‘We should show him round – you’re the best person to do that, I think. Initially I would sound him out – if he says he won’t do it there’d be no point in wasting your time. But if you feel it would be worth my making the approach …?’ He put a hand briefly on her arm. ‘Though you may have someone in mind already. Forgive me.’
‘Absolutely not. I can’t think of anyone who isn’t already very committed.’
‘This is where we miss your mother so much.’
‘People found it hard to say no to her.’
They left the conference room together and then, as she turned to the ward area, Cat glanced at John Lowther’s back as he went down the corridor. He was stooped and walked slowly, as if he had given everything he had to conducting the meeting and, in order to do so, had somehow set aside what had happened, but now, remembering it, he was cowed under the weight of his grief, all over again.
NOW, SHE HAD said to herself. Do it now. Don’t wait. Don’t dither. You know what you want, you have thought about it, gone into every aspect of it, lain awake thinking about it, written it all down to try and make it even clearer.
You haven’t any doubt and you know what the specialist will say without needing to wait for the appointment and the scan. So tell her now. Ask her now.
Penny’s case at the Crown Court was likely to continue for another week. The amount of evidence, she had told Jocelyn, was considerable and difficult for a jury to follow and there were a larger than usual number of witnesses.
Laying the small table by the French windows for their supper, she wondered again if she ought to have postponed this – not for her own sake but for Penny’s. Was it fair to give her this news and then to tell her what she hoped she would do, while she was the defending barrister in a major criminal trial?
Anyone else would have spared their daughter from all of it for another few weeks. What stopped Jocelyn was Penny herself, the person Penny was. Competent, organised, controlled, frighteningly capable of putting a dozen things into separate compartments of her mind, her emotions, her life, and never letting their boundaries blur. Penny would walk out of the court at the end of each day and set the trial aside, once she had done any reading and preparation for the next day. She would not let it keep her awake, she would not worry about it or dream of it.
That was the only reason Jocelyn was not putting off what she had to say. Penny would be annoyed if she delayed. Penny had stood on her own two feet and fought her own battles, no quarter given and none expected, since she was two years old.
There was home-roasted ham with baked potatoes and salad. Penny did not eat any form of pudding so Jocelyn spooned coffee into the cafetière and took out a bottle of Beaujolais, hesitated, tried to work the corkscrew and failed, as she had guessed she would. Left it for Penny.
Then she went to sit down on the wicker chair in the conservatory. There was a little warmth still left in the sun. This, she thought. There is this and it is now. The minutes were separating themselves and taking on a new significance.
‘Are you out there?’
Penny. Tall. Hair pulled back so tightly it gave her a facelift. Wide-apart eyes. The eyes she got from her father, like the colouring, but where had the height come from? Jocelyn supposed it was useful, for a woman barrister in court.
She loved Penny. But she had never felt entirely comfortable with her, always been anxious to keep her happy, not to annoy her, since she was a child – kowtowing to her, she sometimes thought. Not that Penny had been spoiled, or had tantrums if she had not got her own way, but she had had an air of seeing through her mother, seeing through an argument, seeing through a fudge or an evasion, a rationality about her from the start. Jocelyn had been head of a Civil Service department for years, as competent and authoritative in her sphere as Penny, but the moment she arrived home that authority had always seemed to fall away. When she retired, it had gone altogether, though when alone she felt confident enough. She had done an Open University degree, then an MPhil, and had planned to continue, until she had woken one morning wondering why and could find no satisfactory reason. Since then, she had felt increasingly overtaken by her daughter, overtaken and overlooked, she occasionally thought in self-pity.
‘Did the carpet people come?’ she asked now as Penny came through with a glass of wine for them both.
‘They did, all sorted. I realised I never liked the colour of the old one anyway. Thank you, Mother.’
‘I didn’t do much. Once I’d found the cleaning firm and the carpet people …’
‘All the same.’ Penny raised her glass.
‘How’s the case?’
She shrugged. Talk about it, Jocelyn willed her, talk about the case, the court, the jury, what you think the outcome might be. Talk.
‘Did you see the doctor?’
Jocelyn got up. ‘I’ll just put the ham on the table. Could you get the potatoes out of the lower oven?’
‘Don’t change the subject, Mother.’
‘I wasn’t. I was postponing it. I’m rather hungry.’
Postponing it. Yes.
‘Anyway, did you?’
‘Let me say what I have to say when I want to say it, which is not yet. I want to eat.’
Penny held up her hands.
The sun still shone. They took coffee into the conservatory. Two comfortable chairs. A neighbouring cat. An early butterfly.
‘The doctor,’ Penny said.
Now that it had come, she felt entirely calm. And quite sure.
‘I have motor neurone disease,’ she said.
She had not imagined Penny’s immediate reaction but would have assumed a moment’s silence to digest the information and then a battery of questions and cross-questions, requests for second opinions, statement of medical options. Penny had been born with a lawyer’s mind.
Instead, after a split second, she simply burst into silent tears. Jocelyn was so taken aback she got up and went into the kitchen, where she stood looking out onto the bricks of the side wall, counting them, making her eyes trace the lines of mortar – along, down, across, down, down, along …
Penny would need the time to compose herself. She had not, to Jocelyn’s knowledge, cried since childhood and the circumstances that might make her do so were unimaginable, other than in reaction to sheer physical pain.
But when she went back, Penny was still sitting with tears on her cheeks, head bent. Jocelyn put her hand tentatively on her shoulder.
‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of any other way but to – tell you.’
‘Oh, it’s the only way.’
She sat down and poured them both more coffee. Waited. A small breeze rustled the bushes.
‘What did Dr Deerbon say? What has to be done?’
‘A scan. I see the neurologist. But Dr Deerbon knew. And I knew the minute she ruled out both arthritis and MS. Then, as soon as I got home, I looked up the symptoms.’
‘Mother …’ A flash of the usual Penny.
‘I know, I know. I’m not a fool.’
‘It’s the worst thing I can imagine. Worse than cancer, worse than – anything. I knew a brief with it when I was a student. He taught us for a couple of terms, constitutional law, he was brilliant. Just a couple of terms.’
‘Drink your coffee.’
‘I’ll move back here of course.’
‘You will do no such thing.’
‘We won’t argue.’
‘We will argue.’
‘Of course I must.’
‘Neither of us could stand it, as you well know. Besides …’
‘Well, you couldn’t stand being in a home.’
‘I could not.’
‘You would hate having a stranger living in here.’
‘So …’ Penny waved a dismissive hand. The tears had stopped now. She blew her nose. Drank her coffee. ‘What’s happening to you at the moment?’
Jocelyn smiled. The cross-examination.
‘A few irritating things.’
Jocelyn did not reply. She was trying to compose the next sentence which would somehow tell, explain, ask, defend – all in the same few words. But there were none. Penny was looking at her, eyes tearless now, the usual faintly challenging expression back, and for a second, Jocelyn thought that she would neither tell nor ask after all, would find someone else. Who else? She lacked courage not in the face of her decision but of her daughter’s reaction.
‘The sun’s gone,’ she said. ‘Are you cold?’
‘No. Is that a symptom? Feeling cold?’
‘I don‘t know. I suppose it may be eventually. If one can’t move …’
‘How long does it take to develop? Did the doctor say?’
‘I’ve read –’
‘Not Google. The doctor.’
‘I have to see the neurologist, I told you.’
‘I’ll come with you.’
‘No. You’re in the middle of this case.’
‘Well you won’t get an appointment straight away, will you? The trial will be long over.’
‘It’s this coming Wednesday.’
‘Ah. Then put it off.’
‘I don’t need you to come with me, I’m perfectly able to drive myself.’
‘To Bevham General?’
Penny did not approve of private medicine, private health insurance, private anything, so far as Jocelyn could see. Where had she got all that socialism from?
‘There is one thing I’d be very grateful for.’
‘Please don’t interrupt until I’ve said everything. Please hear me out.’
And Penny would. She was a good listener when she wanted to be. It came with the job.
‘At the moment, this is not bothering me very much. I’m in no pain or discomfort – it’s just tiresome. But that won’t last. The specialist will probably tell me more but I know what course it will take. I have been independent and I have enjoyed my life and what I do. The idea of old age hasn’t troubled me because I’ve assumed I would remain hale and hearty. How foolish. But now I know I won’t, I cannot face that sort of decline – cannot and will not. And while I am still able to decide and to act, I intend to do so.’
Alarm flickered across Penny’s face but she said nothing.
‘I am planning to go to Switzerland, to a clinic where I can end my own life while I still have the ability and before the worst overtakes me. I have read a lot about it and I need to read more. When I have, I’ll get in touch with them. What I have to ask you –’
Penny said very quietly. ‘I know what it is.’
‘Let me say it myself. Let me ask. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding.’
‘There won’t be.’
‘I’m asking if you will come with me. Take me to the clinic.’
‘And help you kill yourself. Help you die.’
‘No. Watch me. You would do nothing but be with me while I take my own life. That’s all.’
‘A little thing like that? Hardly worth asking, is it?’
Penny stood up quickly and went out through the open conservatory doors into the garden, to stand at the end by the low stone wall and the raised flower bed, her back to Jocelyn straight and absolutely still. After watching her for a few moments, Jocelyn got up and took the tray of coffee pot and cups into the kitchen.
SERRAILLER CAME OUT of the station with an armful of paperwork. It was just before six and he had had enough of his office, the file stores and canteen coffee. He was going to drop into the farmhouse and hope for a beer and maybe an early supper before heading home to go through notes on the Lowther case. He would work in the flat tomorrow if he possibly could, to get more done in a shorter time. There was yet another drug offensive on, with a fancy operation name, dawn raids and a side serving of armed response. He would be glad to keep out of it.
Lights blazed from what seemed like every room in the farmhouse, and although Cat’s car was not in the drive the smell of braising meat reached him as he opened the kitchen door and Wookie the Yorkshire terrier came tearing towards him, barking and turning round and round in mad circles.
‘This dog is uncivilised.’ He bent down and let the puppy jump into his arms and lick his face. As he did so, Mephisto leapt off the sofa and banged out through the catflap.
‘Please don’t interrupt,’ Sam said, glaring at him. He was sitting at the table with a book open in front of him and Molly opposite, head down. ‘I’m testing her.’
‘Don’t blame me, blame the untamed beast.’ He put Wookie down.
‘He ghost-watches,’ Sam said. ‘He stands at the glass door onto the terrace at night and stares and stares. He did it for almost an hour last night. There’s deffo something out there.’
‘Why don’t you let him go and find it?’
‘We’ve tried. He just races round a bit and comes back inside to go on staring. Right, you ready, Moll? Next. Brachial.’
‘Runs from the shoulder to the elbow and –’
‘Where on the shoulder?’
‘What do you mean, where?’
‘I mean where on the shoulder.’
‘The shoulder’s the shoulder.’
‘This isn’t going well,’ Sam said. ‘The anterior of the shoulder. Next – carotid.’
‘Which side of the neck?’
‘That’s all twenty.’ Molly jumped up.
‘Mum’s gone to supper with Dr Finch.’
‘Oh.’ Simon pulled the cap off a bottle of lager.
‘Sorry,’ Molly said, ‘the casserole is for tomorrow and we’ve had egg and chips but I could easily do you some more.’
‘They were only oven chips,’ Sam said.
‘How’s the revision, Molly?’
‘I’d kill a lot of people if they let me qualify now.’
‘She needs to sort out the names of the major arteries. Talking of killing, how are the skeletons? Dug up any more?’ Sam looked round at him. He had done a growth spurt and his face was changing. He would be fourteen next birthday, a Serrailler in shape, long-legged and -backed. But the small boy lingered. ‘There could be a mass grave of skeletons.’