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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 7-9


spinner image illustration of two people seated at a table looking serious, with a bearded man in a doorway in the background
Illustration by Stan Fellows

 

Chapter Seven

 

JEN STOOD OUTSIDE WESTACOMBE COTTAGE, rang the bell and waited. The cottage was like something out of a child’s picture book, with low eaves and a thatched roof, but Jen didn’t appreciate its beauty. It was early afternoon and she was starving; breakfast seemed an age away. Sarah Grieve opened the door, and stood, blocking the way, silent and implacable.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ Jen said, ‘but I do need to ask some questions.’

‘It’s not convenient.’

‘Eve’s dad is dead. Someone stuck a piece of glass in his neck. He bled all over her studio floor. That was more than inconvenient.’ Jen stopped speaking, and thought she’d ruined any chance she’d had to build a relationship with the woman. Even Ross would have done better and Matthew would be furious. But something about this woman, and missing lunch, and the remnants of a hangover, had got under her skin. She was about to apologize when Sarah Grieve stood aside.

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‘I suppose you’re just doing your job.’

‘The first few hours are important,’ Jen said. ‘We need to talk to you all.’

There was a dark hall, coats piled onto hooks, boots and shoes spilling out of a rack.

‘You’ll have to excuse the mess.’ The words were automatic; there was no sense that Sarah really cared what Jen thought about the state of her house. There was an open door leading into a kitchen. A tall, good-looking man with an impressive beard, and two small girls in shorts and T-shirts, sat at a scrubbed pine table. They’d been eating lunch and the remains of the meal were crammed at one end. At the other stood a pile of files, a basket of knitting wool, a doll with one arm and stray pieces of Lego.

The man stood up, stared. Jen picked up hostility. Was this how he always reacted to strangers in his home? ‘This is one of the detectives,’ Sarah said. ‘She wants to ask us some questions.’

‘I need to get back to work.’ But John Grieve hovered where he was. He didn’t move towards the door.

‘It won’t take long.’ The window in the room was small and there was no direct sunlight. After the brightness of the courtyard, it seemed very dark. Even in this heat, there was a faint smell of damp. The cottage might be idyllic from the outside, but it was cramped for a family of four. Jen was still struggling to make out all the detail in the kitchen. There seemed to be nowhere for her to sit.

‘Why don’t you go and play?’ Sarah said to the children. ‘You can use the laptop in our bedroom. Just half an hour.’

This seemed an unexpected treat and the girls ran off.

‘We don’t usually allow them screens.’ Sarah sat on one of the chairs and nodded for Jen to join them at the table. Jen thought briefly that if she’d been any kind of mother, she’d have limited her kids’ access to the internet, but it was too late for that now. Ben could barely make it through dinner without recourse to his phone. John Grieve returned to his chair. No move was made to clear the bread board, the rinds of cheese, the wilting salad. The woman leaned back in her chair. ‘So, what do you need to know?’

‘Did you hear or see anything unusual last night? Or the early hours of this morning?’

 The couple looked at each other. Jen couldn’t work out what was going on. Some secret message passing between them? But they must have known the question would be asked and they would have had time to work out a story.

‘I was in bed by ten,’ John Grieve said. ‘I have to be up early for milking.’

‘I was later,’ Sarah said. ‘Frank wanted something in writing on the changes we’re planning to make to the dairy. I thought I’d make a start while it was clear in my head.’

‘What time did you finish?’

‘Midnight. Maybe a bit after.’

‘Did you hear a car in the yard? We know Nigel drove to Westacombe last night. At least, his vehicle is here.’

Sarah shook her head. ‘I was listening to music and had headphones on so I wouldn’t wake the kids.’

‘You didn’t see headlights?’

‘No, sorry. I was pretty focused on the screen.’

Grieve looked up. ‘I noticed Nigel’s car when I went out to the cows this morning. I thought he’d had an early start.’

‘You didn’t see him?’

‘No, I thought he’d be in the flat with Eve.’

‘Nothing unusual at all?’

‘Sorry.’ John Grieve got to his feet. ‘Look, I’ve got to go. It’s a busy time.’ He gave a brief nod to his wife and left the room. Through the kitchen door, Jen saw him pull on his boots in the hall and there was a sudden flash of sunlight as he went into the yard.

In the cluttered room, there was silence. Jen waited. She thought the woman might have more to say. Everything was still. She felt for a moment like a character in a gloomy Dutch painting. All brown interiors and rotting fruit. Her friend Cynthia fancied herself an expert in art, and dragged Jen round visiting exhibitions occasionally.

The silence stretched, until at last Sarah spoke. ‘Everyone thinks it’s paradise living here. We’re almost rent-free because I look after the big house for Frank when he’s not around, and he gives Wes and Eve a great deal too. But it’s not without its difficulties, living practically on top of each other. This place might look pretty, but it’s a bit low on mod cons. And Frank isn’t always easy.’

‘In what way not easy?’ This wasn’t Jen’s idea of paradise. She could imagine it in the winter when the westerly gales came hurtling off the Atlantic, the place all draughts and mud. And wouldn’t that attract vermin? Mice? Rats even?

Another silence, only broken by laughter from the girls upstairs.

‘He’s full of principles, which is great if you’re minted, but not so easy for the rest of us.’

‘You’re thinking of the tea shop idea?’

‘Well yeah, but there are other things too, which get under John’s skin. It makes for a tense situation, and John’s not the best at coping with stress. Frank’s passionate about animal welfare and the whole organic thing. We are too, but there needs to be some flexibility. It’s as if he actually wants to lose money on the venture. We can’t have that sort of attitude. We’ve got the girls to think about and this new little one.’ She patted her belly.

‘Is Mr Ley a relative of yours?’

‘His mum was my gran’s sister. I called her Aunty Nancy. I visited the farm when I was a kid. Frank was already working in London then and the place was falling apart. His dad died not long after the crash and Frank came along with all that money to bring it back to life.’ She paused. ‘Nancy only died a few years ago. She was in her nineties, still sparky, still active. She had a heart attack after a day of gardening and died in her own bed. Frank was devastated, but I know that would have been how she’d want to go. That was when I took on the role of housekeeper, as well as working in the dairy.’

‘You must be knackered, with the kids to look after too.’

Sarah gave a little grin. ‘Yep, that’s my world. Permanently knackered.’ She didn’t seem thrown by it, though.

‘What does your husband make of it all?’

Another silence. ‘John finds it tricky,’ Sarah said at last. ‘He’d rather we were more independent, able to do our own thing. He doesn’t have an arty bone in his body, so the whole set-up here—Wes treating the place like a commune and bringing his mates to stay, impromptu gigs in the yard when we’re trying to sleep—that’s not really his bag. Like I said, he’s not good with stress.’

‘And you? Is it your bag?’

‘Honestly? It is really. I love the buzz and the company. I’m not sure how I’d cope doing the traditional wife thing, miles from anywhere in a hill farm on the edge of Exmoor. And that’s John’s dream.’

Jen thought about that. She could see how that might cause problems for the couple. She’d be with Sarah every time.

Before she could speak, the woman continued. ‘I’d give it a go, though. Only fair. We’ve done my thing since we moved here and now we’re saving like fury to find our own place. That’s why the tea shop is so important.’

Jen nodded to show she understood. ‘How well did you both know Nigel?’

‘I lived in the same street as Eve when I was growing up. I was a few years older but she was brighter and we were best mates, in and out of each other’s houses. Both only children. So I’ve known Nigel since I was a kid. He still lives in the same house in Barnstaple. John met him a few times when we first married—he came to our wedding—but only really got to know him when we moved in here.’ For the first time, Sarah seemed to notice the food left on the table. She pulled herself to her feet and began, haphazardly, to move plates towards the sink. ‘In a way they were very similar. Both quiet men. Both competent. No need to show off. None of that macho crap. They liked each other. John might not show it, but he’s upset.’ She turned to face Jen. ‘I loved Nigel. He was like a second father. When I was growing up, I could tell him stuff that I could never tell my parents. Just find out what happened. For Eve and for us.’

No pressure, then. Jen nodded and got to her feet.  

Chapter Eight

 

IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON AND Matthew ordered Jen and Ross back to Barnstaple. ‘Get something to eat, then make notes of initial witness responses to share with the team. Ross, please could you do an internet search of all the residents at the farm. Any criminal convictions? And let’s see if we can have a first report on our victim’s phone records. Eve has given us the details of his mobile provider. Jen, any social media activity or news reports around Dr Yeo? His work could sometimes have been controversial, occasionally high profile if he’d started taking on his former employers in the health trust. We’ll clear out of the way at Westacombe now, and leave the place free for the CSIs and the search team.

‘Let’s meet in the office for a briefing at six. Sal Pengelly has agreed to fast-track the post-mortem and will carry that out later this evening, if it’s at all possible. I’ll be there for that.’

He paused, and looked at them both to check they’d registered the instructions. ‘Ross, can you get a lift back with Jen and leave me the car? I’ll just call into the Sandpiper, where Janey Mackenzie works, on my way back to town and check Wesley’s alibi.’

And find out a bit more about Mack, the young man who killed himself. The case Nigel was working on when he died.

When he arrived, there was nowhere to park on the street close to the Sandpiper, and the only place he could find was outside the Glorious Oyster, the fish shack and kitchen behind the dunes. A customer was sitting at the picnic table outside, carefully poking the flesh from a crab’s leg, completely absorbed. Matthew knew Lindsay, the owner, because this was one of his and Jonathan’s favourite places to eat, and she waved agreement when he asked if he could leave the car.

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‘I’ll be packing up soon, anyway. It’s been manic and we’ve almost sold out.’

He walked back to the bar through hordes of families, people greasy with sun cream or pink with the heat. At the Hocking’s ice cream van there was a queue which led over the low wall and down to the beach. Suddenly, Matthew was shot back in time to his childhood. His mother had disapproved of any form of processed food:

‘The good Lord created my body and it’s a sin not to take care of it.’

But his father, who’d only converted to the Brethren to be married to her, had been less rigid. If they were out walking together, they’d both enjoy a vanilla cone with a flake, whenever they came across a Hocking’s van. His father would wink: ‘Our secret, eh?’ Matthew had been a bit of a prig when he was a boy and hadn’t quite approved of the deceit. He’d never turned down the ice cream, though, and now he regretted that he hadn’t been more relaxed, that he hadn’t been able to enjoy those shared moments with his father more. The man had died a few months before and the opportunity had been missed.

As soon as he reached the Sandpiper, he realized that he’d made a mistake. He’d thought there might be a quiet spell between the afternoon teas and the first beers of the evening, but the place was heaving. People were sitting on the wall that separated the pavement from the beach, already drinking. Inside, there was a queue at the counter that reached out into the street. The noises from the coffee machine, raised voices and raucous laughter battled against each other and made his head ache. He was bombarded by a sensory overload and felt completely out of place. Like the Glorious Oyster, this was somewhere he’d come with Jonathan, but only in the evening when it was quieter, more intimate, to listen to the music. He stood at the door, thinking he’d go away and make a proper appointment to come back, when George Mackenzie saw him. He waved at Matthew and yelled so his words were quite clear, even from the other end of the room and over the background noise of the bar.

‘I heard about Nigel. Come round to the yard.’

Matthew reached the yard via an alley at the side of the building, and through a wooden gate. The bolt was on the other side and even he had to stretch to reach it. This wasn’t a place for punters. It held empty kegs and crates of wine bottles, and the concrete floor was scattered with cigarette ends. The yard must be an unofficial staff smoking area. Through an open window, Matthew saw the kitchen, heard shouts for service and the banging of pans. George was already there, leaning in the shade against the high wall.

‘Sorry about the surroundings.’ He hadn’t lost the Scottish accent after years working in the south. ‘This is the only place we’ll make ourselves heard.’ He looked up at Matthew. ‘I can’t believe it. Who would have done such a thing?’

‘We don’t know yet. None of the details are very clear.’ Matthew was deliberately vague. ‘Everybody speaks very highly of Dr Yeo. Did you know him well?’

‘Not personally. Not as a friend. He was investigating the circumstances surrounding my son’s suicide.’

‘I heard that.’ Matthew paused. ‘Frank Ley told me.’ Another silence. ‘I wondered why Frank was so closely involved with your boy.’

‘Two oddballs together, maybe.’ The words came out quickly and immediately George seemed to regret them. ‘I loved my son. Of course I did. But I never understood him. He was different even as a child. Intense, given to obsession, anxious.’

‘And Martha? What did she make of him?’

‘Ah, my lovely Martha.’ George sighed. There was something theatrical about every response. ‘She’s not what anyone would call maternal and when Mack was growing up, she was hardly ever here. She was in that soap opera about the doctors’ practice. It was shot in Bristol, and she spent most of her time there. Sometimes, I felt that her life was all about filming schedules and wrap parties.’

‘She’s retired from acting now, though?’ The last time Matthew had been at the Sandpiper for an evening of music, Martha Mackenzie had been front of house, still glamorous, propping up the bar, inviting attention. More attention, it seemed, than the singer on the low stage.

‘Well, let’s say that acting has retired her. If an offer came through, I know she’d jump at the chance.’ A pause and a wry smile. ‘I know where I come in her list of priorities. But she’s too proud to go begging for work.’

‘Was she here when Mack died?’

‘Yes, and she was devastated, of course. We all were.’

‘I did wonder ...’—Matthew chose his words carefully—‘... if there might be more than friendship between Frank and Mack.’

‘You thought they might be lovers?’ George said. ‘Or that Frank might have groomed him? Mack was only nineteen when he died after all. No, I never suspected anything of that sort. Frank’s a kind man and they were kindred spirits. Both loners struggling to make sense of the world. We would have been happy if Mack had found a partner. There were girls he fell for, but the relationships never survived. I think he scared them off by being too intense, too demanding. Too unstable.’

‘Is your daughter around?’

‘Yeah, Janey’s behind the bar. Working. Can you talk to her when it’s not so busy? You can see what it’s like in there.’

‘Was she working yesterday night?’

George shook his head. ‘Nah, she asked for the night off, and I thought she deserved a break. This weather’s great for business but it’s been relentless. She was at a party in Barnstaple. Wesley up at Westacombe took her along.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘When she got home, she said that she’d have had a better time staying here. The party-goers were all closer in age to her mother and me. She likes a real bash, our Janey. Something a bit livelier.’

‘She gave Wesley a lift home?’

‘Well, as far as the turn-off to the farm. She made him walk up the lane. To serve him right, she said, for the boring evening.’

Matthew nodded. So far Wesley’s story was confirmed. ‘What time did she get back?’

‘I’m not sure. I was still in the bar when she got here, so twelve thirty maybe? I’d just finished the last of the clearing up. Janey hadn’t been drinking because she was driving, so we shared a nightcap.’ He nodded towards the house on the other side of the wall. ‘You know we live next door.’

Matthew nodded again. ‘One of my officers will be back tomorrow to take a statement from her. When’s the best time to come?’

‘Early afternoon maybe. We do brunch on a Sunday instead of lunch, and things should be quieter by then.’

Mention of Sunday lunch gave Matthew a jolt. The following day was his mother’s birthday. She would be coming to the house and Jonathan would be cooking. He experienced the sense of dread, of social anxiety, that had been part of his life since he’d left the Brethren. He’d lost his faith suddenly and publicly, and had been cast out by the people he’d thought had cared for him most: his parents and his friends. The group talked of ‘un-fellowshipping’ and despite knowing, rationally, that he’d only been honest, there had been times when he’d felt unworthy of human contact.

The sense of loss had haunted him when he was a student, and at the beginning of his working career. Only Jonathan had given him the confidence to face the world. It occurred to Matthew fleetingly that the investigation would give him an excuse to cancel, but he imagined what Jonathan would say if he called the meal off. He’d face accusations of cowardice. Murder or not, he’d have to be there. He turned his attention back to Mackenzie.

‘How do you and Frank Ley know each other? You didn’t grow up here. How did he get so fond of Mack?’

The question seemed to surprise Mackenzie. He’d thought the conversation over.

‘Frank helped us out.’ George, usually so urbane and relaxed, was almost embarrassed. ‘Three years ago, we were going through a difficult time financially. We were more of a traditional cafe then: breakfasts, lunches and afternoon teas. Martha had just been dropped from the telly show, so no regular income, and no savings. She spent everything she earned as it came into her account. It was desperate, actually. There was a chance we’d lose the business. Ley had bought up a restaurant two doors away and they were taking all our lunchtime business. I was furious and got in touch with him. He asked me up to Westacombe, came down specially from London for the meeting.’ George paused. ‘It wasn’t what I was expecting. I had my pitch all ready, had managed to stoke up the righteous indignation, but in the end he just listened.’

‘And he invested?’

‘Yeah, he invested. But more than that, he came up with ideas. Or he got me to come up with ideas. “You don’t seem that enthusiastic about the place. Not passionate. Ideally, what sort of business would you like to run?” I’d expected a half-hour confrontation, but I was there all evening, drinking his very good wine on the terrace, watching the sun go down over the estuary. I started talking about music, Martha’s experience of the theatre, all her contacts, and he came up with the plan: “Seems to me you should turn the Sandpiper into a performance space. I’d put money into that.” And he did.’

‘He was right,’ Matthew said. ‘It’s what makes this place unique. How does it work? Are you partners?’

George shook his head. ‘He gave us a loan. Interest-free. We paid it back after the first year, but we became friends. And he’s still there if I feel I need advice or to share ideas.’

‘And that’s how he got to know Mack? Through you?’

‘That first night, we didn’t just talk about the business. As I said, he was a great listener. He could have been a shrink or a priest. I talked about the family, about Mack and his problems. Mack was sixteen, and struggling at school, in danger of permanent exclusion. Frank said he needed someone to look after the garden. Maybe Mack would be interested in the work? Only weekends and it wouldn’t need anyone skilled. Someone to mow the lawn and keep the beds weeded. His mother, Nancy, had designed it all and Frank wanted to keep it going in her memory. Their friendship started like that.’ George paused. ‘When Mack died it was as if Frank had lost part of his family. He was as upset as we were.’ A pause. ‘He asked to speak at the funeral and had us all in tears.’

‘So, he got Nigel to look into the circumstances surrounding the suicide?’

George nodded. ‘Frank has a way of making things happen. Perhaps money can do that. It helped that someone was taking our concerns seriously. We knew we couldn’t bring Mack back, but there were all those unanswered questions about his care.’ His voice tailed off.

Matthew understood how stretched the community mental health teams had become. His police officers seemed to be the first point of call for troubled people these days. Time which in the past had been used to investigate burglary was now spent tracking down a response from the community mental health team or driving to A&E. He wondered if Mack’s care had been any worse than that of other young people similarly struggling with depression or addiction. He looked at his watch. It was getting late and soon his team would be gathering for the briefing. And still, he hadn’t eaten.

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’ll let you get back to the fray.’ He was about to ask if George could get him a sandwich to take away, but that would have meant jumping the queue at the counter, and his principles, as strange and as rigid as those of his mother, couldn’t quite allow him do it.

***

They were gathered in the ops room in Barnstaple police station. The building was brutalist concrete and scheduled for redevelopment. The civic centre had already moved on to other premises and sometimes Matthew felt as though they were stranded, forgotten by superiors nearer to the centre of things. North Devon still felt isolated and miles from the mainstream. He’d picked up a sandwich and bad coffee from a service station on his way back into town, consumed them too fast in his office, and was almost the last to get to the room.

Matthew stood at the front and waited for the team to settle. It didn’t take long. They’d learned by now that he wasn’t a man for shouting to get attention. He was patient, and most police officers weren’t. They nudged the colleagues still talking until everyone was quiet.

He didn’t shout when he was addressing the team either. They had to sit close to him and they had to listen carefully. ‘Our victim is Dr Nigel Yeo, a former doctor at the North Devon Hospital, who worked with a small organization which represents patients’ views and experiences to the health trust, the governing body of the hospital. He seemed to have broadened the brief and had started following up complaints about care. North Devon Patients Together is based in Ilfracombe and he headed up a small team of four people.’ Matthew had gained the last piece of information from the organization’s website. ‘His body was found by his daughter, Eve, in her studio at Westacombe Farm. Eve’s a glass blower and she’d expected her father to come early on Saturday morning to help her work. But by early she meant seven thirty. It seems likely that death actually occurred at about one in the morning, because a witness says he saw a car driving at speed down the lane towards the coast. The lane only leads to Westacombe. As yet, we have no idea what might have taken Nigel to the farm late yesterday evening or in the early hours of this morning.’

In the front row, Ross May had stuck up his hand. He looked young and eager, a schoolboy trying to impress a teacher. Matthew thought the constable had realized that his mentor and guardian, superintendent Joe Oldham, would soon be forced into early retirement, and was trying to curry favour with his more immediate superior. As soon as this idea came into his head, Matthew thought he was being unfair. With more experience, Ross would make a good detective.

‘Yes, Ross.’

‘Might we have more of an idea of the time of death after the post-mortem?’

The irritation deepened. This was going over old ground, a lesson not properly learned.

‘Most unlikely. Can anyone tell me why?’

Jen answered immediately. ‘Research shows that it’s impossible to pinpoint time of death with any accuracy.’

Matthew gave her a little smile. ‘Quite right. As Dr Pengelly never fails to tell us. So, we have to rely on old-fashioned policing, not a pathologist’s magic or guesswork. Jen, you were actually the last person we know to see Dr Yeo alive. What time was that?’

‘It was at a party held by Cynthia Prior in Newport. I can’t be positive about time but I’d say between ten thirty and eleven p.m.’ She looked at Matthew for understanding. ‘I’d had a few drinks. I wasn’t looking at my watch.’

‘Can you talk to any of the other guests? See if we can pinpoint it more precisely? Or find out if he told anyone what his plans were for the rest of the evening?’

‘Yeah, sure.’

‘Although Wesley Curnow, another of the Westacombe residents, claims to have seen the vehicle leave the farm in the early hours, we can’t assume that the killer was someone from outside. Curnow could have made up the story, or the car might have strayed up the track by mistake. So, we need more information on the residents. Ross, you were going to do a background check.’

Ross stood up and faced the room. Practising, Matthew thought, for the promotion he felt he deserved. Then he chided himself again for his meanness of spirit.

‘Wesley Curnow. Aged forty-two. He’s been cautioned once for possession. Cannabis, a small amount. The officer assumed it was for personal use.’ A moment of silence to express his disapproval. ‘No other offences, apart from road traffic violations, one for speeding and one for bald tyres. As far as I can see, he’s never married and never had children. Eve Yeo, our victim’s daughter, hasn’t been involved with us in any way. Neither has the couple who live in the cottage, John and Sarah Grieve, or the house owner Francis Ley.’

‘Thanks, Ross.’ It was much as Matthew would have thought, and didn’t take them any further forward.

‘I have managed to prise some info out of his mobile provider. Calls and texts were much as you’d think. Lots to his daughter. I haven’t had a chance to look at all the others in detail, but there’s one recurring number, which appears even more frequently. To someone called Lauren Miller.’

The name seemed familiar to Matthew. He remembered he’d seen it on the NDPT website. ‘She was one of his colleagues at Patients Together. You’d expect that.’

‘Some of them were very long calls. Made late at night.’ Ross allowed the implication to sink in, before taking his seat.

‘Ah, that is worth following up, but of course, we won’t jump to conclusions.’ Matthew paused. ‘Did Yeo take any calls yesterday evening? Something must have prompted him to go to Westacombe that late at night.’

Ross shook his head. ‘Last one was to Lauren Miller late afternoon.’

Matthew thought about that. So, there’d been no urgent, last-minute call summoning him to Westacombe. He turned to his sergeant. ‘Jen, did you dig out anything interesting?’

‘There’s loads of archive news material on Ley. You just have to google and you come up with pages of the stuff. He made his fortune by selling the shares he’d bought cheaply in the years immediately before the financial crash, but there’s no evidence of him breaking any rules. He doesn’t seem to have been involved in anything dodgy. He just recognized the risks before other people. I had an interesting conversation with Sarah Grieve this afternoon. Her husband’s desperate to move away from Westacombe to some Exmoor hill farm, but she’s not so keen. She likes the arty set-up and would miss her mates, especially with a new baby on the way.’ She caught Matthew’s eye. ‘I’m not sure how relevant all this is, but I know you like background.’

‘Oh, I certainly do. Gossip is our friend.’ He scanned the room. ‘I’m tied up over lunchtime tomorrow. Important family occasion. Jen, can you talk to the party-goers, see if we can get a precise time of Nigel’s leaving and some idea what took him to the farm thalate? Ross, I’d like you to head round to the Sandpiper. Apparently, early afternoon is best. I talked to George Mackenzie today, but his daughter wasn’t available. We need a statement to confirm Curnow’s story, but also anything she might have on the Westacombe residents. I’ll see what I can make of Nigel Yeo’s home. He might have kept work records there.’

I can do that early in the morning. Leave Jonathan the kitchen to himself. Still be back for lunch.

The nauseous sense of dread about his mother invading his home ground returned. He smiled at his team, sent them on their way and made his way to the hospital mortuary, where Sally Pengelly and the corpse of Nigel Yeo were waiting for him.     

Chapter Nine

 

EVE DIDNT GO STRAIGHT BACK TO the farm after meeting Jonathan at the Woodyard. She couldn’t face Sarah’s smothering love, Wes’s awkward pity. She had another coffee after the centre manager left, then chatted for a moment to Lucy Braddick, whose smile could light up any room. Eve started crying again, despite herself.

‘Are you all right?’ Lucy asked.

‘Not really. My dad just died.’

She saw a shadow pass over Lucy’s face and the smile fade. Because Lucy’s dad was in his eighties and Lucy was aware that nobody lived forever.

Eve gathered up her bag and made her way to the car. There’d been no shade left to park in and it was roasting inside, the seat burning even through her dungarees, the steering wheel almost too hot to touch. On impulse, she went to the woodland burial site, where her mother had been put to rest in a willow coffin. It was inland from Barnstaple, on the back road to Ilfracombe, a small copse of newly planted trees close to the river. She and her father had planted a sapling on top of the grave, and their friends had given a lusty rendition of ‘Yellow Submarine’, led by Wesley. She and her father had chosen the song. It was what they’d always sung on journeys when she’d been a child, and this, they’d decided, was a journey of a kind. There were no stones or memorials, but she knew where the grave was. The last time she’d visited, she’d been with her father and there were pools of bluebells.

Sitting in the shade, with the noise of the river running low over pebbles, it was her mother she thought about now. Helen had been a medic too, a GP, passionate about her patients and a furious activist, fighting for the NHS. Spiky and funny, given to bright unprofessional clothes and angry letters to the papers. It was Helen who’d first suggested her husband should consider taking on a new role, her tone flippant, only half serious. Eve had just come home from Sunderland after completing her MA and she remembered the discussion. They’d been sitting at the dinner table, eating boeuf bourguignon cooked in her honour, drinking smooth red wine. After a student house in the north-east, it had felt wonderfully luxurious.

‘You need a new challenge,’ Helen had said to her husband. ‘You’re starting to get bored.’

‘You’re not suggesting management, are you? Can you imagine?’

They’d all laughed, but perhaps that conversation had sown a seed, given Nigel permission later to give up medicine. Not long afterwards, Helen had started to notice the first signs of early onset Alzheimer’s. She’d gone secretly to a specialist for tests, kept the panic to herself until she was sure of the diagnosis. Excluding them both.

Then there’d been another dinner. More good food. More wine. The revelation which would change all their lives: ‘I could tell I was losing it,’ Helen had said. ‘The first tests weren’t conclusive, but I knew.’

And there’d been another discussion about Nigel’s future.

‘I’m thinking of applying to head up Patients Together.’ He’d taken Helen’s hand across the table. ‘You said I needed a new challenge.’

‘You’re doing it because you think I’ll need a carer.’

‘I’m thinking of it because I want to spend more time with you. That was what we always planned for this stage in our life. This’ll be office hours, no ridiculous shifts.’

There’d been a silence. Eve had felt herself holding her breath, waiting for her mother’s reply. Certainly, she’d been trying to hold back the tears.

‘Your decision,’ Nigel had said, his attention completely focused on Helen. For the first time in her life with her parents, Eve had felt in the way, that she was intruding.

Helen had nodded. Decision made.

‘Of course, there’s no guarantee that I’ll get the job.’

‘You’d better f---ing get it.’ At that point, Helen had still been very much herself.

The illness had taken hold very quickly and soon Helen had become frail and confused. There’d been occasional flashes of her old self, but they’d become scarcer. Her mood had swung between frustration and good humour, but Nigel had always been there, patient and uncomplaining. Eve had often visited, of course, and Helen had seemed pleased to see her. There’d been moments of laughter. One day, however, she’d arrived and Helen had treated her as a stranger. She’d died soon after, only months after Nigel had taken over his new role at Patients Together. A relief, everyone agreed, that it hadn’t dragged on, that she hadn’t had to go into care, but Eve knew her father hadn’t seen it like that. She’d wondered if he’d go back to a post in the hospital, lose himself in medicine again, but Helen had wanted him to take the job in NDPT and so he’d stuck to it.

Now, as a slight breeze brought some relief from the heat and moved the leaves above her, scattering light across the undergrowth, Eve wondered if that decision was what had killed him.

 

NEXT: Chapters 10-12

 

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