Making your mind up, p.34
Making Your Mind Up, page 34
“Could be the last fireworks I see.” Freddie was feeling pleasantly relaxed, thanks to more whiskey than was good for him. If he’d been planning on seeing ninety, he wouldn’t have drunk this much. As it was, what the hell. He could drink the whole damn bottle if he liked.
“Aren’t fireworks beautiful?” Barbara had her feet up and was keeping him company with a glass of Tia Maria. “You know, I heard about a man who asked to be cremated when he died. Then he arranged for his ashes to be packed into a giant firework and set off in his favorite place.”
“Could be tricky,” said Freddie, “if your favorite place happened to be Marks & Spencer.”
“I thought it sounded wonderful. I’d love to be packed into a firework and exploded over Regent’s Park. Just like that.” Barbara made a sweeping gesture with her free hand as a series of pink and purple chrysanthemum bursts filled the sky. “Wouldn’t that be magnificent? Great fun!”
Freddie took another pleasurable sip of Glenfarclas. “I’ll just have mine scattered over the lake, thanks.”
“You’re the boss.” Tilting her head, Barbara smiled at him. “Ready for your next lot of pills?”
“Bloody things. I suppose so.” Knowing that they were helping him didn’t mean Freddie enjoyed taking them. “D’you know, when I was first diagnosed and my doctor told me I had maybe a year left if I was lucky, I thought I’d kill myself. Not then, not right at that minute,” he added, needing Barbara to understand. “But when…you know, the time came. I found out what I had to look forward to and I made up my mind that I’d rather die before I reached that state. It seemed like a sensible decision. Do many people think that?”
Barbara considered the question. Finally she said, “I think they probably do.”
“I think so too.” Freddie nodded. “But the thing is, when the time does come, do many of them do it? Do they actually go ahead and commit suicide?”
Shaking her head, Barbara said gently, “No, I’d say most of them don’t.”
“I guessed that. I wanted to do it, but now I can’t. And I don’t think it’s a matter of being brave or cowardly; I just can’t contemplate doing it now.” Looking resigned, Freddie put down his tumbler and rested his head against the back of the chair. “It’s fucking annoying, I can tell you. Why does that have to happen?”
“I suppose it’s the will to live.” Barbara was sympathetic. “Self-preservation kicks in.”
“But I didn’t want it to! I thought I could skip the last few months, because who in their right mind would want to go through them anyway? Except now it seems I’m stuck with them after all. I want to wake up tomorrow morning and the next morning and the morning after that, for as long as I physically can. I want that useless fucking investigator to find Giselle. I want to enjoy Christmas; I want to be able to show you the garden next spring; I want… Oh, fuck it.”
“Here.” Barbara pressed a tissue into his hand.
“Oh, Freddie. It’s allowed.”
Wiping away the tears, Freddie cleared his throat and gazed blindly out of the windows. All of a sudden he was consumed with grief and rage because he didn’t want to die, and there was nothing he could do to keep it from happening. What if he’d given up too easily, when the diagnosis had first been made? If he hadn’t refused treatment, might he have been on the road to recovery by now? Would his doctor be shaking his head in baffled wonderment, declaring, “I have to say, this is a far better result than we could have hoped for, Freddie. The tumor’s practically disappeared!”
What if? Well, he’d never know now. Life had seemed so bleak then, he had been ready for it to be over.
But that was before he’d met Barbara. Enjoying her company during the last few weeks had given him a reason to want to carry on. Here, Freddie knew, was a woman he could have fallen in love with. If he’d met her six months ago…
And if his brain could have remained tumor-free…
Then again, if he hadn’t had the tumor he would never have met Barbara in the first place.
There was a lesson in there somewhere, thought Freddie. But he was buggered if he knew what it was.
“OK?” Barbara gave his hand an encouraging squeeze.
“Yes thanks.” Freddie nodded and smiled briefly, the anger behind him now.
Bang, bang, bang—BANG went the fireworks, waterfalls of crimson and electric-blue light streaming out of the sky and meeting their reflections in the silvery-black waters of the lake.
“Actually, forget Regent’s Park. When Amy was sixteen we went to Paris for a long weekend. Have you ever been there?”
“Oh yes. With Mary.” Freddie had magical memories of their time together in Paris.
As a spectacular barrage of vibrant purple and emerald-green chrysanthemums crackled and spread across the sky, Barbara said comfortably, “I think I’d rather be fired off the Eiffel Tower instead.”
“Oh, hi. I thought Tyler would be here?”
Lottie clicked off the game of solitaire she’d been surreptitiously playing on the computer and glanced up at Liana in the doorway of the office. As well as looking adorable and sounding like an angel, she even smelled like one too. How did that happen?
“He’s working down at Pelham House.” Curiosity overcame Lottie. “What’s that scent you’re wearing?”
Liana’s eyes lit up. “Oh, this? It hasn’t really got a name! I went to a perfumier in Knightsbridge and he blended it for me…you know, to kind of complement my pheromones kind of thing?”
Of course. Silly question. The most glorious scent in the world had been created expressly for the most glorious creature in the world. Lottie really wished she hadn’t asked. If she were to visit a perfumier he’d probably chuck a few toads and stinging nettles into a blender and add a dollop of ketchup.
“It’s so sweet of you to notice,” Liana exclaimed. “Now, do you think Tyler will be long? What’s he doing down there?”
“Fixing the four-poster bed. The Carringtons managed to bring down the canopy and break two of the horizontal poles.”
“You’re kidding! What were they doing to cause that much damage?”
“God only knows.” Lottie grimaced, because the Carringtons were in their late sixties and didn’t look at all like the kind of people who would ever have anything so revolting as sex. They seemed more likely to wear their matching tan anoraks in bed than to athletically swing from it. Unless—yuck—they did both…
“I can tell what you’re thinking,” Liana said playfully.
“I don’t want to think about it.” Lottie took a slurp of Evian and managed to dribble some down her chin. She hurriedly wiped it away. God, couldn’t she even drink water without showing herself up? “The Carringtons have left, by the way. If you want to see Tyler you can go on down there.”
“If I do that, I might be tempted to push him onto the bed and ravish him.” Liana’s eyes sparkled. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch up with him later. It was just something about our plans for Thanksgiving.”
So that was it; they were definitely sleeping together.
And Thanksgiving? That was still weeks away. How much longer was Liana going to be here?
“You know, I was just saying to Tyler this morning that we really must get together,” Liana went on.
“Oh?” What did that mean?
“You and Seb must come over for dinner one evening.”
Good grief, was she mad? Busy twanging an elastic band that was wrapped around her fingers, Lottie said bluntly, “I don’t think Tyler would enjoy that very much.”
“Hey, I know he isn’t wild about your boyfriend. But all the more reason to give them a chance to get to know each other properly! I mean, wouldn’t it be so much nicer if we could all be friends?”
Nicer? Nicer? Was Liana’s middle name Pollyanna by any ch
Not that it happened. By this time, perched on the edge of Lottie’s desk, Liana went on chattily, “You know, you wouldn’t believe the difference being here has made to me. You should have seen the state I was in after Curtis died. And it’s all thanks to Tyler. He’s changed my world.”
“Mm.” Lottie nodded, feeling slightly sick.
“I never thought I’d fall in love again,” Liana went on. “Never imagined having a sex life again, for that matter! But when you’re with someone like Tyler…well, he’s just so…”
Stop. Too much information.
“Anyway, I don’t know what I’d do without him now.” Tilting her head to one side, Liana said, “Isn’t it strange how these things turn out? You think your life is on track, then all of a sudden everything’s different. You just never know, do you, what’s going to happen next?”
* * *
Freddie took a turn for the worse. His doctor was called and made grim predictions about his illness. He didn’t have long to go now; had the time perhaps come for him to move into a hospice?
“No.” Propped up in bed, Freddie shook his head wearily. “I’m not going to change my mind. I want to stay here.”
“Very well.” The doctor accepted his decision. “I’ll speak to Barbara about the pain management.” Nodding approvingly he added, “You chose a good one there.”
“Hands off. You’ve already got a wife at home,” said Freddie.
The doctor smiled and scribbled out a couple prescriptions. “Just take things easy. Get plenty of rest.”
Ha. “Give up the rugby, you mean? All I do is lie here and rest.”
“And admire the best view in England.” Turning, the doctor indicated the lake, the hills rising up beyond it, and the sun hovering just above the tree line turning the clouds pomegranate-pink. “I can think of worse things to do.”
“God, I’m so tired.” As he yawned, Freddie realized that his words had begun to slur again. And it had been a week since his last drink.
“I’ll leave you to it,” murmured the doctor.
Freddie was asleep before he’d even closed the bedroom door behind him.
* * *
The phone was ringing as Lottie let herself into the kitchen of Hestacombe House. Barbara, watering the pots of basil and coriander on the window ledge, picked it up and said, “Yes?”
Lottie waited for Barbara to finish dealing with the call.
“The thing is, Freddie’s not able to come to the phone just now. Why don’t I take your name and pass on a message, then he can get back to you later.” Miming to Lottie that Freddie was sleeping, Barbara grabbed a pen from the fruit bowl on the dresser. Lottie helpfully supplied her with the back of an envelope. Having listened carefully for a minute, Barbara scribbled down a name then paused, looked over at Lottie and said, “Mr. Barrowcliffe, can I ask you to hold on for just a few seconds? I need to speak to someone else.”
“Barrowcliffe. Jeff Barrowcliffe?” Lottie’s eyebrows went up, betraying her surprise.
Nodding, Barbara covered the receiver. “That’s the one. Freddie told me about him. He’s ringing to invite Freddie to a party in December.”
A lump swam into Lottie’s throat. Reaching for the phone she said, “I’ll do it.”
Freddie had taken to delegating the task of informing others of his illness to Lottie and Barbara. Introducing herself to Jeff Barrowcliffe, Lottie explained to him that Freddie was unwell and wouldn’t be able to attend the party.
Jeff sounded distinctly put out. “But it isn’t for another five weeks. He might be better by then.”
Gently Lottie said, “I’m sorry, but he won’t be. Freddie’s very ill.”
There was a pause.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He has a brain tumor.” Lottie hated having to say it.
“Oh God. That’s awful.” Jeff was clearly shocked. “He seemed so well when he came down to Exmouth.”
“Actually, he was diagnosed just before that. Being told he didn’t have long to live was what prompted him to get in touch with you.”
“He didn’t tell me that.” Lottie heard the distress in Jeff Barrowcliffe’s voice. “I had no idea.”
“He preferred it that way. But it’s not something we can hide now. Look, I’ll tell him you rang,” said Lottie. “If he’s feeling up to it he might call you back tomorrow, but I have to warn you that his voice is a bit slurred now. He’s not always easy to understand on the phone.”
“OK, OK…yes, just tell him I called,” Jeff went on hurriedly. “And send him our best wishes. It was good to see him back in the summer.” He paused again, cleared his throat. “Is he…very ill?”
Nodding slowly, Lottie said, “Yes. Yes, he is,” and felt Barbara’s hand, warm and comforting, on her shoulder.
“Tell him I’m sorry,” said Jeff.
* * *
The next morning Freddie watched as Barbara bustled around his bedroom, rearranging a glass bowl of scented white winter roses on the window ledge and dusting the silver photo frames.
“Do you know, I’m feeling better today.” Freddie carefully tilted his head from side to side to see how bad the pain was. It was definitely less severe.
“Could be something to do with your morphine dosage being increased.”
“Oh. Right.” He was probably high as a kite without even realizing it. “Am I slurring?”
She smiled. “A bit.”
“Join me in a glass of champagne?” Freddie looked hopeful.
“It’s eleven o’clock in the morning. I’ll make you a cup of tea. How does that sound?”
“Like a desperately poor substitute. Who’s that?” They both heard the sound of a car pulling up outside.
Barbara peered out of the bedroom window. “No idea. New guests arriving, I imagine. Lottie’s dealing with them. Now how about a chicken sandwich?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You should have something.”
“I’ve got a nagging nurse; isn’t that enough?” Indicating the chair beside his bed, Freddie said, “Stop poking around, woman, and help me with the damn crossword. I used to be able to finish it in ten minutes flat.”
“Let me just sort out your pillows. You’ve gone all crooked.” Barbara helped him forward and with her free hand expertly plumped up the goose-down pillows. “There, isn’t that better? Now where did you put the pen?”
“Dropped it,” said Freddie.
The door burst open while Barbara was on her hands and knees searching under the bed for the pen. Lottie, looking fifty percent shocked and fifty percent as if she’d just seen Father Christmas, said in an odd voice, “Freddie? You have a visitor.”
Typical. Just as he and Barbara were about to tackle the crossword. Freddie frowned, deciding he wasn’t much in the mood for visitors. “Who is it?”
Lottie was breathing rapidly. She waited for Barbara to retrieve the pen and crawl out from under the bed. Finally she said, “It’s Giselle.”
It seemed to Freddie that the clock in the room had stopped ticking. How could Giselle be here, when the tracing agency hadn’t even been in touch to say they’d tracked her down? Unless they had, and this was Lottie’s idea of a surprise. Although she wasn’t acting like someone in on the secret, that was for sure.
Bemused, Freddie said, “They found her?”
Lottie, shaking her head, replied, “No, they didn’t.”
For a moment he wondered if the increased dose of medication was causing him to hallucinate. Or maybe he was asleep and dreaming this whole situation. But it certainly felt real enough.
Lottie was coming toward him, smoothing his hair and fussing with the collar of his pajama jacket. She reached for his Penhaligon’s cologne and spl
Freddie supposed he should be grateful she hadn’t licked the corner of her hanky and wiped his mouth with it. He felt like a messy five-year-old. Aware that his speech was clumsy, he said, “Is she going to be shocked when she sees me?”
And that was when a floorboard creaked and a figure appeared in the doorway.
“No, Freddie.” Giselle stepped into the bedroom. “I won’t be shocked.”
If this was a dream, Freddie wasn’t complaining. Lottie discreetly closed the door behind herself and Barbara, leaving them to it.
“It’s really you.” It was a ridiculous thing to say, but he couldn’t help himself. Giselle’s wavy hair was the same warm brown shade he remembered, framing her sweetly rounded face. Her eyes were unchanged, her smile hesitant. She was wearing smart cream trousers and a light brown angora sweater over an ivory shirt. One side of her shirt collar was sticking up slightly, which made Freddie think that this wasn’t a dream, because it wasn’t the kind of detail it would ever have occurred to his brain to make up.
“Oh, Freddie, it’s so good to see you again.” He read the conflicting emotions on her face—genuine pleasure mixed with pity for his plight. Carefully, Giselle rested her arms on his shoulders and kissed him on each cheek. She smelled of gardenias.
Freddie gestured toward the chair. He wanted to look at her, to apologize to her properly and discover how her life had turned out.
“I don’t understand how you’re here,” he said carefully as Giselle sat down. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“So I hear. Well, I mean, I did kind of know.” She clasped his hand. “But Lottie’s just told me she went to Oxford and spoke to Phyllis Mason.”
“Great help she was.” Freddie grunted. “Couldn’t even remember the name of the chap you married.”
by Jill Mansell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes