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A backward and dilapidated province

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‘Whittier said it might be all right because—' Ralph smiled, bitchily archaic, ‘because—to paraphrase, the best way to be independent is to have all you need at home.’

‘Ouch—but he’s moderately decent, isn’t he? Just blunt. He might be right.’

‘And then he mentioned Robbie.’

Laurie winced and managed, ‘Ralph, darling, I’m so sorry. Scrub decent. So you told him—’

'—to fucking stuff it.’

Laurie, having once received this injunction from Ralph, albeit in a more intimate context, felt a pang of sympathy for Whittier in despite of all.

‘Can you actually do that?’

‘Don’t see why not—it’s a civilian contract.’

‘I know that. I meant without consequences.’

‘But how could I go on with it, knowing I was being tolerated? Men have to trust me, Spud, and to think they couldn’t because’ he made a helpless, encompassing gesture, ‘it turns my stomach.’

Knowing better than to expect his feelings to be spared, Laurie nodded.

‘Remember Alec’s opinings? They still drive me scatty. I think we have to take responsibility. But it’s filthy. When I think of some of the seedy bastards I’ve dealt with over the years, the backs I’ve had—Christ. And I’m the one to’ Ralph’s jaw was clenched tight.  ‘I have done the state some service, eh?’

Laurie lightly contemplated the circumstances in which he would leap up to engage Ralph in what a novel might call a violent demonstration of love; in reality, of course, Ralph was opening the dark-oak secretaire that served them as a drinks cabinet (miniature Triton-caryatids—wherever did landladies obtain these gruesome artefacts?) before Laurie could raise himself six inches out of the armchair.


Evening classes? In what? At where?’

‘Radio engineering. Colebridge College. Used to be the RAF base where they—well, never mind. Expansion of educational opportunity and so on. You're supposed to be in favour of that, aren't you?’

Laurie considered how he might tactfully express that night-school teaching might be a less-than-ideal occupation for someone whose glad sufferance of fools ran the gamut from infinitesimal to nil and who was more often than not half-cut by eight in the evening.  

‘My dear, you can’t be serious. You won’t last a week.’

He expected anger, but Ralph looked pained. 

‘I meanlook, don’t get me wrongI don’t doubt you could do the stuff with your eyes shut, but it’s quite another thing to teach it—’

I know. I’ve trained people, though, and tutored—’

That roused some shades. Laurie added quickly, ‘And won’t you want your evenings free toerrelax?’

‘I shan’t be working during the day, shall I?  I’m used to unsocial hours.’

‘No, but—I—’ to say what he meant, that Ralph’s presence during the business day would turn Laurie’s relationship with deadlines from mostly fractious to wholly insupportable could not but sound like but you’ll be under my feet all day, and was impossible.

‘Anyway, I mean to accept, and I'm giving Mrs Doyle notice.  You’ll want to do the same by Tuesday, otherwise you’ll have to pay the extra fortnight. Friend of mine knows someone with a small house going spare in the locality, I'll need to give him an answer by the end of the week—and anyway, it'll give us a bit of time to get comfortable—’

Ralph's voice ran on, proposing and disposing in the same breath.  It had clearly not even occurred to him that Laurie might prefer to stay put. He thought of saying I’m not coming, just to see his face. But even the hinterland of a provincial market town would be would be a change of air, after his third bruisingly unsuccessful interview for a staff post in the BBC Features department. 

It was a pilot course and a correspondingly short contract, Laurie thought, as he retrieved the tea-chests from the cupboard under the stairs.  Perhaps once it was up—he failed quite to suppress the disloyal thought or Ralph got the sack for showing up tight—they might go abroad for a bit. The investments he'd made with the money Great-Uncle Edward had left him, the rents from the cottage and some freelancing would just about get them by until Ralph could find work.  His leg, thoughit had been giving him a bit of bother again lately, and abroad meant no National Health. He couldn’t think of that.  Over that summer of shrill, suffocating speculation about defectors, England had become unbearable.  And poor Anquetil.  It was time to get out. They’d actually agreed that, albeit more or less tacitly. And then somehow Ralph had contrived to immure them in Dorset for the next nine months. Laurie sometimes questioned the wisdom of their picking things up again (two years ago, now, after a breach of four). For one thing, if they hadn’t, Robbie might not be—

But the emotional experience had never, for either of them, precisely been one of election. Set against what he felt for Ralph, his former attachments—even, especially, those to people with whom he was ostensibly better sorted—seemed trivial, absurd, embarrassing. And for all Ralph might have to say about second thoughts, Laurie knew the sentiment to be mutual.

A hanging staple stabbed down under Laurie's thumbnail; it paled, then bloomed blood.


They’d never had a whole house to themselves before. Not that Stable Cottage quite counted as a whole house, though it did have a stable of sorts, containing a variety of Edwardian junk of which Ralph, raging for order, would make a bonfire their first weekend in residence. Its single modern convenience was a telephone line, the place having been commandeered for some purpose or another during the war. The scullery-kitchen was dominated by a black-leaded range with a crouching air of temperament about it. Above a long, deep, old-fashioned sink, which did duty for all household ablutions, hung a crazed mirror. The cracked looking-glass of a servant, Laurie nearly said, and then reflected that although Ralph had almost certainly got at least that far in Ulysses, he wouldn’t admit as much, which rather nullified the pleasure of quotation. The lavatory was in the yard, with a tin hip-bath hanging inside the door. The front door, were it not swelled fast with damp, would have opened straight onto the empty living-room, against the back wall of which two short, bannisterless staircases rose, one to the left, the other to the right, each leading to an attic bedroom. The right-hand room held an iron-framed single bed and a washstand. The one on the left was larger, and housed a double bed with a stained and split horsehair mattress, a warped, woodwormed chest of drawers, and a forlorn boudoir stool wearing a motheaten mauve organza skirt. Laurie took a wondering step into this emphatic desolation while Ralph leaned against the doorjamb.

‘Toss you for it,’ Laurie said.

Ralph, with a grip only approximately playful, seized the back of his neck. ‘Down, wanton, down!’


Doing for Mr Lanyon and Mr Odell was another sort of hygiene than the domestic variety, Doris reflected.  There was absolutely nothing to do: they sent their laundry into Colebridge; range and fireplace were leaded and gleaming, fender and doorknobs polished in a manner that made her own stern effort seem lubberly, not a speck of dust on any surface, the beds made up like hospital.  The first couple of weeks, she had made a show, and departed with the discombobulated feeling that she had left the place slightly grubbier than she found it.  The only office at which she definitively outclassed Mr Lanyon was mending, and even there, though he showed proper gratitude for her invisible work—for someone otherwise so particular, he managed to scorch his coats with cigarette ends quite a bit—she had the irritable sense that at base he considered it a tailorish, effeminate art; sewing, like sums, should be impeccably tidy but show the working. Had she just mildly congratulated herself on being better at fancy darning than a man with only half a left hand? She rather thought she had, and smiled over her tea.  

Doris was not an assertive person, but she liked to consider herself a modern woman, who wouldn’t be seen dead doing the trusted old family retainer bit like her Aunty Bertie did.  So she surprised even herself with her defensive response to Bob Penny’s disparaging remark. 

‘Well if he is—what you just said—he’s one who brought three lots out of Dunkirk, Robert Penny.  We could do with a few more like him,’ she added pointedly.

Bob held up his hands.  ‘Blimey, Dor, pipe down.  Reserved Occupation, me.’  Ribaldry spread across his face.  ‘Here, you’re blushing—you’re sweet on him, you daft bint.’

‘Oh, shut up your nonsense,’ she snapped, aware that in a sense, everything Bob had said was true, and also, that none of it was.  She wasn’t a ninny: she knew what they were, and she couldn’t see that it was any business of anyone else’s as long as they didn’t cause a public nuisance.  But she did indeed feel a stab of disappointment when she let herself in the back and the place was empty, or she could hear Mr Odell’s typewriter nattering in the living room; and she felt bad for that, because Mr Odell was easier company all round, always up to have a smoke and a pot of char you could trot a mouse on.  She just liked watching Mr Lanyon move, that was all, the quick, accurate, sailorly step, shoulders low and square, arms close to his sides, the left especially, of course.  Neither of the Marlow gentsboth naval officersquite had it, that was odd. 


‘You can have the car, if you like. I can hitch in no trouble.’

‘No, I’d rather the train, really, I can read—’

Ralph pounced with the ferocity of deep concern. ‘It’s your bloody leg, isn’t it?’

‘Well.  On a longish journey.  If it cramped on me, I’d be done for.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me, Spuddy?  Have you been to the quack?’

‘Mmm. There’s a pretty long wait for the clinic.’

‘While you’re back up there you should see Alec.  He’d give you some stuff; tide you over.’


‘Christ, Spud, you don’t think I still mind, do you?’

‘No, I supposebut

‘Well then. I’ll phone him if you don’t fancy it.’

‘God, no. I’ll do it.’

Alec was as resourceful as ever, and he was able to help quite a bit.  They spent a genial evening together, and Laurie left in the morning with the feeling of having thoroughly renewed old connexions.


Laurie took his mother and Olive (who now lived at the Rectory) for lunch. The severest misfortunes of the Revd Straike’s parishioners had come, over eleven years, to coincide most unhappily with his visits.  It gave his mother pain, and him some on her account, but it was better than the alternative.   

‘Why, Colebridge and East Wade—’ said Lucy, ‘isn’t that Anthony Merrick’s constituency?’

‘Yes, that’s our chap,’ Laurie said, ‘He’s the new MFH, as well—I believe—’  Aware that the interest in field sports was manifestly not his, he broke off awkwardly.

‘What an extraordinary coincidence. His mother was a dear friend of mine at school,’ Olive said, ‘I knew Anthony when he was in the nursery.  We still write, a little.  He’s kind to remember an old woman who doesn’t get about much. I daresay I could give you a letter, should you care to know him—’

‘Thank you, Aunt Olive—it really isn’t necessary—’ The whole thing was just too ludicrously Before the War for words—was he supposed to leave a card or something?

‘Are you not a bit dull out there, my dear, though?  I know what the provinces can be—all right for me, of course, but for an educated young man—and you’ll find Anthony is very amusing company.’

‘That’s important, dear,’ Lucy added, ‘if you’re to have a country life, and not a town one.’

Laurie shifted uncomfortably at his mother’s aptitude to regard the most contingent circumstance as permanent, settled choice, but also because her remark somehow brought to mind that winter, three years ago, when he’d seen quite a lot of Andrew Raynes—that was a town life: there had been art, music, books and the exchange of ideas about them.  In other departments, though, it had been something of a washout.  The impulses to self-assertion and self-annihilation that in Laurie were harnessed like a barouche pair Andrew found extreme and bewildering; while Andrew’s bent to good-humoured, relaxed mutuality struck Laurie as blasphemously detached.

‘Mariot Chase has a most singular library too—’ Olive continued, ‘some rather extraordinary sixteenth century material. Fenella was so very brilliant, and Anthony inherited all her wit. When she fell ill she was translating—well, decrypting, almost, it was written in cypher, you see, yes, a manuscript which she said would change our view of the life and times of Henry VIII absolutely beyond measure—oh dear—’ she dabbed her eyes, ‘I’m growing rather labile in my dotage, do forgive me.  Poor Fen—she was so young, the two poor boys—and, my goodness, Anthony is married himself, with a son at school now.’

Laurie’s last frail hope extinguished, he gave in.  Aunt Olive had done a lot to make his life easier, most especially when he was making hers more difficult by the exercise of what he believed stern and stoic virtue.  If it pleased her to introduce him to shire Tories as crusted as their port, what the hell could it possibly matter?


It mattered quite a bit, he discovered, when the shire Tory concerned had an uncommonly thoroughgoing intellect, a mischievous wit, a high though critical opinion of the bits and pieces one had written for Horizon and scripted for the Third, and a tall, loose-limbed seventeen-year-old son with eyes the colour and intensity of a goshawk’s. And who was just about as queer as one too. 

After an afternoon gently lubricated with good pre-war claret, Laurie found he had an invitation to use the library as he pleased a couple of days a week, and if he wished to render a small service in return, a commission discreetly to oversee and encourage Patrick’s somewhat lackadaisical self-directed studies.  The boy had been asked to leave his progressive London day school after an irregularity with an examination; the result, Anthony confessed, of his friendship, and illicit telephone communication, with one of the daughters of a neighbouring family, the Marlows of Trennels. Laurie received this dissimulation—to his mind, a convoluted one (either the cheating or the girl would have done; both was de trop)—with an entirely straight face and gravely, of a motive as confused and perverse as any he had ever entertained in his life, accepted his charge.


It was not much of an autumn evening: nothing to evoke special emotions; if anything, rather dank.  And yet something urged Laurie out of the library, where he’d been fitfully composing a short notice for most of the day—he’d write a few sentences, find he needed to consult some work of reference, which offered its usual distractions for half an hour, return to find that his prose was stuffy and condescending, score it out, and repeat.  Some days nothing helped much, it was just compounding pain with sickly, unwarranted euphoria. He knew better than to skip it too often though; that would merely be to anticipate in little the hypersensitive, puking, sweating prostration that must eventually be faced in its full.  

Patrick had not appeared all day; and it was not within Laurie’s remit to seek him: he was nobody’s schoolmaster.  This was more often than not the case, to Laurie’s relief; though the few conversations they’d had were cordial, he found the shy, tawny eyes glancing down at him through a swatch of dark hair unsettling.  He had difficulty seeing him in the character of tart or bully: he was either impossibly naïf (though Andrew’s amused commentary on Laurie’s presumptions of innocence had discouraged him from making them as freely as he used) or impossibly sophisticated for his age.  He gathered that a couple of convalescences had kept Patrick away for long periods from the conformism and brutality of school; sect perhaps made a difference too.  As far as Laurie was concerned, Catholicism was synonymous with degeneracy and English Catholicism with the most repulsive affectation, but the Merricks, though proud, seemed sincere—well, Anthony and Patrick did, at any rate. Helena was the sort of polished bitch that Ralph approved of—he could not imagine she believed in anything but snappy wrist-length gloves and discreetly applied scent.

Laurie’s usual resort was the service areas of the estate; here could usually be found someone with whom to exchange cigarettes and inconsequential words.  But now he was in a reciting humour, and he made for a copse beyond the rough ground behind the Walled Garden.  He encountered an unexpected deep dip, invisible almost until you were on the edge of it—down was more painful than up, and he was breathless and regretful of his restlessness by the time he reached level ground again.  Perforce he began softly, but was in full recitative with,  ‘And of nurture the child had good, /  He ran up hall and bower free—'  when a rather sweet, unpractised tenor capped it from about three feet above Laurie’s head, to an air something like ‘Clerk Colvill’,  ‘And when he came to this lady fair, /  Says, God you save and see!’

Laurie yelped.  There was a scuffle as Patrick swung down from one of the stunted, crooked elms.  ‘Sorrow—was I startling?’

‘Just a bit.’

‘You do it awfully well,’ Patrick said, ‘Will you go on?’

‘Not, I think. Why don’t you?’

‘I forget where we were.  How about:  ‘This ae nighte, this ae nighte, /  Every nighte and alle,’

 Laurie joined in, ‘Fire and fleet and candle-lighte, / And Christe receive thy saule.’

Patrick dropped out and let him finish it.  

'Do you know the Britten setting? Not bad, I think—I happened to hear it, a few years ago when I was going to rather a lot of concerts—’ Laurie saw he’d said absolutely the wrong thing.

‘I don’t hear music at all, I’m sorry—tone deaf.’

‘But you can’t be!’ Laurie exclaimed, more vociferously than he’d meant. ‘I mean—you actually sang just now—you couldn’t do that if you were.’ 

‘Beginner’s luck?’

‘I suppose—’

Embarrassed, Laurie reached for his cigarettes, reflexively offered the packet.

‘Thanks. D’y’have a light?‘  Laurie thought he should like to see Patrick bend to his cupped match, just for the chiaroscuro of it really, hair and eyes and sallow skin, but better not. He handed the matches.  

‘I say, we should probably stroll back. My lift will be here soon.’

In the safety of gathering shadows, Patrick said abruptly, ‘Music—I do hear it, actually, and I rather can’t stand it. When it’s finished, I always find that I’m—you know—overwhelmed.’

‘Yes,’ Laurie replied, ‘I never get away with anything like that myself.’

They grinned at one another, suddenly acquainted.

Patrick became gradually less elusive; most days that Laurie was at Mariot Chase they met to smoke, chat and fling shattered tennis balls for Patrick's spaniel Bucket.  Directing the boy's studies, however, was another matter: he was widely, eccentrically read in English literature and had dabbled in French, knowledgeable about history, but with a puerile tendency to partisanship; his Latin seemed competent but so polluted with medievalisms it was hard to tell, and his Greek still at the selections-from-Homer stage, where Laurie was firmly inclined to leave it; one didn’t want to live in a damned echo chamber, after all.  He had no ambition beyond inheriting and managing Mariot Chase; representations as to the inadvisability of such a course, especially since the war, were met with a silence more mute than mutinous; he simply seemed not to hear.  The better Laurie got to know him, the more curious the question of his expulsion became. To Laurie at least he made neither a secret nor a point of his inclinations, but it was also quite clear that the sordid traffic of school was something with which he’d had nothing to do.  Either he had the immense ill-luck to be discovered in flagrante with someone he cared for, or he really had been falsely accused. Whichever it was, he bore it with a lightness Laurie found incredible: he didn’t know whether to be impressed or faintly repelled. 

It was not until he had met a Marlownot Ginty, the girl implicated, but her younger sister Nicola, home from school for half-termthat Laurie had an opportunity to allude to it, and discovered, rather to his shame, that the story Anthony had told was quite true.  A year before, Ginty had taken to sneaking into the school secretary’s office and telephoning Patrick most evenings.  On the last such occasion she had been found doing so surrounded by the next day’s School Certificate papers, carelessly left lying about by a secretary who'd tipped coffee all over them. 

‘It seems rather a flimsy thing to sack you for, if I may say so. Schools don’t usually like the scandal of it.'

'The Head never expels except for beastliness or stealing, you mean? At a conventional public school, maybe. The filthy shop I was at was more—fastidious. Not guilty of either charge, by the way. I can't imagine how a fellow could be such a flaming clot as to think he'd get away with it.'

That hurt more than Laurie could possibly have prepared for, and it must have showed, because Patrick looked quizzical.

'She’s still at her school?’ he asked hurriedly.

‘Oh yes, she is. It did cause a bit of a flap, people phoning up and down the country, and anyone us lepers might have touched having to do their Certs in the sicker. And I do think there was a touch of Caesar's wife must be beyond reproach, because of Pa being in the Commons. He thinks I was a b.f. not to have realised she couldn’t possibly be allowed to telephone so often, and should’ve said cheerio and put down the receiver on her, but how should I know what goes on in these nunneries? I do think my crowd thought of me as a sort of indefinably—subversive type, though, and jumped at the chance. Can’t imagine why, but it's made it pretty much imposs. to find me another billet.’

‘Probably for the best.  At my old place you’d have been considered a plough the school had put its hand to,’ Laurie said, applying the balm of treachery to the unexpected smart, ‘and handed over to the Head of House to have your character moulded.’

 Patrick laughed. ‘It sounds like you have someone particular in mind.  I daren’t ask.’

Laurie judged that in Nicola’s company, Patrick might safely be invited to Stable Cottage; mildly disgusted at feeling obliged to make this calculation, he hoped vainly that its rationale did not occur to Ralph on the level of consciousness that might induce anger or pain.  

Ralph was inclined to treat Patrick with the courtesy that only those who knew him well could distinguish from friendliness, but Nicola seemed positively to delight him.  A very proper little chaperone, Laurie thought vinegarishly, and then regretted it; she was unpretentiously intelligent and likeable.  He’d had gathered from Patrick’s conversation that the Marlows were a naval family—father and sons in the Service—but he had not expected this junior female member unerringly to identify the 36-gun fifth-rate in the print on the living room wall as Phoenix, and embark on a brisk account of her action against Didon (40) off Cape Finisterre in August 1805.   

'And Baker's hat was shot right off his—' she turned to Patrick, suddenly stricken. 'I'm showing off.'

Patrick bit his lip and looked sidelong at the floor, obviously agreeing with her.

'You can't call it showing off when it's your thing,' Ralph interjected kindly. 'After all, there's some stuff one can't help knowing.'

Asked about her family, Nicola looked comical and said ‘oh, lor’, it’s rather an epic’, and so it proved. Laurie, peevish with pain to which the stated dose was inadequate, took in little other than the circumstance that he shared his given name with one of Nicola’s sisters, named for a great-uncle in defiance of her sex.  Ralph, despite being on his knees softly but colourfully despairing of the range throughout, was able to reel back name, rank and serial number for the entire brood.  Giles, Lieutenant RN, the eldest, whom Nicola patently idolised; Karen, married to a widower name of Dodd, twenty years her senior, with three step-children; Rowan, whose unusual name rang a bell—yes, she was taking a preliminary Ag. Sci. course and managing the family farm, pretty formidable (Laurie winced at Ralph’s emphasis on the third syllable) by the sounds of her; Ann, in her first year of nursing college; the infamous Ginty, in the Sixth at school; Peter, Dartmouth; Nick and Lawrie, identical twins.  When they were alone, Laurie pointed out that the seamless absorption of this class of information while engaged in tedious but moderately complex manual tasks was a specialist knack rather than a normal human capacity. Ralph turned aquarelle eyes on him and murmured, ‘Oh, Spud—’ and Laurie chose, for once, to be very warmly endeared.

Chapter Text

‘Giles, I think you’re making rather a fuss over nothing.  Yes, if it were Peter, and on his own, I might have qualms, which is not to credit your insinuations in the slightest, just that—’ Not quite sure what it was just, Pam Marlow continued firmly, ‘it’s not Peter, it’s Nicola—’

‘And the Merrick boy—’

‘Who is not my responsibility, and if Helena and Anthony don’t object to him calling on Mr Odell and Mr Lanyon it is most impertinent for you to do so. I trust you’ve not mentioned—’

Giles shook his head. ‘God, no. What do you take me for?  I just think it would’ve been better not to let her from the start—I daresay there’s not much we can do without tremendous awkwardness.’

‘Well, quite.  And they seem—perfectly normal. They aren’t at all what you would expect—even if what you’re implying is true, which it may not necessarily—’

‘Oh, for goodness sake, Ma. They might as well have a brass plate up.’

Pam’s first thought was of the terrifying brilliance to which Ralph Lanyon would polish such an article, and to suppress this flippancy she snapped, ‘I didn’t bring you up to have a horrible mind.  I—look—that was a bit sharp.  I do think it’s shabby when people a bit older—pull rank on those your age, but you must see—I mean, you must know—that service throws up some peculiar associations—and in the War it was practically everybody.’

‘As far as I—and the science of psychology—know, Mother,’ Giles said coldly, ‘getting out of Dunkirk more or less intact doesn’t turn a chap queer.’

‘That was some very considerable distance beneath you, Giles, and I’ll do you the courtesy of forgetting I heard it.  Anyway, I understand that Ralph Lanyon will ride to the New Year Meet—he’s borrowing the Reynolds’s Vulcan—and that they’ll both be at the Merricks’ Twelfth Night party. Just to give you fair warning.  Speaking of contributions to general gaiety, I believe you volunteered to run that case of sloe gin over to Major Clavering?’

Giles, rather regretting more or less, which was unquestionably low, and recognising his mother’s method of issuing incontrovertible orders to her grown-up children, unfolded himself from the sofa and sloped out to the estate car.


‘I suppose you have accepted accepted, have you?’

‘Well, I—there are two plus-ones, of course.’ Laurie inclined his head in the direction of the invitations propped on the mantelpiece.

‘Of course.’ 

‘I wrote saying I’d be there on my own, and Helena Merrick asked the other day if you were too, and I said as far as I knew, the same, and she said splendid, because we’ve the usual shortage. So you can probably still skip it, but only at the cost of going to town or something.  I can’t; I can scarcely take advantage of their library and refuse their hospitality. You’re quite happy to hunt—’

‘Yes, but I like hunting, my dear.  The thought of clodhopping round that old left-footer’s musty ballroom with each of the Misses Marlow in strict rotation, on the other hand—’

‘The sentiment might just be mutual, in re digging foot, you know.  And I’m sure they’ll air it.  The ballroom, that is, not the—’

‘They’d hardly let Patrick come here, if it were, would they?’

‘I think it’s less a question of what they suspect about us than what they don’t about him.’

‘Oh, Spud. What oft was thought.’ In another man it might have been sarcasm, but long experience told Laurie to accept the compliment in good faith. ‘It might have been better not to—’

‘Too late—and we couldn’t have known, could we?’ 

Suddenly impatient, Ralph uncrossed his legs and stretched. ‘To hell with it. Weren’t we supposed to stop having conversations like this?  Don’t take any crap from the little twirp, you hear me?’

Laurie, having long since successfully deflected any emanation of that commodity forthcoming in his direction from Patrick, accepted this in the character of one of Ralph’s personal memoranda.


Lanyon was undeniably impressive, Giles thought, and he bloody knew it, too. How old had Nick said, twenty-six—so—thirty-seven?  He seemed older, but despite faded hair and weathered complexion, it was authority, not any hint of incipient decrepitude, made him appear so.  He looked hard as rivets, pretty damn indestructible, actually, a semblance only given the lie by the rather Hollywood-looking arrangement he had found for the reins.  (Giles cringed anew at more or less, recognising matter for wee-hours sheet-kicking remorse for some time to come.) Vulcan was a black, slightly shaggy, high-strung beast that Giles, though a largely nerveless horseman, didn’t envy his rider a bit.  Lanyon bestowed a light, easy but entirely correct good morning, Master upon Anthony Merrick and joined some velvet-capped company which, Giles saw for the first time, included Rowan.  Of course, she would know him from college as well.  Giles realised he was staring, but so was everyone else, it didn’t much matter.  His sister laughed and accepted the hipflask Lanyon held out.  Giles could join that crowd, made up of people he’d known, if casually and with long hiatuses, for most of his life, and there was a part of him that felt the imperative force of Lanyon’s arrogance.  But he was also genuinely repelled by it, by something it answered in himself. 

His reverie was broken by Shavian Cockney.  ‘Cor, the swank of that, eh?’

‘What the fuck—Lawrie?’

‘Did you say—’

‘No—yes. It won’t be the last time you’ll hear it.  It would be feeble beyond belief to tell Ma, so don’t.’  Something about his youngest sister periodically made Giles revert to the stage of life at which one’s address concluded with The World, The Solar System, The Universe.

‘Not the first time either,’ declared the heroine of the Thuggery Affair, ‘and not likely.’ (Though it was the first time she had heard it in Received Pronunciation, and it carried a very agreeable charge that way.) She followed his gaze thoughtfully.  ‘You don’t like him, do you?’

There was no point in dissembling with who? ‘Don’t be ridic., Lal.  I don’t even know him except to see, and only that since the other day.’

‘I don’t like him either.  Nick. Is. Cracked.’

With sudden and hideous mortification, Giles realised the source of their mother’s exasperation, which had only been compounded, not occasioned, by his ungentlemanly sneer.  If even Lawrie had put two and two together and come up with (admittedly, a plausible) five, then God only knew what the rest of them thought.  He felt an absurd impulse to announce to the coffeehousing company: that isn’t it, that isn’t it at all.  If it had merely been that what Kay had once termed Nick’s Organ of Veneration had found a new object, Giles could easily have suppressed any atavistic twitch of jealousy—she was fourteen—no, fifteen? after all, and a girl’s idolatry of an older brother at that ripe age had its uncomfortable aspect.  This was completely different, and much, much more complicated.


Laurie was almost sure he hadn’t been asleep, but he’d also undeniably woken up, to urgent tapping on glass and a muffled feminine voice.  He raised himself onto his elbows, groggy and blinking.  A wheyish, open-mouthed ghost was peering in at the leaded pane.  He pointed around to the kitchen door, and once it was certainly departed into afternoon mirk, applied himself to the ungainly task of rising. 

‘Nicola.  How delightful.  Come in.’

‘I can’t—sorrow, Mr Odell.  I knocked, and there wasn’t an answer, so I just happened to glance in at the window, and I thought you’d had a nasty accident—’

‘I—um, find it comfortable.  Excessively so, since I seem to have done a Father Gilligan.’

Nicola looked over his shoulder as if the clerical gentleman might be present.

‘Yeats.  If you could stop I’d read it to you in the ancestral brogue. Pull out that door behind you at least.’

‘Sorrow. You see, my—not mine—a livery screw—is tethered up front.  He got himself a bit of a knock—Lawrie—’

Still too dopey to realise that Nicola was the last child on earth to presume on first-name terms, he responded automatically, ‘Mmm?’

‘What? oh—no!’  Her pinched face coloured; she found the coincidence embarrassing as only an adolescent could. ‘My sister Lawrie—won the toss for Blackleg—we share him— and I got the hired hack and we were going over really quite a little fence but he walloped it awfully so I wondered if I might phone the stables from here because I don’t want to walk him too far and they might send a box around or at least say it’s all right to walk him.  He really is lame, not malingering, that happened to L—my sister at the New Year Meet two years ago, a malingerer I mean, but he’s got an absolutely fearful limp—’ she ground to an aghast halt, then caught Laurie’s mild, amused look, and began to giggle.

‘Of course, my dear.  Bring him round; that loosebox arrangement out there is a bit broken down, but it will just do, won’t it? and I’ll make you some cocoa.  Medium, strong or Navy?’ 


‘—Had pity on the least of things / Who slept upon a chair.’

Nicola, disinhibited by an open fire and the sort of measure of rum poured by the regular companion of a committed drinker, clapped as if she were Chas’s age.  But he did do it awfully well—not acting, like Lawrie would have, but narrating—the thought trickled into her brain like icy water—like Lois Sanger. She hoped her dismay didn’t show, and to cover it asked, ‘Did you ever do any acting?’

He started to shake his head.  ‘Well, at school. The School Cert. form produced whatever Shakespeare was set that year, to the mock and fleer of all the other blokes in the place, as you can imagine.’

Nicola, who couldn’t, thought Patrick probably could, and nodded by proxy.

‘We did Hamlet—’

Nicola had prepared herself elaborately for reading Hamlet in Eng. Lit., finding the speech Foley had quoted, learning and then running it over and over in her head, reasoning that the only thing worse than being taken wholly by surprise was the shock you knew was coming but hadn’t got ready for, and when it came, in Jean Baker’s soft, low, girlish voice, she wondered why she had ever worried at all.  She’d taken Kempe’s brisk gloss— ‘a sapper blown up by his own mine’—in her stride too.  But unexpected mentions of the play could still unnerve her a bit, even at this distance, which was just too goopy for words.

‘W-hat—who did you play?’ she said, steadying her voice, and rather fearing the next-to-worst.  Unless he’d faded a lot since he was sixteen, and it was a frightful long time ago, before she was even alive—she thought it was unlikely he’d been cast as Hamlet—he didn’t have that sort of face.  But he might very well have been one of—

‘Laertes.  It was quite a joke.  I was perfectly useless, actually.  I can’t act for nuts, only recite.  But I looked like a Laertes in those days, if you know what I mean.’ Nicola nodded with the vigour of relief; his compact solidity and distillate of good looks still rather did. ‘Did learn to fence a bit though.’  Something more than firelight flickered across his face.  A car drew up in the lane.  ‘Speak of—excuse me, Nicola,’ 

Nicola wanted to take advantage of his absence to scrutinise the tightly-packed side-on tea-chests that served as bookshelves, but to be discovered in this activity would be mortifying beyond belief.  She rejected the cloth-bound Yeats draped on the other chair-arm as impossible—it was poetry.  

With nothing to read, she attended to the details of the spartan surroundings: bright fender and pocked, polished lino, an incongruously thick and cosy-looking sheepskin hearth rug; a blanket bearing a label from Halifax, Nova Scotia, folded to pad the sunken cushion of her armchair; the faded print of HMS Phoenix; typewriter on a makeshift desk which at the turn of the century must have held ewer and washbowl; an elderly portable gramophone perched on another tea-chest, this one holding a handful of records.  She was suddenly overtaken by certainty: this was what she wanted for herself, what, she realised, she had always wanted, beneath her increasingly jokey assertion of six sons, and all in the Service.  When people asked her what she would like to do when she left school, she usually said something sensible about joining the WRNS, though the more she thought of it, the more she felt she’d rather not have the Navy at all than only the bit of it permitted to women—and she had her daydreams, a solo round-the-world voyage, not for the heroics, just for the doing of it—but that was not what this was. This wasn’t what she wanted to do, it was what she wanted: the simplicity of a life without family, without fuss, with only the belongings one absolutely needed, able to up sticks at a moment’s notice, with—she forced herself to think it—a chosen companion, who in turn had chosen you. 

Not so long ago, it would of course have been Lawrie, but she saw now that the time when she and her sister shared a life would come to an end—there was still rather ages to go, but it would end—when school was over, they would do quite different things.  Patrick—but that was like thinking of marrying Patrick, and that wasn’t what she meant at all—odd, she was able to think that without a scrap of embarrassment, even after the Ginty huha of, well, it was more than a year ago now.  Because of it.  Perhaps Miranda, now unquestionably her closest friend at school—she nearly laughed out loud at the thought of Miranda roughing it in Stable Cottage, washing her hair and her stylish supper dresses in the big Victorian sink and cursing the range in exactly Mr Lanyon’s merchant-marine lexicon.  Nicola had clearly not met her person yet.  The sobering thought that by the time they were her age they had, whether they knew it or not, was interrupted by the gentlemen in question.  Nicola stood and stammered a good evening, impossibly convinced that that they had heard her thoughts.

‘—by the time the stablehand came round with the horsebox, it was rather late to set Nicola loose on her own across the fields.’ (Nicola, who retained the vestiges of a kiddish fear of the dark outdoors, had enthusiastically agreed.)

‘Oh, come on then, Nick, I’ll run you back to Trennels. There wasn’t much sport, as it happens.  Do your people know you’re here?’

‘Well, I phoned, but no-one answered.  So I suppose not.’

‘Well, no point now, we’ll only be ten minutes.  If the search parties aren’t out, we’ll presume you got away with it.’

It was about three miles across the Crowlands, but much further by meandering road and Nicola thought ten minutes a severe underestimate.  But she had not reckoned with Mr Lanyon’s driving, which was a good deal more thrilling than his account of what indeed sounded like a rather confused, inconsequential day.  Nicola rather enjoyed the way he told stories; he had such marvellous ones, and his crisp professional manner meant you could visualise everything in its proper place and sequence. Patrick said there was no cure for a bloke who could make even man-eating sharks off Mombasa sound rather nine-to-five.


‘Good God, Nick.  You might have phoned, you revolting little prodigal. Sorry, Ralph, good evening.  Did she put you to awful trouble?’

‘Not a bit. And I believe you did telephone, didn’t you Nick?  But no-one was in.’ 

Nicola nodded, rather dumbfounded by Rowan’s easy tutoyer.

‘Well, you must come in for a drink—’ 

‘No, thank you, Rowan.’

‘Right you are.  See you sometime.  Thanks again.’  Nicola added her thanks.  Lanyon smiled and tapped Nicola’s right shoulder in quick, affectionate farewell.

‘Well I never,’ said Rowan, shunting Nicola into the scullery, where Ginty and Ann were sitting with cocoa, bread and dripping.  ‘You’ve got yourself a pal for life there.’

Nicola blushed. ‘What—I—’

‘Oh Nick, don’t say you didn’t notice.’  (Nick indeed didn’t, and it was not until the next morning, when she was making her bed, that it occurred to her, and even then, it didn’t seem of any consequence.  He knew she wasn’t a baby to be thrown by a little thing like that.)  She shrugged in what she hoped was an informed manner.  

‘Never been known to refuse a drink before, either,’ Rowan added.

‘Who? What?’ said Ginty.

‘Oh, dearie me, aren’t we a little pitcher?  And I’m not talking about your pretty face. Ralph Lanyon ran Nick home, that’s all.’

‘Is he a very heavy drinker?’ Ginty asked.

Rowan looked amused.  ‘Couldn’t say.  I don’t have anything much to do with him.’

Her Ralph rather indicated the reverse, Nick thought, silently torn between fascination and misery.

‘He seems a quite a—sensible person to me,’ said Ann, stiffly, for gossip made her genuinely uncomfortable.

‘Oh, yes, in the normal course of things, perfectly.  Just occasionally, though, from what one hears, he drops in flaming like a salamander and treats the infant sparks to a filthy great slice of tramp steamer life circa nineteen thirty-five.  They love it.  Except this one little ex-RAF W.O., some sort of temperance chappie—got riled and—’

‘Was there a fight?’

‘Crikey, Gin.  Didn’t Crommie ever point out the differ. between legit. and morbid? No, he just made a complaint.  And so Lanyon’s non grata with the brass.  One feels it’s a trifle last chance saloon.’

‘Oh, how sad,’ Ginty said, ‘he must be most dreadfully unhappy, don’t you think?’

Ann and Nicola caught Rowan’s face assuming its dangerously impersonal expression; Ginty, applying herself to the sugar bowl, missed it.

‘I mean, he’s rather dashing, isn’t he?  I’d say at one time he just about had the world at his feet.’

‘Mmm, one half of it, d’you mean?’  

‘No, but Ro—well, actually, sort of, yes.  And there he is holed up in that horrible shack with an old school chum.  They must—both of them, have lost a lot of self-confidence—because really, they’re quite presentable despite—’

‘I wouldn’t go spilling too much feminine pity in that quarter, sis.  Waste of a finite resource.’

‘You mean they do have girl friends?’

‘Well, no.  Just the opposite.  If you don’t know it doesn’t matter.’ 

‘Rowan, really—’  Ann said, quite sharply.  ‘You’re upsetting Nick—’

But Nicola was already on her feet.  ‘No she’s not, Ann.  But—I think it’s pretty grotty, actually,’ she struggled out.  And then she realised couldn’t say any more, and bolted.

Chapter Text

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.’


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.

Chapter Text

Robbie plucked the card from the holder outside the door: Anquetil 2737, and tore it in two.

‘Oi.  Wanton destruction of His—I mean, Her Majesty’s property, that.’  The young screw grinned.  ‘And there was me thinking you wanted it as a souvenir.’

‘No fear. I don’t need reminding.’ He bit back the near-automatic 'sir'. The screw didn't seem to notice.

‘Come on, then.’  Robbie walked along the landings, past closed doors, trying not to think of the men inside. He handed in his blankets, sheets, plate, drinking mug and book of rules for the Guidance of Convicted Prisoners, Male.  He took off his prison uniform and dressed in his own clothes, noting the tight waistband—prison stodge swelled rather than fattened the belly—made a parcel of letters and books to take with him and received fifteen shillings courtesy of the Discharged Prisoner’s Aid Society.  He sat in the Reception Block with the two others due for release that day, mindlessly spooning porridge and gulping tea.  

He had no earthly idea what came next.  He had decided from early on that his survival depended on accepting that his agency had been usurped by this system while never acknowledging its right to do so.  Now he was about to get his agency back, and he didn’t know what to do with it. There were people out there who bore him goodwill and sympathy, he knew that. He had received more letters than he was allowed to open—the rules stipulated one a fortnight, the rest they told one about, but returned to sender, read (bafflingly) only by the Governor.  One would think he had better things to be doing. The only people he could think of contacting without revulsion were men he’d known inside, and that was probably not the brightest move he could make, even if he had lately heard more sense talked by housebreakers, fraudsters and robbers than the medical and judicial establishments combined.

At ten to eight, the gates opened.  It was sensory excess, panic: it took him a few moments to focus, to steady his breathing if not his pulse.  And then he saw them, at first more like blurry watercolours than three-dimensional persons: one rather spare of build, wearing twill trousers, an Aran jumper and an open peacoat, hatless, greying fair hair plastered to his head by the mizzling damp; the other more squarely-made, in burberry and wide-brimmed hat, standing with the awkward air of someone for whom even brief immobility in such conditions was physically painful.  Robbie had a powerful impulse to run for it.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘You’d scarcely believe it if I told you, Robbie, but a friend of ours is getting out of the Scrubs today.’

‘You bloody, bloody bastard, Ralph Lanyon.’ 

‘Come here. Come here and say hullo to me.’ Ralph drew him into a startled and startlingly public embrace.

Released, Robbie shook hands with Laurie. ‘Look here, thanks. You didn’t have to.’

‘Sort of did, actually, don’t you think?’  He feels guilty, Robbie thought, and resents me for his guilt; which makes just about as much sense as what I resent him forbeing alive when Lewis is dead.

‘Come on, let’s go for a drink.’

‘Nothing I’d like more.  But where?  It’s eight o’clock in the sodding morning.’

They sat without speaking in the car, smoking and taking turns to nip out of Ralph’s hipflask. Undistinguished blended whisky and a Craven Plain, after nine months of enforced sobriety and matchstick roll-ups was literally dizzying luxury. Robbie’s head fogged up as if the tobacco were kif. Rarely uncomfortable with social silence on his own behalf, though he was sensitive to people who minded it, he recognised that one of the many small unfairnesses of his situation was that responsibility for conversation devolved upon him.  Polite enquiry about work or mutual acquaintances seemed impossibly pallid and genteel; it wasn’t that the standard of discourse inside was elevated, though sometimes it was surprisingly thought-provoking, it was just never inconsequential: every small kindness, every snide retort meant something.  Christ, was this the way it was going to be? Little accesses of nostalgia for the world in there?  It had to stop, anyway: he wasn’t about to be the man who’d failed to readjust.

He opened his mouth and started the flow of idle, inoffensive jaw, finely-tuned on a war's-worth of wardrooms.  Oh Dorset—what a coincidence—bloody long way to come, you must have been up in the middle of the night—I’m touched, really—Freer tipped you off?—well, good of him—radio engineering—rewarding, I daresay—the latest Greene?—and for the—no names, no packdrill—I’ll be sure to pick it up—and so on, for an excruciating half hour.

‘Well, look, thanks awfully.  It meant a lot to me.  I hope you don’t mind, but I haven’t actually got anything fixed. I’m going to have to do quite a bit of telephoning—’  It occurred to him that they might offer money—oh hell, it wasn’t like he couldn’t do with it, but he also couldn’t take it.

‘What the fuck are you on about, Robbie?’ Ralph said softly.  ‘You’re coming with us.’


That night, after dinner, they sat by the fire—Laurie and Robbie in the armchairs, Ralph sprawled on the hearthrug, leaning against Laurie’s chair, and Robbie started to talk—there was no point in not, he said.  About the long isolation of bang-up, the slopping out, the food, the 40-watt bulbs, the curious pecking-orders, the abominable race prejudice (the screws were the worst), the endless, endless mailbags.  But most of all about the men: their characters, their friendships. Laurie perceived, as much from the growing tension of Ralph’s neck and shoulder under his hand than as from anything Robbie actually said, that he’d been in love with someone.

About to climb the stairs, Robbie turned and said, ‘I understand I sometimes make rather a row in the night, if I’m unsettled or whatnot, strange bed.  Sorry.  Do try to ignore me.’

He did, too, and ignoring it wasn’t easy.  

‘It’s not clink—’s been like this since since Lewis,’ Ralph muttered.

They listened to a bit more of it.  Laurie said, ‘Go on, before I change my mind.’


What an utterly bizarre arrangement it was, Laurie thought, having to go down the stairs and up again to the other bedroom—and not one he relished first thing in the morning, dot-and-carry, dot-and-carry.  He tapped on the smaller bedroom door, and receiving an affirmative grunt in reply, put his head round.  The disposition of the blanket told him their legs were entwined, and Robbie had enveloped Ralph’s left hand in his own, pressing it to his chest.  Laurie did much the same thing with Ralph’s hand himself: universal instinct, he supposed. Ralph propped himself up and looked blearily over Robbie’s sleeping head.

‘Coffee?  We’ve only got Camp, but it’s probably tolerable with whisky in it.’

‘Thanks. Spuddy—never mind. Thanks.’


‘Where’d you learn this desirable accomplishment, Robbie?’  Ralph asked. 'Your grandmother?'

‘No, curiously enough. She didn't like them. Proprietor of a rather dubious bistro in Abbeville. He got a touch truculent one evening and started listing all the faults of the sales anglais, including their ignorance of even the simplest cooking, and their total inability to learn. Wouldn’t let up until someone took him on. And then, natch, he’d try to back you into the larder.  Apparently he was notorious; used to do it every time an unwary Englishman wandered in. A sexual fetish of sorts, I suppose.  But I can now make decent omelettes. Nice to live in the country and have the eggs for it.'

'We excite the charwoman's pity to rather shameless advantage,' Laurie remarked.

Ralph snorted. 'Speak for yourself, Spud. He's outrageous, Robbie. Corners the poor woman whenever he's shilly-shallying on a deadline and subjects her to a pot of undrinkable swaddy slops. Next thing we know we're tripping over sugarless sponge cakes. Perfectly disgusting.'

Robbie smiled. 'Yes, I know that one rather well myself. My mother died when I was fairly small,' he explained to Laurie, 'and the local females presumed my father and me helpless as babes new-born. Dad wouldn't have any, though. Here, I thought I’d push off the day after tomorrow.  You’ve been too kind.’

‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, you know,’ Laurie said carefully.

‘Better not.  Sleep deprivation makes for a very suggestible state, you know.  And from what I hear, that doesn’t suit you one bit—’

Laurie decided to take it well. ‘Really, Robbie. I didn’t think you had that much bitchery in you. Of course, you’re perfectly right.  What are you going to do, do you know?’

‘I know what I’m not doing. I’m not going to the Continent, changing my name, any of that sort of carry on.  I don’t blame men who do.  I just can’t, that’s all: it would be as if I were ashamed of the injustice done me, and I’m not. I’ve got to try. If I can’t make a go of it here I’ll consider it—abroad, I mean—not the name. Norse out of Brittany, I rather like it.  But it won’t be my first resort.  I’m quite used to being the local disappointment, after all. Here, grub’s up.’

Laurie was touched despite himself by the defiant simple-mindedness of it; and he saw it worked liquefaction in Ralph—the invincible innocence of him, that he was susceptible to his own best amorous art.  It seemed they had come a long way to be here, yet it had more of the character of a prolonged detour, a retreat rather than a homecoming.  Laurie neither felt nor sensed reproach; weariness and loneliness, perhaps. He looked across the kitchen table at the two bent heads, the dark and the fair, and thought that reconciliation to another person is contingent in perpetuity, renewed daily after each night’s solace and sleep.