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The Silver Sting (serialisation)

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Chapter 6

“Would you like a lift?” the voice said.

Gabby struggled against the wind and rain to pull her raincoat hood over her scarf. All of her mother’s warnings about taking lifts from strangers flew out of the window as the wind threatened to blow her off her feet and the rain stung her eyes.

“You probably don’t remember me.” The voice wound its window down. “I was the peeping Tom outside at the party – Annabel’s ex. She just told me you were on foot to the station. Get in. I’m going that way. It’s not fit for a dog out there. Promise I don’t bite!”

There was no elegant way to get into a Range Rover but right at the moment neither elegance nor appearance mattered one jot. For a fleeting moment, Gabby worried that the tan leather seats would get wet and her feet would mark the cream-coloured carpets but her conscience dealt with it in nanoseconds.

“I thought it was pretty mean that none of the others offered you a lift,” he commented, slipping the car into gear. “By the way in case Annabel didn’t mention it my name is Charles. Call me Charles.”

“Thank you, Charles. You are very kind. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say mean. I guess they just assumed that I had someone hiding around the corner waiting to sweep me up and whisk me away in a nice warm car. I don’t want to take you out of your way.” It was a lie: it didn’t bother her one iota.

“No problem to me. I go right by the station. I think I’ve got my instructions right this time. It’s Ethan to be picked up from football practice at four although God knows how they think they can kick a ball in this weather, and then Abby from ballet at four-twenty. Kids! All they want is a chauffeur these days.” Charles looked right and indicated left out of The Hawthorns.

“And I’m Gabby. I was at school with Annabel but – how stupid of me. I do have a habit of stating the obvious!”

“Were you close friends at school?” Charles glanced her way. She seemed a nice enough woman – well turned out, attractive, a bit shy, but she’d do nicely. Maybe he hadn’t got the short straw after all.

“As it happens we weren’t what you would call close friends. I didn’t really fit in with Annabel’s set. I was really surprised to receive the invitation from her. I have to confess that I nearly didn’t come but curiosity got the better of me. I have really enjoyed myself. Everybody has been kind and who couldn’t fall in love with your house?” Gabby said honestly.

“I must correct you on one thing, Gabby, it’s not my house. Not anymore. It’s Annabel’s house – lock, stock, and barrel.” Charles put slow emphasis on the lock, stock and barrel.

“I am so sorry. I hope you didn’t think I was prying.” Gabby shifted uncomfortably in her seat and decided to keep quiet rather than put her foot in it again.

Charles seemed happy to chatter away. “And this, Gabby, is not my car either! I shouldn’t be gossiping really, but it’s no big secret. Annabel owns the car and lets me use it. She would die if she thought I was taking the kids to school or picking them up from their activities in an old wreck, which is about all I could afford if she didn’t make this one available. It would do her reputation no good at all. Personally, as long as it has four wheels and an engine I wouldn’t care one jot what I drove. Material things don’t do it for me anymore. What time is your train?”

What an unusual man, Gabby thought. He was the first man she had ever met who didn’t care about material things. “There’s one at five to the hour and the next is at half past the hour.” Gabby looked at her watch. Damn, she would just miss the five to the hour and have to wait.

“We won’t make the five to train, too much traffic. It’s all the yummy mummies picking their children up in their four-wheelers, parking both sides of the roads and then pushing their way into the traffic lanes. No consideration for others. Strange that – never thought of myself as a yummy mummy before but, as they say, if the cap fits wear it!” He laughed.

“How about I buy you a cup of tea while you are waiting for the next train? I hear the Station café is quite posh. I’ll still have plenty of time to get to Ethan. You would be doing me a favour!”

Gabby hesitated. It would be a bit odd to be sitting drinking tea with Annabel’s ex five minutes after she had met him, but what harm could it do? He was clearly neither a rapist nor a murderer. In fact, he seemed a thoroughly decent man. “Only if I buy the tea,” she said.

“Deal,” Charles replied, as he pulled into the station car park.

He was relaxed and easy to talk to and no sooner had they finished their second cup of tea than they heard the announcement on the tannoy: the 3.30 service calling at Surbiton, Wimbledon, Clapham Junction and Waterloo will shortly be arriving on Platform 2. Please stand clear behind the yellow line.

Gabby grabbed her raincoat and her bag. “You’ve been really kind. Thank you, Charles. I’ll have to run.”

“Can I see you again? I’ve really enjoyed our chat.” Charles said, opening the door to the café.

“If you like. Here’s my number. Call me.” There was no time to think about it. The easiest thing to do was to hand him her card and run for the train, which was now sitting on the platform waiting to depart. “No harm done,” she said to herself as she sat down in her seat. He probably wouldn’t ring anyway and she could always say no if he did.

*

“I guess you’re not always as honest as this, Charles?” Gabby put her hands under her head and stretched out on the picnic blanket. It was a beautiful summer’s day – a clear blue sky and a gentle breeze.

“I didn’t want to crowd you, Gabby. I wanted you to get to know the real Charles before I told you about the old Charles. I am not proud of the old Charles and I can’t blame Annabel for divorcing me. I don’t know what came over me. Misbehaving with the au pair! It was just the one occasion, but I think that I had been building up the courage to have a go for a long time. Maybe I thought she wouldn’t be quite so willing, but I got that wrong,” Charles laughed at himself with a tinge of regret in his voice.

“It was a bit harsh to divorce you for straying just the once, don’t you think?” Gabby said.

“Hot-headed – that’s Annabel. Once she makes up her mind about something there’s no changing it. It all happened so quickly. Caught one day, and on camera, mind you, booted out the same day and divorced six months later. Likes to keep it quick and clean does Annabel.”

“You don’t seem to have too many regrets about it all.” Gabby thought it was strange but touching in a way that he had lost so much but seemed not in the least bit angry about it.

“It’s odd, isn’t it? Even my best friends thought that I was losing the plot when I didn’t contest the divorce or even the settlement she wanted. Money doesn’t buy you happiness, Gabby. Those who think that it does are wrong. Of course, everyone needs enough to provide them with a reasonable standard of living but after that… It’s people that matter more than money. I never thought I would hear myself saying that. I haven’t exactly been the kindest or most generous person in my time. But to answer your question – a year down the line, no, I don’t regret it. Somehow the arrangement works. We’re not exactly bosom buddies, but we muck along pretty well.

“I don’t miss the house or the swimming pool. I don’t miss the fast cars and nor do I miss Annabel’s unremitting social rounds or going to the races which we used to do regularly. I once owned a part-share in a horse – she was called Breeze. Annabel rides her now. If there is one thing I do miss, it’s my paintings. You probably noticed them in the house. There are one or two prints which are the real deal, but other than that nothing of great value. Mr Lowry and I are the best of friends. One of these days I’ll tell you all about him and then I’ll take you to see his works at the gallery in Manchester. There’s one painting in there that I would give my eye teeth to own.” Charles glanced at Gabby and smiled inwardly. She was soaking it all in. If only she knew. There was no way that Charles Fairbrother would ever walk away from a fortune.

Yes, she remembered the paintings and Elizabeth drooling over them until Annabel had put her right. “So now you live a simple life in your cottage?” Gabby said. It was cruel of Annabel to have left him with virtually nothing. She could at least have allowed him to take some of his paintings to put up in the cottage.

“I keep myself busy looking after a few small investments that Annabel kindly agreed to allow me to keep. Strangely enough, the separation and the divorce were the best things that ever happened to me. If you’d asked me a year ago if I could ever see myself living in a small rented cottage in Chertsey, cooking for myself, making picnics, going for long walks and enjoying the simple things of life, I would have laughed at you. But look at me now – in seventh heaven lying under an oak tree with the woman of my dreams.”

Gabby laughed. “Flatterer! But it has been fun. I enjoy your company too.” Annabel had made a big mistake in her opinion. She should never have let him go.

“So what you see Gabby is what you get – a pretty much penniless, but very contented forty-eight-year-old.”

“Likewise, but still in my thirties. Same age as Annabel you’ll be surprised to know!” Gabby replied, “I’ll never be rich but I enjoy what I do. I love my job – writing for me is a passion. I’m content with life as it is.” It was an honest response, well almost. If she hadn’t lost touch with Aunt Hetty and Uncle Max then she would have been truly content.

“I wish that we could spend more time together, but I have to consider the kids. Whatever Annabel may be, she’s a good mother and she makes sure that the kids see plenty of me.”

“I get that, Charles. Don’t worry. If you don’t mind me asking, does Annabel know about us? Does she mind?”

“I told her straight after our second meeting. She was fine with it. If I am not mistaken she’s quite pleased about it. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, she said! Not that she was comparing you to the devil!” Charles laughed. “I think she’s quite fond of you in her own way. And I also have an inkling that she too might have met someone. She did mention that she’d like to meet up for a coffee with you sometime.”

“I don’t think so. The only two things we have in common are that we went to the same school and that I am now dating her ex-husband, the latter of which is not a conversation that I would wish to have with her, however okay she is about us.”

“Maybe you are right. Best left, hey?”

*

“You know what’s wrong with Charles, don’t you, Gabby?” Annabel said knowingly.

Coffee with Annabel was living up to expectations. Gabby had made excuses three times but the fourth time she had been cornered.

“I don’t think that there is anything wrong with Charles, Annabel. He seemed fine yesterday,” Gabby replied sharply.

“I don’t mean yesterday. I mean generally, Gabby. He’s lonely – that’s what it is and he won’t admit it, not to himself, not to me and not to you. He’s very fond of you, you know. In fact, if I read the signs correctly he’s more than a little in love with you. Isn’t it time you made an honest man of him?”

Gabby stared at Annabel in astonishment. What business was it of hers whether Charles was lonely or not? She was the one who had kicked him out. And what business of hers was the relationship she had with Charles?

“I appreciate your concern for Charles and myself but if you won’t mind me saying, what plans Charles and I may or may not have are none of your business.”

“I didn’t mean to offend or pry, Gabby. You’re quite right of course. It’s none of my business except where the children are involved. And I know from what Charles has told me that you completely appreciate his responsibilities as a father. Let’s not fall out. I want to be friends. Did you read the paper this morning? It seems we’re in for a really hot September and an Indian summer after that! Won’t that be great?”

Annabel deftly changed the subject. From now on she would stay on safe turf. She had the answer to her question. She could read it all over Gabby’s face. Good.

*

Charles and Gabby were married four weeks later in Kingston Registry Office with no fuss and no guests – just the two witnesses that they needed: Sid, a pal from the golf club, and Susie, a friend of Gabby’s from work. Their honeymoon comprised two nights in a modest hotel in London, a trip to see Mamma Mia!, followed by a trip to the National Gallery the following day. In between times they nestled between the sheets and made love.

Annabel sent them a painting from the house for their wedding present. Charles was delighted even though it was not one of the Lowrys.

Gabby sold her flat and moved into the cottage. Offering to use the money that she had made from the sale of her own flat to put down as a deposit on a small house for the two of them, Charles would have none of it. What was hers was hers and she was to keep it for a rainy day which might, he reflected hopefully, come sooner than she thought.

The Chertsey cottage suited her just fine. With an easy walk to the station, it took her only a little longer to get into town by train than it had from Surbiton.

Everything was perfect with the world – well nearly!

*

It was not by choice that she saw little of the children. Charles was under strict instructions that his time with the children was for him alone. According to Charles, however much Annabel liked and respected Gabby, she was unswerving in her view that the children must not be confused by the relationship. Charles explained that he had tried without success to persuade her that a stepmother was nothing unusual to children these days. Quietly, he would have been delighted to have Gabby’s company on those days he had the children to himself, they ran him ragged. At times he wondered why he had ever agreed to have children at all.

The downside, of course, was that she saw that much less of her new husband than she would have liked and expected. Most Saturdays he was out with the children taking Ethan to a football match and taking Abby either to ballet, skating or to her riding lessons. Sundays had its routine as well – ‘the family’ had Sunday lunch together as they always had in the past. Gabby was not part of ‘the family’.

The routine, which at first she had found hard to accept, soon became established and she gradually found herself begrudging his time with the children less and less.

The holiday periods were another matter altogether. It was almost nine months into their marriage when Charles broached the subject of holidays ‘with the kids’. The summer holidays were almost upon them and Annabel and the children had been invited to stay for three weeks with some old friends of theirs. The invitation had been extended to Charles – a holiday without their father in Hawaii would not be fun for the children, Annabel had said.

Gabby listened open-mouthed. She could see where it was leading but didn’t want to believe it. Was he seriously expecting her to give him her blessing to go off on a three-week holiday with his ex-wife and the children? The long and the short of it was that that was exactly what he was driving at.

Charles niggled away at it like a dog with a bone from morning until night, explaining until he was blue in the face that it was not his idea. He would far rather spend his time with Gabby, but maybe Annabel was right – the kids did need their father with them.

In the end, her defences collapsed and Charles had his own way. He promised that she could trust him implicitly and that he would ring her every day and would miss her more than she could ever imagine.

Gabby spent the three weeks putting in extra hours with her writing and in between times working her way through a backlog of books while lying in the sunshine. The three weeks passed surprisingly quickly and everything returned to normal, until Christmas.

*

It was late on a cold December Sunday evening. Charles had excelled himself in the kitchen cooking lobster and a lemon syllabub, serving it with not one but two bottles of champagne. And then he had popped the question.

“Annabel received another of those bloody invitations yesterday from a friend of hers who has a chalet in Innsbruck. They are going out there on Boxing Day and staying over until the ninth of January. She is desperate to go and give the kids the chance to go skiing. She asked if you might let me off the leash to go with them!”

The lobster suddenly tasted like cardboard. She knew Charles when he started down this track.

“The answer is no Charles. I will not let you off the leash. It’s barely five months since you all came back from Hawaii.”

“She has a way of making me feel guilty. If only I could be in two places at once.”

“So what did you say Charles?” Gabby asked, looking him in the eye.

“I said I’d mention it. That’s all.”

“That’s all, is it? I’m getting the distinct feeling that this is a done deal and that you’re just going through the motions with me. Am I right or am I wrong?”

“Give me a break, Gabby. We’ll have Christmas Day together.”

Gabby shrugged her shoulders and scowled. What was the point of arguing? “Then I’ll just have to make my own plans for Boxing Day and New Year. I shall go to Scotland. I probably forgot to mention that I have friends who live in Fife.” It was true; she did know people who lived in Scotland but she had no intention of visiting them. Aunt Hetty had been constantly on her mind since she had received the note from Uncle Max. The news wasn’t good. It was way past time that she made her peace with them.

Chapter 7

“Gabby?” Uncle Max framed the door, a little stooped, a little more grey, a little less hair but still the same kindly blue eyes. “I knew you would come.”

“Uncle Max,” Gabby replied, tears in her eyes. “What happened? This whole place, it’s falling down.”

“One little mistake and a lot of years, my dear,” Uncle Max replied despondently.

And then she was in his arms, her head resting on his old cardigan, his hand stroking her hair just as he had when she was a child. Nothing had changed. She was so thankful.

“How’s Aunt Hetty? I got your card and I came as soon as I could.”

“She’s pulling through. It was not such a bad attack this time.”

“This time?” Gabby said. “You mean that there have been others?”

“A few, yes. She didn’t want me to worry you and she didn’t want you to come running just because she was having a difficult time.
I told her we should have told you long ago but you know your Aunt Hetty – stubborn as a mule. But this time I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. The past is the past and I hated keeping it from you,” Uncle Max said thoughtfully. “You look as though life is treating you well, Gabby. Come on in.”

“I don’t know what to say, Uncle Max. Sorry sounds so pathetic. When I walked out on you both I did intend to come back and put things right with you, but somehow it never happened.” She knew that her words were totally inadequate. No matter how much Aunt Hetty had detested Dave it had been no good reason to walk away from the two people who had taken her under their wing and cared for her as they would their own daughter. Where had eighteen years gone?

“So how is Dave?” Uncle Max asked tentatively, not wishing to drag the past up.

“He’s history, a long time ago. You were both right about him. I should have listened to you. When it fell apart I was just too proud to ring you and tell you that Aunt Hetty was right all along.”

“Your Aunt Hetty is resting in bed, but she’ll be so pleased to see you. She’s such a worrier. There’s been something on her mind for years and now she won’t let it rest. She keeps saying that she can’t go to her grave in peace without explaining things to you.”

“Does that mean that she won’t get better?”

“Oh no, not at all, Gabby. She’s a tough old stick, but I think that she had almost given up hope of ever seeing you again. She’ll be over the moon.” Uncle Max pointed to a narrow staircase. “You go right up and see her and then we’ll have that catch-up. Never a day has passed when we haven’t spoken about you with love.”

Gabby climbed the stairs and knocked quietly on the bedroom door.

“Come in,” a loud voice called. “Don’t stand on ceremony whoever you are. I’m not made of china whatever you may think!”

Gabby smiled and heaved a sigh of relief. Her aunt might have had a heart attack, but she was as vocal as ever.

“Gabby? Is that really you?” she asked, sitting bolt upright in bed. “Let me look at you! You’re even more beautiful than I remember. Oh, I can’t tell you how good it is to see you. You should have let us know. I told Max not to bother you but I have to confess that I am so glad he did.”

“Let me prop the pillows up for you,” Gabby said, trying to cover her embarrassment at the welcome that she so did not deserve.

“Don’t smother me, my dear! Now, before you ask, Gabby, I’m doing fine. There is nothing to worry about. I’ll be on my feet again in no time.”

Gabby sat on the bed lost for words.

“And how is Dave?” Aunt Hetty asked.

“History. I just told Uncle Max – a long time ago. No love lost, Aunt Hetty. He was a mistake, just as you told me he would be. It took me a while but I walked away in the end. We don’t need to mention his name ever again.”

“I’m sorry about that, truly I am. Did Max tell you that there was something I wanted to talk to you about?”

Gabby nodded. “Yes, he mentioned that there was something worrying you.”

“I’m sorry about Dave, but you not being with him makes what I have to tell you so much easier.” Hetty squeezed her niece’s fingers.

“Forget Dave, Aunt Hetty. He’s the past. Concentrate on getting better.”

“I can’t forget him altogether, Gabby, at least not until I’ve told you the whole story. I need to explain to you why I was so opposed to your marriage to Dave all those years ago.”

“It doesn’t matter, Aunt Hetty. It’s water under the bridge.”

“That is as it may be, but I still need to explain a few things. You see, I was just trying to protect you. Your Uncle Max and I are the only ones who know the real story. It concerns your mother as well.”

It was a long time since they had spoken together of her mother. Gabby remembered winter evenings in front of the fire with her Aunt and the many stories she told of their childhood, some of which were undoubtedly embellished and others of which were so incredible that they just had to be true. As sisters, they had been very close.

“You see, your mother knew Dave’s father, Kirk, when she was a girl. I think she was sixteen at the time. There’s no easy way to put this Gabby, but she had a baby with him and afterward, the baby was adopted. It was long before your father’s time. She told Kirk that she was pregnant. He was young too and probably frightened about the consequences and denied that it was his. Anyway, our mother arranged for me to take your mother off on a little holiday until after the baby was born which we did. It was a girl. It was your mother’s wish for the baby to be adopted. She simply wanted what was best for the child. It was never mentioned in the family again.”

Gabby turned her face away and looked out of the window. As a child she had longed for a brother or a sister more than anything. She had loved her mother dearly, but had she ever known her?

“A girl?” she whispered, “So does this mean that I have a half-sister somewhere?”

“Yes, Gabby, but believe me I have no idea who adopted her or where she might be now. I do know that they called her Nancy. She would be in her early fifties now, probably with a family of her own.”

“A sister. I have a half-sister?” Gabby could hardly believe her ears.

Hetty nodded. “When your mother met your father in her early twenties she told him nothing about it. He was a very Christian man and Victorian in his ways. Everything was black and white – there was no grey. He would never have married her if he had known. I always thought that they had a strange sort of marriage, but your mother was always very loyal to him and had great respect for your father. Even though Kirk lived just a few miles away their paths never crossed again until many years later. When you were ten years old, your mother received a letter from him. In it, he said that he wanted his daughter back.”

Gabby sat back thoughtfully. “But he was my father-in-law. He never mentioned her after I married Dave.”

“He wrote to your mother asking about the child. Your mother had long since closed that chapter and told him that she had no idea where the child was and had no intention of trying to find out. That sounds cruel, but it wasn’t. She knew that the child had gone to a loving couple who could not have children themselves and the last thing she wanted was for the child’s life to be disrupted. He kept writing and in his last letter he threatened that his next letter on the subject would be to your father. Your mother waited for the post to arrive every day so that she could intercept letters. She succeeded on several occasions but knew that her luck could not last. The past ate away at her – that she had had a baby and let her go and that she had never been honest with your father. Looking back over the years there have been occasions when I have wondered if your father had known about it all along. It would have accounted for the way he treated her. He was a cold fish, Gabby. She deserved better.”

“So is that why she took her own life?” Gabby asked, forcing the words from her mouth. It was almost twenty-six years ago but the memory of losing her mother was as raw as the day it had happened.

“So you knew all along, Gabby?” Hetty shook her head. “I always hoped that you would think that she had died from natural causes. I couldn’t tell you the truth – it was her dying wish was that no one, except Max and I, should ever know. I found her that day. She had left a letter for me explaining why she could not cope anymore but more particularly asking me to take special care of you.”

“It wasn’t difficult to work out,” Gabby said.

“The doctor was very kind and mentioned her suicide to no one. I always held Kirk, Dave’s father, responsible for her death. We didn’t hear from Kirk again. And all those years later…you and Dave. I thought that Kirk had encouraged your marriage to Dave as a way of getting back at your mother. One way or another he was going to have one of her daughters. I couldn’t tell you why I forbad you to marry him.” Aunt Hetty took a deep breath, closed her eyes and slowly exhaled. “Can you ever forgive me?”

Gabby sat on the edge of the bed and gave her aunt a gentle hug. “But I shouldn’t have walked out on you. Can we start all over again?”

Hetty smiled. “Let’s put it all behind us Gabby and look to happier times. Now, tell me about you.”

Ten minutes later Gabby drew breath. How had she managed to pack eighteen years into just ten minutes? Maybe that said something in itself.

“And then I met a very nice man last year and we got married soon afterward. We have our moments but you’ll like him. I’ll bring him to meet you both soon,” Gabby said.

“And, what’s his name?”

“Charles. And I’m now Gabby Fairbrother. That’s the third surname I’ve had and I don’t intend to have any more! Now, tell me when these attacks started, Aunt Hetty?”

“Oh, several years ago now, just after we moved here – a bit of age catching up with me combined with a lot of stress!”

“I don’t remember you ever getting stressed about anything. You always used to take everything in your stride and say that life was too short.”

“It’s another long story, Gabby. I’m getting just a little tired now so why don’t you ask your Uncle Max about it over a cup of tea? Then come back and see us again very soon. I’m feeling so very much better now. Seeing you is the best tonic in the world. Don’t be a stranger!”

“Never again, Aunt Hetty. You’re stuck with me now. I may even see you tomorrow. Love you.”

*

By the time Uncle Max’s story was finished they were both swimming in tea.

“So, Uncle Max you are telling me that this crook has just got away with it, that he walked off into the sunset leaving you all to live in this state? It’s criminal. So, is that why that old lady is up a ladder pruning trees and Andy is mowing the meadow trying to find a croquet lawn? It beggars belief. How can you possibly live in this mess?”

“We have no choice in the matter, Gabby. There are ten cottages occupied at Magnolia Court and thirteen of us living here. All the cottages are in the same state as ours and all the communal facilities are in an even more sorry state. We do our best to maintain it, but none of us is getting any younger. Would you like the guided tour? It’s not a pretty sight.”

Chapter 8

Gabby climbed into the car and slammed the door shut. Andy, wiping the sweat from his forehead, looked up alarmed and waved as she yanked the car into gear and floored the accelerator. Out of the open window, she thought she heard Andy shout that she might leave a little gravel for another day.

Potholes! Bugger the potholes! They were the least of their worries.

In her mind she pictured the monster that had been responsible for leaving her aunt and uncle and all those other elderly folk in the state he had – an animal, uncaring, unfeeling and the scum of the earth. He had robbed them, robbed them blind.

And where had she been while all this was happening? In Surbiton, cocooned in her own cosy little world. She was as much to blame as anybody; there was no escaping it. If she had been there for them then maybe she could have helped them.

And how could they just accept it even after all this time, surrounded by constant reminders? The whole place was falling down around their ears. Their dreams had been shattered. What should have been the ultimate in retirement living was probably the worst place in the world to live out their retirement years. But to a man and dog, they had no option but to make the best of it. Nobody in their right minds would ever buy the properties from them. In their current state, they had little or no value.

When her anger subsided she put herself in Uncle Max’s shoes. You can only fight for so long, especially a battle that cannot be won – the disappearing man. How could anybody disappear off the face of the earth in this day and age? But that apparently was precisely what he had done. Left them high and dry and vanished into thin air.

She had to admire Uncle Max’s tenacity – three whole years he had stuck at building a court case and trying to trace the man so that he could be brought to justice. Nothing came cheap and it had almost bankrupted them all. Uncle Max had valiantly led the battle and long ago he had become battle weary.

It was more than criminal.

Now she knew why Dot and Dennis had been working on the trees and Andy was fighting to find the croquet pitch that might once have graced the lawns in front of the old mansion. They had no choice – do or die. There were no fairy godmothers to wave wands and no long-lost benefactors to pay people to do the work for them. They deserved a medal – every one of them.

Uncle Max had made the guided tour sound like a walk in the park but it was far from it. His words echoed in Gabby’s ears – she was not going to forget them in a long time.

“In its time it must have been quite magnificent,” Uncle Max had said. “It was originally built back in the early 1800s – that was the Regency Period – but in the Tudor Gothic Style. A very odd thing to do but we have to assume that was what the owner wanted. It was built for Sir James Fotheringay. He was quite a leading light in the industrial revolution. I gather that he made his fortune in textiles. It must have many stories to tell. At one time it was a school and then a hospital and then a monastery. During the First World War, it was used as a convalescent home for injured officers. It reverted to being a school again after the war and closed its doors for the final time back in the mid-eighties. From what I have been able to find out it was in a pretty good state of repair then. Do you see those renovations on either side of the façade, Gabby? Done by a craftsman, I would guess. The bricks are such a rich red and so ornate in places. A lot of craftsmen worked on this house and many apprentices cut their teeth on it.” Max gazed nostalgically up at the front of the mansion.

All Gabby could see was crumbling masonry, moss growing in gaps in the rendering and gargoyles around the top of the building, which were now almost unrecognisable: in short, a complete and utter wreck.

“Let’s go in,” Uncle Max had said. “This, Gabby, was to have been the heart and soul of the community where you would have found the residents’ lounge, the cocktail bar, the main reception and the restaurant. The artist’s impressions were truly magnificent – lovely deep sofas sitting on Persian and Indian carpets on top of oak flooring, not forgetting the grand piano in the corner of the room.”

Uncle Max opened the huge oak front doors, rotting and creaking with age. Gabby had pictured what it would be like long before she stepped into the building and she had not been disappointed.

“It’s quite safe to go in so long as we are careful. We don’t lock the doors anymore. What would be the point? This was once the great hall. Can you imagine how magnificent it would have been in its day, Gabby? You can just hear the music and see all those elegant couples waltzing gracefully around the room.”

However great it might have been once, it was little short of a bombsite. Shafts of light danced on the warped oak floor where roof tiles had been displaced, or had fallen away, making room for the elements to do their worst. A thick layer of dust covered the floor. Plaster had fallen away and congregated in great piles at the foot of the walls. Cobwebs drifted in the breeze from the thirty-foot-high ceiling.

“So did the restoration of the great hall ever get off the ground?” Gabby asked.

“Oh yes. It started when the first tranche of cottages was being built. There was scaffolding up everywhere. The stained-glass windows at the back were taken away, repaired and replaced. The roof was repaired or so we were told. We were so excited about it and quite happy to wait because we knew that it could not be done overnight. Besides we had the facilities in the old stable block at the back to use in the meantime. They were finished just before we moved into the cottages. We can walk through there now if you like.”

Gabby remembered a fleeting moment of relief. At least they had had some communal facilities. It was not a total disaster.

The moment they walked in through the stable doors, her face dropped. A long corridor had been built the length of the stable block with several doors leading off to the right. It was damp and musky. A fading sign on the first door invited them to enter the Pool and Spa. The pool was empty, the lining cracked, and the once blue and yellow ceramic tiles that surrounded the pool were dangerously uneven and missing in places. Faded sunbeds, covered in cobwebs, were stacked against the walls and gave pleasure only to the spiders that had made them their home. Daylight streamed through gaps in the roof. Pathetically, buckets had been placed strategically around the pool to catch the worst of the rainfall. The adjoining changing rooms reeked of mould. There was no sign of a spa.

“But you said that you all used these facilities when you moved in,” Gabby said.

“We did, but it was short-lived. For six months it was fine and then there was one problem after another. By that time he had disappeared. We closed the doors and left it. It’s been like this since – beyond redemption.”

The gymnasium had fared no better. Adjoining the poolroom, and sharing the same roof, it had suffered similar problems. Running machines, steppers, rowing machines and weight-training equipment had long since been abandoned. Rust coated the mechanical parts while the electrical cables and plugs had been pulled from the sockets for safety. An electrician, called in after a basic problem, had condemned every aspect of the installation work and declared the area to be a major safety hazard.

The library was sad beyond belief. Damp patches stained the walls and bookshelves hung precariously from walls. It explained why there were piles of books stacked up in the hallway of Uncle Max and Aunt Hetty’s cottage.

After a few miles she eased off the accelerator – killing innocent motorists would do little to help matters unless of course one of them happened to be the monster who had built Magnolia Court and then left the residents to grapple with the consequences.

Their last port of call had been the golf course. Vimy Ridge, as Uncle Max referred to it, was set some fifty yards back from the mansion and the stable block and almost towered over both buildings. “That’s the golf course, Gabby. It was to have been an eighteen-hole course originally, but then they had to reduce it to nine holes – something to do with making room for the clubhouse bar and freeing up space for the next phase of the development. Another twenty cottages should have been built there. We didn’t mind. If we had wanted to do so we could do the eighteen holes by going round twice. It was no hardship.

“We may not have a golf course and we may not have a clubhouse, but we do have the nineteenth hole as we like to call it! Do you see that little timber box on stilts over there? Well, that is the only building on this site that has stood the test of time. It arrived on the back of a huge lorry. It was where the contractors sheltered when the weather was bad and made their mugs of tea. We’ve put a little generator in there now and a few electric fires and a kettle. That’s our meeting place. It’s not quite the great hall, but we like it. We try not to mention his name when we’re together. It brings back too many unhappy memories. Life is a strange thing, Gabby. You really never know whom you can trust. His name was Harry Trumper, the man who first conceived all this and then robbed us of our dreams.”

*

It was the third time that someone had sounded a horn at her. Normally Gabby would have apologised for her careless driving with an appropriate gesture. The gestures that she returned that day were anything but appropriate, inviting more blasts from horns and several less than polite verbal responses. She couldn’t have cared less. What did they know about anything? Gabby glanced at the sign ahead. In what seemed no time at all she was almost home – back to the safety of her cottage. There were no lights on; Charles was away in Innsbruck enjoying his après-ski while she was home with nothing to think about but the past eighteen years and Magnolia Court.

Gabby put her feet up in front of the television and flicked through the channels. It was all rubbish, but maybe that was what she needed to take her mind off Magnolia Court. No one was going to treat her aunt and uncle that way and get away with it. Easy words, but what the hell could she do where so many others had failed?

The weather forecaster predicted thunderstorms in the next day or two reminding Gabby that the residents would need to empty the buckets in the poolroom. All roads led back to Magnolia Court.

Gabby reached for the phone. She would ring Charles. He would know what to do. And then she hesitated. Wouldn’t he think it a bit strange that she was only now telling him about the aunt and uncle whom she had not seen for eighteen years and that she was not in Scotland at all? Maybe she would tell him later.

Aunt Hetty, Uncle Max and Magnolia Court were now her number one priority. In the next two weeks, she would help them out with any job they pointed her way, and while she was there she would start to dig the dirt on Harry Trumper.

Uncle Max had told her to leave well alone, that it was all history and best forgotten. But it wasn’t history to her; it was today’s news.

Chapter 9

It was the third day in a row that Gabby had spent at Magnolia Court. The first day back, she had helped Uncle Max put up some new bookshelves in the small hallway before taking Duncan down into the town in Andy’s van. On the second day, she had donned her wellington boots and set off to help Andy uncover the croquet lawn. There had been whoops of delight when they uncovered four of the old croquet hoops, which were now ‘in restoration’ in Andy’s sitting room.

“I told Jennifer that you would give her a hand today, Gabby,” her aunt said. “She’s up at the nineteenth hole giving it a makeover, whatever that may mean. I’m sure you’ll soon find out.”

“No problem. I’m on my way.” Gabby slipped her coat back on and walked up to the nineteenth hole. Peering around the door she saw that Jennifer was up on the top rung of the stepladder seemingly hanging a curtain to the tune of Bali Hai.

“Hello Gabby, just in time,” she called, without looking down. “Hetty mentioned that she’d send you up to give me a hand today. I’ve nearly finished hanging this one. You can give a hand with the others if you like.” Jennifer slotted the last hook onto the ring on the curtain rail and let the curtain cascade to the ground. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt over a thick jumper, Jennifer descended the ladder chattering all the while. “Did I mention that I was a costume designer for a West End theatrical productions company and that I even did a bit of set design? This velvet came from one of the theatres. They were going to throw it away, but I couldn’t bear to see it go so I’ve kept it all this time. This room is going to be transformed into one of the stage settings from South Pacific – always one of my favourite musicals. What beautiful sea-green this velvet is. When the sun shines it looks deep blue and on a grey day like this, it looks deep green – just like the sea. I’m going to introduce warm, sunny colours into the room with the cushions and I’ve got some lovely fabric smothered in seashells, which we can use to make table covers. Duncan found me a set of six huge posters of South Pacific on eBay and those will be pinned up on the two big walls. How about a cup of tea first?”

“Uncle Max told me about what happened with Magnolia Court,” Gabby began cautiously. “It makes me mad. I wish I could do something to help.”

“Nothing much you can do, dear,” Jennifer replied, vaguely eyeing the curtains.

“There must be something. I thought maybe getting a picture of him might be a start. Do you mind me asking what you remember of him?”

“No, I’m quite happy to tell you anything I can remember.” Jennifer frowned. “It was a long time ago, Gabby. We only met him once and when I say met him, well, that’s not very accurate. You see it was in a very big conference room and he made the presentation about Magnolia Court from a stage. I was almost at the back of the room. There were probably about a hundred people in the audience. He seemed to be such a nice genuine man, entirely selfless. He started off by telling us about his vision for a retirement complex – that was the word he used – and how much he wanted to be a trailblazer for luxury retirement living. He was a good-looking man but without any outstanding features – a good head of dark wavy hair, medium height, well-built but not overweight. He had the most annoying habit of keeping his hands in his pockets and jingling his change. You could hear it even from where I was sitting.”

“I know someone who does just the same thing,” Gabby laughed. “It’s a man thing I think. We should sew up their pockets!”

“He was quite articulate. I’d guess that he’d lived in the East End at some time. He was a smooth talker, that’s for sure. Smiled a lot. Seemed very confident and comfortable in himself. When he announced that the first ten to sign up for a cottage would be taken on a trip to California to see a retirement complex similar to the one that he was going to build, you could have heard a pin drop!”

“So, was that why you signed up?” Gabby asked, surprised that someone like Jennifer should have been taken in so easily.

“Oh no, it wasn’t that, although it did sound attractive. It was the people I met when we went to look at the detailed plans. One of the architects was charming; the other one I wasn’t quite so keen on. We all hit it off straightaway and we all decided that there was nothing to be lost by enjoying a bit of Californian sunshine. They promised to refund our deposit if we didn’t like what we saw. Nothing to lose, was there? We were only there for three days but by the time we got back, it was as though we’d known each other all our lives. We really wanted to live together and that’s why we all bought our cottages at Magnolia Court. Sorry that I can’t be of more help. If you really want to find out more about him you should pop down and see Amy, and don’t be fooled by what you find. She’s as sharp as a needle when it comes to remembering some things in the past.”

“I’ll do that. Thanks.”

“Time to get on, my dear,” Jennifer said, clearing the tray away. “Let’s tackle that next curtain. How’s your sewing?”

“Fair. I can sew in a straight line, but that’s about the sum total of it! My mother was the one for that. She was an amazing seamstress.” Gabby smiled to herself, remembering the mornings she had spent sitting beside her mother watching her work.

“A straight line will do to start. You’ll soon get the hang of going round corners! There’s a lot to be done. But this afternoon we’re just hanging the curtains.”

“I can help you with the sewing tomorrow if you like.”

“No, not tomorrow. Tomorrow is my chemo day. We can pick it up again the day after,” Jennifer announced matter-of-factly.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know,” Gabby said, taken aback by Jennifer’s statement.

“No reason why you should. The others all know that I don’t like to make a fuss about it. They understand. Breast cancer, you know. Happens to over forty thousand women each year – a bit like getting flu but needs a bit more careful treatment.”

“Do you have a family to take care of you?”

“I have a daughter and a son. Janine lives in Carlisle. She’s got three children to look after and another on the way. Jamie moves around a lot. I don’t see much of either of them. I like to let the children get on with their lives. I’ve got all the help and support
I need right here at Magnolia Court and at the hospital. My friends here keep their distance but are always here when I need them and the Macmillan nurses are saints.

It had been just a bit tougher than Jennifer was prepared to admit to anybody. She’d gone to the hospital after receiving a recall following the biennial mammogram that she never missed. There was a one in twenty chance that anything was wrong, so the letter said. It was far more likely to be a little shadow that had shown up on the X-ray. She had been on her own when the radiologist told her that she had breast cancer. Thankfully, they had said, they had caught it early but would she like a cup of tea before she left? She remembered laughing and thinking that she couldn’t quite share their view that there was anything to be thankful for and what was more it wasn’t tea she needed – it was a bloody good gin and tonic!

During her next visit to the hospital, the oncologist and his nurse described the treatment that they would be giving her – surgery followed by chemotherapy followed by a course of combined chemo and Herceptin and nicely rounded up with a twenty-day course of radiotherapy. If all ran to plan, they said, she would almost certainly suffer from nausea, severe tiredness, other aches and pains and her brain would probably turn to jelly for a few days after each session. Laughing, they called it chemo brain. She remembered playing the game and returning the laugh – very funny!

A few friends in her old social circle outside of Magnolia couldn’t cope with it. She had the big ‘C’ emblazoned across her forehead. To them she was no longer Jennifer but a friend who had cancer. They were soon conspicuous by their absence. The cards of sympathy had found their way straight into the bin – anyone would think she had died and she had absolutely no intention of giving them that satisfaction.

With every message of sympathy that came, she had become more and more determined to show them all that not only could she get through the process without making a fuss, but she would also continue to do all the things that normal people do, and if that included a few gin and tonics now and again then that was the way it would be.

Jennifer stroked her long strawberry blond hair thoughtfully and smiled at Gabby. “I suppose you’re wondering whether this is all mine! Well, it’s not. This is my best wig. My hair wasn’t dissimilar to this before it all fell out. Quite amusing really – I spent a fortune on getting it cut and styled so that when it did eventually fall out, it wouldn’t be quite so much of a blow. Sod’s law, Gabby, it fell out the very following morning when I had a shower. But it will grow again – just a matter of time and in the meantime, I have to put up with my theatrical wigs, which I just love. And the best thing about it is that I can change the colour of my hair and my hairstyle any time I want to. I’ve got quite a collection of wigs.”

“It doesn’t seem to have stopped you getting on with things,” Gabby said admiringly.

“It may not work for everyone Gabby, but to my mind, the way of getting through it is to keep busy – focus on other things. That’s why I’m doing this project and then when I’ve finished this one I’ll find another. And by the time I’ve finished that it’ll all be over. I’ve always been a busy person, Gabby, and I am not about to change just because Mr C came for an uninvited visit.”

“It sounds like the theatre has always been in your blood. This room is going to look so colourful when it’s finished.” Gabby thought it best to change the subject.

“I’ve always loved colour and fashion, Gabby. When I was no more than a child, I begged my mother to teach me to sew and after that, I made all my own clothes. You could buy the fabric for half a crown in those days! What could you buy for half a crown today? I spent every last penny of my pocket money buying swathes of brightly coloured fabric down on the market. My mother was horrified when I started to dye strands of my hair to match my outfits. In the fifties it simply wasn’t done.

“Mary Quant was my heroine and all I wanted for my birthday was to go up to London to Bazaar, Mary’s boutique. There was no question that we would buy anything. It was more than enough to stand outside and gaze in the window. I was a naughty girl – I copied her designs and made them for myself. I was the envy of all my friends. And then I told my parents that I wanted to make a career in fashion and that I was going to start by going to the local art college. That didn’t go down well at all. Beatniks, druggies, long-haired layabouts – that’s what my mother called them. But she knew she was on a hiding to nothing and so I did a one-year pre-dip course and much to my amazement I got a place at the London College of Fashion.

“My student days were the best days of my life and I didn’t waste one minute of them. I had a dream – my heart was set on becoming a theatrical costume designer. I needed to get work experience so I joined several amateur dramatic societies as their wardrobe mistress. I studied during the day and worked at the theatres in the evenings. It paid dividends. I was ‘spotted’ as they say. A West End director came to one of our little amateur productions and so admired the costumes that he asked to meet me after the performance and said that he had a job with my name on it just as soon as I graduated. I had delusions of grandeur, of course, imagining myself designing the costumes for the stars from day one. It wasn’t quite like that – I had to start from the bottom. It was almost ten years before I had my own studio and responsibility for the design and production of costumes for one of his productions. It was Showboat. Can you imagine how thrilling that was? Where did the years go?”

“When did you give it up?” Gabby asked.

“It was in March 2002. So stupid! I fell off a ladder and broke my hip. I was sixty at the time and I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I had to hang up my shoes and retire. That made the decision for me. I was looking for a new start. That’s when the brochure for Magnolia Court dropped through my letterbox. It changed my life,” she said. “For the poorer, but for the better. Now, less of me! Let’s hang the rest of those curtains and I shall send you on your way. And if you want an excuse to pop in and see Amy, you can take this scarf with you. She left it at my cottage and I’ve been meaning to return it to her.” Jennifer said nostalgically, as she opened the door for Gabby to leave, “I still dream about the theatre, Gabby. And I have a recurrent dream that I will be involved in one more production. I don’t know what it will be but I am quite sure it will happen.”

Little did she know that her dream would soon come true.

Chapter 10

Gabby knocked on the door and waited patiently.

“Who is it?” she heard someone call from inside.

“Gabby. Jennifer asked me to stop by to return your scarf.”

“Gabby? Oh, Gabby! How lovely of you to call. It’s ages since I last saw you. Where have you been hiding? Come in, my dear. Don’t stand there in the cold.” A beaming Amy opened the door, delighted to see her afternoon visitor. “I’ve heard all about you from your aunt – all good I hasten to add. There’s nothing like a happy reunion after so many years. I’m pleased for all of you. I was talking to Hetty long before Christmas and she mentioned that you might be coming to visit. Let’s sit down and we’ll have some tea and a nice chat. It must be going on for three, Gabby. I fell asleep when The Archers were on so that must have been just after two!”

“Actually, Amy, it’s almost four-thirty and you are right, it’s definitely time for a cup of tea.”

“Don’t tell me I have been asleep for over two and half hours! I don’t believe it. Well, that must be why I’m absolutely parched. You’ll excuse me for one minute won’t you, my dear, while I put the kettle on.”

“Can I help?” Gabby asked politely, as Amy scuttled off towards the kitchen. For all the renovations that needed doing, it was a comfortable home with two chintz armchairs placed facing a gas-effect log fire separated by a pretty bow-legged table covered in a pristine white lace cloth.

“Here I am, Gabby. I’ve found my handbag now. It really worries me when I can’t find anything.” Amy sat down. Gabby didn’t mention the tea.

Amy snuggled down in her chair and pulled her wrap over her shoulders. “These little cottages are terribly draughty, you know, Gabby. The wind whistles in under the doors and the windows might just as well be left wide open for all the good they do at keeping the warmth in. Now, what were we going to chat about?”

Gabby laughed, and proceeded cautiously. “Could we talk about the man who left you all in this state?”

“You mean Harry Trumper, do you?” Amy said quizzically.

“Yes. Aunt Hetty and Uncle Max filled me in on the background. I still cannot get my head around the fact that such a thing could happen, and then for the man to disappear in a puff of smoke – it’s just beyond belief.”

“You’re right about that, Gabby. I am parched, dear. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“That would be lovely, Amy. Let me give you a hand.” Gabby got up and followed Amy into the kitchen; at least this time they might get a cup of tea! “I don’t want to rake up the past, but I’m curious to understand what happened all those years ago. Would it upset you to talk about it?”

“I’ve got just the thing to start with,” Amy said, pointing towards the bedroom. “I’ve got a copy of the original brochure and all the original artist’s impressions of how Magnolia Court was going to look and all the wonderful facilities we were going to be able to enjoy. It’s in the bedroom. I saw it the other day. I must have had a premonition that you were coming. I know I put it somewhere safe. You finish making the tea and I’ll go and find it.”

Gabby sat back, poured a cup of tea for herself and listened as drawers were opened and slammed closed while Amy listed all her ‘safe places’ out loud.

“I’m just going to check my handbag, Gabby. I’ve got one of those big ones that you can put everything in and never find anything. Quite why I might have put it in there I don’t know, but it’s worth a look.” Amy tipped the bag’s contents out on the carpet. “Well, what do you know? What do we have here? I knew it was here somewhere.”

The photograph on the cover of the glossy brochure was of a grand house, unmistakably the mansion at the centre of Magnolia Court.

“This is where it all started, Gabby. This was the brochure we were given when we were first introduced to the development.” Amy opened the brochure to the first page. “This is the great hall. Isn’t it beautiful? I can still see myself sitting on that purple velvet stool sipping my gin and it before dinner in the restaurant. Do you know that they planned to open the restaurant to non-residents for lunch and dinner? It was a clever idea – people could pop up to Magnolia, have a round of golf and then relax over a delicious lunch or dinner in the restaurant. It was a way of keeping the costs down for the residents. We were all for it and it’s always nice to meet new people.”

Amy turned the page. “And this is the swimming pool. And look at the lights in the pool and the handrails down the steps – just what we all needed. And it was only four feet deep from end to end! And those lovely comfortable chairs to relax in after a swim. You couldn’t ask for more, could you? The hairdressers and the spa would have been right next door to the pool. We were so looking forward to our library as well – somewhere quiet where we could sit and read the papers. Duncan was going to teach us all how to use a computer properly. But the library was short-lived as well. It was so cold and damp in there and then the mould started to grow on the walls. We had to pack up and move everything out.

“And then there was the weekly schedule of events – trips to theatres, shops and gardens, craft lessons, the book club and all the entertainers who were going to come and visit us. But most important to us all, of course, was the promise of on-site care as and when we needed it. We would have been able to choose the right level of care to suit our needs and our pockets. There was going to be a small self-contained flat for a nurse to live in and a little surgery so that we could go and see him or her if we had any problems. And there was going to be somebody who would do a bit of cleaning around the cottages if we needed that little bit of extra help. That, Gabby, is really why I chose to buy my cottage at Magnolia Court. You see I knew a long time ago that I was beginning to forget things and that one day I would need to have friends close around me, some help with the housework and probably a little nursing care. We paid three hundred and fifty thousand pounds for each of the cottages – a fortune to all of us. Then we paid two hundred and fifty thousand up front for twenty years’ subscription to all of the services within the community – including the care help. It sounds such a lot of money but at twelve thousand a year it wasn’t so much. You can’t get a room in a care home for much less than a thousand pounds a week. It would have seen me out, Gabby. I pride myself that I am not a fool and the whole thing made so much sense to me at the time. Of course, I wasn’t alone in being taken in by it.”

“A fool is something I would never, ever call you, Amy. Is there anything you remember about him? About Harry Trumper?”

“Well, not exactly about him, Gabby. We never really met him in person. Medium height, dark hair, broad shouldered, bushy eyebrows – something peculiar about them, probably in his mid-thirties, and he most definitely had an East End accent. He seemed a lovely man, kind, and the sort you’d like to have as a son and he was left handed. It’s funny how some things stick in your mind.”

Gabby sighed. A medium height, dark-haired man in his mid-thirties who was left-handed and jangled his change in his pocket – not much to go on.

“But I learned quite a bit about him! You see, I spent quite a lot of time down at the site soon after the mansion and stables refurbishment started. Mugs of tea – lots of mugs of tea – that’s the way to a man’s heart! I got on really well with two of the fellows – one was called Stan and the other Dirk. I think they thought of me as their dotty old gran, a harmless little old lady, which of course is what I wanted them to think. But I had my suspicions about a few things. The progress seemed to be very erratic. It seemed from what I could gather that they were all employed directly by this Harry Trumper and had done work for him for many, many years, mostly in small-property development. Stan, who called himself the foreman, seemed to be in charge. There didn’t seem to be a project manager. I sensed that none of them liked our Mr Trumper very much. He never once came to the site. I am sure that on one occasion I heard Stan refer to him as an utter bastard, excuse my language, and he then used words which began with C and F neither of which I care to repeat. He was angry about something. I gathered later that it was because some of the supplies hadn’t arrived.

“And then there was that last fateful occasion. I went down with my tray of teas and there they all were huddled together. Well, I’ve never been one to stand back so I went over and joined them. ‘Is this a private party or can anybody join in?’ I asked Stan. He put his arm around me and – these were his very words – ‘It seems Mrs A (that’s what he called me) that Mr Wonderful has done what is commonly known as a bunk. We’ve not been paid and there is a notice up to say that the office is closed until further notice. I’ve rung round me mates and nobody has seen hide or hair of him for over a week. It’s not just us that have been left high and dry, and then me mate told me about a rumour he had heard that the police were looking for him – something to do with a fire.’ They packed up all their tools, got in their vans and waved to me as they set off down the track. Rough, but a nice bunch of men all the same. I could see that they didn’t really want to walk out on us. And that was that, Gabby. Last we saw of any of them.”

Gabby sat back thoughtfully. What a mess, but at least now she knew that something had probably triggered Mr Trumper’s sudden disappearance. “And how are you coping, Amy?” If she had needed some help all those years ago then surely she needed more now.

“Much better than I had expected, dear. It’s a question of when needs must, the devil drives. But I’ve noticed just the last few months that I’m not as sharp as I was,” Amy said sadly.

“Do you want to tell me about it, Amy? Why don’t I put the kettle on again?” Gabby said.

Chapter 11

It was the easiest article she had ever written for the magazine and it would be published with the blessing of both Amy and Duncan.

*

The Reality Of Ageing

Getting older is not a disease, says Penelope Sarthe. She hears from an amazing 89 year old about how to age naturally and get the best out of later life.

Yesterday I met a very special lady and we talked at length about age and her memories.

On my way home, I thought back over our two-hour conversation that seemed more like minutes and started to question my own preconceptions of the more mature members of our society. I am ashamed to say that I found myself sadly lacking in understanding and sympathy and, as a result, I have resolved to do something about it. Starting now!

Let me tell you something about this lady first. She is in her late eighties and, you may find it strange that I say so, wise beyond her years. She describes herself as eighty-nine years young. She asked me to define the word ‘old’ which I struggled to do. She then went on to tell me that ‘old’ is a word that has little meaning: we are one day old when we are born, we are one year old on our first birthday, we are eighteen years old on our eighteenth, and if we are lucky we are quite old when we die.

We progressed to talking about her fears of which there were few. My special lady survived the war, lost her fiancé, her parents and a brother to the war. Working for the Foreign Office, she played a very significant role safeguarding the lives of many of her fellow citizens. In those days people knew the meaning of fear, but it was not something that any of them discussed or would admit.

Her fear now stems mainly from the media – people such as me who, through their work, have influence over the views of others. Needless to say, her comment made me sit up and take even more note of what she was about to tell me. She tells me quite calmly that she is probably suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, or so she is led to believe from coverage in newspapers and on TV and radio. She recognises the symptoms in herself: loss of short-term memory, repeating herself and finding the organisation of simple tasks more difficult than they had once been. These she accepts as part of the natural ageing process. She reminds me that suffering from a deteriorating memory is nothing new in those of more mature years and only to be expected.

Awareness, she says, is the key to coping.

Her fear stems from the fact that the natural ageing process has now been labeled as a disease – dementia and Alzheimer’s. She does not consider herself to be diseased. She explains that she perceives a marked change in the way that elderly people are treated by a society since the word ‘disease’ was introduced to describe their ageing. Diseases are frightening, diseases are communicable, and diseases are incurable, she tells me. The perception is that those with ‘diseases’ should be put away somewhere where they can do themselves and others no harm.

She tells me quite firmly that it is not in her imagination and cites, as one example, a recent trip she made to a supermarket when, because she was a little slow at organising her shopping and paying for her purchases, the customer behind her was heard to remark, “She’s got dementia, you know. It’s a disease. I read about it.” My special lady explains to me that supermarket shopping is, for her, a trial, especially at the checkout when the list of questions is endless. Does she have her loyalty card? Would she like cash back? Would she like to pay for shopping bags? Would she like help with her packing? Would she like to use contact-free? Would she insert her card, enter the number and take it out now?

I sympathise with her. I find the whole process a trial myself and I like to think I am a co-ordinated, well-organised person.

She goes on to tell me that the brain is a funny thing, as she puts it. She is able to recall every moment of her younger days: dates, times, places, people – their names, faces, and families. Her recall of events of the past is quite astounding and, I would not hesitate to admit, far better than my own. She explains that she has simply reached the stage in life where her brain has absorbed so much information that it is now very selective about what it retains and what it regards as unimportant. Thus the day-to-day trivia is filtered out, but the important information remains. I am left wondering if it is not I who has the problem – my brain is terminally awash with day-to-day matters regularly clouding out more important issues in life.

She finds the words that ‘disappear’ a continual frustration. She tells me that she sees them in her mind’s eye, but they hide away and on the bad days she has to rely on other people to fill the gaps in the conversation. On the good days, she finds and uses words that she probably last used in a spelling test at school. Where, she asks me, have these been hiding all her life?

I listen to my special lady telling me that things are not what they used to be. I find myself silently agreeing with her while the words that came out of my mouth were, “Times change, we have to move on with the times.” As I drove home I tried to count the number of times in the past few weeks that I too have said that things are not as they used to be. I lost count when I left the motorway.

It is so often the case that we hear how crooks target the elderly and more vulnerable members of society. I was shocked to hear my special lady tell me about how she and her friends had invested most of their savings in their dream retirement homes: cottages within
a complex served by a communal lounge, bar and dining room, library, pool and spa, golf course and onsite care facilities. The cottages were the first to be built and the residents moved in to them. Those of the community facilities that were built soon deteriorated and were condemned. Other facilities were never built. The developer disappeared leaving them high and dry. My special lady and her friends have come to terms with their situation, have learned from their mistakes and have been highly resourceful in turning a disaster into a positive outcome.

*Following my meeting with this special lady I have rid myself of many preconceptions I had concerning our more elderly friends and replaced them with an image of a generation that is spirited, knowledgeable, philosophical and resourceful – one that has true grit.

If any of my readers feel a twinge of conscience about their own preconceptions, my message to you is that it is never too late to make amends.