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Authors: Judith Cutler

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BOOK: Staying Power
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‘OK. I'll look properly. And tell you I've got to go. I'm having a meal with someone tonight.'

Cassie heaved an exaggerated sigh. ‘Don't tell me. He's coloured and queer and got only one leg.'

‘He's a Home Office pathologist. White, middle-class, middle-aged. All I know about him is we disagree about a case I'm working on and he's got twinkly brown eyes and dimples.' She could have told her about Alan Grafton, she supposed. But she didn't relish discussing death, not in a place like this. And not with Cassie in this mood.

She stifled a sigh. Oh, it was fine to be tough, to be your own woman. But sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to have someone supporting you, sympathising with you, whatever happened.

In the corridor, she pulled herself together. There was Rosie, resplendent with her bruise. Kate stopped and smiled.

Rosie stopped too. ‘The old woman's got the devil on her back today, all right,' she said.

Kate nodded: ‘I suppose she's in a lot of pain.'

‘Plain bad-tempered if you ask me.'

‘What about you?' Kate asked, her eyes on the bruise.

‘Door,' Rosie said shortly. And went on her way.

It was so good to have all her clothes to choose from! She'd had to leave them all in London while the major repairs were done on the house, and had only recently brought them up. She'd sorted them out while she was on sick leave, and she'd even had time to buy replacements for those she'd consigned to the hospice shop at the bottom of the road. How did she want to look tonight? She shook her hair free for a start. And reached for a dark red, semi-fitted dress that gave her height and took an inch or two off her hips. A pair of the soft Italian pumps that had worried Alan Grafton. No. Better be sensible: the rain was turning to sleet. Boots, then. Make-up. Jewellery – the ring Robin had given her less than a week before his death. She knew she looked good. She even gave a twirl in front of the wardrobe, as if she were a little girl going to a party. Or a young woman going on a date.

Walking up the High Street, she told herself she'd been infected by Aunt Cassie's irrepressible notions of romance. All she was doing was meeting a man who'd put her down in public.

Like Graham. It would be nice to know what was going on in his mind, these days. Kind to the point of tenderness one moment, next as authoritarian and bad-tempered as he'd been when they'd met on the stairs. And he was determined to keep her in her place – which was wherever he wanted to put her at the time, either as a delicate frail woman or as a subordinate to call to heel. Her reflection in Boots' window showed she was frowning unhappily, chewing off what remained of her lipstick. Bother Graham. Making her re-do her face in public like a Forties' vamp!

As she turned into Poplar Road she had a moment of unease: would she even recognise Patrick Duncan with his hair and face visible? Any more than he would recognise her? She crossed the road.

Running feet! Flipping her bag-strap over her head she prepared for whatever action was needed. But it was only Patrick Duncan.

‘I was afraid you'd stand me up, I'm so late!' he said.

Her wristwatch told her he'd been prompt, but she smiled and let him open the door for her.

‘Florence! But you won't be wanting Italian food again so soon!' Patrick slapped his forehead extravagantly.

‘Why ever not? I couldn't taste anything while I was over there.'

‘You can taste the Punt e Mes?'

‘Hmm. Cheers!'

They were sitting in a tiny bar, having admired a tray of fresh fish flourished by an enthusiastic waiter. Despite Patrick's urgings, Kate had played safe, settling for steak rather than venturing into the gastronomic unknown.

They had to make conversation while they waited to be called through to their table: Kate felt a real effort was involved. In some ways it would make sense simply to give an account of her afternoon's work, which was, after all, the ostensible reason for his invitation. But Graham would want to be the first to know, especially about her appearance in one of Alan's photos.

‘What are you doing for that sinusitis of yours?' Patrick reached across and touched her cheek.

It wasn't an intimate gesture, though: it was totally impersonal. He moved the fingertip slightly and pressed. She winced.

‘See – I thought it was infected. Time to talk to your GP.'

‘I shall feel such a failure if I do – I was talking to a pharmacist the other day who reckoned the only treatment I needed was steam.'

‘If you use it often enough. Ah, do I detect a blush, Ms Power? How many times have you steamed it today, for instance?'

‘Point taken. And this cold wind seems to be making it worse. It seemed to be blowing straight down the High Street.' It hadn't helped the deafness, either. She was having to lean intimately towards Patrick to hear what he said.

‘“The North wind doth blow, And we shall have snow,”' he said. ‘Up in Moseley it was already trying – nasty little flakes driving in the wind.'

‘You live locally too, then?'

‘Just off the main road.'

‘So you'll have the same problem as me. Other people's cars.'

Obviously he didn't: the blank expression told her quite clearly that this was a man with a front drive and a garage. She had the feeling that this wasn't going to be an evening to remember.

Except in the end, it wasn't as bad as all that, though she was afraid some of its success might be attributed to the amount of alcohol they'd sunk. And the excellence of the food. Robin would have been in his element in a place like this – he'd have enjoyed the attractive pink and green decor, matching wine to food, savouring the liqueur at the end of the meal. Which was when, after talking almost non-stop about his passion for vintage motorcycles, Patrick had finally raised the question of Alan Grafton.

‘And did you find anything to convince me that our friend was done in?' He passed her the plate of mints.

She shook her head. ‘Do you really want to talk shop?' she parried, before she realised that such a question might well be wrongly construed.

‘Only if it proves me right.'

‘OK, I'm afraid you could be right. Except it seems odd, a man preparing to die spring-cleaning his kitchen. Leaving his fridge defrosted, that sort of thing.'

‘Odd? Eminently practical, if you ask me. Particularly if he had family who'd have to come and sort everything out. Quite a generous gesture. What about his paperwork?'

‘Neat and methodical to the point of anal retentive, if I remember my psychology classes.'

And he plunged her into talk of her degree and then her master's, fleshing out her account of her life in Manchester with accounts of his own stint there.

She became more and more aware of his physical presence – his maleness. Hell, it was the booze, wasn't it, converting an ordinary middle-aged man – yes, he must be older than Graham, in his mid-forties – into someone who was all too desirable.

And then she remembered she had to prepare her kitchen floor.

He out-flashed her with his credit card, his idea of compromise being that she should pay next time. But no, his hands didn't linger as he helped her into her coat. It was the Maitre d' who kissed her hand. When they got outside, it was definitely snowing. And the snow was definitely lying.

‘Are you walking too?' she asked. ‘Because it's going to be driving into your face all the way back.'

They walked the twenty yards or so back to the High Street together. As they left the shelter of the side road, the wind blasted the words from their mouths. No time for tenderness, then.

His face gave him away. ‘Look, I must walk you back,' he said, clearly wishing he didn't have to.

‘Nonsense. I'm only four roads away from home.'

‘But—' he protested without any strength.

‘What's a quarter of a mile after my years on the beat? Thanks, Patrick, for a lovely evening.'

‘We'll do it again soon – yes?'

‘Lovely.'

They kissed – once on both cheeks, very formal.

She wished they hadn't. It reminded her of the warmth and smell of a male face, and all her scurry home couldn't eradicate her longing for more.

Chapter Nine

‘There's no way I can lay it on this, me love,' the young man said, jabbing his toe into the concrete of her kitchen floor.

He didn't look old enough to have left school, let alone to cast such a final opinion.

‘But—'

He shook his head sadly. ‘It's your surface, love. Look at it, all breaking up. See?' He bent and scraped a bit more away with his finger nail. ‘Now, if I lay it on that, you'll have lumps and hollows in your Vinolay, too – and where it's proud, it'll wear through quick as you like. Well, a bloody sight quicker.'

He was right, of course. ‘So what—'

‘What I need to do is skim it – put a levelling compound on it, leave it to set overnight and then come in first thing the next morning to put the Vinolay straight down. Don't worry. The boss should have told you this. I'll sort it out with him when I get back. It'll cost you a bit more, but when we've done it, it'll look a treat. Good quality stuff you've chosen. Last you years.'

Kate reached for her diary. ‘But what about the washing machine and the freezer? Won't they have to be moved if you're going to skim the whole floor?'

‘I've got some industrial polythene'll cover the washer. It'll have to spend the night outside, see. But we'll have to cox and box with that freezer. What d'you keep in there? Bodies?'

‘I'll make sure there aren't any left,' she said. ‘Now, how soon can you come?'

‘As soon as you can fix up to spend the night somewhere else. Once that stuff's down, you mustn't even think of coming in here or the whole lot'll ripple summat shocking! Joking,' he added. ‘But you really can't use the kitchen at all. Not till we've got the flooring down. Now, the earliest I can do – let's see … End of next week suit you? If I come in Thursday night and again Friday morning?'

She shook her head. ‘I can't guarantee what time I shall get home.'

Another kind smile. ‘No probs. You drop your key round to the boss whenever it's convenient. I'll use it to let me and me mate in, Thursday and Friday. Then I'll lock up and drop it through your front door when I go out. Either that or you leave it with a neighbour.'

Zenia, when well, worked shifts. Her husband Joe was a teacher. There was the burglar alarm … She pulled a face.

‘Well, we have to be honest, don't we? The Old Bill'd soon be on to us if every house we laid flooring in got burgled!'

‘I very much hope so,' she said.

She couldn't stop crying. No matter how she told herself it only meant another week before she had her floor, she couldn't stop crying. She sat on the stairs, hugging the phone like a comforting toy and willed herself to stop crying long enough to phone into work. Yes, she'd reminded Graham she'd be late, but she wanted to leave a message with Selby just to see if it would get through. And she would, as soon as she could stop crying.

At last she put down the phone and trudged upstairs. Cold water then hot tea. With the call to Selby in between.

A glance at her face was enough to tell her that it would be at least half an hour before her eyes returned to anything like normal. God, she looked a mess. And damn it if the tears didn't start all over again, almost as if they came from somewhere outside her. Grabbing loo roll, she perched on the edge of the bath.

If she could work out what she was crying for, maybe she'd regain control. Robin? Dead these six months. But the pain of waking to find him not there, the pain of turning to him and finding him not there – yes, the pain was still very much alive. But it was diminishing, if imperceptibly. Look at last night. She'd have welcomed far more contact with Patrick than he'd seemed keen on. And look at her relationship with Graham. Six weeks ago she'd fancied she might be falling in love with him. A nasty little bitch on heat, that was what she was turning into. Just what Selby and his laddish friends would have predicted. With their coarse gestures and obscene language, they'd have been right.

Up to a point.

It wasn't – surely it wasn't – just sex she wanted? It was companionship. Surely. A friend. The sort of friend Cassie had been, someone you could talk to, enjoy being with. Now Cassie was becoming an irascible old woman, critical of whatever she did. Fatima? Still a very cool colleague. Colin, now, he was a friend. Yes. But he showed no signs at all of wanting to include Kate in his private hours, however much he was prepared to enter hers. She managed a rueful snort of laughter – perhaps it was Colin she should invite herself to for the night she had to leave home. That was better. She pulled herself upright.

And just for the record she ought to see if any burglaries had taken place in houses the flooring men had visited. Oughtn't she? Despite the transparent honesty of the young man? She'd compromise – rustle the grapevine.

The first thing to do was phone in with Selby's little test. She got through after enough rings to get her fingers tapping with frustration. Don't say the silly bugger was playing solitaire on his computer again. If she caught him at it, she'd have to make an issue of it.

He answered at last.

She gave her message: that she'd been delayed but would be in as soon as she could.

‘You all right?' Selby asked.

‘Fine.'

‘Only if I didn't know you better, Ma'am, I'd say you were having a cry, like.'

Bastard! It wasn't sympathy that motivated him, but nosiness and a bit of good gossip for the lads.

‘I suppose you haven't noticed the fact I've had a cold ever since I came back off leave? And it seems to have turned to sinusitis.'

BOOK: Staying Power
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ads

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