At twelve-forty-five the camper was making its dignified way through suburban Brighton. Anna was driving, and Sam could feel Bill vibrating with excitement beside him.
“Can you pass my jumper, Sam?”
Sam made a long arm and dropped the scarlet wool into the little boy’s lap.
“Need a cuddle?” he asked casually.
Sam put a comforting arm around Bill’s small body.
“When we get to your house, shall Anna and Rod and me get out of the camper, and let you have five minutes with Mummy and Daddy?”
“Yeah. Course we will won’t we. Rod?”
“Sure. We’ll go talk to your brothers.”
Bill relaxed a bit but carried on rubbing his face in the softness of the jumper.
Rod fished out the battered phone.
“Jim. We’re five minutes out. You and Pats need to have a quiet five in the camper with Bill before he greets the rest. OK. See you.”
They rolled into the wide driveway of Jim and Patsy’s rather lovely home. Two figures waited impatiently, and the camper had barely drawn to a halt when they leapt aboard. Jim had his son in his arms in an instant. He buried his face in the curly hair, and Patsy had her arms around both of them. Anna, Sam, Rod and Bonnie jumped out of the camper, leaving Bill and his parents to have their reunion in private. At the front door, a tall young man was using his body to keep his siblings inside.
“Yo Jamie,” Rod said “you having trouble with Shitface and Dickhead?”
“Not now I’m not,” Jamie’s grin echoed Rod’s.
“Manners you lot,” Anna said. “This is Sam Henderson. Doctor Sam. He’s a mate of Rod’s, so I wouldn’t imagine he’ll tolerate much crap…”
The lad in the doorway held out his hand.
“Jamie. Pleased to meet you.”
Sam shook hands.
The twins surged forward.
“Matt and Cy. You looked after Bill didn’t you?” Sam nodded. “So we guess that means we are pleased to meet you.”
Sam grinned. “Shall we all suspend judgement?”
The twins grinned back. “Yeah.”
Finally, a small boy with curious round eyes pushed his way out from between Matt’s legs.
“Hello,” he said, “I’m Charlie.”
Sam crouched down to his level.
“Hello Charlie. I’m Sam. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Me and asking questions?”
“Maybe. Plus you being Bill’s best friend. You been worried about him?”
“Some. Is he all right?”
“Mostly. He’ll have some wobbles. But if you are all kind and understanding he’ll get through it.”
Charlie regarded him fixedly for a moment.
“Oh. We’ll all be kind. Won’t we?” He turned a beady eye on his tall brothers.
Cy ruffled his hair.
“Yes tiddler. We’ll be kind. You have our promise. And Jamie’s always kind.”
Rod scooped Charlie up into his arms.
“I hear you are coming north to see the midnight sun with me and Bill.”
“Yes please. If you don’t mind.”
“Course we don’t. We want you. Just as long as you don’t expect me to know stuff…”
Charlie giggled delightedly.
“I won’t. If I get bored I can always read your tattoos.”
Rod slung the small boy over his shoulder so his head hung down.
At this point Bonnie decided to take a hand, or a paw, in proceedings. She ambled over, grabbed Matt’s trouser leg in her mouth and shook it firmly. He bent over and stroked the silky head.
“You feeling left out Bon Bon?”
She wagged her tail in a pleased manner, and all the boys made much of her. Anna laughed.
“They all met Bonnie before I did,” she explained to Sam. “Patsy bought her and trained her as a present for me when my collie, Florence, died.”
“That’s what Mummy does,” Charlie said, “she trains dogs.”
“And sons…” Rod said.
“I try to train sons.” The voice came from behind Sam’s left shoulder.
He turned to find himself looking into the bluest eyes he had ever seen.
“You must be Patsy.”
“For my sins. I see you have met my sons. I hope they will all remember that this family owes you.”
Sam held up his hand.
“No debts” he said firmly. “I’m a doctor. I swore an oath. So. Please don’t embarrass me by imagining you owe me anything.”
Before Patsy had a chance to say anything, Jamie spoke up.
“Leave it Mum. You have to let people have their own pride like you expect them to let you have yours.”
She looked into her son’s eyes for a long moment.
“You are so much like your dad it’s scary. Well, can I just give him a hug?”
Jamie shrugged and grinned.
“Not up to me.”
Sam opened his arms and Patsy walked into his embrace. She rested her blonde head on his shoulder for a moment.
“Can I at least say thanks for the jumper? It was a master stroke. Gave him something to cling to without feeling cissy.”
“Yeah. I’m quite proud of that idea, though I’ll admit that it started out as just something to keep him warm. Then the Eau Sauvage coincidence kicked in and I realised it could be a symbol as well.”
Matt spoke for the twins.
“Even we get that. Something to hold on to must’ve been very important to him…”
Charlie climbed out of Rod’s arms and shinned down his leg. He went to his mother and looked up into her face.
“It’ll be all right Mummy. I’ll look after Bill.”
She bent down and kissed him on both rosy cheeks.
“You do that my lovey. You do that.”
“Here they come” Anna smiled as Jim jumped out of the camper with Bill clinging to his back like a giggling monkey.
When they arrived, Bill pulled himself together.
“Daddy. This is my friend Sam.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sam.”
“Likewise, I’m sure. It’s a pleasure to meet Bill’s parents. Like it was a pleasure to meet Bill.”
“Aw shucks,” Bill grinned cheekily.
“Didn’t somebody say something about food?’ Rod said plaintively. ‘I think I might be fading away…”
Everybody laughed, and they went inside to eat Patsy’s excellent soup and fresh bread.
The next few days flew by. Bill managed remarkably well, and wobbles were few and far between. Sam began to understand the rest of the Cracksman clan. He discovered that old world courtesy wasn’t just Bill’s thing, it was bred into the whole family, where it sat, sometimes uncomfortably, alongside enormous intelligence, and a tendency to organise anyone who stood still long enough to let it happen. He watched with concealed amusement as the arrangements for the young ones holidays got made with ruthless efficiency. He was less amused by how Patsy seemed to take it as her right to tell Anna what to do. Anna saw him noticing, and shrugged her elegant shoulders. He grinned.
And then it was time to for him to get back to Cheltenham, and his work. He made Patsy and Jim promise to contact him if they had any worries about Bill. He hugged Bill and Charlie. He bumped fists with Jamie and the twins. Rod was driving him home, so he threw his bags into the back of a black truck with flames painted on the side, before going in search of Anna.
“You remember I asked for your number?”
She looked at him for a very long moment before nodding and handing him a small pasteboard card.
“I’ll call you when I get home,” he said before swinging himself up into the cab of Rod’s truck. Rod grinned and gunned the engine, so they swept out in a cloud of gravel and burning rubber.
“Don’t say a word,” Sam warned.
“Wasn’t going to,” Rod grinned.