Susan Hill’s million-copy selling DC Simon Serrailler series returns with the long-awaited The Comforts of Home. Simon’s last, devastating case was nearly the death of him and left him confronting a new reality.
But even recovering on a remote Scottish island, his peace doesn’t last long, and he’s soon pulled in to a murder inquiry by the overstretched local police. A newcomer, popular with the islanders, has died in perplexing circumstances. The community’s reactions are complicated and fragile.
Read on for the prologue from The Comforts of Home by Susan Hill!
The Comforts of Home
For a long time, there had been blackness and the blackness had no form or shape. But then a soft and cloudy greyness had seeped in around the edges of the black, and soon, the images had come and these had moved forward very fast, like the pages of a child’s flip book. At first he could not catch any, or distinguish between them, but gradually their movement had slowed and he had made out faces, and parts of bodies – a hand, a thumb, the back of a neck. Hair. The images had begun to pulse, and balloon in and out, like a beating heart, the faces had swirled together, mingled then separated, and once or twice they had leered at him, or laughed silently out of mouths full of broken teeth. He had tried to back away from them or lift his arm to shield his eyes, but he was stiff, his arm heavy and cold, like a joint of meat taken out of the freezer. He did not know how to move it.
The faces had split into fragments and begun to spin uncontrollably, and he had been looking down into a vortex.
A flash of light. Inside the light, millions of glittering, sharp pinpoints. Another flash. The pinpoints had dissolved.
Simon Serrailler opened his eyes.
It was surprising how quickly things had fallen into place.
‘What day is it?’
‘Thursday. It’s twenty past five.’ The nurse turned from adjusting the drip to look at him.
‘When did I come round?’
‘You’re doing very well. How do you feel?’
‘I’m not sure.’
He considered. He moved his head and saw a rectangle of pale sky. The roof of a building, with a ledge around it. Nothing seemed to hurt at all though there was a strange heaviness in his left arm and neck. The rest of his body felt slightly detached. But that wasn’t pain. He remembered pain.
‘I think I’m fine.’
‘That’s good. You’re doing very well,’ she said again, as if she had to convince him.
‘Am I? I don’t know.’
‘Do you know where you are?’
‘Not sure. Maybe a hospital?’
‘Full marks. You’re in Charing Cross ITU and I’m Sister Bonnington. Megan.’
‘The nearest hospital isn’t Charing Cross… it’s… I can’t remember.’
‘You’re in west London.’
He let the words sink in and he knew perfectly well what they meant. He knew where west London was, he’d been a DC somewhere in west London.
‘Do you remember anything that happened?’
He had a flash. The body parts. The hand. The thumb. The mouth of decayed, broken teeth. It went.
‘I don’t think I do.’
‘Doesn’t matter. That’s perfectly normal. Don’t start beating your brains to remember anything.’
‘Not sure I’ve got any brains.’
She smiled. ‘I think you have. Let me sort out your pillows, make you a bit more comfortable. Can you sit up?’
He had no idea how he might begin to do such a thing, but she seemed to lift him and prop him forwards on her arm, plump his pillows, adjust his bedcover and rest him back, without apparent effort. He realised that he had tubes and wires attached to him, leading to machines and monitors and drips, and that his left arm was in some sort of hoist. He looked at it. Bandages, a long sleeve of bandages, up to his shoulder and beyond.
‘Is that painful?’
‘No. It’s sort of – nothing.’
‘Not exactly. Just… I can’t explain.’
‘Not to worry. The consultant will be in to see you at some point this evening.’
‘Who is he?’
‘Mr Flint. And Dr Lo is the senior registrar. He’s been looking after you these last couple of days, but we’re a team.’
‘I have a team?’
‘You do indeed, Simon. Is it OK to call you Simon? We always ask, you know, but you haven’t been in any state to answer. What do you prefer? Mr Serrailler? Superintendent? Chief Superintendent?’
‘God no. Simon’s fine.’
The door opened slightly.
‘Here’s a visitor, so I’ll leave you. The buzzer’s there, by your right hand. Press if you need anything.’
‘Hey, you.’ Cat bent over and kissed his cheek. ‘You’re awake again.’
‘When wasn’t I?’
‘Most of the last three weeks.’
‘Three weeks? Until when?’
‘Yesterday. You remember me being here?’
He tried to sort out the confusion of images in his head. ‘I don’t… no.’
He saw his sister’s fleeting look of concern which she masked quickly.
‘I’m told the consultant is coming in soon. Did you know I had a “team” of my own? Are you on it?’
‘Did you bring me grapes?’
‘No. But you don’t really want grapes, do you?’
‘I want to know what happened and why I’m here. Talk to me.’
‘Listen, Si, you have to know everything but I’m not the one to tell you the whole story, because I wasn’t there. Kieron’s coming down again tomorrow, and if they think you’re ready to hear, he’ll tell you.’
‘The Chief’s been here?’
‘Of course he has. He brought me down the day it happened, and he’s been in a few times since, whenever he could make it, and I’ve kept him briefed every day.’
‘You have? Why you?’
‘Because I’ve been here most days and I talk to the medics so I can translate their jargon for him.’
‘No, I meant… I don’t understand how you even know him.’
‘He’s been a rock, Si… when there wasn’t anyone else looking out for me.’
He tried to read her expression but he couldn’t concentrate on that because he was aware of a pain in his left arm, which was getting worse by the second, in waves which crashed over his arm onto his chest and up and down his body, pincers and gashes of pain.
‘Jesus.’ He looked at all the bandages and the hoist that kept the arm up. If it had been in flames he would not have been surprised. It felt like that.
Cat was on her feet. ‘It’s OK. I’ll sort it… hold on.’
She did not return for an hour. A night. The rest of his life. He was wrapped in pain and pain was all he was aware of. He heard himself cry out so loudly he was afraid they would come and punish him. The faces. The blackness was no longer simple dark, no longer soft-edged, it was scarlet in the centre and the centre was spreading out and out.
‘It’s all right. Someone’s coming.’ Cat was holding his right hand tightly. She was touching his face and then wiping the tears from it, but he didn’t feel shame or embarrasment, he felt nothing beyond the pain.
‘Let’s get this sorted out now.’ A man this time, looming over the bed.
He couldn’t hold on but there was no escape route. He lay convulsed with pain. Cat was wiping the sweat from his forehead with a damp cloth. Angry. She was angry too. Why was everybody angry with him?
A swirl of activity, people coming into the room, people leaning over him.
‘Here you go, Simon… any second now.’
And the infinitely gentle easing away of pain, so that his body relaxed, his head felt cool, his arm seemed to have disappeared.
‘That’s it. You should have pressed the bell. You should have said –’
‘No,’ he heard Cat say, and he recognised her tone though it was one she used rarely. ‘No, it has nothing to do with him, it’s to do with everyone else. There’s a meds regime, and it has to be stuck to or this happens. And it took me far too long to find someone who knew anything at all about him and his case, and then get them to come – and don’t, please, tell me it was shift changeover.’
‘It was shift changeover. I’m sorry.’
‘Christ’s sake.’ The man. He was young and bearded and his eyes were full of concern, compassion and anger.
‘Simon, I’m Dr Lo. Tan. I know you but this is the first time you’ve been awake to see me. Is the pain easier?’
It was like lying on a bed of down. He felt nothing but gentleness and ease. He smiled beatifically at everyone in the room.
He knew that he had slept again and then floated on air and finally on water, but the hands of the clock on the wall opposite his bed went slowly backwards so that he lost all sense of time and even of day. It was light, then it was dark and still he floated.
‘It’s Friday,’ someone said.
There were two of them, and Cat was there as well. He was propped up and drops of silvery rain slid down the windowpanes.
‘We’d like to talk you through what we plan to do, if you feel up to it?’
He recognised the younger doctor but not the older one with very little hair and small round spectacles.
‘I’m Mr Flint, Greg Flint. I’m an orthopaedic trauma consultant.’
‘Is this a conference?’
‘More or less. I’m glad Dr Deerbon is here actually… if you’re OK with that? I’ll try to be clear but she’ll be able to translate our jargon for you if I’m not and you can ask her anything you need to. I filled her in briefly while you were still away with the fairies.’
‘I’m here now.’
‘And I apologise that you were left in so much pain – shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again. How is it now?’
‘Numb. If you mean my arm.’
‘And the rest of you?’
‘Fine, I think. I’ve had some bad headaches.’
‘I’m not surprised – you had a terrific blow. I’m amazed your skull wasn’t fractured.’
He frowned. Blow? Skull? What? He looked at Cat.
‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘You can’t remember. It’s normal. It’ll come back. Or maybe not but there’s no brain damage, your scans were fine.‘
‘I had scans? The things that have been happening…’
‘We’re not worried about your head or the rest of your injuries, they’re mending nicely. If it weren’t for the arm you’d be out of here.’
Simon felt his mind clearing. ‘So… what exactly happened to my arm?’
‘Essentially, it was mangled in the bin machinery.’
Bin? Bin machinery? But he nodded.
‘We did what we could at the time, but we’ve had to wait to see exactly what’s salvageable. You need to go for another scan and when we look at that things should be clearer – these injuries do settle down. I want to be able to save your arm, Simon, and having looked at the last scan, I’m pretty sure I can, though until I actually get you on the table we won’t be certain. Even then, sometimes things look good and then halfway through there’s a problem. But I don’t anticipate that. I never anticipate problems.’
‘When you say “save” my arm…’
‘You mean it’ll be as good as new?’
‘That does depend. I’d hope we can get 80 per cent or possibly even 90 per cent restored function – time and a lot of physio will tell. It’s unlikely to be 100 per cent.’
‘Physio is absolutely crucial and your never failing to do the exercises, not even once. I’ll do all I can and so will everyone else, but after that it will be down to you.’
‘That doesn’t worry me. It was the thought of losing the arm.’
‘I’m confident. But we’ll get that scan and when I’ve seen it I can plan. They’ll have to take off the bandages but we’ll get you down straight away and then you’ll have a new dressing. They’ve been doing that every day anyway.’
He remembered suddenly. They had given him so much painkiller he hadn’t felt anything and she had said, ‘Don’t look at it, that’s my advice. Turn your head. Injuries always start to hurt when you look at them.’
He had turned his head. But everything had been numb.
‘After the scan, how long before you operate?’
‘If it all looks OK, probably Monday morning. I need to clear my list. This sort of reconstruction takes a while.’
It took seven hours, or so they told him, but seven hours which had meant nothing, and now he was back underwater, floating, blissful. His life passed quietly by.
The door opened and he saw a man in dark chinos, pale blue sweatshirt. Dark wavy hair. He thought of his own blond hair and realised that he hadn’t needed to push it back from where it always flopped over his forehead for some time. What time? Maybe for years.
‘Where’s my hair?’ he said, to the man with so much of it.
‘They had to shave it off to do the repairs, I think. Don’t worry, it’s growing back.’ The man had taken the chair beside his bed. Simon knew him. Knew him fairly well.
‘Hi,’ he said, to give himself time.
‘Cat sends her love and she’s glad things are looking good but she had to cover for a colleague – there wasn’t anybody else apparently. She’ll be here tomorrow.’
So the man knew Cat.
‘I wish my bloody brain would get its mojo back. Sick of thinking through cotton wool.’
‘That’s the drugs.’
So he knew about those too.
The bolt shot backwards and the door fell open. ‘Chief…’ Simon said. He ought to sit up but his body was covered in lead weights.
Kieron Bright smiled. ‘Me,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, that’s the drugs as well. How do you feel?’
‘Weird. Listen, they haven’t told me much. What happened?’
For the next half-hour, Kieron told him. Serrailler thought he was sparing him some of the detail, perhaps only for the time being, but the broad outline of what had happened to him was clear, and as the Chief spoke, now and then a glimmer of something came and went on the horizon of his mind. He remembered but he did not quite remember, and yet it seemed familiar, it made some sort of sense.
‘I can’t tell you much about your injuries but the docs have done that.’
‘They have told you – you probably didn’t take it all in, which is understandable.’ He leaned back in the chair, arms folded. In casual clothes, the Chief looked younger, but that was usually the case. Gold braid lent gravitas and with gravitas came age. He was only four years older than Simon.
‘Thanks for coming down here.’
‘I’ve been before but you were out of it. It’s good to see you now. We were worried.’
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