TOO MANY COINCIDENCES
Written by Jeffrey Archer - Narrated by Bill Wallace

 TOO MANY COINCIDENCES

 

WHENEVER RUTH looked back on the past three years - and she often did - she came to the conclusion that Max must have planned everything right down to the last detail - yes, even before they’d met.

They first bumped into each other by accident - or that’s what Ruth assumed at the time - and to be fair to Max it wasn’t the two of them, but their boats, that had bumped into each other.

Sea Urchin was easing its way into the adjoining mooring in the half-light of the evening when the two bows touched. Both skippers quickly checked to see if there had been any damage to their boat, but as both had large inflatable buoys slung over their sides, neither had come to any harm. The owner of The Scottish Belle gave a mock salute and disappeared below deck.

Max poured himself a gin and tonic, picked up a paperback that he had meant to finish the previous summer, and settled down in the bow. He began to thumb through the pages, trying to recall the exact place he had reached, when the skipper of The Scottish Belle reappeared on the deck.

The older man gave the same mock salute, so Max lowered his book and said, ‘Good evening. Sorry about the bump.’

‘No harm done,’ the skipper replied, raising his glass of whisky.

Max rose from his place and, walking across to the side of the boat, thrust out a hand and said, ‘My name’s Max Bennett.’

‘Angus Henderson,’ the older man replied, with a slight Edinburgh burr.

‘You live in these parts, Angus?’ asked Max casually.

‘No,’ replied Angus. ‘My wife and I live on Jersey, but our twin boys are at school here on the south coast, so we sail across at the end of every term and take them back for their holidays. And you? Do you live in Brighton?’

‘No, London, but I come down whenever I can find the time to do a spot of sailing, which I fear isn’t often enough - as you’ve already discovered,’ he added with a chuckle, as a woman appeared from below the deck of The Scottish Belle.

Angus turned and smiled. ‘Ruth, this is Max Bennett. We literally bumped into each other.’

Max smiled across at a woman who could have passed as Henderson’s daughter, as she was at least twenty years younger than her husband. Although not beautiful, she was striking, and from her trim, athletic build she looked as if she might work out every day. She gave Max a shy smile.

‘Why don’t you join us for a drink?’ suggested Angus.

‘Thank you,’ said Max, and clambered across onto the larger boat. He leaned forward and shook Ruth’s hand. ‘How nice to meet you, Mrs Henderson.’

‘Ruth, please. Do you live in Brighton?’ she asked.

‘No,’ said Max. ‘I was just telling your husband that I only come down for the odd weekend to do a little sailing. And what do you do on Jersey?’ he asked, turning his attention back to Angus. ‘You certainly weren’t born there.’

‘No, we moved there from Edinburgh after I retired seven years ago. I used to manage a small broking business. All I do nowadays is keep an eye on one or two of my family properties to make sure they’re showing a worthwhile return, sail a little and play the occasional round of golf. And you?’ he enquired.

‘Not unlike you, but with a difference.’

‘Oh? What’s that?’ asked Ruth.

‘I also look after property, but it belongs to other people. I’m a junior partner with a West End estate agent.’

‘How are property prices in London at the moment?’ asked Angus after another gulp of whisky.

‘It’s been a bad couple of years for most agents - no one wants to sell, and only foreigners can afford to buy. And anybody whose lease comes up for renewal demands that their rent should be lowered, while others are simply defaulting.’

Angus laughed. ‘Perhaps you should move to Jersey. At least that way you would avoid …’

We ought to think about getting changed, if we’re not going to be late for the boys’ concert,’ interrupted Ruth.

Henderson checked his watch. ‘Sorry, Max,’ he said. ‘Nice to talk to you, but Ruth’s right. Perhaps we’ll bump into each other again.’

‘Let’s hope so,’ replied Max. He smiled, placed his glass on a nearby table and clambered back onto his own boat as the Hendersons disappeared below deck.

Once again, Max picked up his much-thumbed novel, and although he finally found the right place, he discovered he couldn’t concentrate on the words. Thirty minutes later the Hendersons reappeared, suitably dressed for a concert. Max gave them a casual wave as they stepped onto the quay and into a waiting taxi.

 

When Ruth appeared on the deck the following morning, clutching a cup of tea, she was disappointed to find that Sea Urchin was no longer moored next to them. She was about to disappear back below deck when she thought she recognised a familiar boat entering the harbour.

She didn’t move as she watched the sail become larger and larger, hoping that Max would moor in the same spot as he had the previous evening. He waved when he saw her standing on the deck. She pretended not to notice.

Once he’d fixed the moorings, he called across, ‘So, where’s Angus?’

‘Gone to pick up the boys and take them off to a rugby match. I’m not expecting him back until this evening,’ she added unnecessarily.

Max tied a bowline to the jetty, looked up and said, ‘Then why don’t you join me for lunch, Ruth? I know a little Italian restaurant that the tourists haven’t come across yet.’

Ruth pretended to be considering his offer, and eventually said, ‘Yes, why not?’

‘Shall we meet up in half an hour?’ Max suggested.

‘Suits me,’ replied Ruth.

Ruth’s half-hour turned out to be nearer fifty minutes, so Max returned to his paperback, but once again made little progress.

When Ruth did eventually reappear, she had changed into a black leather mini-skirt, a white blouse and black stockings, and had put on a little too much make-up, even for Brighton.

Max looked down at her legs. Not bad for thirty-eight, he thought, even if the skirt was a little too tight and certainly too short.

‘You look great,’ he said, trying to sound convincing. ‘Shall we go?’

Ruth joined him on the quay, and they strolled towards the town, chatting inconsequentially until he turned down a side street, coming to a halt in front of a restaurant called Venitici. When he opened the door to let her in, Ruth couldn’t hide her disappointment at discovering how crowded the room was. ‘We’ll never get a table,’ she said.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,’ said Max, as the maitre d’ headed towards them.

‘Your usual table, Mr Bennett?’

‘Thank you, Valerio,’ he said, as they were guided to a quiet table in the corner of the room.

Once they were seated, Max asked, ‘What would you like to drink, Ruth? A glass of champagne?’

‘That would be nice,’ she said, as if it were an everyday experience for her. In fact she rarely had a glass of champagne before lunch, as it would never have crossed Angus’s mind to indulge in such extravagance, except perhaps on her birthday.

Max opened the menu. ‘The food here is always excellent, especially the gnocchi, which Valerio’s wife makes. Simply melts in your mouth.’

‘Sounds great,’ said Ruth, not bothering to open her menu.

‘And a mixed salad on the side, perhaps?’

‘Couldn’t be better.’

Max closed his menu and looked across the table. ‘The boys can’t be yours,’ he said. ‘Not if they’re at boarding school.’

‘Why not?’ asked Ruth coyly.

‘Why … because of Angus’s age. I suppose I just assumed they must be his by a previous marriage.’

‘No,’ said Ruth, laughing. ‘Angus didn’t marry until he was in his forties, and I was very flattered when he asked me to be his wife.’

Max made no comment.

‘And you?’ asked Ruth, as a waiter offered her a choice of four different types of bread.

‘Been married four times,’ Max said.

Ruth looked shocked, until he burst out laughing.

‘In truth, never,’ he said quietly. ‘I suppose I just haven’t bumped into the right girl.’

‘But you’re still young enough to have any woman you like,’ said Ruth.

‘I’m older than you,’ said Max gallantly.

‘It’s different for a man,’ said Ruth wistfully.

The maitre d’ reappeared by their side, a little pad in his hand.

‘Two gnocchi and a bottle of your Barolo,’ said Max, handing back the menu. ‘And a side salad large enough for both of us: asparagus, avocado, lettuce heart - you know what I like.’

‘Of course, Mr Bennett,’ replied Valerio.

Max turned his attention back to his guest. ‘Doesn’t someone of your age find Jersey a little dull?’ he asked as he leaned across the table and pushed back a strand of blonde hair that had fallen across her forehead.

Ruth smiled shyly. ‘It has its advantages,’ she replied a little unconvincingly.

‘Like what?’ pressed Max.

‘Tax at 20 per cent.’

‘That sounds like a good reason for Angus being on Jersey - but not you. In any case, I’d still rather be in England and pay 40 per cent.’

‘Now that he’s retired and living on a fixed income, it suits us. If we’d stayed in Edinburgh, we couldn’t have maintained the same standard of living.’

‘So, Brighton’s as good as it gets,’ said Max, with a grin.

The maitre d’ reappeared carrying two plates of gnocchi, which he placed in front of them, while another waiter deposited a large side salad in the centre of the table.

‘I’m not complaining,’ said Ruth, as she sipped her champagne. ‘Angus has always been very considerate. I want for nothing.’

‘Nothing?’ Max repeated, as a hand disappeared under the table and rested on her knee.

Ruth knew that she should have removed it immediately, but she didn’t.

When Max eventually took his hand away and began to concentrate on the gnocchi, Ruth tried to act as if nothing had happened.

‘Anything worth seeing in the West End?’ she asked casually. ‘I’m told An Inspector Calls is good.’

‘It certainly is,’ replied Max. ‘I went to the opening night.’

‘Oh, when was that?’ asked Ruth innocently.

‘About five years ago,’ Max replied.

Ruth laughed. ‘So, now that you know just how out of date I am, you can tell me what I should be seeing.’

‘There’s a new Tom Stoppard opening next month.’ He paused. ‘If you were able to escape for a couple of days, we could go and see it together.’

‘It’s not that easy, Max. Angus expects me to stay with him on Jersey. We don’t come to the mainland all that often.’

Max stared down at her empty plate. ‘It looks as if the gnocchi lived up to my claims.’

Ruth nodded her agreement.

‘You should try the creme brulee, also made by the patron’s wife.’

‘Certainly not. This trip already means I’m going to be out of the gym for at least three days, so I’ll settle for a coffee,’ said Ruth, as another glass of champagne was placed by her side. She frowned.

‘Just pretend it’s your birthday,’ Max said, as the hand disappeared back under the table - this time resting a few inches higher up her thigh.

Looking back, that was the moment when she should have got up and walked out.

‘So, how long have you been an estate agent?’ she asked instead, still trying to pretend nothing was happening.

‘Since I left school. I started at the bottom of the firm, making the tea, and last year I became a partner.’

‘Congratulations. Where is your office?’

‘Right in the centre of Mayfair. Why don’t you drop in some time? Perhaps when you’re next in London.’

‘I don’t get to London all that often,’ Ruth said.

When Max spotted a waiter heading towards their table, he removed the hand from her leg. Once the waiter had placed two cappuccinos in front of them, Max smiled up at him and said, ‘And perhaps I could have the bill.’

‘Are you in a hurry?’ Ruth asked.

‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just remembered that I have a bottle of vintage brandy hidden away on board Sea Urchin, and this might be the ideal occasion to open it.’ He leaned across the table and took her hand. ‘You know, I’ve been saving this particular bottle for something or someone special.’

‘I don’t think that would be wise.’

‘Do you always do everything that is wise?’ asked Max, not letting go of her hand.

‘It’s just that I really ought to be getting back to The Scottish Belle.’

‘So you can hang around for three hours, waiting for Angus to return?’

‘No. It’s just that …’

‘You’re afraid I might try to seduce you.’

‘Is that what you had in mind?’ asked Ruth, releasing his hand.

‘Yes, but not before we sample the brandy,’ said Max, as he was passed the bill. He flicked over the little white slip, pulled out his wallet and placed four PS10 notes on the silver tray.

Angus had once told her that anyone who pays cash in a restaurant either doesn’t need a credit card or earns too little to qualify for one.

Max rose from his place, thanked the head waiter a little too ostentatiously, and slipped him a PS5 note when the door was held open for them. They didn’t speak as they crossed the road on the way back to the quay. Ruth thought she saw someone jumping off Sea Urchin, but when she looked again there was no one in sight. When they reached the boat, Ruth had planned to say goodbye, but she found herself following Max on board and down to the cabin below.

‘I hadn’t expected it to be so small,’ she said, when she reached the bottom step. She turned a complete circle and ended up in Max’s arms. She gently pushed him away.

‘It’s ideal for a bachelor,’ was his only comment, as he poured two large brandies. He passed over one of the goblets to Ruth, placing his other arm around her waist. He pulled her gently towards him, allowing their bodies to touch. He leaned forward and kissed her on the lips, before releasing her to take a sip of brandy.

He watched as she raised the glass to her lips, and then once again took her in his arms. This time when they kissed, their lips parted, and she made little effort to stop him undoing the top button of her blouse.

Every time she tried to resist he would break off, waiting for her to take another sip before returning to his task. It took several more sips before he managed to remove the white blouse and locate the zip on the tight-fitting mini-skirt, but by then she was no longer even pretending to try to stop him.

‘You’re only the second man I’ve ever made love to,’ she said quietly as she lay on the floor afterwards.

‘You were a virgin when you met Angus?’ said Max in disbelief.

‘He wouldn’t have married me if I hadn’t been,’ she replied quite simply.

‘And there’s been no one else during the past twenty years?’ he said as he poured himself another brandy.

‘No,’ she replied, ‘although I have a feeling that Gerald Prescott, the boys’ housemaster at their old prep school, fancies me. But he’s never got beyond a peck on the cheek, and staring at me with forlorn eyes.’

‘But do you fancy him?’

‘Yes, I do actually. He’s rather nice,’ Ruth admitted for the first time in her life. ‘But he’s not the sort of man who would make the first move.’

‘More fool him,’ said Max, taking her into his arms again.

Ruth glanced at her watch. ‘Oh my God, is that really the time? Angus could be back at any moment.’

‘Don’t panic, my darling,’ said Max. ‘We still have enough time for another brandy, and perhaps even another orgasm - whichever you fancy most.’

‘Both, but I don’t want to risk him finding us together.’

‘Then we’ll have to save it for another time,’ said Max, putting the cork firmly back in the bottle.

‘Or for the next girl,’ said Ruth, as she began pulling her tights on.

Max picked up a biro from the side table and wrote on the label of the bottle, ‘To be drunk only when I’m with Ruth’.

‘Will I see you again?’ she asked.

‘That will be up to you, my darling,’ replied Max, before kissing her again. When he released her, she turned and climbed up the steps and onto the deck, quickly disappearing out of sight.

Once she was back on The Scottish Belle, she tried to erase the memory of the last two hours, but when Angus reappeared later that evening with the boys, she realised that forgetting Max wasn’t going to be quite that easy.

When she emerged on the deck the following morning, Sea Urchin was nowhere to be seen.

‘Were you looking for anything in particular?’ Angus asked when he joined her.

She turned and smiled at him. ‘No. It’s just that I can’t wait to get back to Jersey,’ she replied.

 

It must have been about a month later that she picked up the phone and found Max on the other end of the line. She felt the same breathless feeling she had experienced the first time they had made love.

‘I’m coming over to Jersey tomorrow, to look at a piece of property for a client. Any chance of seeing you?’

‘Why don’t you join us for dinner?’ Ruth heard herself saying.

‘Why don’t you join me at my hotel?’ he replied. ‘And don’t let’s bother with dinner.’

‘No, I think it might be wiser if you came over for dinner. On Jersey, even the letterboxes chatter.’

‘If that’s the only way I’m going to be able to see you, then I’ll settle for dinner.’

‘Eight o’clock?’

‘Eight o’clock will be just fine,’ he said, and put the phone down.

When Ruth heard the phone click she realised that she hadn’t given him their address, and she couldn’t phone him back, because she didn’t know his number.

When she warned Angus that they would have a guest for dinner the next night, he seemed pleased. ‘Couldn’t be better timing,’ he said. ‘There’s something I need Max to advise me on.’

Ruth spent the following morning shopping in St Helier, selecting only the finest cuts of meat, the freshest vegetables, and a bottle of claret that she knew Angus would have considered highly extravagant.

She spent the afternoon in the kitchen, explaining to the cook exactly how she wanted the meal prepared, and even longer that evening in the bedroom, choosing and then rejecting what she might wear that night. She was still naked when the doorbell rang a few minutes after eight.

Ruth opened the bedroom door and listened from the top of the stairs as her husband welcomed Max. How old Angus sounded, she thought, as she listened to the two men chatting. She still hadn’t discovered what he wanted to speak to Max about, as she didn’t wish to appear too interested.

She returned to the bedroom and settled on a dress that a friend had once described as seductive. ‘Then it will be wasted on this island,’ she remembered replying.

The two men rose from their places when Ruth walked into the drawing room, and Max stepped forward and kissed her on both cheeks in the same way Gerald Prescott always did.

‘I’ve been telling Max about our cottage in the Ardennes,’ said Angus, even before they had sat down again, ‘and our plans to sell it, now that the twins will be going away to university.’

How typical of Angus, thought Ruth. Get the business out of the way before you even offer your guest a drink. She went over to the sideboard and poured Max a gin and tonic without thinking what she was doing.

‘I’ve asked Max if he would be kind enough to visit the cottage, value it, and advise when would be the best time to put it on the market.’

‘That sounds sensible enough,’ said Ruth. She avoided looking directly at Max, for fear that Angus might realise how she felt about their guest.

‘I could travel on to France tomorrow,’ said Max, ‘if you’d like me to. I’ve nothing else planned for the weekend,’ he added. ‘I could report back to you on Monday.’

‘That sounds good to me,’ Angus responded. He paused and sipped the malt whisky his wife had handed him. ‘I was thinking, my dear, it might expedite matters if you went along as well.’

‘No, I’m sure Max can handle …’

‘Oh no,’ said Angus. ‘It was he who suggested the idea. After all, you could show him round the place, and he wouldn’t have to keep calling back if he had any queries.’

‘Well, I’m rather busy at the moment, what with …’

‘The bridge society, the health club and … No, I think they’ll all somehow manage to survive without you for a few days,’ said Angus with a smile.

Ruth hated being made to sound so provincial in front of Max. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘If you think it will help, I’ll accompany Max to the Ardennes.’ This time she did look up at him.

The Chinese would have been impressed by the inscrutability of Max’s expression.

 

The trip to the Ardennes took them three days and, more memorably, three nights. By the time they returned to Jersey, Ruth just hoped it wasn’t too obvious that they were lovers.

After Max had presented Angus with a detailed report and valuation, the old man accepted his advice that the property should be placed on the market a few weeks before the beginning of the summer season. The two men shook hands on the deal, and Max said he would be in touch the moment anyone showed some interest.

Ruth drove him to the airport, and her final words before he disappeared through Customs were, ‘Could you make it a little less than a month before I hear from you again?’

Max rang the following day to inform Angus that he had placed the property in the hands of two reputable agencies in Paris whom his company had dealt with for many years. ‘Before you ask,’ he added, ‘I’m splitting my fee, so there will be no extra charge.’

‘A man after my own heart,’ said Angus. He put the phone down before Ruth had a chance to have a word with Max.

Over the next few days, Ruth always picked up the phone before Angus could get to it, but Max didn’t call again that week. When he eventually phoned on the following Monday, Angus was sitting in the same room.

‘I can’t wait to tear your clothes off again, my darling,’ were Max’s opening words.

She replied, ‘I’m pleased to hear that, Max, but I’ll pass you straight over to Angus, so you can tell him the news.’ As she handed the phone across to her husband, she only hoped that Max did have some news to pass on.

‘So, what’s this news you’ve got for me?’ asked Angus.

‘We’ve had an offer of 900,000 francs for the property,’ said Max, ‘which is almost PS100,000. But I’m not going to settle yet, as two other parties have also asked to view it. The French agents are recommending that we accept anything over a million francs.’

‘If that’s also your advice, I’m happy to go along with it,’ said Angus. ‘And if you close the deal, Max, I’ll fly over and sign the contract. I’ve been promising Ruth a trip to London for some time.’

‘Good. It would be nice to see you both again,’ said Max, before ringing off.

He phoned again at the end of the week, and although Ruth managed a whole sentence before Angus appeared at her side, she didn’t have time to respond to his sentiments.

‘PS107,600?’ said Angus. ‘That’s far better than I’d expected. Well done, Max. Why don’t you draw up the contracts, and the moment you’ve got the deposit in the bank, I’ll fly over.’ Angus put the phone down and, turning to Ruth, said, ‘Well, it looks as if it might not be too long before we make that promised trip to London.’

 

After checking into a small hotel in Marble Arch, Ruth and Angus joined Max at a restaurant in South Audley Street that Angus had never heard of. And when he saw the prices on the menu, he knew he wouldn’t have selected it if he had. But the staff were very attentive, and seemed to know Max well.

Ruth found the dinner frustrating, because all Angus wanted to talk about was the deal, and once Max had satisfied him on that front, he went on to discuss his other properties in Scotland.

‘They seem to be showing a poor return on capital investment,’ Angus said. ‘Perhaps you could check them out, and advise me on what I should do?’

‘I’d be delighted,’ said Max, as Ruth looked up from her foie gras and stared at her husband. ‘Are you feeling all right, my dear?’ she asked. ‘You’ve turned quite white.’

‘I’ve got a pain down my right side,’ complained Angus. ‘It’s been a long day, and I’m not used to these swanky restaurants. I’m sure it’s nothing a good night’s sleep won’t sort out.’

‘That may be the case, but I still think we should go straight back to the hotel,’ Ruth said, sounding concerned.

‘Yes, I agree with Ruth,’ chipped in Max. ‘I’ll settle the bill and ask the doorman to find us a taxi.’

Angus rose unsteadily to his feet and walked slowly across the restaurant, leaning heavily on Ruth’s arm. When Max joined them in the street a few moments later, Ruth and the doorman were helping Angus into a taxi.

‘Good night, Angus,’ said Max. ‘I hope you’re feeling better in the morning. Don’t hesitate to call me if I can be of any assistance.’ He smiled and closed the taxi door.

By the time Ruth had managed to get her husband into bed, he didn’t look any better. Although she knew he wouldn’t approve of the extra expense, she called for the hotel doctor.

The doctor arrived within the hour, and after a full examination he surprised Ruth by asking for the details of what Angus had eaten for dinner. She tried to recollect the courses he had chosen, but all she could remember was that he had fallen in with Max’s suggestions. The doctor advised that Mr Henderson should be visited by a specialist first thing in the morning.

‘Poppycock,’ said Angus weakly. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me that our local GP won’t sort out just as soon as we’re back on Jersey. We’ll get the first flight home.’

Ruth agreed with the doctor, but knew there was no point in arguing with her husband. When he eventually fell asleep, she went downstairs to phone Max and warn him that they would be returning to Jersey in the morning. He sounded concerned, and repeated his offer to do anything he could to help.

When they boarded the aircraft the following morning and the chief steward saw the state Angus was in, it took all Ruth’s powers of persuasion to convince him to allow her husband to remain on the flight. ‘I must get him back to his own doctor as quickly as possible,’ she pleaded. The steward reluctantly acquiesced.

Ruth had already phoned ahead to arrange for a car to meet them - something else Angus would not have approved of. But by the time the plane landed, Angus was no longer in any state to offer an opinion.

As soon as Ruth had got him back to the house and into his own bed, she immediately called their GP. Dr Sinclair carried out the same examination as the London doctor had put him through, and he too asked what Angus had eaten the night before. He came to the same conclusion: Angus must see a specialist immediately.

An ambulance came to pick him up later that afternoon and take him to the Cottage Hospital. When the specialist had completed his examination, he asked Ruth to join him in his room. ‘I’m afraid the news is not good, Mrs Henderson,’ he told her. ‘Your husband has suffered a heart attack, possibly aggravated by a long day and something he ate that didn’t agree with him. In the circumstances, I think it might be wise to bring the children back from school.’

Ruth returned home later that night, not knowing who she could turn to. The phone rang, and when she picked it up she recognised the voice immediately.

‘Max,’ she blurted out, ‘I’m so glad you called. The specialist says Angus hasn’t long to live, and that I ought to bring the boys back home.’ She paused. ‘I don’t think I’m up to telling them what’s happened. You see, they adore their father.’

‘Leave it to me,’ said Max quietly. ‘I’ll ring the headmaster, go down and pick them up tomorrow morning, and fly over to Jersey with them.’

‘That’s so kind of you, Max.’

‘It’s the least I could do in the circumstances,’ said Max. ‘Now try and get some rest. You sound exhausted. I’ll call back as soon as I know which flight we’re on.’

Ruth returned to the hospital and spent most of the night sitting by her husband’s bedside. The only other visitor, who Angus insisted on seeing, was the family solicitor. Ruth arranged for Mr Craddock to come the following morning, while she was at the airport picking up Max and the twins.

Max strode out of the customs hall, the two boys walking on either side of him. Ruth was relieved to find that they were far calmer than she was. Max drove the three of them to the hospital. She was disappointed that Max planned to return to England on the afternoon flight, but as he explained, he felt this was a time for her to be with her family.