‘Can’t the police do anything? Can’t you ask your brother?’
‘I’ve actually been trying to do just that for the last week, but Lafferton police are up to their necks in a drug operation and I haven’t managed to speak to him, but I do plan to talk to him about it.’
‘Meanwhile, I think it’s very good that we’re meeting like this and I do want to thank you – ‘Aidan said in his precise way, ‘for your hospitality of course, but also for your gesture of faith in Nick and myself … it is very much appreciated.’
‘Seconded,’ Nick said, making a face at Cat while Aidan had turned away.
Aidan offered his coffee cup for a refill. ‘This is a wake-up call to everyone, if I may so express it.’
‘Look.’ Nick uncrossed his long legs. ‘We’re all agreed that there are some cranks about and one or two may possibly even be dangerous but I just wonder if we have any authority at all to try and hound them out of town. We have to be very careful here. I think the legal aspect has to be crystal clear before we attempt to do anything.’
‘I agree,’ Chris Deerbon said firmly, ‘and I’m more anti the whole complementary scene than anyone here. We can’t play God, however much we’d like to.’
They argued round in circles for some minutes. Cat was frustrated. Her idea had been to establish a consensus straight away and then draw up a battle plan and it was not working out. But then Aidan took charge.
‘We’re getting nowhere,’ he said. ‘I think we need to look hard at what we want to achieve, focus on what seems the most urgent and leave the rest aside. Firstly, Cat, I take it that one of your ideas was to form some sort of group or alliance between ourselves and perhaps other interested GPs and qualified complementary therapists, so that you, the doctors, know which of us you would be happy to have your patients consult, if they ask you, and who you would not.’
‘That’s more or less right, yes.’
‘But secondly, your concern is to weed out those who may be actively dangerous. There’s plenty of baloney but then people will always lay themselves open to that and I really feel it’s up to them – astrology is baloney, crystal healing is baloney.’
‘Candles in children’s ears.’
‘No, that’s respectable,’ Nick Haydn put in.
Cat raised her hand. ‘Carry on please, Aidan’
‘Thank you. What really worries us, I think I’m right in saying, is the therapist who hands out medicines and the therapist who may do some actual physical harm – your psychic surgeon.’
‘I would also want to add that those who may do the most harm are the ones who, through inadequate knowledge, miss something really serious in a patient. They are doing harm by default.’
‘Should we perhaps divide things between us? Cat, you were going to ask your brother about the policing aspect.’
‘Fine. And we can all start keeping notes of any alternative therapists we come across.’
‘Maybe a nice colour-coding system? Red for danger, blue for OK, green for thoroughly recommended,’ Nick suggested. ‘Bags I be green.’
‘It’s the reds that are important,’ Aidan Sharpe said.
Of course I didn’t tell you. How could I have told you? This is the first time you have heard anything about it. I managed to conceal it from you for all those years and I’m very proud of that because if you had ever found out I would have had to disappear to the other side of the world, because although it was not my fault, you would have blamed me as you always blamed me for everything.
I had worked incredibly hard, staying up night after night learning the things that were so difficult for me, the grind of chemical formulae, pharmacology, tropical diseases – everything I found uninteresting but had to know. They were a means to an end and it was only the thought of the end that got me through. I didn’t go out, never socialised, and after a time, no one bothered to invite me even for a quick pint in the bar at the end of the day. They had soon learned that they would be rebuffed. I was a misfit and a swot, they couldn’t get the measure of me and they couldn’t be bothered to go on trying. I would have liked a few friends, people to talk to in depth, but I hated the noisy camaraderie of the medical school bar, the crude humour, the smutty talk and especially the practical jokes. So when I was not studying or attending post-mortems, I went running. I became extremely fit and I loved that feeling of power and speed as I pounded off through the streets and out into the country, crossing the moors or making my way down to the miles of flat beach. Running. I wish I had kept it up. I am still fairly fit and do my half-hour of exercises morning and evening, but after I broke my leg I could never run as far and as fast so I stopped. I like to do everything well or not at all.
I worked. It often seemed as if I did nothing else – working and running, working and running – but I was focused on the end purpose.
If only I had not been impatient and tried to hurry that end forward. If only I had not made my single mistake and been found out.
I was truly shocked to discover quite recently that medical students in many schools no longer dissect corpses, just as school pupils studying biology at Advanced level no longer dissect dogfish and frogs and so on, as we did. Computer programs, virtual reality, charts and diagrams and plastic models are all replacing the dissection and the first time many medical students now put a scalpel into flesh is in the operating theatre.
We learned our trade properly. But the bodies we dissected in those first years bore little relation to real human beings or even to the freshly dead. They were wizened and ancient, preserved and unreal, and although they served their purpose and I found them interesting enough, I wanted more, and when I entered the pathology room for the first time, I knew that I had found it. I became a joke with the teams there but the senior staff admired my ambition and seriousness, I know that, and were privately marking me out as one of their own, a future colleague. They didn’t get so many that they could afford to treat me with indifference. Medical students who long to become forensic pathologists are few, even in these days of graphic television drama.
The place became a second home. Towards the end I was observing a post-mortem just about every day, sometimes several.
After a time, of course, watching did not satisfy me, it was not enough. I wanted to start doing the job myself and the knowledge that I would have to wait several more years until I qualified and got through my other specialties was deeply frustrating. I lived with that for about a year. Then, one night I looked up from ‘Congenital Diseases of the Eye’ and knew what I was going to do. It was so obvious I could not understand why I had not thought of it before, but the moment I did, I jumped from having the idea to starting to plan how I would carry it out in a couple of minutes. I set aside the textbook, forgot the eye and began to think, and the excitement that welled up inside me was like none I had experienced before.
Sandy walked from the shower into her bedroom wrapped in a towelling dressing gown at the moment the pips sounded for the eleven o’clock news on her bedside radio. As she heard them, she felt a flicker of anxiety. Debbie had not said that she would be out or left a note and that was unusual, but she had been going to the occasional meeting of one of the groups she had joined at Starly – weirdo groups, Sandy privately thought, but she had said nothing because she was so glad her friend was cheering up and getting together the beginnings of some sort of social life. The meetings did not usually go on late though – until tonight, Debbie had been back by ten, drinking her mug of the vile-smelling herbal tea and telling Sandy all about New Age beliefs, chakras, auras and goodness knows what else. Sandy always listened and asked interested questions and she had to admit that Debbie was looking better, far better – her skin was clearing up, though that was almost certainly because of Dr Deerbon’s antibiotics, her eyes were clear and her hair, which she had had well cut in a becoming shorter style, was no longer lank and greasy, and she had definitely lost weight. You couldn’t knock something that was so clearly doing her good.
Sandy got out her manicure set and bag of nail varnishes, and took them into the sitting room, where she watched an old episode of Friends while removing the Peony Pink from her fingernails and replacing it with Sugar Icing. Friends was particularly funny and she revelled in it. Debbie would have done too, she thought, when it was over. It was five past twelve now. Sandy began to wander about the flat, putting on the kettle and making a cup of tea which she left to go cold, switching on the radio and turning it off again. Once, she even went out into the street. It was empty and quiet and few lights were still on – everyone around here had to go off to work early in the morning. Sandy waited for a moment. It was a lovely night, mild and dry. Debbie would come at any minute, walking briskly down the road or maybe even arriving in a minicab as the last bus would have gone by now. A black cat streaked across the road and vanished into the hedge. A car turned in at the top of the avenue, but it was not a cab and simply sped by and away.
At ten to one, Sandy went to the telephone. She had got dressed again, feeling uneasily that she might have to go out, that Debbie could have had an accident and would need her at the hospital. She lifted the receiver but then put it down again, hearing what she thought was an engine. She looked through the front-room curtains and saw a car turning into a driveway on the opposite side of the road and dousing its lights.
Half past one. She went into Debbie’s room and looked around for the book in which she kept addresses and phone numbers. There might be a note of a meeting. Then she saw Debbie’s handbag hanging over the back of a chair. Sandy stared at it. Wherever she had gone, she would have taken her big brown bag. She hesitated then unzipped it and looked inside. Wallet, lipstick, comb, tissues, notebook, a paperback about meditation, some paperclips … all the usual rubble. Her house keys had gone, and her inhaler, which Dr Deerbon had prescribed after the asthma attack and told Debbie she must always carry on her.
Sandy was puzzled. There was no way Debbie would have gone out to a meeting or an evening with one of her new friends at Starly without her bag. She went back to the telephone. It was twenty minutes to two.
The patrol car was at the door within five minutes, bringing a cheerful older policeman and a young policewoman who seemed irritated by Sandy’s story. They declined her offer of tea and sat in the kitchen asking the usual questions.
‘I’ll go and look at her room if you’ll show me please,’ the young WPC said. She had given her name as Louise Tiller.
Sandy took her into Debbie’s bedroom. ‘You won’t find anything, I’m afraid,’ she said.
‘If you could leave me to be the judge of that.’
‘But her handbag is here and she would never have left that if she’d been going out for the evening.’
‘Well, she might have taken another. People do have more than one.’
‘No,’ Sandy said, ‘she doesn’t actually.’
‘How long have you two been together?’
‘What, flatmates? – about a year.’
‘Flatmates is all it is then?’
Sandy flushed. She had taken a great dislike to WPC Tiller.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘OK. This the bag?’
The policewoman picked it up, crossed over to the bed and tipped the contents out so that they spilled in a pile in front of her. She then began to rummage through them, picked up the notebook and flipped the pages over.
‘I imagine you’ve telephoned all these people to check if she’s with them?’
‘Well … no … she wouldn’t have gone out for the evening without her bag.’
WPC Tiller sighed and walked out of the room abruptly, leaving the contents of the bag strewn on Debbie’s bed. Sandy followed her.
‘Nothing there, Dave.’
He stood up. ‘Look, Miss Marsh, I think you’ll find your friend went out, it got late and she’s stayed overnight with someone.’
‘She’d never do that. Not without telling me. Not without ringing. And she wouldn’t have left her handbag behind.’
‘She did that, did she?’
PC Dave Grimes frowned. His own wife seemed to be joined at the hip to whichever bag was currently in favour – she carried her life in it.
‘She’s shacked up with a man she met at the pub then,’ the policewoman said in a bored voice.
‘What makes you so sure?’
‘Debbie isn’t like that.’
‘Debbie doesn’t go to pubs and … look, I know her, I live with her, she’s been my friend since we were at primary school. This is just not like her. She – she was pretty depressed until recently, but now she’s been feeling better and –’
‘It’s all right, I know what you’re trying to tell us.’ The policeman spoke gently to her. ‘This is out of character. Some people go out until all hours and all over the place and no one would dream of reporting them as missing unless they didn’t come home for weeks. Other people would never dream of doing it – they ring in, they leave messages or they just don’t go off at all.’
‘If there’s a psychiatric history it puts a different complexion on things though, doesn’t it?’
Sandy stared at WPC Tiller. She could hardly speak for anger and distress. ‘What do you mean?’
‘A history of depression.’
‘All right, Louise. There isn’t really anything we can do tonight, Miss Marsh, and I’m sure your friend will come home in the morning. If you haven’t heard from her by then, let us know and we’ll take it further.’
WPC Tiller had already stalked out of the door. The constable reached for his helmet. ‘It won’t be easy, but try and get some sleep. You did exactly the right thing by calling us.’
Sandy was grateful to him and dismissed the WPC as an uppity cow. All the same, what she had implied was worrying. Debbie had been better, much better. But depression was a funny thing, Sandy knew, and it might have come over Debbie again suddenly and without warning, so that she might …
‘Stop it,’ she said, ‘stop that now.’
She made herself a drink, filled a hot-water bottle and went to bed with the Maeve Binchy paperback she had bought earlier that day. Perhaps she might read herself to sleep.
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