“Are you having a party out there?” a small voice demanded.
“Sort of,” Anna laughed. “You wanna come out?”
“Yes. But I’m in my jammies. It ain’t nice to go outside in your pjs.”
“Hang on love. I’m on my way in.”
Anna got up and jumped lightly aboard.
“How about you put your cashmere jumper on? It’s warm and soft, and it’ll keep your feet warm too.”
“Would it be suitable?”
“Oh yes. And you can sit on Rod’s lap.”
“And pinch a sip of his brandy?”
“Maybe. But now put your arms in the air and let’s dress you for outdoors.”
There was the sound of a small giggle before Anna poked her head out.
“Rod. Can you come and grab an armful of Bill?”
Rod got up and Anna passed out the small form, now warmly wrapped in the cashmere jumper he so treasured. He beamed at the assembled company.
“Hello Miss Chris,” he said, “is this your friend Miss Belle?”
“How de do Miss Belle.”
Belle, obviously enchanted by the old-fashioned courtesy, moved forwards and solemnly shook the small hand that was half hidden inside a much rolled up holly-red cashmere sleeve.
“Pleased to meet you Mister William.”
Bill giggled delightedly.
“You’re a nice lady. And very pretty.”
“Don’t tell her that,” Chris laughed, “she will get a swollen head.”
“Oh my,” Bill said faintly, “I didn’t mean that to happen.”
“It’s OK, little man,” Rod explained. “She don’t mean that literally. It’s another one of those sayings. It just means she will get conceited.”
“Yes. Exactly like.”
Rod turned a grinning face to Chris who was looking guilty. “Don’t worry. Thing about Bill here is he’s very bright and very literal minded, so you have to be prepared to explain stuff. He likes to learn.”
Bill smiled seraphically.
“I do. But you should meet my baby brother, Charlie, he’s much worser. Mummy says he only stops asking questions when he’s asleep.”
“Many a true word,” Anna said ruefully, “he’s the only Cracksman who can’t be distracted by food. On the upside, he’s perfectly willing to accept ‘I don’t know’ as as answer.”
“He is,” Rod agreed.
“And he’s a lot easier to handle since you taught him to do his own research on his iPad.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure if I should, but he’d already taught himself to read, and partly how to use a computer, so I thought it best for him to learn properly.”
“How old is Charlie?” Belle asked faintly.
Bill chuckled again.
“You do get used to him. And he’s shite at football.”
Everyone laughed and Rod fondly flicked the curly head that rested against his chest.
Whilst Bill was busily being the centre of attention, Anna pulled out her phone and took a couple of shots of the happy child. On review, one was spectacularly good, and she found herself smiling just looking at it. Bill’s face was alight with laughter and mischief, and Rod was grinning down at him with his face full of love. On impulse, she handed the phone to Sam.
“Oh my goodness,” he said softly. “You so have to send that to his mother. Like right now…”
“I do don’t I?”
She sent the message and waited. Within about half a minute her phone rang. It was Jim.
“Whatever you do don’t lose that picture. In fact, send it to my comp right now. It’s fucking brilliant. Pats is in meltdown.”
Anna laughed and complied.
Jim calmed down a bit.
“It was just fantastic to see the little man laughing. We know it isn’t over, and he will have difficult times. I guess we’d been focusing so hard on the bad stuff that we really didn’t believe he could be having fun. It did us all good to see. Even the twins got a bit misty. Is that the famous jumper he’s wearing?”
“It is. And don’t it suit him?”
“Yeah. He looks like a robin off a Christmas card. Thanks for looking after him.”
“No trouble. We love him too. Even Sam. See you tomorrow.”
Then she turned her attention back to what had become quite a jolly little party and had the satisfaction of watching a random group of people finding common ground and a shared sense of humour. They sat outside until past closing time, and all were reluctant for such a pleasant evening to end.
Next morning, the campervan crew was up bright and early and had everything ready for the off before breakfast time.
They didn’t linger over the breakfast table and were on the road by half-past-nine. Bill waved frantically and blew kisses to Belle and Chris as they pulled gently out of the pub grounds.
“I liked them,” he informed the assembled company. “They were very nice to us. Weren’t they? Anna, can you tell me again how you know them?”
“They are friends of Danny’s. He used to work with Belle in Moscow.”
“So, are they diplomatic people?”
“They aren’t old enough to be retired.”
“No. Retired isn’t a good word. I’d better explain. When you are a civil servant – which is what diplomatic people are called – and you have worked for twenty years you can have a pension. Lots of people take the pension then get another job. That’s what Belle and Chris did. They took their pension and bought the pub.”
“Thanks Anna. I understand now. Can I play my aliens game on your iPad please?”
“Of course you can.”
Sam, who was taking the first stint behind the wheel, grinned at Rod in the passenger seat.
“If the traffic is kind, we should have Bill home by early afternoon. In a lot of ways it’s been a good trip.”
“It has. We going back to Scotland?”
“Not unless you want to. It was only an excuse to spend some time together. And I’d sooner be close to Billy until I have to go back to work. Then you can take him and his brother to the land of the midnight sun…”
“Yeah. That makes sense. I just feel a bit guilty about your holiday.”
“Berk. I’m still having a holiday, and I wouldn’t have missed meeting Bill for the world.”
“Yeah. He is pretty special.” Then he thought for a minute. “I reckon if I phone Patsy she’d wait dinner for us. What say Anna?”
“Why not stick the postcode in the satnag and see what ETA it gives us? It’s set up for campervan speed so it won’t be too far out.”
Rod crouched over the centre console.
“I hate these fucking things. Ah. Got you you bastard! It says we should be there by one o’clock.”
“Right. Now press the blue button on the left, and it’ll tell you if there’s any reported snarl-ups on our route.”
“It says no reported incidents.”
“Well call Pats then. I reckon you’ll be able to last until one-ish. What d’you think Bill?”
“I can wait for Mummy’s cooking. Will you tell her I’m looking forward to seeing her?”
“Yeah. Course I will. Better still I’ll give you my phone and you can call her yourself.”
He passed back his phone. Bill looked at it critically.
“What you been doing to your phone Uncle Rod? It’s a bit mangled.”
“I probably dropped it.”
“He did indeed drop it’ Sam confirmed. “First on the golf course at Gleneagles. Later on a stone floor in a distillery. And those were just the instances I witnessed. Does it still work?”
“It shouldn’t,” Bill said somewhat severely. “He’s very careless with his possessions. But it do… Hello Mummy. It’s me. We’re on the road. Anna’s satnav says we should be there by one o’clock. Can you save us some dinner? What do I want for dinner? Anything you make. Best will be seeing you and Daddy. Have you missed me? I’ve missed you too. Lots. Everyone has been very, very kind. And I’ve had Uncle Rod, and Anna, and Bonnie, and Sam. But I still wanted you. And I’m happy that we’re going to be there soon. Give Daddy and Gandalf kisses from me.”
He ended the call, and for a minute he looked so sad that Anna had to give him a hug.
“What, little man?”
“Mummy was trying very hard not to cry. It must have been so hard for her. I’m very sorry to have caused her so much worry. I shall be glad to give her a big cuddle.”
“Listen Bill,” Anna said firmly “you don’t have anything to be sorry for. It wasn’t your fault.”
She’s right,” Rod confirmed in his deep tones. “Whoever is to blame it most certainly isn’t you.”
“No it isn’t,” Sam put in his two pennorth. “You can’t take the blame for the bad guys. Don’t even think it.”
Anna felt the small shoulders relax under her hands.
“Better?” she asked.
“Yes. Thank you all. You do help me.”
“Good,” Rod growled, “that’s what grown ups are for. Now give me back my much abused phone and go back to splattering aliens.”
Bill giggled a bit, and did as he was bid.