This came about courtesy of a recent rematch, reminding me in the first instance how fond I got of Mattie, and in the second, how noticeable it was when she vanished int the ether. I can only imagine she keeps in touch, so here we are.

Come back, writes Charlie, handwriting more than usually stilted, the paper in question balanced skittishly atop Biggles in the Gobi. Biggles himself balances imperfectly on Charlie's knees. It's not how he'd normally write, but there's no earthly way he's sitting at the kitchen table to write this letter. Not that he's going to send it.

But the fact is that things are a right mess, and God knows the best way to go about untangling them. Actually, Charlie's not sure, thinking on it, that God knows either. It's a bloody mess. Come back, come back, come back.

If he writes it out enough, he won't have to send the letter, he supposes. Mattie will catch the thought off the air somewhere in London and come winging back and put everything right. Isn't that how this works? Well, it should be. Come back.

Because when it comes to the point, Charlie has no idea how they got into this mess. He went out as usual, rostered onto an evening at the station, and when he resurfaced at the house mid-morning, it was to find the Doc out, a stranger taking tea in ritual fashion at the kitchen table, and Jean polishing the piano top with a vengeance. What the piano really needs, at the moment, is tuning, but faced with Jean's terrifying efficiency and the stranger in her kitchen, Charlie had felt unequal to that problem, much less the vexed question of when and how he'd arrived at Jean instead of the usual Mrs. Beazley.

It's what Mattie would have called her. It's what Mattie always called her, so maybe that's it. The letter is progressing not a whit. Come back, come back, come back, a visceral petition, and painful, like a stomach ache that has gone on too long. Except that probably the Doc's usual tonic wouldn't even begin to put this right. If it comes to that, Mattie coming back at the eleventh hour wouldn't fix it either, because there would still be Mrs Blake in the kitchen making tea in ritual fashion and Jean with that awful, harrowed look about her. Charlie hadn't thought she could be harrowed, but that was an outdated belief from the time before Christian names and ritual tea.

It's the knowledge of this – the fact that it absolutely wouldn't do any good – that enables him to write this childish excuse of a letter. Otherwise he might actually send it, and while he misses Mattie like a limb just now, he doesn't want that. Not really. Not when her letters are full of London, her work and how she's enjoying it. Not when the trunk calls she very occasionally places ring so brightly with laughter that he and the Doc can hear it the other side of the earpiece and catch it off her, along with Jean. No, he wouldn't wish her back for worlds, not really, but he could about do with her advice just now.

He's tolerably sure he can hear Jean pacing in the other room, and if Mattie were here she could slip easily in there and sort it out. A cup of tea, a quiet word, something. The door – the front, not his – creaks open, and Charlie knows, even this far away it must be the Doc, because suddenly the house is full again of that awful, taut silence like a sail that was enshrouding it this morning. In a minute he'll have to go down and face it, the molasses feel of the air and the stilted silence. Maybe make up that cup of tea Mattie isn't here to see to. He can surely run to that at least. What he absolutely cannot do is sit here nursing a pointless grievance at her for being away while the others flounder like snared fish. Mattie would never forgive him when, inevitably, she got to hear of it.

To this end he abandons the unsendable letter. He crumples it to a ball, smoothes a fresh sheet over Biggles and starts again. A short note to say we're all well. Usual drama of course; I suppose the Doc wrote to you all about the horse affair? I won't bother you with the details just in case. He's bound to next chance he gets.

The nightmares are less, by the by. You were asking about them ages back. I keep meaning to say, and forgetting because what few there are Jean sees to, not me.

How goes the hospital? We miss you as ever, and wish you were here. The new district nurse isn't at all the sort to muck in with inquiries at no notice.


That will do. In the unlikely event anyone inquires into his absence he can say he was writing a letter and his conscience won't prick him. He can even send this one. He folds it in thirds, slots it into an envelope and sets it aside for posting later. Besides, there's still a chance he'll lose his nerve and send her that petition after all. Possibly. The scent of one of Jean's roasts comes wafting under the door. He really ought to give her a hand. And he will. But first he hovers in the doorway and sends one last desperate Come back Londonward. Just in case.