Stuart Collins’s life might as well have ended a year ago when his partner died in a car crash. Even Stuart’s widowed father has found new love with an old friend, Isabel Franklin, so why can’t Stuart be bothered to try?
Then he gets a phone call from Isabel’s son, Paul, who wants to check out whether or not Mr. Collins is good enough for his mother. During dinner together, though, they end up checking out each other. Trouble is, Paul’s got a boyfriend—or maybe he doesn’t, since the boyfriend’s supposedly giving Paul the push by ignoring him. Or maybe Paul just wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Honesty with each other is the only way to move forward. But maybe honesty with themselves is what they really need.
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Bright sunlight on an early July Saturday afternoon, filtering through the leaves of a flowering cherry tree—how could it fail to lift your spirits? Stuart, his desk angled to make the most of the sunshine, basked in the warmth.
Thank God for all such small joys.
Sitting at his desk, looking out the study window, gave him a prime view of the plum tree at the bottom of the garden. An early bloomer, it was usually a mass of small ripe fruits by now, especially if April was sunny and the blossoms were favoured with mild weather and a mass of bees. April had played her part, but the months since had been a disappointment—the fruit hung there, still unripe.
Life had been like that this year, too. Mark had still been here last April, smiling sweetly and full of plans for the summer and beyond. Plans that had dropped from the branch before the green had seen the first blush of purple, early promise never realised, like the aftermath of a harsh, unseasonal wind. Could it be nearly a year since he’d gone?
“I’ve done, Mr. Stuart!” Mrs. Jones’s voice came from the kitchen, followed swiftly by footsteps stomping up the stairs and her greying head appearing around the study door. “Anything else you want before I go?”
“No, that’s fine, thank you.”
“I thought I’d put some cakes on to bake while I was cleaning. I felt I had to earn my money somehow.” She smiled, face a picture of concern—the usual concern he’d generated amongst female friends and relations this last year. Was he eating enough? Was he letting himself pine away? He’d been almost overwhelmed by kindness, to the point of feeling as trapped by it as he was by his grief.
“That’s kind of you, but you didn’t need to. You spoil me.” He forced out the reply and a smile.
“You need a bit of spoiling.” She dithered at the door as though about to say something, then just smiled and backed out.
He waited until the front door had finally closed before going to the kitchen. When he was young, Saturday morning had always been baking day—cakes and bread and sweet biscuits—and the smell of the little fairy cakes brought those days back vividly. Funny how smells seemed to evoke the most powerful memories.
The hawthorn had been almost unbearable this year—he’d not been able to resist drinking in their fragrance and had immediately regretted it. He’d first met Mark one unseasonably warm May, at a pub whose garden was blessed with a profusion of blossoms. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to enjoy their scent again.
He took one of the cakes—that would save him having to make lunch at any rate, and Mrs. Jones’s creations had always been worth trying. Not that the quality of food bothered him anymore.
Mark would have railed at him for taking so little care of himself. Regular meals, regular exercise, driving safely, taking care of precious cargo. That was the mantra, but it was all gone now like smoke on the wind, never to be regained. Such a bond came once in a lifetime, didn’t it?
The phone went, jolting him out of daydreams. Ringing on and on while Stuart decided whether to answer it. Wasn’t the 1471 service invented so you could decide whether to ring somebody back later, once you knew who was at the other end of the line? There was always the excuse that he’d been down in the garden or using the toilet and not quite made it to the phone in time, although those explanations must be wearing thin with his father, considering how often they’d been employed over the last few months.
The ringing stopped. Stuart went down the stairs to the hallway, found out the number, and sighed. Dad again, probably getting his days confused. He’d rung just two nights back; Thursday had been the day they caught up with each other’s news ever since Stuart had first gone off to university.
Or was there a real emergency, like there’d been five years ago when Dad had rung up in a panic, back home from hospital with Mum, the both of them wrestling with her bombshell of a diagnosis?
He stopped dithering and rang back.
“Roddy Collins.” The deep voice at the other end of the line sounded reassuringly calm.
“Hi, Dad. Sorry I missed you. Had my music on too loud in the kitchen and didn’t hear the phone.”
“That’s all right.” His father sounded like he didn’t believe a word of it. “I thought you didn’t like loud music nowadays? Changed your mind?”
Bugger. He’d been seen right through.
“You know me. Always changing my mind.” Stuart tried to sound lighthearted.
“If you say so.” Dad cleared his throat. “Now, would you happen to be free a week tomorrow?”
“Possibly.” That was a downright lie. No possibly about it. Stuart’s calendar stretched ahead, barren as far as the eye could see. “Why?”
“I was going to have some people over for dinner. I wondered if you’d like to come.” There was an unfamiliar edge to his father’s voice, one he couldn’t quite place.
“Are you cooking?”
“Of course I am. My culinary skills have come on leaps and bounds.” He didn’t add anything about why he’d been forced to learn those new skills. It had been a trying few years for both of them.
“You made a cracking roast last Easter.” Stuart’s laugh died in his throat at remembrance of the meal. It had been the last time he’d had Mark at his side for a family gathering.
“One of my best.” Dad’s tone was paternal and concerned. He must have known how difficult it would still be to talk about those happier days. “I thought I’d try something similar this time. And Yorkshire pudding, as well.”
“Of course. The next step on my road to mastery of the kitchen.” Dad laughed.
“And what,” Stuart asked, suddenly suspicious at all the bravado, “has caused this sudden outbreak of culinary heroism?”
“Oh, nothing.” Dad sounded distinctly cagey. “Just a matter of running into an old friend. Wanted to get them round and thought it’d be better if we had some company.”
“This old friend doesn’t happen to be female, I suppose?”
“As a matter of fact, she is. Isabel Franklin. Only she wasn’t called that when I knew her years ago, before either of us were married.” Yeah. Still trying to be a bit offhand.
Maybe old friend meant old flame, and she’d rekindled fires that had been long dormant. Dad hadn’t looked at another woman—or at least not admitted to it—since Mum had died, so this was a significant event.
“Will I like her?” It was an unusually blunt question. Surely men in their sixties were allowed to have dates, if that was what his dad was planning. Even if they got their only sons to act as chaperones.
“I hope so. She’s got a pretty dry sense of humour.”
Stuart sniffed. “So why are you asking me to play third wheel? She’s not bringing a daughter, and I’m making up numbers?”
“Daft beggar. I didn’t want Isabel to feel constrained because it was just the two of us. Rather presumptuous.” It seemed reasonable enough. Like it was reasonable enough for Dad to want to dip his toe in the relationship waters again. Stuart wasn’t sure he’d ever reach that point. Everybody said that time was the best healer, but how long was needed to soothe the ache in your heart and make you want to fill the empty space in your bed?
“I’ll be there to chaperone you both, then. What time do you want me?” Stuart tried to be enthusiastic.
“Can you manage twelve? Then we can both be here to greet her at one o’clock. You can make sure my clothes pass muster, as well.”
If Dad was worrying about his appearance, then romance had to be in the air. Stuart looked down at his own unpolished shoes, catching sight of a stain on his trousers; he’d never been this slapdash when Mark was around.
“And you can check if the food is edible,” his father added. “If not, we’d still have time to get in a takeaway. I’d say the oven had blown up and we’d had to bring the Dunkirk spirit into play.” He laughed, nervously. “Just want to put on a good show.”
“You will. And I’ll be there providing moral support all the way. It’ll do us both good.” Stuart wanted to show that he did care, that he did understand, that their shared understanding of grief should be helping them grow closer. “I’ll wear my best bib and tucker.” He looked down at his trousers again. “Cleaned and pressed.”
“You make sure they are. Only don’t impress Isabel too much. I don’t want you outshining me.”
“No chance of that. Who’s the silver fox around here?”
“And what’s a silver fox when it’s at home?” Dad replied, sounding tickled pink, even if he didn’t quite know why he should be.
“If you have to ask the question, you won’t understand the answer.” Stuart grinned. “See you next week, Dad.” He put the phone down before he could get into any discussion that might lead to the general topic of hot older guys. It didn’t seem right to be discussing that sort of thing with your own flesh and blood.
He looked up the stairs at the picture of him and Mark on the day they took possession of the house. “The house that Jack built,” they’d called it, for some reason he couldn’t even remember. Maybe it was all the levels, the crazy room layout, the lack of conformity to the normal “two up, two down” pattern. The lack of recall was going to nag at him all day, like the dirt on his trousers.
He’d make a special effort for his dad, though. He’d have a whole week to get his best jacket out and have it dry-cleaned, make sure he had a well-ironed shirt. He used to really enjoy ironing. Now he wasn’t even sure where the iron was, although he knew a woman who could tell him. He dialled the number.
“I seem to have misplaced the iron.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I gave the thing a good clean and mustn’t have put it back properly. It’s in the tall cupboard in the utility room. Did I forget to iron something?”
“No, not at all. I just wanted to have a particular shirt ready for next Sunday.”
“Leave it for me, then. I’ll do it next Saturday.”
“No.” He softened his tone. “You do enough for me. I’ve got to start doing something for myself.”
He’d start with that plum tree. Chop the whole bloody thing down, and the memories could go with it. He’d been on the verge of cutting the tree down and burning it before, at the very point Mark had stepped into his life. Mark had loved this time of year and the earliest of the plums, sticking them in a crumble or eating them straight from the tree.
Why the hell hadn’t Mark left work a bit earlier or a bit later that particular day, gone a different way, stopped to pick up the milk he was supposed to be collecting on the way home? Wet road, idiot on a motorbike, wrong place, wrong time . . .
“Are you all right, Mr. Collins?”
“Yes, fine, thank you, Mrs. Jones. I promise not to break the iron.”
After he put the phone down, he went to the toilet and took a long, hard look in the mirror, straightening his hair and trying to remember if he’d had so many wrinkles when Mark was alive. What a mess, what a god-awful mess. And he didn’t simply mean the face staring back at him.
He remembered—with a sudden intensity—nagging his dad no end when he’d thought the man’s moping over Mum had gone on too long.
“It’s time to start facing the fact that she won’t be coming back through that door again. No good pretending she’s just been off to Gran’s for a visit. You’ve got to start living again.”
Perhaps it was time to tell himself the same.
The tree would get a reprieve.
The big day came after a week of the usual, boring post-work routine of opening a can of soup and buttering a roll. And crashing in front of the television, flicking aimlessly through programmes he didn’t want to watch.
At least today he didn’t feel quite so pessimistic; he was buoyed up on a small wave of doing something different, and at least half looking forward to it. He’d managed a decent breakfast, so his stomach wouldn’t start rumbling come one o’clock. The Collins men had to be at their very best for this gig.
And he’d managed to make himself look partway decent—actually more than partway decent, according to the mirror. Close shaved, hair possibly in need of a trim but tamed into behaving itself with a bit of product, suit and shirt a real credit. Mark would have been proud. Actually, Mark might have been so impressed he’d have tried to drag Stuart back into bed, once Sunday service was done.
He looked in the mirror again. He wasn’t bad looking. He’d always been able to pull—probably still could, if he tried. You could usually find some bloke to warm the bed, if you wanted one. If.
He left plenty of time to get to his dad’s, avoiding that road as he’d been doing ever since Mark’s accident, but he found the back road had been closed by emergency water main repairs. Stuart hated being late, and the diversion ate away all the spare time, so once on the main road, he tried to make it back up. Forty in a thirty limit and no speed cameras—surely there wouldn’t be a trap on a Sunday morning, either?
The sudden appearance of some idiot on a motorbike haring round the corner and a sharp dose of guilt—his new backseat driver—made him lift his foot quickly off the gas.
That was just how Mark had ended up in a box.
Stuart kept to the speed limit the rest of the way to his dad’s.
“Stuart! Thank God you’re here,” his father said as he opened the door and almost dragged his son through it. “Got a crisis.”
Stuart’s heart sank. He wasn’t prepared to deal with any sorts of crises.
“First batch of Yorkshire puddings sank. Like a U-boat had torpedoed them.”
“Is that all?” Stuart replied, relieved.
“All? All! It’s a national calamity.” Dad flung open the kitchen door. “Look at them.”
“Blimey.” Stuart poked one of the sad little flattened rounds, then ran his finger along the tin. “Is this new?”
“Yes. I decided the old one was too disgusting.”
“Don’t tell me you threw the thing out? You can’t make Yorkshires except in a grotty old tin.”
Dad threw up his hands, sending a flurry of flour into the air. “How was I supposed to know? It’s here somewhere.”
Stuart smiled. “Leave this to me. Get me the tin, then go and wash yourself. You look like Miss Havisham.”
He got on with making the batter while the newly washed—but still sufficiently old and grotty—tin warmed in the oven along with the roast potatoes. The smell of fat and sounds of sizzling took him back to childhood again, Mum here in the kitchen producing miraculous meals.
“Thinking of your mother?” Dad’s voice, quiet and calming, broke the silence once the batter was safely in cooking.
“Since when have you been reading minds?”
“It’s the same for me. I smell a roast or hear a song on the radio and she’s back here. Peeling potatoes or cracking jokes.” He sniffed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. There’s nothing wrong with remembering.”
“I know.” Dad put his arm around Stuart’s shoulders, something he’d not done since the day of Mark’s funeral. He cleared his throat; this was evidently going to be something important. “But there’s a point where memories aren’t enough. You move on and look at new horizons.”
“Too soon for me, Dad.” Stuart returned the hug. “Tell me it gets better.”
“It does. Only don’t pin me down to a timescale. It’s not like restarting part of the refinery after a shutdown.”
“No, you’re right.” Stuart couldn’t help smiling. Poor Dad; they were both well out of their comfort zone in touchy-feely land. “It’ll happen when it happens.”
“That’s the ticket!” He slapped his son’s back. “Now, hold me back. I want to have a peek at those puddings, and I know I shouldn’t until they’ve completely risen.”
“You need distracting. Tell me how you ran across Isabel.”
“It’s a bit odd, really. I was dropping in for a snifter on the way home from work and heard this vaguely familiar voice calling my name. I turned round and saw this young slip of a thing—didn’t have my varifocals on, so when I got closer, I realised it wasn’t a young girl at all. Only don’t tell Isabel I said that.”
“I won’t, I promise.” Stuart wagged his finger. “But only if you leave those Yorkshires alone.”
The dinner table looked stunning: the best crystal gleaming and the cloth like virgin snow on a crisp January morning. He swallowed hard at seeing the best china on show as well; those plates hadn’t been out in years. Still, he wasn’t going to begrudge the old man making the best of things. This Isabel woman had better be worth it, and God help her if she gave Dad any grief.
He didn’t have long to wait; the doorbell rang five minutes ahead of the appointed time. If that was her, she was earning a whole bag full of brownie points in the eyes of the punctuality-obsessed Collins household.
Isabel Franklin didn’t look quite what Stuart had expected. He’d imagined some conspicuously glamorous woman, the sort who haunted the golf club and would try to get his dad to match up with her in the mixed foursomes. Or maybe a mumsy type whose own children had grown, and who was looking for someone more her own age to exercise her maternal tendencies on.
Isabel was neither. Her ash-blonde hair seemed like it might still be in possession of its real colour, and what makeup she wore wasn’t in an effort to hide her age. Even in jeans, complemented by a crisp white blouse and blue cardigan, she gave off an air of efficiency, like the PA to some company chairman, without whom the business can’t go on. Not the label he’d have put on her from Dad’s description.
“And this is my son, Stuart.”
He became aware that Dad was introducing him and maybe he should be responding.
“Pleased to meet you.” Stuart nodded, holding out his hand.
“And to meet you.” Isabel produced a winning smile, then shook hands. “I have a son called Paul. He’s about your age. And don’t you say I don’t look old enough, because that won’t wash.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Stuart returned the smile. “What does he do?”
“Apart from fuss over me?” Isabel made vague circles with her hand, as if it might put into words what she couldn’t. “Something to do with making petrol. Clever stuff. Like you. Roddy tells me you’re in a lab.”
“He runs the lab, Isabel. And it’s forensics.” Dad’s voice swelled with pride. He winked at his son, showing his appreciation of Stuart taking up a scientific career. Even if his major act of teenage rebellion—not going into chemical engineering—had been more of a point of conflict between them than his coming out.
“Oh, I love those sorts of shows on the television. Silent Witness. I bet the reality is nowhere near as glamorous.”
“I could bore you to tears about it,” Stuart said. “But I won’t.”
The food turned out bloody near perfect—a succulent piece of beef and nobody could have found fault with either the gravy or the Yorkshire puddings. Isabel took up the offer of seconds and even wistfully eyed thirds, although how she stuffed it all into a still-slim frame was anybody’s guess.
Once the last bit of carrot had been shovelled up, Dad and Isabel started to talk about old friends and what had become of them, the stories getting juicier as the red wine flowed. Things with Isabel seemed to be going better than expected. She proved to have a remarkable knowledge of National Hunt racing, of all things, with which she held her male audience enthralled. The only sour note came in Stuart’s feeling that he was acting as gooseberry. The growing conviction that his father needed to be on his own with his old friend, no matter how disloyal that felt to the memory of Stuart’s mother.
Rescue came in the form of a phone call, Stuart’s mobile shrieking for attention from his jacket pocket. Isabel frowned, but Dad mouthed Work, while his son fumbled to fish the offending machine out.
“Sorry,” Stuart said, producing the BlackBerry at last. “Should have put it on silent, but they need to be able to get me. Hello?” He left the room, making apologetic faces as he went.
“Sorry to call you in, Stuart, but it’s a nasty one. Child killing.”
A cold, sick feeling hit his stomach, taking away all the pleasure the meal had given. These sorts of cases never got easier. He could delegate if push came to shove, given that he wasn’t actually on duty, but the victim deserved better, poor little scrap. Thank God he’d only had half a glass of red wine.
“I’ll be there. Give me all the details.”
He was full of apologies as he came back into the room. “Sorry about this, but I have to go.”
“Oh no.” Isabel seemed genuinely sorry.
“We’ve had a particularly nasty case come in—a child involved—and the police need some of the forensics turned around quickly. I hate to spoil the occasion, but when it’s an emotive case . . .” He spread his hands in another gesture of helpless apology.
Dad would have to sink or swim now.
“It’s all right.” Dad got up and slapped his shoulder. “I’ll man the fort somehow. Will you be able to get back later?”
“Unlikely. These things have a habit of eating up time. It’s not glamorous, and it certainly isn’t fun, especially when children are concerned.” Stuart held out his hand to Isabel. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you. I hope if there’s a next time, that I don’t have to be a party pooper.”
He meant that bit; she’d been a real charmer. Not like his mother, but nobody could have been like her. He gave his dad a wink, shook hands with him as well, and escaped.
By the time he’d pulled into his place in the car park and got his kit out of the boot of his car, his mind had passed on from women—fondly remembered or just met—and all that remained was a vague feeling of envy, though he wasn’t sure what of.
Word Count: 36,800
Page Count: 146
Cover By: Amber Shah
Release Date: 07/19/2014