|Rix yanked the front door open, and completely heedless of the rain, went outside. |
“What are you doing, standing out in the rain?” he asked, incredulously. “Come in, for Heaven’s sake…”
“Hello to you, too,” John said, but the cheerfulness in his voice was forced and unnatural. He was soaked and dressed in civilian clothes.
“How long have you been outside?” Rix demanded, taking his brother’s case and all but pushing him inside the house. “Everyone’s asleep… You can have a bath and get warm, then tell me. I’ll make you a hot drink… Here,” he handed over a towel, so John could dry his hair.
“Thanks,” John said quietly, he looked exhausted. “I’ve only just got here, I walked from Armiford.”
“Why didn’t you phone me? No, get warm and then tell me… You’ll stay the night?”
“Thanks,” John said, again, in the electric light he looked very pale. “I didn’t want to go to the Quadrant, not yet. I’m not cold, Rix, honestly.”
“You’re freezing, you idiot.” Rix smiled. “It’s good to see you. Have you got a long leave?”
“You could say that,” John gave a mirthless laugh.
Rix looked at him, unable to keep the worry out of his face. “You had a phone call earlier, someone was asking for you.”
“Bailey, probably, our medical officer.” John said, before lapsing into silence.
“Why would your medical officer phone?” Rix asked, as soon as John came out of the bathroom, in dry clothes.
John shrugged, “It’s procedure. I don’t know why. Sorry to get here so late.”
“You know you’re always welcome,” Rix changed tack, although he did so want to demand what was wrong. It was clear that something was upsetting his brother. John was still pale and he had lost weight.
“It’s a horrible night. It’s annoying, I’m supposed to be building a tree house for the kids and it rained most of the afternoon. They’ll be thrilled to see you, and so will Daph. We were thinking of coming down to Portsmouth to see you.”
“Is Daphne here?” John was fiddling with the cuffs on his shirt, in an almost compulsive fashion. He seemed very nervy. “I won’t stay long. Mother and Dad aren’t here, are they?”
“No, Daph’s only come to stay for a few weeks. How long have you got? They’d probably come up if they knew you were on leave. Maurice could drive them.”
“I’ll see them soon,” John said, half to himself.
“Want a drink?” his brother asked, casually, going over to the drinks cabinet for the whisky. “One of my patients gave me this, it’s a good one.”
“All right,” John said, without much interest, though he drained the glass quickly.
Rix made most of the conversation, keeping it light with some of the more amusing anecdotes about the children. John smiled from time to time, but seemed content to sit in silence and listen.
“Have you hurt your arm?” Rix asked, noticing that John was still fiddling with his shirtsleeves.
“No.” John said, quickly.
“Well, I’m going to turn in. I’ve got morning surgery tomorrow, and my locum is arriving in the afternoon. We were going to go to Garnham, but now we’re not. Still, at least I can see something of the kids.” He yawned. “They wake up early, just to warn you, but I’ll try and keep them away so you can have a lie-in.”
“Good night,” John said, holding out his hand, “I do appreciate it, Rix, thank you.”
The next second he hissed with pain as Rix had took hold of his arm and forced his sleeve up, despite John’s struggling. His wrist was bandaged.
“What’s going on, Jack?” Rix demanded, the complete elder brother, trying to make a grab for John’s other arm, even as he knew he would see a similar dressing there.
“Get off me!”
“No. I want to know what’s going on and I want you to tell me now.” Rix was inflexible.
“You’re hurting me.” John seemed to be fighting to keep his composure, but after a brief internal struggle, he took a deep breath and allowed his brother to sit him down on the sofa. Rix let go of him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be so rough. Can I see?”
John rubbed his eyes, then nodded, pulling the bandages off and revealing the deep cuts on his wrists.
“Oh, Jackie…” Rix realised that his brother had been serious, they were very deep and had been stitched not that long ago.
“I-I don’t want you to tell anyone. Please, Rix. I couldn’t bear it, everyone knowing and watching me.”
“Have you seen somebody? Who treated you?”
“I don’t know who found me, but Bailey stitched me up. My Captain saw me afterwards, they – I told them you were my next of kin and they put me on the train. I can’t go back.”
“Of course not, you can stay here as long as you need to. Didn’t they send someone with you? I don’t understand.”
“The doc said I’d been lucky. If I’d cut half an inch deeper they couldn’t have done anything. They gave me a blood transfusion.”
“How do you feel now?” Rix felt completely out of his depth.
“I’m not going to do it again, if that’s what you want to know.” John’s reply was sharp.
Rix didn’t say anything else as he bandaged John’s wrists, but he did offer sleeping tablets. The dark shadows under John’s eyes told their own story, and when John refused, he did something he’d decided never to do, his uncles’ trick of slipping them into a hot drink.
“Wake me up if you need anything,” he said, as John got into bed, before saying goodnight.
“You were a long time,” Mary-Lou murmured as he got into his own bed, next to her.
“John’s here,” he spoke in an undertone. “I’ll tell you why tomorrow, but don’t ask him, will you?”
“No,” she was half-asleep and not listening, he sighed and tried to follow her example, but it was in the early hours when he finally closed his eyes.
“Daddy? Are you awake? Mummy said to tell you that breakfast was ready.” Thomas climbed up on the bed and giggled when his father grabbed and tickled him. “Uncle John’s here, Daddy!”
“I know.” Rix sat up, remembering and dressed hurriedly. “And I’ve got morning surgery, blast. I might not have time for breakfast.”
“Blast,” Tom echoed, happily. “Can I see Jana today please?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Rix said, thinking of John. “I’m going to phone your Uncle Frank later and see if he can drive over. Then you can play with Jonathan.”
“He’s too little to play properly.” Tom said, but subsided. He wasn’t as argumentative as his brothers, who were sitting on either side of John at the breakfast table. John looked up as Rix came into the kitchen, but didn’t speak.
Mary-Lou came over with porridge for the triplets. “Dilys just came round to say that your first patient cancelled her appointment, so you don’t need to rush. John, would you like some more toast?”
“No thanks,” John replied, his usual ready smile noticeably absent.
“What do you think?” Rix asked Francis Rayner. He had telephoned privately from the surgery, leaving John with Mary-Lou, and given him the few facts that he knew for sure. He knew Frank would keep it to himself.
“I can see why you’re worried, but coming to you is a positive step. Did he say why he did it?”
“No, he won’t talk to me. I’ve tried, but I don’t want to make things worse. I’ve got no experience with this kind of thing…”
“He’s your brother, not some case study,” Frank said, but his tone was kind. “Try and talk to him again, you don’t need to find out what happened, just make sure that he knows he can speak to you if he wants to.”
“I think he needs to speak to someone in confidence. Do you know anybody?” Rix was impatient in his worry for his brother.
“Well, what about Lyndhurst? He’s a psychiatrist.”
“A child psychiatrist.” Rix was dismissive.
“Not always. I think he would be your best bet. You’re still in touch with him, aren’t you?”
“Not really.” Not since I said those things to him after Peggy’s funeral, Rix thought. Daniel had been civil since, on the few occasions they had met, but there had been a new distance. Still, for John, he would ask him.
John had got quite far along the Haylings road, barely noticing the scenery around him. Much as he adored his sister and young nephews, it was exhausting to spend time with them and he was tired, despite sleeping better than he had for days.
The medical officer had phoned earlier that morning, luckily after Rix had started his surgery hours. John didn’t think he would phone again, but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t seemed satisfied with some of the answers John had given. John ran the conversation over and over in his mind, wishing he had found better words.
“I’ve put in a recommendation that you have eight weeks’ leave, then I’ll review your case. Commander Lawton wasn’t very happy, but the Captain’s agreed. However – do you want to come back?”
No. “I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ve got eight weeks to decide. How are things there? Did you say you’re staying with your brother?”
“I’m fine. Yes I am.”
“Good. Maybe I should talk to him?
“He’s not here… I don’t know.”
“Lieutenant… John, listen to me, I don’t know what’s going on, but I’d like to help you, if you’ll let me. Anything you tell me will be in confidence.”
It was worse when Bailey was being nice, but John knew that if he told him, he couldn’t keep it confidential.
“I’ve been under a lot of strain,” he said, wondering how little he could get away with. “I was drunk and well, it seemed like the only thing I could do. I realise now, that it was stupid. It won’t happen again.” He could hear the insincerity in his own voice.
“My promotion,” he said, closing his eyes. It wasn’t true. He had worked hard to earn it and had been proud of it, but now it didn’t matter. “I don’t think I was quite ready for it,” he muttered.
“Really,” Bailey was sceptical. “I won’t ask you again, you’re obviously not going to tell me, but… If you’ve got a problem so serious that trying to commit suicide seems the only way out, John, then think of others who might also be in the same situation.”
“I’ve got to go.” John controlled himself with a huge effort.
“Telephone me if you need to talk,” Bailey had hung up first.
Now he continued down the lane, trying to stop thinking and clear his mind. He could count his blessings, as Auntie Madge had told them to do when they were children.
The sun is shining. I slept better last night that I have in months. I used to be happy when we lived in Armishire, he thought, but it didn’t really help.
I’m with Rix and Daphne. That was better. He had missed his family terribly, but Rix was already asking questions that were hard to evade answering.
He looked up as he heard the sound of voices and frowned. It was a dark-haired woman with two children, and she looked vaguely familiar.
“Good morning,” she said, with a pleasant smile. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
“Good morning,” he replied, politely.
“Do you know the area?” she asked. “I’m afraid I may be lost. We went to pick strawberries at the farm. I need to get back to Howells Village. Do you know it?”
He nodded and pointed. “It’s just down the road, you can just about make out the church spire – see?”
“Do you live there? I haven’t seen you around the village. We’ve just moved here.”
He didn’t really want to talk, but at least if he answered her questions, he didn’t have to think about anything else. “I’m staying with my brother and his wife. Just for a week or so. I got here yesterday.”
“You know your way around though.” She smiled at him.
“I used to live just outside Armiford when I was a kid.” He took her basket of strawberries and walked alongside her, back to the village. When he told her his name was Bettany she paused.
“I expect you know my brother,” he continued. “He’s got three boys about your daughter’s age.”
“Yes… Yes, I know him,” she smiled at him, a genuine, warm smile. “I used to go to your aunt’s school. It was at Plas Howell, wasn’t it? The Chalet School. Yes. I wasn’t there for long.”
When he didn’t reply, she pressed on. “I knew your sisters – well, they were older than me, except Maeve. Are you her twin brother?”
“No, I’m John, I’m older than Maeve.” He tried to relax, and just about managed it. She was only a casual acquaintance; she had been to the Chalet School. Maybe she had come to the Round House or Plas Gwyn and he had met her there. He had met so many schoolgirls when he was younger. “Do you keep in touch with her?”
“No, I haven’t kept in touch with anyone,” she was frowning now, and it spoiled her beauty. “I hated it there.”
Despite himself, he was interested. He hadn’t realised that anyone could hate his aunt’s school. Mary-Lou and his sisters and cousins never stopped talking about how much they had loved it.
“Why?” he asked.
“I didn’t have any friends there. I was bullied, the other girls were awful to me,” she lowered her voice so her children wouldn’t hear. “I used to look at the popular girls and wish I was like them. I didn’t have any choice though, my parents were abroad and my aunt and uncle thought I should go away to school. I went to join my parents eventually, thank goodness. Did you like your school?”
“It was all right,” he shrugged. “My parents wanted me to join the Navy, so I went to Dartmouth when I was twelve.”
“Didn’t you have any choice?” she asked, sympathetically.
“Well, it was what I wanted to do at twelve.” He’d thought about it a lot over the past few weeks, realising how much he had changed over the past eighteen years.
The walked in silence the rest of the way, and when they reached her cottage, she invited him in for tea. He accepted, not really wanting to, but it was good to have a conversation with someone who didn’t look at him with concern.
“Where did you go?” Rix asked, almost before he was through the door.
“Just for a walk. It hasn’t changed round here since we were kids, has it? Remember when you and David and I used to walk up to the San?”
“Yes,” Rix thought guiltily how he and David had always tried to avoid having John tag along after them. “I do one day a month up at the San now. How are you feeling?”
“Good… That’s good. Do you remember my friend, Dan Lyndhurst? He was my best man.”
“I couldn’t come to your wedding.”
“No, but you came to Maeve’s. He’s Freddie’s cousin.”
“I think I know him – vaguely.”
“I thought you could talk to him. What do you think? He might be able to help you. It would be just between you and him – he wouldn’t report to me, or anything.”
“How could he help me?”
“Just – I don’t know. I just thought it might help, to have someone independent to talk to?”
“Does he know that I tried to kill myself?” John’s stare was confrontational.
“I haven’t told him anything, only if he would be willing to talk to you. He said it was your decision.”
“All right. I’ll meet him.” John concurred. “Only to get you off my back,” he added, with a faint smile.
“Where am I going, sir?” Harry Lloyd asked, as he steered the powerful car through the winding country lanes, driving a little too fast as usual.
“Howells, apparently there’s a village square with a pub and you should turn left there. The house is next to a meadow.” Daniel was nervous, and inclined to snap at his young chauffeur, but Harry was good-natured and didn’t worry about it.
“OK,” Harry replied, cheerfully. He was enjoying himself, he didn’t often get to drive out this far and it was such a lovely day. “Could that be it?” He braked sharply, spraying gravel. “I’ll go and ask. You wait here, Dr Lyndhurst.”
He dashed off, and was soon back. “Yes, it’s Carn Beg, and the doctor’s surgery. I spoke to his receptionist, ‘cos he’s with a patient, but she said Mrs Bettany is home.”
“Thank you,” Daniel went to find Mary-Lou.
“I was sorry to hear about your father,” he told her, over tea. “It must’ve been a huge shock.”
“It was… I alternate between wishing my mother were still alive to know we can give him a proper burial, and being glad that she isn’t. Mr Cameron is going to find out exactly how his father died, but I don’t know if I want to know what Father went through.”
“Will you go out there?”
“I don’t know… Oh, here’s Rix now, with the children. Boys, you won’t remember your Uncle Daniel, will you?”
“It’s good to see you.” Rix said. “This is my brother, John. He’s staying with us for a while, aren’t you? John, Dan’s staying for dinner.”
“How do you do.” But John wouldn’t make eye contact and before long, he had left the room.
“I wanted him to talk to you,” Rix said, despondently.
“There’s plenty of time,” Daniel replied, calmly. “I’ll talk to him at dinner. Don’t put any pressure on him. He thinks I’m here to see you, after all.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“It’s better, believe me,” and Daniel turned to talk to the children.
John had gone into the garden, to smoke until he felt calmer. It was a trial to meet new people and have normal conversations. Lida Olsen had been the first person to which he had found himself actually being able to open up even a tiny amount.
Alexander had kicked his brother under the dinner table and had been sent to bed early in disgrace. His brothers had been told they could play outside for another hour and Daphne had gone to watch them, leaving the four adults to talk.
“Where did you go this morning for your walk, John?” Mary-Lou asked. She had made an enormous effort to include him in the dinner conversation, not at all rebuffed by his terse replies.
“Not very far. I met Mrs Olsen – Lida,” he added, turning to Rix. “We had coffee.”
It was the longest sentence he had spoken that evening.
“That’s nice, did you meet the kids?” Rix said, encouragingly. “They play with ours sometimes.”
“She told me. Did you keep in touch with her from school?” he asked Mary-Lou, who shook her head.
“She’s not a Chalet School girl, is she? I thought she was Danish. I don’t think I knew any Danish girls at school.”
“No, she’s English… Haven’t you met her?” Rix asked. “She didn’t tell me she went to the Chalet School, but I’ve only met her a few times.”
“She said she didn’t like it there.”
“How could she not have liked it?” Mary-Lou was taken aback. “It’s a wonderful school. You must be mistaken, John – or perhaps she went to that ghastly place in Tanswick. What did you say her name was – Lida? No, I don’t remember any Lida.”
“I might have made a mistake,” John backed down at once.
“You must have done,” Mary-Lou retorted. “The only people who were unhappy at school – well, it was their own faults.”
“I didn’t think anyone liked school,” Daniel said, trying to lighten the tone, one eye on John.
“It seems so long ago. Right, I’m going upstairs to talk to that that bad child. Are you coming?” Rix saw an opportunity to leave Daniel to talk to John alone, and Mary-Lou nodded and went with him. John lit another cigarette and rubbed his temples and Daniel hastily sought the right words to use.
“You and Richard are close,” he eventually observed, in a detached way.
John looked up, as if he had only just remembered that Daniel was there. “I suppose so,” he said. “I mean, he’s my brother, I don’t remember not having him there.”
“Were you as close when you were children?”
“Not really. I’m a lot younger and anyway, he had Peggy, and David. Bride had Peggy too. They didn’t like Sybil or me tagging after them. But that was years and years ago,” he added, quickly. “I felt the same way about Maeve and Maurice, I’m sure.”
“Sure. I’ve never really understood the dynamics of families,” Daniel fibbed, having devoted a significant part of his professional life to the subject. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters myself. Have you a long leave?”
“Eight weeks. My ship’s going out in October.”
“Where are you going?” Daniel asked, noting how tense John looked.
“I’m not supposed to say, but we’re going to join the Beria Patrol. I don’t know… I’ve not been too fit recently, so they might not want me back for a while. I’m not sleeping very well.” John confessed. “You can’t take sleeping tablets when you’re at sea – my crew might need me.”
“You’re not at sea now though – and everything looks better after a night’s sleep,” Daniel said, reassuringly.
“I suppose…” John broke off as Rix and Mary-Lou returned.
“Do they fight like that a lot?” Daniel asked, referring to the triplets.
“All the time, I’m hoping it’ll stop when they go to school in September and meet other children. Apart from the Olsens, there really aren’t any others their age in Howells and it would be good for them to mix with other kids.”
“I really must meet Lida Olsen,” Mary-Lou said, with a glance at John. “I could go round tomorrow morning. We could go together, John, if you liked, and take the boys.”