Thicker than Blood – a story of family feuds and desperate measures

Thicker than Blood is the third book in the DI Gillian Marsh Mysteries. It is a story of an unfinished business between two brothers, greed and regrets, old age and desperation, but also love.

As the old saying goes, You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Even more to the point in this story, you must be very carefully who you choose to be your enemy.

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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

A Christmas Canon

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Astonishing how life imitates fiction! In DI Marsh’s third outing, Thicker than Blood, Mildred fights tooth and nail against being ejected from her farm and grounded in an old people’s home. Granted, she is old and she might forget where she put her glasses, but she has the willpower made of steel. Just like my Mother-in-law.

My Mother-in-law, dear old Audrey, has spent the ninety-four self-contained years of her life in her house, fending for herself, combating and defeating many a carer and community nurse who tried to tell her what was good for her. As if she didn’t know! She lived through the War and they did not, thank you very much!

Right up to this Christmas, she knew how to outsmart her long suffering son, and my poor Husband, and made him do as she said even though, frankly, she hasn’t been making much sense for years. But yet another dramatic tumble down the stairs, yet another ambulance ride, yet another long hour in A&E, and a Christmas miracle at last occurred! Audrey threw in a towel and conceded to a relocation to a lovely residential home, subject to several non-negotiable conditions and qualifications (all of which have been met): gardens, views, countryside, birds, and no more damned hospitals!

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That’s the spirit! The spirit of Christmas! A miracle we never thought would take place (such is the nature of miracles, after all). So now we can visit because she is just round the corner and Husband can sleep soundly through the night. And so can I. Merry Christmas indeed!

And what of Mildred? Is she going to come to her senses?

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A sneak preview of Thicker than Blood

 

My third DI Marsh mystery, Thicker than Blood, is being released into the wild world tomorrow.

To give you the flavour of the story and the characters, here comes a sneak preview:

 

Liam Cox is twiddling his thumbs, willing the priest to take a shortcut to that part where he says, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended’, the answer to which is quivering on Liam’s lips, ready to come out: ‘Thanks be to God!’

But the priest is taking his time, sending out fumes of frankincense and pronouncing the glory of the Almighty left, right, and centre. Mother must have paid a fortune for this memorial service and she expects good returns on her investment. It will be a while yet. Liam has to grin and bear it. He remembers those long church hours of Sunday Mass stretching into infinity, a purgatory for a small boy with his mind on climbing trees. Today, nearly forty years later, his mind is still on earthly matters, such as his stumbling business. Mother could help, if she wanted to co-operate, but before they get to that he must sit through this spectacle, biding his time. This will please her. ‘Your father will be proud of you,’ she will say, as if Father would have given a toss even when he was alive. Now that he is dead, and has been so for two years exactly, he cares even less. But it matters to Mother. She still believes in all this mumbo-jumbo of praying for the dear-departed in the hope that it will make their afterlife easier.

Oh well, you can take a nun out of a nunnery, but you can’t take the nunnery out of a nun.

‘God, give me strength!’ It is rather hypocritical of Liam to pray for divine intervention under the circumstances of his uncharitable thoughts, but he hopes the loving God will overlook them.

He fidgets, and Mother shushes him, just like she used to when he was a youngster. She puts her forefinger to her lips and frowns at him, whispering, ‘Sit still!’

Liam turns to sit on the other cheek, because the bench is hard as hell and his backside is aching. He catches a glimpse of people on the back pews. Not many people. Maybe ten in all. They are old faces he remembers vaguely from his childhood, faces of no significance now. Right at the back sits a man. He also has a face that is vaguely familiar, but Liam can’t put a name to it. He isn’t that old either: late forties, thick blond hair and beard, Liam’s build. What is he doing attending a mid-week memorial Mass? Who is he? Liam has a strong feeling he should know who that man is.

The priest bellows, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended!’

‘Thanks be to God!’

 

When it rains, the freshly turned soil glistens with its own oily sweat. It gives out the scent of musk. It is carnal. Unwashed. Intimate. Mildred loves the smell of ploughed fields in the rain. It makes her feel alive and, at the age of seventy-six, it is a feeling to be cherished. She inhales deeply and holds it in, getting intoxicated on fresh air. Her thoughts ebb and flow inside her skull, the rows of turned earth an extension of her brain waves. She pauses for the hundredth time, and scans the fields. They permeate her. It isn’t so much that she owns them as it is that they own her.

Raindrops crack open against the sou’wester she is wearing over her scarf. It is an old scarf – they don’t make scarves like that anymore. It’s the kind the Queen favours, with a bold floral pattern and a rich, aged-gold border like a picture frame. Her green waterproof anorak keeps her bones warm and dry inside. She could stand here and look at the fields for hours. And inhale them. Mildred sucks in the air greedily. Young people don’t appreciate the simple pleasure of drawing breath, she thinks. They take in air and spit it out without relishing it, like fast food.

‘Mum, we’ve got to be moving. I’ve got millions of things to do back at the office,’ Liam points out with an exasperated scowl. He is a big bull of a man; fleshy, flushed with the effort of walking, already short of breath. And patience. Just like his father, Mildred observes. Reginald too was always annoyed, always had something better to do, something urgent waiting round the corner. He was chasing it relentlessly, like a dog chasing its own tail. He had had no time or patience for Mildred – he simply tolerated her. Nor had he had the time or patience for the land. He had cultivated it without love, without a pause for thought.

‘Mother!’ Liam is talking to a brick wall.

‘Give her a break. She’s catching her breath,’ Colleen tells him.

Mildred smiles at her daughter. In her doe-brown walking boots and a knee-length pleated skirt of demure black under the frills of her exuberantly purple poncho, standing under a green-and-red check umbrella, Colleen is a mismatch of colour and style. Her ripe-plum coloured hair, pinned on top of her head, has fallen out of the bun in thin wisps and is clinging to her neck and cheeks as if the purple hair dye has run. She is puffed and frumpy. She has never cared about her appearance. No wonder she has never married. It used to worry Mildred, but it no longer does.

It is four p.m. Mildred was hoping she could offer them a snack before they left, considering the effort they have made to be here. They didn’t have to come to the service. She half-expected to hear the usual excuses: a dentist appointment, a meeting with a client, the car has gone for service…They surprised her. Seeing them arrive gave her that tiny flutter of motherly pride deep inside her stomach. Liam had even herded in Stella. She stepped out of the car wrapped in a slinky black fur coat, wearing six-inch heels, looking like a penguin on stilts. She used to be a beautiful girl – peachy complexion, slender body. No wonder Liam put up such a fight over her and used every trick in the book to seduce her away from his brother, David. Would he do the same nowadays? He probably would. He is his father’s son. He owns things and he owns people. He won’t let go of what’s his without a fight.

They are standing together. Stella is desperate to squeeze under his umbrella and save both her fur and her hair from ruin. Her narrow heels have sunk deep into the ground and she is leaning forward to maintain balance. An expression of angelic patience graces her face. ‘She’s going to catch her death in this rain,’ she says, unwisely presuming that Mildred can’t hear her. Mildred can, but she is selective about responding. She won’t waste her breath on flippant remarks. She won’t get herself wound up. Sometimes it is easier to pretend she is deaf as a post. That way she can keep track of what is said behind her back.

‘Mother, please, let’s get a move on!’ Liam is such an ankle-biter.

Mildred stirs. ‘Will you stay for a snack and a cup of tea?’ she asks. ‘It won’t take Grace a minute to whip up sandwiches. I have scones and fresh clotted cream. Strawberry jam, homemade…’

‘I’m in, Mum. I’d kill for hot tea. And your strawberry jam…’ Colleen takes her gently by the arm and leads her down the path.

‘Thank God for that!’ Mildred hears Liam mumble under his breath. She is not sure what he is so grateful to the Lord about: the strawberry jam or her being on the move again. His shoes squelch on the muddy ground. Stella’s heels dig into the clay like chisels. When did she become such a madam? She used to live two houses down the lane, on Dove Farm. She used to run about barefoot.

 

It was his mother’s idea to walk to church. There was the civilised option of taking the car, but she would have none of it. ‘There’s a perfectly good shortcut,’ she’d said. ‘I’d be the laughing stock of Sexton’s Canning being driven five hundred yards in a car! It’s only ten minutes on foot.’ So they went treading through mud and cowpats to please her.

At the gate, Esme is talking to that farmhand – an Irishman whose name Liam never remembers. He became a permanent feature on the farm after Father’s death, or perhaps it was only then that Liam started noticing his sulky presence. All sorts of scum crawl out of the woodwork when a man dies. They feed on hapless senile widows, like ticks on blood.

They are standing by the stables where Esme keeps her horse. Rohan, she calls him. It costs a fortune in insurance. Liam wishes his daughter would spend his money in a more constructive way. But she won’t. She has always been contrary, like her grandmother. Chose to study biology. He asked her why she couldn’t go one step further, become a vet. Push herself a bit. It would give her something concrete in hand, but no! – biology is what she wanted. What do you do with biology? Put your diploma in the bottom drawer and volunteer to do odd jobs for the National Trust; let your father pay the bills.

The farmhand sees them approach, hangs his head low, and disappears inside the stables, taking the horse with him. There’s something shifty about that man! Liam is a good judge of character, and he doesn’t trust him as far as he can spit. He will have to get rid of him. He will have to make lots of changes around here.

Esme is waving, a big smile on her face. She is pretty ‑ strawberries and cream, like her mother used to be at that age. What is she doing talking to that man? What can they possibly be talking about?

My author’s evening at Story Town Corsham Literary Festival – 19th October

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You are all cordially invited to my author’s evening at the StoryTown Corsham  Literary Festival this Friday, 19th October, at 19:30, Corsham Library, to celebrate the release of Thicker Than Blood, part 3 in the DI Marsh Mysteries .