THE phone call had been planned for months. The three sisters of Harry Horse, the political cartoonist and children's author, hoped to achieve in unity what they had failed to do alone: reconnection with their estranged but beloved brother.
It was agreed that in January they would gather round the kitchen table, put on the phone's speakers and dial their brother's home in Shetland. Kay, the eldest sister, who lives in the United States, was to return home as a surprise for their mother's birthday and she, Mary-Anne and Emma had decided to bridge the family rift. It was a call never made. The discovery of 46-year-old Richard Horne - Harry's real name - and his wife, Mandy, 39, dead on the bed of the couple's home in Papil, on the island of Burra, on the morning of Tuesday, 9 January, after what is thought to have been a suicide pact, ended any chance of reconciliation.
For Horne had, one by one, cut his family out of his life as he struggled to cope with the mental torment of watching his wife dying of multiple sclerosis, a condition that first confined her to a wheelchair and later robbed her of speech.
As the family gather, not for a birthday celebration but for the couple's burial on Friday, when they will be laid to rest in the same grave, Kay O'Hanlon, 45, and Mary-Anne Moore, 44, now believe their brother had planned his death long ago and distanced himself from them so as to strengthen his resolve.
"I think he would have found it a lot harder if he had more of his family around him," says Kay, sitting in the kitchen of Mary-Anne's home in the village of Napton, set in the Warwickshire countryside where they once all played as children. "He really distanced himself." Mary-Anne, sitting across the table, adds: "He divorced all of us."
Yet the sisters believe that, while he and Mandy would have talked about how they would die together, Richard may not have told her when, so as to reduce her distress. "He had planned this for a long time," Mary-Anne says. "I don't think he was going to let her suffer.
"They wanted to put her in a hospice and he would not have had any time on his own with her again. He used to lie in bed with her and sometimes in the night he thought she had stopped breathing. He always said he would see to it ... she would never know when. I think they had planned a long time to go together." Kay adds: "He had spiritual beliefs and he wanted to go on that journey with her."
The pain of Horne's predicament could not be hidden from his family and so it erupted in anguish. The last time Kay saw her brother was in 2003, when he visited her on the farm in upstate New York, where she lives with her husband and three children. "My worst memory of him was that visit. We were raised so closely; we had a good childhood. I had tried so hard over the years to help him and now I wasn't able to. I had to listen to him say, 'My beautiful wife is dying and there is nothing I can do about it and I'm in hell'."
The visit ended abruptly after three days and it was two months before he called to apologise. "I had e-mail contact with him, but in the last year, nothing. I think he was in a grave place."
The last conversation Mary-Anne had with him was in October 2005. She asked him if he had had a good day and he replied: "No f****** day's a good day." She says: "He was just so, so angry - you couldn't say anything right."
Emma, the youngest sister, who lives in Wales, last spoke to her brother in August, a conversation which Kay and Mary-Anne say was also characterised by anger. And yet it is clear from sitting with the sisters, listening to their tales of his many practical jokes, how dearly he was loved.
Kay says: "He was a character - a wonderful character. We've just been writing a eulogy. When he was a teenager, he loved Clint Eastwood and 'the Man with no Name'. He used to take his horse, wear a sombrero or cowboy hat, with a twig as a half-chewed cigar. He would ride up to the church at Chesterton. He would throw the reins over a headstone, walk in as the unknown man; quite often he would sign the visitors' book as Clint Eastwood or Bugs Bunny - he never put his own name to anything.
"Then, just before the service would end, he would exit, so that the people who caught him coming in would not see him leave."
To judge by the newspaper coverage of the couple's death, Horne had no family. Shortly after the bodies were discovered, a member of Mandy's family was quoted as saying: "Harry had no family of his own."
The Horne family appreciate such misunderstandings had much to do with their brother's proclivity for invention, but do wish to set the record straight.
While his parents, Derek and Josephine Horne, may have sometimes been the subject of Richard's rants, he and Mandy were deeply loved. In fact, the couple spent five years living in a cottage attached to Christmas Hill, the family's country home in Warwickshire where his parents still live. It was here they underwent fertility treatment, but unfortunately it failed to help them achieve the family of which they had always dreamed.
The affluence in which Richard was raised was also a matter over which he drew a veil. The family had a house in Salcombe in Devon and a fishing boat, while the family car was a Bentley. It was, however, the source of his early humour.
Each Christmas, his parents held a party for 100 family and friends and Richard would organise the parking. To do this, he dressed as an old man, in tatty clothes, complete with make-up. Shivering in the cold and snow, he would greet the guests and tell them he was going home on his bike. At least one guest told his father: "I think it's disgusting how you treat your staff."
Horne was also an accomplished phone prankster. After he moved to Edinburgh and while Kay was still living at home, he called her up pretending to be the National Aquarium. Laughing at the memory, she recalls: "He said they were cleaning out the aquarium and would we mind taking a dolphin and putting it in our pool. When dad came home, I was breathless with excitement and he said, 'It's Richard'."
The TV presenter Anne Diamond was the victim of another prank, when an "elderly gentleman" won a phone quiz on TV-am but, instead of accepting the prize on offer, he demanded the cushions on which she was seated. Again, it was Richard, but the cushions were duly dispatched. "He should have been in RADA," says Kay.
Instead, after a spell in a solicitor's office, where he spent more time sketching than taking notes, he tossed a coin to decide between moving to Edinburgh or London, and headed north. He found fame as a founding member of the band Swamptrash.
He went on to meet Mandy while touring Shetland, but international acclaim came via the pen, not the banjo. A talented artist and a skilled author, he worked as a political cartoonist as well as writing successful children's books, such as The Last Polar Bears, which won a Children's Book of the Year award.
His parents helped out. "They were very supportive of him; they moved him from house to house," explains Kay, who says she also did her bit.
"When I went up to Edinburgh once, he was down on his a*** with no money and he would say he had sold his fridge and his cooker and that he was going to have to sell his Bob Dylan collection. I said, 'You can't do that - here is 100', thinking he would go and buy a fridge and cooker. He didn't. He went out and bought artists' supplies. His Bob Dylan collection was very dear to him."
AS IF to emphasise the emotional distance at which Horne kept his family in his final months, they were among the last to know he was dead. The couple's deaths had already been reported in newspapers and on the internet, when, on Thursday, 11 January, two police officers finally knocked on the door of Christmas Hill.
This Thursday, the family will arrive on Shetland for the funeral and are first expected to meet the procurator-fiscal, who will brief them on the cause of death. "We still don't know how exactly he died," says Mary-Anne. "We just assumed pills."
While anxious not to offend Mandy's family, the sisters believe his isolation from his beloved Edinburgh compounded his feelings of despair. "He hated the Shetland Islands," says Mary-Anne, sadly. "He said it was like an open prison. But he loved her." Kay adds: "He needed to be in a city."
Later, as Kay and Mary-Anne walk along by the banks of a lake, they speak of their grief. "Every morning, when you wake up it hits you again, and just as hard, that that's it," says Kay. "We won't see him again."
Mary-Anne adds: "It's true what they say - it's like having a piece of you ripped away."
Back in the house, Kay says the last e-mail she sent her brother was last October. It read: "I'm here for you. Just talk to me. The silence is deafening."
In a previous e-mail, when they were still communicating, Kay had said Mandy's illness and Richard's suffering had made her doubt the existence of God. "He sent me an e-mail telling me that you mustn't believe there isn't a God. He believed there was something beyond and that this was part and parcel of life."
The phone call may never have been made, but perhaps the sisters still have hope of reaching out to him. In the living room, resting on the coffee table, is an American paperback. Its title: Talking to Heaven: A Medium's Message of Life After Death.
COUPLE TOGETHER IN DEATH
THE funeral of Richard Horne and his wife, Mandy, is scheduled to take place on Friday, with a service at the Hamnavoe Hall on Burra Isle in Shetland.
The service is expected to be well-attended by family and friends from Scotland's media and music scene.
The couple will be buried in the same grave with Mr Horne lowered in first.
The families of the couple said if they did not wish to be separated in life, they should not be separated in death.
Although more than three weeks have passed since the discovery of the couple's bodies at their home in Papil, on Burra Isle, the funerals could not proceed until a full investigation had been carried out into the cause of death, which is understood to have been suicide.
The bodies of the couple were returned to the island last Friday.
Relatives of Mr Horne are expected to meet with the procurator-fiscal on Thursday to receive a detailed account of how he and his wife died.