The trip to Heathrow airport took longer than the family had hoped, but they were in good time to meet the direct flight from Cape Town. To describe the event would be to repeat what anyone has experienced who has met someone at an airport. Suffice it to say that waiting for the plane seemed long, but the luggage was finally collected from the revolving band and two weary travellers made for the exit. Joe spotted them quickly and was immediately aware of the blood turning cold in his veins.
“I’m sure someone will tell me who arranged all this,” he said.
“You should not leave phone numbers in pockets of jeans you want washing, Joe,” said Grit.
“It could have been just anyone, Mother.”
“I left the phoning to Cleo. She knows exactly what to do in such cases. I don’t think she would have let just anyone come here.”
“Did my sister-in-law let you come here, Sonia?”
“I was coming anyway,” said Sonia.
You could have cut the atmosphere between Joe and Sonia with a knife. Joe was only polite. Cleo would have said he was disconcerted. Gary thought he was a bit of a sod for not showing Sonia more warmth even if did not want her in his life. Grit had jumped the guns. He would have to keep the little group in good spirits given that Joe had been eager to have Charlotte back in his life. It was not their business to sort out the relationship between Joe and the person Gary assumed to be estranged.
“Come on, you lot. Let’s get home,” Gary enthused. “Cleo will be champing at the bit waiting for us. I’ll just send her a text to say you have arrived safely.”
The text Gary sent warned Cleo that an ex of Joe’s had come along ostensibly to look after Charlotte. Joe was not pleased.
Charlie and Charlotte hit it off immediately. Gary was uncomfortable about Sonia being there. She was quite nice, but not at all the kind of woman he would have thought Joe would take up with. She had a doll-like appearance and her heavily painted face and coolness was quite the opposite from Cleo’s natural beauty and physical warmth. Sonia was not very tall, very slim and white-skinned. She looked as if she had always ignored the African sun and would crack a rib if Gary hugged her the way he hugged Cleo.
“We’re cousins,” Charlie announced. “Cousins always get on well, especially if they have the same name.”
“Do they always call you Charlotte?” Grit asked. She too had noticed the coolness between Joe and Sonia and regretted finding that phone number, although Sonia had told them of her plan to accompany Charlotte without any kind of invitation. Was her coolness the result of some quarrel or other between her and Joe? Had Joe jilted her?
“You are my grandmother, aren’t you?” said Charlotte, plainly overawed by everything.
“Yes, my dear, and I’m so glad to know you,” said Grit, drawing Charlotte into an embrace. The girl did not seem much used to being hugged. She was tense and stiff.
“I’m going to call you Lottie,” said Charlie. “Will that be OK?”
“That’s a good idea,” said Joe. Apart from that one hug at arrivals, Joe had not been forthcoming with a response to anything. He seemed to be in shock.
The party returned to the car. Joe walked beside Sonia, but Gary thought he was uneasy about Sonia coming. He did not hold her hand or put an arm round her shoulder. Gary hoped that Cleo would sort things out between them and help them to overcome their seeming indifference, whatever caused it. There was an innate shyness about Sonia, so how come that she had undertaken such a long journey to see a man again with whom she did not seem to have much rapport? Charlotte would have been fine in the care of a stewardess. It was quite normal for juniors to embark on flights alone. They usually enjoyed V.I.P. status. Gary knew that Cleo would have behaved quite differently with him. They would have shared the same emotional greeting that generally follows a separation of lovers. Joe had shown more emotion when they had met.
The car was retrieved, the luggage stuffed into the boot, the four ladies sat in the back while the brothers sat in the front again. They were fortunately not held up by tailbacks and unfortunately not enhanced by Gary and Joe singing along to the radio. The girls tried to sleep though the noise. Grit and Sonia talked earnestly. Sonia warmed a little to Grit, but Grit was uneasy about the situation.
At the cottage they all scrambled out of the car and were given a huge welcome by Cleo, who embraced them all, especially the two girls.
“Well, here we are,” said Gary gratuitously, drawing Cleo to one side, ostensibly to embrace her as if they had been apart for months, but in fact to warn her that the contact between Sonia and Joe was as cool as ever and it was going to be difficult.
“I don’t know if they had a relationship at one time, but there’s nothing of it left now,” said Gary.
“I’d like to thank you for getting in touch with Sonia,” said Joe to Cleo. Gary did not think Joe really meant it. Cleo was sure he didn’t.
“I told you,” said Sonia. “I was coming anyway.”
“You were?” said Joe as if he had not heard her say the same thing at the airport. Was he making an effort to be nice to her?
“I could not let Charlotte fly all that way on her own, Joe.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“It was going to be my excuse if you don’t want me here.”
“But we want you here,” said Cleo. Joe was irritated by Cleo’s welcoming gesture.
“Thank you,” said Sonia, looking at Joe with tears in her eyes.
When it came for the girls to go to bed, Charlie decided that Lottie should sleep in her bed because the grownups had not finished talking. Later, Grit, who was still very unsure about the relationship between Joe and Sonia, asked politely if Sonia would like to sleep in Lottie’s room that night. They could reorganize things the following day.
“I think we could manage in my room,” said Joe, “but it’s up to Sonia to decide.”
“But I expect Sonia is tired,” said Grit.
“Are you two more than just passing acquaintances?” said Gary.
“Can you leave Joe and Sonia to organize themselves, folks,” said Cleo. “You Hurleys are the limit.”
“That’s OK,” said Sonia. “We’ll come to a satisfactory agreement, I’m sure.”
“That would depend on what you call satisfactory,” said Joe.
When Grit, Sonia and Joe finally left to go to bed, Cleo could not help berating Gary for not supporting Joe.
“It’s quite obvious that they were in a relationship at one time,” she said.
“He left her to come to the UK,” said Gary who had put his arms round Cleo.
“That does not mean that he doesn’t love her.”
“He did not show her any love at all,” said Gary. “I don’t think he has any feeling for her.”
“He doesn’t have your kind of feelings, Gary.”
“Am I too demonstrative, Cleo? I’ve never heard you complain before.”
“I love your effusiveness and everything else about you, Gary, but it may not be what Sonia would like.”
“She responded to my hug quite convincingly, but turned cold again almost immediately.”
“I hope you didn’t treat her to what I’d like to call a whole-body hug.”
“Of course not. To be honest, I think she would have preferred a peck on the cheek.”
“Maybe you were expecting Joe to behave like you, Gary, but you are exceptionally emotional and prone to hugging all and sundry.”
“I wasn’t like that until we met, Cleo,” said Gary. “Joe needs someone like you.”
“Some people have cool relationships and very little physical contact. They don’t want it.”
“I’d hate him to be landed with her. She did not ask him if he was pleased to see her and he did not say so of his own accord.”
“Leave them to sort themselves out, Gary. It’s none of our business. Let’s go to bed. It’s already tomorrow.”
Which reminds me …”
“… It’s your day off tomorrow.”
“So it is, but I have a feeling that I’m not going to enjoy it.”
“Let’s just enjoy the here and now,” said Cleo. “I don’t mind if you warm my duvet while I look in on the girls.”
“I’ll look in on the girls while you warm mine,” said Gary.
At nine a.m. Greg rang.
“We have a new corpse, Gary. Can you drop in?”
“Don’t tell me Frank killed himself.”
“No, but he complained about the breakfast. He’s vegan, Gary.”
“No animal products at all.”
“He should be OK with the synthetic canteen cheese then. Who is the corpse?”
“I don’t know who it is, but it was in the courtyard behind HQ.”
“I’ll be there by eleven. Is that OK?”
“Sorry to bother you, Gary.”
“It’s no bother, Greg. I’ll be quite glad to get out and about.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“What would you do if a friend arrived at an airport and you were not expecting them?”
“I’d be surprised, but make him or her welcome.”
“Joe did not behave as if he wanted Sonia here.”
“Sonia being the jilted one, I assume. Cleo will sort them out, Gary. She has gangsters cringing when she gives them advice.”
“I don’t want any cringing in my family, Greg, but I think we are going to get some.”
“Sonia sounds like a cold fish,” said Greg.
“And that corpse sounds like a blessing in disguise,” said Gary. “See you soon.”
Sonia came to talk to Cleo soon after Greg’s phone call. Gary made himself scarce. He needed a shower, he said. There was new corpse to be dealt with. He would go to HQ and support the skeleton staff. Corpses at weekends were a nuisance rather than a blessing in disguise.
“I’ll just get you a fresh bath towel,” said Cleo, leaving Sonia to help herself to coffee and following Gary into the bathroom where they sneaked in a body hug to keep them going. “So this corpse is a blessing in disguise, I take it.”
“I’m chickening out of the intellectual duel between Joe and the girl he left behind, Cleo. Where is he, anyway?”
“I don’t think they slept together,” Cleo said. “Get going, Gary. I’ll deal with the situation. The girls will help with the twins and PeggySue.”
“Sorry about that, Sonia,” said Cleo, returning to the breakfast table. “Would you like a bagel?”
Presently, Gary wafted through smelling strongly of the erotic perfume that Cleo always found irresistible, planted a kiss on her mouth and embraced Sonia warmly, telling her to do whatever Cleo advised. After sharing hugs with the little ones, he left them to it, promising to be back as soon as he had summed up the situation at HQ. He would take the big girls out that afternoon, he said. I’d like to get to know my new niece.
Cleo accompanied Gary to the door to get one more hug to charge her batteries.
As if to pre-empt any questions Cleo might ask when she came back to the table, Sonia said “I slept in Charlotte’s bed last night.”
“I was afraid of that,” said Cleo. “Why did you come, Sonia? Things don’t seem to be right between you and Joe.”
“It’s my fault, Cleo. I told him he had to choose between me and the UK.”
“Do you love him?”
“Not the way he is now. Gary’s warmth gets to me. Joe’s coldness does, too.”
Sonia was eating her second bagel with obvious enjoyment. Cleo, who was always complaining about her waistline, could not help commenting.
“Were you always this thin, Sonia?”
“Metabolism, Cleo. I can eat like a horse and don’t gain an ounce.”
“What a wonderful talent to have, Sonia. I put weight on just thinking about good food.”
“But you have a talent for loving people,” said Sonia.
“You can learn that, Sonia,” said Cleo taking that comment literally. “I just need to show the people I love that I love them. I don’t hug people I don’t feel any warmth for.”
“I really meant that figuratively,” said Sonia, who was embarrassed by Cleo’s directness. Sonia did not know that Cleo was provoking her deliberately..
“I know you did, but you can’t go on indefinitely loving someone and not letting them be aware of it. If you love Joe, show him some passion. It might work for you, and if it doesn’t you can fly home and forget him.”
“I’ll try. He’s a nice guy, but I ‘ve no idea if he ever felt any genuine affection for me.”
“I don’t think I could. He’s so aloof.”
“He isn’t really, Sonia. He asked me if I have a sister.”
“No, and Gary is the love of my life. I would never swap him for Joe, though Joe is a nice guy. Give him a chance.”
“I’ll try if he will,” said Sonia, “but I don’t feel attracted enough to him at the moment.”
“Did you have a physical relationship, Sonia?”
“Sort of. May I have another bagel?”
Very soon after that revealing chat, the girls got up for breakfast. Tommy and Teddy had been looking around contentedly in the playpen, but opened their arms when the two girls went to pick them up.
“Daddy fed them early this morning,” said Cleo. “But think they need another drink. Can you help, girls?”
“Me too?” said Lottie.
“Of course,” said Cleo. “One each!”
PeggySue had witnessed Sonia and Cleo’s talk from her high chair, where she had spooned away her cereal and banana mix quite happily.
“How do you do it, Cleo?” said Sonia.
“I love them all and Lottie is joining the crew, as you see.”
“But you are having another one. Why bother when you have so many?”
“It isn’t a bother, Sonia. It’s a joy. That’s what love did to me.”
“I’m not careless, Sonia, and neither is Gary. We let it happen. Love expands.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You are not prying. I like talking about what makes me happy. I have to talk to so many sad and misguided people in my job as sociologist. I just hope you don’t mind having all these kids around. They’re here to stay, and that includes Lottie.”
“Am I sad and misguided, Cleo?”
“How would you answer that question, Sonia?”
“I think I must be. I came here expecting Joe to want me in his life, although he chose to come here and left me.”
“Why don’t you talk to him about that?”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Well try. You can see how happy Joes is to have daughter back. He won’t let her go, and we won’t either.”
“I thought she would want to go back to school in South Africa.”
“She’ll go to school here. Just look at her. If that isn’t happiness I don’t know what is.”
“Those babies are cute,” said Sonia.
“Warm and beautiful,“ said Cleo. “A child teaches a lot about love, Sonia. Test it on PeggySue.”
To Cleo’s surprise, Sonia did just that. She lifted the child out of her high chair complete with sticky bib and hands. PeggySue turned to cling on to her like a little chimpanzee.
“See what I mean?” said Cleo.
Sonia put PeggySue into the playpen. Then she went into the kitchen to get rid of the sticky cereal. Cleo immediately retrieved PeggySue and covered the little girl with kisses. Sonia looked on, a little repulsed.
“I never wanted children,” said Sonia. “They make a mess and spoil the figure.”
“So what! If someone only loves you for your waistline you might as well be a hooker,” said Cleo.
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
Gary would have explained Cleo’s reaction as shock therapy.
At that moment Grit, Roger and Joe arrived. Roger had clearly spent the night with Grit and Joe had clearly approved. Cleo thought things might get difficult between Sonia and Joe if the family did not act as a catalyst.
Grit was her usual warm self. She and Cleo hugged warmly before Grit kissed and hugged all her grandchildren and cleaned PeggySue up over the kitchen sink before getting her some juice and returning her to her high chair after giving it a good wipe.
“So many kisses in one go and a sticky granddaughter to make it all even more fun,” said Grit, getting round to hugging Sonia briefly as a matter of form.
Joe came to sit at the table after hugging his daughter and Charlie, who had more or less trained him to do so.
“Good morning, Ladies,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
“You are very formal, Joe,” said Cleo. “Don’t you love your women enough to give us a morning hug?”
“Well … I suppose I do,” said Joe, getting up to go round the table to hug Grit first, then Cleo.
“I really meant Sonia,” said Cleo, angry with Joe for that pointed snub he had awarded her. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” said Joe.
“Everything,” said Cleo. “If you don’t want Sonia here why don’t you just say so? Or are you too much of a coward?”
“I quite like having Sonia here,” said Joe.
“You could have fooled me. Show it for crying out loud,” said Cleo.
“It’s OK, Cleo. I understand,” said Sonia, who didn’t.
Sonia stood up and went to the playpen. She was humiliated and decided at that moment to go home.
“Now see what you’ve done,” said Joe to Cleo.
“What I’ve done?” said Cleo.
Grit got up from the sofa, where she had been reading a Sunday paper with Roger, and went to comfort Sonia.
“Go away for an hour, Joe. Sonia needs a little tenderness in her life and she came hoping to get it from you. But you are not interested, are you?”
“She told me she never wanted to see me again, Cleo.”
“But she came to find you.”
“She should not have. I did not invite her and I was fine without her.”
“You talk as if she was visiting a sick relative. If you loved her once, just show her affection now. Sonia won’t stay here now she knows what a mean little jerk you are.”
“That hurt,” said Joe.
“Good. Now stop hurting Sonia.”
Joe got up. He wanted to leave but the sight of Sonia leaning over the bars of the playpen just watching those babies gurgling happily affected him despite himself. He went to Sonia and put an arm on her shoulder. Grit retreated to the sofa after exchanging looks with Cleo that we somewhere between exasperation and puzzlement.
“I’m sorry, Sonia,” Joe said, and Sonia turned to him and leant her head on his chest. “I didn’t mean it to be like this. I did not want this at all.”
“Like what? What did you mean?” said Sonia. “What didn’t you want?”
“You laughed when I told you I wanted to find my family and you told me to get out of your life. So I did that, didn’t I?” said Joe in a tone that startled all the listeners.
“But I did not mean it,” said Sonia, “and I came here to tell you that.”
“I’m glad you came,” said Joe.
“Show me, then,” said Sonia.
“I’m glad you came so that I have a confirmation that I did the right thing,” said Joe. “You never once offered to come with me. You and your damned school were more important.”
Cleo decided to interrupt.
“You both need therapy,” she said. “I should knock your heads together. For heaven’s sake kiss and make up.”
The couple obliged with a peck.
“Well, that’s a start, isn’t it? I can’t believe that the brother of such a seriously ardent lover as Gary could be such a cold fish,” said Cleo.
To Cleo’s relief that made them all laugh.
“I’ll do better now we know what the problem is,” said Joe. “Coming for a walk, Sonia?”
“I’ll get my coat,” said Sonia.
“I’ll get mine, too,” said Joe. “And I’ll get Dog. He needs a run.”
“Is there more coffee, Cleo?” said Grit. “I don’t need my coat. I don’t want to go for a walk. Roger and I danced the night away – well almost.”
“I doubt very much if those two have a walk in mind. I just don’t know what they’d do instead. There’s no love lost between them. Maybe Dog will bring them closer together.”
Greg was glad to see Gary in time for some decent coffee out of Gary’s espresso machine.
Gary was more than glad not to have to witness Joe and Sonia behaving like two strangers.
“Do you know who the corpse is?” Gary asked.
“One less on the gangster menu in Middlethumpton,” said Greg. “Remember that guy at the armed bandit retreat down the road?”
“I’m surprised he lasted this long,” said Gary. “I wonder if he has anything to do with Frank Wetherby’s case?”
“What would Frank be doing in such a dive?” said Greg.
“It takes all sorts, Greg. Is Chris in the path lab?”
“Yes. Do you want to see the corpse?”
“I’m training myself. After watching the birth of my twins I’m much braver. The midwife praised me for not fainting.”
“Pooth is pleasantly undramatic in death,” said Greg.
“All that blood and gunge.”
“I mean at the birth of those babies. That really shocked me.”
“I hope you are over it now. Aren’t you going to go through it all again soon?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Come on,” said Greg. “Chris is waiting for us down there.”
“That sounds like hell,” said Gary.
“We can take the lift. It’s quicker.”
Another intravenous death,” said Chris. “I’m getting used to these clinical killings. Just one little jab in the shoulder and that only bruised because this guy is probably on rat gift for his heart.”
“He’ll save the National Health a steep bill, then, won’t he?”
“What does rat gift do?” asked Greg.
“Thins the blood,” said Chris.
“This guy won’t need it anymore,” said Gary.
“No. Any idea who wanted him out of the way?” Chris asked.
“All the other gangsters, I should think,” said Greg. “Or customers who objected to Pooth’s programmed slot machines. I don’t think anyone had ever come away a winner.”
“I wonder if he visited Upper Grumpsfield last Wednesday,” said Gary.
“I should not have thought he got up early enough to set a house on fire,” said Greg. “He was always half-soaked when he opened up his business at nine.”
“He may not have been to bed,” said Gary. “I wonder if he drove a car?”
“We can find out from the driving licence people,” said Greg.
“I shouldn’t think he’d be bothered about having a licence,” said Chris.
“I’ll ask Frank Wetherby about him tomorrow. I can’t imagine Pooth winning a fight with Frank, but if he knocked him down from behind, got out of the salon fast after setting fire to it for good measure….”
“And then phoned the fire brigade?” said Greg.
“That is admittedly a loophole,” said Gary.
“I expect Frank will like the idea of there being another suspect,” said Chris.
“Especially if it cancels him out,” said Gary, “but I’m not convinced that it will.”
“You don’t sound convinced about anything,” said Greg.
Cleo phoned Gary to find out who the corpse was. Gary told her that he thought Pooth might have a hand in Rita’s misfortune.
“Don’t even try to explain how, Gary.”
“How are the non-lovers, Cleo?”
“I think they went for a walk with Dog to work it out.”
“No doubt you interfered a little, didn’t you?”
“Only before they decided to resume communication.”
“The main thing is that we don’t want a cold war on our hands.”
“Sonia could not understand why we have so many children, Gary. I tried to explain.”
“It took me a while to be convinced, Cleo, though they are mine!”
“I don’t believe you. Being a daddy has made a man of you.”
“I’ll ignore that.”
“At your peril.”
“Back home soon, my love. There ain’t much I can do here.”
“There’s plenty to do here, Sweetheart.”
“Don’t I know it. Is Lottie OK?
“Just fine, Gary. She already feels like one of mine.”
“That’s probably because you’re broody,” said Gary.
“Better come home and find out.”