What Fiona noticed first were his hands. They were not as she had remembered them. The fine, long fingers were calloused and grimy. His nails, once neatly manicured, were split and ragged, and as he took her hand she was conscious of how coarse and hardened were his palms.
“Fiona! How pleasant to see you!” His voice had not weakened, nor had that precise accent changed after ten years in the Somerset countryside. “You must come and have tea. I have some Darjeeling set by for just such an occasion.”
He was wearing a green check shirt and brown, baggy trousers drawn in at the waist by an MCC tie. His black rubber boots were caked with soil. A straw hat shedding raffia was pulled forward to shield his eyes from the glaring sun. As she observed his weather-burnt face and his watery blue eyes she began to suspect that she was on a fool’s errand. He was an old man!
Twenty years ago when she had first met him he had seemed a god. Neat and precise in his movement, in control and apparently knowing everything, he had surprised her by his friendliness and approachability. Later she came to recognise that this was no affectation put on by an older man to impress and possibly seduce a pretty young doctor, but his constant attitude to all students, whether teenage medics, visiting specialists in their fifties from Cairo, Baghdad or Buenos Aires, or, as she had been, registrars in their twenties.
In any case he was not an attractive man, in that sense, even then. His large hook nose and long face with receding hairline could be called distinctive but not handsome. As he led her inside the thatched cottage and hung his hat on a peg just inside the kitchen door she noticed that his hair had now completely gone apart from occasional single grey wires arising from a scalp with obvious solar keratoses and probable early squamous carcinomas. His ears had also increased in size since she has seen him last and his missing scalp hair appeared to have taken refuge there.
He flicked on the switch of the electric kettle. “Teapot in the left-hand cupboard. Tea on the shelf below it. You’ll find the cups on the dresser. The refrigerator is under the working surface. Don’t forget to warm the pot.” He took off his boots to reveal bright green, woollen socks, and left the kitchen by the door into the house.
Fiona busied herself making tea. She remembered that the professor liked it strong and with lemon. Her mind went back to the many occasions she had sat with him in his office, sharing the double-headed microscope, as he pointed out the taxonomic differences between the different leukaemias. Always such discussions would be preceded by a tea ceremony like this. It was a crazy conceit that she could solve her problem by going back to her roots and now she feared that this old man would be physically and mentally unable to invoke the past. Perhaps she had better make it a simple social call and reminisce about old times and old friends. They always said that you couldn’t go back. Time to stand on her own feet and stop leaning on a man.