed getting her Hogwarts letter by a hairsbreadth. Practically one of us. Explains the blood-debt thing, for instance.
Thus cheered, he raised his head to meet Neville’s eyes. A further thought struck him.
And anyway, if anyone tries to use it to get at Neville, they’ll have to come through me first.
Annoyingly, Neville met his look with an expression of rueful amusement. It was unfair, he thought defensively, for him to be expected to share his life with someone to whom his thought processes were so nearly transparent. Neville’s grin deepened.
Mrs Longbottom coughed repressively.
“Then I take it you’ll have no objection to my borrowing your car?”
He shook his head. “Be my guest. Parked outside.”
She sniffed. “I take it that’ll be the little navy blue egg-shaped one, then? Hm! Might have known that number-plate had to have something to do with you. I’d have thought, now you’ve got those Americans to take most of your roof off your hands, you ought to be able to afford a bigger one.”
She did not allow him time to comment. “I’ve told that German lass to have dinner served half an hour later, and to tell the guests I’ll be joining them. You have to keep up morale at times like this. So I’m sorry to say I’ll have to turn down your invitation to eat at the Manor.”
Ah. That would be the invitation to the Manor I hadn’t issued, then. Was deliberately intending not to issue, in fact. Owing to finding you intensely scary, actually. Oh, fuck! In-laws.
He paused for a moment.
Well, I mean, outlaws. I suppose. Technically.
His eyes met Neville’s. His lover looked hunched and miserable on the end on the sofa.
Just leave this one to the expert, sweetie.
He cocked an eyebrow at an impudent angle, and smiled at Mrs Longbottom.
“Je suis désolé.”
Emily Longbottom’s head snapped up, alert to the possibility of satire. Prudently, he relapsed back into his native language, abandoning that of his own grandmother - who Mrs Longbottom must have known had not survived his birth long enough to teach it to him, or indeed to exchange a single word in any tongue - to the waste-basket. He smiled sweetly.
“Still, do drop in whenever you can. Don’t stand on ceremony; you are family, after all. Just let Mrs P. know if she’s to set an extra place, and we’ll be delighted to see you whenever you’re free.”
Mrs Longbottom’s eyes hooded with suspicion. At that moment, however, came a knock on the door. It opened before any of them had had a chance to respond, and a man’s head poked round it. Draco had inventoried a long, supercilious nose, receding mousy hair, and almost non-existent chin, unwisely drawing attention to itself with a wisp of goatee beard, before his sluggish memory sprang into life again. One of the guests.
The one who was being a total prick in the pub.
He paused, thoughtfully.
Well, make that one of the ones who was being a total prick in the pub.
“I was wondering - we all were worrying - anyway, is there anything I can do?”
There was a pause. As though suddenly realizing that they were all politely waiting for her to speak first, Caitlin murmured,
“Thank you, Mr Garrowby. I appreciate your concern.”
He emitted a high, nervous little titter.
“Julian, please, Caitlin. After all, with everything we’ve all been through on this course together, surely we can skip the formalities by now?”
Without awaiting invitation, he advanced fully into the room, and sat down on the extreme end of the sofa which was currently supporting Neville, who had been slumped in unashamed exhaustion on it until his grandmother’s appearance, but who was now trying to imitate her upright posture, with only marginal success.
Caitlin’s voice was breathy with effort.
“Anyway, I believe the situation is under control now. With all the stress, I’ve been having some trouble with my ulcers, and Mrs Longbottom here is just about to drive me into the hospital to have them checked over.”
Julian’s tone dripped unadulterated horror.
“Drive? In this? You have to be joking.”
To be fair, he had something of a point. The trees outside in the garden were almost bent horizontal by the storm, and the rain - occasionally mixed with hail for variation - pelted into the window-panes with such violence that if he had not been too weak even to consider exercising power, Draco would certainly have performed a precautionary vitrum firmare charm.
Mrs Longbottom fixed Julian with a beady glare.
“I’m not accustomed, young man, to being accused of levity in a potentially life-threatening situation.”
His face was a mask of shocked concern. “I’m sorry - you must have mistaken me - but the weather is so very bad - and they were saying that the village is cut off at present in both directions -“
Mrs Longbottom nodded. “Aye. But we worked out, that we could probably manage to work round the blockage by cutting across the Fontwell estate by the tracks. I doubt the National Trust will object, being as it’s an emergency. And anyway, on a day like today, I shouldn’t imagine there’d be anyone around to spot us. Young Draco here has kindly agreed to lend me his car, and our Neville tells me, despite appearances, you can get a fair turn of speed out of it, so, barring accidents, I should have her over there and settled in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. After which, I’ll look forwards to making your better acquaintance over dinner. I’ll be keeping an eye on the place until Mrs Naismith is well enough to resume her duties.”
His face paler still, Julian sputtered, “Draco’s car? That gas-guzzling monument to conspicuous consumption that’s parked outside?”
He made his voice sound deliberately bored. It was an effort not to let his weariness show in his voice, but pure will carried him through.
“The Porsche 996, yes. The super-charged version. With the tiptronic gearbox. And your point is -?”
“My point is, that if I get you right you seem to be expecting Mrs Longbottom to drive it cross-country? With an invalid on board. In a storm. You must be totally mad.” He turned back towards Emily Longbottom, and softened his voice into the one, it appeared, he kept for communication with the Elderly-And-Apparently-Fragile.
“I mean - I applaud to the hilt your - um - spirit. And determination. And I certainly don’t want to be seen as disparaging your abilities in any way. But - well, I don’t know what you usually drive -“
Her face was tightly disapproving. “I don’t. It isn’t a mode of transportation I particularly favour. Except, of course, in a crisis. Which this is. But I wouldn’t worry yourself. I daresay it’s like riding a br- bicycle. It soon comes back.”
“I shouldn’t imagine it’ll be in the least like riding a bicycle!”
“If it is,” Draco murmured, “I’ll be looking for about 20,000 Galleons refund, I can tell you - “
Julian ignored him.
“I mean, it’s a modern sports car! And what did you say you drove last?”
“Ambulance. In the Blitz.” Mrs Longbottom looked thoughtful. “First Liverpool, then Manchester. Liverpool was more relentless, but Manchester got unexpected at times. Remember being bombed once out of a dance up at Belle Vue. Shouldn’t imagine some girls in party-dresses with stocking seams drawn up their legs in eyebrow pencil, a bunch of oversexed GIs and a collection of deeply surprised-looking leopards from local menagerie were what Hermann Goring was intending as a key military target, personally. Now, that was something like driving - specially when them Henkels were bombing seventy kinds of hell out of pier-head. Never touched the wheel since. Reckoned it would be somewhat anti-climactic.”
Julian gulped, and said, very, very slowly and rather loudly,
“Well, then you can’t possibly take the risk -“
Mrs Longbottom surveyed him carefully. “Well, it’s most kind of you to offer, Mr Garrowby -“
She put her head on one side.
“Didn’t I hear you volunteering to drive Mrs Naismith to hospital in my place, then?”
To Draco’s secret amusement, Julian had assumed the characteristic rabbit-mesmerised-by-stoat expression that he had become accustomed, over the past few years, to seeing on the faces of those confronted with Emily Longbottom. Creditably, however, Julian retained the power of speech, albeit limited to a thin bleat.
“Certainly not! I - that is - given my moral objections to fossil fuel use - at least, for recreational purposes - “
“Never thought of that one,” Draco murmured. Neville raised his head.
“You wouldn’t have. It’s very Muggle council estate. They sniff it.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“God. How weird can you get?”
Mrs Longbottom flashed them both a deeply quelling look. Julian made a small “huff” of annoyance.
“If people wouldn’t keep jumping down my throat every time I express an opinion round here, it’d be nice. Well, as I meant, obviously, to anyone of the meanest intelligence, given my moral position on the possession of internal combustion vehicles for purely personal, selfish reasons, it would have been hypocritical of me to learn to drive.”
Emily Longbottom folded her arms decisively, and got stiffly to her feet. “Oh. Well, since I was mistaken about you offering to do something useful, what was it you were saying?”
Julian flushed an unhealthy puce, and looked at Draco. “I was merely suggesting that it might have been more - gentlemanly - for you or your - ah - friend - to volunteer to do it. Rather than putting Mrs Longbottom to the risk.”
Mrs Longbottom put on her hat, adjusted it, and started to draw on her gloves. “Unhappily, that isn’t feasible at the moment. Right, lass, let’s be having you. Easy does it.”
She slipped an arm round Caitlin’s shoulders, helping her to her feet. As she was being helped past the end of the sofa on which Draco reclined in exhaustion, Caitlin caught at his wrist.
“Draco? It is all right, isn’t it? About the car, I mean, and lending it to Mrs Longbottom?” she breathed.
His eyebrows quirked up. He dropped his voice to a stage whisper.
“The Porsche? Trembling in its wheel arches, I can assure you. Wouldn’t dream of putting a spoke out of place.”
“Now, now,” Emily Longbottom said firmly. “Don’t encourage her to waste her strength in nattering. Yes, Mr Garrowby, opening a door at this juncture would be most helpful.”
And on the very edge of his hearing - and with reluctant admiration for her smoothness - he heard her breathe Mobilicorpum. Julian, it was plain, remained in blissful ignorance of this magical intervention. Supporting Caitlin’s debilitated body, Mrs Longbottom made her stately progress out into the rain towards the car.
“Well,” Emily Longbottom said abruptly, her face eerily lit by the glow from the instrument panel in the darkened car, ” I don’t doubt today’s events came as something of a turn up for the book for you. Because I don’t mind admitting, they certainly did for me.”
The uncannily flexible interior of the Porsche had rearranged itself as Caitlin had been helped inside, and what was nominally the passenger seat was now a practicable bed, complete with pillow and duvet, on which she reclined in substantial comfort. Nonetheless, speaking was still an effort, and the driver an unknown, and, by repute, ferocious quantity. She paused to consider her response carefully before answering.
“Well,” she said after some thought, ” Discovering at the age of 56 I still have a grandmother wasn’t something I’d have put money on.”
Mrs Longbottom gave a snort.
“Aye. I daresay I should have guessed you might take it that way.”
There was a pause; judging by the car’s sudden and unexpected sideways movement they were negotiating some unforeseen obstacle. It was invisible from Caitlin’s angle of sight: on the whole, she thought she preferred things that way.
“Well,” Emily Longbottom’s voice continued, “I don’t suppose you ought to put too much store by that. I’m yet to be convinced that being a grandmother is my forte.”
She was not going to stand for that. Not with the best part of two pints of Neville’s life-blood running in her veins at that very moment. With all the strength she could command, she pushed her head up and said,
“I doubt one could tell that by the results. I’d say Neville would be considered a grandson anybody could be proud of.”
To her considerable surprise, there was a note of hesitation in Mrs Longbottom’s voice. “You think so?”
She nodded, as vigorously as she felt able. “Certainly. Why? Don’t you?”
Mrs Longbottom snorted.
“Well, I will say it’s a view that would come as a considerable surprise to the rest of the family.”
“Really?” Allowing the difference in accent, her sardonic tone was, she realised, identical to that of Emily Longbottom. “In the unlikely event I get to meet them, I’ll look forward to debating the point.”
“Meet them?” To her amusement, it seemed from the surprised note that Mrs Longbottom was considering this scenario for the first time. And, she would like to bet, with the same odd mixture of horror and fascination with the possibilities that she herself was experiencing.
Well, after all, why not? Let’s see what happens.
There was a pause.
“Aye, well, that’s something we might have to give careful thought to. In the future. But whether or not Neville’s a creditable grandson wasn’t precisely what I meant. I was talking about me. I wouldn’t be surprised if Neville didn’t blame me for not having spotted Eustace’s games a lot earlier. I certainly would, in his place. And I know young Draco does.”
Caitlin was silent. It was, she conceded, entirely likely.
“Or happen he thinks I knew more than I did about Eustace’s schemes, and only changed my mind when things got critical. It’s the way Charlie Device’s great-grandson would think. God, Charlie was a funny old bugger. If you were one of his, he couldn’t do enough for you: if you weren’t, he didn’t want to know. There’s a lot of him in young Draco. Anyhow, I didn’t, as it happens, know about Eustace, but you can’t cultivate a reputation for omniscience and not be prepared for it to turn round and bite you on the backside someday. If you go looking for references, I doubt either of them’s going to be top of the queue to tell you I’m anyone’s first choice as grandmother.”
The hesitancy had turned into self-laceration: a thing which Caitlin was not, and never had been, prepared to cope with. And this was in no sense a good time. She snapped,
“I’m not going looking for references. But if I were, then I can tell you I’ve never heard Neville say a word against you. Even during that time when -“
She came to an uneasy stop, and bit her lip. The blood tasted metallic in her mouth. However, nothing short of her total immolation would, it seems, deter Emily Longbottom from following up on her involuntary admission.
She made her voice dry. It was clear, part of her brain told her, that she was on the way to recovery, or maybe adrenalin made more of a difference than one would have thought. Certainly, she was finding talking easier than it had been earlier.
“After - what did you call them? Oh yes: Eustace’s little games. In the autumn of 1999. That’s what I’m referring to.”
Her boldness, it seemed, was not to go unpunished. Unexpectedly, she felt the car gather itself, like a nervous thoroughbred at a water jump, soar forwards and crash, heavily, to land, bouncing once. An inconceivable agony started up in Caitlin’s guts at the shuddering impact.
“Sorry if you were startled.” Emily Longbottom’s voice had gone back to being coolly non-committal. “Fallen tree. In the way. Spotted it late. Try to give you more notice next time. Now, that’s a period I wouldn’t know a great deal about. I didn’t get the impression from Draco I was precisely what you might call persona grata at the Manor at the time.”
Caitlin considered her next words carefully. She had so many obligations, it seemed, in so many different directions. And she had always been noted for her bluntness, rather than her tact.
Maybe I know, now, where I get that trait from.
Almost as the thought came into her mind, she dismissed it.
Personality isn’t a recipe, made up of pre-determined proportions from this blood relative and the other one. Upbringing matters, too. Mother was still mother, and Aunt Miranda was still Aunt Miranda, whatever the medical records say. And I don’t automatically become someone else, because I now know my grandmother was - is - a witch. And as for my grandfather - whoever he may have been -?
Later. First things first.
She made her voice firm and detached.
“Draco had a lot on his plate at the time. Looking after someone who seems to be going through a bout of clinical depression and refuses any form of medical treatment or even diagnosis can’t be easy. It almost tore them both apart. So I suppose he didn’t have a lot of energy to spare for entertaining.”
She cast a sidelong glance at Mrs Longbottom, whose face was grim.
“Aye. I suspected something of the sort. And I don’t suppose they thought I would be likely to be much comfort, in the circumstances. After all - “
Disconcertingly, Mrs Longbottom took both her hands off the wheel in order to gesture explanatorily. In tribute to Draco’s confidence, the Porsche continued serenely on, even though - as she could tell from the glimpses caught through the windows - they were now bumping along a twisty forest track at a speed that would have done credit to a Finnish rally driver.
“Don’t get me wrong. I want Neville to be happy. I brought him up since he was two - and, I can tell you, that’s no joke, having a toddler dropped on you when you’re the wrong side of eighty, and haven’t the energy you used to have - and I did my best. But it wasn’t easy, and maybe he didn’t think I was the most approachable guardian he could have had. But I’ve always wanted him to be happy. And I hope he is. But I just don’t understand way he lives - “
She hesitated. The car took another leap in the air, but this time Caitlin had sensed it gathering itself for the jump, and was able to brace herself against the impact of landing. Mrs Longbottom started to speak more quickly.
“I want to know if he’s happy, and I don’t even know right questions to ask. I mean, you can’t even make a conventional enquiry like, “Is he looking after you properly?” when you don’t even know which of couple to ask.”
Caitlin imposed, rather belatedly, a gentler tone than she had been originally intending upon the words of her retort.
“I imagine, whichever one you asked, you’d get the same answer. And I can assure you, from what I’ve seen, it would be perfectly to your satisfaction. Oh, honestly! It’s not that difficult. As far as anyone can tell about these things from the outside, he’s been lucky enough to find someone he adores, and who worships the socks off him. And I’m sure you’ve seen enough of life to know that something like that’s sufficiently rare that if it happens to you, you’d be stupid not to hang on to it like grim death, and to hell with what the world thinks of you for it.”
There was another pause. In the almost total dark of the car interior it was impossible to tell how Mrs Longbottom had reacted to her burst of plain-speaking, but her voice, when it finally came was, to Caitlin’s relief, grimly amused.
“Am I to take that as a disguised enquiry about how I came to have your mother?”
She gave a dry cough. “Only if you’re prepared to tell me. After all, I am on my way to hospital, and I’d prefer it if you didn’t decide to take us over a steeplechase course before we got there.”
Emily Longbottom snorted with laughter. “You’re learning, it seems. And there’s no doubt that you’re entitled.”
She paused, and then said, abruptly,
“Eugene never knew she was on the way. I’d planned to tell him when he got back from Germany - he’d set off there almost as soon as the Armistice was signed, because he said he knew the Powers were going to make a mess of the peace, and he wanted, he said, to consider “conditions on the ground” - and I was pretty sure of situation shortly after he left. But it isn’t the sort of thing you can say very well in a letter - not, especially, to someone who’s “morally opposed to marriage” - and he was moving around a good bit, and with all the disruption, Poste Restante wasn’t working any too well. But then the rioting began -“
She took a deep breath. “I never found out whether he really was knocked down by a truck in the chaos, like they said, or if they had him murdered, like those other two - anyway, it didn’t make a lot of difference to me, by the time I got the news. The baby was well on the way, and I wasn’t on speaking terms with my own family - they’d never forgiven me for marrying my Frank, and though he’d been dead three years by then, and little Emily had died in the influenza, I wasn’t prepared to go back on any terms they’d have me. And I’d never told them about Eugene. An illegitimate baby would have been bad enough, some Muggle bastard unthinkable. Money was tight, and options looked limited.”
The car jinked, presumably to avoid some obstacle or other.
“Well, then his sister - Rebecca - came to me with her proposition. I’d not said anything and I’d been careful, but - well, somehow or other she’d guessed. She’d been trying, herself, with her husband, for the best part of the last ten years, so maybe she was more alert than most. And her offer was generous. She’d adopt the baby - bring it up in all respects as her own - and give it the best of everything.”
Disconcertingly, Mrs Longbottom spread her hands again. The car, undeterred, tore onwards through the stormy night.
“They were nice people - didn’t share Eugene’s opinions, of course, but they were very well-to-do and in a solid way of business. Keen on education and the like, notwithstanding. And I’d got, as you might imagine, no prejudices on the religious side. I suppose I didn’t take as much persuading as you might - with the benefit of hindsight - think I should’ve.”
Now she had found her voice indeed. She cleared her throat pointedly. “Michael died when Ricky was two days short of his fifth birthday. I’ve been a single mother since then. Trust me: I know a lot about hard choices. And I’d not presume to criticise yours.”
It was impossible to discern much in the dark interior of the Porsche. She thought, however, that there might be a faint air of reprieve about Mrs Longbottom.
“Well, I’ll not deny it was hard.”
“Did you see her afterwards?”
The question, she thought a shade too late, had snapped out with brutality. She should have softened it. Nevertheless, it was already being answered.
“No - not since just after she was born. They thought it was best. But Rebecca - she wrote to me about her. Even when - as luck would have it - little Ruth came along a year later, she still kept writing to me every week about Miranda. And I don’t believe she ever made a smidgeon of difference between how the two little ones were treated.”
She picked up a questioning note in that last sentence, and was quick to respond to it.
“I’d say you were right. Even though Mother and Aunt Miranda were so completely different - Mother was incredible chic and impossibly elegant, and adored giving these flawlessly upper-crust parties to help Daddy’s career - well, at least, until the company got into difficulties - whereas Aunt Miranda was utterly anarchic, and would live on tinned soup for weeks at a time if she thought it might help the cause of the moment, and then, once the crisis was past, she’d throw a fois gras and champagne bash, and invite all these lame ducks she’d adopted along the way - and then probably have the lame ducks staying on with her for months - “
“It would seem she took after her father, then,” Emily Longbottom observed dryly. Undeterred, Caitlin continued on.
“Anyway, there wasn’t anything like jealousy between them. I’d have said Aunt Miranda would have done anything for Mother, and Mo -“
She came to an abrupt stop. The awkward silence readjusted itself, as the car, apparently scenting the main road ahead, galloped down what appeared to be the main drive in front of a substantial stately home, vaulted a five bar gate (Caitlin’s bracing technique did not spare her a burst of agony on the landing this time) and came out onto a main road at last.
“Good,” Mrs Longbottom said. “Only a bit, now, and all of that straightforward. No; Rebecca would have done right by both of them. It was a crying shame what happened to her and her husband. Good job they’d left the girls at school in England.”
Caitlin’s mouth was dry. She had not known her grandparents - how odd it was to realise that that was, indeed, a mere courtesy title, and had been all these years - but their story had, indeed, shaped her destiny. Most of the blows she had struck over her lifetime had been aimed in the name of people who were, it seemed, barely related.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” she coughed out brusquely.
Mrs Longbottom paused, thoughtfully.
“Aye. Vienna, 1938 would have been that. In their case.”
Streetlights suddenly started to illuminate the car: it was clear they were beginning to approach somewhere substantial.
“Anyhow, it’s been a nice chat, but we’re almost at the hospital,” Mrs Longbottom observed. “I’ll see you settled, and then get back to keep an eye on your business. I’ll make sure to be in touch in the morning. And if I can find out who did that -“
She gestured towards Caitlin’s abdomen.
“I’ll be sure and let you know.”
Gates guarding the entrance to a floodlit car-park, and a substantial complex of buildings showed suddenly ahead. Hospital signs -Oncology; Out-Patients; Accident and Emergency - sprung up in an illuminated forest all around them.
“Don’t fret,” Mrs Longbottom advised. “Everything’s under control.”
From the head of the table Mrs Longbottom surveyed the guests, while sipping thoughtfully at a potato cream soup which she had initially approached with suspicion, but which she was now forced, inwardly, to concede was excellent. According to its lights, at least.
“Not that some smoked haddock in it wouldn’t go amiss,” she observed to herself.
The man seated at her left hand turned towards her as he caught her faint mutter. He must be - oh, yes. Alan. Course tutor. Caitlin hadn’t liked him, Neville had told her, during the half-hour briefing - with sherry - she had spent at the Manor before dinner, when she had ostensibly been changing her dress and having forty winks. Some sort of scandal in his past, wasn’t it? Aye, and she’d lay odds what sort, too. The supervisor of the ambulance depot had been the spitting image of him. Not someone the younger girl drivers wanted to be stuck with at the control-centre in the blackout. She’d known some of them volunteer for double driving shifts through the Blitz to avoid it. Not that he’d taken any liberties with her. She allowed herself a grim, reminiscent smile, and was gratified to see Alan blench.
“I’m sorry to startle you, young man. Gets into a habit, eventually. Talking to the oldest and wisest person present, I mean.”
He smiled, awkwardly, and she gave an inward snort.
Scare you, do I? Well, I’ll tell you a secret. The birthday girl you’ve been eyeing up across the table since we sat down - and who’s plainly got other fish to fry, and not round here, either, Sonny Jim - could be just as scary as I am if she chose to use it. She just happens to be young enough to have other options at her disposal at present. But just you wait, young man.
Her eye flickered across to Áine; the most talkative of the bunch, with three celebratory pre-dinner Jameson’s inside her (they could hold it though, usually, those red-haired Celts, even if they did look a bit fragile. Mother’s milk to them. At least until they turned maudlin or murderous, some time in the small hours) and her ear cocked for the sound of a vehicle from outside. Emily snorted.
Off like a hare, as soon as the boyfriend shows up, then. And back at dawn like a cat that’s been out on the tiles.
She was not, on the whole, inclined to put Áine top of her list of suspects. The nearly-lethal aspirins had been crushed into the butter-cream filling of a cake which had been, it seemed, prepared as a surprise for her, and it seemed hardly likely that she’d been aware of its existence until a matter of seconds before it had been cut. In her experience, that type went for the public and histrionic satisfaction of knives or projectile weapons in moments of crisis. Nor did she put much store by the hints she had apparently dropped of terrorist involvement. In Eugene’s circle Emily had encountered plenty of pale-skinned colleens, their eyes brimming with Republican sentiment as rebel songs were played on fiddles in smoky cellars, each claiming to have lost her one true love in the fight in O’Connell Street.
And if all of them were telling the truth, no wonder those few young men of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were too exhausted and distracted to hold the Post Office against the might of the British Empire by the time it came to it.
The little Scot, on the other hand, now she was interesting. Emily continued to watch covertly as the soup-plates were replaced with something which was referred to as a “roast” and which a precautionary prod with a fork revealed to be comprised primarily of hazelnuts, breadcrumbs and onions, in - she took a careful mouthful - a surprisingly tasty sauce.
The bobbed-haired girl, who had uttered not a word since the meal began, was looking neither to right nor to left, but straight down at her plate, apparently intent on her meal. But Emily, who had after all brought up 5 children, could tell that her busy knife-and-fork work was the merest camouflage.
So, not eating much. If anything. And she looked like, in normal circumstances, she’d have a healthy appetite, too. Not like that washed-out blonde Miss Flibbertigibbet sitting opposite her, who’d always be on some fad diet or other.
Emily leaned back, slightly, took a sip of her wine, and surveyed the younger girl over the rim of her glass.
Wearing a high-necked blouse, the little minx. Wonder what she’s got to hide? Love bite, is it? It isn’t exactly as if the central heating doesn’t work in here. Or as if she’s too modest to flaunt what she’s got. And wouldn’t she be the one who, it seems, was making the play for young Draco in the pub? Either very dense, or very confident of her attractions.
She brought her wineglass to her lips, in case her expression might be betraying her in any way, and continued to look at the pale young woman from behind its camouflage. There was a stocky, middle-aged man in a regrettable tweed jacket who was sitting next to her, rather over-elaborately helping her to vegetables. Blessing the opacity - in the right circumstances - of good glass, Emily pursed her lips.
Well, if he’s the boyfriend, it can’t be the latter. Unless he’s got hidden depths. Or a very, very well-off father on a life-support machine.
And I can’t say he looks like the type who’d be likely to give young Nicci a passionate love bite, either. Though mind you, one never can tell.
Her lips curved betrayingly behind the wineglass. As though suddenly aware of her attention to him, the man turned his head, so he was looking straight up the table at her. Emily rocked back against the chair back, hoping her shock had not been perceptible.
The eyes that met hers were guileless, child-like, utterly irresponsible; cause enough for concern in themselves when encountered in someone of mature years. But in this man -
She surveyed him cautiously again. Those eyes had no true place in that face whose forehead lines - easy to read as runes for one with Emily’s experience of life - told of unremitting anger and unyielding opposition to the world, and whose mouth, even now, dropped when in repose into a cynical sneer.
And given what she knew about events in the village, she could think of only one probable reason for that disconnectedness.
A reason which young Draco, at least, has experience enough to have spotted, even if Neville didn’t. Why didn’t one of the lads drop me a hint of that?
“I suppose, to be fair, they didn’t have a lot of time,” she muttered, and caught Alan looking at her again. She shrugged, explanatorily.
“To clear the road out, up at the top. They had gangs working on it, but we still had to skirt round via the back roads, when I brought young Jacqueline Hawkins back from the hospital. She tells me, by the way, that she left - Cathy, is it? - as comfortable as can be expected.”
“Oh, yes, and where is Jackie? We’d been worrying about her.” The question, she noted, attracted a wider share of interest around the table than might have been expected. Even Miss Flibbertigibbet seemed to be cocking an ear in their direction. Interesting, that.
“Oh, I dropped her off at the doctor’s. It seems she’s quite a well-known lady in her field, and he wanted the chance to make her dinner, and have a chat to her.”
To say nothing, she added mentally, of making sure that anyone who’s minded to get rid of another inconvenient witness knows she’s had ample opportunity to divulge all she knows first.
There was a noise from outside; a motorbike arriving noisily in a flurry of gravel chippings. Áine was up and out of there without a word of farewell. The other guests, obviously a little disconcerted by the speed of her departure, paused irresolutely in the midst of their various conversations.
Mrs Longbottom surveyed the table from end to end. “Well,” she said, “I’m looking forward to becoming better acquainted with you all over coffee,” she said.
It might have been her imagination, but she thought she saw more than one of them shiver in uneasy anticipation.