Sharing a scene from Thicker than Blood

… on Karen King’s author website

Now onto the scene. Anna has chosen a side story – a scene from DI Marsh’s personal life where she revisits her old life in South Africa – to share with us today.

Unlike the fields, the house hasn’t changed. The cold, polished stone floors feel exquisite underfoot. Gillian has left Tara and Deon frolicking in the pool with his two Irish wolfhounds watching over them. She is drawn indoors, curious to see how much she can remember of it. The memories flood back with every step. The grand piano still stands, dominant but silent, in the living room. Deon’s mother used to play it, a tiny, frail woman in charge of this powerful instrument. It was a sight – and a sound – to remember. Now the lid is down and though it has been dusted and polished to perfection, it is obvious that no one has played it in years.

Photographs have been arranged on top of the piano. Plenty of photos of Tara when she was a baby, then a toddler, and then the stream of images stops at the age of four when Gillian left and took Tara with her. She is looking at a picture with Tara in a conical birthday hat, the elastic cutting into her chubby chin, chocolate smeared around her lips and stuck between her teeth as she grins at the camera, wielding a yellow fluffy duck in her hand. Her fourth, and last, birthday on the farm. And then many years away…

A guilty sensation tingles in Gillian’s fingertips as she puts the picture down. She has deprived Deon of watching his daughter grow, lose her milk teeth, learn to ride a bike, break her arm when she fell off the trampoline, wear that beautiful frilly dress to her prom. She never thought he would forgive her, but he seems to have done so. Thankfully. After the long break on Tara’s curriculum vitae, she returned to her father last year and there are more photos to testify to that: Deon and Tara with the vineyard in the background and the cloudless sky bleached by the February sun. Last year Deon was still a big man, filled with boereworsand mealie to the brim. How did he lose all that weight?

Another picture catches her eye, and brings on a heavy sigh: it is that good-for-nothing, skin and bone Charlie Outhwaite, caught carrying Tara towards the pool, his red hair held by a Rambo-style bandana. Bloody Charlie Outhwaite! Gillian pushes the picture behind another one – out of sight, out of mind… The other picture is that of a young boy, dark-headed, dark-eyed, wearing a Spiderman outfit – it must be Deon’s son from his second marriage. She knows so little about his life after their divorce. The boy is a spitting image of his father. There are no photos of his second wife; neither are there any of Gillian. Fair enough.

‘Dinner is on the table and no one’s ready!’ Hortensia proclaims, irritation in her voice. ‘It’s no good eating cold pies!’

Gillian rejoices when Hortensia piles up food on Tara’s plate and doesn’t take no, thank you! for an answer. The pie is rich with gravy and huge chunks of beef. The mashed potatoes are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. And naturally, she has served corn on the cob. ‘That’s a feast and a half,’ Gillian beams.

‘As we always do, but for Mister Deon.’ She insists on calling him mister despite having been with him on the farm for over thirty years, being his house-keeper, child-minder, nurse and mother after his own mother died when he was a lad of eighteen.

‘Why is Dad not having the same as us?’ Tara inquires, indignant, and points at Deon’s plate daintily holding a lean slice of grilled chicken and a few salad leaves. ‘Can’t I have what he’s having?’

‘No, you can’t. You’re young and healthy, and you need to add some meat to the bone,’ Hortensia eyes Tara critically, ‘but Mister Deon is not a well man. We’ve had a big scare, didn’t we, Mister Deon?’ He opens his mouth to speak, but she won’t let him. ‘Three months ago… No, I lie – four months now Mister Deon gave us a big fright with his heart attack and what not. Good thing I had Sunny to take us to hospital, or he’d be as good as dead.’

‘Hortensia is exaggerating a bit ‑’

‘Not one bit, no!’ She fixes him with a steely glare. She means business. ‘The doctors brought him back from the dead, if you must know. And they tell me he must lose all that fat on him, if he wants to live. All them arteries clogged up, all the way to the heart. Next week, straight after Easter, he be going for that bypast craft on his heart.’ Her expression changes. It is tender now and anxious at the same time, as she puts his plate in front of him. ‘So that’s what he eats – healthy food, no fry-ups. I keep an eye on him.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?’

‘What’s there to tell? I’m all right now.’

‘He will be when that bypast craft is done on him. But-’ Hortensia pauses, and unlike herself, is unable to finish the sentence. Her thumb is back in action wiping another stray tear. ‘That’s why I am so happy when he tells me you two coming. So happy!’

The guilt that has been ebbing and flowing in Gillian’s fingertips washes over her from head to toe, and leaves her cold. Has she returned Tara to her father that tiny bit too late? Had he been missing her? Was he lonely? Did the thought that it was the end for him cross his mind four months ago – did he want a chance to say goodbye to his daughter? It wasn’t Gillian’s right to withhold Tara from him, and that’s not even a question

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