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The Healing Place

CHAPTER 1

 

The old man sitting by the window was a dark silhouette against the grey dusk outside. He had a quality of stillness that set him apart from the rhythm and bustle of the place, so that everyone who came in dropped their voice and slowed their pace unintentionally.

What was he gazing at so intently out of the window, Sister Briege asked herself? There was little enough to engage anyone’s attention in a rural Irish winter afternoon.

She snapped on the light, making herself blink, but it was several moments before the old man looked up. When he did, she saw in his eyes that he had been gazing out on eternity.

Time to write that letter soon.

 

 

At this time of year, the early morning commuters went to work in the dark, pouring into the subway like garbage poured down a rubbish chute. The more fortunate passengers sat elbow to elbow as the train rattled through its black tunnel. The less fortunate stood swaying against each other, half-awake and clinging to the handrails, till disgorged at their destinations. Jump-started awake by the cold, they dispersed through the sullen streets to their places of work.

At this time of evening they returned, flattened by the day’s routine and the pressure of rush-hour bodies on the journey home, to find the streets dark again and the drizzle turning into rain. Spiteful gusts whipped up a mob of stale leaves and wrapped them round Coke-can missiles to hurl at homegoers’ ankles.

Out of the station the initial surge of people slowed, their breath caught not only by the cold but by the prospect of the walk through dark streets to dark homes waiting cheerlessly for their occupants’ return.

Some of the crowd took a detour into the line of coffee shops or one of the two pubs, which were lighted and warm. Others cast a sideways glance at a sign outside the big church building on the corner that shouted ‘Welcome! Come In! in red-on-white lettering. The lights were on but no one could see who was in there; besides, churches were for churchgoers, so the commuters walked on.

Further down the street was another building, remembered by long-term residents of this South London district as the old Gaumont cinema but impressively redesigned and facelifted now in contemporary brushed steel, floodlit from the outside. Cool silver lettering on a blue ocean background informed passers-by that this was The Healing Place.

Through the etched-glass double front doors, discouraged commuters could see into the foyer, moodlit and warm, with two live-coal fires, comfortable sofas and fresh coffee.

The billboard outside, in the form of a silver scroll, read: ‘Open Evening Forum – eight till late – every night this week. Browse our life-enhancing courses, chat to experienced mind/body/spirit guides, sample a range of relaxing and healing therapies. Come early and try our SoulFood Cafe!’

Like the church down the road, this sign also invited ‘Come in!’ But this invitation connected with lonely commuters’ need to be somewhere more homely than their own separate homes, and many of the crowd did not walk by.

One after another slowed down, dropped out of the stream of cold humanity and stepped towards the big glass doors that swung open instantly for each one of them as they followed each other into the warm.

In the restaurant around the corner, the early diners sat at candlelit tables, shut off from the passing crowds.

The couple in the corner had chosen the table farthest from the street and appeared engrossed in each other, though they looked no more or less romantic than any other couple in the restaurant. They made more eye contact perhaps, ate more slowly and drank less wine, but engaged in an average amount of conversation.

Somehow, though, they seemed to draw attention. The diners around them kept casting involuntary glances in their direction. The waiters were unusually responsive. Once, when the man made an expansive gesture to illustrate a point he was making, two waiters appeared immediately beside him. The customer looked surprised and they apologized and withdrew, bemused by their over-attentiveness.

The group at the nearest table asked one another whether they recognized the couple; they had an indefinable air of celebrity, though understated. His clothes were fashionable but unremarkable, while her faded jeans, beaded tunic and headband were bohemian in an unchallenging way.

It wasn’t that they were exceptionally attractive either, though he was striking for a man in his late twenties or early thirties, with a sweep of prematurely silver hair above black eyebrows of irregular heights, a long fine nose and wide mouth, and she was dark, long-haired, delicate-featured and wide-eyed.

Their attraction had more to do with a certain luminosity in their gaze. Fixed on each other, their eyes seemed not only to hold each other but to draw in everybody around them.

The girl leaned back abruptly, as if deliberately breaking the spell, and ran a hand across the slim curve of her stomach. Her partner, still leaning towards her, raised his eyebrows.

‘Indigestion?’

‘Not really,’ she said. Her eyes scanned the other diners, without noticing that some were watching her, then returned to him.

‘I thought not,’ he said, smiling.

She returned the smile. ‘You think indigestion wouldn’t dare pick on a nutritionist?’

‘Exactly.’

‘I was just wondering,’ she said, ‘what everyone else here has planned for the rest of the evening. Going home together, most of these couples, I guess.’

He continued regarding her steadily but the smile gained an anxious edge. She kept her hand resting on her stomach.

‘Do you have to go?’ she said. ‘Every time? Surely the team’s strong enough to cope by now?’

‘There are quite a few new guides exhibiting at this forum,’ he said. ‘And the seekers need help to clarify what they’re looking for, sometimes. You’re welcome to come, Ella. You know I still see you as very much part of the team.’

‘I know,’ she said. The second sigh was lighter, no more than a whisper. ‘No, I’ll go home. It was a … challenging day.’

He nodded and quoted: ‘Difficult equals challenging; challenging equals rewarding!’

She grimaced. ‘Which book was that from?’

‘Not a book: the Think Yourself Positive course we did last year. Remember?’

‘Probably.’ She sounded less than positive about the memory.

‘Dessert?’ he offered.

The question was a rhetorical one, a tactful way of telling her that time was running short. Neither of them ate dessert, with the exception of ethnic sweetmeats served at The Healing Place’s occasional celebrations. Without waiting for the shake of her head, he waved a hand at the waiter.

‘Sir?’

‘The bill, please.’

‘Certainly. Have we seen you in here before, sir?’

‘When was the last time we came here, Ella?’ he appealed to her.

‘About a year ago,’ she said.

‘Is it that long? We don’t go out enough,’ he said.

‘It’s just that I thought your face looked familiar,’ the waiter said. ‘Have you been on TV or …?’

‘Only local TV,’ he said. ‘We’re associated with The Healing Place, if you know it. Franz Kane.’ He put out his hand and the waiter shook it. ‘And Ella Cohen,’ he introduced his companion. ‘And your name is?’

‘Manoj, sir. I’ve seen that place but I’ve never been in there. What is it exactly?’

‘A place to change your life.’ Franz laughed but took a leaflet out of his jacket pocket as he spoke and handed it to Manoj, who stood and scanned it, a look of incomprehension on his face. Ella looked away.

‘I don’t know what some of these words mean,’ Manoj said, ‘but I recognize “clairvoyance.” My grandmother had that gift.’

‘Our leading clairvoyant is very gifted,’ Franz said. ‘His name is Sharma. You may have heard of him.’

‘No. I’m not really into it. It was just my grandmother. She always knew when any of us was ill. Even when we were living here, in a different country.’

‘Really? That’s fascinating.’

‘He’s Indian?’

‘Our clairvoyant ? Yes. He likes to be called by his surname.’

‘He’s half-Indian,’ Ella told Franz. ‘His mother’s from Pakistan. And his wife.’

‘Really? I didn’t know that.’

‘I couldn’t come to these evening meetings, anyway, sir,’ Manoj said. ‘I’m working.’

‘Sure. But keep the leaflet. The phone number’s there if you ever want to contact us. Or drop in any time and one of our staff will show you round.’

‘I might do that. I’ll get your bill, sir.’

Franz turned his attention back to Ella. ‘So, what are your plans for the evening?’

‘Bath, phone Maz, bed,’ she said.

‘Phone Maz, when you work with her every day?’ he joked.

‘She’s got an exam tomorrow,’ Ella said. ‘Institute of Hypnotherapists. If she passes, she might want to hire a treatment space for a few hours a week.’

‘Sure. The demand for hypnotherapy is fairly constant. Tell her we’ll give her half-rate for the first three months to get her established.’

‘Thanks.’

An enamelled papier mache saucer bearing the bill was slid on to the table. Franz had the money ready. ‘Keep the change, Manoj. With our thanks.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

Franz pushed back his chair, but Ella sat.

‘So,’ she said. ‘What are you looking out for this evening?’

‘I’ll play it by ear,’ he said, taking the hint and settling back in his seat. ‘Marisa may need a bit of support to get started, and Sharma’s Introduction to Clairvoyance course is in danger of being oversubscribed, but we’ll see who turns up. The interests of the individual seeker take precedence over the guides’ quotas, of course.’

‘Of course,’ she said.

Was there a hint of irony in her voice?

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Nothing. What?’

‘You know I rely on you,’ he said, ‘always to tell me the one thing I don’t want to hear.’

‘That’s the most backhanded compliment!’ she said.

‘It is a compliment. Tell me, honestly. You think I’m turning into a businessman, trying to amass clients for the sake of the cash?’

‘No. I know you’re not in it for the money, Franz.’

‘But?’

She hunched her shoulders slightly, as if softening the impact. ‘It’s just – you try to keep everyone happy. Happy guides with full classes, happy seekers finding therapies to make them feel good about themselves.’

‘Meaning … that’s wrong, or it’s not enough?’

‘It’s not reality, is it? People have to find out that happiness doesn’t come from developing the right philosophy or using the appropriate scented oil.’

He raised those black eyebrows at her, one slightly higher than the other, jagged-shaped like a lightning flash.

‘Okay, I know!’ she conceded. ‘Let people find their own path.’ She said it like a quote, inverted commas in her tone of voice. ‘Some people’s expectations just aren’t realistic though, Franz – the guides’ as well as the seekers’. If some of the guides are struggling to sign up enough clients, perhaps you should stand back and let the market dictate.’

‘Rather than encourage a new seeker to try something unfamiliar?’

‘I’m not saying that, no. The Healing Place wouldn’t exist if people weren’t willing to try new ideas. I feel everyone’s pulling your strings, that’s all: newly qualified practitioners wanting you to provide them with clients, and seekers who aren’t sure what they’re seeking but want you to deliver it, six weeks from now, in return for cash.’

He leaned back. ‘And you think I’m trying too hard to please people?’

‘Bending over backwards,’ she said bluntly. ‘And when you’re tired and won’t admit it, like now, and you keep on smiling and saying all the right things, it doesn’t come across as genuine.’

He flinched. ‘I’m a hypocrite, is that what you’re telling me?’

‘No. Forget it,’ she said quickly. ‘Look, I’m the one who’s tired, probably. Shall we go?’

‘Sure.’

‘It was nice to spend some time together. I know you need to go. I’ll give you a geranium oil massage when you get back, if it’s not too late.’

‘I won’t be late,’ he said instantly, and she laughed at him.

He held out her embroidered wrap and she shook out the wide sleeves of her tunic before winding herself into it. He kept his arms round her for a moment before they walked out of the restaurant and went their separate ways.

By the time Franz arrived the main hall was already full, with small excitable groups gathered outside The Healing Place front door and in the foyer.

He slipped through the side door at the end of the alleyway and up the stairs to his office behind the treatment rooms, where he changed into his white suit with the lapel badge bearing The Healing Place’s logo – a white flame emerging from brushed steel fingertips.

He opened a drawer and took out his name badge: Franz Kane. He went to clip it to the other lapel then stopped, lowered his hand slowly and studied the badge for a few moments, frowning, then dropped it back in the drawer.

He descended the wide stairway two steps at a time and entered the main hall by its back door, which was screened by display boards, giving him a chance to survey the queues.

As expected, Sharma had a long line of impatient seekers standing waiting, while he sat earnestly explaining his course to a pretty dark-haired girl and her blonde friend. Franz knew Sharma would give as much time and care to the disgruntled middle-aged man at the back of the queue, but at this rate the man would be waiting all night and he looked inclined to walk out any time now.

Franz didn’t want Sharma overloaded. The Healing Place’s leading psychic was getting too popular for his own good and rumours last year had suggested that Sharma’s marriage was suffering from his growing workload. He was in demand as a visiting speaker and leader of weekend courses around the country, though The Healing Place, having taken him on when they were both new and unknown, had first call on his loyalty. Franz was keen to keep it that way.

He focused on a lady, smartly dressed and fiftyish, three ahead of the man at the end of the queue, and approached her, smiling.

‘Franz Kane,’ he introduced himself. ‘You’re making enquiries about the Introduction To Clairvoyance course?’

‘Yes,’ she said, smiling back. ‘I didn’t think there’d be so many people doing the same.’

‘It’s the name,’ Franz said. ‘Everyone recognises the term. Are you sure it’s the right course for you, though ? We have others that go into the whole area of clear-sightedness from a slightly different angle, some in more depth perhaps.’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ She looked confused. ‘My friend recommended this one.’

‘It’s excellent,’ Franz assured her, ‘if it’s right for you, of course. Are you sure you need the beginner’s course? Some seekers who come here are further along the path than they appreciate.’

‘Oh!’ This time she blushed slightly. ‘No, I’ve never done anything like this before. I mean, I do sometimes have … whatever you call them. Premonitions?’

Franz smiled more warmly. ‘Then this course may not be for you. You may be more of an intuiter, do you think? An empathizer with human suffering?’

‘Oh, I am!’ she responded. ‘Random people tell me their life stories, all the time.’ She laughed self-consciously. ‘I don’t know why they choose me!’

‘Would you like to look around at some of the other courses?’ Franz offered. ‘There’s one of our guides over there I could introduce you to, if you’re prepared to explore a bit further?’

The woman stepped out of the Clairvoyance queue, as if it had somehow become less desirable than at the start of the evening, and moved away slightly.

‘My name’s Rosemarie,’ she said. ‘With an i-e, not a y.’

Franz shook her hand formally but she held on with both hands till the lady ahead of her in the queue intervened.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, addressing Franz. ‘I’m not sure if I’m signing up for the right course here.’

‘And I think my gifts might not fit the beginner’s course either,’ said another woman.

‘We’ll discuss this individually,’ said Franz. ‘Give me a moment and I’ll come back to you. The same alternatives won’t be right for each seeker.’

They held back, not trying to follow Rosemarie as she held on to Franz’s elbow. Franz made eye contact with the disgruntled man at the back of the queue, who frowned.

‘Are you happy with where you are, my friend?’ Franz asked him.

‘Well …. I don’t know now.’

‘Is your spirituality more of the down-to-earth variety, perhaps?’ Franz asked.

The man scowled. ‘I have fascinating dreams,’ he said belligerently.

‘Ah, dreams,’ said Franz. ‘Earthy and ethereal – a potent combination of qualities. Does that sound like you?’

‘Could be,’ the man conceded.

‘Come with me,’ said Franz, holding out his free hand. ‘If you two ladies don’t mind waiting a few more moments?’

The two in the queue shook their heads. The man took Franz’s hand and let himself be led away, like a small child on his first day at school.

‘I’m Franz,’ Franz told him.

‘I know who you are. I’ve seen you on local TV. I’m Matthew.’

Franz waved above the heads of the crowd at an anxious-looking young man sitting at his desk with only one man and one woman in his queue. A couple, Franz thought, judging by their nonchalant body language, jostling without apology as they reached across one another to pick up pamphlets from the desk and skim-read them without much respect. The banner sign above the desk identified the course as Psychic Profiling and the name badge pinned to the young man’s woven tabard identified their prospective guide as Zen Smith-Brown. The worn leather bracelet round his left wrist bore the faded name ‘Nick.’

Seeing Franz signalling, Zen rose to his feet and stood uncertainly. Franz moved nearer.

‘Zen!’ he said into the ears of the reading couple. ‘I have a treat for you – a gifted prospective pupil for an outstanding guide!’

The couple turned and stared at him.

‘Zen, meet Rosemarie who has an intuitive understanding of human nature and is looking for just the right guide to help her develop her calling.’

‘Delighted,’ said Zen, with relief.

‘Wait a minute,’ said the man, waving his pamphlet at Franz. ‘We were here first!’

Franz took the pamphlet from him and straightened its crumpled corners reverently. ‘A complex and sophisticated discipline. For the discerning few.’

‘We were just about to sign up for it,’ the man’s wife asserted.

‘Very perceptive,’ Franz commended. ‘Nick – ah, Zen – sign this couple up without keeping them waiting any longer. I know you won’t mind,’ he told the couple, ‘if Zen takes a few moments, while you’re completing your forms, to explain the course to this lady and to answer any questions you yourselves may have.’

‘Oh no, that’s fine,’ the man assured him.

‘Excellent,’ said Franz. He detached Rosemarie from his elbow and placed her hand into Nick/Zen’s then resumed his handclasp with Matthew and steered him towards a young woman standing by an empty desk, twisting her tousled hair into chaotic outlines as she surveyed the growing queues around her colleagues and rivals.

If she wanted to attract seekers, at her first-ever forum at The Healing Place, Marisa would have to look a bit less despairing, Franz thought. He looked from her face to Matthew’s and changed direction.

He continued on his circuit of the hall, scooping a leaflet from a stand. ‘I’m going to give you this,’ he told Matthew, ‘to consider as a possibility, though it doesn’t take place till next month. One of our Dream Therapy workshops. They’re increasingly popular so if you do think it’s for you, you can either sign up tonight or later this week; just call in and see the receptionist, any time.’

‘I wanted a course to do on a Tuesday,’ said Matthew. ‘That was my pub quiz night but it’s moved to Wednesdays now.’

‘Is Tuesday the only night you’re free?’ People had some odd criteria for choosing a path to enlightenment.

‘It’s a lousy TV night.’

Franz tried to calculate how long it was since he had spent an evening at home watching TV. He and Ella used to curl up together on the sofa with a bottle of wine and watch a movie. They hadn’t done that for a long time. He felt a pang of longing. ‘Tuesdays, then,’ he said briskly. ‘Let me take you to the front desk. One of the receptionists will tell you which courses are available and then you can take your pick.’

On his way back to retrieve the two other ladies from Sharma’s queue, which had grown again in his absence, Franz saw they had followed him and Rosemarie from a distance and were now at Zen’s stand. He watched as Zen handed them two more forms and they began filling them out. He moved on.

A group of three young men about to join the end of Sharma’s line appeared distracted by the sight of Marisa, no longer twisting her hair into knots but adjusting the low neckline of her top over a significant cleavage.

‘Marisa,’ Franz told them, ‘is our expert in a new therapy, Spiritual Massage.

The boys looked at each other and grinned.

‘Sounds good to me,’ said one.

‘Come with me and I’ll introduce you,’ Franz said. Three clients in one go, even if they were somewhat ambiguously motivated, were not a bad start to Marisa’s new career as a complementary therapist at The Healing Place.

The crowd was becoming denser. While the young men listened to Marisa talking about opening the psyche to spiritual influences via massage, their eyes sized up her proportions. Franz estimated they wouldn’t last longer than the first session which, Marisa had informed him at her interview, involved no massage but theoretical study of the precepts of ‘focal centering.’ This included staring into space for a considerable period of time while repeating a mantra that sounded like ‘lost my hoe’ but obviously meant something else. Marisa hadn’t quite been able to remember what.

Franz was not convinced she had accurately grasped the principles underpinning her chosen therapy but she had a certificate to prove she had and he was willing to give her a chance. He had suggested she introduce the practical aspect of massage in an earlier session before inviting clients to study the rather strangely translated documents expounding the inspirations of its founder but she had refused. The founder – whose name she couldn’t quite pronounce but she had it in her file somewhere and offered to look it up for him – would not approve, she said.

Franz took two application forms from Marisa’s stand, handed one to the boy who didn’t seem to be sharing his friends’ enthusiasm but whose eyes were beginning to scan the crowd for other possibilities, and gave the second to Matthew, who was trying unsuccessfully to attract Marisa’s attention.

‘I was about to tell her about my dreams,’ he told Franz.

‘It’s always a bit frenetic at these forum evenings,’ Franz apologized. ‘You’ll have further opportunities. Did you sign up for the Dream Therapy workshop?’

‘Yes, but it was expensive. I only did it because the reception lady told me I could have a discount. Is that right?’

‘It is. If you sign up for two or more courses, you get the second and subsequent ones half price.’

‘It’s still a lot to pay out!’

Franz handed him a pen. ‘An investment in your spiritual pathway,’ he said encouragingly.

He had completed two more circuits of the hall, pausing to speak to guides and answer questions from seekers, when a voice stopped him. ‘You’re going round in circles.’ It was spoken as clearly in his mind as if it had been uttered aloud by another person.

He shook his head briskly. Ella was right. He was tired. Overdue for a holiday. He had promised her – how many times? He should consider it seriously now. Imagining inner voices was a clear sign of psychological overload.

He usually got a buzz out of these evenings. Although they were tiring, the excitement of the crowd was palpable. Expectations ranged from – like Matthew’s – filling a spare weekday evening, to completely transforming the seeker’s life.

‘Round in circles. That’s where you’re leading them all.’

He felt unaccountably embarrassed, standing here in his white suit, jostled and buffeted by eager pursuers of inner tranquillity, hearing this inconveniently audible voice.

Enough now. He would finish here quickly, hand over the remaining applicants to the guides and to the receptionists operating the cash tills at the front desk, and go home to Ella. He felt he hadn’t seen her for a long time.

‘Haven’t seen yourself for a long time either.’ That voice again.

A quick glance at his watch surprised him. The evening had hardly started.

He veered towards a giggling group of girls who were eyeing up Sharma’s glossy dark hair and Bollywood profile.

‘Good evening, ladies,’ Franz greeted them, smiling. They fluttered their eyes and drew themselves up to full height, trying to look older than their years. ‘Are you deciding what you’d like to do?’

‘We’re just eyeing up the prospects … I mean, the prospectus,’ said the tallest and boldest, while the other two nudged each other and giggled behind their hands.

‘Right. Well, let me know if you need any advice.’ Reaching out a hand to catch the attention of one of the evening receptionists who was passing, he said quietly, ‘Would you make sure these girls see our leaflet on parental consent for under-18s signing up for courses? Thanks.’

Standing behind Sharma and casting an eye over his list, Franz saw it already exceeded its quota by four or five. Sharma had intimated reluctance to take on more sessions at The Healing Place. Franz had offered him a generous increase in his share of the takings but Sharma, typically, had looked through him and said it was not about money and he was adequately rewarded.

So Franz had promised instead to keep Sharma’s bookings here manageable, as long as it didn’t mean turning away seekers who really wouldn’t settle for any alternative course. In return, Sharma publicized The Healing Place wherever he visited, leaving brochures and flyers in town halls and at psychic fayres where he spoke to would-be visionaries from places as far-flung as Bexhill-on-Sea and Barnsley.

‘Sharma,’ Franz said, into his ear. ‘You’ve run over quota there. You’ll have to settle for a larger group if you don’t want to run an extra class.’

‘Excuse me one moment, please,’ Sharma addressed the woman sitting facing him, with his invariable politeness. He turned to Franz. ‘This number is too many for one class of beginners, Franz; I couldn’t give them enough attention.’

‘And you don’t want to run two new groups,’ Franz mused. ‘What are the alternatives ? We don’t want to make people wait till another course starts.’

‘I would be willing to take an extra class if some could come on a different night but there aren’t enough for two full classes.’

Sharma’s queue was now down to two women, the second of whom was studying the leaflet on Predicting The Future Through The Tarot and was beginning to move away.

‘If you’re sure you’re OK with running a second group, keep signing up anyone who comes now, Sharma, and I’ll see what I can do.’

He returned to the group of girls, who were still scanning leaflets and Sharma’s profile alternately.

‘Sign up for the Clairvoyance course with the very talented and stunningly goodlooking Sharma,’ Franz invited the girls, who giggled happily, ‘and we’ll offer you half-price on a complementary six sessions of Spiritual Massage with Marisa. How about it, girls?’

‘Complimentary means free, not half-price,’ said the sharpest-looking of the girls. Her audience agreed.

Franz gave a smile. ‘Free massage you’ll be able to give your boyfriend,’ he said, ‘who may then be very complimentary! Well worth the half-price.’

As they shrieked with laughter and moved to sign up for the second evening class in Clairvoyance, Franz caught Sharma throw him a glance that could only have been interpreted as distaste.

‘Sorry,’ he muttered. He valued Sharma’s respect.

When Franz first met him, Sharma had been barely earning a living from gloomy Sunday afternoon gatherings in crumbling Victorian premises. Franz admired the fact that he had thought long and hard before agreeing to be part of The Healing Place. Even in the early days it had been clear that Sharma’s reputation would only be enhanced by The Healing Place’s success, and that The Healing Place’s success was due to Franz – his commitment, charisma and willingness to work impossible hours.

‘And due to all that cash, without which this place would still be a fantasy.’ That voice again!

Time to go.

Walking away, checking his watch discreetly and satisfied that for the moment everybody seemed happy and the new guides’ quotas were being filled, another voice stopped him – an echo of Ella’s earlier this evening.

‘When you keep on smiling and saying all the right things, it doesn’t come across as genuine.’

And his own reply: ‘I’m a hypocrite – is that what you’re telling me?’

She had denied it. Too quickly. But he had been wrong in asking the question of Ella. The only person who could answer that one was Franz Kane.

Was that what the audible inner voice was telling him? That the man whose mission statement was acceptance of everyone and every shade of opinion, creed and myth – everything except hypocrisy – had become precisely that man he couldn’t abide: a hypocrite peddling a tolerance he didn’t feel, to people as directionless as himself?’

Alison, the nearest receptionist, was sympathetic to Franz’s intention to leave before the close of the forum.

‘You go on home,’ she encouraged. ‘We’ll manage.’

Actually leaving the premises was not so easy. In the lobby, someone called his name. He turned and saw Saffron, facilitator of the one-day Dream Therapy workshops and the Interpreting Your Dreams series of evening seminars, and made his way towards her through the throng, distracted momentarily by the glimpse of a man sitting in the foyer, just inside the front door, reading the newspaper.

He was an ordinary looking man, in his mid-thirties, Franz estimated, or possibly early thirties like himself, if he hadn’t aged gracefully. His hair, which needed restyling, was greying patchily and there were undisguised wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, which looked tired.

Franz wasn’t sure what made the man stand out from the crowd, except that he seemed unconcerned by the crush of people around him and was reading the Evening Standard rather than scanning The Healing Place literature. Unlike most seekers attending their first forum, he was neither excited nor anxious. Nor even interested.

‘Franz, you did say we could use the auditorium for the next Dreams session, didn’t you ? I’ve got a really good number of applicants.’

Franz turned his attention to Saffron. ‘Good. I’ll do the final allocation tomorrow but I haven’t forgotten you asked for the main space. And you’ll do your own visual presentations as long as we set up the sound system – is that right?’ He found his gaze drawn back to the man reading the paper.

‘Yes, but I won’t need it for the final session.’ Saffron followed the direction of Franz’s stare as she spoke. ‘The seekers will be dream-experience sharing. What is that man doing?’ she said incredulously. ‘He’s not ….?’

‘He is!’ Franz moved swiftly towards him, with Saffron following. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, addressing the man. ‘You can’t do that in here!’

The man looked up, mildly surprised. ‘Do what? Oh, I see! I did look around for No Smoking signs but I didn’t see any.’

Franz pointed to the sign above the main door. ‘It’s kind of self-explanatory.’ He tried not to sound peeved.

‘The Healing Place (Centre for Holistic Healing And Spiritual Progression),’ the man read aloud. ‘Ah, I see your point.’ The wrinkles around his eyes joined forces when he smiled. ‘Is smoking bad for the soul as well as the lungs, do you think?’ He lowered the newspaper and Franz was further annoyed to see he was wearing a clerical collar.

‘All health is a spiritual issue,’ Saffron told him.

The man dropped his smile to match their sobriety. ‘I’m sure you’re right.’ He studied Franz’s white suit. Franz stared at the man’s white collar. The man spoke first.

‘Are you the manager?’ he asked.

‘We work as a team,’ Franz told him, ‘In-house admin staff and independent therapists and tutors.’

‘Right. But are you … head of the team?’

‘Are you a seeker?’ Franz countered.

‘Seeker after what?’

‘Have you come to this evening’s forum to enquire about one of our courses?’ Saffron contributed helpfully.

‘No, I’m waiting for my wife. She’s interested in studying aromatherapy. I’ve just come from the hospice,’ he added, indicating the dog collar, ‘hence the uniform.’ He stood up and Franz, thinking he was about to introduce himself, held out his hand but the man was looking over Saffron’s shoulder at a woman with cropped highlighted hair and hoop earrings, dressed in a one-shoulder red top and black leather jeans.

‘Phil!’ she said breathlessly. ‘Oh sorry – am I interrupting your conversation?’

‘I’ve just been told off for smoking,’ he confessed. ‘This is my wife Jan,’ he told Franz and Saffron. ‘I didn’t ask your names?’

They introduced themselves. ‘Phil Kennedy,’ the clergyman returned.

‘I hear you’re interested in our aromatherapy courses?’ Franz asked. To compensate for his annoyance with her husband, he turned to Jan with his warmest smile.

‘Yes. I’ve just come to ask you, Phil,’ she said, turning from Franz, ‘what you think about me doing Indian Head Massage as well. It’s half-price – is that right?’

‘Half-price for a second course when you register for both at the same time,’ Franz affirmed.

Phil smiled. ‘I reckon you are the manager, after all. Isn’t he?’ he asked Saffron.

Saffron gave Franz a sideways glance. ‘We don’t do titles,’ she said, ‘but he kind of does run the place.’

‘The uniform gave it away,’ Phil said.

Franz suspected mockery.

‘And what does your uniform say?’ he asked, more sharply than he had intended.

‘It says vicar of St Mark’s, the barn-like place at the end of the road,’ Phil answered. He turned to his wife. ‘Yes, sign up for what you want, love. I’ll wait for you here. I won’t smoke,’ he promised Franz.

Jan and Saffron went ahead of Franz through the door into the main hall. The vicar detained him with a hand on his arm. ‘If you wouldn’t mind my asking,’ he said, ‘out of interest, what is your aim here ? What are you offering all these people?’

‘We offer relaxation and healing,’ Franz said, ‘in a wide range of complementary therapies, and we offer study courses for those who want to develop their psychic and spiritual potential.’

‘Well, it’s certainly drawing the crowds,’ Phil allowed. ‘I’d love to see congregations this size in St Mark’s! But what,’ he added, taking Franz’s arm again as he began to move away, ‘about the spiritual potential for evil? What do you do about that?’

‘We believe in focusing on the positive,’ said Franz. ‘We’re not into sin and guilt trips. Maybe that’s why our seekers outnumber yours,’ he couldn’t resist adding.

In case the vicar tried to claim the last word, Franz allowed himself to be distracted by a young woman who was hesitating inside the door of the foyer.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked.

‘Oh, I really hope so,’ she said fervently.

Franz noticed as he ushered her through the door that she was trembling. He estimated that she was in her twenties, though so slightly built and thin-faced that she could have been mistaken for a child. She was neatly dressed in clean jeans, trainers and a hooded top that didn’t offer much insulation from the February evening air. Black hair in braided twists surrounded a dark-skinned face with darker circles beneath wide, frightened eyes.

She reminded Franz of somebody but he couldn’t think who it was. ‘What are you looking for?’ he asked, with gentleness. His return home would have to be delayed.

Tears sprang into her eyes. ‘I need …’ she swallowed then continued determinedly, ‘I need something to make me feel better about myself.’

‘You’ve come to the right place,’ said Franz. ‘We have some of the best relaxation facilities in the whole of London – for instance the largest flotation pool. You choose the colour and level of lights, the music, even the water temperature.’

‘No!’ she said abruptly. ‘Nothing like that. I don’t want to think. I need something to occupy my mind. To study something.’

She was trembling more violently now. Better to find the most sympathetic listener for someone so vulnerable, Franz thought, than to advise on courses.

His eyes settled on Saffron, who was still within reach, but she was too deep in conversation with Jan to notice his discreet signalling. He felt another flicker of irritation. The vicar and wife had got under his skin, for some reason.

‘Dream interpretation?’ he suggested to the girl.

‘You don’t understand!’

He was surprised by the girl’s anger. Or desperation. ‘Okay,’ he conceded. ‘Tell me.’

‘I don’t want something that makes me look inside myself,’ she said. ‘I want to get away from it! To get something else in my mind!’

‘And what are you interested in?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. The fight drained out of her, as if the outburst had taken her last drop of energy. Franz put a hand on her arm and she flinched. A woman would do better at getting through to her, Franz thought. ‘Come and meet someone,’ he invited. ‘By the way, I’m Franz. And you are?’

‘Jacqueline,’ she said reluctantly.

Rachel – that was who she reminded him of. Apart from this girl’s slightly darker skin colour, they resembled each other, this girl and his foster sister.

‘Jacqueline,’ he said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to one of our receptionists.’

The crowd round the front desk with its five white-suited receptionists on duty was tightly packed but he was banking on Alison noticing his presence after he had told her he was going home. Sure enough, she glanced up and smiled and raised her eyebrows: ‘Still here?’

‘Alison, could you spare a moment ? I’m sure you’ll be able to help Jacqueline find the right course of study – and perhaps some form of complementary therapy, at a special low rate?’ he added, raising his eyebrows meaningfully at Alison, who picked up the cue, taking in the girl’s hunched posture and unhappy face.

‘Sure. It’s a good idea,’ Alison explained to Jacqueline, ‘to combine some form of relaxation with a course of study. Would you like to come with me and look at some of the display boards to see what we can offer you?’

As she murmured to the next receptionist and redirected her own queue towards her, the vicar’s wife, Jan, stepped forward and took Jacqueline’s arm. ‘Hi – it’s Jacqui, isn’t it?’

‘Did you find your way to the Indian Head Massage stand?’ Franz asked Jan. ‘Let me introduce you to our instructor.’

‘Thanks,’ she said absently, ‘but I need to give it more thought.’ She let go of Jacqui’s arm but her eyes followed the girl as Alison led her away.

‘Don’t tell me Saffron’s talked you into doing her Dreams course instead?’ Franz said, smiling.

‘Sorry?’ Jan brought her attention back to him. ‘Oh yes, I had a good talk with Saffron. Very interesting. But I’ve kept my husband waiting long enough. It’s been good to meet you, Franz.’

‘What’s your reaction to all this?’

She waited, looking surprised.

‘I mean,’ Franz clarified, ‘are you, as a vicar’s wife, in sympathy with what we’re doing here at The Healing Place?’

He didn’t know why he wanted her opinion. These people were anachronisms, hiding in outmoded religious cultures and obsolete buildings, dispensing empty certainties to people who felt the need to cling to familiar myths instead of exploring alternatives.

Jan stood and considered the question. The expression on her face was kind but guarded. ‘I accept what you’re doing,’ she said.

‘What is it you think we are doing?’

She smiled, recognizing the challenge. ‘I think you’re trying to get people to be less stressed and to give them confidence in their power to control their own destiny. Is that right?’

He smiled back. ‘Spot on. Choose And Claim Your Destiny is one of our workshops that might interest you.’

She looked at him with an expression he couldn’t define. His nearest guess would be sadness but that was hardly appropriate, he thought.

‘Choose Your Destiny,’ she repeated, ‘and then claim it? It’s a tempting idea, Franz. If only life were that simple, huh?’

She disappeared into the crowd, leaving Franz staring after her.

Negative thought patterns, he diagnosed. Deeply entrenched, probably since childhood. Victim mentality. Feels out of control of her life. Unsurprising – married to a religious throwback, stuck in an unfulfilling lifestyle and seeing no way out.

When she had had time to think about all The Healing Place could offer, she would come back, he thought, and The Healing Place would provide her with just the right kind of help.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

He could surely leave now, he thought.

He would check the precise numbers of registrations tomorrow but at a rough count Franz estimated that five courses were over-subscribed. He would persuade those course guides to run two identical courses on consecutive nights. The alternative was to put people on a waiting list but seekers were not patient people. If The Healing Place didn’t meet their needs immediately they would go elsewhere – though there were fewer alternatives now.

In the two years before the building completed its transformation from derelict South London cinema, Franz had tirelessly wooed every complementary therapist and holistic practitioner in the area. Those who had chosen to stay in independent practice had not thrived in competition with The Healing Place’s state-of-the-architecture façade and flexible-space interior.

It had been worth all Franz’s meticulous attention to detail and all his hassling for loans and sponsorships as well as investing every penny of his windfall in the enterprise, for the building, once completed, had been its own publicity. Given the choice of a back-street acupuncturist working from the spare room at home and one who – though available only on certain days and times – functioned in streamlined, pristine premises, most clients chose to receive their treatment in one of The Healing Place’s small upper rooms with integral sound system and contemporary design.

There had been in-fighting and politics, of course – there still were. Franz hoped he was on track for resolving the on-going conflicts between groups with their own priorities. This week would tell. He hadn’t yet broken the news to Ella that he had chosen to stage a forum every evening this week, to ensure separation between the guides who considered themselves destined for eternal incompatibility.

It had proved inadequate merely to ensure that Reflexology sessions were not offered on the same day as Thai Foot Massage, or that Runes and Tarot classes were held in rooms as far apart as the building would allow. (Franz, and many of the seekers, saw them as complementary and would have liked to combine the two groups into one, offering both facilities at once, along with a few other forms of divination, but Meera the Tarot guide and Ashok the Runes expert were adamant that their disciplines were worlds apart and each other’s methods were dangerously superstitious and unprofessional.)

Sharma the Clairvoyance guide, one of the mainstays of The Healing Place, had objections to Wicca, the name now used by devotees of witchcraft, as did many of the other guides. Wicca’s claim to be a genuine religion had attracted some seekers who had abandoned conventional religions (including Phil’s St Mark’s church, Franz reflected with a glint of smugness) but had alienated itself from almost all The Healing Place’s practitioners, most of whom were firmly anti religion of any kind, whatever the object of worship.

Ella, who had been one of The Healing Place’s earliest members, had left its protection and gone into outside enterprise at around the time of the Wicca group’s entry, though Franz still was not sure whether the timing of her departure was a coincidence. Franz, after consultation with his team members but without obtaining their unanimous agreement, had offered a fortnightly slot for Wicca meetings. He hadn’t wooed and pursued them with offers of cut-price room rentals and use of facilities, as he had some of the others; they had applied to him for use of The Healing Place’s premises during the winter months when open-air woodland meetings were proving unpopular with all but the hardiest Wiccans.

Although Ella had been vague about her reasons for leaving The Healing Place, simply saying it wasn’t the right place for her at that time, Franz still avoided mentioning Wicca to her. At least Ella had been discreet in her leaving and had not set up as a complementary therapist independent of The Healing Place, despite her qualifications in nutrition, iridology and aromatherapy. Instead she went into partnership with Maz, her former flatmate, who owned the local health food store, Wholiest, and in gratitude Franz had arranged for the store to supply most of the ingredients used by The Healing Place’s SoulFood Cafe and all the aromatic oils used by the now four-strong team of aromatherapists.

Maz was also doing a profitable sideline in supplying crystals for the Power of Crystals seminars and the imported American DVDs used in the Visualization for Healing and the Contact Your Guardian Angel workshops. She sold these as a personal enterprise, not through the wholefood shop since Ella, unaccountably, was almost as uncomfortable with these products peddled by her business partner as she had seemed to be with Franz, her life-partner, giving space in The Healing Place’s premises to Wicca, Trance Dancing, Aura Cleansing, Past Life Regression and Primal Scream.

‘Inclusion means allowing everyone to find their own spiritual imprint,’ Franz had argued with Ella. ‘Maz agrees with me! The Healing Place’s function is not to express the team’s personal beliefs but to allow space for every seeker to search for their own inner truth in the way they choose. And that means welcoming guides of every spiritual discipline, regardless of their approach.’

‘Unless it’s actually harmful, of course,’ Maz qualified.

‘And how do you judge if things are harmful?’ Ella asked. ‘How would we know?’

‘Is it our role to be judgmental of other people’s values?’ Franz asked her, frowning in disapproval.

Ella was unmoved either by his frown or by his arguments. ‘We’re meant to be helping people to empower themselves and trust their instincts,’ she said. ‘I’m trusting my instinct. Some things don’t feel right to me. I can’t tell you why, but you can’t tell me not to think it.’

They had parted company only as business colleagues and Franz continued to consult her at home on any major decision he had to make.

Whatever arguments the various guides had with Franz, none of them ever accused him of being motivated by money. It was clear that personal financial gain was not his goal. He invested far more heavily in The Healing Place than any balance sheet showed – invested his whole self, his weekdays and nights, weekends and non-existent holidays.

The salary he drew for himself was modest, all profits being ploughed into improvement of facilities or early repayment of loans. Eighteen-hour working days were standard until Ella moved into his small one-bedroom flat with him, when he cut to twelve-hour days plus forum evenings, evening speaking engagements to groups of prospective sponsors or clients, and phone calls and messages at all hours at home.

It was his drive and undoubted commitment, as well as their own self-interest, which made many of Franz’s detractors stop short of leaving The Healing Place when they couldn’t persuade Franz to champion their own view against a rival guide’s. His insistence on respect for every person and acceptance of every person’s views was written into The Healing Place’s mission statement. Those who believed in angel visitations were as welcome at The Healing Place as those who believed in pagan forces; believers in Gaia the Earth Goddess were to be listened to as attentively as worshippers of Odin, adherents of an impersonal Life Force or fans of Yin/Yang fusion.

Franz would not be drawn into discussions about who might be right and who might be wrong; he simply dismissed those concepts. ‘Let each person believe what they believe,’ he would say. Nor would he ever be drawn into discussion of his own beliefs. When questioned, he asserted that he accepted every human being’s core beliefs.

If someone pointed out that some humans’ core beliefs were in total conflict with others’, therefore no one could possibly accept all of them, Franz simply smiled and changed the subject. His belief, as most of the guides had come to realize, was in The Healing Place. So if Sharma protested that Tarot and Runes were games for the naïve, and the hypnotherapists argued that Sharma’s clairvoyance sessions were party tricks, Franz listened with sympathy and allowed them to air their grievances. But in the end, they knew, he would smile and slide a friendly arm round their shoulders and urge them to accept each other’s idiosyncrasies.

Little by little, most of them came to emulate Franz’s image: Mr Tolerant, unbiased, inclusive and cool.

No one was more shocked then than Franz himself when, having changed out of his white suit, locked his office, and prepared to go home, he walked out by way of the side alley into the street and was caught by an overwhelming wave of rage at the sight of young Jacqui climbing into a car, with Jan’s hand on her shoulder and Phil sitting at the wheel.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

‘You did what?’ said Ella incredulously. She was sitting up in bed, drying her newly-washed long dark hair, craning her neck to supervise the movements of the brush in a small mirror balanced precariously on her knees.

The whole of the converted Edwardian house had been relentlessly feng shui-ed by the freeholder before Franz bought this second-floor apartment, and was subject to restrictions in the lease regarding the interior arrangements.

Franz had not anticipated that when Ella moved in with him her request for a mirror on the wall opposite the bed would cause problems but the freeholder, who lived in the flat below, ran upstairs when he heard the electric drill and denied her right to a mirror on that particular wall, on grounds of disrupting the flow of chi, or healing energy.

Ella straightened her back now and rubbed her neck where it ached from leaning at an unhealthy angle.

‘I shouted at the girl not to get in the car,’ Franz admitted.

She stared at him. ‘That’s so unlike you! Why?’

‘It is unlike me,’ he agreed.

“I acknowledge anger as a power for good, to be directed creatively and usefully at defined sources of injustice,” was a quote from the Managing Anger Creatively seminar he and Ella had attended last year. Both had been sufficiently impressed by it for Franz to decide to run it at The Healing Place, where it had been well received. The quote was on their fridge door.

‘How is it an injustice, for someone to offer somebody else a lift home?’ Ella asked.

‘Obviously it’s not,’ he said. ‘I was aware of some negative energy between myself and Phil but I thought I’d countered it.’

‘Did you see him as a danger to this young girl?’

He shook his head quickly. ‘I could understand it if I’d felt that. I didn’t take to them personally but I didn’t see them as dangerous people.’

‘Did you see him as competition or something, coming into The Healing Place and lifting one of your seekers from under your nose?’

‘You think I’m that superficial?’

He saw her flinch and realized he’d sounded aggressive. He sat down on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands.

Ella knelt up and put her arms round him. ‘I think you’re human,’ she said, ‘like the rest of us. You expect too much of yourself.’

‘I shocked myself,’ he said. ‘One minute I was cool, the next I was – I can’t believe I did that!’

‘Something acted as a trigger,’ Ella said. ‘You just have to figure out what it was.’

‘She reminded me of someone,’ Franz said, raising his head and looking at Ella now. ‘Someone from the past.’

‘A lover?’ There was a flicker of uncertainty in her eyes. She was beautiful, Franz thought: not conventionally beautiful but inviting, with her dark eyes and high cheekbones and soft, full mouth. Her freshly washed hair hung over her bare shoulders and the thin-strapped camisole top she wore in bed. He felt a wave of desire.

‘A sister. Kind of.’

‘Franz! You told me you were an only child!’ The delicate brows were arched high now and her mouth was an open O.

‘I was. My mother fostered her.’

‘You never told me this, in a whole year and a half of being with you? What’s her name? Where is she now?’

‘Rachel. She lives abroad. We lost touch.’

‘Well, that accounts for it, Franz! You got upset because this other girl, who reminded you of your sister, was getting into someone’s car and being driven away from you. It’s symbolic, don’t you see that?’

He shrugged, annoyance competing with desire. ‘You’re reading too much into it.’

‘No, listen! This vicar couple – did they remind you of anyone as well? The man – Phil? If you reacted to him like you did …’

‘He didn’t remind me of anyone. He just got under my skin because – because what’s an extinct religious authority figure doing in The Healing Place anyhow?’

‘Waiting for his wife to sign on for an aromatherapy course,’ said Ella reasonably.

‘She didn’t register,’ said Franz. ‘I checked.’

Ella stared at him. ‘You checked up on her?’

‘My guess is that they were checking us out, that she had no intention of registering for anything.’

Ella frowned. ‘She may have just changed her mind. People do come and look and then go away and think about it some more.’

‘Maybe. She seemed genuine, to start with. She knew what she’d come for and she asked her husband about doing a second course on the same evening.’

‘And he said?’

‘He said “sure”.’

‘Doesn’t sound to me like they’re spying on you,’ Ella said.

‘Did I say spying? You’re making me out to be paranoid now!’

‘Sorry!’ She spread her hands, disowning the accusation.

‘Jan had a long chat with Saffron,’ Franz mused. ‘I wonder if that had something to do with it.’

Ella stifled a yawn. ‘Ask Saffron?’

‘I might do that.’

Ella rubbed his shoulders. ‘Okay, babe? You want to meditate?’ When he hesitated, she said, ‘Or make love?’

He looked her in the eyes. ‘You’re tired,’ he said, ‘aren’t you?’

‘I’m okay. My stomach’s a bit weird,’ she admitted.

‘What do you need?’

‘I guess I should meditate for a while,’ she said. ‘I’ve kind of let it slip recently.’

‘We both have,’ said Franz. ‘That’s probably why I got angry this evening.’

‘Mm.’ She was settling herself into position, straightening her back, crossing her legs, closing her eyes, opening her hands. She sounded unconvinced. As Franz slid from the bed to the floor and sat cross-legged likewise, she murmured, ‘You sure that vicar guy didn’t remind you of anyone?’

He had already closed his eyes and was taking long breaths, exhaling audibly, so she didn’t expect an answer. But he heard the answer inside his own head: he reminded you of you; that’s why you couldn’t stand the sight of him.

Meditation followed by sex ensured that he slept until morning. He woke from a strangely disturbing dream in which hordes of crabs scuttling over a cliff edge dropped, not into the sea, but on to the rocks where they smashed to pieces, screaming. He didn’t know what it meant and had no inclination to ask Saffron the dream counsellor for an interpretation.

Ella was up before him, sitting on the floor meditating again. She looked pale but her face was serene. Franz walked round her quietly and went to get dressed in the bathroom so he wouldn’t disturb her. He prepared her hot water and his peppermint tea, cut slices of oatmeal bread, juiced mango with beansprouts and celery, and set out Ella’s jars of vitamin and mineral supplements.

He drank his tea standing up, checking his phone for email, voicemail and text messages, took one bite of bread as a concession to Ella’s insistence on the value of eating breakfast, and swallowed a vitamin pill at random from the nearest jar without looking to see what it was.

A rash of text messages had appeared overnight, mostly from guides wanting to speak to him today and giving a brief advance warning of what it was about. Franz operated an open door drop-in policy rather than an appointments system, finding it was self-limiting. If one guide’s complaints risked being heard by the next person who walked through the door, they tended to be more circumspect. And if a number of people hovered in the corridor, waiting for their chance to drop in as soon as the first person left, the one in the office tended to keep it short.

Under an appointments system a complainant might have to wait several days to see Franz – days in which a complaint that could be pacified in five minutes if tackled immediately would simmer and rise like yeast to proportions that would justify using up half an hour of Franz’s time.

The drop-in system did mean that unless Franz was actually out of the office, his time there was a series of constant interruptions. It was one reason why his most concentrated work was often done in the evening, though the guides of the evening courses would often call in before the session started or – if he hadn’t gone home by 10 pm – after it finished.

But Franz had found there was a positive side to not knowing when he was going to be interrupted. An informal visit could reasonably be terminated by him when the phone rang (‘Do you mind if I answer this – I think it might be urgent?’), or conversely a phone call could be terminated because someone had come into the office and needed attention.

To compensate for limiting the duration of their visit, Franz ensured that he gave each person complete attention for the time they were in contact with him. He was a good listener, good at hearing what people said and what they wanted to say and were not saying because they couldn’t find the words to explain, so most people left feeling confident that he had absorbed the information they conveyed.

When he noted that one of the messages was from Sharma, however, Franz frowned. The message read, ‘May I have some time with you when you are available?’ and was signed formally, ‘R. Sharma.

Franz decided to show it to Ella. Simple though the message was, he was not sure what it meant. When you are available? Sharma knew Franz’s system of no appointments and no taboos. He could say what he liked, any time. Why send a message to ask for time with him?

Ella appeared, looking dazed, and drank in silence. Franz felt disinclined to trouble her but he needed to go and there were issues that had to be cleared.

‘There’s another forum this evening,’ he said.

‘I know. I walked past and saw the sign. You’re running one every night this week.’

‘I’m just trying it out this way. It won’t necessarily happen every time.’

‘You’re doing it so that reflexologists don’t have to brush shoulders with tarot readers?’

‘Right.’ He laughed, hoping she would join him, but she didn’t.

‘Don’t take this wrong,’ she said hesitantly, ‘but if you ever want to leave, I’ll stand by you, you know.’

‘Leave?’

‘The Healing Place. If you ever want to – you know – just walk away. You don’t have to talk to me first or anything.’

‘Leave The Healing Place? Are you serious?’

‘Okay, I’ve just said it so you know I’d back you, whatever.’

‘Whatever makes you think …?’

‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing. I had a weird dream, that’s all. All right? Go!’

‘Are you feeling okay, Ella?’

‘I’m fine,’ she said, standing up and leaving her breakfast uneaten. ‘See you tonight, Franz. Really. Go!’

‘See you.’ It wasn’t his imagination. She didn’t look well. ‘I’ll call you when I’ve finished for the day,’ he said. ‘Before the forum starts. Might have time to drop home for a while.’

‘You’ve got meetings from five till seven, with the accountant and then those businessmen,’ she reminded him.

‘I forgot. I’ll phone you at the shop this afternoon then.’

She came over and kissed him. ‘See you tonight.’

He hesitated. ‘I had this text from Sharma.’ He showed her.

She read it and frowned. ‘That’s serious, Franz, isn’t it? Asking for an appointment? You’d better allow him some time when you won’t be interrupted. Why don’t you invite him back here between seven and eight? I can leave you some food ready and make myself scarce?’

‘Thanks for the thought but I don’t mix work and home,’ Franz said. ‘I can’t make an exception for one person and treat the rest differently.’

‘You made an exception for me,’ Ella pointed out.

He smiled and kissed her. ‘You’re different.’

‘So is Sharma, isn’t he?’

‘Because he’s been there longer than most?’

‘Because he’s genuine,’ Ella said. Her phone started ringing. Franz, who had opened his mouth to question her surprising comment, closed it again as she picked up the phone and answered. ‘Hi, Maz. Can you hold on a second?’

Putting her hand over it, she said, ‘Shall I do that, then – leave some food ready?’

Normally decisive, he faltered. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what he wants to talk about. It might not take much time.’

‘You don’t have much time,’ Ella reminded him. ‘Meetings till seven, forum at eight. Yes?’

‘Okay. Thanks. Don’t worry about leaving us space, though. I’d appreciate your input.’

She considered this. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave the two of you alone. Franz – you will listen to whatever it is that he says, won’t you?’

He was hurt. ‘I always listen.’

‘Yes, but – take it on board. Believe him.’

‘Do you know what it’s about, then? He’s said something to you?’

‘No. But if it’s about you, and you don’t agree with him, still think about it. He might have something. Okay, Maz?’ she said into the phone. ‘Sure, no problem. See you later. She wants me to open up the shop so she can go straight to the wholesaler’s,’ she told Franz. ‘I’d better go. See you later.’

It would be much later, he realized, and was surprised at the pang of desolation he felt. Walking down the street now, he wondered what had prompted Ella to give him that permission to cut loose from The Healing Place if he wanted. It was his lifetime achievement, surely? Had she said it because she resented his long absences and preoccupation with work, or because she sensed he was getting bored?

He focused his mind on the day’s tasks as he entered the building by the alleyway and took the stairs to his office two at a time. He needed to check the admissions from last night’s forum to see how many hours he could allocate to the new one-day workshop sessions held at weekends, which were proving popular.

Assertiveness And Self-Empowerment was less in favour than it had been a year ago. Perhaps people were generally more assertive now and didn’t feel the need to be taught it. Franz was considering reducing it from a full day to a half-day or evening session. Contact Your Guardian Angel, on the other hand, was oversubscribed and a second class had been scheduled. If the two Angel guides had been willing to work in harmony, he would have allocated space for one combined class all day Saturday, but previous communication with the Angelic leaders restricted the options to separate rooms and only an evening slot. He was pondering the logistics of this when a knock came at his open office door. No one ever knocked except Sharma, who mistrusted informality.

‘Hi, Sharma,’ he said absently, not looking up from the list he was holding.

‘Hi, Franz.’

Not Sharma after all, but Phil the vicar. Franz felt his breathing halt in mid-intake.

‘I hope I’m not disturbing you,’ Phil said. ‘The receptionist told me to come straight up.’

Franz, who had come in by the private side entrance, tried to recall which receptionist was on duty this morning. Informal was one thing; sending vicars up to his office without warning was something else.

‘That’s cool,’ said Franz.

‘I felt I owed you an apology for last night,’ Phil said. ‘My wife pointed out I’d been tactless, and she was quite right. Walking into one of your admissions sessions and waltzing off with one of your applicants. It didn’t occur to me how offensive that was. I apologize.’

‘Not a problem,’ Franz said stiffly. ‘And insincerely,’ he heard that unwelcome inner voice comment.

‘We do have a slight connection with Jacqui, but you weren’t to know that. I handled it badly.’

‘A connection?’

‘My wife Jan is a community worker. She has a lot to do with the Emmetts Lane estate.’

‘The tower blocks behind the station?’

‘Yes. Jacqui doesn’t live on the estate but a friend of hers does. Every time Jan saw her, Jacqui had a black eye or bruises. Her friend said she was living with a man and trying to escape. Finally she left but the guy followed her, beat her up and landed her in Intensive Care.’

‘How long ago was that?’ Franz asked. No wonder the girl had been shaky.

‘A couple of weeks. He’s been arrested but she’s scared to go home. He threatened to set his mates on her.’

‘Is she homeless, then?’

‘She can stay at her friend’s but she’s scared to go out or answer the door while her friend’s out at work. Last night was an attempt, she said, to get some kind of life back – take up a new interest, do something for herself.’

‘She left without signing up for anything,’ Franz said. He had checked.

‘I don’t think she’s in much of a state to study anything just yet,’ Phil said. ‘Jan saw her crying and asked if she could help. She came home with us for the night.’

‘Isn’t that blurring the professional boundaries somewhat?’ said Franz.

Phil gave a wry smile. ‘I don’t know that I’d call what I do professional, exactly. Was Jesus a professional?’

‘So you’re going to give Jacqui the Jesus treatment, are you?’ Franz said.

‘You don’t like the sound of that name,’ Phil observed.

‘I don’t like some of the shit that’s said and done in that name,’ said Franz smoothly.

‘Neither do I,’ Phil said. ‘And I’m not into forcible conversion or kidnapping people. Jan’s contacting Jacqui’s sister this morning to see if she’ll have her to stay – get her out of the area. I just wanted to explain that if you don’t see her back here, that’s the reason. No reflection on you. Or on us,’ he added.

‘And is that the reason your wife left without signing up for the course she came here to do?’ Franz challenged.

Phil hesitated. ‘No,’ he said. ‘She wanted time to think it over.’

‘There’s a problem?’ Franz asked. He felt more in control now.

‘Jan’s interested in aromatherapy and therapeutic massage,’ said Phil. ‘One of the old ladies on the estate had been given a voucher by her daughter for some aromatherapy sessions and she found they helped her to sleep. She’d have liked to continue but couldn’t afford it, so Jan thought she might train in it herself and offer free sessions to her elderly clients.’

Franz nodded. It wouldn’t break The Healing Place if one vicar’s wife gave free treatment to a few old people locally. ‘But?’ he prompted.

‘But … she had a talk with – Sharon, was it?’

‘Saffron.’

‘With Saffron, about other subjects offered here – clairvoyance, tarot, things that come within the range of what we’d call the occult. Saffron told Jan that there isn’t such a clear dividing line – that many complementary therapies have their roots in philosophies that might come under the heading of occult or pagan. Secret knowledge, hidden wisdom, I suppose it might claim to be.’ He paused and waited for Franz’s reaction.

‘The approach here is holistic,’ Franz told him, ‘so nothing can be separated from the spiritual. So, yes – aromatherapy, clairvoyance, all the other disciplines offered here may seem very different from each other but they have that in common: they cater for the whole person, physical and spiritual. Is that an issue?’

‘As a Christian, I’d say it is. The message of Christ is open to everyone, nothing hidden or cryptic or just for the chosen few.’

‘And as a human being?’ Franz asked.

‘As a human being, I’d say that anything that makes people aware of life as spiritual as well as physical has to be good but that doesn’t mean that everything spiritual is good. Bad spirit generally doesn’t appear as sinister or unnatural; it’s attractive and its arguments are plausible. But that doesn’t make it true, or the pursuit of it healthy for seekers after truth.’

‘Not every seeker who comes here is seeking ultimate truth,’ Franz said. ‘We believe in letting people find their own truth, not telling them what they should believe. That’s treating people like children.’

‘Perhaps we are all children,’ Phil said, ‘where evil’s concerned. I’m coming from a different place: I get to see people who have innocently got involved in occult stuff, found it exciting or soothing or whatever it was they were hoping for, but ultimately it resulted in just the opposite – losing their true selves.’

Franz noted that Phil looked worried, his brow creased. He can’t be anywhere near forty, Franz thought, but those lines are already quite deep. He doesn’t take care of his health, obviously. A smoker and a worrier.

Franz smiled, feeling youthful and liberal by comparison. ‘I’m not a psychologist,’ he said. ‘But I’d still rather let people find their own way and think for themselves.’

‘Certainly,’ Phil agreed. ‘But if the instructors – guides, do you call them? – who are influencing people here don’t believe in the absolute power of a good God, then what is the power source of their activities? Or do they think it comes from themselves?’

‘Different guides quote different names for their power source,’ Franz told him. ‘They think they’re all very distinct from each other.’ He grinned. ‘Like Protestants and Catholics, in your field!’

Phil smiled. ‘That’s not such an issue these days. Mediating young people’s worship styles with elderly organists, now that’s difficult!’

Franz laughed. This guy wasn’t as stuffy as he seemed.

‘But what are they?’ Phil asked. ‘Their sources of power?’

‘Whatever they like to call them,’ Franz said. ‘Nature, Odin, Buddha, angels, Gaia, life force, natural energy, chi, ley lines, chakras, spirit guides. What does it matter as long as people grow spiritually?’

‘Everything except Jesus,’ Phil said thoughtfully.

‘Oh, we can do Jesus too!’ Franz assured him. ‘Some people use the image of a historical Jesus as their focus for meditation; some believe in the Jesus-concept within each person; many of the ethnic Hindus here are happy to add Jesus to their list of deities. We don’t leave anybody out, that’s our policy here – not even Jesus Christ!’

If he had expected Phil to join in the laughter now, he was disappointed. The guy had gone back to stuffy, evidently. What was it about the Jesus thing that made otherwise reasonable people’s sense of humour evaporate?

‘Is this place jointly owned by all the staff, or is it yours?’ Phil asked.

‘It’s in my name, which means a lot of it belongs to loan companies, in my name,’ said Franz. ‘The admin staff are on salary and the therapists are self-employed; they pay according to their use of the facilities. Some of them use our forums and our publicity material as a shop-front to attract clients then see them at home or in other premises but most rent space and equipment here as well. All the courses and workshops are run in this building: we arrange them, do the pre-publicity and the technical backup, with the guides – course leaders – taking the profits after paying us their fees.’

‘It’s a big investment for one person,’ said Phil. ‘I’d have sleepless nights.’

‘It’ll pay for itself in four years at the present rate and we’ve been going for two already,’ Franz said.

‘No – I mean, yes, of course, the debt,’ Phil said, ‘but I was thinking more of the responsibility for people’s lives. Our fields of work are alike in that we both attract the vulnerable. What’s the most controversial subject you offer here, would you say?’

Franz shrugged. ‘Depends who you ask.’ The phone had rung five times since Phil came in but he left it on message-taking. The discussion interested him, or rather the man’s interest in Franz himself drew him to continue the conversation. Guides and seekers were both usually too absorbed in what they could get from The Healing Place to consider its director’s responsibilities.

‘Reiki practitioners look down on spiritualist healers, who in turn don’t like natural healers who rely on intuition. Our most successful clairvoyant, Sharma, hates spiritism, séances, tarot reading, runes, divination and just about anything he considers occult. And everybody hates Wicca, as far as I can gather, so we have to locate ….’

‘Wicca?’ Phil interrupted. ‘As in witchcraft? You allow that here?’

‘We allow all people to follow their own path,’ said Franz. ‘That’s the whole ethos of The Healing Place. We don’t judge.’

‘And if it turns out to be harmful, the buck stops where – with you?’ Phil asked.

Out of the corner of his eye Franz caught a movement in the corridor and saw Sharma turn away from the doorway.

‘Excuse me,’ said Franz. ‘Someone wants to see me. And for the record – no one gets harmed here, okay? They get help, in whatever form they choose to seek it.’

Phil held out his hand. ‘Thanks for your time. And for accepting my apology. It is accepted?’

Franz was about to deny again that there had been a problem, but decided on honesty. ‘I overreacted,’ he said gruffly.

‘It’s hard not to, sometimes,’ said Phil, ‘when you care about people as we do. Would you mind if I prayed for you?’

Franz gave a short laugh. ‘Why not, if it means something to you?’

He had half turned away when he realized that Phil meant here and now; the man had his arm around Franz’s shoulder. As he had the night before, Franz felt a rush of rage. The gesture was one of his own stock-in-trade – the brotherly arm around the shoulders. He resented being the receiver of it. But Phil had his eyes closed and was already praying. Aloud.

‘Father God, you created this man out of your love and you have called him by his own name. Give him protection as he walks this tightrope in the dark alone; keep him from harm and lead him into the way you have chosen for him, in Jesus’ name. Amen. Bye, Franz, hope we meet again.’

He was gone. Sharma, coming in from the corridor after him, found Franz shaking with rage.

‘Is something wrong?’

‘Religion,’ said Franz. ‘It makes me sick. Literally. But never mind him. I got your message, Sharm. How can I help?’

‘I’m taking some names off my list from last night’s registration,’ Sharma said. ‘The three girls you brought.’

Franz nodded. As he suspected, Sharma had taken offence at his joky encouragement of the girls who signed up because they fancied the tutor. Sharma was a good bloke but took himself too seriously at times. He would call Ella and tell her there was no need for him to bring Sharma home this evening. The matter could be dealt with right now.

‘I apologize, Sharma,’ he said, getting in before Sharma’s inevitable censure of his conduct. ‘I was out of line last night. My attitude was inappropriate and unprofessional and if it caused you problems, of course you don’t have to accept them on your course. I’ll contact them and recommend another course.’

It was good to swallow that grain of pride. If vicar Phil could apologize, Franz could too. But Sharma was looking at the floor, not meeting Franz’s eyes.

‘I told them there was no room for them on the course,’ Sharma said. ‘It was not true, obviously.’

‘Okay. I won’t say anything that would give them the opposite impression. Is that your worry?’

Sharma still didn’t look at him. ‘I spared them the truth because I didn’t want to hurt the young women’s feelings, but they wouldn’t make genuine students and they would distract the others. And disturb my own peace.’

‘Sure. And I shouldn’t have encouraged them. But another time, Sharma, don’t send any seekers away. If you don’t want them for any reason, call me over at the forum and say something along the lines of, “Franz, these promising young women wouldn’t achieve their full spiritual potential on this course so would you recommend something more suited to them?”’

Sharma gave him an oblique look.

Franz was not in the mood to be sensitive. ‘You know what the policy is on situations that guides find awkward to handle: call me in and allow me to deal with it. Come on, Sharma – what am I here for?’

Sharma opened his mouth to answer then appeared to think better of it.

‘Did you say I would contact them, or have we just lost three clients?’ Franz asked.

‘I doubt that The Healing Place has lost their custom,’ Sharma said. ‘I heard one of them mention coming back tonight to sign up for “a go in the flotation tank or something.”’ His tone was dry.

Franz looked at him directly. ‘Next time you don’t want a client, bring them back to me, all right?’

‘Right.’ Sharma’s face was closed.

‘You’re one of The Healing Place’s most valuable assets, Sharm,’ said Franz. He found he had moved alongside the man and put an arm around his shoulders. He dropped his arm quickly, remembering his own reaction to Phil. ‘Of course I don’t want you to compromise your integrity. I was flippant with those girls and it wasn’t appropriate. Apology accepted?’

It was a good phrase. Even if it had come from a Church of England cleric. Franz held out his hand and Sharma shook it, without enthusiasm.

‘Everything cool with you otherwise, Sharm? Was there something else you wanted to talk about?’

‘I’m okay, Franz. By the way, you know about the crack in the ceiling of the auditorium?’

‘What crack?’

‘The big one. From the far left corner as you come in from the street, halfway across the ceiling. It’s getting wider.’

‘Probably the plaster shrinking. It does that, the first year or two. But I’ll take a look. Thanks.’

First Ella this morning talking about Franz walking away from The Healing Place, then Phil asking about the extent of his investment, now Sharma spotting cracks – what were they all worrying about, Franz asked himself? You’d think none of them had heard of positive thinking. He glanced down at the lists in his hand and checked the registration for Positive Thinking – The Path To Achieving Your Full Life-Potential, and found it reassuringly fully booked.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

Franz’s early evening meeting, with the human resources director of a multinational company seeking relaxation and motivation courses for its executives, went on longer than planned. Franz left the meeting with a block booking in the diary, and left the director floating blissfully belly-up in the basement flotation pool.

He had changed ready for this evening’s forum and was on his way to the SoulFood Cafe to grab a halloumi tortilla when he was waylaid by a group of young people in school uniform who, spotting the white suit, thought he must be the person to ask which course would teach them to cast spells. Silently cursing Harry Potter, he escorted the spellbound young people to the front door, assuring them that as long as their parents gave written assent they would all be welcome to return. From experience, he expected they would be back the next day with forged notes (signed Mr or Mrs – a sure giveaway) stating that the signatories were happy and willing for their children to become trainee witches.

The receptionists were instructed to respond to any young person by picking up the phone to contact their parent to confirm the letter, at which point the boy or girl would mutter something about an urgent need to be somewhere else right now and would not return.

It was only when the forum was well under way that Franz remembered he hadn’t phoned Ella and told her not to prepare a meal for Sharma and himself at home after all. He tried to phone home but the landline was engaged and her mobile was switched off. He sent a text message and didn’t persuade himself that that would be good enough but when he arrived home at eleven pm ready to apologize Ella seemed unconcerned.

‘That’s okay; I thought something like that must have happened,’ she said vaguely and went back to checking the laptop at the kitchen table. The shop was engaged in stocktaking. Bringing work home was something Franz had agreed not to do and he felt mildly upset that Ella was doing it, though he had never asked her not to and he had been out all evening. Still, he half-expected her to stop work when he came in. When she didn’t, he offered her a drink and went to help himself.

‘No thanks,’ she said absently, her finger poised over a spreadsheet.

‘Everything all right?’

‘Fine. The food was all stuff that could go back in the fridge, so help yourself if you want.’

‘Thanks. This looks delicious,’ he said, with guilt. ‘How about you?’

‘I’ve eaten, thanks. You go ahead.’

Something was definitely wrong. They were being polite. Was she actually really annoyed about his not phoning to save her the trouble of preparing food? It was unlikely, he thought. Ella was extraordinarily tolerant of his unpredictable schedule and never regarded any arrangement as fixed. Besides, she spoke her mind. If she was pissed off with him she would say so.

Seating himself on the sofa with a plateful of food, he studied her covertly. She looked pale. Time of the month? He couldn’t remember her dates. It was a time of year of course when nobody was in the best health but Ella rarely got even minor ailments. He hoped she was not sick.

‘So what happened with Sharma?’ she asked, closing down the screen and pushing her chair back.

‘Oh, it turned out to be simple. Some seekers who weren’t suitable for his course. My fault.’

‘Why yours?’

‘I talked them into it. I wanted to get the numbers made up and the evening over with, if I’m honest.’ He sounded weary.

‘He didn’t have anything else he wanted to say to you, then?’

‘I don’t think so. I did ask him if there was anything else I could help with.’

‘It might be more a question of him helping you,’ Ella suggested. She leaned back in the chair, arching her back, and swept her swathe of long hair over one shoulder. The movement, practical in purpose, was graceful in effect. Franz smiled, watching her.

‘I need help, do I?’ he said.

She sat forward suddenly, her eyes focused and serious. ‘Oh yes, I’d say you do.’

‘Huh?’ He was still smiling, not believing she meant it. ‘Why – help with what?’

‘With being real,’ she said. ‘I’ve known you a year and a half, Franz, I live with you and I don’t know you any more than anyone else does. Do you realize how evasive you are?’

‘Evasive?’

‘Think about it,’ she invited. ‘The answers you give when people ask you questions about yourself. The fact that you have a foster sister and you never even mentioned her to me. I still don’t know where you were born, which school you went to, who your friends were. What you think. How you feel.’

He stopped eating, no longer hungry. ‘You know how I feel about you. Don’t you?’

‘That’s not what I’m saying, Franz. I know who you are in the present day. And you seem to have clear ideas about your future. But most of your life happened before I met you and you never mention any details. It makes me feel you don’t trust me.’

‘That’s not true,’ he said quickly. ‘I do trust you.’

‘So?’

‘So?’ He looked her in the eyes and smiled. ‘The man with no yesterday! Maybe there’s nothing to tell, Ella. No mysterious past. Just not a very interesting one. I prefer to live in the present.’

She was silent, keeping her eyes on his face.

He stood up and took his plate to the sink and washed it. Behind him, he heard her gathering up papers.

‘Think I’ll take a shower,’ he said, moving towards the door. ‘Unless you want to go first?’

‘No, I’ll have one in the morning. Franz?’

He stood still but did not turn around. ‘Yes.’

‘You might try asking Sharma. If he had something else he wanted to say to you.’

There was a pause so momentary it was no more than a breath.

Then, ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll do that.’

At the week’s final forum on Friday evening, Franz found himself distracted. Numbers of seekers were down this evening, though given the crowds earlier in the week that was no cause for concern, he told himself; besides, Friday was traditionally an evening for binge drinking, not signing up for Tai Chi and astrology.

The week had gone well, all in all. Franz’s intervention had softened an exchange of hostilities between the rival guides of Relaxation – The Antidote To Stress, and Harmony Through Biorhythm Monitoring.

Sharma had acquired four late registrations by email, which enabled him to run the Introduction To Clairvoyance course for two full-size groups on consecutive evenings. And most of the other courses were running at full capacity, which ensured extra income for The Healing Place to rely on for the ceiling repair.

That was a major cause of Franz’s distraction this evening. Every time he glanced upwards he couldn’t help thinking the crack was longer, deeper or wider. He took a deep breath, remembering the admonitions of positive thinking and silently reciting the daily personal affirmations: ‘I am in control of my destiny. I am a strong and capable person. There are no problems, only challenges.’ For some reason, he could only hear them in a Homer Simpson voice.

‘Franz.’

She had to say his name twice before he heard her.

‘Marisa. What are you doing here this evening? Your forum night was Tuesday, wasn’t it?’

‘Monday. You sent me those three boys.’

‘Oh, I remember.’ He thought he did.

‘They wouldn’t stop making sexist jokes about masseuses,’ Marisa said.

‘They didn’t sign up for the course in the end, then?’

‘They did. So did that guy Matthew, the one who kept going on about his erotic dreams.’

Franz laughed. ‘Erotic, were they? I couldn’t work out what he was talking about.’

‘You might think it’s funny,’ said Marisa.

He stopped laughing. ‘Sorry. What?’

‘Those boys followed me home. Shouting offensive remarks about my tits.’

‘Did they hurt you?’

‘Not physically.’

‘Okay. I’m sorry that happened to you, Marisa. Leave it to me now: I’ll check their registration forms and call them and make it clear that they’re no longer on for your course, and offer to redirect them to some other form of ….’

‘They’re in hospital,’ Marisa interrupted him.

‘They’re what?’

‘My dad thumped them.’

‘Marisa, you can’t do this! You’re aiming to be a holistic therapist, responsible for introducing a gentler, more spiritual approach to life. Besides, The Healing Place could be sued – had you thought about that?’

‘Tough shit,’ said Marisa. ‘If you think I’m going to be pursued by thugs that this Healing Place sets on to me …’

Franz was stung. ‘The Healing Place is open to everyone,’ he pointed out. ‘For mutual benefit. Before you approached The Healing Place, you had how many clients on board?’

‘Two,’ she said. ‘Both of them genuine.’

‘Your brother’s girlfriend and your cousin. And how many were queuing up to register with you at the forum? Not one.’

Marisa appeared to have stopped listening and was gesturing to someone across the room. It was easy enough to spot the man she was waving at: he was head and shoulders above anyone else there and built like a rhinoceros.

‘There’s my dad,’ Marisa told Franz. ‘He wants a word with you.’

‘And I’d love to meet him too,’ Franz said, ‘sometime when I’m not so busy.’

He had almost reached the door at the back of the hall when the force of a giant hand landed on his shoulder.

‘Mr Kane?’

Franz turned, with deep reluctance and what he hoped was a smile. ‘Hello! You must be Marisa’s father?’

‘Marisa, she may call herself to you. Maria, her mother and I baptized her and it’s always been good enough for us.’ The man’s accent was strongly Irish.

‘You’re from County Kerry?’ Franz hazarded.

‘What if I am? You’re going to make jokes about Kerrymen now?’

‘A wonderful part of the world,’ said Franz warmly. ‘Greatly underrated by the Irish from other regions but unique in the beauty of its scenery.’

‘You’re right enough there,’ the man allowed. ‘The most beautiful place on God’s earth.’

‘And the hospitable and generous nature of its people,’ Franz continued, ‘has to be experienced to be believed.’

‘You’ve been there?’

‘Many years ago – too young to remember place names,’ Franz said, ‘but the magical nature of the area stays in my memory. And its kindly and understanding people.’

‘It’s only the truth,’ the man agreed.

‘You must miss it?’ Franz said.

A huge sigh escaped from the massive chest, releasing a strong aroma of whisky.

‘I do, that,’ Marisa’s father admitted. ‘Thirty years I’ve been over here and never a day when I haven’t thought of home and longed to be back there.’

‘You came for the work, I imagine?’

‘I did. There was plenty of it then. A man could arrive on the boat, get himself on a coach to London, turn up at six o’clock in the morning at the first building site he set eyes on and be certain of getting hired for as long as the job lasted. It’s not like that these days.’

‘Not like that now, certainly,’ Franz echoed.

‘It’s a week here, a few days there and half the time you’re expected to do the whole job on your own, not even an apprentice to mix the plaster for you.’

‘You’re a plasterer?’ Franz said.

‘Man and boy. And I’m good!’ he asserted. ‘I’m one of the best in the trade and if I can’t get work, who can?’

‘I wonder,’ said Franz, taking the man gingerly by the elbow, ‘if you might give me the opinion of an experienced professional on this crack in the ceiling that seems to have appeared?’

To his relief, the man looked up where he pointed and shuffled sideways across the room, surveying the crack from different angles. People moved out of his way. In the distance, Franz spied Marisa watching the two of them. She looked puzzled.

‘That’s a bad enough crack you’ve got there,’ her father pronounced, looking down at Franz.

‘Poor quality plastering, you reckon?’ Franz suggested.

‘That’s not plastering, that old crack. Not at all. What have you got above this hall? Any heavy equipment or anything?’

‘Meeting space and treatment rooms. Mostly empty. Some with couches, storage cabinets, nothing heavier than that. The flotation tank is in the basement.’

‘That’s not it, then. I’d have to take a look. You want to take me upstairs?’

A wholly inappropriate bubble of laughter stirred in Franz’s gut. He suppressed it. ‘That would be very kind of you,’ he said instead. ‘By the way, we haven’t properly met. Franz Kane.’ He extended his hand and hoped.

‘Mick Murphy.’

The hand was returned to him, pulped. Franz breathed a sigh of relief. He opened the door with his intact hand and said, ‘After you. Stairs on the right.’

He was just in time to stop Marisa from hurling herself at her dad as he went ahead.

‘No,’ Franz said, quietly and firmly. ‘I’ll handle this.’

‘Don’t go outside with him! He’ll hurt you!’

‘I can take care of myself,’ he said heroically.

Upstairs, Mick Murphy, in giant-sized steelcapped boots, jumped up and down on the polished floorboards, listening for groans in the joists. The only groans were inward ones, heard by Franz alone.

‘It’s not your joists,’ Mick pronounced.

‘Good.’

‘It’s not good. You’d want it to be your joists, if you consider the alternatives,’ Mick said darkly. ‘Did you remove a load-bearing wall below here at all?’

‘The whole place was gutted. We only kept the side and back walls and the air venting and ducting system and updated the underfloor heating.’ Franz told him. ‘It used to be a cinema with a couple of shops behind it.’

‘I remember it,’ Mick said. ‘Stood empty for years, didn’t it?’

‘Before my time,’ said Franz. ‘It was derelict when I bought it,’ he added, not without pride. ‘A damp empty shell. Bit of a difference now, heh?’

Mick’s face was creased with worry. ‘You got in an architect?’

‘Of course! Architect, planning authorities, project manager, building regulations inspectors, subcontractors in everything.’

‘You see these walls here aren’t solid,’ said Mick, slamming his fist into the pastel paintwork. The wall shuddered but didn’t give way.

‘They’re movable partition walls,’ Franz said. ‘For flexibility.’

‘They wouldn’t cause a crack in the downstairs ceiling, so,’ said Mick accusingly.

‘No, I wouldn’t have thought so.’

Mick gave the floor one more jump. A crystal strung from the ceiling detached itself, fell to the ground and splintered.

‘It’s not your joists,’ Mick repeated. He stood lost in thought among the crystal fragments. Finally he said, ‘I could get my brother to take a look.’

Franz didn’t feel enthusiastic about closer contact with Marisa’s family. ‘I should get back to the original builder.’

‘You might have to do that,’ Mick agreed. ‘If you have to sue somebody.’

‘You think it’s that bad?’ I am in control of my destiny, Franz repeated to himself, positively. I am strengthened and invigorated by challenges.

‘Could well be.’

Mick preceded him down the stairs and back into the hall. Registration had almost finished. A few seekers lingered by one or two of the desks, talking to guides. Guides of less popular subjects had already packed up and gone home.

The Guardian Angels stand still had a host of hangers-on waiting in the wings for a chat with its guide; the small group around Mystic Symbols in Rope Weaving was unravelling and trailing towards the door, and the Know Your Aura stand had dimmed its lights. Franz reminded himself to go back upstairs before he went home, to retrieve the fragments of crystal from the floor of the meeting room. He had a feeling that Trance Dancing had a session booked in that room for tomorrow evening and the dancers would be barefoot and mindless of risk.

Marisa was waiting for her father by the door. ‘I hope you resolved the issues,’ she said.

‘Nothing that can’t be resolved over a Guiness,’ said Mick. He clapped Franz on the back, sending him staggering. ‘In Gallagher’s Bar on the corner.’

Franz looked from Mick’s face to Marisa’s and assessed that refusal was not an option. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘You get them in and I’ll pay. I’ll just lock up here then I’ll join you.’

‘We’ll wait,’ said Mick. ‘Outside.’

Franz moved swiftly between the desks, collecting spare registration forms and discarded leaflets, ushering the remaining guides towards the receptionists to double-check their lists, and directing the lingering seekers towards the main door.

Once the last person had left the hall, Franz collected the folders from Alan, one of the receptionists, and asked him to remain on the premises until he returned. Going out through the back door of the hall he locked it behind him before going upstairs to his office. Having locked the office door behind him as well, he opened the safe behind the large picture of a woman in flowing robes and bare feet surrounded by dolphins and unicorns, pushed the sheaf of papers and payments into it and locked it again.

He stood upright, stretched his arms upwards, then bent forward from the waist and touched the floor, remaining there for a few seconds. He straightened up slowly, took a deep breath, then went back to the hall and thanked the yawning receptionist. A couple of female seekers approached him, smiling and linking their arms through his, and he waltzed them into the street and twisted deftly out of their grip to lock the doors.

As the seekers let go, his arm was seized by Mick, and Franz found himself half-escorted, half-carried to the corner where the noise from Gallagher’s Bar spilled into the street. Too late, he remembered the shattered crystal on the floor and made a mental note to check on it first thing next morning, in case the cleaners overlooked it.

To his relief, what was left of the evening passed without incident. Marisa relaxed, Mick downed pints and told anecdotes about the various bosses he’d had on building sites, and the three of them, joined for a while by a few of Mick’s mates, ended up laughing at Mick’s stories.

The only break in the harmony occurred after they left the pub, with Mick’s broad shoulders swathing a path through the crowded bar, and had walked some way down the road towards the station. A man emerging from the pub stopped and stared after them, then shouted, ‘Mick!’

‘Who’s that, Dad?’ Marisa asked him.

Mick shook his head. ‘Don’t know him.’

‘Mick! You remember me! Pat Quinn!’

‘Keep walking, if you don’t know him,’ Franz said. He took Mick’s arm and increased his pace. Mick walked on, his long stride making Franz and Marisa almost run to keep up with him.

They could hear the man shouting, from a distance now.

‘Mick! Micky Finn!’

‘A drop too much taken,’ said Franz, assuming an Irish accent that made Marisa giggle.

‘Are you Irish yourself?’ Mick asked.

‘Am I ‘eck as like!’ said Franz in phony Lancashire.

‘And where in the name of God d’ye get a name like Franz?’

‘I’m cosmopolitan,’ Franz told him. They parted at the entrance to the station, with painful slaps on the back from Mick, a hug from Marisa, and smiles and handshakes from Franz.

Franz watched them go down the steps and then headed for home at a brisk pace. As he walked he let out a huge sigh, as though he had been holding his breath all evening.

The flat, when he came in, was cold and dark. Ella had been burning geranium oil and there was a smell of something cooked with garlic but there was no sign of Ella.

She usually left a message on his phone or at least a note on the hall floor if she was going out. But then, he usually phoned her to say he was on his way home and tonight he had been so keen to humour Mick that he hadn’t even tried to call her. The cold blackened dish of mushroom roast, congealing on the kitchen table, told him he should have done.

Franz went to the bathroom cabinet and searched for indigestion remedies. He hadn’t drunk so much in one evening since he was eighteen. Fourteen years ago. Still, wind was preferable to spending the night in the Intensive Care Unit after being beaten up by Mick Murphy for letting his daughter be insulted.

Dialling Ella’s friend and colleague Maz’s number, he noticed it was nearly midnight, a bit late to phone. Maz, when she answered, sounded blurred.

‘Yes, Ella is here, Franz. I don’t know if she’ll want to talk to you; she’s been quite upset. Hold on – oh, okay, she’s just coming. Bye.’

He bit his lip and prepared to apologize but Ella didn’t sound resentful.

‘Are you all right, Franz?’

‘Yes, I’m sorry, Ell, I just got home. Had a difficult encounter with a Kerryman.’

‘A what?’

‘Marisa’s dad. Some lads followed her home from Monday night’s forum and he beat them up, then came looking for me.’

‘Oh my God!’

‘I’m all right but it took about a gallon of draught Guinness to pacify him. I am sorry, Ella. Maz said you were upset.’

‘Not about you getting home late!’ She sounded indignant. ‘Look, I’ll get a cab now.’

‘Stay with Maz if you like,’ he offered. ‘It’s late and I’ll probably burp all night, or worse, and keep you awake.’

He could have done with a night on his own, with a distended stomach and loaded mind.

‘I’ll come home, if it’s okay with you.’

‘Of course it’s okay.’ He wondered, not for the first time, what made Ella stay with him.

He picked up the pile of last night’s paperwork he had forgotten to take into work this morning and found she had left him a note of sorts, after all. Over the preliminary schedule he had drafted for the coming term’s classes she had scribbled a comment: ‘Shock horror! Franz, you have timetabled the Primal Scream Therapy group at the same time and in the next room to the Psychic Visualization silent meditation group!’

Franz chuckled and resolved to change the venues tomorrow. He appreciated her continuing interest and occasional involvement in his work. He had never admitted to feeling hurt when Ella decided to withdraw from The Healing Place.

Franz had met her there in the early days, when he was buzzing with the risk and excitement of his new venture and she was a holistic therapist looking for more space and better light for her iridology clients than the sitting room of her shared apartment. Already trained as an aromatherapist and nutritionist, she was studying for a qualification in this additional therapy, identifying health problems through changes in the iris of the eye.

Her willingness to embrace new skills made her an ideal mediator in the interminable ‘my way is the only way’ disputes among all the self-proclaimed experts in psycho-spiritual enlightenment, but Franz didn’t know whether the arguments had worn her out, as well as her reservations about some of the courses subsequently introduced. Or maybe it was her difficult situation, being part of the team of guides working freelance under the auspices of The Healing Place, while also becoming the live-in partner of Franz who, when all was said and done, was The Healing Place.

All Ella had said was, ‘This isn’t the place for me to be at this time.’ Either she found this explanation sufficient or else she was keeping her own counsel. One night after she and Franz had made love he took advantage of her sleepy peacefulness to ask whether her feelings about The Healing Place were entirely positive.

‘I suppose no feelings are ever entirely one or the other,’ she had said, her voice muffled against his chest where her dark plaits mingled with the matted black hairs that betrayed the original colour of his silver-white head.

‘Not negative, surely?’ he had teased her, keeping it light. ‘After all that practising positive thinking and personal affirmations?’

She turned over, stretching her back with the luxuriating movement that reminded him of a cat. ‘Of course I think positive. But there’s a point where positive thinking becomes denial, doesn’t it?’ She yawned, not expecting an answer, and said, ‘Goodnight.’

Tonight when she arrived home she looked white but not tearstained or agitated. She resisted his questions about why she had been upset and had gone to see Maz but accepted the offer of a hot drink and curled up on the sofa, leaving space for him to join her.

‘Rosehip or peppermint tea?’ he offered.

‘Have we got any hot chocolate?’

‘Chocolate?’ He laughed. ‘Odd choice for a nutritionist and wholefood store proprietor!’ Rooting in the back of the cupboard he found an old tin of cocoa and made two cups. ‘Full of calories and cholesterol,’ he warned jokingly.

She didn’t answer but took the cup from him and sipped it, her long hair falling forward over her face.

‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ he said.

‘Sure. How was your evening, apart from Marisa’s father?’

‘Good. Not as many seekers as the previous evenings but sufficient to fill all the courses and appointment books.’

‘You look a bit strained,’ Ella said.

‘Do I? Oh, there’s a crack in the ceiling of the main hall. Sharma drew my attention to it. More serious than a crack in the plaster, apparently, or even a weakness in the joists. I’m going to have to get the builder back.’

‘A crack, in a building completely refurbished two years ago? Is that normal?’

‘It would be if they’d removed a load-bearing wall without putting in enough support,’ Franz said.

‘No! But an architect wouldn’t allow that!’

‘I know. And it passed its final inspection. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry.’

‘What would happen if someone had overlooked it, Franz – something as fundamental as that? Are you liable, or ….?’

‘Listen, there’s no hassle. I’m cool about it – really.’

A shaft of something resembling annoyance crossed her face. He was reminded of her comment about positive thinking and denying reality.

‘I’ll deal with it at the first opportunity,’ he promised. ‘I can’t call the builder at this time of night, can I?’

‘No, okay.’ She sipped again then said, studying his face, ‘Did you hear any more about the girl?’

‘Marisa? She wasn’t hurt. The boys came off worse.’

‘No, the other girl. The one you stopped from getting into the vicar’s car the other night.’

‘I didn’t stop her. I shouted out but she didn’t hear anyway; it was the vicar’s wife who did. She sent her husband round to apologize.’

‘He apologized? What for?’

‘For whisking away one of our seekers. He admitted it was insensitive.’

‘That was decent of him,’ Ella said. ‘Why did he whisk her away?’

‘His wife knew her slightly. They thought she needed rescuing so they took it on themselves to take her home for the night and then send her off to stay with her sister. Unwise, I would have said, to get so involved. It would have been better to let her find her own way, do some relaxation therapies or something with us and then decide for herself once she was in a better frame of mind.’

Ella was silent for a few moments. Then she said, ‘Is the vicar’s wife tall and pretty, short hair, big earrings? Called Jan?’

‘Why?’ His tone was suspicious.

‘She came in the shop today. I’ve met her before; she knows Maz. Interested in aromatherapy.’

‘Or said she was. She didn’t sign up for anything.’

‘She asked me today if I’d teach her.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Maz told her I do aromatherapy. She said she’d prefer to learn from me.’

‘Why?’ He seemed to be repeating the same question, sounding even to his own ears increasingly mutinous.

‘I don’t know – maybe she doesn’t like a classroom environment; some people don’t. Maybe she liked me.’ She smiled up at him enticingly. ‘Some people do.’

He refused to be coaxed. ‘I’d stay clear of those people if I were you,’ he said. ‘I think there’s more under the surface than they’re letting you see.’

‘Like most people,’ Ella agreed. ‘Anyway, they can’t be bad if they paid that girl’s fare to go and stay with her sister. All the way to Kingston.’

‘It’s only a bus ride!’ Franz said.

‘Kingston-on-Thames is a bus ride,’ said Ella. ‘Kingston, Jamaica is where the sister lives. Jan had just come back from seeing her off at Heathrow.’

Franz drained his cocoa, forgetting the sludgy anachronistic stuff had dregs. What had made him drink it anyway, especially on top of all that gassy beer?

‘I’m going to bed,’ he said.

‘Don’t you want anything to eat?’

‘No. I’d probably throw up.’

Ella sighed and uncurled herself from the sofa. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice,’ she said, ‘to have a weekend off, just to unwind. And chat about life’s possibilities, without any positive thinking to bugger it up.’

‘Right,’ he said. It didn’t sound relaxing. He hoped she wasn’t about to launch some assault on the carefully balanced schedule that was his life. Especially as his public image and equanimity, as well as his public building, were starting to show signs of cracking.

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

‘Franz, wake up!’

‘What?’ He sat up so suddenly that Ella jumped back from him. ‘What time is it?’ he asked.

‘Two in the morning.’

‘Huh?’

‘Franz, are you all right? You were thrashing about in your sleep and shouting.’

He groaned and lay back on the pillows. ‘You scared me. I thought the building was on fire or something!’

‘Well, you scared me! Were you having a nightmare?’

‘No. Just a dream.’

‘Some dream! What was it about?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘You do! What did Earl tell us at that dream workshop? Recall one detail and start from there. I’ll get the notebook.’

‘Ella. Can’t we just go back to sleep?’

‘No, this is important, Franz. One detail. Come on – think.’

He pretended to think but in fact all the details were horribly clear. He might as well come clean and get it over with.

‘Okay. I was walking along a path and then suddenly it was a rope, above a ravine. Then the lights went out and it was dark.’

Ella was scribbling notes. ‘Very good. What else?’

‘There was a light on the other side of the ravine, with three people standing there.’

‘Do you know who they were?’

‘One was you, one was that vicar bloke – Phil – and a girl.’

‘The girl who went to Jamaica? Who reminded you of your sister?’

‘No,’ he said reluctantly. ‘It was my sister. Rachel.’

Ella looked as though she wanted to ask more questions but bit her lip and said, ‘Keep going.’

‘Phil was praying but it was more like chatting to somebody I couldn’t see. He was saying, “You’ve called him by his name, haven’t you?”’

Ella stopped writing and looked at him. ‘You’ve called him by his name?’

‘That was it. Then someone was there on the other side of the ravine – my side, behind me – shouting at me, only it was the wrong name. He was trying to warn me that someone was coming up behind me. I couldn’t see anything but I felt someone put their foot on the tightrope and their weight toppled me and I started falling.’

‘Then what?’

‘Then you shook me and I woke up.’

‘What was the name he was shouting?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Okay, so use the visualization technique. Place yourself back there and …’

‘I said, I don’t know! It was some name that meant nothing. It wasn’t me.’

‘You might be able to remember if you just …’

‘Ella, I don’t want to play these games in the middle of the night! I want to go back to sleep, all right?’

She was hurt. ‘I was trying to help.’

‘I know.’

‘I mean, dreams are important, aren’t they? That’s why you do those dream workshops – how many times a year? Three?’

He felt weary. ‘Eight or nine probably, this year. Supply and demand. It doesn’t mean I want to stay up all night every time I dream something.’

‘Don’t you want to know what it means? It sounds scary.’

‘It means I shouldn’t drink Guinness and cocoa before going to bed. Goodnight.’

Ella put the notebook aside and lay down beside him. ‘You want me to get you some rosehip tea?’

‘No. Thanks.’

‘Franz?’

‘Yuh.’

‘Sometime – not now, obviously – but sometime soon, can we make time for a chat?’

‘About what?’

‘General things.’

He was wide awake now. ‘What things?’

‘It’s not the right moment. Go to sleep.’

He sat up. ‘Now I have to pee. Okay, I’ll make the tea. We’ll talk.’

By the time he came in with the tea, she had lit candles and an incense stick. The crystals that hung in the window were visible in the pale light of the moon filtering through the voile draped over the pane. Ella hoped that moonlight on crystal was a good omen but was afraid it meant nothing at all.

She found it strange that the things in which she believed so firmly by day seemed to evaporate in the dark hours of night. She wondered whether her beliefs were of no actual use to her if they only made sense by daylight, or whether that was better than the opposite. She had known religious people, for instance, in her childhood, who were untroubled by doubt in the dark cosy privacy of their homes and synagogue yet didn’t seem able to put its principles into practice in the cold light of everyday life.

Franz felt cold when he sat beside her under the duvet.

‘This is nice,’ she said, without much hope.

‘I’m sorry I scared you,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry I woke you. I was worried. I have been worried about you, recently.’

‘There’s no need,’ he said.

‘You’re working really long hours, Franz. You said it was going to be possible to delegate.’

‘You helping me with some of the admin is good,’ he said. ‘I appreciate it. Got your note about scheduling Primal Scream next to the silent contemplatives!’ He nudged her, trying to make her laugh, but she refused to take the bait.

‘It’s a lot of responsibility, all on your own,’ she said. ‘You promised to think about sharing it, inviting Sharma and some of the others to become partners.’

‘I did think. The problem is, the ethos of The Healing Place is inclusion and Sharma just doesn’t agree with me on that; he wants to pick and choose the disciplines and the philosophies. I call it prejudice and he calls it discernment. If I appointed a management committee from a representative range of guides and therapists, Sharma wouldn’t come on it – and I wouldn’t want a committee that Sharma wasn’t on.’

Ella leaned against him and sighed.

‘What are you thinking?’ he asked. ‘Give me the benefit of your finely honed feminine instincts.’

‘I’ve got a lot of time for Sharma.’

He waited, then laughed. ‘Yes? So have I. Is that it?’

She shrugged. ‘I suppose it is. I mean, I don’t understand what he does and I don’t suppose anyone else does, if they don’t have that gift. But he does have some kind of insight. I’m not sure about his way of using it. I’m not into clairvoyance and that stuff really.’

‘That stuff?’ Franz teased her. ‘Don’t let anyone at The Healing Place hear you talk like that. They’d think you were one of the unenlightened.’

‘I don’t think those people who call themselves enlightened necessarily understand more than anyone else does, or even their own jargon sometimes,’ said Ella. ‘Some of them are trying so hard to sell people a concept that I suspect they’re really trying to convince themselves it makes some kind of sense.’

Franz laughed. ‘Go get ‘em, babe! Was this what you wanted to talk about?’

‘No.’ She hunched herself up, tucking her feet underneath her.

‘What then?’

Her expression was suddenly closed; he could see the line of bone from the outer cavity of her eyes to her high cheekbones. Her skin had a translucent quality, her olive colouring almost white.

‘You’re sick,’ he said, alarmed.

‘I’m not sick, Franz. I’m pregnant.’

She didn’t look at him, not even when the silence extended into several minutes. Nor did he look at her: he seemed transfixed by the slight breeze moving the voile so that it shifted and sighed like a ghost, and by the wisps of smoke curling up from the incense taper in the flickering candlelight.

They sat together like that, not moving, not touching. In the morning when they awoke, still sitting side by side, neither could have said which of them had fallen asleep first.

Ella joined Franz for breakfast. Saturday was the busiest workday for them both.‘Say something,’ she pleaded, when he made her toast without asking.

‘I thought we would have discussed something so life-changing,’ he said.

‘I didn’t plan it.’

‘If you were thinking along those lines, even, you could have said.’

‘Franz, I didn’t discuss being pregnant even with myself! It happened.’

She knew he wouldn’t be convinced. He had read too many theories on subliminal choice and synchronicity to believe in accidents.

‘I know what you’re going to say,’ she said, when he was silent.

‘So you’ve become psychic overnight as well as pregnant?’ he said.

His sarcasm shocked her. It wasn’t his style.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what you’re going to say. But I’m guessing that you think I made a subconscious decision that I was ready to have a baby and somehow, subconsciously, forgot to do my natural family planning testing one morning.’

‘Did you?’

‘Yes. Six months ago, I found I was forgetting. So I went on the Pill.’

‘The contraceptive pill?’

She was tempted to retort that it wouldn’t have been much use to take paracetamol but one sarcastic participant was enough. ‘Yes. And no, I didn’t discuss that with you first …’

‘Why not?’

‘I’m telling you, if you’ll listen, Franz. I didn’t discuss it with you because we’d made the decision not to risk pregnancy and I didn’t want to put pressure on you. So when I realized I was forgetting to do my morning testing I thought maybe my biological clock was ticking and prompting me to forget, and as we had decided we weren’t ready to be a family I thought I’d better take the initiative and switch to something more accident-proof. Like the Pill.’

‘You’re telling me you got pregnant on the Pill.’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know what the chances are of that happening?’

‘It has roughly a one percent failure rate, apparently.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Maz looked it up on the internet.’ She bit her lip, too late.

‘You told Maz? Before telling me?’

‘Yes. Because I care about upsetting you, and Maz isn’t going to be personally affected so it’s not as important as telling you!’ Ella countered.

He nodded slowly. ‘Okay.’

His acceptance did nothing to reassure her. ‘I need to know how you feel,’ she said.

‘I don’t know how I feel. How do you feel?’

‘It depends on you. Do you want me to get rid of it?’

‘I didn’t say that!’ he shouted, slamming his fist down on a plate so hard that it shattered. They both jumped, scared.

‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry too. You want time to think and I’m pressuring you.’

‘Ella, you don’t have to handle me with kid gloves!’

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t bloody apologize!’

He was ashamed to see he had made her cry. He sat down beside her and took her hand and said as gently as he could, ‘I didn’t mean to blame you. And it’s good news, okay? How could it be anything else – the birth of a child? Our child. I want you to be happy. I want you to enjoy this.’

‘I can’t be happy about it if you’re not,’ she whispered.

‘I am. I will be, I promise. We’ll be fine.’

They sat in silence, both aware that time was ticking away.

‘You’d better get to work,’ Ella said.

‘We’ll talk this evening, okay?’

‘Yes. Franz – don’t get tactful with me either, right? If you’ve got doubts I need to know what they are.’

‘Okay.’

He stood up, picked up his pile of papers and pushed them into his briefcase then leaned over the table and kissed her. ‘Will you be all right today?’

‘Yes, no worries.’

‘I’ll phone you if I get a break.’

‘You won’t get a break,’ she said, smiling.

He was halfway out of the door when he turned back. ‘You should start taking folic acid or something, shouldn’t you?’

She laughed at him. ‘I work in a wholefood store! Maz will ply me with every supplement whether I like it or not!’

She hoped his mentioning it was a sign of accepting of the pregnancy. It was not like Franz to get angry or sarcastic. Ella could see no real reason why, unplanned though it was, Franz would see it as a bad time to have a baby. They were committed to each other, financially solvent, healthy, and with a combined age of sixty-four surely he wouldn’t have wanted to leave it much longer? And a baby determined to come to life despite the chemical restraints of the Pill deserved some encouragement. She picked up her door keys and, on the walk to work, found herself smiling as she envisioned their unborn child’s developing personality.

Franz, walking to work in the opposite direction, had different thoughts. There were many reasons for receiving the news in a wholly positive spirit. Out of habit, he recited affirmations in time with his steps but stopped short at ‘I am in control of my destiny.’ The unwelcome possibility occurred to him that he wasn’t in control of anything – that nobody was. He shook himself. ‘I am in control of my responses to circumstances,’ he recited silently as he entered The Healing Place by the side door.

That didn’t reassure him either. Had he been in control of his response to the girl Jacqui when he shouted at her, ‘Don’t get in that car!’ – Phil and Jan’s car, which she was entering of her free will? Was he in control of his anger when Phil prayed, anger which he could not in all honesty explain to himself? Was he in control of his apprehension about the crack in the ceiling of The Healing Place’s main hall, or in control of his hand now, which was shaking as he called the builder’s number?

He was as much in control of his destiny, he thought, as that figure on the tightrope in his dream, putting one foot in front of the other on a precariously narrow lifeline above a chasm, in the dark, alone.

The builder, Rory, was unperturbed by Franz’s call. ‘Righty-hoh!’ he said cheerily. ‘I’ll drop by sometime Monday. You’ll be in your office if I come straight up?’

‘I’ll be all over the place, if it’s a normal day,’ said Franz. ‘You can get the receptionist to page me but if you want to save waiting, call me on my mobile when you’re on your way and I’ll meet you in the foyer.’

‘Will do. It’s probably just a crack in the plaster but we’ll take a look for you.’

‘It’s not the plaster,’ said Franz firmly. ‘A plasterer has already looked at it.’

‘Well, whatever. See you then.’

What if Rory, for the sake of his reputation and the desire to avoid redoing work he had done badly and would not be paid again for remedying, insisted that a bit of filler would fix it? What if, as Mick Murphy had said, a load-bearing wall had been taken out without a steel joist or other support being substituted? A surveyor would have to be called in, and the building regulations inspector from the Council. The Healing Place could be closed down till it was officially secure. Franz might have to take out a lawsuit to ascertain who was to blame. He could also be sued, if damage occurred.

The phone rang three times in succession. A Japanese lady, newly arrived in the UK and not yet proficient in English, was looking for a venue to practise Shiatsu. She had a small number of clients, all Japanese, and wanted help to attract some English ones. Franz arranged a meeting with her for the following week. A genuine Japanese practitioner could be a marketing bonus but he wondered if he could find somebody to coach her in spoken English; she would need an interpreter at least for a couple of months.

While on the phone to her, Franz studied the printed floor-plans of The Healing Place on his office wall. He recalled every stage of The Healing Place’s transformation from derelict cinema to showcase building. There had been so many discussions over walls and partitions.

He had been away several times during the construction process, for a week at a time, raising financial support and talking to interested organizations. He tried to remember whether the reinforced joists for the supporting walls had been scheduled for installation during one of those absences and whether the builder had reported it done when he returned. Surely something so vital could not have been overlooked, by either of them? And what were project managers and building regulations inspectors for, if they hadn’t checked on something so fundamental?

The second call was from a Leroy Watson, who called himself a ‘Lucy-Fairian’ – at least, it sounded like that; Franz couldn’t quite place his accent. French-speaking African? The man wanted to use The Healing Place’s publicity package and possibly its facilities for a ‘smallish’ group that was already established and hoped to attract more seekers. He went into a lengthy, abstract dissertation when Franz asked him to explain what Lucy-Fairianism was, and Franz was reluctant to admit to difficulty in understanding his accent in case the man thought he was racist. He also felt unable to work up much interest, with other concerns occupying his mind, so he postponed the discussion by giving Leroy also an appointment to meet him next week.

The third call was far more serious. It was Sharma, sounding more harassed than Franz had ever heard him, with worse news than Franz could have expected: he wanted to cancel all his courses at The Healing Place, until further notice.

‘I can’t explain over the phone,’ Sharma said. ‘Is there a time when I could come in and see you?’

‘Come now!’ said Franz. ‘Sharma, whatever it is, I hope we can find another solution!’

‘I’ll see you soon.’ His tone didn’t hold much promise.

Franz occupied himself with drafting timetables and allocating rooms for new courses and was annoyed with himself when he found he had reallocated Sharma’s room without thinking about it. Think positive, he told himself. I have many gifts, including charisma and the power of persuasion. I can make my destiny work for me. Somehow that didn’t seem appropriate to Sharma, who was unpersuadable on matters of principle.

Franz’s only hope was that Sharma had hit personal difficulties – he had heard rumours last year that Sharma’s marriage was not going smoothly – and not that he was having another attack of ethics regarding the running of The Healing Place. Franz asked himself how much he was prepared to compromise, in order to keep Sharma on side, and was surprised that he felt almost tearful at the thought of losing him. He would be prepared to compromise quite considerably, he decided.

When Sharma arrived, Franz was shocked by his appearance. The man had aged overnight, his brown skin tinged with grey, his eyes haggard. Paradoxically, Franz felt relief. Definitely personal issues. Franz would offer sympathy, time off, even paid compassionate leave, professional counselling – whatever it took.

Franz drew up a chair for him. ‘I can see something’s troubling you.’

‘Franz, have you seen the papers this morning?’

‘I picked one up on the way in but I haven’t looked at it yet. Why?’

‘Two little boys from this area have gone missing since yesterday morning on their way to school. Somebody thought they saw a child being pulled into a car at the traffic lights by the library.’

‘Sharma – not your sons?’ That would explain his appearance. He looked as though he hadn’t slept at all.

‘No. Franz, I need to take some time off. I need you to release me from taking these courses.’

‘I don’t understand. What’s your involvement?’

‘I had a phone call from the police last night. They sometimes use people like me, unofficially. I asked to meet the boys’ parents but the police inspector was afraid of raising their hopes. He told me where they lived, that’s all. I went and stood across the street from their front doors.’

He was shaking, Franz noticed. ‘Why is it affecting you like this, Sharma? How does this work?’

‘I can feel their fear,’ he said. ‘The parents’ and the boys’.’ His eyes conveyed such anguish that Franz had to look away.

‘I understand you can’t think of teaching, with this going on,’ Franz said, ‘but what do you need to do? I mean, how much time ….?’

‘I need to concentrate,’ Sharma said. ‘The police will pass on information from the boys’ friends at school but I feel that their friends won’t know anything. I think this was a random, spur of the moment grab by people who are permanently on the look-out for children and take their opportunities where they find them.’

‘Do you know anything else?’

He shuddered. ‘All night I’ve been seeing scenes of abuse. Ritual abuse. In a darkened room with candles and ritual objects. I think these are evil people, Franz.’

‘So you sit and just concentrate and see what comes to mind? Is that it?’

‘No, I’m going to start walking around, starting from the point where the boys were taken. I may pick up some sense of which direction they went. I’ll follow the fear.’

Franz felt suddenly afraid for this colleague who so often exasperated him with his inconvenient objections. ‘Sharma, what will this do to you personally?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘as long as we find them.’

‘But you have your own family to think of, too.’

‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘My wife left me last year. She took the children and went with another man to live in Pakistan.’

Franz was stunned. ‘Why didn’t I know this?’

‘I didn’t tell many people – only when they invited us or asked why they hadn’t seen Sarita recently. I’m sorry, Franz. I should have told you. You are my employer.’

‘I’m the one who’s sorry, Sharma. Don’t you see the children any more?’

‘No.’

‘Do you know where they are?’

‘No.’

Sharma saw the unspoken question in Franz’s eyes. A gifted psychic who couldn’t find out the whereabouts of his own children? Going on a wild goose chase after other parents’ sons?

‘What good would it do me to know where my children are, geographically,’ Sharma asked, ‘if my wife and this new partner don’t want me to have any contact with them? In their own time, the children will come and find me – at least, if they continue to feel as they are feeling now. When they are older, if they haven’t changed their minds, they will come looking and I will be here for them. But for now, Franz, the best I can do is to try and relieve the agony of these other boys’ parents.’

‘I understand. Look, do we need to cancel the courses? What if I could find someone to start them off? If the boys are found, would you consider coming back and taking the students on from where they’d got to?’

‘Of course. But I can’t say when that would be.’

Franz breathed out. ‘That’s cool. Leave it to me to arrange. You take as much time as you need. And listen ….’ He pulled his wallet out of his jacket and took out all the notes that were in it, waved aside Sharma’s protestations and pressed the notes into his hand. ‘And let me know if either Ella or I can do anything to help.’

Sharma folded the notes and placed them carefully in his pocket. ‘Thank you, Franz.’

As he stood up and extended his hand formally to shake his, Franz said, ‘You know, Sharm, you had me scared. I thought you were going to walk out on me for good. So you’re not going because of some deep objection to something I’m doing with The Healing Place!’

Sharma looked at him, and Franz was struck, as he had been the first time he’d met him, by the depth of his gaze. This man had something genuine, some far-seeing faculty that went beyond normal perception. With many of the other guides, Franz was prepared to take them at their own estimation: if they said they had a gift, or special knowledge, he was prepared to give them his best shot and support them till they were established and able to attract clients by commendations from previous ones.

Some proved they did have something which, if not a spiritual gift, was at least a proficiency or practical skill in relieving seekers’ anxiety or pain. Others, whether misguided or simply lacking in personal charisma, fell by the wayside. Fashion and current celebrities also dictated which therapies and philosophies would draw the crowds this season.

Increasingly, the comfortable and well-heeled, who were not comfortable or healed on the inside, were willing to pay for peace of mind. The same people who abhorred religion because it imposed rules and restrictions would happily swallow the prohibitions and prescriptions of a range of self-qualified guides.

Franz didn’t analyze the claims made for any new programme, which tended to be similar to all the existing ones, or question its proponent’s motives. He simply matched people’s professed desire to provide a route to serenity with other people’s professed desire to find one. If anyone asked what he personally believed, he found the question irrelevant. He never thought about it. He didn’t know.

Facing Sharma now, though, it occurred to Franz that of all the instructors and the instructed, the preachers and the seekers who had come and gone in the change-packed two years of The Healing Place’s existence, this man was the only one he personally had any faith in. Like Ella, Franz didn’t understand what Sharma purported to see or to achieve but Sharma, as a man, had integrity. He believed what he believed and was prepared to suffer the personal cost of doing what seemed to him the right thing. If Sharma needed time free to help the police, Franz would give it to him.

When Tanya walked into the office – Franz’s open-door policy meaning no one had to knock or wait – he realized that Sharma had been standing looking at him in silence for some time and only then did it occur to him that Sharma might have an answer to his rhetorical question about his management of The Healing Place.

‘Tanya, would you give us a moment?’ Franz asked her.

Tanya sat down in his chair and leaned her elbows on his desk. ‘Go ahead.’ She waited, watching them.

Franz took Sharma’s arm and walked with him down the corridor. He wasn’t sure whether Tanya could still hear them or not.

‘I know you need to go,’ he said. ‘But you didn’t answer my question.’

‘It’s not for me to answer,’ Sharma said. ‘The Healing Place is your project.’

‘I’m asking you,’ said Franz, ‘as a friend. I haven’t been a good friend, Sharma – to you or to anyone. I’ve been so concerned to treat everyone equally and to keep business separate from home life that I haven’t taken the time to get to know you, and now I’m afraid you’re going and won’t come back.’

He was ashamed of the tears that sprang into his eyes but more ashamed that he had kept this man, whom he trusted and liked, at arm’s length – that he hadn’t even known about his wife leaving. Ella was right, he thought again. I should have made an exception for him and invited him into our life.

Sharma took his hand. ‘I’m not going, Franz. I will be coming back.’

‘I know your reservations about some of the policies here, Sharma, and some of the guides, but … you honestly think I’m doing something fundamentally wrong with this place?’

‘Not wrong,’ Sharma said. ‘You are trying to give people help, not to tell them what they need but to provide what they believe will help them. You are insisting that all the practitioners and the guides accept each other as people with different ways, even when they don’t agree with each other’s methods and priorities.’

‘But?’

‘I’m concerned about you personally, as a friend – and I do see you and Ella as friends, and not uncaring ones. I know you work long hours and you need your space when you get home.’

‘You’re concerned that I’m overworking? Or something else?’

Sharma hesitated then spoke with an intensity Franz had never heard from him. ‘You are walking a lonely road in the dark, out of reach of those who care for you. No one can help you because you’re not letting anyone see who you really are. You have some difficult decisions to make and you are refusing to make them. Your emphasis on inclusion and being non-judgmental is blinding you to the need for real discernment.’

‘Oh, I know you don’t go for ….’ Franz began, but Sharma continued as though he hadn’t spoken. His eyes were blazing, though his voice and manner were calm.

‘You need to make real judgments about what is genuine and what is deception. You can only make these decisions in your own name. If you don’t, there is someone walking behind you who will make them for you, and they will be harmful. The Healing Place is also in danger, because although your care for people is genuine, The Healing Place is not built exclusively on your care for them; it’s also founded on rebellion, and that foundation will crumble when the testing time comes.’

He was gone before Franz was aware that Sharma had moved away from him.

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Franz walked back into his office feeling he was going back into last night’s dream, walking the tightrope over the dark ravine with the unseen person stepping on to it behind him, unbalancing him – only now, as well as Phil and Ella being far away from him on the other side of the ravine, Sharma was walking away from him as well, disappearing down a dark corridor out of reach. Franz felt like running after him, begging him not to leave him.

He knew what Sharma’s answer would be, because he had already said it: ‘You can only make these decisions in your own name.’ But what decisions?

Tanya stood up as he came in. ‘I haven’t got very long,’ she said accusingly.

‘What can I do for you?’ He forced a smile.

‘You can stop undermining me, Franz. You’re letting in all these people with therapies that sound similar – holistic massage, therapeutic touch, that silly foot massage with that dozy girl who’s just come in, and Reiki – and those ways aren’t really holistic, like kinesiology is.’

‘You know the policy, Tanya. We provide seekers with choices. It’s not our job to dictate or moralize or tell them one way is better than another. Inclusive, non-judgmental acceptance – yes?’

Tanya crossed her arms over her chest. Franz felt he was reciting a formula that he had recited too many times.‘So you’ll just let anybody in who says they can do anything?’ she challenged.

‘No. They have to be qualified, preferably experienced, in what they do. They must be willing to work alongside others who may not share their own views, and they must disclose their affiliations to other organizations, whether professional bodies, political groups or – God forbid – religious establishments!’

If he had hoped the final joke might lighten her response, he was only partly successful. She gave a half-smile and uncrossed her arms but said, ‘I think you’re getting it wrong, Franz.’

He felt that sudden surge of anger again that threatened to overwhelm him. He tightened his smile and said, ‘I respect your opinion. But you read and signed the policy of The Healing Place when you joined us and it hasn’t changed.’

The phone rang and he picked it up thankfully, turned towards the window and heard Tanya go out of the room.

‘I wonder can you help me?’ The voice on the phone was male and unmistakably Irish. ‘I saw an old friend I’d lost touch with come into your building a day or two ago. Name of Michael Finnucane.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Franz. ‘No one of that name works here.’

‘Maybe you might know him as Micky Finn? That was his nickname, in the old days.’

‘We have thousands of visitors in and out of this building at different times.’

‘Oh, I see. Well, I’m sorry for troubling you. I thought it was worth a try.’

‘No trouble,’ said Franz.

He was about to put the phone down when the man added, ‘I suppose I couldn’t ask you to keep an eye out for him?’

‘Sure,’ said Franz, ‘though it’s unlikely.’

‘Right. But just in case. Him and me were good friends long ago, d’you see? The name’s Patrick Quinn.’

There was a slight pause.

Franz said, ‘If you leave me your number, then if I meet the man at any time I’ll ask him to call you.’

‘That’s great. I’ve been over from Ireland twelve months and I know quite a few people here now but I’d surely love to see him again. He and I were a team. I was that glad to see him in the distance!’

‘Your number is?’

‘Oh sorry, you don’t want to listen to me going on. It’s a mobile number. I’m working on site, building bridges. Tell him if he doesn’t get me at once leave a number and I’ll call him. I don’t hear the phone ring when I’m working; it’s too noisy.’

Franz took down the number. ‘You’re a builder?’ he said.

‘A plasterer by trade, but I do all sorts. Labouring is where I could get the work here and the money’s not bad; I can’t complain. Well, I won’t take up your time, so.’

As Franz replaced the receiver, he was annoyed to find his hand was shaking. He mustn’t lose his nerve, he told himself. To focus his mind, he went on one of his walkabouts of the building to chat to clients and get feedback.

He spoke to two sisters emerging from an hour in the flotation tank, who enthused about its relaxing qualities. They sounded high, as though they had been smoking dope, and told him they felt refreshed now and ready to go into work at the travel agency down the road. At least they weren’t air traffic controllers, Franz consoled himself. The worst they could do, in their blissed-out state, was book clients on the wrong flights.

He had been having doubts recently about whether relaxation was universally beneficial. Ella had watched a TV documentary about hospital patients who had been given complementary therapies after major surgery. The patients were unanimous in their praise. They felt wonderful, they said, relaxed and peaceful. But researchers had found their resistance to infection was significantly lower and their rate of post-operative complications higher, compared with patients who had had no therapy.

Franz had expected Ella to follow her report to him on the programme with reasoned arguments, as an experienced holistic therapist, about why these conclusions were untrustworthy. But she had simply found the programme fascinating and said it raised some questions that needed to be considered.

He wished, yet again, that Ella had not left The Healing Place. Her commitment to helping people towards better health was uncomplicated. Franz, juggling schedules and trying to balance the needs of seekers with the needs of guides to earn a living and the need of The Healing Place to pay for itself, felt he did not have the luxury of single-mindedness.

‘This place was not founded solely on care for people. Also founded on rebellion.’ Why did people – Sharma and Ella – keep talking in riddles? Why did he find it so hard to grasp what they were trying to tell him, when they seemed to think it was simple? They were both concerned for him. He trusted their judgement. Therefore there must be some real cause for concern. But it didn’t make sense to him to accept some practitioners at The Healing Place and turn away others, with no good reason to justify the discrimination. He didn’t understand either Ella or Sharma’s insistence.

Then there was his dream. And, for what it was worth, Phil’s prayer. But what use were abstract images and words about walking in the dark and tightropes if no one could spell out to him, in specific, practical terms, what it was that he was doing wrong and what he was meant to do to put it right?

Why didn’t these people lend him their strength and support him in what he was doing rather than unsettle him with these unfathomable comments?

Alison the receptionist came over and stood beside him as he stood in the main hall. ‘I noticed that crack a few days ago,’ she said.

‘Do you think it’s serious?’

‘Probably a crack in the plaster, don’t you think?’ she said.

‘Apparently not. A plasterer took a look at it and said it was worse than that. He asked if load-bearing walls had been removed.’

‘The builders would have put in RSJs if they had,’ said Alison. ‘My dad’s a surveyor. Do you want him to come and take a look?’

‘I’ve phoned the original builder,’ said Franz. ‘He should come on Monday or Tuesday.’

‘He’ll say it’s nothing, won’t he?’ Alison reasoned. ‘You don’t want to plaster over the cracks, Franz, if there’s something more serious behind it.’

‘I hope that’s not what I’m doing,’ he said sombrely. ‘Several people seem to be telling me that I am.’

‘In the literal sense?’ she asked. ‘Or something else?’

She had a nice face, Franz thought. He had hired her for that reason, partly. She was not pretty, nor exactly young, but she was open and friendly and it showed in her eyes: she was ideal as a receptionist for The Healing Place, where people came in troubled, not knowing what they were looking for but hoping there might be some remedy for their nameless dissatisfaction. Many felt better, before signing up for anything, just for having a chat with Alison.

‘I’m wondering,’ he said, ‘about some of the things I’ve been so sure of before.’

She smiled. ‘Well, that sounds healthy, in itself!’ she said. ‘What kind of things are you wondering about?’

‘About our policy of inclusion,’ he said. ‘I’ve founded the place on that principle. I thought I was avoiding being small-minded. Now people I respect are telling me I’m avoiding using discernment.’

‘Oh, I see.’

‘What do you think?’

She looked surprised that he would ask her, as well she might. Franz realized he had never asked her opinion on anything regarding The Healing Place. So much for my freedom from prejudice, he thought wryly. I’ve seen her as ‘only’ a receptionist when here she is with potentially valuable advice to give, and maybe not only on the state of the ceiling.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I suppose there is a great variety of people who come to work here, for a variety of reasons.’

‘Not all of them equally deserving of our respect?’ Franz said.

‘I didn’t say that,’ she said quickly.

‘Don’t worry about being politically correct,’ he said, smiling. ‘I can handle honest prejudice.’

She laughed and blushed slightly. ‘Well, some of the … guides, who come and lead courses here, and the therapists who give people sessions of this and that, seem needier than the clients.’

‘Sure,’ said Franz. ‘But that’s normal, isn’t it? Wounded healers, and all that?’

‘Not when they’re unbalanced,’ said Alison bluntly. ‘Then they just give their problems to everyone else.’

He considered this. ‘Who would you say was unbalanced here?’

‘Oh no!’ she said, holding up her hands and laughing. ‘You’re not pinning that one on me! I’m saying nothing!’

‘Ah, I see – you mean me!’ he teased her.

‘I didn’t say that!’ She looked horrified.

‘Only joking,’ he said reassuringly.

‘I’m going to get a cup of tea,’ she said. ‘Shall I get one for you as well?’

‘Thanks but no. I’ve got paperwork to catch up on.’

She went off almost at a run. He stood and watched her. He might take her up on her offer of the surveyor father, if the builder did try to minimize the ceiling problem. He was glad to have had the opportunity for this conversation, if only to get to know her a little better. He wondered if she had known – if all The Healing Place regulars except him had known – about Sharma’s marriage break-up last year, and whether everyone knew Alison better than he did as well. He did not, after all, know very much about anyone he employed.

That being so, was it one of them setting foot on the tightrope behind him, about to topple him from his precarious position of the-buck-stops-here authority and send him hurtling into depths of darkness, beyond the help of anyone who cared about him? Did he even know which people did care for him and who might do him harm? He didn’t want to start getting paranoid. On the other hand, naivety was a dangerous virtue. He went back to his office, needing to phone Ella.

When it was Maz who answered the shop phone and told him Ella was taking a break, having been vomiting this morning, he nearly asked what was wrong with her.

What was wrong with him, that he had forgotten – all morning – that his girlfriend was pregnant and unsure about his reaction? How could his reaction have been to banish it so entirely from his mind?

He felt that, of the cracks that were indeed opening up in his life, the crack in the ceiling of The Healing Place was the very least he had to worry about.

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

He made a point of arriving home before nine pm, resolving to give Ella space to talk about the pregnancy as much as she liked, but it was Ella who seemed absorbed with other topics.

He found her sitting at the kitchen table, pounding ginger root.

‘You don’t have to do that,’ he said, kissing her. ‘I’ll do the food tonight.’

‘I’ve done salad; it’s in the fridge. This is a nausea remedy. I’ll steep it overnight and drink the juice tomorrow.’

‘Are you still feeling nauseous?’

She shook her head. ‘Not now but I probably will in the morning. It’s usual for about the first three months.’

Franz was amazed at her acceptance of a condition she hadn’t planned or wanted, at least consciously. Ella tended to accept life as it was; it was one of the things he had admired in her from the first. Franz made plans, set targets and put heart and soul into carrying them out, refusing to let any obstacle divert him from his purpose. Ella made plans then, if things didn’t turn out that way, she adjusted. She didn’t insist on the outcome from the outset and determine to achieve it no matter what else came along.

‘We’ll take some time to talk,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t very positive this morning, about the pregnancy. I’m sorry.’

She smiled and shrugged, looking up at him. ‘It was a shock. For me too. It’s allowed.’

‘We’ll talk it through,’ he promised. ‘Tell me how you feel.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time,’ she said. ‘Tell me about your day.’

She stood up and took the salad bowl out of the fridge. He took plates and forks from the cupboards and put them on the table. They were used to walking around each other in the confined space and didn’t get in each other’s way. As Ella grew bigger, Franz reflected, this place might begin to seem too small for them.

‘Sharma’s leaving,’ he said.

‘He told me. He came into the shop this afternoon. It’s only temporary, while this police hunt’s on.’

‘I have to find a replacement to start off his courses. I’ve been phoning everyone I know for the past four hours, with no result.’

‘Sharma’s irreplaceable,’ Ella said.

‘Did you know his wife had left him and taken the boys abroad?’

‘That was ages ago!’

‘You knew about it, Ella? Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Tell you? You work with him!’

‘He never mentioned it. No one said anything to me.’

‘I talked to you about it. I remember saying he didn’t deserve to be treated so badly – Sarita just left him a note.’

‘You didn’t tell me that!’

‘Franz, I did!’

‘What did I say?’

‘What you always say when I tell you something: “Mm.” Then you go on thinking about whatever you were thinking.’

He sat down heavily. ‘Am I that Neanderthal?’

She tipped his face up to hers and kissed him. ‘Yes. In a New Age sort of way. You don’t tell anyone what you’re really thinking, I doubt you tell yourself what you’re feeling, and you filter out anything that might distract you from work. Apart from that, you’re perfect.’

‘Perfectly eligible for a character transplant!’ Franz said. ‘I thought I was a good listener but it seems not. Sharma said I needed to use my instincts and exercise discernment. Which would be fine if I knew what my instincts were and how I’m meant to be discerning between things that all seem equally significant.’

Ella sat down at the table. ‘What context did he say that in?’

‘As he was leaving. I asked him if he thought I was doing anything wrong at The Healing Place.’

‘Well, there’s a first!’ she said. ‘I hope you are going to listen to him, Franz. Sharma doesn’t say anything unless he’s got something to say.’

‘I might listen to him if I knew what the hell he meant,’ Franz said. ‘But I don’t know what to do with gloom-laden predictions cloaked in abstract figures of speech.’

‘It may just seem abstract to you because you’re not on the same wavelength,’ Ella suggested. ‘What did he say exactly?’

‘I can’t remember it all. What are we having with the salad?’

‘The rest of the tofu stir-fry. It’s ready now. Don’t change the subject. As soon as we’ve finished eating I’m going to write down what he told you, word for word, so start thinking. Did any of it tie in with the dream you had?’

‘Possibly,’ he said tersely. ‘Is there any bread?’

‘It’s in front of you,’ she pointed out. ‘Listen, Franz ….’

‘Was there any mail today?’

She knew the question was another distraction. Franz hardly gave out his home address and received most of his mail at The Healing Place.

‘Pizza delivery leaflets, a couple of bills, and a letter addressed to a Mr Finnucane.’ She pronounced it ‘Finn-yu-cain’.

‘Fin-noo-can,’ he corrected automatically.

‘Fin-noo-can, then. There was a letter for the same name last week.’

‘There was? What did you do with it?’

‘Wrote ‘not at this address’ on it and re-mailed it.’

‘You shouldn’t mess around with my mail!’ he exclaimed, slamming his fork down on the table.

‘It wasn’t your mail,’ she said reasonably. ‘But when the second one came today I thought it must be the guy who lived here before. Do you have an address to redirect it?’

‘I might have; I’ll check.’ He picked up his fork and started eating.

‘Franz, you’re really jumpy recently! Is there something you want to talk about?’

‘Sorry. Worried about losing Sharma, that’s all.’

‘You’re not losing him. He’s coming round for supper tomorrow.’

‘Here?’

‘Of course here. He won’t want to be out in some crowded restaurant while he’s intuiting about these boys. I told him he doesn’t have to stay and talk; just take a break and come and eat something. That’s okay with you, isn’t it?’

‘Sure. He might not want to come.’

‘He said he would if he’s still in this neighbourhood. He may have to follow the boys’ trail somewhere else so I told him to play it by ear.’

‘Or by nose! You’re making him sound like a bloodhound!’

‘And you make him sound like a joke!’ she flared. ‘Don’t you believe in what he does?’

‘I don’t have personal beliefs of that kind, either way. I respect Sharma as a person and I respect his integrity in pursuing his own way.’

‘Bullshit,’ Ella said.

‘Excuse me?’

‘That’s bullshit. You can’t avoid having opinions, unless you avoid thinking, and you can’t respect everyone’s beliefs equally; some people believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden.’

‘That reminds me,’ he said, avoiding her criticism. ‘Have you heard of something that sounds like Lucy-Fairianism?’

‘I’ve heard of it. I’ll ask Maz to look it up. She’s got a book on cults.’

‘It’s a cult? I don’t want that in The Healing Place. I should have asked this Leroy Watson on the phone if it was a religion of some kind.’

‘Luciferianism. Lucifer worship. Connected with satanism, probably. It’s getting big in the States so it probably is here as well.’

‘Satanists?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘What – black Masses at midnight and sacrificing babies?’

‘I doubt they start off like that. The extreme groups might. They believe in redefining good and evil. They think people have been brainwashed by Judaeo-Christian religion into experiencing guilt for actions and thoughts that are harmless or even positive. So they aim to set the balance by treating conventional goodness as something tainted, to be avoided, and experiencing so-called evil as good.’

‘They actually say that, in their teaching?’ asked Franz. ‘That good is evil and evil is good? How does that work?’

‘Yes – well, they claim that all actions are morally neutral and by committing acts that society, and particularly religion, sees as evil, they’re breaking through traditional boundaries, changing the balance of power and challenging the authority of a God.’

‘To achieve what?’

‘To regain power in the world, and beyond it. They believe Satan will ultimately triumph and the ones who have followed his way will have the real power.’

‘Jesus!’ said Franz. ‘I’ll ring the guy back and cancel the meeting. I should have asked more questions when he rang. I don’t know why I didn’t. I always tell people we don’t do religion of any variety.’

‘Ask Sharma to do his intuitive stuff about it,’ Ella suggested.

‘He said I have to make my own decisions,’ said Franz, ‘in my own name, or someone will come behind me and make them in my name instead. Or something like that.’

Ella swallowed her mouthful of salad and got up to fetch a pad and pen.

‘Not now,’ said Franz.

‘Yes, now,’ she said firmly. ‘This is serious, Franz. And you’ve got to take it seriously.’

‘You’re over-reacting. One dream and a parting shot from a distracted psychic.’

‘And a Satanist wanting to join The Healing Place,’ Ella said. ‘And you getting angry over nothing, recently.’

‘I don’t get angry over nothing,’ he said, with the utmost politeness.

‘Let me try you out, then,’ she challenged. ‘I went to see Jan today.’

‘The vicar’s wife. Okay. You said, she wants you to teach her the basics of aromatherapy.’

‘No. I wanted her to pray with me so I went to her home.’

‘You what[_?_]’

‘See? You do get angry. You have opinions, you believe in some things and you don’t trust others. And you’re not equally accepting of everyone’s path to enlightenment. You’re paranoid about Christians, for a start.’

‘That is totally unfair!’

‘Okay. So the reason I wanted Jan to pray with me is that she’s changed her mind about aromatherapy and found evidence of something that might work better, at least for the old lady she visits, the one who was scared in her flat at night and couldn’t sleep. While she was with her yesterday she got the idea to offer to pray with her and she did, and the lady went out like a light and slept all night.’

‘So? Placebo effect. Nice kind person holds her hand and mutters some soothing formula and the old lady nods off. It’s not rocket science.’

‘It’s not likely either, Franz, for somebody severely anxious who hasn’t responded to sleeping tablets or high-strength antidepressants or to the kind ministrations of Jan and others on many other occasions. Jan phoned her this morning and she was serene and happy.’

‘You get the same results with aromatherapy. I’d feel insulted if I were you, Ella. She’s disrespecting what you do.’

‘Don’t be so spiky! I’ve talked to her and she’s like me: trying to examine the evidence and find what works for people and what doesn’t. She admits to being disappointed with God when she and Phil pray for things that don’t work out the way they want. But she says they don’t expect Santa Claus, giving them everything on their wish-list; they’re trying to understand God’s way of seeing things, which is deeper.’

‘The perfect cop-out when prayer achieves absolutely nothing that anyone wants!’

‘That’s what I thought. But I think they’re genuine seekers, now I’ve talked to them more, not people who dish out stock answers and switch off the thought process.’

‘Talked to them more? Who is ‘them’?’

‘Jan and Phil,’ said Ella patiently.

‘I thought it was her you went to see?’

‘They live in the same house,’ Ella said, in the tone of someone addressing a small child. ‘He was having a cup of tea with her in the kitchen. We had a chat, then he went out and Jan prayed with me.’

‘What for? I mean, what did you go there for, Ella? I know you’re pregnant and people do out-of-character things ….’

‘Don’t you go putting everything I do for the next seven months down to my hormones!’ she warned. ‘I’ve got a mind of my own, Franz. I decide who I trust and who I don’t and I don’t have to ask your permission to see anyone!’

He was silent. Then he said, more quietly, ‘It’s not the people I’m against, Ella. It’s the system they’re part of. I’ve had negative experiences of church authority figures. They may talk like enlightened people at times but the way they live is not healthy. They thrive on guilt and encourage it in everyone around them. It’s about control, about telling people what to think – or telling them not to think.’

‘You’re sounding like the Satanist guy now.’

‘No. But believe me. Stay away from those people, however nice they seem. Please, Ella. Promise me.’

‘I like them. I honestly don’t think they’re into manipulating people, Franz. I know terrible things have been done in the name of religion, the same as in politics and science and everything else human beings are involved in. But the people who do those things have agendas of their own. It’s not their God who’s making them do it – it’s their ego. They’re in rebellion against any Good Being other than their own inflated image of themselves.’

‘Rebellion,’ said Franz, remembering. ‘That’s something else Sharma said.’

Ella reached for the pad and wrote the word down. Did she always forget her argument with him as soon as something threatened his interests, Franz wondered? He tried to recall other instances and couldn’t, but he felt there might have been other occasions when she had seemed angry with him then simply dropped her own grievance to focus on him.

‘You love me, don’t you?’ he said. ‘I mean, really love?’

‘You make me so mad at times, Franz,’ she said, looking him in the eyes and not smiling. ‘So much that I think my life might be easier if I didn’t feel anything for you, except mad. But I do love you, yes I do.’

He took her hand and they sat there in silence, while the room became dark around them. After a while she stood up to turn on the lamp and he asked her, but gently, ‘Why did you ask Jan to pray with you?’ and she said, ‘For the baby. And me. It isn’t settled in me.’

‘What do you mean?’

She paused a minute before switching the light on, so although he turned towards her he couldn’t see her face.

‘We’re not rooted,’ she said. ‘It’s hard to bring a baby into the world without knowing if its life is going to be with us – with us both, as a couple, here.’

She turned on the light and he covered his eyes, as if faced by interrogation.

‘I wanted the baby to be settled,’ she said, ‘in me, whatever happens. I want to be a secure home for it, for the rest of its seven months.’

When he didn’t answer or look up, she sat down and took his hand again.

‘I’m not asking for promises, Franz,’ she said tenderly. ‘I just have to be able to stand firm, myself. Do you understand?’

She took his other hand, the one that covered his eyes, and saw tears. He tried to put his hand back but she kept it.

‘I really want to be there for you,’ he said finally. ‘For you and the baby. But I don’t know what’s happening with me recently. I feel I’ve lost the plot somewhere: I’m doing and saying the same things I always have but I’m on auto-pilot. I can’t feel what I felt at the beginning, when The Healing Place was just setting up. I was so sure about everything then. Now you and Sharma and others keep telling me to be myself and I’m not even sure who that is. That sounds totally cheesy, doesn’t it?’

‘I don’t know who you are either, sometimes, Franz. You hide. But I do know I want to find out. As long as you do?’

‘I’m scared,’ he admitted.

‘Good. You’ve been scaring me, recently. We’ll get through it, however scary it turns out to be. All right?’

‘I don’t even know what there is to be scared of,’ he said.

‘Nor me. But something’s been gnawing at you and twisting you out of shape for a while. Let’s start with what Sharma said, shall we?’ She let go of his hand and picked up the pen and waited for him to dictate. ‘Start with the rebellion thing,’ she said.

‘I can’t think straight,’ he pleaded. ‘In the morning – okay? I’m going to bed.’

‘Okay. Or the afternoon,’ she amended, as he went out. ‘I might go to church in the morning.’

His face, when he turned back, was so dark with rage that she gasped. He stopped himself in mid-movement towards her, staring at his raised fist, horrified. She sat very still, as if turned to ice. It was Franz who ran out of the room and she didn’t follow him.

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

He walked the streets for an hour and a half, hands in pockets, head down. The only distraction from the thoughts in his head came when he passed the library where Sharma said someone had sighted a child being pulled into a car. He stood there for a moment, trying to imagine what Sharma might sense at the site of a crime, willing himself to feel someone else’s pain if only to escape from his own, but his mind was blank.

He tried to imagine having a child of his own then having that child taken away but both situations seemed equally alien, as though they could only happen to people wholly different from himself.

Ella was in bed when he went home. She didn’t move when he entered the room but he knew she was awake.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, inadequately.

‘Okay.’ Her voice was thick with tears.

‘It’s not okay. What can I do?’

‘I’m all right,’ she said, and repeated it: ‘I’m all right,’ as if trying to convince herself.

‘I don’t know what came over me,’ he said helplessly. ‘I never thought I’d raise my hand to hit a woman, in my life.’

‘You didn’t hit me.’ There was even less conviction in her voice this time. They both knew it wasn’t the issue.

‘What d’you want me to do? Do you want to be left alone?’

‘It’s up to you. Come to bed if you want.’

He wasn’t clear what she wanted, or what he wanted either. He hesitated, before deciding he couldn’t lie down beside her as though nothing had happened.

He compromised. ‘I’ll come to bed shortly,’ he said. ‘Try and get some sleep if you can.’

‘Okay.’ She turned towards the wall, lifting the quilt she had made for them over her head.

Two o’clock in the morning found him still sitting in the kitchen, replaying the incident. He had not hit her; she was not physically hurt, but he had somehow crossed a line that might result in their having no future together; it was for Ella now to decide.

What had he been thinking? His fist had been halfway towards her eyes, without any conscious instruction from his brain. Never in his life had he even thought of hitting a woman. A woman he loved. A woman who was carrying his child.

Was that the problem?

He thought not. The responsibility was worrying, at least in theory. They would lose Ella’s earnings, at least for a time, but she didn’t bring in a high salary anyway so it wouldn’t make such a big difference. The flat was rented and they could afford to move to a larger one if necessary – even take out a mortgage and buy a place.

The salary Franz allowed himself from The Healing Place was small; the profits were ploughed back into the building or accelerated debt repayments. But their needs were modest; neither Ella nor Franz was interested in acquiring material things or attaining an impressive lifestyle. They ate simply, lived well but not luxuriously, and didn’t need to run a car. Franz hired one as necessary, to drive himself to out-of-town locations to give talks or presentations, but most of his work was reachable by public transport or on foot.

It wasn’t the burden of financial responsibility, then.

Was it the relationship? Again, unlikely. In eighteen months together, Franz had never had serious doubts about whether Ella was the person he wanted to share his life with. She may have had doubts about him. He was sure she had now, lying alone in their bed, silently curled around her unborn child. But if he thought about them as a couple with a baby – which he had hardly done until now – the strongest response was a mild pride and a wonderment that something so life-changing could come about without either of them knowing it at the time.

Was it fatherhood that worried him, then? Possibly, but that was hardly grounds for turning on Ella even if he did have doubts about his ability to be a good dad.

It wasn’t excuses he wanted. He simply wanted to understand. Where had the rage come from? Was it the same rage he had felt when Phil put an arm around his shoulders and prayed to his fictitious Lord for ‘this man you have called by name’? The same rage as when Tanya had criticized his judgement? What had Ella said to cause such rage, after all, except that she intended to go to church in the morning?

He doubted she would go now. Perhaps she would stay in bed and he would bring her breakfast, with a fresh croissant from the corner bakery that stayed open on Sunday. Ella said croissants were the ultimate example of non-food food – all cholesterol, calories and carbs without a trace of nourishment – but she loved them. He would buy flowers and place them on the tray. She would know they were the ultimate non-present present, evidence not of love but of guilt.

In desperation, he even thought of going to see Phil. At times like this, guilt would be welcome. He wanted someone to blame him, to tell him he was sinful and make him penitent. Phil would be useless at that. He would probably tell him God loved him, which was the last thing Franz wanted to hear. If there was a God then He, She or It would have to have better judgment than to love the man who called himself Franz Kane.

He thought of phoning Sharma. Sharma’s reaction would be more satisfactory than Phil’s. Sharma did a fine line in distaste, his chiselled features registering disdain in every pore of his beautiful hazelnut skin. If he had disapproved of Franz’s flirting with the young girls at the forum, he would be disgusted with him now. But Sharma was busy with something more important than Franz’s need for punitive friendship.

At four o’clock in the morning, having checked on Ella and found her at last sleeping, in a foetal position with both hands clenched, hugging even her fingers to herself, he returned to the kitchen and made coffee, hot and strong and full of unwholesome caffeine.

Sipping it thoughtfully, staring at the word ‘rebellion’ written on the pad before him in Ella’s flowing, unrebellious handwriting, he began to jot down Sharma’s words to him. Turning back a page, he compared them with Ella’s written account of his dream.

It was all nonsense, of course. Half the things that were taught at The Healing Place – dream interpretation, psychic utterances, premonitions – were wishful thinking. Let people believe in them if they needed to believe in something. At least it was safer than religion, Franz thought, with its monopolies on truth and wisdom. Better to stick to imaginings that were clearly human – supernatural, paranormal, whatever people liked to call them, but with no claims to divine inspiration.

People innocently projected their wishes, their fears and their dreams on to perfectly meaningless happenings, Franz thought. They interpreted their sleeping dreams in a way that encouraged them to believe that their waking dreams were attainable, and it wasn’t Franz’s role to discourage them. People needed hopes and dreams. Life was simply too painful without them. But he had long since ceased to hope or to dream anything for himself, beyond measurable projections for The Healing Place to continue its work of helping people to live with their pain, distracting them from it or, at possible best, relieving it.

Still, the similarities between Sharma’s harmless words and Franz’s meaningless dream were interesting, for those who were interested in such things. Phil’s words too, were not so different. Both he and Sharma had mentioned Franz being called by name, or doing things in his own name. Coincidences like this would no doubt delight those who were easily pleased by coincidences, whether real or imagined. Franz thanked reality that he was unaffected by such thinking.

Coincidence had nothing to do with his next action, he thought afterwards; it was simply that, dazed by guilt, shock and lack of sleep, he wasn’t in full control of his decisions. From the kitchen worktop he picked up the pile of circulars, mailshots and bills and sifted through them to find the letter Ella had mentioned.

He glanced at the envelope, noting the Irish stamp and the Wicklow postmark before picking up the pen and crossing out the name – Mr M. Finnucane. He wrote beside it: “Not Known.”

Then he slit open the envelope, pulled out the letter and read it.

At five o’clock in the morning, he tore the letter up and threw it in the bin.

At six, he fished it out again, pieced it together and read it aloud, as if he were trying to decipher some code.

At eight-thirty he went out, closing the front door quietly behind him.

Just before half past nine, Ella opened the door, apologizing even before her visitor was over the threshold. ‘I forgot it was Sunday morning when I texted you – your busy time. You didn’t have to come.’

‘Of course I did,’ said Jan. She enveloped her in a hug, starting Ella off crying again.

‘It’s my hormones,’ Ella justified herself. ‘Pregnant women always get weepy, don’t they?’

‘Not over nothing,’ Jan said. ‘Is Franz not happy about the baby?’

‘He’s okay about it,’ Ella wept. ‘He’s not happy about me. I said I might go to church this morning.’

‘No wonder he’s not happy,’ said Jan sternly. ‘You wicked woman! Church? Whatever will the hussy get up to next?’

Ella laughed, despite herself. ‘It’s not funny. He’s got a thing about Christians.’

‘Where does that come from? He doesn’t seem the type to go in for prejudice. Do you want tea or coffee?’ asked Jan, taking hold of the kettle.

‘I should be offering you that. Tea, please. I don’t know – he said he’d had negative experiences of church folk.’

‘Like a lot of people, unfortunately. This one? Rosehip, is it?’

‘I’ll have whichever type you like. Ordinary is in the jar.’

‘I’ll have ordinary. Too early in the morning to be experimental, for me. So what did he say? Or do?’ Jan asked, turning to look searchingly at Ella’s face.

‘He didn’t hit me or anything,’ said Ella quickly.

Jan took the top off the jar and peered in. ‘I’m not used to loose tea. Two spoonfuls – three?’

‘Two heaped will do.’

‘Milk, sugar?’

‘Soya milk for me, in the door of the fridge. Or there’s almond milk and goats’. Help yourself.’

‘Spoilt for choice.’ Jan poured and stirred, found the sugar and spooned it into her own. She brought the mugs to the table and sat down. ‘So, did you think he might, then? Hit you?’

‘Of course not. He wouldn’t …. never has been that kind of …’ Her voice trailed off.

‘But you thought he might this time?’ Jan said quietly.

Ella felt tears rising in her throat, choking her again. She struggled to force them back, but lost the fight. ‘Just for a moment …’ she said.

Jan moved her chair round beside her and held her as she sobbed.

‘Sorry,’ Ella said finally, sitting upright. Jan produced a packet of tissues from her bag and handed them to her.

‘Do you carry these with you everywhere,’ Ella asked her, trying to smile, ‘for all the weeping women you mop up?’

‘At all times,’ Jan said. ‘Never know when someone might need a mop. Have you tried talking to him, Ella, or didn’t you get the chance?’

‘He’s gone out. He was up all night. I think he hates himself. He’s been losing his temper recently.’

‘How does he usually handle his anger?’

‘He never gets angry, usually. He deals with all kinds of crap at The Healing Place and never loses his cool with anyone, however rude.’

‘Are people rude to him a lot?’

‘Yes. I think they are. He seems to think it’s normal – that people look out for their own interests first and get angry with him when he doesn’t supply their demands.’

‘Their demands to be healed?’

‘Yes – well, some people come in all stressed out and want to feel peaceful and soothed by the time they leave – and some do. But others want quick-fix remedies for all their inner conflict without having to change anything in themselves, and they dump all their anger on the therapists if they don’t get what they expect. Then the therapists dump on Franz. Or some of the guides want the place run differently, without the hassle of being the one who actually runs it, so they give Franz a hard time if he doesn’t do things the way they think they’d do it if they were him.’

‘And who does Franz dump the anger on? You?’

‘No – never, until now. He has this ability to take all the shit thrown at him and shrug it off, usually. I’ve seen him be totally patient with someone who’s shouting at him, calm them down, walk out of the room and be completely relaxed with the next person who’s come to have a go at him. Sometimes I can see it’s an effort and he’s smiling through gritted teeth, but mostly he really does shake it off as he walks away.’

‘So what’s changed? Why isn’t he shaking it off now?’

‘I don’t know.’ Ella went silent, stirring her sugarless tea as though trying to make something dissolve. ‘I keep thinking ….’

‘Keep thinking what?’ Jan prompted, when she didn’t go on.

‘It’s silly, really. I mean, it isn’t connected.’

‘Maybe it is?’

‘Yeah, well, maybe. I keep thinking that I don’t know where he was born. I don’t know why that’s important suddenly. I’ve known him a year and a half, I live with him, I’m expecting his baby and he’s never once answered the question – “Where were you born, Franz?” Not to anybody who asks him.’

‘What does he say when anyone does ask him?’

‘He says something vague like, “I’m cosmopolitan” or, “It’s so long ago I’ve forgotten.” When I tried to pin him down once, he said he wasn’t the same person now and he preferred to live in the present.’

‘Not the same person he was born?’

Ella shrugged. ‘I teased him about it once – said, “Don’t tell me, you were born a girl and had a sex change.”’ She laughed.

‘Don’t joke about it,’ said Jan. ‘We had someone in our last church who had and it took him three years to tell his girlfriend. But you don’t think it’s anything like that, then?’

‘No. I think he just doesn’t want to think about the past. He wants to get away from it.’

Jan sipped her tea and gave a quick glance at her watch. ‘And you don’t know what it is he wants to get away from?’

‘No. It may be nothing. He says it simply wasn’t interesting and why go back to the past; it’s healthier to live now.’

‘I don’t think it’s ever that simple, is it?’ Jan said.

‘No, it isn’t,’ Ella said. She sighed. ‘We’re not simple creatures; we’re complicated ones. I’m coming back as a slug, next time.’

‘I’m not coming back for anything,’ Jan said. ‘From here to eternity! Listen, I have to go, Ella – if you’re okay? I’m helping with the children’s group this morning. I’ll phone you later and see if you want me to pop back this afternoon.’

‘No, don’t bother ringing. I’ll text you in the week. I’m fine now. Thanks so much for coming.’

‘My pleasure. It’s nice to get to know you. And if you think it would help any time for Phil to have a chat with Franz ….. No,’ she concluded, noting Ella’s expression. ‘I can see that wouldn’t help, not with Franz’s views on church people. Pity, though. Phil quite took to Franz. Funny, when they’re so different.’

‘I don’t think they are that different,’ said Ella thoughtfully.

‘No? Maybe you’re right; I don’t know Franz well enough to say.’ She gave Ella another hug and ran through the door and down the stairs to the street.

Ella stood there holding the door open for a few minutes after she had gone. She wondered if Jan hadn’t liked her comparing Phil with Franz. She imagined her thinking, ‘alike except that my husband doesn’t hit people.’

But then neither does Franz, Ella thought. I’m sure. I am sure about him.

She jumped when Franz appeared as she was about to close the door. They both looked startled.

‘Were you going out?’ Franz asked.

‘No, I was …. I didn’t know where you’d gone.’

‘I got croissants,’ he said, holding out the bag. ‘Or is it too late – have you had breakfast?’

‘No. But you were gone a long time.’

‘I called in at the office and looked some stuff up. Travel arrangements. I’m going to go to Ireland.’

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

Of course, he wouldn’t go immediately, just like that. That had been his first idea this morning but it must have been the lack of sleep that prompted the irrational impulse, he explained to Ella.

He agreed with her that it made no sense to go off to some unknown destination in response to a letter not even addressed to him, sent by a woman – a nun! – who had no personal knowledge of the addressee, had just gone through a patient’s address book and written to everyone not crossed out or marked ‘deceased.’

He wasn’t going to rush off to Ireland, of course not. It would be adding one more item to the pile of uncharacteristic emotional responses he had been making recently. He had the builder to see, the interview with the Shiatsu practitioner, the interview to cancel if possible with the Luciferian, not to mention Sharma to feed and support in his hopeless mission. And then there was Ella. Apologizing to Ella was going to take time and sincere practical actions to demonstrate the complete unlikelihood of any recurrence of violent impulses.

‘Of course I won’t go, just like that,’ he conceded. ‘It’ll have to be planned and thought out.’

‘But I don’t see why you’re going at all,’ Ella said, bewildered. ‘Is it because of me? Or because you got angry?’

‘No. Not directly. But it’s a sign,’ he said, ‘that I’ve been getting overstressed. You’ve said it yourself, Ella. And this letter’s a sign that I need to take a break somewhere quiet and peaceful, like Ireland.’

‘Franz, you don’t believe in signs!’

‘Well, you’re always telling me I should.’

‘I want you to talk to me,’ she said, holding on to his hand. ‘Or if not to me, to someone. You need some help and I don’t know how to help you. You don’t tell me anything.’

‘There’s nothing to tell,’ he said. ‘It’s stress. It’s not unexpected. You’ve been telling me for so long that I work crazy hours – ever since I started The Healing Place.’

‘Are you going to ask me to come with you?’

‘You’ve got your job,’ said Franz. ‘You can’t let Maz down.’

‘Maz can find someone else to serve echinacea drops and tea tree oil for a week or two. I’m not indispensable, Franz – it’s more of a problem for you.’

‘I’ll ask Alison if she’ll cover for me, take messages and pass them on if they’re urgent,’ Franz said. ‘She already keeps an eye on the appointments book and the reception area. I don’t think the extra responsibility would bother her and she’d probably welcome the extra money. She’s a single mother with a young son.’

He had looked up her record on Saturday when he returned to his office after talking to her, disturbed by how little he knew her. He had looked up a few of the other records as well.

Even in a few short years, some course leaders had left because the subjects they offered had quickly become outdated. Water divining, for example, had originally brought in twelve eager seekers – a large number, in the early days of The Healing Place’s life. Franz wondered why anyone had wanted to study that in this city environment, where the documentation for every house included the location of the water main, and the river was only half a mile away.

Other subjects had increased in demand. Flotation sessions were no longer the novelty they had been and acupuncture was no longer avoided on the grounds that it was too painful to be popular with Westerners. Pagan rituals and ancient mystic practices, formerly dismissed as embarrassingly naïve anachronisms, of interest only to anthropologists and to uneducated folk who were superstitious to the point of senility, were now considered enlightened and even sophisticated.

Records of the permanent staff revealed that Alison had spent a gap year after school in the Congo as a voluntary helper on a botanical research station in a forest clearing. She had then completed two and a half years of study at a prestigious university for a degree in maths and physics. Counting back from the age of her son Carl at the time when she had applied for the job here, Franz estimated that she must have got pregnant during her last year at university and had to leave before taking her finals. There was no mention of a degree.

She was younger than her appearance suggested – perhaps the cares of single motherhood had worn her down – and now in her early thirties she was earning a receptionist’s wage. She made more of her job than the specification required, welcoming every seeker and getting to know personally every guide of every course The Healing Place offered, even one-off workshop tutors whose courses were never repeated.

Alison’s knowledge of the freelancers and students who used The Healing Place on a day-to-day basis was undoubtedly better than Franz’s. He hadn’t known, yesterday, why he had looked up Alison’s records but as things had turned out he now thought first of Alison as holiday cover for himself.

She would keep The Healing Place running smoothly, continuing its daily work of improving the spiritual and physical health of this part of London while its founder took a well-deserved sabbatical in Ireland. He had almost, by now, convinced himself that that was what it was.

‘So you want to go on your own to Ireland, in February, to reduce your stress level?’ Ella said. ‘It sounds a bit desolate.’

‘I know. That’s why I think you’d be better staying here. You need a break as well but it wouldn’t feel like a holiday, this time of year.’

‘So go somewhere warmer, Franz! Go to Barbados and I guarantee I’ll come with you!’

‘Maybe later we will go there. But I need to go to Ireland now.’

He wasn’t meeting her eyes, she noticed.

‘I think you’re making excuses to escape from me,’ she said with sadness.

He looked at her then. ‘Oh, Ella,’ he said, ‘the last person on earth I want to escape from is you.’

‘Are you escaping from yourself, then?’ she asked.

‘I have been trying to. I think that’s what the trouble is. Now I’m trying not to. I need to go and face things.’

She caught his hand. ‘Let me come with you.’

‘I’d love you to come with me but it wouldn’t be fair on you. I need to get some things out of my system, not take them out on you.’

‘If you need space, I could move out of the flat for a while,’ Ella said.

He pulled her towards him and hugged her. ‘I don’t need space from you,’ he said, his voice muffled in her hair. ‘I want you to have space from me, till I can behave like a human being again.’

‘Come back to bed,’ she said. ‘No one behaves like a human being when they’ve been up all night.’

Before he could answer, Sharma phoned. He had followed a lead as far as Ladbroke Grove then the trail had gone cold. He planned to take a break then go back again later in the afternoon so would not accept Ella’s invitation to come for supper that evening.

‘No problem,’ Franz said, hoping the relief didn’t show in his voice. ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’

‘Maybe …. if I could come round for a short while now?’ Sharma asked. ‘And perhaps take a shower? It’s cold out and my landlady doesn’t like lodgers being there or using hot water during the day.’

‘I’m sure you can,’ said Franz. ‘Let me just check with Ella, will you, Sharma?’

Ella nodded before he could ask her, though she had only heard Franz’s side of the conversation.

‘Anything,’ she said.

‘Ella says fine,’ Franz relayed. ‘Shower, lunch, rest and anything else you need.’

‘How’s he doing?’ Ella asked as Franz put down the phone.

‘Cold. He’s been over in Ladbroke Grove but he’s run out of leads now so he wants to come here for a break, to relax and warm up. I don’t know where he’s living now but his landlady doesn’t sound the hospitable type. Ella, are you okay?’

She smiled at him. ‘I think so.’ She moved to the sofa and picked up something she was sewing.

He went and sat next to her and put an arm around her and she leaned against him.

‘If you want to talk to someone about us, feel free,’ Franz said. He felt her startled movement, under his shoulder.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because things are difficult for you and I’m part of the difficulty, so if you need to talk to someone outside of us, it’s okay by me. Don’t feel you’re being disloyal.’

‘I already did, this morning,’ she admitted.

‘Jan and Phil?’

Again, he felt her tense slightly.

‘Just Jan.’

‘Did it help?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Okay. And if there’s anything you want to say to me, I am listening. I will try to listen, I promise.’

‘Well – there is one thing.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘It might not seem relevant to you but it is to me.’

‘Say it anyway,’ he said.

Now he was the one to go tense. Ella noticed but didn’t comment.

‘You never answer the question about where you were born.’

He hesitated and she waited for him to say one of his usual responses but after a few moments’ interior struggle, he said, ‘Ireland.’

‘Ireland?’

She waited for more and when he said nothing, said, ‘Well, that wasn’t so hard to own up to, was it?’

‘No.’

‘Northern or southern Ireland?’ she asked.

‘Southern. West. County Mayo.’

He was very tense now. Ella could feel his heart pounding. She wasn’t sure why but she felt it was time to back off.

‘Thank you for telling me,’ she said. She wound her arms round him and kissed him. ‘What shall we give Sharma for lunch?’

She felt his body relax.

‘What have we got in the fridge?’ he asked.

‘Not much. A few veg I was going to use to make soup. I’ll do that and then go to the deli. Do you know if there’s anything he doesn’t eat?’

‘Beef and pork but I don’t think he’s totally veggie.’

‘I’ll get the usual stuff. Samosas?’

‘I’ll go out to the deli. You rest. Don’t bother making soup.’

‘He’ll need something hot after hanging around the streets in this weather. No, you stay here, Franz, in case he comes soon, and have a chat with him. I forgot to go to the cashpoint so I’ll do that too.’

‘I’ve got money. I went yesterday,’ he said. ‘Help yourself.’

She went out to the lobby inside the front door and took his wallet from the pocket of his jacket hanging on the wall.

‘No, you haven’t, Franz,’ she said, coming back into the kitchen. ‘It’s empty.’

‘Of course it is. I forgot.’

He’s got another woman, she thought, her heart lurching. The outbursts of anger. The sudden trip to Ireland on his own – really on his own? And he’s spent all the money he took out yesterday.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll go to the cashpoint.’

‘You sure you’re all right? You look a bit pale.’

‘I’m fine. I’ll go now. See you later.’

Sharma arrived looking tired, cold and preoccupied. Franz gave him a clean towel and directed him towards the shower.

‘Use anything in there,’ he said. ‘Take your time.’

He returned to chopping vegetables for the soup. Halfway through, he stopped, the knife poised over the chopping board, his head down, thinking of nothing. He stayed like that, in suspended animation, till the sound of Ella’s key in the door broke his reverie.

Ella came over and kissed him. ‘You didn’t have to do the soup. Thank you.’

She unpacked groceries and set them out on the table. Sharma came out of the shower, the damp towel over his arm, his thick dark hair tousled.

‘This is kind of you,’ he said. He held the towel as though not sure what to do with it. Ella took it from him and gave him a hug, which he returned awkwardly.

‘What’s with the dragon landlady, Sharma?’ Franz asked. ‘You pay rent and you’re not allowed to be there at weekends or take a shower?’

‘It was fine at first,’ Sharma said. ‘She seemed friendly and the rent was reasonable.’

Ella gestured him to the table and he sat down, his eyes lighting on the food. Ella pushed the paper bag full of samosas towards him. He took one tentatively and held it in his hand.

‘Don’t wait,’ said Ella. ‘Eat. Make crumbs.’

He smiled at her and obeyed.

‘So when did the rot set in?’ Franz asked.

‘Mhm?’ Sharma said through a mouthful.

‘When did the landlady turn dragon?’ Ella interpreted.

‘Oh.’ Sharma looked embarrassed. ‘Shortly after I arrived there.’

‘How come?’ asked Franz.

Sharma choked on a crumb and gulped.

‘She made a pass at you,’ Ella understood. ‘And you spurned her amorous advances.’

‘Ella!’ said Franz, trying not to smile.

‘Well, yes, actually,’ said Sharma. They all started laughing. ‘It was not funny,’ he said, ‘at the time. Or now.’

‘Is she pretty?’ Ella asked.

‘No, she is not,’ he said. ‘Nor young.’

‘What does she look like – middle-aged and desperate?’ asked Ella with interest.

‘Ella,’ Franz said.

‘Oh, sorry, Sharma – not that I mean she’d have to be desperate, to go for you ….’

‘I mean, you know what she looks like,’ said Franz.

‘Do we know her?’ Ella looked surprised.

‘Sure. Green scales, spiky back, breathes fire. Average dragon – right, Sharma?’

He laughed, covering his mouth with his hand. ‘She is not unlike that!’

Franz was glad to see him laugh.

‘So why are you still there, Sharma?’ Ella asked.

His face clouded over. ‘I couldn’t find anywhere else. Only flat-shares and I need to be by myself.’

‘Are flats too expensive?’ asked Franz.

‘Round here, yes they are.’

Ella hesitated, knowing Franz would not ask the question. ‘But Sharma, when the family were with you, you rented a flat for all four of you and Sarita wasn’t working. How come you can’t afford more than a room or a flat-share now?’

He cleared his throat. ‘I send money,’ he said quietly.

Ella was horrified. ‘To Sarita?’

‘To her brother, to give her for the children,’ he said.

Franz sat down at the table and stared at him. ‘Don’t feel you have to tell us but if you don’t mind me asking: you know where she is, then, and ….has this man left her now?’

‘No. He gives her lavish presents but he does not consider it his responsibility to support our children.’

‘Sarita told you this? She’s in touch with you?’ Ella asked.

‘No. Her eldest brother. He phoned me. Her brothers are concerned for her. The children cry every day and want to come home. They tell him they want their father and he doesn’t know what to do.’ He spoke steadily but one corner of his mouth was twitching.

‘What will you do?’ asked Franz.

‘I will do nothing,’ said Sharma, very quietly. ‘I will wait.’

‘Till when?’ asked Ella.

‘I have asked Sarita’s brother that if she says she wants to come home he will give her the airfare. I have sent him money for the fares.’

‘Will they come back?’ Ella asked.

Franz raised one eyebrow at her. How would he know?

‘I feel that she will come,’ Sharma said, even more quietly. ‘The children will bring her. But I don’t know if Sarita will be my wife again. That, I don’t know. Only she knows.’

Franz put an arm round Sharma’s shoulders and they sat there in silence. Ella moved to rescue the soup from boiling over.

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

‘How did you track the kidnapped boys to there, Sharma?’ Ella was asking. ‘I mean, is it like following a scent or something?’

‘It’s like following a trail of fear,’ Sharma said. His usually quiet voice was quieter than normal, and sombre. ‘It’s not consistent. There are breaks in between. But in places the boys would find familiar – like the local swimming pool or the gates of the high school, where one of the boys’ elder brothers go – there is an imprint, as though the boys have reached out and clutched at something that feels safe.’

Franz felt a chill go through him. He realized, more than before, that Sharma was exposing himself to suffering on a level most people took trouble to avoid.

‘So how did that lead you to Ladbroke Grove?’ Ella asked.

‘It got harder, the further away the boys were taken from their own surroundings. The police have a witness who saw a child in a car hammering on the window and mouthing something then being pulled back, but the car then went on to a roundabout and she couldn’t see which exit it took. I drove around in the police car till I got an imprint.’

‘Where was the imprint?’

‘A McDonald’s drive-thru. It must have been the last familiar sign they saw. After that, the trail disappeared. I got out of the police car and walked the streets for four hours.’

‘You’re not going back today, are you? Stay here and rest,’ Ella said.

‘They may be asleep, or drugged, Ella. If they wake up, their fear will be intense and they may fasten on to some object or some place that will help me identify where they are. I need to be in the vicinity.’

‘Can we do anything to help?’ Ella asked.

‘You can pray for me,’ he said. ‘If you pray?’

‘Sort of, sometimes,’ she said. ‘I’m not very good at it. I can ask someone else to pray for you, if you want.’

‘Please do,’ he said. ‘I need all the help I can get.’

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘And we’re here for you if you want to take a break. Any time.’

‘I appreciate that. Thank you.’

Ella gave a quick sideways glance at Franz then asked Sharma, ‘Do you pray, then, Sharma? What do you believe?’

‘I believe in God,’ he said. ‘One God, who is for everyone.’

‘Were you brought up to believe in God?’ Ella asked.

Franz stood up and started clearing food away.

‘I grew up asking questions,’ Sharma said. ‘My father was Hindu and my mother was Muslim. Both their families disowned them for marrying. Their love for each other was perceived as a lack of love and respect for their families and a rejection of their families’ gods.’

‘Did they both go on practising their religions?’ asked Ella.

‘They couldn’t, except privately. They were both rejected by their communities. They prayed at home, in their different ways. My mother always fasted for Ramadan and both of them would take us somewhere to celebrate Diwali. Out of respect for my mother, my father didn’t keep a shrine at home but he made one in his office.’

‘And the family didn’t eat either beef or pork,’ said Ella, understanding.

‘No.’

‘It must have been hard, to see your parents rejected by their communities,’ Ella said. ‘Didn’t that put you off religion?’

‘Does anyone want coffee?’ asked Franz. He filled the kettle and the noise of the tap made the conversation pause.

‘Not for me, thank you, Franz,’ Sharma said. ‘No, it didn’t put me off religion, Ella. God is still God, whatever people do to him. It put me off prejudice. I can’t support the idea of a God who likes some of the people he made and rejects all the others.’

Ella nodded. ‘My mother was the only child of orthodox Jewish parents who wanted her to marry a rabbi. At sixteen she skived off school to go to a rock concert and found her true vocation as a groupie – starting with a forty-year old rock musician who preached cannabis and free love.’

‘Her parents disowned her?’ Sharma asked.

‘No. They constantly tried to contact her, throughout my childhood. They would have loved to have grandchildren to spoil, no matter how they had arrived in the world. No, it was her who disowned her parents.’

‘Did you ever get to know them?’

‘I met my grandmother once, after my grandfather died. My mother didn’t go to the funeral but she dropped in to visit her mother for half an hour afterwards. We were made very welcome,’ Ella said with sadness in her voice. ‘We liked her.’

‘You and your brother?’

‘Yes.’

‘What about you, Franz?’ Sharma asked.

They both looked towards him. He was leaning against the kitchen cupboards waiting for the kettle to boil, reading a section of the Sunday paper that Ella had left on the worktop. He had obviously switched off from the conversation.

Sharma stood up. ‘I must go,’ he said. ‘Thank you for your hospitality.’

Franz came back to them. ‘How are you getting back there, Sharma? Is the police car picking you up?’

‘No. They received a tip-off that the boys had been sighted in Battersea so they are watching a house in that area now.’

‘Is that where you’re going?’

‘No. I will go back to Ladbroke Grove. It’s where the boys are. I think this tip-off may have been made by someone associated with the kidnappers, to draw the police away from where they are keeping them.’

Franz gave a silent whistle. ‘You can be that sure?’

‘Sometimes I can’t see anything at all,’ Sharma said. ‘But when I see, I am sure. This time it is clear.’

‘Can the kidnappers do anything to hide the boys – from your seeing them, I mean?’ Ella asked. ‘You said it had gone silent, this morning. Is that because they’re asleep or drugged, as you said, and not sending out any signals for help, or could it be something the kidnappers are doing? Can someone confuse the signals, kind of?’

‘That can happen,’ Sharma told her. ‘One sign of the influence of evil is confusion. Another is apathy. The person trying to see what is happening can become tired and overwhelmed. They want to do something positive but they find they can’t think straight and they lose motivation. A lot of police investigations get dropped just when the police are getting somewhere, and the officers themselves don’t know why they’ve given up suddenly or lost interest.’

‘That’s quite scary,’ Ella said. ‘You mean, mind control?’

‘All evil is about control,’ Sharma said. ‘Control of the environment or resources, wealth, people. Even positive things, like making people feel good about themselves, can be motivated by a desire to control.’

‘Rebellion?’ said Franz.

Sharma looked at him and nodded.

‘Why rebellion – where does that fit it?’ Ella asked. ‘Rebellion against what?’

‘Against God, ultimately: people doing what they decide is a good thing, without willingness to be stopped if God has another way of doing it.’

‘But then if there’s no God there’s no rebellion,’ Franz said, ‘and people are free to make up their own minds about what is good or not, rather than being pawns in some divine scheme for them.’

Instead of answering, Sharma shook his hand and then, rather awkwardly, hugged him. ‘Thank you for your kindness, Franz. I value your friendship,’ he said. ‘And Ella.’

Ella hugged him as Franz went to fetch Sharma’s coat.

‘Sharma,’ she said, ‘will you let me give you some money? Don’t say no, out of pride.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not out of pride – Franz gave me two hundred pounds yesterday, so I’m fine. Thank you, Ella.’

The empty wallet, Ella thought. The day after he went to the cashpoint. He took out two hundred pounds and then gave it all to Sharma. She felt a mixture of relief and guilt at having doubted him. But then if there wasn’t another woman why was he going to Ireland? Without her?

‘I’ll walk with you to the station, Sharma,’ Franz told him, coming back with both their coats. ‘And you will phone if you need anything? You’ve got your phone on you?’

‘Yes. I will ring and let you know how things are going.’

Franz let Sharma go out of the door ahead of him. He turned back and looked at Ella and knew what she wanted to ask him.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If you want to. Go and see Jan and Phil and ask them to pray for Sharma, if you think it will do any good. Or even if you don’t.’

When he came back from walking Sharma to the station, Ella had gone. Franz started to wash up the plates but sleep and dizziness overwhelmed him. He sat down on the sofa in the corner and fell into a heavy sleep.

When he awoke it was almost dark and he couldn’t, for a moment, think where he was. Ella had been gone for a long time.

Franz tried not to think about her and Jan and Phil together. He thought about Sharma walking alone through dark streets in a part of London that wasn’t his home territory and about Sharma’s inexplicable mode of perception, seeing or sensing things that no one else could.

From there it was a short step to thinking about Sharma’s vision of Franz walking alone in a dark place, with some sinister figure walking behind him, who would make the wrong decisions in his name if Franz didn’t make them for himself. He stood up and switched on the lights.

To distract himself from picturing all The Healing Place’s personnel as potential stalkers and enemies, he flicked between channels on the television and when he found nothing distracting enough, he tried out a few programmes that Ella had recorded.

He watched ten minutes of the documentary she had told him about, in which hospital patients were monitored for positive responses to complementary therapies, in comparison with patients who were given none, then he fast-forwarded to the conclusion.

The doctor who had initiated the experiment had a personal interest in complementary medicine and had been keen to prove its value. She admitted to being perplexed by the results. The patients felt wonderfully relaxed, she said, but their rate of post-operative infection and complications was exceptionally high. When pushed for a conclusion, by the narrator of the documentary, the doctor said the experiment would have to be repeated, with more patients and more specific parameters. Nothing could be concluded at this stage, except that the current results had not been what she expected.

Typical waffle, thought Franz. Sitting on the fence, neither one thing nor the other. It justified his approach at The Healing Place: let people believe what they wanted. Most things could be proved or disproved to the satisfaction of those who wanted to believe or disbelieve them, and today’s scientific certainty was only certain until some newer scientific proof proved the opposite.

He thought about what Ella had told him about Luciferianism, or whatever the guy had called it. Their philosophy didn’t sound too unlike Franz’s own dislike for moral absolutes. The guy would probably try to persuade him, as most of the would-be guides did, that he and Franz were on the same wavelength and in total agreement over the fundamental principles of whatever it was.

Franz thought he might find it difficult to convince this Leroy that his own views did not coincide with his. Franz had voiced very similar views in his time, convincing rival proponents of enlightenment and health that ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ were outdated concepts and everybody had their own valid ‘truth.’

He had referred to people’s beliefs as ‘myths’ and stressed that this was in no way a derogatory term but a neutral one, while knowing that myths, by definition, were mythical and that this was a sophisticated way of inferring that truth didn’t enter the frame, in anyone’s belief system.

He did not want to recognize himself in Leroy Watson and certainly did not want to admit something as sick as satanism into The Healing Place. He had recognized something of himself in Phil, who believed that wrong and right were as different as night and day, and he had not wanted to be associated with him either, with something as personally distasteful to him as Christian morality.

He would like to know what Phil might say to this Leroy guy. It would be like listening to two sides of Franz himself arguing with each other. He wondered if he could engineer a meeting between them, while he stayed neutral and observed them. Sitting on the fence.

Sharma’s words returned to him. He couldn’t sit on the fence: he would have to make decisions for himself, if he didn’t want someone else – someone who would topple him into a place where no one could rescue him – to make those decisions for him. And Sharma had quite confidently used the words ‘wrong’ and ‘harmful’ about the decisions that other person would make.

Could the other person be the Luciferian? Or could it be Phil? But in the dream Phil had been standing on the far side of the ravine on solid ground, with Ella – not walking behind him making the tightrope shake under his feet.

He would have to decide whether to admit Leroy Watson’s way of thinking into his own thoughts and whether to let these people have a place at the next forum of The Healing Place and let results speak for themselves. If he claimed it was a religion, Franz could reject it on the grounds that The Healing Place didn’t do religion. But if Watson claimed it was not a religion but an ancient alternative to it, would the seekers go for satanism?

Yes, probably, if it had another name and appealed to seekers’ self-interest. After all, spiritualism, outmoded and discredited as it had been, had resurrected itself under different names and forms and was popular with those who believed it was new. Among other things, seekers who came to The Healing Place were seeking novelty.

Could Franz, with his philosophy of tolerant inclusion clearly spelled out in The Healing Place’s constitution and written policy, go against all his stated principles and keep this Leroy Watson out, on the basis of nothing more than an instinct that everything he stood for was harmful, not only to the seekers but to The Healing Place and to Franz himself?

Or would Franz give Leroy and his Luciferians a foothold in The Healing Place, in the name of his own reputation of fairness and consistency and probably cowardice? Would he say nothing and let this unknown force of evil-good-reversal into the programme of his institution and the fabric of his life, and take the consequences?

The decision was his and his alone. He would have to take it in his own name, with his own authority, or else this Leroy Watson – if he were the man on the tightrope – would force it on him, quoting Franz’s name and enforcing his own policy against him.

Undoubtedly, Franz thought, he was becoming paranoid. A trip to Ireland, even if nothing like a holiday, might actually achieve a worthwhile purpose in getting him out of The Healing Place for a while. Alternatively, he could take a real holiday somewhere else. But that would be running away. Events were catching up with him. Going with the flow this time, rather than trying to keep control, might actually take him in a direction he wanted to go.

Either that, or he would lose everything.

No, there was no other option. He would go to Ireland. Time was running out. The cracks were widening. He would make a decision and go, in his own name.

And he would tell Ella everything.

Though maybe not just now.

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

‘I’m not going to talk about suing,’ said Leroy Watson on the phone.

‘Are you blackmailing me?’ said Franz incredulously.

‘No, man – that’s what I’m saying. I don’t want to go that way. But to refuse to see me even to discuss what I’m offering, when your mission statement says you believe in inclusion, sounds like discrimination. Also it could be seen as racism.’

‘Racism?’

‘Being that I’m black.’

‘I could hardly be expected to know that, on the phone!’ said Franz.

‘No, but in a court of law of course it would be seen,’ said Leroy.

‘Look,’ said Franz, with a hint of desperation. ‘We don’t have any space free for hire at the moment. I’ve just interviewed a lady who does Shiatsu and told her she has to use her own premises. I’ve had to mediate between our reflexologist and a hypnotherapist because the hypnotherapist can’t wake up his clients on time for the reflexologist to take over the room for her sessions. You see where I’m coming from? Logistics, not prejudice.’

‘But you’re trying to accommodate them, some way,’ said Leroy. ‘Me, you won’t even see for a chat.’

‘We don’t do religion,’ said Franz. ‘We’re a Healing Place for spiritual health: we embrace every kind of spiritual path and health therapy but we avoid religion or cults. That’s our clear policy.’

‘I don’t see that clearly in the small print of your written policy, and it sounds like discrimination to me.’

‘It’s not discrimination; it’s setting boundaries,’ said Franz. ‘And it does clearly state “nonreligious.”’

He was beginning to feel light-headed, dizzy. He remembered having this sensation the first time Leroy had phoned. If he had been more in control of his senses, he would have asked more questions then. He shouldn’t have made the appointment in the first place; now it was proving a nightmare to cancel. Surely the man couldn’t sue him?

‘We know our limits,’ Franz persevered. ‘We’re still a fairly recently established organization. The spiritual paths available to people have proliferated in the past few years. I’ve simply had to recognize that we can’t do everything.’

‘Luciferianism don’t come under the heading of religion,’ Leroy insisted. ‘We’re anti-religion. Religion has brainwashed people for centuries. We’re anti-guilt trip, anti-morality.’

Franz felt his brain becoming fogged. Why didn’t somebody come into the office and interrupt him? When he wanted to be left alone to get on with something, he was invariably interrupted every five minutes.

‘Okay,’ he said, wanting to end the conversation. ‘Okay. This is what I can offer you – and it’s the best I can do. Send me all the information you have about your organization. I’ll need to know all its affiliations – your head office or central hub or whatever, the person in charge of your group and of the wider organization – and its policies and mission statement, with a couple of references from members or people who are prepared to say how they’ve benefited from being Luciferites.’

‘Luciferians.’

‘Sure. Send me the information and I promise I’ll read it carefully, take up the references, and then – when we have vacancies, I’ll see what we can do.’

‘Sounds like you’re fobbing me off, man.’

‘No. I’m telling you the procedure for becoming associated with The Healing Place.’

‘You do this with everybody?’

‘Unless they’re known to us previously.’

He hadn’t put the Shiatsu lady through any procedures. Tokuko was petite and self-assured. Her spoken English was much more fluent, face to face, than on the phone. Franz had taken one look at her smiling face and known she would be an asset to The Healing Place.

It was true he had told her there was no space available for her to see clients there but he had mentally allowed her to jump the queue. He had already made up his mind that if the Nordic massage practitioner who time-shared a room with the acupuncturist (who did, admittedly, tend to leave needles lying around on the couch) had one more row with her in public, her time-slot would be offered to Tokuko.

In the meantime, he had agreed to oversee the updating and redesigning of Tokuko’s modest publicity leaflets and had booked her a desk at the next forum evening to attract clients. None of this was he going to let Leroy know. He had an uneasy feeling that Leroy knew anyway. Why had the man gone to the trouble of obtaining a copy of The Healing Place’s statement of policy?

Franz was not going to be forced into a corner. Not by anybody. He wanted Leroy to go and leave him alone, with no hassle.

‘I’m sorry, I have to go,’ he said firmly. ‘I have a meeting. Send me your details, okay? Bye now.’

He put down the phone and found he was shaking. This was getting beyond a joke, these reactions of his. He must calm down. He ran a place devoted to making people relax, for God’s sake. Not for God’s sake – for their own sake. He shook his head, impatient with his lack of control over even the words he chose. He needed this break.

His meeting was with Alison, who was delighted at the prospect of taking over the office while Franz went to Ireland. She was so delighted that Franz wondered how easy it would be to take the reins back from her and make her return to being a receptionist when he returned. It might be time, as Ella had been saying for so long, to delegate some of his duties to someone else.

He was surprised to find how familiar she was with the computer system.

‘My son uses a similar program,’ she said. ‘He taught me.’

‘How old is your son?’

‘Ten, going on thirty! He’ll be eleven next month. I’ll be able to get him the new software he wants, with this money.’

Franz was touched. ‘Don’t spend all your extra salary on boys’ toys for your son!’

‘That’s what it’s for. If you have kids, you want to do the best for them, don’t you?’

He supposed so. He wondered if he would feel like that about Ella’s baby. Then he realized he was still thinking of it as Ella’s, not his.

‘I’m about to find out,’ he said.

Alison’s eyes widened. ‘Is Ella expecting?’

‘Don’t say anything to anyone,’ he cautioned. ‘She hasn’t told anybody yet.’

Alison was even happier to be entrusted with a confidence. ‘I won’t say a word,’ she promised. ‘Tell Ella I’m really happy for her. For both of you.’

He probably wouldn’t pass the message on. Ella might not be pleased that he’d mentioned it to Alison. Though it wasn’t true that Ella hadn’t told anyone. She had told Maz, Jan, probably Phil. Maybe Sharma. Her mother? He should have asked her whom she had told and if she minded him telling anyone. Why hadn’t he discussed that with her? The answer came back to him like an arrow: because he had nearly hit her. The ultimate conversation stopper.

‘When is the baby due?’ Alison asked.

He hadn’t asked Ella that either. ‘Oh – she’s only just found out. About seven months. Okay, is that all you need to know about the running of the office?’

If she was taken aback by his sudden shut-down, she hid it well.

‘That’s fine. I won’t take up any more of your time. Will there be a number to contact you while you’re away, Franz, or do you want a complete break from this place?’

‘The usual mobile number. Feel free to leave messages and I’ll call you.’

It was the first time since its inception that Franz had taken any kind of break from The Healing Place, even for a day. The thought occurred to him: if I go, if I do this in my own name, who will I be by the time I return? Will I still be free to be Franz Kane, director of The Healing Place, or will it have all slipped away from me, never to let me back in?

Although Alison knew his phone numbers by heart, he handed her one of his cards from the pile on the desk and she took it politely. The card told her that he was Franz Kane of The Healing Place and included a list of numbers and contact details. Although he had told Ella, from the beginning of their relationship, that he kept his home life separate – and in fact he had never, until Sharma’s visit on Sunday, invited anyone but Ella into his modest accommodation – Ella had commented that he was never really off-duty. Now he would be. He would switch his phone off and pick up Alison’s messages once or twice a day. It felt scary to be out of touch, as scary as starting The Healing Place had been initially, though The Healing Place now felt like security – his only security, perhaps. That was a dangerous situation to be in. Certainly it was time to go away for a while. He had made a purely rational decision, he told himself, on solid logical grounds.

‘I’d only ring in an emergency,’ Alison assured him. ‘I’m sure we’ll be fine. When are you planning to leave?’

‘I’m about to book the flight now. I’ll let you know.’

‘Is Ella okay to fly, this early on in her pregnancy?’

He couldn’t remember if he had said enough for Ella not to expect to go with him. She would probably be glad to be rid of him for a while, after Saturday night. Still, he hadn’t offered her the choice; he had made lame excuses about Maz needing her at work, instead of telling her honestly that he needed to go alone.

Did he really need, or want, to go alone? It would be easier, certainly, with Ella beside him. But how much would he need to tell her? ‘Least said, soonest mended,’ his mother used to say – one of the catchphrases she had picked up from the Irish mothers and made part of her vocabulary, trying to sound more native than the people born on that soil.

He didn’t want to think about his mother.

Franz was used to assuming that he and Ella were a liberal couple, equal partners who discussed everything. What was the phrase she had used for him: Neanderthal in a New Age kind of way? He had better give her a call, immediately. He picked up the phone. Alison, seeing that he wasn’t answering her, left the office discreetly. He was a busy man, she told herself, with a lot on his mind. It had been nice of him to share his and Ella’s good news with her, but she mustn’t impose on his time.

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

‘Wholiest Wholefood Store,’ said Ella. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Hi.’

‘Franz? I’m glad you rang. Sharma’s here.’

‘Oh, okay. What’s happening with the boys?’

‘D’you want to talk to him and come back to me afterwards? I’m with a customer at the moment.’

‘Sure.’

‘Hi, Franz.’

‘Sharma.’

He sounded exhausted, Franz thought. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes. I’ll just take the phone in the back, Franz; hold on. Okay, now I can talk. I found the place where the boys were being held, but they’ve been taken somewhere else.’

‘You’re sure they were there?’

‘Yes. I found the house and the police found evidence in the communal bins behind it – burnt shreds of school uniform belonging to the boys – but nothing in the house itself, which is divided into flats. One of the flats had been cleaned very thoroughly.’ He paused. ‘Also there were traces of blood on the pavement outside.’

‘Oh no.’

‘They’re not dead. I couldn’t pick up any signals from them for a long time. There was a vague terror, that’s all. They were terrified but they weren’t pinning their fear on to anything concrete. It was as though they couldn’t find anything at all familiar to hang on to.’

‘Have you been out on the streets all this time? All night?’

‘No. I went into a church to sleep and the priest came and spoke to me and made up a bed for me in the sacristy.’

Franz gave a short laugh. ‘It’s as well for you he didn’t know who you are or what you do!’

‘He knew. I told him. He phoned round and got all his folk praying and fasting for me. They’d already been praying for the boys to be found, since the TV news went out. He said he would do anything he could to help. He offered me a meal but I didn’t feel like it. But I did get some sleep. I woke up, I think when the boys were moved. I heard one of them screaming.’

Franz still couldn’t quite believe it. ‘Is this a Catholic priest we’re talking about?’

‘Yes. A nice fellow. I told him I’d let him know what happens. I’d found the house because the boys left an imprint on it but that must have been as they were leaving. I got there too late. But there were fear imprints at various places leading away from the house. The priest drove me. We had to go very slowly and keep stopping but eventually we got back here. I think they’re near here now, Franz.’

‘A Roman Catholic priest offered to drive a psychic halfway round London to help him follow his extra-sensory perception?’

‘He was a human being helping another human being.’ Sharma sounded weary.

‘Sorry. Sharma, is there anything I can do to help?’

‘I don’t think so. Ella’s offered to make me a meal, back at the flat. Maz said she’d cover for her for an hour or two.’

Ella had invited another man back to his flat when he was not there, without asking him? Franz caught himself and stopped the thought. Neanderthal. He replaced it immediately with positive thinking. Ella was helping their friend – his colleague – by taking him to their shared home. She was doing this kind thing not only for Sharma but for Franz.

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ he said heartily. ‘You chill out for a while, Sharma. I’ll catch you later. Call if I can do anything to help.’

‘Did you find someone yet to cover the first session of my courses?’

‘I drew a blank. Tried everyone I knew and quite a few that I didn’t.’

‘You don’t need a clairvoyant, necessarily. Not for the first session. The students can be given some background material to read when they get home, and I usually start with a question session about what their expectations are and their experience, if any. I have some questions written out, so you could give them those as a written questionnaire to fill in for the first twenty minutes. Then give them some visualization exercises. I can give you those too.’

‘Are you suggesting I do it?’

‘You could do it, if you were willing to.’

‘I’m going away for a week or so.’

‘Oh.’

Franz could sense Sharma’s spirits sinking at this news. The poor guy didn’t have much support and was involved in something dangerous and difficult. It wasn’t a good time to leave him. Franz didn’t need to go to Ireland really. Did he?

‘That’s okay,’ Sharma said. ‘I forgot. Ella told me. Ireland, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, but I’m having second thoughts now. Did Ella say we were both going?’

‘No. She wasn’t sure what you wanted. Are you okay, Franz?’

‘Yes, fine. No – I don’t know. I don’t want to let you down, with these courses.’

‘How soon are you planning to go?’

‘Soon, if I do go. In the next day or two.’

‘The first session is scheduled for five days’ time. You wouldn’t be back by then.’

‘I could be.’

That was an idea. He could go for a couple of days, get it over with – however it turned out – and be back before anyone had really missed him.

‘Is there any way you could get the material to me, Sharma, before I go, so I could take it with me and study it while I’m away? No – sorry – forget that. You’ve got enough on your mind without that.’

‘I can get it to you. It’s all on the computer. I can either email it to you or give it to Ella. I’ll do that today, as long as there are no more sudden developments. Okay?’

‘You’re a hero,’ Franz told him.

Sharma laughed, and for the first time sounded lighter. ‘Are you sure you’re all right, yourself, Franz? I feel concerned about you.’

‘You just worry about yourself and the boys. I’m cool.’

He had put the phone down before he remembered Sharma was meant to be handing him back to Ella. The phone rang almost immediately, with a query from Alison about a visitor, so he didn’t have a chance to call Ella back.

‘He says you asked him to come by and take a look at the ceiling in the main hall,’ Alison said.

‘Right. I’m on my way.’

He left the office unlocked and went to the front desk where a tall burly man stood waiting. It wasn’t Rory, the contractor Franz had called.

‘Franz Kane,’ Franz introduced himself, smiling and shaking the man’s hand. ‘Has Rory sent you?’

‘My brother Mick sent me. Mick Murphy. I’m Sean.’

‘Mick Murphy?’

‘Maria’s – Marisa’s – da. Said you had a problem with the ceiling that needed more than a coat of plaster.’

‘He did offer to ask his brother to take a look,’ Franz said carefully, ‘but I said I would have to contact the original builder, and I’m expecting him any time now.’

‘He hasn’t come, then?’

‘Not so far.’

He would have to call Rory again. Going away on this trip would cause more delay. He doubted whether it would be more than a formality anyway; Rory would be unlikely to admit that his firm could have made a major mistake.

‘I might as well take a look at it anyways, seeing as I’m here?’

As Franz hesitated, Sean added, ‘No charge for taking a look, sure.’

‘Okay. Alison, what’s going on in the hall at the moment?’

‘A Pilates class.’

‘With Gerda?’

‘Sharon. Gerda’s off with disc trouble.’

‘Oh yes.’ Not a great advert for Pilates, the instructor getting back trouble, Franz thought. ‘Will Sharon mind if we interrupt the class for a few seconds?’

Alison raised her eyebrows. ‘Probably! Want me to go in ahead and ask her?’

‘Good thinking!’

Sean grinned and shook his head at Franz. ‘Women, huh?’

Franz was defensive. ‘It’s their private space. You can’t expect them to like the builders walking in while they’re in leotards.’

Sean grinned even more widely. ‘Sounds great to me!’

‘You might have to come back another time,’ Franz said. He was angry again.

It was more with himself, he recognized. He had thought nothing at the time of putting Marisa in a vulnerable position. He had made suggestive remarks to seekers who were clearly not on any kind of path to enlightenment and they had taken his tone as permission to treat her as a potential target for their sexual gratification. Hearing the same tone coming out of Sean’s mouth made him find himself repugnant. Even before almost hitting his girlfriend without any provocation. He was in a position of trust at The Healing Place and he had taken it lightly and put women at risk.

It wasn’t fair to take his anger with himself out on Sean. Sean had not come into The Healing Place seeking enlightenment but through the kindness of his brother, seeking to help with a building problem – though seekers came in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons, Franz reminded himself. Sean might turn out to be a genuine seeker, for all he knew, and return sometime to use The Healing Place’s facilities or education programme.

He had a sudden vision of Sean, all beer belly and biceps, performing the studied and graceful movements in a Tai Chi class and was seized by an urge to laugh but stifled it. It was another sign to Franz that he was not in control at the moment.

Alison returned. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘You can go in now.’

‘You’re a magician!’

She laughed. ‘I’ll sign up for white witch classes, shall I?’

Franz smiled reproachfully at her, and she took the point and blushed. No jokes were allowed about Healing Place courses by Healing Place employees in front of outsiders, however implausible the staff member might find a particular set of beliefs.

Franz took Sean into the hall, where the Pilates students huddled in a corner and waited defensively while Sean surveyed the ceiling. Despite his joking remarks he did not, Franz noticed, give more than a cursory nod to the leotard-clad ladies, though his eyes widened slightly when he saw the one male member of the class, also clad in a leotard of a particularly bright shade of shiny pink. Sean seemed more embarrassed than lascivious and kept his eyes, after that first quick glance, on the ceiling. In fact, Franz thought, he hardly did more than glance at that. The two men were out of the hall and back in the foyer in seconds.

‘What do you think?’ asked Franz.

‘Serious problem,’ said Sean. ‘Don’t let your builder pull the wool over your eyes, now. That’s not a matter for plastering. Call me if he tries to wriggle out of it by saying it is. Here’s my card. I’ll bid you good day now. Thank you, lady.’ He nodded to Alison and was gone.

Franz’s heart sank.

‘That doesn’t sound good,’ said Alison.

Franz tried to think of some positive thing to say, and failed.

‘It may not turn out to be too bad,’ he managed finally. He had a clear recollection of Ella saying something about positive thinking becoming denial. If there was a serious problem in the construction of The Healing Place building, there would be no denying it.

He would have to get a surveyor in, sue the contractor, or the architect possibly. Even if he won compensation, it would take a very long time. In the meantime the premises would become a building site, too dangerous for public use, and he would default on his loans and go bankrupt. Ella and he would be homeless, with a newborn baby. He wondered what the Positive Thinking – Change Your Life guide and the Name Your Dream And Claim Your Destiny guide would make of that one. Whatever it was, he didn’t think he’d find it helpful at present.

Ella. He must ring her. It sounded as though she wasn’t expecting to go to Ireland with him. Did she want time apart from him or would she like to go with him? Did she still want them to be a couple at all? He thought so, and not just because of the baby. She loved him; he was almost sure of it. He went into the office ready to call her and saw there was somebody in there already, standing by his desk, looking through his mail.

He had never seen the man before but he knew as soon as he set eyes on him, as well as by the instant return of that unprecedented lethargy that had settled on Franz each time he had spoken to him on the phone, that this was Leroy Watson. Waiting for him.

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

Now would have been a good time to summon up some anger, Franz thought, to order the man out of his private office then give Alison grief as well for having sent him up here without checking. But, depressed by the bad news about the ceiling, as well as assailed by this unaccountable heaviness, he couldn’t feel anything more than a helpless resignation.

Leroy was smiling. He was a tall, slim, striking-looking man with a loose-limbed, easy posture that proclaimed self-confidence. He welcomed Franz into Franz’s office with a wide smile and offered a warm handshake. His approach and manner, even his appearance and his build, closely resembled Franz’s own, only differing in colour of hair and skin.

Franz’s first thought was, Why did I ever resent Phil? The vicar who had also reminded him of himself, with the easy arm round the shoulders and friendly manner, reminded him now of a Franz he would far rather be than the soul-brother of this man.

Phil’s pleasant exterior concealed nothing more than a pleasant character, Franz felt, however misguided he might consider the man’s beliefs and lifestyle. Leroy’s pleasant exterior covered something quite different. He emanated a kind of force-field that was uncomfortable to enter, an energy or electricity that pulsed with restlessness. Franz recalled a question he often asked when interviewing new guides: ‘What is your energy source?’ What was Leroy’s? Rage? Not quite, Franz thought.

He was finding it hard to think clearly. Hate, perhaps? Nearer. He would hit on the word in a minute, if his mind would only clear. He would recognize what motivated this man, because he would recognize its existence in himself. And he wouldn’t like what he recognized.

‘Leroy Watson,’ the man introduced himself, unnecessarily. ‘And you are ….?’

A superfluous question, Franz would have thought, since the man had entered the office with Franz’s name on the door and was openly looking through mail addressed to him.

‘Franz Kane. I wasn’t expecting you.’

Leroy held up his hands in mock supplication. ‘I’m not visiting. I’m just dropping in the gear you asked for.’

‘Gear?’

‘The information about our organization. I don’t trust snail mail and it didn’t seem appropriate to send it over the Net,’ said Leroy, ‘so I brought it in person. But I won’t keep you. Oh – and to offer you an invitation.’

His eyes were very dark, Franz thought – not dark in colour but in depth. Leroy was fixing him with a gaze as intense as Franz had ever met – as intense as his own, he realized. It was the look of still focus that Franz used to assure a person that he or she had his total attention. It usually had the effect of persuading them to relax their guard and trust him. He had never been on the receiving end before. He didn’t like the experience.

‘An invitation?’ Franz repeated stupidly.

‘I’d like to offer you the hospitality of my home. I don’t live far. My family and I would like to welcome you this evening for a simple meal with us. Your girlfriend as well – Ella, isn’t it?’

Franz felt a stab of irrational fear. This man had really been doing his homework on him, not just on The Healing Place’s code of practice. Was he out to corner him? You’re being paranoid, he told himself, and one of the positive affirmations he had been taught and made his own floated into his mind to counteract the negative thought: ‘I greet the world as a friend and the world responds in friendship to me.’ Or not.

He needed to sit down. His legs felt weak suddenly.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said stiffly. ‘That’s not possible.’

‘That’s disappointing,’ said Leroy. ‘I thought it might be helpful if you would meet me in my home setting – have an opportunity to check me out. Relax. No strings attached.’

His eyes were pools of softness, the depths of their expression hidden. Like a dark lake with something lurking beneath the surface, thought Franz, and once again dismissed his negative intuition. Maybe this man had been right, on the phone, and he did have some unsuspected remnants of cultural prejudice. But it was not Leroy’s ethnicity that bothered him; it was …. what was it? Why couldn’t he think?

He forced himself to be rational. ‘I don’t mix home with business; it’s a principle.’ He thought of Sharma, sitting at Franz’s kitchen table while Ella cooked him – what? Her special rice with chickpeas, possibly. He wished he were with them.

‘A good principle, man!’ Leroy affirmed. ‘But I’m not business – yet. So I thought, how about we just get to know one another? That way, there’s no pressure on you to decide anything. But I might be useful to this Healing Place. You never know, someone might go sick, have to miss taking some classes. You call me; I can step in at short notice if you want.’

What was it that Sharma had said? ‘You have to make decisions, in your own name, or someone coming behind you will make them for you – and they will be wrong.’

‘I’ve been thinking about what you said,’ Franz said abruptly. ‘About doing away with moral absolutes. No right or wrong.’

Leroy raised his eyebrows and smiled enquiringly, but his eyes were suddenly hard. Watchful.

Not rage. Not hatred. What was the word Franz was searching for – the driving force of this man?

‘Are you saying,’ Franz persevered, ‘that all actions are equally valid, then? All decisions are equal?’

The eyes narrowed, assessing him. ‘I’m saying that society – and religion, which is a means of controlling people – lays on people’s minds a load of guilt about right and wrong. Most actions, most decisions, are morally neutral. Not evil, not good, just personal choice.’

Franz had the strange feeling of being under water. His vision was blurred and his balance was precarious. He swayed, even though he could feel the solid steadiness of the chair beneath him. He wanted this man to go and could not imagine how he could bring that about. He felt powerless.

Don’t be ridiculous, he told himself: just tell him to go; that you’ve got work to get on with. But the words wouldn’t come out. They didn’t seem justified: the man was being perfectly polite.

Perhaps he should challenge him, trap him into some confrontation, then he could stand up and finish the interview.

‘So anything goes, in your book?’ Franz said. ‘Murder, arson – all morally neutral?’

Leroy laughed. The humour didn’t reach his eyes, which were cold. ‘Now you’re putting words in my mouth,’ he said. ‘I don’t go for generalizations. Every action has its own reason, which to the person doing it is perfectly reasonable. We don’t judge.’

‘Robbery with violence? Child abuse?’

He was drowning. He was losing consciousness. Franz gripped the chair to steady himself, but his hands were loose.

The phone rang. Franz watched his hand, disembodied, reach out to it in slow motion. Leroy watched him with an amused smile that Franz found offensive. He focused all his strength on his hand and managed on the second attempt to pick the phone up.

‘Hello?’ He didn’t say his name, his usual practice in answering.

‘Franz? It’s Sharma. Are you okay?’

‘What?’

‘Franz. I think you’re in danger.’

‘Me?’ He couldn’t make sense of this. Wasn’t it Sharma who was in danger? Or the boys?

‘Are you feeling heavy, sleepy?’

‘Well, yes. How did you …?’

‘It’s oppression, Franz. You’re in the presence of something harmful. Is there somebody with you?’ Sharma sounded insistent, unlike his normal understated tone.

‘Yes. Call you back later, huh?’

‘No,’ said Sharma. ‘Get away from him now – get him out of the building. I’m on the way to your home now. If you don’t get rid of him, I’ll be in your office in ten minutes and do it for you. Do you hear me?’

‘Yuh. Hear you.’

‘Franz, stand up. Now!’

How did Sharma know he was sitting? Man, these psychic guys were something else! Franz felt himself start to laugh. Leroy Watson watched him.

Somehow, the urgency in Sharma’s voice began dispersing the clouds in Franz’s mind. Sharma, who never entered Franz’s open-door office without knocking and waiting, and who would often tiptoe away unheard if he saw Franz was with somebody, was threatening to storm his office and throw someone out? Franz put down the phone and stood up. ‘Leroy,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’

He went out of the office and down the corridor without looking round to see if the man was following him. His feet seemed to bounce as he walked, as though he were treading on shifting ground, on something unsteady. A tightrope. He felt the vibrations behind him and knew that Leroy was behind him. God help me, the thought went through Franz’s mind, and he didn’t bother to cancel it. It was no time for political correctness, or enlightenment.

He took the quickest route out of the building – through the main hall. The Pilates students, prone on the floor in their Lycra leotards, froze in mid-sweep of their legs and glared at him accusingly. Sharon stood and folded her arms in disbelief.

Half-turning to nod an apology at her, he caught Leroy’s incisive assessment of the students’ physiques then, incredibly, his swift and accurate glance upwards at the exact site of the crack in the ceiling, and heard his laughter. It was not a pleasant laugh.

Get him out of here.

‘Where are you taking me, man?’ Leroy asked, catching up with Franz.

Franz kept walking till they reached the foyer. Only when he had passed Alison’s reception desk and held the main door open did he answer him.

‘You’re going home,’ he said, loudly enough for Alison to hear, ‘and I don’t want to see you in here again without an agreed appointment.’

For a moment’s desperation, he thought Leroy wouldn’t leave. Leroy hesitated, as though selecting a reaction from a range of options.

God, get me out of this, Franz supplicated. He wasn’t sure why an outdated God-concept had suddenly come into the picture, having never intruded before, but he would analyze it later. For now, he would use whatever worked.

‘I apologize for taking up your time,’ Leroy said smoothly, extending his right hand. ‘I look forward to hearing from you when you’ve had a chance to study what we’re offering.’

In the back of his mind, Franz heard Sharma’s voice very clearly: Don’t touch him.

He drew back from the proffered hand, turned away and let the door swing shut behind him.

Alison was watching him, wide-eyed.

‘Don’t let that man in again,’ Franz told her.

‘He said you’d told him to deliver some vital information to your office. I’m sorry, Franz; I should have checked with you.’

‘You weren’t to know. But if he comes in again, you need back-up, so don’t hesitate to call for it. As from tomorrow, I’m arranging security, full-time.’

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

He would have liked an excuse to go home but there was work to do. He should phone Ella too, but first he called the security firm and arranged for a guard to be sent tomorrow and every day during The Healing Place’s opening hours, as well as the usual night watch.

How had Leroy known about the crack in the ceiling? How had he known about Ella? How much did that mean he knew about Franz?

Wanting more information about the man, he leafed through the papers on the desk while he searched the internet for details of travel to Ireland.

The letterhead of the Luciferians’ publicity gave an organizational address at a London W11 postcode – Notting Hill? Kensington? Thereabouts, Franz thought.

The publicity material referred only to Luciferianism; satanism was not mentioned, though there was a reference to ‘the unfairly maligned so-called Dark Angel.’ Apart from that, the information was vague, evasive rather than expository. A seeker for a spiritual alternative to established church worship could read into it an offer of a freer type of religious faith, while a fitness-seeker might see it as a holistic health programme.

It was cleverly worded, Franz allowed grudgingly; it gave the impression of having all the resources to meet any need, real or imagined, that any person might conceivably have. In that way, he had to admit, it was not so very different from the publicity for The Healing Place or the individual brochures produced for many of the therapies and philosophies it promoted. Most of them offered relief from every known symptom and most forms of human anguish and uncertainty.

Not for the first time, he considered how difficult it was for a person to decide which form of help would benefit them. In a state of vulnerability it was hard enough even to know one’s own need, hard even to define precise symptoms of the restlessness and unease that assailed every human being at some time.

Franz felt that in the first months of The Healing Place he had done more to help people find solutions, or at least panaceas, that were likely to suit their personality and need. Had he been more idealistic, had more integrity then, been less motivated by success and profit?

He didn’t think that was it. As time had gone by, he had simply become overwhelmed by the scale of need, the depth of despair, the impossibility of rescuing people from their inescapable destiny to live their own lives and relinquish the hope of ever being somebody else. He had been overwhelmed, too, by the ever-increasing number of –isms and –ologies that evolved or were resurrected or redesigned and flooded the market with their remedies and their explanations for life.

Scrolling down his computer screen he saw that Dublin was easily accessible by plane from any airport and not too hard to reach by boat from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire. Boat would be better for Ella, if it wasn’t good to fly in the first months of pregnancy.

He was taken aback by this thought, having planned that Ella would not go. He still hadn’t phoned her. That was probably because he didn’t know what to say.

As if on cue, the phone rang.

‘Ella! I was going to get back to you.’

‘Franz, Sharma’s here, at the flat. He’s collapsed!’

‘What? I was talking to him a few moments ago!’

‘I know. He was trying to phone you back to see if you were okay. He was worried about somebody you had with you? But your phone was engaged and then he just passed out.’

‘What have you tried?’

‘Rescue Remedy and cold compresses. He isn’t responding. Shall I call an ambulance, Franz?’

‘Yes, you’d better. No – wait a minute. Let me think.’

She waited.

‘Ella? Do you think this is medical, or something else?’

‘I don’t think it’s physical sickness, no – though he could be exhausted, as well as whatever it is.’

‘He said something to me on the phone about oppression. Did he get sleepy or vague or anything first?’

‘He started slurring his words and seemed lethargic, then kind of stunned.’

‘I don’t know if hospital is the right move. It could cause him more stress if they start doing tests on him in that state. I’m not sure – who’s the best person to call, if it’s psycho-spiritual?’ he said, more to himself than to Ella.

There was a small silence before Ella said, ‘I phoned Phil. He’s on his way round.’

Franz bit his lip. The last thing he wanted to do was upset her, especially on her own at home with Sharma out cold. ‘That’s cool,’ he said. ‘Tell you what: I’ll come home and if he’s come round by then I can ask him who he wants to call, himself. Okay with you?’

‘Are you sure you can come home?’

He could hear relief in her voice. ‘Of course. You shouldn’t have to deal with this on your own.’ Or with the local vicar, he added silently, who will be worse than useless in these circumstances.

He phoned Alison, told her he was going home for a short while and asked her to call a taxi for him. While he waited for it to arrive, he printed off details of travel to Ireland and car hire from Dun Laoghaire. Rail travel in Ireland, unless it had improved greatly since he had been there last, was not the simplest option.

He might as well have walked home, or better still run. The taxi took a quarter of an hour to arrive at The Healing Place and spent another ten minutes stuck behind a tow-truck that kept stopping and starting.

By the time he entered the flat, Phil was already there, kneeling beside Sharma on the kitchen floor. Ella had arranged Sharma in the recovery position, on his side. He looked like a sleeping child but his face was haggard.

‘Is he breathing?’

‘Yes. He half-surfaced once then went out again.’ Phil gave Franz a quick glance. ‘Tell me what happened.’

‘He rang me to say I was in danger,’ said Franz. ‘I thought he was. He’s been helping the police in their hunt for those two missing boys; he’s been up half the night and walking the streets for hours.’

‘Why did he think you were in danger?’ Phil asked.

‘I had someone with me, in my office. A satanist, I think. Calls himself something else but it seems the same thing. Sharma called me, out of the blue, and told me to get him out.’

Phil sat back on his heels and exhaled. ‘Jan and I had some encounters with satanists in our last parish,’ he said. ‘They don’t pull their punches.’

‘What motivates them?’ Franz asked. ‘Rage? Hatred?’ He was still searching for the word that had eluded him when he was with Leroy. He bent down to take a closer look at Sharma’s face. He wasn’t sweating and didn’t seem feverish.

‘Usually rebellion of some kind,’ Phil said. ‘Against authority, church, God, law, any kind of restraint.’

Rebellion. That word again!

‘Sharma mentioned oppression, in connection with this guy,’ said Franz. ‘Do you think it affected him as well?’

‘I’d say that’s what this is,’ Phil affirmed.

Franz swallowed his pride. ‘Can you do anything?’

‘I know someone who can. Jesus.’

Franz stood upright again abruptly. ‘Well, that’s a fucking lot of use! About two thousand years too late!’

‘Franz!’ Ella said, but Phil shook his head at her.

‘I’m being straight with you, Franz,’ he said. ‘If you’re going to confront the powers of evil, which is what you and Sharma do, like it or not, then you need to submit the whole of your life to God, the safe way – via Jesus. Nothing else works. Sharma’s been trying to go it alone.’

‘He has ways of protecting himself,’ Franz said. ‘He told me that all psychics learn them.’

‘Ways that don’t work, when the crunch comes,’ Phil said.

‘They do!’

Ella gave him an exasperated look. His retort sounded childish, even to his own ears, but he couldn’t believe this guy, kneeling in his kitchen beside Sharma who could be dying, preaching some exclusivist anachronism that didn’t have the power to raise a fly, let alone a man.

Phil pointed at Sharma. ‘Does it look as though his self-help ways are working, to you?’ he asked Franz.

‘No,’ Ella answered for him. ‘Look, whatever you do, just do it, will you, Phil? Just get him well!’

‘Okay, but I’ll need your help. Both of you.’

‘Of course,’ Ella said. ‘Franz?’

‘Sure.’ He might as well go through the motions. ‘What d’you want us to do?’

‘Pray. I don’t care if you believe or not,’ said Phil. ‘Do it for Sharma. Kneel down here with me and ask God to intervene.’

‘I don’t play those games,’ Franz said, ‘pretending to believe things to humour somebody – however well-meaning you may be.’

‘Franz, if you don’t give this a try, I’m leaving you,’ said Ella.

He knew she meant it. Ella never said things she didn’t mean. He would do it, and when it didn’t work he would call an ambulance.

‘You’ve got two minutes,’ he said.

‘Then you’d better make it heartfelt,’ said Phil smoothly.

Awkwardly, Franz crouched down, ducking his head to avoid the kitchen table, and took hold of Sharma’s hand. Ella knelt down at Sharma’s other side, by Phil. We’re on opposite sides of the ravine and Sharma is the tightrope I’m walking, was the thought that flashed through Franz’s mind. He dismissed it instantly.

Phil had his eyes closed and was mouthing words silently. Ella closed her eyes too. Franz kept his open, watching Sharma’s face. God, don’t let him die; I need him in my life. He wasn’t trying to pray and hadn’t intended to do more than fake it; the thought just arose in his mind. It surely didn’t count as prayer, anyway, being entirely selfish.

He was scared now. How long could a man stay unconscious and be unharmed? God, I don’t understand what’s happening. You sort this one. And sort me out at the same time. The words forced themselves out of him, from some uncharted depth of his being to the surface of his mind.

Sharma opened his eyes. Ella and Phil, still with their eyes closed, failed to notice. Franz waved his hand in front of Sharma’s face. Sharma’s eyes followed the movement.

‘What?’ he said, and struggled to sit up.

All of them now had their eyes open.

‘Thank God!’ said Ella, and started crying.

‘Yes, thank you,’ said Phil quietly. ‘And thank you, Franz.’

Franz pretended not to hear him. ‘Sharma,’ he said. ‘Lie still for a moment, man. We’ll help you up in a minute, okay?’

‘No, get me up! I have to get to the boys!’ Sharma said. ‘I can feel their panic.’

‘You’re going nowhere,’ said Phil firmly. ‘You’re no use to anyone in this state.’

‘Yes, take a break,’ Ella said. ‘He didn’t have anything to eat yet,’ she told Franz.

‘I’ll get him something. You sit down.’

‘I’ll make tea; you do the food, then. There’s chickpeas and rice on the hob. Phil, will you stay and have something?’

‘A cup of tea would be welcome, thanks. Nothing to eat.’

‘More tea, Vicar?’ Franz couldn’t resist the jibe.

‘Exactly,’ Phil said. ‘No cucumber sandwiches, though, thanks!’

It was an amiable response to a routine jibe. Franz felt abashed. He set out four plates on the table.

‘Eat with us, anyway,’ he invited, ‘if you don’t mind veggie stuff.’

‘Thank you,’ Phil said. ‘If you have enough to go round, I’d be delighted to join you.’

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

Sharma ate little and spoke less. He looked drawn and tired and eventually gave way to Ella’s persuasion to go and lie down for a while in the bedroom. In our bed! thought Franz, but he urged Sharma too. His territory was being invaded as never before, with Sharma in his bed and Phil in his kitchen, but he found he didn’t mind as much as he thought he would.

Phil asked him about Leroy. Franz shrugged.

‘I don’t know the guy. He wasn’t being offensive so I thought I had to give him a fair chance, let him have his say.’

‘What’s your gut instinct about him?’

‘Something makes my flesh creep. But that’s prejudice and I try not to go that way.’

‘It could be something you should listen to,’ Phil said. ‘I find my gut often gets to the truth before my mind catches up with it.’

‘Me too,’ Ella agreed.

‘Oh well, that must be right then,’ said Franz. His tone was acerbic. He didn’t want her on Phil’s side.

She turned her head aside, hiding, as she did when someone hurt her, behind a veil of hair. Somehow he was the one who hurt her these days and he didn’t like himself in the role. She seemed to bring out the worst as well as the best in him. Phil did the same. Perhaps he should be a hermit, live apart from everyone, unfit for human company.

‘You have a stressful job, Franz,’ Phil said mildly. ‘Difficult decisions.’

‘No more than anyone in any other job,’ Franz said. He was wishing he hadn’t invited the man to stay, grateful though he was for Sharma regaining consciousness. He tried to take the edge out of his voice, aware of sounding ungracious. ‘I’m sure you have to make difficult decisions yourself, in your field of work.’

‘Yes, but I’m only a cog in a wheel – accountable to my bishop and able to call on colleagues as well as a parish team for support. You’re in sole charge.’

‘I have loyal colleagues as well,’ said Franz. Again, to his ears, he sounded childish, competitive.

‘Nearly all of them are freelance,’ Ella pointed out. ‘They work for themselves and pay you for the facilities you provide. It’s not like all being on the same payroll, working with each other. The risk isn’t shared; it’s yours, Franz. That’s why he worked eighteen-hour days in the first year,’ she told Phil, ‘and twelve-hour days now, sometimes more. Plus mobile calls and texts at the rate of about ten an hour when he’s home.’

Phil grimaced. ‘What about family, Franz? Are they a support?’

‘I don’t have family,’ he said shortly. The questions were becoming too personal. He stood up and started clearing the remnants of food from the table, hoping Phil would take the hint. He did, standing up and bringing the mugs and plates to the sink, but Ella stayed where she was.

‘He’s a mystery man,’ she said, only half-joking. ‘No family, no history, no photos, nothing.’

‘What happened to your family?’ Phil asked.

Franz frowned at Ella but she was drawing patterns on the table-top with a fork and didn’t look up.

‘Only my mother brought me up. She died. That’s it.’

‘What about your sister?’ Ella asked.

He could feel anger rising, and made himself go calm. Franz’s normal response to too many questions was silence and Ella had learned it wasn’t worth asking. She was using Phil’s presence now as an opportunity to draw him out.

‘I don’t have a sister,’ he said evenly. ‘Rachel was a child my mother fostered for a while.’

‘Where is she now?’ Phil asked. ‘Are you still in touch with her?’

‘She traced her mother and went to live with her. It worked out well for her, as far as I know. I hear from her in Jamaica once in a blue moon. End of story,’ he said firmly.

Ella was staring at him. ‘Rachel came from Jamaica?’

‘Her mother did.’

‘Franz, you are unbelievable! Don’t you see what you did?’

‘What?’ It came out as almost a shout. He saw Phil glance from one to the other of them quickly, noting the tension. Franz forced himself to calm down. He would talk to Ella later about this, just the two of them, making it clear he didn’t like to discuss his private circumstances with strangers – with anyone, not even her.

‘Franz, you said you didn’t understand why you overreacted the other evening, why you felt impelled to get that girl Jacqui out of Phil and Jan’s car, why you were so angry about them arranging for her to go back to Jamaica to stay with her sister! Don’t you see the association?’

‘There was no association,’ said Franz. ‘It was an impulsive reaction to an unconnected incident.’

He looked towards Phil hoping the man would confirm that women let their imaginations run wild, but Phil was nodding thoughtfully.

‘There’s always a trigger, Franz,’ Ella said. ‘You said yourself you don’t usually get angry. It wouldn’t just happen for no reason.’

‘It was irrational. That’s the point.’

‘Then the other night when you … got stressed, that was triggered off by my saying I might go to church. So if you got to the root of your anger with church and religion and things …’

‘I’m stressed out by overwork,’ said Franz. ‘Nothing else, right?’

She hadn’t told Phil, then. ‘Got stressed’ was her euphemism for it. What word would she use next time he nearly hit out – or if he actually did it? He was suddenly sick of pretence, sick of himself.

‘I nearly hit Ella the other night,’ he informed Phil. ‘She may have told you. She’s newly pregnant and I had a sudden flash of anger, lost control and raised my fist to her. She cried all night. That’s what Ella’s referring to. “Got stressed” is her way of letting me off the hook.’

‘I see.’ Phil sat down. ‘I’d imagine it’s out of character for you to act violently, is it?’

Franz shrugged, and sat down too. He blinked fast and hard, feeling suddenly threatened by tears. That was unprecedented, certainly. ‘I don’t know if it is or it isn’t,’ he said. ‘It must be in my character if I did it.’

‘Must it? Or would overwork, over-responsibility and the prospect of further responsibilities, of fatherhood, have something to do with it?’

‘I don’t do excuses,’ Franz said stiffly.

‘No excuses. Nothing excuses hitting the woman you love, or even coming near to it,’ Phil agreed. ‘But it could be a warning sign, to ease up on yourself. When did you last have some quality time, just the two of you?’

‘We’re going to Ireland,’ Franz said, ‘in a day or two.’

Ella looked startled. He remembered he still hadn’t asked her whether she wanted to go.

‘Or I was thinking of it,’ Franz amended. ‘It doesn’t seem like the best time to leave Sharma now, though. Or The Healing Place, with this Watson guy around.’

‘Jan and I could keep an eye on Sharma,’ Phil offered. ‘He’s welcome to stay at our place. It’s one of the traditional old vicarages the Church of England hasn’t got around to pulling down or selling – or improving, so it’s got plenty of space and original features, and more than the original draughts!’

Ella was looking at Franz, under the veil of hair. She looked anxious more often now than she used to in the early days. He wanted to see her smile again.

‘I’d certainly feel happier if Sharma had somewhere to stay,’ he told Phil. ‘Thank you.’

‘My pleasure. Now, I’ll thank you for your hospitality and leave you to prepare for your trip to Ireland.’

‘Thanks, Phil,’ Ella said.

They walked with him to the door, though it was only a couple of steps from the kitchen.

‘Enjoy your holiday,’ he said, then, looking at Franz, ‘if it is a holiday? Is that what it is?’

‘I’m not sure what it is,’ Franz said. ‘Possibly a major mistake!’ His laugh was humourless.

‘Mm,’ said Phil. ‘Well, whatever it turns out to be … a mission? A pilgrimage?’

‘Unlikely,’ said Franz firmly. ‘I’m not religious.’

‘You’re in good company,’ said Phil approvingly. ‘I can’t stand religion myself. Nor could Jesus, I believe.’

Just when you started to like the guy, Franz thought, he had to come out with something infuriating. It was just as well Franz was going away for a few days. He hoped his usual equanimity would return, by the time he came home.

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

As the door closed on Phil, Franz and Ella spoke simultaneously.

‘You don’t want to come to Ireland with me, do you?’

‘You don’t really want me to come to Ireland, do you?’

In happier times, this would have made them laugh. Now they both waited politely for the other one to speak first.

‘Okay,’ said Ella. ‘I’d like to go but only if you want me to. Be straight with me.’

‘I’d like you to come.’

‘Why?’

He hadn’t expected the question. ‘Of course I’d like you to! I enjoy your company.’

‘The real reason?’

Nothing was face value with Ella, he thought, half-admiringly, half-irritably. If it wasn’t the whole truth, she wouldn’t settle for it.

‘I’m scared of going on my own,’ he said.

‘Fine. I’ll come for that reason. What should I pack? Is it colder there than here at this time of year?’

‘Dismal,’ he said, ‘at any time of year.’

‘How long is it since you were there?’

A sigh escaped him. ‘This isn’t going to work,’ he said.

‘What isn’t?’

‘You coming with me.’

‘Why not?’

‘Ella.’ He sat down and took her hands. ‘I want to be honest with you. But I can’t answer all the questions you’re bound to ask me. I need to think, to work things out for myself first.’

‘I won’t ask questions.’

‘That wouldn’t be fair on you. You have a right to know what’s going on.’

‘Do you know what’s going on?’

‘Not really.’

‘Then there’s no point trying to put it into words for someone else. You’d only confuse yourself more. You’re sure it’s right to go, at this time, to this place, though?’

‘I think so.’

‘Okay.’ She turned and wound her arms round him, burying her face in the side of his neck. ‘Let’s both go on this journey into the unknown reaches of Ireland and Franz Kane.’

He laughed. His mobile rang. He went to switch it off then saw it was from Alison and answered it. Ella stood back.

‘Hi.’

‘Franz, sorry to disturb you. The building contractor’s here – Rory Delaney. He wants to take a quick look at the ceiling but I’ve asked him to wait in case you want to see him.’

‘Thanks. Yes, tell him I’m on my way.’

Ella turned away from him and went back into the kitchen. He heard her clearing the table.

‘Was there anything else, Alison?’

‘Nothing urgent. Two calls from people wanting to know if we were interested in the courses they run.’

Franz noted the ‘we.’ Alison was assuming responsibility in her new temporary role even before he had gone. He thought it was a promising sign but didn’t know how he felt about it.

‘What are the courses?’

‘Life coaching and therapeutic touch.’

‘Probably no to the therapeutic touch one; we’ve got practitioners already who want to do more hours. How can life coaching be done as a course? I thought it was one-to-one.’

‘I asked her that. She said she teaches people techniques to divide their lives into different segments – work, social, creative and some other categories, can’t remember exactly – and set themselves goals and then try to improve their performance in one area at a time.’

‘Sounds like a recipe for a nervous breakdown. Okay, yes, life coaching is on the up and we should be offering it in some form. Would you call her back and make an appointment for me?’

‘When will you be back from Ireland?’

‘In four days’ time. I’ll need to cover the start of Sharma’s courses and the first one is in five days.’

‘That’s Tuesday. I’ll ask her to come in on the Wednesday or Thursday, shall I?’

‘Cool.’

And Alison would be cool too. She was capable; she would cope with anything. He could go away with a clear mind. No worries. Or none to do with The Healing Place.

‘Her name is Rachel Ferguson,’ Alison told him, reminding him that he should have asked her that one.

Another Rachel. He couldn’t escape from Rachel recently. Or from the past. It was a myth, that the past was something that happened a long time ago. Franz was discovering that it had a sneaky habit of moving up the line and overtaking the present if it wasn’t kept firmly in its place.

He intended to keep his past very firmly in place. Especially in Ireland.

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

They were amazed how quickly and easily the arrangements for the trip fell into place.

Maz was spontaneously happy for Ella to be taking a holiday, and her niece was happy to be Ella’s stand-in and earn enough to buy the red boots she had been coveting. Alison was delighted to be entrusted with Franz’s office keys at The Healing Place. Sharma accepted Phil and Jan’s invitation to stay with them, as respite from his landlady and from the trawl of the streets and the hours spent focusing on the missing boys.

‘I can’t believe it was that easy!’ Ella told Franz. They were standing, hand in hand, looking over the rails at the trail of white spray behind the Ireland-bound ferry, with seagulls dipping and wheeling in its wake. ‘It must have been meant to be.’

He nodded, only half-listening. He had been preoccupied since leaving London early this morning. Ella had dozed on the train, leaning against him. The morning nausea rolled over her in waves but the farther they travelled from London, the better she felt. Now, in the fresh blue air and white seaspray, she felt more alive than for a long while.

The tentacles of The Healing Place still clung to Franz, she could tell. He would need more time to unwind.

‘We should have done this months ago,’ she said. Her long hair, whipping in the wind, flew into his face and caught his attention.

‘Mm?’ he said absently. Then, responding to what he thought she had said, as he often did, he added, ‘Never mind. Three days is better than nothing, isn’t it? We’ll have a proper holiday soon.’

‘Before the baby arrives?’

He looked surprised. ‘Oh. Yes, it had better be.’

‘Where would you like to go?’ she asked him. She was aware suddenly that much of her conversation with Franz consisted of questions. The terms of this trip were that she would not ask questions – though surely that meant simply no questions about personal circumstances or the reasons behind the journey? She had better start practising not questioning, she thought with an involuntary sigh.

He noticed the sigh. ‘We will go somewhere,’ he promised. ‘I mean it. I know I’ve been spending too much time at work. Where would you like to go?’

‘Anywhere! Everywhere – Uzbekistan, Turkey, Italy. Ireland!’

‘Ireland’s only the start. We might get the bug for travelling and go round the world – what d’you think?’

She laughed, catching his lighter mood and welcoming it. ‘Why not?’

He put an arm round her shoulders and hugged her. ‘Why Uzbekistan?’

‘I like the sound of the name and I’ve never been anywhere near it.’

‘That’s not sufficient reason!’ he said, mock-severely.

‘Going to a country you described as dismal at any time of year is sufficient reason for going to Ireland then, is it?’ she teased in return, then bit her tongue.

His face clouded over immediately and his preoccupation returned. ‘I’m going inside to sit down,’ he said, after a while. ‘Aren’t you cold out here?’

‘No – well, yes, but the fresh air is nice. I feel sick when I’m inside.’

‘Seasick or morning sick?’

‘It’s the vibration of the engines, I think.’

‘Can I get you anything?’

‘No, I’ll just stay out here for a while.’

He went and she stayed but half an hour later she saw him pacing up and down the deck, then the higher deck. He was always restless, Ella told herself; it was nothing to worry about – just that he didn’t have his relentless schedule of work to use up his excess energy.

He rejoined her halfway through the journey, with drinks and sandwiches that they ate on deck. The boat was not too crowded, being school term-time. In the holidays, Ella imagined, it would be full of families going ‘back home’ for the annual visit to relatives, starting with nostalgia and ending with recriminations and probably relief, on the return journey, at living far from the oppression of close family life.

As if reading her thoughts about families, Franz asked her, ‘Did you call your mother?’

‘I left a message a few days ago, telling her about the baby.’

‘She didn’t ring back?’

‘No.’

‘Does that upset you?’

The ‘not asking questions’ deal was one-way, then. Not that she minded answering them.

‘Not really. I’ve stopped expecting her to be maternal. Not every woman is, automatically.’

‘Will you be, do you think?’ He was smiling again, not doubting her reply.

‘In my own way.’ She patted her stomach involuntarily. ‘I’ll make just as many mistakes, I expect; just not the same ones.’

‘Like leaving the baby in a tent at a rock festival then not remembering where the tent was?’

She grimaced. ‘Did I tell you about that?’

‘No, your mother did, the one time I met her.’

‘Did she? How bizarre. She obviously wasn’t trying to make a good impression on you.’

‘She told it as a joke. Seemed surprised when I didn’t laugh. Do you remember it or were you too young?’

‘I wasn’t a baby, actually. She might have remembered it that way. I was five. I fell asleep in the tent and when I woke up it was dark and there was all this incredible noise – music and drumbeats and people shouting the words of songs and then shouting at each other above the singing. I tried to get out of the tent and this couple was on the ground, blocking the entrance, having really loud sex, screaming and yelling. I thought they were killing each other. I was terrified.’

‘That’s appalling! How long were you left there?’

‘I crawled out under the back of the tent and went looking for someone I recognized. I saw a couple of Ma’s friends but they were stoned out of their minds. They kept waving at me and smiling as I stood there crying.’

‘Poor little shrimp. What happened in the end?’

‘I walked round for a couple of hours. Everyone was jumping up and down and waving their arms to the music, except the ones who were lying on the ground. Eventually some guy picked me up and put me on his shoulders and after he’d danced around for a while with his friends they got bored with me crying and somebody handed me over to one of the stewards, who put out a message on the tannoy in between acts.’

‘And your mother came and found you?’

‘Not for a while. I was put in the first aid tent with the St John’s Ambulance staff and they were really nice, bought me ice-cream and told me stories, so I was all right.’

‘Well, you’ll be a better mother than that, for sure!’ said Franz.

‘I hope so,’ Ella said. ‘It’s not a hard act to follow – that’s one consolation, isn’t it?’

‘That’s what I like to hear: think positive!’

She laughed. ‘Shall we go for a walk round?’ she suggested, wanting at least to accompany him if he was going to resume his solitary pacing.

‘We could go on the upper deck,’ he said. ‘We should be able to see the Irish coastline soon.’

He knew the journey then, Ella concluded. And when they arrived he seemed to find his way around the port very easily too. They collected the hire car and the courtesy map.

‘Shall I drive?’ said Franz, juggling the car keys.

‘Do, if you can live with my navigating. Map reading isn’t my strongest skill and there’s no satnav. Have we any idea where we’re going?’

‘Wicklow.’

The finality of his tone reminded her. No questions. He barely glanced at the map before setting out on the southern road from the port. They drove in silence, staring out through the windscreen in the gathering gloom.

‘Does it get dark earlier than in England or is it the weather conditions?’

No questions. Literally no questions? Either way, he didn’t answer.

Ella tried to stay awake but with only grey shapes to see in the thickening mist, she found it hard to concentrate. She awoke with a start when the car drew up outside a small Bed & Breakfast hotel.

‘This is where we’re staying. All right?’

‘Fine.’

It was an old house covered in ivy, with the door propped open and no one around inside. Franz left Ella sitting in a huge plush chair with regurgitated stuffing, with their travel bag by her feet, while he went to look for someone. She could hear him chatting and a slow voice answering, far down a corridor, before he returned.

She was amused to hear in Franz’s voice a faint twang of Irish accent. He did that: picked up people’s voices, often unaware that he was doing it. She wasn’t sure if it was empathy or a desire to be accepted that made him do this chameleon thing. She had teased him about it once and he was amazed: ‘I don’t do that, do I? That’s not good. People will think I’m sending them up, mimicking their accent!’

Most people didn’t seem to notice, or mind, though. It was surprising how many people confided that they’d had the feeling of being on the same wavelength with Franz from the first moment of meeting him. If Ella had been the jealous type she might have been upset by the number of women who claimed Franz as their soulmate. As it was, she knew that when Franz was at his most charming, he was on autopilot. It was when he was blunt with someone that she knew he either liked them or they had got under the veneer of his charm and somehow under his skin.

He was no longer charming with Sharma, and he never had been with Phil. Ella saw that as positive, in both cases.

She stood and shook hands with the proprietor, a short round man with a friendly face and bushy white eyebrows. They looked comical standing together, Franz and Tom O’Connell, she thought – one tall, one short, and both extravagant in the eyebrow department, with Franz’s jet-black jagged hyphens at uneven heights and Tom’s Santa Claus white clouds which matched Franz’s silver hair more than his own grizzled red fuzz.

Tom preceded them to their room, carrying the bag in a tight grip under his arm and tossing it unceremoniously on to the bed as soon as the door was opened. It’s just as well I don’t iron anything, Ella thought, amused. She would hang her spare skirt and Franz’s shirts in the shower so the creases would drop out by morning.

The bed looked welcoming. She dropped on to it as soon as Tom left them. Franz stood by the open window and looked out.

‘There should be a view out here in the morning. I can just see the outline of a river at the bottom of the hill.’

‘Great.’

‘Are you tired?’

‘I’m okay. Give me a few secs.’

She lay there as Franz unpacked but instead of feeling less tired she was becoming heavier by the minute. Is this because I’m pregnant? she thought. But it felt more like delayed tiredness, not from the journey but from the course of their relationship: the months of getting to know Franz and still never really knowing him, the long hours when he worked late into the evenings and early in the mornings, the things that were never said even when they had time to say them.

The Healing Place ate up their lives, Ella thought drowsily. It was good to escape for a while. Now perhaps they would have a chance to get to know each other, even in these few days.

Franz’s mobile rang. She opened her eyes and looked at him with reproach. He had promised to switch it off, except for once a day to pick up messages.

‘I forgot,’ he said. ‘I’ll switch it off now. Hold on – it’s Sharma.’

‘Take it,’ she said, sitting up.

‘Sharma? Huh? No progress. What about the police? Okay. No, I did say to ring, any time. If it’s switched off, leave a message, okay? I’ll catch you later. Ella says Hi. Bye then.’

‘What?’ Ella said.

‘No progress. He thinks he’s narrowed it down to one area, but still no real signals from the boys. All he has seen clearly is some kind of metal shape, a silver square with a snake in it.’

‘Like a gate or something, you mean?’

‘He isn’t sure. He thinks one of the boys must have registered it because it’s unusual. Both boys are very afraid and confused, he says, and it’s hard to pick up anything with much clarity.’

‘Poor kids.’ Ella felt tears well up and tip themselves out of the corners of her eyes.

Franz took her hand. ‘You should eat, you know. You’ve had nothing all day – half a sandwich.’

‘I don’t feel like going out. You go.’

‘I’ll go and ask Tom what there is round here. There may be a shop and I can bring you back something.’

‘Sorry. I feel so tired, suddenly.’

‘It’s okay. You relax.’

She lay back on the bed as he went out. It was quiet here. She had grown used to the constant rhythm of traffic outside their bedroom window at home. Before that, in the flat she had shared with Maz and two others, there had always been as much noise inside as outside. She didn’t mind it: didn’t notice it any more; it was simply the background to everyday life. But now she drank in the silence like someone starved of it. I didn’t know I needed this, she thought.

It was like being back in childhood, waking in the night to total silence, only then it had been a fearful experience, not knowing whether she was alone in the house.

She would psych herself up to get quietly out of the bed, feeling with her toes for the cold floor and reaching across to switch on the light, then tiptoe into the next room where her mother’s presence would show itself against the window – she never drew curtains, even if they had any – as a single mound under the pile of assorted half-finished patchwork quilts and old coats. Or there would be a double mound – her mother and Rick, or Kurt, or some stranger whose outline Ella wouldn’t recognize.

Or else the bed would be flat, with no one in it except the cat, who would miaow pitifully on seeing Ella till the child scooped it up and carried it back to her own bed, where it would curl up and sleep beside her head, edging its way on to more and more of the pillow, and Ella would lie awake, wondering where her mother might be tonight.

She would usually sleep, though any small sound in the room or in the street made her instantly wake, and in the morning her first task was to check the next room again, then the sitting room sofa, where her mother sometimes slept if she came in too stoned or too drunk to manage the few extra steps to her bed.

Some mornings, both sofa and bed were vacant and no strangers occupied the bathroom (she always knocked first, since going to the toilet one night and finding her mother in the shower with a six-foot Texan, who said ‘Hi there!’ in a lazy drawl and laughed as she gasped and ran out).

Then Ella would know she must get herself off to school, and remember on the way home to buy bread and milk because her mother would be angry if, after coming home late and sleeping long and heavily, she then woke up to a schoolgirl daughter unable to make her mother tea and toast because she’d forgotten to check the fridge before she left.

Adult Ella gave a huge yawn now and stretched out, starfish-style, on the double bed with its oldfashioned candlewick bedspread. It was good to be here, feeling somehow like a child yet without the anxieties and responsibilities of childhood.

When Franz returned, to say that Tom had offered to make them scrambled eggs on toast if that would be acceptable to them both, she rolled off the bed and wrapped her arms round him, kissing him with an effusiveness that made him laugh and respond with equal alacrity.

‘You’re feeling better, then?’ he said.

She slid her hand into his as they walked downstairs. ‘More than that,’ she said. ‘I’m feeling happy.’

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

‘Why the happiness?’ Franz asked when they were tucking into Tom’s idea of a light snack – two thick slices of toast each, piled high with scrambled eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes, with half a loaf of soda bread and a pot of jam. Having thought she was too tired to be hungry, Ella was surprised how fast the food was disappearing.

‘I don’t know. I feel like a child here, somehow.’

He grimaced. ‘Is that good?’

‘It is if you’re not one.’

‘Did you enjoy anything about your childhood?’

‘Lots of things. I just didn’t enjoy being a child. But then I never felt like one; I always felt like the adult.’

‘Did she ever look after you like a mother?’ Franz asked. ‘Or your brother?’

‘She looked after Sam a bit when he was ill but she told everyone how disruptive it was to her life. I think she saw it as something he’d done to her that she couldn’t see a way out of.’

‘She saw herself as the victim?’

‘It wasn’t as strong as that. I think she didn’t really see herself as a participant in anyone else’s life. She could never see why her life upset her parents. She saw each person’s life as separate. She used to say, “Everyone has to find their own way,” and that applied as much to a three-year old as to an eighty-three year old, in her view.’

‘To orthodox Jewish parents who’d hoped she would marry a rabbi?’

‘Sure. She couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, she said.’

‘She must have understood why they were upset, if she’d grown up in that environment.’

‘She was a rebel,’ Ella said. ‘Understanding how they felt made her more inclined to do the opposite.’

‘Rebellion again,’ said Franz thoughtfully. ‘What was she rebelling against?’

‘Anything. Any discipline or restriction that she thought might leave her less free.’

‘And was she free, without it?’

‘No way. She was driven by such an unlimited range of desires and compulsions that she never had a moment’s peace.’

Franz buttered a slice of soda bread liberally, as if cholesterol had come into fashion. ‘And was it rebellion that made you want your life to be different from hers?’ he asked Ella.

‘No. Common sense,’ she said, and he laughed.

‘And has common sense made you free?’ he asked, half-seriously and half-teasing her.

Ella stretched and yawned. ‘I’m free of childhood, anyway,’ she said.

His face clouded. ‘Is anyone ever free of their past?’ he asked.

‘You move on from it,’ Ella said.

‘Or you think you have till it catches up with you.’

She raised her eyebrows at him enquiringly, hoping he wouldn’t count that as asking questions, but he said no more.

Tom came in to clear the plates.

‘Have yez had enough to eat?’ he asked. ‘There’s only a bit of apple tart to follow.’

As they protested, he said, ‘You’ve hardly ate a crumb between yez. The Wicklow air will soon give you an appetite. Are you planning on going to Glendalough tomorrow?’

‘Sure,’ said Franz. ‘How could we miss it, being so near?’

‘Right enough,’ said Tom with approval. ‘Mary will do your breakfast early, then, because you’ll need to get there before eleven to see it at its best before the coach parties arrive. You’ve chosen a good time of year, as long as you wrap up warm. February is the quiet time and the mists and the fresh cold air will do you the world of good,’ he told Ella. ‘You’ll be eating for two, the way you should, by the time you leave here.’

‘You told him, Franz!’ said Ella accusingly, when he had gone to the kitchen to fetch – despite their refusal – the apple pie and cream.

‘I did not!’

She laughed, despite herself.

‘What?’

‘You’re speaking with an Irish accent!’

‘I am not!’

‘Yes, you are! So how did Tom know I should be eating for two? You’re not telling me he’s psychic, are you?’

‘They’re all psychic over here,’ said Franz gloomily, ‘or think they are. It’s no place for keeping secrets.’

‘What’s this?’ said Ella lightly. ‘Racism?’ But he was silent.

They made a token attempt at the apple pie then Ella, who couldn’t stop yawning, went up to their room.

‘I’ll go for a quick walk,’ Franz told her.

‘Isn’t it raining?’

‘It’s always raining in Ireland,’ he said. ‘I won’t be long.’

Ella took a quick shower then leaned out of the wide window in their room. In the gloom, she could see Franz’s outline appearing and disappearing as he walked, in the drizzle, round and round what she could only guess was the garden. He was pacing as he had been on the boat, like a caged lion.

Ella sighed and pulled the window to, hooking it with the old-fashioned metal bar so it was only slightly open. It was good to have the fresh air but it felt damp, even in the room. She got into bed and prepared to meditate till Franz returned but he was away for so long that drowsiness overtook her. She slid down in the lumpy bed with the heap of covers that reminded her of childhood again, and slept.

When she woke in the night, it was not with her childhood sense of wondering if anyone was there: it was Franz’s presence that woke her, the beating of his heart so loud that for a moment she feared it would disturb the whole household.

His arm around her was like an iron clamp. She wriggled, to loosen his grip.

‘Franz? Are you all right?’

‘Yes.’

She was not convinced. ‘What is it?’

‘Nothing. Why?’

Before she could answer, he said, ‘Turn over and go back to sleep.’

She turned over and he fitted his lean body around hers.

‘Ella?’

‘Yes?’

‘When will the baby start moving?’

‘Not for a good while. Why?’

A pause, then: ‘I want to feel it kick.’

She smiled in the silent darkness. ‘You will. I can feel it’s alive.’

‘Can you? How?’

‘I can’t explain. It’s like a warmth. A presence in there. See if you can feel it.’

He slid his hand over her stomach. She could still feel his heart pounding, even against her back. What was he so afraid of? Why couldn’t he talk to her about it? She stilled the thought. No questions, even in her own mind. She had promised him.

She didn’t ask if he could feel anything but she felt his panic subside. He fell asleep before she did, breathing evenly, his hand still held gently against the rising curve of her stomach, with what felt like reverence.

He would be all right. She knew it, knew it in the depths of her being, though she couldn’t have said why. However much he paced and pounded and panicked, her sense of contentment and wellbeing only deepened. He had been calm, smooth and self-assured when she first knew him. Even when overworked and beset with every kind of crisis in getting The Healing Place established, there had always been a serenity about him, as though he knew his plans could not fail.

Now, for reasons she didn’t understand, he was frightened and insecure – and more human, more real somehow.

Ella hoped it wasn’t callous of her to feel happy, but she could only see this trip to Ireland as progress and, she felt intuitively, some kind of resolution to the mystery that Franz Kane had always been.

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

Ella knew he was gone, before she even opened her eyes. She thought he had been gone a long time.

At least in daylight she could see where he was. From their room at the back of the house, an expanse of lawn swept down to a river fed by a stream from the hillside. As far as the eye could see was green: lawns and pasture and hillside, lush even at this barren season, punctuated with the solid-trunked, fragile-fingered outlines of skeletal winter trees.

If he had to pace, he had chosen a beautiful place to do it, Ella thought. He looked thin, as he walked alongside the river and back again, then back once more. Had he lost weight in the last few months, or was she just looking at him as a stranger would, in the distance, noticing his angular shape? Had his shoulders always been hunched like that? Surely he usually stood taller and straighter?

His silver hair was like a beacon, a white flame against the scarlet branches of dogwood in the garden and the spent brown embers of bulrushes along the riverbank.

I love this man, she thought, and the thought ached. She hoped that her love would be wide enough to encompass what she didn’t know of him yet. She did know him, she told herself. It was only facts that she didn’t know. Her cautious head, accustomed to mistrusting strangers, would never have let her heart go this far in loving a man whose secrets would render him unlovable to her. Or so she hoped.

He had promised he would tell her everything, if only she didn’t ask questions. She sighed, stroking the unborn child in her stomach. She had another unknown being to prepare for; she hoped Franz’s unknown self wouldn’t take so long to emerge.

She dressed, layering a long-sleeved top over a camisole, topped by an Indian cotton tunic top and her velvet patchwork waistcoat, with a tiered long skirt over thick black tights and buttoned boots. The mist was lifting, except by the river where it still floated in wraiths like a ghost among the bulrushes, and a patch of blue sky was appearing above the hill, but still it was damp. An ethereal kind of setting, Ella mused, brought down to earth by the smell of bacon wafting up from downstairs.

Ella hoped there were other guests staying and Tom wasn’t frying the bacon for them, forgetting they were vegetarian.

There was no sign of Tom when she went downstairs, nor of other guests in the dining room. Ella wondered whether to try and attract Franz’s attention by waving from the window or go out and call him, and while she was hovering uncertainly a woman came into the room.

‘Good morning, my love! You’ll be Ella? I’m Mary, Tom’s wife.’

‘Hello.’

Mary was exactly as Tom’s wife should be, Ella thought – like a female Tom, with the same round shape and curly hair that had once been red and was giving way to grey.

‘Your man’s like the priest we have staying here sometimes,’ Mary said, waving a hand towards Franz out in the garden.

‘A priest?’ Ella stifled a laugh. Franz would so not appreciate the comparison.

‘Up at dawn and walking up and down the garden saying his prayers,’ Mary explained. ‘You’re not a Catholic,’ she stated, looking Ella up and down, ‘or you’d know to be glad that he’s not a priest, because our priests of course don’t marry.’

Ella felt justified in laughing this time. ‘You can tell I’m not a Catholic, can you?’ she said. ‘Just by looking at me?’

‘I can,’ Mary said with finality. ‘It takes one to know one, as in everything else. So, what are you then?’

‘Uh – I guess, a New Age Jewish agnostic, if anything,’ Ella said, realizing she’d never been asked the question before.

‘Well, each to their own,’ said Mary comfortably. ‘Now, you’ll not see Tom at breakfast. He does the evening welcoming and I do the mornings, unless we’re full, which we’re very far from at this time of year, as you can see for yourself. He’s the night owl, you see, and I’m the lark.’

‘That’s well arranged,’ Ella agreed. ‘He cooked us a lovely supper last night.’

‘He told me you ate nothing. What will you have this morning? I’m doing bacon for him and me but you won’t want that, you and your man out there, will yez?’

Ella blenched. ‘Just orange juice for me. I’ll go and call Franz.’

‘Leave him be, love. I’ll make him something soon enough when he comes in, but men need to be left alone with their thoughts, such as they are, when they’re striding about like that. Dry toast is good for the morning sickness, if you can manage a slice.’

Ella laughed again. ‘Can you tell that as well, by looking at me?’

‘Sure, there’s nothing clever about that,’ Mary assured her. ‘I’ve seen that look too many times, and been through it myself with five. All grown up now, and two with children of their own. When is the babby due? You’re not far along the line, are you?’

‘September.’

‘An autumn child. Do you want a girl or a boy?’

‘I don’t mind.’

‘Have the boys first,’ Mary advised. ‘The fathers bond with sons and you’ll need all the help you can get: they get up to more mischief than a barrel-load of monkeys.’

Ella wasn’t sure whether she meant the boys or the fathers and thought she had better not ask.

‘Then by the time the girls come along,’ Mary continued, ‘you’ll find them easy to rear by comparison, and able to lend a hand around the house as they grow up, and useful at helping you get around your husband and get your own way once in a while. Dry toast and orange juice it is, then.’

All the tables were neatly laid, despite the absence of any guests but themselves, so Ella chose the table nearest the window and looked out at the greenery and the open sky and tried to keep her gaze from following Franz. He was talking on the phone, she noticed. Surely it was too early to phone Alison. Who then?

She forced her attention back to the scenery. No wonder they call it the Emerald Isle, she pondered; you don’t get that deep almost blue shade of green anywhere in England, certainly not in February. Though what would she know, having lived all her life in the south, in Somerset or London, with occasional jaunts to Cornwall where her mother once had a lover who lived in one room of an otherwise derelict mill? There were ducks, she remembered, that wandered in and out of the downstairs room. She had liked the ducks and the mill but not the man.

What was it about this trip, this place, that kept recalling her childhood? Perhaps, as Phil had suggested to Franz, they were not on holiday at all but on some kind of pilgrimage – not to a place but to the past.

Maybe it was the place itself that drew Franz, having been born in Ireland, as he had finally told her, but he’d said it was in the west, not this part. Yet he looked at home here, Ella thought, somehow part of the environment.

He went well with the scenery. He assumed the accent of the people like slipping on an old overcoat – but then he did that with everyone, even the old Eastern European refugee couple who had slept in the doorway of the newsagent’s, two doors down from Franz’s flat, for a couple of weeks before being ‘rescued’ by a refugee charity and housed in one draughty room in a tower block daubed with graffiti and urine.

Ella had found their accent impossible to understand, whereas to Franz it had seemed effortless not only to know what they were saying but to answer them with a trace of the same accent in his own speech – presumably to put them at their ease, even if he did it unconsciously.

She had talked to Phil about Franz, feeling disloyal yet wanting to know how this man saw him, and Phil had said, ‘It could be that he tries to be Everyman, partly out of a genuine goodness of heart and desire to meet everyone on their own terms, and partly because it provides a way for him to be every man except himself.’

He was coming in. She wiped her thoughts, as swiftly as hitting Delete on a computer, as if afraid he would read them.

‘I didn’t realize the time,’ he apologized. ‘Have you had breakfast?’

‘Not yet. I didn’t order you anything. Tom’s wife’s on breakfasts. She’s in the kitchen.’

‘What are you having?’

‘I asked for orange juice but she’s prescribed dry toast, for morning sickness. And no, I didn’t tell her – you’re right, they are all psychic here!’

She was relieved to see him laughing. His face had looked drawn, somehow older, when he came in.

She avoided asking him whether he had any thoughts on what they would do today but Mary had no such reservations.

‘You’re going to Glendalough this morning, then, Tom says, and what have you planned for the next few days you’ll be staying with us?’

So he booked us in here for a few days; we won’t be touring? Ella thought. She noticed that Franz avoided her eyes when he answered Mary.

‘We haven’t decided. Glendalough today, anyway.’

‘The mist is clearing,’ said Mary. ‘You could take the Enniskerry road later on towards Powerscourt and see the waterfall. If you’re lucky you might get a rainbow: it’s fabulous there, in the fall of the spray. You know Wicklow?’ she asked Ella.

‘No. I’ve never been to Ireland before.’

‘Then you’re in for a treat. But I won’t spoil it for you. She’ll see soon enough for herself, won’t she?’

Franz nodded, still not looking at Ella.

So he has at least been to this area before, and she knows he has – because he told Tom or because she just knows, like she knew I’m not Catholic and am pregnant? Did he live in this part of the country at some time?

If Ella hoped that Mary would elicit more from Franz, she was disappointed. Having established that he didn’t want a fry-up, porridge, Weetabix or Coco Pops, Mary went back to the kitchen to make more toast.

‘We’ll leave after breakfast, shall we?’ Franz suggested. ‘You’re not feeling too sick for a car journey?’

‘No, I’ll be okay. I’d rather drive, if you don’t mind. It takes my mind off it.’

‘If you’re happy with driving on roads you don’t know?’

‘I don’t mind.’

So you do know the roads round here, then? She hoped he was noticing how good she was being, not commenting, not asking. It was more of a strain than she had bargained for, never having considered herself particularly nosy. But surely it was normal to ask questions about things you didn’t know about a person you did know? Never mind; go with the flow and you’ll find out soon enough, if you need to know at all, she told herself firmly.

She thought of women in some cultures who would consider it impertinent to ask questions of their husbands, and who wouldn’t find it abnormal or hurtful at all that information should be kept from them.

Did she find it hurtful, being asked not to ask questions of Franz, about Franz? She had to admit that she probably did.

It’s only because of my cultural conditioning, and the century I’ve been born in, she told herself. If I were a Victorian wife, or a veiled bride in a haveli, or even an orthodox Jewish wife wearing a sheitl to cover her natural hair outside the home and ordering her kitchen into meat-cookery and milk-cookery areas, I wouldn’t dream of thinking my husband was being secretive if he didn’t tell me every detail of his life, past and present, not to mention the future. Not to mention anything, in fact.

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

‘It’s a beautiful place,’ said Ella.

The last thing she had expected Franz to do on holiday was to bring her to see a church, albeit a very quaint ancient Celtic building. However, he didn’t show any sign of interest in it, merely standing outside and waiting while she looked round.

A walk through the pine forest was more predictable. She was happy to walk with him because walking to enjoy the scenery was a good antidote to his restless pacing. He pointed out clumps of snowdrops and ferns and the occasional scampering tiny red squirrel, and she admired everything but was unable to find an answer to the question that kept presenting itself: what are we doing here, exactly?

She had never known Franz do anything without a purpose. There was no reason, of course, for thinking he was simply relaxing and being a tourist; they were, after all, meant to be on holiday. But it didn’t feel like a holiday, and she didn’t believe it was one. She would wait and see and walk and watch the pine trees sway in the chill wind and enjoy the squirrels and it would become clear, she felt.

The silence was reassuring, although it signalled an absence of communication between them. It seemed appropriate to leave each other free to communicate with the natural environment and think their own thoughts for a while.

‘What’s that tower, ahead?’ Ella asked. It was a question but surely not personal, Ella thought, and Franz seemed all right with it. He smiled.

‘It’s a prayer tower – part of the old monastic community. You’ll see the rest of it in a few minutes.’

‘Are there monks living there now?

‘No, not since the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the interesting bit, further on by the lake, dates back to the sixth century.’

They wandered round the monastic settlement, Ella making appreciative comments about the buildings and Celtic crosses. Franz showed no sign of impatience but she felt in him an urgency to move on.

‘There’s something mystical about this place,’ Ella said.

‘If you think this is mystical, wait and see what you think of the next place,’ Franz said.

‘What is the next place?’

One question too many.

‘Wait and see,’ he said.

‘I’m not waiting,’ she said. ‘The suspense is killing me. Let’s go.’

‘Sure you’ve seen enough here?’ But he didn’t wait for her answer and began walking on immediately.

‘Am I walking too fast?’ he asked, after a while.

‘No.’

He wasn’t walking too fast for her to keep up with him but it was too fast for someone on holiday whose only agenda was to admire the scenery. Ella noticed him look at his watch a few times. She thought at first it was habit: he was used to scheduling his day from one appointment or task to the next. But after a while she wondered if he had some kind of timetable.

She had the feeling they were marking time, beautiful though this place was and well worth a trip to Ireland just to visit it. She longed to ask whether they were waiting for something, and if so, what? But she didn’t. Having never been on holiday before with Franz, she had no way of knowing if this restlessness was usual with him when he was off-duty.

He had switched his phone off, at least. A true workaholic wouldn’t do that. He had taken the decision to switch it on twice a day to pick up messages and in between times it didn’t seem to trouble him. If he was worried about something, Ella didn’t think it was his absence from The Healing Place.

‘Round the next corner, you’ll see it,’ Franz told her.

At first Ella couldn’t see what she was meant to be looking at. There were random huddles of stones like crumbling giant beehives made clumsily from whatever the locality afforded.

As she stood and looked, though, the place seemed to take shape. It was another community, of a kind: a long-ago ghost village of deserted hovels, each separate and unique, designed to accommodate one person alone – as long as that person was not very big and didn’t want to stretch their legs.

‘What is this place? Did people live here as well?’

‘It’s a hermitage. One of the monks, Saint Kevin, didn’t find the monastery solitary enough and came out here to live. Then others came.’

‘Came and joined him when he wanted to be on his own?’

‘No, not in the sense of living as a community, like in the monastery. They came to be on their own too. Alone with God.’

God. The word sounded strange, coming from Franz’s mouth, Ella thought. She had never, in all the time of his running a foundation for spiritual development, heard him mention the name. Many of the guides did – either God or gods or god-concepts. No one else appeared to have any difficulty with the idea or any aversion to the notion of God, happily adapting it to their own personal image and form and making whatever use of it they wished.

Ella thought now that, strangely, she had never seen Franz as an atheist. If she had to describe his state of faith or cynicism, the nearest she could come to it would probably be God-allergic.

‘Each in their separate way, communing with God, then?’ Ella said. ‘Not coming together to commune with each other. How did they live? What did they eat?’

‘A lot of the time they would have fasted, or lived very frugally,’ Franz said. They were walking towards the beehive-homes. None of them was big enough to stand up in. Unless the hermits were leprechaun-sized, thought Ella irreverently.

‘And people would have also brought them food,’ Franz added.

‘What people?’

‘Locals who knew they were here and maybe people from farther afield. People would travel a long way sometimes to go and see a holy man.’

‘Like sightseeing or like going to consult an oracle or a guru?’

‘Most would come with a personal request, for one of the hermits to pray for them or heal a sickness or ask God’s guidance for some difficult decision in their life.’

‘Didn’t people believe in doing their own praying?’

‘Sure. But they’d think that a person who gave their whole life up to pray would be closer to God and more in tune with his will for them.’

Ella was fascinated, not so much by the explanation as by the fact that it was Franz who was giving it. She couldn’t resist the further question.

‘Do you think there’s anything in that?’

No go.

All expression faded from his face, which had been animated while he was explaining. Ella had the impression that Franz had been seeing the hermits, in his mind’s eye, and that her question had banished them. His eyes were empty now, like the stone caverns. She wished she hadn’t asked.

‘Listen,’ she said quickly, ‘I need to go for a pee. I’m going to go behind some rocks and then maybe wander off and explore for a bit. You don’t mind if I leave you alone for a while?’

His expression relaxed. ‘No, you go on. Take your time; look around by yourself: it’s the best way to get the feel of the place.’

‘That’s what I thought.’

It was unlikely she’d be disturbed, crouching behind a rock, screened anyway by her discreetly long skirt. The place was amazingly devoid of tourists for such an incredible beauty spot. Even in February, when grey evening started to roll in from early afternoon, she would have expected more people to be around.

It gave her a feeling of being close to nature, peeing outdoors. It was something she hadn’t done since she was a child. She guessed at the feeling of freedom the hermits would have had, the sense of timelessness here, with ordinary clock-time and calendar-time merging seamlessly into eternity.

I wonder what it would be like to live like this. Bloody freezing, her practical nature and cold ankles told her. She stood up, shaking out her skirt, and began walking up a path leading away from the hermitage and away from Franz. She wondered how long he would need to be left alone.

She climbed to the top of a hill. The path was too densely bordered with trees to allow much of a view but the sense of being in a high place made her feel exhilarated. There was a lot to be said for getting high up above the daily world, she thought. Mystics and religious people had always climbed high tors and mountains, partly to be alone and escape the crowds in the populated valleys, she supposed, and partly to get a sense of perspective.

Our first hill walk, Ella told the baby. Hope you’re enjoying it.

The air was crisp, so clear she could almost taste it. The light was starting to dim already, as if the day was exhausted by so much beauty and needed to tone it down and hide itself, gathering its glory for tomorrow’s unveiling.

Ella felt on the edge of exhaustion too, though curiously refreshed at the same time, as though the scenery and new experience had taken something out of her but only something she needed to lose.

I won’t be able to go at this pace in a few more months, she realized, launching into a swinging stride down the hill, jumping from rock to rock in the muddy parts, hearing her boots crunch on the fine shale near the bottom of the slope. She slowed down as she came out of the trees into the clearing, looking for Franz, wanting to gauge his readiness for company or continuing need for solitude.

She didn’t see him at first. He was almost perfectly camouflaged, in his dark grey fleece, against the hunched outlines of hermit homes.

He could have been a hermit. Ella almost laughed out loud at the thought. Franz, with his constant calls on his mobile phone, his never being still for five minutes, his ceaseless thinking and planning, his focus on work – a hermit, living in silence, alone?

But he does, she thought. In a sense, his total focus on whatever he’s doing or whoever he’s with does come from that aloneness within himself, that silence. Living with him as she did, she should know better than anyone that Franz was always alone.

She sat down on a rock, unnoticed, and watched him. He sat motionless, his gaze fixed on the far horizon, for an hour. She didn’t mean to time him but it was the maximum period she had set in her mind for being tactful and leaving him to his reverie. Beyond that, she knew, she couldn’t stand the cold.

Reluctantly, because he looked so at home in his surroundings, she approached him, scuffing up pebbles to give him advance warning. Still, he only shifted his focus at the last moment.

‘Hi,’ she said, perching on the rock beside him.

‘Oh, hi. Did you have a nice walk?’

‘Fine. You?’

‘Oh. I just sat for a while.’

Two hours at least since I left him, and he thinks he’s only been here a little while?

‘Are you cold?’ she asked him.

He looked surprised. ‘I don’t think so. Are you?’

‘Frozen. I need the walk back to the car, to thaw out!’

 

 

CHAPTER 31

 

Back at the car park, Franz seemed reluctant to stop even for a cup of tea.

‘We can if you want,’ he said, ‘but unless you’re hungry it might be better to go on to the next place first, before the light goes.’

‘Okay.’

He walked ahead of her to the car, took out the keys and opened the passenger door for her, forgetting that she had wanted to do the driving. She got in and they drove away from the lough, leaving the hermitage and the waters behind them but taking with them the silence.

She didn’t ask where they were going next. It was restful, in a way, not to know. She would go along with Franz’s timetable, whatever it was, and sooner or later she felt he would stop being tour guide and become himself. In the meantime, the Wicklow mountains and wooded valleys were a beautiful place to feel lost in, with the security of being with someone who clearly knew his way.

‘It’s been used as a film set, a number of times,’ said Franz, when they were standing looking at ‘the next place.’ ‘It’s been the backdrop to all kinds of scenes, from lost-world to olde-worlde – Lancelot and Merlin.’

The waterfall had its own complex rhythms, different streams of it falling at different speeds, shooting to earth or tumbling over rocks or meandering downwards in small trickles. It seemed to create its own atmosphere.

‘The highest waterfall in Ireland,’ Franz told her.

Still being tour guide, Ella thought. Increasingly, during the last hour, the words kept ringing in her mind: what are we waiting for?

They wandered round the waterfall, looking at it from different angles and heights. It was impressive. Franz did not look impressed. His gaze was directed towards the waterfall but he seemed preoccupied with something far beyond his line of vision.

He glanced at his watch then did a double-take, shook his wrist and held the watch up to his ear. ‘Look at the time!’ he said, amazed. ‘Where did all that time go?’

‘It’s magic,’ Ella said, smiling. ‘The leprechauns whisked it away.’

‘Leprechauns! Don’t go Hollywood-Irish on me now!’

‘You mean leprechauns are not real? Go on wit’ ye now, ye’ll be telling me dere’s no Santy Claus next t’ing! How’s my Irish accent?’ Ella asked him.

‘Terrible. Irish mixed with Scots, with a touch of Hindustani.’

‘You’re just jealous,’ she told him, ‘because mine’s more authentic than yours.’

‘Go ‘way wid ye, woman! And dere was I after t’inking of making you me wife!’

She caught her breath. ‘Were you?’

‘Yes.’

They were both suddenly serious.

‘Subject to your decision,’ he said. ‘No pressure.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said slowly, ‘if I believe in marriage. I didn’t know you did?’

‘We don’t have to believe in marriage,’ he said. ‘We just have to believe it would work for us.’

She wanted to ask if he believed it would work for them. As she paused, she saw fear in his eyes and knew he had meant it – subject to your decision. He wanted her to be decisive. Turning the decision back to him would be indecision. And indecision would mean ‘no’ to him at this time.

‘I believe it would be a good thing for us,’ Ella said firmly.

‘You’re sure? I mean, I know it’s only a piece of paper and an anachronistic way of ….’

‘Ssh!’ said Ella. ‘You’ll upset the hermits who followed us from Glendalough. Now go down on one knee and do it properly, in front of all of them.’

He grinned, dropped promptly to one knee on the rocky ground, and said, ‘Ella Martha Cohen, in the presence of Saint Kevin and all his companions of Glendalough, will you marry me?’

‘You haven’t started right,’ she chided him. ‘It’s “I, Franz Kane, ask you, Ella Martha ” What?’

He had shot upright as though suddenly threatened by something. Ella instinctively looked over her shoulder to see if someone had come up behind her or something had happened out of her line of sight.

‘Nothing,’ he said quickly. ‘Cramp in my leg. Shows I’m too old for this.’

She didn’t want to lose the moment; didn’t understand what she had said to shake him like that.

‘The answer’s yes,’ she said, holding him by both arms. ‘Ella Martha Cohen will marry you, Franz Kane. All right? And can we go and celebrate with a cup of tea and whatever Irish people eat at this time, because I’m starving?’

After driving away and keeping on driving for a while, there didn’t seem to be any cafes in the area.

‘We’re too used to London,’ Franz said, ‘where whatever you want is on every corner.’

Ella switched on the interior car light as Franz drove and turned the map upside down to see which way they were going. ‘We could head for the nearest town, which is … let me see ….’

‘Too far,’ said Franz. ‘We’ll go for one of the villages and see if there’s a shop open.’

‘Well, we’re going to have to go to the town this evening, aren’t we? To find somewhere to eat?’

‘We don’t have time now.’

She looked at him, eloquently not asking.

‘I’ve arranged to go and see someone,’ Franz said reluctantly. ‘You don’t have to come.’

She was silent.

‘I mean, you can come, if you want to,’ Franz said. ‘It’s just, you look tired, so I thought you might prefer to go back to the B&B ….’

‘I’m not tired,’ Ella said untruthfully.

‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m not tired but if you don’t want me to come with you, tell me.’

He shook his head quickly. ‘No, come.’ A pause. ‘If you don’t mind the lack of explanations,’ he added gruffly.

‘That was the deal, wasn’t it?’ Ella agreed.

‘I’m sorry. I just can’t …’ He left the sentence unfinished.

‘Then I’ll accept what you can,’ Ella said equably. ‘As long as, somewhere along the line, there’s a cup of tea and some kind of food. I don’t know what this Irish country air is doing to me.’

He laughed. ‘It does that to everyone who isn’t used to it.’

He stopped the car by a village green, in front of a row of cottages with a battered tin sign outside one of them. Wind and rain had erased all the writing, leaving faint patterns in the flaked paint and rust patches.

‘Do you want to come in?’ asked Franz.

‘Is this the visit?’

‘No, it’s the shop.’

‘You’re kidding! Where?’

‘The middle cottage. The one with the shop sign.’

Ella got out of the car. ‘What does the sign actually say under all that rust?’ she asked, laughing. ‘You don’t have to be psychic to live here but it helps?’

‘I’m hoping it says Open,’ said Franz. The door opened with a tinny jangling of bells when he pushed it.

A tiny counter enclosed a corner of the small front room, which was stacked from floor to windowsills with an extraordinary variety of goods.

‘Shop!’ Franz called.

A fly died noisily in the silence, spinning around on its back on top of a pile of curly-edged magazines which in turn stood on top of a pile of tins.

Looking around, Ella noted fishing lines, packs of tights, packets of peanuts, balls of string and cards of washing-line pegs hanging from one beam of the ceiling, and on the floor in front of the counter piles of fire kindling, firelighters, toilet rolls, jars of chutney with handwritten labels, and packs of sanitary towels. Big jars of sweets were lined up on shelves behind the counter. There was no one around.

‘Anybody home?’ Franz called.

‘Let’s go,’ Ella muttered. She felt as though they had walked into someone’s private home and were intruding on the silence.

‘I’ll be with you in just a moment!’ a voice called back.

‘No hurry: take your time!’ Franz replied. ‘Look at that,’ he said to Ella, pointing at the jars. ‘Lemon sherbets: I haven’t seen those for years. Did you have those as a kid?’

‘We called them sherbet lemons,’ Ella said. ‘Culture difference! I’m sure they tasted the same, though.’

She was assuming now, she realized, that Franz had been brought up – or at least spent part of his childhood – here. He gave her a quick glance but if he noticed her assumption he didn’t comment.

A tiny lady appeared, her face a swathe of wrinkles encasing bright blue eyes like teddy bear button eyes.

‘I was putting the dog out,’ she explained. ‘It’s not time for his evening walk yet, as he well knows, but he wouldn’t wait. He’s getting old, the creature,’ she said pityingly. She must have been eighty herself, Ella imagined. ‘What can I do for yez?’ she asked them.

How sensible, Ella reflected, to have this plural form of ‘you’ here. It saved all the confusion of wondering whether someone was addressing one person or both.

‘What would you like?’ Franz asked Ella.

‘I don’t know!’ She hadn’t so far seen anything in the shop that was edible, except for the sweets and some cans of soup. ‘You don’t sell bread or fruit or …?’

‘We do indeed,’ said the lady, with satisfaction. ‘You’ll be English, are you?’

The single form of ‘you’, Ella noted; the question didn’t seem to include Franz.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘We were really looking for somewhere to get a cup of tea and something to eat.’

‘Yez’ve been walking? The air makes you hungry, isn’t that it?’

Ella smiled. ‘It certainly does!’

‘Now, if you’re English you must try barm brack,’ the lady said firmly. ‘Mustn’t she?’ she appealed to Franz.

‘Certainly,’ he said. ‘It’s an experience not to be missed!’

Was it genuine, then, that Irish tang in his voice? Or was it something he assumed at will, succeeding so well at blending with his environment that he even sounded Irish to the Irish?

‘What part are you from, yourself?’ the shopkeeper asked him.

Ella held her breath, hoping he would answer honestly and she might learn something.

‘Oh, from all over,’ Franz said. ‘We moved about a lot.’

It was his usual answer. The woman gave him a sharp look, as if finding it unsatisfactory.

‘Where were you born, then?’ she asked, but Franz interrupted with, ‘Whatever else we decide on, we must have some lemon sherbets – okay, Ella? Sorry to ask you to lift down the jar,’ he added charmingly to the shopkeeper.

‘No trouble at all,’ she said, jumping on to a small stool with surprising agility and dumping the jar on the counter. ‘A quarter or a half? Sure, have a half,’ she said winningly. ‘You don’t get half nothing of these big things in a quarter, do you?’

It was a deal and Franz recognized it gracefully. No offence taken at evading her question if he would settle for the half-pound.

‘A half it is,’ he said, smiling. ‘And some brack and a couple of apples. And something to drink.’

‘I can make yez a cup of tea if you’re gasping,’ the woman said. ‘I know when you get the taste for it nothing else will do, and the kettle’s on the range in the back if you want to come through.’

‘Thank you!’ said Ella, astonished at this hospitality.

‘Thank you but we don’t have time,’ Franz said. ‘We’ve an appointment at six o’clock and we’ve still ten miles to go. Do you have any red lemonade?’

‘We do. Right behind you, between the skipping ropes and the soap – d’ye see it?’

‘Fine. Will that be all right for you, Ella?’

‘I’ll try anything once. I never heard of red lemonade.’

‘Is that a fact?’ said the old lady, shaking her head in wonderment. ‘D’ye not have lemonade in England at all?’

‘Only the white one,’ Franz said.

He paid and accepted the change but seemed suddenly reluctant to leave, standing by the door, looking round.

‘Don’t I know you from somewheres?’ the old lady said suddenly.

‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘Thanks very much. Goodbye now.’

‘Take care on the roads,’ she said. Her eyes were still scanning his face quizzically. Franz turned away and pulled open the door.

He was silent as they drove away, leaving Ella to open the paper bag and discover that brack was a kind of teabread made with dried fruit, and the apples were tiny russets, for whose small size the old lady had compensated by giving them six instead of the four that Franz had requested.

‘She thought she knew you,’ Ella commented, when she had decided she didn’t like red lemonade but had torn off large chunks of barm brack, eating some ravenously and feeding morsels to Franz as he drove.

He swallowed a mouthful too quickly and choked. She patted him between the shoulders. The car swerved slightly across the narrow road. Franz righted it quickly. When he recovered, he said, ‘A lot of people think they know me.’

 

 

CHAPTER 32

 

When ten miles had gone by on the dial, Ella thought they must be nearly there, wherever there might turn out to be and, sure enough, shortly afterwards the car turned into a driveway framed by open rusted gates, with a sign saying something she couldn’t read in the gathering darkness, except that she thought the last word might have been ‘convent.’

The sign outside the front door of the big house, when they drew up in front of it, was clearer. ‘Immaculate Heart of Mary Nursing Home,’ it read. Not convent, then. Perhaps ex-convent, now a nursing home? Or a nursing home run by nuns? Immaculate Heart of Mary sounded more like a convent than a nursing home, Ella thought; in fact, it sounded like something out of The Sound of Music. But maybe in Ireland it was a perfectly normal name for a nursing home?

She followed Franz through the double front doors. There didn’t seem to be any security. The doors were unlocked and there was no entryphone; the doorbell, an old pushbutton type, was embedded in paint within its doughnut-shaped surround and didn’t look as if it would yield to touch or emit a sound.

A slim elderly woman wearing a white overall and a long kerchief (or a short veil? Ella wondered) stood in the hallway talking to a younger woman in a blue overall who was steering an old man in a wheelchair towards a far door.

‘I’ll be in with his medication shortly,’ she said, before turning to meet Ella and Franz.

She wore a large silver cross strung on a black cord round her neck and hanging low on her chest, Ella noticed. The stretched figure of the man on the cross lay against her heart. Ella thought it must be an encumbrance when nursing patients, bending over to lift them, for instance, or give them a drink. You could do someone a nasty injury if you hit them in the eye with a bit of metal that size. She was aware that she was looking for distractions, thinking about anything except why they were there and what Franz was doing. She felt scared, suddenly. I want to go home, she thought childishly.

The nurse – or nun, if she was a nun – came towards them, smiling.

‘Hello,’ said Franz, before she had quite reached them. ‘Sister Briege? I phoned you earlier.’

‘Hello, yes. Michael, isn’t it? We never actually met, did we? I nursed your mother when she was dying but always the daytime shift. You would have been out at work,’ said Sister Briege, shaking his hand. ‘I was very fond of Maria. A lovely person.’ She turned to Ella. ‘You’re Michael’s wife?’ she said.

Ella stalled, waiting for Franz to tell the woman’s he wasn’t Michael.

‘This is Ella,’ said Franz. ‘My fiancée.’

‘Glad to meet you both,’ said Sister Briege. ‘He’s had his tea and he’s saying his Office but you can go in. Follow me.’

She set off ahead of them down a long narrow passage. Franz followed her and Ella, after a moment’s hesitation, followed him. Michael? she thought. The letter that arrived at the flat, the one with the Irish postmark, the one he said gave him the idea of going to Ireland …

They passed a series of doors, some closed and two ajar, one giving a glimpse of an old man in a plaid dressing gown, sitting up in bed, waving hopefully at anyone who passed. Sister Briege waved back at him.

‘With you in a moment, Archie!’

Archie grinned, revealing gums, and waved at Franz, who didn’t notice. Ella waved back.

‘Here we are,’ said Sister Briege, stopping outside an open door. A very old man, probably tall once but now folded almost double, sat hunched in an armchair, peering down at an even older-looking book on his knees. One hand, bony as a bird’s claw, was poised over the book, tracing the line of the print with a forefinger.

On the green vinyl-covered floor, in a corner of the room by the high narrow iron bed, lay a black metal cylinder of oxygen, and on the chipped painted wooden bedside cabinet stood a half-full glass of water. On the wall above the bed was a large wooden crucifix with the same stretched-out figure of a man dying.

‘Father McCarthy,’ said Sister Briege, raising her voice. ‘You have visitors.’

He looked up vaguely, his blue eyes cloudy.

‘It’s Michael to see you,’ said Sister Briege. ‘Michael and Emma.’

‘Ella,’ corrected Franz.

Never mind the Emma: what about the Michael? thought Ella desperately. Was Franz impersonating this Michael Somebody? She couldn’t remember the surname on the envelope.

‘Michael and Ella?’ repeated the old man. He peered at both their faces then shook his head and returned to perusing his book.

‘It’s Michael, from England,’ Sister Briege told him. ‘You remember I told you I wrote to him? To everyone in your address book? And Michael has come all this way to see you, from England, with his fiancée.’

The old man looked up again and raised a finger, as though requesting permission to ask a question. He addressed his query to Sister Briege.

‘Is it sixty-three?’ he said.

Sister Briege stooped over him and looked at the book on his lap.

‘It is,’ she said. ‘Psalm 63. ‘My God, you are my God, for you I long.’

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

He hunched over the book again and began muttering, only just audibly.

‘His eyesight is failing him,’ Sister Briege told Franz and Ella. ‘But if we start him off, he knows all the psalms by heart anyway. Sit down, won’t you? Will you have a cup of tea?’

As though it were quite normal, Ella thought despairingly, for them to sit drinking tea in the private room of some poor old bloke who wanted to be left alone to read his prayer book and who clearly didn’t know Franz or Ella, or anyone called Michael or Emma either.

‘No, thank you,’ she said. The sooner they got out of here and Franz stopped pretending to be someone else, the better, she thought.

‘Call me if you want anything,’ Sister Briege said, and left them.

Franz stayed standing, watching the old man, who ignored them. Words escaped his lips and floated towards them. His finger moved along the lines of print as his eyes followed it, apparently sightlessly.

‘My body pines for you,’ the old man read, or recited, ‘like a dry, weary land without water.’

His body did look dry and weary, Ella thought, inescapably old. How terrible to be still pining for somebody, at his age.

‘So I gaze on you,’ said the old man rapturously, ‘in the sanctuary, to see your strength and your glory.’

Franz cleared his throat. The old man looked up inquiringly.

‘May I help you?’ he said courteously.

Franz crouched down on his haunches, bringing himself to the old man’s eye level. In a broad Irish accent that Ella could hardly decipher, he said loudly, ‘So what’s a fine County Mayo man like yourself doing in the wilds of Wicklow?’

There was a silence.

Don’t, Franz! pleaded Ella silently. Whoever this stranger is, don’t try to humour him with your comic accents and your hail-fellow charm, while all the poor old guy wants is ….

The old man opened his mouth in a wide, silent O and began laughing, his face lighting up delightedly, his arms stretching out in front of him.

‘Francis?’ he exclaimed. ‘Is it Francis?’

‘And who else but meself?’ said Franz. He began laughing as well, his shoulders shaking and his deeper voice mingling with the reedy tones of the old man’s.

Ella wasn’t sure when the tone changed, whether the tears began first, rolling out of the corners of the old man’s eyes, or whether the laughter turned to sobbing before that, or whether he had been laughing and sobbing at the same time, from the beginning. She only knew that the sound of it became unbearable.

Unable to hold back, she darted towards him but Franz was there first. Dropping to his knees beside the chair, he grabbed the old man roughly around the chest and hugged him fiercely to himself.

Over Franz’s shoulder Ella saw the old man’s eyes close, streaming with tears, and his wide mouth open in anguish, till the clawlike hand, waving helplessly behind Franz’s back as he sobbed and struggled for breath, relaxed and, very gently, started patting Franz on the back, comforting him as his own sobs subsided and gave way to Franz’s.

Ella turned to go out of the room, unable to stay and witness such anguish, and as she did she caught the eye of a young girl, equally startled, who had stopped in the doorway, clad in a blue overall and carrying a pile of clean towels.

What amazing skin she has, thought Ella confusedly, before the girl ran out. Like caffe latte, and smooth as silk.

She followed her into the corridor, for no reason except that she couldn’t stay in the room, and that when the girl had met her eyes Ella had felt a sudden physical stab of pain in her heart, coming from the girl but mirroring her own. She can’t stand it either, she thought, and didn’t know why.

 

 

CHAPTER 33

 

‘Excuse me,’ said Ella.

The girl was standing in the corridor, looking through – or at – the dark window, which gave a view only of the single light outside the front entrance of the nursing home. She turned, clutching the pile of towels. Ella saw there were tears in her eyes.

‘Hi, I’m Ella.’

The girl nodded. She wore a name badge on her blue overall but it seemed rude to look at the badge rather than the person, Ella thought; anyway, she couldn’t read it from this angle.

‘The old man,’ she said, gesturing towards the room they had both just evacuated. ‘He looks very frail.’

‘He’s dying,’ the girl said bluntly.

‘I thought so.’ Ella searched for the right words. ‘And that’s why Sister Briege wrote to ….?’

The girl looked away quickly. ‘Sister Briege wrote to everyone in his address book who wasn’t marked deceased or had the address crossed out.’

‘She wrote twice?’

Again, that quick flicking movement of the head, averting her eyes. No reply.

Treat this girl like Franz, something told Ella inside her head. Don’t ask questions; she’ll clam up. The girl looked frightened, she thought. She couldn’t be more than twenty or twenty-one years old.

‘It must be hard to work here, I imagine,’ Ella said, changing the subject.

‘It’s not my real work,’ the girl said. ‘I’ve only been here five months. I’m a hairdresser really.’

‘Oh, I should have guessed,’ said Ella, ‘by the beautiful way you do your hair.’

It was beautiful – the mass of tiny black plaits clinging to the small head and hanging down over her thin shoulders. She was Caribbean rather than African, Ella guessed.

The girl smiled. ‘I’ve done four years,’ she said. ‘In the salon and with training at college. I train some of the juniors now.’

‘And you gave it up to work here?’

The smile wiped itself from her face. ‘I had to be here,’ she said.

‘It’s not easy,’ Ella said, ‘to care for people who are dying.’

The tears sprang into the girl’s eyes again.

She’s in such pain, Ella thought. Keep talking to her. Talk about yourself; don’t ask about her.

‘I sat with my brother when he was dying,’ Ella said. ‘It was so hard at the time. But afterwards I was so glad I’d spent that time with him.’

The girl’s expression turned to compassion. ‘How old?’ she said.

‘He was eleven, I was fifteen. He had leukaemia. When the doctors had done all they could, they told him he wouldn’t get better now. He’d asked them. He wanted to know. Then he said he wanted to come home. My mother didn’t want him to; she was afraid of the responsibility.’

The girl nodded, understanding.

‘So I said if she let me stay off school, I’d stay with him, help look after him.’

‘How long did he live, when he was home?’ The girl’s voice was barely above a whisper.

‘Only eight days. I sat in the chair beside him during the daytime and lay in the bed beside him at night. He died in the night. I woke up and couldn’t feel his breath on my face. I kept calling his name and shaking him. Then I knew I had to let him go.’

Ella hadn’t known she was crying, till the girl put her hand tentatively on her arm.

‘Sorry,’ Ella said. ‘It was a long time ago.’

‘No, it’s okay. Thanks,’ said the girl. ‘I was thinking I didn’t know if I could do this. I want to stay with him till … he goes … but I was thinking I might not be able to do it.’

‘With who?’ asked Ella gently.

‘Father Francis.’

She had turned towards the light when Ella started crying, and Ella saw her name badge now. Rachel Hamid, she read, and suddenly she knew who the girl was.

‘You’re Rachel,’ she said. ‘You’re Franz’s sister, aren’t you?’

The girl’s eyes widened. ‘Did he call me his sister?’ she said.

‘He told me you were in Jamaica,’ said Ella.

‘I came back.’ The eyes flicked away again for a second, as if ashamed. ‘I wrote the second letter,’ she whispered. ‘I signed it Sister Briege. I told him to come quickly if he wanted to see Father Francis still living.’

Ella took Rachel by the elbow and steered her towards the room. ‘I think we should go back in,’ she said.

‘Oh, I don’t …. He doesn’t know …’

‘Then he should know,’ said Ella firmly.

She steered Rachel ahead of her through the doorway. They both stopped.

Franz was seated on the narrow arm of the chair, with his arm around the old man, reading aloud to him from the book. Father Francis McCarthy, his white hair fine as a baby’s yet still thickly covering his head, leaned against him, tears still streaming from his eyes yet a look of utter peacefulness on his face. He was very still, nodding his head at the words Franz was reading.

‘In the shadow of your wings I rejoice,’ Franz read. ‘My soul clings to you. Your right hand holds me safe.’

Father Francis’ right hand, bony as a bird’s claw, covered Franz’s right hand holding the book. His wide mouth was relaxed, the long narrow nose nodding slightly as he listened to the words, the thick white eyebrows arched into uneven shapes, raised in attentiveness.

Ella looked from the old man to Franz and back again and wondered how she had not recognized from the moment they came into the room that they were father and son.

Franz raised his head now, seeing them and said, his voice catching, ‘Rachel?’

For a moment Ella thought the girl was going to run out of the room again, and reached out to her, but the sight of Franz suddenly shaken with tears again made the girl straighten her back and walk resolutely towards him.

The old man waited, looking down at the book and then back at Franz, as if puzzled by the interruption.

Rachel went and stood behind his chair, put a hand on the old man’s shoulder, and started reading the part of the page that was not covered by his hand.

‘Your love is worth more to me than life itself,’ she read. ‘My lips will sing your praises.’

She glanced at Franz, whose shoulders were shaking. He steadied himself and read with her, the two voices keeping pace with each other, the old man nodding with contentment. ‘My hands are raised to you without ceasing. My soul is filled with joy. At night, my God, I think of you, I remember you, for you have been my help.’

They arrived at the part Franz had been saying when Rachel and Ella came in.

‘In the shadow of your wings I rejoice. My soul clings to you. Your right hand holds me safe.’

The old man’s head nodded deeper, sinking on to his chest. He drew one huge, deep breath, and slept.

Gently, Franz detached the old man’s hand from his own and placed it against his thin chest. Rachel lifted the folded blanket from the end of the bed and covered him, tucking it around him.

‘I’ll come back later,’ she whispered, ‘and put him to bed.’

‘Thanks,’ said Franz. ‘I didn’t know …. You should have told me you …’

She smiled, miming ‘Sshh!’ with her finger against her lips, and they tiptoed out.

‘What do we do now?’ Franz asked, when they were out in the corridor. ‘Are you free to talk? Can you come out with us?’

‘No. It gets busy now, doing baths and getting them to bed, and I don’t finish till ten. I’m not on till two tomorrow, though – I could see you in the morning? Are you staying?’

‘Only a couple of days. Shall we pick you up in the morning? Ella, is that okay with you?’

‘It’s fine,’ Ella said. ‘Anything.’

‘I don’t want to spoil your holiday,’ Rachel told her.

‘It isn’t a holiday,’ said Ella. ‘It’s a pilgrimage. Isn’t it?’ she asked Franz.

‘Or something,’ he said. ‘How long has he got, Rach?’

‘Sister Briege said two or three days – but she said that a week ago and then he got stronger again. He has to have the oxygen mask at night; he’s finding it hard to breathe.’

Franz caught his breath, as though winded himself. ‘We’ll come back in the morning, then, and see how he is,’ he said. ‘And have time for a coffee together before you start work?’

‘That’d be nice,’ she said.

Franz took one of his business cards out of his pocket. ‘Take my mobile number,’ he said, ‘in case you want to ring.’

It was a curiously formal gesture, in the circumstances – his business persona coming between him and his sister. Rachel was suddenly overcome with shyness, taking the card but looking into the distance and taking a step back from him.

Ella stepped towards her and gave her a hug. ‘It’s so nice to meet you, Franz’s sister,’ she said.

There was that quick flash of a smile again, then a sudden doubting glance towards Franz, but he nodded at her, smiling.

‘How did I lose touch for so long with my own sister?’ he said, moving forward and hugging her tightly. Rachel buried her face for a minute against his shoulder, then came up determinedly smiling.

Such pain she’s in, thought Ella again. She said, lightly, ‘Never mind being his sister, I hope you’re ready to become an auntie as well, Rachel?’

‘Really? Really?’ The girl’s eyes lit up.

‘Really really,’ Franz teased her. ‘I hope you’re ready for the responsibility because when you visit us you’re going to have to do your share of babysitting!’

The joy in her face was unmistakable. She hugged them both with no trace of shyness now. ‘I’m so happy for you!’ she told Ella. ‘I’m so happy!’ she said to Franz.

‘Me too,’ he said. ‘See you tomorrow, baby sister.’

Outside in the cold evening air Ella walked ahead of Franz to the car and stood by the passenger door. They wouldn’t talk now, not here. Maybe not till tomorrow morning, with Rachel, she thought. She wasn’t going to pressure him. She still knew so little, but enough now to know why he found it so hard to tell her.

He glanced sideways at her a few times while he was driving. She smiled at him but said nothing.

‘Where do you want to go?’ he asked. ‘Are you hungry, tired – what?’

‘I’m cold. I’d like to go back to the house and have a shower. And a cup of tea – there’s a kettle in the room and I brought some sachets of herb stuff. I don’t mind about food. Whatever you feel like.’

‘We could stop at a pub and get a couple of cheese rolls to take away?’

‘Perfect.’

He parked outside a small pub with a sign outside that said ‘Homemade Food’ and Ella waited in the car, rubbing her ankles to bring back the circulation. Two men walking towards the pub from different directions called out to one another. Their paths meeting by the parked car, they both stooped and waved to Ella through the window.

‘Evening, there!’ called the first, a thickset young man with a wide smile.

‘Evening!’ said the older one. ‘Are you coming in for a drink?’

She smiled and wound the window down. ‘No, I’m waiting for my husband.’

‘He’ll be in there till the cows come home, you know that?’ said the older man, joking, but Franz came out just then, proving him wrong.

‘Ah, you’ve got him tamed already, and him still young!’ said the man sorrowfully. ‘She’s got you in tow already, I see, your missus!’ he said to Franz.

‘I’m going quietly!’ said Franz, holding up his hands, with a paper carrier bag hanging. ‘I’m a happy prisoner!’

The men laughed and bade them goodnight, going into the pub.

‘I said you were my husband,’ Ella realized.

Franz slid into the driving seat, leaned across and kissed her on the mouth. ‘Better get used to it,’ he said. He put the carrier bag down by her feet and started the ignition. Backing out of the pub car park, he said, ‘Will you keep your own name or change it?’

‘It depends,’ said Ella carefully, ‘on what other name you would give me?’

‘Well,’ said Franz, ‘you could be Mrs Kane. Or you could be Mrs Finnucane.’

He spoke casually but Ella, covertly watching him, could feel the fear coming from him as potently as she had last night when the hammering of his heartbeat had woken her.

‘Either one will do fine,’ Ella said, ‘but if you don’t mind, I’d rather it was the same one as you.’

Her heart was pounding as well now.

‘I could go on being Franz Kane,’ said Franz. ‘Or I could go back to my old school nickname, which was Micky Finn.’

‘Uh-huh. Was Micky a nickname, to go with the Finn, short for Finnucane?’

‘No.’ He stopped the car at a junction, too abruptly, and turned towards her. ‘My name is Michael Francis Finnucane,’ he said.

She put a hand on his arm. ‘I’m pleased to meet you at last,’ she said, ‘Michael Francis Finnucane. There’s a car behind us, Franz.’

‘Oh. Right.’ He shifted the gear and moved on.

Further down the road in the dark, somewhere back near the lake, she thought, he stopped the car again, turned the engine off and sank his head against his arms, on the wheel.

‘I can’t do this, Ella,’ he said. ‘I can’t.’

She put out a hand and stroked the back of his head. The silver-white of his hair, fine-stranded yet thickly sown, gave a faint shimmer of light in the pale glow of the not-quite-yet-risen moon.

‘You don’t have to do anything.’

‘I want to tell you everything,’ he said. ‘But I’ve kept quiet for so long. I don’t know how to start.’

‘Then how about if I start?’ she said.

She waited.

‘Okay,’ he said.

‘Father Francis McCarthy is your father,’ she said. ‘You’re his son.’

His voice was muffled. ‘Yes.’

‘He’s a Roman Catholic priest, presumably single, supposedly celibate.’

Another affirmative, sounding more like a groan.

‘You love him, and always have,’ Ella said. ‘And he loves you.’

Silence.

‘And the relationship is very, very painful. For both of you.’

His shoulders shook, though not a sound escaped him.

‘And Rachel,’ Ella said. ‘Is Rachel his?’

‘No.’ He broke into sobs, turning almost into a roar.

God, help him, Ella thought. Oh, God, if there is a God, please help me now to help him.

Words came back to her and she started to say them, softly, into his ear. His tears reminded her of the waterfall of the lough.

‘My God, my God, for you my soul is longing,’ Ella recited, not remembering the exact order of the words and not knowing if they would work even if she did. ‘My bones are dry and weary and I’m thirsting in this desert place.’

His sobbing slowed down, she thought but couldn’t be sure.

‘I’m hiding in the shadow of your wings,’ Ella continued, staring out at the glimmer of moonlight, catching the glimpse of a flash on water or something shiny among the rocks, she didn’t know which. ‘My soul clings to you. Your right hand is holding me tight. I’m safe now. Oh God,’ she said, her voice breaking now, ‘we’re safe now. We’re home and dry, all right?’

 

 

CHAPTER 34

 

He was pacing again. Ella came out of the shower and, finding the room empty, leaned out of the window and saw him in the light from the downstairs windows, walking up and down the garden, talking into his phone.

She sighed and pulled the window to, closing the curtains, and got into the bed for warmth. She remembered wanting tea, hours ago, but couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed again and boil the kettle. She would wait for Franz now.

He returned, phone in hand, full of news.

‘Sharma’s heard from his wife,’ he told Ella, as he walked in. ‘Her relationship broke up: she found out the man had a wife and five children in Karachi. Sharma’s asked her to come home and she’s thinking about it but he thinks she will.’

‘Good.’

‘He hasn’t got any further with the missing boys, which is worrying him, but he’s feeling better and Phil has been going round the streets with him in the early hours of the morning when it’s quiet. Sharma’s certain they’re still back in our area and still alive.’

‘That’s something.’

‘Alison left a message that everything’s going fine at The Healing Place. She sounds as if she’s enjoying being in charge.’

‘Good.’

‘Did I tell you what happened about Rory?’

‘The builder? No, you were just going in to meet him after Sharma was taken ill, weren’t you?’

‘Yes, and he said what I’d expected – no problem, just a crack in the plaster. I told him I wasn’t prepared to accept that so he said he’d call in a structural engineer and get his opinion. Alison says they’re coming in tomorrow.’

‘They don’t need you to be there?’

‘No. All I need to know is his verdict; they won’t do anything until we get back anyway.’

‘Oh, okay.’

‘And Sharma says Phil and Jan send their love and they’re praying for you and the baby.’

‘Fine. Franz?’

‘Yes. Did you have your cup of tea yet? Shall I put the kettle on?’

‘No, I didn’t. Yes, thanks. Franz?’

‘I got cheese rolls,’ he said, ‘from the pub, and crisps and bars of chocolate, and Diet Pepsi. I thought we could have a picnic.’

‘Right.’

‘A picnic in bed – yes?’

‘A picnic in bed sounds fantastic,’ Ella said. ‘And a chat.’

‘Ordinary tea or herb?’

‘Franz.’

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I know. We will talk. Do you mind if I leave the phone switched on tonight? I’ll only answer if it’s Rachel,’ he added quickly.

‘Of course. I like Rachel,’ Ella told him.

‘Do you? She liked you, I could tell.’

‘That’s good. I always wanted a sister. A sister-in-law will do just as well.’

‘She’s not technically my sister, you know?’

‘You said. But family and technical don’t seem to go together, do they?’

He grimaced. ‘Not in my family, certainly. Shall we just have the picnic, Ella, and leave the serious talking stuff till tomorrow?’

‘I don’t think so,’ she said gently.

‘No,’ he conceded. ‘I might have a shower first, though.’

She smiled at him.

‘Or not,’ he said. He made them both tea, handed her the carrier bag from the pub, undressed quickly and got into bed beside her.

‘Your feet are freezing!’ she said. ‘I thought Irishmen were born impervious to the cold?’

‘Not Romanian-Irishmen,’ he said.

She sipped her tea before answering, instinct still telling her to take it slowly, to savour the information he offered but not to rush him.

‘That’s an interesting mixture,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know about the Romanian.’

‘My mother. Her parents were refugees. I’m not sure – she wasn’t sure – exactly how or why they ended up in Ireland. They were travellers, whether by tradition or because once they arrived in Ireland they couldn’t afford to live any other way, she didn’t know either. They died shortly after arriving here, in a flu epidemic.’

‘Was your mother the only child?’

‘Yes. She was nine when they died. A family of Irish travellers took her in. They couldn’t pronounce her Romanian surname, if they even knew it, which they may not have done. Anyway, they gave her their own name.’

‘Finnucane?’

‘Yes. Her first name was Maria, which was easy enough for everyone so she kept that. Maria Finnucane sounded Irish enough. She never quite lost her Romanian accent, though, which was strange because she was so young when she lost her parents and the Finnucanes were Irish through and through.’

‘Ah,’ Ella said, remembering the old Eastern Europeans who had lived in the doorway of the newsagents’ and how easily Franz had managed to understand their accent.

He stopped and ate a cheese roll, hungrily and without tasting it. Under the duvet, she could feel he was trembling. She both wanted to let him off the hook, tell him he didn’t have to talk about anything if he didn’t want to, and to force him to get it over with, to tell her these terrible secrets that would not be so terrible if only he could speak them.

She rested her head against his shoulder. ‘I love you,’ she told him.

‘You don’t know me,’ he said. ‘There’s so much I haven’t told you.’

‘I do know you. I see you. I touch you. I feel you. You won’t change, if you fill in the blanks.’

‘You might change,’ he said. ‘You might change the way you feel about me.’

‘Risk it and find out,’ she said.

‘What do you want to know?’ He was shaking so uncontrollably now that she had to take the cup from him before he spilt its contents.

‘Tell me about the place where you were born.’ Start with the facts, she thought. Facts were clinical: simpler than feelings.

‘County Mayo. The west of Ireland. A small village on the coast. The villagers spoke Irish; some didn’t have any English or refused to speak it if they did. I hardly spoke English myself till I went to school. Even people from the town three miles down the road were considered foreigners. Travellers were not considered people at all, or not in the same league as people of fixed abode.’

‘And Romanian refugee travellers?’

‘Not a hope. Might as well have been from the planet Mars,’ Franz said, and laughed. ‘My father had a soft spot for the underdog,’ he said, and his voice shook.

‘He was a priest when he met your mother?’ Ella asked.

‘Yes. And a bit of an underdog himself. His father had thrown him out and disowned him.’

‘Because of your mother?’

‘No. Long before that. His father was a self-made man, a millionaire. Started out stripping secondhand cars on the dumps and selling the engine parts; ended up with a chain of quick refit outlets – tyres, exhausts, windscreens, that kind of thing. An empire to pass on to his only son and heir. Who developed a vocation, from an early age, that everyone thought was a holy phase – not uncommon in Irish families, especially ones with mothers who were always praying – until he left school and signed up for the seminary.’

‘The what?’

‘Seminary. As in ‘sowing the seed’ – a training college for priests, future sowers of God’s word.’

‘Oh. Without his parents’ knowledge?’

‘His mother was all for it. His father was off his head with rage. Marched down there and demanded his son back. Very embarrassing for my father as a young student.’

‘I can imagine. Did your father refuse?’

‘He must have done. Anyway, he stayed, got through the six years and was ordained. His mother was at the ordination, at the back of the church. He didn’t know she was there until afterwards.’

‘That sounds kind of lonely. He must have been very sure of what he was doing.’

‘He was. Sure, and lonely. His first posting was to a church where the priest was an alcoholic. A very uneven-tempered man, my mother described him, and she never said a malicious word about anybody, so he must have been a real bastard. He gave my father all the early Masses to say, all the mortuary visits to anoint people who’d died, and all the visiting of poorer parishioners and travellers.’

‘Which is how he met your mother?’

‘D’you want some crisps?’

‘Thanks.’ Ella patted his leg encouragingly.

‘Salt and vinegar or plain?’

‘Whichever comes first. We’ll share the pack.’

‘Okay. Ella?’

‘Yes?’

‘I can’t do this,’ he said desperately. ‘I’m sorry. I want to. I just … it feels so wrong to tell these things, Ella!’

‘I think,’ she said, sliding down the bed and pulling him down beside her, ‘we need to take a break. I’m going to make love to you. That you can do, fantastically.’

‘I don’t know. I can’t stop shaking.’

‘You will, when I’ve finished with you,’ she promised him. ‘Now, lie back and think of England, Ireland or Romania, whichever suits you, Michael Francis Finnucane, and I will take care of everything.’

 

 

CHAPTER 35

 

The call came just before three o’clock in the morning. They were both asleep. Ella awoke instantly, while Franz was still surfacing, and grabbed his phone.

‘Uh?’

‘Mick, can you come?’ said Rachel’s frightened voice. ‘He’s going.’

‘Rachel, it’s Ella. We’re on our way now. Do you want to speak to Mick?’

‘No, just come.’

‘Okay.’

Franz was wide awake now. ‘Does she want us to go in?’

‘Yes.’

They both scrambled into their clothes.

‘Got the car keys?’

‘Yes, here.’

‘Will we be able to get out of the house?’ Ella whispered as they tiptoed downstairs.

‘Yes. I explained to Tom last night that a relative was dying and we might have to go out. He’s leaving the back door unlocked so we can come and go.’

In the car, on the way to the nursing home, Ella realized she had referred to Franz as Mick on the phone, as Rachel had. Whatever, she thought. He’s the same person, by any name. Glancing at him she was struck again by how closely he resembled his father and wondered if Sister Briege knew he was the son of Father McCarthy.

It was Sister Briege who met them at the front door.

‘You got here in time,’ she reassured them. ‘He probably won’t be able to speak to you but he’ll still be able to hear you, so you speak to him. The hearing is the last thing to go.’

Although they knew the way, she went ahead of them. ‘Rachel is with him,’ she told Franz, over her shoulder. Ella wondered if Sister Briege knew Rachel’s connection with Father Francis, then realized she didn’t know it herself.

Sister Briege stood back and let them go in. ‘I’ll leave you your privacy,’ she said. ‘The bell is there by the bed if you want me. Don’t hesitate to ring it.’

The bed was pulled out into the centre of the room. The old man was so thin that his outline barely rose above the level of the bed where he lay. An oxygen mask covered his nose and mouth, attached by elastic over his ears. His eyes were closed. Rachel sat beside him on the far side of the bed, holding his hand.

Franz went round and put his hand on her shoulder and she looked up briefly. He sat down at the other side of the bed and took his father’s right hand, covering both their hands with the bedclothes. So his father won’t get cold, Ella thought, with a stab, for the old man would surely soon be cold as the grave.

‘We’re here,’ Franz said into the old man’s ear. ‘It’s Franz and Ella, and Rachel’s here as well. We’re all here now.’

The old man forced his eyelids apart and turned his head towards him.

‘Francis?’ he said.

‘Yes.’

Father Francis drew in a deep breath and with great effort extricated his hand from Franz’s, then raised it above the covers. As if knowing what he wanted, Franz bent his head. Ella watched the old priest trace a vertical line with his thumb down the centre of Franz’s forehead then, very shakily, a horizontal line bisecting the first one. The sign of the cross, Ella recognized: the traditional Catholic blessing. A priest’s blessing of his people. Or the blessing of father to son.

‘Francis.’

‘Yes?’

Another huge intake of breath. The hand fumbled with the oxygen mask, trying to lift it. Franz gave a quick questioning glance at Rachel, who nodded.

‘You can take it off for a couple of minutes. He wants to talk.’ She reached across and gently lifted the elastic clear of his ears and laid the mask against his chest.

The old man nodded his thanks. Focusing his eyes on Franz as best he could, he said, slowly and clearly, ‘Take care of them, Francis.’

‘I will. Don’t worry.’

He waved a hand in the direction of Ella. ‘Take care of her. And the baby.’

It was Franz’s turn to catch his breath. ‘I will,’ he said.

The hand waved again towards Ella.

‘Ella,’ Franz said.

She stepped forward, not knowing what was expected of her.

‘Sit here a minute,’ Franz said, standing up. ‘Lean nearer to him.’

She leaned towards the old man, catching back her hair with one hand so it didn’t fall over him, and stayed still while he traced the cross on her forehead. He murmured some words in a foreign language; she wasn’t sure if it was Irish or Latin.

He nodded with satisfaction and withdrew his hand. She stood up and let Franz sit at the bedside again.

Franz smiled at her. ‘Latin,’ he said, answering her unspoken question. ‘In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritu Sancti, Amen. A blessing, dedicating you to God – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.’

‘Amen,’ Rachel said.

Ella nodded. ‘Thank you.’

‘Francis,’ said the old man again.

‘Yes, I’m here.’

He was struggling for breath now. Franz lifted the oxygen mask and went to put it over his mouth again but he waved it away.

‘I want to say ….’

‘Yes. I’m listening. Don’t strain.’

‘Want to say, you’ll make a good father, Francis.’

Franz ducked his head again, this time to hide tears. After a few moments he said, with a crack in his voice, ‘You made a good father as well.’ He leaned over and kissed the old man’s forehead.

‘He’s so cold,’ he said, looking at Rachel.

She put the mask back over his face and tucked the covers around him more securely. ‘I know,’ she said. She was crying as well.

Sister Briege appeared behind them. She moved silently towards the bed, lifted the old man’s hand and took his pulse.

‘He’s fading,’ she said. ‘Have you said what you need to say?’

Franz nodded. Rachel, suddenly overcome, put her head down on the old man’s shoulder and sobbed heartbrokenly. Sister Briege stroked her shoulders.

‘He’ll stop breathing pretty soon now,’ she said, ‘and you’ll think he’s gone and then he’ll take another breath, so be prepared for that. He can still hear you now, Rachel, so say whatever you want.’

As Rachel still sobbed, she said, ‘Come on, child, speak to him. He needs to hear you.’

Rachel leaned towards him and put her mouth near to his ear. ‘I love you,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t love you more if you were my dad.’

Ella felt nausea sweep over her in waves. The room swam in front of her eyes as she stood beside Franz. She reached out her arm for something to lean against and met only empty air. She didn’t want to lean on Franz, at this time.

Sister Briege was suddenly at her side. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Uh …’

‘You’re not,’ she said. She hooked a chair towards Ella with her foot, held her firmly and lowered her into it. ‘Put your head down below your knees,’ she instructed, pushing her forward.

Swooshing noises roared in Ella’s ears, like the sound of a faulty cistern. The plumbing must be old in this place, she thought, confused. Blood rushed to her head and consciousness returned. Sister Briege sat her upright again.

‘You need to get out of here,’ she said. ‘Can you stand? If not, I can fetch a wheelchair.’

‘I can stand.’

‘Ella?’ said Franz.

‘I’ll take care of her,’ said Sister Briege. ‘You stay with your father and Rachel. Ready, Ella? Take it slowly now.’

She helped Ella to stand up and walked with her arm in arm down the corridor.

‘I don’t want to leave them,’ Ella said faintly.

‘It’s no place for you, by a deathbed. You need to take care of the baby.’

Does everybody in the world know I’m pregnant just by looking at me, Ella wondered, or is it only in Ireland?

‘Just across the hall now,’ Sister Briege encouraged her. ‘The range is lit in the kitchen; it’s warm in there. I’ll make us a nice pot of tea.’

Ella felt mothered. She sat in the cushioned wicker chair in front of the huge stove. Sister Briege opened the range door to let the heat come out. Ella could see the flames dancing red and blue in the glowing coals.

‘Put your feet up here,’ Sister Briege said, pulling over a low stool.

‘Oh no, I’m fine, really.’ But her feet were lifted for her and placed on the stool. And they say Jewish mothers are bossy, Ella thought, amused. They wouldn’t stand up in the ring against Catholic nuns!

She could feel herself beginning to relax, despite her reluctance to leave Franz and Rachel.

‘You’ll have a spoon or two of sugar in your tea, whether you take it normally or not,’ Sister Briege told her. ‘It’s good for faintness. And a slice of barm brack. Sister Imelda made it fresh this afternoon.’

‘Oh, I certainly will,’ Ella said. ‘I’ve been introduced to brack already. It’s good.’

‘This must all seem strange to you, doesn’t it?’ Sister Briege asked her. ‘You not being Catholic.’

‘I think it would seem quite strange even if I was Catholic,’ said Ella, with a touch of acerbity.

‘You’re quite right,’ the nun agreed.

‘Have you known Father Francis a long time?’ Ella asked. ‘I mean, before he retired?’

‘He never really retired,’ she said. ‘He still prays for everybody and anybody and people still come in to see him. We’ll miss him. I didn’t know him before he moved to Wicklow – he came from Mayo, originally, then was moved all over the country. It’s not usual for priests to be moved across from one diocese to another like that – a diocese is an area under the authority of a bishop, you know, with a number of parishes in it. I knew of him, long before I met him.’

‘You knew he was Franz’s father?’ Ella asked, hoping she wouldn’t mind being asked.

‘Oh, I knew. You can’t keep secrets like that, not in the Holy Roman Catholic Church and not in Ireland,’ Sister Briege said with a wry smile. ‘The whole holy shebang is a gossip factory.’

Ella considered this. It sounded like disloyalty. She had a feeling it might not be.

‘If he was a priest and got a woman pregnant, why wasn’t he given the sack?’ she asked.

‘Well now, a lot of people wondered that, over time.’ She stirred the tea in the pot and unearthed a tea strainer from under a pile of teatowels. ‘I heard the main reason he wasn’t let go was that the people wouldn’t let him go; wouldn’t hear of it.’

‘Because they liked him?’

‘They loved him – those who weren’t out to string him up. There was always some small faction that raised an outcry. That’s why he got moved around a lot. It wasn’t just Maria they bothered about; she was the least of their worries.

‘In fact, it was Maria herself and the bishop between them, initially, that kept him in the priesthood. He was all for leaving, at the time, giving up Holy Orders and having some kind of marriage ceremony, though a registry office was all he would have been entitled to and he would have cut himself off from receiving communion in the Church. He would have found it hard to live with that. The eucharist was always of great importance to him.’

‘He wanted to leave?’

‘He thought it was the only right thing to do, that it was his responsibility to bring up his son and look after Maria. And he loved her, no doubt about it. But she wouldn’t have it.’

‘She didn’t love him?’

‘Sure, she loved him to death. But she said he was a good priest and she wasn’t going to be the cause of depriving God of his services to the Church or of his giving up his vocation, which she believed was genuine. And the bishop agreed with her. She went to see him, which was brave of her, the poor young creature, fully expecting to be shown the door as she was.’

‘He didn’t show her the door, then?’

‘He nearly refused to see her, by his own account. He must have thought she’d come demanding money or threatening to make a scandal. But as soon as she said what she was thinking, he arranged for the two of them to see Father Francis together. They told him they wanted him to stay in the priesthood.’

‘And he agreed?’

‘Sure, what choice did he have? He could hardly move in with Maria against her will, and he would have been useless out in the world. If he’d earned one penny he’d have given away two to the poor.’

‘That’s the kind of person he was – is?’

‘Oh, that was the main reason he got moved so much. No sooner did they put him in charge of a parish – or not even in charge: he was an assistant priest for most of his life, serving under those younger than himself and not half as wise, if you ask my opinion – than he gave away all the church funds, such as they were, to some deserving cause.’

Ella laughed. ‘He didn’t!’

‘He did indeed.’ Sister Briege handed her a mug of tea and a hefty wedge of brack on a chipped, rather valuable-looking plate. ‘He was out of one place within six weeks. The parish priest had an ambitious project going for church rebuilding and they’d just about reached their target when he had a heart attack and had to be hospitalized. There was no one else available to take over at the time so as a last resort the bishop sent in Father Francis – it was a different bishop from the one who’d wanted him kept on.

‘Anyway, within a week or so of moving in there Father Francis found there were three families in the parish about to be evicted from their homes. Non-payment of rent, through no fault of their own – illness, redundancy, bereavement, the kind of misfortunes that nobody brings on themselves – and the landlord was a merciless man.

‘Father Francis checked out that they were genuine: he’s nobody’s fool, whatever other faults he may have. Then he used the church building fund to buy three homes and made the church the landlord. He told the church, “You’re always hearing us priests say that the church is the people and not the building and it’s time we put our money where our mouth is.”

‘The parishioners were furious. Well, some of them were. But for the rest of the few weeks he was there, the church was packed. You couldn’t get into a Mass; it was standing room only. That’s the way it goes. You please some, you can’t please others.’

‘He’s a bit other-worldly, then?’

‘Depends how you look at it. He was a bit too earthy, in some people’s eyes. That particular move turned out to be good for the Church, strangely enough. It was five years before the new church could be built: they started fundraising again though some people’s hearts weren’t in it and some thought they should go on providing housing instead for poor parishioners. But a few years later they had an anonymous donation which allowed them to have their new building.

‘Then the night before the builders were due to start work, a water main burst on the site. In repairing the water main, they discovered there was serious damage below the foundations of the old church; a deep fissure had opened up underneath it, it must have been happening over decades. So if they’d built the new church when they had the money ready the first time, it would have been built on foundations which looked solid enough but would have collapsed within a few years.’

Ella was laughing. ‘What an incredible story!’

‘Oh, there were plenty more of those. As I say, some loved him, some couldn’t stand the sight of him. He didn’t arouse indifference, that’s all you could say.’

‘I suppose they called him a hypocrite, behind his back, for having a child?’

‘They called him everything under the sun, and to his face. The clergy treated him worse than the people. He was never a hypocrite – that was part of the problem. His sins were public. He never bothered to hide them. If ever he was discreet, it was for the sake of Maria and the boy. It was hard on the child.’

‘Franz?’

‘Uh-hm. Michael, they called him. Francis was his second name, after his father, of course, but it was only Father Francis used to call him that, and then only at home. I know this from Maria. I never knew him or the children, not at the time. It was Maria I got to know well, through nursing her at the end of her life.’

‘He lived with them, then, in the end?’

‘No, he never did. The relationship between Maria and himself ended as soon as Maria handed him over to the bishop, as it were. He was only ever a visitor to the house, but a regular one. He never forgot a birthday. Never had money, and what he had he would give away to the poorest person, not necessarily to Maria, who was always the breadwinner for the family. But if ever there was a problem, he would always be there, Maria said.

‘Michael didn’t lack a father, in the sense that some of the kids around him didn’t know who their fathers were. But there was the constant embarrassment for him, not knowing who knew and who didn’t, and which gossipy old person – it was mostly the old ones but many of the young ones as well – was going to make some comment.’

‘Was he ashamed of his father?’

‘Embarrassed by him, though maybe no more so than most teenagers are embarrassed by their parents. And maybe ashamed of the situation he found himself in. He protected Father Francis as well as his father protecting him. He would clam up whenever he was mentioned in any context. No one could blame Michael for leaving Ireland. I’m only amazed he stayed as long as he did.’

‘When did he leave?’

‘He was twenty-two. They were living here in Wicklow by that time. Maria had worked all her life and when Michael left school he had wanted to get a job, to take over as the breadwinner, but it was Maria’s dearest wish for him to go to college and get some kind of qualification. So they compromised, or Michael called it a compromise: he went to college and worked as well, every hour he could.

‘Maria lived to see him qualified but she died shortly afterwards. He did some kind of business studies or management course, I believe. Michael would have been twenty, twenty-one maybe, when his mother died, and Rachel would have been twelve or thirteen.

‘Michael stayed till Rachel left Ireland; she’d made contact with her real mother in Jamaica and wanted to go out to stay there, maybe to live. As it happened, she stayed with her mother a while, then returned to school here and lived with a schoolfriend’s family till she finished her education, then went back to Jamaica to live. Michael had left and gone to England by that time.’

‘I don’t really understand where Rachel fits in,’ Ella said.

‘No one knows,’ said Sister Briege. ‘The rumour was that she was also Father Francis’ child but rumours will tell you anything. She was left on the doorstep of the presbytery one morning, and there was a Caribbean woman who had taken refuge in the presbytery for a while – Father Francis had taken her in when her husband had beaten her up – and everyone drew the conclusions they wanted to, I suppose.

‘Maria said Father Eamonn – he was the parish priest, Father Francis’ superior – arrived at her house with the child and asked her if she’d take care of her.’

‘Wasn’t that a bit of a cheek?’ Ella said. ‘If she was Father Francis’ child by somebody else?’

‘It was the devil’s own nerve,’ said Sister Briege forthrightly. ‘Father Eamonn had ignored Maria’s existence for all the years she lived in the neighbouring parish to his – whenever their paths crossed she never had so much from him as the “Good morning” any priest would give a stranger. He treated her like a leper. Then up he turns on her doorstep with this strange child – as though the woman didn’t have enough stigma to live with.

‘I suppose he saw her as a fallen woman and thought one more child wouldn’t make much difference. And a coloured child. If she’d suffered before, the poor woman, she hadn’t met the kind of prejudice she suffered after that.’

‘But she took the baby in anyway?’

‘She did. It wasn’t the fault of the child, whoever she was, Maria said. She had a big heart, did Maria. She’d been taken in as an orphan herself, as a child, and she felt the Lord was asking her to do the same for this other abandoned little girl.’

Ella was silent. Nine years’ age difference between Franz and Rachel, so Franz – or Michael – was nine when Rachel arrived, causing extra stigma for him as well as for Maria, no doubt. He had a lot of history to live with, this man who had now fathered a child of his own with her. She sighed.

‘Are you feeling all right?’ Sister Briege asked her.

‘Yes, I’m fine now. I’ll get back to them. Thank you so much.’

‘My pleasure. I’ll come back with you,’ she said. ‘I’ve a feeling it’s over by now.’

 

 

CHAPTER 38

 

Sister Briege’s prediction was wrong. Father Francis was not only still breathing but still trying to talk. Rachel sat with her head down on the bed, dazed with crying, with the old man’s hand on her head. Franz sat straight, on the other side of him. His face was white and he seemed to have aged. The resemblance between him and his father now was even more striking.

The gossips will have a field day when they see him at the funeral, Ella thought. He had been twenty-five, he had told her, when his black hair had gone silver-grey almost overnight – within the space of a few months. So when he left Ireland at twenty-two he didn’t look as much like his father as he does now, she reflected, and there may be some people who haven’t seen him since he first left.

She wondered how long it was since he been back for a visit. Not since she had known him, certainly, and probably not since setting up The Healing Place – he would have been too busy.

Sister Briege took the old man’s pulse, felt his forehead, peered into his eyes.

‘He might be thirsty,’ Franz said. ‘He keeps trying to talk and his mouth is dry. I didn’t know if it was safe to give him a drink?’

‘No – use one of these little pieces of sponge and just dip it in the water and wipe round his mouth.’

This is so painful, Ella thought, watching him carefully follow Sister Briege’s instructions. She noticed that Sister Briege didn’t offer to do it instead of him. She knows he needs to do this, Ella thought. Like I needed to wash and change Sam, before he died. I felt I grew up overnight.

The old man turned his head aside, screwing up his eyes.

‘Is he in pain?’ Ella asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ Sister Briege said.

‘He’s trying to talk again,’ Franz said. ‘It’s a big effort for him.’

Ella sat down near the end of the bed. The old man mumbled something indistinct. Franz lifted the oxygen mask from his mouth.

‘Say again?’ he said.

The old man raised one hand, like a pointer on the end of an arm that was thin as a stick, and waved in Rachel and Ella’s direction.

‘Take them home now,’ he said clearly.

‘Okay,’ said Franz. ‘I’ll come right back afterwards, all right?’

‘No!’ No doubt about the emphasis. A strong character, Ella thought, even on his deathbed.

The old man half-raised himself up from the bed, looking Franz in the eyes.

‘Don’t …..’

His breath ran out in a gasp and he nearly fell back, then forced himself up again. Franz tensed but didn’t try to rescue him.

‘Don’t come back for the funeral,’ said Father Francis, as loudly as he could manage.

Ella felt a chill run down her spine. He’s saving him, she thought, and was filled with gratitude.

‘Don’t worry about me,’ Franz told him. ‘I’ll be all right.’

The old man grimaced, the strain pulling at the corners of his mouth. A tear rolled out of his eye.

‘Franz,’ Ella said, ‘he wants you to listen to him. He’s doing this for you.’

‘I know he is but …’

She stood up and put her arms round his shoulders. ‘I think you should let him do this last thing for you. I think he means it.’

Sister Briege, watching, said softly, ‘I never knew him say a word he didn’t mean, Michael.’

Franz sat with his head down. Ella could feel the struggle within him. Then he stood, leaned over his father and said, ‘Da? We’re going to go now.’

The old man nodded, his face relieved. The tears flowed but the strain went from his mouth and forehead.

Franz wiped the tears from the old man’s face with his thumb, bent over him again and said, ‘Thank you. Thanks for everything.’ Then he went round to the other side of the bed, put his arms round Rachel and said, ‘Come on, sweetheart. Time to go,’ and she stood up and let him lead her out of the room.

Ella followed them, looking back at the nun as she settled herself into Franz’s chair, reached under her white overall and gathered up the long string of beads that hung from the belt of her skirt.

‘Will you be okay?’ she asked Sister Briege.

‘I’ll be fine. I’ll sit with him and say my rosary. When I finish it I’ll call Sister Imelda; she offered to come and take over from me. But I doubt it will be that long. He’s on his way now.’

‘Do you think it’s really okay for us to go? I mean, okay for him?’

‘It’s the right thing for him as well. He needs to be alone with his God.’

Ella looked at the old man’s face. He was peaceful now, not like someone who had been struggling to speak only a moment ago, but like someone who had been asleep for a long time.

Already, his face was taking on that look she had seen in Sam – the impersonal appearance of a face reduced to features: eyes, nose and mouth, cheekbones and chin and eyebrows. Soon it would seem that they could belong to anybody, that the atoms and molecules could any minute now rearrange themselves and disperse to be used in the assembly of some other new human being who wasn’t yet born.

‘Thank you,’ Ella told him. ‘Thank you for giving me Francis.’

She went out then and left him alone with Sister Briege and with the God for whom his soul longed.

 

 

CHAPTER 39

 

‘I don’t know what to do.’

Rachel was in the front hall with Franz, who was giving her a hug. Ella hung back, not wanting to intrude, then decided to risk it and moved forward to hug both of them. Rachel looked exhausted. She said again, ‘I don’t know what to do now.’

‘You go to bed,’ Franz said, ‘and tomorrow – or rather later today – either I will come over, or both of us will come, and collect you. We’ll find somewhere quiet to have lunch and we’ll talk over the past and think about the future. All right?’

‘I don’t want to be any trouble to you,’ she said, looking from Franz to Ella.

‘You’re not trouble,’ Ella told her. ‘You’re my future sister-in-law and auntie to the baby and I want to get to know you.’

‘See?’ Franz said. He gave her another hug. ‘Go and sleep now, if you can. I’ll be back here about midday. That suit you?’

‘Yes. Goodnight.’

‘Night.’

It wasn’t night but morning, the sky growing visibly lighter as they drove back to the hotel. They let themselves in the back door and saw there was a light on in the kitchen.

Mary appeared in the doorway as they walked past.

‘Any news?’

‘No.’

‘You’ve come back for a rest, then. You have to, don’t you, in these circumstances? Do you want breakfast or do you need to sleep first?’

‘What time is it?’ Franz looked at his watch. ‘Ella, what do you want to do?’

‘I’m not hungry – how about you?’

‘No, I’m not.’

‘We’ll just make a cup of tea in the room,’ Ella told Mary.

‘Wait up a few moments; I’ll make you both some cocoa. It’ll help you to sleep.’

‘Thank you, that would be good,’said Franz.

‘You go on up. I’ll knock and leave it outside your door for you when it’s done.’

They went up and kicked off their shoes then sat on the bed fully dressed. Ella pulled the duvet over them and took Franz’s hand. They sat in silence, Ella leaning her head against his shoulder.

When the knock came at the door, Franz got up and brought in the tray and they sat sipping the cocoa and dunking the biscuits Mary had provided.

‘They’re kind people, Mary and Tom,’ Ella said. ‘You found a good place.’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you okay?’

He heaved a deep sigh. ‘I feel relieved. Does that sound callous?’

‘Do you feel callous?’

‘No.’

‘Then it isn’t. Maybe it feels like something is complete?’

‘That’s what it is.’

‘You did well, this evening. A good son.’

‘I haven’t always been.’

Ella wanted to say something comforting but felt that it wasn’t comfort he wanted. She waited to see if he wanted to talk any more or to sleep.

‘Do you want the last biscuit?’ he asked her.

‘You have it. Sister Briege fed me with tea and brack.’

‘Did she … tell you anything?’

‘Yes. She nursed your mother?’

‘Yes.’

‘When was the last time you came back here, since you left Ireland after your mother died?’

There was silence apart from the crunch.

‘I haven’t been back,’ he said finally.

‘Since when?’

‘Since I left. When I was twenty-two.’

If she was shocked, she tried not to show it. He hasn’t been back. Until now.

‘What does that make me?’ he asked, looking her in the eyes. ‘Not a good son, certainly.’

‘Hurt?’

He shrugged. ‘Hurt, ashamed, guilty.’

Ella felt he was now allowing her to ask questions but she didn’t know what to ask. There were still too many blanks.

She said, ‘There isn’t anything you can’t tell me, if you want to. I will still love you, you know.’

‘There are things I can’t even tell myself,’ he said roughly.

‘Maybe it’s not the right time, then.’

‘When, then?’ he said, almost shouting. He slammed the cup down on the bedside table. ‘When I’m on my deathbed? Do I face up to things then? Call in some priest and ask him to give me absolution because I’m frightened to put the lights out in case I see myself?’

Give me the words, Ella thought, though she wasn’t sure whom she was asking. Maybe Father Francis, if he could hear her now. Or God, if one existed.

‘If you feel that bad,’ she said carefully, ‘then the only way I can think of is to get it over with. Tell me now, and start with the worst.’

‘The worst is what I did to them,’ he said tonelessly. The anger had gone out of his voice. He sounded subdued, almost lifeless. His hand, held in Ella’s, felt limp.

‘To who?’

‘My father, Rachel, my mother indirectly.’

‘Okay. What did you do?’

He was silent for so long that she thought he couldn’t do this. Then he began to talk, in staccato bursts.

‘I knew Rachel wasn’t his,’ he said. ‘He told me. My mother didn’t know whether to believe him or not. I don’t think she did.’

‘You believed him?’ Ella prompted, when he fell silent again.

‘I did. He never lied to me.’ His shoulders shook. ‘Never lied to anybody. He never denied I was his.’

‘Sister Briege said he wasn’t a hypocrite.’

‘He wasn’t. He used to say he was worse than that – he was a failure as a Christian, a bad public witness.’

‘Did you think that’s what he was?’

‘I hated him. Sometimes I hated him.’

‘For what he did?’

‘For what he didn’t do, I guess. People talked about him – insulted him to his face. The other priests, some of them, treated him like dirt. They preached about forgiveness but I never saw them forgive him. They never forgot or let him forget. For a minute. And he took it.’

‘It didn’t break him,’ Ella suggested.

‘It nearly did. He nearly left. They moved him away at first, to another part of Mayo. My mother had told him to go, to get on with being a priest. He tried. It was what she wanted. Then he rang up one night, said he couldn’t hack it even if she could; he was leaving and he’d get some kind of a job and we’d live as a family.’

‘And your mother didn’t agree?’

‘She compromised. She said if he stayed where he was, we’d move. We’d live near him: not on his territory but in a parish not far away – and he could come and see me as often as he wanted. But there was to be no relationship between them and he was to stay as a priest.’

‘Was it really what she wanted?’

‘I think it was. She used to say he had too much love to give and it was never meant for just us.’

‘What did you want?’

‘I wanted to turn back the clock and not exist. I wanted them never to have met. There was no possible happy outcome to it.’

‘You didn’t want him to leave being a priest and come and live with you, be an ordinary husband and father?’

‘It would have been a disaster. He knew it and so did my mother. She needed security. She was someone who liked everything neat – needed it. Everything in its place, meals on time, shoelaces tied – that kind of thing. Obsessive about cleaning the house and arranging every item on its right shelf.’

‘And he?’

‘He had no concept of time, would stay up all night with somebody then arrive late to say Mass in the morning, unshaven. He never remembered to have his hair cut, hardly remembered to eat, would sleep when he fell down exhausted. He had no concept of money either. If he had it, he’d give it to the first person he met who hadn’t. He swapped his shoes with a tramp in the street and arrived to do hospital visits with the toes open and the heels flapping.’ He chuckled, reluctantly.

‘He sounds nice,’ Ella ventured. ‘Human.’

‘He was too human to be a priest. He offended everyone. Everyone except those who thought the sun shone out of his every orifice.’

‘Were there many who thought the sun shone out of him?’

‘There were some who thought he was some kind of saint and wanted him canonized. The others wanted him crucified.’

‘Which one were you?’

He sighed. ‘Both, at different times. Sometimes both at the same time.’

‘How painful for you.’

‘It wasn’t exactly a picnic for anyone.’

He was silent again. Ella waited.

‘Did I tell you he knocked out a priest, in the sacristy?’

‘No, I don’t think you did.’

You didn’t tell me anything! Hadn’t he realized, Ella pondered, how little he had told her about himself, over the year and a half she had known him? Wasn’t he conscious of how evasive he had been when she had asked him perfectly normal questions about his history?

‘I went to see him,’ Franz said. ‘I must have been eight or nine. No, nine. It was when Rachel’s mother came on the scene. I went to ask him … anyway. I never normally went to the church where he was. We always went to another church. I’d never been in the sacristy – that’s where the priests put on their vestments and prepare for Mass. Only the priests and the altar servers go in there.’

‘I don’t know what an altar server is?’

‘They’re hordes of little boys – now girls as well – who supposedly help the priest in saying Mass, hand him the wine and water, light candles, ring bells, that kind of thing, with one or two older ones to keep them in order and stop them from making too much of a nuisance of themselves.’

‘Were you one?’

‘No, I never was. Most of my schoolfriends were. They thought it was cool, when they were young, to dress up in the cassock and so on and go up on the altar and be like a miniature version of the priest.’

‘I can see why you wouldn’t want to do that.’

‘Exactly.’

He went quiet again and Ella was afraid she’d said the wrong thing.

‘So you went to see him?’ she prompted.

‘Yes. I thought it was him saying Mass. It was meant to be. But he was late – again. So late that the other priest had taken over from him. Father George. Groping Georgie, the altar boys used to call him.’

‘Oh, shit!’

‘He was fairly harmless. Everyone knew about him and took good care not to be alone with him. He’d been warned off by the bishop but, more effective than that, he was laughed at by the kids. They made his life a misery.’

‘He deserved it.’

‘I suppose he did. Poor old wanker, he couldn’t help himself. He wore a wig.’

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Nothing. Just, you know. You couldn’t take him too seriously. I certainly didn’t.’

‘Did he do anything?’

‘I think he might have done, if I’d let him. He didn’t know me. He was getting robed up to say Mass instead of my dad and when I came in he beckoned me over and asked me to lift up his scapular for him.’

‘His what?’

Franz laughed. ‘It’s a square of fabric on a cord, worn round the neck by some Catholics as some kind of emblem of devotion, I forget what exactly. He’d got it caught up in the stole – the strip of fabric that goes round the neck, part of the Mass vestments – and he couldn’t reach round to untangle it. So I sorted it out for him and asked him where I could find Father Francis, and he kind of smirked – so I thought he must know who I was. Everyone knew, even when they pretended they didn’t.’

He stopped. Ella picked up his hand and kissed it. He felt stone cold. Cold as death, she thought. She wondered if Father Francis was yet with his longed-for God.

‘What happened then?’ she said gently.

‘He said Father Francis was late again and he must rush now because he had to say Mass instead of him. He was obviously in a hurry; people were sitting waiting in the church when I came in, and he’d got the vestments all twisted round and the alb caught up on the belt of his trousers, so he was standing there fumbling around with the alb – don’t ask – which was bunched up around his waist and he was grabbing at the front of his trousers. And my father walked in.’

‘Holy shit!’ said Ella, half tempted to laugh, half horrified. ‘What did he say?’

‘He said nothing. He thumped him. Knocked him out flat.’

‘You’re joking!’

‘I wish.’ The corners of his mouth were starting to twitch, though. Ella couldn’t help laughing openly now.

‘Then what happened?’

‘He said to me, “What did he do to you?” and I said, “Nothing. He was rushing too much and his alb got caught up,” and my father kind of groaned. Then he grabbed a bottle of holy water and chucked the whole contents in Father George’s face. That brought him round.’

‘I should think it would!’

‘As soon as he’d woken up, my father hauled him to his feet and shoved him into a chair. The man was gibbering, saying he’d done nothing. My father said, “I apologize for hitting you,” and he quietened down a bit. Then my father said, “And if you ever go near this boy again, or any other child, I’ll not only hit you, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.” So that made it worse again.’

‘Understandably.’ Ella was still laughing.

‘It didn’t seem funny at the time,’ Franz said but he smiled involuntarily.

‘So what happened then?’

‘Father George started roaring at him. The whole church must have been all ears – all the half dozen old people who attended early Mass every weekday morning.’

‘Not too bad, then.’

‘Don’t you believe it. It would have been round the whole neighbourhood like lightning, the moment they left the church. They operated their own kind of telegraph system.’

‘A gossip factory,’ Ella said, quoting Sister Briege’s words.

‘Absolutely. Father George shouted that he knew and the whole world knew that I was Francis’ son and how he had the nerve to call himself a priest, he’d never know, going out on that altar and desecrating every holy vessel he touched with his contaminated hands that had defiled a traveller woman and begotten a bastard child and now conceived another one into the bargain – by a black woman this time.’

‘Jesus wept!’

‘I’m sure he did,’ Franz said simply. ‘So did I.’

‘That’s just terrible, Franz. Poor little boy!’

He shrugged. ‘It wasn’t untypical. I’d heard it all many times before – just the part about Rachel was recent.’

‘What happened then?’

‘My father said to him, very quietly, “Fathering children is a far cry from molesting them, and if the bishop won’t put a stop to your indecencies, I pray that God will.”

‘Then he frogmarched him out into the church – on to the altar – and said to the people there, “Neither one of us is in any fit state to say Mass this morning, as you will have gathered by now. I ask you all to go home quietly and pray for forgiveness for both of us, and may God deal with us as he sees fit.”’

‘Wow. And how did God deal with them – Father George and your father?’

‘The bishop reassigned Father George to work in the home for retired priests in the wilds of County Offaly, which was tantamount to being buried alive, and he sent my father to be dogsbody for one of the fiercest and most heavy-drinking priests in the diocese, a Father Eamonn, in a parish serving one of the most dangerous inner-city housing estates in the republic.’

‘And what happened to you in the church, after your father said all that from the altar? Did he talk to you?’

‘He tried to. I called him a hypocrite, said I didn’t believe him about that woman not being pregnant by him – he’d said ‘fathering children’ not ‘a child.’ I said I never wanted to see him again as long as I lived.’

‘So the family didn’t go with him, when he went to live in the inner city parish?’

‘Not to start with. He said it wasn’t an area he wanted his son to grow up in. But in the end we did go and live there, yes.’

‘He changed his mind, or your mother insisted?’

‘I insisted.’

‘Why?’

‘I missed him.’

Ella lifted the edge of her long sleeve and wiped the tears that rolled out of his eyes.

‘I’m not surprised,’ she said tenderly.

She turned out the bedside light. There was no need for it now. Daylight was streaming through the thin fabric of the closed curtains, banishing the last remains of the night.

‘Lie down,’ she whispered.

Still clothed, they slid down the bed and lay hand in hand till at some point sleep put out the light.

 

 

CHAPTER 40

 

‘Franz, wake up, it’s after twelve o’clock!’

‘Hm?’

‘Wake up! We’re meant to be meeting Rachel!’

‘Oh – where’s the phone?’

‘Try your pocket.’

He stood by the bed, clothed and crumpled. ‘Where did I put the number of the nursing home? Oh, got it.’

Ella went into the bathroom while he phoned. She was thankful she had no nausea this morning – maybe because it was no longer morning. She went to the toilet, splashed water on her face and went back into the room.

‘There’s no rush,’ Franz told her. ‘Rachel’s only just woken up. I spoke to a Sister Imelda. She’s going to tell her we’ll pick her up in half an hour. She also said we should go to the Grange and not the Shamrock because Paddy the handyman told her the Shamrock does soggy chips.’

Ella smiled, not asking.

‘He died,’ Franz said. ‘Within half an hour of our leaving. Sister Briege and Sister Imelda were both with him. She said he was very peaceful.’

‘Franz, I’m so sorry.’ She went over and hugged him. He buried his face in her hair for a minute.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked her. ‘Do you feel up to doing this lunch thing?’

‘Would you rather see Rachel on your own?’

‘Not really. But don’t feel you have to come. It could get heavy.’

‘You both need time to grieve.’

‘It’s not that. We parted on bad terms, all those years ago. I still didn’t tell you what I did.’

‘Oh.’ She thought he had – the bit about telling his father he never wanted to see him again. But of course that had been remedied: he had then asked to go and live near him. ‘Do you want to talk now?’

‘I think I need to talk to Rachel. If you don’t mind being there, I can tell you at the same time. Then you can give each other moral support in thinking the worst of me!’ His tone was joking but his eyes were anxious.

‘I don’t know what you did to hurt Rachel,’ Ella said, ‘but I’ll tell you one thing. She was so happy to see you last night.’

‘Was she?’

‘Yes. I think she was nervous about whether you’d be pleased to see her. Her eyes lit up when I told her you called her your sister.’

‘Poor Rachel. Ella, I need to talk to you about her. I don’t know what she’s going to do now. I only had a few words with her last night, in the circumstances, but she’s not as happy in Jamaica as she said she was at first.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know. She might say more today. Something to do with her mother. She may not have wanted to say it in front of my father.’

‘Was Rachel living with her mother?’

‘She moved out last year and rented a room.’

‘By herself?’

‘I think so.’

‘That’s no good, is it?’

‘No.’

‘Franz, whatever you want,’ said Ella. ‘Whatever she wants.’

‘I think she might not want to go back there. She’s been here five months and hadn’t got anything planned beyond … today.’

Hadn’t planned anything beyond her father’s – or substitute father’s – death.

‘What are you thinking, Franz? Ask her to come back with us?’

‘We don’t really have room, do we?’

‘We could make room. Why don’t you see how she feels first?’

‘Yes. Though she may not know how she feels.’

‘Definite family resemblance there,’ Ella teased him, and he smiled.

‘Okay, I asked for that one.’

Ella kissed him. ‘Talk to her first,’ she said, ‘and we can discuss it. But basically, whatever seems right is fine by me.’

Rachel was waiting for them outside when the car drew up in front of the nursing home. She looked very young, Ella thought. And alone.

‘He died,’ she said, getting into the back of the car.

‘We know,’ said Franz.

‘Sister Briege said if you want to call in when we come back, and have a word, you can. Or tomorrow if you prefer.’

‘We’ll do it today,’ Franz said. ‘We’ll need to arrange the funeral.’

‘He didn’t want us to stay around for it.’

‘Okay, we can talk about that. How are you feeling, Rachel?’

‘How do you think I feel?’ she said defensively.

He looked at her in the driving mirror as he pulled out of the drive. ‘Like shit,’ he said, ‘if you’re anything like me.’

She gave a half laugh and sat back in the seat. ‘Where are we going?’

‘The Grange. Paddy the handyman says the Shamrock has soggy chips.’

‘It doesn’t. Paddy had a row with the barman, who threw him out after his fourteenth Guinness.’

‘I was forgetting you had local knowledge,’ Franz said. ‘Which is it to be then, the Shamrock or the Grange?’

‘I’ve never been to either of them.’

‘Okay. Let’s try the Grange, on the recommendation of Sister Imelda who’s probably never been there either, has she?’

‘I doubt it.’

Her accent was unusual, Ella reflected. The Caribbean lilt would have been added in the past – what? – ten years at most, to the Irish undertones which had had a refresher course in the last five months. She’s on her guard, Ella thought. But she loves Franz. She’s just not sure where she stands with him. With us.

They passed the Shamrock Inn, which was small and crowded, and arrived at the Grange, which looked bleak and uninviting and had only a few cars in the car park. Sister Imelda recommended it because she knew it would be quiet, Ella thought.

Sure enough, the place was empty except for a couple of old men sitting chatting at the bar and one couple at a table eating sandwiches. Music played in the background, almost inaudibly. A log fire burned in the grate at one end of the lounge.

‘Shall we go and sit in the corner, by the fire?’ Ella suggested.

‘Good idea,’ said Franz. ‘I’ll get the drinks. Rachel, what would you like?’

Rachel seemed overcome by shyness again. ‘What are you having?’ she asked Ella.

She’s not used to going out, Ella thought. ‘I’m going to have an orange juice and lemonade,’ she said.

‘I’ll have that as well.’

‘Good,’ said Franz. ‘I’ll bring the menu over, if there is one. You girls sit down.’

Ella settled herself in the corner and smiled at Rachel. ‘I think I’m a bit old to be called a girl,’ she said.

‘So am I.’

‘What age are you, if you don’t mind my asking?’

‘Twenty-three. Last week. How old are you?’

She had the directness of a child, Ella thought. ‘Thirty-two.’

‘Same age as Michael,’ Rachel said.

‘Yes.’

‘Should I call him Franz now?’ Rachel asked her. ‘If that’s what he calls himself?’

‘You can ask him,’ Ella said, ‘but I don’t suppose it matters. He changed his surname to Kane, did you know?’

‘No. I didn’t know if the letter would arrive. I hadn’t written to him for ages. Sister Briege’s letter came back with Not Known written on it.’

‘That was my fault. I didn’t recognize the name and thought it had been wrongly addressed. What made you try again?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’m glad you did.’

Rachel gave a sudden flash of a smile. ‘So am I.’

‘It would be awful,’ Ella said, ‘if you’d had to cope with this on your own.’

‘Yes.’ Her lip trembled.

Franz came over with the drinks. ‘They’ve got tomato soup, homemade, various kinds of sandwiches, and chicken or sausage with chips.’

‘I’m not hungry,’ said Rachel quickly. She took out her purse and tried to hand Franz money for her drink but he put out a hand to stop her. There wasn’t much in the purse, Ella noticed.

‘I’m not very hungry either,’ Ella said. ‘How about if we just have soup, Rachel, we … girls?’ She pulled a face at Franz.

Rachel stared at her feet.

‘I’ll have that as well,’ Franz said. ‘Three soups? Rachel?’

‘Okay.’ When Franz went off to order, she said, ‘I can’t think straight at the moment.’

‘It’s normal. It’s grief.’

‘Were you like that when your brother ….?’

‘I was like a zombie,’ Ella told her. ‘Couldn’t function at all.’

‘Did it last long?’ She looked worried.

‘It came and went for a while. It’s like any other kind of progress – two steps forward and one back.’

Rachel thought about it. ‘I was meant to be working at two o’clock today. Sister Imelda told me to forget it. She said that I can stay on here as long as I like. Then Sister Briege told me I was free to leave. She said, “Your work here is finished.”’

‘Do you feel that it is?’

‘I suppose. I don’t know if they’re telling me to stay or go, though.’

‘It sounds like they’re telling you you’re welcome to stay on if you want to, but don’t feel you have to if your reason for being there is fulfilled.’

‘I see.’ She went quiet.

‘I think it’s one of the things Franz would like to talk to you about,’ Ella said gently.

Rachel looked startled. ‘What?’

‘He seems concerned about you going back to Jamaica, unless it’s really what you want.’

‘He doesn’t have to worry about me,’ she said, with sudden fierceness.

Franz came back in time to catch her last words. He raised his eyebrows at Ella as he came up behind Rachel and sat down.

‘I have something to say to you,’ he said, ‘and it’s long overdue so I hope you’ll listen to me.’

‘What?’

‘I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Rachel, that I hurt you.’

Tears filled her eyes but she shook her head impatiently. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘I did something terrible,’ he said. ‘I haven’t even told Ella about it. I was about to but I felt I needed your permission before I did. Do you mind if I tell her?’

‘It was my fault,’ said Rachel. The tears were falling on to her hands now and she flapped them furiously, as if blaming them for their involvement. ‘It was me that did it.’

‘Can I tell it my way?’ Franz asked her.

‘You can do what you like. You can tell her anything you want,’ said Rachel. ‘I don’t care what you say. It won’t make any difference to me.’

She’s so scared, Ella thought. As with the first time she had seen her coming into the room with the pile of towels, she felt physical pain coming from the girl and striking her in the heart, like an arrow.

Franz leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped in front of him as though in prayer. He looks so much like his father, thought Ella; it’s uncanny. She had the impression that Franz was waiting now for his father to help him find the words, as she had waited to find the right words to say to his son last night.

 

 

CHAPTER 41

 

‘Rachel’s mother’s name was Yolande,’ Franz said, addressing himself to Ella.

Rachel gave him a suspicious sideways look. He raised his eyebrows at her for permission to go on and she nodded grudgingly, as if willing to confirm this fact at least.

‘Yolande was living in the parish where Father Francis was at the time. She’d been to the church once or twice, not to Mass but to sit in the church when it was quiet. She lived with a man who was violent. Every time Father Francis saw her, she had a black eye or bruises or had been crying.’

Rachel was studying her hands in her lap.

‘She wouldn’t talk about it to anyone,’ Franz continued. ‘But Father Francis told her if ever she was in need of help, day or night, she could contact him. She turned up at the presbytery late one night. The parish priest had gone to bed. She was almost unconscious, covered in blood, crying hysterically. She refused to go to the hospital; Father Francis couldn’t persuade her.’

Ella noticed that when Franz had talked to her, he had said ‘my father.’ Now, in front of Rachel, he was calling him Father Francis.

‘So he let her stay the night,’ Franz said, ‘on cushions on the floor in the downstairs reception room, with the electric fire on. In the morning when he came down, she was gone. The parish priest was known to be somewhat brusque, so he couldn’t blame her for not waiting to come face to face with him.

‘He didn’t see her again for a couple of days. Then she came back a few nights later, at about the same time, in about the same state. She said she hadn’t been back to the man she lived with but he had come looking for her at the café where she worked, waited till she came out after the late shift and beat her up in an alleyway.’

‘Three soups!’

‘Over here,’ said Franz, looking up. ‘Thanks very much.’

‘Hope you enjoy your meal,’ said the waitress cheerily. ‘Are yez visiting?’

‘Kind of,’ said Franz. ‘Thank you. This looks delicious.’

She walked away, looking back at him and smiling.

His charm was instinctive, Ella thought. Even now, grieving and trying to make things right with his sister, he could make a middle-aged waitress smile and look twice at him, and he wasn’t even aware of the effect he had. It was this unconscious appeal to people, as much as his hard work, that had drawn seekers and guides to The Healing Place, which seemed a million miles away now.

‘The third time it happened,’ Franz continued, ‘he insisted that she must go to the hospital. He said if she wouldn’t go with him, he was calling an ambulance there and then. He wanted her to tell the police as well. She agreed but when he went off to phone, she ran away.’

‘It’s so different from what she told me,’ Rachel whispered.

Franz looked at her with compassion. ‘I know. Do you want to tell it your way – the way she told you?’

Tears sprang into her eyes again. ‘No. She was lying to me. I know that now.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘Get on with telling it,’ she said angrily.

‘Okay. Stop me if you want to. He didn’t see her again until she came into the church one day. She said she was pregnant and her partner would kill her if he found out. She asked him for money. He wanted to know why she needed it. She said ….’

‘She said,’ Rachel supplied, when he hesitated, ‘that she wanted to go to England to have an abortion, so nobody would find out. She said if he didn’t give her the money she would tell everybody the baby was his.’

Franz waited.

‘Go on,’ Rachel said.

‘He said no,’ Franz continued. ‘He said if she wanted to leave her partner he would help her as much as he could, to find a place to live, and he would ask the parish priest if she could do some work for the church, helping out in the office and so on, so she’d have a safe place to work, where the man wouldn’t come and pester her. She agreed to it.

‘She worked at the church, on and off, all the time she was pregnant. One day she didn’t turn up. Father Francis went round to the room he’d arranged for her to rent from a widow parishioner, and the woman said she’d never seen her from the first day she was meant to move in.

‘He challenged Yolande, when she came in for work, and asked her where she was living. She admitted she had been living with her partner all along and the baby was his. He was still beating her up but taking care not to hit her in the face. She showed Father Francis the bruises all over arms, legs and torso. Father Francis said she must leave her partner before he killed either her or the baby, or both.

‘He asked her if she had any family or friends who would support her if she did leave, and she said only in Jamaica. He said if they would agree to have her, he would arrange the airfare. She asked for the money on the spot and he said no: he would meet her at the airport, give her the ticket and see her on to the plane; otherwise there was no deal.

‘She flew into a rage, called him all the names under the sun, and said she was going to tell everyone the baby was his. She smashed up the office around him and then walked out. She went to see the parish priest, then the bishop, then spoke to everyone in and around the church.

‘It was at this time that the rumours were worst, when I went to see Father Francis at the church and ran into Father George instead and there was that incident, after which Father Francis was moved to work for Father Eamonn in the inner-city parish.

‘But before that happened, his present parish priest, surprisingly, had backed my … backed Father Francis up. He said he didn’t believe Yolande’s baby was anything to do with him. But public pressure was on him as well. The media was full of scandals of every kind about Catholic priests, and people were suspicious of all of them.

‘People had put priests on a pedestal in the past, turned a blind eye to all kinds of evils and weaknesses, put up with a lot of self-righteous clericalism, and now the reaction set in. They were out to crucify any priest over the slightest rumour of anything. And the rumours were rife. People said he’d done it before, so why not again?

‘Then Yolande disappeared. It turned out afterwards that she’d had a scare and thought she’d gone into premature labour and had been taken to hospital. There were complications and she was kept in for a while. Nobody knew that at the time, so when she went quiet people began to assume that maybe the stories weren’t true after all – though somebody suggested that Father Francis had had her murdered by a contract killer.’

Rachel snorted.

Franz waited to see if she wanted to speak, then continued. ‘In the meantime, Father Francis had been moved to Father Eamonn’s parish, because of the row with Father George. Yolande must have found out where he had gone.

‘Weeks after his arriving there, Father Eamonn opened the front door of the presbytery one morning and found a baby on the doorstep. It was a little girl. He’d heard all the rumours, of course. By her colouring, he knew the child must be Yolande’s – the child of Yolande and a white man.’

Rachel was very still, hardly breathing. Ella couldn’t bear to look at her, to feel even a little of what she was suffering.

‘No one had ever seen Yolande’s partner,’ said Franz, ‘except Father Francis, who had gone round to their flat once to try to reason with him. Everyone had assumed he was, like Yolande, from the Caribbean. Perhaps they didn’t like to think that an Irishman could be so violent. Or perhaps it just never occurred to them that her partner was a white man. Anyway, nobody asked the question, either at the time or afterwards. The child’s colouring was seen as a clear sign of Father Francis’ guilt.’

‘Did Father Eamonn believe that?’ Ella asked. ‘Didn’t Father Francis tell him about the Irishman?’

‘Father Eamonn didn’t discuss it with him,’ Franz said. ‘He did an extraordinary thing. He bundled the child up and took her straight round to my mother’s. I opened the door to him. It was early in the morning; I was getting ready for school. My mother wasn’t well; she was in bed. She was sick quite often, at the time.

‘Father Eamonn asked to see my mother, so I told her and she got up, not knowing what was happening. Father Eamonn had never spoken to her before and we didn’t go to his church. He showed her the baby and said it had been left on their doorstep and “in the circumstances” would she take care of it?’

‘Did he say what “the circumstances” were?’ Ella asked.

‘No. The baby was crying and obviously hungry and needing to be changed, so my mother took her from him to try and soothe her, and he turned on his heel and left. Never to speak to any of us again.’

‘What did your mother do?’

‘She sent me round to a neighbour’s for baby milk and a nappy, and got on with looking after Rachel. She was a lovely baby,’ Franz said softly. ‘She brought my mother joy. And to me. We were more of a family, with her.’

He reached out to Rachel and she allowed him to take her hand, though she wouldn’t look at him.

‘Father Francis came round later in the day. Father Eamonn hadn’t said a thing to him but he’d heard about the baby on the doorstep – the news got around like wildfire, and he guessed that it must be Yolande’s. He had no idea, until he arrived at the house, that my mother had been asked to take care of the baby. He had only come to tell my mother that if she heard rumours about him having an affair, she mustn’t be hurt because none of it was true. He had told me that at the start.’

‘When?’ Rachel asked.

‘He phoned up one day and asked me to meet him after school; he said he wanted to speak to me. When I met him, he said there were rumours going round about a woman who had stayed a night or two at the presbytery. He said the woman was troubled and not to blame but she might start spreading stories that she was having a baby by him.

‘He said I was too young to be told about these things but he was afraid if I didn’t hear it from him I would hear it from other people who wouldn’t know the truth. He hoped my mother might be spared hearing it, because at the time she was sick and didn’t go out much or know many people, but I might hear things at school or outside it.

‘I asked him why he didn’t tell everyone it wasn’t true and he said he had suspicions that the woman was still with a man who had treated her in a way that no man should treat a woman, and that she was ashamed of going back to him but couldn’t help herself. He said he didn’t want her shamed in public, so let her say what she wanted and I wasn’t to say anything about her, but he wanted me to know the truth.’

‘Did you believe him, straight away?’ Rachel asked him.

‘I did, but then later on when everyone was saying it, I went to the church to ask him again. I wanted to hear it again from him. But that was when Father George was in the sacristy instead of him and he knocked him out. You knew about that?’

‘I heard about it when I was thirteen,’ Rachel said. ‘I think it was a friend of yours who told me. Pat Quinn?’

‘Pat Quinn!’ Franz had forgotten about Pat Quinn – the phone call at The Healing Place. He fell silent. Ella watched him, seeing his mind struggle with something.

‘I was so jealous about that,’ Rachel said suddenly, looking up at him.

‘Jealous!’

‘Yes. About him standing up for you like that – for his son. It was the reason I asked for – you know, the test thing.’ She ducked her head again, avoiding looking at Ella.

‘Oh. I didn’t know that,’ said Franz wonderingly. ‘You never told me what prompted that.’

‘I was ashamed of it.’

‘You want to tell Ella about that?’ Franz asked, enclosing her hand in both of his.

‘No. You tell it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Tell her everything,’ Rachel said. She raised her head and looked Ella in the eyes. ‘Everything,’ she said again.

‘We moved again, after Rachel came to live with us,’ Franz continued. ‘The bishop couldn’t find a worse parish for Father Francis than Father Eamonn’s that we were already in, so the next place was slightly better. Among the other improvements that Rachel made to our lives, she got us out of the inner city place that Father Francis had never wanted us to live in.’

He grinned at Rachel, who managed to return a faint smile.

‘Again, we didn’t go to live in the same parish but we were only half a mile down the road and his parish priest was nicer and actually made us welcome.

‘We were allowed to go and visit Father Francis, which had never happened in any other church he was in, and the parish priest, Father Seb, who was from India, would let us play in the garden. He used to tell Rachel, “We coffee-coloured people must stick together.” D’you remember him, Rach?’

‘Yes. He was nice.’ Again, the faintest glimmer of a smile. Ella noticed that she kept her hand very still, in Franz’s hand, as if afraid he might take his away if she made any movement. He was her hero big brother, Ella realized, and he still is, if he hasn’t blown it. He still hasn’t told what he did.

‘Oh now, we can’t have this!’ The waitress sailed across the lounge to them. ‘What’s wrong with the soups?’

Franz looked up, surprised. ‘The soup? Oh.’ The bowls lay untouched in front of them.

‘Nothing’s wrong,’ Ella said quickly. ‘We were just talking too much, and let them go cold.’

The waitress ignored her, looking at Franz.

‘Huh?’ he said, suddenly aware she was waiting for him to say something. He took his hand away from Rachel, who looked unhappy. ‘Oh yes, that’s right. Talking too much.’

‘Are you sure?’ She smiled at him winsomely. ‘We don’t want you being unhappy with our fare. Can I get you something else instead? On the house?’

You, not yez, Ella noticed. The singular form, not the plural. It’s only Franz she’s offering something extra to, on the house. Normally it would have amused her, seeing women of a certain age flirting with him while he didn’t notice, but now she felt intensely irritated. Pregnancy hormones, she told herself.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, smiling at the waitress.

‘Yes?’ The woman turned to face her, reluctantly.

‘We’re having a discussion that’s private,’ Ella said charmingly, baring her teeth. ‘We don’t want anything else to eat. Thank you.’

‘Oh, well if that’s the way you want it …’ She turned away and walked off, every inch of her body expressing offence. Flounced, Ella thought; no other word for it. But she did it well, made an art form of the flounce.

Rachel gave Ella a look of undisguised admiration. Franz, who hadn’t picked up the undertones, resumed to his narrative as though it hadn’t been interrupted.

‘Things got better for us, as a family,’ Franz said. ‘Then, when Rachel was about nine or ten, we got moved again.’

‘We didn’t want to go,’ Rachel said. ‘And Father Seb didn’t want us to, either. But some priest had had a heart attack and there was no one to stand in for him at short notice, so the bishop sent Father Francis.’

‘The parish with the church building fund,’ said Ella, with recognition. Franz and Rachel stared at her.

‘How did you know about that?’

‘Sister Briege, last night.’

‘He gave the money away,’ Rachel said, ‘to poor families who were going to be made homeless. He bought houses instead of building the new church.’

Ella nodded.

‘People said terrible things about him,’ Rachel said, her voice just above a whisper. ‘You just wouldn’t believe the things they said. And did. They left a dead dog on the driving seat of his car – all covered with maggots. He used to leave his car unlocked at night for a homeless man who used to come by sometimes, so he could sleep in it.

‘They posted dogshit through our letterbox. They sent letters to my mother. Mothers of children in my class at school came up to me and asked me if I was that thief-priest’s bastard.’

Franz, Ella saw with relief, had taken Rachel’s hand again and was stroking it.

‘Rachel hadn’t come across this before,’ he said quietly. ‘I had. It wasn’t such a shock to me. But for her it stirred up all the other bad things that had receded into the past by then – the question of her colour, the rumours about who her father was, the rejection of being left on a doorstep. It was a very difficult time for her indeed.’

‘I turned into an early teenager,’ Rachel said, grimacing. ‘I went from a sunny-tempered child to a tantrum-throwing monster!’

Franz smiled at her. ‘You weren’t quite that bad!’

‘I was.’

‘Well, I wasn’t much better,’ said Franz. ‘And I should have known better – I was in my late teens and should have grown out of going round threatening everyone who said a word about my dad!’

‘Did you?’ asked Ella.

‘Until he stopped me. He took me into the sacristy one day and showed me the crucifix on the wall, the figure of Jesus on the cross. He said, “Do you see those wounds? Hands, feet, head, side, and every inch in between? Do you know the skin was ripped off his back with whips with metal ends? Do you know he was made to carry his own implement of death up a rocky mountain, bleeding and barefoot, while people he had helped spat at him? What is this, that we’re going through, compared to what Christ did for us?”’

‘Strong stuff,’ Ella said. ‘Did it convince you?’

‘It shut me up. Temporarily. Until we moved again.’

‘That was soon, wasn’t it?’

‘Five or six weeks, he lasted in that place. I never made my mind up, quite, about what he did. I mean, he did take those people’s money and use it for something they hadn’t given it for. The fact that he saw it as building the people-church didn’t mean the people in the church saw it like that. They wanted their new building to have their services in.’

‘They got it,’ Rachel said. ‘He paid back the money.’

‘And the foundations turned out to be faulty, anyway,’ Ella contributed, ‘so it was just as well they had to wait. But Sister Briege said the money came from an anonymous donor. How could it have been Father Francis? He didn’t have any money, did he?’

‘Grandfather’s money,’ said Franz. ‘His father, who disowned him and never spoke to him after he became a priest, left all his money to his wife if he predeceased her, which he was fairly sure to do, being fifteen years older than her. He must have known she would leave it to her son when she died, but it salvaged his pride, I suppose. He didn’t have to go back on his word after all he’d said about cutting Francis out of his will and out of his life.’

Ella started to laugh. ‘His father left him his fortune and he used it to repay the church fund he’d burgled to house homeless families?’

‘Some of it. It was a lot.’

‘It must have been! How much?’

‘Several million.’

‘What did he do with the rest of it?’ Ella asked.

‘What he always did,’ said Rachel. ‘Gave it away. He put some in trust for me, for when I turned twenty-five. I don’t know why that age; he just said twenty-one was traditional but it was too young. And that turned out right, because I think my mother would have taken it if she’d known I had money. And he did the same for Michael, didn’t he?’

Franz nodded. ‘This time he didn’t give it to the poor, or not all of it. He gave the rest to me.’

‘What did you do with yours?’ asked Rachel curiously.

Franz was silent. Ella looked at him, awareness dawning.

‘The Healing Place,’ she said.

 

 

CHAPTER 42

 

The waitress flounced back and removed the full soup plates, with an exaggerated flourish conveying extreme disapproval. Franz, lost in thought, didn’t appear to notice even when she sniffed resentfully in his ear.

‘Guys,’ said Ella, amused again, ‘fascinating though this story is, don’t you think we’d better get out of here?’

‘Yes,’ Rachel said, taking the point immediately.

‘Why?’ said Franz.

Rachel gave Ella an expressive lift of her eyebrows that said clearly, woman to woman, Men! Ella smiled back, delighted at Rachel’s growing confidence with her.

The day seemed to be half gone, the light becoming dimmer even though, for them, it was only just after lunchtime. They were all surprised when Franz checked his watch and said it was half-past three.

‘It might be as well to go back and have that talk with Sister Briege,’ he suggested, and they were all suddenly sombre, thinking of the reason they were together and of the old man lying cold, alone.

‘I think you’re right; we should do that now,’ said Ella, ‘but Franz, what about after that? Tonight and tomorrow?’

She glanced towards Rachel, who looked pinched and anxious again. The connection between them was tenuous, Ella felt, and having been made shouldn’t be so soon broken.

Franz picked up her meaning. Putting his arm around Rachel, he said, ‘Rach, Ella and I want you to think about coming back with us. If you’d like to.’

‘To the bed and breakfast place?’

‘No – well, yes, if you’d rather stay there than go back to your room at the nursing home. But I meant, to London.’

‘To visit?’

‘To visit, to stay with us, to think about it as a place you might decide to live if you don’t want to go back to Jamaica.’

‘I don’t want to go back to Jamaica,’ she said quickly.

‘Things not working out there?’

‘Not really.’ She stood up and looked towards the door. ‘Are we going to see Sister Briege, then?’

‘Sure, let’s go.’

They’re alike in not wanting to be asked too many questions, Ella thought. She wondered what it might be like, living with both of them, and how they would get on together. There was definitely tension between them, as well as affection.

She hoped they would get around to telling the rest of their story before they all went back to London. Once there, she was afraid that Franz would go back into work-mode at The Healing Place and let the past and Michael Finnucane be buried again, along with Father Francis.

Sister Briege gave them a warm welcome. ‘Isn’t that perfect timing?’ she said. ‘Father Tony is just here. He’ll be saying the funeral Mass and I was just saying to him I’d have to ask if you had any preferences about the readings and the hymns.’

They followed Sister Briege along a corridor to a small sitting room to meet Father Tony, a rather severe-looking man with hair cut too short above a red neck and gristly ears.

He stood and gave Franz a quick up-and-down look. Recognizing his resemblance to Father Francis, no doubt, Ella thought.

Father Tony shook Franz by the hand and nodded at the women. ‘Good to see you again, Michael.’

Franz, Ella noticed, did not look pleased to see him. Rachel bit her lip, sat down in a far corner of the room and seemed to accept his ignoring her.

‘Sister Briege and I were discussing Father McCarthy’s funeral,’ Father Tony said. ‘Did he have any favourite hymns?’

‘I can’t remember,’ Franz said.

‘Of course, it’s a long time since we were blessed with a visit from you,’ Father Tony said. Ella shot him a sharp look.

‘I think he would like to have ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ as one hymn,’ said Rachel suddenly.

Unaccountably, both she and Franz laughed. Father Tony regarded them with astonished disapproval.

‘Sorry,’ Franz apologized. ‘He used to say it should only be sung while drunk, by a dozen men swaying in unison with pints of Guinness in their hands.’

‘I think we can discount that, at the funeral of an ordained servant of God,’ Father Tony said, with the utmost distaste.

Ella found herself swamped by a wave of nausea. ‘Excuse me,’ she said faintly, and ran from the room.

Going down the corridor, she hoped she wouldn’t be sick before reaching the open air. The front door stuck as she tugged at it, then gave way, catapulting her outside. She sat on the steps and put her head down, feeling the sickness billow and subside.

She wished she wasn’t so weak. Franz had had to put up with disapproving looks and sarcastic comments all his life, on account of his father; so had Rachel. The least she could do was stay there and support them now.

‘What’s up?’ Sister Briege came and sat on the steps beside her.

‘Just feeling sick.’

‘What’s caused that?’

‘Oh, pregnancy sickness, you know.’

Sister Briege wasn’t letting her get away with that. ‘What else?’ she asked.

Ella pulled a face. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable in there.’

‘Don’t take any notice of Father Tony. He has a way of putting people’s backs up.’

‘No. It’s just – Father Francis told Franz to go. Not to come back for the funeral. Maybe he wanted to spare him … this kind of thing.’

Sister Briege thought for a minute, then nodded. ‘I should have asked first if Michael and Rachel wanted to be involved, not assumed.’

‘They may want to; I don’t know.’

‘What do you want to do?’ Sister Briege asked her. ‘What’s your gut instinct?’

Ella’s guts were churning, right now. ‘It’s not about me,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to be selfish.’

‘It’s not selfishness, to know what’s right for yourself,’ Sister Briege said. ‘What do you feel is right for you now?’

‘I want to go home,’ Ella admitted.

‘Back to London?’

‘Yes.’

‘Right.’ Sister Briege patted her on the arm then stood up and went back into the house.

It was cold outside, very quiet, with the light fading to grey with streaks of white.

‘You’ll get cold,’ said Franz, coming to sit beside her. He put his arm around her.

‘I wanted some fresh air.’

‘You want to go home?’

‘Franz. I don’t know.’

‘I think you’re right. There’s no reason for us to stay.’

‘Will people come to his funeral?’

‘There’ll be hundreds. But he won’t be there. So we don’t need to be, either.’

‘I want it to be your decision. I’ll stay if you want to.’

‘I don’t. I’ve put you through enough already.’

‘If you’d just told me, Franz! If you only hadn’t said it was a holiday we were going on, hadn’t said you’d picked Ireland on a whim because a letter came addressed to someone you said was a stranger ….’

‘I know. I’m sorry, Ella.’

She was silent. In the woods, a solitary bird sang a loud, insistent note. A cry for attention? A warning?

‘Who will you be, when we go back to London?’ she asked. ‘Michael Finnucane or Franz Kane?’

He hunched his shoulders. ‘You can’t turn back the clock. I’ve been Franz all my adult life.’

‘He called you Francis always?’

‘Michael in public. Francis at home. Francis, Francie or Franz.’

‘You kept his name for you? Stayed as your private self, not the public one?’

‘I suppose. I hadn’t thought of it like that.’

‘You weren’t rejecting him, then. You chose to be the person you were to him, not the person you were to other people.’

‘It felt as though I was rejecting him, all right. It must have felt like that to him.’

‘And starting The Healing Place on his father’s money? Was that the rebellion Sharma was talking about?’

‘It might be. I didn’t think of it like that at the time but certainly it wasn’t the kind of business venture my grandfather would have approved of.’

‘What did your father think of The Healing Place?’

‘He didn’t know about it, or not from me. Rachel didn’t know either, so he wouldn’t have heard it from her. I don’t know what he would have thought of it really. He would approve of trying to help people get well, and of anything that made them aware of their spiritual side.’

‘That’s what you were trying to do, in founding it, weren’t you?’

He sighed. ‘Originally. I got sidetracked. There was rebellion in there, I suppose. I wanted to be a success, preferably in something he would have found superficial. He thought even spiritual things were a waste of time if they didn’t lead people to God by the most direct route.

‘And he hated the occult – anything from fortune tellers and horoscopes through to witchcraft. He saw it all as idolatry, an attachment to false authority, mocking God. So in that way, setting up The Healing Place was like mocking him and the values he stood for.’

‘Like building a house and inviting everyone into it, except your father?’

‘Something like that. Till that Luciferian guy, Leroy, turned up.’

‘Was that the crunch time?’

‘Yes, with hindsight. I knew I couldn’t avoid the decision. If I let him in, I would be shutting my father out of my life, definitively, forever. Shutting out his God.’

‘Isn’t it strange that Leroy turned up when he did, at the same time the letters arrived from Ireland saying your father was dying?’

‘Yes. One of those inescapable coincidences. I didn’t mean to mislead you, Ella. I really didn’t know, even when we got to Dun Laoghaire, even at Glendalough, whether I was going to go through with it and come to see him.’

‘Are you glad you did?’

‘There you are!’ said Rachel, coming out to join them.

‘Rach. I’m sorry I left you with Father Tony,’ Franz told her.

‘You didn’t. I said I had to go and pack and he could pick his own hymns,’ she said.

Franz laughed. ‘Why do I worry about you?’

‘Do you? There’s no need. I’m independent.’

‘So you’ve packed?’

‘Yes. Did you mean it, about staying at the B&B with you tonight?’

‘Sure. I’ll give Tom a ring to make sure but the place is empty. We’ll be paying for you,’ he added.

‘I can afford it,’ she said.

‘We invited you. And the boat ticket, if you decide to come.’

‘I’m not sure, Mick. I don’t know about London.’

‘Your decision. I’m going to try and get us on the boat tomorrow but you don’t have to make up your mind that quickly. If you want to stay on a few days and think about it, I could come back and meet you at Holyhead later in the week. Or at the airport. You could fly.’

‘I’d like to come for a visit. It’s just sudden, you saying this. And I don’t know London.’

‘Sure. There’s no pressure.’

‘I’ve told Sister Briege I’m leaving tonight, anyway. I’d better go and say goodbye to Sister Imelda and the other staff here.’

‘Shall we wait in the car or do you need a bit of time? We could come back in an hour, say?’

‘Would you mind?’

‘No. Is an hour long enough for you?’

‘Make it an hour and a half. I’ll have to say goodbye to the patients as well and some of them talk a lot.’

‘Say half-six or so, then we’ll go out for a meal somewhere. We could always go back to the Grange, I suppose.’

‘No!’ said Rachel and Ella in unison.

‘Just testing,’ he said, laughing at them.

As Franz got into the car, Rachel bent down and said awkwardly, ‘If you want to tell Ella the rest, go ahead, okay?’

‘If that’s what you want,’ he said.

‘Do it before you come back for me,’ she said. ‘So that I’ll know she knows.’

 

 

CHAPTER 44

 

‘What I don’t really understand,’ Ella said, in the car, ‘is why priests can’t marry, anyway. The whole thing seems so unnecessary.’

Franz nodded. ‘It’s bound to change, eventually. There are married priests in the Catholic church now, ones that have come from being priests in other denominations, like Eastern Orthodox or Anglican.’

‘What are the reasons against it, then?’

‘The Church quotes theological reasons but theologians never agree. My own feeling is that by now it’s more logistical than anything. Priests get paid basic living expenses; they get a place to live, more often than not shared with one or two other priests, and a car to use for parish visiting.

‘In small rural parishes, at least, there’s not enough financial support for one person, let alone a family – and if the Church goes on not accepting artificial contraception, a priest could have a family of ten, eleven kids! Who’s going to support that lot? If they say yes to married priests, everything will have to change.’

‘Do you see it changing?’

‘Something’ll have to give. A lot of good priests leave and get married. The ones who stay are either very committed to their calling, or nobody would have them anyway!’

‘Or gay.’

‘A lot of them are leaving as well.’

‘Did you ever think about being a priest?’ Ella asked curiously.

‘You can’t grow up in that setting and not think about it,’ Franz said. ‘For five minutes, anyway. Ella, do you mind if I switch my phone on? I haven’t checked for messages today.’

‘Okay.’

He pulled into a lay-by and got out, walking up and down with his phone to his ear. Pacing again, Ella thought. And I’m asking questions again, assuming it’s all right now. Maybe the two are connected. I’ll stop questioning and see if he stops pacing.

Franz came back to the car. ‘All good news,’ he said. ‘Sharma’s wife and children are coming back tomorrow.’

‘Fantastic! What about the missing boys?’

‘No, nothing more. He’s narrowed it down to one area but still can’t get anything more definite.’

‘Well, at least he’s got something good happening to take his mind off it.’

‘Yes. And there’s a message from Alison saying everything’s going well at The Healing Place and every room is booked to capacity for tomorrow evening – all the new courses and workshops. There’ll be seven hundred people in, if not more.’

‘That’s good.’

‘She also said someone had come in asking about me and as he turned out to be a builder she’d let him look at the ceiling in the main hall.’

Ella looked at him, noting a change in his voice. ‘Is that okay with you?’

‘It was Pat Quinn,’ Franz said.

‘The name rings a bell,’ said Ella, ‘but I can’t think where from?’

‘Rachel mentioned him. My schoolfriend.’

‘He’s in London? Looking for you?’

‘I knew that. He phoned me. Asked if I knew anyone called Michael Finnucane, possibly known as Micky Finn. He’s the one who used to call me that at school. “Finn and Quinn,” he used to say: “What a team!”’ He paused. ‘I said I didn’t know anyone of that name.’

‘Don’t you want to see him?’

‘I didn’t, then. It was another reminder of … all this.’

‘Everything was happening at once, then,’ Ella said thoughtfully. ‘Pat Quinn, Leroy Thingy, the letter from Sister Briege.’

‘Sharma’s straight-talk, Phil’s prayer with me.’

‘You didn’t stand a chance!’ Ella said, and he laughed.

They had arrived back at the B&B. Tom came out to meet them in the hall, and shook Franz by the hand.

‘I’m sorry to hear your news,’ he said. ‘Very sorry.’

‘Where did you hear?’ Franz asked.

‘A neighbour’s cousin works at the nursing home as a cleaner. The neighbour heard from her that Father Francis had passed away.’

‘You knew him?’ said Franz. ‘But how did you know …?’

‘That he was the dying relative you’d gone to see? I didn’t, until I heard the news about Father Francis, then it clicked. I knew you reminded me of somebody, the moment you walked in here, but I didn’t put two and two together until today. You’re the spitting image of him now, you know that?’

Franz blew out his breath.

‘You don’t recognize us, though?’ Tom asked. ‘Myself and Mary?’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Franz slowly. ‘I don’t. Do I know you?’

‘Not directly,’ Tom said. ‘But your sister was best friends with our Tina, our third daughter. It was our family Rachel lived with when she came home from Jamaica and finished off her time at school.’

‘Of course! I never connected you with her Mr and Mrs O’Connell! I booked our stay here from a list on the internet but I never thought … You weren’t living here then, were you?’

‘No, we took this place on once the kids had all left home. How is young Rachel now? Still in Jamaica with her ma?’

Franz laughed. ‘Your neighbour’s cousin has let you down there – she didn’t know Rachel’s been working at the nursing home, the past five months?’

‘No! Get away!’

‘And Ella and I have come back to ask you if you can let us have a room for her to stay here tonight?’

‘Little Rachel! Wait till I go and tell Mary! She can have all the rooms she likes – sure, she can have the whole house! Wait till Tina knows she’s here!’

He rushed off, leaving Franz and Ella bemused.

‘Everybody knows everybody here!’ Ella said.

‘Yes. And sometimes it works for good,’ Franz said thoughtfully.

‘Rachel didn’t contact them and tell them she was back here,’ Ella pointed out.

‘She probably didn’t know where they were, if they’d moved house and Tina had left home. I remember Tina now; she and Rachel were close friends. I don’t know if I ever met Tom and Mary; I don’t remember them.’

Ella took a quick look at her watch.

‘We’re picking up Rachel at half-six,’ she reminded Franz. ‘And she wanted you to finish telling me something before we met her again.’

They started going upstairs to their room but Mary’s cries of delight as Tom broke the news to her about Rachel stopped them. As Mary rushed out of the sitting room and called after them up the stairs, Franz said in a low voice, ‘It may have to wait, I think.’

‘Tom and I were racking our brains to think who you put us in mind of, when you first arrived,’ Mary said. She had insisted they came into the kitchen and had a cup of tea with her while Tom phoned their daughter Tina. ‘It was only when Siobhan said Father Francis had passed away that we made the connection with you, with your relative you’d said was in a bad way. You’ve changed your name?’

‘Yes.’

Again, Ella was struck by how difficult it was for Franz to be himself, being who he was. As Sister Briege had said, it wasn’t surprising that he had left Ireland – only surprising that he hadn’t left earlier. And that he had ever returned. Ella wondered if he was regretting it now. She felt for him, trying to cope with the very private grieving for his father, in his very public perception as the illegitimate son of a priest who seemed to be known to everybody, for better or worse.

Tom walked in, holding out a cordless phone. They could hear Tina’s excited shrieks on the line. ‘She wants to talk to you,’ Tom told Franz, ‘to confirm it’s really true. She won’t take it from me.’

Franz took the phone. ‘Hi, Tina.’

There was a long pause, while chattering chipmunk noises filtered through to them in the kitchen.

‘No, don’t phone her right now,’ Franz told Tina. ‘She’s saying goodbye to everybody at the home. I’ll get her to phone you, okay?’

More excitable sounds conveyed that Tina had other ideas.

‘I know you can’t wait to talk to her,’ Franz said, ‘but she’s had a tough few days. Tonight or tomorrow, she’ll phone you, I’m sure. I know she’ll want to talk to you, Tina. It’s great to hear you.’

His persuasive skills were beginning to work. The speed of talk from the other end was slowing down.

‘Tonight or tomorrow, for sure,’ Franz promised. ‘Bye now, Tina.’

He handed the phone back to Tom. ‘She wanted Rachel to go straight round there,’ he told him.

‘She’s no more sense than she was born with!’ Mary declared. ‘There’s poor little Rachel just said goodbye to Father Francis and all Tina can think of is getting hold of her old schoolfriend and talking her half to death!’ She stopped as Tom frowned at her, conveying that the metaphor of death was inappropriate.

Franz seized the moment to say, ‘Ella and I are going to go up and get changed now, before going to pick Rachel up. It’s great to see you, now we know who you are!’

‘And to think of all those times Rachel talked about you, and we didn’t even recognize you when you walked in through our door, even though to look at you we should have known instantly, because anyone would know just from looking at you who your father has to be …’

‘Mary,’ Tom warned, giving a quick look at Franz. Though he had said himself that Franz was the spitting image of Father Francis, to hear his wife about to say it again seemed to remind him that it was clumsy. Franz’s face was beginning to show strain.

‘Let them go and get changed now,’ Tom said, and Mary, after a few more exclamations about the past, let them go.

Upstairs in their room, Franz said, ‘I’ll ring the ferry company and see if we can get places on the boat home tomorrow.’

His hands were shaking, Ella noticed, as he checked the number and dialled the phone.

‘I can’t get a signal,’ he said, after a moment. ‘I’ll have to take it outside.’

Ella could hear Tom and Mary talking excitedly in the hall.

‘Leave it,’ she said. ‘You’ll get waylaid. Try when we go out.’

‘Okay. We may not be able to change the booking,’ Franz warned. ‘What do you want to do, if not? We could take off for a couple of days if you like, leave Rachel here, do a bit of touring? Turn it into a bit of a holiday after all.’

Ella hesitated.

‘Say what you want,’ he encouraged her.

‘Could we try for a flight, if we can’t get the ferry?’ she asked. ‘I mean, I know it’s a waste of money if we can’t get a refund on the boat tickets …’

‘Don’t worry about the money. Isn’t it a risk, though, flying in early pregnancy? You’re really that keen to get home?’

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Ella said. ‘It’s a beautiful place. I’d love to come to Ireland again sometime, see more of it, do it properly, in easier circumstances. It’s just that I feel this urgency to get home. I don’t know why.’

‘Okay. Would you rather get a flight anyway if it feels urgent, rather than even try for the ferry?’

‘I think I would. Sorry.’

‘Your instincts are usually good,’ Franz said. ‘And it’s difficult here for you.’

‘It’s difficult seeing how difficult it’s been for you,’ Ella admitted. ‘How people look at you and speculate about your resemblance to Father Francis and make remarks and say things behind your back.’

‘It’s in the past,’ said Franz.

‘It’s not,’ said Ella passionately. ‘I wish it was! But it goes on at The Healing Place too!’

She stopped, aware she had said more than she wanted.

‘What?’

‘Nothing. No, it’s not the same. I didn’t mean that.’

He was very still, looking at her with intensity. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Not the same as here. Not about your father and everything, obviously. But – well, you told Phil you had loyal colleagues. I wouldn’t call them loyal, Franz.’

‘Go on,’ he said, when she hesitated.

‘Well, everyone at The Healing Place – not everyone, but many of them, most of them, I’d say – are out for what they can get out of you. They’re not kind about you behind your back. They don’t really care about helping the people who come there, either; they care about their own ideas, and their career. And those are the accusations they make about you, when really it’s about themselves.’

He sat on the edge of the bed, watching his hands flick buttons on his mobile phone. ‘Is that why you left?’ he said.

‘Yes.’

‘You haven’t told me this before. Why haven’t you?’

‘I didn’t want you hurt. I thought if you hadn’t noticed, it wouldn’t hurt you. But I couldn’t stand being there, hearing it, seeing it all.’

‘It’s not that I don’t notice,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s just that it’s to be expected, isn’t it? People are like that. You just have to put up with it.’

‘Do you? Perhaps you shouldn’t do.’

‘It’s only people’s insecurity, Ella. A lot of the guides have retrained as a new career, giving up their previous jobs because they were too stressful or they couldn’t see meaning in them any more. Or some have done it after redundancy. Either way, it takes courage, starting out in something totally new, not knowing if they’ll get enough clients to make a living, possibly having doubts about the theory or the therapy being really as effective as it’s said to be, if the results aren’t all good.’

‘So that’s justification for dumping on you, blaming you if they don’t make enough money or get enough seekers or claim enough territory at The Healing Place – more hours, more space, the pick of the best facilities?’

‘No, it’s not a justification. But it’s understandable.’

‘You don’t think you’ve got too used to it, do you?’ Ella said carefully. ‘The gossip, the malice – during your childhood?’

He looked bewildered. I’ve hurt him more now, Ella thought. I shouldn’t have said anything; I’ve made things worse.

‘I am used to it,’ he said. ‘But that has its good side, doesn’t it? That’s how I can keep it together at The Healing Place, trying to keep everyone reasonably happy but not worrying too much if they don’t all like me or agree with my way of doing things.’

‘I don’t like it,’ Ella said. ‘I don’t think you should have to put up with it.’

‘It’s me too, you know,’ he said. ‘If they say I care more about career than people, there may be some truth in that. I’m not the most caring person on the planet. I can be manipulative to get the results I want. I want to see people coming through the doors in increasing numbers, keep the place growing, have a good success rate. I’m claiming territory as well.’

‘I know. Most motives are a bit mixed, though, and at least it is your territory, Franz. It’s your place, your risk and your work that’s gone into it. I just feel all these people – no, not all but most of them really – are riding on your back, without taking any of the risk themselves or putting very much into it.’

‘When did you start feeling like this?’

‘When it started growing big. When the forums started, the big workshops, the new courses, all the different guides and different therapies. That’s when the trouble started. The people who were already established didn’t welcome new things coming in, even if there was evidence that those ways might help people more. And they didn’t want to hear of any research that pointed to flaws in their subject or suggested that some other approach might be more beneficial to the clients. That worried me.’

Franz nodded. ‘I remember the outcry after the media reports that some herbal medicines could damage the liver or kidneys, and the research saying that aromatherapy could bring on miscarriage, and other times when something appeared in the press. Some of the therapists were so angry. They took it as a personal affront. They didn’t show any concern about whether there might be truth in any of it, or seem worried about whether people might be badly affected.’

‘I was there when the aromatherapy scare came out,’ Ella recalled. ‘You suggested putting the dubious parts of the therapy on hold till you’d contacted the various associations and also the author of the report,’ Ella said. ‘You told all of us aromatherapists who were working at The Healing Place that in the meantime we shouldn’t treat pregnant women without permission from their doctors, and to wait for you to get more information about the risks. I thought you were doing the only responsible thing there.’

‘And the others wanted my guts for garters? I know – they didn’t make much secret of that, Ella!’ he said, half-laughing.

‘I thought it should have told you something,’ she said seriously. ‘You should have listened.’

‘You can’t listen to every criticism, or you’d never do anything. I accept that I can’t please everyone.’

‘Not that, Franz. You should have listened to the fact that they weren’t concerned above all about the safety of their clients. You shouldn’t employ them, in a Healing Place that was set up to foster people’s health.’

He sucked in his breath, then looked at his watch.

‘It’s half-past six. I am going to think about this seriously,’ he added quickly. ‘I’m not avoiding the subject, honestly. I need to let it sink in. You haven’t said this before.’

‘I have, Franz. You haven’t been listening.’

‘I haven’t been listening to myself,’ he said. ‘A lot of what you’re saying is what I’ve been thinking, but I haven’t let myself hear it because I didn’t want to go there. Too many things would have to change.’

She put her arms round him and laid her head against his shoulder for a minute. He stroked her hair.

‘Things are going to change,’ he said. ‘I feel it. I don’t know how, at the moment. I need time to think.’

‘Okay. Take time to grieve as well. Don’t rush it.’

‘And you, keep on telling me things,’ he said. ‘Don’t hold back what you think. If I don’t listen, tell me again, louder. All right?’

‘You asked for it,’ she said, laughing at him.

‘I may live to regret it. Are you ready to go?’

‘Yes. I’m ready if you are.’

 

 

CHAPTER 45

 

Rachel’s luggage consisted of one sports bag, one small flight bag and two plastic supermarket bags.

‘Is this all?’ Franz asked, putting them into the boot of the car.

‘All I have in the world,’ she said lightly. ‘That bag has my hairdressing kit in it, Franz; handle with care!’

‘You brought everything with you from Jamaica, when you came here?’

‘Yup.’

‘You didn’t intend going back there,’ he said, a comment rather than a question.

‘I didn’t know.’

‘You know now, though – for sure?’

‘I’m not going back there.’

‘Are you going to tell me why?’ he asked bluntly.

She shrugged and looked away. ‘Several reasons.’

‘Tell me one to start with,’ he said.

‘In the car,’ she said. ‘Not here.’

‘Have you said all the goodbyes to everyone?’

‘Yes. I told them not to come out and wave me off. Let’s go, okay?’

He drove as far as the main road before saying, ‘Now tell me.’

Ella envied his ease at interrogating Rachel. If Ella ever took that approach with Franz, she knew from experience that he would close down the shutters, giving her the expressionless look that told her it was useless pursuing enquiries. Rachel might be giving him that same look, Ella thought, glancing quickly towards the back of the car, but he wasn’t letting it stop him.

‘It doesn’t suit me there, okay?’ Rachel said. ‘It was fine for a while but now I need something else.’

‘Something upset you,’ he said, ‘something serious, and we haven’t been on good enough terms for you to tell me or for me to really ask. I want you to tell me now, Rachel. We’re on the same side, okay? You’re my sister and I care about you.’

There was a silence during which Ella could feel that Rachel was crying but no sound escaped her.

‘My mother lied to me, first of all about who my father was,’ she said. ‘That was while I was still in Ireland, when I first contacted her. I asked her, on the phone. I made her promise to tell me the truth and she said my father was Father Francis.

‘Then, when I made him go for that test to prove it and it proved that he wasn’t, she told me it was some bloke she’d met in the pub where she worked three nights a week. It wasn’t her partner, the one she lived with; it was some other guy. She couldn’t remember his name. She said she only saw him once or twice.’

‘Rachel, why didn’t you tell me at the time?’

‘I was ashamed.’

‘Did you tell Father Francis?’

‘Yes. A long time afterwards.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He didn’t want me to go and stay with her. But I was angry with him, so I went anyway.’

‘That was when you went the first time? After Ma died?’

‘Yes. I went for a month. It was okay. I know I told you I was going there for good, and I did think that at the time. It was all new and kind of, you know, exotic. I kept thinking about what my friends would say if they saw me. It was like being on a sunny Caribbean holiday and thinking it could be forever.

‘Then I missed everyone and I thought I mightn’t get much of a job if I didn’t finish at school and do my exams and stuff. So I came back.’

‘And then when you left school and went back to Jamaica to live, what was it like then?’ Franz pulled the car into the same lay-by where he had stopped before to pick up his phone messages, and turned round in the seat to face her.

‘Terrible. She’d had a baby by then and her boyfriend kept coming and going. He was scary. She threw him out but he kept coming round when I was there on my own. I told her but all she did was shout at him and he didn’t take any notice.’

‘My God, Rachel, why the hell didn’t you tell me?’

‘You’d gone to London and I thought you’d be in some good job, making your way, and I was in this mess and I’d drag you into it as well.’

‘Did you tell Father Francis?’

‘No. He’d told me he didn’t want me to go back to Jamaica.’

‘Why not – did he say?’

‘He said my mother might not be reliable and I might get hurt.’

‘You didn’t want to tell him he was right.’

‘No. Then she got pregnant by somebody else and when the next baby came along and Max was still only a toddler, she said she couldn’t cope with being in the house all day and I had to stay home and help her. I had a job with a hairdresser by then – Lily. We were going round doing people’s hair in their homes and Lily was saving to get her own salon. She was doing well and I liked working with her and she was training me.’

‘Did you give the job up, then?’

‘No, I worked part-time but it was getting busy and in the end Lily said she had to take on someone else. So she took on another girl but the girl didn’t like me and she kept saying part-timers didn’t pull their weight and she didn’t want to be one of those dead weights herself and in the end she persuaded Lily to take her on full-time and let me go.’

‘You were at home, then, looking after the baby?’

‘Both babies. Max was only just walking when Kelvin was born. The kids were lovely but Mum took to drinking and going out a lot. I was on my own with Max and Kelvin most of the day and most nights as well. She … just went with anyone she met,’ Rachel said.

‘Rachel, you were writing me letters saying how happy you were and how well you got on with your mum!’ Franz said. ‘If I’d known ….’

‘I know. But I’d been so horrible to you, Franz, and to Father Francis as well, and I couldn’t forgive myself. I didn’t want to cause any more trouble.’

‘You didn’t cause trouble. You had trouble.’

‘I messed things up for you. I messed things up between you and Father Francis and I’ll never forgive myself for what I did.’

‘That’s not the way it was,’ he said.

‘Ella, you can see what I’m saying, can’t you?’ Rachel appealed. ‘He told you what happened, didn’t he?’

Ella hesitated. Franz gave her a quick, anxious look.

‘What I can see,’ she said, ‘is that it wasn’t your fault.’

She hoped Rachel wouldn’t press her for details. It wasn’t a time to humiliate her by admitting that Franz hadn’t prepared the way by telling her story for her.

‘See?’ Franz said. ‘Rachel, listen to Ella if you won’t listen to me. None of it was your fault. You did what you could, in impossibly difficult circumstances. Now, tell us the rest.’

‘There isn’t much else to tell. I moved out, eventually. Lily got the salon and she took me on. She didn’t get on with the other girl, in the long run. She came to the house one day and saw what my life was like and she told me to get out of there. She said, “Just put your foot down and say you’re not doing it any more. You’re living your mother’s life for her and she’s taken yours away. Take it back while you’ve still got a chance to live.”’

‘Good for her,’ said Franz.

‘Lily was a good friend. So I told Mum when she came home that night and she threw a hissy fit and called me ungrateful and selfish and stupid and all kinds of stuff, and she took all my money and said it was rent I owed her for staying. So I packed my things and turned up on Lily’s doorstep. She and her boyfriend put me up for a few nights, then Lily found me a room to rent and lent me some money to start with. I paid her back,’ she said quickly.

‘Did you like doing hairdressing?’ Franz asked.

‘Yes. But since I’ve been at the nursing home I’ve been thinking I’d like to do something different. I thought about nursery nursing or something like that.’

‘What made you decide to come back?’ Ella asked.

‘I heard Father Francis was sick.’

‘You didn’t tell me he was sick?’ Franz said.

‘He didn’t want you worried. And I thought you might not be at the same address. You said you were managing a building and I thought, that’s an important job and you’ve probably moved to a better flat. I know I didn’t write for ages, so that’s my fault, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t write to anybody, not even Tina O’Connell. Maria used to say if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything, and I didn’t have any good news to tell, for such a long time.’

‘I don’t think she meant it like that,’ Franz said.

Ella could hear the pain in his voice. But how could he blame Rachel for not telling him anything? They’d had the same upbringing. Neither of them could talk about how they felt. And you never told me, for eighteen months, that you even had a sister, Ella thought.

‘I didn’t tell anyone I was coming back to Ireland,’ Rachel said. ‘Sister Briege and Sister Imelda knew who I was because I had to tell them I was Maria’s daughter. Otherwise, they would never have given a job to some stranger who just wrote to them out of the blue from Jamaica and said she wanted to come over and work for them. They didn’t really have any vacancies for staff, and if they did they would have taken on local people, because there are always girls ringing the doorbell and asking for work.

‘They’ve been really good to me. They arranged it so I could nurse Father Francis and spend time with him. Of course I had to do other work as well but they didn’t give me as many other patients to care for as some of the other carers. They said he needed a lot of care and I should be left free to focus on him as much as I found necessary because I was his key carer. The other staff accepted that. They were nice to me, as well.’

‘Did they realize you were related to him?’ Franz asked.

‘No. He never said anything so they never thought of asking. Anyway, I’m not related to him,’ she said.

‘Connected to him,’ Franz corrected. ‘Listen, Rach, before we go on, you should know where you’re staying tonight. You know who runs the hotel we’re staying in? The O’Connells. Tom and Mary.’

‘Tina’s parents?’

‘Yes. You didn’t get in touch with Tina even when you came back here?’

‘I didn’t know where she was! I did ask someone who used to be at school with us, who I met in town one day, but she didn’t know Tina’s married name. I went by her old house once but it had all changed and a woman who was going into the house next door said some other family lived there.’

‘Mary phoned Tina this evening to say you were here and she’s crazy to see you,’ Franz told her. ‘She wanted your phone number immediately but I said you’d call her when you’d recovered a bit from today. She wouldn’t give up till I promised it would be either tonight or tomorrow, though.’

‘I’d love to see her! I’m just afraid …’

‘Of what?’

‘That she’ll think I’ve changed so much.’

Franz reached over to the back seat and grasped her hand. ‘You haven’t changed,’ he said. ‘You haven’t changed at all. I’ve missed you so much.’

‘You’re going to make me cry again,’ she threatened. ‘Shut up, Mick…. Franz! Whoever you are!’

 

CHAPTER 46

 

Rachel was so excited at the prospect of seeing the O’Connell family again that she wanted to go straight there.

‘You’ve had nothing to eat,’ Franz protested. ‘Aren’t you hungry? I am!’

‘No, I just really want to see them,’ Rachel admitted.

‘How about if we drop you off there? Spend some time with them, phone Tina, and Ella and I will see you later.’

‘Sure. Great.’

‘We’ll just come in with you, then we’ll go off for a meal somewhere. You’re sure?’

‘Yes, that’s what I’d like.’

As they drew up in front of the house, before they got out of the car, Rachel leaned over from the back seat and said suddenly, ‘You know what he said to me when we went for that test thing at the clinic?’

‘No,’ Franz said. ‘What?’

‘Just before we went in – we’d registered and everything and were sitting waiting to be called – he said, “I want you to know you couldn’t be more dear to me if you were my own daughter.”’

Franz and Ella waited.

Rachel cleared her throat. ‘I knew then,’ she said, ‘that he hadn’t been lying to me; my mother had. I wasn’t his. And I’d put him in this position, making him go to some clinic that he’d most likely visited and where people would know who he was, and I suddenly realized what it would do to him – that even if the test came out negative he was going to look guilty.

‘Everyone would think that if he’d had to go for a test to find out if he was my father or not, then he must have slept with Yolande, even if she hadn’t got pregnant by him. You must have known that’s how it would look, didn’t you?’ she said to Franz. ‘That’s why you tried to stop me.’

He nodded.

‘Well, it didn’t occur to me until that moment. I must have been really stupid.’

‘Or young,’ Franz said. ‘You only got the idea about paternity tests because there was something on television at the time about it – some soap or something, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes. A girl didn’t know if her dad was the real one so she faked some accident and made him cut his hand so she could send off a blood sample to be analyzed. Something like that. Only I didn’t know where you would send it. I just knew you could get it done at that clinic, locally.’

‘At least you didn’t try to do it without him knowing,’ said Ella, who was piecing together the story now. ‘You told him you wanted him to do the test.’

‘Yes, but I thought he’d just give a sample of blood or something, or go to the hospital on another day from me, then maybe no one would get to know about it. But when I told him I wanted to do the test, he said he was coming with me.’

‘Why?’ Ella asked.

Her voice shook. ‘He said he didn’t want me going through that on my own. If I wanted to do it, we’d go together, he said. Then, when he said that thing in the waiting room, that he couldn’t love me more if I was his daughter, I knew he was doing this test to prove he cared about me; there was never any possibility that I was his. I wanted to go home then but I didn’t know how to say it. My pride got in the way.’

‘Or embarrassment,’ Ella suggested.

‘I was embarrassed,’ Rachel agreed.

‘I think being in your teens is the worst time for not knowing who your father is,’ Ella said. ‘It was for me.’

‘Didn’t you know either?’ There was hope in Rachel’s voice.

‘My mother narrowed it down to a shortlist of five,’ Ella told her.

‘Was your mother a prostitute?’

Again, Ella thought, amused, there was that childlike directness.

‘No, she wasn’t. She was a hippy, and carried on being one long after it had gone out of fashion. I was conceived at a love-in, which was a polite word for an orgy with soft music and soft drugs.’

‘Oh.’ Rachel thought about this. ‘So did she keep going off with other men, once you were born?’

‘She often didn’t come home at nights so I didn’t know where she was. Or she brought people home, so I’d get up in the morning and meet some strange man in the kitchen. Or in her bedroom. Or mine.’

‘Did they come after you?’

The question was too quick. Franz flinched.

‘Once or twice. I was the bolshie type. I put up a fight.’

‘So did I.’

‘Rachel!’ said Franz. The name was wrenched out of him, like a groan of pain.

‘You did well, then,’ Ella said quickly. ‘But Rachel, promise me – don’t ever get in that situation again. Tell me, tell Franz, tell somebody – promise.’

‘All right, I will. Here’s Mary and Tom!’

She flung herself out of the car and into Tom’s waiting bearhug, followed by Mary’s.

‘She’ll be all right,’ Ella said quietly.

‘What did she go through?’ Franz said. ‘What isn’t she telling now, if she didn’t tell me any of that at the time?’

‘Don’t make her go back over it. She’s moved on, Franz.’

‘She’s very young still. Inside, she’s no more than a child,’ he said.

‘In some ways. In others, she’s as old as the hills. That’s what you get from a dysfunctional childhood – take it from one who knows.’ Ella smiled.

He was watching Rachel with the O’Connells. She was standing back from them now, smiling, answering questions. They turned to go into the house and she slipped an arm around Mary’s waist, not like a child leaning on its mother but as an equal.

‘She’s strong,’ Ella said. ‘And she has a lot to give. It won’t get taken from her against her will.’

‘I hope you’re right.’

‘You have to take the risk,’ Ella said. ‘Or let her take her own risks.’

At the door Rachel turned, as if suddenly remembering them. She ran back to the car, ducked her head through the window and kissed Franz, then went round and did the same with Ella.

‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘See you later. Have a good evening – I’m going to!’

 

CHAPTER 47

 

‘Talking of old friends getting in contact again, are you going to contact your schoolfriend who was looking for you in London?’ Ella asked.

They had found a corner table in a restaurant in town. All the bars and eating places were surprisingly crowded. The Irish are more social than the English, Ella thought. You wouldn’t get so many people, except in the very centre of London, turning out on a night like this.

The rain had begun lashing down as soon as they had parked the car, sending them scurrying for the nearest place to eat, which turned out to be a Chinese restaurant. The dishes arrived as she spoke, steaming like incense as the waiter raised the lids, and smelling delicious.

Ella hadn’t realized she was so hungry. She wondered if Franz would be able to eat, after all the upheaval of the past couple of days. She needn’t have worried.

‘Pat Quinn?’ he said, spooning rice generously on to his plate and Ella’s. ‘Yes, I think I will get in touch with him. Why d’you ask?’

‘I thought it might be good way to tie your two worlds together,’ she said reflectively, ‘and make sure that Michael Finnucane doesn’t get left in Ireland.’

‘Again,’ said Franz.

‘Again. Though you couldn’t have forgotten him really, could you?’

Franz thought. ‘There were long periods of time when I did,’ he said. ‘I suppose the present was so busy that I did forget the past. It seemed long ago and far away. Yes, I will give Pat Quinn a ring.’

‘As soon as we get back to London?’ Ella suggested.

‘Sure. Why not?’

‘Or even before?’

‘I thought you were the one who wanted me to switch my phone off?’ Franz teased her.

‘You needn’t phone anyone else,’ she allowed.

He would tell her all the other things when he was ready, she thought. She was glad to see him eat and relax, for now. She knew he hadn’t forgotten that he still hadn’t told her the most important thing. She would wait.

A group of seven or eight people came into the restaurant, talking and laughing and shaking off their wet umbrellas. The women were dressed for an evening out, high heels and high spirits, and the men were talking loudly about a debatable penalty in a match they’d been watching in the pub earlier. The waiter directed them to a table for four behind Franz and Ella and called another waiter to help move chairs and tables alongside. The men in the group made no effort to help them but stood continuing their conversation, so close to an elderly couple’s table that they were almost leaning on them.

Only one man in the group seemed aware of anyone in the restaurant. He was wearing a brown suit and a green tie and looked uncomfortable. He hung back from the rest of the group and went back to close the door they had left open when they came in, apologizing to the family at the table in front of it.

As his group settled themselves in the corner, pushing back in their chairs and arguing about whose was the next round of drinks, one of the men stood on Ella’s bag and one of the women decided to change places with her partner. She squeezed between the tables and let out a shriek of laughter as her backside brushed Franz’s elbow.

‘Ooh! Hope you don’t think I’m too cheeky, darling!’ She leaned over him, displaying a slightly puckered cleavage.

‘Put him down, Ede, he’s too young for you!’ one of her friends yelled.

‘There’s no such thing as too young for Ede, is there Ede?’ shouted one of the men.

The man who had closed the door came back and said quietly, ‘Sit down now.’

‘I’m trying to!’ Ede exclaimed. ‘This young man here won’t leave me alone! Only joking, darling,’ she said, leaning over Franz again.

The group spread themselves out, gaining territory around them with handbags, umbrellas and coats. They hadn’t left enough space for the brown-suited man, who had to bring a chair round to Franz and Ella’s side.

‘Excuse me,’ he said to them. Drops of water stood out on his forehead, either raindrops or sweat.

Franz moved their table sideways slightly to make room for him. ‘No problem,’ he said.

The man nodded thanks, peeled off his jacket as though too hot on this cold evening and put it over the back of his chair. He turned back to his own party and Franz and Ella went back to their meal.

‘I’ve been thinking about what you said,’ Franz said, sitting back after demolishing half a plateful of vegetable noodles.

‘About what?’

‘About people at The Healing Place. You said most of them have their own agendas, is that right?’

‘I think they have.’

‘Right. Which ones do you think don’t have? Who is for real, there?’

‘In my opinion?’

‘Sure. I won’t make you swear to it in court!’

‘I like Alison,’ Ella told him. ‘I know she wasn’t working there when I was but I’ve got to know her a bit since. I’ve called in a few times when she’s been on the reception desk and she wasn’t expecting me – I mean, some of them seem to go on best behaviour when I appear, as if you’re sending me in to check up on them or something.’

‘Really? I wasn’t aware of that.’

‘Yes. Well, Alison doesn’t. She’s the same when she sees me as when she doesn’t know I’m there. I’ve come in at odd times and heard her talking to seekers, and she really takes trouble with them, gets to know them and listens to them, more than the job requires.

‘And the staff as well – she makes sure she knows them all by name, all the maintenance staff and the cleaners, even the guides who only come in once a fortnight or something. People trust her. They tell her things about themselves and she’s really interested; she’s not putting it on.’

Franz nodded. ‘Yes. Well, she’s doing a good job so far at standing in for me. Her message said she’d rearranged her shifts so she’s there at the times of maximum attendance. I didn’t ask her to do that and it must be hard doing evening shifts, with a kid. Who else do you trust there?’

‘Sharma. He’s on your side. If he tells you anything about yourself, Franz, or the way you’re running things, or the people there, listen to him. But I’m not sure after all about the idea of inviting him into partnership. Not for the reason you said – that he’s got a closed mind about anything he calls occult.’

‘For what reason, then?’

‘He’s got too many issues to sort out at home, with Sarita leaving him and now coming back. And this work he does with the police occasionally – it leaves him very vulnerable. Phil’s right: he doesn’t have the resources to protect himself. He needs more support, not to be given more responsibility.’

‘You don’t think he’d respond to more trust being shown in him, more opportunity to share in making the decisions?’

‘He’d be happy to know you valued him, but more as a friend, I think. He’s not an administrator and I’d say he has enough responsibility already. Especially now. Rebuilding his marriage and the trust of his kids is going to take all he’s got in him.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’ He was silent, turning a knot of noodles with his fork and examining it as though looking for needles hidden in a haystack. ‘Which other people there do you have confidence in?’

‘Very few,’ Ella said bluntly. ‘Most of the rest who give you their support will do that as long as you make decisions that suit them. If you lost it all tomorrow, you wouldn’t see them for dust.’

‘You really think that?’

‘I know it. In my guts.’

‘Your guts are reliable. I trust your guts.’ Franz smiled, but his eyes were serious. And sad, Ella thought. She hated telling him this but was glad he was willing to hear it.

‘That’s why you said to me if I wanted to walk away, you’d back me?’ he asked.

‘Yes. Or if you wanted to walk away for any other reason, Franz. Things change, don’t they? What you wanted five years ago doesn’t have to be what you want now, necessarily.’

‘I don’t know what I want now. I have no idea,’ he said, so quietly she thought he was really talking to himself.

‘What d’you think your father would want for you?’ she asked. ‘If he was here now?’

He shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Did he want you to be a priest, ever?’

‘God, no!’ Franz let out a shout of laughter. ‘He’d be the last person to recommend it! To anyone, let alone his son.’

‘Why did he do it, then? Why stick it so long?’

‘It was his calling. From God.’

‘That’s what he thought?’

‘That’s the way it was. Nothing on earth would have made him do it, put up with all that, all those years. Literally nothing on earth.’

Ella took his hand. ‘That’s the first time you’ve ever told me something you believed.’

‘Huh?’

‘You’ve never committed yourself to a personal opinion – not even voiced one to me. You always say “this is what someone else believes,” and if I ask whether you believe it, all you’ll say is that you believe everyone has the right to their own beliefs. You won’t say if you think it’s true or a load of rubbish.’

‘Am I really that annoying?’

‘Yes. “Every opinion and every belief is of equal value.” It’s one of your catchphrases.’

‘Are you sure it’s not “Every person’s opinion and belief is of equal value?”’

‘Probably. What’s the difference?’

‘It’s valuing the person as equal to everyone else. Not because I agree with their beliefs but because they have the right to have them.’

‘But you can’t deny that some people believe total dogshit, Franz.’

He laughed. ‘You’re so graphic!’

‘What I’m so not is politically correct. You can end up sitting on the fence, saying everything’s worth the same or means the same. It makes every belief and value equally meaningless, if you do that. And the people who believe in things that are real, you make them valueless.’

He went quiet, tossing the noodles again, every which way. The waiter hovered, waited, went away again. Franz looked up and met Ella’s eyes finally.

‘You don’t talk much about your own beliefs,’ he said. ‘What are the things that you believe are real?’

A loud jeer from the next table made Ella glance sideways but it was not directed at her but at the man in the brown suit, who had dropped his fork in his lap.

‘Careful you don’t puncture anything vital, Declan, now!’ shouted one of the men, slapping him on the back.

‘You wouldn’t notice the difference, would you, Kathleen?’ shouted Ede.

Ella could feel her heart beating unaccountably strongly, as if her body had decided to be nervous, without letting her mind know why.

‘I think love is real,’ Ella said, ‘obviously. I know it gets mixed up with other things but what survives is worth having. Compassion for people’s sufferings – even when they’re self-inflicted – is real. Looking at the events of life honestly, being prepared to revise what you believe, not being afraid to question the things you thought were certainties.’

A piercing shriek of laughter from the group at the next table made everyone in the restaurant jump and then go silent for a second. One of the men had slid an ice cube down Ede’s cleavage.

‘What your sister needs is a good seeing to!’ another man shouted. ‘That’s the answer to women’s ailments! Fuck them senseless and you’ll have no trouble from them!’

Ella, unconsciously, placed a hand across her stomach as if protecting her tiny baby’s unformed hearing. Franz, undistracted by the answering shrieks from the next table, remained looking straight at her, waiting for her to resume what she was saying. She had wanted him to listen but she was finding his total focus, in the rowdy surroundings, unnerving. She didn’t have his ability to shut out the background. She wanted with sudden urgency to go home. She forced herself back to the conversation.

‘What you’ve done now, here, is real,’ she continued. ‘Having the courage to come back, telling your father that he was a good father to you, telling Rachel that none of it was her fault …’

‘None of it was her fault,’ he said quickly.

‘Forgiving her, even if some of it was,’ Ella continued. ‘Admitting you were wrong in some things.’ She stopped. He didn’t move. ‘Admitting you were right, some of the time,’ she said, her voice growing quieter. ‘Forgiving yourself. Going home to get on with your life, without taking a load of guilt with you.’

He let out a sigh. ‘It’s real, all right. I don’t know if I can do it.’

The waiter came. ‘Finished?’

‘Yes. Thank you.’

‘You want dessert? Ice cream, lychee, gateau?’

‘Ella?’

‘No, thanks.’

‘The bill then, please.’

‘Certainly, sir.’

The waiter cleared the plates, neatly evading the expansive gestures of the still-shrieking occupants of the next table. It would have been the point at which, in London, Franz might have offered him a card or a leaflet about The Healing Place, to show his colleagues. Ella was relieved that there was no need to do that here, so far from home.

She had always accepted the need for publicity, if The Healing Place was going to continue to thrive; she just didn’t realize how much she had resented its intrusion into their private, all too infrequent, leisure times.

‘It’s the first time in ages you haven’t had to go back to work, after we’ve been out for a meal,’ she said. ‘No forum, no meeting to go to, no troubled seekers to sort out.’

‘No,’ he said absently, preoccupied with other thoughts. ‘What about God?’ he said suddenly. ‘Do you believe that’s real?’

‘Do you?’ she countered.

He grinned. ‘No cheating. I asked first.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I believe in goodness. In among all the mixed motives and hidden agendas and games that people play, I believe real goodness is a possibility. If we look for it and are prepared to get rid of the other stuff in our lives.’ The image of Franz turning over the pile of noodles returned to her. ‘You might have to dig quite deep to find it,’ she added.

‘Hmm. But God as a personality above and beyond all of us, in eternity and infinity and dimensions we can’t begin to fathom?’

‘Don’t ask me. I can’t imagine what’s beyond my experience.’

‘Have you ever experienced something,’ he asked, ‘that went beyond your idea of what was possible, what was real?’

She thought about it. ‘A sense of being part of something bigger,’ she said, ‘part of the universe – that kind of thing, you mean?’

‘Yes, but more personal – the sense of being held, being known intimately, held in a safe place in the midst of the worst that life can throw at you?’

‘No. Have you?’

‘Only a couple of times.’

‘The bill, sir!’ The waiter placed a small silver tray between them with a flourish.

‘Thank you.’

Franz glanced at the bill, took out his wallet, then paused in mid-movement and went completely still. It was a habit he had – suspended animation – when he was thinking deeply about something or was about to make some decision. Ella had the same sense of waiting for something that she had felt at Glendalough.

Franz cleared his throat a couple of times.

Finally, he said, ‘I was there that day, when Rachel got the result of the paternity test.’

 

 

CHAPTER 48

 

There was a sudden diversion. The man in the brown suit, the one the others called Declan, pushed back his chair so violently that it crashed against Franz and Ella’s table. He stood up, wheeling round, and grabbed Franz’s shoulder, his teeth bared, uttering a growling sound.

Ella gasped and the diners behind them fell silent. Only the man’s party went on roaring with laughter, locked in their own conversation, not noticing him.

Franz shot out of his chair, grasped the man roughly round the chest and appeared to grapple him to the floor.

Now the other party noticed. The man who had shouted that all women needed a good seeing to now shouted at Franz, ‘What the fuck d’ye think ye’re doing? You looking for a fight?’

‘Shut up and call an ambulance!’ Franz told him.

Only then, Ella noticed that the brown-suited man was unconscious, ashen-faced and twitching violently. The drops pouring from his forehead were definitely sweat not rain now.

Franz was supporting his weight, balanced awkwardly between their table and the man’s pushed-back chair. Ella went to help him but as she slid her hands behind the man’s shoulders, Franz said, ‘No!’ so brusquely that she held back.

Diners on other tables froze, watching in mid-mouthful. Some stood up and moved nearer to see what was going on.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ Ede wailed.

A waiter leaned over Franz’s shoulder.

‘He’s drunk?’ he asked.

‘He’s been on sparkling water all evening,’ said the man next to Franz. He was quiet now, shocked.

‘Ambulance!’said Franz.

‘Lee!’ shouted the waiter. A man in a blue suit with a badge saying Manager came running. ‘Ambulance!’

‘Okay.’ He ran to the bar and picked up the phone.

‘We move him to room at back,’ the waiter told Franz.

‘Don’t move him – pull the table away and we’ll lay him down,’ Franz said. ‘You give me a hand,’ he told the man who had shouted at him, and the man crouched down awkwardly, impeded by his bulky waistline.

‘This way,’ Franz said, gesturing with his head. Between them they laid the unconscious man down gently. Franz loosened Declan’s tie and unbuttoned his straining waistband, then checked that there was no food in his mouth that might choke him.

‘He’s breathing,’ Ella said.

The man groaned and thrashed around, flailing his arms. His face was contorted and deep red with strain.

‘Is he on medication for epilepsy?’ Franz asked.

‘He has pills of some kind,’ said his friend. ‘I don’t know what they’re for. Is it heart, Ede?’

‘How would I know?’ she retorted. She was leaning against Kathleen who appeared to be trying to console her.

‘He’s been for some tests recently,’ Kathleen said. ‘His wife left him last year,’ she told Franz.

‘Tests for what?’ Ella asked.

‘Don’t know: I can’t remember what he said.’

Declan groaned, opened his eyes, then closed them again.

The door of the restaurant flew open and the group parted to let the ambulance crew, a man and a woman, come through.

‘You were lucky,’ said the first paramedic. ‘We were just up the road when the call came in. Where’s the patient?’

He knelt down and put an arm round Declan’s back. Franz let go, with relief.

‘We’re here now, sir!’ the paramedic told Declan. ‘Would you all stand back, please? Give the man some air. We’re going to just examine you now, sir, OK?’

Ede was sobbing loudly, holding on to somebody’s arm.

‘Get him out of the circus and into the ambulance first?’ the woman paramedic murmured to her colleague.

‘Right,’ he agreed.

She unfolded a wheelchair and they lifted Declan into it and strapped him in securely, his head lolling to one side, before wheeling him out to the waiting ambulance. His friends moved to follow him.

‘Give us a few moments, please,’ the man told them firmly. ‘Then one of you can follow on to the hospital if you’re in a good state to drive – you, sir?’ he said, scanning the faces and settling on Franz.

‘His friends are over there,’ Franz said.

Declan’s friends began an argument about who should go to the hospital and who had had too much to drink.

Franz took Declan’s suit jacket from the back of the chair and handed it to the nearest man, who took it as if in a daze, then helped the waiter move the table back to its place.

‘What do we do now?’ one of the other men asked Franz.

‘Whatever you think is best,’ he said.

‘I don’t know what’s best,’ the man said. He too looked glazed.

Franz pointed to the nearest chair. ‘Sit down, settle up your bill, phone a taxi to the hospital once the paramedics have finished, and decide which of you is going to go.’

‘Would you go?’ the man asked. ‘We’ve all had a bit much to drink.’

Franz looked him in the eye. ‘No.’

The manager came. ‘We’ll bring you drinks on the house, sir,’ he told Franz. ‘What would you both like?’

‘Thanks but if we could just pay and go, please,’ said Franz. He took out his credit card and Ella noticed his hands were shaking. The manager caught hold of his hand and shook it with fervour.

‘No charge, sir,’ he said. ‘Thank you for your quick action.’

‘Okay. Let’s go,’ said Franz under his breath to Ella, and she went out quickly ahead of him.

‘I’ll drive, shall I?’ she said as they walked the short distance to the car park.

‘I’m okay.’

The ambulance was parked outside, with the doors closed, engine running.

In the car, Franz’s hands were still shaking as he switched on the ignition.

‘Give it a minute,’ Ella advised. She put her hand over his. ‘You reacted quickly, back there,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realize what was wrong with him. I thought he was attacking you. Why did you shout “No” at me when I went to help?’

‘He was too heavy,’ Franz said, ‘for you, with the baby.’

‘Thank you.’

Franz laid his head briefly against the wheel and exhaled. ‘I thought he’d died,’ he confessed. ‘For a moment back there, I felt his breathing stop, then he started again. Two in one day would be a bit much.’

‘One in one day is too much,’ Ella said. ‘Are you really okay?’

‘Sure.’

He started the car again and drove out of the car park.

For a moment back there, what I thought was that he was going to get that great weight off his chest and tell me what’s been stopping him from breathing freely and being himself all these years, Ella thought. But now I’ll have to wait till the moment comes again.

As they approached a green traffic light at a crossroads, a car shot across them on the red light and Franz had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. He swore under his breath and drove on. His hands on the wheel were shaking again.

‘Stop the car,’ said Ella, once they were safely over the junction.

‘Are you feeling sick?’

‘No. Have you got that number for Pat Quinn?’

‘Not on me. I took it down but I left it in my office. Why?’

‘Would Alison have it?’

‘She might have. If not, she could find it.’

‘Why not ring her and ask her, Franz?’

‘What’s this about?’

‘I think you should ring him.’

‘I will. Not now. I don’t feel like doing the hearty long-lost-friend chat.’

‘Good. Ring him and be real. Tell him you’ve just lost your dad and you can’t stop shaking.’

‘Ella, I haven’t seen the guy for years!’

‘How did he sound on the phone? Different from the person he used to be?’

‘No. I guess … no.’

‘Did he sound cold, formal, distant?’

‘Not at all. He said he was keen to meet up. That we were great mates years ago.’

‘I’d say he’s just what you need. Give it a try, Franz?’

He shrugged and gave in. ‘I can try the evening receptionist.’

He dialled The Healing Place number. ‘Hi, it’s Franz. Hi, Toni. No, everything’s fine. Yes, great holiday. No, home tomorrow probably. Just a quick query for Alison. No? All right. How are things with you, Toni? Good. Great. Bye now.’

‘Try her mobile,’ Ella said.

‘I don’t want to disturb her at home. And Pat Quinn’s number will be at the office; she won’t have it with her.’

‘You said you would trust my gut instincts.’

‘I’m only humouring you because you’re pregnant,’ he warned her as he dialled.

‘I can live with that,’ Ella said.

‘Right, but I’m telling you she won’t …. Hi, Alison. Hi. No, no problem. How are you? Good. Sorry to phone you at home. Nothing urgent, but just on the off-chance – do you happen to have a number for Pat Quinn? Oh. Okay. Right. Hold on.’

Ella had taken a pen and paper out of her shoulder bag and was holding it ready. He dictated the number. She wrote it down. As he ended the call, she read it out to him.

‘It won’t be a good time to ring,’ he said, but he dialled. There was a long wait, then Franz spoke in a formal tone. ‘Hello. A message for Pat Quinn. I believe you were trying to find me. Feel free to call me on this mobile, any time. It’s … it’s Micky Finn.’

‘Thanks,’ Ella said.

‘Don’t mention it. I’m sure he won’t phone before we’re back in London, if at all …’

He stopped. His phone was ringing. Ella held her breath.

‘Hello,’ he said slowly. ‘Yes, it is. Hi, Pat. Yes, it’s fantastic to hear you as well. How are you doing? Uh-huh. That’s good. Great. Mm. Oh, not so bad. Yes, living near the job. With Ella. We’re expecting a baby. Thanks. Yes, everything’s good. Yes, that’ll be great. We’ll meet up soon. Okay. Bye. Pat? Yes, I’m still here. Pat, I just wanted to tell you – we’re on our way back from Ireland. My father died.’

He was silent then for a while. Ella could just make out a slow, quiet voice on the phone, talking to him. Franz’s shoulders began to shake. He answered in monosyllables, more like groans than words. The voice on the other end of the phone continued.

‘I’ll do that,’ said Franz finally. ‘Bye.’

He switched off the phone, sat for a minute, then started up the car again.

‘That was Pat,’ he said, unnecessarily. ‘He said to ring him when we’re on our way home. He offered either to meet us at the airport or to come over to the flat as soon as we’re back. Is that all right with you?’

Ella felt a huge sense of relief that she couldn’t explain and didn’t try to. ‘It’s fine,’ she said.

They arrived back at the hotel to find a party in full swing. As soon as they walked in the door, they were greeted with great enthusiasm by Tina and her husband Martin and their four-year old daughter Emer, who was trying to keep her eyes open and smiled with determination at everyone. Her sixteen-month old twin brothers lay asleep side by side, head to toe, in a big oldfashioned carrycot, oblivious to the noise, which was considerable.

‘I phoned all our old schoolfriends!’ Tina shouted at Franz, over the music and talk and laughter. ‘Look how many dropped everything and came to see Rachel!’

‘Fantastic!’

There were dozens of people there, Ella saw, looking through the open door to the sitting room, and more in the kitchen, and several groups sitting on the stairs.

Franz, caught up by Tina, was swept into the crowd, where Rachel’s old friends greeted him warmly – very warmly, some of them, Ella noticed. He gave her a swift apologetic look over his shoulder before Rachel came up to him, obviously happy and obviously having consumed more wine than she was used to, hugged him effusively and dragged him into the sitting room to meet more of her friends.

He had done this so often, Ella thought – usually at work, having come home wrecked with exhaustion then gone out again, back to The Healing Place or to some event connected with publicizing it. Within seconds of arriving, no one would suspect him of tiredness. He would be life and soul of the party, giving his attention to every person, drawing in the left-out ones, drawing out the shy ones, listening to those who wanted to talk, telling anecdotes to the tongue-tied, laughing at jokes.

He could keep going till morning, Ella knew, even now, grieving over his father, shaken by the incident in the restaurant and bleeding from long-ago wounds. Inside, he would go on agonizing. Outside, no one would see any sign of it. Except that Ella knew. Knew and couldn’t do what he did; couldn’t even watch him do it.

She found Mary heating up trays of snacks in the kitchen, was introduced to the few women with her, then managed to make her excuses, pleading pregnancy and tiredness, and gained their dispensation to go to bed. She stepped, smiling, past the huddles of young men and women sitting on the stairs, and let herself into the bedroom.

There would be no chance of sleep, she realized. The noise was only slightly dimmed up here, but it was joyful noise and she was happy to know that Rachel was receiving such a welcome.

Franz would be welcomed by these people as well, as her brother, even if they didn’t all know him personally. And maybe, with such events as this, and a good friend to meet him when they arrived back in London, the wounds would heal eventually, or at least the pain would recede enough to become bearable.Ella hoped so. Because if he carried on as he had done for the past eleven years since leaving Ireland, and as he was carrying on tonight – as though everything was fine and he hadn’t a care in the world – she didn’t know if she could bear it, knowing all that she did know about him now.

If she had to witness him for the rest of his life smiling and making people feel better about themselves, while bleeding and blaming himself inside, she really didn’t know if she had the character and the endurance to stay with him and watch the performance, even if that would mean leaving their unborn child without a father at home.

 

CHAPTER 49

 

Ella had a shower then sat on the bedroom floor with the bedspread wrapped around her, meditating. The noise of the party billowed around her and she let her mind go with the flow, riding on currents of sound. It was peaceful, though certainly not quiet. The two are not at all the same thing, she thought drowsily.

She felt far out at sea, tossed by the clamour of waves. She had an image of herself as a child caught in cross-currents, tossed that way and this in turbulent waters that caused constant upheaval on the surface yet left her becalmed, never carrying her towards shore. A second image imposed itself, of Franz being carried towards her by another cross-current, flowing in the opposite direction silently and persistently against the tide, deeper and without visible waves. When he reached her, the calm fast-flowing water meeting the turbulent waves with no movement below the surface, both were turned towards shore by the incoming tide.

Strange, she thought sleepily; I always thought I was the calmer one of the partnership. Then: A cross-current powerful enough to carry both of us in to shore must surely have all that turbulent movement in its depths, even if it doesn’t show on the surface.

It was a long time before the party noise subsided. Ella, in bed now with the light turned out and the curtains open, with a cold breeze easing its way round the rim of window, listened to the chatter thinning out and the bursts of laughter becoming less frequent. Car doors slammed and goodbyes were called, in hushed shouts that sounded louder for the attempt to muffle them.

When the house was quiet, small sounds survived: the short whoosh of water in pipes – someone filling the kettle, she guessed – and footsteps across the hall and low voices talking. She imagined Franz and Rachel and perhaps the O’Connells sitting in the kitchen, reviewing the evening over a pot of tea.

It was several hours, she thought, with sleep rolling over her, claiming her for a time then releasing her up to the surface again, before Franz came upstairs. She heard him talking in a low voice, then whispering goodnight, then more talk, then laughter.

He opened the door quietly and closed it behind him, avoiding clicking the catch. She heard him getting undressed, draping his clothes smoothly across the chair, putting his shoes neatly together in the corner, then going into the bathroom.

She wasn’t sure when sleep intervened again, only knew that she was awake and aware of a new noise. Raising herself on one elbow, she saw light still coming from under the bathroom door, and heard sobbing. After a while it stopped and she lay down again. Then, as though caught by a new wave, he started again, choking this time, shaken out of control.

She flung back the covers but before her feet touched the floor, she felt the unmistakable sensation of being held back. It wasn’t a hand – that would have freaked her out, for sure – but a definite physical pressure, accompanied by warmth.

Ella stopped, her body weight balanced midway between bed and floor, and waited. The pressure remained. There was a sense of some kind of presence in the room, entirely benevolent. She felt cared for, suspended in security. In the meantime, the man she loved was breaking his heart, the other side of the door, and she wasn’t going to comfort him.

She had a sudden conviction that this was right: that if she went to him now, he would accept her comforting for her sake more than for his. He would make an effort and suppress the tumultuous emotions now forcing themselves from the depths of him. Then he would carry them all with him, beneath his usual calm surface, the next day, the next year, perhaps for the rest of his life.

If she let him go now beyond the point of her comforting, beyond all limited human solace, he would fall apart. Alone in the night, brought to his knees in a closed room with the world the other side of the door, sleeping, he would not be able to shake himself out of this grief, gather his strength and put himself back together. He would leave himself at the mercy of life itself, life that could be creative but also destructive and uncaring.

If there was a God, Ella felt, he would be all right; he would come out of this stronger, more vulnerable, more real and more himself.

If there was not, he was finished – a broken man with an irreparably broken heart and shattered dreams.

Either way, she should not intervene.

She lay down in the bed and waited, her heart pounding but feeling strangely relieved. It was out of her hands now. They would be together for life, or they would part. Franz would survive this, or he wouldn’t. There was nothing she could do about it.

Listening to him, she wondered at the force of his emotions, this man she had seen as so self-assured when she met him, so totally in control of his own destiny. They had worked together, attended courses and workshops, learned techniques for steering their lives into creative, constructive paths.

They had felt empowered, in charge of their individual destinies and part of some wider collective, all of which they might not fully understand but which made perfect sense in itself. Encouraged by their success in every course they undertook, qualified in accepting their self-realization and confident in their ability to choose their own spiritual path and apply their own inner power to their lives and to the universe to which they belonged, they marvelled at those people who lived their whole lives without ever suspecting these deeper levels of consciousness.

There were people who felt like victims all their lives, at the mercy of circumstances and of more powerful people’s choices – but all this, they had learned, was a myth. They themselves had power to change the universe and direct their own fate as they decided and the universe, in return, would serve their needs and fulfill their dreams.

Now, listening to Franz sobbing his heart out, at the end of his considerable resources, she felt bereft. She had relied on his belief, his ability to retain the power they had been taught they had, his certainty and the evidence of powerfulness that shone in every aspect of his life. She had been content to use her own power in smaller things, in relationships, supportive tasks, in encouraging people to fulfil their potential, and in delving to find and maintain a calmness within her, within her own life.

None of it seemed any use to her now. She tried again to grasp the truth of it, to remember the affirmations and principles and recall the sense of serenity that had come to her at those times. It eluded her. All she could hear, all that filled her mind and tore her heart, was that sobbing cry of a man deserted by every security, abandoned by God, by human power and by every natural and supernatural resource.

He had reached the end of himself. Ella, still cocooned in the warmth and gentle pressure that kept her in her own space, was adrift from him, untethered. While he knelt on the bathroom floor, alone in the universe and distanced from all forms of help, she floated, astonished at her own detachment and inability to feel concern for this person she loved.

The light dawning outside the dark window was unforgiving and the birds were silent. The outlines of trees, as they became visible in the grey morning, looked stark and rigid.

Ella hadn’t known anyone could cry for so long. She wasn’t given to crying, always having been able to summon up a wave of calm, as simply as throwing straw over a muddy puddle, which became instantly dry enough to walk on.

It was only when she heard that the sobbing next door had stopped that she was suddenly aware that her face and hair and pillow were soaked with tears and that she, in her web of serenity, had been crying along with him for all these hours, not for his life and loss but for a history of her own.

 

 

CHAPTER 50

 

Ella found Rachel in the kitchen, eating a large cooked breakfast and looking totally at home. Mary was pouring coffee for her.

‘Come and have your breakfast in here,’ Mary invited. ‘Would you like a fry-up? No? Orange juice and dry toast?’

‘Perfect. Thanks.’

‘Is Mick all right?’ Rachel asked.

‘He’s asleep now.’

‘No, but … I heard him in the night.’

‘He had a lot to get out of his system. It was good.’

Rachel looked doubtful. ‘Is he all right now?

‘It’ll take time. He’s allowed to be not all right, at this time.’

‘I don’t know what to do for him,’ Rachel said. ‘He’s not angry with me, is he?’

‘I don’t think he could be angry with you,’ Ella said, smiling at her.

‘I thought he was. Or used to be.’

‘He was angry with himself,’ Ella said, while Mary, busying herself around the stove, became voluntarily deaf. ‘He felt he let you down.’

‘How? When?’

‘Way back when.’

‘Oh, that. That was my fault! I can’t convince him! How can I make him see that?’

‘He doesn’t believe anything was your fault, maybe because it really wasn’t. It might help,’ said Ella carefully, unsure of her ground as Franz still hadn’t told her the circumstances that had come between him and his sister, ‘if you could tell him you forgive him.’

‘How can I? He didn’t do anything wrong!’

‘It might not help him to be told that.’

‘I can say it doesn’t matter; it was nothing.’

‘That might not help either. Obviously it wasn’t nothing to him.’

‘Yes, but … isn’t it like saying I do think he did something bad, if I say I forgive him?’

‘I see your point,’ Ella said, ‘but I still think it might work. You’re not going to convince him he did nothing wrong, because he felt really bad and he has ever since.’

‘So tell him I forgive him?’

‘If you feel like it.’

‘I will, then. Thanks. Ella?’

‘Yes? Oh, thanks, Mary. No, no tea, thanks.’

‘I was talking to Tina last night,’ Rachel said.

‘You could say that,’ said Mary dryly. ‘Talking to Tina all night would be more like it. Have you got everything you need now? I’ll leave yez to it if so.’

‘Yes, thanks very much.’

As Mary went out, Rachel said, ‘Tina’s asked me to stay.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said I’d let her know. Today.’

Ella sensed her anxiety. ‘That’s nice that she’s asked you. You know Franz – Mick – wants you to do whatever you want, don’t you? We’d love to have you in London, of course, but it doesn’t have to be immediately, does it?’

‘No. I wondered – well, what he wanted.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I’d like to go to Tina’s for a visit. Her husband’s nice and they both asked me; they mean it. Tina’s finding it hard to cope with the kids and she said if I would help her out a bit I could get my own job and lead my own life as well.’

‘You mean, move in with them permanently?’

‘I said I didn’t want to live with anybody. I like my own space. But I could go for a couple of weeks. Then I could look for somewhere to live and get a part-time job and help Tina as well. And Tina’s going to find out about childcare courses for me.’

‘That sounds promising. Is it what you want?’

‘I think so.’

‘You wouldn’t get into the same situation, would you, as at your mum’s – doing all the work for Tina’s family and not having a life of your own?’

‘No. I won’t fall into that one again. That’s why I said I’d only stay with them a few weeks.’

‘Very sensible.’

‘Do you think so?’ Her eyes lit up, as though unused to compliments.

‘Definitely. If you don’t mind my asking you, are you okay for money, to tide you over till you get work?’

She blushed. ‘Mick gave me some last night.’

‘Good. Will it be enough?’

‘Too much! I couldn’t talk him out of it. It was a lot!’

‘Even better,’ said Ella.

Rachel laughed. ‘You’re not like I expected,’ she confided.

‘What did you expect?’

‘Well, I thought he would probably have a girlfriend or a wife, by his age,’ Rachel said seriously, ‘but I thought she’d be somebody ugly, and quite dull.’

‘Huh? Why would you think that?’

‘Because he always thought he was ugly. He used to say only ugly women would go for him. I know it was a joke. But I still kind of expected it!’

‘Ugly women do go for him,’ Ella said solemnly.

‘Do they? Well, I suppose he is kind.’

‘The trouble is, the beautiful ones go for him as well,’ Ella added.

Rachel giggled.

‘Tall ones, thin ones, blonde ones, young, old – the waitress at the Grange. You name them, they like him,’ Ella sighed. ‘It’s a great trial.’

‘He didn’t notice the waitress eyeing him up, did he? I don’t suppose he notices the others either, most of the time,’ said Rachel.

‘You’re right,’ Ella said. ‘You know him well. Has he changed a lot, in the time since you last saw him?’

‘Not really. His hair was a bit of a shock. I thought he was Father Francis when I first saw him – the way he used to look.’

‘They are very alike to look at.’

‘He’s a lot more confident than he was,’ said Rachel thoughtfully. ‘I expect that’s down to you, isn’t it?’

‘What – having a beautiful girlfriend instead of an ugly one?’ Ella teased her.

They were both laughing when Franz walked in.

‘Morning.’ He looked white, with dark rings under his eyes, but was smiling.

Rachel jumped up and hugged him. ‘I forgive you,’ she said.

She doesn’t hang about, Ella thought, but I’m not sure this is the time!

‘Sorry?’ said Franz, disentangling himself.

‘I forgive you,’ she said, more uncertainly.

‘For what?’

For a moment, she was stumped. Then she said, opening her arms expansively, ‘For anything you think you’ve ever done.’

A smile twitched at the corner of his lips. ‘Well, that covers everything!’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

‘You know what I mean,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he said, serious. ‘I do. And I mean thank you, Rachel. I really needed to know that.’

The hug went on a long time. Ella emulated Mary and played deaf and blind, concentrating on her toast.

‘So,’ said Rachel finally. ‘What are you two going to do? Get the boat back to London?’

‘We’re going to try and get a flight,’ Franz said. ‘I’ve given the airport a ring. There are vacant seats on one flight to Heathrow this afternoon. I have to call back if we want it.’

‘I’m not coming,’ Rachel said. ‘I’m going to come and visit you, if that’s all right, once I’m settled here and know what I’m doing.’

‘You’re going to take Tina and Martin up on their offer, are you?’ asked Franz.

‘How did you know about that? I haven’t told you yet!’

‘Martin asked me last night if it would be all right if they suggested it.’

‘What did you say?’ Rachel looked anxious again.

For all her independent attitude, she still really needs his approval, Ella noted.

‘I told him if you wanted to do it, fine, as long as you didn’t become so tied up in their lives that you lost sight of your own ambitions. I don’t want you to end up carrying Tina like you did your mother, instead of having a life of your own.’

‘That’s what Ella said!’

‘Ella’s a wise woman,’ Franz told her.

‘As well as not being ugly,’ Rachel said. She and Ella burst out laughing.

‘Of course she’s not ugly!’ said Franz, looking bemused. ‘What? What’s the joke?’

‘Franz,’ Ella said, ‘we both love you. Go and book the air tickets.’

‘I’m going.’

 

 

CHAPTER 51

 

They had driven Rachel to Tina and Martin’s, spent some time with them and the children, arranged to return the hire car to the airport rather than the docks, and were finally on their way home.

On the plane, holding hands, Ella told Franz, ‘Tina and Martin are nice.’

‘Yes, I always liked Tina. She and Rachel were good for each other. And Martin seems a good guy. I hope they won’t use her.’

‘It might be good for her, just to start with, to know she’s of use. She said she missed Kelvin and Max, her mother’s kids. And looking after the children now might help her get on to the nursery course.’

‘She could do a course in London.’

‘Yes. And she could do it here, where her friends are. It’ll give us a good excuse, Franz, to have lots of holidays in Ireland. With our own kids.’

‘Are you sure you’ll want to come back? I thought this trip would put you off Ireland for life! Not to mention, off me.’ The last remark was added casually.

‘Not at all,’ Ella said. ‘I love Ireland, what I’ve seen of it.’

She smiled, waiting for him to react to her absence of comment about him. He turned to look at her, caught the smile, and laughed.

‘Thanks!’ he said. ‘That really reassures me!’

The plane was taxiing down the runway, engines roaring. Conversation was impossible till they were in the air, levelling out into travel height and speed.

‘Seriously,’ he resumed, ‘it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d decided you wanted nothing more to do with me.’

Ella nodded. ‘I want nothing more to do with Franz Kane,’ she said, ‘the person you were before you came out here, and I’m hoping you don’t want him any more either. I’m much happier with Franz Kane/Michael Finnucane. They need each other.’

‘Franz Kane was easier to be,’ he said regretfully.

‘But not easier to be with,’ Ella told him.

‘I thought you’d find it the opposite,’ he said, genuinely surprised.

‘Why? Because Franz Kane could cope with anything and never had any problems he couldn’t resolve?’

‘Well – life was simpler, wasn’t it?’

‘No. Life was superficial. Life isn’t like that really, is it? You’re more real now.’

He heaved a deep sigh. ‘I’m not sure I want to be real.’

‘Tough. You don’t have the choice.’

‘I have the power of free choice at all times. I define my own destiny,’ Franz quoted, reciting one of their taught self-affirmations. ‘I can be whatever I choose to be.’

‘Bollocks,’ Ella said.

‘It is, isn’t it? Why didn’t we see that at the time?’

‘There’s an element of truth in it. We can choose how to respond to things.’

‘I didn’t choose how to respond to things last night,’ Franz said. It was the first time he’d referred to his emotional storm behind closed doors.

‘No. But you chose to respond to the letter saying your father was dying and I suppose emotion was the inevitable outcome, so in a way you chose the situation and then had to go with the consequences.’

‘So does that come under defining my own life and destiny?’

‘I’m not sure about that any more,’ Ella said. ‘What is “my own life” anyway? A separate entity alongside everyone else’s lives, or a strand running in and out of life itself, mixed up with everyone else’s? You can’t always see where one person’s ends and the next one begins, and it’s meant to be like that, I think.’

‘You don’t mind my life being mixed up with yours, then?’ Franz asked.

‘Mixed up is right,’ Ella joked. ‘Michael Finnucane, you have the weirdest, most mixed up life story I have ever come across!’

‘Now look who’s talking!’ he countered. ‘Ms Jewish-hippy-New Age lady!’

She laughed. ‘What is this baby going to be like?’

‘Oh, simple,’ Franz said. ‘Just an oldfashioned Catholic Irish Romanian English Jewish New Age hippy guru!’

‘Totally at home in any synagogue, church, tepee, hermitage or open field in Jerusalem, Rome or Dublin or – what’s the capital of Romania?’

‘Budapest. No, that’s Hungary. Bucharest!’

‘Well, he or she will be totally at home there too! You didn’t tell me what the Chinese restaurant guy said when you phoned this morning,’ she suddenly remembered. ‘Had he contacted the hospital about that man, Declan?’

‘Yes. They’re running a few more tests but they think it was a combination of stress and not taking his medication for angina. If they don’t find anything else then they’ll let him go home tomorrow. He was feeling fine and eating breakfast today.’

‘I’m glad he’s okay.’

‘Are you okay, Ella?’ said Franz suddenly, tenderly.

‘Why?’

‘I need to know.’

‘I’m knackered, if you must know. I want to go home and sleep for a week.’

‘Me too. Is sex bad for pregnant mothers?’

‘Not for this one. For this pregnant mother, it’s good.’

‘Is it good for unborn babies?’

‘According to some studies, it promotes the production of beneficial hormones and stimulates antibodies. Why do you ask, Franz?’

‘We’ve got two days’ more holiday. I wondered what you’d like to do with it.’

‘I think we should stimulate a few antibodies, don’t you?’

‘I think we should include that in our schedule, yes.’

They slept till the announcement was made about the plane landing at Heathrow.

‘I didn’t catch that announcement,’ Franz said, waking. ‘Did you?’

‘No, I was asleep.’

Franz leaned over and asked the neighbouring passenger.

‘We’re circling for a while, waiting for landing space,’ he relayed to Ella. ‘There’s been some incident at one of the other terminals so there’s a delay.’

‘When was Sharma’s wife arriving? Is that today?’

‘Yes. Which terminal would they come in at?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe they’ll be here.’

‘Maybe. The chances of us all landing at the same time and place must be slim, though.’

‘How are we getting back, Franz? Train?’

‘I thought we might get a rental car for a few days. What d’you think? We could use it to go out somewhere tomorrow if you didn’t feel so tired by then.’

‘Great.’

‘We might think about buying a car,’ he said. ‘It would make life easier for you, with the baby. I wouldn’t need it during the day. And we don’t have to use it for everything, do we?’

‘No. We can still walk most places.’

With only hand luggage, once the plane landed they were out into the concourse quickly.

‘There he is!’ said Ella suddenly.

‘Where?’

Following her pointing finger, Franz saw Sharma in the crowd, waiting alone.

‘Poor bloke,’ he said. ‘I hope they show up.’

‘They’re right behind us,’ Ella said, lowering her voice. ‘Why don’t we stand back and wait?’

They stood aside as Sarita, pushing a luggage trolley, walked slowly past with the two small boys, blank-faced with anxiety,. They didn’t notice Franz and Ella, their eyes scanning the crowd.

Suddenly the older boy grabbed the younger one’s arm. ‘Raj! He is there! There’s Daddy!’

The little one came to life. ‘Daddy!’ he yelled.

Sharma’s head jerked round. He saw them and held out his arms as they ran towards him, shoving their way through the crowd, roaring, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ They flung themselves at him both at once, and he dropped to one knee and caught them both to him, his dark hair and theirs merging as they kissed him as though they would never let him go again.

Ella heard Franz catch his breath and bite back tears.

Sarita slowly, very slowly, approached them then suddenly, leaving the baggage cart, she turned back and started running, back towards the carousels and the runways.

Ella stood in her way, barring her with wide-open arms. Sarita, panicking and not recognizing this woman, tried to push her out of the way.

‘Sarita! It’s Ella! Ella and Franz. Don’t run. Don’t run away.’

Sarita’s eyes were terrified, wide and white. ‘I can’t face him! You know what I did to him! What will he say?’

‘It’ll be all right,’ Ella said. ‘Won’t it, Franz?’

‘I’ll go and talk to him,’ Franz said. He made his way through the crowd to where Sharma crouched with the boys clinging on to him, reached over the children and tapped him on the shoulder. Sharma stood up immediately and walked with him towards Sarita and Ella, with the boys holding on to his belt, one on either side.

Sarita, head down and shaking, leaned against Ella.

‘Sarita,’ Sharma said. He put a hand under her chin and lifted her head till she had to look up, at his eyebrows, his hair, his cheeks – everywhere except his eyes.

‘Welcome home,’ he said. ‘Thank you for coming back to me.’

Now she looked him in the eyes and they were both crying. He held out his arms and she let go of Ella and allowed herself to be held. He laid his cheek against her hair and murmured words in a language Ella and Franz had never heard him speak, a private language for this private time. They moved away and left the family to themselves, the little boys holding on to both parents with all their strength.

They had a short wait for the hire car. Ella again felt impatience to be home, an urgency she couldn’t explain.

‘I wasn’t much help to you in Ireland,’ she said to Franz, as they waited to be given the keys. ‘When I think of it, I kept getting sick and faint and tired and wanting to come home.’

‘You were perfect,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t have done it on my own. I’d have had to do all the sickness and tiredness and wanting to go home myself!’

‘Sir, madam? Your car is ready for you now.’ The rep held out the keys and looked questioningly from one to the other.

‘Do you mind if I drive?’ Ella asked Franz. ‘I feel less sick if I have to concentrate on something.’

‘Of course not. You asked me that, in Ireland, and I forgot after the first time,’ he remembered.

‘You had a lot on your mind. Franz, there’s Sharma’s family just coming. Shall we offer to take them?’

‘I’ll go and ask.’

He came back with them.

‘Are you sure?’ Sharma asked. ‘We have a lot of luggage.’

‘We’ll fit it in somehow. You boys may have to sit on somebody’s lap,’ Franz said.

‘I’m sitting on Daddy’s!’ they said in unison, and Sarita and Sharma both laughed.

Sarita was holding on tight to Sharma’s hand, Ella noticed. Driving home, sneaking a look in the rearview mirror, she saw they stayed holding hands all the way back to London. Sarita’s eyes when she looked at Sharma were anxious, as though checking out his state of mind, but when he looked back at her, she smiled.

Forgiveness transforms things, Ella thought. And people. Sharma’s normal air of solemnity was gone. Joy encased him as he was encased by his sons, who had settled for sitting on one knee each, with their arms entwined around their father and each other.

Ella imagined Franz like that, with a son or daughter on his lap, holding them and being hugged back. Seeing him glance towards the back seat and smile at the boys, she thought he was imagining it as well.

Franz had actually forgotten to switch on his phone when they left the airport and only remembered it when they were half an hour away from home. Over the chattering of the children in the back, he listened to his messages and tried dialling a number, then tried again. Ella saw his expression change.

‘What is it?’ she said quickly.

‘There’s a message from Alison, left an hour ago, saying call her back immediately, and another one ten minutes later saying, “Call now, urgent.” I can’t get any answer from the Healing Place, the front desk or my office.’

‘Her mobile?’

‘I’m trying it now. Someone should have answered at the Healing Place. There are phone points all over the building where she can pick up the calls if she has to leave the desk. Alison! It’s Franz. What’s the problem?’

Ella saw his face go white. The boys in the back seat let out a shriek of laughter and scuffled with each other.

‘Guys,’ she said. ‘Quiet a moment.’

‘Be still,’ Sharma warned them. He was alert now, watching Franz too.

‘Have you called the police? Fire brigade?’ Franz asked. ‘Right. Is everyone out of the building?’

‘Oh God,’ said Ella.

Ahead of them, the traffic slowed to a halt.

‘Ella, take the next turnoff,’ Sharma said. ‘You can double back and go down the A road, I forget which one it is, and get on to the South Circular.’

‘Okay.’

‘What!’ said Franz into the phone. ‘You are joking, aren’t you? Alison, get one of the firemen to go in and tell them from me …. Bloody hell! Ring me back when you can. We’re about half an hour away, with any luck.’

‘What?’ Ella said, when he rang off.

‘There’s been a phone call to say there’s a bomb in the building, and someone thought they saw smoke coming from my office. The security guard called the police and the fire brigade but there were over five hundred people in there and some of them won’t leave.’

‘Won’t leave?’

‘The Aura Cleansing group say they’re staying in there to pour positive energy into the place and defuse the harm, and the transcendental meditators say the Healing Place is a sacred space so there’s no risk at all.’

‘Foolish people,’ said Sharma soberly. ‘They don’t know what it is they’re opposing.’

‘What are they opposing?’ asked Ella quickly.

‘Conspiracy. This is part of something more serious.’

‘More serious?’ said Franz.

‘I think so. Who are your enemies, Franz?’

‘God knows. I can’t think. Why are we going this way?’

‘The traffic jam on the motorway gets worse further ahead,’ Sharma said.

‘Good man,’ said Franz. ‘You must be psychic?’ he added, trying to make light of the situation, but no one laughed.

‘It’s the traffic report on his smartphone,’ said Sharma’s elder son, Roheet, seriously. The boys were looking worried again. They clung even more tightly to their father.

‘When we get there, Ella, get as close as you can and drop me off,’ said Franz.

‘You’re not going in there?’ she said.

‘Not if everyone has come out,’ he assured her.

She didn’t feel reassured. ‘Leave it to the fire brigade, Franz,’ she pleaded.

‘The fire crew have tried. They’re sending for more police to try and drag them out but there are a hundred or more still in there. The firemen need to concentrate: they can’t find the source of the fire but there’s heat coming out of the walls at different places.’

Ella looked in the driving mirror and saw Sharma close his eyes, focusing on something nobody saw. She felt a heavy weight of dread in the pit of her stomach and hoped it wouldn’t be felt by the baby. She made herself stay calm and concentrate on the road ahead where mercifully the traffic was thinning and flowing freely.

‘Take a right here,’ Sharma said, without opening his eyes. Ella obeyed without questioning. ‘Cut round the back of the station, go along by the canal, then through the shopping centre.’

‘The shopping centre will be crowded,’ Franz said.

‘No.’

It wasn’t, unusually for a popular place at this time of evening.

‘Will the road be closed by the Healing Place, do you know?’ Ella asked Sharma.

‘Yes, but go to the Fischel Road end. Stop by the church.’

‘Franz, why don’t you phone Phil?’ Ella said. ‘If he opened the church gates we could park on the grass.’

‘I don’t have his number.’

‘I do,’ Sharma said.

He checked the number and recited it and Franz dialled. ‘Hi, it’s Franz Kane. Yes, I’ve just heard. We’re on our way back, nearly there, with Sharma and family as well. Is there any way we can leave the car there? Thanks. Right. See you.’

‘He’s got the police to evacuate everyone into the church,’ Franz said. ‘They’ll have to stay around for questioning. The bomb squad have just arrived.’

‘Next turning, Ella,’ said Sharma.

Ella saw crowds of people, road barricades, and police trying to keep everyone moving into the church. ‘I can’t see Phil,’ she said. ‘Can you see if the gate’s open, Franz?’

‘Let me out here,’ he said suddenly.

‘Franz, please don’t go into the building!’

But he had gone. She stopped the car and got out, just in time to see him jump the barricade and run towards the Healing Place.

Sharma jumped out of the car and began to run after Franz. Sarita screamed.

‘Sharma! Sharma, don’t leave me!’

Ella caught hold of his arm. ‘Don’t, Sharma!’

‘I can’t let him go in there on his own!’

‘Sharma,’ Ella said, ‘stay with Sarita. Look, she’s distraught.’

He hesitated and Sarita flung her arms round him. ‘Please, Sharma! Please, darling, don’t go! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!’

A man behind Ella pushed her aside, shouted, ‘Sorry!’over his shoulder, jumped the barricade and ran after Franz – a tall, broadshouldered man with a mop of unruly black hair.

‘Mick!’ he yelled as he ran, catching up with Franz just before he pulled open the doors. ‘Micky Finn!’

‘Who is that man?’ Sharma asked.

‘I think,’ said Ella, ‘that just might be Pat Quinn.’ If she had hoped he would stop Franz from going in, she was mistaken. He wrenched the door open and ran into the building before him.

Sharma made a move to follow them.

‘Sharma,’ Ella said, ‘this is where you should be. Please.’

He looked at Sarita, who was crying and at his elder son who, blank-faced with fear once again, was staring at him, and at the younger boy who was clinging to his father’s leg, not understanding what was happening.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Come, children. We’ll go into the church. Leave the cases for now. Ella, are you coming?’

‘I’ll wait here. I can’t get to the church gates to park the car yet anyway. I’ll catch up with you later. Go.’

Inside the building, Franz shouted, ‘I’m the owner!’ to the policeman who tried to stop him, and ran for the main hall. The transcendental meditation group sat, some completely entranced, on the floor, but most looked up nervously as he ran in.

‘Get out of here!’ Franz shouted.

Pat ran round the edge of the hall roaring at everyone, ‘Get the fock out of here, ye bloody eejits!’

Like sheepdogs working, they herded the eighty or so people between them, on to their feet and into the foyer, where a back-up group of police, just arriving, bundled them roughly out into the street and shouted at them to go down to the church and wait there.

‘Any more?’ Pat shouted at Franz.

‘Upstairs!’

Pat followed him as he took the stairs three at a time and ran to the large upstairs hall where the Aura Cleansing group met. Franz smelt smoke but couldn’t see it.

‘Get out of here!’ he roared at the group guides, a male couple who were exhorting their students to breathe out cleansing energy. ‘Now!’

The two began to protest, though the students at the back of the room didn’t wait for a second invitation and ran for the door.

‘Take the back stairs!’ Franz shouted after them. ‘Don’t go near the office!’

Pat had grabbed the couple of guides by the collars of their embroidered shirts and was hauling them bodily towards the door. They resisted.

‘Get a fucking move on!’ he roared. ‘Or I’ll throw yez out of the window!’

They ran, more scared of Pat than of any bomb.

‘Are you in charge?’ one of the firemen asked Pat.

‘He is – your man with the white hair.’

‘Will you check your office? Any unfamiliar objects in there? We can’t find the source of the smoke but it seems to be coming from there.’

‘Sure.’

Pat was two steps behind Franz.

‘You go now,’ Franz told him. ‘I’ll see you outside.’

‘I’m staying.’

Franz gave in, remembering Pat’s reputation for stubbornness. He checked the office. The safe was intact, though the lock looked as though it might have been tampered with.

‘Anything not normally there?’ asked the fireman.

‘That tin case on the bookshelf.’ The smoke looked thicker around it but there were no flames or other signs of fire.

‘Right. Get Bomb Disposal up here!’ the fireman called to a colleague, who ran. ‘Now get out of here,’ he told Pat and Franz. ‘The police will want to talk to you – down at the church at the end of the road.’

Franz got on the phone to Alison. ‘Anyone else stayed in the building? No? You’re sure? Okay. Let’s go,’ he told Pat.

‘So, you’re the boss here, I’m told by Alison,’ Pat said conversationally as they ran downstairs.

‘Yes.’

‘The one on the phone when I rang that day?’

‘Sorry about that. I was hiding. Not from you. From myself.’

‘I thought it might be you but I was thrown by the London accent.’

‘I see you haven’t picked that up yet!’

‘Not me. Born a Dubliner, die a Dub!’

Outside in the street, Franz said, ‘Thanks, Pat. Talk about timing!’

‘The site where I’m working is only up the road. We heard the news from one of the delivery drivers. I thought it must be your place. They wouldn’t let me in, till you came along.’

‘They didn’t let you in then!’

‘No, but I figured – old friend of the big boss man, who’d keep me out?’ He slapped Franz on the back. ‘The old team, eh? Finn and Quinn win again!’

Franz laughed, despite himself. Looking up at the building he saw smoke billowing from his office window. Where was the fire coming from?

‘And to think last week I was worried about a crack in the ceiling!’ he murmured.

‘Which turned out to be nothing,’ Pat told him.

‘Really?’

‘I don’t know who told you there was a serious problem,’ Pat said forthrightly, ‘but they either didn’t know their arse from their elbow or they had a grudge against you.’

A picture of Mick Murphy, Marisa’s dad, the man who had come to beat Franz up for risking his daughter’s safety and had ended up getting free drinks out of him all evening, came into Franz’s mind. ‘He did have a grudge against me,’ he said, realization dawning on him.

‘The floor joists above have a bit of movement in them, that’s all,’ Pat said, ‘which is not a bad thing in itself, and the movement cracked the plaster slightly. It might need patching over again in the future but I fixed it in no time.’

‘You fixed it?’

‘Plastered over it. In no time,’ he repeated.

‘Thanks. I owe you.’

‘Buy me a pint sometime. How about I call over and see you one day in the week, if you’re not still in hiding?’

‘Come and eat with us tomorrow evening?’

‘I’ll do that. I finish about six o’clock. I’ll go home and have a wash after, or your Ella won’t want to know me, and be round to yours about seven, all right? You can text me the address.’

‘Fine.’ Franz gave him a pat on the shoulder and Pat wheeled round and caught Franz up in a bearhug that knocked the breath out of him.

‘It’s great to see you, Mick! And I’m sorry to hear about your da. I liked him. He was a good old fellow.’

He released him and strode off, leaving Franz struggling with a sudden wave of emotion. He stood for a moment, then turned to go down the road to the church.

The crowds outside the church were clearing as the police moved them on through the big double oak doors but inside, the building was packed with people, with their coats and bags scattered around the pews. Extra chairs had been put out in the aisles.

I bet it’s the best congregation Phil’s had in a while, thought Franz with grim amusement.

He saw Alison the other side of the church, going through the appointments book with a policewoman, no doubt checking the visitors for that day and the day before. Like trying to find a needle in a haystack, Franz thought.

Phil came into the church from a back door, with seven young people carrying trays of tea and coffee. He sent them in different directions to serve all the Healing Place evacuees. Catching sight of Franz, he waved and made his way over to him.

‘Thanks for doing all this,’ Franz said.

‘No problem. Any news?’

‘There’s a tin case in my office which they think might be another bomb. Alison said they found the first one in the basement: the maintenance man saw a sack there and heard something ticking and called Alison.’

‘How would someone get in undetected, carrying bombs?’

‘There are people coming and going all the time. Even with reception and security, you can’t keep track of everyone. Someone could easily attach themselves to a group of people coming in, without attracting attention. There’s smoke coming from somewhere and heat coming from the walls, so Alison said, but they can’t find out where it’s from.’

‘Do you have a ducted heating system? Or air conditioning?’

‘Air conditioning. I’ll go and get them to check.’

‘Phone them,’ Phil said. ‘There’s no need to go back in.’

‘I’ll need to show them where the vents are.’

‘You can explain on the phone,’ Phil said. As Franz hesitated, he said, ‘Think of Ella. And the baby.’

‘Right. Actually, there is a plan of the aircon system stored in the Cloud if I can access it.’

A police officer approached him. ‘Are you the manager of the building?’

‘Yes.’

‘We’ll need to ask you a few questions, sir.’

‘Sure. Can I ask you first to contact the fire team? I need to tell them where the air conditioning ducts lead out.’

‘I’ll call them. Can we use a back room here, Reverend?’

‘Use my office,’ said Phil. ‘And Franz, you can use my computer in there. This way.’

The ‘Reverend’ had a truly chaotic office, Franz noted – a hybrid mix of library with floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, office with overpiled desk, and playroom with children’s drawings stuck on the back of the door and a blackboard easel and jar of coloured chalks in one corner. The carpet was torn. It looked homely.

‘I’ll send some tea in for you,’ said Phil. ‘Milk and sugar?’

‘Don’t bother. You’ve got enough on your hands,’ said Franz.

‘No bother. Where’s Ella?

‘I left her waiting for the crowds to clear so she could park the car in your grounds. You haven’t seen her?’

‘I’ll find her,’ Phil said.

He came back with Ella and a tray of tea and biscuits, as the police officer was establishing that Franz could tell him nothing of immediate value.

‘We’ll continue with our enquiries, sir,’ he said finally, ‘and we’ll be in touch with you. You’ve no objection to our checking your bank accounts, then?’

‘No.’

As the officer went out, Ella asked Franz, ‘Why are they checking your bank account?’

‘If I was skint they might assume I’d set the place on fire myself, to claim on the insurance.’

‘You’re not skint, are you?’

‘No. Do you need us to get out of this room?’ Franz asked Phil.

‘No, you’re all right for the moment. There are several other rooms the police can use for interviews. Take a breather. This must be a shock for you.’

‘It was a shock,’ Franz said, ‘when I heard there were people refusing to leave the building. But if I’m honest, for one second my reaction to the news that a bomb might go off and blow the whole place sky-high was relief.’

‘Me too,’ Ella said promptly.

‘Really?’ Phil perched on the edge of the desk and looked at them both with interest. ‘Something’s changed, since you went away,’ he commented. ‘May I ask what?’

‘My father died,’ Franz said.

‘Oh. I’m sorry.’

‘Look, we ought to be helping with the war effort out there, not sitting here drinking tea!’ Franz said. ‘But Ella should go home.’

‘You should both go home,’ Phil said. ‘There’s nothing you can do here. The police could take hours questioning people and they can phone you if they want you. Get some rest while you can. I am sorry, Franz, to hear your news. Let me know if you want an ear or anything, any time.’

‘Thanks. I will.’

 

 

CHAPTER 52

 

They were not allowed past the barricades; more police had arrived by this time, so they would have to walk home the long way round. They decided to leave the car where it was, parked on a small patch of grass inside the church gates.

Taking their travel bag out of the crammed boot, Franz said, ‘What about Sarita’s luggage?’

‘I left the second car key with Sharma. They’re all staying with Phil and Jan, not that they’ll get much peace till the crowds go. He said he’ll come by later and drop it through our letterbox.’

‘He doesn’t have to do that. I can pick it up from him tomorrow.’

‘He’s going that way anyway. He’s still doing his prowling the streets trying to track down those lost boys.

‘Tonight? With his family just back?’

‘Yes. Phil said he’s been out every night. Phil’s been going with him, some of the time.’

‘That’s good of him.’

‘Do you still dislike Phil?’ Ella asked.

He was surprised. ‘I didn’t actually dislike him, did I?’

Ella laughed. ‘I guess that answers my question! Did you really feel relieved, when you heard the news of the bomb?’

‘For one second, yes.’

‘That tells us something.’

‘I suppose it must. It’s the last thing I expected to feel. I’ve put so much into building this place up!’

‘I know. So maybe it’s time for some kind of change. Don’t quote some cliché at me!’ she warned, seeing him about to speak.

‘I won’t: I can’t think of one! There must be some kind of affirmation or buzzword to cover this eventuality.’

‘I don’t want to hear it, if there is.’

‘Nor me.’

They walked down the street hand in hand till they arrived at the flat. Franz put the travel bag down to get the key out of his pocket.

Ella caught hold of his hand again as they went up the stairs. ‘Things are going to get better,’ she said.

‘Generally, or for you and me?’

‘For everyone. But we might as well start with you and me.’

He unlocked the door of the flat and they went in. Closing the door behind them, he said, ‘Let’s start with you and me.’

He dropped the bag on the floor and put his arms round her, kissing her on the mouth.

‘Mm,’ she said, shifting slightly.

‘Mm?’ he queried.

She leaned back against the wall. ‘Mm, carry on,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I see.’

Moments later, moving his fingers over the buttons of her dress, he said, ‘Mm?’ in a different tone of voice.

‘Mm,’ she responded, unbuttoning his shirt.

He kissed her neck and her throat, while she gathered up her long skirt and wound it around him. He laughed as she unbuckled his belt.

‘We could do this in more comfort,’ he suggested.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Now.’

‘Oh. If you’re sure.’

‘Shut up.’

She lost her balance for a moment and he caught her arm and steadied her but she pulled him towards her, leaning back against the wall. He let out his breath in a groan. ‘Ella.’

‘Yes. No – don’t stop!’ She drew a shuddering breath and pressed her head into his shoulder, gasping and laughing at the same time.

‘Franz,’ she said finally, as he released her and leaned away.

‘Huh?’

‘Can we have bomb scares more often?’

They slept for two hours, till the phone call came. It was a hoax, the police sergeant said, but a thoroughly planned and malicious one. Heat-emitting devices, a sophisticated version of smoke bombs, had been placed in different parts of the building, including inside the air conditioning system. The ticking coming from the package in the basement was nothing but a clock mechanism. The building was now safe to resume normal use, though the police advised extra security and vigilance.

‘You haven’t thought of anybody, in the meantime, who might have a grudge against you?’

‘No, apart from the builder I mentioned but I think he got his revenge; I can’t imagine him going to these lengths,’ Franz told him.

‘And you’ve no political affiliations that would arouse hostility from any particular group?’

‘No.’

‘Well, let us know if you think of anything, or if you notice anything unfamiliar in the next few days. Don’t be afraid of bothering us for nothing; somebody’s gone to a lot of trouble to do this to scare you, and they may do something for real. Be aware of that. Goodnight now.’

‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ Franz said. ‘Goodnight.’

‘You don’t think it was anything to do with Marisa’s dad, then?’ Ella said.

‘I doubt it. The policeman who interviewed me thought whoever it was could have gained access through the air conditioning vents that come out in the side alley.’

‘They’re tiny!’

‘Not that small. They’re the old ducts from the boiler in the original building, recommissioned for air conditioning. A child could crawl in. He said burglars gain access to properties that way sometimes – send their own kids in to crawl along the ducts and open a door for them. Can you imagine that?’

‘I’d rather not.’

‘I’m not sure how to prevent that happening in future. I wanted originally to have a gate fixed across the entrance to the alleyway to block off the area, only the fire exit from the basement opens into it so it has to stay accessible. I might get someone to see about putting bars across the vents themselves.’

Ella hesitated. ‘Shall I take the hire car back tomorrow, Franz?’

‘We were going to have a day out,’ he remembered.

‘You’ll have to go into work now, won’t you? Calm everyone down, sort things out?’

‘Yes.’

‘It can’t be helped. I’ll make us a nice meal in the evening. We’ll have some time to ourselves then.’

‘I invited Pat Quinn,’ Franz said guiltily. ‘I could call him and make it another night?’

‘No, don’t do that. I’d like to meet him. He is the guy who rushed into the building after you, isn’t he? How about him turning up like that? We owe him a meal, at least. What shall I cook? He didn’t look like a veggie, to me.’

‘He used to say when he made his first million he’d have steak and chips every night!’ Franz said, remembering.

‘I’ll buy steak for him but you might have to cook it, if I’m feeling sick,’ Ella said.

‘Even if I cook it, the smell of it could make you sick, couldn’t it?’

‘Risk it. I might invite Alison as well,’ Ella said thoughtfully.

‘We owe her a favour too,’ Franz agreed. ‘She handled the crisis brilliantly. But it’d be better to make it another evening, wouldn’t it?’

‘No,’ Ella said.

He looked at her with suspicion. ‘Why not?’

‘No reason,’ she said innocently.

‘I don’t believe you. Come clean.’

‘Well, I had a brief chat with her. She came out while I was still waiting by the car. I said I believed she had met Pat Quinn. She said yes.’

‘And?’

‘Just that.’

‘Yes, she has met him, and on the strength of that you decide to ask her around here the same evening?’

‘It was the way she said it,’ Ella said.

‘You women have too much imagination,’ Franz said.

‘Okay. Test it. Phone Pat and ask him if he met Alison.’

‘I know he did. She showed him the crack in the ceiling and he plastered it.’

‘Ah-hah!’

‘It’s not a declaration of romance,’ said Franz. ‘He did it as a favour to me.’

‘Mm-hmm. Well, why don’t you ask him anyway what he thought of her?’

‘Because I’m not nosy, interfering, over-imaginative or a matchmaking woman,’ he said severely.

‘Fine. Phone him anyway.’

‘I won’t. What would I say?’

‘Tell him that unknown to you Ella’s invited Alison tomorrow evening but is willing to change it so you and he can have a quiet chat by yourselves.’

‘I know what he’ll say. We haven’t seen each other for years. You and Alison wouldn’t get a word in edgeways, anyway; he might have a slow pace of speaking but once he starts talking he goes on non-stop.’

Ella handed him the phone. ‘Prove me wrong, then.’

He made an exasperated face at her but dialled Pat Quinn’s mobile.

‘I’m going for a shower,’ Ella said. ‘Tell me afterwards.’

She had a long, leisurely shower, washing her long hair, shaving her legs, using pumice stone on her feet and rubbing in lotion. She felt refreshed and unanxious now she knew the bomb threat had been a hoax.

She emerged from the bathroom to find Franz talking on the phone.

‘See you then, Pat. ‘Night.’

‘You weren’t on the phone to Pat Quinn all that time, were you?’ Ella said incredulously.

‘I told you he’d talk the hind leg off a donkey. He was always like that.’

‘What was he talking about?’

He started laughing.

‘What?’ she said.

‘All right, you win. He wouldn’t stop talking about Alison. I couldn’t get him off the subject of what a fantastic woman she was and how he wouldn’t stand a chance that she would look at some ordinary bloke like him!’

‘A good night’s work,’ said Ella smugly.

‘Are you tired?’ Franz asked.

‘No. I feel wide awake now.’

‘I think I should walk down to Phil’s to see if the crowds have gone now and if they need help clearing up.’

‘We’ll both go,’ Ella decided.

 

 

CHAPTER 53

 

The crowds had gone home but small huddles of people still hung around outside the church and inside. Franz and Ella found Phil sitting chatting to some of them. He waved and they went over to him.

‘All over bar the shouting,’ he said cheerfully.

‘What state is the kitchen in?’ Ella asked. ‘Can we help clear up?’

‘It might need a final going over, tomorrow,’ Phil said, ‘but the youth group really excelled themselves. They were washing the floor, the last time I looked.’

‘You’ve all gone to a lot of trouble,’ Franz said.

‘It was good for them – for all of us,’ said Phil. ‘And a good suggestion has come out of it: a couple of the young people have had the idea of opening the church hall for early breakfasts for commuters – eat in or take away. Early morning’s a difficult time for a lot of people, waking up alone and having to motivate themselves to get up and out to work. If they popped in here on the way, it would provide a bit of contact and something to eat, which they might not have time to prepare.’

‘Good thinking,’ said Franz.

‘Talking of eating,’ said Phil, ‘that’s something I missed out on this evening. Why don’t you join me? Go through to the kitchen and I’ll come as soon as I’ve said goodbye to these people and locked up the church. Jan’s around somewhere; she’ll be pleased to see you.’

‘I’m sure she won’t!’ said Ella. ‘Not after the evening she’s had! We’ve only called to see if you needed a hand with anything.’

‘Seriously, she might be glad of your help. She’s trying to settle the kids and Sarita’s in a bit of a state.’

‘Sure, we’ll go in,’ Ella said.

‘Perhaps if you go in, Ella, and Franz helps me to send the rest of these people away after their ordeal?’ Phil suggested.

‘Sure.’

At the door connecting the church to the house, Ella looked back and saw Franz and Phil side by side, walking with the final group of people towards the main door, and smiled at the unexpected sight. I always thought they were alike, she thought smugly, satisfied with her insight.

Jan was in the hall, reasoning with her son who, clad in pyjamas and protesting his wakefulness, was arguing that if Sharma’s boys weren’t in bed yet then it was only girls’ bedtime, which didn’t count.

‘Roheet and Raj are going to bed any minute now!’ said Jan firmly. ‘And I want you to set them a good example, so start moving up those stairs, Matt!’

‘They won’t go to bed,’ Matthew said. ‘They won’t leave their mum because she keeps crying.’

‘Where’s Sharma?’ Ella asked.

‘Out watching that row of houses again,’ said Jan.

‘I’ll go and sit with Sarita,’ Ella offered.

‘Would you? Thanks, Ella. Now, Matt, you heard that. Upstairs, now! I’m coming with you, now Ella’s here.’

Grumbling, he started stomping his way up the stairs, as slowly as he could get away with.

Ella, passing the kitchen, noticed that its floor, though no longer swamped with tea, was now swamped with soapy water. She wrung out the mop that was standing in a puddle by the door and swabbed the floor dry.

She found Sarita in the sitting room next to Phil’s office. Her small sons, both with dark rings under their eyes, were hugging her as she sat crying. Raj, the younger one, held a damp handkerchief and kept dabbing his mother’s face.

‘Mummyji, stop crying! Please!’

Roheet, his mouth set determinedly in a straight line, said to Ella, ‘My father has gone away.’

‘He hasn’t left you, Roheet,’ Ella promised. ‘He’ll be here when you wake up in the morning.’

‘Why is he not here now, when my mummyji needs him?’ His solemnity reminded Ella of Sharma.

She sat down beside him and took his hand. ‘Your father is working. Did he explain? He’s helping the police.’

‘Police have gone now,’ Roheet pointed out.

‘Not the police who were here today,’ Ella explained. ‘They came because of a problem with the building, down the road. Sharma is helping some other police officers to look for some missing boys.’

‘Why does he love other boys now, more than us?’ asked Raj.

‘He doesn’t, sweetheart. He couldn’t love anyone more than he loves you. And your mum,’ Ella added, hoping Sarita would take note of that. ‘But these little boys are very frightened and sad. They’ve been taken away from their dads and their mums, by bad people who might do them harm. Your daddy is trying to find them.’

The two children were silent, absorbing this information.

‘My father will find them,’ Roheet said definitely.

‘He will find them,’ echoed Raj.

‘And he will want to find you in bed, when he returns,’ Ella said. ‘If he thinks you’ve been up half the night and not getting your sleep, it will give him something else to worry about.’

Roheet frowned. ‘That is true,’ he said, after consideration. ‘Daddy likes us to go to bed on time. We will do this for him. Come, Raj. This lady will sit with Mummyji – yes?’ he said, looking Ella straight in the eyes.

‘Yes, certainly, Roheet,’ Ella promised, trying not to smile. A miniature Sharma. No wonder Franz finds it hard to block out Sharma’s advice, even when he can block out just about everything else, she thought.

The children kissed their mother, who made a big effort to stop crying and assure them she would be fine and would come up soon.

‘Ask Jan if you need anything,’ Ella told the children. ‘She’s upstairs with Matt and Rosie.’

‘Are we going to live with Jan now?’ asked Raj.

‘No,’ Sarita told him. ‘We will stay here tonight and maybe for a little while.’

‘I want to live with Matt and Rosie!’ said Raj.

‘People don’t live together with other people here,’ Roheet told him. ‘They all live on their own, in their own homes.’

‘We lived in Uncle Tariq’s house,’ Raj argued.

‘That was in Pakistan, Raj! We’re in England now! And Uncle Tariq is family. We don’t have family here.’

‘Why can’t Matt and Rosie be family?’ asked Raj.

‘Raji, go to bed now,’ Sarita pleaded. Her effort to hold back the tears was beginning to fail. Ella stepped between her and the boys.

‘Matt and Rosie are friends, which is kind of family,’ Ella told the boys. ‘And I’m sure you won’t be living far away. But Matt and Rosie have had to go to bed all on their own, and Matt’s been asking why you’re not upstairs with him. You don’t want to leave him up there on his own, do you?’

‘Can we sleep with Matt, in his bed?’ asked Raj.

‘You’re sleeping in Matt’s room, aren’t you?’ Ella said. ‘Didn’t Jan say he gave up his room for you?’

As Raj opened his mouth to speak, she said, ‘I’m counting to see who can get to the top of the stairs first. Will it be you or Roheet?’

‘Me!’ Raj shouted. The two boys ran for the stairs and raced up them together, as Jan was starting to come down them.

‘Over to you,’ Ella told her.

‘Oh, well done,’ Jan approved. ‘Gold star in your motherhood exam, Ella!’

Ella laughed and went back to Sarita. She sat beside her, saying nothing. Everything she could think of to say seemed too intrusive. She didn’t know Sarita well enough to say the things she would say to friends in these circumstances. In the end, she said just that.

‘Sarita, all the things I want to say to you seem too personal when you don’t know me very well, but I really do want to help.’

Sarita dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief far too damp to do any good. ‘You can say anything,’ she said. ‘I don’t mind.’

‘Hold on, I’ll get some tissues,’ Ella said.

‘I shouldn’t be blowing my nose in front of people,’ Sarita said.

‘English people don’t have the same reservations about it,’ Ella told her. ‘Be multicultural – squelch away disgustingly like the rest of us.’

Sarita laughed and sniffed. Ella went into Phil’s office and took the box of tissues from the table between two armchairs. Part of the equipment of every caring professional, she thought with wry amusement. Franz had a box of tissues in his office. Jan carried a pack of them in her bag.

‘Here,’ she told Sarita, handing her the box and moving a wastepaper bin over by her feet. ‘Drip in comfort now. Did you love him, this man?’

Sarita blew her nose with British abandon. ‘No.’

‘Did you in the beginning?’

‘No.’

Ella waited.

‘I know what you must be thinking of me,’ Sarita burst out.

‘What?’

‘A bad woman!’ she exclaimed, her breath catching in a sob.

‘I don’t think that. Were you lonely, Sarita? It can’t have been easy being at home with two children, with all your family so far away in another country. Was that part of it?’

‘I was lonely,’ she said. ‘My family didn’t write or phone me. They said I shouldn’t have married Sharma because he wasn’t a proper Muslim – half Hindu, and only half Pakistani.’

‘So not even halfway acceptable?’

‘No, not acceptable to them at all. Then, when I went back to Pakistan, my brothers told me I was foolish and ungrateful and didn’t have sense to see that Sharma loved me, and this man was no good – even though he was Muslim and from Pakistan. I didn’t know he was married,’ she added defensively.

‘You thought Sharma didn’t love you?’ Ella asked.

Sarita nodded, scrunching up the tissue in her hand. ‘He was always so quiet,’ she said. ‘Always working, always thinking, never saying much. Every night he comes home and he is not happy with me. He always asks me, “Who have you seen? Where have you been today?” And I say to him, “Nobody; I see nobody and I go nowhere.”’

Ella frowned. It didn’t sound like the Sharma she knew. ‘You mean he was so jealous he wasn’t happy if you saw anybody or went anywhere?’

‘No, not that! He says this is not good, for a woman to be in her home and there are no relatives around her. At home in my country, everyone is going in and out of one another’s houses, and going shopping together and cooking together. I can see he is thinking, “Why did I marry this wife who stays on her own all day and can’t make any friends and even her own family don’t value her enough to phone her?”’

‘Sarita, he was probably sad for you and worried about you getting lonely, not blaming you!’ Ella said.

‘But if my family valued me, we could have gone to live near them,’ said Sarita. ‘Sharma said he was willing to go to Pakistan to live so my family could be near me. But none of them were speaking to me! So we couldn’t even do that.’

‘But your brother phoned Sharma,’ Ella said, ‘when you were living out there, and said he knew Sharma cared about you and the other man didn’t, and your brothers wanted you to come back here.’

‘I know! They changed their minds about Sharma but they never told me that when I was here. I was thinking they would be happy to see me back home and my sisters-in-law would be glad for my children to grow up with their children, and they would prefer this other man who was of the same culture, and eventually we would get married and then my family would be happy and I wouldn’t be on my own every day.

‘But my brothers sent this man away and told me I should never have left Sharma and they were very disappointed in me and I was a bad woman who had brought shame on the whole family.’

‘They sent the man away?’

‘As soon as we arrived,’ Sarita confirmed.

‘So you weren’t living with him out there?’

‘No. We were living with my brother’s family, the eldest one. He got his friend in Karachi to follow this man when he went there on business, and he found out he is married with a wife and five kids.’

‘How did you feel when your brother sent the man away?’ Ella asked.

‘I thought, now I have nobody to take care of me and my children,’ Sarita said. She put her head down on her arms and sobbed brokenly.

‘Sarita,’ said Ella, ‘I don’t think Sharma knew this situation, did he? From what he said to us, your brother led him to believe you were still with this man – that he was giving financial support to you personally but didn’t want to support another man’s children, and that was why Sharma sent money.’

Sarita looked up. ‘Sharma sent money? I thought the money all came from my brothers!’

Ella stared at her. ‘How long were you with this man, after you arrived in Pakistan?’

Sarita shook her head emphatically. ‘I wasn’t with him. My brother sent him away,’ she repeated. ‘He wouldn’t let him come in the house even to have a drink or wash his hands when we arrived from the airport.’

‘So since last year, when you left here, you’ve been on your own with the children? I mean, staying at your brother’s, but without a partner?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sarita, why didn’t your brother tell Sharma you were no longer with the man? Why did he tell him the man was buying you expensive presents but not supporting the kids?’

‘He did send presents but I sent them back. He said he would leave his wife and children but I didn’t want him to. And I didn’t know my brother was phoning Sharma at all,’ said Sarita. ‘I don’t know why my brother let Sharma think this man was with me. Perhaps he didn’t want Sharma to think that even a bad man had rejected me. Or maybe he thinks if Sharma doesn’t want me back, it’s better if my brothers allow this man to come back for me. Perhaps it was not so bad for my brothers and the family honour if a man valued their sister, even a bad man. Better than being alone, wanted by nobody.’

Ella tried to get her head round this reasoning. ‘But the man didn’t reject you: your brother was the one who wouldn’t let you live with him!’

‘I didn’t want to live with him,’ said Sarita softly. ‘My brother could see this, I think. I didn’t know the man really. I thought I did. He was a business colleague of my youngest brother and he came to visit us in London one time. Then he kept coming back when Sharma was out. I sent him away every time, but then ….’

‘But then one day you were too lonely and needing company, and too convinced that Sharma thought you were a worthless wife,’ Ella hazarded, ‘so you let him in?’

‘Yes,’ Sarita whispered.

‘And when did you realize you didn’t want to live with him?’

‘On the plane journey. I was thinking, “What have I done? Who is this man to me? Why didn’t I stay with Sharma? He will miss the kids and they will miss him, even if he doesn’t love me.”’

‘Sarita,’ Ella said, ‘do you love Sharma?’

‘Oh yes,’ she said simply. ‘He is the only man I ever love. But he didn’t love me. And now he never will, because I have done this bad thing,’ she said, sobbing again.

‘I don’t believe this!’ Ella said.

Franz walked in with Phil.

‘You men!’ Ella exploded. ‘Why can’t you say what you feel? What’s so flaming macho about keeping your feelings such a secret that we never know what’s going on with you?’

Phil and Franz exchanged glances.

‘What’s brought this on?’ asked Phil mildly.

‘Sarita’s brother let Sharma go on thinking she was living with this man, and Sharma let Sarita go on thinking he didn’t care about her instead of just going to Pakistan and telling her he wanted her to come home, and all the time she was ….. Franz, will you just get Sharma on the phone and tell him to stop trying to sort out other people’s tragedies and come back here and deal with his own!’

‘I have done,’ said Franz calmly. ‘It’s what Phil and I were discussing. We’ve just phoned him. And Jan’s in the kitchen making sandwiches for everyone. She said you shouldn’t go so long without eating, Ella, when you’re pregnant. It can play havoc with your emotions.’

‘There’s no havoc with my emotions!’ said Ella hotly, then caught Franz’s eye and she was the first to start laughing.

At Phil’s suggestion, Sarita rang her eldest brother in Pakistan, although it meant getting him out of bed at an unearthly hour of the morning, given the time difference.

‘It’ll show him you mean business if you start by getting him out of his comfort zone,’ Phil said. ‘You can ask him his reasons for not telling you about Sharma sending money for the children and for your flights home, and get him to tell Sharma in person that he lied about your being with this man.’

‘My brother will be angry with me,’ said Sarita fearfully.

‘Don’t let him,’ said Jan. ‘You get in there first and be angry with him. He made a difficult situation much more painful and complex than it need have been for both you and Sharma. And the children.’

Sarita nodded. ‘I can get angry for the children,’ she said.

‘And for yourself,’ Jan insisted. ‘You could have been home here last year if he’d been more truthful with both of you.’

Sarita didn’t do badly, Ella thought. They couldn’t understand the language but her tone was assertive. Her voice shook a few times but she seemed to be standing her ground.

Sharma came in and stood by door, listening to her half of the conversation, his eyes widening.

Sarita held out the phone to him and he took it from her and began to speak.

Sarita translated to the others. ‘I told Tariq he must tell Sharma why he lied and why he told me I would have to repay my brothers the money for our food and for the flights home, when they knew it had come from my husband and not from them. And he must tell Sharma why he let him think I was living with this man when I had been with the family all the time and sent away the presents when they came.’

Sharma said very little on the phone, but listened. Finally he said a few words and listened again.

‘He is thanking my brother for looking after me and the children,’ Sarita relayed.

Sharma spoke again, quietly but firmly.

‘He is saying there is no question of a loan to be repaid to them, and if they stop asking for it from me then in return he will not mention to them again the money he sent or embarrass them by checking whether I received it all,’ Sarita said.

Sharma’s voice became stronger then and more vehement.

Sarita’s was quieter when she translated this time. ‘He is saying he will forgive my brothers everything, except for not passing the message to me that he loved me and would be waiting for me if I wanted to come home.’ Almost inaudibly, as though to herself, she added, ‘But I don’t know if he can ever forgive me. I will never forgive myself.’

Sharma put down the phone and walked out of the room, his face averted from everyone. Ella, nearest the door, saw his face contorted with emotion. She followed him into the hall.

‘Come back in, Sharma,’ she said.

‘Leave me,’ he said indistinctly. ‘I need a few minutes alone.’

‘Just now, I don’t care what you need,’ she said. ‘Sarita needs to see you upset or she’ll never believe how you feel.’

‘How do you think I feel?’ he retorted. His shoulders were shaking.

‘It doesn’t matter what I think,’ Ella said. ‘Sarita doesn’t believe you ever loved her or will ever forgive her. Is that true?’

‘No! How can you think that?’

‘I don’t. She does. Come back in, Sharma, and move heaven and earth to persuade her it isn’t true. If you don’t do it now, it’s too late to try doing it later.’

He let himself be led back into the room. Sarita was sobbing again. Sharma went over and took her hands and tried to speak to her, then broke down. Sarita’s crying intensified into wails. Ella looked helplessly towards Franz but he seemed to be struggling with emotion himself and didn’t move towards them. It was Phil who moved.

Drawing up a chair he sat by them and separated their hands, holding one in each of his own, like a bridge between them.

‘Listen to me,’ he said. ‘I want you to speak one at a time, and the other one to listen. Sarita, you tell Sharma what you most fear. Tell him what you told us.’

She tried to compose herself, exhausted now with crying. Jan sat beside her and handed her more tissues and stroked her back.

‘Go on, Sarita,’ she encouraged. ‘You can do it.’

Haltingly, Sarita said, not looking at Sharma, ‘I wasn’t a good wife. I didn’t fit in here, with your life. I was lonely but I was no good at getting to know people.’

Sharma went to speak but Phil stopped him. ‘Not yet. She hasn’t finished. Sarita, tell Sharma what you’re most afraid of now.’

‘That you will never forgive me,’ she whispered. ‘That you can’t love this worthless wife.’

Sharma put his head down and drew a deep breath. Ella flinched. Franz put an arm round her waist.

There was a long silence. Neither Phil nor Jan moved till Sharma finally spoke.

‘I haven’t made you happy, Sarita,’ he said. ‘I haven’t been there for you. It’s my fault that you didn’t know how much I loved you. I don’t know how to say these things. But I want to learn. I love you. Can you forgive me? Can you love me again?’

Sarita was quiet and still by now. ‘I never stopped loving you, Sharma,’ she said. ‘I believe you will forgive me because you are a good man. But I can never forgive myself.’

‘No!’ said Ella suddenly and loudly.

Everyone looked at her.

‘You mustn’t do that to him, Sarita,’ Ella pleaded. ‘Not if you love him.’ She brushed away tears impatiently. ‘It’s the worst possible way to punish someone who loves you – not to forgive yourself. I know. I live with a man who won’t forgive himself. I don’t even know what he’s done but I do know it’s not worth what it’s doing to the person who loves him!’

Then she was the one who was sobbing and the others who got to their feet quickly and gathered round her. She caught a glimpse of the shock on Franz’s face before he, like Sharma before him, turned away from them all and left the room, alone.

 

 

CHAPTER 54

 

Pat arrived early, the following evening.

‘Franz isn’t home yet,’ Ella told him, bringing him into the kitchen. ‘We overslept this morning and he was later than usual getting to work. He’s just phoned to say he’ll be about another half hour, which is still early for him.’

‘He has a very important job,’ Pat said respectfully. ‘He’s made it big in the world, all right.’

‘Alison’s babysitter’s been delayed but she should get here about the same time as Franz. What would you like to drink? There’s wine, beer, cider, Guinness or soft stuff.’

‘You didn’t get the Guinness for me, I hope?’

‘I did, actually.’

‘I’ve never been able to abide the stuff,’ Pat confessed. ‘Terrible, for an Irishman, isn’t it? I don’t admit to it back home; I have to drink it.’

Ella laughed. ‘Well, you don’t have to here. What would you prefer?’

‘Wine would be great.’

Ella took a bottle of white out of the fridge and a bottle of red from the rack on the wall. ‘Help yourself.’ She set out glasses and put dishes of dips with crisps, nuts and olives on the table.

‘Don’t put food in front of me,’ Pat warned. ‘You get fierce hungry working on the bridges.’

‘I’m sure you do. Eat away: it’s to keep us going till the others get here. I’m eating for two, so that’s my excuse.’

‘Mick told me yez are having a baby. That’s fantastic news! Mick’ll make a great father!’

‘Will he?’ Ella needed to hear that from someone who knew Franz well.

‘He will, no doubt about it. He was always great with kids. Little Rachel worshipped the ground he walked on and he had endless patience. She and her friends never gave him a moment’s peace! D’you know Rachel?’

‘I just met her, in Ireland. She’s a lovely girl.’

‘Is she back, then? That’s good. She was fair cut up when her mother died – Mick’s mother Maria, that is.’

‘Did you know Mick’s mother?’

‘Oh, sure, I was always round their place. She loved to have a house full of people, Maria. She was a stickler for tidiness, mind, and she’d complain no end about boots and mud and the smallest thing out of place but she loved it really.’ He was tucking into the dips with enthusiasm. ‘I spent more time round at Mick’s than with my own family. He was a lifesaver to me.’

‘Was he?’ Ella sat down at the table and cupped her chin in her hand. ‘Why?’

‘My da was an alcoholic – a nasty-tempered man when he was drunk, which was more often than not – and the mother could never stand up to him. It was miserable, altogether. It was like a breath of fresh air to go to Mick’s.’

‘Did you know his father?’ Ella asked cautiously.

‘I knew Father Francis quite well. I used to forget, to be honest with you, that he was Mick’s dad. Mick never mentioned him. I heard all the gossip but, like you do when you’re a kid, it goes over your head. I saw him round Mick’s house from time to time but no more than at our own or anyone else’s. He was a lovely man.’

‘What was he like?’ Ella asked, thinking of the frail little figure dying, raising himself up on the bed to give Franz one more word of encouragement before his breath ran out.

‘Oh, he was someone you don’t meet the like of very often,’ said Pat softly. ‘He was great when my grandda was dying – my mother’s father, that was. She was worn out exhausted looking after him all the time, and my da sitting there in the chair shouting at her to bring him this and bring him that and never lifting a finger to help her.

‘She was close to her old da and I thought the grieving would kill her if the work didn’t first. She couldn’t bear to let him go. Several times he nearly slipped away and she almost forced him back to life. Couldn’t stand to be left alone with my da, I suppose, and four kids to raise.

‘Father Francis called round one evening and he could see the state she was in, so after taking one look at her he sends her off to bed to get some rest and says he’ll stay a short while and sit with my grandda and he’ll call her to get up when he goes home. Well, she slept until morning and Father Francis never called her – he never moved from my granddad’s bedside all night.

‘Then off he goes to say morning Mass – late, I expect; he was never on time for anything in his life – and to do all his duties of the day, which was hard work, you know. And next night he’s back again and does the exact same thing. And the night after that as well.’

‘He sounds like some kind of hero.’

‘He was to me, I’m telling you. I’d been sitting up with the old fella a bit myself, to help out my ma; I was never that close to my grandda myself; he wasn’t an easy person to look after, resented getting old, I guess, and hated having to have things done for him. But with Father Francis, he was like a lamb. Trusted him, d’ye see.

‘So I got up in the night, one night Father Francis was there, and went in to see did he want tea or something to eat or just some company, and he says to me, “Pat, come and sit down here with me. Your grandfather’s near to passing and it’s a great privilege to be present at the moment of death.”

‘Well, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, I can tell you. No siree! I wanted to run out of there as fast as my legs would carry me, only there was something about Father Francis that made you do what he said.

‘So I sat down there next to him and he says to me, “Take his hand now, Pat, and tell him you love him because it’s the last time you’ll have the chance and it’ll last him for eternity.”

‘I tell you, I would sooner have lain down in the road in front of a ten-ton truck than say the words “I love you” to anybody, let alone my grouchy old grandda, but somehow I managed to say it to him and d’you know, he squeezed my hand to let me know he could hear me, though I wouldn’t have said he had the strength left in him.

‘And then Father Francis made the sign of the cross on my grandda’s forehead and he says to him, “You can go now, Padraig,” and would you believe it, my grandda smiles and lets out this great sigh and then he’s gone. That very minute.’

‘Were you glad you were there, afterwards?’ Ella asked.

‘I was. It was like Father Francis said, it felt like a privilege.’

‘He was an influence on you, then, Father Francis,’ Ella said thoughtfully.

‘Oh yes. He was a good man. I know he wasn’t at home for Mick and that, like a proper father, but then mine was around too much. Drunk at the school nativity play, drunk at my first communion, throwing up in the street and shouting at me and my friends on the way home from school. I envied Mick his da.’

‘Did he know you did?’

‘No, I don’t suppose I ever said as much. As I say, Mick never mentioned his father, so I never did.’

‘He might like to know that, even now,’ Ella said.

‘That I envied him his father?’ Pat thought for a moment. ‘I can see that he might like to hear that. It was a terrible situation for him. I don’t envy him any of that. People can be terrible cruel, you know.’

He was silent for a few minutes, crunching his way through a huge fistful of peanuts. Then he laughed. ‘I remember something else he did,’ he said.

‘Franz?’

‘Father Francis. He was in this city parish – it was the pits. That’s where I first knew him; we lived there for a while, till we managed to get moved out. Everyone that lived there spent their whole time trying to get moved out. A truly dire place, let me tell you.

‘Well, the first week Father Francis was there he catches some kids skateboarding in the church, up and down the aisle. The old parish priest, if he caught them he’d give them a clip round the ear and complain to the parents. I know because my younger brother was one of them. He’d come home crying and then my father would give him a worse beating, for showing him up in front of the priest. That’s how it was.

‘But Father Francis, he sits down with this bunch of kids and he asks them about themselves and what they do with their time and where they like to play, and my brother speaks out – he was always the one with the mouth – and tells him there’s nowhere to go that the older lads don’t hang out in gangs and beat up the younger ones, and it’s not safe to play anywhere.

‘So Father Francis takes them outside and unlocks the side gate. Now this was a big old church with what was once a fine house attached to it, and it’s crumbling at the edges now but still a listed building that architectural students come and take a look at, from the university.

‘And round the back is this courtyard, all paved, with a well in the corner that people used to say was a holy well but, you know how it is, people nowadays are more cynical so nobody took any notice of it any more and it was covered with a grid so that folk wouldn’t jump the gate and throw dead cats and such down it.

‘Father Francis takes the kids out to the yard and he says, “Is this any good, as a place to play?” Well, they were made up! Then he gets them to show him how good they are on the skateboards, and they start jumping and twisting and rolling down this little bit of a slope on one side of the yard, near the house, and he says, “I can see the sloping ground is what you need but that part’s too close to the window so I don’t want you to go there for now, but we’ll sort something out.”

‘And would you believe what he does but give my brother a key to the side gate – a key, and these kids out of the rundown housing estates that would rob anything that wasn’t nailed down and were never trusted with anything! They were over the moon, I can tell you – but that was nothing to what happened when they went back the next day!’

‘What happened?’ said Ella, fascinated.

‘They goes back and the yard is a perfect skateboard track, with piles of soil all stacked up at different heights and flattened down solid as a rock, and there’s a big bottle of pop and bars of chocolate and a note from Father Francis telling them “Have fun.” Can you imagine?’

‘What about the parish priest? Didn’t he stop them?’ Ella asked.

‘That was the mystery. They would see him looking out the window at them now and again but he never came out to stop them, never said a word about it.’

‘How do you think Father Francis swung that one?’

‘I’ve no idea. I reckon he threatened him with something. He could play dirty, when it was in a good cause,’ Pat said seriously.

‘Like what?’

‘Like, I don’t know – found his secret supplies of whiskey and threatened to pour them down the sink or something: he was as bad as my da, that particular one.’

Ella shook her head. ‘He sounds like a maverick, Father Francis. Why did they keep him on? I thought the Catholic Church was strict, the bishops and so on?’

‘Depends on the bishop,’ Pat said sagely. ‘I reckon if his first bishop had sacked him immediately for getting a woman pregnant it wouldn’t have surprised anyone. But once the decision was made to let him stay on, the church had to stand by it. And Maria’s view was that she and he had both made a mistake, being young, and she’d rather bring up the child on her own than deprive the church of a good priest in the making. She probably had a lot to do with him staying on.’

‘It would have saved them a lot of heartache if she’d quietly had a termination, wouldn’t it?’ Ella asked. ‘Wasn’t that a possibility in Ireland at the time?’

‘Not in Ireland, but plenty of girls took a sudden desire to go for a weekend in London,’ Pat said. ‘So it was possible, technically, but I doubt it was ever an option for either of Mick’s parents. Apart from believing a child’s life was sacred, Maria always said Mick was the best thing to happen to her, and I reckon Father Francis thought the same, privately.’

‘Really? What makes you say that?’

Pat scratched his head and thought. ‘Something about the way he was with Mick. When Mick was in the room, he was never obviously watching him or anything like that but it was as if he always knew where he was – always kept track of him, d’you know what I mean?’

‘Until he moved to London. His father lost track of him then,’ Ella said.

‘Maybe he didn’t,’ said Pat. ‘I mean, no, he mayn’t have known his address but I reckon Mick was never far from his heart. He’d have prayed for him every day, anyway.’

‘Wow. What must that be like, to have someone praying for you every day?’ Ella wondered.

Pat looked surprised. ‘Normal, I’d say. It’s what parents do, isn’t it?’

‘Not mine.’

‘Or grandparents,’ Pat suggested. ‘No granny in the background praying for you?’

‘Possibly. I have Orthodox Jewish grandparents. I only met my grandmother once but they knew about me. I wonder if they ever prayed for me?’

‘Bound to,’ said Pat staunchly. ‘And even if you slipped through the net you’d fall into the category that the ladies of the church pray for every Friday morning – the souls who have no one to pray for them.’

‘Do they do that?’ Ella took two steaks out of the fridge, regarded them dispassionately for a minute, then decided her stomach could probably face the challenge of cooking them if her mind didn’t dwell on the task. She turned her thoughts back to Franz and his parents. ‘So you don’t think Father Francis ever wished Maria had just got rid of the baby and never told him?’

‘I don’t think the idea would have occurred to him. And there was no air of resentment between him and Maria, not when I knew them. They were comfortable together but there never seemed to be anything between them, not like a couple; they were like brother and sister. I tell you one thing, though – any young lad in the parishes ever got a girl into trouble or was cut up about a girl dumping him, Father Francis was the one they’d go and talk to, because he knew what it was like, they reckoned.’

‘Was he respected, by some people, then?’

‘By most, I’d say. He made it clear that the church is for sinners and who better than him to tell people that and mean it? But there was a goodness about him that was genuine, and people noticed it – even bishops, even other priests, though they certainly didn’t all like him. He had the courage of his convictions and it showed up the ones who hadn’t, I suppose.’

Ella nodded, thinking about what Sister Briege had told her as well. ‘Do you think Franz was ashamed of him, or proud of him?’

Pat stopped munching for a moment and thought about it. ‘A bit of both,’ he said. ‘Both at once. That was what got to him. He loved the old fella and he was embarrassed sick and sore by him and by who he was, every day of his blessed life, the poor sod.’

Ella noticed that Pat’s loquacity dried up abruptly when Alison arrived. She was equally tongue-tied and sat as far away from Pat as was possible in the small living space, on the old sofa almost behind where Pat was sitting at the table.

Did I get this wrong? Ella wondered. She wished Franz would come home and help out with the conversation.

‘How’s Carl getting on?’ Ella asked Alison. ‘Did he get the new software he wanted?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Alison’s son Carl’s really into computer graphics,’ Ella told Pat. ‘He’s only eleven but he’s got a real feel for it.’

‘He must be clever, then,’ Pat said. ‘That kind of thing leaves me baffled altogether.’

‘He’s not doing that well at school,’ Alison said, ‘but the things he’s interested in, he keeps going at till he’s really good at them.’

‘What else is he interested in?’ Pat asked.

He turned his chair round to face Alison. Ella, hoping Alison would be drawn to talk on the subject of her son, got on with cooking the meal.

‘He likes football but it’s too expensive to take him to matches. He plays at school but they say his co-ordination isn’t very good.’

‘Can that be helped?’

‘I don’t know. They haven’t suggested anything. I got him a pogo-stick last birthday and he couldn’t get the hang of it for ages but he wouldn’t give up. His goal was to do a hundred jumps without falling off.’

‘Did he do it?’

‘Yes.’ She laughed. ‘He was out there on this little patch of ground by the dustbins till it got dark and he came in with blisters all over the palms of his hands, but he did it!’

‘He’ll go far,’ said Pat. ‘What else does he like?’

‘He got hooked on fishing, unfortunately, as we’re living in London and there’s nowhere to go to do it! We stayed with my brother in Cornwall last summer and he took us out on a fishing trip on the last day. Carl’s talked about it ever since.’

‘There are places you can go round here,’ Pat said. ‘I’ve been with a fella from work a couple of times. Can’t remember the name of the place but there’s this great lake with trees all around it. Good for roach and tench. Would you know where that would be, Ella?’

‘Not offhand, no. Which direction did you go out of London?’

‘South, I think. It didn’t take very long to get there. Would your boy like to come some time?’

Alison blushed. ‘I’m sure he would.’

‘You’re welcome to come along, of course,’ Pat said casually. ‘You won’t want your son going off with strangers.’

Oh, nice one, thought Ella wryly. As long as Alison does actually like him. She looks more embarrassed than anything.

‘Actually,’ Alison said, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go as well. I really enjoyed the sea fishing.’

Pat picked up his glass of wine and the bowl of nuts Ella had refilled and plonked himself down on the sofa next to Alison. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘I might be free next Saturday. I’ll check my diary.’

Playing hard to get, thought Ella with amusement, but Pat pulled his phone out of his pocket on the spot and checked the calendar, saying with genuine disappointment, ‘Oh, I can’t.’

‘Never mind,’ said Alison, too quickly. ‘Some other time.’

‘The Saturday after is all right,’ Pat said, ‘if that suits you. See, I help out at this club for disabled children and such, and they’re short of volunteers so I try to fit in around them. One week they had to cancel it and it’s a shame for that to happen.’

‘How did you get involved with that?’ Ella asked.

‘I fell off a scaffold – my first week in England, would you believe? – and sprained my ankle. It was slow to heal and I had to go for physio at this rundown sideshoot of a hospital and there was this young doctor there I got talking to – nice fellow – and he tells me there’s this project he has set up.

‘It’s for people who need long-term help, not just kids but people with disabilities, people getting over strokes and such like. They really benefit from the right kinds of exercise and contact with people in the same situation as themselves, so the helpers turn it into games and make it fun, like. The times the patients get allocated in the hospital gym aren’t enough, so this doctor and some colleagues got fundraising and they rent this hall and some basic equipment and get people to come along and help.

‘I liked the sound of it so I started going along. The people are great so it was good for me too because I didn’t know anyone in London when I first came. The facilities aren’t much but people enjoy themselves. Jake says he needs to do some more fundraising – the organizations are out there that would help but it’s knowing how to approach them and present a proper case, and he’s short of time as well.’

‘Franz might be able to give him advice on that, if he wanted,’ Ella said. ‘He had to raise loans and grants to start the Healing Place and he still goes and gives presentations to various groups to keep the interest going.’

‘That’d be great! But he’s a busy man himself. I didn’t realize till Alison told me that he actually ran that big place. It took me a while to put two and two together about who you were talking about, mind,’ he told Alison, ‘seeing as how he’d changed his name.’

‘How did you track him down?’ Ella asked.

‘I saw him in the street one night, coming out of the pub with a couple of folk, and my first thought was “That’s Father Francis!” because of the hair being gone silver, and then I realized of course it must be Mick. I knew he was in London somewhere but I’d lost touch with him, so I couldn’t believe my luck, seeing him like that.

‘I called after him but he didn’t turn round; I guess he wasn’t used to being called by his old name and I didn’t know he’d changed it.

‘Then I see him again, going into this big building right near where I was working, but too far away for me to shout after him. So I go and look at this place after work and see it’s some kind of public building and I think to myself, maybe that’s where he works. So I take the number down and phone up and get put through to this Franz Kane fellow!’

‘And he didn’t tell you who he was,’ Ella said.

‘He did not! He says, in this London accent, that if he ever comes across the guy he’ll get him to call me but he thinks it’s unlikely.’

Ella nodded. ‘That must have been shortly before he got the letter from Ireland saying Father Francis was dying.’

‘Maybe so,’ said Pat. ‘So I don’t give up, being a thick-skinned kind of a bloke who doesn’t know where he’s not wanted ….’ He shot a quick look at Alison here, who smiled. ‘And I go in and get up my courage to speak to this beautiful lady at the front desk, who I’m sure won’t give me the time of day, being so far above my station ….’

‘Now you know what’s meant by blarney,’ Ella told Alison, who laughed. She was looking more relaxed now, Ella noted.

‘But what would y’know – she talks to me,’ Pat continued, undeterred, ‘and tells me about this place and how it started and when I describe the man I’m looking for and she describes the boss, we realize he has to be one and the same person.’

‘And Pat mentioned that he was in the building trade and I said we had this problem with the ceiling that Franz was worried about,’ Alison said. ‘I wasn’t sure if I should have done that. Was Franz annoyed about it, Ella – did he say anything to you?’

‘No, he didn’t.’ Ella thought of last night, when he had had other things on his mind than cracks in the ceiling. ‘But I’m sure he wouldn’t be annoyed.’

‘I told him I’d plastered it for him,’ Pat told Alison, ‘and that he owes me a pint. Some bloke with a grudge against him had told him a pack of lies about the building being about to fall to the ground.’

‘Oh. That’s all right, then. It’s just, it was the first time I’d been put in charge and everything went wrong.’

Alison looked upset suddenly. Ella heard Franz’s key in the door and decided to leave Pat reassuring Alison that if somebody wanted to plant bombs in the building they’d be devious enough not to get found out by all the receptionists and security guards in London.

‘Okay?’ Ella asked, kissing Franz as he came into the hall. He looked tired.

‘Yes. Someone did get in through the air conditioning ducts, far enough in to plant heat devices anyway. The police have got some forensic evidence but that’s not much help because it must have been a child and they won’t know who was behind it. The chances of some child’s DNA being on a criminal records file are remote.’

‘I suppose there might be a chance. How did the rest of the day go?’

‘Normal, as far the circumstances allowed. There’s still a smell of smoke but all the treatment rooms are usable. My office is a bit black around the walls but nothing’s damaged or stolen, as far as I can tell.

‘I phoned around all the guides and some of them are reluctant to come back until we know who did it but the clients all turned up for their appointments. And I phoned all the seekers signed up for next week’s courses and confirmed that we’ll start as planned.’

‘That must have taken all day, in itself!’

‘Just about. Alison helped.’

‘I think,’ said Ella quietly, ‘she’s blaming herself for the fact that it happened while she was in charge.’

‘She’s not, is she? Thanks for letting me know; I’ll say something. I felt guilty having left her to face such a situation. Are they here?’

‘Yes. The food’s ready. I managed to cook the steaks.’

‘Brave woman! Did you have any problems taking the hire car back?’

‘No, it was fine.’

‘I owe you a day out,’ he said.

‘You owe me a holiday! I won’t let you forget, don’t worry!’

He laughed. ‘I’ll go and have a wash and then I’ll be in.’

When he came in, Pat jumped up and greeted him with a bearhug.

People don’t do that with Franz, Ella realized. She thought it was good for him. He and Pat were like chalk and cheese but the affection between them was evident.

Through the meal, Pat and Franz did most of the talking, throwing anecdotes back and forth. Twice during the evening, Ella noticed Franz go still, the way he did at times when something spoke to him. The first time was when Pat started talking about his memories of Father Francis and his respect for him. Alison, Ella could see, didn’t know that this man he was talking about was Franz’s father but it was clear he was someone both Pat and Franz knew, and she was happy to sit and listen.

The other time was when Pat mentioned Jake, the young doctor, and his plans for the Recovery Centre, as he was calling his ambitious project.

‘He wants to have everything in it,’ Pat said enthusiastically. ‘A big hydrotherapy pool and all kinds of heat treatment facilities.’

‘Do they offer massage, at the moment?’ Franz asked.

‘They had a lady go in and do that aroma massage and it helped a lot of the kids with cerebral palsy and such – helped them relax, you know,’ said Pat, ‘but she stopped coming.’

Franz looked at Ella.

‘I’d love to do that,’ she said. ‘And Franz, if you’re volunteering me, I have to admit that I’ve volunteered you as well! I told Pat you might be able to give this doctor, Jake, some advice on how to go about fundraising.’

Franz nodded. ‘We might be able to do more than that,’ he said.

At that point, he went still. His fork, which had been drawing patterns on the tabletop, remained poised in mid-air as he focused on some invisible image. Ella, used to his ways of pondering something important, hoped the others wouldn’t interrupt his train of thought.

Pat, for the first time that evening since his short spell of shyness when Alison arrived, was silent. He glanced at Franz once, then also went still, waiting for him.

He knows him, Ella thought, and was surprised to feel a wave of relief. Someone else understands him, someone who has known him since they were both in their teens.

She had felt it might be a burden, coming back here and being the only person to know Franz’s history. She also worried that, being with people who knew – or thought they knew – Franz Kane but had never known Michael Finnucane, Franz would revert, out of habit, to being Franz Kane, and Michael Finnucane would once again be left behind him in Ireland. She could see that with Pat around that couldn’t happen.

Finally, Franz moved. He said, as though there had been no break in the conversation, ‘There’d be ample space for a hydrotherapy pool in the basement.’

‘As well as the flotation tank?’ Alison said doubtfully.

‘I was thinking we might be able to adapt it.’

‘We’re taking a lot of bookings for flotation,’ she pointed out. ‘It’s getting more popular all the time.’

‘I know. But popularity isn’t the only thing,’ said Franz. ‘Pat, have you seen round The Healing Place?’

‘I guess you couldn’t call our mad dash last night seeing round it. Apart from that, I’ve only seen the entrance part and that big hall with the ceiling. It’s a fine building,’ said Pat reverently.

‘Why don’t you come by and I’ll show you round sometime?’

‘I’d like that. I could come tomorrow, after the club finishes?’

‘Fine. Or,’ said Franz slowly, ‘I could come to the club first and meet this Jake. What d’you think?’

‘Have you got an enhanced disclosure certificate from the police? They don’t let anybody in near children now without the full police check, even the parents. It costs money but you can’t afford to take risks with kids.’

‘That’s right. Yes, I’ve got the certificate. I can bring it along but have a word with him first in case he wants to do a double-check for himself.’

Ella was feeling tired again. She hoped she wasn’t going to have these bouts of suddenly running out of energy throughout the rest of her pregnancy. It might be after-effects from the travelling and all that had happened in Ireland, she consoled herself.

Alison gave her a quick smile, noticing. ‘I’m going to go now,’ she said. ‘It’s been a lovely evening. Thank you.’

The men protested at her leaving so early.

‘No, really,’ she said. ‘My neighbour will be ready to go by the time I get home. Not that Carl really needs a babysitter but I don’t like to leave him on his own so she comes round with her son.’

‘I’ll walk you home,’ Pat volunteered.

‘I’ve got my car. It’s parked a few streets away.’

‘I’ll walk you to your car, so. Do you want me to leave now too?’ he asked Ella. ‘Are you tired?’

His directness made her laugh. ‘I am a bit, but don’t go on my account. Stay and talk to Franz. You’ve got a lot to catch up on.’

‘I’ll get out the best brandy,’ Franz told him. ‘Well, the only brandy. Someone gave it to us and we haven’t tried it. It may be paintstripper.’

‘I’m willing to risk it if you are,’ Pat said. ‘You’re sure now, Ella? I don’t want to keep you from your bed.’

‘You won’t. I’ll go off and ignore you when I’ve had enough.’

‘You do that. I’ll walk Alison to her car and I’ll be back.’ He gave Franz a high-five before he left. ‘Finn and Quinn,’ he told Ella. ‘We were a great team, I’m telling you!’

It took Pat a long time to return from walking Alison to her car in the next street.

‘Told you,’ Ella reminded Franz smugly. ‘And he’s invited her to go fishing on Saturday week, with her son.’

‘They did seem to like each other,’ Franz conceded. ‘I wouldn’t have thought of those two together but I can see it would work.’

‘They’re not too similar. Like Pat and you.’

‘Or you and me?’ Franz suggested.

‘Are we that different?’ Ella yawned, kicking her shoes off and putting her feet up on Franz’s lap as they sat on the kitchen sofa.

He stroked her feet thoughtfully. ‘You’re not as emotionally retarded as me,’ he said.

She took it as a reference to her outburst last night about him not forgiving himself. ‘I’m not good at imagining why it’s so difficult for you to talk about yourself, because I don’t find it that hard. Or maybe women generally don’t find it so hard to own up to having emotions, because we haven’t been under the same pressure as men to conceal them.’

‘We think we have to stay strong to guard the tribe,’ said Franz, smiling. ‘If we start looking inside ourselves instead of outside, the enemy could raid the camp.’

‘So you end up shutting out the friendly tribes as well,’ Ella said. ‘The ones who come to help with the harvest.’

The doorbell rang.

‘Pat,’ said Franz, getting up.

‘Come to help with the harvest,’ Ella told him. ‘So talk to him, Franz.’

‘If I can get a word in edgeways,’ said Franz, opening the door.

Pat was in quieter mood when he returned and made it clear he had come back to listen rather than talk.

‘So,’ he said, settling himself at the table and sipping uncritically at the brandy Franz set in front of him, ‘tell me about yourself, Mick. That would have been a shock to you, losing your old man.’

‘I’d wondered, over the last year or so, if he was still alive,’ Franz said.

Pat twisted the brandy glass round and round, studying the glint of light in the dark liquid. ‘I never thought you’d stay away so long,’ he admitted. ‘I wasn’t surprised that you went: you always said you wouldn’t stay in Ireland. But I thought you’d have been back before now.’

‘I meant to come back,’ Franz said. ‘Just, whenever it came to the point, either there was some crisis at work or else I … I don’t know. I even got to the ferry once, about five years ago, and then turned back. I couldn’t bring myself to go.’

‘What stopped you?’ asked Pat. ‘I thought it wouldn’t have been so bad, coming back to visit once you’d made a life for yourself somewhere else. And sure, Rachel was gone abroad but the old man was there, and your friends that had stayed around home.’

Franz nodded but was silent.

‘Was it the old man?’ Pat asked. ‘You had a falling out with him?’

‘It was both of them,’ Franz said slowly. ‘My father and Rachel.’

‘Well, Rachel was always raising Cain about something,’ Pat conceded, ‘but then she had a lot to contend with, with her past and so on. It would never have been personal, Mick. She worshipped the ground you walked on.’

‘Oh, I know that,’ he said. There was sadness in his voice.

‘And the old man. He’d never have stayed mad at you for long, surely?’

‘It wasn’t them,’ Franz said. ‘It was what I did to them both.’

Ella held her breath. Pat went still. He sat back in the chair, crossed his legs and prepared to listen. Franz said nothing. Pat, keeping his eyes on Franz’s face, waited. Again, Ella was reminded how well this man knew him. He wasn’t going to ask. She found the tension unbearable. Just tell him! she wanted to scream at Franz. Tell me! Tell someone before it breaks you!

After a long pause, Pat said, ‘It’s not for me to say that you couldn’t have done anything that bad, because if it wasn’t bad in your view then it wouldn’t have kept you away so long. So it must have been bad for you.’

‘It was bad for them. It might not sound it to somebody who didn’t know all the circumstances of our lives,’ said Franz.

So that’s it, Ella thought. He’s not afraid we’ll judge him. He’s afraid we’ll brush it off, not see its significance – not be harsh enough on him?

Pat made a small sound of assent. ‘You let them down, was that it?’

He’s not going to let Franz off the hook, Ella realized with relief. He’s not going to sit here and watch him suffering; he’s going to make him get through it.

‘Are you tired, Ella?’ Franz asked. ‘Do you want to go to bed?’

‘If you want me to go so you can talk to Pat on your own, I will,’ Ella said.

He smiled. ‘Ella knows me too well,’ he told Pat. ‘She knows when I’m trying to get out of something.’

‘I guess we can both see you’ve got something to get off your chest,’ said Pat. ‘I’m not telling you how to do it, Mick, but if I were you – which, fair enough, I’m not – I’d spit it out and get it over with. Neither Ella nor I will think the worse of you, whatever it is you did. But if you don’t want to talk, then it’s nobody’s business but your own, is it?’

Franz grimaced. ‘How long have you got?’

Pat pushed his empty brandy glass towards him. ‘Give us another shot of that and I’m your man. Till the cows come home. Go for it, Micky Finn.’

 

 

CHAPTER 55

 

‘It was after my mother died,’ Franz began. ‘Maria’s death made everyone remember the past and rake up the whole history again. Rachel got the brunt of it. She’d lost the only mother she’d known and people kept talking as though Maria wasn’t her real mother so she didn’t need to grieve. Suddenly everyone was talking again about who her parents might be, and she started to doubt everything she’d ever been told.

‘My father assured her again he’d never slept with her mother, Yolande, or had anything to do with her. He promised her. Then when Rachel contacted her mother, Yolande swore to her the opposite. Rachel was in a bad way. One minute she believed my father; the next she believed her mother. I think she needed to believe her mother. Maria was gone and she was too young to be motherless.

‘It must have seemed a romantic ideal to have this unknown, long-lost mother living in some exotic location, willing to meet her and welcome her. Rachel saw it as her chance to escape from the gossip and hate campaign that had blown up against my father again.

‘Anyway, she made the decision to find out once and for all who her father was, by having a DNA test and asking Father Francis to do the same. He agreed to go along with it.’

Pat took a sharp breath. He sipped his drink but his eyes never left Franz’s face.

‘I was at home,’ Franz said, his voice deepening and becoming slower, ‘when Rachel got the result of the paternity test. She came in and handed me the paper with the result printed on it, and a handwritten note the doctor had added, saying that although such tests couldn’t be a hundred percent accurate, it was possible to say with certainty when a result was definitely negative. There was no possible match between Rachel’s DNA and Father Francis’.

‘Rachel had asked for it in writing, officially – I guess to use as ammunition against whichever parent turned out to be lying, but she never showed it to either of them. I thought she would send it to her mother but she gave it to me.’

‘Why to you?’ Ella asked.

‘I don’t know. I wondered that, at the time. She went to her room and closed the door and I could hear her crying. I looked at the letter and I guessed she wanted me to do something. I sat there reading it over and over, for a long time.

‘I should have phoned my father and talked it over with him. That was clear in my mind at the time. It was probably what Rachel assumed I would do. I was equally clear that I wasn’t going to. What I did was …’

His voice dried, and he poured himself another brandy and gulped it, without enjoyment.

‘What I did was work myself into a towering rage over all the gossip that had gone on and all the damage it had done, over the years. Then I took the letter and started knocking on doors. I went round to every home of every gossip and name-caller in the neighbourhood, mostly people who lived in my father’s parish.

‘I waved the letter under their noses, I shouted the results over their doorsteps, I did everything except ram it down their throats. I yelled and swore and said I hoped they were satisfied, now they knew all these rumours were groundless, that they’d jeopardized the happiness of a young girl and a dying mother and a good man. I left myself out of it, you notice. But it was all about me, really.’

‘Weren’t you defending them? Your father and mother and Rachel?’ Ella asked.

‘I convinced myself I was – well, told myself; I wasn’t really convinced. My mother had always kept a low profile; her response to gossip was to say nothing and wait till it passed. Anyway, she had died: she was beyond being affected by it.

‘My father had told me not to retaliate. He would hate what I was doing, and I knew that before I started. And how was it going to help Rachel? I was creating more of a stir, fuel for more gossip about her and now about her crazy brother.

‘I didn’t know what to do with the rage. I thought I’d dealt with it, or at least suppressed it, over the years, and suddenly it was there, all of it. It all came out.’

Franz went quiet for a moment. ‘There was something else. Something in me wanted everyone to know that I was his – I alone. I was the son, the only child. It was like saying, “He never loved Yolande. He never loved Rachel as only a father does. He loves me. Me!”

‘And Rachel knew that. She could see it, when I came home. Even before she heard from the entire neighbourhood what I’d done, she took one look at me and knew she’d been betrayed.

‘And I took one look at her face, when she came out of her room after hours of crying, and I knew I’d got it as wrong as I possibly could. I’d misunderstood why she had the paternity test. It wasn’t to prove to everyone that he wasn’t her dad and all the rumours were false. It was because she hoped he was.’

‘She wanted him to be her father?’ Ella asked.

‘Yes. Sure, she wanted her mother to be telling her the truth: that was part of it, but it was only part. After all, she hadn’t met her mother yet and she’d known my father all her life. She loved him and she wanted to be his.

‘She’d already lost my mother, who’d brought her up as though she was her own daughter, and now, with this test result being negative, she’d lost the only father she’d ever known: lost the hope she’d had, deep down, that she might really be his. All she had was this unknown mother, who’d lied to her in the only important question Rachel had ever asked her, and a biological father she was never likely to meet.

‘And now her brother had betrayed her, by making her loss of my father public knowledge, delivered personally to every single household or individual who least wished her well. And I’d publicized the fact that my father had agreed to a paternity test, which tarred him with guilt regardless of the result.’

Ella didn’t know what to say to him. The wound was so raw she couldn’t see how it could be healed.

‘Once I’d seen Rachel’s reaction I went straight out of the house again,’ Franz continued, ‘and went looking for my father, to tell him what I’d done. I didn’t want him to hear it from anyone else – and there were a number of people whose first priority would be to go and throw the news at him of his violent son.

‘I wanted to explain why I’d done it, say that I still loved him, that I hadn’t meant to hurt him or Rachel. But I was too late.’

‘He’d already heard?’

It was Ella who was asking the questions; Pat was silent and still, listening intently.

‘Yes.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing. That was the worst of it. I started to explain but I couldn’t go on. He listened: it wasn’t that he turned away or walked out. He stood there looking at me, with this incredible compassion. I couldn’t meet his eyes. I was the one who walked away. Ran.

‘Rachel was gone, within a couple of days. She rang her mother to say she was coming to live with her. Her mother paid for her ticket, which seemed a good sign that Rachel was wanted. As far as I knew, she was going there to live. For ever. Happy ever after. I suppose I wanted to believe the myth.’

‘Did she stop speaking to you?’

‘No. She was polite. It was terrible. She thanked me for everything I’d done for her – thanked me, can you believe it? I’d stopped being her brother. I was some stranger, no blood relation, who’d been kind enough to let her share my home and my mother, though I’d made it clear my father was mine alone.

‘She let me go and see her off at the airport. She promised to write to me, which she did, faithfully, telling me nothing at all that would upset me – as we found out when we met her in Ireland.

‘I left the next week. I wrote to my father from England, saying I had gone to make a new life there and he needn’t worry about me; I wouldn’t embarrass him ever again. I apologized for disappointing him. I was polite, as Rachel had been with me.

‘I omitted my address, and I never sent it on. I appointed a solicitor in England for the one in Ireland to keep in touch with, the one who would administer the terms of the trust when I was twenty-five.

‘Rachel had the address of my flat when I moved into it and she probably thought I’d sent it to my father at the same time. He could have asked her for it at any time but I knew he wouldn’t put her in that position. If he didn’t receive it from me, then he wouldn’t know where I lived. Ever.’

‘Did you go on writing to him without sending the address,’ Ella asked, ‘or did you not contact him after the first time?’

‘I wrote every week. And every week I told myself that this time I would post it. Then I’d think of the parish priest at the breakfast table, handing my father the letter with the English postmark, knowing it was from me, and I thought, just let it go now; let him off the hook. As time passes, they may forget or at least lose interest and treat him like any other priest; why go on putting him through this?’

‘So, he had that one letter and that was it, and only Rachel knew your address. Is that the reason you never moved from this flat, even when you could afford to?’ Ella asked.

‘Not consciously. It may have been. I was hardly there anyway, so it never seemed worth moving. Till recently, with you and the news of the baby.

‘When Rachel wrote and told me that after a month with her mother she’d come back to Ireland, she said it was only temporary, to give her time to finish her education, then she’d go back to her wonderful new life. She seemed happy living with Tina’s family in the meantime. I thought it was the best thing for her.

‘I thought about going over to see her in Ireland. She invited me. So did the O’Connells. She said she’d like to see me. But I thought she stood a better chance if I wasn’t around; let all the gossip die down. She was all right. And I didn’t want to run into my father, couldn’t face him or anyone who knew him – knew us. So I kept saying I was busy and couldn’t make time to go. I had the excuse of work, study, more demanding jobs, more courses of study – or more likely I worked and studied so that I’d have the excuse not to go.’

‘Isn’t that a bit hard on yourself, to say that, Franz?’

‘I don’t think so. I knew what was real in those days. I knew that despite all the problems we had as a family, what we had was precious and rare. And I blew it – sold out to the gossips.’

 

 

CHAPTER 56

 

When Pat broke his silence and began to talk, it was not about Franz’s confession but about Father Seb the Indian priest, Rachel’s ally who used to tell her, ‘We coffee-coloured people must stick together,’ and who let Franz visit his father at the presbytery.

Ella felt Pat was changing the subject, ducking the real issue. But as he talked she could see Franz start to relax, and she reminded herself again that this man had known Franz a long time.

From there, Pat went on to talk about Father Eamonn, who had ignored Franz and his mother Maria until the day he arrived on their doorstep and handed them a baby to take into their home, caring nothing about the effect this would have on them.

‘I know people who don’t have a good word to say about priests or anything to do with the church,’ Pat said, ‘and yet they’d probably accept that any human being or institution has some good quality, however thoroughly hidden or rarely used. But Father Eamonn – I never saw anything good in him whatsoever, and to my knowledge neither did anyone else. He had an iceberg for a heart, that man.’

Is Pat working up to something? Ella wondered. She had the impression that, far from being random memories, these comments were setting the context for something Pat wanted to say to Franz. She yawned suddenly, wishing she wasn’t so tired. Her eyelids kept drooping, although she wanted to stay awake.

‘Then there was Groper George,’ Pat continued, ‘who couldn’t keep his hands to himself, and Father Aidan who couldn’t keep off the booze, and Father O’Rourke who held the record for the longest and most boring sermons of all time, until the contest was held. You remember the Boring Sermon Contest, Mick?’

Franz smiled and told Ella, ‘Pat’s a born entrepreneur. He organized this contest, getting all the kids in the area to time the different sermons in each church, over a month, and give each priest marks out of ten on length, subject and content, and he took bets on the result.’

‘I made a fortune,’ said Pat. ‘See, I weighted the odds,’ he told Ella. ‘There was no point in leaving it to chance; there was a seriously cool watch I had my eye on in my ma’s catalogue and I hadn’t a hope in hell of ever affording it, unless I won and didn’t have to share the winnings with too many others.’

Ella laughed. ‘How do you rig a Boring Sermon Contest?’

‘You study the form,’ said Pat solemnly. ‘Now Father O’Rourke was the undisputed favourite: the man could bore bats out of belfries. But I’d noticed one thing about Father Sean – he was the parish priest where Mick was living and half the time I was over Mick’s place on a Sunday and went to Mass with him and Maria and Rachel, so I got to know this fellow’s style.

‘He was the nervous type and very meticulous. His sermons were always thoroughly prepared and written down and he’d stand up there and read them out like an essay, word for word. If he ever got interrupted by a child crying or an old person coughing, he’d stop and lose the thread of what he was saying and then when he started again he’d go back a paragraph, in case anyone missed any vital connection.’

Franz smiled, despite himself.

‘So, the contest was up and running,’ Pat continued, ‘and all the votes and the bets were coming in nicely. The rules were that the entrants had to write down the name of the priest, the date when he preached the longest and dullest sermon, the time it took and the subject he spoke about, and that had to be verified by another voter who’d been there at the same service.

‘Well, the closing date was the last Sunday of the month and Father O’Rourke was way ahead in the lead. Nearly every child in the neighbourhood was voting for him. Some were even going to his church when it wasn’t their own, to make sure of getting a share of the winnings when Father O’Rourke hit the finishing line.’

‘This was a huge operation Pat was running,’ Franz told Ella. ‘Mass attendances were way up, the month of the contest. Children who’d made every excuse not to go to Mass were begging their parents to take them, and most of them wanted to go to Father O’Rourke’s. The man thought there was a religious revival coming.’

‘Now, Mick was known as a wealthy lad compared to the rest of us,’ Pat said, also addressing himself to Ella, who sat upright and tried to follow the details of this account, feeling that Pat had some reason for introducing it. ‘He did paper rounds seven days a week so he had serious money coming in, while most of the other kids were dependent on handouts when the mother slipped them a few coins. So the kids were trying to find out which priest he was betting on, but Mick wouldn’t tell.’

‘Because Mick didn’t know till the last minute,’ Franz said, laughing. ‘Because the bookie here had promised him a hot tip and then wasn’t forthcoming.’

‘I hadn’t quite worked out my strategy,’ said Pat. ‘I had to be sure it would work, because Mick was a working man, though he gave nearly all of his earnings to Maria …’

Here Franz shot Pat a suspicious look, then a quick glance at Ella, but if Pat had some agenda he didn’t acknowledge it but continued unconcerned, ‘So I didn’t want to waste his hard-earned dosh. Also, unbeknown to him, little Rachel had emptied out her piggy-bank and brought the whole lot to me to put on Father O’Rourke …’

‘You never told me that!’ said Franz accusingly.

‘Will you wait?’ Pat demanded. ‘She brought me the money – and I told her I wasn’t going to place her bet until I got the consent of her big brother, being as how it was Mick who gave her the pocket money each week.’

Again, Franz gave Pat that quick glance and Pat took no notice of it.

He’s reminding Franz of the good things he did for the family, Ella thought. He’s not trying to convince him that he didn’t let Rachel and his father down; he’s just setting that one incident in context, the context of a whole lifetime of caring about them.

‘Of course I wasn’t waiting for Mick’s consent at all,’ Pat said unrepentantly, ‘knowing full well he was so protective of his kid sister he’d never let her risk her piggy bank money even on a dead cert like Father O’Rourke. And if I let her put her money on Father O’Rourke and she lost it, Mick would have my guts for garters. You have to appreciate the delicacy of my position there,’ he appealed to Franz.

‘The man is a natural con artist,’ Franz told Ella.

‘Natural genius,’ Pat corrected. ‘See, I’d done my research. Now, I was never the keenest of altar servers and nobody wanted to do the early service but although it wasn’t my church, I volunteered for Father Sean’s eight o’clock Mass,’ Pat said. ‘I was there bright and early every Sunday of the month that the contest ran. And by the final Sunday – the deadline for entries – I had my plan. I slipped the word to Mick to put everything he had on Father Sean, and I threw away Rachel’s entry form, which I hadn’t registered, and wrote out another one in her name, to read Father Sean instead of Father O’Rourke.’

‘You didn’t!’ said Franz.

‘See, there’s things about me you’re only just finding out, Micky Finn,’ Pat triumphed.

‘I knew you doctored the sermon,’ said Franz, ‘though you never admitted to it.’

‘Doctored is a bit strong,’ Pat said. ‘I merely collected it from the pages of the big missal where he put it the previous week. He’d write it a week in advance and then while he was preparing for weekday Masses he’d read it through and add or subtract a few lines. The pages were pasted up with these added or cut up bits.

‘All his old sermons were filed in a box in the sacristy, so all I did was extract a few paragraphs here and there from them and keep them by me. Then early Sunday morning I pasted them into that day’s sermon and put it back in the missal ready for him. By the Sunday itself he’d always finished tinkering with the sermon; he would run it through the photocopier without a second glance and take it up on the altar with him.’

‘And he didn’t notice?’ asked Ella.

‘Not till the last minute, when he was up there reading it out to the congregation. It threw him a bit; I was sitting up there beside the altar and I saw him keep turning the pages back and forward but he was never one to improvise, you see, so he read what was written there. He stumbled over it a few times and that slowed him down a bit.’

‘And it was enough to make him beat Father O’Rourke?’

‘Not in itself. There was the fact that I’d also dusted the church before everyone came in.’

‘Dusted?’ said Ella.

‘It was a routine I’d developed throughout that month – checking the pews for dust and chewing gum that the cleaning team might have missed. Father Sean was very impressed with my diligence. But this time, I dusted the pews with sneezing powder.’

Franz started to laugh.

‘There was an unusual number of people with sneezing fits in the congregation that week,’ Pat remembered. ‘And every time someone sneezed, Father Sean repeated the last paragraph of his written sermon in case the congregation had missed it due to the interruption.

‘From where I was sitting in my altar server’s seat, I could see Mick and Rachel and the few other children checking their watches – though most of the kids were headed over to Father O’Rourke’s for the ten o’clock.

‘When Father Sean was nearing Father O’Rourke’s current record, even he got bored with the sermon and said he thought he might skip the next few points, but then I got this unfortunate coughing fit. So he repeated the last point he’d made and was about to round off his sermon again, when didn’t Mick get the same coughing fit I’d had, and he had to go back and go over the last few paragraphs again. Boy, were we rich!’ Pat exulted.

‘You got your watch?’ Ella asked.

‘And a radio and a new pair of trainers,’ Pat said. ‘And Franz pooled his winnings with Rachel’s and bought her a swing,’ he added smoothly.

‘It was for me as well,’ said Franz quickly.

‘And painted it pink,’ Pat continued, still addressing himself to Ella, ‘and spent hours pushing her on it, and all her hordes of little friends who came round to go on it as well. Oh, that was a good win; we made a killing, I’m telling you.’

And you’re telling him he was a good brother to Rachel and a good son to his mother, Ella thought. Which just leaves one. The main man. The father whose paternity test he publicized to a whole parish and beyond. Get him out of the guilt of that one, Pat, if you can.

Drifting in and out of sleep, curled up on the kitchen sofa, she listened to the different cadences of the two men’s voices, Franz occasionally mingling an Irish phrase or intonation with his now London accent.

Pat didn’t seem to be trying now to convince Franz of anything. He didn’t mention Father Francis or Ireland but talked about his life since coming to London and asked Franz a lot of questions about his work at The Healing Place and his and Ella’s plans for their future life.

At one point she became aware of Franz lifting the quilted throw from the back of the sofa and tucking it round her and she smiled at him, half-waking, only to fall more deeply asleep again.

She was woken later by the sound of Pat’s voice raised in song. He sang well, she thought drowsily, with no self-consciousness. It was only when Franz joined in, a smoother voice blending well with Pat’s gravelly one, that she realized she had never before heard him sing.

Ella had no recollection of getting up and going to bed, yet in the morning she woke up in their own room, fully clothed but under the covers, with the whole bed to herself. Getting up and going into the kitchen, she found the two men sitting side by side on the sofa, Franz with his head down on his chest and Pat with his head thrown back, both fast asleep.

She left them there and went to have a shower then came back and made increasing levels of noise, putting the kettle on and washing the glasses from last night, to wake them. Groans behind her confirmed that the strategy was working. She made toast while Pat went for a wash and then Franz had a shower. Both looked slightly less bleary-eyed but were disinclined for conversation at the breakfast table.

Ella made herself ginger tea to remedy her morning nausea and offered some to Pat, who shuddered and said he’d settle for ‘the real stuff.’

Franz went out to buy the newspaper and Pat continued eating toast mechanically, fuelling himself for the day’s work ahead.

‘You can have eggs if you like,’ Ella offered.

‘This is fine, thanks. The lads usually take a break around eleven and go for a fry-up in the café.’ He leaned back and stretched. ‘That was a good night! You won’t ask me for supper again in a hurry, Ella, if I’m still here for breakfast, will you?’

She laughed. ‘You’re welcome. It’s nice to get to know you, and you got Franz to open up last night and talk about what’s been weighing on him all this time.’

Pat exhaled loudly. ‘Poor bastard,’ he said.

‘Do you think he’ll ever forgive himself?’ Ella asked. ‘About Father Francis?’

Pat was silent for a few moments, considering. Then he said, ‘I don’t think you or I or anybody else will get him to do that. There’s only one man who’d persuade him that it wasn’t the ruin and the end of their relationship.’

‘Who’s that?’

‘Father Francis.’

Ella grimaced. ‘And it’s too late because he’s dead.’

‘I wouldn’t underestimate the man,’ Pat said. ‘Father Francis wouldn’t let a little thing like death stand in his way, if there was something he could do for his son. I don’t think Mick, even now, has any idea of how the man loved him.’

They left together for work, Pat and Franz, both being early starters. Ella, still officially on holiday, went back to bed for an hour, feeling slightly nauseous despite the ginger. She woke feeling fine and phoned Maz to say she was back and to offer to go in to work if necessary.

Maz was delighted to take her up on it. Her niece hadn’t turned up this morning and she really needed to be out all day to catch up on an overdue delivery run. She asked about Ella and Franz’s holiday in Ireland and the reason for their early return but was happy with a concise answer, that it had been good but circumstances had cut short the time.

‘Oh yes, the bomb scare,’ Maz said, assuming the explanation. ‘Are things all right now at The Healing Place?’

‘As far as we know, but Franz had to go in yesterday to check everything over.’

‘Of course. Well, I’m sorry it had to happen but it’s good timing for me, Ella, that you came back when you did. Are you sure you don’t mind coming into work? Thanks, then; I owe you one.’

At work, Ella found herself thinking about the prospect of helping out with the disabled children’s project that this doctor, Jake, had set up and Pat was helping with, and felt excited about it in a way she had never managed to feel about running the health shop with Maz. If Franz got involved with raising funds or providing facilities for the project, it would be a new venture for them both. And when the baby was born, she could bring it along.

Lost in daydreams, she hadn’t noticed the customer standing the other side of the counter, a heavily built middle-aged man in a duffle coat and a deerstalker hat with the flaps pulled down over his ears.

‘Can I help you?’ she asked, smiling at him.

‘I’ve got delicate skin,’ he said belligerantly. ‘My wife’s sent me in for some of that Hello Vera cream.’

 

 

CHAPTER 57

 

On Saturday after work, Ella went along with Franz to meet Pat at the club. Once there she left them with Jake, the young doctor in charge, and wandered off to talk to some of the parents and carers of the disabled children and to some of the adults who came there regularly, all of whom talked in glowing terms about the difference the facility had made to their lives, and about Doctor Jake and his volunteers.

Across the room, she noticed that Jake had not stopped talking since meeting Franz, waving his arms and using his hands to express his ideas as he spoke. He was clearly a man of enthusiasm, committed to his work. Franz was saying little, listening intently. Ella thought that was a good sign. She wasn’t sure what, if anything, would come out of this meeting but she felt glad it was happening.

She wasn’t surprised to find that Franz had invited Jake, as well as Pat, to come back after the club and see round The Healing Place. She went with them, curious to see the two men’s reactions.

They were both sincerely impressed.

‘What a fantastic building!’ Pat kept saying. ‘Solidly built and designed like a dream.’

Professional interest made him examine every pillar, test the door-opening mechanisms and ask questions about materials used in the construction and fittings.

Jake was more interested in what went on at The Healing Place, which therapies had proved valuable in certain cases of injury or physical impairment, and whether The Healing Place attracted many clients with disabilities. He raised his eyebrows slightly at some of the items on the list of workshops and courses Franz showed him but made no comment.

Both men were impressed by the size of the place, the number of treatment rooms upstairs and the flexibility of the internal space with its multiple options of movable partition walls.

Jake spent some time in the basement, where Franz talked of the possibility of adapting the existing flotation pool into a hydrotherapy pool and using the solar rooms for light and colour therapy as well as utilizing the heat. Jake was the one to go quiet then, envisaging it all as Franz spoke, and his eyes shone. Ella felt he was struggling with emotion, wondering if this was a pipedream or a real possibility.

Ella had no such doubt. She had seen that look on Franz’s face before and he would never have volunteered so much information, she knew, if he didn’t have the intention of converting the vision into reality.

They went back upstairs to Franz’s office, where he showed them the framed plans of the building on the office wall, showing measurements of the floor space and the layout of the individual rooms.

‘It’s a fantastic building, right enough,’ said Pat again. ‘Jeez, you could really do something with it, Mick!’

Ella, catching the bemused expression on Franz’s face, laughed. ‘Pat,’ she said, ‘he has really done something with it!’

‘Oh, of course! I didn’t mean that you hadn’t already,’ said Pat quickly.

‘I know what you mean,’ said Franz. ‘Tact was never his strong point,’ he said to Ella, as an aside.

‘Always one for putting my foot in it,’ Pat agreed. ‘But think of the great potential for this place, Mick!’

Franz nodded. ‘I’m listening,’ he said.

They adjourned to the pub and Ella left them, calling in to see Maz on her way home. Maz asked more this time about the trip to Ireland but Ella didn’t want to talk about Franz’s father. She confined her account to the beauties of Glendalough and the waterfall near Enniskerry and Maz was satisfied with that and was keen to talk about the successful result of her hypnotherapy exam.

She wanted to try out her hypnosis techniques on Ella there and then, but Ella deferred it. Since expecting the baby, she found she was less open to experimenting with things she would have been willing to try before. She had been thinking about giving birth to the baby at home, if Franz had meant it when he had talked about looking for a bigger flat for them and she wanted time to think about the options.

On the way home, she saw Sharma and Phil sitting in Phil’s car opposite a tall apartment building. She leaned down and knocked on the car window.

‘Hi. How are you?’

‘Fine.’

Sharma looked terrible, not fine at all, she thought.

‘Are you on your way somewhere?’ she asked.

‘No,’ Phil said. ‘We’re just watching. Sharma feels certain the boys are somewhere not far from here.’

‘How are things going at home?’ Ella asked. ‘Are Sarita and the children settling down?’

‘We’re still at Phil and Jan’s,’ Sharma said. ‘I should be looking for accommodation. I gave up the room I was living in before and we need to find a flat to rent.’

‘There’s no hurry,’ Phil said. ‘I’ve told you, Sharma. We’re very happy to have you.’

‘But we are putting pressure on you, keeping your son out of his own room,’ Sharma said, worried. ‘I must go and look for a place.’

‘I thought you had lots of spare rooms?’ Ella asked Phil.

He grimaced. ‘They’re not exactly habitable at the moment. Especially not for kids who’ve come back from a warm climate to an English February. The boiler’s broken so we’ve just got heaters in the few rooms we’re using.’

‘What’s happening with your house, eventually? You said the Church hadn’t decided whether to improve it or sell it off.’

‘Jan and I have submitted an application to turn it into a hostel of some kind,’ Phil said, ‘with living accommodation for us included. We thought about taking single homeless people but the children are still young and Jan was wary of the risks.

‘So we’re thinking more along the lines of families or possibly students. The hospitals and university colleges are always looking for accommodation for them. In the meantime, Sharma and family are very welcome to stay with us. For as long as you want,’ he told Sharma. ‘You’ve got enough on your mind at present without going flat-hunting, and our children seem to have adopted yours as new relatives!’

‘There’s movement at that downstairs window,’ said Sharma suddenly, quietly.

‘The basement?’

‘Yes.’

‘I didn’t see anything,’ Phil said.

‘Not physical movement. An impulse of fear. I’m sure they’re in there,’ Sharma said.

‘Can the police go in?’ Ella asked.

‘Only if there’s some concrete information or evidence,’ said Phil.

‘And I fear very much,’ said Sharma, ‘that if the occupants are alarmed their first reaction may be to dispose of the living evidence.’

Ella shuddered. ‘Those poor parents,’ she said. ‘I saw them on television earlier, appealing for the kidnappers to come forward.’

‘They won’t do that,’ said Sharma softly. He looked haggard, all colour drained from his face. He has aged, Ella thought, in the days since this began. She hoped it would soon be over, one way or the other, for the sake of Sharma’s family as well as for the boys’ parents. And for Phil. He looked tired as well, though patient, prepared to wait for as long as necessary.

Ella touched him on the shoulder, waved at Sharma, and walked on. Passing the flats, an old four-storey Victorian conversion, she glanced down at the basement window, which was shuttered and showed no chink of light, but saw and heard nothing.

 

 

CHAPTER 58

 

Alison rang Ella on Sunday afternoon. ‘I’m just calling to thank you for the other evening.’

‘It was lovely to see you,’ Ella said.

There was a pause.

‘So, how are things?’ Ella asked.

‘I was wondering,’ said Alison hesitantly, ‘if you knew what I should wear to go to Mass.’

‘To go where?’

‘Well, Pat rang and asked me out for a drink this evening.’

Did he, now? thought Ella. So next Saturday week’s fishing trip seemed too long to wait. Excellent!

‘But he said he was going to evening Mass first and he’d pick me up afterwards,’ Alison explained, ‘and then he said that was unless I’d like to go with him. I’ve never been to anything like that before so I said yes, but now I’m thinking I won’t know what to do there and I don’t know what people wear.’

‘I’ll ask Franz. Hold on; he’s talking to Rachel on his mobile.’

A whispered conversation ensued.

Ella returned. ‘He says people don’t dress up, unless they’re the priest, and all you have to do is stand up and sit down when everyone else does, which is about as often as in an aerobics class. You can stay in your seat and wait while people go up to communion, and he hopes you enjoy it.’

‘Okay.’ Alison didn’t sound very reassured. ‘I didn’t realize Pat was religious,’ she confided. ‘I’ve never gone out with someone who believed in God.’

‘Do you like him, that’s the point?’ Ella asked.

‘Oh, yes! I thought he’d be more … well, you know. I haven’t gone on dates more than a handful of times since Carl was born and I was afraid he’d … you know, force the pace.’

‘And has he?’

‘No, he’s kind of gentlemanly. It seems strange when he’s so …’

‘Exuberant?’

‘That’s it.’ Alison laughed suddenly. ‘Like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh. But he’s got this oldfashioned kind of gentleness, as well.’

‘Has Carl met him?’

‘No. I wanted to get Carl used to the idea of his mum seeing someone first, so I told him last night.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He said, “I’m glad you’ve finally got round to it, Mum, because I’m not going to have so much time for you when I start high school”!’

‘No worries there, then!’ said Ella, laughing.

‘Thanks, anyway,’ Alison said. ‘I’ll let you know how I get on, shall I?’

‘Absolutely,’ said Ella. ‘What’s the point in matchmaking if you don’t get to hear how it went? Have a nice time this evening.’ She put the phone down as Franz ended his call too and said, ‘How’s Rachel?’

‘She’s doing well. She’s found a course starting in April and is going to sign up on Tuesday. She’s enjoying being with Tina and Martin and she’s going to look at a room in a shared house with two other girls this afternoon.’ His voice sounded a bit flat.

‘She needs to get her future sorted,’ Ella said, ‘then when she comes to visit us she’ll have something to tell.’

‘Yes. We need to get our future sorted as well,’ he said unexpectedly. ‘I’d thought we might go and talk to some estate agents this afternoon but it’s sleeting outside now.’

‘We could look on the internet.’ She fetched the laptop from the kitchen worktop.

‘Start local,’ Franz suggested. ‘Do you know the names of any of the local estate agents?’

‘Of course I do. I walk past three agencies every day. So do you!’

‘I’ve never noticed,’ he confessed. ‘There’s no point if you’re not planning to move, is there?’

‘There certainly is,’ Ella told him. ‘I’ve fantasized about living in just about every kind of place – mews flat, penthouse apartment, mansion block, artist’s studio, you name it! What are we looking for, Franz – a two-bedroom flat or a bigger one-bed one?’

‘A garden flat or a house with a garden,’ he said.

‘We can’t afford that, can we?’

‘I’ve decided I’m due to give myself a pay rise,’ Franz said. ‘And the baby will need some outside space to run around.’

‘Not for a while!’

‘Nothing huge,’ Franz allowed. ‘But we’ll want space for a washing line, won’t we, with all the baby gear? And a swing, maybe.’

‘A swing? It isn’t born yet!’

‘I’m thinking ahead,’ he said seriously. ‘And it’ll be better for the child if we’re married before it’s born, won’t it? Unless you’d rather wait?’

Ella hugged him. ‘Are you getting used to the idea now – of having a baby?’

‘I’m looking forward to it,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t realized I had this idea at the back of my mind that I’d be a disaster as a father, until my father said that to me: “You’ll make a good father.” I keep thinking of things he said, over the years.’

‘Good things?’

‘Mm. And I’m going to work less. There’s no point being a family if you have no time. I’m not leaving you two to have all the fun without me!’

‘I’ll believe in you working less when it happens,’ Ella said. ‘I can see you getting just as involved in Jake’s fundraising as you are in The Healing Place.’

‘No. I’ve lent Jake and Pat the Powerpoints and other presentations we developed for raising support for the Healing Place, to give them ideas, and I’ve given them some useful contacts, and copies of the notes I use for talks. Pat can do a lot of it.’

‘Pat?’

‘Why not? He’s got the gift of the gab. People would listen to him.’

‘Has he done anything like that before?’

‘No. He’s petrified!’

‘Are you going to go along and help him, at least at first?’

‘He doesn’t need me holding his hand. He can ask Alison.’

‘It seems a bit hard to dump him in it like that, Franz.’

‘Do him good to have a challenge,’ said Franz unrepentantly. ‘It’ll make him use his talents instead of being shouted at by the site foreman and subcontractors all day. Anyway, Sharma’s dumped me in his stuff: I’m taking the first of his classes tomorrow night.’

‘You?’

‘I couldn’t find anyone else at short notice and he’s emailed me his notes and instructions. The trouble is, he doesn’t use notes much. He knows what he’s talking about and I don’t.’

‘Can’t you just postpone it till he gets back?’

‘It’ll be all right. He’s given me a couple of topics for visualizations. I can sit there and talk them through it and wait while they focus their imaginations, or whatever.’

‘Will it work, if it’s conducted by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing?’ Ella doubted.

‘How do I know?’ said Franz. ‘I’m not psychic!’ He paused, then said, ‘I sacked three people yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve had to do that.’

‘Who? The security guard?’

‘No, no. He was only employed to check that Leroy or others didn’t force their way past the receptionist and into my office; the poor bloke could hardly have foreseen someone shoving a child through the aircon vents from outside the building.

‘No, Hal and Stu, the Aura Cleansing guides, and Mel the Transcendental Meditation guide. For keeping people in the building when the fire service told them to clear it.’

‘They believed they were helping,’ Ella suggested, ‘by releasing safe vibes.’

‘I don’t care what they believed,’ said Franz. ‘They put people’s lives at risk.’

‘You’ve changed, since Ireland,’ Ella said. ‘You’re being yourself more, not trying to think what you should think but relying on your own gut instincts.’

He looked concerned. ‘I don’t want to become intolerant of other people’s views.’

‘Some views are intolerable,’ said Ella forthrightly. ‘Telling people to stay and think beautiful thoughts in a building that might be blown sky high is one of them.’

‘Quite. And I have been having doubts about some of this “each to their own spiritual path” concept,’ Franz admitted. ‘If people are pursuing a path that’s feel-good but illusory, we’re actually enabling them to move further away from spiritual health and lose touch with reality.’

‘Some are going to do that, with or without you,’ Ella reasoned. ‘I’d say the issue is more with you – what does it do to you, to offer people things you don’t believe will do them any good?’

‘I didn’t know what I believed would do people good,’ Franz said. ‘I didn’t know what I believed, full-stop.’

‘But you did know what you considered to be bordering on the realms of wackyville,’ Ella challenged him.

‘Okay. But a lot of therapies were considered stupid in the early days – in fact, anything that wasn’t on the National Health and administered by people with medical degrees. If everyone waited for guarantees, no one would ever try any alternatives, even to things that clearly weren’t working for their needs.’

‘So what did you actually believe, if you’re honest with yourself, when The Healing Place started?’

He bit his lip and considered. ‘With hindsight, the beliefs I grew up with were so entangled with my own history, with people who abused the God of love they preached, that I didn’t want anything to do with anyone claiming a monopoly on the truth.

‘I suppose I believed it had to be a good idea to help people calm down and be less anxious and learn to still their thoughts. But then it seemed that people got stuck there – their lives revolved around their serene state of mind and health. Some of our long-term regulars seemed to stop thinking altogether and become detached from the everyday details of life.’

‘But that’s what worried me about you, in a different way, Franz,’ Ella said. ‘You seemed to refuse to think about what you agreed with and what you didn’t, in an attempt to give everyone’s opinions equal value. That’s not the same as respecting people’s beliefs. How can it be, unless you respect your own and really know what they are?’

He nodded, accepting the criticism. ‘I had lost respect for my own beliefs, I guess.’

‘So now, what do you believe?’ Ella asked him.

‘Now, I’m thinking – wouldn’t all those people really searching long-term for spiritual health get closer to it by doing something like Pat does at the children’s club, interact with other human beings and concern themselves more with other people’s wellbeing rather than their own?’

‘You need both, don’t you?’ Ella said. ‘You can get hyperactive do-gooders as well, so driven by other people’s needs that they never take time to reflect or get to know themselves.’

‘I guess so. It’s getting the balance, isn’t it?’ Franz said. ‘How do you get that balance?’ He looked over her shoulder at the computer screen. ‘How about that one? Garden flat, large sitting room.’

‘No. It’s in that street Sharma’s watching, though I don’t think it’s that actual house.’

‘I didn’t know he’d tracked it down to one particular house,’ Franz said. ‘Is he sure about that?’

‘He seems fairly certain. He’s spent enough time out there.’

‘Does he think the boys are still alive?’

‘Yes.’ Ella went silent.

Franz voiced the thought for her. ‘But God only knows what state they’re in by now.’

Ella closed the website, stood up and leaned against him. ‘What must their parents be going through? Think, if something like that ever happened to ours ….’

He wasn’t sure, afterwards, how that remark had led to their making love on the lumpy kitchen sofa; he only knew that he woke up and found it had grown dark outside and Ella was propped up on one elbow, looking into his face.

‘What?’ he said.

‘I was just thinking, about our different backgrounds and beliefs and so on.’

He yawned. ‘Uh-huh?’

‘This Christian thing. As I see it, isn’t it about God being the Father of everyone, but everyone walked off and did their own thing, so he came here in person, as the real son – a flesh and blood human who embodied all the consequences of people’s destructiveness but rose above them. Something like that, isn’t it?’

‘Mm.’ Franz sat up, disentangling his legs from hers and stretching. ‘Want a cup of tea?’

‘If you like.’ Ella wasn’t easily sidetracked when pursuing an idea. ‘So, Franz …. was it that you stopped believing it was true? Did something disprove it for you, made you think, “Oh, that’s all a load of rubbish?” Or did you just want to stop thinking about it because … I don’t know … it got in the way of what you wanted to do?’

He was already filling the kettle and didn’t look at her as she spoke but he moved slowly, taking down the mugs from the shelf, and she knew he wasn’t blocking the question, as he had tended to do with personal questions all the time she had known him.

She waited while he stood with one hand on the kettle, frowning slightly, turning one of the mugs round and round with his free hand, as though trying to stay firmly in touch with material reality.

Finally, when she was about to rephrase the question, he said suddenly, ‘It got too painful.’

‘Oh? What ….?’

‘The Father/Son bit,’ Franz said. ‘I could accept anyone going on about the Jesus-concept or the Universal Source of Life, or whatever else they called their image of God, as long as it was impersonal. An arm’s length relationship with God. A safe distance – whether it was someone distancing themselves from God because of disdain, cynicism, whatever – saying it was all childish and superstitious. Or distance from God because they thought he, she or it was too mighty and far above humanity to get messed up with our little lives. Any belief was fine by me, except that father-and-son kind of intimacy.’

Ella tucked her legs under her on the sofa and watched his profile. ‘What made it so painful, then?’

He shrugged. ‘You’d need to have grown up with that teaching to see it, maybe. Those catechism classes and sermons about the final scenes in the life of Jesus. The time he spent agonizing on his own, knowing how much venom people had against him – and against the God he called Dad. Feeling it all build up against him, knowing it was going to erupt in some terrible violence.

‘Having to accept he couldn’t – or wasn’t going to – walk away from it; he was going to take it on, let it all catch up with him. The only way out would be through it. Knowing his father was going to let him do that; he wasn’t going to rescue him from the suffering.’

‘Okay. No, you’re right, you probably do have to be brought up with that, for it to have that personal effect,’ Ella allowed. ‘It’s outside my experience – except in human terms. Was there a human element in it? I mean, was it in some way about you and Father Francis?’

‘Oh, for sure,’ said Franz. ‘A lot of the guys I grew up with weren’t affected by it at all; it was only ever a story in an ancient old book. But that last cry of a dying man, crucified for being who he was, got me. You know the words?’

‘I walked out before the end of the movie,’ Ella confessed. ‘It got too gory for me. What were they?’

‘He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In my translation, that was, “Dad, you walked out on me.” Totally human. It freaked me out. I didn’t want anything to do with him, or his dad. Who would?’

‘Did you think your dad walked off and left you to it, then?’ Ella asked. ‘Let you take all the gossip and didn’t lift a finger to help you?’

‘Not my dad,’ said Franz. ‘He was the Jesus figure, in my book. In my eyes, he could do no wrong – not enough to deserve what he got, at any rate. It was his Dad I was mad with – his God. My father kept on loving that Father tyrant who didn’t stand up for him, who let all those fucking hypocrites claim to belong to God and make him the scapegoat who got it all wrong. I wanted to rescue him from that cross, shout at him to stop being a bloody martyr; wasn’t it obvious his God didn’t care a toss about him?’

‘Wow. So you weren’t indifferent to God – you hated his guts?’

‘Oh, I hated him,’ Franz said. ‘I hated him for not having the guts, for leaving it to his son. I could only see as a son, then. I had no concept of what a father would be going through, letting his son go out there and take it all on, not zapping the enemies for him before they got anywhere near his precious son. Loving the enemies too because they were also his children, till even the blindest of them could see it was themselves they were destroying.’

‘And now? Has it changed, the way you think about things?’

‘It’s changing.’ He spoke almost inaudibly, putting down the kettle and coming over to Ella and laying one hand on her stomach. ‘I’m beginning to think like a father, and that’s changing my point of view. Don’t ask me how; I don’t know.’

Ella put her hand over his. ‘I’m changing too. The baby is changing me – not just my shape! My mind too. And I can’t explain it either. But I think it’s good. I’m scared, though.’

‘What of?’

‘What’s happening to those kids. What we see every night on the news. What kind of a world is this, to bring a defenceless baby into?’

‘I know. But defenceless babies grow up,’ said Franz. ‘Look at me. The odds were against me ever growing up, weren’t they? Thirty-something years in the world and I’m just coming out of an adolescent strop with God, the world and my dad.’

Ella laughed. ‘It’s taken long enough, certainly,’ she said. ‘Look at you – can’t even make tea yet without taking half an hour to do it!’

‘Don’t push your luck!’ he said.

 

 

CHAPTER 59

 

Franz, in his official white suit, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the seekers on the Introduction to Clairvoyance course and told them how privileged they were to be there.

‘I’m Franz Kane, director of The Healing Place, and this is an exciting moment for me as well,’ he said. ‘I feel privileged to be leading you in this first step into a fascinating area of the mind.’

‘What happened to the man who signed us up?’ a young man asked.

‘Sharma will join us to lead the more advanced sessions,’ Franz said.

‘He told me he would be taking the course personally,’ said a young woman with an intense expression, leaning forward and passing a string of beads rapidly through her hands.

‘Sharma has been temporarily delayed in taking up his teaching commitments here,’ Franz said. ‘He’s helping the police with their enquiries in a very serious crime.’

Too late, seeing the scandalized looks on their faces, he realized he had made it sound as if Sharma had been detained as a suspect.

‘As a respected psychic, he is sometimes consulted by the police to help them with difficult cases,’ he explained hurriedly. The faces looked relieved.

‘How long will it take us to learn to do that kind of thing?’ asked the same young man. ‘I’d love to be consulted in crime cases!’

Several others nodded.

Franz thought of Sharma’s haggard face and obvious weight loss since the kidnap of the children, of his long night vigils on deserted streets and of his inability to spend time enjoying the return of his own family.

He pushed down anger and said, ‘That level of insight arises from empathy with the victims of crime – actually feeling their terror and pain. It can take a serious toll on the one who does “see” the unseen, because it means feeling it. The anguish involved can destroy a person’s serenity and even endanger their sanity. It’s not something that anyone who has this gift naturally would actually choose or want.’

The facial feedback from his audience now told him that he had gone too far.

‘I don’t want to get into anything dangerous!’ said the intense girl. ‘I just want to be able to tell what’s going to happen to me in my life, and to help a few people by predicting their future.’

‘Right,’ he said. ‘So we’ll leave police enquiries to Sharma and we’ll now concentrate on some simple visualization exercises designed to enhance the natural gift for insight which all of you already possess.’

‘How do you know that?’ asked a thick-set middle-aged lady at the back of the room.

This room had been used for a Feng Shui demonstration previously, Franz noted, and the guide responsible had forgotten to clear away some of the items used.

A string of crystals suspended from the ceiling hung just above the lady’s left ear. A clump of feathers and beads – the Chinese equivalent of a North American dreamcatcher, perhaps? – had cut loose from its moorings and floated down to land on the foot of a bald man wearing open-toed sandals revealing blackened toenails. The effect was slightly surreal.

‘The faculty of insight is inherent in everybody,’ Franz said, ‘and you are all here because you want to take it seriously and use it positively. Sharma is rigorous in his selection process. You will have noticed that he spoke to each one of you in detail and listened intently to your questions and responses.’

‘Does that mean we’re special?’ The middle-aged lady raised her hand, like a child in class asking permission to be excused. Franz didn’t want to get drawn into further discussion.

‘Close your eyes!’ he said commandingly, and the class, thrown back into schooldays habits, simultaneously dropped their eyelids like shutters.

‘I want you to imagine,’ Franz said, dropping his voice, ‘that you are on a walk in dense forest.’

He squinted at Sharma’s notes to make sure this was right. The seekers’ faces, with tightly closed eyes, bore rapt expressions. This is easy enough, thought Franz. Ireland seemed far away now, as if he had never left home or stopped being Franz Kane, director of The Healing Place, the man who could deal with any situation and encourage anyone to believe whatever they chose.

‘You are alone,’ he told the assembled group. ‘You have been walking for many hours now, under dark overhanging trees that block most of the light. Suddenly – suddenly! – when you are growing tired, you emerge into a clearing in the forest. At first the shade is dappled, with patches of sunlight filtering through the leaves, which are dancing in a soft breeze.

‘Then, the light becomes bright – dazzlingly bright. The colours of the trees are intensified. See the light! See the colours of the leaves, the intricate details. Immerse yourself in this natural beauty, becoming one with it. Feel your oneness with the brightness of the light, the solidity of the earth beneath your feet, the colours, the breeze, the open space. Feel the freedom!’

This is a doddle, thought Franz. Anyone could do this; you don’t need to pay some psychic to tell people to imagine they’re a leaf. He hadn’t realized how easy Sharma’s job was.

‘Now,’ he said, ‘you see in the distance a beautiful lake. Walk towards it slowly, experiencing that feeling of solid ground beneath your feet with every step. Feel the light around you. Feel the light within you. See the colours. Be the colours. Glide towards the lake, supported by the whole of nature around you.’

They were all gliding all right, he thought with some relief, looking at the entranced faces. Only the middle-aged woman opened her eyes briefly and scanned the faces around her. Before she could focus on Franz, he closed his eyes firmly, to set an example.

It meant he couldn’t consult the notes but he was confident that he could remember the rest of it. Only a few more lines and he would leave them to lapse into silence, anyway. Then his contribution would finish and he could simply wait, keeping an eye on his watch which he had laid on the floor in front of his feet, for the allotted time to go by, leaving ten minutes at the end for the seekers to report what they had seen or experienced.

‘As you reach the edge of the lake,’ Franz said, ‘notice the plants growing around the edge – tall reeds, waving grasses. See their reflection in the cool water, clear as glass. Move nearer. Look at the deeper reflections – the trees around the lake. The blue sky. The clouds. Gaze deep into the water.

‘See your own reflection now. Look – really look – at your face. Note the features; see the expression. A breeze blows over the lake, ruffling the surface of the water. Your reflection ripples and blurs. Keep looking into it as it wavers. The outline blends into the wide expanse of the lake. Keep looking, deeper. Deeper. Look through the reflections. Look beyond them, deeper into the lake. Cool water. Glass-clear. Black in its deepest depths. Look into the clear blackness.’

I’m really getting into this, Franz thought. Sharma was right to say he could do it himself. He knew he had departed from the notes but he thought his version was near enough. He could almost see it himself, the deep lake brooding over hidden secrets, his own vision piercing its surface. He saw a face emerge, through the distorted image of his own face – a dark face with an inscrutable expression, eyes closed, like a death mask. The eyes shot open suddenly, with immense power – frightening, intense eyes with a ferocious gaze.

The face rose above the water’s surface, followed by an immense displacement of water as a powerful body, long-limbed, lithe, loomed over Franz as he crouched at the water’s edge – shadowy yet threatening in its solid forcefulness.

He saw cruel hands emerge from the shadowy form, cruel eyes, a cruel smile. He saw a flash of something shiny – a belt buckle. Dazzled by the glare of it, he tried to look away but could not escape its hypnotic effect. The creature bent over him. He could see the gash of a mouth, red and wet. The buckle was closer now, hanging loose from the belt, no longer so shiny. There was a pattern on it – a metal snake enclosed in a square.

Franz tried desperately to see beyond the man – if something so horrifying was actually a human being – to pick out context, details. He saw steps leading up to a tall, bleak-looking house with bars on the downstairs windows. He saw a street sign with a name on it that he couldn’t read clearly but which looked familiar.

Then the creature bore down on him, showing pointed teeth, and he felt the world around him lurch and shift. Again, he strained to see beyond the creature. He saw another house. It was friendlier-looking but it lied. The upper storeys had red window boxes with miniature fir trees but the basement, like the first house, had bars, dank rooms and fearful sights and smells and sounds, and the only red to be found was the painfully leaking trail of blood.

Franz forced himself to look upwards, into the creature’s face. It was the face of Leroy Watson. The house was the one Franz had seen on the internet site. And he had been kidnapped, tortured and terrorized and would never escape alive.

Somebody coughed. Someone else coughed more loudly, meaningfully. Franz jumped, startled awake by the sound. Accusing faces looked at him. He glanced at his watch on the floor in front of him. There was something wrong with it. That couldn’t be the time!

‘Ah – let me just check the time,’ Franz said, clearing his throat. ‘What do you make it?’

It was right. An hour and a half had gone by. Franz glanced at Sharma’s notes. Feedback time, it said at the end. Discussion of the images people have seen, and feelings associated with them. Franz did not want to go there, even if there had been time.

‘We’ll round off this session now,’ he said confidently, ‘as some of you have probably found the silence of the last part of it quite prolonged. Would I be right in saying that?’

Glum nods affirmed that he was.

‘You’ll find it much easier, next time,’ he assured them. ‘The first session has been a bit long this time. So, to avoid overtaxing you, we’ll leave now. Hold those impressions and experiences until next time and we’ll have a feedback session then.’

The middle-aged lady waved her hand, not tentatively this time but with determination.

‘We won’t speak,’ said Franz, in a resolutely hushed voice. ‘Go quietly out, respecting each other’s space and staying with what you’ve experienced. As soon as you get home, without discussing it with any other person, commit those images and impressions to paper. Review them during the week and bring them with you to the next session.’

‘Will you be taking the next session or will Sharma?’ asked the bald man. The bead and feather assemblage stayed between his toes as he struggled to his feet.

‘That will depend on your progress,’ said Franz. ‘For now, just focus on understanding your images, during the course of the week.’ He stayed seated on the floor, cross-legged, and closed his eyes again.

Cowed by the prospect of failing to advance from Franz’s marathon trance session to Sharma’s gentle encouragement and patient explanations, the seekers tiptoed from the room and made their way out of the building, avoiding comparing notes with each other in case it hindered their enlightenment.

When they had gone, Franz rubbed his face, stood up slowly and made his way to his office. Dialling Sharma’s mobile number with one hand, with the other he sifted through a pile of files on his desk till he found the folder of information given him by Leroy Watson. He checked the administrative address of the main office of the Luciferians. It was a W11 postcode, in the area of Ladbroke Grove.

Leaning across to the bookshelf, he took down the copy of the London A-Z street directory and found the local street Ella had mentioned that Sharma was watching, the one where a flat was for sale.

Sharma’s phone was unobtainable. Franz hesitated, then rang St Mark’s vicarage.

Phil answered, sounding sleepy, reminding Franz that it was late. ‘Phil, it’s Franz. I’m sorry – I need to speak to Sharma and I can’t get a dialling tone on his phone.’

‘It’s stopped working,’ Phil said. ‘I’ve lent him mine while he’s out: do you want the number?’

Franz took down the number he dictated. ‘Thanks. Sorry again to disturb you.’

‘That’s okay. Everything all right?’

‘Yes. Actually, no,’ he said, suddenly honest. ‘I’ve had this odd experience, possibly something like Sharma goes through. I’m wondering if it might be some kind of a lead on the missing boys. Or it could be a complete delusion.’

‘You contact him; I’ll pray,’ said Phil, sounding awake. ‘Don’t act on anything, will you? Get the police in. And will you let me know what happens?’

‘Sure.’ Franz cut him off and dialled the mobile.

Sharma answered immediately.

‘Sharma? It’s Franz. That address you traced the boys to before, in Ladbroke Grove. Was it a tall house with steps up to the front door and bars on the ground floor windows?’

‘Yes.’

‘And the road you’re watching now is Arcade Street?’

‘Yes, I’m there now.’

‘Sharma, is there a gabled three-storey Victorian terrace house with red window boxes with fir trees in them, and a basement with bars on the windows?’

‘That’s the house I’ve been watching.’

‘I had this odd kind of picture while we were doing the visualization exercise this evening. I think the boys might be in the basement.’

‘Flat 1A,’ Sharma confirmed.

He didn’t question how or why Franz believed this . This way of knowing things is normal to him, Franz thought.

‘Sharma, the face I saw was Leroy Watson – the man you told me to throw out of my office. The headquarters of his organization is at that Ladbroke Grove address. And I’m pretty sure he was wearing a square metal buckle on his belt with a snake pattern on it.’

‘Okay.’ The voice was calm. ‘Franz, the police have matched the DNA found in the air ducts of The Healing Place with one of the missing children. They think the person who took the boys also caused the bomb scare in the building.’

‘Will the police go in, if you tell them you’re sure of the details?’ Franz asked. ‘Or do they need hard evidence?’

‘They can get a search warrant and go in to look for evidence. There is already a sergeant here in an unmarked car at the end of the road. They don’t want to alert the occupants, though. They’re afraid they may turn destructive if the police turn up on the doorstep.’

‘Kill the boys?’ Franz felt his blood run cold.

‘Yes. Franz, is there some way we can persuade this Leroy to leave the house?’

‘At this time of night? It’s gone ten.’

‘It’ll have to wait till morning, then.’

The image of Leroy as the monstrous figure perceived by the kidnapped boys, with cruel eyes and hands and teeth, returned to Franz forcibly.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Let’s think of a way to do this. Let’s get them out of there now.’

 

 

CHAPTER 60

 

‘Leroy!’ said Franz cheerily, into the phone. ‘Franz Kane, from The Healing Place.’

‘Oh yes?’ The voice was alert.

‘Listen, sorry to disturb you so late but I find myself with a bit of a problem and I’m wondering if you might help.’

‘I’m sure I can.’ There was a hint of amusement in the tone.

He let his own voice reflect the amusement. ‘I’m in the embarrassing position of eating humble pie here, Leroy,’ he said. ‘I apologize for the abrupt ending of our last meeting.’

‘No problem. How can I help?’

‘One of our guides has cancelled, at short notice. We’ve got twenty-five people signed up for a self-awareness course, a one-nighter, tomorrow evening and I can’t find anyone to fill in. Is that something you might be able to offer, in some form?’

‘Self-awareness?’ There was a pause. ‘Yes. I can do something relevant to that. Using my own material, of course.’

‘Of course. It’s a two-hour session from seven to nine pm. Would you have enough material to cover that?’

‘Oh, I can do a lot in two hours,’ Leroy assured him.

I’ll bet you can, thought Franz grimly.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Well, I’m deeply grateful to you.’

‘My pleasure, Franz. I hope we can work together a lot more in the future, as colleagues. You and I have a lot in common. I hear you had a slight incident at The Healing Place last week?’

Franz gritted his teeth. ‘Yes. No lasting damage, fortunately.’

‘Fortunately, yes, in the circumstances.’

In the circumstances? In the circumstances that Leroy was now being offered a foothold in The Healing Place, he found it fortunate that he had not caused the building lasting damage?

‘There is just one thing, Leroy,’ Franz said.

‘What’s that?’

‘I’m afraid I haven’t asked you the most awkward part of the favour. I’ll need you to run through with me the material you’re going to use, and I’ll have to check you in so that Reception will give you a name tag tomorrow.’

‘No problem there, Franz,’ he said easily.

‘Tonight,’ Franz said.

‘Tonight is too late, obviously,’ Leroy said, ‘but first thing tomorrow morning, certainly.’

Franz thought of the children in the basement and his vision of blood and decided to gamble. ‘Ah, now that’s a shame,’ he said, ‘because I’m away all day tomorrow. That’s the problem, you see.’

‘I can come in really early, before you leave.’

‘Night train,’ said Franz. ‘Unfortunately.’

‘I can email you the material, then come in first thing and talk to somebody else if necessary, and see the lady in Reception about my name tag.’

‘No, because I’d have to give you the keys. Reception won’t have them.’

‘Give me the keys?’ The interest in his voice quickened.

‘To the inner doors and to the room you’d be using. It’s a quiet night tomorrow; you and your students would be virtually the only occupants of the upper storey. Never mind, Leroy, I can see it wasn’t a practical idea on my part. Some other time, eh?’

‘No, okay, I can come in now,’ said Leroy quickly.

‘Are you sure it’s not too much trouble? No, I can’t ask it of you. I’m sure your wife doesn’t want you going out at this time of night.’

‘My wife’s a late owl. She’ll be cool about it. We don’t go to bed early. I’ll be with you in half an hour. Do I come to the front door?’

‘Yes, I’ll tell the …’ He decided on second thoughts not to mention the security guard. ‘I’ll let you in myself.’

‘Who else will be around?’ Leroy was instantly suspicious.

Franz found his palms were sweating. ‘No one. I just realized. I was going to say I’ll tell the receptionist to let you in but the staff have all gone home now.’

‘Okay. See you soon.’

Franz took a deep breath and dialled Sharma’s mobile. ‘We’re on,’ he said. ‘He’ll be here within half an hour. It sounds as if his wife’s at home.’

‘Right. The police sergeant here will tell you the procedure, Franz. I’m passing you over now.’

‘Mr Kane? Sergeant Archer. There’s a back way into your building, isn’t there?’

‘A side entrance, leading to a door with stairs up to my office on the first floor.’

‘With a gate on the street?’

‘No. The fire door in the basement, which is alarmed, leads out into that side alley, so we can’t gate it.’

‘Leave the door to the entrance with the steps up to your office unlocked. We’ll send a couple of officers to block the alley and gain access that way if necessary. No other entrances, apart from those doors and the main one?’

‘No.’

‘Right. Leave the main front door unlocked, after Mr Watson arrives. We’ll have officers in unmarked cars near the front entrance. Instruct your security guard not to admit anyone after Mr Watson. Lock all the internal doors except the door of your office where you will take Mr Watson. Do you have an alarm in your office, if you need to call for our back-up?’

‘No.’

‘Keep your mobile phone switched on, and on your person. I will call you from the number I’m going to give you now, if there is a need. If this number doesn’t show, leave all other calls unanswered. Are you clear on this or do you want me to repeat the details?’

‘I’ve got it.’

When the sergeant rang off, Franz rang Phil, who was awake, having just heard from Sharma who had given him all the details.

‘Watson’s coming in,’ Franz told him. ‘Within half an hour.’

‘I’ll come over. He needn’t see me; I can be in another room.’

‘No. Thanks, but it might alert him.’

‘I’ll pray for your protection, then.’

‘Do.’

He dialled home and left a message for Ella, glad she didn’t answer the phone. He hoped she was with Maz, or already asleep. He spoke quietly, in case she was.

‘It’s Franz: I’ve been delayed at work. Don’t wait up. See you later.’

Would he see her later? There were so many things that could go wrong. He tried not to think about the risks and found he couldn’t think about anything at all. He felt very alone.

He unlocked the side door and went to see the security guard.

‘Everybody off the premises, Darren?’

‘Yes, they’ve all gone home.’ The guard yawned and looked at his watch. ‘Where I’m going any moment.’

‘No! You’re here for the night!’

‘Not me. Night guard is coming in – should have been here ten minutes ago.’

‘Listen,’ said Franz. ‘There’s a late visitor coming in. I’ll let him in myself. I want the front door left open after he comes in but no one else is to be allowed in after him. The side door will also be left open. I’m about to lock all the internal doors now and I want them kept locked. I want you to stay out of sight till the visitor arrives. Once I’ve taken him up to my office, come back to the foyer and meet the night guard and pass this information on to him, all right?’

‘If he arrives before the visitor you can tell him all this yourself,’ said the guard, unwilling to take on this extra task.

‘No. I don’t want the visitor to see security guards, so I’m hoping his arrival doesn’t coincide with the night guard’s. If it does, I’ll send the night guard through to you, without any explanation. I’m relying on you to explain the arrangements to him.’

‘Where am I meant to wait, then?’

‘Just inside these internal doors here from the foyer. I’ll leave them unlocked, but as soon as you come out, lock them behind you and when you give the night guard your keys, tell him not to open any internal doors until I let him know I’m going home.’

The guard stood foursquare, considering this information, his body language unco-operative. Franz pushed open the double swing doors leading to the toilets, the lift, and the stairs to the basement. The doors were sticking slightly. Franz had left a note for the maintenance man to take a look at them tomorrow. Instead of closing level with each other they bowed inwards, unless locked.

Franz gestured to the guard to go through the doors, then pulled them together as far as possible.

He made his way round the building, locking doors. In the main hall, he looked up at the ceiling and was comforted by the sight of Pat’s plastering. It made him feel less alone.

As he checked that all the inside doors were locked and returned to the main entrance to await Leroy’s arrival, he tried to think of questions to ask Leroy about his teaching material and ways to prolong his visit long enough to allow the police to gain access to his flat.

Waiting in the foyer a vivid recollection struck him, of his father pointing to the wooden figure of Christ on the cross in the sacristy. He could hear his voice clearly: Look at the wounds he bore for us; what do we have to complain about?

Franz thought of the kidnapped boys and of the emotional wounds they would have to live through and deal with if they survived. I can do this, he thought; I have to. He wished suddenly that his father were here and wondered if the funeral had taken place yet. Funerals in Ireland tended to be arranged sooner than was customary in England.

A car drew up on the other side of the street. A heavily-built man – not Leroy – got out and the car drove off. He hadn’t sent in the heavies, had he, instead of coming himself?

The man crossed the street and Franz saw his uniform. Hank the Tank. The night guard. Franz went outside and, standing sideways on to the man as if not speaking directly to him, said, ‘Hank?’

‘Yes. I know I’m late but …’

‘Look, would you stand out of sight further down the street till you see a tall black man in his thirties arrive and enter the building? Give me five minutes after that, then come in and go through the swing doors to the left of the foyer. The day guard will give you instructions. It’s important,’ he added urgently, seeing the man about to ask for explanations. ‘Please go now.’

Franz went back into the building, barely registering the man’s dismissive shrug as he strolled off down the street.

It was just in time. Another car drew up and Leroy got out of the passenger side. The driver was a man. Franz felt a chill of apprehension. If a man had been available at short notice to give him a lift, were there more men in Leroy’s flat right now, with the boys? Along with Leroy’s wife – if the wife did exist and had not been invented by Leroy to give an impression of respectability?

‘Franz! Good to see you again!’

He could hardly avoid touching Leroy this time, though remembering Sharma’s warning from last time, and returned his handshake.

‘What cold hands!’ Leroy commented, with a laugh Franz found unpleasant.

‘I’m afraid the heating’s gone off,’ Franz said. ‘Thank you for coming at such an unsocial hour.’

‘How can it be unsocial?’ Leroy asked, grinning. ‘When it gives us an opportunity to socialize?’

My father would hit him now, Franz thought suddenly, remembering him confronting Groper George in the sacristy. But surely it was better to go through this charade as a hypocrite than to give an honest reaction and let two small boys suffer the consequences?

He determined not to think about the boys. He focused on Leroy and forced himself to smile.

‘We’ll go up to my office,’ he said.

The doors from the foyer to the toilets were still bowed inwards. There was no sight or sound of the dayshift security guard, Franz noted with relief. He hoped the man would pass on his instructions accurately to the night guard.

‘The place looks bigger at night,’ Leroy commented, ‘without all the people in it.’

It would have been at its most crowded, Franz reflected, when he had come in – or sent someone in – to place the smoke bombs. It must have been frightening for a child, pushed into the air ducts, to hear the noise inside the building, echoing. He wondered if the boy had been tempted to stay in the duct, risking death unknown to anyone but his captors, rather than return to them?

He would not think about the boys. He must be pleasant to this man, for the sake of their safety. And his. He stood back to let Leroy go ahead of him into the office, and noticed Leroy glance at the framed plans of the building on the wall. Of course – that must have been how he knew the layout. He had been in Franz’s office that time, on his own, when Franz came in and found him and then threw him out.

As if hearing Franz’s thoughts, Leroy said, ‘Last time I came here, I was not so welcome!’

I must be careful even not to think too loudly, Franz thought.

‘You’re welcome this time,’ Franz told him. ‘Would you like a coffee?’

‘I don’t have stimulants, this time of night.’

Franz noticed the snake emblem on the metal belt buckle and looked away, not letting himself remember the vision this evening.

‘You were going to give me keys,’ Leroy reminded him.

Over my dead body, Franz said silently.

‘Yes, before you leave. Let’s have a chat about what you’re planning to do tomorrow evening.’

‘I’ll leave you these notes to look through,’ Leroy said. ‘They’re self-explanatory, you’ll see.’

He hadn’t sat down.

‘I’m no good at taking in written stuff late in the evening,’ Franz said. ‘Trouble with my eyes.’

‘Mid-life problems,’ Leroy commented.

‘I’m sure you’re right. Have a seat, Leroy.’

A moment’s hesitation, as though poised for flight, then Leroy capitulated, sinking into the chair, stretching out his long legs towards Franz. Franz recoiled, drawing his feet back. Leroy’s sharp eyes registered the movement. Franz stood, trying to make the movement seem like a prelude to standing, and picked a notepad off a pile on a shelf.

‘I’ll make a few notes,’ he said, ‘if you don’t mind.’ Notes would take more time. He could ask Leroy to repeat things or speak more slowly. He would not let his mind stray to the basement flat or the boys, or the police waiting ….

‘I don’t want to take up your time,’ Leroy said. ‘You must have had a long day.’

‘I’m used to working late.’

‘I know that. But this late is unusual.’

The man was goading him, making him aware he had been watching the building. Franz refused to rise to the bait.

‘Pretend I’m one of the students,’ he said. ‘How are you going to start?’

‘I’ll play it by ear. I’m not a structured kind of guy.’

Franz forced himself to breathe evenly. ‘Fine. So you’ll introduce yourself, presumably, and outline what you’re going to teach. How would you summarize it, to a class expecting a session on self-awareness and not familiar with your approach to the subject?’

A lazy smile played on Leroy’s face as he sat watching Franz. He didn’t answer the question for several seconds, letting his gaze roam over Franz’s face, his long nose, quirky eyebrows and wide mouth, then travel over his slim body and long legs encased in the white suit.

Mind games. Franz had a sudden image, once again, of his father. He saw the old man’s face for a second, as if in the flash of a camera shot, then it was gone. He’s here, Franz thought, irrationally. He was aware that the heaviness and lethargy that had assailed him on Leroy’s previous visit were not afflicting him this time, and thought of Phil, awake and praying for his protection.

His mobile rang and he checked the caller. Ella. He would have liked to talk to her. He diverted the call to message-taker and returned his attention to Leroy, who had tensed when the call came but relaxed now.

‘I’m aiming to take the people through a few exercises,’ Leroy said, ‘that will have the effect of freeing their minds and opening them to new possibilities.’

Franz felt a chill. ‘What does that involve?’

‘Well, people get stuck in ways of seeing things. Like, they see themselves in terms of moral rules.’

‘Do they?’

‘Yeah, you know, measure themselves against some kind of standard imposed by culture and society. It inhibits their free thinking.’

Franz thought of the graffitists who regularly daubed the frontage of The Healing Place building with obscene slogans, the drug dealers who used the side alley and the gangs who blocked the pavement and hard-stared him on his nightly walk home. He forced himself not to think of the kidnapped boys.

‘You think people are inhibited by having moral standards?’ he asked Leroy.

‘Sure. We need to throw away all this outdated morality and experience ourselves as free creatures.’

‘This is what you’ll be teaching tomorrow night’s seekers, as self-awareness?’

‘That’s right. Is that cool with you?’

Don’t react. The only priority is to keep him here. There is no self-awareness course tomorrow night, so no Healing Place seekers will be harmed by this man.

Franz nodded.

‘What time did you say the course started?’ Leroy asked.

Such hard eyes. Was he fooled?

‘Seven pm,’ Franz said. ‘It’s as well to arrive a bit early.’

‘Which room will I be using?’

Franz pointed at the plan of the second-floor layout. ‘Two of the upstairs treatment rooms with the partition removed.’

His mobile rang. It was the police number this time. Franz let it ring, hoping Leroy would go on talking.

‘Will there be other activities going on in the next-door rooms?’

Franz lifted the phone to his ear. ‘Hi. No,’ he said to Leroy.

‘Mr Kane? Ready when you are.’

They must have moved quickly.

‘Okay, I’m just finishing a late meeting now and I’ll be home shortly. Bye. No,’ Franz continued to Leroy, ‘the rooms on either side of you will be unoccupied.’

‘Oh yes, you said. A quiet night tomorrow. I recall that now.’

The man was testing him, checking out details Franz had told him on the phone.

Franz checked his watch. ‘Okay. So you intend these exercises to make up the bulk of the time?’

‘That’s right. Followed up by a few suggestions.’

‘Yes?’ He tried to maintain his air of interest. The side alley would be covered, in case Leroy scented deception and ran that way. All Franz had to do was lead him downstairs and out of the main entrance. The internal doors were locked. If he tried to escape from the foyer , the police would enter the building.

‘Recommendations on making some immediate changes in their lives.’

‘Right. Well, I’ll read through this material you’ve left me, Leroy, tonight, but I don’t foresee any problems.’

‘Don’t you want to know what recommendations I’ll be making to your clients?’

Franz really didn’t. ‘I’m assuming you’ll tailor the recommendations to the responses of the individuals in the class as you get to know them during the session, will you?’

Leroy smiled. ‘Right.’

‘Well,’ Franz said, hearing his own heart pounding and hoping it couldn’t be heard, ‘I’m satisfied with that. I hope you enjoy the session, as well as the students.’

‘I surely will. Aren’t you forgetting one thing?’

Franz, now that the time had come, was experiencing the same deadening of his senses that he had struggled with last time.

‘What’s that?’

‘My keys. And you need me to register, you said?’

‘Downstairs. In the foyer. After you, Leroy.’

‘No. After you.’ He stood aside.

Franz wanted to keep him where he could see him. ‘I have to lock the office. Go ahead.’

A pause, another hard stare, then Leroy slowly walked ahead of him towards the stairway.

A few more steps. You can do this. Concentrate on moving at a normal pace.

Leroy had stopped again at the head of the stairs. He waited, gesturing for Franz to go ahead of him. The stairway was wide. Franz linked his arm into Leroy’s and drew him down the stairs alongside him.

‘You’ve really done me a favour, Leroy,’ he said.

The man’s arm was like steel, not only physically hard-muscled but conveying a sense of cold hardness in the core of his being.

Slow to anger, full of compassion. Where did that phrase come from? A line from some piece of scripture his father liked. Franz should have asked for it to be read at the funeral. It would have described his father perfectly.

Was the funeral over now? Was his father with his God who was slow to anger and full of compassion and love? Franz’s head was spinning. Franz was arm in arm with the man of whom Sharma had said “Don’t touch him,” the man who was the antithesis of everything his father had lived for: full of anger, devoid of compassion and love.

They had reached the bottom of the stairway. Approaching the foyer, Franz saw no one. That was okay. The sergeant had said they were ready. All the better if they stayed out of sight. Where were they?

‘Where are the keys kept?’ asked Leroy.

Franz, unable to speak, pointed towards the front desk. A movement caught his eye, outside the glass front door. Leroy tensed, following the quick flick of his glance.

Franz felt Leroy’s arm tighten. He let go of him quickly, not wanting to be attached to him when the police moved in. As he did so he noticed, with horror, that the double swing doors leading to the lifts and the basement were still ajar, bowing away from them in a clearly half-open V-shape.

Leroy followed his glance in that direction now and as the first three police officers charged the front doors and ran into the foyer, he ran for those side doors.

Franz had never seen anyone sprint with such speed; it seemed almost superhuman.

If he got into the basement, or into the lift and up to the other floors, they could lose him, or he could cause trouble – more damage than before. The man was clever, strong, intuitive and fast. He had nothing to lose, in resisting arrest, and was ruthless.

Franz felt a hand on his shoulder. It felt warm and supportive even as it held him back from pursuing Leroy.

As Leroy reached the doors, head forward and shoulders hunched like an Olympic athlete, Franz heard his father’s words to Father George in the sacristy: “May God put a stop to you and your indecencies.”

He wasn’t aware he had said those words aloud, till the doors suddenly ricocheted open towards them and he saw both edges catch Leroy at full force in the centre of his forehead.

 

 

CHAPTER 61

 

Hank ‘The Tank’ Turner had taken on board the eccentric instructions relayed to him by Darren the day guard. It was all the same to him, in fact quite a relief not to be expected to patrol this big building room by room, since all the internal doors were to be kept locked.

Darren, after briefing Hank, had locked the swing doors leading from the foyer to the lifts, toilets and basement stairs, had given Hank the bunch of keys, and had told him to keep a low profile until the boss-guy in the white suit escorted the visitor from the premises.

Hank settled down in a conveniently dimly lit corner by the doors to the main hall and prepared to catch up on some sleep. He had had a large curry washed down with a few pints with mates in the pub before coming on duty and was feeling drowsy. It was as well, he thought, that he had the gift of being able to sleep in any corner – an essential talent for a man condemned to night work.

But even a man accustomed to sleep through anything could not ignore the alarm call of a groaning bowel and overloaded bladder. Half-asleep and muttering under his breath with annoyance, he left his corner, took out his bunch of keys and identified the one which opened the swing doors to the toilets.

The doors were sticking a bit. Mr Kane would have to get somebody to fix them, Hank thought, applying his elbow to them now. They didn’t swing shut properly and then required a bit of effort to push them open.

He unfolded his newspaper as he went through the door of the Gents, anticipating a long session in the john, but the curry went through him like a dose of salts, leaving him gasping with the force of evacuation, and also slightly hungry since his entire supper had apparently deserted him in ten seconds.

Sauntering out of the toilet, zipping his capacious trousers with one hand, extracting a mega-pack of Mars bars from the pocket of his jacket with the other, his eyes were focused on the photo of a well-upholstered model in the newspaper he had tucked between his elbow and his muscle-armoured ribcage.

The Mars bar proved tricky to release from its multipack. He held the end of the plastic wrapper in his teeth and tugged. With no hands free, and those hard-to-shift swing doors ahead of him, now bowed inwards towards him, he applied the full force of his bulky frame, shoulder first, and crashed them open.

It was not his fault, as he kept repeating afterwards. He couldn’t have foreseen that the Healing Place’s last guest of the evening would take it into his head to crash the doors in the opposite direction at the very same instant. Boy, nobody could be that desperate to go to the toilet!

It wasn’t his fault. And it was just his luck that a simple mistake like that should be witnessed by a whole pigpen of bloody police on the warpath. It just was not his night.

His mother was right. This nightshift business was bad for his health, and his wife would just have to do without the new range cooker with its totally unnecessary hood thing she wanted; no extra pay was worth the hassle of finding you’d knocked some guy unconscious in front of the world’s most uncompromising witnesses. The boss in the white suit was the only one not watching him. He was turning round as if to talk to someone.

Franz turned to see the reaction of the person, presumably one of the police officers, who was still standing with his hand on his shoulder, patting it comfortingly. They must be giving policemen empathy training or something nowadays, Franz thought. He was interested to see the man’s face. He turned and found himself looking at empty space. There was no one. He could still feel the warmth of the hand.

He turned full circle, incredulously. At the very last instant, before his focus returned to the inert form of Leroy on the floor, overshadowed by five policemen and Hank, he had a very quick glimpse of a face with a wide mouth and uneven eyebrows, engulfed in smiles. It faded as quickly as it had flashed on his vision.

‘Thanks, Dad,’ he said softly.

Franz left the police hauling him upright and escorting him, handcuffed, to the waiting car outside. He shook hands with Hank and assured him there would be no adverse report to his employers, and slipped the astonished guard a twenty- pound note.

‘A token of appreciation for exceptional service to mankind,’ Franz told him.

Hank had known the white-suit dude was weird. For the first time he considered that weird might be good. Maybe he’d stick with the nightshifts after all, at least till the wife had her new cooker and flue.

Standing outside watching Hank locking the main doors behind them all, Franz rang Sharma.

‘They’ve got him,’ he said.

‘They’ve got the boys too,’ Sharma told him. ‘Leroy’s wife came out of the back door into the basement area to have a cigarette, and the police held her and gained access to the flat without even having to break the door. There were three men in a back room, undressed, and the boys were locked in a bedroom. They were hiding under the bed.’

‘What state are they in?’

‘Alive. Very shocked. They screamed and fought as the police tried to reach them. The men had to stand back and let the policewomen stay with them till the ambulance arrived. Their parents have been notified. They’re going straight to the hospital.’

‘Are you all right, Sharma?’

There was a quivering intake of breath. ‘I’m all right. Relieved it’s over. Franz – they found torture implements.’

Franz swore.

‘They stormed the Ladbroke Grove address as well,’ Sharma told him. ‘They arrested six more men and confiscated a computer and a stack of material. Franz, where are you now? I’m going back to Phil’s. Ella is there.’

‘Is she? Okay, I’ll see you there. Or d’you want me to walk round and meet you?’

‘No, I’m fine. See you in five minutes.’

Franz dialled Ella’s mobile. She answered it immediately.

‘I’m fine,’ he said, without waiting for the question. He could hear her crying on the phone. ‘I’ll be with you in five minutes. Keep a hug for me.’

But she couldn’t keep it for so long, he saw, walking down the street. She was running towards him, long hair flying, long skirt with its embroidered mirror fragments glinting in the street lights and passing car headlights. She flew headlong towards the perennial gang of boys outside the gaming arcade, who parted in shock to allow this speeding missile of a woman to cut a path through their ranks.

The moment before she caught him, he was aware of an unfamiliar feeling in his heart, and identified it as joy.

 

 

CHAPTER 62

 

‘It’s over,’ Rachel told Franz. ‘The funeral.’

‘Did you go?’ He stood still, the phone held tight against his ear.

‘I stood at the back in the church porch for some of the Mass. You wouldn’t have recognized who they were talking about. The people who had the least time for him were praising him to the skies.’

‘Hoping he’ll get them a free ticket to heaven,’ said Franz.

‘I don’t want to go to any heaven they go to,’ said Rachel. ‘So that’s it, then. He’s gone. Or moved on.’

‘Or moved in.’

‘What d’you mean?’ she said quickly.

‘I got a kind of impression he was around, yesterday.’

‘With you?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s weird. I’ve felt he was around me too. Do you think that’s weird?’

‘Not really. It’s where he always wanted to be, wasn’t it – with his children?’

‘I hadn’t thought of it like that. Mick, I got it wrong about him leaving that money of his father’s in trust for me’

‘You mean he didn’t?’

‘I mean he changed it. A couple of months ago. He changed it from being given to me when I was twenty-five, to being given to me as soon as he died.’

‘Because he got to know you, over the past months, and saw you weren’t too young to take responsibility?’

‘It must be. Anyway, the solicitor contacted me.’

‘That’s good timing, isn’t it? You’ll need money to pay for your course. It will cover that, won’t it?’

‘Mick, you already gave me enough money to cover the course! Listen, I’m thinking of buying my own flat. What d’you think?’

‘Great idea.’

‘You know Maria was more like my mum than my own mum, and I don’t mean this in a way that says anything bad, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever had my own home and I’d really like it.’

‘It sounds good. Invite Ella and me to your housewarming, won’t you?’

‘I will. Can I come to yours?’

‘It’s compulsory. Ella’s found a couple of places to go and have a look at, so it might not be too long. We’ll race you!’

‘Give Rachel my love!’ Ella whispered, as Franz was about to ring off.

When he put the phone down, she said, ‘I’ve just seen the parents of the boys being interviewed on television. They said physically they’re recovering well, eating like horses, and they’re just beginning to talk about their ordeals. A child therapist said they’ll need years of support to get through the emotional damage.’

‘Have the police got any further with arresting other members of the organization?’

‘It’s not just that organization: apparently they’re uncovering links to a much wider network of ritual abuse involving, they think, some very high profile names.’

‘A whole network of Leroy Watsons? Satanists?’

‘‘Satanism is becoming cool, apparently, in the public perception; people get into it gradually without realizing what it involves. One of the child protection officers on TV said that police, social services and therapists are increasingly having to have specialist training in dealing with ritual abuse.’

‘Is that a recent thing?’

‘No, probably it’s just that they’re getting more reports of it. People are less afraid of coming forward because they’re more likely to be listened to. In the past, they wouldn’t have been believed.’

‘I suppose you can understand people not wanting to believe it,’ Franz said. ‘It’s unthinkable, so nobody wants to think it could happen – not on their doorstep, in an apparently civilized country.’

‘Talking of countries, I had lunch with Sarita and she told me that Sharma had been asking her if she wanted them all to go and live in Pakistan, because he was worried about her being so much on her own and missing being part of a community.

‘She said no, she wanted to stay here. Then later Jan and Phil said they wanted to talk to her and Sharma about another idea. They’ve had unofficial word that they’ll get permission to convert the house, and they’ve come up with the idea of dividing it into not-quite self-contained flats with bathroom and kitchen and then turning two of the smaller downstairs rooms in the house into one big communal sitting room, and having other families living there or staying for a while. Sharma and Sarita could have one of the flats and Sarita could help out with the work. She loves the idea, and Sharma’s very relieved that she’ll have more company and more to do now Raj is starting full-time school.’

‘Where will the other families come from?’

‘They’re not sure yet; it depends on the need. They’d been thinking of homeless families on the waiting list for housing, but it seems to be a bureaucratic and political minefield and might actually get in the way of families being offered more permanent accommodation. The house needs a lot of repairs and they could possibly qualify for renovation grants, but they’d have to prove the building was being used for community purposes and they’re not sure how that’s defined.’

‘Do you think they’d consider providing accommodation for visiting families whose children or dependents were having treatment or therapy?’ Franz said.

Ella raised her eyebrows. ‘Possibly. Why?’

‘I might go and have a word with them. It might help me make up my mind.’

‘About?’

‘About how involved to get in Jake’s project.’

‘Oh?’ Ella was alert. ‘How involved would you like to be?’

‘More than just providing a hydrotherapy pool in the basement, I think. I’ve been reading stuff on the net about help for disabled children and adults. There are a lot of possibilities.’

‘Like?’

‘Oh, soft play areas for children who can’t walk or stand easily; multi-sensory areas with different textures and colours and lights; lasers; music therapy …. We’d need to get together a committee of professionals and parents, to decide what would be most helpful.’

‘I’d like to be involved too,’ Ella said.

‘Would you? That would mean a lot to me.’

‘I suppose it’d take quite a long time, to get it all up and running, though,’ she said.

‘I’ve told Alison and the other receptionists not to book any more flotation appointments after the end of the month, and work starts on adapting the pool in three weeks’ time. Four reps from companies that make play and gym equipment specifically for developing movement in people with disabilities are coming to see Jake and me next week, and Jake and Pat have set up their first talk to a group of businessmen.’

‘You don’t hang about, do you?’ Ella said, laughing. ‘But don’t you have to wait for the funding before you start building pools and things?’

‘It’s coming out of The Healing Place’s development budget to start with and we’re making arrangements to pay in instalments. The money will come. It’s the kind of cause that will get a lot of support; people have to be made aware that it’s there, that’s all. And it has to be made available to people from all over the country, not just London. That’s why we’d need to offer help with accommodation for the families while they’re attending the centre.’

‘You wouldn’t want to deal with the accommodation side of things as well – add on to The Healing Place building?’

‘No. There’s that land at the back we could build on: there’s provisional planning permission dating back to when we started building, but I think I’d rather use it as an outdoor play area if we can. Anyway, I thought you wanted me to work fewer hours, nor more!’

‘Would it mean fewer hours for you?’

‘If the accommodation and family support side of things was shared with Jan and Phil and others, we could drop a lot of the individual therapies and courses at The Healing Place and concentrate on fewer things. It would still mean day and evening activities, but because they’d be less piecemeal it wouldn’t be so labour intensive in administrative terms. D’you think Jan and Phil would be interested?’

‘I don’t know but I’d imagine they would, somehow. Shall I come with you to discuss the ideas with them?’

He put both arms round her and kissed her. ‘Please do. I liked it much better when we worked together.’

‘So did I,’ said Ella. ‘But I couldn’t stay at The Healing Place the way it was and I thought there were no alternatives. Are you sure about this, Franz, though? Throwing away everything you’ve built up? And the seekers and clients – their needs are as real as the disabled children’s aren’t they? People still need peace.’

‘Sure. I’m not going to throw everyone out, Ella, I promise. But there has to be a change in emphasis – change from the inside.’

‘Such as?’

‘My motives. Sharma was right when he said The Healing Place was built on rebellion. Against my dad, church, hypocrisy – all the things I called God and then threw out.’

‘If you did it all over again, without that rebellion, how would it look different?’ Ella asked him. ‘Or wouldn’t you do it at all?’

‘I’m not sure. That’s why I need to take it one step at a time. And some things won’t change: I still don’t like religion. It’s just that I’ve come to see all the same religious clichés and jargon language and rituals repeated by people who say they’ve broken free of religion. Anti-religion is still a religion, isn’t it?’

‘I suppose so. How do you get round it, though? Won’t any system that relies on human beings end up with the same abuses?’

‘It depends on the human beings and what their focus is. If it’s something beyond themselves – God, or the common good, or the greatest need – something that doesn’t directly benefit the people doing the work or massage their egos, there’s a better chance of avoiding it, or at least of resolving the problems when they crop up.’

‘Where do you start to change the focus?’ Ella asked. ‘In yourself or in other people?’

‘It has to start with myself, I think, and then include other people. I’ve been thinking about which individual people I trust – you, Pat, Sharma … Phil and Jan, I guess. Jake, possibly, when I know him better. Alison. Some of our regulars might also like to be involved as volunteers. It’s important to be in the right team. It doesn’t seem to be the right time now for going it alone.’

Ella let out a long sigh. ‘I’m glad to hear you say that, Franz.’

‘I’ll tell you what it is time for, though,’ he said, putting an arm round her and drawing her close.

‘What?’ she said, into his shoulder.

‘You and I are going on a real holiday, before this baby grows any bigger and you don’t want to travel any farther than the end of the sofa.’

‘That sounds good. To Ireland, you mean, seeing Rachel?’

‘No. Somewhere with sun and sea and nobody we know. Once the baby comes, we’re going to be immersed in family life, and once the new project gets going we’ll be involved with other families too. Right now, you and I are the only family we’re going to see. All right?’

‘I think I can live with that,’ Ella said. ‘As long as you both come with me. Franz Kane and Michael Finnucane. I want both of you. Otherwise it’s no deal.’

‘Oh, it’s a deal,’ he said. ‘You get both of us. For better or worse.’

 

 

For more info on Clare Nonhebel’s books go to

http://clarenonhebel.com

 

 

 


The Healing Place

THE HEALING PLACE Clare Nonhebel SYNOPSIS Franz Kane has invested time, money and energy into setting up The Healing Place, a state-of-the-art building with superb facilities, offering an impressive range of holistic therapies and mind-enriching courses to city-dwellers eager to escape the stresses of life. Running such an enterprise has stresses of its own, and not only lighter-hearted errors such as locating Primal Scream Therapy in the next room to Silent Meditation; some serious concerns are beginning to surface. Although Franz promotes inclusive acceptance of every person and every shade of belief, barring religion and obvious cults, there are few people he genuinely trusts. Now two of them - his girlfriend Ella and the psychic, Sharma, a mainstay of The Healing Place - have some challenging questions for Franz. Cracks are beginning to appear in the fabric of the building, and in the persona of Franz himself. He experiences first an outburst of rage against a local vicar, then fear of a sinister stranger who mirrors Franz's own dismissal of moral imperatives, and finally a near-violent impulse against Ella, newly pregnant with his baby. Despite Ella's and Sharma's warnings and encouragement, Franz clings to his image as 'the man with no yesterday,' avoiding every question about his past. But when Sharma takes time out from The Healing Place - in response to a request from local police to help find two kidnapped boys - circumstances begin to force Franz to face himself and his own history. When he makes a sudden decision to go to Ireland, he invites Ella to come with him, on the condition that she asks no questions of him. Trusting his integrity but struggling with fears for Franz and for the future of their unborn Ella begins to find some answers when they visit a convent nursing home where a frail and elderly Catholic priest is dying. But just as they both begin to uncover the past, the future is jeopardised: The Healing Place faces its own baptism of fire, apparently an arson attack by someone who wishes Franz harm. Sharma, who challenged Franz to stop pretending to accept every version of truth as equally valid and to confront his own beliefs and prejudices, is struggling to remain calm as he moves nearer to discovering what has happened to the abducted children. His own children, meanwhile, who had been taken abroad when their mother left him are returning home with an overwhelming need of their own - to be their father's main priority. Reviewing his own priorities, and more aware now of his motivation for founding The Healing Place, Franz has to confront the question of whether the remedies it offers are actually healing anyone. An unexpected source of enlightenment turns up in the form of childhood friend, Patrick, now working in London, who has been looking for Franz under his original name, and a young doctor, Jake. Their shared vision for a new project begins to absorb Franz as well, if he can learn to trust again and work with them as a team. Patrick, who grew up with Franz and knows his extraordinary history, and Ella who until recently only knew him in his recent role as director of The Healing Place, hold between them the key to Franz's own healing. But before they can all move forward, there are still two frightened children to be found, and in the process of standing in for Sharma in one of his classes, Franz begins to understand something of the strange path that Sharma himself has chosen and the hazards he is going through in tracing the abducted boys. At the same time, the vicar and the sinister figure both move into the spotlight and will each make their indelible imprint on the future of The Healing Place, on Franz and Ella and the generation to come.

  • Author: Clare Nonhebel
  • Published: 2016-06-16 17:50:27
  • Words: 126792
The Healing Place The Healing Place