In Bevham, as Freya came out of a boutique, she had glanced up and seen the name Duckham over the window of the smart jeweller next door. The box containing the gold and lapis lazuli cufflinks had had Duckham printed on the inside of the lid.
Uniform had done the usual checks and reported nothing. Now, as Freya went back to the car park with her carrier bags she made a mental note to recheck the report before visiting the shop herself. Someone in a small, expensive jeweller’s could surely be prompted to remember something about the purchase of such a pair of cufflinks.
The following Saturday, she spent the morning putting the finishing touches to a dozen pies, gateaux and puddings before packing them into bakers’ trays borrowed from the station canteen.
Finding the house was easy. There were stone pillars and a drive that wound between beech trees, under which spread a mass of snowdrops and aconites. The house was probably Edwardian, red brick with tall chimneys. Here, under spreading trees on the wide lawn, more snowdrops, more aconites, and the first few ice-blue crocuses.
‘You’re Freya? Welcome, welcome. This is so good of you.’
She was tall and thin, with a shrewd, intelligent face. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, her hair was grey and pinned up on top of her head and she might be anywhere between fifty-five and seventy-five.
She held out her hand. ‘Meriel Serrailler.’
‘Goodness, surely you must be.’
‘Who?’ And as her hostess turned, Freya saw the resemblance immediately. It was the nose.
‘Serrailler. My DCI is called Simon Serrailler.’
‘My son. Heavens above, you’re a policewoman!’
‘DS Freya Graffham, Lafferton CID.’
‘Well, I promise no jokes about the singing policewoman.’
They began carrying the trays into the house. The floors were polished parquet, the curving staircase that went up to a wooden gallery on the floor above was carved, there were a number of framed drawings on the walls. The kitchen was a mix of old wooden tables and cupboards, scrubbed work surfaces, plants, and a battered sofa on which slept two huge ginger cats. They made three journeys to bring in every tray, after which Meriel Serrailler took off the cloths and gazed admiringly at the chocolate torte, grapefruit and mint mousse, sticky ginger fudge slab with fudge icing, rhubarb and honey crumble, upside-down meringue and hazelnut and coffee pavlova, and soft-berry charlotte.
‘My dear, what a feast! Why on earth are you a policewoman, why aren’t you running your own pudding empire?’
Half an hour later, they were sitting at the table with mugs of Earl Grey and pieces of shortbread and Freya knew a great deal more about Lafferton, the cathedral, the St Michael’s Singers, Bevham General Hospital, and the various medical Serraillers. She felt as if she had known this woman half her life. Meriel Serrailler had been a beauty but like most very thin women age had made her lined and bony.
And, Freya thought, it didn’t matter a jot. Beauty may have gone, but intelligence, charm, and a lively and acute interest in people shone out.
‘Now it’s your turn. I want to know where you’ve come from and why and who you’ve met in Lafferton and whether you’re going to stay and what you’ve joined.’
Curling her fingers round her fresh mug of tea, Freya was about to launch into an account of herself, recognising that Meriel Serrailler was a woman who attracted confidences and being perfectly prepared to succumb, when a car drew up outside, and someone came straight into the house.
‘Now that could be anyone … Cat and the children, though I rather hope not with all these puddings about, and I really don’t feel up to Sam and Hannah just now … It can’t be Robert, he’s gone to see Martha …’
But the door opened on Freya’s DCI.
Freya started to get up. ‘Good afternoon, sir.’
‘Oh, don’t start all that for heaven’s sake, you’re not on duty now. Hello darling, I hope you haven’t come to stay, you know it’s the St Michael’s supper tonight and do look at all this, isn’t it wonderful? I’ve just told Freya she’s wasted as a detective.’
‘She’s nothing of the kind.’
Simon Serrailler sat down next to his mother and reached for the teapot. Then he glanced at Freya, smiled, and started dunking shortbread in his tea.
Afterwards, Freya thought that it was not one thing that she remembered, it was everything, because everything came together – the winter light through the leaded windows, the warmth of the kitchen, the faint snore of one of the ginger cats asleep on the old sofa, the smell of hot tea and the sight of a pot of deep purple crocuses on the window ledge; she saw Meriel Serrailler, straight-backed and in profile, her hair spilling out of the pins at the back of her head and felt delight in this immediate new friendship, while at the same time, in her mind was the whole picture of the house, the red brick, the tall chimneys, the polished wood floors, the carved banister leading to the gallery. Everything came together, in a moment of extraordinary assurance and clarity.
For a few seconds she dared not look up. The cat went on quietly snoring. Somewhere outside a dog barked. She looked up.
He was not looking at her but at his mother. She saw the similarity of their bone structure and the complete dissimilarity of their colouring. She looked at Simon Serrailler’s fingers, those on his right hand curled round the handle of the mug, those on his left spread out flat on the pine table.
He was saying, ‘I promise I’ll go next week.’
‘It is called a coup de foudre,’ she thought. ‘It is falling in love terrifyingly and completely in an instant. It is this.’
She drank the last of her tea and stood up. She had to get out quickly, be alone in her car. She had to think. In so far as she could sort out her feelings at that moment, she recognised that she felt angry, angry and then afraid; I do not want this, she said impatiently to herself, I am not ready and it is not right. I do not want any of this.
Meriel Serrailler came with her to the door.
‘You are so, so kind! I can’t tell you what a difference you’ve made. Now, we’ll see you later.’
Damn, Freya thought, damn, damn, damn.
He called goodbye to her from the kitchen, but she was going, out of the door and almost running to the car, her fingers getting into a tangle with the key and the lock.
She heard the gravel flying up under her wheels and the screech of her skidding tyres.
For a few miles, she drove fast, before coming to a village with a small bridge. She stopped and got out. It was cold. The bridge curved over the river, and Freya stood at the foot looking down into the water, talking herself into a calmer state.
She was shocked by what had happened to her. When she had seen the DCI at the seminar in Bevham, she had thought him pleasant, young for his rank, and with unusual looks. Today, a few minutes after he had sat down at the kitchen table and smiled at her when his mother made some remark, she had looked at him and fallen in love, as she might have fallen asleep, or into laughter at a joke. She had heard of such things, read of them, and dismissed them.
Simon Serrailler’s face looked up at her from the cold water. The shape of his hands and the strands of his extremely fair hair, the movement of his head as he turned it towards her and then looked down were bitten into her memory and occluded every other mental picture, every other thought.
To You, with all possible love from your devoted, Me.
In that split second, she knew what Angela Randall’s note meant; she thought she could see inside the woman’s mind, she understood her. Angela Randall, a middle-aged woman living a sterile, solitary life, had fallen in love; the love was probably unrequited, possibly unsuitable, and Angela Randall was in thrall to it. Women in such situations recklessly buy the object of their love expensive presents, regardless of whether they can afford it, even careless as to whether they will be welcomed.
Freya felt a vivid moment of empathy with the woman, and a certainty that she was right.
You once told me that you came to the hospital and waited for the chance of seeing me, as you said, ‘looking like a doctor’. You waited almost three hours but mine was not one of the white-coated figures who went past, and in the end you gave up and went home in disappointment. You had no idea that the students were in a different building and in any case, during the first year rarely if ever wore white coats, it was all lectures and note-taking and we wore sports jackets. But you wanted to see me because you knew that when you did you would believe that I was actually there, a real medical student. You could be proud of me then and the white coat would be a symbol of that pride. When I did begin to wear it every day, you could never have had any idea how proud I was of it too.
During those first few months it was like being a small boy again, waking up to the realisation that this was the morning of my birthday, and having to pinch myself to believe it could be true. I did not really believe for many weeks that I had achieved the thing I had longed for and worked towards since the day I had had my lip stitched at the hospital after the dog I so hated had bitten me.
The medical lectures were interesting enough but in many ways attending them felt like being back at school and I wanted the real medical training to begin. I wanted to wear my white coat. I wanted to watch operations among the gowned and masked surgeons and anaesthetists. And most of all I wanted to dissect the human body.
The first time we went into the dissecting lab and I saw the corpses on the slabs, one to be assigned to each group of us, I felt faint, but not from shock or distaste, like the others who went white and excused themselves from the room; my faintness was with excitement, so that my hands were trembling and I had to hold them behind my back. This room, with these bodies, these instruments, this smell of formaldehyde and antiseptic overlaying the smell of decomposition, was where I had wanted to be for so long, this was the focus of my dreams and the end of so many years of work. I have never got over the thrill of it, the feeling of a dreadful excitement; the sense of power. A body in a dissecting room seems so far removed from life it might never have had anything to do with life at all. The flesh is not life-coloured, it is the colour of putty. When you cut something living it bleeds, fresh, ruby-coloured blood flows from the veins, but sinking the scalpel into a corpse on the dissecting table yields nothing so vivid. After a very short time, cutting through flesh and sinew and muscle, opening stomach and heart and lungs, removing liver and kidneys, uncoiling yard upon yard of intestine becomes routine. It also becomes a sterile activity, so that the corpse might be made of plastic or rubber. It is an aid to learning, and for a trainee surgeon there is no substitute for handling real human tissue.
But these are cadavers which may have been dead for a long time. Who were they? Where did they come from? What lives did they lead? These are not questions one asks. What did they die of? What state were their organs in and what does this tell us about disease and the ageing process? Those are the questions we were trained to ask and to which we would discover the answers by patiently de-layering the corpse under our fingers. How are muscles arranged, where is the liver in relation to the spleen, where are the main arteries whose names we may have learned by heart from a textbook but which we have not actually seen until now?
After a couple of weeks, it all seemed pedestrian and I was no longer excited. Many of the others became so used to the dead bodies that they played jokes on them. They horrified me. They were treating them with disrespect which has always seemed to me wrong. The dead body deserves respect, no matter what we may have felt about the living person who once inhabited it. I was shocked when I came into the dissecting lab one morning to find one of my fellow students skipping with a rope of intestine.
I have never lost my love of the dissecting room. You know that now. But it was not enough.
I struggled through much of the learning. The chemical formulae, the physiology, the lists of diseases with their causes and symptoms were embedded deep in huge textbooks and had to be extracted and then committed to memory and I found it hard. But I would never have given up. You had sacrificed everything for me to be here and you know I have never forgotten that, don’t you?
Even more, I was aroused by anticipation of what was to come.
The dissecting room was the beginning. What spurred me on after that was the prospect of going into the operating theatre and watching real surgical work on bodies which were alive, whose hearts throbbed and lungs expanded and which had blood pumping through their silken veins.
Surprisingly enough, I had hardly given any thought to the mortuary and how I would react to that. I was not even sure if we would be taken to it and when and what we might do there.
I wish you could understand what I felt when I first walked through the swinging plastic doors leading to that brightly lit, white-tiled room. I had asked a question about post-mortem examinations and, for an answer, I was sent to observe one.
Perhaps everyone who studies medicine has a defining moment which shows them the pattern of their future; those who become obstetricians hear an infant’s first cry, eye surgeons thrill at the ability to give back sight, the psychiatrists talk to a patient labelled insane and believe they can reach into that person and touch sanity and nurture it back to life.
My defining moment came in the mortuary.
‘I don’t need to go to the surgery, I’m fine, aren’t I?’
‘You’ll go – if I have to take the morning off work and drag you there myself.’ Sandy Marsh ripped back the bedclothes letting the cold morning air on to Debbie’s body. ‘Dr Deerbon was very good coming all the way here and you were in a right state … anything might have happened, you might have died.’
‘I wasn’t going to die.’
‘Come on, up and out. You can’t break an appointment and you can’t keep the doctor waiting. The kettle water has just boiled and I’ve put two slices in the toaster. Honestly, you need a minder not a flatmate.’
Sandy went to the door. She looked smart, Debbie thought, she was slim enough to wear a dustbin liner and be chic. This morning she had a black reefer jacket over a close-fitting black-and-white print skirt, high boots and a pink pashmina setting the whole outfit off. It was not a question of money, either, because Sandy never had much after the bills were paid; she bought carefully and cheaply and had an enviable knack of knowing how to put an outfit together. But it won’t be long, Debbie said to herself on her way to the bathroom, it won’t be long before I am slim and my skin has cleared and then I can do it too.
She looked in the mirror. The swelling had gone down but there was still a faint redness and the skin under her eyes looked papery.
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