She opens the heavy door of the Cotswold manor house, recognising him with mild surprise.
Something about the way her hair is clipped back from her face reminds him of the woman at the supermarket checkout whose dark,lively eyes connected with his. A rare, startling occurrence. He usually avoids the eyes.
He never frets about loneliness, ageing. After morning ablutions, the careful placing of too-large tortoiseshell spectacles re-affirms his identity: Douglas Cornish, the sole survivor of Cornish and Son furniture restorers.
By association, he feels at ease with his potential customer. She talks animatedly.
“You’re lucky to find me here. Why didn’t you ring?”
She leads the way into the drawing room.
“I was passing and thought I’d see if you were home rather than waiting until Friday.”
She indicates two 19th century balloon-back mahogany chairs, badly neglected, their leather seats cracked. Her husband is fond of them.
“Do you mind?”
Douglas turns one upside down. A cabriole leg has been broken and badly repaired with the wrong wood,screwed on brutally. Beneath the seat, he notes splattered dark specks. A constellation of old blood.
“Shockingly incompetent repair,” she remarks, turning to her son.
“Piers! Stop that for goodness sake.”
Blonde, intent Piers sits cross-legged on the floor, banging noisily with a toy mallet.
“Square peg – round hole.” She rolls her eyes apologetically.
Thud, thud, thud. Rhythmic. The sound his mother made when she was dragged downstairs by the hair. Afterwards, the stifled ragged crying that echoed in his own heart as he grew colder; terrified to fall asleep. Awake until the first blackbird of dawn.
He’d been a little older than Piers, maybe six, when it started: lying in bed listening to his father arguing with no-one. Then the weeping.
“Do excuse me a moment?”
He walks out of the front door. The old urge to escape. The bucolic scene stops him; meadows, polo ponies nibble peacefully. Panics subsides with slow lungfuls of air.
Back inside, he scribbles a quotation. New upholstery. Removal of botched leg. His craftsman will fashion a new leg piece from old mahogany. There is one problem. The bloodstains.
That evening, lying unseen under the arm chair, watching through chubby fingers. His father ranting unsteadily, stooping to pick up the poker. The impact clear, sounding more metallic than wood. The body crumpled amid the remains of a broken chair.
“I can’t do anything with those little stains, I’m afraid.”
His mother dragged him out roughly, held him tight in her arms, there on the floor, rocking silently.
“The marks… I can’t make them go away.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t see what you mean. There aren’t any stains, Mr Cornish.“
He sighs. Why don’t they see them? They always miss the evidence.
Douglas Cornish shakes his head, slides the quotation slip back into his briefcase.
Sadness weighs him down. Momentarily, tears well up.
“I’m very sorry. I can’t help.“