If Jamie Chadwick had thought waiting at the crowded bar of The King's Head, Limewater, for the landlord to finish pulling his pint of Suffolk's best bitter would be the one place he could be safe from his family, for a few moments at least, he was soon to be proved wrong.
"Father okay then, Jamie?"
"What?" Jamie jumped as Michael pushed the foaming glass under his nose and stepped back to admire his handiwork.
The landlord repeated the question.
"Fine, thanks," Jamie murmured. "Safely locked up at home where he can't cause any more trouble."
This wasn't quite true, of course. His father could always cause trouble, but it was a good phrase to use when he simply didn't know how to discuss it.
"Good, good. Glad to hear it," Michael said. "So the doctor put everything to rights, did he?"
Choking on that first glorious gulp of bitter, he wondered if anything in this village was ever secret. If someone sneezed twice at breakfast, they'd have him in the obituary column of the local paper by supper.
"Sure. He just had a funny five minutes, that's all. Nothing to worry about."
Or that was what the doctor had said. Michael pursed his lips and nodded as Jamie scrabbled in his pockets for some change.
"So you still had time to sort out the problems you were having with that London hotel, did you?" Michael went on.
Jamie stared at him. "How on earth did you know about that?" His so-called glittering career as a conference organizer at the tail end of the twentieth century meant doing business with hotels that made even Fawlty Towers look efficient...and today had been no exception. After dealing with Dad, it had been anyone's guess whether Jamie would be able to salvage the disaster the hotel had been about to make. This time he'd survived. His father, too. But Jamie hadn't realized that people in the village had been taking notes.
"The grapevine. As usual." Michael shrugged as he ran an expert eye over the coins Jamie was handing him.
"Sure, I got there in time. In the end, the whole day went like a dream. Cheers." He took another gulp of his pint and felt the warm liquid wash away the memories of the long drive home.
"Good, good. Well, better let you go." Michael smiled. "I'm sure your young lady will be along soon. If that's what you're here for?"
A joke, of course, but Jamie didn't much feel like laughing. Before he could think of a witty reply, Michael strolled off to serve some of the less patient locals and Jamie pushed his way toward an empty table in the corner. The landlord had been wrong with his last comment in more ways than one. Tonight he was waiting for an old friend to turn up--David Fenchurch.
Jamie had no idea what David was doing now. He hadn't seen him for four years, not since university days. He'd always been one for the girls, though; a different one every night, from what Jamie remembered. Not like himself. As Michael had not so subtly reminded him. Really, he had to get a girlfriend, if only for the sake of appearances. And soon. Though Limewater wasn't London and women were few and far between. He was just wondering if David was going to put in an appearance at all or whether the sight of the A12 in all its long, grey glory had put him off when a shrill cry echoed round the horse brasses and old beamed ceiling of the pub, driving all thoughts out of Jamie's mind and into the smoky air.
"Jamie? Jamie Chadwick!"
At the sound of his name shouted in a voice just on the wrong side of camp, Jamie swung round. As did everyone else. All conversation then stopped, for the figure standing at the door was dressed in an orange shirt, purple checked trousers, an emerald dog-tooth jacket and a trilby hat. But this couldn't be David, could it? No way. David had never in his life shown any signs of secret Boy George tendencies. So how on earth did this stranger know his name? And what was he doing here?
Before he could shake off his surprise, the vision of color uttered another cry of joy, bounded around the teenagers leaning transfixed against the bar, seized Jamie in a dramatic embrace and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"David?" he said, as his worst fears were proved true. "David Fenchurch?"
* * * *
"So, what do you think of my new look then, Jamie?"
Really, he had no idea what to say, so he said nothing. Instead, he set the glasses onto the table as David rose from his chair and gave a quick twirl, deaf to the stifled snorts from the nearby teenagers. At least Jamie hoped that was what they were rather than the discontented mumblings of Limewater's young wolves about to pick on somebody different. This was the country after all. What was his friend trying to do? Get them all killed?
"Sit down, David," he said, pushing him back into the chair. "What the hell are you wearing anyway? Some sort of fancy dress?"
"Don't you like it?" Obeying the instruction, David patted him on the knee, leaned over the table and went on in a stage whisper, "Anyhow, I need to tell you something. Guess what? I'm gay."
The pub went silent, drinking in this exciting new gossip. Either that or they were planning a session of impromptu gay-bashing. Not being the most well built of men, Jamie hoped it was the first option, as fighting for survival certainly wasn't his choice of light entertainment.
"Keep your voice down," he said, glancing around like an old-time spy and promising himself that he would never again agree to meet a college friend he hadn't seen in four years. "What do you mean, gay?"
"You want me to explain it?"
"No," Jamie said, wondering what had happened to David since college to put him off women. "Come off it; you can't fool me. You're not gay. Don't you just mean you've gone color-blind?"
David gave a shout of laughter loud enough to wake up the pub cat, which twitched its tail in their direction before stalking off behind the bar. "Jamie! This is the 1990s. Clashing is the new blending. I know you've always lived in the country, but you must try to keep up with the times. Though looking at what passes for fashion here, I see you're probably still stuck in the 1950s. But never mind all that. I'm sure you're absolutely desperate to know what's caused me to start swinging the other way."
No, as a totally red-blooded English male of the Suffolk variety, Jamie was absolutely desperate not to have to talk about this at all. It wasn't his idea of fun. The important thing for both of them, he decided, was to escape as soon as possible and in one piece. Finishing his drink, he put down his glass and opened his mouth to say so. But no words came.
"Go on then and don't be shy." David grinned, apparently misinterpreting his expression for one of interest. "Ask me what happened to make me change my allegiances."
"I don't want to know. Believe me, I don't."
David gave a great sigh and flung out his arms. "You coward! What are you so afraid of?"
"Nothing," he snapped back. "What makes you think that? And cut the camp voice, would you?"
"God, you've changed. You were always so liberal up at Durham."
"No, I wasn't. Don't be stupid. And you never used to dress like a parrot either."
"But I've come out," he said.
"Not here, you haven't. This is Suffolk. My advice is to stay in...and lock the door."
"David, drink up," Jamie said. "I think we should go."
"Why? I've only just arrived."
"Because if you can't keep your voice down, you may not be leaving at all."
"Really? Are the natives so unfriendly now?"
"This is the country. Everything's different here."
David said nothing to this, but just looked at him. There was more Jamie wanted to say--much, much more--but for some reason, he couldn't. Instead, he got up and walked out, hoping David would follow.
In the car park, Jamie unlocked his car, hesitated and was just about to go back and retrieve him when he heard the crunch of feet on gravel.
"Hang on, Jamie," he said, and Jamie noticed David sounded more like his old self now. "I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"You didn't," he lied. To his surprise, Jamie found he wanted to hurt him. "To be honest, I have enough to do without you mincing round like some kind of rural Julian Clary."
David flinched. "Look, I said I was sorry. I'm just not very good at knowing how to come out."
"You could've fooled me. This is going to be halfway across the Dedham Vale by morning. You may as well have put a full-scale advert in the Limewater Gazette."
"You always did have a sarcastic bent."
"Please do not use the word 'bent' when referring to me."
He shrugged. "Okay, if that's the way you feel about it, I'll shut up."
"Good. Okay then."
There was a pause, during which Jamie wondered why he was behaving like this. He'd always thought of himself as an all-round nice bloke. This wasn't him, Jamie Chadwick, full-time conference executive and part-time care-giver, long-time advocate for universal tolerance. So David had come out sometime since he'd last seen him and was trying to tell him. No big deal. Was it?
David shuffled his feet. "So what shall we do then?"
"Do?" He had no idea.
"Yes. What did you want to do now?"
"Nothing. No, cut that. I'll go home and I don't mind what you do." Before he could take back the needlessly cruel words that had come from nowhere, a flash of anger twisted David's face.
"Well, screw you then," he said.
"No thanks," Jamie replied, got into his car and drove home.
* * * *
Great, he thought, as he turned out into the main road and headed west. Some friend he was. First time in months, maybe years, that he'd seen someone he used to know who didn't live within a twenty-mile radius, and all he could do was kick him in the teeth and drive off. Not that Jamie didn't like where he lived. Limewater was fine, beautiful even on a winter day as long as the wind was in the right direction, away from Mr. Stanford's pig farm. Made up of one long main street with the church at one end, the lone shop in the middle and the pub at the other, it was certainly no metropolis. It did have several very important factors in its favor, including the village green behind the pub, where it was great for enjoying a pint in summer.
The rest of the buildings were cottages giving way on the outskirts of the village to larger houses such as where he and his father lived. Neither a cottage nor a farm, but something in between. The whole set-up lay deep in the Dedham Vale, so deep that even Constable had only painted it once before getting lost and heading towards the bright lights of Salisbury. More fool him then. Jamie had never liked those Salisbury paintings. For that reason, though, they had to put up with coach loads of tourists in the summer who drove the residents out into the fields and woodland walks to avoid them. Hell, at least it kept the village shop busy.
After opening the front door, while still puzzling at the strength of his reaction to David's news, Jamie flung his jacket in the general direction of the cloakroom and strode through into the living room, muttering to himself.
There he found his father with Mary Prentice, the cleaner and family friend. At his sudden entry, they both looked up from their game of cards, like rabbits spotting the farmer's gun, but not knowing if it were loaded or not. Was he really that scary?
"Goodness, what are you doing back here so soon?" his father asked. "It's only half-past eight."
"David never turned up," Jamie lied, thinking his father wouldn't want to know the full answer to his question. "Hello, Mary. I didn't know you'd be here as well. Great to see you."
Flinging himself onto the sofa, he closed his eyes, relaxing in the warmth wafting over from the fire in the grate. If he looked tired enough, maybe they would leave him alone. He couldn't cope with conversation. Not right now.
"That's a shame, dear," Mary said to the accompaniment of shuffling cards. "Sometimes it can be difficult to find your way around here. Perhaps he got lost? You'd think they'd put up more directions because of the tourists. But no, they never think of it, do they? You always see people wandering around the High Street, staring up at the shop and thinking it might be something important. I never have the heart to tell them it isn't. Though, of course, it is to us and..."
Jamie opened his eyes and nodded, knowing she was only being kind. It wasn't her fault he was too shattered to join in. After ten minutes, during which the background chat was beginning to make his head ache, the doorbell rang. A rare event here in the outback.
"Bloody hell!" he said, almost jumping out of the chair.
"Jamie! Language, please," his father protested.
Mary smiled forgiveness and opened her mouth to carry on when the doorbell rang again. Whoever was out there, they were keen to get in. Jamie legged it down the hall to the front door and pulled it open. Just as the bell was ringing for the third time.
It was David.
Taken by surprise, he said the first thing that came into his head. "What do you want from me?"
David smiled and raised his hands in a gesture of conciliation.
"Can we rewind this evening and start again?" he said.
Jamie's first self-preserving instinct was to close the door, but David was too quick and jammed one foot into the decreasing gap.
"Come on," he coaxed. "Don't be like this...give me another chance. We used to be good mates, didn't we?"
Yeah, we did, Jamie thought. David was right. They should start again, and he himself definitely needed to chill out. Or something.
From behind, a fragile voice called out, "Who is it, Jamie? Who's there?"
"Is that your father?" David grinned. "Can I come in and say hello?"
"Sure. But, David..."
David had already side-stepped the attempted warning and was heading down the hall in the direction of the voice. Jamie slammed the door, shutting out the cold night air, and hurried after him.
"David," he hissed at his retreating back.
"What?" He turned round and raised both eyebrows.
"Play it down, for God's sake."
"Play what down?"
"You know. My father, he's..."
But it was too late.
"Jamie?" Mary half-opened the living room door and peered around it, almost as if she expected to see the Roman army rampaging through the house on their way to Colchester and was unsure how to receive them, then advanced several paces toward the two men. "Your father was wondering who it was, and I said I'd just get up and..."
The words froze on her lips as she caught sight of Jamie's exotically dressed companion. Her jaw moved up and down for a few seconds of its own accord without producing any sound. In twenty-five years, he'd never seen or heard of her being speechless and wondered if he'd ever see the like again. In the meantime, his old friend thrust out his hand.
"And you are?" he said.
"Mary, this is David Fenchurch. David, this is Mary Prentice," Jamie said, surprised to find the strict rules of country etiquette still in some sort of working order.
"Oh, sure, I remember Jamie talking about you," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "You used to do the cleaning for the Chadwicks, didn't you?"
Mary giggled and looked for a moment like a young girl, which wasn't bad going for a woman well into her seventies. "Still do, dear. A woman's work is never done, you know."
"So everyone tells me. It must be hard work keeping up with this family."
"Indeed it is, though I shouldn't say so." She glanced at Jamie for a moment, and he gave her a bright smile.
"I'm sure Jamie won't mind. Tell me more, Mrs. Prentice." David took her arm and began to walk her toward the living room.
Hell, Jamie thought, he's flirting with her. How on earth did that happen? Wasn't he supposed to be gay now? Whatever, David's charm was working its magic on Mary, and she was smiling broadly. Jamie had never seen her so relaxed, apart from when she was with that lanky great-nephew of hers. What was his name again? Rick? Vic? Mick? Why couldn't he ever remember?
While Jamie was flapping in the hallway like a duck watching the fox's deadly advance, David had already opened the door to where Jamie's father waited, then stood to one side to allow Mary to pass through. Jamie raced along to join them, just in time to see his father's shocked expression and hear his gasp as he took in David's appearance for the first time. Jamie had to make something up, now, but inspiration didn't come. Did it ever?
"Who are you?" his father said at last. "Have you been in an accident?"
Jamie shoved David to one side and nipped in front of him.
"No, Dad." He laughed. "This is David Fenchurch, the old friend I was supposed to meet at the pub tonight. He tells me he's just...er...on his way to a fancy dress party."
Even to himself, this sounded unlikely and he wasn't surprised when Mary looked puzzled. "Are you sure, dear? He looks very bright, but I can't imagine what he must be going as."
Neither could Jamie, although he was doing his best at very short notice.
"I see," Dad replied. He turned to David. "Is that why you didn't go to the pub then?"
"But I did--" David began to say and looked at Jamie. "I mean, no. I was running late and by the time I got there, Jamie had already gone. So I asked the way here and thought I'd drop by."
Dad seemed mesmerized by David's dress sense and coughed a couple of times before dragging his gaze away. "Well, it's nice to see a new face, young man. And it's good for Jamie to meet someone his own age, too. Not something that happens often in Limewater, and so many of our old friends seem to drift away or just vanish, I don't know why. It's very upsetting."
Jamie flinched at this, but his father didn't notice.
"Can we get you anything?"
"Nice to see you as well, Mr. Chadwick. I'd love a beer, thanks."
"Jamie," his father said, "David would like a beer."
"Sure, I'll get one."
"Would you like anything, Mary, as we're all having drinks?" Dad continued, twisting in his chair toward her as she settled into the seat next to him.
"Ooh, I'd love a sherry. Sweet, please."
"In that case, it's a beer and a sherry, Jamie. I'd love a glass of water, while you're in the kitchen. Helps my cough, you see, David. Sometimes I just can't seem to clear my throat at all and..."
David was still smiling when Jamie left the room and strode into the kitchen to fulfill the drinks order. Five minutes of listening to his father's list of health complaints was enough to drive anyone to...to what? Commit murder? Well, maybe. In Jamie's most fantastical moments anyway. Perhaps he should release some of the angst by drawing up a list of who he could get rid of if he were a different sort of person? It would at least ease some of the tension he always seemed to live with these days.
Listening to Jamie's father's health complaints wouldn't worry David. In a couple of hours at most he'd be out of here, driving back to the sanity of London, and Jamie would be back to where he'd been only an hour ago. On his own and with no foreseeable way out. What had David come down here for? To tell him the good news about coming out and all that jazz? Strange because, even though they were mates, they hadn't seen each other for four years. Was there something else on his mind?
When Jamie returned to the living room, none of his questions answered and balancing drinks on a tray, his father and Mary were talking at the same time, and David's head was turning from one to the other where he sat opposite them as if watching Wimbledon. Who needed television in a place like this?
"...and as for my arthritis, you can't imagine the pain sometimes, you really can't..."
"...but I can remember my first fancy-dress party as a young girl, you know. I was only eight..."
"...I can wake up and be as stiff as a board. No movement whatsoever, and Jamie here can't really help, though he tries so hard. It's just..."
"...oh, those were the days you know. When girls could be girls and wear dresses. Not like today when..."
"...it's worse in the winter. These cold nights get to my bones, really they do..."
"...everyone looks like a man in those horrible trousers. You wonder anyone gets married at all. My late husband used to say..."
"...in the summer I get terrible heat rash, so painful I have to..."
As the door closed behind Jamie, David gave him the look of a man about to be savaged by wild dogs and who had just caught sight of the vet with the tranquillizer gun. Jamie grinned at him, placed their drinks in front of the talking two, tossed one of the beers to David, who caught it with ease, and opened the other one for himself. Sinking into the familiar comfort of one of Dad's old chairs, he took a much-needed swig. Again.
Then, raising his voice a little in order to carry, he said, "The A12's a nightmare. How long did it take you to get from London to here then, David?"
"Good couple of hours. But it's not a problem as I only needed to do it once. I'm not going back."
Jamie started to choke. Mary stopped talking and looked at David with renewed interest, leaving Jamie's father in a world of his own, still chattering on, but with no-one really listening.
"What?" Jamie said, when he could use his voice again.
"I'm not going back to London."
Now even his father stopped talking, realizing something important was happening, though, from the look of confusion on his face, Jamie could tell he didn't know what.
"Oh? Are you staying here with the Chadwicks, dear?" Mary said. "That's nice."
"No!" Jamie said, visions of his father finding out about David crowding his head. "Are you, David?"
"Jamie!" His father gave him a hard stare. "If this young man wants to stay in our house, he is, of course, more than welcome."
Dad was right, but Jamie had actually been thinking of him, if he'd only known it. Still, his father's words served to put him well and truly in his place.
"No, there's no need. Though thank you for the offer," David was saying. "That was the reason I phoned Jamie in the first place. Part of my big news."
They all stared at David and, after milking more than an udder-full of their attention, he went on, "The civil service has given me a sideways move into agricultural science. I moved into my new flat in Stanton Green yesterday and I start work in Colchester tomorrow. Are you surprised?"
* * * *
Surprised? Yes, Jamie most certainly was. He couldn't imagine David coping with cows and pigs and half a tonne of the best British manure, certainly not dressed like that. Though it would be good to know someone in Suffolk below the age of fifty. All his other friends had long since moved away. As his father had already said.
However, Mary had no such mixed feelings.
"How lovely!" she cried, and then went on, echoing some of Jamie's own thoughts. "It'll be company for Jamie. There aren't many young people around here, you know. They all go and live in the city and never come back. He does need to get out more. He needs someone to do things with."
Why was it both his father and Mary always made Jamie feel like the lonely schoolboy waiting in vain to be chosen for the football team? Was he really that sad?
He gulped, but David smiled. "Yes, that'd be great. I need to settle in first, though."
"Are you happy with the new place? What are the neighbors like? Have you unpacked yet?"
"So many questions, Mrs. Prentice. I don't know which to answer first."
"Please, dear, call me Mary. We don't need to stand on ceremony here, especially if you're going to be living so close by."
Mary? What was this? It had taken five years for Mrs. Prentice to ask Jamie to call her Mary. And she'd been coming to the house every Monday and Thursday for the last eight years now. Once again, he was a poor loser to the Fenchurch charm.
"Okay, Mary," David replied, "that's very kind of you. Yes, I'm happy with the flat. There's plenty of room, though a fair amount of DIY to be done."
"It's good to keep busy. My husband always said, when he was alive, that DIY for a man was what knitting and baking were for a woman. The stuff of life. People today never seem to--"
"A wise man," David said, cutting in without causing offence. How did he do that? "And as for the neighbors...well, the ones on the right left me a packet of chocolate biscuits on the steps in the morning and the ones on the left brought round a bottle of champagne in the evening."
"Ooh, lovely! People are always kinder in the country, don't you agree? And what about the unpacking?"
"Still to be done. There's no point taking things out of boxes when I don't know where to put them."
"What you need is a nice young woman to help you out," my father contributed, nodding agreement with himself. "Women are good at that sort of thing, and they soon put you right. Make things all cozy."
There was a pause.
"I shall have to hire one," David said.
"Like me, but a bit younger," Mary giggled.
"Oh, no!" David protested. "Nothing like the more experienced woman to keep you right. I don't know anyone in Suffolk, though, except you three, of course, so I wouldn't know who to ask."
"I shall have to ask around for you," she said. "I'm sure a man like you will be snapped up in no time. There are plenty of young girls in Suffolk who'd jump at the chance to--"
"Mary," Jamie butted in, grabbing the sherry bottle and holding it over her glass, "another drink?"
"It does make me so giggly, dear, and I have to drive later. No, don't take it away. Maybe just a half?"
He poured her rather less than that, and she took a generous slurp.
"Anyway, David," she went on, "what was your other news?"
"Your other news? You said your move back here was only part of what you had to say. Tell us what else is happening. We always like to get some excitement in Limewater, you know."
Jamie froze. Time for some action. If only he could think of any.
"It was nothing," David said. "Nothing important."
Thank God for that. His father's living room was no place for a public outing. Jamie's first-aid skills weren't up to it, not even after the practice they'd had with his father this morning. Now he just had to get David out of the house as soon as possible and all would be well with the older generation. For a while. He stood up, just as Mary opened her mouth again.
"Now, don't be shy!" she said. "It must have been important for you to mention it in the first place. Are you all right, Jamie? Don't you want to hear what David has to say?"
Actually, he already had, and knew that she--along with his father--wouldn't want to hear it. Not now and not ever. But it was too late. David was already talking, but after a moment's frisson of panic Jamie could tell he was improvising.
"Well, as I've moved in, I'd thought of...of having a party of some description. But...but I ought to wait until I've sorted the place out more and then I--"
"What a clever idea!" Mary said, her eyes lighting up. "It's such a good way to meet people, isn't it? There could be dancing, although these days, it's not what I'd call dancing. Not like the old days. But it's very popular with the young people, although I don't think Nick is very keen. Nick's my great-nephew, David. He's such a lovely young boy. So kind, so considerate."
Nick. That was his name. Nick. Jamie knew he'd been close with his guesses.
"No room for dancing in my flat." David laughed. "It's big enough for me, but any more than four people inside at once and it would probably fall down. Maybe I'll have to scrap the idea."
Mary frowned, and Jamie's father leaned forward and patted her knee.
"Well, if you want it so much, Mary, and I know how you've always loved a party, why doesn't David have it here? Although it couldn't be a house-warming party then, could it? Not really."
Jamie stared at his father. "But, Dad, you hate loud music. You're always telling me it's bad for your arthritis."
"Yes, you're right, it is." Mary sighed, then brightened a little. "Couldn't we have it during the day? It would be quieter. If the weather stays kind, you could use the garden."
"You mean lunch in the country?" David asked, looking as if he were going to laugh.
Jamie didn't suppose Londoners had much time for that sort of thing. And, with the demands of his working life, Jamie didn't either. However, if David was going to get snobby about it, then he was prepared to back it to the hilt. This was where he lived after all. Country people might be strange, but they were loyal.
"Yes, lunch," his father repeated. "Just how we used to do things in the old days, eh, Mary?"
She giggled, and he joined in, shoulders shaking. Jamie made a mental note to let him have two painkillers tonight.
"Yes," she said. "And we could invite the vicar 'round to make it all respectable. As we used to when--"
"David's probably got better things to do with his time," Jamie started to say, not wanting to hear the end of her sentence, until he remembered why a party might be a good thing after all. The vicar's daughter, Carina, had the bluest eyes of anyone he'd ever come across. Not to mention a smile to die for. Jamie shut his mouth. He'd been thinking about asking her out for ages, though he'd never quite drummed up the courage, and if this party meant she came to the house, then that could only be a good thing. If his luck was in.
"But it's a laugh to do something different once in a while," David said, giving him a sly grin so that he felt his face grow red. "You ought to try it sometime, Jamie. If the offer's still there, can I say yes?"
"How wonderful," Mary said, clapping her hands together and not giving Jamie a chance to reply. "We shall all look forward to it so much, won't we?"
Hmm. Not all of them would, not even with the lure of Carina. Not if he couldn't be sure what David would do. Staring wide-eyed at Mary and thinking deliciously ridiculous thoughts about the possibilities of a fantasy hit list, Jamie wondered if there would be anyone left in Limewater at all by Christmas.
It was strange. Whenever Jamie told people he lived with his father and worked from home, they always assumed he was some kind of saint, tending a sick relative and knocking off a few business deals in his spare time.
One thing he certainly wouldn't ever be up for was sainthood.
Because it wasn't like that. Being in the conference trade was a full-time occupation and he had to work all the hours he could find to make a go of it. He fitted the business in around his father whenever he could, knowing that whatever he did would somehow not be enough. Either way. Feeling guilty, about clients or personal responsibilities, was a daily, sometimes hourly hazard. He muddled through, but it was getting harder and harder, especially now his father's bad sessions were becoming longer and more frequent. Jamie wondered what David as an outsider had thought of them all last night.
David. Hell, though. What was his friend getting himself into? At college, he'd always been the one with the best-looking girl on his arm. He wasn't gay...Jamie was sure of it. This was nothing more than the blip to end all blips. And they all had those. Even he did, though he didn't like to think about that. No, he didn't like to think about that at all. David just had to get over it. With any luck, he'd soon discover his wonderful new lifestyle was a terrible mistake. Perhaps he'd wake up one day and realize he'd gone too far ever to change. What would he do then? What with Davidand his father, if, in his make-believe life, Jamie got rid of them both, surely it would be a mercy killing.
So on the Monday morning after David had re-entered his existence, Jamie unlocked the office door, bleary-eyed, and staggered in.
Time for my real life to begin, he thought, as he flicked through the Financial Times, which was always how he started the working day. Wasn't that what all would-be tycoons were supposed to do? As if. Not that it contained anything worth reading or that he could understand most of the time, if truth be told. Switching on the computer, he'd begun to flick through his messages when the phone started ringing and he was plunged into the energy of the day.
A couple of hours later, he'd arranged an initial overview of one conference, tied up the loose ends on another, made three sales calls, one very warm, and started to draw up plans on the computer for two very different programs needed over the next three months. He was rocking today. For once.
From downstairs he heard Mary let herself in and yelled hello as she rummaged around in the kitchen. After ten minutes or so, there was a knock at the office door.
"Come in!" He wondered what she might want. She never disturbed him at all unless it was her day for vacuuming.
"It's me, Jamie." She peered around the door. "Can I come in? Just for a minute?"
"Sure. Is Dad okay?"
"Yes, thank you, dear, everything's fine."
"Great." Jamie smiled, gesturing her to the only other chair in the room and sitting as well. He waited for her to continue.
"You wanted to see me? Can I help?"
His visitor took a deep breath and launched into some sort of explanation. None of it made any sense, unless he'd misplaced his memory cells that morning.
"Now I just thought I'd have a quick word with you when I arrived, as I know how busy you get as the day goes on, and I didn't want to leave things till the last minute, as I'm sure you'll be wanting to make the decision quickly and..."
Make what decision? "Sorry but you've lost me."
She giggled, her hand over her mouth, "Oh, dear me, hasn't your father said?"
No. He hadn't said very much at breakfast at all. Jamie had put it down to the shock of seeing David, but perhaps the old man was simply being canny. What had his father gotten him into this time?
"I haven't said what it is either, have I? No, well, when I was chatting last night just before you came home and that charming young man arrived..."
Who? Oh, David.
"Mr. Chadwick mentioned you had so much to do that you couldn't always keep on top of the accounts..."
"He said what?"
She stopped in mid sentence and stared at him. "Oh. He just said you were so busy with everything that sometimes the accounts fell behind."
They most certainly did not. Or rather, they did sometimes, but that was his affair, not his father's. "I run my business well. I don't have any problems."
Mary began twisting her white lace handkerchief into a spiral in her lap, and he tried to look less like a Rottweiler in search of a rabbit.
"Yes, yes. I know you do. I mean you don't. Have problems, that is," she said. "But...but sometimes I know if you're very busy, it's hard keeping up with the routine stuff. My husband used to say..."
Mr. Prentice had died some ten years ago, and from local memory had been a quiet man, devoted to his wife, and someone who could go months in the village without ever being seen outside the marital home at all. It was astonishing how much he had to say for himself now.
"I know you're only being kind, but you shouldn't believe everything my father tells you," Jamie cut in as gently as he could. "My accounts are fine, thank you. Cash flow is good."
"Are you sure? Your father said it would be a wonderful idea if...if..."
"If you might see your way to finding some work for Nick."
"Nick?" he asked, now more confused than ever.
"Yes, my great-nephew, you know." Her face lit up, taking all her years away. "He's a lovely young lad. I'm so very proud of him, and he's just come back home from travelling around the world, you know, like all you young people do nowadays. He's very talented and..."
But Jamie didn't want to hear about travel. Only two people he knew had ever travelled and both of them were now as far away as they could be. In Japan, a world away from Limewater. One of them being the blessed Mark, his elder half-brother and his father's pride and joy. Besides, there was no chance of Jamie being able to travel now, even if he'd wanted to.
"But what experience does he have?" he interrupted, and then cursed himself for not being more decisive about it. He should have just said no.
"He's got A levels in Business Studies. And French, you know." She nodded with enthusiasm, as if this in itself would be enough to make Jamie welcome Nick into his office with open arms.
"That will be useful in Suffolk."
Mary reddened, but she didn't back down, and he smiled an apology.
"Yes, well, he's also studied an accounting module as part of his course and he's very interested in that sort of thing, you know."
"But, Mary, my accounts are all on the computer, and it's a completely different way of working. I--"
"He's very good with computers. His mother is always saying how much time he spends on the line."
"Online. Yes, I'm sure he does, but I have to say no, thank you. I've always worked by myself. It's what I'm used to." The look of disappointment on her face made Jamie search for other suggestions. "Why doesn't he try his luck at one of the big accountants in Colchester or Ipswich? They'll be able to help."
"But your father..."
"Yes?" he said, laying his pen on the desk to avoid tapping it like a demented woodpecker.
"Your father said it would be fine and that Nick could come for an interview on Thursday when I'm next here. I talked to Nick last night and it's all arranged. I thought you'd be happy. I'm sorry."
She blew her nose hard on the neat lace handkerchief. Before Jamie could help himself, he started to laugh.
"It's all right, Mary. Please don't cry. I see this is a conspiracy and there has been dark plotting on the village green. Don't worry, I--"
Before he could continue, the phone started to ring. Typical. Why was it that nothing happened for years around here and then everything happened at once? Must be something in the Limewater air.
Reaching for the phone, he smiled at Mary and was pleased to see her put the handkerchief away. "Okay, I'll see Nick. I can't promise anything, but I'll talk to him on Thursday. We'll see how it works out then."
"Jamie Chadwick, thank you so much. You're a love." She gave him a huge kiss on the cheek before hurrying away and shutting the door behind her.
Wiping his face clean of what seemed like a month's supply of cherry lipstick, Jamie put on his best professional voice and picked up the receiver. "JC Conferences. May I help you?"
* * * *
"Dad, what on earth have you been up to?"
His father stared up at him from his usual position opposite the television and looked shifty. Jamie's telephone call had meant he'd been tied up pretty much for the remainder of the day and Mary had gone home.
"Nothing," he said.
"Come off it. You've been plotting with Mary to give her unemployed nephew a job. Nepotism at its worst, don't you think?" He eased himself down with a sigh onto the sofa and glanced without interest through the TV schedule pages. Usual Monday night rubbish, nothing more.
"Great-nephew. Nick's Mary's great-nephew. Why don't you ever remember that? I thought you could do with the help. You sit up there in that office of yours day in day out and I never see you. Having staff will be useful, won't it? You're always telling me how busy you are."
That was true, though sometimes Jamie used it as an excuse to be on his own and think. He found he needed the space, now more than ever.
"Yes, you need the help. And Nick's a good boy," Dad went on. "Mary's always telling me so."
"I don't doubt he is. But I'm doing okay by myself."
"Why are you arguing with me?" he said, eyes suddenly blazing. "It's upsetting, and you know how that affects my arthritis. You can't understand what it's like. You've never had to go through what I do. You've never had to be ill like this."
Jamie closed his eyes for a second. Pain always made his father grumpy. He ought to be patient. And keep thinking about that wonderful hit list. "Okay, okay. I'm not arguing with you. I was just joking, that's all. I've agreed to interview Nick on Thursday, and we'll see what he's like. But, as I told Mary, I won't promise anything."
"Nick?" Now his father looked confused.
"Yes," Jamie said. "Nick. Mary's great-nephew. You asked him. Remember?"
"Ah, yes." He nodded. "I thought it would be helpful for you. I know how much you hate doing the accounts. You're always moaning about them. You do go on so..."
Jamie felt his stomach muscles clench, but said nothing.
"...and so, when dear Mary told me Nick was an expert at accounts, I thought it would be the ideal solution for you. What do you say? Haven't I been helpful? Haven't I?"
Jamie wasn't convinced Nick would turn out to be any sort of expert with accounts at all. Or anything else, for that matter. Anyway, what was he going to do with staff? Terrible idea. If he had staff, he'd be a manager rather than the go-getting young entrepreneur he wanted to be. He wished. But now wasn't the time to point this out.
"Sure, Dad, you've been great. Thank you. But don't worry about it. It's my business and by now I can just about..."
But his father wasn't listening.
"Mary Prentice is a good woman, and we must do what we can for her," he said. "She works hard for us and the least we can do is repay her with a kindness now and again. She was very good to us all when your mother was ill, you know."
Jamie folded the newspaper until it was unreadable as his father talked on. His mother had died when he was very young and he could barely remember her, but in his father's world, and, of course, in his, she still packed a punch. More than anything, Jamie wished he'd known her, but he hadn't, and there was nothing he could do about it. Now, the moment she came up in a conversation with his father, he knew any argument he might have had a chance of winning would be lost. You couldn't fight a dead parent; they won every time.
"And another thing," Dad went on, "this house is my house and whatever goes on inside it is my responsibility as well. Which includes your business, Jamie. I save you a lot of costs by allowing you to work from here. If I want to offer you young Nick to help you out, then the least you can do is give him a fair hearing, eh?"
God, where the hell had that come from? Had he dropped into Angry Father mode while Jamie had been drifting? Had his father been reading The Oldie and found an article on how to put his caregiver son in his place? If so, it had done the trick, and Jamie had no answer to it. Besides, it was nothing but the truth. He could almost admire the old man for that killer punch.
"You see!" his father declared. "You know I'm right, don't you? No, in my opinion, you have too much work and could do with the help. You should give this young man a chance. Who can tell what might happen? Now, if Mark were here, he'd agree with me. You see if he wouldn't."
Mark. Jamie had been wondering how long it would take his father to get around to comparing him with that great symbol of virtue. He couldn't ever reach the high standards of perfection Mark had achieved in everything he'd ever turned his hand to. In his father's eyes, that was, damn it. Thank God his half-brother--and, of course, his long-suffering sister-in-law, Allie--lived in Japan, and Jamie never had to deal with him, apart from the Christmas visit and the inevitable telephone calls.
"Mark is so good at managing people that he'd soon train this young man, and your accounts would be solved in no time. I know that's what you're worried about. In fact, why don't you give your brother a ring and ask his advice? I'm sure he'd be happy to help you and it would be lovely to hear him again."
Somehow, his father had honed in on the source of Jamie's concerns and opened them all up for inspection. What sort of manager would he make? He really had no idea at all. But not wanting to get into another argument, he stood and headed toward the door. Just before leaving the room, he said, "Well, cheers for that. And sure, Mark would be able to solve all the world's problems just by touching them with his healing hands, but he's not here. So I'll have to solve this on my own."
* * * *
By Thursday however, Jamie had begun to wonder whether hiring somebody to organize his accounts might not be such a bad thing after all. It would free him up to do the parts of the job he loved. How hard could it be anyway to be in charge of a person, rather than pieces of equipment and conferences?
Still, in spite of his newfound positive approach to staff, his first sight of Nick didn't fill him with confidence. Nick skulked in the shadows of the hallway like a burglar as his great aunt introduced him to Jamie with pride, made them some coffee and then disappeared to start cleaning the kitchen. She seemed to have some strange idea that Nick and he would now discuss what she called "men's business." Whatever that might be.
Jamie showed him up to the office straight away. If he was going to have to let Nick down, it would be better not to have either of their relatives fussing round them like crazed hens. At least it would be less painful for the poor bloke.
Waving him inside, Jamie watched as he gazed around, taking in the state-of-the-art equipment, matte-black furniture and plain white walls. He liked to keep things simple when he worked. He'd read once that it helped creative thinking. And in his business, creativity of any sort was vital. The whole effect was offset by the two nineteenth-century Japanese prints that had been a present for his eighteenth birthday, from someone he was determined not to think about now. One print was of an old man dressed in a traditional kimono and the other of a geisha entertaining customers at a tea ceremony. Jamie liked them very much. No, he loved them. But his father didn't share his tastes and, thinking they might be faintly shocking, had been glad when he'd decided to hang them in here.
"Wow!" Nick exclaimed. "This is so cool."
At once Jamie felt ten years older.
"So, Nick," he said, leaning back and stretching his arms behind his head as he imagined bosses were supposed to do, "take a seat and tell me why you want to work here."
From his chair, Nick gaped at him, eyes widening behind his glasses, like a tall, lanky Harry Potter. Then he closed his mouth before opening it again and emitting a strangled squawk. "Well, I...um...I... Well, that is to say I..."
This was not going well. Maybe Jamie was being too direct? He should rephrase the question. Give the boy a chance.
"I mean what would interest you about this particular job, such as it is?" he said.
Nick swallowed twice before looking at him and saying in a rush, "Well, I...I need the money and I'm good at accounts."
That was direct and not what he'd been expecting.
"Why do you need the money?" he asked him. Out of genuine interest. Nick was only nineteen. He hadn't been to university. Where had the debt come from?
"I've been travelling," he said, sitting up and looking eager for the first time. "I'm saving up to go again."
Of course, the travel. Jamie had forgotten about that. So no debt then. And a saver, even in the teenage years. Indeed, he must be an accountant in the making. No worries as to career there. Mary would be thrilled and her comfortable old age--or even older age--was assured.
"Where did you go?"
"Good for you. Did you work your way around?"
"Sure. I did bar work and then worked on a sheep farm for a bit. It was brilliant."
Bar work? Jamie couldn't imagine it somehow. Nick didn't seem the type. But thinking of David, who could tell what type meant these days? Nick was probably a wow with the drinks orders.
"And the accounts?"
The change in subject made Nick slump back in his chair and look defeated. Jamie hoped he wasn't going to cry. He couldn't bear tears.
"The accounts," he repeated, as gently as possible. "You said you were good at them. Could you give me examples of what you've done?"
Not that he would have understood anything more than a basic answer, but he felt the question ought to be asked.
"Well, I...er...I took accounting techniques as one of my modules in my b-business studies course. I've got my papers here if you'd like to see them."
"No, there's no need," Jamie said. "What I'd really like to know is whether you have any experience."
"Yes. I've been working for an optician on the accounts side. Look, Mr. Chadwick."
For a moment, Jamie thought his father must have come in, but Nick reached into his pocket and offered up a neatly folded letter. He read it while Nick explained what it contained. Why did people do that? It made it almost impossible to take anything in.
"I got a Saturday job there in my final year at school. Thought it might be useful, as I don't want to go to university or anything. They let me help out with the billing and checking of invoices. And I helped improve their online system."
The letter certainly agreed with what he'd just said. Jamie would need to ring his former employers to check it out, but in the meantime, he wondered what Nick could actually do.
Turning the computer screen in his direction, he said, "Okay. Sounds good. My accounts package is on there. If you're up for it, give me some idea of what you might make of it."
Half an hour later, he was beginning to feel as if his father perhaps wasn't as interfering and difficult as he'd thought. At this rate, he might disappear from that hit list altogether. And then there would only be David. Nick's computer skills weren't as good as Jamie's own, but his knowledge of accounts was surprisingly broad. He should seriously think about giving him the job. However, he'd already had to interrupt proceedings four times to answer the phone and it was time to get on with the day.
"Cheers," Jamie said, bringing the discussion to an end. "That's enough for now. Let me have your number. I'll ring you tomorrow and let you know."
"Okay," he said, writing his contact details on the paper Jamie had given him. "I'd like to have a try."
"It's not a question of having a try. This is my business and I need it to succeed."
"Yes, I know. I...I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I...I meant it sounds interesting. And I think I could be of some help."
Giving him a reassuring smile, Jamie said, "Yes, that's what I need to think over. I'll ring you tomorrow. Okay?"
* * * *
It didn't take him long. Jamie rang him the next afternoon. Not giving him a chance to draw breath, he told Nick that if he arrived first thing on Monday, he'd have plenty for him to do. If after a week they still liked each other, Jamie would be able to hire him three days a week, Mondays to Wednesdays, at least up until Christmas.
"Oh, and call me Jamie," he'd added. He didn't want any of this "Mr. Chadwick" nonsense. Nick's enthusiastic response made him smile and after he'd put the phone down, he spent some time drawing up a list of tasks he could start with. Nothing too complicated.
And after that there were other equally important things to think about. The party, for instance. And the vicar's daughter who, right now, was top of the list. But for romance, not for the hit list.
"Hi, Carina. How are you then?"
Okay, okay, not the greatest of pick-up lines, Jamie had to admit, but he was out of practice. Leaning against the door at church after the Sunday service, just behind the unholy crowd of coffee drinkers, mainly women of a certain age, there wasn't much scope for being any smarter.
Carina started and almost spilled her coffee.
"Hey, watch that! You'll scald yourself," he said, steadying the cup in her hands and holding on a little longer than necessary. Wouldn't anyone? She was slim, attractive, blonde and not taller than he. Which, as Jamie was only five-foot-seven--a constant source of irritation and one of the many things he blamed his father for--was something he cared about. Deeply.
"Oh, thank you, Jamie. That's nice of you." She smiled and lowered her eyes.
"No problem," he said, at last letting go of her hand. "Couldn't have you ruining your dress, could I?"
When, surprisingly, Carina didn't at once walk away from him, Jamie checked to see where her father was. Then, finding courage from somewhere, he smiled, coughed and launched into the speech he'd spent most of the morning preparing. As always, it didn't come out the way he'd imagined.
"There's something I'd like to ask you," he said.
"What's that then?"
"Carina! Have you got the biscuits, darling?" The vicar's voice boomed like a death-knell across the church floor and into Jamie's ear, and all his words disappeared into the crisp morning air.
Carina turned at once to go. Determined not to be thwarted this time, he grabbed her arm and whispered, "Dad and I are having a few people 'round for lunch next Sunday. Would you like to come? And your father, too?"
Having the vicar around would make them all feel guilty of some unknown crime, much like policemen always did. But as his own father had a tendency to appear suddenly at doorways on those rare and almost forgotten occasions when Jamie brought a girlfriend home, he thought the vicar might keep him occupied.
"Yes, that would be lovely," she said, and he could have sworn she was blushing. "C-can we bring anything?"
Astonished at such early success, Jamie blinked and said, "Just yourself, Carina. That will be great."
* * * *
Dreaming about Carina may have been interesting, but starting to work with Nick wasn't.
It was Tuesday morning and his second day at work wasn't going well. Already he'd lost one of Jamie's files on the computer and it had taken him some time to retrieve it. Right now, the new employee was standing in front of the photocopier looking bemused and holding a sheaf of papers like a comfort blanket.
"It's the green button, Nick," he said with more emphasis than necessary, just before the phone rang again.
He shuffled a little and mumbled a reply.
"Everything okay?" Jamie asked, picking up the phone.
Nick waited for him to finish the conversation before saying, "Yes, th...thank you. I was just wondering how to collate all this."
Jamie wondered if he was more nervous today as it wasn't one of Mary's work days. On Monday, she'd popped in several times to see how "our Nick" was getting on, and he must have been glad to see a familiar face.
"Here, watch me. This is what you do."
Making sure he was following instructions, Jamie ran through the myriad of programs on the photocopier. After he'd initiated Nick into its mysteries, he spent the next hour or so printing off more presentations as he worked on the accounts. With everything that was happening, Jamie lost track of the time and the sound of the front door bell made him jump.
Glancing at his watch, he saw it was 11A.M. Mrs. Flanders, Dad's physiotherapist, must have arrived. On time, as well.
"I'll get it," Jamie said, heading toward the door. "If anyone rings, just take a number and say I'll get back to them as soon as I can."
There was an uncomfortable pause. "That's okay? Isn't it?"
"Yes. Yes, of course."
"Great. And, Nick?"
"You'll be fine. You're doing just great."
Downstairs, he opened the front door and gave a friendly smile to...the person on the doorstep. Who wasn't Mrs. Flanders. Not at all. In fact, anyone less like Mrs. Flanders had yet to be created. This person was not tall, old or grey-haired. No, this person--sorry, woman, very attractive woman--couldn't have been any more than in her mid-twenties and was just a little taller than Jamie. In addition, she had the sort of combination of sultry dark hair, luminous skin and long legs that he'd never seen before in Limewater. Where had she come from? Why was it that you waited months for a girl to turn up and then two arrived at once? Still, she'd be spoken for, Jamie was sure of it.
"Hello. I'm Lucy Reid," the vision of beauty said, presumably bored with waiting for him to stop staring, and stretched out her hand. "You must be James Chadwick."
She knew his name. It must be a sign. He took hold of her hand and gave it a firm shake. "That's right, but please call me Jamie. Everyone else does. Can I help you?"
"Okay, Jamie. Well, I know you weren't expecting me quite so soon..."
No, that much was true. But he could handle it, if she gave him a chance. Carina and he hadn't actually gone out together yet, had they?
"I'm Mrs. Flanders' replacement and--"
"Mrs. Flanders' replacement? But you're..."
Lucy smiled. "Yes? I'm..."
Her hand twisted in his, and Jamie let it go. He hadn't realized he was still holding onto her with quite such determination.
"Not what I expected," he finished. "What's happened to Mrs. Flanders? Is she all right?"
"She was due to go at the end of the year, but I'm afraid her daughter isn't very well at the moment, so she decided she'd rather move down south to be with her now."
"Sorry to hear it."
"Yes, but I'm sure Amy will be fine, thank you. Now please may I come in? Then I can see what I can do for your father."
"Sure," he replied, moving aside to let her pass into the hallway. As he did so, the scent of apples washed over him as her hair swung round her shoulders. If Jamie had been a girl, he might even have fainted, but only if he could have been sure of not bumping his head. "My father's in the living room. It's best for space."
Dad glanced up as the two of them walked in. And then glanced again.
"Oh," he said, putting down the book he was reading. "Isn't Mrs. Flanders coming today?"
"No, Dad. Mrs. Flanders has gone to live with her daughter. This is Lucy Reid, your new physiotherapist."
"That's very sudden. Is Amy all right? It's not the cancer come back, is it? That would be terrible. Terrible."
"We don't know, Mr. Chadwick," Lucy said. "I think they're just being careful. Mrs. Flanders promised she'd write and bring all her patients up to date as soon as she could. I'm sure there'll be a letter in the post."
"Good. I must write back. Just as soon as I get her letter. I hope she remembers to put her new address on."
"Yes, I'm sure she will. She's very efficient."
"Yes, indeed." Dad gave Lucy a closer look. But not quite in the same way as Jamie had. "Goodness, you're very young, aren't you? Are you sure you're a physiotherapist? With the hospital?"
"Well, young man, this is my arthritis we're talking about here. I need to know that--"
"Of course, Mr. Chadwick," Lucy answered. "You're very right to ask. You hear such stories nowadays. However, I am indeed a trained physiotherapist and have more than a few happy clients to confirm it."
She handed Jamie's father an envelope and went on, "Here. This is my official card. If you like, you can contact the hospital to check."
"Please," Jamie chipped in. "There's no need for that. I'm sure you're the best person for the job."
His father snorted, but Jamie ignored him. At that moment, he didn't care whether Lucy was a serial killer intent on murdering his father and disposing of his body under the patio, just as long as she was in the house and intending to visit again on a regular basis. Come to think of it, if she did murder his father, it would save him the effort of making that hit list. And surely here was someone who would never need to be added to it.
"I'll leave you two alone to get on with the session," Jamie said, a sudden vision of the number of disasters that could be happening upstairs springing to mind. He shouldn't have left Nick on his own for so long, not on his second day. "Can I get you a coffee first?"
"Not for me, thanks," Lucy replied.
Dad shook his head, and Jamie turned to go. Then inspiration struck. "Oh, I almost forgot."
"Mrs. Flanders always used to stay for some lunch before she went on to her next patient. Would you like to?"
"Sounds lovely, but there's really no need."
"It's no problem. I don't see why we shouldn't carry on as we were before."
"Okay then," she said with a smile. "That would be grand."
Congratulating himself on his politeness and sense of fair play, even though he knew his motives were rather more than that, Jamie took the stairs up to the office two at a time.
* * * *
He was just in time to retrieve one of his major clients from the less-than-professional handling Nick was giving him on the phone. Still glowing with the thought of Lucy in the house and the endless pictures of happiness being conjured up in his head, Jamie said nothing and instead made a mental note to factor in some training in telephone skills as soon as possible.
He should ask Lucy to the Sunday party. But he couldn't. He'd already asked Carina. Could he? Wouldn't that be too modern for the country? Still, Lucy might be grateful to meet a few people her age around here. She and Carina might like each other. And the more women David met, the better. Jamie would be doing him a favor. It would get him back on the straight and narrow, as it were. If, these days, he dared even think in that kind of way. All in all, lunchtime couldn't come soon enough. At the stroke of twelve, Jamie closed the file he was working on with a bang, causing Nick to jump up with a start from his position at the computer.
"Lunch?" Jamie asked him.
Downstairs, Lucy was sitting on the sofa and chatting to Jamie's father.
"Hi," he said, feeling sixteen and tongue-tied again. "Everything okay?"
"Yes, I think so. What did you think, Mr. Chadwick?"
"Fine, my dear. Though these new exercises will take a bit of getting used to. When you get to my age, you find that you can't be as active as you once were and--"
"Yes, Dad, but perhaps something new will help you a little more. Change can be good."
"I don't know. I don't have much faith in new ideas. In my day, you knew where you were, you--"
"Lunch?" Jamie said, realizing he was starving and knowing that once on the subject of the old days, Dad could get very caught up. If he had to, he could always tell them all about it while they were eating.
Which they did in the living room, gazing out at the garden and making the most of the crisp sunshine. Lucy chatted about the hospital and the flat she shared with some colleagues. Jamie was glad she was doing most of the talking as it meant he could listen and gaze at her without having to think about conversation. Seeing Nick's shyness, she soon began to try to draw him out of himself.
"So what sort of work is Jamie getting you to do? Nothing too complicated, I hope."
Nick blushed and said, "I'm here to get Jamie's accounts in... I mean I'm helping on the accounts side. For a while."
"It's not permanent then?"
"Not at the moment," Jamie confirmed. "Though, we'll see. I like to work on my own on the whole."
Lucy laughed, a bright sound like a stream in the height of summer. "Really?" she said. "I would never have guessed."
"What makes you say that?" He was intrigued, but she didn't pursue it. It felt like she'd stirred something up inside him with just a few words and then left him to burn alone.
"Feminine intuition," she countered instead and turned back to Nick. "So what will you do when you've finished the accounts?"
"I'd like to go travelling again. If things work out."
"That sounds exciting. Where to?"
"Australia again. Or Europe. I'm not sure at the moment." He paused to take another bite of cheese and pickle sandwich.
Lucy smiled. "Is this your first job since travelling then?"
"Yeah, and only my second day."
"Well, good luck with it. I can remember my first job only too clearly, I'm afraid. I made an idiot of myself."
"I'm sure you didn't," Jamie's father protested. "You young people are all so confident these days."
"What happened?" Jamie asked her.
"Major admin disaster. I was trying to put an address for one of my patients into a database, and goodness knows what I did, but it changed every single one of the two thousand people on there so they were all living at the same address. It was scary, I'm telling you. I had visions of hundreds of doctors all turning up at this poor man's home demanding to see their particular patient."
"How dreadful," Dad said. "What did you do?"
"It wasn't too bad in the end. The people in IT just used the back-up from the night before to clear it up, so I didn't have to leave the country after all. Afterwards, they changed the system so that nobody else could 'do a Lucy,' as they started to call it."
The way she'd told it made Jamie laugh, and whatever it was inside him that had been on edge began to settle down.
Later, he offered everyone coffee, but Lucy refused, saying she had to get on.
"Thanks for the lunch, Jamie, Mr. Chadwick. I'll see you both on Friday then. Make sure you practice those exercises." She grinned at his father, turned to Nick and continued, "Nice meeting you, Nick. Hope you settle in soon."
"I'll show you out," Jamie said, leaping to his feet and opening the door for her. "Nick, if you go back upstairs, I'll be with you in a moment, okay?"
In the hallway, he handed over her jacket, trying to keep his breath under control and wondering how to say what he wanted to.
"Thank you so much for lunch," she said again. "It was very sweet of you."
"No problem," he replied, putting his hand to the front door, but not opening it. "And before you go, I wondered if..."
And then it all came out in a rush. "I'm having a few people over for lunch on Sunday to welcome an old friend into the area. He doesn't know many people. And I suppose you might not either. Do you want to come?"
Raising her eyebrows, she looked him up and down for a few seconds. Again, he experienced that burning sensation in his stomach, the feeling of being slightly out of control. It had been a long time since he'd felt anything like that, and he wasn't sure he liked it.
He waited, thinking of Carina and hating himself, but not thinking of her, too.
"That's good of you, thanks," she said. "I'll let you know on Friday."
* * * *
"Jamie?" His father's voice was sharp. It was around the middle of the afternoon and Nick and he were in the office working, with the door open. It was the voice of command. And pain.
"Shit," he said and leapt up from the chair, scattering aside assorted diagrams and reports, and rushed downstairs. Dad was in the dining room, sitting at an awkward angle, a grimace of pain shadowing his face.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"It's nothing," he panted, struggling with the words. "I just can't find my pills. I know they're here somewhere. I just don't know where."
"Don't worry. They're in the table drawer, as always. Why don't you keep some near your chair, like I tell you to?"
He said nothing, but just groaned as Jamie shook out onto his not-quite-steady hand a couple of the pain killers and handed them over. "Take two now, and you can have another one later on."
"Thank you, Jamie, you're a good boy. I don't know what I'd do without you, really I don't." He swallowed them as instructed, and Jamie sat down and watched him, waiting for the drugs to kick in.
"No, I've no idea either." He smiled at his father, but Dad was in no state to respond.
That was the trouble. What would he do without Jamie? He'd be lost, unless he could persuade bloody Mark to give up his high-flying career teaching the Japanese about the English way of life and come back to help instead. No chance. Mark had gone and wouldn't be back. Ever. No, his father was stuck with him. And Jamie was stuck with his father, too. Sometimes it felt like they'd never be free. And knowing arthritis as Jamie had come to know it, it wouldn't be without a lot of pain for his father either. Not a good thought. On any level. Sometimes there just didn't seem to be any way out for either of them.
God, though, he mustn't be stupid. The hit list was a fantasy. Nothing more. Wasn't it?
After a while, he asked his father, "Okay now?"
"Yes, yes, thank you. I do feel a bit better. You can't imagine what it was like. I don't know how I'd cope without these pills. I don't know how..."
Letting him talk on, Jamie helped him up to his room and onto the bed. He stayed until his father's breathing seemed easier.
"Hey, you should be fine now. I don't think there's any need for the doctor again. You get some rest and I'll see you later."
He said nothing in reply, but Jamie could feel his father's eyes on his retreating figure. Sometimes it felt as if whatever he did, it could never be enough. Sometimes he wondered whether in fact he loved his father at all. What kind of son did that make him?
* * * *
It was five-thirty and, although there was still a good couple of hours' work in Jamie's day, Nick was packing up when the doorbell went for the third time. On the doorstep stood David, in a dark grey suit, although Jamie noted a hint of color in his bright green socks and matching tie.
"Hi. You look almost normal."
"Thanks, Jamie. Nice welcome. Can I come in? I've just spent three hours in the area counting cows and I need a break."
"Sure. But it's getting to be like Piccadilly Circus in here today."
"And what on earth would a nice country boy like you know about a thing like that?" One look from Jamie stopped him in his tracks.
Jamie waved him through into the living room and watched as he slumped onto the sofa. "Give me a moment, would you? I just need to make sure Nick's left everything in order before he goes."
"Nick? Who's he?"
"Mary's great-nephew. He's working for me at the moment."
"Oh, sure, she mentioned him. What's he like?"
"Why?" An alarm was sounding in his head, but Jamie couldn't fathom its message.
"No reason." David shrugged. "Just making conversation, that's all."
"That's not very macho, is it?"
The comment didn't sound as funny as Jamie had meant it to be, and David frowned. "God, you're really on edge, aren't you? You redheads, you're all the same. Though you never used to be this bad. What's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter. I'm fine. I've just got a lot on my mind, that's all."
"Okay, okay. No need to get all hot and bothered."
"I am not hot and bothered. I'm calm."
"So I see. Let's change the subject then."
"We don't have a subject to change," Jamie said, just as Nick came into view, hovering round the door frame and peering in at them like an owl woken by the morning light.
"Is it all right to go now, Jamie?"
"Is everything all right upstairs?" David snorted as Jamie went on, making himself clear. "In the office?"
"Yes, I think so."
Well, if it wasn't, Jamie could check in a few minutes. Then tonight, he would plan a training schedule to ensure Nick and he both got the best out of this. He'd work out how to be a good boss if it was the last thing he did.
Before Jamie could see Nick to the door, David had leapt up and stretched out his hand. "Hello, I'm David Fenchurch, and seeing as Jamie doesn't look as if he's going to introduce us, you are?"
"Nick. Nick Prentice."
"Pleased to meet you, Nick. I'm an old friend of Jamie's from university. I see you're doing some work for him. I hope you're enjoying it, but if you're not, don't worry. His bark's worse than his bite, you know. I could tell you some things that--"
He subsided with a casual shrug. "Me and my mouth," he said, but Nick half-smiled.
"Nick, I think it's time you went," Jamie said. "I'll see you in the morning."
When Jamie returned to the living room, David was leaning back in one of the corner chairs and leafing through an old parish magazine that must have been buried in the magazine rack next to the Financial Times.
"Hey! This is so cool," he said. "Does your Women's Institute always have a Guess the Weight of the Handbag competition?"
"How would I know?"
"You live here. Aren't village folk supposed to be in and out of each other's pockets like blood brothers?"
"This isn't The Archers, David. This is real life."
He put down the magazine and gave Jamie his full attention. "Conference trade keeping you busy?"
"Certainly is," Jamie said, relaxing as they at last found a subject he could handle. "I've almost got more work than I can do myself, but that's the way I like it. Which is where Nick comes in. If he can take some of the accounts off me, then it means I can focus on the creative side and really get this thing flying. I've got a lot of ideas I need to work on."
"Good for you. I like to see someone enjoy what he does. Makes a change."
"From what? Aren't you happy in the civil service?"
"Is anyone?" He grimaced. "No, it's okay on the whole. I think my move here will be better. Up in London, it was all admin. I prefer to be out and about, doing real work."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
They smiled at each other, and Jamie thought for the first time that maybe he was glad David was back. He just hoped his old friend could sort himself out soon. They were silent for a couple of moments, and he wondered what to do next.
"So..." Jamie shifted on the chair, searching for subject matter, but finding none.
"What is it, Jamie? Remembered what I told you in the pub all of a sudden?"
"Look, it's none of my business," Jamie said, plunging into unknown territory mapless and compass-free. "And tell me to shut it if you want to, but have you any idea what you're doing? I mean, I know it's up to you, but you never struck me as... I mean, you don't..."
"And you're the world expert, are you?"
"No, I'm not. No way. It's just I don't think you're gay, David, that's all."
"I see." He looked away and swallowed. "And, no, it is none of your business. Though I have to say, I didn't think you'd be this prejudiced. I honestly didn't."
"I'm not prejudiced. I'm just saying what I think."
"Okay, let's drop the subject. But if you're that stressed out about me, did you want to ditch the whole lunch thing? Now, while there's time?"
"No, don't be stupid," Jamie said. "And I'm not stressed out about you, or anyone or anything else. Not at all."
There was another awkward pause, after which David stood up. "Well, good to see you again. Give my regards to your father."
Jamie nodded an answer as he led David down the hallway. At the door, David turned around.
"Is Nick going to be here on Sunday?" he asked.
"No reason. He's a good-looking young man, though, isn't he? Behind the glasses?"
And with a sly grin, he was gone.
Parties. At times, Jamie could almost love them. When he wasn't responsible for them, that was. Today, however, it was a completely different thing. All that making sure everyone had a drink, food and someone to talk to was a surefire way of not enjoying it himself. Not to mention wondering what on earth he was going to do about Lucy and Carina. What had possessed him to invite Lucy as well? Who did he think he was? Some sort of Casanova?
This was no way for a decent bloke to behave and, as he piled more glasses and drinks onto yet another tray, Jamie tried to get rid of the image of Lucy's apple-scented hair and concentrate on Carina's eyes instead. It didn't work, or if it did, it was only for a minute. He had to get a grip. Besides, there was no need to worry anyway. Lucy wouldn't come. Why should she? She probably had some secret admirer somewhere else who was taller, richer and better looking. And hey, he liked Carina, didn't he? That had to count for something. He wasn't so sure about Lucy. There was just something about her that...well, never mind. Women were a mystery; he could never tell what they were really thinking. It must be a lot easier for David--he only had men to worry about.
Talking of David, it was just after noon and he was already in the house, helping out in the kitchen, calming down Jamie's father and rearranging the living room. Though to be honest, Jamie couldn't see anything wrong with it in the first place. It was tidy, and what more did people expect? But no, David had brought in armfuls of greenery from the garden and found several candles in one of the cupboards, which he'd lit in spite of the lack of darkness. Now it looked more like something from Country Life. Not like home at all. Perhaps, for David, gay meant arty. Who could tell?
Of course, Dad loved it. If the cold weather didn't make his arthritis worse than it was, he would have been out in the garden all year round, king of all he surveyed, leaving Jamie to hold sway in the house. Or at least in the office. Right now, the day was warm and his father was happy and grinning like a hyena.
"That looks very homely, David," he said, putting down his gin and orange, and gazing around the room as if he were seeing it for the first time. "Jamie would never think to do something like that. Now Mark is different again. He has the artistic touch, you know. My eldest son is very creative and always pays attention to his surroundings. Just like his mother."
"Come off it, Dad." Jamie laughed, but unsure whether he was really finding this funny or not. "I realize I've got no artistic leanings and Mark is second only to Van Gogh, but..."
"She was a woman who always knew how something should look. Amanda had a lot of taste, especially when it came to--"
"Huh. If she was that much of a paragon, why bother to divorce her and marry my mother at all then?"
The words were out of Jamie's mouth before he knew they were there. What exactly was wrong with him? These days, he sometimes sounded like someone else entirely who he didn't particularly like. David stared at him before shuffling his feet and rearranging a vase that didn't need it. Jamie was grateful for the diversion.
"Look, Dad, I'm sorry," he said, watching his father's eyes fill with tears. "I didn't mean that. Must be lack of sleep or something."
"Yes, these things always run in families, don't they?" David chipped in with a bright smile. "It's odd what comes down through the generations. My mother says..."
Jamie had no idea whether he meant divorce, artistic ability or lack of sleep, but in any case, what Mrs. Fenchurch had to say about it was never revealed as the first guests began to arrive. In the midst of them were Carina and her father.
"Come in," he said, realizing he was pleased to see her after all. "In fact, come through to the garden. Everything's out there, as well as indoors, in case it rains. I'll take your coats and get some drinks."
As everyone else, including the vicar, moved through the hall, Carina lingered and gave him a shy smile. It made Jamie feel normal, not like someone in the grip of some weird fantasy about someone else. "We missed you at church today, Jamie."
To be honest, he'd only been going in order to see her, but thought it might sound too devious to say. "Too much to do, Carina. To get ready for this get together. Glad you're here, though."
She said nothing, but colored up in an attractive way. And, astonishingly, Jamie suddenly thought she might have that look, the one girls got sometimes. If they were too drunk to realize it was him anyway. The look that said, You may kiss me now, and I won't object and, in fact, I may even like it if your luck's really in.
By some miracle, the hall was empty of people. Should he go for it? Yes. No. Yes, he should. So, keeping a close eye on her to check for any negative responses, Jamie moved nearer and in a few seconds their heads were only inches apart. He was just about to kiss her when...
"Dad?" His partner-in-crime jumped away from his approaching lips. "Yes, I was just talking to Jamie here. I'm coming now."
She scuttled away into the safety of the house, and Jamie turned round to face the vicar's accusing stare.
"We were just talking, John, that's all." Jamie stuffed his hands into his pockets and then took them out again to avoid looking guilty.
The vicar said nothing, though, with the expression on his face, he didn't need to. After a few moments, he stalked off in the direction of where everyone was gathered, and Jamie followed him, wondering if the church now objected to all relationships, or whether it was only him.
By the time one o'clock had arrived, everyone his father and Mary had thought to invite had turned up. Some of them he was sure he'd never seen before. People had already moved out into the Indian summer heat of the garden and were strolling round the pond or admiring the willow trees scattered along the river at the bottom. John, Carina and the Bradleys from the village shop were chattering away as if they hadn't seen each other for years, rather than just this morning. Nick lurked on the sidelines with half a dozen or so assorted neighbors, while the ever-helpful Mary bustled in and out of the kitchen like an anxious squirrel, ready to please. Next to the old swing, David was talking to Lucy.
She was here. Jamie hadn't seen her arrive. How had she sneaked in without him noticing? Maybe David or one of the others had seen her coming and let her in. He felt sick and realized his hands were shaking. Almost dropping the glass of beer he was holding, Jamie tried to stroll across to her, but it ended up as more of a rabbit-like hop.
"Lucy, glad you could make it."
"I did say I might, Jamie."
"Sure, but you can never tell, can you?" Without thinking, he glanced round to see if Carina was looking. But no, she was on the other side of the garden near the bench where his father was sitting, her back to Nick, who was shuffling from one foot to the other. What was up with him?
"Looking for someone?" David asked, gazing in Nick's direction.
"No. Just making sure everyone's okay."
"Looks like they are, but I might just wander over and make sure. Seeing as all this is really for me, you know?"
He strode across the garden toward the bench like a man in a desert who suddenly realizes the oasis might not be a mirage. Jamie wondered if Nick could cope with the onslaught on his own or if he might need help. However, Lucy laughed beside him and the decision was made.
"Good day for it, isn't it?" she said.
"Oh, anything. Whatever you like, I suppose. At least David seems to think so."
"Yes. So, can I get you anything? Drink? Nibbles?"
In answer, she waved her full glass under his nose. "No thanks. David poured me some wine when I came in."
As she smiled, the sun caught the highlights in her hair and Jamie almost reached out to touch her. Couldn't he ever play it cool? For a moment, they stood in silence together. She glanced back toward the crowd of people milling next to the swing.
"Beautiful garden," she said.
"Yes, it is. Dad loves it. But it's a lot of work sometimes."
"I hadn't marked you down as a keen gardener."
Thinking of the times his father had shouted instructions from the deck chair as to which plant was a flower and which was a weed, Jamie couldn't blame her. Somehow, the things he ought to have known from birth as a country boy had always passed him by. "What did you have me marked down as then?"
"That's easy. Hard-working conference executive with a father he loves, but doesn't really know what to do with, and who's generally too busy for the nicer things in life. And according to village gossip is a good catch for the right woman as well."
Jamie choked, spitting a mouthful of beer on the grass in front of himself. Really? Was that what people round here thought? He'd had no idea. Maybe he should get himself up to the village shop more often and see what else they said about him. While he spluttered, there was a lull in proceedings before people realized he'd probably live, then carried on talking. From a distance, Carina looked as if she might come over to see what was the matter, but Nick leaned over to say something to her and she turned to him instead. Right now, that had to be a good thing.
"Sorry? Was that too much?"
"You're a straight talker," Jamie said when he could speak. "Aren't you?"
"Only recently. That's what a few months in the Suffolk health service does for you."
Jamie began to laugh. After a few seconds, she joined him.
"Another drink?" he said, deciding to push whatever temporary advantage he had.
This time she smiled. "Sure."
In the kitchen, Mary was busy putting more food on trays, while David, leaning heavily against a nearby cupboard, was watching her.
"Mary, you're great, but you ought to go outside, get some food yourself, have a good time," said Jamie. "I should be doing this stuff."
"Oh, don't worry, dear. I'm fine. I'm just finishing off here and I'll take these sandwiches out to your father. You get yourself back to the party. And David, too. I think he needs some fresh air."
At the mention of his name, David snorted a laugh and waved his empty glass in Jamie's direction. "Any chance of you opening some red? It's good for your heart, you know."
He sounded okay, but Jamie paused before taking a bottle of Bordeaux from the rack, opening it and passing it to him. "I thought you were on the white."
"No reason not to try a change." He grinned and looked as if he were about to add something else, but Jamie grabbed a bottle from the fridge and made to head back to the garden and the tantalizing Lucy. He only hoped Carina would forgive him.
"Jamie! Jamie, wait!"
"While you're going through, dear, could you take the vol-au-vents out? David and I will follow with the rest in a moment."
Once outside, the heat was cleaner, more refreshing compared to the mugginess of the kitchen. Glancing across the garden, Jamie could see Lucy had moved into the throng of people and was kneeling down and chatting to his father. What was he telling her? Jamie hoped it would be something good for once. About him.
"Great. Food!" Carina broke away from Nick and came bounding up, smiling and blushing at the same time.
"Hungry?" he asked, and she nodded. "Good. You can be my first taster then."
"Did you make all this? You are clever."
Shrugging, he endeavored to look modest and clever at the same time. He might even have gotten away with it, but Lucy's arrival, along with the others, burst his bubble.
"Don't believe him, Carina," she whispered. "I suspect the food has more to do with Mrs. Prentice and David than Jamie."
"Oh, no, I can't believe that!" Carina protested.
"It's true. I'm sure of it," she said. "Jamie?"
"Lucy's right," he had to admit. "But I know I could cook if I had to. It's just a matter of following recipes, isn't it?"
The two women looked at each other and giggled, and Lucy began to help his father to the cold meats. It was good to have someone else deal with Dad for a change, so Jamie didn't object. He simply watched her and wondered. By now, everyone had gathered round the food like vultures to a fresh corpse and all were pretending to consider what they might like and whether they could, in fact, have anything at all. This was something only the English could do--stand next to tables of food and take things only to seem polite. Why couldn't they all just get on with it? Wasn't that what parties were for?
Helping Carina to some vol-au-vents that might have been chicken, but could have been anything, Jamie stepped back and bumped into Nick, who gave him a venomous glare. What was wrong? He'd remembered to pay him, hadn't he?
"Hello, Nick, can I help you to something?" David's voice chimed into his consciousness, and Jamie realized his friend was clutching an empty wine glass again and leering--yes, leering was the word to describe it--at Nick. For God's sake, couldn't he give it a break? Couldn't he tell when he wasn't welcome?
"No, thanks," Nick said, looking like a startled Harry Potter again, and Carina giggled.
"What? No sandwiches? Cold chicken? Quiche?" David asked, with each word taking one not-too-steady step toward the poor bloke.
Nick shook his head, backing away in ratio to David's advance. "I...I'm not hungry."
David opened his mouth to reply, but Jamie stepped between the hunter and his prey before things could get nasty. "Look, if Nick says he's not hungry, then he's not hungry. Why don't you have something? There's plenty to go round."
"And come and talk to Mary. She wants to hear how you're doing in your new flat." He steered David away from Nick, giving Carina a shrug.
Out of earshot of the crowd, Jamie grabbed his arm and swung David around to face him. "What do you think you're doing? Nick's only nineteen, for God's sake."
"Hey, it's a party. I was just trying my luck. And he's old enough to know his own mind, isn't he?"
"Maybe, maybe not." Jamie realized he was raising his voice and tried to cool it and breathe slowly. "All I'm saying is don't harass him. Not in this house."
"I'm not bothering anybody. And why not in this house? Why are you the guardian of the young all of a sudden?"
"I'm not. I'm just saying..."
"Are you two okay?" Jamie spun round to see Lucy, her eyes dancing in amusement. "Not a tête-à-tête, is it?"
"No, it isn't."
"You needn't sound so bloody convinced about it." David managed to look insulted, and Lucy laughed.
"I don't think he's your type," she said to David.
That was a relief to know, but Jamie could have done with more of an affirmation of straightness from this goddess on legs right then.
"I just came across," she went on, this time to Jamie, "to say your father wants some chutney and I have no idea where it is. He didn't seem sure either."
"Okay, I'll get it. Just make sure you keep David out of trouble." He tried to say the last part sotto-voce, but his Latin mustn't have been up to scratch.
"I'm not trouble," David said, looking hurt. "I'm..."
"Please, Lucy?" Jamie said, ignoring him.
She rolled her eyes, but took hold of David's arm and led him toward the swing.
On the way to the house, Jamie crossed through several conversations about shopping, Christmas and his father's experiences during the war. This last one he'd heard countless times, so he simply smiled and tried to side step the issues. But he'd already been spotted.
"You see I wasn't even Jamie's age when I joined up, you know. Just a teenager, as they call them nowadays. Young men were different then. Tougher, whereas now they--"
"True, true," Mary agreed. "Young men today would never be able to do what they had to do then. Do you know, I--"
"They spend all their days sitting down and pretending they're working so hard. But they--"
"I despair of young people sometimes. They have no manners to speak of and--"
"...never like getting their hands dirty and would never be able to survive real physical labor. It's just all--"
"...never give up their seats for a lady on the bus any more. Or open doors for you, so I don't--"
"...staring at a computer and making phone calls to people I've never heard of, and you never see any money for it from one month's end to another. It's--"
"...know what this generation is coming to, really I don't."
"...not a proper job, not to my mind it isn't."
Standing in front of his father, Jamie realized the buzz of chatter had stopped and he tried to keep smiling and stop his hands clenching together. Somebody sniggered. But Dad said nothing. He just looked up and coughed.
"Which chutney would you like?" Jamie asked him.
In the kitchen, he opened all the cupboards, banging the doors and swearing as he tried to find the elusive chutney. Really, he hated the stuff. But great timing, Dad. Yeah, fantastic. So sorry I don't do a proper job like Mark does. Finally, in desperation, he opened the cupboard where he kept his father's tablets, burrowed through the contents just to see if Mary might have hidden the chutney there in a vague moment, and his hand closed around an unfamiliar shape. Bringing it into the harsh light of day, he saw it was a box of aspirins. Out of date and full. Well, that was the last thing they wanted around here. Couldn't have Dad or Mary getting confused one day and...
Jamie paused in the act of opening the swing bin and his not-yet-written hit list flashed into his mind. With his father's name on the top. You could do this. Really. You could do it now.
Don't be stupid. He couldn't do it. He couldn't try to murder his own father and certainly not here in front of all these people milling around the place like so many unpaid, independent witnesses.
God, no, it would be madness. Anyway, Lucy was right. Jamie loved the old bugger in spite of everything, though sometimes he wished he didn't. Besides aspirin never killed anyone. He'd have to give someone hundreds of the damn things before they would even feel remotely sleepy. Or they'd have to be pretty far gone even before they started packing them in. As his father had never been drunk or drugged in his life--as far as Jamie knew--it would of course never work.
But what would happen if he...tried something? Only an experiment, that was all; something to block the memory of what his father had said. Something to make himself feel better.
Without pausing to think any more, Jamie opened the seal on the box, grabbed a pint glass from the dishwasher and some lemonade from the fridge. That was fizzy enough, so anything fizzy added to it wouldn't make much difference. With shaking hands, he filled the glass and started crushing the small white pills into the liquid, which spat and foamed sea-grey with each addition. Now that felt good. He felt powerful and in control. Almost. This was crazy, but it was fun. He could sense laughter welling up inside and wondered, for a moment, what would happen if he actually took the evil concoction out to his father in front of everyone and said it was a chutney alternative and would he like to taste it. The thought made him double up with laughter. What on earth would everyone say if...?
"What?" He swung round, gasping for breath, still holding the glass in his hand, and came face to face with David. "You okay?"
His friend didn't look it. He swayed against the cupboard, slid his wine glass along the draining board like a Wild West barman and took a long drag from the cigarette in his hand. A cigarette? A joint, more like, from the smell of it. "What's so funny? And what the hell is that drink?"
"That's a joint, isn't it? Put it out, for God's sake. Dad hates anything to do with drugs."
"Never mind that. I'm thirsty," he simpered. "Is it a cocktail or something? Bet you it's lethal."
Before Jamie could stop him, David snatched the glass from his hand and drank it dry in less time than it took Jamie to launch himself at his friend, grab it back, peer at the dregs at the bottom and curse.
"Bloody hell," he said, holding onto David in case he fell.
"Language, Jamie." David wagged one finger at him and stubbed out his joint in the sink. "You know your father hates it." Then he belched. "Whoops, s-sorry. But that's horrible. I don't think you should give that to people at all. Can I have some more wine instead?"
"David, are you feeling all right? I don't think you should be--"
"Hey"--his friend leaned in toward him and Jamie got the full blast of his dosed-up breath--"you making a pass or something?"
Dropping him as if he were holding hot coals, Jamie realized someone was watching them from the doorway.
It was Carina, staring wide-eyed at the scene.
"Carina, hi," he said, trying to sound as if a wrestling match in the kitchen with an old friend was something that happened every day. "Glad you're here. Can I get you anything?"
As he spoke, Jamie slipped the glass into the sink so she couldn't see it.
"No, no. I just came in to see if I could help at all. Is he all right?"
"Sure he is. Just drank a bit too much is all. You're okay, aren't you, David? David?"
His friend made a retching noise like a cat about to unleash a fur-ball and lurched toward the doorway. Jamie took comfort in the fact he was still standing.
"Are you sure?" Carina said as David brushed past her into the hallway. "I could just go and..."
"No, Carina. I'll sort it out. You go and get Lucy, would you? Please?"
She looked for a moment like she might object to this dismissal, but the expression on Jamie's face must have convinced her. Running out of the door, she headed to the garden. He headed for the bathroom.
"David?" He knocked, but there was no answer. "David? You okay?"
The sound of retching told him all he needed to know and Jamie swore again.
"Is everything all right in here? I saw my daughter run out into the garden. What's happened? I hope you don't think that--"
Before the vicar could get started on his sermon, Lucy ran in, with Carina close behind. If Jamie had murdered David after all, it looked like he might as well sell tickets for it.
"What's up?" Lucy said. "Carina said David was ill."
"Yes, he's in here, but I don't know what's happening." He knocked on the door again, but no response came.
"Don't worry. I think he might just have drunk a bit much. Not to mention the--" Lucy stopped speaking when she caught sight of John.
In other circumstances, Jamie would have given anything to hear her finish the sentence. The next moment, David opened the bathroom. He was swaying precariously and wiping his mouth.
"Now, come back into the bathroom and sit down," Lucy said. "John, could you fetch some water?"
The vicar scuttled off, and Carina, looking as if she didn't know what to do, followed him. Supported by Lucy and Jamie, David staggered back into the bathroom. The smell of sick was overwhelming, and, as David settled himself onto the toilet seat, Jamie opened the window.
"How are you?" Lucy said, crouching in front of Jamie's unintentional victim. "Do you want to be sick again?"
"It doesn't matter. I'll never feel better again. I'm so unhappy. Everything's gone so wrong." David waved his hand and would have overbalanced if Jamie hadn't caught him.
He gazed at David in disbelief. His face looked yellow, haggard. Had he poisoned him just with some aspirins? But no, it had to be whatever else he'd been taking.
"I think we should call an ambulance," Jamie said, feeling the pounding of his heart against his ribs. "He's not well and he needs help."
"Don't be silly. You're overreacting," Lucy said. "It's just the drink. And the drugs."
Drugs? Which sort? How many? And did it matter?
"Yes, an ambulance," he heard himself gabbling and wondered if his father would ever survive the shame both of having a criminal son and one who panicked when under pressure. "I mean it's best to be safe, isn't it? We don't know what effect combinations of things will have. Do we?"
"Well, he may be strangely susceptible for some reason, but a couple of joints, a few beers and some wine aren't going to kill him, are they?"
Jamie stared at the vicinity of Lucy's neck, unable to meet her eyes. This was his fault. He had to tell her. It was not going to look good. She'd never want to go out with him now, if only for her own safety. "I need to tell you something. That's not all he might have been..."
Before Jamie could finish the sentence, David lurched upwards, trapping him in his grasp. With the foresight that a medical background must have given her, Lucy pushed the toilet seat up, just as David leant over, gagged again and was sick. Some of the evil-smelling product went into the toilet, but most didn't. Jamie gagged in sympathy, and it was up to Lucy to soothe David's forehead, mutter words of comfort and reach for a flannel.
From nowhere, the doorbell rang. Who the hell was that? Great timing for a late guest. Or perhaps the vicar was already inviting witnesses to this now-disastrous party. He'd do anything to encourage the flock back to the straight and narrow. "Lucy, I need to get the door."
"Sure, go ahead. I'll handle this."
As he edged away, his friend was sick again and this time he caught Jamie right on the trousers.
"God!" he said, thinking that after this David was toward the top of his hit list. Then again, if he knew what Jamie had done, he'd be top of David's hit list, too.
"It's not his fault," Lucy protested.
"I know, I know."
"Sorry." David moaned. "I don't know what was in that--" He retched again.
Grabbing a towel to wipe himself down, Jamie stumbled out of the bathroom and along the hall, passing John and Carina carrying a glass of water and a J-Cloth on the way. Then he took a deep breath and opened the front door.
On the threshold stood an elegant figure with dark hair and slate-blue eyes staring right into his. Taking in the familiar smile as well as the unexpected streaks of grey at the temples, Jamie opened his mouth to say something, but nothing happened.
"Hello, Jamie," this new visitor said, gazing with apparent interest at the traces of vomit on his clothes. "Is this a bad time?"
It was Robert.