He sighed and I began to feel like a very stupid child.
‘Dr Groatman operates. Psychically.’
‘You mean he cuts people open?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
We were going round and round in circles.
‘Where did you practise before you came to Lafferton, Mr Orford?’
‘I’m amazed anyone would ever want to leave Brighton. I certainly wouldn’t.’ I was hoping to hear a lot more about Brighton. I wanted Mr Orford to tell me about the cures he – or rather, Dr Groatman – had performed there. After all, wouldn’t all his new patients be impressed – not to say reassured – by hearing some earlier success stories? But he seemed reluctant to go into any detail at all.
We chatted for a few minutes longer, but talking to Anthony Orford is like talking to a smoke haze. The more direct my questions, the hazier his answers, though he was always courteous.
He stood up and put out his hand. I had obviously overstayed my welcome. At the door, I asked him yet again to explain to me a bit more about how Dr Groatman worked.
‘If ever you are ill – and naturally, I hope very much that you will not be – and your GP seems unable to help you, make an appointment. Then you will learn for yourself.’
The smile came out again as I said goodbye. But the thermostat was still below zero.
I left Starly feeling puzzled.
So who is Anthony Orford? Who was Dr Groatman? And have either of ‘them’ a licence to practise in the way ‘they’ do? Apparently so. There are no regulations at all governing alternative therapists. Only those fully qualified are allowed to practise as doctors. But Mr Orford was at pains to stress to me that he does not claim to be one.
I found it all very alarming.
So I went back to see Glenda Waller, and asked her to explain exactly what had happened at her consultations with Orford/Groatman. I got a surprise. Because the man she now described to me as ‘the doctor’ was certainly not the man I had seen that afternoon. Apparently, when Anthony Orford is taken over by Dr Groatman, he changes. He shrinks, his back becomes a little bent, his face becomes lined and his hair thinner. The voice Glenda Waller described was not that of Anthony Orford.
‘He wears a white coat,’ she said, ‘and you get into one of those gown things in a cubicle. Everything is proper, and he has a tray of instruments. Like the dentist really. First of all, he sort of runs his hands over your body but not touching it, above it, you know? Then he finds out what is wrong and where it is. Then, well, he takes one of these instruments.’
What happened next to Mrs Waller sounds frankly unbelievable. The psychic surgeon appears to make some sort of incision in the patient, and quickly removes diseased tissue, tumour, infection or whatever is said to be causing the problem. Glenda Waller claims to have felt ‘something’ but not pain. She also says that she saw ‘something bloody, mixed with tissue and cotton wool’ pulled out of her body and dropped into the bucket beneath the couch.
I asked her how she had felt. ‘A bit faint,’ she told me, ‘a bit light-headed. But I wasn’t worried or frightened and you’d think I ought to have been, wouldn’t you?’
I would indeed. I felt worried and frightened just hearing about it.
‘But I trusted him. I just knew he knew what he was doing and that it was all going to be all right. And it was, wasn’t it?’
I had to agree with Glenda Waller. She looks radiant. Whatever was wrong with her is wrong no longer. She is out of pain and no longer depressed. It would be unfair to doubt her, churlish not to be impressed.
Nevertheless, there are some questions about psychic surgery which need to be answered. If the practitioner has nothing to hide, why was he so reluctant to answer so many of my questions fully and frankly? What exactly goes on in the consulting rooms and on the ‘operating table’ of this man – or should I say, these men? Only they really know – but they are not telling.
Miracle worker or conman? The jury’s still out.
The article was spread across the whole of the middle pages of the Lafferton Echo and accompanied by photographs of Starly Tor and the outside of the psychic surgeon’s consulting rooms. There was also a photograph of Rachel Carr in a neat box beside her name. Smug, Freya thought, smug and arrogant.
For now, she had other things on her mind, as she bathed, washed and blow-dried her hair carefully, chose a dress, changed her mind, chose another, and finally rejected that one too in favour of her black silk trousers, black satin jacket and shocking-pink and low-cut silk shirt.
Lately, Freya had come increasingly to trust her inner feelings and it was those which told her now that Simon Serrailler was almost certain to be at his mother’s dinner party.
But when Meriel led her into the drawing room where people were having drinks, Simon was not the first person she saw. That was the slim, slight, woman with whom Simon had driven up to his building on the night Freya had been hanging about outside it in the dark.
She felt nauseated as her stomach plummeted as though in a fast-descending lift. Simon was here, then, in some other room but about to return to this one, and to the woman who wore a plain grey cashmere jumper over a long darker grey skirt. She wondered how she could leave, now, whether she could plead sudden sickness – which would not be entirely feigned – how she could get out without even seeing him.
Meriel had hold of her arm. ‘Freya, I don’t think you’ve met Cat?’
The woman smiled. It was an open, warm, welcoming, friendly smile. Freya hated her. The woman held out her hand.
‘Hello. I’ve heard a lot about you.’
Freya could not speak, she smiled and shook the woman’s hand.
The woman laughed. ‘Oh, don’t worry … nothing bad, all good.’
‘Sorry?’ She managed the word. It sounded peculiar. It was in a foreign language.
‘I hear a lot about you from Simon.’
She imagined she must look as vacant as a fish in a tank.
Now the woman touched her shoulder. ‘You work with him, don’t you?’
She had not forgotten how to nod and then, somehow, words miraculously came out of her mouth. Bubbles from the fish, she thought. ‘How do you know?’
‘God, this family is hopeless … Mother didn’t even introduce you properly. I’m Cat Deerbon. Deerbon formerly Serrailler. Simon’s my brother.’
The room settled back into place.
Freya was introduced to Cat’s husband, to a large osteopath with a thick neck and to a tall and very beautiful woman in an enviable long coat of printed velvet. The group, Cat Deerbon said, had been in the middle of discussing an article in that evening’s paper.
‘Not the psychic surgeon, by any chance?’
‘Yes. Does this mean the police are interested?’
‘No, no … or not officially anyway. I clocked it all the same.’
When they went into dinner, it was clear that the party was complete. Simon was not there. It was like being a child again, bitterly disappointed at the cancellation of some treat, a teenager, instantly cast down by a cutting word from an admired teacher … and just as easily uplifted again. But not tonight, she thought, taking a forkful of gleaming fish terrine into which the coral of scallops had been beautifully studded. Tonight you enjoy who is here, you do not pine for he who is not. Tonight is for making more new friends. Cat, she thought, glancing at her across the table. Yes, definitely Cat and not only because she was Simon’s sister, for all she did not look like him. Cat because she was warm and engaging, intelligent and quick, the sort of person Freya responded to immediately. For the moment, though, she had to attend to those on either side of her. She had been put on the right hand of her host but at the moment, Richard Serrailler was going round the table pouring wine. Freya turned to her right.
‘We haven’t been properly introduced,’ she said.
He was probably in his fifties, with an immaculately cut dark grey suit and, she noted, surprisingly elegant, well-manicured hands. Surgeon, she decided, and real not psychic.
‘Aidan Sharpe. How do you do? I take it you sing in the choir with Meriel?’
‘I do. She took me under her wing …’
‘Meriel has a way of scooping people up and involving them in her doings. She wraps the wonderfully rich blanket of her world around them and before they know it, they’re manning a stall at the hospice bazaar.’
‘Funny you should say that.’
Freya finished her terrine. Her neighbour had cut his into the finest slivers, before picking each one up carefully on his fork. Surgeon, definitely.
‘Are you a doctor?’ he asked.
This was the moment. Freya collected people’s reactions when she told them her job. She wondered if Simon did too. Some were shocked, some alarmed, some immediately began complaining to her aggressively about the rise in crime/lack of bobbies on the beat in their area/unfairness of traffic forces … others were avid for inside information about almost anything to do with policing in general and CID in particular.
Now she looked Aidan Sharpe straight in the eye and said, ‘No. I’m a detective sergeant.’
His eyes widened fractionally but otherwise his expression did not change in the slightest. He was a good-looking man – would have been better without the goatee, Freya decided.
‘May I guess at your profession?’
He smiled. ‘I always enjoy this.’
‘Do you remember – no, of course you don’t, you’re far too young … there was a television programme called What’s My Line?. People with unusual jobs were quizzed by a panel – I think they were only allowed to answer yes or no – and the panel was supposed to work its way towards discovering their job. They performed a mime at the beginning but that was the only clue.’
‘OK. Do your mime.’
‘Lord … I don’t think I can.’
‘You must be able to.’
‘Could you? Locking a pair of handcuffs, I suppose.’
A girl in a white apron was going round the table, removing plates. Meriel brought in a huge casserole dish and set it down on the serving table.
Freya looked round at the faces of people talking and laughing in the warm candlelight. Nice, she thought, good company, good food. Happy. Yes. But Simon … She turned back to her neighbour. ‘Come on.’
He sat silent for a moment, then put his thumb and forefinger carefully together and made a single, careful, almost delicate forward movement with them. Freya watched. It meant absolutely nothing and she said so.
‘In fact, I had you down as a surgeon. But if you are, then I don’t know what you were doing then.’
He smiled again.
‘Are you a surgeon?’
And so it went on, a light-hearted, amusing exchange, which made her feel relaxed. After a few moments, and a pause while their plates were heaped with duck in a rich apricot gravy, Freya said, ‘OK, I give up.’
‘I shall probably kick myself for not getting it.’
‘Somehow I don’t think you will.’
Aidan Sharpe gave her an almost flirtatious look. ‘I am an acupuncturist.’
They both laughed, Freya with astonishment, Sharpe with delight. ‘No one has ever guessed. Ever.’
‘I didn’t think much of the mime.’
‘No, I’m afraid it’s almost impossible to do one.’
‘Well, well. In that case, tell me what you think about this man Orford … the psychic surgeon – if you’ve heard about him.’
Aidan laid down his knife and fork. ‘Oh, I’ve heard about him all right,’ he said, ‘and it makes me very angry. Forgive me if I become quite irrational at any moment.’
The conversation got no further for the moment. The vegetables came round and Freya turned to hand a dish to Richard Serrailler.
‘Thank you, Sergeant.’ There was no mistaking the heavy sarcasm. He turned away abruptly to pass the vegetables on, then picked up his knife and fork.
‘I’m not on duty,’ Freya said lightly. ‘Freya is fine.’
He merely grunted.
Richard Serrailler was as handsome as his son, with the same nose and brow, the same straight forward-flopping hair, only grey. But his lean face seemed set in a permanent slight sneer and his eyes were cold.
‘I work with Simon,’ she said.
‘I could wish you didn’t of course. He may have told you.’
Deciding to play both dumb and charming, Freya looked at him with widened eyes. ‘You mean you disapprove of me? But please explain why. You must have heard something derogatory.’
‘Nothing to do with you.’
‘Now I’m very confused. Do sort this out for me, Dr Serrailler.’
He did not offer the use of his Christian name, merely said, ‘My son should have been a doctor. He would have made a decent one.’
‘He makes a more than decent DCI.’
‘Strange choice of job.’
‘No. Exciting, challenging. Dangerous. Important.’
‘You have a high opinion of yourself.’
If the man had not been Simon’s father she would have asked if he enjoyed being offensive, whether or not she was a guest at his table. Instead, she ate a mouthful of duck very slowly before saying, ‘How many doctors are there in your family exactly?’
‘Seven living – four of us are now retired. Two generations behind us.’
‘In that case, you can afford to spare one son.’
‘That is for me to decide.’
‘Not for him?’
But Richard Serrailler had already turned pointedly to the man on his other side, the osteopath Nick Haydn. Freya ate, letting her rage subside. She wondered what had caused Serrailler to be so bitter, so dismissive, so downright unpleasant.
‘Difficult,’ she heard Aidan say quietly.
‘Don’t worry, my dear, it’s not you, it’s everyone. Forget it.’
‘Thank you for that.’
He smiled and reached out to pour her more wine but she put her hand over her glass.
‘I can –’
But he was on his feet, and bringing the bottle to her from the other side of the table. The acupuncturist might not be obviously and immediately attractive, even were she looking for an attractive man, but his manners and kindness were appealing after her brush with Serrailler. At the end of dinner, she made her way into the drawing room behind him, and went straight to where he had made a group with Nick Haydn and Cat Deerbon. Coffee and teapots were placed on two small tables.
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