Thursday, 8 February 2007

Chapter 18

After Colin McAllistair had taken Stan Redfearn’s call, he had booked his train tickets to Birkenhead, and then spent a few moments pondering how he might best use the afternoon to discover the identity of whoever had been awarded the medals. In his study, it took him what seemed like an age to locate a manila folder, which he finally found wedged between a pair of outsized books on the bottom of his library shelves. He took it to his desk and opened it, drawing out a sheaf of closely-lined notepaper which he proceeded to scan. When he’d finished, he sighed. Reluctant though he was to admit it, there was really nothing else to be done, except to contact his old college supervisor, Professor Pickfield.

It wasn’t that Pickfield and he were at odds in any way. Far from it: McAllistair had been a brilliant student, one of Pickfield’s favourites. But it had been over ten years since they had spoken, and McAllistair was embarrassed to acknowledge that he had let their friendship slip. As he typed the eminent Professor’s name into a search engine, part of him was even hoping he might find an obituary, so acute was the injustice of neglect he felt he had done his former intellectual hero. But, as page after page of entries were returned, he cast such an unworthy thought aside. The Professor seemed very much alive – indeed, had published a book as recently as last year. With practiced ease, Colin found a phone number for the college in Oxford where Pickfield was a distinguished Professor, and moments later was speaking to his secretary, and ‘holding’ while she tried to locate him.

“Mr McAllistair!” boomed the voice at the other end, when finally Pickfield had been found. “I take it this call isn’t to try to persuade me to further inflate the marks for your rather miserable dissertation on the International Brigades?”

Colin smiled. Same old Pickfield! “I think we both know you inflated them more than enough the first time!” he replied. After being duly admonished for a decade of neglect, Colin could feel himself relaxing. He imagined his old professor sitting in his huge room in the Oxford college where he had spent his life, surrounded by books and piles of papers on his desk, his wild, grey hair bouncing on his head as he peered out through his thick-rimmed spectacles.

“So… to what do I owe the unexpected pleasure?” Pickfield’s voice was warm and had lost none of its rolling charm.

“Well, I can’t be sure, but – do you remember when you sent me to interview that journalist who had fought at Jamara?”

Pickfield was quick to respond. “Remember? It was one of the finest accounts of the battle I ever read. Jonathan Harcourt. He wrote for the ‘Daily Herald’. Articles syndicated all over the world. Why? “

McAllistair was more confident now, and marveled at his former lecturer’s memory: it had been over a quarter of a century since he had made the trip to the market town of Thirsk, in North Yorkshire, to interview Jonathan Harcourt. He had even forgotten his name – yet Pickfield hadn’t. “Well, I wondered if you had the notes I made?” Colin waited for a response which, if truth be known, he could have scripted.

“Mr McAllistair! If you think I am in the habit of destroying, or even mislaying, valuable primary source material, then you are not the student I thought you were. If you would be so kind as to give me your fax number, you shall have the notes within the hour. Along with an invitation to come to dinner at your earliest opportunity. Marjorie would, I am sure, be delighted to entertain you, She still asks after you.” Colin remembered Pickfield’s wife as a gracious and entertaining host. Suitably reproached, he gave him the number, and (feeling like a callow undergraduate again) promised he would keep in contact more regularly in future. “I should think so, too! And if you don’t mind, please make it sooner than 10 years time. I would hate to disappoint you by not being around to take the call,” had been the Professor’s reply, before he had hung up. Old friendships – easy to neglect, but harder still to resurrect, thought Colin, as he wandered off into the kitchen to make himself a lemon tea.


As Laurel McFry sat waiting in the foyer of the bank, she could not help but wonder how Harry McFry might be faring. She doubted very much he had been able to find her missing McFrys. She wasn’t stupid enough to employ the services of a genealogical private investigator over nothing. In any case, they’d agreed she would call him later that afternoon, so it wouldn’t be too long before she knew, one way or the other.

“Mr Attwood can see you now, Miss McFry” – the voice young and slightly hesitant, so that when Laurel looked up she saw a teenage boy standing beside her. Only his badge would have suggested he was a bank employee, she thought.

“Miss McFry – won’t you take a seat, please” – the bank manager, the very essence of politeness, was smiling in rather too forced a fashion as he beckoned Lillian to a chair beside his desk. She’d sat down, and placed her small clutch bag on the corner of the desk. Charles Attwood tried to prevent himself being mesmerized by the elegant woman who seemed to have so effortlessly made his office her home, to have relaxed so easily into the space. He saw many clients each day, but few had the poise and grace of Laurel McFry. He pulled himself back to the task in hand, which was not a one he relished.

“This really is a most delicate matter, Miss McFry,” he said. “I’ve asked to see you because the portfolio of shares we hold for you is – and there really is no other way to tell you this - rather worrying us.” Attwood was not someone who found it easy to break bad news. He could never have been a doctor, telling someone they had only the shortest of times to live.

He proceeded to explain to her that he had a report showing the performance of her shares over the last year, and dividends due to her next month were likely to be very much lower than in previous years. Laurel confessed that she hadn’t known, that she left such affairs in what she assumed were the capable hands of his good self.

“Precisely, precisely, Miss Fry. Which is why I must advise you to divest yourself of all your holdings in McFry and Sons at the earliest opportunity. You will, of course, have to absorb the expected loss, and I would be remiss if I did not inform you that it is not insignificant. But better to do so now, than to watch the shares slide still further”. Attwood paused, and awaited a reaction.

The wolves weren’t at the door for Laurel McFry. But they were gathering on the distant hills, and for the first time in her life she heard the faint but unmistakable sound of their howling, drifting on the wind.

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