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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

“He fancies you, you know.”

Jenna was so startled that she nearly dropped the croissants as she took them out of the oven. “Fancies? Me? Who?” She began to laugh in disbelief. “You can’t mean Jon!”

“Of course not Jon.” Saskia tossed her scarlet hair provocatively, and looked rather smug. “He fancies me, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Actually, I had. So who? Who fancies me?” She knew who Saskia must be talking about, the field wasn’t exactly extensive, but the idea was just ridiculous.

Confirmation came with her friend’s next words. “Fran, of course.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be silly, of course he doesn’t. He’s a mate, that’s all.”

“That’s what you think. You know what your trouble is, Jen? Low self-esteem. Rick’s dealt your vanity such a blow by dumping you and shagging the gorgeous nubile Madison that you can’t imagine anyone could ever fancy you. And it’s so not true.”

“You’re wrong – I’ve got plenty of self-esteem. I admit I lost a lot of confidence when Rick buggered off, but it’s all coming back.” Jenna gestured round the tiny kitchen. “Living here, coping on my own, getting a job, making new friends, researching the casket – I’ve got my life back and it’s been brilliant.”

“I’m not saying it hasn’t, darling, but not once have you mentioned your love life.”

“What love life? For the nine hundred and ninety ninth time, I don’t want a love life!”

“’Methinks the lady doth protest too much’,” Saskia quoted. “You may find you’ve got one even if you don’t want it. I’ve seen the way he looks at you when he thinks you won’t notice.”

“Bollocks,” said Jenna briskly. She put the four hot, golden croissants onto her nicest plate, decorated with a simple tree beside a thatched cottage in the style of Clarice Cliff, and added it to the tray along with knives, smaller plates, butter and chocolate spread. Then she carried it through to the table in the sitting room, while Saskia, still talking, followed behind with the coffee pot. “That song he played? I bet it was about you.”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenna said, for the second time. She set everything out on the table, and added with a grin, “I’m not so vain I think that song is about me. I don’t believe a word of it.”

“You’re not normally so unobservant, darling. Next time you’re in the same room with him, use your eyes. Anyway, why all the fuss? He’s a really nice guy, good looking, talented, well off and a great dad – and there ain’t nothin’ sexier than a great dad, trust your Mama Sass. What’s not to like?”

“I thought we’d had this conversation, several times. I don’t want another man, not now, maybe not ever. They watch back-to-back ancient editions of Top Gear on Dave, leave the toilet seat up and fart in bed. Anyway, if he’s carried a torch for me for nearly thirty years, he can carry it for me a bit longer.”

“Has he?” Saskia’s eyes gleamed with curiosity as she poured out the coffee. “How do you know?”

Mentally kicking herself for revealing too much, Jenna said, “It was the song. It was about a cafe we all used to go to, the winter of our second year at uni. And I did wonder when I heard it, whether it was also about one of us.”

“Us?”

“The girls in our group. Me, Sarah – she’s Jon’s ex-wife – Rick’s sister Jules, a few others.”

Saskia sat down, grinning. “You were an incestuous lot, sharing each other round like some hippie commune.”

“It wasn’t like that at all!” Jenna protested. Then she thought about it, and gave her friend a wry smile. “Well, it was a bit. Has Jon ever talked about it?”

“Not so far, I’m glad to say. We’ve had too many other things on our minds to indulge in nostalgic reminiscences.”

“Be careful, there is such a thing as too much information, you know.” Jenna put chocolate spread on a piece of croissant, popped it into her mouth and let the rich dark flavours infiltrate her taste buds. “I think this is my desert island food.”

“Don’t change the subject, darling. Anyway, you’d get scurvy. And fat.”

“Thanks!”

“Just kidding, honey. Anyway, I can’t talk.” Saskia grinned. “You must be at least two sizes smaller than me.”

Jenna grinned back, once she’d finished her mouthful. “I’m skinny. You’re voluptuous. So, do tell me, how did you and Jon hook up? I didn’t notice any significant glances or whispered conversations at the New Year party.”

To her relief, Saskia accepted this change of subject without objecting. “Just because you didn’t notice them, darling, doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Suffice it to say that phone numbers were exchanged, and arrangements made, and the rest, as they say, is history. We’ve spent several weekends together, and so far, touch wood, it’s going very well.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Jenna said, wondering if she was going to put her foot in it, “but Jon’s not ... well, he wasn’t always the most reliable person. If you see what I mean.”

Saskia gave her an amused look. “This is just fun. No strings attached, no promises made to be broken, no hearts involved. And understood on both sides.”

“OK.” Jenna knew that it was her friend’s usual modus operandi, and almost certainly Jon’s as well, even now, but she still wasn’t entirely sure that ‘fun’ was all Saskia wanted. She’d seen an unexpectedly vulnerable side to her, the previous evening. How well did you really know your friends, even friends as close as Saskia? And she was an expert at putting a brave face on things, on papering over the cracks – not so different from me, Jenna thought wryly.

To her relief, the thorny subject of Fran’s feelings for her, whatever they might be, seemed to be forgotten. They finished their breakfast and then, since the sun was shining, Jenna suggested a walk. She hadn’t really expected a positive response, and was surprised when Saskia agreed. “As long as you don’t lead me into some uncharted bog, darling, I don’t want to get my Converses muddy.”

The church bells were ringing as they shut the front door behind them. Jenna had already seen Ruth and Gary setting off with Sammy, so there was no point in asking if they wanted her to walk him. She said, “We can go along the sea wall, or up to the castle.”

“The sea wall sounds wet. Castle?”

“Castle it is.”

Despite the sunshine, there was a chilly east wind at their back as they made their way up towards the centre of Orford. There were quite a few people around, and Saskia, with her scarlet hair, oversized purple coat and flowered leggings, earned several curious glances. Jenna, more conventionally clad in jeans and padded jacket, thought with an inward smile that she had introduced some exotic species into the Boden-wearing middle class weekenders who inhabited the village. She felt an unworthy sense of smugness. On Monday morning, come rain, shine, gale, snow or whatever else the famously bracing east coast weather could throw at her, she would still be here, while most of the people who passed them would be back in some cosy Islington (or St. Albans) bolthole. It would be some time, if ever, before she felt she truly belonged in this delightful place, but this was where her life was now.

“Are we going in?” Saskia asked, as they approached the castle.

“Do you want to? There are some great views from the top, even if you’re not that interested in mediaeval history.”

“Well, it’s not every day I have the chance to tour a mediaeval castle with a mediaeval expert, so bring it on!”

Jenna laughed. “Expert? Me? If I ever was, it was close on thirty years ago. I’ve forgotten most of it, apart from the child-friendly bits like jousting and the Black Death and sewage disposal.”

“And where did they dispose of their sewage?”

“Straight down into the moat, usually,” said Jenna. “In which swam the fish they’d be eating for dinner.”

“No wonder they all died of nameless diseases,” Saskia said, pulling a disgusted face. “I’m very glad, darling, that we live in the age of antibiotics and modern plumbing.”

“Don’t worry, so am I,” Jenna said with feeling. “I remember years ago, when I was pregnant with Rosie, one of my friends in my NCT group kept banging on about how her childbirth was going to be entirely natural and medical intervention was completely unnecessary. I lent her a book on the history of women’s bodies, and funnily enough, after three hundred pages full of gory details about post-partum haemorrhage, puerperal fever and prolapsed wombs, she wasn’t quite so keen on the idea.”

Saskia snorted. “I’m not surprised. I had every form of pain relief available with my two, and even so it was just like shitting a gigantic melon with knobs on.”

It was Jenna’s turn to snort. “I know what you mean. After the twins, I couldn’t sit down in comfort for about six weeks.”

They paid their money, and at Saskia’s insistence declined the offer of an audio tour. “I want your thoughts on this place, darling, not some random expert’s.”

At least Jenna was familiar with Orford Castle, and could give her friend all the information, much of it fairly off-beat, that she could require. They spent an entertaining half hour exploring the great keep, which was the only part of it still standing, but hugely impressive, with six floors from cellar to top, a fascinating museum, and more than ninety stairs to climb, prompting Saskia to complain that it would be vastly improved by the installation of a lift. They reached the roof at last, with more than a little huffing and puffing, and paused for a much-needed rest, leaning on the railings at the top and gazing in fascination at the little town spread out below them, red pantiled roofs and neat dormers hemmed in by a sheltering ring of trees. Further away, the sinuous pale brown line of the river slithered past the quay, and above the flat barren shingle spit of Orfordness, the North Sea was a spear of silver laid on the horizon.

“I take it all back,” Saskia said, pulling her vintage scarf closer around her head as the wind threatened to whisk it off to Cambridgeshire. “Well worth it, just for the view. Can you see your house from here?”

Jenna tugged her woolly hat further down around her ears, which were beginning to ache. “I don’t think so. It’s somewhere over there, just in front of those furthest trees. You can just about glimpse the castle from my bedroom window, if you lean out and crick your neck.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Doesn’t the wind ever give it a rest here?”

“Thass a lazy wind,” Jenna said with a grin. “That don’t goo round yew, that goo right through yew!”

Below them, there were a surprising number of vehicles in the car park, and several hardy families exploring the earthworks which were all that remained of the rest of the castle. Saskia took out her phone and began taking pictures. Jenna had fortunately remembered to bring her camera with her, and began to extract it from her handbag and then its case. It might be a top-of-the-range SLR, but it was comparatively heavy and cumbersome, and rather lacked the spontaneity of lesser devices.

“I didn’t know you had that,” Saskia commented. She was holding the phone high, and turning slowly in the centre of the roof so that it was recording a panorama. “Looks like a serious piece of kit. When did you get it?”

“Rick gave it to me a couple of years ago, and it’s spent most of the time since then shut away in a cupboard. I thought it was about time I learned how to use it – I’ve signed up for a photography course after Easter.”

“Have you?” Saskia sounded genuinely impressed. “Well, I could use someone creative with a flair for the unusual when I put our next online listing together.”

Jenna laughed. “You’ve got a photographer already! That Brendan guy.”

“He’s gone off to Spain for six months on an assignment. Or so he said. I think it might be less to do with Gaudi’s architecture and more to do with his new girlfriend – she’s from Barcelona.”

“Well, you’ll still want a professional, not a rank beginner like me.” Jenna peered at the screen, finding it hard to see in the sunlight. She’d read the manual, twice, but she suspected that the most she could do up here was to aim, press the button and hope for the best. Since the instructions implied that it could do absolutely anything bar making a cup of tea, perhaps it would do all the work for her. She leaned gingerly against the railings, aimed, zoomed and fired several times at the distant sea, hoping that something worthwhile would result. At least with a digital camera, you could weed out the duds without the expense of having to print them first.

“Talking of Rick ... “ Saskia had finished revolving, and had come to a halt facing her. “Has that baby been born yet?”

Jenna would rather not talk of Rick, but she supposed she’d have to get used to it. “Not as far as I know. I think it’s due in about three or four weeks.” Which meant that conception must have happened last June. She’d worked out that Rick had probably impregnated the beautiful Madison during his trip to New York in that month. He’d initially said he was going for a week, but a week had become a fortnight, and she’d assumed at the time that he was busy networking and doing deals. Her trusting innocence and naivety now seemed laughable.

“Look ... Jen ... “ Saskia sounded uncharacteristically diffident. “You know I’ve got your back, always. It’s just that – well, sometimes I know I can be a bit of a bitch. And I think I may have been a bit of a bitch sometimes, this weekend.”

It was so unexpected that Jenna couldn’t help laughing. “What? Of course you haven’t!”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, don’t be silly, you really haven’t!”

“Well, I’m not so sure. I bet you wish I’d never told you about your Scottish ‘mate’.” She waggled her fingers in the air to indicate speech marks. “And I’ll bet even more, darling, that you wish I’d stop banging on about your love life.”

“Or lack of it.” Jenna felt a sudden rush of affection for her friend. “Don’t worry. You’re not a bitch. You’re just looking out for me.”

“Always have your best interests at heart, darling. Is it going to make it very awkward with your Scotsman, now that you know he has the hots for you?”

“Perhaps. If he has the hots for me – which I very much doubt. But we’ve always got on so well, hopefully it’ll be easy enough for me to pretend that we’re still just ...” she waggled her fingers in the air “...’mates’.”

Saskia was, believe it or not, actually looking anxious. “Be honest, darling – am I very irritating sometimes?”

“Well ... well, if I’m honest, yes – just a bit. Sometimes. But I don’t mind. I really, really don’t. It’s you, and you’re my friend, and that’s fine.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Hug?”

“Hug.”

There was no-one else on the roof to watch as they embraced. Jenna felt sudden tears prickling her eyes. She really didn’t know what she’d have done without Saskia’s encouragement, support and robust opinions over the past few months, and beside that, the occasional small annoyance weighed nothing.

“Right,” Saskia said, as they separated. “I don’t know about you, but I’m freezing my tits off up here in this hurricane, and if I don’t have some hot chocolate soon I won’t be responsible for my actions. Did I see a cafe down there somewhere?”

Ten minutes later, after Jenna had quickly taken further pictures, more in hope than expectation, they were seated at the window table, with two tall glasses of chocolate in front of them, topped with whipped cream and marshmallows. Jenna warmed her hands round it – photography in the icy blast from Russia had resulted in cold, numb fingers – and relaxed in the delicious absence of wind. On a sudden impulse, she said, “So what brought that on?”

Her friend’s bright eyes sharpened. “Brought what on, darling?”

“Just now. On the castle roof.”

“Oh, that,” said Saskia carelessly. “That, believe it or not as you will, darling, was a most uncharacteristic moment of self doubt. Not something I usually indulge in, as you well know.” She dipped the long-handled spoon into her glass and stirred. Jenna waited. Eventually, Saskia added, almost to herself, “It’s quite a new experience for me, you know.”

“What is?”

“Being happy. Oh, don’t look at me like that, darling. You know what I mean. The last few years, it’s been one gormless loser after another. I was beginning to think there wasn’t a single decent man left on the planet who hadn’t already been spoken for. Meeting someone I really like, who’s intelligent and thoughtful and caring, who doesn’t want mothering or money or propping up his poor fragile little ego – well, it’s been a revelation.”

“Are you sure it’s just fun?”

Saskia sipped her chocolate. It left a white foamy moustache of cream on her upper lip, which she licked off. At length she said, “If I’m absolutely, desperately honest, darling, no, I’m not. But, hey, if it all ends badly, that’s nothing different. Live for the moment, that’s my motto. Anyway, having tasted the joys of a passionate new relationship, perhaps I’ve been a bit too keen to wish one on you.”

Jenna grinned. “I think I remember passion, but it was a very long time ago, and I’m a bit too old and staid for it. I’ll happily settle for friendship, at least for now.”

“You’re kidding yourself, darling, when passion comes up and bites you on the bum, you’ll know what’s bit you all right. Trust me.”

“Too much information again. You’ve got cream on your nose.”

With an exaggerated gesture, Saskia wiped it off and sucked her finger, slowly and lasciviously. Then she said, sotto voce, ‘Don’t look now, but we’re being watched.”

Jenna automatically glanced round, and saw a couple on the other side of the cafe, staring. She recognised them, with considerable amusement, as the Woodmans. Well, that’d give them something to discuss at the next book club meeting. She smiled and waved cheerily, and after a slightly startled pause, Paula lifted a hand in acknowledgement.

“They were at your party, weren’t they?” Saskia said. “She’s the organising one who dragooned you into her book group. Do you want to make a fast getaway?”

“Not until I’ve finished my chocolate.” Jenna lifted the glass, enjoying the sensation of the hot liquid and the colder cream together in her mouth. “And it’s nice and warm in here.”

“Well, we shouldn’t linger too long – I’ve got to get back to dear old Snorbens today, after all, and I don’t really want to do any driving in the dark. Plus, we’ve got something to do before I go, remember?”

For a moment, Jenna couldn’t think what she was talking about. Their unexpectedly revealing conversation had put other thoughts out of her head. Then she remembered. “Merielina?”

“Merielina. You said you only had two or three generations left. I should get cracking, or you’ll find Jon has finished it for you.”

So she’d noticed her lover’s competitive streak as well. Jenna said, “I was going to wait until you’d gone – watching someone clicking a mouse and gazing raptly at a screen isn’t exactly riveting.”

“It is if you’ve got the end in view at last. I don’t mind looking over your shoulder, darling, while you close in for the kill. How about it? Or do you want to keep it all to yourself?”

Since a small part of Jenna had wanted exactly that, she hoped her guilty conscience wasn’t too obvious on her face. “No, it’s just that ... well, I’ve had such fun doing the research, I don’t want it to end.”

“That’s not a valid reason for letting Jon get one over on you. Come on, let’s go back and get your laptop going and google Merielina Le-whatshername. You know you want to.”

Jenna couldn’t help laughing. “OK, OK, you win. Let me finish my chocolate, then we can make a start.”

“Too late,” Saskia muttered, as a shadow fell over their table, and an all too familiar voice said, “Jenna! What are you doing here?”

“Hello, Paula.” Jenna finished the last delicious dregs of her chocolate, hoping she didn’t have cream on her face, and rose to greet the Woodmans. “Just showing Saskia – you remember Saskia? – round the town. It’s a lot colder than it looks today, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t see you in church,” said Paula. “But I suppose you’ve had other things to do.” She made it sound, to Jenna’s over-sensitive antennae, as if the ‘other things’ involved hideous debauchery and vice.

“Oh, I’m not a churchgoer,” she said cheerfully, noting the look of disappointment on the other woman’s face – what else did she expect in this secular age? “I’ve just been showing Saskia the castle.”

“Ah,” said John, obviously keen to put his oar in. “A guided tour by an expert, eh?”

“Yes,” Saskia said, with breathless enthusiasm. “It’s been a fascinating morning! Jen’s very clued up on the workings of mediaeval toilets and deadly diseases. Did you know that the fish they ate would have been swimming round in their own sewage? No wonder they all died like flies!"

“That was very naughty of you,” Jenna said five minutes later, as they walked arm in arm back to Wisteria Cottage. “She does mean well.”

“I know, darling, but I couldn’t resist. Worth it just for the look on her face.”

Jenna grinned. "Which was priceless."

"Well, with any luck you won't get invited to the next book group meeting, in case you start an in-depth discussion of mediaeval hygiene."

"Or the lack of it."

"Indeed. Right," Saskia said, waiting while Jenna found her key and opened the cottage door, cautiously in case a kitten was behind it with an urgent desire for escape. "Let's track down Mrs. Merielina Lup."

"Leheup."

"Whatever, darling. Come on, I'm dying to be in at the death."

“Kettle on first. Coffee?”

“Don’t procrastinate.”

“I’m not. I could just really do with a cup of coffee.”

Apollo appeared, indicating by the tone of his voice that although he was happy to welcome them home, his food bowl had been empty for at least an hour, and please could it be filled this instant. Saskia scooped him up and mollified him with strokes and tickles under the chin, and soon the kitchen was filled with his purring. Jenna poured boiling water into her cafetiere, and carried it into the sitting room. The wood burning stove was glowing softly, and she put another couple of logs into it, then sat down on the sofa, opened up her laptop, and switched it on. Saskia, still snuggling Apollo, settled beside her, and peered eagerly past her arm. “I like your screensaver. Where is it?”

“Along the sea wall. I took it last weekend when I was out with Sammy the Spaniel.” She hadn’t expected anything special to result from her instinctive point and shoot, but the blustery sky above the flat grey waters and brown reeds of the river, almost hidden behind a cloud of waterfowl (spurred into flight by the dog), had been her best effort so far, and she was proud of it.

“I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of Sammy the Spaniel.”

“Be glad. He’s mad and muddy and has springs for legs – no garment below the shoulders is safe.”

“So, that’s your photo? And you claim to be a rank amateur?”

“It was on my phone,” Jenna said, and as if in answer the strains of ‘The Bare Necessities’ issued from the table in front of her, where it lay beside the mugs. Saskia gave her a quizzical glance. “Are you sure you didn’t arrange that, you procrastinator you?”

“Don’t be silly, I’m as eager to reach the end of the trail as you are.” She hadn’t really intended to answer it, but Saskia’s comment had decided her. Without looking at the number, she took the call. “Hi?”

It was a man’s voice, not one she recognised – most men of her acquaintance weren’t that well spoken. “Hello? Am I speaking to Mrs. Johnson?”

Exasperated, Jenna said, “Yes, and if you’re cold calling me you’re wasting your time.”

“You don’t know me, but ... “

“Sorry, but whatever you’re selling, I don’t want it.” She cut the connection and put the phone back down on the table. Only then did she notice that the number still showing on the screen was horribly familiar. “Oh, God.”

“What’s wrong?” Saskia asked, suddenly concerned.

“I was rude, I thought he was a cold caller, but he’s ringing me from my mother’s phone.”

There was a small, fraught pause. Saskia said, in her best drawl, “He could be demanding a ransom.”

“Or something’s happened to her. Why else would a complete stranger be phoning me from her phone?”

“She could have lost it,” Saskia pointed out.

“But he couldn’t have unlocked it without her password.” Her heart thudding, Jenna picked the phone up again and called Patricia’s number. It was answered on the second ring. “Hello,” the same voice said, in distinctly less friendly tones.

“Look, I’m sorry I cut you off, I didn’t realise you were ringing from my mother’s phone.” Jenna swallowed. “Has anything happened? And who are you?”

“My name is Stuart Blanchard, and I am a friend of Patricia’s.”

“Oh, you’re Stuart! She met you on the cruise.”

“Yes, that is where we met.” His telephone manner was formal, almost pompous. “And you are Jennifer?”

“I am,” Jenna said, trying not to sound impatient. “Please can you tell me if my mother’s OK?”

“She asked me to call you. I’m afraid she’s had an accident.”

“An accident? What’s happened? Is she all right?”

“I’m phoning from the hospital.”

Jenna could have screamed with frustration. Why couldn’t he just tell her the worst and be done with it, instead of all this pussy-footing around? She took one of the very deep breaths she’d learned in her yoga class, held it, exhaled and tried to calm her frantic heart. For the third time, she said, keeping her voice as level as she could, “Can you tell me what’s happened?”

“She was crossing the High Street in Berkhamsted when she was in collision with a car. I don’t know the full facts, but she is very much bruised and shaken up, she’s probably broken her collar bone, and she may have serious head and internal injuries. She is undergoing tests at the moment.”

“Oh, God.” Jenna felt a flood of guilt. What if Patricia had been killed? She would have died with their estrangement unresolved. “When did it happen?”

“About an hour ago.”

“Where is she? Which hospital?”

“Watford General.”

It was some distance from Berkhamsted, but it was the nearest one with a full accident and emergency department. That meant it was serious: St. Albans was closer, but only had a minor injuries unit. Jenna took a long, quivering breath and said decisively, “I’m on my way. It’ll take me at least a couple of hours, but I’ll set off right now – I should be with you by three.”

“Good. Thank you. She was very shocked and upset, and most insistent that you come. I will see you later, then.”

“See you later. And thanks so much for letting me know so quickly.” Jenna ended the call, and stared at Saskia’s concerned face. “How much of that did you get?”

“Your mother’s had an accident and she’s in Watford General. Would you like me to drive? After all, St. Albans is only a few miles away. You could stay with me tonight if you need to.”

It was on the tip of Jenna’s tongue to decline the offer, and then she realised that it was, in fact, a good idea. Driving at speed while in emotional turmoil was never wise, and it made sense to take advantage of the fact that Saskia was going that way in any case. She said, “Are you sure?”

“Of course I am. It’ll only take a few minutes to pack. You can put your things in my bag if you like.”

“Hang on, what about the kittens? I’ve got to let Ruth and Gary know, and leave food out.”

“Do that first, and I’ll go and get my stuff.”

Despite her promise to Stuart Blanchard, it took more than ten minutes to get ready for their dash to Watford. Ruth and Gary were still out with the dog, so she had to write an explanatory note to put through their door, and leave instructions for kitten feeding in the kitchen, along with a stack of food. Then she noticed that the litter tray needed cleaning out, which further delayed their departure. Finally, however, they were able to close the door of Wisteria Cottage, leaving Apollo and Artemis enjoying an early lunch, and set off. They hadn’t been gone more than a few minutes when she had a text from Ruth. “Kittens will be fine, we’ll look after them, don’t worry.” At least that was a tiny reduction of the weight on her mind, but it didn’t lessen the sharpness of her fears for Patricia.

However, as Saskia turned her dark blue Audi onto the A12, Jenna’s first doubts began to creep in. Despite the sense of urgency and concern in Stuart’s call, she couldn’t help remembering, one by one, all those occasions when a migraine, a fall, a minor accident, had pulled her attention back to her mother. The school disco that she couldn’t go to because Patricia had cut her hand on some broken glass: the migraine, apparently unbearable, which had meant her staying at home while the rest of the class went to Thorpe Park: a first date disrupted by her mother’s slip on the stairs as she came down in a hurry to answer the door, leading to a ‘broken ankle’ which actually proved to be no more than a minor sprain. She said slowly, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope this really is serious.”

“And not a ploy by the arch-manipulator, you mean? How did the accident happen?”

“She got hit by a car on Berkhamsted High Street, apparently.”

“Hmm.” Saskia’s tone indicated that she wasn’t convinced. They’d nearly reached the outskirts of Ipswich before she added, “She probably just wasn’t looking where she was going. After all, you’d have to be seriously unhinged to try and get yourself deliberately run over.”

“I know. That’s why I hate myself for even thinking it. But she used to pull that sort of stunt so often when I was a teenager – the full emotional blackmail bit. ‘Don’t worry about me, of course you can go out and enjoy yourself while I lie here dying.’”

“She’s a narcissist, darling,” said Saskia, overtaking a white van with a bravado that Jenna could never have matched.

“A what?”

“Narcissist. Someone who thinks it’s all about them. Like Trump.”

“Not a lot.”

Saskia laughed. “Me neither. But I’m serious. Of course I don’t know her as well as you do, for which I daily give thanks, but I’ve seen enough of her over the years to know what she’s like. I really wouldn’t put it past her to have faked this just to get you back on board.”

“Isn’t that a little ... extreme?”

“Well, yes, of course it is, but that’s what narcissists are like. They crave attention and admiration. You’ve given her the elbow, and now she wants you back. She knows you won’t respond to any of her pleas, but an accident is just the way to get you rushing to her side. Perhaps she didn’t intend it to be quite so serious, or perhaps she’s exaggerating her injuries, but you have to admit it’s a possibility.”

“Yes,” Jenna said reluctantly. “I know it is. But I have to behave as if it isn’t. I’d never forgive myself if I blithely assumed that this was just another one of her little games and ignored her, only to find that she really is at death’s door.”

“She’s certainly got you by the short and curlies, hasn’t she?”

“She is my mother, when all’s said and done. Most of the time I wish she wasn’t, but she is, for better or worse, and I can’t refuse to go to her when she may ... “ Jenna’s voice faltered for a moment. “When she may be dying.”

Saskia gave her a sharp glance. “Is that likely, do you think?”

“Well, being hit by a car isn’t exactly a picnic at any age, and she’s seventy six. And he said she may have internal injuries and a head injury.”

“So it really is serious. I take it all back.” Saskia negotiated one of the many, many roundabouts which carried the A12 round the outskirts of Ipswich, swore at a Micra which wandered across her path, and put her foot down. Jenna made an effort to remain calm, reminded herself that her friend had never, yet, had a crash, and that she needed to get to Watford as quickly as possible. She said after a pause, “I feel so guilty for doubting her, even the tiniest bit.”

“You shouldn’t be. She’s cried wolf so often in the past, it’s hardly surprising that you’re wondering whether this is genuine. And as you say, you can’t ignore it, in case she really is badly hurt.” Saskia slowed down briefly for the next roundabout, then nipped out in front of a very large container lorry heading for Felixstowe. “So quit the guilt trip, darling, stop clutching the seat and pressing an imaginary brake – “

“I’m not!” Jenna protested, rather feebly.

“Oh, yes, you are, believe me, I do notice these things. If you have to, just close your eyes and let your Mama Sass take care of everything.”

“That’s what worries me,” Jenna said, but she did as she was told and tried to stay calm, while the miles rolled away under the Audi’s wheels, and the moment when she would discover the full extent of Patricia’s injuries came ever closer.

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