Cat snorted. ‘That is voodoo. It’s useless, Karin. It simply doesn’t work and if it seems to, there are two reasons. One, the problem would have got better by itself anyway; two, it’s placebo. A very powerful force, placebo. Doctors couldn’t manage without it.’
‘We’ll have to differ then. She isn’t trying to cure the cancer, she’s treating me as a whole person. And please don’t look like that and don’t say “Right” in that tone of voice you have when you do.’
‘I’ll try not. Anything else?’
‘I’ve sent for information from the Gerson Clinic and I’m spending two days at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. Otherwise I’m reading. Thinking. Changing my life around. Still working on your mother’s garden. I’ve cut out the others, I need to concentrate on getting well, but I love going up to Hallam House. Your ma is a tonic.’
Cat made a face.
‘There is one thing you maybe ought to know about. There is a new therapist just starting out in Starly who calls himself a psychic surgeon.’
‘I looked it up on the Internet. It’s pretty spooky. There are a lot of them in places like the Philippines apparently – and all charlatans. A psychic surgeon claims to be possessed by someone who was a doctor in another century.’
‘It can’t mean surgery as in “surgery”?’
‘I’m not sure … it’s all magic circle stuff so far as I can make out, but it deceives a lot of vulnerable people. Two women in the café in Starly were talking about someone who’d had a throat tumour removed by this guy.’
‘They said he’s better, it’s a miracle, the doctors had given him up for dead – you know the sort of stuff.’
‘Oh my God. What exactly is supposed to happen?’
‘It’s got to be sleight of hand … but as far as I can make out, there are instruments and there’s blood.’
‘This has got to be stopped.’
‘How? Is it illegal?’
‘I’m bloody well going to find out.’ Cat looked straight at her friend. ‘You’re not thinking of going?’
‘I rather thought I might actually. I’m quite interested in sorting the sheep from the goats.’
‘Listen, you know my take on all this. It’s certainly true that a good diet, exercise, a positive attitude are beneficial. Beneficial but incidental, Karin. The rest is crap, not all of it harmless.’
‘I don’t buy this psychic surgery stuff, you know. Give me some credit.’
Cat looked round Karin’s kitchen, at the glass dome set in the roof, the plants and seedlings laid out on the wide ledges in the sun, neatly labelled, growing vigorously. The floor was laid with old French farmhouse tiles, the table a long block of polished elm, and the room was fitted with a new stereo system. Money, she thought, money and taste – Karin has it all and everything to live for, a husband who adores her, the right career at last, looks, friends, intelligence. As a doctor I know she’s making the wrong decision and it’s my duty to persuade her to change her mind. But as a friend …
‘I’m torn,’ she said now. ‘I want to find out all about this psychic surgeon but I don’t want you to put yourself at risk.’
‘Come on, Cat, I’m tough, I can look after myself. Now – has your mother told you about the new hothouse she’s planning?’
Cat knew better than to try and turn the conversation back to Karin’s health. Besides, she quite wanted to know about her mother’s latest garden extravagance, mainly so that she would be prepared when her father flew into a rage about it. For years, Meriel Serrailler had used work and family to cushion her in an unhappy marriage to an embittered and permanently angry man. Now that family took little of her time and she had retired as an NHS consultant, she had plunged herself into redesigning the large Hallam House garden which until recently had been not much more than a family playground. She still sat on some hospital and medical advisory boards, but they were not enough to occupy her considerable energies and keep her life apart from Richard’s.
Finding Karin to work with her on the garden had been good fortune. They needed each other.
She wanted to look her best for Harry. He had always paid her compliments, always noticed when she’d bought a new frock or had her hair done and now she wanted to show him she still cared what he thought and still wanted him to admire her. It was one of the things she had promised him, and herself, straight after he had passed away. Some people let themselves go, didn’t bother with make-up or having their hair done, made do with old clothes, anything that was easy to put on in the mornings so you didn’t have to think, and she had sworn she would never let herself get like that. She had chosen her clothes every day as carefully as ever, picked out a necklace or a brooch, been careful to add a nice scarf over her outdoor coat and polish her shoes. She only ever wore a bit of lipstick and a dab from a compact, but she kept her skin nice with a cream every night.
But today was different. This was special.
She went through her wardrobe two nights running, discarding a few old things while she was at it, and putting others out for the dry-cleaner or to mend. She decided on the camel two-piece she’d bought for one of their anniversaries but hardly worn since, with her brown court shoes and a caramel silk scarf with a diamond pattern. Not a hat. No one wore hats nowadays, except for weddings and funerals and those fleece jobs to keep out the cold wind.
She had sat evening after evening on her own, trying to decide whether or not she should make an appointment to visit the medium, going over it all, making up her mind, changing it again, asking Harry and not being clear whether he had answered or not. She had not spoken to anyone else about it, not even to Pauline. It was too private, just between her and Harry. One evening, a couple of days after she had been to see Dr Deerbon, she had been lying on the couch in the late afternoon, a magazine on her lap, the gas fire making its gentle sounds and she had missed Harry, missed his face, his voice, his jokes, his funny habits, his shoes upside down on the hearth rail, the wheezy noise of his breathing, more than she had missed him since the day he died, painfully more. She had cried then, desperate, desolate tears, and in the middle of them had said aloud, ‘Harry, what shall I do? What am I going to do?’
‘Come and talk to me.’
It was Harry’s voice, clear and strong in her inner ear. ‘Come and talk to me.’
She had held her breath and waited, listened, urging him to go on, to say more, to explain.
‘Should I go to the medium, Harry? Is that what you want me to do? Why can’t you just talk to me now, I’m here, it’s lovely and peaceful, why can’t we be together now?’
The gas fire flickered its blue flame.
But that was all. ‘Come and talk to me.’ She hadn’t invented it, it wasn’t wishful thinking, was it? He had come into her mind and told her.
‘Come and talk to me.’
The next morning, she had gathered all her courage and telephoned the number for Sheila Innis, and when she heard a recorded message on an answerphone, the disappointment had been so much she had simply put her own receiver quickly down. It had taken another couple of hours, a walk to the newsagent to pay her paper bill and the post office to get her pension, and a pot of tea, before she had rung again. She had not properly taken in what was said.
‘Hello. This is Sheila Innis. I am so sorry I am not able to answer your call personally but I am sure you understand that when I am working, I can’t be disturbed. If you wish to book an appointment please call back between five and seven o’clock. Otherwise, please leave a message after the beep. Thank you.’
Her voice was reassuring, clear, pleasant, with a certain warmth but no false intimacy. Iris Chater listened to the message the whole way through, rang off and made a note to call that evening.
She thought she was much calmer now that she had come to a decision, and had heard the medium’s voice. There was nothing spooky about her, nothing at all unusual. But at ten past five, her hand was shaking and she was so uncertain that she would be able to say anything that she fetched a glass of water and put it by the receiver.
What am I doing? This is wrong, I don’t know what I’m letting myself in for, I ought to let Harry rest in peace, leave well alone.
‘Sheila Innis, can I help you?’
Miraculously, Iris Chater found she could answer.
‘I’d … I’d like to make an appointment please. I did ring earlier and heard your message.’
‘Of course. Would you give me your name?’
‘Chater. Mrs Iris Chater.’
She gave her address and telephone number and her date of birth. Nothing else was required.
‘I see people individually every afternoon between two and five thirty, Mrs Chater, and there are group sessions in the evenings.’
‘Oh, no, I don’t want to be with anyone else. It’s … I want to see you by myself.’
‘I understand. I’ve just had a cancellation for three o’clock on the 6th of February. Would that suit you?’
‘Not until then?’
‘I’m afraid not. I am always quite booked up. If you can’t make that day I’m afraid we’re looking at the second week in March now.’
‘Oh yes, I can come then. I didn’t mean –’
‘I know. Once people decide they would like to see me, of course they want to come as soon as possible. I wish I could see everyone the day they ring, but I simply can’t.’
‘No, no, I do see. It’ll be quite suitable. February 6th. I can come then.’
‘Do you have the address?’
‘Yes. I know the road.’
‘Three o’clock then.’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘And Mrs Chater? You sound anxious. Please don’t worry. I think you’ll feel quite at ease when we’ve met and you’re sitting comfortably in my sitting room. Everyone’s uncertain at first, of course they are, but I promise you will feel very relaxed and happy about it. I’ll look forward to seeing you.’ Iris Chater sat by the telephone, weak with relief. She had done the right thing, and she would not be nervous now. Sheila Innis had reassured her.
‘I’m coming to talk to you, Harry,’ she said, ‘just like you wanted.’
February 6 was like a spring day, balmy and with a blue sky and watery sun. The snowdrops were almost over, in the sheltered spot under the lilac tree at the end of the garden, and now the crocuses had come up, egg yellow and Maundy purple, in rings beneath the trees. Harry had never been a real gardener, any more than she was, but they had both loved spring flowers and watched for them, so that she felt they were together as she walked to Priam Crescent. She set off early. She had had the back door locked all morning, so that when Pauline Moss came to it just after lunch, she wasn’t able, as usual, to walk straight in. Harry had never liked that and when he had been alive and in the house, Pauline had always knocked. Lately, that had gone by the board. Iris thought she would drop a hint that she would prefer knocking to be reinstated.
She felt slightly guilty at keeping to herself the fact that she had made an appointment with the medium, because it had been Pauline who had suggested it first and found her the name. Maybe she would talk about it later. It all depended.
At a quarter to two, she had heard Pauline go out, as usual on a Tuesday; her daughter-in-law came for her and drove her to shop in Bevham and then back to her own house for tea. It was the best day there could have been for her appointment.
She wasn’t apprehensive or worried now, not in the slightest. All that was done with. She had liked the sound of the woman’s voice and she knew, in her heart, that Harry wanted her to go. Hadn’t he asked her, as clearly as he could manage? ‘Come and talk to me.’ What else could he have meant? She was happy, walking to Priam Crescent.
The house was a small detached one, white-painted pebble-dash with bay windows on either side of the front door. A hedge helped to conceal it from the road, and a long path led down to a glassed-in porch. The front garden had a magnolia tree beneath which were white and gold crocuses. Iris Chater felt her heart lift.
‘Innis’ was the only word on the label beside the front-door bell. This could be my neighbour, Iris Chater thought, this nice, neat, ordinary house – and after all, Sheila Innis is someone’s neighbour. The idea was oddly reassuring. She did not hesitate at all before ringing the bell. Why should she, when she was doing what Harry had asked?
If she had had any shreds of uncertainty or apprehension left, the sight of Sheila Innis would have dispelled them.
‘Mrs Chater? Do come inside. I must ask you first, do you object to cats because if so, I’ll go ahead and move Otto to another room?’
‘Oh, don’t do that, I like cats.’
‘He won’t bother you. He’s very old now and just sleeps but there’s a patch of sunshine in my working room at this time in the afternoon which he finds very attractive.’
She was perhaps fifty, no more, plump but not fat, with hair that had been fair and was fading and greying a little, short and well cut, swept up and back from her face. She wore a tweed skirt and a yellow blouse, a gold pendant, flat shoes. She also smiled, openly and warmly, a smile Iris Chater felt reached into her, to put her at her ease, to welcome her … and something more. It was the smile of someone she felt knew her. Whenever she had seen photographs of mediums, they had had elaborately styled, raven-black hair and strong black eyebrows, dark eyes, gold earrings, too much make-up. Sheila Innis could not have been less like them.
The cat, Otto, was lying full-length on the pale green carpet near French windows that looked over the garden, and had elongated himself so as to take advantage of every centimetre of sunshine. The beds in the garden near to the house and on either side of a long lawn were full of roses, now pruned down and bare, but here were snowdrops and crocuses again, as well as thick clumps of hellebores and a winter-flowering cherry giving the winter garden life and colour.
It was a pleasant room. A three-piece suite was upholstered in a damask fabric and a green slightly darker than the carpet, a polished table held a vase of yellow tulips, a handsome bureau had framed photographs – a bridal couple, several children, a young woman with long straight hair, an elderly man.
‘Please, do sit down. If you lean firmly against the back of the chair you’ll find a footrest shoots forward.’
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