Sunday morning at a quarter past five and a gale blowing. Cat Deerbon lifted the phone on the second ring.
‘Dr Deerbon here.’
‘Oh dear …’ an elderly woman’s voice faltered. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t like disturbing you in the middle of the night, Doctor, I am sorry …’
‘It’s what I’m here for. Who is it?’
‘Iris Chater, Doctor. It’s Harry – I heard him. I came down and he was making such a funny noise with his breathing. And he looks … you know … he isn’t right, Doctor.’
The call was not unexpected. Harry Chater was eighty. He had had two severe strokes, was diabetic with a poor heart, and recently Cat had diagnosed a slow-growing carcinoma in the bowel. He should probably have been in hospital but he and his wife had insisted that he would be better at home. Which, she thought, letting herself quietly out of the house, he almost certainly was. He was also happier in the bed they had arranged for him downstairs in the front room with his two budgerigars for company.
She reversed the car out into the lane. The trees around the paddock were tossing wildly, caught for a moment in her headlamps, but the horses were safely stabled, her family sound asleep.
Not many people kept budgerigars now, apart from the competitive bird-fanciers. Caged birds were out of fashion, like poodles. She tried to remember, swerving slightly to avoid a fallen branch, when she had last seen anyone with a poodle, clipped to look like the woolly pompons Sam and Hannah had made in their playgroup days. What other handmade things had they brought so proudly home? She began to make a mental list. It was eight miles from the village of Atch Sedby into Lafferton, it was pitch dark and raining and there was no one else on the road; for years, to exercise her brain and keep herself awake on these night calls, Cat had forced herself to recite poems aloud – the ones she had learned by heart at school … ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’, ‘This is the weather the cuckoo likes’, ‘I had a silver penny and an apricot tree’, and, from the exam years, choruses from Henry V and soliloquies from Hamlet, the set plays. Listening to the car radio seemed to make her more sleepy, but poetry, or chemical formulae, or mental arithmetic kept her going. Or lists. Woolly pompons, she thought, and pasta pictures, and binoculars made out of the insides of toilet rolls; Mother’s Day cards with yellow-tissue daffodils, crooked coil pots, papier mâché animals, mosaics from little slivers of coloured sticky paper.
The moon came out from behind the fast-scudding clouds just as she turned into Lafferton and saw the cathedral rising up ahead, the great tower silvered, the windows mysteriously gleaming.
‘Slowly, silently now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon …’
She struggled to remember what came next.
Nelson Street was one of a grid of twelve terraces known as The Apostles. At 37, two-thirds of the way down, the lights were on.
Harry Chater was going to die, probably within the next hour. Cat knew that as she walked into the stuffy, crowded little front room, where the gas fire was turned to high and the smell was the half-antiseptic, half-fetid one of illness. He was a man who had been heavy but who was now shrunken and slipped down pathetically into himself, all his strength and much of his life force gone.
Iris Chater went back to the chair beside his bed and took his hand, chafing it gently between her own, her eyes flicking from his crumpled, grey face to Cat’s, full of fear.
‘Come on now, perk up, Harry, here’s Dr Deerbon to see you, Dr Cat … you’ll be pleased it’s her.’
Cat knelt beside the low bed and felt the heat from the gas fire burning into her back. The budgerigar cage was covered in a gold velour cloth with a fringe and the little birds were silent.
There was not a great deal she could do for Harry Chater, but what she would not do was call an ambulance and send him off to die, probably on a hard trolley in a corridor at Bevham General. She could make him as comfortable as possible, bringing in the oxygen cylinder from her car to ease his breathing, and she could stay with them both, unless she was called elsewhere.
Cat Deerbon was thirty-four, a young GP, but one who, from a family of doctors going back four generations, had inherited the conviction that some old ways were still the best, when it came to individual patient care.
‘Come on, Harry love.’ When Cat came back with the oxygen, Iris Chater was stroking her husband’s hollow cheek and talking softly to him. His pulse was weak, his breathing uneven, his hands very cold. ‘You can do something for him, can’t you, Doctor?’
‘I can make him more comfortable. Just help me lift him up on the pillows, Mrs Chater.’
Outside, the gale was hurling itself at the windows. The gas fire sputtered. If Harry lasted longer than the next hour or so, Cat would call in the district nurses.
‘He isn’t suffering, is he?’ Iris Chater still held her husband’s hand. ‘It isn’t very nice, is it, that mask over his poor face?’
‘It’s the best way of easing things for him. I think he’s quite comfortable, you know.’
The woman looked at Cat. Her own face was grey too and creased with strain, her eyes deep-set, the skin beneath them pouched and bruise-coloured with tiredness. She was nine years her husband’s junior, a neat, energetic woman, but now she looked as old and ill as he did.
‘It’s been no life for him, not since the spring.’
‘He’s hated this … being dependent, being weak. He hasn’t been eating. I’ve had a job to get a spoonful of anything down him.’
Cat adjusted the oxygen mask on Harry’s face. His nose was beaked and jutted out, as the flesh had fallen away on either side of it. The skull showed clear beneath the almost-transparent skin. Even with the help of the oxygen, his breathing was difficult.
‘Harry love …’ his wife stroked his brow.
How many are there like this now, Cat thought, married over fifty years and still contentedly together? How many of her own generation would stick it out, taking everything as it came because that was what you did, what you had promised to do?
She got up. ‘I think we could both do with some tea. Do you mind me rooting about in your kitchen?’
Iris Chater started from the chair. ‘Goodness, I can’t have you doing that, Doctor, I’ll get it.’
‘No,’ Cat said gently, ‘you stay with Harry. He knows you’re there, you know. He’ll want you to stay beside him.’
She went out to the small kitchen. Every shelf, every flat surface was crowded not only with the usual china and utensils but with decorative objects, ornaments, calendars, figurines, pictures, framed words of wisdom, honey pots shaped like beehives, eggcups with smiley faces, thermometers set in brass holders and clocks like floral plates. On the window ledge a plastic bird bobbed down to drink from a glass of water when Cat touched its head. She could imagine how much Hannah would adore that – almost as much as she would covet the pink crochet doll whose skirt covered the sugar basin.
She lit the gas and filled the kettle. Outside, the wind slammed a gate. This house fitted its occupants and they the house – like hands fitted gloves. How could others sneer at sets of royal family mugs and tea towels printed with ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Desiderata’?
She prayed that her phone would not ring. Spending some time now with a dying patient – doing something so ordinary as making tea in this kitchen, helping an ordinary couple through the most momentous and distressing parting of all – put the hassle and increasing administrative burden of general practice in its place. Medicine was changing, or being changed, by the grey men who managed but did not understand it. A lot of Cat and Chris Deerbon’s colleagues were becoming cynical, burned out and demoralised. It would be easy to give in, to process people through the surgery like cans on a conveyor belt and palm the out-of-hours stuff on to locums. That way you got a good night’s sleep – and precious little job satisfaction. Cat was having none of it. What she was doing now was not cost-effective and no one could put a price on it. Helping Harry Chater through his dying, and looking after his wife as well as she could, were the jobs that mattered and as important to her as to them.
She filled the teapot and picked up the tray.
Half an hour later, his wife holding one hand and his doctor the other, Harry took a last, uncertain breath, and died.
The silence in the stifling room was immense, a silence which had the particular quality Cat always noticed at a death, as though the earth had momentarily stopped turning and the world was drained of triviality and urgency about anything at all.
‘Thank you for staying, Doctor. I’m glad you were here.’
‘So am I.’
‘There’s everything to do now, isn’t there? I don’t know where I should start.’
Cat took the woman’s hand. ‘There is no hurry at all. Sit with him for as long as you need to. Talk to him. Say goodbye in your own way. That’s the important thing now. The rest can wait.’
When she left, the gale had died down. It was just beginning to break light. Cat stood by the car cooling her face after the heat of the Chaters’ sitting room. The undertaker was on his way now and Iris Chater’s neighbour was with her. The peace had been broken into and all the dreary, necessary business that attends on death was under way.
Her own job was done.
From Nelson Street at this hour on a Sunday morning it was a two-minute drive to Cathedral Close. There was a seven o’clock service of Communion which Cat decided to slip into, after checking home.
‘Hi. You’re awake.’
‘Ha ha.’ Chris Deerbon held the receiver away from him so that Cat could hear the familiar sound of her children fighting.
‘OK. Harry Chater died. I stayed with them. If it’s all right with you, I’ll go to the seven o’clock, and then take a coffee off my brother.’
‘He should have flown in last night.’
‘You go. I’ll take these two out on the ponies. You need to catch up with Si.’
‘Yes, there’s the subject of Dad’s seventieth birthday …’
‘You’ll need some spiritual top-up first then.’ Chris was an unbeliever, generally respectful of Cat’s beliefs but not above the occasional sharp remark. ‘I’m sorry about old Harry Chater. Salt of the earth, those two.’
‘Yes, but he’d had enough. I’m just glad I was there.’
‘You’re a good doctor, did you know that?
Cat smiled. Chris was her husband but he was also her medical partner and, she thought, a better clinician than she would ever be. Professional praise from him meant something.
The side door of the Cathedral Church of St Michael and All Angels closed almost soundlessly. Much of the great building was in shadow, but the lights were on, and candles lit, in the side chapel. Cat paused and looked up into the space that seemed to billow out up to the fan-vaulted roof. Being inside the body of the cathedral in this semi-dark was like being Jonah inside the belly of the whale. How different from the last time she had been here, when it had been packed full of civic dignitaries and a congregation dressed in its finery for a royal service. Then, it had echoed with music and been bright with banners and ceremonial vestments. This quiet, private time early in the morning suited her better.
She took her place among the couple of dozen people already kneeling as the verger led the priest up to the altar.
She would have found it impossible to function as a doctor without the strength she derived from her belief. Most of the others she knew and worked with seemed to manage perfectly well and she was the odd one out in her family – though Simon, she thought, came close to sharing her conviction.
As she went up to the Communion rail, there came vividly into her mind the last time she and her brother had been here side by side. It had been at the funeral of three young brothers murdered by their uncle. Simon had been in the cathedral officially, as the officer in charge of the police investigation, Cat as the family GP. It had been a heart-breaking service. On her other side had been Paula Osgood, forensic pathologist at the murder scene and at the post-mortem, and who had later confided to Cat that she was pregnant with her second child. How had she coped, Cat still wondered, with professional detachment and calm when examining those three small bodies, killed with an axe and a butcher’s knife? People like that, policemen like Simon – they were the ones who needed all the strength and support they could get. Beside their jobs, that of a GP in a pleasant town like Lafferton was a doddle.
The short service ended and the ribbon of smoke from the snuffed-out candles drifted down to her … She stood. A woman already making her way down the aisle caught Cat’s eye, and immediately after her so did another. Both smiled.
Cat stayed back for a few seconds, letting them get ahead, before slipping out and making quickly for the door on the other side of the centre aisle. From here, she could make a getaway across Cathedral Green and down the path that led into the close before anyone managed to waylay her for an apologetic, unofficial consultation.
Apart from some cathedral clergy, few people now lived in the fine Georgian houses of the small close, most of which had long ago become offices.
Simon Serrailler’s building was at the far end, with windows both on to the close and, at the back, overlooking the River Gleen, a quiet stretch of which flowed through this part of Lafferton. The entrance to 6 St Michael’s was here beside a curved iron bridge leading to the opposite towpath. A posse of mallards was swirling about beneath it. Higher up, a swan trod water. In the spring it was possible to sit at Simon’s window and watch kingfishers flash between the banks.
Case and Chaundy. Solicitors
Parker, Phipps, Burns. Chartered Accountants
Davies, Davies, Coop. Solicitors.
Cat pressed the bell at the top of the stepping stones of brass plates, beside a narrow wood strip elegantly lettered. Serrailler.
Knowing her brother as she did – as well as anyone could be said to know Simon – she had never been surprised at his choosing to live alone at the top of a building surrounded by offices which were empty for most of the time he was at home and with only the ducks, the dark water slipping below the windows and the cathedral bells for company.
Si was different – different from either of his triplet siblings, Cat and Ivo, even more different from their parents and the extended Serrailler family. He had been the odd one out from as early in their childhood as Cat could remember, never fitting easily into a family of loudly argumentative, practical-joking medics. How such a quiet, self-contained man fitted, and fitted extremely well, into the police force was another mystery.