I let myself in and am greeted by a musty smell, my eye catching a pile of unopened post on the dresser with Mum and Dad's wedding photo above hanging askew. I call Mum's name but there is no reply and head towards the kitchen which is untidy with dishes stacked up in the sink and opened tins and empty food packets lying on the work surface. These sights sadden me as Mum was so houseproud until she reached her seventies but she still refuses to have a home help. I’ll have to have another go at her about it. I look out the back window and see her picking raspberries from a bush and open the door to go outside.
She spies me and her black eyes start to dart back and forth, and her right hand starts to shake spilling raspberries from the basket.
“Richard, I wasn't expecting you.”
“No, it's me, Alan.”
“Of course it is, my eyesight is not what it was. I'm coming in.”
She stiffly makes her way into the house and puts the basket on a table in the back hall. I notice that there appear to be more blotchy marks on her arms.
“I'll make us all a cuppa.” She never lets me make tea and she picks up the kettle and fills it, and reaches up for three stoneware mugs. I always play along at this point with the notion that a departed friend is joining us. When the tea is made she puts the teapot, mugs and a jug of milk on a tray and leads the way into the dining room.
I am greeted by the familiar sight of the green anaglypta wallpaper and framed Constable prints but in the corner there is the unexpected sight of a portly, short fifty something man with grey receding hair looking through a book in his hand. Seeing me, he puts it back on the bookshelf. He strolls across to the table without acknowledging my presence.
“You could get a few quid for that volume Florence,” he says in a nasal voice. “Same applies to others in your collection.”
Mum introduces me and in return he tells me that his name is David. She fills the cups and when she passes David his she gives him a girlish smile which gives me the creeps. “Thank you so much Florence,” he says fawningly, slightly bowing his head. Small talk follows for about half an hour and by the time I have to leave I am none the wiser who this David is. But it appears that he knows Mum well which is odd since she has never mentioned him before.
A few days later I visit again mid afternoon. As I walk up the path I see Mum cutting a rose. She turns round briefly and sees me but heads towards the front door and I catch up with her just as she is about to close it.
“Did you want to come in?”
“Of course. How are you?”
“Fair to middling.”
Entering, I can hear loud drilling sound from upstairs.
“Who's that?” I ask.
“David's repairing the fitted wardrobe in my room. He's very handy.”
We go into the sitting room and Mum puts the rose in a crystal vase. Once she is settled in her favourite chair, I ask her gently. “How long have you known David?”
“For a little while now. He is a kind and thoughtful man.”
Her lip starts to tremble and she starts fiddling with a bracelet on her left wrist. I am lost for words and we sit in silence for a minute but soon this is rudely interrupted.
“That's me finished Florence. You won't have any trouble now.” He sees me and scowls. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Good day,” I reply studying him. He looks fatter than I first thought in ill fitting overalls which are too short for him.
“Alan is about to go David. So kind of him to call.”
“Aren’t we go to have some tea Mum?” I frown at her.
“No, you arrived too late for that. I don't like tea after an evening meal.”
I look at David and he shrugs his shoulders before leaving the room. I then hear the sound of clattering dishes from the kitchen. It appears that he's not leaving anytime soon.
Mum picks up the remote and switches on the TV and starts flicking through channels.
“Do you want to see me out Mum?” I say getting up.
“If you say so.”
She follows me out to the hallway where I spot a suitcase with the initials ‘DN’ engraved on it lying under the telephone table.
“Who does that belong to?”
“David uses it to carry his tools.”
That doesn't make sense but I choose not to push the point. I kiss her on the side of the cheek. “Goodbye Mum. See you soon.” She nods.
The light is fading as I step out and rain falls softly on my head. I walk to the gate and stop to look back and see Mum closing the sitting room curtains, leaving me feeling uncomfortable about what is going on behind them.
My next visit the following week starts well. Within an hour of my arrival, both of us are rolling around laughing, Mum in her chair, me on the settee opposite, recalling the day when she, Dad and I went ice skating and he kept falling over. I feel relieved as well as happy when we have conversations like this and I worry less about her losing her marbles. Also, the house is a bit tidier again.
I hear the front door open and close. “Only me. I've got the fish and chips.” I cringe at the sound of David's voice. He strolls into the room, his face dropping when he sees me. “I didn't expect you,” he says accusingly. His belt is so tight it is like a tourniquet round his fat gut.
“Coming here is an old habit going back to my childhood.”
He ignores me and looks at Mum. “I'll stick these in the oven to keep them warm and put the kettle on.”
“Lovely, I am starving.”
I lean over to Mum.
“Do you eat together often?”
She screws up her face and looks away. “Don’t worry it's just a bit of company.” She gets up from the chair. “I'm going to the ladies room.”
“Come and get it, it's ready,” calls David a few minutes later. We gather in the dining room. He clears his throat and mutters. “There is only enough for two.”
“No problem, I'll just have a cuppa.” I collect a mug from the cabinet.
They eat in silence and I sip my tea, studying the intruder opposite. I bide my time until they've finished eating and he gets up with the plates and heads for the kitchen, with me in close pursuit. “What the blazes,” he blurts out when I close the door behind. “You and me need to talk,” I snarl, my six foot frame looming over him. “Sit down.” He obeys, his chubby cheeks reddening.
“So what's your game then? The handyman who inveigles his way into an old lady's house is it?” I smell his bad breath as I lean forward.
“You’ve got it wrong. Your Mum just likes me popping in.”
“Couldn't find anyone your own age? I want the front door key off you so you can't come and go as you please.”
“You heard what I said, hand it over.”
He takes the key out of his trouser pocket and throws it on the table and rises to go. “Don't let me stop you.” I walk behind him to the front door and slam it when he steps outside. Returning to the dining room, Mum looks at me puzzled. “Has David gone?”
“I told him it was time to go.”
“I'm glad. I don't remember inviting him.” I sit down beside her and take her hand in mine.
I haven't got much time between my arrival home from Zurich to unpack and repack before catching the train to Carlisle tonight but I make time to call Mum as I haven’t seen her for over a week. I dial the landline and it rings for a minute before being answered.
"Hello", says the male voice. I recoil at the sound of David’s voice.
"Can I speak to my mother please?” I ask curtly.
"She is not available right now." His smug tone grates.
"Put her on the phone now David."
"We are about to go out so you will need to call again."
"I warned you last time...". The line goes dead.
It doesn't add up. Mum rarely leaves the house even when I make the offer to take her. He is either lying or coercing her. I could do with a shower but instead jump in the car and within fifteen minutes I am outside her house pumped up and wanting to get my hands on that repulsive man. Once inside, I call for Mum but am greeted by the sound of silence. The dining room is deserted as is the sitting room but the front of the bureau in there is open and the drawers are pulled out. I rush upstairs and check the rooms, and find no sign of life but come across a strange sight in Mum's bedroom. Several dresses which have inhabited her wardrobe for as long as I can remember are strewn across the bed, stripes mixed in with floral designs and plain fabrics. It doesn’t seem that a burglary has taken place but something unusual has happened.
I am now in a dilemna. I have to go to Carlisle tonight, otherwise the contract won't be signed tomorrow and jobs will be lost. At times like this I miss Richard as he was always on hand when a problem needed fixing but that thought reminds me that I have not been to the cemetery for a long time. Reluctantly, I drive home vowing that when I’m back later tomorrow I'll sort that creep out once and for all.
I have no regrets about signing the self discharge sheet as I cannot not afford to be in hospital any longer having already lost forty eight hours. The doctor had been firm with me about the risks but I have had chest pains before and they have not been fatal. The train journey back takes four hours and about an hour from London my mobile rings.
“Hello, Alan.” The voice takes me back. “I'm probably the last person you expected to call.” I have not spoken to Avril since we split up years ago in somewhat acrimonious circumstances.
“Yes, it’s a surprise.” I am trying to imagine what she looks like now. Is her hair still blonde?
“I've got some news about your Mum.” This sounds ominous and I clench my free hand.
“Your Mum was admitted to Homerton hospital last night after having a stroke and is in intensive care in the ward where I work. She is not allowed visitors and when my colleague spoke to your stepfather he said that he was her only family and no one else needed to be notified. I didn't know she had remarried but I knew that you were still alive and was sure you would want to know.”
”Stepfather”, I hiss.
“You don’t like him?”
“He’s no father to me that git.” I manage to control my anger. “But I am grateful for your call. How is she now?”
“Can't say as I'm off duty today but you could ring the ward; it’s number 3/1.”
“Will do, thanks.” She rings off abruptly and I sit in a state of shock for a while, the blood draining from my face. After composing myself, I find the number for the hospital on my phone and call.
The nurse is understanding. I tell her I’ve been been overseas for a long time and have just heard from a family friend about Mum's hospitalisation. She says that Mum is stable and is being closely monitored. I then call Stuart Campbell. He owes me and now is the time to repay his debt. He is reluctant at first when I tell him that someone needs to start and finish the job today but he caves in when I hint at future business coming his firm's way. I agree to drop by his office when my train gets in.
When I arrive home, I’m in dark place troubled by the fear of losing Mum and my sense of guilt for not protecting her. I try and occupy myself but after a light dinner I collapse on the sofa with nervous exhaustion before falling asleep. I am woken up by the doorbell around midnight; a visit from Stuart’s shaven headed right hand man Jim Hannah to tell me the job is done and he has had no hassle. He hands the item over and I start to get ready for a long night.
The flask of coffee is empty now having done its job of keeping me alert through the wee small hours. I turn the car heater on again to warm my legs, while not taking my eyes off the door opposite. It’s lucky that he did not come round yesterday but I know he will at some point and, sure enough, around nine he arrives shambling down the road, ugly specimen that he is. When he reaches the front door he inserts a key in the lock but it doesn't let him in and he starts banging on the door in frustration. It’s been worth staying up to enjoy this moment. He makes his way to the side gate and then a comic turn follows - him struggling to get his portly frame over. On his fourth attempt he disappears. Two minutes later the newly installed alarm goes off and the top of his balding head becomes visible again as he clambers over the gate falling heavily onto the path, walking with a limp when he picks himself up. He hobbles down the street and pulls out his mobile and calls someone.
I get out and follow him on foot on the other side of the road until he reaches the corner where he takes refuge in a bus shelter. I stand behind a tree and watch. A quarter of an hour passes and a car stops to pick him up, driven by a middle aged woman, her black hair tied up on her head. I take note of the registration and when they've gone head for the house using the new key to let myself in. I turn off the alarm and head for the bathroom to relieve myself, finding a man’s razor lying at the side of the wash hand basin. Returning downstairs, I search through the bureau and eventually locate what I had hoped to find and call my cousin Deborah.
"Hi Debs I'm inside. The bugger has been here trying to get in.”
“I hope you’re OK. Did you find the wedding certificate?"
"Yes. But he can get a copy can't he?"
"Yes but with the original Jane in our litigation department can start preparing proceedings on Monday to annul the marriage on the grounds that auntie was incapable of consenting to it."
"And the house and the money?”
“Separately, Jane will start proceedings to revoke the new will which came into force on marriage leaving auntie's assets to him and she will also apply for a freeze to be placed on her possessions until matters are sorted out."
"Great. I will drop the certificate off at your home."
I lock up, cross the road and get in my car. A sense of dread takes over, causing me to tense up. I turn on the radio and find some music to provide some emotional balm for the drive. It's usually about twenty minutes to the hospital but the journey takes longer with each traffic light turning red. Arriving, I park the car, pay, and enter the hospital following the signs down the long maze of corridors, my nails digging into the palms of my hand, fearing what awaits me. I see the mortuary entrance up ahead and slow down as I approach it. A porter passes me pushing a bed with a patient in it and thanks me for standing aside. I continue and take the next escalator to the third floor and enter the ward.
"Good afternoon," says the young nurse on the desk. She looks bleary eyed, probably nearing the end of a long shift.
"Hi, I am Mrs Davis' son. Can I see her please?”
"You’ve arrived at the right moment. She regained consciousness an hour ago so you can pop in briefly."
I follow her through the ward passing several patients. “Your stepfather has not been in today,” she comments. I can feel the bile rise in my throat but suppress the curse which wants to come out.
Arriving at Mum's bed, I see her staring at the ceiling with a drip attached to her arm, her face ashen coloured and drawn. I draw up a chair.
She looks at me puzzled.
"Richard, why am I here with all of these strangers?" Her milky looking eyes look at me pleadingly.
"You had a stroke but you are in safe hands now." I squeeze her hand.
"Well I hope the dustbins have been put out. You know how I hate rubbish building up."
"Don't worry about that Mum. I'll see to it.”
She smiles and her eyes close, her head falling slowly to one side.
The girl collects the cups and the plate of biscuits from the table.
“That was nice Mum wasn’t it?” She looks nice in the paisley pattern dress.
“Yes, Alan it was. I never thought I would be happy in a care home but I must say they are very kind here. By the way, before you go I must ask you whether I’ll have to give evidence in court even if I am still in this wheelchair?”
“No, that won’t be happening. You don’t need to worry about that.” The dropping of the annulment proceedings had ended this possibility. Her evidence may not have been reliable in any event.
I say my goodbyes and jump in the taxi waiting outside and within twenty minutes it arrives at the house. I can see David waiting outside wearing a dark brown suit. He harangues me as soon as I get out.
“You’re late matey. I haven’t got all day.” He glares at me. “And no funny business or I’ll call the law.”
I bite my lip head up the path, unlock the front door and he follows me in. “You’d better show me how the alarm works. By the way, very good of you to have installed it.” His sneering tone is galling but I keep my cool. After explaining to him how the controls work, I indicate that I want to retrieve a few personal items kept upstairs.
“Be quick then and you’d better show me what you’re taking with you.” I ignore him and head upstairs. Once up there, I go through the motions, moving objects around in the box room and looking through books. I keep looking at my watch. Debs had been told that they would call around three o’clock and it’s now a quarter past and I’m getting twitchy.
“Hurry up will you.” His irritation is obvious.
“Give me a minute.” I pick up some books and put them in a carrier bag and slowly start to make my way down. Seeing me coming he fires another barb.
“Say farewell to the old place. You won’t be back.” He grins wolfishly. I finally snap. “When is Rebecca moving in?” His face suddenly turns pus colour. “I know your game you little piece of shit.” I stride towards him and he steps back tripping over a footstool, ending up on his back with his legs in the air like a dung beetle. The doorbell rings and I continue towards the door and opening it I am greeted by a tall male with piercing blue eyes and a short female with blonde hair.
“Come in officers, he’s behind me.” They enter and see him slowly clambering to his feet.
“David Stark I am arresting on the charge of bigamy. You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court.”
David looks daggers at me and I make cut throat gesture across my neck in return. It’s amazing how useful a car registration number can be when put in the hands of a private investigator