‘Debs … wake up, you were screaming, you were having a nightmare. Oh my God, what’s happened to your face?’
Debbie sat up. She could see a little now, through the slits that were her eyes. Her face felt strange, as if her head had somehow swollen. Her skin was burning.
‘It’s that bloody ointment. You’re allergic to it, it’s made your whole face swell up.’
Debbie’s breathing hurt too, she felt as if she were pushing against a door when she breathed out, only someone was on the other side pushing it back.
‘I’m going to ring the doctors. They’ll come, it’ll be OK.’
She heard Sandy leave the room but still there was only a slit of light. If she lay down it was harder still to breathe. She could hear her chest creaking.
‘The doctor’s coming and she said to turn on all the taps and get the bathroom steamy, and take you in there. Oh Debbie, what were you thinking of? Jeez, just promise me you won’t go to any more cranks.’
The steam was good. Debbie felt her chest loosening slightly, but her eyes remained almost closed and her skin felt as if she had scalded herself. She tried to think of Dava and surround herself with calm and the blue colour, tried to centre down into herself as he had told her, but panic kept rising in her, scattering her thoughts. Dava seemed unreal and distant. She thought she was going to be sick.
Half an hour later, she was sitting on the couch, breathing easily through a nebuliser and calm, as the injection of antihistamine Dr Deerbon had given her took effect. Her eyelids were still swollen but she could see the doctor in a blurred outline, against the light of the lamp.
‘What should I do?’ Sandy said anxiously to Cat Deerbon, as she showed her into the bathroom to wash her hands. ‘I’d better sit up with her, hadn’t I?’
‘I don’t think you’ll need to do that. She’ll be sleepy quite soon, and her breathing is almost back to normal. Keep the nebuliser by her though, and if she gets worse again call an ambulance. But I don’t think she’s going to. It might be an idea for you to sleep in her room – could you do that? I’ve left four antihistamine tablets … give her one when she wakes in the morning and another at lunchtime. She’ll be pretty wiped out tomorrow.’
‘It’s OK, it’s Saturday so I’ll be here.’
‘Could you show me these herbal potions she got hold of?’
Sandy fetched the bottle and the ointment. ‘I’m going to pour the pills down the lav and chuck the cream away. Makes you wonder what’s in them to do that to her.’
‘People do get allergic reactions to all sorts of orthodox medicines, even the usual stuff you get at the chemist, just as others are allergic to things the rest of us can eat. It’s a very individual thing. But I think I’ll take these for now, I want to try and find out what’s in them.’
‘Do you think they’re poisonous?’
‘That’s unlikely. I’d rather none of my other patients got hold of them though.’ Cat picked up her bag. ‘I’ll ring in the morning to find out how Debbie is but I shouldn’t need to come and see her. Call me if you’re worried though, I’m on duty all weekend, and would you tell her I’d like to see her in the surgery on Monday?’
Cat went to check on Debbie again before she left. She was asleep, lying curled on her side, her breathing easy. Her eyelids were less swollen, and the puffiness of her face had gone down. The antihistamine was working its usual magic. It was easy to see why the girl had wanted to do something drastic to clear her skin; the acne was spread over her face and neck, ugly and slightly infected. But why had she gone to see some potentially dangerous crank among the hippies of Starly, a consultation which had doubtless cost her a whack of money, when she could have had a prescription from Cat for a course of the antibiotic which could cure her acne and, because she was unemployed, would not even have had to pay for it?
As she drove out of Lafferton through the empty night streets, Cat made a mental note to talk to one or two medical colleagues about the person calling himself Dava.
Freya Graffham was not a churchgoer, but on one of her first free evenings in Lafferton she went to the cathedral because there was a performance of Handel’s Messiah. She had sung alto in it herself more times than she could remember, from her schooldays on, as she had sung in many other things, and performed on stage in light opera too, until Don had objected and, in another desperate attempt to please and placate him, she had resigned from her Ealing choir and the amateur operatic society. Don did not sing, did not like music, refused to enter a church and resented anything which took Freya out of the house without him. She had stopped playing tennis and badminton, both of which she was good at; the only exercise she was allowed to take was swimming, because Don was a swimmer. He, on the other hand, had gone skiing twice a year without her. She had been to Switzerland with him once and broken her ankle. After that, Don had simply gone skiing with a group of his friends. There had never been any suggestion that he might give it up.
As she sat in the Cathedral Church of St Michael revelling in Handel’s mighty choruses, she wondered briefly again not just how she could have married Don Ballinger, but how she could ever have spent so much as half a dozen social evenings with him. Within their marriage, she had felt as if she were disappearing, her own tastes and pleasures crushed under his disapproval, her personality barely allowed to express itself beyond the confines of her job.
She still could not get used to the fact that she was free. Sitting in this glorious building listening to music she knew so well, she realised again that she did not have to feel guilty, did not have to make excuses or tell lies when she returned home but was answerable only to herself.
Shall be exalted.’
She wanted to join in. She knew every note, every forte and pianissimo, every alto line, every biblical word.
The cathedral was packed and though so far she recognised no one, Freya felt at home, and so much a part of all of it, that she might have lived here for a decade. London, her marriage, the Met, were vanishing bit by bit like the grin on the face of the Cheshire Cat.
In the programme she found details of the St Michael’s Singers who had backed the professional soloists, and the address of the auditions secretary. When she got home, she lit a fire – one of her musts in house-hunting had been a real fireplace. She had lived with efficient, clinical and soulless underfloor central heating for too long. This fireplace was small, but drew well, so that it took her only a few minutes to get the sticks and small dry logs alight. She put the Messiah on the CD player, poured a glass of Sancerre and, before going back to the book she was in the middle of, wrote asking for details of the next St Michael’s Singers audition.
‘You are happy,’ she said aloud to herself. ‘You are happy!’
The audition was in the church hall the week after Christmas. Four others were there, and she and two of them, a man and an older woman, were accepted.
Freya knew that she was out of practice and her voice was slightly rough, in the aftermath of a cold. The audition was not an easy one – the standard of the St Michael’s Singers was high – but from the moment she took her note from the piano, she felt as if she were soaring to the ceiling as joyfully as a bird. She had missed singing far more than she had realised.
Before they left that evening, the choirmaster filled them in on the coming season, which ran through until the end of June. They would be singing Britten’s War Requiem here in the cathedral in May, and before that taking part in a huge performance of the Bach B Minor Mass with assembled choirs from all over the county at Bevham on Easter Saturday. Freya’s heart lifted. The Bach she knew well and the Britten she had longed to have the chance to sing.
‘Meanwhile, in a couple of weeks’ time there’s a social evening for the choir. We can always do with new people to give a hand – you know how it is, everything falls on the same old few, so if you can offer your services …’
Freya had volunteered, work permitting, and taken down the number of the member arranging the evening’s catering. She was not a serious cook, but she had always enjoyed the chance to make puddings.
She drove back singing along to the CD player as it belted out the B Minor Mass. She loved her new house; from the start Lafferton CID had presented her with just the sort of challenges she liked getting her teeth into; she had her music back; and now her social life looked like getting established.
She tried the number the choirmaster, Alan Fenton, had given her, but there was no reply and no answering machine picked up on her call. She would ring again. Meanwhile, as she delved into a couple of the boxes she still had not finished unpacking, for some of her cookery books, Freya grinned suddenly.
‘Don Ballinger, eat your heart out.’
Just before ten o’clock she tried the number again.
‘Yes?’ An irritable older man.
‘Hello, my name is Freya Graffham, I’ve been given this number by the choirmaster at the St Michael’s –’
‘You want my wife.’
Another husband who sounded as if the less he had to do with his wife’s activities the better.
Freya began to explain why she was phoning but was cut short, this time by a cry of delight.
‘You don’t mean you’re offering to help? You saint!’
‘I’ve only auditioned for the choir tonight but we still got the third degree about everything falling on the same shoulders as usual so there is a desperate need for volunteers.’
‘Good old Alan.’
‘I could make some puddings for you. I love doing them. How many will be coming?’
‘Anywhere between twenty and 150, my dear – they’re all hopeless at replying and partners are invited. If it is 150, God help us as we’re having the party here. My husband will explode.’
‘I’ll do half a dozen or so different things then. Shall I bring them on the day?’
‘Please, though if it would be easier for you to freeze anything and drop them up here beforehand …?’
‘No, the day itself will be fine.’
‘I hope you’ll be coming to the party? It’s so good to have new faces – and voices of course. Do you live in Lafferton – I don’t recognise your name.’
‘I only moved here a month or so ago. But I’m so pleased I’ve managed to get into the choir. I came to the Messiah and it reminded me how much I’d missed singing. I belonged to a choral society in London.’
‘Wonderful. Here’s the address.’
Freya took it down.
‘It’s about five miles outside Lafferton, a mile off the Bevham to Flimby road and you turn sharp left after the pub. Any time. I’ll be in the thick of quiches and salads all day. I really look forward to meeting you … Mrs Graffham …?
‘Actually, I’ve reverted to my maiden name, I was divorced last summer. I’m Graffham professionally anyhow.’
‘Fine. Miss Graffham … or maybe Ms …
‘Wonderful. Goodbye.’ She rang off briskly.
The warmth of her voice and her welcome made Freya feel good in the way you felt when the headmistress had noticed you in the corridor or the choirmaster praised your top note. Or, she thought, the DI said, ‘Well done,’ when you succeeded in tracking down Angela Randall.
She went back to the cookery book she had left lying open on the sofa at Chocolate Mousse Cake with Cappuccino Cream.
Freya spent most of her off-duty time during the next week experimenting in the kitchen until she was confident of having successfully mastered at least half a dozen new pudding recipes. At the first rehearsal for the War Requiem, her sight-reading skills were tested to their limit and at the end of the evening her voice had almost given out, but the whole experience had been exhilarating and, afterwards, she joined some of the choir members for a drink in the Cross Keys pub. New names and telephone numbers began to fill her book, she discovered someone belonging to the badminton club who offered to take her the following week and accepted an invitation to supper with a woman called Sharon Medcalf, whose car would not start and to whom Freya gave a lift. Coming to Lafferton looked like being one of the best things she had ever done. She had not felt so confident in herself for several years; but it was the extraordinary sense of being given a second chance, of starting her life all over again, which so surprised her. It must, she thought, be like this if you have had a narrow escape from death, perhaps in an accident or through illness. A new chance. She was beginning to realise how straitjacketed she had been in her short marriage, how Don had managed to crush her sense of initiative and inner strength. She had always been used to relying on herself and making her own judgements and decisions, and though she had never been impulsive in the careless sense, she had long relied on her hunches and instincts, had made up her mind quickly and acted upon it. If things then went wrong, she had been willing to take responsibility. That had helped to make her a good police officer, and was why she had been promoted in the CID.
But her unhappy personal life had quickly begun to affect her work. She had made bad judgements, wavered over things she would once have been decisive about and, when this had been commented upon, she had slipped into a trough of self-blame and uncertainty.
Now, she was climbing back rapidly. She was in touch with the woman she had always been deep down and she was determined to build on it in her new life. She was making friends, picking up the threads of old enthusiasms, getting her house exactly as she liked it without having to defer to anyone else, earning all her own money again. She had rediscovered her career ambition. The CID was what she loved, and further promotion was what she was determined to achieve within the next two or three years.
No one, she told herself, is ever going to drag me down and demoralise me again.
She spent her next afternoon off buying new clothes in Bevham. Even her wardrobe, right down to some expensive and totally impractical shoes, was going to reflect the new Freya Graffham. She came home with a cream linen trouser suit, two jumpers, and a couple of new jackets for work, one suede, one denim, as well as three scarves because she had not been able to choose between them, and a scarlet Margaret Howell cardigan in knitted cotton. Don had not liked her to wear what he had called flashy clothes. If she had stood out in a crowd, if she had been admired and complimented, he had been afraid she might move away from him, back into her old independence, so he had encouraged her to wear unremarkable clothes in grey and beige and muted patterns. She had loved him. She had tried to do what he wanted in order to please him. She had almost succeeded in totally obliterating herself and barely got out in time.
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