Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 9


Hugh's parents were as sweet as he was. And just as undemanding. I trailed him around in their immaculately maintained garden that weekend, watching Hugh retile sections of their roof and striking up a friendship with his mother who had all the softness of voice and discreet sense of fun that he has. They must have talked quite seriously with Hugh before we came: we were given an odd little bedroom off the main part of the house which wasn't easy to maneuver a chair around but which was near to the only downstairs bathroom. I was grateful, as dragging yourself up and down the stairs in a commando crawl isn't easy or fun to do around people you're trying to make a good impression on.

They were elderly enough to wake up at unreasonable hours and told us to get up when we wanted, not to take any notice of their schedule. It was therefore a civilised hour on Saturday morning when Hugh staggered into the bathroom, gave his customary flinch when he found me catheterising myself, and went to shave. It's the one thing he's never got the hang of; he still goes green at the sight of tubes. I gave things a lot of thought- including how stiff I was, and what hours of sitting in a car and then in my chair was likely to have done to skin easily damaged at the best of times. At home, in a house designed for disabled use, there are mirrors in places, which make it easy to keep twice daily track of any coming pressure marks. There were two mirrors in sight here: one above the sink and way out of my reach, the other over the dressing table in the bedroom. Neither was an option. Forced, I asked Hugh's help and for the first time in years, let someone else check me over for marks.

"Yes." He said at once. "No bruises, just a patch of red."

"That's enough." I said grimly. His hand was on the back of my thigh, between knee and buttock. I'd been able to lift up on my hands in the car, often enough to save my backside from suffering the effects of lousy circulation, but not enough to get my legs free of the car seat.

"It's only red."

"It's the early stages of a pressure mark."

Which can break down into open sores and take months to heal, I'd seen others with them. Never actually got that far myself which was something to be grateful for: my father was neurotic about them, having treated them on other kids and he made damn sure I saw one or two that scared me into being careful. The only answer is to get all weight and pressure off the mark and keep it off for the day or two it takes to heal at this stage. Which meant staying out of my chair as much as possible. Hugh watched me struggle with alcohol to wipe the damned thing off, and finally took it from me and did it himself. There was no help for it, I had no choice. Without enthusiasm, I buckled callipers on over leather trousers which Hugh has teased me about before now, but which are the warmest and safest things to fall in. Hugh stayed within reach as I got my balance on the crutches and moved warily through the hall and into the kitchen. The stone flagged floor looked all too hard to fall on and we were both extremely nervous.

"Are you sure you're safe?" Hugh asked at one point.

"No." I said frankly. The door out of the kitchen was open and I negotiated the steps with all the care I could take. Hugh gradually relaxed as I began to get the hang of it. The yard was small and walled and muddled with tubs of flowers. Beyond that, the fields stretched out to every side of us, wide open, stone walled corn fields. I could see why Hugh was homesick in a southern suburb. I was amazed he hadn't gone mad. He must have had his hands on my hips as he slid them up to where I could feel them, on my shoulder blades and up over my shoulders.

"Isn't it beautiful?"

"Its incredible. What the hell are you doing in a city?"

"You're there."

He kissed my neck as he passed and jogged to open the gate for one of his father, coming in from the village road, his newspaper in hand.

"I never thought of you being a farm boy." I teased Hugh when we were in bed that night. He turned his head on my chest, relaxed so I could feel his breathing.

"I love this place. I always have done."

"Would you come back?"

"There's work in the area. There's no reason why we couldn't live up here."

"No?" I said sardonically. He smiled; I heard it in his voice.

"The weekend after I met you, you dragged me all over that forest park. You under estimate yourself. You've loved it here."

"I have." I admitted. Not just the sheer beauty of the place, either. His family was warm and accepting and easygoing: as sweet natured as he was. I could get quite attached to them without difficulty.

"There's no reason we shouldn't think about it." Hugh said lightly. "We were talking about moving."

"I happen to like my job."

"You've been stressed past remembering your own name the last few weeks."

"It isn't always like that."

"It worries me, you getting involved with the police like this. I wish you'd leave it all to the police and stick to your job. Until we came up here I'd hardly seen you."

I took my hands off his back. Silence.

"There are other benefits." Hugh said eventually. "Your parents."

"What about them?"

"They'd be less stifling if you weren't on their doorstep."

I swallowed on that one. "You know why I'm on their doorstep." I said eventually. "It's only been three years since I was living with them."

"You're long past that stage now. I thought about that when we were looking at the Brinkley flat. Do we really want to take a house that near them?"

"If they weren't there, I wouldn't dare to live alone."

"You've got me. Do you really want to buy a house where every time we do anything you've got to face another fight with your father and your mother polishing everything that isn't tied down-"

He had no idea. Hurt, I turned away from him.

"Anything else?"

"Oh don't be daft."

Daft. I knew it. No relationship is perfect; most are far from it. Maybe I should have paid more attention to Mark's offers. I was starting to think I needed more basis for comparison.


Lucifer refused to talk to either of us for the first two days we were home. The weather was as dire as it had been when we left. It was pouring with rain day and night and thunderstorms created power cuts that made doing anything a nightmare. I spent two days dragging around the house, bored to tears and with a steadily worsening cold. Hugh avoided me and my wheezing and coughing after he got his head bitten off a few times, and washed both cars between rain showers with Lucifer sulking on the doorstep.

"It didn't occur to you to call me?" Kerry demanded when he dropped by on the second afternoon. I tolerated him sticking his hand without ceremony inside my shirt and feeling his way across my chest and back.

"It's just a cold."

"You're rattling like an old carburettor. How long has that been going on?"

"Three days." Hugh said from the sink where he was washing oil off his hands.

Kerry grabbed his wrist and put his palm flat over my chest, working his way down over both lungs. "Feel the rattle? Both lungs full of junk."

I was well aware. I don't have any functioning stomach muscles to cough with.

"Get me a couple of pillows and I'll clear you out." Kerry followed me into the lounge.

"Is it ever going to stop raining? All our guttering blocked last night. I left Brian up a ladder hooking leaves out by the handful."

I'd grown up doing this more or less every time I got a cold. I knew the positions better than Kerry. He turned me at various angles over the heap of pillows and whacked out my chest, while I watched the evening news and he and Hugh exchanged horror stories about the power cuts.

"Have you been okay otherwise?" Kerry asked at some point during the onslaught. Hugh answered, since I hadn't got the breath to talk.

"A bit shaky. Co-ordination off. Same as he usually is when he's off colour."

I'd had no idea he'd noticed. Kerry paused for me to turn over. I saw him glance at Hugh and grin as he started pounding his way over my back.

"I think your boyfriend is going to thump me in a minute."


My father dropped in on his way home from work. The first thing he said to me was "My God you look terrible." The second was, "I wish you wouldn't let that cat sit on your lap."

"I like the cat." I said mutinously.

"And how long does it take to heal when he scratches your legs?"

I stifled the urge to throw something at him. He more or less behaved for the half-hour he stayed. When he got up to go, he paused and said cheerfully,

"What's your chest like?"

"Fine, Kerry did it this afternoon."

"I'll drop in tomorrow-"

"Hugh can do it if he has to." I lied. Hugh would probably have a fit at the idea, and I wasn't about to ask him.

"Good. I'll drop by tomorrow just in case."

Hugh caught the door before I slammed it off its hinges.

"What the hell is the matter with everyone!" I demanded. "I swear I'm going to move and change my name."

"You were rattling like hell last night."

"So sleep in the spare room." I said viciously.

Being Hugh, he didn't punch me: just changed into coveralls and disappeared underneath his MG, leaving me to strop in peace. I had no idea what to do with myself. I'd tried the office and found the answerphone on, and I hadn't managed to reach Jenny on her home phone. The only other option was to find Adair.

I woke in the early hours of the morning, aware of Hugh moving and his arm over my waist. I stirred and settled back down against him. It wasn't until it happened again that I realised he was deliberately turning me over. I struggled awake and lifted up on my elbows to glare at him.

"What do you think you're doing?"

He looked sleepy and rueful, like a small boy caught in trouble. "Sorry."

"How many times have you done that?"

"Your father said to do it about every three or four hours-"

"Jesus Christ."

"He said you'd probably sleep more deeply than usual and you wouldn't remember to turn- oh don't be daft, where are you going?"


He sighed, then rolled to his feet to follow me.

"Joss come on. Don't start at this time of night-"

"If I wanted you to do anything for me, I'd ask."

"You'd put yourself in hospital first." He said dryly.

"Don't go romanticising this! I've been like this all my life, I'm not ill. If anything needs doing I'll do it!"

"I don't want to see you with chest infections or pressure sores, that's all. It's not a crime!"

"It's a faint possibility. It's something I'm marginally more at risk from than you, and it's my problem."

"Where are you going?"

"I have no idea."

I left him muttering under his breath and slammed the front door behind me.


"Sam's gone." The worker at the hostel told me. "Vanished the same night you dropped him off. The police have been looking for him, they want to question him."

There was nothing I could do but leave the man with a polite smile of thanks. I went back to Wilton house. It was barely dawn, but I was damned if I was going home.

Hamish came down to the gate about eight am. when I shook it, looked blank for a minute, then smiled.

"Gawain. Hail."

"Hi. Have the police been here?"

He bowed his huge, dark head. "The house has been sundered. They searched from attic to cellar for Lucy, but she has been led beyond the gates and into the hands of the night."

Poor sod.

Hamish's eyes blazed at me. "The angels have hands of fire. They will see. They will strike down and purify what has been made foul."

"I'm sorry." I said gently. He gave me a surprisingly sweet smile.

"Thankyou Gawain. Good hunting."

I sat, watching the house for a while. I was angry with Hugh who didn't understand, who didn't want me to be here, who wanted me to put all this aside. Who thought I was too dependent on my parents. Who…


Adair. Standing on the street with his hands in his pockets. "Where have you been?"


"Meeting the in-laws?"

"That isn't funny."

"Ah." He smiled. "Remembered who hit you yet?"


"I ought to arrest you."

"Go on then." I said exasperatedly.

He leaned on the car window with both hands, looking down at me. "Are you off duty?"


Possibly for good.

He jerked his head at his own car.

I still don't remember exactly how he persuaded me over to Westfields. We were still arguing over the rights and wrongs of criminality compared to social inexperience when I found myself in his kitchen. It was just as inaccessible as my mother's. It had taken Hugh a while to adjust to the low surfaces, low lighting and low cupboards in the bungalow, where nothing was out of my reach. In here, I could only just see over the counters. I took a mug from him and followed him through into a sitting room with a wide, deep sofa and shelves full of books. I fastened onto them like a magnet and heard him laugh behind me.

"Spot the theme."

Mostly documentary crime. I was used to Hugh's mixture of poetry, fantasy and car magazines.

"What do you read?" Adair said behind me.

"I don't much." I was very aware of how close he was standing, and I was starting to get edgy. "Hugh's the reader- I just read what he leaves in my way."

"How long have you been together?"

"Eight months now."

"And is he the jealous type?"

"No." I thought about it, rather bitterly. "No, he isn't"


My stomach tightened as he touched me. I braced myself not to look round at his face.

"Mark, I-"

"Don't know if you want to be here. I know." He slid his hand into mine. I tried, carefully to let go.

"Mark I don't think- I get myself into situations and the next thing I know-"

"I won't do anything you don't want me to." Mark said gently. "It's allright, Joss. You're quite safe."

"I think I'd better go." I said awkwardly.

My hand was still holding his. After a few seconds he moved and knelt astride my legs so we were face to face. Cologne, the scent of his hair still damp from the rain and browner than Hugh's; light blue eyes. His blunt fingers slipped behind my head and I couldn't see any other option but to let him draw my head up to his mouth. For a split second I felt panic. And then my body responded independently of me, and I found my hands gripping him and pulling him closer.

Two pm. Brain, guts and brute instinct were still conferring without having reached a definite conclusion, as I captured a small spider from the wall and tipped it out of the window.

"I never thought of policemen being afraid of spiders."

Mark's hand ran down my back. "I never realised how much muscle you had under that shirt. Look at you."

"Get off. Think of the spider. Legs and eyes and-"

He pulled me back down. "I'd rather think about you. Biceps, triceps-"

"I suppose everyone's scared of something." I squirmed under his hands and his eyes caught mine briefly. "What are you scared of?"


"Sounds reasonable to me."

"It isn't. I spent years learning how to fall safely. I've forgotten more about gravity and anatomy than you'll ever know."

He'd rolled away to the bedside drawer. I stroked his back, pushing the covers out of the way. I knew disgracefully little about sex for my age, but it was something of a satisfaction to know I wasn't dependent on Hugh to enjoy something resembling intercourse.

He came up with a mobile phone and the faint shrilling became loud enough to reach me.

"It's yours." Mark said briefly. I took it and unwillingly flipped it open.


"Its me. Are you okay?"

"Fine." I took a few deep breaths and sat up, trying to normalise my voice.

Hugh sounded miles away. "Are you sure?"


"It's just your mother rang, and-"

After the row we'd had, he was worried. Again. He ought to move in with my parents; they could all panic together.

"I'm fine, I'll see you later."

Hugh broke the connection. I shut the phone off and dropped it beside the bed.

"Hugh?" Mark asked softly beside me.


"Will you tell him about this?"

"He knows." I said lightly.

He'd given me an open invitation to do it, for God's sake.

Mark was working nights and begged me for a lift to work at five pm, and then demanded to stop at the local supermarket. His shopping skills about equalled mine; there was nothing in his house that resembled a meal.

"Are you just going to sit there?" he asked, hovering beside his car. I looked at him.

"I don't do supermarkets."

"What do you mean you don't do supermarkets? Do what to supermarkets? Come on."

"I hate the damned things."

"Come on."

He opened the door, demanding until I was in my chair and trailing him, muttering.

"You have no idea what those places are like- you can't reach anything from a chair, you can't cope with a bloody trolley or basket, you can't move for people shoving trolleys into your face or small children getting under your wheels - the whole point is you can't shop without someone there doing it for you-"


"So my argument is, why should I be involved at all?" I halted at the door, glaring at him. "I might just as well give the someone else the list and stay right out of it."

He grabbed the handles of my chair and dragged me into the vegetable section by brute force. No one took any notice of us pushing each other and giggling like a pair of kids. Mark collected together a few odds and ends and we scuffled at the single checkout that was open, waiting for the girl to get the till working. I looked up reflexively as someone passed, and found myself face to face with Hugh. The look on his face stopped me sniggering. It was horrible. Cold from neck to waist, I cleared my throat.

"Hugh. Remember Mark Adair?"

Mark sounded choked, which told me he was trying not to laugh. Hugh gave him a faint nod.

"I was dropping Mark off at the station." I said in the frigid silence, trying to make it sound easy, like conversation always sounded between us. "He wanted to come in here and buy -"

Shut up Milliner.

Hugh didn't answer.

"Are you on your way home?" I asked him, desperate to break the silence.

"I was."

It didn't sound like him. The girl at the checkout cleared her throat. Mark went to pay for his shopping. Hugh and I avoided each other's eyes.

"You'd better get on." Hugh said eventually. "Sergeant Adair will be late for work."

"I'll see you later?"


It didn't sound promising. Hugh strode away towards the carpark. I looked at Mark. He winced but nodded.

"Go after him. I'll ring the station, someone'll pick me up."

I bolted after Hugh. I thought I had two options. Either he'd go on shopping like an automaton, or he'd abandon the whole idea and run for it. By the time I found him, he'd compromised. He was sitting on the wall of the car park and I couldn't stand the look on his face. I tried to touch him but he got up and moved out of my reach.

"Ad." I said pleadingly. "Hugh-"

He wouldn't look at me. His arms were folded and his hair had slipped forward, shielding his eyes.

"You said you didn't mind." I said eventually, stupidly. "We talked about it-"


"I'm sorry it had to be pushed in your face, but it wasn't meant. If you mind you only have to say so-"

"I don't." Hugh said sharply. "If you've got to sleep with the swine then get it out of your system."

That wasn't what hurt. I knew.

"What is it?" Hugh said in the end, quietly. "What's the difference? I've never pushed you. I haven't argued. Maybe I should have done, but I always thought you were under enough pressure."

"We were just messing around."

"Why is it that he can get you to do something I couldn't in nearly a year? I haven't been able to get you into a shop since I met you."

"I hardly know him, he's a casual friend."

"Why can you do it with him and not with me? What else do you let him do that you won't let me near?"

"That's ridiculous!"

Hugh looked at me. "Do you know how many things you shut me out of? How many things I'm not allowed to know about or ask about? Things I know I can't say or do? Have you any idea how defensive you are with me?"

"Defensive?" I said blankly, my guts twisting up into knots. Hugh ran a hand through his hair.

"It's been months. And I kept thinking, if I was patient, if I gave you time, if I made sure you never associated me with pressure, eventually you'd trust me. But I'm obviously just not the right guy, am I?"

"Don't say that." I said in shock. "Hugh-"

"I'm over-reacting. I know." Hugh fended me off and took another step away from me. "Look. Go to- go away. Give me a few hours."

"I can't leave you like this." I said urgently. He turned away from me again, lifting his hand away before I could touch it.

"I want you to go."


Why Mark? I wondered about that a lot in the ghastly evening I spent wandering, not wanting to go home. I didn't even like him that much. At times, I actively disliked him. I didn't want to live with him, but then there was a sort of perverse and ugly fascination with being with him. We didn't talk a great deal; I was often off hand and rude to him which he found funny. But then I didn't watch Hugh, there was no mystery to him. No need to wonder how his mouth twitched or why a look came into his eyes. I knew it all. I couldn't imagine lying cuddled up to Mark to watch rugby, or arguing about toothpaste brands. I didn't want that sort of domestic state with him. Lately I wondered if I wanted it with anyone. Maybe I'd escaped from my parents only to fall straight in with Hugh, who did much the same job. Further, I wondered if that was what I enjoyed about Mark. His lack of caring, his lack of concern. Hugh was always careful. To be fair, that was his nature- he'd have been as careful with a 300lb navvy. But would he always be so careful? Would there never be a time where he'd forget himself and just take what he wanted? It nagged at me. He was always Hugh, even at the most intimate moments when one would sincerely hope he didn't have a sane thought in his head. I'd still catch him balancing and adjusting to keep his weight off my legs or to make sure he wasn't twisting some insensitive joint in the wrong direction, or watching my face for a hint that we should try something gentler.

My father went absolutely spare when he realised we had sex, it was one of the worst rows we ever had. I was furious because the only way he could have found out was through the old badger of my consultant who had decided that golf club loyalties were stronger than patient confidentiality. I damn near sued him for that. Dad was furious partly because he said it was about the most self destructive thing I could do short of taking a hammer to my legs, but mostly I think because he found the whole idea of me and sex beyond his ability to cope with.

"Why the devil do you want to?" I remember him raging. "You can't feel it for God's sake, you can't erect, you can't possibly ejaculate, the nerves are dead!"

"But I'm not." I said, which is the sort of riposte you find clever in your early twenties. "What the hell did you think we were doing in a double bed together?"

"Two people can have a very affectionate relationship-" he said lamely.

For weeks afterwards I did everything but spray paint SEX on the brickwork outside.

Hugh gave me a soft toy at some point, early on in our relationship: a sort of joke, but I went berserk and wouldn't have it in the house. It was an over reaction to a sensitive point, and I wouldn't do it now, but was Mark a more subtle version of the same reaction?

Look Daddy, I can have cheap, nasty sex like everyone else.

Or maybe it was a quieter version of the sulks Hugh had been faced with then. And just like that time, he was gentle, sympathetic, infuriatingly patient. Maybe I wanted to snap that patience, make him shout and lay down the law.

You are not going to see that slimy unpleasant bastard again, you are not going to lie to me.

Except I knew how my answer would sound: self possessed and frigid. How dare you tell me what to do?

It would end with us parting. I knew it. And I wondered if that was what I wanted and was trying to make happen.

I wandered on, shaken and still startled by Hugh's unexpected jealousy. I'd annoyed him before now, we argued occasionally like any other couple, but this was the first time I'd ever driven him to do anything so dramatic. It was shocking. And yet they said jealousy was one of the strongest emotions, one of the most violent. I froze in the middle of the street.

Lucy had known Sam. She had known Craig. She had known Steve. She had slipped out of that religious nut house at regular intervals to see those boys, despite the warnings and threats made to her by her community. She had misled, if not outright lied to me and to the police. Her evasiveness and her fear had been suspicious at the time but now I could understand. It had been Hugh who suggested it. Hamish. Hamish who's eyes had gleamed at me just a few hours ago.

"The angels have hands of fire. They purify what has been made unclean."

Every man who tempted or presented risk to Lucy. Eventually Lucy herself. The one anomaly was Mel, but I suspected the answer would lie in establishing the father of her child.

Continue on to Part 10 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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