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A backward and dilapidated province

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After last year’s unfortunate incidents, no-one expected Patrick to lend a hand at the afternoon children’s bash.  After Mass and some desultory balloon-blowing and french-chalk sliding, he had made himself so scarce that was he was positively startled to find Laurie, looking boyish and unfinished in dress trousers and open wing-collared shirt, jacket and tie cast aside, at once competently rounding up stragglers from the concluding revel of hide and seek and engaging Phoebe Dodd in genial conversation about dogs. Patrick remembered Nicola’s mention of Fob’s glowering ill-humour since receiving the news that Peter was spending the holidays with Selby, and suddenly saw Peter’s outline in Laurie; both of them quite average types afflicted and unsettled by the violent suppressed energies of those closest to them.  But Peter had not chosen his lot. Patrick was fairly sure he knew what had caused—compelled—Laurie to choose his, and it shook him rather to recognise some of the same needs in himself. He had nearly had something like it in his own life, just for one night, and that had ended in an intimation of hell, a dawn of fire, torn metal and acrid rubber, and two people dead. And had he taken the opportunities so saliently presented him, he might have saved at least one of them. Lor', it was funny where a line of thought could land you in just an instant. It was pretty barking, seeing Lanyon reflected in a juvenile delinquent. He assumed a large social smile and joined the cluster of parents and guardians.

‘Hullo, Kay.  Are you coming along later tonight?’

‘No, I’m afraid.  Edwin’s bringing Rose.  It’s her first grown-up party and she’s—well, conscious of a nervous system.’

‘Oh, I feel for her. I do rather loathe parties myself,’ Patrick remarked, dimly aware that while the prospect of them made him anxious and the aftermath exhausted, he was usually all right during, once he’d managed to forget himself; to timid little Rose they must be minute-by-minute agony.  He resolved at least to intimate to her the location of the library.

‘Gosh, sorrow.  My appalling manners.  Karen, um, Dodd—Laurie Odell.  Karen’s Nicola’s eldest sister.’  

They said their how-do-you-dos; Karen expressing her gratitude for the prodigy of a docile youngest step-child.  Laurie shrugged and demurred; he was smiling, but his jaw was sharp-set with a misery quite different from the expression of irritable self-mastery that meant his leg was giving him jip.  Patrick thought he saw then what it was about, and could feel nothing but qualmish incomprehension—one of the very few uncontested benefits, surely, was being let off all that stuff for life? 

‘We’ve time for a smoke, if you like. Hole up in the billiard room until the hordes descend?’  He wished Laurie were nearer to his own age, so that he might squeeze his shoulder or take his arm.

*

Rose had tried everything to get out of it, and in the end, Daddy had got quite cross.  The green velvet dress was lovely, and the patent leather pumps, it wasn’t as if she wasn’t grateful—part of her wished Chas could come along too, he would soak up quite a bit of attention with his antics, but he was too young, it would be shy-making to have him cavorting about.  She felt too young herself.  Kay had said there would be a few people her own age there, and she would surely know some of them, but that was much more frightening than grown-ups.  What if they were Verity Lidgett and Gail Farrant, girls who seemed afraid of nothing, not of cricket balls flying at their faces or horses or noisy, dirty boys on bicycles, and scorned Rose for her flinching? She knew too that Patrick Merrick hunted with hawks, which were splendid in stories and poems, but in the flesh hideous assemblages of wicked eyes and claws, as grotesque as the dinosaurs in Chas’s encyclopaedia, but worse, because all over feathery. 

‘Good evening, Mr Dodd.  Good evening, Rose.’  She didn’t at first recognise the tall young man who bent to offer his large, bony hand—but it was Patrick.  He looked completely grown-up (which was reassuring) and quite handsome in dinner jacket and hair-oil (which was not).  ‘I say, you haven’t been to the house, have you? May I show Rose around—I think she might quite like to see our armoury and chapel—’

A chapel!  Of course, the Merricks were Catholics: Rose thought that was utterly romantic and thrilling of them.  She tried to cast Patrick in the role of Alan Breck, but it wouldn’t really go; his accent was very English indeed, and a jabot of rusty lace wouldn’t suit his stringy neck with its prominent adam’s apple, though he probably was gleg at the jumping.  His legs were very long; when he stood straight to speak to Daddy, all she could see of him was his shirtfront, a row of little jet buttons.

‘Hadn’t we better get to supper?’ 

‘Oh, no, Mr Dodd, there’s ages yet—half the guests aren’t here.’

‘Daddy, may I?  Please?’

‘I don’t know that it’s a terribly good idea for you to go off alone where we mightn’t be able to—’

Patrick went rather red and a lock of black hair escaped onto his brow.  He said in quite a scratchy, thin voice, the sort of voice, Rose thought, that books meant when they said strangled, ‘All right, perhaps another time.  People are gathering just through there—yes, on the right, in the drawing room. Make sure you don’t go off to the left, that’s the library, and you’ll only have books for company in there.’

Patrick hurried off to greet more guests.  It wasn’t fair, Rose thought; tears threatened. Daddy always ruined things. But he was at least a known quantity.  She clutched his hand, scuttling to keep pace with his angry steps. 

*

‘Oh my fucking God. Spuddy. Spud. Don’t look now.’

Laurie, interrupted in his instinctive turn, caught a flash of scarlet coat. ‘Shh.  Have you been in the Lord Harry all afternoon? Who? Where?’

‘Only the Guards’ Own Bicycle herself.’

‘You never.  Ronnie—’

‘Rather superb in mess kit, all the same.'

‘Bloody hell. Well, Merrick. I suppose we should have guessed.’

‘It’ll be the fucking Elephant Man next.’

*

Helena was enjoying a brief respite from circulating among guests and directing staff when the Marlows came into the drawing room. Taken together, she thought, they rather had the look of a fashion-plate, more Country Life than Vogue: Pam the ideal Roman matron in her black velvet; Rowan in burgundy, all wrong for that rough, florid complexion; Ginty in fashionable but ill-advised charcoal lace and cerise sash; the twins the best of the lot, one in rich peacock chiffon, the other in midnight-blue grosgrain; and that good-looking young man in Navy mess undress, as redundantly decorative as the masculine figure on a pattern-packet, was, of course, Giles. She smoothed her own aubergine satin and glided over.

‘My dear—how delightful!’

‘Mrs Merrick—my son, Giles.’

'We met last year, Pam, when you were in Paris.'

Nonetheless, she took his hand in the altered light of what Pat and Tony had let slip about the incredible events of a year ago, the runaway Oeschli boy, trying to imagine what might happen if it all came out, Giles the defendant in a court martial. She released it without having reached a decision on whether that fulsome self-satisfaction would prove impressive or crumple entirely. She greeted the girls, carefully leaving Ginty till last.

‘Virginia, how do you do?’

‘How d’y’do, Mrs Merrick—’

‘Such a pity Ann couldn’t make it—’

‘Yes, the nursing school term starts frightfully early.’

‘Of course—she’s left school. But you are still at Kingscote.’ She let a little percussive bounce fall on still.

‘In—in—the Sixth, Mrs Merrick.’

‘Delighted to hear it, Virginia. I think it’s most important that girls take advantage of the opportunity of education—when it is unjustly denied so many.’

‘Yes, Mrs Merrick.’ The girl was unbecomingly scarlet, it was enough. Helena smiled sweetly at the rest of the family, and swept away, intercepting Edwin and Rose, who were making their way towards the Marlows.

‘Mr Dodd—you’ll be taking Mrs Cropper in—do you know one another?’

‘Yes, thank you. We’ve spoken. Mrs Merrick, this is my daughter Rose.’

Helena had not even seen the snub-nosed child in forest green. She had perfectly glorious thick, toffee-coloured hair.

‘Oh, goodness me—I am sorry. How do you do, Rose? I must introduce Oliver Reynolds to you; he’s your supper partner.’

Rose blanched and ducked her head. Helena feared momentarily for her Isfahan carpet, but the child contained herself.

‘Now,’ Edwin said reprovingly, ‘you know we shan’t be able to sit together at supper. We explained this, didn’t we?’

Rose nodded. Helena smiled gaily, but escorting her smallest guest to the small knot of young people among whom Ollie Reynolds stood discoursing gravely on equine form gave her a distinct intimation of what it must be like to be a wardress in Holloway.

*

Rowan wondered whose was the sense of devilry at work in the seating plan. It seemed too subversive for Helena, but too merciless for Anthony, too perceptive for Patrick: probably they had semi-innocently pooled their collective social knowledge, with exquisite result. A coarse mind might have given Laurie Odell Ginty as a partner, instead of placing him on her other side, gluing him hopelessly to Frances Lidgett’s disquisition on the vulgar impropriety of red hot pokers in a pedestal arrangement, theme: Indian Summer, until he had managed to calculate a suitable number of conversational topics both proper to engage a girl half his age and not concerned with either her school or their hosts.  Gin, meanwhile, was grappling sullen, pustular Jerry Holden in verbal hoops of steel, obviously dreading the moment when the table turned and she would have to face an object of embarrassingly misplaced pity.  The lares and penates of the placecards couldn’t have known about that, to be fair. Insomuch as she ever regretted anything she said, Rowan wished she had not snapped at Ginty’s platitudes; satisfying as it had been, it had done nobody any favours.  

Mum’s reward for enduring the new owner of Monks’ Culvery and his differences with the county council planning office was to be a pleasant, chinless Squadron Leader straight out of Betjeman; she must have recovered reasonable odour since the Ginty business. Giles, presumably an unknown quantity, had been landed with Edith Hadley and an unexceptionable-looking girl whom Rowan supposed to be a Merrick relative, while Patrick was wrestling like a weedy Jacob with Mrs Prescott, and had only Gail Cropper to look forward to.  Lawrie appeared to be amusing Ronnie Merrick; on his other hand was a dumb, stricken Rose, upon whom Ollie Reynolds had given up before the removal of the soup plates.  Ralph Lanyon was working some unseemly glamour on that aunt of Patrick’s who always showed up in tweeds and lace: her bottom lip was slack and her colour high; extraordinary, Rowan thought, annual treat at the Barnardo’s Home; on his left, Nicola was patiently stodging though potato croquettes and Jim Blake, too obviously, to a sisterly eye, though probably not to dim Jim’s, preparing some feast of maritime lore for her right-hand neighbour.  Rowan herself had drawn as a partner Colonel Benson, to whom she could safely devote about a tenth of her brain while she observed the company; on her other side was another of the district’s farmers, dull but easy. She felt a sudden obscure agitation: this, which felt like an antechamber to it, really was her life.  She had better buckle down to it. Perhaps Dad would retire from the Service before her total metamorphosis into That Queer Miss Marlow; though if not, she supposed it wouldn’t actually matter to her by then. Benson was asking about the New Forest ponies; grateful to be relieved of thought, she plunged into a detailed account.

After liqueurs and coffee, the dancing began. Rowan found herself unexpectedly in demand: two enjoyable exercises in mutual gallantry with Major Clavering were followed by an interval of keeping her corns tolerably remote from some of the younger farmers’ size elevens, then a Paul Jones dealt her Mum’s Squadron Leader.  She sat down gratefully with an ice; the boning of her bodice was at war with her ribcage, and the balls of her feet, which would not much protest fourteen hours in Wellingtons, were stinging from the unexpected labour of keeping her heels two-and-a-half inches aloft for forty minutes.  She’d picked a good moment for familial mortification; Lawrie was clomping comically in an attempt to puncture Ollie Reynolds’ solemnity, Ginty was being capably whirled about by Ronnie Merrick, and Nicola, palpably delighted, was dancing with Ralph.  His horrendous shipboard competence matched her schoolroom lope rather well, Rowan thought, unhandily catching his eye—no, she hadn’t, he was looking just to her left.  Oh—there was Odell, near-comatose with boredom, glassy eyes under fluttering lids, both legs stretched before him; he had none of Ralph’s gift for aunt-charming.  Following his line of sight back to the dancefloor, she glimpsed an odd mis-triangulation—they were both glancing at Ronnie Merrick as if they couldn’t quite work out where they’d seen him before—or as if they’d known him a deal longer than this night.  Where on earth—but of course—how hilarious.  Ronnie’s attention seemed elsewhere still, held by something Rowan couldn’t see without obvious craning, and that she wouldn’t stoop to.  The dance clattered to a halt.  Ralph left Nicola and stepped with brisk, too-steady economy over to the sofa where Rowan sat.

‘Enchanted,’ she said with a quick grin.

*

‘Spud. D’you see what goes on? Ronnie and the Marlow boy.’

‘Shh. Couldn’t miss it.  The young in one another’s arms. The mackerel-crowded seas.’

‘Missed a bit. Birds in the trees—’

‘Designedly. Too gloomy by half.’

‘Touch of the bloody Dostoyevskys about that one.’

‘Which?’

Ralph laughed shortly.  ‘Both, I suppose.  I heard Marlow say he’ll be at sea Tuesday.  Ronnie’s a fucking fool, to pull that sort of caper here, but I can’t say I blame him.  He does rather put the f in Lieutenant, young Giles, doesn’t he?’

‘He’s like you,’ Laurie said, ‘not just looks, though that too, except he never seasoned his timbers, and you took care to. Before all that at school, even.  And he’ll rot with self-regard.’  Except he couldn’t have said it aloud, because Ralph wore the expression of someone expecting a reply.  He squeezed Laurie’s shoulder in a rather appalling for-company way and prescribed coffee and fresh air.

*

Rose danced with Ollie, scarlet and stumbling with the knowledge that he had only asked her out of duty.  Then twice with Daddy and after that, Nicola strolled up, being Hornblower, which made her giggle, but then Rose wondered if that meant she was Maria, a drag on everybody.  Nacker was easy to dance with, though. Then a Paul Jones, in which she drew Nicola’s big brother and proceeded to muff nearly every step, to his suavely mortifying apologies.  Rose wanted nothing more than for the dance to end so she could flee to the cloakroom and weep.

Out in the hall, she remembered Patrick’s words; not to the left, that’s the library, and you’ll only have books for company. Books for company was the most blissful thing in the world.  But it couldn’t be open, surely.  No harm trying the door, though, and if it was locked, as it would certainly be, she would go to the cloakroom, wipe her face and use some of the cologne, and perhaps sit among the coats for five minutes—then she could go back to the ballroom and hide among the old people who didn’t dance until it was time to go—the knob turned under her hand. 

It was a different sort of library from any she had seen before.  At junior school there had been a carpeted corner full of cheerful, tattered nursery books; at Colebridge Grammar, there was a musty hall in which, according to custom rather than rule, only the fifth- and sixth-formers actually sat to read and study.  The town library had a brackish, temporary smell, and that was for browsing and borrowing; no-one but elderly men in voluminous coats spent more time in there than it took to choose a fresh week’s reading.  The library at Trennels was the closest thing: Nick had shown her the big books of maps, and sometimes Daddy and Kay worked in there, but she preferred the playroom books. But even Trennels’ library was shabby and mixed up, compared to this brown leather and turkey-carpet splendour. 

Dark oak shelves on her left made three deep nooks, each ending in a damask-curtained window.  An anglepoise lamp on the desk in the middle one of these provided some light; Rose was glad of that, though she wasn’t especially afraid of the dark; it had always seemed comforting when no-one could see her. Gold letters painted on the shelves indicated some kind of classification system older than the Dewey one she’d learnt about at school. The books were bound in either light brown or red leather: many had titles in foreign languages.  Rose had started Latin and French that term, and she tried to puzzle some of them out, but they didn’t yield to her efforts: she began to feel bored and intimidated by the uniformity of it.  There was a lovely set of carved library steps in the gloom of the last nook along: she couldn’t go without trying those.  She felt better now, anyway: even dull books soothed her.  She was making her way towards the door at the far end of the library, not thinking that it might, unlike the other, be locked, when the handle rattled and she heard voices.  Idiotically, she darted back into the nook and hid under the desk—she would never know why she did not simply hotfoot it for the other, open door; if she were caught, she had only to say she was looking for the lavatory and had lost her way.

The door opened and light spread across the floor; Rose nearly squealed in anticipation of discovery, but whoever it was shut and locked the door.

‘I’ve the queerest feeling—’

‘I know, my dear—so’ve I—’  

‘I’m serious, you ass—there’s someone in here.’

‘Bollocks.  How could there be? It was locked—only the family know where the key is; they wouldn’t go locking themselves in, would they?’

‘S’pose—what about your room?’

'Haven't got one. I'm putting up at the Lord Harry.'

Rose recognised the voices now—it was the army officer—Patrick’s cousin Ronnie, whom she’d sat beside at supper, and who had loftily ignored her throughout; and Giles Marlow.  Had it been anyone else in the world, she might have confessed herself—but to those snooty types, never.  A little prideful impulse made her look up; and she saw them kiss, more deeply and ferociously than anything she’d ever seen at the pictures.  It was baffling at first; as far as she knew, men were only meant to kiss women.  But it made sense too: Davy Balfour and Alan Breck, Hornblower and Bush, Ewan Cameron and Keith Windham, Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford—she wasn’t all the way through Redgauntlet yet, but she was pretty sure that Father Buonaventure wasn’t quite who he seemed—and Redgauntlet was in love with him.  Men in novels always loved their men friends more than they did the ladies, who were a bit like the wallflowers back in the ballroom; at the party, but not quite in on the act.  It was sort of in the Shakespeare she'd struggled through too—Duke Orsino falling in love with Viola-as-Cesario, who wasn't really a boy, she supposed, but he seemed to like her better that way. And Hamlet dying in Horatio’s arms, and being forgiven by Laertes—that wasn’t quite as passionate as this, but of course people did more than one was allowed to say in books.  She knew that much, even if she often had to pretend that she knew what people at school were on about when they giggled and nudged.

At the same time—it was private—she thought she really shouldn’t look, so she curled up tight again, head on her knees.  She tried not to listen, too, but that was more difficult.  Some of the words they said were ones she’d heard from rough boys in the street; sometimes from the more daring of her classmates.  She hadn’t known grown-ups said them at all.  That was interesting.  When she glanced up again Giles was pressed against the wall on the right of the marble fireplace and Ronnie on his knees in front of him.  She liked demonstrations of fealty in books and make-believe; loyalty, fidelity unto death, these things obscurely excited her.  Their proximity and the noises they were making told her this was not exactly such a scene—though undoubtedly service was somehow being rendered.  She knew she shouldn’t look—it was like Lady Godiva, she decided, a honourable agreement that one shouldn’t peep—except she was compelled by Giles’s face, which reminded her of the gargoyles in Wade Minster; it was odd to see a good-looking face contorted like that, in the dim light thrown from the anglepoise—was he hurt?  Somehow she knew he wasn’t, it was the opposite, and so she couldn’t look any more.  There was a short gritted-teeth sort-of shout, gasps and scuffles and suppressed laughter.  The door at the far end of the library shut, and the key turned.  It seemed a long time before her legs were steady enough for her to get up and verify the horrible truth: she was locked in.

*

‘My dear Nicola!’  Patrick somehow gave it the inflection of Hornblower, and she giggled.  

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘Why?  Are you going to have me lashed to the grating and flogged?’

‘Not before we’ve had this dance, I hope—’

‘Nicola Marlow, did you just ask me to—’

‘Certainly did. I’m not afraid of a k/b, you see, unlike some folk I could mention.’

‘You hussy. I thought you’d never.’

They were revolving slowly in waltz time, Nicola half-listening to Patrick’s acerbic commentary on the night—it was being a rather smashing party, actually, and there was still half an hour to go before Sir Roger—when she heard arrhythmic steps behind her and felt a tap on her shoulder.

‘Excuse me!’  Patrick exclaimed, outraged.  

Nicola whirled around. ‘Edwin?  What’s wrong?’

Edwin looked shattered, most unlike his usual overbearing self.  ‘I’m sorry—I wouldn’t, except it’s Rose.  I can’t find her anywhere.’

‘Oh, look—she’s bound to be somewhere—’ Patrick said, exasperated.  ‘I’ll help you look.‘ 

‘I’ll come too,’ Nicola added.  ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.’

Out in the hall, Patrick asked, ‘Have you tried the cloakroom?’

‘Yes—she’s not there.’

‘I know—you two wait here—I’ll go and take a peek in the library—it’s supposed to be locked, but some fool might have forgotten.’

Finding the door locked, Patrick cursed himself for not having considered that one of his parents might have noticed his deliberate omission after Rose had sought sanctuary, and shut her in.  He dashed to the cupboard and fetched the key.  But the library proved quite empty of human habitation, one pair of crimson damask curtains flapping stiffly in front of an open window.

*

Dismally resigned to the ruin of her party, Nicola put on her cape and made her way out to the terrace.  Patrick had convinced Edwin not to raise the alarm and the roof before discreet enquiries had been made—even she couldn’t quite believe that Rose was in serious danger, but she was nauseatingly aware she’d thought that before, and been wrong.  

Ronnie Merrick, Giles, Mr Lanyon and Mr Odell were sitting on the terrace, smoking and talking.  She smiled to see them getting along.  Giles had given her and Patrick a lift back from Stable Cottage once, just before Christmas, and he’d been a bit chilly—so, come to think, had the cottage’s inmates: it stung.  She had wanted him to like Mr Lanyon as much as she did herself, and at first sight.  Though, come to think, it could be pretty disconcerting when people you got on with independently clicked together—Tim and Miranda weren't usually very friendly but when they did, they were ironclad unsinkable.  She hesitated despite the gravity of her mission, because the conversation seemed so animated.  Ronnie Merrick's voice carried resonantly through the crisp winter night.

‘The thing about the Anquetil case is—I mean, these things only happen if one makes a habit of associating with social inferiors.’

Stunned, Nicola stepped back into the shadows and pulled her hood over her head.  She supposed this was eavesdropping, and pretty cheap, but she could no more walk brazenly into a conversation about someone called Anquetil than she could bathe near a groyne or walk under a crumbling cliff marked with a DANGER notice.

Mr Odell said, lazily and seemingly to no-one in particular, ‘Nobody ever flung it at me during the War that I was associating with my social inferiors.’

‘Here—I say—’ Ronnie was on his feet.

‘Shut up, Merrick,’ Mr Lanyon said, in an impersonal tone that Nicola recognised—it was almost identical with Rowan's thus far and no further—‘you haven’t a clue what you’re on about.’  

‘Well it’s true, though, Lanyon,’ Giles blustered earnestly, ‘he was a thoroughly low type. He’d have to be, for the coppers to put the screws on that way—chap with a bit of breeding would never sell out a friend like that—’

‘Well, of course,’ Ronnie added, ‘Anquetil’s own breeding was, shall we say, mixed, from all one heard—finding his level, maybe—’

Nicola had overheard Mr Lanyon’s profane tongue on occasion and she expected more of it now.  But he said inadequately, heavily, ‘You insolent boy,’ stood up, and turned on his heel.

Nicola realised she had to move, and right away.  

‘Oh, hullo,’ she said, thinking that if her voice quavered it was perfectly natural—she was worried about Rose.  Mr Lanyon looked at her narrowly.  Giles and Ronnie stared, and Mr Odell glanced around with a slow, all-comprehending smile.

‘I say—we’ve lost little Rose Dodd: a child in a dark green dress—you didn’t see her pass by here, did you?’

‘Nick!’  Giles jumped up. ‘What’s that about Rose?’

‘No,’ Mr Lanyon said, ‘we didn’t see anyone pass here.  We ought to go indoors. We’ve been out too long. Spud—you coming?’ 

‘Mmm? Oh, all right—’

The situation allowed the unhappy party to break naturally enough—Giles and Nicola dashing off quickly, Mr Lanyon hanging about for Mr Odell—Ronnie going his own way at an interim pace.  When Nicola and Giles returned to the house, they discovered that Rose, chilled and shocked but unscathed, had been located in the scullery with Doris.  She’d apparently strayed into the library, which had unaccountably been left open. Somebody, recognising and rectifying the error, had locked her in, whereupon she’d hopped out of the window. She'd wandered bootlessly for a little while before encountering the scullery door and knocking on it; Doris, to avert the child's death of cold, had applied hot sweet tea.

Cor—Nicola thought, Patrick isn’t half going to catch it—and looked about to see her brother blanching, paler than the white Rose herself.

‘All right, Gilly?  You look like you saw—’

‘Shut up, Nick,’ he hissed, ‘Just fucking shut up.’

Giles could be sardonic, lofty, icily scornful—Nicola remembered the mortifying day she had absconded to Port Wade only too well—but vulgarly hostile, at least to her, he had never been.  And he seemed scared; she couldn’t think what of—she didn’t like to think of her brother’s courage wavering in the slightest.

Edwin and Rose safely despatched for home, the rest of them were back in the ballroom for midnight and the Sir Roger de Coverley.  Nicola danced it with Patrick.  He was preoccupied enough with imminent catching it that he paid thankfully scant attention to her own more severe preoccupation.  As soon as it was finished, his father beckoned—Nicola grinned a rueful good luck.  

The crowd began to thin out—Mum, Rowan and Mrs Merrick kicked off their shoes and collapsed on a large sofa with larger brandies. For them, of course, the Rose business had been a quarter-hour hiccup, easily resolved and hardly making an impact on a successful night.  Ginty was dancing with Ronnie Merrick again, and Giles with Miss Hedley.  Lawrie was holding court in the furthest corner of the ballroom, being a bad influence on the Farrant and Lidgett kids.  Nicola left the dancefloor with relief, thinking she might slip into the cloakroom and brood for a few minutes on Giles’s uncharacteristic behaviour.  Ralph Lanyon intercepted her in the hall.

‘Nick.  May I have a word?’

She nodded.  He jerked his head toward the stairs. Just beyond them, shielded and muffled by the staircase from stragglers going to the cloakroom, was one of those elaborate, inutile pieces of vestibule furniture, a long padded bench with a scrolled, decorative back. He sat down and patted the seat to his left in mute invitation. She sat, aware that her posture was a perfect show and she was being less than mannerly, but unable quite to look him in the face. When she did, she found it calculating but concerned.

‘You heard that exchange outside, didn’t you?’

She could smell drink on his breath, and his voice had a lugubrious edge from it, but otherwise he seemed rather frighteningly alert.

‘Yes. I wasn’t earwigging, I just didn’t want to walk in on—’

‘Never mind that. Do you know what it was about?’

‘Yes—no.  I don’t know.  You were talking about someone called Anquetil—you see, I think I know him. It’s not a very common name.’

‘Robert Anquetil.  A—fisherman.  St-Anne’s-Oldport. Same man?’

‘Yes.  That’s him. We went on holiday near there three years ago at Easter. I got to know him—I’d go out to the Golden Enterprise sometimes and chat about sea things—’ 

‘That was about the time Lewis Foley—died. Did you hear anything about that?’

Nicola nodded slowly, looking down at her lap. 'I was there when it happened.'

He made a soft fricative noise. 'You mean that was you Foley kidnapped and took out to that lighthouse thing?’

‘Kidnapped,' she mused, 'I never really thought of it as a kidnapping, though of course it was. It was Peter and Ginty as well—I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about it. We were told not to, on pain of Tower Hill. My mother and father know the story. But not about me knowing Mr Anquetil beforehand. I never even told Giles.’

He raised an eyebrow. 'I’m not supposed to know any of it, of course. Robbie was always very correct about things like that.’

Nicola whipped her head around.

‘Oh, God no, it’s all right. Well, it’s not. But he’s alive. Look, I think I need to explain something. Robbie and I joined the RNVR at about the same time, and we knew each other a bit, early on. After the war we met again and became quite close. Do you know what I mean?’

‘Yes, I s’pose.’  A small, cool, Rowanesque part of her observed that Mr Lanyon’s solicitude took rather relentlessly interrogative form.  

‘We got on well. But when we had a row it was always about Lewis, even when it wasn't, do you see?'

Nicola nodded, recognising the terms on which almost all her closest relationships proceeded. So it didn't change when you grew up. It wasn't different for men.

'And after he was killed, Robbie was hugely cut up. He’d never loved someone as much and I realised he never would again.’ 

Nicola heard anew something Anquetil had said to her nearly three years before: Sometimes you find yourself involved with someone with whom you have all the ties of affection and habit, but no real liking...  She had been baffled by that then.  Then as she had got to know Tim better, she thought she understood a bit.  And now she saw she still had it all wrong: affection, habit, liking.  They were code-words.  It made sense enough: they were both spies, Anquetil loyal as Foley was treacherous—

Caught then by a hideous, freezing undertow of memory, Nicola felt blood drain not from her face as much as from her entire scalp. Her ears filled with rushing rapids and her vision with luminous dots. Her mouth was dry; she struggled for a moment even to breathe. She remembered Anquetil's pen moving automatically across the grey cover of a bulging file, making a Greek key pattern; his drawn, stony face; the calm, even way he'd asked, without looking up from his doodle, was he the man who dived from the island?

How must he have felt, hearing her inane infant treble confirm his person was dead? She'd at least had the horse-and-common not to say I think the depth-charges blew him up, which was some consolation, though not bloody much. She sensed over again the tension of the destroyer's wardroom, its breaking into an idiotic humour that she understood now was not relieved normality, but livid, barely-checked hysteria. She wanted to curdle the panelled hush of the hall with a prolonged scream.

'Nicola? You've gone rather sensationally white, my dear. It's all right if you don't want to know any more.' Lanyon's voice struck a intimate, coaxing note that she had never heard before and that left her in doubt. He laid his hand on her shoulder; the touch was delicate, but communicated the uncanny, concentrated strength of finger and thumb. Feeling rather sheepish, Nicola understood what Rowan had meant the other day: that he liked and trusted her enough to be unselfconscious, and she shivered under the curiously adult weight of the knowledge. He gripped a little harder; it reassured and restored her more than she quite liked to admit.

'No—please go on.'

'If you're sure. Anyway, Robbie and I quarrelled, irrevocably. And then I caught up with—well, never mind.’

‘You mean you and—’  So, she thought distantly, that was what it meant for a name to catch in your throat. It really did, like a clot of mucus when you had a bad cold.

‘And Laurie, yes. Anyway, some time later still, I heard Robbie had been arrested for—gross indecency.  Do you know what that means?’

She shrugged a rough affirmative.

‘He was set up.' He shook his head at her look, which she realised must have been rather discreditably pleading and hopeful. 'No, I don't mean he was—innocent of the charges. But it was a throughly dirty business. The police behaved disgracefully.  Searches without warrants; they stopped him seeing a solicitor for as long as they could manage. They even tried forgery, though that didn't wash in court.  The other people involved turned King’s Evidence. Robbie got twelve months.  He’ll be out in about six weeks.  That’s all I can really—’

‘Yes.  Thank you.  I mean it.  Thanks for telling me.’  Feeling she needed to be somewhere else, she made to stand up.  

‘All right. You know this means it’s best if you don’t call any more.’

She detached herself definitively and stood facing him, galvanised by indignation. ‘Why?  Because you know someone who’s in prison? Or because I know him too? I daresay three-quarters of the people in that ballroom do, one way or another. There was a woman called Maudie Culver—’

‘Oh Nick.  There is absolutely nothing I can say that won’t sound like you’ll understand when you’re older.’

‘Well, thanks for not, sort of.  I understand this much: if a person wants to drop a—friend, the least he can do is actually say so to her face. And you haven’t said so.’ 

‘You're quite right. I can’t stand aside and let people suffer.’

She was about to say, truthfully, that she didn’t know what he meant. And then, suddenly, she did.  And it hurt like fucking hell.