Barings Bank had been trading in London since 1762, making it the oldest merchant bank in the city. It had ridden the highs and lows of the next two centuries, weathering out both World Wars and even avoiding a late nineteenth-century collapse. It was, my father had always claimed, safe as houses. He was the bank's strongest advocate, the ideal employee.
Sadly, he hadn't reckoned on Nick Leeson and his aggressive and foolhardy trades in the Far East. In roughly a year, he had lost the bank £827 million, killing off a two-hundred-year-old institution and bringing me back to the house I had left in such a huff only weeks earlier.
My father wasn't at home when I got there, of course; his place was at the office today, along with my brother. Amelia, though, was present and fluttering around in a state of almost satisfied panic, such crises never having touched her life before. Watching her that day, I was struck by how different our lives had become. Despite the marriage and the apparent maturity that came with it, my sister was ill-equipped to deal with anything that couldn't be fixed with a cup of tea and the writing of a reasonably sized cheque. It was for that reason that I was glad I'd come today, because it was clear my mother wasn't coping either.
Oh, on the surface she was making all the right noises. She was answering the calls from her friends with breezy assurances that it would all sort itself out, nothing but a minor storm in her otherwise sunny life. I knew why she was doing it; nobody in her social circle would ever admit defeat and allow anybody the opportunity to pick over the bones of somebody else's misfortune. It was the same reason that I knew my return home would have barely been mentioned in the last month. There were too many explanations involved, over where I was living and who with. Easier to gloss over the whole thing.
My mother's façade was crumbling though. The phone was placed down that little more firmly every time, the smiles and laughs came a little more slowly, and even her skill in undermining Roger was falling apart. Whilst she'd hardly welcomed him with open arms, the most she'd managed all day was to ignore his presence, and by evening, he'd been accidentally included in the endless cups of tea she'd been serving. This wasn't the woman I'd grown used to over the last twenty-five years and I was worried. Lying on my old bed that night, still fully dressed, I stared at the ceiling and wondered how everything could have changed so much in only a year. For a brief moment, I wondered if today was punishment for my behaviour. It was clear from what I'd heard on the television and radio that everything wasn't well. In truth, I doubted whether even those pessimistic reports scratched the surface of the matter. James had called once to tell us that they were staying at his apartment in the city tonight so they could get an early start tomorrow. Maybe if I'd never gone to New York this wouldn't have happened.
That thought was instantly banished as superstitious nonsense when Roger spoke from where he was sitting on the end of the bed. 'Cat. Talk to me.'
I didn't take my eyes off of the ceiling. 'About what?' It came out as a weary sigh, a reflection of just how much the day had taken out of me. My heart only sank further as I thought about what the next day might bring.
'Anything. Just don't do that silence thing.'
'You're usually a fan of the silence thing.'
'Not in you. So come on.' He turned and lay down next to me, his head propped up on one elbow and the other resting across my stomach. 'Say something.'
It crossed my mind to say something flippant as I was in that sort of mood. If I was channelling Roger's usual method of dealing with things (Keep It Shut And Hope It Goes Away) then it would be the next logical move. But when he was so close to me, his eyes fixed on my face with such concern… I just didn't have it in me.
I sighed. 'I just… I want to make it better.' It was the plaintive whine of somebody far younger than I was and I pulled a face. 'I know I sound pathetic.'
'No.' Roger stroked my hair back off my face. 'You sound like you care. Do you think it's as bad as they're making out?'
I shrugged. 'I don't know. I don't really understand banking.'
I finally met his eyes. 'But I've never seen my mother like this before.'
'What, almost hospitable?' Roger quipped. 'Sorry. I didn't mean…'
'Yes you did,' I replied, wrapping my arms around his neck and giving into the smile that was teasing the corners of my mouth. I pressed myself up against him, grateful for the sheer presence of him here, right where I needed him. That Roger Davis had suddenly become the reliable fixed point in my world was ironic to say the least, but I was pleased about it and let him know with a long lingering kiss. 'Thank you. I know you didn't want to come back here.'
'It's not too bad. Besides, I got to meet your sister. She's… something else.'
I smiled again as I thought of how Amelia had tried to subtly give Roger the once, twice and thrice over, and completely failed at being discreet. 'Yes, she is,' I agreed, remembering that her husband had stayed away today. That only made Roger's loyalty that bit more special. 'Like I said, thank you.'
'No problem.' He placed a kiss on my forehead before sitting up again. 'Now, do those dogs need walking?'
They probably did; both of them had been rather neglected that day and had only had the most cursory of trots around the garden. I knew though that Roger's offer was only partially from the goodness of his heart. This was all far more domestic than he'd been used to for years, possibly ever, and our weeks alone on the edge of a Norfolk cliff hadn't really been adequate preparation for what was potentially looking like a lengthy stay with my family. He needed to get out and clear his head.
Roger left in a muddle of leads and lashing tails, and as the door closed behind him, I realised that I had my own duties to perform. Amelia had disappeared for a bath hours ago and was no doubt painstakingly combing her hair five hundred times or whatever was recommended in Cosmopolitan that month. Which left my mother and me. For the first time, I wondered if I could be of any use to her; if anybody had learnt a thing or two about dealing with a crisis in the last year, it was me. Perhaps this was the thing which would bring us together in a Hollywood mother-daughter bonding thing. Even as I knocked gingerly on the living room door, I was forcing that thought away. I was trying to be positive; I didn't need to be delusional.
The television was on, which was unusual in itself. My mother wasn't usually a great fan of soaps or documentaries, and certainly not of the sit-com which was on at the moment. It was just another uncomfortable change from the life I'd always experienced within these four walls.
It took a while for her to even acknowledge me, let alone respond to my tentative offer of a cup of tea. She shook her head and turned back to the screen, seemingly ending the conversation before it had even begun. I lingered in the doorway, wishing I'd gone with Roger and braved the icy conditions outside, rather than the icy conditions inside. At least he'd appreciate my company. Just as I was about to turn around and head back upstairs to brood by myself, my mother spoke.
'Did I hear the front door go?'
'It was Roger.' Relieved beyond my expectations to hear her speak, I added, 'He's just taken the dogs out for a walk.'
There was a pause. Then, 'Oh. He should probably come in the back door. They make a real mess of the hall.'
Incredulity choked me momentarily. I wondered if I'd heard correctly, if she'd just expressed more concern over the state of her flooring than she had about the fact her husband and son's jobs might be about to end. Even after all these years, all the times we'd clashed over the colour of my shoes and the way I held a wine glass, I was still shocked by her priorities. It was with a strange sense of hope that I wondered if she was having a breakdown and the events of the day had completely passed her by. At least that would explain her comment.
Her next words proved she was suffering from nothing of the sort. Keeping her eyes fixed on the screen, she said in a voice almost devoid of emotion, 'Your father re-mortgaged the house last year. He put all the money into the bank.'
It took several seconds for the significance of what she was saying to hit home. 'You mean…?'
'If the bank goes under, we'll have to sell up.' Then, entirely abruptly, she stood up. 'I might have a bath. Good night, darling.'
If I'd expected an outpouring of emotion, complete with hugs and exclamations of delight that I'd returned home in the middle of a family crisis, I'd have been disappointed. But twenty-five years had taught me never to expect that from my mother, and so I was instead left with the sense that life for the Carters was about to change, perhaps irretrievably. It was with relief, and more than a few kisses, that I greeted Roger on his return, although too late to stop the dogs making an unholy mess of the hallway.
When I'd given him time to breathe and digest what I had to say, Roger's initial reaction cut me to the bone. 'Wow. Poor little rich guys.'
'What? It's not like your parents can't afford to lose a house, or even two. You've said as much yourself.' Warming to his theme, he proceeded to itemise the Carter property portfolio. 'What was it you said? A chateau in France, a villa in Spain, a chalet in the Alps, a cottage in Cornwall wherever that is, this place, your apartment, no doubt some place for your delightful sister-'
I felt certain he'd have continued if I hadn't interrupted him. In some ways it was impressive that he remembered the list from that talk we'd had on the rooftop in New York half a year ago. It didn't change the fact that every word had brought the tears ever nearer the surface.
'Alright!' I snapped, causing both Chas and Dave to lift their heads off of their paws and regard me with as much concern as a Labrador could muster. 'So it's not like they'll be on the streets. That's not the point.'
'What is then?'
'It's… it's their way of life, Roger, it's everything they understand, it's…'
'Like I said. Not exactly a tragedy, is it?' His flippant tone lasted precisely three more seconds before he registered the hurt written across my face. 'Oh, Cat, I'm sorry.'
'You could at least try and be sympathetic,' I replied, not yet willing to give in to his sweet-talking. 'You know I'm worried.'
'Yeah, I do. I just don't know why.'
I gave him a disbelieving look. 'They're my family. This is their house, their life.'
'And they've hardly been sympathetic to your life recently, have they? After everything, Cat, I'm just surprised it bothers you so much. Would losing one house really matter so much? Losing two, even?'
I knew he was right, and what's more I wanted this conversation to be over. I wanted to go back to lying comfortably on the bed together, secure that however bad things were outside my room, everything I had inside was just fine. I wished we hadn't moved from there, and in a sudden change of mood, I crossed the room and curled up quite deliberately in Roger's lap.
Even so, I wasn't quite ready to concede the defeat. It was about so much more than a couple of houses and he knew it. It was about everything my father had worked for over the years going up without a trace. If Roger was having trouble with the financial aspect of things, he could at least identify with a man losing all his dreams overnight. That he could relate to.
'I just want to help,' I concluded, the evening taking a cyclical turn as I repeated my previous plea. 'Is that so wrong?'
Roger silently rubbed my back for a few moments as I buried my head further into his shoulder. Finally he spoke. 'No. There's nothing wrong with that at all.' With a light kiss on my head, he scooped me up and carried me to bed.
What he did after I'd fallen asleep was beyond my wildest imagination.